And I Am Happy
by R. Cooper
All Rights Reserved
A steampunk AU for Play It Again, Charlie
(content warnings: injury, onpage sex, power imbalance (employer/employee, bdsm elements)
All Rights Reserved
A steampunk AU for Play It Again, Charlie
(content warnings: injury, onpage sex, power imbalance (employer/employee, bdsm elements)
Will had not meant to linger by the door, but at a quarter past twelve when he heard it open he was there to watch as Charlie—his gentleman, Mr. Charles Howard, esq.—pushed open the door to let himself in. For a moment Charlie was a tall, strong figure silhouetted by yellow, flickering street lights, and then he removed his hat to lean against the wall and sigh, which told Will all he needed to know about his master's current state. He hurried closer without a thought and startled his master who must not have seen him in the dark.
"It's just me, sir," Will whispered as he slid one of his master's arms around his shoulder in order to take his weight. He pulled the hat from his gentleman's hand and set it aside. There was no sign of his master's cane, so when Charlie attempted to stand on his own, Will stubbornly stayed where he was. There was a cloying, heady scent on his master's clothes that was neither the cologne Will sprayed onto Charlie's handkerchief, nor the crisp smell of the starch Will had personally used in his master's collar.
The scent was Lily-of-the-Valley perfume. Will wanted to hide his face when he recognized it and was grateful for the darkened entryway, although even in broad daylight he did not think his gentleman would have noticed his reaction.
There was much his gentleman did not notice.
Will eased one hand over Charlie's shirtfront and pressed until he could feel warmth and the beat of a heart. "Let's get you to bed."
His gentleman attempted one more time to stand on his own but gave in when Will would not release him. Charlie’s right foot hit the floor too heavily. Despite the rugs laid down over the marble, a metallic echo carried up to Will's ears. He could feel his master's skin grow warmer. Charlie often got embarrassed about things that weren't under his control, as though his occasional clumsiness was not understandable.
"I thought I instructed you not to wait up," his master remarked as they turned toward his bedroom, which was on the ground floor and not upstairs. There were no stairs in the flat that his master was permitted to use beyond the ones to get in the front door, and even those Will would do without if he had his way. But some things his gentleman insisted upon and one of them was appearances. His flat would have more than one level, and there would be stairs, and he would walk up those stairs, at least for the public to see.
Inside the flat, up further stairs where his master could not go, was a guest room and a library. When asked to, Will fetched his gentleman's books from that room, anything to keep his gentleman from attempting the feat himself. Charlie had agreed to install a lift after much prompting from his sisters but hadn't yet committed to a timeframe to have the workmen in the house. His gentleman did not care much for strangers around him. It had taken time for him to grow comfortable in Will's presence and Will was but a servant.
"I wasn't tired, sir," Will puffed against Charlie's shoulder, inhaling the scent of lilies again. Will did not care for lilies or the women who wore their scent. He did not care for women at all for that matter, not in the way most men did.
"You just don't like to listen." His master's tone was teasing.
Will answered in kind, or seemed to. "If anyone could make me listen, sir, it would be you."
He felt the catch in his master's breathing more than he heard it, but didn't dare to lift his head to try to glimpse his expression. Once inside the bedroom, he eased Charlie down onto the edge of his bed and removed the perfume-drenched coat. He carried it into the closet and buried it under a pile of clothing waiting to be laundered.
Breathing freely again, Will went back to his master's side, pausing only to turn up the gaslights. For a moment as he turned, he lost his breath at the sight of Charlie in the amber light. His gentleman was something from a painting with his shirt starkly pale, his skin warm and his hair dark. He had shadows along his square jaw and beneath his eyes. He looked grave and weary but his eyes were steady on Will.
Will was conscious of his dishabille. He'd half undressed, fully intending to retire some time ago before he'd finally accepted that he couldn't sleep without knowing how his master's evening had gone.
Judging from the scent of those lilies it had gone very well.
Will scowled and hid his face, aware once again of what a dismal valet he was. At least his hands did not shake when he rested them against Charlie's throat. He felt Charlie's hot skin against his fingertips for a bare second before he tugged at the knot of Charlie's cravat and slid it free.
The silk rushed through his fingers. Will watched his gentleman swallow and then set to work on his collar and the buttons of his waistcoat.
"Did you have a good night, sir?" It was speak or lean forward to replace his hands with his mouth, and that was the one thing Will could not do. He focused on pushing the sedate, simple waistcoat over his gentleman's broad shoulders, taking care not to jar the right arm.
He'd set the waistcoat down and returned to finish undoing his master's shirt buttons when Charlie sighed his answer. "Well enough. It was everything it should have been." Will took some comfort from the lack of enthusiasm in his gentleman's voice. "Will," Charlie began, then stopped. Charlie, as Will called him in the safety his own mind, had a deep but soft voice, one hardly ever raised in anger. It reminded Will of brandy or port, something fine and dark and intoxicating but just beyond his reach. "Will," Charlie said again, causing Will to shiver, "You do not have to undress me if you are tired. I gave you the night."
Charlie tilted his chin up so Will could remove his shirt and then it was his turn to shiver as though the room were cold when it wasn't. Will slid his master's shirt and braces from him and had to bite back a delighted moan to see his master's skin untouched. There was not a trace of an eager mouth or a rough hand on him, none of the kinds of marks Will would have liked to leave on his master's skin if ever given the chance.
Will skated a hand over his gentleman's chest, keeping his expression innocent despite the drag of his fingertips in the patch of dark hair. Then he curled his fingers over the shiny, warm metal at Charlie's right shoulder.
"I wouldn't be much of a valet if I left you to do this yourself. What would people say?" Will teased, his tone as light as he could make it with the pads of his fingers caressing scar tissue, trailing up toward the leather straps holding the prosthesis in place.
"I do not give a damn what they would say. You are my valet and—" His master gave a small grunt, as if pained, and Will gentled his movements even more. His master continued slowly. "You are my valet and I am happy." The pain in his voice eased but Will could see how Charlie glanced away and breathed hard.
Will didn't reach for the buckles to the arm piece until he'd eased the heavy, so very heavy, metal arm through the sleeve. He winced at each catch on the fabric, which would tear despite his efforts. The arm was not meant to be worn under clothes yet once again his gentleman had insisted.
For her he had insisted, not wishing to make her uncomfortable. For Miss Lily-of-the-Valley, although everyone in London already knew of the war hero and outspoken MP with metal arm and leg, the man with the will and body of steel, as the Fleet Street rags called him.
"Will." His gentleman tried to protest once more. He would have been able to do this himself if left alone but it would have not have been easy. The arm had motion, but buttons required concentration and the hour was late.
"Hush." Will was bold though his mouth was dry. He stripped the shirt from his gentleman with a practiced gesture. Charlie only smiled faintly at his insolence. He should not do that. It made Will long to be bolder. His hands went back to the ridge of scar tissue at Charlie's shoulder. This close, Will could smell cologne and the leather of the straps. His fingers curled around them for a moment and his gaze rose. The muscles under his touch were tense. He studied the shadows under Charlie's eyes, the tight, set line of his jaw, then ducked his head down.
He should not care if Charlie found happiness with someone, even in the arms of a woman who wore too much perfume. He should want his master to be happy. Instead his other hand was grasping at Charlie's side, splaying out in an attempt to be gentle before he undid the straps and unwound the mechanisms that allowed the arm to come free. Instead of being happy his gentleman might have found love, Will was spitefully pleased that he was the only one allowed to touch him like this.
Charlie did not fight him again on the care he was taking, though more than once after a night off Will had come home to find his gentleman attempting to sleep with the arm attached, grooves from the weight in his shoulder, his body stiff and uncomfortable above the covers.
His master went still when the metal prosthetic was gone and kept his head turned until Will returned with the top half of his Turkish pajamas. They were silk as well, Will's doing, for Charles Howard, esq. had no taste for fabric or style. The colour was black, sombre and serious, and it suited him so well that Will almost did not mind covering up his nakedness with it.
He looked down as he slipped what remained of his master's arm through one sleeve and caught his master's eyes on his chest. Will had not bothered with his own buttons, not in the middle of the night. He held his breath, but then his master's eyes moved on.
"I can manage the rest, Will." Charlie dismissed Will in a tight voice.
Will allowed himself a frown as he dropped his hands to his sides. "There's nothing else, sir?" He had to clear his throat to ask it.
Charlie glanced at him, his gaze sharp for a moment in the yellow light. Then he thinned his lips.
"No. Good night." The frown was sad and familiar but his master's voice was soft again. A whispering echo of his words followed Will through the closet to his small bedroom, as did the sounds of his gentleman shifting on the bed to slide his other prosthesis free from his leg. He swore once, but quietly, as if not wanting Will to hear, as though Will didn't leave the door open between them in case he was needed in the night.
Sometimes there were nightmares, and he was. Sometimes there were no nightmares but Will wanted the sound of his master's breathing to help him fall asleep. Sometimes there were other sounds, intimate ones Will was too experienced to blush to hear, yet which set his skin afire just the same. Tonight was one of those nights, and it was a long time after, with his own spunk cooling on his stomach and his bottom lip stinging from his teeth and the effort to keep silent, before he could recover enough to sleep.
He laid in the dark, listening to his master's breathing grow slow and wondering what his master thought of when he pleasured himself, if it was anything like what Will thought of, if he also felt it would never be enough.
It was a stupid, lonely thought, one Will had dared to have before. It kept him awake until early morning, when the sounds from the other room finally gentled into real sleep.
Will rose early despite his restless night. There was always much to do and it always seemed to take him longer than it would have taken others. He didn't have a natural talent for making a gentleman's home. In truth, his skills at ironing and button sewing were weak and he had no gifts in the kitchen. Even toast was beyond him. He did keep things neat, that was certainly true. He could answer the telephone, monitor appointments, and fix drinks. He could iron newspapers and shirts, trim hair, give a man a shave, but any valet could do those things, and usually better.
Until he had started work in this house, Will had not been the kind of valet expected to excel at such ordinary tasks. Until this house, he had been more of a rich man's convenience than a valet.
Now he got up before first light to shave and wash and dress himself, then slipped quietly into his master's bedroom to gather his gentleman's stray clothes and send the necessaries off to be laundered. He started a fire in the bedroom fireplace before he headed to the small kitchen on the other side of the entranceway. In the Howard family's larger estate in the country, as well as in the townhouse in the city, there were full kitchens with a cook, but this was a single man's flat and his gentleman went out for most of his meals.
Will put on the water for tea while eating a piece of untoasted bread. He refrained from toasting any for his master. He had learned his lesson after one too many black and charred attempts. While the water was getting hot he went out into the study to open the curtains, start a fire in that fireplace, and check the appointments for today one more time in case he'd forgotten anything.
He considered his tasks for the day as well, nearly buzzing with pleasure to know they were tasks easily done and his master would have no reason to be disappointed in him. His master always pretended otherwise, far kinder than a man with such a saturnine face should be, but Will knew when he had truly pleased and when he had not. Reading expressions was a courtesan's art and skill, for often her life and livelihood depended on it, and it had served Will well over the years. It had served him especially well in this home, since his current gentleman was intensely private and preferred to keep his thoughts to himself. He had been startled the first few times Will had correctly interpreted his mood, blinking through his spectacles in consternation before his alarm had given way to wonder.
