The ceremony is about as lavish as Gil expected: dozens of fine gentlemen and delicate ladies, all dressed in finer clothing than he could ever hope to own, gathered in rustling silence as Oz Vesalius kneels before his uncle, hand over his heart. Though the storm continues to rage outside, within the hall the lights are warm soft gold, and Young Master Oz looks like a prince from a fairytale, his expression quietly serene as Master Oscar touches the baptismal blade to his shoulders. Gil’s throat hurts a little just to look at him.
Until the day this scarred body and pulse vanish: to continually protect the name and honor of the Vesalius …
He tightens his grip on the robes. He’s only a servant, intruding for a brief moment in the world of the nobility — he’s already caught several people staring at him sidelong, whispering behind lace fans and gloved hands — he doesn’t really belong. Even dressed up in fine new clothes of his own, his cheeks freshly-scrubbed (there’d been no time for a proper bath, but Miss Kate had been quite firmly insistent on washing his face), he feels rough and unfinished compared to everyone else. Part of him wants to burst into tears, though he’s not sure why; so instead he just stares as Young Master Oz recites the final words of the ritual — to swear heart, soul, and body to the protection of Lybia and the House of Vesalius — and the clear sound of his voice echoes throughout a hall finally gone silent.
A hand touches Gil’s shoulder. He jumps and looks up into Master Oscar’s kindly-smiling face.
“That’s your cue,” he says. “Go on, just like Kate told you.”
Gil swallows hard. In sight of all the gathered nobility of Lybia, he approaches the long narrow stairs, and begins to slowly make his way up. His palms are sweating and he half-expects to trip, to flub, or to somehow embarrass the people who have been so kind to him — the people he’s sworn to always serve — and yet he doesn’t. He makes it to the top of the stairs, and the robe unfurls smoothly in his hands. He settles them around the young master’s shoulders with a grace that surprises himself, and steps back. Young Master Oz rises to his feet and turns to face the crowd below, and his eyes are bright and clear — there is a lightness to them that Gil hasn’t seen in years, not since the last time Master Vesalius visited. It makes him straighten as well, squaring his shoulders and taking a deep breath; it makes him proud to see his young master shine like this, of his own power and confidence.
This is his master; this is the person he has sworn himself to. This is the true and proper heir of the House of Vesalius, and no one — not even the old master himself — can undo that now. And if his chest aches with each breath, if his eyes sting when he blinks, watching Master Oz descend the stairs, then it’s of no consequence, not now.
Everything becomes very busy after that. Master Oz’s lessons step up in intensity and frequency, and he spends more time traveling between the main estate in the city proper, and Master Oscar’s country house. There are days where all Gil sees of his master are the first moments of morning and the last ones of night.
It’s strange: even though he’s only a servant, he hadn’t realized how much he’d relied upon his master’s constant presence. Master Oscar and Miss Kate give him enough duties to fill in the suddenly-long hours, but he finds himself almost pathetically hopeful for a glance or a word. Master Oz throws himself into his new studies with a passion that matches his youth, and he begins hosting parties in Master Oscar’s stead, always charming and ready with a bright smile. Lady Sharon Lainsworth’s own coming-of-age ceremony comes and goes, and Gil lurks on the sidelines, watching as they dance — along with all of society, it seems; a few weeks later the rumor mill is suddenly awash in gossip: it would be a fine match, Vesalius and Lainsworth, especially when the two Houses have always been so friendly. These only increase when Sharon Lainsworth becomes a constant and familiar face at the Vesalius estate, always with her strange sleepy-eyed manservant never more than a few steps behind. And it galls Gil, really, because the older man — that Xerxes Break — is allowed where he isn’t; the door is always closed in Gil’s face, and Break is the one who brings the lord and lady their tea.
It shames Gil to admit that he grows to dread the sight of the Lainsworth carriage, or the sound of Lady Sharon’s soft voice; he can’t hate it entirely, not when she can draw laughter so easily out of his master, but …
Then comes his own fifteenth birthday: he is no nobleman, but he has been with the Vesalius House for so long that most of the servants give him small presents and wish him well, and Cook makes his favorite breakfast before he goes to wake Master Oz. And to his surprise (to his horror), he sees Sharon Lainsworth leaving the room, prim and poised as always; nothing of her looks out of place, but he can’t help but bristle at that — they’re close in the eyes of society, but not that close, and how dare she–!
