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two gentlemen at the end of summer

Chapter Text

At first the field seemed completely silent. The silence unfolded into small sounds if one paid attention; listening carefully, James could hear the rustling of the wind through the grass and the tree leaves, and the insects moving—slight, barely-there signs of life.

Both Wentworth and he were lying side by side under the shadow of a willow tree, too indolent to care much about the passage of time. James shadowed his eyes from the bright day with his arm, and he had to move it every now and then when the linen started to stick humidly to his forehead and the bridge of his nose.

The only thing that would drag him away would be the fact that they did not have any food with them. It would have to be got at Kellynch Hall, or better yet, at the curacy.

They had woken up early to go shooting, and had persevered in the activity well into the morning. Now both their guns lay abandoned a little way from them; they had sent the birds to Mr Wentworth's cook earlier, and there was nothing left for them to do.

The last few weeks had been like something out of someone else’s life—someone careless, perhaps, someone content. It had never before occurred to James that he was not content.

Two blue butterflies were tussling for a spot in a small yellow buttercup, and he found himself watching them from under his arm; lowering it, he used it to prop himself up slowly, still staring. One lost, and flitted for a moment around the other, annoyed.

It flew closer, and he stilled; he did not want to scare it away.

'I know what you are thinking,' said Wentworth from his right. He sounded annoyed.

'What am I thinking?' The butterfly approached his hand in fluttering, jerky movements, and he stopped breathing. Polyommatus icarus, he thought—it had no black lines crossing the white fringe in its wings.

'I am a terrible shot.'

The butterfly came to a stop on a blade of glass by him, showing its grey underside, and James breathed once, out and in.

'Indeed,' he agreed, before his brain could catch up with his mouth, and flinched. The butterfly fled. Still looking after it, he lay back down again, and tried to continue as if it had always been his intention. 'Indeed, you are not. You are not a terribly good one, that is all.'

Wentworth let out a sudden bark of laughter. 'I do not know if I should be offended that you think so, or flattered you would not lie to me.'

James said nothing; he would not lie to anyone, but he suspected that saying so would be less than perfectly diplomatic at the moment.

'Flattered, I should think,' mused Wentworth. 'Offence would take so much more energy. It would probably entail getting up and going off in a huff.'

'Better not do that,' agreed James, nonplussed.

'No, I will not be offended. Sad as it is, I have learnt to come to terms with this particular shortcoming—even my sister is a better shot than I am.'

James thought idly that it did not sound like he had come to terms at all. 'Is she, really?'

James felt him roll to his side before answering. 'Indeed. Truth to be told, had my sister been born a man, she would be an admiral by now. Being a woman, though, she found herself a Captain—an excellent man if ever I saw one—and got him promoted.'

When James turned to look at him, Wentworth had laid his head on his coat again, looking up at the tree branches. His profile was close, and James could see his eyelid twitching slightly as he squinted. James turned away.

'You followed her into the Navy, then?' he asked, less from curiosity than just to say something.

'Partly, perhaps. She probably thinks she made me follow.'

Wentworth's tone was amused, but James could not help wondering what kind of person could think they had made Wentworth do anything. 'I cannot say I could follow my sister anywhere—but to the city, of course.'

'And do you?'

'No, I do not much care for the city. I love Kellynch Hall too much; I used to miss it dreadfully when I was at school.'

'I could never understand being so attached to a place—though Somersetshire is as good a place as any for it,' Wentworth hurried to add, unconvincingly.

'But I could lay a bet on you feeling so for a ship, am I wrong? You are a sailor, through and through.'

'What do you know about sailors?' asked Wentworth, mildly. 'But yes, I can imagine feeling so for my own vessel.'

'I cannot understand the sea's attraction,' said James, in an equally neutral tone. 'Land, now, that is something a man can feel attached to. It is steady; it is home.'

There was a pause, and James thought Wentworth would not answer. When he finally did, he sounded thoughtful. 'It would, to you. I could tell you a thousand of common phrases; I know you think I read far too little, but I do not lack for literary images of the sea.

'But no—it is only... it is as you say, land is steady, it is always the same. It takes years and years to change; a man could be buried in a country parish for decades without him or the world noticing the time's passing. I would not wish it for myself.'

James could not speak, his own life a long string of empty decades lying before him. No, he thought, it was not so. He thought about the pleasure he felt when he could settle a matter between two tenants, the triumph of arranging his father’s investments so that they would not lose everything in fripperies, the contentment at seeing the land stretching ahead and behind him, his, and more than that, his home, forever. His heart filled when he thought about his land and his people, those to whom he owed everything; those to whom he belonged as much as they belonged to him.

He said nothing.

'No, I am a seaman, you are right. And a man of war, too. The service fits me perfectly.'

James found his voice. 'The Navy was a foregone conclusion, then, admiral sister or not.'

'I readily believe it,' said Wentworth. And he added, after some minutes, 'And you are a country gentleman, through and through?'

'I... yes, I think so. I cannot imagine myself anywhere else.'

'That is a shame; there is plenty of adventure for all country gentlemen, out there in the world.'

There was a pleasant drowsiness in the air, thought James, that was conducive to confidences, but he did not want the mood to turn too serious. 'Not for this one,' said he, finally, smiling at the canopy. 'All the adventure I want is here in Somersetshire.'

'That is, none.'

'Exactly.'

James felt Wentworth raising himself up on an elbow again, and then his eyes on James' face. 'So you do not want to travel before taking your place in your father's house?'

James found a blade of grass in between his fingers, and twisted it, looking still at the green shadows overhead. 'I... not really, no. I am needed here.'

'That is not what you want, though, is it? It is what you ought to do.'

'It may mark me as an eccentric person, but they are the same thing, for me.' The blade snapped, and James wound it around his index finger. He was not lying, exactly, but he was not saying all he thought, and the two actions were too similar for him to be comfortable.

'Eccentric is one word for it,' said Wentworth, sounding amused, and James blushed. He did not know what to say, and so he said nothing. Wentworth added, 'So this is what Edward meant, when he said Mr Elliot was an upstanding young man.'

'I hardly know,' said James, avoiding his gaze.

Wentworth settled back down on the grass. 'I think it was. He speculated you would be a good influence on me; I know he thinks I am too much of an adventurer.'

'I do not think I could be much of an influence on anyone; not even my family pays me any heed.' He had said it in jest, but then he was never any good at jesting—it sounded bitter. He hurried to talk over the awkward silence he fancied would follow. 'What does your sister think?'

'About me not settling down?' Wentworth did not wait for James' assent before continuing. 'She does not consider being a sea man as being unsettled. She would wish me to marry, of course, along the way, to someone similar in character to herself, someone who could travel the sea with me and put up with my impulsive ways.'

'She does not sound like someone who would put up with anything, if you do not mind my saying so.'

Wentworth laughed. 'I did make her sound terrifying, did I not?'

'I do not know about terrifying, but she sounds like a formidable woman,' said James, smiling. His eyelids began to droop, and he came up on his elbows and propped himself against the tree.

'That she is. She is a formidable sister, too; she keeps me in line.'

'She does?'

James knew he had not been able to curb the incredulity from his voice, but Wentworth seemed not to mind.

'She tries, at the very least. She does say that I am too pigheaded, so presumably, she is not completely happy with her own work.'

'I do not doubt you are pigheaded,' said James, 'but I find that is a common sisterly complaint.'

'What are you pigheaded about?'

'I do not like society enough, according to Miss Elliot.'

'Is that right?'

'Not really; I find I like it well enough. We are presumably talking about different things, my sister and I, when we mention society. She means I do not like her friends.'

His sister was annoyingly insistent about it. She did not want him to marry—James thanked the Almighty for that—but she wanted him to flirt, to talk, to spend an inordinate amount of time in the company of the insubstantial people that made up the whole of her acquaintance. He remembered observing deeper thought and a more sensible approach to life in school boys, whose whole ambition consisted of winning a fistfight.

He did not find social butterflies as remotely interesting as real ones.

That he was the only son—the heir—conferred upon him a sort of privileged position. Neither his father nor his elder sister liked him, but they both—especially his sister—knew to tolerate him. They desperately wanted to transform him into someone more acceptable, but James suspected they were arriving at the conclusion that it was a lost cause; for his part, he used all the leverage the situation afforded him to try to keep his sisters' fortunes intact, and his father from falling into debt. It was a constant struggle in which he had only one ally—an old friend of his mother's. His younger sister was away at school, and he suspected that even if she had been there, she would not have been much help.

'Fair is fair, since she likes your friends not at all.'

James sat up. 'I would not say Elizabeth does not like you,' he said. It was true, but it was not honest, so he added, 'She is cold with people she does not know.'

'She has said that you should find better things to do than being in my company,' pointed out Wentworth, reasonably. 'I am not offended; or rather, I was, but I am not any more. And in any case, not with you. One cannot choose family, after all.'

'She did n—' James stopped, and started again. 'She would not be as crass as that.'

