It was a heavy, hot sort of afternoon. The summer heat had felt oppressive all day, and now from Henry's window spot in his study, he could see the dark clouds rolling in, ready to spill. It was that feverish point right before a storm, where the whole world seemed on edge just waiting for it.
Henry felt especially on edge that day. All morning he'd spent locked up in that stuffy reception lounge with his mother and his bride-to-be Elizabeth. They'd fawned over fabric samples and discussed flowers as if it were politics. Who knew the difference between a rose and a peony could be such a dangerous topic? As if the entire wedding might be ruined upon choosing the wrong one.
For the most part, Henry had kept quiet. He was very good at that. His mother often told him off for brooding too much, but he thinks that most of the other women actually found it rather charming. It wasn't for them that he acted such a way, though. He was simply... bored. Mind-numbingly bored day after day. Ahead of him his whole life seemed to stretch on into boredom. Out beyond his loveless marriage to Elizabeth, beyond his father's death and his taking of the title Lord of Eastwich. Out into infinity.
The moment Elizabeth had returned in her carriage home he'd retired to his study to be alone, but the oppressive feeling had followed him there, too. From his perch by the window, he had a magnificent view of the garden below, the greenery and trees stretching out further than he could see, and there, by the rose bushes, a figure he knew well. Benjamin Capporelli. The gardener.
He'd only been in employment the past few years or so, but already Henry felt he knew him like they'd been friends since boys. Henry liked to keep up with all the staff at the Hall, but he enjoyed talking to Benjamin most of all. Perhaps it was the easy way he smiled, or the way those hazel eyes seemed to really see him when they talked. Perhaps it was the way his dark hair curled slightly behind his ear, or the way their hands had brushed once and he hadn't been too quick to pull away.
"Benjamin Capporelli," Henry whispered to himself, and even just the name made him smile, something swelling hot and insistent in his chest. Without a moment's hesitation he was moving, leaving the dark study behind to head out into the garden.
He came up behind him unnoticed, a slow smile spreading on his face as he stepped quickly into view beside him. "Lovely job on the roses, Ben. White have always been my favorite. Come, I need a walk before this rain falls. Join me."
In the past Benjamin had proved himself a man of various talents, or at least a man apt at learning them. He worked as a bookkeeper for a gentleman who arranged shipping, and was often down at the docks where he both accounted for what goods came in and out of the port and spent the other idle minutes gazing at the sailors and dockworkers, strong and work-worn, and ruggedly handsome. Other times, Benjamin ran errands about town and made himself familiar with the people in various businesses and in his neighborhood. It was through the mentorship of his own mother and a few doting acquaintances that he became interested in gardening, and was quick to jump at the opportunity for work in a lovely estate like that of Henry Morris.
The master of the house appeared reserved around company, especially that of his future bride and her mother, who by far did the majority of the talking. On other occasions, though, when the tediousness of courtship and wedding talks were over for the day, he enjoyed speaking with the staff in an entirely friendly manner. Ben considered himself fortunate to have a generous employer, and more fortunate to have a handsome one. And it was wholly inappropriate to think about. They chatted often, walked together through the grounds and Benjamin couldn't keep himself from admiring the way the man carried himself and seemed to genuinely enjoy his company. They spent time in close proximity and he could almost swear they did so on purpose. At night, Ben would be awake late mulling it over, penning rhymes that would never see the light of day out of fear for his livelihood and the other's reputation.
He was in his element tending the rose bushes, white for the upcoming wedding event and for their overall elegance against the backdrop of the rest of the garden where red and pink now abounded. The weather was pleasant and just breezy enough that he was not entirely soaked in sweat or uncomfortable in the outdoors all day long. He didn't startle when Henry came up beside him and spoke out of the otherwise quiet air. Thankfully he was not a servant to be frightened of his employer unless he was to be possibly angered. Benjamin had never yet seen as much happen in his time there.
He turned to meet his gaze, depositing the tools into the pouch at his belt. "Thank you. I'm pleased they've come in so nicely for the season." At his direction, he fell into step with him and glanced up to the sky in consideration of the rain. "Taking time to relax amidst the preparations, sir?" He supposed. Benjamin couldn't voice his opinion on the Lady Elizabeth but that she and her family appeared to have quite a different manner towards the household staff. It wasn't necessarily rude, but that distant haughtiness so characteristic of the upper class. He wondered if it was exhausting keeping up one's façade all the time. Maybe it was their true nature after all.
