So, this year's NaNo. I am posting daily on my LJ, but I will only be posting here when a chapter is completed.

Warning: this story deals with an ongoing, physically abusive relationship.

Ellis groaned softly as he sank into the hot water, submerging himself to his chin. He sighed and scraped the damp hair back from his face, squinting against the steam. Every inch of his body ached. He stretched his arms out in front, opening his eyes to study the network of bruises. Not all of them were from fencing.

"Your back is a bit of a mess, isn't it?" Derrick slid into the water next to Ellis with a raised eyebrow. "Not all of that is from duelling, surely."

Ellis let out an easy laugh, leaning back to wet his hair. "It is a rather rough sport." He bit his lip at the hot water stung some of the shallow, but fresh cuts on his back.

"Are you sure?" pursued Derrick, dark eyes narrowed.

"Yes." Ellis sank lower in order to hide the marks from view. "Really, Derrick, it's not as though I'm seeking out fights between bouts. Perhaps I just bruise more easily than you." He reached for a bar of soap, avoiding Derrick's steady gaze. "Will you be attending the King's Tournament next month?" Taking place over the course of a week, it was also known as the King's Ball, as it did feature nightly dances, but its primary purpose was to show off the skills of the country's top fighters, ranging from fencers to archers. Ellis had been attending since the age of twenty.

"Yes," Derrick replied, allowing the change of topic reluctantly. Unlike Ellis, this would be the first year for Derrick. "This will be your … fourteenth year, correct?"

Ellis grimaced at the reminder of his age, but nodded, carefully avoiding the worst of the bruises as he soaped up his arms. At least, the ones on his arms weren't as bad as the ones on his back, although they still stung. "I will be there should you seek guidance." He shot Derrick a cheeky grin, laughing when Derrick rolled his eyes. "Hoping to impress any ladies of the court?"

Derrick snorted at that, scrubbing at his face and rubbing soap into his hair. "A lowly baron? Hardly the most desirable of partners." He leaned forward, rinsing his hair. "Besides, I have no interest in marriage. I find the idea of confirmed bachelordom far more appealing."

Ellis raised an eyebrow at that, braiding his wet hair. "You are only twenty-four. I imagine you will find your mind changed."

"Doubtful." Derrick stretched and stood, water sliding down his body. Ellis carefully averted his eyes. "Care to join me for a drink? I am meeting a few of my friends at the Redbird."

Ellis opened his mouth to politely decline, but hesitated, before quickly nodding. He smiled and stood up, searching for his towel. "Are these friends I know?"

"One, yes. Do you remember Alexander?"

Squeezing the water from his braided hair, Ellis frowned slightly in thought. "The Duke of Everidge, yes?"

Derrick nodded, leading the way to dressing chamber. "He attended the party I held during the Winter Festival."

Ellis remembered him: a short blond with a sharp wit and an even sharper tongue. "Yes, now I recall his face." He'd been surprised to find Derrick friends with someone like Alexander, but had wisely kept his mouth shut. The disgraced duke might have been somewhat … unpleasant, but Ellis was in no position to judge Derrick's friends. There must have been some good in Alexander for Derrick to think so highly of him.

Smoothing his waistcoat, Ellis followed Derrick from the room. The cloth rubbed uncomfortably against his back, but he did his best to ignore it. It wouldn't do to raise Derrick's suspicions again.

The Redbird was a short walk from the fencing courts, and a favourite of those who trained there. It was a quiet, high class club, frequented by young lords. Ellis followed Derrick inside, the interior dimly lit and humming with voices. A group of plush sophas sat next to a large, but empty fireplace, and sitting in one was a familiar man, reading a book. Derrick's face instantly lit up, his steps quickening. Alexander looked up as they approached, and Ellis was surprised to the see the smallest of smiles flit across his full lips.

"Derrick," he greeted, voice carefully measured. His pale blue eyes flicked to Ellis, blond head inclining slightly. "Lord Pembrooke."

Ellis nodded back. "Lord Burroughs." He took a seat on the sopha across from Alexander, while Derrick sat next to him. Ellis noticed Alexander stiffen slightly, but his expression did not change. "Shall I fetch us drinks?"

Derrick quickly shook his head and stood. "Let me. Brandy for you, Ellis?"

"Please." He noted that Derrick didn't ask Alexander what he wanted, before weaving his way across the room.

"I have not seen you since Derrick's party," remarked Alexander, drawing Ellis' attention back to him. His legs were crossed, hands neatly folded on the book in his lap. "You look … rather unwell, actually."

