Frank was miserable.
It had been almost two weeks since the last time he’d seen her. Two weeks since he’d kissed her and very possibly scared her away for good. Two weeks of spending at least a part of every evening at Vauxhall, looking for her in vain.
It shouldn’t have mattered, he knew. Not when he didn’t know a single thing about her other than that she had kept her identity from him out of necessity, rather than choice. Whatever that meant, it couldn’t be anything Frank wanted to involve himself in. He should simply put her out of his mind, stop hoping to see her again, and when enough time had passed another pretty girl would catch his eye and everything would be as it had been before.
He could tell himself this—he had
told himself this, repeatedly—but in spite of it, his thoughts still turned to bright hazel eyes and smooth, pale skin and the softness of her lips, unforgettable though the kiss had lasted only a few brief moments.
Frank had never been in love before, not really. He didn’t know if this could properly be called love; infatuation was probably nearer the mark, or, to put it less charitably, obsession. But whatever it was, he was in its grip, and he hadn’t the slightest idea how to free himself.
For two weeks, Gerard kept the dresses tucked away in the chest beneath his bed. In the past, he’d taken them out sometimes simply to look at them, hold them up in front of his mirror and stroke the fabric. Now he left them where they were, as if by doing so he could forget that they were there, forget that he had ever worn them.
He barely left the house at all, curtailing even his usual trips to bookshops and occasional outings to the theatre. He drank more than he should and wrote maudlin poetry and above all else, he tried to forget what it had felt like when Frank had kissed him.
Michael had, for the main part, left Gerard to his own devices during those two weeks, perhaps hoping his brother was finally giving up the entire scheme, and simply needed some time to brood over it before moving on. One evening, however, he appeared in Gerard’s bedroom, his expression stern.
“You didn’t tell me that you and Frank had kissed,” he began, and Gerard sighed.
“I was hoping to avoid a lecture. I take it that hope was in vain?”
“I saw him tonight,” Michael went on. “He seemed in low spirits, so I asked what the matter was. Gerard, what were you thinking
“I should think it fairly obvious that I wasn’t
thinking,” Gerard replied, raking a hand through his hair. “Do you think if I never leave my room again, he’ll forget it happened?”
Michael made a small noise of irritation. “Knowing Frank, that will just make his mooning all the worse—he can be as stupidly romantic as you, sometimes. If you want to know what I think, you should tell him the truth.”
“What?” Gerard blinked. “That’s…that’s a terrible idea, Michael.”
“Which would make it radically different from most of the ideas you’ve had lately, I suppose,” Michael said dryly. “Look—you needn’t even tell him in person. Write a letter and I’ll deliver it. We can explain that it was just an—an experiment you got carried away with, if you like, and once he’s gotten over being angry, he’ll find it hilarious.”
Gerard chose to become very absorbed in studying his own hands rather than meet Michael’s gaze, or admit that he didn’t want Frank to be angry with him, find their situation hilarious, or
know the truth.
“What if,” he began after a moment, “What if I went to Vauxhall again—just once more—and told him we couldn’t meet again? That, I don’t know, I was going to leave the country, or something else that would mean he couldn’t have any hope of seeing me there again?”
Michael considered that idea for a moment, but his expression was dubious. “I don’t know that that would deter him as well as you might think. And I’m not certain I trust you to go there again without doing something even more foolish than you have already.”
“I don’t think I can stand to tell him the truth,” Gerard said miserably. “I know I should, that it would be right, but I can’t bear the thought of how he might react.” He brightened somewhat as an idea occurred to him. “But if my trying to put him off my way didn’t work, we could always fall back on yours.”
Michael eyed him for a long moment. “Just once more,” he echoed.
“Just once,” Gerard repeated. “I swear.”
Michael shook his head, still looking very uncertain about the whole thing. “You’d better. Because I don’t care how much you sulk, I won’t help you with it again after this.”
The following Saturday was the date of another Vauxhall masquerade, one that Michael planned to attend himself this time. “I’m meeting someone there,” was all he would respond when Gerard peppered him with questions.
Mysterious rendezvous excepted, when Michael went to a masquerade it was largely to observe the costumes of others. He put the absolute minimum effort into his own, often simply wearing all black and telling anyone who asked that he was a personification of Death, or Night, or Sorrow, depending on which answer best suited his mood, and he rarely bothered with a mask, complaining that he found them uncomfortable.
As for Gerard, he wore the old-fashioned lilac dress and silver mask again. As he stood in front of his mirror, he thought back to the first time he had donned the dress, and how little an idea he had then about what was in store.
Their plan was to take the same carriage, but disembark a short distance from Vauxhall, enter the gardens separately, and meet back outside the gate at an appointed time; the last thing they needed now was for Frank to see his mysterious lady in the company of a friend who had disclaimed any knowledge of her existence. The driver clearly mistook them for a couple, and despite the fact that Gerard was a bundle of nerves and Michael was still conveying his disapproval through stoic silence, both of them couldn’t help but laugh at that.
