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"There's no service corridor at all," said Curtis.

"And no mirrors hung on the walls," Daniel agreed. He was gazing into the one mirror in the room, a tall oblong which stood reassuringly island-like in a corner of the room. "And yet I can't shake this blasted chill from my nerves."

The rooms they'd been shown to were located just across the corridor from one another, in a guest wing of the house. As far as they could tell, they were the only ones staying in that wing. It was so perfect an arrangement it was making Daniel's shoulders itch; he didn't trust good fortune as a general rule.

Curtis's hands fell onto his shoulders, the weight of them calming the itch. Curtis was solid and warm behind him.

"We should go down to dinner," Curtis said.

"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," said Daniel.

"I'm keeping count, by the way," said Curtis. "That's the third time you've said that today."

Daniel gave a theatrical groan and leaned back into Curtis's hands until Curtis took the hint and resisted, the twin points of his thumbs a generous pressure against the worst tension of Daniel's muscles. "I wish we never had to attend another damn country house party in our lives."

It was, of course, just a wish. Daniel's occupation and Curtis's background meant that this was the vainest of vain hopes; there was no way they could escape one of the most important social activities of the upper classes for a season, let alone a lifetime. But it hadn't stopped a vicious sense of cold, a fluttering and clenching of his heart, from falling over Daniel when the car first delivered the pair of them to the sweeping front drive of this particular manor house.

At least there wasn't a damn folly to be seen.

"I know," Curtis said, and leaned around to kiss Daniel's temple. After a moment he said, "I never cared for poetry before reading yours. Had a ghastly time with it at school and decided the whole lot of it was so much rubbish. But now I think about poetry and I think about--cracking open your book, and realising that you might be more than the first impression you were trying so hard to give."

Daniel opened his mouth, closed it, and had a moment of feeling simultaneously proud and dismayed that Curtis had learned how to come at a point sideways, even if he was being clumsy about it. It was tempting to feign ignorance just to hear the earnest explanation. But they should go down to dinner.

"You think I need to tie some good experiences to the idea of a country house, to negate the bad ones we had at Peakholme? Really?"

"Wipe them out," Curtis said firmly. "Like a chalkboard. And even if this somehow turns bad, you'll face it. You're one of the bravest men I know."

"I'm really not," Daniel said. More ice slid down his spine as he remembered the first moments in the cave after Holt's footsteps faded: the moments when the imagined weight of the earth had begun to squeeze the air in Daniel's throat. He fixed his eyes on the window and sought out a few stars, dotted in the individual panes of glass, to settle the leap of his heart.

Curtis turned Daniel by one shoulder. There was a small furrow between his eyes. "Yes, you are."

This time the kiss went onto Daniel's mouth. Daniel leaned into it as he had into the hands; he was dangerously good at leaning on Curtis, in all sorts of ways that he was trying not to think too hard about.

"Besides," Curtis added. "It could hardly be worse than the last one."

Daniel laughed and rested his forehead a moment on Curtis's broad shoulder. He felt better, when he lifted it.

"Lead on, Captain Curtis," he said.

As Curtis led the way downstairs to the dining room, Daniel decanted the dregs of his fears into something that could be pushed down and ignored. He adjusted his collar and the cuffs of his jacket. At the same time he tweaked his facial expression and the line of his shoulders, donning the persona he'd settled on for this occasion, the exact balance between the self he was when alone with Curtis and the myriad other selves he could choose from. None of them were absolutely false. They were nothing so opaque as masks. They were...lead-lights, instead, which could be laid between himself and the world, so that he appeared in different hues or with different aspects of himself most striking.

He liked to think that with Curtis he let all of that fall; and he did, for the most part. But he was still something of a patchwork, or maybe an onion, as unpoetical as that was. His East End accent was closer to the centre than the one he used most often, but he'd given up thinking of it as more true. You didn't get very far in Daniel's line of work without a certain amount of willingness to stare at the definition of truth until you could see the light bend around it.

Daniel da Silva was a penniless Spitalfields dago brat, and Daniel da Silva was a shameless invert who liked colourful clothes, and a sensitive Jewish poet who shuddered at the sight of blood, and a secret agent of His Majesty's government.

True, true, all true.

"Balders!" came a cheerful shout from the table, as soon as they entered the room. "There you are! Jolly good to see you! Come and tell the girls one of those stories about your uncle's adventures in the wilds of deepest whatsit!"

"Do sit down, Bertie," said their hostess.

Curtis threw Daniel a quick, encouraging smile--see? it seemed to say--and went to bow over Mrs Dahlia Travers's hand like the well-bred guest that he was. Daniel, who had settled into the skin of someone with a fair amount more breeding than he actually had, followed suit.

"We're glad you and your friend could pay us this little visit, Captain," said Mrs Travers to Curtis. "How is dear Sir Henry?"

"Perfectly well, ma'am. And this is Mr da Silva."

Daniel slid forward with alacrity and was presented first to the mistress of Brinkley Court--the master, Mr Thomas Travers, had apparently been drawn reluctantly to town for a few days on business--and then her nephew, Bertram Wilberforce Wooster. This latter did not have the face of a man who could carry off Wilberforce, let alone Bertram, but luckily he demanded immediately that Daniel address him as Bertie--"Everyone else does, you know!"

Everyone else, or at least everyone else at the house party, was only three more people. Daniel directed his lazy smile and just-this-side-of-limp handshake at Olive Bainsborough--a somewhat insipid-looking blonde girl seated at Wooster's elbow--and then at Polly and Dickie Orchard, a pair of amiable siblings with matching hazel eyes and a double helping of personality apiece.

"Bertie has been telling us all about you, Curtis!" said Orchard. "Military man, what?"

"Not so much, these days," said Curtis, as he and Daniel took their seats.

"Oh, yes. Suppose not," said Orchard, with an obvious glance at Curtis's glove that made Daniel want to clench his teeth. "Resting on your laurels, then? Lapping up the pension?"

"I've another uncle in government," Curtis said. "Do some work for him."

"I do think dabbling in a useful profession can do wonders for a young man's character," said Mrs Travers, with a dark look at her nephew.

"I quite agree," said Miss Bainsborough, in a quiet voice directed mostly to her table setting.

"But then," added their hostess hastily, "nothing can replace the character instilled by upbringing, and the steadying influence of one's relatives."

"Sure Anatole will be in rare form!" burst out Wooster. "Not that he isn't! Always! Can't exactly be called rare in that case, I suppose. Anatole's the cook here, Balders. The sparkly thing in Aunt Dahlia's diadem. You wouldn't believe what he can do with a bit of veal."

"And how do you fill your days, Mr da Silva?" Mrs Travers demanded, as though her nephew hadn't spoken.

Daniel reminded himself that he was a demimonde poet, just moneyed enough not to be anything else in addition. He polished his accent to a drawl.

"Oh, I try very hard indeed not to be caught doing anything that might look like real employment," Daniel said.