'She may have not said it in so many words—but they represent her underlying feelings perfectly.'

James did not want to agree, but thought it useless to insist. In general he tried not to dwell on his sister's less Christian attitudes.

'In any case, I am starving here—let us go visit my brother; I am sure his cook by now has something ready we could steal,' said Wentworth. He had not finished saying it when he stood, and proceeded to put his clothing in perfect order again.

James attempted to make himself stir. His sister troubled him. She was older—no one could blame him for neglecting her education—but still he grieved her lack of depth, her unrelenting imitation of their father. Oh, he was a bad son—but how could he avoid seeing the latter's behaviour as anything but vain, as anything but the shallow spectacle of a peacock? His filial feelings were tried.

The butterfly reappeared under Wentworth's projected shadow, and James found himself wishing—insanely—that he could be as mindless. To be able to travel, worry free, duty free. He knew he sometimes thought of Wentworth as possessing that careless liberty of spirit—but he knew he was being unfair. Wentworth's life had its own duties, its own unimaginable worries and dangers.

And in any case, he did not want to leave. No, his ideal life was not in a ship, or in far away lands; it was in Somersetshire, inside Kellyinch Hall and under this willow. But he could not deny that the life he had imagined and thought perfect before knowing Wentworth would not satisfy him now, and perhaps the most baffling thing about this discovery was that he knew not why.

'Come, Elliot,' said Wentworth, and the butterfly flew upwards. Following its flight, James found himself looking at Wentworth's smile over his extended hand. 'Come,' he said again, 'do not be sluggish. Let us leave this unfortunate hunting business behind.'

'Do not be obtuse,' said James, accepting his help and getting up. 'You will be eating thanks to my good marksmanship.'

He shrugged into his coat, still watching the bit of intense blue hovering between them, until it tired and flew off.

'Be that as it may, hunting is dreadfully dull business,' answered Wentworth, good-natured, and started off towards the curacy.

James smiled and hurried to catch up with him, deciding not to say anything about having sour grapes for nuncheon.

Chapter Text

The bay felt powerful under him, and Frederick relished being in the fresh air, although the sunlight was too warm and the horse smelled of sweat. These were but small nuisances compared to what he was used to endure; overall, he decided, he felt content. As long as the afternoon sun did not reach his eyes--that, if anything, always had the power to annoy him.

But even then he would be pleased, he thought after brief consideration, glancing sideways at Elliot. His friend was holding his mount still and talking about crops and sheep or some other thing with one of his tenants. Frederick had known, when he had agreed to ride, there would be more overseeing than racing. He had agreed with the concept, and now felt mean and slightly ashamed at his impatience.

He understood, he knew what being in command was about; he even admired Elliot. He would make a fine admiral, say, for all his idealistic views and his mild-mannered approach to problems. He had enjoyed being shown the land, even if it was all fields and trees and the occasional sparrow. He had the feeling Elliot had little opportunity to show off and play master of Kellynch to an audience--an interested audience, one that cared because Elliot himself was passionate about things like crop rotation. And thus Frederick had spent the afternoon nodding and beaming and stating his approval of everything. And feeling proud, though proud of Elliot or of the distinction Elliot paid to him he knew not.

By the time they stopped to talk to the fifteenth tenant, who was, by far, the most obsequious and talkative, the sun was threatening to slip under the wing of his hat, his shirt was sticking to his back and he was growing restless, if one could be restless and content at once. He longed to run, he longed to canter, he longed to wrestle like he did when he was a boy and spent the summer in a permanent half-wild state.

'Shall we continue?' Elliot's mount sidled with his and Frederick grinned, tilting his head and crinkling his eyes when they hurt in the light.

'Let us race.'

The look in Elliot's face betrayed his disbelief, but it was not devoid of amusement. 'Race! Lord, are you not tired?'

'I am. But we are not old enough to let that stop us, are we? We could start by the road and go north,' he pressed, patting the skittish horse. Elliot smiled and the course was promptly set; from the crossroad up north to the big tree Elliot said they would find there.

And so they raced, across cropland and sunlight and open air. They began well, neck to neck and in the most civilized fashion. Soon Frederick knew he was going to lose, but he could not care less--as the massive tree came into view, he found himself enjoying the beat, the horse, the exercise. Elliot urged his horse into a sprint with gleeful concentration, and Frederick followed suit, close behind to the finish. He resisted the urge to whoop, setting instead for a laugh no-one but Elliot would hear, isolated as they were. He got a rare winning smile in return and they slowed down easily.

Frederick still wanted to run and wrestle, but instead settled for talking. 'When I was, oh, ten, maybe twelve, I always started before I was supposed to. Edward did not mind much, but my cousin... well, he is younger. He thought it was mightily unfair, and we even exchanged blows once. In the end, my brother--you will have noticed he is wise--charged me with the countdown. I discovered I cannot cheat myself; it is too disconcerting.'

'How very ungentlemanly of you.' Elliot's eyes were crinkled at him, dark hair wet on the temple. Frederick slid down his sweaty horse and made him walk, idly wondering where they had ended up, and if they had been around there before. Elliot's horse followed him lazily, since his rider did not seem inclined to dismount.

'Oh, and it was terrible manners, of course. We spent the summer at my uncle's estate, you see, so I was a guest and... In my defence, my cousin was always a spoiled child, too easy to annoy. Still is, unfortunately.'  

'You sound as though you were quite wild as a child.' 

'Oh, well, yes. I did love running where I should not, climbing to the highest trees and getting as muddy as possible.' Upon looking up and seeing Elliot's amused look, he added, 'But I was not generally inclined to tantrums or improper pranks, you understand.'

'I do not reckon I was ever inclined to pranks, either proper or improper,' Elliot said, sounding slightly wistful. He took of his hat, eyes closed to meet the Saint Martin's summer breeze. Frederick knew himself to be staring, and forcefully strained his eyes to the big tree. It was an oak, its dense shadow as welcome as a drink of water. Elliot's voice followed him, as did his mount. 'I did not often play with other boys, of course.'

'That is hardly an excuse.'

'Is it not? I was rather hoping to blame my uneventful childhood on that. But maybe I am just uniformly mild.'  

Frederick snorted, slowly circling the tree. From the corner of his eye he saw Elliot tugging at his reigns absently and rising a hand to the lower branches. He was still hatless, and he did not look mild to him.

'What is it?'

'I would not describe you as mild, that is all. Maybe you were just a good child.'

'I was rather docile.'

'Dutiful.'

Elliot frowned at Frederick's sudden grin and let go of the branch he was inspecting.

'I bet you were even dutiful enough to enjoy your lessons.' It was a taunt, but Elliot was impossible to rile up.

'Oh yes.'

'Even French?'

'It was my favourite, along with History.'

And now it was Elliot who was mocking him--and his childish despair of ever knowing the kings of England by heart, not to mention Scotland or Wales. He never could; not when he was nine, not when eleven, and certainly not at three and twenty. It was a well-known fact amongst his brother Edward's acquaintances, too. He indulged in retelling it endlessly, much to Frederick's annoyance.

And, apparently, to Elliot's delight.

'I rectify. You are mild. Terribly so.'

'Guilty as charged.'

'And you never tormented your sisters, always knew your lessons and read agriculture treatises in your spare time.'

Elliot chuckled, gaze slowly softening. 'I did read a lot, even before leaving for Eton. But I also played with wooden soldiers for hours, I will have you know. My mother used to complain one could not walk into the nursery without stepping upon a valiant soldier or other.'

'My sister once stepped on a lead horse of mine, but did not take it kindly.'

'Lady Elliot was a very patient woman. Mild, we could say.'

'Sweet-mannered.'

'That is suitably flattering, yes.' The mocking smile Frederick was half-expecting did not come. Instead, he bowed his head and patted his horse's neck. 'She was... she was beautiful. I remember she let me sit with her in her dressing room before dinner and I would report on the battle of the day, or my lessons, or any of my childish pursuits. Her maid dressed her hair and she always listened to me.'

Frederick said nothing; he did not feel there was much he could say except that he missed his mother too. His mother had never been a beauty, and she certainly had not had a personal maid, or that many pretty gowns, but she used to let him choose what perfume she would wear. Edward chose the hair ribbons and jumped on their mother's bed, and Sophia was in charge of the jewellery, but he had always felt his task was the most important. He now wondered briefly if his siblings had felt the same way.

Elliot resumed talking, and Frederick, noting he had stilled mid-turn, went back to his side. 'My father gave me a pony when I was nine, and I think that is when I started enjoying the outdoors. One needs something agreeable to do outside, I suppose.'

'So you did enjoy riding, at least, though I dare say not very fast and not too far away.'

Elliot grinned, and yet Frederick could have sworn he was feeling melancholy. 'You would be surprised. It was not on purpose, though; I tended to lose track of time and distance. Especially during school holidays, when I came home for the summer after feeling homesick all year. I could never have enough of this.'

