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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM SOPHIA DERI-BOWEN
For the Benefit of the Public
“How dare you? How dare you?” Daniel Grier took off his reading glasses – a new and hated acquisition – and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Please explain what you were thinking, Lee. Precisely.”
“Perhaps the same thing I always am,” Lee shot back, tone gone petulant and nasty, as it had been when they first met. And the man had been doing so well… “Everyone will talk about me now. Everyone. They’ll think I’m some sort of bully, but Etienne and I have an appointment together next week, for a day’s sitting and perhaps longer after that.” He gave Daniel a pointed look, and named an artist that he knew the other man would have given his eye-teeth for an introduction to. “And anyway, Etienne thought it was funny, and we only got a bit wet. What have you got to be angry about?”
“Very little, I suppose. I knew what I was in for when I met you.” Daniel glared at his lover. He’d known they should have stayed in Kastell-sur-Mer, on the little windswept French island. It was dreary in winter, but London was just as grey.
Lee shrugged, and gave him a sardonic smile. “Then you’ve no one to blame but yourself, Daniel. I’m going to meet Etienne at his club. I shall be back late.”
Daniel gave a frustrated grunt. “Must you be childish and rub it in?”
“Rub what in, darling?” Lee could be poisonous when he wanted to.
“That I’ve few friends left in this city, and none of them so well connected. Then again, I have not shared myself so…freely.” Daniel could be poisonous too, come to it. He gave the furious man an innocent look. “Do you think I could do well for myself as a model? I’ve not your physique, but I am told often that I’m handsome enough.” Only by you – or nearly so – but it will do for the child’s fight that we’re having.
Lee merely gave him a scathing look, turned on his heel, and walked out of the small terraced house onto the Kensington street.
Daniel sighed, rubbed his brow, and felt ashamed. Lee had acted foolishly, of course, playing at having a very loud, public fight with a friend of his, the two of them ending up half in the Thames and nearly in the Clink. That the shrieked insults had consisted entirely of innuendoes and the two of them tried to imitate the classical Greek wrestlers that currently surrounded him – the house’s owner collect Panathenaeic amphorae – had only added to the scandal.
But at least they were home for Christmas, Daniel reminded himself, turning back to the sketchpad previously abandoned. The acquaintance with Classical tastes in art felt similarly about men, and he had been happy to have Daniel and Lee keep the place going through the New Year while he escaped to warmer lands. London was as it had always been: beautiful, exciting, full of things to do, and making Daniel glad all over again that he had left and found the Ile de Pingouin.
And Lee, of course. First his model, then his lover, now his muse, as stupid and romantic as it seemed to say so. The man was spoiled and infuriating, though his explosions grew fewer and fewer as he and Daniel settled and found their balance with one another. And trust, too; a blessing long coming for both of them.
But explode he did, and Daniel generally followed suit, though his temper quickly cooled, the impetuous words said. He wasn’t ashamed, exactly, as they never fought fair, but he did hope that Lee would be home that night.
* * *
He went to bed alone, and though it was certainly still dark outside of the tightly-drawn curtains, Daniel guessed that it was closer to morning than night when he felt the covers shift, the heavy quilt drawn back and a warm body slide in beside him.
“Shh. Don’t wake up,” Lee whispered, so of course Daniel did, blinking at him sleepily in the low candlelight.
“Shan’t. Or shall.” He smiled when Lee laughed, and accepted a kiss.
“Good. So am I.” Daniel yawned, and pillowed his head on Lee’s shoulder. “If you insist on being an idiot before half the population of the city, though, please don’t do it by the river. I worry, you know.”
Lee laughed softly, and Daniel felt a kiss pressed to the top of his head. “I know. I am sorry, truly. I didn’t…” He shifted, and was quiet for a long moment, then spoke again. “I don’t want to be horrible.”
“Then it’s good that you’re not. Now go to sleep. You’ll have to go back to your room soon enough.”