Curtis coughed. "Mr da Silva is a poet."

"Indeed," Mrs Travers said, suspiciously, but it was the natural suspicion that a novel-reader might hold in the presence of a poet, and nothing more.

"And I took my Masters in Old Norse sagas," Daniel added. "In particular, comparing the versions of the lives of those kings who appeared in both the Heimskringla and the Flateyjarbók." He let himself adopt an effete version of the affable eagerness that he'd seen in some College Fellows convinced that every soul in the world, if given the opportunity, would find their topic of study as interesting as they did.

It was the right approach. A shadow of alarmed boredom began to fall over Mrs Travers's eyes, and they brightened only when a steaming bowl was set in front of her.

"Ah," she said. "Soup!" and set to it with the kind of gumption that only women past a certain age or a certain station were allowed to display when it came to food.

Daniel, gingerly, tried his own soup when it was served. It was very good.

"Must be a brainy cove, then, if you signed on for more book-learning," Wooster said to him cheerfully. "I couldn't run away fast enough, myself. Not to worry, I respect a man with brains. Why, Jeeves has got more of them than anyone in England."

"Jeeves?" Daniel inquired.

"My gentleman's gentleman, you know. Wouldn't think there's a bally soul alive that can match Jeeves when it comes to sheer density of the old grey matter."

Wooster spoke with a confidence that was both touching and untouchable. An entirely absurd bolt of indignation went through Daniel. He spent his life trying to have his intelligence underestimated. There was no point at all in feeling annoyed that one feather-brained young toff had relegated Daniel to second-rung beneath his own valet.

The much-esteemed Jeeves appeared after dinner, when Orchard and Curtis were having a discussion about, of all things, French Impressionist art. Curtis's initial comparison of Daniel's poetry to Seurat had betrayed a surprisingly broad awareness of the visual arts, though Curtis himself saw nothing remarkable in it and could only say vaguely that he'd picked it up 'here and there'; two terms of art history at Oxford, a junior officer in the war who'd rambled on about the Renaissance during a long, grim night watch.

For his part, Daniel was easily dodging Wooster's well-meaning questions about his family background by encouraging the man to ramble on about a recent stay in New York. He was certainly entertaining to listen to.

"Ah!" Wooster said, in the middle of an anecdote about falling out of a boat in a Central Park pond, "There you are, Jeeves!"

Daniel, turning to see a highly-polished specimen of the poker face standing a yard away, was forced to admit that the man could move as silently as Daniel himself. Perhaps more so.

"Sir," said Jeeves.

"I say, Jeeves," said Wooster. "I've been admiring Mr da Silva's style. That velvet jacket! A nifty shade of green, don't you think?"

"Indeed, sir," said Jeeves.

Some spark of mischief prompted Daniel to say, "Would you like to try it on?"

An infinitesimal muscle beside Jeeves's eye twitched. Daniel pretended not to have noticed.

Wooster had Daniel's slim build, though not his height. The cuffs fell too far over his wrists and the length wasn't ideal. The green, which set off Daniel's own forest colouring, muddied Wooster's pinkish complexion. He looked thrilled with it, though, spinning on the spot and trying to peer over his own shoulder. It put Daniel in mind of one of his mother's puppies, still young enough to believe he had a chance of catching his own tail, and Daniel caught an unwise laugh on his own lips in enough time to transform it into an admiring expression.

"I say, I look just the ticket! Fresh, what!"

"Rather," agreed Daniel. Thankfully his uncle was on his mother's side and so Daniel would not be caught between admitting a familial relationship and denying the man new custom, if Wooster decided to ask for the name of his tailor.

The man Jeeves gave a cough with an edge that might have been disapproval, though it was hard to tell.

"I cannot think what else in your wardrobe we might pair it with, sir," he murmured.

The party broke up for the evening not long after that. Daniel's jacket was handed back to him by Jeeves, who handled it like a man might handle live ammunition or a decaying fish, and Daniel spent some time disarraying the sheets in his assigned bedroom. Wooster had seemed shocked that Curtis and Daniel should be so bereft of human comforts as to have travelled without valets, but they'd managed to fend off his attempt to lend out any of Brinkley Court's obliging staff. They'd had quite enough of that last time, even if Daniel didn't think Curtis would be in much danger of seduction by the grey-haired and drooping footman Spence whose services were offered.

Once the house was dark and quiet, Daniel opened his door; quietly, but purposefully, in case there should be someone in the corridor. The blithe explanation he'd arranged behind his teeth did not turn out to be necessary. He took two steps on bare feet, opened Curtis's door, and was in the other man's room within a couple of heartbeats. He locked the door behind him.

"You try very hard not to be caught doing work," Curtis said. "Wicked man." He sounded amused, his admiration warm like sun-thirsty flagstones.

Daniel crossed the room to him and lifted his face, demanding a kiss. He melted into the brief pressure of Curtis's mouth, the way Curtis's strong arms slid around him.

"And here I was hoping she'd ask about my thesis."

"What was it? The Flatyarbuck?"

"Flateyjarbók." Daniel gave him the grin, sharp and inviting, that he knew drove Curtis wild. "I remember it does contain one story about a family who worship a horse's severed cock. I'm sure that would have gone down a treat with the dignified Mrs Travers."

Curtis stared at him. "You're making that up."

"Not a bit of it, my dear. The old woman keeps it in a box full of herbs and venerates it as a god. Mostly the story is about how this cosy pagan phallus cult is converted to Christianity by a king in disguise, which I think is rather a pity."

"You're terrible," Curtis said, mildly scandalised, but his mouth was curling up. Daniel kissed him again, letting it go open-mouthed and full of intent.

"I prefer my objects of worship to be a little more human," Daniel said. He busied his hands working the buttons of Curtis's trousers open. "And also still attached."

"God." Curtis tipped his head back. Daniel stroked him through the thin fabric of his drawers, enjoying the weight of the filling cock in his hand and the challenge of the angle, alternating gentle squeezes and using the friction of the cotton. "You'll having me going off fully-dressed and standing up."

"Mm," Daniel agreed, pressing a kiss into Curtis's neck.

Daniel," slightly strangled. Curtis pushed him gently away. "We've got time. We've got a bed."

They did, indeed, have a bed. Curtis undressed and sat on the edge of it and Daniel knelt between his legs, admiring the sight of Curtis thus revealed, foreskin pulled back and straining around the stiff dark head. Daniel licked his lips, feeling his mouth water at the sight, and Curtis's cock jerked a little in response. Just from the sight of Daniel. It made Daniel itch to experiment.

"You've no idea how much I love doing this," Daniel said. He kept his voice husky but the words deliberate and precise. "How good it feels to have your cock halfway down my throat. Feeling it leaking and still swelling, like it could cut off my air, and still wanting it deeper."

"Fuck. Daniel."