'I do understand the feeling.' Again, Elliot remained silent for several seconds, and Frederick knew he was reliving some childhood memory or other. The horses nibbled on the tall grass, and Frederick took off his gloves and his hat, then his coat, too. His neck felt damp, and he faced the soft breeze with relief. Rather than indulging in pleasant memories, he tried to recall a time and a silence such as these. He could think of no-one like Elliot; not even his siblings, his parents, his friends. He did not think Elliot realized that.

'And when I felt hot--when I felt bone-tired and dizzy from the heat and the exercise,' Elliot suddenly resumed, looking straight at him. 'I went swimming in the Shepherd pond.'

'The Shepherd pond,' Frederick repeated, rising his eyebrows. Elliot grinned, an unexpected boyish grin that did away with all pensiveness.

'It is quite near.'

'Indeed.'

One minute they were smiling at each other, the next they were urging the horses into a canter, both in shirt-sleeves, Frederick following Elliot closely as he was shown the way. He felt exuberant and daring, childish and mischievous and rare. There was a burned-down house, wild roses, two imposing cypresses, the pond. ‘Shepherd Lodge, the family now lives by the church,’ Elliot said.

The horses were secured; Elliot had stripped down to the waist in the meanwhile, eyes on the water with boyish eagerness. As Frederick discarded his boots with clumsy urgency, Elliot shed the rest of his clothes and dived in neatly, shook the water off his head, laughed and looked back.

Frederick paused; the world paused too.

He had not thought of the skin. He had not wanted to, for theirs had been the innocent glee of their childhood, and there was no need to... He had not foreseen the afternoon light, golden on James' cheek and shoulder--he had not known that his heart would speed up so and that he would understand, the second their eyes met, that he felt special because Elliot was special and had chosen to be his friend.

His throat had closed, his mouth was dry, and still he smiled back to dispel the uncertainty creeping in Elliot's features. He could see his thoughts as if written on his brow, as if Elliot had actually asked, ‘Are you coming? Should I have waited?’ and, upon Frederick's smile, had let out a relieved ‘Ah, good’.

Frederick narrowed his eyes as if the light bothered him, and asked, 'Is it cold?'

'Quite!' Elliot stood up to say it, the water barely to his navel, and Frederick should concentrate: the boots, the waistcoat, the shirt--which he unbuttoned open rather slowly, if only to have some time to breathe. Elliot was saying something about frogs and getting caught once, or maybe catching a frog himself, and splashing about as if making time. He fell silent at last, and when Frederick looked up despite himself, only the top of Elliot's head was visible above the water, serious eyes on him as he turned and slowly swam away.

Fearing his friend was displeased, he hurried to follow. Upon grabbing his feet and yanking him back, though, he was relieved to discover that Elliot was, after coughing and spluttering, still very amenable to splashing and swimming together. And laughing. Frederick wondered how he did not feel awkward at all--a bit embarrassed, quite surprised, very bewitched--but that was the nature of Elliot's power over him.

He did not mind, he mused. He trusted Elliot with his life.

Chapter Text

James looked into the fire. 'My sister is not happy with me.'

'Is that new?' asked Wentworth lazily, without moving his head.

'Well, even less happy than usually.'

'That is singular. What did you do?'

'What did I not do, you mean.'

'If you say so.'

'I did not dance with Miss Jones at her coming-out ball.'

'That is a terrible offence! Was that the ball you attended the other night?'

'The same. It is unpardonable, apparently. Unless, of course, I call on Miss Jones to apologize.'

'What?'

'As you heard. I cannot understand it; my sister dislikes her immensely. I heard her say "she is a wretchedly freckled thing"; I could hardly think them friends then, could I?'

'I would have thought that the fact she was not your sister's friend would have been an inducement.'

'So would I—it was not a matter of inducements. She was engaged for the first four before I had occasion to inquire, and after two hours I knew you would be waiting for me.'

'Poor Miss Jones! Snubbed by the principal man in the neighbourhood, and all for a quick pint with a friend.'

James hid his smile in his brandy. Then he said, with as much dignity as he could muster under Wentworth's sardonic glance, 'I do not think I will go; I cannot think it appropriate.'

'It would depend on your intentions.'

'I have no intentions toward Miss Jones, and I know my sister does not want me to have real intentions; and yet, I cannot think why she would have me go otherwise.'

'Indeed.'

'I think—it would not be wise to go. Miss Jones is but sixteen.'

'And?'

'She... I do not want to deceive her. It takes only a little flattery and attention, I think, to fall in love at sixteen.'

'Is that so?'

'It is! I was sixteen not so long ago, you know.' James felt his face heat, and tried to ignore it.

'I see. The years have made you wise.'

James rolled his eyes, but did not bother to answer; instead he leaned over and poked the fire into a semblance of merry crackling. It was dying, but he did not want to get up and feed it, not yet.

'What does it take at nineteen?' Wentworth asked from his right, and James lay back in the chair again and looked at him sidewise. He appeared serious, and so James answered him in kind.

'I do not know.'

'Was it too impertinent a question?'

James smiled; it was very much like Wentworth to worry about such a thing after having made the inquiry. He felt a knot of tension in his stomach, inexplicable, but answered easily. 'Not at all. I just have not thought about it over-much of late.' Wentworth looked away, and James added, 'And at... five-and-twenty, is it? What does it take?'

'Three-and-twenty,' Wentworth said, still looking into the fire. And then, 'I do not think it so very different than at nineteen.'

The last log collapsed with an upward shower of sparks. James got up and crossed to the other side of the fireplace, stepping over Wentworth's legs. He had to nudge one away with his boot to get a place to crouch in to feed the logs in, and he used it as leverage for getting up when he finished.

'So...?' he asked, as he collapsed back in his seat, opening and closing his hand distractedly. 'What is it, then?'

Instead of answering, Wentworth said, 'I note you have not said anything about being the principal man in the neighbourhood.'

James smiled, and provided the answer he knew Wentworth was expecting. 'I do not argue with the truth.'

'The truth! Good, handsome and modest—my brother was right: Mr Elliot is an upstanding young man.'

'Ha, ha, ha.'

'And your laughter, so sincere! No wonder all young ladies fall in love when you call on them.'

James kicked one of his legs without moving from his seat—not too strongly, he thought, but Wentworth feigned injury nevertheless, dramatically rubbing the spot.

They lapsed into a comfortable silence. It was warm, and the fire was coming to life again. James could hear their breathing, almost synchronized. 'I wonder when my sister will marry.'

'Why?'

'I do not know—it will be strange, I suppose, not seeing her around my father. She is very much my father's daughter; I was my mother's son.'

'Will you be happy?'

'When she marries? If she is.'

'Very selfless of you.'

'You are laughing at me, but it is true. I wish her no ill.'

'I do not doubt it.'

'Oh, you do—but you are at least partly right; life is easier when she is not around. She is always pushing me to change, to be more like her.'

'God forbid!' Wentworth exclaimed in mock horror.

'I would prefer it if she found someone... of a character congenial with hers.'

'Such is the wish of every young lady's friends.'

'Indeed. And she will do nothing in haste—she will not be pushed into marriage by want of attention or love.'

'Do you think young ladies often are?'

'I wonder—but no, I know nothing of the kind.' James attempted a smile, but he knew it came out crooked. 'I can see already what the lucky one will be like, though.'

'How?'

'He will be of good breeding and money—but principally of breeding—and he will have a handsome face, a clean complexion, and good teeth. Such are the things my father and sister care about. The poor fellow may as well be a full-blooded horse.'

Wentworth let out a startled laugh. 'Indeed! What should they care about—or better yet, what would you care about?'

'I do not know.' James looked at Wentworth, who had his head thrown back against the back of his chair and was smiling at him. 'And you? Do you suppose you are what every man would wish for his friend?'

'Are you trying to catch me boasting?'

'I?' said James imitating his tone, but then, 'Not at all; I am genuinely curious.'

'I have no interest in marrying your sister, Elliot.'

'I should hope not,' said James with a grimace, taking a swallow from his glass. 'That is not what I was asking.'

'Though I am a man of good breeding, exceedingly handsome face and excellent teeth, I will have you know.'

'You may avoid the subject all you wish,' said James, deciding not to make the obvious objection concerning his wealth. He stood and went to the window, stepping over Wentworth's legs.

Wentworth took up his glass and asked, 'Does it look like rain?'

James shook his head, opening the curtain and letting his body rest against the cool pane. He could not see anything outside, but the reflection of the room was clear in the glass. 'How did you know that the Captain was a good prospect for your sister?'

Wentworth was watching him. 'I had no say in it.'

'But what did you think?'

'That she seemed very happy.'

James looked into his glass. 'Indeed.'

'Why, what is on your mind?'

'There is a relative of ours, a cousin. My father and sister made his acquaintance in town, some four years ago; my father took a liking to him, and so did my sister. He is a very proper Mr Elliot—unlike me.'

'And?'

'He will be visiting in a few days.'

'And you are afraid he will marry your sister?'

'Not afraid, no. Just considering the possibility.'

