Justin and Nikola were no longer friends.
Oh, there was no open hostility between them: Nikola didn’t scowl when he encountered Justin in a social setting, made no sharp remarks, offered no veiled insults. Indeed, in public he behaved just as he always had: gracious, friendly, civil, even warm. Justin reciprocated, offering the same appearance of easy, open friendship. In public, no viewer would think there had been a break between them.
There was no “in private”. They saw one another at events hosted by mutual acquaintances, where Nikola never strayed from a group of fewer than three and was often with Wisteria. On the occasions that the Strikers invited Justin for dinner, there were at least a dozen other guests and Nikola’s presence was required to entertain them until such time as some other social duty was certain to call Justin or Nikola away. For the two invitations to dinner parties that Nikola accepted from Comfrey, Nikola arrived with Miss Vasilver and left early, with an unimpeachable excuse each time. When Miss Vasilver was not about, there was always some other group. Invitations to hunt and to bowrace were both politely declined “due to prior engagements”. There likely were prior engagements, even, but Nikola of old would have offered an alternate date.
Nikola of now did not want to take any chance of being alone with Justin.
What was left was a hollow mockery of their former friendship, all appearance and no substance. The amiable public facade which had once concealed deep intimacy now concealed a vast empty gulf.
Justin felt the lack keenly. Sometimes, when he was telling a story at a party and Nikola was listening and laughing along, or when Justin and Nikola and Wisteria were all three offering droll commentary on a particularly insipid ball, Justin could forget that well-hidden animosity. For a time, he could pretend to himself that Nikola’s distance was but a product of his additional obligations to his betrothed and the stress involved in the wedding preparations.
Then they would meet by chance in some empty hallway, outside the lavatory or wherever, at a society event, and Nikola would give him a look of cold hostility and an icy “My lord” before hurrying away, and Justin would know that this was no matter of happenstance.
Distractions abounded: the Ascension season was nothing but one entertainment after another. Justin attended the galas and parties and theater performances, went to shadowed back rooms for anonymous assignations, forced his body through grueling exercise routines, tried to forget himself in noise and sensation. But at the end of every day, he was alone with the knowledge that he would always be alone. There could be no pleasurable anticipation of his next night with Nikola, nor his next day either.
There was nothing to look forward to at all.
It hurt, and Justin didn’t know what to do about it. Perhaps it was his own fault, for walking out on such an angry, bitter note. Perhaps he could have sent a note, apologized or at least explained that of course Nikola was not nothing to him, could never be nothing. I want so much more than friendship from you, but friendship would be better than this. But what could he write that would be enough and not too much, too dangerous to risk falling into unknown hands? And why must I always be the one to humble myself? After all I’ve done and risked for love of him, why must I still prove that I am his friend?
Some days Justin hated that he cared at all, wished he felt as coldly towards Nikola as Nikola did to him. If he tried, he could work up a righteous anger on the topic and sustain it for a while.
But mostly, it felt pointless. Everything felt pointless. Justin continued his activities out of habit, and for that occasional glimmer of forgetfulness, those moments near Wisteria or Nikola in some crowd, when the present was pleasant and ordinary and he could pretend it was real.
He intended to keep Miss Vasilver as a friend and had been thus far successful. If Miss Vasilver believes me capable of disinterested friendship why cannot Nikola, who knows me so much better? (Because he knows me so much better, of course.) He’d managed her news rather better than Nikola’s, perhaps because he’d spent some time contemplating how he would handle it.
Part of him wanted to seduce her still, to claim her body before Nikola could. (They are not yet wed; if I persuaded her to give her virginity to me, would she break with him and wed me instead? If he knew, would he break with her?) Justin desired Miss Vasilver more the longer he knew her, but he respected her too. He rather suspected that any attempt he made would end in humiliating failure. Even if she were receptive, she deserved better than such manipulative treatment. So he took care to avoid any circumstance that might tempt him otherwise.
At times he wondered why he bothered, wondered if it might not be better to seize at any chance, no matter how slim, that might end the dark pall that had fallen across his life. Who was he trying to impress by taking the high ground? Miss Vasilver? She already knew how little honor he had, given that he’d revealed Nik’s intentions to her and proposed himself. Nikola? Justin was never going to regain his good graces. The general public? Perhaps. Justin had put considerable effort into cultivating his reputation and some part of him, the part that said ‘this too shall pass’, did not want to throw that away for nothing. And it very likely would net him nothing.
And I still have Wisteria’s friendship. Do I want to risk losing that, too?
It was not as much as he wanted, but it was something, and Justin had little enough of true value to him now.
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