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Never Cursed

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1957, Los Angeles, California

Charles Lincoln Neal built a name for himself during his many years of practice, making him one of Los Angeles’ most coveted tailors and designers. Compared to his mere forty years of age, he was more experienced than most of his competition decades his senior. His clientele was small but loyal: ever so eager to expand, but he firmly believed in the principle of quality over quantity. He made it a personal decision to only serve a select few that earned his trust and interest, similar to how his collections available to the public were only ever made in limited numbers. Getting into his inner circle was a task as difficult to accomplish as it was easy to fall from his good graces.

Charles Lincoln Neal was a walking symbol of refined tastes, exclusivity and unique craftsmanship. But right now, he was, above all things, terribly and excruciatingly uninspired.

Sure enough, inspiration was a fickle guest in his mind. Luckily for him, with his strict work ethic and his need for routine, he could tame his creativity in a way that it almost constantly made him ready to work. He walked on the paved road to perfection with steady feet. Not this time. Not in several weeks.

Charles was sitting at his breakfast table in his dining room. He was absentmindedly looking at the silk tapestry, its green hues embracing the morning sun. It was a small voice that woke him up from his momentary slumber.

“Charles, what’s gotten into you?”
No answer.
“Charles… Charles!”
The man shook his head, as if someone splashed him with cold water. “What?”
The voice grew less timid and more impatient with each response, or lack thereof. “What’s going on?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been sitting here in deafening silence, legs frantically bouncing, without uttering a word to me in the past half hour.”
“Breakfast’s for eating” – a short bark.
“Is it?” The woman shot a cursory glance at the plate opposite her. The almost picturesque selection of pastries had been barely touched.
“Certainly not for questioning” – he finally tore his gaze away from the walls, his icy blue eyes meeting her grey ones.

She fell silent for a minute.

“What are we doing here, Charles?”
The clinking of a teaspoon hitting porcelain. A sip of tea. Earl Grey, unsweetened.
“I don’t know, what are you doing here?”
“That’s a great, great question!” Her voice was dripping with anger at this point, unable to hide the frustration and hurt caused by the man in front of her. She rushed up the single stairwell in the hallway connecting the rooms, only to come back a few minutes later. Fully dressed, she was holding a suitcase in her left hand.
“I can’t do this anymore, Charles. I tried. I’m not a mannequin, I’m a woman.”
She waited in the dining room’s doorway for Charles to answer, but he seemed more occupied with the tablecloth and its pattern. Suddenly recognising what was happening, he looked past his companion, deliberately searching for the front door rather than facing her.
“Excellent, Greta, excellent” – he scratched his chin. “I’ll send Buddy over with the remainder of your belongings tomorrow.”
“Prick” – Greta uttered, silent enough that it wasn’t an exclaim, but loud enough for Charles to hear.
The front door closed behind her with a creak, almost mockingly, robbing her of so much as a dramatic departure, her dignity already long gone.
“I think I’ll skip breakfast today” – the man spoke. The thin air was unable to respond.

THE NEXT DAY
“You dismissed her?” She tried to feign shock and annoyance, but the corners of her mouth curling upwards showed otherwise. “Again?”
“Excuse me, she left at her own free will.”
“Precisely, like the six others before her, all of whom you drove away with your ever–so–charming manners!”
“Stephanie – ” There was a slight threat in his tone.
“You can’t trick me, Neal.” She pondered silently for a short while, rocking back and forth on her feet, while Charles sat in the opposite end of the room. The velvet–coated divan was almost teasing its onlookers with its lush purple hue. He preserved all the lavishness and eccentricity for his work as much as he could, but he sure loved his colours, which was clearly reflected in his surroundings.

“It’s different” – he exhaled before she could say anything. She would’ve rightfully scoffed at him for his erratic ways.
“How so?” – her question didn’t come from a place of criticism. If anything, the two small words were filled with concern and empathy.
“I don’t know” – he rubbed his eyes, placing his browline glasses on the small end table beside him. “M’tired.”
“Charles, you sleep like a log every night. I would know.”
“Not like that” – he sighed, continuing after a few beats of silence. His voice suddenly sounded fragile, vapid of the arrogance and nonchalance he showed Greta just the day before. “I feel… depleted.”

Lincoln” – the tall, thin woman suddenly crouched next to him, delicately placing a palm on one of his knees. “Talk to me.”
Her way of addressing him did its necessary magic, leading to one of Charles’ few vulnerable moments. He usually was a man of select and concise words, but she seemed to navigate the way through his inhibitions with ease.
“I… I can’t work, I can’t concentrate. The pages are blank. My mind is blank. Something is missing. My routine is falling apart, because there’s nothing to lead the routine with. Help me, Stevie.”
“You know I will do everything in my power, but you can only help yourself” – she squeezed his knee. “I will make a dinner reservation, for a start.”
“What for?”
“To have a nice evening, you dummy” – Stevie shot a smile at him, washing over this monochromatic day with a hint of saturation.
“Okay… okay. I won’t say no. But only if it’s the two of us.”
“You sure it isn’t just a funk? You got over plenty of those, and always bounced back with just a little more energy, just a few more sparks than before.”
“I’m pretty sure, yes. Nothing feels right. And it’s not Greta’s fault. Nobody’s fault before her. Only mine” – he weakly smiled.
“Don’t be so hard on yourse–“ The sharp tweet of the doorbell interrupted her comforting words.

A polite, single ring. Stevie was grateful it wasn't one of those impatient vendors, so hungry for attention that they refuse to get their hands off the bell until someone greets them. Having their residence and the salon under the same roof had its disadvantages, and constantly having people around was one of them.
"Whoever it is, Stevie, tell them to leave."

The man at the door heard Charles' faint voice coming from the house sooner than she could answer him, shuffling his feet with unease.
"House of Neal, how can I help you?" She smiled. It was a courtesy, he could tell.

"I... I was sent by Miss Greta to pick up her personal possessions."

Stevie's surprise was genuine. The person before her stood at an almost absurd height, at least absurd to her standards. He was dressed casually in a pair of work jeans, flannel and what appeared to be a leather jacket draped over his shoulder. Perhaps even too casual for her taste. She couldn't help but be humoured by the stranger, however, when she noticed the somewhat stunned look on his face. He must be one of those boys who have only ever seen ladies in skirts, she thought to herself.
"I was told to speak to Mr. Neal" – his pleasant baritone almost echoed in the warm August air.
"I'm afraid Mr. Neal isn't available at the moment" – she declined, well aware that tending to him immediately would only result in one of Charles' usual tantrums.
"It's urgent" – he replied sternly.
"I understand, but–"
"Let him in, Stephanie."

She had no choice but to comply, unable to figure out what was going on in her accomplice's mind. Once in the drawing room, she introduced him with a hint of sarcasm in her unnecessarily solemn statement.
"Charles Lincoln Neal the third, himself."

"What brings you here?" Charles cut to the chase, clearly wanting to get this over with in as little time as possible.
"I was ordered to collect Miss Greta's belongings on her behalf" – he was in obvious discomfort.
"Yes, I do speak English. Please remind her that I promised to get them delivered by a member of my own staff later today."
The man didn't know how to respond – here he was, trying to complete a simple task, finding himself in the middle of what looked like a lover's quarrel. He couldn't care less.
"It's a matter of urgency, I must" – he tried to sound as commanding as he could. He now recognised this as a power play between the two individuals, one which he had no intention be a part of.
“Surely it can wait a little longer” – Charles teased, desperate to end this interaction. He was also determined to ruffle Greta’s feathers a little more, if for nothing else than to show his disapproval about disturbing his quiet Wednesday morning. With a strikingly tall stranger, no less. A stranger, who, with his rough hands and worn attire, looked like a fish out of water amongst the meticulously curated drapes and furniture.
“How much?”
“A few hours, give or take” – a slightly mischievous grin spread across Charles’ face, unable to hide his high over potentially upsetting her. He held her in his arms no more than three days ago. Physically present, but perhaps already having left her in spirit. If he was ever there to begin with.
“Fine. I’ll wait in the truck.”
“Truck? And why don’t you just come back in the afternoon? Don’t you have anything better to do?”
“Believe me, kind sir, I do, but I’d rather not make the three-hour drive more times than it is absolutely necessary” – the unwanted guest sounded more and more annoyed by the minute.

“Doesn’t she live a few blocks away?” He dropped the vitriolic tone, rising to his feet with honest confusion on his face.
“She did, but she travelled back to their parents’ property yesterday for the time being. I’m their caretaker.”
“The caretaker, huh?” Charles knew Greta’s immediate family was financially secure, but he wasn’t aware of the actual extent of their wealth. They very well could’ve lived in a mansion in Santa Barbara, or in a similarly sunny highbrow town. The pang in his chest made him realise he might’ve not known her all that well, despite the year and a half they spent together.
“Yes, and right now I’m trying to take care of business. I have a navy pickup parked almost right in front of your highness’ abode. You can find me there once you have everything prepared.”
With a turn on his heels, he man left the house with much more confidence than he arrived with, the slam of the door of his truck clearly audible from where Charles and Stevie stood in stunned silence.

“Who taught this man his manners? He didn’t even close the front do-“
“That’s a big truck for a big man” – Stevie chuckled, taking a step towards the window.
Charles came back to the room huffing, his sleeves rolled up. “Whatever happens, don’t give him anything to drive back with before three.” The clock had barely struck ten. “I’ll handle the rest.”
“Charles, don’t you think that’s a little excessive?”
“He brought it on himself. Acting like he’s on a mission or something, hmph. A caretaker… Next thing you know, he’s going to fling his »employee of the month« ribbon at me.”
“Hey, slow down there, mister fragile ego” – Stevie tried to calm him, a hint of amusement still lingering in her stomach. “He’s just doing his job.”
“Well, right now his job is to wait. And I’m going to make him earn his money.”

*

A mere half an hour later, Charles sat down on the queen bed in the guest room. Greta’s room. He’s been through this moment enough times to lack a strong emotional reaction, but he could feel his lungs being filled with an air of melancholy.
He finished packing quite early, putting her remaining notebooks, knick-knacks, toiletries and picture books in a few wooden boxes. Her clothes were already folded away in a couple of beige carriers at the foot of the bed. His housekeeper, Therese made sure no garments were left behind.

It was a guest room. Its occupants have only ever lived there for a fleeting time, like ghosts coming through the walls and sharing their secrets with each other at their arrivals and departures. If Charles had found a cautionary note in one of the drawers for the new tenant to read, he would’ve deemed it rightful. “Run. He isn’t worth it.” There was no note. Not that he knew of.

A few more minutes idly passed by, with Charles looking at the pointed toes of his shoes, eyes devoid of emotions. Reminiscing of times past. He felt nothing.

Save for a little spark of guilt, but not for Greta. Suddenly he remembered the stranger in his pickup truck, angrily waiting for his unplanned stop to end, probably cursing his employers to hell and back. He’s a man’s man, Charles pondered, he’ll get over it. He wasn’t sure if that qualified as an insult or a word of praise at this point: he knew that he seemed strong, commanding, perhaps a little intimidating. His simple attire gave the designer the impression that he aimed for blending in. He probably tried to avoid attention as much as he could, his height, his stature already turning more heads than not wherever he went. And yet, as Charles tried to recall his features and appearance in his mind having met him less than an hour ago, he couldn’t help but notice an aura of grace around him. He was big, but not brutish; he demanded attention, but not by force. He moved in the room carefully, almost apologetically, and even in his stormy exit he manifested composure.

He picked up the boxes and gathered them in his arms, placing them close to the front door. He went back upstairs to put the carrier bags next to them.

“Charles, what are you-“ Stevie poked her strawberry blonde head out from the drawing room, coming up for air, lost in a sea of numbers. She hated doing the books.
“I’m taking care of these.” He was already on the street.

Finding the truck was a bit more difficult than he anticipated, as it was actually parked a few houses farther from his entrance. It was easy enough: the car was akin to a smaller mountain.
He could see from a few steps away that the man was occupied with something. As he came up closer to the vehicle, he could tell he was reading. His engagement was evident by the furrowing of his brows and the indeterminable glint in his eyes. What colour are his eyes? The warmth of the midday sun complimented them well enough.

And just like that, as if he felt the other man’s presence, their gazes met halfway. Like a rainstorm over the open sea. Charles nearly dropped a box filled with trinkets.

He was almost ready to gingerly knock on the glass of the passenger door a moment before, but the caretaker saved him the anxiety. His heart was racing regardless. “You’re early. Came out to taunt me?”
“No, actually… These are for you. I mean, for Greta, I-“ The taller man jumped out of the car, crossed to the other side, and gently took the boxes into his own arms, only to place them on the bed of the truck.
“I’ll get the rest of it. They’re by the front door, it won’t be a minute.”
“I can get them myself. I know where your door is.”
“No, I insist.”

Sensing the slight tinge of guilt in the other man’s words, he let him have it. “If you say so.” By the time the smallest smile spread across his face, ever so slightly reaching his eyes, Charles had already turned around. He noticed the grey strands in his hair, making it look more salt than pepper. The realisation left him puzzled. His expressions painted him youthful even when he seemed upset, and especially when he tried to get a rise out of people. He suddenly realised he was already on his way back: either Neal walked fairly fast, or he got lost in his thoughts for a minute too long.

“I actually wanted to apologise… for my behaviour earlier” – Charles spoke up, a little out of breath.
“It’s alright – I don’t wish to meddle in whatever happened between the two of you.” He was already putting the bags on the bed carefully, making sure they wouldn’t move or flip during the ride.
“Still, I shouldn’t have misdirected whatever feelings I had at you.” That’s a weird way to put it, Charles lamented, already scorning himself for his choice of words.

“We’re only human” – the tall man’s voice was full of unfamiliar tenderness. Unfamiliar to Charles, at least. The tiny specks of dust on his fiery red flannel were almost dancing in the daylight. A few years ago, flannels were in advertisements everywhere, and Charles couldn’t bear the sight of them.

A smile.

