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What I Am

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The evening light was fading. Lord John Grey drew the curtains and lit a candle, watching the small flame flick to life. Hal would be there soon, and he would expect an explanation. Grey twisted his ring nervously, revelling in the way the too-small band cruelly tore at his finger. What would he say? What could he say? He knew what he couldn’t. And yet, Hal needed to be warned. For the sake of the whole family. John took a deep breath as the first taps of his brother’s footsteps sounded on the stone walkway.

Grey opened the door to him and Hal came in quickly, wondering only briefly where the housekeeper had gone. “What’s this about, John?” Normally, if some pressing business required his attention, his younger brother would go to him, either at his office or whatever club or pub happened to be his current second home. But the message had said to come to John, and to come alone.

Lord John poured two glasses of whisky, hoping that Hal couldn’t see his shaking hands, and handed one over. He gestured to the armchair nearest the fire. “Please, sit.”

Hal sat and sipped his drink but looked steadily at his brother until John, seated now in a chair across from him, opened his mouth to speak.

“There is something you should know,” he began. “Richardson has not only been a rebel spy all this time, but he has… information… that could damage the family. Our family.”

“What sort of information? About whom?” Hal had set down his glass and laid his hands on the arms of his chair, as though ready to spring up at any moment.

“About me.” John took a long drink, feeling the burn in his throat like a judgement from God.

Hal raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Surely, the man would say what he meant to say, at some point.

Restlessly, Grey stood. He paced around the small parlour, carefully looking everywhere but at his brother. “It—it doesn’t matter what he knows. The point is, he knows something about me, and it’s not good. Or at least, it could be very bad, if he chose to spread this knowledge around.”

Hal finally lost his patience. “Good God, John, what the devil is it?”

“You don’t need to know.”

“It rather sounds to me like I do.” Hal drained the last of his whisky. “I don’t believe you are morally capable of doing anything despicable. Surely the man is misinformed, or is—exaggerating. Do you really have anything to fear from him?”

“Yes, I do. And so do you.”

Hal sighed heavily. “All right then. What did you do? And when? Did you stab someone in the back on the battlefield? Father an illegitimate love child?” From John’s pained reaction, he was starting to believe his second guess might be close to the mark. “Was it a prostitute? Did you accidentally harm one while you were drunk?”

“Hal, please. I don’t see that it matters. The important thing is to figure out a way to keep Richardson from talking. A way that doesn’t involve giving him everything he wants, politically.”

“Has he already tried to blackmail you?”

“No, not yet.”

“Then how do you know he will? Is it not possible that you’re letting your fears run away with you over nothing?”

“No, I don’t think so. A…trusted person told me what he knows, and I believe her.”

Hal’s voice rose. “Ah, so this person, this woman, knows your secret, does she? And yet you won’t tell me?” This time the Duke did spring from his chair, coming to stand just inches from John’s face. “You tell me this is something that could affect my family, and yet you refuse to tell me more. Do you love me that little, John?”

John shrank back. “I…can’t.” His voice was weak.

Hal took hold of his shoulders and shook. “Look at me, man. I don’t have all night. Either tell me what you’re on about, or I’m going home, and you can try to sleep knowing that you’ve done nothing to protect the Greys.”

John twisted away from Hal’s grasp and sank down into his chair, holding his head in his hands. “I’m afraid you’ll… hate me.”

Hal could just make out the whispered words. He knelt in front of his brother and pulled away the hands that hid his face. John’s eyes were full of tears, and his lip trembled. “I could never hate you, John. I can’t help you—or the rest of us—unless you tell me what he has on you.”

John sniffed and sat straighter, steeling himself to his task. “I don’t know exactly what he knows—or how—but he apparently has reliable, first-hand information that I was seen, in a compromising situation, at a certain unnameable establishment.”

Hal frowned. “Name it.”

“Lavender House.” John locked eyes with his brother, waiting for the truth to register.

“Lavender House? What, you mean that old bawdy house where all the mollies go? Why on earth would you--”

There it was. Realization, dawning like a morning storm that brewed in Hal’s wide eyes. John held his gaze, challenging Hal to look away. He did. The self-possessed Duke of Pardloe had somehow lost his ability for speech. He rose from the floor slowly and returned to his own chair. “No.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re joking.”

“I’m not.”

Hal covered his mouth with one hand and John wondered if he was going to be sick. “How could I not have known, all these years?”

John swallowed. “You didn’t want to. It’s quite easy to hide things like that when no one wants to see them.”

Hal cleared his throat. “Supposing that I know what you’re saying, and that I do believe it. How on earth can we get out of this mess? If what you say is true, he could tell anyone—everyone. I’d lose my position, the children would be shunned from society, and you--”

“I don’t care about me. I’m only sorry about the rest of you. And William.” John’s voice broke as he pronounced the name of his beloved son. Dear God, what would William think of him?

Hal watched in silent misery as a tear streaked down his brother’s face. John was a soldier and an Englishman. John never cried. Seeing him like this broke Hal’s heart. “I don’t care what you are, John. You’re still my brother. And you’re still William’s father.”

“What I am. That’s what she said. What I am.” He lifted his chin and snarled, “I am a man, like anyone else. I am not a thing, or a--a monster. My desires and some of my behaviours may be different, but damn it, I’m not a ‘what.’”

“I’m sorry, John. I didn’t mean…”

“Yes, you did. Look, I know this news is… distasteful to you. But no one feels worse about it than I. If I could ever have done anything to change how I feel, I would have. Believe me. But it’s pointless—there’s nothing for it. I—I learned to accept it. But I never meant it to hurt any of you. I tried to be discreet, but…” He thought about adding, “a man has needs,” but decided that Hal had heard enough for one day.

Hal looked at him. “I understand.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Nevertheless, the fact remains that you are my brother, and I love you. I believe you were as careful as you could be. There’s no reason to waste time on recriminations and regrets now. What are we going to do?”

Chapter Text

Hal thought he had gotten over his initial shock, but as he sat thinking, waiting for John to refill his glass, his mind swarmed with confused memories and perverse images: John, as a boy, playing tin soldiers on the floor while Hal watched; a young, muscular groom helping a teenaged John into his saddle despite the fact that he’d been riding since age three; John walking into a lake, naked; and then a flash of twisted bodies, faceless male parts, his little brother kneeling…

“Hal?” John was holding the refreshed drink out to him and looking at him quizzically.

Hal did his best to hide the disgust he was feeling, having imagined all sorts of depravities involving his brother. He forced a smile. “You really developed a taste for this stuff in Scotland, didn’t you?”

“You mean the whisky?”

“Of course—what else?” And then it hit him. Two astounding revelations in one night. “John…” he began. “You and James Fraser…?” He wouldn’t have believed it of Fraser, but then he wouldn’t have thought John was that way inclined, either.

John made a noise in his throat that was somewhere between a snort, a chortle, and a sigh. “No, sadly. Not that I wouldn’t have wanted it.”

“But you… had feelings for him?” Hal thought he was beginning to understand—why John had insisted on keeping Fraser off the ship to the colonies and kept him in relative freedom at Helwater instead. Why he had married Isobel and taken William as his son.

“Have.”

“I see.” English brothers didn’t speak about such things. Even if John’s love had been a woman, they would not have discussed it. But as he got older, Hal found that he cared less and less about societal conventions. John's announcement had altered things between them—brought them closer in a way Hal hadn’t expected. He wanted to know more. “You’ve been in love with him all this time?”

John sat down and sipped his drink. “Yes.” He ran a finger around the rim of the leaded crystal glass, avoiding his brother’s eyes. In a way, it felt good to unburden himself. Only a handful of people—four now?—knew how he felt about Jamie.

“And you’ve had to hide it from everyone, most of all him, I’m sure.”

“No, I—I couldn’t hide it from him at all, as it turns out.”

Hal was surprised. “How long has he known?”

“He’s always known. Since Ardsmuir.”

“And he stayed in contact with you? Entrusted William to you?” Hal tried to get his mind around the problem. How would he react, if another man made advances on him? He didn’t think he’d stay friends with the man. How could Fraser?

“He forgave me for my initial…honesty, and came to accept me. We had dinner together, played chess, talked about all sorts of things. He came to trust me. He knew I wouldn’t mention my feelings again, would never try to…” John cleared his throat. “He understands the depth of my feelings for him—that I would rather die than see him hurt.”

