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A Free Choice (Ganymede Quartet Book 4.5)

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Thursday, June 20, 1901

On the morning of his birthday, Martin woke in Henry’s bed, under the weight of Henry’s arm, and was happy, purely happy; he thought it might be the happiest morning of his life. He kissed sleeping Henry and slipped from the bed, padding into his own room to do his calisthenics. He needed to be more diligent about exercise and diet; over these last weeks, he’d let himself become gaunt, a bony old scarecrow, and that wouldn’t do. Henry should have a handsome young man at his side, someone he could be proud to be seen with.

After his exercise and shower, Martin dressed and slipped out of the room to go downstairs to have his breakfast with the rest of the slaves. His good mood was remarked upon by the others, but he just smiled, cheeks pink, and ate his food without offering any explanation for his obvious happiness. He rather thought his colleagues could make very accurate guesses if they chose.

He ate in a hurry, eager to return upstairs to wake Henry, who smiled up at him and pulled at his hands, tugging him down into the bed. Martin did not try very hard to get away. He lay on top of Henry and enjoyed his sleepy warmth and the smell of his skin. He’d missed that smell.

Henry kissed him, and Martin kissed him back, but then pulled away laughing.

“Oh, Henry, your breath!” He pushed at Henry’s face, his hand across Henry’s mouth.

Henry laughed against Martin’s palm and broke free of Martin’s hand with a toss of his head. “Is it really terrible?” He caught Martin’s wrists and rolled their bodies over together, pinning Martin against the rumpled sheets.

“It’s very bad,” Martin assured him, squirming under his weight. He attempted to free his hands, but Henry was holding them too tightly.

Nose to nose, Henry huffed his horrible breath in Martin’s face, his eyes full of merriment.

Noooo…” Martin groaned. He bucked and thrashed, laughing himself breathless. Oh, it was good to have this again, closeness and fun and ease.

Henry bent his head and laughed against Martin’s neck. He let go of Martin’s hands and slid off him far enough that he could work the buttons of Martin’s trouser placket.

Martin didn’t try to stop him. “What are you doing?” He did have a pretty good idea, but he wanted Henry to say it.

Henry successfully unbuttoned the trousers and went to work on the drawers, and Martin’s cock was hard, ready to spring up into Henry’s hand.

“You want me to get up, don’t you?” Henry asked.

With Henry’s hand busy with the buttons, Martin had to consider whether he did in fact want this. “Well, eventually.”

“There’s a fee,” Henry said. “A tax. If you want me to get out of bed, you have to let your cock be sucked.”

Martin snorted. “A tax? What if it’s a hardship for me to pay?” His cock stood up out of the vee of his drawers.

“What, are you saying you can’t pay it?” Henry did not sound as though he believed this. “You can’t hold still long enough to meet your obligations?” Henry slid down and huffed his foul breath on Martin’s cock.

Martin grinned and petted Henry’s tousled hair. “No, I’m definitely not saying that.”

“Because if you won’t pay, I’ll stay in bed all day and sulk,” Henry explained. “And you’ll have to tell my father that it’s because you won’t pay your debts.” He put out his tongue and licked Martin’s cock, just the wet slit.

Martin moaned and lifted his hips a little, a nudge. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll pay. Take everything I have.”

Henry did just that, the tax collection efforts increasing in complexity and urgency such that it became necessary to yank Martin’s trousers down around his ankles, and then he was folded in half, Henry alternating between sucking his cock and licking his exposed hole. The pleasure Henry gave him was keen and sharp and singular. No one had ever reveled in Martin’s body like Henry did. Martin enjoyed this skilled attention, exalted in it, and let it begin to erase the memory of all the weeks he’d gone without it. He came gasping Henry’s name with his cock deep in Henry’s mouth, Henry’s fingers moving in his ass.

Henry flopped on the pillow at his side and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Did I say it yet? Happy Birthday.”

Martin laughed. “Thank you. It’s a very happy one so far.” Martin rolled to face Henry, not minding his terrible breath. He just wanted to look at him, close up, touching one another. He’d missed Henry so much.

“I want you to be happy,” Henry said with conviction, his cheeks flushing red. “I know I can’t, not really, but I want to try to make it up to you anyway.”

Martin appreciated that Henry would want to do this, but he wasn’t really interested in being offered favor as a kind of recompense. Rather, he’d prefer to move forward, not dwelling on unpleasantness, and treating each other with kindness and respect and love, things that Henry had offered him so generously in the past. Henry had made mistakes, but Martin was certain he had, too.

“Do you owe any taxes?” Martin fondled Henry’s beautiful cock, which was very hard, and Martin loved that it was his to touch again.

Henry gave a little grunt and tilted his hips against Martin’s hand, but he said, “Not just yet. I’m hungry. Besides, it’s your birthday.”

“I do like making you come, though,” Martin pointed out. “It’s one of my favorite things to do. Shouldn’t I get to do it on my birthday?”

Henry stretched long and yawned. “Well, of course, if that’s what you want. But later. Don’t we have other business? We have to get your hair trimmed, right? And I need to talk to Louis.”

“I’m glad you’ll be able to reconcile with Mr. Briggs.” Martin buttoned his trousers and sat up. “Do you want me to start your shower now?”

Henry showered humming snatches of the allemande, and Martin waited with his towel and thought again about what Henry had said about making things up to him. He was glad Henry had apologized, because Henry had been awful, and it did make him feel that Henry held him in very high regard that he would make such a concession to a slave. When he wasn’t trying to force some ersatz freedom down Martin’s throat, Henry really did treat Martin as an equal most of the time.

Martin definitely would have preferred they’d never been estranged, but now that it had happened, he felt they’d learned important things about themselves, both as individuals and as a couple. Their estrangement had been, in its way, as bad as the loss of Richard. The only thing that had kept Martin going was the fact that Henry was very much alive, and so long as he was alive there was a chance of reconciliation and forgiveness. It had been hard to be grieving a devastating loss when all the while Henry was right there, surly and gruff and wounded and hurtful, and not letting Martin explain his actions.

Henry’s apology really had been so wonderful, so unexpected. Martin had hoped that one day Henry might relent and give him the opportunity to beg for his position back; he had not even considered that Henry might come to him begging forgiveness. It was easy to want to forgive Henry, especially when his apology was so sincere. Martin had known Henry was stubborn, that he didn’t always think things through, and that he was easily hurt, so his wounded cruelty hadn’t actually been surprising. It had been heartbreaking, but not surprising.

Martin did believe that Henry wouldn’t want this to happen to them again, that if they chanced to disagree he would be willing to talk, and to listen, as he had promised. Henry had taken Martin seriously when he’d said he’d leave if Henry was cruel again, and Martin was quite sure Henry wanted him to stay. He seemed prepared to be even more loving than before, even more generous and giving. Martin was especially appreciative of how vulnerable Henry had let himself be last night. Martin had loved fingering Henry’s ass, and it had been thrilling to hear Henry call his name during sex; he was quite sure Henry had never done that before, not ever.

Henry shut off the water and turned, dripping, to face Martin with a smile. Almost shyly, his cheeks pink, he asked, “Would you please dry me?”

Martin was surprised by the strength of his emotion, the rush of love that made him lightheaded. He’d always gleaned such pleasure from the necessary closeness of service, and having that taken away from him had injured his pride and heart both.

But all he said was, “Yes, of course. Come out here, then, and let me do it.”

He was wiping droplets from Henry’s shoulders and broad chest when Henry sighed and wrapped his arms around him, pulling him close, the damp towel pressed between their bodies.

“Henry! You’re getting me wet!”

Henry nuzzled his ear. “You can change your shirt.” He sighed again and squeezed Martin more tightly. “I missed you, Martin. I missed you so much. And all the while you were right here, and I was hurting you. I was hurting us both.” His voice cracked, a pained rasp, and he pressed his face to Martin’s neck.

Martin returned the embrace. He could change his shirt. He petted Henry’s sleek, wet head. “But you’re sorry, Henry, I know you’re sorry, and it’s past now.”

Henry shook his head without lifting his face from Martin’s neck, his shoulders hunched. “How can you just forgive me?” he asked, his tone anguished. “These have been the worst days of my life, and you weren’t being mean to me.”

Martin didn’t want to dwell on his hurt. He absolutely believed Henry was sorry, so he wanted to forgive him. Ideally, something good would come from this bad stretch, and Martin liked to think they would be closer now, could better understand each other going forward. Things wouldn’t go back to the way they were before, but they could be better. Holding a grudge would serve no purpose. However, he would let Henry make it up to him if he wanted to try.

Martin shrugged. “I don’t think you meant any of that, not in your heart—”

“No,” Henry hurried to say. “No, I didn’t.”

“—so I believe you’re sorry, truly sorry. I’m sure you don’t want us to end up in a situation like that ever again.” He made a little space between their bodies with his hands flat against Henry’s chest, and ran his hand down Henry’s side before taking a step back.

“I don’t,” Henry promised him. “From now on, I’m going to listen to you, Martin, and we’ll decide things together.”

Martin got a dry towel and thought about this. He crouched at Henry’s feet and dried his ankles and shins.

Henry was offering him a lot of latitude, and Martin wanted to take it, whether it was appropriate or not. Slowly he said, “All right. We’ll decide together.”

“I should really let you make the decisions, though,” Henry said. “You’re smarter. You’re more sensible. My father trusts you.”

“No, Henry, I can’t be in charge,” Martin said firmly. Everything Henry said was true, perhaps, but Henry was still Martin’s master. “But I’m always happy to advise you, Henry. Always, on any topic.” It was a small difference, splitting hairs, and there probably wouldn’t be any difference at all in practice, but Martin felt much more comfortable accepting the role of advisor than that of sole decision-maker. He carefully dried Henry’s thighs and hips, cock and balls.

“We shouldn’t have left in the first place. I shouldn’t have made you do it.”

No, he shouldn’t have, but there was nothing to be done about it now. “We’re home, and you’re safe, and we’re together. That’s what matters.” He stood and passed the towel over Henry’s belly, then ducked behind him to dry the muscular curve of his ass.

He finished drying Henry off, and then Henry allowed himself to be shaved, for the first time since they’d been at the Calamus. Martin had always loved shaving Henry, loved making his beautiful face that much more handsome, and his chest grew tight with emotion, and his hands shook so that he was afraid to put the blade against Henry’s lathered skin.

“Are you all right?” Henry asked, so sincere. He stroked Martin’s cheek, put his hand around the back of Martin’s neck. “Do you not want to do it?” He would clearly be disappointed if this were the case.

Martin shook his head. “No, not at all. It’s just…I missed taking care of you, Henry.” He would not cry!

“I missed it, too,” Henry assured him.

Martin took a deep breath and let it out. He lifted the razor and his hand was steady. He hoped Henry understood that his service derived from love and wasn’t just the result of his upbringing and training. Certainly he would have served any master well, but Henry was special. Henry got more. In tending Henry’s body, he felt infinitely tender and loving, so protective, so possessive. He’d gone through such misery fretting that Henry might replace him, that another man would have the privilege of touching Henry’s skin. It would have killed him to be replaced.

He did a very good job, shaving Henry’s cheeks smooth as satin. Henry touched his face and gave Martin a slow, delighted smile.

“It’s always better when you do it.”

Martin dressed him in his blue suit and they went downstairs to the breakfast room. Mrs. Blackwell was just getting up from the table, Pearl helping her to her feet.

“Oh, hello, darlings,” she said. “There’s a lovely cake on the sideboard; be sure to try some.”

Henry said, “Thank you, Mother, I will.”

She made to leave on Pearl’s arm, but stopped halfway to the door as if something had just occurred to her. She turned back, smiling her lovely smile.

“Martin, darling, I wanted to say Happy Birthday! Pearl only informed me this morning.”

Martin was taken aback. “Oh! Th-thank you, Ma’am. It’s very kind of you to mention it.” It was shocking that she’d mention it at all!

“You’re such a good boy,” she said blithely. “You’ve been such a big help with the party. I do hope you’ll consider it a celebration for yourself, as well.”

Martin was flabbergasted that she’d suggest such a thing—combining the birthdays of a young master and his slave! It was one thing for Henry to suggest it to him, but Mrs. Blackwell was a grown lady from a society background, and it was quite unexpected for her to propose something so radical. Perhaps all the Wiltons were bohemians.

Henry was also clearly shocked. “Er, yes, there’s a party downstairs for Martin later,” Henry blurted. “Since it’s his actual birthday.”

Mrs. Blackwell said, “Will you be going down for that as well, darling?” When Henry did not answer right away, she said, “It’s quite all right if you are, you know. You boys are such good friends, I would expect nothing less.”

Henry hesitated. “Uh…”

“Your father will expect you at dinner as usual, of course,” she said. “You know you can do as you like, Henry, so long as you keep up appearances.” With a particularly winsome smile, she turned on her heel and exited the room on Pearl’s arm.

After she left, Henry sank dazedly into the chair Martin held ready for him. “Martin? Does she know…?”

Martin shook his head. “I don’t know, Sir. She is quite astute, but I don’t know that she was inferring anything in particular.”

Henry frowned at the idea of his mother being astute. Martin felt he actually was at an advantage knowing Mrs. Blackwell so briefly. He had known her only months, and she had changed a great deal for the better in that short time; Henry had known her his entire life, of course, and remained suspicious that she would revert to her old, sad self at any moment.

Martin ate a second breakfast with Henry, their boots touching under the table. They had plates of scrambled eggs, potato hash, pancakes with both maple syrup and apple compote, bacon, and the cinnamon cake Mrs. Blackwell had spoken so highly of.

Henry chewed and swallowed a large forkful of potatoes. “Martin?”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Do you think…” Henry seemed to be having trouble finding the exact words. “About your haircut. I was wondering—well, what I mean is, do you remember the barber who cut off your tail? I thought he seemed very kind. Maybe we should go back there. What do you think? We could go to my barber if you prefer, of course.” Henry’s barber, who was also his father’s barber, was downtown by the Blackwell office building.

Martin winced a little, not liking to revisit the cutting of his tail, but getting a haircut today had been his idea, after all, and he would have to let someone trim his hair if he didn’t want to look disreputable. Henry was right that the barber had been kind, and he had clearly understood that Martin had not wanted a haircut at all.

“Hmm…” Martin considered. “Yes, Sir, I suppose he would do a good job. I think he would understand that I want my hair long again and would trim it accordingly.”

“Do you remember the cross-street? We can take a cab if you want.”

Martin shook his head. “The omnibus is fine, Sir.” Martin rejected the idea of a cab with a shudder; he thought that it would be quite awhile before he stopped associating cabs with running away.

They did take the omnibus downtown, keeping an eye out for the barber shop, which was perhaps half a mile from the Blackwell home. The kindly barber was shaving another gentleman, so they had to sit and wait; there was a different barber whose chair was empty, but Henry decided Martin should have the same fellow as before, and Martin was grateful for this.

Sitting in the chrome-and-leather chair with a cape protecting his uniform jacket, Martin met the barber’s eyes in the mirror as he tugged at Martin’s hair, checking the length.

“I think I remember you two,” the barber remarked, squinting at Martin’s face in the mirror. “Lovely hair you had. I can certainly understand why you’d want it long again.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

Henry hovered, standing behind the barber looking anxious. “Not any shorter,” Henry reminded the barber. Sounding fretful and recriminatory, he added, “It was a mistake to cut it.”

Oh, Henry. It was good for Henry to recognize he’d made mistakes, of course, but it was a waste of time for him to torment himself about them. Martin was not interested in Henry’s anguish, didn’t want it.

Martin gave him a reassuring smile. “It’ll grow back, Sir. It grows fast.”

“Not fast enough,” Henry grumbled. He leaned in to look at what the barber was doing with his comb and scissors.

The barber turned to give Henry a very professional smile. “If you’d just like to take a seat, sir, I’ll have your young fellow fixed up in a jiff.”

Sighing, Henry retreated reluctantly to the waiting area, where he flipped listlessly through a newspaper some businessman had left behind.

The haircut didn’t take long. When it was over, Martin looked much tidier and more professional, which he appreciated.

When Henry saw him, he stood up in a hurry, cheeks rapidly pinking. “You look…uh, very nice.” His face grew redder still.

“Thank you, Sir.”

Henry paid and gave the barber a generous tip.

Out on the sidewalk, Henry leaned close and said, “Even with short hair, you’re so handsome.”

Martin was well-pleased with the compliment. “You’re handsome, as well, Sir.”

Henry snorted and nudged him with his shoulder. “Say, do you mind heading right back home? I want to try to talk to Louis if I can.”

“Of course, Sir. I expected that’s what we’d be doing.”

They took the omnibus back uptown, and Martin sat down beside Henry when invited to do so. He was still uncomfortable doing it, but it made Henry very happy, and it did no real harm.

Immediately they arrived at home, Henry ducked into the telephone alcove, and Martin lounged in the doorway listening to his end of the call, which was stilted and monosyllabic, but Henry was cheerful when he put the receiver in its cradle.

“We’re going over to Louis’ house,” he said happily.

At the Briggs residence, Patrick opened the door to them with a genuine smile.

“It’s good to see you, Sir. Martin. Mr. Briggs is expecting you if you’d just like to go upstairs.”

The boisterous younger Briggses were nowhere in evidence, nor were James Briggs or his new wife. Outside Mr. Briggs’ door, Henry stood aside to let Martin knock, and Peter opened the door wearing a broad smile.

“Sir, Martin. Welcome! Please come in!”

Mr. Briggs was flopped on his back across his bed, but he sat up as they entered, and he smiled sheepishly, his face hot and red. “Hi.”

Henry stopped halfway across the carpet, also red-faced. “Hi.” He stared down at his boots.

When it became apparent that their masters were not prepared to do anything more just yet, Peter came and opened his arms, drawing Martin into a warm embrace. He whispered, “I missed you,” in Martin’s ear.

“I missed you, too.”

Mr. Briggs cleared his throat. “Er…you should know, I’ve told Peter about your…your situation. So slaves can stay in the room this time.”

“Oh. That’s all right, then.” Henry seemed slightly flustered, unsure what to do with himself.

Mr. Briggs got up off the bed and came to awkwardly shake Henry’s hand and thump him on the back. When they were done shaking, they stood with their hands still clasped, which seemed to make them both uncomfortable, until at last Henry drew back.

“Do you want to sit?” Mr. Briggs asked. Like Henry, he had a pair of armchairs before his fireplace, and he made a gesture that took these in. “Or we could just sit on the bed, like always.”

“The bed’s fine.” Henry crossed to the bed and sat on the edge, seeming tense and ready to get up again at a moment’s notice.

Peter leaned close. “Do you mind the floor?”

Martin shook his head. “Of course not.” He lowered himself to sit cross-legged on the carpet next to Peter, their knees touching, watching their masters.

“Where is everyone today?” Henry asked. “Your house is so quiet.”

Mr. Briggs shrugged. “Out. All different places.” He sat next to Henry and began fidgeting with the bedcover, tracing a pattern with his fingertip. “So.” He cleared his throat self-consciously. “So, you got my letter, and you know what I think.”

“Yes. That’s why I’m here,” Henry pointed out.

Mr. Briggs was silent another long moment. “I’m sorry. It’s hard for me to talk about this stuff, Henry.”

Henry snorted. “I’ve heard so much from you about what you’ve done with Peter, and what you were doing with Miss O’Malley, that I don’t really understand why my situation should be difficult to talk about.”

Mr. Briggs shook his head. “But what I’ve used Peter for is normal, and it’s for health. What I did with Bridget was normal. What you’re doing with Martin is…well, I don’t want to say it’s not normal, because that sounds bad, and I don’t mean it like that, but it’s not…not regular.”

Henry was apparently willing to concede this point. “No. Not regular.”

“I’ve thought about it a lot,” Mr. Briggs said, still tracing swirls on the bedcover, eyes cast down, “and I’m going to try to think about it like a normal situation, like if you had a girl. You know I’ve worried about you being a late bloomer and all. I always wanted you to have a sweetheart, and I thought I’d encourage you in every way if you found someone you liked.” He sighed, his gaze flicking up to Henry’s face. “I just didn’t expect your sweetheart would be a boy and a slave.”

Henry attempted levity. “Well, you know my family always does things wrong.”

Mr. Briggs did laugh, albeit somewhat ruefully. “It seems obvious now that you just aren’t interested in girls at all. I don’t know why I was surprised—you’ve never been interested in a girl as anything other than a dancing partner in your whole life. I thought I knew you better than anyone, so I feel really stupid that I didn’t figure this out already.”

Henry shrugged. “Like you said, though, it’s not regular, so you had no reason to suspect it, I guess.”

“Well, it seems really obvious now,” Mr. Briggs repeated. He was quiet a moment, then said, “I’ll help you, all right? I’ll try to keep the other guys from pestering you about girls.”

“Why do they even care?” Henry asked.

Mr. Briggs shrugged. “People like to know their friends’ business.”

“Lots of our friends don’t have girls, though.”

Mr. Briggs shook his head. “But it’s different for you. You’re the best-looking and you have the most money of anyone. You really could have any girl you wanted, so it’s odd you don’t have one.”

“It is true that my father doesn’t want me to get involved with girls, though,” Henry pointed out. “Isn’t that a good enough reason?”

Mr. Briggs frowned. “Maybe you should act more like you think he’s being unfair or something, instead of just going along with it so willingly.” He considered this a moment longer. “I don’t know. It’s probably better if you don’t make up a story that requires a lot of acting.”

Henry laughed at this. “I’m not very good at telling lies.”

Now Mr. Briggs laughed. “Well, you did keep an awfully big secret for years, so maybe you’re a better liar than you think.”

They were quiet a few seconds, and then Mr. Briggs said, “Say, did you ever notice? There aren’t any nice words for…for what you are.”

Henry blushed and shrugged. “I think queer is probably the best. Or, wait—” He turned to look at Martin. “Martin, you used a word one time…hobo-something…?”

Martin sat up straight, pleased to be allowed to share knowledge. “Oh, homosexual, Sir. It means loving someone who’s the same as you. It’s a psychology term—we learned it at Ganymede. The opposite is heterosexual, like Mr. Briggs.”

“That, then,” Henry said. “We’re homosexual, Martin and I both.”

“Well, okay,” Mr. Briggs said. “I’ll think of it that way, I guess. I didn’t like having only insulting words to use in regard to you two.”

“I’m pleased you’re being so thoughtful,” Henry said, seeming touched and very genuine. “You know, I really didn’t expect you to come around at all.”

Mr. Briggs shrugged. “Like I said in the letter, James turning out to be so terrible has made me reconsider a lot of things. He’s definitely not a good person. Him having such a low opinion of queers—homosexuals, rather—makes them seem practically admirable to me, honestly. Anything James hates is probably not bad at all.” He paused, pensive. “You know, if I’d ignored James, I’d still have Bridget.”

“Well, yes.” Henry seemed reluctant to admit this.

“I’m not blaming you, Henry, but you should have told me what you really thought when I asked you about breaking it off with her. It would have been all right to tell me I was making a mistake.”

“I-I wasn’t sure you’d listen, I guess.”

“You’re like a brother, Henry. A good brother. Your opinion matters to me.”

This obviously made Henry happy. “I guess I should have known you’d care what I thought.”

Mr. Briggs snorted and rolled his eyes. “You’ve been my best friend almost my whole life, Henry. Of course I care what you think!” He leaned over and punched Henry’s shoulder, and Henry winced, though he smiled.

“Why don’t we play poker?” Mr. Briggs suggested. “Peter, get the cards and chips, will you?”

“Certainly, Sir.” Peter got to his feet and went to collect them.

Four hands in, Mr. Briggs and Peter each had one win and Martin had two. Henry frowned at his cards, his brow furrowed. Martin found it endearing how badly Henry played poker, and yet he was always willing to play. Henry simply liked the camaraderie and was never really upset when he invariably lost. Martin, who loved to win, found this admirable; it was a bit unattractive to be too intent on besting one’s friends.

Mr. Briggs discarded three cards and drew three more. “So, tell me, Henry, where were you when you missed school? And why did you cut Martin’s hair, anyway? It was pretty.”

Henry reddened and sighed, eyes on his hand. “I know. I should have left it alone.” He discarded four cards. “We were going to leave the city,” he explained.

“Why?” Mr. Briggs seemed baffled that anyone would want to do such a thing.

“I wanted…” Henry seemed at a loss for words. “I wanted a new life. With Martin. So we ran away.”

“How far did you get?”

“Well, I didn’t have a very good plan,” he admitted. “I just wanted to go somewhere I thought we’d be safe.”

“Safe from what?” Mr. Briggs scoffed.

“Really, Louis?” Henry was affronted. “You were going to tell everyone that I was queer. Or else. Remember?”

Mr. Briggs’ face reddened and he fidgeted with his cards. “I wasn’t ever going to tell,” he muttered.

“Well, I thought you had. I thought you told Philip.”

Mr. Briggs looked confused. “Henry, why would I tell Philip anything?” He shook his head and rearranged his cards again. “I don’t like Philip any more than you do.”

Henry thought about this. “Well, then, what were you…?” He stopped and sighed. “It doesn’t matter, I guess. I was wrong.” He also gave some attention to his cards. “But I did think you’d told Philip, and I thought it was just a matter of hours before my father found out, and I was scared.”

“Of your dad?” Mr. Briggs seemed to find this slightly ludicrous. “Your dad spoils you, Henry.”

Henry blinked. “He does?”

Mr. Briggs laughed and indicated Martin with a jerk of his chin. “Exhibit A.”

Henry shook his head, refusing the idea. “No he doesn’t. Anyway, I was afraid my father would take Martin away from me and sell him, or punish him, or both.”

Peter snorted at this, and then looked guilty when Mr. Briggs and Henry both gave him expectant, questioning looks.

“What’s so funny?” Mr. Briggs asked suspiciously, eyes narrowed.

Peter flushed an uncomfortable red. “It’s nothing bad, Sir. It’s just…you see, all the slaves in the neighborhood know how well the Blackwells treat their people. It just seems unlikely that Mr. Blackwell would ever punish a slave. It’s not really funny, Sirs, I’m sorry. I was inappropriate.”

Henry frowned, but he said, “Well, you’re right. My father wouldn’t punish anyone. Martin wasn’t in any trouble at all.” He was quiet a moment while the others discarded and drew cards. “I overreacted, I guess.”

“Where did you go? Where was this safe place you ran off to?”

“Do you remember that whorehouse booklet you showed me? James had it?” Henry drew his new cards and scowled at them.

“Sure, back at the beginning of school.”

“I don’t know if you noticed, but there was a whorehouse listed there that had ‘men dressed as women’ down on 14th Street. I figured that would be the right sort of neighborhood.”

Mr. Briggs laughed. “You ran away to a whorehouse!”

Henry frowned. “Not the actual whorehouse, just the neighborhood.” Henry never folded, and despite his obvious unhappiness with his cards, he met Mr. Briggs’ bet.

“Where on 14th?”

“Just a few blocks from Union Square.”

Mr. Briggs seemed amused by this. “I could have walked over from the arcade and met up with you,” he remarked.

Henry shook his head, smiling. “You wouldn’t have liked it.”

“But you did.” Mr. Briggs was not asking a question.

Henry nodded. “It was exciting, and it felt safe. Welcoming. There were people like me everywhere. I felt at home.”

Peter discarded and drew cards and placed his bet. It was Martin’s turn.

Mr. Briggs asked, “Will you go back?”

“Maybe.” Henry looked up and met Martin’s eyes, his mouth turned up in a tentative smile. “If Martin will go with me.”

