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Though The Frost Was Cruel

Daegaer ( daegaer) wrote, @ 2003-12-24 17:06:00
A manly Christmastime
Thank you, louiselux for the beta!

Christmas 1900

Roberts sat, not so stiffly as before, watching his children play on the floor of the drawing room. Margaret was talking to her new doll, holding a long conversation that was in her mind not one-sided. Thomas and Edward had laid out their clockwork train set, running the track under chairs and around Gedge in a large circle. They were making a great deal of noise, and Gedge was encouraging them, his eyes as bright as a small boy's with delight over the train. They were very expensive presents, and he wished Bracy hadn't been so extravagant. The gaslight winked off the golden spheres hung on the tree. All the sweets that had hung within easy reach of a child's hand had long since been eaten.

'Rob?' Bracy asked, from the side of the room.

Roberts looked up to see him gesturing inquiringly at the decanter. Well. It would help him sleep. 'Yes, thank you, old man.' He took the proffered whisky, his second, and sipped it slowly.

The boys screeched, imitating the noise of a train, and he winced. It was natural that children made noise; it was natural that they would forget long before an adult, and go back to their carefree childish ways. He drained the glass, and was both embarrassed and thankful when Bracy gently took it and refilled it.

'Thank you,' he said, and drank more slowly.

'Rob, I'm very glad you came,' said Bracy. 'I've missed you, you know that.'

'The children,' said Roberts vaguely. 'I couldn't keep the house dark another year. They have to get on with life.'

Bracy looked at him closely. 'And you?' he said. 'Are you ready to rejoin the world?'

Roberts looked into his glass and remained silent. He wished he could say something. Bracy was his oldest friend, and he had nothing to say to him.

'Tell us a story! Tell us a story about the army, Gedge!' Thomas shrieked, too full of sugar mice to keep quiet. 'Did you go on a train as nice as this one?'

'Not near as nice,' Gedge said, laughing. 'You wouldn't like the trains in India at all. They were very rattly.'

'Was it rattly, Papa?' Edward asked.

'Yes,' said Roberts. 'It was.'

He listened to the story with half an ear, a preposterous tale of lost tribes and heroic adventures, interwoven with their real experiences. Roberts frowned slightly. He knew he had done some of the things Gedge was embroidering, he could if he closed his eyes remember leading a charge against the enemy, vaulting over their defences. He just couldn't remember being that young. He didn't want to hear about India, not any more, and turned his mind away from the past, making himself angry at the way Gedge was speaking. He was wrong to call the children by their names, he should call them Master and Miss. And he was not using Roberts and Bracy's ranks when he spoke of them, saying instead, 'your Papa,' and 'your Uncle Edmund' in an overly familiar manner.

'Children!' he said loudly. 'You must stop annoying Gedge. It's past your bedtime.'

'But, Papa!' said Edward, 'the story!'

'He can tell you some other time,' said Roberts.

'But we haven't seen Gedge or Uncle Edmund for ever so long,' said Margaret, who had retreated under the Christmas tree and had been showing her dolly the pretty baubles hung upon its branches.

'Go to bed, young lady,' said Roberts coldly, 'and do not speak back to me.'

'Gedge, take the children to the nursery and find Nurse to put them to bed,' said Bracy.

'Yes, sir,' said Gedge, climbing upright and picking Margaret up before she had decided whether or not she would cry at Roberts' tone. 'Come on, my dear,' he said, 'and you as well, you rascals.' The boys scampered out the door ahead of him, and Roberts was left alone with Bracy.

'You indulge him too much,' said Roberts shortly.

'He has been with me a very long time,' said Bracy. 'He has earned every indulgence. As I hope I have from him.'

Roberts snorted. 'I want him to call the children 'Master' and 'Miss',' he said.

Bracy sighed. 'I will of course tell him of your wishes, Rob. But he is very fond of them, you know that.'

'It's not his place to be fond of them.'

'I hope it is my place to be fond of them,' said Bracy after a moment.

'Of course it is,' said Roberts. 'I wish you had married, Bracy, had children of your own. You would be a good father.'

'I am content being an uncle,' smiled Bracy, 'and a god-father to Thomas.' His face changed, and he laid a gentle hand on Roberts' arm. 'Rob,' he said quietly, 'I am your friend. Say her name. The silence is eating you.'

'I cannot,' said Roberts, finding himself able to smile a false and easy smile. 'Not yet.'

