All the While You Hold the KeyPairing:
Frank is in an arranged marriage and/or a mail-order bride type position (with Gerard), and is... secretly sick and hiding it! (10.573 words)Warnings:
Written for the yobrothatssick
challenge. If the fact that it's about an arranged marriage between men didn't tip you off, this historical AU is not particularly concerned with historical accuracy. In particular my 19th-century medicine is pretty sketchy. >.> Fictional representations of real people, not real, etc. Many thanks to tuesdaysgone
for looking it over for me!
Frank’s betrothed was not a stranger to him when they married, but he wasn’t much more than that, either. They had met a handful of times, danced together at a ball or two and talked a little, and once Gerard had made his intentions clear, the technical details of the match had been arranged quickly and efficiently by their families.
Frank knew that on his mother’s part at least, the little interaction between the two young men had been quite intentional. As far as she was concerned, the less time Frank and Gerard spent together before they were married, the better. Whether the Ways had similar concerns, Frank couldn't tell. When they first met, Gerard had seemed awkward and a bit aloof, as though unused to much society or simply nervous when it came to courtship. He was taller than Frank, but there was a distinct stoop to his shoulders, and while he seemed healthy there was a pallor to his skin that spoke of much time spent indoors. But he did not seem at all repulsive or unpleasant. On the contrary, Frank found him rather handsome, stooped shoulders and all. He seemed to possess both intelligence and wit, and there was a certain quality about him, something that made rooms seem brighter when Gerard was in them and dimmer when he left, that captured Frank’s imagination as well as his eye.
Altogether, Frank had quickly become infatuated with Gerard, which made him feel rather low as the wedding drew near.
In one sense, no deceit had been practiced. No lies had been told, no false assurances given. The Ways had wanted their eldest son to assume the responsibilities and respectability of marriage, and hadn’t seemed inclined to be fussy about his choice, as long as it wasn’t someone completely
unsuitable. Frank evidently made the cut; his family may have been impoverished, but his lineage was noble, and he had all the education and accomplishments needed to make him a fitting spouse for someone like Gerard. But that wasn't all Gerard would get with Frank, and while no outright lies had been told, measures had been taken to avoid the whole truth being known. On his mother’s strict instruction, Frank had consented to meet with Gerard only when he felt equal to the task, and had not disclosed the truth about the illness that had plagued him since childhood.
He wasn’t sure how long he could hope to conceal it once they were living together, and his spirits sank at the thought--what would Gerard think of him, if he found out? But then it would be too late for him to have second thoughts about the marriage, and whatever the cost, Frank would have secured a means of living and a way to make sure his mother spent the rest of her years in comfort. That was what Frank reminded himself whenever he started to feel guilty. If it had only been for his own sake, he doubted he would be able to go through with this charade, but he wouldn’t let his mother down.
The wedding was more ornate than Frank expected, given the expediency with which it had been planned. In one of their meetings, Gerard had confessed to a fondness for the grand and romantic; perhaps, even in being married to a man he barely knew, he still desired a romantic wedding. If it was his handiwork, Frank had to give him credit, for the result was a beautifully arranged affair of blood-red roses, spotless white lace, and lights glowing in candelabras polished to a mirror shine. The wedding banquet, held in the Ways’ grand villa near Lake Como, seemed magnificent, though Frank as usual had little appetite and ate and drank only lightly, trusting that to go unnoticed or be attributed to nerves.
It was important, on this of all days, to avoid overexerting himself. It was so frightfully easy for him to become fatigued, or even for excitement and too much activity to bring on a fainting spell. He had fortified himself earlier with the medicinal drops the Ieros’ old family doctor had prescribed him, and he spent the day standing or sitting sedately beside Gerard, smiling pleasantly, looking solemn when he ought, and murmuring whatever seemed to be the appropriate response when he was spoken to.
Frank retired earlier than Gerard, making his way to the wedding suite. It took some time to navigate the halls of the villa. It couldn't compare to Castello Santa Maria, the Ieros’ ancestral home, but Santa Maria had become uninhabitable years ago, and by now Frank was far more used to the smaller town residence he and his mother shared.
He found the suite at last at the top of a long flight of stairs, and upon entering he crossed to the edge of the bed and sank down on it. In spite of his attempts not to overexert himself, he felt short of breath and lightheaded, and he could feel his heart beating rapidly. He gripped the sheets with both hands and closed his eyes, concentrating on taking deep, steady breaths.Anemia
, his doctor had called it when it became clear Frank had the illness. Before his time, his family had just called it a wasting disease, or more simply, the family curse. Whatever you called it, Frank knew what it meant--it was something wrong in his blood, and the reason he was so pale and weak all the time. You could develop it on your own or have it passed down through your family, and it could be mild or severe. Frank was not the worst case in his family’s history, but he was bad enough.
After a minute or so the spell passed, and he opened his eyes, letting out a sigh. Rising from the bed, he began undressing. His things were already here, stored in a large closet attached to the bedroom, so he went in to retrieve a nightshirt. Frank’s things were arranged along one wall of the closet, with Gerard’s on the other, taking up a great deal more space (the number of fashionable jackets and shoes arranged there seemed downright excessive, even for someone so wealthy). It was an odd, dizzy moment for Frank, seeing their things in there together--in a way, it brought home the fact of their marriage more than the wedding itself had.
Frank’s hands trembled a bit as he finished undressing. There was no way to know for sure what to expect from the night; he couldn’t even be sure that Gerard would come to him at all, but if he did, Frank knew his duty. Knew, and was prepared to see it as more than mere duty, to hope for the best. For now, still feeling a bit fatigued, he donned the nightshirt and slid between the crisp white sheets to wait.
He dozed off like that, and woke to the sound of a door opening and the light of a candle. Feeling nervous again now that Gerard was in the room with him, Frank lay quietly, breathing slowly and listening as Gerard undressed. It seemed somehow both forever and only a moment before Gerard climbed into bed with him, and Frank held himself still, waiting.
“Frank?” Gerard whispered. “Are you awake?”
It was a potential way out, if he wanted to take it--he could just close his eyes and pretend he was asleep. Instead Frank whispered “Yes,” and turned over. The candle was still lit, placed on the nightstand on Gerard’s side, and Gerard was turned toward him, lit from behind by the flickering light.
