Actions

Work Header

Family & Genus

Chapter Text

“So many of the loveliest things in England are melancholy.”

― Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

 

There was a dead bird in the dining room fireplace.

Baz had, in fact, found something dead in his house every day that week, and though not usually prone to superstition, it was beginning to feel a bit like a bad omen. Cracked mirrors and broken ladders were all well and good, but when the universe started taking lives — well, that’s the point at which he began to worry.

He supposed this bird had gone like the two others he’d found that week; trapped in the chimney when he’d had the stout man with the comically large beard come through to clean them. Or perhaps it wandered down looking for an escape from the rain and found itself trapped in the house, unable to leave. He knew what that felt like.

He still hadn’t determined where the large rat corpses in the library and kitchen had come from — perhaps shelter from the rain as well — but he treated them with the same care he gave his newest find; wrapping them up in toilet tissue and carefully walking them through the loud, echoing halls of Pitch Manor and out into the back garden, where he buried them under a tree at the far end of the garden stairs.

At least the persistent rain had stopped, so that the little bird’s last rites came with sunshine and fresh air. But unfortunately the sun had done nothing for the mud, or the distinct impression that the Manor had been freshly drowned. Everything looked heavy, weighed down. Waterlogged.

He could relate.

Twenty-three years old and already waterlogged. Simply soaked with fat droplets of responsibility.

The wildly overgrown back garden appeared to have come through the storm depressed but relatively unscathed (which was another decent metaphor for his life), but he’d heard a crash during the night that sounded like a tree come down. Yet another project for the list — but one that should ideally be dealt with sooner than later.

After pulling on a mouldy-smelling Barbour field jacket (which may have belonged to his great uncle, if the greasy pipe in the pocket was any indication) and exchanging his sensible high-street Oxfords for a pair of oversized, mud splattered wellies, Baz slipped out of the kitchen door to set off along the drive.

Dev, the family labrador, followed at his heels, inspecting each hedge and leaf, occasionally taking off like a black streak along the drive ahead of him.

Like all of the park, the drive needed clearing. The trees needed to be trimmed back, the overgrowth pulled up, the nettle contained and the stone walls lining the side rebuilt. Pitch Manor had always had a kind of wild beauty about it — from the rambling rose bushes to the scattered yew trees — but these days it was trending more toward wild than beautiful.

He had known, when he first arrived from London, that the house wouldn’t be in the best condition. But he hadn’t realised how quickly something once loved could turn to rot when abandoned. Pitch Manor hadn’t been a full time residence since he was five, and clearly the summer visits and occasional Christmases spent in residence hadn’t been enough to beat back the creeping feeling of disuse and disrepair.

His father had never cared for the house. It had belonged solely to Baz’s mother and her family, and Malcolm Grimm, being from a small farming village himself, had thought he could adapt to the quiet countryside.

Maybe he could have, if Baz’s mother hadn’t died. He was never sure whether it was distaste for the crumbling Elizabethan relic or protection from the memories that resided within it which drove Malcolm to London, but whatever the case, he hardly spared a second thought for the house once they were gone.

Baz idly wondered if, now that he was in possession and residence of the house, he would go the same way in his father’s mind.

He tried to beat back the bitter thoughts; Malcolm had tasked him with stewardship of the house an attempt to be kind. He’d trussed it up as a congratulatory gift to celebrate Baz’s licensing as a barrister, but both father and son knew what it really was: an excuse.

Malcolm had handed Baz the keys, the deed, and the ownership to his ancestral home two days after his graduation (and one day after Niall had broken up with him), and told him in no uncertain terms that the old house had sat vacant too long, that it really needed to be seen to, and that Baz deserved a break after all his studying. Go see to the house for a bit, get out of London, enjoy the restorative country air before he came back and took his place in Malcolm’s own barristers Chamber.

In other words: get out of the city, get it together, and get over it.

And Baz — overworked, overburdened, overemotional — had packed up his clothes, taken the dog, and gone. The Plan for his life had changed, and he followed the new one blindly.

Kicking a rock out of his path viciously, a small thrill of accomplishment raced through him as it soared squarely through a hole in the wall to his left side. His life may have been in shambles, but goddammit, he still had his leg.

It wasn’t that he didn’t love Pitch Manor. He did. He loved it terribly, viciously, horribly, with a wriggling possessiveness deep down in his belly. It was his home. His mother’s home. He was a Pitch, and the Manor was his. He was a Pitch, and he was the Manor’s.

But it was never meant to come to him like this. He didn’t think he was meant to come home like this.

“Oh you’ve got to be kidding,” he drawled, pulling up short as he came around the bend in the drive and caught sight of the gates. He was right; a large branch had fallen, landing squarely on top of one of the large iron gates that swung inward and gave access to the Manor. It was the size of a small tree, having formerly been the largest limb of the oldest oak on the grounds, and was larger than about three of Baz.

Upon closer inspection it wasn’t as bad as it could be, though; the branch wasn’t overly thick, and it hadn’t dented the iron — simply knocked it out of its hinge. A burst of relief raced through him. It was an easy fix. He would have to get help — call down to the village, or maybe he and Fiona could tackle it together, or maybe even....

He climbed over the field stone wall awkwardly, his long legs getting tangled in the rough, and set down in a squelch of mud on the other side, his foot sinking into the muck up past his ankle. He stopped, turned his face to the sky, closed his eyes, counted to five, and then pulled it out.

On the other side of the wall, Dev watched him for a moment before catching sight of a squirrel in the distance and breaking off at a sprint.

“Fucking dog,” Baz muttered, bending down to survey the damage.

The branch fell at such an angle that it was partially obscuring the road as well, which meant he needed to move it as soon as possible. Not that it was a busy lane — nothing in the area was busy — but the lane was the only reliable way in and out of the village, and was the best way to meet up with the M3. Tyre tracks on the other side of the road showed that more than a few motorists had clearly swerved to avoid it already that morning.

Bracing his shoulder against the branch, he dug in his feet and pushed. It wobbled slightly, almost giving way, and he readjusted and tried to push up, to lift it off the gate. His ears rang with the buzz of his exertion and the mechanical hum of an approaching motorbike, and he caught himself just moments before his footing gave way, narrowly avoiding face planting in the muddy gravel just as the motorbike passed.

“Son of a bitch,” he hissed, wincing at the pain in his hands where they were scraped by the rough bark. He was a barrister. London raised. He didn’t have hands for manual labour. Everything about this was ridiculous, and in a fit of momentary childishness he wanted to say damn the branch, damn the gate, damn the whole thing, and send it up in flames.

“Oi, do you need help with that?”

Baz looked up with a jolt, his eyes landing on the motorbike parked across the road. Its rider cut the engine and swung off easily, pulling his helmet off to reveal a ruddy faced man with sweat-soaked auburn hair.

He was disgustingly good looking, sweaty hair and all, and as Baz stood in his mud-splattered, oversized, borrowed clothes, he hated him immediately.

“No, thank you,” Baz said stiffly. The rider glanced both ways and then dashed across the empty road. He looked like he’d ridden through the rain; his denim jacket was soaked and sticking to him, and mud was splattered across his jeans. But he was younger than Baz had initially assumed — far closer to his own age, in fact.

“You sure?” the stranger asked, tilting his head and frowning. “You definitely can’t lift that yourself.”

“I’ll be fine, thank you,” Baz snapped, ruffled. Fuck this good looking stranger and his absolutely correct assessment that Baz was not actually strong enough to move an entire fucking tree himself.

The stranger blinked at Baz’s sharp tone and tilted his head, confused. The wind picked at his bronze hair and ruffled it slightly, and he gave Baz a hesitant smile.

“I don’t mean offence, I just meant that with the two of us we could probably lift it.”

Baz hated him for being right.

“It’s knocked the gate off its hinge,” he explained stiffly, looking away from the man. “If we push up and then over, that should dislodge it.”

“Right,” the man said, nodding. “I’ll take left, then.”

They split off, each taking a side of the branch and bracing themselves against it.

“One, two, three,” Baz counted, and then pushed up. The tree gave way easily, and the two scuffled their way to the side of the road, pulling the branch with them as they went, grunting out brief directions before dropping it in a sloping ditch.

“Thank you,” Baz said, huffing slightly. It had been longer than he realised since uni football. He held out his hand to the man, who looked even more winded, to his relief. (There was nothing worse than attractive people who weren’t affected by physical exertion.) “I’m Baz.”

“Simon,” he grunted, gripping Baz firmly with one freckled, calloused hand. “You need help with the gate?”

He nodded to the iron monstrosity behind them, and Baz considered it.

“I’m not sure if we can lift it,” he responded honestly. Simon shrugged and threw him a lopsided smile, apparently completely unfazed by the mud and the gravel and the stupid fucking gate.

“We can try.”

The resulting effort found Baz scrambling back over the stone wall in order for them to brace themselves against either side of the monstrous gate, and push up once more. The gate proved far more stubborn than the branch, and for a moment Baz worried that Simon’s face had turned so red that he was about to explode. But just as the two seemed to reach their absolute limit, the iron prongs slid into place with a clank, and then both gave up their hold immediately, collapsing back onto the muddy ground.

“Wow, fuck that,” Simon muttered, running a hand through his curly hair. It wasn’t improved by the exercise, but Baz found he didn’t care.

“Indeed,” he murmured, steadying his breath enough to pull himself to his feet and push on the gate. With a creak, it swung smoothly inward, sounding for all the world like it hadn’t been on its last breath mere moments ago. Baz hated it.

Simon clambered back to his feet with an easy grin and shoved his muddy hands in his pockets.

“Thank you again,” Baz said, feeling suddenly awkward about his need to be polite. “You saved me a trip to the village for back up.”

Simon shrugged again. Was this his only mode of communication? Baz’s mother would have killed him if he shrugged that much. Baz would kill himself if he shrugged that much.

“Any chance you can point me at the village, actually? I’m looking for food and somewhere to stay,” Simon asked, tilting his head to the side. He had moles on his neck, Baz noticed, before shaking the thought away.

There was no time for gayness right now. No time for gayness ever again, honestly. Gayness was why he was here to begin with.

“Keep on the way you were going,” Baz said, gesturing down the lane. “I’d recommend the Watford Arms for food and Ebb’s Guest House for lodging.”

“Are they the best?” Simon asked, smiling. Baz shook his head.

“No, they’re the only options,” he responded, wiping his hands off on his already muddy jacket. They slid against the olive canvas fabric unpleasantly.

“Right,” Simon said, nodding. His blue eyes darted around, taking in the overgrown trees, the weeds pushing up through the gravel, the Pitch Manor chimneys poking through the trees, and came to rest on Baz. Tired, muddy, waterlogged Baz.

“See you around,” he said, flashing one more smile full of stubby, ill-spaced teeth, and then darted back across the lane, swinging up onto his motorbike and kicking it easily into gear. The bike roared to life and quickly disappeared behind the tree line, sending several birds up into the sky.

Baz pushed his gate in and started back up the drive, his boots squelching as he went. Dev appeared from the underbrush halfway up the drive, his belly streaked with mud and his black coat covered in leaves.

“You look ridiculous,” Baz told the lab sternly. Dev didn’t respond.

Half an hour later, upon walking by the bevelled mirror in the main hall, Baz realised that he too had mud streaked across his cheek and several leaves stuck in his long black hair.

 

{+}

 

Simon blinked. The room was certainly… well, it was a room. And it was warm, and dry, and the bed looked extremely comfortable, even if it was surrounded by eyes.

“Aren’t they just the funniest things?” Ebb said from the doorway, smiling. “I’ve been collecting ‘em for years. I just love goats.”

Simon noded, looking around at the staggering collection of goat figures that filled the small room he’d rented from the B&B. He liked goats enough — maybe not this much — but Ebb was friendly and warm, and he didn’t want to be rude, so he smiled brightly at her and dropped his pack to the floor.

“They’re brilliant, really,” he said, and Ebb rewarded him with a blinding smile. He noticed for the first time that the knit cardigan she wore over her football shirt had little goats on it.

“Well, the match is on so I’ll be downstairs, feel free to come join or hunt me down if you have any questions!” Ebb said.

“Yeah, yeah, will do,” Simon said, smiling at her right until she was out the door, and then his smile dropped.

He was exhausted. He barely suppressed a groan as he looked at the bed, but he resisted and instead headed to the small ensuite shower. It was raining when he left London that morning, so what should have been an easy two hour ride had turned into a sopping wet three hour ordeal. The rain had let up around Chawton, but everything had turned to mud, and by the time he reached Watford — or whereabouts he assumed Watford was, as it was outrageously small and located on the outskirts of the New Forest park — he was frozen, aching, and regretting everything.

The pit stop to help the bloke pull the tree out of the road hadn’t exactly helped his aching muscles, either.

He wanted to lie down on the bed and wonder what the hell he was doing with his life and never get up again. The bed looked lumpy, but the quilt was cosy enough. Maybe if he got in the bed and pulled the blanket up he could pretend that he wasn’t recently single, newly without a flat, and taking time away from work to, as his best friend Penny called it, “find himself, like a recently divorced white woman.”

He wasn’t a recently divorced white woman, but he was determined. He had a plan, and Watford was item number one on that plan, and now he was here, in a room full of goats in a B&B run by a woman who seemed to be half butch lesbian and half elderly grandmother, and it was a very good thing that he long ago gave up trying to think things through.

After losing a battle with the shower (why was the water heater box different on every single shower in Britain?) Simon emerged back into the goat room, soaking wet and thoroughly chilled through. His fingers were semi-shaking whilst he pulled on clean clothes as fast as he could, and he wondered for the first time why he didn’t plan this little soul searching activity in the summer. Why did he have to do it in November ?

Looking through his bag for a fresh pair of socks, his hands fell on the small tissue-wrapped bundle in the corner of his duffle. It was the only thing in the bag that had been packed with care. The reason why he was there.

Pulling out the bundle, he gently unwrapped it, peeling away layers of tissues to show the soft white fleece of the baby blanket inside. The white had dimmed a bit, the edges were pilling from years of use, and there was damage to the bottom left corner, but he’d kept it in decent condition, all things considered. It was the only thing he’d ever really had, to be honest. It was kind of crucial that he not trash it.

Unfolding it, he fingered at the small patch in the far corner, sewn in just next to the blue silk stripe edging.

Watford Wool and Silken Goods

EST: 1886

Hampshire, England

A blanket. A surname. A pregnant girl named Lucy.

It was hardly much of anything to go on. Twenty-three years and this was the most he’d ever managed to learn about where he came from. But it should be enough, shouldn’t it? Whoever left him (at a convent, of all things, like a babe out of some story book) — one day old and wrapped in an expensive, hand-made blanket — had come from somewhere. And Watford was a good start. A blanket like this felt like an important clue, the best chance of locating where his mother had come from. At least, that’s what Penny had said.

It was his ex-girlfriend, Agatha, who had suggested the blanket might be an heirloom.

“You know how these things go. That’s the kind of blanket that gets passed down through families,” she’d said to him, as kindly as she could, while they both pretended to ignore that the reason he didn’t know those things was because he never had a family.

Clearing his throat, he rewrapped the soft little blanket and set it carefully in his rucksack, then pulled his boots back on. His back twinged as he bent down, but he ignored it. He’d come all this way for a reason, and he wasn’t going to waste a moment of it sitting in bed and being lazy. Even if it was disgusting out, and even if he was freezing.

Deliberately not looking at the grey haze building outside his window, Simon shrugged his — still damp — jacket back on, grabbed his rucksack, and headed out of his room, determined to track down Watford Wool and Silken Goods.

 

{+}

 

“If you’d told me you don’t have anything to eat, I’d have stopped off before I walked all the way here,” Fiona scolded from her position in the doorway of the master bedroom. Her arms were crossed and she looked fit to kill.

She was also entirely dry, which meant that she was lying and had not walked. The previous day’s brief respite from the storm had not lasted; rain was lashing against the window, and there would likely be another downed tree today, which Fiona would most likely not help with.

Fiona was horrifically mean, extremely opinionated, an awful housekeeper, and Baz loved her excessively. She was a cousin of some sort — distantly related, from far enough back in the tree to a point where the Pitch line was still entirely white — and she was the best thing to come out of his time in Hampshire. Sometimes he secretly wished there were a way to bring her back to London when he finally went home, so he could keep her with him and let her make mean comments about people he hated.

“Isn’t it your job to know whether we have food?” Baz asked, scrubbing at a particularly vile patch of mould in the far corner by the fireplace. The room was almost fully back up and running — it was in decent shape to begin with, and was the first one he attacked when he started this project — but that one spot of mould was resisting him. He found himself back in there at the same time daily to try a different concoction of chemicals on it. He was suspecting that he was on his way to creating Cillit Bang-immune super-mould.

“There’s nothing to eat. Someone will have to go to the village,” Fiona said in a tone that made it very clear that “someone” meant “Baz”. A glance out the window at the rain confirmed it. Fiona wasn’t going anywhere until her boyfriend Nico arrived at the end of her shift to pick her up in his covered vehicle.

Baz had a vehicle — two actually; his beloved MG, which he didn’t fancy scratching up further on the drive, and a rusted old ‘78 Land Rover that ran on dreams and spite. He hated driving it. It still smelt like his grandfather’s tobacco and his great-aunt’s perfume and sitting in it felt like being sucked back in time. He refused to use either vehicle to help ferry Fiona to and from her job.

“You realise I pay you a large sum of money to make my life easier, right?” he scolded, straightening up and adjusting the cuffs of his shirt.

Fiona snorted.

“You think I’m paid a large sum? I should have the Queen’s jewels for putting up with you, boyo.”

Baz fixed her with a level glare.

“I’ll go this afternoon, once I’ve tackled the Green Room,” he responded. “Make yourself useful in the meantime and make me some coffee.”

“What’s the point,” Fiona scoffed. “We’ve no biscuits to go with it.”

“Life isn’t about biscuits, Fiona,” Baz said, marching briskly from the room and across the hall to the Green Room.

He was making his way down the bedrooms one by one; having finished the left wing, he was now on to the right. He planned it specifically so that the Red Room — which had sat empty since his mother died — would be last. Because he really didn’t want to do it. Maybe he just… wouldn’t.

After that came the cleaning atrocities of the downstairs rooms, and the inevitability of having to tackle the conundrum of the Egypt Room. The collection of dubiously verified ancient artefacts didn’t upset him, necessarily, but it did confuse him, and slightly annoy him. He was never sure if the statues and masks and urns were meant to be boastful exotic collectables or some strange grab at family history, and everyone had largely treated it as a combination of both, which left Baz feeling like it was most likely neither.

But that wasn’t on the item today. He could sort through the remains of his ancestors’ Egyptomania and strange tangle of his family lineage some other day.

The Green Room proved to be in better shape than he had expected. The dust was easily dispatched with, the cracked tiles on the fireplace able to be adequately fixed with epoxy, and though he did have to throw out the duvet and matching pillows, the mice hadn’t gotten to that bedroom as badly as he thought. It was gloomy and cold and empty, just like the rest of the house, but piece by piece, Baz was determined to force some cheer into it.

He’d beat it in if he had to.

Fiona eventually wandered in with extra rags and a ceramic carafe full of coffee and together they set about cleaning and wiping down the large windows, scrubbing between the tin fastenings that criss-crossed the panes, and then wiping down the casings, the baseboards, the mantel and the hearth.

The house was an odd mishmash of styles — Grade II listed, dating back to the Elizabethan era, but heavily redone during the Victorian craze — which led to intricate wood screens set next to Gothic revival windows. Each room was a mystery of style, made only worse when his grandparents had updated the Manor when his mother was young. It lent itself to architectural whiplash, but, fortunately, it meant many of the rooms had been spared the full degradation of time.

It was a relief, to say the least. He had the money for the repairs — unlike most families burdened with such a glorious beast — but he wasn’t eager to sink his life and trust fund into the roof of the place.

“This room might not actually need paint,” he mused aloud as he emptied the dregs of his third cup of coffee. His hands smelt of wood polish and window cleaner, and the whole room had taken on a dusty, citrusy scent that wasn’t entirely displeasing. If he were to light a fire, it might even be downright homey.

Dev lay curled up next to the hearth, snoring quietly, his jowls puffing out in his sleep, and Baz was struck — not for the first time — by how much the house needed these things; a coat of polish, a nice fire, a dog.

“Add it to your serial killer list,” Fiona said, flicking at his trouser pocket where he kept his small notebook of projects to be done on the house. Baz’s eyebrows twitched in annoyance. It was not a serial killer list. He just had very small handwriting.

Baz pulled it out and produced a pen from the other pocket and made his notations on the Green Room.

 

  • Needs new duvet
  • No paint
  • Recheck tile on fireplace
  • Almost completed

 

“What are you going to do when you finish all your projects? Wither up and die?” Fiona asked over her own mug. Baz fought the urge to snarl at her.

“Find a new one, I suppose.”

He should, in reality, finish his projects and then go back to London. Pick up his boxes from Niall’s flat. Take up a spot in his father’s Chambers. Figure out what to do with his crumbling family home; ideally, figure out a way to maximise his inheritance.

But the idea of going back to London sounded exhausting.

Staying in Hampshire was exhausting too, if he stopped to think about it.

So he deliberately didn’t stop long enough.

“Right, I’m for the village then,” he said, standing up and dusting off his trousers. The rain had died down enough to be a light mist, and the biscuit situation was truly pressing. “You want to join?”

“No, I’ve decided to clean that stove of yours today. I tried to turn it on last week and it exploded and made me look like Oliver fucking Twist,” Fiona said, waving her hand. Despite her general meanness, Fiona had been wonderfully useful. She’d been on staff for ages — the only staff, really — but when the family wasn’t in residence her job had largely been to walk through and make sure the house hadn’t fallen apart and the gate wasn’t smashed in. Baz only kept her on when he took ownership because he felt it was rude not to.

He initially regretted it, because she was so unbearably mean to him. But she cleaned the kitchen and made the rooms liveable before he came to stay, and had helped the renovation process by largely keeping him in coffee and sometimes biscuits, and gave him someone to talk to.

Even if that person was horrible.

“You might want to change, you look as though you’ve been through a sewer,” she called, and Baz tried not to make a face. He did not look like he’d been through a sewer. He was just slightly dusty.

Still, there were worse things than making an effort to look decent, and so he changed quickly before he left, swapping his work shirt for a soft jumper and putting on a cleaner pair of trousers. Glancing out the window at the misting rain, however, he sighed and pulled back on the field jacket and a different pair of boots, and collected the keys to the Land Rover.

 

{+}

 

Watford was, to be honest, not exactly what Simon had been hoping for.

It wasn’t that it was tiny. He may have been born in London but he knew London was not indicative of England in general. Hampshire was green and vast and not very full of people.

But Watford was… muddy.

Maybe musty was a better word for it. Everything was waterlogged from the rain and the streets were made of slicked old cobble and every store front looked like it was decades old, and all of them were identical in their shabby, grey, slightly twee-rundownness.

It had taken him forever to find Watford Wool and Silken Goods, despite the size of the village. He’d spent the afternoon searching and asking around and being told to go to the Weeping Tower, take a left at White Chapel and then Watford Wool would be right there, nestled in a storefront that he couldn’t miss.

He’d thought, when he left London, that starting the search for his parents was going to be an adventure where he put together clues each afternoon and did soul searching while crossing the country on his motorbike. He’d go to new places and meet new people and have An Experience.

Instead he’d wandered around in the misting rain, stalking the tiny church on the corner of the main street for almost an hour looking for the storefront or a tower of any kind, before a woman in wellies pushing a pram told him that White Chapel wasn’t a church; it was a butcher’s. And the Weeping Tower was a clock tower that was slowly crumbling with age.

Both were on the other side of the village.

Watford Wool and Silken Goods, as it turned out, was an extremely small shop front which was extremely easy to miss, and smelt of dust and mothballs and that acrid perfume women over eighty all seemed to wear.

And, like most of Hampshire apparently, it was deserted.

He’d ended up back in Ebb’s living room, receiving a gentle scolding for somehow not intuiting that the Woollen Mill was closed on Mondays, and had drunk several litres of tea before returning to his room to pass out.

Ignoring the stares of a hundred goats, he climbed under the quilt and pretended that he had never come to Hampshire.

The next day, he woke bright and early and braved the pouring rain to return to the Mill, only to find that it still wasn’t open.

“Oh, they’re closed every second Tuesday,” a man walking by with his dog had called, after taking in Simon’s intense confusion.

“But the door is unlocked,” he said, pointing at the round brass knob that jutted from the shop’s heavy black door.

“Well no one would be rude enough to go in when the proprietor isn’t there,” the man with the dog had told him, frowning. Even his scruffy yellow dog looked like it was frowning, and Simon had to bite down the very real desire to curse.

“But that makes no sense,” he grumbled, but the man and dog had moved on, leaving him to his confusion. He’d gone back to Ebb’s after that, and received two more cups of tea for his trouble.

“If you’re looking for information, try the pub,” Ebb had suggested. “The bridge club meets there on Tuesday. Dunno that they’ll have answers for you, but they may be able to point you in the right direction. Worst case scenario, I suppose you can play a bit of bridge!”

The bridge club, as it turned out, didn’t play much bridge.

The group of old women seemed to sit at the large table in front of the massive fireplace in the Watford Arms ordering copious amounts of club soda and tea while they ignored their cards in favour of talking shit about everyone in the pub.

And they loved Simon.

“Daniel hasn’t been the same since his wife left him,” a woman named Cora stage whispered in Simon’s ear, pointing at a man who was close enough to hear every word she  said. “Come to think of it, wasn’t her name Snow?”

“Snokes,” said another woman — Katherine, apparently. She was younger than the rest of the women at the table by a decade or so, and was the only one trying to focus on the game. She was also the only one who wasn’t charmed by Simon, and kept giving him a stern, dark look, which he was vaguely relieved by. “Her name was Snokes.”

“Oh, well,” Cora said, waving her hand in the air. “That’s very close, you know.”

“Also, she was from Leeds,” chimed in another biddy with blue hair whose name may have been Doreen. She had been sneaking sips of Simon’s ale all afternoon but he didn’t have the heart to stop her, and she stole another sip before placing a hand on Simon’s arm. Several of them had been doing that as well, and he wondered if he was going to have old-lady hand shaped bruises on his biceps. “I’m sorry, love, but I can’t for the life of me recall any family named Snow from the area.”

“That’s alright,” Simon said. He’d pretty much come to the conclusion that the women didn’t know anything an hour ago, but he stayed to talk to them because the company was nice. And also it was warm inside the pub, and there was ale, and there were no goats staring at him.

“Katherine, would you pass me that salt?” he asked, gesturing to the bulldog shaker that vaguely looked like Winston Churchill, but none of the ladies around him were paying attention any more. They’d all focused on the tall, dark, lean figure that had just swept into the pub with a gust of rain, and were practically vibrating with excitement.

“Who is it?” whispered a wheezy old lady across from him who seemed partially blind, but had been unerringly sharp with her cards.

“It’s the Pitch boy,” Cora whispered back. “Katherine’s cousin.”

Katherine’s sour face lit up with smugness.

“Oh, pish,” Doreen said with a whistling laugh. “Fourth cousins at best. She doesn’t even know the boy.”

“Nobody knows him yet,” Katherine snapped sourly.

“Is Baz new to the area?” Simon asked, taking a sip of his ale as he eyed the newcomer with interest.

The ladies swarmed.

“You know the Pitch boy?” Cora asked, poking a finger at him. “Mary, he knows the Pitch boy!”

Mary, a half-asleep woman in a faded blue Adidas jacket, perked up.

“You’re holding out on us, Mr. Snow,” she cackled, suddenly springing to life and pointing a knobbly finger at Simon. “How do you know Basilton?”

“Oh, er,” he said, freezing. “I helped him with his gate yesterday, it got knocked off in the storm.”

The ladies chittered excitedly amongst themselves.

“You know, he just moved back to the village,” Doreen said, leaning in. “Now that is a story, the poor boy.”

Simon watched him order his food, his posture perfect, unchanging. He was in an all weather jacket and wellies, but he managed to look natural. Comfortable. Like he owned the place. Well-bred sophistication at home amongst sticky bar counters and dark wood.

Basilton removed a small notebook from his pocket and began flicking through the pages, a small frown forming on his face, pulling his dark eyebrows together. His hair — just a touch too long, and curly at his nape from the weather — fell into his eyes, and his brown skin glowed almost gold in the warm, fire-lit pub.