When Frank first saw her, in the same dress she’d worn the night they met, he half-thought it was his imagination. She was turned away from him, glancing this way and that, and Frank’s heart gave a little leap when he realised she seemed to be searching the crowd.
He hurried over and touched her arm gently, and she spun around quickly, as if startled. There was something almost apprehensive in her eyes when she saw him, again reminding him of the night they met, but after a moment she smiled.
“Hello,” Frank said, smiling back at her. “I was afraid I wasn’t going to see you again.”
“So was I, to be honest,” she replied, looking uncertain again.
“I wanted to apologize,” Frank went on quickly. “For my behaviour, last time. I took liberties no gentleman should take with a lady.”
“You haven’t taken any liberties I haven’t encouraged,” she said, not meeting his eyes. “I think we’re equally to blame in that regard.”
They stood there for a moment, awkwardly, before she added, “There’s something I must tell you.”
“That doesn’t sound very good,” Frank said warily. “But go on, what is it?”
She looked at him, lips parted as if to speak, and then shook her head. “It can wait. Ask me to dance, anything, just…let it wait.”
Frank took her hand, bowing over it. “As you wish, my lady.”
They danced twice with very little conversation; she seemed to want to delay what she had to tell him as long as possible, and that, coupled with a lingering sadness in her eyes, made Frank equally reluctant to hear it. So they danced, as if by doing so they could forget that there was anything but the night and the music and her hand in his.
But they paused eventually, moving off to the side together, and she glanced at the couples still dancing with a wistful expression.
“I wish we could simply go on dancing,” she murmured. “Forget the rest.”
“I imagine our feet would get rather sore eventually,” Frank pointed out. “But I would dance with you as long as you wished.”
She gave a small sigh, and then looked over at him. “Can I depend on you to be a gentleman if we go somewhere more private?”
“Of course,” Frank assured her.
She put her hand on his arm with no hesitation, but held herself apart from him as they walked from the Grove, finding a spot similar to the one they’d stood in last time. Frank turned to face her, but stood back a few paces, keeping his hands clasped behind his back.
“Very well,” he said. “What is it?”
She hesitated a few seconds longer, clearly reluctant to speak, and then said, softly, “This has to end, Mr. Iero. It’s gone on too long already.”
Frank had been expecting it, of course—he would have been a fool not to expect it. Hearing the words still left him at a total loss, feeling as though he’d been punched in the stomach and struck on the head all at once.
After several moments passed with no response from him, she went on, seeming determined to say her piece now that she had begun.
“I place the blame mainly on myself—I should never have come here to begin with, and I certainly should never have encouraged your attentions. The truth is that I found myself rather absurdly affected by those attentions, but that’s a poor excuse for having acted so far against all common sense. I cannot undo what my lack of judgment has led to, but I can—I must—prevent it from going any further.”
“Wait,” Frank broke in at last, taking a step closer to her. “I can’t deny that we’ve both acted rashly, and that my own conduct has been decidedly ungentlemanly, and I apologize again for that. But I don’t regret meeting you, not for a moment. I’ve spent every day since we last parted hoping it wouldn’t be for the last time, and now, to hear you speak of ending things…”
She turned away from him, taking a deep breath as if to steel herself. “When we part tonight, it will
be for the last time. It must be. Forget me, and forget we met.”
“I doubt I could do that even if I wanted to,” Frank protested.
“Do you think it’s what I
want?” she demanded. With her back turned to him in the dim glow of the lanterns, Frank could barely see her face, but her voice was thick, as though she were fighting tears. “What I want doesn’t matter, and I should have remembered that.”
Her voice shook on the last words, and Frank moved without thinking, coming up close behind her and putting his hands on her upper arms.
“Don’t,” he whispered, tilting his head up to press his cheek against her hair. “Please, don’t. I’m sorry.”
She tensed, and he thought she would pull away, but then her shoulders sagged and she leaned back against him. After a moment, Frank let go of one of her arms to put his arm around her waist instead—breaking his promise to be a gentleman, but it seemed he had little to lose, now—and, when she allowed that, he tilted his head to kiss her cheek, finding it damp.
She sighed, and her hand landed on his arm; instead of pushing it away, her fingers curled lightly around his wrist. “Frank,” she breathed, and it didn’t sound like a protest.
He held her carefully, as if she were a bird he had caught, and pressed a light, swift kiss to her jaw, and then the shell of her ear, and then—his heart pounding so hard she could surely feel it—to the curve where her neck met her shoulder, just above the cut of her dress.
She went stiff again at that, pulling away from him a bit. “You should stop,” she said, her voice low.
