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Call It By Some Better Name

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Oh call it by some better name,
For friendship sounds too cold.
-Thomas Moore (1779–1852)


Someone was drooling on Gardefeu's thigh, hair tickling against his bare skin. Where the devil were his trousers? He didn't much care to open his eyes, which felt glued shut, to find out.

"Oh God," the person draped over his lap said in a slightly nervous and altogether familiar baritone, entirely too close to Gardefeu's barely-covered essentials, "what time is it?"

The clock in the hallway began to chime.

"Ten o'clock," said Gardefeu, cracking his eyes open, but Bobinet had already removed himself from both Gardefeu's leg and the couch with alacrity. He had evidently taken off his coat and waistcoat at some point the previous evening, but not, Gardefeu was relieved to see, his trousers, although his shirt was half-unbuttoned, slipping down to expose one pale, surprisingly muscular shoulder.

"I have to shave! Where is my hat?" His voice hit a pitch that made Gardefeu wince, faintly nauseated. Watching Bobinet dashing about the room like an overwound clockwork toy was making him dizzy. "Oh God, I'm taking Métella to lunch at noon. Are my trousers intolerable?"

"Your trousers are intolerable," Gardefeu confirmed. Ah, there were his trousers, hanging from the coat rack, although he could not imagine how they had come to be there. Who put trousers on a coat rack? "You cannot possibly see Métella dressed like that. Bobinet--"

"Ten o'clock, ten o'clock," Bobinet muttered, apparently still searching for his hat. "Just enough time if I hurry—"

"Bobinet," said Gardefeu, levering himself reluctantly from the couch, "give me your trousers."

Bobinet froze in the middle of the room, dark hair sticking out at all angles, shirttails coming untucked, somehow contriving to present the impression of a particularly leggy deer. “Why?” he asked, in tones of deep suspicion, clutching the waistband of his rumpled trousers as if Gardefeu was about to steal them from his very body.

“So Alphonse can iron them, you fool,” Gardefeu explained patiently, ringing the bell for his valet. “While he irons, you may borrow my razor to do something about that—” he waved a hand vaguely to indicate the shadow of a moustache currently lending Bobinet’s upper lip a weaselly air. “Oh, do not look at me as if I have some cunning plan to steal Métella away from you; we already have a table for supper at Le Grand Véfour this evening. I cannot vouch for her reaction if you show up to lunch looking as if someone has already debauched you thoroughly.”

Still regarding him warily, Bobinet unbuttoned his trousers and awkwardly stepped out of them, his shirttails and drawers thankfully covering him decently enough. He seemed all leg, knobby knees and lean, sharply defined muscle—from his fencing, no doubt—somehow coltish. Gardefeu supposed Métella must find it charming; certainly he himself did not. Bobinet was ridiculous: gangly, always rumpled, overly excitable. “Here,” said Bobinet, thrusting his bundled-up trousers at Gardefeu. “Where do you keep your razor?”

“On the washstand, like anyone.”

Ah, there was Alphonse; a welcome reason not to watch Bobinet examining his shaving kit with an irritatingly judgemental eye. Alphonse, bless him, took the trousers without batting an eyelash at Bobinet, who was whistling something off-key as he honed Gardefeu’s already perfectly sharp razor.

Bobinet shaved with a kind of nervy elan that was terrifying to observe, razor scraping lather away with short, choppy strokes that left Gardefeu slightly in awe that he had not managed to lose an ear yet. His heavy brows were drawn down in ferocious concentration as he squinted into the mirror, almost flinging the lather from his face.

After a moment of fascinated observation, Gardefeu noticed that the lather on his cheek was flecked with blood. “You’ve cut yourself. Give me the razor.”

He did, after only a moment of hesitation, giving Gardefeu a narrow-eyed look as he grasped Bobinet’s chin with his right hand, bringing the razor up. The razor felt heavier than when he used it for himself, more of a responsibility with Bobinet trusting and quiescent under his hand, a faint flush burning across his high cheekbones.

Short, gentle strokes, he thought, working along the point of Bobinet’s jaw, over his cheek, scraping lather and stubble from taut skin. He worked even more slowly over his upper lip, ignoring the softness of Bobinet’s mouth under his fingertips, the way his eyelashes curved over his cheeks.

Alphonse returned with the trousers just as Gardefeu scraped the last of the lather from under Bobinet’s tilted-back chin, as gently as he could against the tender skin; Bobinet’s pulse fluttered in his neck as rapidly as a butterfly’s wings, but he remained silent.

“There,” Gardefeu said at last, setting the razor aside and pressing a wet towel into Bobinet’s hands. “I trust you can dress yourself.”

He busied himself with finding his dressing gown and pouring a brandy, carefully ignoring the faint tremble in his own hands; it would settle his stomach, he told himself, listening to the rustle of Bobinet attempting to make himself presentable.

“Gardefeu,” Bobinet’s plaintive voice came from somewhere under a side table, “I can’t find my tie.”

“For God’s sake, you can borrow one of my ties.” Gardefeu hauled Bobinet to his feet and firmly settled him in place by the shoulders. “Wait here.”

Bobinet was almost vibrating with tension when Gardefeu returned from the depths of the armoire, tie in hand, but he calmed at once, closing his eyes as Gardefeu tilted his chin up, arranging the points of his collar and slipping the tie around his neck. He brushed against the soft, freshly-shaven skin of Bobinet’s throat, and Bobinet swallowed, pulse leaping under Gardefeu’s fingers for a moment.

“There, you should be presentable enough.” Gardefeu gave Bobinet a quick glance to see that all of his buttons were buttoned, his hair slicked down, his collar settled correctly. His voice sounded faintly tight to his own ear, but he resolutely turned his thoughts away from questing for the reason. At least Bobinet was decent now, safely dressed and almost well-turned-out. “Alphonse found your hat, so I doubt Métella will throw you over.”

“Thank you,” said Bobinet, regarding Gardefeu with a clear-eyed intensity that Gardefeu had never seen from him before. Bobinet manic, that was familiar. Bobinet melancholy, that was also familiar. Bobinet thoughtful—that was new. New and unnerving. “I—yes, thank you. You’re a good friend, Gardefeu.”

“The best friend,” replied Gardefeu, ignoring the unwelcome heat in his cheeks, “for I am lending you my mistress for the afternoon.”

“Ha!” said Bobinet, all thoughtfulness fled, and clapped Gardefeu on the shoulder, smiling broadly. “You mean I am lending you my mistress for the evening! Good day, my friend.”

It was a bit like being visited by a whirlwind, Gardefeu thought once Bobinet had left. He opened the drapes to let the late morning sun in and glanced around at the wreck of his lodgings. There was a broken champagne bottle in one corner that would have to be picked up very carefully, his trousers were still draped over the coat rack, and Bobinet had contrived to flick lather all over the Persian carpet.

It was no use going back to bed at this hour, appealing as the thought was; and if he felt queerly melancholy, perhaps he was not quite as happy to share Métella as he had believed.

That must be it.

Well, he would show Métella a fine time at Le Grand Véfour, he resolved; certainly she would find him a better conversationalist than Bobinet. But first, a bath, a shave, and breakfast.

“Alphonse!”