“Well, there you go” – he helped him close the passenger door. To his surprise, Greta’s employee came over to his side once again, and extended his right hand.
“Thank you, Mr. Neal.”
“No problem, mister…”
“McLaughlin. Rhett.” They shook hands, their fingers departing perhaps a beat too short.
“Have a safe drive, Mr. McLaughlin!”
“You bet.” Rhett got into the driver’s seat, buckled his seatbelt, and turned his head to say goodbye once more before he closed the door and tuned the car into gear. Charles was already walking the other way.

He made the ride to Santa Barbara just under two and a half hours.

Charles really did sleep like a log. He dreamt of the colour red that night.

Chapter Text

Stevie’s voice bounced back from the cold tiles of the hallway. “What on earth was that, Lincoln?”

“What?” She knew his cluelessness was nothing but a decoy, a distraction. Certainly on this particular occasion.
“What was that whole scene about?”
“What scene? I don’t know what you’re talking abou-“
“First you make sure you’re as unlikeable to him as much as you can be, then you parade up to him like a puppy dog?” Stevie almost giggled. Trying to discipline her associate ended in laughter and playful spirits more often than not. At least on her end.
“Now I’m not allowed to fix my mistakes? God knows if I’m ever able to read you just right.” To her concern, he sounded genuinely irritated.
“No, no, that’s not what I’m saying… at all” – she softened up in a matter of seconds. “I’ve just never seen you being this apologetic towards anyone. Not even me” – she faked a frown, happy to see Charles’ tension evaporate, if only slightly.
“I have my moments of clarity.” Despite smiling at her, there was a peculiar sadness in his expression that she was yet unable to grasp or place. All things considered, she was glad that the menacing emptiness plaguing his words just earlier that day was gone. Or so she thought.

*

Dinner was quite uneventful that evening, other than Charles being just a little more fidgety, shaky and anxious, even more so than usual. Their conversations went pleasantly, leaving the topic of the tall man behind entirely. He seemed to be in good humour, making an effort to listen and process Stevie’s words on cue, something he usually struggled with. She remained optimistic, convincing herself that Charles’ grim mood from that morning was an unusual episode. That is, until she noticed after paying the bill that he left his plate untouched.

*

To say that the next few weeks in the House of Neal were an uphill battle was an understatement.

On most days, Stevie needed to show her mental and physical fortitude to achieve as little as getting Charles out of his bed and his pyjamas. There were the odd occasions when he seemed put together, although barely so: she could even recall him fidgeting on an ottoman in the main room of the salon, notebook and pencil in hand. The most frequent image in front of her, however, was him shuffling around the house, a sleepwalker wide awake, an unwelcome guest in his own home. She cared for him, figuratively and literally: always there, every step of the climb and at every fall. Making sure he ate well (a heroic feat), keeping his bedsheets clean, his sleep undisturbed. A shadow of a nurturing mother, even though their kinship was as close to siblings as it gets; the little sister and the older brother neither of them have ever had. She could’ve never given up on him, but she was damn well ready to hit rock bottom.

Stevie knew this wasn’t caused by loneliness, or any matter of the heart: in fact, his lack of inspiration and creative sparks drove him to solitude at a fast pace. She’d seen this before, more times than it could’ve been healthy for anyone, but her brother-in-spirit was always able to pick up the pieces after a week or two. Make a new, brighter, lighter mosaic.

It had been months.

The breakthrough arrived in a most unexpected form. Charles and Stevie were sitting in their drawing room, the latter looking at and sorting some older magazines. The former was trying to get down his third cup of tea of the hour. The previous two had gone cold, as he favoured staring at the empty air to drinking them. Back in the day, one of their favourite pastimes was critiquing, no, ridiculing tacky fashion adverts in print; Stevie hoped she could inadvertently trigger some happy memories.

“Give me those” – she flinched, startled by Charles’ sudden assertive tone.
“Which one?”
“The one you’re holding, come on” – he sounded annoyed, but still, the most excited she heard him in a long, long while.
“There you go.” The magazine landed in Charles’ lap, who in turn spent the next few minutes silently flicking through it.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he was laughing. Openly and sweetly, as if he had been scared by the possibility of a cackle too loud ending in tears.

Stevie wanted to be happy, but all she could feel was concern. At first she thought he’d laid eyes on an exceptionally atrocious photograph or illustration, but the page only contained… flannel shirts. In all possible colours and combinations. She had a fleeting idea, which she deemed too outlandish to even consider. By the time the man’s laughter subsided, he looked like a deer in the headlights trembling in the cold night. Perhaps he was in equal shock, unable to understand why that happened.

“I… I need air.”

He put on his smoking jacket and slowly took the three steps leading out the front door to the street. Outside, he softly leaned on the sturdy wall, watching cars pass by in the sleepy sunset. Their home wasn’t located in the absolute most frequented area of the city, but still, he considered them very lucky to be able to actually own a house, surrounded by hotels, company buildings and apartment complexes. The headlights of the vehicles blurred his vision; he felt like a silhouette in his own mirage.

It suddenly occurred to him that the last time his feet were out of the door was the day when he carried Greta’s belongings up to that particular navy Chevrolet.

*

In the span of the next two weeks, Charles showed Stevie no less than six sketches, all sharing certain characteristics with one other, but each still very unique in its design.

“Is this a collection?” The glee in her voice was unmistakeable.

“Hm.” He cleared his throat. “I haven’t actually thought about that. There’s a possibility.”

Even the mention of the word possibility filled Stevie’s heart to the brim with hope. Not long ago, she was close to deeming her best friend’s recovery impossible, accepting to make a new life in the dark. She wasn’t certain about the sky clearing once and for all, but she could see plenty of blue. She looked deep into Charles’ eyes.

“It’s good to have you back” – she squeezed his hand across the table. “Are you ready to start working on commissions?” His minimum time of completion for larger projects was six months, knowing that if he had ever missed a deadline, he wouldn’t have been able to face his reflection in the mirror. Luckily for him, he nearly always completed the orders early. He’d never been so grateful for his own long-term policy. The liberal time constraints saved him from being catastrophically behind schedule – like he had known all along that he was destined to crash and burn. Others fly too close to the sun; he just happened to drift too far away from it.

“How bad is it?”

“Other than Mrs. Vanderbilt’s evening gown, we only have a few specific requests, a tea or a sheath dress here, a circle skirt there. Gloria’s orders is only due by August – not counting that one, we have sixteen garments to produce altogether.”

“Sixteen? Stevie!” It was much worse than he thought. “October’s almost gone, for Christ’s sake! You know how our clients beg us to do short notice work by Christmastime, not to mention New Years’!”

“Easy, Lincoln. I’ll have everybody ready by tomorrow, if you’re able to convince your hands to carry the magic on. Don’t forget the plethora of unfinished subjects you have lying around in the attic.”

Lying around was a generous exaggeration: Charles liked to keep everything carefully organised, even in the attic. Even those plans he scrapped, even those clothes he kept unfinished for one reason or another. They weren’t commissioned, those were his passion projects. For the most part, he didn’t sell them. He liked to flip through them similarly to how other people liked to look at photographs: every piece reminding him of a specific time in his professional (and sometimes personal) life, every piece of fabric helping a memory come alive again.
Alas, desperate times called for desperate measures, so he absolutely had to consider parting ways with some after bringing them to completion.

Everything can be saved” – Stevie sounded cryptic, but he obviously recognised the double entendre.

“Get the team ready by tomorrow. Seamstresses, patternmakers, assistants, everybody.”
The House of Neal had its windows and doors opened anew.

TWO WEEKS LATER
Almost a changed man, Charles stepped out of the house so he could help the staff carry the large shipment of fabrics he ordered upstairs. Others saw it as a generous act, a testament to his humility; in reality, he just preferred to oversee the process as much as he could, right from the beginning. He wanted to make sure the materials were handled with the deserved amount of care and attention. He instructed his employees sternly, but never impolitely, not committing the error of taking them for granted.

A few minutes and several turns later, he spotted a familiar face across the street. Resting his back on a lamppost, smoking. A distant expression.

Charles blinked. Then blinked once more. Just to be certain.

“McLaughlin?” He uttered, at first to himself, as if saying his name out loud had been capable of easing his disbelief. “McLaughlin!”

He lifted his gaze, looking right into Charles’ eyes. The dressmaker could’ve sworn that the melancholy lurking in the tall stranger’s features changed into something that could only be described as pleasant surprise. A stranger?
“Mr. Neal!” He waved, flashing a welcoming smile.

After a moment of hesitation (that felt considerably longer than a moment), Charles crossed to the other side, walking up to him.
“What are you doing here?”
Rhett took a long drag on his cigarette. “Errands.”
“Here? And where’s your pickup gone?”
“That’s part of the errands. Got a flat tyre just a few streets away.”
“I’m… Sorry to hear that.” He’d felt like one more string of questions would’ve been pushing it too far.
“M’s’posed to deliver a set of new furniture for Ms. Greta that she ordered from a specific manufacture around here.” To Charles’ surprise, he didn’t need to ask. “It has to wait a little longer.” – Was Rhett joking with him?
“How come you nearly ended up on my doorstep again?”
“Just been wandering around. Cinemas ain’t open yet, have to wait for the car to get fixed. I knew something felt familiar about the area.”

An abrupt, but not uncomfortable silence followed. In his usual fashion of speaking before giving it a thought or two, Charles made an offer.

“I could use a helping hand, actually. We’re in the process of unloading some new materials that I recently bought, then organising them accordingly. There’s a few loads left, if you want to make yourself useful.” He regretted ever opening his mouth – rude and entitled, like always.
“Only if you pay me.”
“Well, of course…”
“I’m just kidding with you. Show me the way.” Charles’ smile spread across his entire face, unclear if it was prompted by the joke, or something else.
“Please, be careful with the fabrics.”
“At your service, Mr. Neal.”

*

“Just put them on the table next to the wall, there’s two more loads that we can bring up each.” All kinds of carefully folded fabric were placed on an elongated table across the door. Some were already in the process of organisation, while others were being mounted up on some storage units, the largest ones set to be clipped on holders that almost reached the steep ceiling. Rhett came back up with his second batch, paying exceptional attention to avoid damaging them by balancing on the narrow attic stairs. He couldn’t help but notice the staff’s struggle with reaching the highly placed hangers.

“I can help with that!”
“Are you sure you can handle these? Some of them are irreplaceable, one of a kind-“
“You’ve already mentioned that they’re precious cargo, don’t worry. I can be delicate, you know.”

And just like that, he was up on a ladder, seamlessly getting into a rhythm with Charles, the dressmaker giving the materials over to him, helping the other man in moving and controlling entire pieces of fabric, most of them as long as five, maybe even six yards. Meanwhile, the employees were steadily and quickly putting the smaller pieces away on shelves, in drawers, leaving a few of them exposed on tables. Acutely aware of Charles’ requirements and system, like an old clockwork, still capable of measuring time.

By the time they were done with the larger pieces, only a few members of the staff remained in the room, making sure everything was in order and ready to use.
“Start with the ones we settled on during our morning brief. I will be with you in the afternoon – I want all the patterns prepared.” Understanding that this was their cue to leave, they politely nodded before closing the door behind them.

Lost in his thoughts that revolved around planning the early stages of production, Charles abruptly noticed Rhett looking upwards, gazing at the sea of colours and textures that surrounded him. He stood on the attic floor, previously putting away the ladder to where he saw another worker getting it from earlier. They kept quiet for a few more minutes, sharing a smaller space.

The guest suddenly took a step forward, hovering his left hand over one of the cloths before him. Perhaps slightly afraid that his question was going to be met with annoyance or even anger, his voice sounded unusually timid, even small.
“Can I…?”
“Only if your hands are clean.”
“Of course, if you could please tell me where the-“
“I’m just messing with you. Yes, but be gentle.”

Charles watched him let his palm come in contact with the fabric, a foreign but pleasant sensation increasing his awe even more. “All of these are absolutely beautiful. I’ve barely seen anything like it.” Greta’s family mansion was chock full of lavishly decorated rooms, but he was not allowed into them. The maids were responsible for cleaning those, with their hands much more agile and tender than his.

Charles couldn’t help but feel humbled by the intimacy his newfound acquaintance had shown him. Possibly even touched by it, to a degree.

“I… I am sorry…” Woken from his stupor, Rhett realised he’d been slowly going around the wall facing him, stroking every piece of fabric that piqued his interest. He felt a hint of guilt for doing something so mundane and childish with such prized possessions. These in their final forms were destined to be worn with pride by the exceptional clientele that Mr. Neal had, not desecrated by his coarse skin.

“No, be my guest” – his host reassured him.

The caretaker continued to revel the calm and comfortable atmosphere, slowly becoming more familiar with his surroundings, even opting for a bit of a detour to the shelves, then closely observing everything laid out on tables.
“You can always ask questions, if you have any” – Charles broke the silence. Not even waiting for an answer, he pulled a worn but comfortable looking armchair from the corner of the room closer to where Rhett stood. He sat down with his legs crossed, trying to mirror his eagerness with his body language.

“Where do I sit?”
“Well, that’s a question to start with.” He couldn’t help but feel the corners of his mouth curling upwards. “Take that stool over there.”

And with that, Rhett began his quest for knowledge; at first, in small doses, shooting shy glances at the ceiling, not wanting to impose himself on the man of the house. As he discovered the growing excitement in Charles’ words, he started to feel less and less inhibited by the need to show his manners. To his host’s surprise, he had more insight on the history of colours and the ever changing trends of decoration than he’d anticipated. Much more.

“Natural dyes can be divided into two major categories: ones that can be used alone, and the others which need a chemical agent to help the colour bind to the fibres.”
“Yeah, indigo belongs to the first group! Despite the development of the dying processes, it’s still widely used to colour, for example, denim fabrics. It’s naturally prone to fading and abrasion” – he couldn’t help but involuntarily look down at his own pair of jeans, ragged and worn down by his many hours of labour spent in them.
“How do you know all these things?”
“Dunno… S’pose I just like information.” He sounded genuinely modest.