Gerard smiled. “Did you enjoy yourself today?” he asked. “You seemed...I don’t know, a bit removed.”
“I did,” Frank assured him. “Everything was lovely. I think I’ve just been a bit overwhelmed--everything’s been leading up to today, and then all of a sudden it was upon us.”
“I know what you mean,” Gerard said. Then, the smile falling from his face, he raised himself up on one elbow and looked at Frank seriously. “Frank, I want you to know--I don’t mean to make any demands on you, tonight or any night. If--if you would rather we didn’t--”
He seemed to be both earnestly wishing to reassure Frank and afraid of what his response might be, and Frank thought for a moment of the position Gerard was in. They had never acknowledged it aloud at any point, but it must surely be obvious that a primary motive for Frank to marry Gerard was money. Perhaps he thought that that was all
Frank wanted from him, that Frank viewed the consummation of their union with reluctance, or worse than reluctance.
For his part, Frank wasn’t certain why Gerard had married him
. Even without the truth of his illness known, he was still a small, pale creature with no fortune. But Gerard wasn’t looking at him as though he saw a small, pale creature. He was looking at Frank as though he saw something he wanted very badly.
Frank shifted closer to Gerard in the dim light, reaching one hand out to brush the sleeve of Gerard’s nightshirt. “No demands need to be made,” he whispered.
Gerard caught Frank’s hand in his own, tangling their fingers together. For a moment he simply looked at Frank, and then he leaned in, pressing his mouth to Frank’s clumsily.
It was only Frank’s second kiss, the first being the light brush of lips they’d exchanged with their vows. So far it didn’t quite seem to compare to Frank’s romantic fantasies; their noses were awkwardly smushed together, Gerard’s lips were chapped, and Frank could taste the wine from the banquet on his breath, which wasn’t so bad but was just odd
, suddenly being that familiar with another’s breath. But Frank was nothing if not persistent, so he angled his head a little better, closed his eyes, and leaned into the kiss, determined to get it right.
Gerard kissed him again, and again, leaning over Frank and pressing him gently back onto the mattress. Frank let Gerard maneuver him as he liked, reaching up to cup his cheek with one hand. Gerard was half on top of him now, their lower bodies still apart but their chests pressed together, and it sent a pleasant shiver through Frank to be pressed under Gerard like that. The kissing was getting better, too, or perhaps that was just the strangeness of it wearing off.
Gerard's hands were gripping Frank's shoulders, seeming almost searingly hot through the thin sleeves of Frank's nightshirt, and Frank could feel his heart beating rapidly. He lowered his head, pressing swift, light kisses down Frank's neck and along his collarbone, reaching to tug aside the collar of his nightshirt. Frank tipped his head back against the pillow and curled his hand around the back of Gerard's head, soft dark hair slipping through his fingers.
"Frank," Gerard murmured against Frank's skin. He moved his hand down until it rested at Frank's hip, fingers digging in a little. "May I--"
"Yes, yes," Frank whispered eagerly, and Gerard raised his head and kissed Frank deeply, lingering for a moment before his hand dipped further, fingers sliding under the hem of Frank's nightshirt.
His other hand was still clutching Frank’s shoulder, but the hand under Frank’s nightshirt was exceedingly gentle, tracing a delicate path up his thigh. It tickled, and Frank squirmed a little beneath Gerard, and then froze as Gerard’s fingers wrapped around his cock, the first hand not his own to touch him there.
“Oh,” Frank breathed out, and then Gerard’s hand moved and Frank temporarily forgot how to form words.
Gerard certainly hadn’t forgotten; the whole time Frank was coming undone under his hand, he was whispering in Frank’s ear, things about how beautiful Frank was, half-formed thoughts that made no sense, soft exclamations and Frank’s name over and over.
Lost as he was in the sensation of Gerard touching him, Frank could feel Gerard's cock pressing against his hip, every bit as hard as Frank was. Controlling his limbs took an effort, but he reached out, finding the hem of Gerard's nightshirt and pushing it up. "Let me--"
Gerard let out a moan when Frank's hand closed around his cock, but after barely a moment he pulled back, which hadn't been Frank's intention at all.
"Wait," Gerard breathed when Frank made a noise of protest. "Come here--"
He tugged Frank's hips closer with both hands, pushing his nightshirt up around his waist, and settled on top of him fully. Their cocks slid against each other, skin on skin, and Frank gasped. He reached up to twine both arms around Gerard's neck, pulling him down. Gerard kissed him deeply, almost desperately, as if he were drowning and Frank were air. His hips were moving ceaselessly against Frank's, fast and rhythmic, and Frank had never felt anything like this, never.
Climax rushed down on him before he was ready for it, and he clutched at Gerard, crying out as he thrust against Gerard a final few times and then went still. Gerard followed quickly, a ragged gasp torn from his throat. He collapsed on top of Frank for a moment, then lifted himself up again, bracing himself on his elbows and scattering kisses across Frank's face.
He shifted to lie alongside Frank, and they lay like that for a while, exchanging gentle kisses and low, tender words. Frank was short of breath again and his head was spinning, but it was easy to tuck his face into Gerard's neck, close his eyes, and pretend nothing was amiss.
Frank woke alone the next morning, though when he passed a hand over the rumpled sheets next to him they were still slightly warm, suggesting Gerard hadn’t left the bed very long ago. Glancing at the clock on the mantel, Frank saw it was almost ten o’clock. He felt all right, though, so it seemed the long sleep had been just what he needed.
He rose, found his dressing gown, and ventured out into the sitting room. Gerard was there, sprawled casually on a chaise lounge and writing in a journal held on his lap. He was also clad in a dressing gown, his hair sticking up wildly, his feet bare. The low table in front of the chaise held a breakfast tray, and there was a coffee cup perched precariously close to the edge of the table where Gerard could reach it more easily.
Gerard looked up when Frank entered the room, smiling brightly. “Good morning.”
He made as if to get up, but Frank crossed the room first, taking Gerard’s outstretched hand and bending to kiss him. It was another little moment like standing in the closet last night--here he was, kissing his husband good morning. Married.
Gerard shifted, pressing himself back against the cushion to make room, and tugged Frank down onto the chaise with him. Frank leaned against him comfortably, tucked into the curve of Gerard’s body.