Martin froze, deeply uncomfortable, with everyone looking at him. “Oh, well, Sir, I…” His voice trailed off as his mind frantically whirred. He discarded haphazardly, drew one too many cards.

He’d told Henry they could talk about it, but he wasn’t prepared to talk about it here, now, in Mr. Briggs’ room. He did hope to find a way to do as Henry wanted. Even though he’d been preoccupied and worried during their adventure, he had definitely enjoyed some aspects of their foray into the homosexual subculture. It had been quite pleasant to drink at the Venetian Bar. He’d liked dancing as real partners, not just practice. And he’d been thrilled to finally make love to Henry, doing everything he wanted. They didn’t need to go downtown for the sex, of course, but perhaps there was a way to be discreet and still dance? He wanted to make Henry happy, but he didn’t want to anger Mr. Blackwell in the process. There was so much to consider, and he didn’t have a ready answer.

“You don’t have to decide now,” Henry hurried to say. “We can talk about it later.”

Mr. Briggs scowled with a hint of disdain. “What’s to talk about? You decide, don’t you? He’s still your slave.”

Henry narrowed his eyes, mouth pressed tight. “No,” he said firmly. “I don’t just decide things for him. Not anymore. That’s how I got into trouble in the first place.”

Relieved, Martin bet, even though his cards were worthless; Peter won the hand.

“Were you going to stay there?” Mr. Briggs asked as he dealt. “Just hanging around Union Square for the rest of your life?”

“Of course not.” Henry fanned out his cards and frowned at them. “I was planning on going to New Orleans.”

“Huh.” Mr. Briggs thought about this. “Maybe someday we’ll all go.”

“Martin wants to see Carnival,” Henry said. “I guess I do, too.”

Mr. Briggs scrutinized Martin until he became uncomfortable, feeling very conscious of his movements and trying to keep his expression neutral. Mr. Briggs turned abruptly to Henry.

“Why did you cut his hair, anyway?”

Henry flushed, frowning. “It was stupid. I wanted him to pass for free, so I made him get it cut and wear a collar and tie.”

Quizzical, Mr. Briggs said, “Well, that did work, though, didn’t it? What was so stupid about it?”

Henry shook his head. “But he didn’t want to do it. I told him I wanted him to behave like he was free, and then I forced all kinds of decisions on him. I didn’t treat him like a free person at all.”

Mr. Briggs thought on this, then turned to Martin. “Your long hair was very nice,” he said, “but short suits you, as well.”

“Oh!” Martin had not expected a compliment from Mr. Briggs! “Thank you, Sir.”

Mr. Briggs shifted so that his body was angled toward Martin and he leaned closer. “So, you’re the same as Henry? You don’t like girls?”

“I don’t dislike girls, Sir, but I’m not interested in them romantically.” Martin didn’t desire girls, but he wasn’t nearly so averse to their bodies as Henry; Henry was quite nearly repulsed by the idea of sex with women, which Martin considered a bit ridiculous and unduly finicky.

“Huh.” Mr. Briggs considered this. “It’s hard for me to imagine not being interested in girls,” he admitted, “but I guess I’ve always known that companions are all at least part fairy. You have to be, don’t you?”

“Well, it does help, Sir,” Peter put in. “I’ve got my Franny now, but I’ve always enjoyed other boys.” He shrugged and tossed his pennies into the pot. “You never know. You might have been the same, Sir, if you’d grown up surrounded by boys.”

Mr. Briggs shuddered and shot Peter a sharp look. “No, I definitely wouldn’t have been.”

Peter snickered and smirked at his cards.

“I like girls,” Mr. Briggs grumbled, shuffling his cards around in his hand. “I always have. Henry knows.”

“Even when we were little,” Henry agreed.

They played a few more hands, Mr. Briggs gossiping idly about various of their friends, and then he turned to Henry and said, “I’m sorry—it’s just hard for me to understand. Not that Martin isn’t great and all, but…you’re really in love with him? In love?”

Henry blushed bashfully, a shy smile playing around his lips. He laughed and admitted, “I’ve never said it in front of anyone else before…” He darted a glance at Martin, and held his gaze as he said, “Yes, I am. I’m really in love with him.”

The rush of euphoria that coursed through Martin’s body left him breathless. He wanted nothing more than to crawl through the card game to Henry and kiss him senseless, and with the way Henry was looking at him, he was quite sure Henry would want him to do it.

Mr. Briggs was looking back and forth between their faces, seeming dismayed. “Oh, no. Not here,” he cautioned, shaking his head vigorously. “Don’t you dare be getting all lovey-dovey.”

Henry laughed. “We’re just looking at each other.”

Mr. Briggs was red-faced. “I know exactly what a look like that means, though.” He screwed up his face in distaste. “It’s too personal. I don’t want to think about it.”

“Well, now you know how I felt,” Henry said. “With you telling me all the gory details about Miss O’Malley.”

Mr. Briggs seemed willing to reluctantly concede this point. “Look, I know it’s not that different than what any of us might do with our slaves, but it seems different because you’re in love.”

“No, it is different,” Henry said, sounding proud of himself, proud of them. “What I have with Martin is special.”

Mr. Briggs seemed willing to accept this. “Maybe so.” It was his turn to deal and he shuffled, then turned to Martin to cut the cards.

There was the muffled thud of the front door closing, and the sounds of feet upon the stairs, and piping voices all trying to talk over one another: all the little Briggses returning home. Alice’s voice rose above the rest: Robbie, I hate you! and Robbie cackled triumphantly in response.

“The invading army,” Mr. Briggs said as the noise passed up to the third floor. As if suddenly realizing something, Mr. Briggs sat bolt upright. “Henry.”

“Yes?”

“I…uh, I’ve changed my mind about something.” He began dealing out the cards.

“What’s that?”

He kept his eyes down as he said, “I don’t think you should marry my sister.”

Henry burst out laughing. “That’s what I’ve been telling you all along, Louis!”

“Well, now I understand why, and I think you’re right. Alice will just have to marry someone else.”

“She’ll lose interest in me anyway,” Henry said with confidence. “She’s just a little kid, after all. She’ll find someone else she likes long before she needs to pick a husband.”

Martin wasn’t so sure he agreed. If Alice remained fixated on Henry, she might prove an excellent wife. She had loved him in her childish way as long as she’d lived, after all. She might be willing to excuse some fairly egregious faults in a husband if that husband happened to be Henry, and Martin would not discount that advantage. Martin remained very aware that there were more than a few wealthy matrons with male attendants devoted to their needs, and Henry’s wife, whoever she might be, could certainly be one of their number.

He would not, however, suggest this in front of Mr. Briggs.

Peter pointed out that it was lunchtime, and Henry made the bold suggestion that Martin and Peter might eat lunch at the table with him and Mr. Briggs, a prospect which Mr. Briggs and Peter both seemed to find very disconcerting.

“Martin eats with me practically every day,” Henry said, discounting the last many weeks of separate meals, as well as feigning an unconcern Martin was confident he didn’t feel. “You know my father always eats with Timothy.”

“But Henry, your father is…” Mr. Briggs’ voice trailed off; he was unwilling to repeat what other people said about Mr. Blackwell.

“He’s very rich and powerful, is what he is,” Henry pointed out. “Peter’s missed his own lunch, hasn’t he?” Henry cocked his head, waiting for an answer; Mr. Briggs was not forthcoming. “If you don’t want them to eat with us, I’ll take Martin home to eat there. I don’t want him missing his lunch just because you won’t eat with a slave.”

Martin felt a surge of pride, glad that Henry was his master. He was generous and thoughtful, making extravagant gestures for Martin’s comfort and convenience. It was evidence that he thought highly of Martin, that he valued his company.

“You really sit at the table with him?” Mr. Briggs asked, seeming quite suspicious that Henry was trying to trick him. “You eat like…friends?”

“Isn’t Peter your friend?” Henry demanded. “He does everything for you, Louis. How is that not a friend?”

Mr. Briggs crumpled a little, weakening. “Henry, I’ve never…” His voice trailed off; he did not say what he’d never done.

“I’m never going to make Martin go without a meal just because feeding him might make someone uncomfortable,” Henry declared. “It’s not just because of my…my feelings for him, but because he’s a person, after all. Slaves are people.”

“I know that,” Mr. Briggs said crankily. “That’s obvious, Henry.”

Henry said, “We’ve all four of us sat in my room and eaten cake together bunches of times. What difference is it to sit at a table?”

Mr. Briggs seemed conflicted. “Look, Henry, I see your point, but my dad doesn’t do it that way, and I don’t think he’d appreciate it if I tried to start something here. The other slaves wouldn’t like it, either.”

Henry thought about this, eyebrows drawn together over the bridge of his nose. “We can all go to my house, then,” he decided, reiterating, “I don’t want Martin to go hungry.”

Mr. Briggs sighed. “I can see you’re not going to take no for an answer.”

Henry unfolded himself upright and held his hand out to Martin. “You can say no if you want,” Henry told Mr. Briggs, “but I’m going home to eat in any case.”

Martin took the offered hand and let himself be pulled to his feet, and Henry gave his fingers a squeeze before letting go.

Mr. Briggs stood, too, with a put-upon sigh. “Fine. Your cook is better than ours, anyway,” he said with a shrug. “Come on, Peter. Let’s give this a try.”

They went down the street to the Blackwell house, and Martin hurried downstairs to let Cook know there were guests to feed. Cook was delighted to know that Henry had made up with both Martin and Mr. Briggs, and to celebrate sent up chocolate cupcakes made from the batter left over from Martin’s birthday cake.

Henry bade Mr. Briggs and Peter sit across from him. Martin and Peter filled plates for their masters and themselves, and all sat down to eat.

His attention seemingly entirely on his plate, Henry slid his foot across the carpet, his boot making solid contact with Martin’s, and Martin was startled and jumped in his seat. Mr. Briggs raised a questioning eyebrow, but Martin studiously avoided looking at him, and Henry did the same. Martin responded by returning the pressure, his knee against Henry’s. Henry smiled, a twitch of the corner of his mouth, though he kept his eyes on his plate. He rubbed his knee against Martin’s, and Martin had never thought his knees particularly sensitive, but as Henry made these insistent moves, all the hairs stood up on his skin, and the weave of his trousers felt pleasantly rough, and his cock was stiffening against the placket of his drawers. He drew a sharp, shocked breath and choked on a bite of ham-and-olive sandwich; he coughed, his face heating with embarrassment. He reached for his glass and gulped lemonade.

“Are you all right?” Henry did not look concerned; rather, he was amused.

“Yes, Sir.” Martin gave Henry’s ankle a little kick. “I think I was just eating too quickly.”

Mr. Briggs narrowed his eyes at them suspiciously, but Martin was very careful to appear as innocent and blameless as possible, and Henry did the same.

Martin scarcely gave any attention to Mr. Briggs or Peter, and when the meal was over had no real impression of whether or not they’d enjoyed sitting down together after all. Martin had been entirely focused on this newly-bold Henry who made practical, meaningful stabs at equality and played titillating under-table games. He was glad Henry had made up with his friend, but he wished Mr. Briggs and Peter would go home. He wanted to show Henry how he felt about various of the things Henry had done and said today, and in order to do that he needed privacy. He needed Henry all to himself.

But Mr. Briggs suggested they all go to the arcade, and Henry agreed, and Martin held his tongue and reconciled himself to sociability until such time as Mr. Briggs and Henry tired of each other’s company. Henry had, after all, been accustomed to speaking with Mr. Briggs nearly every day of the last twelve years, so this lapse in their friendship had been significant, and repair of the rift would require some mutual effort.

As they boarded the omnibus, Henry whispered, “You could sit down with me if you wanted,” but Martin gave a little shake of his head and stood in the aisle while Mr. Briggs took the seat at Henry’s side. He appreciated this chivalrous, assertive Henry who wanted to put Martin first, but going along with all of Henry’s ideas would get them in trouble—again—and he was quite sure it would be too much for Mr. Briggs’ sensibilities.

Downtown, Henry and Mr. Briggs were pleased to find Mr. Lovejoy, Mr. Brand and Mr. Spence already at the arcade with Julian, Miles and Will. Henry gave Martin a handful of coins, assuring him he could have more if he required, and was led away by Mr. Briggs to try his hand at the strength testers with their friends.

Martin was always happy to see Miles; Miles was charming and fun to be with, but he was also professional and dedicated, which Martin appreciated in his fellow slaves. Miles was a Superior boy from Orpheus, a House where such things were taken seriously. He was also fond of Will, who was friendly and charming, as well as good-natured and enthusiastic about his work. Martin liked Julian well enough, but he didn’t respect him. He certainly did think less of Julian since learning that he avoided serving Mr. Lovejoy as completely as he ought, and he also thought less of Hyperion, Julian’s House, for putting a boy who disliked sex with men up for sale as a companion. He made an effort to mask his feelings of superiority—but he always had it in the back of his mind that he was a Ganymede boy, perfectly suited to his role, who would never shirk his duty. When Henry was buying slaves for his own household, Martin would see to it that all the men came from Ganymede.

As he plugged pennies into the peep shows, Martin was very aware that they were just blocks from the neighborhood of the Calamus, that they could walk for less than five minutes and be at the Venetian and the Fleur-de-Lys Café and the dreadful shop where Henry had insisted on buying him such flashy clothes. Here, in such close proximity to the scene of their brief foray into debauchery, he wondered if Henry was thinking of the Calamus, too.

While he and Peter turned the cranks of the Mutoscopes side by side, he considered, not for the first time, whether there were any circumstances under which he might have wanted to run away. He did not think there were any, actually. Martin appreciated living in the Blackwells’ grand, well-appointed house, especially now that Mrs. Blackwell was bringing the look of the place up to date. Henry feared his father and thought the worst of him, but Martin thought Mr. Blackwell quite tolerant. He was gruff and businesslike and had little patience for Henry’s sensitivities and shortcomings; however, it seemed obvious to Martin that Mr. Blackwell cared a great deal for his son and wanted him to be happy, even if he never bothered to say as much.

Martin knew Mr. Blackwell was kind at heart, believed it absolutely. Mr. Blackwell might have easily punished Martin—or sold him—for his part in Henry’s escapade. With Henry’s well-being as his priority, Martin had written the notes to Mr. Blackwell aware that he might be causing a great deal of trouble for himself. He felt that the fathers of some of his friends’ masters would be very willing to punish a companion for the deeds of a wayward son. However, Mr. Blackwell was a very practical person and wasn’t going to waste any time punishing Henry for a preference he could do nothing about, and neither would he punish Martin for serving his master’s particular needs, especially when Martin had been such a diligent protector of Henry’s best interests. Upon their return from the Calamus, Mr. Blackwell had invited Martin to sit in the chair before his desk, and had given him reassurances along these lines after listening to Martin’s halting recounting of their misadventure. Really, he was a very kind man in his brusque way, and always treated his slaves with generosity.

Mr. Blackwell hadn’t minced words, though. He maintained no illusions about Henry’s fitness to run his empire in the future, but surmised a grandson might prove to have the necessary ability. Mr. Blackwell had no expectation that Henry would ever achieve much academically, nor did he believe Henry would suddenly become bold, articulate and outspoken; rather, all Mr. Blackwell wanted was for Henry to marry and have children, a grandson who might pick up the mantle. He expected Martin’s cooperation in achieving this end, and since this was what Martin also wanted—Henry’s children—he could readily and honestly agree to help.

A wife just wouldn’t matter, and he would try to make Henry see this.

It wasn’t his first priority, but if he could, Martin thought he might try to get Henry to see his father in a more sympathetic light.

Peter, who had obeyed Mr. Briggs’ edict to keep his distance from Martin during his estrangement from Henry, nudged Martin with his shoulder, still bent over the peep show.

“Hey. I’m glad I can talk with you again.”

Martin nudged back, smiling. “Me, too.”

“So I think I know the whole story now, more or less…who else knows? Tom?”

“I told him some of it, and I think he’s guessed the rest,” Martin admitted, “but I’m doing my best to keep Mr. Blackwell’s secrets.”

“They’re also your secrets,” Peter pointed out. “You’re in love with him, too, aren’t you?”

Martin blushed happily. “Well, yes. Yes, I am.” He thought about it a moment and added, “Of course, there isn’t any problem with me being in love with him.”

“No, it’s useful,” Peter agreed. “That’s what they said at Endymion.”

“They said it at Ganymede, as well. You can do a better job if there’s love.”

Peter chuckled. “Well, I know I don’t do as good a job as you!”

Martin laughed, too. “You’ve always gotten along well with Mr. Briggs, though.”

“Oh, sure. We’re pals.” Peter shrugged. “We’re definitely not lovers! Now I understand why you’ve never complained about missing out on the parties.”

Martin blushed again as he said, “Oh, no, I don’t miss anything.”

Peter sidestepped and put a penny into the next machine, lowering his face to look through the viewing aperture. “You’ve been able to train him to do exactly what you like, I suppose.”

“Mr. Blackwell has excellent instincts,” Martin said primly, his face growing hotter still.

Peter looked at him and laughed. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you blush before. You’re every bit as red as him!”

Martin was sensitive to the suggestion that anyone might be making fun of Henry for his bashfulness, but he didn’t think Peter meant anything beyond friendly teasing. And Henry’s blushing certainly couldn’t be missed. Martin thought it very endearing, but hoped for Henry’s sake that he grew out of it a bit before he’d have to enter the business world.

Will appeared at Martin’s other shoulder, Julian at his side. “Mr. Blackwell certainly seems in a good mood today,” he remarked. “A nice change for you, I suppose.”

So everyone had seen how unhappy Henry was. Martin had been powerless to do anything about it, of course, but he still felt guilty, like he hadn’t been doing his job.

“Well, obviously he’s not fighting with Mr. Briggs anymore,” Martin said. “They’ve reconciled.”

Will looked at Martin, eyes narrowed. “But you’re getting along better with him, too, I think.”

Oh, this blushing! He was as bad as Henry! “What makes you think we weren’t getting along?”

Will snorted and gave his shoulder a little shove. “You’re kidding, right?”

“You’ve been moping ever since you came back with short hair,” Julian noted. “Whatever you did, I’m glad he’s forgiven you.”

“What makes you think Martin did anything?” Peter asked, quick to defend his friend.

“We’re getting along fine,” Martin said firmly.

He hadn’t really told his friends anything about his adventure. He had suggested that Henry had argued with his father, hoping this would explain the haircut and Henry’s mood, and did his best to deflect any more probing questions. Only Tom had learned a little of the truth.

“You never talk about him,” Will noted, “but it’s obvious you’re close.”

Was it obvious? How much so?

“We do like each other,” Martin allowed tentatively.

“You know who’s really close with his master…” Peter began, and Martin was grateful for the redirection.

“Allen,” Will said without hesitation.

“Really?” Peter seemed surprised. “I was going to say Simon, but Allen, too?”

Everyone knows about Simon,” Julian remarked, his tone implying this was dull news.

Will shrugged. “Allen hasn’t told me details, but he and Mr. Hollingsworth are…well, they’re pretty enamored of one another. They’re at least as lovey-dovey as Simon and Mr. Ross.”

Martin actually knew this already, because the Orpheus boys all knew each other’s secrets, and then Tom told them to Martin, too, so he was well aware that Mr. Hollingsworth liked to be on the receiving end of Allen’s expert fucking. Tom had also confirmed that Simon and Mr. Ross were completely intimate, though Mr. Ross was not in love with Simon, or at least not exclusively. As for Miles, he was ever-fretful that Mr. Brand did not desire him more, and of course poor Tom was lonely and fixated on inappropriate partners.

Martin did not share any of this, however. He did not want Tom to be in trouble with the rest of the Orpheus boys for breaking their confidences.

“Where’s Miles?” Martin asked, wanting to get off the subject of secrets.

“He went to the toilets,” Julian said. “We probably shouldn’t be talking about Orpheus fellows when he gets back.”

“No one likes it when their childhood friends are gossiped about, I suppose,” Peter said. He grinned and punched Will, who had grown up with him at Endymion, in the arm.

Just as Miles walked up, a loud, sharp whistle cut through the noise of the arcade.

Will’s back straightened alert. “I think that’s Mr. Spence. Let’s go see what they need, shall we?”

If Henry ever whistled for Martin like he was a dog, Martin would come running, of course, but Henry would never do such a thing. Henry treated Martin as a friend, as a person with rights, a person with likes and dislikes. If Martin’s friends minded being summoned like faithful animals, they never said so, but having known different treatment, Martin was quite sure he would find it insulting. Really, Henry had spoiled him. These last few sullen weeks were a definite aberration.

The masters were bored of the arcade and wanted to go for ice cream. At the ice cream parlor, Martin stood behind Henry’s chair with his strawberry ice cream and thoughtfully licked caramel sauce off his spoon. He’d always enjoyed being allowed to sit down with Henry for meals and treats, and he certainly hadn’t thought he’d be asked to do so with these other young masters present, but he could admit that he wanted to be asked. He wanted more now. He expected more. He liked being treated as a friend, an equal. When it was appropriate, of course. When it was possible.

Henry laughed at something one of the others said and pushed his empty dish away from him. His joyful face was so handsome that Martin wanted to bend over and hug him from behind, but there were so many reasons he couldn’t do that. It was unfair, and he did understand Henry’s desire to find a place where their love would be accepted and allowed, but Martin balked at the idea of voluntarily living a life restricted to a few queer blocks, a paltry few sordid streets, when the entire city was Henry’s by right. Martin was a snob, and he liked that the Blackwell name would open doors everywhere—Henry could walk through them, and Martin would be right behind him, serving with loyalty and devotion. Neither his own true nature nor Henry’s was anyone’s business, after all. Besides, it wasn’t as though they were in any position to reshape society to their own liking. Even powerful Mr. Blackwell wasn’t capable of forcing such dramatic change.

Despite his indulgence in transgressive romance and dirty games, Martin was a cautious person, a conservative slave, fond of both traditions and the status quo whenever he stepped outside Henry’s bedroom. As soon as Martin had understood that Henry intended to run away, there was never any question that he would leave word for Mr. Blackwell. Regardless of what Henry thought, Martin had been quite sure Henry was not ready to leave home—and neither was he. For Martin, who had not even fully explored the city, the idea of traveling to an entirely different part of the country—and then pretending to be free once he got there—had been a terrifying prospect.

Running away had seemed fraught with peril. Henry’s safety was paramount; he was infinitely precious to Martin, but certainly Henry’s parents cared what happened to him, too, as did most of the other Blackwell slaves, and responsibility for him weighed heavily on Martin. Not only was there the risk of physical harm, but Martin had also worried about the damage to Henry’s reputation should Mr. Blackwell have to resort to police involvement to bring him home. Even as he was packing his case to leave the Blackwell house, Martin had been determined that Henry should end up back under his father’s roof. They were ill-equipped for independence, and not meant to be on their own, not yet.

The amount of money Henry had taken might have lasted a regular person several years, but a young man such as Henry would likely have gone through it in a matter of months, and when the money ran out, they’d have had to find work. Martin certainly wasn’t afraid of work, but he’d have had to do it in the guise of a free man, and the idea of living a life of complete subterfuge was daunting. He hated to admit it, but he’d doubted Henry’s ability to get and keep a job, as well. Martin was quite sure that their life in a new city would not have been the gay frolic Henry had imagined.

Mr. Spence pointed his spoon at Henry and then Mr. Briggs. “I’m glad you two are friends again.”

“What was the problem, anyway?” asked Mr. Lovejoy.

Mr. Briggs attempted to deflect the question entirely. “Oh, it was nothing. It was just stupid. We’re fine now, though.”

Mr. Brand, who clearly thought he knew what the problem was, said, “Did you hear? Abigail DeWitt is going to marry some fellow called Calvert after she finishes school.”

Mr. Briggs scowled. Henry shrugged and said, “Good for her.”

Miles leaned over Mr. Brand and whispered in his ear; Mr. Brand said, “We’ve got to go, I guess. I’m expected at my grandmother’s for dinner, and she sits down to table early.”

“Old people do that,” remarked Mr. Lovejoy.

Mr. Spence asked, “Will your cousin be there? Whatsername…Julia?”

Mr. Brand laughed as he stood up from the table. “No, it’s Juliette, but yes, she’ll be there.”

The rest of the masters stood. Martin pushed in Henry’s chair and made brief eye contact with him; Henry smiled, his cheeks pinking. Martin felt soft and helpless, overflowing with affection. He needed to touch Henry, put his hands on him, and dared to briskly brush the shoulders of Henry’s jacket and smooth his lapels.

“Henry always looks good,” Mr. Briggs said gruffly. “Stop fussing, will you?”

“It’s fine, Louis,” Henry said. “He’s just doing his job.”

Mr. Briggs snorted but said nothing more, and they all left the shop.

On the omnibus back uptown, standing together in the aisle, Peter said to the others, “Oh, say, did you know? It’s Martin’s birthday.”

Will grinned at Martin. “I didn’t know. Happy Birthday, Martin.”

“Happy Birthday,” echoed Miles and Julian.

“Will your house do anything special for you?” Will asked.

“I’ll have a cake, and I got to pick the dinner menu,” Martin told them. He did not mention that Henry would be coming to his party.

At the omnibus stop near the Blackwell house, Martin and Peter got off with Henry and Mr. Briggs. Miles, Julian and Will called out cheerful birthday wishes and waved out the omnibus windows as it pulled away from the curb.

Mr. Briggs turned to Henry. “Say, did you get Martin a present?”

Henry reddened. “Um, well…it’s private.”

Mr. Briggs laughed and jabbed Henry with his elbow. “Oh, Henry,” he sighed, seeming very fond. “I think I get the gist.”

They stopped at the Blackwell gate. “I’m glad we can be friends again,” Mr. Briggs said. “I’m sorry I was such a bastard. If Martin makes you happy, I want you to be happy with him.”

“Thank you. He does make me happy.”

“I’ve got to go home, because I promised Robbie and Teddy I’d let them look at my baseball cards before dinner.”

“Oh, sure. I do still have those cards you sent over by accident, you know. Do you want them now?”

“Nah, that’s all right. I’m already late. I’ll get them Saturday.” Mr. Briggs held out his hand and Henry took it. Mr. Briggs gave it a hard shake, then pulled Henry into a stiff embrace, thumping him on the back. “I’m glad to have my best friend again.”

“Me, too.”

Peter squeezed Martin’s hand and murmured, “See you Saturday,” in his ear.

Billy opened the front door for Henry and Martin and took their hats. “Sir? Mrs. Blackwell would like to see you. She’s in the blue parlor with Mr. Phipps.”

“Oh, sure,” Henry said. “Thanks, Billy.”

As they brushed past, Billy grinned at Martin and nodded at Henry’s back, raising a questioning eyebrow. Martin returned an acknowledging smile and felt his cheeks grow hot; he expected he would be subject to some merciless teasing in the near future. However, it was worth putting up with any amount of teasing to be close with Henry again.

Mrs. Blackwell was sitting on a settee in the blue parlor with elegant Mr. Phipps at her side. The decorator was blond, grey-eyed, tall and slender, and very well-dressed, with everything he wore being in fine taste. Martin had had occasion to spend time with Mr. Phipps and his handsome slave Drew while helping Mrs. Blackwell and Miss Pearl with the party plans, and he found him to be charming and gentle, friendly and unassuming. Mrs. Blackwell was very fond of him, and it seemed quite obvious that she wished to make a match between her brother and Mr. Phipps upon Mr. Wilton’s return from Italy.

“Hello, Mother. Hello, Mr. Phipps.”

Mrs. Blackwell looked up from some fabric samples arrayed across the lap of her skirt. She gave Henry a brilliant, genuine smile, and it was easy to imagine how beautiful she had been as a young, healthy woman. “Darlings! You’re home!”

