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The Watchmaker

Chapter Text

I have often found throughout the course of my short life that whenever the universe seems to be spinning in my favor, lurking not far into the future is an event or turn of action that will inevitably and irrevocably destroy my world and all I hold dear to my heart. This is precisely the position I found myself in at the start of summer in 1917, only months before I was set to turn 18 and inherit my father’s small watchmaking shop located in the Lower East Side, the predominantly German neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. Both of my parents had immigrated from Germany at the turn of the century, and I was the first generation to be born into the great melting pot along with my younger sister Laura. We were a small family compared to others, but we managed to get by as well as we could considering the circumstances. All around us the filthy stench of industrialism rotted away until I couldn’t bear the city air, and I often dreamed of leaving and setting up my own shop in suburban America - the likes of which I’d never had the chance to see - although I knew I would never be able to. Watchmaking shops fed off of customers, and customers were abundant in cities. I would have to stay and inherit my father’s trade and live off of the never-ending slime of New York City for the rest of my days.

Or so I thought.

This plan that had been developed since the early years of the twentieth century was quickly demolished when, in the spring of 1917, my father fell ill with Spanish Influenza. It only took a few weeks for him to die, and - grieved by his death and infected by his sickness - my mother passed away not long after. Suddenly my sister Laura and I were orphaned and alone in the wide stretches of America, both of us legal citizens but completely uneducated on how to engage in that legality.

We were - for lack of better wording - fucked.

It took only a few weeks for everything to fall to complete shit, and the only logical course of action I could see was to send Laura off to live with distant cousins of ours that had also immigrated to America and had settled in Queens. I would stay in the Lower East Side and do my best to keep up the watchmaking shop, and when I was able to financially support the both of us, I would send for her and we would find a way to make it through this hell together. That is, of course, until I learned of my father’s debilitating gambling addiction and the significant debts he owed to several large bosses, all of whom would have been rather happy to toss my body in the Hudson if I failed to pay them back. Terrified and young and desperately foolish, I sold my father’s shop at the first bid I got, paid back the debts, and soon found myself homeless on the streets of New York City.

It was then that, one day in a pub on the corner of St. Mark’s Place and Cooper Square, I heard the name that would change my life forever.

Michael Grassi.

Owner of the Grassi National Savings Bank, one of the biggest and richest banks in all of New York City, and his son - Mitchell Grassi - who was set to inherit a lifestyle of wealth and ease in just one short year after his father retired.

And it just so happened that Mr. Michael Grassi was looking for a manservant to work for his son throughout the summer holiday while Mitchell was home from boarding school. And, I - being the foolish and desperate oaf I am - set down my newspaper at the small table I was sitting at in the bar, pushed myself out of my seat, and made a rather rude and yet inconsequential inquiry about how one would go about obtaining this position as Mitchell Grassi’s manservant, the economic benefits not unknown to me even in my rather drunken stupor.

Phone calls were made, interviews were had, and that is how I found myself not two weeks later, in the summer heat of 1917, departing on a train to the Grassi residence in Scarsdale, New York, where I would begin my - for now, temporary - position as manservant and butler to Mitchell Grassi, heir to one of the richest banks in all of America.

And it was then, as I climbed out of my taxi onto the freshly cut grass of the Grassi mansion lawn, that I realized my life would never be the same again.

But I just held my breath, picked up my suitcase, and walked forward into a world of the terrifying unknown.

Chapter Text

I had received a telegram with instructions for upon my arrival at the Grassi mansion, but studying it now I felt a bit of panic well up in the base of my throat at how distinctly unclear they were. It simply stated that I was to arrive at nine in the the morning on the 5th of June, approach the large iron gates that blocked off the driveway from the main road, and give my name to the porter stationed at the entrance. Of course, with my luck being as it was, when I arrived at the iron gates there was not a soul in sight, and a quick look at my pocketwatch told me that I was already technically three minutes late. It wasn’t my fault, obviously - the train had been delayed due to some unforeseen circumstance, but I doubted that such a valid excuse would mean anything to the owner of one of the richest banks in America. Perhaps when the clock had struck nine, Mr. Michael Grassi had decided that I was unfit to serve his son, seeing as how I was completely unable to fulfill such a simple request as being punctual.

I had been standing in front of the gates for about five minutes, simply wallowing in my mindless panic at how I’d already managed to lose a job I technically had yet to begin, and so I didn’t notice the small man lumbering towards me from across the lawn, his long dark hair falling into his eyes and a great, wide grin playing around his lips. He finally reached the gates and unlocked them from his side, pulling them open and leaning back against them as though it had taken all of his effort to make such a grand exertion.

“Mr. Hoying, I presume?” He asked, his voice far deeper than I’d been expecting. I let my eyes run over his body before quickly returning my gaze to his face, startled at how unnaturally beautiful he was. His soft green eyes were warm and had an odd, playful look about them, and his beard was trimmed haphazardly, as though he’d done it without looking in a mirror. He was positively gorgeous, and all at once I found my heart quickening as that familiar, dull shame coursed through me.

“Yes,” I said, shifting my suitcase to one hand and holding out the other, trying not to think about how soft his hands were and clearing my throat so he wouldn’t notice my embarrassment. “I’m sorry for being late, my train ride was prolonged -”

The man cut my excuse off with a wave of his hand, tucking a pair of thick gloves into the pocket of his shirt and leaning further back against the gates, a lazy smile on his face. “Don’t worry yourself, no one was here to notice if you were late or not. The porter didn’t seem to quite understand that his instructions to greet you were not optional.” He shrugged, as though it was expected behavior of the porter to not fulfill his duties. “I saw you standing here like a lost kitten and figured I’d spare you any more worry.”

He smiled again, then, and I realized he was teasing me. I couldn’t help both the grin and the blush that colored my face, and I looked down at the telegram I’d received from Mr. Michael Grassi, which was wrinkled and smudged from my grip.

“Thank you,” I said, tucking it into my suit jacket and looking back up at the man. “I was afraid I’d ruined my chances before I even got to start the job.”

The man laughed, running a hand through his long, thick hair before taking his gloves back out of his breast pocket. “You’ll learn soon enough that the Grassis aren’t the sort of employers that will dismiss you for something so small.” He smiled again, and I wondered if there was a moment in the day where he wouldn’t be found smiling. I doubted it greatly. “But still, it’s best that you’re not too late on your first day.” He nudged the iron gate open again and waved me through. “Come on, Mr. Hoying. Welcome to paradise.”

I followed him past the tall iron gates into the Grassi mansion, and while I wouldn’t have necessarily called it paradise , I had to appreciate its beauty, the likes of which I’d never seen before. The front lawn itself was enough to make me nearly fall to my knees in adoration - a vast expanse of thick, dark grass, dotted and lined with shrubs and trees and bushes and so much greenery I felt as though I was on an alien planet. Growing up in the Lower East Side of New York City, I’d only ever been surrounded by brick and stone and streets overflowing with garbage, but this - this - was something that I’d never known existed, and yet had been dreaming of my entire life.

I realized I’d stopped walking, and the man, who was several paces ahead of me, paused and turned, giving me an odd look accompanied by yet another smile. I imagine I must have looked completely crazed, and yet he only found it amusing, looping back around and touching my arm gently.

“Mr. Hoying?”

I shook my head, feeling my face flush as I snapped out of whatever trance I’d entered into. “I’m sorry…”

“That’s alright. It’s quite a sight your first time - I don’t think I’ve ever seen a house look so much like a castle.”

I furrowed my brow before realizing that he thought I was impressed by the mansion, and I forced my gaze away from the lawn and up to the house itself, although it wasn’t nearly as captivating as the grounds it came with. It was massive, certainly, and it did have a medieval air to the architecture, but it was stone and brick and man-made, and I couldn’t have been less interested. I’d seen enough buildings in the city.

“It’s nice,” I agreed, before shaking my head and looking back down at the man, who was tucking his long hair into a bun at the nape of his neck. “I think I prefer the lawn, though. I can’t even imagine how many different plants there must be.”

The man paused, looking up at me with deep emerald eyes that made me think things I most certainly shouldn’t have been thinking. “You like the grounds?”

My face warmed and I nodded. “We don’t have nature like this in the city. It’s beautiful.”

Another smile made its way across his face and he gripped my arm tightly in his excitement. “I had a feeling I would like you. I can show you the gardens, if you’d like? The delphinium have just started to bloom.”

“You’re a botanist?”

He laughed, and it was such a lovely sound it seemed as though the morning brightened just a bit more. “Better. I’m the groundskeeper.”

I opened my mouth to respond but he’d already begun pulling me across the lawn and towards the mansion, his fingers warm against my arm and my face flushing again until I was certain I was the color of a rose. It occurred to me that he would probably enjoy such a floral comparison, but I quickly shook the thought away and tried to refocus my attention on the foliage, and not on how eager his warm eyes were as he looked back at me.

“So, Mr. Hoying, tell me about how a city boy like you ended up working for the Michael Grassi. Not many people are able to manage something like that, especially with your level of experience.”

I smiled, tugging my suitcase behind me as he veered left past the front entrance to the mansion and along the paved drive. “I needed work and I happened to hear about a position as a servant in the Grassi residence. After a few corresponding letters, Michael Grassi hired me; the story really isn’t of much interest.”

“I reject that entirely,” the man said, grinning back at me. “I find you very interesting.”

I didn’t say anything as he lead the way along a small path to the side of the mansion, and not a few minutes later we came out upon the end grounds. There was a large swimming pool stationed at the back of the house, and down past the lawn was a tall line of hedges that the man headed towards as though he’d made this trip a thousand times, which I had no doubt he had.

“I never caught your name,” I said as he slowed his pace. My left arm was aching from carrying my suitcase so far, and the man looked back at me as though he hadn’t realized how fast he’d been walking.

“Avriel,” he said with another beautiful smile. “Avriel Kaplan.”

“You’re Jewish?”

His eyes flashed suddenly and an unsettled look crossed his face. “Is that a problem?”

“No,” I said sincerely, shaking my head. “Not in the least. I was just curious. We had a couple clients at our shop named Kaplan a few years back, and I didn’t know if you were of any relation.”

“Most likely not,” he said, the warmth returning to his eyes though he still seemed a bit wary. I didn’t blame him. With the continuous floods of immigrants at the turn of the century, certain groups had been plucked out for discrimination, Jews being one of them. I couldn’t imagine what he and his family might have suffered, and it made me ill to think about it.

“My parents came over from Poland when I was nine,” Avriel continued, starting back up towards the gardens. “It was only the three of us and my sister, no other relatives. What sort of trade did you run?”

“My father was a watchmaker,” I said, lengthening my stride to keep up with him easier. “We had a shop on the Lower East Side.”

“What happened to it?”

“He and my mother both passed away this past spring.” I paused, the words still foreign on my tongue. “I had to sell the shop.”

Avriel looked back at me, his face drawn. “I’m sorry. It was hard enough when I lost my mother, I can’t imagine what you must be going through with the loss of both of your parents. You were unable to keep your father’s business?”

“We owed a lot of debts,” I said uncomfortably. “I was supposed to inherit his shop, but...everything changed rather quickly.”

Avriel nodded but didn’t push the subject, slowing as we came upon the hedges that had been pruned into a small entrance. I glanced down at my pocketwatch, worry striking me again when I realized it was already a quarter past the hour. Despite what Avriel had said about the Grassi family not minding tardiness, it still made me anxious the fact that I was so late on my first day.

“Are you sure I’m not supposed to be somewhere else?” I asked hesitantly, following Avriel through the hedges. “It’s 9:15…”

“Mr. Grassi isn’t here,” he said, glancing back at me. “He’s in the city for the day and will be picking Mitch up from the station this evening. No one’s expecting you but the staff, and considering I’m one of the staff…” He smiled and I felt something in my chest tighten, my damn heart beating faster as though it was clueless about how it should behave. “As long as you’re with me, you’re as golden as your hair, city boy.”

I had a retort on the tip of my tongue, but it vanished into the air the moment we passed through the hedges and into the garden.

It was as though it was something created by Rappaccini himself, though it was far less deadly and far more beautiful than any fictional garden could ever be. Row after row, as far as I could make out, there were thousands of flowers blooming into the warm summer air - crimson roses, sunshine daffodils, tranquil orchids, one right after the other, as though they had grown from the one before and multiplied its beauty into something damn near perfection. I had never seen anything like it before in my life, the only thing even remotely similar being the small flower shop at the corner of Broadway, which only ever had limp violets that were already rotting by the time you bought them. This, though - this was the product of a master, and I couldn’t imagine the patience and upkeep necessary to maintain a garden as fruitful and delicate as this. I turned toward Avriel in my speechless state of shock, and he simply gave me a warm smile before taking my arm and leading me further into what I would come to know as utopia.

“The cornflowers haven’t quite bloomed yet,” he said, pausing in front of a patch of long green stems with small, bluish buds peeking out from the ends. He pinched one between his fingers before letting go and crouching down next to a plant a few feet away, this one with bright yellow flowers that I couldn’t name. “The carnations are doing fairly well, though…” He trailed off, looking thoughtfully down at the yellow flowers before reaching forward and plucking a few, handing them over to me. “Hold these, please.”

I did as I was told and after a few minutes of him surveying more bushes and choosing what he wanted, my arms were full of flowers and I had never been more pleased. Avriel finally stood and took a handful from me, wrapping a piece of twine around the stems to hold them together and tucking them into a wicker basket he’d retrieved from his gardener's shed.

“Mitch likes flowers for his vanity,” he said after a moment, looking back up at me with soft eyes. There was a certain fondness about him when he spoke of Mitchell Grassi, and I felt myself at a loss for words and emotions in that moment - completely unsure of what I should feel, and too afraid to let myself feel it. Avriel didn’t seem to notice, tucking the basket under his arm and starting his way around the garden again. I followed, feeling much like a lost puppy, and broke the silence after a moment, my curiosity outweighing my caution.

“Are you two close?”

Avriel laughed, though I wasn’t sure what about my question was humorous. “He’s like a little brother to me, honestly. Annoying and childish, but I love him dearly.”

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “You must miss him when he’s away at school.”

“Very much, yes.”

“Is he gone the entire year?”

“He returns at the end of November to the beginning of January for a winter holiday, and then again in March, and of course throughout the summer months. It’s hard, but from what he’s told me, he’s happier when he’s away from home.”

I frowned. “Why?”

Avriel glanced over at me, his gaze wise and knowing, although he just smiled and looked back down at his basket of flowers. “You’ll figure that out for yourself soon enough. He’s an enchanting creature. So young, though…”

“He’s the same age as I am,” I said defiantly, feeling like a pitiful child the moment the words were out. Avriel just laughed again, though, and I found myself unable to wallow in my embarrassment for too long. It was impossible to be unhappy around him, and it was an effect that I didn’t quite understand, but loved nonetheless.

“You’re only seventeen?” He asked, stopping at the tall hedges that led back out to the back lawn. “You look and speak much older than your years.”

I shrugged. “New York City doesn’t allow for children. You’re an adult the moment you come out of the womb.”

“Sad,” Avriel said quietly, rearranging the flowers in the basket. He plucked out a small blue hydrangea bunch and twirled it between his long fingers. “I hope you find that, here at least, you can be whatever you wish to be. Adult, child, something in between.” He smiled, looking up at me with those endearing eyes. “Responsibility can be harrowing. You’re too young to look as tired as you do, Scott.”

I started, slightly affronted by Avriel’s blunt yet entirely true words. He seemed to notice my discomfort and leaned back against one of the hedges, placing some much needed space between the two of us.

“I’m sorry if that was forward,” he said, twirling the hydrangea bunch again. “I hardly know you and that was rude. Here.” He handed me the flower, his fingertips brushing against my wrist as he pulled his hand away. “It matches your eyes.”

I felt my skin burn at every point of contact with the flower, fear gnawing its way through my bones at the obvious and unashamed perversion I’d just been witness to. It perhaps scared me even more how truly unaffected I was by Avriel’s words - and how instead of feeling sickened by them, I was intrigued. I shoved the curiosity away, though, gripping onto the handle of my suitcase with locked fingers.

“I don’t think that’s appropriate,” I whispered, and Avriel simply smiled as though he knew everything I was thinking.

“As I said before. Here, you can be whatever you wish to be. City rules don’t apply. You should remember that, Scott.”

I stared down at him as though he was crazed, which I thought perhaps he might have been. “You shouldn’t say that. I’m not...I’m not like you in that way.”

He laughed but didn’t say anything, pushing his way from the hedges and walking back out to the grounds. I followed him, the flower heavy in my hand with the weight of all it signified, and I wondered then how he possibly could have deduced everything about me in such little time. Not that he was correct in his assumption, of course, just that he knew I was a bit...off. Different. I had tendencies that were frowned upon, even though I knew I never would have acted upon them. Being a man like that was dangerous, and I had no desire whatsoever to put myself through any more hardship than I’d already suffered, but even though Avriel’s words had no real traction, it still worried me that he’d so easily said them.

“So,” he said as we passed the back of the house and up a flight of stone steps that led to the side entrance. “Your father was a watchmaker. Did you pick up on any of his skill?”

I sighed, relieved that he’d given up on his other line of query, and tucked the hydrangeas into the pocket of my jacket, switching my suitcase to my other hand. “I was supposed to inherit the shop, so he taught me everything he knew.”

Avriel looked back at me, his expression suddenly much more intrigued. “Really?”

“Yes.”

“So you’re able to repair watches and clocks?” He paused, unlocking the side door and pushing it open, a warm, spicy smell wafting through the air as we entered. “That’s perfect. Could I perhaps commission you to fix my pocketwatch, by any chance? It was my mother’s and it hasn’t worked for months. I think some of the gears might be broken...”

I followed him down the hall and through a series of corridors until we arrived into a vast, brightly lit kitchen. “Of course. Do you have it on you?”

“It’s in my rooms,” Avriel said passively, setting down the basket of flowers on a table and turning to look back at me, yet another beautiful smile on his face. “I would offer to show you, but I fear you’d be too embarrassed considering you’re not like me.” He plucked the hydrangea out of my pocket before turning and striding through towards the ovens at the back of the room, where a large black man was kneading dough against the counter. I followed helplessly, another blush on my face from such provocation and my heart still convinced that everything Avriel said and did was perfectly acceptable. He was dangerous, and I knew he was dangerous, yet I didn’t seem to mind in the slightest.

“Through wind, and fire, and earth, and sea, our newest accomplice has finally joined us for the start of the summer holidays,” Avriel said grandly, leaning across the counter from the man kneading the dough and picking a piece out with his finger. I paused by Avriel’s side, surveying the other man who was rolling his eyes at Avriel’s teasing and grinning as though he couldn’t help but adore it. He looked up at me after a moment, his dark eyes warm and his smile bright, and for the second time that morning I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of another man - a beauty I desperately shouldn’t have cared about, but did so anyway.

“You must be Scott,” the man said, his smile growing. “Nice to finally meet you. I’d shake your hand if you didn’t mind getting covered in flour.”

“That’s alright,” I said with a laugh, my face flushing. He had the loveliest eyes and was broad in a way that wasn’t intimidating, but rather reassuring. I found myself wanting to bury my way into his arms and be cradled in his chest like a babe - a thought which did much to aid my growing blush. “You’re the cook?”

“Cook,” Avriel repeated, as though the word disgusted him. He looked up from his hands, which were dotted with little pieces of bread dough. “Such a simple term that does absolutely no justice to this master. Not cook, but artist - creator. The only man fit to serve the gods and goddesses upon the highest peak of Olympus -”

“Calm yourself, Oscar Wilde,” the man chided, rolling his eyes and flicking a bit of flour onto Avriel’s shirt, which was already stained with dirt and grass. He turned towards me with a long look, and I couldn’t help the smile that spread over my lips. “He only gets that way when he wants me to prepare quail for dinner. He thinks flattery is the way to my heart, but those pretty green eyes don’t work their magic on me like they do with most men.”

It was Avriel’s turn to blush, and I once again found myself frozen at such a lax implication of sodomy. The cook must have noticed because his smile faded and he returned his attention back to the bread dough, rolling it and placing it on a baking sheet.

“I’m Kevin, by the way,” he said a few moments later, putting the sheet in the oven and wiping his hands on his apron. “Kevin Olusola, head cook of the Grassi family residence.”

Avriel clucked his tongue, retying his long hair into a bun. “No modesty whatsoever.”

“You seem to prefer modesty over verity,” Kevin teased, scooping up a line of dirty pots and bowls and dumping them in a wide iron sink. Avriel laughed, pushing himself away from the counter and nudging Kevin’s shoulder with his arm, his green eyes alight with an undeniable fondness and love for the man that I couldn’t help but envy.

“Modesty, verity…” Avriel shrugged, reaching under the sink for a few cloth rags. “I much prefer clarity - or an equal of charity, which is all but a rarity -”

“From Wilde to Whitman, you never fail to impress me with your astute literary prowess,” Kevin laughed, turning on the faucet which sprayed drops of water over the entire kitchen. Neither of them seemed to be preoccupied by it, though, too caught up in their little word game that made my mind spin.

“Why, Mr. Olusola,” Avriel said, smacking Kevin with a towel before grabbing one of the dirty bowls and holding it under the water. “That sounds quite like an insult, which contradicts your very nature. I never would have expected this from you.”

“Men aren’t always as they seem.”

Avriel smirked, glancing back at me with a wink. “You’re damn right about that. But I think that’s what makes it so fun.” He tossed me a towel, which I fumbled to catch, my cheeks flaming. “What do you think, Mr. Hoying? Are men always putting on a front, or is there some truth to their actions? You get extra points if you answer with a rhyme.”

I swallowed, confused down to my very bones. “I...I don’t quite…”

“Damnit, Avi,” Kevin said, turning back towards me with apologetic eyes, his hands covered with soap. “You’re going to scare the poor boy away and he’s only been here half an hour.”

Avi smiled at me again, only managing to add to my confusion more. “I wouldn’t worry. I don’t think he’ll be going anywhere.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but was interrupted by two maids coming through the door to the kitchen, each of them carrying silver trays and stifling their laughter. Avi looked over at them with a fond grin, dipping his hand under the faucet and flicking them with droplets of water until they calmed down and sagged against the counter next to me, as though they hadn’t even noticed I was there.

“Something funny?” Kevin asked the blonde woman, who let out another laugh and stood on her toes to kiss his cheek, whacking him gently with the silver platter as she pulled away. He didn’t seem offended and simply blew soapy bubbles at her, which she darted behind the brunette woman to escape from. I watched on in amazement, envious of how comfortable they all were with one another - as though they were bound not by familial ties, but rather by something stronger which I’d yet to come across in my life. The brunette woman nudged the blonde away before resting back against the counter and looking over at me, her dark green eyes lit with curiosity and her spectacles sloping down over her nose.

“Hello,” she said, surveying me unashamedly. I blushed for what felt like the twentieth time that morning, and she smiled again, something familiar lurking about her sharp features. “You must be Scott, correct?”

“I am,” I said, and she smiled again. The blonde woman, who had been talking to Kevin about something, twirled around and rested her chin on the brunette’s shoulder, her red lips curling up into a grin as she took her turn studying me. They were both beautiful as many women I’d seen before were beautiful, and I knew that if I had been capable of love - real, proper love, not this perversion I’d grown accustomed to - I would have tried to court either of them. But all I felt was indifference to their beauty, and in that moment that familiar curl of shame laced its way about my heart once more.

“Pleasure to meet you,” the blonde woman said, pulling away from the brunette and holding out her hand. I kissed it gently before doing the same to the brunette’s, and when I looked back up they were still both studying me as though I was a rare specimen they’d come upon. The blonde woman smiled again after a moment before walking over towards the large oven, peeking in at the bread that was baking. “I’m Kirstin, by the way.”

“And, this -” Avi said, pulling away from his dishes and taking the brunette woman gently by the arm so that she could do a small, albeit embarrassed, twirl. “- this is my beautiful sister, Esther.”

“Mm,” Esther murmured, narrowing her eyes and giving Avi a look. “What a world it’s come to that still, after all these years, I must work with my baby brother in tow…”

Avi laughed, kissing her cheek before returning to his dishes. “From what I remember, I worked for the Grassis first.”

“You only managed the job because Mrs. Grassi took a liking to you,” Kirstin teased, closing the oven again before twirling back over to Kevin. “Is there anything to eat, dear? I’m absolutely famished.”

Kevin shook his head, clucking his tongue disapprovingly. “You’ve only been working an hour.”

“But it was a positively strenuous hour,” Kirstin argued, and Kevin just grinned before drying his hands and setting out on making her something to eat. She smiled prettily and kissed his cheek again before looping back around the counter and pulling up a stool next to me. “So, Scott, tell me about yourself. How did a cute young thing like you end up as manservant to Mitchell Grassi?”

The question took me by surprise, and I gave a sheepish smile, glancing from Kirstin to Esther to Avriel, who looked as though he was about to burst with laughter.

“I don’t think I understand,” I said after a moment, and Kirstin just shook her head as though it was obvious.

“You’re practically a child with no experience and you’ll be working directly for the heir to one of the richest banks in the country. That doesn’t simply happen by chance, dear, no matter how pretty you are.”

I looked down at my hands, uncomfortable at the sudden silence in the kitchen. Everyone seemed to be expecting an answer from me, and I was unsure how to tell them that I truly didn’t have one.

“I don’t know,” I whispered. “Like I told Avriel, I heard there was a job position and I made an inquiry, and...I got it.” I paused. “Is that unusual?”

Nobody said anything for a long while, and finally Kevin just looked over at me with a small, warm smile.

“I’m sure it’s absolutely fine.”

--

The rest of the day passed in a blur. Avi returned to tending the grounds while Kevin prepared for Mitchell Grassi’s welcome home dinner, and Kirstin and Esther disappeared to god knows where. I met about thirty more members of the household staff and forget every one of their names the moment I heard it, and spent the majority of the morning and afternoon learning my duties as Mitchell’s butler from a wrinkly old housemaid who seemed determined to call me Stewart instead of Scott. It seemed like generally simple job that I could manage for the rest of the summer, and I only found myself getting nervous that evening at dinner about an hour before Mitchell was set to arrive.

The entire staff was eating in the kitchen and I was stationed between Kirstin and Avriel, whose cheeks were burned red from being out in the hot sun, though I found myself unable to do anything but pick at my food I was so foolishly anxious. Kevin, who was sat across from me at the table, seemed to notice and gave me grin, his dark eyes sympathetic.

“Nervous?”

I swallowed, stabbing my fork into the chicken and nodding. “Desperately.”

“It’ll be fine. Mitch is usually tired on his first night back, so he likely won’t require much. Just go up to his room around eight and see if he needs anything. The real work doesn’t start until tomorrow.”

I didn’t get the chance to respond due to a few maids who walked into the kitchen, tying aprons behind their backs and shouting orders to the entire staff. Perplexed, I stayed seated and watched as the room turned to chaos, only moving when I felt Kirstin’s hand on my arm, pulling me up.

“Come on, city boy,” she said, handing me my apron as Kevin started up the ovens again to warm the food. “Looks like they’re back a bit early.”

“The Grassis?”

She laughed, brushing back her blonde hair from her eyes. “Who else?”

I didn’t answer and we melted into the stream of people all fluttering around the room, grabbing platters of food and setting them onto the large dining hall table. After five minutes I felt someone else touch my arm, and Avi was staring at me with furrowed brows, pulling me out of the dining room and towards the front hall.

“Not your job, Scott. You’re Mitch’s butler, not a servant.”

“I thought -”

“It’s alright,” he said, untying my apron and hanging it over his arm. “Nobody told you. Come on, they’ll be coming through the front entrance soon.”

I froze, panic creeping up my throat. “What? What the fuck am I supposed to do?”

He laughed, looking pleased as he lead me into the foyer. “So you do curse,” he said jovially. “Good to know, I was worried you were too Christian for it.”

“Avi -”

“It’s going to be alright. It’s just a job, Scott, it doesn’t matter who it’s for. You’re going to wait in the foyer and when he comes in, you’re going to say something annoyingly trivial such as ‘Hello, Mr. Grassi, I hope you had a nice trip. May I take your coat?’ He’ll probably say yes, you do it, and then you’ll ask him if there’s anything else he’ll require. Most likely there won’t be, but I’ll be with you if he does. Alright?”

I swallowed and forced a nod, and Avi laughed again, squeezing my arm as we paused by the grand entrance of the Grassi mansion.

“He’s not a scary monster,” he teased, tucking his hair back behind his ear. “He’s just a boy - a boy your age - and a rather sweet one, at that. I’m sure you can handle him.”

“What if he dislikes me?”

“Your job isn’t to for him to like you, Scott, your job is to treat him like he’s a prince and wait on him hand and foot.”

I nodded, wringing my hands. “Alright. What if -”

I was interrupted by the door swinging open, and a tall man walked through carrying two cases of luggage, followed by another, shorter man and a thin boy with dark raven hair. I hardly managed a look at them before they were pushing their way past us and through the front hall, the boy calling dismissively, “I require no assistance, thank you” without once looking over at us. I let out a breath a moment later and looked over at Avi, who was frowning as he watched the Grassis retreating figures, although he didn’t say anything and simply led me back to the kitchen.

The evening passed rather uneventfully and I mostly just moped about the kitchen, talking to Kevin. I could have gone back to my rooms and unpacked, but I couldn’t bear to be alone at the moment, still confused about my first impression of Mitchell Grassi. Avi had seemed bothered by the boy’s behavior but still hadn’t said anything, and I didn’t ask him about it considering I knew nothing of the situation and would have only been desperately confused about everything.

At a quarter to eight I climbed the stairs into the west corridor of the house, where Mitchell Grassi’s rooms were located, pausing outside his door and checking my pocketwatch obsessively until it finally struck the hour. Holding my breath and convincing myself that what Avi had said was true and that this was only a job, I held my fist up to the wooden door and knocked three times.

There was no response, and after a moment of waiting I knocked again.

Still there was nothing, but instead of leaving and going back down to the kitchen like I should have, I placed my hand over the door handle and turned it, thinking that I could perhaps just wait in Mitchell’s room until he arrived.

I froze the moment I stepped forward, realizing my mistake instantly as my eyes widened in shock and my stomach dropped to the floor at the sight of Mitchell Grassi kneeling on the bed, completely naked and being fucked by another man.

Chapter Text

I had no idea what reaction I should have, so I simply didn’t have one.

My eyes trailed over the two men on the bed, captivated and terrified and more curious than I’d ever been. They didn’t notice me, too caught up in one another and what they were doing, and for a moment I almost thought it beautiful - how deep into the moment the both of them were, so much so that they weren’t even aware of my presence a mere five feet away - but not a second later I shook my head and reminded myself exactly what I was seeing, and how desperately and undeniably illicit it was.

I was positive it was Mitchell Grassi - even though I’d only seen him briefly that evening in the foyer, I couldn’t mistake that raven hair and that thin, delicate frame. I was clueless about the other man, however - his light auburn curls fell into his face and shielded his eyes, and his build was much more muscular than Mitchell’s, as though he spent the majority of his days doing hard labor.

He was stunning.

They both were. Mitchell especially. Now that I had the chance to actually study his face, I was taken aback by how abnormally gorgeous his features were - he was beautiful in a way that no other man I’d seen before was beautiful. He was sharp and dangerous, his face a mess of angles and curves and dimples, and it was his androgyny that perplexed me most - as though his feminine and masculine features were fighting a war that was destined to be lost, each pushing and pulling until they formed the most endearing and alluring face I’d ever come across. Avriel had been right - Mitchell was an enchanting creature, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.

He pushed himself back into the man from where he was kneeling on the bed, one hand splayed over his chest and the other on his cock, which was pink and leaking and made me feel things that I’d yet to feel before in my life. He didn’t seem ashamed at the fact that another man was behind him - taking him as though he was a bridal virgin - but instead only seemed to want more of whatever it was the man was doing, throwing his head back and sinking lower and letting out a long moan that made my stomach do nervous flips. He licked his lips, his eyes fluttering shut and his hand sliding lower over his stomach as his entire body froze. For a moment I was afraid he’d seen me - afraid he would open his eyes and demand for me to leave and never step foot on his property again - but instead he just shuddered and turned his head to the side, gripping the man by the back of the neck and pressing their lips together as he let out another moan.

It was the kiss that finally pulled me away, and I felt all of my blood rush back to my body along with my consciousness as I stepped out of the room and closed the door behind me, trying to calm the mindless panic that was already digging its way into my bones.

I wasn’t aware of what I was doing or where I was going, rushing back down the stairs from the west wing of the mansion and pushing my way through the maze of hallways - the walls getting closer and closer together until I felt my breath constrict and I nearly collapsed at the foot of another stairwell, completely lost and close to tears. I pushed myself up helplessly, managing to stand only to fall back once more against the wall, my stomach tightening and collapsing as I attempted to regain my lucidity. I was completely unaware as to why I was reacting this way - I’d seen people engage in intercourse before, although it had never been quite like that - but all I knew was that this place - this damn house - was going to kill me if it allowed such perversions to occur in plain sight without even an air of consequence.

A series of footsteps sounded from the staircase to my left and a moment later two lean figures arose into view, their laughter and talk immediately stifled as they took in my presence. A part of me calmed a bit when I realized it was Avriel and his sister, although a larger, more prominent and terrified part urged me to recollect myself as best I could and leave instantly. After what I’d just witnessed of Mitchell Grassi, I had no doubt whatsoever that my suspicions and - to an extent - my definite knowledge about Avriel were correct. What could have been written off as harmless flirting was now far more damnable and far more criminal than I’d supposed. If Mitchell Grassi was allowed to commit sodomy in this household, then Avriel was most likely a prime example of permitted perversion, and it terrified me that - instead of being disgusted by this fact - it only made me all the more bemused.

“Scott?” Avriel asked, pausing at the head of the stairs and shifting his weight. Both he and his sister Esther were carrying silver platters, one set of tea on each, and Avriel set his down on the ground before cautiously approaching me, as though I was a caged animal. “Hey, are you alright? Are...you’re crying…”

I winced as he moved to touch my arm, and he halted instantly. His long dark hair was curled against his shoulders, slightly damp and smelling of hard lemon soap, and he’d changed out of his groundskeeper’s clothes into a loose-fitting white shirt under a worn green cardigan and a pair of grey trousers, his feet covered only with a pair of woolen red socks. He looked gentle, and warm, and I wished more than anything that I could have loathed him.

“What’s wrong?” He asked, his voice quiet. Esther had yet to say anything, simply hanging back and holding the tea tray into her stomach, her delicate eyebrows furrowed together. “What happened?”

I hesitated. “He... you’re…”

“Who? Mitch?” Avi’s eyes dimmed a bit with confusion, and he glanced back at Esther before taking another step towards me. “Have you gone to his rooms yet? Why aren’t you there now? It’s past eight...”

“I went up to his rooms like Kevin told me, and I - I opened the door and - he was fucking...he was fucking. A man. He - he was engaging in homosexual activity.”

A moment passed and something like understanding flashed across Avriel’s face, which did nothing to ease the steady panic that was still gnawing at my stomach like a virus. He turned back towards Esther again, saying something I couldn’t make out before she nodded and walked back down the stairs from where they’d come. He gathered his tea tray into his arms and turned to face me once more, his light eyes still a bit worried although significantly more relaxed.

“I think you and I should talk,” he said kindly, offering a smile that seemed as though it didn’t quite fit on his face. I retreated further back against the wall, my eyes flicking down to his hand which was once again mere inches from my arm, before shaking my head slowly.

“I’m not going anywhere with someone like you.”

His smile faltered and I regretted my words instantly, although I refused to allow myself to apologize - foolishly determined to stay away from whatever the hell was going on in this house. I wondered vaguely if Kevin was a homosexual as well - if they all were, and this was some sort of sick trick set up by God to condemn me for my disloyalty. Or maybe it was something else entirely. A test, perhaps, to see if I would succumb to my unnatural instincts the moment they appeared to be accepted and encouraged. I didn’t know, and it was this lack of surety that frightened me the most.

“Someone like me?” Avriel repeated, his voice unnaturally hesitant. His eyes shone with hurt but he only shook his head, taking another step towards me. “Why are you..? You’re upset, I understand that, but - there’s no reason to be rude. We should talk…”

“Nothing you say is going to take away the fact that I just saw Mitchell Grassi being fucked by another man like a goddamn rent boy,” I growled, my fear turning to anger as the words curled over my tongue. “And I - I don’t care to have you try and convince me that there’s any explanation that would make that okay.”

Avriel’s eyes narrowed and I knew I had gone too far, yet I had no time to remedy my mistake as he shoved me back against the wall with one arm, the other still hanging onto the dangerously precarious tea tray that clattered against my chest.

“Don’t you dare call Mitch anything like that,” he snarled. “The last thing that boy needs is any more judgement, especially from somebody who doesn’t even know him.”

“Avriel -”

“Be quiet, Scott,” he spat, and for a moment I worried he would strike me. His anger seemed to settle after a moment, though, and he pushed himself back, his jaw setting and his fingers shaking against the tea tray as though he wanted nothing more than to wrap them around my throat. “You...you’re such a fucking fool.” He shook his head again before holding his tray closer into his stomach. “Come with me.”

“I -”

“Shut up, and come with me.”

I hesitated but gave a slow, downright submissive nod, watching hesitantly as he pushed back from me and started down the hall, not even bothering to see that I followed. I stayed a few paces behind him all the while, wiping at my eyes with the back of my wrinkled sleeve. He led me through corridors I’d yet to pass through, sinking deeper and deeper into the mansion until I began to fear he was dragging me down to some dungeon to do God knows what. I relaxed a bit as he turned left and into a hallway that I was vaguely acquainted with, and a few minutes later we were rounding into the corner of the house set aside for staff housing. I’d only been in my room for a few minutes earlier that morning - simply to drop my suitcase off before being swept away into the full day of training - and for a moment I assumed he would lead me to my door and leave without a word, an assumption that was quickly deflated as he walked straight past my room and continued down the hall.

He paused at the third door from the end, pushing it open with one hand and walking through, leaving it open behind him as though this was his way of offering me a choice. I could either follow him through, or I could retreat back to my own rooms and spend the rest of the summer holiday ignoring Avriel whenever I could manage. It was a choice. A choice I felt terribly unqualified to make.

Finally though, after a few seconds of torturous contemplation, I let out a growl and shoved my way in with him, closing the door behind me even though every part of me knew I shouldn’t.

His room was dark, the only light shining through from the cracked window, and I could hear him rustling about more than I could see it. A match was struck a moment later as he lit a series of candles, and a minute later we were staring at each other through the dim light, my body huddled back against his door while he stood by an old wooden desk against the wall. His room was similar to mine - relatively small with a bed tucked in the corner, a desk, and a small armoire - and yet there was something about it that, even through the shadows, felt immensely comfortable and inviting. A vase of bright yellow flowers sat on his bedside table and the curtains of the window were tied back carelessly, as though the light was trying to seep in through whatever means possible. It would have looked beautiful in the daylight and in much different circumstances, but at the moment - after what I’d said to Avriel - it only stood to seem foreboding.

Avriel moved after a moment, taking the tea kettle off the tray along with two cups and setting them down on his desk. His hands were still shaking, but when he turned towards me his eyes were empty of anger and instead only appeared melancholy. It was a horrid look for him, and it sickened me to know that I had been the one to cause it.

“Avriel -”

“I’d hoped we could be friends,” he said quietly, and the words struck me harder than any physical assault ever could. I closed my mouth and cast my eyes downward, shame stitching my lips together. “Assumptions can be dangerous things, and I shouldn’t have made any about you...I’ve only just met you, after all, but I...I only thought…” He sighed, running his fingers through his damp curls and turning back towards his desk. “Would you like some tea?”

“Avriel -”

“Tea, Scott. It’s not a difficult question.”

“I...please.”

He nodded, his body moving mechanically until a few minutes later he was handing me a steaming cup of tea, his green eyes not meeting mine.

“Please,” he said, and I noticed he seemed to be putting in much care to make sure he didn’t touch me. I was unsure if he did so to make me feel more comfortable, or if he did so because he simply loathed the thought of coming that close to me. The uncertainty made my stomach turn. “Please, sit. We should talk.”

I wrapped my hands around the teacup, which was more a chipped mug rather than a fine piece of China. It was alright, though. It was still one of the nicest dishes I’d ever seen. “Where should I sit?” I asked, my voice dusty. Avriel had settled on the corner of his bed, but the thought of sitting so near made me nervous. He seemed to notice and nodded to the rickety desk chair, which I perched atop carefully, unsure if it could bear my weight. We sat there together for a few moments, the steam from the tea wafting up to my face and causing my eyes to water, and I wiped at them carefully, not wanting to make him worried even though I knew he probably wouldn’t have cared.

“There are a few things I should...tell you about,” he said after a long while, his voice tired. “I’d assumed that Mr. Grassi would have informed you, but...obviously that’s not the case, given your reactions.”

I hesitated despite the fact that I knew very well what he was referring to. “My reactions?”

“To Mitchell. And…to me, to an extent.” He paused, tucking his hair behind his hair and staring determinedly at his tea. I could only make out his silhouette in the dark room, and I supposed it was safer this way - the less of him I could see, the less likely I would be distracted by his beauty. “Scott...what do you know about Mitchell Grassi?”

Images of the raven-haired boy on the bed flashed back to me, but I shook them away, setting my tea down on Avriel’s desk and staring at the few notebooks that were scattered in front of me. I longed to look through them, although I knew that doing so would only make him trust me even less. “I don’t know much,” I whispered, and Avriel chuckled quietly.

“No. Obviously not.” He shuffled, and when I looked over he’d turned towards me, resting his chin on the top of his headboard and staring at me with shining eyes. “I don’t mean to be offensive, but why the hell were you even hired?”

“I...I’m not sure…” I said quietly, my brow furrowing. While it was true that my employment at the Grassi mansion hadn't occurred in the most orthodox manner, there wasn’t exactly anything odd about it. I was decently qualified, and Mr. Grassi had seemed happy to hire me. After obtaining a steady position after weeks of insecurity, everything else had suddenly become unimportant. I felt my chest puff a bit with defense. “It’s just a job, Avriel…”

“Yes,” he said slowly, pressing his nose up against the edge of his teacup. “But...damnit, Scott, it’s actually not just a job. If you were a regular servant, perhaps, but - you’re not a regular servant. I...Mitchell’s a very... special person, and I don’t understand why the hell Mr. Grassi would have hired you if you weren’t competent -”

“I’m perfectly competent -”

“Obviously you aren’t if you start breaking down at the sight of two people having sex.” His eyes narrowed, and he studied me for a long while, as though he could determine some sort of answer just from my appearance. I ran my fingers over the collar of my shirt self-consciously, worry suddenly striking me as that possibility became more and more viable in my unquiet mind. “Are you just a prude, or…are you embarrassed?”

“I have no problems with two people having sex,” I said stiffly. “I only...I have a problem with two men having sex.”

Avriel stared at me, incredulity breaking over his face. “Then why did you take the job?”

I frowned. “What?”

“Why did you take the position if you’re prejudiced against homosexuals? Why bother?”

I shook my head, as if doing so would clarify his words. “I’m - what the hell are you talking about?”

Avriel’s eyes widened slightly and his body - which had been tensed, as though he’d been moments away from pouncing - sagged against the headboard of his bed, his eyes shining with a newfound revelation that terrified me. “My god...did...did Mr. Grassi not tell you?”

I swallowed. “Tell me what?”

“About Mitchell?” Avriel shook his head and let out a laugh. “He didn’t, did he? Dear god, no wonder you were so…” He ran a hand through his hair, pushing himself up onto his knees so that he could lean towards me over the edge of his bed. “Mitchell isn’t just some soon-to-be family man who gets stuck on fairies - he is a fairy, city boy, and quite a pretty one at that.”

I felt the blood rush from my face, and if I hadn’t already been sitting down I would have lost my bearings. “What?”

He shook his head again, his brow furrowing. “You - you truly didn’t know?”

“He’s..?”

“For fuck’s sake, Scott, he likes cock, not cunt.” Avriel snorted, settling back down on the edge of his bed. “Perhaps you are a prude. How much more specific can I be?”

I shook my head, my thoughts blurring until anything I would have tried to say simply slipped away from my mind “I don’t…”

“Look,” Avi said, sighing and sliding down onto the floor, where he crawled over so that he was sitting in front of my legs and staring up at me with pretty green eyes that I wasn’t allowed to love. “You’re obviously... confused, not that I entirely blame you given the fact that Mr. Grassi hasn’t told you anything. But honestly, Scott, the concept of homosexuality can’t be that foreign to you.”

I felt my cheeks grow warm and I looked away, focusing my attention on the candle that burned dimly on the desk in front of me. “I don’t understand what you’re saying,” I whispered, biting the inner flesh of my cheek. “I’m not - I’m not that sort of man.”

Avriel was quiet, and when I glanced back over he was studying me as though I was a puzzle he’d yet to complete. “Are…” He hesitated, pushing himself a bit closer so that his toes nudged my ankle. I moved my leg away quickly and he narrowed his eyes. “You’re serious?”

“I’m not that sort of man,” I said again, and Avriel smirked as though I was trying to fool him.

“Look, city boy, I’m a groundskeeper so I know flowers, and you’re a pansy if I’ve ever seen one.”

“Avriel -”

“Listen, Scott,” Avi said, and this time his voice was vacant of jest. I hesitated before nodding that he continue, despite the fact that everything he’d already said had made no sense whatsoever. “I meant what I said earlier today, about you being able to be whatever you wanted while you’re here. I truly did.”

I pursed my lips, looking away. “And?”

“You must understand that that is not only for you. It’s for everyone, and you need to respect that.” He sighed, shaking his head and grinning up at me tiredly. “Mitchell Grassi is a homosexual. I assumed you knew - I assumed his father had told you, because that’s usually something his father tells people who will be working with his son so closely, but obviously it must have slipped his mind this time. Mitch fancies men, not women, and you…” Avriel sighed again, nudging my ankle with his foot. “You’ve got to get over that if you’re going to be his butler.”

He said the words so easily that - for a moment - I was almost convinced that they weren’t the damnable, vile little creatures that I knew they were. “Are you insinuating that Mr. Grassi knows that his son is a fucking sodomite, and he supports it?” I demanded, and Avriel’s eyes flashed.

“I’d recommend adjusting your tone,” he whispered, his voice edged with danger. “I’d also recommend you avoid using terms such as sodomite.”

I considered a retort, but found that all of my energy had simply been drained out of me. It had been a long day and I wanted nothing more than to curl up in my rooms and try to convince myself that I could make it through this hell, and arguing now with Avriel about things he already had his mind set on sounded less than appealing.

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly, finishing my tea and setting the mug back down on his desk. “I didn’t mean to sound offensive.” I moved to stand, but he was still sitting in front of my legs, blocking my way. “Excuse me…”

“Scott,” he said, and the earnesty in his voice made my traitorous heart beat faster in my chest. I sighed and looked down at him, startled when I noticed how much closer he’d gotten. He was on his knees, now, resting his on my thighs and moving his face mere inches from mine, and I found myself inch a bit nearer without thinking, my mind dizzying with the smell of lemon soap and the beautiful light in his green eyes. “I really do wish to be your friend, but I - I can’t allow myself to be around somebody poisonous. I hope you understand that.”

I swallowed, huffing a breath. “Poisonous…”

He smiled, then - a sad, slow smile that spoke of many things I’d yet to consider. His hand moved to cup my cheek, his fingers smooth against my skin. “You’re so young,” he said, his voice catching. “And yet you’ve already been filled with so many lies…”

“Avriel…”

“You’re afraid. I know. I’ve been afraid, too. But it’s safe here. Here, nobody can hurt you for who you are, and you don’t have to worry about pretending anymore…”

I shook my head at all he was implying and all I wished I could have believed. “I can’t do that.”

“They lied, you know. Whoever told you it was wrong. They were lying, because they didn’t know how to understand something that was different from them.” He paused, tracing down my cheek with fingers I wanted feel against every inch of my body. “You know it’s true. They always lie about everything.”

“I would be killed…”

“You’re safe here, Scott.”

I felt my throat burn and I shook my head once more, desperate to believe him but aware that I couldn’t. “I’m...I’m not that sort of man,” I whispered, hoping he would accept the lie even though I knew he would only continue to push. “I love women, Avriel. Not men…”

He smiled as though my world wasn’t collapsing around me. “When you kiss women, do you pretend you’re kissing men instead?”

“I’ve never kissed anyone,” I said, wiping at my face as a few frustrated tears rolled down the slope of my nose. Avriel’s brow furrowed and he moved a bit closer, brushing under my eyes with the pad of his thumb gently.

“You’re seventeen…”

“I’m aware.”

“You’ve... never?”

I closed my eyes. “I was afraid.”

“Of kissing someone?”

“You don’t understand.”

“Explain it to me,” he murmured, and the treble in his voice was so comforting it reminded me of my childhood, and the songs my mother would sing to me on cold, lonesome nights when my sister and I went without food, because the shop hadn’t been doing well and sacrifices needed to be made. And how she would cradle me in her arms and dance around the house, singing Guten Abend, gute Nacht and telling me stories of her own childhood in Brandenburg. A weary sadness settled over me and I brushed at my eyes again, the tears far more responsive now as my heart weakened in my chest.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, not meeting Avriel’s eyes as I sank back into the desk chair. “I can’t…”

“You were afraid,” Avriel said gently, and I cursed him for not letting the matter go. He edged closer, both of his hands cupping my face so gingerly, as though he worried I would break if he handled me too roughly. “Why were you afraid?”

My eyes slipped shut and I shook my head. “I was afraid that if I kissed a girl...I wouldn’t like it.”

“Scott…”

“And if I kissed a boy…” I bit my lip and moved back again. “I was afraid I would like it.”

Avriel sighed, his fingers moving carefully over my cheeks and down the back of my neck, as though my skin was made of broken glass and at any moment he could slip up and get injured. I allowed it, though, for him to touch me. It was frightening, and intimate, and I knew I should have pushed him back and stated once again that I was not that sort of man, but the exhaustion that had been building up behind my eyes finally pushed its way out, and all I could do was bite back the tears and allow my entire body to collapse against him.

“They’ll kill me,” I choked, and Avriel shook his head as though doing so would dismiss all of my worries.

“I promise you’re safe here.”

“They’ll kill me -”

“Scott,” Avriel murmured, moving his hands back to cup my face. “They’re not here. They can’t hurt you if they’re not here. If you haven’t noticed, the Grassis and everyone who works for them don’t care who you are. They don’t care if you’re a Jew, or a Negro, or a Mexican, or a homosexual - they honestly don’t fucking care. They have more important things to worry about.”

I shuddered. “It’s dangerous.”

“Of course it’s dangerous,” Avriel said, his thumb tracing over my lips. I longed to lean forward and close the space between us, but I knew that now was not the time to do something so foolish. “But that’s life, city boy. It’s dangerous.”

“I still don’t understand, though…”

“I know,” Avriel said gently. “But I think we should save it for another night. Too much serious talk makes the brain rot, especially on your first day.” He smiled then, and I let out a breath I was unaware I’d been holding, relief flooding through my veins at such a beautiful sight. “I really would like to be your friend, Scott. You’re sweet. Lost, but sweet.”

I nodded, my breath hitching when I realized Avriel’s hand was resting on my thigh again, and I knew in that moment that he was offering a proposition for the night. Part of me wished to accept - wished to dive headfirst into this foreign and terrible world - but another, far more logical part knew that bedding someone - especially a man - on my first day at the Grassi residence would be a mistake.

“I should sleep,” I whispered, and Avriel simply gave another beautiful smile, his hand moving back as he settled on the floor a few feet away.

“You should. Tomorrow will be a long day.”

There was a brief moment where neither of us said anything, and I hesitated before pushing myself up out of the chair and taking a step towards the door. Avriel didn’t stop me and I continued, only pausing briefly when my fingers grasped the handle.

“I’m not saying no,” I said quietly, turning to face him. He’d stood and was stacking the two teacups back onto the silver tray, and he looked over at me as I spoke. “Just...not tonight.”

He smiled and looked back down at the tray. “Whatever you want, Scott.”

“Really,” I said, stepping towards him again as though I had something to prove. “You...I’m not saying no. I’d...I want…”

“Scott,” Avriel said gently, his hands tracing over his desk and plucking one of the flowers off of his nightstand, twirling it between his fingers. “I understand.”

“I don’t think you do.”

He took a few steps towards me, his fingers reaching up to brush at the hair that covered my forehead. “It’s been a hard night for you. I understand that.”

I nodded but moved a bit closer, courage I’d never had before somehow surging forward as I rested my hand on Avriel’s hip, watching as his eyes darkened a bit in the candlelit room. He was beautiful, and I wanted him, and for a moment it didn’t seem to be a problem that he was a man and I shouldn’t have felt the way I did. “Can I make a request?”

“Of course,” he murmured, and all at once the bravery I’d begun to feel melted away, and I was blushing again like a virgin on her wedding night.

“Will you kiss me?”

His lips curled into a smile. “I thought you weren’t that sort of man.”

“Please,” I whispered, stepping closer as the fear began to surround me.

“I hardly know you,” he said, but I could see the teasing gleam in his eye as he nudged me back against the door, my heart hammering as the soft sounds of the house suddenly swirled into a cacophony, matching the panic and excitement I felt in my gut.

“You just offered me your bed,” I reminded him, and he smiled again.

“Sex is often far less intimate than kissing.”

“I wouldn’t know about either.”

“You will.”

I raised my eyebrows, swallowing when his hand rested against my thigh. “Oh?”

“If it weren’t for the circumstances of the current situation, I would most likely be kissing your cock right now instead of your lips.”

My face flushed and he smiled up at me, somehow managing to be coy even after such a direct statement.

“I have every intention of having you in my bed, city boy,” he murmured. “But Kevin would kill me if I fucked you on your first day here.”

I shuddered. “I thought I was the one who turned down your offer.”

“Is that what happened?” He teased, his fingers tightening in my hair so that my chin tilted down. “It’s all a blur.”

“Avriel…”

“I’m not going to fuck you, city boy, don’t worry. And...” He pulled back a bit, searching my face until he found an answered buried deep within my eyes. “I’m not going to kiss you, either.”

My lips parted. “What? Why?”

“Because you’ll loathe me if I do,” he said gently, brushing my hair back and tucking the flower he’d been holding into the pocket of my shirt. “You’re tired, and afraid, and you want to try something that you believe you should hate. That combination of emotions is a dangerous thing.”

“Avriel -”

“Ask me again tomorrow when you’ve had a chance to think about what you want. But don’t do it now after a moment of bravery. Spontaneity isn’t beneficial in situations like this.”

“But, I -”

“You should sleep, Scott. Mitchell takes his breakfast at nine, so you should be awake by seven at the latest.” He grinned, his eyes alight with something I couldn’t read. “You’ll want to save your energy for him. He’s...something else.”

His tone had softened at the mention of Mitchell, and I couldn’t help the envy that made its way through my mind. “Are you two..?”

Avriel smirked. “Just because he and I both prefer men doesn’t mean we’ve fucked.”

I felt my cheeks get warm and I looked down. “But have you?”

“You’re very interested in sex for a prude, aren’t you?” He leaned back a bit, his eyes the color of a storm-ridden sky. “Would it bother if we had?”

I didn’t answer and he smiled gently.

“If it reassures you in any way, the only boy I want to have in my bed at the moment is you.”

“But -”

“Goodnight, Scott,” he said, pulling away and disappearing into the dim candlelight. “Get some rest.”

I considered arguing for a moment, but he’d already turned back to his desk and I knew that any attempt at furthering the conversation would go ignored. I brushed my fingers against the yellow flower that was tucked in the pocket of my shirt before smiling softly and turning back towards the door, not allowing my mind to wander to thoughts of tonight.

I fell asleep to the images of Avriel’s green eyes and the beauteous mystery that was, and would forever be, Mitchell Grassi.

Chapter Text

I woke the next morning bathed in the soft glow of the sun’s shine, and I lay in bed for a moment longer - allowing myself to exist in a state of unobserved impermanence, masked from the rest of the world and the worry that had for so long consumed me.

I could still feel it, across my cheeks and through my hair and whispering down the back of my neck, the remanence of Avriel’s touch, which had made my dreams all the more sweeter than they’d been previous. He was an enchantment, if ever a human could truly be one. Prepossessing, and kind, and steady as a bankside willow - a man who only ever sought after the beauty in life, leaving the misery and shame to those who fell behind. I wanted him in more ways than I could comprehend, and I buried my face into my pillow as a blush rose to my cheeks, my thoughts wandering into dangerous and unknown caverns they’d yet to explore. It had been less than twenty-four hours since we’d met, and yet I was already as besotted as a schoolgirl.

I dressed in the butler’s uniform I’d been provided, pleased that they’d managed to estimate my correct measurements, and combed my hair back before closing my door behind me and venturing down to the kitchen. It was only half past seven but I figured that the earlier I went down, the more likely I would have the chance to talk to Avriel. I managed to find my way throughout the house fairly easily, only stopping to ask a maid once for directions when I somehow ended up back in the west corridor, where the Grassi family’s rooms were located. Ten minutes later I pushed my way through the kitchen door and started a bit at the unexpected and yet entirely welcomed chaos, biting back a smile at the twenty or so people who were shuffling about, still dealing with the remains of Mitchell’s welcome back dinner from the night before. I spotted Kevin at the end of the large counter, kneading fresh dough that looked to be dotted with raisins and cinnamon, and I edged my way through the throng of bodies, smiling when he looked up and gave me a grin.

“Morning, Scott,” he said, wiping at his forehead before tossing the dough on a sheet and placing it into one of the large ovens. “Sleep well?”

“Very,” I said, ducking as a maid walked past me with the basket of fruit held above her head. “And you?”

Kevin laughed, wiping his hands on his apron and giving another grin. “Oh, yeah. I sleep like the dead after big parties like that. It’s a relief, you know? When everything comes together after days and weeks of planning an important meal.” He laughed again, cracking a few eggs into a metal pan. “Unfortunately, Mitch seemed a lot less interested in his welcome back dinner than I’d hoped. He barely even touched the lamb, from what I’m told.”

I smiled and watched as he whisked the eggs together with a bit of cream and set it on the stove. “Shame. It looked delicious.”

“There’s some left if you’re interested,” Kevin offered, his eyes brightening. He leaned forward and lowered his voice, his lips curled into another beautiful smile. “Technically, staff are only allowed to have porridge for breakfast, but if I have to make one more potful of wheat mush I just might go mad. What do you say? Hungry?”

I laughed but nodded, moving closer to the counter as another maid passed by me. “That sounds wonderful, thank you.”

“What sounds wonderful?” A voice asked, and I smiled again when I saw Kirstin weaving her way through the mass of people and towards Kevin, standing on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek as she set an empty tray on the counter. “Mrs. Grassi would like some scones with her afternoon tea, by the way, dear.”

“Thank you,” Kevin said, nudging the tray to the side and stirring the eggs with a spoon. “I was making Scott some breakfast, if you’d like some.”

“Porridge?” Kristin asked, wrinkling her nose and glancing over at me. “I’d suggest against it.”

“Rude,” Kevin scoffed, scooting her to the side and opening the icebox that was situated against the wall next to the ovens. “I was actually making lamb and eggs.”

Kirstin’s eyes widened. “With sourdough?”

“I might have a bit left over,” Kevin said with an air of nonchalance, though I could see the smirk threatening to break out across his face. “Hungry, Sheba?”

“Positively,” Kirstin said, looping around the counter so that she was standing next to me, her delicate hands pressed against the tabletop as she bounced a bit and watched Kevin prepare our food. “So, city boy, how did your first night go?”

I felt my face grow warm and I focused on Kevin’s hands as he sliced the remaining lamb and tossed it into the pan with the egg mixture. “It was alright.”

“How did you and Mitchell get on?”

My blush worsened and I scratched the back of my neck, images of Mitchell Grassi and the man in his bed flashing back to me. “We’ve not actually met,” I said, looking away when I saw the confusion on her face. “He was otherwise engaged.”

“I see,” Kirstin said softly, her lips perking into a smirk as she glanced over at Kevin. “That was faster than I expected.”

Kevin chuckled, stirring the eggs again before starting on another loaf of bread. “They’ve been apart for almost three months, I’m surprised Mitchell actually stayed throughout dinner before trying to find him.”

Kirstin rolled her eyes. “It’s not as though there aren’t any boys at school.”

“No,” Kevin allowed, looking up at her with a soft smile. “But none of them are Giacomo.”

Kirstin sighed, arching her brow with disapproval. “No. None of them are Giacomo.”

“Giacomo?” I asked, the Italian name foreign on my tongue. Kirstin glanced over at me, her lips still pursed together.

“I’m assuming that’s who Mitchell was with last evening? Tall boy with reddish hair?”

“I...didn’t really get a good look at him.”

“But he was with someone?”

“Yes,” I said, shaking my head and feeling myself blush again, slightly uncomfortable but mostly alright with everything that I’d seen. “He was most definitely with someone.”

Kevin laughed, pulling out two wooden bowls and filling them with the scrambled eggs and lamb. “You didn’t walk in on them, did you?” I didn’t say anything and he paused, his knife pressed against the loaf of sourdough bread and his eyes crinkling as he held back another laugh. “Scott, you didn’t -”

“I didn’t do it purposefully,” I argued, my cheeks flaming. Kirstin chuckled and shook her head, her blonde hair bouncing against her shoulders. “He didn’t answer, so I opened the door and…”

“Oh, dear,” Kirstin said, her dark eyes gleaming in the morning light. “I’d avoid opening doors without being summoned, even if you’ve knocked. You can never be sure of what you’ll find, especially here.”

“It was a bit of a surprise,” I admitted, my thoughts drifting away as Kevin placed two bowls in front of Kirstin and I, each filled to the brim with eggs and lamb and a grilled wedge of sourdough each. I let out a groan of pleasure at the sight and hardly heard the rest of the conversation about Mitchell and his supposedly sordid affairs, very much content to enjoy my breakfast and not try to understand the peculiarity that was Mitchell Grassi.

Ten minutes later found myself wandering out of the kitchen and through the back door, my stomach satiated and my hands weighed down with another bowl prepared for Avriel. Despite the relative youth of the morning, Kevin had informed me that the groundskeeper had already been working for a few hours now, rising along with the sun even before the birds woke. I made a quick sweep of the front lawn before retreating to the back, breathing in the warm summer air as I approached the hedge that blocked off the garden.

It was just as breathtaking the second time through as it had been the first, and I found myself more than once pausing to enjoy the quiet, warm sounds of nature, something that I’d never been witness to in the city. I wondered if I would grow weary of suburbia and eventually miss the mayhem of the Lower East Side, but ducking past the tall green hedges and into the flower garden, I knew that I would always prefer this to the filth of industrialism.

Avriel was in the garden as I expected, on his knees as he planted a row of small pink bulbs in the rich, darkened soil. He seemed to hear my approach even with the grass masking the sound of my footsteps, and he looked up, a beautiful smile spreading over his face as he leaned back on his heals and wiped at his forehead.

“Good morning,” he said pleasantly, pushing himself up and facing me, his curious eyes glancing down at the bowl I was holding.

“Guten Morgen,” I replied easily, and his smile grew. “Kevin thought you’d like some breakfast.”

“Did he, now?” Avi asked, tucking his gloves into his breast pocket and accepting the bowl. “That was kind of him. Did he also ask you to bring it?”

I felt my face grow warm and watched as he settled back onto the grass, crossing his legs underneath him. “No,” I said, sitting beside him and raising my face towards the warm sun. “That was my own decision.”

“I’m glad you made it,” he said softly, and when I looked back over he was smiling as though the clouds had cleared to make way for the heavens. “How did you sleep?”

“Fairly well. It’s always hard, though, the first night in a new place. And you?”

Avriel shrugged, looking up at me coyly. “I slept alright. It was lonely, though, in my bed. No one to keep my company.”

I blushed and he smiled again, nudging me with his toe before taking a bite of his eggs.

“Don’t you have other work to do besides watching me eat, city boy?”

“Most likely,” I said, and he chuckled. “I wanted to see you before I brought Mitchell his breakfast, though. To ask if there’s anything I should be prepared for, or if he’ll try and seduce me, or anything of the sort.”

Avriel laughed again, scooping up a bit of lamb with his bread. “I think you’re fairly safe from seduction, don’t you worry. After all, he was fucking someone else last night. I don’t think he’ll be looking for anything new just yet.”

“Ah,” I said, raising my eyebrows and settling back on the grass. “Right. Giacomo.”

“You know about Giacomo?”

“Kirstin and Kevin mentioned him, though I don’t know much other than his name. Kirstin didn’t seem to care for him…”

Avriel shrugged, though I could tell there was something more there. “He’s alright. He’s one of the stableboys, just arrived from Italy last year. He doesn’t speak much English, but he fucks like a goddamn rabbit.”

I raised my eyebrows and managed a laugh. “Are you serious? Did Mitchell tell you that?”

Avriel smiled and looked down at his bowl. “Something like that.”

“Do you two always discuss the men you’ve bedded?” I wondered aloud, stretching out on the warm grass and blinking up at the sun. Avriel chuckled again softly, though he didn’t say anything as he finished his breakfast. I glanced over at him after a few minutes had passed, studying his profile and wondering what it would be like to trace my thumb along his jaw, and if his beard would feel as soft as it looked beneath my fingers. He moved before I could pluck up the courage to try it, though, putting his bowl down and settling onto his side next to me, his jade irises just a shade lighter than the grass.

“Hallo,” I said softly, and the corner of his eyes crinkled as another winsome smile lit up his face. I hesitated before allowing myself to say what I’d been thinking constantly for the past day, my voice soft with nerves. “Du bist wunderschön…” You are beautiful.

“You’re such a little German boy,” he teased, biting his lip and moving a bit closer so that the proximity of his body made my nerves buzz helplessly. “Świecisz na moim życiu jak słońce.”

I managed a smile, my cheeks growing warm although I knew it wasn’t from the morning sun. “I don’t speak Polish.”

“And I don’t speak German.”

“We’ll never know what the other’s talking about,” I whispered, and he chuckled, brushing his long hair back from his eyes. “Es wird ein Geheimnis bleiben.” It will remain a mystery.

“I don’t know what you just said,” he murmured, moving closer and resting his hand on my hip. I let out a shaky breath, able to feel each of his fingers pressed against my skin through the fabric of my clothes. “...but you sounded gorgeous saying it.”

“Say something to me in Polish.”

His lips curled up. “Co byś mnie chciał powiedzieć? Powiem, co chcesz mi powiedzieć.”

“The way you speak reminds me of home,” I said quietly, my eyes slipping shut and my heart picking up as his fingers drew lazy circles over my hip and along my side. “It’s so fluid and warm...it feels the way sunshine feels, but for your ears.”

“Kochanie, będę mówić, dopóki mój głos już nie ma, jeśli to przynosi ci radość…” His fingers brushed against my cheek. “Czy nadal chcesz mnie pocałować?”

“Mm?” I sighed, peeking up at him as he moved closer. “Was hast du gesagt?” What did you say?

“Jesteś taka piękna, chcę cię pocałować...”

I groaned. “English, Avriel. Du verwirrst mich…” You muddle my mind.

He chuckled and moved a bit closer, the morning air suddenly much warmer. “But teasing you is so fun,” he murmured, his voice gentle in a way I’d yet to hear from him. He paused before speaking again after a moment, his words foreign and yet familiar at the same time. “Ish...Ich bin glücklish…”

I felt a warm feeling bloom in my stomach as my mind processed what he’d said, biting my lip and resting my fingers against his jaw. “I thought you said you didn’t know German.”

“That’s the only thing I know how to say,” he admitted softly. “Ich bin glücklish.”

“Glücklich,” I corrected.

“Glücklich,” he repeated, his Polish accent leaking through. “Ich bin glücklich...”

“You feel happy?” I whispered, and he nodded, his knee nudging against my leg and his eyes flicking to my lips.

“Yes. I feel very happy.”

“Avriel?”

“Mm?”

I hesitated, my voice soft. “How do you say ‘kiss me’ in Polish?”

His cheeks reddened a bit, and I smiled at how I’d finally managed to make him blush. “Pocałuj mnie.”

“Pocałuj mnie,” I murmured, brushing my thumb over his beard. “Did I say it right?”

“Mmhm…”

“Pocałuj mnie...” I smiled, my poor heart beating as though it was about to burst. “Pocałuj mnie, Avriel.”

And lying beneath the flowers, the warm summer sun shining down on us and the birds still waking from their night of restful sleep, he did.

--

I set the breakfast tray precariously against my hip, knocking on Mitchell’s door three times before quickly readjusting myself and holding the tray - which was piled high with a small metal tea kettle, a mug, honey, cream, toast, jam, a boiled egg, three links of chorizo, and two sliced oranges - closer into my stomach. I allowed a few moments of rest to catch my breath before leaning against Mitchell’s door and knocking once more, far more cautious after the incident from the night before. I had no desire to see the Grassi boy fucking another man again - at least, not this early in the morning - although from what Avriel had told me after our meeting in the garden, it was unlikely I would run into that problem. Giacomo, the stableboy who had been with Mitchell, usually left early on Saturday mornings such as this and went off into the city for the weekend. The chance that he was still with Mitchell - and the chance that they were still enjoying each other’s company so ardently - was quite unlikely, although I was still determined to proceed with care. Chance hadn’t been good to me lately, and I was most definitely hesitant to try my luck at a game I was already set to lose.

I knocked once more and was about to call Mitchell’s name when a sudden bang jolted from the room. I started and nearly dropped the breakfast tray, my eyebrows raising at the voice that quickly followed - pitched high and yet still edged with a masculine tone.

“Fanculo, questo telaio del letto sempre è in mia strada. Desideri ...no, wait not desideri, it’s fucking - desidera? Or is it speriamo?” The voice laughed. “Fucking conjugations, they’ll teach me the dead language of the church since day one, but learning an actual useful tongue isn’t even permitted until my brain is already developed.” There was the sound of footsteps and then another, smaller bang. “Giacomo? Mio amore? Or is it you, Avriel, mój anioł? How do you say ‘angel’ again? I think it’s anioł, but I’m probably wrong...fucking Polish is even harder than Italian...”

The door swung open suddenly, revealing the small raven-haired boy from last night, who was wearing nothing but a pair of underpants and an unbuttoned collared shirt that was so large it hung to his knees. A small, confused smile played about his lips as he stared up at me, his dark eyes almost auburn in the light.

“Oh,” he said, his voice much quieter than it had been before and his cheeks tinting pink. “You’re not Giocomo or Avriel…”

I felt myself blush, looking anywhere but at his exposed chest. “I - I’m sorry, Sir…”

His smile grew and I noticed he had dimples on either of his cheeks, a sight which made my heart quicken. “Don’t apologize, bel ragazzo, you’re certainly not a disappointing sight.” He leaned back against the doorframe, his fingers tugging at his hair and his eyes trailing their way down my body. “May I ask who you are?”

I allowed a small, hesitant smile, feeling very much intimidated by this not at all intimidating boy. “I’ve been hired as your manservant for the summer holidays,” I said quietly, glancing down at the breakfast tray I was holding and then back up at Mitchell. “Sir.”

He looked a bit surprised, but the emotion melted off his face almost immediately. “Oh,” he said, smiling again and moving to the side of the doorway, waving his hand to the side. “Alright. Interesting. Please - come in.”

I wanted to ask what he’d meant by my presence being interesting, but I held my tongue as I walked past him and into his abode, pausing by the large mahogany desk that sat against the window. His room was easily thrice the size of mine, and vast, open windows splayed across the entirety of the west wall, allowing light to shine in from the early morning sun. His view looked out upon the back lawn, and I spotted Avriel moving about the outside perimeter of the mansion, carrying a large, heavy bag over his shoulder. The door to the room closed and I looked away quickly, returning my attention back to Mitchell, who was pulling on a pair of cloth trousers and staring at me curiously.

“You can set the tray on my desk, if you wish,” he said. I looked back at the broad mahogany desktop that was scattered with papers and journals and old leather-bound books, and I shuffled a few things to the side before placing the breakfast tray down, careful not to spill the tea. When I turned back to him, my hands folded behind my back, he was smiling and leaning against one of his bed posts, his dark eyes amused.

“I didn’t catch your name,” he said, pushing himself forward and towards the desk.

“Scott,” I answered, before quickly adding, “Sir.”

He laughed. “You don’t have to call me sir, Scott. If anything, I’m younger than you.”

“Then what should I call you?”

His lips curled up as he plucked an orange slice from the tray, picking at it with his fingers. “You can call me whatever you like, bel ragazzo.”

My face warmed again and I looked away. “Will Mitchell suffice? Or...Mr. Grassi?”

“Mitchell’s fine, Mitch is better. If you call me Mr. Grassi I probably won’t answer.” He shrugged, pouring himself a cup of tea before wandering towards the little corner beside his bed, where there was a set of reading chairs and a small table across from his expansive bookshelf. I was unsure if I should follow and remained stationed by the desk, trying not to look at his things in case he thought I was snooping. It was a few moments before he looked back over at me, his eyebrows raised and his dimples flashing. “You’re new at this, aren’t you, bel ragazzo?”

I managed a laugh, looking down at my hands. “I - yes. I’m sorry if I do anything incorrectly, I don’t...I don’t know the rules, really.”

“That’s alright,” he said, smirking and looking back down at his tea. “I’ll break you in.”

My face flushed again and he laughed - a hearty, grand sound that was unexpected from someone so small. He wiped at his eyes and nodded towards the desk, smiling so beautifully I felt my stomach twist into knots.

“Have you eaten? Please help yourself to anything if you’re hungry, they always send up more food than I can manage.”

“I’m alright. Thank you...Mitch.” I hesitated, squeezing my fingers together and resting back against the desk. “Is...is there anything else you would like?”

He tucked his legs up to his chest, resting his mug of tea precariously on one knee as he ran his fingers through his unruly hair. “Just your presence, bel ragazzo.”

My brow furrowed. “My presence?”

He nodded to the chair across from him, stretching his arms above his head and yawning. “Please, sit. I have a feeling we’ll be spending quite a lot of time together, might as well have a proper introduction. Besides, I loathe eating alone, especially after...” He trailed off, his face thoughtful as he watched me settle in the chair beside his. “But that’s not important. When did you arrive?”

“Yesterday,” I answered, loathing the sudden formality of the situation. He frowned and sipped at his tea, his bow-like lips pursing together.

“So soon? Did Miss Cecilia hire you, or was it Rosana?”

I hesitated. “I...neither. Your father hired me.”

Mitch’s frowned deeped. “No, I meant - who did you meet with before you got the job? Did Cecilia or Rosana interview you?”

I felt an oddly cold sensation tug its way through my blood, and I shook my head. “Neither, sir - uh, Mitch. Your father was the one who interviewed me. We had a meeting in Brooklyn about a week ago.”

“My father? As in - Michael Grassi?”

“Yes…”

He stared at me a long while before giving a slow, unsure nod. “I...that’s interesting.”

I hesitated. “What do you mean?”

“Well, my father’s quite a busy man, bel ragazzo, he doesn’t exactly have time to meet with prospective household staff.” Mitch shrugged, although there was still a confused gleam about his eyes. “Perhaps you’re different, though. But…” He leaned forward, setting his tea on the table. “I’m sorry, did you say you’ve never been a butler before?”

“I haven’t…”

“But you’ve been a servant?”

I swallowed, uneasiness swirling in my stomach. “No. I - my father was a watchmaker, I’ve spent the past few years training as his apprentice for when I would have become the owner of the shop. I’ve never been a servant before.” I paused, worrying at my lip. “Is it odd that I’ve been hired?”

Mitch shook his head, his face lined with perplexity. “It’s not usual, but I’m sure it’s fine. I’ll speak with Father when I have the chance, though he’s heading back to the city tonight.” He laughed after a moment, his face lighting up and his dimples the sweetest things I’d ever seen. “You look terrified, bel ragazzo.”

“A little, yes…”

“Try not to worry yourself, I’m most likely exaggerating everything. My friend just leant me his copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles and my mind has decided to make everything into a conspiracy lately.” He smiled again and I let out a breath, although the relief I’d been expecting to feel didn’t come. “I didn’t mean to confuse you, tesoro, forgive me.”

“It’s alright,” I said, perplexed as I watched him stand and wander back over to the breakfast tray. “You mustn't apologize.”

He laughed, spreading jam over his toast. “You’re sweet. Perhaps Father knew exactly what he was doing when he hired you.” He stuck a piece in his mouth before tugging at his sleeves and letting his shirt fall to the floor, opening one of the vast windows in front of his desk before turning back to me. I felt my entire body tense at the sight of him completely shirtless, and he seemed to notice as he took another sip of tea. “It was getting warm,” he said simply, rubbing at the back of his neck before sitting against his desktop. Although I tried to keep my eyes on his face, I couldn’t help but notice the various lovebites and scratches that ran over his torso and along his neck, and my mind once again flashed back to last night.

I shook the thoughts away and pushed myself out of the chair, taking a step forward before reconsidering and staying where I was. “Do you have plans for the day?”

“Nothing extravagant,” he said, smiling and taking another bite of his toast. “I might go for a swim, or perhaps pester Avriel for a bit. Have you met him, yet? The groundskeeper?”

I felt my face grow warm. “I have. He’s been very kind to me.”

“I’m sure he has. He’s a very kind person.” Mitch finished his toast and strode over to the large armoire, pulling it open and selecting a set of clothes. “He’ll be angry with me for ignoring him, mój biedny anioł. He and I usually spend my first night back together…” He paused, turning towards me with a small, unreadable smile. “I’m sorry about last night, by the way. I’m sure the first impression you had of me wasn’t what you’d been expecting.”

My stomach dropped and I stepped back as though his words had burned me, worry striking as swift as lightning. I’d assumed that he hadn’t seen me the night before when I’d walked in on him and Giacomo - he’d yet to mention it, after all - but thinking back on it, there was no logical way that he hadn’t noticed me standing there, no matter how distracted he was. Heat rose to my cheeks and I bumped against the wall, shaking my head as though I could in anyway deny what had so obviously happened.

“I’m - I’m sorry,” I whispered, though he didn’t seem to hear me or, rather, didn’t seem to care. He pulled the loose-fitting white shirt over his head before giving me a look, walking back over to the breakfast tray and shrugging.

“It’s not your fault I was rude, tesoro. My father spent the entire ride back lecturing me about the company and the partners I’m set to meet this summer.” He made a face, cutting one of the pieces of chorizo. “I should have stopped to introduce myself, but I couldn’t stand the thought of being cordial.”

I paused, my brow furrowing. “I’m sorry?”

“Hm?” He looked up at me and offered an easy, patient smile. “Last night. In the foyer? That was you, wasn’t it, waiting with Avriel?”

“Yes,” I said slowly, relief warming in my bones at the realization that he hadn’t been referring to what I’d seen in his rooms. “That...yes, that was me.”

“Well, I apologize for ignoring you, then.” He smiled again. “Sei troppo bellissimo per ignorare.”

I felt a grin tug at my lips despite the anxiety that was still woven across my skin. “I don’t speak Italian.”

“Well, I barely do, so we’ve got about the same relative skill.” His eyes shone playfully as he pulled on a pair of loose trousers, and it took much of my control to keep my eyes from wandering. “My father decided that teaching me his native tongue would be a waste of time, because this is America and everyone speaks English.”

I laughed. “Your father’s Italian?”

“With a name like Grassi, he’d better be. My grandparents came over to New York just before he was born, started the bank.” He picked at his breakfast tray again before walking back towards me, something almost predatory in his dark eyes. “Second-generation American. Fucking blessed, aren’t I?”

“You’d rather be in Italy?” I asked, and he smiled as though I amused him.

“I’d rather be anywhere than where I am, tesoro. Anywhere at all.”

I shifted uncomfortably, my heart rate increasing at how close he suddenly was. “I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault, bel ragazzo,” he said, shrugging and taking another sip of his tea. “So what about you? I’m assuming your story is quite similar to mine, although you’re not the heir to the wealthiest bank in this fucking country.” He paused before smiling, and despite the bitter tinge to his previous words there was something distinctly soft about him. “You said your father was a watchmaker? From...Ireland? Scotland?”

“Germany.”

“Ah. Germany. Das wunderbare Deutschland.”

I laughed and he smiled again, looking pleased.

“You’re sweet, Scott. I’m understanding more and more why Father hired you, although you continue to be dreadfully unqualified.”

I laughed again. “I am sorry about that…”

“Again - not your fault, caro. It’s not as though it’s a particularly difficult job.” He smiled resting back into one of the armchairs and swinging his legs to the side. “By the way, do you actually know what your job is, or did Father leave that to chance as well?”

I rested my weight against the chair opposite his, managing another smile. “I was told that I’m to treat you like a prince and do whatever you ask of me.”

“Oh, I do like the sound of that…”

I blushed. “You’re serious?”

“Very. Who wouldn’t want to have a beautiful boy at their disposal?” He paused before smiling, and in that moment I’d never felt more conflicted. “I’m sorry. That was forward. Ignore me when I behave like this, we’ll blame it on the heat.”

“I...yes, sir…”

He gave me a look, though his eyes were still amused. “Please don’t. I wasn’t being serious before, I hope you know. I don’t wish for you to treat me like royalty. I’d - I’d like for us to be friends, if you’d like? That’s always more tolerable than you being my servant and I your master.”

I hesitated. “Friends?”

“You’re aware of the concept of friendship, yes?”

I chuckled and gave a nod. “Yes, I only meant...is it common for you to pay your friends?”

He gave me a long look before letting out a laugh and smiling up at me as though I was the most precious possession he’d managed to acquire.

“Oh, I do like you, Scott,” he said, his voice soft and careful, as though he was worried I would vanish at any point. It was pointless for him to worry, though. After only a day at the Grassi residence, I knew that I would not be leaving any time in the proximate future, and I’d never been so comfortable with such a definitive statement as I was at the current moment. I smiled and he smiled back, his dark eyes warm and kind and unknowably afraid.

“I like you, too, Mitch.”

--

He and I spent the majority of the morning in his room, simply testing the waters of this new, unanticipated friendship. I’d already known that he was a relentless flirt - I’d assumed he’d learned such behavior from Avriel - but I was startled to learn that, despite his exuberant nature, he was devotedly empathetic and perhaps one of the kindest souls I’d met in my life. When I told him of my parents’ deaths, he didn’t say anything but simply pushed himself out of his chair and into my arms, wrapping me in an entirely unexpected hug and asking repeatedly if I was alright, and if there was anything he could do to help with my sister Laura’s current displacement. I thanked him but insisted there was nothing that could be done, and that the only way to ensure Laura’s security was to have her remain with our distant relatives. He’d seemed displeased with the answer but hadn’t argued, perhaps realizing that he and I hardly knew each other and his input - no matter how well-intentioned - wasn’t particularly desired at the moment. He was sweet, though, and I found myself genuinely content to be in his presence after such a precarious beginning to our relationship.

We ventured out to the back lawn once the afternoon heat had set in, only stopping briefly in the kitchens to collect the lunches Kevin had prepared for us. Mitch had been undeniably thrilled when he’d seen the cook, giving him a tight hug and a kiss on the cheek before turning around and doing the same to Kirstin and Esther, who had both walked into the kitchen in the middle of the small reunion. They caught up for a few minutes and I simply remained in the background, happy to watch the ease with which they all interacted and unsurprised at just how genuinely they cared for one another, as though they were a manufactured family that had bonded together through the differences between them. It was astounding to watch, and I found myself all at once missing that kindred closeness - my heart aching as it so often did for my late parents and my forgotten sister.

We were quiet as we made our way through the back door and into the expanse of the yard, and I set the lunch tray down by the pool while he stripped to nothing but his swimming shorts, unashamed in a way that I’d begun to expect. I spotted Avriel a few yards away, trimming the bushes that surrounded the perimeter of the house, and felt my heart pick up a bit in my chest, my lips suddenly tingling where he’d kissed me. Mitch seemed to notice my preoccupation, and grinned when he saw the groundskeeper, turning onto his side on his pool chair, his sandwich dangling carelessly from his hand.

