Shut up, the lot of you! Can't you all see I need to hear this? Won't you shut up for a second?
There was nothing more frustrating than having a savior from heaven sitting less than a meter away, and not being able to hear a word the celestial spirit said. There was nothing for it but to shift closer. He let his gaze wander over the line up of bottled inebriation on the shelves in front of him, watched the sweating barman struggle to match supply to demand, and strained to catch the story being recounted next to him. I feel like a right idiot. If they notice me, what the hell am I going to say? He took a few sips for form's sake and let his eyes slide to his angel, who appeared oblivious to his controlled approach.
Not exactly the popular concept of an angel. No sylph-like fragility and dewy serenity here, this particular deity was a huge, meaty man whose face was flushed red with alcohol. At first glance, one wouldn't hesitate to categorize him as a moderately successful tradesman and one would be right. The man should roar at ear-shattering volume; how could he be so quiet?
He shot an irritated glance around the crowded tavern and consigned the other patrons to the domain of Lucifer. Unfortunately, they appeared to have had the foresight to make pacts with a more powerful deity, for they did not fall down dead, in fact the noise grew louder. He wondered how long he would be permitted to nurse his beer before the glass shattered. I swear, if you all ruin this for me I will personally hunt each and every one of you down and strangle you with my bare hands. And laugh. There was no help for it but to risk another discreet movement until he was as close as he dared get to the stranger beside him. Any closer, and he'd be in the man's lap.
"…Screaming coming from his bedroom at night…"
Ah, at last! He settled down and picked up his mug; did it looked casual enough? The tradesman was confiding to a companion he couldn't see around the man's bulk, with the odd interruption as beer was sampled and approved.
"…Didn't happen every night, only when his friend was visiting. Screaming and moaning and such like, ya know. Sometimes when the friend wasn't there, too, but more quiet like, you could hear muffled noises like groaning if you pressed your ear right up to the door. Finally he got scared and took off. Well, a man's got to think of himself, now, doesn't he?"
"Is that so?"
Oh ho, so the man's companion is interested too, huh? It was so easy to recognize; that telltale hint of desperation and need behind the casual tone of voice. It made him smile to himself. He was all too familiar with the feeling; it was growing inside him at a rate inversely proportional to the disappearance of his savings. It looked like he was in for some competition. Damn.
"Yeah. My brother's keeping company with the sister of the friend that he told his story to. He only spent two months with this lord before he took off again. Glad to be back here in the city, by all accounts. I mean, the country be all fine and pretty, but he's an honest, friendly sort of man. The estate's isolated and his fine lord didn't keep many servants, or so I understand. Got a hard time keeping servants, that lord has, no matter that he's simply rolling in the ready. Some say…" The man's voice deepened to a dramatic hiss. "…Some say, he's made a pact with…the Evil One."
Here his angel paused for effect.
"You don't say."
There was a short, disappointed pause, but nothing loath, the tradesman continued. "Well, anyway, no one wants to work for a madman in the middle of nowhere, unless they're as crazy as he is, right? So they all leave."
His neighbor laughed with good nature, and he listened to the rather ironic laugh from the man's companion. He rather liked the sound of that laugh. A laugh that understood the world, and was contemptuous of it. It interested him.
His neighbor nodded sagely and finished off his beer. He slapped money down on the table, and rose from the bar stool with a big sigh. "Well, nice talking to ya, friend. I'm off fer home."
The man struggled into his long coat, missed the mumble from his companion, and walked out with a spring in his step. He couldn't help an irritated sigh. If only he'd heard the lord's name, where he lived. I don't want to ask. How humiliating. He managed a wry smile. Too bad I must.
He sneaked a peek through his curtain of brown hair to see a short slip of a man staring down at his drink, twisting it back and forth with absent-minded fingers. Messy blonde hair, cupid bow lips, concentration in his eyes and thin brows. Something about the stranger's wiry frame made him doubt the man had ever had a decent meal in his entire life.
I bet he's desperate, like me. What should I do? Try be friendly and ply him with drink? No money. Threaten him? He shook his head. With what? Follow him? I'd feel like a complete moron.
He stared at the dregs in his glass, tugged at his dirty cravat, and sighed. Once, he'd taken such pride in his appearance. Truth be told, he'd developed a reputation of being quite the little dandy amongst his former colleagues. But now…
"I know you were listenin'. You want it too, don't ya."
Oh damn! He jerked and glanced over at the small man so near to him. He watched warily as the man slid off his stool, prowled over, leaned forward and stared at him. He drew back a little, interested. The aggression in the man's eyes didn't seem right; they were such a mild honey brown color. He forced an eyebrow higher and tilted his chin up, just a little. The man didn't seem stupid, but claiming ignorance was worth a shot, at least to give him time to think up some decent lies. "Listening? Want what? I'm just sitting here minding my own business."
"Yeah, right." The man's voice was dry. "I'm not stupid, moron. You want it too. You've been bustin' a gut trying to hear our little chat. If the servants leave this lord all the time, there's got to be work there. And a decent wage." The man's thin body went tense and still, his eyes widened and his lips curled back into a fierce, belligerent grin. "I want it. And you're not going to follow me, see?"
"I really don't know what you're talking about." An obvious lie, one that he didn't expect his companion to believe, but the arrogance sounded good.
"Then you're even dumber than you look, and that's saying something."
"Go fuck yourself."
"I already do and it's bloody boring."