As if he could sense Simon’s gaze, Baz turned on his stool, one eyebrow already lifted in question. His eyes locked onto Simon’s for just a moment, and Simon’s stomach juddered in response.

Slowly — almost mockingly — Baz lifted his ale in the air in a small salute.

Simon broke the eye contact quickly and stared down into his own pint, his entire body filled with a sudden flush of warmth that had nothing to do with the ale in front of him or the fireplace by his side.

 

{+}

 

Watford was barely a village, but it had a co-op and a pub and a tidy little church — which kept it from being classified as a hamlet, even if the entirety of the village could fit in Baz’s back pasture — and it wasn’t very far from Pitch Manor. At one point, the village serviced the Manor entirely, and the inhabitants were all tenants.

But Baz had, regrettably, been born too late to enjoy the Pitch family’s feudal empire.

Baz parked in the same spot he always did, halfway on a grassy incline just in front of the post office, and he went in and had the same conversation with Miss Possibelf about the weather before he picked up his post and headed over to The Co-operative Watford.

He shopped quickly. Biscuits. More coffee. New tea, because he hated PG Tips, and supplies for sandwiches. He kept adding more and more items to his basket, because he was famished, and finally had to stop himself before he bought several sausage rolls, just because they were there. He didn’t even like sausage rolls.

Soon enough he was back out into the grey weather and trooping down the hill to put his purchases into the Land Rover. Two months ago he had lived in a world wherein he ate out for almost every meal and would run downstairs from his flat to the Halal market for any additional food he needed. In London, eating never required squelching through mud and fighting with an angry old car. It was one of the only things he actually missed about London, and triply so on days like this, when he was muddy and tired and cold and desperate to eat something warm that wasn’t coffee and toast.

“Fiona can wait for her fucking bikkies,” he mumbled to himself, slamming the door closed and heading across the street to the Watford Arms. It had barely gone 2 p.m. so he didn’t expect it to be full, but to his surprise a large corner was taken up by a table full of old women playing bridge. Sitting amongst them was the motorcycle stranger. Simon.

The pub was blissfully, incandescently warm. The large old fireplace was lit up and the flames threw happy shadows through the room, the warmth reaching to every inch. It smelt of grease and beer and the threadbare brown carpet was sticky, but it was so welcoming and warm that the idea of going back out into the rain made him want to weep.

Taking a seat at the bar, he deliberately did not turn around to look at the bronze curls directly behind him, and instead focused extremely hard on ordering his food and a pint, and then pulled out his notebook. He was halfway through his list of services he was going to have to break down and hire outside help for when he felt a prickling at the back of his neck, like he was being watched. He turned quickly, just in time to see the entire table of ladies — and Simon — deliberately look away.

Simon’s eyes, lingered though, and Baz raised his glass in a salute. It was the bare minimum of courtesy; the man had pulled a tree out of the road and fixed his gate, after all.

Simon’s face lit up red enough to rival the ugly maroon carpet, and he tore his eyes away from Baz as he leant back into the biddie’s gossip.

Baz shifted slightly and strained to overhear their whispered conversation.

“...all alone up there, bless him. Used to live here as a boy, but left after—”

“We don’t need to get into that business, Cora,” another old lady hissed, cutting off the first woman who had spoken. From the corner of his eye Baz could tell that Cora looked ruffled, and she adjusted her blazer with indignation.

“I’m just saying, it’s nice to have young blood back in the area! I hear he’s fixing up that dusty old house, I do hope he stays.”

“I reckon he’s turning it into a hotel,” said another woman with a shock of grey curls.

“Nonsense, you don’t know the family like I do. They’d never open it up to the public,” said Cora.

“Oh, you don’t know anything,” said the woman with the curls. “Times change. And besides, there’s all that history there. I went there once, when I was girl. They have a whole room full of Egyptian mummies.”

“There are no mummies,” snapped yet another woman, looking up from her cards. Baz knew her — Katherine Pritchard, Fiona’s aunt. “Don’t be dim, Doreen.” She leaned in to Simon and nodded at him. “There are no corpses, boy, but there are plenty of local records. Best collection we have around these parts, anyway. That’s your best bet. I can put a word in with my niece, if you want.” Katherine beamed proudly. “She’s his housekeeper.”

“Or I could just go ask him?” Simon said, his voice hesitant. Baz smirked into his pint.

“Well, yes, I suppose you could—” Katherine started, but Simon had already stood up.

“Brilliant, thank you for your help,” he said kindly, and pushed back his chair with a scrape.

Baz quickly refocused on his notebook, making a small notation about flowers — flowers? Where did that come from — and tried to look like he was not just eavesdropping as the stool next to him was pulled out and Simon appeared, curls and moles and all.

“Alright?” he said cautiously, smiling. “Baz, yeah?”

Baz looked up from his book and surveyed the man in front of him. He was dry now, unlike yesterday, and instead of a mud splattered jacket, he was wearing a loose fitting white t-shirt that curled up around the sleeves. His arms were dotted with freckles, and when he leaned in to adjust the stool, he smelled like cinnamon and ale.

“Yes,” Baz said, then nodded, and gritted out, “Simon, was it?”

Simon grinned even wider, if possible, and nodded.

“Yeah. Simon Snow. How’s your gate?”

Simon Snow. Like a name out of a fairy tale book. It was ridiculous and whimsical, and it fit him excessively. Snow. He looked like a Snow.

Baz stared at him for a long moment, and Snow blinked, suddenly looking unsure. Why was this conversation so stilted? Baz didn’t normally have a problem with conversations.

“Still swinging,” Baz answered finally, and then immediately regretted his entire life. There was another long silence, during which Snow furrowed his brow, as if expecting Baz to say something more.

“Thank you, by the way, for your help yesterday,” Baz said, belatedly remembering his manners before taking a long sip of his pint.

“Oh, yeah, of course, no problem,” Snow responded. His easy smile was gone, and he looked suddenly unsure. He kept glancing back at the table of old women, all of whom were listening to their conversation intently.

“Is there something you need, Snow?” Baz asked, his words coming out far more clipped and severe than he had intended. He would have winced, if he weren’t trying desperately to play it cool, but Snow did lean back a bit, as if the sharpness of Baz’s words or the use of his surname had propelled him back.

“Actually, I was hoping you could help me with something?” he said, pulling one hand up to rub at the nape of his neck. “See, I’m looking for someone, and everyone said you might be the person to ask.”

“I’m not sure why.”

“I’m trying to find land records, census data, anything really,” Snow said, beginning to babble. “I’m looking for a family — the Snows? I don’t know if they’re from this area, but I figured it’s the first place to start. The women over there said they didn’t know of any families by that name, but they might not have been from the village, and that you’d have those records, for some reason?”

Baz stared at him for a moment, trying to catch up with the influx of information, then furrowed his brows and nodded.

“Oh. Oh, yes it’s possible,” he said slowly, pausing when Snow frowned in confusion. “The Manor became kind of the de-facto historical archive around here,” he explained. “During the war, my great-grandparents opened up the cellars for storage and shelter, in case of an air raid. They let the locals store valuables, records, etc. there. After the war, a lot of people just left their records there for safe keeping, and my grandmother worked with the WI to build up a historical database.”

“So, if there was a family by the name of Snow around here, there’s a chance you’d have those records?”

Baz nodded, but the look of hesitation didn’t leave his face.

“There’s a good chance.” He frowned. “But I haven’t seen those records since I was a boy. I don’t think anyone has been down there in years. I should warn you, I have no idea what shape they’re in.”

“That’s fine,” Snow said in a rush, nodding his head like a pinball in his eagerness. “Really, that’s no problem. Would you be alright if I looked through them?”

Struggling to remember the last time someone who wasn’t family or Fiona had been in the house, Baz paused. He wasn’t particularly proud of the state of things. Just thinking about the general disrepair of the dining room was bad enough; he couldn’t begin to imagine what the cellars looked like.

The house wasn’t meant to be seen like that. It had more pride than that.

But Snow did help him move the branch and fix his gate, and he supposed he did owe him. And the look of disappointment growing on his face was difficult to ignore.

“Fine,” Baz said finally, draining his pint and putting it back on the counter with a firm ‘click.’ “You can come by tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” Snow repeated, grinning. “Thanks, Baz. Really.”

“Come to the front door around 11, my housekeeper will let you in,” Baz said awkwardly, standing up from his stool and pulling back on his Barbour jacket. “See you tomorrow, Snow.”

 

{+}

 

Pitch Manor wasn’t actually that large.

It was huge in the way that fairy tale castles are supposed to be huge; broad and sweeping, with uneven stacks and sudden elevations and ivy that had grown over exposed brick and died and grown again over the dead. But it wasn’t egregious or oversized; it seemed to fit naturally within its overgrown surroundings, set off from the road by a long, winding gravel drive.

It wasn’t raining, which Simon was thankful for, considering he chose to walk that morning instead of attempting to navigate his bike up the twisting wooded drive and around the narrow fieldstone walls that had fallen into disrepair.

The whole house had a kind of shabby elegance to it, like an old dowager that had fallen asleep in her diamonds and whose tiara had begun to collect dust. Simon was entirely, 100 per cent positive that this house was haunted, and yet, he kind of loved it.

It was heavy and sturdy and had probably been there for a hundred or more years, and would be there for a hundred more.

The door knocker — black iron, carved into the shape of a horse head locked in an endless scream — thudded against the heavy wood door, and then there was silence as Simon stood, waiting. More silence as he looked back at the rounded drive in front of the house, dotted with skeletal rose bushes and trees. More silence as he contemplated knocking again, and then suddenly an explosion of sound.

“Dev, just fucking—” a woman shouted, only to be met by frenzied barking. “Dev, down! Down! Don’t—”

The door flew open to reveal a frazzled-looking woman with a shock of black hair, her hand wrapped around the collar of a flailing black Labrador Retriever. Its tongue was practically falling out of its head as it lunged toward Simon, and without thinking he dropped his rucksack and sank to his knees.

“Alright!” he said, reaching for the dog, who successfully broke free from the woman and slammed itself into Simon’s chest.

“Sorry, he’s a fucking nightmare,” the woman growled, straightening up and tucking her hair back into place. She had a shock of white streaked through it in the front, which made her look dangerous. “Are you the one who came to look at the shit?”

“Uh,” Simon responded while distractedly rubbed Dev’s ear, “yeah?”

“This way,” she grunted, and turned around and left.

Grabbing his rucksack, Simon hurried to follow her, Dev trotting at his heels and occasionally jumping up to lick at his hand. They moved so fast through the entry way that he barely had time to take everything in — the high ceilings, the walls covered entirely in dark wood panelling and portraits of frowning old white people that looked nothing like the owner in residence. The huge windows, criss-crossed with tin casings and with the occasional stain glass motif set into them. He’d never been in a place like it before, save for maybe a museum, and it was dizzying.

It was also in awful condition. The wood was pale and ashy and cracking in some areas, the stone floors had small fissures running through them, and there was a general layer of dust and disuse that did not in any way jive with the pulled together neatness of the man who owned it.

And it felt lonely.

“Cellar is down there,” the woman said, leading him down a sturdy staircase to a downstairs kitchen that felt substantially homier than the rest of the house and pointing to a green wooden door next to the pantry. “Just checked the lights this morning, so they do turn on. Don’t break anything. Don’t take anything out of the house. Scream if something goes wrong.”

“Oh, er, thanks,” Simon said, thrown off by the suddenness of it all. He quickly wiped the dog spit from his hand and held it out to her. “Uh…?”

“Fiona,” the housekeeper responded, eyeing Simon’s hand and then ignoring it. “I’ll be around the main floor. Sorry for the mould.”

And then she was gone, stalking off through the kitchen. Dev threw him a sympathetic look and then followed closely behind, and Simon saw nothing to do but turn to the slightly ajar cellar door and face his fate.

The lights flickered on with an audible hum and illuminated a rough cement staircase leading down into the shadowy cellar below, and for a moment Simon considered backing out and running extremely far away, because this was absolutely where the horror movie that was his life would start. He could smell the damp, the walls looked wet and slick from the moisture, and he absolutely didn’t want to consider what state the records he was looking for were going to be in.

“Right,” he said, hitching his rucksack and squaring his jaw. “I can do this.”

The cellar was huge, made of multiple rooms and antechambers, but — to his immense relief — only the first room was full of damp. The rest of the cellar sloped up and became dusty and dry, and that’s where he found them; boxes upon boxes of papers, suitcases stacked on top of old milk crates, a canvas bag stuffed with envelopes, a dozen or more shoeboxes and hat boxes, and more ledgerbooks than he could ever possibly count.

“Jesus Christ,” he breathed, taking in the sight. There was no order to it. There was no obvious place to start. The bridge biddies had lead him to believe there were land records stored there, but this… this looked like the personal files and keepsakes of a century worth of families.

And he was just looking for one.

He wished Penny were there. She’d know what to do and where to start. She’d have some system worked out, and she’d rig up a chalkboard or something to take notes with, or she’d have brought a camera or a scanner or something.

He’d just brought some pens and a spiral notebook he got at Asda.

He pulled those out, along with the thermos of tea and the clementine Ebb sent with him, and reached for the nearest ledger.

 

{+}

 

“Well, there was no point in going home, so we just slept on the street.”

“You’re joking! In February?”

“We were so pissed we didn’t even feel the cold.”

Baz paused outside the door to the kitchen and listened to the voices floating out of the room, almost not believing the kind and humourous tone in Fiona’s voice as she chattered away about her misspent London youth. She never talked that much or that happily to Baz. At least not without a few insults.

“More tea?”

“Oh, that would be lovely, thanks.”

Baz entered the warm kitchen — it was the only warm room in the house, to be honest, and the only truly cosy one, because he had made the kitchen his top priority when he first arrived — and surveyed the scene before him.

He’d come down to bother Fiona for some tea, because she’d never appeared upstairs with the tea tray like she usually did, and now he knew why. She had defected and given his tea to Snow, apparently. Traitors. Her and the bloody dog, who was curled up with his head on Snow’s ratty trainers.

“Oh there you are,” Fiona said, looking up from the kettle as Baz entered. “Wondered when you’d drag your sorry self down for some bikkies. How goes the mould?”

“Resilient,” Baz said mirthlessly, drawing out a chair at the table on the opposite of Snow and sitting down at the old pine table.

He loved this table — possibly more than anything else in the entire house. It was old and warped and covered in a century’s worth of scratches, but he could still remember sitting at it when he was younger, drinking milk and eating graham crackers as he watched his mother read and mark up papers. The cheery lights of the kitchen would reflect off the lenses of the reading glasses that sat perched at the end of her nose — his nose. By some odd twist of genetics, he had much darker colouring than his mother, but at least he had her nose.

He gripped his fingers around the edge of the table and looked out the window to the darkening afternoon sky.

“You should just give up on the mould. You’re not up to the task. You don’t even sleep in that room, so just make peace with it,” Fiona said, setting an old chipped mug of tea in front of him, which he took gratefully, wrapping his cold hands around the ceramic. There was dust caked under his nails, to his utter horror, and he didn’t want to imagine what the rest of him looked like. He knew he had to smell like a combination of dirt and citrus-scented cleaner.

“Pitches never surrender,” he snapped, leaning back in his seat and crossing his ankle across his knee as he finally allowed himself to survey Snow, whose easy demeanor had substantially stiffened upon his arrival. “Snow.”

“Er, hi,” Snow responded, pulling a freckled hand through the curls at the back of his head. He was gorgeous, Baz had to admit, in a rumpled, approachable way. Extremely different from Niall, who was always buttoned up and smirking and aloof. Baz quickly shut down that line of thinking, though. Niall was on the thought blacklist, and he absolutely would not stand there and compare this new stranger to his ex-boyfriend. “Alright?”

Baz raised an eyebrow. He hated that phrase. Niall would never say something like that, and this realisation had him suddenly warming to the word.

“Have you found what you were looking for?” he asked, ignoring the question. Snow put his own tea down on the table and shook his head, looking slightly guilty. There was a smudge on his nose that was either dirt or a pile of freckles; Baz couldn’t tell.

“No, not yet. There’s, er, well there’s a lot down there. And it’s not really organised.” The tips of his ears flushed suddenly, and he scrambled to add, “Not that I mind! I just needed a breather. I don’t, uh, I don’t think I’ll be able to get through it today.”

There was a heavy pause within the kitchen.

“You’re welcome to look as long as you need,” Baz said finally, even though he didn’t really mean it. The man was distracting and it felt odd having someone strange in his house. He’d been thinking about it all morning as he’d tried to wage war on the Blue Room, which was in awful condition. He’d nearly inhaled a bucket of dust because he was so focused on thinking about the man three floors below.

A month in Hampshire and he’d almost forgotten what it was like to be around someone other than older white women. That had been what had prompted the tea break, actually.

“Thanks, really,” Snow said, nodding. “It’s a lot to go through, and I know it’s a long shot, but…”

“What are you looking for again?” Baz asked, interrupting the rambling.

“Uh, a family by the name of Snow. Or a girl named Lucy who lived around here twenty-three years ago or so. Not a whole lot to go on, I know, but…” he spread his large hands out wide and shrugged.

“What are you looking them up for?” Fiona asked, not looking up from the nail she was picking clean.

“She was my mum,” Snow responded, looking down at his tea. “Well, I think. I dunno if her surname was Snow, but I don’t have a clue as to what it could have been. So I’ve just got her name and my last name, and I’m trying to piece it together.”

“Why Watford?” Baz asked. “We’re not exactly on the map.”

“Oh, well, I’ve got this,” Snow said, bending down to retrieve the rucksack at his feet, which Dev was currently drooling on. Digging around inside it, he pulled out a tissue wrapped bundle and placed it gently on the table. Curious, Baz reached forward and peeled off the tissue to reveal a soft white baby blanket with blue trimming.

“Oh,” Baz said, his chest squeezing tight. “Oh, I see.”

“What is it?” Fiona asked, frowning as she sat forward in a show of uncharacteristic interest.

“One of the Watford Wool blankets,” Baz responded sharply, rewrapping the blanket in the tissue and sliding it back across the table.

“I’m not following,” Fiona said, frowning. But Simon was leaning in, his eyes wide, a look on his face so hungry and expectant that Baz had the sudden, desperate wish that he could hand him all the answers in life he’d ever asked for.

“The Wool Mill used to make these handmade baby blankets,” Baz said. “They were very popular during my grandparents’ time. Lots of families in the area had one or two that got passed down. We have one.”

“You do?” Snow breathed, picking up the blanket to put it back in his rucksack. But he paused in the action for a moment, cradling the bundle to him, and Baz suspected Snow had no idea he was doing it.

“Yes, I believe so. It’s upstairs, somewhere.” He cleared his throat and sat back against his chair again, and tried to sound disinterested. He knew they had one. He’d used it as a child. And it wasn’t just somewhere. It was in the Red Room.

“Well, good luck,” Baz said, standing up quickly and taking his tea cup with him. He didn’t want to sit here and stare at Snow’s freckled hands or get sucked into another fit of memories. “Fiona, I’m in the Blue Room today. And likely tomorrow.”

“Oh, I’d love to help,” Fiona said, sounding extremely insincere, “but I’ve an audiobook I had planned to listen to today.”

“You can listen to an audiobook while you clean,” Baz said, frowning, and Fiona made a disagreeable hissing noise.

“Not this one. Sorry, boyo. It’s a really juicy murder book, I’ve got to really focus.”

“I’m sure,” Baz drawled, putting the hand not holding his tea into his trouser pockets as he turned to Snow. “Please leave things as you found them, if possible,” he said.

Snow gave a curt nod and stared up at him through wide blue eyes. Plain blue, Baz realised, nothing special at all, but the eye contact threw Baz off kilter for a moment.

“By the way, you have dust on your nose,” he said suddenly, without thinking, and then tapped the side of his own nose.

Snow’s face turned a bright red as he reached up to scrub at his face with the edge of his jumper, and Baz turned on his heel and fled from the kitchen.

 

{+}

 

Simon had felt good about his progress on the documents when had left the following evening, but upon finding himself facing down the stack the next morning, it seemed like it had multiplied.

He was in a shit mood. It was raining, again, because apparently all it did in Hampshire was rain, and he had had yet another unsuccessful attempt to talk to the owner of Watford Wool. Was the entire shop just closed up for the entirety of November? Did no one buy woollen goods anymore? Probably not, actually. Simon had always kind of hated wool. He thought it was scratchy and made his skin red and sometimes it made him sneeze.

Fuck wool.

The rain had chased a damp chill into the cellars, and even with his warmest jumper on and the thermos of tea that Ebb had sent along with him he was still shivering. And he couldn’t see for shit. The bulbs above his head gave off a steady static hum that was giving him a headache, and the dim yellow light he was trying to read by wasn’t helping much either.

And his hips hurt from sitting on the uneven cement floor.

Standing up and stretching out his back, he shuffled off through the cellar and toward the slick steps that led back up into the kitchen. From the open door he couldn’t see any movement in the kitchen beyond, but he figured Fiona couldn’t be too far — the previous day he’d heard her banging about upstairs the entire time he had been there — so he headed up.

She wasn’t in the kitchen, so he spread out his search, tentatively checking the large pantry and secondary rooms on the kitchen level that he guessed had been servant parlours at one point before moving upstairs to the main level of the house.

“Fiona?” he called, opening the double doors that let out into the main hall, where the square spiral staircase began its looping climb upward. “Er, Fiona?”

He heard Dev’s nails before he saw him, the Labrador panting down the staircase ahead of his owner. Baz was wearing a faded LSE crew-neck sweatshirt and had a dust rag slung over one shoulder, his arms full of dusty-looking books with precariously hanging covers.

“Can I help you?” Baz asked, stopping at the base of the stairs. His hair was pulled up away from his face, and it made his sharp cheekbones stand out even more than usual, accentuating his hooded grey eyes. It was the most casual Simon had seen him to date.

“Oh, er,” Simon said, suddenly feeling extremely awkward. “I was, er, looking for Fiona.”

“She’s upstairs polishing brass. It’s a miracle event, and I’d rather not jinx it,” Baz said, his tone dry, but a small hint of a smile pulled at his lips. It looked like he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to be amused or not. “What do you need?”

“Er, well,” Simon said, shifting slightly so he could lean down and scratch behind Dev’s ear. “It’s just, it’s a bit cold and hard to see in the cellar, and I was wondering if you’d, uh, mind if I maybe brought a few of the boxes up to the kitchen or something? Just somewhere I can go through them in the light.”

“What, you mean you can’t see in the dark?” Baz asked, the smile gone from his face. It left Simon unsure whether it was a joke or not, but somehow he managed to make it sound like this was a failure on Simon’s part.

“Uh, no,” Simon said. “No, uh, not that I know of.”

“You should work on that.”

“What?”

“Fiona will kill you if you clutter up the kitchen, we spent ages getting it clean,” Baz said, jumping off the topic as quickly as he’d stumbled onto it. “Feel free to use the library. It’s just through that door,” he said, pointing to a heavy wooden door at the end of the far hallway.

“Right, thanks,” Simon said. “Also, uh, you said take as long as you need, and I think it’s going to take a while. Like, definitely will not be done today.”

“There’s at least several decades worth of documents down there, I’d be surprised if you did,” Baz said, adjusting the books in his arm. “Even I don’t read that fast.”

And then he walked away, Dev trotting behind him, leaving Simon standing in the main hall of the beautiful, sad house and feeling very small and unaccountably stupid.

 

{+}

 

Lady Charlotte room; completed.

  • Paint: completed
  • Chip in plaster to be looked at
  • Send portrait of Charlotte Pitch to storage, pending restoration
  • Books to be sent for appraisal

What now?

Baz snapped his book closed and glared at the bedroom around him. Piece by piece, room by room, he’d made them clean and inhabitable. They weren’t cosy. They weren’t grand. They couldn’t begin to touch their former glory, but they were tidy and safe and probably the best he could do by himself.

There was nothing he could do for the plaster in the Lady Charlotte room, but he’d touched up the paint on the wall next to the fireplace and then had gone on to repaint the south wall as well, because he’d taken down several portraits to be cleaned and seen the horrifying difference in wall colour when they were removed, and then it bothered him, and well, three cans of paint and a partially ruined uni sweatshirt later, he thought it looked rather good, all things considered.

There was only one upstairs room left to be done, and Baz was not going to do it.

He’d realised that already, before he even started on this wing of bedrooms. The Red Room hadn’t been touched in almost twenty years, and, frankly, it could sit untouched for twenty more. He simply refused.

The rest of the bedrooms had been swept and dusted and mopped and shined, their statuses written down in Baz’s little notebook and their valuable contents catalogued in neat handwriting on the opposing pages.

He planned to polish and clean the stairwell next week, after the workman came to look at the cracked step on the second floor, and he didn’t feel like rushing that. It was too dismal to work outside, and he didn’t want to even think about touching the downstairs parlour, which would be freezing, or the dining room, which required a level of manual labour he wasn’t prepared to put in.

So the library it was. He needed to categorise the books and decide what was and wasn’t worth keeping, and give everything a strong dusting and polishing, besides.

The lights were on in the library when he got down there, and he paused at the doorway for a moment, confused as to why Fiona was working in there. Pushing the door open he stuck his head in and was greeted by the sight of his strange visitor sprawled on the ground surrounded by sloppy stacks of papers, a thermos of tea on one side and a sleeping Dev on the other. He was bent over a diary of sorts, his bronze curls falling into his face as his blue eyes roamed over the page, and Baz caught himself staring.

It was hard not to. Simon Snow was engaging. With his moles and his freckles and his bright expression and his lumbering footsteps and broad shoulders. He looked warm , like winter sunshine spilling out across the library floor, and he made the dusty, freezing room look warm all around him.

Baz cleared his throat, realising he had been lingering for too long, and the bronze head snapped up to look at him.

“I need to work in here,” he said stiffly. He meant to add a ‘do you mind?’ but it didn’t come out.

Something about Snow — with his scruffy hair and holey sweatshirt, sitting in Baz’s crumbling house and witnessing the strange tinges of Baz’s decrepit family — made him sharp, sharper than he had been in years. Sharper even than he had been with Niall — and those sharp angles had been the death of their relationship. Maybe if he had met Snow in London, at a pub or at school or walking down the street, he would have been able to to soften his edges.

But in Hampshire he was off kilter. He didn’t have the energy or the time or the inclination to dig out his uneven angles and smooth himself down.

“Oh, right, yeah, sorry,” Snow said, collecting his papers around him. Dev perked up, an ear cocked. “I’ll move.”

“No,” Baz said quickly. He wanted Snow to stay like that, warm and comfortable. “No, I can work around you. I have to…” he trailed off, and his eyes landed on the fireplace. “I have to check the fireplaces.”

“Want some help?” Snow asked, springing to his feet and stretching his neck out. The moles on his neck became more visible as Snow rolled his shoulders about, and Baz looked away.

“Aren’t you meant to be researching?” Baz responded, leaning down to reach the stack of firewood he’d set next to the fireplace weeks ago and never touched.

“I’m going spare,” Snow admitted, wandering over to take the split wood from Baz and place it in the fireplace. “I’m not great at just… reading for hours. I need to be moving, you know?”

“Not really,” Baz responded, handing him another piece of wood. “Reading for hours happens to be my main skillset.”

“Lucky,” Snow said, stacking the wood neatly on top of each other in a criss crossing formation. “Do you have a starter?”

Baz knew he didn’t, but he patted at his pocket anyway to give a show that he hadn’t just suddenly had the idea to light the fire because he wanted the room to feel as warm as Snow looked.

“Here,” Snow grunted, walking back over to his pile of papers and bending down. He rooted through the largest stack and came back with several pieces of paper, which he thrust into the fireplace.

“You can’t just burn people’s documents,” Baz snapped in alarm, reaching forward to pull them out, but Snow blocked his arm.

“It’s fine, they’re literally shopping lists.”

“Why would they store shopping lists?” Baz asked, pausing.

“I dunno, but it looks like people just shoved all kinds of papers into boxes and brought them over. And anyway, clearly no one is coming back for them. Some of those were pre-war. What’s the use?”

“Those are historical records,” Baz argued, digging out a crumpled piece of yellowed parchment. “This is a primary document, Snow. It gives us first hand insight into what life in the village was like.”