“Mój anioł z nieba,” he called, his smile gentle and yet somehow wicked. Avriel turned a bit, pausing when he noticed it was Mitch before letting out a laugh and setting the clippers on the grass.

“Moja piękność,” he answered, and despite the fact that I knew not what he was saying, I still felt a bit of envy curl through my stomach. Avriel tugged off his gloves and wiped at his forehead as he approached, his eyes trailing along Mitch’s body before flicking over to me, and his smile widened. “I see you and city boy have finally met?”

“You’re teasing, and I haven’t the time for it,” Mitch said, his tone dismissive although his eyes said otherwise. “Are you angry with me, mój anioł?”

Avriel sighed, running his fingers through his hair and sitting in the chair next to Mitch. “For ignoring me, you mean?”

“Forgive me, mio amore…”

“I wait three months to see you again, and you choose the Italian skurwiel over me.”

Mitch laughed, nudging his foot against Avriel’s leg. “After the semester I’ve had, you know I needed a good fuck.”

Avriel rolled his eyes. “As though you’ve got no one at school.”

“Of course I do, but none of them are quite as... thorough as Giacomo. You know that, mia bella amore…” Mitch bit his lip, setting his sandwich down on his plate. “I meant to come visit you last night, but I fell asleep before I could.”

Avriel sighed again, though I could see it was only a game. “Excuses don’t suit you, kochanie. I dislike being ignored and treated like -”

“Like one of the staff?” Mitch asked, before laughing at the look on Avriel’s face and nudging his leg again. “I’m teasing, I’m teasing. I have missed you, though, mój anioł. Three months is too long.”

“It’s no longer than it’s been in the past.”

“I know, but that doesn’t do much to quell my heart. How have you been getting on?”

Avriel shrugged, running his fingers through his hair again and tying it onto a bun at the back of his neck. “It’s been alright. Giacomo’s tried to insist that what happened in the spring should become a regular occurrence, though I’m not sure if I can stomach the thought.”

Mitch grinned. “I understand the feeling. He’s growing stale.”

“And yet you still chose him over me.”

“Mój anioł, don’t. You know I just love him for his cock.”

“His apparent stale cock.”

Mitch laughed and I found myself suddenly unable to bear their coy chat any longer, confused and annoyed and slightly angered at how well they got on, my conversations with both of them suddenly feeling like nothing more than idle talk. I hesitated before standing and taking the pitcher of lemonade, which was still half-full, into my hands, offering a forced smile that only made me loathe myself.

“I’ll be back momentarily,” I said, the words chopped and awkward. “Can I get either of you anything?”

Avriel looked up at me, and something in his green eyes was concerned although he simply shrugged and declined, Mitch doing the same thing a moment later. I nodded and made my way out of the pool area and onto the cool grass of the back lawn, stopping in the kitchen to have Kevin refill the lemonade and trying to work out my uneven thoughts.

I was unsure of what I’d been expecting - Avriel, after all, had informed me that he and Mitch were rather close - but I definitely hadn’t prepared myself for them to be so utterly synchronized. They got on like old friends, or brothers, or lovers, perhaps - I was not entirely sure, anymore, of the nature of their relationship. All I knew was that it made me far more envious than I’d ever been, and I didn’t quite understand why.

I sighed as Kevin handed me back the filled pitcher, attempting to shake away the unwanted jealousy and slip back into the content mindset I’d adopted earlier that morning. I liked both Avriel and Mitch very much, there was no reason I should allow their previously established connection to alter that feeling. I hardly knew them while they’d both known each other for quite some time, so it was natural that I be unsure of how to interact with them while they were together. I was still the new boy, and there was still much I had to learn, and growing distasteful on my first day of work would do nothing but make my life all the more difficult. It was alright. I was alright.

That was, of course, until I walked back outside and saw Avriel straddling Mitch’s lap, the boy’s arms around his neck and legs around his waist as they kissed one another in a feverish and unashamed moment of pure passion.

Chapter Text

I halted and clutched the pitcher of lemonade against my stomach, goosebumps erupting over my arms and my face flushing blaringly warm. It was a moment before they parted, yet even then they didn’t adjust the space between their bodies. Avriel’s hands cupped Mitch’s face and I could see his smile - his beautiful, sweet smile that I’d foolishly convinced myself had been only for me - spread over his lips as he stared down at Mitch. He murmured something quietly and laughed before leaning forward and kissing Mitch again, his fingers gripping in the hair at the back of the boy’s neck and his shoulders curving forward. It felt as though ages had passed before he finally pulled away again, this time pushing himself off of Mitch’s lap and resting instead against his hip, holding the boy’s hand to his mouth and pressing small kisses to his fingers while Mitch rolled his eyes fondly and whispered something, his dimples flashing and his lips crimson.

I let out a slow breath and Mitch looked up, his smile widening as though I hadn’t just witnessed the two of them together, and in that moment I realized how desperately idiotic I’d allowed myself to become. It had been only a day since I’d arrived at the Grassi residence, and yet I’d somehow managed to convince myself that this - what Avriel and Mitch were doing - was perfectly acceptable, and that it was even more acceptable that I also do it myself.

My fingers brushed against my lips, my heart aching at the forgotten memory of Avriel kissing me as though I was the only person he could ever want - a memory that had been so terribly ruined by the sharp realization that men like this - men like him - didn’t act out of love. He - I - couldn’t act out of love; only lust, only desire, only the most basic human instincts that shared an almost animalistic quality. And it hurt far more than I ever could have expected, because I had allowed myself to believe that this was alright - that I was alright - and now, as that tentative acceptance was ripped away from me, there remained an empty space in my heart for the forgotten, for the unknown, for the one moment in my life where I had actually believed that I was normal.

And it hurt in the way that the wind blew - steady, and strong, and unbelievably cold.

I let out another breath but didn’t say anything as I walked back over to my seat, setting down the lemonade pitcher as though nothing had happened and laying back on the chair. I longed to say something - to stand and face Avriel and make him understand exactly how I felt - but all I could do was close my eyes and pretend I was enjoying the warmth of the sun rather than holding back tears.

It felt like years before I heard Avriel say that he should return to work, and even after that I could still hear him and Mitch whispering to each other and laughing, the adoration in their voices evident even from the broken bits of conversation I heard. Finally Avriel actually did return to work and I felt a warm hand on my arm not a moment later, the sight of Mitch’s face greeting me as I opened my eyes.

“Tired?” He asked softly, and although I wanted to loathe him, I knew truly that he hadn’t done anything wrong, and that it had been my own stupidity that had brought me to this point. I tried to match his smile as I pushed myself up, ignoring the dull ache that had formed in my chest.

“I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to…”

Mitch laughed, his brow furrowing a bit. “Don’t apologize, tesoro, I was only teasing. And please don’t call me sir, it makes me feel...well, it makes me feel like my father, and that’s not exactly an identity I want to adopt at the moment.”

“Of course. I’m sorry…”

“Again with the apologies,” Mitch murmured, shaking his head and turning onto his side to face me. “That seems to be your automatic response for everything, even when it comes to matters that you don’t need to apologize for.”

“I’m…” I paused. “You’re right. I’m not sure why that is. Training, I suppose…”

Mitch smiled, his nose scrunching up. “Training? You’ve never been a servant before, caro , you don’t have training.”

“Working in the shop was similar in some ways,” I said softly. “You had to agree with the patron no matter the circumstances, and your pride was hardly allowed to exist, let alone show.” I looked down at my hands, tugging at the dull cream fabric of my dress shirt. “I always disliked working with customers because of that.”

Something soft settled into Mitch’s eyes and he moved closer in his chair, resting his hands under his head and letting his eyes slip shut. “Tell me about your shop, tesoro. What was it like to live in the city?”

“Dirty,” I answered honestly, and he laughed. “It smelled like sewage and rotting fruit. Our shop was nice, though. And quaint. It felt like a secret corner in the vastness of New York, as though you were stepping into another world. A quieter world…”

“You miss it.”

“Yes. I do.”

“Do you think you’ll ever buy it back?”

I paused, a deep sorrow accompanying the ache in my chest. “I don’t know. I wish to, but my future seems precarious at best. I loathe the city, but the shop...the shop was the one thing my family had. The only mark we could have left, and now it’s gone.” I cast my eyes downward, curling my arms against my stomach and letting out a slow breath. “I miss what it meant. And I know that I’ll never be able to get that meaning back, and buying the shop again  - it won’t bring back what’s been lost. Because it’s just a building. It’s not…”

“It’s not your family,” he said softly. I looked up, surprised to see him staring back at me with eyes far wiser and far sadder than they should have been. I opened my mouth but he spoke first, his voice gentle with woe. “I’m sorry. That was...I only meant -”

“It’s alright,” I whispered. “You’re correct, anyway. It’s not my family.”

“I’m sorry, Scott…”

I managed a heavy smile. “It’s alright. You mustn’t apologize for matters that aren’t your fault.”

His lips curled up sadly. “Using my own words against me.”

“You shouldn’t say what you don’t mean,” I said, letting my eyes slip shut again. “That only leads to more grief than the world can manage…”

“Tesoro?”

“Yes?”

He paused, and I could hear him moving closer in his chair. “If you ever wish to talk, I want you to know that I’m here to listen.”

“Mitch, you hardly know me -”

“It doesn’t matter. The world is falling apart around us and there are only so few people left to confide in. I hope you can trust that I’ll be here for you, if the time ever comes.”

I was quiet, unsure if he meant what he’d said or if he’d only said it because he felt as though he had to. I felt his fingers against my arm and I opened my eyes slowly, surprised at the unexpected proximity between us.

“You’re upset,” he whispered, his brow furrowing. “I dislike seeing you upset, tesoro…”

I felt the ache in my chest deepen. “I’m sorry.”

“Scott…” He bit his lip, sitting forward on his chair and tucking his legs to his chest, worry flickering through his dark umber eyes. “Tell me of something that makes you happy.”

“I don’t -”

“Please. Something that makes you smile every time you think of it, or something that makes you laugh like a fool, or - or anything. The first time you tasted ice cream, or the first show you ever saw in the theater, or...I don’t know, tesoro, the first time you felt snowfall. Something that makes you happy. Anything.”

I hesitated, my supply of happy memories running dreadfully low as of late, but the look in his dark eyes - the simultaneous hope and fear - made me force a smile and pretend as though I could hardly notice my heart breaking.

“When I was younger,” I said softly, looking up at the pale blue sky before shutting my eyes again. “I was never allowed into the back room of the shop where my father did most of the repairs, because I was clumsy and the clocks and watches were fragile, and knowing me I would have bumped against a shelf and knocked everything over.”

I heard Mitch laugh quietly. Devi avere due piedi sinistri.

I tried to smile, tucking my hands under my head. “One night...I think it was almost Christmas, because I remember my mother made Eierlikör and let us have a little by the fire before bed, which she almost never did because she always said she wouldn’t have her children become drunkards under her own roof.”

Mitch laughed again but didn’t say anything, and I continued as though the words were pouring out of me like a stream.

“But it was late that night, and I couldn’t sleep because of the wind, and so...I snuck downstairs to the main floor of the shop to see if my father was still up, and I wandered into the back room…” I paused, my stomach clenching as my throat began to tighten. “And it was as though I was in a dream. It was warm, and all around me was the steady ticking of the clocks, and for a moment I pretended that I was the one who was making the minutes go by. That I could control time as though I was a god, and the seconds and minutes and hours were all factors at my disposal. It seems inconsequential now, but I remember falling asleep on my father’s work table that night with the sounds of time around me. And it made me happy. I don’t even know why...but something about that night made me so happy…”

I felt a hand on my arm and let out a slow breath, opening my eyes to find Mitch staring at me with a small, forlorn smile on his face. He didn’t say anything, but a moment later he pushed himself onto my chair and wrapped his arms around my neck, hugging me as though I was a child who had just woken up from a nightmare.

“Voglio che tu sia felice,” he murmured. “Voglio che tu sia sempre felice…”

“I don’t speak Italian,” I said softly when he pulled away, watching perplexedly as he returned to his own chair. He gave me a smile that I couldn’t read - one so warm and beautiful that it could have easily rivaled Avriel’s - before speaking again, his words faded against the hot summer air.

“Let’s swim.”

I felt my face flush and I shook my head, the tension around us swirling away along with the summer breeze. “I don’t have any swimming shorts.”

“I don’t mind.”

My face grew warmer. “I’m not swimming naked -”

“Why not?” He asked, pushing himself out of his chair and pulling me up by the arms, that beautiful smile still playing along his lips. “I don’t mind. There’s no one here to see you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“You’re here.”

He laughed. “I don’t count, tesoro. I’ve seen more men naked than years you’ve been alive. It really all looks the same when it comes down to it...”

“Mitch, I’m not -”

“I’ll strip, too, if that makes you more comfortable?” He grinned devilishly and undid the string to his swim shorts, pulling them off in one swift motion and dropping them on the ground. “Better?”

I felt my heart quicken and I kept my eyes directly set on his face, terrified of what he’d say if I allowed them to wander. “I’m not - you being naked doesn’t make me feel any better, believe it or not.”

He rolled his eyes before taking a few steps towards the pool and diving straight into the cool blue water. I couldn’t help but laugh at the wave of water that splashed over my shoes, watching as he swam beneath the surface for a few seconds before popping back up and giving me a grin.

“Come on,” he said, swimming over and resting his arms on the edge of the pool. “You must be hot in that butler’s uniform.”

“Mitch -”

“You can’t live your life afraid of what others will think, tesoro. The sooner you learn to let go, the happier you’ll be.”

I shook my head. “It’s not as easy as that.”

“It’s just your penis, Scott. I actually have one of my own, if you’d like to see it.”

“Mitch -”

“Swim with me, tesoro. I promise I won’t look.” He made a show of covering his eyes with his hands, his lips still tugged into a grin. I hesitated, every logical aspect of my mind scolding me for even considering his offer, but a larger, more impulsive part urging me to disregard my cautious nature and finally stop my worrying mind. After a few moments I sighed but slipped off my dress shoes and unbuttoned my shirt, tossing it onto my chair. I glanced over to ensure that Mitch was still covering his eyes before pulling off my trousers and underpants, folding them neatly and turning back to the pool.

He was looking up at me with his hands propped under his chin and a smirk on his lips, and I instantly felt my face flush red as I dove into the pool. I let out a frustrated and confused growl under the water before kicking off from the bottom and breaking the surface, glaring at Mitch who was floating on his back.

“You promised you wouldn’t look,” I said, and he laughed as he glanced over at me.

“I got curious.”

“I thought all men looked the same?”

“Mm, no, I lied about that.”

“Mitch -”

“It’s alright, tesoro.”

“Of course it is,” I muttered, looking up when I felt his hand on my arm. Confusion struck me even more at how his expression had gone from teasing to sincere in a matter of moments.

“You worry too much,” he said softly, giving me a warm smile. “Let yourself go.”

“It’s not as easy as that,” I said again, and he scoffed.

“It’s as easy as breathing,” he said, pushing himself away and letting his eyes slip shut. “You just close your eyes, and steady your heart, and you let go…”

“Mitch…”

“Let go, mio amore. Let go of everything bad and open your heart to the light.”

I was silent as I watched him, his eyelids fluttering and his hands wading slowly in the water as the summer sun shone down on his face. He looked perhaps the most innocent I’d yet to see him, free of the constant exuberance of his personality, and it struck me odd how - in a state of complete clarity - the only bit of emotion I could make out across his features was the dim, heavy mark of sadness. It confused and worried me, but not a moment later his eyes opened and the sadness was masked once more with a far happier - and far waxier - smile.

“Let go,” he said again, raising his face to the sun. “Let go…”

“What happens if I do?” I asked quietly, and he looked over at me with that sadness still pooled in his eyes, his voice as gentle as morning rain.

“You’re free.”

--

I spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning Mitch’s room and tidying up the papers and books on his desk, unsure of where everything went and yet not all that worried about misplacing anything. He didn’t seem as though he would be annoyed by something so insignificant and I found myself humming quietly as I opened the vast windows above his desk, allowing a bit of the cool evening air into the room. Mitch had been in the library for the majority of the afternoon, and while he’d said he wouldn’t mind company, I had taken the dismissal for what it was and left him to his privacy. He could use some time alone, I was sure, and so could I. There was still much I needed to process about my work so far at the Grassi residence, one of those things being the image of beautiful green eyes that wouldn’t leave my mind.

I sighed and set the last pillow down on Mitch’s bed, surveying his room for anything left to clean before retreating back to the staff quarters. My hair was stiff and sticky from the pool water, and I showered as quickly as I could manage, slipping into a new pair of trousers and a grey button up shirt and making my way down the stairs and towards the kitchen. I’d been informed that the Grassis always dined together at six in the evening, and that I should be present throughout the meal in case Mitch wanted anything. I found it odd how I was the only person allowed to serve him, yet I didn’t really mind all that much. I was finding more and more that the unconventionality of the Grassi residence went farther than just everyone’s sexual activities, and it confused and intrigued me how - for the household of one of the richest families in America - there didn’t seem to be any rules in place for the staff. Half of the servants simply lounged about the house, most of the maids never actually cleaned anything, and Kevin seemed to be the only cook who was actually interested in cooking. It was bizarre, and yet I was the only person who seemed to think so. As though everyone else had simply adopted a low standard for their quality of work, and the Grassi family was more than happy to go along with it.

I shook my head as I pushed my way into the kitchen, unsurprised to see Kevin already at the stove preparing the Grassis’ dinner while the other two servants in the room were sat talking at one of the tables. Kirstin and Esther appeared next to him a moment later, and I watched with a grin as Kirstin grabbed his chef’s hat and put it on her own head, giggling after a moment when he kissed her cheek and handed her a tray with a plate of scones. Esther rolled her eyes but grabbed Kirstin’s hand and dragged her back out of the kitchen, and Kevin was still grinning like a fool when I reached him.

“Afternoon,” I said, and he smiled up at me, laughing as he quartered a chicken.

“Afternoon. How’s your day been?”

“It’s been alright,” I answered slowly, unsure if it was actually true. So much had happened in such a short span of time, and I’d yet to have a moment to truly process it all. Kevin didn’t seem to notice my uncertainty and only continued his work, and I pulled up a stool beside the counter and sat by him, content with the silence that was only disrupted by his soft humming every so often.

Kirstin returned to the kitchen a few minutes later with a newly emptied tray and a grin on her face, and she and Kevin spoke quietly of something I couldn’t hear, their voices soft with affection and the comfort of two people who must have known everything about each other. I glanced up from my pocketwatch - which I’d been absentmindedly cleaning while I waited for five o’clock to roll around, when I would have to return to the library and find Mitch - and gave a small smile when I saw Kirstin looking over at me with warm eyes.

“How’s it going, city boy?” She asked, pulling up a stool beside me and resting her head in her hand. “Hate it here? Love it here? Indifferent?”

I laughed. “So far, I’m fairly certain that I like it. Mitch seems very sweet.”

“He’s the sweetest person I know, if I’m perfectly honest,” Kirstin said, and Kevin scoffed, pausing what he was doing to feign offense. Kirstin rolled her eyes. “After you, of course, Sheik. I thought that was implied.”

“Hardly,” Kevin said, though he was smiling again as he resumed his cooking. I felt my lips curl up at the look in Kirstin’s eyes, polishing the face of my pocketwatch before slipping it back into my trousers.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” I said, and Kirstin raised her eyebrows with a smirk. “But are you two engaged, or anything of the sort?”

Kevin let out a laugh, covering his mouth with his hand to stifle it almost immediately. Kirstin looked just as amused, shaking her head and glancing over at the chef with a smile I didn’t quite understand.

“I think you’ve misread the situation, city boy,” Kevin finally managed, wiping at his eyes and chuckling again. “We’re not - she’s not…”

“Between dames and dogs, I much prefer dames,” Kirstin said, smoothing out her skirt before giving me another grin. “Mi corazón funciona sólo para las mujeres, mi querido.”

I felt my face flush. “I didn’t know you were Spanish…”

“Mexican,” she corrected, before laughing sweetly. “You also apparently didn’t know that I don’t quite fancy men.”

“So, you’re…” I paused, frowning and looking up at Kevin as my mind slowly pieced together everything I’d learned since my arrival the day before. “Is everyone here a homosexual?”

Kevin let out another laugh, and it was such an unexpected sound that for a moment I forgot my line of inquiry. “Not everyone, exactly. Just... most.”

I hesitated. “Are..?”

“I’m not,” Kevin said, although Kirstin rolled her eyes as she studied her nails. “At least not that I know of. But the majority of the staff is.” He paused and gave a slow smile, undoubtedly amused by the bewildered look I’m sure was adorning my face. “You seem confused.”

“I don’t think I understand,” I admitted. “How... why…?”

Kirstin smiled and pushed herself off of her stool, brushing her skirts back and glancing over at Kevin. “Shall I tell him?”

Kevin grinned. “It might as well be now.”

“Come on, then, city boy,” Kirstin said, touching my arm before tugging me out of my chair gently. “Come for a walk with me. We should talk.”

“Be back by quarter of the hour,” Kevin called as Kirstin led me out of the kitchen, and she blew him a kiss before twirling into the hall. I didn’t say anything as we walked out of the door and into the back lawn, my stomach twisting uncomfortably as I noticed Avriel by the perimeter of the house. He looked up when Kirstin called to him, giving both of us a smile and a wave. I averted my gaze quickly and didn’t say anything until we’d passed by, still unsure of how I felt about him and still frustrated at how I’d grown to expect so much from him in such a short amount of time. Kirstin didn’t seem to notice my discomfort, instead looping her arm through mine and pausing when we reached the hedge that lead into the garden, looking up at me with dark, kind eyes.

“I’m assuming that you know about Mitchell and his tendencies?” She asked, brushing her skirts to the side as she entered the garden. I followed, avoiding the patch of grass where Avriel and I had laid that morning, my heart growing weary in my chest. “You’ve met him and seen him, of course, so if you haven’t realized by now, then I’m not sure if you ever will. But he’s a homosexual, city boy. He has absolutely no interest in women.”

“Yes,” I said, watching as she swept past a few of the rosebushes and towards a small patch of bright blue flowers. “I’ve definitely realized that.”

“And Avriel? You know about him as well?”

I hesitated. “Yes. We - I know about him.”

“And Giacomo, and myself, and Esther, and Dorothy, and Walter, and Harold, and Florence…” She paused, looking back at me with a devilish smile I couldn't help but return. “I’m sure you’ve realized that the majority - if not all - of the staff is quite unorthodox when it comes to who we love. I’m unsure about you, but honestly I’d hazard a guess that your preferences aren’t the most widely accepted?” I felt my face grow warm and she just smiled again. “It’s alright, Scott. You’re safe here. We’re all safe here.”

“I don’t…” I paused, running my fingers over the smooth petals of a rose. “I don’t think I understand.”

Kirstin looked back at the flowers, picking a few into a bunch and tucking a daisy behind her ear. “You’ve met Mitchell, you know that he’s not the most subtle boy. He...when Mr. Grassi learned of his son’s preferences, he didn’t…” She stopped and shook her head, her shoulders tensing a bit. “You must understand, Scott, that Mr. Grassi loves Mitch more than he loves anything else in this world. He adores his son, and when he realized that Mitch could never love women...instead of sending him through corrective treatment, or reporting him to the authorities, he did everything he possibly could to ensure that Mitch knew that - at least in this household - he needn’t be ashamed of who he was.”

I shook my head, still not quite understanding what she meant. “He…”

“He made sure that every new staff member he hired was queer in some way, so that Mitchell didn’t have to be alone in who he was. So that he could be surrounded by people who would accept him in every way, because their heart works just the same as his.” She looked back over at me, a small, unreadable smile on her lips. “He hired us because we are all different. Because he knows that in a few years, when Mitchell comes of age and inherits the bank, he’ll most likely have to subscribe to a lifestyle that doesn’t suit him. He’ll have to marry a woman, and have children, and pretend to be someone he can never really be, and Mr. Grassi wants to make sure that - at least for a few years - Mitchell will have the chance to be himself, in whatever way he desires.”

I felt something in my heart tighten, a feeling I was growing steadily accustomed to. “His father risked everything just so Mitch could - could fuck a few men?”

Kirstin sighed. “You’re not understanding.”

“It only...I’m sorry, but it seems ridiculous. And dangerous. If anyone ever discovered that Mr. Grassi was knowingly hiring and encouraging homosexuality in his household…”

She shook her head, turning back towards the flowers. “Mr. Grassi is one of the richest men in America, Scott. If anyone ever found out, he would simply pay them off or have them disposed of in other ways. The local authorities grew suspicious a few years back, but Mr. Grassi donated quite a bit of charity to the new sheriff’s department and now they turn a blind eye.”

I frowned, plucking the rose from the bush and wincing as one of the thorns pricked my thumb. “It just seems futile, though. To go to such trouble when Mitch will have to hide who he is in a few years, anyways…”

“Mr. Grassi wants him to be happy,” Kirstin said softly, and I shuddered as the evening breeze picked up. “You’ve met Mitchell. If there’s anyone on this earth that deserves to be happy, it’s him.”

“But…”

“Mr. Grassi loves his son, Scott.” Kirstin turned back towards me with a small, melancholy smile. “He’d move mountains for him, and he’s coming pretty damn close.”

“Still, though…”

“And we’re safe here. All of us, not just Mitchell. One of the only places in New York where I can openly declare that I love women and not be arrested because of it.” She smiled again. “That must count for something.”

“It only…” I shook my head. “It seems too good to be true.”

“Maybe,” Kirstin said thoughtfully, brushing back her short blonde hair. “But in this world, I’ve learned to accept that a beautiful dream is always better than a harsh reality. I’ve chosen my dream, Scott.”

“But what if you wake up?” I whispered, the words so soft I barely heard them myself. “What if the dream ends and you’re forced to face reality?”

She smiled before picking another flower and handing it to me, its stem cool and rough against my fingertips.

“Then at least I’ll have the memories.”

--

The rest of the evening passed by in a bit of a blur, and before I was aware of it, the clock had struck nine o’clock and I was sitting in my room at my desk, scrawling out a letter to my sister Laura that I knew I could never send.

I glanced up when I heard a soft knock at the door, setting my pen down against the small pot of ink and pulling on a woolen sweater. Another knock sounded a moment before I answered, and I felt my stomach drop at the sight of Avriel standing in the hallway in front of my door, smiling up at me as though everything was still perfectly fine.

“Hallo,” he said softly, and I swallowed nervously before shuffling to the side and allowing him to enter. “I didn’t get the chance to talk to you at dinner, and I thought…” He held up something and I squinted, surprised when I saw the familiar outline of a pocketwatch in his hand. “You mentioned that you could fix my mother’s watch? I admit, though, this is mostly just an excuse so that I could have the chance to see you.” He smiled again and all I could imagine was the sight of his lips against Mitch’s, my stomach churning uncomfortable waves at the thought.

“Right,” I whispered, running my hands through my hair before taking the watch from him. “That’s - fine. I can fix it for you.” I glanced up at him before looking away, and he took a step towards me, the door slowly closing shut.

“Are you alright?” He asked quietly, his green eyes worried in the dim lamplight. “You seem different.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Scott -”

“Really. It’s nothing.”

He was quiet and I turned away, setting the watch on my desk before sitting again and picking up my pen, completely intent on finishing the letter I was writing and desperately hoping that he would simply leave without another word. I could hear him, though, the sound of his soft footsteps and his quiet breathing, and I jumped a bit when I felt his hand on my shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” He asked gently, and I closed my eyes, angered at how he needed to ask and angered at how much I was still so obviously expecting of him.

“It’s nothing,” I said, gripping the quill so tightly my fingers ached. “I’m fine.”

“You’re upset -”

“It’s fine, Avriel.”

“It’s obviously not,” he whispered, and I flinched when I felt his fingers trail over the line of my jaw. “You’re upset with me.”

“It’s stupid.”

“Your emotions are never stupid,” he said, and I loathed how he was so sweet and yet so fucking clueless. “They’re always completely valid, and if I’ve done something that hurt you…”

“You kissed me.”

There was a pause and he pulled his hand back. “You asked me to…”

“That’s not…” I sighed and shook my head, clenching my jaw and staring down at the letter I was writing, irritated when I saw how some of the ink had become smudged with frustrated tears. “That’s not why I’m upset.”

“Scott…”

“Never mind. It’s fine.”

“Did…” Avriel trailed off, and I grimaced when I felt his fingers on my arm, turning my body in the chair so that I could see him. He was staring down at me, his beautiful eyes confused and his hands shaking a bit as he folded them together, anxiety creasing along his face. “Did you not want to kiss me? I never meant to pressure you, I’m sorry if I…”

“That’s not…” I shook my head and moved to turn back to my desk, but he touched my arm again, as though trying to hold me steady within the chaos of my mind. “You don’t understand.”

“Tell me. Please. I - I dislike seeing you like this, and knowing that I caused it…”

“You kissed me.”

“I did,” he said softly, his brow furrowing. “Multiple times, in fact. But I do not…”

“You kissed me, and then - then the first moment you had the chance, you kissed Mitch.” I shook my head again, feeling ridiculous and far too emotional. I could feel his eyes on my face but I kept my gaze away, clenching my fingers against the edge of my desk. “You told me he was like your brother. That... brothers don’t behave that way, Avriel.”

“You’re upset because I kissed Mitch?” He asked, his tone too vague to clarify anything. “Scott, I don’t…”

“I’m upset because you told me that I was the only person you wanted, and I - I only thought... you…” I pursed my lips, running a hand through my hair and feeling like the utter idiot I was. “In the garden...it seemed like you…”

Avriel let out a slow breath, and I knew that he’d finally understood what I’d said. “Oh, Scott…”

“Don’t.”

“You thought I meant…”

“Please. Don’t. I already feel like enough of a fool.”

I felt his hand against my arm again and when I turned he was kneeling beside me, his fingers brushing lightly across my cheek and his lip caught between his teeth. “You sweet boy,” he whispered, and I clenched my jaw, determined not to allow myself to crumble under his gaze. “You’re not a fool…”

“Don’t…”

“I didn’t…” He paused, shaking his head and brushing his thumb against the corner of my eye. “I didn’t realize that you...I should have told you…” He paused again, and it struck me odd how he was at such a loss for words, his liveliness disintegrated before my eyes. “I’m sorry…”

“It’s fine,” I said softly, and he shook his head, his brow furrowing even more.

“You know it isn’t. I didn’t...I didn’t think you’d taken what I said as a monogamous declaration, and I should have clarified…” He sighed. “I’m sorry, Scott…”

“I just don’t understand why you would kiss me if - if you’re in love with Mitch.”

He frowned. “In love with Mitch?”

I let out a bitter laugh. “Aren’t you? You seemed pretty damn enamored when you were nearly fucking him by the pool.”

“Scott...I’m not in love with Mitch. He’s my best friend, and I love him, but - but I’m not in love with him.”

“But you and he - you’ve…”

“Of course we’ve fucked, but that really goes without saying. I’ve probably fucked half the staff, and he’s had the other half.” Avriel frowned again. “Sex doesn’t equate to love, moja miłość. I do love him, but...not in the way you seem to think I love him.”

“Then why did you kiss him if you didn’t love him?” I whispered, my head pounding with confusion. Avriel sighed again and trailed his fingers through my hair, and it took everything in me not to lean into his touch, the feeling of his skin against mine wonderful and beautiful and dreadfully confusing.

“Because I missed him,” he said gently. “It’s been three months since he and I have seen each other, and I missed my best friend. I missed talking to him, and holding him, and - I suppose, in a way - I did miss kissing him. But there isn’t anything romantic between Mitch and I. There never has been.”

I gave a slow nod, still not meeting his eyes. “Why did you not tell me?”

Avriel sighed. “Because we’ve just met, and you already seemed to have enough problems with homosexuality. I didn’t think telling you that I regularly fuck Mitch would go over terribly well.”

“But you kissed me,” I whispered, and Avriel’s fingers rested under my jaw, turning my head just a bit so that I was holding his gaze. “And you said…”

“I think you’re beautiful,” Avriel said gently, his eyes warm as though he’d been lit from within. “And you’re sweet, and I want to be your friend. I also want to kiss you, and hold you, and have you in every way I can imagine, and I want us to be together however you want.”

I swallowed. “But.”

He sighed again. “But, I’m not a man that was made for monogamy. I think you’re wonderful, Scott, but I also hardly know you. And my friendship with Mitch will always be my main priority, and I won’t compromise anything with him in order to appease you.” He trailed his thumb over my lips, his gaze softening. “I should have told you, and I’m sorry that I upset you. I truly didn’t mean to, and I should have considered your feelings before…”

“It’s alright,” I said softly, looking back down at my hands. “I only - everything has changed so much, and I still don’t know the rules…”

“Mój słodki chłopiec,” he murmured, giving me a sad smile that looked heartbreaking upon his beautiful face. “There are no rules. I should have told you.”

I nodded slowly, allowing my thoughts to catch up to themselves, my mind still captivated by his gorgeous jade eyes. “So what comes now?” I asked softly, and his fingers brushed over my lips again.

“I want you.”

I let out a long breath. “Avriel…”

“Not immediately. But...I do want you. Preferably against the wall, or your desk, or a table.” His eyes lit up and he gave me a teasing smile, which only served to make my heart all the more confused. “I’ve always wanted to have someone on the main table in the dining room.”

“I don’t…”

“I’m teasing you, kochanie, don’t worry yourself.” He brushed his hand against my cheek, moving a bit closer so he could rest his arm on my thigh. “I want whatever you want.”

“I fear I’m not qualified to make that decision…”

His lips curled up. “But it’s yours to make.”

I hesitated, my heart picking up in my chest until I was worried he could hear it. His eyes were patient, though, and so very kind, and in that moment I wanted him more than I’d ever allowed myself to want someone, and the thought terrified me. It wouldn’t mean much to him, and yet I somehow did mean something to him - even after such a short time - and I found myself more and more tempted to say yes and let the future take ahold of itself. He gave me a small smile after a moment and I let out a breath, the decision already made despite my incessant need to comment on it.

“Ich will dich.”

I want you.

He smiled, and although he didn’t know what I’d said the look in his eyes told me that he’d understood quite well. He trailed his fingers through my hair again and moved closer, his motions gentle and sweet until my mind was dizzy from the sheer proximity.

“I want to kiss you,” he murmured, and I nodded helplessly, my breath hitching when his other hand came to rest on my knee.

“Okay,” I whispered, and he smiled again, that playful glint returning to his eyes.

“I don’t think you understand, sweetheart,” he said softly, pushing himself off of his knees and settling in my lap, his arms wrapping around my neck. I felt my face flush, my hands coming to rest on his hips and my heart beating like the wings of a bird, terror and excitement coursing through my blood. “I don’t want the little peck from this morning, Scott. I want to make you forget every ounce of logic you’ve ever had, until you can barely remember anything but my name.” He cupped my face gently, his voice such a deep rumble that I could feel in my chest. “I want to kiss you in a way that makes the devil blush, and I want to make it so you can’t think of anything but what it might feel like to have me inside of you. I want to show you what your mouth is meant for, until you’re asking me to take you like the beautiful little virgin you are.” He gave a slow smile and moved forward in my lap, his lips brushing over mine until I shivered. “I want to make you mine, kochanie. Chcę cię pieprzyć.”

I swallowed, my mouth suddenly very dry and my body much warmer than it had been a moment before. “I...that sounds like a lot more than kissing…”

“Mmhm,” he murmured, brushing his lips over my jaw and down my throat. “It does, doesn’t it?”

“Avriel…”

“Hm?”

“I’m...I’m not sure if I want all of that just yet…”

He pulled back a bit, cupping my face as the warmth returned to his composure. “Alright,” he said gently, leaning forward to kiss the tip of my nose. “Whatever you want, city boy, I’ll give it to you.”

“I’m not…”

“Tell me what you want, sweetheart,” he murmured, brushing his fingers through the hair at the back of my neck. “I don’t want to do anything that will make you upset.”

I felt my face flush and I looked down, the heat from his eyes making me far more nervous than I had a right to be. “Can we...can we just kiss? For the moment, I mean? I don’t…” I trailed off, glancing up at Avriel and blushing again at the look he was giving me, his face softened with affection.

“Of course,” he said, his eyes flicking to my lips. “You don’t need to be worried, kochanie. I will take care of you.”

I nodded but didn’t say anything, and he smiled again before leaning forward and brushing his lips against mine, his fingers soft against the skin of my jaw. I felt my breath catch, but before I could stand to regain my composure he had moved forward again, kissing gently at the corner of my mouth and trailing his lips up so that I could taste him. I felt panic well up in the base of my stomach as he moved a bit closer, completely unsure of what I should do and helpless as I tried to follow his lead, my fingers trailing over his back and gripping in his soft hair. He hummed quietly and tilted his chin down, guiding my mouth towards his until I couldn’t begin to understand who was who, my mind dizzy and confused and so fucking enamored with this man who had changed everything.

I moved without thinking, gripping onto his hips tightly and pulling him up against me, my arm winding around his waist and holding him down against my lap. He made a gorgeous breathy sound and caught my lower lip between his teeth, tugging at it gently as he pulled away, my eyes slipping open just in time to see him staring down at me with darkened irises, his fists gripping at my sweater.

“Jesteś tak cholernie piękne,” he whispered hoarsely, and despite the fact that I knew not what he was saying, it made my stomach pool with heat to see him so completely disheveled. I gripped the back of his neck and pulled his mouth to mine again, pushing him against the edge of my desk so I could stand between his legs, an anxious rush coursing through me when I pressed closer. His fingers rested against my jaw, his lips soft against mine and his other arm wrapping around my neck, and for a moment I couldn’t process anything other than just how sweet every single moment was, his touches so maddeningly gentle that I knew he must have been holding back.

I bit back a breath when I felt his fingers tugging at the edge of my sweater, and I pulled away blearily, watching him with cautious eyes as he undid the first button, his motions hesitant.

“Wszystko w porządku?” He asked gently, and I placed my hands against his, undoing the second button and smiling a bit at the look on his face.

“Mir geht es gut,” I murmured, nodding. I am fine.

He smiled and I leaned forward again, my fingers gripping in his long hair and tugging impatiently at the collar of his shirt, desperate to feel him and see him and have him in whatever way he would allow. A moment later my sweater dropped to the floor, followed quickly by the loose grey shirt I’d been wearing, and I felt my face flush at the sudden exposure. Avriel simply smiled again, cupping my face and kissing me sweetly, and before I could process my actions I had gripped his waist yet again and pulled him up off of the desk and against me, carrying him as though he weighed nothing. He laughed but didn’t say anything, and I pushed him onto my bed and crawled forward, nudging his legs apart so that I could press against him once more, kissing along his neck, his jaw, before finally finding his beautiful lips.

The seconds passed, turning to minutes and possibly hours before I felt Avriel push his hands against my chest gently, his bare skin warm against mine and his emerald eyes hazy. I let out a moan, kissing him once more before pulling back and staring down at him, every inch of my body electrified with heat and my cock embarrassingly hard in my pants.

“We should stop,” he said breathlessly, his lips swollen and his cheeks flushed, and I leaned forward to kiss him again without a second thought. He moaned into my mouth before pushing against me once more, his fingers light against my jaw. “Scott...we should stop, kochanie…”

I shook my head, his words processing slowly in my occupied mind. “Why?”

He smiled gently, pushing against my chest a bit more. “Because that was getting to be a bit more than kissing.”

“I don’t care,” I whispered, trailing my fingers through his hair. “Please...I want you - Ich möchte, dass du mich fickst…” I want you to fuck me. “Please...I don’t want to stop…”

Avriel smiled again, his fingers trailing over my stomach and resting lightly against the zipper of my pants. “You’re thinking with your cock, city boy, not your brain.”

“Yes,” I murmured, biting my lip and kissing along his jawline. “But I’m perfectly content to listen to my cock at times like this, especially when it’s so distressed.”

Avriel chuckled, leaning forward to kiss my nose. “I am not going to take your virginity after only one day of knowing you.”

I groaned, nuzzling my face into his neck. “But isn’t that the fun part for you? Didn’t you tell me that you wanted to fuck the virginity right out of me?”

I felt his fingers trail through my hair, his body shaking a bit with laughter. “I don’t think I ever said that…”

“I don’t mind. I would let you do it.”

“I know you would,” he said quietly. “And that is why I’m not going to. You’re in absolutely no state to tell me logically what you want. You’re drunk with lust, and your mind is clouded, and fucking you right now would be a mistake.”

“But…”

“No, sweetheart. Not tonight.” He pressed his lips to my forehead before moving to stand, and I clung to him helplessly. “Scott…”

“Stay. Please. We don’t have to do anything, but I’d like it if you would stay…”

He gave me a look, his green eyes conflicted. “You’re hard, kochanie, and that won’t go away until you take care of it.”

“I can do it myself.” I hesitated before giving him a coy smile, my cheeks flaming. “You can watch, if you’d like.”

Avriel groaned but leaned forward to kiss me. “This damn mouth is going to get you into trouble.”

“Is that your way of accepting?”

He paused before finally letting out a sigh, brushing my hair back. “I will stay,” he said finally, and I felt my heart trill happily. “But not while you…” He trailed off and his eyes flicked down to my cock, and my fingers that were casually pressing against myself. He bit his lip and looked away quickly. “I’m going to go change first. I will return in ten minutes, is that enough time to..?” He paused again and I laughed at how visibly uncomfortable he was.

“I’ll be presentable,” I said, smiling gently, and he let out a growl before leaning forward and kissing me again, his lips rough and his fingers gripping at my hair.

“Oh, you are such trouble, city boy,” he whispered when he finally pulled away, green eyes blazing. “I cannot wait until Mitch realizes it.” He pressed our lips together once more before pushing himself off of the bed and running a hand through his tousled curls. “I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

“I’ll be here,” I said, giving him a demure smile. He growled again, biting his lip and bending down to collect his shirt from the ground.

“Clothed?”

“What’s the fun in that?” I teased, and he rolled his eyes, though he was smiling warmly.

“I never imagined you could be coy,” he murmured, pulling his shirt over his head. “I like it. It suits you.”

I grinned and trailed my fingers over my cock through my pants, watching as his eyes widened and his gaze moved quickly away from me. “I’ll see you in ten minutes, Avriel.”

“Ten minutes,” he repeated, giving me a wave as he turned towards the door, banging his knee on my desk on the way out. “Fuck - I...alright, ten minutes…”

I laughed and watched as he made his way out the door, pulling it shut behind him, before tracing my fingers over my lips and burying my face into my pillow, smiling like a complete fool at how my heart was lighter than it had been in months. It was an odd feeling, and certainly not something I was accustomed to, but it was pleasant.

And I felt - not for the first time that day - a strange sense of hope curling through my gut at the possibility that this place - this strange and beautiful place - could become more than just a summer job. Perhaps what Avriel had said was correct. Perhaps this wasn’t just a house.

Perhaps it was paradise.

Chapter Text

It was well past the witching hour when Avriel left me, his kisses burned against my skin in a way that convinced me that sleep would not come easily that night. The exhaustion of the day proved me wrong, however, and after not ten minutes curled up on my surprisingly soft bed, I had drifted away. Yet such contentment was not made to last, and I found myself a few hours later - in the silence of the early morning - waking in a cold sweat, tears in my eyes and my breathing labored. I lay there for a moment, dazed with confusion, when finally realization struck and I let out a heavy, racking sob, clenching my fists into the bed sheets and trying to clear my mind of the terrors my dreams had brought.

My father, lying motionless on what would become his deathbed, his face pale and his hair slicked back with sweat. The loss of hope in his eyes had terrified me, and after only a few weeks his illness had finally taken him - ripping him from this world and dragging him to whatever unknown plane of existence lay beyond our physical realm. My mother - my beautiful mother, who I could still hear singing me soft lullabies on the cold, hungry nights - had followed not long after. I supposed I should have realized it, yet the grief had gripped me too firmly to allow for logic. My father and my mother, from the moment they had met, had not existed as two separate beings, but instead as one united soul. I should have expected for his demise to naturally lead to hers, and yet I had assumed - I had foolishly assumed - that divine justice wouldn’t take them both from me. Not within such a short span of time. Not when I was so young - so blind - about the world. And not when there was Laura to think about.

I held my hands to my face, pressing at my eyes and rubbing away any thoughts of my sister. It didn’t work, much as I’d expected, the guilt spreading through my gut until I felt sick with longing and fear. She was not yet twelve, and everything had been taken from her - my father, my mother, myself. I’d had to send her away - I couldn’t support her, could hardly support myself - away to distant relatives who hadn’t even known her name. The look on her face when I’d left her with them had broken me, and yet for the past few days I’d hardly thought of her - instead enraptured with the mystics of perversion and the betrayal that had come so easily it was a wonder it hadn’t captured me before. My sister was alone and grieving the loss of her family, and I was here trying to convince Avriel - a man - to fuck me. I bit back another sob and clenched my eyes shut, loathing ensnaring itself in the layers of my stomach until I nearly wretched from the feeling.

My parents were dead, my sister was gone, and I could not have conceivably been any more alone.

I managed to rise after a few minutes, my steps woozy with nausea and my mind spinning, the remnants of my dreams still taunting me like the demons they’d appeared as. I’d been prone to night terrors as a child, yet they’d always consisted of fictional monsters that I could reason out once I’d woken. These dreams, however, had been made by the harshest features of reality, and there was no logic in this world that could pretend as though my family was not destroyed. The once secluded hideaway of sleep had become corrupted, and I would have to carry with me the weight of my loss even into the distant reaches of the unconscious. I could not escape - I was trapped within the confines of my own mind, and insanity among poets suddenly became a far more understandable occurrence.

I pushed my way out of my room and down the hall, unsure of where I was going but positive that I couldn’t remain still a moment longer. My pajamas were damp with sweat and I stripped out of my shirt, ducking into the staff bathing room to wash my face and emerging a minute later, slightly cleaner and yet not at all better. I considered going to Avriel’s room, fairly sure that he wouldn’t have minded all that much, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, too distraught and too confused to handle his strange enchantment at the moment. I’d resigned myself to going back to my room when I heard a small noise and turned to see someone poking their head out of their bedroom, watching me silently.

“Scott?” A voice asked, and through the dim moonlight from the windows I could vaguely make out the shape of a tall, broad man. I let out a breath of relief when I realized it was Kevin, and he stepped out further into the hall, his brow furrowed and worry flooding his eyes even from such a distance. “Are you alright?”

I hesitated before giving a slow, numb nod. “I’m fine,” I whispered, my voice cracking on the words and giving myself away. Kevin only appeared more concerned, and he took a few steps towards me, pausing when we were not two feet apart.

“You’ve been crying,” he said softly, frowning. I looked away, clutching my shirt between my hands.

“I’m fine,” I said again, but Kevin only shook his head, resting his hand on my arm.

“You’re not,” he said gently, and when I looked up his dark eyes were kind. “Would you like to talk about it?”

I hesitated before averting my gaze once more, my heart aching. “Not particularly.”

“Alright. Would you like some company?”

“I do not want to keep you -”

“Please,” Kevin interrupted. “I’ve been awake. Your presence wouldn’t bother me.”

I kept my eyes locked on my hands, picking at a loose thread in my pajama shirt before giving another slow nod. “That would be nice,” I whispered. “Thank you.”

He simply smiled before turning and walking back down the hall, pausing at his room and gesturing for me to enter first. I nearly halted after my first step inside, acutely captivated by the sheer magnificence of it all. Unlike Avriel’s bedroom, which had been neat and orderly and relatively minimalistic save the bunches of flowers, Kevin’s room was packed to the brim with wide, thick volumes of verse, textbooks on chemistry, mathematics, Latin, astronomy, stacks of papers that were pinned to his walls and onto the ceiling, as though he was a mad genius and this was his lair. I glanced back at him before stepping in further, and he shut the door behind us, closing a few thick books that were resting on his bed and piling them atop his desk.

“I’m sorry it’s a bit of a mess,” he said, though from his tone he didn’t seem apologetic, nor did I think he should have been. “I got a bit carried away.”

I rubbed at my eyes but nodded, turning in a slow circle so I could take in the full expanse of his room. When I finally faced him again he was looking up at me with a kind smile and raised eyebrows, and my cheeks grew warm.

“I’m sorry if that was intrusive,” I said, but he simply laughed and went back to his haphazard cleaning. I glanced at the small wooden clock that sat above his dresser next to a stack of journals, surprised when I saw it was almost three in the morning. “You been awake all night?”

“Insomnia,” he said, shrugging and looking back down. I tucked my shirt under my arm and stepped forward, studying a charted map of the eight planets in the sky that was pinned above his desk. I could hear Kevin moving about but didn’t look back until he called my name, holding a clean grey shirt out to me. “You can borrow it, if you’d like.”

I gave a small smile and accepted the shirt, slipping it on and blushing at how large it was on me. “Thank you. Are these yours?”

“The charts?” I nodded and he grinned, coming to stand beside me. “Yes. I studied astronomy and astrophysics at Yale College.”

I paused, looking over at him. “Yale?”

“Yes.”

“You went to Yale?”

He smiled, although I could see my question had bothered him. “I did. Surprised?”

“It’s only...you’re -”

“A Negro?”

“A cook.”  

He gave me an odd look and I shook my head, turning back towards the celestial charts and running my finger over the elliptical orbit of Neptune.

“Why work as a cook if you’ve studied astronomy at one of the top institutions in the country?” I asked softly. “It seems a waste.”

He laughed. “Kirstin was correct. You are a bit dense.”

“I’m sorry?”

He laughed again but didn’t apologize, returning to his organization. “You are so privileged and you cannot even see it. How many academic employment opportunities do you think there are for a black man in this country?” I was quiet and he gave me another smile. “Now narrow that down to opportunities in the sciences. And then astronomy or astrophysics. And not just assistant positions, but proper researching positions. And then, how many of those opportunities do you think would pay me a viable salary? Half a living wage? A quarter?” He smiled again and shook his head. “And if somehow there was employment that fit all of that criteria, and I managed a position as a researcher studying the stars, do you honestly believe they’d give me any credit for my work? It seems much more likely that I’d be left out of the history books, and some white man would accept my accomplishments as his own. Is that not usually what happens?”

I shifted uncomfortably and didn’t look at him, my face warm and an unpleasant feeling in my stomach. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t...I hadn’t thought about that.”

“Of course you hadn’t,” he said, and even though his words were harsh he still said them with an unbelievable air of kindness. “You’ve never needed to think about that. But I have. The world gets a bit more complicated when you stop seeing it from the perspective of an educated white man, city boy.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered again, and he simply shook his head and looked over at me, a tired smile on his face.

“I don’t want an apology, Scott. You cannot help the way you think, because you were raised in a corrupted society. An apology means nothing to me.” He paused, his eyes softening. “I do not want apologies. I want change.”

“Change,” I repeated, hesitating before shaking my head. “How..?”

“The world is changing everyday. Anything is possible. This damned war that we’re stuck in is proof enough of that.” He gave me a slow, knowing smile, pinning a few papers to the wall beside his bed. “I imagine these last few months have been difficult for you for more than the obvious reasons?”

I looked away, tracing over the pencil-drawn outline of Saturn. “Not as difficult as they’ve been for you.”

“Most likely not, but that does not exactly mean much.” He took a few steps towards me, and I knew what he was going to say before the words had even crossed his lips. “In the eyes of America, you’re now just as deplorable as I am, German boy. The country loathes you.”

I nodded slowly, looking over at him with a wry smile. “At least I’ve yet to be accused of being a spy. It strikes me odd, though. I’ve not even visited Germany before.”

“It does not matter. It does not even matter that you were born here. The moment this war started, you stopped being an American and became the enemy.”

I chuckled, the sound so dry it stuck to my throat. “I hardly even know what this war is about, if I’m to be completely honest.”

Kevin smiled. “That’s the point of war. Confuse the masses until they’ve turned to violent, power-hungry beasts. That way nobody will question your advances. As long as somebody’s being shot at in a trench, they’ll be happy.”

“And what about you? Do you believe that killing all Germans is the solution?”

Kevin gave another smile, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “That would imply that I’d want you to be killed, and I do not want that in the slightest. I think the United States declaring war on Germany was the most foolish thing we could have done, and yet here we are.”

I nodded and rested back against his desk. “Do you believe we’ll win?”

“That is dependent on one factor: who is the ‘we’ you speak of? America or Germany? You fall under both categories, city boy.”

I paused before realizing that he was correct, and for a moment I could not actually answer the question posed to me. I’d never been to Germany, but I had cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents still living in the outskirts of Berlin and Frankfurt, and despite the fact that I’d not met them, I still knew them well from the stories my mother had told me. I was just as German as I was American, and choosing a side seemed impossible. I looked back up at Kevin and he was watching me with soft, understanding eyes, his lips curled into a sad smile.

“Someone must lose,” he said gently. “That’s the game of war. The question is, for you, does it really matter who it is?”

I let out a slow breath. “Either way, America will hate me.”

“America, yes. But Americans... I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t hate you.”

I nodded, my voice quiet as I asked, “And Avriel? Do you think he would hate me?”

“He’s not American, Scott.”

“That’s precisely my point, though. You know what the German Empire has done to Poland already - especially the Jews. And I can only imagine that it will get worse…”

Kevin sighed, looking up at me as though I was spouting nothing but nonsense. “Does he seem to hate you now?”

“No,” I said softly, and he sighed again.

“Then I don’t see why he would grow to hate you in the future, no matter what Germany does to Poland. He doesn’t see you as your country, he sees you as you.”

“But he’s Jewish -”

“So?”

“You know what’s happened to Jews, and you know what will keep happening. Especially in Germany. There’s so much fucking prejudice -”

“Are you prejudiced, Scott?”

“No, but -”

“Then there isn’t a problem unless you create one. You’re German, but you’re not Germany. You aren’t your country, no matter the blood that runs through your veins.” His eyes softened. “You know that this household is tolerant in every aspect, and that doesn’t change when it comes to where you’re from. This war is horrible enough without the added tension between people who have no desire to hate each other. You are safe here, in every sense of the word, and so is Avi.”

I nodded slowly, surprised at the tenderness in his voice when he said Avriel’s name. “You love him. Don’t you?”

Kevin smiled. “He’s one of my dearest friends. But I don’t love him in the way you might grow to love him.”

“So you aren’t..?”

His smile grew. “Not quite.”

“I thought everyone here was. Kirstin said Mr. Grassi only hired people who…”

“I was hired before he knew that Mitchell was different. I have tried, but it doesn’t suit me all that well.”

I gave another nod before his words truly processed, and I looked up at him with raised eyebrows and an incurable smile on my face. “Wait. You’ve tried?”

He chuckled. “I think you should go back to bed, Scott.”

“But you’ve...with who?”

He winked and turned back to his desk, stacking a few books together and moving them to his bedside table. “Goodnight, Scott.”

I laughed, shaking my head as I followed him. “Did you and Avriel..?”

“I imagine you know how persuasive he can be.”

“So you…” I paused and laughed again, smiling so widely my cheeks hurt. “Oh my goodness. When?”

“You should ask him, I’m sure he’d be more than happy to tell you.”

“Kevin -”

“Scott,” he said, turning back to me with gentle eyes and a small, beautiful smile on his face. I paused and felt my cheeks grow warm. “Get some sleep, city boy. I will see you in the morning.”

I considered pestering him a bit more until I realized just how tired I truly was. I smiled lazily and nodded once, studying him for a moment longer before turning and walking towards the door. I could hear him humming softly to himself and I glanced back, watching as he pinned a few more star charts above his desk and approached his large bay window, craning his neck up towards the unknown blackness of the sky. I simply smiled and continued on my way, completely enchanted and enamored by the peculiarity of this strange and wondrous place.

--

I was exhausted the next morning as I knocked on Mitch’s bedroom door, his breakfast tray balanced against my hip, so it took me a moment before I realized that the voice that had called for me to come in didn’t belong to him. I paused a few steps into the room, surprised to see both Avriel and Mitch curled up together in the large mahogany bed, Mitch’s eyes closed and his head on the man’s chest as he slept. I raised my eyebrows and gave Avriel a look, but he just smiled and placed a finger over his lips. For a moment I expected envy to bloom in my stomach as it had the day before, but instead I only felt relatively indifferent to what I was seeing. I set the breakfast tray down on Mitch’s desk and gave Avriel a small wave, walking back to the door to leave them alone and pausing when I heard my name being called softly.

I turned to see Avriel watching me with sleepy eyes, his fingers trailing through Mitch’s dark raven hair, and he smiled again before gesturing for me to come closer. I hesitated before complying, careful to keep my steps quiet so that I wouldn’t wake Mitch, and I sat gingerly on the edge of the bed a few inches away from Avriel.

“Hallo,” he said quietly, and Mitch shifted a bit, burying his face in the man’s neck. Avriel only smiled and kissed his head before looking back up at me. “How are you?”

I hesitated before allowing a smile. “I’m alright.”

“Kevin said you didn’t sleep well?”

I shrugged, my face growing warm when Avriel reached up and brushed my hair back. “Nightmares.”

He nodded slowly, his brow furrowing. “You look tired, sweetheart. You can nap if you want to, Mitch will probably sleep for a few more hours.”

“I shouldn’t,” I murmured, glancing over at the boy, who was shifting again in his sleep. His face looked almost distressed as he let out a small whimper, and Avriel pulled him closer into his arms, humming softly until Mitch settled down. “Is he alright?”

“You aren’t the only one who has nightmares,” Avriel whispered, his fingers tracing over the smooth, pale skin of Mitch’s back. “His first few days home are always difficult.”

“Why?”

Avriel smiled and looked back up at me. “Not my place to tell you.”

I nodded but didn’t respond, watching as little tremors tugged at Mitch’s face, his arms tightening around Avriel’s waist until he was clinging to the man like a vine. That deep sadness I’d noticed yesterday was still there - as though it had been engraved into the planes of Mitch’s face, all the more visible when he was asleep. He was beautiful, though, and I told Avriel so in the light of the warm summer morning.

“Yes,” Avriel agreed quietly. “He’s beautiful.”

“I should go,” I said, before frowning and looking back over at Avriel. “Aren’t you supposed to be working?”

“My day off,” he said, brushing back Mitch’s hair and kissing his forehead as the boy began to tremble again. “But I was worried about him.”

“You love him.”

“More than anything in the world, kochanie. He’s my best friend.”

“Will he be alright?”

“He should be. He sleeps better when there’s someone with him.” Avriel paused, his jade eyes flickering with sorrow. “He was terrified when I found him this morning.”

“Avriel…”

“You needn’t worry, Scott. He’ll be alright. I will come find you when he wakes.”

I considered arguing but simply gave a silent nod, and Avriel brushed his fingers through my hair again, tugging my head down gently so he could press his lips to mine. I felt my shoulders tense a bit before curling my hand under his jaw and kissing him back, pulling away when Mitch let out another small, terrified whine. Avriel bit his lip before giving me a small, tired smile, wrapping the bed sheets around Mitch’s shoulders and cradling the boy against his chest.

“Get some rest, kochanie,” he murmured, his eyes eyes flickering with worry when Mitch whimpered again, his fingers digging into the curve of Avriel’s hip. “Shh, mój piękny anioł, I am here…” He brushed Mitch’s hair back, his fingers gentle as he traced over the boy’s cheek. “I am here, my love, and you are safe…”

I hesitated before standing, and I was almost to the door when I heard Mitch let out another noise, the sound so distraught it broke my heart. I turned to see Avriel whispering something to him, though his words did nothing.

“Maybe we should wake him,” I said quietly, and Avriel looked back up at me, his lips curled down.

“I would, but he’s barely slept…”

“Have you tried singing to him?”

Avriel raised his eyebrows but said nothing, and I hesitated again before stepping back towards them, speaking softly.

“Whenever I had a night terror as a child, my mother would sing to me. She said it would ward off the bad dreams. After she died...whenever my sister had a nightmare, I would sing and it would calm her.” I looked back up at Avriel. “You should try it.”

He gave me a soft, sad smile. “I do not know any lullabies. You do it.”

I considered arguing but moved forward, slipping off my shoes and perching on the edge of the bed, my heart aching when Mitch whimpered again. “Here,” I said quietly, tugging at the blanket that was twisted around his body and slightly damp with sweat. “Are there any fresh sheets?”

Avriel watched me curiously, his lips pressed against Mitch’s forehead. “The cupboard in the hall.”

I nodded and retrieved them, returning to the room and stripping the old blanket off of the bed. Mitch had nothing but a pair of underwear on and I kept my gaze averted as I tucked the clean sheet over his body, settling in next to Avriel and propping myself against a few pillows.

“Give him to me,” I said softly, and Avriel looked hesitant before unwrapping his arms from Mitch’s waist and lifting him up gently, nudging the boy into my arms until I was cradling him. I’d done this so many times before with my sister, who had begun having horrible night terrors after our parents had passed away, that it had become such a simple process, and it took me a moment to realize that instead of my sister I was holding a beautiful boy in my arms. Mitch made another panicked noise and the thought passed, fickle as the wind, and I wrapped the sheet loosely about his shoulders so that he would be warmed but not confined. He was significantly smaller than I’d realized, and he buried his face into my neck before I could say anything, his shoulders trembling. I trailed my fingers over the crown of his head, scratching gently over his hair and along the tips of his ears, and he shivered, making another small sound as I started humming, my voice the only disturbance in the silent room. I felt Mitch’s body tense before he relaxed into my arms, and I rubbed slow circles over the back of his neck, just below his hairline.

It took a few minutes, but finally he settled down and his breathing evened out. I looked up at Avriel, who was watching us with warm eyes, and gave a small smile, quietly singing the same lullaby my mother had sung to me when I was a boy.

I do not know how long we stayed there - it could have been minutes, or hours, or possibly days - but at some point Mitch gave a deep sigh and tightened his grip on my shirt, nuzzling his face into my neck before pulling away and looking up at me with sleepy, doe-like eyes. He seemed surprised to see it was me, but after a moment he just bit his lip and smiled lazily, and I felt my heart do something odd in my chest that it had never done before.

I brushed his hair back without thinking, and his eyes fluttered shut as he rested back against me.

“Good morning, Mitch,” I murmured, making him smile again, and it was such a beautiful sight that for a moment I feared I would try and kiss him. I needn’t have worried, though, as he leaned forward a second later and pressed his lips the corner of my mouth, his fingers warm against my jaw and his eyes bright when he pulled away.

“Good morning, tesoro.”

Chapter Text

I felt my face flush and I looked down, a bashful smile on my lips and my heart somehow tighter in my chest. Mitch didn’t seem to notice my discomfort, instead moving a bit closer and resting his head on my shoulder, his hand snaking out to brush against Avriel’s cheek. My face grew warmer when I realized that Avriel had been here all the while, and had witnessed both Mitch very nearly kissing me and me very nearly kissing him back. I kept my gaze set on my feet, which were poking up slightly from under the bed sheet, and for a moment believed that - if I simply didn’t move or react to anything - this odd experience would somehow terminate itself and I wouldn’t have to worry with confusion anymore. Of course that did not happen, and after a few seconds of bleary silence Mitch spoke, his voice indifferent to the fraught position he’d forced me into.

“Not that I particularly mind,” he murmured, his fingers playing with the buttons of my shirt. “But is there a reason that you were holding me as I slept, tesoro?”

I hesitated and glanced up at Avriel, who gave me a fond, slightly amused look before leaning forward and carding his fingers through Mitch’s hair.

“You were having a nightmare, mój anioł,” he said softly, his eyes narrowing with worry. There was a mild adulation about him when he looked at the boy, as though every point of his universe was somehow concealed and protected by the being that was Mitchell Grassi. It was sweet, and yet mildly troubling, and I found myself - not for the first time - wondering how it was possible that Avriel wasn’t in love with him. By my definition of love, this most definitely fell under such a categorization, and it struck me odd at how in such a tolerant and accepting place Avriel still refused to acknowledge that what he felt for Mitch didn’t qualify as simply friendship. They seemed a beautiful pair, and for some reason such a prospect bothered me greatly. “You were reacting worse than usual,” Avriel continued, his voice breaking me out of my thoughts and his thumb resting along the sharp curve of Mitch’s cheekbone. “Scott suggested that singing might help, and it managed to settle you enough so you could rest.”

A small smile tugged at Mitch’s lips and he peeked up at me with sleepy, playful eyes. “So my Scott can sing?” His smile - and my blush - grew. “Perhaps you can sing to me again in the future under more pleasant circumstances.”

I glanced away. “If you wish, um, sir.”

Avriel let out a laugh before leaning over and wrapping his arms around Mitch’s waist, the sudden motion disrupting the tranquility that had settled around us. Mitch let out a shriek before finally falling back into Avriel’s chest, and the man growled, nuzzling his face into Mitch’s neck.

“You do not have him call you sir, do you?” Avriel asked, laughing again when Mitch struggled to get away. From the look in the boy’s eyes, though, it didn’t seem as though he particularly wanted to escape. “Mój anioł, what has that prissy little school done to you? Whenever I tried to call you sir you always covered my mouth until I couldn’t speak.”

Mitch rolled his eyes, looking up at the man fondly and crossing his arms over his bare chest. “That’s because speaking wasn’t the only thing your mouth was good for, if I remember correctly.”

“Mm,” Avriel hummed, kissing the side of Mitch’s neck. “I remember that as well…”

“And I don’t have him call me sir, thank you, he just seems to enjoy responding to an authority complex.” Mitch huffed, craning his head back and nudging Avriel’s face away from his neck. “Mio amore, do you honestly believe I’m in the mood for sex right now?”

Avriel laughed and pressed another kiss to Mitch’s jaw before pulling away. “You are always in the mood for sex.”

“And so are you, it seems.”

“But we already knew that.” Avriel smiled again, brushing Mitch’s hair back from his face and kissing his forehead. “You still look tired, mój anioł.”

Mitch sighed. “Yes. I might sleep a bit more if I can manage it.” He glanced back up at me, his eyes apologetic. “I’m sorry, tesoro, we’ve been ignoring you. I don’t think I’m going to require much today, you’re free to do whatever you want.”

I raised my eyebrows, a bit surprised although I probably shouldn’t have been. “I have the day off?”

Mitch smiled, and it suddenly struck me how truly exhausted he looked. I had been too caught up by our incidental kiss to notice, but he had dark bags under his eyes and his face seemed drawn and heavy with fatigue. A part of me longed to gather him in my arms and hold on until some of that vibrant life had been restored, but I knew that it would have been a mistake to try anything of the sort. He may have seemed amused by me, and he may have been happy to tease and flirt with me like the Oscar Wilde type he was, but I was positive that attempting anything myself would have been received with confusion and - the far more embarrassing - contempt. I had just met him, and no matter how he pretended, I was still his servant and he still my master. That went without even mentioning the engagement I had somehow established with Avriel, and the complications that would bring about. No, Mitchell Grassi was not someone I could allow myself to view in that way. He was my employer, and - perhaps someday - my friend. But anything more was foolish and idiotic to even consider, especially given the struggles I already faced when it came to intimacy.

I forced a smile and pulled the sheets back, kicking my legs off the edge of the bed. “Of course, sir, I’m sorry for questioning you,” I said, and Avriel raised his eyebrows as he watched me, his fingers still brushing through Mitch’s hair. “I hope you feel better.”

I was halfway across the room when I heard Mitch call my name, and when I turned back he was frowning at me.

“Really,” he said softly, his voice earnest. “You don’t have to call me sir. And...you don’t have to be so formal when we speak.”

I nodded, never quite meeting his eyes. “Of course. I’m sorry.” I turned back to the door, pausing once more when he called my name again.

“Scott?” He hesitated, and when he finally spoke his words were gentle. “Thank you for singing to me.”

I swallowed and pushed my way out of the room, suddenly much more confused than I’d been since I stepped into this strange and terrifying world.

“You’re welcome, sir.”

--

I spent the rest of the afternoon lounging in the kitchen with Kirstin and Kevin, blatantly ignoring the swell of panic that was forming in my mind. I learned that not only were they the two sweetest and most patient people I’d yet to meet, but they were also best friends and had been since they were children. When Kevin - who had worked for the Grassis for the past six years - learned of Mr. Grassi’s desire to hire queer staff, he’d immediately notified Kirstin of the position. She’d left her job at a shirtwaist factory in Brooklyn in a heartbeat and they’d been working together ever since, their childhood friendship growing into something stronger and far more beautiful. They were soulmates in every sense, save romance, and it was incredible to witness.

We’d spent the majority of the afternoon talking of Avriel’s sister, Esther, and Kevin and I had noticed instantly when Kirstin’s eyes had softened and her smile became all the warmer. We’d tried to get her to talk, but all she’d said was that Esther was one of her dearest friends and she was happy for it to stay that way. I didn’t believe it for a moment, and I made a note for myself to inquire about that situation in the future. Something would come of it, I was positive, and I wanted to be the first to know when it did.

It was almost midnight by the time I managed to sleep that night, and I had only been laying in bed for ten minutes when I heard a soft, tentative knock at my door. I felt my heart swell and stood, not even bothering to put on a shirt as I strode across the room, convinced that it was Avriel and my night was about to become extremely interesting.

I froze when I opened the door to see Mitch staring up at me, his eyes undeniably exhausted and a nervous anxiety about him. He held my gaze for a moment before looking away, hugging himself and biting his lip.

“Oh,” I said, feeling like a fool the instant the word left my mouth. “Hello.”

He smiled, though it didn’t make it to his eyes. His face was even more drawn than this morning, and I knew instantly that he hadn’t slept after I had gone. A small part of me weakened with guilt, but I knew that if I’d stayed, I would have only made a greater fool out of myself. It was best that I’d left, even if somehow my absence had made him miserable.

“I’ve been trying to sleep,” he said finally, his voice trembling in a way that completely contradicted his usual confident nature. “But I haven’t...I keep on thinking about this morning, and how…” He looked up at me, shifting anxiously. “Are you upset with me?”

I frowned as the familiarity of the situation made itself known. Just over twenty-four hours ago, Avriel had stood in Mitch’s place and asked me the very same question. I wondered if this would become a habit - if each night there would be a new member of the household asking if they’d somehow offended me. It made me feel sensitive and fragile, and I disliked it greatly.

“No,” I said quietly, shaking my head and resting against the doorframe. “Of course not, sir, I -”

“That” - he paused, his chin tilting up - “that’s what I mean, though. Sir. I...we’ve only just met, of course, but you’ve started calling me sir again. This morning, after I woke.” He paused, his brow furrowing. “After I kissed you.”

I didn’t say anything and he let out a slow breath.

“Fuck, tesoro, I only…” He ran a hand over his face. “I didn’t think a small kiss would upset you, but it has, hasn’t it?”

I hesitated, unsure of how to correct his statement when I myself didn’t even know the truth. “It...I was not expecting it, but it didn’t upset me…”

“I am sorry - I...fuck, I mean, I awoke in your arms and I - whenever I wake up in somebody’s arms, my first instinct is to usually kiss them, but you…” He bit his lip. “I’m acting like an imbecile. I’m sorry. I can hardly think, I’m so exhausted.”

My brow furrowed and I stepped forward into the hall, closing the distance between us. “You have not slept?”

He waved his hand dismissively, although I could see his eyes were troubled. “The nightmares…”

“What about Avriel?”

“He’s gone to the city for the night, and I told him I would be fine.”

“But you aren’t fine.”

He looked up at me before shaking his head slowly. “Not particularly.” He paused before shaking his head again. “Damnit, I’m keeping you up, aren’t I? I’m sorry, I hadn’t thought...I only wanted to talk to you and ensure that everything was alright, I didn’t…” He trailed off and ran his fingers through his messy raven hair, and the action was so effortlessly beautiful that it took a moment to catch my breath. “I’ll leave now. I’m sorry for waking you.” He turned and a few seconds passed before logic caught up to me, and I stepped forward again, resting my hand on his arm.

“Wait,” I said softly, and he looked back up at me with heavy eyes. “You’re unable sleep.”

He smiled tiredly. “I’ll be alright...”

I hesitated before taking another step closer.

“I can sing to you.”

He was quiet and I slowly moved my hand back after a moment, suddenly convinced I had overstepped and rueing how I’d somehow assumed that my offer would be well-received. Whatever this damned inclination I felt towards Mitchell Grassi, it only served to make me appear as a greater fool than I actually was, and it was a wonder he hadn’t already fired me for my incompetence and misconduct. I tucked my hands behind my back and tilted my head down, gnawing at my lip.

“I’m sorry if that was inappropriate,” I whispered. “I only meant - it seemed to relax you before, and I thought I would offer…”

He stepped forward, his dark eyes weary and his smile weak. “You are so unsure of yourself, tesoro.”

I felt my face warm. “As are you.”

He laughed, his shoulders drooping a bit as it quickly turned to a yawn. “That would be nice,” he said, his fingers pressed against his lips. “If you sang to me. Keep the night terrors at bay…” He took another step forward and I leaned against the doorframe, my heart stuttering at the sudden proximity. “Would you?”

“Yes,” I said quietly. “Of course, sir.”

He shook his head and touched my arm, pushing me gently back into my room. “Please don’t call me sir. Please. You aren’t a real butler and there’s no need for it.”

I felt my breath catch as I bumped against my desk chair, and he closed the door behind him. “I may not be a real butler, but you are still my master. Should I not treat you with respect?”

His lips tugged up tiredly. “Nobody else calls me sir and I do not feel disrespected because of it. And I’m not your master, Scott. I loathe that word. It makes it sound as though you are my slave.”

I felt the back of my legs hit my bed and I sat down, surprised when he perched next to me. “If you’re not my master, then what are you?”

“Your friend?”

“We hardly know each other.”

“We could still be friends.”

I hesitated. “And you want to be my friend?”

“Of course. I’ve told you before, tesoro.”

“I may not have been listening.”

He smiled sleepily. “You were distracted?”

My face warmed. “You are very distracting.”

“Really? How so?”

“You just are. You have a loud presence about you.”

He smiled again, his eyes drooping with fatigue. “Have I told you that you’re sweet, bel ragazzo?”

“You have,” I said, watching as he wrapped one of my blankets around his shoulders and leaned back against the wall. “But you’ve not told me what bel ragazzo means.”

He sighed and peeked up at me from under his long eyelashes, and I felt my face warm again. I couldn’t see much of him, the room only brightened with the light from the moon, but I could make out his eyes and I was surprised at the simple beauty they held. He tugged his legs into his chest and his lips curled up, and for a moment his regality made him appear as though he was the subject of an oil painting.

“It means beautiful boy,” he said finally, as though he’d been debating whether or not to actually say it. He moved closer and rested his head on my shoulder. Sei il ragazzo più bello che io abbia mai incontrato.

I felt my heart pick up in my chest. “You know I don’t speak Italian,” I whispered, and he laughed.

“Yes. But it’s fun to tease you.”

“Mitch?”

“Yes, tesoro?”

I hesitated.

“Would you like me to hold you?”

He tilted his head up so our eyes met, and my cheeks flushed when his fingers rested on my arm. “That would be nice.”

My face grew warmer as he moved forward, and I took him into my arms easily, surprised at how natural it felt to hold his body against mine. I settled down on the bed and he moved a bit closer, his hand resting on my hip and the top of his head brushing against my chin. He shifted a little before looking up at me.

“Is this alright?” He whispered, and I hesitated before pulling him a bit closer so he was resting against my chest. He seemed to understand and turned onto his side, his arm resting along my waistline and his legs tangling in mine. It felt odd and intimate in a way I’d never experienced, but it was undeniably soothing to have him in my arms. He looked up at me with tired eyes and I brushed my fingers through his hair, curling into him until I could not remember where my body ended and his began.

“I do not normally do this,” he mumbled sleepily, and I hummed before pulling him closer. “I’m not the sort of person to crawl into a man’s bed after knowing him only a few days…”

“Shh,” I murmured, tracing words into the skin of his back. “You do not need to explain yourself. I’m the one who offered to hold you.”

“Still,” he sighed, and I could see him drifting off already. “I do not want you to misunderstand. I’m...I’m not a whore, Scott…”

“I know.”

“I don’t just fuck anything that has a cock...I promise…”

“It’s alright, schöner Junge. I believe you.”

His lips curled up. “Schöner Junge?”

“It means beautiful boy.”

He smiled again. “You think I am beautiful?”

“Yes,” I said quietly. “I think you’re very beautiful.”

“Tesoro?”

“Yes?”

“Will you sing to me?”

My heart did something odd in my chest and I nodded, twirling a piece of his hair between my fingers as I began to hum again. He sighed and nuzzled closer, his small body flush against mine and his eyelids fluttering as he fell into the hazy warmth of the unconscious. I tried to keep my eyes open but exhaustion called to me, and not long after I drifted away as well, mystified and completely enamored by this strange creature I held in my arms.

Chapter Text

The first thing I saw when I woke were the gentle rays of the morning sun, shining in from the window and forming a halo of light about Mitch’s head.

I felt my lips tug into a smile at such a fitting sight, turning onto my side so I could hold him in my arms again, his small body angled away from me and his back pressed up against my chest. He was trembling a bit, but he settled immediately once I moved closer, his breathing evened out into small, quiet puffs of air. My eyes slipped shut and I nuzzled my face into the back of his neck, taking in everything about him as my mind tried to understand how I’d possibly wound up in this current position. After not three days working at the Grassi residence, I’d somehow managed to seduce the groundskeeper, discuss America’s hatred of Germans with the cook, offer advice about lesbian relationships to the maids, and now I was lying in bed with the son of my employer, who also happened to be one of the richest people in the country. I bit back a smile and simply held Mitch closer, curious and terrified about what the rest of the summer holiday would bring if this all had occurred within just the first week.

I drifted off again, the summer heat not yet so oppressive as to make sleep unattainable, but found myself waking a few hours later, the very tip of my nose itching like mad. I huffed and wiggled a bit, finally giving in and opening my eyes to see Mitch staring up at me, his fingers lightly tracing over the bridge of my nose. He paused when he noticed I was awake, his cheeks flushing a beautiful crimson.

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” he whispered, resting his fingers instead against the curve of my jaw in a way that made my heart beat faster. “It’s only...you have freckles on your nose.” He bit his lip and smiled. “I hadn’t noticed before.”

I laughed when he brushed the pad of his thumb over my nose again, flaring my nostrils until he stopped. “That tickles.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, running his fingers through my hair instead and tugging at it gently. His cheeks were still pink. “You looked like a rabbit.”

“I’ve never actually seen a rabbit, I don’t think,” I murmured thoughtfully.

“I had one as a child.” Mitch smiled again. “His name was Reginald.”

My lips curled up and I moved a bit closer, tired in a way that seemed comforting rather than destabilizing. I could have fallen asleep again if I’d wanted, but being so close to Mitch in the warm morning light was nice. “What happened to him?”

“Kevin made stew.”

My body tensed. “He didn’t…”

Mitch laughed and brushed my hair back again. “No, he didn’t. Reginald lived a long life and died naturally, I promise. We didn’t eat him.”

“Are you lying?”

“I’d never lie to you, tesoro. He was brown and white, although he had a black patch on his tummy.” Mitch brushed his fingers down my chest and rested them against my stomach, pushing at the skin just above my waist. “Right here.”

I let out a breath and looked away, suddenly much warmer than I’d been before. “He sounds beautiful.”

“He was,” Mitch murmured, his fingers whispering over my skin. My face flushed again when I realized that I was not wearing a shirt, his skin warm against mine in a way that made me terrified. “I think my mother might’ve had photographs of me taken with him at some point...” Mitch smiled, nudging closer. “They’re most likely hanging over the fireplace in the library.”

For a moment I assumed he’d been joking before realizing that he was as serious as he could be. A family as wealthy as the Grassis would have had enough money to professionally photograph whatever they desired back before the turn of the century. We’d always been too poor to afford any of the new camera technology, so the only photographs I’d ever really seen had been in newspapers. It seemed an odd prospect, though, the idea of your childhood being captured on paper forever. I feared I would have made a foolish face by mistake and wound up with a horrid picture, but I was positive that there was not any conceivable way that Mitch’s photographs would be unattractive. His beauty was inescapable, no matter the medium.

I blushed and looked back down at him, my stomach rolling in nervous waves at the feeling of his hands still on my bare skin. “Could I see them?”

“The photographs?” I nodded and he smiled. “If you wish. They most likely are not all that interesting, I fear. The most noteworthy thing is my hair.”

My brow furrowed. “Your hair?”

“I was blond as a child.” He grinned and pushed my hair away from my eyes. “Not quite as light as you, but almost.”

“I could see you with blond hair,” I whispered, biting my lip when his fingers traced circles along my abdomen. “It would look beautiful.”

“I would look like even more of a fairy than I already do, tesoro.”

I chuckled. “Maybe. But it would still be beautiful.”

Mitch’s eyes softened. “I wish I could change the color of my hair again...”

“If you could, what color would you choose?”

“Not blond, I would want it to be something else. Something brighter. Purple, perhaps.”

“What? You’d want purple hair?”

He smiled. “Now then I would look like a fairy.”

“Or a grape.”

He laughed, moving closer so that he was almost lying atop me, his head nestled against my chest. “You’re so cheeky in the morning. I like it.”

I hummed, my arms cradling him up against me. It felt nice to simply hold him, although my mind was beginning to wonder what it would feel like to do more. I shook the thought away and closed my eyes, letting out a steady breath. “I am not even sure if it’s still morning, if I’m being honest. We slept a long while.”

“Mm,” Mitch sighed, nuzzling his face into my neck. My heart jumped in my chest and I wondered if he could hear it. “I suppose I should dress soon, then. Avriel will be back from the city in the afternoon and he wants to show me the garden.”

I smiled. “The flowers are beautiful.”

“You’ve seen them?”

“He showed me on my first day here.” My smile grew, and I opened my eyes to see Mitch staring up at me. “He’s been very kind to me.”

Mitch raised his eyebrows and my face flushed. “I’m sure he has. He’s always kind to everyone he meets.”

I hesitated, breaking his gaze. “You and he...I have asked him, but I’m not entirely sure if I believe his answer…” I shuddered as his fingers trailed over my stomach again. “Are you two...I’m sorry, I shouldn’t...”

“We are friends, tesoro.”

I met his eyes again. “But you fuck?”

Mitch laughed. “Yes. We fuck. Or, more specifically, he fucks me. I prefer receiving rather than giving.”

My eyes widened and I felt my face begin to burn. “Oh.”

“Was that too blunt?” He laughed again. “You wanted me to tell you.”

“Yes, but I…”

“Didn’t expect that I actually would?”

I bit my lip and nodded, and he wrapped his arm around my waist, settling closer.

“I don’t mind talking about it. It isn’t as though there’s anything to hide, really.”

I nodded, curious if that was his way of allowing me permission to ask whatever I wanted. I bit my lip before taking the bait. “You’re not in love with him?”

Mitch huffed a laugh. “No. I thought I was, back when he and I first met, but we’re better off without any troublesome emotions. He’s not really the type of man who falls in love.”

I frowned, entirely unsure about what that meant, but I figured that was a question best to leave unasked. “When did the two of you meet?”

Mitch sighed and trailed his fingers through my hair, a small dimple forming at the corner of his mouth as he concentrated. “He came to work for us the spring before I turned fourteen. He was seventeen and he was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen.” He laughed. “It took two months before I managed to talk to him.”

“I can’t imagine you at a loss for words,” I said quietly, and Mitch laughed again.

“Avriel was three years older than I was and looked like a fucking god. You would have been speechless as well.” Mitch rested his hand on my arm, moving to play with my fingers. “I tried to seduce him and it took another month before it worked.”

“He was your first kiss?”

Mitch smiled, his eyes soft. “He was my first everything. He makes for an intimidating figure when he wants to, but he was so sweet to me and I thought I was in love with him for the longest time.”

“What happened?”

“I grew up and realized I was acting like a fool.” Mitch looked up at me, bringing my hand closer to his face so my fingers brushed against his jaw. His skin was warm and smooth, and touching him felt like trying to hold water in my hands, as though he was slipping away from me bit by bit. I simply held him closer, watching as his eyes lightened to auburn in the quiet morning sun. “When you are fourteen, the world seems magical,” he whispered after a moment, tucking my fingers under his chin. “But the magic cannot last forever. I went away to school and everything changed. I fucked other people, he fucked other people, we fucked other people together.” He let out a soft sigh. “I realized that he makes a better friend than romantic partner.”