Another jerk. When Daniel glanced up, Curtis's Viking eyes were dark and desperate and wide, a delightful flush on his cheeks, as though he were ashamed of how arousing he found Daniel's words.

Carefully, Daniel climbed to his feet. Those pleasure-shot eyes followed him all the way up.

"You know, I did promise that one day I'd bring you off just by talking."

Curtis groaned and wrapped his fingers around the base of his own cock. "Christ, does it have to be now?"

"Are you saying I couldn't do it?"

"I know you could," Curtis said hoarsely. "Your mouth is a terror. A wonder. No matter how you use it."

Daniel leaned down and kissed him, for that. While he was close, he took gentle hold of Curtis's wrists and tugged them to either side, encouraging Curtis to release the grip he had on his own erection.

"Hands on your legs, love," he murmured. "Let's not cheat."

The skin around Curtis's fingers, when Daniel dropped his eyes to monitor it, turned progressively paler as Daniel--slowly, slowly--removed his own clothing. He waited until his shirt was halfway off before he began to talk, pitching it a tone lower than the conversational. Curtis was not as green in these matters as he used to be; Daniel wouldn't get the same impact from coy innuendo around cufflinks and penetration. But Daniel still had the advantages of both experience and ease with filth, and a vivid imagination. He spun out a fantasy he'd built in his head, during a recent trip from Edinburgh to London by train, which featured the plush interior of Sir Thomas Vaizey's office.

"His office--" Curtis said at one point, but the protest was weak.

"His desk," Daniel said. "You could bend me over it. Not even bother to undress; just yank everything out of the way and have me, urgent and raw."

He tossed the shirt aside and toyed with the piercing in his own nipple, and didn't keep back the hiss as sensation sparked beneath his skin. Curtis was staring at Daniel's hand. Daniel kept it moving, splayed over his chest, his stomach, and further down. He squeezed at the bulge of his own cock in his trousers and let his head tip to the side, let his hips shove forward a little into his hand. He knew what he looked like.

"One hand in the middle of my back," he said, breathless, "so I couldn't move. You'd kick my legs apart and hold me there, right on top of all the papers." He unbuttoned his own trousers and drawers and stepped out of them, desire rendering him more graceless than he'd planned. "And then you'd just--fuck me open, bit by bit. Make me work for every inch. I'd be so fucking tight, you'd barely be standing by the end of it."

"Fuck," Curtis said. His head sagged on his neck for a moment and he looked as though he might shove his fingers through his skin, right into the powerful muscles of his legs. "Daniel, please."

"I'd be howling your name," Daniel said. "Archie."

He dropped to his knees again, thankful for the thick rug, and laced his hands through Curtis's. There was only a slight twitch of the injured hand as Daniel's fingers slid over the scar tissue; Curtis had shed almost all of his shame around that, by now. Daniel ducked his head, but to the side, giving Curtis's cock a careful berth despite how much he longed to take it in his mouth, to feel the weight and the desperation of it. He rubbed his cheek against the thick blonde hair of Curtis's thigh, instead, scraping with his own stubble, and felt the convulsive bunch of muscle there. Curtis was breathing erratically and a pulse was racing against Daniel's cheek. He was very close.

Daniel lifted his head and centred himself. He glanced up, a deliberate flick of lashes on the edge between submission and challenge, and met Curtis's gaze directly. One more lingering lick of the lips, a hot breath of air over the leaking cockhead--and Curtis cursed and choked and then came, untouched, in thick hot spurts all over Daniel's face.

Daniel froze for a moment. He could hear his own heart hammering and he was painfully hard. He'd let lovers do this before, but not often; part of him recognised the possessiveness in it, the sheer animal instinct that arose from somewhere deep in the gut, and he'd shied away from letting himself be thus marked.

Slowly, he ran a thumb through the mess covering his cheek and sucked it clean, steadying himself with the familiar bitter taste of Curtis's spunk.

"A terror," Curtis said, even more hoarsely than before, and Daniel felt the satisfied smile that curved his mouth.

Curtis grabbed at him, pulling him forward onto Curtis and both of them back onto the bed. Curtis claimed Daniel's mouth in a deep, messy kiss, all power and lush strokes of the tongue. Daniel's hips were going in little jerks, his cock rubbing in the hot angle of Curtis's groin--it wouldn't take him long at all, not with the both of them naked and Curtis's body spread hard under his, Curtis's good hand squeezing his buttock and encouraging Daniel to rut against him.

"Fuck, holy, bloody fuck," Daniel gasped, and bit down on Curtis's shoulder, hips jerking even more frantically.

There was a wriggling sensation as Curtis worked his right hand between them and closed finger and thumb around Daniel's cock, a tight ring for Daniel to fuck into--and then Daniel was done, was coming in waves of pleasure almost sickly-hot.

A few minutes later, as Daniel was stroking his nails lightly through the hair of Curtis's chest and adding some embroidery to the edges of his desk-fucking fantasy, there was a rap at Curtis's door.

Daniel stilled his hand. Curtis covered it with his own.

"Captain Curtis?" It was the voice of Jeeves. "Sir?"

"The light's still on," Curtis said softly. "I'd better--" Daniel nodded. Curtis raised his voice. "A moment, please."

Curtis scrambled into a dressing-gown while Daniel grumbled his way down onto the ground between the bed and the curtains. It wasn't like this was the first time he'd ducked down beside a bed to hide. If he made a kind of messy lump out of the bedclothes, he could even lift his head enough to peer at the doorway without being seen.

"What is it, Jeeves?" asked Curtis, opening the door.

"Sir. I was wondering if you had seen Mr da Silva? I have a question to ask of him."

Curtis, very unfortunately, said nothing. Daniel clenched his hand into a fist and called his lover several rude names inside his head.

Jeeves went on, after an awkward moment, "I knocked at his own door, quite loudly, and there was no reply. In lieu of breaking the door down for fear of his safety, I thought you might be able to shed some light as to his whereabouts. Can you tell me where I might find him?"

"Daniel? I mean--er," Curtis said, and Daniel's heart fell further at the way his voice cracked.

If someone with Daniel's skill were standing in Curtis's place, this would be as easy as a yawn and a shrug, a hint of a good-for-him attitude that would also serve as admonition that where Daniel chose to spend his nights was not Curtis's affair.

But this was Curtis, who still found deception both grating and difficult even when his brain was not suffering the muzziness of the post-coital state. The longer the two of them stood there in the doorway, Curtis stammering his way through attempts at ignorance, the greater the chance someone else might come by. And something about Jeeves's patient unwavering look told Daniel that this would not shock the man; that it would, in fact, do nothing more than confirm something he somehow already knew.

Daniel scraped together the handful of nerve needed to face this, as well as the handful of sheet needed for dignity, and stood up.

"I'm here," he said shortly. "Close the blasted door."

Curtis looked pale and strained as Jeeves stepped inside and the door closed behind him.