“Did you sleep well?” Gerard asked, brushing Frank’s hair back from his cheek.
“Very,” Frank said. “And certainly long enough.”
“Well, it’s not as though we had any need to rise in a hurry,” Gerard pointed out, smiling. “I thought I might show you about the villa today, if you like, and we should put in an appearance at dinner, but other than that we can take our time.”
He leaned in to press a kiss just below Frank’s ear, and Frank shivered pleasantly. They stayed like that for a few more moments, until Frank pulled away to fix himself a cup of coffee and retrieve a sweet roll from the breakfast tray.
Gerard closed his journal and set it on the table, retrieved his own coffee cup, and settled back comfortably, drawing his legs up to make more room for Frank.
“I hope you’ll like it here,” he said, almost shyly, as if ‘here’ was some modest cottage and not a grand villa. “Of course if you don’t, we can live somewhere else. We can do whatever you like. And if you find there’s anything that would make you more comfortable here, you must tell me.”
Frank felt himself blush a little at Gerard’s effusive generosity, looking down at his coffee as he stirred it. “I can’t imagine I’ll lack for anything I need here,” he replied.
“Then you must tell me if there’s anything you want
,” Gerard said, not to be put off. “I warn you, you’re going to be doted on. You may as well get used to it.”
Frank laughed, though in truth the more Gerard spoke of giving him things the worse he felt. But he had gotten himself into this, and all he could do now was go on with it--and remind himself of why.
“Actually,” he said, glancing over at Gerard. “It’s not really for me, but there is something I’d like to ask you about.”
“What is it?” Gerard asked, seeming positively eager at the possibility of granting whatever request Frank was about to make.
Frank set his coffee cup down and folded his hands in his lap, looking down at them. His request surely wouldn’t be a surprise to Gerard, who knew his financial state, but he still found himself hesitant. After all this time, it seemed ridiculous that he should have any pride left, but perhaps it was bred too deeply into him to die completely. Or perhaps his hesitance sprang less from pride than from the feeling that he was using Gerard.
“You know I didn’t bring much into our marriage,” he said. “And my mother doesn’t have much to live on. I always hoped that, were I to marry and be fortunate in my choice, I would be able to make things a little easier for her.”
Gerard nodded at once, a look of understanding on his face. “I thought we might discuss that--because of course, I’d be glad to help your mother. I didn’t know if I should raise the subject myself or wait for you to do so. But yes, just let me know what she needs, and I’ll speak to my father.”
Frank nodded, letting out a small sigh of relief. His mother would be taken care of now, at least. “Thank you.”
“And there’s something else that I’ve
been wanting to ask you
,” Gerard told him, and Frank looked up to see a hint of a flush on his pale cheeks. “I don’t know if this is something you would want, and if it isn’t we need never speak of it again, but I wanted to at least see--”
Frank couldn’t help but smile at Gerard’s rambling, reaching out to stop him with a hand laid gently over Gerard’s. “What?”
“What would you think about restoring Castello Santa Maria?” Gerard asks.
Of all the things Frank might have expected to hear from Gerard, this wasn’t one of them. “The castle?” he asked softly, caught off guard.
“I’m sure we could do it,” Gerard went on, growing animated. He turned his hand over under Frank’s, squeezing gently. “Because it’s not as though there’s anything wrong with the structure itself, is there, it’s just that your family haven’t been able to maintain it? But I could help with that. It would be my pleasure, truly.”
“I...I’m afraid you’ve taken me quite by surprise,” Frank said. “I had no idea you knew so much about Santa Maria, or had such an interest in it.”
Gerard’s blush deepened, and he smiled sheepishly. “I ought to have explained myself better at the start. You see, I’ve always loved that castle, even before I had any idea to whom it belonged.”
Keeping their hands intertwined, Frank shifted closer to Gerard, his interest piqued. “Go on.”
“When I was young, we used to visit my mother’s childhood home often,” Gerard explained. “It’s a little villa quite near Santa Maria. We would always pass the castle on the road, and I could see it from the windows of the room Michael and I shared.” He looked down as he went on, his smile small and warm. “Every fairy story our grandmother ever told us I imagined taking place in that castle. And as I grew older, it was like a physical reminder of all the things I loved best in my childhood.” Glancing up at Frank, he added, “You know, that was the first thing that caught my notice about you when we were introduced? That first time we danced together, at the Toros’ ball, all I could think was ‘I’m dancing with someone who was born in Castello Santa Maria’.”
Gerard’s eyes were bright and his hand was warm in Frank’s, his skin flushed now from excitement more than anything else. Everything about the moment was so unguarded, so unexpectedly touching, that the only way Frank could think to respond was completely inappropriately.
“Are you saying you only married me for my family’s mouldering old castle?” he asked, wrinkling his nose.
The pink tinging Gerard’s cheeks instantly went a deep red. “No--no, of course not--”
Frank gripped Gerard’s hand when he might have pulled away, cursing himself for a fool. “I was only teasing. I’m sorry, that was a dreadful moment for me to try to be witty. And I think it’s lovely that you feel so about Santa Maria.” Wistfully, he added, “I always wanted to see it restored to what it once was, and I used to dream I might be the one to do it. My family’s poverty didn’t matter to me then.I just thought I’d go adventuring and find some magnificent treasure somewhere. Things have turned out rather differently, haven’t they?”
“Are you saying you don’t think marriage is an adventure?” Gerard asked, and his smile turned crooked--his turn to tease, it seemed. “Or that you don’t think I’m a treasure?”
“I think you’re far better than I deserve,” Frank replied softly, and it wasn’t a joke.
Gerard just smiled, touching Frank’s cheek gently. “So we’ll do it, then?”
Frank hesitated again, briefly. He would have been far too ashamed to ask Gerard for something like this, something so grand and not at all necessary. But he didn’t
ask--Gerard broached the subject, Gerard wanted
to do it, and so did Frank. The thought of seeing Santa Maria restored...
He nodded. “Yes. Yes, let’s do it.”
Gerard smiled brilliantly, leaning forward to kiss Frank.
Frank leaned against Gerard’s side when the kiss broke, head tucked against his shoulder. “Why did
you marry me?” he asked after a moment.
“...You mean you really don’t know?” Gerard asked, pulling back to look at him.