“And now?”

“He’s my best friend. We keep each other company, and we love each other, but it’s nothing romantic. As I said before, he’s not really one for romance.”

I nodded slowly, brushing my fingers through his hair. “And Giacomo?”

“You know about Giacomo?” He frowned before shrugging and settling closer. “He’s just a good fuck, honestly. Nothing more. He’s got a cock like a horse and he knows how to use it.”

“Christ…”

“Precisely. I think he might be in love with me, but he doesn’t speak much English so it’s difficult to know for certain.”

I hesitated. “And you? Are you in love with him?”

He laughed. “You are very curious about my romantic affairs, aren’t you?”

“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, embarrassed at how comfortable I’d become around him in such a short quantity of time. We may have been cuddled up in my bed together, but that didn’t take away from the fact that he was heir to the richest bank in the country and I was nothing more than his servant. “I shouldn’t have asked that, you mustn’t -”

“Scott,” he said gently, cupping my face and smiling so widely his dimples flashed. “Stop worrying yourself, I was only teasing. You may ask me whatever you wish.”

I shook my head slowly. “I’m sorry…”

Mitch sighed but only rested back against me, his hand pressing against my stomach again. “I’m not in love with Giacomo, to answer your question. Honestly, he and I are drifting apart and we’ll be done with each other within the month.”

“Why?”

“People grow apart, and we were never particularly close to begin with. Besides, he’s started treating me like a whore.”

I felt my stomach tighten. “What do you mean?”

“He wants me to come up to the city with him to meet his friends, though from what I’ve understood it sounds like the majority of his friends are pimps.” He laughed, his umber eyes flicking up to meet mine. “He seems to believe that all I think about is sex, which is partially true, but still offensive.”

I studied his face, curious at how unbothered he seemed, although there was that flicker of sorrow gleaming within his eyes again. “He sounds horrible,” I whispered, and Mitch grinned.

“Yes. But in comparison to Avriel, I suppose everyone sounds a bit horrible.”

“You don’t.”

He smiled, his face softening. “You’re sweet,” he murmured, moving a bit closer. I tightened my arms around him, still amazed at how perfectly we seemed to fit together. “Promise me you’ll hold onto that when you leave, tesoro. We need more sweet people in the world. Especially now.”

I bit my lip. “Mitch?”

“Mm?”

“I really like it here.”

He moved closer. “I’m glad. I like having you here.”

“It’s frightening, though,” I murmured, closing my eyes. “Everything I feel is so different than before.”

“You’re safe here, mio caro. You can feel whatever you want to feel and nobody can hurt you because of it.”

I hesitated before pulling him closer into my chest. “I kissed Avriel.”

He chuckled. “I’m aware.”

“He told you?”

“Of course. You thought he wouldn’t?”

“I wasn’t sure,” I said quietly, uncomfortable with how he was looking at me as though I was on trial for a crime I hadn’t committed. “It only happened recently, I didn’t know if he’d had the chance…” I trailed off and the intensity in Mitch’s eyes faded. He cupped my face and moved forward, and for a moment I thought he would kiss me.

“He and I do not keep secrets,” he said, pausing when his lips brushed against my jaw. I shuddered. “He told me yesterday afternoon, after you’d left.”

I paused, only speaking again when curiosity trumped caution. “What did he say?”

“Are you worried he said something negative?”

My face warmed. “I’m not sure. Did he?”

“No,” Mitch said, laughing. “He did not. You’ve made a great impression on him, tesoro, he’s very fond of you.”

“The feeling is mutual.”

There was an odd gleam in Mitch’s eyes that I couldn’t read, and he pressed his lips gently against my jaw before pulling away. “I’m glad. He’d said it was new for you?”

My face flushed and he laughed, the sound so beautiful that I felt the embarrassment melt away. “Yes, I suppose you could say that.”

“Which part, I wonder?”

“What do you mean?”

“It was your first kiss with a man, correct? But not your first kiss ever, surely.”

I was quiet and he raised an eyebrow, his eyes softening.

“No...really? That was your first kiss? You’d never done it before with anyone, man or woman?”

I looked away and Mitch let out a breath, his fingers curling under my jaw. When our eyes met again he looked concerned and emphatically apologetic.

“I didn’t mean to sound offensive, tesoro, I’m sorry. I’m only a bit surprised. Living in the city with so many people...and it’s not as if you’re an unattractive person…” He shook his head, moving forward and resting a hand on my chest, just below my heart. “It seems strange that somebody as gorgeous as you had yet to do something so innocent.”

I shrugged, unsure of what to say. Mitch simply stared at me, and a moment later his eyes lit up with a form of recognition that made me all the more uncomfortable.

“Does that mean…” He paused, pulling his hand back slowly from my chest. “Have you never been with anyone?”

I clenched my jaw. “Evidently.”

“No, I didn’t mean to sound condescending, I was only -”

“Surprised?”

He laughed, his brow furrowing. “Well, yes.

“Mitch -”

“I’m sorry,” he said, brushing his fingers through my hair and shaking his head. “I feel as though I’m making everything worse, and I - I don’t mean to offend you, mio caro. But you’re a beautiful man and it’s a bit difficult to understand. It’s not as though there’s anything wrong with it, though…”

“Mitch...”

“I’m sorry.” He moved back so that his legs were no longer pressed against mine. “I suppose it’s logical why I don’t understand, though.” He let out a laugh, and despite my grand discomfort I found myself aching for the lost contact between our bodies. “The whore cannot understand the mind of a virgin.”

My stomach twisted. “You’re not a whore.”

He smiled. “You’re sweet.”

“I mean it. You’re not.”

“And how would you possibly know that?” Mitch smiled again, resting his head on my shoulder. “I’ve known you two days and I’m currently lying half-naked in your bed.”

“I don’t mind.”

“It doesn’t matter if you mind, bel ragazzo. It does not change anything.” He sighed and nuzzled closer, and despite the tense change in conversation I still found myself responding to his touch instantly. I should have been worried at how quickly I was attaching myself to him - especially given that he was my employer and would return to boarding school at the end of the summer - but it felt as though all control I might have had was gone, replaced instead with a confusing and demanding inclination towards this beautiful and unreadable boy. I’d never allowed myself to grow close to those around me, in fear I would discover who I truly was, and yet within two days that caution had melted away; first with Avriel, and now with Mitch, and I wondered if it was just the fickle heart of someone my age or a far more deeper cause, and found I did not know. All I knew was that I enjoyed kissing Avriel and I enjoyed holding Mitch, and I would do whatever I could in order to ensure that I could continue. In that sense, I supposed, I was more a whore than either of them.

“Will you tell me what it’s like?” I asked a few minutes later, when I was fairly certain Mitch had fallen back asleep. He opened his eyes, though, and looked up at me tenderly, his fingers brushing against my jaw so lightly it tickled.

“What do you mean?”

“What it feels like,” I whispered, twirling a piece of his hair between my fingers. “To be with someone.”

He was quiet for a long while before pushing himself up onto one elbow and staring at me with furrowed brows. “Are you asking me what it’s like to have sex?”

My face flushed and I looked away. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t -”

“Tesoro,” he said gently, resting his hand on my arm. “It’s alright.”

“I shouldn’t have...I’m so sorry -”

“Hey,” he murmured, pushing himself forward and resting his weight on my lap, his hands reaching up to cup my face. “You do not need to be embarrassed.”

“I shouldn’t have asked you that, it was completely inappropriate, and I -”

“Scott.”

His voice was so thick with worry that I ceased talking immediately. I stared up at him, my heart reacting oddly as it realized we were possibly the closest we could be to each other, and my fingers twitched, aching to rest along the sharp curve of his hipbones but instead remaining motionless by my sides.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, and Mitch shook his head, his wide brown eyes concerned and his fingers tracing delicately over my cheek.

“You do not need to be,” he said gently. “You never have to be sorry for asking anything like that.”

“It was inappropriate -”

“We both just awoke half-naked and holding each other.” He raised an eyebrow and I managed a weak laugh. “Our relationship, however young it may be, is quite evidently not the most appropriate correlation. But I honestly do not mind. I’d rather you ask me uncomfortable questions than never once mention what you are thinking.”

I looked away, unable to hold his gaze despite the warm feeling that made its way through my stomach. “Still…”

“I’m your friend, Scott.” He brushed his fingers through my hair and moved closer, lifting my chin so our eyes locked. “Not your employer, not your master, not some millionaire bastard who treats his staff as though they are horseshit - your friend. You may ask me whatever you want, and you never need to worry about being fired for misconduct or anything of the sort. I do not know why my father hired you, but I’m grateful he did, and I will not let anything jeopardize your position here. You are safe.” He brushed his thumb over my lips and my breath caught in my throat. “I know it must be difficult to believe what I say, but I swear to you that you are safe here. You have my word, tesoro. You are my friend and I will protect you.”

I found myself unable to speak, simply gazing up at this confusion of a boy and attempting to understand even one aspect of his beautiful mind. The intensity in his eyes softened and he sat back a bit, one of his arms winding around my neck and the other resting over my heart.

“Making love feels like you are drowning,” he said softly, his fingers tracing circles along the back of my neck. I shuddered but did not say a word, and he moved his hips forward slightly so that he was settled directly on my lap. I felt loathe that I’d made such a fool of myself, but his voice was not irritated in any manner as he spoke, and it struck me sweet how he answered my question despite the discomfort it provided. “As though you are a thousand feet below the surface of the sea,” he continued, moving closer, “and you can feel your lungs about to burst. It burns and aches and it feels as though the spirits of the dead are swirling around you, gripping you in their arms and pulling you deeper and deeper and deeper into the unknown, all the while feeling as though you might simply stop . But the burn continues and then - within the span of a moment - it is no longer a burn, but it is light. There is light pouring out of you as you surge forward through the water, and the moment you break the surface and you take your first breath of air in what feels like decades - the light explodes and you are no longer a person, but you are energy . Your mind is dizzy and your heart pounding and your entire body is buzzing with nerves you were not even aware existed, and it feels as though you are more than you ever believed you could be. And then it slows. The burn is still there, but it is softer, and the aches dull until you can breathe without fear that your lungs will stop, and you feel the water washing over you in a moment of warmth and beauty…” He paused, the pupils of his eyes dilating until I could see nothing but an obsidian gleam. “So many people believe it is shameful to feel this way, but it is not. Pleasure of that sort cannot be anything but beautiful. If it is a sin to enjoy my mortality in such a way, then I will surely burn in hell with the devil.” He smiled and my breath caught again. “Fearing the indulgence that God has created for you seems a waste, tesoro, and I will not comply with such a waste.”

I shuddered as he brushed my hair back again, my entire body warm with embarrassment and longing and something else I could not understand. “Mitch,” I whispered, the word choking me until I felt unable to breathe.

His eyes softened, and his hand - which was resting over my heart - moved slowly down my stomach, pausing at my waistline as an unspoken question hovered between the two of us. I swallowed my nerves and rested my fingers on his hips, and he moved forward again, his other hand cupping my face so gingerly I felt far more fragile than I truly was.

“The way I described it is nothing compared to what it actually feels like,” he murmured, and I felt goosebumps erupt over the skin of my arms as his fingers pressed against the hem of my underwear.

“The way you described it sounded pretty damn incredible,” I managed, and he smiled as though he was shy, his lip catching between his teeth.

“I fear I’ve corrupted you,” he said, his voice hoarse as he moved closer, his hand brushing against me. “And thus the virgin is seduced by the whore…”

“You’re not a whore.”

“Maybe not. But you are a virgin.”

I blushed and he smiled, cupping my face.

“It really is much better than I described it,” he whispered, his fingers resting against me in a way that muddled my mind far beyond the way of comprehension. He hesitated before leaning forward, his lips stopping only inches from mine. “I could show you, if you want.”

My heart stopped in my chest and I looked up at him, my fingers digging into the soft skin of his hips. He bit his lip and his cheeks flushed pink, his body hot against me and his eyes darker than I’d yet to see them before. He pressed a soft kiss to the corner of my mouth before pulling away, speaking softly into the warmth of the late summer morning.

“Do you want me to show you?”

Chapter Text

“Yes.”

The word was out of my mouth before I could think to stop it, and Mitch’s beautiful eyes seemed to grow lighter as he brushed my hair back from my face. Every movement he made was slow and deliberate, his fingers delicate as though he was afraid he’d startle me. I tightened my arm around his waist and moved forward in a burst of audacity, tilting my hips to the side and nudging his body back onto the bed, so that I was positioned anxiously above him with my hands on either side of his head. I bit my lip before suddenly moving back and creating more space between the two of us, my moment of bravery gone in an instant as he stared up at me, his breathing slightly heavier. His hands moved to rest on my stomach and I shuddered, my heart beating at twice its normal pace and my fingers trembling as I attempted to hold my balance. He touched my waist lightly before moving his hands up my abdomen and over my chest, pausing as he cupped my jaw. His eyes were curious in the way of a maven and it made me all the more bashful. He was well aware of what he was doing and what would come next, but the situation itself was new to him. He’d done this before, but it had not been with me. I was untried in almost every manner - a blank page for him to do with what he pleased - and the thought made me blush crimson as he leaned forward to trace his finger over my lips. I was his. He would do whatever he wanted and yet the thought did not frighten me. I was his, but he did not seem the sort of person prone to misuse, and although I was afraid, it was not the sort of fear I had expected. I was his, but he was kind, and everything would be alright.

He opened his mouth as if to speak, but remained silent, instead letting out a slow breath as I shifted against him. My arms felt weak and I rested my weight back slightly on his hips, afraid I would hurt him but too damn precarious to do anything to stop it. His fingers paused at the corner of my mouth and I bit my lip without a thought, catching his thumb between my teeth and freezing the moment I processed what I’d done. His facade dropped as a brilliant smile lit up his face, and his other hand tangled in the hair at the back of my head, tugging me closer as though there was not already a significant lack of space between us.

He was beautiful. It was something I’d known from the moment I’d first seen him, but with every second that passed it seemed as though every minute flaw about him transformed into a feature of unending perfection. It was not that my eyes simply ceased to see his faults, but rather that his faults instead became the source of his beauty. He was no angel, nor god, nor being from heaven, but I did not need him to be so. I needed him as humans need one another, and as humans could not need a flawless being. Perfection may have been beautiful, but its allure was as false as its contents, and he was anything but perfect. We were anything but perfect. But we were irredeemably unsound, and perhaps that is what brought us so close to the clouds.

His lips were soft against mine - still so very gentle, as though he was afraid I would break if he pressed too hard. My eyes slipped shut and I leaned forward against him, my hands in his hair and his legs around my waist, the vertebrae of my back prickling with a chill from the warm morning sun. His mouth was sweet, and had I been a cautious man I would have thought him to be so sweet he was poison. But I was not a cautious man and he was not the start of my demise - he was poison of the brain, poison of the soul, poison of the heart, but he could not be poison of the body because his arms around me and his lips on mine were far too divine to hold within them the key to mortality. His kiss was not the call of a siren. He would not hurt me. I was weakened by his touch and tainted by his words, but he was my imperfect perfection and he would not hurt me.

His hands interlocked at the base of my lower back, pulling me against him until I could think of nothing but what it might feel like to have him in every sense, terrified and surprised and deafeningly intrigued by such a prospect. I shuddered when his fingers pushed under the waistband of my underwear, his fingernails digging small crescent marks along the skin of my back and his lips pressing warm kisses to my jaw and down my throat. I pulled away after a moment, watching as his drooped eyes stared up at me and his teeth worried at his swollen lip, before leaning forward and kissing him again, breathless and heartless and merciless as Mitchell Grassi took everything from me that I had not already lost without once uttering a single word.

I felt him warm against me and yet could not contain my shiver as he slid the last piece of clothing down off of my legs, his fingers resting over the muscles of my stomach as I forced myself to accustom to such blatant exposure. He did not try to touch me, instead brushing his fingers through my hair and kissing me gently, his lips so inviting that I soon found myself responding to his soft caresses, preening like a kitten and moving closer to him in whatever way I could manage. His kisses slowed before stopping altogether, and when I looked down at him he was watching me with muddled eyes that spoke of things I could never understand. He cupped my face and held me closer, and in that moment I wondered if hands so sweet could equate to torture. I simply shook the fear away, though, and retreated into his safety, with which I had all too quickly fallen enamored. I was his. He was holding me, and I was his, and I was going to be alright.

I felt him in a way I had been unaware I could feel, and it was unimaginable. He was the air around me - across my face and down my throat and into my lungs, until I could not breathe without him by my side, because the light that he’d spoken of - the light that I was - could not be seen if there was no air for it to occupy. I was his in a way that I was not my own, and his hands against my skin felt like bullets of rain being shot straight through me. I felt him everywhere. I was him everywhere. And then I was not his and he was not mine because separation no longer existed. We were imperfect in the way that the sky was imperfect - stained with storms and stars and moons that shone within us - but it did not matter because we were also beautiful in the way that the sky was beautiful - in the way that the sky could not be beautiful without those very same blemishes that created its imperfection.

He pushed me gently off of him, his arms guiding me onto my back so that we had switched positions, and he was the one now sitting above me. His fingers brushed over my cheekbone before resting at the waistband of his underwear, and a moment later he was naked against me, his cheeks flushed a beautiful scarlet and his hands hesitant along the curve of my pelvis. I shuddered and he kissed me slowly, not moving away until the tension eased its way from my muscles, immediately tightening again when I felt his fingers wrap lightly along the length of my cock.

“Alright,” he whispered, his other hand cupping my face and his eyes watching me with an air of worry. “You are alright...”

I bit my lip but found I could not speak, only managing a quiet whimper that made his eyes darken to black.

“You are so beautiful,” he murmured, and in that moment I believed him. He smiled, kissing my jaw before finding my mouth again, and I pulled him closer against me, letting out another whimper when his fingers tightened and he began to slowly move his hand. I felt him press up against my thigh and hesitated before bravery took control, my fingers wrapping around him in a moment that felt distinctly familiar and yet so completely alien. He made a startled noise and pulled away from the kiss, his breathing slightly labored and his eyes gleaming with surprise. “You do not have to do that if you don’t want to…”

I blushed, my courage somehow still present as I cradled him against me, his cock hard and warm in my hand. It felt undoubtedly strange to be touching another man like this, and yet the fact that it was Mitch for some reason made any dubiety I may have had simply melt away. I turned my hips to the side so that I was once more above him, pressing my lips to the skin of his neck and down along the slim trail of his stomach. He shuddered but did not say anything, his fingers gripping in my hair and yanking sharply when I kissed the curve of his hip.

“Scott, you don’t have to…”

I ignored him and paused at his groin, my lips inches away from the tip of his cock and my heart suddenly hammering in my chest. I glanced up to see his wide brown eyes staring at me and I bit my lip before looking back down, my hand still wrapped loosely around him and my consciousness fighting against itself with every second that passed.

I waited a moment before loosening my grip and trailing my fingers over the underside of his length, curious at how he let out a quiet hiss and the muscles in his thighs tightened. I did it again and received the same reaction, this time running the tip of my finger along his head and rubbing lightly at his slit. He cursed softly and I tilted my head to the side, gripping him once more with firm fingers so I could study him easier. He was beautiful, although I suppose I was not surprised by that, given how every inch of his body seemed to have been blessed by the heavens. I was larger than he was, though not by much, and he was flushed a gorgeous pink, the tip of his cock shining lightly with precum that I found myself desperately wanting to taste. His fingers - which had been gripped in my hair all the while - tightened when I leaned forward, running my tongue over his slit before gripping him by the hips and taking all of him into my mouth, all logic and sanity completely void from my mind.

He let out a hungry moan and I felt him push forward, his words jumbled as he let out what I assumed to be a long line of curses in Italian. I closed my eyes and moved back a bit, completely unsure of what I was doing but vaguely aware of what might be the proper way to go about this. I sucked lightly at his head and he let out a shuddering gasp, and I almost started laughing before calming myself in fear that I would choke on his cock. It would have been quite a way to die - sucking off one of the richest people in America - but I in no way wanted this to end at any point in the near future, and I figured that staying alive would be in my best interest to achieve that goal.

Such pleasant sentiments were short-lived, though, as I became suddenly and terribly aware of what was happening when he moaned my name, my clouded vision becoming all too clear. Within an instant, every enjoyable aspect of this sordid affair had become irredeemably tainted, and I could not bear it. This was wrong. I had another man’s cock in my mouth. I had another man’s cock in my mouth and I liked it.

I pulled away quickly and moved as far back from Mitch as I could possibly get, my stomach churning as my muddled mind attempted to process what the hell I had been doing, and how easily I’d allowed myself to do it. My hands trembled as I tried cover myself, shame a familiar feeling in the underside of my belly. I’d been so foolish. I’d been so fucking foolish and I had allowed - I had wanted…

Mitch watched me carefully, his eyes flooded with concern although he did not try to move closer. His hand, which was still resting on the back of my neck, cupped my face gently, his thumb tracing over the stained tears I was sure were already there upon my cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, shaking my head and not meeting his gaze. “I should not...I can’t…”

“It’s alright,” he said, hesitating before moving closer and pulling me into his arms. I resisted for a moment before moving closer, still somehow comforted by his touch despite the fact that it was supposed to have sickened me. “It’s alright, tesoro, you’re alright…”

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “It was just…”

“Too much?”

I bit my lip and gave a slow nod. He brushed his lips under my jaw, his fingers warm on my neck.

“It’s alright,” he said softly, carding my hair back and holding me closer. “You are alright. My first time, I was so nervous that I crawled into my armoire and tried to hide.” He chuckled, his voice edged with worry. “It took ten minutes before Avriel finally convinced me to come out.”

I swallowed, burying my face in his neck and trying to ignore the embarrassment that had become a second nature to me. “What happened after?” I whispered, my throat raw with the feeling of him on my tongue.

“He held me for a long while, and it took ages before I let him kiss me again.” Mitch smiled, pressing his lips to my shoulder. “I think we stayed in my bed, simply hugging, for an hour before we tried anything else. But he was gentle and he never did anything that I didn’t want and...he took care of me.” His fingers rested below my chin and I looked up, meeting his warm eyes. “I would like to take care of you, Scott…”

I looked away. “It’s wrong.”

“It’s not.”

“It is.”

“Is it?” He asked, his hand resting on my stomach and pushing me gently onto my back. “Does it feel wrong?” He pressed his lips to mine, his fingers gripping my cock and stroking me once. I shivered but did not pull away, my arms wrapping around his waist before I could consider what I was doing. He kissed my jaw, his voice soft. “Does this feel wrong?”

I bit my lip. “Yes.”

“Then I will stop if you want me to,” he murmured, licking the palm of his hand before stroking me again. I had to keep myself from moaning his name. “Do you want me to stop doing this, tesoro?”

I squeezed my eyes shut, too terrified to look at him. “No.”

His hand slowed and it was a few moments before he stopped altogether. It took a long while before I could force myself to look up at him, my breathing heavy and my heart pounding.

“I would like to take care of you,” he said gently, brushing my hair back and kissing me again. “Let me take care of you, mio amore. Let me show you the stars.”

“It’s wrong,” I said quietly, and he smiled, his eyes tinged with sadness.

“You cannot live life afraid of what other people will think of you,” he said, and the words were so familiar I felt my heart quicken. “You must let go, my love. Let go and open your heart to the light.”

I shivered. “I can’t.”

“You can.” He pressed his lips to mine, his hand wrapping around me again. “You must.”

“I’m afraid...”

“Fear comes with freedom. Fear comes with life. You will always be afraid, but it becomes unimportant when you are also free.”

“And this?” I asked, my fingers trembling. “Is this freedom?”

He smiled. “It’s a damn good start.”

“Mitch -”

“Scott.” He placed his hand on my face, handling me as though I was a porcelain doll about to break. “Do you want this? Because I will stop if you don’t.”

I looked away. “I do,” I whispered, and his fingers brushed over my cheek, turning my head so that I was facing him once more.

“You do not need to be ashamed of that,” he promised. “If we were not meant to enjoy it, then it would not feel so good.” He rested his hand on my stomach, and despite my embarrassment I pressed closer against him, completely out of my head with longing that I should not have felt. He smiled, kissing my jaw and holding me between his fingers once more, and I forced myself to allow it, focusing on the warmth it caused in my stomach rather than the guilt I knew was not far off. His fingers tightened and he moved closer, licking the palm of his hand again as his cock brushed against mine. I stifled a gasp, my fingers digging into his shoulders as I held him against me, and he paused.

“That…”

“Alright?” He murmured, and I nodded, tilting my hips up and sighing shakily at the feeling of him against me. He kissed my neck before moving again, gripping us both in his hand and giving a long, slow stroke. I moaned, heat shooting through my fingertips and my eyes squeezing shut, the feeling so completely foreign and yet familiar at the same time. Perhaps it was not entirely different than how it usually was on my own, but the knowledge that it was him - that he was against me, touching me, and feeling the exact same thing I was feeling - I could hardly bear it, it was so much. His forehead rested against mine and his dark eyes were watching me, his tongue flicking over his lower lip as he moved his hand again. His hips rocked slightly in a manner that sent goosebumps over my shoulders, and I tilted my chin forward, finding his lips again in some impatient attempt at having more.

I allowed my hands to run over his back, completely in awe of his imperfect perfection that seemed to extend to his physical form as well. His skin was smooth and warm, and I found myself particularly enthralled with the ridges of his spine that made music beneath my fingertips. He made a trilling sound when I traced over his lower back, his hips nudging forward again and his hand quickening a bit, and I gripped his ass in my hands before letting go immediately, embarrassment gripping ahold of me once more.

He pulled away from my lips, giggling as he nibbled at my neck. The sound was so pure that I moaned and rocked into his hand, slowing when he spoke.

“You can touch me there, if you’d like,” he whispered, sucking at my lower lip. “I hadn’t thought you would want to try anything that close, but I am perfectly willing if you are.”

I blushed when he tightened his fingers around the both of us, his cock rubbing against me in a way that was beginning to feel maddeningly insufficient. “You enjoy..?”

“I believe we’ve already established that I enjoy getting fucked,” he teased, letting out a shuddering sigh as he pushed up against me again, his hips rocking faster. “Mm, but I enjoy this, as well…”

I hesitated before gripping his ass again, though I did not try anything other than pulling him closer to me, thrusting once against him and shivering when he returned the motion. He kissed my jaw before tightening his fingers and moving his hand faster, and I knew very well that even if I had wanted to try anything more, there was no possible way that I would last much longer.

“Mitch,” I managed, my voice wavering. His lips pressed against mine and he stroked us quickly, until I was helplessly pulling him closer and letting out another moan, my eyes squeezing shut as that familiar white heat shot through my gut. I shuddered as all of my nerves pinched together, compacting themselves as closely as they could before suddenly expanding as I came against him. My eyes opened and I watched as he bit his lip, a reminiscent pulse running through my cock as he moved faster, letting out the most gorgeous sound before coming, his hand slowing as the space between the two of us grew warmer and so much closer than I ever believed it could be.

He huffed a breath before kissing me again deeply, his arms wrapping around my neck and his hips rocking gently against mine, the sensitivity of the moment heightened but such unforgiving and undeniably wonderful contact. I moaned and kissed him back, his tongue soft against mine and our noses bumping gently, my heart still pounding as though it would cease to work at any moment.

I had always assumed that as soon as the act of sex itself had finished, the two parties would clean themselves and return to their business as usual, but Mitch seemed to be perhaps even more sensual now than he had been before. His fingers tangled in my hair and he straddled my lap, kissing me so fiercely I feared I would collapse from a lack of oxygen. My lips tingled and my jaw ached, but I had no desire whatsoever to stop this moment, and so I simply pulled him closer, rolling us so I was almost lying atop him. His legs wrapped around my waist and I moved slowly against him, curious if I could orgasm again within such a short span of time. My bones felt weary with exhaustion, and yet my cock was still hard, sliding up against his as I nipped at his neck, biting at the skin in a hesitant attempt at marking him. His fingers gripped in the hair at the back of my neck, his shoulders rising slightly as he moved closer, and I shuddered when I felt his hips press up again.

“Are you..?” I trailed off and he laughed, reaching down to reposition my cock against his.

“I’m not sure,” he whispered, moaning as I pushed forward softly. “But it feels good still...mm, are you?”

I let out a slow breath, kissing back up his neck until I found his lips. “I do not know. May I..?”

“Keep going,” he murmured, cupping my cheek with one hand while the other reached down to hold our cocks together. “Harder.”

The order gave me chills but I complied, thrusting harder against him until after a few minutes he shuddered and sighed, his cock leaking slightly and his kisses growing sloppy. He stroked me a few more times before a tame, softer release pulled at my stomach and I collapsed against him, my face burying in his neck.

He kissed my jaw, his fingernails scratching at my back. “Do you always come twice?” He asked softly after a few minutes, and I giggled, my cheeks flushing as I nuzzled closer into him. “Because I cannot say that it’s usual for me.”

“I don’t know if the second could really be considered coming,” I said. “It felt nice, though. Warm.”

“Tesoro?”

“Mm.”

“You’re beautiful.”

I looked up at him, pressing our lips together. “The same applies to you.”

He smiled, his fingers playing with my hair. “Thank you for trusting me.” He kissed the tip of my nose. “I know how frightening it can be to give yourself to someone in such an intimate way, and I hope you enjoyed…” He paused as I kissed him again, the sight of his swollen lips too tempting to ignore. I was well aware that the moment I eased out of this mindset I had fallen into, I would most likely panic about what had just happened, and I wanted to postpone my inevitable breakdown for as long as I could. I could already feel the bubble of nerves growing in my gut, but I ignored it in hope that it would disappear. Mitch’s fingers rested under my chin, his lips sweet, and I finally pulled away after a few minutes, my breathing labored.

“I like doing that,” I whispered. His cheeks tinged pink and he smiled beautifully, and I felt my heart flutter like the wings of a butterfly before tightening. “You are so beautiful…”

“You’re sweet.”

“I mean it.” I rested my head on his chest. “You are the most beautiful person I have ever seen...”

He pressed his lips to my temple, holding me closer. “I quite like you, bel ragazzo.”

“I like you as well.”

“I’m glad.” He tugged at one of my blankets, pulling it over our waists. “Thank you for letting me show you the stars.”

“Mitch?”

“Mm?”

I hesitated, closing my eyes. “Will you sing to me?”

He chuckled, moving down and brushing our mouths together. I sighed happily and kissed him back, afraid of how quickly I’d grown close to him and yet completely unwilling to distance myself. He was beautiful, and sweet, and I felt something for him that I’d yet to feel before in my life. It frightened me, but I could not even begin to mind. He pulled away after a moment, resting his forehead against mine.

And in the warm sunlight of the late morning, sleepy from lovemaking and terrified of what it made me feel, I settled closer into Mitchell Grassi’s arms and listened as a sweet boy sang to me, his voice high and beautiful and perfectly capable of making me fall in love.

Chapter Text

We stayed there a long while, my face buried into Mitch’s neck and my hand resting on his chest, just above his heart. I could feel it, if I stayed still enough, beating faintly against my palm, and after everything that had happened I could hardly fathom its presence. This moment - this strange and foreign moment that I found myself yearning to stay in forever - seemed unreal. As though I was stuck within a dreamscape, with this boy - this boy - who was beautifully fallible in every way. Never could I have imagined myself here, too afraid of what it would reveal about both myself and what I had all along been taught were sins of the flesh. But what I was feeling now - this odd, slow warmth in the pit of my stomach whenever my hand brushed against Mitch’s cheek - this did not feel like sin. This did not feel ugly, or shameful, or wrong. And it did not seem logical that it ever could have felt that way. Sin could not be beautiful, and yet this was. This was beautiful, and Mitch was beautiful, and what I felt right now - in this new and brilliant moment - this was beautiful. He made me feel beautiful, and it was not something I ever believed I could have felt.

And my heart, which had been so cold for so many years - so frightened of everything it had ever felt - warmed in my chest as though touched by the sun.

A knock on the door sounded all too soon, and I opened my eyes to see Mitch staring down at me, a tenderness settled about his expression. His fingers brushed lightly over my cheekbone and across my lips, and he leaned forward slowly, pressing a gentle kiss to the tip of my nose that made my cheeks warm it was so sweet. I allowed a small smile and would have returned the gesture if the knock had not sounded again. His eyes crinkled a bit as he grinned.

“It seems we have a visitor,” he murmured, his voice still hoarse with sleep. I bit my lip and cuddled closer into his side.

“Fuck them,” I whispered, and he laughed, the sound all too loud for the quiet room.

“I probably already have.” He brushed my hair back slowly and gave another beautiful smile as whoever was at the door knocked again. I heard a deep exhalation before a familiar low voice called my name, and my cheeks warmed again at the look of amusement on Mitch’s face. “It seems the groundskeeper is looking for you, tesoro.” He pressed a kiss to my cheek before wiggling out from beneath me. “I told you I’ve already fucked him.”

Avriel called my name again and I pressed my hands to my eyes, letting out a low groan before answering him.

“Come in.” I glanced over at Mitch, who was running his fingers through his hair in front of my small vanity, the curve of his lower back covered in long, crimson scratch marks that made me blush. “Beware that some of us are unclothed,” I added, and Mitch glanced back at me with warm eyes.

There was a pause and the door handle jiggled slightly before stopping, as though Avriel had moved to open it before pausing halfway through to reconsider. His voice was slightly sharper when he spoke again.

“Scott, are you alone right now?”

Mitch raised his eyebrows, his lips curling down as he glanced over at me again. I pushed myself up in the bed, wrapping the sheet around my waist in a fleeting attempt at modesty.

“No,” I called, watching as Mitch picked his underwear off of the floor and slipped it on slowly, rummaging through my drawers to find a loose fitting shirt that hung to his knees when he put it on. Avriel didn’t reply and I stood, pulling on my own underclothes as quickly as I could and approaching the door, confused at the sudden silence and the odd tone of the groundskeeper’s voice. “Avriel?”

There was the soft sound of someone speaking quickly, and then a grunt of affirmation. It was a few moments before the doorknob moved again, and this time it swung open just enough for Avriel to slip inside and close it behind him, his green eyes annoyed and his jaw clenched. He studied me almost curiously for a second before looking around the room, and he paused when he saw Mitch standing by my vanity. The boy turned to face him, his smirk fading the instant he saw the tense look on Avriel’s face.

“M ój aniele,” he said softly, crossing the room and cupping the man’s cheek. “What is wrong?”

Avriel sighed, brushing Mitch’s hair back from his eyes and looking over the boy slowly. His irritation seemed to fade a bit and I felt my stomach turn with the notion that he was envious. He did not seem the type, but I wondered if I had crossed some unknown line with what had happened that morning. The thought made me ill, and the feeling of beauty melted away until my heart was stone-like in my chest

“Not your best timing, moim ukochanym,” Avriel murmured, and Mitch’s brow furrowed, his hand moving to rest on the man’s hip.

“Explain.”

“Your father. And guests.”

Mitch’s eyes widened and his complexion paled until he looked nothing more than a phantom shadow. “Guests?” He repeated, glancing over at me before back at Avriel. “My father is in the city, mio amore , do...do not be ridiculous. My mother is with him, they’re there until at least Thursday. We have no plans for guests.”

“They’ve returned a bit earlier than expected.” Avriel sighed, his brow furrowing. “With the Bonanno family. The car arrived only a few minutes after I did, and your father asked to speak with you the moment he stepped through the threshold. Naturally nobody knew where you were, but I assumed that Scott would and…” Avriel ran a hand over his hair, which was pulled into a loose braid that ran down his back. “Well, your father was quite insistent to see you and he came with me to find you. With Mr. Bonanno.”

Mitch’s face - which I had not thought could grow any paler - indeed did, and he stepped back as though struck by Avriel’s words. “Do they -”

“They heard what Scott said about having company, but they do not know it was you,” Avriel said quickly, and Mitch let out a slow breath. “I assumed it was and I managed to convince them that Scott had tried to court one of the maids and that was who he was with.”

“And now?”

“They are waiting for you in your father’s study.” Avriel bit his lip, cupping Mitch’s face gingerly. The boy was practically shaking. “It’s alright, moja miłość. Mr. Bonanno knows nothing, he heard nothing, he saw nothing. It’s alright.”

“I must go,” Mitch said quickly, running his fingers through his hair and looking around the room frantically, as though he’d misplaced something. He looked over at me and something flashed in his dark eyes that I could not read. “I - I need to bathe, and change, and -” He looked back at the vanity mirror, his fingers brushing over the dark red bruise that I had made just below his jaw. “Fuck, Scott, why the hell did you bite me so hard?”

My stomach turned and Avriel placed his hands on Mitch’s shoulders, turning the boy towards him as his body began to tremble.

“Mitch,” he said firmly, and it was the first time I’d ever heard Avriel say his actual name to him. The boy flinched and I leaned back against my desk, desperately confused. “You must calm yourself.”

“If Mr. Bonanno knows -”

“He doesn’t.”

“Why would my father..?”

“I do not know,” Avriel said, his voice soft. “But you must relax otherwise you’ll fall into a panic.” He cupped Mitch’s face in both of his hands, stepping forward until there was not an inch of space between them. “Scott has done nothing wrong and neither have you, and nobody knows but me, alright?”

Mitch stared at him a long while before nodding slowly, and he glanced over at me with wide, apologetic eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, stepping forward and hesitating before his hand rested on my arm. “I should not have said that. You’ve given me nothing but kindness and I’m sorry for - for being so rude. But I need to go immediately and I can only hope that I haven’t hurt you.” He cupped my face and stood on his toes, kissing my cheek once before turning back towards Avriel. They spoke quietly for another moment and then Mitch slipped through the door and out of my room, leaving me standing there like a complete fool, wondering what had just happened and what the hell I had done to upset him.

“He’s not angry,” Avriel said quietly, as though reading my thoughts. “Not with you, anyway.”

I turned towards him, my face flushing when I realized I was still standing there in nothing but my underpants. “I do not understand,” I said, my voice shaking as I crossed the room to my chest of drawers. “He looked as though he was going to faint.”

“He was afraid.”

“Of?”

Avriel sighed and reached down, picking up the bed sheet that had fallen to the floor and folding it back over my bed. “Mitch may be allowed to be who he is in this house, but that does not mean that it is safe for him to do so when there are outsiders about. If Mr. Bonanno discovered his tendencies…”

I shook my head, my stomach churning again. “Mr. Bonanno?”

“He’s a partner of the Grassi National Savings Bank and a close friend of Mr. Grassi. He doesn’t know what Mr. Grassi has done for Mitch, and he doesn’t know about the staff.” Avriel paused, turning towards me. “Scott, you can never tell anybody that Mitch is a homosexual.”

“Of course,” I whispered. “I know that.”

“It would destroy his life and most likely result in his death. You know how people like us are treated, and if it ever got out that Mitch prefers men he would lose everything and most likely be - be murdered in the process.”

My heart grew cold in my chest. “Murdered?”

“The wealthy in this country are very conservative and very intolerant. You would be surprised at the actions they would take if they ever discovered who Mitch was.”

I swallowed the bile that rose in my throat. “Nobody could be that cruel.”

Avriel’s eyes were sorrowful as he took a step toward me. “Everybody can be that cruel. Look at the war we’ve gotten ourselves into. Everyone’s happy to kill everyone else, so long as they’ve a reason and a large enough gun.”

“Is that why he has such awful nightmares?” I asked quietly, and Avriel’s face softened. “Because he’s afraid?”

He sighed and cupped my cheek, his skin smooth and warm against mine until I could not breath as steadily as before.

“That’s only the beginning, city boy.”

--

That afternoon passed by quickly, and I spent the majority of the early evening assisting Kevin with dinner preparation. It seemed as though everyone had been unaware that the Bonanno family would be staying to dine with the Grassis, and now the chef was panicking as nothing suitable had been purchased for a party that size. I had managed to catch a glimpse of the Bonannos in the parlor, where Mr. Grassi, Mrs. Grassi, and Mitch had been sitting with them when I’d brought the afternoon tea. Mr. Bonanno was a stout, red-faced man with an impressive mustache, and his wife was tall and willowy, as though she would blow away if caught up by the wind. They were a homely couple, and yet their two children - one boy and one girl - had somehow inherited all of their best features. Their son Cesare appeared a few years younger than I, and he had dark, shining curls that gave him an impish look. He wore a playful smirk that made me slightly anxious, as though he was secretly plotting against all those around him. His sister Luce was the exact opposite - fair where he was dark, gentle where he was mischievous - although still beautiful in her own way. Her golden-white hair hung down past her waist, and her wide brown eyes reminded me of a deer they were so calm and trusting. She seemed close to my age, and I could not help the pinch of envy I felt when I noticed her unabashed curiosity in Mitch.

I had not stayed long, only setting the tea tray on the centerpiece table in the parlor and asking Mitch if he would require anything else. He’d given me a warm, slightly strained smile and declined, and I’d felt hot embarrassment as he trailed his fingers over his neck lightly, just over the red bruise that peeked out under his collar. I’d only blushed and excused myself, confused and surprised at such an obvious action in front of the Bonannos. I realized quickly, though, that he had only done it because nobody had been paying him any attention, all of them focused rather intently on Mr. Bonanno and the apparent hilarious story he was telling. The only person who seemed to even consider Mitch worth noting was the daughter, Luce, who looked over at him every few minutes with a soft, gentle smile that seemed far too comfortable for my liking. I shook my jealousy away, however, and retreated back to the kitchen, where Kirstin and Esther were chopping vegetables and Kevin was flying between the counters and ovens and stoves, yelling instructions to the small kitchen staff that only seemed to hinder him rather than help. Avriel was sitting by one of the small tables by the door, writing something in a leather-bound journal, and I looked at the frenzy behind the counters before quickly moving towards him, tucking myself away from the chaos and taking a moment to finally breathe.

Avriel looked up and gave me a warm smile, his beautiful green eyes oddly tranquilizing. I glanced at the page he was opened up to in his journal and grinned when I saw the thin, wispy lines of a tall flower drawn in charcoal.

“You’re an artist?” I asked softly, and Avriel chuckled, adding a few more lines before nudging the journal towards me.

“Not quite. But I like to record the flowers as they bloom every summer. It helps me in the next year to know how well they will do.” He stroked his thumb over one of the lines, smudging it slightly. The picture was simple yet utterly beautiful. “Freesia. They are supposed to represent innocence.”

I ran my fingers over the rough-edged pages. “That seems a bit inaccurate. I do not think a single person in this house is innocent.”

“You are.”

“Am I?”

He looked up at me, his lips tugging into a grin. “I am not sure. Are you?”

I blushed and pulled his journal towards me. “May I?” He nodded and I flipped back to the first page, where a delicate flower was sketched out with wide, thick lines. The words Daffodil, Summer 1914 were written in the top right corner, and I smiled again. “1914. The year you began working here?”

“Yes. Mitch told you?”

“Yes.”

“He is very fond of you,” Avriel said quietly, and for a moment I thought I heard a hint of envy in his tone. “He does not usually become so... close to people so quickly.”

I looked up, worrying at my lip with my teeth. “Does it bother you? That he has?”

Avriel’s brow furrowed and he placed his hand over mine, his fingers smooth. “I have told you before that he and I are only friends. You having sex with him is not something that upsets me.”

“Avriel,” I whispered, looking down at our hands. His fingers were long and beautiful, almost too delicate beside mine, which were rough and calloused. I wondered what Mitch’s fingers looked like, and found I could not remember. “It is alright if you are in love with him.”

There was a moment of silence, and then Avriel let out a long sigh. “You constantly misunderstand me, city boy.”

“I have seen the way you look at him -”

“Then you are misreading my gaze.” His hand reached up to rest under my chin. “Look at me, sweetheart. I am not in love with Mitch. I am not in love with anybody for that matter.”

“Avriel -”

“Listen to me, kochanie. Because you do not understand.” He sighed again, brushing my hair back off of my forehead. “I am not in love with anybody, and I have never been. And I do not believe that I ever will be. Falling in love is not something that particularly interests me, if I’m to be completely honest. I love Mitch dearly, don’t misunderstand, but that love is not the sort that you think it is. I do not wish to give him my heart, or for him to give me his, and I am perfectly content with the way our relationship has been for the past three years. I do not mind if the two of you have sex and I do not mind if the two of you fall in love, because he does not belong to me and it would be wrong to behave as though he does.” He paused, raising an eyebrow. “Do you understand?”

I bit my lip, my throat suddenly much drier. “You cannot love?”

“Do not say that as though it is a tragedy,” Avriel murmured. “Of course I can love, but I was not made for romance.” His lips curled into a small smile, and he rested his fingers over my hand again. “Do not pity me, Scott. There is much in my life that is more important than falling in love.”

“But…”

“I am not broken, sweet boy. I am simply different from you. There is nothing wrong with that.”

I tightened my fingers around his, pressing the back of his hand against my lips. “You are alright with it?”

“I am very alright with it,” he said gently, cupping my cheek and leaning forward to kiss me. When he pulled away he was smiling so warmly that I knew he was not lying to spare my worry. He was alright. He was different, but he was alright. Although, I suppose in a way, I was very much the same. “Now tell me about you and Mitch,” he continued after a moment. “I did not expect the two of you to grow so close so quickly, if I’m to be honest.”

My cheeks flushed and I looked away. “He is sweet…”

“He’s very sweet,” Avriel agreed, looking down at his journal before closing it slowly. “Tread carefully, though, city boy. There’s much more to him than sweetness.”

“What do you mean?”

“For somebody so young, he’s gone through unimaginable horrors. I did not lie to you when I told you that this place was paradise, but paradise is always far more complicated than you may think.”

I watched him cautiously, an unpleasant taste forming in my mouth. “I do not understand.”

He smiled and kissed me again. “We should help with dinner. The Bonanno family dislikes tardiness.”

I placed my hand on his arm before he could stand, not speaking until his gaze met mine. “Why are they here?”

“Cesare Bonanno will inherit his father’s company when he’s of age,” Avriel said softly, as though picking through his words with great care. “It is natural that he be well acquainted with the Grassi family. And Luce...well, it is difficult to say, but it would not surprise me if she and Mitch ended up marrying.”

My stomach turned. “Marrying?”

Avriel smiled, his eyes flickering with sorrow that made my blood chill. “As I said before, city boy. Tread carefully. Do not give your heart to somebody who cannot care for it.”

“I’ve given my heart to no one,” I whispered numbly, and Avriel simply stood, his fingers brushing through my hair as he walked away.

“Haven’t you, though?”

--

Dinner passed without any faults, and the evening turned to night so quickly I hardly noticed. I brought a tea tray to the parlor at around eight, where Mr. Grassi, Mr. Bonanno, Mitch, and Luce were all sitting together. They seemed to be having a rather intense discussion as I walked in, and quieted the moment they recognized my presence. Mitch looked pale and exhausted, and did not quite meet my eyes when I inquired if he would need anything more. He declined and I hesitated a moment before leaving the room, closing the wooden doors behind me as I exited, and odd feeling sat in the pit of my stomach.

It was decided that the Bonanno family would remain at the Grassi residence until the morning, and I retreated to my rooms that night feeling terribly lonely without anybody to sleep beside. I knew it was foolish to feel the way I did, but I could not help but miss Mitch’s presence. We’d known each other only a few days, and yet I felt bonded to him as though we’d been friends for years. I disliked being without him, and such dependence worried me greatly.

The next morning I approached his rooms at nine with his breakfast tray, only to discover that he and Luce had left for a walk around the garden not ten minutes earlier. I returned to the kitchens with flushed cheeks and a heavy heart, and Kirstin - who had been sitting at the counter eating her own breakfast - surveyed me with concerned eyes.

“You know he cannot love her,” she said gently, setting her toast down and moving to sit beside me. “I understand how unpleasant it feels, but he can never love her. You must remember that.”

“I’ve only known him a few days and yet…” I shook my head. “I cannot stop thinking about him.”

“You’re lovesick, city boy. There is nothing unusual about that.”

“Does it always feel this horrid?”

She smiled and rested her chin on her hand. “Pobrecito. Yes, it does.”

“Is this how you feel whenever you see Esther?”

Her face flushed a pretty pink and she picked apart her toast with her fingers. “That would imply that I have romantic feelings for her, which is not at all the case. Nosotras somos amigas. Es una amistad sin la romanza, Sancho.”

My lips curled up and I rested my head in my hands. “You do not need to lie to me. I am in the same situation as you.”

“Mitch does seem to have that effect on people,” she said softly, and I smiled at her careful diversion. “May I hazard a guess that you two have not been strictly platonic?”

“Yesterday. We made love.” I looked down at my fingers, unable to keep my smile from widening at such beautiful words on my lips. “He was so sweet to me…”

Kirstin sighed. “That was sooner than I’d thought. He must stop doing that…”

“What do you mean?”

“Fucking people he hardly knows. He is going to get himself hurt.”

“I would never hurt him.”

Her eyes were gentle when she looked back up at me. “I know that, Scott. But you must understand that Mitch is in a very precarious position, and yet he behaves as though his actions will not have any consequences. He is putting himself in danger. If he ever misread the situation and tried to seduce the wrong man…”

“Does he do it often then?” I asked quietly, playing with the buttons of my sleeves. “Is - is it common for him to fuck people he’s only just met?”

Kirstin bit her lip, running her finger over the brim of her teacup. “I believe you know that answer without me telling you.”

“He thinks he’s a whore.”

“He’s not.”

“I know that. But that is what he says. What he believes.” I paused, trying to recollect everything I knew for certain about Mitchell Grassi, and surprised at how much was simply pure speculation. He had told me whatever I’d wanted to know, and yet none of it seemed actually of any importance. “He seems as though he’s the happiest, most confident person I’ve met,” I whispered, looking back up at her. “And yet there are moments where that persona falters.”

Kirstin’s dark eyes were even. “He’s just a boy, Sancho. He’s far too young to have gone through what he has.”

“Everyone keeps saying that,” I said, looking up as Mitch and Luce passed by the kitchen window. He was smiling as though he hadn’t a care in the world, and I wondered if what I was seeing was truly what he was feeling. “But he is one of the richest people in this country. It does not seem as though he’s had much trouble in his life.”

Kirstin shook her head, stacking her plates on top of each other and walking towards one of the large basin sinks.

“There is much more to Mitchell Grassi than you know,” she said, humming as she tied her apron around her waist. “Perhaps you should ask him instead of making assumptions.”

“Kirstin,” I called softly, and she looked over from the sink. “I do not wish to feel this strongly for him. Not if...not if it will only bring me grief.”

She smiled, an understanding in her eyes that only increased my worry.

“That is the trouble with love, though, city boy,” she said, pulling open the window until I felt a cool breeze on my skin. I could hear Mitch laughing from outside, the sound so beautiful it made my heart ache. “You never have a say in who it’s for.”

--

I learned later that morning that it had been decided that the Bonanno family would depart after lunch, and yet I could not help but notice that only Mrs. Bonanno and Cesare left with Mr. and Mrs. Grassi for the city. When I mentioned it to Kevin he simply shrugged and presumed that Mr. Bonanno and Luce would be staying for a bit longer. He seemed untroubled by it, and yet I was unpleasantly somber as I made my way to the garden that afternoon, where I came across Avriel coddling a patch of bright red flowers.

“They haven’t left,” I said the moment I saw him, and he looked up at me, brushing his hair back and pulling off his gloves as he stood. “The daughter and father are still here for the unforeseeable future.”

“And that bothers you?”

I frowned but did not answer, and Avriel let out a laugh, tugging at his beard thoughtfully.

“You’ve really gotten stuck on him,” he murmured. “Haven’t you? He must have fucked you quite well to make you this way.”

“Avriel -”

“Shh, I only jest.” He took a step forward, placing his hand on my arm and tugging me a bit further into the garden, so that we were surrounded by tall stalks of sunflowers. They were beautiful and melancholy, and yet I could hardly force myself to look at them. “Tell me what is wrong, sweet boy. You seem troubled.”

I bit my lip, settling on the grass and waiting until he settled beside me. “I miss him.”

“Mitch?”

I nodded and Avriel sighed, laying back and staring up at the clear blue sky. “It has only been since yesterday that he’s been occupied. It’s not a terribly long time, sweetheart.”

“It seems unfair, though. He made love to me and then, not a moment later, he was gone. It feels lonely.”

Avriel sighed again and I laid back beside him, my skin prickling in the heat. “It is unfortunate that it happened that way, I agree. Especially given that it was your first time being intimate with somebody. But you are attaching yourself to him and I do not think it is wise to do so. What happened between the two of you yesterday seems to mean quite a lot to you, and that’s perfectly fine, but I can guarantee that it did not mean the same to him. He loves sex, city boy. And sex does not always come with love.”

“I do not love him.”

“No, but you seem to be headed in that direction.” Avriel turned on his side, brushing his fingers over my cheek. “Have you been in love before, kochanie?”

“No,” I whispered, and Avriel moved a bit closer, pressing his lips to mine. The contact was comforting, and I leaned into him, my hand resting on his neck. He pulled away after a moment, his nose bumping against mine.

“These past few days must have been very difficult for you,” he murmured, kissing my nose. “You’ve had to accept things about yourself that most men choose to ignore for their entire lives, and you’ve acted on these feelings more than once. That cannot have been easy to do, and perhaps it makes sense why you are clinging to Mitch so ardently. He was the first person to break past whatever barriers you had put up.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head and kissing him again. “That was you. Remember? That night in my bedroom, I was willing to do whatever you wanted.”

“Only because you were not thinking.”

I bit my lip, my eyes slipping shut. “Perhaps. I do not know.”

“But you’ve attached yourself to him, because he was close to you in a way that nobody has ever been close to you. Especially given the losses you have suffered recently - your parents, your sister. Now it feels as though you are losing Mitch as well, and it hurts.”

I was quiet for a long while, my stomach breaking into uneasy waves of nausea. I could feel Avriel against me - his hands, his legs, his mouth - and yet instead of feeling suffocated, I only felt calmed. Perhaps he was correct with every word he said. It made sure enough sense, and yet it seemed as though such a claim negated everything I was feeling. I had learned much about Mitchell Grassi in these past two days, and yet I still felt drawn to him as I had before we’d made love. I sighed and kissed Avriel again, rolling a bit so I was hovering above him with my hands on either side of his head.

“You must miss him as well,” I said, pressing my lips against his neck. His fingers gripped in the hair at the back of my neck and I found I wanted him desperately. Perhaps it wasn’t Mitch that I was truly missing; perhaps it was sex. I bit back a laugh at such a thought - one taste of cock and now I was offering myself to anyone who would have me like a goddamn rent boy.

“I do miss him,” Avriel murmured. “But only because I know this is hard for him. He’s never liked the Bonannos, although Luce is kind enough. She’ll be a good wife if they do marry.”

I groaned, kissing him again to stop such awful words. “Don’t say wife. They won’t marry.”

“They most likely will, city boy.”

“What did you say before? That between cock and cunt, Mitch much prefers cock?” Avriel laughed and I kissed his mouth, enamored with such a lovely sound. “I don’t believe he’ll ever be able to manage the taste of cunt, Liebling.”

Avriel laughed again. “Liebling?”

“It is German.”

“I was aware of that,” Avriel teased, his hands resting on my lower back. “What does it mean?”

I bit my lip, my cheeks flushing red. “It means darling.”

Avriel’s eyes softened. “You are so sweet,” he said softly, leaning forward to kiss me again. “Am I your darling now, Liebling?”

“If you wish to be.”

“I do. But do not fall in love with me. It would be unacceptable if I had won the heart of a German.”

I paused, pulling back so I could see his face, a flash of panic muddling my mind. “Does that bother you? That I am German?”

His eyes softened and his smile faded a bit. “I was only teasing you,” he murmured, cupping my face and pressing his lips to mine. “It does not matter to me where you are from, sweet boy, so long as it does not matter to you where I am from.”

“I take no issue with Poland or its people.”

“Then we are alright.”

“But you...you should take issue with me, should you not? A Jew should not be so...so comfortable with a German. Not after everything that my country has done.”

He regarded me steadily. “I do not really believe that it is your place to determine what a Jew should or should not do.”

My face grew cold. “I am sorry, I did not mean -”

“Scott,” he interrupted, cupping my face once more. “Why are you suddenly so worried about our ethnicities? It’s not been a problem before, and I hardly think it should become one now.”

“I just... worry . It is so easy to forget our differences, but we cannot forget. Not with this war, and not with everything my country has done to hurt your people.” I moved back a bit, brushing my fingers through his hair. It was so soft that I wished to curl beside him and sleep, comforted by his gentle beauty that still made my heart ache. “You were so trusting of me from the moment we met, and it only seemed to endear you the fact that I was German. Shouldn’t you have been worried instead?”

His mouth curled into a melancholy smile. “I had assumed you’d faced enough prejudice in the city for being German. Especially due to America’s recent involvement in the war. I did not want to be one more burden on you. It does not bother me where you are from.”

I hesitated, tracing my finger over his lips. “And it does not bother me where you are from, either.”

“Then we are alright,” he said again, and I nodded, leaning forward to kiss him again.

“Yes. We are alright.”

--

The days passed and it became increasingly obvious that Mr. Bonanno and Luce would not leave at any point in the near future. I grew to accept it - ignoring the dull emptiness in my chest at Mitch’s absence - but could not help but worry with every meeting I had with the Grassi boy. He seemed more and more exhausted each time I saw him, as though he’d not slept a moment since our night together. I’d managed to inquire about his health at one point, and he’d only revealed that his night terrors had grown much worse as the days went on. It angered me to know that I could not comfort him - not with the danger of Mr. Bonanno being so close - and Avriel seemed to feel the same. Mitch was utterly alone, and there was not a thing we could do about it without risking Mr. Bonanno discovering Mitch’s sexual preferences. It was positively horrid, and so I could not have been happier when the next Monday evening - a week after the Bonannos had first arrived - it was announced that they would finally be leaving the next morning. I had no knowledge of why their stay had been so long, but I could only imagine the possibilities, and I had to hold back my cheers as I watched that Tuesday morning as both Luce and her father climbed into the taxi they had called for and drove away at long last.

I stopped in the kitchen briefly before climbing the stairs to Mitch’s bedroom, knocking once on his door before stepping through the threshold. Avriel had gone to the city the night before and so Mitch was sat alone at his desk when I entered, only looking up briefly to give me a small, exhausted smile.

I set the tray I’d brought on his vanity, turning back to close the door and lock it behind me. My hands were trembling slightly as I walked toward him, but the happiness I felt to finally be with him again trumped any nerves I might have had. I paused beside him, brushing my fingers through his raven hair and waiting until he looked up at me. The bags under his eyes told me everything he did not, and I was positive that he had hardly slept the entire week we’d been apart. I ran my hand over his cheek and his eyelids fluttered a bit, a tired sigh escaping his lips.

“Come,” I said gently, resting my hand on his arm. He shook his head, motioning lazily towards the papers that littered his desk.

“I have work...”

“Come,” I said again, and this time he did not argue. He stood wearily and I undid the buttons of his blazer, allowing it to fall to the floor followed quickly by his stiff-collared shirt and his trousers. I guided him towards his bed, helping him sit before removing both of his shoes and tugging at his socks, until he was sat before me in nothing but a pair of underpants. His dark eyes watched me sleepily, and I slipped off my own shoes before taking him into my arms and settling beside him on the bed, allowing his head to rest against my heart.

“Tesoro,” he said quietly, the word caught by the edges of sleep. I shook my head and tugged the bedcovers over his waist, holding him closer and humming softly.

“It’s alright,” I murmured, pressing a kiss to his forehead, unbelievably happy to have him next to me once more. “Just sleep. I will sing to you.”

He made a small, tired sound and his eyes closed, his fingers gripping onto mine loosely. “I have missed your voice…”

I kissed his forehead once more, brushing light circles over his back until he settled closer against me. “Sleep, Herzchen. I am here now.”

There was a long moment where he did not speak, and I sang softly, tracing down his spine and along his arms and over his beautiful hands. He shifted against me, his voice so low I hardly heard him.

“I do not want to marry her.”

My chest tightened and I closed my eyes, cradling him in my arms as though I could possibly remedy such a broken plea. I pressed my lips to his skin and only sang louder, well aware that I could not fix this for him. I could not change his course of fate, and I could not stop the inevitable from occurring. I was just a simple man, the son of a watchmaker who had somehow found his way into this strange, beautiful world, and I had no power over the richest forces in America. I could not help him, no matter how desperately I wanted to. So I only held him closer and kissed him sweeter, hoping that I could postpone his foreseen misery and allow him at least a memory of contentment. I could not give him a future, but I could give him now, no matter how brightly the inadequacy of the latter shone. But he was my imperfect perfection, and I could not bear to see him in pain when I knew I could perhaps lessen the intensity.

And so I kissed him again and twined my fingers in his, my voice soft and useless to this beautiful boy who could never even attempt for happiness.

“Sleep now, sweetheart, and know that I am here. I am here. Und Ich liebe dich.”

Chapter Text

Mitch seemed alright the next morning, although I could not tell if he was merely feigning improvement or had actually begun to feel better. We lounged in his bed for a long while before he eventually dragged me downstairs for breakfast, his fingers warm against my skin in every place he happened to touch me so that I was blushing like a virgin bride by the time we entered the kitchen. Nobody was working but one of the assistant cooks, and he stared at me strangely for a long while before finally turning away and beginning on our food, which Mitch had asked for to be packed in a wicker basket with enough water to last us until the afternoon. I had asked what he was planning, but he refused to tell, only ordering me to go change into the most comfortable clothing I had and meet him back in the kitchen in ten minutes.

I obliged, of course, although I could not help but feel a bit apprehensive at this behavior, especially considering the state he had been in the night before. I had attempted to ask him more about the Bonannos and how his past week had gone, but he shut me down before the words had managed their way out of my mouth. I briefly wondered - terrified by the prospect - if he was upset because of what I had told him, although I knew it was entirely unlikely. He did not speak German, and even if he had somehow managed to understand what I’d said, it was not as though he’d been in any position to remember given how delirious with fatigue he had been. He did not know what I had said, therefore it could not have upset him, and everything would be alright.

Because I knew, deep within the folds of my foolish consciousness, that I should never have allowed such impetuous words to come from my lips, even if they had been in a tongue he could not understand. They were not true, and it was ridiculous that I had ever believed they were. I was not in love with Mitchell Grassi, and I would not be in love with him. His was a heart I could never have, and I had known that well enough when I’d declared such vapid adoration without a single thought of consequence. He was my friend - if even that - and nothing more, and I’d hardly known him two weeks. It had hurt to see him so distraught, and I had longed to comfort him, but I should not have done it as I had. I did not love him. I was young and dense and hardly knew what love was, but I knew that what I felt for Mitch was not it. It was not love. It could not be love.

I changed quickly in my room, pulling on a pair of loose grey trousers and a white buttoned shirt. I held my pocketwatch in my hand, sighing softly as I wound it and looped it delicately through my belt. Avriel’s pocketwatch still sat disregarded on my vanity, and I placed it atop my desk, hoping that I would have time that night to at least begin its repair. I felt guilty for taking such a lengthy period to fix it - I’d had it for days now - but my mind had been so muddled with thoughts of Mitch that I had completely forgotten that I’d even had it. Avriel hadn’t seemed to mind all that much when I’d apologized the day before, only pressing a kiss to my cheek and insisting that he understood I’d been preoccupied. I still felt abashed, though, and wanted to return it to him as quickly as I could. He had consistently been patient and kind towards, and I felt unbelievably lucky to have him as a friend.

I hurried down the stairs a few minutes later, meeting Mitch in hall by the kitchen and holding back a smile at what he’d changed into. He wore a pair of thick brown trousers and black boots with shining silver buckles, his shirtsleeves pushed back at the elbow to allow room for his long beige gloves. His shirt - which was a light brown - was half-covered by the grey buttoned vest he wore, and atop his head sat a wide-brimmed straw Panama hat. He looked as though he’d stepped out of one of the fashion magazines they sold on the corner of Canal Street, and it struck me for the first time in a long while that he was one of the richest men in the country. It was so simple to forget, despite the mansion in which he resided, and I felt suddenly conscious of the old, worn clothes that I had on. My cheeks flushed and he gave me a bemused look, setting down the wicker basket that held our breakfast and stepping forward. His fingers brushed over the front of my shirt, smoothing down the collar, before finally coming to rest on my hips, his mouth curling up beautifully.

“You look nervous,” he said, and I knew in that moment that - even if he had somehow heard what I’d said to him the night before - he was not upset with me. I managed a smile and his eyes brightened, his hand cupping my cheek before he pulled back altogether. “I have missed you, tesoro. A week apart is far too long.”

“I’ve missed you as well,” I said softly, and he smiled again. “I - I am sorry if I am underdressed…”

His brow furrowed. “Don’t be foolish. You look perfectly fine. If anything, I am overdressed.”

I nodded but did not respond, and he picked up the wicker basket, opening the door to the back lawn and ushering me through. The morning air was warm and humid, and I rolled up my sleeves as we made our way past the garden and into a portion of the Grassi property that I had yet to explore. I asked him again where we were going, but he declined to answer once more, only giving me a smirk when I let out a frustrated groan.

We walked a few more minutes, my stomach only growing hungrier and hungrier, before we finally stopped as a wooden building came into view, a large overhang arching to the side. I glanced at Mitch curiously and he only smiled, handing me the basket as we came to a halt in front of the building. He pulled something out of his pocket and held it up so I could see it, smiling so widely I was distracted by his dimples.

“Sugar?” I asked when I finally recognized what he was holding, frowning when he placed the sugar cube in my hand and pulled a handful more out of his pockets. “I do not understood.”

“Tesoro,” he said as he started into the large, open building, which I was slowly realizing was not a building at all, but a barn. “Have you ever ridden a horse before?”

“I haven’t,” I said slowly as I followed him, my heart beating a bit faster as understanding dawned. “Mitch…”

“I thought we could go for a ride.” He turned back to me with a beautiful smile. “I’ve not had the chance since I got home. I usually go alone, but…” He paused, his eyes softening. “I have missed you.”

“I’m not sure how well I would do…” I followed him into the barn, words failing me as we came into a long opening with six stalls on either side, from which all a tall, dreadfully intimidating horse peered down at me. “Fucking hell, they’re enormous…”

“Giacomo,” Mitch called, walking a few feet ahead of me and setting the basket down beside one of the stalls. He shouted something in Italian that I could not understand, and a few moments later two tall, broad men appeared at the far end of the barn, looking far more intimidating than the horses. One of the men, who had dark auburn curls, smiled as he approached Mitch, leaning forward and suddenly kissing the the boy the moment he was close enough. Mitch pulled away after a second and rolled his eyes, seeming entirely disinterested, and said something in Italian that made the man frown and glance over at me. I recognized him as the person Mitch had been with on his first night back to the mansion, and a furious blush colored my cheeks as the vivid memory returned to me. The man - who I assumed was Giacomo - only frowned more.  

Mitch spoke again and gradually Giacomo’s frown faded, replaced by a thin, tight smile. He turned back towards Mitch and spoke briefly before disappearing into one of the stalls, leaving us only with the other man, who was surveying me with an uneasy look.

“You’re the new boy?” He asked, glancing from me to Mitch. “The German?”

I hesitated. “I am.”

The man gave me a look, his dark eyes hard and suspicious. “I see.”

Mitch’s shoulders tensed and he leaned back against one of the stalls. “Harold,” he started, his voice cold. “Don’t start acting like an imbecile, it does not suit you.”

The man, who I presumed was named Harold, only frowned and shrugged. “Seems a bit risky, is all. Hiring a German.”

“I prefer Germans to Englishmen,” Mitch said, and Harold flinched as though the boy had struck him. “You know how prejudice is treated here, Hazza. Stuff your mouth before I inform my father of your behavior.”

Harold snorted. “Yes, because as we all know, your father cares so much for Germans.”

Mitch’s eyes flashed. “Say that again.”

“I have no issue with saying the truth,” Harold said, and Mitch clenched his jaw as he stepped forward. “It seems your dear father is suffering from a culpable soul and hired this one to make up for it.”

“I do not know where you heard that damn rumor, but ensure that you forget it,” Mitch hissed. “My father has done nothing wrong, and if you choose to believe such foolish gossip then I’m sure you would do well working somewhere else.”

“You’re not a credulous man, Mitchell. Do not start pretending. This war has brought out the worst in us all, but it has not made you a fool.”

Something in Mitch’s eyes snapped and he stepped forward, snarling, “Leave.”

Harold’s eyes widened a bit with surprise and he moved back. “Excuse me?”

“You’re dismissed until further notice,” Mitch growled, and Harold’s face paled to match his white-blond hair. “I expect you to be off my property by sundown. You do not insult my father or my friends.”

“Mitchy -”

“Go.”

Harold remained for a long moment, staring at Mitch as though he expected him to take back his words. Mitch said nothing, though, simply glaring at Harold until he finally clenched his jaw and turned, striding away from us with clenched fists. I let out a breath I had been unaware I was holding, leaning back against one of the stalls for support as my legs began to tremble. Mitch turned to me with warming eyes, stepping forward and resting his hand on my arm.

“Are you alright?” He whispered, his voice shaking. I managed a nod and looked up at him, completely taken aback by what I had just witnessed and how Mitch had seemingly transformed into an entirely different person. I had never expected him to be capable of such blunt authority, and it had all occurred so quickly that I could hardly believe it had actually happened.

“Are you alright?” I asked, and Mitch hesitated before cupping my cheek and nodding.

“Harold is an idiot and a boozehound,” he said firmly, as though trying to convince himself that he was speaking the truth. “Do not allow what he said to bother you. He’s a fool.”

I hesitated, placing my hand over his. “I hardly even understand what he said…”

He looked about to say something when Giacomo appeared again, leading two large horses out of their stalls and pausing a few feet away. Mitch sighed and moved back, saying something in Italian and leaving me desperately confused as to what was happening. A few minutes later Giacomo showed me how to mount the horse and, after a few nervous attempts, I finally managed, suddenly much less excited for whatever Mitch had planned for the day, my stomach churning in nervous waves. He mounted his own horse easily and gave me a kind smile before starting out of the barn, my horse following his naturally while I held on and tried not to fall off the hard leather saddle.

We stayed at a slow pace for a long while, simply wandering out from the barn and onto a small path that lead into the woods behind the mansion. Mitch stayed by my side all the while to make sure that I was alright, although I could tell he was still a bit shaken by what had happened with Harold. I longed to ask him about it but did not, too afraid of the answers I would receive if he chose to explain. Ignorance was a pain, but in this moment it seemed perhaps much safer than knowledge.

We came upon a small riverbend about a quarter hour later, our horses slowing beside to a large willow tree that sat upon the bank as though they’d done this many times before. Mitch dismounted, leading his horse to a small dip in the bank where the water remained still so it could drink. I watched him, still uneased by the events of the morning, although my stomach was not aching quite so much. He seemed relaxed, though, his hands running softly over his horse’s side as he fed him a few more sugar cubes. It was an astounding creature: tall and regal, with gorgeous raven coloring along its coat, as though it had been created in the shadow realm. They seemed to have an unspoken connection between them, and I could tell simply by how they behaved with one another that they possessed an unbreakable trust. I had never seen man and beast so at ease in the other’s presence, and it was a beautiful sight to behold.

Mitch turned back towards me after a few minutes, guiding my horse to the water by the reigns and helping me down to the ground. I flushed crimson, my legs wobbling a bit as I made contact with the solid earth, but Mitch held me steady, his grip strong and his eyes warm as he watched me.

“Alright?” He asked, and I offered a tentative smile. He grinned and took the food basket from the back of his horse’s saddle, stepping towards the edge of the bank and settling under the willow tree. I sat beside him, silent as he handed me a few wrapped blocks of hard cheese, a loaf of bread, strawberry jam, peaches, and a jug of water. It was no feast, but I was ravenous, and I was not remotely going to complain.

We ate in silence, content to simply be together without words to muddy the waters. The river and surrounding forest was wondrous, and I found myself once more completely taken aback by the pure beauty of nature. Nothing like this could have been found in the city, and I loathed to think of the day when I would have to leave for the dirtied streets of the Lower East Side once more. I could not stand such filth, especially not when I knew that this - nature so clean and abundant - existed just outside of the industrialized world. I wondered if it was possible to simply live in the woods and never return to grotesque civilization. I could build a cabin and hunt for my own food if it boded necessary, and I could manage well enough on my own. Perhaps Mitch would agree to stay with me instead of inheriting the bank, and we could exist on our own together in the contentment of nature. We could be beautiful, if we wanted. Free, and alive, and utterly beautiful.

I pulled off my shoes and socks, rolling up my trousers so I could dip my feet into the cool water of the river. I could hear Mitch behind me, and when I turned he had done the same, slipping off his vest and hat and moving so that he was sat beside me. He raised his face to the sun, taking in a slow breath and letting it go, his lips curling up as the air ran dry from his lungs. It took much of my control not to lean forward and take him into my arms.

“She was a gift,” he said after a few moments, opening his eyes to smile up at me. “When I was ten. I had always wanted a horse of my own to raise and train as I saw fit, and when I awoke the morning of my tenth birthday my father brought me to the barn. She was small for her age, but she was strong and quick, and I loved her.” His dark eyes softened and he leaned back, raising his face to the sun again. “I named her Demeter because we had been studying the Grecian poets at school. Do you know how horses were created, according to the Greeks?”

“No,” I said softly, and he smiled again.

“They were created by the god of the sea. I always found that quite humorous, that such beautiful creatures of the land were originally formed by a being who only resided underwater. Poseidon fell in love with his sister Demeter and she asked him to create for her a gift of ultimate beauty, and then she would be his. He created the horse, but by that point he was no longer in love with her.” Mitch laughed quietly. “The gods were always so fickle with their hearts. Demeter and Poseidon never amounted to anything, but out of a failed courtship at least came a new animal.” He rested onto his back, his fingers running through his hair. “I named her Demeter as an homage to her creators. She is nothing like the goddess, but I adore her. And I adored my father for giving her to me.”

I laid back beside him, closing my eyes and breathing in the warmth of the morning. “Do you still?” I asked gently. “Adore your father, I mean?”

Mitch was quiet a long while and his brow was furrowed when I looked up at him. “My relationship with my father is not…” He hesitated. “It is not something I particularly wish to speak about, tesoro.”

I nodded. “Alright.”

“It is a complicated bond he and I have. But I was not lying before when I was speaking to Harold. My father is a good man and, no matter what some in this country might believe, he has done nothing he need be ashamed of. They know nothing about which they speak.”

“I believe you,” I whispered, and his expression softened. He turned onto his side, his head resting in his arms and his lip caught between his teeth.

“I am sorry for what happened at the barn. I did not expect for Harold to be so... distasteful.”

I laughed weakly, moving a bit closer as the sun warmed my back. “He disliked me because I am German.”

“Yes.”

I hesitated. “You defended me.”

“You are my friend.”

“You hardly know me.”

“You are still my friend.”

I looked away, my face flushing as a light breeze rustled through the trees. “Thank you.”

I felt his fingers under my chin, and when I looked back up he was smiling so beautifully my chest tightened.

“I told you,” he whispered. “I will protect you. No matter what happens, I will always protect you.”

“That seems quite a risky promise to make to a German,” I said quietly, and he shook his head, moving a bit closer until our noses were merely inches apart.

“It does not matter that you are German,” he murmured, running his fingers over my lips. “I trust you.”

“Mitch?”

“Mm?”

“I have missed you.”

He smiled and kissed my mouth sweetly, his beautiful eyes shining auburn in the light from the morning sun, and I knew in that moment that my heart - no matter how frightened and resistant it may have been - was not something I could keep from this beautiful and complicated mess of a boy.

“I have missed you as well, my Scott.”

Chapter Text

Mitch pressed small kisses to my stomach, his finger trailing circles around my navel and up my abdomen as he hummed softly and rested his head on my lap. I smiled and settled back onto the grass beneath the willow, my hair damp with river water and my muscles aching from the heat of of the sun. Mitch’s fingers paused just above my heart and I rested my hand over his, squeezing gently and allowing another smile when he returned the gesture. The summer sun hung low in the sky as the afternoon warmed around us, and I found myself taking in the moment in every way I could. I wanted to remember this in ages unforeseen; the hot, humid air that cracked at my skin, the quiet laughter of the river, the feeling of Mitch’s hand in mine that meant more to me than I could understand. I wanted to memorize this feeling - the feeling of unashamed happiness that was so calmly wrapping its way around my heart, until I could not breathe without a tightness in my soul at the idea of losing this. I wanted to memorize what could not be remembered. I wanted a basis for the false memories that would inevitably create themselves. For the exaggerations, and the additions, and the forgotten minutes. I wanted this moment to be captured in a glass jar that I could store on a shelf and keep safe from the volatility of humankind. I wished my mind were not the sort so prone to imagined fictions, because I did not want to lose the sincerity of this - I wanted a precise copy without any alterations. I wanted a memory as clear and perfect as memory could be. I wanted to memorize this moment, I wanted to memorize Mitch - the taste of his mouth, the color of his eyes, the shape of his body that fit so well into mine - but I feared that I could not. He was my imperfect perfection, but that imperfection extended into his intangibility. I longed to carve everything about him along the curve of my heart, but there was not time enough in this mortal world to capture anything but a flimsy caricature. I wanted to memorize him, but I knew that I could not.

His fingers tightened around mine again as he whispered, “You are thinking so loudly.”

“Yes,” I agreed, opening my eyes as he sat up and rested his fingers on my cheek. “I tend to do that. I used to fall into panics over the simplest things when I was a child.”

The corners of his eyes crinkled with his smile, and he leaned forward to press his mouth to mine. A slow sigh pulled at me as I wrapped my arms around his small waist, cradling him as though he was far more fragile than I knew he was. He pulled back after a moment and my eyes slipped shut, my cheeks warming as he pressed his lips to my nose, my cheeks, my forehead, my eyelids, his motions so gentle it felt as though I was being kissed by the wind.

“What were you like?” He asked, resting back beside me on the grass. “As a child? I cannot imagine a time where you were not seventy feet tall.”

A surprised laugh escaped my lips and I turned onto my side, kissing him once more. I felt him smile against my lips, his fingers light under my chin as he moved closer. His face was significantly pinker when we broke apart a few minutes later, and I pressed another kiss to each of his cheeks.

“I am not that tall,” I murmured, biting my lip as he reached to hold my hand again. “You are simply short.”

“I’m the same height as Avriel.”

“Then he is short as well.” I smiled at the look on Mitch’s face. “You are all such tiny people.”

“You avoid the question, tesoro. Tell me about your childhood. Or your family, or the city, or anything at all.” He brought my hand to his mouth, kissing each of my fingertips. “I hardly know a thing about you.”

“I know nothing about you, either.”

“Then we shall remedy that. Tell me about your family and I will tell you about mine.”

I hesitated at such simple words, unsure if it was wise to talk about something still so sensitive. I had managed the past week without thoughts of my parents or my sister Laura, but I knew that, the moment I broached the subject, every bitter grief would show itself once more. I was loathe to imagine it - my father and mother buried in the New York Marble Cemetery, their bodies now rotting in the cold soil of the Earth - but I still felt that unending guilt that I had not been mourning them since my arrival at the Grassi residence. They deserved more than I had given them - more than I had done. I had sold their shop, sent away their daughter, and was now only preoccupied with a wealthy boy who could never love me. It was shameful, but perhaps what was even more shameful was the fact that, despite all of this, I was the happiest that I had ever been before in my life.

“My parents came to America in 1898,” I whispered, ignoring the catch in my voice and focusing instead on the feeling of Mitch’s fingers around mine. “There was no work for them in Germany, and they had heard much of the promises America had to offer. They were recently married and had nothing to keep them in Brandenburg, and so they bought two tickets for the next boat leaving for the new world. They did not speak a word of English when they arrived in Manhattan, but my father took what money he had and borrowed the rest to buy the shop.” I paused, tilting my face up to the warming sun. “There was no logical way it could have worked. But it did. They had enough patrons to get by, and in early 1900 my mother grew pregnant with me. Five years later my sister was born as well, and we...we were alright. We did not have an excess of money by any means, and there were some nights where we had no food at all, but we survived. When I was eight I started selling newspapers on the corner of 14th Street, and the next summer I begin work as my father’s apprentice. It would have been perfect. I would have inherited the shop when he grew too old, and kept the tradition, and married a nice German girl, and given my parents grandchildren…” I bit my lip, shuddering when I felt Mitch’s fingers soft in my hair.

“Tell me about your father,” he murmured, moving closer. “It sounds like he was a good man.”

“He should have been,” I managed, shaking my head and closing my eyes. “He always made it seem as though we were better off than we actually were. He would buy Laura and I Nussecken at the end of every week, and he - he told my mother as the years went on that we needn’t worry about money much longer. Our shop was growing more and more popular and we had more patrons...my father could afford to go to the taverns on the weekends...he made it seem as though everything was absolutely alright - as though we were alright. But then he died. And my mother died. And I inherited the shop, and - god, the moment I got ahold of our financial statements…” I shook my head again, letting go of Mitch’s hand and gripping my fingers tightly in my hair. “We owed so much money. I thought it had been a mistake, because we - we were supposed to have been alright. But it had been going on for years, and my father had never even mentioned it. He’d been gambling, and then borrowing money from whoever would give it to him to try and win back his losses. He never did and - fuck, we owed so much money, Mitch. I do not know how, but he’d gotten involved with some of the bosses up in Yorkville and...those are not the sort of people you want to be indebted to. They told me I had two weeks to pay back the debts after my parents’ deaths, and I was so afraid of what they might do…” I paused at the feeling of Mitch’s hands in my hair, looking up to see him staring at me with worried eyes. “I had to sell the shop. I did not know what else I could have done...I loved my father, but I - I could not…”

“It’s alright,” he said quietly, brushing back my hair with trembling fingers. “You did what you needed to do to ensure your safety. They would have killed you if you had not payed.”

“It all fell apart so quickly,” I whispered, numb. My tongue was heavy in my mouth with the weight of words it had taken so long for me to say, and I could not help the guilt that collapsed onto me - suffocating and crushing and so undeniably deserved. “I should have done better -”

“My sweet boy,” Mitch murmured, pulling me closer so that my head rested on his lap. “There was nothing more you could have done.”

I closed my eyes, turning and gripping my fingers into the soft skin of his hips. “I miss them,” I choked, shaking my head. “I should loathe my father for the - the position he left my sister and I in, but I only...I miss them, Mitch…”

“Of course you miss them, mio angelo, they were your parents. It is natural to miss them.”

I swallowed, my throat dry and my eyes stinging with tears I could not keep away. “I want them to come back. They - they cannot be d-dead ...I do not want them to be dead anymore…”

“It’s alright, my love,” Mitch said quietly, brushing his fingers through my hair as I embarrassingly began to sob. “Shh...it will all be alright…”

“They did not deserve to die...they were so young still…” I shook my head again, sorrow clinging to my skin until I could not breathe without feeling as though I might faint. “I had never seen them become sick before, not even with a simple fever...they should not have gotten so sick…”

“Shh,” Mitch murmured, and I buried my face into his stomach. “It’s alright, my sweet love...you are going to be alright...I am here, and you are going to be alright…”

“I miss them…”

“I know, my beautiful boy,” he whispered, his voice catching as he pulled me closer into his arms. “I know.”

--

The warm afternoon air grew stale as my heart slowly steadied itself once more. I was cradled in Mitch’s arms despite the fact that I was far too large to do so, and his hands ran soothing lines down over my back, his fingertips gentle as though with even a slight increase in pressure I would crumble even more than I already had.

I was a fool.

I had known it well enough, and now Mitch had come to know it as well. I was so utterly stupid with every action I had made in the past two weeks, and yet this day perhaps had been my most idiotic yet. I should not have told him anything I had - should not have allowed myself to become so emotional, so that he was forced to comfort me - forced to deal with my unbearable absurdity. He was kind and he had done so, but I knew that truly he must have been annoyed with my constant lunacy. I was an absolute fool but he was simply too polite to say it to my face, and such knowledge made me even more embarrassed than I already was.