She sees him, and she smiles. Gil freezes. All the scolding angry words buzzing in his head trip and stop at his tongue, because she’s still a lady, and she’s still a Lainsworth, and he’s nothing more than a servant–
“You’re Gilbert, aren’t you?” she says. She comes towards him, smiling. From apparently out of the shadows, Break melts into sight, just a few paces behind his lady. Gil can only stand dumbly as she approaches him, and she takes her hand in both of his. Though she’s his elder by a good three years, her hands are tiny in comparison — she hasn’t grown much over the past half-decade at all.
He stares sullenly and doesn’t say a word. She looks at his face and that damned pleasant smile never wavers. He knows he should say something — apologize for his rudeness, or give her some proper form of greeting, but he can’t manage it — he just stares and can’t force the words past his lips.
To his surprise, her hands tighten on his and pull; there is surprising strength in her grasp. He’s forced to lean down as she stretches onto her toes; her lips briefly brush his ear, and he flinches instinctively in it before he realizes there were words in that contact. Gil claps a hand to his ear and stairs as she pulls away, and her smile is almost sad as she looks at him. As he stood stunned, she curtsied to him — him, a servant! — and then walks past him, down the hallway and out of sight. For once, Break lingers where his lady does not, and his expression is decidedly less friendly.
“W-what was that?” Gil demands, his voice sharp. “What she just said–”
Break chuckles; it’s not a friendly sound. He covers his mouth with one hand, like he’s just as much of a delicate court lady. “Well~” he says. “I wonder. If my lady has seen fit to give you a warning, perhaps you’d best see that you heed it.”
“What sort of warning was that?” he snaps. “If you two mean to threaten Master Oz–”
He doesn’t even have the time to blink — between one word and the next, Break vanishes from his sight only to reappear directly before him, and there is a hand that catches his shoulder and shoves him back into the wall. The older man looms, and this close, Gil can look through the translucent bangs that cover his left eye and see — nothing. There’s a gaping socket where the eye should be, and Gil makes a startled noise deep in his throat before he can stop it.
“Threaten?” Break says. His voice is smooth as before, but there’s a lower edge to it, a purr that makes Gil’s hackles raise. “Is that what you think?” He takes Gil’s chin in cold hard fingers and tilts it up; Gil jerks back and can’t break free. “That’s a cruel thing to accuse my lady of, Gilbert. Best be careful of what you say.” He shifts his grip and runs a finger down the length of Gil’s neck. “We’re simply trying to … help.”
With that he lets go and steps back. Gil clutches at his throat, staring. Break smirks at him, then sweeps into a low courtly bow.
“By your leave,” he says, and there is no mistaking the mockery in his tone — but he sweeps past Gil then, in the same direction after Sharon Lainsworth . Gil watches him mutely, reaching up with his other hand to rub his ear. The lady’s words linger, even if he wants to forget —
he is still in danger
— how it sends a cold chill down his spine. It takes longer than he’d like to compose himself, but he goes anyway, dutifully knocking once at his master’s door before coming inside. The room is warmly dark, with the sun shiningredly through the drawn curtains, but Gil lingers beside the bed for a moment, hesitating. His master is peaceful in sleep — he’s allowed his hair to grow out some over the years, so that it’s currently a semi-shaggy mop that’s found growing popularity in court over recent months. There’s very little of the boy he once swore himself to on bent knee — and yet there’s everything of that long-ago child as well, just tempered and refined into something that grows more beautiful with each day. In anyone else, it would be unfair; because it’s Master Oz, Gil can’t find it in himself to resent it.
Gil takes a breath and reaches out to touch his master’s shoulder. “Master Oz,” he says gently. “It’s time to get up, sir. Breakfast-time. Cook’ll be angry if you sleep through it again.”
Master Oz only makes a faint noise of protest, rolling his head to the other side, away from Gil. The line of his throat is long and clean. Gil stares at it for a long minute, then flushes and glances away, shaking Master Oz’s shoulder harder. “Sir, please, you promised her you’d try–”
“I promise a lot of things, Gil,” Master Oz says suddenly, and quite clearly. He opens his eyes, and there’s no trace of drowsiness in them; if anything, they are as clear and bright as Gil rarely sees. He smiles, and before Gil can pull back, his wrist is caught in his master’s large hand. “I don’t always mean them, though. Today, I think I’d rather sleep in.”