“Who cares?” Snow asked, his brow furrowing. “We don’t need to know someone’s butcher order.”

“You have no respect for history,” Baz sniffed. He expected Snow to snap at him — or even growl, or push him, or tell him to go fuck himself, but instead Snow just laughed.

“Nah. Not really. Do you care about someone’s butcher order?”

Baz glanced at the paper in his hand, which just said ‘2 x lamb chops’ and tried to determine how much he valued his pride.

“I’m going to fetch a newspaper,” he said, folding the butcher order neatly and slipping it into his trouser pocket before he left the library.

When he returned, he had several old newspapers, a packet of matches, and a tea tray of coffee that Fiona had shoved on him.

The fire was already going.

“Don’t tell me you burnt more historical documents,” Baz said, placing the tray on a nearby table and staring at the crackling fire with a flat expression.

“Yup,” Snow said, not looking up from massaging Dev’s ear. The dog’s tongue was lolling out of his head, and Baz wondered if maybe the two shared the same IQ level.

“I’ll kindly ask you to not come into my house and burn my possessions,” Baz said tightly, pouring himself a cup of coffee and then carrying it to the far bookshelf, where he placed it on a small writing desk.

“Technically they aren’t yours. They’re some old lady’s. Just because she didn’t come collect them doesn’t mean they’re yours. That’s the law,” Snow responded as he poured himself his own cup of coffee. Baz didn’t know where Snow’s sudden cheekiness had come from, and he hated the fact that he rather liked it.

“As a barrister, I assure you, that is most definitely not the law,” Baz said as he began methodically removing books from shelves and placing them in neat stacks on the floor. “But I encourage you to try that in a court of law.”

“You’re a barrister?” To Baz’s immense confusion, Snow had wandered over to where he was working and began to pull books off of shelves as well and add them to Baz’s stacks.

“That doesn’t go in that pile,” Baz said, taking two books out of Snow’s wide hands and placing them in the pile near his feet, before reshuffling several other books Snow had already put down. “And yes. I’m about to join a Chamber back in London.”

“So you don’t live here full time, then? You’re not here for good?”

Baz resorted three more of Snow’s books, then moved on to the next shelf.

“No, I’m just here temporarily to fix up the house,” he answered, taking another book out of Snow’s hand. “That doesn’t go there, just give it to me.”

“I don’t understand your piles,” Snow admitted, pulling three books off the shelf and handing them to Baz. Baz sorted them into their appropriate stacks, and then accepted three more from Snow.

“Of course you don’t. They follow my system,” Baz responded, settling himself into a seated position on the ground. He took another stack of books from Snow and glanced over each of them, testing the jacket on one and dusting off another with his sleeve before putting them in tidy piles.

“What are you sorting them for?” Snow asked, grunting a bit with the exertion of reaching the top shelf. He was just short enough and his arms just stubby enough that he couldn’t reach it with the same ease that Baz could, and Baz delighted in it.

“These piles get put back on the shelves after they’ve been cleaned,” Baz said, gesturing to the five large stacks next to him. “Those will be appraised for sale,” he said, pointing to two smaller piles. “And these I want to read,” he finished, patting the steadily growing stack of books just behind him.

“Are you selling the house? Or just some of the books?” Snow asked, waiting patiently for Baz to finish sorting his current pile before giving him more.

“You’re not doing a very thorough job with your research,” Baz countered. He didn’t want to answer a question he didn’t know the answer to. “Did you ever manage to speak to the Woollen Mill owner?”

“No,” Snow growled, cracking his fingers. “The sod never seems to be around. I check in every morning and I always miss him.”

“You’re going too early,” Baz said, standing and moving over a bit so he could have the room to start a new stack. “They never open until the afternoon.”

“Where is this written down?” Snow exclaimed. “It’s not anywhere on the store front!”

Baz shrugged.

“I suppose it’s just something you pick up from being local.”

“But you’re not local!” Snow argued. “You just moved here a few months ago, didn’t you?”

“I lived here when I was a boy,” Baz responded, his voice going cold. “And I visited several times a year after we moved.”

“Oh,” Snow said, his indignation fading. “Oh, yeah, alright. So why are you back?”

“You ask an absurd amount of questions.”

“Sorry,” Snow said, shrugging. “I’m used to working with little’uns. You get in the habit of chattering to keep up with them.”

“You’re a teacher?” Baz asked, surprised. He hadn’t put much thought into what Snow did. He’d just assumed he was a student.

“No,” Snow said, laughing. “Not at all. I’m a bartender. But I work at a nursery during the day.”

“Taking a break then? Seeing the country, one cellar at a time?” Baz asked, squinting at the book in his hands. He knew it was a limited edition, and he should have put it in the ‘to sell’ pile, but he really wanted to read it.

He put it in the ‘to read’ pile. He read fast.

“Nah, just, I figure if I’m going to do this, I should do it properly, you know? I’ve saved up, so I have some buffer, and I’m going to do my best.”

“I really don’t know if you’re going to find anything in those records,” Baz said, adding two more books to his reading pile.

“My best bet is the Woollen Mill, you know. I just hope they have some kind of records of what they sold.”

“Your blanket should have a maker’s mark on it with the year and number of blanket made,” Baz said, surveying his stacks. He took two out of the read pile. It was getting too big.

“How do you know that?” Snow asked, pausing.

“Mine has one,” Baz answered distractedly.

“Wait, really? I’ve never seen one on mine.”

“It’s under the nameplate,” Baz responded, frowning. “Mine came loose; my mother had to stitch it back on, but I remember seeing the stamp before she did.”

“That’s—” Snow paused, then thrust the books in his hand at Baz. “Sorry, I’ve— I’ve got to go. Thank you. I mean, yeah. Sorry. I’ll — I’ll pick this up tomorrow,” he said, nearly tripping over his words as he crossed the room and pulled his pack back up onto his shoulders.

“Sorry, thank you! Tell Fiona I said bye.” He swooped down to pat Dev on the head, and then he was gone, leaving stacks of books and papers and records in his wake.

“I wonder if it was something I said,” Baz dryly asked the empty room, adding two more books to his reading stack.

 

Chapter Text

“There’s literally no point to me being here, Pen,” Simon said with a sigh. He had his feet kicked up on the wall next to the bed and his head hanging off the mattress. It was giving him a head rush, but he didn’t think he could put in the effort to get himself right side up again.

“I finally talked to the bloke who runs the wool shop, and he said he didn’t have a record of the blanket. Baz said there would be a maker’s mark, but we couldn’t find one. The bloke cut up part of the blanket to look for it, and it wasn’t there. He cut it up for no reason.”

“Wait, who is Baz?” Penny asked from the other end of the line. Simon could hear running water and the splashing of dishes. He hated it when Penny did chores while talking to him. She never paid attention.

“Baz is the bloke with the haunted house. The one who’s letting me go through all his documents?”

“Why would Baz know about your baby blanket?”

“Well he has one, apparently. He said there’s a mark on his, he saw it when he was a kid.”

“But yours doesn’t have a mark?”

“Nope. The bloke who ran the store said it was probably a few generations old, from before they started keeping records of the blankets.” Simon went silent for a moment, and then swallowed around the large lump in his throat. “He asked if it was possible that my mum got the blanket in a charity shop.”

“Oh, Simon,” Penny said. “Why don’t you come home? We can keep looking from here. Go back to the nuns, maybe? Or recheck hospital birth records?”

“Nah,” Simon said, shaking his head even though Penny couldn’t see him. A stuffed goat watched him from the corner, though, and that was almost the same. “Nah, I need to see this out. And anyway, I don’t have a home to come to, remember?”

“That’s not true,” Penny said fiercely. “You know you’re welcome with Micah and I.”

“Yeah, I know. But this was the plan. Our lease ran out, you moved in with Micah, I went family hunting, and then I’d come home and pick up when I finished my quest.”

“It’s really lame that you call it a quest,” Penny said quietly, and Simon’s chest twisted with an intense, immediate sense of longing for his best friend. He wished she were here. It had only been a few days, and yet he already wanted to be back home in their flat that they no longer leased, curled up on the floor of the kitchen drinking tea and trying to keep warm by the stove because they refused to pay for heating.

“I’ve still got the records at Baz’s,” Simon said. “I’ll go through those, and if I exhaust that, I’ll… go on to the next thing. Whatever that is.”

“Well at least you’ve made a friend,” Penny said, and the rushing sound of running water and clanging dishes started up again, signalling that the heavy part of the conversation was over.

“Not really,” Simon responded. “But I like his dog. And his house is gorgeous, in an extremely spooky way. Like, in the way that you know someone has definitely died there.” He rolled himself over onto his stomach and kicked at the wall gently. “He’s fixing it up all by himself, you know. I mean, his housekeeper is helping, but she mostly just sits in the kitchen and listens to true crime books and says mean things to him.”

“Mhhmm,” Penny said. “That’s nice.

Simon snorted.

“Go do your dishes, Pen,” he said, grunting as he heaved himself up and into a sitting position. He made eye contact with a goat figurine wearing a bonnet, and promptly failed a staring contest with it. “I love you.”

Love you too, Si,” she said. “Good luck. You can do it.”

He rung off with her and stared at the goat for several more moments before pulling on his jumper and trainers and grabbing his jacket to head out the door.

It wasn’t raining — in fact it was actually rather sunny — so he decided to take his motorbike on the short trip from the village to Pitch Manor, navigating the muddy lanes and watching the dying leaves rustle along the roadside as he made his way toward the crumbling gate that marked the start of the estate.

Baz was outside when he got to the top of the drive, staring up at the ivy that crawled across the exterior of the house.

“Alright,” Simon called, cutting the engine and swinging off the bike. Baz turned to him and raised an eyebrow in greeting. He was wearing the same wellies and wax jacket that he’d worn the day they met, and Simon had to admit it was an oddly good look on him. He looked like a country gentleman, ready to survey his estate and go shoot some birds.

Dev’s lazy sprawl at Baz’s feet only enhanced the image, and Simon had to bite down a grin.

“You left my library a wreck,” Baz called. “I expect you to clean it up.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Simon said, bending to pet Dev. “What are you up to?”

“I just buried another bird,” Baz responded. “I think they’re coming in through the chimney.”

“Poor thing,” Simon said. Baz hummed in agreement, then pulled a small notebook out of his pocket and scribbled something in it. Simon wanted to look over his shoulder and try to read the tiny scrawl, but he thought that if he got that close, Baz would put the pen through his eye.

“So? How did it go?” Baz asked as the two men walked the last bit of drive to climb the small stone steps leading into the house.

“What?” Simon asked, distracted by the small leaf stuck in Baz’s hair.

“At the Woollen Mill. I assumed that’s where you ran off to yesterday,” Baz said, his tone annoyed. “What did he say?”

“Nothing,” Simon answered dejectedly, scrubbing off his trainers as he walked into the house. He didn't think Baz’d had the large oriental rug in the front entrance cleaned yet, but he was pretty sure there’d be hell to pay if he got mud on it anyway. “Apparently it’s super old. Pre-dates their record system.”

“Interesting. So there’s no mark?”

“Nope,” Snow said. He watched Baz shrug out of his heavy jacket and hang it by the door, then sit on the old pew-looking bench to pull off his boots. He wiggled his sock clad toes — probably unconsciously — before shoving them into his house shoes, and Simon, for reasons he could not begin to place, was unaccountably charmed by the sight of Baz’s striped socks.

“Pity,” Baz said. “It’s a shame your blanket is defective. I’m back in the library today, by the way. Fire is already lit, so don’t get ideas about burning any more precious documents.”

“A shopping list isn’t a precious document,” Simon argued, following him.

“And I’m sure you consider the Magna Carta just a boring letter,” Baz snapped back. Simon didn’t bother to argue. He did find the Magna Carta pretty fucking boring.

 

{+}

 

“Oh my God,” Snow gasped. “Oh my God.”

He was sprawled in an armchair near the fire, a mug of tea balanced in his lap, going through a thick bundle of letters as Baz organised the books on the south wall. The library was proving to be a larger job than he had expected, but he’d also been going slower than usual.

“What?” Baz asked, putting down his book and looking up. “Did you find them?”

“No,” Snow said. “I found love letters. Loads and loads of love letters.”

“That’s sweet,” Baz said, frowning at the book in his hand. “I don’t care.”

“No,” Snow said, his blue eyes wide, his mouth caught in a cross between a laugh and a frown. “These are like… steamy love letters.”

“Let me see,” Baz said, shooting up from his spot and crossing the room in four long strides. He plucked the letters out of Snow’s hand and glanced down at the curling script. It was elegant and neat, written in the kind of cursive that didn’t exist anymore, the kind that was so perfectly impeccable that it took Baz a moment to even decipher it. But as the words untangled themselves, several phrases became extremely clear.

Baz snorted, and then cleared his throat.

Dearest W.S., ” Baz said, folding himself down into a sitting position on the floor near Snow’s chair. “ I have laid awake all night with one thought on my mind. You.

“Oh my God, don’t,” Snow said, shaking his head.

You have touched every piece of me; my heart, my tender wishes, my fears and dreams. You have touched all those places which no man but you could ever spy, those places I keep locked away, too scared to show.

“That’s kind of sweet, actually,” Snow said, frowning. He tilted his head to the side a bit, like Dev. “That’s a nice sentiment.”

But I think of all those other places you have touched me as well.

“Oh no.”

I have spent the past night ruminating on the eloquence of your tongue, ” Baz read, his voice getting cheerier by the sentence. His tone dripped with drama, and he dug into his narration with delight. “ No poetry has ever taken my breath away half so well as your clever lips forming words against my skin.

“I take it back,” Snow said quickly, shaking his head, “I take it back. This isn’t sweet.”

Inching closer with every phrase to the climax of our story.

“Please stop,” Snow said, even as his nose scrunched up with a mixture of delight and revulsion, and a laugh escaped him.

“This is actually quite informational,” Baz said, an eyebrow quirking as his grey eyes scanned the page. They got to the end and widened, and he let out a loud bark of laughter that caused Dev to perk up.

“What?” Snow asked, interested despite himself and his blushing cheeks.

When I see you next, my loving William, my heart and mind will be where our story began, laid bare in the heather in the woods behind Pitch Manor.

“Spicy,” Snow said, snorting. “I think William used to shag in your woods.”

How I long for our next reunion so that you might tell our story again. Yours for all time ,” Baz said, pausing for dramatic effect. “ Henry.

“Henry?” Snow asked, shooting up in his seat. “Wait, a bloke wrote this? To another bloke?”

“I know, I’m surprised as well,” Baz said dryly. “Gays usually write better than this.”

“I think it’s sweet,” Snow argued, grasping for the letters. “This is the kind of historical document you should be concerned with, not shopping lists.”

“So you only think history has use when it’s smutty?” Baz countered, an eyebrow raised. To his delight, Snow’s face lit up with a deep flush. “Or gay?”

“Shut up. Give me the letters back.”

“Going to pocket them and take them home for your smut collection?”

“Shut it,” Snow flushed. “I just think it’s neat, you know? Letters were probably all they had, and were risky to send. The fact that they ended up in your cellar… it’s neat history, that’s all.” Snow glanced down and brushed his thumb over the lip of his mug. “I think it’s interesting.”

Baz watched Snow’s eyes flick downward, the small flush creeping up his neck, and an uncomfortable weight settled in his stomach.

“I’m going to go get Fiona to make lunch,” he said, standing and handing the letter back to Snow. “Enjoy your gay smut.”

Snow mumbled something that sounded an awful lot like “you’re gay smut” . Baz turned to tell him off, but paused as he watched Snow carefully roll up the letters and put them inside the pocket of his sweatshirt.

 

{+}

 

“Harder.”

Simon grunted with exertion and tried again, and Baz shook his head, a small amount of sweat visible above his brow.

“Keep going. Hit it harder, put some back into it.”

Simon put all his energy into the blow, and the curtain in front of him exploded with dust.

“Beautiful,” Baz said. He’d backed off just before Simon had hit the large pocket of dust and dirt hidden within the folds of the large brocade curtain, and as a result had avoided the worst of the explosion. Simon was covered in it. He could taste it. His mouth was gritty.

“Why not just throw them away?” Simon grunted, taking another swing at the curtain while Baz worked on its mate. They were on the back lawn of the Manor, going after the curtains with cricket bats. Simon was pretty positive these weren’t the proper instruments for the job, but Baz didn’t seem to be complaining, so he figured it wasn’t his place to either.

“These are vintage,” Baz snarled, throwing his arm into another elegant smack that made Simon think Baz had probably played cricket at some point. What a plummy twat.

“Is that just a fancy way of saying they’re old and expensive and you don’t want to buy new ones?”

“They’re vintage,” Baz repeated.

“Right, got it,” Simon grunted, giving his curtain one last smack before moving onto the next one. “So what’s the deal with all this? Why are you doing the renovations and not your parents? I thought you were like, a busy barrister.”

“Not busy yet,” Baz responded, switching curtains as well. “I just finished my pupillage and got my licencing, I haven’t started working properly.”

“So why pause that to come here and fix up your family’s house?”

“It’s my house,” Baz snapped back. “I own it.”

“Oh. Well. That’s actually pretty cool.” And it was cool. The house was in shit condition, but it was… it was a house. It was a home, an entire home that Baz could do whatever he wanted with, that would always be his as long as he wanted it. It was full of things that people in his family had bought and collected and found value in, and whenever Baz wanted to, he could pick up a book off his shelf and know that some great uncle or grandfather or another had bought it and read it.

It seemed like a lot more than just a house to Simon.

“So that doesn’t explain why you’re here. You’re young, you’re fit, why come mould in a house in the countryside? Are you selling it?”

Baz flattened his brows and flashed him a look that would have been a lot more threatening if he weren’t smacking gold brocade with an old man’s cricket bat.

“My father thought I needed a break,” he said, hitting the curtain again.

“From what?”

“Life.” Baz grunted and hit the curtain again with a vicious smack that sent up a cloud of dust. He barely waited for it to settle before attacking again. “I think it’s his attempt at fixing me.” Dust and curtain fibres were swirling everywhere, visible in the cold winter sunlight, and Baz’s face was set into a sneer. “He said I’d never taken a break in my life, and with the stress of school and the breakup, he thought I was going to burn myself up before I even hit my potential.” Another snarling smack to the curtain, so violent Simon feared the bat was going to shatter. “So the plan changed. I was told to go, and I went.”

“Oi, I think that curtain’s had enough,” Simon said, reaching forward to wrap his hand around Baz’s wrist. “Whatever happened, it’s not the curtain’s fault.”

Baz stared at him for a long moment, and their eyes locked. Blue on grey, the dust mites floating between them, and Simon felt his stomach drop out.

Baz was a bit like the house, he thought. Beautiful, but buried under neglect and in need of love.

“So what’s your plan, Snow?” Baz said, his voice tinged with hardness, breaking the spell. The vulnerability was gone; a cool, marble mask was back in place. “Are you just going to loitre around here poking through letters and cleaning my curtains?”

A small beast woke up within Simon and beat its wings, ready for a fight, willing to rise to the challenge.

“I don’t have a plan,” he said, quieting his anger. Baz was lashing out, but it wasn’t at him. He was a bit like an animal, backed into a corner and scared. Simon had gotten too close; he’d seen the cracks in the paint and the warped floors underneath Baz’s perfect composure, and now Baz was going to make him pay.

He turned away and took up his bat again and refocused on the damask curtain before him.

“Sometimes things are better without a plan,” Simon said, raising the bat to strike. “Sometimes you’ve just got to follow your road and see where it takes you.”

Baz was watching him, his grey eyes zeroed in on every one of Simon’s motions, and it made Simon itch. He had a million questions for Baz; a million questions he would never get answers to.

“What if your road leads to a mouldy cellar and a house full of horrors?” Baz said, picking up his own bat.

Simon grinned and smacked at the curtain.

“Then you just got to beat up some curtains, mate.”

 

{+}

 

The problem with Simon Snow was that he was kind of horrifically nice to be around, and he was always around.

A strange pattern had set in. Baz wasn’t sure when they had decided on it, but both of them seemed to have silently agreed on and stuck to the schedule. As such every morning Simon Snow would appear at Baz’s house, ratty t-shirt and black trackies on and overstuffed knapsack in tow.

Instead of going to the cellar to bring up more records, he would seek Baz out in whatever room he was working on at the moment and just silently insinuate himself into the work. Without prompting, Snow had helped Baz rehang the curtains in the library, polish all the wooden panels in the main hall, pull up the tatty carpet on the staircase, wash and scrub the stone floor, go through the never-ending contents of his late grandfather’s writing desk, and catalogue more than a dozen artefacts, portraits, and books to be taken to the assessor.

The closest Baz had gotten of an explanation for why Snow was helping him was while they were going through his grandfather’s desk, making stacks of things to throw away, things to store, and things to sell.

“Have you got anything to do outside today?” Snow had asked, stretching his neck as he stacked yet another dead fountain pen in a pile Baz was making. “I hate sitting around. I need to stretch or like, use my hands.”

“I’m sorry my house renovations aren’t active enough for you,” Baz had said, not looking up from the bound file folder which seemed to contain every tax document his grandfather had ever received. “If you ask nicely, I’m sure Fiona will put you on a leash and walk you. Maybe if you’re good, she’ll give you a treat.”

Snow had huffed and gone silent, but several moments later he had stood up, called to Dev, and disappeared for a half hour. When they returned, both man and dog were slightly out of breath; Dev’s tongue was lolling out of his head as he collapsed on the hearth, and Snow’s freckled cheeks were slapped red from the wind.

Baz imagined that, had he reached out and touched him, his skin would have been flushed and warm to the touch, like a furnace beneath his own long, frozen fingers.

Snow had sat down and continued going through the desk, exclaiming over a selection of very old family photos, apparently rejuvenated from his break. And when they were done they had taken a break for lunch and tea and then situated themselves back in the library to go through the next batch of local records from the cellar.

Snow never asked Baz why he helped with the records, and so Baz never asked why Snow helped with his home restoration.

It was changing Baz’s plans, however. He was happy to let Snow get dusty crawling through cabinets, or rub his fingers raw with a bristle brush on the fireplace, but he was far less willing to take him into the rooms that needed the care; the Egypt room and the Red Room.

The Red Room was fine to put off, but the Egyptian Room desperately needed attention. There were innumerable items that needed to be sorted and catalogued, and the guilt of letting them sit gnawed at Baz daily.

But he wasn’t exactly eager to open up his strange family history and genealogy to Snow, and he wasn’t particularly looking forward to having to make a decision about what to do with all the artefacts tucked away in the room on the other side of the library.

So instead Baz made his small notations in his notebook, adding on to his lists, striking things off his to-do list, and he grew closer and closer to the big projects that couldn’t be ignored. The library was done. The kitchen was done. The majority of the bedrooms, his grandfather’s study, part of the front hall. Bit by bit, room by room, Pitch Manor was growing clean and cosy and more like a home, and the several doors that were never open grew more and more obvious.

But Snow didn’t push. He didn’t ask questions. He just trailed along wherever Baz went, taking his orders, talking back only a little, and throwing his broad shoulders into the tasks ahead of him. When they had tea he would smile over his mug, a wide, careless thing that made his eyes grow creased, and when they sat on the floor of the library or hunched at the table or draped over chairs, he would set his face into a strict line of determination and go through the papers with a single-minded focus until Baz decided to distract him.

Neither of them were getting very far on their respective goals, but neither of them seemed to really mind.

It was a holding pattern. But if Baz were being honest, he didn’t want it to end.

They were heading to the stables on a bright, freezing morning at the end of November. Baz wasn’t planning on renovating the stables; they were in decent enough shape, and, anyway, they were stables. But he’d been planning storing things in one of the spare tack rooms, and he’d forced Snow out of the house and into the cold air to help him clear out a space to put the boxes.

It had nothing to do with the fact that Snow had been forced inside by the rain the past few days, and the man looked ready to combust.

Dev loped ahead of them, barking at the wind, and Snow stopped every few yards to snatch up a stick and throw it for the energetic Labrador. He’d given in and consented to borrowing a pair of Baz’s outdoor boots, and the green wellies crunched on the frozen grass as they made their way across the field to the stables.

“Can I ask you a personal question, and can you promise not to cut me open and leave my innards for the birds?” Snow asked, fishing into his pocket and pulling out a clementine. He seemed to be absolutely drowning in the things; he managed to pull at least three out of his pockets every day, and watching him unpeel them was an exercise in madness. Large, stubby fingers pulling at the skin of the fruit in unorganised, messy movements. He left the peels in the grass as they walked, leading down from the house like a bread trail, and he pulled the small wedges apart with a delicacy that seemed impossible for his thick hands. The smell clung to him for hours after.

It was growing increasingly difficult for Baz to pretend that he didn’t pay too much attention to those hands.

“Maybe,” Baz said, ambling along and craning his face up into the sunlight. “It depends on the question.”

“You mentioned that you’d had a break up. What happened?”

Baz blinked. He was learning a lot of things about Simon Snow, but he couldn’t ever manage to get used to the way Snow just dashed headfirst into situations and quagmires.  

“I know you’re a naturally nosy creature, but that doesn’t extend to my life,” Baz said, shoving his hands in his trouser pockets.

“Was it because you’re a posh, brooding twat?” Snow asked, popping a clementine wedge into his mouth. “Did she decide she didn’t want to come live in a haunted house with her vampire boyfriend?”

“Why do you think I’m a vampire?” Baz asked, a surprised laugh escaping him without permission.

“It’s the hair,” Snow said, gesturing to his head. “And the tall, lanky, ‘ I’m fit but tortured inside’ look. I know most vampires are white but, you know, you really make it work.”

“This is just how I look, Snow.”

Baz bit the inside of his cheek to keep from letting his small, amused smile show.

“Just saying. My ex-girlfriend used to read loads of these vampire books, and the blokes on the covers always looked like you,” Snow said, putting the last clementine wedge in his mouth and pulling another one from the pocket of his coat. He held it up to Baz and Baz nodded his assent, and the small orange fruit went flying through the air. Baz caught it easily and put it in his pocket. He didn’t even like clementines. They were too sticky.

“Your ex-girlfriend clearly has good taste,” Baz said, pulling up his coat collar against the wind. “Was it her choice to break up?”

“Yup,” Snow said, nonplussed. Baz was surprised; he’d only said it to get a rise out of him. “She said there were too many expectations on us. She didn’t like feeling like she was forced into a relationship, and she thought she wanted more in life.”

Baz frowned.

“Who was forcing her?”

Snow shrugged and threw another stick for Dev. For the first time, a tight line had appeared at the corner of his mouth, pulling his normally smiling expression down.

“I dunno. She’s really posh, you know? So I think her parents were all for her getting married, settling down, having kids, you know, the whole thing.”

“And they didn’t approve of you?”

“No, actually, they loved me,” Snow said. Dev circled back to them, a different stick in his mouth than what was thrown, and Snow bent down to tussle with the dog for a moment. “It was her, I guess. I always thought I was doing the right thing, doing what she wanted, but… I dunno if she knows what she wants. I wasn’t a very good boyfriend, to be fair. But I guess she just needed something different.”

Snow sent the stick hurling through the air with a thin whistle, and Dev disappeared as the two men kept walking, passing underneath the large stone archway that led to the old carriage house where Baz had parked the MG.

“My boyfriend broke up with me because I was too focused on work and school and following my plans,” Baz said. He didn’t know when he had decided to speak; the words seemed to have made their way out on their own. “Apparently I am emotionally removed.”

Baz glanced sideways at Snow, desperately trying not to care how he was going to react to this. He hadn’t told Snow before now that he was gay, but he couldn’t imagine he would be surprised. And Baz hadn’t once referenced Niall, or the way their relationship had crumbled into cold, tense silences.

He didn’t want to think of the boxes of his belongings still sitting in the office of Niall’s flat — their flat. He hadn’t boxed them. Niall had, and had texted him to let him know they could be picked up, but Baz had never answered. He’d been extremely silent through the entire breakup, all things considered.

Niall had said he didn’t feel loved and couldn’t live like that, and Baz had taken him at his word and left. The only thing he’d really taken was the dog.

“You’re not emotionally removed,” Snow said after what felt like a year-long silence. They had reached the barn, finally, and Baz led them through the maze-like interior of the formerly grand stable block. “You’re just hard to read.”