Frank shrugged. “Not really. Even aside from the fact that I don’t have any money--”
“Which is something I have the luxury of not being concerned with,” Gerard interjected.
“--I’m not certain what I do
have that would make you choose me. I’m not fishing for compliments, it’s just I’m certain you could have married anyone you wanted. Why me?”
Gerard smiled wryly. “Well, for one, not everyone I’ve met would agree with you about my eligibility. And as I said, my fondness for the castle meant that you caught my interest from the first. It quickly became apparent, after that, that you were far more interesting than most other people I’d met at balls or dinner parties. Everyone I met after you, I’d always compare them to you in my mind, and they’d always be found wanting.” Brushing Frank’s cheek with the backs of his fingers, he added, “And it certainly didn’t hurt that you’re beautiful.”
Frank snorted incredulously before he could think better of it. “You’re
beautiful. I’m just...me.”
Gerard tilted his chin up, looking him in the eye. “Frank, I only wish I had the right words to tell you how beautiful you are.” He leaned in, whispering against Frank’s mouth. “I can do my best to show you, though.”
Dinner was far more intimate than the feast the night before, just Gerard's parents and brother and the two of them, but it was still a formal affair, and Frank felt very keenly that even with the wedding accomplished he should still make the best impression he could on Gerard's family. He knew Gerard's parents didn't disapprove
of him or the match would never have been made, but nor did they quite seem to understand Gerard's infatuation with Frank, seeming more tolerantly bemused by it than anything.
Michael was more genial, and Frank thought they could become friends, though at first he had quite intimidated Frank. They had met only twice during Frank and Gerard’s brief courtship, but those meetings had left Frank with the distinct impression that his approval was every bit as necessary to Gerard as that of their parents.
Altogether the meal felt rather more like a command performance than a family dinner, but Frank thought he handled himself well enough. Poverty or no, his mother had taught him to conduct himself like nobility when he was in company. The dose of medicine he had taken furtively while Gerard was gone from the bedroom, just before they went down, also served to fortify him.
He was still quite tired when he and Gerard finally returned to their suite, and it didn't go unnoticed. As they were undressing, Gerard tugged Frank into his arms and kissed him, one hand at Frank's waist and the other twining in his hair. Frank responded, but after a moment Gerard pulled back to look at him, brow furrowed slightly.
"Do you feel all right?" he asked solicitously.
"I'm a little tired," Frank admitted, and smiled. "Your family still makes me nervous. It's stressful."
That only made Gerard look more concerned. "You don't need to be nervous," he said, stroking Frank's cheek.
Frank tipped his cheek against Gerard's hand, leaning into the caress. "I want them to like me."
"They do," Gerard assured him. "Trust me, I know my parents can seem intimidating, but once you get to know them better you'll see they're not so terrifying. And you and Michael are going to be great friends, I'm sure of that."
"I hope you're right," Frank murmured.
"I am, you'll see," Gerard said confidently, cupping Frank's face in both hands and kissing his forehead.
Frank raised his head, seeking Gerard's mouth. Gerard's jacket and waistcoat were already cast aside, and his shirt open. Frank lifted his hands to Gerard's chest and slipped them under the fabric, fingers stroking lightly over Gerard's skin.
Gerard's hands settled on Frank's waist again, and he tilted his head to mouth at Frank's jaw, but murmured, "If you're tired..."
"I'm not so very tired," Frank protested. In truth, he was exhausted, and deeply grateful for the support of Gerard's arms around him. But he also felt rebellious, determined. He wanted to defy the illness, push against the limits of his own weak body. He wanted to be with Gerard.
Gerard pulled back to look at him, desire clear in his eyes, but also hesitance. Then, an idea seemed to strike him.
"Here," he said, tugging Frank over to the bed. "Lie down."
Frank quickly finished undressing and obeyed, wondering what Gerard had planned as he stretched out on his back. Gerard climbed onto the bed as well, kneeling over Frank, and leaned down for a kiss. Frank reached for him, starting to put his arms around Gerard's neck, but Gerard caught his hands and pressed them gently down onto the mattress.
"Let me take care of you," he whispered in Frank's ear, then kissed his way down Frank's neck, nipping gently at the hollow of his throat. His hands slid restlessly over Frank's chest and down his sides, and he pressed a kiss just over Frank's heart. Frank let out a sigh, melting under Gerard's touch. He ran his hand into Gerard's hair, letting it slip through his fingers like silk.
Gerard was counting Frank’s ribs with kisses now, nosing along the curve of his hipbone, kissing his belly. It seemed clear where this was heading, and Frank sucked in a breath, his fingers in Gerard’s hair trembling a little. Gerard looked up at him and smiled wickedly. One of his hands was at Frank’s hip, stroking the skin there with his thumb. His other hand touched Frank’s knee and gently urged his legs apart, sliding his fingers slowly but inexorably up Frank’s thigh. He was taking his time, and Frank squirmed under him on the bed.
“Gerard--” he gasped out.
“Mmm?” Gerard replied innocently, kissing his stomach again.
“Please,” Frank whispered, not caring how desperate he sounded. He twisted his free hand in the sheets, his thighs shaking as Gerard pushed them further apart.
Frank let out a moan when he finally felt Gerard's mouth on his cock, hips jerking up involuntarily. Gerard braced one arm across them, holding Frank still, and wrapped his other hand around the base of Frank's cock. He went down until his mouth met his fingers, backed off a little and slid down again, his hand twisting in time with the movement.
Frank writhed on the bed while Gerard's mouth and hand worked, turning his head to press his cheek into the pillow. It was overwhelming, a rush of sensation so intense he was dizzy, but he wanted it to go on forever, to lose himself in the feeling and forget anything but this existed.
Gerard took him right to the brink, pulling back at the last moment but keeping his hand on Frank's cock to coax him over the edge. Frank cried out helplessly as he spilled into Gerard's fingers, back arching. For a moment he saw spots, his head swimming, and there was the terrifying thought that he might actually black out. But then his vision cleared and he sucked in a deep breath, and Gerard moved up on the bed to pull him close, holding him as he shook. Frank buried his face in Gerard's chest, his own heaving, until he felt able to speak.
"That," he panted. "That was--" Gerard's cock was pressed against his thigh, rock hard, and Frank tried to rally himself. "What do you want me to do?"