The conversation took a turn in the direction of Rhett’s enthusiasm for books and encyclopaedias that dated back to his childhood; how he had this practically insatiable need to discover and decipher the world around him as much as he possibly could. Roaming through the pages of his beloved books felt like walking on open fields where nobody else had set foot before. He devoured every fact and date with ease, joy even; contrary to Charles, whose mind had only ever been open to subjects that he put his whole heart into. Once he got interested in something, there was no way of stopping him, Rhett learnt.

They seemed to have unravelled themselves from time’s grasp, their effortlessly flowing conversation only interrupted by a knock on the door. They both jumped in their seats, shooting a startled look at the elderly woman who already let herself into the room.

“Mr. Neal, I’m terribly sorry, but you’re expected downstairs at the salon, I have-“
“Give me a minute, Biddy.” Charles wasn’t angry: he addressed his head seamstress almost tenderly.
“Yes, sir.” She rushed back to their main workstation, ready to continue overseeing everything in progress until the head of the operation, their captain was back on the bridge of the ship.

“When will I see you again?" Not even bothering to pick up where they left off, Charles let himself speak without leaving any room or time for thoughts; as he so often did.

“When is your next delivery due?”

Chapter Text

The following few weeks brought steady headway with all the orders the House of Neal was set to complete. Maybe Charles’ readiness to continue along with his sketches and ideas was even more promising. Stevie had started to coordinate all the necessary appointments for the first fittings and alterations.

Knowing that her business partner took quite a loose approach to requests, it was entirely possible that they had to scrap several of the pieces in progress. The clients approved of these liberties, as they sought the house’s services primarily because of Charles’ ingenuity and originality. That was one of the several reasons why he’d always set such long deadlines: giving himself room to freely interpret his customers’ pointers, and then closely cooperating, to let their wishes and his creative vision meet in the middle.

As much as he loved making others’ dreams a reality, he had primarily become enamoured with the craft as an art form. Surely, pursuing the profession as a job helped him pay his expenses, and, ever since his first hard fought years as a proper dressmaker, had enabled him to lead a more than comfortable lifestyle. His fame and notoriety also allowed him to be very selective about the people he decided to cater to, similarly to the work that he agreed to take on.

But he had always been in his element when he had virtually no constraints, when he was free to breathe life onto his sketching papers in whichever manner he desired. It had always been a form of expression, perhaps granting him with the possibility of pouring his thoughts and feelings into his designs, most of all those he had felt like he’d been unable to share with anyone else.

After completing around 7 or 8 rough drafts of women’s evening gowns, he noticed his next drawing had started taking up the shape of a suit jacket.

He sometimes had the odd male client, but the vast majority of his buyers had been ladies. He fondly remembered the occasion when he created an entire smaller collection of men’s suits, complete with dress trousers, waistcoats and jackets. He did deliver a couple of rounds of male formal wear every year, but those weren’t nearly as many articles of clothing as he produced for the opposite gender. There had been those special times when he made a few single orders of tuxedos, usually carried out for one of his female patrons for an event, for her beau to match her own attire.

He liked designing for men: the stern, angular silhouettes, the almost geometrical shapes provided him an opportunity to be more adventurous with other elements of the garments, such as fabrics, linings, patterns and colour combinations. Despite the current state of evening- and workwear for men, which meant generally bulky outlines and a lot of room, he liked to play it up by devising slightly slimmer fits and putting more focus on the outline of the body. He had nothing against the classic version, he’d just always been more intrigued by devising and implementing something new. He oftentimes envisioned blazers adorned by ornate buttons, in unique prints and generally in a somewhat unusual look that would’ve been more accepted to be worn by women. Much to his chagrin, his rare gentlemen customers were set on the more conservative varieties, so he’d never really got to experiment in that department.

Any kind of avant-garde idea he might have had in that field of tailoring, he usually used Stevie for as his test subject. Joined by their shared oddities, such as her penchant for wearing suit trousers and sailor jackets, she had always inhabited that role gratefully. Still, those were made for partially their own entertainment and enjoyment, and weren’t really out there for the world to see. For the world to appreciate his (hopefully) pioneering ways and his sophisticated touch.

He was a bit thrown off, and yet not surprised by the fact that his own hand took him on this side quest of turning towards the male figure.

Nearly a month had passed since Rhett McLaughlin’s last spontaneous visit. They hadn’t agreed on anything specific after Charles’s inopportune but sincere question, perhaps reaching an unsaid agreement that however pleasant their short time together might have been, they’d barely even been acquaintances, and it would have been naïve to think otherwise. Naïve and careless.

Every once in a while, in the odd hours of the night, it crossed Charles’ mind how he yearned for an honest connection, and how his conversation with the tall, bearded, golden-haired man had been the most genuine interaction he’d been a part of in his recent memory. He couldn’t recall an exchange that effortless and that deep with Greta, nor with the several others before her.

None of them seemed to had expressed genuine interest in his profession. They all tried to nurture, but they ended up with torture: as childish as he could ever so often be, Charles never needed a substitute mother, or a backup housekeeper. He needed a companion who could have been invested in his endeavours, and to whom he possibly could have returned the same amount of attention and support. If he was being honest to himself, there hadn’t been much to be attentive towards in any of them at all. Sure enough, they had been his muses and collaborators, but the inspiration and the spark could have only ever lasted for so long. They always grabbed his attention with a turn of the head, a twitch of the mouth, a shudder of the body: intricate details that somehow never grouped together to form a bigger picture, not one he could see.

Was it his fault? Was he too wrapped up in his own conscience, too occupied with convincing himself of his own greatness? Did the images he wanted to assign to each of them cloud what they actually looked like? These were all questions asked in vain, not even fit to be repeated by an echo, but he couldn’t help but wonder. That if he had put at least a fraction of the effort into truly caring for all these women that he put into his work and reputation, things might have been different.

But they weren’t.

“Charles, is that okay with you? Charles? Lincoln!” Stevie’s voice shook him up from his detour in melancholy. Always his anchor, always the one to bring him back to Earth, to the living.
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t following.”

“As I was saying, we’ll send up Biddy and Eleanor to check on what we have left in stock, and then you can decide what modifications to do depending on what’s on hand. The restock should take a week or two to arrive, so there might be a need for emergency decisions to make.” This was one of the disadvantages of him sometimes opting for a few spontaneous changes: his work was the only part of his life where he allowed himself to be unpredictable, to be free. In moderation.

Every other aspect of his routine was planned (sometimes more strictly, on other occasions, in more loose terms depending on the activity, but there were always plans and outlines), and he’d known he would’ve had a price to pay if he had gone off the road. Taking creative liberties meant that they had run out of materials earlier than predicted, while they had a considerable surplus of others.

The sole mention of the word emergency left him cold to his bones. He had always jumped to the worst possible conclusions, even in times of minor trouble, so even so much as hearing that expression prompted him to mildly hyperventilate.

As if having had developed a special sense for specifically these occurrences over the years, Stevie immediately reassured him. “It’s fine, it’s just coming up with a couple of new fabric configurations. I might need to make a few calls, but that’s not your job to worry about. Your job is to regroup according to what we have available. That’s no task for you, you’re well used to this. Being the erratic genius you are” – her smile helped him steady his breathing.

And just like that, by the early evening, they had finished re-planning everything, properly organised to begin preparing patterns and developing the early shapes and versions by the start of the following week. Charles made sure to thank as many from his team as he could, even though all they’d done that day was administration and preparation. He also thanked them for their quick handiwork in the previous weeks, fully aware that if it hadn’t been for them, he would’ve found himself in a dire situation.

He sat at his small station in the attic, ready to look at all the work they’ve done on paper and check if everything really was in order. Although artistic freedom is what made him truly flourish, he also liked to strategically go over all the administration, see all the plans laid out. Numbers and annotations, bullet points and quantities calmed him and equipped him with a feeling of both security and accomplishment.

A knock and Biddy’s timid voice from the other side of the door. “Mr. Neal?”
“Come in, Biddy.”
“I… I apologise, I accidentally left one of my purses somewhere around here. Oh, here we go.” She found the bag in question on the top of a shelf, mounted it on her arm, set to leave the house and call it a day. A week even.
She suddenly turned back from the doorway, finding her way to Charles’ desk. “How are you, Mr. Neal?”
“I’m doing quite okay, thank you.” He didn’t sound convincing, but there was a palpable surprise in his cadence, possibly from being moved by the small, unexpected act of kindness.
“Alright, then.” She patted the man’s left hand gently, again heading for the exit. He felt an unusual sting in his eyes.
“Take care, Biddy. See you on Monday.”

*

By eight o’clock, he had given up on paperwork, in turn going back to his sketches, outlining the silhouette of yet another jacket. Lost deep in drawing, he couldn’t hear the ring of the doorbell coming from downstairs.

“There’s someone here to see you.” Noticing Stevie’s delicate frame on the doorstep jolted him out of his focus.
“Who is it?”
“It’s that handyman, what’s his name-“
“Rh… McLaughlin?” He changed his mind mid-word, as if uttering the man’s first name would lead to breaking some sort of a seal, or opening a stolen, secret chest.
“That’s him. What business do the two of you have that I’m unaware of?”
“Lead him up here.” Stevie shot him a glance of indignation, which he appeared to purposefully ignore.

A few minutes of silence, footsteps, then one short, hesitant knock.
“Come.” A single word.
And thus he entered, looking frail in the dim, mellow lighting, an image that somewhat contradicted his frame and usual air of invulnerability.
“Good evening” – two words, much less confident than the host’s word of invite before them.
Charles could feel worry starting to stir in his stomach; he couldn’t possibly justify the man’s unexpected visit, much less so at such an unusual hour. “Did something happen?” He was unable to mask his concern – he cut straight to the point without any form of greeting or any passage of courtesy.
“No, no, everything’s going well” – he replied defensively, with a hint of guilt that he made his companion anxious for nothing.
“Then how can I help you?” Charles immediately cursed himself for sounding so inadvertently irritated.
“I… I don’t know, actually” – the taller one scratched his head.

The dressmaker was outright shocked by the other’s raw honesty. He was puzzled, to say the least.

“Again, I’ve been around the area, and when I recognised the house, I rang the doorbell. It was a spur of the moment decision, really. It was rude of me to come unannounced, I apologise. I should head back to my mo-“
“Stay.” Charles didn’t even wait for him to finish his apology: with his back already turned to him, he was afraid he was going to step out of the house before he could intervene.
He was facing Charles again.
“You don’t mind?”
“No, not at all.”

The silence between them getting a bit tense, he went for the secure conversation starter. “So, what are you doing in the big city again?”
“They are renovating parts of the mansion. I mean, they’re mostly making me do it” – he sounded tired, and frankly, he was. Beyond tired: his back aching for a good night’s sleep and his mind craving a little peace. To his dismay, Los Angeles wasn’t exactly the place to look for peace at.
“What, they don’t have wallpapers and wood in Santa Barbara?”
“Not the kind that fits their standards, apparently” – Charles had never heard even a sprinkle of annoyance in his voice towards his employers before.
“Eh, you know, sometimes you can just never please a certain type of person” – he tried to sound sympathetic, thinking of those customers who went through alterations through alterations, ultimately never having been pleased with the results he provided them with. And also fully aware that he might have been one of those people, in his own peculiar ways.

Noticing the other man’s fatigue, he moved the armchair Rhett remembered so fondly from last time, to the centre of the floor, so he could see everything well from his vantage point. “Sit down. Please.”
He felt humbled to comply, but had no energy left in him to decline, so he carefully sat down. His body immediately felt grateful for the comfortable hug of the seat, and again, the homely, welcoming ambience quieted his mind.

“Would you… like some tea?”
“That would be nice, thank you.”
On any other occasion, Charles would have ordered Therese, or even asked Stevie to make him a cup or two. Now, he carefully descended on the attic stairwell, ultimately making his way to the kitchen.

Left alone in the vast room, Rhett didn’t have the power, nor the will to get up. He silently paced his gaze across the space, greeting all those products and objects he saw the last time he was here like familiar friends, with his eyes. He noticed some new fabrics holstered high up on clips and hangers, realising Charles might have goods delivered regularly, and felt the littlest of pangs in his chest for missing the ones since he had helped with that particular shipment.

Before he could’ve gotten too consumed by nostalgia, the man of the house was back.

“Here are some bags of Earl Grey, I brought you some sugar too, I had no clue about how you might prefer to drink it… There’s some milk on the side – more and more people start to take on the English habit.” The china and the spoons made a silent, high-pitched melody of clatters, as the tray in Charles’ hands was visibly shaking.
“Let me help you” – he stood up and helped him put the whole thing down on one of the end tables, also bringing the armchair nearer. “I like it sweet, reminds me of our iced tea, even if it’s hot.”
“You’re from the South?” – he asked incredulously.
“Born in Georgia, raised in North Carolina.”
“There’s not a trace of a Southern drawl in your accent!”
“Well, so much about having to grow up fast.” Charles had the tact to not push the subject any further, even though he had itched to delve deeper into his conversational partner’s past right there and then. Instead, he moved on to something that he fully knew would lift up his spirits.

“Want to know more about our most recently arrived stack of textiles?”

*

“What’s back here?” After pleasantly chatting away for an hour or so, Rhett got up from the armchair to stretch his inconceivably long extremities. He noticed an area of the attic (which was in principle a big, unified space the size of 3-4 rooms) separated by long, thick curtains. Immediately realising that it probably concealed something private that wasn’t necessarily related to the designer’s professional endeavours, he felt embarrassed.

“Sorry, it’s just… my curiosity got the best of me. Never mind.” He went up to one of the small lattice windows on either end of the house.

Charles, meanwhile, was sipping his tea, lost severely in thought.
“It’s getting late, I should probably go.”
“I’ll show you. Follow me.”

Slightly frazzled, he let Charles show him the way, pulling the drapes back to reveal yet another set of shelves filling up the wall, quite a few mannequins neatly dressed up in the most varied type of clothing imaginable, and a rack at the back containing a sea of garments, including but not limited to shirts, blouses, coats-to-be, jackets and skirts. All the pieces were in different degrees of completion, some finished, others barely even started, just showing a vague idea of the potential they could deliver to be.