“Mr. Blackwell. Good afternoon.” Mr. Phipps had a soft Southern accent, and Drew had one, too; they were originally from St. Louis.

Henry went to kiss his mother’s offered cheek. “Is that another new dress?” It was mauve-and-cream-striped, cut in the latest style. “It’s very becoming.”

“Oh, thank you, Henry. I suppose it is new. Were you out with friends?”

“I went to the arcade with Louis and we ran into some fellows we know there.”

“It’s good you’re getting along with Louis again,” she said. “I just wanted to get your opinions on a few things for your party.”

Miss Pearl flipped through the pages of a notebook and handed it to Mrs. Blackwell.

Mrs. Blackwell scooted closer to Mr. Phipps to make room and patted the settee at her hip. “Sit down here, darling. I just want to check with you about the menu for the buffet…”

Henry perched precariously on the edge of the settee at his mother’s side. While Mrs. Blackwell chattered at Henry about the foods chosen for his party, Martin let his mind drift.

He thought back on everything he and Henry had said to each other last night. He thought back on everything Henry had hoped would happen when they’d run off. Martin felt sure it would make Henry happy if he would take more for himself, ask for more things, be more selfish. He could hold Henry to his claims of wanting to live as equals. As they’d discussed, he could assert his opinions when Henry needed to make decisions. When Henry annoyed him, he could show it. He could be more sarcastic when it suited. Henry had never really wanted sex that Martin didn’t want, too, but if he ever did, Martin could say no. He could assert his genuine preferences in small ways, and doing so would please Henry, and everyone knew that pleasing a master in any capacity constituted good service.

Of course, pleasing someone you loved with all your heart constituted a satisfaction beyond any level of service.

Martin was glad he’d taken the risk of telling Henry how angry he’d been, and how hurt. Upon telling Henry he’d considered leaving, Henry had immediately understood how serious things had been. Martin hadn’t wanted to run off on his own, but he hadn’t known if he’d be able to continue as Henry’s companion with such an unbearable coldness and distance between them. He’d felt he would have done anything to be close with Henry again, but for so long Henry had refused Martin the opportunity to make amends.

Over the weeks, he’d fretted endlessly about whether he’d made the right decisions, and he’d felt he deserved Henry’s anger even as he’d been sure he’d done the right thing in seeing Henry safely returned home. That Henry had believed his own actions were necessary to keep Martin safe was a sad irony.

Now that they’d reconciled, Martin felt as though he was finally able to let out a breath he’d been holding ever since they’d run away. Now it seemed safe to relax into the comfort of Henry’s love, let go of strife, be happy again, and this was a profound and momentous relief. All along, he’d wished and hoped for this, and he’d stayed as strong as he was able, but the uncertainty had been very difficult to contend with.

He really wouldn’t go through it again.

Drew and Miss Pearl beckoned him to join them by the sideboard and asked him questions about his role in planning the party, the details of which were all quite settled and well-known to Miss Pearl, so he was suspicious of her questions.

Lowering her voice and putting her hand on his sleeve, Miss Pearl said, “Well, Martin! You and Young Sir seem to be getting along very nicely today. It’s quite refreshing.”

Martin liked Miss Pearl a great deal, but he wasn’t going to discuss Henry’s personal business with her if he could avoid it. “It’s kind of you to notice, Miss Pearl. Mr. Blackwell and I have had a pleasant day,” he allowed, feeling his face grow warm as he thought of all he was omitting.

Miss Pearl seemed perfectly aware he was obfuscating. “Well, it’s simply marvelous to see your smiling faces,” she said, giving him another pat. “You’re both lovely boys, and you bring Mrs. Blackwell so much joy.”

“Thank you. That’s nice to hear.” He did think this was probably true. It went without saying that Mrs. Blackwell loved Henry, but she had also doted on Martin throughout all the weeks of party planning, eliciting his opinions and complimenting his taste and, of course, calling him ‘darling.’ Unlike Henry, Martin had no reason to mistrust her, nor did he retreat into baffled sullenness when she tried to charm him. Martin understood Henry’s reticence and suspicion, but he was willing to give Mrs. Blackwell the benefit of the doubt. He felt she was trying hard to be a part of her children’s lives, as much as her health permitted.

When Henry was done talking with his mother, Martin followed him upstairs and into his bedroom, where they locked the door and stood looking at one another a long moment.

“Be close to me,” Henry suggested, leading him to the bed. They took off their boots and shrugged their jackets to the floor and then stretched out side by side on top of the coverlet.

Henry took Martin’s hand. “I’ve missed this,” he said. He rolled to push his nose against Martin’s neck. “Smelling your smells.” He slipped his hand inside the open neck of Martin’s shirt and traced his collarbone. “Feeling your warmth.” He pulled Martin to him, and they entwined themselves, shedding their waistcoats in the process, along with Henry’s necktie and collar.

“It doesn’t always have to turn into sex,” Henry murmured, his breath damp against Martin’s throat. “I just like touching you. I missed it so much.”

“Touch me as much as you want,” Martin suggested as Henry shifted closer. They fit together so well, halves of a whole. He’d missed Henry’s smells, too, and his sleek, feverish body. He’d missed Henry’s touch, his reverence and strength. He’d missed it all so much, and he’d refused to allow himself to think it was lost to him forever, because he’d been sure that without it he wouldn’t be able to go on.

But it was over now, and they were together, loving and close, having a nap.

Martin was nearly asleep when he became aware of tiny movements of Henry’s shoulders, his body hunching as he breathed in lurching gasps. Henry’s hands tightened on Martin’s back and he buried his face against Martin’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” he said, voice muffled. “I shouldn’t—” He didn’t finish saying what he ought not to do, but clung more desperately.

“Henry?” Martin rubbed his back soothingly. “Are you crying?”

“Oh…” Henry groaned, almost angry, not wanting to admit it. “I just feel so terrible for everything I put you through.” He sniffed wetly and wiped at his face with the back of his hand.

Martin kissed his cheek. He didn’t mind, he supposed, that Henry felt badly about how he’d treated him, but he didn’t need Henry to be so full of self-recrimination and angst, not to the point of tears. Frankly, he didn’t wish to be put in the position of having to repeatedly comfort Henry for his upset over his own horrible behavior.

“You’ll be good to me from now on,” he reminded him. “We’re going to be good to each other.”

“I want—” Henry began, with a hitch in his voice. “I want to have been so much kinder.” He shuddered in Martin’s arms.

“Well, we can’t go back,” Martin pointed out. “We can only go forward. You can make different choices from now on.” He gave Henry a little shake. “All you have to do is follow through on the things you’ve said you’ll do, Henry. Be kind. Let me help you make decisions. Love me.”

“Okay,” Henry said, talking himself down. “Okay, you’re right. Of course you’re right. I’m sorry I’m being a baby.”

“You’re not a baby,” Martin told him, stroking his hair back from his forehead. “You just feel things very deeply.”

“I thought you’d never loved me,” Henry admitted in a low voice, seeming almost ashamed. “I didn’t understand—” He sighed again. “I didn’t know anything.”

Martin thought a moment, and then it occurred to him. “Henry? Did you ever have a serious disagreement with anyone before? Did you ever fight with Mr. Briggs before this time? Or maybe your father? Anyone at all?”

Henry was quiet a moment. “Hmm. I…I don’t know? I don’t think so.” He thought a few more seconds. “Oh, well, Adam Pettibone, of course.”

But Adam Pettibone was Henry’s enemy, and they’d never be resolving their differences. “But no arguments with a friend?” Martin asked. “A fight where you didn’t talk for awhile?”

“I guess not,” Henry said. “It was just Louis, then you, basically at the same time. Nothing before that. Is that weird?”

“I wouldn’t say weird,” Martin said. “In some ways, it’s fortunate, I think. But most people have had a hurtful fight before they’re grown. No one likes learning such lessons, of course, but sometimes it makes it easier to face another difficult situation.”

“Did you ever have a fight like that?”

Martin thought about what he might say. “Do you remember Charlie, my friend growing up?”

“Yes, he shared with Stuart, right?”

“Yes, that’s him. Well, Charlie really cared for me. He went to a lot of effort for me, and did many kind things, and tried to take care of me. And I liked spending time with him, and we had a lot of fun together, but when I had a choice, I preferred to spend my time with Richard or even Georgie.”

“By ‘time’ you mean sex, right?” Henry asked with a rueful chuckle.

“Not always,” Martin said. “I don’t think we were having as much sex as you imagine, Henry.” He snorted and messed Henry’s hair up, and then began to smooth it back again. “Anyway, Charlie got jealous of the others and accused me of being a tease, which was a very serious insult back on the farm.”

“I would imagine so.”

“He said I was conniving and cruel. I said I’d never asked him to do anything for me and that his kindnesses put me under no obligation. Which they did not.”

“No,” Henry agreed. “He was trying to woo you, obviously, but you didn’t have to respond.”

“We all did nice things for our friends,” Martin said. “I knew Charlie wanted more from me, but I also thought I’d made my feelings clear.”

“Were Richard and Georgie especially nice to you, too? I can see how Charlie would be upset if he was nicer than them. Not—” he hurried to say, “—that that would put you under any obligation.”

“Richard was very chivalrous and devoted—as you’ve been.”

“I’m going to be that way from now on,” Henry put in.

“I’m sure you will.” Martin pressed a quick kiss to the part in Henry’s hair. “Georgie had to deal with Noah’s jealousies, so he wasn’t paying me as much attention as the others, but I liked him a lot anyway. My feelings weren’t based on who put on the best show of caring for me.”

“No, of course not.”

“Charlie decided he wouldn’t have anything to do with me until I apologized, but I hadn’t done anything to apologize for. It was awkward, since we were living in the same room, but we didn’t talk for…oh, at least a month. It was very difficult, because I did love him.”

“When did this happen?”

“Just a little bit before Richard died. Charlie finally realized he was in the wrong and came to apologize to me, and we’d only recently made up when Richard got sick. And afterward, Charlie was a very good friend to me, and he understood that he’d never be first in my heart, and he was reconciled to that, so we were able to enjoy each other’s company until auction day.”

Henry thought about this a short time. “It’s not so different from what happened with us. That there were hurt feelings and misunderstandings, I mean.”

Martin shrugged. “Not so different,” he agreed. “But because I’d had this experience with Charlie, I had hope that you and I could resolve our differences—because I’d done it before, see? And you never had that experience.”

He felt a great deal of sympathy for Henry, so ill-equipped to deal with overwhelming, unfamiliar feelings of loss and betrayal. Poor Henry had existed like a fragile specimen in a very sturdy cage until Martin came along and opened the door, exposing him to all the myriad consequences of living, good and bad. His poor, gentle Henry, sheltered and easily hurt. He would do what he could to help Henry grow tougher and wiser, because Henry needed that, but he hoped Henry would never lose his sweetness.

Henry sighed and burrowed closer, his arms tightening around Martin’s back. “I never want to fight with you again. Or Louis. With anyone who matters to me.”

“I don’t want you to, either,” Martin said. “Do you want to sleep a little? I’ll set an alarm.”

When they woke, it was nearly time for the slaves’ dinner. Henry was excited, full of rowdy energy. As Martin retied his necktie, he said, “Do you think anyone will mind I’m there?”

Martin shook his head. “I already told you, it doesn’t matter what they think.” He snugged the knot against Henry’s collar. “But actually, no, I don’t think they’ll mind at all. Most of them appreciate that a master could be so interested in a slave.”

He would not tell Henry, because he would die of embarrassment—and probably refuse to attend Martin’s birthday—but the Blackwell slaves were all aware that he and Henry were more intimate than they ought to be. Martin had suspected this to be the case from early in their affair, but hadn’t known it for certain until they’d been brought home.

At that time, the rest of the Blackwell slaves, Martin’s colleagues and friends, had realized immediately that something was wrong between Henry and himself. Just the fact of his shorn hair bespoke some great upheaval. He’d kept quiet, hoping to go unnoticed, but he was well-liked by the others, and they were concerned about him. Billy and Jerry, who’d always taken a special interest in him and teased him like brothers, were particularly gentle and solicitous. Billy had hugged him and murmured, “You’re broken-hearted, that’s plain, but anyone can see he is, too.” He understood then that everyone knew about Henry and himself, and they always had, but that was the first time anyone had spoken directly about it, and it had made him especially sad to feel it was already over.

About two weeks into his estrangement from Henry, Mr. Tim had taken him aside, asking him to stay behind as the others filed out after dinner. He’d asked Martin if Henry was treating him kindly, and Martin had not known how to answer. Mr. Tim suggested that Henry was making things hard for him, and again Martin had remained tight-lipped; he would not talk about Henry’s business. Mr. Tim reiterated that he and Mr. Blackwell both felt that Henry was perhaps excessively fond of Martin, but this was Henry’s nature, and there was little to be done about Henry’s intrinsic qualities. He noted that Henry would always need to be careful, discreet. He said that Henry was very fortunate to have a good boy like Martin looking after him.

Martin had embarrassed himself by crying at this assertion, hunched shoulders and shameful tears, and Mr. Tim had patted him kindly. Mr. Tim had said that Henry had always been a sensitive boy, a stubborn boy, and that it might take him time to get over his hurt feelings, but, “He cares for you very much, Martin, even if it doesn’t seem so now. He’ll come around in time.”

He’d further reminded Martin that Mr. Blackwell was very happy with him and his actions, that he felt Martin had been an excellent investment in Henry’s future and happiness, and that he appreciated all Martin had done for his son. Mr. Tim had assured Martin that Mr. Blackwell would not be entertaining any ideas about removing Martin from his position, selling him off, or exchanging him for some less-capable boy.

“Can you put up with it a little longer?” Mr. Tim had asked. “He’s being very unfair, I know, but if you can bear with it, I’m sure things will improve.”

He’d resolved to get through it. He’d wait, however long it took, and when Henry was ready to hear him, he’d be ready with an apology.

He was so happy Henry had apologized first.

He tugged Henry’s waistcoat into place and held his jacket for him to put on. Henry shrugged into it, then picked up Martin’s jacket from the foot of the bed.

“Here,” he said, holding it ready. “Let me do it for you.”

Martin balked at this for a fraction of a second, imagining the frowning faces of his Ganymede teachers scolding him for overstepping and not knowing his place. But it was a generous offer, sweet and loving, and just as he took pleasure in tending to Henry, perhaps Henry might enjoy looking after him a little bit. He smiled and put his arms into the sleeves.

“Thank you, Henry.”

Henry smoothed the jacket over Martin’s shoulders, passed his hands over the lapels. “You look very handsome,” he said.

Martin kissed him. “We both do. Are you ready to go down?”

To Martin’s happy surprise, Tom was there in the mess with most of the Blackwell slaves, as was Billy’s Jane from next door. Jerry and Arthur were pretending not to see Tom, and Tom was pretending he didn’t notice the snub.

Everyone was deferential with Henry, of course, as they should be, but his presence didn’t seem to be making anyone nervous, and Martin was glad Henry could be incorporated into the festivities without a fuss.

Mr. Tim was at the head of the room and he lifted his chin and called, “Sir? May I have a word?”

Henry looked at Martin, then back at Mr. Tim. “Of course, Timothy.”

Martin said, “If it’s all right, Sir, I’ll just go say hello to Tom while you talk to Mr. Tim.”

“Sure,” Henry said. “Say hello to your guests.”

Henry cut through the crowd to a chorus of Good evening, Sirs. Martin got his own chorus—Happy Birthday—as he made his way toward Tom, who came to meet him.

Tom reached for Martin’s hand and squeezed it. “Happy Birthday, Martin.”

“I’m so glad you’re here! What an unexpected pleasure!”

“I wouldn’t have missed it,” Tom said cheerfully, and Martin felt a little guilty that he hadn’t even considered attending Tom’s birthday dinner back in November.

Tom glanced toward where Mr. Tim was speaking with Henry. “I’m surprised to see Mr. Blackwell here,” Tom said. “I’m happy for you, though. It means you’ve reconciled with him, I hope?”

Martin blushed a little, embarrassed and happy. He had never wanted to explain his relationship with Henry to his friend, but he hadn’t had to—Tom wasn’t stupid. Tom had guessed. And Tom had promised he would keep Martin’s secrets—Henry’s secrets.

In an excited whisper, Martin said, “He apologized to me, Tommy! I certainly never expected that would happen!”

“Well, I’m glad he’s sorry. He made you miserable.” Tom scowled at the memory of Martin’s unhappiness.

“He won’t do it again,” Martin said confidently. “He said everything I needed to hear, Tommy. He’s a good person.”

Tom seemed less convinced, but he said, “I’m glad you’re happy.”

“You’ll sit with me during the meal, I hope?”

Tom snorted. “That’s what I’m here for.” He squeezed Martin’s hand again. “I’m certainly not going to sit with Jerry!”

Martin lowered his voice. “I’m sorry they’re so hostile. I think they should at least understand you never meant to hurt them.”

Tom sighed. “It doesn’t matter, I guess. I did hurt them, after all.” He shook his head, as if shaking off the unpleasantness. “Never mind that. Did Mr. Blackwell get you a present?”

At the thought of Henry’s birthday suggestion, Martin felt heat in his cheeks and a tingle in his cock. “He…offered to do something nice for me,” Martin managed.

Tom narrowed his eyes, assessing, and then grinned. “Uh-huh. I’ll bet he did!”

Billy waved Martin over, his arm around Jane’s shoulders.

“Come with me to say hello to Jane,” Martin suggested, giving Tom’s hand a final squeeze.

Martin exchanged pleasantries with Jane and Billy. Jane had not met Tom before and seemed somewhat dazzled by his exquisite face, peering at him with keen interest. Paul came to join them and seemed amused to see his twin bristle at this young interloper who had so captivated his bride. Martin kept an eye on Henry and Mr. Tim and excused himself when they concluded their conversation, hurrying to Henry’s side.

“Hello, Sir,” Martin said fondly, reaching for Henry’s hand before he caught himself and pulled back. “What was that about?”

Henry frowned in puzzlement. “I don’t quite know. He was asking me all these questions about Charles’ phaeton.”

“Mr. Ross’ phaeton, Sir?” This was strange.

“Maybe my father wants one?” Henry shrugged. “I can’t imagine my father driving himself, though.”

“Neither can I,” Martin said. “Come here, Sir. Let me show you where to sit.”

He settled Henry in his own chair, at Mr. Tim’s right hand. Miss Pearl was at Mr. Tim’s left, and the rest of the chairs were unassigned. Martin sat at Henry’s right and Tom claimed the seat next to him.

There was a great deal of food set out, all things Martin loved, and it smelled delicious. Henry suggested he might get his own food, but Martin did not like this idea at all and insisted he sit while Martin fixed him a plate. Tom hurried to help, and together they saw to Henry’s needs most solicitously.

When Martin sat down with his own plate, Henry leaned close and whispered, “It’s your birthday, Martin. You don’t need to make a fuss over me.”

“I like doing my job, Sir,” Martin murmured back. “I need you to understand that about me.”

“I know you do,” Henry assured him. “But sometimes I want to make things easier on you.”

Martin thought about this as he picked up his fork. Henry wasn’t trained to be concerned with anyone else’s comfort, but perhaps it was only natural that he would want to demonstrate his regard for Martin through thoughtful gestures, caring acts. That’s what lovers did, after all. Martin wasn’t about to let Henry get his own food in the presence of a crowd of fellow slaves, and certainly not under the watchful eye of Mr. Tim, but he could let Henry do more in private. Last night, he’d enjoyed Henry washing him so lovingly. Today, he’d appreciated Henry holding his jacket for him. If Henry wanted to help him with such personal tasks in the future—and if they weren’t in a hurry—surely it wouldn’t be wrong to allow it. It would make Henry happy, after all, and making Henry happy was Martin’s job.

“Did you choose the food?” Henry asked, taking a bite of macaroni. “All our favorites are here.”

“Well, Sir, I did tell Cook what I thought would be especially good. I think everyone likes these foods, though.” For both Henry and himself, Martin had dished out macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, ham, potato croquettes and potato salad, green peas, baked beans, fresh-baked rolls, and applesauce freckled with cinnamon. There were as-yet-untried dishes waiting on the sideboard. “Let me know if you want more of any particular thing, Sir.”

“I will,” Henry said. “Thank you.” He bumped Martin’s knee with his own.

When Martin went back to refill their plates, several of his colleagues approached and delivered birthday wishes, but also relayed their happiness that his closeness with his master was restored. Martin was a little worried that Henry would overhear and be mortified that everyone knew his business, but Henry was talking with Mr. Tim and seemed quite oblivious.

As Martin finished his second plate of food, Tom touched his thigh under the table.

“Martin.”

“Yes?”

“I have something for you.” Tom reached into his jacket pocket, then held out a closed fist. “Hold out your hand.”

Martin did as he asked, and Tom placed something small and cool on his palm, and closed his fingers over Martin’s a moment before letting go.

It was a vivid blue stone bead, perhaps half an inch in diameter, chased in golden ivy, with a little bail so that it could be hung from a chain or pin. It was obviously real jewelry, something valuable.

“Lapis,” Martin said softly, startled by the expense of the gift. “It’s beautiful. Thank you, Tom, but you really shouldn’t have—”

“Don’t,” Tom insisted, keeping his voice low. “I wanted to. You’re so important to me, Martin. You know I’m not asking for anything more than your friendship. I’m just asking for what you can give me.”

Lapis was for friendship, of course, but it was for special friends, intense connections. It was a grand declaration, not made lightly. It was an honor for Tom to offer this degree of caring and concern to Martin, and he would not insult his friend with further attempts to deflect his gallantry.

“If you’re worried it’s too much, you should show it to Mr. Blackwell,” Tom said. “You can tell him what it means, and if he doesn’t want you to have it, I’ll take it back, all right?”

That seemed fair. “Thank you so much, Tommy. I-I don’t really know what to say.”

“Thank you is enough.” Tom wrapped his fingers around Martin’s wrist and lightly squeezed. “Or if you want to say more, say that we’ll always be close. I want that more than anything.”

Martin smiled at him, his poor, lovely friend. “We will,” he told him. “We definitely will.” He leaned closer to Tom and gave him a brief, loving hug. Tom clung, and Martin pretended he didn’t notice Tom breathing him in.

On Martin’s other side, Henry touched his arm. “What do you have there?” he asked.

Martin turned to face him. “Tommy gave me a present, Sir.”

“Will you show it to me?”

Martin leaned close, his mouth at Henry’s ear. “May I show it to you upstairs, Sir? Later? I don’t want to share it with everyone.”

Henry seemed startled by this, perhaps intrigued. “Uh, sure. I suppose that’s fine.”

“Thank you, Sir.” He dared to touch Henry’s thigh just briefly.

At the conclusion of the meal, there was a flurry of activity as dirty dishes were gathered to be returned to the kitchen. Henry tried to help, but Martin and Tom both insisted he stay put and let slaves take care of things.

During clean-up, Martin always made sure to do a little more than his share. Despite his position in the family hierarchy, he thought it better to be humble and do his part than expect the others to wait on him, and he knew Mr. Tim approved of his attitude. He added plates to the careless stack in a big enamel tub and made as if to lift it, but Jerry elbowed him aside.

“You’re not hauling dishes around on your birthday,” Jerry said in mild chastisement. “Go be with your master.”

“Oh!” Martin was pleasantly surprised. “Thank you, Jerry.”

Jerry hefted the tub with a little grunt. “Everyone likes to see you happy again,” he remarked.

Henry stood with his hand on the back of the chair he’d sat in, and Tom stood beside him, smiling up into his face. Martin felt a pang of anxiety; Tom was very beautiful, and Henry had always looked at him a little longer, and with a little more interest, than he ever had at any of Martin’s other friends.

Tom was saying “…is very happy with you, Sir. I think everyone is well aware of it.”

“Oh, er…” Henry was obviously uncomfortable with the tack this conversation was taking. “We are…I think we’re well-matched.”

“What are you talking about?” Martin asked, his tone sharp. He gave Tom a stern glare, but Tom just grinned, sly and foxy.

Tables cleared, it was time for cake. Billy and Paul brought it in on a cart, and Mr. Tim abdicated his throne at the head of the table to make room for it. Johnny turned off the lights as Cook lit the candles, and everyone still seated stood up as Martin went to take his place behind the cake.

Martin had been a part of other household birthday celebrations, so he had known what his own would be like, but he was unexpectedly emotional, his throat tight. This was his first birthday party, his first birthday cake, and he wanted to remember it forever. This was his family, the people who loved him, and that most certainly included Henry.

He smiled at them all through the warm glow of the candles, and dared to look right at Henry, his smile growing both wide and shy. He ducked his head and took a deep breath.

“Ready, everyone?” Mr. Tim clapped his hands briskly.

“1, 2, 3…Happy Birthday!” Everyone said it together, loud and joyous.

Martin blew as everyone applauded him. The candles had been placed close enough together he was able to blow them all out, though he was breathless and lightheaded at the end. Billy and Paul thumped him on the back, and Mr. Tim shook his hand as Cook and Ruby began to cut and serve the cake.

Cook handed Martin the first piece of cake and he took it to Henry.

“No, the first piece is yours, Martin,” Little Bob said, aware that Martin had not had a birthday before and perhaps didn’t understand the protocol.

“Mr. Blackwell is my special guest,” Martin explained. “I’m sure Cook will give me another piece.”

She did. It was a very delicious cake, rich chocolate with chocolate buttercream and raspberry curd between the layers. Martin stood between Henry and Tom and savored every bite. A birthday cake just for him! So different from Cake Day back at Ganymede! He had not anticipated how happy this would make him.

Even though many of the slaves had already wished him Happy Birthday at breakfast, most came by to offer the sentiment again. Martin’s cheek was kissed, his hand shaken, his back patted. When Jerry and Arthur came around, they pointedly ignored Tom, but Jerry was friendly and effusive with Martin, as always. Arthur was a little standoffish, as he objected to Martin’s continued association with Tom. Everyone was deferential to Henry, of course, but they were relaxed and easy with him. It was wonderful that Martin would be able to include Henry in life below stairs for special occasions.

After the cake was eaten, there was another burst of activity as the plates were collected and the remains of the decimated cake were returned to the kitchen.

“I’ve got to get back to work,” Billy said. “I hope you enjoy the rest of your birthday, Martin.” He nudged him with his elbow and winked. He turned to Henry and said, “Good evening, Sir. It’s always nice when you visit our world.”

“Oh!” Henry was clearly surprised and pleased both. “Thank you, Billy. I-I wouldn’t have missed Martin’s birthday.”

Billy smiled at him and patted his arm. “Enjoy the rest of your evening, Sir.” He turned and exited briskly from the mess.

“I have to go, too,” Tom said, reaching for Martin’s hand. “I need to dress Mr. Caldwell for his dinner.”

Martin let himself be pulled into a one-armed hug and kissed Tom’s cheek. “Thank you for being here, Tommy. It really was a lovely surprise. And thank you for the present. It means a lot to me.”

“It means a lot to me, too,” Tom said, showing Martin a rueful, crooked smile. He returned Martin’s kiss, his landing rather close to the corner of Martin’s mouth, and turned for the door with a little backwards wave. “Goodnight, Mr. Blackwell, Sir.”

“Goodnight, Tom.” Henry watched Tom go with a sort of surly avidity, and Martin didn’t know what to make of Henry’s regard. If he wanted Tom, it didn’t seem as though he was happy about it.

Nearly everyone had left the mess. Mr. Tim stood talking with Dora, holding her hand in a very courtly manner; they were charming together, and seeing a well-established couple still so in love was inspirational. He tried not to think about where he and Henry would be in twenty years, because so much could change in that amount of time, but he hoped they’d always care for each other as they did now.