Gerard shook his head, tilting Frank's chin up to kiss him. "You don't need to do anything," he said, and reached down, wrapping a firm hand around himself.
"But--" Frank protested, feeling that after what Gerard had just done for him, it wasn't fair for him to just lie there and leave Gerard to attend to his own needs.
Gerard cut him off with a kiss, then gasped against Frank's mouth. Between them, Frank could feel the strokes of his hand growing faster. "Just being near you is all I need." He turned his head to mouth at Frank's ear, whispering, "I can still taste you--God, Frankie--"
He broke off with a little moan, and Frank cupped Gerard's face in both hands and kissed him gently, teasingly, tracing along Gerard's bottom lip with his tongue. He could taste himself there, too, and it made him shiver. Gerard's hand was still working, and Frank reached down between them and put his hand over Gerard's. There was no pressure, just a light brush of fingers, but it made Gerard shudder and cry out, coming hard.
Gerard cleaned them both carelessly with a corner of the sheets; Frank would have done a more thorough job and maybe used something other than the bedsheets, but he was still lying bonelessly next to Gerard. He felt utterly wrung out and still dizzy, but at the same time it was perhaps the most satisfying exhaustion he'd ever known. Gerard tugged Frank into his arms, stroking his hair and face and leaning down to kiss him now and then.
"Do you feel all right?" he murmured. "Was that good? I so wanted to make it good, to please you--"
"It was wonderful," Frank assured him, nestling close. "Everything's been wonderful. I'd hoped it would be like this, being married, but I didn't dare hope for this much."
"I feel the same," Gerard said, leaning in to rest his forehead against Frank's and closing his eyes. "It's been like a dream so far."
He drifted off to sleep shortly after that, but Frank lay awake a while longer, Gerard’s words echoing in his ears. It had
been like a dream so far--but sooner or later, every dream had to end.
They went on much the way they had started, with that same cautious affection--in many ways still getting to know each other, but liking what they found. Life in the Ways’ villa seemed idyllic in a way Frank hadn’t known since early childhood. There was never any sense of urgency or worry, only the lush comfort of a world where poverty and want were foreign.
Gerard was very given to artistic pursuits, poetry and drawing and painting. He would spend much of the day engaged in these activities, but was also eager to have Frank with him, so Frank would sit and read in Gerard’s studio or Gerard would take his sketchbook or a volume of poetry to the music room as Frank sat at the piano. Sometimes Michael would join them, or Ray Toro, and they would play cards or have lively conversations. It would no doubt have been more difficult for Frank to maintain the secrecy of his illness if Gerard had been more of an outdoorsman, but aside from occasionally sitting on the terrace or walking in the gardens, they rarely left the house.
When Gerard and Michael were both busy--their father had begun teaching them the running of the family business, though he still assumed most of the responsibility himself and likely would as long as he was able--Frank could keep himself amused easily enough. The villa had an impressive library, and there were a number of small dogs constantly running about, which delighted him. They belonged particularly to Gerard’s mother, but had free rein of the house, and Frank immediately took to feeding them scraps and doting on them, so that within a week they would run up to him as if they had known him forever. With a book in his hand and a dog in his lap, Frank could stay content for hours, or at least until Gerard came looking for him.
And Gerard continued to be everything Frank had dreamed of but not dared to truly hope for in a husband. Outside of the bedroom, he was quickly becoming a good friend, someone Frank could easily see himself spending his life with. In the bedroom, he was, Frank supposed, the natural result of a shy, romantic young man reading a great many novels and then being thrust into marriage--perhaps a little awkward at times, but tender and solicitous, always more concerned with Frank's pleasure than his own. Frank knew conventional wisdom held that newlywed bliss never lasted, but when they were alone it seemed as though they could go on forever just like this.
Yet there was always a dark cloud hanging over him, even when he was in Gerard’s arms. Not just the fear of his secret being discovered, but the constant thought that he was deceiving Gerard, and all the guilt and shame that went with it. Frank spent every day swinging wildly back and forth between joy and misery, and all the time wondering how long this could go on. Several times he made up his mind to confess everything and face the consequences, but every time he lost his resolve and kept silent.
He was fully aware, having lived with the illness for so long, that this mental turmoil might well make his physical state worse. But of course trying to make himself be more tranquil only left him more distressed. It felt as though he was locked onto a course from which he couldn’t turn, rushing helplessly toward an uncertain end.
There was to be a masquerade ball on Midsummer's Eve, a family tradition for the Ways. The days building up to it were so full of hustle and bustle that it seemed hard to believe the ball itself could surpass them. All the best silver and crystal had to be cleaned and polished, all the food and drink ordered and prepared, and the villa cleaned from top to bottom.
Of course, all Frank had to do was choose a mask and be fitted for a new suit of clothes. Several new suits, as a matter of fact. Even after all his things were sent to the villa, Frank's side of the closet was still far more bare than Gerard's; he had his wedding suit, his second best suit, several plainer ones for everyday wear, and that was more or less it, aside from things like extra shirts and linens. Apparently Gerard wasn't going to let that go on any longer. Frank protested, Gerard insisted, and when Gerard held up an exquisitely tailored jacket in royal blue and said, in a low tone with a meaningful look in his eyes, how well he thought it would suit Frank, Frank couldn't muster any further argument. They left the tailor's shop with quite a list of things that would be delivered to the villa, and then it was on to the mask maker's. Gerard chose a terrific death's head mask for himself, oddly beautiful even in its grotesquery, and suggested one for Frank that looked like a fantastic bird, with a curving beak and brilliantly colored feathers.
"You put me in mind of a bird sometimes," he said as Frank stood before the glass to see how the mask suited him. Gerard stood just behind him, one hand holding his own mask at his side, the other on Frank's shoulder, his eyes warm and fond. "Small, but so full of spirit."
Frank woke early on the day of the ball and started to climb out of bed to go to the water closet, only to sink back down almost at once. He rolled onto his side and pressed his face into his pillow, and even that slight motion made him dizzy.
He was still lying like that, eyes squeezed shut, when Gerard woke a few minutes later. He rolled over, nestling close to Frank, and slipped an arm around his waist.
"Are you awake?" he whispered.