“I am sorry,” I said quietly, moving back away from him and rubbing at my eyes. “That was - I’m…” I bit my lip, my cheeks flushing a horrible crimson. “That was inappropriate. I am sorry you had to see that, sir...”

Something in his eyes flashed and he pulled me back against his chest, whispering frantically, “Don’t you dare. We are not going through this again, Scott, you do not - I am your friend, not…” He shook his head, cupping my face until I had no choice but to meet his gaze. “You always do this. The moment you even remotely begin to become comfortable with me, you panic and try and reduce us back to something that we are not, and I do not...I do not know why…”

“I should not have broken down like that -”

“My god , you were grieving the loss of your family, Scott. You do not need to apologize for that. Do you believe that it somehow bothered me? Because I can guarantee that it did not, and in fact it did quite the opposite.” He ran his thumb over my forehead and pressed lightly at my temple, his dark eyes so intense I felt my breath stop in my throat. “You are so locked away in your own mind that I feel as though I know nothing about you, because you will not let anybody in. And whenever you do - whenever you begin to break down this fortress you’ve built for yourself - it’s as though after two seconds you are trying to put it all back together again.”

“Mitch…”

“I...I am not trying to make it seem as though I deserve to know everything, because your thoughts are your own and I would never want to take them from you. But, please ...do not let me in just to shove me back out a moment later.” He curved his thumb along my jaw, chewing at his lip. “I am your friend. I promise. You may tell me whatever you want and I will always be here to help you however I can. Please ...I know we hardly know each other, but you need somebody, and I need you, and...I want you to know that I am here.”

I looked down, blinking as foolish tears pricked at my eyes and wishing desperately that I could believe him. “You do not have to lie, sir, it is alright -”

I was interrupted by the feeling of his lips against mine, his fingers gripping so tightly in my hair that I almost pulled away. He would not have allowed it, though, I was sure, my heart thudding as he pushed me onto the ground and sat on my hips. It was ferocious, if I had to describe it in a word, as though he was kissing me for the last time and wanted to make the most of it. His mouth was rough and his fingernails scraped over my chest and I could hardly breathe he was everywhere at once. He bit at my lips and pulled at my hair and it felt for all the world as though I was being claimed, every gentle aspect of his usual manner gone as though it had never been there to begin. I attempted to keep up all though it was no use, simply lying back after a moment and allowing him to do whatever he pleased - ravishing me like he’d never dared to do before. It was terrible and wonderful and I knew that, even if what I felt for him was not love, there was no conceivable way that I did not belong to Mitchell Grassi.

He pulled back slowly after a minute, his lips swollen red and his dark hair hanging over his face. His demeanor faltered for a moment before shifting back, a tender look settling over him although his eyes remained unbreakably wild, and it shamed me to know that I wanted him far more than I ever had.

“You” - the word was a breath, his tongue flicking out over his bottom lip - “are such a fucking fool, tesoro.”

“I…”

“But not for the reasons you believe,” he continued, his voice soft. His fingers carded gently through my hair, his knees still digging into the sides of my hips. “I am not the sort of man who lies, Scott.”

“I did not…”

“Do you think I have time for people I do not care about?” He asked, his eyes regarding me sharply. “Do you honestly believe that I would pretend to like you, as though I am the type of person who needs to change themselves in order to have friends?”

I shuddered. “Mitch…”

“Sweetheart, if I did not like you then you would have been out of a job weeks ago. I do not need to put up with people. If I do not like them, then they are gone.” He sat back, a ruthlessness about him that I’d never realized was there. “I am the most influential person in this country other than the president, and that in itself is debatable. Money is power, and I’ve an excess of both. I do not need to lie to anybody. I have people who do that for me.”

I bit my lip. “Mitch…”

“When I tell you that I care about you, that is not a lie. I am not merely pretending in order to make you feel better. I would not have the patience for that.” He tilted his head to the side, his eyes finally softening as his fingers rested under my chin. “Mio amore, you must believe that I will never lie to you. You are my friend and you are important to me and I - I am trying. But do not think for one second that you are a hinderance, or that I would rather you were not here. I care about you, Scott. And I will protect you. And whatever insecurities you feel about our relationship are completely illogical, because everything I tell you is absolutely true.” He brushed his thumb over my lips, shaking his head and furrowing his brow. “Stop fighting so hard, tesoro. Please. I care about you.”

I swallowed, resting my trembling hands on his waist and whispering, “I am afraid.”

He sighed. “You are always afraid.”

“I am sorry…”

“Stop,” he said, shaking his head. “Stop apologizing. You do not need to apologize.”

“I...I do not know how to…” I paused, my breath hitching. “Everything is so different than before. All of the rules have changed and I do not…”

“Look at me, my love,” he said gently, waiting until my eyes met his. “There are no rules. I do not want you to worry when you are with me. You should not panic about what you say, or whether it is appropriate, or whether it will annoy me - you can say whatever you wish to say, I have told you before. Turn off this beautiful mind for one second and just allow yourself to exist without fear of what will happen.”

“I…” My stomach tightened. “I cannot…”

“Why?”

“I do not want to upset you…”

He rolled his eyes. “Scott -”

“If I upset you, then - then you will leave,” I managed, my throat closing on itself, and he stopped, suddenly silent. “And I - I cannot handle anybody else leaving me…”

He let out a breath. “Scott…”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, closing my eyes and loathing the tremble in my voice. “But I care about you as well and that terrifies me, because we’ve only just met a few weeks ago and yet - I cannot stop thinking about you…” I wiped at my face, my cheeks growing hot with embarrassment. “And I do not want to upset you because I...I do not know what I would do if you left, and I know that it’s horrible and we hardly know each other, but I cannot...I cannot lose you, Mitch…”

He sighed again, moving back off of my lap so that I could sit up and face him, no matter how desperately I did not want to. “I am not going to leave you,” he said gently, although the words sounded unsure. “Not because of anything you do or say. I would not do that.”

“You just told me that the moment you grow tired of people, you get rid of them.”

“But that doesn’t apply to you,” he said, frowning up at me. “My god, have you somehow failed to notice that you absolutely captivate me? I would never do that to you.”

“But…”

“I said I would protect you, and I will. I am not going to leave, Scott, and I am not going to make you leave, either. You are safe.”

I shook my head. “You say such pretty words, but…”

“Scott,” he whispered, cupping my face and pressing our foreheads together. “I am not lying. You...you have changed everything, mio amore. Mi fa venire voglia di innamorarmi.” He smiled, his lips brushing against mine. “Ed è passato tanto tempo dall'ultima volta in cui mi sono sentito così…”

I swallowed, my voice hoarse. “You know I do not speak Italian.”

He smiled again. “That’s alright,” he murmured, his hand resting on my thigh as he moved forward, and I felt my entire body attune to the feeling of his skin against mine. “I can show you what I meant.”

--

“We should head back,” he said quietly, his fingers playing in my hair. The sun was lowering in the sky and the afternoon warmth had faded a bit, but nothing could have made me want to leave such a beautiful place. I groaned and leaned into his chest, craning my head back so I could just make out the top of his hair from where he was sat behind me. He laughed and pressed a kiss to my neck, which was slightly sore and no doubt significantly bruised from his lips. “Come on, mio angelo, Avriel should be back from the city by now.”

I sighed, taking his hand into mine and lacing our fingers together. “City, city city,” I murmured, shaking my head. “Everybody is always in the city. Avriel, Giacomo, your parents. I’d be happy if I never had to go to the city again.”

He chuckled. “That is only because you are so used to it. There is nothing there that you have not already seen. It is different for the rest of us.”

“Mm,” I hummed, pressing his hand to my lips. “Why does he go there so frequently?”

“Mm?”

“Avriel. He always goes to the city on his days off. It’s odd. He doesn’t strike me as the type.”

“He visits his father,” Mitch said softly, his tone much different than I’d heard before. “His health is not the best.”

“Esther does not go with him?”

Mitch hesitated. “They...both have very different relationships with their father.”

I nodded but did not respond, positive that any further questions I had would have gone unanswered even if I had asked them. It was not Mitch’s place to tell me, and it was not my place to know. I leaned back against him again, shivering when he ran his hands down shoulders and wrapped his arms around my waist.

“What about you?” I asked after a few moments, letting my eyes slip shut. “You said you would tell me about your family. You do not have to tell me about your father, obviously, but...your mother? What is she like? I’ve not had the chance to meet her yet.”

Mitch was quiet a long while and I turned a bit to face him. He was worrying at his lip and his brow was furrowed as though I’d crossed some sort of boundary. Mild panic rose into my throat and I was about to apologize when he looked up at me, his face softening.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured, brushing my hair back and kissing the corner of my mouth. “I got caught up in my thoughts.” He paused again before shaking his head. “You probably will not ever have the chance to properly meet my mother, as she is always in the city. She was only home to see me back from school, and I do not think she plans to return until at least mid July.”

I frowned. “I see...you must miss her.”

His half smile seemed a bit forced, and he kissed me again. “I believe that would be exaggerating the matter, tesoro.”

“You two are not close?”

“That is one way to put it.”

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly, my heart beating a bit faster when he rested his head on my shoulder. I ran my fingers through his feather-like hair, kissing his forehead. “Is it because of your preferences?”

He let out a slow breath. “Not quite. She is not overly enthralled that her son loves getting fucked by other men, but it...it is not the main reason for our estrangement. That goes a bit... deeper.”

I hesitated, running my thumb over the curve of his jaw and murmuring, “Will you tell me?”

“I should not,” he whispered, his voice scratchy as though he’d been gripped with sorrow. “But as I said before, you have changed everything. Normality no longer applies.” He nuzzled a bit closer, his skin smelling of honeysuckle and sunlight. “Does the name Nicodemo Grassi sound familiar to you?”

“Nicodemo,” I repeated, the name foreign on my lips. “It does not. Who was he?”

“He was my brother.”

It was a moment before the weight of his words processed, and I felt my chest tighten. “Was?”

“Yes.” Mitch paused, his voice trembling. “He is dead now.”

“Mitch…”

“It’s alright, I am...I am mostly alright with it now.” He looked up at me, his dark eyes shining and a small, pained smile on his face. “He died years ago, back when I was twelve. Pneumonia. His death...it nearly killed my mother. It changed everything ...everything we were, everything we had planned...”

My eyes widened as realization dawned once more. “You were never supposed to inherit the bank, were you?”

He laughed weakly, though in his eyes there was no amusement. “Nico was five years older than I. The rightful heir. My mother’s favorite.” He bit his lip, leaning back against me. “She loved him most, ever since we were children. When he died she ceased talking to me. Lived in our penthouse in the city instead of here with her replacement son. Convinced my father to send me off to school two years early, just so she would not have to see me. When she learned that I preferred men, it hardly changed her attitude - she already hated me, this only gave her a decent enough excuse.”

Avriel’s words came back to me all at once, their meaning suddenly far too prominent to stand. For somebody so young, he’s gone through unimaginable horrors. I held Mitch closer to me, my heart aching for him.

“Is that why you have so many night terrors?” I whispered, and Mitch’s body tensed.

“No.” His voice was faint. “It is not.”

“Mitch -”

“Let’s head back, tesoro.” He turned to me, running his fingers through my hair with eyes that told me our conversation had come to an end. “The sun will go down soon and we don’t want to lose our way in the woods.”

I nodded, watching as he dressed and gathered the reins of Demeter and the other horse, leading them back under the willow. I followed slowly, and a minute later the riverside appeared as though we had never been there to begin with. Mitch was about to mount his horse when I rested my hand gently on his arm, and he looked up at me with undeniable exhaustion.

“Thank you,” I said, and his eyes softened. “For taking me here. It was beautiful. And you...you are so beautiful, Mitch.”

His mouth turned up slightly. “You are sweet.”

“And thank you,” I murmured, stepping forward and cupping his face gently. “Thank you for telling me about your family. For trusting me.”

“Now we know a bit more about each other.” He bit his lip, and I hesitated before leaning forward and pressing our mouths together. “Mm...I do love when you initiate, mio caro…” He smiled, kissing me again. “It calms my doubtful mind. I worry that you do not want me as much as I want you…”

I gripped my fingers into his hair, shuddering when I felt his tongue brush against mine. “I always want you. So much…”

“And thus the virgin is corrupted,” he said, smiling as he pulled back and pecked my nose. “Come, my love. Let’s go home.”

“Mitch?”

“Yes?”

I paused, a smile tugging at my lips until I was positive I looked a fool.

“I am so happy I met you.”

His eyes softened and he leaned forward, kissing me so fiercely I could not breathe.

“The feeling is mutual, mio amore. You…” He let out a slow breath, his eyes warm and tinged with something I was unable to determine. “You have turned my world upside down.”

Chapter Text

I hummed to myself as I removed the face of Avriel’s pocketwatch, setting it down gently on the cloth I had prepared and picking up the magnifying glass I had thankfully packed in my suitcase all those weeks ago. When I had sold my father’s watchmaking shop I had needed to sell most of the tools as well, although I managed to keep a few spare items that were not worth anything significant to anybody who was not a watchmaker. It was a small victory in what had been a sorrowful battle, but it was all I had and I was immensely grateful for it.

I squinted, bringing the candle closer on my desk and lowering my eye to the magnifying glass. It was the day after Mitch and I had gone to the riverside, and only now did I finally have a free moment to worry about this commission I had promised Avriel weeks ago. His pocketwach was cold and smooth in my hand, and I had to take a moment to appreciate its beauty - the gears were masterfully crafted, although its age showed easily with the worn crown wheel and wobbly case screws. I had a few extra screws to replace them with, although I could not do much for the crown wheel - I could order a new one, perhaps, although it might take months before it arrived. I did not have months, and I was sure that Avriel would prefer to have his mother’s watch back as quickly as he could. I hesitated before pulling out my own pocketwatch that had been my father’s for thirty years before it had been mine, unscrewing the face and studying its crown wheel. It appeared roughly the same size as Avriel’s, and a few moments later - after removing the wheel in his watch and replacing it with mine - my stomach sank at the sight. It was a perfect match. I screwed the face of his watch back on and wound it, pleased and yet utterly heartbroken to see that it now worked as it should, ticking softly beside the incomplete corpse of mine.

I set it down on my desk, polishing the face delicately and setting it to the correct time. It was truly beautiful. Dark, tarnished bronze with flowered detailing on the cover, and a thin chain that must have been an alloy, although its components I could not distinguish. The back was absent of any detailing except for the words אוהב אותי מעט אך ארוך, which were engraved so faintly it took me a few moments to notice their presence. I could not read Hebrew, but the script was lovely, and I only hoped that whatever it said was as beautiful as Avriel deserved.

I turned my attention back to my father’s old watch, attempting to place Avriel’s old crown wheel into it and not entirely shocked to find that it did not work. I sighed but simply tucked it into my pocket, ignoring the abhorrent grief that was winding its way through my stomach. I could obtain a new one easily, I knew, especially given my salary and the relative inexpense of watch gears, but I would not be able to do so for at least a few months. I had the address of the factory my father had ordered supplies from, though I did not know when I would have the chance to inquire about the purchase. It was foolish to be upset about it - it was only a pocketwatch, after all - although I could not help the few tears that rolled down the slope of my nose. I wiped them away quickly, blowing out the candle and standing from my desk. I fixed my hair in my vanity mirror before slipping into the hall, my heart still unpleasantly heavy although I knew I was alright. It was only a pocketwatch. There was no reason to be upset. It was only a pocketwatch. My father’s pocketwatch. Simply one more thing with which I could fail him.

I found Avriel and Kevin in the kitchen, each leaning back against the countertop and tossing strawberries into the other’s mouth while servants moved around them in preparation for dinner. Kevin seemed to have perfect aim - the four tosses I witnessed landed square between Avi’s lips - although Avriel did not seem to be trying nearly as hard and half of his throws ended up hitting Kevin on the cheek, so that he had little red juice marks dribbling down his face.

They looked up when I entered and Kevin’s next throw, which had been a direct line to Avriel’s mouth, instead smacked the groundskeeper on the side of the head and resulted in the strawberry becoming stuck in his mane of hair.

“Are you kidding?” Avriel demanded, combing through his hair with a disbelieving smile on his face. He looked over at Kevin, who was leaning back against the counter and laughing so loudly a few of the other servants turned our way. Avriel narrowed his eyes, although he did not appear menacing in the least. “What the hell was that?”

Kevin laughed again and I could not help but join along, my unhappiness vanishing at such a sight. I took a few steps forward and began to pick a few pieces of strawberry out of Avriel’s hair, doing my best not to squish them further.

“Retaliation,” Kevin called, raising his hands above his head and letting out a victory cry, although he stopped halfway through he was still laughing so heartily. “Oh, god, I did not mean to do that, but the look on your face…” He rubbed at his eyes, grinning widely and wrapping his arm around Avriel’s shoulders. “I suppose we are even now.”

Avriel pouted but didn’t say anything, and I chuckled at the childish look in his eyes. “It’s only a strawberry,” I teased, pulling out the last few pieces and tossing them into the wastebasket.

“Yes, but I just bathed,” he complained, running his fingers through his hair and pulling it back into a braid. “Now I am all sticky…”

“Armes Ding,” I murmured, kissing his cheek. Poor thing.

He pouted again. “You are both so mean to me.”

I laughed again, pressing kisses to his face until he cracked a smile, his jade eyes crinkling beautifully. “If it will make you feel better, I’ve got a present for you.”

He raised an eyebrow, studying me warily. “That worries me greatly, city boy.”

I rolled my eyes but pulled his pocketwatch out of my jacket and dangled it in front of him. His entire demeanor changed, every aspect of his person softening until I was convinced he would melt into the floor. His eyes lit up and he smiled again as though I had just given him the sun, taking the watch from me gingerly and looking - for the first time since I’d met him - utterly speechless.

“You’ve fixed it?” He whispered, looking up at me before staring back at the pocketwatch, his fingers running tenderly over the engraving and trembling slightly.

“Yes,” I said, leaning back against the counter and smiling sadly. He appeared so undeniably happy that I no longer felt quite as upset about my own pocketwatch, positive that such a seemingly small sacrifice was worth it in exchange for such unfiltered joy. “It should work for at least another year if you care for it, although a few of the gears are growing worn. I would take it to an actual shop if you get the chance.”

“Scott,” Avriel said quietly, looking back up at me and smiling so beautifully I knew that this meant more to him than I had previously assumed. “I...thank you. Thank you so much…”

I brushed back his hair and kissed his cheek again. “You are welcome,” I murmured, smiling at how Kevin had nonchalantly returned back to work in order to provide us some privacy. A warm affection for the cook settled over me, and I vowed to hug him as tightly as I could the first change I got. “I am sorry it took so long.”

“You mustn’t apologize,” Avriel breathed, still staring down at the pocketwatch as though he was afraid to look away. “Thank you so much...I...how much do I owe you?”

I shook my head. “Nothing.”

He finally looked up, frowning. “But…”

“You’re my friend,” I said with a shrug. “You owe me nothing.”

He stared at me a long while before leaning forward, resting his fingers under my chin and pressing his lips to mine. “You are the sweetest boy…”

“Consider it a thank you,” I said, smiling and kissing him again. “For being so kind and patient with me when I arrived here. I said many horrible things because I was afraid, but you never failed to try and help me, and...that means quite a lot.”

His mouth curled up and his cheeks tinged a beautiful pink. “You are welcome, then.”

“What does it say?” I asked, running my thumb over the Hebrew engraving on the back of the watch. “I could not read it.”

Avriel traced over the words, his green eyes gentle as he stared back down at it. “Love me little but long. It was a gift for my mother from her first husband.”

“She remarried?”

“Yes, back in Poland before I was born. Her first husband passed away a few months after Esther was born, and my father agreed to marry her. They had me a few years later.”

I paused, considering. “I did not know that you and Esther were only half-siblings.”

He shrugged, smiling up at me. “There was no reason for you to know. My father raised us as though we were both his. Esther was only a baby when her father passed.”

“Is that why she does not visit your father in the city?” I asked softly. “Even though he is ill? Because she is not truly his?”

Avriel’s brow furrowed. “How do you know my father is ill?”

“I…” I paused, worrying at my lip. “Mitch told me. He didn’t say anything more...he only mentioned it briefly…”

Avriel studied me thoughtfully, his thumb still running gently over the back of his pocketwatch and his eyes remotely unbothered. “I see,” he said quietly, his brow furrowing once more. “He is quite fond of you, isn’t he? He does not usually trust people so easily with information such as that.”

“I...am sorry…”

His face softened. “No, no, I was only - I’m not upset that he told you, only surprised. Has he told you anything else that... personal?”

I hesitated, looking away and feeling my cheeks warm. “He told me about his brother. Nicodemo. And...his mother, a bit.”

Avriel nodded and was quiet for a long while, slipping his watch into his pocket before frowning up at me. “I see.” He paused, and I could see his thoughts swirling around in his mind as though they’d been caught in a windstorm. “Scott...be gentle with him, please.”

The words struck me. “I’m sorry?”

“He...he does not usually grow so close to people. Not emotionally. He has no issue flirting with everybody he meets, or acting on those flirtations, but he...he does not often let people in. Not like he is with you.” Avriel rested his hand on my arm, his voice soft and almost inaudible in the noise from the bustling kitchen around us. “Be gentle with him. He puts up an impressive front, but he has gone through a lot in his life, and...I do not want him to get hurt if you accidentally mishandle him.”

I shook my head quickly, whispering, “I won’t.”

Avriel’s lips curled up, a melancholy look appearing in his eyes. “I know you would not do something like that intentionally, but still. It is best to be cautious. He is giving you something special - something that he does not give to anybody. Protect it.”

His words did not make much sense to me but I nodded, and he squeezed my arm, his eyes lightening and the severity of the moment fading away in the evening air. Tranquility bloomed around us and I could smell the almost finished dinner that had been prepared, smiling as the clamorous kitchen was noticed once more by my heady senses.

“Where is he, by the way?” Avriel asked, moving back as a servant walked past him with a tray of freshly made bread. “It seems odd that the two of you are not together. You’ve become almost inseparable.”

I smiled again. “He is in the library. He’s started reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and seems loathe to put it down.”

Avriel laughed. “Of course he has. Would you mind finding him and delivering a message for me, if you have the chance? Kevin is taking a few of us out to stargaze tonight and he wanted to know if Mitch was interested.”

“Of course.” I hesitated. “I - I am not...does the invitation apply to me as well, or...I’m sorry -”

Avriel rolled his eyes and interrupted me with a kiss, his fingers warm against my cheek. “Of course you are invited, kochanie. I thought that was implied.”

My cheeks flushed and I smiled again. “I will tell him, then.”

“Thank you.” He paused, pecking the tip of my nose. “And thank you for fixing my pocketwatch. It...it means more than I can explain.” His beautiful smile appeared once more and I wondered if it was possible for a heart to sing. “It feels as though you’ve given my mother back to me.”

My stomach clenched a bit and I brushed his hair back, unable to keep the tears from stinging at my eyes.

“It was my pleasure, Avriel.”

--

The Grassi family’s library was perhaps the most impressive and intimidating room I had ever witnessed in my seventeen short years of life, and I spent well more than five minutes simply standing in the doorway and taking in the wondrous sight before me. There had to have been hundreds, or thousands, or possibly hundreds of thousands of tomes surrounding me, all packed neatly together on vast bookshelves that rose just short of the tall, arched ceiling. There were ten rows of high shelves that I could see, the smell of hard leather and parchment muddling my mind as I waded through an ocean of thick paper volumes, convinced that the deeper I explored, the larger the library would grow around me. Positioned at the end of each row was a large, cushioned chair with a mahogany writing table beside it, and I had to keep myself from settling in one of the seats with a book and reading to my heart’s content. It was a positively captivating room, and it took a long moment before I could even remember the reason I had first entered into this magnificent abyss.

I passed a few more shelves before coming to the perimeter wall, where three prominent windows looked out over the front of the mansion lawn. A tall grandfather clock stood proudly between two of the shelves and ticked steadily, the sound comforting and reminiscent of the first floor of my father’s shop. I glanced over at a pair of chairs angled towards each other with a desk placed between them, and I slowed instantly at the sight of Mitchell Grassi curled onto his side in one of them, a cloth-covered book lying over his chest as he slept soundly. A smile tugged at my lips at how peaceful he seemed - his face relaxed and his raven hair falling over his eyes, the fading sunlight pouring down onto him until he resembled a being only fit for heaven. He seemed acutely untroubled and I loathed the thought of waking him, although I knew that the evening was closing in on us quickly. I moved a bit closer when I noticed his shoulders shaking a bit, a shiver running through him from the cold breeze that had blown in from the window. Without another thought I shouldered my jacket off and tucked it over him, careful not to disturb his slumber despite the knowledge that the action itself was futile. I would have to wake him soon, but I figured that perhaps such an intervention could wait a few more minutes.

I picked one of the volumes from the shelves and settled into the chair opposite him, skimming a biographical work on Alexander Hamilton for a few minutes before a soft, tired voice came like music to my ears.

“It seems you have found my secret hideaway.”

I looked over to see Mitch sitting up in his chair, running his fingers through his hair and smiling lazily. My face warmed and I set the book down on the table in front of me, my heart beating a bit faster when he raised his arms above his head and stretched to the side.

“I didn’t want to wake you,” I said quietly, and he laughed, pushing himself off of his seat and onto the floor. My heart palpated again when he crawled forward towards me, resting his chin on my knee and staring up with a smirk. “But our dear Avriel sent me with a message.”

He hummed but didn’t respond, climbing up onto my chair so that he was wedged between me and the arm, his knees digging into my thigh as he settled back against my chest. I laughed but moved to the side a bit to accommodate him, and we ended up as a mess of limbs entirely too large to be sharing one seat, although he did not seem to mind all that much.

“You’re so comfortable,” he murmured, his face nuzzling into my neck and his hand over my heart. “And you always feel so strong...mm, your arms…” He sighed sleepily. “I love your arms, my Scott. They feel so nice when you hold me…”

I could not help my smile, kissing the top of his head and resting back against the side of the chair. “Are you still asleep, my love?”

He made a happy, trilling noise. “I like it very much when you call me such sweet things. I like you very much…”

“I like you, as well,” I said quietly, pressing my lips to his forehead and smiling when he sighed again. He wiggled a bit until he was curled towards my chest, his mouth warm against my neck and his hair brushing under my chin.

“I dreamt of you last night,” he said softly, his voice still tinged with sleep. “You and me and the riverside. Dreamt we stayed there forever. Dreamt we fell in love…” He paused, his voice almost inaudible when he spoke again. “Falling in love sounds so nice...and warm... you’re nice and warm, too…”

My heart sped up in my chest and he tapped his palm lightly just above my rib cage.

“You sound so tingly,” he whispered. “It makes it feel like little needles are poking at my head and neck, but in a nice way…” He trailed off, his breathing evening out after a few moments until I realized that he’d fallen asleep again. I smiled and ran my fingers through his hair, scratching lightly over his neck and down his back, well aware that I should wake him for dinner but too captivated to do anything but hold him a bit closer and allow my heart to beat even more for Mitchell Grassi than it already did, my mind replaying what he’d said over and over. You and me and the riverside. Dreamt we stayed there forever. Dreamt we fell in love...

The grandfather clock beside us chimed loudly after about half of an hour, ringing six times before pausing and then ringing a seventh. Mitch stirred in my arms and peeked up at me a moment later, his dark sepia eyes shining lighter in the dying sun. My lips tugged into a smile and I pressed a kiss to his forehead, and then his cheeks, and then his nose, before finally finding his beautiful mouth and kissing him as though the stars in the sky had aligned only for us.

Mitch pulled back, biting his lip and opening his eyes slowly, a brilliant smile lighting up his face. “Hello.”

I felt my cheeks flush. “Hello.”

He stretched a bit, resting his forehead on my chest and playing with the buttons of my shirt. “What’s the time?”

“Seven.”

“Mm. Have we missed dinner?”

“I’m sure Kevin has something saved for you,” I murmured, running my fingers through his silky hair. “Avriel said to tell you that he and a few others are going stargazing tonight? He wants you to come as well.”

Mitch’s mouth curled up. “Alright. Will you be there as well?”

“If you wish for me to be.”

He looked up at me, and for a moment he seemed shy as I’d never seen him before. “Of course I do,” he whispered, hesitating before linking our fingers together. “I always wish for you to be with me, my love.”

--

Later that night as the clock in the kitchen struck ten, a group of us gathered around the counter as Kevin packed a wicker basket with snacks and wine and a few small leatherbound books. Mitch and Avriel were talking aimlessly, and I noticed the groundskeeper’s fingers as he played with the chain of his pocketwatch, the sight making my heart thrum happily. Kirstin, Esther, and another maid named Candice were leaning back against one of the kitchen tables, and Kirstin’s eyes hardly left Esther in the five minutes we waited, her smile soft and warm and such a complete revelation that she was undeniably in love.

We filed into the hall and out the door a few minutes later, stepping out of our relative normality and into another world. The sky was the color of coal, small pinpricks of light peeking down at us as though the light from heaven was attempting to break through the dark barrier that separated us mortals and the infinite divine. Kevin led us through the back lawn and down in the same direction Mitch and I had taken to the horse stables, though he turned onto a path through the woods just before the barn came into sight. The night air was chilled and I pulled my jacket tighter around me, moving a bit faster until I was saddled up beside Kevin at the front, smiling over at the cook who looked as though he’d never been happier.

“You must love this,” I said, and he looked over at me with a grin.

“I do. I enjoy my job, do not misunderstand me, but…” He sighed and looked up, though the sky was not visible through the thick canopy of trees. “The stars have always been my first love. I am always glad when I have the chance to see them like this.”

“Do you come out here often, then?”

“As much as I can during the warmer months. We’ve started going as a group in the past year or so, though. It’s nice.” He ducked as we came to a low-hanging branch. “Showing my friends what I love most is... incredible.”

“I wish you could always do it,” I said softly, slowing as we came to a clearing with shortened grass and wildflowers blooming around the perimeter. Kevin gave me a smile and shrugged.

“The word will change someday, I know it. But for now I have this.” He paused before shaking his head slowly as the others followed us into the clearing. “It makes me appreciate it more, though. The fact that I do not always have it.”

“Still, though. You’re a genius. I cannot even imagine what you could do if America would simply get its head out of its ass and realize that the color of one’s skin is irrelevant to their abilities.”

Kevin let out a surprised laugh, setting the wicker basket down in the middle of the clearing. “Make it happen, then, city boy. You’ve more power in that aspect than I do.”

“Don’t be so sure. The thoughts of a German mean nothing nowadays.”

“Maybe so.” He sighed, lowering his voice as the others settled down around us in the grass. “The world has become quite a mess, hasn’t it?”

I smiled. “Yes. But was there ever really a moment where it wasn’t already?”

He grinned but did not answer, and I settled down on the grass next to Kirstin, whose eyes were set on Esther as though she was the one who had placed the stars into the sky one by one. I leaned over and lowered my voice.

“You should tell her.”

Kirstin looked over at me, and despite the black night around us I could see her cheeks flushing. “She will not feel the same.”

“You should still tell her.”

“And what about you?” She asked, resting her head on my shoulder and looking over to where Mitch and Avriel were lying back on the grass, talking. “Have you told him?”

I did not answer and she laughed, the sound so pretty I could not help my smile.

“See?” She murmured. “It is not quite as easy when it is your life.”

“I’ve only just met him.”

“That does not lessen your feelings, querido. You are falling in love with him.”

“It’s frightening to think about,” I whispered, and she squeezed my arm. “I cannot help but worry about everything falling apart again. I do not want to lose him…”

“You cannot allow fear to keep you from living your life.”

I looked down at her, my lips curling up. “Says the woman who refuses to confess her love.”

She laughed. “Hypocrites, the both of us.”

“You should tell her,” I said again, softly. “Really.”

“And if she rejects me?”

“Then at least you will know. That is better than going your entire life wondering what you could have had.”

She looked away, worrying at her lip with her teeth. I pressed a kiss to her cheek before nudging her towards Esther and Candice, and she went reluctantly after a moment. I watched them for a few minutes, although I could not tell if Kirstin actually said anything to her as they settled on their backs to view the stars. It seemed a lost opportunity but I knew that if I had been in her place, I would have been too afraid to tell her as well.

I looked back over towards Avriel, Mitch, and Kevin, who were drinking and laughing about something, Mitch’s head on Avriel’s lap as he craned his neck up towards the sky. I smiled and crawled forward to sit beside them, and Mitch moved immediately to rest back into my chest, his smile beautiful as he looked up at me.

“Flirting with the maids?” He teased, and I felt my face flush crimson. He laughed and pressed a kiss to my cheek before settling back down to see the stars, his fingers lacing into mine as though it was the most natural motion. Avriel was watching us with a small smile when I looked up, and he took a drink from a bottle before handing it over to me.

“What is it?” I asked, smelling it before taking a hesitant sip. It tasted sweet and fruity, and I drank a bit more before handing it to Mitch.

“Some ridiculously expensive wine whose name I cannot pronounce,” Mitch said, taking a long swig. “Father bought it on our trip to France, although he’s not even bothered to try it despite its price.”

“You went to France?”

Mitch hesitated. “Yes,” he said slowly, his tone a bit different although I could not understand why. “Back when I was fourteen, we went to Europe for a few months.” He glanced over at Avriel before looking back up at me with a slightly forced smile. “Here, have some more, tesoro.”

I frowned but took the bottle, taking another sip. “Trying to get me drunk?”

“Of course not,” Mitch said, his grin a bit more relaxed as he moved closer to me. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Kevin interrupted our conversations after a few minutes, pointing up at the sky and naming off the constellations from memory, and although I could not make out anything but the Ursa Major I was still astounded by the beauty of the stars that had been so lost to me in the city. Mitch and Avriel had Kevin quiz them on their astronomical logic, taking a long drink of wine every time one of them answered incorrectly. I discovered quite quickly that Mitch was horrible at astronomy, and he was drunk after only thirty minutes, giggling into my neck and whispering the word “Uranus” over and over into my ear. I laughed and held him closer, shivering a little when he started pressing kisses to my neck.

“He gets quite affectionate when he’s drunk,” Avriel said, chuckling as he looked over at us. His eyes were slightly glassy, although he was nowhere near as intoxicated as Mitch was. “He’s like a little kitten. Who loves sex. A sex kitten.”

I laughed again, although I was cut off by Mitch’s mouth against mine as he pushed me slowly down onto the grass. I kissed him back for a few moments before pulling away, brushing back his hair and pecking his nose. He simply groaned and kissed me again, his hands reaching to undo the button on my jeans before I pushed him away gently, shaking my head.

“Mitch,” I murmured, waiting until his eyes met mine. “Not right now, my love. Not while you’re drunk.”

He bit his lip, nuzzling his face into my neck. “You’re drunk as well…”

“Not nearly as much as you are, though.” I cupped his face gently and kissed his forehead. “Let’s just look at the stars, liebe.”

He pouted. “I’ve already looked at the stars. I do not care about them…” He settled down beside me, his voice soft and his hand resting above my heart. “I only care about you.”

I smiled and kissed his forehead again. “I care about you as well.”

“Scott,” he whispered, his eyes slipping shut and his mouth curling into a smile. “Such a nice name. You are not Scottish, though, you liar. You’re German. Your name should be...Germ…” He giggled. “Or Man. My Man. You are my man, my Scott…”

Avriel laughed and I looked up at him, grinning at the look he and Kevin were giving me. Kirstin, Candice, and Esther were eyeing us amused from where they were sat a few feet away, but Mitch simply cuddled closer to me and ignored everybody, his lips warm against my neck.

“Tesoro?”

“Mm?”

“Will you sing to me?”

My face flushed. “You will fall asleep if I do.”

“That’s alright. I like hearing you sing. You make the nightmares go away.” He sighed happily. “You make everything bad go away. I cannot marry Luce because she will not sing to me. Not like you do.” His voice softened. “I wish I could marry you instead…”

My heart ached in my chest and I tightened my arms around him. “It’s alright, beautiful,” I murmured, pressing my lips to the top of his head. “I will always sing to you if you wish.”

“I…” He paused, sounding suddenly as though he was about to begin crying. “I am sorry for what he did…”

I frowned, the words not quite processing in my muddled mind. “Hm?”

“He was never the same after Nico…”

“My love, what are you talking about?” I looked over at him, confused at this abrupt and seemingly irrelevant change in conversation. “What about Nico?”

There was a pause and Mitch glanced back up at me, his glassy eyes dark and his lips pulled into a wavering smile. He shook his head, and I wondered for the first time since I’d met him if he was lying to me.

“Nothing, mio amore,” he whispered, kissing my jaw before closing his eyes again. “I’m talking about absolutely nothing at all.”

Chapter Text

I balanced Mitch’s breakfast tray against my hip as I knocked once quickly on his bedroom door, pushing my way through before he even had time enough to answer and freezing in place the moment I saw Giacomo leaning back against his desk.

Mitch was settled across from him on the edge of his bed in nothing but a pair of underwear, his legs crossed and his arms on either side of his hips as he leaned back, and it was not unknown to me the simple promiscuity and openness of his position. I felt my stomach drop at the possibility that I had once again walked in on the two of them in a moment of intimacy, but the instant Mitch glanced over towards the door such a worry ceased in my mind. His beautiful olive skin shone in the warm sunlight of the morning but his eyes were dark and annoyed, his position - which had originally struck me as inherently seductive - now an undeniable stance of power and control. He was exposed, and yet the moment existed only under his authority, and I found myself once more breathless at the sight of him being so irrefutably dominant.

His demeanor softened instantly when he realized it was me at the door, his jaw unclenching and his lips parting as recognition dawned. Giacomo, who had been saying something in Italian that I could not understand, had stopped speaking and was now watching me as well, although his gaze was not nearly as welcoming.

“Scott,” Mitch said, pushing himself up from the bed gracefully and slipping on a loose, unbuttoned shirt. I recognized it as one of mine that I had forgotten in his bedroom after our most recent night together. It was far too large and hung down to his knees, and it made him look positively adorable, if such a word could even be used to describe him. He took a step towards me before pausing and glancing back at Giacomo, the rigidity returning to his manner. “If you could give us a moment, tesoro, we were almost finished.” He added something quietly in Italian and the tension in Giacomo’s shoulders increased.

“No,” the stableboy said, his accent thick as he moved away from the desk. His eyes narrowed as he studied me, and although I was physically larger than he was, he was still an intimidating figure to face. “Capisco. I - I go now.”

Mitch appeared as though he wanted to argue but simply nodded stiffly, his dark eyes cold as he leaned back against one of his bedposts. His voice reeked of sardonicism as he murmured, “Arrivederci allora, mio amore.”

Giacomo laughed, the sound harsh and bitter. “Amore? Non propio.”

Mitch opened his mouth to say something more, but Giacomo had already pushed past me and out of the room, slamming the door shut as he left. I stood there for a long while, frozen in place as though by ignoring the situation it would somehow disappear into itself. It remained, however, and I finally gathered my bearings after a few moments and stepped forward. Mitch was still leaning against his bedpost silently, his arms crossed over his chest, and I set his breakfast tray on the desk before taking a hesitant step towards him. He glanced up and the authority faded from his eyes once more, his shoulders relaxing and his head resting heavily against the post. He looked exhausted, and I regretted not agreeing to stay when he had asked me the night before.

“Are you alright?” I whispered, running my fingers over the soft cotton of his sleeve. He bit his lip, not meeting my eyes, and I loathed the distance between us that seemed to go on for miles.

“Of course, tesoro,” he murmured, pushing himself slowly off of the bedpost. “I’m perfectly fine.” He took a few steps towards his desk, resting both of his hands against the edge and tilting his head down to the breakfast tray. He moved again after a moment, straightening his posture and asking cheerily, “Have you eaten yet? They always send up too much food for one person.”

“Mitch.”

His body tensed but he did not say anything, only turning back towards me slightly until I could just make out the side of his face. The circles under his eyes made him appear half-dead and I stepped forward, placing another cautious hand on his arm despite the fact that I was unsure if I was allowed to touch him.

“Are you alright?” I asked again, my voice catching on the last word. He sighed and turned to face me, his arms crossing in front of his chest as though he was trying to close himself off from everything around him, including me.

“Yes,” he said, although the word rang anything but true. “My morning only had a...a bit of a rough start, but all is well now.” He smiled weakly and turned back towards his breakfast tray, picking up a butter knife with trembling fingers. “Everything has been taken care of.”

“He seemed angry…”

“Who? Giacomo?” Mitch laughed, the sound so forced it made my ears ache. “He is always angry when he’s not fucking.”

“Mitch -”

“It is fine, Scott. I promise. He and I were only discussing a few…” He hesitated, his hands faltering as he tried to pick up the cup of jam, “differences in opinion that we’ve come across.”

“Differences in opinion?”

He sighed again but turned to face me once more, managing to spread the jam onto a piece of toast with a bit of difficulty. He nibbled at the corner, although from the pallor of his complexion I doubted he was hungry. His eyes held within them a debate that I could not determine, and he continued quietly after a moment, as though he would much rather have been speaking about anything else in the world. “He is not exactly thrilled that I fired Harold so rashly.”

“Harold,” I repeated, the name making my stomach twist although I could not recall why.

“The stableboy who insulted you for being German,” Mitch clarified, breaking off a small piece of the toast and setting the rest back on the tray. “Giacomo thought it was a stupid action that doubled his workload. I told him that he should mind his mouth and not question my decisions.” He shrugged, pouring honey into his tea and stirring it slowly with a spoon. His hands were steady now as his confidence returned, his voice thoughtful. “I do not tolerate prejudice in my home, no matter who it is from.”

The words struck hard and made me think of something I’d not yet considered. “Were you and Harold friends?”

“I would not use that exact word, but more or less, yes.” Mitch looked back up from his breakfast, his brow furrowed. “Does that bother you?”

“You fired him so easily…”

“Because he insulted you.”

“He insulted Germans.”

“You are German.”

I paused, worrying at my lip with my teeth until Mitch stepped forward and rested his hand on my hip, his touch warm and soothing and entirely untrustworthy. I longed to return the gesture, although I was unsure if doing so would be wise when the two of us were, in my mind, standing at our first crossroads. I knew absolutely nothing about him, truly, and yet I had given myself over completely within the span of a few weeks. I had thought I loved him, and perhaps I did, but the inequality of the situation did not go unnoticed. He had lied to me, I was positive, although I did not know what it had been about, or if it was even something that should have worried me. That was precisely the problem, though - I did not know. I did not know him, or what he would do, or what he had done. He was a mystery, and I was growing dizzy attempting to guess the secrets that he kept from me.

“What are you thinking?” He murmured, pulling me from my thoughts, and his voice was so sweet that I longed to trust him no matter the circumstances. “Tell me, my love.”

“You fired Harold for disagreeing with you about something,” I whispered, my thoughts piecing themselves together in words that were unable to communicate what I truly meant. I shook my head, frustrated. “He was your friend, and yet you dismissed him so quickly. If I ever disagreed with you…”

He frowned. “Scott, I’ve told you before that I will protect you no matter what.”

“But is that true? You say I am your friend, and yet you have no issue with firing your other friends. I am no different from them. If I say something you do not like, how can I know that you will not simply get rid of me?”

Mitch’s dark eyes watched me for a long while, and I felt suddenly foolish for what I’d said. I did not want to upset him, and yet I could not help the doubt that was crumbling down upon me. After what he’d said a few days before when we had gone stargazing - how easily he’d glossed over something that seemed far larger than I could even imagine - I felt completely unsure of where we stood in relation to one another. He claimed I was his friend, and yet I’d seen how he could treat his friends. The vow of honesty that he’d given me was beginning to seem more and more as though it was a lie within itself, and the thought made me far more anxious than I could stand.

“I fired Harold because he insulted you,” Mitch said softly, his words careful as though he was worried he might let something slip out. I hated the mistrust I suddenly felt for him, unsure of why it was even here and how it had so quickly grabbed ahold of me. “He also insulted my father. Harold and I have not been close for a long time now, and there have been many times in the past where he has spouted refuse and nonsense about my family and what he believes to be true about us. But his slander against you was the last blow I could take. It may have been a rash decision, but it was not unfounded.” Mitch shook his head, his fingers resting lightly against my jaw and his eyes shining with something that looked all too much like hurt. “You are insecure about what you mean to me again. Why?”

I looked away, his gaze too strong to hold. “It feels as though you are lying to me.”

“Because of Harold?”

“Because…” I paused, quiet for a long moment before looking back at him and whispering softly, “Why do you have such bad nightmares?”

The question seemed to take him by surprise and his hand dropped from my face. “What?”

“Avriel keeps mentioning how you’ve gone through horrible things in your life. Kirstin, as well. When you told me about Nicodemo, I thought that had been it, but you...you said it wasn’t. There was more.” I swallowed, leaning back against his bedpost and feeling my throat tighten as the words forced themselves out. “I do not understand. I know nothing about you, Mitch. Has...has somebody hurt you? Because of who you are?”

He looked away, his fingers tugging at the bottom of his shirt and his eyes set firmly on the floor. “I would rather not talk about that,” he said, his voice unsteady. “It is not exactly something that I wish to relive.”

I nodded, unsurprised at his refusal. “Alright.”

“I will tell you anything,” he said after a moment, walking slowly back over to his desk and picking up his mug of tea. “Anything you wish to know about me, it’s yours. We hardly know each other and I want to remedy that. But what you have asked of me...I cannot. I cannot give you that.”

I nodded again and settled back on his bed, my muscles tensed as I watched him pour cream into his tea and stir it carefully, everything about him still an unending, maddening mystery. I felt guilty for accusing him about Harold, although I was not rueful that I had asked for clarification. It was reassuring to know that he’d been fired for a serious, genuine reason, and not simply because Mitch had disliked something he’d happened to have said offhand. Still though, the power that Mitch held - not only over me, but over America itself - was frightening to think about, and I was unsure if I truly had the liberty that he claimed I did. Hesitation struck me for a moment before I spoke quickly, testing the still uneasy waters in the only way I knew how.

“Will you tell me about Nicodemo?”

He stiffened a bit but turned to face me, his dark eyes even. He seemed unhappy with the question, although it did not appear as though he was angry. I noticed his fingers clench against the teacup, his voice quiet. “What do you want to know about him?”

I hesitated again. “He was the original heir to the bank?”

“Yes.”

“Were the two of you close?”

He flinched but moved back towards the bed, sitting beside me and pulling his legs towards his chest, as though shielding himself. I felt the guilt return that I still did not trust him, but I knew that I had been far too lax the past three weeks. I yearned to believe that he was not lying to me and this was the only way I knew how to gain assurance, no matter how sadistic it might have made me feel.

Mitch was quiet for a long while before finally giving a small nod. “Nico and I were very close. He was five years older than I was, but I adored him. He was everything I wished I could be - everything I wish I was now.” A small, heartbreaking smile played at Mitch’s lips, his eyes far away as he spoke. “Nico was the kindest and most trusting person I have ever known in my life, and he...he always ensured that I was happy. He knew I was different even when I was a child, but it did not matter to him. He…” Mitch paused, his voice growing hoarse. “There was nobody in the world who I loved more than him. I was not allowed to visit him when he grew ill, but I always snuck into his room at night anyways and…” He bit his lip. “I was the only one with him when he died.”

We were quiet, the morning light flickering against the floor as his drapes moved in the breeze from the window. A sick feeling descended over me and I knew instantly that forcing him to tell me about Nico had been cruel, and yet Mitch had been too trusting in me to even notice it. He had not lied. I had doubted him, and yet he had not lied, and it had taken him recounting one of the most painful moments in his life for me to realize such a fundamental truth. I placed my hand atop his gently, afraid I would break him even more, and squeezed at his fingers, waiting until he squeezed back.

“Your mother loved him,” I whispered, and Mitch tightened his fingers around mine again, setting his tea down on the bedside table and wiping at his eyes.

“Yes. She loved him very much.”

“Your father?”

“He...he was distraught when Nico died. His perfect son, gone. All he was left with was me. The whore. The sodomite.”

“Do not say that,” I said quickly, glancing over at him. He was staring down at his tea, his lips pursed together and his chest rising unevenly, and I loathed myself for being the cause. “You are neither of those things.”

“I am both of those things. But it does not matter.” He looked up, his eyes gleaming helplessly. “I am also the heir. The most powerful man in the country. How fucking wonderful.”

The words tugged at my nerves and I looked away, laying onto my back and pulling at his arm gently, longing to comfort him however he would allow. I did not deserve him, nor his kindness, nor his friendship, and yet I was still selfish enough to do my best to salvage it. He followed without any hesitation, his head resting on my shoulder and his hand over my stomach, holding me as though it was the most natural thing for him to do.

“I am sorry,” I whispered, and he laughed quietly - bitterly.

“It is not your fault that fate has made it this way.”

“You are the heir,” I repeated, tilting my chin down to meet his eyes. He stared up at me, trusting and completely unaware that I had doubted everything about him. I let out a slow breath, longing to regain the normality that I had so horribly disrupted. “And now you will marry Luce.”

He smiled, and it looked as though his soul had been torn from his body. “Yes. I will marry her.”

“When?”

“Next year. As soon as I finish school.”

I shook my head, my heart aching for him. “So soon.”

“My father would prefer sooner. He is through with trying to appease me.”

“We could do it, instead,” I whispered, my eyes slipping shut as my natural inclination towards him returned. “If we wanted. What you dreamt of. We could stay by the riverside forever. Fall in love…”

“You would not want to love me.”

I let out another breath. “Do not be so sure.”

“My father would kill me if I tried anything like that. Especially now. War is excellent for banks, and we’ve gotten ourselves involved in quite a big one. He’s been looking forward to this for years now.”

I opened my eyes, watching his face as he settled closer against me. “Your father wanted to join the war?”

“My father has been paying visits to Woodrow Wilson for the past three years, trying to get him to end our neutrality.” He sighed, his tone tightening a bit. “He’s a very impatient man.”

I hesitated. “Why did he hire me, then? Your father? It seems risky to hire a German with absolutely no experience to be the servant of somebody so powerful.”

Mitch laughed quietly, peeking up at me, and I felt relieved to see that he was no longer upset. “Perhaps he thought you would be able to serve me in other ways.”

My face grew warm and he laughed again.

“That was a joke, tesoro, my father did not hire you to fuck me. I’m fairly certain he would have told you if that was the case. Or he would at least have told me.”

“But he told you nothing?”

“When I asked he simply said you were the best candidate he could find. He was lying, obviously, but I did not care all that much.” His fingers played with the buttons on my shirt, slowly undoing one so he could slip his hand through and rest it against my bare stomach. “I like having you here. And it’s not as though you’re a horrible servant.”

I rolled my eyes, turning so that I was facing him. He was so sweet that I felt foolish for ever doubting him, and I smiled at the teasing, enticing way he bit his lip. “I don’t know, I would say I’m a fairly great servant.”

He made a face. “Great? I mean... decent, certainly, but great? I don’t know…”

“No, no, I am.”

He laughed. “I had to show you how to make coffee on your first day. Who does not know how to make coffee?”

“Coffee is expensive,” I argued. “My family never had enough money to buy it, so there was no reason I should have known how to make it.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” he conceded, his fingers tracing over my stomach again until I shivered. “And you were a quick learner.”

“Mmhm,” I hummed, resting my hand on his hip. It felt so nice to touch him again that I found my mind beginning to wander. I moved a bit closer so that our noses bumped gently, smiling at the way his cheeks flushed pink. “I am a quick learner with many things.”

“That is very true,” he whispered, his eyes slipping shut and his lips brushing over mine.

“Once I set my mind on something, I will do everything I possibly can to ensure that it is achieved as perfectly as possible.” I trailed my fingers along his waist, smiling as his eyes darkened with every second that passed. “Would you agree with that statement, Liebling?”

“Most definitely. Although everybody needs practice.” He bit his lip again, his breath hitching when I rested my palm on the inside of his thigh.

“Do I?” I whispered, brushing our mouths together again. “Do I need practice?”

“Doubtful,” he breathed. “But we should check and see anyways. Just to be certain.”

“Yes?”

“Mm, yes...”

“Alright,” I murmured, moving my hand forward a bit and smiling when he let out a quiet noise. I pressed a warm kiss to his neck and hovered over him, my fingers curling into his hair as he stared up at me with beautiful brown eyes, and I knew that I would not doubt him again. He had been nothing but kind to me and I never should have believed he was lying. Both of us had secrets, and his were no less valid than mine were. I pressed another kiss to the skin above his heart, gratitude washing over me that I had not accused him and ruined everything we had created together in this short period of time. I was his, but he was kind, and I would never forget that again. There was no reason to mistrust him - not when he had answered almost every question I’d had with undeniable honesty. My insecurities would not be our downfall, not when we had only just begun. I kissed down over his chest again and smiled as his fingers curled into my hair, teasing, “I agree that practice is always beneficial. Whatever it takes to be the best servant I can be.”

He huffed a laugh, though it turned to a moan halfway through. I moved back up to find his lips, kissing him for a long moment before returning to his torso. “I must say, you are doing incredible so far, my Scott...”

I grinned. “Yes?”

“Dear god, yes.”

I smirked but did not answer, shuddering as his fingers tightened in my hair, my mouth trailing more kisses over his stomach and pausing once I reached his waist. He was biting his lip when I looked back up at him, his dark eyes staring down at me with impatience and a surprising amount of hunger.

“Just as you said,” I started, pulling down his underwear slowly and tossing them onto the floor behind me. He was unbelievably beautiful and I took a moment to thank the heavens for introducing Mitchell Grassi into my life, certain that if I was not already in love with him, I would be by the end of the summer holiday. He let out a moan and I grinned, leaning forward to press a light kiss to the side of his cock.

“Practice makes perfect.”

--

I brushed my fingers through Mitch’s hair, nuzzling my face into his neck and allowing my eyes to slip shut. I adored holding him - adored how naturally he fit into my arms, adored how small and precious he was, adored how he was always warm and smelled of hard lemon soap. He made a small, tired sound and I smiled, kissing his forehead before finding his mouth again, his lips tasting of salt.

“Sleep, my love,” I murmured, and he sighed, rolling closer into my chest.

“Will you stay with me again tonight?”

I frowned. “You’ve been having nightmares again?”

“No, but I like having you with me. Sleeping by myself makes me feel so lonely.”

I hummed and ran my fingers through his hair again, pulling the bedsheets over our shoulders and cuddling up against his back. “Of course I’ll stay with you, then. But we should actually get out of bed today before I do that.”

He groaned. “Or we could stay here…”

“We need to eat at some point.”

“We’ll photosynthesize. If plants can do it then surely it cannot be that hard.”

I chuckled but simply moved forward, sleep tugging at me although I was not exactly tired. Mitch’s hand was warm in mine, our legs tangled together as we dozed in the warm morning light, and it took a few moments before either of us heard the knock at the door.

Mitch groaned again and I rolled over, squinting as the handle shook and the door opened just enough for Avriel to slip through. He looked at us and rolled his eyes, closing the door behind him and leaning back against the wall.

“Why is it that the two of you are always naked when I find you?”

Mitch laughed and rested his chin against my shoulder, kissing my neck before crawling over me to the other side of the bed. “Because he’s got a gorgeous cock and I cannot help myself. Why are you here, mio angelo?”

“Your father is home from the city.”

Mitch sighed and flopped onto his back, pressing his hands against his eyes. I rested my fingers on his stomach, kissing the skin over his chest gently. “Of course he is. How fucking great. And I assume he wishes to speak to me?”

Avriel hesitated. “Not...quite.”

“Oh god, what is it? Don’t tell me the Bonannos are back so soon?”

“No, he…” Avriel hesitated again before looking over at me, his green eyes struck with confusion and a worrying amount of concern. “Mr. Grassi wants to speak with Scott.”

Chapter Text

I straightened my jacket, tugging at the sleeves that were a bit too short for my arms and smoothing down the wrinkled front, my hands trembling as I stepped forward and knocked three times on the door to Mr. Grassi’s study.

I had absolutely no premonition of what was about to occur. I had only met Mr. Grassi once - briefly - when he had interviewed me in the very same tavern where I had first heard his name. Thinking back on it now, my acquisition of the job seemed far more unorthodox than I had noticed previous. Perhaps it had been the grief from the loss of my parents that had muddled my mind, but every occurrence that had led to my appointment as Michell Grassi’s butler now seemed definitively and insidiously strange.

I had been drunk in the pub, scanning a discarded paper I had found on the corner of Broadway for news of the newly-birthed war, terrified I would read of an increase in German casualties, the likelihood of their relation to me growing more and more probable as the days went on. I had been the only person in the pub save the bartender and two rather uppity men sitting at a table a few feet away, and I knew they were sizing me up as much as I was them. I must have looked quite a boozehound, and thinking back it was a miracle that the two of them had even bothered to respond when I had addressed them. It had been a short conversation - two minutes at most - and yet it had been perhaps the most important conversation I would ever have in my life.

They’d been nattering on about Michael Grassi and his most recent house party, and had commented briefly on his son, Mitchell, who they classified as an odd but intelligent boy. Somehow they’d mentioned his need for a manservant - a topic which seemed strange for them to know about even if they had been close friends of the Grassis - but even in my rather drunken stupor the topic of possible employment did not go past me. I had stood and inquired about the position, and they’d ignored me at first until finally one of them, a short, stout man, had sighed asked my name.

“Hoying,” I’d responded, the word slurring as the name my father had given me burned on my lips. “Scott Hoying.”

The man had stared at me a long while before motioning for me to sit in the empty chair beside him. “Hoying,” he’d repeated, looking at his companion with a slow smile. “You Ricky’s boy?”

I flinched but nodded, and the men had laughed as though I was the most amusing thing they’d witnessed all week.

“And you want to work for Michael Grassi?”

I nodded again and one of the men had ripped off a piece of his newspaper, scrawling out a number with an expensive-looking pen and handing it over to me.

“You go ahead then, Hoying,” the man said, his cruel grin going unnoticed in my intoxicated state. “You go on and you call Grassi for a job. I’m bettin’ he’d love to hear from you.”

I had called the number when I’d finally sobered up, and the man who had answered the phone - who I later learned had been Mr. Grassi himself - agreed to meet with me within the next week to talk about the position the moment he’d heard my name. I had thought it a bit peculiar, the way everything was playing out around me, especially regarding the two men I’d met in the pub, but I had been too desperate to question anything. Mr. Grassi and I had met the next week in the very same tavern and, despite my nerves, he had offered me the job ten minutes into the interview. Shocked and a bit disbelieving, I accepted the position without a second thought and the next week had seen me as a new employee at the Grassi mansion. I had been entirely grateful at the time, but looking back on it now I wondered if I should have shown a bit more caution. What had happened seemed only something that occurred in fiction, and yet it had happened to me. It seemed unreal, and now - standing in front of the door of Mr. Grassi’s study - the thought struck me that all of this had been unreal, and the perfection of the last three weeks was about to break down in front of my eyes. I had been given paradise, and now I was about to watch as it was once again taken away from me.

I knocked at Mr. Grassi’s door, tugging again at the sleeves of my jacket and attempting to calm my heart. Mitch had seemed surprised that his father wanted to speak with me, but he had not been overly concerned and had insisted that everything would be fine. He’d promised that he would protect me no matter what happened, but I began to wonder - if everything began to fall apart - how much he could really do.

There was a long pause of horrible silence before I knocked again, and the door swung open to reveal a tall man a few years older than I. I recognized him as one of the servants - I believed his name was Walter - and I gave him a small, warm smile, hoping his expression would give some sort of inclination as to what was about to happen. He simply stared at me with hard eyes, though, before all at once his lips curled into a sneer.

“German scum,” he hissed, his voice low so that only I could hear it. My stomach sank and I took a step back, panic rising in my throat. Walter’s lips pursed and he moved to the side, his expression returning to one of neutrality and his next words monotonous, as though he had not just regarded me with a measure of pure hatred. “Mr. Grassi will see you.”

I stepped back, my heart hammering in my chest as my instincts screamed to turn and leave as quickly as I could. There was no chance, however, as Walter gripped my arm tightly and yanked me into the room a moment later, closing the door behind us with the loud and resounding click of the lock.

I took a step back into the room, not looking away from Walter and gauging the situation as best I could. He did not advance on me, remaining stationed by the door, yet there was not a chance that I was going to avert my gaze. My heart was thudding harder, my hands curling into fists as I wondered desperately if I could fight him. I was taller than he was, yet he had far more muscle, and I knew that the odds were not nearly in my favor. I was about to demand what the hell he was doing when a voice sounded behind me, and I turned again, my back hitting the wall as I looked over to see Mr. Grassi sitting at a large mahogany desk and watching me with eyes that reminded me all too much of Mitch.

“Mr. Hoying,” he said, his voice relatively pleasant. I let out a slow breath and his gaze moved to Walter, who was still positioned by the doorway and staring forward with glassy eyes. “Leave us. Do not lock the door.” Mr. Grassi looked back over at me and gave an unreadable smile. “Nobody here is prisoner.”

“Yes, sir,” Walter said blandly, turning and leaving the room, the door clicking shut behind him. Mr. Grassi stood and smiled again, motioning towards the chair that was stationed in front of his desk as though nothing had happened at all.

“Please. Sit.”

My heart was still beating hard in my chest but I moved forward after a moment, halting when I reached the chair. It looked comfortable enough - cloth-covered with a stiff back and a cushioned seat - but I could not help but wonder if there were secretly metal spikes hidden beneath the surface, my muscles braced with mistrust for even the most innocent of semblances.

“Please,” Mr. Grassi said again, though this time his tone indicated that it was not a suggestion, but rather an order. “Sit.”

I sat, my entire body tensed as I stared up at him. The thin smile remained on his lips and he sat as well, resting both of his hands on the top of his desk and regarding me steadily. He looked nothing like Mitch except for his eyes, and never in my life had I been so afraid of such beautiful tawny irises.

“You may unclench your fists,” he said after a moment, and I realized that my fingers were still balled together tightly. I loosened them, wincing at the slight ache in my joints as they straightened. When I looked back up at Mr. Grassi he was frowning and tugging at his beard thoughtfully. “Did Walter say something to upset you?”

A horrible blush rose to my cheeks as embarrassment gripped me, the reality of Walter’s words striking me sharply. Even in the most tolerant household in the country I was still only seen by others as German scum.

 

I shifted in my seat, curling my toes. “Um…” I shook my head, my tongue heavy in my mouth. “He seemed quite displeased to see me. Because I - because I am German, sir.”

Mr. Grassi nodded slowly, murmuring, “I see. I will talk with him about that, then. I apologize for his rude behavior, I hope it did not offend you too much.”

I worried at my lip with my teeth but jerked a nod. “Um, thank you, sir.”

“So,” he said, picking up a pen and twirling it between his fingers, a smile returning to his lips. He looked friendly enough, but then again so did a streetdog before its facade faltered and it lunged for your throat. “Mr. Hoying. How are you?”

My brow furrowed. “I’m sorry? Sir? How am I?”

“Yes. Tell me. How do you like it here? I am sorry I haven’t been around all that much, but the majority of my time is spent in the city. Running a bank is quite demanding, as you might imagine.” He let out a laugh that did not reach his eyes, and I wondered all at once who this man was and how Mitch could possibly have loved him. He did not seem like the man Kirstin had described, all those weeks ago - the sort of man who would risk everything to comfort his son - but he also did not seem cruel as Harold had claimed. He did not seem like anything, honestly. As though he could adopt any personality at any point in time, whenever it suited him. The idea bothered me greatly.

“I am well, sir,” I said after a moment, returning from my thoughts. “Thank you.”

His smile grew, as did my caution. “Excellent. And you’re finding your position reasonable? There is nothing that has troubled you?”

“No, sir.”

“And how do you like my son?”

The words seemed to be a test, and yet I could not help the blush that colored my cheeks. I dropped my gaze momentarily before looking back up and saying, “He has been very kind to me, sir. He and I have become friends.”

Something flashed in his eyes. “I see.” His smile tightened. “How wonderful.” He looked down at something on his desk, flipping through a few loose papers and marking one of the pages. I craned my neck forward a bit, doing my best to read what he had written without being too obvious, although I could see nothing. He glanced back up after a moment and gave yet another untrustworthy smile. “So. Scott. How is your family?”

My stomach dropped and it took a moment before I could process anything but the sudden ringing in my ears.

“My family is dead.” I tightened my fingers together. “Sir.”

“I see,” he said, his voice soft and his eyes calculating. There was something behind his stiff smile that made anxiety swell in my throat, although I was unsure if I was simply exaggerating the situation. “I am sorry to hear that, Mr. Hoying. It must very difficult for you. Have they passed away recently?”

The question seemed innocent enough and I offered a small nod. “Yes, sir. They have.”

“Then they are in my prayers.” He surveyed me for a long while before looking back down at the paper in front of him. His brow furrowed and he tsked, appearing entirely dissatisfied with something inconsequential, as though he’d gone down for dinner expecting lamb and receiving chicken instead. It made me dislike him even more than I already did. “Mr. Hoying, I am going to be quite honest with you now.” His eyes flicked back up to mine. “Your heritage was unknown to me when I agreed to hire you. Had I known you were German, well” - he gave a smile - “I think we can both agree that your employment here would not have come so easily.”

My shoulders tensed, the situation turning onto its head. “Are you firing me, sir?”

He waved a dismissive hand. “No, no, of course not. Despite the rumors against me, I have no issues with Germans. But you do understand the difficult position I am in at the moment, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said slowly, and he nodded his encouragement, as though he wanted me to clarify what he already knew. “It does not seem wise to have a German so close to the Grassi name.” He nodded again and I added, “Especially now that America has entered into the war.”

He smiled as though I’d pleased him greatly. “Precisely.”

I hesitated, unsure if I should speak without being addressed but unwilling to continue this interaction without at least attempting to explicate something that had been on my mind for weeks now.

“Sir?” I offered what I hoped was a submissive smile. “I have been wondering since I’ve arrived...but why did you hire me to begin with? We both know that I am not qualified, and there were certainly better candidates available to be Mitchell’s butler.”

Mr. Grassi’s lips pursed together, his fingers tugging at his beard once more as though the question confused him. “Well, Mr. Hoying,” he said after a long moment, his lips tugging into a grin that made my skin itch. “I thought you were more than qualified.”

The lie was transparent, although I could not possibly detect why he had told it. I rested back into my seat and regarded him steadily, my heart beating a bit faster as the situation around me complicated itself. I had absolutely no idea what was happening, whereas he knew precisely the game we were playing and the best strategies to ensure that I lost.

“I only wanted to speak to you,” he continued, another smile stretching over his mouth until it looked as though his skin would tear in two. “To make sure that we understood each other. I want you to know precisely where you stand in my eyes. I will not fire you for being German, but I will not hesitate to do so if you do anything to tarnish my family’s name.” Something flashed across his face and his voice lowered. “Understood?”

My stomach grew cold but I simply nodded, pausing as a bit of unexpected bravery tugged at my lips. I should have kept quiet, but I could not help the question from bubbling out into the air. “The rumors that you mentioned, sir. Do many people believe you hold prejudice against Germans?”

He tilted his head to the side, and I could see the gears in his mind turning as he attempted to understand what I had been trying to gain. I, myself, did not know, but it made me feel a bit giddy the fact that I had stumped him. “Yes, Mr. Hoying,” he said softly. “Unfortunately it has become quite a pastime to tell lies about me.”

“And they are all unfounded? The rumors?”

His jaw clenched and something flickered in his eyes, and I knew I was treading an immensely dangerous line. “Why, of course.” He leaned forward a bit, that horrid grin returning to his lips. “Why? Has Mitch told you otherwise?”

“Of course not, sir,” I said quickly, forcing a smile. “It was simply a question.”

He was quiet a long moment before nodding, and I knew that he disliked me as much as I disliked him. “I see. Then we understand each other?”

“Yes, sir. My ethnicity is not a problem unless I make it so.”

“Precisely.” He leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers under his chin and frowning. “You may go then, Mr. Hoying. Tell Mitchell I send my regards, I am heading back to the city at noon today.”

I stood, my heart still beating out of my chest until I was convinced it would simply cease to work. “Of course, sir. Have a nice trip.”

“It was a pleasure speaking to you. And once again, I am very sorry to hear about the loss your parents.”

My jaw clenched but I gave a final smile, entirely convinced that somehow every word he had said to me in the past ten minutes had been a complete and utter lie.

“Thank you, sir. But do not feel too sorry. They were only Germans, after all.”

--

“He said he hired you because he didn’t know you were German?”

There was an air of disbelief to Avriel’s voice, and I let out a weak laugh, resting my face in my hands and sighing. We were sat in the kitchen watching as Kevin prepared lunch, Avriel on my right side and Mitch on my left. They had been waiting for me when I had stepped out of Mr. Grassi’s study, asking me question after question the moment the door had shut behind me. Finally, after seeing that I was not really in any state to answer them, Avriel had led me down to the kitchen and asked Kevin to make the best lunch he could, declaring that no questions could be asked of me until I had something in my stomach. He broke that rule quite early on, though, and was now staring at me waiting for an answer to what had to have been the most incredulous inquiry I had ever heard.  

I nodded slowly, my head still aching from the conversation with Mr. Grassi that had ended not five minutes ago. I still could not understand half of what had been said, and I raised my head to look at Avriel, who was frowning and tapping at the countertop with his fingernails, his beautiful lips pursed in a frown.

“I believe his exact words were ‘your heritage was unknown to me’ or something of the like.” I groaned, resting my head in my arms again. “It made no sense.”

“How the hell did he not know you’re German?” Avriel asked, running his fingers through his hair and watching as Kevin grilled three loafs of bread stuffed with fresh tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella. He looked away after a moment, his emerald eyes returning to my face, hungry in more ways than one. “Hoying is a German name. Surely he knew that when he hired to you - it’s as German as Kaplan is Jewish. And you aren’t exactly subtle, city boy, you look as though you were born to wear lederhosen.”

I laughed, shaking my head. “I don’t know. It...it seemed as though he was lying.” I glanced over at Mitch, who had been quiet the past few minutes, and hesitated before amending my original accusational statement. “I do not know why he would lie, though. Perhaps I simply misread the situation…”

“No,” Mitch said softly, meeting my eyes. There was something in his expression that looked definitively bothered, although I did could not determine it specifically. I longed to ask him, but the situation was already precarious enough and I knew that doing so would only upset things any further. “You are right, tesoro. He was lying to you.”

“That does not seem to surprise you,” I said quietly, and Mitch gave a tired smile.

“Yes, well, my father is a businessman. Lying comes naturally to him.” Mitch propped his chin in his hand, watching Kevin with a frown on his lips. “I do not know why he would lie about this, though. It seems pointless. When you first arrived here, he and I discussed your appointment, and I remember very distinctly that he mentioned the fact that you were German. Surely he knows that I would notice the dishonesty.” He looked back over at me. “Did you talk about anything else?”

I shrugged. “He asked how I was liking it here, about my family. Nothing that stood out, really.”

“Perhaps he was trying to gauge what sort of person you are,” Avriel said, pushing himself off of his stool and pecking my cheek on his way past. “To ensure that you won’t cause any disruptions.” He gathered a stack of plates and set them beside Kevin, reaching into one of the cupboards to retrieve four glasses. “Tea, anyone?”

We all accepted and I raised an eyebrow, asking. “Disruptions? What could I possibly disrupt?”

“Plenty. You could steal his belongings, tap the phones, break his son’s heart…” Avriel trailed off and looked back over to me, smirking. “You have the potential to be very, very dangerous, city boy.”

“Are you implying that Mr. Grassi should not trust me?” I challenged, watching as Avriel walked slowly back over to my side of the counter. He smiled again and brushed my hair back with gentle fingers, his jade eyes playful.

“Not at all, kochanie,” he said, his eyes flicking to my lips. “I am simply implying that there’s much more to you than your sweetness.”

I laughed, my face growing warm. “I’m unsure if that is an insult or a compliment.”

“Compliment,” he whispered, his voice soft as he leaned forward. “Definitely.”

His mouth brushed against mine and I could not help but cup his face and pull him closer to me, his beard tickling my chin and making me laugh. He pulled away after a moment and kissed the tip of my nose, twirling around to return to helping Kevin. My cheeks grew warm again and I watched him fondly, still entirely captivated by every single aspect about him. I looked over to say something to Mitch, a grin still on my face, before freezing the moment I saw him, my stomach dropping. His lips were pursed together and he was staring very intently at his hands, looking as though he was close to tears. I placed my hand on his arm lightly, waiting until his eyes met mine.

“Hey,” I murmured, tracing small circles over his skin and giving a small smile. He hesitated before smiling back, although it did not quite make it to his eyes. “Are...are you alright?”

He forced a nod but did not say anything, and I was about to continue when Kevin announced our lunch was ready, setting a plate in front of each of us with food so appetizing I felt my mouth genuinely begin to water. I tried to talk to Mitch again, although he simply picked at his sandwich and did not look my way, and I merely assumed that he only wanted a bit of time to himself.

We spent the next half hour hypothesizing about possible reasons Mr. Grassi had lied, although about five minutes in the reasonability of the conversation died and our theories became more and more extreme. Mitch did not say much, although I was unsure if it was because it was his father we were discussing, or if it had been the kiss that had upset him. I assumed it had been a bit of both and later, when the two of us had left the kitchen and started down the hall towards the stairs, I was just beginning to ask him before he cut me off, his words quick.

“I think I’m going to go read for a bit,” he said, not meeting my eyes. “I...I will see you later. At dinner, perhaps.”

I frowned, moving to touch his arm and feeling my heart ache when he moved away. “Are you sure?”

“Of course. Goodbye, Scott.”

He did not say anything more before turning and hurrying away from me. I stood there for a long while, leaning back against the wall and attempting to determine why the hell he was so upset. It did not bother me to see him with Avriel, so I did not understand why it had bothered him. He and I were only friends, after all. All of us were only friends , according to Mitch.

I finally began my way through the house again after a few minutes, heading in the general direction of the library but pausing when I heard two voices coming from the first floor living room. I slipped through the door to see Kirstin and Esther refolding the large afghan blanket that was always slouched against the sofa. They were laughing hysterically and Kirstin was nearly doubled over, her hand on her forehead while the other remained loosely gripped on the blanket. They seemed so entirely entranced with one another that I considered leaving without a word, but Esther caught sight of me before I could and gave a sweet smile.

“If it isn’t the city boy, himself,” she called, tossing the blanket back onto the couch and wrapping her arm around Kirstin’s waist to steady her. “I fear you’ve caught us in quite a hysterical state. Mi mariposa está emocionado.”

“Emocionada,” Kirstin corrected once she’d regained her breath, smiling up at Esther and wiping the tears from her eyes. “Emocionado is the masculine form.”

“Emocionada,” Esther repeated, her gaze softening and her cheeks growing pink. She looked away from Kirstin quickly and back over to me, giving a small laugh. “She’s been trying to teach me Spanish, although I’m afraid I’m a hopeless cause.”

“Disparates,” Kirstin scolded, rolling her eyes. “You are doing very well, mariposa.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Mariposa?”

“It means butterfly,” Esther explained, looking down at Kirstin again with the most lovestruck expression I’d yet to see in my life. “She calls me her butterfly.”

It was Kirstin’s turn to blush and she looked away, giving a half-shrug. “You are as beautiful as the wings of a butterfly. It seems only fitting.”

Esther gave another soft, sweet laugh, and I wondered how in the world Kirstin did not know that they were both completely in love with each other - two oblivious souls behaving as though they were alright with only friendship, meanwhile both longing for so much more. I wanted to make them see reason, but then again I was aware that I was perhaps not the right person to do so. They would not see what was there until they finally looked, and I could not make them look anymore than they could make the other.

“You look pensive, city boy,” Esther said after a moment, dragging me back to reality. I smiled tiredly and leaned against the sofa, shaking my head as my thoughts returned once more to Mitch.

“I do not understand people,” I said finally, sighing and looking down at my hands. “I’ve upset Mitch but I do not quite know why.”

Kirstin laughed. “It is difficult to understand others when you cannot understand yourself, Scott.”

“I know myself plenty.”

“Do you?”

I hesitated before sighing again. “I thought I did. Perhaps not, though.”

“What happened?” Esther asked gently.

“I’m not sure. His father wanted to meet with me today, and he seemed to be lying about everything he said, but Mitch did not seem to be surprised by that, and then Avriel kissed me and he -”

“Wait,” Kirstin said, waving her hand for me to stop. “Slow down. Avriel kissed you? In front of Mitch?”

“Yes.”

Kirstin glanced over at Esther before rolling her eyes, a grin on her lips when she looked back at me. “Scott. You know I love you. But you are very stupid.”

I frowned. “Excuse me?”

“You think you are falling in love with Mitch, and yet you kiss somebody else in front of him? Obviously it upset him.”

I shook my head. “Avriel and I are friends, just like he and Mitch are friends. Why should I not be allowed to kiss him if Mitch can?”

Esther looked at me like I was the most foolish person she’d ever met. “Scott, has it not occurred to you that perhaps Mitch was envious when he saw you kiss my brother?”

“Mitch has no romantic feelings for him, though, there is no reason -”

“Scott, he was not jealous of you , he was jealous of Avi. ” Kirstin raised an eyebrow, shaking her head as though it was the most obvious conclusion in the world. “From the way I’ve seen Mitch look at you, I would hazard a guess that you aren’t the only one falling in love, city boy.”

I paused, a warm feeling growing in my stomach. “Mitch is not falling in love with me. We - we are friends, and we are intimate, but he...he is not in love with me. You are misreading the situation. He - he was most likely upset because of what happened with his father, not...”

“Scott -”

“He always says we are friends. And he - he fucks all of his friends, I am no different…”

“Scott,” Kirstin said gently, her dark eyes patient. “I have been working here for the past three years, and I have seen Mitch go through dozens of lovers. Never once have I seen him as he is with you. I think you are falling in love with him, city boy.” She smiled, and I felt my heart beat faster in my chest. “And I think he is falling for you, as well.”

--

An hour later I found myself pacing back and forth in front of Mitch’s door, trying to build up the courage to finally knock and sort out this entire mess of a situation that had formed. Kirstin’s words were still ringing in my ears over and over, and no matter how much I wished to, I still did not quite believe them. There were far too many variables to arrive at a definitive answer, and I did not want to make a fool of myself, and yet here I was, setting up a situation that would undoubtedly make a fool of myself.

I ran my fingers through my hair and faced the door straight on, entirely unsure if he was even here. I had checked the library and a few of the small study rooms on the second floor but he had been nowhere in sight, and I assumed that naturally this was the next most likely place to find him. I let out a slow breath before stepping forward, raising my fist to the door before I could lose my nerve and knocking three times.

There was a pause, and then a quiet voice said, “Please go away.”

I stepped back, my heart still hammering and my stomach tightening. I knew I should leave and respect his privacy, and yet some stubborn part of me refused to go. I knocked again after a moment and the voice came again, this time far weaker.

“Please...just leave…”

“Mitch?” I called gently, resting one palm on the door and the other on the handle. It was unlocked. “It’s Scott…”

There was no response and I waited a few more seconds before turning the handle slightly, pushing the door open and taking a hesitant step in. The room was bright with warm afternoon light and I could see Mitch sitting in the corner seat by the window, his body turned away from me. I paused and then pulled the door shut behind me, watching as he flinched but did not look my way.

“Hey,” I said softly, walking towards him and pausing when I reached his chair. He still did not face me and I rested my hand on his shoulder, loathing how he moved away from my touch. “Mitch…”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, his voice hoarse. “I - I’m behaving like a fool…”

I did not say anything, moving instead to kneel in front of his chair, my hands coming rest on his knees. He still did not look at me and I reached forward, cupping his face and waiting until he turned my way. The skin around his eyes was red as though he’d been crying. I bit my lip and moved closer, wiping gingerly at the corner of his eye and running my thumb down along his jawline, letting out a slow breath when his eyes finally opened and he stared down at me.

“You…” I shook my head, trailing my fingers under his chin. “You always call me your friend.”

He let out a noise that I could not distinguish between a laugh and a sob, shaking his head and looking away again. “It shouldn’t have bothered me.”

“But it did.”

“The way you looked at him,” he whispered, his eyes helpless. “I know it did not mean anything, but - seeing you kiss him...it should not bother me because I kiss him, so there is no reason you should not be able to, but…” He bit his lip. “I loathe the thought of you with somebody else, Scott.”

I swallowed. “Mitch…”

“I know it makes no sense, and that it is completely unfair to think this way, but I…” He looked back over, his dark eyes shining. “I care about you so much and I’ve never...I cannot understand this feeling because it’s entirely new to me…”

I nodded, brushing his hair back and moving a bit closer. “Mitchy,” I murmured, and he let out another noise. “Are...are we friends, or..?”

His lip quivered and I longed to take him into my arms. “I do not know…”

I sighed. “Alright.”

“I’m sorry…”

“It isn’t your fault.”

He shook his head, looking down. “I care about you. And...not in the way that I care about Avriel. It is different. It...it is like I can feel you in the air around me, and when you are gone I cannot breathe…”

I bit my lip, unable to keep my heart from beating faster. “I understand the feeling. I’ve been thinking about you constantly since we met...I cannot stop…”

“What if we…” He hesitated, his voice quiet. “What if we did it? What if we ran away to the riverside and never left? What if we fell in love…” He smiled, looking down so that I could not see his eyes. “That would be so nice…”

“Your father would hate me,” I said softly, and he let out a surprised laugh, looking back up at me and flashing his dimples. “Although I think he might already hate me.”

“He hates everybody.”

I smiled, cupping his face again and resting back on the floor. He moved forward after a moment, slipping out of his chair and crawling closer until he was sitting in my lap, his dark eyes hesitant and so completely warm.

“I care about you,” I whispered, and he nodded slowly.

“I care about you as well…”

“This won’t work.”

“It won’t,” he agreed, his arms wrapping loosely around my waist. “But I...I do not think I mind…”

“You’re going to marry her.”

He shook his head. “I don’t want to think about that. I want...I want you…”

“We should...we should talk about this…soon...”

“Alright,” he whispered, biting his lip and leaning forward so that our foreheads were pressing together.

“And...will you tell me about your father? About everything, because I do not understand anything…”

He nodded, although his eyes were a bit hesitant. “I will tell you anything you want to know. I trust you, my Scott. I...I care about you so much...”

“I...I’m afraid…”

“It’s alright,” he whispered. “I am, too. But you cannot let fear control you. You must open your heart to the light.”

I smiled, the words familiar although I could not recall why. “And if I do?”

He leaned forward and pressed his lips to mine, my heart igniting suddenly and my entire life coming undone under the beautiful chaos that was Mitchell Grassi.

“You’re free.”

Chapter Text

The sun shone down upon us, and I fell in love.

It was hesitant, if a word could describe it. As though piece by piece I slipped deeper and deeper into a dreamscape that had all too much potential to turn to a nightmare. I could feel myself pulling back - attempting to slow the descent that had been so imminent from the first moment I had seen Mitchell Grassi - but it was hopeless. You could not stop the fall just as you could not stop the change of the seasons, both confusing and magnificent occurrences that were far too beautiful to resist. The sun shone down upon us, and the afternoon heat heightened, and I feel deeply and helplessly in love.

At first it did not feel different, and I wondered if that was because I had already been in love. I thought I had been - I had even admitted it only days after we met, in the hazy scope of nostalgia and loneliness when he had been absent from my side for far too long to bear. But that had not been love, and I now knew that. It had been affection, adoration - perhaps even infatuation - but not love. Love was capricious and did not allow itself to be captured so easily. Love was light - it was the sun and the sky and the ever-changing stars - and what I had felt then was the moon. Beautiful and precious in its own right, but nothing compared to the burst of ethereal luminescence that came when the night gave itself to the day and the horizon cracked open to reveal a radiance so inherently ephemeral and so debilitatingly wondrous. I had seen him through the eyes of the moon, but that seemed insignificant now that I gazed down upon him in the light from the sun.

I loved him.