So much for Curtis's wiped-clean blackboard. Daniel was flooded with unpleasant memories of the last house party. None of his fear was for himself, but at the very prospect of Curtis being exposed or blackmailed he felt an uncharacteristic punchiness take hold of him, like india-rubber over steel. Daniel had a lot of trust in Curtis's strength even when the man wasn't in the grips of a berserker state; their partnership was one in which Daniel exerted his wits in order to avoid violence, and Curtis exerted violence when it was unavoidable.

But Daniel would have thrown himself at this inscrutable man and clawed like a tiger, fought filthy and with everything he had, if he thought it would save Curtis from this.

Jeeves said, swift and calm, "Captain Curtis. Mr da Silva. I mean you no harm, and I deeply regret this invasion of your privacy. As I said, I merely wish to ask something of Mr da Silva. I would not have interrupted," and his eyes passed with delicate swiftness over Daniel's handful of sheet, "if I had known I would be...interrupting."

"You're bloody well here now," Daniel snapped. Mean you no harm could be examined later. "Ask away."

Jeeves paused. On top of everything else, Daniel experienced the unpleasant falling sensation of not having the faintest idea what was going to happen next.

"The current French ambassador to the United Kingdom," was Jeeves's opening.

"Are we playing at trivia?" Daniel said, as acerbically as he could.

"Pierre Paul Cambon." Jeeves had the stolid expression of someone who would not recognise trivia if he slipped in it in the street.

"If you say so," Daniel said. His skin crawled and he steadied his guard. He was better than many of Vaizey's agents when it came to paying attention to servants--he'd never had to unlearn the habit of seeing them as furniture--and he couldn't remember coming across this man Jeeves before, in any of the incarnations of Daniel da Silva.

Daniel da Silva, lazy homosexual poet, might be expected to be found in another man's bed; he should not be expected to answer questions about ambassadors.

"Is Monsieur Cambon committed to the new friendship between the two nations, do you believe?" Jeeves took in Daniel's look and added, with delicacy, "Mr da Silva, I do not know how to convince you of this, but the question arises out of a concern for my master, his aunt, and the security of her household. No larger issues are at hand."

Daniel took a breath, listened to his instincts, and made a decision. He had performed diplomacy in bed before. Of a sort. But being quizzed about his knowledge of international relations while naked was...a new experience. He covered himself more firmly with the handful of bedclothes, and frowned.

"Yes. Cambon was a major player in getting the Entente Cordiale signed last year, and he's tight with both Lansdowne and Delcassé."

"Have you met him personally, sir? Would he recognise your name?"

Daniel kept his mouth shut.

"Did this really have to be asked now?" Curtis burst out.

"Yes," Jeeves said. His tone was equally dense with apology and with a lack of intention to elaborate. "Sirs. I also wish to reiterate my reassurance that you have nothing to fear from me. You are guests of the family and you may trust in my utmost discretion."

"And your master's?" Daniel said, sharp with disbelief.

Jeeves paused. "I do not believe Mr Wooster will guess at the nature of your relationship, if it is not made extraordinarily plain to him. He is in many ways a very straightforward sort of man."

Daniel carefully did not look at Curtis.

"We haven't much choice but to trust you, do we?" Curtis said.

"And I hope you may never have occasion to consider that trust misplaced," said Jeeves.

Daniel was tense, as alert for discordant notes or undercurrents as he'd ever been, listening for any dangling thread of promise or threat that might be tugged upon later. He couldn't hear any.

He said, "Cambon wouldn't open a letter from me, if that's what you mean. He might open one from Curtis's uncle."

Jeeves absorbed Daniel's phrasing of that sentence and nodded with the gravity of an archbishop.

"Again," he said, with a bow, "my apologies," and was gone as noiselessly as he'd entered.

"Sodding fucking hell," said Daniel. He located his drawers and tugged them on; he hated how vulnerable he'd felt through that entire conversation.

Curtis laughed shakily. "Could have been worse."

"Yes, and don't we know it?"

"If he wanted a contact for my uncle, why not just ask me?" Curtis said. "How did he know you would know anything about the French ambassador?"

"I have to wonder if he works for the same bureau as I do, or the domestic equivalent," Daniel said. "Vaizey doesn't hesitate to employ queers. He probably wouldn't draw the line at hiring below stairs."

"I suppose." Curtis sounded dubious. He started to say something else, then yawned, and Daniel found himself doing the same.

"Would you like to stay?" Curtis asked quietly, sliding back between the sheets.

Daniel was already gathering up the rest of his clothes.

"Sorry to stick you with the wet spot, Archie, but I'd rather not risk it now. I can't help thinking about a less discreet servant knocking us up for breakfast tomorrow morning."

Nothing of the sort greeted him the next morning; this seemed to be one of those country manor parties where guests were allowed to keep whatever hours suited them. Daniel awoke when the sun was well in the sky, dressed himself, and went down for breakfast.

Bertie Wooster was chewing toast and serving himself from a pot of tea, when Daniel entered the room. He seemed to be doing his level best to ignore the occasional glance or question fired at him from the feminine huddle of Polly Orchard and Olive Bainsborough.

Daniel greeted the room and inquired as to whether anyone else was up.

"Oh! Yes," said Wooster. "Aunt Dahlia's taken her car and driver out, visiting someone, can't recall who. Dickie's gone for a ride, but he and I will be doing some shooting later, I shouldn't wonder. Want to join? One assumes Balders will tag along. Famous shot, Balders, as I recall."

"Or you could escort Olive and I into town, Mr da Silva," said Polly. "There's a cunning little antiques shop I'm just longing to visit, and a parcel has come in for me at the post office."

"Sorry, no on both accounts. I never exert myself if I can help it," said Daniel, flinging himself into a chair. "I like the look of those marmalades. Attacking them shall be my morning's endeavour. Maybe a spot of reading in the library."

"Looks like it's just you and me, Olive!" Polly brushed off her skirts and stood. "Shall we get going?"

Olive darted a look at Wooster, who was staring showily in the other direction and munching toast as though his life depended on it.

"Of course, I'm happy to come," she said, not sounding enthused.

When the room was empty but for the two of them, Wooster set down his crust and looked at Daniel. His gaze was wide-eyed and moody.

"Something wrong?" Daniel asked.

"Do you suffer from aunts, old boy?"

Daniel hastily gathered a response to that. "I don't consider myself any more, ah, afflicted than most people. If we're saying it's the nature of them, rather than the number, that counts?"

Wooster nodded gloomily. "I suspect you have rather hit the thingummy on the whatsit, there. I could count myself a king of infinite aunts, as the Danish chappie said, if none of them were Aunt Agatha or Aunt Dahlia. Or Aunt Julia, come to think of it. Or Aunt Emily."