Frank took another moment to compose himself, and then opened his eyes, tilting his head up and brushing a light kiss against Gerard's mouth. "Good morning."
Gerard kissed him back, then drew back enough to look at Frank, his eyes bright. "I didn't sleep much," he said softly. "I never do, the night before the masquerade. It's like Christmas Eve."
Frank smiled. "After all your and Michael's talk, I shall be quite disappointed if the evening isn't truly marvelous."
"It will be," Gerard promised. He leaned in to kiss Frank once more, then sat up. "I think I'd like to have breakfast in bed, what do you think?"
Frank waited while Gerard put on his dressing gown and went out to the sitting room to ring for a tray. As soon as Gerard was out of the bedroom, he rolled over and dug in the nightstand on his side, where he had stashed his medicine deep in one of the drawers.
They ended up spending not only breakfast but several hours afterwards in bed. Not doing much, just talking and trading lazy kisses. There was really nothing to do that day until it was time to wash and dress for the ball.
Frank hoped the day's leisure would do him good, but when it was time to go down he still didn't feel very strong. He took another furtive dose of medicine, though his doctor had often warned against taking too much in one day. He just needed to get through the evening, he told himself as he adjusted his mask. A few hours, and then he would likely be able to plead tiredness without arousing suspicion.
The masquerade was everything Gerard and Michael had led Frank to expect. It seemed as though there were even more people in the villa now than there had been for his and Gerard's wedding, or maybe it just seemed that way because everyone was clad in fantastic masks and dazzling colors. There was music floating through the air like liquid gold, and flowers in bloom covered every surface that wasn't taken up by platters of food or trays of sweets.
It was all rather overwhelming, given his condition, and he kept close to Gerard's side, his hand tucked into the curve of Gerard's arm. He was actually somewhat fearful that if he didn't stay close, he would lose Gerard in the throng. Someone pressed a glass of wine into his hand, someone else complimented his mask, and his head was spinning almost too much for him to acknowledge either.
Gerard said something and Frank made a vague noise of assent, and it was only when Gerard started to lead him out onto the floor that Frank realized he must have been asking if Frank wanted to dance.
Gerard had pushed his mask up on top of his head to see more clearly, and he smiled warmly at Frank as the orchestra struck up a waltz. Gerard's arm was secure around his waist, and the fact that they were actually spinning now made his spinning head not seem to matter so much.
Then he stumbled. Gerard steadied him, looking ready to tease Frank about his clumsiness, but when Frank tried to get his feet under him, they wouldn't cooperate. He stumbled again, and this time Gerard caught him in both arms, his expression changing quickly to one of concern.
"Frank? Are you all right?" His voice sounded oddly muted, faraway, as though Frank were hearing it from underwater. The room suddenly seemed very dark, though there were lights everywhere.
"I--" Frank began, and that seemed to be all he could get out. He sagged against Gerard, darkness sweeping over him like a wave, and he dimly heard Gerard crying out for help before blackness overtook him.
What came next was a series of disjointed and only half-sensible moments. He felt himself being carried, and then laid on something soft. A hand--Gerard’s--on his brow, trembling, and Gerard’s voice in his ear. Then a whole cacophony of voices, loud, confused, distressed. Then one voice rising above the rest, silencing them and speaking calmly but urgently. Sudden pain in his arm, and he tried to protest but could manage no more than a dull moan. Gerard’s voice again, very close by, low and soothing. Then oblivion.
When Frank awoke, everything was very quiet and calm. When he raised his head from the pillow, there was no vertigo, only a slight grogginess from sleeping...however long it had been. He looked around and found Gerard curled up in an armchair, fast asleep. Frank's first attempt to say Gerard's name came out as a hoarse croak that turned into a cough, his throat was so dry.
Gerard stirred, opening his eyes, and sat up instantly as he realized Frank was awake. He unfolded himself from the chair and crossed to the bed, sinking down on the edge of the mattress and reaching for Frank's hand. There were red lines on his face from the brocade fabric of the chair, and Frank wanted to kiss them.
"Are you all right?" Gerard asked him. "Do you need anything?"
"Water?" Frank croaked, licking his dry lips.
“Here.” There was already a pitcher and a glass on the nightstand. Gerard filled the glass, helping Frank sit up a little so that he could drink. Frank took a sip, realizing as he did so that there was a bandage on his forearm.
“What happened?” he asked.
Gerard placed the glass back on the nightstand and helped Frank lie back down. He drew away a little, still perched on the edge of the bed, but not touching Frank.
“The doctor called it a blood transfusion,” he said. “He said it was a great risk, but our best chance to save you.”
Frank sat up, his eyes wide. “I’ve heard of that.” His doctor had explained the procedure to Frank and his mother as something they might attempt if Frank’s situation ever became desperate. It was still very new, with as many failures recorded as successes. “I was that badly off?”
“You were barely breathing,” Gerard said, his voice shaking. “The doctor could barely find your heartbeat, he didn’t think you would make it through the night if we didn’t try. I was ready to be the donor myself, but he said our chance of success would be best if it were from a blood relative. And we’d already sent a carriage for your mother, thinking that if the worst should happen...” He shook his head, as though banishing the thought. “So we waited for her.”
“Her blood was what saved me?” Frank asked. “Is she still here? Is she all right?”
Gerard nodded. “Yes, she’s resting. She felt weak afterward, but the doctor thinks she’ll be fine. Both of you will,” he finished, and reached out, stroking Frank’s cheek gently.
Frank leaned into the touch, closing his eyes.
“Frankie, why didn’t you tell
me?” Gerard asked in a small voice.
Frank opened his eyes only to wish he hadn’t. The hurt, confused expression on Gerard’s face made him feel like the lowest creature in existence.
“The doctor was shocked that I hadn’t known you were anemic,” Gerard went on. “And of course I blame myself for not realizing there was something wrong. But I would never have imagined you would hide a thing like this from me.”
Frank looked down, not daring to meet Gerard’s eyes. “Are you very angry?”
“Angry?” Gerard sounded surprised, and Frank looked up. “If I’m angry at anyone, it’s myself. Not just for not realizing, but for dragging you around the way I have the past few days. I never would have done it if I’d known. Which leads back to the question at hand. Why--”
“Why do you think
?” Frank burst out. As ashamed as he was, he was also savagely glad to have it out in the open. “Would you have married me if you’d known? Would you have even considered it?”