Will hummed a ditty from an operetta he'd recently seen, then went back for the tea and a few biscuits. He took the tray into the bedroom without even a glance at the clock. His master liked to wake early and was already stirring as Will came in. He pushed himself up with his good arm, giving Will a view of part of his chest where his pajamas had come open.
There were no late-blooming love marks that Will might have missed, only the shrapnel scars from the underground exploding torpedo in the Afghan campaigns that had taken his master's leg at the knee and his arm above the elbow.
Will smiled before looking up. "Good morning, sir."
"Good morning." The shadows under Charlie's eyes weren't so obvious when he smiled. He must have gotten more sleep than it seemed, because he didn't ask for the opium powders the doctor had given him for pain relief. He only stretched and reached for his tea. He exhaled delightedly over the biscuits the way he always did. Will was not fooled by the show, done for his benefit. The biscuits were from a tin and a poor substitute for a real breakfast, but his gentleman ate each one every morning while Will chose a suit for him. His gentleman was due to work in his study today but he had tea with his sisters that afternoon, and there were usually a few callers even on his at-home days. He had to look handsome and impeccable.
Will chose a blue, striped cravat, simple but eye-catching, and ignored Charlie's raised eyebrows as he saw it. But his master said nothing, accepting Will's choice in waistcoat while finishing his second cup of tea. His expression remained stern and sad, but the crinkle at the corner of his eyes let Will know when his gentleman was on the verge of a smile.
"Your sisters for tea, nothing else pressing," Will filled him in, warm in the face and trembling in his limbs in a way certain to be noticed. He had made his master smile with little more than a cravat, and the blood was singing through his veins. It was difficult to be still, especially with his master regarding him fondly from over the top of his cup. His master did not make Will work for praise yet strangely this made Will want to strain harder and please him even more. He could not explain the urge; he only knew that sometimes he wanted it so much he could hardly stop himself from dropping to his knees. It was an itch his other gentlemen had never scratched and which had never been so great until he had come to this house, to this gentleman.
Will took a breath and forced himself to sound calm. "I'll be out at the shops today and at your tailor. Did you need anything I did not anticipate?" Merely saying the words thrilled him.
Charlie rolled his eyes. "How can I answer that?" he chided, frowning slightly in honest confusion. "I cannot know what you anticipated. I can't read your mind as you seem to read mine, though I often wish I could."
It was good he could not. Will took another deep breath to control himself. His master wasn't angry but Will enjoyed imagining he was, and what he might do to force Will to be clearer. Will had watched his master give speeches, seen him argue from the gallery; his master was capable of a most firm hand.
A change in topic was needed for the sake of Will's dignity. "Did you want to bathe?"
It was not what he should have said. It was growing more and more difficult to ask that every morning, especially on the mornings when he knew a bath would be needed, mornings where there would be dried spunk on his master's cock and thighs, and sweat itching along his skin. The hot water would soothe Charlie's aches, turn his skin an even darker shade, make it hot and clean. Will's mouth went dry to think of it.
Charlie put down his cup with more force than was required, clanging porcelain that fortunately did not break. Baths still seemed to discomfort him. Will thought him anxious about his body and how others perceived it. In Will's first days here, his gentleman had insisting on bathing by himself, nearly falling into the tub in his haste to get under the water. It had taken Will too long to realize that his gentleman had been worried about his appearance. The scars had been slightly angrier then and ill-fitting prosthetics had left marks on the stumps of his arm and leg.
Will had stared more than he'd meant to. Even now it shamed him to think of it. He didn't wait for a reply this time but went to the bathroom to run the water and lay out a towel, wondering if he would be permitted to shave his gentleman as well today. There was something especially exciting about being allowed to shave his master, much like the day once a month when Will would trim his hair. He was already flushed and it had nothing to do with the steam filling the room.
He nearly fainted when he swept back into the bedroom and found his master standing, his pajamas loose on his body, the trousers low. Despite his exertions during the night he was every inch a man this morning. His jaw was set, which meant he not only was going to ignore his morning's arousal, but he was embarrassed and wanted to make it to the bathroom on his own. Will stood aside. He twitched at the forced stillness, concerned but calming when Charlie did not stumble.
The bathroom was the one room in the house that had been fully modernized. His master's doctor, a Frenchmen, had insisted on hot, running water and the largest bathing tub Will had ever seen. Two men could easily have fit inside it, a fact Will was fully conscious of whenever he stepped into the room. He did not think he was the only one.
"If you have errands you do not need to attend on me." Charlie freed Will from the duties Will would have found a pleasure. Will followed him into the bathroom despite the implied dismissal, needing to be certain Charlie would be all right on his own. His master looked up when he realized he wasn't alone and caught Will's hurt frown in the looking-glass.
Will quickly schooled his expression into something else. He grinned. "Don't be a mule. Am I not paid to see to your every need?"
Will's hair felt damp though he had done nothing to make him perspire. His restless night would have left him pale, with shadowed eyes. He had no doubt he looked awful, a far cry from the honey-haired Ganymede he'd once been. Will got propositions and offers from past employers but among the other servants he saw at the public house he was something of a joke. He was a pretty boy with only one real use and he wasn't even used for that anymore. They'd thought at first it was because his master was a cripple, assuming his master ruined for physical congress, but when Will had fiercely and foolishly disabused them of that notion they had realized the truth; Will simply wasn't wanted.
That fact stung like a thousand bees and left him sleepless. But it was not the sole cause of the sorrowful ache in his belly or the hunger that made him spiteful one minute and giddy the next. Rejection Will could live with as long as he got moments like these, secret minutes of testing the temperature of the water and pulling the clothes from his master's body with all of his master's lean, hot strength against him in order to stand, his hands allowed to roam over skin as he lowered his gentlemen into the tub. There were indeed traces of passion on his master's lower stomach. His cock was still morning-stiff, a flushed, satisfying length and width. If Will looked up he might catch the man in a blush but he kept his eyes low and saved the memory for a private moment.
Charlie sighed his gratitude the moment he relaxed into the heat of the water. He was trembling. He had developed more muscle in his chest as well as in his whole arm and leg since he had begun to regularly wear his heavy prosthetics, but the effort of crossing the room and climbing into the deep bath without assistance had no doubt taxed him. Will's own tremors had a different cause. He could still feel Charlie's skin against the palms of his hands as he moved away. He turned while Charlie soaped himself clean. The glass was fogged but Will saw enough to make him pull at his collar.
"I don't mean to imply that you cannot do your job," Charlie offered, bringing Will's eyes up in the mirror where he found he was being watched in return. He was grateful there was already colour in his cheeks from the steam. He could see his eyes wide and green in the glass, his lips bitten and pink, his hair softly curling in the heat. He was slender, not quite little. He was still a most attractive man, to some.
His master's eyes dipped away. "It's only that I want you to be happy here, and I…."
The sinking feeling in Will's stomach filled in the rest of the words when his gentleman trailed off. His master did not wish Will to be upset that he did not want him for the same purpose his other gentlemen had. There had been a time when Will had been younger when he could not have imagined wanting more either. Or less, he supposed, as now he was happy to make tea and draw baths with nothing to show for it but steady pay and a warm gaze. There was much he would do to keep his master's fond, approving stare on him.
"I am quite content, sir," Will assured him, waiting with a knot in his middle until Charlie's brown eyes came back to him.
"Then I am content." There was a frown on his master's face despite the words and his breath did not come any easier, not even when Will offered a shave. His master stayed in the bath for that, his head back, his eyes closed, only the small furrow in his brow and his careful hold on the side of the tub indicating that he was anything other than relaxed.
Will spent more time than he should have attempting to soothe him, running his fingers over the tense muscles of his master's shoulders and scenting his shaving lotion with sandalwood.
Charlie's eyes opened again when Will dragged his fingers through his hair in order to ease his head up. "My sisters for tea." His master seemed breathless, almost grasping for conversation. Will focused on the blade, refusing to make a mistake or to give away the state of his arousal at the rough note in his master's voice. "I had tea with them not two days ago."
"I suppose they are up to something," Will suggested without any shame. He was often overly familiar. His master was often amused by it. Charlie curled his lips in a hint of a smile but did not object or protest the point. Will longed to kiss the curved line of his mouth despite the unappealing taste of the shaving lather. "Perhaps," Will dared after a long moment when it was kiss his darling gentleman or continue to talk, "perhaps they wish to know how your evening went."
"You did not tell me about the last operetta you saw, or was it a play?" Charlie's words were so unexpected that Will had to pause. Then he huffed a laugh, amused and frustrated in equal measure. It was difficult to believe the determined crusader of the House could not find a more subtle way to redirect the conversation.
Will splashed him with a bit of bathwater. Charlie opened his eyes wide.
"It was a comedic operetta," Will told him seriously. "I enjoyed it. You should see it. Perhaps take your lady friend."
"I do not have a lady friend." It was even more difficult to believe that a man of his master's class was arguing childishly with his valet. Eaten alive with jealousy he might be, but Will felt his smile return. His gentleman had a very nice jaw, and when he was feeling stubborn, which was much of the time, he tended to clench it. It was very clenched at the moment.
"Liar," Will scoffed, as bold as ever and wishing to be punished for it. "You could have the town at your feet if you wanted."
Instead of smiling at the mild flirtation, his master looked away and said nothing. Feeling foolish, Will wiped up what was left of the shaving soap and held back an apology which might make the situation worse.
He had drained the bathwater and dried Charlie and dressed him before the tense frown finally left his master's face. "I am sorry," the man exhaled, startling Will with his low, sincere words, "but sometimes I do not understand your meanings."
Will shook his head. His meanings could not have been more plain. "You are a most handsome man, sir," Will told him, shaking with need and fury. Whoever had convinced his master that scars and metal limbs made him ugly had done a good job of it. Perhaps obvious and direct were necessary.
His gentleman's smile returned, though it was less flattered and more fond.
"You are unlike anyone I have ever met, William Stewart," his gentleman told him, strangely out of breath, but then disappeared into his study before Will could dare ask if that was a good or a bad thing.
Will returned from his errands with a new brand of biscuits as well as six cravats and a luncheon for Charlie from his club. He was in the kitchen some time later, staring in despair at the sandwiches intended for tea, when the doorbell rang. He had time to pull down his sleeves but not to smooth down his hair before he had to answer it.
The Howard sisters—as they had been known before two of them had married, burst through the door as one. For a few moments they were a flurry of hats and bustles and coats dusted with street dirt from riding in an open-air Aucourte Autowagon, pressing harried greetings at Will in loud, ringing voices. Melisande first, the oldest and first to marry, the one most willing to be led by her other two sisters, and the one Will found it easiest to deal with. She was a handsome woman, as striking as her brother but with soft curves.
Katherine was next, the youngest, widowed at an early age and left with a daughter. The family townhouse was at her disposal but she shared it with her middle sister. The middle sister was another matter. As a group the sisters could be terrifying but taken singly Will had learned to manage them. All but one. Will sighed before facing her.
"Miss Ann," he addressed Ann, the unmarried sister, the one his master had once confessed to loving dearly after also admitting that there were days he wished to pretend to be out when she called. Will had offered to play along should the charade ever be necessary but Charlie had yet to deny his sister a visit, or anything else for that matter. He never did.