The thought terrified me, and I wondered how so much could have changed in such a short span of time. A month ago I had known nothing of love, or lust, or intimacy - too afraid to allow myself to give in to what I had for so long thought to be perversion - but now I was staring down at the most beautiful creature I had ever seen and admitting that I was in love with him. It seemed mad - I seemed mad - and yet I knew that this was the first moment in my life where I had truly allowed myself to acknowledge what I felt without being ashamed. I loved him, and I was afraid, but I was also so unbelievably happy.

It felt warm and comfortable, as though my soul was yawning as it awoke from a slumber that had lasted seventeen years. I could not help the smile that made its way across my lips, those three words spinning round and round in my mind until I grew dizzy.

I loved him.

The sun shone down upon us, and the clouds parted to make way for the light, and I loved him.

“Tesoro,” he whispered, tugging my hand to his lips and smiling beautifully. “You always think so loudly after we make love. I worry that one day I will actually be able to hear your thoughts.”

I let out a quiet laugh, afraid to disrupt the silence that had settled over us. I brushed my fingers over his neck and down along the ridges of his spine, counting every vertebrae until I lost track, distracted by the feeling of his skin on mine. We were settled on the floor in front of his large bay window, curled into each other in a mass of tangled limbs and sweat, goosebumps erupting over my arms as the heat of the moment calmed and the summer breeze taunted my naked form. We had been too impatient to make it to the bed - both too drunk off the other to even manage walking - and had instead stayed right where we had been. It had been gentle and sweet, and I found myself once again unable to understand how so many people could view intimacy as a sin. It seemed to me one of the most beautiful things I had ever experienced, although perhaps I only saw it as such because it had been Mitch who had been with me. I did not know, and I did not care to know. The opinions of others did not mean much to me when I held the sun between my fingertips.

I shivered when I felt his hand trace along my stomach, my muscles tightening and my lip catching between my teeth. He smiled again and rested his head back into the crook of my arm, his finger drawing maddeningly slow circles along my abdomen and over the curve of my ribs. His eyes were soft as they so often were when he was with me, as though every bit of tension had been relieved and he could exist without any barriers to shield him from the world. It made me feel as though I was the one charged to shelter him, the order unspoken and yet definitively implied. I held within me his trust, and Avriel’s words rang back in my mind. He is giving you something special - something that he does not give to anybody. Protect it.

“My Scott,” he murmured, his voice gentle as it tugged me away from my excitable thoughts. His finger traced over the back of my hand, his dark sienna eyes watching every small movement he made as though ensuring that his touch remained nothing but tender. His lips curled into a smile after a moment, his precious dimples flashing as he whispered, “O beautiful star with the crimson mouth. O moon with the brows of gold…”

I felt my face grow warm and my eyes slipped shut. “That is beautiful.”

“It is,” he agreed softly as the words sang to me. “O ship that shakes on the desolate sea. O ship with the wet, white sail...put in, put in, to the port to me, for my love and I would go to the land where the daffodils blow in the heart of a violet dale…” He paused, and when I looked back down at him he was smiling as though he had never before felt the sun on his skin. “I cannot remember the rest…”

“Make it up,” I said quietly, and he laughed, looking up at me.

“I fear I am not qualified to collaborate on one of Oscar Wilde’s poems,” he murmured, his small body curling in closer to mine. “Such an attempt would be disgraceful.”

“Nothing you do could ever be disgraceful.”

His smile grew soft as he trailed his fingers lightly over my cheeks. “You are always so sweet to me, mio tesoro…” He leaned forward, his lips brushing over mine as he laced our fingers together. I could not help but hold him closer, my hands coming to rest on his lower back as the sunlight from the window warmed the air around us. He pulled back after a moment, his mouth pink to match his cheeks, and I loved him more than I had believed it possible to love. He smiled again shyly and rested his fingers under my chin. “I am always so happy when we are together...”

My eyes fluttered shut as he pressed small kisses over my neck, shuddering despite the afternoon heat. “You make it difficult to distinguish between dreams and reality,” I whispered. “I find you in both and it is striking how similar they’ve become.”

He laughed quietly, resting his head over my heart. “I dream of you as well. Although it is easier for me to determine dreams and reality, because you always have wings in my dreams.”

I grinned. “Wings?”

“Mm...vast, golden wings that match the color of your hair. You always come to me from the sky. It feels as though you are a gift from Heaven itself…” He turned onto his side, his fingers settling on my stomach and his eyes slipping closed. “You hold me in your arms and sing to me, and everything bad simply fades away. You take me to beautiful, warm places where the sun shines and the clouds make way for our Eden. And we stay there forever, my angel and I, beautiful and enamored and unafraid.” His smile curled up a bit. “Sometimes I truly believe that you are an angel, and it is so strange waking up to see you without your wings.”

I was unsure of what to say, flattered by his words yet unable to respond adequately, and so I simply ran my fingers over his back and hummed a quiet song. He smiled again after a moment, and I adored how happy I seemed to make him simply by being there.

“I wish I had the talents of an artist,” he murmured a few minutes later, pulling me from the light doze I had fallen into. “I would love to paint you as you are in my dreams. You are always beautiful, but something about seeing you as my angel...I am not sure. It just feels so nice.”

I tilted my chin down and kissed his forehead. “You could always ask Avriel. He’s an artist, isn’t he?”

“He mostly draws his flowers from what I know,” Mitch said thoughtfully. “Although he tried to draw me once and it came out quite well.” He shifted, pushing himself up off of me and running a hand through his hair, a halo forming about the crown of his head from the light of the sun. His eyes narrowed and he regarded me steadily. “You would be alright with that? Avriel drawing you?”

I shrugged, bracing my arms against the floor and lifting my hips a bit to stretch the length of my back. “I don’t see why not.”

He nodded, his brow furrowing as a pensive look came about him. A moment later he looked back up at me and smirked. “Would you be alright with him drawing you naked?”

My cheeks warmed. “Am I often naked in your dreams?”

“Oh, always.”

My blush grew and I gave another shrug. “I don’t think I would mind.” I hesitated, worrying at my lip. “Would you mind? I know it bothered you this afternoon to see him and I kiss, I would not want to…”

Mitch shook his head, combing his fingers through his hair and picking up his shirt from the floor beside him. “No, that...I think we should discuss what happened today. It was unfair of me to get so upset. I would be a hypocrite if I said that you should not kiss him, or...or do whatever else you want to do with him. I’m not sure, it was just difficult to see it because I hadn’t really expected it, if I’m to be honest.”

I moved forward a bit, resting my hand on his cheek and waiting until he met my eyes. “I do not feel anything for him,” I said softly, smiling a bit at the relief on his face. “It would not make sense for me to, even if I did, because he has no interest in romance, but...I care for him as a friend. Nothing more.”

His lips curled up a bit and I found myself wanting to kiss his dimples. “I am the same. I love him dearly, but he has always only been my friend. That being said…” He paused, his cheeks tinging red. “Our relationship has always had a physical component to it. Since you’ve arrived we’ve not been intimate all that much, but...I’m not sure if I am willing to stop altogether. I love him, and I love kissing him, and I love having sex with him, but...I am not in love with him.”

I nodded, tugging my fingers through his hair. “You want to keep being with him as you’ve always been.”

“Yes,” he whispered. “But it has nothing to do with having feelings for him.”

“No,” I agreed, nodding again and giving a small smile. The worry on his face faded a bit and I leaned forward, pressing a kiss to his jaw. “I feel the same, although to a lesser degree, obviously. Him and I...our friendship has grown into something where kissing is a natural component. I am not sure if I would want that to stop either.”

“So we’ll keep on as we have been?” He murmured, his fingers resting over my heart lightly. I felt my eyes crinkle as I smiled, leaning forward to kiss him again.

“That sounds perfectly fine. It does not really bothered me, the thought of you and him together, if I’m honest. Not now that I know it has never meant anything more than friendship.” I bit my lip, wanting to add Not now that I know you wish to be mine.

“I think that is why it upset me so much this afternoon,” he said, his shoulders curling forward. “I was terrified that you were falling in love with him. Terrified that you did not care for me as I did for you…”

“Nonsense,” I murmured, cupping his face in both of my hands and brushing our mouths together once more. “Mitchell Grassi, you have changed my world.”

--

I was drinking a cup of tea and scanning the newspaper in the kitchen the next afternoon when I felt two warm arms wrap around my waist. I started, unusually wary due to the encounter I’d had with Walter that morning. He’d seen me in the hallway and had sneered at me once more, again muttering quietly, “German scum” as he’d passed. It did not affect me as much as it had the first time, although it made me positive that Mr. Grassi - no matter how tolerant he’d claimed to be - had no issue with allowing such prejudice to continue. He’d left for New York City the previous day and had seemed to forget his promise to reprimand Walter, and while I knew that I was not truly in any danger, it was still a bit harrowing to know that somebody in such close proximity clearly had no objections to publicly expressing their distaste for those like me.

My discomfort, then, when somebody wrapped their arms around my waist was perhaps not unfounded, although I relaxed immediately when I realized it was Avriel. I gave him a smile and he pressed a warm kiss to my cheek, sweeping behind the kitchen counter and rifling through a few cupboards in a haphazard manner that was entirely his own.

“Enjoying your afternoon tea?” He asked pleasantly, turning to face me as he placed a kettle on the stove. He studied me a moment before grinning. “God, you are such a European.”

I laughed and he settled across from me at the counter, measuring out tea leaves from the metal tin and plopping them into a chipped mug. His fingers moved deftly, the sides of his hands stained with charcoal and paint, and I adored how every movement he made seemed to be filled with such a delicate grace. “You were born in Poland, Liebling,” I argued, laughing again. “You’re the only European here. I am an American through and through.”

He rolled his eyes and tucked his hair behind his ears, pulling it into a braid that ran down the length of his back. “Mm, I prefer the title of American as well,” he said thoughtfully, tugging at his beard with a beautiful smile. “Being European has become far too complicated.”

I grinned but did not respond, watching as he moved about the kitchen again, taking some sort of pastry out of the freezer box and setting it on a plate. His water finished boiling not long after and he danced over to the stove, humming to himself as he prepared his tea - adding two sugars and quite a healthy measure of cream to the mug. A moment later he had settled in front of me and broke the pastry in half, nudging one piece towards me with a smirk.

“Try it.”

I raised an eyebrow, resting my chin in my hand and smiling coyly. “What is it?”

“You do not trust me?”

“Not with that look on your face. For all I know you could be trying to poison me. Kill off the Germans one by one.”

His face dropped instantly, a sunken look appearing in his eyes and his lips parting in what I knew to be an expression of complete horror. “I would never even think of hurting you, Scott,” he whispered, and I shifted, suddenly uncomfortable. “Especially not because you are German…”

“That was a joke,” I said quickly, shaking my head and resting my hand on his. “I was - I was not serious. I know you would never - that was a joke, Avriel. I’m sorry.”

His fingers tightened around mine. “Do - do you think about that often?”

“No,” I said firmly, cupping his face and leaning forward to press my lips to his. I felt him rigid against me, but a moment later his fingers came to rest under my chin and he kissed me back, the worried tension leaving his body bit by bit. I pulled away when I felt him relax entirely beneath my touch, nudging our noses together and setting my eyes on his mouth. “I was only joking, but it - it was in bad taste. Forgive me. I did not mean to upset you.”

He nodded slowly, although I could not tell if he truly believed me. I trailed my fingers through his hair once before pulling back and looking down at the plate in front of me, my face warm.

“So what is it?” I asked, motioning toward the pastry in an attempt at regaining our normality. Avriel let out a long breath before managing a smile and resting his elbows on the counter, his eyes twinkling faintly.

“Guess.”

I smiled, prodding one of the pieces with my finger. It looked almost like a crumble, although there were thin layers of red and white alternating over the top. I glanced up at Avriel and narrowed my eyes, pouting.

“I have no idea. Tell me.”

“Nuh-uh,” he said, grinning and breaking off a piece. “Try it first.”

I huffed but opened my mouth, and he set the pastry between my lips, his gorgeous green eyes so close I almost forgot to breathe. I chewed for a moment before letting out an embarrassingly loud moan and resting my chin in my hand, opening my mouth again.

He laughed. “More?”

“Mm, more.”

He smirked again but fed me another piece, and I closed my eyes, grinning like a fool.

“Whoever made this is a master. What is it?”

“Raspberry and white chocolate biscuit,” he said, taking a bite and smiling as though he’d just tasted paradise. “Kevin always makes it once the raspberries have come into season. Kirstin hoards most of it, though, so getting a piece has become quite difficult.”

“But you’ve managed?”

“I stole some before Kevin told her they were done.” Avriel smirked, taking another bite before setting it back down on the plate and sighing happily. “I’ve learned to ration it over the years. I can make one piece last for a week if I have to.”

I bit my lip and stared down at the rest of the biscuit on the plate, trying to keep myself from grabbing it and running. It truly was one of the best things I’d ever tasted, and I could not imagine willingly sharing it with anybody, not even Mitch. I loved him, but this tasted like sex felt and I never wanted it to end.

“So,” Avriel said, wrapping the rest of the biscuit in a cloth and placing it back in the freezer box. My heart ached at such a loss. “Now that you’ve experienced one of the best things our mortal world has to offer, I fear that everything else will be extremely underwhelming.”

I laughed and propped my head in my hands, watching him fondly as he stirred his tea. “That was so good. Are you sure that Kevin is not a god?”

“Valid question,” Avriel said with a grin. He took a hesitant sip from his mug and I wrapped my hands around my own forgotten tea, which was now lukewarm after such prolonged neglect. “I find myself wondering the same thing almost everyday. He claims to be human, although there’s something rather celestial about him.”

“True,” I said with a sigh, smiling as an image of the cook made its way into my mind. “He’s captivating.”

“Now, now, city boy, don’t go falling in love with him.”

I rolled my eyes and stuck out my tongue. “You know my heart is already taken. Besides, from what I’ve been told, men are not really Kevin’s area of preference.”

Avriel smirked and stirred his spoon slowly through his tea, a piece of his hair falling into his eyes. “That’s what he’s told you, is it?”

His words struck me odd and I paused as a memory from my first days came back to me, looking quickly up at Avriel and placing my hand over my mouth. I could not help the wide grin that had made its way over my lips as my shoulders began to shake with laughter. “Wait. I completely forgot, but he told me a few weeks ago...you’ve fucked him, haven’t you? Or rather, he’s fucked you. Whichever position it was.”

Avriel let out a beautiful laugh, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “I adore how blunt you are, city boy. It’s refreshing.”

“But you have, haven’t? You’ve fucked him?”

“Close. Other way around.”

“He’s fucked you?” My smile grew wider and I leaned forward until I was almost lying atop the counter, tugging at his arms until he met my eyes. “When? Where? Good god, please tell me…”

He brushed his fingers through my hair and pecked my nose. “You’re so precious, kochanie.”

“Tell me,” I begged, grinning at the blush that had risen to his cheeks. I could not help my excitement, the prospect of him and Kevin together too fascinating to ignore. “When was it? How was it? Was he good?”

“It was…” Avriel paused, his light eyes thoughtful. He grinned after a moment and his cheeks reddened even more. “It was quite good, honestly.”

“Oh my god.”

“It was a few years back, when I first started working here. My promiscuity was not unknown to him, and he was a bit curious what it would feel like to be with a man.” He chuckled. “I was only being a good friend.”

“And the two of you have never..?”

“As incredible as I am at fucking, men really are not his interest.” Avriel shrugged, sipping his tea and smirking again. “It was fun, though. He’s gorgeous in every sense. So sweet, as well. He was terrified he would hurt me and it took ages before I convinced him that I wanted him to fuck me as hard as he possibly could.”

I choked on my tea. “Christ…”

Avriel looked over at me with a grin. “Still a bit of a prude, city boy?”

“Not at all,” I said, coughing into my hand and wiping at the tears that had formed in my eyes. “I simply was not expecting...does it really feel that good, then? Having somebody inside of you?”

“I’d assumed you would know from Mitch, considering how vocal he is, but yes, if you do it correctly it feels amazing.” He went to take another sip of his tea before pausing and looking back down at me, his lips tugging into a frown. “You have fucked him, correct?”

I felt my cheeks flush like I was a goddamn bridal virgin. “Of course we’ve fucked.”

“I asked if you’ve fucked him, not if the two of you have fucked. There’s a difference. Have you?”

My face grew warmer. “We’ve…” I shrugged, worrying at my lip. “No. It’s not as though I do not want to, because I love - I love him, but it only seems... intense. I’m unsure if I want that just yet.”

Avriel’s eyes softened and he gave me the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen, leaning forward onto the counter. “Scott,” he said quietly, his hand resting atop mine and his smile growing. “Did you just say you love him?”

My cheeks flushed again and I wondered how it was possible to blush so profusely. “That may have slipped out.”

“Does he know?”

I shook my head, holding Avriel’s hands between my fingers. His skin felt like flower petals. “I haven’t told him yet. I know the two of you do not keep secrets from each other, but please do not mention anything to him…”

“Of course,” Avriel murmured, his mouth still curled into a warm smile. He ran his thumb along my jaw and pressed a soft kiss to my lips. “But do not take too long to tell him. He will want to know.”

I looked away, my heart beating a bit faster. “Do you think he’ll feel the same?”

Avriel laughed. “He asked me to paint you as an angel, city boy. I have no doubt whatsoever that he feels the same.”

I could not help my smile. “I see he’s told you about his request, then. Would you ever actually do it?”

“Oh, I’ve every intention of painting you. I would do it even if he hadn’t asked.” He lifted my chin up a bit and kissed me again. “You are too gorgeous to ignore.”

“You’re sweet.”

“I’m honest,” he corrected, taking another sip of his tea. He stared at me for a long while before smiling again, his beautiful eyes warm as I’d never before seen them. “And you... you are so different than I ever thought you could be.”

--

The next days passed quietly by as June gave itself to July and the summer’s pull intensified around us. Mitch and I spent almost every moment together - riding down to the riverside and picnicking beneath the sun, sitting across from one another in the Grassi library and reading for hours on end, taking daytrips to the small village a few miles away from the mansion and roaming around the shops. It was a tranquility I had not felt before, and I found myself growing drunk off of the happiness that so constantly took ahold of me. The world was falling apart around us, but I was hopelessly in love, and nothing could have been more perfect.

It was a Wednesday evening when I heard a soft knock on Mitch’s door. I was settled in one of the cushioned chairs by the window reading a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets while Mitch sat at his desk, revising a book of Latin studies. It struck me odd how he had coursework even during the summer holiday, but I knew that his school was extraordinarily rigorous and called for much more attention than he’d been giving it lately. I felt somewhat guilty for being such a distraction, but he’d promised me that he much preferred my company to translating Ovid from its original Latin text.

The knock on the door sounded again and I stood, pressing a kiss to Mitch’s head as I made my way past him and grinning the moment I saw Avriel standing in the hall.

“Good evening,” I said softly, and he kissed my cheek before pushing his way into the room, carrying a thick piece of board in one hand and a burlap bag in the other.

“Evening, sweetheart,” he said with a smile, setting what I now recognized as a canvas up against Mitch’s bed and stretching his arms over his head. Mitch turned in his seat and watched Avriel with hazy, sleepy eyes, a smirk on his lips.

“You could have told me you were coming,” he said, slipping out of the chair and padding over to where we were standing, his socks flopping off of his feet with every step. I rested back against one of the bedposts, my heart aching at how precious he was. He was wearing only a pair of underwear and one of my maroon sweaters, and it was so large on him that it slouched off one shoulder and hung down past his knees. He rubbed his eyes and gave a sleepy yawn, his hair falling into his eyes as his little nose scrunched up like a rabbit. He was positively darling and I loved him more than I could know.

“I’ve only just returned from the city,” Avriel said, pulling me back from my thoughts. He pressed a kiss to Mitch’s forehead before turning towards me with a smirk. “Take off all of your clothing, please.”

I gave a surprised laugh and Mitch rolled his eyes.

“How gentlemanly,” he muttered, his arms wrapping around my waist as he kissed my neck. “What our dear Avriel intended to say was that he’s finally got the supplies he needs to paint you.” He smiled, his dark eyes staring up at me warmly as everything about him softened. “My beautiful angel…”

I allowed my lips to curl up and I leaned forward to kiss the tip of his nose, making him blush prettily. “We’re doing it now, then?”

“Not all of it, obviously,” Avriel said. He’d disappeared into the small room that extended off of Mitch’s main bedroom, returning a moment later with an easel and setting the canvas atop it. “But I figure I can get a rough sketch down for now.” He grinned, pulling out several tubes of paint from the burlap bag and setting them on the table, his eyes wild with what I could only assume was inspiration. I’d only ever seen a few of his sketches from the small journal he’d shown me weeks ago, and while they were good, I had not really considered him an artist before. But now - seeing the hunger on his face, the half- madness that was so different from his usual serenity - I realized that there was truly more to him than I had ever begun to assume. I leaned further back against the bedpost and smiled as I watched him set up, his movements graceful and so completely impatient. He faced Mitch and I a few minutes later when everything was prepared, frowning and tugging at his beard when he saw me. “You are not naked.”

Mitch laughed and I felt my face get warm. The boy pressed a kiss to my cheek and bit his lip, his eyes excited, and I briefly wondered if this was some odd plan to get the three of us to fuck. I would not have minded, necessarily, but it seemed very complex when simply asking me would have been easier. Mitch kissed me again and my excitable thoughts faded away, leaving me standing before them with a red face and an increasingly nervous heart.

“You are alright with this, aren’t you?” Mitch asked quietly after a moment, and I realized I had simply been staring at them with what must have been an idiotic look on my face. “It is fine if you don’t want him to paint you, or if you wish to wear clothes, I only thought…”

I shook my head, giving him what I hoped was a warm smile. “I’m alright. I’m sorry. My mind has simply begun overthinking.”

Mitch traced his thumb along my lips, his mouth curling up. “You are so beautiful, mio angelo, and I do not want you to be uncomfortable at all.”

“I’m alright,” I said again, and Mitch waited a moment before nodding and moving to stand beside Avriel, resting his arm on the man’s shoulder.

“Where do you want him?” Mitch asked quietly, and Avriel looked up from the canvas, his brow furrowing.

“He can pose on the bed. That will probably be the most comfortable for him.” Avriel brushed his fingers through his hair, tucking it in a low bun behind his neck and adding, “You may get undressed, Scott” before turning back to Mitch and asking the boy his preferences for the wings.

I let out a slow breath, thankful that neither of them were watching me as I slipped my shoes off and undid the buttons of my shirt. I folded each article of clothing neatly and set it on the floor beside the bed, pausing when all that was left was my underwear. My cheeks flushed horribly as I slid them down my legs, tucking them into the pile of clothes and standing awkwardly by the front of the bed, unsure of where they wanted me now. They continued talking for a few more minutes before finally turning back to me, a tube of paint in one of Avriel’s hands and a paintbrush tucked behind his ear. He started saying something but stopped the moment his eyes landed on me, his lips parting slightly and his entire body freezing.

“My god,” he whispered, his voice hoarse and very, very quiet. “He’s beautiful...”

Mitch smiled and bit his lip, his eyes trailing slowly over my body. “Isn’t he?” He murmured, the words so soft I barely heard them. My face warmed again and I looked down, unable to keep the embarrassed smile from making its way across my face. “He is like a dream come to life…”

It took a few moments before they stopped staring, and finally Avriel took a step forward, his cheeks tinged pink as he delicately nudged me back a bit.

“Here, city boy, sit on the bed and we’ll try a few poses.”

I did as I was told, sitting cross-legged on the bed and positioning myself the best I could under his instructions. We tried a few poses, all of which were terribly uncomfortable, before Mitch finally crawled up beside me and moved me with sure, gentle hands. He propped one of my knees up over the other and turned my torso a bit to the right, so that I was lying on my side with my arms resting stiffly above my head. His fingers rested under my chin and a moment later I felt his soft lips on mine, his mouth so sweet I felt drunk. He pulled away slowly, smiling up at me with dark eyes.

“You are so beautiful,” he whispered, pressing another kiss to my lips. “Thank you for this, my angel.”

I smiled and leaned forward, capturing his mouth in a kiss again and shuddering when his fingertips ran along my stomach. “I would swim the Atlantic if it would bring you joy.”

He giggled, kissing me once more and slipping back off of the bed, moving to stand beside Avriel. They had me make a few adjustments and discussed the addition of the wings for another minute before Avriel took out a small grey pencil and began to sketch.

The next hour passed us by in a haze of quiet tranquility. I felt my leg muscles gradually ache but remained still, closing my eyes and steadying my breathing and thinking only of Mitch’s beautiful face. The two of them made a few comments every so often, most of which were Mitch instructing Avriel on the creation of the wings, but were mainly silent, the only sound coming from the nesting birds outside of the window. I lost myself in the peace of the moment, barely registering Mitch’s voice what must have been hours later when it came like siren.

“His arms are trembling.”

A moment passed, the words not processing in my mind, before suddenly there were two soft hands on my arms guiding me onto my back. My eyes opened to the sight of Mitch staring down at me, my head in his lap as he ran his fingers through my hair, humming beautifully.

“I think that is enough for tonight,” he murmured, rubbing lightly at my aching arms. His brow furrowed and he leaned forward, pressing his lips to my forehead. “You should have told us you were getting tired, tesoro, we could have stopped.”

I shrugged, nuzzling my face into his stomach and smiling lazily at the feeling of him so close. “I do not mind.”

“You will be sore tomorrow, sweet boy.”

“That’s alright,” I whispered, pressing my lips to his thigh. “As long as you are happy.”

There was pause, and then Mitch spoke, his voice like sunlight. “Of course I am happy, my love. You never fail to make me happy.”

I sighed and simply moved as close to him as I could be, my eyes opening again when Avriel spoke softly.

“It’s only a sketch so far,” he said, sitting on the bed beside us and holding the canvas so that I could see it. “But I think you will be able to see the idea we had. I can begin to paint it in a few days or so.”

I barely heard a word he had said, far too entranced by the drawing. The pencil marks were light, but I could make out the outline of my naked body, familiar in every sense save the two vast wings that arched out of my back. My face was peaceful and my body angled itself out in position of utter vulnerability. It was indescribably beautiful, and I looked up to see Mitch staring at me with the softest eyes I’d ever seen, his expression one of adoration and - if I was not imagining it - love.

“You are my angel,” he whispered, cupping my face and giving a slow, shy smile. “And now you can watch over me even when you are not here.”

I bit my lip, nodding as I trailed my fingers over his jaw and brushed my mouth over his.

“Yes,” I murmured, my heart beating faster in my chest at how completely and irrevocably I loved him. “Always.”

 

 

this is what i had in mind for the painting of scott :) just imagine him blond and not bleeding

Chapter Text

I dipped the bar of hard lemon soap under the water in the bathtub, running my fingers back and forth over the waxy surface until small suds began to form. Mitch let out a small sigh from where he was positioned in front of me, leaning back into my chest and humming a quiet, beautiful song, his voice warm as the sun in the sky. I smiled and pressed a bit closer, watching as a droplet of water dripped from his hair and rolled down over the back of his neck. I leaned forward just as it trailed down his spine, running my tongue over the soft skin of his back and pausing when I reached his shoulder blade, catching the beads of water and not pulling away until I felt him shiver.

“Mio tesoro,” he murmured, resting closer against me. “That feels so nice…”

I nuzzled my face into the back of his neck and ran my fingers along the bar of soap again, moving back to grip my hand loosely in his hair and massage along the crown of his head, singing softly as I went. He sighed again, his toes curling against the edge of the bathtub as I washed his hair, his neck, his chest, his stomach, tickling him slightly until he squealed and scrambled away, water splashing over the side of the tub as he turned to give me a pout.

“I hate it,” he whined, running his fingers through his soapy hair. I held out my arms and he hesitated a moment before crawling forward back into my lap, though his eyes were wary. “I am warning you that I once accidentally kicked Avriel in the stomach when he tickled me.”

I laughed, cupping water in my hands and pouring it over the back of his head to wash out the soap. “What a mighty and fearsome blow. I shall keep that in mind for the future.”

“You should,” he said indignantly, although he was smiling so much I could see his dimples. I leaned forward and pressed a kiss to each one, pecking his nose as well for good measure before pulling away and returning my focus to his hair. He spoke again after a second, his voice soft as though hesitant to disturb the tranquility that had settled about us. “I am going to the city next week.”

I paused, my thumb pressed just above his temple. “The city?”

“Yes. Father is throwing some grand party in our penthouse and he wishes for me to be present. I am sure most partners of the bank will be there.” He sighed, his eyes fluttering shut as I poured a bit more water over his head. “Luce Bonanno will most likely be there as well with her family. It sounds miserable to think about.”

I nodded, setting the bar of soap down onto the small tray beside the tub. “When do you leave?”

“Five days from now. Wednesday morning. I’ll likely stay for a few nights.” He glanced back up at me, his hand warm as it rested on my leg and his voice eager. “I’d like for you to come with me.”

The words struck me odd and I could not help my frown. “That does not sound wise, Mitchy. Not with so many people around…”

“I do not care.”

“Yes, but I do.” I rested my fingers under his chin, loathing the sadness I found in those beautiful brown eyes. I hesitated, unsure how to be gentle when what I had to say was laced with poisonous spikes. I sighed finally, kissing his jaw. “I do not want to do anything to jeopardize your position. It would put you in terrible danger if any of your father’s partners discovered who you were.”

He shook his head, his features flashing with fear before muting themselves considerably, and I wondered again what he was hiding from me. “I do not want to be without you. Not with those fucking bastards who think of me as nothing more than a faggot.” He looked down, worrying at his lip with this teeth. “I do not think I can handle it, if I’m to be honest. I’ll try and kill them.”

I leaned back against the edge of the tub and tucked my arms around his waist, the stickiness of the current situation not unknown to me. “I wish to go with you,” I murmured, looking away in fear that if I met his eyes I would give him what he wanted. “But I do not think it is safe, my love. There is too much risk.”

He was quiet for a long while, his lips pressed to my shoulder so that his words were muffled when he finally spoke. “I wish you were not right.”

“I am sorry.”

“It’s alright. It is not your fault.” He paused, his voice cracking as whatever facade he’d built up around him became significantly more unstable. “None of this is your fault. I just...I loathe parties like that. So many wealthy boozehounds who treat me as though I am some rent boy that they can drunkenly fuck without their wives knowing. It becomes tiring.”

My stomach turned and I looked back up at him, uneasiness settling around me. “Does that truly happen?” I whispered, unable to keep the horror from my voice. “Do - do old men try and..?”

Mitch laughed, the sound so bitter it broke my heart. “You would be surprised, tesoro. The wealthy in this country are more often than not all homosexuals who loathe themselves and what they feel. Taking advantage of young boys is a favorite pastime of theirs.”

“Mitch,” I said, sitting up quickly. My stomach churned as though I was about to be violently ill. “You have been forced..?”

“What? Oh, god, no - no, no, tesoro , I’ve not…” He shook his head, cupping my face and moving a bit closer. “Christ, no, nobody has ever forced me. A few tried to seduce me when I was younger, and I am sure that if they had been a bit more sober and had their wits about them, they could have done if they really wanted to. But nobody with even an ounce of intelligence would have tried to force me as a child.” He shook his head again, the concern on his face morphing into disgust. “Nobody would try and have the Grassi heir. My father would have killed them. But others...it is not uncommon. There have been many rumors. Many true rumors.”

I let out a breath, attempting to slow the beat of my heart which had begun thrumming so quickly it felt as though it had dented my ribcage. My hands came to rest along his lower back, holding him as close to me as I could manage in fear that if I let go something horrible would come to pass. He cupped my face in his small hands, murmuring over and over that he was alright until the words melded together in my mind.

“I am sorry I worried you,” he said finally after a few minutes, his voice echoing in the high ceiling of the bathroom. “I sometimes forget that you do not already know all of this…”

“Is there more?” I asked quietly, although I already knew the answer. “More that you have not told me?”

His jaw clenched and he looked away. “Yes.”

“Will you?”

“Yes. But...not today, my love.”

“Mitch -”

“Not today.”

I stared at him before nodding, resigned. I loathed how he was still a mystery to me, even after the countless days and weeks we had spent by the other’s side. As though everything I knew about him was an insignificant detail - nothing compared to what he had not yet told me - and although I knew I was not entitled to know anything, it made me all the more anxious as the days went by and I still had no sure idea of who he was. He was still my mystery, and I could hardly stand it.

I sighed before squeezing my fingers around his, nodding once more as I foolishly whispered, “Alright.”

--

I stretched my arms above his head, my ribs aching from the stiff pose I was currently lying in. Avriel stood across from me, his eyes flicking from me to his easel every few seconds as he continued on the angel painting, his tongue poking out from between his teeth as he focused. Mitch was sat working at his desk, the tips of his hair still damp from our bath earlier and his shoulders hunched forward in what I was certain was an uncomfortable position.

“If you could lift your chin a bit, city boy,” Avriel said, his voice breaking my out of my thoughts. I complied, angling my head a bit higher and wincing as my muscles tensed. “Perfect, thank you. And straighten your legs a bit...excellent, stay just like that.”

I frowned at the new - far more uncomfortable - position I was settled in, about to complain when a soft knock sounded at the door. Avriel glanced over at Mitch, his mouth opening to speak when there was a quick titter of laughter and the door swung open. Two people rushed in, slamming it shut behind them and leaning back against the wall, and I let out a groan, shoving a pillow over my naked lower half at the sight of Esther and Kevin leaning on one another and cackling.

“Excuse you,” Mitch said, pushing himself away from his desk and giving a grin, his brown eyes teasing. “But I believe it’s customary to wait for an answer before entering into a room. Knocking is pointless otherwise.”

“We are hiding,” Kevin said, wiping at his eyes and adjusting the basket he was carrying in one arm. He moved away from the wall and towards Mitch, glancing over at me before pausing very quickly. “And Scott is naked.” He looked over at Avriel, his eyes wide. “Why is Scott naked?”

The groundskeeper gave a laugh, setting down his palette and brush. He tugged his hair into a bun and nodded towards the easel. “Have you somehow failed to notice the half-finished painting right in front of you?”

Kevin rolled his eyes. “I never know with you, if I’m honest. This could be the beginning of another Giacomo situation. You could be painting him before the three of you fuck, as far as I am aware.”

Mitch chuckled, pressing a kiss to Avriel’s cheek. “This isn’t another Giacomo situation, Kevy.”

“Thank god,” Esther said, pushing herself away from the door and perching on the bed a few feet away from me, a bit closer than I would have preferred in my current naked state. She pushed her spectacles up her nose, shooting Avriel a glare. “I do not think I could handle any more details about the sex adventures the two of you have.”

“We only fucked him once,” Avriel argued, glancing over at me with a wink. “Besides, if the two of us were to have Scott, I am sure he would be much better than Giacomo was.”

I felt my face grow warm and I looked down, eyeing my clothes that were sitting on the floor beside the bed and wondering the best manner in which to obtain them. This current conversation made absolutely no logical sense to me and I tried not to listen in, positive it would only make me more flustered than I already was.

“I’ve already had Scott, and I agree that he is much better than Giacomo ever was,” Mitch murmured, smiling cheekily. My face felt as though it was on fire. “So passionate...”

“You’re going to drive the poor boy into a panic,” Esther said, laughing as she looked over at me. “Are you alright, Scott? Dear god, you look as though you might faint.”

I did not say anything and Mitch made his way over to me a moment later, trailing his fingers through my hair and looking down at me with slightly concerned eyes. “Alright, my love?”

I hesitated, thankful that the others had started talking about something else and were no longer staring at me as though I was an animal in a zoo. “Could you hand me something to wear?” I whispered, my cheeks so hot I could not hold his gaze.

His expression softened and he pressed a gentle kiss to my forehead. “Of course, sweetheart,” he said, picking up the pile of clothes from the floor and helping me into my shirt and underpants. He settled on the bed after and pulled me into his arms despite the fact that I was so much larger than he was, humming softly until I could finally manage to look at him. “I’m sorry if any of that made you uncomfortable, tesoro …I did not intend...”

“It’s alright,” I whispered, shaking my head and nuzzling a bit closer, still embarrassed although I knew that nobody else minded what had happened. They all seemed entirely relaxed when it came to sex, and nudity, and anything related, and I only wished I could have been as unbothered as they were. I was far more comfortable than I had been a month ago, but compared to the others I was still nothing more than a goddamn prude, and I absolutely loathed it.

“You are overthinking again,” Mitch said softly, his fingers running through my hair. “What is wrong? Tell me, sweet boy...”

I sighed, frustrated as I pulled away from him and muttered, “Why? So that you can know everything about me while I know nothing about you?”

His eyes flashed with hurt. “Scott -”

I ignored him, pushing myself off of the bed and tugging on my trousers. Part of me considered leaving altogether, and I was halfway to the door when Esther wrapped her arm around my waist and dragged me into the conversation that she, Kevin, and Avriel were having. I tried to smile, pointedly keeping my gaze away from Mitch as he joined us a moment later, his dark eyes downcast and his arms tucked firmly against his chest.

“...lost her down by the first floor staircase, but I’m sure she will find us soon,” Kevin was saying, tugging the basket he was holding tighter under his arm. “She is going to be livid.”

“Oh, I cannot wait,” Avriel said, leaning back against Mitch’s desk and smiling beautifully. He glanced up at me with raised eyebrows and a smirk. “Do you remember the white chocolate and raspberry biscuits I told you about  a few days ago? The ones that Kirstin always hoards away so that the rest of us have to scavenge for remains?”

I gave a nod, putting on a face that hopefully did not show how close I was to breaking into tears. Avriel did not seem to notice, grinning as though the world was as perfect as it possibly could have been.

“Apparently my dear sister and Kevin thought it would be smart to steal all of them and run.” He shook his head, giving Esther a look. “Kirstin has been chasing the two of them for the past ten minutes. I do hope you know that she is going to kill you.”

Esther grinned. “She would never.”

“It is only fair,” Kevin said, grinning. “This has gone on for too many years. I demand democracy in my kitchen and she has been delivering nothing more than a fascist dictatorship.”

Avriel rolled his eyes and was about to speak when there was an impatient pounding at the door. We all looked over, terrified, and Kevin - moving far quicker than I’d ever seen another human move - grabbed the basket full of biscuits and darted into the room that connected to Mitch’s main bedroom, pulling the door shut behind him. There was another impatient knock before Kirstin burst through, her eyes narrowed and her blonde bun hanging loose on her shoulder.

“Give them to me,” she said, her lips pursed together. Avriel laughed, covering his mouth with his hand and leaning farther back on Mitch’s desk as Kirstin strode forward. She pushed past me, pausing when she reached Esther and tilting her chin down. “Dámelas, mariposa.”

Esther gave a sweet smile, brushing a bit of Kirstin’s hair off of her forehead. “I do not know what you are talking about, motylku.”

“Oh, but you do,” Kirstin said, glancing around at the rest of us. “Where are they? I am willing to be civil, but my patience is not as withstanding as it once was.”

I simply shrugged, Avriel and Mitch doing the same. Kirstin pursed her lips after a moment and gave a curt nod, returning her attention back to Esther.

“Where is Kevin?”

The maid giggled. “Why, I really couldn’t tell you. I’m not entirely sure.”

“Esther -”

“How about this,” Esther said, holding up her hands and smirking. “I will make you a deal, yes? I will give you half of the biscuits if you do something for me.”

Kirstin’s eyes narrowed even more. “All of them.”

“All of them? Sweet girl, you are in no position to bargain right now.” Esther bit her lip, grinning, and in that moment I was astounded by just how similar she and Avriel were. “But I will be generous. Three-fourths of the biscuits, how does that sound?”

Kirstin hesitated a moment before giving another nod. “What do I have to do?”

Esther smirked.

“Kiss me.”

Kirstin’s cheeks blazed crimson and she took a step back, whatever authority she’d managed to have melting away as she gave a nervous laugh. “I’m sorry?”

“Kiss me,” Esther repeated simply, her dark eyes twinkling. “And you may have the biscuits back.”

“Mariposa…”

“If this is the only way I will get you to do it, then so be it.” Esther smiled again, her eyes much softer. “Te adoro…” She hesitated, stepping forward and resting her hand on Kirstin’s cheek. “Te quiero…”

Kirstin’s face flushed again and for a moment I thought she might begin crying. “Your Spanish has improved beautifully,” she whispered, shaking her head as a smile played along her lips. Esther laughed, running her fingers over Kirstin’s cheek and stepping a bit closer.

“Do we have a deal, then?”

“Do not be foolish,” Kirstin whispered, nodding. “Of course we do…” She cupped Esther’s face carefully, the action appearing entirely new to both of them, and leaned forward to brush their mouths together, tears trickling out of the corners of her eyes. I felt my heart tighten at how beautiful they were together, happy that they had both finally realized what they meant to each other. Kirstin pulled away after a moment and laughed quietly, smiling as their noses bumped together. They were both crying, and they were the happiest tears I’d ever seen before in my life. “You could have just told me like a normal person…”

“Normality is out of fashion,” Esther said with a laugh, leaning forward to kiss her again. I glanced over at Avriel, who  was standing with boths hands in the air, doing some sort of victory dance that made me chuckle. It appeared that I was not the only person who had been waiting for this to happen. I looked back over to the maids, blushing as Esther’s hands pressed against Kirstin’s back to pull her closer, the two of them pressed together so tightly I was worried it would form bruises.

Finally Esther pulled back, biting her lip and smiling as though the sun had just broken over the horizon and brought light to her entire world.

“I love you…”

“I love you, as well, mariposa,” Kirstin murmured, pressing another kiss to Esther’s lips before pulling back with a wicked grin, her dark eyes shining in the fading light from the afternoon. “But I still want my biscuits back.”

--

I had slipped out of Mitch’s room not long after everything had settled down, offering to assist Kevin with dinner although I hardly knew anything about cooking. He seemed surprised by my offer but had accepted, stopping me as we rounded the hall in the lower east wing just before the opening to the grand foyer.

“Are you alright?” He asked, placing his hand on my shoulder tenderly. I nodded, not meeting his eyes even though I felt as though I was drowning in my thoughts.

“I’m fine.”

“Scott…” Kevin sighed, resting against the wall and giving me a look. “We both know I’m not a fool. What’s wrong?”

I clenched my jaw, crossing my arms over my chest and trying to look smaller than I actually was. “I do not know what to do,” I whispered, suddenly feeling very young and very unequipped to handle what was happening. “He is so sweet to me and I love him, but he - he refuses to tell me anything…”

Kevin frowned, his eyes warm as he squeezed my arm gently. “Who? Mitch?”

I nodded weakly, rubbing at the frustrated tears that had begun to form. “I do not know what to do,” I said again, shaking my head. “I - I have no idea what to do, Kevin…”

“Alright, it’s alright,” he said softly, pulling me into a hug. I clung to him desperately, unable to keep my shoulders from shaking. I had no idea why I was behaving this way or why I was suddenly panicking about something that should not have bothered me so much. Kevin did not say anything, though, simply holding me tighter and resting his chin on my shoulder, his arms warm and strong around me. I shuddered, burying my face into his neck and allowing myself a moment to relax without breaking down completely. After a minute or two I moved back ruefully, positive that he would be getting uncomfortable, but he only pulled me back into his chest, murmuring, “It’s alright, city boy, take your time. Breathe.”

I bit my lip, my chin wobbling as I hugged him even tighter. “Thank y-you…”

We stood there for what must have been ten minutes before I finally managed to pull myself together. I gave him a tired smile and wiped at my eyes, sniffling at the stuffiness in my nose. He gave me a warm grin and settled on the floor with his back against the wall, and I hesitated a moment before joining him, my head lolling onto his shoulder.

“Tell me what happened,” he said gently, and I felt my throat tighten again.

“It feels as though I am giving all of me to somebody who will not tell me anything about themselves...”

Kevin sighed, his voice soothing. “Yes, Mitch is definitely a very hesitant person when it comes to personal details.”

“I do not know what to do. He says that he will tell me whatever I want to know, but whenever I ask he never tells me anything…” I shook my head, wiping at my eyes again and feeling pitiful. “He always says he’ll tell me some other time, or that he would rather not talk about it, and I respect that, but he - he does it with everything…”

“I understand why you’re upset,” Kevin murmured, his arm wrapping around my shoulders so that I could cuddle into him. “It is frustrating to develop feelings for somebody who is so closed off. But, Scott, perhaps he does not want to tell you because these are parts of himself that are not particularly pleasant to know about.”

I stared down at the floor, running my finger along the decorated tiles. “I do not care. Isn’t that love? Taking all of the bad parts along with the good?”

Kevin chuckled. “You are very wise for your years.”

I sighed. “I want him. I do not care about the bad parts, we - we will find some way to get through them. But he says he cares for me and he feels like he never has before and - and he trusts me…” My voice caught. “But it does not feel like he trusts me.”

“And that upsets you.”

“Yes.”

Kevin looked down at me, his eyebrows raised and a small smile on his lips. “I understand that, city boy, but I do not think that running from him will help the situation at all. He is probably confused right now about why you’re unhappy.”

“He should know why I’m unhappy -”

“He cannot read your mind,” Kevin said gently. “And I do not think it’s fair to expect him to.”

I swallowed, looking back down at the floor. “So what do I do?”

“You talk to him. You tell him why you are upset, and he will tell you his side of the story, and then you will compromise. That is the only way anything will be solved.” Kevin smiled kindly, kissing my forehead. “Ignoring a problem is the easiest thing to do, but I would never call it a solution. If you love him and you wish to make this work, then you need to find a solution.”

“What if he’s angry?” I asked, my voice very small. Kevin’s brow furrowed, his arm tightening around me.

“I do not see why he would be. But if he’s angry, then that is just something else you are going to have to address.”

“I do not want him to fire me…”

Kevin looked over at me quickly, his lips curled down. “Fire you? Scott, he’s not going to fire you over a small misunderstanding. Neither of you have done anything wrong, and I do not believe he would ever fire you no matter what you did, if I am honest. He talks about you as though you are the one who put the sun in the sky. That does not sound like someone who would even think of firing you.”

I nodded, unsure if what he said was true but aware that it was the best advice I would likely receive. I pulled away, wiping at my eyes one last time and giving him a small, exhausted smile.

“I will go talk to him.”

--

I met Avriel outside of Mitch’s bedroom, pausing when I saw him sitting on the floor in front of the door. He glanced up and gave me long look, his eyes slightly narrowed as he studied me. I hesitated before pausing a few feet away, my heart crawling its way up my throat.

“Hallo,” I said softly, the word choked.

“Hi,” Avriel said, his brow furrowing as he let out a sigh. “I take it you and Mitch have had a disagreement?”

I chewed at my lip. “I suppose you could say that.”

“He’s upset. Refuses to tell me what happened, although I figured it was something to do with you.” He gave a small, tired grin. “You affect him so much and you do not even know it.”

“Avriel -”

“I’m not angry with you,” he said, tugging at his beard. “But I worry. I meant it when I told you to be gentle with him. He’s not stopped panicking since you left. He’s afraid you loathe him or something ridiculous like that.”

I looked away. “I came to talk to him.”

“I won’t stop you. But please. There’s - there’s so much you do not know, Scott. Do not handle him roughly simply because you are frustrated.”

“I won’t.”

“Please, Scott.”

I gave him a long look before nodding slowly. “I will never hurt him. I promise.”

He sighed and relaxed against the wall, tilting his head to the door and motioning me through. I gave him one last anxious smile before pushing my way into Mitch’s bedroom, closing the door quietly behind me and waiting for the click of the lock. When I turned Mitch was sitting on the floor by the large bay window, his legs pulled up to his chest and his chin resting on his knees. He straightened when he saw me, moving to stand before I held up my hands for him to stay where he was. He hesitated but relaxed back against the wall, and I moved forward, stopping when there was three feet of space between us and settling down across from him. It was a moment before either of us said anything, only studying the other with anxious, unsure eyes. He finally broke the silence, his voice hoarse.

“I’ve upset you.”

I flinched, looking down at my hands. “You…” I sighed, rubbing at my eyes, irritated at how emotional I already was. “I know nothing about you.”

“I will tell you anything -”

“But you won’t.”

There was a long, awful moment where he simply stared at me, his dark eyes shining horribly with tears. I swallowed, picking at my thumbnail and continuing.

“You keep saying you will, but you never do. Whenever I ask you anything about yourself, you never answer, or you say -”

“I told you about Nico.”

“Hardly. You told me he was older than you were, and that you loved him.” I shook my head. “I could have deduced that for myself, Mitch, he was your brother. You know so much about my life, and my family, and - and my thoughts , but I know nothing about you. Nothing important, anyway. Nothing about your father, or your nightmares, or your -”

“Scott -”

“I - I cannot keep giving and giving to you without receiving anything in return...I’m sorry…”

“You would not want to know anything about me,” he whispered, shaking his head and pulling his legs closer into his chest. His eyes did not meet mine. “My life is not some sort of fucking fairytale, Scott, no matter what you might think. It - it is best that you just don’t know, alright?”

“Best for who? You?”  

“Best for you,” he hissed, his voice desperate. “Please...do not...do not ask this of me…”

I shook my head, tugging at my hair until tears sprung in my eyes. “I cannot just pretend as though this does not bother me, Mitch. It feels like I’m going mad, and it feels like I cannot trust you, and -”

“Please…”

“I can’t.”

The room was struck silent. I let out a slow breath, rubbing at my face until my skin stung. He did not look at me. I considered leaving, convinced that nothing I said would possibly make a difference to him, and I was about to push myself onto my feet when he spoke, his words soaked with so much sadness I felt my heart ache.

“You can never repeat this to anybody.”

I felt my stomach churn anxiously but gave a nod. “Alright.”

“And you - you cannot look at me differently after, alright? I cannot stand the thought of you looking at me differently because of this.”

I nodded again and he sighed, wiping at his face and staring down at the floor, his hands trembling as he pressed them together.

“My father is a good man,” he whispered, although I could not tell if he truly believed what he was saying. “He is smart, and generous, and...he can be kind if the mood strikes him. But he is not the sort of man who loves other people.” He shook his head, his lips pursed together. “He adored my brother because Nico was the sort of heir that promised success. He tolerates my mother because she is beautiful and makes for a good image. And he...he appeases me, because he knows that he’s fucked up too many times to allow any more room for error.”

My stomach churned again. “Kirstin told me he loved you more than anything. That he - he risked everything to surround you with people who were similar, just so that you could be happy -”

“You did not honestly believe that?” Mitch gave a bitter laugh, running his fingers through his hair and looking as though he was moments away from breaking apart. “That is what he tells the new staff, so I’m unsurprised she thinks that. He is very good at half-truths, I will give him that. Yes, he only hired people who are like me, but not because he loves me and wishes for me to be happy. He did it because I’ve seen too many things that, if I happened to tell the right people about them, it would absolutely destroy him. You cannot become as rich as he has without ignoring the law, and if I ever turned on him he would be arrested and sentenced to twenty lifetimes in prison. He does not turn a blind eye to my homosexuality because he loves me, Scott. He does it because he’s afraid I will betray him and ruin the lifestyle he has built for himself.”

I let out a breath. “Christ…”

He gave me a look, his pained eyes so dark I could not see his pupils. “You sweet boy, that is only the beginning. That does not even touch on my nightmares.”

“Mitch…”

“You wanted to know, yes?” He shook his head, biting his lip and rubbing at his eyes. “I will tell you whatever you want to know, tesoro , I mean it. You are right. You know nothing about me, and that is not fair. And I’m sorry that - that this is all I have to offer you. Because you deserve better, but I cannot...I cannot give you better.”

My heart cracked in my chest. “Mitch -”

“I watched him torture them.”

I froze.

“It was as though he was playing a game. Every time they begged for him to stop, it was like he’d won another point and moved on to the second round.” He let out a horrible, broken sound. “I closed my eyes but I - I could still hear them and he - he laughed like it was a fucking game. My father tried to get him to stop, but he wouldn’t, and - f-finally he just held a gun to their heads and shot them and - he shot all of them...even the little girl…”

I shook my head, moving back so quickly I felt my head smack on the post of his bed. “Mitch…” I felt bile rise in my throat, my heart hammering in my ears. “What - what the fuck are you talking about?”

He wiped at his face, looking up at me with dead eyes. Première bataille de la Marne,” he whispered, the foreign words cracking in his throat. “The First Battle of the Marne. France. September of 1914. A French victory over Germany. I told you my father and I went to Europe for three months when I was fourteen, sweet boy, but I did not tell you why.”

“I - I do not understand…”

He bit his lip, his face screwing up in pain. “War is wonderful for banks, tesoro. You can make so much money…”

“Oh my god…”

“The moment Britain declared war on Germany, my father was loaning money to both sides and charging thrice the usual interest. America was supposed to be neutral but he - he could hardly pass up such a great opportunity, now could he? He loaned to every major power, the Axis, the Allies, it made no difference to him so long as he was making back more than he’d given out. We were already wealthy, but this - this made the Grassi family untouchable. Woodrow Wilson turned a blind eye, the imbecile, despite our country’s supposed neutrality. We made millions within the first few months, and - we were cordially invited to visit France to see first hand the improvements our money had made to the French army.” His eyes slipped shut and he shook his head. “Neither side believed we were helping the other. General Mathieu Babineaux invited us to visit the battle camps after his army defeated the Germans. It - it smelled of death, Scott. Blood and death. The exact number of casualties is still unknown, but it is thought that over 400,000 French and German troops were slaughtered.” He looked back up at me. “The First Battle of the Marne lasted only a week, Scott. Seven days, and 400,000 men were killed.”

I shook my head, my stomach churning violently. “Mitch -”

“General Babineaux invited us to his home after we visited the battle camps. He was kind and charming and handsome. Everything a general should be.” Mitch swallowed, his shoulders shaking. “He was also ruthless. A German general - h-his name was Krantz, I believe - he was captured during the battle. They caught his family, as well. His wife and...and a little girl, maybe six years old. General Babineaux told us about - about this stunning victory over dinner one evening, and then - he brought them into the dining room. His German prisoners.” He paused, his head hanging low and his lips trembling. “My father laughed. He thought it was some sort of joke - some short skit to go along with dinner. And so I laughed as well. And then General Babineaux stood, and he declared how grateful he was to know that Americans like us were on the correct side of the war. And that - that Germans were nothing more than rats.” Mitch closed his eyes. “And he took his dinner knife...and he walked over to the German general…” He made a low, horrible groan. “And he s-stabbed him through the eye…”

I covered my face with my hands, shaking my head over and over in some desperate hope that he would fucking stop. My muscles were trembling and my head was hazy and I could no longer feel my heart beating in my chest. “Stop... please…”

“He - he tortured them...all of them...and he k-killed them - the little girl, he killed h-her…”

“Please...stop…”

“I still see them, Scott. Every night. I see them, and I see myself, and I see my father, and I see how we - we did nothing to stop it…”

I scrambled onto my feet, my legs almost giving out on me as I pushed myself as far away from Mitch as I could possibly get. My hands were pressed over my eyes as I stumbled to the door, smacking my knee on the desk and feeling pain shoot up my thigh. I ignored it, gripping onto the handle and yanking it open as hard as I could, pushing my way out as quickly as I could manage and feeling my breath constrict as everything Mitch had said processed in my mind.

“Please,” I heard him beg from behind me, and I tripped over my feet and fell forward, slamming my head against the wall and sinking to the ground as panic swelled around me, hot as the sun. “I’m sorry - I am so s-sorry…”

“Stop…”

“I - I did not want to - to t-tell you…”

“Stop…”

“I’m so - so sorry, my Scott -”

“Stop.”

Chapter Text

It felt as though years had passed when I finally managed to open my eyes. My chest rose in long heaves - uncontrollable dry sobs that made my throat constrict and my mind cloud - and the only sound that struck my ears was the repetitive, desperate whisper of, “I am sorry, I am sorry, I am so sorry…”

I squinted, rubbing at my face and pushing my trembling body up from the floor. Mitch was across from me, sat against the wall with his knees pulled to his chest and his head craned down as he rocked unsteadily back and forth. His voice was broken and cracked as he apologized over and over, desperation so painful it made him nearly double over. Panic still had a hold on me with its sharp, malignant claws, but I managed to pull myself onto my hands and knees, my entire body shaking as I crawled towards him.

I did not allow myself to think. Thinking in this moment would do no good whatsoever - not when my foolish brain had already so easily destroyed everything that had once held my heart. Thinking would ruin whatever chance I had at righting this horrible wrong I had caused. Thinking would lead to speaking, and I knew very well that anything I had to say right now would be pointless. And so I did not think, and I did not speak, and instead I collapsed back against the wall next to Mitch and I pulled him into my arms.

He was trembling violently, his body curled into a tiny ball of dead weight, and it took a few attempts before I managed to settle him on my lap, my arms around him as tight as they could be without hurting him. He let out a sob, his shoulders shaking even harder as he gripped onto my shirt. His jaw moved back and forth against my chest, his lips forming those same words again and again until I felt as though I was crumbling to ash.

“I am sorry, I am s-sorry, I’m - I’m so - so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry…”

I gripped my fingers into the soft skin of his waist, pulling my knees up so that my body was wrapped around him as much as it could be - some futile attempt at protecting him when I knew that I had been the one to hurt him so terribly. He shuddered against me, his words catching as another sob grabbed ahold of him, and I felt my broken voice curdle in my throat as the boy I loved was torn to pieces.

“It’s alright,” I managed, biting my lip and resting my head against the wall. I held him closer, my fingers moving to run through his silken hair and my eyes wading lonesome into the darkness. “It - it’s alright...it’s not your fault…”

“I am so sorry…”

“It is alright -”

“I’m s-sorry…”

“It’s alright,” I whispered again, my heart aching with the knowledge that he would not believe me. A low, tortured moan pulled at him and he sagged against me helplessly, small tremors running through his arms and shaking my composure. “It’s alright...n-none of this is your fault…”

“I’m so sorry…” He let out another pained sob, his hands fisting into the front of my shirt. “P-Please...don’t leave…I’m so sorry…”

 “It’s alright.” I pressed my lips to his forehead, squeezing my eyes shut as he came apart completely in my arms. “I won’t leave...I’m here and it’s alright...I promise, Mitchy, everything will be alright…”

--

I finally managed to carry him back to his room and into bed, sat by his side with my fingers in his hair until he settled into a timid, fitful sleep. My shoulders drooped low as I let out a heavy sigh, the events of the past hour flitting around my head like incessant flies. I swatted at them helplessly, though it served no purpose save to make them all the more impertinent. I gave up finally and stood from the bed, slipping out of the room to gather a tea tray from the kitchen. I knew not what would happen when Mitch woke - into what this horrid, tenacious nightmare would transform - but I did know that tea somehow managed to make even the most sensitive situation a bit more bearable. Perhaps it was the simulated warmth of human touch, or the familiar, homely taste, or the comforting, bitter scent that made one convinced that whatever was troubling them could be stripped of its vices and retouched into something satisfactory. I did not know, but in this moment I was more afraid than I had ever been, and I was willing to attempt even the most meager of solutions if it meant that Mitch would be alright.

I returned from the kitchen ten minutes later, balancing a tea tray stacked with two mugs, honey, cream, and a plate of the white chocolate and raspberry biscuits that Kirstin had yet to get to. I had just stepped through the door when I froze, my heart stuttering at the sight of Mitch curled up on the floor, trembling as he held one of my sweaters tucked under his chin. I moved forward as quickly as I could, setting the tea tray on the desk and kneeling beside him as his dark, bloodshot eyes met mine.

“You s-said you wouldn’t leave,” he said meekly, looking away as a shudder ran through his body. “I - I’m so s-sorry, my Scott, I...I did not want to tell you…”

“It’s alright,” I managed, my hand reaching to cup his face and draw him closer to me, not allowing sudden motions in fear he would shatter to pieces. “It’s alright…I’m here…”

“You left…”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, my arms wrapping gingerly around his waist as he settled in my lap. “You were asleep...I - I got us tea…” I laughed, the sound so dry it crumbled into the air. “I didn’t - I didn’t know what else to do…”

“You l-left…” His voice cracked. “You ran... after...after I told you... please, I’m sorry…”

“It’s alright,” I promised, my throat tightening at the sight of him still so distraught. “I should not - I should not have tried to leave, not when - when you were so...” I tilted my chin down, my eyes stinging as he held onto me tighter. “I am so sorry, Mitchy…”

“You left…”

“I shouldn’t have.” My breathing labored, pushing itself back and forth despite the fact that the air around me tasted of acid. “I shouldn’t have done any of this…”

“You l-left…”

“I know. But I won’t again. Never again. I promise.”

--

We stayed together throughout that night, not sleeping although not quite giving ourselves to the realm of the conscious. I held him in my arms as we spoke of things untouched by the sun, our voices hardly breaching a whisper as though the air around us could memorize our unforgiving words. I apologized and he forgave me, although for what, the two of us did not agree upon. This was a mistake that we would not realize for months to come, if ever.

He told me of the past three years of his life - of the fear, the shame, the regret. After he and his father had returned from France in 1914, their already strained relationship had faded to awkward civility at best. Mitch loathed what they had seen at the French general’s house. His father thrived off of it.

The bank had continued as it had been, loaning millions upon millions of dollars to both sides of the war while Woodrow Wilson turned a blind eye. They became the wealthiest people in the country. Mitch became the sodomite heir. And his father became desperate.

The household staff was replaced with those the country hated - those just like Mitch. It was a peace offering from his father, one that hoped to make the Grassi mansion all the more bearable during school breaks, one that hoped to dismiss the nightmares, the sickness, the torture that Mitch’s home had become. He had lost his brother first, and then his mother, and finally his father. No more than a child - barely fourteen - and he had already seen the horrors mankind could create. He dreamed of the German prisoners. He tried to let go - to open his heart to the light - to be free.

He failed.

--

I held him as he broke, pieces of his facade cracking off and crumbling apart until nothing remained. He was raw underneath; raw, and weak, and aching. I had thought before that he had offered his complete self to me - that he had allowed me to see him without the towering walls he had built around his heart - but now I knew how foolish such an assumption had been. What he had shown me before had been just another facade - softer, yet purely impenetrable - but what he showed me now was the most simplistic and honest image of vulnerability I had ever seen. He gave me everything I had not already taken. Offered it up with trembling hands and terrified eyes, pieces of his broken self that were rusted and jagged and thick with poison. He looked away, ashamed, and I did not have the words to tell him that he had always been my imperfect perfection, and that this was the reason I loved him so.

He gave me what he had not given anybody - not his father, nor Avriel, nor Giacomo - something that felt cold and afraid and unbearably fragile. I took it from him, this unravished offering. Held it between my fingertips and stared down at the burned edges and blackened core, my thumbs tracing over the bitemarks and scars and abrasions that went so deep I could not see where they ended. I held it in my hands, this small oblation, saddened by all it had suffered through in its short lifetime and determined to ensure that no more harm came to it. He had given it to me in some trust that I could not understand, but that I was grateful for nonetheless. I had hurt him, but he forgave me, and now he had given me this.

He looked away, his words thick with embarrassment as he whispered, “It is all I can give to you. I wish it was better...I wish there was more…”

I shook my head. “It is beautiful.”

“It is an illness.”

“Illnesses can be cured.” I looked up, my fingers running over the small, feeble offering that rested helpless between my fingers. “But this is no illness, my love.”

His eyes rose to meet mine, the hole in his chest worn and bloodied. He had given so much, and yet he still believed that it was not enough. “It does not even work,” he choked, his arms wrapping around himself. “It hasn’t for years...I am sorry - sorry I forced it upon you…you should not have to worry about such a trouble...”

“You and I have different ideas of what trouble is,” I murmured, brushing away a bit of dust and tucking what he’d given me closer to my chest. “I do not see this as trouble…not at all...”

He simply stared at his heart that sat heavy in my hands, his dark eyes wet with tears. “I wish I could have given you more…”

I shook my head again, running my hand over the worn edges and frowning when it stuttered weakly. “You have given me so much already...you do not need to give me anything more…”

He did not say anything, watching silently as I ran my thumb along the blackened surface of his heart and brushed away the thick ash. It shuddered against my hands again, beating so faintly I could hardly feel anything but a small, pitiful pulse. It warmed after a moment and the pulse grew a bit stronger, fluttering quickly like the wings of a bird.

“It likes you,” Mitch whispered after a long while. I looked up, a small smile on my lips at the sight of him so fearfully entranced.

“It’s beautiful.”

We sat there as his heart slowly began to beat again, my hand reaching up to my own chest when he stopped me.

“You mustn’t,” he said, his dark eyes once again terrified. “I - I cannot…”

“It’s alright,” I promised, taking my own heart between my fingers and holding it out to him. “It is only fair.”

“It’s an unequal trade…”

“Do not say that,” I murmured, waiting until he took it unsurely into his hands. “A heart for a heart. As equal as can be.”

“Mine is broken…”

I ignored him and lifted his heart to the hole in my chest just above my rib cage, tucking it away and grinning at how timidly it ticked in this new, foreign place. He hesitated, staring down at his hands as though afraid this was not real, before doing the same, placing mine carefully into his own chest and letting out a slow, surprised breath.

“It feels so different,” he whispered, looking up at me. He gave a small, uncertain smile. “It feels so warm…”

“It likes you.”

“I do not want to hurt it…”

“It is strong. It will be alright.”

His eyes sank. “Mine is so weak…”

“Nonsense,” I said, taking his hand in mine and pressing it lightly to my chest, where I could feel his heart beating steadily, only stuttering every so often as it relearned what it had forgotten so long ago. “See? It is working.”

Mitch nodded, his face softening as his fingers traced lightly over my chest. “It likes it in here,” he breathed, his eyes flicking back up to mine. A hesitant smile played at his lips, and I rested my hand atop his.

“I will keep it safe. I promise.”

He bit his lip and placed his fingers on my cheek, his eyes vulnerable as he moved closer. “What if it stops beating?”

“Then I will fix it.”

He laughed softly. “Just as though it were a clock. Though I do not think a watchmaker can fix a broken heart, tesoro.”

“Do not be foolish. Hearts and clocks are very similar. Both begin to tick with just a little bit of love. And besides,” I trailed my fingers through his hair and pressed our lips together gently. “A watchmaker can fix anything.”

--

I awoke the next morning with Mitch curled beside me in his bed, his cheek pressed against my shoulder and his hand resting above my heart. His eyes were open, though, and he looked up at me as though he had not slept even a minute.

“Tell me why you tried to run,” he said hoarsely, the words soft and yet still sharp as they dug into my skin. “It was because they were German, wasn’t it?”

I closed my eyes, rubbing away the sleep that felt like cobwebs in my mouth. “You try and get used to it as much as you can,” I said, my voice groggy. “But...there are still some things that hurt no matter what you do.”

“I do not understand.”

“I know.” I turned onto my side so that I could face him, my hand resting lightly on his hip as I struggled to keep my eyes open. It felt far too early in the morning for any such conversation, but I knew I owed him whatever he asked of me. “And it’s alright that you do not understand, sweet boy. It...it is never as bad for me as it is for others, and I try and remind myself of that. My life would be much harder if I was a Negro, or if I was Mexican, or Jewish...because for them, the prejudice they face is not temporary, or at least it does not seem to be. What they face is a hatred that has been crafted for hundreds of years, something which I will never have to experience because the world did not truly begin hating those like me until this war. And I...I know this. And I know that my country has done horrible, vile things, and that everybody who loathes me has a perfectly acceptable reason - I understand this, and I understand why, and I hate that Germany has allowed itself to - to commit such horrid atrocities. And as far as I am aware, that German general could have deserved to die. He could have murdered innocent people - he most likely did - and I understand that, but...but there comes a point where one assumes so much power that they cease being human. What that French general did to that family...to that innocent little girl who had not even had the chance to see what good the world could bring...that was not human. Murdering somebody like that - torturing them...that is not human. And knowing that, if it had been me in place of that family, despite the fact that I have never harmed another person, I would have been killed just the same. Tortured just the same. Because I am German, and German lives are seen as worthless, and - and I understand that others have it so much worse than I do, but…” I closed my eyes, my lips trembling. “It could have been me, Mitch.”

His fingers rested lightly under my chin, pulling me closer until I was flush against his chest. “I should not have told you…”

“I gave you no choice. You did not want to, but I - I forced you to, and...I’m so sorry…”

A small, sad smile tugged at his lips. “I have already forgiven you, tesoro.”

“But that does not mean that I’m not still sorry.” I tucked my arms around his waist, amazed at how he still wished to be close to me despite everything I’d done. “I acted as though I deserved to know...as though I was entitled…”

“It’s alright.”

“It’s not.”

He sighed, brushing back my hair and leaning forward to kiss my jaw. “Please do not let this be something that drives us apart, or - or makes you insecure about what we are. It was a mistake for you to ask me, and it was a mistake for me to tell you, but we cannot go back and change the past, my love.” He sighed again, pressing his lips to my neck. “I still care about you. I perhaps care about you more than before, now that you know everything and you have still decided to stay. And...it feels lighter, I suppose. I was afraid of what would happen if I told you. To me...to you…” His fingers curled along my cheek. “But it was not as horrible as I thought it might be. Not now, anyways.”

I rested my chin on the crown of his head, comforted simply by being close to him. “I am sorry for what happened to you,” I whispered, and he gave a quiet, weak laugh. “Nobody should ever have to experience something like that, especially not as a child.”

“There is no use apologizing for something that happened years ago.” He paused, his nose nudging against the side of my jaw as he tilted his head up towards me. “But thank you. It is a nice thought.”

“Mitchy?”

“Yes?”

I hesitated. “Are we going to be alright?”

He looked up at me, nuzzling closer. “I’m not sure.”

“Everything is different now.”

“Yes.”

I closed my eyes, breathing him in as though I would not have the chance for much longer. “Would you still do it?” I whispered, my voice soft with fear. “Would you still want to run away with me to the riverside? Would...would you want to stay there forever?” I bit my lip. “Fall in love…”

I felt his arms tuck around my neck as he buried himself as close to me as he could, his breath soft on my cheek. “Yes.”

My lips tugged up and I pulled the warm duvet over our shoulders, cocooning us together. “We could,” I murmured, “if you wanted. Leave and never come back…”

He chuckled. “My father would kill me.”

“I would protect you.”

“He would still find a way. Or perhaps not…” He laughed again softly, his toes running along the side of my calf and making me shiver. “That might be precisely what he wants. If I disappear he can find a new heir for the bank...somebody who doesn’t loathe everything about this fucking country…”

“Would that actually work?” I asked quietly, and he looked up at me with sleepy eyes.

“No,” he whispered. “It would not. Even if it could, he would not do it. Familial ties are too important to him.”

I hummed but did not respond, scratching lightly through his hair and smiling when he let out a lazy, trilling noise. His eyes slipped shut after a moment and his little nose scrunched up as he yawned, and for the first time I noticed he had small patches of light freckles splattered over his cheeks. I pressed a kiss to each one and his lips curled into a beautiful smile, flashing those precious dimples that I could not help but adore.

“So sweet,” he mumbled, his fingers resting on my chest. “You are always so sweet to me, tesoro…”

“That is because I love you.”

There was a long moment of silence before he opened his eyes, his face paling considerably as he stared up at me. “What did you just say?”

My lungs shriveled in my chest as I tried to breathe. “I…”

“Did you - did you just say you love me?”

“I...I’m sorry,” I stammered, panic swelling in my stomach. “I shouldn’t - I’m so sorry…”

“No,” he whispered, shaking his head as his face tinged pink and a slow, nervous smile made its way across his face. “You - you do not have to apologize…”

“I - I did not mean to say that…”

“But you meant it?”

I hesitated. “Yes.”

“Scott…”

“I am sorry, s-sir - um, I...Mitch…”

He shook his head again, his hand cupping my face as he pressed his lips to mine gently. I felt as though a hole had been ripped through my chest, but I simply held him to me and tried not to consider what would happen when he pulled away.

“My Scott,” he murmured, his nose brushing against mine. “Will - will you say it again?”

I felt hot, foolish tears sting at my eyes but managed to whisper, “I...I love y-you…”

He looked up at me, his fingers wiping tenderly at the corners of my eyes as a worried look settled over him. “You are crying…”

“I’m sorry…”

“It’s alright.” He kissed me again, his lips lingering as his fingers rested over my heart. “It’s alright, mio tesoro…”

“Please...do not leave…” I bit my lip, terrified I had ruined everything once again. “I - I will take it back...please…”

“No,” he whispered, kissing my eyes and resting his weight on my hips. “Do not take it back.”

“I shouldn’t have said…”

“I am happy you did.” His fingertips rested along my jaw, so gentle I considered it a dream. He kissed me again and my hands came to rest upon his lower back, my frightened mind calming at the feeling of him still so close to me. “My Scott,” he murmured as he pulled away “Do not cry, my love…”

“I am so sorry -”

“It’s alright.” His lips brushed against mine again. “Shh...it’s alright…”

“I…”

“Do not cry, my angel,” he said softly, kissing my forehead. “Please do not cry…”

I hesitated, my voice cracking as I whispered, “Are we going to be alright?”

“Yes.” He smiled beautifully, his dark eyes shining. “Of course we are going to be alright.”

--

I finally managed to calm myself, although I still felt pangs of anxiety whenever I remembered what I had told him. He did not seem angry or offended and I figured it was safe enough to return to our usual dynamic, despite the fact that everything had changed with those three words I had so easily said.

We did not leave Mitch’s bedroom until late that afternoon, when our hunger finally became unbearable and we were forced to retreat to the kitchen and scavenge for food. He held my hand in his all the while, something which he had done before but not to this extent. It felt nice, and I could not help the permanent blush that seemed to adorn my face as we ventured down the stairs of the west corridor and crossed out of the family residential wing of the house. It occurred to me as we passed through the grand foyer that there was still a great bit of the mansion that I had yet to see - I usually stayed within the perimeters of the kitchen and the dormitories, but I knew vaguely from others staff members that there were several studies, other small rooms that acted as extensions of the main Grassi library, a ballroom, a studio, four living rooms, and a cellar of some sort. I had not considered it before, but it seemed odd and slightly sad that such a large, expansive house went vastly unused. For such a small family - three members, two of whom were hardly ever here - the mansion was terribly oversized and wasted. It would have been beautiful had it not been so horribly empty.

“Do any of your friends ever come to visit?” I asked as we passed through one of the main halls. A portrait of Michael Grassi Sr., Mitch’s grandfather, glared down at us from the wall of family lineage, his mustache very large and very intimidating. I rubbed at my upper lip thoughtfully, wondering what it must feel like to have a large, caterpillar-like thing sitting above your mouth at all times. It struck me uncomfortable.

“Friends?” Mitch repeated, glancing up at me with a frown. We slowed as we reached the hall that connected to the kitchen. “What do you mean?”

“Friends from school,” I clarified with a shrug. “Or other friends. Do they ever come and visit during the summer holiday?”

“Not usually,” he said slowly, adjusting the buttons on his sleeve. “Most boys from school travel during the summer, or otherwise they go to the city to intern for whatever business. I think my friend Bo is currently in Spain with his family.”

I nodded. “Are you close with them, then?”

He hesitated. “Not particularly, if I’m to be honest. I’ve known them a few years and we get on well, but…” He shook his head, his lips curling down. “You must understand that everybody who attends my school has grand plans for themselves, and they will do whatever they must in order to achieve those plans. It is not unknown to them that I am perhaps the wealthiest person in this country, and that my friendship would lead to many opportunities for their future. I have plenty of friends, but...I am not sure any of them would truly bother with me if it were not for my money.”

I squeezed his hand, my stomach sinking. “I am sorry…”

“That’s alright, my love. It isn’t your fault. And it’s not as though they’re horrible people because of it. Many of them are very kind and interesting. But...you can tell that a lot of it is fabrication, which is disappointing at best.” He looked up at me, brushing back my hair. “What about you? You’ve never told me about any of your friends.”

I sighed as we began walking again, my arm resting around his shoulders as he leaned back into me. It made walking a bit difficult, but it was not as though we were in any rush. “To be completely honest with you, I’ve not...I’ve not really had many friends.”

He nodded but didn’t say anything, pressing my hand to his lips and kissing each of my fingers.

“I went to school until I was twelve,” I continued, tracing circles into his back. “But none of the children in my class particularly liked me. I was too quiet and shy. When I left to sell newspapers, I made a few friends with some of the other workers, but it was always very superficial. We never bothered to get to know one another because they were always in and out, half of them not staying for more than two months before they left for some other job. I got along with some of the children of our shop’s clients, but we never saw each other regularly.” I paused, looking down at him and pressing a kiss to the top of his head. “But honestly...I was always too afraid to get close to anybody. I was afraid that they would discover who I was...that I loved men and not women…” I worried at my lip. “I always believed that being friends with somebody meant having no secrets, and I knew that I could never tell anybody, so therefore...I could never have any friends.”

Mitch squeezed my hand, looking up at me with warm eyes. “I’m your friend.”

I managed a smile. “I hope that you are a bit more than my friend…”

He laughed, standing on his toes to peck my lips. “Of course I am more than your friend, but I am still your friend. It is not a hierarchy system where I cannot be both at the same time.”

My cheeks flushed. “I suppose you’re right.”

“I often am.” He looked up at me again with grin. “Speaking of which, I have been thinking, and I would like for you to come with me to the city for my father’s party this week.”

I sighed. “You know it’s not safe.”

“It won’t be safe either way,” he said, waving his hand dismissively, although I was unsure of what he meant. “And I enjoy having you with me.”

“I...I do not want to put you in any danger,” I whispered, shaking my head. “I do not trust myself to be able to look at you without showing just how much I’m in love with you…”

A small, beautiful smile played at his lips and his eyes warmed. “It is so nice hearing you say that,” he murmured, his fingers resting on my jaw. “So strange, but so nice…” He pressed a kiss to my cheek. “Nobody has ever said that to me before, you know.” He hesitated, his eyes sinking a bit. “And I do not want you to worry that I have not yet said it to you, alright? I...I care for you more than I’ve ever cared for anybody before, but...it is still an immense confession to give...”

I managed a smile. “You do not have to say it back.”

“Please, my Scott. I know you worry easily, but do not allow this to affect you. I only need a bit of time to allow my heart to sort itself out...you are still mio angelo…”

“It’s alright,” I promised. “I understand.”

His lips curled up and he kissed me again, his arms wrapping around my neck. His cheeks were flushed when we broke apart a minute later, and I nipped at his lower lip, only serving to make him blush even more.

“I still wish for you to come with me, though,” he whispered, and I shook my head with a sigh. “Please? We could go early in the day and explore the city...I could get us tickets to an opera, or reservations at Le Bernardin, or we could go shopping at Pacini’s…”

I sighed again. “I...I will consider it. But...it just seems like too much of a risk, Mitchy. We could do all of that at some other point without worry of the party…”

He pouted but gave a nod. “Think about it, though?”

“Of course.” I kissed the tip of his nose. “Come, mein Liebster, let’s get lunch.”

He took my hand in his and pressed our lips together once more, and I was surprised not for the first time at how easily he seemed to place the ends of his broken self back together. I simply held him tighter, grateful that such a reconstruction was possible and determined to ensure that it was never needed again. He was not the sort of person who deserved to be shattered, but I knew that perhaps such brokenness was not a matter of what one deserved, but instead some game that fate loved to play where even the kindest of souls were torn to pieces in lieu of logic. It struck me cruel, and I promised myself that I would not allow this boy to break again no matter what it took.

I just happened to forget how bad I was at keeping promises.

--

Looking back on my time at the Grassi mansion, I now know that there are three moments in particular that have affected my life more than I ever assumed they would. Three moments that, if I could travel back in time to the summer of 1917, I would change in an instant.

This is the first.

I had witnessed the boy I loved breaking down as he gave me what I had forced from him. I had run the moment I understood his blunt, cold words - the moment I understood that what he had witnessed was not something I deserved to know. I had hurt Mitchell Grassi horribly without intention on that July afternoon, and such a betrayal had the potential to break us beyond repair. We stood at a crossroads - we could have allowed this to destroy us, or we could have bonded closer together. We chose the latter. We chose to unify.

And if I could go back now and change that decision, I would.

I made the mistake of asking for his forgiveness on that beautiful summer day.

And he made the mistake of giving it to me.

Chapter Text

I stood at Avriel’s door early that evening while Mitch was in the library, my heart hammering with nerves before I finally plucked up the courage and gave two hesitant knocks. There was silence, and then a small thud came from the room, the sound of laughter breaking through the air. A moment later the door swung open to reveal Avriel standing before me, wearing nothing but a loose sheet around his waist and a lazy, lopsided grin. His emerald eyes lit up the moment he saw me and he rested back against the doorframe, the light from the hall shining down upon him so that I could just make out the scratches and lovebites that ran down over his neck and chest. His dark curls fell tangled past his shoulders and he twirled a lock between his fingers, the action so damn coy that I was convinced he was teasing me.

“Hallo,” he said softly, his lips curling into a smirk. His voice was lower than usual, tinged with a huskiness that made goosebumps erupt over my arms. “You always seem to have the most impeccable timing, don’t you, city boy?”

I felt my face flush and I gave a quiet, nervous laugh, taking a step back into the hall. “I - I’m sorry?”

“Who is it?” A voice called from inside the room, and a moment later a man wearing nothing at all appeared beside Avriel, pausing when he realized they were not alone and studying me curiously with quick blue eyes. “Oh, hello. You must be the new boy, then, yeah?” He grinned, biting his lip in a way that would have been attractive had I not been so struck with embarrassment. “You’re even prettier than I’ve heard.”

“Scott, this is Anders,” Avriel said with an amused smile, leaning back against the man and tightening the sheet around his waist. “He’s one of the assistant cooks. Anders, this is Scott, Mitch’s personal servant. I apologize for our...lack of clothing, city boy, I was not expecting you.”

I paused, comprehension suddenly dawning as to what I had just walked in on. My blush grew and I shook my head, taking another step back and sputtering, “I’m - I’m so sorry, I can come back later if you two are -”

“Are there more coming?” Another voice called, and second later a third man appeared in the doorway, equally as naked and equally as beautiful as the other two. He laughed when he saw me, a grand smile making its way across his face. “Oh. I see. I take it the fun has not stopped, then?” His arms wrapped slowly around Avriel’s waist and he pressed a kiss to the groundskeeper’s neck, murmuring, “Where do you even find boys this gorgeous, Avi?” His eyes made their way back to me and he smiled again, his cheeks dimpling as one of his hands extended out towards me. “I’m Daniel. What’s your name, beautiful?”

Avriel snorted, taking Daniel’s hand in his and placing it back on his waist. “Not quite, Danny,” he murmured, laughing when the man pouted and buried his face into his shoulder. “Scott is spoken for, I’m afraid.”

“We’re all spoken for,” Anders said, leaning against the doorway and studying me again unabashedly. “That’s not stopped us before, has it? I’m perfectly willing to have a bit more fun. The night is young, after all.”

“And so is Scott,” Avriel said, his voice a bit less appeasing. “Far too young for either of you, anyway.”

“Come on, Avi -”

“I said no.” Avriel’s words were stiff and Anders rolled his eyes, giving me one last appraising look before disappearing back into the room. Daniel seemed a bit unsure as to what he should do, but finally retreated as well, leaving Avriel standing alone in the doorway across from me.

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly the moment they were out of sight, uncertain of what had just happened and whether or not I should leave. “I should not have -”

“It’s alright,” Avriel said gently, his lips curling into a tired smile. “You’ve done nothing wrong, city boy, they simply tend to get over-excited, especially when they see someone as beautiful as you.” He paused, glancing back as both Daniel and Anders reappeared in the doorway, each now wearing at least some article of clothing in a failed attempt at modesty. “You’re both leaving?”

Anders shrugged, buttoning up his shirt and very obviously avoiding Avriel’s eyes. “Might as well. Not as though anything else’ll happen tonight.”

Avriel rolled his eyes. “Stop acting like an entitled bastard, it honestly doesn’t suit you.”

Anders said nothing, only pressing a begrudged kiss to Avriel’s cheek and giving me a nod as he started past us down the hall. Daniel sighed and did up the button his trousers, brushing his fingers through Avriel’s hair carefully.