“Yes, Daniel.” Lee’s voice was soft, not a little sad, and Daniel tried to puzzle out what had gone wrong, but sleep took him first.
Any argument between them had resolved by morning, as it so often did, and they shared a few lazy, sleepy kisses, before Lee had to retreat to his own bed, keeping at least a veneer of respectability about the household.
“Until breakfast, then,” he murmured, and bent over to steal one more kiss. Daniel reached up to embrace the big man one more time.
“’Til then. Love.”
“Love,” Lee whispered, and they shared a particularly tender kiss, before finally parting. Daniel curled up on his side and sleepily resolved to find out what was bothering his dear one. Later, though; sleep pulled him back under for the hour or so until he was wakened by one of the footmen acting as his temporary manservant.
Breakfast passed as ever, and they parted ways for the day following. Daniel had promised to call upon a friend of his who was preparing canvases for a proper showing, at a gallery that wasn’t too obscure. Nominally, he was offering to help in determining how the space would be filled. In actuality, he was fairly sure he’d be taking Evans off to a pub until he calmed down enough to work. Lee murmured something about some appointments, and disappeared into the grey chill that was London in December.
* * *
The days until Christmas passed quickly in dinner appointments, broken up by long hours by the fire,with a book, or a canvas, or one another, as the mood took them. Not ones for going to church, they nonetheless stayed up late on the 24th, and counted the ringing church bells together, to welcome Christmas.
“Mother used to say that was the sound of the Christ child flying overhead, to give us gifts,” Lee said, breaking the silence that had fallen. They’d gone to stand at a window, peering out into the frosty darkness, the long street still and peaceful, mostly hidden by trees.
Daniel grinned, slipping an arm around Lee’s waist and pressing close to the tall man. “We were always herded to church. The singing was fun, but I like your story much better.”
“Then you must go into the library, and see what the Christ child has left for you,” Lee replied, with a mysterious smile.
“Unsporting, sir! I’ve not got a gift ready for you yet. We said Christmas Day, at dinner!”
Lee laughed, and drew Daniel into the tiny library nonetheless. “Would you like to take it up with your Lord and Saviour? See, you’ve been good, and He has left you a gift.”
Daniel rolled his eyes. “Enough. What is it then – a filthy postcard?” He winked, and opened the envelope.
“The amphorae aren’t enough for you?” was all Lee said, in particularly mild tones.
But Daniel was busy scanning the slips of paper. He read them twice, and sat down, and looked up at Lee, eyes gone huge.
“The British Museum.” He cleared his throat, and hoped his eyes weren’t watering. “You’ve got me…got us…oh, Lee. Oh, darling.”
Lee smiled shyly. “Tickets. For six months – I do actually know an upstanding member of the public or two, who could vouch for us. I applied for them a few days ago, and I’m so pleased they came through quickly.”
Daniel laughed, wrapping his arms around Lee’s legs and resting his head on the muscular stomach he loved so well. “You’re a dream and a wonder. Thank you. When shall we go? After the New Year?”
“Indeed,” Lee agreed. “Eighteen Hundred and Thirty-Six will begin – or nearly so – with you and the world’s treasures. Aside from the once you’ve got at home, I mean.”
“Cocky bastard. I do love you,” Daniel murmured, finally rising to grant a kiss, which turned into a dozen, which became a very late night, and a very great deal of bliss.
* * *
They had dressed in their best suits, and Daniel had borrowed a new top hat from a friend, far finer than his old, faded thing. Lee had been in charge of dressing them, and had even found a set of walking-sticks in the back of a closet, so that they were the very picture of Victorian gentleman-hood when they sallied forth on a cold, sunny January day.
Daniel had walked past the magnificent stone façade before, of course, and often thought about making the application to enter, but had never quite had the time or circumstances come correct. This felt right, though, this going in with Lee at his side, the other man a reassuring presence. Daniel, though proud of his strong Northern accent, knew it often worked against him, and he was happy to let Lee and his soft, cultured tones talk them through the entrance.