It was impossible not to feel for the chap. He was so likeable, and his long face was so woebegotten. He also came across as so absolutely guileless as to raise Daniel's suspicious nature to meteorological heights, but...that seemed to be who he honestly was. Daniel marvelled sometimes that the English upper classes had managed to remain where they were, and not come toppling down like the Romans, when at their peak they produced such transparent and linear specimens as Wooster and Curtis. It was a lesson in the sheer inertia of wealth and power, Daniel thought.

He said lightly, "You're unlucky in aunts, then, as some people are unlucky in love."

"Right! That's it exactly! But, you know, on the subject of--"

"Good morning," said Curtis, dropping himself into the seat next to Daniel.

"Balders, old thing! I thought we'd lost you forever to the land of Nod," said Wooster. He rang a bell on the table and, when a maid appeared, directed her to fetch Jeeves. The valet appeared less than a minute later.

Curtis, who had been spooning kippers onto toast, went still. Daniel touched his knee beneath the table, once and firmly, and kept his face straight.

Wooster said, "I was doing a bit of the old fandango around the subject, there, with the talk of aunts. But--oh, Jeeves, you explain the bally thing to them, will you?"

"I'm sure it would be better coming from you, sir."

Wooster nodded. "Didn't want to say anything yesterday. I know you, obviously, Balders, but da Silva here was an unknown thingummy--no offense meant."

"None taken, I assure you," Daniel drawled, though he wasn't sure he meant it. Even the best-meaning of men like Wooster could say unknown and mean...well, take your pick. Queer. Dark. Jewish.

"In any event, Jeeves is a top-notch judge of character, and he has declared you chaps may be able to lend a hand, and can be safely entrusted with our secret affairs," Wooster said.

Daniel had a small heart-stopping moment of wondering if Bertram Wooster was the most unlikely secret agent ever created, and then another of wondering if the men in front of them had their own reasons to be understanding of Daniel and Curtis's relationship. Certainly Jeeves was watching Wooster with a kind of subdued, glittering indulgence that spoke of a deep fondness. But neither of them seemed to think that anything untoward or strange had been admitted to. Daniel breathed again.

"I don't want to be married," Wooster blurted then, briefly resurrecting Daniel's arrhythmia. "I mean to say, one day, perhaps, blessed state, et cetera--but not now! Not to Olive Bainsborough!"

"Are you engaged to her?" Curtis asked, brow furrowing.

"No, thank Heaven! But terribly in danger of it!"

"How?" said Daniel.

"She's engaged to someone else. Was engaged. One of those struggling artist types, hailing from the wrong corner of London--name of Carthorse, something like that. Olive totally smitten. But her Aunt Mildred got wind of it and wouldn't hear of the match. Made Olive break it off. La Mildred being bosom pals with my Aunt Dahlia, the meat of the matter is that they've put their bonnets together in some unholy alliance of auntdom, and decided to send Olive here, pair the two of us off, and thereby make her forget all previous turpentine-scented amours."

Curtis said, "Bertie, if you don't care for her and she doesn't for you, surely that's an end to the whole business? Just tell your aunt it won't happen."

"Tosh," said Wooster, glumly. "It's all very well for you, Balders. You're a forthright chap. Comes of shouting orders while being shot at, I expect. You don't understand the effect an aunt can have on one's spirit. And Olive, poor gal--she's a delicate droopy sort of thing to begin with, and this Mildred sounds built along the same lines as my Aunt Agatha. Can't argue with 'em! Only thing to be done is wriggle out gracefully."

"And you think we can help?" Daniel asked.

"Ah!" Wooster brightened. "Jeeves has applied his brains, like the very shoulder of that Sisyphus fellow, to the conundrum. And he has hit upon a plan!"

Jeeves coughed. "The question, sirs, is whether you might know any unattached young lady, with a good sense of humour and some modest ability as an actress, who might enjoy a few days in the country?"

Curtis looked at Daniel. Daniel looked at Curtis.

"She'd go for it," Curtis said. "You know she would."

Daniel set aside the not insignificant question of what the hell any of this had to do with the French ambassador, and said, "Can we use the telephone?"

Less than a full day later, another car swept around the drive in front of Brinkley Court, and disgorged a pile of luggage and two young women onto the steps. The arrival had been timed, on Jeeves's advice, for an hour when Mrs Travers was on another of her visits, dragging Olive Bainsborough with her, and the Orchards--who seemed restless, and spent a lot of time shopping or admiring the other grand houses of the district--were also nowhere to be found.

"Archie!" cried Fen, clutching at her hat as an enthusiastic gust of wind threatened to sweep it off her head. "Daniel! Isn't this a lark?" She sparkled at the assembled group. "I brought Pat along, of course. Tried to dump her in London, but she wouldn't have it."

"You know it looks better for you to have a chaperone, Fen," said Pat. She climbed the stairs rather more calmly. "Well, if we're to be dear old friends of the host, hadn't we better meet the host in question?"

Curtis stepped forward, Wooster at his elbow, to do the introductions.

"Mr Bertie Wooster, meet Miss Fenella Carruth. And Miss Patricia Merton."

"Delighted to meet you, Mr Wooster." Fen skipped forward, tucked her hand through Wooster's arm, and gazed up at him with the open, simpering expression that she'd worn during the gatherings at Peakholme. "So we're to be married?"

"Er!" said Wooster.

"Not really," she assured him. "But we can play at it for a few days, if it helps. And then I can go back to London and in a month or so you can tell everyone I chucked you and lap up the sympathy about what dreadful creatures women are."

"Right!" Wooster said, relieved. "Isn't it a capital scheme? And aren't you a topping girl to go along with it!" He peered anxiously at Fen. "You do swear not to--fall snoz over ankles in love with me, or any such rot?" He sounded far more nervous than vain.

Fen patted his arm. "On my honour as an Englishwoman, Mr Wooster," she said with a straight face. "That's not going to happen."

Daniel looked at Jeeves, who gave him a solemn nod. Daniel resigned himself to a feeling of envy that was more like professional admiration; he suspected that Jeeves knew exactly how the situation stood with Fen and Pat. In fact, Daniel suspected that Jeeves had approached Daniel and Curtis in the hope that they would know exactly such a young woman as Fen, who would be entirely safe from any of Wooster's dubious charms.

"How are you, Daniel?"

Daniel met Pat's frank handshake with his own. "Not thrilled to be back in the country, I will say."

Her wide mouth turned rueful. "Banishing some ghosts?"

"Cleaning the blackboard, is how Curtis put it."

She laughed. "Not a bad picture."

"And you?"

"We get by." She glanced warmly at where Fen, arm still linked through Wooster's, was laughing at something that Curtis had said. "Fen gets bored easily. I'm glad you called, even if it was to drag us out into the country. She was probably two more slow days away from disguising herself and auditioning for a production on the West End."

At the top of the steps, Jeeves raised his voice. "Perhaps we could step inside, ladies and gentlemen. If Miss Carruth would join myself and Mr Wooster in the sitting room…?"