“He’s always so irritated,” he muttered, and Avriel laughed beautifully, kissing his cheek.

“Yes. But he fucks like a champion, so he isn’t all bad.”

Daniel grinned, biting his lip. “You’re right. I do not think I’ll be able to walk properly for days...”

“A sign of a night well spent,” Avriel murmured, kissing the man slowly before pulling back and grinning. “Goodnight, Danny.”

“Night, Avi.” He paused looking over at me with a grin. “Scott, is it?”

“Yes,” I said, my cheeks still flaming bright red. Daniel gave another sweet smile. “It was nice to meet you.”

“You, as well. You’re the new German boy, right? Mitch’s butler?”

I hesitated, glancing over at Avriel before allowing a nod. Daniel did not seem bothered by my answer, only smiling wider.

“I can see why Mitch likes you. You’re gorgeous.” He pressed another kiss to Avriel’s cheek before pushing himself out of the room, calling, “Goodnight,” as he made his way down the hall. I watched him go for a long while, only turning back to Avriel when I could no longer see the outline of his retreating form.

“Do…” I furrowed my brow, tilting my head to the side and studying the groundskeeper with a newfound interest. “Do you often have sex with multiple people at once?”

Avriel let out a laugh, his entire face lighting up as he stepped back into his bedroom, waving me through. I obliged, settling in his desk chair and watching as he tossed his blankets - which had been bundled in a pile on the floor - back onto his completely disheveled bed. “You sound so surprised, sweet boy,” he teased, unwrapping the sheet from his waist and tossing it onto the bed as well. He dug through his chest of drawers and I watched him, slightly embarrassed but mostly captivated by how beautiful he was. His skin was the color of cream and there were freckles splattered down over his back and along his shoulders. I looked away quickly when he turned back to me, now wearing a pair of loose trousers and an unbuttoned shirt, a playful smile playing along his lips. “See something you like, kochanie?”

I laughed, resting my chin in my hand and grinning as he settled on the bed across from where I was sat. The room was lit by a weak electric lamp and a few candles, a shadow cast over his face so that all I could make out were his two glowing eyes that stared back at me. “It seems only fair,” I murmured, and he chuckled. “You’ve seen me without clothes, after all. It is your turn to repay the favor.”

“Mm, perhaps Anders may have had a point. You’re so hungry you could have joined us...”

My cheeks flushed again and I looked away. “I am sorry if I interrupted you all -”

“Nonsense,” Avriel said, his voice gentle. He ran his fingers through his hair, braiding a small section absentmindedly. “We were finished anyways, you did not interrupt anything.” He paused, looking up at me with yet another beautiful smile. “But I must admit I am curious as to why you are here. Usually you and Mitch are off somewhere doing unspeakable things right about now.”

I bit my lip, unable to keep the corners of my mouth from curling up. “Yes, well, you know how much he loves sex.”

“And I know how much you love sex,” he said, smirking. “Do not try and be coy with me, sweetheart, you know he tells me everything.”

“Yes, well. That is what I wished to speak to you about, actually.”

His grin faltered a bit. “I’m sorry?”

“I wanted to ask for - for advice, I suppose.” I looked away, playing with the crown of my pocketwatch and worrying at my lip as embarrassment struck me once more. “You’re aware that he and I have not done anything... penetrative, yes?”

There was long a pause before he laughed and said, “Yes. He’s told me you haven’t wanted to.”

I nodded, glancing back up at him. “Right. Well, I do want to do that, but I’m...I know absolutely nothing about it. And because you and he have been intimate for years now, you are the person who knows the most about what he likes and…” I trailed off, staring back down at my hands. Avriel was quiet, finally speaking after a long moment, his voice tinged with amusement.

“Scott. Are you asking me the best way to fuck Mitch?”

My cheeks flushed again and I watched as he slipped off his bed and moved over towards me, settling in my lap with his arms around my neck. “I - you seemed like the best person to ask,” I whispered, and he laughed, running his fingers through my hair and smiling down at me fondly.

“You are absolutely precious, city boy,” he murmured, pressing a kiss to my lips. “But...I feel as though this is a conversation you should have with Mitch, not me. He knows his body better than I do.”

“But I…” I sighed, wrapping my arms loosely around his waist and pouting. “I do not want to have to ask him what to do. I do not want to be the awkward virgin, and I do not want him to pretend as though he’s enjoying himself when in reality I’m doing a horrible job, and I - I do not want to accidentally hurt him. I want to be able to make him feel as good as I can without him showing me how to do it. I want to be able to walk in, and astound him, and show him how much I adore him without...ruining everything.”

Avriel shook his head, resting his fingers under my chin and kissing me again. “Everybody is awkward their first time, sweetheart. He knows that.”

“Yes, but - I do not want to be. He’s been so kind and patient with me for everything we have done, and I - I want to surprise him. I want to make him feel good. You know how to make him feel good…”

He sighed. “I understand where you are coming from, sweet boy, but...making love for the first time can be an extremely special thing, and I do not want to take that away from you. Half of the fun is learning what the other person likes and discovering new pleasures together. If I told you everything about Mitch, your first time would most likely be better, yes, but I do not think it would be as sincere.”

“Please,” I whispered. “I do not want to look like a fool…”

“He adores you, Scott, he’s not going to mind if you mess up. Besides, he loves showing people what he likes.”

“Could...could you at least tell me what he doesn’t like? So that way I do not upset him?” I shook my head, worrying at my lip. “I do not want to upset him…”

Avriel pursed his lips, his light eyes holding within them a debate that I desperately hoped to win. It was not what I had been hoping to learn when I had come here, but at this point I would take whatever advice I could find. He finally sighed, resting his forehead against mine and letting out a groan.

“Fine,” he muttered, his tone resigned. “But do not tell him that I told you, alright?”

--

The next morning Mitch and I were wandering out past the main hall when we came upon a door I’d not noticed before. I paused and Mitch, whose arm was around my waist with his hand tucked in the back pocket of my trousers, stuttered a few steps before turning back to me with a furrowed brow.

I studied the door, which was large and grandiose and embossed with gorgeous flowering woodwork that would have made Avriel swoon. I had never been one to question the mysteries that hid within closed, sectioned-off rooms, but something about this one called to me as though my heart was a compass and this was the treasure it had been leading me towards my entire life. I turned back to Mitch, whose cheeks were tinged red from our breakfast in the sun, giving him a slow, downright excitable smile. He tilted his head to the side and arched an eyebrow, undoubtedly bemused.

“What is in there?” I asked, nodding to the room. “I’ve not noticed the door before.”

An understanding grin played along his lips and he took a step forward, running his fingers over the doorframe in a manner that I could only describe as unashamed fondness. “It leads to the ballroom,” he said, turning back to me with softer, more nostalgic eyes. “We used to hold all of our parties here instead of in our penthouse. Hundreds and hundreds of people would travel from the city to attend. I was always far too young to go to the formal dinners, but Nico would sneak me in whenever they served dessert and hide me behind the fireplace.” He laughed, his dimples flashing as his beautiful smile grew. “I would watch for hours, or until I got caught and escorted back to my rooms. I always loved to see the dancing…”

I could not help my grin. “Are you fond of dancing?”

He nodded, looking down as a gorgeous blush colored his already rosy cheeks. “I took lessons as a child, but I never had the chance to do it as much as I’d liked to. My school holds dances every autumn with the Jane Brimstone Finishing School, but dancing with girls has never appealed to me.” He glanced back up. “What about you? You do not strike me as a dancer, but then again you always seem to be full of surprises.”

I laughed. “The only experience I have is dancing around the watchmaking shop with my sister. Nothing as formal as you. I’m far too clumsy.”

A coy, downright devilish smile curled over his lips and he wrapped his arms around my neck. “Will you dance with me?”

“I’ll step on your toes…”

“I think I can handle it.”

I sighed, positive that this was going to end absolutely horribly, before finally allowing a resigned nod. I could hardly walk let alone dance, but if it would allow me to see more of that beautiful smile, then I would have done absolutely anything for him. He grinned and linked his arm in mine, pushing through the grand door and leading me down through a small corridor that narrowed a bit before opening into a vast, breathtaking hall. I started, surprised by its sheer enormity, before looking down at Mitch with what I was sure was an idiotic smile.

“Why have you never showed me this before?” I whispered, watching as he crossed to a long, grand table by the window that held a gramophone atop it. “It’s... beautiful…”

He did not answer but I did not mind, turning in slow circles as I took in the incredible expanse before me. The ballroom looked to be a hundred feet wide and at least the same length, the ceilings arched high with a balcony that ran along the perimeter of the room. Eight lavish chandeliers were spaced out above the floor, brass and gold and bronze mounts with diamonds hanging down like teardrops, and if that had not been enough there was a mural centered on the ceiling, so detailed and exquisite its preeminence marveled that of Michelangelo. The floors were dark, polished wood, and the walls were a maze of royal blue and gold, the colors of regality that so fittingly matched the boy that stood before me. It was the room of a king - the room of a god - and not for the first time I found myself wondering just how wealthy the Grassi family was. Their mansion had been luxurious enough, but this ballroom alone I knew must have cost more than my family had ever made during our twenty years in America.

A sudden burst of light hit me and I shielded my eyes, glancing over at Mitch who had lit the chandeliers. I did not want to imagine the expense of using so much electricity, but he seemed unbothered as he turned back to me, his dark eyes feverish as he tugged his cardigan off and tossed it to the floor. A slow, steady rhythm fluttered into the air from the gramophone and he held out his hands with a smile, and I fell more in love with him than I believed possible.

“Will you dance with me, tesoro?” He asked, his voice quiet.

My face warmed and I gave a small nod, reaching up to brush his hair back as he moved closer to me. He stood on his toes and pressed a kiss to the corner of my mouth, leading me to the center of the ballroom with his fingers twined loosely in mine.

“Anybody can waltz,” he said as he turned back to face me. “It’s simple. One, two, three, one, two, three…” He hummed along to the music, twirling his fingers in slow counts of three until I felt the beat sketch its way into my mind. “Think of it as though you are drawing a box with your feet. Step forward on one with your left foot, bring your right foot forward but do not place it down, sweep your right foot to the side so it lands on two at shoulder width, bring your left foot to rest beside your right foot on beat three. That is the first measure, and for the second you do the opposite to complete the box. Step back with your right foot so that it lands on one, bring back your left foot but do not place it down, sweep it to the side so that it rests at shoulder width on two, have your right foot join your left on three.” He gave a grin. “See? Simple.”

I rolled my eyes and wrapped my arms around his waist, pulling him closer so that we were flush against each other. “How about I hold you and we simply sway instead?”

“Tesoro,” he whined, pushing lightly against my chest. “That is not dancing.”

I groaned, burying my face in his neck before pulling away altogether. “Alright. But you are going to have to go a bit slower.”

He nodded, a satisfied smile on his face. “I can do that. Let’s start again with the box step, then…”

He spent the next ten minutes teaching me the basic movements of the waltz, and by the end I was not particularly good but I was no longer tripping over my own feet, which I deemed quite a success. After a few more jerky repetitions I managed a smooth runthrough of the box step, and Mitch was so excited that he jumped into my arms and kissed me so fiercely it made my mind spin. I laughed, resting my hands under his thighs to hold him steady against me as his arms wound around my neck. He was grinning when he pulled away, his tongue poking out from between his teeth.

“That was perfect, mio angelo,” he murmured, pressing a kiss to my nose before slipping out of my arms and back onto the ground. “Alright, now that you have that down the rest is actually simple. Your hand rests above my waist” - he moved my arm so that my fingers were pressed lightly against his ribcage - “and mine rests on your shoulder, and our other hands are together.” He adjusted our arms until we were stood in the correct position, a few inches of space left between our torsos. “And now we dance.”

I nodded, giving him a smile. After a moment he laughed and nudged my leg with his knee.

“You are leading, my love,” he said, his dark eyes amused. “You lead and I will follow.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Shouldn’t you lead? You’ve done this before and I’ve no idea what I’m doing…”

“I trust you to lead,” he said with a shrug, his lips curling into a smirk as he added, “Besides, out of the two of us I am definitely more of the follower-submissive type.”

I laughed, waiting until the beat landed on three before stepping forward into the box step. He responded to me easily, his movements much more graceful than mine. After a few slow measures I risked a glance up at him, my lips tugged into a smile as I pondered what he’d said.

“You may be more submissive,” I said thoughtfully, “but I am certainly not dominant.”

He laughed again. “Of course you are. You are the epitome of masculinity, sweet boy. Nobody would dare call you a fairy.”

“If I am the epitome of masculinity then masculinity has found its downfall,” I argued, looking back down at my feet and counting the beats under my breath.

Mitch threw his head back and gave a gorgeous laugh. “Nonsense. Just look at your jawline.”

“What about my jawline?”

“It looks to be carved from marble.” He grinned up at me and I fumbled one of my steps. “You could very well be Apollo, mio amore.”

“Ah, yes, our dear Apollo. The most feminine of all the gods.”

“He is not that feminine,” Mitch said, his dark eyes glinting in the warmth of the chandeliers. “Not that there is anything wrong with femininity.”

“There’s not,” I agreed, “but if we are discussing my masculinity, it seems that comparing me to a feminine god is unwise.”

“Perhaps you have made a valid point. Alright, I retract my previous statement. You are more like Dionysus, are you not?”

I laughed, stumbling forward but catching myself just in time. “Dionysus? The god of wine and insanity? Good lord, at least give me Bacchus. The Romans were somewhat more sensible.”

“Now, now,” he chided, his hand moving up from my arm to rest along the back of my neck as I stepped back. “While I agree you would make a fine Bacchus, you are much more Dionysus.”

I narrowed my eyes. “And why do you say that?”

“Because he is the god of wine, yes, but he is also the god of lust.” Mitch paused, and a moment later our chests were flush together as he stared up at me, his mouth only inches from mine. “And from what I’ve experienced, you can be quite lustful, tesoro. Lustful, and demanding, and yet still so tender with me…” He bit his lip, our noses brushing together. “Everything I love in a man…”

I felt my face grow warm at our sudden proximity, my hand moving to rest against his lower back and pull him closer against me. “Demanding,” I repeated, my voice soft. “When have I ever been demanding?”

His arms twined around my neck, his dimples flashing as he smirked up at me. “Perhaps you are right, you’ve never demanded a thing from me. Wishful thinking, I suppose…”

I raised my eyebrows, my breath hitching when he pressed a kiss to my jaw. “You would want me to demand things of you when we make love?”

“Not necessarily. But I adore feeling as though you’re in control. It makes everything so much more” - his hands ran down over my arms slowly - “intense.”

I shivered. “You’d enjoy intensity?”

“Mm, but I do not think you would…”

“I’d enjoy whatever makes you come apart in my hands,” I murmured, and new, intrigued look came into his eyes.

“Yes?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Such dangerous words, tesoro. For a moment I forgot I was talking to you instead of Avriel.” Mitch leaned forward, his lips brushing against my ear as he whispered, “He likes to tie me up.”

My face flushed again. “He - he ties you up?”

“Only when I misbehave.”

My eyes widened and Mitch laughed, his hands moving to cup my face.

“That was a joke, sweet boy,” he promised, pressing his soft lips to mine. “I am only teasing you. It’s not as though he punishes me or anything, it is all in fun.”

“Fun,” I said hoarsely. “You have such interesting ideas of what is fun…”

He grinned. “You’ve no idea.”

“Mitchy?”

“Yes, my love?”

“We’ve stopped dancing.”

His eyes softened and he glanced away from me, as though only now noticing that we had come to a pause. The music had stopped playing as well, and the ballroom around us had an eery silence about it. “It seems we have. One moment, I’ll restart the gramophone -”

“Mitchy.”

He looked back up at me. “Yes?”

I rested my hands on his hips and whispered, “I do not want to keep dancing.”

He frowned, his eyes flashing a bit with disappointment as he undoubtedly misunderstood what I’d meant. “Oh. I - of course we do not have to keep on, I only thought -”

“Mitchy,” I murmured again, my hands sliding a bit lower so that my fingertips were tucked under the waistband of his trousers. “I enjoy dancing. But there is something else I think I would rather be doing…”

A slow smile worked its way over his lips. “I see,” he said coyly, his arms wrapping back around my neck. “And what would that be?”

“Why don’t we go back to your rooms and I can show you?”

“Or we could stay here.”

“I do not think we can.”

He bit his lip, his forehead resting against mine. “We both know I am quite good at getting rid of any evidence.”

“You are,” I agreed, kissing him slowly before pulling away with a nervous smile. “But I want to make love to you.”

“You could make love to me right here, sweet boy.”

“No, I mean...I want to make love to you.”

He paused. “As in..?”

“Yes.”

He let out a slow breath, his cheeks dimpling again as he grinned, and I fell farther and farther and farther until the air was gone from my lungs.

“Well then, fuck me sideways, city boy. Let’s go.”

--

The door to his bedroom clicked shut and I was instantly frozen with fear.

He turned back to me, his dark eyes soft and his lips curled up into a promise of forever, and everything Avriel had told me about what Mitch didn’t care for left my mind completely. I stared at him, helpless and feeling as though I’d been dropped in the middle of the Atlantic with the cruel fate of not knowing how to swim. I knew vaguely how to make him feel good from our times previous together, but none of that had even remotely been as intimate as this, and the knowledge that he had been with countless men and knew precisely what he wanted was, to say the least, a bit daunting.

“Tesoro,” he whispered, stepping forward and taking my hands in his. His skin was warm and smooth and it eased my heavy mind, although I still knew that somehow I would inevitably ruin this. He tilted his chin up, his fingers moving to rest against my lips. “Stop thinking.”

I could not hold his gaze. “I…”

“What are you so afraid of, my love? It’s only me.”

I did not answer and he pulled me gently to his bed, settling beside me and running his fingers through my hair. It felt nice, and my eyes slipped shut as I tried to even my breathing.

“Your beautiful mind worries so much,” he murmured, his thumb running along my temple. “You are so confident and then the doubt begins to creep in…”

“I’m sorry…”

“It’s nothing to apologize for, sweetheart, it’s simply how you are.” His hands rested on the back of my neck, his lips soft against my jaw. “There is nothing wrong with how you are, but it only makes some things a bit more difficult for you than they are for others.”

I looked up, my heart speeding up at tenderness in his eyes. “I do not want to make a mistake…”

He smiled and pressed his lips to mine, his mouth so sweet I felt drunk. “I wouldn’t mind if you did. Mistakes only make room for improvement.”

“I...I tried to get Avriel to tell me what you liked,” I said meekly, looking down. “I wanted to impress you…”

“I know, sweet boy,” he said, brushing my hair back. “He told me this morning.”

“I’m sorry.” I shook my head, not all that surprised that he knew even though Avriel had promised not to tell. There were no secrets between the two of them and I had known that going in. I worried at my lip, staring down at my hands. “I - I just wanted to make you feel good…”

“There you are again with your unnecessary apologies.” Mitch sighed, cupping my face and staring at me with dark, steady eyes. “Tesoro, I am not upset with you. You always believe that I am upset with you... mio amore, you are so important to me and - and credo di essere innamorato di te… I am not angry...I am anything but angry…”

“I just wanted to make you feel good…”

“Then do it,” he whispered, his fingers tangling in my hair as he crawled forward. “Scott, I am not going to get upset no matter what, alright? I will not laugh if you mess up, I will not be annoyed - I only want you, however you come, because you...you drive me insane with anything you do, and I want to be with you however you want and I want you to make love to me…” He shook his head, his hands resting on my chest. “Please stop thinking...”

I could not help the stinging in my eyes. “I…”

He sighed and cupped my face, wiping at the corners of my eyes and kissing me gently as everything about him softened. “I will show you, then. It’s not difficult, I promise…” One of his hands slid down over my chest, resting lightly at the front of my trousers. “Is it alright if I show you, angel?”

I managed a nod and he undid the button of my pants, tugging them off and settling himself on my lap.

“Relax, sweetheart,” he whispered, kissing my forehead. “We’ve done this part many times before, remember? Nothing has changed. You do not have to worry that you will mess up, because I’m not going allow the opportunity for you to mess up. I will take care of you.” He rested his fingers on my cheek and I let out a slow breath, nodding despite the fact that I felt as though my lungs were constricting in my chest. “Relax, tesoro. We’ve done this before.”

I allowed my arms to twine around his waist, my hands shaking as they rested on his hips and pulled him a bit closer to me. He gave a slow, sweet smile, his lips soft against mine as I moved further back onto the bed. I felt sick with nerves but every move he made was careful and sweet, as though I was bound by porcelain and could break under even the lightest touch. After everything, he still held me as though I meant something more to him, and I could not have even begun to understand why.

His fingers tugged at the hem of my shirt and a moment later I felt the skin of his bare chest warm against mine, his tongue brushing over my bottom lip as my mind desperately tried to keep up with what was happening. His hands were around me in every way imaginable and I felt him pressed against my thigh, completely unsure of how he had gotten naked but too hazy to question it. His fingers gripped in my hair as he pulled away, kissing my forehead and staring down at me with the most beautiful smile.

“Alright?” He murmured, and I nodded blearily, biting my lip as he tugged off my underwear and tossed it to the floor. I shuddered at the exposure, watching with wide eyes as he settled down on my lap so that his cock brushed against mine. He did not move, though, and I relaxed a bit when he only leaned down to kiss me again, grateful to simply feel his mouth on mine without worry of what would come next. His fingers trailed over my stomach and chest but he did not touch me elsewhere, the feeling of him so close and yet not nearly close enough driving me absolutely mad. I gripped my fingers in his hair and tilted my head up, kissing him harder and smiling when I felt him shiver against me. I knew this. I knew how to kiss him, and I knew how to hold him, and I did not need to worry about anything else because I knew this and I knew that he would take care of me.

He pulled away a few minutes later, his lips crimson and his irises so dilated his eyes looked black. His mouth curled into a small smile and he pressed a kiss to my nose, the motion so sweet I felt my chest tighten.

“You are so beautiful,” he whispered, his dimples winking down at me. “I love kissing you…”

I could not help my blush. “I love you.”

His eyes warmed and he kissed me again, sighing against my lips, “I love you, mio tesoro…”

A warm feeling formed in my stomach, soft as cotton, and I sat up a bit straighter. “You..?”

He blinked, his brow furrowing. “I...love you...”

My heart hammered in my chest and I watched him carefully, his dark eyes wide and his lips parted as though he was also surprised at what he’d said. “Mitchy…”

“I love you,” he said again, smiling hesitantly as he leaned forward to press his mouth to mine. “I...I love you, my Scott…”

“You love me,” I whispered, the words slippery on my tongue.

“I love you…”

I stared up at him, pulling him closer into my arms and kissing him again. “I love you, too…”

“I love you, Scott Hoying…” He laughed, shaking his head smiling down at me, as though he could not believe what he was saying and yet could not keep from saying it again and again. “I love you…”

“You love me…”

“I love you.” His fingers gripped in my hair and he kissed me hard on the mouth, his arms relaxing around my neck and his chest pressed against mine. I could not help my smile, holding him close as though he had been formed by starlight.

“Mitchy,” I whispered, pulling back and staring up at him with hazy eyes. Ich möchte dich lieben…” I want to make love to you. “Please…”

He stared at me a long while before biting his lip and nodding. He crawled off of the bed and strode across the room, digging through the drawers of his vanity before returning a moment later with a glass bottle that reminded me of my mother’s old perfume. I watched him silently, curious and yet too desperate to form words. He looked up at me after a moment and grinned, his dimples flashing beautifully.

“Hold out your hand.”

I raised my eyebrows but did as I was told, and he poured whatever was in the bottle across my fingers. I gave him a look and he simply laughed, kissing me and resting his hand on my hip.

“It makes everything go a bit smoother,” he said, straddling my lap and settling down against me. “Preparation is an important factor, sweet boy.”

“Preparation?”

He laughed again. “Yes. You cannot simply put yourself inside of me and hope for the best.”

I froze as his words suddenly clicked. “So...my - my fingers are going to go in your…”

“Yes.”

“Oh. I see.”

“Do not look so worried, my love.” He brushed his hands through my hair, taking my arm and positioning it so that my thumb was pressed against him lightly. “It’s alright.”

“Will it hurt you?”

He shook his head, kissing me again. “Not if you go slowly. Start with one finger, alright?” He grinned and pecked my nose. “I will be fine, tesoro, I’ve done this many times before.”

I let out a long breath but nodded, sliding a finger into him and watching as his eyes fluttered shut, his lip catching between his teeth. He tensed when I was entirely inside of him, sighing and looking down at me with dark raven eyes that made my uncertainty melt away.

“Are you alright?” I whispered, completely fascinated at the feeling of him around me. He nodded, leaning forward to kiss me and shivering when I pulled my finger out a bit and pushed back in. I could not understand how it remotely could have felt enjoyable, but from the way he was reacting I had apparently not yet made a mistake.

“I’m fine, sweet boy,” he promised, tilting his hips down and letting out another shuddering sigh. “You feel nice...”

I curled my finger a little, pushing into him again and feeling him tighten around me. “You are so warm…”

He laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he moved closer. “I love you, my Scott…”

“I love you, too.” I kissed his jaw, whispering, Ich möchte dass du dich so gut fühlst wie nur möglich…” And I want you to feel as good as possible.

He smiled, resting his forehead against mine as he murmured, “My little German boy. You can move a bit faster if you’d like.”

I hesitated but did as he said, and a few minutes later he was hunched against me, panting. I pressed a kiss to his shoulder, pulling out completely before pressing two fingers back into him, and he made the most gorgeous sound I’d ever heard as he pushed himself down onto me.

“Fuck, tesoro, mio amore…” He shuddered, his eyes half-lidded as he stared down at me. “I want you…”

My heart quickened. “How do I..?”

“I will show you,” he managed, pulling himself off of me and collapsing onto his back. He took the glass bottle, which had been clenched between my fingers all the while, and poured a bit more of whatever oil it was onto his hand. I watched him, anxiety pricking at my skin like cold drops of rain, and I shivered when he ran his hand over the length of my cock until I was so hard it hurt.

“Mitchy,” I whispered, and he pulled me towards him until I was positioned between his legs, his fingers gripping into my hair so that I was forced to hover over him.

“Tesoro,” he murmured, his voice hoarse. “Mio bel tesoro…” He leaned up, capturing my lips in his and kissing me as though we had only moments left. When he pulled back his eyes were almost black, his lips curled into a smirk. “Fuck me, sweetheart.”

My heart caught in my throat and I leaned forward, pressing my cock against him and sliding in slowly, my mouth falling open as every sense around me heightened as though burned by the sun.

“Oh my god,” I managed as I sank into him completely, my forehead resting against his and my arms erupting with goosebumps. “Oh my god, M-Mitch -”

He let out a beautiful moan, his legs wrapping around my waist as I pulled out and sank back into him again. Every inch of him was beautiful and soft and needy, and I could feel my heart hammering in my chest as though it was trying to break free from its sheltered cage and take solace in his warmth. My eyes slipped shut as I found his lips, kissing him and tilting my hips down and trying to fathom how on earth I been so lucky to find this boy who had changed everything. Six weeks ago I had been nothing but an orphan on the streets of New York City, but now here I was making love to a beautiful boy who said he loved me back. As though fate had finally allowed me a chance to truly be happy by giving me Mitchell Grassi. He was my imperfect perfection, and he loved me, and I had never been more terrified.

“Tesoro,” he whispered, his voice a desperate whimper as I rolled my hips deeper into him. “Fuuuck, Scott…”

I shuddered, pressing warm kisses to his neck and murmuring, “Is this alright?”

He moaned again, pulling me back to his lips and kissing me until my lungs felt as though they might burst. I felt the muscles of my stomach clench as he responded to my every movement, as though we were dancing once more and I had finally managed to remember the pattern. I sucked at his bottom lip, gripping my fingers into his hips and pressing him closer against me, my mind clouding as everything I felt became nothing more than complete adoration for this boy.

I slowed my pace a few minutes later and he pushed me onto my back, his eyes hungry as I’d never seen them before. I worried for a moment that I’d done something wrong but he simply straddled my waist, his hands resting on my chest as he sank down onto my cock and cursed beautifully.

“I love,” he panted, his head hanging low as I pressed up into him. “I love - fuck - I love it when you fuck me…” His fingers gripped into the skin of my chest and he let out another whimper. “Più duro, mio amore, sono la tua puttanella…”

I said nothing, only holding him closer as the world crumbled around me. He let out another stuttered curse and a moment later he came with a beautiful sob, leaking onto my stomach and collapsing against me as I held him closer and followed not long behind, my heart aching and my mind flashing as Mitchell Grassi took everything from me that I had not already lost.

I pulled out of him slowly and he gave a panicked whine, whispering, “No...no empty…” into my neck until I pressed two fingers back inside of him, rubbing against him as he cursed softly and gave a low sigh.

We stayed there for what felt like hours before he rolled onto his side and rested his head in the crook of my arm, his dark eyes staring up at me with something I’d never quite seen before.

“I’m in love with you,” he said quietly, his fingers running lightly over my stomach and wiping at his cum that was splattered over my abdomen. He looked at it thoughtfully before bringing his fingers to my lips, and I opened my mouth without a thought. He smiled, leaning forward to kiss me and letting his head come to rest on my shoulder. “Mio tesoro, I am so in love with you…”

I managed a smile, my heart twittering happily in my chest. “I feel the same, my love.”

His lips curled up again and he sighed, cuddling into my side. His face relaxed a bit and a moment later I knew he was close to sleep, his little nose scrunching up like a rabbit. “That feels so nice to say, tesoro. I love you…”

“I love you, too.”

“I love you…”

“Schlaf, mein Liebster, die Engel im Himmel wachen über dich…”

“What does that mean?”

“Sleep, my love,” I murmured, kissing him once again and settling closer to the boy who held my heart within his hands. “The angels in Heaven are watching over you…”

Chapter Text

I ran my finger over the hardened leather book spines, counting under my breath until I reached the end of the third shelf and spotted the volume I’d been searching for. It was early Tuesday morning, the day before Mitch was set to leave for his family’s party in the city, and my boy had been sound asleep in bed when I had left him thirty minutes ago. I had only planned to be out for a quarter hour at most, but this book had proved quite difficult to find and it had taken almost twice that time to find it. I glanced around the nearly vacant Grassi library before pulling it off of the shelf and tucking it under my arm, turning to hurry out of the row before freezing the moment I realized I was not alone.

A man was sat in one of the plush chairs that were positioned at the end of each bookshelf, lazily flipping the pages of a thick volume and staring up at me fixedly, his dark eyes unnervingly steady. My heart beat a bit faster and I clutched the book I was holding into my chest, panic striking me quick and hard before fading the moment I realized that he was one of the assistant chefs who often worked with Kevin. I let out a breath, a smile playing along my lips as I made my way towards him.

“Good morning,” I said, leaning against one of the shelves and resting the book against my hip. “Noel, isn’t it?”

The man’s hand paused, his finger pressed against one of the pages so forcefully I was worried the paper would rip. “Yes,” he finally answered, leaning back in his seat and running his eyes over my body unabashedly. “You’re Mitch’s butler. The German.”

An uneasy feeling tugged at my stomach and I gave a slow nod. “Yes. Scott - uh, Scott Hoying. We’ve met before, I believe, though I do not think it was any formal introduction.”

He did not answer, setting his book on the side of the chair and pushing himself up so that he could face me. I was taller than he, though not by much, and there was an unpleasant predatory look that shone in his eyes as he stared up at me. I gave a quiet, nervous laugh, taking a step back and running my fingers through my hair.

“Well, I should go,” I said, tilting my head to the side and offering what I hoped to be a polite smile. “It was nice to see you again, uh, Noel.”

He ignored my attempt at dismissal, nodding to the book I was holding. “Big fan of reading, are you?”

I hesitated, my heart beating a bit faster. “Not particularly.”

“What is it?”

“Nothing,” I said, taking another step back and shrugging. “Just something light.”

“Show it to me.”

“It’s nothing,” I said again, “Just something to pass the time -”

He stepped forward and snatched the book from me, glancing down at the title before giving a loud, bitter laugh that made me flinch away. “L'amore di Italia. Italian love poetry.” He raised an eyebrow, his lips curling into what I could only describe as a sneer. “What’s a German like you doing with Italian poetry?”

I stepped back again and felt the sharp corner of a bookshelf dig into my spine. “Nothing. I - Mitch enjoys poetry and I thought I would -”

“You thought you would read it to him?” His lips curled into a horrible smile. “As though it would make him fall in love with you. As though he would ever love a German.” He stepped towards me again, pushing the book back into my arms and staring up at me with cold, disgusted eyes. “You know what the Grassis do to Germans, Hoying?”

I said nothing, my stomach churning with nausea as he came closer. For a moment I thought he would move to strike me, but he simply gave another laugh, his breath reeking of dead flowers.

“You know, it surprised me when I first heard that Mr. Grassi had hired a German, but now I understand why.” He smirked. “The stupider they are, the easier to break.”

“I’m not -”

He gripped my chin between his fingers and I winced, clenching my jaw but not daring to say anything more. He studied me a long moment before giving two hard pats to my cheek, turning back around and striding down the row as he called, “Enjoy your love poetry, Boche.”

I stood there for a long while after he’d gone, frozen against the bookshelf as the air around me turned to smoke. My eyes slipped shut and I finally moved - sliding to the floor and covering my face with my hands, unable to keep my entire body from trembling as foolish, anxious tears rolled down my cheeks, his words playing in my mind over and over until I could not breathe.

You thought you would read it to him?

As though it would make him fall in love with you.

As though he would ever love a German.

--

I do not know how long I stayed there, but at some point I heard the main door to the library sweep open and shut with a quiet, familiar click. A peculiar percussive sound echoed quietly through the high arched ceilings and I looked up blearily, my skin raw with dried tears as whoever it was ventured further into the library. The odd sounds continued and a moment later a man strode by the row in which I was hidden away, pausing just before the edge of the shelf and taking a few steps back as he turned to look down at me. My unnerved heart calmed when I realized it was Kevin, a tired, hazy interest forming at the second revelation that it was he who was making the sounds with his mouth. His brow furrowed and the percussive noises trailed off, worry flooding into his eyes as he no doubt took in the pitiful situation I had found myself in.

“Scott?” He asked, his voice hesitant as he crouched down beside me. “My god, are you alright?”

I pushed myself up a bit, my thoughts still muddled as I stupidly mumbled, “You sound like a drum...”

His lips parted in surprise and he gave a small, worried smile. “Um, yes, but - but I do not really think that should be our main preoccupation at the moment.” He held out his hand and after a moment of debate I took it, standing on quivering legs as he helped to steady me. “Are you alright, city boy? You - it looks as though you’ve been crying…”

I hesitated, straightening my jacket and looking down at the artisanal rug below me that was wearing at the seams, nudging it with my toe until part of it split in the side. I felt a fool for what had happened - for how emotional I’d become at even the slightest expression of distaste towards me. What Noel had said should not have been bothersome; I had heard much worse over the years, though nothing so blunt as direct cruelty. I shook my head, glancing back up at Kevin and giving a weak laugh that sound false even to my own ears.

“I’m alright.” I rubbed at my arms, forcing a smile. “I - there was only a misunderstanding. I’m fine.”

His lips pursed together. “You do not have to lie to me, Scott...”

I shook my head again. “I’m alright.”

“Scott.”

I bit my lip, looking back down at the carpet as more horrible tears stung at my eyes. It was ridiculous to be so upset, and I knew this. Nothing had even happened and yet my stomach was still uneasy as though I was moments away from being sick. It was foolish. I was foolish.

“Scott,” Kevin said again, his voice quiet. “You can tell me. Is it something to do with Mitch? Have the two of you had an argument?”

“No,” I said quickly, crossing my arms over my chest. “No, he and I are fine. We - we are better than fine. It’s...it’s not that.”

He nodded, his hand resting warmly on my shoulder. “Alright. Was it something else?”

I clenched my jaw, a fresh wave of tears choking my throat as I whispered, “Why does everybody believe that Mr. Grassi hates Germans?”

Kevin paused, hesitation blooming in his eyes. “What do you mean?”

“The rumors,” I continued, my voice dry. “Harold, Noel, Mitch, fucking Mr. Grassi himself, they’ve all alluded to these damn rumors that have to do with Germans, and I - I assumed it had been because of what happened in France. Because of the German prisoners...” I shook my head. “But nobody would know about that, would they? That would not be anything made available to the public.” I looked up at Kevin, my face growing warm with desperation. “Why does Mr. Grassi have such a horrible reputation with Germans? And why - why did he hire me if he does?”

Kevin stared at me a long while before sighing and leaning back against one of the shelves. “You should really be talking to Mitch about this, not me -”

“No. No, I cannot - I cannot ask this of him, not when he’s already given me so much. Just - what are the rumors? Are...are they unfounded? Are they justified?”

“It’s…” Kevin sighed again. “Look, city boy, I only know as much as I’ve heard, and that hasn’t been much. Supposedly it all happened years ago, back before you were born, and - and the details are mostly unclear.”

I swallowed. “Tell me.”

“I cannot -”

“Please. Tell me. I...I have a right to know, do I not? If I’m in danger?”

“You aren’t in danger, Scott -”

“Then tell me.”

Kevin stared at me a long while before nodding, although I could tell he was not remotely happy to do so. “Michael Grassi Sr.,” he said quietly, staring down at his hands. “Mitch’s grandfather. I am sure you’ve heard of the labor movements in the late 1880s? Workers wanted better conditions, more money - liveable wages - but doing so would have decreased the profit of the companies and, by extension, it would have been detrimental to banks’ business with the factories. The Grassi National Savings Bank was still in its early stages and it could not afford such a risk. So Michael Grassi Sr. fought against the labor movements. He did his best to break off the strikes and he succeeded. He spoke publicly against the strikes, published articles in the paper, claimed that such demands were Marxist garbage and that it was the increase in German immigrants that was the cause of such trouble.”

I pursed my lips. “He blamed Germans for people wanting to be treated like human beings...”

 “He was not wrong, necessarily,” Kevin said, shaking his head. “It was mainly German immigrants who led the labor movements. There was a factory fire in ‘87 that killed over a hundred people - mostly Germans - because of the working conditions. That fueled the strikes tenfold, but Mr. Grassi Sr. publicly stated that it was not a true loss, because a German was only half a man. Supposedly such slander continued for years  - Germans became his scapegoat - and when Michael Grassi Sr. died his son, Mitch’s father, continued with it until Nicodemo was born and the bank became a national feat.”

My stomach turned. “Because, of course, it would be unfit for a wealthy businessman to show such prejudice.”

Kevin gave a weak laugh, muttering, “The Grassi family was known for their hatred of Germans up until the turn of the century. Some people still remember them as such.” He looked up at me, his eyes sorrowful. “That’s as much as I know. It’s all conjecture, there’s no proof for any of it. The rumors grew more and more outrageous the wealthier the Grassis became - some people claimed Mrs. Grassi would bathe in German blood to maintain her youth, or that Mr. Grassi let Germans free in the woods and hunted them for sport. None of it has any foundation, obviously, but in 1900 it was popular to speculate.” He shrugged. “With America’s declaration of war against Germany, I suppose it’s not surprising that such old rumors have been brought up again. Except, this time, people are unbothered by them.”

I shook my head, wrapping my arms around myself and whispering, “Well, isn’t that pleasant.”

“You know how it works,” Kevin said wryly. “People such as the Grassis become noteworthy and fictions about them are created. It’s a game of the public. You love somebody bigger than you until jealousy strikes and you try to tear them down.”

I frowned. “It makes no sense, though. Mitch said that his father loaned out money to both sides when the war first started. Surely he would not loan money to Germans if he hated them...”

“They are just rumors, Scott,” Kevin said quietly. “And even if Mr. Grassi does have a great hatred for Germans, he has a greater love for money and would not pass up an opportunity to fill his pockets.”

I nodded, looking down at the carpet and nudging the ripped seams with my shoe. “So the rumors started before the war. Before everything. All for the sake of making money.”

“From what I’ve heard, yes.”

“I…” I looked back up at him. “To be honest, I was expecting more. I did not think it would be something as - as simple as learned hatred.”

Kevin’s lips curled into a tired smile and I felt my stomach sink. “But then again, is learned hatred really all that simple?”

“I suppose you are right.” I paused before shaking my head again, the words like glass on my tongue. Part of me could not help but wonder if Mitch had absorbed any such hatred from his father. Growing up with a man who loathed Germans seemed a perfect way to ensure that he himself would learn to loathe them as well. The thought made me anxious and I shook it away, looking back up at Kevin and forcing a grin. “It only seems underwhelming. Why would Michael Grassi Sr. spend so much time promoting slander against Germans, even after the labor movements calmed? And why would Mitch’s father continue with it? It seems like a waste of energy.”

Kevin laughed, looking at me as though I was an idiot. “Scott, why do you think anybody keeps on hating a certain group of people? To discredit them and therefore gain more power for themselves. For the Grassis, it was Germans. For Germans, it was Jews. And for Americans, it was Negroes.” He arched an eyebrow. “You’ve got to oppress somebody before they turn right back around and try to oppress you.”

The words stung and I nodded again, my thoughts swirling around in my mind haphazardly. I pushed them to the side, chaining them together and saving them for a time when I could afford to pick through them with the care they deserved. I gave an exhausted, confused smile. “You’re right.”

He chuckled. “I know.”

“Thank you for telling me about the rumors. They...they’re not as bad as I’d feared, honestly. I thought Mr. Grassi had murdered somebody or something like that.”

Kevin laughed again, the sound holding no humor whatsoever. “The Grassis may have questionable morals, but they are not murderers, city boy.” He paused, leaning back against one of the bookshelves and appraising me with newly interested eyes. There was a tinge of concern in his expression and my tentative relaxation crumbled apart beneath me. “Is that why you were crying, then? Because of the rumors?”

I hesitated, my fingers running over the book of poetry that I still had a hold on. “No. Not...not particularly. It was nothing, though, I promise.”

Kevin stepped forward, and sure enough the kindness in his eyes was equally matched with worry. “You can tell me, Scott. Whatever it is, you can tell me.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Are you sure?”

I bit my lip, shaking my head as I muttered, “It was just...before you got here, one of the staff, he - he seemed dissatisfied with the fact that I am German. And he had no issue with telling me so in quite an... intimidating fashion.”

Kevin’s eyes narrowed. “Somebody harassed you?”

“It’s fine -”

“Of course it isn’t fine. Who was it?”

I shook my head. “No, it is - it’s honestly fine. I’ve endured worse.”

“That does not matter,” Kevin said softly, his lips tugged into a frown. “You should not have to endure anything here. That is the point of having a tolerant household staff, Scott.”

“Please . Do - do not worry. It’s fine. I promise.”

“Scott -”

“Please.”

He studied me a long while before clenching his jaw and giving a stiff, reluctant nod. “Alright. But you will tell me if it’s not fine, yes?”

“Of course,” I answered, the words coming too quickly. I clutched the poetry book closer to my chest and smiling as I lied through my teeth, “I promise.”

--

Mitch was just stepping out of the door when I returned to his room that morning, his dark raven hair tousled gorgeously and his bag that held his schoolwork slung over his shoulder. His eyes lit up when he saw me and I could not help but laugh at the irony when he mentioned that he was on his way to the library to catch up on revision before he left for the city the next day. I agreed to accompany him, though, now much calmer about the events the morning had brought to me so far, and so not ten minutes later he and I were sat across from each other in the two over-sized chairs hidden away in the far shelves, looking down upon the lawn from the vast window we were seated beside. He had propped a thin, cloth-backed book against his chest and was humming to himself as he read, and I rested my chin in my hand as I gazed outside at the dreary, cloudy morning, my mind engulfed in flames.

Kevin’s words played over and over in my head as though they were a broken record, and no matter how many times I heard them they still struck me insufficient. Perhaps he had told me everything he’d known, but everything he’d known had turned out to be really nothing at all. The rumors about Mitch’s father and grandfather seemed feasible enough, though, and I wondered if part of me was doubting them simply because I did not want them to be true. They had not been horrible, but the idea that Mitch had been raised surrounded by ideals that put Germans in such a blatantly unflattering position made me nervous. I could not help but remember what Noel had said to me, drowning out my logical thoughts until I felt as though I would burst.

You thought you would read it to him?

As though it would make him fall in love with you.

As though he would ever love a German.

I sighed, tugging my legs into my chest as I watched teardrops of rain trickle down the side of the window. I had ultimately decided against taking out the book of Italian poetry, unable to even look at it again without a sick feeling in my stomach after what Noel had said. I had wanted to read through it and memorize my favorites, so that I could recite them to Mitch whenever the time proved right. It had been a foolish idea and I probably would have only ended up embarrassing myself, but I could not help but feel a bit remorseful that now I would not even have the chance to try.

“You’re doing it again,” Mitch whispered, his voice pulling me back to reality. I looked up to see him watching me with worried eyes. “You’re overthinking.”

I did not say anything, unsure of how to respond, and he simply crawled out of his chair and moved to sit in my lap, snuggling into my chest until I gave in and held him close against me. I pressed a kiss to his head and he peeked up at me with a beautiful, albeit concerned smile, his eyes warm despite the cold day that surrounded us.

“You get a dimple right here,” he murmured, running his thumb over my left cheek. “And your brow furrows, and you look as though you might start to cry.” He paused, leaning up to press his mouth to mine gently. “And you purse your lips.”

I looked away, my voice hoarse as I said, “You are very observant.”

“Only because I know your beautiful mind tends to work itself too hard,” he said quietly, tugging the sleeves of his sweater over his hands so that his fingers were hidden. “You start to think of something and then you cannot stop.”

“Some would call that determination,” I said, and he smiled again.

“Yes, but such thorough determination can be exhausting.” He brushed his fingers through my hair, his other hand resting lightly against my chest. “What’s wrong, sweet boy?”

I hesitated, worrying at my lip with my teeth and whispering, “You love me, right?”

He frowned and sat up so that he was facing me, unease flickering in his eyes. “Of course I love you…”

“Even though I am German?”

“Scott,” he said quietly, shaking his head. “The fact that you are German is not something that bothers me, you know that. Why are you..?”

“I am sorry,” I whispered, keeping my eyes set on my hands. “I shouldn’t have asked. I was - I only wanted to be certain…”

His face softened and he rested his fingers under my chin, leaning forward to capture my lips in his. My overexcitable mind calmed a bit and I wrapped an arm around his waist, pulling him closer against me until I could feel every breath he took as though they were my own. He moved back after a moment, his forehead resting against mine and his thumb running over my lips.

“I love you, Scott Hoying,” he murmured, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he smiled. It made my foolish heart tighten to know that I had caused such a beautiful sight. “I am so completely in love with you. I may not know much in this crooked world of ours, but of that I am certain.”

A warm feeling formed in my stomach and I leaned forward to kiss him again, whispering against his lips, Meine Liebe wächst von Tag zu Tag.” I love you more and more everyday.

He smiled again and I pressed a kiss to each of his dimples, leaning back against the chair so that he could cuddle closer into my side. He made an adorable, trilling noise and nuzzled his face into my neck, his book resting precariously on his hip and his sweater slouching off of his shoulder. I relaxed for the first time that day, my manic mind settling as I held him in my arms.

 

“Is this mine?” I murmured after a few minutes, running my finger over the thick maroon cardigan he was wearing that was far too large for him. He laughed quietly, his cheeks tinting pink.

“It’s soft,” he said, kissing my jaw and resting closer against me. “And it smells like you.”

“It’s too big for you.”

“It’s cozy,” he argued, his eyes slipping shut.

“When do you even manage to steal my clothes? It’s not as though I willingly leave them in your room.”

“Shh,” he said softly, his fingers resting over my heart. “Sleepy. No more talking.”

“You’re supposed to be studying, my love,” I reminded him. “Come on, up you go.”

“Nooo,” he whined, clinging tightly to the front of my shirt. “I loathe Shakespeare and his fucking tragedies. All of his characters irritate me.”

My lips tugged into a smile. “What are you reading?”

“Macbeth. I’m only a few pages in and it’s awful. I promised myself I would finish it before I left for the city, though, but now I am highly considering breaking that promise...”

“Mitchy…”

He opened one eye, peeking up at me with a grin. “I could be persuaded to read it if a certain German boy of mine agreed to come with me to the party…”

I sighed. “Mitchy, you know it isn’t safe.”

“Tesoro…”

“I do not want to risk anything. If any of your father's business partners noticed the way I look at you…” I pulled him closer, shaking my head. “I do not want you imprisoned for sodomy because of me.”

“You worry too much.”

“Yes, but worrying about this is logical.”

He pouted but gave a reluctant nod, propping his book open on his chest. “Fine. You’re right, even though I hate it.”

My stomach churned. “Please do not be upset…”

He glanced back up at me, his eyes softening immediately once he noticed the panic on my face. “I’m not upset with you, sweet boy,” he said quickly, “Only the situation we’re in. I would never be upset with you over something like this.” He brushed his fingers through my hair and pressed a kiss to my cheek. “I love you, mio tesoro.”

I let out a breath. “I love you as well.”

“Here,” he said gently, shifting so that he was sitting on my lap with his back pressed to my chest. He held the book up so that I could see and I tucked my arms around his waist to hold him steady. “We can read together. Have you ever read Shakespeare?”

“I haven’t,” I said, relaxing back into the seat and letting out another relieved breath. He was not upset with me. “I thought you said it was awful?”

“It’s not really, I was just whining.” He tilted his head back and gave me a beautiful smile. “Do you mind if I read to you? It’s the only way I’ll finish it tonight, if I’m honest, you’re far too distracting otherwise.”

I laughed and rested my chin against his back, reading over his shoulder as he flipped to the first page of the play. None of the prose made any sense whatsoever but it felt nice to be so close to him, and I was not going to object to anything he proposed.

“Read to me, my love,” I murmured, kissing the back of his neck and letting my eyes slip shut. “Your voice sounds like sunlight…”

--

I was sat at the counter in the kitchen with Mitch, the two of us watching as Kevin roasted an array of squashes and carrots and tomatoes and beets and sipping on lemonade when the back door to the kitchen opened. A flood of people stormed through, all of them dressed in white pants and aprons and carrying trays of raw meat and vegetables and cartons of eggs. Mitch paused with his glass halfway to his mouth, his brow furrowing as what must have been fifty or sixty people crowded in through the door.

“Kevin,” he said slowly, glancing back at the chef. “Why - why are the relief staff here?”

Kevin shook his head, his lips curling into a frown. “I’m not sure…”

“Relief staff?” I asked, watching as Mitch set his glass down and stood from his chair.

“Extra staff,” he murmured, his eyes darting from one servant to another. “They only come when we host guests, but never this many…” He stopped a young man carrying a carton of fresh peaches. “Excuse me, what’s the meaning of this?”

The man gave an awkward nod. “Evening, Mr. Grassi. Your father sent a telegram out? Sixty servants and waiters for tomorrow night?”

Mitch frowned. “I don’t understand. Why would he..?”

“For the party, sir.”

“The party’s in the city, though,” Mitch said, his voice hitching a bit with what I knew to be panic. “At our penthouse. Not here. We never have parties here.”

The man shrugged. “That’s all I know, sir, I’m just following orders.” He gave another nod before hurrying back through the throng of people, and Mitch turned to me with undeniably anxious eyes.

“What’s happening?” I asked, looking around at the dozens of people that moved diligently around us.

“I do not know,” Mitch said quietly, “It does not - Avriel.” He moved forward again towards the door, where the groundskeeper was pushing his way through. “What the hell is going on?”

“A telegram,” Avriel said, shaking his head and handing Mitch a piece of thick stock paper. “From your father. He’s moved the party to here, apparently.”

Mitch’s eyes flashed. “Why? He - he never has parties here. Ever. That was part of our agreement after France. That’s why he agreed to hire new staff - all business matters happen in the city, not here…”

“I don’t know,” Avriel said, shaking his head again. “But the telegram says the party is tomorrow night. Here.” He paused, his emerald eyes sinking. “And he wants it to be a celebration of your engagement to Luce Bonanno.”

Chapter Text

Looking back on my time at the Grassi mansion, I now know that there are three moments in particular that have affected my life more than I ever assumed they would. Three moments that, if I could travel back in time to the summer of 1917, I would change in an instant.

This is the second.

I had allowed myself to fall into the fanciful belief that what Mitchell Grassi and I had was something strong enough to withstand the prejudice we both faced. To me, it did not seem worrisome that he and I were of the same sex, nor that he was of a class far beyond my own, nor that his family loathed Germans to an extent I could not even comprehend. All I was aware of was the color of his beautiful eyes and the way my heart quickened whenever I caught his glance. Our differences meant nothing to me, and I had somehow grown to assume that they would mean nothing to everybody else as well.

I was greatly mistaken.

Looking back now, I should have seen his engagement to Luce Bonanno for what it was, and I should have ended whatever relationship he and I had forged for the sake of my weakened heart. I had put so much into him due to the loss of my family, and he had become an intrinsic and dangerously necessary part of my life. I could not imagine myself without him, and that in itself should have been proof enough that I needed to leave. But I did not leave. He was my imperfect perfection, and I did not leave him.

And if I could go back now and change that decision, I would.

He made the mistake of looking at me on that warm summer evening and promising that everything would be alright.

And I made the mistake of believing him.

--

I stared at myself in the vanity mirror as I buttoned my vest, watching as the worry and fear slowly crept its way into my tired blue eyes. It was early the next evening, perhaps quarter to five or so, and I could hear the relief staff on the first floor as they hurriedly continued the preparations for Mitch’s engagement party. They had an hour more at the very least before the guests would begin arriving, but from what Mitch had told me almost three hundred people had been invited and more than that would likely tag along just to get a glimpse of the Grassi mansion, the likes of which had gone unseen by the public for the past four years. Such a grand number made me anxious, but I knew very well that none of the guests would pay me any notice. I was but a servant - a German servant, at that - and the attention I would receive would likely be an odd glance or two at most. Mitchell, however, had every right to panic about the impending storm of people who would disrupt the quaint paradise he had built for himself. When I had seen him early that morning, he had been pacing around his bedroom and muttering to himself in broken Italian, his face drained of color and his eyes flooded with terror. I had taken him into my arms and held him a long while, singing softly in German until he finally ceased trembling and relaxed against me.

“I do not want to do this,” he’d whispered, his voice quiet as he played with the collar of my shirt. “I do not even understand why…”

“It’s alright,” I murmured, pressing my lips to his forehead and pulling him closer. “It will all be alright.”

“We were supposed to announce the engagement at the beginning of next summer. After I finished school. I do not know why my father changed it…”

“It’s alright.”

He looked up at me, worrying at his lip. “You should go, tesoro. It is not wise for us to be so close right now.” He shook his head and brushed back my hair, and I loathed how distant his touch felt - as though there was a partition between the two of us that could not be dismantled no matter how much force was applied. His beautiful eyes softened, a sickness blooming in them that spoke of many things I would never begin to understand. “I have to pretend as though you’re nothing more than my butler,” he whispered, his voice hoarse. “And that I’m nothing more than your master...”

I gave a weak smile, as though I could manage bravery when I truly felt as though I was being buried under a mound of hot coals. “I understand, sir.”

He closed his eyes. “I fucking loathe the way that sounds.”

“As long as it’s not real,” I said, “I can handle all of this as long as it’s not real…”

He said nothing and I pressed my lips to his, unsure of what more I could do to comfort him when everything we had created for ourselves was beginning to malfunction, as though we were an unwound clock ticking through our last moments of substance. His fists tightened in my shirt and I felt him push closer into me, his tongue soft against my bottom lip. I pulled away, my chest heaving as I breathed, “I should go…”

“I don’t want you to.”

I tried for another smile, aware that I was the only one of us capable of restraint at the moment. “I know. And I love you. But we just have to pretend for a little while that I don’t.”

I could see the argument forming on his lips, but he only gave a shaky sigh and forced a nod. “Alright. I...I will see you at the party, then.”

“Goodbye, beautiful.”

“Goodbye, my Scott. I…” His voice broke. “I love you...”

I shook my thoughts away, refocusing my attention on the buttons of my vest and tugging at the bowtie that was tight around my throat. I could not allow myself to become emotional when so much relied on my undeterred stoicism. I was meant to be an indifferent butler with no significant sentimental ties to the Grassi family, any of which would only serve to arouse suspicion amongst the party guests. I could not allow myself to give anything away - not if I wanted to ensure that Mitch stayed safe in a world that detested him for everything he was. It made me anxious, the fact that he and I would be forced to return to our unequal dynamic of master and servant - something that I had only just managed to escape - but I knew that he perhaps hated it more than I, and so I simply forced a smile and reminded myself that this was only for tonight. Everything that happened would be only for tonight.

I finished dressing in my waiter’s outfit - Mitch had asked for me to behave as though I was something other than his personal butler for the evening - and made my way down to the kitchen, where a dozen other servants were assisting Kevin with the preparation of the hors d'oeuvre. Avriel was sat at one of the small tables by the windows, dressed in a waiter's outfit much like my own and talking with Kirstin quietly, his head lowered and his light eyes serious. They both looked up as I approached, the severity in their faces fading away and tight, uneven smiles serving as a poor replacement. They were hiding something from me, but I had not time enough to ask what it was, as not a moment later the kitchen flooded with fifty or so of the relief staff. We were swept away into the chaos, and an hour later I found myself positioned in the front hall of the mansion with Mitch standing a few feet ahead of me as he waited to welcome his parents and the Bonanno family. I could see his fingers trembling as he held them behind his back, and though I wished to comfort him I knew that such an action was unacceptable. I was a servant and nothing more. And so I did nothing, simply standing back and watching as the boy I loved transformed into somebody I could not recognize.

The Grassis arrived first, Mr. Grassi dressed in a fine black suit and his wife a stunning vision on his arm. I’d not seen Mrs. Grassi before, but she was a sight too beautiful for words - her dark, raven hair pinned up at the sides and trickling like raindrops down along her back, and her piercing black eyes so steady I felt as though she was hearing my thoughts when she glanced over at me. A shimmering emerald dress laced across her arms and met tightly at the base of her throat, bound with what I assumed to be real jewels along the thin collar that opened and revealed the bare skin of her chest, the neckline so low it bordered on risque. The skirt slimmed at her waist before billowing out at her hips, drawing attention to her petite frame and the difference in height between her and her husband. She was much younger than I would have assumed, appearing no older than thirty, although she must have been considering that Nicodemo Grassi, Mitch’s brother, would have been around twenty-two had he been alive. I found myself staring at her for far longer than was appropriate and I quickly set my gaze back to the floor, barely managing to catch what Mr. Grassi had been saying to Mitch while I had been so distracted.

“...will arrive in a few minutes. The string band is here already, yes?”

“Yes, father,” Mitch said, his voice at a lower register than usual. “They arrived half an hour ago.”

“Good. You will wait and greet the Bonanno family and escort them to the ballroom. Guests will begin arriving in half of an hour and we will announce the engagement at eight.” Mr. Grassi took something from his jacket pocket and handed it to Mitch. “Before that time, you will offer to show Luce around the garden and there you will ask for her hand, is that understood? Her family has required for the proposal itself to be private and as natural as possible.”

I could see Mitch’s shoulders tense. “Yes, father. Does she know?”

“She may assume, but she does not know that this party is a celebration of your engagement. Her father would like it to be as seamless as we can make it.” Mr. Grassi paused, his dark eyes narrowing. “You will behave politely and you will not disrespect her. You will not allude to your perversions, Mitchell. Is that understood?”

“Yes, father,” Mitch whispered, the words very quiet. “I understand.”

“Good.” Mr. Grassi’s eyes flicked over towards me, something odd hidden within them. “The German will not accompany you to the garden with her.”

“Yes, father.”

Mr. Grassi nodded, appearing satisfied although his mouth was still puckered as though he’d just tasted something bitter. I’d never loathed somebody more in my life. “Very well,” he said, his tone snide. “Your mother and I will be in the ballroom, and Walter will escort the first guests when they arrive. Come, Cornelia.” He held out his arm and Mrs. Grassi took it, her dark eyes still set on me as the two of them passed into the foyer and turned down towards the great hall. I watched as they went, part of me yearning to say something to Mitch although I was too cowardly to do so. I simply lowered my head and tucked my arms behind my back, praying that this night would soon come to an end and we could retreat back into our unknown paradise.

The Bonanno family arrived a few minutes later and Mitch escorted them to the ballroom without a single word to me, and I remained by the front hall where Walter, the servant who had taken great pleasure in referring to me as “German scum,” joined me to greet the guests. Once the first few people had arrived, it seemed as though floodgate had been torn down and with every minute that passed, twenty more people appeared at the mansion. By seven that evening the front hall and the vast ballroom were replete with the country’s wealthiest businessmen, socialites, and public figures. A stringed quartet played a variety of popular songs as I, like many of the other servants, wound through the tightly packed crowd with a tray of various delicacies. The air reeked of expensive perfume and champagne and the faces blended together as I offered up fresh lobster tails, stuffed artichoke hearts, honey-roasted figs, ricotta and garlic pineapple, caprese salad, and every other type of finger food Kevin had managed to concoct. My feet ached as the party grew and grew, more people packing the ballroom until there was hardly space to breathe, and I retreated to the outskirts as the band played the opening chords of a waltz and the floor cleared for those brave enough - or perhaps, drunk enough - to dance.

I caught sight of Mitch sometime around half eight, coming into the ballroom with Luce on his arm. My stomach churned at the smile on her face and the undeniable misery on his, and from the way she held her left hand against her chest as she walked, I knew that he had done as his father instructed and proposed. I clutched my tray against my side and looked away, something in my heart aching as though it did not work properly. I paid it no mind and made my way through the crowded room and out into the hall, my eyes stinging as I went, sternly whispering to myself that everything would be alright, and that it was foolish to be so upset over something that I had known was going to happen from the moment I had met Mitchell Grassi. I had just passed the hall that led to the kitchen when I felt two hands grab onto my arm and yank me into side room, pulling the door shut behind us and locking it swiftly.

I looked up, my lips trembling and my weak heart quickening with confusion, although I relaxed the moment I saw Avriel standing in front of me.

“Scott,” he whispered, the word speaking volumes that could not safely breach the air. I shook my head and he rested his hand on my face, searching my eyes helplessly for a moment before giving up and pulling me into a hug. I collapsed against him, my composure shattering to pieces as I began to finally realize that the boy I loved was now somebody else’s.

“He proposed,” I choked, holding onto him as tightly as I could and loathing the hot tears that had begun streaming down my face. Avriel nodded and tugged me closer, and I buried my face into his neck as I crumbled.

“I’m sorry, sweet boy…”

“I - I knew it would happen, but I thought…”

“I know.”

“I love him so much…”

“And he still loves you. That has not changed.”

“But -”

“Scott,” Avriel murmured, pulling away and wiping at my cheeks. “Kochanie, I understand this is unbelievably difficult, but you cannot do this right now…”

“Avriel…”

“I know, honey,” he said gently, shaking his head. “But you must be strong. If anybody sees you like this, it will cause suspicion and it will put him in danger -”

“He’s getting married.”

“Yes, but he is still in love with you. He will always be in love with you, and - and the two of you will find some way through this, I can promise you that. But for now you need to behave as though you are nothing more than his servant, because I can guarantee that he is far more miserable than you are right now but that does not mean he isn’t pushing forward.”

His words stung but I forced a nod, wiping at my face roughly. “Of course. I’m sorry.”

He brushed my hair back and pressed a warm kiss to my lips, whispering, “Count to at least thirty after I go, alright? You’ll be okay, beautiful boy. He loves you.”

I gave another nod and he left me, slipping out of the door and back into the hall. I counted to sixty before following him, clutching my tray to my stomach as the surrounding crowd of people who hated everything different from them consumed me once more. I forced myself to act out the motions despite the crimson blood on my chest that had leaked from my cracked heart, wondering how I ever could have believed that this would end well. He was going to marry her. He was going to marry her, and there was nothing I could do.

I felt his voice quiet in my mind, his thrown away words so hopeful and yet so resigned.

I dreamt of you last night. You and me and the riverside.

Dreamt we stayed there forever.

Dreamt we fell in love…

I returned to the ballroom in a haze, watching numbly as beautiful men and women stood in the same place Mitch and I had danced just days before, his words still burning in my mind. Dreamt we fell in love…

Part of his dream had come true.

We’d fallen in love.

And now this had happened.

“Attention,” a voice called from the far end of the room, breaking me from my misery. The band slowed before stopping altogether, and a murmur rose through the crowd as the voice spoke again. “Excuse me, everybody, if I could have your attention, please.”

The whispers increased as everybody turned to the source of the voice, and I looked up to see Mitch, Luce, and their families gathered in the center of the room. The crowd quieted finally and Mr. Grassi took a step forward, a smile on his face that only served to make my stomach churn.

“Good evening, everybody,” he said, holding up his wine glass in acknowledgement. “I hope you are all enjoying yourselves. It was my pleasure to invite you to my home, which many of you have not had the chance of viewing until now, and I hope you find yourselves welcome in every sense of the word.” He gave another smile, appraising the crowd as though they were there to submit to his regality. “But this is more than a party, my friends. It is a celebration. A celebration of love, and of partnership, and of continuous friendship.” He stepped back, resting his hand on Mitch’s shoulder. “My son. My heir. Many of you have seen him grow into the man he is today, and it is with a proud heart that I say to you now that he will serve to continue the Grassi legacy in more ways than one.”

The crowd began to titter again and Mr. Bonanno stepped forward, his hand wrapped in Luce’s and his shiny, red face a perfect image of forced happiness. I wondered how they could stand this. How they could live their lives based on fake emotions, never once allowing for sincerity because sincerity would not bring them fortune.

“There is nothing more in this world that I love more than my daughter,” Mr. Bonanno said, his voice unpleasantly raspy. “And there is nobody in this world that I admire more than my good friend Michael Grassi. And so it is with full hearts that we say to you today that our families will surpass mere friendship. We will bond through the holiest of unions.”

Mitch moved towards Luce, a smile on his face that looked far too convincing to reassure me. He took her hands in his and leaned forward, pressing a kiss to her cheek before turning back to the crowd. When he spoke his voice was clear and strong, as though his world was not crumbling around him in the same way that mine was.

“Earlier this evening I asked my dearest Luce if she would do me the honor of making me the happiest man on this planet.” He paused, glancing over at her with another smile, his beautiful dimples flashing like knives to my gut. “I asked for her hand in marriage.”

Luce brushed his hair back and looked over the crowd, her dark eyes finding me as though she sensed every ounce of hatred I felt for her. She smiled and the air was sucked from my lungs.

“And I said yes.”

--

Warm blood trickled over my fingers as I stared numbly down at the blackened, dirty thing that rested on the ground beside me, the deep hollow in my chest aching as though it had been branded with a cattle prod. I wiped my hands on the front of my shirt, nudging the great abhorrence with the toe of my shoe and watching as it trembled helplessly - shuddering and stuttering and burning as succumbed to illness. Tears stung in my eyes and I looked away, the sight too much to stomach.

I could still hear it, though, ticking like the hands of clock as it foolishly kept on. I buried my face in my hands, praying that it would stop - angered that it would not simply stop. It could not go on, and I knew this, and yet here it was. Fighting for a life that would be meaningless even if it managed survival. It sickened me to think of, and my lips moved in a silent plea to God.

End it.

Stop its suffering.

Tell it to stop fighting so hard.

But God did not hear me, or perhaps He did not care for what I had to say. It kept on - ticking and shaking and beating in helpless lurches of substance, until it stuttered and calmed from too much exertion. I opened my eyes and looked down upon it once more, the hole in my chest a horrid reminder of all I had once had and all I would never have again.

And so I watched, exhausted and distraught, as my heart died in front of me.

--

I stepped into the hall that connected to the foyer, walking with slow steps and keeping my eyes away from the dozens of Grassi portraits that glared down at me. My hands were trembling beneath the white gloves I wore, and my lips moved in what I thought might have been a prayer, although I could not be certain. My face felt too hot and my toes too cold, as though the equilibrium of my entire being had been disrupted and destroyed with the completely foreseen events of the evening.

I paused halfway down the hall, resting against the wall and closing my eyes as nausea grabbed ahold of me. The visions in my mind were vast, multicolored images of pure disgust. The hundreds of surprised, joyful faces as Mitch and Luce had announced their engagement, the cheers as they began the first dance of their imminent union, the way Mitch had kept his eyes set on her face as he led her in a beautiful dance that never would have been possible if it had been the two of us instead. Stark white unworthiness had burned my fingertips as I’d watched them with glassy eyes, and had I been a smarter man I would have left the mansion at that very moment.

I could not have him because I did not deserve him. That was the conclusion I kept coming to, no matter how persistently I sought a different answer. I was poor as a street rat, educated as a child - I could hardly write anything more than my name. I was too tall and too gangly, a boy when I should have been a man, and I was German at that. I was insecure and inept and I hardly believed a good world about myself. And I was a failure. I had failed my father, my mother, my sister, and now I had failed Mitchell. Failed to love him enough to change fate. Failed to take him away from this horrible future he’d been prescribed. Failed to protect him. I could not have him because I did not deserve him. I did not deserve his love, or his heart, or his trust, or anything he had given me.

He was the richest man in the country.

And I was nothing more than German scum.

“Pardon me,” a soft voice said, dragging me back to the reality that I had grown to loathe. A beautiful girl about my age stood before me, her wide, doe-like eyes kind as she gave a small, worried smile. “Are you alright, sir?”

I felt my stomach turn as recognition struck, whispering stupidly, “You’re Luce Bonanno.”

She tilted her head to the side, her light brow furrowing. “I am...” She tucked a loose strand of her long blonde hair back under the band that sat at the crown of her head, her hands coming to rest at her waist. I pressed myself further back against the wall, struck by her beauty that meant absolutely nothing to me. Her dress was the color of cream, just a shade darker than her skin, and it had flowers embroidered along the lace of the sleeves, a perfect match for the white lilies pinned in her hair. She smiled again and I felt ashamed at how ardently I loathed her.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, shaking my head and forcing myself to stand straighter, my heart hammering angrily. “I am being rude. My apologies, miss.”

“That’s alright,” she said, “I was only worried when I came upon you. You looked quite faint.” Her brow furrowed again, concern etching along her soft features. “Are you alright, sir? Shall I get somebody?”

I shook my head, my face flushing. “I’m - I’m fine, thank you, miss. I only needed a moment.”

Her pink lips curled into another smile and I wished more than anything that she could have been cruel and horrible and not the sweet girl she was revealing herself to be. “Alright, then,” she said, lowering her head and curtsying gracefully. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. You may call me Luce if you wish, ‘miss’ gets to be a bit irritating after a while. What was your name?”

I clenched my jaw. “Scott.”

“Scott,” she repeated, her soft brown eyes all too much like Mitch’s. I looked away. “What a lovely name. I take it you are Scottish?”

I hesitated. “German, actually. My family is German.”

She raised her eyebrows, appearing genuinely surprised. “German? That’s interesting. Scott the German.” She laughed, the sound like birdsong. “Well, Scott, you are one of the Grassi servants, are you not?” I nodded and she smiled again. “Excellent. Perchance, would you mind terribly showing me where the washroom is? No matter how often I visit the Grassis, I can never seem to remember where it is.”

I paused, wondering briefly if this was the beginning to some horrible joke. Her eyes were sincere, though, and after a moment I only nodded. “Of course. Come with me, it is this way.”

I led her to the washroom and she slipped inside with another kind smile. I attempted to make sense of this current situation as I waited for her by the door, unsure of how to handle this unfathomable girl who I hated for no reason other than I wished to be in her place. She was far sweeter than I had been expecting and yet that did not stop envy from coiling in my stomach like a snake perched for attack. She was beautiful, and kind, and wealthy, and she was marrying the boy I loved, and no matter how sweet she made herself seem, there was no getting past that fact.

The door to the washroom opened a moment later and she reappeared, her hands raised to fix her hair when a faint glimmer caught my eye. I felt my face grow warm as I managed to glance for the first time at the ring that sat delicately on her left hand. It looked to be made of pure gold and was encrusted with blue diamonds, the largest of which sat in the center of the band. It was a beautiful ring for a beautiful bride and I could not have hated it more.

“Scott?” Her voice was gentle and I looked back up at her face, forcing a smile.

“My apologies. I was only…” I gestured to the ring and she looked down, holding out her hand to study it. “It’s lovely.”

“Thank you,” she said quietly, shaking her head and looking back up at me. “It is still so strange to see it there. I was not...I was not expecting it to happen tonight.”

I felt my stomach churn again. “Congratulations on your engagement. I should have said it before, but congratulations. It must be exciting.”

She pulled her shoulders back, an insecurity looming behind her eyes that I could not determine. “Yes. It’s very exciting.” She smiled weakly. “Mitchell will be a good husband. I’ve known him for years and he’s a gentle soul. I am lucky to be betrothed to somebody so kind.” She hesitated, looking back down at her hand. “It is all just a bit... sooner than I’d thought it would be.”

“Yes,” I said softly, “He mentioned it was sooner than he’d expected as well.”

She looked up at me, her dark eyes suddenly interested. “Are the two of you close, then?”

My heart quickened. “We are friends.”

“Friends,” she whispered, laughing softly. “I have heard many rumors about Mitchell and his friends.”

“Yes. Well. Rumors are often conceived about those constantly in the public eye.”

“You are right.” She looked back down at the ring on her finger. “I only wonder how much is rumor and how much is truth.”

“And what of it? What would it mean to you if any of it was true?”

Another smile spread over her lips, this one far more bitter than the others. “Oh, Scott. It does not matter what I think.” She raised her eyebrows, her eyes suddenly a bit wiser than I’d noticed before. “I am only a silly girl, after all.”

I could not help my laugh. “And I am only a German.”

“Then that should tell you enough. What Mitchell does in his personal life is none of my concern.”

“You are going to be his wife.”

“Yes. And I will be a good wife. I will give him children, and I will love him as best I can, and I will support him.” She looked down at her ring, slipping it off of her finger and holding it out to me. “And I will do whatever I can to ensure that he is happy.”

I stared down at the ring that sat in the palm of her hand, reaching forward hesitantly to take it from her.

“An heirloom, he told me,” she whispered. “For the Grassi heir to give to his beloved when the time was right. I think we both know that it was never really meant for me.”

I looked up at her quickly, my fingers tightening. “I don’t -”

“I will be his wife, Scott,” she said quietly, her voice stern. “And I will do whatever I can to ensure that he is happy.”

“You hardly know me.”

“And you hardly know me.” She reached forward, taking the ring from me and putting it back on. “But I have known Mitchell from the time we were children. He is a kind boy. And he is not subtle.” She raised her chin. “He will never love me. But that does not mean that he will never love.”

I studied her a long while, finally whispering, “Why are you doing this? How could it possibly benefit you?”

Her dark eyes regarded me steadily. “Sometimes people do things without hope of anything in return. This does not benefit me, but it does not harm me, either.” She smoothed down her dress and gave another smile. “I am going to marry him, Scott. I would rather he not be miserable in his life with me.”

“And so - what? You will simply turn a blind eye?”

“It has been working for the past seventeen years of my life. A woman’s greatest advantage is the fact that everybody expects you to stay silent. Nobody will think you are hiding something if you’re not expected to speak to begin with.” She held out her arm. “Shall we? I think it’s past time we return to the party, Mr. Scott.”

I stared at her a long while, mistrustful and yet completely captivated by the words of a siren that had come from her lips. I finally stepped forward and linked my arm in hers, giving her a smile that I desperately hoped I would not come to regret.

“Of course, Miss Luce. To the party.”

--

I carefully ascended the stairs with the tea tray balanced against my hip, the faint sound of voices barely audible from the first floor of the Grassi mansion. It was close to two in the morning and all of the party guests had finally left except for the Bonanno family and a few of Mr. Grassi’s other business partners and their wives, and while I knew it was likely unwise to visit Mitch while there were still people here, I could not help myself as I made my way up to his bedroom. My conversation with Luce had been playing in my mind over and over for the past four hours and I knew that I would not be able to sleep until I told my boy everything that had happened. I, myself, still could not quite process what had happened, and I only hoped that he would be able to shed some much-needed light onto our current situation.

I knocked three times at his door and waited a few moments for a response, frowning when there was nothing. I glanced around the corridor - thankful that there were no other bedrooms located in the same hall as his - before pushing my way into his room and closing the door behind me, clicking the lock to be safe.

I paused when I saw him seated at his desk with his head in his hands, all thoughts of Luce leaving my mind. He turned towards me as I closed the distance between us, setting the tea tray on the top of his dresser and kneeling in front of his chair.

“My love,” I whispered, resting my hands on his thighs and waiting until his tired eyes met mine, his lips curling into a weak smile. I pressed a kiss to his knee and his fingers tangled in my hair, his touch far more hesitant than I’d experienced before. “It is over. Almost all of them are gone. You are free.”

He bit his lip, a tear rolling down the slope of his nose. “I am engaged, tesoro…” He shook his head, his face crumbling. “That is the opposite of free. I - I do not want to marry her…”

I leaned forward, cupping his face between my hands and kissing him. “It will all be alright.”

He shook his head again. “You...you should not be here. It is not safe.”

“I wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“Yes, but now I do not want you to leave again and you must leave again...”

“Hey,” I murmured, kissing him again. “It’s alright, my love. Breathe. The door is locked and nobody will be suspicious. I am your butler, it’s not odd to see me in the same room as you.”

He closed his eyes, his head resting against mine. “I love you…”

“I love you, too.” I ran my fingers through his hair, pulling him into my arms. “Why don’t you go to sleep, sweet boy? I will sing to you if you wish.”

He looked up at me lazily, worrying at his lip for a long while before pulling away from me and walking over to his vanity. I watched him, confused but patient, and he returned a moment later with a familiar glass bottle between his fingers. He trailed his fingers over my cheek before helping me to stand, his dark eyes needy as he whispered, “I want you to fuck me.”

My heart jumped and I took a step back. “That is not wise, my love.”

“I do not care.”

“Mitchy…”

“Please,” he whispered, stepping towards me, his voice a whine. “I cannot stop feeling her fingers on me...as though I am hers…” He shook his head, moving a bit closer. “I am not hers. I am yours. Make me yours, tesoro. Fuck me, bite me, take me, mark me, have me in every way you want, because I belong to you and nobody else and I never want to forget that.”

I felt heat coil in my stomach and I forced myself to take another step back as I recalled what he’d told me about intensity during sex. “It’s not safe…”

“I can be quiet.”

I hesitated. “Mitchy…”

“Please,” he said again softly, his dark eyes hungry. “Fuck me, tesoro.”

I hesitated again but could not help myself as I wrapped my arms around his waist and pulled him closer against me, capturing his lips in mine as he moaned beautifully. I slipped my hands under his shirt, tugging it off as I pushed him towards the bed and settled between his legs, my insecure heart hammering in my chest at the feeling of him so close to me once more.

“You’re mine,” I whispered, and he whined softly, his hips pushing up against my thigh. “You belong to me.”

“Yes...f-fuck... yes…”

“You’re mine forever.” I bit at the skin below his jaw, making him whimper and melt beneath me. “Say it.”

“Yours... forever…”

The words made my stomach flutter and I could not help but pause and pull him into a kiss, far more in love with him than I’d ever been despite everything that had happened and everything that would come to be.

He loved me.

He loved me, and he was mine, and he’d promised to be mine forever.

Little did I know that, when I awoke the next morning, none of that would be true anymore.

Chapter Text

It was eight the next morning as I stood at the window of the Grassi family library and watched as six taxis paraded their way down the drive and away from the mansion. The Bonannos had left first, followed by the Capaldis, the Ribinskis, and three other, less important business partners that I could not bother to remember the names of. I could see the Grassis standing on the front lawn to send them off, their silhouettes like apparitions in the early morning fog that had settled over the countryside. They remained there for a long while after the cars had disappeared, and finally Mr. Grassi turned to face Mitch, resting his hand on his shoulder and saying something that made my boy’s body visibly tense. Mitch’s head nodded slowly and they turned to retreat back into the house, phantom shadows taking with them the light of all things holy.

I turned back from the window, surveying the vacant library around me as exhaustion pooled in my bones. I finally settled in one of the oversized chairs, resting a children’s book of fairytales on my lap and closing my eyes as my mind attempted to process the events of the last twenty-four hours, all of which I knew to be the paramount factors in deciding what the future would bring. I still could not understand the wonder that was Luce Bonanno. Everything she had said to me had the potential for ultimate ruin, and yet I could not help but feel as though she was as sincere as I. If she had been truthful about knowing Mitch’s preferences from the time he was a child, then at any point she could have unveiled him to the world and undeniably destroyed him. And yet she hadn’t. If her motives were truly ungodly then surely she would have done something by now, but in confronting me about what she knew, not once had she shown any sign of disgust or anger about the fact that Mitchell was a homosexual. She knew - she had known for years - and yet it did not bother her. It was likely foolish and unwise to do so, but I trusted her. I had to trust her, because the alternative open to me was less than appealing.

I had not had the chance to talk to Mitch about her the night before, and looking back upon that now I felt a stab of regret. It was imperative that he knew - it was his life at stake - and yet I had so easily forgotten everything but the taste of his skin and feeling of his mouth on mine. I should not have succumbed so easily to what he’d desired, but I supposed after the evening we’d both endured it was logical that he’d needed some form of release. Despite the danger and outright stupidity of our actions, it had felt so nice to be close with him again and I knew that, had I needed to make the choice over again, I likely would have done the same. I could not get enough of that boy, and the terror I had felt the day before at the thought of losing him had been enough to remind me of that. He was my imperfect perfection - he was mine - and I would do whatever I could to ensure that it remained that way.

I shifted in my chair as my thoughts slowly shifted into far more instinctual matters, wondering if it was safe enough yet to retreat to my boy’s bedroom for a well-needed rest. I could have always gone to my own room, but it was such a dark and lonely dungeon compared to his, and I knew that any sleep there would likely be littered with nightmares. I shifted again, finally giving in and pushing myself out of the monstrous chair and placing my book back onto one of the shelves. I wove my way through the maze of leather and paper, running my fingers over the spines as the entrance to the library came into sight. I was merely feet from the door when a thought struck me, and I hurried to one of the concave shelves that I had sought out a few days previous. I ran my thumb over the embossed lettering of L’amore di Italia , the book of Italian love poetry I had thought to read before Noel had so thoroughly dirtied my plans, hesitation settling like the soft petals of snowfall over my shoulders. I glanced around the desolate library once again, my heart beating a bit faster, before finally taking the volume off of the shelf once more and tucking it beneath my arm.

Mitch’s room was vacant when I arrived, but I paid it no mind, slipping my shoes off and tugging my shirt over my head. The half-finished portrait of me as an angel sat propped against his desk and I studied it for a moment, still astounded by Avriel’s talent. It was a truly impressive piece of art, and I could not begin to fathom how he had managed to make somebody as plain as I appear so beautiful on canvas. My skin was golden as my hair and the two wings that arched out of my back were so detailed I felt my breath hitch, partly convinced that it was a photograph rather than a painting. Avriel was an absolute master, and had I not been so completely enamored with Mitch, I knew I likely would have fallen for our dear groundskeeper instead.

I set the book of Italian poetry beside me on the bed as I burrowed beneath the duvet, nuzzling my face into Mitch’s pillow and smiling at how the soft cotton held within it his scent. The sky outside the window darkened as the clouds knitted together, and I could hear soft patters of rain against the rooftop, the sound so calming it lulled me into a cozy dreamscape. I felt my heart beat tiredly in my chest - overworked from the last few days and in need of a decent rest - and so in the bed of the boy I loved with the sound of rain a lullaby sent from the gods, I fell into a dreamless and entirely unassuming sleep.

--

I awoke some hours later to the sound of thunder so violent it shook the bed. My eyes opened hazily and I let out a groan, tugging the sheets over my head as the cold hands of consciousness shook me. I stayed there for a few minutes, praying to fall back asleep although I knew it was no use, before finally accepting my fate and pushing myself up in bed. I paused when I saw Mitch leaning against his desk and watching me with soft eyes, and I could not help the happy trill of my heart at such an effortless sight of beauty. I pulled back the duvet and patted the spot beside me on the bed, my lips curling into a sleepy smile.