Gerard looked at him silently for a moment, seeming crestfallen. “So it is an old malady. The doctor said that was likely, but I didn’t want to question your mother about it last night, and I was hoping it might have come on suddenly somehow. It was easier to believe that than to think you’d been keeping it from me all along.”
Frank shook his head. “It’s been in my family for generations,” he said, wanting to make a clean breast of it now. “Not everyone contracts it, but there have been many cases over the years. We spent a small fortune, when we still had it, trying to find a cure, but there isn’t one.”
He paused, looking up at Gerard, who was listening intently. He reached out and laid his hand on top of Frank’s gently.
“Go on,” he prompted. “I want to know everything.”
“All right,” Frank said. “As you know, my family was nobility once, but we lost our rank, along with much of our fortune and land, under Bonaparte. We weren’t so very badly off yet when I was born--I remember living quite comfortably for at least a few years--but my father died when I was still very young, and then the money we had left started to run out.”
He looked down, twisting the edge of a sheet in his free hand. “My mother was all but alone after that, raising me in Santa Maria; between disease and war, my father’s family had been decimated, and she was an orphan herself. She’d been groomed to be a nobleman’s wife; she knew how to manage the household, but nothing of any industry by which she might restore our fortunes. She didn’t know what else to do, so she started selling valuables--paintings, jewels, silver. That’s what we’ve lived on since the money my father left us ran out. She dismissed our servants when we could no longer afford to keep them, and when it became too difficult to maintain the castle without them, we left it. But eventually we were going to run out of things to sell, and it was doubtful I would be able to find any sure source of income, weak as I am. Eventually, all we would have left would be a ruined castle and a once-great name with nothing to show for it.”
“So you ended up searching for a wealthy husband,” Gerard finished for him. “Concealing your illness to better your chances of finding one.”
“I did it for my mother,” Frank said, wanting to convince Gerard of at least that much. “I couldn’t think of any other way to take care of her, the way a son ought to. I know it was wrong of me to take anything from you, and if you take back everything you’ve given me
you won’t hear a word of complaint, but...please let her keep the money you sent. That’s all I ask.”
Gerard shook his head. “Frank, I don’t care about the money
. I knew when we met that you had no fortune, that money had to be, if not the only thing that drew you to me, at least a large part of it. Why should I care about that? I’d as soon spend it on you as anything else.”
He rubbed a hand over his face tiredly, his shoulders slumping a little. “I don’t care about the money,” he repeated. “I care that you kept such an immense secret from me. I care that I opened myself to you entirely and thought you’d done the same. I care that you collapsed in my arms in the middle of a ballroom, that you could have died while we were waiting for the doctor, and until he--until a stranger
told me the truth about your condition, I had no idea why
His voice broke on the last word, and Frank couldn’t help but reach for him, though he didn’t know what reception he’d get. He laid a cautious hand on Gerard’s shoulder, and immediately found himself swept into Gerard’s arms and held with desperate tightness.
“I thought I was going to lose you and I couldn’t bear it,” Gerard whispered into his hair, as though it were a confession. “Maybe I should be angrier with you--part of me wants
to be--but last night I would have given anything to see you open your eyes, to hear your voice again. How could I be angry?”
Frank lifted his head, framing Gerard’s face with both hands as tears welled up in his eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry--”
Gerard kissed him deeply, stroking Frank’s hair back with one hand, and Frank wrapped both arms around Gerard’s neck and kissed him back. He couldn’t quite believe Gerard still cared about him this much, and he was quite sure he didn’t deserve it, but he was going to cling to Gerard for as long as he could.
They sank down onto the bed, limbs tangled together, both their faces wet with tears, and lay like that for a long time. Frank was still too weak and Gerard too cautious with him for anything more than kisses, but there were plenty of those. Frank kept apologizing, and Gerard kept hushing him.
“All that matters now is that you’ll be all right,” he whispered, cupping Frank’s face in his hands and kissing him again.
Frank leaned into it, losing himself in Gerard for a few moments, but then pulled back again, still tearful.
“If you don’t want to live together anymore, I’ll understand,” he said softly. “If you want to send me away somewhere, I’ll go.”
“What are you talking about?” Gerard replied, pulling Frank even closer. “You’re not going anywhere, at least not unless I go, too.”
Frank shook his head. “I can’t ask you to spend the rest of your life shackled to an invalid, it isn’t fair. I thought I could do it, but now I know I can’t. I love you too much.”
Gerard tilted his chin up, gently but firmly. “And don’t you think I love you just as much? Do you think I’m so inconstant that I’ll abandon you because of a little difficulty?”
“It’s not a little
difficulty,” Frank protested. “There’s no cure. I’ll always be like this, if I don’t become even worse.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Gerard insisted. “I’ll take care of you for the rest of our days together. I’ll find you the best doctors in Europe and who knows, maybe they’ll find
a cure. I’m sure it will be hard, sometimes, but we’ll see our way through together.” He smiled faintly. “You may as well get used to it.”
That brought fresh tears to Frank's eyes, and he tilted his head down, pressing his face against Gerard's shoulder. "I don't deserve you."
"I'll be the judge of that," Gerard murmured, kissing Frank's brow.
Eventually all words trailed off into tears and kisses. They were twined together so tightly that Frank wasn’t sure where he ended and Gerard began, and he dozed off like that, woken some time later by a knock on the door. He stirred, but Gerard stilled him with a kiss and eased away to answer it. He came back to the bed a few moments later, stroking Frank's hair back.
"Your mother's awake," he said softly. "She'd like to see you, if you feel able."
Frank climbed out of bed, feeling a little wobbly but still clearheaded. Gerard hovered nearby, ready to lend any support that was needed. Frank washed his face and put on a dressing gown and they went out to the sitting room.
A footman showed Frank's mother in a moment later. She rushed to Frank's side and they embraced tightly, talking over each other in their relief at seeing one another all right.
Frank caught his mother glancing nervously at Gerard, and reached out to take his hand. “Gerard knows everything now, Mama,” he said gently. “No more secrets.”
She nodded, looking at Gerard. There was remorse in her eyes, but still a hint of stubborn pride in her jaw. “I convinced Frank we ought to hide his illness,” she told him. “If you’re angry, let it be at me, not him.”