Rhett gasped.

“These… this is what I do in my free time. My designs that I make out of my passion for the craft still. I keep them hidden from view because I prefer not to be reminded that I don’t always arrive at the finish line. And because most of them have intimate backstories, personal sources of inspiration.”

His guest fell silent.

Charles went to the far back, carrying a rather large evening gown in his arms upon his return.

“Hold this up for me, will you?” Even though he was asked directly, Rhett still shot him a pleading glance, asking for an approval he was already granted with. He carefully lifted the gown up by its straps.
It had an opaque, black bodice with an impressive skirt made of the most glamorous-looking, sheeny satin he had ever seen. While the skirt was mostly a flattering champagne gold, the black of the bodice extended over to it, almost akin to a petals of a flower blooming over the waistline. The skirt’s many, many pleats must give an impressive silhouette when worn, he thought; a veil of moonlight over a lake in the dark. The dress had some stunning proportions, but clearly had been made for someone of a more petite size.

“There… there was this girl I worked closely with during my first few years of being a proper clothier. I worked an excruciating amount for others before I could make a name for myself at all. From age nineteen to thirty, until I opened the business, I had usually been practicing sewing and tailoring, because I wanted to do all there was. With my own hands.”

Rhett was unable to form any coherent thoughts, but he made sure with his intent expression, that he was paying the utmost close attention to his every word.

“I made this for her. Every step of the process. It was the first dress I have ever designed and completed.”

Rhett tried to actually take in the form of the gown, the details, the materials, but somehow Charles’ voice seemed to shut everything else out.

“We lost contact after the country joined the war.” He reached out, taking the delicate memento into his arms once more. “Take your time. I practically never bring it out to the light of the day, anyway.” They lost track of the clock, but it could’ve been close to ten, even eleven at night, Rhett supposed. The daylight had been long gone.

“Thank you for sharing this story with me. I appreciate it.” He looked visibly touched, maybe even shaken. “Why me?” There was that unexpected, striking honesty yet again.
“Because you listen” – the couturier tried to return the same amount of truthfulness with a simple sentence. It was true: he could feel that no matter what he shared, it was received eagerly and with intrigue.

“Thank you.” The taller man repeated, while Charles put the gown back in its right place.

Charles was quite far from being prolific in reading others’ emotions, but it didn’t take a psychic to recognise that the mood could’ve used some lightening.
“Have you ever worn a suit?” – He abruptly asked.
There, a triumph: he made Rhett laugh. Perhaps it was too daft of an assumption that he’d never worn one. “Not since my niece’s baptismal. Been a while.”

“Stay there.” He disappeared in the swarm of textiles yet again, only to come back with a grey suit jacket (the fashionable look of the day) and a crisp, white shirt. “You ever wear anything else than flannels? Put these on, I won’t look.” With that, he retreated into his area of personal trophies, and pulled back the curtains to give the other man the necessary privacy.

Rhett, with his mouth slightly open, was quite unsure of what was happening. For the lack of better judgement, he complied: taking his own shirt and underlayer of a cotton vest top off, and very carefully putting the borrowed clothes on. Much to his shock, they fit almost perfectly. Save for perhaps the length of the sleeves, which were a tad short on him; nothing he hadn’t already been used to. He fastened one button on the jacket.

“Done” – he signalled timidly.

Charles didn’t dare to look just yet, emerging from behind the drapes. “There’s a small podium with a mirror in front right in the corner. Step up.” Instructions not questioned, but obeyed.

Charles was steadily behind him, waiting for his guest to find a comfortable position to look at his reflection. Once he could tell he was hesitantly examining himself in the mirror, he stepped up behind him, almost having to stand on his tiptoes to be able to peek at him over his shoulders. “Take a good look at yourself.”

There was a noticeable change in Rhett’s stance: back straightened, head held higher, shoulders extending wider.
“How is it?”
“I… I…” He didn’t laugh. He chuckled.
“That bad?”
“No, no, no… I just… This is so unusual. Elegance is… not for me.”
“Well, the mirror clearly tells otherwise.” There it was: another sentence uttered too fast, too soon. Charles was angry at himself.
“Well, I… Thank you.”

“Let me look at the fit for a second.” He touched the other’s hip, signalling him to turn around. He visibly shuddered.
“Dear lord, I’m sorry, I should’ve just told you to face me.” He adjusted the jacket in a few places, trying to straighten it down delicately with his hands, getting the lapels and the shirt collar stand right. He made sure not to touch the person in it in the process. “Clearly a bit too roomy in the shoulders and short at the wrist, but otherwise good on you. Not too shabby, given that these were made according to my measurements.”

“You made this for yourself?” He stared back at him with slight disbelief.
“Well, yeah, I prefer to wear my own clothes, especially when it comes to a more formal attire.”
“Oh.”
“Do you like it?”
“Uh… uhm, well, yes, the sleeves are just ever so slightly short, and… Yes, I like them.” He answered with a shy smile, suddenly finding something very interesting to observe on the aged wooden floor, while also fidgeting with one of the buttons. Charles could’ve sworn he saw a hint of redness creeping up on his (long, one could even say graceful) neck, flooding over to his face.

“You know I can make one tailored specifically to you, Rhett.”

Chapter Text

Rhett was hesitant about the idea at first, not wanting to impose himself on the already heavily occupied man, being afraid of appearing entitled and ungrateful. However much he tried, there was something in Charles’ offer he couldn’t refuse: someone was ready to commit an act of kindness only for him. He couldn’t recall the last time that had happened.

“Surely you have a staggering amount of work on your hands, I don’t want to-“
“Nonsense. I have my team to fall back on. What difference does another piece or two make? It should take two weeks, a few days give or take.” Charles knew that was a lie: they had a tight enough schedule and a lot to get done as it were. He was also determined to follow through with whatever he put his mind to.

“I… don’t have the means.” Rhett felt a hint of embarrassment.
“I won’t hear another word. Be here by six sharp in the afternoon tomorrow. I will take your measurements personally.” His tone was serious and commanding, but his gaze was fixed on the other man with such tenderness that it felt foreign even to himself.
“As you wish, Mr. Neal.”
“Call me Charles.”

*

Charles intended to progress with a lot of his workload during the day: even though most of the sewing and tailoring staff was on their weekend leave, he kept his hands busy joining forces with those who still reported for duty, despite it being a Saturday. He rarely ever partook in the actual manufacturing process anymore. He had a tried and tested group of professionals with whom, for the most part, he could effectively communicate, and trusted them with helping to materialise his visions.

He missed it. He missed the physicality, the focus and attention, the extreme concentration. Once you had made a mistake, there was oftentimes no going back: most of the fabrics were costly, and the limited quantities didn’t leave any room for mishaps either. He missed the care and gentleness he had always handled his subjects with; perhaps to such extreme degrees that it didn’t leave much care for the actual living, breathing people in his life.

Having his little corner of experiments aided him when the longing after the routine of sewing had become too intense. He had no requests to follow, no time constraints, and a relatively free hand with using all the materials that he had at his disposal. However, inspiration lately had been less than scarce, which meant also putting a halt to his private ventures. Until very recently, that is.

Keeping his hands full and in motion also helped to keep his mind quiet. Around half past five, however, when the rest of the crew was taking care of the finishing touches and tidying up, almost ready to head home, his anxiety started creeping in.

He couldn’t pinpoint what it exactly was. He had measured probably hundreds to date, enabling him to go through the entire process even half asleep. He hadn’t personally done it in years though, usually passing the task over to his third or fourth in command; that had to be it. He was just out of practice, and perhaps a little out of touch with other people.

Five forty-five.

“I’ll be up in the attic. McLaughlin is set to arrive soon, please escort him up there.” He addressed Stevie from the doorway to her small office, only to not get a response, not even so much as a hum or an annoyed groan. “Stevie?” She was nowhere to be found.

He walked up to her desk, catching the sight of a large handwritten note. “Dinner invitation. Be home late, behave yourself while I’m out. x”

“Oh.”

*

He allowed himself ten minutes to grab a clean set of clothing: a simple black pair of dress trousers and a plain, carefully ironed white shirt to put on under his similarly white working coat. Before heading back upstairs he made sure everything was relatively tidy, and locked the doors to the salon and the atelier.

To Charles’ relief, didn’t have much to do in the attic: he ordered Therese in the early morning hours to clean up before she would have gone away on her well-deserved weekend off. He rushed up while the sewing staff were on their lunch break, tinkered around with the shelves and stashes, and moved the podium along with the mirror to a more comfortable spot. He didn’t forget about the armchair either.

When he heard the doorbell ring at four minutes past six (he had been looking at his wristwatch for a few), he took one last passing glance at himself in the floor-length mirror, tousling his carefully coiffed, greying hair. “It’s time.”

*

He opened the door bowing rather playfully, showing the directions with his extended arm. “Come on in, Mr. McLaughlin.” Yet again, he scoffed himself for doing something so bad in taste, immature.

“Good evening, Charles” – Rhett’s usual confidence was back, as was his amicable disposition. Somehow hearing his name roll of his tongue so pleasantly made Charles feel an unfamiliar warmth in the back of his throat.

“Let me take your co… jacket!” He realised mid-sentence that Rhett was wearing his usual leather jacket, and wasn’t sporting one of the more intricate and certainly more weather-appropriate coats Charles was used to seeing. He didn’t recognise the extent of his privilege often, but this was one of those rare moments.

The other man was visibly cold.

“Should I put the kettle on before we head back up?”
“Yes, please” – Rhett answered with gratitude.

They made a bit of small talk while the water was boiling, mostly about the extent of the renovations and the progress of Charles’ workweek. It helped to slightly settle their nerves for both, clearly visible from Charles’ violently shaking hands and Rhett’s slow, awkward shuffling around the kitchen table.

“Do you eat here often? S’nice.” He had the courage to walk over to the dining area.
“Every morning, at lunch if I have the time, very rarely at dinnertime. I usually eat out in the evenings, well, clearly not tonight.” His smile was weaker than he intended it to be.

Rhett went back to the kitchen, readily grabbing the already prepared tea tray with everything necessary on it. “Go ahead, I’m bringing this. Steadier hands.”

Charles felt relieved to lead, which meant he didn’t have to look at his client-to-be on the way up. Anything to hide the faint blush on his cheeks.

*

“You’ve rearranged” – Rhett noted, after finding a suitable spot for the tray.
“Just to make the process more efficient and comfortable, you know.”
“You must do this very often – doesn’t it get tiring, having to constantly move the furniture, the equipment around?”
“I, uh, actually… We take measurements in the atelier, for the most part.”
“Oh… That… makes sense. You had to close, I understand. Still, I’m sure this will be done in no time, with you doing this every day.” Rhett wished he could hold back his asinine rambling. It was uncharacteristic of him, a man of few, but significant words.
“To tell you the truth I… Don’t measure clients anymore, unless if it’s their specific, pronounced request.”

The new client looked confused.

“I wanted to do it myself this time.” Charles stood tall.

Both of their cups of tea had gone cold. The air felt unusually, menacingly warm.

Charles stepped up to his now patron, gently took the teacup out of his hands, and addressed him in a hushed tone. “I would like you to disrobe, please, down to your… undergarments. The numbers have to be as accurate as can be” – he sounded apologetic, almost. “I’ll be in the back.”

While Rhett was getting ready to start, Charles was trying to talk some sense into himself in his secluded area of artworks. He’d done this so many times before, it should’ve come to him nearly automatically. And yet he was scared of potentially fumbling, being unintentionally inappropriate, putting down the wrong numbers – startled by the possibility of anything and everything going south. It’s just the anxiety.

He took the two faint thuds coming from the other side of the curtains as his call to re-emerge. Rhett was already standing on the podium, arms hanging low and hands clasped together. He felt like the scene was more akin to a confessional, rather than what it actually was: getting started with the creation of his bespoke suit. The first one he’d ever had.

“Have you done this before?”
“No.” The shortest possible answer.
“Don’t be alarmed, I’m going to walk you through the entire process.” Somehow Charles’ need to calm himself was overridden by the urge to help ease the other one’s obvious discomfort. He sounded relaxed but at the same time assertive, continuing to take the lead in this peculiar, one-of-a-kind waltz.

“We’re starting with your neck, then we measure most of your upper body and arms. If you feel uncomfortable, tell me to stop. Got it?”
“Yessir.” Rhett’s distress had already slightly dissipated.
“Okay, stand straight for me. I need to get the tape around just above here, where the shirt’s collar would normally be.”

Charles’ touch was lighter than a feather, which took Rhett by surprise. He had known so little about him, and yet enough to know agility wasn’t his strong suit. He reminded himself not to make quick assumptions, not about Neal. Who once more made sure that they had as little skin on skin contact as possible.

While steadying the tape around his subject’s neck, Charles got transfixed for a moment, following Rhett’s Adam’s apple on its journey while he hesitantly swallowed. Catching himself in the act, he quickly pulled the tape back, trying to repeat the exact number in his head like a mantra. “Seventeen and a half, seventeen and a half…”

He leaned down hastily to start writing the figures down on paper.
“You know, I could… do that, so you don’t have to be constantly interrupted? I can hold the notebook in my hand, and the pencil, while you… measure me.”
“Uh… yes, yes. Good idea.” It could certainly ease the process, while also making it faster. “On to your chest and shoulder width. Raise your arms for me, please?”

And there stood before him: a giant in the flesh, Charles just noticing how tall he really was. Not bulky, but still big in size; he was lean, but his toned muscles gave him the impression that he’s not the best opponent to overcome in a fight: anyone’s chances of winning were slim. All that physical work had its advantages.

He got the tape across his chest, wrapping it around his entire upper body, careful to not make it too tight. The whole room entirely silent, he couldn’t help but notice that Rhett’s breath was progressively getting faster. He wished he could apologise, unsure of what the reason for it could possibly be.
“Forty-five. You can lower your arms. Turn around.”