Mr. Tim let go Dora’s hand and smiled fondly at her back as she exited the room. “Martin,” he said, beckoning. “Martin, I have something for you.”

He turned to Henry. “I’ll just be a minute, Sir.”

Henry shrugged, smiling. “Take your time. I’ll be here.” He perched on the back of his chair, arms crossed, settling in to wait.

“You have something for me, Mr. Tim?” Martin crossed around the end of the table to stand before Mr. Tim.

“Mr. Blackwell would like to wish you a Happy Birthday,” Mr. Tim said. He reached into his jacket, pulled out an envelope with Martin scrawled on it in Mr. Blackwell’s sprawling hand, and held it out for Martin to take.

“Oh! Thank you!” Martin took it and looked at it. “Should I open it?”

Mr. Tim chuckled. “You may.”

It was a twenty-dollar bill.

Martin blinked at it, crisp between his fingers. “I-I don’t know what to say. It’s so kind of him!” It was excessive, to be honest.

“Well, you can think about what you might say,” Mr. Tim told him. “And then you can say it tonight after the Blackwells’ dinner. I think that would be appropriate.”

Henry came and peered over Martin’s shoulder. “What is it?”

Martin turned and smiled at him. Their faces were close together, perhaps too close. He leaned a little away, making distance. “Your father gave me twenty dollars, Sir.”

“Oh. That was generous.”

“Your father is a very generous man, Sir,” Mr. Tim said, his tone indicating his pride in Mr. Blackwell’s largesse.

“He’s setting a good example for me,” Henry remarked. He put his hand at the small of Martin’s back. “Are we done here?”

“Of course, Sir. Let’s get upstairs.”

They said their goodbyes to Mr. Tim and made their way down the hall to the back stairs. At the first floor landing, Henry said, “That’s quite a bit of money. You got more at Christmas, though, didn’t you?”

Martin laughed. “He gave me a hundred dollars at Christmas, Sir! I don’t know how I would ever spend that much money!”

As they climbed to the second floor, Henry asked, “Did he give that much to everyone?”

“No, Sir. Just Mr. Tim, Miss Pearl, and me. Everyone else got twenty dollars.”

“Even little Johnny?”

“I believe so, Sir. Mr. Tim told me as much.”

Henry thought about this as they made their way down the hall to his bedroom. “If you ever think of something you want to spend all your money on, I’ll be happy to go shopping with you.” He thought some more as Martin opened the bedroom door for him. “Or…you could go by yourself, if you wanted. If you promised to be very careful.”

Martin laughed and locked the door behind them. “You’re funny, Henry. You think some dastardly fiend is going to drag me off, but nothing that exciting would possibly happen.”

Henry flushed pink. “I know you think I’m being ridiculous, but I don’t think you realize how special you are.”

Martin kissed him, glancing and brief. “I’m glad you think I’m special. That’s all that matters to me.” He gave Henry a little push. “Let’s get you changed. We’re running late.”

“Wait,” Henry said. “Show me what Tom gave you first.”

Martin took the token from his pocket and held it out for Henry to see.

“Oh, it’s pretty,” Henry said, “but what is it? Can I touch it?”

“Yes, of course. Go ahead.” He offered it to Henry on an open palm. “It’s a friendship amulet. The blue stone is lapis.” He hesitated a moment, then added, “Lapis isn’t for regular friends, though. It’s…well, it represents a sort of commitment, I suppose. It marks an important relationship.”

Henry turned it over in his fingers. He laughed softly and asked, “So are you and Tom married now?”

Martin laughed, too. “Not exactly. But it is a loving gift.”

“It looks expensive.”

“I’m sure it was,” Martin agreed.

“Is it a different kind of talisman? What do you do with it?”

“See the loop? It’s meant to be worn. I could wear it on a long chain underneath my shirt so that it wouldn’t show, or I could pin it under my waistcoat.”

“Why do you have to hide it?” Henry handed it back to him and Martin put it in his pocket.

“Well, have you ever noticed slaves wearing jewelry, Henry? Some might have pierced ears, but they don’t wear other jewelry where it can be seen. Most masters don’t want slaves to decorate themselves.”

“You can wear it however you’d like,” Henry said. “I won’t stop you.”

“I’ll wear it like any other slave would do,” Martin said firmly. “I’ll be most comfortable doing that.” He pushed on Henry’s shoulder, turning him around, and gave him a nudge. “We have to get you changed.”

Henry took a step toward the wardrobe, but suddenly stopped and turned to gape at Martin. “Oh! I could give you secret jewelry, too, couldn’t I? No one would know you were wearing it, and even if they did, they wouldn’t know it was anything to do with me.”

Martin laughed. “You could if you wanted to.”

“Would you like it if I did?”

“I’m sure I would.”

“And you…” Henry began, a bashful flush coloring his cheeks. “You could pick out something for me.” He looked away, furiously red. “Only if you wanted to.”

“Of course I’d want to,” Martin assured him. “I even have my own money to pay for it.” He loved the idea—perhaps an exchange of such tokens was fated, as there was no other reason for a slave to be given so much money in the first place.

“What should we get?” Henry seemed energized by the idea. “When should we do it? Should we go to a jeweler tomorrow?”

“We don’t have to rush,” Martin told him. “We can think about it for a bit.” He gave Henry a gentle shove in the direction of the wardrobe.

“You have to go to a jeweler anyway,” Henry pointed out. “You need a pin or a chain for Tom’s present, don’t you?”

“We don’t have to rush,” Martin repeated. “We can think about what sort of piece we want, and what sort of symbols it should have. We can be thoughtful.”

Henry sighed. “You’re being very practical, Martin.” He lifted his chin so Martin could remove his necktie.

“Jewelry should be meaningful,” Martin said firmly, stripping Henry’s clothes from his body with efficiency. “I want to think about what to give you.”

“All right,” Henry said, giving in. “We can wait. I’ll need you to tell me the Hetaeria meanings of different stones, I guess.”

“I’ll be happy to tell you anything you want to know.” He held Henry’s shirt out for him to put on. “Quickly, please, Henry, or you’ll be late,” he cautioned. “We stayed downstairs too long.”

They hurried Henry into his dinner suit and made it to the table just in time. Mr. Blackwell gave Henry a long, disapproving look as Randolph and Paul brought in the soup.

After the meal, as they entered the family parlor, Martin cleared his throat and self-consciously said, “Mr. Blackwell, Sir? May I speak?”

Mr. Blackwell, was lowering himself into his chair, but he looked up at Martin and made a noise that Martin chose to interpret as permission.

“I just wanted to thank you for acknowledging my birthday, Sir. I appreciate how fair you’ve been with me, Sir, and how generous.” He felt unaccountably nervous, but Mr. Tim was smiling at him from behind Mr. Blackwell’s chair, so he felt reasonably sure he hadn’t said anything objectionable.

“Hmph.” Mr. Blackwell gave him a steady, assessing look. “You’ve been good for Henry,” he said. “Good people deserve rewards.” He turned his attention to the folder of correspondence Timothy had ready for him.

“Well, thank you, Sir. It’s much appreciated.”

After Martin’s show of gratitude, Pearl read another chapter of Lord Pelham’s Companion. Henry was sullen and restless for the length of her reading. It was obvious Henry did not enjoy Pelham, but Martin did not understand why. Martin liked the story. It was silly and lively and light, perfect to be read aloud.

After the chapter, Mr. Blackwell cleared his throat and thanked Pearl, who was very pleased at the praise.

“Henry.”

Henry sat up straighter in his wing chair. “Yes, sir?”

“I wonder if you might like a carriage of your own.”

Henry was quiet a long, puzzled moment. “Sir?”

“A carriage, son. For your birthday. Perhaps a phaeton, like the Ross boy has.”

“Oh.” Henry was quiet again.

So this was the reason for Mr. Tim’s questions. It was kind of Mr. Blackwell to offer, but Martin felt confident Henry did not want a phaeton. Henry had shown no interest to this point. All of the other young masters wanted their own carriages, but only Charles Ross had one. Simon confessed to dreading riding with his master. He said Mr. Ross was a reckless driver, and he admitted he was sick with nerves every time they took the phaeton out. Henry, at least, would likely be a very sedate driver, but that was only if he even wanted to drive.

“That’s not an answer, son,” Mr. Blackwell said, his tone verging on irritable.

“Oh, sorry, I…” Henry gave a little nervous cough. “No thank you, sir. It’s not necessary. I’m not interested in driving myself.”

Mr. Blackwell cleared his throat again. “Perhaps you’d like Martin to drive you instead,” he said. “That sort of thing is done, if a gentleman so chooses.”

Martin did rather like the idea of driving a carriage, but it was not a burning desire, so he was not disappointed when Henry replied:

“No, sir, I wouldn’t be interested in that. But thank you for the offer. It’s very generous.”

It certainly was! Martin hoped Henry would know better than to tell any of his carriage-coveting friends about his father’s suggestion, because they’d all think he was crazy not to accept the gift. Mr. Briggs would be incensed!

Mr. Blackwell made some sort of grumbling acknowledgment and then suggested Henry take himself to Hamilton & Sons. “I know you’re fond of clothes.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. I’ll do that.”

Henry got to his feet and kissed his mother’s cheek, then went to stand before his father, who noted Henry’s shadow across his paperwork and looked up with a hint of impatience.

“Yes?”

Henry cleared his throat self-consciously. “Um, I just wanted to say that I…I appreciate all the things you’ve done for me. I really do.”

Martin felt so proud of him!

Mr. Blackwell did something with his face that might have been a smile. “Is that so?”

“Y-yes, sir. You’re very kind. I didn’t always see that before.”

Mr. Blackwell’s mustache twisted into a more suspicious shape and he narrowed his eyes at Henry. “Did Martin put you up to this?”

Henry’s face crumpled and his broad shoulders slumped. “No, sir. Of course not.”

Mr. Blackwell’s expression softened again. “I didn’t mean to insult you, Henry.” He seemed to think about what he might say. “You’re my son. I’ll always treat you kindly.” Another pause. “It’s good that you’ve acknowledged it. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”

Mr. Blackwell handed his papers to Timothy and stood ponderously, creaking and sighing as he rose. When he was upright, he loomed over Henry—it wasn’t just his significant height, but his presence. He offered Henry his hand, and Henry took it with a little hesitation.

“Good night, son.”

“Good night, Father.”

Mr. Blackwell shook Henry’s hand and kept hold of it with his right as he clapped him on the shoulder with his left. Henry was jolted by the impact of these well-meant thumps.

Mr. Blackwell released him. “Go,” he said, gruff but not at all unkind. “Off to bed.”

“Thank you, sir. Goodnight, sir.” Henry hurried from the room, and Martin had to trot to keep up with him.

Inside his bedroom, Henry let out a nervous laugh. “Why am I so scared of him? He is kind to me.” He did not sound entirely convinced by his own words. He stood before the wardrobe, ready for Martin to undress him.

Martin stroked his hair back from his face and looked into his eyes. “He’s very intimidating, Henry. He scares everyone.”

“Not Timothy. Not you,” Henry pointed out.

Martin thought about it as he knelt and untied Henry’s boots. Mr. Blackwell was gruff and impatient, but he’d always been good to his people. But even though Martin had insisted to Henry that Mr. Blackwell would be lenient with them if he learned of their situation, he had worried that Mr. Blackwell would punish or sell him. He’d been terrified.

“No, me, too,” Martin said. He stood and slipped Henry’s dinner jacket from his shoulders. “But I still have to do my job, so…” He thought a moment as he hung the jacket in the wardrobe. He’d been told some things that he hadn’t thought he should repeat, but maybe they’d help Henry feel more confident.

“I know you think your father judges you harshly,” Martin said, “but I’ve heard otherwise.” He held out his hands expectantly.

Henry shrugged his waistcoat into Martin’s waiting grasp. “What have you heard? From who?”

“Mr. Tim. He’s told me your father thinks you have a good character.”

Henry snorted in disbelief. “He does not.”

“He thinks you’re kind and generous. He thinks you’re loyal. He says those are admirable qualities.”

“Huh.” Henry seemed willing to accept this as possibly true. “What else?” He wadded up his shirt and handed it to Martin.

“Well, you know he likes that you’re good at math. And he’s glad your Latin grade has improved.”

“He knows that’s you, though,” Henry pointed out. He kicked off his trousers and let his drawers fall around his ankles.

“He likes that you accept my help. It shows humility and good judgment.” Martin had not been told this particular thing, but it seemed a reasonable conclusion.

Martin carried Henry’s laundry into his own room and Henry followed him, lounging naked in the doorway, glorious as a god, while Martin undressed himself.

“Does he say anything else?”

Martin thought about whether he should share the next bit, and decided he would. “He’s pleased that you and your sister are both so beautiful.” He let his jacket slip from his shoulders.

Henry scoffed at this.

“No, he is. He’s glad you take after your mother’s people. He thinks being handsome will help you in life if you let it.”

Henry considered this a moment. “Huh. All right. Maybe he doesn’t hate me.”

Martin snorted. “I’m pretty sure he loves you, Henry.”

Henry was quiet while he watched Martin hang his jacket in the wardrobe. “Say, about Hamilton’s…”

“Yes?” Martin unbuttoned his chrysanthemum waistcoat, which he had worn to celebrate his birthday.

“I’m officially asking your advice. Do you think I could get one of those velvet jackets?” Henry was looking at him very hopefully.

“Velvet jackets?” Martin feigned ignorance, stalling for time, unsure what he would say. He did not want to disappoint Henry.

“You know,” Henry said with a hint of impatience. “Like queer fellows wear. Reggie and that Mr. Phipps and all those men downtown.”

Martin frowned. “Are you sure you’d want to?”

“Well, I wouldn’t wear it to the arcade,” Henry said, rolling his eyes. “I’d only want to wear it downtown, to certain places, at certain times. I wouldn’t be stupid about it.”

“No, of course not,” Martin agreed, though he wasn’t actually terribly sure Henry would be smart about it. He hung his fancy waistcoat next to the plain ones.

“I’ll listen to what you say, Martin. I’ll take your advice. But I don’t think it would hurt to have one made anyway.”

Martin thought that if Henry had a dandyish, queer-signifying jacket made, he’d wear it, but saying so seemed just short of saying that Henry made foolhardy decisions. Which perhaps he did, but was a velvet jacket really so terrible?

Martin sighed as he stepped out of his trousers. “What color would you get?”

Henry’s face lit up, delighted that he wasn’t being forbidden this little bit of rebellion. “Green, maybe? Or do you think blue? A very dark blue, midnight blue. I’ll have to get trousers to go with it, but I don’t think velvet. I don’t want a velvet suit.” Henry’s tone implied such a thing was clearly preposterous.

“No,” Martin agreed. “That would be too much.” He stripped off his shirt and undergarments with brisk efficiency and reached for his pajamas.

“Would you want anything new?” Henry asked.

“New?”

“From Hamilton’s.” Henry rolled his eyes. “Do you want any clothes?”

“I could use some new trousers,” Martin admitted, pulling on his pajama pants. “Mine are all a little short now.”

“I don’t mean boring things,” Henry said, his impatience very evident. “Would you want anything fancier than usual? Waistcoats or something?”

Martin frowned, remembering the unwanted shopping spree downtown. “I’m happy to wear what I’m supposed to wear.”

“You like your flower waistcoat, though.”

Martin loved it, in fact, but he also loved that it was subtle, and that usually no one noticed it was any different than plain. Martin broke a great many rules with the excuse that Henry wanted them broken, and he enjoyed flouting conventions in some very specific ways, but the idea of parading around in public in colors and patterns filled him with shame.

Some of the things Henry wanted to do might make him seem stronger to other people, more powerful. They might improve his reputation. Following his father’s example and eating with a companion at the table made it seem as if he didn’t care what people thought, that he didn’t have to. Sitting down together on the omnibus was the same. But dandyish dress was basically the definition of caring what other people thought, actively soliciting their judgments, and it made both master and slave seem frivolous.

This, at least, was what Mr. Tim said, and it made sense to Martin. He was aware, too, that Mr. Blackwell had little patience for foppery, and certainly Mr. Tim’s remarks were intended to reinforce his master’s point of view.

Perhaps if Henry’s tastes were more in line with Martin’s, he’d be tempted to defy Mr. Tim, but the fact was that Martin did not wish to dress to Henry’s taste. Downtown, Henry had made him choose things that were attention-getting and flamboyant, making him feel conspicuous and miserable. Henry was the one who liked such clothes; Martin preferred more unassuming cuts and colors. Martin preferred his uniform.

However, he did love his chrysanthemum waistcoat!

He buttoned his pajama shirt and reached for his dressing gown. “It’s better for me to dress like the others, Henry. It’s what your father wants, and it’s what Mr. Tim wants, and—”

“It’s what you want,” Henry said, seeming slightly disappointed.

“Well, yes,” Martin admitted. He picked up the laundry basket and regarded Henry seriously. “I think midnight blue,” he said. “I like you in blue.”

Henry’s smile was beautiful to behold. “That’s what I was thinking, too.”

Martin waved him off. “Get in bed. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

As Martin performed his chores, he considered what sort of sex they might have for his birthday. Quite some time ago, Henry had expressed a desire to make Martin come just by licking his ass, and Martin thought he might suggest this. The idea was arousing, and he was grateful his dressing gown hid his stiffening cock.

When he returned to Henry’s room, he stripped naked just inside the door and made it to the bedside in three long strides, cock hard and heart pounding. Henry lay back on the pillows looking oddly fearful, his half-hard cock leaking onto his belly.

Martin got onto the bed with him and kissed his mouth. “What? What is it, Henry?” Whatever it was, he would make it better. “Is everything all right?”

“Oh, yes. Nothing’s wrong. It’s just…for your birthday, I thought we could do something different.” Henry’s face was very red. “Only if you want.”

“What is it?” Martin asked. “What do you want to do?”

Henry dropped his gaze, fidgeting with nervous hands. “You could…you could make me do things.”

Martin was surprised. “Oh!”

Henry’s voice dropped even lower, and Martin had to lean close to hear him. “You can fuck me, too.” And then, his voice scarcely more than a whisper, he added, “If you want.”

As a matter of fact, it was not at all important to Martin that he be on top, or that he boss Henry around. He liked being bossed, and he liked being on the bottom. But that Henry wanted to offer him these things was incredibly touching, incredibly precious. He would not wound Henry by refusing these gifts.

He would ask for licking another day.

“You’re a dirty boy, too, aren’t you?” Martin said softly, tucking Henry’s hair behind his ear.

“Y-yes,” Henry said, sounding very uncertain. Oh, he was sweet. He was lovely.

Whatever residual resentment Martin had in his heart softened in the face of Henry’s naked offer of submission. Such a sweet boy. Henry trembled, and Martin touched him as tenderly as he could, wanting to soothe his nerves. He petted Henry’s head, smoothing his hair back from his brow, and Henry looked at him with worried eyes.

“I love you so much,” Henry confessed, his voice low. “I’ll do whatever it takes to make things up to you.”

Martin leaned close, their breaths mingling, and kissed him, just the barest brush of their lips. Henry sighed and opened to him, a blossoming. Agile tongues met in a melting, muscular slide, and Martin felt he could lick into Henry’s mouth for endless time, but instead he broke the kiss and gently pushed Henry away.

“On your knees,” he said. “Down on the floor.” He slid from the bed and stood, expectant, as Henry slowly knelt, clasping his hands behind his back and casting worried glances at Martin’s face. Martin petted Henry’s head, and Henry looked up at him seeming so fragile, wanting to please.

“You know you were a terrible master,” Martin said softly. “So unkind. I’ve been as good a slave as I know how, and you were so cruel.”

“I’m so sorry,” Henry muttered, casting his gaze down at the floor. His ears were very red. “I’ll never do it again.”

“Prove it.” Martin took hold of his own cock, angled it down, and poked it at Henry’s face. “Do something nice for me.”

Henry gave a helpless little moan and opened his mouth for Martin’s cock.

Martin hesitated, rubbing the slick head on Henry’s lower lip. “What’s your word?” He ran his free hand through Henry’s hair.

“My word?” Henry blinked, confused.

“If it’s too much for you,” Martin explained gently. “What will you say to make me stop?”

“Oh…” Henry’s eyes darted nervously around the room, avoiding Martin’s gaze. “I…I don’t know.”

“Think of something.” Martin traced the shape of Henry’s lips with his cockhead.

“Can it be the same as yours?” Henry asked timidly. He put out his tongue and passed it over the head in a quick swipe, almost furtive, as if he thought it might not be allowed.

Martin shook his head adamantly. He simply felt this would be wrong, though he wasn’t sure why. “No. You have to have your own.”

Henry worried his lip between his teeth as he thought, as Martin continued to bother him with his cock, poking it at the corner of his eye and drawing damp spirals on his cheek. “Um…how about…Dauntless?” Henry looked up at Martin hopefully.

Martin smiled. “Like the ship? Oh, that’s good. Dauntless it is.”

“I won’t need to use it, though,” Henry said, as if to convince himself. He had a determined set to his jaw, but his eyes were filled with trepidation.

Martin did his best not to laugh. What on earth did Henry think Martin would do to him?

When Martin was the subject of a bossy game, he wanted it to be unlikely and accusatory, full of claims of shirking and sub-par service. It riled him up and made him want to prove his accuser wrong. The more they played, the better Henry got at teasing Martin, and the more dirty fun it was. But Henry wouldn’t want a harsh game; he might think he did, but he wouldn’t, not really.

Martin carded his fingers through Henry’s hair. “Here. Prove it,” he repeated. “Show me how sorry you are.”

Henry looked up at him, very solemn, and then let his eyes flutter closed, long lashes shadowing his cheekbones, as he pressed a kiss to the tip of Martin’s cock. Lips pursed around the head, tongue in the slit and swirling in a syrupy spiral before he sighed and sucked Martin in to the root.

Martin cupped the back of Henry’s head and pulled him close, feeling rather than hearing the low sound Henry made as Martin’s cock slid deeper over his tongue. Wet velvet suction, Henry moaning with nervous arousal. Martin let Henry set a rhythm, back and forth, out and in, with a bossy hand in Henry’s hair to suggest discipline, control. Henry’s mouth was hot as fever, as hot as the blush blooming on his cheeks. Martin shivered with silvery pleasure, hairs standing on his skin and nipples tightening. He grunted and thrust his hips forward, burying himself in Henry’s throat, and Henry choked, eyes opening wide in panicked surprise. His hands flew up to take hold of Martin’s hips, but he stopped short of pushing Martin away.

“You can take it,” Martin assured him, fingers knotted in Henry’s hair keeping him still. He rocked his hips against Henry’s mouth and felt Henry’s throat clutch at his cockhead. Henry was wild-eyed, and he shuddered as he gulped for air. Martin traced the wet line where Henry’s lips stretched around his cock, laid his hand against Henry’s cheek. “You can take anything I want to give you,” he promised.

Henry could take it. They played as hard as this all the time; this was only different because Henry was on his knees and giving it especial meaning.

He relaxed his grip on Henry’s hair and let him breathe a little, gasping around his cock. “Hands behind your back,” Martin told him. “If you want to stop, you know what to say.”

Henry shook his head as he pulled off Martin’s cock. “I won’t say it. I won’t need to.” He put his hands behind his back.

Martin certainly wouldn’t argue with him about it. He didn’t think Henry would need to say it, either.

“Keep sucking,” Martin said, feeding Henry his cock a little carelessly. “Keep proving to me that you deserve to be forgiven.”

Henry moaned and swallowed Martin down.

Martin fisted one hand in Henry’s hair and used the other to touch his neck and the angle of his jaw, feeling the slide of his cock in Henry’s throat. He fucked Henry’s mouth slowly at first, nice and easy. Henry sucked greedily, shifting nearer on his knees, and he moaned, a low rumble that Martin felt in his gut, tightening his balls.

“You like doing this, don’t you, dirty boy?” Martin said, voice low, a hand cupping the back of Henry’s head. “You like sucking a slave’s cock.”

Henry wrested his head from Martin’s grasp with some difficulty. “I love it,” he said defiantly, “I love it.”

“Who said you could stop?” Martin asked, giving his hair a tug. “You haven’t proven anything.”

Henry made a rough sound, frustrated and impatient and determined, and dove after Martin’s cock with all the urgency of a man who felt keenly that he did indeed have something to prove. Martin thought Henry might appreciate a challenge, and began to fuck his mouth in cavalier fashion, hard and selfish and deliberately unconcerned with how Henry might be taking it. It was all right if Henry was a little scared. It was even better that way.

Henry cried out around Martin’s cock, startled by the harsh treatment, but he didn’t struggle, and he didn’t try to get away, and he certainly wasn’t shouting Dauntless! He opened his eyes and looked up at Martin and held his gaze, and he blushed but didn’t look away.

Brave boy. Sweet boy. Martin grinned down at Henry and shoved his cock past his teeth. “Dirty boy,” he chided. “What a terrible, cruel master. If you’re mean to me again, I’ll run away.”

Henry made an emphatic sound around Martin’s prick and shook his head. Martin thrust deep as Henry choked, and then he did it again as the muscles spasmed in Henry’s throat. It felt good, so good. It felt amazing.

“I’ll leave you,” he said. “I’ll leave you all alone.”

Maybe he was still mad at Henry after all.

Henry let out a strangled sob and sucked harder still.

Martin was shivering, pulse pounding, a little out of control. Leaving Henry was the last thing he wanted to do. Henry’s soft lips, slick curve of tongue, and yielding throat were his, were meant for his cock alone. No one else had ever had Henry in this way, and no one ever should. If Henry was going to his knees, it should be for Martin, only for Martin.

These weren’t the thoughts of a slave, but he let himself think them as he thrust into Henry’s wet mouth, and he let himself believe them as Henry looked up at him with such hopeful trust. He smoothed Henry’s hair back from his forehead, fingers curling around Henry’s ears, and slowed his wild pumping until he was just making shallow movements, shifting his weight back and then forward again. Henry gasped for air around his slick shaft, and he was trembling a little, but Martin thought he was all right. He really couldn’t hurt Henry, after all; his cock was perfectly lovely, but it wasn’t as intimidating a specimen as Henry’s own. You could hurt someone with a cock like Henry’s unless at least one person involved knew what he was doing with it.

He knew what to do with it. He’d proven it over and over. Henry’s cock should be his, too.

It was his.

He’d worried so much about Henry taking a lover, and he’d been so jealous of this imagined fellow who would salivate at the sight of Henry’s naked body and grovel for his favor, but Henry hadn’t even considered the possibilities. Henry only wanted him.

Oh, Henry. His foolish, misguided, stubborn boy. Martin loved him so much, whether he deserved it or not.

He fisted his hand in Henry’s hair and pulled him off his cock. Henry looked up at him, lips and chin wet with spit, and willing, so willing, to put up with whatever punishment Martin might devise.

Henry kept saying he wanted to make it up to Martin, but there was no such thing. It was past, and nothing could make up for it. The only thing to be done was to do better by each other going forward. The game they were playing right now was exciting, and it was satisfying to be a little mean to Henry, but Martin would not let himself be truly cruel. This was just fun. Martin tried not to even think of the ways he could really hurt Henry, but they were there in the back of his mind.

If he really wanted to hurt Henry, he’d invoke his deepest fears. He’d tell him he was stupid. He’d ridicule his bashfulness, his tenderness. He’d discount his dancing skill and physical grace as being the talents of an animal, and he’d undermine what little confidence he had. If he really wanted to hurt Henry, he’d tell him that he’d loved Richard more, that Richard had been more deserving of love, that Richard had loved him better, and Henry would believe him. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t true.