Frank knew he should, and knew he should back away instantly at her words. Instead, he craned his neck to look at her as well as he could, and asked, “Do you want me to stop?”
“There’s very little I want less,” she whispered, her own head turned and so close he could feel her breath on his face. But when he leaned in, trying to close the distance between their mouths, she turned away quickly and said, more firmly, “But you should.”
Frank swallowed hard, but nodded, and made himself let go and step back. She took another few steps away and turned to face him, cheeks flushed and eyes wide behind her mask.
“You see?” she asked. “I forget myself every time you come near me, and it can’t go on, Frank. I can’t ask you to show restraint I’m apparently not capable of, and I can’t—I could never give you what you want.”
Frank struggled to collect himself, unable, for a few moments, to focus on anything beyond how badly he wanted to touch her again. He put his hands behind his back again, clasping them together tightly, as if worried they would reach for her of their own accord if he didn’t.
“You must think I have very little regard for your honour,” he said at last. “And I’ve behaved appallingly, I know, and I beg your pardon for it. As I said before, I would court you properly if I could.”
“I believe you,” she told him, with a faint, sad smile. “And as I’ve said, if I could tell you who I am, I would. The ‘if’s in this situation count for very little, I’m afraid.”
“You sound so certain of that,” Frank said, looking down. “Whatever your circumstances are, that you say you couldn’t tell me—I would never ask you to trouble yourself on my account, but if things could be changed, and you wished to—”
She cut him off, shaking her head. “If I could change anything, I would have before this. Believe me, if you knew the truth of my circumstances, you would never want to see me again.”
Frank looked back up, meeting her eyes. “Forgive me, my lady, but I don’t believe that for an instant.”
“Then think me a liar,” she said coolly. “There are worse things you could think, if I told you who I am.”
“Let me be the judge of that,” he pleaded, but she shook her head again.
“No. There’s nothing else I can say to you, Frank. I—I’m sorry, but I have to go.”
She started to move past him, back towards the Grove, and Frank moved to stop her impulsively, catching hold of her arm.
“Wait,” he protested. “Please. You can’t simply walk away and ask me to forget you.”
“I can’t do anything else,” she told him. “Let me go.”
“Tell me your name,” he went on stubbornly. “Even if I never see you again, give me that much to remember you by.”
She looked at him, eyes wide and lips parted, once again putting him in mind of some wild, startled creature. “The only thing I can give you to remember me by is—”
“Yes?” Frank breathed, eyes locked on hers.
She closed her eyes and leaned forward, closing the distance between them. There was nothing ladylike about the kiss, nothing timid or gentle. She pressed her mouth to his boldly, one hand resting firmly on his shoulder, and Frank stood frozen in shock for amount before bringing his arms up and around her, pulling her close. He felt the press of her body against his for a brief moment, and then she broke away, pushing at his chest.
“No—we cannot—please, let me go.”
Frank obeyed at once, though more unwillingly than he had ever done anything. She took several steps back and almost stumbled, but held up one hand in a warding gesture when he would have gone to her aid.
“Let me go,” she repeated breathlessly, and Frank clenched his hands into fists and held himself still. In another moment, she was nearly running, skirts gathered up, hurrying back towards the Grove.
Frank watched her leave, telling himself that he should heed her words, let her go and try to forget.
His resolve held until she was almost out of sight, and then he followed, trying to move quickly while keeping a safe distance from her.
Gerard was amazed that he managed to reach the Grove without losing his footing—he was moving as fast as he dared, and his vision was blurred by tears. He saw more than one head turn in his direction as he rushed past, but no one tried to stop him.
He didn’t stop until he was back at his and Michael’s appointed meeting spot, flushed and panting, one hand pressed against a stitch in his side. He stood there, trying to catch his breath and stop the tears before they began in earnest, and when a hand touched his shoulder, he jumped, startled.
“Gerard, what on Earth—” Michael began, and paused when Gerard turned to face him, eyes widening. “What happened?”
“I’ll tell you at home,” Gerard said, taking the handkerchief Michael offered to dab at his face. “Please, let’s just go home.”
Frank stepped outside the gate in time to see her stepping into a carriage, assisted by a tall, thin man in a black coat. A flash of proprietary jealousy went through him at once, and he barely stopped himself from rushing down the street to confront them both then and there. The man—Frank couldn’t see his face, but there was something naggingly familiar about his posture—stepped into the vehicle himself, and Frank turned quickly towards the line of empty cabs waiting outside Vauxhall. If the driver had any qualms about following the other carriage, the number of coins Frank shoved into his hand were enough to overcome them.
They stopped outside of a dimly-lit, ivy-covered house on a quiet street, and Frank felt the same nagging familiarity even before he stepped out of the cab. The other vehicle was already pulling away, its passengers having vanished, presumably into the house. Frank looked up at the building—and felt a weight like a stone settle in his stomach and a queer rush of both heat and cold over his entire body.