“Mitchy. Come cuddle, Bärchen.”

Something settled across his face that I could not read and he looked down, whispering, “I do not think that’s a good idea, Scott.”

My smile faded a bit and I pushed myself forward, running a hand over my face as my mind pulled itself from sleep. “Oh, alright.” I squinted up at him, my brow furrowing when I noticed the redness around his eyes and nose and the way his shoulders were curled forward as though he was trying to shield himself, though from what I could not determine. He looked entirely unsettled, and a pit of anxiety blossomed in my stomach. “Are you alright, my love?”

He did not meet my eyes, rubbing at one of his arms with shaking fingers. “Please, don’t…”

“Mitchy...” My tone had settled between unease and downright fear, but I forced myself to calm as I slid off the bed and crossed the room towards him. He flinched away when I moved to touch him, and my hand froze in the air, panic erupting over my skin like fire. “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”

He clenched his jaw and crossed his arms over his chest, his lips trembling as he whispered, “You need to go.”

I felt my face grow cold, tingling as though it was being pricked with thousands of miniscule needles. I gave a laugh, the sound dying in my throat. “What? What do you mean?”

“You need to leave my property, Scott. You need to leave and…” He closed his eyes, his voice cracking. “You need to never come back.”

My heart swelled in my throat, suffocation blinding my senses. “I don’t understand.” I laughed again, the tips of my fingers shaking. I could not understand why he would not look at me. “I - is this...are you teasing me?”

Tears glinted in the corners of his eyes, but his voice was hard when he spoke again. “You need to go.”

“Mitchy -”

“You’re fired, Mr. Hoying,” he growled, his shoulders shaking as tears began to slide down his cheeks. His eyes remained set on the floor. “You - you need to leave my property n-now before I inform the police of your behavior.”

“What are you talking about?” I whispered, my voice not entirely my own. “I don’t understand...you - you love me…” My stomach turned, my tongue heavy in my mouth. “You said you love me...”

He looked up at me, his dark eyes entirely unlike the beautiful irises I had come to adore, and I found myself instantly wishing that I had never hoped to see them.

“I lied.”

The words were a blow to the gut and I staggered back, my newly repaired heart faltering like rusted gears. “What?”

“I don’t love you, Scott,” he whispered, biting his lip and finally looking away again. “I could never l-love somebody like you. I…” He shook his head and let out a horrible, strangled noise, and I could not bring myself to understand the venom that sat beneath his tongue. “I would never want to love somebody like you.”

“Mitchy -”

“Leave. Now.”

“I don’t - I don’t understand…” My hands trembled and I grabbed ahold of one of his bedposts, my muscles giving out as I nearly sank to the floor. “Did - did I upset you? I d-did not mean…”

“Go, Mr. Hoying.”

“P-Please…”

“I don’t love you and I don’t want you here anymore.” His eyes flashed and he let out another sob, hugging himself and hissing, “It never meant anything to me. I - I wanted to see how quickly I could have you fall in love with m-me...but you’ve never been anything more than a - a pathetic servant.” He closed his eyes again, his entire body shuddering. “It never meant anything to me. You never meant anything to me.”

“Please -”

“You’re NOTHING,” he snarled, grabbing my arms with both hands and shoving me towards the door. “I’m the wealthiest man in this country and you are nothing more than a poor street rat who can’t even have sex without crying like a child.” He yanked open his bedroom door and forced me out into the hall, his face crimson and covered with tears. “I don’t love you and I never will. I could never love a German.”

I felt myself sink helplessly against the wall, my stomach heaving as though I was moments away from being sick. “You promised you wouldn’t do this...you said you would never make me leave...”

He let out another sob, the sound so distraught it curdled my blood. “Go.”

“Mitchy…”

“Get off of my property, Scott,” he growled, his eyes not meeting mine as he slammed the door shut behind him and shattered my control beyond recognition. “And never come back.”

--

The next hour passed in a haze.

I vaguely remember stumbling into one of the bathrooms on the third floor and being violently ill, my stomach heaving until nothing came up but thick, sour bile. I could not breathe through the tears and yet somehow I had managed my way back down to my bedroom, packing my few belongings with trembling hands and pulling my suitcase behind me as I did what he’d ordered, too terrified of facing him again if I did not. His words rung horribly in my mind and I forced myself not to consider just how much of what he’d said had been true. I’d once told him that I often could not distinguish between my dreams and reality, because I found him in both and it was startling how similar they’d become. Perhaps now I finally could. Not even my darkest night terrors could conjure up something as abhorrent as what he’d said to me.

I pushed open the front door to the mansion, dragging my suitcase behind me on the stone walkway as small, pathetic whimpers shook my body. I stopped when I reached the front lawn, unable to keep going despite the fact that I wanted to leave and go home more than I’d ever wanted anything. That was the problem, though.

I had no home.

I could not make myself leave because I had nowhere to go. Surely Mitch had known that when he’d said what he had, but then again perhaps he did not care. He’d seemed quite determined to tell me exactly what he thought of me, there was no reason for that to end now. And so I simply dragged my pitiful self to the one place in which I knew I could hide away until these empty tears ceased to color my face.

The towering hedges that enclosed the garden were untrimmed and shaped vaguely like daggers, an entirely unwelcoming sight as I forced myself into what I had once believed to be paradise. The sky above me looked to be at war with itself - partly hidden with clouds and partly stained with the deep reds and golds and purples that leaked from the sun. It was beautiful and horrible to witness, and it reminded me all too much of my current miserable state. I returned my gaze to the ground and passed through the thick brush of the hedges, my composure crumbling with each step until I could hardly stand with the sobs that wracked over me.

It was the sound of hushed laughter that caught my attention as I sagged helplessly against one of the burgundy bushes. I looked up, moving unsteadily towards the back of the garden and freezing at the bizarre sight that greeted me. I wiped at my eyes, convinced my tears had altered the reality I now saw, but it was still the same when I looked again, and I could not help the defeated laugh that cracked in my throat at the realization that I truly knew nothing about anybody who resided in this fucking house.

Kevin was sat in the small bench that was settled within the tall patches of sunflowers, Avriel straddling his lap with his arms wrapped around the chef’s neck. They seemed to be quite enthralled with each other - Kevin’s fingers tangling in Avi’s hair as the groundskeeper pressed kisses down his jaw and along his throat. Had I not been so utterly distraught I would have been surprised to see them together, but now all I could manage was a weak, pathetic noise that sat somewhere between a chuckle and a sob. It was enough to catch their attention, though, and Avriel looked up with hazy emerald eyes, his lips curling into a bashful smile the moment he realized it was me. Kevin seemed far less calm, his eyes widening and his hands dropping from where they’d been tucked into Avriel’s trousers.

“City boy,” the groundskeeper called, his fingers curling under Kevin’s jaw gently as though to comfort him. “Well. Hello.”

I said nothing, my legs still trembling and my throat tightening as unimagined words threatened to spill out over my lips. Avriel’s grin faded and he pulled himself off of Kevin’s lap, buttoning his shirt as concern etched its way along his features.

“Scott? Are you alright?”

I opened my mouth to speak but all that came out was a horrible, pathetic sob. Avriel’s eyes flashed with worry and he made his way to me, his hand hovering above my arm as though afraid I would shatter at the slightest touch. I let out another sob and suddenly my legs gave out beneath me as I crumbled completely, sinking to the ground as my heart gave up and unending darkness called to me.

“Shit,” I heard Avriel mutter, his hands securing under my arms as he tried to hold me up. A moment later there was another set of hands supporting me, and I felt somebody pull my body back against their chest, cradling me closer so that I did not have to hold my weight as I stood. Warm fingers rested under my chin and I blinked slowly, Avriel’s face coming into view as blood trickled down from the hole in my chest.

“Scott?” Kevin’s voice was strong and clear, and I rested back against his chest as he held me, small whimpers breaking free from my lips. “Alright, city boy, you’re alright…”

“Hey, honey,” Avriel whispered, brushing my hair back and wiping away the tears that had started to dribble over my face once more. “It’s alright, kochanie, we’ve got you...it’s alright, sweet boy…”

I bit my lip, squeezing my eyes shut and shaking my head. “H-He…”

“It’s alright,” Avriel said again, and I wished more than anything that his words were true. “Just tell us what’s happened, alright, sweetheart?”

“He…” I choked out another sob, my head falling back against Kevin’s shoulder. “I don’t…”

Avriel nodded, his fingers soft against my cheek. “It’s alright. Start from the beginning, yeah? Who are you talking about? Mitch? Mr. Grassi? Somebody else?”

“He…” I shook my head again, the words burning my throat. “He fired me…”

I saw confusion flash across Avriel’s face, and his eyes flicked from me to Kevin, his voice soft as he whispered, “Mr. Grassi fired you?”

“No,” I said, wiping at my eyes as my stomach lurched. “M-Mitch... Mitch fired me…”

Avriel’s brow furrowed and he took a step back, his eyes wary as though I was lying. “Mitch...he fired you? I do not understand…”

“He s-said…” I shuddered, my eyelashes sticking together as a new wave of tears struck me through the stomach. “He said he doesn’t love me - th-that he’s never loved me…”

The confusion on Avriel’s face deepened. “Wait, Mitch said this?”

“He said he could never love a…” My jaw clenched, and I sank back against Kevin. “He said he could never love a German ...he told me to l-leave and never come back…”

“Did…” Avriel hesitated. “Did you do anything?”

“N-No…” I whispered, pressing my fingers against my chest as though it was possible to stem the flow of blood from a fractured heart. “I saw him last night...w-we made love…” I choked out another sob. “He said he loved me…”

Avriel stared at me a long while, his face frozen as though time had forgotten to keep running, before he suddenly moved forward in a haze, his eyes set with determination and an anger that I had never seen before and wished to never see again.

“Kevin, take Scott to the kitchen and get him something to eat, yeah? Fetch Kirstin and Esther, wherever they are, and do not allow any of the Grassis in.” His eyes flicked back to me and his face softened considerably when he noticed the suitcase sitting against my leg. “City boy, did...did you pack?”

I bit my lip, whispering meekly, “He...he told me to l-leave. I did not want to upset him…I never wanted to upset him...I don’t know what I did...”

Avriel sighed, brushing my hair back and pressing a warm kiss to my forehead. “It’s alright, honey, you’re going to be alright. Take him to the kitchen, alright, Kev? I’ll be down as soon as I can.”

“Of course,” Kevin said, wrapping his arm around my shoulder and picking up my suitcase with his other hand. I shivered and leaned against him for support, my legs still trembling under my weight. “Where are you going?”

“To talk to Mitch,” Avriel said, his jade eyes sharp. “And to ask him what the fuck he’s done.”

--

I sat on a stool at the kitchen counter, staring numbly down at a bowl of onion soup that had never looked less appetizing. Kevin was working in a frenzy; whipping chocolate mousse while a batch of shortbread cookies baked in one of the large ovens, cooking some sort of cinnamon rice milk on the stove, and peeling apricots as he started on a crumble. I’d told him that I wasn’t particularly hungry, but he’d promised that food was the best form of comfort when one’s heart was strained, and I was too utterly distraught to disagree with him. I had no energy left and arguing with the smartest man I’d ever met seemed like a stupid idea even to me.

Esther and Kirstin sat beside me, the blonde’s hand resting warmly on my back and her voice soft as she told me about her life in the city before she’d come here. It was a nice distraction, although I could hardly process her words, my mind too full of Mitch and everything that this horrid day had so far given to me. I kept my eyes fixed on the soup in front of me, stirring it with my spoon and awaiting the moment that I would awake from this nightmare I had fallen into and Mitch would give me a dimpled smile and whisper, “I love you, mio tesoro…”

It was getting more and more difficult to fathom the idea that that would never happen again.

Avriel returned to the kitchen after what felt like hours of waiting, his lips pursed together and his eyes undeniably sorrowful when he glanced over at me. Without even a word on his part, I knew he’d been unsuccessful in figuring out what had happened. I looked back down at my soup, my lips trembling as foolish tears dribbled down over my nose once again.

“I’m so sorry, kochanie,” Avriel murmured, sitting beside me and folding his hands on the table. His voice was horribly shaken, and he looked confused and angered and so very hurt. “He refused to talk to me. He...he’s never refused to talk to me before. I don’t understand what the hell has gotten into him, but I…” He sighed, shaking his head. “I do not know.”

“He said that he was the richest man in the country,” I whispered hoarsely. “And that I was n-nothing…”

“This isn’t him. He - he’s never been like this before. He’s never said such vile things…” Avriel let out a broken laugh. “He threatened to fire me if I kept asking what happened.”

I looked up at him, my stomach churning. “What did you do?”

“I told him to take his threat and shove it up his ass.”

I could not help my smile, setting my eyes back on the counter. “What did he do?”

“He apologized after that. But he still wouldn’t tell me anything.” Avriel paused, running his fingers through his messy curls. “He looked afraid, though. Desperate.”

I nodded, my smile fading. “He was crying when he told me to leave. He could barely stand.”

“Yes, well that’s to be expected considering everything he told you was a lie.” Avriel looked over at me, his eyebrows raised. “He does love you, Scott. Whatever he told you about pretending...that could not be further from the truth. I know it must be difficult to believe, considering everything that’s happened today, but I know Mitchell Grassi and I know that this, whatever it was, was not something he wanted to do.”

“Like a caged animal,” I whispered, “Backed into a corner with no other options.” I shook my head, my voice cracking. “But I still do not understand why…”

“I know, honey. And I’m so sorry.”

I swallowed, my hands trembling as I set them on the counter and pushed my stool back. “I should go, then, I suppose. If there’s nothing else to do...”

Avriel’s brow furrowed. “What?”

“He fired me.” My throat tightened. “I cannot stay…”

“You cannot leave, though.”

“Avriel…” I bit my lip, looking down. “He does not want me anymore.”

“Scott -”

“I do not work here anymore. He fired me. He told me to leave and to never come back. I have no room anymore, no right to stay here if I am no longer an employee…”

“Scott, you were never just an employee to him -”

“Well now I am nothing to him.”

There was an awful silence and Avriel stood, staring up at me for a long while until I could no longer bear to hold his gaze. He rested his hand on my face, his fingers soft as they caught the tears that slid over my cheeks, and I bit my lip as my shoulders began trembling.

“He does not want me,” I whispered. “And I cannot stay.”

“Please,” Avriel said softly, his voice catching. “You cannot leave, Scott. I don’t know what is happening, but leaving now will only cause all that much more confusion. He loves you. God, he loves you so much more than I’ve ever seen him love anybody, and I’m so sorry for everything he’s done. But do not leave, city boy... please…”

“I have nowhere to stay -”

“You can stay with me. I don’t reckon he’ll be clearing out your room at any point in the near future, but if it makes you feel safer then you are completely welcome to stay with me.” Avriel shook his head, his green eyes desperate. “Please, Scott. Stay.”

I looked up at him, my heart breaking and my resilience as faulty as it had ever been. “Alright,” I managed, forcing a smile as more tears stung at my eyes. “But I am not going to have sex with you if we share a bed.”

Avriel gave a surprised laugh but nodded, pulling me into a relieved hug. “Of course, sweet boy. I promised I would have you in my bed at some point, but if that is in only the most literal sense then I will be happy.” His arms tightened around me and I buried my face in his neck, holding onto him as though the world would cease to spin at any moment. “Everything will be alright, kochanie,” he whispered, his voice very quiet. “I promise you that everything... everything will be alright…”

--

Everything was not alright.

I raised my face to the night sky, tucking my hands in my pockets as I crossed through the path that led from the stables back to the mansion. It had been almost a week since Mitch had declared his evident hatred for me, and I had spent the majority of my time holed up in Avriel’s bedroom, reading books he had gathered for me from the library. From what the groundskeeper had said, Mitch had been furious to learn that I was still here, though he had yet to do anything about it. Avriel had assured me that I was safe and that I could stay for as long as I wished, but even I was not stupid enough to believe him. I had sent a telegram early that evening to the Kellers, the distant relatives of mine with whom my sister Laura had been staying, relaying the possibility of my return to the Lower East Side within the next few days. It had left a bitter taste in my mouth, but I attempted to remained optimistic. I had enough money now to support both Laura and I for a few weeks at least, enough time for me to secure a new job in the city. It was not an ideal situation in the slightest, but it was past time that I stopped living in this fantasy world into which I had so foolishly fallen.

A loud noise broke me out of my thoughts and I looked up, the darkness of the night making it near impossible to see more than three feet ahead of me. Somewhere in the distance an owl hooted and I tucked my sweater tighter around myself, hurrying down the path towards the mansion and cursing myself for taking a walk alone so late at night.

Another noise cracked like a gunshot to the sky and I paused, my heart beating a bit faster as my overexcitable mind began spinning fanciful and horrid tales of what it could be. I could see the lights of the mansion a few hundred feet ahead and I quickened my pace again, shuddering as another noise shot through the air.

I was perhaps only twenty yards from the Grassi mansion, coming round the hedges that led to the garden when something snagged at my arm, a hand clamping tightly over my mouth as somebody pulled me back into their chest. I felt my muscles freeze before adrenaline shot through me and I tried to push away, though whoever it was only held onto me tighter and gave a quiet, hoarse chuckle.

“Not quite, sweetheart,” a voice growled, and a moment later another man came into sight, grabbing me with both hands as the two of them dragged me back towards the hedges where the mansion was no longer visible, their fingers digging into my skin as I pushed helplessly against them and my lungs burning in my chest with the weight of my muted screams.

The second man gripped his hand in my hair and gave me a long look, his face hidden in the darkness although I could see the gleam of his eyes. “So the pretty German boy cannot follow instructions, can he?” He laughed, holding my chin tightly as the first man pulled me closer to his chest. “Such a shame, Boche. It could have been so much easier.”

The man holding me chuckled, his breath hot against my ear. “But German scum never learn, do they?”

“Never,” the second man said, his voice almost thoughtful. A second later there was a loud crack and pain bloomed in my jaw, my eyes squeezing shut as another scream was torn from my throat. The man pulled me closer by my hair, whispering, “We have to teach them.”

My chest heaved as I tried to breathe, biting down hard on the first man’s hand as his partner struck me again three more times - rough, painful punches that made my head grow dizzy and blood clog my nose. I coughed, struggling against them and wincing when the man holding me shoved me to the ground, his foot coming to land hard against my stomach.

“See what happens when you disobey, Boche?” One of the men growled, slamming his fist against the side of my head. “When you don’t leave?”

My vision swam and I gave a weak whimper, covering my face with my hands as another blow was struck sharply against my ribs.

“Didn’t you hear him, you filthy Fritz?” Another blow to my side. “Mitch doesn’t want you here anymore.”

“You’re nothing more than a piece of horseshit.”

“You’re nothing.”

“You are worthless.”

There was another laugh and then it felt as though fire was eating away at the side of my head and my vision went black, blood trickling down my face as I slipped away, those same words whispering over and over in my mind.

Mitch doesn’t want you here anymore.

Chapter Text

“I’m going to kill whoever did this to him.”

The voice was quiet - too quiet, as though there were small bits of glass blocking my ears, and with every slight sound they dug into my skin and my hearing faltered even more. I tried to open my eyes but they felt sewn shut with blood. I did not know whose blood it was. It might have been mine. I did not want it to be mine.

The voice spoke again, the vowels elongated and the consonants so sharp they made me flinch. I knew the words that were said - I had heard them many times before - but I could not remember what they meant. My throat ached and my muscles trembled tiredly when I thought about moving. I did not know if I was sleeping, awake, or something else. The lucidity I had once felt so pertinent in my bones was absent, and the only thing I could understand was the dull, small flames that sat just beneath my skin. I tried to open my eyes again, but the voice made me stop.

“Where did you find him?”

A laugh, or what I thought to be a laugh. I could not remember what it felt like to laugh.

“He was behind the garden. Giacomo found him.”

“Giacomo?”

“Yes.”

“I didn’t think he worked here anymore.”

“He returned last night.”

“Convenient.”

I felt my head grow lighter and the words drowned themselves out. I wondered what it felt like to drown. I wondered if it felt like this.

I must have fallen asleep, or perhaps I simply forgot how to be conscious. Whatever it was, the voices returned after a long time of darkness. I had never thought that sounds - or rather, lack of sounds - could hold a color, and yet the silence I had fallen into struck me a deep, warm blue. It felt soft when I reached to touch it, as though my hands were encased in silk, and I felt anxious when it went away. I liked the silence. It was safe. It did not bring with it horrible names, or cruel laughs, or the sound of crying. I did not like those things, although I could not remember why. It felt as though I should remember why. It felt important.

I wondered what it was like to be important.

I was not important. I did not know much, but I knew that. Poor street rat. German scum. Worthless. I did not know where those words came from, or why they stung the way they did, but they made me wish for the silence to come back. I could not remember what it was like to listen without fear, and that made me want to cry. I had never wanted to cry before. Or maybe I had. I could not remember.

“He’s getting warmer.”

“He’s running a fever.”

“Pneumonia?”

“Yes. He was out all night.”

“It was freezing last night.”

“Yes.”

“And raining.”

“Yes.”

“Will...will he be alright?”

I could not remember the answer that the voice gave. It felt important, though. An important answer for an unimportant boy. I was unimportant. Perhaps that was how some people died, from the knowledge that they were unimportant. If you do not matter, then why keep living? I wanted to live. It felt selfish, but I wanted to live. I wondered if God would allow me to live. I wondered if God was real. I did not know, but I hoped He was. It made me feel better to think that somebody was out there, looking after me. I wondered if angels were real. It felt like an important question. It felt like the answer would make me important. I thought that somebody once may have called me their angel, but I could not remember. I would have liked to be an angel. Surely there could be unimportant angels. Or perhaps not. I did not know the rules anymore.

“You should sleep, mój anioł.”

This voice was different. It felt slow and deep and beautiful. It felt as though somebody’s arms were around me, holding me close, caring for me, loving me.

I wondered what it felt like to be loved.

“I won’t leave him.”

“Mitchell -”

“I won’t leave him.”

“It’s been two days, kochanie . You have not slept. I will wake you if anything happens -”

“Avriel. I - I cannot leave him. If he dies -”

“He won’t die -”

“That’s what they said about my brother, too.”

There was a break of silence but it did not stay as long as I would have wished. My eyes fluttered and I coughed, though I do not know why. It felt horrible, as though somebody was scraping a dull knife against the inside of my throat. The voices returned, much louder this time.

“Is he awake?”

“I’ll get the doctor…”

“Mio tesoro…”

I coughed again, my eyes opening although I did not want to see. I felt something soft against my hands, and a moment later the softness was on my forehead, moving through my hair and lightly down my jaw. It reminded me of when I had been a child. Perhaps I was still a child, curled up in bed in our apartment above the watchmaking shop. The softness trailed over my forehead again and I felt my heart grow warm, its familiarity something I had not felt for such a long time. I did not know if I was crying, but I could feel something leaking out of my eyes and my lips tasted of salt. I coughed again.

“Mutti,” I whispered, the word so bitter against my tongue although I did not know why. “Mama…”

“Oh, tesoro…”

“Mama,” I said again, my throat closing. I did not know where she was, or why her voice sounded so different. I felt my head grow lighter, my breath quickening with tears. “Mutti, Ich fühle mich nicht gut…” Mama, I do not feel well…

“My Scott…”

I felt my lips trembling, the flames under my skin growing stronger and stronger until it hurt to think. I did not know why she sounded so different. I did not want her to sound so different. I choked out a sob, a scream tearing through me although I could not understand why. All I could understand was pain.

Ich will nach H-Hause gehen…” I want to go home. I sobbed again, thrashing forward as the softness against my forehead faded away. “ B-Bitte…” Please… “Mutti, Ich will n-nach Hause gehen…” Mama, I want to go home...

“Oh, my sweet boy -”

“Mutti...bitte, es tut so weh…” Mama...please, it hurts so much…

“Shh…” The softness returned to my forehead, and I trembled as I sank back against the bed, my head swimming and swimming until I would rather drown. “Mio tesoro ...it’s alright, my sweet love...it will all be alright...I promise you will be alright. Sleep, my beautiful boy…”

I felt my body collapse as though it could not stand to function a moment longer. The softness trailed over my cheek and more voices came, but I could not understand what they said to me. I fell back into the darkness. It felt nice. I wished I could stay there. It was quiet and warm, and the only sound I heard were pretty words that felt as though they were important.

“Ucciderò chiunque sia stato a farti questo.”

--

I awoke to a horrible pain in my side and the feeling of cold, rough hands on my skin. I let out a strangled noise and the pain faded not a moment later, something heavy and smooth and familiar weighing down my hand. My eyes felt dry and puffy but I managed to open them, bright light pulling at my vision until it was speckled with colorful dots. An elderly man hovered above me, his spectacles sliding down his nose and a smile on his face. It was a safe smile. I wondered what it felt like to be safe.

I wished I felt safe.

“I’m sorry for waking you,” he said. He had the kind of voice that told of cigars and whiskey, but his inflection was gentle and his words sweet. He reminded me of what a grandfather might have been like, if I’d ever had one. I did not think I had, but I could not remember. I hoped I had. Everybody deserved to have a grandfather. Maybe this man was my grandfather. “I was just checking on your ribs. A few of them are broken.”

I blinked, and it felt like somebody was flicking through a row of photographs in my mind. I tried to focus on each one but some got lost along the way. My tongue felt dry. “Broken.”

“Yes,” my grandfather said. I hoped he would not mind that I called him my grandfather. I had always wanted a grandfather. I hoped he was mine. “Three of them are broken. How do they feel?”

I blinked again. “Hurt…”

“Yes, I’d imagine so. I gave you some medicine though I do not think it’s doing much. How is your head?”

It was a question but I could not remember the answer. I clenched my jaw and winced, whispering, “Full?” even though I’d already forgotten what he’d asked.

“Yes, that tends to happen. You’ll likely feel dizzy for a little while, but it’s not anything permanent. You’ve had quite a few nasty blows to the back of your head.”

I nodded, although I could not understand what he’d said. There was something warm in the back of my mind that I could not remember, but it was important. I was not important, but this was. I wished it was not so difficult to think. My fingers curled around whatever was in my hand, although I could not lift my head to see what it was. The warmth in my mind intensified a bit and my throat cracked when I spoke.

“Mama? Where..?”

The man paused, his light blue eyes troubled. He looked like me, but much older. Perhaps he was my grandfather.

“Your mother?” He repeated, his rough voice very quiet. “Why, I’m not sure where she is. I’m sorry.”

“She...here…”

“I don’t think she was here, Mr. Hoying.”

“Oh,” I whispered, closing my eyes as the warmth faded. My head felt sticky and tired. “Alright. My...hand..? Something in.”

I heard a small shuffle and the heaviness disappeared. When I looked back up at the man he was holding my pocketwatch up so I could see it. I watched with drowsy eyes as the seconds hand moved slowly around the face, before giving a slow nod and falling back into the darkness.

“It works,” I said, my mouth full of cobwebs. My chest felt hollow as though my heart was no longer there. I wondered what had happened to it. “Strange.”

“What’s strange, Mr. Hoying?”

The heaviness returned to my hand and I curled my fingers weakly around the pocketwatch, feeling the soft tick that tapped lightly against my skin.

“It never used to work before.”

--

It was a very long while before I could remember everything. Or perhaps it was a very short while. I could not tell. It seemed odd to me; I was watchmaker, and yet I could not even begin to fathom the linear voyage of time. My father would have been disappointed. He would have given me a begrudging look before taking his leather pouch with him on the way to the pub. He always seemed to go to the pub, but I did not know why. He always seemed upset with me and maybe there was somebody at the pub that would make him happy again. I did not know. I hoped so. My father was a good man, and he deserved to be happy. That is what my mother always said when I’d asked her why he went. He’s a good man, your Vater. He can do as he pleases. Now mind yourself and on with your chores. Somehow, whenever she said that to me, I never could believe her.

I knew she was dead. I had remembered one night when my fever had been at its worst, after hours and hours of begging her to come to me. It had been a quick and horrible realization.

I had been quiet after that.

The man - I had come to refer to him as Grandfather in my mind - had told me that I had been ill for six days, but that I was much better now. I felt weak and tired but I believed him. He was often the only person in the room when I woke, and part of me believed him to be a phantom presence. He was kind, but he brought with him an air of loneliness. I thought it sad. I hoped to never be as lonely as he, but I thought that perhaps I already was.

I had managed to sit up on my own and drink the broth that Kevin had brought for me on that sixth morning. My mind had been a bit muddled but it had felt nice to gather some of my strength back, and I only hoped that soon I would be allowed out of this bed. It was comfortable, surely, but my back and bottom were growing sore from such stagnant posture, and I missed walking. I missed a lot of things. I did not allow myself to think about that too much.

It was half one in the afternoon when I heard soft voices just outside of the door. I opened my eyes slowly and sat up a bit, my pocketwatch still clutched tightly in my fingers. I recognized one of the voices as Grandfather, and the other was somebody that made me sick with fear.

“He’s doing much better,” Grandfather said, his voice quiet. I liked how his s’ s sounded more like z’ s. It reminded me of how my mother spoke, and I wondered if Grandfather was German.

“And his head?”

“His memory seems to be returning, but he gets confused very easily and it’s difficult for him to talk. He was struck in the head quite a few times, Mr. Grassi, I would not be surprised if there’s permanent damage.”

“But you’re not sure?”

There was a sigh. “I’m not sure. It’s difficult to know with cases like these. He’s doing tremendously well for only a week of healing, but there is no way to be certain.”

“Has...has he asked about me?”

Grandfather sighed again. “He’s unhappy when he wakes up alone. He’s lonely and confused and it would do him well to have you around.”

“But he hasn’t asked about me?”

“No, Mitchell. He hasn’t asked about you.”

“Is he awake now?”

“He was half an hour ago. You could come in and see.”

“No. He - he won’t want to see me. I do not want to upset him. Thank you, Doctor, for all you’ve done. Thank you for taking care of him.” There was a long silence. “I do not know what I would do if I lost him…”

They kept on talking, but I found myself too tired to listen to what they had to say. I dozed for a few hours, only waking in the early evening when Avriel brought me tea. My stomach was still unsure but I managed to finish half a cup, setting it down on the bedside table and letting my eyes trail over the groundskeeper instead. He gave me one of his warm smiles, placing his cup back onto its saucer and tilting his head to the side, his jade eyes soft. It reminded me of the softness Mitch had always had whenever he looked at me, and I could only hope that Avriel would not turn out to be as disgusted with me as Mitch had been.

“I asked the doctor,” he started, his voice so low it did not hurt my head. “And he told me that if you felt up to it, you were well enough to take a bath. Interested, city boy?”

I smiled, though it made my side ache. “That would be nice,” I whispered, my voice still scratchy from such prolonged silence. “Clean...it would be nice.”

“Excellent,” Avriel said with a brilliant grin. “I’ll have one of the maids change your sheets and bring up fresh clothes while you wash.” He stood, carefully tugging back the duvet and holding out his hands. I hesitated before taking them and he helped me slowly towards the bathroom. I recognized the hall around us as I hobbled down the corridor, and my stomach churned uncomfortably as we passed by a room that I knew all too well.

“I’m in the room beside Mitch,” I whispered, unsure how to form it into a question as Avriel helped me sit against the edge of the bathtub. The short walk had winded me and I hung my head low as I regained my breath. The door clicked shut and Avriel began to run the water, wringing his hands and not meeting my eyes.

“Yes. He ordered for you to be placed there. He wanted you to be as close to him as possible.”

The words did not make sense to me and I asked him to repeat them, my tired mind confused as it so often was now. Grandfather had said that I would have trouble processing what others said, and he’d told me to be patient with myself. I did not want to be patient. I was frustrated.

“Mitch wants me to be close to him,” I said. It was a statement when I wished to make it a question, but I did not know how. I knew it had something to do with inflection, but I could not quite remember what inflection was. “He...he hates me.”

Avriel’s eyes were sad as he looked down at me, his fingers working at the buttons on my pajama shirt. “He doesn’t hate you, city boy.”

“He won’t see me.”

“He did,” Avriel murmured, tugging off my pants and folding them into a ball. He eased me into the hot water and I winced, my entire body sore but thankful for the warmth. “He refused to leave your side for the first four days. He was afraid you were going to die.”

I blinked. “Die.” The word was slippery in my mouth.

“You had quite a bad case of pneumonia.”

I nodded and rested my head back against the edge of the tub, my mind heavy. “Something happened.” Yet again another question that would not form itself. I felt a soft cloth gentle against my chest, though I still flinched back. It smelled of hard lemon soap, and my dizziness grew.

“Yes. Do you remember what happened?”

“I…” I winced as he washed along my shoulders. “Dark. It was dark. And then I blood...bled. Bled. I…” I winced again. “I cannot talk right…”

“The doctor says it is because of your head. You...you were struck quite a few times, kochanie.”

“Struck,” I repeated, my stomach lurching when he ran soft fingers over my left forearm. I opened my eyes, pulling away quickly and cradling my arm into my chest, my heart beating much faster. “That…”

“I’m sorry,” Avriel said, his eyes wide and apologetic. “I did not mean to touch it so hard…”

I looked down at the spot he’d washed, the red lines too much for my mind to read. “It says something.” I shook my head, trying to make it into a question. “What...what?”

“It’s a cut.”

“Cut.”

“Yes.”

“It...says something..? Yes. It says something.”

Avriel looked down, not meeting my eyes as he wrung the cloth out above the water. “One of your attackers. He...he carved it into your skin with a knife.”

I felt my face grow cold. “It says something.”

Avriel bit his lip, his voice shaking. “It says scum.”

“Scum,” I repeated. An odd thought came into my mind and I looked back down at my arm, wincing at the sore cuts. There was something I could not understand. Something I could not remember. “That is my name?”

Avriel looked up at me quickly, his pale face wet with tears. “No,” he choked, his hand cupping my face as he moved closer to me. “No, sweetheart, that is not your name. Your name is Scott. A beautiful name for a beautiful boy…” He shook his head, and I did not understand why he was crying, but it made me want to cry as well. “What they called you is not what you are, alright? Your name is Scott…”

I nodded, even though I did not understand most of what he’d said. I wished to ask him to repeat it, but I did not want to make him cry even more. My head hurt and I wanted to sleep again, and so I simply smiled and pretended that everything was alright even though I knew it was not.

--

It took a few more days but slowly my mind grew stronger and I regained most of what I had lost. Kevin, Avriel, Kirstin, and Esther kept me company during my last few days in bed, bringing children’s books to help with my reading and talking much slower and softer than they usually did. It made me feel like an imbecile, but I could not pretend as though it was not nice to finally understand what everybody was saying to me.

Grandfather’s visits slowed to only once a day, and I found myself missing him when he was not there. I knew I should have been happy because that meant that I was improving, but he made me feel safe and warm and it was a feeling I had not experienced for a long time. His absence made me lonely, and that was something I never wished to be.

Mitch never visited me while I was conscious, although there were a few nights where I awoke to see him sleeping in the chair beside the bed, his hand resting on the duvet only inches from mine. I never knew if this was simply my fragile mind playing tricks or if he was truly there, but every morning the chair was empty when I woke and I was left not knowing.

It occurred to me that I still did not know many things.

It was early the morning of my eighth day of healing when there was a soft knock at the door. I looked up, confused because nobody ever knocked to come in, before simply clearing my throat and calling, “It is open.” My entire body froze the moment I caught sight of who it was, my mistake making itself known immediately.

Mitch slipped into the room, a tea tray in his hands and his face so drawn with exhaustion it made my tired heart ache. Panic swelled in my gut at the sight of him, afraid that he was angry I had not left, or that he was here to once again declare how much he detested me. I expected fury and rage and undeniable cruelty, and so I was bemused when he simply looked at me with soft brown eyes and stepped forward into the room.

“Sir,” I whispered, unsure how to address him after everything that had happened. A pained look settled across his face and he closed the door, setting the tea tray on the bedside table.

“Please do not call me sir, tesoro,” he said, his voice hoarse. His hands were trembling as he poured a cup of tea and he did not meet my eyes. “Avriel told me you were doing better.”

I hesitated, wondering why he was acting as though everything between us was as it had once been. “Yes. I am alright.”

“I’m sorry for not being here the past few days. I…” He bit his lip. “There were some things I needed to take care of.”

I nodded but did not say anything, his words too vague to process in my mind. He handed me one of the mugs and I took a small sip, unhappy with the silence that had settled over us. I had grown to love silence, but not like this. Not when there were so many important things that needed to be said.

“Doctor Kiefer thinks that your head will make a full recovery,” he said after a long while. It made me anxious that he still did not look at me. “There was originally some potential long-term damage, but he’s told me that at the rate you’re healing, you should be better within a few weeks.” He paused, his voice much softer. “Your beautiful mind will be alright...”

“They kicked me,” I said quietly, unsure of what else to say. I remembered now, what had happened, and though there was no malice in my voice when I spoke, the words still tasted bitter on my lips. Mitch’s shoulders tensed and he took another sip of tea. “At first it was only punches, but then they threw me to the ground and started to kick me.” I looked down at my hands, tightening my fingers around the pocketwatch that still ticked lightly against my skin. “They said that I should have left when you told me to. That you did not want me here. Did you…” I did not finish and his beautiful eyes finally met mine, tears rolling down his cheeks.

“I did not tell them to hurt you,” he said hoarsely. “I would never want anybody to hurt you…”

“You do not love me.”

His face crumpled and he shook his head. “Scott, there...there is so much you do not understand…”

I watched him for a long while before nodding and sipping at my tea again. “I will leave as soon as I’m able.”

“What?” He whispered, shaking his head again. “No, I...I do not want you to leave…”

“But you said,” I growled, frustrated at how none of his words made any fucking sense . “You said that you never loved me, and you - you ordered me to l-leave, and you said I was - I was nothing…”

“Scott -”

“You promised you would never lie to me. But...but you h-have. And I do not understand anything about you anymore…”

He set his tea down, his lips trembling. “It was two servants who attacked you,” he said quietly. I froze, unsure of where this was going but too confused to interrupt. “Walter and Noel. And Giacomo as well, I suppose, given the fact that he knew but did not try to stop them.” He looked up at me, wiping at his face. “For some reason they believed that I hated you, and...they decided it was a good enough excuse to attack you when you did not leave. That isn’t a lie. I know I’ve lied to you, but - this...this isn’t. I’ve been away these past few days doing everything I can to ensure that they suffer for what they’ve done to you.”

My face grew cold. “Mitch…”

“Walter and Noel are currently both in Sing Sing serving sixty years each.” He crossed his legs, resting his hands on his lap as an oddly indifferent expression settled across his face. “The state of New York believes that they are both guilty of serial murder, treason, sodomy, and attempted rape. Giacomo is serving fifty years for those same charges. I’ve made sure that a shortened sentence would not be allowed for any of them.”

My stomach turned, and for the first time in days I understood every unfeasible word that I’d heard. “You…”

“I do not handle it well when people hurt those I love.”

I watched him for a long while, tightening my fingers around my pocketwatch. “What did you do?”

A merciless gleam came into his eyes. “Money goes a long way in this country.”

“Mitch -”

“They were arrested under the false names Charles Hamilton, Giovanni Riccio, and Adam Trull. As far as everybody besides you and I is aware, Walter, Noel, and Giacomo have all resigned from the Grassi household and have accepted positions as crew aboard the Mercante Marina, a cargo ship that left two days ago for London. In a few days, the ship will encounter a terrible storm at sea and the entire crew will be presumed dead. Their families will be notified of the casualties, and Walter, Noel, and Giacomo will be forgotten.”

I swallowed thickly. “But they are actually in prison.”

“Yes. And they will likely die there sometime in the next fifty to sixty years.”

“And the ship,” I whispered. “The Mercante Marina. Is that a real ship?”

“No. But as far as the New York Maritime Company is aware, it is.” He folded his arms together. “Their lives are over.”

“Why?”

“Because they almost killed you.”

“Yes,” I said softly. “But why do you care?”

The coldness faded from his face and he leaned forward in his chair, hesitation striking when he reached to touch me. There was a moment where he simply stared at me, his wide eyes speaking volumes that I knew I would never even begin to understand, before he moved to sit on the edge of my bed and rest his fingers lightly against my cheek. My breath caught but I did not say anything, too caught up in my own mind to manage words.

“I lied,” he said after a long while, his eyelashes sticking together from the tears. He bit his lip, his thumb resting under my chin. “I’m so sorry, mio tesoro, but I...I wanted to protect you…”

I felt something unpleasant curdle in my gut. “I do not understand.”

“I lied to you,” he said again hoarsely. “When I said that you did not mean anything to me. When...when I called you those horrible, horrible names, and when I told you to leave because I did not want you…” He shook his head. “That - those were all lies. All of them. But you - you weren’t safe and I did not know what to do and...and I knew that the only way you would leave was if you believed I did not want you here anymore, and…” His voice caught. “I’m so sorry, my Scott. I’m sorry for lying to you, and I’m sorry for - for everything that has happened, and I’m so sorry for what they did to you…”

“You said you did not love me,” I whispered, and he let out a noise that sounded all too much like a sob.

“Of course I love you,” he choked, brushing his fingers through my hair. “I love you so much and I was so afraid that you would hate me…”

“You...you love me?”

He nodded, moving closer to me as his hands rested carefully on my still bruised face. “I love you. I love you more than I can fathom and I have never stopped…”

“You love me…” The words did not seem real and he leaned forward, his lips brushing gently over mine although he was crying too much for it to last more than a moment. I raised a weak hand, resting it on his neck in fear that he would leave if I did not hold him here. “You love me…”

“Yes,” he whispered, and I pulled him forward so that he was settled against my side, his head in the crook of my arm. He looked up at me, his face a mask of fragility, before burying into my shoulder and wrapping his arms around my waist. “I love you, tesoro. I love you and I am so sorry - I am so s-sorry…”

“You love me…”

“Yes. So much. Forever.”

“Is…” I could not help the insecurity that leaked into my voice. “Are...are you lying?”

“No. Never.”

“You love me.”

“I love you.”

“I…” I looked down at him, my heart still beating uneasily in my chest. “Why did you say you did not?”

His shoulders tensed and he held me closer. “You were not safe here. I...I was trying to protect you…”

“From what?”

“Please, don’t…”

I nodded, my hope fading. “Another lie.”

“No, not - please, my love, I cannot...there is still so much but I do not want to hurt you anymore than I already have…”

I did not say anything and he sat up, his hand coming to rest on my face again. His eyes were panicked and he looked close to tears once more.

“If I tell you, it - it will change everything, and I cannot...I do not want to lie, but I cannot handle you loathing me…”

“I do not think I could never loathe you.”

“This would change that.”

“Tell me.” I looked up at him, my shattered heart heavy. “Please.”

“Scott -”

“Please.”

“My love -”

Please.”

A few more tears dribbled down his cheeks but he nodded, pushing himself up with shaking hands and sitting back in his chair. I missed his warmth but I did not object, my pulse quickening with every second that passed. He looked down at his hands for a long while before finally meeting my eyes again, and when he spoke his voice was so distraught that for a moment my broken mind could not process the words. A second passed, and then another, and then what was left of my destroyed world crumbled into ruins around me as the boy I loved - the boy who loved me - whispered five words that I would never forget in our many long years to come.

“My father killed your parents.”

Chapter Text

I stared at him, waiting for the moment his beautiful eyes would light up and he would laugh and say, “I am just teasing you, mio tesoro, it is all just a joke.” It was a cruel joke, yes, but I was learning more and more that Mitchell Grassi was far more cruel than I’d initially assumed. But it would be a joke. It would just be another fucking lie that he seemed to have no issue telling me; oh, I do not love you, but it is a lie, oh, I want you to leave my property and never come back, but it is a lie, oh, my father killed your parents and destroyed your family - the only thing you’ve ever truly cared about - but do not worry, because it is just another fucking lie because that is all I do. I lie.

I waited for him to say it. Waited for that awful laugh and the amusement that would color his face. Waited for it like one waited for the sun to rise in the quiet tranquility of the morning - positive that it would come no matter the circumstance, because the sun was an inevitability and no logical force in this world could obstruct its dominance. I waited for him to take back his sadistic words and promise that everything was alright. I waited for him to say it was all a joke. I waited. I waited. I waited.

He did not say it.

And all at once I knew that Mitchell Grassi was not a cruel person.

“I am so sorry,” he whispered, his voice thick with tears. He was sat in the chair beside my bed and I could not help but feel as though it was much too close and yet not close enough. I did not speak and he shook his head, his shoulders shaking as his face crumpled. “I’m so sorry, my Scott...h-he...I’m so sorry for what he d-did…”

“I do not understand.” My voice was monotonous, as though I had no emotion left with which to pay him. “My parents died of Spanish Influenza.”

Mitch shook his head again. “They didn’t.”

“No. They - they died of Influenza. My father first and then my m-mother...it - it was Influenza…”

“If it was Influenza, you and your sister would have gotten ill as well.” His words were uneven and he wiped at his face, the tip of his nose crimson. “Living in the same house as them...you would have died…”

“But...it - it was Influenza…” My mouth opened again, my jaw trembling as my fingers tightened around my pocketwatch. It had stopped ticking. “We...n-no, it was Influenza, Mitch. It wasn’t…”

“Who told you it was Influenza?” His lips pursed as more tears rolled down his face. “A doctor?”

My teeth began to chatter and I pulled the blanket up against my stomach, whispering, “We did not have enough money for a doctor. The woman in the apartment beside us - Frau Bäcker - sh-she said it was...she said it was Influenza…” I felt the muscles in my arms lock until I could not move. “She said it was Influenza... sie sagte ...I - Grippe, sie sagte… she said it was Influenza - it was Influenza, Mitch…”

He stared at me as though I was a bird with a broken wing, kicking and flapping helplessly for a flight I would never make. “I am so sorry...the - the symptoms may have been similar, but it was not Influenza…”

I looked up at him, my stomach seizing as though I was moments away from being sick. “Why are you lying to me?”

“I’m not lying -”

“Yes, you are. Do - do you honestly loathe me that much? That you would claim that your father k-killed my…” I clenched my fingers so tightly around my pocketwatch that I worried it would crumble. It still was not ticking. It was broken. It was fucking broken. Again. Just one more thing in my fucking life that I could never fix - one more mistake I had foolishly made. It was broken. I was broken. And my parents - my parents. “My parents are dead,” I whispered. “M-My...my parents are -” I looked up at him, my blood curdling at how he had everything. His parents were alive. He had more money than anybody else in this fucking country. He had a future. He had everything and yet it wasn’t enough. He had to take more. He had to take more from me. I had nothing. I had nobody. “Your father…” My throat tightened, and I choked on the words. “Your father killed my parents. Your father ...your father killed my -”

“I’m so sorry -”

“Your father killed my parents…” For the first time in a week I understood precisely what had been said to me, and I wished more than anything to return to my days of incomprehensibility. “You...how long have you known?”

Mitch’s face tightened. “My father told me the morning after my engagement party.”

“He was lying,” I whispered, positive I had come to the correct conclusion. “He must have been lying, then. You know how he feels about Germans. He must have seen how close you and I were, and he - he must have created this fiction to separate us. You are engaged...this - this was his way of ensuring that you and I were no longer together. He was lying.”

Mitch’s eyes were red with tears that looked like blood dripping down his cheeks. “He was not lying, my love…”

“No, he was -”

“Tesoro -”

“He was lying, Mitch. Why - why the fuck would your father murder my parents? They did not even know each other. Our families had no connection whatsoever until I began working here. They - your father is a fucking banker, what business would he have with a German watchmaker?”

“Scott -”

“No, do not fucking argue. Tell me.”

Mitch winced but nodded, wiping at his eyes and whispering, “Your father owed money, tesoro. Up in Yorkville, yes? He got mixed up with the bosses, borrowed thousands to balance his gambling addiction. He always promised to pay them back, for years he kept putting it off, borrowing more and more to try and win back his losses. They grew tired of waiting.”

“So they killed him,” I said numbly. It did not surprise me, if I was to be honest with myself. Growing up in the city I had heard of far more irrational claims. Murder as payment for debt was something everybody knew about, though nobody ever spoke of it; it had never occurred to me that some whispered taboo would one day become the thing that destroyed my life. “But I still do not understand.” I looked back up at Mitch, my thumb running over the face of my pocketwatch as though with a bit of benevolence it would return to its former vibrant state. “How does any of this relate to your father? He...I sold the shop and paid the debts, but it was not your father we owed money to.”

“No,” Mitch said, “but my father has always been happy to do business with those frowned upon by this country’s legal system. It’s dirty money he makes, but he does not care. There is so much that you have seen that you do not even understand. So much that has gone right past you…”

I clenched my jaw, not fond of his condescension. “Explain.”

“The Bonannos.”

“What of them?”

He looked at me as though I had just been handed to keys to Heaven and had given them right back. “Sweet boy, how do you think they are so wealthy? They do not own a company, not any sort that I have heard of before. Their business is crime. They’ve built their empire upon the world of organized crime. L’mafiusi di la Vicaria, if you’ve heard of it, it’s given them a name. The power of literature.”

“None of your words make any sense,” I whispered stiffly, and his eyes softened.

“Cosa Nostra, my love. But you would know it as the Mafia.”

I felt my blood run cold, the name striking me all too familiar. “You…”

“My family is rich and Italian.” His face was sorrowful. “Did you honestly expect anything else?”

“You - you’re part of the Mafia,” I whispered, the words so sharp I felt them cut my tongue. He shook his head tiredly, his dark eyes downtrodden as though he’d lived a thousand lives and wished for nothing more than the sweet kiss of mortality.

“Not officially, but we may as well be.” He brought his legs up to his chest, hugging himself. “The Bonannos are our greatest allies. My marriage to Luce will solidify that.”

My mind trembled as it attempted to bear the weight of his words. “That does not explain my parents.”

“Of course,” he said softly, his tone horribly resigned. “Look, my Scott, there is something you must know about the Bonannos, and about Cosa Nostra in general. Loyalty is everything. That is what makes them so powerful, and that is what makes them outlast.” He paused, his lips pursing. “And my father has many issues with loyalty. He much prefers money.”

“He betrayed them?”

“This war has brought great opportunity for wealth. My father saw this, and…do you remember what I said when I told you about what happened in France?”

“You said quite a lot when you told me about what happened in France.”

A weak smile played at his lips. “Quite right. I was referring to the loans my father offered to both the Allied and Axis powers. It was not well-known that he was doing this, and although he did not go to great lengths to hide it from Cosa Nostra, he did not exactly wish to tell them that he was supplying money to both sides of the war.”

I paused. “Why?”

Mitch smiled again. “Because that would mean that he was giving money to Italy. But that also would mean that he was giving money to Italy’s enemies. Cosa Nostra - the foundation of which is still quite active in Sicily - would not approve of something so... disloyal.”

“But Italy has always allied with Germany - they did not even enter the war until 1915.”

“Yes, but when they did, they opted to join the Allies. Any previous agreements Italy had with Germany would mean nothing to Cosa Nostra. The way they saw it was that Germany was an enemy of our great Italia, and all profitable relations with Germany were to be cut off completely.” He shook his head, looking ill. “As I said. Loyalty.”

“And I presume that your father did not cut off his profitable relations with Germany.”

Mitch sighed. “It was alright that he loaned money to both sides at first. Italy had remained neutral and therefore Cosa Nostra was not concerned. But the moment Italy declared...my father should have stopped supplying to Germany, and the Ottomans, and the Austrians. Giving money to those nations was a direct and undeniable disrespect to Italy’s moral beliefs, no matter the fact that Cosa Nostra has no moral beliefs. They are hypocrites, but they are hypocrites who are not afraid to murder you if you do not agree with them.”

I nodded, my voice cracking. “And so your father killed my parents.”

“Cosa Nostra discovered what he’d been doing when America’s involvement in the war became more and more imminent. They were not happy. If he had been anybody else, they would have killed him, but because he is so wealthy and has so much influence over both the public and political spheres…”

“They offered him a deal.”

Mitch looked up at me, his face miserable. “Your father owed so much money, my love. And owing money to Cosa Nostra is never a good thing. They told my father that it would be a test of his loyalty. Deal with the watchmaker and get the money back. Your father still would not pay, and so…”

“He killed him.”

Mitch nodded slowly, tears dribbling over his cheeks. “I’m so sorry…”

“What about my mother?” I whispered, my voice soft. “She did nothing wrong. He - he did not have to kill her as well…”

“Cosa Nostra has a saying. A dead man’s body cannot talk. But you rip his tongue out, anyway.”

My stomach turned. “And was my mother his tongue?”

“She was suspicious that your father’s death was not as natural as it seemed. She started inquiring. Inquiries are…they are not appreciated.”

“And so your father killed her as well,” I said, my vision blurring. “What about me? Would he have killed me, too, if I had started asking questions? And my sister? Would he have even blinked an eye at killing off a few more Germans?”

Mitch’s face crumpled and he shook his head. “I’m so sorry…”

“Is that why he hired me?” I whispered, the thought suddenly striking my mind. “Did he plan to kill me?”

“He was worried you knew, but he said he wasn’t sure...he - he had a few of the staff keep an eye on you, and when he realized you were not a threat…” Mitch let out another noise, stifling his mouth with his hand. “That is why I told you to leave. Somehow at the engagement party, the Bonannos got wind that you were here and they - they thought my father was up to something. I tried to get you to go...I - I said everything I could to get you to go but I couldn’t…you’re still in danger, Scott. Every day you’re here increases the risk of the Bonannos coming to find you, and I - I cannot protect you…”

My heart hammered in my throat. “I don’t understand.”

“We cannot upset the Bonannos,” Mitch whispered, tears catching at the corner of his eyes. “We are already on such thin ice. The only reason this fucking engagement was pushed forward is because they still don’t believe my father is loyal. If I tell them that you are under my protection - if I tell them a German, a German whose family they’ve ordered to have murdered - is under my protection…”

“They’ll kill you,” I finished, and he gave a slow, weak nod.

“I don’t know what to do, tesoro. We are both in so much danger. If they discover what you are to me…”

“Then you become like my parents. Just another dead man with his tongue ripped out.”

Mitch’s eyes softened and he leaned forward in his chair, his quivering hand reaching out to touch mine before he hesitated and pulled away. “I know it isn’t much,” he said, his voice cracking. “And I know that no matter what I say, it will never excuse what my father has done to your family. But I want you to know that...they did not suffer.”

I felt something boil in my stomach, anger rising so rapidly that my vision turned red. “Don’t you dare,” I snarled, and he flinched back away from me. “I sat for weeks and watched as both of my parents died. I saw what they went through - don’t you fucking dare tell me that they did not suffer when I watched my father beg for death. I don’t know how your father killed them, if it was poison or something else, but whatever it was fucking ensured that they suffered. They both went mad , so don’t you fucking say to me that they didn’t suffer when I watched them die.”

He stared at me, his face pale and his entire body trembling. “I’m sorry,” he choked, his eyes welling with tears once more. “I - I - I - my father, he t-told me that they didn’t...I  th-thought...I’m so sorry, oh my god, he said that they hadn’t…”

“Yes,” I whispered, my voice hard. “But I think we both know it’s doubtful that anything your father says is the truth.”

He let out another sob, holding his hand to his mouth and shaking his head. “I’m so sorry…I - I never wanted any of th-this to happen…”

I said nothing, unable to watch as he broke down. I loathed seeing him like this despite the fact that everything I thought I had known about him - every truth he’d ever told me - was now entirely invalid. It was a few minutes before I finally snapped completely, looking up at him and clutching my pocketwatch tighter in my fist.

“Come here,” I ordered, and his timid eyes rose to meet mine. He looked terrified and small and more unsure than I’d ever seen him. My heart quickened and I lost all patience. “Come here, Mitch. Now.”

He rose uneasily from his chair, closing the small distance between us and wincing when I grabbed ahold of his arm, despite the fact that my grip was so light I was hardly touching him. I tugged at him, pulling him down onto the bed and yanking the duvet up over us. He looked up at me, his panicked face still wet with tears, and I sighed before moving closer and taking him into my arms as gently as I could.

“I’m angry with you,” I whispered, resting my hand lightly on his lower back and tilting my chin down so that I could see his eyes. “But that does not mean that I ever want to see you upset.”

“Scott -”

“Shh.” I closed my eyes, holding him into my chest until he relaxed against me, his hand resting over my heart. “I’m still angry.”

“You,” he hiccuped, “you have such a strange way of showing that you’re angry…”

“No more talking. My mind feels as though it’s going to burst and you haven’t slept in days. Talking right now is not my main priority, we’ve done enough of that.”

“Do...do you hate me?”

“No,” I sighed, pressing my lips to the top of his head. “No, of course not.”

“But -”

“I hate your father. I hate the Bonannos. I hate the fucking Cosa Nostro or whatever the hell it’s called. I hate the fact that I am German and you are Italian, and that I am poor and you are rich, and that you and I are both men in this fucking country that is obsessed with punishing sodomy. I hate that my parents are dead and my sister is off living with people who do not want her. I hate that your worth in this country is determined by the color of the skin, or your ethnicity, or whether you are a man or a woman. I hate so many things, Mitchell Grassi, but do not think for even a second that I could ever hate you.”

He was quiet and a moment later I felt his body shake as he began to sob again. I held him closer and he nuzzled his face into my neck, wincing as he nudged at my sore ribs.

“I l-love you,” he managed, his voice trembling. “And I’m - I’m so sorry…”

“Shh, just sleep, Mitchy. There’s time for apologies later.”

“But -”

“Shh…” I ran my fingers through his soft hair, humming quietly until he settled a bit. “Sleep, my love. We can figure everything out when we wake.”

“S-Scott…”

“Sleep, sweetheart. Do you remember what I said?” I murmured, pressing a kiss to his forehead and shuddering as the reality of this entire evening finally hit me. “The angels in Heaven are watching over you…”

--

I awoke in the early evening to the sight of Avriel in the doorway, a dinner tray resting against his hip. He smiled when he noticed I was awake, stepping into the room and settling in the chair by the bed. Mitch shifted a bit from where he was cuddled into my side, his eyelids fluttering although he continued to sleep, and I pressed a kiss to his forehead before turning onto my side to face Avriel.

“I see the two of you have made up,” the groundskeeper said quietly, his jade eyes light as though he hadn’t a care in the world. My lips curled up tiredly and I nodded.

“We...we are getting there.”

“I’m glad.” His face was curious in more ways than one, but thankfully he did not ask of what had happened. He tilted his chin down towards the tray of food and my stomach gave a weak growl, causing a brilliant smile to light up his face. “Hungry? You’ve hardly eaten today, city boy.”

I hesitated but surrendered to instinct when I noticed he had brought three raspberry and white chocolate biscuits, sitting up slowly so as not to disturb my boy who was hugging my waist with his face buried in my stomach. I accepted the soup Avriel handed me, eating as much of it as I could manage before reaching for one of the biscuits and practically devouring it.

“It seems your appetite is coming back,” Avriel said as he set the tray on the nightstand with a laugh. “That’s good. You’ve lost quite a lot of weight over this past week, that’s likely what’s been sapping your strength.”

“But I’ll be alright?”

Avriel’s face softened and he gave a sincere nod. “Of course, sweet boy. The doctor said this morning that you don’t need to stay in bed after today, though you’re still healing so it’s best to take things slow.” He hesitated, and it looked as though he wanted to ask me something before he paused as Mitch gave a long sigh and wiggled a bit. I ran my fingers down my boy’s back and he sighed again, peeking up at me with a beautiful smile as he crawled a bit closer.

“Hi,” he whispered, resting his cheek on my shoulder. His smile grew when he noticed Avriel and he stretched a bit, his little nose scrunching up. “Mój anioł…”

“Ah, so now he speaks to me,” the groundskeeper said, his voice dry and stiff like hay. Mitch looked away guiltily and I realized that he must have been avoiding Avriel for the same time he’d been avoiding me. I’d have thought it unacceptable had I not known what Mitch had endured these past few weeks, and I simply pressed a kiss to his forehead as he moved a bit closer.

“I’m sorry, Avi,” he said meekly. “I - I did not…”

“You did not intend to treat me like a louse? Because you did, kochanie, and I cannot say I appreciated it.”

“There is so much -”

“- that I do not understand,” Avriel finished, arching an eyebrow. “Yes. You’ve told me multiple times. That does not mean that I’m incapable of understanding, though.”

Mitch’s eyes sank and he looked up at me, worrying at his lip with his teeth. “It is not pleasant knowledge.”

“The world hardly allows such,” Avriel whispered, and when I glanced over at him his face was drawn closed, though his eyes shone with undeniable hurt. “But I would think that after four years of friendship, your trust in me would not be so lacking.”

“Avriel…”

“Nothing you tell me could be worse than France, Mitchell. After hearing of that, I can withstand anything.”

Mitch’s brow furrowed. “Do not be so sure.”

“You are afraid,” Avriel said quietly, and my boy moved a bit closer to me. “Anything that makes you afraid is not something I can allow. You know that.”

“You cannot protect me from this.”

“I do not want to protect you. But you are my dearest friend, Mitch, and your happiness is one of my main priorities.” The intensity in Avriel’s face faded. “You know I can help you.”

Mitch looked over at me, and within his eyes was a question I wished to have avoided if at all possible. But I simply sighed and gave a nod, and he settled back against me, his voice quiet as he relayed everything that he and I had discussed that afternoon. Avriel listened with a stoicism in his face that I did not believe, and when he learned of the murder of my parents he stood as though he had no control over himself. He nudged his way into the bed beside me, resting his head on my shoulder while Mitch sat against my chest. It felt a bit suffocating, but in a definitively nice way. It made me feel, for the first time in weeks, that I was not alone.

We were all quiet when Mitch finished speaking, and I wondered if that was because they were both considering our options, or if the two of them had simply dozed off. Avriel spoke after a few minutes, though, and his words were resigned in the manner of a man who has seen his death before him and has no choice but to carry on as though unaware.

“You need to leave. Both of you.”

Mitch looked over at him, his fingers playing in my hair. “I know.”

“You cannot stay,” Avriel continued, his jade eyes meeting mine. “If what you tell me is true - and, might I say, that is quite a lot to take in, but it is not as though I have not suspected this for years now -”

“Wait,” Mitch cut him off. “How could you possibly know my family was associated with Cosa Nostra when I have only recently learned of that myself?”

 “Because - and I mean this with the most respect I can give - while you were off fucking any man who would have you, I was actually paying attention. The fact that I could not discern the Bonannos business in itself told me that they were likely not of the most ethical groupings. Add in that they are Italian and - well, it was not difficult to guess.”

“You did not know?” I whispered, looking down at Mitch. “You did not know that your family worked with the Mafia until now?”

My boy looked panicked, as though backed into a corner. “I - I knew we were not the most moral people, and that we worked with those who could be considered dangerous, but I - I never…”

“You never knew the name that was put to it,” Avriel murmured.

“I always assumed that the Mafia were underground agents...not - not my father’s best friends who I’ve known since I was a child…”

“Yes,” Avriel said, shaking his head slowly. “Sometimes you are so concerned with actions in the distance that you forget to notice what occurs right before you.”

“Or maybe you sensed it,” I whispered, “and you simply did not try and notice what occurred right before you.”

“Which leads me to my original point.” Avriel sat up, looking at both of us with pursed lips. “You cannot stay. Scott is in danger, and you are not far behind him. If they discover the both of you…”

“We’re dead,” Mitch said stiffly. “Yes. I’ve figured that out, thank you. So, what? Do - do we simply leave and hope that they don’t find us?”

Avriel shook his head. “It has to be better than that. These people are smart and they are ruthless. If they find you when you try to run, then you are dead. We have to alleviate their attention to you, Mitch, and we have to make them believe that you aren’t even here, Scott.”

A thought came into my mind and I looked up, whispering, “Then why don’t we just kill me off?”

Mitch’s brow furrowed, his eyes flashing with concern. “What? Tesoro, what the fuck -”

“No,” I interrupted, shaking my head. “Listen. This house is full of people who are loyal to your father, and full of people who would be happy to betray my location to the Bonannos. For all we know, they already have. But if they believed that I was dead, then there would be no reason for the Bonannos to come searching for me, because their work would already be complete.”

Understanding dawned over Avriel’s face. “If we fake your death, then you can escape without anybody suspecting otherwise.”

“And what better way to die,” I whispered, “then from the pneumonia I already have?”

“Oh my god,” Mitch murmured, his lips tugging into a smile and his hand tightening in mine.

“The rest is easy,” I said, shrugging and pulling my boy closer to me. “You plan a day for yourself in the city. Tell everybody that you’re off to buy gifts for your fianceé, leave a false trail, or two, or three. You and I meet up, adopt new names, and -”

“Mitchell Grassi and Scott Hoying are never heard from again,” Mitch finished, a bit of fear flickering over his face. “We start our lives anew. Everything we’ve ever known is gone…”

“But you are free,” Avriel said, brushing his fingers through Mitch’s hair. “You are free, and you are safe.”

“Free,” Mitch repeated, shaking his head as he leaned into the groundskeeper’s touch. “But - but then you are gone, mój anioł…”

Avriel rolled his eyes. “As though I would allow the two of you to leave me completely. After the dust has settled, I would visit, wherever you are. You are my best friend, kochanie, that will never change.”

Mitch smiled softly but nodded, and after a moment he turned back to me. “Where would we go?”

I let out a breath, unable to comprehend the absurdity of the future we were planning and yet positive that it was our only chance. “Anywhere. Everywhere. Wherever you want. Wherever we’re safe…”

My boy laughed, smiling beautifully. “The riverside?”

I felt nervous, excited tears sting in my eyes and I leaned forward to capture his lips in mine. “We could. We could run away to the riverside…”

“We could be whatever we wanted,” Mitch whispered. “We could be kings of the world…”

“Are…” I hesitated, taking his hands in mine. “Are we doing this?”

Mitch nodded slowly, his eyes stormed with excitement and so much fear.

“I think we are.”

--

The next week passed so quickly I hardly had a moment to think. Our plan was solidified and, on July 27th, 1917, it was announced to the household staff of the Grassi mansion that Scott Richard Hoying had died from from pneumonia and his employer, Mitchell Grassi, would be retreating to the city for the next upcoming weeks to spend time with his fianceé, Luce Bonanno.

I was taken away from the Grassi mansion late that night under the guide of Avriel Kaplan after saying a quick goodbye to Kevin, Kirstin, and Esther, the only people who knew the truth of what was happening. The two of us arrived at Avriel’s father’s house in the Lower East Side and remained there for the night, and the next evening I was preparing tea for the two of us when a knock at the door sounded. I looked up, my heart in my throat, and watched as Avriel disappeared down the stairwell to the front entrance. A moment later Mitch appeared, his clothes far more ragged than I had ever seen them and a suitcase in his hand.

“Alright?” I whispered, and he gave a brilliant smile.

“Alright.” He held up his suitcase. “One hundred thousand from my father’s personal account. I hardly doubt he’ll miss it.”

Avriel rolled his eyes, resting back against the small icebox that sat in the corner. “Rich people.”

“And our tickets?” I asked.

“Two tickets under the name Charleston for a ship that leaves for London three days from now. It’s a bit of a longer wait than I’d hoped, but I’ve acquired accommodations.”

I arched an eyebrow and Mitch grinned.

“I take it you’ve heard of the Waldorf, my love? I’ve secured rooms for the two of us, though I rather think we’ll end up sharing.”

I managed a disbelieving laugh, well aware that the Waldorf was the most luxurious hotel in all of New York City. “Oh my god…”

“If we are kings, then we shall live like kings.” He stepped closer, wrapping his arm around my waist. “I told you we would be alright, tesoro.”

I could not help my grin and I leaned forward to kiss him, my heart hammering anxiously in my chest as the world bowed to our brilliance. I turned to Avriel a moment later, realizing this was the last I would see of him for a long time to come and hugging him as tightly as I could. He laughed but hugged me back, pressing a kiss to my cheek and whispering, “We will meet again, soon, kochanie.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, holding him tighter. “For everything. Thank you so much, Avriel…”

“It was my pleasure, city boy.” He pulled back a little, cupping my face in his hand and pressing his lip to mine lightly, his mouth tasting of salt. “And just - just remember that you are so much more than what they say you are. You are so much more…”

I nodded but found I could not say anything, hugging him again and gripping his soft hair in my fingers. I would miss him more than I could say, but I reminded myself over and over that time would treat us well, and we would reunite once the sun had settled in the sky.

Mitch said his goodbyes next, and while it was definitely much harder for him, I knew that this time of sorrow would lead to many times of joy. Avriel kissed him and when Mitch pulled away he was crying, his hands shaking as he ran his fingers over our groundskeeper’s face.

“You are my best friend,” he whispered, and Avriel nodded with a small, sad smile. “And I will miss you so - so m-much…”

“Do not cry, sweetheart,” Avriel said gently, kissing his forehead. “We will meet again soon. I promise that we will meet again soon.”

Mitch let out a sob but said nothing, and a few minutes later Avriel showed us the back entrance to the building. He kissed each of us again, his smile warm and his emerald eyes beautiful as he waved us off, his figure growing smaller and smaller as we set out together.

I held my hand out to Mitch and he took it, squeezing our fingers together once before letting go.

“We are doing this,” I whispered, and he looked up at me in the dark night, the boy I loved in the city I hated.

“Yes. We are doing this.”

“I love you.”

“I love you as well, mio tesoro.”

“Ready?”

He took my hand again and let out a slow, uneasy sigh. “Not even a little.”

“Me, neither.”

He laughed, and it occurred to me that this could be either the smartest or most foolish decision either of us had ever made.

But I had no time to think of that as he picked up his suitcase, took a breath, and together we walked forward into a world of the terrifying unknown.

Chapter Text

Looking back on my time at the Grassi mansion, I now know that there are three moments in particular that have affected my life more than I ever assumed they would. Three moments that, if I could travel back in time to the summer of 1917, I would change in an instant.

This is the third and final moment.

We ran away. We left everything behind us - our names, our friends, our families - everything we had made for ourselves and everything that we were. We traded it in for a briefcase of money and the brief illusion of safety, too in love with freedom to stand to see sense. We thought ourselves invincible, taking solace in the crowded cities and darkened alleys until I forgot the taste of New York air and the American Dream that my parents for so long had sought and died for. We ran where we believed we would be forgotten. We ran until we could not remember in our nomadic souls what it meant to have a home. We ran and ran and ran, the sun hot on our heels and the stars bright in our eyes. We ran away from what we had once believed to be paradise.

And if I could go back now and change that decision, I would.

I would choose to stay. I would choose logic. I would not choose love, because love is a nonsensical game that I did not know how to play at such a young age, and the stakes that were stacked before us were far too large to face. I would choose to stay, because the consequences of remaining were far less painful than the consequences of leaving. I would stay. I am not a man to keep promises, but if there is a God out there listening to my prayers, let Him hear me now. I would stay. If I could go back - if I could change the fate I had set for myself - I would. I would stay. I promise you now.

I would stay.

Because I ran away with the boy I loved. The boy whose father had taken my parents from me. The boy who I could not stand to be without, because he was my imperfect perfection and I could not lose him. We fell in love. We ran away. But the riverside is only beautiful until it begins to flood. And then it is no longer beautiful.

It is chaos.

I made the mistake on that dark summer night of believing that running away with the love of my life would not bring about any air of consequence whatsoever.

But, as we all know, this world of ours hardly ever allows for a mistake to go unpunished.

--

“Four months,” I whispered, staring down at the flat gravemarker that bore the two names I had not spoken for so long. Mitch stood beside me, our bodies not touching although I could feel his warmth tickling my skin. His proximity struck a new, confusing feeling into my stomach; it was one that I could not determine as particularly pleasant, something which I never would have expected. “They have been gone for four months,” I continued, my voice shaking as I shifted my attention. “Richard Albert Hoying, born November 4th, 1878, died April 12th, 1917. Conradine Agatha Schmidt Hoying, born June 23rd, 1880, died April 27th, 1917. Herr hat's gegeben, der Herr hat's genommen.” I wiped at my face, squinting out at the overcast morning that surrounded us. “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.”

Mitch was quiet, and I was grateful that he did not try and improve my mood. Grief was meant to be felt. It was as though I had lost my parents for a second time now, and I was determined not to stunt my mourning as I had all those months ago - burying my sorrow in bottles of liquor until the pain was numbed and freshly bandaged like a shallow wound. I would feel this pain, and it would hurt, but that was the point.

“I cannot say goodbye to Laura,” I said after a few minutes. I had started walking away down the rows of the cemetery, the city air leaking into my skin as the soft clicks of Mitch’s shoes echoed in my ears. He was a few feet behind me and I paused, waiting until he was by my side to continue back to the street. “She thinks I am dead.”

“Yes,” he said softly, pulling his cap down over his eyes. He lowered his voice as we passed two men on a bench, slipping one hand into his pocket and tightening the other around his briefcase. He was dressed to blend in with the working class: an old newscap, a battered vest and jacket, ragged shoes. It would have been a perfect disguise had he not been walking with the stride of the wealthy - confident when he should have been beaten down. I knew he could not help it, but it bothered me to see him dressed like a commoner and yet still so sure of himself. He should not have been sure of himself. It made everything else pointless. I clenched my jaw as he continued. “A letter was sent to your relatives, and I am sure they have told your sister by now.”

“She thinks I am dead,” I said again. Mitch turned to me, his shadowed face lightening a bit. I did not like the flash of resentment I felt for him then, unease settling in my gut.

“I’ve created an inheritance fund for her,” he said gently, his eyes flicking around the busying streets that surrounded us. “She will be provided for. Five thousand dollars, and - if she needs it - more. She will be safe, Scott.”

I could not help my bitter laugh. “Yes. What a joy, to be a wealthy orphan. Shame that she is still a German in this fucking country.”

He hesitated, uncertainty settling over his expression, and some horrible part of me felt pleased about that. “I - if things get dangerous for her - because of the war, I mean...I’ve ensured that protection will be provided. Nobody will be able to hurt her.”

“That’s what you said about me,” I whispered stiffly, looking away from him. “That I was safe. You would protect me. And now I have scars to remind me that the only thing I am in this country is scum. So - sorry - but please forgive me if I do not readily believe you.”

His face sank but I pretended not to notice the hurt pooling in his eyes, too entrapped in my own mind to consider his emotions. He looked as though he wanted to say something but he simply turned back to the cacophonous street and flagged down a taxicab, his hands shaking although he did quite well to hide it. I followed him silently, angry although I did not know why and confused about this new, far more vexatious perspective I had for him.

We had a few errands to complete before we checked into our rooms at the Waldorf hotel, though I had wanted to visit my parents’ grave one last time before we ventured into the city. I had only ever seen it once before, months back when they had first passed and before I had been hired to work for the Grassis. This visit had been far more composed than the last, given that I was no longer a drunken fool and could now name the cause of my parents’ demise. It had felt strange for Mitch to come with me, but I had wanted him there initially, even though now I could hardly stand to look at him. If I was being honest with myself, something which I often attempted to avoid, at this moment in time I was completely unsure of what I felt for him and it only led me to question why I had agreed to go to London.

I loved him, I knew this much. He was beautiful, and kind, and he did not deserve any of the misery life had handed him. I knew this all affected him as much as it did I - his murderous father, his family’s involvement in Cosa Nostra, the deaths of the German prisoners, his relationship with Nicodemo that very much parallelled mine to Laura - but at the moment, it was not enough. I knew I loved him.

But I was also very, very angry.

And that frightened me.

I kept my eyes set out of the taxicab window as we passed through the city I had once considered to be my home. It was an odd feeling to be back here when so much in my life had changed, and I found it surprising that we were now strangers, New York and I. Such little time had passed since our first moment of separation, and I was struck by the blatant unfamiliarity between the two of us. The streets we passed through no longer felt wonted, and the tired, unhappy people no longer looked like friends. It was strange. I may have loathed the urbanity more than I could say, but this city had always been my home. For a brief while the Grassi mansion had been paradise, but never home. Not like New York had been. And yet now, as I drove through this foreign place that had once been mine, I felt like nothing more than an outcast.

We stopped at one of the large department stores that my family had never had enough money to shop at, paying the cab driver and stepping onto the filthy sidewalk. We both needed entirely new wardrobes, given that I was supposed to be dead and his clothes were far too luxurious for him to pass as a part of the lower class. We only stayed briefly, shopping separately so as to not draw attention and reconvening at the front of the store when we were finished. He had paid the exceedingly expensive bill without a second thought and I wondered what it must have been like to be so wealthy that money was an irrelevancy. We said nothing as we made our way back onto the streets and hailed another taxicab. I still could not stand to hold his gaze, every small movement or comment of his irritating me until I felt as though I was close to shattering.

We stopped at a few more shops for anything else we needed, grabbing a late lunch in a Jewish deli on the Lower East Side before taxiing to the Waldorf hotel. The concierge believed us to be cousins visiting the city for the week, and had been more than happy to alert the staff of our wish for indefinite privacy once Mitch had slipped him quite a hefty tip. We were shown to our separate rooms and, although originally we had planned for one of us to join the other for the night, I told Mitch that I was not feeling well and would rather be alone. He had looked crestfallen and worried but I hadn’t bothered to reassure him before turning away and walking down the hall to my room. He could worry as much as he desired, I did not care. I could not spend a moment longer with him - I could not stand the sight of him, and I had never felt so fucking angry in all of my life.

I hated him.

I loved him, but fuck - I hated him.

This was his fault. We were running away and it was his fault. I could never see my sister, could never come back to New York, could never even use my own fucking name again and it was his fault. I unlocked the door to my room hurriedly, slamming it shut behind me as horrible tears stung at my eyes and my foolish fucking heart hammered in my chest. The room was beautiful and lavish and I could not stand the sight of it, stumbling my way to the bathroom and sinking down onto the floor. He had said we were to live like kings but I did not want to live like a king. I wanted the battered old watchmaking shop in the Lower East Side with the small apartment loft above it; I wanted my mother, singing in German as she swept the floor while fresh zweiback baked in our oven; I wanted my Laura, so young and yet so wise beyond her years, teasing me with riddles she had learned at school and showing me her mathematics homework that she had earned full marks on; I even wanted my father, who had seen me as nothing more than a disappointment, but that was not important because I wanted to try - I wanted to try and make him proud, but now I no longer could because he was buried in the cold ground and I would never see him again no matter what I did. I did not want to live like a king - I did not want expensive clothes, or luxurious hotel rooms, or trips to Europe - I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t because home was gone and I was supposed to be dead.  

And I hated him. Because he had everything. He had a home, and a family, and friends, and a name, and a future - all that I had lost and all that I would do anything to get back - and he was giving it up as though it meant nothing.

And it wasn’t fair.

I heard the knock at the door what must have been hours later but I did not answer, instead pushing myself up from the floor and peeling off the new jacket and trousers that Mitch had insisted I buy to pass as a wealthy businessman while staying at the Waldorf. They felt like filth on my skin and I watched as they pooled at my feet on the cool tile floor, well aware that they cost more than anything I had ever worn before in my life and were the ugliest things I had ever seen. There was another knock at the door and I ignored it again, undressing and running the shower until the water was so hot it burned my skin. I winced as I stepped under, cleaning my body as thoroughly as I could until my skin was pink and raw from scrubbing so hard. The word scum was still carved into my skin, red and well on its way to forming a scar, and I wondered how Walter, Noel, and Giacomo were faring in Sing Sing. Normally I would have felt guilty about what had become of them, but I could not bring myself to care all that much. They had tried to kill me. Surely that deserved some sort of punishment, although I knew truly that what Mitch had done had been far too extreme. He had been angry, that was understandable, but imprisoning three people for the entirety of their lifetime seemed a bit severe to me.

But I supposed that was just one more thing I would never understand about Mitchell Grassi.

The water ran cold after what must have been half of an hour, and I turned the knobs and stepped back out onto the bathroom floor. A stack of fluffy white towels sat on a small table beside the sink and I dried myself, tying one of them around my waist as I returned to the main room. I paused when I saw Mitch sitting on the bed, his hands fidgeting in his lap and his dark eyes anxious as he looked anywhere but at me.

I sighed, suddenly far too exhausted to handle him. “I told you I wanted to be alone.”

He stood, his shoulders curled forward. “I was worried about you.”

“I’m fine.”

“You - you seemed upset with me today…”

I did not answer, crossing the room to the bag of clothes I had bought that day and pulling out a pair of pajama trousers and underpants. I heard him move and a moment later there was a warm hand on my shoulder. I closed my eyes and let out a slow breath, trying not to break.

“Please talk to me, mio tesoro,” he whispered. “I - I am worried about you…”

“I can assure you,” I said between clenched teeth, “that you do not want to know what I am thinking right now.”

“Scott -”

“It is better if you leave, Mitch.”

“No,” he said, and something in his voice made me turn to look at him. He was staring up at me, vulnerable and afraid and yet completely determined. “I left you once and you almost died. I won’t leave you again.”

I looked away, my anger fading into something that tasted sickeningly sweet. “I’ll hurt you.”

“You won’t.”

“Do not be so sure.”

“You won’t. I know you won’t.” His fingers were soft against my jaw, and a moment later his hand curled into mine. “You would never hurt me.”

“I am angry.”

“With me?”

I clenched my fists as my acquired control faltered, hissing, “Yes.”

He let out a slow, shuddering breath, and I loathed how easily I had frightened him. “Alright,” he whispered. “That is something. Why are you angry with me?”

“Mitch -”

“Please.”

I pulled away from him but did not answer, untying my towel and letting it drop to the floor. He moved back a bit as I changed into underpants and a pair of pajama pants, running my fingers through my damp hair and crawling up onto the bed, turning so that I was not facing him. A moment later the mattress dipped and I felt his body warm against my back, his hand resting on my hip and his nose pressed against my neck.

“I love you,” he whispered meekly against my skin, and I knew in that moment that I could never truly hate him no matter what he’d done.

“Go away, Mitch.”

He let out another long breath but did not leave, his hand sliding down to rest against my stomach and his legs pressing up against mine. I could feel him trembling, and I knew he was afraid - afraid of me - but he still did not leave. Instead he moved closer, his chin resting on my shoulder and his voice shaking when he spoke.

“I love you. And I want to help you.”

“I told you to leave.”

“Scotty…”

“No,” I growled, turning to face him. He flinched back, and my stomach churned when I saw the tears on his cheeks. “You - you do not get to argue about this - you...just fucking go, alright? I do not want to talk to you, I just - I want to go home, Mitch, and I can never go home. Your father took that away from me. Your father took EVERYTHING away from me.”

“My Scott -”

“No.”

“We - we can get through this, my love. We will get through this and we -”

“Your father murdered my parents,” I snarled, and he winced again. “You do not get to decide when I get over that. Ever.”

I turned back away from him, my eyes catching with tears and my lips trembling. I expected him to try and speak again, though the only sound I heard was the soft click of the hotel room door as he left me alone.

--

We set off for London two days later, and I stood on the bow of our steamship as we pulled out of New York Harbor and into the deep Atlantic. Mitch stood by my side, though we did not speak as we watched the city grow smaller and smaller before us until it was not visible in the distance. The sun hung high in the sky, covered with transparent clouds and unfathomable stars. It looked small and weak, as though it had been tainted with disease and its light was now nothing more than a dull shine.

It was pitiful.

I wrote to my Laura on our fifth day at sea, a letter I knew I could never send. It made me ashamed that I had not done so previous, back when I had been so entranced with Mitchell Grassi that nothing else seemed to matter. My writing was scattered with errors and nearly illegible, and I had ripped the letter to pieces and dropped it into the water when I had finished. I had come back to our cabin with tears on my face and Mitch had said nothing to me, only crossing our room to lock the door before joining me on my bunk to hold me as I cried. I fell asleep in his arms and dreamt of the riverside, but I was alone in our room when I woke.