Ellis frowned slightly. "I am feeling quite well, thank you." Alexander seemed tired; his face was paler than before, dark bags under his eyes. Ellis couldn't help but notice the loose threads on his waistcoat, the fabric worn. Ellis looked away, not wanting to be caught studying him. "How is your mother?"

Alexander's eyes darkened and he looked away. "She's well, thank you." His long fingers traced the edges of his book, gaze fixed on the cold fireplace. His mouth was thin. Had Ellis crossed a line?

"I am glad to hear it." It was difficult to find topics. "Will we have the pleasure of your company at the King's Tournament?"

Alexander gave a decidedly un-gentlemanly snort. "I am hardly a skilled fighter."

"There are other things to do," Ellis pointed out. "What about the balls?"

"I am not one for dancing."

Ellis resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Every young man of noble birth would be in attendance, whether duelling or merely watching—and every young woman would be at the balls. But perhaps, like Derrick, Alexander was not looking for a wife. Ellis wondered idly if it was by choice, or due to his social standing.

Sighing softly, Ellis leaned back in his seat, glancing across the room at the long bar. Where was Derrick? As his eyes drifted over the light crowd, they abruptly widened. He recognised that easy stance.

"Corbin … "

Almost as though he'd heard the whispered word, Corbin turned around, bright smile slowly fading. He turned back to the small group of men and said something, before turning around and walking toward the fireplace. Ellis unconsciously shrank back into the cushions, mind racing for an excuse.

Corbin stopped in front of them, smiling pleasantly. "Hello, Ellis. I didn't expect to see you here. I thought you were training?" The words had a hidden edge, dark blue eyes accusing.

Ellis licked his lips, clearing his throat. "I was. I finished and Der—Lord Chasterly invited me for a drink." He gestured to Alexander. "This is Lord Burroughs."

Corbin's gaze flicked to Alexander, sweeping up and down his stiff figure. They lingered on the frayed cuffs of his waistcoat. "A pleasure."

Alexander inclined his head, although his eyes never left Corbin's handsome face. "And you are … ?"

"This is Mr. Mercer," Ellis quickly introduced, hoping that Corbin would sit—his looming was making Ellis nervous.

Corbin's eyes slid to him, before returning to Alexander, as he added, "His lover." The words were said with a possessive edge.

Flushing, Ellis looked down, fingers picking at a button. It always embarrassed him, Corbin's openness.

"I see." Alexander sounded bored, pale eyes hooded as he observed Corbin as one might an insect. "And are you planning to sit or continue looming?"

Corbin stiffened, eyes narrowing, although the smile never left his face. "Actually, I have come to collect Ellis. We have a … previous engagement."

Glancing at Alexander, Ellis stood, smoothing his clothing. He allowed Corbin to take his arm, sketching a quick bow at Alexander. "Please give … Lord Chasterly my apologies." He was pulled away before Alexander could answer, Corbin quickly negotiating them through the club. Outside, he hailed a carriage, pushing Ellis inside before following him.

Ellis arranged himself on the cushioned bench, uncomfortably peering at Corbin. "I—"

"Not a word."

For the rest of the ride, Corbin neither looked nor spoke to him, leaving Ellis to slouch in glum silence. When they arrived at Ellis' townhouse, he climbed out after Corbin and followed him to the door, quietly unlocking it. The hall was empty when they stepped inside, but Corbin did not halt. Instead, he led the way into the drawing room, waiting for Ellis to follow, before spinning around and slapping him. Ellis staggered and covered his cheek, but did not look up to meet Corbin's eyes.

"I never want to find you alone with that man again, do you understand me?"

Ellis flinched at the cold tone. "We were only talking … "

"Do you understand me?"

Eyes shutting briefly, Ellis nodded dumbly. His heart skipped when Corbin stepped closer, but the outstretched hand was gentle against his cheek. Finally looking up, Ellis allowed his eyes to close again as he met Corbin's mouth for a kiss, a hand on his back pressing him closer. He carefully wound his arms around Corbin's neck, parting his lips against Corbin's tongue. His cheek stung, but his body was warm. They fit together so perfectly.

When Corbin pulled back, he brushed his thumb across Ellis' bottom lip, and murmured, "Shall we go upstairs?"

Shivering at the warmth in his voice, Ellis nodded, and swallowed a moan when Corbin's hand strayed lower. Corbin laughed softly, squeezing Ellis through his clothing, before taking his hand. Face flushed, Ellis allowed Corbin to lead him upstairs.