He knew the house, knew who he had seen climbing into a carriage with a woman he’d held in his arms not half an hour ago. A woman who had to be in that house with Michael, right now.
The same voice of reason that had told him not to follow her told him to leave; get back into the carriage and go home, wait until he could deal with this revelation with a cooler head.
And then a light flickered on in an upstairs window, and Frank glanced up at it. It was unlatched, open slightly to the summer air, and the ledge beneath it was broad—perhaps, he considered, broad enough to stand on.
He was doubtful, at first, as to whether the ivy would bear his weight, but it was thick enough for him to wrap his hand around several strands at once, twisting them into a makeshift rope. He was clumsy, and his progress was slow, but with the carriage dismissed, there was no one about on the street to see him. There were several moments when his feet slipped on the wall beneath the ivy, and he was sure he would fall, but he managed to gain the ledge, which was indeed broad enough to bear him, if only just. He stood at the very edge, hopefully out of sight to anyone looking out the window, and after a moment, voices reached him from inside.
“I knew this was a bad idea.” That was Michael, sounding halfway between sympathetic and exasperated. “Next time, we try my way first.”
“There isn’t going to be
a next time.” That sounded like her voice, but strange, deeper and rougher than a lady’s should. Of course, she also sounded as though she were crying. “Spare me the mockery, please.”
“All right, all right,” Michael sighed. “Stop crying, your face looks absolutely frightful.”
“Then get me out
of this damned thing so I can wash.”
Frank felt himself flush with anger and jealousy again at those words, at the pictures they conjured in his mind. Certain that whatever was transpiring in that room could be no worse than his imagination, he shifted carefully on the narrow ledge, bending to look through the window.
Gerard didn’t need Michael to tell him his face was a fright; he kept wiping futilely at it with the handkerchief, which kept coming away all the more smeared with tears and face-paint, as he tried in vain to compose himself. He was still half-dressed, the gown unbuttoned and hastily pushed to his waist so that Michael could work on unlacing the stays.
“What was that noise?” Michael asked suddenly, pausing.
“What noise?” Gerard asked, and sniffled.
“I thought I just heard something at the window,” Michael said, and Gerard was about to ask what it had sounded like when there was another noise, this one far more audible.
It sounded rather like someone shouting and then banging against a pane of glass, and it was explained a moment later when Frank came tumbling through the open window and into Gerard’s bedroom.
Gerard froze like a startled rabbit, staring at him in disbelieving horror. Frank picked himself up off the floor, looked around dazedly, and then froze himself when he spotted Gerard, wide-eyed with shock.
Michael was the first to speak or move. “Frank—” he began, stepping towards his friend, and Frank looked at him, then back at Gerard, and then back at Michael. For a moment, there was nothing in his face but confusion, but then his expression began to darken anger.
“What in God’s name is this
?” he demanded.
“I told you,” Gerard said, and then quailed when Frank’s gaze snapped back to him. He crossed his arms over his chest, as if that could somehow hide the way he was dressed, and went on. “I told
you you wouldn’t want to know the truth.”
Frank stared at him, eyes searching Gerard’s face for a long moment. “It was you all along?” he finally asked, voice low. “Every time?”
Gerard closed his eyes, unable to face the look in Frank’s, and nodded.
,” Frank said, and Gerard’s eyes snapped open again, but Frank was looking at Michael.
“I sat there and poured my idiotic heart out to you, and you just—” he broke off, hands clenching into fists. “The two of you had a good laugh about that afterwards, I suppose.”
“No,” Gerard interrupted. He took a step forward, arms still crossed awkwardly, almost tripping on his skirts, feeling patently absurd and as though he were trapped in a bad dream. “Think what you will about me, but Michael wanted me to tell you the truth from the moment he knew you were involved.”
“Why should I believe a single thing you say?” Frank demanded, and Gerard winced at the venom in his tone. “Even if that were the truth, he might have told me himself.”
“Frank…” Michael stepped towards him, hands spread in a placating gesture. “You’re right. I helped him when I shouldn’t have, and I can make no excuse for that.”
“He’s my brother,” Michael said simply.
?” Frank echoed incredulously. He looked between the two of them, then raked a hand through his hair, laughing helplessly. “This is insane.”
“Frank—” Gerard reached out cautiously, fingertips brushing his arm.
Frank jerked away from his touch, his arm upraised as if to strike Gerard. “Don’t,” he said, and there was a dangerous thread of anger in his voice. “Don’t touch me.”
Gerard flinched more from the words than from Frank’s raised hand, stumbling back a few steps, and then Michael was between them, pushing Gerard back a bit further.
“I think perhaps you should leave, Frank,” he said flatly.