“Dear God.” A perverse attraction, Hal could almost understand. But this all-consuming love? How could his brother have born it all these years? He wanted to comfort him, to sympathize. To be without love for his whole life, longing for something, someone he could never have… But Hal said nothing. He walked over to his brother and laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. It wasn’t much, but it was the best he could do.

“Thank you,” John whispered. Then a business-like demeanor came over him and he set his glass down heavily. “Other than killing Richardson, I think the only thing we can do is to find something on him. Something that would place him in the same uncomfortable position I am in now. Surely, a conniving, traitorous man like that must have some secrets.”

Hal removed his hand and nodded. “Yes, one would think. But how are we to uncover them? If you and I go asking around about him, speaking to those closest to him, they won’t tell us a thing.”

“Quite true. But I think I know the right people for the job.”

“More than one? Who do you have in mind?”

John smiled. They might not always have his best interests at heart, but Claire and Percy, he felt certain, shared his hatred of the turncoat captain. And both also knew exactly what was at stake.

Chapter Text

Percy Wainwright extended his lace-shrouded hand and John took it. His stomach flipped over at the brief touch and he took his hand away without squeezing. No, he thought. Not again.

“I’m so pleased you wanted to see me, John,” Percy oozed in his normal English accent, the French one apparently forgotten for now.

For some reason, Grey was irrationally angry that Percy had not called him Lord John. The intimacies of our past are behind us, he wanted to say. He did not. “I believe we can help each other, Perseverance.”

Now it was Percy’s turn to cringe. He turned to take the seat John was offering him. “Oh really? How so? Does this have anything do with a certain rebel spy?”

“It does.”

“Aha!” Percy smiled. “I knew you’d see through him eventually.”

“You might have simply told me from the start.” John frowned.

“What fun would that have been? No, seriously, John, I couldn’t. I was—am—playing many sides at once, and I can’t risk exposure.”

The furrow between John’s brows deepened. “You mean that someone would recognize you from the old country? Figure out that you didn’t hang for your ‘crime’ after all?”

Percy shook his head impatiently. “No, no. Well, yes, that too. But I was thinking more of my delicate position as a…”

“Spy?”

Wainwright looked around theatrically, as though someone might hear. They were alone in John’s house, because Grey couldn’t risk being seen with Percy any more than Percy could risk being seen with John. “Yes, quite.” Percy twisted his hands together anxiously. “Look, John, I—I am sorry. I wanted to warn you. I never wanted to hurt you. The time we spent together--”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, it does. To me, at least.” He looked into John’s eyes with a new sincerity. “It—you—meant a great deal to me. I could never forget.” Percy had paused on the way to his chair and turned back to his old paramour. He laid a hand on John’s cheek and left it there. “Sometimes I still dream about you…”

Grey was frozen to the spot. He knew he should make things clear right now, or Wainwright would get the wrong impression. He reached up to push Percy’s hand away, but succeeded only in laying his own overtop. Naturally, the other man took this as an encouragement. He leaned forward suddenly, pressing his soft, full lips to John’s. For a few seconds, the intervening years flew away, and John was back in bed with Percy, making sweet, forbidden love. He didn’t resist when Percy touched his tongue with his own, or when the hands his body remembered so well slid down to rest at his waist. Then the moment was over, and Grey sent Percy sprawling with one hard shove to the chest. “No!”

Percy had stumbled to the floor. Now he picked himself up and glared at his former lover. “What in God’s name is wrong with you? Is that any way to treat a man you claimed once to care about?”

“I saved your life!” John replied coldly. “Isn’t that enough?”

Percy advanced on him. “Yes, but did you do that to spare me, or to spare your conscience? It might as easily have been you in that cell, waiting to die.” A bony finger poked at Grey’s jacket.

“Yes, I know.” John’s voice was low and quiet. He had thought of that fact so many times over the years—even before Percy had been arrested. How easily he might have been caught, himself—found, disgraced, and sentenced, very possibly hanged despite his high connections. He remembered the day he’d gone to Percy’s cell to say goodbye. He couldn’t have born seeing the man he’d shared his private self with—and loved?—slowly strangled at the end of a rope. “Of course I knew that.” He cleared his throat. “But I also just couldn’t let you die.” He stared into Percy’s eyes, noticing, not for the first time, the beauty of his long, dark lashes.

“When I heard you’d married again, I must admit I was surprised,” Percy said, holding John’s gaze.

“Likewise. I didn’t think it was important to you to have such a… disguise. You don’t really seem to have hidden anything, living such a colourful life in France.” Damn, John thought. Will I never stop being curious about him?

“But, my dear, as an agent provocateur, I need the access to society that a high-placed marriage can give me. Don’t worry,” he smiled sensuously. “My wife knows me well and forbids me nothing. I extend the same courtesy to her. Occasionally we even find ourselves together, in the same bed. Is that how it is with you?” Now it was Wainwright’s turn to be curious.

Lord John refused to rise to the bait. “I am no longer married, as you probably know, and in any case, I see no need to explain my marital arrangements to you.”

“Oh, I see. An arrangement of convenience, was it? So you didn’t bed Mistress Claire?”

John walked to the far side of the room and poured two drinks, carefully keeping his back to his guest. “That’s none of your concern.”

Percy knew him too well. “What are you hiding for, John? So I can’t see you blush? You did bed her, didn’t you?” His tone betrayed his surprise. “I didn’t think you were like me, my dear man. For some reason, I rather got the impression that you simply weren’t interested in women.”

John rounded on him, eyes flashing, cheeks burning. “My interests in that area are none of your concern, sir!”

Percy took one of the glasses John held in his shaking hands and offered a sympathetic smile. “Did she ask you to? I know you would not turn down a lady who had a rightful claim to your attentions. You are a gentleman, after all.”

John took a gulp of his drink, grimacing as he swallowed. “I didn’t act much like a gentleman that night.” He was looking at the floor when he said it, but Wainwright heard, and let out a small gasp. “I don’t want to talk about it. It was…a very sad time.”

Figuring he had likely pushed his luck about as far as it would go for one night, Percy sat down with his drink and crossed his legs. “I won’t draw it out of you. If you ever want to tell me about it, though, I’m here. Now, what about Richardson?”

Grey audibly sighed with relief. He knew he couldn’t handle kissing Percy and reliving that night with Claire in the same visit. The way he’d nearly burst with the despair of losing Jamie, and tried to keep him alive in the only way his pickled brain could think of. No, it hadn’t been her he’d wanted. He shook his head to clear the unwelcome thoughts and sat across from Percy. “You know him better than I do. I’m hoping you can tell me what he’s like.”

Percy raised an eyebrow. “What he’s like?”

“Yes. In an unofficial capacity. In private.”

“You think I’ve--?”

“No, no. But you must know things about him that he wouldn’t want everyone to know. Does he have a mistress, for instance?” John tried to keep his voice casual.

“Why? Is Hal that desperate to control him that he thinks such a commonplace knowledge could alter the captain’s politics?” Percy sipped at his drink, found it too strong, and set it down again.

“Something like that.” John looked up. What was the point? He might as well be honest. “Actually, it’s the other way around—Richardson plans to use knowledge of the Greys to influence Hal’s political actions.”

“What knowledge of the Greys? Which Greys? Having been a part of the Grey family, I can safely say that I would not suspect any of you of being anything less than honourable.” His brow creased. “Unless…”

“Yes, you’ve got it.” John downed the remainder of his drink.

“Oh, no! But how did Richardson find out about you?”

“Yes, exactly. That’s what I’d like to know. How.” He rose from his chair and stood over Percy.

“John, you couldn’t think that I--! You know I would never say anything!”

“Do I? In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if you were working for him, coming here to seduce me, to get some kind of…evidence against me.”

Percy snorted. “Evidence! Good lord. What possible—No, John, I don’t believe you would think that of me. My feelings for you aside, why in God’s name would I put myself in the same position? Do you really think Richardson would be any kinder to me, if he knew of my true nature?”

“No, you’re right. That doesn’t make any sense. I don’t seem to be as logical these days as I once was.”

Some deep sadness in his friend’s voice provoked Percy to rise. When he put his arms around John, there was no resistance this time.

Chapter Text

Lord John was tired of resisting, tired of always doing the right thing. He longed to let his guard down, to relax into someone else’s arms just for once. So when Percy held him close, he didn’t pull away. He breathed in the mingled scents of woodsmoke, whisky, and Percy’s own slightly vanilla-tinged aroma. Must be French soap, he thought idly, as strong arms tightened their grip. It wouldn’t be smart to get involved with him again—not in this way—but John was tired of being smart.

