AN: Greetings, all! Posting this at 1 am when I should be either sleeping or working. Much more fun. Many thanks to my lovely, shiny, cuddly reviewers Lemon Delight, multiples of six, and Totally Raven (good to have you back, m'dear!) I hope people will REVIEW, as it brings joy to my dull and boring life. Thank you!
First chapter with anything Stranger/Lucas centric! Hope he isn't completely psychopathic...
Chapter 10: Marching Soldiers
"He'll see your face," John grumbled. John's grumblings and mutterings had continued practically without pause - except, of course, to allow time for baleful glares - ever since the pair had ridden away from the Red Lion, abandoning the majority of their luggage - which was moderate in any case - to follow them to their new residence on the Mail Coach.
"Well?" Richard replied, worn at last to a weary almost-sharpness. "I doubt it will give him a heart attack. My nose is far too plebeian for that."
It had to be admitted that he was correct: even with the no-longer-aristocratic nose aside, Richard wasn't handsome. His face was too narrow - a holdover from his London years - and his chin too incongruously shapely and square on a narrow jaw. His lips were a little too thin, and in general inexpressive enough not to redeem his other features. It was his eyes, however, his eyes and eyebrows, that made the real difference: his brows were a shade lighter than his mid-brown hair, not stark enough to add definition against his pallid skin, and his lashes were too short, and again too pale: they added no intensity to his sleepy, indifferent eyes - eyes that were themselves too light a grey-blue to drive colour back into his face.
As a further distraction from the megrims of his servant, which had gone from amusing to tiresome some while ago, Richard idly compared his face to Stranger's: Stranger, with his richly coloured, pouting lips, lips that twisted so venomously into scowl after vicious scowl. Stranger, with his dark, angry eyes, eyes with girlishly long lashes that shielded the madness within, and lowered, unwittingly coy, shadowing his face by candlelight.
Stranger, with his warm, rough skin.
But then, Stranger was young, still: the years could alter appearance, bend features. Richard knew this well.
He'd looked very different, once, not so very long ago: when he was sixteen, seventeen his hair had been cut to ruffle boyishly around his face, softening it like the brisk tail never could. Not that there was quite so much to soften, then: he'd still borne the last traces of childish rounding in his face, and his cheeks had been brushed with only the faintest suggestion of downy stubble (he'd only just been old enough to start looking at girls). His lips had never been full, but they'd curved more sweetly when he was a boy. His eyes had never been intensely blue, but once they'd been widened enough with wonder and even idealism that they'd almost been able to mimic the shade.
He'd liked riding, then, and boxing, not just for the game of it or the sheer physical pleasure of the exercise, but for the competition, being able to land a solid hit on one's peers or ruing the blow that had connected with one's jaw. He'd been seventeen when he'd realised the true pointlessness of their friendly fighting: he'd found out, much to his dismay, that in real life people don't wait for you to get your guard up, and you don't courteously take turns. Even the rebel in him, the one who had learned to kick shins and knee crotches, the one who had helped him escape from a false accusation with the pulling of a trigger - even that had done little on the streets.
But he'd survived: he'd found a place in John and Nancy's house of darkness. And there he'd lost his puppy-fat - what little hadn't already been ground away by the cold and rough - and gained more stubble, stubble that they'd shaved dangerously close to bruised skin to make him look younger. His hair had lost its trimmed neatness, and hung into eyes that glared enough, sometimes, to ape intensity.
And there they'd cured nature, too: lashes sooted dark to pretend a length they didn't have, rouge smeared across his lips...
John sighed, calling him from his thoughts. "Sir -" he tried helplessly, one last time.
"Enough," Richard told him flatly, the grey skies and muddy road of reality a relief from the irritating whimsy of his own thoughts. "It's my decision. Leave, if it doesn't suit you. And even if I do get caught, you're quite capable of denouncing me in shocked and horrified accents, and fleeing back to London when they're looking the other way."
John grimaced. "Aye, sir," he agreed reluctantly. "But - what do you plan to do with the boy Lucas?"
"Stranger?" Richard queried, suddenly thoughtful as he acknowledged the truth that he hadn't thought about it. He'd been so disdainful - even angry, for once - at the boy's intransigent sabotage that he'd never wanted to see him again. But where was the fun in that, when so easily he could torment the youth instead? "Well, I plan to steal, or have you steal, that packet of jewels..." It had been wise, at the time, to give them up, but why waste an opportunity if the soldiers weren't going to come after all? And even if they did turn up... "Perhaps I shall deposit some of them in the Red Lion, somewhere. I do believe that the landlord was overpricing his claret, and I simply can't abide that. But those thoughts aside," and the highwayman smiled slowly, "I plan to ignore him as much as I conceivably can."
