|Not What He Seems
Author: Clovexei PM
Time period: 1700s. I really don't know how to describe this. The evolution of a friendship? Semi-plotless bromance? A playful mockery of traditional supernatural plot devices? Warnings: contains STUPID amounts of fluff and dramaRated: Fiction T - English - Friendship/Drama - Chapters: 15 - Words: 32,855 - Reviews: 11 - Favs: 3 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 10-13-12 - Published: 05-24-12 - Status: Complete - id: 3025564
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
"Entertain me, James."
"Nothing interesting can ever be done by a person alone."
James knew without looking that Dante had draped himself over the chair behind, watching him with a king's sense of entitlement. Every limb would be limp, like a Siamese cat in a pool of sun, but his fingers would soon begin to tap the back of the chair – yes, there it was: the steady thrum of the intensely bored.
The addressed cast a bland, friendly smile over his shoulder. "I'm working."
"Take a rest for a while." Cobalt eyes adopted the forlorn, wistful look of a lost child. Golden hair curled gently around the owner's shoulders, luxurious bangs partially concealing his face in a play at mystery. It would have been endearing, had Dante used any tone save the one James liked the least: the honey-sweet purr of persuasion. "Come upstairs and enjoy the rain with me before I die of this tediousness."
James pretended not to hear. With a few uninterrupted moments, he could determine the best possible combination of all these disparate pieces. Begin with valerian, willow for the salicylic acid, honey, cocoa – no, indigestible – midazolam… the ideas tumbled together, piling in one after another in a discordance of possibility. The impossible scrawl of his penmanship, completely illegible, fell to little more than a frantic scribble as sparks caught and flared and threatened to go out before he could cradle and breathe them to life.
A heavy sigh from his petulant shadow scattered his thoughts like mice; all solutions slipped through the sieve of his brain. Alas, another brushfire gone. A sudden sadness at this most recent setback rose in his chest, but evaporated a moment later. He could try again. There was no harm done.
He set the pen lightly upon his desk and turned to Dante, who lifted his chin from his arms with renewed hope.
"I think I am finished for the evening. We can go upstairs now, if you like."
Dante said nothing, but his fond smile served as answer enough. He stood with a grace that reminded James of liquid mercury and, as he swept past to lead the way upstairs, hitched a shoulder amidst the golden half-curls. "The night is halfway gone. Your chemistry experiments are an unhealthy obsession."
"You are partially to blame for that, do not forget."
"I never intended for you to spend the rest of your life playing with chemicals. You're supposed to spend it with me."
James often wondered how a man of twenty-four years could be so petulant, but no answer had yet been forthcoming. There were moments when he, junior by only two years, felt like the only adult in the house, babysitting a demanding infant. But the moments were fleeting, and as they climbed the stairs, James allowed himself to daydream again, thoughts skating back toward potions and compounds and solvents.
As they reached the foyer, Dante's continued complaints a dull buzz in the corner of his mind, James halted. He glanced at the front door, expecting to see evidence of his pressing suspicion, but the door betrayed nothing of what lurked on the other side save the constant hiss and rattle of the wind and rain.
Dante paused with his hand on the banister, halfway up the stairs leading to the top floor. He descended with a huff of exasperation. "There is not."
"There is. I can hear them."
"Well, I can't hear anything. You're stalling."
"I am not."
"Open the door, then. See who's out there."
James unlocked the door and eased it open. Light poured out onto the front porch, but there was nothing for it to illuminate except sheets of rain and the dark tops of trees lashing back and forth in the wind.
"See? No one's there. Come back inside."
A groan rose up from the darkness, a pitiful sound, and James caught sight of something human-shaped curled against the wall, just to one side of the doorway. As he watched, the head of the shadow lolled to one side; the body soon followed and slowly slumped sideways into the cradle of his arms. The body was solid, real – not that of a shade born to the storm.
Dante appeared at his shoulder. "What did you find?"
The body was heavy, but as James carried him inside, it became clear that waterlogged clothing comprised more than half of the weight. His cheek rested against his rescuer's shoulder and James could see only the top of his head and the hint of one ear hidden in the mess of rain-slicked, chestnut-colored hair.
Dante, however, leaned closer to see the boy's face and wrinkled his nose in distaste. "It's only a child – not a day older than sixteen. Look at how undersized and underfed it is."
There was obvious truth in what Dante said; James could see for himself that the rise and fall of the boy's chest was far shallower than it ought to be, and the hands looked as frail as glass. But the rescuer only wrapped his arms more protectively around his new guest and, watching closely for signs of consciousness, carried him up the stairs.