"William." Miss Ann stopped in the entranceway to look him over, making Will aware of his hair again. He resisted the urge to straighten up or duck his chin. Miss Ann might not approve of him but she had never had a negative word to say about his treatment of her brother. Will would not be soft-soaping the situation to say that he had, if nothing else, gotten Charles Howard to dress like the dashing figure he was, and he liked to think he had eased some of the nerves that had used to leave his master so tense. Will had affected him for the better and even the Howard sisters knew it.
He thought disparaging things about Miss Ann's unflattering choice of hat to bolster his strength of conviction. Feathers and ribbons made her look whimsical, he decided. Sadly there was nothing whimsical about her. She ought to wear a general's uniform.
"William, we've brought a guest to tea," Miss Ann announced after another look at his hands and the butter smeared across his thumb. She had stopped calling Will "Stewart" after noticing that her brother called him by the even more familiar "Will" though she did not go that far.
Will blinked at her announcement and watched in surprise as the sisters parted to reveal another woman, a woman about Ann's age, which made her a few years younger than his master. She was not family. She didn't have the Spanish influence that gave the Howards their dark eyes and hair. She was blond, with wide, green eyes. Her figure was shown to advantage in her filmy, sea-foam dress.
Her perfume, he noticed immediately, was Lily-of-the-Valley.
She was not a fortune hunter, or at least not one of the common calibre of fortune hunters that his gentleman encountered from time to time. Her clothes were fine and subtle in the manner of those with family lines going back to before the Conquest. Many who chased after his master were after his money or connections. This woman did not seem to need either. Will fought his despair.
Women, and men, had come after Charlie before, leaving Will puzzled as to which his master preferred, or if he had a preference. His gentlemen slept alone. If he found physical satisfaction, it was far from his home and Will. For a man so handsome and only growing more distinguished with age, a man in a position of power who could have chosen from a field of lovers, Charlie Howard was free with his blushes and restrained in his needs.
A man with a broken heart might act that way, as Will had first thought upon arriving to work in this house. The suspicion was seemingly confirmed by how his master appeared to think of himself as a creature none could desire. Someone cruel had torn his master's heart to pieces. Now Will was looking at the woman who sought to take up those pieces for herself and sew them into something whole. Unlike the many others who had tried, this one might succeed.
Will flushed with bitter heat, but nodded to acknowledge Mrs. Jeanine Douglass, widow of a Maj. Douglass. She was American and bold enough that Will decided he did not like her, even if he knew his master admired boldness and needed it on the days when smiles would not easily come to him.
He took her coat as well the others' light cloaks, directed the ladies to where they might refresh themselves. Then he went in to announce them.
"Your sisters, sir," he drew out the warning as he approached his master's great desk, making Charlie raise his head from a draft of a letter. The rueful grin he gave Will made Will want to shut the door to all visitors and offer himself instead, on the desk if necessary. He swallowed the words with a pained grimace and Charlie's smile started to dim before his expression grew openly concerned. "And a guest," Will added with reluctance, making his gentleman snap his head back. His reading glasses slipped down his nose as he did and Will reached out to push them into place without thinking. He jumped and withdrew his hand when someone cleared her throat from the doorway.
The ladies were staring at him. Miss Ann was staring at him. As though he were a real valet, Will gave them the deepest nod imaginable and kept his hands at his side while he went to the kitchen to wait for them to ring for tea.
They were laughing when he returned, even his gentleman. Will wished he had been listening at the door to see what Mrs. Douglass-of-the-Valley had said that was so amusing but their laughter calmed as he set the heavy tray on the low table by the sofa. Charlie glanced at him, that line appearing between his eyes that meant something in Will's expression had worried him. Will smiled back helplessly then headed to the door. He wasn't a butler or a footman. He wasn't expected to serve their tea. No doubt Mrs. Douglass would offer, to demonstrate her grace and charm and while she was doing that, Will could be listening at the door.
"William," Miss Ann called him back before he had crossed the threshold. Will stopped and restrained himself from heaving a sigh.
"Will has work to do." His master was a generous master and tried to rescue him. Will felt his mouth turn up and knew that Miss Ann noticed. Her eyes, the same shade as her brother's, narrowed.
"His work has much improved, that is what I wanted to tell him." She smiled. It was not reassuring. If anything it made Will straighten further in alarm. Miss Ann spoke as though she didn't notice. "It is admirably tidy in here, William."
"I knew you would visit today, Miss Ann, and I know how discerning you can be," Will answered without thinking. Charlie coughed. So did Mrs. Douglass. Will almost glanced at her.
"Shall I pour?" Mrs. Douglass offered into the silence while Will tried to keep his face clear of the mischief in his heart. Miss Ann was not fooled. Neither was his master. The other two Howard sisters quietly accepted their tea but their attitude was watchful. It was impossible to tell what they thought.
"Will keeps persuading me to try new blends of tea. This one is particularly good." His master's tone was smooth and warm.
Miss Ann took her gaze from Will. It was only a moment's reprieve. "What lovely sandwiches, William," she said, kind enough to make Will wonder if she was feeling well. The woman usually seemed to spend all of her time in her brother's home expressing her disdain over Will's skills and prodding him to be a better valet. She was either nosy or that concerned about her brother's well-being, most likely both.
Will considered his sandwiches. They were edible but they were not lovely. Despite how simple it ought to have been to cut the crust from sandwiches with a sharp knife, Will's sandwiches had uneven edges and always would, it seemed. A sad sigh slipped out of him despite his best efforts.
"Just the thing. I'm ravenous." His master immediately leaned forward to take a sandwich. He was a true gentleman. Mrs. Douglass was equally astute and polite, as she also took a sandwich and popped it in her mouth. She did not seem to mind that it had too much butter. She hummed in appreciation as though she had the same sensibilities as his master.
Will looked from her to his gentleman. His breath nearly left him completely when Mrs. Douglass then accepted the cup and saucer from his master's metallic hand. She murmured something that Will could not hear over the faint whirr and hum of its gears, and though she did not touch the cool, shining steel, neither did she look away from it. It was a wonder that Charlie had hid most of it from her last night but did not do so now. Perhaps his gentleman was intent on slowly revealing himself to her. It was a thought Will could not bear.
"If there's nothing else," he said at last, cold sinking low into his breast. The widow Douglass might wear too much Lily-of-the Valley but her spirits were warm. She was lively. She was bold and pretty. And she was a woman, which might be what his master preferred after all.
"That operetta you saw, Will. Mrs. Douglass has seen it too." This time his master stopped Will from leaving the room. He cleared his throat when Will turned incredulously to face him. "Will loves the theatre," Charlie explained to the others, with an expression on his face that seemed to beg Will to stay. "I do not get out much."
"Not as often as you should, sir." Will forgot himself, again, in the space of only a few minutes. He risked a glance at the Howard sisters. He had their attention, which was not what he wished, not ever. If only his master would not look at him so, as if he needed Will's presence more than he needed air. It was not fair.
"Perhaps I should take you out then, Mr. Howard." Mrs. Douglass, oddly, kept her eyes on Will as she made the suggestion. She had pretty eyes, with lashes almost as long and dark as Will's. "What do you think, William? Shall we drag him out into the limelight?"
Will wondered if she saw the way Charlie's flesh hand tightened on the arm of his chair.
"Surely not the limelight." Will kept his voice down and focused back on her. "Not on the stage itself. Perhaps a balcony, quiet and secluded, where he may enjoy himself without worry, and keep the company of those he loves."
"William." Katherine made a noise that was close to unladylike. Her sisters' eyes grew sharp.
"Will," Charlie exhaled his name but Will could not look at him. He could not trust himself now.
"That sounds like reasonable advice, William. Thank you." Mrs. Douglass was soft, but Will quickly took his leave, without any grace at all.
Will spent the next hour outside the study dusting a table. There was a maid who did most of the cleaning but no one would think it out of the ordinary to catch Will doing some dusting, no one but his master, but his master did not leave the study during Mrs. Douglass' visit.
Mrs. Douglas, despite being American, seemed knowledgeable of politics and the issues that Master Charlie was interested in. She probably also read the same books. Will tried to read, he truly did, but other things seemed to always need his attention. He preferred to see and hear his stories acted out in front of him. It had never seemed silly before, but now he felt very silly indeed. He was not a man of quality. He was not a scholar or politician. He had done nothing to stand out in his gentleman's eyes. He was an outspoken, aging bit of crumpet acting as a valet, only tolerated because of his master's good nature.
He knew he was odd and that others thought so too when Mrs. Douglass asked about him. Will was most unique for a valet. Miss Ann tried to explain it away with a remark about her brother's love for all mankind. It was not precisely a lie; his master did champion the rights of the common man. But the truth was more that Will was something closer to his master's friend, as unusual as that might be.
His master had few that he called friend. Left on his own he might have none. Those he did have were as interesting as he was; smart men who seemed to prefer their loneliness, or who spent their evenings in quiet companionship. Will, upon starting the position, had felt for some time that he was intruding on his master's solitude. It had been almost a month until he had realized that without a speech written beforehand, his master did not know how to talk to others well. More than that, he often found their presence taxing, even that of his sisters.
It had been at close to the same time that Will had become determined to put his new master at ease. He still was not sure why, only that it had become necessary for Will's peace of mind for his gentleman to relax in his presence. Once he had, it had been his master who had taken the next step to deeper intimacy by calling him "William" and Will who had requested the shorter "Will" instead. The name was familiar in front of company but most never commented. The kind of guests his master had in his home were generally not the sort to comment.
Mrs. Douglass was American, Will reminded himself. Possibly, she thought his gentleman very democratic and could not help but admire him for it. Soon she would take him to the theatre and do things to him in a secluded balcony that Will had been dying to do. After that they would get married, and the lady with her knowing eyes would want no part of Will in her house.
His master liked to jest about Will's tendency to take his plays and operas to heart but Will knew he was right about how this melodrama would end. Mrs. Douglass had guessed Will's feelings. She might feel sorry for him, but if she was any kind of woman she'd want Will gone from her new home.
Where Will went after this wouldn't matter. Another master, perhaps, until he truly was too old, and then he would find work for gentlemen of the merchant class who would not know Will's skills as a valet were lacking. He would never see his master again unless he glimpsed him in the street or snuck in to watch him in the House.
Will was deep in the throes of his future heartache when he realized that the ladies were taking their leave. He dashed to the kitchen and came back out as they emerged from the study. Charlie followed them, moving much slower than he had that morning.
Will frowned after him in worry, but would not sting his gentleman's pride in front of his American widow by inquiring about his strength. Charlie's sister Melisande had his attention in any event. She was asking about another autowagon, one not designed for breakneck speeds like the current one that Miss Ann had "borrowed" from her brother since he never drove it.
"My brother looked well today." Miss Ann spoke entirely too close to Will's ear, making him twitch and twist to glare at her before he remembered himself. Miss Ann was giving him the same look she had given him earlier, the significant one that confused him. It was most likely more concern for her brother. They had had those sorts of talks before.
"He was out late, but slept well and took no pain powders this morning," Will informed her, only to grow even more puzzled when she waved that information away.
"I know you try to serve him as best you can, William," Miss Ann responded, her face trying to telegraph something significant. Miss Ann had never been subtle but Will felt the blush flare hot along his cheeks and down his neck. Her meaning was only too clear now.
He bent his head.