'But you do not like him?'

'I have not met him yet. It is the first time he has accepted the invitation.'

'So?'

'It is nothing, you are right.'

Wentworth looked at him with a raised eyebrow and said nothing.

'He just... I do not think I will like him.'

'But, will he be—how did you put it? Congenial?'

'It seems so.'

'All is well, then?'

'Indeed. I do not know—I would like for him to be more than that—kind and patient, for my sister's sake.' James looked away from Wentworth's eyes in the window's glass, and then asked, 'What would a congenial person be like, for you?'

'I thought we were talking about our sisters' prospects.'

'Our sisters take care of that issue themselves, I think.'

'Undoubtedly true. So a compatible person... for me?' Wentworth looked at him, both eyebrows raised in patent scepticism.

'Yes.'

'I do not have a set list of characteristics I require.'

'Not even "tall and fair"?'

'Tall and fair? Not at all!'

'I do not mean the specific example—I meant that type of list.'

Wentworth hesitated, then said, 'My answer is still the same. Do you?'

'No—but I should imagine it would take a while to construct one. Time and experience are both against me.' James looked into the darkness beyond the glass; even small fictions made him uncomfortable.

Wentworth, across the room, smiled. 'You know—it is the second time today that you have implied that I am old.'

James could not help smiling in response. 'Not at all—this time, it was a reference to your experience.'

'Flattery will get you nowhere.'

'Your brother told me differently.' James held his gaze through the reflection for a moment, until Wentworth looked away. 'So you have not yet resolved on what a young lady ought to be like, then?’

Wentworth did not answer immediately. His expression was inscrutable, and he hesitated before getting up and going to the sideboard. 'It would not do to talk such subjects with a dry mouth—Elliot, can I refill your glass?'

James drained it, and left it on the sideboard by Wentworth's hand as he passed on his way to the chair again.

Wentworth's expression as he finished serving them and brought James his glass was unreadable; his fingers, a fleeting shock of warmth. He did not speak until he had sat down again.

'Well, I could hardly even talk with someone who was not sensible, much less fall in love. And my sister believes she would have to be patient, and I defer to her better judgement on the subject.'

James swirled his brandy slowly. 'So, sensible and patient, and someone with whom you might hold meaningful conversation. Anything else?'

'Why, are you taking notes? I prefer dark over fair, and I would rather they would not be taller than me.'

'That is curious.'

'Why?'

'I do not know, just... In any case, I doubt a young lady could be taller than you.'

'Indeed.' Wentworth smiled, quick and easy, and continued, 'And you? Have you considered who would induce love at nineteen? Come, I told you my preferences.'

James blushed, and looked into the fire. 'Someone sensible, of course.'

'Here now—you cannot copy my list.'

'What, are you going to say you are the first man to look for a sensible partner?'

'No, indeed, but you are using it to avoid the truth.'

'I would probably grow tired of someone less impulsive than me.'

'Is there such a thing? I cannot believe it.'

James lifted an eyebrow. 'In any case, I already told you, I do not have any definitive list drawn up.'

'I could readily believe that you would sit down to actually draw up such a list. I can picture you, at your desk with papers piled high filled with matters of the estate, deciding on the positive and negative sides to every trait. Fair: pretty, but burns easily with the sun; will not be able to travel very far in the summer.'

James blushed again and rolled his eyes.

'No, no, wait. Was that it? Was that initial list yours? Are "tall and fair" your requirements?'

James looked away. 'They could be. Part of them, at least.'

'I am intrigued! What are the rest?'

'The rest, I know not. I say they are only part of it because I have met tall and fair ladies before—who awakened no great interest in me.'

His sincerity seemed to surprise Wentworth, for he said nothing.

'Such a list is a poor predictor of fancy,' added James.

Wentworth seemed to be at a loss. 'Indeed.'

James avoided meeting his gaze, tipping his glass and taking a quick swallow of brandy. 'I am sorry—what does it signify? In any case, speaking of ladies, this brings to mind something I have been forgetting to mention.'

'What is it?'

'My sister is organizing a picnic. She wants all of us to be there to take advantage of the weather.'

'It has been unaccountably fair. But... I doubt she would want me there.'

James smiled in Wentworth's direction, barely turning his head. 'Oh no—she explicitly asked for you.'

Wentworth raised his eyebrows. 'She did?'

'Well—she did after I made clear I would not go otherwise.'

'That is—'

'Please, Wentworth.'

'What do you need me for? Your sister would be much happier with you if you stopped forcing her to invite me.'

'No, indeed, I doubt it would make much of a difference; and I would have no one with whom to speak. Besides, Lady Russell will be there—I have been meaning to introduce you. She is my mother's friend—the one I mentioned.' Wentworth seemed to be searching for a way to refuse, but James would not have it. 'Do say you will come.'

Wentworth smiled weakly. 'If you insist.'

'I do,' said James, meaning to be firm, but only conscious of being grateful.

'I suppose I will, then.'

'We will have a grand time—or at least we will if we manage to avoid my sister's friends.'

Wentworth shook his head, but his smile did not waver. 'I have to say, it seems incredibly unwise to picnic with them if we mean to avoid them.'

Chapter Text

Frederick told himself he was enjoying the party. There were young Misses to escort, old matrons to charm and hearty gentlemen to clap him on the back. There were a couple of small white boats in the lake, too, and there was Elliot--though always speaking to someone else.

'And these clouds! Are you not you afraid, Captain Wentworth, that it might rain?'

Frederick smiled at little Miss Jones, who was not, in all truth, that freckled. 'There is nothing to be afraid of, I assure you. Those are not rain clouds; they are too flat.'

'Oh! Is it not astounding that he can tell the difference, Lady Russell?'

'A matter of mere observation, I daresay,' answered the lady in question, smiling too tightly to give any satisfaction to Frederick, who always preferred to be liked by everyone. 'And in any case, my dear, Miss Elliot has surely arranged to entertain the party inside if it becomes necessary.'

Frederick had been sorry Lady Russell did not see fit to like him, but only barely, because he had long ago decided that he would never admire those who did not approve of him. Therefore, he had just come to the conclusion that he did not care for Lady Russell. It was regrettable for both of them that he had agreed to oversee with Elliot the moving of her living-room furniture, or something to that effect. He would certainly keep his word, and he knew she would keep hers and offer them tea afterwards. But he would not take pity on her and let her know that he had no intention to bewitch Elliot into joining the Navy or sailing off to make his fortune in New Zealand.

'At sea, observation is sometimes a matter of life or death,' he said, with a slow smile. That finally made Lady Russell spring into action and drag away little Miss Jones, who longingly gazed back at him from under her eyelashes. He felt a pang of guilt--was it true what Elliot had said, about love at sixteen? But was it not a bit dull for a young lady to attend a garden party and have no-one try to impress her, at all?

A dozen of yards away, Elliot, his back to him, was being polite to other people. Frederick could tell, by the set of his shoulders, that Elliot was growing impatient; he was talking to a couple of young dandies, probably friends of his sister. Frederick's casual promenade towards him was interrupted, however, by Miss Elliot herself. 'Captain, are you enjoying yourself? Papa, this is Captain Wentworth, dear James' friend.'

'We met at church, I think,' Sir Walter said, examining him from head to toe as he had done by the church's front door.

'I am pleased to see you again, sir. I find this party to be quite agreeable, Miss Elliot; allow me to congratulate you on your success.'

'We planned to invite only the best in the county,' she answered, not quite matching his tone. Despite the malice, he had not meant to put any venom in his comment. Miss Elliot, on the other hand, appeared rather vexed.

'It is a lovely garden,' he added, not wanting to anger Elliot's sister. He knew it put his friend in a difficult position, and it was probably bad enough that Lady Russell did not think well of him. 'Possibly the loveliest I have seen.'

Though Miss Elliot seemed slightly appeased, she eyed him as if doubting he had had many chances to see beautiful gardens. He had, but of course she would not want to hear about the charms of things abroad, in countries she deemed inferior to her own. The problem might also be be that Frederick had praised the garden, and not her person. Her father, on the other hand, seemed to puff up and lose some of his haughtiness at the same time.

'You are a fortunate man, Captain, if I say so myself. We--'

'Indeed you shall, dear uncle, for it is true.' A rather good-looking gentleman had approached them and put a hand on Sir Walter's shoulder. 'Very rarely have I seen an officer whose constitution suits his uniform so well.' Then he proceeded to shake Frederick's hand, clasping it more tightly than was necessary. Frederick knew at once who the gentleman was, but was so taken aback by his smooth maneuvering into the conversation that forgot to grip his hand back.

Elliot's sister smiled placidly at her cousin and forgot to introduce them. ‘But you, dear Elliot, look even more handsome in blue.'

Her coy look and his gratified smile were stopped short by Sir Walter saying, 'Nonsense, dear. Captain Elliot here is fair but his skin is rather brown, I am sorry to say, whereas a man with such an excellent complexion as our Elliot would be well-advised never to set foot in a ship. It would ruin his good looks and his health. No, no, Elliot. Dark brown or even red would suit you better. I always tell this to my son, and I hope that you, at least, will listen to me.'