Frank lowered his arm, still angry, but making a visible attempt to compose himself. “Perhaps you’re right,” he agreed after a moment, and turned back towards the window, only to have Michael grab him by the arm.
“Through the door
, for God’s sake. I’m not letting you go out a window while you’re this angry, you’ll break your neck for certain.”
Frank scowled, but let Michael steer him out of the room without protest. He didn’t look at Gerard again as he left.
Gerard held himself still until the door closed behind the two of them. Then, like a puppet with its strings cut, he simply collapsed, sinking in a heap on the floor. He wasn’t crying any longer, but he was shaking all over, and when he felt able to move again, all he did was draw his legs up and wrap his arms around his knees, burying his face in crumpled silk and trying to remember how to breathe properly.
Gerard could think of few things that could make the evening more of a nightmare, but hearing his mother’s voice certainly qualified.
For a moment, he considered simply staying where he was and pretending he hadn’t heard her, and might have done so if he’d had the faintest hope of it working. Instead, he took a deep breath, and raised his head.
Mrs. Way stood in the doorway in a dressing gown and slippers, eyeing her son with a mixture of puzzlement and concern.
“I heard voices,” she said, and added, with a raised eyebrow, “And I suppose there must be some reason for the way you’re dressed, but I’m less certain if it’s one I should inquire after.”
“Er.” Gerard reached behind himself, trying to finish unlacing the stays and only succeeding in tangling the laces. “I can explain—”
His mother crossed the room briskly to stand behind him, waving his hands away. “Leave this to me. You start explaining.”
By the time Gerard had gotten free of the stays, retreated behind a screen to finish undressing and don a nightshirt and dressing gown, washed away the smeared remnants of the cosmetics, and stowed everything in the trunk beneath his bed, the entire story had come out. His mother listened patiently, prompting him to go on now and then when he hesitated, and raising an eyebrow but not commenting when she saw the other dresses tucked away in the chest. The only major interruption came when Michael returned from having seen Frank out and into a carriage that would take him home. Returning to Gerard’s room to find their mother there, he had been torn between mild horror and helpless laughter, and meekly accepted her instruction to “go to bed, before you find a way to help your brother into any further nonsense”.
When Gerard reached the end of the story, with Frank’s discovery of the truth and his reaction, his voice wavered and he felt tears threaten again. Mrs. Way took one look at him and declared that what he needed was a strong cup of tea, and steered him down into the kitchen to prepare it herself rather than wake one of the servants.
It wasn’t until they were both settled at the kitchen table, a steaming cup of tea in front of each of them, that she spoke.
“I’ve always known you were…different,” she said, her tone fond. “Special, I would say, and your grandmother would have, as well. I think she always loved you just a bit more for it.”
Gerard ducked his head at that, smiling a bit sadly as he cupped his hands around the tea, still too hot to drink. His mother went on.
“I would never ask you to be anything but what you are, but the rest of the world isn’t so understanding. You should know that as well as I, if not better.”
“I do,” Gerard protested. “I do. I just…wanted to pretend that things were different. For a little while, at least.”
“I understand that,” his mother said, adding in a low tone, “perhaps better than you think. But not all impulses, however understandable, are to be indulged.” She looked at him, sternness creeping into her gaze. “You’ve practiced an appalling deception on that young man, and that’s bad enough. But the trouble you’ve caused him is nothing to how he could pay you back, if he chose.”
Gerard’s heart sank once again as he took in her meaning. He hadn’t even thought of that before; earlier, it had seemed as though there could be nothing worse than the anger in Frank’s eyes and voice and the way he had pulled back from Gerard’s touch.
“You know that your father and I have never paid much heed to gossip, or cared overmuch about our family’s reputation,” Mrs. Way went on. “But there is gossip and reputation, and then there is what could become of you—of all of us, but you most of all—if this became known.”
Gerard took a too-large sip of his tea, scalding his tongue, and then nodded. “I should have thought of that sooner. I’ll see if Michael will speak to him about it; God knows his chances of convincing Frank to keep this to himself will be better than mine would.”
His mother nodded in agreement, sipping her own tea, and gave him a long, considering look. “Not that it makes your actions any less reprehensible, but…you grew quite fond of him, didn’t you?”
“It’s hardly as though that matters,” Gerard said dismissively, and then, when she went on looking at him, he closed his eyes and admitted, “Yes.”
He heard her stand, and then her hand settled on his hair, stroking it gently, as she used to do when he was a boy.
“It will pass,” he said softly, trying to pretend his eyes weren’t stinging. “It always has before.”
He’d learned, growing up feeling as he did, that if he couldn’t change the way he was, he could at least let infatuation die out if he was patient enough. From the first boy he’d ever caught himself admiring, to the schoolmate who had fumbled in the dark with Gerard willingly enough, but wouldn’t kiss him or speak to him in public, his feelings had always passed in time.