But he didn’t want to hurt Henry, not like that. All the weeks when Henry had been so cold, Martin had really suffered, and it had been so unfair, but he was quite sure he didn’t want to make Henry go through similar pain. Perhaps that was maturity. What he wanted more than anything was for Henry to be good to him, and to have the opportunity to be good to Henry in return.

Henry’s tousled hair slipped through Martin’s fingers and Henry sat back on his heels, still shaky, mouth still wet. Hands still behind his back. “Do you want more? I’ll do it. Whatever you want.” His chest heaved as he caught his breath, and his cock hung half-hard between his thighs, his body uncertain how to react to this game.

Martin looked down at Henry’s face, his lovely face, with his flushed cheeks and wet eyes. He ran his thumb across Henry’s swollen lower lip and believed that Henry would do anything to prove he was sorry for the way he’d treated Martin. He believed that Henry was prepared to suffer, if necessary, but he also believed the fact that Henry would go that far meant it wasn’t necessary at all.

“Get up,” he said.

Henry swayed to his feet, hands behind his back.

Martin leaned in and kissed him, hard and insistent, nudging with his jaw. Henry opened to him, wet and silky and hot, the flavor of his spit as intoxicating as wine. For a desperate, hungry moment, it was as if he couldn’t possibly get close enough, and he kept pushing until Henry took a stagger-step back. Another hard kiss, their teeth clashing, and Martin bit Henry’s lip and tasted blood. He broke away gasping and rubbed his cheek along Henry’s jaw, their chests pressed together and hearts beating crazily. He clung to Henry’s shoulders, hanging from them. Henry’s hands were still behind his back, and Martin felt proud of him for remembering, for obeying. Henry’s cock was definitely hard now, slick against Martin’s belly and sliding alongside Martin’s own straining erection.

Martin made distance between them, patted Henry’s chest. “Lie down.” Quickly, he added, “Hands in front.”

Henry lay on his back on the bed, propped up on the pillows, knees up and apart. His hands lay at his sides, fingers twitching at the coverlet. He looked nervous, chewing at the inside of his cheek. “Are you…?” he began. He cleared his throat and said again, “Are you going to fuck me?”

“You said I could,” Martin reminded him. He got up on the bed and sat back on his heels between Henry’s feet. “I think you want me to.” He ran his hands up and down Henry’s thighs, soothing sweeps.

Henry flushed crimson. “I do,” he admitted, sounding as if this surprised him. “I liked it before. But…” His voice trailed off without finishing the thought.

Martin stroked the underside of Henry’s prick with a finger, coaxing it to greater stiffness. During their estrangement, he’d clung to memories of making love to Henry in the dismal hotel, remembering how sweetly Henry had come apart on his cock. He’d had a wildly selfish and terribly unrealistic hope that he’d be the only man to ever know Henry in that way.

It was unrealistic, terribly unlikely. But it might happen anyway.

He bent to kiss Henry’s knee. “Of course a dirty boy like you wants a cock in his ass.”

Henry laughed, his cheeks pink. “I’m nervous,” he confessed.

Martin picked up his hand and squeezed his fingers. “Silly. You don’t need to be. We’ve done it before.” He leaned over Henry to open the nightstand drawer and fished out the oil bottle.

“I never asked you,” Henry began. He hesitated, eyes averted, before continuing. “I never asked if…if you liked it with me. If I could do better, you should tell me what to do.”

Oh, Henry.

“It was amazing with you,” Martin assured him. “I don’t want you to do anything differently.”

Henry looked dubious.

Martin leaned in between Henry’s raised knees and kissed him, a hand around the back of his neck, forehead to forehead. “If I’m on top, it’s more up to me to make it good for you. Just like you do for me.”

Henry said, “But—”

Martin didn’t want to argue about whose job it was to make sex good, or fun, or meaningful. It was up to both of them, of course, and with the connection between them feeling so deep and effortless, Martin truly felt Henry was his ideal partner. He suspected Henry was worrying about Ganymede boys, about Richard, but he was not in a mood to indulge these pointless fears.

“Hush.” Martin kissed him again. “Let me make love to you, and then you can tell me if you liked it.”

Henry snorted, amused, and pulled Martin down to lie on top of him. His hands ranged all over Martin’s back and ass and ruffled his hair. He wrapped his legs around Martin’s hips and squirmed beneath him. Martin kissed him hard and rutted against him and Henry moaned, his voice a little shaky. He was afraid, and he shouldn’t be, but Martin didn’t exactly mind that he was.

Martin sat back on his heels. “Knees up. Show me your hole.”

Henry made a nervous squeak but complied, flushing an embarrassed pink as he drew his knees toward his chest. His voice was scarcely above a whisper as he asked, “What are you going to do?”

Martin didn’t answer. He put his hands on the backs of Henry’s thighs and spit on his hole. It had been awhile since he’d last done such a thing, but he’d had lots of practice and his aim was good. Henry yelped and tried to lower his legs, but Martin leaned on him and kept him folded.

“Martin,” Henry said weakly. “Martin, you can’t. I-I’m sweaty.”

“You never care,” Martin pointed out. “What makes you think I do?” He watched his spit slide over Henry’s clenching hole and then spit on him again.

Henry moaned, full of dread, but his cock was still hard. He would have to be a lot more upset than this for Martin to be willing to stop.

Martin looked down on Henry’s cleft, lightly furred with soft, dark hair, and rubbed Henry’s spit-slick hole with the pad of his thumb. He smeared the saliva around, smoothing the hairs flat, smiling as Henry’s hole twitched and clenched, and Henry whimpered in anxious arousal.

Martin’s voice was gentle when he asked, “Does it feel good?”

Henry was trembling when he whispered a hoarse, “Yes.”

Martin rubbed the back of Henry’s thigh and pushed the tip of his thumb past the tight rim of his hole, in and out again, in and out.

“Oh god,” Henry said, sounding so worried. “Martin—”

“Let me do this,” Martin said firmly, pushing his thumb in to the joint. He shifted position, moving back to give himself room to work. He’d babied Henry enough.

Henry’s hole contracted erratically around Martin’s thumb. Martin bent and licked the rim where it pursed tight against his knuckle and Henry cried out in surprise. Henry was sweaty, musk and salt, but Martin didn’t mind. He licked all around his thumb, then up and down the cleft, while Henry whimpered in stunned arousal. Martin lifted his head to suck Henry’s balls and fucked him with his thumb as he did it, watching Henry’s cock jerk in tandem with the spasms of his hole.

“Please,” Henry said. “Please…” He sounded like he might cry.

Martin pulled his thumb out of Henry’s ass and spread his cheeks with both hands. Henry’s skin was shiny with saliva, his hole quivering. Martin bent and kissed him, sweet and slow with a gentle lick, just the tip of his tongue teasing at the rim. Henry made a choking sound and jerked beneath Martin’s mouth.

Martin wanted Henry to give in to pleasure, to lose himself. He wanted Henry to call his name. He wanted to make Henry feel so good he’d never have need of any other lover.

Martin kissed him again, a little rougher, scraping his teeth across the sensitive pucker, and Henry bucked beneath him and cried out, another desperate please! Martin licked him up and down and probed at his hole, coaxing him open, insinuating his way inside. Nibbling and kissing, making him whimper, making him melt. At last, he pushed the pointed tip of his tongue past clenching muscle to furious heat. Henry was delicate and close inside, the tissue soft as velvet; it was one thing to feel it with fingers, but it was special to know it like this, so intimate.

He licked Henry and fucked him with his tongue and pushed one finger and then two inside of him, and Henry panted and cried out and hitched his knees higher and opened for him, vulnerable and brave. Beloved dirty boy. Martin was nearly vibrating with the intensity of his arousal, his cock leaking onto the bedspread, and he wanted more than anything to feel Henry’s tight hole squeezing around him while he made them both come.

He lifted his mouth from Henry’s ass, fucking him with two fingers. Henry was glassy-eyed, his breathing harsh, his cock hard and dark. He looked at Martin with pleading eyes, tremulous mouth.

The eyes wanted an answer; the frightened smile pierced his heart. “Are you all right, Henry?”

With a soft groan, Henry tightened around Martin’s knuckles and hitched his knees higher, spreading himself wider. His lashes fluttered on his cheeks. He opened his eyes to look at Martin, pupils wide and black, and said, “I love you so much, Martin,” in a rough whisper.

“I love you, too.” Martin reached with his free hand for the oil bottle, then reluctantly withdrew his fingers from Henry’s body so he could grease his cock, Henry’s ass. Henry watched him do it and then reached for him, making little urgent grunts, and pulled him into a close, fierce embrace. They kissed deeply, passionately, and Henry shuddered when he tasted himself on Martin’s tongue.

Martin reached down between their bodies and positioned his cock. He broke off kissing, leaning his forehead against Henry’s and breathing his breath, and then pushed inside.

Smooth, tight, slick crush, as hot as blood. Martin’s voice was ragged as he breathed, “Henry.” Henry replied with a wordless, desperate sound and clutched at Martin’s shoulders. Martin sat back on his heels, hands on the backs of Henry’s thighs, and tilted his hips, pushing deeper; he drew back and Henry shivered and squeezed around him. All the hairs stood up on Martin’s skin and his nipples tightened almost painfully hard. He looked down into Henry’s face, and saw that Henry trusted him, loved him, was sorry.

Oh, Henry.

He gave in to the urge to thrust hard, to fuck Henry at a punishing pace. His heart was a war drum, and his blood sang in his ears, but he listened over the roar of his own body for the evidence of Henry’s pleasure, a low keening broken by throaty cries, different from the sounds he made when he was on top, and the rough timbre of his voice went straight to Martin’s cock. Henry’s body clutched and pulled at him, and the drag on his cock was almost too much to bear, lush and harsh at once.

It probably shouldn’t make him so happy that no one else had ever had this, no one had ever had Henry but him.

“Who do you belong to?” he asked in a low voice, just short of a demand. His hipbones slammed into Henry’s ass, making the flesh quiver. When Henry didn’t immediately answer, Martin gave him another reckless thrust and another question. “Who?”

“Oh god.” Henry sounded almost despairing. “You, Martin. It’s you.”

His name. Henry had said his name. He shuddered and reached for Henry’s cock, fucking and jerking him a few strokes before saying, “Touch yourself. Come for me.”

Henry groaned and took hold of himself, and the sight of Henry’s big hand around his big cock was almost too much for Martin to take.

Henry,” he begged. “Please, Henry, come for me.”

Henry’s hand sped up and he closed his eyes, his brows angling down over his nose in concentration. His cheeks were lust-flushed, his lips parted, his hair a sexed-up mess, and his voice sounded out a deep abandon, ecstatic relief. His eyes fluttered open, and he looked up at Martin, and his hand stilled as his cock jerked, painting his chest in hot white streaks.

It was too much. Martin came, hard and wrenching, suddenly near tears, uttering a single Henry.

Dazed, Martin lowered himself to lie on Henry’s chest as his breathing slowed. Henry’s arms went around his back and they kissed, liquid and sweet. Martin felt so raw and open, unbounded and permeable. He looked into Henry’s eyes, and Henry looked back, trusting and fearless, letting himself be seen. For once, Martin had to look away first.

Oh, Henry.

Martin found his voice and whispered, “I love you.”

Henry smiled. “I know.” He pulled Martin into a kiss, ran his fingers through Martin’s hair. “I love you, too.”

They were quiet for a time. Both winced a little when Martin’s softened cock slipped out of Henry’s ass, but Henry stroked his back and held him tight, keeping him close.

Henry shifted beneath him, exhaling with a little grunt. Martin winced; their lean, unpadded bodies were not the most forgiving in an embrace. He began to untangle himself despite Henry’s protests.

“I’m too bony,” Martin said in mild complaint. “I’m sure I’ve left bruises all over you.”

“Eat more cake,” Henry said with a chuckle, lightly slapping him on the ass.

“We could,” Martin pointed out as he rolled off of Henry to lie at his side. “After we get cleaned up.” He sat up, looking down into Henry’s handsome face. “How do you feel?” he asked, tousling Henry’s hair.

Henry’s smile was bashful and joyous both. “I feel good. Wonderful.”

“You liked it, then?” Martin grinned at him, knowing the answer.

Henry smiled back. “I loved all of it. It was a little embarrassing, but it felt amazing.”

“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. You do the same things for me.” He gave Henry a caress and swung his legs off the side of the bed.

“Where are you going?” Henry clutched at his arm, but almost immediately gave it up as a lost cause. “When I do it to you, I don’t think it’s the same, though. I…I’m a lot hairier than you.” Henry made a face, his feelings about hairiness quite clear.

“You’re not that hairy,” Martin said, padding to the bathroom. His voice rang against the tile as he called out, “I prefer a man with some hair, you know.” There was no reply from Henry, and Martin suspected that it was because Henry disagreed with Martin’s preference. He sighed and washed his cock, then got a cloth to clean Henry’s chest and ass.

Henry was not what Martin would consider hairy at all, though he was hairier than Martin. Henry had a nice amount of hair growing over the breadth of his chest, and this tapered into an enticing trail that led down his torso to the curls around his cock. Martin didn’t have this; he had a little bit of reddish hair leading from his navel to his pubic thatch. Personally, Martin thought his own fine-haired limbs and nearly-hairless chest were a bit childish. Henry was manly without being beastly, and Martin loved running his fingers through Henry’s hair, every bit of it.

When Martin returned with his cloth and basin, Henry was lounging on his side, watching for him to come back through the door, and greeted him with a bashful smile, ducking his head to hide his blush. Martin was full of such love for him, a sense of melting helplessness, and felt almost frantic in his desire to keep Henry for himself. He made an effort to seem calm, to seem rational. Henry was his, now and maybe forever.

As he washed Henry’s body, he tried to communicate his love and devotion through his touch, through the small motions of his arms and wrists as Henry shifted and arched beneath him.

“Martin?”

“Hmm?”

“When you—” Henry began, then hesitated and cleared his throat. “When you were with Richard, you were usually on the bottom, too, weren’t you?”

Martin wasn’t sure he wanted to talk about Richard just now, but didn’t think this particular question could go sour. “I liked to be on the bottom,” Martin told him. “With everyone. You know I had to be on top sometimes for training, but that wasn’t my preference.”

He did not think he would ever tell Henry, because he suspected Henry would not find it reassuring, but Richard had not actually been Martin’s best sex partner at Ganymede. Martin had been in love with Richard, and he had wanted sex with Richard the most because of it, but in terms of physical compatibility, he’d had the best sex, the most successful sex, with Georgie. Of all the Ganymede boys, only Georgie had ever made Martin come without touching his cock, and Georgie had also been the best at playing dirty, bossy games. Martin had always had such fun with Georgie.

But without a doubt, he preferred Henry.

“I guess I did know that,” Henry said. “What we just did, though…you did like it?”

Martin smiled as he put his basin aside. “Of course I did. You didn’t really need to ask. I think you could tell.”

Henry smiled, too. Shyly, he offered, “You seem so…manly when you’re on top.”

Martin laughed. “How do I seem the rest of the time?”

Henry blushed. “No, no, I don’t mean anything bad. I always know you’re a man. I love that you’re a man. It’s just…” his voice trailed off and he looked at Martin with apologetic eyes.

Martin knew what he meant, though. “Putting your cock in someone else’s body is a very manly action,” he said. “Nothing ladylike about it.”

“There’s nothing ladylike about any of it, though, is there? Even on the bottom.” Henry stretched and opened his arms to Martin.

“No, I don’t think so,” Martin agreed, fitting himself into Henry’s embrace. “A woman’s body isn’t the same, after all, and I’m sure it feels very different for her.”

As if it had just occurred to him, Henry said, “Oh! Men and women have sex like we do, too, don’t they? Back instead of front.”

“Yes, of course. I don’t know what’s in it for the woman, though. Women don’t have the same gland inside.”

“Having any kind of sex with a woman, you’d never know what she was feeling,” Henry mused. “You might know if it felt good or not, but nothing more.”

“Well, maybe someday you—” Martin began.

Henry squeezed him hard. “No, Martin. Shut up. I don’t want to hear about my wife.” His tone had a hint of warning, but he laughed and kissed Martin’s forehead. “I like that our bodies are the same,” he said. “I love that I feel something like what you feel when I do these things to you. It’s what seems natural to me,” he admitted. “Sex with a completely different kind of body seems a little gross.”

Martin worked not to show his disdain for this opinion. Henry was entitled to his feelings, however exaggerated and silly Martin found them. Martin was mildly curious about women’s bodies. Not lustfully, but perhaps scientifically. He’d seen pictures, and he’d heard stories from Tom, but that wasn’t practical knowledge. He was very sure Henry would never want him to have sex with a woman, but he’d do it without complaint if Henry asked it of him. It would be an interesting experiment.

He was quite confident, though, that no woman’s body could compare to Henry’s, that no woman could offer anything superior to Henry’s cock. And despite occasional niggling worries, he didn’t believe that any woman’s body would ever appeal to Henry more than Martin’s own. It was possible that Henry might be swayed from his devotion to Martin by another man, but not a woman, not even a wife.

Henry still insisted on seeing a wife as a threat, but Martin saw her as a possible ally. It just needed to be the right woman.

“It wouldn’t have to be gross, Henry. It might just be different.”

Henry shook his head, denying this possibility. “I don’t think so.” After a moment’s pause, he said, “Didn’t you say something about cake?”

They dressed to go downstairs, woke up Vida, and returned to Henry’s room with generous slices of birthday cake and glasses of milk. They sat cross-legged on the bed, side by side, backs to the headboard as they ate.

Henry ate a bite and said, “Do you remember? The other night, you asked me if I’d imagined having other lovers.”

“Yes, I remember. You said you’d never even thought about it.”

Henry laughed. “No, I really didn’t. But I wondered…who did you think I’d take as a lover, anyway? Did you have someone in mind?”

Martin had, but wasn’t sure he should share. “Oh, you’ll think I’m being silly…”

“I might,” Henry agreed, nudging Martin with his elbow.

“Well…I’ve seen how you look at Tom sometimes,” Martin offered hesitantly, “and he’s very free with his body. I thought you might—”

Henry laughed. “I definitely don’t want to have sex with Tom.”

“You don’t?” Martin was surprised. He had been quite certain Henry entertained some sort of fantasy involving Tom.

Henry shook his head. “No, I promise. Tom is very handsome, though. No one can help but notice that.”

“Well, yes, he is,” Martin agreed. “But he’s got many other good qualities besides.”

Henry nudged Martin again. “Well, he’s got you as a champion, too. That speaks to his character.” He ate another bite, his expression pensive, then asked, “Would you take him as a lover?”

“What?” Martin stiffened, instantly wary.

“If we’d never reconciled, would you have ever taken Tom as a lover?”

Martin had thought about this before—he couldn’t avoid thinking about it, with how insistent Tom had been at times. Taking Tom as a lover seemed like a bad idea, dangerous. Tom wanted too badly to be in love, and Martin did not think he could ever take him seriously in that capacity. He was quite sure he’d enjoy the physical acts with Tom, but he didn’t want Tom’s ardency, his devotion; he only wanted those things from Henry.

Martin shook his head. “No. I think it would be very troublesome. Tom would misunderstand my intentions.”

“He really adores you,” Henry said, thankfully not sounding blameful at all. “Isn’t it strange that your good friend also wants you for a lover? I can’t imagine being friends with Louis if he wanted me so badly but I didn’t want him back.”

Martin snorted at the idea of Mr. Briggs desiring Henry. But he said, “Well, sometimes it makes things awkward, but I do care for him so much. He’s a wonderful friend. And someday he’ll meet someone who’ll love him in return and he’ll lose interest in me, don’t you think?”

“Hmm. I think he’s always going to love you best,” Henry said.

Martin didn’t like this idea. “I certainly hope not. That would be tragic.”

Henry didn’t look up from his cake plate as he said, “By the way, I haven’t forgotten about your present.”

Martin allowed himself a small, pleased smile. “I didn’t think you had.”

Still looking at his plate, his face red, Henry said, “I’ll have to talk with Jesse and see if he’s still interested—”

Martin was unable to suppress a derisive, amused bark; he had no questions whatsoever about Mr. Wilton’s continued interest.

Henry gave him a sharp look. “Anyway, I’ll ask him soon, all right? Maybe at my party.”

“Thank you, Henry. I really appreciate that you’re willing to do this. I know it’ll be fun for both of us.” He remembered very well Henry going to his knees in the back room at the dance hall, the strangers crowding around and egging him on. Personally, Martin thought that scenario a great deal more frightening than playing with Henry’s friendly, supportive cousin, and hopefully Henry would come to see it that way, too.

“I really will do anything for you,” Henry said very sincerely. He tilted sideways and bumped Martin with his shoulder.

Martin believed him. “Are you done with your cake?” He reached for Henry’s empty plate and kissed his cheek.

Lying in bed, an ear against Henry’s ribs and an arm thrown over his chest, he was lulled by the sound of Henry’s heart. Henry was already asleep and Martin was almost there. He’d had a real birthday! Yesterday he’d expected it to be a misery, but it had been an amazing day, one of the best.

He’d have settled for the opportunity to make an apology. If only Henry had let him, he’d have said he was sorry and gratefully taken his place at Henry’s side without requiring anything from Henry in return—because he was a slave, because a master owed him nothing beyond food and shelter. But what Henry had given him was much more meaningful and generous than anything he could have hoped for. Humility. Contrition. Love.

For the second night in a row, after many weeks of difficult sleep, he closed his eyes feeling hopeful and secure, and he was blessed with happy, unmemorable dreams.

Saturday, June 22, 1901

Martin woke long before Henry on Saturday, the day of Henry’s party. He did his calisthenics, showered, and went downstairs for his breakfast. He was excited and full of energy and found it hard to concentrate on anything. Luckily, nothing much was expected of him; he’d concluded all his preparatory work by mid-week, and Mr. Tim and Miss Pearl would be overseeing the running of the party.

Mr. Tim got up from the breakfast table on some business or other, and as soon as he was gone, Martin’s friends had a great deal to say about his relation with Henry. He’d been teased a little yesterday, but Martin was not surprised they had not yet exhausted their enjoyment of his discomfort.

Billy leaned across the table and said, “I couldn’t help but notice that you and young Mr. Blackwell didn’t leave the house at all yesterday.”

“Oh, you’re very observant,” Martin said, rolling his eyes. He took another bite of his potato hash.

“Did you even leave his room?” Jerry slid over a chair closer so he was directly at Martin’s elbow, all the better to be annoying.

“You saw me at breakfast and dinner,” Martin pointed out. “Of course we left the room.” They had only left for meals, though.

“Well, it’s good you enjoy your work as much as you do,” Billy said, his tone playfully sanctimonious, “since you seem to have such a lot of it.”

Martin did not dignify this with a response. He cast a baleful eye at Billy and ate some scrambled eggs.

“Really,” Jerry said, “your work ethic is admirable. Day after day of back-breaking labor…” He snorted with amusement.

“Down on your knees, slaving away.” Billy laughed as Martin scowled at him.

It would do him no good to be affronted. Martin made himself smile, though it felt a bit strained. “It is satisfying work,” he said, aiming for an air of unconcern. “Not the kind of satisfaction you get working under a butler or a horse, of course.”

“Oh ho!” Jerry reared back from him, both insulted and impressed by the jab. Down at the other end of the table, the maids looked over with interest at the noise of his outburst.

“I’m sure those are far more rewarding jobs,” Martin said with lofty disinterest. He picked up a strip of bacon and put it in his mouth.

Billy laughed and leaned back in his chair. “No, I guess you’ll never know what it’s like to answer the siren call of the doorbell,” he said. Then, as if it had only just occurred to him, he said, “Does he even expect you to open doors for him?”

“Of course he does!” Martin said, slightly offended. “I do everything I’m meant to do. I don’t shirk my duties!”

“So touchy!” Jerry said, clapping him on the back. He left his hand on Martin’s shoulder and rubbed it. “We really do know what a good boy you are, Martin. He’s lucky to have you.”

“I’m fortunate, too,” Martin said firmly.

“You know, I’ve wondered…” Billy’s voice was a slow drawl, and his sly expression filled Martin with dread for what his next words might be.

But then Mr. Tim swept into the mess with an air of industry and scowled at Billy. “Billy, go relieve Paul. He needs his breakfast, too. Jerry, if you’re finished, I’m sure you have work to do. Lucy, please go see that the breakfast room is in order. All the Blackwells will be eating together this morning, and we all know how particular Mr. Blackwell can be.” He observed Martin with his nearly-empty plate and said, “Martin, keep an eye on the clock. Mr. Blackwell will expect to eat breakfast with his son, and we don’t want to keep him waiting.”

They all said, “Yes, Mr. Tim,” and got up from their places at the table.

There was nearly an hour before Henry would be expected downstairs. Martin took a minute for himself, and went out into the side yard with a handful of seed for the birds who had become accustomed to this treat and waited for it with distinct avian impatience, peeping and squabbling. There were cardinals amongst the birds, and Martin liked to imagine some of them were the offspring of the little red bird that had so captivated young Henry.

Delia, one of the chambermaids, stepped out of the door behind him with a handful of seed of her own and laughed. “Oh, you beat me to it!”

“We’re going to make them fat,” Martin remarked. “They won’t be able to fly.”

“They’re spoiled,” Delia agreed, scattering millet on the paving. “Everyone feeds them.”

As they watched the birds peck, there were two large electric delivery vans just pulling into the yard. These would be the food, or perhaps the flowers. Cook had made Henry’s cakes, though she was allowing the pastry chef from Mr. Blackwell’s favorite restaurant to ice and decorate them under her supervision. The Blackwell kitchen would be responsible for a few dishes, but most of the food was being provided by two fine restaurants that enjoyed Mr. Blackwell’s patronage. Mrs. Blackwell had balked a little at this, with the unspoken reason being that Mr. Blackwell frequented these establishments with his mistress, but she had no better suggestions, and so had reluctantly agreed to the plan.

The flowers had been chosen for season and beauty first and foremost, but Martin had asked for some specific flowers and greens because of their Hetaeria meanings. When he’d said to Mrs. Blackwell, “Really, Ma’am, I think we absolutely have to have red roses. They’re such a nice contrast with the greenery,” Miss Pearl had raised an eyebrow but said nothing contrary. There were going to be a great many red roses!

Weeks ago, when he’d made his case for the flowers, he’d hoped that Henry would pick up on the symbolism and he’d see that Martin still loved him. He’d hoped that Henry’s heart would soften toward him and he’d be afforded an opportunity to explain himself. Today, he was quite sure Henry would be aware of the meaning of the roses, and he’d know that Martin had never wavered in his regard.

Cook and Mr. Tim came out to meet the deliverymen and Martin and Delia returned inside, out of the way. Martin hurried upstairs to wake Henry.

“Rise and shine, Henry.” Martin opened the heavy drapes. “Everything is arriving for your party.”

Henry stretched lazily in a square of sunlight, burnished gold skin. “Let’s not have a party,” he suggested. “Let’s stay in bed all day.” He held out a hand, beckoning.

Martin laughed but went to him and took his hand. “We did that yesterday.”

“It was a lot of fun,” Henry pointed out.

They’d tried the licking experiment, and it did turn out that Martin probably couldn’t come from that alone, but it had been very worth attempting.

“But I spent weeks planning this party for you,” Martin said. “I really want you to enjoy it, Henry.” He wanted this, and then he wanted Henry to praise him for doing a good job, but he certainly wouldn’t ask for that. He let himself be pulled down to sit on the bed, but he would not lie down despite Henry tugging at his arm. “Besides, your father wants to have breakfast with you. We don’t want to keep him waiting.”