"I thought you wanted to lure him into bed?" John remarked queryingly.
"Well, naturally I do," Richard shrugged. "As would most sane, healthy men with my unfortunately Grecian tendencies. But where's the fun in that? - besides the obvious, of course. Ignoring him, however, particularly after he identifies me - which is, as you say, quite probable - should infuriate him to a quite amusing degree." Catching his servant's eye-roll, he nodded a grave acknowledgement. "If you would, forget that he is anything other than a serving-boy and the innkeeper's son. Forget that he is a promising pickpocket, or a fresh-faced young psychopath, whose lack of control could bring disaster down on all of our heads." He tapped pensively on his lower lip with one finger. "I'm curious as to when he'll break."
Lucas seethed, he bubbled, he writhed with fury at this bloody highwayman, who had first flirted with and then scorned him, at the highwayman's servant (it had to be) who had preached at him so self-righteously about his skill - quite apart from breaking his fingers - and who had told him so curtly to get rid of the gems from the coach before they were discovered.
He couldn't do it. He could not. It was, he knew, like carrying a cocked gun in your pocket: dangerous, reckless, undoubtedly - but you never knew when it might save you.
What would his father say, he wondered, if he knew his son - lazy, insolent, good-for-nothing - had hidden under his floorboards enough money to buy half the inn, let alone settle every one of the debts in the bloody account books he spent so much of his life bent over? His father, who couldn't even add correctly? This was the third mistake on the page. No wonder the books wouldn't balance.
"There's an error," he told his father scornfully, neatly inscribing a new total on the paper. "But it still doesn't tally. Someone has been stealing the best ratafia." He gave his verdict with dishonest relish: the thief had in fact been focusing on the brandy, but seeing as the thief was Lucas, it would do nothing but good to have his father's attentions so firmly diverted. He curled his lips disdainfully: honestly, his father was a fool. Ever since his last steward had retired, he didn't have a clue.
"Wipe that smirk off your face, boy," was all that Thomas growled to his undutiful son. "Go check that all the rooms are ready for guests. That you can do even with your precious hand."
Lucas stalked out, his glare furious enough to strip paint from the walls, but unable to spit any of the words that hung so temptingly off his tongue.
Damnit, why did the highwayman have to be such a bloody sanctimonious prig? He could have taken a horse and gone riding to find him instead of being forced to skulk here. The highwayman was easy to shout at, and if he tried anything, he was easy to shoot at, too. But the bloody man had rejected him, and Lucas had enough pride not to go looking for someone who insulted him so ceaselessly and carelessly, even if his kisses were wildly, frighteningly different from the tentative caresses the barmaids occasionally stole or tried to steal.
Lucas didn't go check on the rooms: the maids could do their jobs, and if they couldn't then clearly new maids were required, not more or better supervision. Instead, he stormed off to his own attic chamber, kicking the door vehemently shut behind him. His father owned this inn, and yet he got the smallest room there - but for the maids, of course, who were stacked together like cordwood, but they hardly counted.
His window was open, despite the irregular bouts of rain - Lucas hated the feeling of being shut in - and the sound of hooves striking the damp stones of the innyard was clearly if distantly audible. Habit brought him to his feet from the bed he had fallen upon, to lean far out his window, looking down to see the new arrivals. Originally, this ploy had been designed in order to guess what mood his father would be in that night, and whether good behaviour might win him a tip: more recently he'd been inspecting the prospective guests for signs of portable, steal-able wealth. Since his confrontation with the servant, he'd reluctantly curtailed these activities to prevent attention being drawn to him, but still he found himself checking off the newcomers on a mental list.
No coach, but the horses were of good quality, and well groomed under the layer of rain. The tack, too, was expensive, as was the leading rider's clothing. A noble and his servant, then?
Lucas frowned at the gentleman. There was something familiar about him. Not in his face, which even at this distance was unremarkable, but in his bearing, indifferent to the rain drumming down, the way he sat his mare...
...his black mare.
No. No. It wasn't possible. Lucas turned hasty eyes on the servant, who was now arguing with his father, presumably about the price of rooms, and his heart pounded. It was indeed the rude, weathered man who had upbraided him so sternly, so few days ago.
So that meant...
Lucas stared at the man who had taunted him, mocked him, kissed him, and above all the man who had pushed him away. The criminal who had irrevocably shattered his savage peace of mind. His eyes shone with fury. How dared he come here, to this place? How dared he? Why dared he? To taunt Lucas in his own territory?
His face twisted to match his bitter thoughts as he pulled abruptly away from the window. "I'll make you regret this," he gave his whispered promise. "I'll make you regret this, highwayman."