Baz’s heart thudded violently against his ribcage, the organ stuttering back to life. He wondered if he had felt more emotion from that one small comment than he had during his entire relationship with Niall.

The conversation ceased when they entered the large tack room that Baz was hoping to store things in. There hadn’t been horses in the stable since before he was born, but the rooms were in decent enough order, all things considered. The tack was put away in neat pine chests and the room smelled of leather and brass polish and dirt.

Baz gave the instructions to move everything to the far side of the room and stack it, and the two men seperated, each taking a corner and moving in. They worked in a steady silence, occasionally interrupting the flow to point out something of interest.

“I found something for you,” Baz said, unable to keep the laughter from his voice. He was looking at a wall full of intricate, round horse brasses, and set in the middle of two was a tarnished stall plaque. “Come here.”

Snow obliged, trotting over as obedient as Dev, and Baz removed the brass from its hook and placed it in Snow’s outstretched hands.

In neat letters, stamped into the brass was the word “SNOW.”

Snow stared at the brass in his hand for a moment, then looked back up. His brows were flattened.

“You’re fucking hysterical,” he muttered. Baz’s laughter broke as Snow turned around and clomped back over to his corner, but he didn’t miss the movement of Snow’s hand as he slipped the brass into his pocket.

“Now that I think of it, you do rather resemble a draft horse,” Baz said, stacking the tack boxes on top of each other. “You’re large enough, Christ knows.”

“Baz.”

“You stomp like a Clydesdale,” Baz added, pulling his head away from the tack to sneeze. “You’ve got the hair to match as well.”

“Baz.”

“If I put you in a harness, will you pull me into the village? I’m rather in the mood for a pint of bitter.”

“Baz, seriously, shut the fuck up and get over here.”

Baz straightened up and turned, intrigued by the tight, serious tone of Snow’s voice.

Snow was standing in his corner, his eyes riveted to an old leather bound ledger. He was flipping through the pages so quickly Baz thought his fingers would shred the paper.

“Don’t destroy my things, they’re worth more than you,” Baz snapped, even as his long legs carried him across the room.

“I found them,” Snow said, his voice echoing through the room. Baz’s heart thudded for the second time that day. Snow found his family? (In a tack room?)

“Look,” Snow said, shoving the book at Baz. “Remember the love letters we found? From Henry to William S.?” Snow poked at the page. “I think Henry worked here. Look at the handwriting.”

Baz squinted down at the page. It looked to be a ledger of notes on horse breeding, and while the handwriting did look familiar, he wasn’t exactly sure how Snow had made this mental leap.

“That could be anyone’s handwriting,” Baz said.

“No, it’s his! I recognise it from all the letters, trust me,” Snow argued. Baz wanted to ask him how many times he’d had to read those love letters in order to recognise the handwriting, but he suspected that this was not the time.

“Riveting, Snow,” Baz said, starting to look away, but Snow grabbed his wrist and poked at the page again.

“No! Look!” He picked up the book and cleared his throat. “ April 10, 1931: In receipt today of stud from William S. Four year-old Shire, 17 hands. Mr. P and Mr. S have agreed to sell any female offspring; if male offspring, to keep and train. Mr. S has requested male to be named after him. — H.”

Baz stared at Snow.

“So William had a stud horse and Henry was a groom?” Baz laughed. “Christ, it’s like a period drama. Love and Horse Studding . You could write a gay smut based on it, I know how you love those.”

But Snow wasn’t laughing. He was flipping pages, until he came to the one he was searching for.

March 21, 1932: Delivered today of male foal from Mr. S’s Shire. Black of colour, white star on forehead. Per instructions, foal has been named Snow. — H.”

Snow’s eyes raised from the page and met Baz’s own.

“The horse was named after Mr. S,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.

The tack room was silent as Baz’s mind raced through the possibilities.

“Mr. S could be Mr. Snow,” Snow whispered. Baz was already there, his mind skating ahead.

“The gay smut could belong to your great-grandfather,” Baz said. He immediately regretted it. This was a huge breakthrough, a giant moment in their search, and his mind went to gay smut?

But Snow was grinning, his face lit up with pure incandescent delight, and he nodded vigorously. He was nearly vibrating with excitement and determination.

“The gay smut could be a family document,” he agreed, and a loud bark of laughter ripped from Baz.

“Move over, Snow,” Baz said, reaching for the ledger. “We’ve got a room full of ledgers to go through. Mr. S’s name and address has to be around here somewhere.”

 

{+}

 

“You’re early,” Fiona said, blinking as Simon let himself in through the kitchen door. It was pointless to knock at the main door; all it did was make Dev bark like mad and piss off whoever was around. Fiona looked like she had just gotten in herself, and was unpacking a large cloth Watford Co-op bag.

“Couldn’t sleep,” Simon grunted, hefting his pack further up on his shoulder. “Where’s Baz?”

“Lurking in the library, most likely. Or maybe dining room. He found a nest in the china cabinet last night, and he’s gone a bit feral.”

“A nest of what?” Simon asked, frowning. Fiona shrugged.

“No fucking clue. He had keeping gloves on last night, though, so riddle that one out.”

Simon’s paced picked up.

Baz was in the dining room, as Fiona had predicted, but he wasn’t waging war. He was instead sat at the long chestnut table, writing in his book.

“There you are,” he said, not looking up as Simon entered. His tone made it sound like he’d been waiting, even though Simon was several hours earlier than usual. “I went through the financial records from 1931-1933, but I couldn’t find any kind of studding transaction.”

“Oh,” Simon said, taking a seat at Baz’s side. He glanced at the tiny notebook, but Baz’s handwriting was so small and neat that he couldn’t make it out. “Right.”

They’d spent the previous day scouring all the ledgers in the tack room and the rest of the stable, but hadn’t been able to find any mention of Mr. S’s full name or address. He was mentioned several more times — apparently he had studded several Pitch mares, and had brought several draft horses over to be trained by “H.”

Simon was positive that they were the same Henry and William S. mentioned in the letters that he had found. He’d read those letters dozens of times and he knew the handwriting. He didn’t tell Baz that, though; Baz would just make more gay smut jokes, and he didn’t want to admit that a lot of them weren’t actually steamy. A lot of them were just… sweet. Normal letters between two men who clearly loved each other.

All of the letters were from Henry to William, though, and not vice versa, so there were no clues or hints from within the letters as to who William may have been or where he had lived. But his family had definitely stored documents in the Pitch cellar, and he’d been to the house numerous times, so surely, surely there had to be a record of him somewhere, right?

It felt like grasping at mist, but it was the only solid lead he had. The documents in the cellar hadn’t turned up any mention of a Snow family, and he’d done his best to track down a teenaged girl named Lucy, but no one knew anything.

Baz put his pen down and pushed back from the table with a quick movement, and crossed to the far side of the dining room to stoke the fire. He’d left his notebook open and Simon peered at it, trying to be inconspicuous.

 

 

  • William S.; horse owner — land owner? Local farm? — check horse farms
  • Henry; groom — worth checking employee records?
  • 1931
  • William S = William Snow?
  • Watford Wool blanket
  • “Lucy” — teen, est: 1990s?
  • London

 

 

Simon looked away from the notebook quickly, trying to slow his pulse. Baz had been making notes about his search. His family mystery had made it into Baz’s notebook. He carried that thing with him everywhere, always making notations about the house and his plans and his projects, and now Simon was one of those projects; now Simon was something Baz was planning for.

“The biddies,” Simon said, looking back up at Baz. “Today is Tuesday, right? We should go into the village and talk to the biddies.”

“The bridge ladies? I doubt they would know my family’s studding history,” Baz said, frowning. “It would be a waste of our time.”

Simon didn’t miss the way that Baz used “our.”

“Probably not. But some of those women are pretty old, and Watford is small. They may not know who had stud horses, but I bet they would know about a secret gay tryst involving a Pitch groom and a local farmer.”

Baz stared at him for a long moment, and Simon felt his face warm under the weight of the attention. Finally, Baz’s lips slowly parted into a smile. It was an odd, unexpected thing, showing off his white, pointed canines, and even though there was something dangerous about the sharp lines, Simon loved it.

“Snow, I think you may have had your first good idea.”

It was too early for the bridge group to be meeting — too early for the Watford Arms to even be open — and so the two men fell into their regular routine. They pulled back all the furniture in the dining room and rolled up the rug to take it outside for cleaning, piled the silver on the dining room table for Simon to polish while Baz wiped down the cabinets and mantels. They found another mouse nest in the curtains and spent a solid hour hunting down rodents and carrying them outside to the edge of the garden, stopping only for a mid-morning tea break with Fiona and Dev.

And then they were back to work, checking off items on Baz’s list one by one, until they were able to start on the large parlour, and the afternoon was almost upon them.

They took the Land Rover into the village because Fiona insisted it was going to rain; and anyway, it was too cold for the walk. The leaves had turned brown and the underbrush was red and everything snapped and cracked under their feet from the previous evening’s frost.

The Land Rover’s heating had long ago given out, and so the two were freezing, even despite the plaid horse blankets piled up on the seats, which smelt of dog and dirt and hay. When they finally made it to the Watford Arms, they were dusty, tired, and extremely cold.

The bridge biddies were at their large table near the fire, pretending not to watch them.

“Alright?” Simon said cheerily, making his way to the women, Baz in tow. He pulled out a chair next to the blue-haired Doreen, and Baz went to the bar for pints.

“Mr. Snow! We thought you’d forgotten about us,” Doreen said, placing a hand on his arm. “You’ve been busy, I see.”

“Yeah, I have been,” Simon said, inching his chair away from Doreen a bit, and toward Cora. “I’ve been going through those documents at Pitch Manor, like you suggested? We think we’ve actually got a lead.”

“The Pitch boy’s been helping you then?” asked the small, white haired lady who Simon thought was named Mary. “And you’ve been in the house? What’s it like?”

“Uh,” Simon said, glancing at where Baz was leaning against the bar, watching him. There was an amused smile playing at the corner of Baz’s mouth, and his brown skin looked darker and warmer in the dim light of the pub. “It’s great, really. Gorgeous. Huge.”

“What’s the Pitch boy like?” Cora asked in her high, reedy voice. “I’ve heard he’s wildly unpleasant.”

“You heard that from Mr. Davies, who was angry because the boy splashed him with his car once,” Katherine said from the other side of the table. “He’s perfectly pleasant. My niece thinks the moon of him.”

Simon grinned. Fiona would be livid if she knew her aunt were telling people she liked Baz. Just that morning she’d spent the entire tea break calling him a wastrel, layabout aristocrat, and that she couldn’t wait for him to go back to London so she could go back to not having to come to work every day.

“Baz is brilliant,” Simon said, trying not to look at the man in question. “Yeah, he’s great. Sort of scary, but like, nice.”

“Well that’s certainly a ringing endorsement,” Doreen cackled, just as Baz appeared at the table with two pints in hand.

“Katherine,” he said, nodding to the older woman and putting one of the pints in front of Simon, before taking his seat in a chair across the table. Simon nodded his thanks and took a long pull of his ale.

“Basilton,” Katherine responded, looking smug. “How are you doing today?”

“Quite well, thank you,” he replied, his voice formal and polite. Simon marvelled at it; he’d never heard Baz speak so nicely to someone. He was always sharp and awkward and scathing to Simon, and good-naturedly annoyed with Fiona. He realised he’d never seen how Baz presented himself to the world outside of Pitch Manor.

“Our Simon here was saying you’ve a lead on his family mystery?” Mary said, far more awake and alert than the last time he’d met her.

“We were hoping you could help us, actually,” Simon said, nodding. He glanced at Baz, who was leaning back in his chair, his legs crossed, a lazy grip on his pint. He looked completely at ease, as if this were a casual Tuesday afternoon wherein he and Simon were going about their usual routine.

Simon supposed he wouldn’t mind if it were, actually, and this realisation needled at him like a rock in his shoe.

“We’ve uncovered a forbidden affair from 1931,” Baz said, pausing to take another sip. He was enjoying the suspense of the moment, Simon could tell. “Between a groom at Pitch Manor and a local farmer.”

The biddies leaned in.

“We know the groom was named Henry, and the farmer was named William S. We think the S stands for Snow,” Simon said, jumping to fill in. “We found some of their letters in the cellar, and some notes in a ledger at the Manor about Mr. S loaning the Pitches a stud horse. A Shire?”

The women all looked at each other.

“1931, you said?” Cora asked, tapping her chin. Simon nodded.

“Yeah, around then. It’s not a lot, but do any of you know about someone who trained draft horses? Or know the Henry? Or Mr. S?” He tried to slow his voice down, to contain his eagerness. “I know you said you didn’t know any families named Snow, but…” he shrugged. “Maybe you heard anything about the relationship?”

The women frowned down at the table, clearly thinking, and Simon felt his enthusiasm wane. He knew it had been a long shot.

“Weren’t there rumours about the Salisbury boy?” Mary asked, looking up over her club soda. “I seem to recall he went by Snowy or something?”

Simon’s heart slammed against his ribs.

“Oh!” Doreen said, nodding. “Ruthie’s uncle! Oh, you’re right, there were all those rumours about him. I think there was something about a groom, wasn’t there?”

“I don’t know about the groom, but he did train draft horses,” Cora interjected. “My father bought one of his Shires. Beautiful horse. My sister and I used to ride him, you know. He had the smoothest gait of any horse I’ve ever known. You could get on his back and—”

“Was his name William? Where did the Snowy come from?” Simon asked, cutting Cora off.

“Bill,” Mary said. “Bill Salisbury, but I think the family did call him Snowy.”

“It was Snow,” Doreen said, in a tone of absolute certainty. “Ruthie called him Uncle Snow, she used to talk about him all the time. It was a nickname, though. He got it in the Great War.”

“How’d he get the nickname?” Baz asked, breaking his silence.

“Oh, I’ve no idea. How did any of those boys get their silly names?” Doreen said, waving her hand. “It might have been his hair, though. I saw a picture of him — Ruthie’s house was full of them — the man had hair so blond it was almost white.”

“Do his children still live in the area?” Simon asked, breathless. “Would — would this Ruthie woman know where they went?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, duck,” Doreen said, her face falling. “Bill never married.”

“He died quite young, didn’t he?” Mary asked. “Typhoid, in — what was it, ‘39? ‘40?”

“It was ‘41,” Cora said. “My aunt’s boy went the same year.”

Simon sat back in his chair and stared down at his hands. So the man’s surname hadn’t been Snow, and he had no living children. He was definitely the man from the letters, but… it was all a coincidence. A false start. A dead end.

“What about the groom?” Baz asked. His voice was gently curious, and Simon looked up. Baz was looking back at him, a concerned express just barely visible beneath the marble mask, and Simon knew that it was less curiosity and more an attempt at distraction that had him asking the question.

“Hard to say,” Mary says, shaking her head. “I don’t remember anyone being named in the rumours. I’m sure if my mother were around she could tell you.” The other women laughed, but Simon and Baz didn’t. “The Manor lost so many of its employees during the Second War — all of them went off, and very few came back to settle in the village. No real way of knowing, I suppose.”

“I might have a picture of him somewhere,” Katherine said, suddenly. “You know my aunt was the housekeeper during that time, she might have tucked a staff photo away,” Her face softened, but she wasn’t looking at Simon — she was looking at Baz. “I could look for it for you.”

“That would be kind of you, thank you,” Baz said, meeting her eyes.

“Oh, it’s such a sad story, but rather romantic, don’t you think?” Cora said with a sigh. “It’s too bad it’s not a lead in your family, love,” she said, nodding to Simon, “but I do love a romance. You said you had the letters?”

“Yeah,” Simon said, clearing his throat. “Just the ones from Henry — the groom. They’re quite nice.”

Baz snorted into his pint, and Simon tried not to blush.

“I mean, they’re interesting. It’s neat to read primary historical documents, you know?” he said with a small grin, earning a glare from Baz. “I dunno how long they were together, but they seemed to really love each other, even if they couldn’t, you know, be together.”

“It was a hard time for this area,” Doreen said, her voice sad. “For everyone, really. Those boys went through a war and then had to come home and just pick up their lives where they left off.... And some of them lived to see another, bless them. My father served in both, and it took its toll on him, God rest his soul.” She shook her head. “I don’t set stock in what others might think of it all. I’m glad the Salisbury boy was able to find happiness, even if it was temporary.”

“Oh, you make it sound like we’re all scandalised and ready to curse his name!” Cora exclaimed. “Come on, Doreen, don’t put yourself up.” She sniffed and nodded authoritatively at Baz, whose eyes locked on to Simon’s as a small smile tugged at his lips. “I used to take tea with the Petty girl, Ebb. She’s quite strong, you know. Sometimes carries my shopping. Lovely, for a lesbian.”

“Cora!” Kathleen snapped, her mouth dropping open, while Simon snorted into his ale.

“I’m just saying, she’s quite handy,” Cora said defensively. Leaning over to Simon, she patted his hand conspiratorially. “We’re a small community, Mr. Snow, but we take all types here.”

“Noted,” Simon said, trying to look serious. It was extremely difficult though; especially with Baz sitting across from him, sprawled inelegantly in his chair, a smile caught on his lips, his eyes fixed heavily on Simon’s face.

Baz maintained eye contact and took a long, lingering sip of his ale, and then slowly looked away.

 

{+}

 

They drove back to Pitch Manor in comfortable silence. Baz realised, belatedly, that he could have offered to drop Snow at Ebb’s Guest House after they left the pub, but instead he had just headed directly to the Land Rover, and Snow had tagged along.

It was dusk when they pulled up the long, wooded drive and came to a stop outside of the Manor, and Baz cut the engine and looked up at the house. The lights were on in most rooms on the bottom level, and in Baz’s bedroom upstairs. Several thin lines of smoke curled up out of the chimneys, stark against the blue light of the darkening sky.

For the first time since getting to Hampshire, Baz sat in his vehicle and looked up at his house and felt like he was coming home.

Dev greeted them at the kitchen door with a howl and shot out past them into the dusk, his paws skittering on the gravel. The kitchen was warm and bright and smelled like food, and Baz could have melted into it.

“Fiona?” he called, dropping his keys and taking off his jacket. “You around?”

“I think she left,” Snow said, picking up a scrap of paper off the old table. “She left a note. Oh, brilliant, she says there’s stew on the stove.”

Snow dropped the note and beelined for the Aga, pulling the lid off the large pot and sticking his entire face in it. The smell of the tender beef and stewing vegetables filled the kitchen, and Baz’s stomach lurched.

“Looks like there’s bread over there,” Snow said, moving to the old breakfront to pull down two white stoneware bowls. “Slice some, yeah?”

“By all means, Snow, help yourself to my dinner,” Baz said dryly as he located the bread in question and sliced it.

“Do you have any butter?” Snow asked, turning from the stove with two heaping bowls of stew. Baz grabbed the butter dish from its place in the pantry and then watched in horror as Snow spread layer after layer after layer on his piece of brown bread.

“I think I’m going to be ill,” Baz said, his face scrunched up in disgust.

“What?” Snow asked, dunking the bread in the stew.

“That’s half a stick of butter.”

Snow just shrugged.

“I like butter. Get off, yeah?”

“Revolting.”

Snow ate too quickly and too energetically to speak much during meals, so Baz focused on his notebook — first checking over his plans and lists for the house, then amending his notes on Snow’s parentage. The sky outside grew fully dark and Snow silently ate two more helpings of stew as Baz grew warm and sated and comfortable in the cosy confines of his basement kitchen.

Most nights he ate by himself in whatever room he was working in at the time — or, more recently, in the library next to the fire while reading — and so it felt unusual to have someone with him. Even someone quiet.

The quiet, comfortable companionship of it all gnawed at Baz, and when Snow had finally finished eating, Baz pushed back from the table briskly.

“I think I saw some whisky in the large parlour,” he said, and then left the room, expecting Snow to follow. He wasn’t disappointed; a moment later Baz heard Snow’s heavy footsteps coming down the hall, accompanied by the gentle clicking of Dev’s paws.

The large parlour was the setting for the majority of Baz’s childhood memories, second only to the kitchen. It was a room that had been set up for a family; the sofas were plush and only a little antique, the rugs heavy and warm, and the half-height walnut panelling bright and smooth.

He used to sit in there while his parents would have after dinner drinks and listen to music. His father would read by the fire while his mother worked on her book, and Baz would sit on the window seat and stare out the window. He could see all the way down the hill, past the tops of the village buildings to where the edge of the New Forest surrounded Watford and all of the Manor lands.

It was cluttered and comfortable, which made it as different from his London flat as could be, and Baz loved it.

The whisky was where he expected it to be, in the drinks cabinet to the left of the largest window, just under the comically large painting of a red thoroughbred. He poured himself a glass and then held up the bottle to Snow, who nodded.

Dev threw himself with a heavy huff next to the fireplace, and Snow went about building the fire. He bent over to stack the wood, his shoulders tensing as he stoked the starter, and soon the fire was crackling cheerily, small tendrils of warmth snaking out to fight off the pervasive cold of the house.

Baz sat on the floor in front of the shelf he’d been organising before they’d left earlier that day and Snow sat down on the floor next to him.

“I don’t know what to do with all these vinyls,” Baz said, squinting at the stacks in front of him. “It seems a shame to get rid of them, but I don’t have a record player, and they’re going to waste here.”

“Yeah you do,” Snow said, pointing to a nearby table. “There’s one right there.”

“I meant back in London,” Baz explained, continuing to flick through the albums. “Niall had one, but it was his. He played terrible music on it.” He raised an eyebrow at the album in his hand; a garish, technicoloured thing that looked like it had been purchased in the ‘60s. “I’ll probably just sell these.”

“You can’t!” Snow said, reaching out and grabbing the stack. “You can’t get rid of these. Some of these are great albums.” He dug one out and held it up with a bright smile. “Come on, this is a brilliant album.”

He clambered to his feet and beelined to the massive old record player, and set up the album with practised ease. Baz watched him count the rings on the album and carefully set the needle on a song in the middle of the vinyl. The distantly-familiar sound of crackling static filled the room, and then the first few notes of Solomon Burke’s If You Need Me .

Snow turned away from the record player and spread his hands out, an accomplished grin on his face. He looked a bit like Dev when he had rolled in a particularly foul mud puddle and was proud of his work.

“Great, yeah?”

Baz scoffed and knocked back his drink.

“I never pinned you as a music fan,” he said. “Or I assumed you listened to something horrifying. Like Radio 1.”

“I’m not, not really,” Snow said with a shrug, sitting down again. “I mean, I love music, but I don’t know it very well. My best friend Pen though, she loves this album. Her boyfriend is American and he’s nuts for this stuff. The two of them would move back the furniture in old flat and put on this record and dance to it. Sometimes they’d drag me in.” He smiled and brushed his curly fringe out of his eyes. “They really can’t dance.”

“You sound close.”

Snow grinned.

“We are, yeah. Pen is… my family. She’s my whole family, pretty much.” Snow shrugged and picked at the carpet.

Baz watched him through hooded eyes.

“My mum used to listen to this album. She and I used to dance to Cry To Me , right over there,” Baz said, pointing to the free area behind the sofa. He hadn’t thought about that in ages. He hadn’t even thought of this song. And especially not her large brown hands in his, taking them through the motions. He used to love her hands. They looked just like his. His father’s never did.

“Are you two close?” Snow asked, breaking through his thoughts. “You don’t talk about her much.”

“We were,” Baz said, clearing his throat. “She died when I was five.”

“Oh,” Snow said, his smile slipping. “I’m sorry. Shit, this album probably was the worst possible thing to pick, wasn’t it?”

“No, it’s fine,” Baz said. And he meant it. “It’s nice. It’s a good memory.” He let out a breath and took another sip of his whisky. “Most of this house is a good memory, actually. It’s not painful.”

Snow’s eyes lingered on him, and then the smile returned. It was a mischievous thing; a smile that Baz hadn’t seen on Snow’s face before, but thought should never leave.

“Wanna dance?”

“What?” Baz asked, nearly choking on his drink. Snow stood up and extended a rough, freckled hand.

“Wanna dance? For, you know, the memories.”

“Do you know how?” Baz asked, his heart thudding quickly. Snow shrugged and pulled his hand back, reaching up to run it through his hair in a nervous motion.

“No,” Snow admitted. “But I bet you didn’t know how when you were five either.”

“I’m fairly sure I was more graceful at five than you’ve ever been,” Baz retorted. He shook his head. “No, Snow. Thank you, but I’ll keep my feet intact.”

Snow’s freckled face blushed a bright pink and Baz wanted to throw himself in the fire.

He did want to dance. He wanted to dance terribly.

That was the problem.

He was two months out of a break up, caught in the midst of a quarter-life crisis, and lonely. Snow had burst into his life and his home and taken over, and he’d brought warmth and noise and companionship. Of course Baz wanted to fucking dance with him.

But to Snow, it was just a dance. Just like twirling with his best friend in their flat.

Baz feared that if he let them dance, it might end up meaning more. To him, at least.

Shaking off the rejection, Snow grabbed another record from the floor and headed over to the record player. Baz wondered if he truly wanted to change the music, or if he was just trying to do something to beat back the awkwardness of the moment; whichever it was, Baz didn’t care. Solomon Burke cut off with a loud scratch and a moment later something old and jazzy he didn’t recognise came on.

Baz doubted Snow knew the album; he was fairly sure he had just grabbed one at random.

Baz sat back and continued to sort through the pile, separating out the records he remembered from those he had no interest in ever listening to. Snow watched him for a moment before wandering across the room to the delicate old writing table that had been cluttered with family photos for as long as Baz could remember.

Snow picked the photos up one by one and studied them, his expression unreadable.

“You know… I’m kind of jealous,” he said finally, his hand gripping an ornate silver frame just slightly too hard.

“Of my dashing good looks and intellect?” Baz quipped, pretending to be disinterested. “I’m not surprised.”

“No, I mean, of this,” Snow said, waving to the room. “Not like, the house. But like… the fact that you have it.”

“If you want to buy a house, just move to Wales, the property rates are lower,” Baz said dryly. Snow huffed — a grunting, annoyed little huff of air that made his cheeks puff out — and shook his head.

“No, I mean. You have your family, right here. You’ve got your mum’s books and your grandfather’s desk and you can pick up all these photos and see people that look like you, who you’re related to. You can look at photos and see your history and where you come from and it’s just…. I’ve never had something like that.” Snow shrugged and put the photo back down on the desk. “I dunno. It just seems nice.”

“Most of the people in those photos don’t look like me,” Baz said quietly. “Look at them closely.”

Snow squinted at Baz and back to the photos.

“I just kind of assumed one of your parents was, uh…” Snow flushed. “Something.”

Baz flashed Snow a flat look and tried to decide whether to answer.

“Egyptian,” Baz said. He stood up and moved to Snow’s side. “On my mum’s side. She’s the Pitch — I got the house from her family. Her mother was British-Egyptian, and my great-great grandmother was Egyptian.”

“Oh,” Snow said. “That’s neat. I mean… that’s what I mean. You know where you come from. You’ve got like, a culture.”

“Hardly,” Baz scoffed. “I didn’t get to grow up with any real connection to my culture.”

He might have, though. There had been the possibility for it, back before his mother had died. He had been too young when she died to remember whether she spoke a second language or had taught him any traditions. But he remembered small things. Snippets of bedtime songs and the sweet, spicy smells that would fill the kitchen. His grandmother’s voice rolling over words like kanafeh as he was handed sticky, nutty desserts.

Baz picked up an old photo of a woman with dark hair and dark eyes wearing an elegant Victorian dress. “I was raised properly English, even if I don’t look it.” Baz laughed bitterly and shook his head. “Though we’ve got a whole hall of supposedly Egyptian artefacts I can go look at any time to visit my ‘culture.’”

“I feel like I’m just saying all the wrong things. I just meant I was jealous you knew your history, but I didn’t… I mean, I didn’t realise...” Snow mumbled, his voice quiet. Baz put down the photograph and looked at him.

Snow didn’t often admit when he didn’t know what he was doing. Never, actually. Even when he fucked up and used the wrong paint or broke a bust or messed up Baz’s piles, he never apologised or let on that he was clearly clueless. He just struck forward, stupidly brave and onto the next thing.

Simon Snow didn’t tend to dwell.