Ellis groaned as he pushed himself up, rubbing his eyes and hiding a yawn. Bleary eyes looked behind him, and he wasn't surprised to find the bed empty. Corbin rarely stayed. Sighing, Ellis reluctantly pushed the covers back, pleased to find a waiting bath kept warm by the fire.

Favouring his sore hips, Ellis slid out of bed and shuffled to the copper tub, carefully stepping in and sliding into the hot water. He moaned happily, goosebumps sliding across his exposed skin. His bruises were somewhat faded from the day before, although the water still stung in places.

Ellis remained in the tub until the water cooled, before finally standing and taking a towel from the neatly folded pile on a nearby chair. Unlike his deceased father, Ellis refused to keep a valet. It took a bit longer to dress, but it also avoided any awkward questions or knowing looks. He was a very private person, preferring to keep a small staff of trustworthy servants, all of whom were sworn to secrecy about his private life. The head servant, Mr. Andrews, had been with the family since Ellis was a small child. It was when Ellis was about ten that a new maid had stolen his heart, soon becoming Mrs. Andrews and eventually becoming the household's cook. While the rest of the servants had their suspicions, only the Mr. and Mrs. Andrews knew the reason behind the bruises. They wisely kept their mouths shut.

Tying his damp hair back in a braid, Ellis left his room and ventured downstairs, offering a nod and a smile at a passing maid, Beatrice. She bobbed a quick curtsey and shot him a bright smile, before ducking into his room to take care of the bath water. Downstairs, Mr. Andrews handed Ellis his letters.

"I believe the Lord Chasterly wishes to dine with you this afternoon," Mr. Andrews remarked, grey eyes drifting to Ellis' reddened cheek.

Ellis nodded, finding the note which invited him to Derrick's townhouse for two. "Thank you, Mr. Andrews."

Mr. Andrews sketched a quick bow, before turning and disappearing into the kitchen. Watching the door swing shut, Ellis carefully touched his sore cheek, wondering how obvious it was.

Sighing, Ellis shook his head and moved to the drawing room. A small breakfast waited for him, as well as a steaming pot of tea. He often wondered in Mrs. Andrews could read his thoughts, for she always knew exactly when and what he would wish to eat, without ever needing to ask.

Sitting next to the window, Ellis set down his letters and poured a cup of tea. Derrick's note was set aside, replaced by an invitation to a small fête at the Lady Averton's for the next evening. She was a pushy, loud woman, intent on marrying off all four of her daughters as quickly as possible, but she was renowned for the parties she held. Derrick would undoubtedly be attending, which meant Ellis would, as well. Perhaps Corbin would join him.

The rest of the letters were notes from well-wishers for the upcoming tournament, and another invitation, this time to a small gathering at one Miss Perry's the following Wednesday. He smiled and set it with the other invitation. She was a pleasant girl, a cousin of Corbin's who had taken a strong liking to Ellis and often invited him to the gatherings she always seemed to be hosting.

Perhaps he would go to this one.

Finished his letters, and his first cup of tea, Ellis poured another and slowly ate his breakfast, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. Corbin had been rather rough last night. It was a good thing Ellis would not be fencing that day.

Draining the rest of his tea, Ellis stood and left his letters on the desk as he left the room. He still had some time before he would be meeting Derrick, so perhaps he would take a walk and enjoy the weather. Donning a hat, he took one of Corbin's decorative canes, and stepped outside. It was pleasantly warm and bright, the street busy and filled with chatter. Ellis nodded greetings as he made his way down the street, heading for one of the large parks nearby. He strolled along the well-kept paths, the canopy of trees providing shade. Knots of people stood and sat among the flowers and hedges, some calling greetings as he passed, but he did not stop to chat. It was a shame he did not have Corbin to keep him company, the sight of cheerful, blushing couples sending a pang through his heart.

Sighing, Ellis tilted his head back, watching a pair of squirrels chase each other across a branch, and looking back down just in time to avoid running into a short, blond man. A quick apology fell from Ellis' lips, followed by an exclamation of surprise.

"Al—Lord Burroughs! It's a pleasure to see you."

A brief look of surprise crossed Alexander's pretty face, but it was quickly replaced by his cool mask. "Good morning, Lord Pembrooke."

"Please, call me Ellis." It always felt strange being called by his title by someone of the same age, especially when that person was of a higher societal position.

Alexander observed him for a moment, before nodding. "Ellis, then." After a moment, he added, "I suppose you may call me Alexander." He grimaced as he said it, looking away awkwardly.