“Master Oz,” Gil protests. “You promised–”
“There are more important things, Gil,” Master Oz says. He laughs and his voice is low and heavy; Gil blushes before he can really think about why. “Besides, it’s more a special day for you, isn’t it?”
“Gil,” Master Oz says, and there’s such a wealth of affection in his voice that it’s stunning. “My dearest Gil. Stop worrying and come here.” He tugs once, hard, and Gil yelps as he’s overbalanced, tumbled down into his master’s waiting arms. The years have shaped Master Oz into someone tall and lean, warm as the sun through the thin material of his nightshirt. For a moment, Gil is too stunned to react, and when he finally can, Master Oz’s arms are already wrapped around him, holding him in place.
“M-m-master Oz!” he protests, pushing weakly. “What are you doing, sir, I can’t — wait a moment –”
Against his ear, Master Oz laughs. It’s quiet and low and it curls something in the pit of Gil’s belly. “Tell me no, Gil,” he says. “Tell me no and mean it, and I’ll let you go.” His hand settles warmly against the small of Gil’s back, and he’s uncomfortably aware of it. “You’re not very good at hiding things. You’re jealous of Sharon, aren’t you?”
He flinches back from that — it’s one thing to skirt the idea uneasily, unhappy with the leaden feeling lodged in his chest — but it’s terrible to hear it said aloud. He’s nothing but a servant, and relatively pampered as he has been, he has no place in being jealous of the nobility, and especially not the young lady-heir of the Lainsworth House. He has nothing to offer his master except for everything he gave away years ago, and the shame gives him strength to push harder, to break Master Oz’s grip and scramble away.
Quick as a flash, though, Master Oz moves, and Gil yelps as his wrist is caught again and he gets dragged back once more. The backs of his knees hit the bed and he sits automatically, and Master Oz drapes over him from behind, free arm snaking around his waist and legs tangling with his. Gil makes a low noise, and finds himself well and truly trapped.
“You shouldn’t,” Master Oz says. His voice is low and thick. His fine hair tickles Gil’s neck. “You really shouldn’t, Gil, she’s just — she’s an ally, that’s it. She’s been backing me at the capitol, especially whenever my father comes up. She’s not you.”
Gil swallows. Even over the pounding of his heart, he hears that clearly. “Master Oz,” he says, and is pleased at how his voice doesn’t waver. “I’m just a servant. You shouldn’t think these things–”
“Gilbert,” Master Oz says, and his voice actually cracks a little. “You’ve always been my closest friend, from the beginning.” The hand on his wrist tightens, almost painfully, and Gil finds himself drawn back further, into the warm curl of his master’s body. “No matter what, you’ve always been there — you promised, didn’t you, and you kept it …”
“Of course,” he says shyly. “I swore, and I meant it.”
“Then tell me,” Master Oz says. “Because I’m selfish, Gil. I’ll take it if you let me. I’ll take everything — you’re an adult today, so …”
“You remembered,” Gil says, surprised. He covers the hand on his belly with his free one and squeezes. “Master Oz.”
“I’m a terrible person,” Master Oz says. He turns his head, and his mouth is soft and warm against Gil’s neck, and Gil flinches briefly from the unexpectedness of it. “Ah, see, I’ll just take it all, and leave nothing of Gil. You’d better run away while you can.”
He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. He turns in the loosening circle of his master’s arms and looks upon that beloved face. There’s a bright wide smile there, but his eyes are dark, and up close Gil can see the marks of care on his master’s pale skin: faint crow’s-feet at the corners of his eyes, a faint smudge of bruise-purple under those eyes, and the same lonely kindness as before. This is still his master, though grown up and slowed down, careless and impulsive and able to turn around and be selfless enough to leave him floundering.
“I’m an adult now,” he says, echoing his master’s words. “But I’m still a servant.” He reaches up and he frames Master Oz’s face — Oz’s face — in both his hands. “There’s nothing you could take that wasn’t yours already.”