The man’s shoulder blades were impressively carved, making Charles realise that this was probably the kind of figure renaissance sculptors so often admired. It might have looked even more enticing made of marble, but the cold white surfaces didn’t have veins running underneath them, neither were covered by soft, tiny hairs. They didn’t bear birthmarks and freckles, certainly not the kinds that one could discover an entire army of hidden constellations in.
Observing Rhett’s body so closely, he couldn’t help but notice quite a few scars and the odd bruise here and there. The dressmaker had always wanted his pieces and collections to tell different stories, but it hadn’t occurred to him before that the human skin could reveal a whole entire book by the low light of a ceiling lamp.

Despite his mind running at a pace of fifty miles per hour and thus severely inconveniencing him, Charles was swiftly progressing with the measurements. Rhett’s anxiety seemed to quieten as well, perhaps fuelled by the conviction that he was in good hands. That notion only got stronger when he could feel his tailor’s fingertips grazing his skin every once in a while; grazes evolved into touches, and the possibility of human contact that left him so startled in the beginning now filled his stomach with a sense of security. Every time Charles lifted his palm, he started to miss its warmth. But before he could have the time to long for it, skin brushed skin yet again.

Reassuring himself that this was a necessary step to take, Rhett powered through the more sensitive acts of having his hips or inseam measured. Out of decency, perhaps, he was asked to get the tape around his thighs and between the front and back bands of his underwear himself. He was grateful.

After checking the circumference of his wrist, Charles absentmindedly left his thumb on Rhett’s pulse point. The taller one could’ve sworn his heartbeat was deafening. They had been working in silence, bar the sound of the pencil sliding on paper, and a few instructions uttered. “We’re… we’re almost done here.” Charles quickly removed his hand, turning away from his temporary model. The faintest taste of shame lingered in his mouth.

Wrapping up the whole ordeal with writing down the customer’s standing height, Charles was headed towards the curtains to let Rhett put his regular clothes back on.
“That’s… not necessary.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’ve just stood here unclothed for the better part of the last thirty minutes. There’s nothing to see that you haven’t seen already.”

Flustered, Charles turned away still, putting the tape back on the table and closing his notebook. He could hear the clink of the other’s belt buckle. He turned yet again, to finally face him.

As Rhett was putting his shirt on, Charles stepped near him. Possessed by whatever ungodly force, he started to fasten his buttons, slowly, one at a time. As he was nearing the collar, he carefully adjusted it, giving Rhett’s shoulders a few strokes and pats, as if he had been dusting him off. “All done.” He said softly, mustering his remaining courage to lift his gaze and stare into the man’s stormy eyes.
He stared right back in his.

Both fully clothed, seemingly back into their comfort zones, the moment surprised them with more intimacy and tenderness than any of the minutes Rhett had to spend almost entirely exposed.

Rhett felt vulnerable. He wasn’t scared. He was smiling.

There they were, flung out of space, flung out of time. They unknowingly shared the feeling of only slightly having left the ground; an unspoken agreement that didn’t need to be said. They were still in contact, perhaps the only thing anchoring them to the floor: Charles’ hands both rested on Rhett’s shoulders.

“I knew you would be up here, you spend so much time here lately.” Stevie’s voice was getting louder and louder, coming from the stairwell. They didn’t register it quickly enough to separate.
“You have to show me what you’re wo- Oh, I’m sorry to interrupt.” An expression of mild shock on her face.

Rhett abruptly stepped back, as if he’d been pushed. “We were just getting finished, Stephanie.”
“It’s Miss Levine to you.”
“I should get going.” He quickly rushed down the stairs, without saying as much as a short goodbye.

“Rhett? Rhett!” Charles didn’t ponder. He followed.
He was barely able to catch him at the entrance, already in his leather jacket.
“Rhett, I apologise, she didn’t know…”
“That’s alright. I shouldn’t have been here this long.” Neither of them had kept track of time.
“Wait, please… How can I send it to you?” Charles sounded the smallest and most frail Rhett had ever heard him.
“That’s not necessary, Charles. I’ll collect it myself.” He was out the door.

*

“What were you thinking?”
“How could I have known? If you’d be kind enough to involve me in whatever it is that’s going on here…”
“What makes you think I want you to be involved?” He raised his voice, almost menacingly.

Stevie recoiled, visibly startled.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to shout.”
“I feel like I’m losing my grasp on you, one day at a time. Please, tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“What’s with him? He keeps coming back unannounced, spends several hours here, then leaves. And he’s not even from here.”
“He didn’t come unannounced today. I took his measurements.” Charles was fixating on his shoes.
“You what?
“I’m making him a suit. It’s on me.”
“Oh, Christ on a cross…”
“Don’t mock me, Stevie.” He started to get more irritated again.
“What’s his deal?”
“I worry for him.”
“What responsibility could you possibly have over a grown man with whom you’re only barely familiar? Besides, you’re not one to take pity on people. You can be generous, but only when you want to be. You don’t feel sorry for anybody without a good reason.”
“I honestly don’t know. I feel like he’s lonely. Maybe slightly miserable.”
“Aren’t you lonely and more than slightly miserable? Who’s going to pick you up, other than me, of course?”
“I’ll try to be honest with you, Stevie.” He moved over to the sofa, getting slightly more comfortable, but ended up burying his face in his hands. “I haven’t felt this connected to anybody in a long, long, long time.”

She didn’t respond.

“He listens to me. He wants to hear my stories. For years now, any and everybody had only ever wanted me to provide a service.”
“And what about them? Were they only ever clients to you?”
“Oh, they were nice enough, most of them. They just wanted the head of the House of Neal. They wanted a title.”
She knew he was harsh, but she couldn’t entirely argue. “They loved you, Lincoln.”
“I’ll give them that, they likely held a version of me tender to their hearts. An image. But which version is that? Is it even real?”

They sat in silence for a while.

“Be careful, Lincoln. It’s dangerous. I would know.”
“Oh… no, no, no, it’s not like that!” He sounded frantic.
“Then what’s it like?”
Charles sighed.
“He reminds you of her, doesn’t he?” Stevie went for the jugular.
“He does. But he reminds me of you more, you know.”
“What resemblance do I bear to this brute disguised as a man?” Charles knew Stevie wasn’t genuine in her indignation, her insult also being deliberately dramatic in an attempt to ease the conversation.

“When I met you, I almost instantly knew that we belonged together. As if I had been waiting for something that had yet to happen. And then, all of a sudden, you were there, destined to be by my side.” Charles squeezed her hand. She was desperately trying to keep her composure. “God knows what might happen. Maybe we will be business partners. Maybe I’ll offer him a job here as a handyman. Golly, he might as well get to be my friend. I’m old, Stevie. I never really had male company.”
“Men” – she scoffed. “I only ask you to be careful.” She got closer to him, resting her head on his chest.
“I will, my old so-and-so. I will.” He gently kissed the top of her head.

*

Before his bedtime, Rhett jumped into the ran-down en suite shower in his motel room. He wished the piping hot water could’ve washed away all the invisible marks Charles’ fingertips left on his skin – not because he regretted them and certainly not because he was ashamed. He wanted to keep them as much of a secret as he could, remembered by him and himself only. Perhaps he even wished to erase Charles’ own recollections of it.
The burning water had only made the memories come alive again.

*

Charles picked his notebook back up from the bedside table in his bedroom. He gently stroked the page with all of Rhett’s measurements on it once more before calling it a day.
He fell asleep with a smile on his face.

Chapter Text

December was the busiest time of the year imaginable. Possibly for everyone else on the planet, but it was an exceptionally hectic and crowded month in the House of Neal. Charles had given up on completing his collection in the old year; he had much more invigorating and interesting ideas, he thought, ready to be revealed to the public sometime around the early days of next spring.

They were collectively still working incredibly hard on completing all the remaining orders, many of which were accompanied by last minute requests that the crew had to invest extra energies into. It wouldn’t have been a good business practice to allow just about any client to overload them with tasks when they already had too many on their hands, so Charles only extended that courtesy to a select few of his loyal, long-time customers. Even then, several gowns had to be made from scratch, sometimes with the odd matching tuxedo. More liberal policies having been installed at certain places, a whole line of cocktail dresses were also set to be manufactured.

In addition to the nearly inhumane quantity of assignments, the house itself was physically busy too: a high number of patrons had come in to discuss the necessary alterations and to see if their wishes had been sufficiently catered to.

It appeared as if the atelier and the workshop had been transformed into a series of parlours: public spaces that gave room to gatherings and conventions. It was, in principle, a major, notable social event; members of the higher middle class and elite would inevitably cross paths and meet after a period of absence. Filling the air with chatter, faint giggles, the clicking of heels and the swish of clothing, the house was more reminiscent of a villa or a café. It was particularly difficult to efficiently progress when all parties involved took the occasion for a banquet of sorts.

Charles excused himself from the salon. He had left the grounds of the atelier earlier on, head throbbing from all the protests and complaints fired in every direction. He acknowledged his employees’ saintly patience and composure, trying to think of ways he could appropriately thank them.

He’d been absolutely expected, even worse, demanded to be present at any and every small talk that carried the promise of acquiring social influence. If Charles Neal had selected you to be his conversational partner for the time being, you steadily advanced in the indecipherable ranks of popularity.

Safe from prying eyes and grabbing hands, Charles tried to steady his breathing in the ground floor bathroom. Looking at his tired, ghastly reflection in the mirror, he began questioning whether the whole ordeal had been worth it; whether his sore, ailing body was ever going to be back to its at least mediocre shape.

He had done this mental cat-and-mouse game every December since having his very own business. Was it really worth it? Did he choose the wrong profession? The wrong crowd? Were his ambitions too grand? Had he started to sell out, as the colloquial expression goes – opting for conformity instead of originality? His personality erred on the side of being dramatic, one could say.

Making sure nobody caught a glimpse of him in the hallway, he headed upstairs to the attic: the one place the mob of customers couldn’t invade. With no hesitation, he went behind the familiar curtains, basking in the feeling of pride that the newest item in his private collection elicited in him.

*

He didn’t get much rest on the night of taking Rhett’s measurements, after all: following a couple hours of light sleep, he woke up with a deeply nested tension in his gut. He gave himself another chance, but thirty more minutes of tossing and turning were the final straw, and he got out of bed.

Guided by an imperceptible pull, he went right up to the attic after getting down his usual glass of water. He approached a particular drawer under a particular shelf, and carefully reached for a rather large piece of fabric inside. It was the most opaque, richest, blackest satin he could possibly get a hold of.

He sat down at his desk, notebook in one hand, fabric in the other, and started to measure and mentally divide the textile to use it for lining.

After much preparation, cutting, and shuffling through other materials, he did the first, albeit preliminary stitches at five twenty-three in the morning.

*

It took him less than ten days to finish it, relentlessly working on it until the crack of dawn on more than one occasion. He required no help: he would’ve immediately declined it regardless, had anyone offered. It was his idea, his promise, his mission. A journey carried out by only his hands – and imagination.

An odd anxiety over potentially running out of time kept creeping up on him, despite there being no deadline in sight. Normally, he would have had at least one, if not two additional consultations with the recipient to make sure everything fit and looked impeccable, but this was no ordinary commission. This was a gift. Of course, the possibility of the fit being off and the proportions made wrong had filled him with dread, but he had no other choice than to trust his intuition and expertise.

He had been exhilarated by the element of surprise, the anticipation both sweet and torturous. He couldn’t wait to show his newest client the final result, but despair got the best of him: he wasn’t exactly sure how long the wait was going to be. They didn’t settle in anything, their last goodbye being so hasty and rushed.

It could be days. Or weeks. With a heavy heart, Charles also had to consider the reality of not seeing Rhett McLaughlin ever again.

He gently stroked the lapel of the newly finished jacket.

*

Rhett didn’t come to visit that day.

Or the next one.

Charles was just about ready to collapse from exhaustion that Friday, getting dangerously close to the point of raising his voice at several patrons in his annoyance. To his relief, not close enough.

When he reached his limit, he headed for the drawing room, aching for a few minutes of solitude and rest. He plopped down on the ornate sofa immediately, not even taking the time to close the door behind him.

A soft, hushed voice brought him back to consciousness.

“Charles?”

He opened his eyes slowly, the image he was greeted with making him unsure about whether he had slipped away from the land of dreams at all.
Rhett was squatting in front of him.
“Mh… hmm…” he groaned quietly, somehow still half asleep.
“Forgive me for this.” The taller man learned forward, gently squeezing his tailor’s right bicep. “You with me?”
The strategy was successful. “Rhett? Rhett!” Charles jolted up, as if he’d been shocked by an electrical current. He heard he tiniest of chuckles, sounding like music; to his ears, at least.
“In the flesh.” He stood back up to his impressive height. “I apologise for waking you.”
“No, of course… I just… dozed off.”
“You do look absolutely drained.” The hint of concern in Rhett’s voice was simultaneously sobering and lulling, slightly confusing Charles’ senses.

“My time of rest will come.” He gestured to the other one, offering a seat next to him on the sofa. “How did you get in?”
“People kept entering and leaving, so I figured I’d take my chance: there’s such a busy crowd here that I hoped to get in unnoticed. I looked around the common rooms, but you were nowhere to be found. That’s when I noticed these…” – he pointed at the door hinges – “…being wide open. And here you were.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“Did what?”
“Find me.”

For a minute, they only listened to the white noise of people talking in the background.

“I woke you because I didn’t want to get caught... I got the sense that I’m not welcome here.” He noticed Charles’ frown. “Well, not by everyone.” Rhett kept questioning himself as far as his motives went: sneaking around, walking on eggshells like a burglar or a thief, as if he had committed some criminal offence. He could’ve just come back at a more quiet, more appropriate hour. And yet, as soon as he arrived in Los Angeles, he headed to the familiar building without as much as delivering his cargo first.
“Don’t mind Stevie. She just knows I’m not the best at making connections. Tryin’ to protect me.”
“Are you not?” Rhett looked back at him with steadily growing eyes.
“Well, our first conversation wasn’t exactly pleasant, was it?”

A booming laugh. “That’s true.”
“Well, in the vast majority of the time, the second, third, and fourth conversations are equally as unpleasant with me. And the fifth. And the sixth.” Charles smiled, bitterly.
“I beg to differ. Now, would you be so kind to join me in a pleasant conversation, dear sir?” Rhett stood up, playfully inviting his companion to leave the restless murmur of clients and guests behind. It was his turn to lead the way to the attic.