"Your best room for my master, a smaller, adjoining one for me," John was instructing. "And a private parlour."
"How long for?" the ever-so-slightly obsequious innkeep asked respectfully.
John gave him a weary look - the 'haughty valet' expression had never come easy to him. "Mr. Healey likes a quiet life," he informed their host loftily. "And he has no plans to leave the countryside any time soon. He will stay at your inn for as long as you continue to meet his standards."
Richard's Stranger entered the room abruptly at this point, his eyes glittering oddly as he glared at 'Mr Healey', who sat, absently studying a glass of port, in the room's most comfortable chair. "Luke," the innkeeper said quickly. "This is Mr. Richard Healey. He'll be staying in the best room. Help his servants with the bags." He turned back to them, all deference once again. "If you require anything, sirs, my son Lucas here will be happy to oblige you. Right, boy?"
Lucas sneered, and his muttered "Sir" was so insolent as to be just short of spitting in his face.
Richard smiled approvingly into his port before briskly draining the glass. "Lead on," he suggested boredly, tossing his empty glass to the innkeep, who caught it clumsily. He turned to Stranger at last, letting his eyes skim indifferently over his lovely, angry face and from there move to hover distantly above his left shoulder.
John nodded to him, a tad more companionably than his master, but still without overt recognition. "Don't worry about the bags, boy," he said calmly, hefting them into his arms. "I can take them. No need to strain that hand of yours." He nodded to the bandages on Lucas's right fingers, while his master smiled inside his head.
Lucas burned. His highwayman - Mr. Richard Healey - had barely even glanced at him. As if he didn't know him, as if he hadn't kissed him on the highway at midnight. And Lucas knew it was him, knew it. Alright, so their former encounters had been masked, but Lucas knew that chin, those thin lips, the way he stood. And his voice. Had he any doubts, hearing that cool, dismissive voice, even just two words, had quashed them wholly.
"What is it that you do, my lord?" he asked, voice grating on the honorific. Damn him.
"I'm no Lord," replied the highwayman, his voice calm and low and obscurely mocking. "Simply a gentleman of leisure."
One of the Gentlemen, Lucas thought savagely. "And how long have you been staying in this part of the country?" he continued, determined to wrest some answers from him.
"Some time," the highwayman replied non-specifically, stopping to gaze at Lucas flatly. "And I am not accustomed to being interrogated by serving boys. Is this my room?" he finished, as Lucas's steps halted by a polished oak door.
"You bastard," he hissed. "You shout at me, tell me to go, and then you turn up at my inn, and pretend nothing ever happened!" Lucas's hands were clenched fists at his sides.
"Boy, what are you babbling about?" Mr. Healey asked, with an aristocratic lift to his eyebrows, voice dripping with disdain. Lucas wanted to hit him.
"I know what you are!" he hissed.
"What I am is a gentleman," he said simply, but with the barest hint of a threat. "And you are simply an innkeeper's son."
Richard leaned languidly against the wall by the door, smiling slightly as he watched John unpack his bags and listened to the furious stream of muffled curses from the hallway, interspersed with dull thuds as someone kicked the wall.
"Not a good actor, my little Stranger," he sighed, pushing himself away from the wall at last and dropping elegantly into a chair. "Still, he wouldn't be nearly as interesting if he could control himself."
John shook his head. "You have strange amusements, boy," he said dourly. "And you'd better watch out, or he'll pull a gun on you, one of these days."
Richard shrugged. "He might pull, but he won't shoot," he predicted confidently. "Besides, his hand's in bandages from the fingers you broke."
John was less optimistic. "Boys heal fast," he warned, leaving the unpacking to peer out of the window. "It looks like the rain might be clearing for the evening," he remarked.
Richard smiled, a slow, predatory curl of the lips. "Oh, good," he said blandly. "Perhaps I'll go for a ride."
The air was cool and damp, and while the rain had abated, the clouds had not thinned since they had ridden to the Black Horse that morning. Kuria, after her week of being confined from the rain, was almost as restive as she had been on the earlier ride, and Richard gave her her head, letting her alternately canter and trot down the middle of the road, while Richard himself looked around at the shadows under the dripping trees with something like regret. Not tonight: not any time for a while would he have that amusement. Damn Stranger, anyway. Did he know that his rash actions had plunged Richard into ennui as well as danger? Would he care?
Probably. He'd take great satisfaction in knowing he had some power over the highwayman, whatever it was.
A second set of hooves sounded as a rider trotted in from a side road. Kuria cantered away from the sound: Richard soothed her with a touch, sparing a hand from the reins, but did nothing to pull her in. He knew who was behind him, and had no intention of acting like he might care for Stranger's company.