"I have never had so good a gentleman," he whispered honestly, and was forced to admit the truth. "He's far too good for the likes of me." They both knew it. Even if Miss Ann did not know Will's exact reputation, she knew Will was not of her brother's class and had none of his finer feelings. Will did not think of his fellow man when he had only one to protect. He was a selfish, greedy sort, who wanted his gentleman all to himself and would do things other men would consider debased and unmasculine if Charlie asked him to. Will was not fit for him but he would take him any way that he could.
He glanced at Mrs. Douglass, whose head was angled down to listen to Miss Katherine, but whose gaze sparkled mischievously up at his master. Then he looked at Miss Ann. "I will be happy when he is happy," Will told her, abjectly miserable and aware that it was all over his face. "Excuse me, miss," he added, and hurried into the kitchen where no one would follow.
The rest of the day was quieter, intensely so, even for an already quiet house. Will suspected his master had taken the telephone off the cradle once again, but did not comment. He kept to the kitchens. His gentleman had decided against going out for his supper, which left Will to provide for him. As he dashed out to the market before giving up and ordering trays delivered from Charlie's favorite supper club, Will could not help but think that Miss Ann would expect him to see her brother fed and fed well.
His gentleman looked up from his correspondence when Will brought the tray to his desk, but only to push the tray toward Will and stare pointedly until Will had no choice but to sit and share the meal with him. It was a gesture his master had made before. Will usually took it as a sign that he was not looking his best and his master was concerned for his health, but tonight he hid a smile as he devoured roast beef and potatoes. If he had ordered more food in expectation of this moment, and if that was evident in the portions on offer, that was between him and his clever master.
Will spent more time on the meal than Charlie did. He thought his master too absorbed in his work to eat until Charlie finally shoved away a stack of letters with a tired sigh and glanced at him.
"You had much to do in the kitchen today?" It was Will's imagination that made his gentleman sound so wistful.
"I didn't want to interrupt your work." It was good work his gentleman did. Will often listened from the gallery and read the reports in the papers. But most of his master's speeches he knew by heart from evenings like this one. His master often read to him, rehearsing speeches long before anyone else heard them, and then asking Will's opinion.
"And earlier?" Charlie interrupted Will's thoughts. "I have never seen you leave a room so fast." He was no longer eating; Will had his full attention. Will tried to show him a blank face but, smart man that his master was, he raised an eyebrow that said he did not believe the act for a moment. "I have found Mrs. Douglass friendly but," there his master paused to give Will a careful frown, "but you did not think so?"
"I did not say that." Will studied the desk, the floor, the remnants of dinner. "She is," he had to firm his voice to seem convincing, "she is a charming lady, sir." He paused again, then shrugged. "For an American."
Charlie gave him a stern look that quickened Will's heartbeat. It also did nothing to hide the crinkles of at the corners of his master's eyes. "I see you couldn’t resist one little dig," he remarked.
Will sat up. "I am spiteful creature who ought to be punished, sir," he tossed back in a much warmer tone that he had intended to use. The hint of a smile froze on his master's face before his master looked down again.
"You have a different view of people than I do, Will. Often better than anything I could find in any monograph on human nature." His gentleman didn't seem to notice the sound that slipped from Will's throat, which was for the best, as Will thought it close to a desperate whimper. His master did not just say such things. He believed them. "More than that, I… I care deeply about your opinion, your impression of today. You did not seem happy and I wondered… I wondered…." The champion of the working class stuttered into silence. He was not looking up to see the expression on Will's face. It was the only thing Will was grateful for.
Will could only think that he was being told that his opinion mattered more to his master than that of any other, and that his master wanted his opinion on the woman who had finally caught his eye.
"Your sisters are obviously fond of Mrs. Douglass." It was a very diplomatic answer. Will had learned something of politics from all those speeches.
"My sisters," Charlie repeated, with an unexpected roll of his eyes. But he tapped the table with his fingers, gears shifting quietly at the motion, then put his other hand flat on the desk. "My sisters are meddling," he announced with a cough. "I believe they think I am unhappy."
"Matchmaking?" Will's lips parted on a hopeful breath. "But you seemed—" Eager for her attention, pleased to see her. "You laughed with her." He didn't mean to make it a complaint.
For a moment his master's gaze was too sharp on him, then Charlie turned his attention to the work awaiting him, though he did not touch it. "My sisters think, correctly, that left on my own, I give my heart away foolishly."
"Did you once?" Will knew he shouldn't ask.
Charlie's eyes came back to him for a moment. "Yes." His smile was mocking, yet the harsh feeling was directed at himself. "Before…." He did not say before the war, or, before the torpedo.
"Is that why you bought your commission?" Will scowled at the unknown breaker of hearts, and then at his master for being a young fool in love who had risked his life over an ended affair.
"You are reading too much into it." His gentleman must have been able to see the anger in Will's expression. When he spoke again, he might have meant his words to be placating. "It's more common than poetic. I convinced myself someone had feelings for me. He did not. He made that more than clear. It happens everyday." He was a touch too clipped, his tone flat. The wound remained despite his next words. "I am not a character in an opera."
"Don't do it again." Will was agitated enough to push himself to his feet but immediately fell back into his chair to rub at his arms. He softened his voice to a plea and forced away all thoughts of a heartless man destroying his master's young hopes. "Even if you are hurt, sir, don't do that or anything like that again."
It gave him no joy to learn of his master's taste for men in these circumstances. Will reached for him then quickly stretched toward the telephone instead, replacing the receiver.
His master was utterly still. "I did not mean to upset you." He paused to take a deep breath then shook his head. "I was younger and stupid. In any event," he took another long breath, "no matter, my sisters will ensure that I am never alone. They hired you, didn't they?"
They had, though they couldn’t have known the feelings Will would develop. Will had been merely one in a series of valets to them. They had probably hoped that he would cope better than the others, or at least be better suited to their brother's temperament.
"A decision they probably regret," Will started to jest but Charlie cut him off before he could attempt a laugh.
"If they have anything to say to you, tell me," he ordered, scowling so sternly that Will felt a moment's pity for Miss Ann. His gentleman would deny being fearsome if asked, but at times like that Will could see him as a soldier. His heart almost could not take it.
"Certainly, sir," Will lied, then continued as smoothly as he could considering his racing heart. He stood up to clear the dishes before something else occurred to him and he stopped with the tray in his hands. "Are you, sir? Unhappy?" he clarified, then wondered at his master's brief hesitation.
"I am perfectly happy, Will, thank you." The smile was warm, but Will lingered, not entirely reassured.
"I can come back, sir, when this is taken care of. If you have need of me." There was no hesitation in him though he might wish there were. But if he was quick, his master's answering smile was quicker. Will could not restrain a delighted sigh or the saucy dip of his head. "Then I am yours tonight, sir."
It was the swift parting of his master's lips that brought his own words to his horrified attention. Will winked to make his last comment a jest, then hurried from the room.
Only this gentleman could make Will feel like an eager boy again. He saw to the dishes and the rest of the house, dimming the gaslights and turning down his master's bed in a rush, but then stopped to stare at his reflection and sigh over his sweaty palms and flushed cheeks, the pink in his nose. Will had spent many an evening in his master's study listening to speeches or passages from books. A book Will could not sit through when reading alone was far easier to listen to when read in his master's voice.
He dashed from the bedroom and returned to the study just as the pen that had been in his master's hand landed on the floor. For a moment there was only silence and his master's harsh breathing and then Will swept in and knelt down to pick up the pen. He took his time looking for stray drops of ink that might stain, giving his gentleman time to compose himself. When he found no evidence of spilled ink, he stood up.
Charlie's mouth was a tight line. He trembled, but he put his hands on the desk and pushed himself to his feet. It took a clear effort. When Will had first started his position, Charlie had used different prosthetics and been in more pain. He had used his left hand for most things before the war and still had difficulties using his right. Small acts had been difficult to perform and filled him with frustration. His master was too controlled to allow anyone to see his temper, but Will had witnessed the aftermath—books shoved from his desk, glasses that had slipped from his grip smashed on the floor.
Afterward Charlie would be withdrawn, embarrassed, more for losing control of himself than for any failure to hold a pen or button a shirt. Will suspected there had been more of these moments that Charlie had hidden from him, moments where his frustration got the better of him. He had certainly hidden them from his sisters.
"Tired, sir?" Will moved over to the desk to lay down the pen. The late night and the visit today had had more of an effect on his gentleman than Will had thought. It was not easy for a man to pretend all was well when all was not well. It was no wonder the pen slipped from his master's tired hand.
"Damn it," Charlie swore quietly, but took the pen again and held it firmly. His hand was still trembling. Will would have noticed that sooner if he hadn't been so distracted by Mrs. Douglass and her possible place in his master's heart. "I'm sorry. I don't… I suppose I am tired."
Charlie put the pen very carefully back down and closed his eyes. After a few moments his shoulders dropped. It was a heavy burden, and Will did not mean the weight of the steel arm and leg, though he had held them and knew their weight. There was so much that his master did not share, not with Will, not with anyone, so much that had to be pried from him, and even then he would pretend that he wasn't in any pain unless it was undeniable.
"I am sorry," his master repeated himself, likely misinterpreting Will's silence as fear or disapproval, "I threw a tantrum like a child because I couldn't hold a pen."
"Was it just the pen?" Will deliberately did not say sir until he had come around behind the desk. "Is there something else bothering you?"
"They are…. There's a stiffness in my leg." Charlie would not say pain, even if he was in agony. He would admit to aches and stiffness only. But he looked up at Will and grimaced before trying to rub a steel hand over a steel leg as though his leg were made of flesh. He checked himself a moment later. "I'm sure it's nothing. My mind and not the equipment, though of course I will have my leg looked at as soon as possible." His reasonable words were followed by a muttered complaint, almost too low for Will to hear. "However much a waste of time it will be, when the doctors and engineers will tell me it's all a problem of an alienated psychology, and imply politely that I am insane. That there can be no sensations from a limb that is not there."
Putting a hand to his master's neck to soothe him seemed only natural. "I can clean them. Oil them where necessary?" Will offered in a rasp, petting his master's skin far past the point of propriety. The cleaning would help a little, even if the problem was that his master was upset about something else. His pains were always worse when he was bothered by a problem. "Perhaps you could read," Will suggested, pulling away as Charlie's hand came up to reach for his.
The supplies needed were not far. Will kept his gaze from his master's face, though he was aware of Charlie's eyes on him as he fetched the kit for maintaining the gears in the prosthetics. Will was an old hand with them now. He took a pillow from the sofa as well and dropped it to the floor before pushing Charlie's chair out from the desk. The chair to his desk was wheeled, designed for his master to use on days when he did not wish to wear his prosthetics and yet wanted to move with ease. There was a small motor on the back that he hardly ever used, a gift from Peter Aucourte. Aucourte was handsome as well as brilliant. Will would have hated him if his master had not always spoken of him as a friend and nothing more, and if Will had not seen the way Aucourte's eyes tracked Sebastian Harris whenever the two were separated.
"What book?" Will puffed with the effort of pushing the chair but raised his eyes at last. His gentleman still had a hand raised. It was near to Will's face, so close that Will nearly turned into it.
Charlie dropped his hand to the arm of the chair and made a noise. "You do not have to—"
"Something Russian?" Will interrupted. "Gloomy and long-winded?”