Frederick saw, out of the corner of his eye, the unfashionable son disappear in the direction of the path to the lake. Unfortunately, he could not follow, as Sir Walter was eloquently admiring Mr Elliot's new waistcoat and there was no lull in the conversation in which to excuse himself. Fashion was of no consequence to him, and he was of no consequence to the Elliots; except perhaps to Mr Elliot, who finally introduced himself and took some pains to cordially hint that he would like him better if he were not standing next to his cousin Elizabeth.

He took the opportunity and excused himself, obtaining little more than nods of acquiescence. By then, though, he could not see his friend anymore. He wandered around the garden, telling himself that he was strolling, rather than looking for anyone, and that he was content to be there. There were flowers and birdsong and pastries, and even a handful of children frolicking a few yards away. He smiled at more ladies in their finery and to a young footman that offered him wine and eyed his uniform, but dared not ask about it. In none of this he managed to rejoice, and so he was merely standing alone in the shadow of a rather idyllic elm tree when Elliot finally found him.

'Wentworth, there you are! I have been looking all over for you. I have barely seen you since you arrived.'

Despite himself, Frederick could not help but frown at his friend's candidly admitted unawareness of him through the afternoon. 'Et in Arcadia ego, my friend. Is anything the matter?'

'No, no, I just need a sailor, someone accustomed to the dangers of the water, with experience in a ship.' James was trying to stifle a smile, but he was not very successful. 'I need you to follow me in the most dangerous of adventures.'

Frederick's frown disappeared; Elliot was dragging him away by the elbow, and he was too happy to stay offended. 'Oh?'

'We are to row a group of ladies to the opposite shore, leave them there, and then maybe come back to get them in an hour.'

'I see.' He stopped walking, smirk in place. 'We could stay with them if you wish, Elliot. I cannot but notice at least one of them is fair and tall.'

'You are incorrigible,' Elliot said, apparently unbothered by the teasing, and tugged him again towards the aspen-lined path that led to the pond. The tree leaves were yellow, Elliot seemed happier than he had been at the party, and Frederick did feel quite incorrigible. 'You will like them--not one is taller than you, I am glad to say.'

Frederick behaved very gentlemanly to the three misses under his care, even if Miss Shepherd was fair and not short enough for him to like her, and he was satisfied that the expedition turned out merrily for everyone. He had felt a bit uneasy at first, upon helping his share of ladies into the boat--he was glad Elliot was having fun, but he was not; that is, he had been disappointed that Elliot and he were each to row a boat full of ladies, as he had expected they would go together. He wondered if it was selfish of him, to want to enjoy himself only with people he cared about. It was, probably. Elliot would not approve, and so he exerted himself and made his crew smile and giggle, all the time straining to hear how Elliot and his party were faring. They did not laugh as often, but they did talk a great deal.

The ladies changed their minds and wanted to be left on the artificial island at the heart of the pond. Frederick understood the appeal of it, as it had willow trees, a miniature castle folly and the promise of a rescue by boat by any two young gentlemen. Elliot reached the tiny pier first; Frederick moored his boat alongside his and waited for all the ladies to disembark safely. As Elliot untied his boat and returned aboard, Frederick assailed it by jumping in, and they nearly toppled over. The ladies tittered, Elliot fell to his seat and Frederick retained his balance just long enough to bow his goodbye in a flippant gesture that nearly cost him his hat.

'I demand that you surrender the oars,' he told Elliot. He was, after all, in the best seat to row, and he wanted to take charge. He was a proficient oarsman, much better than Elliot, truth to be told, even if he had never been to Oxford.

Elliot smiled and did surrender, and Frederick rowed steadily. Elliot let his hand touch the water and his gaze became distant and somewhat melancholy, as it was wont to do when his surroundings became quiet. To Frederick it looked like he always had important things to ponder, and thus seized every opportunity to do so.

He did not ask about his thoughts; Elliot never gave a straight answer. Frederick was usually bothered by these silences, and would try to distract him from his musings. But now he would not. Instead, he reveled in his sight--the genuinely windswept hair and the pensive air made him look like the hero of a Romantic tale. Only when he stopped rowing did Elliot blink and rouse.

'Wherever did you take us?' he said, not unpleasantly surprised. He had to know they had merely strayed to the other side of the island, but still he gazed around as if Frederick had rowed them to the West Indies. Sadly, they were only as far from the picnic as the pond would permit.

'I have abducted you, of course.'

'Of course. What will the ransom amount to, may I ask?'

'Two trays of those delightful cream pastries, I daresay.'

'Oh, you cruel man!'

'Merely hungry,' Fredrick protested.

‘Then you should ask for four trays. You would not want me to starve, would you?’ Elliot squinted at him in the sunlight, grinning, and Frederick rowed them a bit further so they would be in the shade.

‘You obviously have no experience in kidnappings, Elliot. When I got my ransom, I would have to return you.’

‘What! No, that will not do. I refuse. That would be boring.’

‘You realize--oh, alright. Four trays is it, then.’

‘And cucumber sandwiches,’ Elliot amended with an earnest nod.

‘By all means, let us embark in a life of crime. We could become pirates, I imagine.’

‘Must we? I would rather be a highwayman.’

‘I cannot shoot. I would make a terrible highwayman.’

‘No, I have it all planned. I will shoot for both of us, and all you have to do is look menacing in your black coat. I am too mild.’

Frederick laughed. ‘We are settled, then. We are running away.’

‘Yes,’ Elliot said, and met Frederick’s eyes.

Their smiles faltered.

They looked up, and around, and at each other's boots, and off into the distance. There was a couple of swans there, as they surely needed a little more peace than the party afforded them at the other side. Frederick watched them as they glided away from the shore. He could feel his heartbeat in his ears.

'It is very agreeable,' Elliot said at last.

'You looked tired, and I thought... Besides, you had not paid any attention to me so far,' Frederick mock-protested, moving his leg to kick Elliot's boot amiably.

There was no answer for a while except for a faint chuckle, and at last Fredrick brought himself to look up. Elliot's dark eyes were fixed on him, enough to make him blush for the light-hearted complaint. Then his eyebrows arched in a manner Frederick knew announced a confession. 'What do you think of my cousin?

'He has particularly good manners.'

'And?'

'And what?' Elliot's shin was hot against the inside of Frederick’s leg, trousers and all, and the breeze made the trees' shadow dance on his temple and cheek. Silly as it was, Frederick caught himself trying to not hear the sounds of the party at all.

'Do you like him?'

'I have just met him. He seemed eager to please your sister, but we cannot hold that against him. Your sister is very handsome, after all,' he amended. Elliot was listening, face slightly turned to the side, patient eyes on him. 'I think he does want to marry her. Your father likes him and his new waistcoat, too, which must be evidence of Mr Elliot’s taste. Especially since they both agreed that navy suits my complexion very well.'

Elliot finally smiled. His expressions did not tend to mean one thing at a time, Frederick had noticed. This one smile was private, and amused, and also definitely discontent. 'My cousin does have a tendency to agree with everyone,' he said.

'With you, too?' Elliot was, after all, the heir.

'Oh, yes. The uniform does suit you, Captain.'

The sudden, sly remark made Frederick laugh out loud, and flush with silliness. 'Oh, good. Then I shall like the entirety of the Elliot family.' He shifted his grip on the oars; Elliot was watching him with an expression he could not read. He cleared his throat. 'I do not know if I like him. Do you?'

'Not much,' Elliot muttered, his lower lip bitten, then released.

'Neither do I, then.'

'Why? It is--it is not that he is not a fine fellow, I...'

'You do not, and that is enough for me.' He was acutely aware of Elliot's bewilderment, and dared not look at him. He realized now that Elliot was not used to being trusted so blindly; Frederick had seen him coax and negotiate and try to talk sense into his family, and had seen his friends advice him and praise his good sense, but such faith was--he thought--new. If he knew the true extent of it... Frederick could not complete the thought, too disturbed by the notion that Elliot might guess. He started to row anew, rather slowly, but the rhythmic splattering seemed to draw attention to unsaid things rather than from them. After a while, he tried to speak again, attempting to recapture the flippancy of their earlier conversation. 'I find you an excellent judge of character, Elliot. Moreso as you seem to like me well enough.'

'Why yes. Of course, you happen to be fair and tall,' Elliot said lightly. Frederick was startled into meeting his eyes, and felt his trepidation turn to dread as he watched Elliot's smile freeze in place a second later.

Frederick averted his eyes, his heart pounding in his ears. Why Elliot had said that, and why Frederick had not laughed, and why Elliot seemed petrified all of sudden, none of this could be addressed now, if ever. The silence stretched over birdsong and lapping water and distant laughter, until at last Elliot said, 'We should return, do you think? There might be some tea left.'

And Frederick rowed them back.