"You can't possibly intend to keep it," Dante insisted, hastening to follow close behind. "It won't make it through the night."
"That is no reason to leave him outside."
"What are you going to do with it, then?"
"Dry him off. Give him fresh clothes. What else?"
"For one, you could- Oh, no. No. That's my room. Put him in yours."
"I thought you wanted my room to be your room."
"Only if you were ever in it. Don't play stupid. That thing is not to sleep in my bed."
James ignored this and settled the limp young man as well as he could on top of the heaped blankets and quilts. In the ochre light of the fireplace, there was more life in the boy's cheeks, and his face, while drawn now, had the obvious potential to be much softer, as befitted someone not far out of childhood.
"Get it out, James. I don't want it-"
"He's only human, Dante." James at last spared a glance for his simmering companion, who looked on the verge of harshly-spoken words – a point he rarely felt riled enough to reach. "What upsets you so? Bring me towels from the hall, would you?"
He looked on the verge of objecting, the dark blue eyes now steely-grey, but with a flounce of golden hair, he disappeared to do as requested.
The first thing Henrik noticed when he woke up was the presence of a man watching him from a chair at his bedside. His face was smooth and regular, dangerously attractive except for the expression, which suggested that he smelled something very unpleasant and wanted it removed at once. His shirt was far too large and hung off one shoulder, contrasting the luxurious, dark red fabric with the tawny skin at his collar.
As Henrik tried to process this, the stranger narrowed his eyes and pressed his lips tightly together. "You're in my bed," he announced.
"You've been there for two days."
"I didn't realize."
"Your apology is not accepted."
"That wasn't-" Henrik, sensing futility in the conversation, snapped his mouth shut. His head felt tight and sore, and he could not breathe through his nose. But there was none of the rattling in his chest that threatened pneumonia, nor had any of his fingers and toes fallen off, and as far as he was concerned, this was perfect health.
He could remember the previous night vividly, though its revival in his mind's eye sent a shudder down his spine. The tumble from the top of the rain-slicked coach; the indifference of his master; the scrambling run after the coach until it was swallowed by the rain, then the ache in his stomach, the realization that he had been abandoned without a second thought. How he ended up on the doorstep of a safe house in the middle of the woods was a miracle he could not fathom and would not question.
"I saved your life, you know," the stranger began. He was suddenly all soft smiles, his expression as warm as summer sunlight, but Henrik felt only a flicker of distrust. "You owe your life to me. And I… have something to ask of you, so that you may repay this debt."
"You do?" Henrik checked himself, quickly folding away the stir of apprehension. "I mean, yes, sir. What is it, sir?"
"I'll show you. Arise."
"I see no reason why not."
Without further protest, Henrik wobbled to his feet and followed his savior out of the room. He had a coughing fit in the doorway that left him doubled-over and breathless, but he managed to make it into the hallway, down the stairs (leaning pathetically against the banister), and into a dusty, disused kitchen without incident.
Not even the morning light pouring through the curtain-less windows could bring life to the abandoned room. He could see the layers of dust that collected on every surface – flat or otherwise – and the thick motes descending soundlessly from ceiling to floor. The fireplace choked on an overflow of ash; the unburned logs lay in disorder, dressed in spiderwebs.
The golden-haired man gestured toward the heavy mahogany table in the center of the room, upon which were heaped dishes, bowls, cups, pots, all of them thrown together in a haphazard stack and crusted with what had once been food.
"If you love me for rescuing you," he explained, "then you will clean."
Henrik took in the unholy terror of a mess. The odor would have been terrible, had he the capacity for smell, but tidying up a kitchen was a low price for a life. It would be done. He rolled back his sleeves, only then realizing he wore clothes not his own, and pleasantly gratified by this, began the labor expected of him.
Water had to be drawn from a pump behind the house, but it was easy enough to locate, and even after two days of lying unconscious in bed, Henrik retained enough of his prior strength to carry full buckets in from the yard and pour them into a cauldron heating over the fire. Soaking the dishes, wiping them clean with soap from a nearby shelf, and laying them on the sun-soaked counter to dry was a calming task, as many household chores were, and Henrik began to feel almost lethargic with his arms elbow-deep in warm, soapy water.
Dusting was a simple affair – consisting only of dragging the washing rag across every surface within reach. The firewood he replaced in a tidy pyramid, free of the webs, and the mice that had been living in the secret niches of the stack were gently shooed outside.