Baz’s heart broke a little bit for him and the worried, guarded expression he wore while staring down at family photos that Baz had never spared a second thought for. His family was complicated, his legacy even moreso, but….

He had a legacy, at least. He had a house. He had a home.

“No, you’re not,” Baz said finally. “I’ve got the house. That’s history enough.” He cleared his throat and turned away. “Your family is out there, somewhere. Don’t worry. Your strong jaw didn’t just pop up out of nowhere.”

“Last week you told me I had a weak jaw,” Snow said, turning away from the photos as well and following Baz back to the sofas.

“No, I said you were a weak man.”

“There was something about my jaw in there.”

“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about,” Baz lied. He looked out the window, grateful for the sudden — if forced — levity, and squinted through the darkness.

“I’m not driving you back tonight,” he said, switching the subject. He could play at being local, but he wasn’t local enough to feel comfortable drink driving the village lanes at night.

“Uh,” Snow answered. “That’s fine. I can walk.”

Baz hesitated for only a moment before he shook his head.

“No, don’t. I’ve plenty of bedrooms; you can stay here for the night.”

Snow stared up at him, his blue eyes wide.

“You sure? I don’t want to, er, intrude.”

“On what?” Baz asked, lifting an eyebrow. “My thrilling social life? It’s fine.”

“Right, but, er…” Snow said, trailing off. His blue eyes moved off of Baz’s face and flicked to the floor. Like a shark sensing blood, Baz moved in.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Is your house haunted?” Snow asked, the words spilling out. “Just, people talk about mummies, and this place is fucking old, and I don’t really feel like kipping with some ghosts.”

Baz stared at him, horrified. Horrified by the question, horrified by the sincerity, horrified by the degree to which he was attracted to the man in front of him, asking about ghosts and mummies.

“There are no ghosts,” Baz said slowly. “No mummies. No vampires. The worst you’ll find here is a lack of central heating and a dog who barks at wind.”

“Does Dev sleep with you?” Snow asked, and then his face turned a lovely shade of pink. “I meant like… can he sleep with me?”

“Dev is a free beast,” Baz said, picking up his whisky glass and moving toward the door. “He goes wherever is warmest.”

Chapter Text

The room Simon had been put in felt like some kind of classic literature fantasy.

Everything was delicate. A delicate screen in front of the large paned window, an elegant four poster bed, flanked by a delicate night stand with a tiny lamp that likely was worth more than his life. A delicate armoire and a delicate vanity completed the look.

He kind of got why Jane Eyre had fallen for Mr. Rochester, if she woke up every morning in a room like this.

But the sheets and quilt that Baz had pulled out of a hallway closet and shoved on him were new and kind of plain and smelt of the Waitrose brand laundry gel. Simon waited until Baz had left him alone in the room to shove his face into the pile and inhale; it was the same brand of gel that Penny bought.

He did a shit job of making the bed. In the course of the night all the sheets came undone and so he woke up in the morning tangled in a nest of blankets and pillows and feeling a bit like a rabbit caught in a snare. But he’d slept brilliantly; not a goat nor ghost in sight. Just a Dev, who had started the night at his feet, but was now nowhere to be seen.

Simon stretched out his limbs and his hips gave several loud pops as he looked out the window. It was sunny; a bright blue sky, the tips of skeletal trees just barely visible, birds flitting by. The sky was clean and fresh and happy and, swaddled in his rodent-like nest of blankets, Simon felt the same.

He had to get up, though. He had to piss, and he could hear the gentle tapping of Dev’s nails in the hallway outside his slightly-ajar door that indicated Baz was probably up and lurking about somewhere. Fiona might even be there already with tea.

But first, the toilet.

With a groan he hauled himself out of the bed — which was probably made of swan feathers or some kind of posh nonsense, but was deadly comfortable — and pulled his jumper on over his boxers. He shuffled to the door to his room, his eyes still half lidded, his mouth caught open in a yawn, his hand scrubbing over his face, and walked directly into Baz.

Baz stopped and stared at Simon like a deer caught in the headlights. His shoulders were hunched, his hand clasping the book in his hand to his chest like Simon had startled him, or like he had forgotten that Simon was even there.

“Why are you lurking?” Simon asked through a yawn. “And where’s your toilet?”

“I’m not lurking,” Baz snapped back. His voice sounded tense, and his eyes had glanced down to Simon’s socked feet. “Toilet is the next door on the left.”

“Cheers,” Simon yawned, and headed in the direction Baz pointed.

The bathroom was even fancier than the bedroom, with a cavernous porcelain tub and huge clawed sink and black and white hexagonal tiles. The floor was freezing, even through his socks, and the hot water tap wouldn’t give hot water, and by the time he finished, the warm, floaty feeling from his bedroom had been replaced with intense cold discomfort.

Baz was back in the hallway, a different book in his hand, the surprised expression gone. He wasn’t fully dressed either; more than Simon, at least, but he was wearing a pair of grey jogging bottoms and an overly large jumper, which, compared to his normal fastidiousness, made Baz look like he was practically indecent.

“If you’re done wandering my halls naked, there’s tea in the kitchen. I’ll be in the attics.”

“Why the attics?”

“Because that’s where I’ll be,” Baz said, staring at Simon like he was an idiot. “Bring more tea, and some of the records from the parlour.”

He used his bored, clipped voice — the same aristocratic tone he adopted when talking to Fiona, and Simon bristled.

“Isn’t Fiona your step and fetch?”

“Fiona doesn’t work Wednesdays.”

“So, what, I’m your new Fiona?”

Baz looked up from the book in his hand and tilted his head at Simon. His hair was loose — curlier than it normally was, which meant this was probably its default state — and he looked… happy.

Happy maybe wasn’t the best word. He looked blank, but not his carefully constructed blank. He looked clean, rather; unencumbered by the thoughts and worries and cracks and fissures that he worked so hard to paint over.

He looked comfortable.

“You’re not mean enough to be Fiona,” Baz said finally, and then turned to enter a strange, small door Simon hadn’t seen before. “And you’re far more useful. There’s some marmalade in the pantry, bring that up and some toast, would you?”

For reasons Simon didn’t fully understand, he did as he was told.

The kitchen was warmer than the rest of the house and the winter sunshine spilled through the windows and lit up the table with a soft glow. It was, without a doubt, his favourite room in Pitch Manor, followed closely by the library.

It just felt homey.

He was loathe to leave it and traipse back up through the cold house, and almost considered settling in to eat his toast and letting Baz wait. But despite the cosiness of the room, Simon pulled himself away, several records balanced precariously under his arm and a tea tray in his hands and Dev sniffing at his heels. He went up and up and up the square spiral staircase and through the veins of the manor until he reached the attics.

The attic of Penny’s parents’ house was a small, dusty room with unfinished plaster walls stuffed with booster seats and old school books and discarded holiday decorations that made it impossible to move.

The Pitch Manor attic wasn’t like that.

The narrow staircase gave way to a huge rectangular room that seemed to run the length of half the house, with tall ceilings and exposed rafters and massive windows at either end and small windows dotted along the side. There was even a fireplace, which Baz already had going, and generations-worth of belongings and furniture covered in large sheets lined the room.

“Your attic is six times the size of my old flat,” Simon muttered, picking his way over to where Baz was seated, surrounded by dusty trunks. He put down the tea tray on the nearest one and collapsed to the ground. “Please don’t tell me you want to organise this entire fucking room.”

“I’m looking for more information about our horse studding,” Baz said, reaching out to snag a piece of toast. He held it between his lips absentmindedly and went back to flipping through the papers in his hands.

“Why?” Simon asked, pouring himself tea. “We hit a dead end. His name wasn’t Snow.”

“I’m aware,” Baz said, taking the toast out of his mouth to stare at Simon. “But it’s interesting. And I don’t want to clean today, and it’s blisteringly cold out, and I want to track down some gays.” He took a bite of the toast and chewed, and then reached for the marmalade. “You’re welcome to go sit in the cold cellar and keep tracking your family, or you can stay. There’s a record player over there somewhere.”

Simon wasn’t sure what to do with this Baz. Shirking work and eating toast and looking happy and content — this Baz seemed more unpredictable and volatile than the normal cold, snarky, condescending version. It made him slightly uneasy, unsure if this was a trap or a lure. But a trap for what?

He should keep searching through records. He should keep searching through records and exhaust every possible lead in Watford before going back to London to recheck birth records and hospital data and knocking on the door of the convent he was left at and starting his hunt all over. That was the plan.

But he didn’t really want to do it.

The record player was dusty and tinny-sounding, but it filled the room well enough. The fireplace was warm, and the marmalade was delicious, and in what felt like the blink of an eye, the morning was lost to tea and soft conversation and searching through the strange remains of the attic.

Simon wandered all over the room, pulling things out of trunks and exclaiming over odd finds, occasionally returning to show Baz, who was so thoroughly engrossed in a diary from the 1800s that he was deaf to everything Simon said and did. He only looked up when Simon — having set up a game of croquet for himself — misjudged the strength of his hit and sent a ball careening into Baz’s tea, spilling it all over the floor and Baz’s socks.

Baz looked up slowly, his eyes full of fire, his nostrils flaring.

“You spilt my tea,” Baz said quietly.

“Oh fuck,” Simon whispered, and then promptly hid.

He took refuge behind an old sofa, near a stuffed boar’s head and a mounted set of swords. Promptly forgetting about the danger prowling on the other side of the room, he picked up the swords. He tried to unsheath one, but it stuck, rasping loudly against its fittings.

“If you’re breaking something else, stop,” Baz called, his words floating over with the last notes of the album they had playing.

Simon gave the sword another sharp tug, and the hilt snapped off in his palm.

“Nope,” he said, shoving the broken hilt in the open jaws of the boar and standing up. “What’s over there?”

Baz — who Simon had imagined to be stalking around, waiting to strike — was standing nearby, flipping through a yellowing almanac. He looked up to where Simon was pointing.

“My grandmother’s clothes, I believe. She had an absurd amount.”

Simon, eager to get away from the scene of his crime, made a beeline for the armoire and pried it open. There were rows and rows of lush fur coats, boxes of hats stacked in neat piles, and shawls and dresses wrapped in soft white tissue. The armoire smelled of pine and lavender satchels and dust, and Simon sneezed three times in a row.

“Oh, I wondered where those were,” Baz mumbled, bending over to pick up a small wooden box off the floor of the armoire. He collapsed into a nearby green velvet chair that sent up a belch of dust, and began poking through the contents of the box. It looked to be full of old black and white photos.

Simon pulled a tasselled shawl off its hook and wrapped it around himself, adding a bright pink pillbox hat for good measure.

“Look, it’s Tyrannus Basilton the first,” Baz said, holding up a small photo of a sour-faced man staring out. He looked as unpleasant as his name.

“There’s been more than one Tyrannus Basilton?” Simon asked as he put on a pair of cat-eye reading glasses. Baz did not comment on his accessorising.

“Three to date,” Baz said, putting the photo back and continuing to poke through the box. “That one was a great-great-grandfather, then the second was my great-uncle, and I’m the third.”

Simon paused in the middle of looping a gold chain around his neck.

“Your name is Tyrannus?”

“Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch III,” Baz answered in a bored tone, his focus fully on the box of photos. He tucked his long legs up into the chair and curled them around the wooden box. “You can see why I go by Baz.”

“That’s a hideous name,” Simon said, shaking his head and tying a lavender silk scarf into a cravat around his neck. “Sorry, just. Yeah, truly hideous.”

“And ‘Simon’ is a shining example of taste,” Baz sneered. “Oh, here’s auntie Gertrude. She was a spinster. Everyone said she was far too ugly to marry.”

Auntie Gertrude looked extremely normal, in Simon’s opinion, but he kept the comment to himself, and instead carefully removed a delicate white veil from the large box on the bottom of the armoire. He gently shook it out, minding the soft tulle and trying not to crush the white silk flowers under his fingers, and turned to Baz.

“Don’t,” Baz said before Simon was able to place it delicately on top of his head. He looked up at Simon slowly, his face blank but his hooded grey eyes amused under long, delicate eyelashes. “Put my grandmother’s veil back.”

Simon, switching plans, placed it on top of the pink hat already on his head and blinked out at Baz from underneath the tulle.

“Oh that’s where the Christmas decorations are,” Baz said, his eyes trained behind Simon. He unfolded himself from the chair and sauntered over to a collection of plastic bins and boxes that looked far newer than most things in the attic. “Today’s December fifth, isn’t it?”

Simon shrugged.

“I dunno. Is it?”

He didn’t know what the date was, but it didn’t seem possible that a month had passed since he’d come to Watford. There was no way. He’d only been there a handful of days, hadn’t he?

“Help me carry these down,” Baz commanded, shoving a large box at Simon and taking a lighter one for himself.

“Wait, what? Now?” Simon asked trying to free himself of the bridal veil.

“No, next February,” Baz said, already halfway across the room and heading to the stairway. “Yes now, you lump, hurry up.”

Simon nearly tripped as he tried to untangle himself from the mess of clothing and jewellry, cursing when he tugged too hard at the pillbox hat and tore a bit of the feather.

“Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch is a fucking dick,” he told a taxidermied deer as he struggled to pick up a large box of Christmas lights, the gold chain still looped tightly around his neck. “He’s an absolute prick and I’ve no idea why I’m friends with him.”

“Stop talking to yourself and be useful,” called Baz’s voice, floating up from the stairwell, and Simon cursed again.

 

{+}

 

“We should decorate the house for Christmas,” Snow said, jostling from side to side as Baz navigated the Land Rover over the rough, muddy trail.

“What do you think I’m doing?” Baz snapped back, swerving to avoid a tree trunk. Dev lost his balance in the back seat and Snow’s head hit the window with a sharp thud. Baz spared a moment to feel bad, before turning his attention back to the road.

“I mean, more than just a tree in the parlour, yeah? The house looks great, we’ve got it in good condition aside from a few rooms. We should like, do it up, you know? Let people come see.”

“Why would I do that?” Baz asked. “And what is this we nonsense? I’ve done it all, you’ve just followed along and chattered at me.”

“Yeah, okay, sure,” Snow said, rolling his eyes and letting out an exasperated huff. “You tell yourself that.” He stared out the window a moment more, and then put his hand on the dash to steady himself as the Land Rover veered into a small ditch. “Just, people are curious about the house. It’d be nice.”

Baz didn’t know if he wanted people around the house. He had enough people in and out as it was, between Snow and Fiona, and he was satisfied with that.

Snow had stayed almost the entire day previously, going through Christmas decorations, throwing out broken bulbs, testing out lights and making a general mess of the large parlour. Baz had contemplated offering to let him stay another night, but he didn’t. It seemed too eager, too… something.

So instead he had driven Snow into the village and pretended that he didn’t want Snow to stay and eat him out of house and home. Oddly unwilling to part, Baz had suggested they stop to get food at the Watford Arms, and found themselves joined by Ebb, who was there to watch the rugby match, and Cora, whose husband owned the Arms. They’d sat on opposites sides of the booth and Baz had watched Snow snort with laughter and wrap his large hands around pints of amber ale the same colour of his hair, and Baz had caught himself smiling.

Baz had walked him back to Ebb’s, shoulder to shoulder, like some kind of odd date. When they reached the front of the guest house, they had stopped in awkward silence. If it had been a date — which it wasn’t — that was the point where Baz would have kissed Snow. But it wasn’t a date.

Baz had to remember that, even if it was difficult.

The trouble, Baz was realising, was that he wanted to kiss Simon Snow. He wanted to kiss Simon Snow very badly.

But Simon Snow was straight — as far as Baz knew. Straight, and passing through, and heading back to London.

Baz was not a casual or fleeting or transitory person. Like Pitch Manor, his foundations were heavy, immoveable, unchanging.

So instead of kissing Simon Snow outside of Ebb’s Guest House as the early December wind picked at their hair, instead of wrapping his arms around the warmth of the man and crowding him against the Tudor building and sighing into him, instead of letting down his defences and tucking away his overactive thoughts and giving in to an act of happiness, he had put his hands in his coat pocket and said they should get a Christmas tree.

“Why do we have to go down the world’s worst fucking road?” Snow asked as the car jolted again. It gave a loud clanging moan, and Baz shifted gears quickly.

“Would you rather walk the tree back?”

“I don’t know why we didn’t just go into town and buy one.”

“Because I have trees, Snow. Free trees. There’s no reason to go buy one. This is easier.”

“It would have been easier,” Snow glowered, “if you knew how to work a chainsaw or had let me do it.”

Baz refused to comment on this. The tree had come down, in the end. The way that it had come down did not need to be discussed.

“And anyway, the damn thing is going to be destroyed by the time we get back to the house. I’m about to bash my brains out with my knees,” Snow whined as they went around another large rock and the engine groaned again. Baz viciously shifted, but the noise wouldn’t stop.

“Seriously, when was the last time this thing had maintenance?” Snow shouted over the noise.

“I’ll hazard a guess that Tyrannus Basilton the second was still alive,” Baz shouted back.

“Jesus and mother,” Snow cursed darkly, wincing as his head hit the windscreen again. From the back seat, Dev began barking, and the Land Rover began to shudder uncontrollably until, suddenly, its engine gave a loud clunk and the vehicle stopped.

“Well, fuck,” Baz said.

Snow looked like he was going to murder him.

“In my defence,” Baz said slowly. “This car hates me.”

“Oh my God,” Snow said, throwing open his door with a huff and jumping out. His borrowed wellies sunk down into the mud and Dev raced out after him, apparently eager to be free of the death trap.

“It’s been on death’s door for a bit,” Baz argued, getting out as well and coming around to where Snow was running his hands along the grill, trying to unlatch the bonnet. “It’s not my fault the damned thing can’t do its damn job.”

“It is your fault if you keep driving it without changing the oil,” Snow glowered. He’d managed to pop the latch, and now the internal workings of the Land Rover were on display. “Have you got a kit? Any tools?”

“Why would I have a kit?” Baz snapped back, pulling his wax jacket closer around himself.

“You’ve got two bloody cars, I assumed you’d have a kit,” Snow growled, leaning over with a grunt to shove his entire hand into the innards of the engine block.

“I take my car to a garage and have someone else deal with it.”

Snow snorted and pulled something cylindrical out, stared at it, and then put it back.

“Why haven’t you taken this one in then?”

“Because there doesn’t seem to be a bloody mechanic in the entire New Forest area,” Baz said, his eyes caught on Snow’s oil slicked hands. “Everyone around here just seems to do shit for themselves, it’s mad.”

“Some country gentleman you are,” Snow responded, his upper body now fully horizontal over the car as he twisted and poked and checked at things that Baz had no concept or understanding of. When he straightened up, his hands were black, his cheek was dirty, and his hair had been thoroughly dishevelled.

To Baz’s eternal horror, it was a good look on him.

“Good news is I can fix it,” Snow said, wiping his greasy hands on his t-shirt. “Bad news is we’ll have to walk back to the house first.”

“That’s fine, it’s not that far,” Baz said, not letting on the immense relief that was filling him. He didn’t want to have to track down a mechanic. He didn’t want to have to pay a mechanic.

Snow slammed the bonnet shut again and patted it twice, then shoved his dirty hands in his jacket pocket.

“Tomorrow I’m going to pull that whole thing apart and give it a check,” he said, kicking a stick out of his path as they began to walk back down the muddy trail. “It’s in an awful state. I can’t believe you let it get like that.”

“Why would I let you pull my car apart? You’re not a professional,” Baz said, his indignation piqued. He didn’t like it when people found gaps in his knowledge and abilities — and car maintenance was a rather large gap.

“Baz,” Snow said, his voice dry. “Mate.” He was grinning. “You’ve broken an unbreakable car.”

“Just because you’ve a motorbike doesn’t mean you’re an auto expert.”

“Nah,” Snow said, bending down to pick up a stick for Dev. He sent it flying through the trees to their left, and Dev raced after it. “But I’m handy. I’ve done some small work here and there. I learned from a bloke I was in care with, he did go on to be a mechanic.”

“Fascinating,” Baz drawled, rolling his neck. He had a crick in it, and he was cold. And muddy. Christ he wanted a bath.

“Yeah, it was useful. He was brilliant with motors and that kind of thing, and I followed him everywhere,” Snow was saying. “In hindsight, I clearly had a huge crush on him, but you’re not good at figuring those things out as a teenager, you know? Only later, when you’re like, ‘he wasn’t that interesting, Simon, he was just fit’.”

Baz stopped breathing.

“He was kind of mean to me, too, so go figure.” Snow kept chattering on, picking up sticks for Dev and making his way down the trail like he hadn’t just upended Baz’s world. Dev clattered down the nearby embankment and splashed into the frozen creek below. “It’s funny to look back and see where you were clearly deluding yourself, you know?”

“Yeah,” Baz said, then cleared his throat. Snow’s fascination with the gay romance letters was becoming more clear.

“So what were you like back then? Quite, brooding type? Star of the cricket league?”

Baz didn’t know why Snow was so perky, but he was clearly in high spirits; his cheeks glowing pink from where the wind was slapping them, his expression bright, a smile on his lips. Maybe it was the exercise. Maybe it was getting to be better than Baz at something for once.

“I was an absolute pillock,” Baz said, then cleared his throat. “I was broody and sullen and thought I was better than everyone else.”

“Not much has changed there,” Snow mumbled, then scooted back a bit, as if expecting Baz to swat him. “Christ, it’s a good thing we weren’t in school together. I imagine we’d have been at each other’s necks.”

“What are you on about?” Baz said, a smile pushing onto his face. Snow’s mood was contagious. Suddenly he wasn’t cold and miserable; his insides had expanded, filled with a sudden warmth, and he felt lighter than air. “We are at each other’s necks.”

He reached out and shoved him, for good measure. It was meant to be a small thing — knock him off balance, just for a moment. And it worked — one of Snow’s green wellies lifted off the ground as he tried to balance himself, but the ground was too muddy, the terrain too uneven. Snow was unbalanced from his broad fucking shoulders, and he went tumbling down the embankment and into the stream bed.

“Simon?” Baz asked, scrambling over to the embankment. “Simon?”

Snow lay crumpled, half in the creek, his face red and scrunched up with pain. Dev barked and circled him, trying to shove his black snout in Snow’s face, and Snow tried to push him away.

“Dev, back!” Baz ordered, carefully making his way down the muddy incline until he could reach them. “Are you okay?”

“Fucked up my ankle,” Snow said, gritting his teeth. He pushed Dev away and got to all fours, and then tried to haul himself up. He was wobbly and unbalanced, and hissed as he tried to put his right foot down.

“Don’t kill yourself, come on,” Baz said quickly, darting over to Snow’s right side and looping his arm over his shoulders. “Alright, try to walk on it.”

“I can’t,” Snow huffed. “I think I twisted it.” He spat out a mouthful of dirt and wiped a muddy hand across his mouth. “Someone pushed me down the fucking hill.”

“I did not—” Baz started, then rolled his eyes. “Oh, Christ, forget it. Come on, walk it off, let’s get you back to the house.”

Getting back up the embankment was a difficult job made worse by Dev’s frantic attempts to help, but after several moments of scrabbling for purchase they were back on the trail, hobbling their way back to the house.

Snow put up a good show of his pain, Baz noticed. He could barely put any pressure on it, but he kept walking anyway, wincing slightly but never complaining, only letting out an occasional hiss. The only real sign of the degree of his discomfort was the vice-like grip he had on Baz’s hand. By the time they reached the kitchen and Baz had deposited Snow in a chair near the fire, the fingers of his right hand were white and stiff from Snow’s grasp and Baz wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to use them again.

“Fiona?” Baz called as he closed the kitchen door behind them and shrugged off his jacket. His thick navy jumper had mud caked across the front of it which had to have come from Snow, and he tried not to be bitter about it. He loved this jumper. It was probably the best thing to come out of his relationship with Niall.

Fiona must not have been on the kitchen level, because there was no answer, and Baz cursed as he turned back to Snow. He’d lost his jacket as well, and was sitting in one of the old wooden chairs, carefully trying to prop his foot up while wincing.

“Alright, let’s see it,” Baz said, striding over and halting Snow’s effort. Sitting down in the opposite chair, he pulled the booted foot into his lap, deliberately trying not to focus on how much this was going to thoroughly destroy the jumper. He eased the large green boot off as carefully as he could, but Snow still winced and hissed.

“I feel fucking ridiculous,” Snow said as the boot finally came off. Baz tossed it into the corner and reached over for a dish cloth to wipe his hands off on. “Like some fucking classic literature damsel, you know? Like fucking Jane Eyre over here.”

“Why do you reference that genre of literature so much?” Baz asked, adjusting himself so that he could lower Snow’s foot onto his knee. “This is the third time you’ve done it at least.”

Snow shrugged.

“I dunno. Penny’s boyfriend loves those kind of books. The films are always on.”

“They’re not films, Snow, they’re books. And anyway, it was Rochester who sprained his ankle, not Jane Eyre. Does this hurt?”

“A bit, yeah,” Snow said, biting his lip as Baz poked and prodded along the ankle. In reality, he had no idea what he was doing, but he’d sprained his ankle several times in uni during football, and he was trying to mimic what he’d had doctors do to him.

“Can you turn it?”

“Nope, nope, fuck,” Snow said, shaking his head. Baz sighed and carefully put the foot back on the chair, then stood up. Retrieving a clean dish towel, he crossed to the freezer and dug around inside it until he found a bag of frozen peas.

“I think you just sprained it,” he explained, carefully putting Snow’s foot back in his lap and pressing the wrapped up bag of peas to the ankle. “It shouldn’t be too bad if you keep it iced and elevated. And maybe some paracetamol.”

Snow leant his head back against the back of the chair and closed his eyes.

“I hate being injured,” he said, his voice quiet. Beside them, the fire crackled lightly and Dev let out a low groan as he collapsed on the hearth. “I don’t like being cooped up and not being able to move, you know?”

“It shouldn’t be more than a day or two, I’m sure you’ll be back to being a menace soon enough,” Baz said, his eyes zeroed in on the way the fire was sending shadows flickering across Snow’s freckled face. “I’d say I’d drive you back to Ebb’s, but we are vehicularly challenged at the moment.”

“Shit, I was going to fix the car,” Snow said, his hands coming up to scrub at his face. “Fuck. I guess it’ll have to wait. We won’t be able to get the tree tonight, will we?”

“I’m still not sure I trust you to fix it,” Baz murmured. His hands were still wrapped around Snow’s ankle, holding the peas in place, and before he knew fully what he was doing, he felt his thumbs begin to rub small circles into the arch of Snow’s socked foot.

Snow let out a small sigh.

“That feels good,” he mumbled, leaning further back in the chair. A small smile grew on his face as his blue eyes slowly blinked open, and Baz felt rooted to the spot. Struck. Pinned in place by Simon Snow’s eyes and freckles and smile and warmth.

He’d felt sexual tension before. He knew what it was; the heavy, sharp feeling of it snaking inside him and curling up deep in his gut. But this… this was slow, squeezing at his chest and weighing him down. It moved through him like slow honey, coiling around his inside and settling warm and thick in his stomach.

His thumbs kept rubbing slow circles, pressing into the arch, and Snow kept smiling. It wasn’t his normal exuberant smile. It was slow and lazy; a little hesitant at the corners, but the heat of it went deeper through Baz than the warmth of the fireplace beside them.

“Baz…” Snow said, his voice low. Cracked, a little.

“Yes?” Baz asked. He was whispering. He didn’t know why he was whispering.

“Do you…” he stopped, and the smile faltered. “Can I—”

“Yes?”

Snow’s smile grew wider, and Baz watched with predatory interest as Snow pulled his bottom lip into his mouth and wet it.

The door to the kitchen shot open and sound flooded the room.

“The masked man raised his knife, already dripping with Susan’s blood. Her innards were already exposed, flopped into the kitchen floor, and with a gurgling gasp Susan knew her time had come. The masked man brought down the knife and—” Fiona switched her laundry hamper to the other arm and paused her audiobook. “What the fuck is going on here?”

Baz sat back in his chair, unaware that he had even leant forward. The curling heat was gone, replaced with a shock of embarrassment, and no small amount of revulsion at the contents of Fiona’s audiobook. Nothing like a bit of disembowelment to kill the sexual tension.

“Baz pushed me down a hill and into the river,” Snow said. Baz tried not to notice how his voice came out a bit hoarse and raspy, or how he wouldn’t meet Fiona’s eyes.