Chapter Text

Edward Wentworth walked into his drawing room to find his brother and Elliot in one of their usual occupations. 'So much activity! You will wear out my chairs.'

'Ha. Ha. Ha,' Wentworth himself said, moving nothing but his head to look at him. 'I will have you know we just got in. We were making ourselves useful at Kellynch Lodge until just now.'

James made some noises of agreement.

'Very well then, I expected no less—of Elliot at least. What brings you two boys here, after all that trouble? Did Lady Russell not feed you, and you want to attack my cook?'

'As a matter of fact, she did,' said Wentworth, and then gestured to the abandoned chess board between them. 'Elliot walked me here; he wanted to defeat me at chess.'

James blushed, and looked down at the board between them. After a moment, he said, 'I was just leaving, in any case. My sister plans her dinners late—but not so late that I will not brave her displeasure if I procrastinate much longer,' and stood up.

'I will see you off,' said Wentworth, standing as well.

Reluctantly, James took his leave of the elder brother, and walked with the younger to the door, where he donned his great coat and hat. Wentworth, leaning against the wall, observed him with an inscrutable expression.

'Well, then,' said James, lacking in any weighty subject to discuss except goodbyes.

'Your gloves,' said Wentworth, and looked around until he spotted them on a side table. 'It is cold out.'

Their hands brushed—Wentworth's were warm, and they hovered there for a moment as if he were considering helping James to put them on.

'Indeed. Thank you, mother,' said James, trying to dispel some of the strange energy that surrounded them.

Wentworth did not answer.

Gloves on, there was no other thing to do except leave, but James could not bring himself to do it. He looked at Wentworth, and Wentworth looked at him, and neither knew to smile or look away.

'I will walk with you; the fresh air will do me good,' said Wentworth, finally, and James waited for him while he put on his coat.

They walked out in the darkening afternoon. Their shoulders touched every few steps, a warm spot in the otherwise cold air.

'I wish I could invite you to dinner,' said James, unthinkingly.

'And have your sister murder you in your sleep? Thank you, no.'

'Indeed, she has not been very happy with me of late—all your fault, of course,' said James, and bumped his shoulder against Wentworth's.

Wentworth said nothing.

They were soon to part—the walk was not very long; the subject that had been in James' mind all day gnawed at him, suddenly urgent, and he asked, 'When are you to go, then?' He tried to keep his voice steady and indifferent, and failed miserably.

'In a week,' said Wentworth.

It was dark, and they were walking side by side—James could not see his expression. 'You will be glad to return to service, will you not?'

A brief pause, and then, 'Of course.'

'The mighty call of the sea.'

'Or simply, the long arm of the Navy—I have to go, Elliot. I have enjoyed my time here, but duty calls.' Wentworth's tone was serious, and it made James ashamed of himself.

'Of course!' he said, aiming for a jolly tone, and barely succeeding. 'Go and conquer many French frigates, so I may read about it, and brag that I know the fellow to all of my acquaintance.'

'That is my sole intention in life,' said Wentworth, and pushed him with his shoulder slightly.

James stopped walking. He did not know why, but he could go no farther. 'What else is there? For my part, you will be allowed to boast that you know a baronet.' Still, he was unable to manage a laugh. Wentworth had stopped and turned, and was now looking at him; he seemed about to speak, the turn of his mouth serious, but he said nothing.

James tried to smile, and forgot to avoid his eyes. He had been doing so for some time; days and days of feeling Wentworth's gaze, of knowing something could happen if only he were to allow it, but retreating, each time, when all he wanted was—and now... now he forgot he must fear it, that he must reject it.

He allowed himself to forget that if he could not excise his dreams of it, he could at least could not dwell on it, and act in accordance to God's will.

He forgot to look down, to make a joke, to pass Wentworth by with a careless gesture.

He forgot he must not look Wentworth in the eye, he must not feel a pressure, akin to pain, starting in his stomach and radiating everywhere else; he must ignore it when he felt it.

He must not step closer now, he must not...

And then, Wentworth kissed him. It was a momentary shock, and then James could only feel his lips, chapped and warm against his. His world reduced to one point. It was instinct that prompted and spurred him on, and need: he could only open his mouth to the warm, shocking intimacy of their kiss.

It was dizzying, to feel Wentworth's callused hands framing his face, and his mouth against James' mouth, his tongue against James' tongue.

It was the middle of the road—that thought intruded upon the urgency of the moment, heightening it, and finally won out, making James step back. Wentworth followed him, so that when James stopped, they were standing still face to face, scant inches away. Their breath intermingled, and James did not want to speak, to think—some feeling like panic clutched at his throat. He almost kissed Wentworth again—it was like falling, he felt he could not avoid it—before moving back again.

'The road,' said James, between gulps of air, unimaginative but to the point. And then grabbed Wentworth's coat by the lapels and moved them towards a small copse, which thankfully shielded one side of the path from prying eyes.

Only when they had walked a little into it did James stop and turn. Wentworth looked at him, and made no movement at all; his hand hovered about James' hands where they gripped Wentworth's coat, but did not touch them; and the silence, so many times comfortable between them, was strange and charged.

James could not speak—what could he say? The night—because it was night already—was cold around him, and his heart beat a quick rhythm at his stomach; he only wanted to feel Wentworth's lips against his again; he knew not how to go about it.

He did not want to think about sinning, about this as sinning. Kissing Wentworth felt in some ways more honest and clean than any private promise to God, than righteously hiding from it. He let go of the coat, and his hands, useless, hovered in the air for a moment before dropping at his sides.

He traced with his eyes the line of Wentworth's mouth, his chin, his throat; it was unavoidable, he could not look away.

'You are staring,' Wentworth said, and then backed him into a tree, and the feeling, finally, of their bodies touching from mouths to calves drove James out of his mind. It was absurd, to be kissing Wentworth, the feel of his lips, and his hands, and his chest, and his legs.

Absurd and right in a way few things had been right in his life. Right, despite knowing it was not.

It seemed the thing his dreams were made of—disjointed, visceral—and at the same time as real as the bark scratching at the back of his head.

And still, there were pragmatic concerns, which a dream, he was sure, would have ignored. Their differing heights, for one. The irritating barrier of his gloves, discovered and then overcome, another. He did not know how he managed to get them off—he had to push Wentworth away, surely, but it took no more than a moment—but he did, and then he could touch Wentworth's cheek, rough under his fingers, Wentworth's arm over his coat, feel Wentworth's blood pound on Wentworth's neck, and finally, settle on intertwining his fingers in Wentworth's hair at the nape of his neck.

Wentworth just kissed him, kissed him, kissed him.

He slid his leg between James', one hand around James' waist, the other inside James' coat. James' stomach contracted at the feeling of Wentworth's hand, and then Wentworth stalled. He did not move back; he merely stopped moving his lips, smoothing the linen of James' shirt with a trembling hand, and separated their faces slightly; their panting breath intermingled, a loud staccato in the night. James felt himself welling up with feeling—but what feeling, he was now, foolishly, still afraid to name.

'Elliot,' Wentworth said against James' mouth, and he appeared to be about to say more, but paused. James swallowed, took a deep breath, tried to bring himself under control. Wentworth looked up into the invisible canopy, and James had to stop himself from tightening his hands on Wentworth's nape, stop himself from kissing him again. Wentworth began again, his voice low. 'I apologize. This is not how... this is sudden, surely, and so many things besides. Do you...? Should I step away?'

'No!'

'No?' Wentworth's voice had been serious, but the syllable had a note of lightness, or even humour.

James could barely hear him over his own heart, and his own breath, harsh. His mouth was suddenly dry. 'No. This is — I want this, whatever it is.'

'Whatever it is?' Wentworth's expression was indecipherable.

'Yes. Do you?'

'I want you,' said Wentworth, 'and yes, I want this, whatever it is, with you.' James could not think—there was only need. Need to feel Wentworth's skin, and his tongue, to kiss his neck, to feel him hot and hard against him, to wrestle his back against the tree, to kiss him.

James' throat closed off. The knowledge of what he wanted—of what he had wanted for months—, of what he was promising, and the wrongness of it choked him. He had never allowed himself to think about it. He had known, in some manner, in some vague way that allowed him to deny it, that he would not, could not wish this with a woman. It was unthinkable. If he had not known that other men wanted it, he would have thought it impossible.

And Wentworth said it, like it was nothing. Like it was... natural and right and just.

'What is this, then? We will—' He did not know how to call it. Any words he knew were too crass, too specific. His eyes had always skimmed over them in books, had avoided dwelling on them. To speak them, now, seemed impossible. He coloured, and hoped the dark would hide it, but said, because he had to know. 'Is it just this? You are going, with no plans at all to come back.'

'I did say that, but—' Wentworth laughed, shortly and hid his face on the curve of James' neck. His breath ghosted hotly in the folds between James' cravat and coat, and James turned instinctively to draw it into his mouth, to kiss Wentworth again, to forget everything he was thinking, all the sensible reasons his mind and his conscience were composing to make himself step away and tell Wentworth they should not do this.