*

“Sit down. I’ll be with you in a minute.” Charles didn’t even wait for them to comfortably settle down: he already rushed to fetch Rhett’s brand new attire.

Rhett was left speechless before even getting to look at it. He quietly sat in the familiar armchair, this time placed to face the pair of violet curtains.

“Close your eyes.” He heard Charles’ command behind them.
“Come on!” Rhett couldn’t help but break out in bubbling laughter, amused by the acclaimed and adored couturier’s juvenile, but heart-warming instruction. Deep down, he was terribly anxious, but it was like Charles had miraculously sensed his worry, finding the perfect antidote for it.
“Close them!”
“I’m even covering them with my hands, don’t worry.”

Charles emerged from behind the drapes without a sound, and walked right in front of the seated man. “Hold your arms out.”
He complied, hadn’t the slightest idea about the reasons behind any of this.
Charles gave the hefty but delicate pieces over to Rhett in one motion, the back of his hands grazing his forearms in the process.
“Oh.” Rhett slowly realised that the craftsman’s intention (other than purposefully acting coy, perhaps) had been for him to the touch, the texture of the fabric first, before having any other impressions. It felt sturdy, but somehow still soft.

“It was a joy to make it.”

The blonde took this as his cue to open his eyes, only to be met with the most gorgeous hues of blue and green he had ever seen. “It’s… plaid. Like flannel.” He was certain he had never sounded thicker than he did in that moment.
“Tartan, to be exact.”
Rhett lifted his gaze from the suit to look into Charles’ eyes, remaining silent, but signalling with a look for him to continue.
“It’s called Black Watch plaid. Named after the historic Black Watch from Scotland. A union of four clans, they were set to protect and watch over the Highlands – that’s where the battalion’s name comes from.”
It suddenly started to dawn on him.
“According to some, also the general variety of tartan free to be worn by those who don’t have a family-specific pattern, but I could be mistaken.” Charles explained further, knowing that the realisation had already started to hit his guest.

“McLaughlin is a Scottish name.” Rhett’s voice sounded distant but unmistakeably warm.
“It sure is.” Charles smiled at him gently. “Let’s give this the attention it deserves.” He took the lead again, trying to slightly lift the weight that the emerging emotions put on the both of them. He carefully picked the suit back up and laid it flat on his larger working table.
His subject followed him hesitantly, ultimately stopping right next to Charles, only a few inches separating the two.
The couturier welcomed the silence, fully aware that his company needed some room to breathe. A few minutes had passed while Rhett was idly looking at his newest possession in utmost awe.

Charles suddenly felt a hand grabbing his.
“It’s… it’s beautiful. Thank you so much, I… I can never thank you enough.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Yes, I do.” The gentlest of squeezes.
“Now, don’t you want to try this on? I might have butchered it entirely! Oh, take this too.” He tried to lighten the mood while handing the other man a blindingly white shirt with a sharp collar – much like the one he tried on a few weeks before.
“Never feign humility. I know you’re proud of this, it shows in your eyes. Rightfully so.” Rhett finally smiled.

*

Following their now usual routine, Charles went to the back to wait for Rhett while he put his first ever bespoke suit on. Out of courtesy, Rhett thought to himself.
“The work is now complete!” He called with a joyful tone. “It’s… it fits perfectly.” He said, somewhere in the middle between an exclamation and a gasp.
“I, uh, I’m not joining you this time.”
“What’s wrong, Charles?” He suddenly felt anxious again, not even shooting a glance at himself in the mirror.
“Nothing, I just… I want to see you wearing it.”
“But I am wearing it?”
“Not like that… like this.”
Rhett was completely lost. “I’m afraid I’m not following you.”
“I want you to see when you’re… wearing it outside. Put to its rightful use.”
“Oh. I see.” Rhett couldn’t really tell if he was any less confused, but he began to understand what Charles had been hinting at. Him wearing the suit with confidence and pride, amongst other people; not when he’s fumbling under the faint, amber lights.

“Take your time, please. I want you to get comfortable in it, see if there’s need for any modifications.”
“Will do.”
The next ten minutes or so passed in complete silence, save for the sound of Rhett shuffling around, changing his posture on the podium, looking at himself from different angles, pacing across the room. To his immense surprise, right after putting it on, he felt at ease and confident. The slim, in places tightly fitted jacket and trousers both hugged him in all the right spots, accentuating his broad shoulders and his upper body. The shape of it certainly went against the grain: for the most part, loosely hanging suits were still the most popular style, with their over-exaggerated padding and their unflatteringly long jackets and waistcoats.

Charles had always thought Rhett deserved to be shown, not hidden.

“How do you feel?” He was the one to break the ice.
“Relaxed, certainly comfortable. You did a perfect job.”
“I had the perfect model.” Charles had almost covered his mouth, in shock over what he had just allowed himself to say.
“You can’t entice me with your charm like you do with your women, Mr. Neal!”
Charles’ stomach jumped. “Go on.”
“Really, it’s a piece of art.” Rhett took a deep breath. “I feel… I feel handsome.” His voice cracking by the last word.
“As you should.” There was no stopping his rogue brain, was there now?

Silence.

“I’m going to change back into my clothes now.”
“This is your suit, you know.” Charles came back on cue, helping his most recent work to be gently packed away into a case.
“I know, it’s still very unusual.”
“Well, get used to it.”
“Charles, I need an honest answer. How can I ever thank you?”
“Will you have dinner with me?”
“Yes.”

*

THE NEXT EVENING
Charles had barely called in his driver to work anymore, which is why he now was primarily employed by a family four houses down the street, the Johnsons. This evening, however, had to go as perfectly as it was physically possible, and thus, George was deployed. He arrived in the Bentley Charles let him drive for many years now. It was practically his car.

He invited Rhett over by quarter to eight, and ordered George to pick them up at eight o’clock sharp. He didn’t want to waste much time at the house, figuring that they would eventually have enough to spend there, anyway. When or how, it was unclear. He just knew.

The drive to the restaurant was quick and silent; Rhett was so unfamiliar with situations like this that he didn’t exactly know what to say or how to behave. Whereas Charles had been so worried about possibly ruining their rendezvous with the first word he uttered that he wished to postpone that moment for as long as he possibly could.

In the doorway of the restaurant, Rhett let Charles pass first, generously opening and holding the door for him. Once inside, it was clear the staff had been prepared for their arrival: they were seated at a smaller booth in a secluded corner of the main room. They took their coats, while simultaneously being busy with already trying to hand them the menus.

“Just the usual for me, Bradley. The gentleman with me here will make his choices off the menu accordingly. I’ll let you know.” Charles whispered to a young man whom Rhett concluded to be their waiter for the night, still standing. It was evident that Charles was a frequent guest here, already having a rapport with the staff, who in turn were aware of his specific dietary preferences.

As they were sitting down at their table, Charles took his time to finally, for the first time, observe his creation in its complete glory. Glorious, it sure was. He couldn’t help but notice that they had turned a few heads: this time, unable to determine whether it was his doing or if the handsome stranger by his side was the culprit. Rhett looked like he’d worn his suit his whole life: it changed his entire posture, standing up even taller, moving around even smoother, with an almost cinematic grace and poise. His usually untamed, unruly curls were shaped into a looser coif, his longer, wavy hairs on the top taking centre stage. His beard was neatly trimmed. It occurred to Charles how extremely uncommon beards were even in Los Angeles, and that this was the first time he truly ever noticed his facial hair. It had always made sense to him: Rhett was as unique as they come. He couldn’t tear his gaze away.

Unknown to him but clearly visible to others, his mouth formed the shape of a perfect “o” while Rhett tried to verbally call his attention.

“Charles? Charles! What are you having?”
“Uh, just what I have nearly every night. A medium rare steak with garden peas and mash potato with gravy on the side. And you?”
Liking the man’s simple order, he was much less sure of which road to go down. “I… I don’t know. There are so many things to choose from.”
“You can have anything you like on the menu. Don’t you worry about it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Rhett, I promise. Go ahead.”

*

He ended up having a generous serving of onion soup, his main course being a salmon stake with creamed asparagus and potato chips. They both had a slice of key lime pie, preferring something zesty to the overpoweringly sweet flavour of most desserts.

“Do you like it here?”
“It’s inviting. Nice and homely, compared to the exclusivity of their guests.” He shyly glanced at Charles.
“Oh, people from all backgrounds come here, really. I just stick with it because their kitchen is great.”
“You mean the one plate you’re willing to eat?” Rhett asked, teasingly.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Pleasantly and comfortably chatting away while eating, they settled into a rhythm of sharing bits and pieces about their lives with one another, one memory at a time. Rhett suddenly turned sombre.
“So yes, I left the South pretty early on. Didn’t want to be one of those who had their lives paved ahead of them.”
“You mean you didn’t want to pursue the future your parents envisioned for you?”
“Quite right. I had no interest in a sports career, and I certainly didn’t want to be a businessman.”
“Well, now at least you look the part.”
“That’s as close to being a businessman as I ever have been!”
“I’m sure you’d be very convincing. Could’ve put your charm and charisma to good use.”
“Are you implying that I’m not skilled at using my charm as a civilian?” Rhett softly smiled, looking at the white tablecloth.
“Quite the contrary.” Charles smiled back. “So what is it you really wanted to be?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter anymore. I steered very far from that path.”

“It is of great importance. To me.”

Unable to contradict the commanding yet incredibly endearing choice of words, Rhett was ready to share one of his biggest secrets. And dreams. “I always wanted to be a playwright.”
Charles didn’t expect that kind of answer, but it all fit the picture perfectly.
“But that’s wonderful!”
“Yeah, not if you decide to leave everything behind at twenty years of age with little to no money and certainly no experience at all.”
“I… I am sorry, I shouldn’t have pushed the subject.”
“Not your fault. You know how twenty year olds are like. Feeling like they’re on top of the world, assuming they know the answers to all the big questions.”

Charles eyes lit up, remembering his own young self, determined to one day open his own atelier.
“Yeah, no end to their ambitions.” He suddenly realised how privileged he was, having been able to make his grand dreams a reality. “Ambitions that probably should never be abandoned.” Trying to console his dinner partner, he reached across the table to put his hand over Rhett’s. He jumped ever so slightly, but didn’t pull away.
“You think? Even if all the expertise you have is in fixing broken things?”
“That’s one of the most important skills in life, Rhett.”

*

They were quietly savouring their respective slices of key lime pie, the silence only interrupted by their pleased hums and words of praise.
Charles noticed a blob of condensed milk in Rhett’s beard.
“Your beard… It’s the milk.”
“Where?”
He could never tell what exact power had possessed him right there and then, but regardless, he grabbed his napkin, reached out to Rhett over the table and very gently started to wipe his face, right next to the corner of his mouth. He let the napkin (and his hand) rest there for perhaps a few seconds too long. He was ready to pull back and be submerged in his own special pool of regret, once and for all.

“Thank you, Charles. For everything.” His voice was even deeper than usual. He suddenly grabbed Charles’ hand, stroking the back of it with his thumb.
They had their eyes locked on each other, locking everybody else out.

Chapter Text

Neither of the two wished for the night to end, but they were also people who knew their manners – even if they had previously made the other one think differently. After finishing their respective slices of pie, they engaged in a bit of small talk, and left the restaurant not long after. Chatting about mundane things was an end to potentially conceal being overwhelmed by the events that transpired. Both of the pair had a whole range of emotions filter through them during the evening. A peculiar amalgamation of comfort, camaraderie, contentment, and hope. For what exactly, neither of them could have answered, but it steadily and surely took root in their chests, radiating inside their bodies like a young star, eager to become something bigger.

Charles took the gentlemanly path and offered to drive Rhett to his motel room, wanting to delay their imminent departure for as long as he was able to. As they got out of the Bentley, he assured George he would be back in a matter of minutes, wanting to accompany Rhett to his door.

They stopped on the doorstep, standing in a slightly awkward silence.

“Once again, thank you.” Despite having said it more times than it had been necessary, Rhett still thought he wasn’t able to express his gratitude well enough. He felt deeply indebted to the man before him, unable to fully understand why Charles had treated him with such generosity.

“Rhett, please.” His voice echoed warmth rather than annoyance or irritation.

“I want you to know how humbled I am by your kindness.” Rhett fixed his gaze on his companion’s bowtie, an accessory he’d seen him don for the first time that evening.
“You don’t owe me anything. Offering your company to me is enough.”
“Well, that I can always provide.” Rhett smiled, shifting his focus upwards to meet a pair of ocean eyes. He could’ve sworn they were getting bluer by the second.

“Are we calling this an arrangement?” Charles smiled back.
“I don’t have any complaints, sir.”
“I will make sure to have my priorities sorted, then.” The greying man intended to extend his right arm for them to finally part with a shake of the hands, but he inexplicably ended up gently stroking up the taller one’s bicep. “You are welcome to come by any and every time of the day. Any day.” The sun had long gone down, and yet the colour of his cheeks started to mirror those of a crimson sunset.

“Be careful what you wish for.” An unusually daring quip from Rhett, he similarly began to feel a surge of heat creeping up his neck.

Pretending they didn’t have to say goodbye was no use, but they could try.

“I’m afraid I have to tell you something.” Rhett continued.
“Don’t hold back.”
“I will be unable to travel for a while. These were my last days off before Christmas, and quite possibly the last ones before the new year, as well.”
Charles felt pained, at the same time surprised by the fact that apparently his accomplice called his duties off, just to be able to see him. “That’s… that’s alright, I clearly have a lot on my hands myself.” Worried that he’d sounded brash, he tried to soften the blow. “It will pass in no time.”

“I wish it did.”

Inhaling sharply, Charles took the task of ripping the band aid on himself, successfully extending his arm for the other one to take this time. Which he did, but somehow it felt much more akin to a caress than a handshake.

“I guess this is it. Goodnight, Rhett. See you in the new year.”

