“So what happened after this kiss?” Wisteria asked after a moment’s pause.
“Oh, I was devastated,” Nikola said, easily. “I thought Justin had noticed my infatuation and was intentionally mocking me over it.”
Justin pinched the bridge of his nose. “I had not the smallest notion. I was trying to think of some way to keep you from believing I’d intended to molest you.”
“In fairness, you did accomplish that.”
“In the most horrific way possible. I spent the whole ceremony trying to think of some way to ask Dremmond to replace you—”
“I always wondered that you did not!”
“—but I could think of no way without implying that you were at fault and risking that you’d be punished. For my indiscretion.” Justin looked back to Wisteria. “So when I found him waiting for me when I got back, I apologized for my behavior and told him to take a holiday. I’d care for myself and not tell a soul. Then the next night—” Justin paused again. “Why did you come back the next night? Because I had a whole host of theories and I believe now that every one of them must have been wrong.”
“I was hideously confused at first – I was not even sure what you were apologizing for – but after considerable thought, I concluded it was for desiring me. Which was what I wanted you to do, so I worked up the nerve to approach you again.”
Wisteria shifted between them, nuzzling the top of Justin’s head before glancing at Nikola. “Have you two managed to know each other seven years without ever discussing your first meeting? How is that even possible?”
Nikola laughed. “I don’t know. It never came up. There’s…a great deal we never talked about,” he said, wistfully.
“One doesn’t talk about such things,” Justin said. Even to his own ears it sounded prim and fatuous.
“I hope that doesn’t mean you will refuse to tell me the rest,” Wisteria said.
“Of course we’ll tell you,” Nikola said.
Justin cleared his throat and raised his head from Wisteria’s shoulder to continue. “I found him the next night in my room, out of uniform and all dressed up – terribly fine for a servant, I thought. When I asked him what he wanted, he said—”
“‘You’.” Nikola leaned in to kiss Justin again; Wisteria watched them with rapt attention.
“I thought you terrified then, too,” Justin murmured against Nikola’s mouth.
“I was. That I was wrong, that you were uninterested, that you’d laugh or worse.”
Justin closed his eyes, hugging Wisteria to him with an arm about her shoulders and his other arm holding Nikola to them both. “I am a very great fool. And that, madame, is how we became lovers.”
“But then you hardly knew one another at all when you began? Did Nikola tell you that night he was Lord Striker’s son?”
Nikola shook his head ruefully, while Justin laughed and answered, “No. No, we did not know one another at all, and I daresay Nikola was too busy to consider correcting his little oversight with his title.”
“It wasn’t an oversight! East Hansleigh Boys’ Academy had a ‘culture of service’, which meant we weren’t to use our titles on campus and we got drafted for menial labor during big events like Ambrellan. That’s why I was in a position to volunteer. It was that or set up tables.”
“Oh my,” Wisteria said. “When did you find out, then?”
Justin covered his eyes. “Five months later? At an Ascension-season party. When his father introduced him. I about died of mortification, learning that what I had thought was an affair with a valet of about my own age had actually been with an underage peer.”
“It truly took five months to emerge?”
“We were not in contact after those first few days Justin spent at the academy,” Nikola said. “I was too intimidated to write Lord Comfrey, and he – well, he could not start a personal correspondence with a man he thought a servant.” Justin was thankful that Nikola omitted the one disastrous gift Justin had sent while in ignorance. Nikola stroked Justin’s cheek. “But it all worked out well in the end.”
Justin managed a smile, turning his head to kiss the pale hand. “That it did. After that formal introduction we became friends.” He remembered what a miracle even that much had seemed, at the time. How much he had missed Nikola in those intervening months, how he had thought Nikola uninterested in continuing the relationship. To think that he had always admired me, and I never knew until now. We never spoke of it.
Perhaps we should have. Perhaps I ought to say something now, about those feelings. But even like this, it felt impossible to match his lovers’ frankness. Men in his world did not share their emotions, and Nikola might be the exception to every rule but that did not mean Justin could be, too.
“Did you think of one another, in that intervening time?” Wisteria asked. “I cannot imagine having a lover without attachment. What is it like?”
“Not as good as one with,” Nikola answered. “Not bad, mind, I still enjoy the act. But it’s less intimate and intense, at least for me.” He hesitated, then added, “I don’t think I could ever be described as unattached to Justin, though. I missed you, you know. And felt like a complete fool for it, under the circumstances, with no acquaintance to speak of between us. I imagine you scarcely gave me another thought until we met again.”
Justin looked at Nikola’s slight self-deprecating smile. I never told him. I never tell him anything, and then I wonder why he does not understand. “No, not above a half-dozen times,” Justin said, softly. “Each day.”
Nikola blinked, smile turning to wonder. “Truly?”
“Truly. I thought it perhaps as well you were not around, because I was so obsessed with you I was sure to give it away in my behavior.”
“You were always so collected, your manner so easy and casual. Even when we were alone. I never thought you greatly affected,” Nikola said in a voice just as low.
“I’ve been pretending so long that sometimes I think I have forgotten how to stop.” Justin paused, struggling for his next words. I love you. I’ve always loved you. Until I met Wisteria, you were my whole world. How can I know these things are true and yet find them impossible to say aloud? “I have always been attached to you, Nikola.” That was such a profound understatement it felt like an untruth. “Those five months, when I did not know who you were and thought you indifferent to me, I still longed for you. I would imagine returning to East Hansleigh, just to see if you’d changed your mind, if there was anything I could offer to induce you to leave Dremmond’s service for mine. I could not, you know. I could not face harassing you so, not when I felt you had made your wishes clear. But how I wished I might.”
Nikola touched Justin’s hand, where it rested on Wisteria’s stomach. “I…I never thought you could be anything less than confident.”
“One more pretense, my friend.” My love, Justin thought, and could not say it. “My life is full of them. I do not know how the two of you manage to be so honest.” That was dangerously sincere; he ought to leaven it with a joke, but his mind refused to produce one. “Or why you would take up with someone as unaccustomed to truth as myself.”
“It is no virtue in me,” Wisteria said, her arm tightening about Justin’s shoulders. “I’m jealous of you, do you know, my lord? You know just when to be false in order to please the society you are in, and just how far to take it, to ensure no one ever notices it. If I could imitate your manners, I would in a heartbeat.”
“You wrong yourself.” Nikola’s voice was harsh with emotion. “You have played the part others demanded of you, and only deceived those who had no right to the truth. Those who’d condemn you for what they had no business questioning you upon at all.”
“No.” Justin shook his head, straightening to sit upright. “You said it yourself – even with you, with the two of you whom I ought to trust, for whom I care more than anything in the world, I have still clung to my masks. Like an armor I don’t know how to set aside. Let me set it aside for this moment, and tell you: I love you.” He met Nikola’s eyes, tan fingers trembling under pale ones, then looked to Wisteria. “I love you.”
“Oh Justin.” Wisteria caressed his cheek, and she did not smile but Nikola was smiling wide enough for both of them, blinking quickly. She sat up to kiss Justin, with all the warmth and passion her expression never showed. “You are safe with us. We would never betray you.”
“Never,” Nikola promised, kissing his cheek. “I love you too.” They enfolded him fast in their embrace, holding him tightly enough that Justin could almost believe in that safety.
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