He felt as if he were another person some steps away watching himself strain against Wentworth's leg, tear with quick fingers at his buttons, turn him against the tree rolling so — part of his mind still thought of these things — they were no longer against the side facing the road. Another person who stood in shadows, half horrified, half fascinated.

An owl hooted somewhere above them, and James started and stopped, panting. Somewhere in front of him, beyond the trunk of the tree, the path curved gracefully. The path that, if he took it, would lead him to Kellynch Hall, and the cooling dinner, and the cooling, cunning eyes of his sister.

'This is...' A part of him almost said it, wrong. It was as much a lie as it was the truth, and he knew, the certainty no less accurate because it was sudden, that it would hurt Wentworth if he spoke it. 'You are going,' he repeated, and knew with a sinking heart that he said it to be contradicted, not as an argument against what they were doing.

'I am,' said Wentworth. 'But it need not mean anything for us. I could come, when on leave, to see you. It need not be the end.'

'And what would you be, to me, or I, to you?' James thought he could guess Wentworth's answer, but he wanted to hear the impossibility, let it fall in the cool air by its own wonderful weight.

'Everything,' said Wentworth, and laughed—the low sound that sent a shiver through James. 'If you wanted it to. Lovers. Friends.'

James said nothing. He did not want to deny it. He did not want to say it was not to be.

'I will come back here,' said Wentworth, firmly. 'We need not make immediate plans, which would be ridiculous, in any case. We can write each other—I will be a week in Plymouth, and then, of course, every time I touch land. And if I do so in England, I could send for you.'

James said nothing, and focused desperately on Wentworth's mouth, and his chin, and his neck.

'Do you want it?' asked Wentworth.

For a moment, James did not know if he was asking about what they were doing, or the commitment, or the letters, and he did not much care. 'Yes,' he said.

Wentworth grinned, and James could not help kissing him. He was bewitched, undone, lost. His own urgency was like nothing he had felt before, but he could not avoid pressing himself against Wentworth, un-tucking his shirt, sneaking his hand against Wentworth's chest, following an open-mouthed line down Wentworth's neck.

It was Wentworth who remembered the time; who, tousled and panting, still stopped them, and urged James to pull himself into a semblance of order and go to his family. James could not have done so—he was sure he wished to stay there at the side of the road for ever. Reality was waiting outside this dream, and it intruded while he searched for his gloves, straightened his cravat, looked for his hat: he could tell nobody of this, and the secret already weighed heavy on his soul. He was not one to have confidants; he told nobody everything, but still, this felt more like deceit than any stupid, petty secret he had kept at school.

The walk home was hell, the night cold, jumbled thoughts fighting for dominion in his head, and he too much of a fool to think for long of anything but Wentworth's lips.

Dinner followed, almost as tortuous: inevitably, as it was a family event. The only person who looked at him with anything that approached sympathy was Lady Russell—even his cousin sported an inscrutable expression. The talk followed the usual paths. They talked of rank; of some tradespeople who hoped to marry up, of whom William Elliot had known in the city; of the weather, auspiciously nice; of the ladies of the neighbourhood, none so fine as Elizabeth.

They were words that James had the impression of having heard and spoken before, and he intervened only when directly prompted by Lady Russell. When left to his own devices, he could not keep his mind from wandering back to the road.

Dinner dragged on; he knew he had to think beyond the superficial feelings of the matter, and the equanimity he had to simulate wore on him. There seemed to be no respite; he wanted to be away, but the eating done, and the blessedly short separation of the sexes finished, cards were proposed and enthusiastically accepted. Much to James' dismay, his sister wanted to play Speculation, and would not have the party reduced to four. No, she was not in the mood for Whist: any couples' games tired her. No, they could not play a round game with four: it would be dull. She was determined to have her brother play, and under no circumstances would she relent.

Would James not play? Why would he not? entreated the rest—most strongly of all William Elliot. Only Lady Russell attempted a defence, but it was weak. James knew she could not understand his wish to retire, except in a most general manner of disliking the company, and she would not think of indulging such wish, in any case; or perhaps it had occurred to her, should he leave and they play Whist, Sir Walter would be her partner.

It was decided, James would play, though James could think only of his friend, in flashes that made him glad they were sitting at a table.

The pack was brought; three cards for each, and his sister the dealer. She turned one card: the king of hearts. William Elliot, seated at her left, smiled and told her something, too low for anyone else to hear.

She smiled in response, pleased, but said aloud, 'No, I cannot accept that bid—the king is mine.'

'A king for a queen?' asked Elliot, grin still in place. James looked away.

Elizabeth accepted no bids—the king, indeed, was hers. They all turned their cards, but her trump fell short: James turned the Ace.

They all exclaimed at her bad luck, commiserated, and reassured her of the wisdom of her play; the pot had been small. In due time (for James, due time was longer than for anybody else) another hand was dealt. The dealer was Elliot. He turned a ten of diamonds.

Lady Russell offered two fish for it, and the card changed hands. The round continued.

What would Wentworth be doing? Had he turned in already? James was sure he would be unable to sleep, would spend the whole night against a dreamed tree by the side of the road.

Elizabeth clapped once, having turned the jack of diamonds, and then waited, hawk-like, for everyone to turn their last card.

Her eyes did not stray to him, but he feared, irrationally, that she would be able to see what he had done, what he wanted to do. He wondered if she had guessed, if her sour comments about Wentworth and their friendship had been more pointed than disdainful. She could not have, and yet, she was observant, and it would not be so strange if she guessed it.

He could not avoid thinking now on the reality of the matter. What did Wentworth plan on doing? To go, come back, and then...? How much time would he be away? He felt like a fool, but could not entertain that thought without feeling a stab of sharp pain in his chest.

James had to deal; he turned a queen, hearts, and sold it to Elizabeth when she bid for it. After, his attention was briefly drawn to Lady Russell, who opened her mouth, frowning, but closed it again without speaking.

He did not have a thought to spare in trying to deduce what the trouble was. Every movement, every thing around him reminded him of Wentworth, the sharp tug of desire, his breath on James' cheek, his hand... And their promise, no less real for being unspoken, and the certainty he had in Wentworth’s faithfulness; his future, both their futures, were impossible to glimpse.

Another hand was dealt; trump was clubs. Lady Russell touched his cuff to prompt him to turn his first card, and he flinched before complying.

Even if he could forget about the meaning of sin, marriage was not an issue yet—would not be an issue for many years to come—but what would they do in the meantime? Tryst at the side of the road—forever? James could not leave Kellynch Hall—could not leave, even on the strength of his feelings for a most dear friend, his sisters and his dependants to his father's indifferent care—and even if he could have pressured his father into welcoming Wentworth while he was on shore leave, to continue on in this manner in the house, with his father and sisters under the same roof, would be insanity. And then—even if Wentworth could avoid it, he could not, should not: he must marry; he knew it with the same certainty he had known his mother would be dead when he returned from school six years before. He knew it with the same certainty, and the same dread.

And yet, he faltered. How could he do anything but keep his word? They were strange circumstances, to be sure—but he felt as attached to Wentworth by honour as he did by feeling.

But was it not better for Wentworth himself that they forget about each other? James was sure that Wentworth could not fail to find someone with whom he could be happy without risking life and advancement, someone who would be able to follow him, in the manner that Wentworth needed — even if he did not know it— to be followed. Someone who could give him her all, because there would be no constraints, no sin. Oh, Wentworth would not admit it — not immediately, but he would be happier.

The round had continued, and Elizabeth's ten won her the pool. There was a brief pause while she talked in a low voice with Elliot, and James, half distracted, half truly nauseous, begged their pardon and stood up. He needed air. His sister made an attempt to retain him, but Lady Russell, perhaps seeing in him something of his upheaval, stopped her. He did not run, but walked, measuring his steps; he got his coat, not because he was cold—his veins ran with blood so hot he vaguely wondered if he had a fever—but because he knew it was cold out, and would not surrender himself to impulse; he searched for his gloves, sent for his horse. He mounted, and walked him through the path, knowing the dark was dangerous.

No, he was not impulsive. This decision, unlike his last one, was well thought out.

Any kind of life together was impossible without sacrificing the happiness of every one around them both, without going against society and God. Would anything that was right require them to act so?

They had allowed themselves to forget it for a while, drunk in the newness of it—but not even the cold light of day was needed to see this as the mistake it was. Wentworth would agree... Wentworth would forget him in due time; he was on active duty, after all, and he was not someone who would dwell on his unhappiness. And James. . .

He knew now that he could not hope to feel for anyone as he did for Wentworth, but feelings alone could not sway him. There were other considerations than those of the heart, and he did not, could not, ignore them.

Chapter Text

Frederick had sworn to himself, the morning after, that this was it. James had withdrawn his promise; he had not begged him to reconsider--he had been too shocked, too hurt, too angry; and Elliot had gone home alone. He would not see him again.