Any other time, the look of slowly-dawning shock on Oz’s face would have been funny. It’s not very often Gil can surprise him. But he’s already screwed up his courage, and he can’t let the moment pass, so he leans forward and kisses his master (his friend) and waits for the world to change.
Here’s the thing about Oz’s knowledge: he reads and studies so much — in his early childhood, and again after becoming a man — that it’s hard to tell what he has that’s practical experience knowledge, and how much he’s simply heard about. Certainly Gil’s never seen him keep company with anyone but Sharon Lainsworth , and with her own servant always hovering, he’s fairly certain it’s not gone further than dances in the public eye. His instincts have always been good, though, so when he laughs and says “Here?” then yes, yes, it’s there, and Gil can hardly breathe because of it. Oz’s teeth are sharp and not entirely gentle, catching on his earlobe and tugging, and Gil makes a highly-embarrassing noise, pawing at Oz’s arms in response.
“Gil,” Oz breathes, and his cheeks are flushed and his eyes are glittering and he’s lovely. His smile is bright enough to blind. “Ahh, Gil,” and his mouth is there on Gil’s throat, following his pulse as he plucks weakly at Oz’s loose nightshirt, his breath hiccuping and hitching. He wants to say Oz’s name in return and manages only a brief “oh!”; he’s more than a little in love and everything he’s ever wanted is here atop him and in his arms. Oz understands, though; he always has. He laughs and says “Like this?” and Gil clings to him, sobbing for breath as a warm palm skates his belly and nimble fingers cup his cock.
It frightens him a little, how much he likes this: how shamelessly he arches his hips up to ask for more, and how he presses against Oz and claws hard at his shoulders. His control has long since come undone, like his discarded clothes, and right now he can’t say he misses it much. The thought crosses his mind briefly to reciprocate — and he unhooks his fingers from Oz’s shoulders and reaches out, pressing a hand over the trip-hammer beat of his master’s heart.
Oz laughs then; the sound is low and rough. He catches Gil’s hand and puts it gently aside. “In a minute,” he says. “I want to hear Gil cry a little, first. I like how it sounds.”
He flushes harder at that. “O-oz–”
Oz kisses his forehead then, and the arm around his shoulders tightens. Gil is dizzy from overload, but he can feel the tremble in Oz’s lips, words whispered into his skin that he can’t quite sort out, and he hears the odd hitch in his master’s breathing that sounds more like tears than pleasure. It’s enough to sober him for a moment, and he opens his eyes and looks straight up. “Master Oz?”
He’s answered with a smile, cryptic and familiar and somehow so very sad. “I’m selfish, I said,” Oz murmurs, and he leans to kiss Gil again as his hand begins to move, fast and smooth and far, far too easy; Gil cries out and can only hang on for dear life, his face pressed into Oz’s throat and mouthing at the patch of sweat-damp skin he can reach, and his hips move helplessly, snapping back and forth, until the only thing he can do is shake and whisper Oz’s name and he thinks: I have never been happier than this.
Ah, laughs a voice (and it sounds like the beating of great wings, like the rustling of feathers dragging through centuries of dust), is that so? How easily you’re pleased.
Gil wakes. Something in his mouth tastes foul, and the blood is pounding in his temples like a hammer. He rolls and winces at the sudden stabbing pain.
Somewhere to his right, a door opens. He smells lavender to accompany the quiet footsteps that approach him, and growls briefly when a small cool hand touches his forehead, smoothing his tousled hair back.
“You mustn’t drink so much,” Sharon tells him softly. “It allows the chain too much freedom in your mind.”
He bats weakly at her hand and makes another angry noise. The dream is already fading, but the fleeting pleasures of it are already being replaced by the immediate reality: his own headache and exhaustion, the uncomfortable hard edges of the cot beneath him, and the sound of birds close by. Break is blessedly silent if he’s in the room, but Gil rolls away from Sharon’s hand and hunches his shoulder.
“We leave in an hour,” she says softly. “If we push, we’ll reach the Vesalius country home by nightfall; Master Oscar’s given us permission to stay there for the night, if necessary. You can have another day to rest.”
Gil remains still and says nothing. He listens for the rustle of skirts that signals her retreat, and presses his hand over his eyes.
He doesn’t dream again.