His rescuer, meanwhile, lounged in one of the least-dusty chairs. He put his elbows on the table after enough dishes had been relocated for this to be feasible, and every once in a while, he ordered Henrik to work elsewhere in the kitchen because he "tired of watching the boy work at the dull, repetitive task" for any length of time exceeding half an hour. There was something poisonous about the man, and Henrik did as he was told simply to avoid more conversation than was necessary. The sooner he could get out of sight, the better.
He was just beginning on the fireplace when footsteps alerted him to the arrival of a second stranger in the room. It was no business of his, however, and he scrubbed at the soot stains while the new arrival spoke behind him:
"Who's that, Dante?"
"Ah, good morning, James. That is your little drowned rat from the storm."
"What? A guest?" The newcomer's voice was pleasant even when incredulous. "You are making a guest clean our kitchen?"
"He wanted to."
"Did you charm him?"
"He wouldn't be on his hands and knees like a scullery maid if I hadn't. You should see how easy he is, James; I didn't even have to try. I bet even you could do it."
A rapid tap-tap-tap and Henrik, realizing the newcomer was approaching, had no time to wipe the soot from his face before the stranger was crouched beside him and had caught his chin with a hand and drawn his gaze like a lodestone.
The green eyes – so bright they glowed – filled his vision for one alarming moment before he could sort out the rest of the man's face. As the light dimmed, the remaining features quickly fell into place: a feline nose, perpetually-surprised eyebrows, and a mouth that, even in its current puzzlement, had an upward quirk in the corner, as of a smile waiting to be let out of hiding. His hair was the glossy black of newly-bottled ink, and while most of it had been tied back with a ribbon, the bangs were a mess; as the man raked a hand through the loose strands, it was easy to see why.
Without a shred of doubt, Henrik knew this man, this one, had saved his life from the storm. The sobriety and humanity in the elegant face proved it; there had been no such kindness in the eyes of the other.
The probing look was reciprocal, however, and abruptly uncomfortable with this man's intense inspection of his face, Henrik tried to pull away. The man, apparently oblivious to his subject's discomfort, let go of his own accord and shot a frown at his still-seated companion.
"He isn't charmed at all, Dante."
The golden-haired man sat up immediately, his easy laziness gone in an instant. "Don't tease me, James. I don't like that."
"I'm not teasing. You haven't done anything to him."
"Then why in hell's name would he agree to clean the kitchen?"
The green eyes returned and Henrik shrank beneath the searching look. "What are you doing out of bed?" he was asked, and the boy managed a quiet reply of, "I was… I was instructed to do so, sir."
"Dante, we do not make our guests clean the kitchen."
"Don't give me those eyes, James. It slept in my bed."
"That's no excuse. He may be sick. You may have aggravated his condition." Elegant fingers poked into Henrik's face, peeling back his eyelids and touching his gums as if he were a new barnyard acquisition. He tried to squirm away, but James didn't seem to notice. "No adverse reactions to the dust – that's good. No fever. No swelling in the throat. No split blood vessels in the eyes…"
"What a pity."
The hands retreated, finally, and Henrik buried his face in his sleeves to rub away the lingering traces of the stranger's touch. Sensing danger in the souring voice of the one at the table, he pushed himself into the corner near the fireplace and tried to disappear.
The dark-haired man stood with his hands on his hips, gazing thoughtfully at Henrik with those too-intense eyes. He would have been handsome in a disheveled sort of way if he had been surveyed alone, but he looked plain alongside his counterpart. Dante, meanwhile, curled a strand of his hair around one finger, his childish frown masking a darker distaste.
"You seem unhappy this morning, Dante."
"Don't be ridiculous. Why would I be unhappy?"
"Should I believe you, or are you bitter again?"
"I want my room back."
"What's your name?"
By the time Henrik realized the question was directed at him, he had already answered out of habit: "Henrik, sir."
"Where are you from?"
"Stop that. Do you have any family?"
"I said stop that. No title for me, just James, thank you. What are we supposed to do with you, then, if we can't find a place to put you?"
After such a disconcerting morning, Henrik didn't much care where these strange folks decided to send him. As long as there was no more invasive poking at his face, anything was better than being sent back to his old master. To be attendant to a man who spent his whole life driving from inn to inn to inn on business was no life to return to. Even work here as the sole caretaker of the house (as, most likely, every room in the house was in the same state as the musty kitchen) would be a marked improvement. And the house did need to be tidied up.
In the absence of a response, James crouched down again to be at eye-level with his guest, his expression serious despite the smile that lurked continuously at the edge of his mouth. "You look a bit pale, actually. Not a fainter, are you? Feeling ill? We'll keep you a while yet, until you can pull yourself together. Let's get you back into bed."
Despite the growl of protest from Dante, Henrik nodded. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."