Gerard shook his head. “Perhaps I should be angry, but I can’t,” he said, squeezing Frank’s hand. “Not at him, and not at you. I love him too much for either. I know you want him to be taken care of, and I promise he will be.”
Things were less cordial when Gerard’s parents looked in on them. While they assured Frank they were very glad to see him better, they were decidedly cool, and they had come into the sitting room while Frank’s mother was leaving and barely spared her a glance.
Frank winced as soon as they left the room. “They’re not very pleased with us, are they?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Gerard said dismissively. He had one arm tucked around Frank protectively.
“It matters to me
if your parents hate me,” Frank counters. Gerard’s parents still controlled his money, and while Frank didn’t think they were harsh enough to demand that Gerard give him up or be cut off, he didn’t know for a fact that they weren’t, either. Besides which, he imagined it couldn’t be pleasant to be hated by one’s in-laws.
,” Gerard assured him. “They’re just...still a little angry on my behalf right now. They’ll come around.” He looks down at Frank, pulling him a little closer. “I promise, everything’s going to be fine.”
Frank let out a sigh, leaning against him. “I hope you’re right.”
Frank spent much of the next few days convalescing, keeping to his and Gerard’s suite and rarely seeing anyone besides Gerard and Michael. In truth, while he was glad of the rest, he was also glad to avoid seeing anyone for a while after collapsing in the middle of the ball. He supposed he couldn’t stay holed up forever, but he was perfectly content to do so for as long as he could.
In that time he found that, predictably, it was much easier to live with a husband who knew about his condition. He could take his medicine without hiding it, or admit it when he felt tired or had a chill despite it being summer. Gerard was always ready to bring him anything he wanted, or tuck a blanket around his shoulders, or sit with Frank's head in his lap and rub his temples during a dizzy spell.
If anything, Gerard was too cautious with him. After a few nights of gentle kisses and not much else in bed, Frank was frustrated enough to tackle Gerard onto his back, rolling on top of him.
"I'm not made of glass
," he said, and then kissed Gerard forcefully.
“I don’t--mmf--” Gerard was evidently finding it hard to protest with Frank’s tongue in his mouth. He pulled back, cupping Frank’s cheek in his hand. “I don’t want to overtax you--”
“And I don’t suppose you could trust me to let you know
if I feel overtaxed?” Frank asked, scowling.
Gerard just looked at him, eyebrows raised slightly. “Uhm.”
Frank couldn’t help but laugh at himself as it struck him, dropping his head down onto Gerard’s shoulder. “All right, that was a stupid question.” He tilted his head up, pressing light kisses along the edge of Gerard’s jaw as he went on. “But I’m not hiding anything anymore, and I feel all right, and I want this. I want you
“Are you sure?” Gerard asked. He gasped as Frank nipped at his throat, hands stroking over Frank’s skin restlessly, and Frank didn’t think he’d need much more convincing.
He pushed his hips against Gerard’s insistently. “Does it seem
like I’m at all unsure?”
Frank would have been perfectly content to linger in bed the next day, not because he felt he needed it, but simply because there was nowhere else he’d rather be. Instead Gerard disappeared shortly after breakfast, looking a little shifty, and on his return asked if Frank felt up to a ride in the carriage.
“What for?” Frank asked. From Gerard’s manner, it seemed quite clear he wasn’t simply proposing a ride for its own sake.
“You’ll see,” Gerard said, looking pleased with himself. “Would I lead you astray?”
Given that Gerard had only recently stopped acting as though Frank would shatter if handled too roughly, Frank supposed he must have a good reason for this. So he dressed, and allowed himself to be bundled into the carriage with an absurd amount of blankets and cushions. Gerard kept the curtains drawn as they rode, and still refused to tell Frank anything about where they were going.
At length they stopped, and there was a rap on the door.
“Close your eyes,” Gerard said as he reached for the door handle. Frank obeyed, and felt Gerard take both his hands to help him out. Gerard got him down the step and onto the ground, standing behind Frank with his hands on Frank’s shoulders. “All right, open them.”
Frank obeyed, and gasped. They were at Santa Maria, on a little hill a short distance from the castle itself. Frank hadn’t seen it in years, and the sight of the castle alone would have been sentimental, if sad. But there was scaffolding erected on the western tower, men in work clothes milling about, and a wide space on the ground had been cleared and then filled with stacked building materials.
“You started the restoration,” he said, delighted.
“I talked with your mother about the specifics of what needed to be done, and we drew up a plan.” Gerard told him, smiling. “Call it a very belated wedding present.”
Frank twisted around and lifted a hand to Gerard’s cheek, kissing him. “It’s marvelous.”
Gerard had brought a picnic basket, and the absurd amount of blankets and cushions in the carriage now proved useful as they spread them on the hillside. As they ate, Gerard talked over his plans with Frank, describing how they could not only bring the castle back from its state of disrepair, but install modern plumbing and and other improvements.
“So it will be even better than it was before,” Frank said, smiling at him.
“I’d like to think it’s the same with us,” Gerard said, covering Frank’s hand with his own. “That everything that’s happened will only make our marriage better than when it began.”
Frank flushed slightly. “It could hardly fail to be better now than when I was deceiving you.”
“That’s not all I mean,” Gerard said quickly, raising Frank’s hand to his lips. “Far from it. I know it wasn’t very long ago, but when I look back on the start of our marriage, everything about the way I approached it at first seems so terribly naive. It seems as though I spent our first few weeks together only playing at marriage, making it into a fantasy.”
“Perhaps,” Frank conceded, tipping his head against Gerard’s shoulder. “It was a lovely fantasy, though.”
Gerard tucked an arm around him, stroking his hair. “But even if you weren’t ill, it was never going to last forever. Marriage isn’t just fantasy, it’s dealing with the bad and the good together. And after what happened at Midsummer, I feel I’m really ready to do that. To make our union the strongest and best that it can be.”
Frank smiled wryly. “I always thought that if or when you learned the truth about me, it would ruin our marriage, not make it stronger. I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong.”
He stretched up to kiss Gerard, then nestled against his shoulder again, looking out at the castle. In his mind’s eye he could see beyond that, to the future they could build together, the life they would make. For the first time in what seemed like ages, he could look ahead to the future and smile.