Henry sighed. “I suppose you’re right.” He wrapped his arms around Martin’s waist and dragged him a few inches further onto the bed, then used Martin’s body to pull himself up to sitting. “I’ll get up.”

“I’ll start your shower.” Martin tugged his jacket back into place as he hurried to the bathroom.

With five minutes to spare, Henry was sitting down at the breakfast table in his black-and-grey-checked suit, waiting expectantly for his milky coffee.

Mrs. Blackwell was wearing one of her old dresses, a dull black, but she was lively as she asked, “Well, darling, do you feel more grown-up?”

Martin glanced back from the sideboard and saw Henry’s blank expression. Henry blinked at her. “Not really,” he admitted. “It isn’t actually my birthday, though.”

Mr. Blackwell snorted at this, but he did not look up from his newspaper.

Mr. Tim and Miss Pearl were downstairs, occupied with party business, so Billy and Martin served all three Blackwells.

“Martin, darling, some tea, please,” Mrs. Blackwell said. He’d learned to do it to her satisfaction while planning the party. Lemon and a very little sugar. When he brought the cup to her, she put her hand on his wrist to keep him at her side. “Hiram,” she said. “Hiram, I do think you did so well by Henry to get Martin for him.”

Mr. Blackwell gave her a long look, unsmiling. After observing Mr. Blackwell these many months, Martin had developed some ability to interpret his judgmentally stoic expressions. Most of the time, the set of his mustache seemed to indicate he found his interlocutor inane.

Henry was frozen, fork midway to his lips.

Mr. Blackwell raised his eyes to glance at Martin, and Martin did his best not to quail under his scrutiny. No matter how intimidating he might be, Mr. Blackwell had always been very kind to him.

Mr. Blackwell sighed. “Thank you, Louisa. I’m glad you approve.”

“He’s very capable,” Mrs. Blackwell said. “As his schedule permits, you should let him help Timothy so he can learn to properly run a house.”

“I will take that under consideration,” Mr. Blackwell said, though it did not sound as though he would, or at least not on Mrs. Blackwell’s recommendation.

“Henry, darling, have your cousins met your friends before? I can’t imagine there’s been the opportunity.”

“No, ma’am. I’m a little anxious about introducing them, but I hope Jesse and Louis will get along. I think Eli can probably get along with anyone.”

Mrs. Blackwell thought on this a moment. “Jesse is an artistic type,” she noted. “It’s sometimes hard for regular people to understand artists.” She cocked her head and looked at Henry. “I know you don’t paint or draw, darling, but I do think you have artistic tendencies.”

Mr. Blackwell made a loud, propulsive noise which he tried to stifle behind his napkin; all eyes went to him as he recomposed himself.

“Hiram, are you quite well?” Mrs. Blackwell asked, though her tone indicated she did not believe him stricken with any legitimate complaint.

Mr. Blackwell cleared his throat. “I’m quite well, Louisa. Thank you for your concern.”

Across the table, Henry was red in the face, his eyes on his plate. Poor Henry! If Henry would only look up, Martin could try to offer him reassurance with a smile.

Mrs. Blackwell patted Martin’s wrist. “Such a talented, capable boy!”

“Thank you, Ma’am. You’re very kind.” He paused a moment then asked, “Will there be anything else, Ma’am?”

“No thank you, darling.”

Mr. Blackwell cleared his throat again. “More coffee, please, Martin.”

Martin got coffee for Mr. Blackwell, a scone for Mrs. Blackwell, called downstairs for a pitcher of ice water and stood by the dumbwaiter waiting for it to be sent up, refilled Henry’s plate, and put a hand just briefly on his shoulder as he delivered it to him.

Henry turned to smile up at him, and he seemed very grateful when he said, “Thank you, Martin.”

“My pleasure, Sir,” Martin murmured in reply.

After breakfast, Henry wanted to look in on the party rooms, but Mr. Tim saw them in the hall and shooed them upstairs, out of the way.

“I don’t suppose we have time for sex,” Henry said, his tone indicating he was sure of Martin’s answer.

“No, we don’t,” Martin said firmly. Anyone might solicit Henry’s opinion about some aspect of the party between now and the arrival of guests, and it would not do for Henry to be caught in flagrante.

“What shall we do, then?” Henry asked, flopping back dramatically across his bed.

“I have an idea.” Martin went to sit on the bed beside Henry and put a hand on his hip, liking how the bone fit the curve of his palm.

“Well, what is it?”

“I’m sure you’ve read it to yourself already, but I haven’t seen the new story in Pals. The one about Pony Express boys. I could read it to you.”

Henry sat bolt upright. “Yes! Let’s do that!” He got up and went to his desk and retrieved the magazine from a stack of schoolbooks and old homework.

“Here.” He handed it to Martin, open to the correct page. “I think there might be something between two of the riders, but I won’t say which ones. I want to see if you notice it, too.” He fell back on the bed, wriggling to get comfortable, his booted feet hanging off the edge.

Martin reached for Henry’s bootlaces and made quick work of the knots.

“I can do it,” Henry said, sitting up to prove it.

Martin made a face. “I’m better at it, and it’s my job. It’s done anyway.” He pulled Henry’s boots from his feet and then dealt with his own. He helped Henry off with his jacket and put it with his own at the foot of the bed. He sat cross-legged with his back to the headboard, Henry sprawled diagonally across the bed before him.

“I’m ready,” Henry announced, hands behind his head. “I can’t wait to hear what voices you’ll do.”

“Well, I’m doing them for the first time, and I don’t know their personalities yet, so I’ll be trying different things,” Martin cautioned. “I’ll definitely know what everyone sounds like for the next chapter, though.”

“That’s perfectly understandable,” Henry assured him. “Since I know what happens in this one, I can tell you if I think you’ve got just the right tone or whatever.”

“I’ll appreciate it,” Martin said. And then he began to read.

It was a fact that Pony Express riders had all been small, wiry fellows, weighing less than 125 pounds, and young, being less than 18 years of age. They were, unlike Theo and George, very much like working-class boys Martin and Henry might encounter on the streets of the city or at the arcade, except of course Western. The main character, Sonny, was a cocky freckled redhead who used what passed for salty language in a boys’ magazine, and it was very easy for Martin to imagine that Henry might want to fuck someone like Sonny, some squirmy little dirty-talking ginger who’d be rendered speechless impaled on Henry’s big cock. Martin made an effort not to be ill-disposed toward Sonny because of this specific imagining, and made sure to do an especially good voice for him as penance.

Sonny’s compatriots were Clem, a serious, dark-haired fellow who liked to read, and Levi, a naïve blond who was the best rider of the lot. There were others, but those were the main characters, and Martin managed to settle upon suitable voices for each, with Henry’s enthusiastic approval.

As Martin read, he realized there were possibly some logistical differences between how the boys in the story carried the mail and how the real-world Pony Express riders had done it. Sonny, Clem and Levi spent a lot more time together, and had a lot more idle time, than Martin suspected was anything like accurate. But it did give Sonny and Clem time to become “better friends,” which was their stated aim.

The chapter did little more than establish the characters and their setting, but it was interesting and fun to read. At the end, Henry turned to him and said, “Oh, Martin, it’s so much better when you read it!” He reached for Martin, who let himself be drawn down into an awkward kiss.

“I’m glad you liked it.”

“So did you notice anything? About how the riders get along?” Henry was very eager for his answer.

Martin hoped they were on the same page. “Well…I think Sonny is drawn to Clem, but he doesn’t know why yet. Is that what you thought?”

Yes!” Henry beamed at him. “When Sonny says goodnight in the bunkhouse and just stands there a moment looking at Clem…well, that seemed like something.”

Martin smiled. “I used to do that with you.”

Henry laughed. “Does it ever bother you that you fell in love with an idiot?”

Martin laughed, too, “I think you’ve gotten smarter since then.” He took Henry’s hand in both of his own, playing with Henry’s fingers. “But you were never an idiot, Henry. You were just unsure of yourself.”

“You’re really kind to me,” Henry remarked, squeezing Martin’s hand. “Say, when do you think guests will start arriving?”

Martin thought on this a moment. The party started at two o’clock, the cake would be cut and served at three. “I think your cousins and Mr. Briggs are all arriving around one,” he said. “You wanted them to come early.”

“Do you think Louis and Jesse will get along?”

“I don’t think you have anything to be worried about.”

They had two hours to fill. Henry, who had opted for the suit waistcoat in the morning, decided he ought to be fancier, and so Martin dressed him in his black floral brocade waistcoat instead, pairing this with an eggplant necktie. Martin thought it looked very smart on Henry, but he would not wish to wear it himself.

Once Henry was dressed, they necked awhile, gradually sinking into a comfortable stillness. Martin roused himself to set an alarm, but then returned to Henry’s arms and drifted into a light and pleasant sleep.

When the alarm sounded, Martin was immediately up, but Henry could sleep through anything and just whimpered and pawed at the warmth of the bedcover where Martin had lain. Martin put on his own boots, then hauled Henry around so his legs hung over the side of the bed and applied boots to his limp feet, as well.

“Huh?” Henry snorted awake and sat halfway up, propped on his elbows, as Martin tied his bootlaces. “Are we getting up now?”

“Yes, sleepyhead.” Martin kissed his forehead and then ducked out of range as Henry reached for him. “We don’t have time to cuddle,” Martin said, brooking no argument. “Your clothes are all rumpled. Stand up.”

Grumbling, Henry did as he was told, and Martin tugged his garments back in order.

“Your hair,” Martin said, smiling as he attempted to comb it into place with his fingers. “It’s very cute like this, but you’re not presentable.” He took Henry into the bathroom and wet a comb to tame his unruly waves.

Just as Martin got Henry’s hair combed, there came a knock at the door. Martin opened it to smiling Paul, who informed him that Mr. Wilton and Mr. Carmichael had arrived.

Martin turned to Henry. “Sir? Do you wish to meet your guests downstairs, or would you like them to come to you?”

Henry frowned in thought. “What do you think?”

“I think downstairs, Sir. Perhaps the lavender parlor.”

“Okay, downstairs it is.” He came to the door to join Martin. “Hello, Paul. We’re all going down.”

“Very good, Sir.”

Mr. Wilton, Mr. Carmichael, Russ and Owen all waited in the entry hall. Mr. Wilton seemed especially happy to see Henry. They all filed into the lavender parlor, and then Martin took Russ and Owen with him to find refreshments.

The reception room was full of people, nearly all of them unfamiliar. These were kitchen staff and waiters from the caterers who would be working at the party. Most of the Blackwell slaves would stay downstairs out of the way and weren’t to be involved in the party at all. However, they were to be allowed to eat some of the party food, and since they’d be able to hear the music quite clearly in the mess, Mr. Tim had given permission to move the tables out of the way so everyone might dance.

They returned to the lavender parlor with punch but no food.

“The food isn’t set out yet, Sir,” Martin explained. “Perhaps if we check back in a bit.”

“Oh, all right,” Henry said. “I guess we can wait.”

Mr. Wilton was eager for Mr. Carmichael to see the Blackwell house and Henry was amenable. They all trooped up and down the halls and in and out of rooms that the Blackwells never used.

Martin hung back with Russ and Owen, an ear always attuned to Henry’s voice, to any expression of need. He was dying to tell Russ what Henry had agreed to do, but it wasn’t his place. Henry would need to speak with Mr. Wilton first.

In the library, Mr. Carmichael called Owen over to look at a book.

“Hey,” Russ said in a low voice. “I’m glad you and Mr. Blackwell are friends again. You are friends, aren’t you? You seem very happy today.”

Martin couldn’t suppress his broad smile and ducked his head shyly. “We’re friends again,” he confirmed. He bent so he could whisper in Russ’ ear. “He apologized to me!”

“Really!” Russ seemed quite impressed.

When Mr. Wilton and Russ had come to lunch on Wednesday, Mr. Wilton had wanted to talk about everything that happened after the ball, and Henry had sent Martin and Russ from the room. Distraught, hunched on a hard chair in the otherwise empty mess, Martin had given Russ a tearful, halting account of the downtown debacle, trying to leave out as many of the particulars of his relation to Henry as possible. He’d told Russ that Henry had not allowed him to apologize. He’d confessed that he loved Henry, that it wasn’t just service at all, and Russ had hugged him and patted his back and assured him that he understood, of course he did.

And then they’d been summoned back upstairs, and everything that had happened since had been wonderful.

Henry called Martin over to look at a different book, to see if he knew what language it was written in, because none of the masters knew and Owen just shrugged when asked to offer an opinion.

Martin did not have much time to examine the text before Billy arrived at the library door to announce that Mr. Briggs had arrived.

“Send him to us, please,” Henry said.

When Mr. Briggs and Peter walked in, Henry and Martin made their respective introductions.

“Peter knows everything about me,” Martin said. “One of the few who do.”

“Oh, of course,” Russ said, understanding his meaning. “Well, we have that in common then, Peter.”

“I scarcely know Martin at all,” Owen remarked, making it clear this was perfectly fine with him, and they all laughed.

“Let’s ask Peter,” Henry said, raising his voice so they would hear. “Peter, come look at this book, will you?”

Peter did as requested, and the others went to join their masters, as well.

Mr. Briggs was apologizing for his late arrival. “Edward—my littlest brother—was in the park with our nurse this morning and got bit by a dog—”

“Oh!” Mr. Wilton was instantly concerned. “Is he all right?”

Mr. Briggs waved off his concern as unnecessary. “Oh, sure. He’s like a cockroach—you can’t kill him—but he was bleeding all over the place and wouldn’t stop crying. Edward likes me pretty well, so Annie begged me to go with them to the doctor to get him stitched up. It took a lot longer than I thought it would because it turns out Edward’s really afraid of needles.”

Mr. Carmichael laughed, though not unkindly. Mr. Wilton seemed full of soft-hearted dismay.

“You’re a good brother,” Henry said, which Martin thought a generous estimation. “Martin, do you want to take another look at this book?”

“Of course, Sir, I’d be happy to.” He stood shoulder to shoulder with Peter and looked at the page in mild consternation. It was a very foreign script, a very foreign alphabet, full of loops and swoops and movement. The book was a beautiful object and looked very old, and Martin thought that it probably shouldn’t be handled by a bunch of careless young men, but he wasn’t going to suggest this.

“Do you have any idea?” Peter asked, his voice low. He flipped a page, but it was no more comprehensible than the previous one.

Martin did not, and he opened his mouth to answer, but before he could say anything, Billy once again appeared in the doorway, this time to request Henry’s presence in the entry hall, as it was nearly two o’clock.

Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell were waiting in the hall with Mr. Tim and Miss Pearl. Mr. Blackwell was wearing his invariable black suit, quite impeccable. Mrs. Blackwell had changed from her frumpy black into the bronze dress with fuchsia roses that she seemed to favor for occasions. Additionally, she was wearing a glittering complement of jewelry, much befitting a woman of her status. It was not Martin’s place to say so, but it was nice to see her taking on her rightful role in proper raiment.

Henry’s guests might well be arriving all throughout the party hours, and he wouldn’t be expected to greet them all, but he’d greet this first wave of arrivals, and it would be Martin’s job to welcome their slaves and try to remember the names of masters and slaves both.

The doorbell rang at two minutes after two and Martin couldn’t help feeling excited, but it was just Mr. Lovejoy with Julian. Mr. Franklin with Ralph and Mr. Caldwell with Tom arrived right on Mr. Lovejoy’s heels. Then there were a pair of fellows whose names Martin remembered from the Metropolitan Ball attendees list, another spate of school friends, a whole slew of strangers.

Martin had worried that Henry would be bashful or nervous greeting so many unknown people, but he was in fine form, charming and at ease, even more handsome than usual in this confident mode. Many of the young ladies were quite bold, reminding Henry that they’d enjoyed dancing with him previously, or suggesting that they simply must dance with him today, and Henry assured them all that he intended to dance as much as possible. It seemed that nothing would disrupt his equanimity this afternoon.

For his part, Martin greeted these young masters’ slaves graciously, suggesting to them that they find refreshment for their masters in the reception room and informing them to expect the cake to be cut at three o’clock.

Between greetings, Henry leaned close and spoke out of the side of his mouth. “I’m hungry!” They hadn’t had any lunch, after all.

“We’ll get you something to eat soon, Sir, I promise.” He wondered how much longer Henry would be expected to play host; surely it wouldn’t be the full hour.

Mr. Blackwell stood a short distance behind Henry, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and whispering in a low rumble to Mr. Tim. Mrs. Blackwell was seated in a chair someone had brought out for her, smiling at the parade of young people with cool assessment, a haughty and elegant queen.

They’d been greeting people for perhaps half an hour when Mr. Tim stepped forward and whispered in Martin’s ear. “Mr. Blackwell thinks this has gone on quite long enough. After this next pair, Young Sir is free to mingle.”

Martin relayed this to Henry, and Henry’s greeting to the next guest, a complete stranger, was especially warm because of it.

Upon entering the reception room, Martin’s objective was to get Henry something to eat, a selection of hors d’oeuvres and some punch. This goal achieved, he was going back to get something for himself when he was waylaid by Tom, who encouraged him to eat off his plate instead. Martin wanted his own plate so he could return to Henry’s side, but Henry was surrounded by a crush of friends, and it would be quite impossible for Martin to get back to him without pushing and shoving young masters out of his way. He realized, with a sinking heart, that it would be like this all day.

As he ate both Angels and Devils on Horseback from Tom’s plate, Martin took a moment to admire the results of his planning efforts. The decorations were beautiful and in fine taste. There were dramatic bouquets in large epergnes on tables throughout the room, and he thought he could detect a faint fragrance of roses even above the young ladies’ collective perfumes. Additionally, there were swags of greenery and bunting looped on the walls, these punctuated with further clusters of flowers. If all had gone as planned, the ballroom and its attached sitting room would be similarly decorated.

He cast a longing look at Henry, but Henry seemed quite content without him, surrounded by friendly faces. Realizing what he was doing, he frowned and shook his head; it would not do to be mooning over Henry where anyone might see.

“…anyway. What do you think of that?” Tom asked.

Martin blinked. “Oh. Sorry. I was…”

Tom laughed. “You’re preoccupied,” he said. “Never mind. It wasn’t important.”

“I’m sorry,” Martin said again. “I…there’s a lot to keep track of today.”

He seemed to have lost track of all of it, though. He did not know where Henry’s cousins had gone, or Mr. Briggs, or their slaves. He did not know where the Blackwells were, and he could not see Mr. Tim, with whom he would need to coordinate when it came time for cake.

“Tommy, I have to go find Mr. Tim,” he said. “We’ll see each other later, all right?”

“Of course,” Tom said cheerfully. “I’ll definitely find you.”

Mr. Tim was still in the hall. “Oh, Martin, there you are. Good. It’s nearly time for cake.”

The next quarter hour was hectic. Henry was informed of the plan and maneuvered into the appropriate area of the reception room. The main cake was sent up in the dumbwaiter and transferred to a cart, then escorted down the hall by a cadre of waiters. Martin enlisted some of his friends to help him encourage the guests to make way for the cart. The Blackwells came to stand at Henry’s side, and Esther and Cora were with them; Martin wished he might say hello to Little Miss, but he thought it would prove disruptive.

If this was a smaller party, more intimate, Martin might have been tasked with lighting the candles, but here the job was done by a hired waiter. Hired staff would also cut the cake. They were seasoned professionals, veterans of many society birthdays, and it simply made sense to let them handle it, but Martin did feel a little wistful about missing out on this particular opportunity for service.

All the guests, free and slave, wished Henry a boisterous Happy Birthday and he blew out his candles to vigorous applause. Henry accepted birthday wishes from his family, including Little Miss, and was then besieged by friends offering their own well wishes. Martin made way for Henry’s friends, but when Henry stepped aside to allow the cake to be cut and served, Martin made sure to find his way back to Henry’s side. Henry touched his hand just briefly, and Martin dared to touch him back.

“Happy Birthday, Sir,” Martin murmured. He linked his pinky with Henry’s for a fraction of a second before pulling his hand away.

When the cake was cut, Martin got some for Henry, then for Miss DeWitt and her Helena, who were monopolizing Henry’s attention, then finally for himself, eating it at Henry’s side, his elbow brushing Henry’s sleeve as he raised the fork to his mouth. He tried not to feel hurt or let down by how little attention Henry was able to pay him. After all, he’d had all of Henry’s attention at his own party.

Martin collected Henry’s cake plate and those of several guests to be returned to the kitchen, and then he went to find Mr. Tim. As he headed for the hall door, he was waylaid by Miss Pearl.

“Tim tells me the dancing will start any minute,” Miss Pearl said. “Mrs. Blackwell wants very much to dance the first number with her son.” She indicated Mrs. Blackwell, who was ensconced on a settee at the wall, with a nod of her head. “She’s been resting up in anticipation. Do you think he’ll be willing?”

“I’m sure he will,” Martin assured her. “I’ll let him know.”

When he returned to Henry’s side, Henry readily agreed to do this, and together they made their way over to his family. Little Miss was delighted to see them both, though perhaps she was a little happier to see Martin, and he actually did like that he was her favorite brother—for now—though he didn’t think he would admit this to Henry.

He trailed Mrs. Blackwell and Henry to the ballroom. A group of his friends stood at the foot of the room, and he joined them to watch this first dance. The perimeter of the room was crowded with couples waiting to take to the floor. The music began, a light waltz, and Henry and his mother began to dance.

Really, Mrs. Blackwell must have been a very popular young lady in her day. She seemed an excellent dance partner, and her pleasure in the dance made her faded beauty vivid. She and Henry were both smiling, and their faces seemed very like. As they made it halfway down the room, other couples fell in behind them, and soon the dance floor was a swirl of skirts and nimble feet.

Henry was a Wilton, to be sure, with all of that family’s beauty and physical elegance, and to Martin’s eye he represented the pinnacle of Wilton breeding. He hadn’t his handsome uncle’s airy frivolity, nor his cousin’s flighty enthusiasm, but instead had a singularly masculine grace, light yet strong and substantial, and perhaps that manliness, along with his height, was his true inheritance from his imposing father.

Martin was prepared to help Henry find partners, but he proved quite capable on his own. After relinquishing his mother to Miss Pearl’s care, he danced with Miss Sinclair, the girl he’d so enjoyed dancing with at Mr. Wilton’s party. Henry was such a beautiful dancer, graceful and dashing, and Martin had an intense, muscular recollection of being in his arms at the men’s ball, the air full of the smell of sweat and cheap cologne. This was certainly a more refined crowd, not least due to the inclusion of young ladies.

After handing Miss Sinclair off to Mr. Wilton, Henry seemed to be searching the crowd, perhaps for Martin, and Martin was making his way toward him, but then Henry was waylaid by Miss DeWitt and plunged back into the dance.

Someday he’d like to dance with Henry again. Maybe they could go to the dance hall if they were discreet, if they were careful. Henry whirled past with Miss DeWitt, who threw her head back and laughed, and Martin remembered doing the same, giddy on champagne. He remembered how proud he’d felt, that his partner was so handsome, so graceful, so attentive, and he’d felt he was the envy of everyone at the dance hall.

He’d wanted to come home, without a doubt, but he’d enjoyed some of his experience downtown. He’d had moments when he hadn’t felt exactly free, whatever that might be like, but not entirely a slave, either. He had been Martin Durant, a person with opinions and preferences that might not have corresponded with Henry’s, and he’d felt entitled to them. These last few days, with Henry being so solicitous and concerned, he’d felt a little of that again, that Henry encouraged his independence.

Henry, with Miss DeWitt on his arm, made his way toward the reception room, and Martin met them and Helena near the punchbowl. He was tasked with fetching punch for everyone. Miss DeWitt, now an engaged woman, had a different use for Henry now. She’d seemingly abandoned her romantic notions and wanted him as a friend, which Martin was a little suspicious of, not sure how regular-seeming men and women might go about being friends. Gentlemen such as Mr. Phipps or Henry’s uncle were understood to be harmless company for ladies, but Henry was not going to be in that category, not outwardly.

Miss DeWitt, along with her Helena, was swept away by Mr. Wilton, back to the dance, leaving Henry and Martin alone.

Henry radiated heat, and Martin wanted to taste his neck. But all he did was lean close and ask, “Sir? Shall we find you another dance partner?”

Henry’s voice was low and playful. “What if I want to stay here with you?”

“But I want to watch you dance, Sir.” Martin leaned closer still, his lips brushing Henry’s ear. “I want to watch and remember dancing with you downtown.”

Henry looked at him quite seriously. “Do you mean that? Do you really want to remember?”

Martin laughed and dared to touch Henry’s hand. “Of course I mean it, Sir. I definitely do. Parts of that night were lovely.”

Henry seemed very pleased that Martin had some good memories of their escapade. His tone implying that he was doing it for Martin’s benefit, Henry said, “All right, then. I suppose I ought to find a partner.”

Henry found a girl to dance with and Martin found a spot to observe him from. He joined a circle of his friends and listened absently to their chatter, but his eyes were on Henry, and he thought only of dancing with him in the girl’s place, showing everyone how obviously they belonged to each other.

When the music concluded, Henry shot him a significant look over the heads of the crowd and escorted the girl back to her slave. Martin caught up with him at the ballroom door.

“Did you want some punch, Sir?”

“No, not now. Come on. Come with me.” Henry urged him on with impatient gestures and set out for the entry hall.

“Where are we going, Sir?” Martin kept his voice low, trying to be discreet. There were a few people moving in and out of the front parlors, but most guests were gathered in and around the ballroom.

Henry pulled him toward the stairs by his wrist. “Hurry, before someone sees us.”

Giddy and nervous, Martin cast a quick glance back over his shoulder and followed Henry up the stairs. He was quite sure what Henry had in mind, and just as sure he would go along with it, provided they could do it quickly.

What they did—Henry jerking Martin’s cock, letting Martin finish in his mouth—was raw and sweet, and Martin would have liked to return the favor, but they didn’t have time, and they both knew it. If Mr. Blackwell found out they’d left the party, he’d know exactly why, and Martin did not think they could depend upon him to be lenient yet again.

Afterward, Henry sat on Martin’s bed, his hard cock obvious in his well-fitting trousers, and watched as Martin put his own clothes in order. Henry said, “Months ago, I had this idea that I’d get you something new and I’d dress you up for our birthdays.” He gave Martin a crooked smile, a little sad. “I tried to tell myself that you’d enjoy it, too, but you wouldn’t, would you?”

No, Martin wouldn’t.

“You know I don’t want to do things differently than the others, at least not in public.” He paused a moment, thoughtful. “But in private…” He smoothed his chrysanthemum waistcoat against his chest and belly, loving the silky brocade. “With how interested you are in dressing me up, I’ve often wondered why you’ve never asked me to wear your clothes when we’re alone.”

My clothes?” It had plainly never occurred to Henry that he had this option, that they needn’t run away in order to dress Martin as a free man.

“Yes, your clothes.”

Despite his obvious excitement, Henry did not want to presume. “But I know you…you don’t want to play at being free. I know this, Martin, and I said I wouldn’t make you do—”

Martin shook his head. “This is different, Henry. A game we play at home, in private, will be fun for both of us. I don’t want to go out into the world pretending to be someone I’m not, but I’m happy to do it for you here in your bedroom with the door locked. Just us.”

Henry looked so hopeful! “You’d really do it? Wear the whole outfit?”

Martin laughed and bent to kiss him. “Of course I would.”

“Plaid suit?” Henry asked. “Paisley waistcoat?” His voice had a distinct quaver as he asked, “Collar and tie?”