"Yes, yes, something like that." Henry replied, his tone distracted, his step quick as if his worries were right there on his heels. "You couldn't possibly imagine the amount of money my mother is pouring into this wedding. It's quite ridiculous." At least, it was for a marriage that was being made for status alone. Henry didn't love her. Sure, she was pretty enough, and with a large dowry to match. But there was one fundamental flaw to her that simply couldn't be altered. She was a woman.
Henry's steps only started to slow once they'd made it down to the edge of the lake, his gaze sweeping out over the still water and towards the small house where Benjamin lived. Thoughts scatty, Henry stooped to pick up a flat rock from the lake edge, skimming it neatly over the top of the water.
"You're not married." He said it idly, but his gaze was sharp as he looked over to Benjamin. There was a smudge of dirt on one cheek, his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows to show lean muscle beneath, his skin a few shades darker than Henry's own. Not for the first time since meeting Benjamin, Henry had wondered how those arms might feel around him, how those rough skinned hands might feel gripping at his hips. It had been a long while since Henry had last visited the tavern in the city, the one where men could meet in secret and he might search for bliss beneath another man's body. The absence had left him needier than usual, more likely to stare.
"Isn't there a lucky woman out there that's caught your eye? Perhaps one of the kitchen maids? You're a handsome guy, and smart, too. You can't say that about everyone in these parts."
"It's important to cater to everyone that will be in attendance, for a rather significant event," He noted. It was far from unusual that people of his status would put on a big show of a wedding celebration. Even for guests that cared very little for them personally. Ben watched him with relative interest, following the direction of his movements as the stone skipped far out on the water. His own cottage, modest but very much home now, filled in every spare corner with books and other pleasant things, stood across the way and could be seen clearly in the distance. Ben wouldn't return there until later in the night when all his work was through.
The observation elicited a halfhearted, nervous chuckle from his lips. "No, I'm not. I'm afraid I... haven't thought about women much at all. I've been busy with work and study my whole life," Benjamin amended, lest he give away a tidbit that seemed off to the other's ears. He fidgeted under the scrutinising gaze. "Thank you, sir. Perhaps someday I'll have to endure a fuss about marriage myself, however far off it may be." The answer was entirely noncommittal and about as vague as Benjamin could manage.
There had not been one occasion yet in his life that he allowed himself to act on his feelings, merely admiring from afar and keeping his secrets in books at home. Some years ago he had experienced some interest from a woman he got to know well, the daughter of a client he was accustomed to visiting. She seemed to await his arrival every week and blush in his presence, asking Ben to accompany her on a walk and sparing suggestive gazes his way. He'd caved and kissed her once, apologised profusely, and never again accepted the offer to escort her anywhere.
"Henry." The correction was made with a soft tilt of his head. "My father is a 'sir'. With me, I'd rather you just call me Henry. Especially since we..." He trailed off for a beat, a small twitch of a smile tugging at his lips, "Especially since we are friends, are we not?" Benjamin was certainly more than just a worker, after all. They talked for so long and so often.
Henry kept his head down but his ears keen as he listened to Benjamin talk, eyes scouring the lakeshore for more rocks to skip. He hadn't thought about women much at all, hm? Dark eyes moved back up to catch on hazel, holding them in his stare for quite a long moment before he looked back down again. He bent to collect up two rocks, moving to hand one Benjamin's way. His fingers brushed his palm as he set it down, his sharp gaze catching the smallest of twitches in Benjamin's expression as he did so.
Oh. How delightful.
"Oh no, Benjamin. I would not wish marriage on you. I think, perhaps, it would make you just as unhappy as it is bound to make me." He said lowly, words loaded with meaning before he turned away to throw the rock skimming over the surface. "No, instead I wish for you love. What do you say to that?"
"Of course," he agreed quickly as he'd said so. "I do think we're friends, Henry. I'm fortunate to have enjoyed your company over the years I've been here." He had always been kind and amicable, from their first meeting onward, even if Ben had his slip-ups on rare occasions. He'd never been so much as spoken to harshly and he hoped there would never be a chance for it to happen, either. This job was an agreeable one overall, with or without his late night longings. Benjamin sent a good amount of money home to his mother.