“Forget logic for once, John.” Percy smoothed his hands over John’s silky back. “Let me take care of you.” His hands swiftly untied a restrictive cravat and then his lips were on John’s neck, brushing lightly against his exposed skin.

Grey felt himself melt into the other man’s embrace, his body yielding to the first real touch (outside of a hasty liaison in the outbuilding behind a nearby pub) he’d felt in months. Or was it years? Too long, at any rate. He allowed Percy to unbutton his jacket and waistcoat and toss them aside, shivered as a long hand found its way inside his trousers. That was the good thing about men—they rarely wasted time getting to the point. He felt himself stiffen with desire as Percy’s hand closed around him.

Minutes later, his trousers were off, and Percy was kneeling before him, teasing John’s cock with his tongue. “Oh dear God,” Grey moaned. He rested a hand on Percy’s head, applying just enough pressure to create his desired result. The soft mouth enclosed him in warmth and wetness, sucking gently. John closed his eyes, picturing the times the pair had been in exactly this position before. Then the image of the lean and graceful Percy changed suddenly to one of an auburn-haired Scottish laird and he began to pant heavily. Jamie, he thought. Yes, Jamie…

As a rule, he tried not to indulge himself in such fantasies, partly because he felt it would betray Fraser’s trust in some way, and partly because he tried to spare himself the agony of knowing it could never be true. Sometimes late at night, however, especially after a couple of good whiskies, the thoughts would tumble into his mind with no chance of being chased out again. On such nights, he would lie awake no matter how exhausted he may be, imagining all sorts of scenes between himself and the unfortunately quite married object of his affections.

Sometimes he imagined Jamie in the position that Percy currently occupied, serving Lord John with a vigour most suitable to his large Highland frame. Other times, it was John on his knees, tending to Jamie with a passion and a love that he’d never shown to anyone before. He could almost taste the man in his mouth, conjure up the scent and feel of him there.

John swayed his hips to the rhythm of Percy’s strokes, losing himself in the moment. Every nerve in his body tingled, though his mind was gratefully fuzzy. Percy had one hand at the base of his cock and one hand on John’s ass, gripping tightly. John felt the pressure building to a climax and decided to let himself go.

“Good Lord!” came a startled shout from the parlour doorway.

John’s eyes flew open. His brother was standing there. He must have let himself in with the spare key. John pushed Percy away for the second time that evening and made a quick grab for his pants. “Hal! I…um…we…that is…uh…”

Hal was as red as a beetroot. “I’ll wait in the library,” he mumbled, and turned on his heel.

Chapter Text

“If I had had any doubts about what you were trying to tell me the other night, I can assure you they are forever dispelled,” Hal said as John entered the library.

John kept his eyes to the floor. “I’m sorry you saw that. I was not expecting you.”

“Clearly.” Hal coughed, planning to rapidly change the subject, but then an overwhelming curiosity made him speak. “Was that our former stepbrother, Percy?”

Grey nodded. No point in lying now.

“John, how could you want… I don’t understand.”

John looked at his brother. “And you want to?”

“I do.”

Grey sighed heavily and flopped down into an overstuffed emerald-green sofa. “Percy and I…have a history together. Before he became a part of the family, we had… encountered each other. At Lavender House.”

“So you knew about him all along, and he you.”

“Correct.”

“Well, I can understand why you kept it a secret, of course. But I still don’t understand the appeal. You had so many beautiful, eligible women who wanted you.”

John laughed. “Yes, but I did not want them.” Surely in all his experiences as a soldier, Hal must have come across men who had not been interested in women. After all, he had known about Lavender House. How? That was a question for another discussion. Hal was staring at him as though expecting more. He tried to oblige. “It’s simple. Just as you and most other men desire women, I desire men. That’s really all there is to it.”

Hal made a noise as though attempting to swallow a stubborn bit of half-chewed bun. “And did you always feel this way?”

“Yes, as far back as I can recall. I think I was about thirteen when I figured it out.” He hoped Hal wasn’t going to ask him how he came to that conclusion. An unbidden bodily reaction to the family groom was not something he felt comfortable discussing with his brother.

Hal cleared his throat. “I wish you had been able to tell me.” Looking up, he saw the incredulity in John’s eyes. “I know you couldn’t have. I would not have understood. Not at all. But I wish you hadn’t had to feel… like you had to live a lie. Is that how it’s been, John? Have you been wearing a mask all these years?”

Grey considered. “Yes, and no. I was all the things you saw me to be: a soldier, a family man, a man of duty and honour. My interests and pastimes are real. I didn’t cultivate a passion for chess just to fit in at the Beefsteak, nor did I frequent brothels in an attempt to prove my success with the fairer sex,” he smiled. “I merely hid one aspect of myself.” The smile faded. “But yes, it was difficult. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with who I was. It was such a relief to go somewhere where I could be less guarded.”

“Like Lavender House, you mean?”

“Yes.”

“You… ‘fit in’ there?”

“The patrons there share an understanding, but we are not all the same. I have never had any desire to wear women’s clothing, for example.”

“I see. And Percy…?”

“Percy is different again. But I won’t tell tales about someone else.”

They sat in silence for several minutes as Hal mulled over what he’d learned. The business was, as John had said, simpler than he’d imagined, and yet far more complex. His ideas about mollies had been stereotypical in the extreme. Suddenly, he had a thought. “Does Mother know?”

“Dear God, no. Or at least, I haven’t told her. If she suspected anything, it certainly didn’t stop her from arranging my introduction to several young ladies at her weekly musicales.”

“Yes, I remember how happy she was when you wed Isobel.” Hal’s brow creased in concentration.

John knew very well what he wanted to ask, but his intimate experiences with his late wife were none of his brother’s concern. It was time, he decided, to change the subject. “I invited Percy here to ask him about Richardson’s private affairs.”

Hal seemed relieved to focus on a new topic. “Oh yes? And what did he tell you about the rat?”

“Not much, so far, other than that he probably has a mistress. But I think he will do a bit of digging for us. I’m hopeful we’ll know more soon. If you haven’t scared him off, that is.” They had heard the front door close earlier.

“Should I…”

“No, I’ll speak to him. I also plan to speak to Mrs. Fraser. Richardson has approached her and seems to welcome the idea of an exchange between them.”

“So you will recruit her as a double agent?”

“Well, I can try. She does tend to have a mind of her own, and of course there’s Jamie to worry about. If he discovers what we’re up to, he may well skin me alive.”

Hal rose. “Yes, quite. The man is a bit of a brute, I think.” Catching John’s withering glare, he quickly changed tack. “That is, he seems to be admirably loyal to his family.”

The two men walked to the front door, and John poked his head into the parlour on the way. Percy had mercifully disappeared. He turned to his brother. “I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything that may help—or hinder—us.”

“Please do. And John?” Hal had one hand on the door.

“Yes?”

“I’ll be sure to knock next time.” He closed the door behind him and was gone.

Chapter Text

Grey found Percy drinking a pint at the nearby pub. He slid onto the scarred wooden booth beside him.

“Well, that was unfortunate,” Percy began. “How did Hal take it? Did he even mention it? I can’t imagine him acknowledging such an act, especially as it concerns his own brother.” He took a delicate sip and wiped his mouth.

“He already knew. I’d told him.” John signaled to the barmaid for two more drinks.

“What? About us?” Percy was incredulous. His voice betrayed a hint of fear.

After taking several gulps of a rather disgusting beer, John recounted his initial conversation with Hal, checking first to see that none of the other patrons were listening. “So you see, he knew about me, but he didn’t know about us—not until tonight.”

Percy laid a soft hand over John’s. “I am sorry.”

John shrugged. “Not your fault.”

“Does Hal hate me now?”

John couldn’t tell if the thought bothered Percy deeply or not, but he decided to be reassuring. “I don’t think so. He’s had to face a lot of unpleasant things lately. I’m sure hating you is not high on his list of priorities. We really should not have done that, though.” His piercing eyes met Percy’s.

“But now that we have…” Percy began to stroke John’s hand with his thumb. “We might as well finish what we started, don’t you think?”

John pulled his hand away. “I must focus. I cannot allow myself to be…distracted. My family is in danger of ruin because of me. Thinking of my own desires would be selfish.”

“So you do desire me?” Percy grinned slyly.

“I should have thought that was obvious,” John huffed.