Martin smiled. “Most certainly a collar and tie.” He leaned in, lowering his voice, “And I’ll introduce myself to you as Mr. Durant.” He felt a little thrill saying the name aloud; he hadn’t had reason to do so since they’d been at the Calamus.

“Oh…” Henry gave a little shiver and squirmed in his seat.

Martin laughed again. “You’re imagining it, aren’t you? Stop thinking about it, dirty boy. We need to go downstairs.”

“Can we play later?” Henry asked. “After everyone leaves?”

Martin grinned. “I look forward to it.”

Downstairs, they had not been missed in the crowd. Henry was in high spirits, seeming especially handsome, and never lacked for a partner. He danced every tune, whirling girl after girl around the floor. Martin stood with his friends and tried to pay attention to their conversation, but all he could think about was approaching Henry in the guise of Mr. Durant, a person who was and wasn’t himself, who had preferences and desires that Henry would need to accommodate in order to win his favor.

He stood with Tom, Miles, Simon and Russ, who was flirting with Miles quite shamelessly. The other Orpheus slave in their circle of friends, Allen, was being monopolized by his master. All agreed that Mr. Hollingsworth should be more discreet.

“He’s not even bringing Allen to swaps anymore,” Simon complained, keeping his voice low. “The other masters are going to notice his attachment, don’t you think?”

Miles shrugged. “Well, none of them care very much about swaps anymore, though. All the masters are jaded now.”

“What do you mean?” Martin asked. Were swaps falling out of fashion?

Miles sighed. “Well, Mr. Brand can’t be bothered to go to a party these days. He’d rather stay home and read.” He rolled his eyes. “He says it’s too bad I can’t go by myself, because he’s lost interest.”

“It is too bad you can’t go by yourself,” Simon said. “I’ve missed you. But you’re right. Mr. Ross’ last two parties were very poorly attended.”

“If Mr. Brand would really let you go,” Russ said to Miles, “I’m very sure Mr. Wilton would allow you to come without your master to any party he might host.”

Miles raised an eyebrow at this, seeming both doubtful and interested. “Things must be done very differently at Lawton,” he remarked.

Russ smiled up at him. “Mr. Wilton set a very permissive standard during his years at Lawton.”

Tom said, “The masters are different than us, though. They don’t look forward to parties the way we do. They’re only willing to put up with other men because it’s what’s allowed. They’re really only interested in girls, but most of us like both.”

“Some of the masters do, too,” Simon said with confidence, which seemed rather careless to Martin.

“And of course there’s Mr. Hollingsworth,” Miles said. “Though we all know he’s not the only one with such a preference.”

Martin went very still, inadvertently holding his breath, and suddenly everyone was dead silent and looking anywhere but at him, and he realized that they knew.

They all knew.

Russ and Tom both knew because Martin had confided in them, of course. Miles and Simon knew either because Tom had gossiped to them, or because they’d guessed.

Martin wanted to blurt out a vehement denial, but bit back the words. It was better to say nothing.

Tom cleared his throat. “I think we’re all used to keeping secrets, aren’t we? I never tell Mr. Caldwell anything about other masters. If his friends want him to know their business, they’ll tell him themselves.”

Affecting supreme disinterest, Miles said, “I don’t confide in Mr. Brand.”

Simon said, “Mr. Ross is very open-minded.”

Martin gave a little involuntary jerk and looked at him wide-eyed, nervous and wary.

“Oh, but I’m certainly not putting anything in his open mind!” He laughed and leaned across their circle to pat Martin’s arm. “But if Mr. Ross ever happens to learn anything interesting about his friends, he’ll be very understanding, I’m sure of it.”

Martin’s heart pounded a hectic tempo and his breath caught in his throat. His impulse was to run out on the dance floor, wrest Henry from his partner’s arms, and shield him from harm, but that was ridiculous and would do nothing but draw unwanted attention. Besides, it was too late. Everyone knew. Or, at least all the slaves did.

Miles said, “Mr. Blackwell is understood to be a very private person. Mr. Brand believes he’s quite uninteresting, a prude of the highest order, and I certainly haven’t disabused him of that notion.”

Tom reached out and rubbed his arm. “It’s all right, Martin. You needn’t worry.”

“Martin, no one tells masters anything, you know this,” Miles said, trying to reassure.

But Martin himself had told Henry all manner of things slaves shouldn’t tell masters. Martin had told Henry about Simon and Mr. Ross. Martin hadn’t named names, but he’d told Henry and Mr. Briggs secrets about Mr. Lovejoy and Julian, Mr. Hollingsworth and Allen, Mr. Fox and Howard, and probably others he wasn’t remembering.

“We all know whether or not our masters can be trusted,” Simon said soothingly. “Mr. Ross is very trustworthy.”

Miles gave a rueful smile. “Mr. Brand is not.”

Tom laughed. “Mr. Caldwell doesn’t give a fig about any sort of gossip, no matter who it’s about. Honestly, even if I wanted to tell him anything, he’d just be annoyed and tell me to be quiet.”

Martin knew this about Mr. Caldwell already. Tom was actually quite despairing about how little Mr. Caldwell wanted from him, desiring him neither as sex partner nor confidante.

Russ reached for Martin’s hand and squeezed. “I think you know that Mr. Wilton wants nothing but the best for Mr. Blackwell.”

Martin opened his mouth but his voice wouldn’t come out; he cleared his throat self-consciously and said, “Yes, I know this about Mr. Wilton. He’s very kind.”

How long had they known? What had given him away? Would they really keep it to themselves?

“Who…” He had to stop and swallow before he could continue. “Who thinks they know Mr. Blackwell’s business? Is it just you Orpheus fellows? Or is it everyone?”

Simon frowned. “Well, I don’t really know. Of course it’s us Orpheus men, but I suppose others might have guessed.”

“Tommy didn’t gossip,” Miles said, giving Tom a pat. “But when you came back to school with short hair, and you were obviously estranged from Mr. Blackwell, and you were both so unhappy…”

“It seemed like a love affair gone wrong,” Simon said bluntly. “I don’t know what Julian actually thinks now, but at the time he did ask me if I thought that was what was the matter.”

“Julian?” Martin was surprised Julian would be so observant about a homosexual affair, something that would be of so little interest to him personally. “Why would Julian care?"

“He admires you,” Simon said, as if Martin should know this already. “He was concerned.”

“He admires me?”

“Top boy from the top House,” Tom said, nudging him with his shoulder. “I think all of us look to your example at least a little bit.”

This was flattering news.

“You came back so defeated,” Miles said. “We were all worried, but we didn’t know what to do for you.”

“You didn’t want to talk,” Simon said, almost admonishing. “We did want to help, though.”

“Oh.” Martin was stunned. He’d spent these months being so wrapped up in Henry, for better or worse, that he’d paid little attention to anyone else. He hadn’t even realized his friends were aware of his distress.

He thought he’d been discreet.

“I don’t think any masters noticed anything, of course,” said Miles.

“They never notice the things that happen right under their noses,” Tom said.

Simon started to speak, hesitated, bit his lip, and then said, “Mr. Ross did ask me if something was wrong, but I told him I didn’t know.” Again, he put his hand on Martin’s sleeve. “Really, Martin, if Mr. Blackwell ever wanted to confide in another master, Mr. Ross would be most receptive. He’s kinder than you’d imagine.”

Handsome Mr. Ross was brash, outspoken, cocky, and unconcerned with anyone’s judgments, but Martin supposed he’d seen nothing from him to preclude kindness.

The tune concluded and the dancers all clapped and returned to the sidelines; as couples dissolved and formed for the next number, the first chair stood up and announced it would be the last waltz before the meal break.

Henry was striding the length of the room, smiling broadly, heading straight for Martin.

“I’ve got to go—” Martin explained to his friends. He didn’t wait for acknowledgment, but abruptly set off through the crowd to meet Henry, to intersect.

Henry wasn’t coming for him. Esther stood at the edge of the floor, her hands on Little Miss’ shoulders. Henry stopped before them, bending down to speak with his sister. By the time Martin made his way to Esther’s side, Henry was holding his sister’s hands tightly, her bright patent boots standing atop his feet. He glanced at Martin and gave him a brilliant, happy smile, and when the music started again, he waltzed Little Miss around in a swooping circle at the edge of the floor, out of the way of the grown dancers but still part of the celebration.

Little Miss was happier than Martin had ever seen her. Head thrown back, laughter like bells. It occurred to Martin that Henry might improve his sister’s life a great deal if only he’d make certain requests. What if Henry were to ask for Little Miss’ inclusion in family life now, rather than waiting until the arbitrary age of 10? The Blackwells were uncertain in their interactions with their chatty, assertive daughter, but Martin knew how to talk and play with her, and Henry knew how, too. Together they could entertain and even civilize her. Little Miss had a great many friends, and Esther kept her busy, but Martin was quite sure she needed her family. She needed her brother. Brothers, if he was being honest.

He would suggest it to Henry, and he was almost sure Henry would agree it was a good idea, if for no other reason than to make Martin happy.

As the tune ended, the room descended into genteel chaos. Martin was separated from Esther, didn’t see his friends. He waited for Henry by the door to the reception room, standing tall to make eye contact over the heads of all Henry’s guests. Henry saw him and gave a little wave. Mr. Wilton was beside him, as was Peter; Martin was confident that short Mr. Briggs and Russ were simply out of sight in the crush.

“Hello, Martin.” Henry touched his arm, affectionate and brief.

“Hello, Sir. Shall I fix you a plate?”

The buffet was a menu similar to that served at Mr. Wilton’s party. Martin loaded Henry’s plate with Angels on Horseback, Devils on Horseback, salmon croquettes, cold chicken, deviled eggs, cheese puffs, olives, and salted nuts, and got a cup of punch for him to wash it down with.

“Do you know what kind these are?” Peter asked, pointing at the croquettes.

“Salmon,” Martin told him.

Peter made a face. “Mr. Briggs doesn’t like fish.”

“There might be chicken ones, too. Maybe at the end of the table?”

Martin made his way back to Henry’s side with his meal, aware that most of Henry’s friends’ companions were doing the same. He was hungry and eager to get his own plate of food.

Henry had a warmth, a sort of invisible glow leftover from the dancing, and he smelled good. Martin leaned close for a surreptitious sip of air and said, “Here you are, Sir.”

“Oh, thank you, Martin.”

“I’ll be right back, Sir.” Martin made to go back to the buffet line for his own plate.

But Henry blocked his way. He had a stubborn set to his jaw as he held out his plate and said, “Martin, do you want some of mine?”

“Sir?” What was Henry doing?

“Angels on Horseback,” Henry said. “You like them, don’t you? Eat some off my plate. I’ve got plenty. Eat anything you want. We can get more, right?” He was looking at Martin intently, willing him to do as he suggested.

“Y-yes, Sir, of course.” This was a rule it thrilled Martin to break. There was precedent, family tradition on both sides. He smiled at Henry and held his gaze as he chose a salmon croquette from his plate and brought it to his mouth. It seemed especially delicious.

Mr. Briggs said, “Henry, what are you doing?”

Henry shrugged. “Sharing a plate. It’s not so strange. My mother’s people do it, don’t we, Jesse?” It was possible no one but Martin heard the nervous tremor in his voice.

Mr. Wilton laughed and offered his plate to Russ. “We’ve always done it. My friends do it, too.”

Henry managed to sound very matter-of-fact and even casual when he said, “You all know my father sits down with his companion. I understand he’s infamous for that.” None of the masters said anything, but they were listening and considering.

Mr. Ross laughed suddenly, brazen and bold, and said, “Why not? Here, Si. Come eat.” Simon smiled at his master, seeming very eager to participate in this new practice. He took Mr. Ross’ plate and ate a cheese puff.

Mr. Wilton’s friends, who were all quite accustomed to eating like this at their own parties, were perfectly content to do so here, as well. Henry’s friends looked at Henry, and then at Mr. Ross, and began to tentatively offer their plates to their own companions. Some seemed more nervous than others, glancing around to see who was daring to participate, who was abstaining, who might be vehemently opposed to this practice.

Mr. Howard from Henry’s quadrille set questioned Henry about this plate-sharing, and when Henry proved tongue-tied, Mr. Ross stepped in to tell a very blasé lie about it being something everyone did at Algonquin. None of the other Algonquin boys challenged this assertion, and Mr. Howard shrugged and offered his plate to his slave Bernie.

Soon nearly all the young masters, and a fair number of the young mistresses, were sharing plates with their companions. Only the masters from Powell Prep would not participate, sneering their disapproval from their huddle at the foot of the room.

Mr. Howard said disdainfully, “Who cares about them? All those Powell fellows are bastards anyway.”

Martin remembered that they’d heard this before while riding with that Mr. Hastings Henry had found so objectionable. If even the likes of Mr. Hastings thought Powell Prep boys unpleasant company, they probably were.

It seemed very special to eat like this, his head close to Henry’s, their fingers touching as they chose their food. They shared a napkin. They shared the punch. Some masters sent their slaves back for their own punch cups, but not everyone. It wasn’t a problem to share cups, not when everyone knew how close masters and slaves could be.

Everyone knew.

At Ganymede, they’d been told that different masters, different social groups, tolerated varying degrees of intimacy between master and slave, and that companions should defer to masters in this as in all things. They were trained to expect a certain lack of consideration, to reconcile themselves to carelessness. There were hints that sometimes things went very differently, that a very few masters were aching to be close with someone, anyone, and a companion in such a situation might be a lucky fellow. But even this was understood to be temporary. Masters would grow up and shift their affections to a wife, or at least a woman. No one ever suggested a master might remain devoted to a slave. It would necessarily be a passing phase.

But what about Henry’s Uncle Reggie and his Benjamin? What about Mr. Phipps and his Drew? Martin suspected there must be a huge number of wealthy homosexuals sharing meaningful closeness with their companions. What if Henry’s regard never wavered? The possibilities were almost frightening. If Henry never stopped loving him, he’d never stop mattering, and the idea of enduring importance was exhilarating, terrifying. What if Henry always felt like this about him, just as he said he would? What if Martin decided to trust that Henry knew his own heart?

He was too excited, breath short and hands shaking, and he tried to hide his happy distress behind gulps of punch.

“You’re thirsty,” Henry noted.

“I’ll just go get some more punch, Sir. Is there anything else you need?”

Martin made his way to the punchbowl. He’d had a little time to think about it, and while he wasn’t exactly happy that his friends knew Henry’s business, he wasn’t really surprised. Just like the Blackwell slaves, the Algonquin contingent had had ample opportunity to observe him with Henry, and he didn’t doubt there’d been signs for any interested party to see. It made sense, too, that as topmost boy of their year, the rest might have taken a keener interest in his business. He couldn’t worry about it. He would have to trust his friends—and he would do better going forward about protecting their secrets. He did feel guilty about telling Henry about Allen and Mr. Hollingsworth, even without using names.

He and Henry would have to be discreet. They would have to be careful. But Martin thought Henry could have much of what he wanted. There had been a fad in recent years for upper-class people to visit tawdry neighborhoods to gawk at the colorful lower-class denizens. If Henry visited certain parts of town in the company of other young gentlemen, if his adventures were tourism of a sort, that might be more socially acceptable and easier to explain than Henry sneaking downtown on his own. Mr. Wilton seemed a likely co-conspirator; possibly Mr. Ross, as well. He would think on it and help Henry decide how to proceed.

Near the end of the dinner hour, Martin and Henry left the group to say goodnight to Little Miss, who threw herself forcefully at Martin, knocking his glasses askew. Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell seemed quite bemused by her display of affection.

Mr. Blackwell made an embarrassing remark to Mr. Tim about his children being under Martin’s spell, and poor Henry was mortified. Martin was also made uncomfortable. He had not done anything underhanded or deceitful to earn the regard of the Blackwell children. He loved them. They both wanted to be loved, so he loved them, and they loved him back. However, he did not think Mr. Blackwell was actually trying to accuse him of any wrongdoing; Mr. Blackwell seemed to find the situation amusing, and he’d made it clear through his words and deeds that he was possibly fond of Martin himself. Martin did not think Mr. Blackwell would have given him a birthday present if he felt he was a malign influence.

Henry made his escape from his parents and headed toward a large group of his friends, all gathered around Mr. Wilton near the ballroom door. Mr. Wilton was telling a story with a lively expression and waving hands. It was wonderful that Mr. Wilton seemed so well-liked by all of Henry’s friends. Martin knew Henry had been especially worried about Mr. Briggs getting along with his cousin, but Mr. Briggs seemed quite ready to claim Mr. Wilton as his own friend. After the events of the last few days, Martin thought it possible that if Mr. Briggs were to witness Mr. Wilton’s usual treatment of Russ, he’d groan and grimace and say he didn’t want to see it, and then chalk it up to some quirk of the Wilton bloodline.

Mr. Wilton’s story came to an end and the crowd erupted in boisterous laughter.

Henry called out, “Jesse!” and raised his hand.

Mr. Wilton looked around at his name, and he smiled when he saw Henry.

Henry waved him over. “Come here, please. Bring Russ along. I need to talk to you a moment.”

“What about, Sir?” Martin asked, touching his sleeve. “Is everything all right?”

“It’s about your birthday present,” Henry said.

“Oh!” Martin was rendered breathless. “Oh, Sir!” He did his best to contain his excitement.

They went to the library for privacy and quiet, and Henry made his request. As Martin had suspected would be the case, Mr. Wilton was more than happy to accommodate them; in fact, he proposed that they play immediately after the party, which Henry adamantly refused. But they did agree it could be done in August, that Mr. Wilton would schedule a drawing session and they would all see where things went from there.

They returned to the ballroom, Martin and Russ trailing behind their masters. Martin was in a happy daze. He had not expected anything to happen immediately, so did not mind the delay in their plans. What was important was that everyone was in agreement.

Russ took Martin’s hand for a brief squeeze. “I’m glad we’ll get to play together,” he said, voice low. “Of course, you know it will be fun, but we’ll all have to make sure Mr. Blackwell has a nice time.”

“He’s nervous,” Martin said, “though he has no reason to be.” He bent to whisper in Russ’ ear. “You’ll be quite jealous of me when you’ve seen him naked.”

Russ laughed loudly enough that both Henry and Mr. Wilton turned around with questioning expressions, wanting to be in on the joke.

When they entered the ballroom, Mr. Wilton went to join some fellows on the far side of the room, and Russ went with him, but Henry stood with Martin, side by side, watching the dancers. Their arms were touching full-length, warm contact. Martin felt that he couldn’t stop smiling. He was sure he was glowing, radiating happiness.

Every now and then, a departing guest would approach and thank Henry for the party, and that person’s slave would likewise thank Martin. After several of these goodbyes, Henry grew restless. His fingers encircled Martin’s wrist, low and hidden, just briefly, and he said, “I suppose I should find a partner and dance.”

“Indeed you should, Sir. Let’s see if any of your particular favorites are still here.” Martin looked out over the crowd, hoping to spot Miss Sinclair or Miss DeWitt.

“Oh, there’s Miss Collingsworth,” Henry said. “I’ll go ask her.” He touched Martin’s sleeve. “Find your friends,” he said. “Have fun.”

“I will, Sir. Thank you, Sir.” Oh, how he wanted to kiss Henry, a kiss full of lingering promise. But instead he smiled and gave Henry a little wave as he turned away.

Tom popped up at his shoulder. “I didn’t want to interrupt,” he said. “It seemed rather intimate.”

Martin was horrified. “Did it?”

“No, no,” Tom assured him. “Not really. Not to anyone who doesn’t know.”

Martin was not sure he believed him. He would have to be more careful.

“Come with me,” Tom said. He took Martin’s hand and led him through the crowd to stand with the rest of the Orpheus boys (Mr. Hollingsworth was dancing, so Allen was free). Russ came over with the rest of the Lawton slaves, including flirtatious Warren, who asked hopefully if Mr. Blackwell might have changed his mind about swapping.

Martin’s friends flirted with female slaves, and some dared dance a few steps with these girls, but this wasn’t meant to be a party for slaves. Martin paid little attention to these intrigues, keeping his eyes on Henry, who seemed to never tire, light and lithe and strong.

While he was busy watching Henry, Warren and Tom had made an expedient match, amorous opportunists with their arms around each other’s backs, whispering in each other’s ears, touching a little more than they ought.

“Martin.” Tom held Warren’s hand, and in a low voice asked, “Is there somewhere we can go? Just for a minute?”

Martin laughed softly. “You’re incorrigible, Tom.” But he knew how lonely Tom had been. There’d been so much gossip about him, and he’d had trouble finding affection, much less sex. If Warren would touch him kindly, speak to him sweetly, it would surely do him good.

He hesitated to leave the ballroom, leave Henry. But he wouldn’t send Tom wandering around the Blackwell house on his own.

“Come with me. Let’s be quick.”

Martin set off down the hall at a fast pace with Tom and Warren giggling together at his back. There was a room at the end of the hall, an unremarkable room with no current purpose, but it did have a camelback sofa and a lock on the door.

He hurried back to the ballroom, hoping that Henry had not required his attention in the interim. As he passed through the doorway, he looked for Henry on the floor, and when their eyes met, he offered Henry a broad and beaming smile, generous and heartfelt, and Henry returned it with enthusiastic delight, and just that little bit of connection was a happy comfort. And then Henry whirled past, directing a tempered version of his smile at the blonde girl in his arms.

Feeling loved, Martin got some punch just in case Henry might want to take a break, but Henry danced with two more girls while Martin absently sipped from the cup.

Tom and Warren returned, their clothes in good order, but the skin around their mouths looking pink and faintly blurred from kissing. Smiling Tom moved and spoke with a sort of satisfied lassitude, and Martin was happy for him.

Still Henry danced, and it was his job as host to do exactly this, so Martin could not fault him for it. He did want Henry’s attention, though, wanted it all to himself. Hoping to shake off his mounting irritation, Martin left the ballroom and the spectacle of Henry embracing young ladies, and went for more punch, and when he returned to the ballroom, Henry was looking for him.

“Is that for me?”

“Indeed it is, Sir.” Martin handed the cup over.

“Thank you.” Henry drank, then leaned close. “I’m ready for everyone to go home now. I’m tired out from dancing and smiling at strangers, and I just want to be alone with you.”

This was gratifying to hear. Martin lowered his voice and asked, “Are you looking forward to playing a game with me, Sir?”

Henry laughed, his face instantly red, and looked shyly away. “I love playing games with you,” he admitted. He drank down the rest of the punch.

“Do you want more, Sir?”

“I’ll come with you,” Henry decided, and they made their way to the reception room.

As they stood drinking punch near the bowl, the DeWitt siblings found Henry and said their goodbyes while Martin thanked Stuart and Helena for coming.

Stuart, who had known Martin his entire life, leaned close and said, “I’m glad you’re getting along with Mr. Blackwell again,” pressing a quick kiss to his cheek as he patted him on the back.

So Stuart knew, too. Well, of course he did: everyone knew. Martin didn’t much like this, but it did seem that it wouldn’t necessarily hurt Henry. He may have been indiscreet, but apparently his friends were better at keeping secrets.

Other departing guests found Henry in the reception room to thank him for the party, and Martin said polite farewells to their slaves. He surreptitiously checked his watch and was relieved to discover that it was nearly time for the music to end, and surely all the guests would leave then.

Mr. Tim entered the reception room and came immediately to Martin’s side. “Take Young Sir into the hall, please. I think the goodbyes will go much more efficiently.” He clapped Martin on the shoulder. “I hope you’ve had a nice time. Your planning resulted in a lovely party.”

“Oh! Thank you, Mr. Tim.” The praise was very gratifying.

The next half hour was a blur of handshakes and bland politesse. Billy, Paul, Randolph and others of the Blackwell slaves were busy fetching hats and the occasional unseasonable coat. Henry’s smile began to look quite strained. Mr. Blackwell came out of his office and stood in the hall casting a baleful eye on the assembled young people, which did seem to help propel the laggards towards the door. At last, all that were left were Blackwell people and hired caterers, and Henry’s job was done.

Mr. Blackwell asked, “Did you enjoy your party, son?”

A little of the life returned to Henry’s smile. “I did, sir. Everything was wonderful.”

“I’m glad it was a success.” Mr. Blackwell gave Henry a jarring clap on the shoulder and called out, “Goodnight, son,” as he strode from the room.

“Goodnight, Father.” Henry took a step toward the stair, but Martin stopped him with a hand on his arm.

“Just a moment, Sir. Before we go…” He went to the epergne on the sideboard, overflowing with flowers that were now slightly wilted, and teased out a red rose. With a quick look around to make sure no one was paying attention, he put the flower in Henry’s hand and smiled as Henry blushed. “I chose the roses especially for you, Sir.”

“I-I thought maybe you did. I hoped so.” Henry’s cheeks were so pink!

“Shall we go upstairs, Sir?”

They took the stairs two at a time. Henry took Martin’s hand at the top, and Martin should have discouraged it, but instead he slipped his fingers between Henry’s and squeezed, and they nearly ran down the hall to Henry’s room.

Inside, they embraced and shared a quick kiss, and Martin filled a drinking glass with water for Henry’s rose, which Henry placed on the nightstand. Martin stripped Henry’s clothes from his body and Henry went to lounge naked on the bed while Martin undressed. When Martin emerged from his own room in pajamas, laundry basket resting on his canted hip, he took a moment to admire Henry stretched out long atop the coverlet.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes and then we’ll play,” he promised.

When he returned, Henry was erect, cheeks flushed, and Martin suspected he’d been touching his cock in anticipation of seeing Martin in a collar and tie.

He shed his pajamas and went naked to Henry’s wardrobe. Blue plaid suit, blue paisley waistcoat, white shirt, foulard tie. Crisp white collar and cuffs.

Henry watched him gather the garments. “Are you going to put them on here?” He sounded hopeful.

“Not unless you insist,” Martin said firmly. “I think you should wait to see it all at once, at least this time.”

“All right. Next time I’ll watch you dress.” Henry seemed happy that there could be a next time. He smiled broadly, excited and bashful.

Martin went to the bedside and bent to kiss him, light and quick. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

He closed the connecting door and went into his own room. He dropped the clothes in a heap on the bed and stood in front of his own wardrobe mirror. Should he put on undergarments? Should he wear boots? He considered this a minute, casting a critical eye on his reflection. Too thin. Pretty, but too thin. Henry didn’t seem to mind at all, but Martin would work to rectify the situation anyway. Perhaps he would eat more cake.

He decided in favor of underwear and boots, the full costume, just as he would wear if he really was Mr. Durant, a free man in search of a romantic partner. He got out drawers, vest, and socks, and dressed efficiently. Henry’s collar was a bit loose, perhaps a quarter inch larger than would fit perfectly, but Henry wouldn’t complain. Martin was handsome like this, mark covered. He raised his chin a little and tied the tie, watching his hands in the mirror.

Henry didn’t want a free man. He wanted Martin. He wanted to pretend Martin was free, and that Martin chose him. Martin had known all of this when they were at the Calamus, but somehow he understood it better here, in the Blackwell house. It wasn’t meant to be an insult. More than anything, Henry wanted true love, nothing coerced, and despite Martin’s certainty that there was no way he could possibly love Henry more, he had to admit his subordinate position put this assertion in question.

He tied his boots, looked himself over one last time in the mirror, and went out to meet Henry.

Henry sat propped against the headboard with a corner of the coverlet over his hard cock. As Martin came through the connecting door, he sat up, staring intently.

“Oh…”

Martin grinned. “I’m a good-looking fellow, aren’t I?” He struck exaggerated poses: pensive, strongman, checking his pocket watch.