The rock in his hand was itching to be thrown, and he did so, listening for the pleasing sounds it made as it hit the water's surface and finally sank far into the lake. "Is it that terrible?" He wondered, only a little hint of amusement. "Perhaps it's because I am a romantic sort. I would indeed rather fall in love than be married for convenience. But if there came a time when I was not afforded the choice, I suppose I could try... learn to love someone," he offered with a sort of shrug. But maybe Henry simply could not, for reasons to which Benjamin was not privy. He didn't know what things were like in private.
"I hope that you'll find happiness when you can, Henry," he resolved. "There are many years left to pursue it." Love was in many things- a child's embrace, a birdsong, the clear blue sky, rose-gardens, a pretty young woman with long fair hair; a handsome young man with a well-fitted suit.
"I think perhaps you are a better man than I am. You, at least, might try." Henry raised a brow in consideration, watching the last stone disappear beneath the water. There was a breeze picking up now, the clouds a dark, heavy grey above them. He thought about the act of finding happiness, wherever he could, and looked back across to Benjamin.
There was a hunger in him, a craving for sin that perhaps Benjamin didn't share. It was impossible to truly know, but Henry did like his chances.
"I can trust you, can't I, Benjamin?" He began, the breeze catching at his dark hair, pushing some of it into his forehead. His eyes were dark and focused. "You are not the type to tell the secrets of friends, no matter how scandalous they may seem? And you know that... that anything I might say need not make you uncomfortable or afraid. You have the right to say so."
A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance like a drum beating low. The rain wouldn't be far off, Henry could feel it in his bones. "I won't ever learn to love Elizabeth, Benjamin. Because she is not what I want. She never will be. My preferences are... twisted. The wrong way around, I suppose. You hope that I'll find happiness, but I tell you that no woman will ever bring me it."
The first few drops, heavy as syrup, warm where one hit his cheek, another his head. "Do you understand my meaning? I want to know what you think of it. You, and no one else."
The mood between them changed to a tense one, and the weather followed suit, storm creeping up and making some sense of urgency hang in the air with their secretive discussion. "I... of course. I would never repeat a word of anything shared in confidence." He ran his tongue over his lip anxiously, not breaking eye contact as Henry continued, letting him in on the privileged information. It was a very sudden concern and Benjamin wondered if it would cause some trouble for the both of them.
His mouth was dry, suddenly. It was accompanied by a heavy feeling in his chest. Perhaps his surprise was betrayed by his honest, expressive face, and he blew out an uneven breath. "S-... Henry, do you really mean to say that?" Benjamin wasn't sure why he had to ask for reassurance when it seemed like a divine thing to have dropped into his lap. The question remained of whether it would be criminal to admit his own inclinations.
Ben averted his eyes finally, conjuring up the courage to figure out how to answer. "Between us, in confidence," he started to reaffirm it, quiet voiced, "My lack of interest in women stems from more than simply a busy schedule. In fact, I understand you quite well." His response was punctuated with a serious expression and he didn't even notice the raindrops hitting them already.
How sweet it felt, to have your suspicions confirmed so simply. Henry's nerves dropped away in an instant, his heart thumping so hard against his ribcage he feared it might be bruised forever. Benjamin wouldn't look at him, but that was okay. Henry knew what he was feeling, after laying down his secret so bare.
Their truths clashed together in the still air, unspoken words not quite making it off the tip of tongues. Suddenly, the downpour came.
It was here within seconds, one moment only a few drops, and the next a heavy wall of rain. It drenched through Henry's jacket and shirt within moments, plastered dark hair to his forehead. "C'mon, your place is closer." He called over the sound of it, another rumble of thunder coming louder this time, approaching fast.
Henry turned to make his way quickly around the edge of the lake to where the small cottage sat, his head spinning with the words they'd both shared and what he could do with it.
A huge wash of rain felt like a fitting climax to their conversation, keeping everything from hanging stale in the air and forcing them to beat a retreat into warmth and a dry place to rest. For a moment Benjamin worried about the state of his cottage, but it wasn't as if he was under strict orders to keep it a certain way. They took refuge inside, him shaking out his hair and letting it fall loose rather than the ponytail he kept it in for gardening.