Bracy patted his arm kindly, and talked of inconsequential things, asking Roberts if he would care to join a hunt in the new year, and speaking of an opera he had seen recently. Roberts let him run on, hardly needing to interject a word, while he sipped his whisky. If he didn't look at Bracy, didn't note the grey in his hair, it was almost as if they were young men again, unburdened by life. He remembered the glee with which they had learned they would be posted together, and how unutterably far India had seemed from England. It had been a good time.

'You should have stayed in the army,' he said, interrupting Bracy.

'It was better I left when I did,' said Bracy, smiling. 'I do not think it would have been easy for me to stay.'

'You should have stayed,' Roberts muttered.

The door opened and Gedge came in again, his eyes going straight to Bracy as always, and a little smile appearing on his face.

'I'm tired,' said Roberts. 'Goodnight, Bracy.' He levered himself out of the chair.

'Goodnight,' said Bracy in surprise.

'Goodnight, Colonel Roberts,' said Gedge, standing aside.

Roberts walked past him without acknowledgement.

* * *

He lay in his bed, cold and wakeful. He had let the fire in his room burn itself out and the room was icy. The whisky hadn't helped, damn it. He peered up at the ceiling in the gloom, and thought that he would never be warm again. After a while he remembered Margaret's little face when he had snapped at her, and felt he had been despicable. She would be asleep now, he thought, he would kiss her in the morning and she would have forgiven him. After another while he slipped out of bed, driven by the powerful need to look at the children's sleeping faces, to reassure himself that they were simply asleep, that they would wake up in the morning.

He walked quietly along the corridor, telling himself that he was being stupid; he had to break himself of this ridiculous fantasy. Of course the children were all right. They were always all right. A slight noise caught his attention, and he saw that Bracy's door was ajar. He hesitated, thinking that here was another apology he should make for uncivilised behaviour. Lights were on in the room, and he thought he should perhaps speak to Bracy now, rather than worrying himself needlessly over the children.

As he hesitated he heard two voices, and looked quietly into the room. Bracy was sitting on the edge of the bed, half dressed, his eyes closed. Gedge was kneeling behind him, his arms round Bracy. As Roberts watched, he kissed Bracy's shoulders, murmuring soft words Roberts could not make out. Holding his breath, Roberts backed off. He wasn't meant to see that, it was not for him. He turned to slip away, and his foot struck a small table, making a sound that seemed as loud as rifle fire in the silence of the hall. He fled back to his own room and tried to slow his breathing. It would be all right; they would pretend it had never happened. He fumbled for the matches, but could not get the lights lit. No matter, he'd have a smoke and then he'd be able to sleep.

There was a knock at the door, and it opened without any wait. Bracy came in, dressed again, a look of concern on his face.

'Rob? Are you all right? Did you want to speak with me?'

'No, no,' said Roberts quickly, not quite looking at him. 'It's nothing, it will keep till morning.'

'You're sure?' said Bracy.

Roberts nodded, occupying himself with filling his pipe. He jumped as Bracy's hand was laid upon his shoulder.

'I'm sorry, Rob,' said Bracy quietly, 'I did not mean you to be embarrassed. Please stay on as you were planning I've missed you and the children.'

'I would not have gone,' Roberts said sadly, 'I am the one who should apologise to you. My manners have become worse, it seems.'

Bracy gave him a sad smile and looked around, shivering. 'It's freezing in here!' he said. 'I'm not at all tired, Rob. Do me a favour and come and talk to me somewhere warm. You have cut yourself off from your friends for too long, she would not want '

'No,' said Roberts, 'no, do not speak of her ' He turned his back deliberately and was shocked to be turned around violently to face Bracy once more.

'Rob! She loved all things light and gay. Do you think she would want you to sit in the dark and the cold, or to be harsh with your children who must now rely only on you? Do you think she would want you to be lonely? You know that L'

'Stop!' cried Roberts, putting his hands over his ears like a child, his pipe falling unheeded to the floor. 'Don't say her name!'

Bracy forced his hands down and held them tight. 'Lucy would want you to live,' he said deliberately.

Roberts looked at him in fright. It had been so long since anyone had said her name in his hearing that he had almost forgotten the sound. He had begun to harbour the thought that upon hearing it spoken he would die of the shock, and was bitterly disappointed to be proved wrong. Bracy began to pull him from the room.

'Come on, come on, man. Into the light, it is past time.'