“Yes,” Baz said, clearing his throat. “I think the whole thing will have to come off.”

“Does this mean you’re staying here again?” Fiona asked, putting the hamper down on the table and coming around to inspect Snow’s ankle with an appraising eye. She reached out a finger to poke at it, and Baz slapped her hand away.

“Probably for the night, yeah. If that’s okay,” he added, looking for Baz’s eyes, suddenly unsure. Baz nodded, unable to keep eye contact, and quickly stood up, replacing Snow’s foot on the chair.

“I’m going to go hose down Dev,” he said, backing away. “You can help Fiona fold the laundry.”

 

{+}

 

“It’s a bit crooked, isn’t it?”

“Your nose is about to be crooked,” Baz snarled from underneath the branches of the tree.

“Yeah, get up here and give us a hand then,” Fiona mumbled. She was lying on her back, staring at her mobile and giving Baz directions on which way to turn the tree. She was meant to be supporting it from the other side, and Simon didn’t think Baz had yet realised that she wasn’t.

“To the left, I think?” Simon said, leaning over to pet Dev’s head. He was on the sofa in the large parlour, his foot propped up in front of him, Dev sprawled across his lap. The moment Baz was free from the tree he was likely to shoo the dog off the furniture, but Simon rather liked the weight of his warm head in his lap.

“I’m not moving it again, the tree can stay as it is,” Baz announced, extricating himself from the branches and standing up. His hair was mussed, and there were pine needles in it. Simon looked away.

He was trying not to think about earlier in the kitchen. Baz’s hands wrapped around his ankle, his gaze heavy on him.

Baz had fled the house shortly after that and returned an hour later with the Christmas tree strapped to what looked like an old fashioned toboggan, and he and Fiona (but mostly Baz) had set it up in the small parlour as Snow unwound Christmas lights and rummaged through decorations from his spot on the sofa.

“Where did you find those?” Baz asked, squinting at Simon.

“Find what?”

“You know what,” Baz said, glaring at the Santa hats that both Simon and Dev were wearing. Simon just shrugged and smiled at him.

“Want one? We can all match.”

Baz flushed slightly and turned away, and Simon smiled even wider.

There had been something. There had absolutely been something there and Simon had been on the verge of asking Baz about it when Fiona had come in. In retrospect, he was glad of it. He wasn’t one to think things through; Penny always said he just thrashed headfirst into situations and sometimes got lucky. He’d been about to thrash his way into something dangerous and he didn’t think he would have been so lucky.

Baz was… Baz. He was difficult and unpredictable and coming off a breakup, and Simon didn’t want to set the strange friendship they’d forged aflame.

And there was the other part of it: the part where he hadn’t really thought seriously about Baz, and kissing Baz, and the weight of Baz’s hands on him, until suddenly it had entered his mind and become all he could think about.

It had to have been there before, he figured. It couldn’t have just come out of nowhere.

“String me.”

Simon snapped his head up to see Baz holding his hand out.

“What?”

“The fairy lights, Snow, keep up.”

Simon passed him the string of lights silently.

He felt in his head. Unfocused. Maybe Fiona had given him something stronger than paracetamol, because he felt a bit like he was floating. Between the lights and the fire and the cracking sound of the record player looping through cheery Christmas songs and the dimming blue light of dusk outside, he felt like his body was buzzing. His head was heavy, a strong thrumming running through it.

He felt rather at home.

“I mean it, you know. We should do up the whole house for the holidays,” he said, looking up.

“That sounds like a lot of work, and I’ve enough on my plate,” Baz said, winding the lights around the tree. Fiona had left her spot and was draping the second strand of lights across the scraggly-looking fir in a disorganised, haphazard pattern which Baz kept going back behind and fixing.

“We can do it, though. It’d be fun. And Fiona will help, right?”

“No,” Fiona said, and Simon glared at her.

“You know, you two are real similar. The same bloody person,” he muttered, adjusting his leg on the sofa. Dev grunted and adjusted with him.

“Just because we’re not taken in by your dimples and awful hair doesn’t mean we’re the same person, Golden Boy,” Fiona said.

Baz sniggered and finished looping his strand. Simon leant forward to pick up the box of baubles off the ground and handed it to him.

“I’m serious,” Simon argued. “The bridge biddies would love it. Like a holiday open house or something.”

“Why would I open my home to strangers?” Baz inspected a gold bauble and strung it up on the tree.

“I dunno,” Simon said, shrugging. “I just think it would be nice. The place is huge, you know? And it would be fun. When I was a kid I would have gone crazy to see a place like this.”

“Golden Boy has a point,” Fiona said. “And the Egyptian Room would be a hit.”

“Pass,” Baz drawled.

“It wouldn’t take us long to get it cleaned, we work fast—” Simon started, but Baz held his hand up.

“I’ll think about it. Be useful and give me a bauble.”

Simon knew him well enough to recognise the end of the discussion. He wanted to push — to force Baz to open up, to get him to talk, to pull out that softer side that Simon knew existed. He’d seen it — rarely, but he’d seen it. But maybe it was too much to ask with Fiona there and a job in front of them.

So instead of arguing he settled back on the sofa and directed the placement of baubles, which both Fiona and Baz deliberately ignored, and buried his hands in Dev’s soft fur, and tried not to think of possibilities and questions and what ifs and what came next.

 

{+}

 

Baz was used to the sound of the Manor at night.

He had a habit of staying up too late, and so he had become familiar with the shifting weight of the house, with the wind hitting branches into the window, with the whistling steam of the hot water heater and the rustling of the small things that lived in the walls.

He wasn’t used to the sound of another human.

He heard the shifting and creaking on the stairs, but months alone in the house hadn’t taught him what that sound meant, and so when Simon appeared behind him in the east hallway, blinking and half-dressed, Baz nearly screamed.

“Why are you wandering around at 4 am?” Snow asked, pulling the sleeve of his sweatshirt over his fist and rubbing at his eyes while he yawned.

“I could ask you the same? Why are you following me?” Baz bit back, clenching his hands around his tea.

“I heard you clattering around like a fucking ghoul and came to see if some ghost was here to kill me,” Snow responded, taking the tea out of Baz’s hand and taking a long sip. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he yawned again and handed the cup back. “What are you doing awake?”

“How is your ankle? You could barely stand on it when you went to bed and now you’re climbing stairs and stalking me,” Baz said, deflecting. “It must be better. Or was it ever injured at all?”

“Fuck you,” Snow yawned. “Still twinges, it’s fine though. Seriously, why are you up?”

“I was going to clean,” Baz said. It was a lie. He didn’t have plans to do anything, really, aside from sit in front of the fire in the small parlour and maybe fall asleep on the sofa. He just had difficulty sleeping at times. But he didn’t want to explain that to Snow.

“Clean what? We’ve finished almost everything except the Egypt room and the bedroom upstairs.”

“The Egypt room is fine, it’s not even that dirty,” Baz said, dismissively. He was trying to not focus on the fact that Snow was in what Baz now had to assume was his night time uniform — sweatshirt, wrinkled boxers and too large socks.

“Can I see it?” Snow asked. “The Egypt Room. If you’re comfortable with it.”

Baz paused. “It’s not that I’m not comfortable with it. I don’t really care. It’s just that it’s not that interesting,” he said, his brows flattened, his voice trailing off.

“Baz,” Snow said, rolling his eyes. “Everything in this house is interesting.”

A small warmth began to build in Baz’s stomach.

“Alright,” he said, a smile growing. “This way.”

The Egypt room wasn’t really a room, per say. It was more like a gallery; in other houses, it would be the home to generations and centuries of stodgy portraits in ornate gilded frames and heavy marble busts. When Baz flicked on the antique sconces that gave light to the room, the gallery revealed itself to be anything but filled with old white people.

“Oh my God it really is an Egypt room, isn’t it?” Snow said, looking around. The far wall was dominated by a faded hieroglyphic motif. Baz didn’t know who had painted it, but one of his relations had certainly commissioned it. On either side of the mural sat matching sphinx statues with artfully applied patina.

Displays and shelves stacked with busts and artefacts lined the other walls, interspersed with golden face masks. There was the barrister cabinet bursting with scrolls and stone tablets; the rickety table holding up the large falcon statue of Horus; and the large glass case holding the model of the New Kingdom bust of Nefertiti.

“Is this all real?” Snow asked, walking over to the miniaturised model of the London needle.

“No, I don’t think so,” Baz said, taking a seat on one of the yellow velvet chaises. “My great-great-great grandfather brought back quite a few genuine artefacts, but he seems to have sold them all. Some of our smaller busts are real, though. The rest is largely kitschy Victorian knock-offs, but I don’t really know the provenance on most of these. I’m not sure what all is real and isn’t.”

“Your house looks like the British Museum,” Snow said, walking over to inspect a statue of Bastet. “Baz this is… kind of brilliant.”

“I’m glad you like it.” Baz picked at a thread of the chaise and looked around the room. He’d loved this room as a child. He used to hide behind the plaster reconstructions of the pillars from the Temple of Karnak, and stare at the hieroglyphics for hours as he tried to recreate their poses. His mum had always laughed when he did it.

Everything about this room screamed her name. She’d touched every part of it. Loved every part of it.

“I don’t really know what to do with it, to be honest,” Baz said, sighing. He tucked his legs up and cradled his half-empty tea in his hands. “My mum had a doctorate in Ancient Egyptian Mythology. She specialised in Cosmology. Those are her books, over there,” he said, gesturing toward a small mahogany bookshelf stacked with books, guarded by another Bastet statue.

“What do you mean you don’t know what to do with it? Why do you have to do anything with it?” Snow crouched down to run his fingers along the spines of the books and pulled one out at random, flipping through it.

Baz didn’t know how to explain it. He wanted to love the room because his mother loved the room. He wanted to love the history because she loved the history, because it was a part of her and the family legacy. But Baz had always felt very removed from it. It didn’t hold his interest the way he desperately wanted it to.

His mother had grown up in the house amongst these things, spending every day learning about the artefacts and the history and the role the family played in it, and she grew up wanting to protect it and cherish it and spend her life with it. She saw it as a form of family pride; even if many of the artefacts were fake, they were a relic of a different time, when the Pitches had been rich and powerful. Gentlemen explorers laying claim to the globe.

“I’m not that attached to the Egypt of it all, to be honest,” Baz admitted. “I’m the last of the Pitches, and I don’t really feel a connection or an interest in it. If I have children and pass on the house and name, I suppose I don’t know if I want to pass on this part of it. But I also don’t know if I’m able to turn my back on this kind of family legacy and expectation. So there’s a bit of pressure to figure out what to do with it.”

The truth of it itched on his skin. He didn’t know if he’d ever said it aloud.

But now it was out there. Hanging in the air somewhere near Bastet’s ear.

Snow stood up from his crouch in front of the bookshelf and crossed the room, carefully side stepping an ornate rug that had seen better days, and sat down on the chaise next to Baz.

“You don’t have to keep it, you know,” Snow said quietly, his head tilted to the side. In the red light of the room, his hair glowed. Baz wanted to run his hands through it. “Or you could keep some things. Your favourites. Like…” he looked around. “What’s one thing in here that reminds you the most of your mum?”

“The Bastet statue,” Baz responded immediately. “If I were a girl, I was going to be named Bastet.”

Snow stared at him and raised an eyebrow.

“Christ, your family knows how to name them,” he said, shaking his head. “So you could keep that statue and her books and stuff and sell the rest. Or donate them somewhere. Get your name on a plaque. That’s what rich people do, yeah?”

Baz’s mouth tilted up at the corner.

“It’s not that simple, Snow. Many of these things have been in my family since the 1800s.”

Snow shrugged.

“So leave them be. Do they bother you?”

“No,” Baz said. They didn’t, honestly. They annoyed him a bit, sometimes. But they didn’t bother him.

“Then just let them be. You’re pretty young. You’ve got your life to figure out what to do with them.” Snow settled himself further back on the chaise, and his shoulder pressed against Baz’s. “There’s no reason that everything in your life needs to be wrapped up and settled immediately.”

“So your suggestion is to just not do anything?”

Snow turned his head slightly to the side and grinned.

“Try not thinking for a change,” he said, his voice quiet. “Get out of your head. You don’t have to have everything perfect.” There was a pause, and when he spoke again, his voice was more serious. “You don’t have to be perfect.”

There was something hanging on the edge of that sentence. Something unsaid, but Baz couldn’t work it out, couldn’t hear the words that Snow had either chosen not to speak or was unable to say.

Baz wanted to kiss him.

He wanted to lean across the rickety chaise that was probably a priceless antique and fold himself over Simon Snow and his warmth and taste the stolen tea on his lips.

But instead he jostled his elbow a bit and poked him in the side, and then sat back in the chaise and tucked his feet up, so he was facing Snow. Snow did the the same, pulling his large socked feet up and hugging his knees, and they sat, two grown men on one dainty Victorian chaise, watching each other while Isis and Bastet and Horus watched them.

“Think of it this way,” Snow said, his voice low and rumbling through the quiet room. “Your family is stupid old, yeah?”

“That’s one way to put it, yes.”

“This legacy shit and question has been going on for ages. You’re the current last Pitch, but you’ll probably have kids. Weird, posh, perfect little kids who probably play forty instruments and speak French, yeah?”

Baz bit down a smile.

“Something like that, yes.”

“So you’re just at a stop in the road. This is just, you know, your path. You just keep walking your path, and you don’t think about what comes next, and you just… go where the path takes you.”

“Is that what you’re doing? Walking your path?”

Snow shrugged and looked away.

“I dunno. Yeah, I suppose. I think I’m on a side quest right now, though.”

“I’m sorry, did you just say side quest?”

Snow smiled, all teeth and dimples, and laughed.

“Yeah, Penny says its stupid that I call it that too, but I dunno what else to call it. But you just… you know, follow through to the end and then you do the next thing. You don’t think too hard and you try not to get stuck.”

The choice of words struck him.

“I am stuck. A bit. In this house. With these… expectations.”

“You don’t have to keep the house. You can sell it or close it up and go back to London and keep being a barrister, whatever that means.”

“There are expectations in London, too,” Baz said quickly. “It’s hard to explain, you wouldn’t understand.”

Snow’s mouth hardened into an annoyed line, and Baz held his hand up.

“I’m not being a prick. You just really wouldn’t understand. My father is a barrister, his father was a barrister, I’m meant to be a barrister. Being gay is enough of an odd deviation from the family plan, but if I marry a nice scrubbed up man with a hunting dog I’m sure all will be forgiven.” He paused. “There is a clear expectation of the path my life will take.”

Snow was chewing on his lip.

“Was Niall a nice scrubbed up man with a hunting dog?”

Baz stared at him. He was surprised to hear Snow bring up his ex. He’d taken all mentions of him in stride, without even a second look or question, and for so long Baz had just assumed it was because Snow was straight and uninterested.

“Yes,” he said quickly, his words coming out like whispers. “He’s immaculately groomed and is in medical school and is the entire reason why Dev is so boarish.”

“Do you…” Snow paused, puffed out his cheeks, which were quickly turning pink, and tilted his head to stare at a nearby urn. “Do you want a well groomed doctor type? Is that, you know… your type of bloke?”

At that moment, Baz was extremely positive that he could answer no, no that was not his type. His type were uneven men with awful hair who rode too loud motorbikes and followed him around. His type were men who loved his dog and squared their shoulders and worked silently, rotating in a constant quiet, efficient circle around him. His type were men who were brash and bold and heavy shouldered and kind and who fell into his life with no warning.

“I don’t have a type of bloke,” he said instead, and watched the small smile building in the corner of Snow’s mouth.

“Yeah,” Snow said, looking up at him with careful blue eyes. “Me neither.”

Chapter Text

“Simon dove, lean back, I can’t see the match,” Ebb said, tapping his shoulder.

Simon looked up from his spot on the floor of Ebb’s living room and scooted over quickly, nearly upending the carton of chips in his lap. “Sorry, that better?”

“Perfect, thanks dove.” Ebb petted his head and smiled, then glued her eyes back to the TV. If she were anyone else, Simon would feel a bit like a dog — or maybe one of the goats Ebb loved so much — but he’d come to realise that was just how she was. She displayed affection and emotion in excess and in large bursts, and Simon kind of liked it. No one else was like that. He liked that Ebb didn’t try to hide what she was feeling; it made her seem like the most honest person he knew.

“So how’s your quest coming?” she asked, wincing as two of the footballers on screen collided. “You almost done with those records?”

Guilt dropped heavy in Simon’s stomach. He hadn’t looked at the records in ages, not really. He’d been so wrapped up in helping Baz with the house, and then the hunt for William and Henry, and then his ankle, and Christmas decorating, and fixing the Land Rover, and….

The days had rather gotten away from him. He didn’t fully realise how little work he’d put into his hunt until he was asked for progress.

It’d been in the back of his mind. He knew he needed to get some forward motion. He’d planned to be back in London by Christmas, so he could start working again in the New Year and find a flat and move on. He’d set aside two months for his hunt, and those two months were almost up, and he had nothing to show for it. He was still at the very beginning.

“It’s uh…” he said, fumbling for words. “I dunno. Might be a dead end. I don’t think those records are going to tell me anything. I just don’t think there was a family named Snow in the area.” He sighed. “I don’t even know if that was my mum’s name or my dad’s name, you know? I’m going off what little I know about her, but it’s really nothing. Just that she was young and named Lucy.”

“I wish I could help you,” Ebb said, turning down the telly. “I just don’t recall a Lucy in the area. Granted, she could have been a bit older than me, and I did go to the local school. Some students go into Southampton if they’re bright, so I wouldn’t know them, but…” She looked like her heart was broken for not being able to answer Simon’s question.

“No, it’s alright!” he said, rushing to reassure her. “Really, it’s no worry. I think Watford might not hold the answers, I guess. Baz and I haven’t found any clues at all, really. I might need to move on.”

Ebb stared at the television, and then turned it off.

Dread trickled in Simon’s stomach. Ebb never turned off football — at least not since he’d known her.

“You’ve become good friends with the Pitch lad, haven’t you?” she asked. Her tone was leading.

“Yeah,” Simon said, shifting. “Yeah, I have. He’s brilliant.”

“Do you think you boys will stay friends when you go back to London? It’d be a shame to not keep in touch. You seem to get on so well.” She smiled. “I think everyone around here feels a bit protective of him, I suppose. Just after what happened, and all. It’s good to see him happy.”

Guilt swirled in Simon’s stomach. Was Baz happy? It was so hard to tell with him. He didn’t know him well enough to be able to compare it. He thought he might be though. There were times — when he laughed, when he teased, when he collapsed into a chair and his eyes went half closed — when Simon thought Baz was happy to have him around.

Simon didn’t know if it was just because Baz was lonely in Hampshire, or if it was because he liked having Simon around. He didn’t know what would happen when they both went back to London. If they both went back to London. Simon would, obviously; he might not have a job or flat, but his life was in London. And Baz’s was too, right? His family and his job and his plans.

He tried to imagine ringing Baz up after work to go to the pub and get a pint, and his mind came up blank. He could picture them in the Watford Arms easily, cold and tired and in good spirits, watching the rugby match and bickering and then walking back to Pitch manor together. He couldn’t imagine trying to pre-arrange their casual friendship, organising meeting times around friends and work and life. He couldn’t imagine that London Baz — barrister Baz, a Baz in a suit — was the type to drop everything on a busy weeknight to go shoot the shit with Simon because he was bored and wanted to see his friend.

Their friendship worked in the quiet of Hampshire, in the slow and steady mending of Pitch Manor, in the easy way that routines brought people together. London was loud and fast and hectic.

He couldn’t imagine a London Baz who had room to fit Simon into his life.

“I…” Simon started, then paused. There was something thick and uncomfortable in his throat, and he cleared it to try to speak again. “I don’t know. I don’t think….” he trailed off, the rock in his throat moving down to settle in his stomach. “I don’t think it would work out in London. We’re not… uh… we’re very different, you know. I don’t think he would...”

“Work out?” Ebb asked. “What do you— oh.” Ebb paused. “Oh, Simon.”

He didn’t want to meet her eyes. He wanted to clear his throat and change the subject and shut down this line of thinking because he had been deliberately not thinking about this, because he knew it would make him feel this way. And now he had gone there. He had opened it up, and there it was: all those things about Baz and him that he hadn’t been thinking about, the things that had been there all along.

He hadn’t thought about how much he wanted to be in Baz’s life in London, because he knew that next he’d have to think about how it could never happen.

“Uh, yeah,” Simon said, looking away. He tried to laugh and smile. “Yeah, so, just, you know. Uh, thinking forward, I don’t know if that’s uh, yeah, gonna be a thing. But it’s good! It’s good, you know? I’ve like, barely known him two months, that’s mental, yeah?”

“That’s not mental,” Ebb said gently, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Why would you think that’s mental? I think that’s brilliant, that you two became so close so quickly. You needed each other.”

“Oh, I dunno about that,” Simon said, blushing. “I just, yeah. I don’t think it would work out down the road.”

“Do you think it would work out now?”

“I dunno,” he repeated with a shrug. “I try not to think about things, I just try to… act, you know? Otherwise i can’t turn off my brain and my best friend Pen says I get stuck there.”

“So why are you doing it now?” Ebb asked. “If you don’t normally think things through, why are you worrying about down the road suddenly?”

“I guess Baz is wearing off on me. He’s a thinker. And a planner, you know? He wants to know the endgame before he starts, so he can make sure he follows the list and can wrap things up nicely.”

Ebb pursed her lips.

“That doesn’t seem like the best way to handle your feelings, if you don’t mind me saying.” She clucked her tongue and shook her head, her mousy blonde hair wobbling under her cap. “You boys are young, you don’t have to have everything sorted now. Sometimes you’ve got to just see how things go.”

Simon’s stomach felt like it flipped over.

“I told him the same thing last night,” he said, staring down at the greying fibres of the carpet. “I said the exact thing.”

“Well, you’re a smart lad,” Ebb said, grinning. “I’m serious, Simon. It’s your life. I think it’s a shame to live it doing what you think you ought to do, instead of what you want. Of course, you didn’t ask, but…” she shook her head again, and her eyes grew sad. “You don’t want to spend your life trying not to think about what could have been, yeah?”

Simon’s hands clenched in the carpet, and he nodded.

“Yeah,” he said, swallowing. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. You’re totally right.” He stood up, excitement flowing through him. It was the same feeling that had pushed him to Watford to begin with; stubborn determination. “Thank you, Ebb, really. But I — uh — I gotta go.”

“Go?” Ebb asked, staring at the clock “Simon, love, it’s late and about to rain. If you want I can give you a ride?”

“No, no, I’ve got the bike,” he said, bracing one hand on the sofa to leap over it and head toward the front hallway of Ebb’s guest house. “I’ll be fine.”

He pulled on his denim jacket, shoved one of Ebb’s knit hats on over his curls, and grinned. He felt like he was on fire — about to go off, about to blink out, about to be totally consumed by the excitement and nervousness and swirling storm of emotions building within his stomach.

“Don’t wait up.”

 

{+}

 

Dev began barking long before Baz heard the low hum of the motorbike over the pouring rain.

He was in his bedroom, folding his laundry (because Fiona hadn’t done it) and mentally cataloguing his list for the next day when he heard it, dimly growing louder over the sound of the radio and rain. Moving to the window, he peered out, a frown on his face. What the hell was Snow doing back? He’d left not even five hours ago. Maybe something was wrong.

No, nothing was wrong. He would have rung if something was wrong. Maybe he’d found a clue?

“Shut it, Dev!” he shouted, wrenching the door to his bedroom open and marching down the dark passages until he hit the spiral staircase, his pace picking up as he hurried down it in bare feet.

Dev ignored him and thundered past, his claws clacking against the wooden stairs as he raced toward the kitchen.

“I’m surrounded by neanderthals,” Baz muttered, stopping only to grab several towels sitting in a basket on the stairs (Fiona’s lazy way of indicating that Baz needed to put them in the bathrooms) before continuing to the basement kitchen.

The fire was weak but still going, providing the only light in the room, and he felt like the rapid flickering of the shadows and the hissing of the logs was just repeating the steady thrumming of his heart beat. It was fast. Too fast. He wasn’t sure if it was worry over Simon or excitement over seeing Simon.

Darting around Dev, he yanked the kitchen door open to reveal a sopping wet Simon Snow, his hand raised in preparation of knocking.

“What the actual fuck are you doing?” Baz said, crossing his arms and blocking the doorway.

“Hi,” Snow said. Rain dripped down his chin and his curls were plastered to his face. He was gnawing on his lip and he looked like he was about to be ill.

Even still, he was gorgeous. As was beginning to happen with alarming frequency, Baz’s chest hurt slightly at the sight. He wanted to bring his hand up to rub at his sternum, to try to push out the aching wave of affection and want that was hitting him.

“Hi?” Baz repeated. “Hi? It’s almost nine and you’ve ridden over in a fucking monsoon and disrupted my evening. What do you want?”

“Can I come in?” Snow asked, reaching up to pull his soaked beanie off his head. He didn’t seem too bothered by the fact that he was causing a small river on the doorstep.

“You might as well,” Baz said, standing back. “A moment longer out there and you’ll freeze to death, and I don’t want to deal with the hassle of calling emergency services for your corpse. I doubt they’ll be able to get up the drive.”

He closed the door behind Snow and stalked over to the table, snatching up one of the towels and throwing it at him.

“You look like Dev when he swims in the pond,” he said, turning to the fire and throwing another log on. It cracked and hissed and sputtered. Baz’s pulse did the same. “At least Dev has the defence of being a dog. What’s yours?”

“I needed to do something,” Snow mumbled from behind him. Baz turned to the counter and switched on the kettle, and he heard the rustling noises of Snow pulling the towel through his hair.

“What was so important you had to come all the way back here? You’d have seen me in the morning, Snow, really. You always seem to show up, you—”

He paused as he turned, his words dying in his mouth. At some point Snow had moved up behind him and was standing very, very close, still slowly scrubbing at his hair with the towel. His eyes were dark in the dim light of the kitchen, but Baz could feel the weight of their gaze.

“If you get me wet—” Baz started, but Snow shook his head, sending a spray of cold droplets everywhere, and then threw his towel on the ground.

“I needed to do something,” Snow repeated, his eyes wide. He was so close, crowding Baz back against the counter, stepping into his space, and Baz couldn’t breathe.

He was so close.

“Right,” Snow said, almost as if speaking to himself. “Right. Okay.”

And then he leaned forward, grabbed Baz’s face in both hands, and kissed him.

It wasn’t a smooth kiss. Snow was practically smashing Baz’s face between his two large hands, pressing his lips to Baz’s with unexpected force, bobbing his chin lightly. Baz’s brain went into overdrive. White noise. His hands were numb. Simon was freezing against his skin.

And then Snow’s hands came down and gentled; one cupping his cheek, the other sliding around into Baz’s hair.

“Turn off your thoughts,” Snow whispered, pulling away to press a gentle kiss at the corner of Baz’s mouth. “Just do what you want.” He rubbed his cheek against Baz’s, nuzzling into his neck for a moment to place a kiss there, before returning to his lips.

It was gentle and delicate and the impossible care of it made Baz feel like he was going to shatter.

He was kissing Simon Snow.

The warmth of the kitchen suddenly seemed suffocating and he desperately sought out Snow’s cold skin. It was an odd reversal, he thought; Snow seeking warmth. Baz seeking cold.

He skated his hands across Snow’s soaking shoulders, down his arms, his thumb catching at the bones of Snow’s wrists before settling with a firm grip on his hips. Baz’s lips parted as he moved forward to return the kiss with vigour, pulling Snow’s bottom lip into his mouth. He flexed his fingers, tightening their grip on Snow’s hips, dragging him in closer.

Snow broke away and laughed, the sound high and breathless and broken as he rested his forehead against Baz. With the height difference, Snow’s forehead pressed gently into Baz’s nose and his wet curls obscured Baz’s vision. It didn’t matter, though. Baz had closed his eyes.

He felt like he should say something; should ask what universe he fell into, should push him away or remember that this was not a good idea, because he barely knew Snow and their lives were both messy unknowns. But then Snow was kissing him again, and he forgot to think.

He tightened his grip on Snow’s hips and crushed their bodies together. Snow sighed and let out a little sound and pressed his face into Baz’s neck, his arms coming around in an embrace.