Mrs. Way made a low, sympathetic sound, smoothing her hand over his hair again. “I won’t tell you it’s wrong to feel as you do; I won’t give you any sermons I know you’ve heard before. But I do worry about your happiness.”
“I do well enough,” Gerard replied. It was a lie and both of them knew it, but the reasons for his unhappiness ran deeper than his predilections, and were nothing he was overeager to discuss with his mother, especially tonight.
“As you say.” She sounded less than convinced, but didn’t press him further. She returned to her chair, and they drank their tea in silence for a few moments.
“I have some things put away,” she said at length. “Jewellery, a fan, some hair combs—I had meant to save them for my granddaughters, if either you or Michael ever saw fit to provide me with any. I wouldn’t suggest you wear them anywhere out of the house, but if you’d like them…”
Gerard smiled in spite of himself, shaking his head. “Thank you, but I think my dealings with ladies’ accessories are over.”
To say that Frank was out of sorts the next day would have been a vast understatement. He had arrived home late, and, utterly confounded by the evening's end, had thought to go to bed and leave off thinking about it until the morning. But he'd been unable to stop
thinking about it, tossing and turning for hours before finally falling into a fitful sleep, near dawn.
That had been no better; he'd woken groggy and confused from dreams that had shifted back and forth between anger and desire, between the beautiful, mysterious woman he'd spent so much time yearning for in the past few weeks, and the man he'd seen last night: crossed arms doing nothing to hide the stays, hazel eyes wide with shock and lined with smudged kohl, at once more obscene and more vulnerable than if he’d simply been naked.
Bleary from lack of sleep and angry at himself as well, now, he'd kept to himself, pacing back and forth in his bedroom and trying to make sense of something that seemed to defy sense entirely.
Michael called on him shortly after noon.
Frank's parents would no doubt have found it curious if he had thrown Michael out or struck him on the spot, so he did neither, clasping his hands tightly behind his back and saying nothing as the two of them retreated to the privacy of Frank's room.
"There are things that need to be said," Michael began, before Frank could speak. "After I've said them, you can hit me, or tell me to get out and never come back, whatever you like, but hear me out."
Frank glared at him for a moment, mouth set in a stubborn line, but then nodded. "Very well. I suppose you'd better sit down."
They settled into chairs across from each other, and Michael braced his elbows on the arm of his chair and steepled his fingers, looking down at his hands for a moment before beginning.
"I can see why you would think this all a joke at your expense, but we truly didn't intend for you to become involved in it. Gerard merely wanted to see if he could get away with dressing as he did, at first, and when he met you, he had no idea of your connection to me. As he said last night, I wanted him to tell you the truth, or at least stop meeting with you. But I still enabled his actions, and all I can do is ask your forgiveness for that."
Frank shook his head, his expression still stubborn. "Say I accept what you tell me about how this started. Very well, I've done my share of foolish things in the name of curiosity or fun. But then, to lead me on as he did--for God's sake, Michael, he kissed
me. What am I supposed to see that as, if not a joke I don't find particularly amusing?"
Michael sighed. "You're going to hit me," he said, in a tone of dour certainty, before going on. "Frank, Gerard…prefers the company of other men."
Frank stared at him blankly for a moment, and then felt himself flush. "…Oh. I--I see."
Michael nodded. "I assure you, there was nothing funny about it for him, either."
Frank's only response was to fidget, slumping down in his chair a bit and avoiding Michael's eyes. It had been easier to think of all this as a prank gone wrong, but looking back on the night before, that didn't fit. Either Michael's brother was a very accomplished actor--or the feelings Frank had thought he'd detected had indeed been there.
"I--" he stammered after a moment. "I don't--I've never--"
"I didn't think so," Michael said dryly. "Gerard knew it was most likely foolish to…become attached, as it were."
"So why tell me?" Frank asked. "For all you know, I might take more offence at this than at being the target of a joke."
Michael looked at him squarely. "Do you?"
Frank threw his hands in the air. "I don't know. I thought I was falling in love with a woman even though I barely knew her, and she turned out to be your brother
. I barely know up from down anymore."
"I am sorry, Frank," Michael said. He hesitated briefly, then added, "But since you asked, I'm telling you this because I think you deserve the whole truth, and because if you're going to judge Gerard for his actions, I'd prefer you at least understand what his motives truly were and weren't."
"Very well," Frank said sullenly. "Is that all?"
Michael pressed his lips together for a moment. "Not quite. I have no right to ask anything of you, I know that, but--"
"But you want me to keep all of this to myself, I suppose," Frank finished for him. "You needn't worry."
Michael looked at him a bit sceptically. "You won't tell anyone?"