"You dislike Russian novels so strongly you once started snoring when I began one," Charlie pointed out, not sounding too upset at the memory. Will could tell his master had already given in and accepted the idea, and nearly flew up to the library when Charlie suggested something light. He came back with The Moonstone.
"At least it offers mystery, if not romance. Do not start at the beginning," Will instructed his master as he handed it over, a little too breathless even for a run up the stairs. He looked away until his master's eyes were on the book. Then he dropped down onto the pillow and settled in between his master's knees.
"You do not care for the beginning?" Charlie's words were strained but when Will glanced up his master had the book open. He cleared his throat and read a line, "At the moment when I showed myself in the doorway, Rachel rose from the piano," with a slight hint at the end that he was waiting for Will's opinion. Will sighed happily—he loved a lover's reunion scene—and Charlie continued to read. "We confronted each other in silence, with the full length of the room between us. The movement she had made in rising appeared to be the one exertion of which she was capable. All use of every other faculty, bodily or mental, seemed to be merged in the mere act of looking at me."
Will took another moment to fully appreciate both the scene being described and his master's voice, and then set to work. The prosthetics, especially the arm, were very sensitive, designed in some way Will didn't understand to read what Charlie wished his arm and leg to do and then move accordingly. He knew enough to know the signals came through nerves, through the stump, but the science of it confused him. It did not seem comfortable either but he knew better than to ask if it was. If it was painful Charlie would never admit to it.
The metal leg was heavy. The weight alone was a burden that could leave his master shaking, but he tripped much less when wearing his metallic leg with the toes that could flex than when he wore the simpler, earlier model.
Will rolled up the trouser leg, taking his time, but making sure his hands did not graze anywhere too intimate. He would not take advantage, especially not after his master had known him well enough to read the romantic scenes from the book despite what Will had said about the mystery. His master was kind, and for him, Will would try to be less selfish.
The gears were partly exposed despite the casing over the top to protect them, which closed over the knee itself and over the places where muscle would have been. The casing had been created from brass with an artist's touch. Will had seen a fine lady once with an artificial arm that had a casing inlaid with silver and gold to depict birds in flight. His master's leg was a man's, a soldier's, and resembled nothing so much as a scabbard. Will thought it fitting and beautiful.
He ran his fingers over the cover one more time, then found the latch to lift it. He was gentle, but he heard the cessation of his master's breathing as the casing clicked open, and put a hand up to his flesh knee to rub away the tension. He could not imagine how it felt to be opened up so. His master could have Will every way imaginable and still would never see inside of him like this.
"I will be quick," Will whispered. "Please don't stop reading."
"I do not need the distraction," Charlie answered with the book before his face. The gears in his legs whirred as if an attempt at motion had been stifled.
"Master," Will begged, using the term Charlie had never asked him to use as some of his previous gentlemen had. There was a world of difference in how Will said it to Charlie, though his master could not have known.
There was a moment or two where Will thought Charlie might argue over the word but then his master shook his head and continued reading. His was voice was strained as Will took the swabs of cotton and the cleaning solution and started to swipe lightly at anything that looked like accumulated dirt.
It did not take long, even when done with care. The pain Charlie felt was most likely in his mind, but Will would do his best to ease it as if it were solid and in front of him. He reached for the can of lubricant and then nestled in closer as he greased pistons and gears. There was a warm leg at his back and the metal leg was pressed closed to him, making him feel like a puppy ensconced at his master's feet. It was not an unpleasant feeling. The strain in Charlie's voice was easing, becoming something more natural. Will half-listened to the story though they both already knew the ending, and continued to carefully apply the grease as needed. Sometimes his fingers would linger on a particular piece of steel, intrigued at the warmth he felt, but all too soon it was time to snap the casing back into place.
He did not move when it was done, but then his master did not cease reading. Will did not know if the act of closing the casing had gone unnoticed, but with a pillow and a soft rug under him, and his head nearly on his master's knee, he was disinclined to draw attention to it. He did move, but only to wrap a hand around his master's ankle.
Charlie was so involved in his reading that perhaps he did not notice how his fingers slid into Will's hair, or the way the faint pressure made it seem only natural and right for Will to ease his head back to rest on his master's knee. He wanted to close his eyes as well and did so, knowing that the moment would end soon enough. He would take what memories he could, and exhaled in contentment as his gentleman continued to read to him of a lover's misunderstanding.
He woke to a disorienting numbness in his body that went away when he jerked his head up and realized he was still curled up at Charlie's feet in the study. He jumped into motion—a foolish mistake.
The moment he stumbled to his feet, all the feeling returned to his limbs. He floundered against the desk at the waves of irritating pain and glanced over at Charlie. Charlie's eyes were closed, but Will could tell from his frown that he was awake and in great discomfort.
There was grey morning light coming through the windows. A night in the chair could not have done his master any good.
"I am so sorry, Charlie," Will blurted, his mind taking far too long to fully wake. His master's eyes opened and fixed on him but Will shook his head to clear his mind and tried to stand again. He couldn’t imagine how they had spent the night like that. "You should have woken me," he chided breathlessly, only to gulp back the words. "Sorry, sir. Are you in pain?" He came closer, running his hands over Charlie without much thought until Charlie drew in a sharp breath.
"I'm fine," he was told, but Will knew better than to listen.
"Can you move? Do not." If it was anything like Will's first attempt to move his stiff muscles it would hurt and Charlie would fall. "Give me a moment, sir," Will pushed out what had the sound of an order but didn't stop to wonder at himself. He made his clumsy way first into the bedroom to gather the pain powders and a glass of water, and then back into the study with more ease of movement.
Charlie had removed the spectacles he must have slept in. "I do not need—" Charlie started to say with his chin at a stubborn angle but stopped when Will mixed a half dose and handed it to him.
Will had tasted those powders once. They were bitter but they worked, sometimes too well. Both the doctor and Miss Ann had warned him to keep the doses low. Many veterans of the war developed cravings for the opiates they were given. Charlie rarely asked for them anymore, perhaps because an especially strong dose turned him into a different man, a man of flushed, hot skin and hands that reached for Will, a man Will was hard-pressed to deny. He did only because he knew the shame Charlie would feel the next morning. On that point his master had been very clear; he was not the sort to take advantage of servants, not ever, not even when the servant would not mind.
In truth, Will would love it were a sober Charlie ever to reach for him. Some of his greatest fantasies involved his master buggering him, sometimes tenderly, slowly, with their faces close, and other times forcefully, over his desk or the side of his bed, with Will's arse red from his hand and Will moaning for more. He did not think either likely to happen, but it did not stop him from wishing.
He watched his master reluctantly drink most of the potion, then set the glass aside and came around to the back of the chair. He pushed it to the doorway over his gentleman's protests.
"I cannot help you all the way to the bedroom," Will reasoned with him at the threshold, and bent down. He could not look into those wounded brown eyes, but he nodded in relief when Charlie at last accepted his help to stand. His arms looped around Will, although he probably had no intention of using Will as a crutch until the first wave of pain hit him as sensation flooded back through his lower body. He bit back a noise and Will hurried, walking him to his bed and sitting him down on the edge.
He made short work of both waistcoat and shirt, and when Charlie was shirtless, Will unbuckled the prosthetic arm and winced at the angry marks left in Charlie's skin from having it on so long. His master's eyes were closed and he had not one word to say about being undressed when he was capable of doing it himself. Will wanted to kiss the buckle marks from his chest but forced himself to skip on to his trousers and shoes. The straps for the leg had dug grooves into his master's thigh. Will put his hand over them without thinking. He could not control his breathing when he raised his head and found his gentleman watching him.
"A massage," Will told him, stupid and thrilled into full wakefulness. "A massage, and a bath, and you will be right as rain and ready to work again. Perhaps a hot chocolate for breakfast." He could fetch one from the boulangerie down the street, perhaps two. He would need one as well after the massage was over.
He could not speak or even swallow at that thought, and left Charlie in order to wash his hands in the bathroom and find the oil he would need. Charlie was still sitting up when he returned. He frowned over his shoulder at Will, his tension obvious, but turned and laid down the moment Will reached for him. He slid one-handed over the sheets where the bed had been turned down and put his face in a pillow. He was naked and very, very beautiful.
Will knew himself to be breathing too hard, and paused to roll up his sleeves and give himself the appearance of calm. He climbed onto the bed but not yet over his master's tense, prone body. He rubbed the oil between his palms until it was warm, and then placed both hands on his master's thigh, the one still red and marked by the straps.
Charlie moved his head to face away from Will.
"Do you remember the first time I did this for you, sir?" Will wondered aloud, sliding his palms over Charlie's strong thigh, stopping to apply more oil before sweeping his hands up and down over bared skin with increasing pressure.
"Yes." Charlie spoke into the pillow, his one hand curled into the bedding. That hand gave no clue as to his thoughts on that night, however Will wished it would. When Will had offered the massage then, he had thought it a prelude to further intimacies. His thoughts had been a muddle; confusion and fear of his new, frowning gentleman, amazement at the scarred and missing parts of his body, concern over what he might be expected to do if his master was not whole. He had worked briefly for an older man who had reacted angrily when his cock had not worked as he wished and Will had not desired another such situation.
He also remembered surprise at the fit state of his new gentleman's body. Now, he knew that it was the work required to walk with the metal leg and how Charlie relied on one arm more than the other, but at the time he had seen Charlie without his clothing and thought only that perhaps it would not be a chore to touch him intimately—not that Will ever stayed long with gentlemen he did not wish to touch. But when his hands had strayed to his new master's lap, he had found himself rebuffed with agonizing directness.
"You quite surprised me," Will explained, the air rushing in and out of him. Charlie's skin was hot, the oil pleasantly slick. He could move his hands almost anywhere he wished. He slid a leg over Charlie's to start to massage his back.
"You quite surprised me," Charlie answered, his voice muffled. "But I do not—"
"I know, sir," Will cut him off and swept a long, loving sweep up to his master's shoulder blades. He leaned in to caress them and enjoyed the soft sound of pleasure Charlie did not hide. "It's all right, sir."
"Especially not in this…" Charlie left the rest unsaid but Will could guess his intended words. Not in this condition. Will could not even truly deny it. He had been shocked that first night, although he had tried to hide his reaction when he had noticed his new master's hesitation in undressing before him.
"I did not understand your reasons in hiring me." Will referenced his past as directly as he could as he focused on kneading the tension from Charlie's shoulders. His fingers traced the length Charlie's spine with covetous touches. "I did not realize you required more than a convenience." He voice did not break. He was almost pleased. "I am happy to be your helpmeet, sir."
All Charlie had required of him that first night was help with his pain and assistance at getting into bed. Will had thought it strange that so brave and famous a figure had wanted Will around to offer his strength. So strange that he had not been able to sleep that night, or many nights after.
When Charlie had looked to him for news of popular trends on the streets, and considered Will's opinion on his speeches, or asked if Will thought a visitor had been honest with him, Will had known the cause of his disturbance. He was ardently in love with his gentleman.
It was the kind of irony that Will only appreciated in the theatre. In life it was much more like gulping tea that hadn't been allowed to cool. He knew it would burn but he could not stop drinking it.
"Helpmeet." Charlie groaned into the pillow as though the word itself bothered him. Will dipped his hands down to the base of his master's spine and watched Charlie's hand flex into the bedding. His master groaned again. "I am glad you are happy. I'd never make you do anything you didn't want to."