They were safe from any further drenching now, but Henry's outfit was utterly soaked, not unlike Ben's own light shirt he'd been wearing for outdoor work. It was nearly transparent from the rain. He went through his things to produce another one, the best that he could find to offer Henry considering he was far from a simple groundskeeper, more elegant daily than even the finest clothing Benjamin owned and reserved for special occasions. The chill from outside would seep in quickly, so he went to light the wood in the small fireplace in the hopes it would produce some manner of heat for them.
"Please, I would feel responsible if you were to fall ill," Ben encouraged, offering him the dry shirt for the time being. He turned away from the other, undoing the buttons of his own so he could replace it with another. Nature was testing them, sticking them together where they would have little choice but to dwell on the intimate knowledge they now had of one another. How tragic that Henry would be forced into a bed every night with a person he cared nothing for.
The cottage was small, but homely. Henry glanced over some of the books that piled high on every available counter, the scattered pieces of paper in between full of scrawling handwriting. He tilted his head to read one, but was quickly distracted by a fire blazing to life in the hearth, it's warm light spreading over the rain darkened room.
Benjamin disappeared into the next room, returning with a clean shirt that he passed off Henry's way. Henry accepted, but his eyes were distracted, slipping down to where Benjamin's thin shirt was clinging to his chest, exposing fine muscle beneath. His heart gave a thump, his fingers twitching against the cotton of the shirt.
Benjamin turned away from him, and he realised it was to give him some privacy in changing, a gesture that he mirrored, turning to face the window instead. He shrugged off his jacket, his waistcoat and tie, then unbuttoned his shirt to peel away, setting it all down on a nearby armchair. It was only once he was pulling the new shirt onto his shoulders that his curiosity got the better of him, turning to peek over his shoulder to where Benjamin was changing.
His back was bare, olive skin turned warm in the firelight, his shoulderblades moving and casting soft shadows. Henry didn't mean to stare, but he couldn't help it. Long dark hair had been untied, and it sat wet now, dripping tiny rivers of water droplets down the length of his spine. Henry followed the trail of one down until it hit the top of his pants.
Outside the thunder sounded, closer still through the sound of heavy rain. Henry was moving before he could stop himself. The shirt he'd borrowed was left unbuttoned, forgotten about on his shoulders as he turned properly and stepped up close behind Benjamin. He reached one careful finger out to the center of Benjamin's back, trailing it up slowly along the line of his spine. His skin was still damp and cool where he touched.
"I want you to know that I'm glad, to have a friend like you."
Propriety kept his own eyes fixed ahead of him, back turned to the other man, even though he was burning with curiosity at perhaps the only chance to catch a glimpse of his half-bare form. A mere peek of skin would be enough to spark hours' worth of writing and daydreaming. Henry was handsome by birth, but no doubt polished to Ben's eyes by way of his congenial nature.
He already felt a bit warmer having stripped of the damp clothes and let the fire lick his skin from across the room. His hair was wet and he'd have to dry it soon lest it drip onto the fresh shirt as well and ruin the whole purpose of drying off in the first place. Ben was pulled from his wandering thoughts by a much different sensation on his skin, and it made him bristle with quiet thrill. He didn't dare to move, both for sake of being surprised and the unspoken desire not to deter him from touching at all.
"I trust you as well as an oldest, dearest friend. If I may be so bold, I... wish that we could have known one another sooner, and better." The undertone in his statement felt clear thought he didn't say it in so many words. They were from different places, different worlds, with different responsibilities. But their greatest commonality was a tragic one when it could not be pursued as they might have wished.
Henry could do what he pleased. He was the master of the house, a step above Ben in both money and status and as it seemed, audacity to act on his thoughts. He'd probably known what it felt like to sate his desires before, too, when he was so certain of them. Altogether Benjamin felt hot all over despite the weather and the damp chill still in his bones. The house was dark except where they stood by the fire and even then it cast lovely shadows over their bodies.