"Michael, I'm angry, but that doesn't mean I want to bring that kind of trouble down on your brother. Frankly, I'd be perfectly content to forget it happened."
“All right,” Michael said, adding, awkwardly, “Thank you.”
“Was there anything else?” Frank asked curtly.
Michael gave a small sigh. “I suppose apologizing again would more likely irritate you than make you any more likely to forgive either of us?”
Frank raked a hand through his hair with a frustrated noise. “Michael…give me more time before you ask for that.”
Michael looked down, biting his lower lip for a moment. “Of course.” He stood, nodding. “Thank you for listening, at least.”
A week passed.
Gerard was in low spirits, of course, but he tried to keep from brooding overmuch. He returned to his old habits—resuming studies he’d been neglecting, making more frequent trips to his favourite bookstores again—and in general tried to return to the way his life had been before he’d ever been struck with the idea of dressing like a woman. Before he had ever met Frank.
He was in his room one evening, bent over a book as usual, occasionally scribbling something in a journal (he had a vague notion of writing something one day, if he could ever turn his growing collection of untidily-kept notebooks into a coherent manuscript), when a sound caught his attention. He looked up, brow furrowed, and was able to identify the noise a moment later—footsteps and voices, coming closer.
“—don’t think you should simply barge in on him.” That was Michael, sounding irritated.
“If he doesn’t wish to speak to me, he should be perfectly capable of telling me so,” came a second voice, and Gerard’s heart leapt into his throat as he recognised it.
A moment later, the door was thrown open to reveal Frank standing there, with Michael hovering over his shoulder.
Gerard stood, bracing his hands on the desk behind him. “Mr. Iero,” he said, keeping his tone carefully neutral. “I must confess, this is a surprise.”
Frank stared at him for a moment—still unused to seeing Gerard this way, perhaps—then squared his shoulders and spoke. “I apologize for my abruptness, but I wanted to speak to you.” Glancing over his shoulder at Michael, he added, “privately.”
Michael gave him a cool, blank stare, and then looked past him to Gerard, raising his eyebrows in a silent question.
“It’s all right,” Gerard told him. “Leave us alone, please.”
Michael gave a brief shrug. “Very well. Call if you change your mind.”
Gerard nodded, and as Frank stepped into the room, Michael pulled the door closed—but left it unlatched and slightly ajar, Gerard noted.
And then it was just the two of them, facing each other awkwardly across the length of the bedroom.
“…You said you wished to speak to me?” Gerard finally prompted, when Frank continued to simply look at him without speaking.
“Yes,” Frank said, but he seemed distracted. “I’m sorry, I was…you’re so different like this. Your voice, the way you stand…but your face is the same.”
Gerard glanced downwards, flustered as ever with Frank’s attention on him. “Did you come here just to assure me that my face still looks like my face, Frank?”
“No.” Gerard heard Frank move, coming closer. “No, I came here because I don’t seem to be able to stop thinking about you.”
Gerard looked up at that, breath catching in his throat, as Frank moved closer still. He was flushed, Gerard noticed, and he weaved a little as he walked forward.
“I used to dream about you,” Frank went on. “I thought that would end once I knew what you were,” (Gerard flinched a bit at those words, but Frank went on without a pause), “but it didn’t. My dreams don’t seem to care.”
“You’re drunk,” Gerard commented. Even if Frank’s words and behavior hadn’t been making that evident, he was close enough by now for Gerard to smell the liquor on his breath.
Frank wasn’t the only one adjusting to someone who seemed familiar, but unsettlingly different; this was not the same Frank Gerard had met in Vauxhall, not the carefree young man who might flirt with a young woman and push the limits of what society allowed, but step back instantly at a word from her. Frank had been a gentleman then—a roguish one, perhaps, but a gentleman nonetheless. Now he was drunk and possibly angry and alone in a room with a man who had wronged him, and Gerard wasn’t sure he could depend on any measure of gentlemanliness.
“I am very
drunk,” Frank corrected. “Do you know what I dreamed about last night?”
It seemed like a rhetorical question, but he paused, as though waiting for an answer. Gerard shook his head.
“I dreamed about kissing you,” Frank told him. “It was like when we were at Vauxhall together—not the first time, the second. When you kissed me. But in my dream, you were just as you are now. No dress.”
Gerard felt himself flush, uncomfortably aware of how close Frank was. “People dream a lot of things. Most of them don’t make any sense when you wake, or aren’t anything you would ever do—”
“That’s exactly what I told myself, when I woke,” Frank interrupted. “But I still couldn’t stop thinking about the dream. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought that perhaps the reason I keep dreaming and thinking about it is because some part of me wants to kiss you again.”
Gerard froze at that, eyes wide. Frank raised a hand, and for a moment Gerard thought he was going to strike him after all—but Frank’s hand simply landed on his cheek, a bit clumsy, but not overly rough.