“You too. Sweet dreams, Charles.”

Charles turned on his heels in a hurry, hoping to successfully hide the obvious regret in his eyes.

*

If the beginning of the month had been busy, it turned into absolute mayhem the closer Christmas got. As good as the team, especially the head of it, was good at prioritising tasks, they couldn’t possibly have accounted for the unpredictability and special pleas of the clients. Charles needed all available hands on deck, and he almost reached a point of despair where he considered asking Stevie for help, despite her not having picked up nor a needle, neither a thimble for at least five years.

The total sum of garments they had been targeting to complete in the previous two months didn’t even exceed twenty, and yet it felt like nearly twice as much. Charles’ earlier struggles and the customers’ unusually fastidious behaviour were probably both to blame. The few additional last-minute commissions didn’t do them any good, either.

He was nearing the end of his fifth consecutive twelve-hour workday in a row: he supervised, and in many cases carried out the re-fittings and the directions for the alterations, sending the pieces over to the sewing team as soon as possible. He didn’t consider himself a particularly soft-hearted individual, yet he kept cursing himself each and every holiday season at the end of the year for being too charitable with his promises.

Doing so much work continuously would’ve been a good enough reason to put himself to rest as soon as the last patron left the house and he said his usual goodbyes to the crew. As such, there was no logical explanation to why he hurried up the stairs filled with adrenaline, every time he was done with his official commitments for the day. Not a logical one, but perhaps a different type of justification was in order.

Right after arriving, he locked the door behind himself, hoping to work without any interruptions. It was the 17th, meaning that he had to really push himself to his absolute limits to be able to finish his one-man project.

Three shirts were already staring back at him from a newly acquired small rack, carefully placed on hangers. He felt like the clothes were watching him with mockery, ridiculing him for his slow progress. Which was anything but slow: Charles began to plan his surprise just a few days after his dinner with Rhett, already trying to hunt down the most luxurious, yet durable plaid flannel fabrics he could potentially find on the market. He was finally able to start sewing them on the 11th, already aching and easily irritable, caused by the hectic life at the house. And even then, the worst was yet to come.

In the course of a mere seven days, he had already completed three of the five items he wished to give him as a Christmas present. He really tried his best not to overcomplicate it: not only to avoid the risk of total burnout and exhaustion, but also because the very last of his intentions was to put even more pressure on Rhett. He reassured him several times that no amount of payback was necessary, but he also tried to empathise with the feeling of wanting to give back despite not being able to.

He wanted to give him something practical, something he could put to good use. As much as he absolutely enjoyed creating the suit, he was fully aware that Rhett didn’t have the opportunity to wear it often, if at all. This time, he opted for something he could put on every day: he envisioned his tall frame looming over a stack of wood, ready to chop it up for the fireplace. His employers could’ve had several fireplaces in that big mansion of theirs, for all he knew.

He saw Rhett’s image before him, doing physically demanding work on hours’ end, using the little energy he had left to spare to put himself to bed every night. Maybe with a book in his hands, laying comfortably in bed, getting lost in one of the stories he so loved, his face beautifully illuminated by the soft reading light. He never asked him about his favourite novels.

Charles had so many questions to ask.

What was his family like? Were they still in contact? Were they ever capable of making amends over Rhett’s sudden departure?

Did he have a family of his own?

He could just about picture him: carefully watching over his little daughter, standing next to a swing set, making sure her pace was safe and secure, no matter how fast she wanted to go, no matter how much she wanted to reach the sky. He saw them hugging afterwards, Rhett showering her with tiny kisses, taking her into his arms, carefully giving her a spin in the embrace of the summer sun.

Charles saw him brushing her long blonde locks, gently and carefully, like he was handling a doll made of porcelain. Reading her bedtime stories, kneeling by her tiny bed, lovingly stroking her forehead until he had lulled her to sleep.

A wife, or even a mistress, was missing from his imaginary photographs.

He started to realise how little knowledge he actually had about the man, despite understanding each other so well: despite the impression that they had known each other all along.

He also recognised how their dynamic could have been somewhat imbalanced: he never actually knew if Rhett had had any previous knowledge about him, which was quite likely. The name Charles Lincoln Neal oftentimes struck a familiar chord even with those who had been completely alien to the world of fashion and design.

What did he know?

Was he aware how much he’d been antagonised by those leeches who had the audacity to call themselves journalists, how much publicity some of his less amicable separations had received? How he had been labelled as a harbinger of bad luck for women who decided to engage with him intimately?

He ultimately concluded that even if Rhett had been privy to all the misinformation tabloids tried to disperse, he could do nothing in his power to erase it from his memory. He tried to focus on what was yet to come.

Stitching the seams on the fourth shirt’s sleeves, the prospect of the same fabric covering Rhett’s actual arms and body filled him with a sense of anticipation. In a moment of vulnerability, he wished for the clothing to act as a protective barrier: to protect his friend from unfair assumptions, from prying eyes, from judgements and misdeeds, to protect him from those who didn’t recognise the extent of his worth, the amount of potential he had. To offer him the safety and security he was unable to provide himself, in his absence.

He quietly fell asleep in the familiar armchair, hugging the colourful textile close to his chest.

*

Rhett also had the advantage of keeping busy and not letting his mind wander. Not as much as he would’ve liked it to.

Still, on his painfully short breaks and every time he had a second of privacy, usually when he had to bring in a new load of raw materials (wallpapers, tiles, wood panelling, you name it), he let his thoughts go on brief getaways.

He was back in the house, back in the attic. He had replayed those moments that he held so precious, standing in his near-birthday suit in front of Charles, his core burning under the man’s gentle and brief touches. How he listened to the other one’s breathing, just so he could forget how loud and fast his own had been. And how much the rhythm of Charles’ inhaling and exhaling had calmed him down. Right there and then, he’d felt extremely fragile and incredibly small.

With proportions like his, he had constantly had to pay attention to his surroundings, both to inanimate objects and living creatures. He’d always been acutely aware of how much space he occupied at any given moment, so eager to give back some of it to those he took it away from, so desperate to go unnoticed. As he had been growing into adulthood, his constant need to be physically gentle and attentive had slowly but surely transgressed to his personality and the way he’d been treating other people.

As others had been getting more and more confident with age, his anxieties just had seemed to aggressively worsen over time. He knew how to act self-assured, however, it was anything but genuine. He had been capable of doing it much like one followed a manual or learned how to operate a specific contraption: step by step, mechanically. Sure enough, it had become second nature to him after a while, but deep down it was only ever a continuously rattling turmoil of doubt and disbelief.

He had been long used to being alone; in a way, he didn’t matter, and had no one else to disappoint. Not until then. He started to worry about Charles and his perception of him.

On a cold, late December afternoon, he was in the process of carrying a ladder and a larger toolbox into the guest house from one of the sheds. He could hear chatter coming from the kitchen, the staff being deeply invested in making dinner. He recognised Angela, the housekeeper’s voice cutting through all the white noise, as she recited the mansion’s address to someone on the telephone.

“Must be the Christmas supplies” – he thought.

*

“You know you’ll have to pay me back for this. I could barely come up with a sorry excuse to justify needing his contact information.”

“I know, I know, as per usual. I have a lot of debts in your books, Stevie.”

“Go now, the gift store and the post office will not keep their doors open late, not even for you.”

*

22nd of December. Father Christmas had practically had his foot in the door.

Rhett was quietly having his usual Sunday breakfast in his cabin, browsing the morning papers brought to him earlier by Brian, the youngest servant in the house. Around twenty minutes after his first visit, he let himself into Rhett’s quarters again, making him believe that he had left something, or he had forgotten to notify him of an important order. (As he so often did.)

“This is for you.” He abruptly handed a large package over to him, and left just as swiftly as he arrived.

A letter was attached. He wasted no time with opening it, eager to read, having no idea about what all this could’ve possibly been, nor any guesses about who might have sent it.
The handwriting clearly gave away that whoever penned this had been in a rush.
He began to read.

“Rhett,
by the time this reaches you, you will probably be surrounded by the comfort of your friends and your family. I apologise if this isn’t the right occasion, but I would’ve liked to let you know that I’ve been keeping you in my thoughts.
There’s some new workwear for you in the package. Some are heftier, to keep you warm.
I made them all myself.
Merry Christmas,
always,
Charles”

He ripped the standard brown wrapping paper almost instantaneously, heart beating faster by the second. The first layer revealed another one, clearly a gift wrapping. It was bright red, with a repeating pattern of a smiling and laughing, jovial Santa Claus, some lettering included. “Merry Christmas… for you.”

Aching to see what it actually contained, he exercised restraint, and removed the wrapping carefully, which clearly wasn’t meant for the bin.

He didn’t even try to muffle his loud, almost ecstatic gasp.

Five flannel shirts before him, all in different colours of plaid, like a rainbow of lines and squares. Red, blue, green with yellow and red detailing, a daring orange, and one in his beloved black watch tartan.

He held that one to his chest, slowly inhaling through the fabric, hoping to be transported back to the place that gave room to his happiest hours in recent memory. He had never noticed the attic having a particular scent, and yet, at that moment, it all came back to him, crushing him in waves. The warm, indescribable aroma of the air. The smell and touch of all the fabrics he spent so long admiring. The slightly damp, but familiar odour of his armchair. Charles. Charles.

*

Charles was more than happy to relax, leaving the end of the year chaos behind him – the very last date he agreed to see customers on was the 22nd.

Five days later, lulled by the Christmas bliss and the holidays breathing some life back into him, he’d been spending the morning with Stevie, going through one of his presents.

She made him two different personalised albums, one made of all the photographs they took of the finished garments, accompanied by the sketches of the initial designs. The other flip book was much more personal: it also encompassed the events of the year, mostly in the form of cut-outs from newspapers and magazines that featured Charles on their pages. The yearbook of journalism was a few times interrupted by actual photographs they had received of themselves; Charles was prepared to take the risk of being labelled old-fashioned, but he insisted on getting a few portraits taken throughout every calendar year. There were some things he wasn’t willing to let go of – not even him, the perennial lone wolf and bachelor.

They had a heartfelt, pleasant conversation over lunch, used to their shared loneliness. They reminisced about what 1957 had in store for either of them, happy to see each other coming out on the other side of it. They weren’t necessarily overjoyed, but they were contented.

Both being still spoilt by Therese’s (who had been strictly only allowed to come over a few hours every day, not a minute more) Christmas menus, Charles was more than ready to take his afternoon nap.

He was woken around six in the afternoon by a short ring of the doorbell.

With one foot still in Dreamland, he slowly dragged himself to the door, trying to find the way back to Earth before opening it.
The sight he was greeted with definitely managed to shake him out of his stupor.

“Rhett?”

Chapter Text

Charles tried to act calm and collected, despite the reality of his gut feelings being the complete opposite.
“Rhett?” He asked again. “What are you doing here?”
“Merry Christmas, Charles.” He was wearing one of his very own presents.

*

“I didn’t just want to send you back a thank you note.” Rhett finally answered, after having been escorted to the drawing room. Neither of them were too keen on starting a conversation.

Charles was happy to observe that he wore a proper winter coat this time, but was simultaneously worried that he had merely borrowed it off of someone else. He was still trying to calm himself down, fumbling around the coat hangers. He noticed Rhett carefully removing his working boots and placing them in the hallway, next to the doorframe.

“What are you doing?” Charles shot him an amused look.
“You don’t think I’m going to enter that room in those raggedy shoes?” This was the first occasion when the pair wasn’t immediately headed towards the attic, despite their first ever meeting happening in that same room. Rhett hadn’t been concerned about his shoes just then.

Charles concluded this had been an act of courtesy, to show his respects to both the house itself – and the owner. He began to internally wonder why this wasn’t common practice, as doing it out of habit would’ve also served his fascination with cleanliness well.

“Good to see you.” Rhett’s baritone cut through the disjointed thoughts – perhaps purposefully trying to distract himself from having to be present in the situation.
“Likewise. Come, sit down.” He finally led him into the room, unintentionally recalling the cold, tense air that once filled it when they first crossed paths. They had both changed since then, at least in terms of their attitude towards one another; the tension remained, although of a different kind this time.

Charles only then noticed the other man carrying a small package under his arm. Without bothering to take a seat, Rhett walked up to the positively enormous, beautifully decorated Christmas tree in the left corner, and placed the small square object under it.
“Santa sends his regards. He mentioned that you’ve been good this year.” He was smiling ear to ear at this point, unable to hide his joy over being able to surprise Charles with a gift, no less.

The recipient was already flabbergasted. Had Rhett come emptyhanded, he would’ve already considered it more than he dared ask for. “What is this?”
“Your Christmas present?”
“Why are you here?”
“Well, I… bought some gasoline for the truck and drove down here, simple as that.”
“Rhett.” He sounded almost pleading.
The taller one finally sat down onto the same sofa, at a moderate distance to Charles. “I’m almost done with all the work. Some rest days can’t hurt, especially at this time of the year. I mean, the very end...” He was fixated on the thick carpeting under his feet.
“Rhett, don’t lie to me.”
Had he exposed himself this much, incidentally laying his soul even barer in front of Charles than he did his body?

“I took care of all the tools and utensils, packed them away carefully at the mansion, gathered what little I have left, and drove straight to your front door without asking anyone’s permission. Not my employers’, neither yours. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
Without providing an answer, Charles rose from his seat and walked up to the tree, following a beat of two of silence. Leaning down, his back facing Rhett, he slowly started to unwrap the small rectangular object, covered in the simplest of brown wrapping paper.

He’d always had a particularly bad case of essential tremors, but in that very moment, his genuine shock and emotions led his entire body to slightly tremble. As always, it mostly manifested through the shaking of his hands. He wished for more control, more discipline: he last thing he wanted to happen was to drop and potentially damage the precious item he was holding.

“Do you like it?” A small voice from behind him.
“Rhett, I… I can’t allow this.” He turned around to sternly look into his eyes.
“Please, just accept it. I insist.”
Charles sat back down on the sofa, ever so slightly closer to his guest.
“Where did you get this from?”
“You haven’t even properly looked at it.”