Will could have buried his face in his master's skin and offered himself as his plaything.
"I know, sir," he breathed, not calm at all, "nothing I don't want to do." There was too much emphasis in the single word. Will swore and leapt from his master's body and off the bed.
He dashed to the bathroom to wipe his hands and draw a bath, trying to will away his state of partial arousal. His master did not move from his position on the bed but turned to watch Will, something about him so still that Will could not approach him.
"If you do not want help into the tub, I will go and see about breakfast," Will called out without meeting his eyes.
"I do not need the help, if you have other things to attend to," Charlie corrected him warmly, a red flush in his cheeks that was probably from the powders. He did not rise, so Will stayed uncertainly where he was. He ought to change his clothes if he were going to leave the house. He ought to choose his gentleman's clothing for the day. He ought to do many things. He did not move.
"Do you enjoy your work, Will?" There was a slow, ecstatic note in his master's voice, the work of some good feeling or just the dragon in his pain powders. "Would you rather work for another?"
"No." Will put his back to the door and shook his head. "No, sir." He tried to smile to lessen the ferocity of his answer. "No, I find I enjoy playing valet for you."
"You are a very good valet," his master responded, his voice thick and ever so delirious with ease and pleasure. Will had made him feel that, with some assistance from the poppy flower.
Will ignored the obvious lie in his master's statement and permitted himself a moment of truth. "Before… I never realized how unwanted it made me feel."
"Being wanted?" Charlie pushed himself up a fraction from the pillow to frown bemusedly at him. Will wondered if his gentleman truly thought of Will as so irresistible that he could not understand anyone not wanting him.
Will crept closer by one step, then two.
"Being let go when I was—when my services were no longer desired, having no place to stay, sleeping alone, always," Will listed complaints he had not realized until he had come here. "I do not miss it. This is all I need." He firmed his voice and nodded, sure of this one thing. He might want more, but he could survive with this, the two of them just as they were.
"I am sorry that you were so cruelly treated." Charlie exhaled, relief easing the scowl from his face. "But I confess I don't like to imagine you with others," he murmured, then blinked and met Will's eyes, "At their whim, is what I meant to say," he added. His gentleman was warm and flushed and shining with oil from Will's hands. It was the powders, but his gaze was so light in that moment that Will couldn’t resist taking the last step required to caress his shoulder.
"I do not want others, sir," Will confessed in return, then went to turn off the bathwater before he could do anything else foolish, or convince himself that his words had brought the beginnings of a hopeful smile to his master's face.
Not long after his breakfast, his gentleman left on business that he did not share with Will. Sometimes he did not, though usually more out of forgetfulness than as a deliberate attempt to keep Will in the dark. Will was not sure which this was. There had been nothing in the appointment book aside from a luncheon at his club. His master left much earlier than necessary for that and was still gone as the clock approached four.
Will straightened more than he had ever straightened in his life, startling and then annoying the maid who came in to polish the wood and shake out the rugs. He ignored her and continued putting every book in the library in the place it was supposed to go instead of in a pile on an ottoman. He collected the laundry and sent it out, then went in to check the ink and paper in his master's study. When everything was where it should be, he went to the kitchen to make himself some tea. He had not even touched the kettle when the doorbell rang.
A chill went down his back, as he knew it could not be his master, who had a key. He imagined the ring had seemed more insistent than usual and walked slowly to the door to admit Miss Ann.
"Mr. Howard is not at home," he told her, taken off guard when she swept in.
"Mr. Howard," she echoed him and waved a hand dramatically, "we both know you don't address him so formally when alone with him, William. If you did, he would never call you Will, no matter the difference in your stations."
Will almost put his hands to his cheeks to hide his blush. He stared at her for a moment, torn between giving her the boot and losing his job, and ushering her in. He settled for repeating himself. "Charlie is not at home," he told her. Only as he said the name did he remember that he used that name to his master that morning, and Charlie had not corrected him.
Miss Ann harrumphed. "I'll wait." She continued in to the study on her own. "Bring tea."
Only the knowledge that Charlie would allow his sister to stay kept Will from showing her the door. As it was, he did not make sandwiches for her tea and gave her only two biscuits. She harrumphed again when she saw them on the plate, then made him jump when she directed him to bring a cup and saucer for himself.
She did not ask. Will managed a weak protest just the same. Miss Ann only stared, as fierce as her brother could be. Will somehow found himself fetching a cup and pouring her tea as best he could, as though he knew anything about a lady's tea aside from what he'd gleaned watching her with her sisters. He sat as well, a startling breach of protocol that left him too nervous and curious to have even a sip. She had never asked this of him before and he could not ascertain her intent.
"As I said yesterday, William, my brother is doing well. His health is certainly better. I will even allow that he looks improved. You found him a better tailor."
"I don't think Charlie would care for us discussing—" Will tried to interject.
Miss Ann was faster than he was. "He should take a firmer hand with you. His cravat was showy today."
"It was not," Will argued, as the hints of gold in Charlie's cravat had been faint next to the white of his shirt and the clean black of his jacket. He blinked. "You saw him today?" He didn't understand why Miss Ann would be here if she had already met with her brother. He clutched his saucer so hard it rattled. He did not think of his master's "firmer hand" at all.
"Yes, he was in the Park with a group of admirers." Miss Ann was toying with him. Will couldn't say how he knew it, except that he very much doubted his master had been in any group, much less a group of admirers, not if his master could have avoided it.
Will stilled his hand. "He is doing better," he said, reasonably calm on the surface. "But that is not my doing, it's his own hard work."
"He has worked very hard." Miss Ann paused to take a shaky breath and then a long drink of tea. She rattled her cup in her saucer too but only for a moment. "Very hard, as he often works when he has a particular goal in mind." Abruptly, she raised her head and narrowed her eyes. "I will trust in your discretion now and tell you that Charles…. My brother was not well when he returned from Afghanistan. He suffered a series of setbacks. I do not wish him to suffer them again now."
"I don't know what you mean, Miss Ann. I would never hurt him. You know I would not." Will lowered his voice for that last part, unable to help himself.
"My brother might have a body forged of iron, but it shields a soul too easily wounded. He requires a committed spirit. He requires strength and a selfish core, lest he give all of himself away."
Will would never have been able to tell from Miss Ann's hard voice that she took three sugars and cream in her tea and lavishly spoiled her herd of fat dogs. He had a fleeting impression that whoever had broken her brother's heart had paid dearly for it. A lady's revenge could be vicious.
Will bit his tongue so he did not say that or whisper any more of his buried desires. He was committed more than she knew but he was also aware of the impossibility of his situation. He could not even say what his master felt for him besides affection, and even if there were more, his beloved gentleman would never approach him. The difference in their stations was too great. A girl might, on occasion, marry her dancing master or her tutor, an older man might marry his lifetime mistress, but that was rare and it had never yet occurred between two men, even with the sodomy laws repealed.
But there was no arguing with Miss Ann, even had Will known what point he was supposed to argue. "Yes, Miss Ann," he agreed at last, his tone subdued, and didn't know what to make of her puzzled expression or how she reached out to push the cup of tea in his hands toward his mouth.
"Have a sip, William, you look peaked," she ordered, only to abandon him at the sound of the front door opening. She rose, presumably to meet her brother, and Will took that as his dismissal. He held his cup and saucer and darted past both brother and sister into the kitchen. His heart was racing and his thoughts were a mess that he could not seem to tidy. But he slowed his breathing and leaned with his ear against the kitchen door.
Miss Ann was speaking. Her words were upset but she seemed oddly calm. "…Declined an invitation of hers this morning… I had thought you got along."
His master's voice was level, which it almost always was around his sisters, even when he later admitted they could drive him to distraction. "She is a very nice woman. A pleasant companion. But…."
"But you have no interest in women, or should I say, not this particular woman." Miss Ann was so blunt that Will nearly dropped his cup and saucer. He missed Charlie's reaction, though he imagined a startled breath or perhaps even a rare frown. Society begrudgingly accepted lavender-tinted marriages, as long affairs between two men or two women were known, but until the man or woman in question had made their tastes clear it was not usual to speak of them, and then never so directly.
But his master did not seem surprised, as if Miss Ann had known about him for some time. He said something on a sigh. Will could not make out the words. He heard only Miss Ann's name.
She responded in a gentler voice than he had ever before heard from her. "This is you and your soft heart being foolish again."
"Little sister," his master warned. But a mere whispered warning wasn't going to slow down Miss Ann. She must have come here to have this talk.
"I want you think of what could happen, Charles. I want you to think of me. You can deny it all you like but I am a spinster, and I will always be a spinster, so you must listen to me."
Will had never heard her speak that way. Neither had his master, it seemed. "Of course I have thought of it, Ann. I think of the impossible everyday. Sometimes I even trick myself into thinking it's possible."
"None would say no to you, Charles," Miss Ann insisted.
"Not with my fortune, you mean." The heaviness in his gentleman's voice made Will put down his cup and slide a hand along the door. "Or do you mean their image of me as the hero to be pitied?"
"That is not at all what I mean, Charles Howard!" From her tone, Will would not have been shocked if Miss Ann struck her brother but he didn't hear a slap. She was fierce but in that moment Will did not mind. He could have kissed her for it. "You have never seen yourself as you are when giving a speech," she went on, rallying troops. "You draw people, brother, you always have. And now you look," she faltered for the first time, "now you look as though you know a lover's touch. Do not doubt yourself. Take faith in that. Others will want you. You have only to ask."
If his master had an answer, Will did not hear it, not even with his face pressed hard to the painted wood of the door. Will wondered if Miss Ann was holding him, or had her hand pressed to his gentleman's cheek, and then thought numbly that it was over for him. His master would never disappoint his sisters, and this sister was telling him to attach himself to Mrs. Douglass. Or if not her, then someone, and soon. Will knew he was not good enough to be that someone. It did not make the fact hurt any less.
"Charles," Miss Ann drew out the name then abruptly changed it to a new name, with a new emphasis, "Charlie, you know I am telling you this because I love you."
"I know," his master agreed, almost reluctantly.
"You must move forward." Miss Ann sighed wearily at her own words. "You cannot stay this way."
"I would not force myself on someone so lovely," Charlie insisted in return, and Will closed his eyes and put his back to the door so that the rest of his words were nothing more than a murmur. He did not need to hear anymore. Mrs. Douglass was lovely indeed.
Will served his master tea without once meeting his master's gaze and then went to work scrubbing the kitchen, a task he had never done before as it wasn't in his duties. His hands were not pretty when he was done, but it was a proper kitchen again. He gave the maid her pay and then asked his master politely if he was going out to dine. When Charlie looked at him, distracted and unhappy, and shook his head, Will went out to fetch him supper.
He helped his gentleman to bed around ten o'clock and swallowed every pleading word that rose up in his throat when Charlie stared at him. "Are you not feeling well, Will?" his master asked. "This morning I thought… I thought you seemed in better spirits."
Though Will could not have been dreaming the sadness in Charlie's voice he made himself sound cheerful. "I'm fine, sir," he answered, as his master always answered when the ghost of his old limbs pained him and he did not wish to discuss it. Then he turned down the gaslights to give himself the cover of darkness and went into his room, shutting the door behind him.