"Oh?" Henry's head tilted, his heart giving a thump. Was he not allowed this? Was he not allowed him? Hadn't he worked so hard to keep it all together, tried so desperately to follow the right steps in proposing to Elizabeth? Back there, in that grand old Hall, he would be the Henry they wanted him to be. He would dance the right steps and say the right things. He would marry her and give her children and run the estate like any good Lord should do. But here? Here in this small cottage by the lake, couldn't he be someone else entirely?
He stepped closer, moving right up against Benjamin's side now, that finger against his back turning into a flat palm, sliding slowly over his shoulderblades. Carefully, Henry bent his head to press his lips just softly to Ben's shoulder. He could smell the rain on his skin. The fire gave a soft pop where wood settled, outside the rain was still hammering on the water of the lake.
"Benjamin," Henry said, low and quiet, his mouth suddenly dry when he swallowed hard. "I think perhaps, you're afraid. Afraid of what I might do or say if you were to act out of line. I want you to know that in this place, here, there is no line. I am not your master, here, Ben." His hand moved now to collect up some of that long, dark hair, tucking it wet behind Benjamin's ear gently.
"I have a need, one I cannot ever completely suppress. But perhaps you can help? Tell me, have you ever fucked another man before?"
His skin was on fire, surely the red crept visibly up to his ears if it were visible in the low light of the fire that made things look as different as they felt. It wasn't right, he wanted to reason, like a proper sort of person would think. But what was it exactly that made it wrong? Henry was there willing and asking, said it himself. Benjamin turned to look at him over his shoulder and a heavy breath made his chest rise visibly.
"No," he answered truthfully. Oh, there had certainly been times he'd thought of it. A passing smile from a handsome young man who sat close by in class, a lonely sailor or two at the docks who seemed to be more than acclimated to those secret sorts of meetings between men. But Ben was too scared. He wasn't sure of who. God? Himself?
"Henry," he spoke up again in thought. "The book on the desk... look through it." Inside were many nights' worth of longings, most romantic and chaste, others so intensely erotic he almost felt ashamed at himself when reading them back. They didn't mention Henry by name but anyone with half a mind would have understood through description alone. The gesture was bold, but it was simpler to let his thoughts speak for themselves.
As Ben looked over his shoulder, Henry could see the warm light reflected in his hazel eyes, turning them aflame. It did not matter to him that he was inexperienced. He'd had men before that knew fine well how to please another, but none of them had been half as sweet, a fraction as appealing.
At the mention of the book Henry's lips parted in soft surprise, confusion pulling at his brows. What did a book mean now? Was this a way of distracting him? A polite way of declining the offer he'd just laid so bare on the table? Henry flushed at the thought, gaze dropping away before moving over to the desk. Sure enough, one book sat separate from the others, it's cover plain in the dim light.
Pulling himself reluctantly away, Henry moved across to drop into the chair in front of it, carding his fingers through his damp hair to push it out of his eyes. At the first page or so, he wasn't entirely sure what he was reading. It was handwritten, some neat, some scrawling and messy, as if written in haste to get the words out. Poetry, no not all of it, some was simply descriptions of a man that clearly took reference from himself. Then, further in, more words that this time sent Henry's cheeks burning hot.
Some of it was sweet, longing. Some of it was filth, hungry and needy. It caught Henry's breath at the back of his throat, something heavy sinking in his gut. "You wrote this?" He asked, eyes not leaving the pages he turned. He caught a sentence that had his heart pounding. "These things you write, do you imagine doing them to me?"
All his secrets from the past year or so were inked permanently there, finally revealed to his muse himself. However, Henry seemed more intent with each turn of a page and it replaced Ben's worried with a little thrill instead. If there were no rules here like there would be once he set foot outside this cottage and into the bright morning light tomorrow, he would do best to let himself be privy to any fantasy tonight would allow.
"Yes." He got the word out quickly in a breath. "Every day, for the past year, or-perhaps more- I could only allow myself to spill my fantasies here." Benjamin swallowed thickly, conjuring up memories of some of the explicit ideas he'd put to paper in the late night when he would have let a hand drift down himself in bed in the dark afterward. "I suppose you must have thought me innocent and honest," Ben made a breathy chuckle, gesturing vaguely with his hand, "When I would come and dream up these filthy things once we parted ways."
He had turned to face him by that point, the shirt he was wringing in his hands before now discarded to hang on the back of a chair. Benjamin was willing, achingly so.