Percy’s gaze flicked to the rickety stairs leading to the spartan rooms above the tavern. “Meet me upstairs in ten minutes.”

“No, I—did you not hear what I just told you?” John was fighting an inner battle with himself. And losing.

“I heard. But I hear more than you say.” With that, he was off, heading to the tavern keeper to make arrangements for a room.

John watched him go, followed him with his eyes as Percy climbed the stairs without looking back. He sat immobile, his drink untouched before him, for several minutes, willing himself to leave. But the strain against his breeches was nearly painful. His body could not calm down. If he really did hope to beat Richardson at his game, he would need a clear head. He gulped down the remainder of the terrible beer and pushed himself away from the table.

***
Percy was waiting just inside a room with a partially open door. Through the crack, John could see the dark-haired man sitting on the edge of a bed, pulling off his stockings. Even the sight of his bare feet sent a shiver down Grey’s spine. He tapped on the door with one knuckle and entered the room.

Percy smiled as John closed and locked the door. “Come,” he whispered, and beckoned him to the bed.

John removed his clothing quickly and sat beside Percy, who had done likewise. “We must be quiet,” he said, then found Percy’s tongue with his own. His hand moved to Percy’s lap and enclosed his stiff prick in a strong warmth. Percy returned the favour, gripping John with a force that turned his already standing cock to stone. They kissed passionately for a time until John could stand it no more. “Lie down.”

Percy obeyed, spreading out on the mattress, face down. Instinctively, he knew that John didn’t want to look into his eyes and murmur sweet things to him. “I’m yours,” he whispered.

John made love to Percy with a fierce impatience, taking only minutes to reach his climax. When he took his hands away from the other man’s hips, he could see the red marks where they had pressed into tender skin. He collapsed onto the mattress with a deep sigh.

“Feel better?” Percy had flipped over and was grinning at him again.

“Yes, I—oh, sorry. Can I…do something for you?”

Percy shook his head and wiped the bedclothes across his abdomen. “You just did, thank you.”

“In that case, we should form a plan. Do you have a discreet means of prying into Richardson’s personal affairs?” John was already pulling on his breeches.

“No pillow talk tonight? No romance?” Percy clucked his tongue. “You have changed, my love.”

“Don’t call me that. I am not a young fool anymore. Are you going to help me or not?” he asked as he fumbled with his flies.

Percy snaked a hand across John’s belly. “Of course. If I can see you again… like this.”

So, John thought. I will have to bribe him with my body. Well, so be it. I shall satisfy myself in two ways at once. I will not let him draw me into some emotional attachment. “Fine. We should not come here again, though.”

“I have a very good relationship with Richardson’s valet. Very good. I shall start my enquiries there,” Percy smirked.

The touch of Percy’s hand almost made him undress again, but John dragged himself away and pulled on his shirt. “You had better not be poxed.”

Percy contrived a wounded look. “Do I look poxed to you?”

John swept his eyes over the lean, perfect form. “See that it stays that way.” He hurriedly finished dressing and made for the door. “Do not come to my house. I will arrange to meet you somewhere else. In one week.” He left the room and closed the door behind him.

Chapter Text

Claire was somewhat difficult to find. John finally tracked her down at a farm just outside of town, gathering herbs in a large kitchen garden. She smiled warmly when she saw him approach. “Lord John! What a nice surprise. What are you doing here?”

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Fraser. You are looking well. I was…just passing. Are you in need of a ride back to town?” He gestured at the growing pile of plants and herbs on the ground beside her.

“Yes, thank you. I…er… we are making preparations to leave.” She tugged firmly at a root stuck stubbornly in the tilled earth.

John frowned. “Where will you go?”

“Back to the Ridge. Home.” She didn’t meet his eyes. Not very long ago, they had shared a home together.

“That is wonderful news. I know how much the place means to you…both.” As usual, Lord John covered his sense of impending loss with a gentlemanly politeness. Claire threw the last root on the pile and gathered her skirts. John extended a hand to help her up. “How soon are you to go?”

“In a couple of weeks, I think.” She rose, still holding onto his hand. “John, I don’t know if I ever thanked you properly.”

“What for?”

“For what you did, to save me. When I was accused of being a traitorous spy, I mean.” Her lip curled in a smile but her eyes were serious.

He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it softly. “It was nothing. Now that you mention spies, though…”

She yanked her hand away. “Oh no. What? You didn’t just happen to be passing, did you? What do you want me to do?”

He glanced around to be sure they were quite alone in the yard. “You told me the other day that Richardson knows… about me. I am afraid I cannot let the matter lie. Hal, and many other people, are compromised. I must find out exactly what he knows, and how, and devise a way to stop him from telling anyone else.”

Claire had seen loneliness, longing, pride, pain, and grief in John’s startling blue eyes, but she had never seen such a mixture of fear and desperation. “How can I help?”

His shoulders relaxed as a great sigh escaped him. “You said, I believe, that Richardson had wanted to use your position for his own ends? Perhaps you could convince him that you are willing to do just that. If he comes to trust you, you may be able to discover something of what he knows, or something useful about his private life.”

Claire nodded. “Well, as I said, we will be leaving soon, but I’ll do what I can in the meantime.”

“Thank you, my dear.”

She tidied her precious plants into an enormous basket, which John promptly took from her, along with her arm. They walked together to the coach he had waiting. He opened the door but before she climbed inside, she turned to him. “I hate the thought that a horrible man like that could hurt you with such personal information, John. Information that is none of his bloody business.”

He smiled graciously. “Unfortunately, most of the world seems to think I have no business being what I am.”

“Who.”

“Pardon me?”

“Who you are,” she insisted. “What I said before—it was wrong. You are not a what, dear John. You are my friend. My good friend. Always.”

Chapter Text

The next day, Claire contrived to bump into Captain Richardson as he exited a house on the main street. She kept her eyes to the road ahead and feigned surprise when they nearly collided. “Oh! I am sorry, Captain.” Then she continued on her way.

“Mistress Fraser!” he called after her.

She stopped and turned back, as though hesitant. “Yes?”

“I am sorry to have startled you. Please allow me to compensate for my rude behaviour by inviting you to a little party at my home tonight.” He smiled and reached for her hand, bowing slightly.

Claire swallowed her instinctive desire to tear away from his grasp, and returned his smile. “That is most kind of you, sir. However, I am afraid that my husband is occupied this evening.”

He kissed her hand lightly, then let it go. “All the more reason for you to come. You won’t be the only one there not part of a couple. I insist. Perhaps we may have a chance to speak further on that matter I mentioned to you the other day.”

He was persistent, she’d give him that. And as long as he thought this was his own idea, and that she had to persuaded to come, he just might be fooled. The thought of spending an evening in Richardson’s company made her inwardly cringe, but she would do it for John. She offered him a gracious bow of the head. “All right then. In that case, I will come.”

“Splendid! Around nine? You know where?”

“Thank you, I do. Good afternoon, Captain.” She walked away quickly, not wanting him to read the disgust she was having a very hard time keeping off her easily read face. What would Jamie think of her attendance at such a place, with such a man? He was no fan of Richardson, himself. She would have to hope that he’d be so preoccupied with his own affairs that he would not question her too closely.

***
Lord John was untying his hair in preparation for bed when a knock sounded at the door. Peeking out the lace curtains, he saw with relief that it was Claire, not Percy or Hal. He was tired from another sleepless night and didn’t think he could deal intelligently with either of them right now. He opened the door swiftly and ushered her in. “Mistress Fraser, so nice to see you.”

“John, please. Call me Claire.” She undid her bonnet and made herself comfortable in the sitting room nearest the entryway.

He followed her in but did not sit down. “Claire. May I get you anything? Tea? Sherry?”

“No, thank you. I’ve been stuffing myself with food and drink all night.”

He raised an eyebrow and sat on a chair across from her. “Where have you been, if I may be so bold as to ask?”

“I’ve been spying on your enemy, at his own house. He invited me.”

John was surprised. “Dear Lord! You were not the only guest, I hope?”

“Of course not! What do you take me for? Anyway, he seems quite convinced that I am reluctant but possibly willing to assist him with his clandestine communications. He cornered me by the pantry and made suggestions about it.”

“Cornered you?”

Claire waved a hand in dismissal. “I was not in any danger. At least, I think not. I got away from him easily enough, and while he was engaged in a loud argument with two other guests, I had a bit of a snoop around.”

“A snoop?”