He didn't resist, just let himself be led out of the icy room. Gedge was hovering in the hall, worry on his face, and Roberts felt the anger grow again. What right had the man to look sorry for him?

'Will you bring the brandy up?' murmured Bracy, and, dropping his voice further, 'Give me some time with him.'

'Yes,' said Gedge simply, and left them.

Roberts found himself brought into Bracy's room, which was brightly lit, with a cheerful fire giving out heat. Bracy pushed him down into a chair and pulled another close to him.

'It has been over two years,' he said. 'I am glad to see that you have at least taken the children out of mourning. Oh, Rob, I know you loved her, but '

'What would you know about loving a woman?' asked Roberts rudely, wishing himself back in the cold darkness of his room.

Bracy raised his eyebrows and took a breath, as if he were restraining himself. 'I loved her too,' he said quietly. 'I loved how happy you were together. And I have a sister, and cousins and nieces I believe I am not quite a stranger to the love of the fair sex.' He patted Roberts' arm. 'You will have to do better than that, old friend, if you are trying to drive me away. Now, will you talk to me, like a civilised man? Shall I call Gedge up with the brandy now or later?'

'You can keep him where he is,' said Roberts, thinking that here was a topic that would silence Bracy. 'He is insolent and forgets his station. You have spoiled him completely, Bracy servants that forget themselves to his extent are worse than useless.'

'He has only ever asked for one thing,' said Bracy, 'and that is not to be sent away from me. I do not find him insolent or spoiled, although I know you do not approve of him. He is loyal and true.'

'Loyal! True!' spat Roberts, black rage suddenly overtaking him that he should have been happy for so few years and that Bracy should have had Gedge for so much longer. 'Even as a boy he was considering what he could get from you! It was appalling, the way he behaved! Everyone could see what was going on a hard-faced little Cockney scrabbling his way out of his proper place and a besotted man so stupid he couldn't see how he was being deceived!' Almost incoherent with anger, he hissed, 'he took you away from me.'

Bracy blinked in surprise, and sat back in his own chair. He looked both angry and sad. After the silence had stretched on and on he spoke suddenly in agitation, saying, 'none of that is true, Rob. Gedge was never like that, never do you really think me such a bad judge of character? In twenty years twenty years, Rob I think I would have discovered such faults in him, if they were really there. And he did not take me away from you how can you say such a thing? Have I not been your friend?' He looked into the fire, taking deep breaths, and went on more calmly, 'Lucy liked him. Lucy showed him kindness, she knew love when she saw it.'

'Lucy was soft-hearted and kind even to beggars in the street,' said Roberts.

'She had him eat with us at supper,' said Bracy, 'a kindness for which both he and I were most grateful. I wish he had eaten with us today, Rob, but he would not, to spare your feelings. He ate in the kitchen and did not begrudge being put out of his place yes, Rob, his place. He is not a servant. He loves you, for my sake; he loved Lucy and he loves your children. Are you so proud that you will not accept love that seeks nothing for itself?'

Roberts looked at him bleakly, saying, 'All your thoughts were for him. You wouldn't take my advice on how it looked, and you resigned your commission rather than give him up. He did take you from me.'

Bracy took his hand, looking down as he rubbed it gently. 'It wasn't quite like that, Rob. I wasn't in danger of disgrace, I left before that. But I never stopped being your friend, never. You know that, and I was truly happy to see you find love.'

'Did you think I married to spite you?' Roberts asked, thinking back to the gloating way he had announced his engagement.

'What?' said Bracy, and laughed from surprise. 'Rob! What a thing to say!' He paused and smiled impishly at his friend, 'Did you?'

Roberts found himself returning the smile, and then thought how odd it was that he should be recalling his marriage to Bracy with a smile, and how he had been using Lucy's name in conversation, like a weapon. She would have been very annoyed with him, he thought, seeing once more her sweet smile and the way she had laughed when he was being pompous. It was inconceivable that she should be gone, and that he would never see her again. Suddenly it was as if it had happened that very day, and he buried his face in his hands, weeping. Strong arms went about him and Bracy said brokenly, 'Oh, Andrew, Andrew,' and wept with him.