He could not sleep without the sound of Charlie's breathing and got out of bed before light. He dressed and went out, ordering coal though they had plenty, as well as lilies from lonely flower-sellers to decorate the front entranceway. Ladies liked flowers, from what Will understood of them. He stopped at the markets just as the merchants began to lay out their wares and purchased fresh bread and eggs. He had no idea how to prepare the eggs aside from boiling them, but many gentlemen ate boiled eggs for breakfast.
He dug out and polished a silver egg cup and served the egg and bread for his master's breakfast with hands that barely trembled. His gentleman froze at the sight of the tray, frowning down at it and then up at Will.
"We were out of biscuits?" Charlie asked. He had shadows under his eyes as though his night had been a bad one.
"No, sir." Will flashed him another small smile and went to the closet to decide on a suit for the day. His master had many appointments about town and possibly a lady to woo. He would need serious colours and a cravat that indicated his intentions. "I thought you could use a change."
"A change?" Charlie spoke in a heavy, disappointed tone but did not press the issue. "I'm sure it's delicious."
Will glanced over as Charlie cracked the eggshell and exhaled in relief when the egg was revealed to be fully cooked, if somewhat soft. Perfectly edible. Will had done well for his first time.
"You have several appointments today, sir, do not forget," Will spoke up after another few moments, when he could not take his master's dark eyes on him any longer.
"I have not, thank you, Will." The warmth in his master's voice tested his resolve. Will made himself take a long, critical look at the shirt he had taken out for today and decided it needed a better ironing. He could not look up. His master seemed out of sorts and sad and that was Will's doing but he could not make it better. He was not the one to make it better, no matter how hard he tried to be a true gentleman's gentleman.
"I… I can see you have your own errands to attend to," Charlie spoke as Will prepared to take the shirt into the kitchen. Will briefly closed his eyes before turning around, although he did not leave the doorway.
His gentleman was sitting up in bed, his egg and tea mostly untouched before him. His bedding was the kind of mess that meant a night of turning, and he wore no shirt, as though he had removed it in the dark and flung it to the floor. He looked at Will for a moment, his gaze traveling slowly over his face and then down to Will's plain, small starched collar. He considered Will's simple coat, then swept his eyes back to Will's hair, held down for once, as was proper. He sighed before looking away.
"I had thought… a shave." Charlie cleared his throat. "But I shall shave myself. Thank you, Will."
Will curled his hands into fists, further wrinkling his master's shirt, but he nodded.
"Whatever you wish, sir," he breathed and turned back.
He returned with an ironed shirt to help his gentleman in and out of the tub. Charlie did not ask, but Will saw him moving to stand and came closer without being bidden. Charlie smelled clean and warm and pressed himself to Will with a strength that said he could have stood on his own. Despite that, he didn't let go, and for a long moment Will put his face to his master's neck and breathed. His fingers curled into hot, slippery skin. His master's heart beat furiously under his hand and his muscles were firm and tense.
Will opened his eyes and saw himself in the mirror, clinging. He made himself step away.
"Will," his master called after him, then coughed. "There is a draft of a speech on my desk, I hoped you might read it through, if you had a moment," he proposed, only to fall momentarily silent when Will swallowed noisily and nodded. "You do not have to," his gentleman recanted the offer, which made Will feel even worse. His master trusted in Will's opinion as he trusted few others. Will would not break that trust now.
"Of course I will, sir," Will agreed in the most level voice he could manage. The answer did not have any visible effect on his frowning, silent master. Will brought him a flannel but held it at a distance, keeping his eyes averted. He laid out the shaving things in the same fashion, although he mixed the lather himself.
"If you are feeling—" Charlie began tentatively once Will had wrapped a dry towel around him. Will still could not look at him. "If you do not wish…" There, Charlie paused. His voice became more forceful. "If you would like the day off, Will, you can have it. I will not need you."
"Day off?" The cup of lather slipped from Will's fingers and hit the floor. He should not be surprised, he told himself as he knelt down to pick up fragments of pottery. The smell of spilled shaving soap hit him strongly when he was close to the floor. His master's scent, the one Will had chosen for him. It was everywhere, on the rugs, even on his master's feet.
Will felt his face go hot and wiped at it with his fingers though he knew that would do no good. "Do… do not move, sir," he heard himself offering a warning in a voice thick and wet. Biting his lip to hide the sounds he wished to make did not stop his mind from reminding him what a failure he was. He could not serve correctly. He could not even be the one thing his gentleman wanted him to be. "I am sorry," he mumbled, his lips sore from his teeth. His eyes were stinging so he kept his head down as he crawled over to grab a new towel. He scooped up shards of pottery as he went, not wishing Charlie to injure himself because of his mistake. "I'm so sorry, sir," he whispered again, and shivered when he felt Charlie's hand at the top of his head.
"Are you all right, Will?" his master demanded, that essence of command in his tone that made Will want to curl against his chest. Charlie had one hand on the edge of the bathtub so he could lean down to see to Will, and Will could not take the sight.
"You do not need to help me, sir. I am bad enough at my job. You do not need to lower yourself." Will flinched at his own words but pulled away from his master at the same time. He gathered most of the pottery into the towel and swept it up into his arms before bolting from the room.
He heard Charlie calling after him but did not answer. For the first time in his service, he did not want to.
Will returned late, his stomach growling with hunger, the stench of the public house in his clothes. He had seen a matinee performance that he could remember nothing of, and then sat by himself, nursing the same pint for hours. He only came back because time was growing late. He did not know if Charlie would be home and need dinner.
The lights were on as he came in the servant's entrance, even the lights in the kitchen, though there was no sign of a disturbance. He could hear no laughter, or any other indicator of a guest, but the flowers must have arrived sometime during the day and someone had put them out in the entranceway. The house smelled of lilies.
Will went to the bedroom first, but it was early yet, so seeing it empty did not surprise him. Seeing the bed neatly made did. The bathroom floor had been cleaned as well, though Will could see dried specks of shaving lather and felt his shame once again.
With the rest of the house, save the upstairs, unoccupied, he had one more room to check. He found his master behind his desk in his study, staring down at an opened book. He did not seem to be reading. He was not even wearing his glasses.
"Was there anything you needed, sir?" Will broke into his gentleman's thoughts as meekly as he could, but Charlie lifted his head and stared at him so intently that Will could not help shifting from foot to foot.
An icy, anxious feeling settled in Will's stomach, along with a flutter. He should have straightened his collar, smoothed down his hair, but it seemed one morning of being a proper valet was all he could manage.
Not even that. Not even one morning. Will would have lowered his eyes but something in his master's gaze would not allow him to.
"You came back," his gentleman murmured, too warmly considering Will's mistakes. Will tried not to shiver.
"I am here as long as you need me, sir." Will could deny it no longer though it emerged on a sigh. "I am of little help to you, but I am here."
"I could ask for no better help. You are everything to me." The words were low and heartfelt. Charlie straightened the moment he spoke them, then tightened his mouth into a firm line. Will looked away and then back to him. His eyes were stinging as they had that morning. The chill would not leave him.
"Sir, you do not need to protect my feelings." Will could not stop trembling. "I cannot even prepare your toast. I know nothing of politics. And I cannot stop thinking of you, sir." He swallowed a gasp to hear himself, then gave a quiet wail of despair. "I cannot control my tongue. Your sisters do not care for me and rightfully so."
"My sisters think the world of you." Even knowing him, knowing his gentle nature, his master's scowl was intimidating. His master pushed himself from his chair, sending it rolling back from the desk. He put his hands out. "Where did you hear otherwise?"
"Sir?" Will could not fully believe was he was hearing. "Miss Ann said—"
"Ann credits you with my recovery, as do I." Charlie raised his voice. He stopped to clear his throat, then directed his eyes at the wall. "You are not perfect but neither am I, Will. Your efforts are genuine and I could ask for no better help. To know that you will be here every morning, even with just biscuits, makes me want to get out of bed. That you admire my work so much makes me work harder so I can be what you think I am. Will, I—" Charlie ended his own words with a strangled cough and pushed one hand flat against the surface of the desk. A few seconds later he turned away. "I'm embarrassing myself. I apologise. If you wish to leave your position, Will, I would not blame you."
"Leave my position?" Will hurried forward, the only motion he seemed capable of. He crossed the room in a rush, stopping when his gentleman was in front of him. "You want me to leave you?" he demanded a moment later when his master would not look at him. "Do not send me away, sir, please. I can do better." Will did not believe it but he promised it all the same.
"Do better?" Charlie faced with him narrowed eyes. His voice was first incredulous, then fierce. "How could you possibly do better?" He could have been confused, but his air, his very bearing, made it an order for the truth.
Will moved without thinking, hiding his stinging face against his gentleman's shoulder.
"A real valet would not do this," Will told him. It should not have to be said. But of the things that should not be, his fingers crawling up to curl into his master's cravat were the bigger sin. Yet Will could not make himself release it. He was a true disappointment in all respects.
His gentleman was scarcely breathing. "Will," Charlie whispered after too many moments. "Will, you must want more than me, than this."
Will lifted his head, aware he was not at his best. His nose would be red, like his eyes. His hair was out of order. There was nothing of allure or temptation in him. He did not care. There were scant inches difference in their height, but he stared up and remained as still as he could with his cheeks wet and hiccoughs escaping his chest. After a moment, he shook his head. "No, sir."
He nearly shut his eyes at the cool press of a metal thumb against his cheek, and spent a moment marveling at his master's control that the touch could stay so gentle.
"I am a fool." His master's rough voice made Will stop crying in order to glare. Of the two of them, Will was the fool here, and opened his mouth to say so. He was silenced by his master's mouth on his, the softest of pressures yet enough to take his breath. Will clutched weakly at the cravat. He thought he'd closed his eyes, then thought they were open again, but swore to nothing. It could not be real, his gentlemen sliding his mouth to his ear and then back to his mouth, giving Will short, careful kisses that were sweet enough to make Will shiver and arch his neck for more.
"Will," his master breathed against Will's throat, his mouth hot, one of his hands cool.
Will shuddered and turned his cheek into that steel palm. His master frowned and seemed puzzled when Will shuddered harder, wracked with pleasure by one stern look.
"Have I displeased you, sir?" Will asked him slowly, desire heavy in his voice. He was not sure at the moment what answer he would prefer.
Charlie exhaled. "No." He was harsh but only for a moment. His thumb again swept over Will's skin, brushed his mouth. Will parted his lips to receive it, which drew another startled whisper from his master. He watched the thoughts crease his gentleman's forehead, watched him struggle to breathe though he could not feel what Will's mouth was doing to the metal thumb. "No, but Will you should not. I should not. I will not use you."
"You want me." It was all Will could think. He slid his mouth away and swallowed the taste of iron. He stared at Charlie, at his gentleman, in confusion. "If you want me, sir, use me." He pulled the cravat pin and tugged loose the cravat itself until he felt it slide between his fingers, over his wrists. He put his mouth to the base of his master's throat, kissed it as he had dreamed of doing. "If you won't, then let me use you." His thoughts had vanished with the scent of Charlie's shaving soap and the taste of his skin. He pressed in, finding buttons and freeing them with ease. He did not look up, but he did not have to; he could hear Charlie's ragged breathing and feel his body tense under his hands. That was all, aside from his master's frantic heartbeat. Will lowered his voice, less certain that he had been a moment before. "Please, sir, I have waited so long."