And inside – such things, such wonderful things! They had visited the new Egyptian hall and marvelled over the great stone sarcophagi there, the exquisite scenes of life chipped out onto their surface, and the lines of code interleaving them.
“So fine, you wonder how man could do it at all,” Lee murmured, and Daniel nodded. The great alabaster sarcophagus of Seti was no longer in the Museum’s collection, but he had seen it in Sir John Soane’s collection once, several years ago, and he murmured to his companion about the way the light made the cool, pale stone seem to glow.
They had admired the statuary the Earl of Elgin had gifted his country, the two of them lingering over the bodies of the men, frozen forever in their poses. Daniel’s fingers itched to draw, and he resolved to remember what he could, until he could be home with his pencils. A stylization of one of the metopes, perhaps, of men fighting, done in lush colours to contrast with the pale, dirty stones before him. Such scenes were meant to be dramatic.
And now they had come to the gallery with works from Nineveh, and he was struck dumb, staring up at the huge bull so recently arrived from there, the face of the great bearded man that glared ahead, and seemed to look through and past himself, his beloved Lee, their mad city, even the quiet island they called home. It was old and huge, and Daniel felt quite small before it, quiet and filled with awe.
He and Lee took their leave, making their way to a certain club near Coram’s Fields, the few minutes’ walk through the city giving each man time to catch his breath and find himself again in time. The gentlemen’s club was quiet, discreet beyond discretion in a neighbourhood that was not, and they were soon settled by the fire with a fine glass of sherry in hand.
“I believe that’s the best present I’ve ever received,” Daniel said warmly, once his feet and his belly were warmed. “Lee, I can’t thank you enough for arranging us entrance.”
The fair man flushed with the praise, and dropped his eyes. “It’s the very least you deserve.” He looked up, meeting Daniel’s eyes, and his voice dropped. “I know I am a trouble to you. I am a trouble to myself. I will be less of a trial to you, Dan, but until I can manage that properly, remember this gift, and…and what it means, between us.”
“Is that what you think?” Daniel set his glass down, and reached for the other man’s hand, squeezing it tightly, but shy of doing more, even here. “You’re no trial, and no trouble. Not at all.” He smiled warmly. “Perhaps a worry, an exasperation. An argument now and again – God knows we’re neither of us perfect.”
“No, but you don’t cause a scandal half the time you leave the house,” Lee said, a smile just tugging at his lips. “Truly, you’re not sick of me?”
“No. And I don’t think I ever will be,” Daniel added in a moment of confidence. “Perhaps I love your wildness, did you ever think of that?” He raised Lee’s hand to his lips, just barely kissing it, just for a moment. “Do not fear. Don’t ever fear that I’ll grow tired of you.”
“I will try not to. I promise to stay away from the river, all the same.” Lee smiled, a clear weight gone from his shoulders, and the two men settled back in the large, overstuffed chairs. Talk wended back to the beauties seen that day, but it was obvious the air was cleared, and all was well, at the beginning of that New Year.
Sophia Deri-Bowen is a proud native Philadelphian, who packed up her life and moved to Wales not too very long ago. She’s still not quite sure how she managed it, but she now lives and studies in a beloved new country. Time not spent digging out from under a pile of research goes to following rugby union and baseball, knitting, and rambling as far and wide as possible. She is perhaps slightly too obsessed with old boats, the Welsh language, and finding a place that has a decent Belgian beer on tap.
Advent Calendar Giveaway!
For my giveaway, I’ll be sending annotated recipes for welshcakes and eggnog to one lucky commenter. :) The original recipes are from Great-Grandmama Google and dear old Auntie New York Times Cookbook, respectively, but I’ve experimented a bit with both, so I’ll offer advice along with.
The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this – just save them up for Christmas Eve.)
11. What is the date of the Feast of St Nicholas?