"I'd better go and referee," said Pat. She squeezed Daniel's arm and strode up to join them.

Fen playfully shooed Daniel away when he began to follow them into the sitting room. "Go and do whatever it is that poets do in the countryside, Mr da Silva. Moon over a babbling brook. Compose an ode to the sun setting over the haystacks."

Curtis laughed, with a glance to let Daniel know it was mostly for Wooster's benefit. "You won't catch da Silva anywhere near a haystack."

Daniel felt obscurely as though he had been shut out of a council of war, but Curtis insisted on being taken to the library and treated to one of Daniel's so-called blistering diatribes on the taste or lack thereof betrayed by the collection, and Daniel was willing enough to be humoured.

Fen was in her element. She was introduced to Mrs Travers and to the other members of the party as a close friend of Mr Wooster's, and for the next two days she played a role even more simpering and empty-headed than usual, all pet names and affectations, full of chatter and devoid of opinions. When combined with her fair good looks, she managed an uncanny depiction of exactly the kind of girl who might be expected to appeal to someone like Wooster.

Mrs Travers, quite obviously, saw all the hopes of her matchmaking scheme falling apart before her eyes, and turned pushy. Olive Bainsborough just as clearly did not know what to make of things, and spent long hours in her room with a headache. The Orchards treated the whole thing as splendid entertainment, and Polly attached herself to Fen as a possible kindred spirit.

Daniel was returning from a late-afternoon game of pool with Dickie Orchard, who was a fair enough player that Daniel had only had to flub a few shots to keep things interesting, when he heard raised voices from the parlour.

"No, I won't hear of it! If I marry any woman at all, it shall be my darling Fen!"

Wooster, it seemed, had as little instinct for deception as Curtis, but much more enthusiasm for it. What his voice lacked in subtlety, it made up for in volume.

"Oh, Bertie!" Fen chirped, nearly as loudly. "Sugarmuffin!"

"Bertie."

Daniel stopped in his tracks. After a moment, Mrs Travers stormed out of the room, and spared him no more than a vaguely courteous nod before her storming continued up the main staircase and in the direction of her bedroom.

She too, she swiftly let it be known, had a headache, and would only be cured by some of Anatole's special consommé.

Meanwhile, Wooster--or Jeeves, or some combination of the two--called another impromptu council, this one in a poky sitting-room that didn't get much use. Daniel and Curtis were allowed to attend this one. Wooster, now that an unwanted engagement no longer hung over his head, was full of the good-natured energy that was apparently his natural state when not encumbered by Aunts. He tried twice to explain the current situation, but drifted off into a confusing tangent about his uncle's silver collection, and finally demanded that Jeeves do it.

Jeeves ducked his chin with the reticence of someone who prefers to operate behind the scenes, for all that he had the voice of a natural Shakespearean.

"You may have been wondering," Jeeves said, "why Miss and Mr Orchard have not been privy to any of these discussions."

"You certainly don't seem chummy with them, Bertie," said Pat.

Wooster grimaced. "Not my pals. Aunt Dahlia invited them; met them in town, or somesuch."

"We have reason to believe," went on Jeeves, "that Polly and Dickie Orchard are in fact more accurately known as Marie and Richard Clement."

"Spies?" said Daniel sharply.

"Thieves," said Jeeves.

"You see?" said Wooster, almost bouncing. "Must have known about Uncle Tom's silver collection. Wrangled an invitation here in the hope of pinching the goods."

"Mr Travers is indeed renowned for the quality and extensiveness of his collection of antique silver," said Jeeves. "The Clement siblings are the children of a French father and an English mother, and it's believed that they fled the Continent under false names after denuding half the great houses of Paris of their artworks and other valuables. Their father," Jeeves continued, "is Pierre Paul Corbon's younger--and illegitimate--half-brother."

"Corbon?" said Fen blankly.

"Ambassador to the United Kingdom," said Daniel. He looked at Jeeves. "You're planning to contact Corbon? Tell him you've found his wayward relations?"

"Monsieur Corbon," said Jeeves, "feels keenly his obligations to country, to diplomatic relations, and to family. I understand he would like very much to see them sent back to France, where they would be kept under the family's thumb and have less potential for international embarrassment. If he were to be alerted to their location...I think he might be relied upon do the rest. But we need them to play their hand, as it were, so that the possibility of police involvement can be held as the stick, while passage back to France provides the carrot."

"Gosh, how exciting," said Fen. "Do let us know if we can help."

Jeeves gave a small bow in her direction. "A kind offer, Miss Carruth. But matters seem to be in hand for now. And it would be best if you were to react naturally to any events that may transpire."

"In that case, I feel like a walk. Work up an appetite before dinner," Curtis said. "Da Silva?"

Daniel opened his mouth to express his usual disparaging opinion of the outdoors, but he caught the promising gleam of Curtis's eyes just in time. He gave a languid shrug, and hauled himself to his feet. "Why not?"

They strolled a while for propriety's sake in the small hedge-maze behind the house, and then headed further afield. Eventually they paused in a secluded part of the wilderness in the grounds, where Daniel stopped and leaned against a tree to wipe some mud off his shoe. They were alone, and enclosed. There was nothing to hear but the occasional harsh, questioning cry of a far-off dusk bird.

Curtis walked in small circles, gazing up at the deepening sky and the clouds through the branches of the trees. He had his shoulders back and was taking deep breaths.

"I do miss this, in the city," Curtis said.

Daniel sniffed cautiously. "Grass? Dirt?"

Curtis smiled. "I know, you're not a country creature."

"Nor will I ever be," said Daniel. "But I like seeing you like this. All loose, with those masterful arm-swings, like you've stepped into a boxing ring."

"I do know how you feel about violence."

"This is much better," Daniel agreed. "All of that blond, muscular physicality, without the need for anyone to be bleeding at the end of it."

"Shall I perform some feat of strength for you? Strip to the waist and uproot a tree?"

Daniel laughed and patted the bark of his current tree protectively. "Leave the vegetation alone, you brute. Be physical with me."

Curtis came obligingly closer and put his gloved hands around Daniel's waist, close enough to press Daniel back into the tree. He tightened his grip just enough that Daniel was aware of his full strength, of the fact that Curtis could lift him bodily from the ground, or throw him over his shoulder. Blood began to pool in Daniel's cock. One day, he would have Curtis support him fully, Daniel's legs around his hips, Daniel's own weight the force pushing him down onto Curtis's length.

"Uproot you?" Curtis murmured.

"You've already done that," Daniel said, before he could catch himself.

Curtis gave a rueful smile and kissed him, light and affectionate. Daniel put a hand to Curtis' jaw and thumbed over his lips.

"I think I know the feeling," Curtis said.

The brute physicality progressed nicely from there; Daniel was panting into Curtis's mouth, caught in a fantastic way between the tree and Curtis's thigh shoved firmly between his own, when a sudden rustle from a nearby bush made them break apart.