We arrived in England after eighteen days of travel, pulling our suitcases onto the boardwalk of the Thames before immediately purchasing tickets for a ship leaving for Dublin in two hours. It was a safety precaution, in case somehow Cosa Nostra had gotten wind that we were headed for London. We arrived in Ireland early the next morning and spent the entirety of the day sleeping in our rooms at a small Irish inn. We left that night for Wales and spent a few days in a rural village before leaving once again for Barcelona. It continued for a week - leaving for a new city every day in fear that we were being followed. Finally we returned to Belfast, Ireland, where we agreed to stay for our indefinite future. We rented a small cottage from a landlord who was under the impression we were half-brothers, settling in quite nicely as the days passed and growing familiar with the nearby villages. We grew accustomed to the rain and grew to miss the sun, which had not shown itself since we had arrived. It was nice, though. It was a life that was near perfection.

Except for the fact that we had not spoken to each other in weeks.

We had separate rooms and did not visit each other during the long summer nights. During the day he often left to explore the small villages and I did the same, though we never went together. I found myself more and more drawn to the city, though, which was much like New York had been, and I had managed to find a watchmaking shop tucked in the corner of Belfast. The owner - a sweet elderly man named Seamus - had noticed my frequency and made a few inquiries, offering me an apprenticeship once he’d learned that my father had been a watchmaker. I worked a few hours each day, although more often than not I stayed late into the night past the end my shift, talking with Seamus and listening as he told me of his family and the hardships they had faced. Three of his five sons had been killed in the Easter Rising, a rebellion of the Irish against British rule that occurred the previous year, and the other two had moved to England in search of work not long after. His wife had died five years ago of illness and he was left alone with only his watches and clocks to keep him company. His sadness was one I could relate well to, although I could never share with him the misery of my own life. I had told him that my name was Daragh Sullivan and I was born to Irish immigrants in America, and that I had returned to Ireland with my brother when my family had been unable to find work. He had believed me so readily and I felt the persistent guilt in my stomach spread. He had quickly become a good friend and mentor to me, and it hurt to know that I could never offer him anything more than cruel, easy lies.

The days turned to weeks and my relationship with Mitch turned to horrible indifference. I missed him more than I could say, but there was something between us that I alone could not overcome. I hardly saw him, and when I did we did not speak anything more than generic sentences. August passed us by and summer ended. The grief I felt for my lost life lessened and the loneliness I felt within my heart grew with every waking hour.

We had run away to the riverside.

But the riverside did not want us anymore.

The great war that held the world seemed unending. German forces attacked London under the hours of the moon, thousands died and the hatred grew. Battles were fought and lost by both sides, and it seemed as though the sky would collapse upon us before this hell would call for ceasefire. I began to feel more and more ashamed of my German heritage. I stopped speaking my mother tongue. The war around us continued.

And for the first time in my seventeen long years of life, I wished that I could go back to the streets of New York City.

--

It was early one morning around three or for when I returned to our cottage, locking the door behind me and hanging my jacket on the coatrack. The rain outside pounded at the roof and I shivered at the sound. It had not stopped raining for weeks. I slipped my shoes off in the front entryway and was halfway to the kitchen to put the kettle on when the soft voice I had not heard for so long called to me.

“Tesoro.”

I looked up, surprised to see Mitch in the hall with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. I had not seen him for a few days and the bags under his eyes told me that he likely had not slept. He hesitated before stepping forward into the weak light of the kitchen, and my stomach sank when I saw the tears on his cheeks, his shoulders curled forward as vulnerability consumed him.

“Oh,” I said quietly, loathing the discomfort I felt at the current situation. It had been so long since we had talked and even the sight of him made my heart tighten in my chest, as though we could return to the simplicity of our lives before all of this had happened. “You should be asleep. It - it’s late.”

Something unreadable flooded his eyes and he stepped forward again, his features flashing with anxiety and nerves. “I am tired.”

“Then you should sleep.”

“I cannot.”

I looked away, whispering again, “Oh.”

“I...I miss you…”

The words felt like a knife to the gut. “Everything has changed, Mitch. You know that.”

“We ran away,” he said softly, taking another step forward. “That was meant to make us happier, not more miserable. I...I am not happy, Scott. I haven’t been since that night in New York. I miss you.”

“Everything has changed,” I repeated hoarsely. He shook his head.

“I haven’t.”

“Your father killed my parents -”

“But I didn’t. You know I didn’t. And you know that I - I did everything I could to protect you, and I am sorry with how it ended, but I - you cannot blame me for what my father has done.” He took another step towards me, and in place of that unending fucking anger I always felt, there was only soft, sleepy exhaustion. “We had to leave because we were in danger. You needed time to grieve, and I understand that, but I - I cannot go on without you. I miss you…”

I swallowed. “Mitch -”

“Hasn’t it been long enough?” He whispered, his voice cracking. “Hasn’t this been enough of a punishment? I...I only want to be able to talk to you again. I have nobody, Scott, and I - I do not know what to do...”

“Mitch…”

“I love you…”

I closed my eyes. “You know I love you, too.”

I felt his hand warm on my arm. “I miss you…”

I let out a weak breath. “Mitch.”

“Please,” he said quietly. “Come back…”

“Mitchy…”

His fingers laced through mine and he pulled me gently down the hall. “Come back, tesoro.”

“I - I can’t…”

“You must. You must open your heart to the light.”

“Mitchy…”

“You must be free…”

I felt exhausted tears sting at my eyes and I looked up at him, unsurprised to find that we were standing in his bedroom. The rain outside grew worse and I missed the sun. He rested his fingers under my chin, his face vulnerable and his eyes hopeful and every inch of him positively beautiful. I allowed him to push me down onto his bed, his hands resting on my thighs as each second held within it a question that neither of us knew how to ask. He moved forward after a moment, his nose brushing against mine as he settled before me, his face wet with tears that I knew very well must have matched my own.

“I miss you,” he choked, his hands warm as they cupped my face. “Please...come back…”

“Mitchy,” I whispered, biting my lip and keeping myself from holding him. “I don’t…”

“We are alright...you promised that we would be alright…”

“Everything has been ruined,” I said shakily. “W-We have been ruined…”

“No,” he said firmly, “we are alright.”

“Mitchy -”

“I love you, Scott Hoying. I will never stop loving you. That - that must mean something.”

“Mitch -”

“Come back, tesoro. Please. I miss you…”

I felt something within me shatter - as though the facets of my broken self had been wrenched apart and the dull light of my soul was forced to emerge. I looked up, empty and tired and longing for him as I never had before. I curled my fingers into his silky hair and pulled him closer to me, my body vibrating at the feeling of him against me. I slid my hands under his sweater, tugging it over his head and pulling his underwear off until he was naked against me. He let out a soft noise, his wide, dark eyes watching me as his beautiful cheeks flushed crimson, and I wanted him in every way I had not allowed myself to have him in weeks. I stood and tugged off my trousers, watching as he settled back on my bed cross-legged and stared up at me with an expression that looked all too much like fear, and I froze.

Uncertainty crashed down around me and my stomach filled with panic. “I - do...I’m so sorry, I did not -”

“No,” he whispered, his face softening as he moved to pull me to him. “Do not apologize. I want this. Fuck, I want this, and I want you, and - I’ve missed you so much.” His voice caught. “Please. Please…”

I felt my eyes sting. “I am so sorry -”

“Get on your back,” he said, pushing at my chest. He did not look annoyed or afraid, only hungry as he reached into his bedside table and pulled out a small glass bottle, his other hand splayed out over my stomach. “I want to ride you.”

“Mitch -”

“Fuck me, tesoro,” he murmured, leaning forward to brush our lips together as he began to prepare himself. “I miss you…it’s been too long...”

I shuddered as he sank down onto me a few minutes later, his hands gripping my arms and his forehead pressed against mine. “I love you,” I whispered, and I could taste his tears when he kissed me. “Mitchy, I love you…”

“We’ll be alright.”

“Yes.”

“We are free…”

I nodded pulling him closer as I pressed myself into him again. “Yes. I love you.”

“I love you. And I am sorry for everything...but I love you…”

“We’ll be alright,” I promised, pressing my lips to his. “We are going to be alright.”

“Scotty,” he whispered, trembling against me. “We - we will be alright…”

I closed my eyes and moved closer against him, every piece of my troubled soul aching for this lost boy that I had finally allowed myself to find. He clung to me, becoming undone as the early morning air around us dazed itself with heat, and as I laid beside him in the afterglow of what I knew to be indefinite love I felt a warmth settle in my stomach.

“Mitchy,” I murmured, pressing my lips to his temple as I gazed out of his bedroom window. His hair was damp with sweat and his small body curled against mine tightly, as though he was afraid to let go. “Look, my love. The rain has finally stopped.”

His eyes peeked up at me and he glanced out of the window, nuzzling his nose back into my neck. “I never thought I would see the day where the rain stopped in Ireland.”

“Mitchy,” I said again, my voice thick with tears. “Look.”

He made a small noise of protest but did as I said, pausing as he noticed what I had.

A soft glow filtered into the room, thousands of hues of purple and pink and blue dancing against the pane of glass and settling around us. The horizon was blurred with rolling green fields and the bright, eternal light that I had never thought would return, and I smiled as I pressed my lips to my boy’s cheek, watching as the morning made itself known in a brief, beautiful moment of radiance.

“The sun is shining again.”

Chapter Text

The Irish sky was nothing more than obsidian - a deep, sorrowful sight that matched my mood no more than it matched the first flickers of the morning’s sun. My boy lay quiet against my side, his eyes closed and his face shielded by the darkness, and I loved him in a manner that felt entirely new and yet deeply and consciously undeserving. Shame colored my vision scarlet and tears sat at the base of my throat, though I could not even allow myself a chance to free them they were such horrid abnormalities.

I was a fool.

I was a fool, and his was the irremovable kiss of a siren, and the weeks past had shown only my broken vows to this boy who had given me everything in return for nothing. I held naught in this mortal realm to call my own but for him, and yet I had so willingly refused his heart as though it was an illness unto my soul. His life had become a protection of mine - he had given his world to ensure my safety - and I had thought nothing more than to loathe him.

And I was a fool more than I was anything else in this vacuous life.

He shifted beside me and pulled me from my dreary mind, his hand coming to rest over the bare skin of my stomach. A terrible moment passed before his sweet voice uttered, “Your mind is a storm, tesoro.”

My eyes stung with bitter tears. “I am so sorry…”

“Scott…” His hand moved, resting now atop my chest where my heart should have been. “You are crying.”

“Yes.”

“My love,” he whispered, and I felt his lips pressed to my shoulder. “What is wrong?”

I shook my head, my mouth dry. “I am a selfish person.”

My boy paused, and it ached to know that he did not disagree. “We are all selfish,” he said finally, and I managed a smile that felt as though it would tear its way through my lips.

“Please do not degrade yourself in order to make me feel better. I am a selfish person. You…” My stomach clenched. “You are so much more than I will ever be.”

“Scott…”

I said nothing, for there was nothing I could have said to improve what had been so horribly destroyed. His arms came to cradle my body and I leaned into him, terrified that somehow I had been crumbled to pieces and now would only burden him with the imminent repair of my broken self.

“Scott,” he whispered again, and I could not help the tears that pricked at me like honeybees.

“I do not understand,” I managed. “I do not understand why I am this way...I do not understand what I am feeling…”

He hesitated, his words brushing kisses over my skin. “You were upset with me.”

“None of this was your fault, though. You - you did not do any of this…”

“Tell me,” he murmured, such an unassuming indication that this was all of simple reasoning. “Tell my why you were upset with me.”

“I do not know.”

“You stopped speaking to me -”

“Because you -” I paused, squeezing my eyes shut. “You. You are the heir. You are - you were - the wealthiest man in America. You had men - dozens of men, offering themselves to you like slaves, doing whatever it took to have you if only for the night; breaking the law, attacking me, spanning the seven continents of this earth if only to have you offer a smile. You had money. Power. Influence over everything. And you gave it up. You gave all of it up. For me. To protect me.” I moved away, my ears ringing with the horrible verity of my words. “But I am nothing more than a filthy German. And you - you said - you told me that you could never love a German...”

“Scott -”

“I don’t…” I sat up, the bed sheets twisting around my legs. “I - I am not worth what you have given for me…”

“Don’t say that -”

“But that is what you told me and I…” I closed my eyes, my mind humming with confusion and desperation. “You say so many things. So many beautiful and horrible things, and I never know what is true and what is fabrication…”

“I love you,” he said, and when I met his eyes he was staring at me with what I could not determine to be unshielded honesty. “What I said to you - when I told you to leave the mansion - all of it was false, and I wish I had never said any of it but it was not the truth.”

“But…”

“My sweet boy,” he whispered, moving forward so that his fingers rested along my neck. “Your insecurities break my heart -”

“But you know I have always felt this unsure and yet you still said it…”

“Tesoro -”

I shook my head, moving back from him as my troublesome thoughts bled through my mind. “We - we went too quickly. Everything happened too quickly. We should have - we should have waited...we should have seen what would happen…”

“Scott, if we had waited we would have been killed. The Bonannos -”

“It could have been fine. We had no way of knowing how it would go. You could have married Luce and we could have been together - we could have been safe without having to leave -”

“We would have had to hide -”

“We are hiding now.”

“I don’t know what you want from me -”

“I want to go home, Mitch.”

His dark eyes regarded me steadily, his face a mask of thousands of emotions that were far too vast for my imbecilic mind to process. “We can’t.”

“I know that.”

He pushed himself towards me a bit and I stood, taking two paces back until I was stopped by the sharp corner of the dresser this house had come with. “I want you to be happy, Scott...”

“But I’m not happy.”

“We cannot go back -”

“I - I know that.” I looked away. “But I want to. Everything is empty. As though I’ve been stuffed full of so many things for so long and now all of it is gone and I cannot…”

“Tesoro…”

“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to stop... this. I love you but I feel so wrong and I - I am so selfish, Mitch. And you have given me everything and I should be grateful for that, but I...you should not have given me everything. You should have just let the Bonannos kill me - let it all end, let the problem be solved. I am not worth this…”

He stood, and a moment later he was everywhere about me as though his presence had become the temperate wind. I did not want to allow it - did not wish to burden him more than I already had - but his arms guided me gently back to the edge of the bed and a moment later I was left helpless against him, his fingers soft in my hair and his voice humming a song I had first heard long ago.

“You are worth so much,” he whispered, his mouth pressing warmth to my skin. “You are worth everything.”

My eyes slipped shut. “I am German scum…”

“No, mio tesoro. You are so much more than anything they say.”

“You...you are lying…”

“I am being honest.”

I shuddered weakly, wishing his words were true but aware that they could not be. “I cannot believe you…”

“Alright,” he said, his arms tightening around me and his voice far more unsteady than before, tinged with a determination that would never strike true. “Then I will find a way to prove it to you.”

--

The weeks passed us by and August gave way to September, the eve of my eighteenth birthday approaching unavoidably as time so often allowed. We left Ireland for Greece, settling in Amorgos, a small island that left us relatively uncharted to the rest of the world. We were ignored by the locals and able to start anew with the remains of our relationship, weaving it into something far more formidable than before although still so terribly fragile. We talked more than we ever had before and I learned much about my boy that I had not once even considered to ask, and it struck me odd how I had somehow fallen in love and run away across the sea with somebody I knew very little about. I learned to manage my troublesome emotions and the sorrow that took ahold of me all too often. He was gentle with me, always, and his patience was not something I could easily comprehend. What should have been broken was slowly healing itself. Everything that was wrong was now becoming undeniably alright. We were alright.

We grew sturdy. We grew strong. We grew comfortable.

We grew careless.

Still to this day, so many years later, I do not know how they found us. We had done everything to ensure that we would not be followed, and yet they had come as though we had called to them. It had been a late night for both of us, and we had been so sure that the knock at our door had been nothing more than a lost neighbor in need of directions. I had rolled my eyes at Mitch and pressed a kiss to his mouth, pulling on a pair of trousers as I padded through the front hall of our villa. I was unaware that it was the last time I would kiss him. I reached for the handle, although the door had burst open before I even had the chance to ask who it was.

There had been five of them. The Bonannos, or partners of the Bonannos, or partners of the Grassis. I still do not know exactly who they were. I cannot remember much of what had happened, but I remember the screams as Mitch was torn from my arms and taken from me. I remember the sharp taste of blood in my mouth as I was struck unconscious. I remember waking to a pounding head and cold hands on my body. I do not remember everything they did to me, but I am not sure that I want to.

I remember they told me that Mitch was gone.

I shake away the memories of our last days together, the imperfect perfection we had been given until - inevitably - it had been taken from us. It is not something onto which I enjoy reflecting, those few moments which had been so horribly tainted, and I push myself up from my desk as the memories continue to harass me. My shoulder aches as it often does, the bullet that has been lodged in my arm since the autumn of 1917 making itself known quite clearly. I put the kettle on and settle by the door of my watchmaking shop, watching as the evening takes over the long stretch of sky barely visible in the Lower East Side. It has been a long day. A busy day. Those have become my favorite; they prove to be excellent at distracting me from my thoughts. I have grown used to distractions. I have grown dependent.

I do not know where they took Mitch after that night, or what they did to him, but I had been discarded at an American military base just outside of Belgium. I had been immobile for days - too distraught and too injured to do anything other than sleep - until a Lieutenant Colonel had stated that he would shoot me himself if I did not begin to pull my weight. I was told that I had been drafted into the United States army, and that I was now a soldier under General Pershing. I was told that my name was Aaron Davenport. I was told that I was in the First Field Artillery Regiment, and would be on the frontline in our battles against the Axis powers.

I was told that it was my duty to shoot every German I saw.

The war, for me, had been mercifully short. I had served just more than a year, surviving two injuries that should have killed me. A bullet to the shoulder and another to the hip. I should have died, but I did not, and on the eve of November 11th, 1918 I celebrated alongside my battalion as the news shook the world. The war was over. We were going home. We had won.

We were free .

I returned to New York, unsure of where else I could go. I stepped off from the barge I had taken from Europe, hailing a taxicab the very next moment and foolishly giving the address of the Grassi mansion, my thoughts hungry for Mitch and what had become of him. I had spent the year writing hundreds of letters, though I had never once received an answer. I did not know where he was, or what had become of him, or if he was even still alive. All I had was the memories of what had once been paradise and a pocketwatch that had stopped working years ago.

The taxi pulled down the long road and I paid the driver with what little money I had been compensated for my service. It was idiotic of me to come to the Grassi mansion, but my inclination for survival had become faulty. I did not care if I died, not if it meant I could see him one last time.

I paused at the iron gates, staring out across the front lawn at the man who was knelt beside a row of yellow rosebushes. His long dark hair was braided down his back and I could hear him humming to himself, a slow, sorrowful tune that made my forgotten heart ache in its place. I called to him and he turned, his shoulders tensing as his emerald eyes met mine. He stood quickly, dropping his gloves on the ground as he hurried towards me. My hands trembled but I did not move, watching as Avriel paused in front of me with an expression far too haunted for me to stand.

“Scott,” he whispered. “You’re alive...”

“Yes,” I said, resting my hand on one of the iron bars. “I - I am alive.”

“They told me…”

I waited for him to finish but he did not, his lips only pursing together.

“Mitch,” I said finally, and his eyes sank. “Is...is he here?”

“City boy…”

“They found us - I was drafted but...I - I don’t know what happened to him. Did - is he here?” My voice cracked, the pity on his face making me dizzy. “If you’re here then he must be here. Say he’s here. Tell me you know where he is...”

“Scott…”

“Please.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, not meeting my eyes. “I don’t.”

I stared at him, his words nonsensical. “I don’t understand.”

“I haven’t seen him since the two of you left.”

“They took him…”

“I’m so sorry...he’s not here. Before Mr. Grassi died he said that you were killed but - but he said nothing of Mitch.”

My stomach churned. “Mr. Grassi is dead?”

Avriel’s eyes sank. “I assumed you knew. The Grassi legacy has been destroyed. Mr. and Mrs. Grassi were both killed in a fire eight months ago. Mitch has been missing for over a year. The bank has now been taken over by some distant cousin.”

“But - you are still here…”

“I work for the new owners of the mansion. The house was sold and the staff remained.”

“But Mitch…”

Avriel shook his head, wiping at his eyes. “I don’t know. I haven’t known. I assumed…”

“He’s not dead.”

“Scott -”

“He cannot be dead.”

“Then where is he?”

I close my eyes and hold my tea to my lips, breathing in the heat as I pull myself away from the mansion and back to the present. Memories. Such horrid things they can be. I often find that my entire life feels like a memory, and I can only hope that the future it is held within will be better than the past in which I am entrapped. I watch the sky as the moon slowly rises, retreating to my desk with the day’s newspaper when the night finally reveals itself to me. I glance down at the date before flipping to the obituaries.

October 14th, 1929.

It still seems odd to me that twelve years have passed from the first moment I met Mitchell Grassi. We were so young, the two of us, and had only months in which we were together, and yet his life has marked mine in a manner that I can hardly understand. I spent years searching for him, positive that if I looked hard enough he would turn up and give me a smile, his voice soft as he said, “I have been waiting so long for you to find me, mio tesoro.”

I have still not found him.

I look up when a knock sounds at the door, standing and grumbling to myself as I make my way to the front of the shop. The front lights are off and we are quite obviously closed, yet I cannot help my smile when I realize who it is at the door.

Avriel, Kevin, and Kirstin each give me a hug and I invite them in, glad for the visit. It has been months since I’ve seen any of them, and I have grown lonely in the repetition of my stagnant life. I wonder if this is what the rest of my days will resemble and the thought makes me sad, but I push it away when I feel Avriel’s soft lips on mine.

“You’ve grown a beard,” he murmurs, his fingers warm against my cheek. I rest my hands on his hips, the feeling of another person so close I’m struck drunk. I have missed contact. I have missed so, so many things.

They stay for a few hours, Kevin and Kirstin leaving when the clock strikes eleven although Avriel stays longer. The look in his eyes tells me he knows what I am thinking, and when we finally decide to retire for the night he presses me against the door to my bedroom, his hands firm against my chest.

“Kochanie,” he whispers, and I melt with exhaustion and need and sorrow. He has changed so much - we both have - yet he is still as beautiful as the first day I met him. “What do you need?”

“I want to feel again,” I manage, and his mouth distracts me from the empty hole that has been burning in my chest for well over a decade. He makes my toes curl and my body react in ways that I have not felt for months, and I hold him close against me as the morning light shines down upon us, fighting sleep in fear of the dreams it will bring.

He drifts off and I rest my chin on his shoulder, breathing in the scent of his skin that is not nearly enough. I somehow submit to sleep but wake after a few hours, pressing into Avriel as he moans against me and wishing more than anything that this world could have been so much different.

“Do you think he’s alive?” I ask quietly, and Avriel turns to look at me, his beautiful eyes tired in a way I do not understand.

“I hope. I cannot imagine him otherwise.”

“Do you think…” I cannot finish my sentence, and Avriel kisses my shoulder, his arm wrapping around my waist.

“I think that if he could come back to you, he would.”

“But he hasn’t.”

“Scott…”

“Is it pitiful?” I whisper, my voice rough with years of cigars and whisky. “That I still wait for him? Does that make me a fool?”

“No, honey,” Avriel says gently. “Not at all. It means that you love him.”

“Perhaps I should stop loving him.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Do you think you could?”

“No.”

“I worry for you, city boy. I do not like that you are so alone constantly.”

“You could stay,” I murmur, and he smiles. “Help me run the shop.”

“I am a groundskeeper, sweet boy, not a watchmaker. I would miss the nature.”

“I miss you.”

“I miss you, as well, kochanie.”

“And I miss him.”

Avriel’s warm eyes sink and he kisses me again.

“I know, beautiful. I miss him, too.”

--

Avriel leaves the next morning and I am alone again. I open the shop late although there are not many patrons, winding my pocketwatch and setting the time before working on a commission that has been on my table for a week now. I finish about half an hour before noon and I close the shop for lunch, ordering soup and a sandwich from the deli across the street. I stop by the tavern for a quick pint after and am about to retreat to my shop once more when I hear a name that makes me freeze.

“Mitchell Grassi,” a voice says, and I turn on my heels. “Disappeared before he inherited the bank. His father died a few months later and some relative took over instead. That was years ago, though.”

Someone laughed. “I wonder where Grassi is now.”

“I heard someone say he ran off to Italy with a servant boy.”

“Really?”

“Disgusting breed, honestly. Wouldn’t be surprised if he was killed off.”

“Deserved it.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

My shoulders tense but I only turn and walk out of the tavern, tugging my coat tighter around me. Fools. They had not even been correct in their little taboo assumptions. We had never gone to Italy - we never would have gone to Italy, not during the war. Not when Cosa Nostra was so strong in Sicily -

- I pause, and a man on the sidewalk nearly collides into me. He curses before hurrying past and I look back to the tavern, my mind racing and my hands growing slick with sweat.

Italy.

If it had been the Bonannos who had found us - which it must have been - perhaps they would not have bothered to bring him all the way back to America. Perhaps they could have deposited him in a place only a boat ride away. A place where their affiliations are strongest. If they had not killed him - which surely they hadn’t, considering I was still alive - and they had not delivered him back to Mr. Grassi, perhaps they had brought him to a place where his influence and wealth could be most beneficial. Cosa Nostra is strong in New York, but it is nothing compared to the motherland.

It is nothing compared to Sicily.

I look up and find it surprising that the world has not stopped around me. I hurry back to the shop, scrawling a letter to Avriel before packing a bag and purchasing a ticket for a steamship that is Italy bound. It is a stretch - it is such a stretch - but it has been a decade and I am desperate. I do not even know what I will do when I arrive in Europe - how I will somehow infiltrate the Mafia for a boy who likely died years ago - but I have no time to worry for that.

There is a chance that Mitchell Grassi is alive.

And I am going to find him.

Chapter Text

I visit the cemetery before I leave, the ground already hardened with the beginnings of autumn. My parents’ grave is overgrown and I tend to it as best I can, unsure if it will be cared for once I am gone to Italy. I do not know if I will ever return to New York City. Somehow, the thought does not worry me as much as it might have.

My sister’s headstone is younger than theirs, bitten with only a few years of decay, and I spend some time sitting by its side, far more reluctant to leave her again as I once had long ago. I had managed to find her after I’d returned from the war, though by that point she had already grown into a young woman and established a life for herself. An estranged brother would have been nothing more than an inconvenience. We had only met thrice before she passed, and I now hold our division within my heart as one of my greatest regrets.

I send a package through the post to Avriel containing a key to my watchmaking shop along with the note I have written explaining everything. I tell him not to worry for me, though I know he will. I tell him I will find Mitch. I tell him that he is the greatest friend I have ever known, and that I hope one day I will see him again.

I know that I will likely never see him again.

But still, with my pocketwatch tucked in my jacket and my beaten heart lying restless in my hands, I leave America once again in search of a boy I will do anything to find.

--

It is only once I arrive to the streets of Sicily that I begin to see the faults in my current course of action. I am a German war veteran wandering a populated Italian city, unable to speak the language and searching for somebody who - even if he is here - will be a prisoner of one of the most powerful crime organizations in the world. If I manage to find him, no matter how highly the odds against me are stacked in that case, there is no possible way that I can save him from his captors of well over a decade. The only weapon in my possession is an old Luger pistol from the war, and while I am a good shot, that will mean nothing if I am up against Cosa Nostra.

But instead of seeing these signs as the warnings they are, I simply pull my jacket tighter around my shoulders and set out into the beautiful Sicilian city.

Days pass and my hope grows more and more stale, the likelihood of discovering the whereabouts of Mitchell Grassi shifting from low to blearily impossible. If he is alive, he is not here. And if, somehow, he is here, I will not find him.

I am close to resigning when late one night, in a tavern that I should avoid for my own safety, I feel a warm hand on my shoulder. I turn to see a man, perhaps close to fifty, staring down at me with dark beaded eyes and a smile that looks like a scar on his face.

“Bel ragazzo,” he murmurs, and I flinch. He smells of smoke and cinnamon, and he sips his drink before leaning against the bar and offering me another smile. Un bel ragazzo come te non dovrebbe stare in giro tutto solo…”

“I’m afraid I cannot understand you,” I say, and he raises his eyebrows as though pleased. “My Italian is not quite up to par.”

“Quite alright,” he says, his voice sending shivers down my spine, and I wish more than anything for this interaction to be over. “You do not seem the type to frequent places like these.”

I give what I hope to be an indulgent laugh, leaning away from him without being overly obvious in my discomfort. “Well, it is a traveler’s duty, is it not, to seek out the foundations of where they are visiting?”

“Perhaps,” the man says, “but you do not strike me as much of a traveler. You have been here for days now, have you not?”

I pause, taking a slow sip of my wine and assessing the situation. His proximity seems a bit more threatening, now, although his dark eyes are still somewhat docile. “I am taking a holiday in Italy, yes.”

“Holiday,” he repeats, and I glance at the exit of the tavern before looking back at him. “Curious.”

“What is?”

“Travelling alone.” He moves a bit closer, his hand resting on the bar next to mine. “Nobody to notice your absence. Nobody to worry if you are gone.”

I laugh with a bit of irritation, sitting up on my stool and giving him a hard look that makes his eyes flicker with unease. Over the years, my insecurities have morphed into sureties. I am broken as the hands of an ancient clock, yes, but I am also stronger than I have ever been. “Nobody will have to worry about that, though, sir. I am not going anywhere.”

“But you wish to.”

“You’ve no idea what I wish.”

“You wish for Grassi,” he says softly, and it is as though I have been struck in the stomach. “You’ve been making inquiries. Subtle, yes, but a name like that does not go unnoticed in Sicily.”

I survey him with an impatience that is close to rearing its head, my thoughts hungry for Mitch and yet not terribly forgetful of the dangers of this situation. “Who are you?”

“I should be asking you the same.”

“Then do so.”

His chin tilts forward a bit but he only gives another smile. “What business would a man like you have with Grassi?”

“You would be surprised.”

“I don’t think I would be.”

I set my wine glass down on the bar, my fingers trembling as I let go. “Old friends.”

The man smirks, and my eyelids grow a bit heavier. “As though Grassi would have any friends who are Germans.”

“Then perhaps you do not know him.”

“I know him plenty, bel ragazzo,” he whispers, and his voice is farther away than before. I shake my head and he laughs. “Something wrong?”

“Of course not.”

“Are you sure?” He asks again, and my mind is so light I cannot see him in front of me. Hands grip tightly onto my shoulders and I am pulled away into somebody’s chest, unable to help my immobility.

“Who are you?” I choke, the words muddling together. He chuckles, his voice soft in my ear as I realize all at once the foolish mistake I have made.

“Cosa Nostra does not take well to inquiries, bel ragazzo. Especially not inquiries regarding Mitchell Grassi.”

--

The light is gone, and I am unsure if it is because I am blind or if there is some manufactured blockage that is keeping it from me. I cannot tell, the only thing possible to process being the dull ache in my left cheek and the taste of blood on my tongue. The air around me is blisteringly hot, or perhaps it is simply the nerves of my body crying out for help that I am feeling. It is quiet, and then it is not quiet, and I do not remember the difference between the two states of silence.

“Hai delle labbra così belle,” a soft voice says, and I wince as tight fingers slide into my hair. It is a man, I am sure of that, but I do not know if it is the same man that I met at the tavern. The treble in his voice is indistinct, but I can feel the unkindness with every moment his skin touches mine. He says something again though this phrase is far less distinguishable, and I lower my head in some attempt at separating the two of us. It takes a moment before I realize that I am on my knees with my hands tied behind my back, and the vulnerability of my position sends a wild panic jolting through my bones as the man pulls me closer to him. I hear a zipping sound and then the fingers tighten in my hair, and I am suddenly thankful for the blindness I have been granted.

Something is pushed against my lips and I pull back, but it does not stop. I feel tears sting at my eyes and I try to take myself away from this moment, positive that I cannot handle embodiment during something so abhorrent, but it does not seem as though I am able to escape and lucidity - as cruel and benevolent a taste - calls to me like birdsong alongside morning dew. The man lets out a pleased sigh and it takes everything in me not to vomit, salt and shame and fear wet on my tongue. I pray to God for this to end, but it seems as though God has stopped listening to me long ago.

A loud slam makes me jump and the man moves back, his fingers gone from my hair and his filth gone from my mouth. There is the sound of shouting, though I cannot understand what is being said, and I curl into myself as the blindness continues to taunt me. There are tears on my cheeks, I am sure, but I cannot push them away no matter how ardently I try. A voice is yelling, and it takes a moment before I realize that there are now two men in the room with me, my captor and somebody who has somehow ceased his assault. I do not know who the second man is, but in this moment I am grateful to him as I have never been before in my life.

“Che cazzo pensi di fare?” One of the voices growls, and I have to bite back a sob at the sound of my savior. His tone is higher than the other man’s, his accent not as natural and his vowels Americanized. His words are crimson with fury.

The first man whispers, “Mi dispiace tanto, Signore, non volevo -”

“Quiet.”

The air freezes and I hear a series of clicks, my captor saying meekly after a few seconds, “I apologize, sir, I did not -”

“Do not lie to me. You knew precisely what you were doing, or else you would not have done it.”

“Signore -”

“I said quiet. You disrespect me by speaking. Every word you utter is filth.”

“Signore, please -”

“Get on your knees.”

I shudder, sinking back against something as I realize what will happen. The virtue of my savior disintegrates in an instant.

“I want you to tell me why you thought it was acceptable to do that in my home,” he murmurs, his voice tight as though he is a moment from snapping.

“Sir -”

“Answer.”

“He - he was...I only thought that it would be…” The man I know as my captor does not finish.

“You thought it would be what?”

“I’m sorry, sir…”

“Have you done this before?”

“Signore…”

“Have you done this before?”

“Y-yes…”

There is a silence that makes my blood curdle, and then a sharp gasp.

“I want you to apologize,” my savior whispers, “for everything that you have done.”

“I am so sorry, Signore…”

“Tell me that you will never do it again.”

“I - I will never do it again -”

“Ask me to be merciful.”

“Please, Signore - I - p-please…”

“Ask me to be merciful.”

“Be merciful…”

“Ask me to forgive you.”

“Please, Signore ...forgive m-me -”

“Say it again.”

“Forgive me -”

“Again.”

“Forgive me -”

“AGAIN.”

“Forgive -”

There is a sharp gunshot and a thud.

My captor does not speak again.

“Foolish man,” my savior whispers, and I bite back a scream as realization hits as to what has happened. “Cosa Nostra does not know the meaning of forgiveness.”

A moment passes and I flinch as the feeling of fingers in my hair returns, although this time they are gentle and almost hesitant. Something tugs at the back of my head and I am greeted by bleary vision, the dark outline of a man the only thing I can make out in front of me. I choke a sob and the fingers slip from my hair as he takes a step back, and from his posture it seems as though he is worried, though for what I am uncertain.

“Are you alright?” he asks, as though I have not just witnessed him murder somebody. My eyes are heavy but I glance behind him, my stomach churning at the dark body that lies motionless on the floor. I can only pray that this savior of mine is less vicious than my captor, although I know such a concept is impossible considering what he has just done.

“Please,” I say meekly, and he takes another step away. I do not know what he will do me, but I can only hope that begging will do much to quench his cruelty.

“Who are you?”

“Please…”

“You must give me a name, sir, otherwise we will get nowhere.”

I shake my head but do as he asks, whispering, “My name is Scott Hoying...”

He reacts so quickly that I can hardly follow; his hand grips at my shoulder and the barrel of his gun presses against my temple, his shadowed face so close to mine that I can smell the sweetness of cigars on his breath.

“How the hell do you know that name?” He growls, and for a moment I wonder if it is fear or desperation I hear in his voice.

“That is me,” I whisper, and his gun presses harder to my skin. Somehow, I am not afraid. “My name is Scott Hoying…”

“Scott Hoying has been dead for years now,” he says, his tone trembling with something I cannot understand. “Now I ask you again, how the hell do you know that name?”

“That is me -”

“Do not lie to me.”

“Please,” I manage, and his grip on my shoulder tightens.

“They told me you were looking for Mitchell Grassi. Why?”

“Please -”

“Mitchell Grassi is dead, and you will be soon if you do not cooperate. Who are you and why are you here?”

His threat means nothing to me, the words of preface too loud for me to manage consideration of the latter. My shoulders tense and I look up at him, my lips parting as what I know to be my last breath escapes. I can no longer hear, can no longer see, can no longer think.

Mitchell Grassi is dead.

I sink back onto my knees as my body collapses beneath me, the marionette strings snipping one by one until I am nothing more than an immobile, battered corpse. The man presses his gun hard against my head and I wish for him to pull the trigger, sorrow compressing my blood as I have never before felt. These years - this past decade - had only continued to pass with the fanciful hope that Mitchell Grassi was still somewhere in our mortal world, but now time ceases to work and even a watchmaker’s hand can do nothing to repair what has been so cruelly destroyed.

Time does not exist without Mitchell Grassi.

The hands of clocks freeze.

My pocketwatch shatters against my chest.

The man is speaking, but I do not hear his words. I greet blindness as an old friend. I greet sorrow much the same.

The gun is dropped from my temple and a moment later fingers are gripping hard at my chin, forcing my head up as the man - my abhorrent savior - speaks words that I have forgotten to hear.

“What did you want with Mitchell Grassi?”

“He is dead…”

“What did you want?”

My face crumples and I close my eyes. “He is dead…”

“Tell me.”

“Kill me…”

His fingers dig into my jaw, his voice edged with incredulity. “Who are you?”

I ignore him, tucking my chin into my neck and shuddering as the grief takes hold. I cannot stand it, the thought that my boy is gone. The thought that his body is somewhere in the ground - his beautiful face cursed with decay and his soft voice never again whispering sweetness into my ears. I long to feel him, long to hold him, long to throw away the wasted years until he will return to me. I had once promised that the angels in Heaven were watching over him, and it aches to consider that now he no longer needs it to be so.

He is dead.

“Mio tesoro,” I choke out, squeezing my eyes shut as the words burn lost kisses into my skin. I had never shown him how much I adored him - had never thought that we would not have time enough. “Bitte…” Please. I wish to go back. Wish to protect him as I had promised. Wish to change everything. “Mio tesoro, Ich liebe dich…”

The fingers on my skin disappear and a moment later they are in my hair once more, the man’s breath warm on my face as he whispers, “What did you just say?”

I ignore him, letting out a pained sob as my breathing grows labored. His grip is firm, though, and I am forced to look up at him, his shadowed face blurred with tears.

“Who are you?” He asks again, and this time he sounds anything but angry.

“Kill me…”

“How do you know who Scott Hoying is?”

“Please -”

“Goddammit, answer the fucking question. How do you know who that is?”

“Because I am Scott Hoying. And Mitch…”

“Scott Hoying is dead.”

“I’m alive.”

The fingers tighten in my hair and he growls, “Open your eyes.”

I loathe this man, whoever he is, but do as he orders. His fingers tighten on my jaw and I pull away.

“They are blue,” he says, and his hand moves slowly to cup my swollen cheek. His face is still hidden in the shadows of my mind, but I can make out a sloping nose and a dimpled chin. His voice rises in pitch as he moves closer. “What do you know about Scott Hoying and Mitchell Grassi?”

“We…” I do not continue, unhappy to betray such importance to somebody so cruel. He moves closer again and I look away, whispering, “We ran away.”

“What else?”

“You do not deserve to know -”

“Prove to me you are who you say you are. Tell me something that only Scott Hoying and Mitchell Grassi would know.”

I look up, tears running down my cheeks as my world is consumed by this horrid man with deep umber eyes that almost look familiar.

“The riverside.”

He watches me a long while before standing and circling my body. There is a tug at my hands and a slight burn as the rope with which I am bound is removed, and I feel his arms hitch under my shoulders as he helps me to my feet. My legs are unsteady and my vision clears as the shadows leave my eyes, but when he returns in front of me I cannot bear to look at him. He moves forward, his fingers resting on my jaw once more, and I wince but do not react otherwise. When he speaks, his voice is gentle and so terribly hopeful.

“Scott.”

I do not meet his eyes, and he lets out a slow breath.

“Tesoro.”

The word makes me flinch. He sounds close to tears but I cannot care. Mitchell Grassi is dead. Nothing is of any importance.

“Mio tesoro -”

“Do not call me that -”

“Look at me.”

I loathe him. I do not know who he is, or why he must enforce such cruelty, and I loathe him. Shame colors my cheeks as I raise my gaze slowly to meet his.

It is as though I am staring into the eyes of a ghost.

His hair is dark - darker than it had been twelve years ago - and it almost touches his shoulders, half of it pulled back and the other half curling against his neck. He’s grown a beard that is cropped close to his skin, and his hue has darkened to olive from the Italian sun. He is still small, though his shoulders are fuller and his chest more broad, and his dark sepia eyes are wet with tears. He is smiling at me, and though he is different - he is so different - his dimples still flash the way they did when we were seventeen and knew nothing of the world.

I do not know that I am stepping back until my body hits the wall, and he takes a few hesitant paces forward before halting. My chin is trembling and I keep shaking my head, unable to do anything other than stare at him and try not to collapse onto the floor.

“Tesoro,” he whispers, and his voice is still as sweet as the day I had met him. He steps forward again, his fingers resting on my chest, curling over my cheeks, trailing through my hair. He is touching me, and I cannot understand because I had never thought he would touch me again. I long to hold him, long to kiss him, long to say something but I cannot.

My boy is alive.

He is alive, and a moment later his mouth is on mine and he is kissing me, his arms pulling me closer, and I am holding him - I am kissing him and after twelve years he - he is alive.

I close my eyes and grip my fingers in his hair - it is so long and soft now - breathing him, tasting him, feeling him move against me as I never thought I would. His mouth is sweet with cigars and wine, and I am crying as he moves closer to me, nearly standing on my toes as he tries to eliminate the space between us. He is warm and small in my arms. He is holding me. He is here.

He is mine.

“Tesoro,” he whispers, and I have never been so in love with a word than I am in this moment. “Mio tesoro…”

“You are alive,” I finally manage to choke out, and he smiles up at me as though I am the most beautiful sight he has ever seen.

“You are alive.”

“Yes,” I say, biting my lip before leaning forward to kiss him again. He smiles against my lips, his mouth warm. He feels real. He is real. My eyes are wet with tears and my boy is in my arms and this - all of this - is so terribly and wonderfully and imperfectly perfect.

I have found Mitchell Grassi.

And he is alive.

Chapter Text

also i found this vintage pic and it reminded me of our boys, so i thought i'd share it with you :)

 

 

 

 

So overcome with joy that I never thought I would have the chance to feel, it takes a moment before the consequence of his existence breaches the surface of my conscious mind. I pull back, my eyes slipping open and taking in the beauteous sight of this boy - or rather, this man, as he has now become so much more than just a boy - before me. He is still smiling, and a moment before I had been the same, although now I can do nothing but stare at him with an incredulity and curiosity that seems far too precarious for the severity of what this all means.

He is alive.

And he - he appears to be fine.

He does not look how I had assumed a captive of Cosa Nostra would look; his body shows no signs of malnourishment or aggression, he is dressed well in clothes that likely cost more than I have made in the past half decade, and his eyes still hold within them an undiluted spirit. He is smiling. His hands are held in mine. He is alright.

It does not make sense.

I take a step back and he follows me, his fingers resting under my chin and his other hand moving to grip at the buttons of my jacket. It is so easy to get lost in the feel of him, my eyes slipping closed as his lips press against my neck, but I am once again taken away from the moment as my foolish mind catches up to itself.

He had said something - something important, although my memory has been invalided since the war and I cannot even begin to guess what it might have been. It had been important, though - something he had said to that man -

My gaze jumps to the floor, landing on the body that is now lying not five feet from us.

My blood runs cold.

The man looks almost as though he is asleep, save the pool of blood that is seeping from his skull into the thick, rich carpet. Mitch moves back from me, his eyes following mine, and I think that he is going to explain that this is all simply a joke - the man is not actually dead and Mitch has not actually killed him - but instead he sighs and says with a simple and horrible indifference, “Shame. That is going to stain.”

I look down at him, unease settling in my gut as I take a step back. His eyes are empty of remorse. “You - you killed him…”

My boy regards me steadily, as though surprised by my concern. The feeling in my stomach grows. “He was trying to rape you, tesoro. Of course I killed him.”

“You did not know it was me, though…”

“That doesn’t matter. Rapists are filth, no matter who their victims are.” His expression darkens, his brow furrowing a bit more. “Would you rather I let him live?”

“I…” I shake my head, an insecurity I have not felt for many years winding its way around my throat. “I’m not sure. You killed him, though. He is dead...because of you…”

“Tesoro,” Mitch steps towards me and I cannot help the spark of fear that laces in my gut. He smiles, shaking his head and holding up his hands as though struck with bewilderment. He believes I am acting foolish. I believe he is a murderer. “He was not a good man,” he continues slowly, “but he was useful. I would have killed him eventually, this simply quickened the process. His life was worthless to me after what he tried to do to you.”

He says it with such ease, as though remarking on the weather rather than his now apparent position as a god. I wonder if all of his moral beliefs have disintegrated along with this. The boy who had once had nightmares of a French general killing German prisoners has now become a man who treats murder as though it is an everyday occurrence.

The juxtaposition makes me feel as though I might vomit.

I take another step back, whispering, “Do you kill people often, then?”

His eyes soften, as though he has finally realized the abhorrence of his words. He has the audacity to glance back at the dead body with a detached sort of curiosity, his hands folding in front of him. When he looks back up, I do not recognize the man before me. “I am unsure if you want to hear the answer to that question,” he says finally.

“I...I do not understand…”

“Tesoro -”

“Mitch, you’ve - you’ve killed people…”

He steps forward, his eyes narrowing. I recognize the frustration in his expression, and it makes me feel as though I am seventeen years old and clueless about the world once more. I cannot comprehend any of this - his irritation, his indifference, his fucking apparel. He looks as though he’s spent the past decade living in exaggerated comfort rather than as a prisoner, and my mind rings heavy with confusion.

“Of course I’ve killed people,” he says after a long while, and this time his words are heavy with nothing more than verity. He eyes are guarded, the fortress he has composed about himself now impregnable, and it aches to know that his first instinct when speaking with me is defense. “I’ve killed many, many people, Scott. I killed the men who first told me you were dead, and everybody after who said the same. I killed Mr. Bonanno when I learned that it was he who had taken you from me. I killed his son Cesare, as well, the little shit. Every client of mine who has been a disappointment, I have killed. Every man who has fucked me to try and get to my money, I have killed. Every person who has dared mention the name Mitchell Grassi, I have killed. They took you from me. They took you from me. You - I would have done anything for you - I had done everything I could for you - to make you happy, because I loved you more than I could understand, and then they took you away, and they brought me to Sicily, and they told me you were dead.” He stares up at me, his eyes obsidian. “You were dead. You - I thought you were dead - the only person I have ever loved and they - they killed you…” His voice cracks. “Everybody says that men like us will burn for our sins. You...you were dead. So I did everything I could to ensure that I would meet you in Hell.”

I take a step back, my hands trembling. “You’re not a prisoner of Cosa Nostra...”

“Prisoner?” He whispers it, his eyes miserable and his chest rising too fast. “Mio tesoro, I am no prisoner. I’m the fucking leader.”

I step back again and the corner of a bookshelf digs into my spine. I finally think to assess the room around us, far too engaged previous to worry about the decorative surroundings, and the unease in my gut does not settle. It is an office, I am fairly sure, a vast mahogany desk stationed in front of a bay window that allows the Sicilian moonlight to shine through. There is a bookshelf along the perimeter wall, two overstuffed cushion chairs with a small table between them. It is gorgeous, certainly, but beneath the beauty is a horror not so plainly seen. There is blood seeping into the beautiful oriental carpet, a knife stabbed into one of the walls with a broken hilt, an imperfection in the glass window that looks all too much like a bullet. It is the office of a mobster - the office of a murderer. I look back down at Mitch and it strikes me how comfortably he fits with the aesthetic. He looks wealthy. He looks powerful.

He does not look like the boy I fell in love with.

He moves as though to come closer before deciding to step away. The tension in the air is unbearable. I breathe a sigh - grateful for the break - and watch as he crosses to the door and opens it, calling down the hall in Italian. A moment later a servant boy appears in the doorway and Mitch says something else, giving the boy a nod as he hurries away back down the hall. He turns back to me with a tight look, his arms crossing in front of his chest like he is protecting himself.

“This conversation should wait a bit longer, I think,” he says finally, sounding distinctly unsure. “It is not wise to speak when filled with such... strong emotions. I assume you would like to get cleaned up?”

I nod, although I’m not entirely certain this conversation should wait any longer than it already has. I cannot argue that bathing does not sound pleasant, however, especially after the apparent beating I took when the man from the tavern had escorted me to Cosa Nostra. My cheek aches now more than ever and my eyes are still a bit blurry, my hair hanging down in front of my face in strands that look as though they are tangled with blood. I’m a bit surprised that Mitch had kissed me given my current state, but then again, I had kissed him after witnessing him murder somebody, so I figure my right to judge has been retracted.

He offers his hand to me and it takes a long moment of deliberation before I agree to take it, marveling at the smoothness of his skin that so strongly conflicts with his brazen interior. I do not allow myself to pay mind to the gun that hangs from his belt like an added extremity.

He leads me down a long hallway and through a door that opens to what I assume are his bedchambers. They are distinctly warmer than the office and reminiscent of his old rooms at the Grassi mansion. My eye catches the portrait of a blond angel sitting above the bed’s headboard, his wings spread as though aching for flight. My stomach tightens, positive that it is the same portrait Avriel had painted of me all those years ago, although how it came to be in Sicily, I do not know. My stomach only tightens more, though, as my gaze lowers to the bed and the man who is lying naked upon the sheets, a book held in his hands and a look of surprise on his face.

“Signore,” he says, moving to cover himself. Mitch waves his hand as though annoyed, saying something quick and biting that makes the man blush and hurry past us out of the room. I can feel my heart beating faster in my chest and I do not move, unsure of what to say, or whether I even have the right to say anything at all. Mitch turns to me, his fingers slipping out of mine.

“His name is Savio,” he says slowly, his eyes not meeting mine. He is ashamed, although I do not think he should be. Not for this, anyway. “He is nothing. Simply a good fuck.”

I nod, my brow furrowing. “You - you do not have to explain yourself. It’s been twelve years. You were allowed to move on a long time ago.”

He is quiet, his eyes looking everywhere but at me. “And you? Have - have you moved on?”

The vulnerability in his voice only aids my confusion, but seeing this piece of him - this piece that is far more like his old self than anything else I have witnessed today - is not something I will disregard easily.

“No,” I whisper. “I have not.”

Something flashes across his face but he turns away before I can read what it is. He leads me to a washroom that is larger than the entirety of my apartment back in New York City. He seems hesitant to leave me, but God knows I need time alone to think, and finally he promises to have dinner ready for when I am finished. The door click shuts behind him and there is a moment where I simply stare at myself in the full length mirror standing in the corner of the room, wondering if I am as different to him as he is to me. The thought brings tears to my eyes and I allow, just this once, for them to fall as they may.

He is alive.

He is alive, and I have found him, and after more than a decade, we are together again.

But I am unsure if I am happy about that or not.

I unbutton my jacket and allow it to fall to the floor, my trousers and shirt following not long after. I was correct - my hair is dried with blood and my cheek is swollen. The man from the tavern had certainly not been conservative when doling out his precursory sedatives. It seems drugging me was simply not enough for him.

I step under the warm water of the shower, cleaning my face as best I can before it becomes too sensitive to touch. There are an array of soaps and I try each, finally settling on the bottle of lemon and ginger wash. It leaves my skin and hair smelling like an orchard, and I step out of the shower feeling significantly better than I had when I’d entered. My dirty clothes are gone from the floor and there is only a pile of towels left in their place, and though the thought of such exposure in front of Mitch makes me nervous, I am aware that there is not much of an option for me. I dry myself and flick the light switch in the bathroom as I exit, only a towel draped around my hips to preserve what modesty I have left.

There are two trays of food set on a small table, although Mitch is not there. I consider eating alone but decide against it, wandering through his bedroom and pausing at the foot of his bed, surprised to see that what I had originally assumed to be windows facing opposite the wall are in fact doors leading onto a private balcony. They are open now, and I am greeted by the silhouette of a man leaning against the rail, the Sicilian moon hanging high in the clouds. I step out and pause when I am beside him, shivering at the cool wind. It is a long moment before he looks up at me, a cigar caught between his lips and his beautiful eyes sad in a way they should never be.

“You thought you were saving me,” he whispers, smoke curling into the air before us. He offers me the cigar and I take it, its sweetness burning my lungs.

“I thought you were a prisoner,” I answer finally, goosebumps prickling over my arms. “I thought that the only reason you had not come back to me was because you couldn’t.”

“I thought you were dead.”

“I thought the same. That did not keep me from trying to find you.”

He smiles, but I can tell my words have struck harder than intended. “You have no idea how long I spent looking for you. How much money I poured into finding you - thousands of dollars on private investigators and detectives. How long I spent hoping that you were alive...hoping that I could find you if I looked hard enough…”

“You could have asked Avriel. He’s known where I’ve been for the past eleven years, Mitch -”

“And endanger him like that? Gesù Cristo, tesoro, do you know how many enemies I have? Anybody even remotely important to me is an automatic target. You’ve seen the men that are my supposed allies, none of them are trustworthy. Protection is impossible when you are surrounded by snakes, and I - I considered contacting him, of course, but it came down to his safety and I was not going to take that away from him.” He shakes his head, his lips pursing together. “When they brought me to Sicily, everything changed. I thought you were dead, and I knew that whoever had killed you would not hesitate to kill anybody else important to me. I had to make a choice, and I chose to cut myself off from everybody I loved. When I learned that it had been the Bonannos, killing them was probably the most foolish thing I could have done, but I - I did so anyway. I ensured that everybody who knew about my friends was subdued. Contacting Avriel, no matter how much I wanted to, would have created a trail leading right to him. I...I couldn’t risk anybody harming him…”

“And so you let him believe you were dead.”

“What else was I supposed to do? Invite him to Italy with me so somebody could shoot him in the back? The only reason I’m not dead yet is because everybody who’s tried to kill me, I’ve killed them first. That’s it. Do you honestly think Avriel would want to see me like this? Do you want to see me like this?”

“Then why didn’t you leave?”

“Because Mitchell Grassi is dead,” he growls, and the look in his eyes is close to manic. “He’s been dead for twelve years now. He was found in Greece by the Bonanno family and shot in the head. His body was thrown into the Mediterranean. He’s dead.”

I clench my jaw. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“You think I was supposed to survive when the Bonannos found us? You think you were supposed to survive? They were going to kill us, Scott - they should have killed us. But they didn’t. They kept me alive because I was still the Grassi heir - I was still going to inherit the millions of dollars from my family. My parents supposedly died in a fire, but my father wasn’t the only man competent at making murder look like an accident. Bonanno killed my parents, collected my inheritance - fuck, you thought I was a prisoner, well I suppose I was for those first few months.” His words are coming out too quickly, his hands trembling as he grips the railing.

“I don’t understand,” I whisper, and he shakes his head, his eyes wet with angry tears.

“They wanted to get my inheritance before killing me. They kept me captive, although they wouldn’t have called it that. When they killed my parents and got the money, they made it public to Cosa Nostra that Mitchell Grassi had been killed in Greece where they’d found him with his servant boy. I was dead. Everyone believed I was dead.” He lets out a slow breath, looking out into the night sky. “Mr. Bonanno had my money, and he was going to kill me. I had snuck a knife from my dinner one night. I killed him first. And then I killed his son.”

My stomach churns. “And Luce Bonanno?”

A softness settles about him. “Killing her would have been so easy. She was the last Bonanno. The last member of that fucking family that had destroyed me. I’d killed her father and brother, and her mother had died a few months before. It seemed natural that she die, too. But she had always been kind and...she was sympathetic when it came to you.” He shakes his head. “I married her, instead.”

I look away, wrapping my arms around myself. “I see.”

“She was supposed to become a Grassi, but instead I became a Bonanno. Mitchell Grassi is dead, mio tesoro. I was not lying when I said that.”

“I still don’t understand what that means,” I whisper, wishing his words were not so muddled.

“Cosa Nostra believes my name is Orso Vitale, some wealthy businessman's son from America. I go by Orso Bonanno, though. As you can imagine, the name adds a bit more weight. I married Luce a decade ago, reclaimed my inheritance from her dead father, and…” He closes his eyes. “It is all so terribly easy to gain success when you are lying through your teeth. As the new Bonanno patriarch I was given reign over Atrani, Specchia, a dozen more small villages that mean nothing in the business of crime. I was clever, though, and my influence grew. I became a true mafiosi. I held sovereignty over the more relevant villages. And then some of the neighborhoods in Sicily. And now, the Bonanno cosca is the most powerful in all of Italy, and Orso Bonanno is Il Maestro.” His eyes are dark with misery. “My father would be proud. His sodomite heir has done so well for himself...”

I do not meet his gaze, instead staring out upon the Sicilian city that is an image of dubitable perfection. I hold his cigar to my lips, breathing in the sweet poison and letting it permeate in my lungs. He stands beside me, silent, and it strikes me odd that after twelve years of absence, I now have nothing to say to him.

“You’ve been shot,” he says, pulling my from my indifferent thoughts. I glance at him before down at my shoulder, which his eyes are surveying with a terror that looks odd on his face.

“Twice,” I respond, tugging the towel down off of my hip so he can see my second bulletwound. The scars are ugly and the bullet is still lodged in my shoulder, but I do not feel shame for their presence. I shrug and readjust the towel, blowing cigar smoke out into the air and shivering at the wind’s bite.

“How?” He whispers, his soft fingers running over my skin. I allow him to touch me, although it makes my mind a bit hazy.

“The war.”

“The war,” he repeats, his eyes flicking up to meet mine. He sounds entranced. “You served in the war?”

“Yes.”

He hesitates. “Which side?”

I smile at the question, the cigar hanging between my lips as I lean over the railing. “Allies.”

“And...were you pleased with that?”

“I had no choice. When they found us, they discarded me in Belgium at an American military base. I was forced to fight under a new name.”

“I...I see.”

“First Field Artillery Regiment. They called me Aaron.”

“Aaron,” he whispers. “Very... American.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Orso. Very Italian.”

His cheeks flush red and he smiles, looking away from me. It is nice to see him smile.

“So what happens now?” I ask quietly after a long while, and he pushes himself up from the railing, pulling his hair back.

“We have dinner.”

I laugh at the simplicity of his answer, as though all of our thousands of problems are possible to solve by simply having dinner. “And after that?” I hesitate, worrying at my lip with my teeth. “What happens then? What happens with us?”

He looks up at me, and I know that he is thinking very much the same as I.

“We will worry about that later,” he says finally, his voice soft. “But for now, dinner.”

I nod, managing to hold his gaze for the first time that night.

“Alright. Dinner.”

--

We do not make it to dinner.

He closes the doors to his balcony and brushes his hand against mine as he passes, and somehow his lips end up on mine, his fingers gripping tight to my wrists as he pushes me against the wall. My hands come to hold his face, his hips, his legs, before he is beneath me - moaning and cursing and begging as I fuck him hard on the floor, my forehead pressed to his and our mouths brushing together and our eyes never once leaving the other’s. It is over far too quickly but we do not move, his fingers tangled in my hair and his lips so warm against mine it feels as though my mouth may bruise. There is a pained sort of desperation in the way he kisses me, every touch hurting in a way it should not, and yet I cannot help but hold him even closer because of it.

He is different.

He is not the boy I fell in love with, but I am also not the boy he fell in love with, and I am not sure it is fair to hold him accountable for such a change. I want him to be the same as he had been when we were seventeen - I want him to have some of that innocence that has been so horribly lost - but he is not and he cannot be that person.

And that is difficult to comprehend.

“You are married,” I say after a long while of silence, and he does not respond. His arms are wrapped around my bare waist, his head resting on my chest. I trail my fingers through his hair and down along his back, trying not to notice the long, thick scars that follow the curve of his spine. “Do you have children?”

“Yes.”

I close my eyes. “How many?”

“Four.”

“Four,” I repeat, worrying at my lip as the number rings in my head. “Tell me about them.”

He laughs, the sound dry and horrible. He moves to look at me, his dark eyes exhausted. “Do you honestly want to know?”

“I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t.”

“You might have. Masochism is not a good look for you, tesoro.”

“Tell me about them. I want to know. They...they are part of your life now.” And I am not.

He sighs but rests his head back on my chest, his hand tracing over the muscles of my stomach. “Lucretzia is turning ten next month. She is the eldest, a spitting image of her mother. The twins, Cassandra and Alessandro, are seven. They are both in Rome with Luce’s cousins until Christmas.” He pauses, moving closer. “Nicodemo is five.”

I brush my fingers through his fringe. “Nicodemo.”

“He looks just like my brother did. Same eyes, same complexion, same smile.” Mitch’s lips curl up tiredly. “Same spirit.”

“You love them.”

“They are my children. Of course I love them.”

“Will you have more?”

“Luce is pregnant again. She is due in two months.” His smile grows. “She wants a girl.”

I let my eyes slip shut, my nose nuzzling his forehead. “She sounds like a good wife.”

“Yes. She and I get on well. It...obviously it was a bit difficult when we first married, considering the fate of her family, but…” He pauses, his voice desperate in a manner I do not understand. “She does not resent me for what I did, although part of me believes she should.”

“Do you regret it?”

“Yes,” he whispers. “Of course I do. I do not think there is a way you could possibly not regret it. But...after the first time...it all gets so easy to - to keep going…”

“Mitchy…”

“Let’s not, tesoro. I...I don’t…” He sighs. “I don’t want to talk about that.”

“Alright,” I say softly, despite the certainty I feel that we should talk about it. His mouth presses to my shoulder and he looks up at me, his lip caught between his teeth. I lean forward, brushing my mouth to his and pulling away when he kisses me back. “I want to fuck you again,” I murmur, and he laughs, his arms tangling around my neck as he moves to straddle my lap.

“I like that alternative,” he whispers, gripping my hair tightly and leaning forward to bite my neck. “I like it very, very much.”

--

We talk a bit more after, though the night has grown late. Our dinner is cold but we eat anyway, and it turns to more kissing and touching and fucking until I am so exhausted I can hardly stand. We settle in his bed with him atop me, his mouth on mine and my cock buried inside of him as it should always be. It is slow and sleepy and there is a constant burn in my stomach as I take him, but I am afraid of what tomorrow will bring and if I will ever be able to hold him like this again. I drift off curled behind him, pressed against his ass with my arm wrapped over his chest, holding him close. I do not know if I still love him - if it is even possible to still love him after how much he has changed - but it is enough to pretend for now. We are feeding off of the past, yes, but that is oh so much easier than facing our unknowable future.

I awake when the moon is still in the sky to the feeling of him shuddering against me. His breathing has turned to sobs and his hands are trembling as he grips my arms, a horrible, low whine coming from his mouth that makes it sound as though he is being tortured.

“I’m sorry,” he chokes out, and I am unsure if he is apologizing to me or if he is apologizing for what he has done. Either way, I do not answer, and his grip loosens as his breathing slowly evens out. The nightmare ends and I feel him relax against me, his nose pressed against my shoulder and his eyelashes wet as they brush over my skin.

“Were any of them innocent?”

I do not notice that I have asked until he tenses, his fingers tangling in my hair. His head shakes once and I let out a slow breath, my mind settling a bit.

“Were any of them children?”

“Yes,” he whispers, and my stomach sinks. “Cesare Bonanno. He - he was fourteen…”

“But he was not innocent.”

“He was a child. I...I killed a child...”

“Why?”

There is a long moment of silence, and I can feel his tears as they trickle over my skin. “His father charged him with being my warden for those few months. He...he was cruel…”

I hesitate. “Is that why you have scars on your back?”

“Yes.”

“What did he do to you?”

“Everything.”

I nod, letting my eyes slip shut. My fingers curl through his hair, smoothing it down his back and brushing through the knots. I can taste his remorse and it makes me afraid.

“How many?” I ask, and he shakes his head. “How many, Mitch?”

“You don’t want to know…”

“Tell me. I - I can understand retribution. I can understand why you killed Bonanno, and why you killed that man today, and I - I think I can understand the others, but I do not know much about what you have done.” I turn to him, my knees bumping against his legs. His face is pale in the moonlight and he is staring down at the bedsheets, tears trickling down the slope of his nose. I am not angry. I should be, but I am not. I lean forward, pressing my lips to his jaw and murmuring again, “Tell me how many.”

His voice is hardly there. “Seven.”

“Seven,” I repeat. It is not as large a number as I had thought, but it is still far too many.

“Seven that I have...done myself.” His eyes close, shaking his head as though he can rid himself of the memories. “I have had others killed, but it was always somebody else who did it. It’s not any better but it...there is a separation...”

“Mr. Bonanno was the first.”

“Yes. He was going to shoot me. He’d gotten my money and I was useless to him...he was going to kill me and I - I had snuck a knife from dinner and…”

“It was self-defense.”

He makes a strangled noise. “Don’t.”

“It was, Mitch -”

“I butchered him. He took you from me and I - fuck, Scott, you couldn’t even tell it was him when I was finished…” He squeezes his eyes shut tighter. “I hated him. He took you away and he said you were dead and I…I’m so sorry...”

“Mitchell -”

“He took you from me.” They are no longer just words. They are pain. They are twelve long years of agony suffered for no reason other than to suffer. I rest my forehead against his but he twists away from me, his hands coming to cover his face and his shoulders trembling. “You had become so important to me...I would have done anything for you and - and he looked me in the eye and he said you were dead and he...he laughed…”

“Sweetheart…”

“You are the only person I have ever loved and he killed you. He killed you...and he laughed...” Mitch shakes his head and I move closer, resting my chin on his shoulder and humming softly until he relaxes against me, though a moment later he begins to sob again. He buries his face in my chest and I am unable to do anything other than hold him against my heart. “I dreamt of your voice for so many years…”

“Mitchy,” I murmur, pressing my lips to his neck, his cheeks, his mouth. His hands come to cradle my face and he moves forward so that he is resting atop my hips, his knees coming to support his weight on either side of me. He kisses me with a fervor that twelve years ago I never would have understood - a desperation that only those who have loved and lost could ever feel. He knows that we will not last forever. He knows that this world around us is cruel and fickle, that any kiss could be the last, that our moments together are nothing if not indefinite, and yet such knowledge is not hampering but instead sends him into an overthoughtful passion. He acts with the motion of ghosts. I am the watchmaker among us, yes, but he is the one who is enslaved by the movement of time, and I can do nothing but sit back and watch as he tries to fight against it.

He falls asleep after a long while as I sing to him, and I begin wonder to myself if there will ever come a day where Mitchell Grassi will not hold my heart between his broken and indelicate hands.

--

The Sicilian sun shines through from the balcony windows, and my boy shudders as I press into him, his lip caught between his teeth and his body tense. My mind is hazy with sleep and I pause, my mouth brushing against his neck as I whisper, “Do you want to stop?”

He shakes his head, turning from where he is lying in front of me and resting his hand back on my hip. “Don’t.”

“I’m hurting you…”

“No,” he pants, his sore body tensing again as I push in a bit more. “It’s good. It feels real…” His hand slides down from my hip and grips the base of my cock, and he lets out a moan that sounds downright devilish. “Fuck, I love feeling that you want me…”

I have to keep myself from pressing into him completely, resting my forehead between his shoulder blades. He feels so damn good around me that I do not stop, even though I logically know that we should when he is so sensitive. He shudders and curses, his voice so beautiful and hoarse that it makes my forgotten heart quicken, and I slide my arm around his chest and pull him further back against me. He hisses and I pause, though he is pressing back a moment later with a desperate impatience.

“Scotty,” he whimpers, and I bite down on his ear as I roll my hips forward slowly. “Please... puoi avere qualsiasi modo si desidera…ti voglio più di ogni altra cosa...”

“You feel so good,” I whisper, and he whimpers again, though I can hear the strain. His hand grips mine tightly and I suck at the skin of his neck, my eyes slipping shut. “ Du hast noch nicht genug, was?”

“Fuck ...please, mio tesoro…” His voice cracks and he leans into me. “Want me…”

His insecurity makes my stomach turn and I lean forward, turning his chin to capture his lips as I press hard into him. He shudders and his hands grip at my face, moaning into my mouth as I fuck him with long, slow thrusts.

“So good,” I murmur, and he stares up at me with beautiful, glassy eyes. “You feel so good, my love…”

“Please want me,” he manages, and I push into him harder.

“I want you so much. I only ever want you.”

“Please…”

“Only you, sweet boy. Only you and you forever.”

He does not speak again, only making quiet, gorgeous noises until I am biting his neck as I come. He lets out a soft, almost relieved sigh but does not move. I slide out of him slowly, kissing along his jaw and down his throat, and he lets out a surprised moan when I grip his cock between my fingers. He is barely hard. I feel my stomach tighten with guilt and I kiss his neck, whispering, “I want to make you feel good” into his skin. He looks up at me, his dark eyes lit with something I cannot read, before nodding slowly. I press warm kisses down his chest and abdomen before pausing at his pelvis, my own heart beating faster as his breath quickens. I kiss the sharp V of his hips, the trail of hair below his navel, the inside of his thighs before I finally allow myself to taste him, the beautiful moan that comes from his lips enough to send me close to the edge again.

His fingers tangle in my hair and I move my head forward, taking all of him into my mouth and pressing soft kisses to his tip until he is fully hard beneath me. I look up at him, biting my lip with a small smile, and his eyes darken to black as I whisper, “I want you to use me.”

His jaw drops like a virgin on her wedding night. “T-Tesoro…”

“Fuck me, beautiful,” I murmur, resting my chin on his thigh and stroking my fingers over his cock. “I want to show you how much I want you.”

“You’ve never…”

“I have. Not often, and not for a long while, but for you I would do anything.” I grip his cock with one hand, running my tongue along his head until he is nearly incomprehensible above me. “Do you want to fuck me, sweetheart?”

“I’ve never...with men I’ve only ever received...I’ve only fucked Luce…”

I move forward and take his hand in mine, pressing his fingers against my entrance and watching as his eyes widen.

“It feels so much better than cunt,” I say, sucking on his lower lip. “So much tighter. So much closer.”

“Scott…”

“Yes?”

“Yes,” he breathes, and a few minutes later I am on my back with him above me, his beautiful eyes anxious and the tip of his cock pressing against me. There is a slow burn and I sigh, running my hands over his arms as he pushes in and smiling at the look on his face. It feels as though he is tearing me in two and I cannot have enough of it, gripping my fingers in his hips and pulling him closer, and he leans forward to kiss me, his eyes slipping shut.

“Good?” I pant, and he nods, his fingers resting where he and I are joined. It has been a long time since I have felt this full and I am struck as though drunk, wrapping my legs around his waist as he presses forward again. The dull ache is addictive. His mouth brushes over mine, his tongue soft against my lips, and I moan as he pushes closer into me until I cannot remember what it is like to exist without him.

“Mio tesoro…”

“Fuck me,” I whisper, squeezing my eyes shut as he presses harder. “Oh, fuck, Kleiner Bär...I want you to fuck me, Schätzen…”

“Want me,” he murmurs, his voice soft as he moves faster. “I want you to want me…”

“I want you,” I manage, biting my lip as he sucks at the sensitive skin of my neck. “Please...I want you…”

“Yes?”

“Fuuck, yes…” I tangle my fingers in his hair, shuddering as the slow, warm burn makes it way through my stomach. I feel his tears against my neck and I press my lips to his temple, holding him as close as physically possible as the minutes pass us by until he finally tenses and comes inside of me. His body softens and he moves to pull away, though I only pull him closer and find his lips with mine. He is crying, and I am not sure why, although it is entirely possible in this crooked world that there is not even a reason anymore.

“I still love you,” he says quietly a few minutes later, his head resting on my chest and his hand warm on my stomach. I bite my lip and press a kiss to his forehead, nuzzling his neck with my nose as his words begin to process. “I thought...it would be different. I thought that twelve years would be too long. We would be too different. But I love you...and that - that makes everything so much harder…”

“Kleiner Bär…”

“You do not have to - to say anything. I know that who I am now is not...I am not a good person anymore, tesoro…” His voice cracks. “But I still love you.”

I am quiet, my fingers stroking through his hair slowly. It is so long now; almost as long as Avriel’s. My heart aches at the thought of the groundskeeper, and the uncertainty I now feel if I will ever see him again. I had thought that - if I had found Mitch and managed to save him from Cosa Nostra - we would have returned to New York together. I had never once considered that such a heroic rescue would be uncalled for.

“You are so different now,” I murmur, turning to meet his dark eyes. “So melancholy…so brash...”

He does not respond and I lean forward, pressing my lips to his.

“Tell me about the seven. None of them were innocent?”

“No,” he whispers.

“They would have killed you if they had lived?”

“They would have killed many, many people…most of them already had…”

I nod slowly. “If you could change the past, would you?”

“Yes. Of course I would.”

“The man who tried to rape me. Would you have still killed him?”

He closes his eyes. “I do not know. I - I didn’t think about what I was doing, I just did it. When I saw him…” He does not finish and I pull him into my arms, not speaking until I am sure he is able to hear what I have to say.

“You are not the person I fell in love with,” I whisper, and he tenses. “He is gone, and you are here. You are...you are so different…you have done so many things…”

“I’m sorry…”

“I do not love you.”

I feel him freeze against me and I press my lips to his cheeks, which are already wet with tears that are needlessly shed.

“I do not love you,” I say again, and he looks away, his face crumpling. “But that does not mean I cannot…”

“Scott -”

“I would like to try.” I brush my fingers through his hair, watching as he looks back up at me with mistrustful and so terribly hopeful eyes.

“What?” He breathes, and I kiss him once more, knowing very well that it could be the last time I ever do so.

“Mitchell Grassi,” I say against his lips, the hole in my chest aching as though for the first time in twelve years it finally understands what it has been missing. “Will you let me fall in love with you again?”

Chapter Text

I am a man who has fallen in love with the sun.

I have fallen in love with the burn. With the light. With the notion of ever-presence. I have fallen in love with the rays and the shine and the warmth. I have fallen in love with the blistering heat and the tormenting absence. I have fallen in love with the destruction, with the fire, with the ache, with the beauty, with the horror, with the fear and the love and the hope and the desire and the need.

I am no Icarus, for his fault of nature was his incurable humanity. He fell in love with himself. With his pride. He fell in love with the potential of his genius and the thought that he was worthy to greet the gods upon Olympus. He did not fall in love with the sun. He fell in love with greatness.

And he burned for it.

I do not love greatness. I do not love potential. I do not believe myself a god, nor do I wish to be so. I love a force far more than I shall ever be. I love something that shall destroy me if I allow it. I love the horror and the beauty and the godly permanence. I love the rise and the fall, the movement through the days, the taste of heat that is always there even upon the coldest of nights. I have fallen in love with the sun.

And perhaps I shall burn for it, too.

For love is a foolish game played by broken hearts, and my heart is far more broken than any I have seen before. There is a desperation. A longing. A chance for renewal, yes, but also a chance for ruin. I have fallen in love with the sun, and perhaps the sun has fallen in love with me. And I know that the sun does not love as us mortals do - it cannot. It loves in the way in which it is able. In the way in which it is most natural. If the sun has fallen in love with you, it loves in the sense of beauty, and horror, and unending fear.

It burns you.

--

Mitch leads me through the great hall of the Bonanno residency, his shoulders pulled back and his manner one of surety that greatly rivals his insecurities of last night. He does not touch me, although I do not expect him to given the stream of servants that pass us as we walk. Each of them pause to bow before him, their movements stagnant until they are out of his line of vision, before quickly hurrying on to continue whatever it is they are doing. It is odd to see, given the relative laxity the Grassi mansion had possessed all those years ago. Mitch had loathed being treated as though he was superior, but now it seems as natural as every other strange habit in this futuristic view of the boy I once loved.

We slow as we reach the dining room, my feet stuttering at the doorway as I make out the silhouette of a woman sat at the table. Her golden hair flows down her back as she leans forward, and I can hear her speaking softly in Italian to the small girl and boy sat on either side of her. I had known Mitch’s family would be joining us for breakfast - I had insisted on eating with them rather than alone with him in his room, although now my decision is proving to be a greater mistake than expected. I am not sure what I had been thinking, if it had been curiosity or perhaps possessiveness that had driven me to ask this. Whatever the cause, I now feel uncertainty wind its way around my neck. I had wanted to meet them. I had wanted to meet them.

But seeing them here - seeing his children - now only solidifies the extent of our separation.

Twelve years.

It has been twelve years and this is his life now.

This is his life, and it looks so terribly perfect without me in it.

I feel his hand on my lower back although I do not manage to meet his eyes, only forcing a nod to indicate that I am - untruthfully - alright. He nudges me forward a bit and I comply, my heart racing as he clears his throat and the woman and children turn to look at us.

“Buongiorno,” he says cheerfully, and my face warms considerably. “We have a guest joining us this morning, I hope you do not mind. An old friend of mine from America.” He hesitates. “Aaron.”

Luce’s lips purse a bit but she does not show any sign of recognition, although I know it is quite unlikely that she would remember me. We had met only once at the party in the Grassi mansion, and it had been more than a decade ago, at that. I bristle at the memory and quickly refocus my attention. That party had led to the irreparable mutilation of my heart, and meditation upon such a horrid evening is not something I particularly enjoy.

She stands, her wide, doe-like eyes inquisitive as she holds her hand out to me. I feel my cheeks warm again when I notice the bump of her stomach, and when I look back upon her she is smiling beautifully.

“Pleasure,” she says softly, and the sincerity in her voice makes me almost believe her. “Luce Bonanno. Aaron, what, if I may ask?”

“Davenport,” I answer easily, the false name sweet on my tongue from many years of use. “Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Davenport.”

Her brow raises and she smiles again. “An army man, I see. How noble.”

“I appreciate that, miss.”

“I wasn’t aware that Orso had any friends who served,” she says, turning towards Mitch with a look that says so much I can hardly read it. “What a lovely surprise.” She pauses before tucking back a piece of her long hair and looking over to me once more. “Well, please, Lieutenant Colonel, have a seat. Breakfast and tea shall be in shortly.”

I hazard a look at Mitch but he has already taken the seat beside Luce, folding his napkin over his lap and sipping on his water. I choose the empty chair beside the little girl, who I know must be their daughter. She watches me with dark eyes far too wise for her age, and I fold my hands over my lap and keep my gaze straight ahead, not wishing for any more attention than I have already been granted. She turns to me after a moment, though, taking my hand expectantly and shaking it with a firm grip. I start, surprised at her spirit and unorthodoxy, but I am unable to help my laugh as I shake her hand again as though we are old comrades revisiting after a long while apart.

“Pleasure,” she says, letting go and studying me again curiously. She is a perfect image of Luce, although the curve of her chin and the dimples are entirely Mitch. The sight makes me woozy. “Lucretzia Christina Bonanno. I’m the eldest.” She tilts her head to the side. “Have you ever killed a man, Lieutenant Colonel?”

“Ehi,” Luce says, her voice quick with reprimand. “You will apologize at once.”

Lucretzia looks up at me a bit abashedly, but I raise a hand to stop her despite my surprise at her query. I glance over at Mitch and he is watching me curiously, and it occurs to me that perhaps there are things I have yet to tell him about who I’ve become. He is not the same person, no, but neither am I.

“It’s alright,” I say, looking up at Luce with a shrug. She looks dissatisfied but does not object, and I turn my gaze back to Lucretzia. “It’s an honest question, signorina. Yes, I have killed a man.”

I see Mitch freeze with his water glass half-raised to his mouth. He looks up at me, his eyes flooded with something I cannot understand. Lucretzia is watching with fascinated intrigue, and the little boy sat across from me is too busy playing with his little wooden train to pay any notice.

“War cannot be won without bloodshed,” I continue quietly. “We needed to win.”

There is a long moment of silent tension before the little boy looks up, looking from me to Mitch to Luce and then back to me. The air is thick.

“Papà,” he says, his cheeks dimpling as though the discomfort of the moment means nothing to him. “L'uomo è uno spaghetto.”

For a moment Mitch looks as though he is going to be angry - as though the strain of this situation will snap and any hope at resolution will be lost - but then he simply closes his eyes and buries his face in his hands and begins to laugh.

I let out a relieved breath, bemused and a bit desperate as nobody says anything to try and pull me from the darkness of unknowing. Luce is smiling down at her plate, Lucretzia has begun giggling and playing with the end of her braid, and Nicodemo looks pleased in the manner of a child who has just managed to surpass his expected years.

“Nico,” Mitch finally manages, wiping at his eyes and looking up at his son with an incredulity and a fondness that makes me feel very, very small. Nicodemo only smiles again and sets his toy train down on the table.

“È vero,” the little boy says, and Mitch’s beautiful laugh sounds once more. I wish I were not so lost, although I know they are not making me feel this way purposefully. They likely do not even know.

“Un'altra volta,” Mitch says obliviously, grinning and holding up his finger as Nicodemo opens his mouth to speak. “In English, please.”

Nico glances up at me shyly, his eyes just a shade lighter than Mitch’s. “You look like a noodle, Signore.”

It is funny. I know very well that it is funny, and harmless, and the nonsensical talk of a five-year-old that I should simply disregard as soon as I am able. I manage a laugh, holding my hand over my mouth to hide the smile that I cannot bring myself to force. Mitch’s gaze meets mine and he laughs again - the sound genuine and beautiful and too much to hear. He is staring up at me with crinkled eyes and a scrunched up nose and a smile that says that he can be happy in a life that does not involve me.

I laugh and I laugh and I ignore the tears that have welled in my eyes, well aware that I am the only person who knows they are there, and well aware that I am the only person who even cares.

--

I stare down at the blank paper, my pen warm in my hands from exposure to the Sicilian sun. Mitch is off for the day, dealing with some unavoidable matter that I told him I would rather not know about. He had informed me that I had free reign of the Bonanno household and the neighboring streets before he’d left, though he’d asked me not to wander too far without him. He’d then cupped my face and kissed my cheek and turned away to go and live a life that I was not a part of.

I had been unable to stay inside for much longer after that and had wandered down the street until I’d come upon a small park not too far away. I had settled on a bench and pulled out a small notebook and pen I’d found in Mitch’s rooms, where I am now sat a few hours later as - for the first time - I allow myself to reminisce on the past day and the changes it has brought about.

I press the tip of my pen to the page, closing my eyes and breathing out deeply. My shoulders are tense with stress and my mind heavy. I cannot stop seeing it: the image of Mitch and his family. How perfect they are together. How complete they are without me. How there is no room among them for a German watchmaker and his broken heart.

I begin to write without quite understanding what it is I am writing, though I am unsurprised to find when I am finished that it is a letter to my dear Avriel. My stomach aches as I run my fingers across the smudged ink, missing him more than I can say even though I am the one who has left. A selfish, horrible part of me wishes he were interested in love. Wishes that I had fallen for him instead. Wishes that, instead of being in Italy with a boy I hardly know anymore, I was in New York with him again. It is an awful thought and I shove it away, ashamed that it has even occurred to me. Desperation, though, makes monsters of us all, I suppose.

I reread the letter before folding it to mail out, positive that I must mail it out.. He deserves to know that I am well, and he deserves to know that Mitch is alive. I am unsure what he will do with the information, and I am unsure if it is even my right to tell him, but he has gone eleven years thinking his best friend is dead and I cannot allow it any longer.

I retreat back to the Bonanno household once the sun gets a bit too much to handle, wandering aimlessly until I come upon a beautiful garden that only makes me miss my Avriel all the more. I spot Luce sitting beside a rosebush, and I am about to leave when she calls to me, her voice a soft indication that this conversation is not one I will be able to avoid.

“Lieutenant Colonel,” she says, and I turn with a forced smile. She motions for me to join her on the bench and I do so, her perfume tickling my nose and making me sneeze. “God bless you.”

“Thank you.”

The autumn shade is enjoyable and the flowers have bloomed into thousands of bursts of color. Luce is dressed in a different gown from this morning; this one is a deep blue that makes her hair appear all the more golden and shows the swell of her stomach quite prominently. It makes me feel strange, knowing that it is Mitch’s child she is carrying. I wonder how he manages it, having sex with a woman. I wonder if he enjoys it. I look away before my thoughts double upon themselves, surp