When he could weep no more, Roberts simply laid his head on Bracy's shoulder, thinking of how many times he had slighted his friend, of the nasty jokes he had made about the lower classes, and the mean pleasure he had taken in seeing Gedge go off to sleep in the servants' quarters when Bracy had come to visit. Bracy had never made any complaint, not even in the utmost privacy, for what else could he do, if he did not want to shout to the heavens the nature of his relationship? No, Roberts, thought, it was not Bracy who had not acted as a friend. 'Edmund,' he said, his voice rough with tears, 'I am sorry for my behaviour to you over the years. You trusted me enough to tell me, and I tormented you all this time.'

'My dear friend,' said Bracy, stroking his hair, 'you mustn't trouble yourself. I know you felt slighted by my actions, although I never meant that to happen. I thought you were content, that you had put away childish things, as you called it. I found I could not, and thought myself very lucky to have found a companion.' He paused and went on, 'I never took advantage of my rank in the matter, you believe that, don't you?'

Roberts clung closer, whispering, 'You? Of course you did not take advantage. You have always been a man of honour.'

'Maybe not,' said Bracy, and put a hand under Roberts chin, tilted his face up and lightly touched his lips to Roberts'. Roberts froze for a moment, and then returned the kiss clumsily. It was strange and then all at once utterly familiar, and he clung on desperately until Bracy gently set him back. 'Should I apologise, or should I ask you to stay?' asked Bracy softly. 'Don't think I mean to belittle your grief or to try to blot out more recent joys, but I should like to offer what comfort I can. I have missed you, Andrew.'

Roberts kissed him again, feeling both worried and grateful. At that point, so neatly timed that he knew it could not be coincidence, there was a knock at the door, and Gedge came in with a decanter and glasses on a tray.

'Now, sir,' he said, 'this will help warm you. And I've made up the fire in your room. It'll be nice and cosy.'

Roberts found it hard to look in his eyes as he accepted the glass, but Gedge seemed as cheerful as ever, offering him a plate as well.

'Will you have some of Cook's little iced biscuits, sir? A spot of sugar might help settle you.'

'You didn't bring a glass for yourself,' Bracy said. 'Here, take mine. I will use the water tumbler.' He matched his words to his actions, striding over to the bedside table and taking the tumbler from atop the little carafe of water. He stilled Gedge's protests with a wave of his hand, saying, 'No more pretence. Colonel Roberts is our friend.'

'Of course he is, sir,' said Gedge, smiling a little anxiously.

Roberts put his glass in the hearth and stood awkwardly. He was the one out of place here, and it was an unpleasant and unusual feeling. He extended a hand to Gedge, saying, 'I have not always been good to you, Gedge. I hope you can forgive me.'

Gedge looked at him oddly, and took his hand gingerly. 'There's nothing to forgive, sir,' he said, 'truly, there isn't.' He looked in some worry over to Bracy, who smiled at them both.

Roberts stepped back, murmuring, 'I should let you rest. I'll see you in the morning.'

'Wait,' said Bracy. 'You know you don't have to go.'

Roberts looked at him. He was still smiling, although Gedge's face was politely neutral. Twenty years had given him not only a smoother manner of speech, but had taught him how to hide what he was thinking, Roberts thought, remembering how it had seemed impossible to him that the whole regiment could not see what the lad had felt for Bracy. He should go, he thought, Gedge's statement about remaking the fire in his room should have been hint enough.

'Stay, sir,' said Gedge, with no hint of bitterness in his voice. 'I'll go.'

'No, not on my account,' said Roberts. 'Please, this is your home. You must stay.'

Gedge looked from Bracy to him and back again, then smiled. It was the cheeky, boyish smile that had always made Bracy look dazed as a young man. 'Why don't we both stay?' he asked.

Roberts felt dazed himself, and looked in confusion at both Bracy and Gedge. They must have discussed this, he realised, for Bracy did not seem shocked. After a moment he thought that he himself was not as shocked as he should be, and nodded quietly. That seemed all the permission that was needed, and Bracy took him in his arms and kissed him more deeply than before, passing him on then to Gedge, who put his arms about him and pulled him down into another kiss. They removed his clothes, and their own, and Roberts felt more alive than he had in years. He was glad he had always stayed active, for neither of them was running to fat in the slightest. Gedge was still thin, although it was now a man's thinness rather than a boy's.

'Don't you feed him?' Roberts said breathlessly to Bracy.

'Lord love you, sir, I'm better than I was,' laughed Gedge. 'We were all half-starved when we enlisted.' He tugged gently at Roberts' arm. 'Come on, sir, the bed's nice and comfy.'