“A look. That is, I wandered around and looked into a few drawers, looked in his study, that sort of thing."

“Claire, that sounds dangerous!”

She frowned. “Well, it’s what you wanted me to do, isn’t it? I didn’t find anything, however.” Seeing his disappointment, she quickly added, “But I did hear his servants talking.”

John sat up a bit straighter at that and leaned toward her. “Yes? Talking about what?”

She smiled. “I made sure to stand near the kitchen so I could hear their conversation. They talked about nothing very interesting at first, but then I caught the words, ‘He likes them young. Very young.’”

Grey stood up, nervously entwining his long hands together. “And you think they were referring to the captain?”

“I can’t be certain,” she cautioned. “But that was my impression, yes.”

“Oh, Claire, I could kiss you!” He was beaming with hope now, and standing beside the sofa upon which she sat.

“That will not be necessary. I will be pleased if you are able to confirm this information, however, and use it to your advantage.” She rose suddenly, clutching her bonnet. “I really must go. Jamie may have returned.”

John, grinning at her, stepped out of her way. “You have my deepest gratitude.” He followed her to the door and poked his head out into the night. “You do have a carriage waiting, I hope?”

“Yes, thank you. Take care of yourself, John.”

He watched her walk to the carriage, making sure in his own mind that she was not being followed. When the driver pulled away, he closed the door and leaned against it.

So that is your dirty secret, is it, Richardson? he thought. But how to prove it? Tired as he was, he sat for an hour, thinking through the possibilities, and his mind kept returning to Percy. He would not endanger Claire any more, but Percy… He would see him in a few days. As he undressed, his thoughts wandered away from the problem at hand. He had taken a firm attitude with Percy the other night, mostly to protect himself. If he was honest, he could admit that having his ex-lover in his arms again had felt good. Very good indeed.

Chapter Text

Much as he tried, John could not forget everything he and Percy had shared, all those years ago. The sweet innocence of swapping secrets, sharing bodies. John had given himself to Percy in a way that he’d never really done with anyone else. Their love was more than flirtation, more than lust. He could still recall the feel on his fingers of Percy’s dark lock of hair, sent to him anonymously in a love note. They had been forced to wait weeks to finally meet alone, breathless and overcome with desire, in Percy’s rooms. He'd thrown Percy down on the bed and fulfilled his needs--twice--before pausing to stoke the flames. John felt the heat of the fire as though it were yesterday. “Do you want me?” he’d asked, and then he’d let Percy take him in return, presenting his trust as a precious gift. And Percy had understood what it meant.

What had happened since that long, slow, steamy night? Too much. John shook the memories from his head and donned his hat. He was going to meet Percy now, at an unused barn on the edge of town—somewhere where no one would see them conspiring together. It was their second such meeting since Claire had overhead the servants at Richardson’s house. He walked to the stable and mounted his saddled horse, relishing the strength and beauty of the animal between his thighs.

***
Wainwright, or Beauchamp, or whatever he called himself, was already there—Grey heard the snicker of his stallion before he saw it. He slid off his own horse and walked it inside.

“You always look so magnificent on a mount,” Percy smiled.

“I’m here to talk business only.” John kept his tone gruff.

Percy chuckled softly. “You’ll want to reward me when you hear what I have to say.”

“Oh?” Grey left his horse and moved closer. “Have you found evidence of what I mentioned?”

“I have found a witness.” Percy’s grin faded. “That valet I told you about?”

“What about him? He’s of age, I trust?”

“Yes, yes, you know I would never… But his cousin, Richardson’s boot boy, is not.”

Lord John expelled air from his nose in unconscious imitation of his steed. It was not the barn’s stale atmosphere that made him suddenly queasy. “How old is the boy?”

Percy was quiet. “Ten.”

Grey brought a gloved hand to his mouth and swallowed hard. He sighed once before continuing. “You are relying on second-hand information from your…valet?”

Percy was momentarily distracted by a note of jealousy in John’s voice. “Uh…no. I heard the boy’s story from his own lips. Unfortunately.” He made a grimace that pained John to see. Years ago, he would have gathered Percy in his arms to comfort him, having seen such a look. “And I saw the marks upon his body. He was crying as he told me…”

Damn it all to hell, John thought, and took Percy in his arms. He held him close, stroking his hair, until Percy broke away.

“He won’t go before the magistrate, and even if he did, likely no one would believe him. Or they would pretend not to.” Percy’s anger was evident.

“Did he name Richardson as his abuser?”

“Yes.”

“And detail the abuse?”

“Yes.”

“And it was more than just a beating?”

“Yes, much more.”

“Then we know enough to scare the captain with. He might not be afraid of the courts, but he would be afraid of a scandal. He doesn’t want to lose his own position any more than I want my brother to lose his.” John nodded to himself. “It will have to be me. I will go to him and tell him what I know.”

“Won’t that be dangerous?” Percy looked concerned.

“I don’t want him connecting the knowledge with you. Besides, do you not think me capable of defending myself, should he threaten me?” John turned fiery eyes on his former lover.

“Of course, John. You are the most skilled swordsman I have ever seen handle a blade.” Percy blushed pink. “I worry needlessly, perhaps, but I do worry about you.”

John’s heart nearly melted, but he said nothing, rolling his eyes dismissively instead.

Percy stretched out a hand to John’s chest. “Now that we’ve got that ugly business taken care of, what do you say? Did I earn my reward?”

Chapter Text

Percy’s ungloved hand rested on Grey’s chest. He could feel the man’s warmth even through his coat. Instead of answering him verbally, John picked up the hand and stuffed it down his own breeches. Percy responded eagerly, clutching his half-hard cock. He moved forward and kissed Grey’s mouth, parting his lips with his tongue as his hand caressed down below.

John pulled his face away from Percy’s kiss—such intimacies reminded him too much of the deeply emotional understanding they’d shared in the past, and he didn’t want to get emotional now. He wanted to pretend he was too hardened to care, to feel anything but lust for Percy. He ripped Percy’s shirt out of his breeches and quickly undid his buttons, pushing the fabric down until the dark-haired man was naked from the waist down. Then he unbuttoned himself, gently pried Percy’s hand from his cock, and spun him around.

Percy leaned against the closed door of the first stall, his hands gripping the rough wood, and waited. Grey allowed himself a few moments to drink in the muscular beauty of Wainwright’s arse before advancing on it. He shoved Percy’s legs apart with a knee and stood between them, licked the fingers of his right hand generously with the flat of his tongue, and smoothed the moisture over his now-throbbing prick. Percy bent forward and braced himself in anticipation, lifting his hips a bit to offer himself.

John was surprised to find himself not taking Percy swiftly, as he had in the room above the tavern, but pushing into him slowly and carefully, expelling a tremulous sigh as he slid in, gradually enclosing himself in Percy’s tight, hot depth. “You called me a beast, do you remember?” he whispered to the back of Percy’s head.

“Uh-huh,” Percy grunted.

“Do you still think me so?” He quickened his pace only slightly, thrusting deeply, strongly, his hands on Percy’s slim hips.

“You are… everything,” Percy gasped. “I have… been with so many… but it’s always you I imagine…”

John could get no deeper inside him now. Their bodies were joined almost invisibly. Grey’s swollen scrotum rocked like a soft wave against Percy’s skin. In a burst of kindness, he reached in front of Percy and stroked his long cock until they both came, exploding one after the other in a harmony of moans. Lord John took his hand away finally, bringing it to his lips to taste a drop of Percy before he pulled his body away.

He did not speak--could not. His heart was pounding not only from exertion but from the certain and completely unwelcome knowledge that it was happening again. He was falling for Percy Wainwright, the boy he’d once thought to be so much less experienced in the ways of the world than himself—the man who had so painfully disabused him of that notion, in the aftermath of his betrayal.

Percy turned around, pulling his shirt down to cover his nakedness. “I know I hurt you, John. I know I kept things from you. But never, ever doubt that I loved you.”

Grey fastened his clothing hurriedly, swung up into his saddle, and rode off through the open barn door.

***
After a stop at home to wash and change, Grey set his mind to the task before him. He patted the weapons in his belt—sword, dagger, and pistol--for reassurance as he walked toward the house where he knew Richardson was staying. A servant, seeing his uniform, froze in the doorway and John was forced to call out, “Captain! I would speak with you, sir!”

Richardson poked his head around the corner seconds later and eyed Grey with wariness. He nodded to the servant to let the guest pass, and walked before him into a small sitting room. “Lord John. To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit? Would you care for a brandy?”

