“Gabriel,” Stephen says, like they have not been best friends for years. It is mocking, like it always is when he says his full name in public, but there is a shade of nervousness in his eyes, as he stands straight and nervously fixes the neck of his collar.
“Stephen,” Gabe answers. He does not say anything more, because if he did, his eyes would drift towards him, and he cannot bear to look at his face. He smiles, though, desperately wanting to avoid an uncomfortable situation.
“I thought i would give you the news in person,” Stephen starts, voice shaking, and Gabe waits for him to continue, but he does not.
“Oh? What news?” He says. He is trying to act inconspicuous, he is, but lying to Stephen has never come naturally to him, and it sounds flat, instead.
“You know,” Stephen whispers, defeated, but also exasperated.
“Of course I know. It has not been kept a secret.” He considers walking up to Stephen’s sisters and dancing with one of them, as an excuse, but he fears if he did Stephen would leave the ball and not come back. “Congratulations.”
“What for?” Stephen lets out in a hiss. Gabe dares to look up at his face, and sees a frown there. They should be dancing, because both their mothers tend to get angry when they do not offer someone a dance at least once. He should leave and ask someone to dance, but he can foretell the repercussions of even making the suggestion.
“For your engagement, of course,” Gabe says. He feels heartbroken as he says it, a cloud of hurt firmly stuck on his throat. “I feel very happy for you.”
Stephen looks him in the eye. He knows that Gabe is not telling the truth, but living as close to each other for as long as they have means that he knows exactly what Gabe is feeling currently. He does not try to touch what is obviously an open wound.
Instead, he turns around, looking at the young people dancing around the room. “It is not official yet.”
An excuse. An apology.
“Have you not proposed? Has she not, either?” Gabe asks, casually. He can act happy, for Stephen. He can act like everything is normal, and maybe someday he will be able to look at Stephen next to his wife and actually feel like it is.
“Of course not. I would not do that without telling you―”
“Of course,” Gabe says, graciously. Stephen identifies it as what it is, a poorly hidden barb.
“Do you even know who I am supposed to be proposing to? Why even would you congratulate me?”
Gabe does not speak. He does not know, of course, but he does not see how it is related to the subject at hand. If he speaks, however, he is letting Stephen win, and he will not do that during what is essentially Stephen breaking his heart. Stephen seems to realize what is happening, makes an angry sound.
“If my mother asks,” he spits out, “tell her I was not feeling well.”
He turns around and leaves, and Gabe just stays where he is. Watching him leave.
"You didn't dance with anyone tonight, darling," his mother says on the carriage. It is a testament of how Gabe must look that her voice is not angry, but worried. Even so, he does not answer, so she adds, “Not even Stephen.”
"He is to be married," Gabe says, not quite managing to bottle up all the feelings crawling up his throat. "It would not have been proper.”
"Oh, dear, that is just a rumour―"
"He confirmed it himself,” he interrupts. He should not interrupt her, but she seems to understand, because she frowns, and lets him to his moody silence for the rest of the trip.
Stephen shows up unannounced the next day. His sisters are not there, and he spends a few minutes talking to Gabe’s parents before he manages to sneak up to his room. Gabe did not make the trip down the stairs to greet him, like he should have, but Stephen opens the door of his room without knocking, so they are both being rude today, apparently.
“I have something to show you,” Stephen says, and acts like nothing happened last night.
Gabe lets him. Stephen shows him a book, referencing a conversation they had two months ago, and Gabe does not stop him, continuing the conversation like normal. They do not fight often, but when they do Stephen always acts like nothing happened first, and apologises later.
He is expecting it, therefore, when Stephen says, “I did not mean for you to find out through rumours.”
Gabe goes still, for just a second.
"We have spent hours upon hours of our time together alone, unchaperoned. Had you wished to inform me, you would have." Gabe's eyes move around the room, landing on the door. He is starting to believe that being seen storming out of a conversation with Stephen Petersen might not be the worst thing in the world.
"Why would you care about when you were told, anyway?"
Stephen makes a mistake saying those words. He knows, because when Gabe looks him in the eye, with all the honesty he can muster, he closes his mouth and, after just a second, turns around and starts heading towards the door.