"If you'd rather I don't—"

"I said it was fine, didn't I?" Tilting his chin up, he stared at Ellis with that unnervingly cold gaze. "Where are you headed?"

Shrugging off Alexander's abruptness, Ellis replied, "I'm merely taking a stroll, before meeting Derrick for lunch."

"Mm." Alexander began walking again, Ellis falling into step next to him. "You appear to be walking with a bit of a limp," he observed, voice bored and eyes fixed forward.

Ellis flushed, clearing his throat. Alexander's forwardness always caught him by surprise. "I … " He could think of no explanation.

"Is it safe to assume your Mr. Mercer is the reason?"

Face flushing even darker, Ellis retorted, "I hardly see how that is any of your concern, Your Grace."

Alexander merely shrugged lazily. "Well, he seemed determined to announce to one and all that it is he who tumbles you between the sheets."

Ellis abruptly stopped walking, mouth thin and hands clenched. "I think I will bid you good day, Your Grace." Body stiff with anger, he spun around and stalked in the opposite direction. He was surprised to hear footsteps behind him.

"I apologise," Alexander said, as he fell into stride with Ellis again. "I spoke out of turn."

It was not often Alexander was known to apologise, so Ellis was quick to accept it, although he was still rather stung by Alexander's rudeness. He was not one for public discussions of private matters, especially matters of the bedroom.

Which is why he was still sore with Corbin for having been so blunt the day before.

Sighing softly, Ellis nodded, and said, "Accepted. Just please be more careful in the future."

They walked in silence for a bit, reaching the large fountain in the centre of the park. Suddenly, Alexander said, "Join me for tea."

The invitation was so abrupt and so … coarse that Ellis couldn't help but agree, before the words had even fully processed. But then Alexander was nodding and turning his attention to the fountain, and Ellis realised that he had agreed to spend even more time alone with Alexander. He inwardly sighed at that, wondering yet again what Derrick saw in him.

The Burroughs' residence was in a rich, beautiful area, but it was clearly not as well-tended as the other homes. When Ellis followed Alexander inside, he couldn't help but notice the lack of furniture in the rooms, only the bare minimum present. They were greeted by an elderly footman and a single, young serving girl, who carried rolled the tea tray into the bare drawing room. Ellis was happy to note that the room was at least impeccably clean.

Alexander took a seat on the worn sopha, leaving Ellis to take the equally threadbare chair. The previous Lord Burroughs had left his son with a large accumulation of debts incurred from a life of gambling. It was a shame, for the Burroughs had been a fine, highly respected family during the time of Alexander's grandfather. Ellis wondered if Alexander would ever be able to return the family to its former glory. Likely not, unless he married well or received some sort of reward from the king for some service … or, more likely, found himself a benefactor. He was certainly pretty enough, even if his tongue did not reflect this.

Ellis accepted the cup of tea that Alexander poured, relaxing in the surprisingly comfortable chair. Ellis observed Alexander from over the rim of the cup, the sunlight streaming through the window catching his hair and making it appear even brighter. Alexander caught him staring and raised an eyebrow, but made no comment. Ellis looked away.

"The tea is delicious," he remarked, noticing a faint hint of orange.

"We have had to give up most luxuries, but tea is the one thing my mother will not budge on," Alexander said, stirring in a cube of sugar. He seemed disinterested in the state of his home, his tone casual.

Ellis hummed and took another sip, noting that, yes, he did taste orange, as well as vanilla. How unusual.

"So. Did you fall into a fight after we parted ways last night?"

Ellis looked up at Alexander, meeting his steady gaze with a frown. "What do you mean?"

Silently, Alexander tapped his cheek, before sedately sipping his tea. He watched Ellis, and Ellis wondered if he was imagining the implication in the question.

"No. I tripped in the dark." Ellis forced himself to keep eye contact, refusing to confirm anything if, indeed, Alexander was asking more than an innocent question.

"And ran into something with your face?"

"What are you implying?" Ellis demanded, resolution quickly slipping. His hands tightened around the delicate china cup, shoulders stiff.

"Nothing," Alexander replied simply. He sipped his tea and gave a small smile. "Fine weather we're having."

Ellis subsided with a sigh, eyes narrowed. "I do not understand you, Your Grace. You act civil toward me, yet ask barbed questions about intimate matters. Are you attempting to push me into a fit of temper?"

"Is there some reason my questions are insulting?" Alexander asked innocently.