“So I got drunk, and decided to come here, and kiss you, and see what came of it,” Frank finished, in a matter-of-fact tone, and leaned in.
Gerard wouldn’t have had time to move away even if he hadn’t still been frozen in surprise. Before he could so much as blink, Frank was kissing him, his mouth tasting of brandy, far bolder and rougher than when he had stolen a kiss beneath the trees at Vauxhall. His other hand came up to tangle in Gerard’s hair, and Gerard yielded to him helplessly, willingly, closing his eyes and bringing his hands to rest lightly on Frank’s shoulders.
Frank drew back after a long moment, and Gerard unconsciously swayed towards him, lips still parted. Then he steadied himself, opening his eyes to find Frank studying him closely.
“I thought it would feel stranger than that,” he murmured. “Knowing I was kissing another man.”
“How did it feel?” Gerard asked breathlessly.
Frank hesitated, brow furrowed. “It is
strange, if I think about it. But it was easier than I expected to stop thinking, and with that done…it felt good.”
Gerard let out a small sigh. “Frank—”
Frank leaned toward him again, cutting him off. Their lips brushed, and Gerard wanted nothing more than to stand there and let Frank kiss him as long as he liked. Instead, he braced his hands on Frank’s shoulders and pushed back, breaking the kiss.
“No,” he said, almost unable to believe he was saying it.
Frank frowned at him, seeming puzzled. “No?”
“You’re drunk and confused,” Gerard pointed out. “This isn’t right.”
“Oh, and suddenly you’re so concerned with what’s right?” Frank replied, a bitter note in his voice. His hand was still in Gerard’s hair, curled around the back of his head, and he tugged at it lightly, trying to pull Gerard back to him.
Gerard’s eyes narrowed, and he drew himself up to his full height, a few inches taller than Frank. “And if I let this go on now, what happens when you’re sober again and you realize what you’ve done? I should have refused to dance with you, the night we met. I shouldn’t have encouraged your attention when we met again. I shouldn’t have let you kiss me the first time, and I should certainly never have kissed you the second. Our whole acquaintance has consisted of me not being strong enough to say no to you when I should have. Not again, not this time.”
“Let me worry about what happens when I’m sober,” Frank countered. “I don’t understand. Isn’t this what you want?”
“What I want
is for you to want to kiss me without thinking I’m a woman or being stinking drunk,” Gerard protested, bitterness creeping into his own voice. “What are the chances of that, do you suppose?”
“I’ll consider it,” Frank said dismissively, and tried again to pull Gerard close.
This time, he succeeded in bringing their mouths together—if only for a moment. Then Gerard put his hands on Frank’s chest, gathered his strength, and pushed hard. Of the two of them, Frank was in better physical condition, compactly built and fairly strong, but he was also smaller, unsteady on his feet, and clearly not expecting such forcefulness from Gerard. He stumbled backwards and almost went tumbling over a chair, catching and steadying himself against it at the last moment.
Not waiting for Frank to recover, Gerard strode past him to the door, pushing it open further. “Michael?” he called. “Would you come here, please?”
Given how quickly he appeared, Michael must have been hovering close enough to listen. He looked between the two of them—Frank still holding onto the chair, Gerard’s hair sticking out at odd angles where Frank’s hands had been, both of them flushed—and raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
“I think it would be best if Frank went home,” Gerard said, keeping his voice steady with some effort. “Would you see him on his way?”
“Of course,” Michael said, moving past Gerard to usher Frank out of the room. Frank went willingly enough, but reached out as they passed the door, grabbing hold of Gerard’s arm.
“Gerard—” he began, and Gerard started slightly at hearing Frank say his name for the first time, but pulled away determinedly.
“Go home, Frank. Think about this.”
Frank stumbled once on his way down the stairs, Michael steadying him. Normally he held his liquor fairly well, but it wasn’t simply the drink affecting him tonight.
“I knew I shouldn’t have left the two of you alone,” Michael muttered.
“Yes, well, I was hoping that would go better,” Frank replied sullenly.
“Now you sound like Gerard,” Michael said dryly. “Either the two of you need to start using your heads, or I need to start minding you both better.”
Frank fell silent until they were outside, then he said, quietly, “I don’t know what to do, Michael. I’ve never felt like this before.”
Michael shook his head, his expression sympathetic. “I don’t have any advice to give you, Frank. Except…” he trailed off, hesitating.
“What?” Frank asked.
“Don’t make my brother think you want him unless you truly do,” Michael finished, and, before Frank could reply, raised an arm to stop a passing carriage.
He helped Frank climb into the cab and exchanged a few words with the driver. His head spinning, Frank let his head fall back against the seat cushions and closed his eyes, Michael’s last words echoing through his mind.Part Three