Grey’s voice held a dangerous edge. His fingers twitched, aching to reach for his sword. “It is no pleasure to be here, sir. I will not waste either of our time with idle chatter. I insist you tell me what it is you think you know about me, and how you came by this gossip.”

Richardson looked shocked, but after a moment, he smiled. He poured himself a drink before replying. “I know all about your preference for male company.”

John tried stoically to hide the frisson of fear that leapt into his chest. “Whatever you mean by that remark, Captain, I demand to know who told you such… nonsense, and why.”

The turncoat’s grin broadened. “Oh, it’s not nonsense. I heard it from a source who was, at one time, I believe, very close to you.” He paused, enjoying the chilling effect of his words on Grey’s face. “Percy Beauchamp.”

All air seemed to have left John’s body—he wondered briefly if he was about to faint. He heard a loud drawing in of breath and was humiliated to realize it was his own. He mustered his senses quickly, however. “Impossible. The man you speak of has no such knowledge. Because it is not true.”

“So you say.” Richardson downed his brandy in one gulp.

“I do. And if it is one man’s word against another’s, I am confident that mine will be accepted as truth.” It couldn’t possibly be true—could it? Of course it could. Percy had deceived him before. He had led Grey to believe there was no one but him. He squeezed his eyes shut to block out the image of the blond Michael Weber, having his way with Percy while John helplessly watched. Even so, if he had told Richardson, the captain could not hope to prove it. There were no witnesses to their assignations.

Richardson laughed. “Truth or not, the rumour will put ideas in people’s minds. And maybe they will start to make sense of things they’d sensed but not understood before. Do you really want your brother subjected to such a scandal?”

Grey’s hand moved to his sword. Richardson caught the motion and stepped back. “You speak of scandal, sir,” John began, walking deliberately closer. “I know of one concerning you that is far more reprehensible."

The captain raised an eyebrow and continued his backward trajectory. “I doubt that.”

Grey was only a few feet from him now. “Whatever company I keep, you can be assured that they are above the age of ten. Well above it.”

Richardson reached to a table behind him and lifted a dagger from it, brandishing it in front of him. “You have no proof,” he hissed.

“I have all the details. The key to a good bit of gossip, you see, is in the details. Those are what people really want to hear. I know, for instance, that you not only take them, but beat them, too.”

Richardson glared at Grey, then his eyes darted to John’s right hand. He had heard tales of the lord’s prowess with a sword, and he knew a dagger was no match for it. Neither were the two young servants who were currently within earshot. Slowly, he brought his arm back again and replaced the dagger. It fell onto the table with a clang. “Touché.”

“Do we have an agreement, then, sir?” John spoke through gritted teeth. Richardson nodded soundlessly. “You will keep your wild speculations about my private life to yourself, and I, in turn, will not expose your own dark secret. If--” Here he paused menacingly, sliding his sword from its scabbard with a metallic swoosh and lifting the blade to Richardson’s chin. “If and only if you release the child from your service and swear never to employ another one again.”

“This isn’t the last you’ll hear of me, Grey,” Richardson croaked, his eyes on the glinting steel.

“Do we have an agreement?” The sharp edge of the sword grazed the captain’s throat.

“Yes.”

John returned his weapon, backed quickly out of the room, and threw open the front door, striding down the street with his head held high.

Chapter Text

Knowing that Claire and Jamie and their assorted entourage were scheduled to leave within the week, Lord John decided to visit Mistress Fraser right away, to tell her the good news.

“Thank you so much for your invaluable assistance, again. I did not want you to go without knowing the positive effect it has had. You may well have saved my family’s good name,” he said, delicately holding a teacup handle with forefinger and thumb.

Claire had brought out the oatcakes as well, which he had polished off rather less delicately. Adrenaline always made him ravenous.

“I’m so glad to hear that, John. What happened?”

He explained the intelligence he’d received from Percy (whilst sparing her the disturbing details) and recounted his triumphant visit to the captain. “So you see, I have nothing more to fear from him, unless he wants to ruin his own reputation, and I owe it all to you.” He smiled, bowing slightly.

“And to Percy.”

“Yes, I suppose.” He frowned and set the teacup down.

She looked at him strangely. “Are you and Mister Beauchamp…er…what name does he go by? getting along these days?” He didn’t answer immediately, and she continued. “Only… you seemed to have a bit of a history, and since you have been speaking about… personal matters… of late, I wondered if…”

“Percy Wainwright is no more trustworthy than Richardson.”

Claire raised an eyebrow. “Oh? I don’t understand.”

John’s voice was so low, she would not have heard it had he not been sitting directly across a very small table from her. “Neither do I.”

She sensed a sadness in his tone, and laid a hand over his on the table. “You…cared for him, I think?”

Instead of replying, he said hastily, “Richardson told me that Percy was his informant all along.”

Claire was shocked. “You mean, he’s the one who told him…?”

“Yes. Apparently.”

“And…he would know?”

John sighed. “You are an uncomfortably straightforward woman. Yes, Percy knows more about me than I would care to admit. I thought, once, that I knew him, too. But I was wrong.”

She took her hand away and sat up straighter. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you, John. I can’t believe he would be the instrument of your demise—not willingly. Perhaps Richardson caught him in a compromising situation and he was forced to share your secret, to save himself?”

“Even so,” John sniffed, “that is no excuse. A man of honour keeps the secrets entrusted to him, no matter the cost to himself.”

“Well, it’s not my business, of course. But I would like to see you happy with someone.”

“So that I might forget about your husband?” He rose clumsily, almost knocking the teapot over. “Forgive me, my dear. I am not myself. I really must go.”

He was halfway out the door before she stood up. “John—take care of yourself!” she called as he walked away.

***
The late afternoon sun had disappeared, and the streets were dark as Lord John headed home, his mind full of a confusing mixture of emotions: relief, that the threat that had been hanging over his family seemed to be gone; sadness and anger at the thought that Percy might have betrayed him yet again. When would he ever learn? His bladder ached from the pot of tea he’d drunk with Claire and he ducked into an alley to relieve himself. Was he so desperate for love that he would seek it even where he knew it could not grow? He resolved to shun Percy Wainwright—confronting him would only give him a chance to defend himself.

Grey was so lost in his thoughts that he failed to hear three men approaching. One had pinned his arms back so he could not reach his weapons and another had punched him solidly in the stomach before he even realized what was happening. Then something heavy fell on the back of his head and he went down, tucking into a fetal position to shield his body as the men kicked and kicked.

Finally, the blows stopped, and the alley was quiet again. John sat up carefully, feeling for his sword with one hand and his head with the other. Every part of his body ached, but he could feel a thick ooze sliding down his forehead and wondered if his skull was split open. Eventually, he made it to his feet, using the nearby wall for support. He staggered down the street, mistaken for a drunkard, until he finally collapsed in a heap of silk, cotton, and wool. He could see the lights of his house just a few feet away, but then the lights went out and he saw nothing at all.

***
“Me lord? Are you awake?” Tom Byrd, his loyal valet for years now, was mopping at his forehead with a damp cloth.

Grey opened his eyes slowly and tried to focus on his surroundings. “Where…?”

“You’re home now, sir. I found you in the street. Who did this to you?”

John closed his eyes again. He didn’t want to think. His head was throbbing and his ribs felt like they were poking through his skin. At least he could breathe—must not have punctured a lung, he thought.

“I’ve sent for your brother, an’ he’ll be here right shortly, me lord. When you were awake before, you said not to fetch a doctor. I don’t think as that’s sensible, sir, but of course I’ll do as you ask.” He peered at Grey’s face, which was twisted in pain. “Unless you’ve changed your mind?”

“No, no doctor. I’ll be fine, Tom.” Christ, Hal was coming? What would he say to him?

He had no time to consider the matter, because the Duke of Pardloe was already at the door. Hal rushed to John’s side. “John! Are you badly hurt?” He knelt beside the bed and took his brother’s hand.

John gave a brief but strong squeeze. “Just a bit bruised, maybe a cracked rib. And my head hurts something awful. Don’t worry—I’ll live.”

The sight of his younger brother lying injured in his bed reminded Hal of the horrifying time when he’d thought he was going to lose him. Years ago, in Germany, when a gun had blown up with John beside it, Hal had silently begged God as he’d looked at John through a veil of tears. “Good,” was all he said now, but he took the cloth from Tom and gently smoothed cool water over John’s face.