"Who is it?" called Curtis.

"Is--is there someone there?" This voice was young, and unfamiliar.

Curtis glanced at Daniel, who finished smoothing his hair back into place and shrugged. Curtis said firmly, "You'd better come out, lad."

More rustling, and then a young man fought his way out from between a rose bush and a bramble-hedge, which seemed to be vying for the honour of ravaging his clothes. He had messy brown hair, thick brows drawn into a worried expression, and a cloth bag slung over one shoulder.

"Who are you?" Curtis demanded. "What are you doing here?"

The same part of Daniel's stomach that had delighted in Curtis's arm-swings found a lot to enjoy about this commanding-officer voice. It seemed to work just as well on the stranger, though in a different direction.

"Cartwright, sir! Joe Cartwright!"

"You're the artist fiancé," said Daniel. "Come in pursuit of Miss Bainsborough."

"I didn't mean to pursue--took her at her word, you know--but then got a telegram--word from Mr Wooster--well, actually--"

"Actually, from Mr Wooster's man Jeeves," Daniel surmised. "A pattern emerges."

"Yes." Cartwright nodded. "Told me to come. Said there was a scheme afoot for me and Olive--Miss Bainsborough--to be together. Said she still cared for me. Meant to be sneaking in through the kitchens--ran into some geese--got a bit turned around."

"I don't think we need to hear the details," Curtis said firmly. "If you work around that way, you can come up to the kitchen door through the vegetable garden. Stick behind the wall and you won't be seen from the house."

Cartwright nodded again and wriggled back through the bushes with a grateful expression.

The mood having been broken, they returned to the house, and changed for another of Anatole's incredible dinners. Daniel had run into the cook only once; the man had given Daniel a long and disapproving look which, Jeeves had later informed him, had less to do with any objection to Daniel's race per se, and more to do with the fact that the presence of a Jew among Brinkley Court's guests meant that Anatole had to refrain from making his pork knuckle with mustard and shallots, which he considered the crowning achievement of his culinary career. Daniel kept his mouth shut on the opinion that this was not as mitigating as Jeeves clearly intended it to be; it was, at least, one of the milder jabs he'd experienced. These small reminders were like flicks against the skin: not able to be dodged, but you could ignore them, if you chose. And learn to grow a thicker skin.

"Didn't see Cartwright at dinner," Curtis said afterwards.

They were in Curtis's room. Daniel was removing his cufflinks for him. There was a lovely tension between them, the unfinished melody of their earlier activities in the garden, and Daniel was amusing himself by listening for the hitch of Curtis's breath when Daniel's fingertips brushed the delicate skin of his wrists.

"No," agreed Daniel, "but Miss Bainsborough looked brighter than she's ever been. Kept blushing into her water-glass. There are definitely a number of schemes--what did Cartwright say? Afoot."

"And none of them anything to do with us," Curtis said.

Something about the way he said it set warning bells ringing for Daniel. He looked closely at Curtis for a few seconds, then narrowed his eyes. "You told Fen to keep me out of the loop, didn't you?"

"Daniel, you don't need to know everything about these plots. Not even plots! The love lives of people we don't know! French art thieves! What does any of it matter?"

"That's not the point!" Daniel dodged Curtis's outstretched hand, feeling raw and spiky both at once. He tossed the cufflinks onto the dresser with enough force that one bounced off onto the floor. "I won't be bloody handled, Archie."

Curtis gave a tentative, suggestive smile. "I thought you rather liked being--"

"Don't."

Curtis sighed. "We're here to relax. Not for you to involve yourself in more intrigue."

"I like intrigue," Daniel snapped.

"I know you do. But it winds you up, like a clock. And you're brilliant when you spring to life, but--"

"You don't get to decide what's best for me," Daniel said. "As I recall, you got very irate on the subject when I tried to act in your best interests. Turned up at my door and shouted at me about the error of my ways."

"You--" said Curtis, angrily, and stopped.

The moment hung between them, like a drop of water on wavering spidersilk. Daniel felt the danger in it. They knew how to fight, but they still struggled with recovery.

When Curtis reached out again, this time Daniel forced himself to stand still and let him close the distance. Curtis smoothed a thumb over the arch of Daniel's brow and let it rest beside Daniel's eye, very gently.

"I was going to say, you're brilliant, but you always look so tired afterwards," Curtis said. His voice was quiet and honest. "I wanted this to be a break. Peaceful."

All of Daniel's anger deflated at once in the face of Curtis's straight-line caring, as it usually did.

"I'm not very good at peace," he admitted.

Curtis huffed a smile. "How about...not at war? For a few days?"

"Entente Cordiale," Daniel murmured. He moved closer. He didn't touch Curtis's damaged hand, but touched his wrist, and saw the way Curtis' eyes darkened and softened. "You know how to make me relax, love," he said, low into Curtis's ear.

Curtis kissed a sensitive spot beneath Daniel's jaw; when Daniel groaned and pressed his body against Curtis, encouraging, the kiss became a steady sucking of the sort that Daniel usually avoided, unless he had reason to be obvious or had greasepaint on hand to cover up the evidence. But he was feeling reckless, and Curtis's mouth, with the faint scrape of stubble, felt too good for Daniel to tell him to stop.

He stroked a hand over Curtis's trousers, feeling out the soft bulge that was as yet only a hot promise beneath his fingers.

"Have I mentioned lately," he murmured, "how much I appreciate this particular part of you?"

Curtis gave a sudden burst of laughter into Daniel's neck. When he drew back, his blue eyes were alight with humour.

"What?" Daniel demanded.

"Sorry. I'm just--thinking about that blasted story from your Icelandic book. You aren't ever allowed to say I'm hung like a horse again, or I'll start having awful thoughts about boxes and herbs and old women."

Daniel laughed as well. "Perhaps we should stick to pet names, sugarmuffin. You could call me cream puff--"

Curtis gave a growl of protest and shoved Daniel down onto the bed, wasting no time in crawling on top of him and trapping Daniel's arms with his own. Heat flared deliciously in Daniel's blood.

"I'll call you whatever I please," Curtis said. "My beautiful snake."

Daniel let his mouth curve into something between a smirk and a pout, and Curtis kissed him, an endless barrage of hard, adoring kisses, taking them from Daniel's lips like a famished man falling on a tray of sweet fruit.

Daniel was nearly whimpering by the time Curtis released his mouth, and his whole body was shivering and howling with the need to have Curtis closer.

"Where were we?" Curtis said. "Yes. Making you relax."

There were definite benefits, Daniel reflected later--staring at the ceiling and dizzy with need--to fucking a soldier. Or rather, being fucked by one. Curtis was a man who would set out his mission objectives and systematically work to achieve them.

His mission, in this case, seemed to be rendering Daniel as boneless with ecstasy as he possibly could.

"You've been taking notes," Daniel panted.