Ellis hid his grimace with his teacup, trying to relax, appear nonchalant. If he said 'yes', he would be admitting that he was hiding something, but if he said 'no', then he was showing baseless anger. Instead of replying, he dropped his gaze and scowled down at his quickly diminishing tea. He drank the rest and set the cup on the table. Almost instantly, Alexander poured more. The role of polite host did not suit him, somehow.

Picking the cup back up, Ellis sat back with a murmur of thanks, and cast his eyes to the window. He did not know what to say, after the brief bit of temper. This whole situation was uncomfortable, and Ellis wondered how to politely excuse himself when it had not even been fifteen minutes.

Ellis returned his attention to Alexander, who set his cup on the table and folded his hands in his lap. Ellis was just raising his cup to his lips, when Alexander suddenly said, "So, how long has he been hitting you?"

Ellis choked on his tea, coughing violently. He stared at Alexander in horror, and spluttered, "Wh-what?"

"This Mr. Mercer. Corbin, was it? How long has he been beating you?"

"How dare you?" snapped Ellis, tea sloshing over the sides of his cup as he slammed it down on the table.

Alexander merely watched him impassively. "I can see the mark on your cheek, as well as the bruises beneath your collar."

"I'm a fencer," Ellis snarled, hands clenched on the arms of the chair. "It only makes sense that I'm bruised."

One delicate eyebrow rose at that, Alexander's eyes narrowing slightly. "Mr. Mercer seems like a rather possessive man."

"That's because he loves me!" Ellis snapped, surging to his feet and grabbing his hat. Swiping up his cane, he narrowed his eyes at Alexander. "I believe I will take my leave now, Your Grace." Swinging around, he stormed out of the room, ignoring the ache in his hips.

Outside, it was still bright and warm, but it no longer brought Ellis any pleasure. He headed down the street, boots clicking against the cobblestone and expression stormy. He did not slow in his steps until he had reached a familiar residence. Pausing to compose himself, Ellis climbed the short flight of stairs and yanked the bell pull, managing a thin smile when Derrick's butler, Mr. Ferris, opened the door. He bowed Ellis inside, leading him to the drawing room.

"Please wait here. His Lordship will join you in a moment."

Ellis nodded his thanks, before sinking onto a plush chaise, dropping his head into his hands. He rarely showed his temper like that, even more rarely before those he did not know well—especially those of a higher rank. He knew better, had been raised better. He would need to apologise.

"Ellis!" Derrick entered the room, beaming brightly. He took the chair next to Ellis, eyes curious. "I was not expecting you until two. It is barely even noon."

Grimacing, Ellis looked away. "I apologise. I … " Had an argument with your friend and disgraced myself terribly.

Derrick waved his attempts at an explanation away. "Oh, you know I do not mind. Shall we eat now?" He stood without waiting for a reply, wandering out of the room.

Smiling slightly, feeling calmer now that he was in Derrick's soothing company, Ellis stood and followed him into the dining room. He sat across from Derrick, sighing and slumping in his seat. Derrick watched him, eyebrow raised.

"So, what happened? You appear rather frazzled." He was momentarily distracted by a servant pouring wine, but returned his attention to Ellis once she'd left.

Ellis chewed his lip, fiddling with the silver cutlery. He did not want to discuss Alexander's accusations, because that would merely raise Derrick's suspicions again. Sighing inwardly, he decided on a half-truth. "I had a bit of a row with Lord Burroughs."

Derrick's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Alexander? Whatever about?"

Part of Derrick's charm, Ellis supposed, was his inability to find fault with his friends. He was often perplexed by others' avoidance of Alexander, arguing that while he was a bit … prickly at times, he was very pleasant sort of fellow.

Ellis shrugged, picking up his glass and sipping the heady wine. "Oh, he was voicing his complaints about Corbin. I agree that Corbin was a bit … abrupt, but Lord Burroughs suggested that Corbin was quite rude." Ellis shrugged again, hoping the weak lie would be enough to satisfy Derrick. "As his lover, I had to defend him."

Derrick observed him quietly for a moment, before tentatively saying, "Corbin is a bit—"

"Don't you start." Ellis scowled at his wine, rethinking the wisdom of mentioning his row with Alexander, even if he'd managed to avoid telling Derrick the real reason behind the argument.

Smiling gently, Derrick held up his hands. "Let us not argue, hm? Tell me, will you be attending Lady Averton's party?"

Sitting back, Ellis relaxed and smiled, falling easily into the light topics of soirees and the upcoming tournament. But even as he talked, Ellis could not forget Alexander's accusations.