He was right. Charles could immediately tell this was no ordinary souvenir, without allowing himself to even closely observe it. He finally caved in: it was an antique sewing box, at least a hundred years of age, if not more. Decorated with a particular type of chinoserie and a literal forest of intricate depictions of flora and fauna, it clearly was a piece of great value. The artwork on it was, without a doubt, hand-painted, covered with a thin but resistant layer of lacquer to preserve the astonishing imagery. It had smaller signs of wear and tear, but if anything, that made it appear even more charming.

“I can’t do this. It’s unfair.”
Rhett put both on his palms on Charles’ forearm, signalling that he couldn’t possibly give it back, even if he seriously tried to.
“Yes, you can. I did.”
“How?”
“I’ve been in LA for a day now, I made a few trips here and there.”

Rhett’s old acquaintance, Mr. Richardson, had worked at the mansion as the family’s art consultant and décorateur for a few years. He paid him a visit after finding the little box in an antique shop for a price that required him to turn in nearly an entire month’s pay, still largely under its estimated value.
He used whatever he had left for food, accommodation and gas money, careful to keep the rest of his savings in the least suspicious-looking sack he could find.

Rhett’s hands still on his forearm, Charles gently put one of his own over them. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.” His words sounded vapid and meaningless, he thought, but every other word would’ve sounded equally as empty compared to the gratitude he felt.
“I tried my best.”
Charles openly, fondly smiled at him. “I see you liked your presents. Let me fix you some food.”

*

Rhett intended to spend New Years’ Eve in Los Angeles.
He had recently come to the realisation of his entire past life being, in essence, a blur: he left his hometown behind to grow into a man of his own, to go after his own heart. A heart he successfully managed to break upon understanding that instead of gaining his independence and pursuing his dreams, he had fallen into a decades-long routine of conformity. A conformity within which he failed to notice that he had only ever ended up battling for his survival, to barely exist.
Rhett finally felt the need to live.

*

After dinner, they settled into an engaging rhythm of conversation, seemingly ignoring the topic of Rhett leaving his work unannounced and Charles’ heartfelt gesture altogether. They touched upon current events, politics, how the holiday season had always brought out the worst in everybody – Charles felt particularly delighted over having an opportunity to share his grievances about some of his clients, protected by Rhett’s empathetic attention.

The latter tried to subtly cross over the topic of popular culture, briefly talking about music and cinema, Charles’ lack of knowledge on the subject amusing him to no end.
“You’ve seriously never heard of these people?”
“Well, Elvis of course, but other than him?”
“You’ve never heard of Johnny Cash?” Rhett was almost continuously giggling to himself at this point.
“No?”

“When I was just a baby my mama told me, son
Always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry”

Rhett’s voice boomed in the quiet room.

His velvety tone took Charles completely by surprise, his entire body covered in goosebumps. He mentally thanked himself for not removing his smoking jacket the entire evening.

“That’s… Horrible! How can you sing about murder like that?” He sounded offended, indignant even, the both of them aware that it wasn’t at all serious.
“I didn’t kill a man!” Rhett was laughing, throwing his head back in amusement.
“Well, I hope neither did Johnny Cash!”
“Actually…”
Charles’ looked positively terrified.
Rhett guffawed. “I’m joking, I’m joking! Well, not that I know of.”
The other man also broke out in high-pitched laughter.

*

Rhett was a frequent guest at the house over the course of the next few days: a couple hours at a time, not wanting to be a burden on either of the two tenants.

As much as he hoped that Charles’ truly enjoyed his company, he didn’t want to potentially cross his business partner. Stevie definitely acted less hostile towards him, the pair of them only crossed paths once or twice. As a sort of apology, she was determined to provide them as much privacy as she possibly could.

For the most part, they met before dinner, one time even opting for a walk on Wilshire Boulevard before sitting down at home to share some food. As exhilarating as the novelty of big city life made Rhett feel, they both had concluded that they simply preferred each other’s presence without the noise, the chatter and the flurry of strangers on the street.

They could talk and talk for hours on end: they had already both been aware of how insignificant the limits of time were whenever they were together. It did not matter whether they exchanged their opinions on current contemporary fashion, politics, architecture, or reminisced about childhood memories; memories that were separate, but still felt like one and the same. They were constantly and always focused on each other, resisting to be distracted by anyone or anything.

Other than their own wandering minds: Charles couldn’t help but occasionally get enticed by the extreme levels of attention and investment Rhett’s eyes beheld. The dressmaker oftentimes lowered his gaze to look at Rhett’s hands, hardened by all the physical work they went through, and yet still somehow soft and gentle. He couldn’t avoid noticing how his cheeks rounded up whenever he smiled, even more so when he simply erupted with laughter: his eyes growing small and narrow, containing a million little sparkles of joy. Whenever both of them were stood up, Rhett’s impressive frame filled him with a sense of safety: as if he wasn’t only protected from any bodily harm, but also from any other hurt or pain that might come his way.

Rhett liked to rest his eyes on Charles’ face: he slowly got used to the continuous movement of his protruding Adam’s apple, his overly emotive eyebrows, and desperately longed to see his blinding, wide, open smile as many times as he could. When he watched over Charles doing something mundane, such as placing their empty teacups in the sink or helping to get him his coat off the rack in the hallway, he noticed how grotesquely petite his waistline looked compared to his menacingly wide and angular shoulders. He sometimes amused himself by pondering over the ratio of his enormous hands and Charles’ tiny midsection, possibly enabling him to cover most of it with only one hand. What an odd image, Rhett thought to himself.
His narrow torso had equipped him with an almost feminine stride, his hips swaying from one side to the other when he walked. Although it made no sound other than his footsteps, it was almost like a melody, binding Rhett’s senses, making his eyes latch onto him.

The evening before New Years’, they were sat in the drawing room yet again, going over the newspapers together. Rhett was suddenly struck by an idea. “Wait here” – he told Charles briefly.
Not even a minute later, he was already back in the room, carefully sitting next to Charles, knees touching. He held a book in his hand.

“What’s that?”
“It’s a story called The Little Prince. I take you have not read it before.”
“No.” Charles looked slightly blue.
“I… I didn’t mean it like that, I’m sorry.”
“S’okay. Is that a children’s book?”
“Not quite. It’s a tale, but it contains thoughts and lessons for every person to consider. It’s a short read.”
“You want to read it to me?” Charles took the hint well.
“If you like.”
Charles moved his hands over to the nape of his neck, stretching slightly, letting Rhett know he was ready to embark on the adventure. When Rhett leaned back and started to read, he extended his arm over the back of the sofa.
”I ask the indulgence of the children who may read this book for dedicating it to a grown−up.”

*

An hour and a half later, Rhett noticed Charles’ head slowly falling back, resting on the wall. He assumed it wasn’t the first time he dozed off: looking at the hour and where they were at in the story, he figured it would be best to call it a day. Softly standing up from his seat, he laid Charles down with the lightest of touches, then lifted his legs up to get him more comfortable.

He was already familiar with the thick, fluffy knit blanket they had on hand, placed in one of the three armchairs. He carried it over, covering the half-, if not fully asleep man with it from chest to toes. Lastly, Rhett carefully tucked his tailor in to make sure he stayed warm enough until he eventually woke up disoriented, probably a bit confused.

Squatting down to say his silent goodbyes, he couldn’t help but ever so gently run his fingers through the coarse salt and pepper hair. As a final, tender gesture, he placed a whisper of a kiss on the other man’s forehead.
He turned off the table lamp, then the lights in the hallway, and let himself out the front door.

*

They didn’t agree on anything regarding New Years’ Eve, although Rhett had been hinting at an event he had been eager to attend the day before.

Afraid that they might miss the party entirely, Rhett took the liberty of paying a visit in the early afternoon, much earlier than he normally did. Charles wasn’t surprised to see him: he wasn’t acting any differently to how he’d been all week, happy to see the other man and ready to take on whatever they decided to talk about or go through that day.

Unbeknownst to Rhett, Charles had been distracted all day by the events of the night before, and how he had found himself on the drawing room sofa around four in the morning, Rhett’s soft touches still lingering on his skin.

During dessert, Rhett finally spoke up.
“Charles?”
“I’m listening.”
“What are your thoughts on dancing?”
“Why? Well, not for me, but I will not condemn others who do it for fun.”
“Don’t you want to try some?”
“Rhett, whatever it is you want to say…”
“There’s a New Years’ Eve gathering at the Cocoanut Grove, and I really want to see if it’s any good?”
“By all means, have fun.”
“I...”
“We talked about this. I have my idea of a good New Years’ Eve, and it certainly doesn’t involve an army of people I’ve never seen before. But I truly, genuinely hope you have a good time.”
“Please, just consider it?”
“Don’t test me.”

*

In the early evening, they finally went back up to the attic after a few weeks of absence. Both struck by the memories the place held for them, they fell uncharacteristically silent. Merely lingering there, perhaps wishing to be transported back in the past.
Rhett took initiative, and sat in the old, trusted armchair.

“I missed this.”
“Me too.”
Charles cleared his throat. “I’m glad you came back, Rhett.”
“You are?”
He got on his knees to be at eye level; Charles could’ve sworn he had seen Rhett shiver for a fraction of a second.
“Yes, I am. It must be difficult for you, and I wouldn’t blame you if you regretted it.”
“Regret what?”
“Leaving the house, your job…”
Rhett cackled. “Are you kidding me?”
“I mean, you never know…”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Charles.”

*

Rhett knew the time was near; he gave it one last attempt.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come? We should get going in half an hour, or so.”
“Rhett, for the last time: go, if you want to. But for the last fucking time: I’m staying here. Just go, I’m sure you’d want to prepare yourself for the big night.”

Rhett got startled by the unexpected curse word, even more so by the sudden edge in his tone. He wanted to say so much more, but his fight or flight response stepped in – unable to fight, his choice had only ever been flight. He abruptly said goodbye, bolted down the stairs, and headed straight for the street.

*

Around an hour later, Rhett was walking at a steady pace on the sidewalk of Wilshire Boulevard, heading towards the Ambassador Hotel, lost deep in thought, debating whether he had made the right choice at all.

The only thing he’d been sure of was that he wanted to leave his old ways behind him. He wanted to feel enthusiasm, excitement, determination again; a whole range of emotions he’d been devoid of for years now, possibly even a decade or even more. He wanted to feel present, he wanted to pursue the things and activities that had always been at the forefront of his interests. He’d had a staggeringly small amount of self-confidence, but he’d been aware that he was meant for more, regardless. No person deserved to feel so insignificant, almost invisible. Because of his height, he was anything but invisible, and yet he still ached so desperately to be truly visible. To matter. To be seen.

Battling his ever-present anxieties, his mind was set on enjoying that night and overcoming the hurdles set by his own self.

*

By the time the clocks struck 10 PM, Charles had become restless: no amount of magazines, newspapers and photo albums were able to soothe his nerves. The strange, unfamiliar emptiness kept gnawing at his core, growing more and more aggressive by the minute.

Stevie had already gone out, perhaps heading to the very same event. Affiliating yourself with the House of Neal was a certain entry to any exclusive club, the Cocoanut Grove being one of the most prestigious examples, despite being past its heyday.

He started walking around the house, first downstairs, then he began shifting between the upper and lower floors, climbing the stairs again and again; he checked on the attic a few times, things still perfectly in order, then peeked into the kitchen to see if anything needed cleaning.

Nothing. Nothing to still his full-body tremors and thunderous mind.

He kept walking up to the front door, eyes empty and clouded, maybe hoping that Rhett could be back any minute, having decided that he’d rather have welcomed the new year by his side.
He wanted Rhett by his side.

He missed his voice, he missed his long-winded explanations, he missed the sound his palms made when he tried to wipe the sweat off his hands. He missed his footsteps around the house, his sudden laughter that made his fingertips tingle.

Heartache was the only word he could use to accurately describe what he felt.

He got into a freshly cleaned suit, fetched his best winter coat and headed towards Wilshire Boulevard.

*

There was still time. Charles arrived at the door twenty minutes before midnight.

Having barely entered the room, he already spotted him: he could recognise that smile in a sea of a million people. He was wearing the suit, blues and greens vibrating under the club’s dim lights.

Rhett seemed to be enjoying himself, supposedly in the company of two small children and who looked like to be their mother. He picked up the little girl, holding her carefully in his arms; just like Charles envisioned him embracing his own daughter, pure joy spreading across his face. Charles just stood there, taking in the happy picture before him. The man looking positively radiant in the attire he had made him, looking like he just stepped off the silver screen. He began to study Rhett’s genuinely beautiful features, by god, is he beautiful, trying to ignore the growing pains in his chest as much as he possibly could. To no avail.

He didn’t want to ruin his bliss.

Right before he could reconsider his actions, however, Rhett’s eyes found his, finally realising: there was no turning back. Rhett gingerly put the little girl down, cordially told the mother what appeared to be nothing else but goodbyes, and started to make his way to Charles in the crowd.

Charles was petrified.

There he was. Tall, kind, happy, beautiful.
“You came.”
Charles tried to talk, his vocal chords betraying him.
“You’re here, Charles. You came! Look at you, you even changed!” Rhett was beaming.
“I…”
“I can’t believe you, Charles.”

Charles felt Rhett’s hand hesitantly reaching for his, low enough to go unnoticed by the people around them. The couturier had long forgotten about the large mass, wishing they had been the only two people alive that instant.

A loud, harsh voice began to count down.
“10, 9, 8…”
“Rhett.”
“7…”
“Rhett!” Charles squeezed his hand.
“6, 5…”
“What?” He had no choice but to yell, the sound of horns and people cheering had already become deafening.
“4, 3, 2…”

“…” Charles’ words were lost in the cacophony of celebrations.

“1! HAPPY NEW YEAR!” The whole hall had erupted into a series of screams and applause. Hundreds of balloons were floating from the ceiling, creating a kaleidoscope of colours. They had their gazes steadily fixed on each other.

Suddenly, Rhett could hear him crystal clear; hearing Charles and only Charles, all the noise disappearing into nothingness.

“Come live with me.”