Grey knew that Hal was waiting for him to explain. Although he did seem to have a knack for finding trouble, John had not been beaten in many years. He kept his wits—and his weapons—about him, and his natural aura of authority served to keep even the worst offenders from attempting to rob him. “I saw Richardson,” he began, licking his parched lips to make talking easier.

Hal brought a glass of water to his lips. “Drink this.” He held it as John swallowed. “That bastard did this?”

“Not personally, but I’m quite certain he orchestrated it.”

“Why did you see him? What happened?” Hal was tense with nervous energy.

“Percy told me something rather unpleasant about Richardson’s preferences, and I confronted him about it.”

At the name of Percy, Hal grimaced, then registered what his brother had said. “His...preferences? You mean--”

Grey shook his head, then immediately regretted the movement. A small, stifled cry managed to escape from his tightly pressed lips. Hal brought the cloth back to his forehead, hoping to soothe him, but John brushed him away. “No. His tastes are beyond criminal—they are immoral.”

Hal saw no point in debating the issue of sodomy and morality. “Whatever can you mean?”

“Percy told me of a very young servant in the captain’s employ—a child who was grievously abused by the man.”

“A girl?”

John glared up at him. “What does that matter? Men like that care not. A child is a child.”

“Yes, I see. Makes me sick to think of it,” Hal added, bringing the cloth to his own lips. “So you walked right up to him and accused him of…it?”

“I did.”

Hal smiled. “Of course you did. And this…” He gestured at John’s injured state. “This is the result?”

“Not really. I believe this is just his small way of getting revenge on me. We reached an agreement: I will not tell the world about his hideous nature, and he will not speak of…mine.”

From his face, Hal could clearly tell that John did not consider their crimes to be at all parallel. Neither did Hal. “And you believe him? How can you be certain?”

John sighed. “I can’t. But I am afraid this is the closest we will ever come to being safe in that regard, unless everyone who has ever had such knowledge of me manages to conveniently die.” He closed his eyes. “I am sorry to leave any uncertainty hanging over your head, Hal.”

Hal reached for his brother’s hand again. “It’s all right, Johnny.”

He hadn't called Grey that in years, and the sound of it warmed John's heart.

Tom was hovering near the doorway. At a lull in the conversation, he peeked his head into the room. “You should rest now, me lord.”

The Duke of Pardloe rose. He stood for a moment just watching the rise and fall of John’s breath, his brows drawn together. “Please try to stay out of trouble. I’ll be back to see you tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

Lord John spent a restless night, unable to sleep more than a few minutes at a time because of the pain in his head and chest. Tom stayed beside him, mopping his brow, providing medicinal brandy, tucking in the covers his employer threw off at regular intervals, and just generally being there for moral support. Grey attempted once to send Byrd off to his own bed, but of course he wouldn’t listen. Just after dawn, John cleared his throat a little too loudly and Tom, who had fallen asleep sitting on the floor leaning up against the bed, was startled awake. He jumped up quickly, nearly stumbling onto the bed in the process.

“Good morning to you, me lord! I hope you haven’t been awake for long? Let me fetch you something nice for breakfast. What would your lordship fancy? Oh, and how are you feeling today? Any better?”

Grey chuckled. “One question at a time, please, Tom.”

“Yes, me lord, sorry, sir. How are you feeling?” He bent over his master and touched a cool hand to John’s warm forehead.

“Much improved since yesterday, I thank you.” He reached a hand to the back of his head and gingerly felt around, earning a stern glance from his valet.

“It wouldn’t do to be fiddlin’ with your wound, me lord! I washed and dressed it as well as I could, but it needs time to heal. Sir.”

“Yes, of course.” Nevertheless, he pressed two fingers against the bandage, testing to see just how bad it would be. The spot was tender but not unbearable. Encouraged, John tried to sit up, wincing as the tight pain in his ribs took his breath away.

Tom slid an arm around Grey’s back and helped him up, arranging the pillows behind him. “Now, for breakfast… eggs and sausages? Coffee or tea?”

John shook his head. “Just a small amount, please. I don’t quite have an appetite yet. Tea would be lovely.”

“Are you sure, me lord? You look as though you mightn’t have slept all night, if you’ll pardon me saying so.”

Grey smiled thinly. “I did not sleep a great deal, no. I am sure I must look a fright. Tea and one egg will do for now, though. Thank you.”

“Yes, me lord.” Tom hustled away.

John lay back against the cushions and rested his eyes, thinking. Try as he might, he could not get Percy out of his mind. Had it happened the way Claire suggested—had Percy revealed John’s secret to save himself? In that case, why would he in turn expose Richardson to Grey? Then again, such double-dealing seemed quite like him. Damn, John thought. Why in hell did the man have to be so duplicitous? They might have had… something together. He had loved Percy once, though he didn’t want to admit it even to himself. And the man he’d loved for years, with his whole heart, would never love him back. Jamie was a dear friend, but he could never be more. This gaping hole in John’s life begged to be filled. But was Percy even capable of love? He barely seemed like the same person anymore. There had been something innocent, almost naïve, about their past relationship, whereas now… But the past had been an illusion too, he reminded himself. You can’t trust him, Grey told himself. And yet…

By the time Tom brought in his tray, he had made up his mind. The only way to get over this fresh betrayal was to confront Wainwright. “I’ll be leaving as soon I am finished here, Tom. And no, you may not accompany me. I have a… private matter to see to.”

Tom’s eyes widened. He had an inkling of Lord John’s private life, and he didn’t care to know more, but nor did he wish the man to go out about town on his own, in his weakened condition. “At least take a coach then, me lord, if you must go out.”

Grey nodded, absently spooning soft-boiled egg onto a hunk of toasted bread. “I don’t expect to be long, but for God’s sake Tom, don’t alert my brother or send out a search party if I happen not to return by luncheon.”

***
Grey stopped the coach just up the street from where Percy was staying and boldly walked up to the door. Discretion didn’t seem so important anymore, and he did not intend to waste his day arranging another secret meeting. He knocked loudly and the door was answered immediately. A young girl curtsied to him as he asked for Wainwright.

“Yes, sir. This way please, sir.” She led him to a narrow sitting room and moments later, Percy joined him.

“John! What on earth are you doing here? I thought…” Percy had been shocked by the maid’s description of his visitor, and he was even more shocked by Grey’s haggard state.

“I was attacked in an alley yesterday. Did you by any chance have something to do with that?” He tried to keep his voice casual but his eyes shot daggers.

“Good heavens, no! John, what is wrong with you? Why would I want to see you hurt?” He looked genuinely perplexed. “Did they hurt you?”

Grey leapt at this remark with his characteristic logic. “They? Why would you say ‘they,’ I wonder?”

“Because no one man could best you, John.” Percy’s tone was gentle. “Are you all right?”

“I would not be standing here if I was not.” He remained standing, despite Percy’s gesture to the nearest armchair. “So you deny any knowledge of the attack?”

“Yes, of course I bloody do! What is this really about, John?”

“Did you tell Richardson about me? About us?” There was a hard edge in his voice and only those who knew him well would have been able to detect the note of hurt just underneath.

Percy, shaking his head, sat down. “John, we’ve been over this. No, of course not. Why would I do that? I suppose I can understand why you would be reluctant to accept me at my word, but what could I hope to gain from exposing you?”

“Perhaps it was more a question of blackmail than of gain.” He looked away from Percy’s sherry-coloured eyes.

“You are suggesting that Richardson threatened to reveal my own secrets if I did not offer him harmful information about you?” He waited for John’s nod. “How would he even know to ask me about you? Would he not already need to know somewhat of your, or our, situation?”

Grey considered. “You might have offered it, without him asking. Certainly you knew that Hal would be compromised, and that Richardson would be grateful to anyone who could place him in that position.”

Percy stood and crossed the small space to John, stopping inches from his face. “Do you think that I would trade your life, simply because you managed to escape suspicion those many years ago, when I did not? Do you really think me capable of such evil?” His eyes bore into John’s with the same intensity that had first attracted Grey to him. “That I would do that, to someone I loved?”

John looked away again. He couldn’t bear that intensity. Whether Percy was a liar or not, he was damned sexy. “How can I believe you ever loved me? You kept your past from me. You kept parts of my family’s past from me. You laid with another man in my bed—the very bed I had planned to take you to. You risked my own reputation as much as your own.” He was staring at Percy now, a bright anger in his eyes. “Why? For bloody Michael Weber? Was he that good?”