Stranger, of course, had no such qualms. Richard could hear the change in the rhythm of hoof beats as he kicked his horse into an impetuous gallop. Richard courteously moved Kuria slightly towards the verge, to allow him to pass, but all he did was swerve his horse to a stumbling, panting halt before him. The highwayman reined his own mare in with far more grace and skill.
"Fool," he said contemptuously, staring down at the boy who glared at him. "I can only hope it is your wounded fingers that make you so hamhanded, or the horse you ride is a pitiable creature indeed."
Stranger promptly exploded. "Stop that!" he insisted furiously. "Stop acting like you don't know who I am! You do! Damnit,you do! You're a highwayman, a thief, you rob carriages along the highway at night, that's how you met me. Now stop bloody acting like I'm nothing to you!"
Richard looked at him askance. "You are nothing to me, sweet boy," he said simply. "And I don't know what you're talking about."
Stranger raised a hasty hand as if to hit him: Richard stared at him sceptically until he lowered it, although the rage still clenched his body and crackled in his eyes. "You kissed me," he said, voice tight and bitter. "You kissed me, because I had no money to give you when you stopped me, and when I came back you kissed me again. I sold you jewels. I helped you hold up a carriage! Why won't you look at me!"
Richard stared at him. "A pretty fantasy," he murmured, curling his lip derisively. "Even if it is regrettably risqué. Not to mention the fact that you have, it seems, been doing business with a highwayman. Tell me, boy, does your father know you're a lunatic?"
This time, Stranger didn't lower his fist - but Richard had had the advantage, if you could call it that, of occasional fights for his life over the years, and easily caught his wrist, yanking it while he was still unbalanced to pull him from the saddle. His breath left him in an abrupt coughof air as he met the earth, and his horse shied half-heartedly, sidling away from the boy sprawled on the sodden ground. Kuria simply stared at him disdainfully, a gaze mimicked and mixed with apparent weariness in her rider.
"You bastard," he wheezed as soon as he caught his breath enough to speak. "You utter, utter bastard!"
"Quite apart from the fact that you just attempted to hit a gentleman," Richard said calmly, "You forgot about your damaged hand. If you'd connected it would likely have hurt just as much as falling in the mud just did." He brushed imaginary creases from his sleeve. "Out of kindness for your clearly disturbed state, I won't tell your father of your actions. But don't expect such mercy to be a regular occurrence."
Stranger appeared practically helpless with rage. If he'd been dealing with the pretty girl his dark eyes and soft hair had so clearly been derived from, Richard cynically predicted that the result would be a hysterical tantrum, but Stranger himself had too much pride for that. His hand lashed out, his left hand, firmly wrapping itself around the fine cloth of Richard's coat lapels, jerking him down until their faces were almost level, pressing a furious kiss onto those thin, smiling lips.
Richard obligingly let his mouth open for Stranger's tongue, musing as he did so that he had evidently taught the boy a lot. He'd had angry kisses of far less skill than this. So while he didn't respond - no need to give the boy that satisfaction - he certainly didn't pull away.
Perhaps he should have: then, at least, Stranger wouldn't have been able to bite down hard on Richard's lower lip.
Releasing his coat at last, Stranger pulled away from him, wiping a hand gracelessly across his mouth, glaring up at him with a hint of malicious satisfaction. Richard straightened slowly, smoothing his unfortunate coat back into alignment before touching a thoughtful finger to the drop of blood adding a bead of colour to his lip. "My, my," he said mildly, examining the scarlet smear on his finger-tip.
If it was possible to combust from sheer rage Stranger should have done. "Why won't you recognise me?" he shouted.
Richard, however, was ignoring him, frowning distantly at the place where the road bent around. "Be quiet, boy," he said coolly. "And get back on your horse."
Stranger would have spoken, but then even he heard it, and echoed Richard's frown with a scowl of his own. "What -" he began testily.
But his question was answered by other means than the highwayman beside him: a horse and rider rounded the corner, dressed in a red coat, followed by a trim column of uniformed soldiers. The ragged beat that had so distracted Richard had been the sound of them marching, almost exactly in step.
"They've come to find a highwayman, haven't they?" Stranger asked in a whisper.
Richard gave him a cool glance. "Perhaps you should return to the inn," he said flatly. "And tell your father of the custom about to arrive on his doorstep."
Stranger glared, but for once in his life, he didn't argue, swinging back into his horse's saddle and riding away without a word. Richard smiled. Was he really so little in control of his guilty emotions to be frightened by such a small group of redcoats?
Straightening in his saddle and firming his grip on the reins, the highwayman stayed to meet the soldiers.