Baz could feel the cold dampness of Snow’s soaked jacket begin to creep in through his own jumper. His messy curls were still dripping down his cheek, sending small shocks of cold water against Baz’s skin.

“You’re fucking soaked,” he hissed, pulling away for a moment as he worked careful fingers against the stiff, wet denim of Snow’s jacket and pushed it off his shoulders. It landed on the floor at their feet with a loud splat, and Snow just grinned and laughed again.

It was infectious. As Snow pushed him gently back into the counter and positioned himself between Baz’s legs, Baz couldn’t help but laugh as well.

“It rained,” Snow said, moving back in to kiss at the corner of Baz’s mouth. There was a desperateness building between them; the kisses were frantic, rushed. Needy. Neither wanted to be away from the other. Snow kept making small little moans, accentuated by Baz’s answering sighs, and Baz felt drunk on the sound of them.

“You’re insane,” Baz whispered, nuzzling his nose against Snow’s and running his hands through Snow’s tangled bronze curls. “Absolutely insane, and frozen through.”

Snow just hummed, chasing Baz’s mouth with his own and then peppering kisses along Baz’s jaw as his large hands ran up and down the length of Baz’s spine.

“I needed to—” Snow started, but Baz kissed him again, covering his mouth and backing him away from the counter. He smoothed his hands down Snow’s freezing arms as they walked, and then carefully began working his fingers under the hem of Snow’s t-shirt.

“Please,” Snow mumbled against Baz’s lips. “It’s so fucking cold.” He brought his arms up so Baz could pull the soaked piece of cotton off him. It stuck to Snow’s skin and Baz pulled it again, desperate to get it off. But the shirt got tangled in Snow’s arms halfway off his head, covering his eyes and hair, revealing only a blinding, lopsided grin.

“Er, a little help,” he said, sputtering laughter as he tried to free his arms of the shirt. He just ended up looking like one of the thrashing balloon men outside of auto dealers, and a hysterical giggle escaped Baz at the thought.

“You absolute fucking numpty,” Baz hissed, tugging the shirt off with a sharp motion and bending down to zero in on Snow’s exposed collarbone and the constellation of moles and freckles hiding there. Snow gasped as Baz nipped at the cold, damp skin, and his arms came down to lock around Baz’s waist.

His fingers played with the hem of Baz’s jumper.

“Baz,” Snow said, his voice hoarse and broken, accentuated by small bursts of breathy laughter. “Baz, do you want—” he paused and laughed again and chased Baz’s lips with his own. “I want—”

“I want to,” Baz said, the words bursting out of him before he could think. Before he could walk down the path of why this was a bad idea, of why allowing this man into his heart and home and bed was only going to lead to disaster.

But standing in the dark warmth of the kitchen as Simon Snow’s large hands rubbed circles into his back and their breathless laughter mixed between them, Baz couldn’t imagine saying anything else.

“Simon,” Baz said, and lifted his hands to cup Snow’s face.

Simon smiled at him, lips parted, breath coming uneven.

“Simon,” Baz said again. “You’re so fucking gorgeous.”

He whispered the last part and then dropped his hands to run them down Simon’s chest. The smile lighting up Simon’s face grew even wider, and his hands darted forward to pull Baz’s jumper off in one swift movement. His arms fell to Baz’s shoulders, and he dragged him in close until they were pressed together, chest to chest, skin to skin, lips to lips.

Baz had never felt so warm.

 

{+}

 

Simon woke with his arms around Baz and a buzzing in his ears.

He was slowly getting used to the feeling; he’d woken up next to Baz every morning for the past three days, their bodies nestled together in the warm, cavernous canopy of Baz’s bed. It was larger than the delicate little thing Simon had slept in when he’d first stayed over, and sturdier too.

All of Baz’s room was sturdy, actually. Firm, serious walnut furnishings and fabrics in rich colours, set against the largest window Simon had ever seen. Laying in bed on his back, with Baz’s head of messy black hair resting on his chest, Simon could see all the way to the New Forest.

Simon loved the room. Loved the light and the sight of books scattered everywhere and the smell of the old fireplace and the persistent tang of citrusy cleaning products and wood polish. He loved that it felt permanent and masculine and he loved that everytime he was in it he was with Baz. Kissing Baz, or laughing with Baz late at night, or shoving his feet into Baz’s lap while he read. Whispering and sighing as he moved against Baz, or just waking up with Baz in his arms. He loved it all.

The first day he’d woken like that had been heavenly. He’d missed having a warmth next to him in the night, missed having someone firm and solid by his side. He’d missed having cold feet up tangled up in his, and stretching lazily against someone’s back.

And he loved Baz’s back. He loved the firm plains of it; the way it was smooth and dark and flawless, save for one small, pale birthmark on the nape of his neck. He loved the way Baz’s shoulder bones jutted out and came together as he had stretched like a cat just before rolling over and smiling sleepily at him that first morning.

“Hey,” Simon said.

It was the first thing he’d said really, after the kitchen. After the wet clothes discarded on the floor and the laughing, desperate kisses as they tried to climb the staircase in the dark. He’d stayed mostly quiet. Baz had been the one who hadn’t stopped talking, who hadn’t stopped nervously chattering and keeping up a constant stream of gibberish. Simon was fairly sure he’d gone from “I want” to “hey” with only happy silence in between.

“Hey,” Baz had whispered back. He looked wary. His grey eyes had narrowed, his brow had creased, and he had watched Simon like prey watches a predator, waiting for the strike.

“Do you want tea?” Simon had mumbled around a massive yawn that caused his jaw to crack. Baz had nodded, his creases losing their edge, his eyes growing sleepy again, the smile coming back to his mouth.

And then Simon had gotten up and Baz had fallen back asleep, and Simon had made sure that when Baz woke up again there was tea on his bedside table and a warm man and dog in his bed.

He liked their quiet, happy mornings.

The buzzing he was currently hearing was new though. And persistent. Simon pushed himself up and tried to focus on what he was hearing, and the sound narrowed. The buzzing of a phone.

“Mhm, sorry, sorry, that’s me,” Simon mumbled, rolling over to pat at his pillows. He’d stashed it there at some point the night before, after Baz had fallen asleep next to him while reading, and Simon had grown tired of silently scrolling through the internet.

“Throw it out the window,” Baz snapped from beside him, pulling the hood of the sweatshirt he had stolen from Simon up over his hair before shoving his head under his pillow. He looked like he was trying to bury himself alive in the bed.

“Sorry, sorry,” Simon whispered to him, putting his hand on his back and pressing softly before looking at the phone.

“Oh, shit, uh — Hey Pen! Alright?”

Baz sat up.

“You’re answering it?” he hissed.

Simon swatted at him and sat up fully, adjusting the blankets around his lap as he clutched his phone to his ear with the other hand. When she answered, Penny’s voice was higher than normal.

Hey Simon!” Penny said on the other end. “So, you know how I mentioned that Micah was taking me to dinner last night?”

“Yeah,” Simon said. “Right, yeah, you mentioned that.” Baz huffed and collapsed back onto the pillows.

“I want tea,” Baz whispered. Simon put a hand over Baz’s face and pushed him away.

“Well, he asked me to marry him,” Penny was chattering. “It was kind of awful timing, because I was going to ask him. But anyway, we asked each other, and we said yes!”

“Oh my God,” Simon said, his voice pitching upwards. “Holy shit, wow. Uh, congratulations!” He grinned widely and pulled the phone away from his ear. “Pen got engaged!” he mouthed to Baz.

“Bully for Pen,” Baz mumbled, reaching out to trace the curve of Snow’s knee over the blanket. It tickled.

“We’re having an engagement party at my parents’ house tonight. You’ll be there, yeah? I want you as Man of Honour.”

“Yeah, of course,” Simon said, still nodding even though she couldn’t see him. He didn’t think he could stop smiling. Penny was getting married. She wanted him as Man of Honour. He didn’t know what a Man of Honour did but he was going to do it so fucking well for her. “Yeah, absolutely. I’ll leave today. Should I head to your mum’s?”

Baz’s hand went still.

“Come round to ours first, we need to make sure you wear something nice. Mum’ll go mad if you’re in trackies. Will it take you long to get home?”

“Uh, no, it’s not a long trip, I can be home by the afternoon,” Simon said, his grin never wavering.

Baz turned over beside him.

“Simon, I’m… I’m very happy,” Penny breathed.

“Me too,” Simon replied. His heart was bursting. “I can’t wait to see you. Oh, Pen, this is brilliant, really.”

Baz carefully sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, and then stood up and pulled on his jogging bottoms. Simon watched him do it. He felt a little creepy sometimes, watching Baz and having opinions on Baz wearing jogging bottoms. But he couldn’t help it. He couldn’t not look at him.

“Come straight here, we’ll talk when you get here, okay? Micah says he has things to talk over with you, whatever that means. God help me if it’s some kind of patriarchal asking permission bullshit .”

Simon let out a bark of laughter and watched as Baz quietly slipped from the room.

“Alright, yeah. See you soon. Love you.”

He rung off and stared at the ceiling for a moment, just smiling. Pen was engaged. He sat back against the pillows. He didn’t know the last time he’d been this happy. He breathed deep, taking in the cool morning air and winter sunshine and the mixed up smells of Baz’s room, and held it in his lungs as long as he could. He felt like he would burst from within, stretched and filled by the sheer niceness of it all.

It took him almost no time to get dressed and follow Baz downstairs. He needed to tell him what was happening, let him know he’d be back in a few days, and then go get his things from Ebb’s.

A small, small part of Simon wondered if maybe he should go downstairs and ask Baz if he wanted to come.

Penny would be fine with it. The two would get on. Really, really well. Scarily well, probably. But he didn’t know if Baz would want that. He didn’t know if that would be too fast or too pushy. Their whole “don’t think, just go with it” plan had been working out wonderfully — aside from the fact that because they hadn’t thought about what they were doing, they hadn’t talked about it, and as such Simon didn’t really know if he had the right or ability to ask Baz to be his date to his best friend’s engagement party.

Baz was in the kitchen sitting at the table, a mug of tea in front of him as he scribbled in his notebook. He was still wearing Simon’s hoodie, the pale grey of it creating a lovely, soft contrast to his dark hair and skin.

“Hey,” Simon said. “Penny got engaged.”

“Mhm, somehow I riddled that out,” Baz said, not looking up from his notebook.

Simon looked around for the second mug of tea that Baz usually made, but there wasn’t one. He crossed to the kettle to pour out the hot water and make his own, only to find Baz had not heated enough.

Unease began to creep in.

“I’m heading back to London for the engagement party tonight,” Simon said, shifting his pack. “Figured I’d just head out now, it’ll take me a bit to shower at Ebb’s and get my stuff together.”

“Have a safe trip,” Baz said, flipping the page of his notebook. His tone wasn’t cold. Just very polite. “Thank you for all your help with the house.”

The kitchen was silent, and Simon rather felt like he’d been punched.

Baz didn’t expect him to come back.

“I, uh,” Simon started, feeling wildly knocked off balance. His chest was tight. The happiness he’d inhaled earlier began to feel like a poison in his lungs. “I dunno how long I’ll be, but I’m coming back.” Another pause. “You know I’ll be coming back, right?”

Baz finally looked up.

“Are you sure?” he asked. It came out breathy, and just as some of the unease began to unwind itself in Simon’s stomach, he watched as Baz sent his marble mask slamming back into place.

“I mean, you’re almost completely through with the records. I’m not sure if it’s necessary for you to come back. There’s not much else for you in Watford. You’ve exhausted all your leads.” Baz looked back down at his book. “Truly, it’s illogical for you to return.”

Simon didn’t know what to say. He didn't know what Baz wanted him to say. He wanted him to come back, right? Simon wanted to come back. Even though there was no reason to keep searching in Watford — even though, to be honest, he’d given up his hunt long ago — there was still Baz. Baz was the reason.

But he didn’t know what to do. The words wouldn’t come.

He didn’t know how to move over to the table and drape his arms around Baz’s shoulders and whisper into his hair that of course he was coming back, that he wouldn’t be gone long. He didn’t know how to kiss at his jaw and ask him to come to London with him.

He didn’t know how to ask if Baz wanted him to come back.

He didn’t know how to ask if Baz wanted him.

“Uh,” Simon said, anxiety squirming hot in his stomach. “Yeah, I mean. I think my search is probably at a dead end, but—”

“Then I really don’t see what’s left here for you,” Baz said, standing from the table. He tucked his notebook under his elbow and collected his tea, and gave Simon a brisk nod.

“Baz, wait,” Simon said, his breath gushing out of him. “Just stop, okay? Don’t be like this.”

“Like what?”

“Like, like…” Simon tugged at his hair and growled. “This.”

“I’m sorry,” Baz said, his voice distant and polite. “But that’s not exactly clear.”

“Oh my God,” Simon said, huffing. “Just drop this fucking act, okay? I said I would come back, and if you want me to, I will, so just—”

“I’m not sure I see how that’s my decision. You’re a grown man.”

“I know! I just!” Simon grabbed at his hair again. He had no idea how this had spiralled so badly. He had no idea what was happening and why this was so difficult. “Just, stop! Stop being an emotionally removed fuckwad for like, two seconds, and—”

He trailed off. Baz was standing rigid. His whole body was held like a taut string, like he was going to snap at any moment. He was sheet of ice, and the only sign that there was anything happening beneath were his narrowed eyes and his flared nostrils.

Hot, syrupy guilt washed through Simon. He shouldn’t have said that.

“Maybe I’ll see you in London sometime,” Baz said, his voice completely blank. “Have a good trip, Snow.”

And then he fled the kitchen.

Simon wanted to follow him, to chase after him, to say something to him. But he didn’t know how. Just because he knew what Baz and the house looked like underneath the mask didn’t mean Simon knew how to lift it.

He stood blinking in the silent kitchen for a moment longer, waiting for the sound of Dev’s claws or Baz’s footsteps or Fiona’s audiobook, but nothing came. So he let himself out the kitchen door, shutting it softly behind him on the empty kitchen, and stepped out alone into the cold winter sun.

 

{+}

 

Pitch Manor was unusually silent. It was cold, and it was empty, and Baz did not understand why.

He had the fires lit. He had records playing. Dev clacked and groaned as usual, and Fiona blared her murder audiobooks. But the house was freezing, and Baz didn’t know where the happy, cosy, warmth and comfort that had been filling up the old walls and creeping through the rooms had gone.

That was a lie. He knew where it had gone. Fiona claimed it had buggered off back to London, but Baz rather thought that the truth of it was that it had spilled out through the cracks in the house, unable to stand up to his own quiet coldness.

It was easier to throw himself into work, thoroughly going through the motions, rather than dwelling on how the absence of one man could make a home feel just like a house. If he dwelled, he’d have to dwell on all the other, ridiculous things — the hurt and anger and pettiness building up inside him, and the immense resentment he carried for himself for creating the entire situation in the first place.

He was the one who had told Snow not to come back. In a fit of robotic, cold panic, he’d reverted back to his worst self — back to the emotionally removed prick who Niall had grown weary of. Back to London Baz.

He hadn’t realised that London Baz and Hampshire Baz were different beasts.

He tried to remember what pre-Snow Hampshire Baz had been and he tried to pick up that identity and put it back on like a previously discarded coat. He went over his lists. He swept through the rooms. He worked in the grounds and he chattered with Fiona about tea and mould and he took long, aimless walks through the property in the afternoon sun, Dev barking at his heels, the dead underbrush cracking beneath his feet.

He wasn’t hiding from his house. He was just killing time until it was night and he was alone in the cold quiet of it.

On the fourth day after his house grew cold, Fiona snapped.

She’d caught him reorganising the books in the library, stacking and restacking, alphabetising and re-alphabetising.

“I swear to fuck,” she said, pulling her headphones out of her ears and pausing her latest murder book. “You’re the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen.”

Baz had sat surrounded by books, his hair out of place, his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, and blinked up at her from the floor.

“Get up,” she said, shaking her head. “I can’t watch this anymore. Get up.”

“I’m busy,” Baz started to argue, but Fiona had already clambered over to him and was thwacking at him with a book. “Ouch! Stop! Fucking harpy, Jesus—”

“Put on your coat because we’re going to the Arms and we’re going to have a proper piss up,” Fiona growled, still brandishing the book. She kept jabbing it at him for emphasis. “And in the morning you’re going to either find some brass and go hunt down the Golden Boy, or you’re going to get up and get on with your life, but you’re not fucking moping. I’ve read about axe murders more cheery than you.”

“I don’t want to—”

“Wasn’t a request, your Lordship” she snapped, and stalked from the room.

Baz didn’t want a proper piss up at three in the afternoon on a Tuesday, but he didn’t think he had much say in the matter.

They walked to the village — because of the aforementioned plan to get thoroughly sozzled — and Fiona was mostly quiet. It seemed like something was pressing on her, but Baz was in no mood to pry it out, and knowing his luck she was just ruminating over one of her recent hideous novels. So they walked in companionable silence down the twisting road until finally Fiona found her voice.

“Did he say why he wasn’t coming back?”

Baz tensed.

“He… he didn’t say, per say. But his search in Watford was done. He doesn’t have any business left here, not really. There was no reason to stay.”

Fiona glanced sideways at him.

“But he said he wasn’t coming back?”

“There’s no reason to,” Baz repeated, feeling as though he were kicking himself in the face with every word. “I never expected him to.”

“Did you ask him to?”

“Why would I do that?” Baz snapped, kicking a branch out of his way. It went skittering into the middle of the road, where it would inevitably be snapped in half by a passing car. Baz felt an ugly curl of satisfaction at the thought of the inevitable destruction. “I’m a grown man, Fiona. And an employer, if you’ve forgotten. I have my own things to be dealing with, and so does he.”

Fiona stopped walking for a moment.

“Baz…” she said quietly. “You do know you’re only twenty-three, right? You’re so young. You’re supposed to do the weird, rash, sticky things now.”

“I’m a licensed barrister and a homeowner, and I don’t like sticky things,” he retorted.

“Christ, have you always been an old man? Were you walking around at age six in pressed trousers with a firm handshake?” She shook her head. “You grew up too fast, kid.”

He hated Fiona’s insistence on treating him like a child, hated feeling lesser and inferior. But he let it go from Fiona because, for better or worse, she had an aggressive big sisterly aura around her. It felt like she was allowed to say these things.

“Well, one of us had to,” he responded, trying to push back the rising tide of melancholy building within him. He didn’t want to think about Simon fucking Snow. He didn’t want to think about Simon Snow and his steady presence and the fact that he’d spent three mindless, blissful days in a light, lovely, sexy dream state with him before the bubble had popped and all of the cold had come rushing back in.

As expected, the Watford Arms wasn’t busy, but it held its usual Tuesday crowd, including the table of bridge biddies shoved up right next to fireplace.

“Morning ladies!’ Fiona called as she forced Baz through the door. “I’ve come to get this lad nice and sloshed and help him forget about a boy.”

Baz closed his eyes and considered throwing himself into the fireplace. He’d have to find a way to thank Fiona for airing all of his personal business to the Tuesday regulars.

“Oh, don’t tell us our Simon left!” Doreen exclaimed. The women around the table sent up a roar of clucking and tsking, and Mary — sweet, Adida clad Mary, who was one of the smallest people he’d ever seen — pulled out the chair next to her and patted it.

“Come on lad, come sit down and tell us all about it,” she said, smiling kindly.

He was mortified and struck rigid, rooted to the spot as Fiona pushed past him and headed to the bar to place their orders. He didn’t want to tell a group of strange women about the depth of his pathetic weakness for Simon Snow. He didn’t want to throw open his doors and let them see his cold and dusty interior.

But then he thought of Simon sitting amongst these women that second day he saw him, smiling and charming them and fitting in . The women had claimed Simon immediately, and the looks on all their faces were clearly giving Baz the same message: sit down, talk to us, we’ll take you in.

He’d never had that before. No one had ever really asked him to talk about things. Not like this, at least. He couldn’t remember having a circle of warmth and support and eager listeners with no agenda. It had always just been assumed that Baz was fine.

But he wasn’t fine. He was very cold, and he was very tired, and he was very lonely.

So he sat.

“Not much to say, really,” he said stiffly, leaning back in his chair. Fiona returned with a pint and slid it over to him before taking a spot next to her aunt. Baz raised the glass in cheers, and then took a long, deep drink.

“I met a man and I rather cocked things up, and now he’s gone,” he admitted, putting the pint back down on the sticky table. “And that’s about that.”

“Oh, ducky,” said Cora. Her tone dripped sympathy, but even worse, it sounded knowing. “That’s never just that.” The women around the table hummed in agreement.

“Why don’t you start at the beginning, duck,” Doreen said. “And we’ll tell you where you went wrong.”

 

{+}

 

“I thought about not going back, because he was such a prick, but that’s closing the door on it, you know?”

Penny nodded at Simon, her eyes large and serious behind her massive cat eye glasses. She had her legs tucked up on the chaise in her parents’ sunroom and her chin resting on her knees, her attention fully focused on her friend.

“I think you should go back,” Micah said from the chair by the window. He looked half asleep and Simon felt for him. He’d never spent this much uninterrupted time around Penny’s family before and the Bunces were… a lot. Even Simon, who had been around them for years, was feeling fatigued.

But then again, everything about being back in London — with its noises and cars and people — was kind of fatiguing. Like he’d forgotten what the city was like in the past two months.

“It’s wildly romantic,” Micah was saying in a sleepy mumble. “Meeting in the countryside, a whirlwind affair, a dramatic exit.” He brought a tan hand up to scratch at the scruffy beard he had coming in. “You showed up on his doorstep in a rainstorm, dude. You have to go back.”

Simon blushed a bright red. He kind of wished he hadn’t given Penny and Micah all the details of what happened. He really hated that Micah kept calling it an “affair” and using the term “lovers”.

“Well ignoring that,” Penny said, flashing a good natured eye roll at Micah, “You could look him up in London. I mean, just saying, he acted really badly. Do you want to drive all the way to go get your heart broken again?”

“He didn’t mean it,” Simon groaned. He was flopped on his back on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. “And I dunno how to find him in London. I don’t even have his number. I was an hour away when I realised I don’t even have his number.”

“You could use a phone book.”

“Pen,” Simon said. “You think I’m going to find him in a phone book? If I don’t go back to Hampshire, I’ll probably never find him again, I—”

“I found him,” Micah interrupted. He was staring at his phone. “Baz Grimm-Pitch? I found his Instagram.”

“What?” Simon asked, sitting up and feeling breathless. It had never occurred to him to search Baz out on social media. Partially because he didn’t really use it but also because he couldn’t imagine it. It seemed so wrong. Baz was… a quiet old house in the country and vintage books and muddy boots. Existing in his own little world and time. It didn’t make sense that he’d be on Instagram.

“Yeah, he’s on insta. Public profile too,” Micah said, adjusting his glasses as he scrolled. He stopped suddenly, his mouth falling open. “Oh my God, is this the house?”

He turned around his mobile to show a simple photo of Pitch Manor. It was of the rooftops and chimney and trees though, taken in the late afternoon just before dusk, when the sun was backlighting the house and the winter branches looked like thin fingers. Simon knew exactly where Baz had to have stood to take it.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Simon said, getting to his knees and shuffling onto the arm of Micah’s chair. Pen huffed and moved to the other.

“Simon, this house is insane,” Micah said, flipping through photos. He stopped on one of the main entrance hall, and Simon felt like he’d been kicked in the gut. Baz had to have taken it while he was there; he could see his denim jacket thrown over a chair. “Do you think he’d do weddings there?”

Micah’s face had lit up, and Simon grinned. He liked Micah. He was a romantic and a dreamer, and he’d have been completely lost to the clouds if Penny didn’t keep him grounded.

“I dunno,” Simon answered. “I’d bet he’d be up for it. He’s hard to predict.”

Penny snorted.

“Sorry, pass. I don’t really want to get married in some ostentatious manor home that’s a symbol of classism and wealth inequality and an ode to the self-importance of white men.”

“But look at the staircase,” Micah whispered, holding up the phone.

“Oh, that is quite nice,” Penny said, her voice growing soft as she reached out to take the phone. “Like something out of your books.”

“I told you Simon had been out there re-enacting Maurice.”

That was the one thing Simon hated about Micah. He was getting his PhD in English literature, and he only spoke in references to books Simon had never read.

“Is this him?” Penny asked, passing the mobile over to Simon. It was open on a photo of Baz, standing next to another man with auburn hair and wearing scrubs.

“Yeah,” Simon said, his throat tight. “That’s him.”

“Oh,” Penny said. “That’s… not what I expected. He’s kind of horsey, isn’t he?

“No, come on,” Micah said, his soft American accent lilting up. “He looks very… clean.”

“That’s not him,” Simon said, shaking his head. He didn’t look closely at Niall; he still felt guilty for what he’d said when he left the Manor. Baz wasn’t emotionally removed. Not really. Simon of all people knew that. “I think that’s his ex-boyfriend Niall. He’s the other one.”

“Oh,” Penny and Micah said in unison, their eyebrows rising.

“What?” Simon asked. “What?”

“He’s very…” Penny started, as Micah cut in with, “Gorgeous. Dude. You didn’t tell us he looked like this. Holy shit.”

Simon had a flash to Baz’s kitchen, his arms around Baz’s back, his lips parted and desperate for contact.

Simon, you’re gorgeous.”

He cleared his throat and grabbed the phone away, and flipped back to a photo of the house.

“So, yeah. I just think… he didn’t mean to push me away. He’s got issues.”

“Sounds like a winner,” Penny said, leaning back against the chair to rest her chin on the top of Micah’s head.

“Not like that. I think he's just not used to people… loving him. Or like, wanting to do things for him.”

Penny’s eyes narrowed, and Micah bit his lip. “This is such a novel,” he whispered.

“It’s mental of me to go back, but I’m going to,” Simon said, sighing. He got up off the arm of the chair and sat on the ground and blinked up at his friends. “I just… I dunno. What if this was the side quest all along?”

“I was so with you until the quest thing,” Micah said, scrunching his face. Penny sighed and looked back down at the phone, clearly still flipping through Baz’s photos. Simon kind of wanted to get up and join her, but also didn’t. He didn’t want to see what Baz’s life had been, see photos of he and Niall. He just wanted to see Baz now.

“Yeah, Baz thinks it’s dumb too,” Simon admitted. “I just can’t stop thinking about him, I guess.”

“Uh, Simon?”

“I know, you don’t think he’s good for me,” Simon sighed. “But I think I just have to go do it. I have to tell him how I feel.” Even as he spoke he could feel the determination slotting into place, his courage picking up. He felt ready for a fight. That was what was needed here: he was going to have to fight Baz for the ability to be with him. Was going to have to push him. He could do that.

“Okay, but—” Penny interjected, but Simon shook his head. His jaw was set. His brows were furrowed. He was going to do this.

“ I think I really like him, Pen. And if he stays in Hampshire I think I’d like… consider making a go of it, you know? Or if he comes back to London that works out. I’m not gonna plan my life around him but I just think he needs to know that I—”

“Simon,” Penny barked, looking up from Micah’s phone. “Micah followed him.”

“Uh, okay?”

“And he just messaged.”

“What?”

Simon snatched the phone back, his heart racing. There was the message system, already open. One message from Baz Grimm-Pitch blinking on the screen.

“Hello. Judging by your profile, you’re friends with Simon Snow. Would you please contact him and pass along a message for me? I think I’ve found his mother.”

 

{+}

 

The resolution of Simon Snow’s quest, as it turned out, was in the Red Room.

Baz had finally decided to clean it. It seemed the obvious next step in his home improvement coping project. There was nothing else to be done in the house, and he was already feeling a bit like his insides had been scooped out and filled with wind and mould, so why not just dive right into the dirt and muck around in it while he was already down?

The Red Room was at the end of the family corridor, right next to the nursery that Baz had spent the first five years of his life in. There was a small door connecting the two rooms; his mother had never used it, because she was too tall to go through, but Baz had loved opening it up and slipping between the wall like he was going on an adventure through a wardrobe to a different land, only to emerge in the lush red landscape of his mother’s study.

As a boy he had loved the room. The walls were a light kind of ‘60s floral wallpaper, and it was fitted it with a large antique desk and family photos and barrister cabinets stuffed with books. But it also was home to a stuffed giraffe placed high up on a shelf and a ridiculously large, over-the-top ‘70s rattan peacock chair set against the window, perfectly positioned for reading. When he was five, his little legs would stick straight out when he sat in it.