Gabe doesn’t follow.
Stephen and him keep talking to each other. The world doesn’t stop because Gabe is heartbroken. They talk, and Stephen tells him about his plans for the apparently business-based match he has found, and every once in a while Gabe will want to cry a little, but everything is fine.
He does not expect Stephen to suddenly show up at their doorstep, first thing in the morning, a newspaper on his hand. He follows him, inspecting him carefully.
"Are you well?" He finally asks when Gabe has just sat down.
"Mr. Lourdes' engagement got announced. I thought you would be feeling rather sad."
"I—" Gabe starts, but nothing comes out. "I am happy for my friend."
Stephen makes a dismissing hand gesture. "Of course, but—"
"Stephen, Jacob Lourdes and I were never anything more than friends."
"Were you not?" He asks, surprised. His tone has raised a little, but he lowers it back to normal, his hand suddenly grabbing Gabe's arm. It is improper. Gabe does not care. "What do you mean?"
"Jake and Mr. Chapman have been courting for half a decade—"
"And even if they had not, believe me when I say that him and I would never have worked romantically.”
“Oh.” Stephen looks lost. He nods, jerking his head, and says, “I should leave.” And so he does.
Gabe’s first kiss was when he was sixteen. He was still a teenager, young, and not clever enough to know one should not kiss one’s best friend. Stephen and he had been trying to escape a ball, hidden in the garden in the middle of a song.
They had been laughing in the silliest of manners, for some reason Gabe does not care to remember ― two people had looked uncomfortable after a broken engagement, maybe. He does not remember why it happened. He only remembers a moment of silence, their lips brushing together after a second
It happened three times. Gabe cannot remember for how long they kissed, or if they were touching, because he was too overwhelmed by his feelings to commit it to memory. He does remember the song suddenly stopping, and breaking apart, and acting like nothing had happened the next day.
And the next. And the next. And the next.
“Stephen,” Gabe says, his mouth slightly open. He did not expect Stephen to be the one being guided inside when someone knocked. “I thought you were going to propose today”.
He looks guilty. He is shifting on his feet, nervous, barely looking at Gabe. “Did her parents not know you were coming? I thought you had already made some sort of arrangement with them. Did you warn them?”
“I did not,” Stephen says. Gabe opens his mouth, but Stephen does not allow him to speak. “It does not matter.”
“Your engagement does not matter?”
“I am cancelling it. It is already cancelled, actually, I just have to notify her parents―”
“You cannot unilaterally decide an engagement is cancelled―”
“I love you,” Stephen says, and Gabe stops speaking. He looks like he is waiting for Gabe to answer but Gabe is unable to open his mouth, the weight of Stephen’s words settling on his shoulders. “I have loved you for years.”
“That―” Gabe starts, with no plan for what comes after, and has to stop because no more words will make their way out of his mouth. “You know I feel the same.”
“I do, I―” He stops. “I thought you were in love with Lourdes.”
“I know. I know you are not, and apparently never were, but there were rumours that you two had kissed, and I guess I believed them.”
“The rumours were true,” Gabe admits. “But it was never more than that.”
The frown on Stephen’s face does not disappear, but he speaks anyway. “I thought ― I did not know what your feelings for me were, but I was sure you were in love with him. And my mother kept telling me I should get married if it were not for her ― I would have waited for you to love me. I would have. I would have sat and sighed and waited for you to someday love me if it weren't for her insistence.”
Gabe sighs, softly, and lets his hand fall on Stephen’s cheek. “It does not matter.”
Stephen’s eyebrow raises. “I would have said it mattered to you very much when you were sulking.”
“It doesn’t matter now,” Gabe says, kisses Stephen before he can answer.
It’s barely a press of lips. An apology, maybe, when one is not needed, but for the second kiss their lips touch for longer, Stephen’s hands on Gabe’s hips. This one is a promise ― of a future together, maybe. Gabe feels confident making assumptions, right now.
“You’re gonna leave in half an hour and clean up the mess you just made,” he mutters against Stephens lips, and stops his laughter with another kiss.