The day arrived when he was leaving in the morrow, and still he thought he would not go to Elliot. He had known, after the first couple of days had passed, that Elliot would not come to him, either. Frederick wished that he had spoken that night, that he had begged, that he had embraced Elliot again or never dared to at all. Still, he told himself, he would not see him now. It would be of no use--he was a proud man, and Elliot was determined, and too beautiful to look at again now, after he had abandoned him.

And so Frederick sat in his brother's garden, hound at his feet, for two long hours, until night had fallen and he felt cold and childish. He patted the dog's head--a haggard stray Edward had found and whom Frederick had named Nelson, before Elliot told him that it was a she. He had not changed her name--he liked the dog, if only because she was as bad at hunting as himself, and he liked the name. And he liked to remember Elliot laughing at him, even now that the memory felt bitter at the back of his mouth.

It took him a while yet to decide to head in. When he was in the parlour, though, he found himself putting on his coat and picking up his gloves. That was it, then. He would go, after all. As he walked and buttoned his overcoat, hands unhindered, he realized that he had forgotten his hat. He did not go back for it. If he was going, he would not falter, and he would not give himself any excuse to return to his brother's now and subject himself to Edward's worried examination again.

If he left before speaking to him, he reasoned, he would feel it later, when it was too late. He would regret having done nothing to prevent--but no, nothing could be done, he knew Elliot very well. There would be no changing his mind, of this he was certain. And yet there were too many things left unsaid; Frederick could not rest. He had not had the chance to rage at him, to call him on his cowardice. He had been euphoric that night, smiling over dinner and staying by the fireplace long after Edward was gone to bed, not touching his port, not touching his lips with his fingertips even if he itched to.

James must have seen the light upon walking back, as he had tapped on his window rather than calling at the door. Frederick had grinned and playfully invited him in. We cannot, Elliot had said, and Frederick merely stared at him, uncomprehending, leaning out of the window in his shirtsleeves. He had felt himself stiffen before he actually understood. He had searched for meaning in Elliot's serious gaze, but it had been too dark outside and Elliot had still been talking in a forcibly calm voice, stating reason after reason why they could not. Frederick had gripped the window frame and wondered dumbly whether any of that had any weight in the face of friendship and honour.

Frederick was out of breath when he reached Kellynch Hall, with barely any recollection of having walked there. He leaned against the entrance gate, to regain his breath as much as to collect himself. He stared at the glimmering lights of the house. The effect was splendid, and he could hear music and voices; no doubt he had arrived at the height of the party. The family, together with the most important families in the shire, was celebrating Miss Elliot's engagement to Mr Elliot. Edward had told him about it some days ago, and even asked whether Frederick had been invited. He had not, and neither had his brother.

The butler of Kellynch Hall knew this, and made him wait just inside the door, not quite frowning at him. The man said he would see if Mr Elliot was 'at home', and Frederick could not smile at that. His hands shook in anticipation, and so he clasped them behind his back and drew a steadying breath.

He did not expect to see Elliot there when he was let into one of the private parlours. He knew Elliot enough to guess he would consider himself under an obligation to see him, out of an absurd sense of duty towards him, but he had still thought the room would be empty. He came to a sudden stop by the door and felt better upon seeing that Elliot's eyes, though unfathomable, did not avoid his.

'James,' he said, as Elliot was barely opening his mouth to speak. Elliot flinched. 'You know well why I come. I am going; by tomorrow afternoon my brother will be alone in the curacy again.'

'Yes. I had understood you would.'

'This need not end like this.' Frederick's voice was lower and more urgent than he had intended, and he knew not what he was about to say as he stepped closer. Elliot stepped back.

'Let us walk out,' he said, and turned to the garden's double doors. Frederick checked his temper and followed him after a moment's hesitation. Elliot turned to see if he did, candid in his obvious distress, and attempted to smile; he must have known he was not deceiving either of them, and yet Frederick expected him to act no differently. 'Someone has to take advantage of my sister's extravagance,' said Elliot. Only then Frederick noticed that this side of the garden was lit with torches. Laughter spilled from the house.

They walked five steps side by side before Frederick grew impatient enough to speak again. 'If you have no intention of answering, you might as well say so, and I will leave you to your celebration; I am sure I have matters to arrange before tomorrow.'

Elliot looked up. Frederick could not help but feel his anxiety as his own. 'You have come all the way here; you may as well give me a little time,' Elliot tried.

'You have had a week.'

'And so have you,' said Elliot, and then, suddenly weary, 'I gave you my answer already.'

They had wandered deeper into the garden, and had come to stand in front of the maze. Its entrance was merrily lit. Elliot turned away to look across the lawn at the figures that drifted in and out of the windows. Frederick could not turn with him; he could not take his eyes off Elliot.

The same gut-wrenching feeling that had followed him around all week had clawed its way to his lungs, not as a result of Elliot's words, but because he was not used to having such dark thoughts, and he did not want to say them aloud. No matter how burning his need to argue, to make him forget his resolve, he could see that it would be useless; and Elliot seemed impatient to be done, to return to his friends. Was Frederick to be no more than an embarrassment then?

He could barely breathe; he drew back. 'I see; I should not have come.'

He meant to go, he could not stay; and still he could not move, much in the same way he could not speak his mind. Elliot turned to him, and Frederick felt his resolve weaken. He despised himself.

'Come, we cannot talk here.' Elliot stalked into the maze; he did not look back to see if Frederick would follow him. They had been here before, one rather damp afternoon; but the maze seemed entirely different by the dim torchlight, and they were alone. The wind rustled in the hedges and in his hair, but Frederick barely felt the cold. Elliot did, he could tell, and Frederick set out to find a more secluded position.

It was difficult to look at Elliot in the darkness of their surroundings and not remember their intimacy by the path to Kellynch, the feel of Elliot's lips on his throat, of Elliot's fingers under his waistcoat. He had sorted himself in the mirror by his brother's door--his reflection had been shockingly disheveled, blushing like a young miss and too exultant to care.

He felt sick now. They were alone and hidden from view, and Elliot was looking at him intently. Frederick realized that Elliot knew; of course he knew what Frederick had come here to say. It only remained for him to say it, and they would be done. He wished Elliot would not look at him with such eyes; he had no right to feel sorrowful, for his decision was his alone. Such sadness, unguarded now in the intimacy of their corner in the maze, he could hardly resist.

'I shall not beg you to reconsider if you will not,' he managed to say, at last, realizing he had Elliot's hands clasped in his own, 'but I cannot see the necessity of sacrificing yourself, Elliot, of sacrificing us to please people who should have no say in this.'

'I have a duty to my family, and to my inheritance,' Elliot pleaded, using the same words he had chosen a week before. 'It would not let me keep my word with you--we could not see each other for years at a time, and--'

'I do not mind--'

'You will. You will want me to come with you, and--'

'No, no, I shall not. I might have my own ship soon, and then it will be a matter of some years--'

'--and I will have to marry eventually.'

'To marry!' cried Frederick, letting go of Elliot’s hands. 'What, you will choose a young miss, tell yourself that you love her? Will she be tall and fair? Could you--'

Elliot did not say a word, but stepped away. Frederick fell silent and, as Elliot moved to go, reached out and pulled him close by the nape of his neck. Elliot let him, briefly touching his forehead to Frederick’s shoulder. Frederick curled his hand in his hair, keeping their heads together.

'Elliot, Elliot,' he whispered unthinkingly, disregarding the shame that he knew he would feel at this recollection for years to come. 'I cannot go on without you; in truth, I cannot. It will kill me to leave you like this. Ask anything from me, but to forget you--I will not. Never. Elliot--'

Frederick felt Elliot waver and his hands gripping the lapels of his coat; he thrilled at the slight bumping of nose against nose and drew in their combined breaths. And then Elliot whimpered, Frederick crushed him in an embrace, and they stood in their dark corner, pressing together until Frederick did not know where he ended and Elliot started. For years he would be able to recall perfectly the feel of Elliot's shoulder under his hand, the dark curls against his cheek, his own need to stay just like that forever, and the way Elliot finally twisted in his grip and took one step backwards, then another. He could barely hear it, but Elliot was saying 'No, no, no, Wentworth'.

When Frederick leaned forward to follow him, Elliot stopped him with a hand on his shoulder and drew a loud breath. 'Elliot,' Frederick said at length, voice breaking.

Elliot’s gaze shimmered in the weak light before he hung his head, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes. At last, he looked at him again and said, in a steady, clear voice, 'I cannot. God bless you, Wentworth.'

Frederick stood where he was, listening for Elliot's steps crunching out of the maze until he could hear them no more. He had not come with any hope, he thought, and yet he felt defeated now, heartbroken. He could not make sense of it--that there was anything in the world that was more important to Elliot than him, that he could choose to walk away, forget Frederick, make plans to marry. That Elliot had betrayed him, that Frederick had begged and Elliot did not waver, that he wished for them to be no more than acquaintances... he could not forgive that.

Elliot was gone, and Frederick hated, hated, hated him.