Baz moved across the room, footsteps muffled by the musty Indian wool carpet, sat down in the chair, and crossed his long legs over each other.

The whole room was like a ghost. It was coated in a thick layer of dust and grit, and he could feel a sneeze working at the back of his throat. Everything in it felt sharp and angled, plunging in and out of his chest, slashing him open and letting his childhood memories and messy emotions spill out.

He sat in the chair and watched the dust motes move through the room and allowed himself several moments to revel fully in these awful, uncomfortable emotions, and then he stood up, cleared his throat, and set to work.

He had decided long ago that he didn’t want to keep it as a shrine. He didn’t want her things to sit as they had for almost twenty years, caught in a snapshot before her death, untouched, unused, unloved. So he boxed up her papers and sorted through her books. He noted the furniture he would keep — the chair, the rug, an odd art-deco lamp and the urn-like side table — and mentally said goodbye to the rest.

The walls were slowly stripped, the dust wiped down and the grimey windows revealed as he worked his way closer and closer to the desk.

Somehow, of everything in the room, the desk was what he’d been dreading the most. There were still Christmas cards pinned to the cloth cork board next to it. Letters and mail still out on the desk. A pencil set on top of a scratch pad.

The study was the only room that hadn’t been touched and cleaned and used in the odd days and months and years after his mother’s death. The master bedroom had been cleaned, her clothes folded and donated and packed up to allow Daphne and his father to stay there when they came to visit. The nursery had been adapted for his new siblings, the parlour had hosted Christmases without Natasha Pitch, but in this room alone, her final days were still on display.

Baz didn’t want to look at the half opened letters and the never finished grocery list. So he swept it into a box, and kept his eyes rigidly fixed to the spattered collection of Christmas cards his mum had tacked up over the years and never taken down.

Most were the standard generic Christian greeting and snowy pastoral scenery, but some were cheery photos of families standing round in paper crowns and wearing festive plaid. He liked those. The Pitches has never sent that kind of card.

One in the middle — old, faded — stood out. It was a classic card with some manger scene, but paperclipped to it was a glossy photo of a smiling family of four stood outside an old farmhouse. Mother, father, son and daughter. It was the children who had caught his attention: a boy and girl in their late teens, he’d supposed. Judging by the heavy velvet dresses and twee plaid waistcoats, the photo had been taken in the ‘90s.

Holding his breath, he unpinned it and opened up the card.

“Christmas 1991 - Wishing you the happiest Christmas and many blessings! From The Salisburys. Ruth, George, Oliver and Lucy.”

Baz turned the card over again and stared down at the photo.

Lucy.

Her hair was a kind of wavy honey blonde, thick and held back with a scrunchie. Her face was bright and open and dusted with freckles. Beside her, her brother — Oliver, he had to assume — had darker hair, more auburn than blond, and several moles scattering his face. He looked ruddy cheeked and friendly, but more reserved next to his sister, who was broad shouldered and looked caught in a laugh.

Lucy Salisbury.

1991.

The timing worked out. The timing was perfect, actually, if Baz allowed that Snow’s mother had been slightly older than the nun had claimed. But that was reasonable — she could have been in her early twenties, maybe even 18 or 19 in 1995. Snow had been searching for someone much younger.

And the Salisbury family… with their beloved Uncle Snow….

Baz closed his eyes.

He’d found Simon’s mum. Tucked up in his own mother’s things, it had been there this whole time.

 

{+}

 

It was grey but clear when Simon drove up the drive to Pitch Manor. The wind was whipping at the trees and shrubbery, and the overcast sky and wicked chill in the air made the house look darker and sadder than usual. It didn’t look like the house he’d left.

Or maybe that was Simon projecting.

If he were being honest with himself, Simon would admit that he was sort of on the verge of panic, and very close to being ill. He’d been sick with anticipation the whole ride, thinking it over in his head. He’d planned to come back: not coming back hadn’t even seemed like an option.

He’d been determined to show up, even if Baz was going to be a shit about it. He’d sat on the floor of Penny’s parents’ sunroom and realised that he trusted Baz to welcome him back. He was going to fight Simon about it, but Simon was positive it was what Baz wanted. What he needed. He needed Simon to be stubborn for him.

The revelation about his mum kind of changed things, though.

Simon waffled for a moment with the idea of knocking on the main door, just like he had that first day before he and Baz had become he and Baz. But his heart squeezed at the thought of walking in like an uninvited visitor.

So he went around the back, following the gravelled path of grown over nettle and dried out bushes until he reached the kitchen door. He took a breath, wiped his hands on his trousers, and pushed open the door.

“I gave you a list. I said no PG Tips.”

“But I like PG Tips.”

“Yes, but I don’t, and you’re buying for me, you realise that, right? You have your own home where you can drink PG Tips.”

Simon grinned and closed the door quietly behind him. He could hear Baz and Fiona’s voices floating down from the back stairway, along with some kind of clanging sound that meant Baz was probably attempting to fuss with the water heater again, and was probably just going to break it again.

“This wrench is about to go somewhere you’re not going to like,” Fiona hissed, just before there was a loud bark and a skittering of feet, and suddenly Dev was barrelling into the kitchen.

Simon dropped to his knees to greet the dog, rubbing at his ears and burying his face in his fur, trying to breathe deeply and push back his growing anxiety. He hadn’t been gone long — it had been a week. Just one week. But it felt like he had been gone for years, and was coming home after a long absence.

Which was mental. The Manor wasn’t his home. It was Baz’s home.

“Alright then, Golden Boy?”

He looked up from Dev’s fur to find Baz and Fiona standing in the doorway, watching him. Baz was in one of his thick jumpers and sensible trousers, his hair pulled back from his face. Simon had liked him better the last time he’d seen him; hair mussed, wearing Simon’s hoodie.

“Alright,” he responded, giving them a tentative smile. “How, uh, how are you?”

He asked them both, but he was looking at Baz.

“I’m well. How was London?”

“Uh, good. Yeah, great. Pen and Micah are really excited.” Simon stood up and ran a hand through his hair. “They liked all the photos of the Manor. They wanted to come with.”

“Well, you’re all invited for a visit any time,” Baz said.

Simon wanted to smash something.

Baz was being polite. Kind almost, no mask. But not what Simon wanted. He wanted something sharp or teasing. He wanted… he wanted something.

“So,” Baz said, clearing his throat. He walked to the kitchen table and picked up an envelope and handed it to Simon. “I found this in my mother’s study. I thought it might be useful.”

Simon blinked down at the envelope in Baz’s hand. This was… this was it. He hadn’t expected this to happen so suddenly, not while he was still stuck with his head reeling over Baz. He didn’t know if he could focus on two things at once: throwing himself at Baz and kicking the shit out him until he agreed to let Simon in, while also facing down twenty-three years worth of abandonment issues to find his mother.

It was kind of a lot, honestly.

“I haven’t looked into it at all, but there’s an address on the envelope, and, well, I imagine you’ll recognise the surname.…”

Simon stared down at the envelope. It was addressed to the Pitch Family, but the return address was signed ‘The Salisburys’.

“Salisbury?” Simon asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I know,” Baz said. “Look inside.”

It was a Christmas card. Simon already knew it was going to be a Christmas card — Baz had said as much in his brief conversation with Micah and Penny via instagram. It was local, too. A nice watercolour painting of the Watford church in the snow. And inside it was a family photo.

Simon’s hands gripped the card so tightly that the paper creased beneath them. He looked like everyone in the photo. He could see it in the moles on the son’s face, in the mother’s blue eyes, in the curly sweep of the father’s auburn hair.

The girl — the girl with the freckles — though. He thought he might have had her smile.

“Christmas 1991 - Wishing you the happiest Christmas and many blessings! From The Salisburys. Ruth, George, Oliver and Lucy.”

“The post code is near here,” Baz said. “Not in Watford, but just outside. Ruth still lives there. The, ah, the biddies told her you may be coming to visit. They say she’s very kind.”

“The biddies?” Simon asked, his voice cracking. He looked up to find Baz watching him. Grey eyes hooded, lips pulled inward. There was a clear look of hesitation on his face. And care.

Simon swallowed.

“So I can visit her.”

Baz nodded.

“Whenever you want. Like I said, I don’t know too much, but the biddies told her you might want to come ask about her daughter Lucy.”

“Is she — does Lucy live round here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can we go today?”

Baz’s eyes widened and he blinked at Simon several times. He looked like a startled cat.

“We?”

Simon nodded and cleared his throat, his hand shooting out to grab Baz’s. He felt Baz startle at his touch, but he didn’t pull his hand away, and Simon gripped it tighter.

“Please come with me. I — I don’t want to go alone, and I want you there.”

Baz was going to say no. He was going to pull his hand back and say something daft and shitty and distant, and then he was going to flee. And Simon didn’t know if he was going to be able to follow this time, because he was so focused on the photo in his hand.

“Of course,” Baz whispered. He squeezed Simon’s hand back. “Of course I’ll come, Simon.”

 

{+}

 

The Salisburys lived on the other side of New Forest, directly between Watford and the next closest village, in an old farm house in the middle of acres of sheep grazing land.

Baz pulled up to the old wooden gate that blocked off the driveway from cars and cut off the Land Rover’s engine.

“Ready, Snow?”

Snow didn’t look ready. His leg was bouncing — had been for the entire drive over — and his hair was in shambles because he’d been pulling at it. Baz wanted to reach over and put it back into place, because it was a shame — the rest of Snow looked rather presentable. He’d scrounged desperately for a pair of tan trousers and and a button down shirt, and Baz had lent him a soft grey jumper.

“This is dumb, isn’t it?” he asked as he smoothed his hair in the large mirror in the Main Hall before they had left the Manor. “It doesn’t matter what I look like, it might not even be—”

“Appearances always matter,” Baz had assured him, and then handed him one of his own jackets. Simon Snow wasn’t going to be meeting his family in a muddy jean jacket.

Snow might not have been certain about the connection, but Baz was.

They got out of the Land Rover and pushed the gate open, and then made their way down the lane. It was a pretty walk; the trees and brush were rust and gold, the pastures lush and rolling ahead of them. It was the best of Hampshire, Baz thought. Wide open and sweeping.

Snow pressed into Baz as they walked, and when they cleared the gate, his hand came down and gripped the tips of Baz’s fingers.

Swallowing down his heart, Baz laced his fingers between Snow’s and kept walking. But Snow pulled on his hand sharply, bringing him to a stop.

“I know your feet work,” Baz said gently, tugging on Snow’s hand. “Do try to use them.”

“What if she’s not—”

“Then we deal with it,” Baz interrupted. “Come on Snow, where’s your pushiness now? Find your courage.”

“Kiss me,” Snow said.

Baz blinked.

“What?”

“Kiss me,” Snow repeated, his voice a growl. “I’m fucking nervous and I’m not good with stress, and you are fucking calming with your stupid fucking height and methodical movements and stupid rationalism.” He looked away at the sheep in the field behind them for one moment before turning to glare again at Baz. “But I’m just about to kind of fall apart now and go fucking spare, so please just kiss me. I know you fucking want this, and I know you’re not emotionally removed, you’re just nervous like I am, and I’m sorry for saying that, but we can deal with it later. Because right now I’m just, yeah. Kiss me.”

His blue eyes were wide, panicked, desperate. The wind kept throwing his messy bronze hair in front of them, and Snow kept blinking. His cheeks were pink and ruddy, and he looked so unbelievably soft, so open —

Baz felt like he could almost break in half.

Dropping Simon’s hands, Baz skated his fingers up Simon’s wrists, over his arms and shoulders and up to cup his chin. It felt good to touch him like this again. He hadn’t been given nearly enough opportunities to touch him like this.

As he dragged his thumb gently across his cheek, Baz watched as Simon’s eyes fluttered closed. He tilted his face up, ready to meet Baz. Baz’s insides were pulled taught. He could snap.

“Don’t be daft,” Baz whispered, “you’ll be fine.” Then he gently pressed his lips to Simon’s forehead. He dropped his hands and pulled them tight around Simon’s shoulders until he had them locked in a tight embrace.

Simon’s hands flew up to make fists in the back of Baz’s coat, and Baz could feel the other man let out a heavy, anxious sigh as their bodies relaxed together.

He wanted to kiss Simon. He wanted to back him up against the nearby tree and kiss him until he couldn’t remember his name. But this is what Baz had needed: to be held, to just breathe, to be allowed to be close and intimate and wanted.

He was pretty sure it was what Simon needed as well.

“Come on,” Baz said, stepping back. He kissed Simon’s forehead again and then took his hand. “Come on, let’s go.”

Simon kept walking, a bit unsteady, his hand looser in Baz’s. He looked rather dazed, and Baz squeezed his hand in reassurance. He wasn’t going anywhere. He wanted Simon to know he wasn’t going anywhere.

Baz hadn’t expected this, but here it was, laid out before him for the taking. The sudden intimacy, the quick trust and quiet companionship that had built between them. He wanted to rest on Simon when he was tired. He wanted to hold Simon up when Simon couldn’t stand.

It had been fast, but it had happened. And Baz didn’t know if he’d ever reached this point with someone before. He didn’t know if he’d ever opened his doors and let someone in and given them shelter the way he had for Simon.

He’d always put up walls, and no one had ever pushed through. No one but Simon.

Simon had pushed through and charged in and taken over. He’d challenged Baz, pulled him out of his head, forced him to confront what he wanted and needed. Of course Baz wanted him. How could anyone not want him?

It was a travesty that Simon Snow had ever for a moment wondered if he was wanted.

“Whatever happens,” Baz said slowly, turning to face Simon, “I will be here, and it will be okay.”

Simon stared at him, his eyes wide and confused.

“What happened to you in the week I was gone?” Simon asked, clearing his throat. He tried to smile. “Christ, you went and got all soft.”

“The biddies told me I’m distant and I need to be more open and up front.”

A startled laugh burst out of Simon.

“You told the biddies?”

“Well, they got me drunk,” Baz admitted with a small smile. Simon laughed again and his hold on Baz’s hand became more secure.

“Alright, well. Let’s do this.” He squeezed Baz’s hand, and then started walking, his long legs carrying him toward the front door of the farm house. Before Simon could second guess himself, Baz reached over and knocked.

The woman who opened the door was, to put it lightly, very surprising.

From her straw blonde hair and her ruddy flushed cheeks to the excitable Setter jumping around her muddy boots, Ruth Salisbury was, in every definition of the word, sturdy.

“Hi,” Simon said, straightening up and dropping Baz’s hand. “This is Baz Pitch, and I’m Simon Snow. I think you’ve been expecting me?”

Baz had been expecting some crouched old woman in a nice sweater set to serve them tea off her family china. But Ruth was tall and broad shouldered and strong despite her age, and when she had settled them in the small glass extension sun room, she had offered them coffee.

“That would be brilliant, thank you,” Simon said, wiping his hands on his trousers. “Do you, er, need any help?”

“No, no,” Ruth had responded. She was smiling, but her words were stilted, a bit awkward. “You boys just stay there. Make sure Davey doesn’t break anything.”

Baz thought she was talking about the Setter, but they hadn’t been formally introduced.

The room was small and comfortable, and littered with the detritus of family life. Photographs of smiling people were on sideboards, books stacked on neat shelves. He could see Simon staring at every photo, his eyes getting wider and wider, his face getting paler. Baz wondered if any of these photos were of William Salisbury.

“You know, I want an extension like this for the Manor,” Baz said. He didn’t. He’d never really thought of it before, but it suddenly seemed crucial that he keep Simon’s attention and distract him. “Put it off the Large Parlour maybe?”

“What? You can’t build onto the house,” Simon said. “Don’t you have enough of it as it is?”

“Maybe I want to feel outside while sitting inside,” Baz responded.

“You’re up at the Manor, then? I heard you were doing renovations on it.”

Ruth had reappeared with a slightly shaking tea tray and a second Setter. Simon shot up to take the tray for her and put it down on the coffee table between the sofa he and Baz were sandwiched on.

“I am,” Baz said, nodding. “Simon has been helping me with it. We’re opening it up for Christmas Eve, actually. For any locals who want to come see how she’s doing.”

Simon’s eyes went wider.

“Oh, that sounds lovely,” Ruth said. Her voice was steady and polite, but painfully awkward. Stilted. “Maybe I’ll have my son drive me over. We don’t go into Watford very much, admittedly.”

Baz and Simon nodded, and then the room fell into silence.

Baz wanted to say something, to get the ball rolling, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t do this for Simon, no matter how badly he wanted to.

After what seemed like a century, Simon cleared his throat.

“Mrs. Salisbury, I’m not sure how much Mary and Doreen told you. But I’m here because I was left at a convent in London as a baby. I’ve been searching for my mother and her family. One of the nuns told me that in the days before I was left, they had seen a young pregnant girl named Lucy around. They always believed she was my mum.” He cleared his throat again and pulled out the Christmas photo. “Baz found this photo of your family, and your daughter, in particular. And I was wondering if…”

Simon handed over the photo, but Ruth barely looked at it.

“That is my daughter, Mr. Snow.”

“Do you… would you have a contact number for her?” Simon asked. His voice cracked slightly.

“I’m afraid not. My daughter ran away to London when she was seventeen. I’ve not heard from her since.”

Simon deflated.

“Oh. Oh, alright.” He cleared his throat yet again, and Baz realised with growing horror that Simon was close to tears. “Do you, er, know if she may have had a son?”

Ruth’s expression was kind, but distant.

“I don’t. I’m sorry, love. We heard a small rumble from a school friend, but… Lucy, bless her, was a free spirit. She felt trapped a bit by village life and the family farm and… well, she left, to remove that pressure. But it came with cutting all us off too.” Ruth shifted in her seat and stared out the window. “I’m sorry. We stopped looking for her because she doesn’t want to be found, and I can’t speak to anything that happened after she walked out that door at age seventeen.”

Baz’s insides hurt. It was crushing, to have come this far and still have no answers. Simon looked like he was using every ounce of energy not to cry. His lip was wobbling slightly, and he kept blinking.

Ruth noticed as well, and her expression softened slightly. Baz watched her eyes rove over Simon’s face, taking in her first full look at him. His hair, his freckles, his oddly scattered moles.

“Out of curiosity,” Ruth said slowly. “What brought you to Watford? Or did you just come with Mr. Pitch?”

“Oh,” Simon said, blinking. “No, I met him after. It was, uh…” he bent over and began digging furiously through the rucksack at his feet, before removing the carefully wrapped tissue bundle. “Sorry, I should have led with this, I must seem crazy. It was this. I was wrapped in it. Does it… are you familiar with it?”

Simon handed over the bundle like he would a babe, and Ruth took it and unwrapped it with carefully, arthritic fingers.

She let out a deep, emotional gasp when the tissue fell away.

“Oh,” she said, running her hands along the silk border of the baby blanket. “Oh, she…” she looked back up at Baz and Simon. “It was missing. It took me ages to realise it was gone, I never knew if she’d taken it with her. It was in my bottom drawer, you see. It’s been in the family for ages.”

She rubbed the soft fabric between her fingers, and Baz watched as large tears began to fall down her face.

“It’s— all of us used this blanket. My grandmother had it made special. It was all the rage. There used to be an ‘S’ here, in this corner, but my brother actually lit the blanket on fire. My mum repaired it as best she could, but a whole section of it had to be replaced.”

The tears were coming steady down her face now, and she kept giving gasping little hiccups.

Beside Baz, Simon was crying as well.

“Do you think it’s possible,” he started, trying to speak with a watery voice, “do you think it’s possible that I could be your—”

“Can I hug you?” Ruth interrupted, bundling the blanket as she moved it aside to stand. She wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. “Oh, come here, love, let me hug you.”

Simon looked rooted to the spot, but Ruth didn’t give him a moment to argue — just grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him up with a surprising amount of strength for a woman her age.

Her arms locked around Simon’s shoulders, pulling him in close for a bone crushing hug. It was less than a second before Simon’s hands came up as well, landing hesitantly on her back and then tightening gradually, his chin resting on his grandmother’s head. Both of them let out small, watery gasps, and their bodies shook with tears.

Ruth was a sturdy woman, but she looked very small in her grandson’s arms.

“You’re staying around Hampshire a bit, yes? You’re not to leave yet, you have to let me know you,” Ruth mumbled into Simon’s chest, and Simon lowered his head further into her hair, nodding. His eyes were scrunched closed, like he was scared to open them, in case everything disappeared. “My Lucy never let me get to know her.”

“Yeah, I’m staying. Of course I’m staying.”

From the sofa beside them, Baz stretched out his hands on his knees and stood slowly. Moving quietly, he sidestepped the crying duo and let himself out into the back garden. He could still hear them mumbling quietly to each other as the door closed behind him and one of the brown setters that had followed.

The view from Ruth Salisbury’s back garden was beautiful. Hampshire laid out before Baz, stretching on to the horizon. He could see the New Forest on one side and, far far in the distance, the steeple of the Watford village church. Beyond there, if he squinted, he imagined he could see the chimneys of his home.

He sat down in the cold, slightly damp grass and the dog collapsed next to him. He pet the setter absentmindedly as he listened to the chattering of the birds and sheep, to the swaying of the trees, to the muffled laughter coming from the room behind him.

 

{+}

 

Simon’s hands were covered in engine grease, along with half his face, and probably a good portion of his hair. He didn’t want to smear it all over the kitchen door, and he was wearing a clean pair of trousers, so he attempted to mitigate the damage by pushing open the door with his elbows. It was awkward and not cute and he prayed Baz wouldn’t see.

Baz was sat at the kitchen table, papers surrounding him as he scrawled his tiny serial killer notes in his small pocket notebook. He didn’t look up.

“Alright, your car is back in one piece” Simon said, kicking the door closed behind him and nearly hitting Dev as he bolted out through it.

“Hush,” Baz said, holding up a finger as he typed something into the antique-looking calculator in front of him.

“Mind if I take it to go to Ruth’s?” Simon asked, turning on the sink with his elbow. “I think it’s meant to rain, and I’d like to check how it runs. Oh, also Ruth offered to bring some cider for Christmas Eve.”

“Kindly shut the fuck up,” Baz hissed, punching a button again.

“By the way, there’s a wonky looking stone in the wall near the gate—”

“I’m going to fucking murder you if you don’t shut up and let me finish the fucking calculations for the builders,” Baz snarled, looking up for the first time. His tone was dangerous, but there was a soft smile at the corners of his grey eyes, which was the only reason Simon agreed to shut up.

He knew how titchy Baz got when trying to do maths. Maths and mechanics. The only things in which Tyrannus Basilton Grimm Pitch III did not excel.

Simon dried his hands and leant back against the counter to watch Baz work. The fire blazed by his side and the gloomy December weather cast damp grey light through the windows. But the kitchen was warm, and Baz was wearing Simon’s socks, and there was a second, untouched cup of tea sitting on the table.

He wondered if this was mad. Taking up in this house with Baz and not talking about the future or what came next. Both of them just following the path of the here and now, knowing they couldn’t stay there forever, but not wanting to figure it out. Baz focused on rebuilding his home. Simon focused on building his.

He wondered if it was mad that they’d only known each other for two months, and yet he was thinking of Baz like a permanent fixture in his life. A firm wall in the life Simon was slowly — finally — building.

Baz would never say it, but he’d been treating and thinking of Simon the same way. Simon could tell, from the second tea and stolen socks to the way Baz had laughed mockingly at him the previous night while they lay in bed, because Simon had never actually read Jane Eyre, despite all his references.

“I’ll get you the book for your birthday, and I expect you to read it, you illiterate lump,” Baz had said, curling in closer until his hair tickled at Simon’s nose and his lips brushed the corner of his mouth. “Even if I have to read it to you myself.”

It was December 23, and Simon’s birthday was in June. The idea that they may be doing this in June — stealing socks and making tea and crowding each other in bed to steal laughing kisses — had shot through Simon like a bolt. He didn’t know where they’d be — whether they’d be in some small London flat or whether they’d be wandering the drive of Pitch Manor — but he felt relatively confident that whatever place or form they’d be in, they’d be together.

They’d built something, Simon was sure. Something strong and beautiful and old.

In front of him, Baz lifted his head from his notebook and lowered his hand.

“You may speak now,” he said, his tone imperious.

Simon rolled his eyes and pushed off from the counter.

“I’m going to Ruth’s, and I’m taking the Land Rover, because you don’t deserve to have it. And then I’m probably going to go to the pub with Ebb.”

Baz nodded and collected his books and papers, stacking them into even little piles.

“Drop me at the village, would you? I need to take the post and talk to some people.”

“Baz, it’s almost Christmas, you can’t start harassing the builders yet,” Simon said, frowning as Baz slipped on his ugly wellies and picked up his wax jacket.

“I can harass anyone I want,” Baz sniped back. “But I was actually going to go to the pub and harass the biddies about whether they’re going to come gawk at my house on Christmas Eve, and also maybe about how to get those fucking records out of my cellar.”

Simon paused.

“Oh, yeah. The records.” He held open the door and stepped back as Dev trotted back inside, shaking rain off of his coat. “Do you… do you think I should give those letters back to Ruth? The love letters? I mentioned them in passing, but… she should have them, don’t you think? She loved her uncle Snow.”

“Don’t give them back,” Baz said, sounding offended. “They’re ours.” He adjusted his jacket. “That gay smut is your birthright.”

Simon grinned at him and stepped forward to brush at Baz’s arm with his finger tips. Baz smiled back over his shoulder, and Simon didn’t hesitate before crowding him into the corner of the open door and ghosting his hands up beneath Baz’s wax jacket and warm sensible jumper, brushing his fingers across Baz’s skin as he leaned in to kiss him.

Baz smiled into the kiss, his hands immediately running up Simon’s arms. Baz pressed into it for several glorious moments, letting their breath mix and their lips pull gently at each other’s before Simon pulled back, shaking his head.

“You’re wearing so many layers,” Simon said, pulling his hands out from under Baz’s jumper and shoving them in the layer between jumper and coat. “So how is your skin so fucking cold?”

“Genetic,” Baz said, shrugging. “I’m an aristocrat, my blood is pure English rain.”

Simon rolled his eyes and pressed another kiss to the corner of Baz’s mouth, but Baz had gone suddenly and surprisingly still.

“Also, I’ve… invited my family down for Boxing Day. So they can see how the house is getting on.” He shifted, and seemed to realise they was standing in the middle of the doorway. He stepped away from Simon and into the slow drizzle outside the door. “I’m not sure what your plans are, but you’re welcome, of course.”

“I’ll be here,” Simon said, pushing him gently, until they both outside, and closed the door behind him. “Pen and Micah are in America, remember? I’m here.” Simon pulled his hand up to his neck and took a deep breath. Their refusal to talk about what was happening was nice, but sometimes it was frustrating, especially in situations like this. “I’m here, uh, as long as there’s a place for me.”

Baz smiled, and Simon could read the relief that washed over his face. The marble mask was gone; all that was left was Baz. Beautiful, complicated, infuriating Baz.

“Thank Christ,” Baz said, and Simon felt his insides warming. “I was worried you wouldn’t be around to clean up. You’ve no idea how much damage my siblings can do to antiques.”

Simon shoved him and marched toward the Land Rover, yanking its passenger door open. Baz would never cede the keys to let him drive.

“Yeah, you know I don’t work for you, right?” he growled, his shoulders hunched. “This isn’t my house, prick. I’m a guest.”

“Don’t be that way, Snow,’ Baz called, laughing as he followed behind Simon at a leisurely pace, his hands in his pockets, a smile on his face. The very picture of a country gentleman. “We both know you love this house more than I do.”

Simon turned away from Baz and looked up at the Manor, embarrassed. He didn’t think it was true — Baz loved the house, despite what he claimed — but it was true that Simon loved it far more than he should love someone else’s house.

He loved the seriousness of it, loved both its hard edges and its unexpected soft corners. He loved the old wood and the gloomy corridors and the big windows that let in light. He loved the spooky noises and the rumours of mummies, loved the cold floors and large attic, and loved that every day he found something new about the house.

Simon didn’t know if he loved the Manor because it was Baz’s, or loved Baz because he was the Manor’s. But he didn’t think it mattered.

They were the same, really. They felt like home to him, and he loved them both.