Percy raised a hand but let it drop again. “I told you at the time. He forced me.”

“Forced you?” John sneered.

“Well, persuaded me. He threatened me. Look, you know what it’s like! People who know, they have… power over you.” John said nothing, so Percy continued. “I did not deliberately hide anything about your father’s death. I didn’t know what I knew. As for keeping my past from you at first, you should know why I did. I was ashamed for you to know all of it. What I did… how I earned a living. I wanted it to be different with you. It was different. For me, at least.” His eyes were glassy.

“What are you implying? That I treated you like a…?”

“Not quite. But you did say you couldn’t love me. Friendship and physical pleasure were all you could offer me.”

“I was wrong,” Grey whispered.

“What?” Percy put a hand on John’s arm.

“Never mind. It doesn’t matter now.”

“Doesn’t it?” Percy, studying John’s face, seemed to reach a decision. “I think I know what made Richardson suspect.”

John looked up sharply. “You don’t think someone told him?”

“I don’t, no. After all, who in the New World would have any idea what you might or might not have done in London?”

“I thought that someone had seen me at Lavender House, or that Caswell had hinted something. Maybe Bowles, or…or Stapleton. They might have come into contact with him at some point, written to him? I don’t know.”

“So you didn’t believe it was me?” Percy sounded hopeful.

“What were you going to say? How did he come to suspect me?”

“It’s the way you look at him.”

“At Richardson?” Grey scoffed.

“No. At James Fraser.”

Lord John felt his heart beat furiously. “What?”

“Anyone who sees you with him can tell. Anyone who looks closely, that is. He is the one you mentioned to me when we first met, is he not? The man you loved who would never return your love?” Percy was looking at him kindly.

John did not like the sympathy he saw in those perceptive eyes, but he answered anyway. “Yes.”

“I noticed it the moment I saw you together. The way you look at him… Others might have been able to see it, too.”

“So you think…?”

“That Richardson merely guessed. It was a lucky guess, meant to entrap you, Mrs. Fraser, and Hal.”

John sighed. “I’m always so careful. How could anyone guess?”

“You are careful in what you say, John, and in how you act, usually. But your face, my dear, can tell a thousand stories. When you look at him, there is so much emotion in your eyes. I can’t help but be jealous.”

“Do you suppose he can see it, as well?”

“Of course.”

John’s cheeks were flushed an attractive pink, giving him the look of a man aroused rather than embarrassed, though he was most certainly the latter. All this time, he had thought he’d hidden his true feelings so well. Of course Claire and Jamie had known, but he had kept his feelings to himself. He’d not been obvious about it. Had he?

The two men were still standing very close together. John could feel Percy’s breath on his hot face. He turned his back, ready to flee, but Percy gripped his forearm through his coat. “A love that abiding is nothing to be ashamed of, John. It only proves your true worth. You are a man of deep feeling and lasting emotion. It only draws me to you more.” Now he put out his other hand and took hold of the opposite shoulder. “Tell me what you meant. You said you were wrong. Wrong about what you could have offered me?”

John turned his head away. “Please. I can’t… Haven’t you stripped me bare enough for one day?”

Percy kissed John’s turned cheek lightly. “What did you mean, ‘I was wrong’?” He turned Grey’s head gently with one hand and faced him, waiting.

“I did love you, Perseverance,” John whispered. “Oh God, I did.”

Chapter Text

John stood facing Percy, each man’s gaze locked on the other’s. Percy’s golden-brown eyes were liquid pools, his long lashes flicking with surprise. “You loved me?” he repeated, almost scared to believe it.

“Yes.” Now that he’d finally said it, the momentary weakness of uncertainty left Grey, and he could feel his strength rise within him. With one step, he closed the gap between them, set his right hand on the back of Percy’s dark curls, and kissed him soundly on those full, still-soft lips. They’d been in their twenties when they’d met, full of vigour and the lust for life. If John had allowed himself any personal dreams at all back then, he’d let most of them fall away over the years, of necessity. He’d lived a life of duty and devotion—duty to king and country, devotion to kith and kin, and particularly to an ideal of a man—a redheaded paragon of honour and strength who did not return his devotion. Eventually, he’d had no energy left for youthful hopes and fantasies. But now… Could they pretend they were young again?

Percy responded eagerly, his mouth and hands searching, unbuttoning John’s clothing just as quickly as he had that first night they’d shared. His rooms had been so cold then, they could see their breath in the air. Here and now, the morning sunlight flooded in, warming him. The sensation of it on his back alerted Percy to the window behind him, its curtains open to the street outside. “Come,” he told John, taking his hand and leading him into a darkened bedroom. He locked the door against any possible interruption from the maid and continued disrobing them both. Helping Grey off with his shirt, he gasped. “You’re more hurt than you said.” His fingertip lightly touched an angry four-inch bruise on John’s right side.

“I’m fine.” John’s eyes swept over Percy’s naked body, still lean and graceful if a bit softer around the waist than his twenty-six-year-old self. “You are beautiful still,” he said, as though he hadn’t seen him in years. They came together slowly, tentatively, strangely shy after John’s confession. Percy wrapped his arms around Grey and pulled him to the bed. “Be gentle with me,” John pleaded. His head had begun to throb dully, but other throbbing parts took precedence.

Instead of tumbling onto the mattress with him as he wanted to, Percy let John ease himself onto the bed and then climbed up beside him. Their lips found each other again, and their tongues darted into each other’s hungry mouths. “You had eggs and tea for breakfast?” Percy asked, smiling, as he pulled away. One hand smoothed over John’s chest, tracing the scars left behind from the shrapnel of a burst cannon.

Grey let his own hand wander, trailing over Percy’s angular hip and coming to rest at the steel-hard flesh of his manly sword. At this touch, Percy’s eyes grew darkly lustful. He turned over onto his lover, pushing hard against John’s prone form.

“Ouch!” John sucked in his breath and his free hand flew to his ribs.

“Oh, John, I’m sorry!” Percy raised himself up.

“Just a cracked rib, nothing to worry about,” Grey mumbled, gritting his teeth against the pain.

“You should have that wrapped up.”

“And you--” John seized Percy by the shoulders and flipped him, effectively trading places. “—should not tell me what to do!”

“Oh!” Percy laughed, both shocked and aroused by his partner’s resurgent strength. “I won’t bother telling you to be careful, then.” He shifted his weight to turn over, but John stopped him with a hand on his chest.

“Don’t—I want to look at you.” John felt the heat in his cheeks as he flushed a deep rose. Minute beads of perspiration dotted his forehead. His eyes took on the slightly unfocused look of a sky glimpsed through cloud and his lips were swollen and red. He swallowed, and Percy’s gaze moved from John’s face to the faint bump of his Adam’s apple nestled under a fine haze of dark stubble.

Percy stretched his arm out to a small table beside the bed. “Hurry.”

John opened the drawer, took out the bottle of oil he found there, and drizzled some onto his fingers. His eyes didn’t leave Percy’s as he spread the stuff onto Percy’s arse and slowly pushed a finger in, then swapped it for a thumb. Percy’s eyes rolled back as John gently stretched him open, and his knees bent higher. Kneeling, Grey took Percy’s right hand in his left, lacing their fingers together, and squeezed.

Ice-blue stared into buckwheat-honey eyes as John took him, feeling the heat of his lover’s body around his slippery cock. He grunted softly in reply to Percy’s open-mouthed pants, marveling in the expression of unhindered surrender to pleasure that he saw written on the other man’s face. Percy’s hand pressed his so tightly, the skin between John’s fingers hurt, but he returned the pressure and brought Percy’s leg to his shoulder, planting a quick kiss on the inside of his ankle. Then he closed a hand around Percy’s stiff cock and was rewarded with a loud groan. Percy was moaning openly now, and Grey hoped the maid wouldn’t hear. He kept watch on the younger man’s face, but it showed no signs of discomfort. Finally, John let himself go, giving in to the steadily building thrust of his desire and letting out his own unstifled groan. As though this sound were a secret password, Percy’s own dam burst, and his free hand closed over Grey’s as he jerked and shuddered with release.

“Do you now?” Percy whispered, his voice shaky with emotion. Their hands were still entwined, and John was still inside him.

“Do I what?” A thin ray of sun broke through a crack in the shutters and lit the greying hairs on John’s chest as it rose and fell.

“Love me?”

Lord John thought only for a moment. “Yes, my dear. Yes, I believe I do.”

***

The End