"Will." His gentleman said his name as no other said it. His master's hand slid to the back of his head. It was Will's only warning. Then his arse was to the desk and he was receiving a fierce kiss. His hands came up only to linger on Charlie's arms, his chest. His moan was helpless. He was panting in seconds, begging moments after that, thinking only that he had been mistaken to think his master a man restrained in his passions. His master took Will’s mouth most assuredly. He was welcome to the rest of his body.
Will opened his legs for him and let out a pleased murmur when his master stepped between them. "Yes, sir, please." His lips were buzzing and plump, a temptation it seemed his master could no longer resist. He pressed Will to the surface of his desk, pushing aside papers without care, and bent down with him to keep their mouths together. He kissed hungrily, and Will held tightly to him and shivered to find the desk firm against his backside. "Yes, sir, please," he begged again. This was everything. There was a bruising ache at his hip where one of his gentleman's hands held him down yet he could not make himself think it anything other than arousing. He whimpered at the bit of pain and met a troubled, dark gaze. His master pulled back.
"You do not have to call me sir." His gentleman's voice rumbled over him. Will opened his mouth and could not tell if he pulled his master down to him, or if his master came down to kiss him again on his own because Will wriggled for him and licked his swollen lips. "My name will do." His master spoke between kisses. He had teeth, teeth he scraped over Will's jaw and collarbone to drive Will mad. "Or Charlie, as you said once." His master followed every rough caress with a soft one. Will might never know which he preferred more, too gentle or not gentle enough. He pleaded for bruises and then whimpered for the light kisses that followed.
"Charlie, sir," Will murmured for him, writhing at the heated look this earned him, at the hot hand of flesh and bone that slid into his trousers. "Charlie, sir. Charlie." He could not stop the words from spilling out of his mouth now. He was supposed to be giving his gentleman the use of him. Instead he was weak for the press of his gentleman's mouth and shivering with need for the weighty steel keeping him in place. His master kissed him further, at his ear and down his chest, around his own fingers.
"I will not use you." The words from his master were granite but his mouth was so tender Will could not bear it. He had not prepared for this, his gentleman holding him down to give him pleasure. Even the chafe of a dry palm made Will gasp for more.
"Master." His face was hot. His eyes were burning. The shocked inhalation from Charlie could not stop Will from jerking his hips up and begging for the release that was so near. He did not know whether to reach for Charlie or leave his hands flat on the desk. He thought either would please and the freedom was heady. "Master Charlie, sir, please."
"Yes, Will." Charlie would never know what his voice did to Will, the honest confusion at how Will could think so of him, how quickly it melted back to lust when Will immediately came, moaning gratefully for every stroke of his master's hand.
"Master?" Charlie repeated moments later while Will was fighting for breath and struggling to keep his eyes open. Charlie's hand was still inside Will's trousers. His gaze was serious. Will turned his head toward him and waited a moment before nodding. His gentleman seemed troubled. "You begged." A need to understand and a desire to hear more warred in his master's handsome face, desire to be wanted that much, confusion that Will should beg for him. People should be begging for him always. Will could not seem to articulate that with their skin touching and his gentleman only now ceasing to milk drops of his seed from him. Will whined when it became painful and Charlie stopped before straightening and pulling away. He sat down heavily in his chair
Will tried to stand and felt his unsteady legs carry to him to the floor. He did not mind, despite how his master expressed concern and tried to help him. Will slid between his master's legs and grasped at his thighs to stay up. He did not bother with a pillow for his knees, and he was shameless when he took his master's stained hand and brought it to his mouth to clean it.
"Will. Will, I will not…" Charles Howard, esq. was a most honourable man who would have to be made to understand how much Will adored him. Will was determined now. He finished cleaning his seed from his master's hand under Charlie’s hot gaze, and then focused on pulling his master's trousers open. He immediately felt clumsy fingers in his hair, a strong grip at his shoulder. But at the moment Will's strength was greater, and he would not be denied any longer.
"Charlie," Will murmured into his master's stomach, Charlie because it had pleased his gentleman to be called that as well as master, and took his master's cock into his mouth. He dragged his palms over Charlie's thighs and ducked his head, offering his mouth for use. He had thought his mouth his one good trait, aside from his tight arse, until now, with Charlie petting feverishly over his ear and his jaw, caressing Will's open lips as though not sure of what more would be accepted, as though unwilling to risk anything that would drive Will from him.
It was the first time Will had ever thought his master less than brilliant.
"Will." Charlie's voice was husky, not entirely drowning out the whirr of moving parts in his arm, the urges his nerves read that he tried to deny. He did not understand how high Will was for this until Will swallowed around more of him and moaned. Then his master's hips came up and his hand rested at Will's crown and Will was sucking him. Will would not let him pull away, not when he gagged, not with spittle at his chin, and not a few minutes later with spunk filling his mouth. He took it, because he wished to and because his master needed to see that he would, and gladly. A weak groan from above finally made him pull off, but only to lick up the rest of the mess and swallow that too.
Some of his hair caught in his master's other hand. Will put his mouth to Charlie's thigh and made a series of grateful noises into the muscle while Charlie gently freed him.
"You should not call me master." It might have been a scold in his master's voice. It might also have been need. "I am not so much."
"Shut up," Will told him, refusing to move to look at him. "You are my master, and I am happy." His gentleman knew everything of him now, what Will felt and what Will wanted from him. Will caught his breath as he waited, though he was too sated and drowsy to move. The tension humming under his skin instantly eased the moment a warm hand slid back into his hair. The metal one followed it, curving against Will's cheek. Will let out a sigh.
"You like the title?" His master was exceedingly lovely in his caution. His tone said he did not understand Will, but wanted to.
Will rubbed his face into a steel palm. "I enjoy knowing I have pleased you, sir. I enjoy it very much." He imagined his gentleman's face as he absorbed that explanation and struggled to understand it. He endeavored to explain more. "And yet when you are frustrated, sir, I often wish you would make use of me, instead of throwing a pen or book."
Alarm made his master tense. Will gave a small shake of his head. "Not to throw me or hit me. Only that you be very firm with me." He let out a shuddering breath. "You may be very firm with me, sir, as you make use of me." Will was emboldened by his master's stillness. "My sir. You may hold me down again, if you wish. Direct me on how to please you." How his master's breathing quickened. Will glanced up in time to see the dark colour in his cheeks. But his gentleman remained silent. Will closed his eyes and leaned into him. "It is not using me if I beg you to. If you are gentle afterward. If you are mine. That is—" his voice broke, leaving him to whisper, "—that is what I want, and what I have wanted, since knowing you, sir." There was no answer, not for a long time, but Charlie's hand stayed in his hair. After a while, the tension left Will. He recognized the silence now as contemplative, not repulsed. "You will not send me away." Somehow, Will was sure of it.
"I couldn't." Charlie's voice was rough. "But I am not presuming?" Only his gentleman would ask such a thing. Will had chosen well. "It will not be like your operettas."
Will shook his head, mostly at himself. "If you do not mind biscuits for breakfast and crooked sandwiches, then I do not." Not as long as Charlie was his.
"Dull evenings at home and spilled bathwater, my sisters…." His master did not seem to hear him as he made his own list of faults. "Will," Charlie added abruptly, "Will, I am sorry, but I cannot spend another night in this chair."
"Shite!" Will swore crudely and scrambled to his feet. He noticed Charlie's red face and paused, then shook off the desire to kiss him so he could help Charlie to his feet. "Sorry, sir."
"Charlie." Charlie corrected him, watching him carefully.
"Charlie, sir." Will grinned boldly at him, a distraction, but he was pleased when his master accepted that as well as his help. Will was taking some of his gentleman's weight, but he felt as if he were floating. Charlie doubtless could have walked but Will could not let him go. Even when they reached the bedroom and the edge of the bed it was difficult to release him. Will put his hands on the buttons of his gentleman's waistcoat, the few buttons remaining that Will had not undone previously, and nearly jumped when he felt a tug at his shirt. He glanced down. The metal hand had dexterity but his master still had the trouble with details.
Will stopped, then looked into his master's face before shrugging out of his coat. His master took that as permission to continue to slowly undress him.
Will was shaking before he was done. "I don't understand you, sir." He could not keep his voice steady.
"I thought myself obvious." There were crinkles at the corners of his master's eyes, though he kept his gaze on Will's skin as he slowly exposed more of it. He pushed Will's shirt to the floor and Will shuddered lightly. He had never been anywhere near this naked before his Charlie before.
"You are never obvious, sir." Will wanted to frown and could not, not with his master pulling down his trousers too. They tumbled to Will's ankles. He thought his master pleased and would have stripped his own clothes away if Charlie wished it, but the slow motions of Charlie's hands kept him from moving. He thought perhaps his master had imagined undressing him like this. If Will desired a master to love him, then perhaps Charlie desired a servant to care for. Will was not about to deny him.
His master seemed like a man made of fire. He always had, but now he was touching Will, laying hands on him with such intent that Will could not move. He was undressed and undone and all but in his master's bed.
"You want me here too?" Will did not add sir. He could not though he got a frown that made his heart race. Charlie finally looked up into his face again. His gaze was dark and earnest and resolute.
"Do you think I would risk the wrath of my sisters for anything less?" Charlie spoke quietly, causing Will to recall Miss Ann's words and feel a distant shock. His master only grew more passionate at Will's silence. He struck like lightning, leaving Will to shiver in awe. "Do you think I don't love you? I thought you knew of the nights I have spent awake wishing you beside me, dreaming you were just as torn and aching as I was." He didn't seem to see Will's desperate nod as Will tried to express the multitude of feelings in his heart. "Yes, I want you here. As long you want to be here I want you here." At that Charlie paused and glanced away. His firm tone faded. "If you are sure you want this. I will not punish you if you say no. I would understand."
Will's face was hot. Outrage made the words stick in his throat. As that could ever be doubted, as if he would have said no. "If you punished me, sir, I would still stay," he bit out. He held to that truth as he would hold to the knowledge that Charlie loved him. "You are my master," Will declared, bold and impossible. "Mine."
He knew he had startled Charlie, knew it from the silence and the hot breath at his collarbone.
Then Charlie inhaled and leaned forward to speak into Will's skin. "Then get into my bed, Will," his master whispered at last, punctuating it with a kiss that did not make it any less of a command. His hands dug into Will's hips. "I do not understand you," he admitted in the next moment, "but stay. Do not leave me."
Will put his hands to the bed and climbed up, straddling his master's lap and leaning over him in a way that made him dizzy. Or perhaps that was the look in his master's eyes as his hands slid up Will's back and drew him closer.
People would have much to say about this. Even Will could not fully credit it, even with Charlie's mouth at his throat. He held a hand in the air for some time before dropping it to his master's shoulder. The metal was warm, the skin warmer. Will splayed out his fingers and felt Charlie's approving moan echo through his chest.
"I do not understand how I am either, sir," Will confessed as though he was not clinging to Charlie with a tighter and tighter grip. "All you need know is that I will serve you however you require, though I am not nearly what you deserve."
"Hush, Will," his gentleman murmured, giving a groan that Will no longer thought was pain. "You are mine and I am happy."
"Yes, sir," Will agreed, and listened, as he would for no other.