Lying between them, it was suddenly all too real, and Roberts felt that he was being unfaithful to Lucy. He felt the touches change to ones of comfort, and knew his distress must be obvious. 'I'm sorry,' he said, 'I don't think I can.'

'That's all right,' said Bracy, 'you go to sleep, then. You'll be warmer here.' He settled Roberts comfortably between them, and ran his fingers lightly over his face, barely touching him at all, just looking at him as if he were memorising every detail of Roberts' appearance. Roberts felt that he had to shut his eyes, but that seemed cowardly, so he kept them open. He didn't feel quite brave enough to look over his shoulder, but he reached back and took Gedge's hand in his. It was strange to be held by two people at once, but he was warm at last. Knowing he was selfish, and feeling too warm and comfortable to care, Roberts closed his eyes and drifted off almost immediately to sleep.

* * *

In his dream, he was lying in bed, tucked snugly between Bracy and Gedge. He opened his eyes and saw Lucy smiling at him, her light brown hair curled and framing her pale face. She was wearing the rose pink dress she had worn the day he first saw her. She came across the room quite silently, and Roberts felt deeply ashamed that she should find him where she did. No flicker of condemnation crossed her brow, however, and she smiled with great fondness at Bracy, putting back his hair from his face, and laid a gentle hand on Gedge's shoulder. Roberts could not move, did not dare to blink lest he miss her going. In his dreams Lucy was trapped in a burning house, from which he would save her, or had fallen into water for him to plunge in after, or had been captured and he would win her free. But none of that had happened. It had been pneumonia, and no amount of bravery or love could win out against the enemy that had invaded his wife and taken her from him. He had sworn to protect her and he could not. He was not a proper man. A look of loving concern passed over Lucy's face, as if he had said these things to her as he had, many times, lying awake and grieving. She put her hand upon his forehead and then stroked his face, wiping the tears away with soft fingers. He knew all at once that she forgave him for living, that she had never blamed him at all, and that she did not want him to blame himself. She smiled, as if he had at last seen what was obvious and bent over him, pressing her lips to his in a long sweet kiss. And then she was gone, but he knew she was still with him, and the whole room smelled of roses.

* * *

Roberts woke in confusion, feeling uncomfortably warm. A heavy arm was thrown over him, and he gradually focused on Bracy's form pressed against him, limp in sleep. For a brief disorienting moment he thought they were still in school, and that Bracy had fallen asleep in his bed. It was a familiar and pleasant feeling that roused him and did not leave him even after he remembered they were long since men. A slight noise had woken him, and he looked over his shoulder, seeing Gedge kneeling at the fire, striking a match.

'I'm sorry,' whispered Gedge, 'didn't mean to wake you. It'll be nice and warm soon.'

The kindling caught, and the little pile of wood Gedge had built up was soon crackling merrily. He added pieces of coal one by one, and then washed his hands at the wash stand. Roberts looked away politely, although the man seemed quite unselfconscious. It was his bedroom after all, Roberts thought in some embarrassment as his body reacted to the sight of Gedge standing there, naked. He hadn't expected that, even given his agreement last night. The mattress dipped and Gedge slipped back under the covers, shivering. He was freezing cold.

'You should get in the middle,' said Roberts.

'It's all right,' said Gedge, 'we've been colder, me and him.' A far off look came into his eyes. 'England's got nothin' on it,' he said, in a way that made Roberts think he missed it, that dreadful journey through the ice and snow that had left him and Bracy thin and frostbitten and apt to panic if they were not in each other's sight. Then Gedge's eyes focused and he grinned and moved close, reaching out to put a cold hand on Bracy's side. Roberts grinned as well as poor Bracy was jolted from sleep and looked about him wildly before fixing both of them with a stern eye.

'I take it that it is time to get up?' said Bracy in a voice that tried for authority but fell short at sleepy amusement.

'Ah, well. Me I'm already up,' said Gedge slyly, moving closer so that Roberts had no doubt of the veracity of the statement.

'So am I,' said Roberts, trying for the same sly tone.

Bracy snorted with laughter at the pair of them. 'Well, then,' he said, and opened his arms.

Promising himself he should be less selfish on this occasion, Roberts let himself be enfolded in the embrace of his dearest friend and his dearest friend's friend. There was love there, and he was relieved and delighted to find it generous enough to include him.

It seemed to him that someone had brought roses into the room, and it made him happy, although he could not quite remember why.

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