"Not really." Curtis caught the nipple piercing between his teeth and tugged, and Daniel made a broken sound. "I like making you feel good. I pay attention."

Curtis had one well-oiled finger in Daniel--just one. He had ignored Daniel's varied cajoling, threatening, and pleading with him to add more, or to just bloody fucking get on with things and fuck him properly. He just kissed Daniel until Daniel's mouth felt swollen and wrecked, and teased at Daniel's nipples, and moved that one finger in slow pumps in and out of Daniel's body, only occasionally brushing--as if by accident--over the spot that made Daniel cry out. Every time Daniel reached for his own cock, Curtis pushed the hand away. There didn't seem anything left on Daniel's tongue but the ability to beg.

"Archie, God, please."

"Hm?" said Curtis. His mouth closed for another brief, thrilling eternity over the silver ring in Daniel's nipple. His finger made a slow circle. Daniel was going to shiver into pieces.

"Fuck me." The words came out of Daniel like dye from a cloth, his desire swirling and muddying, leaving Daniel clean of anything but this. "Archie, I can't think, I need--please--need to feel you, need you inside me this fucking second, I just--I can't--"

Curtis let out a shuddering breath and sucked hard over Daniel's collarbone as he removed his finger and lined himself up. He entered Daniel, finally, slow inch by slow inch, the pain of the stretch forming hot red lines that wrapped around Daniel's spine like ribbons.

Daniel had been kept hovering on the edge for too long; almost as soon as Curtis was fully sheathed, he couldn't take it any longer. He reached down with a fumbling hand, gave his own cock a single hard stroke, and came forcefully between them. He tried to keep his eyes on the way Curtis's face changed, feeling Daniel convulse around him.

He collapsed back, feeling limp. Curtis took a couple of deep breaths and then folded Daniel at the hips, drew almost all the way out, and pushed back in again. Daniel felt it everywhere, the incredible fullness, and couldn't help the grating moan that escaped him.

"Daniel," Curtis breathed, leaning over him.

Daniel's lips would barely move to return the kiss. He was delirious with sensation, spent, and wanting.

"Move," he said. "I want to feel it."

He lost track of time; all he knew was that Curtis kept fucking him and fucking him, overwhelming and inexorable, a deep soft burn of pleasure. Daniel felt himself opening for Curtis smooth as butter, over and over, with every stroke. He was helpless to do anything but lie there and take it, feeling pounded into a new shape like river clay.

"God, you're so--the way you look, when I'm doing this," Curtis gasped.

Daniel struggled and managed to manoeuvre one of his legs around Curtis's hip. He dug his heel into Curtis's arse, pulling him closer, deeper, and felt his own back arch. He was getting hard again, and he felt simultaneously wrung out and impatient with pleasure.

"The way you feel," Daniel said, thin with panting. "Fuck. You should stay there forever."

Curtis ran a finger around Daniel's rim, where he was stretched and hot around Curtis's cock. Sweat was pooling in the hollow of Curtis's throat, gathering on his brow, and his handsome face was flushed and wondering.

It was obvious to Daniel that Curtis still had a kind of mental block about being fucked; still thought of himself as the kind of man who did, rather than was done to. Maybe he would be curious enough to try it someday soon. Maybe never. Daniel was not going to be the one to bring it up first; if he offered, Curtis would get that mulish look and insist on letting Daniel do it out of--fair play, or honour, or some such Boy's Own concept, without actually thinking his desires through.

And it wasn't like Daniel was about to muster up any objection to the current state of affairs. He was more than happy to keep enjoying himself on Curtis's very, very generous cock.

Curtis finally came, breathing in huge gulps of air that betrayed how hard he'd been holding himself back, with his forehead pressed to Daniel's temple. He wrapped his hand around Daniel and Daniel, too, managed a weak but satisfying release, feeling like the last glowing embers in a fire left to burn itself out.

Curtis pulled out of Daniel slowly; it was still uncomfortable, for a few seconds, but it was just another nudge of Daniel's body against his oversaturated nerves. He didn't care.

Curtis settled on his side, curled towards Daniel. He reached out and lifted Daniel's unresisting arm; both of them watched the sag of his wrist, and Curtis gave his pure, satisfied smile.

"Now you look relaxed."

"Indeed," Daniel said. "Congratulations on a successful mission, Captain."

After a moment Curtis said, "I'm sorry about before. You're right. I did say I wouldn't try to play nursemaid."

"Your intentions were pure." Daniel bit his lip. After a moment he added, grudgingly. "You might have had a point. I'm...not used to this. To not having anything to do."

Curtis said, looking a bit awkward, "I thought it might help you get some writing done."

Daniel laughed. He didn't have enough energy for it to do more than gently shake his ribs.

"What?" Curtis said.

"You've read my poems," Daniel said.

"Yes?"

"Do you think I was relaxed, when I wrote then?

Curtis opened and closed his mouth. "No," he said, in a voice of realisation.

Daniel kissed his bemused expression and then settled down on the pillow.

"You're sleeping here?" Curtis wrapped a possessive arm around him, pulling him close.

"I don't think I can walk," Daniel said dryly.

It was partly that, but most of it was that he felt safe. Not entirely--never entirely, when he was anywhere that wasn't his own room, a space where he knew and controlled every inch. But despite the disaster of their last country house party, despite everything, Daniel felt like he was finally enjoying himself.

He leaned in and kissed the nearest piece of Curtis's skin in a wordless thank you, and let himself melt into the good, aching tiredness of his body, towards the near shore of sleep.

There was a knock on the door.

"No," said Daniel. "Sod off."

Jeeves's voice called, "Sir?"

"Might be important," Curtis said.

"Might be nothing to do with us, according to you," said Daniel, waspishly.

Curtis laughed, kissed Daniel's ear, and went to be-robe himself and open the door.

"Now what is it, Jeeves?"

"A thousand apologies, sir." Jeeves was already striding across the room. "I require that painting."

"What, right now?"

"I'm afraid so, sir."

Daniel propped himself up in the bed and watched Jeeves carefully lift said painting from the wall of the room. It was an unremarkable landscape; Daniel hadn't glanced at it more than twice, and if subjected to tortures arcane might have managed to report that it involved some hills and possibly a lake. His eye for detail did not usually extend to the furnishings.

"Why?" said Daniel, when Jeeves was on the brink of leaving the room, artwork tucked capably under one arm. Daniel's bones might have been thoroughly jellied by Curtis's efforts, but there was an invisible and unbreakable skeleton of curiosity within him, and it fired the word from his mouth. "You've got some scheme--Mr Cartwright--the thieves--why do you need it?"

"Jeeves," said Curtis, rejoining Daniel on the bed.

"Captain Curtis?"

"Is it a matter of national security? Imminent life or death?"

"Far from it, sir."

Curtis nodded. "Tell us tomorrow," he said, and his arm bore Daniel back down to the pillows.