“Oh god, yes, you definitely are.” Henry was babbling, his hands moving restlessly on the coverlet. “Can I kiss you?”

“Shouldn’t we introduce ourselves first?” Martin stepped forward to the bedside and put out his hand. “How do you do? I’m Martin Durant.”

Henry laughed, liking the sound of this. He took Martin’s hand, his grip firm but friendly. “Well, hello, Mr. Durant. I’m Henry Blackwell. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Oh!” Martin opened his eyes wide, surprised O of a mouth. “Are you that Blackwell?”

Henry snickered, keeping hold of Martin’s hand. “As a matter of fact, I am. I am that Blackwell.”

“The man himself?” Martin cocked an eyebrow, carefully extricating his hand from Henry’s grip and lowering himself to sit on the edge of the bed.

“What?” Henry feigned offense. “Do you doubt that I’m an industrial tycoon?” He drew the corner of the coverlet back. “This is the cock of a very successful man.”

Martin laughed. “Put that away.” He flipped the coverlet back over Henry’s lap. “Let’s get to know each other.” He eased himself down to lie at Henry’s side, relaxed against the headboard, for once not caring about boots on the bedding.

“What do you want to know?”

“Let’s have a drink first,” Martin proposed.

Henry looked confused. “Do you have liquor?”

Martin rolled his eyes. “Pretend, Henry. Which was your favorite? I rather liked the Martinez.”

“Oh, me, too. Say, let me get it for you.”

Martin shrugged. “All right. I’ll get the next round.”

Martin remembered the dim Venetian barroom, the mirror behind the bar, glassware glittering like jewels, and he thought Henry might be remembering the same. They grinned at each other, toasting with illusory drinks, eyeing one another over the rims of imaginary glasses.

In a low, sultry tone, Martin said, “Are you single, Mr. Blackwell?”

Henry smiled and then looked away, blushing. “I…I guess I am. What about you, Mr. Durant?”

“I’m very single,” Martin said. “But I’m also very particular about my men.”

Henry shifted beside him, tilting to lounge on his side, face to face. “In what way are you particular, Mr. Durant? What are your criteria?”

Martin gave a haughty sniff. “It’s shallow, I know, but I’ll only ever fall for a beauty.”

“What’s your type?” Henry asked in a hoarse whisper. He picked up Martin’s hand and began to trace the sensitive sides of his fingers. “Do you like tall, dark and…handsome?”

“Do you know anyone like that?” Martin asked.

“I know it’s a bit dim in here, but did you get a good look at me, Mr. Durant? I don’t want to brag, but I’ve been told I’m actually something of a beauty.”

Martin ran a hand through Henry’s hair, tilting his head back so that the light hit his face. Henry met his gaze, his regard calm. “Like a young god,” Martin decided.

Henry laughed and turned to kiss Martin’s wrist. “I think the liquor has gone to your head, Mr. Durant.”

“You are handsome. I think you’d do very nicely,” Martin told him. “Provided you meet my other criteria.” He sipped his invisible drink and gave Henry a wink.

“What might those be?”

Martin pretended he needed to think about this, but he did not. He knew. As Mr. Durant, he knew.

“I definitely require a sophisticated man. A cultured gentleman.”

“Sophisticated?” Henry seemed slightly taken aback. “Cultured?”

“Yes. A gentleman who’ll be pleased to escort me to exhibitions and performances.”

“Oh!”

“Yes,” Martin said firmly, steeling his resolve. “I want to visit museums and galleries. I want to look at paintings and sculptures. I might even want to attend lectures and meet artists. I want to learn things and be inspired, Mr. Blackwell.”

“Wh-what if a gentleman doesn’t know anything about art?” Henry asked timidly.

“He can learn, can’t he?” Martin cocked his head and looked at Henry expectantly. “It’s just a matter of wanting to do it.”

Henry thought a moment. “I suppose it is that simple, isn’t it?”

“A man such as yourself needn’t be intimidated by anything, Mr. Blackwell,” Martin said with confidence. “Certainly not by paintings.”

“You wouldn’t be annoyed by having to explain everything to…someone?”

Martin gave a low chuckle and shook his head. “No. I’d be happy to tell an interested gentleman whatever I understood, and I’m sure he’d have insights, too.”

Henry frowned, apparently not as certain of this.

“What do you think, Mr. Blackwell?”

“I…think I could endeavor to meet your expectations, Mr. Durant.” Henry reached to touch the knot of Martin’s tie, unable to suppress a broad smile as he fingered the silk. “I don’t think it would be a problem at all.”

“That’s delightful news, Mr. Blackwell. But you know, I’m also interested in the performing arts.”

“Oh. Like vaudeville?”

Martin shook his head. “No, not vaudeville. Or, maybe sometimes, but I mean real arts. The Philharmonic. Theater and ballet and opera. But mostly I want to hear music.”

“Oh,” Henry said. “Well, there’s no reason I wouldn’t enjoy those things, too. I’m sure I would, if I had you with me. And there’s this piece of music I love, this partita, that I understand is considered quite sophisticated.”

Martin laughed. “At the very least, it’s hard to play!”

“The Philharmonic and the like…these are things that can be arranged, Mr. Durant. I am a man of abundant resources.” Henry smiled and bit his lip. “Martin, maybe I shouldn’t say right now, but I love seeing you in a collar and tie. I love it.” He laughed and trailed his fingers down Martin’s shirtfront. The coverlet was tented above his crotch and they both looked down at the shape of his covered cock, each very pleased.

Martin lifted his chin just slightly, the better to show off his collar. “I forgot a tie pin,” he noted.

Henry wrapped his fingers around Martins’ throat, holding without pressure. “I don’t mind,” Henry assured him. He ran his thumb over the bump of Martins’ Adam’s apple, his touch light.

Martin laughed, a low chuckle. “You’re very forward for someone I’ve just met.”

Henry laughed, too, and let go of his neck. “I’m irresistibly attracted to you, Mr. Durant. I’m sorry, I got carried away.”

“I do appreciate your ardor, Mr. Blackwell. It’s very flattering. A fellow does like to feel wanted.”

“No one has ever appealed to me more,” Henry assured him. “What can I do to make you choose me? What else do you want from a…gentleman friend?”

“There are little things,” Martin allowed. “But they’re important.”

“Like what?”

Somehow these other desires seemed like too much, more troublesome than asking for paintings and symphonies. They seemed arrogant, beyond the pale. But Henry wanted to hear them. Martin gathered his courage. “I want new experiences.”

“New experiences?”

“All kinds of new experiences. I want a man who’ll share them with me. I want to try different foods,” Martin said decisively. “Chinese food, for instance.”

Henry frowned, thinking. “Chinese food? What do Chinese people eat?”

“Noodles and vegetables and meat. Different spices than we use in America.”

“I’d probably like it,” Henry said, sounding not entirely sure of this.

“Simon and Mr. Ross love it,” Martin told him. “They could take us to good restaurants and tell us what to order.” Telling Henry who he should socialize with was wrong. It was not his place to select Henry’s friends.

“Do you want to spend time with Charles and Simon?” Henry seemed a little surprised, but he wasn’t saying he wouldn’t do it.

“They’re adventuresome,” Martin said. He was shocked at himself for being so pushy, but he kept talking, kept compounding his error. “They go exploring all over the city. We could have fun with them.” And then, feeling on the verge of insubordination, he said, “Mr. Briggs is very conventional. If we only spend time with Mr. Briggs, we’ll just do conventional things.”

“You don’t want that,” Henry said flatly. Had Martin gone too far?

If he’d gone too far, he might as well go all the way. “No.” Martin was firm, adamant. “I don’t want to be conventional. I don’t want to take unnecessary risks, but Chinese food isn’t risky. It’s just a new experience. And I want new experiences.”

Henry was very still, staring at the rumpled coverlet, seeming stunned.

“Henry?” Martin asked tentatively. He put his hand on Henry’s wrist, gave it a gentle squeeze. “I hope you’re not mad, Sir. I didn’t—”

Henry shook his head abruptly, cutting Martin off. “How long have you wanted things to be different, Martin? How long have you wanted music and art and foreign food…?” Henry’s voice trailed off, quiet and wounded. “You should have said something before.”

“I’m sorry, Sir. I shouldn’t have—”

“No!” Henry grabbed Martin’s hands and held them. “No sirs, Martin, please! I’m not mad at you. You should always ask for the things you want!” His hands were shaking as he clutched at Martin’s fingers. “I just feel stupid, because I didn’t realize—”

“You’re not stupid,” Martin hurried to assure him.

“Well, I don’t know about…much of anything, really. I don’t know about food, or art, or adventures that aren’t in books. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want those things, too. I feel like I should have known, Martin. I should have been asking you what to do all along.”

“You have asked me, though,” Martin admitted.

Henry gave him a very dubious look.

“You have,” Martin insisted. “I hesitated to say anything before because I didn’t feel like it was my place.”

“Don’t you know by now, Martin, that I always want to know what you think? Tell me what you want! If you want to look at paintings or eat Chinese food or whatever, you should tell me. It’ll make me happy if you do.”

It’ll make me happy if you do. Did Henry know what it did to Martin to hear this phrase, so fond and coercive? It served as a tonic to spur him on to greater heights of service, to append dramatic flourishes to his actions. It wouldn’t be enough to look at a painting in a gallery; Henry should meet the artist in his atelier and watch him sketch, ogling nude models in a haze of hashish (Simon and Mr. Ross had tried hashish). He wouldn’t just arrange for Henry to eat any old Chinese food; he would make sure that Henry had the opportunity to eat the very best food, the most authentic, served in the New York equivalent of a pagoda by waiters in dragon robes.

Henry touched Martin’s cheek, breaking his service reverie, and traced the line of his jaw. “Mr. Durant,” he said, “I want to see the world with you. Whatever you might want to do, I’ll do it with you.”

Martin felt such a surge of happy hope, but he laughed and feigned equanimity. “Such a bold pronouncement when we’ve only just met.”

“But did you ever see someone from across a room?” Henry asked. “A barroom, or maybe a showroom? You look up, and there’s the perfect embodiment of all your desires staring right back at you, and you just know that person is going to matter more than anyone else ever will? That’s what it was like for me when I saw you, Mr. Durant. Has anything like that ever happened to you?”

Martin felt suddenly weak and overheated, his heart throbbing crazily. “I…yes, Mr. Blackwell. I think our meeting was kismet.”

“Did you finish your drink?”

Martin smiled and toasted Henry with his invisible glass. “Are you trying to get me drunk, Mr. Blackwell?”

“I just don’t want it to spill when I do this.” He put his hand around the back of Martin’s neck, fingertips at the crisp edge where collar touched skin, and drew him in for a kiss.

Silky flesh, fever-hot and liquored, a hint of bared teeth. The touch of Henry’s lips made him moan, back arched, pressing into Henry’s embrace. Tongue delicate and muscular both, mouth hot and wet, sugared and languid. Martin’s heart gave a lurching thud, and his cock went urgently stiff, and all he wanted was Henry. Every cell in his body was blaring, demanding Henry’s attention, Henry’s touch. His asshole clenched around the desire to be stretched and filled. He was nothing but selfish, insistent needs that intensified with every kiss.

Henry broke off kissing, held Martin’s head steady, and spoke with his lips at Martin’s ear. “Do you choose me, Mr. Durant?”

“What?” Dazed and now irritable, Martin would much rather have kept kissing than answer obvious questions.

“Do you choose me?” Hot tongue tracing the rim of his ear, breath making him shiver.

“Oh god, Henry, of course I do!”

“Say it.” The sibilant going straight to his cock.

With a frustrated growl, Martin said, “Fine. I choose you, Mr. Blackwell. I’m free to choose whoever I want, and I choose you.” He took Henry’s hand and used some force to move it down over his cock, which strained at the placket of his trousers.

Henry felt him, shaped him through the fabric, squeezed. “You’re wearing too many clothes, Mr. Durant.” He bit Martin’s earlobe and then caught his mouth in a slick, hungry kiss.

Martin fumbled with his buttons as they kissed, and Henry’s cock was right there, the head wet against his fingertips, and Henry groaned at his touch, the sound of it resonating in Martin’s throat. Martin unbuttoned all his layers and lifted his hips, his cock sliding alongside Henry’s. He wrapped his fingers around them both, and then Henry’s hand joined his, and together they squeezed and stroked, moving in sync.

He looked up into Henry’s face and felt shy of the bare love he saw there, unadulterated and unguarded, but that was what he felt, too, and he dared show it to Henry, plain on his face.

Henry’s expression was so tender, and he bent to kiss Martin, soft as a petal. He whispered, his lips brushing Martin’s as he spoke. “Can I be inside you? I want that so much.”

“I want it, too,” Martin assured him, his voice reduced to a rasp.

Henry rolled off of him. Martin sat up and shed his jacket, untied his boots and pitched then over the side of the bed, kicked off trousers and drawers, and went to work on his waistcoat while Henry tugged the socks off his feet. He shrugged off the waistcoat and collected all the pieces of the suit and dumped them unceremoniously onto the floor. Henry knelt between his legs and reached for the buttons of the shirt, but Martin stayed his hands.

“Henry? Don’t you want me to leave the shirt on? Collar and tie?”

“Oh!” Henry blushed and stammered. “B-but I don’t want to insult you—”

Martin shook his head. “No, it’s all right. It’s just a game.” Here at home, they weren’t trying to fool anyone, and it was just make-believe. Henry could have whatever he wanted.

“Then…leave it on.” Henry blushed. “You look so…” He shook his head, not knowing what to say.

Martin ostentatiously snugged the knot of his tie, watching the gesture’s effect on Henry. “Do you like it?”

“You know I do.” Henry wrapped his fingers around his own cock and gave it a squeeze.

Martin knew what else Henry would like.

“If we met under different circumstances,” he offered, easing back down onto the pillows. “If we were at the arcade, just two fellows playing games, and you saw me looking at the peep shows all by myself…would you approach me, Mr. Blackwell? Would you be brave enough to make my acquaintance?” He pulled up the hem of his shirt to show Henry his cock.

Martin did not think the Henry he’d met at the auction hall showroom would have dared, but the Henry he knew now might be bold enough to approach a free boy.

Henry might have been thinking the same thing. He held his cock in his hand, his lip between his teeth. “I…yes, I definitely would. We’d have our fondness for the peep shows in common. I’d ask you if there were any particularly good ones.”

“I’d say there was a good one of strongmen wrestling,” Martin said. “I’d say it was especially to my taste.” He pulled his shirt further up to expose his belly and lower ribs, a smooth white field setting off the dark pink of his cock.

Henry laughed at this. “I think I’d take your meaning.” He ran his hand the length of Martin’s thigh, bent knee to groin and back again, and Martin’s cock gave a hopeful lurch. “If I asked you to come away from the arcade with me, would you?”

Martin laughed, too. “You certainly move fast, Mr. Blackwell.”

Henry shrugged and gave him a cocky grin. “I’m not one to deny kismet, Mr. Durant.”

“If you asked me on a date, I’d go,” Martin said. “It would be a date, I hope, and not just some sordid alleyway fuck.”

“It would be a date,” Henry agreed, “but I think you’d actually like a sordid alleyway fuck, wouldn’t you?” He wrapped his fingers around Martin’s cock and squeezed.

Martin arched up into Henry’s grip with a soft moan and drew his knees up toward his chest.

“You’d like it if I pulled you into some doorway and fucked you up against a wall.” Henry rolled Martin’s balls against his palm, then stroked his thumb down the cleft between Martin’s cheeks, pressing against his hole. “You’d beg me,” he suggested. “I’d want to take you to a bed, but you’d be in a hurry. You’d insist we only needed spit. You’d be so noisy I’d have to put my hand over your mouth.” He leaned forward and pushed his thumb between Martin’s lips, and Martin eagerly wet it. He thrust his wet thumb into Martin’s hole and Martin clenched around it.

Whimpering, Martin reached for his own cock, but Henry batted his hand away.

“Not until I say.” But now Henry touched him, light pressure, maddening strokes. “Some filthy alcove smelling of piss, and you with your trousers around your knees, sticking your ass out and begging for it.”

“You’d want it, too,” Martin managed, his voice hoarse. He squirmed, trying to get more pressure from Henry’s hands.

“Oh, I’d feel very lucky,” Henry assured him, pulling out his thumb and putting fingers in its place. “Meeting a boy like you, some dirty fairy tramp who’d beg for my cock, that’s my dream.”

“Who wouldn’t beg for your cock?” Martin gasped, in full confidence that anyone who chanced to see it would want it. The way Henry was touching him, inside and out, rendered him breathless, heart pounding.

Henry smiled, liking the flattery. “I’d fuck you up against the bricks,” he said. “I’d have my hand over your mouth, remember? But I’d know you were saying my name. You’d be begging.”

Martin’s groan was full of impatience as he hitched his knees higher.

“Say it,” Henry said. “Let me hear how you’d do it.”

Martin said Henry’s name all the time, but it seemed so deliciously shameful to say it on command. “Henry,” he said, his voice small. He tried again, louder: “Henry, please.”

“Dirty boy,” Henry said fondly. His fingers moved with purpose, finding the spot that made Martin’s eyes roll back in his head. “I’d show you you were meant to be mine,” he promised. “I’d make you come with your hands flat against the wall.”

The idea of his cock jerking untouched, spunk on the bricks, made Martin shudder and he groaned with frustrated arousal. “Enough, Henry, please.” He reached for him, but Henry evaded capture.

“Enough what?” Henry sat back on his heels and let go of Martin’s cock, let his fingers slip from Martin’s ass.

“Enough teasing, Henry, please.”

Henry laughed and reached to get the oil out of the drawer.

Martin knew Henry would not agree to using just spit, as in his scenario, but perhaps he would go light on the oil. He watched Henry oil his cock, but when he made to pour some on his fingers for Martin’s hole, Martin said, “Please, Henry. Don’t worry about prep. I want it—more like your story. Please.”

Henry raised an eyebrow at this, seeming amused. He put a little more oil on himself, and wiped his slick fingers against Martin’s pucker, but otherwise did as Martin asked.

Martin was more than ready, relaxed and eager, but he still sucked in a sharp, hissing breath as Henry’s slick cock pressed inside his dry hole. Sting and tingle with the stretch, a burning chill raising the hairs on his skin, nerves sparking. He felt overfull, the breath forced out of him by Henry’s cock, and his muscles spasmed as his body struggled to adapt and accept. He liked it when it hurt like this, because it never hurt for long, and the pain made the pleasure sweeter. When he had breath to spare, he moaned, soft and low, and reached for Henry with both hands.

Henry met him halfway, kissing hard and deep. Martin slung his arms around Henry’s neck and tilted his pelvis to meet Henry’s hard thrusts, letting out little grunts as Henry’s hips slammed into his ass.

“Harder.” He breathed the word into Henry’s ear. “Please, Henry, harder.”

Henry did as Martin asked, his brows angled together in concentration, hips like a piston, bodies meeting with fleshy smacks. Henry was a machine perfectly calibrated to make Martin come. Henry’s cock never stopped rubbing the place inside that made Martin feel like some dirty little animal driven crazy by the urge to mate, and it felt so good that he couldn’t stop himself from sobbing his pleasure, tearless and so very happy.

Henry was breathing hard through open lips, pupils wide, cheeks flushed. He shook his head impatiently, tossing his hair back off his forehead, and gripped the backs of Martin’s thighs.

“Martin,” he said. “Martin, I can’t last, it feels too good.”

He was a beautiful, apologetic god, and he’d said Martin’s name. Hearing his name from Henry’s lips was too arousing, and for a moment his senses went blank and all he felt was Henry’s desire, Henry’s desire for him.

When he could make words, he begged, “Harder, Henry. Make me come.”

A few more thrusts, feeling every inch of Henry’s cock. Slick, sliding pressure that never let up, making him feel desperate and exultant. The pressure wound up tighter and stretched long, and it felt like he spent forever at the sharp, exquisite apex of overwhelming sensation before he went crashing over, plummeting from on high.

“Oh god, Henry! Henry!”

His body went stiff and still, his hands tight on Henry’s arms, and his cock jerked against his belly, striping his shirt and necktie with slick white.

Henry had the awed expression of a man seeing something beautiful, something wonderful. He said a hoarse, “Martin!” and thrust in deep, cock pulsing hot.

Martin shuddered through the aftershocks, feeling emotional and embarrassingly inarticulate. He reached for Henry and drew him down into an embrace. “I love you,” he whispered, unaccountably confessional. “I love it when you say my name.”

“Oh! I did say it, didn’t I?” Henry nuzzled his neck. “You like that? I’ll try to say it more often, then.” He smoothed Martin’s hair back from his forehead, their faces very close. “You know that I love you, too, don’t you?”

“I do know that,” Martin admitted. He hugged Henry tighter, wrapped his legs around him. He didn’t want to let him go just yet.

They clung together, full of both drama and contentment. After a few minutes, Henry’s cock slipped out of Martin’s ass; Henry made a little disappointed sound and gave Martin a compensatory hug. “Am I squashing you?”

Well, yes, he was. Martin kissed his neck. “I should get us cleaned up anyway.”

“We can both do it,” Henry said, rolling off of him.

Martin sat up and loosened the knot of his necktie. It was damp and slick with semen, as was the shirtfront. The shirt could be washed, but the tie might be a lost cause. He would worry about it later. He let shirt and tie fall to the floor as he got to his feet.

Henry followed him into the bathroom and stood patiently at the sink as Martin washed him. “I’ll do you next, all right?”

“You don’t have to, Henry. I can do it.”

“Do you not want me to do it? Or do you just think I shouldn’t?”

He had enjoyed Henry cleaning him before. There was no reason not to let him do it when it was what he wanted. Doing what Henry wanted was Martin’s job.

“All right. You can do it. Thank you. Go ahead.” He handed Henry a soapy cloth and stood with his feet apart, hands braced on the edge of the sink, ass tilted helpfully.

Henry stood close beside him, an arm across the front of his waist, cleaning his cleft with gentle thoroughness. It seemed very quiet, very intimate. Martin leaned into Henry’s embrace, and Henry kissed his shoulder.

“Thank you for choosing me, Mr. Durant.”

“You’re welcome.”

He would always choose Henry. It seemed that when he’d chosen Henry last August, that had been his final decision.

“I’m going to give you everything,” Henry said, a solemn promise. “Music, paintings, Chinese food, new experiences. Everything.”

“We’ll go downtown and dance,” Martin said, also promising. “I have some ideas about how we might go about it. You can even wear a velvet jacket if you want.”

Henry smiled. “Well, I’ll get one made, at any rate. I might not be brave enough to wear it out in public.” He turned to drop his wet cloth in the sink, but did not let go of Martin.

Martin would not say that it might be a bad idea anyway, not now. Besides, Henry knew this. Martin had a thought, and considered a moment if he might really be willing to follow through.

“If you want,” he said slowly, “when we go to Hamilton’s, I might be willing to consider getting some clothes I’d wear just for you.” He saw Henry’s eyes light up with delight, and hurried to caution him. “But only things that I pick out. Things that are to my taste.”

“Colors, though, please,” Henry said, eager and avid. “Things that you pick out, but colors. They don’t have to be bright. Just not black or tan.” He grinned and wrapped Martin up in his arms. “I’d love that. I’d love it so much.”

“Maybe just a waistcoat to start,” Martin said. “The idea makes me a little nervous, to be honest.” He looked at himself in the mirror, Henry’s dark head bent against his own. He reached up to run his fingers through Henry’s hair. Henry turned to smile at him in the mirror.

“I love your handsome face,” he said, kissing Martin’s cheek.

Martin smiled back. “I was just thinking the same thing.”

“I’m excited by the idea of you wearing colors, even just for me,” Henry said. “But I won’t push you, I promise. I’m done pushing you, Martin.”

“Well, it does make me feel better that you’ll let me decide.” He gave Henry an affectionate pat. “We’ve had a long day. Are you ready to get in bed?” He took Henry’s hand as he turned toward the door.

“Actually, I might be hungry,” Henry admitted. “Surely there’ll be some cake left, don’t you think?”

Martin laughed. “Where did I leave my pajamas?”

They were by the door where he’d stripped them off. Henry watched as Martin dressed himself. “You have lost quite a bit of weight, haven’t you?” He sounded wistful, not accusatory.

“Does it look bad?” Martin buttoned his pajama shirt, hiding his bony chest.

Henry shook his head. “No. At least, I don’t think so. It’s not that. I don’t think you could ever look bad to me. But it makes me sad because it means you were sad.”

Martin went to Henry’s wardrobe and got out a pair of pajamas for him. “I think everything will be all right from now on, though, Henry. Don’t you?” He crouched down and held Henry’s pajama pants ready. “I don’t think we’re going to make each other unhappy like that again.”

Henry stepped into his pants and pulled them up. “We won’t,” he promised. “Well, mostly me. I’m not going to hurt you again, Martin, I promise.”

“I know you’ll do your best, Henry.”

“No.” Henry frowned, shaking his head as he thrust his arms forcefully into the sleeves of his pajama shirt. “That sounds like you don’t believe me, Martin, and I’m telling you I’m not going to hurt you again. I won’t let myself do it.”

“I do believe you,” Martin said, reaching for Henry’s buttons, and he mostly did.

“Trust me,” Henry insisted. “You know I’m not ambitious. I don’t care about succeeding at anything, really. I have an easy life, and I don’t need to try very hard. So that means I can put all my effort into being good to you and giving you the things that’ll make you happy.”

It wasn’t a master’s job to make a slave happy; quite the opposite. But maybe Martin could let himself care less about what masters and slaves were meant to do. Maybe he could just enjoy having his preferences indulged and desires fulfilled by this romantic, generous young man who wanted nothing more than to adore him. If making Martin happy was what would satisfy Henry, then Martin should let Henry make him happy. He should accept the gifts and enjoy the experiences. Doing what Henry wanted was Martin’s job.

“I’ll trust you, Henry,” he decided. He finished with Henry’s buttons and embraced him, breathing in the smell of his skin and kissing his neck. “We’ll be good to each other.”

Henry pulled Martin closer still and rubbed his bony back. “Cake,” he said, kissing the side of his head. “Let’s fatten you up.”

As they walked down the hall and then down the back stair, Henry reached for Martin’s hand, his grip tentative at first but becoming more confident as he realized Martin was going to allow it.

“There’s no one awake to see us,” Martin murmured in response to the unasked question. He didn’t think it necessary to mention that no one who might see them would be shocked. Henry would come to understand this in his own time. Martin laced his fingers through Henry’s and squeezed his hand.

He chose Henry.

He’d chosen him on auction day, and he’d never wavered from his choice, and he’d never regretted it. At Ganymede, he’d been domesticated, but perhaps not tamed. The wildest part of him, a deep and brilliant spark, had immediately recognized Henry as kindred, as analogue, and from that moment on, he’d felt part of a bond that was unassailable and undeniable. He and Henry belonged to each other, body and soul. Martin believed they were destined to be together, halves of a passionate whole, greater than the sum of their parts. He and Henry would have to go through much worse than these weeks of discord and hurt feelings for Martin to want to be parted from him.

As they neared the bottom of the stairs, there were sounds of commotion, people working to dismantle the remains of the party. Henry heard, too, and let go his hand with lingering reluctance.

He would always choose Henry. His stubborn, generous, loving Henry, who had apologized and promised him the world.

The hall was full of Blackwell people and hired help carrying dishes and flowers and calling out instructions, an efficient sort of chaos. Henry hesitated at the foot of the stair, seeming reluctant to enter the fray, but Martin reached for him, smiling encouragement.

“Come on, Sir,” he said. “Let’s find someone who’ll cut us some cake.”