He choked back a startled laugh. Hm…I really think I could like this one. Not that he'd ever forgive him, of courseHe'd spent too many years as a child getting teased for being a little slow off the mark to be able to accept an insult like that. "Anyway, who says I need to follow you? I'll get there all on my own."
The smaller man grinned, showing off narrow, matching gaps between his canines and molars. "Don't even bother, little idiot. I know you didn't hear where the place is, you kept comin' closer and closer long after that huge clod had spilt the beans."
He regarded his new companion with a sour twist in his gut. Annoying little know it all. The sickening lurch of defeat in his belly grew stronger. For an all too short moment, hope had seemed to flutter like a golden butterfly in his heart, but no. This man was standing between him and salvation. Stupid arsehole. Then, he straightened. "And just who the hell are you to call me 'little', squirt."
The blonde jerked and flushed, but then leered. "Not where it counts."
His eyes dropped lower in spite of himself before he turned away. How could he get what he needed from this guy? Could he swallow his pride and beg? He shook his head. Never. For a while, they were both silent. Maybe the man was trying to use force of will to make him back down. It might have worked; the guy seemed tough. But his own desperation was stronger still. When the silence grew too loud, the blonde man folded his arms across his chest.
"You should just give up."
He managed a faint flicker of a sardonic smile and shook his head. There was a short laugh.
"No? Yeah, well…don't blame ya." There was another silence. "You're not going to give up, are ya."
"Damn your eyes." The man shoved his hair back out of his face and let out a long sigh. "All right, I see that we can do this two ways." The man gestured with his hand. "You need a job, I need a job. We can waste a whole lotta time considering each other rivals and fightin' to stay a step ahead of each other as we go our own way alone…or…maybe we can work together, if you turn out to be a halfway decent cove. 'Course I never found one before," the blonde added, "But you never know, the world's a bloody strange place."
He gave an appreciative snort from under his hand, and his companion went on.
"I don't know ya, sure as hell don't trust ya, but I don't wanna be always looking out over my shoulder, and…well…" The man shrugged. "You got the ready needed to go all the way to the North of Devon?"
"North Devon?" His eyes widened. "Dash it - it'd cost a fortune."
"Nah, me neither. Be better if we worked together, think on."
He scratched at the back of his head and gave a brief murmur. His companion tilted his head a little to the side and fixed a considering stare on him. It made him drop his hand with a flush. "From what I could gather there ain't no shortage of work there, so maybe you wouldn't be a threat. We're gonna need the gingerbread to get to this estate, it's bloody ages away, and hell, you look about as desperate for a decent job as I do."
He stifled down a flare of hope and considered this. He didn't trust anyone, not after what had happened. He'd made up his mind to be a loner. "Me Against the World", and damn everybody else. But then, what the man said made sense. He could use some help, after all. And…yes, he liked this man. Or maybe it was more accurate to say the man fascinated him. This slip of a being looked tough; a man that had gone the hard yards until all the soft, chubby naiveté and innocence had been burnt away. He looked as if he knew what it was like to be cheated. And had what it took to survive. This was something he wanted to learn. Needed to learn. "Us Against the World" sounded…a lot easier. He offered a shrug. "Okay. Maybe. It'll do for now."
"Oh, thank you."
He smiled at the dripping sarcasm in the man's voice. "What's your name, then?"
"…Jack." The small man shrugged. "Jack Grayson."
He smiled a little. "Nicholas Hatfield."
They both nodded at each other, fell silent, and he wondered if he looked as embarrassed as Jack did. He didn't have the faintest idea of what to do next, and he was sure Jack didn't have a clue either. He turned his attention to the bar counter instead and played with his mug. The small blonde appeared to be patting around in back pockets for loose change. After slapping the coins in the general direction of the barman, he turned towards Nicholas. His voice betrayed his awkwardness. "You got a place to stay tonight?"
"No." Nicholas's reply was soft and low. "I'm totally cleaned out. When I came in tonight, I was trying to get the courage together to…well…" He flushed. "I've heard there are places…" He let his voice trail away.
Jack made a face. "Oh lord, y' don't want to go down that road, trust me. I knew this cove once…good looker, just like you…" His voice, too, died off. "Well, life's depressin' enough as it is," he continued briskly, "let's not talk about that. You can come with me, if y' like, I've got a place. It's small, no furniture, the bed is tiny and uncomfortable and it's bloody freezin' in winter, but it's as clean as I can make it and you're welcome to share. If we're going to be a team, we'll have to start building trust somewhere, I guess." His voice turned dry. "If you're gonna strangle me in my sleep I might as well know about it straight away. Forewarned is forearmed!" He completed this absurdity with an utterly feigned bright smile.
Nicholas couldn't help laughing and shrugged. "Okay."
"Come on, then."
Nicholas picked up his portmanteau, they left the inn and walked down the narrow street side by side. Outside, the breeze augmented the autumn chill and made both men secure their coats, while a light, misty rain made the cobbled road sparkle and the light from the street lanterns to glow. The street was narrow, hemmed in on both sides by various establishments and shops, some advertising lodgings to be had above stairs, others trying to sell their wares. Some were closed for the evening, others still housed lit lanterns and the London public inside. There were many tradesmen out and about, tired and harried servants for the upper classes in their caps and aprons, street vendors with limp pastries. A modest area of town, neither fashionable nor rich, but the food was cheap and it was safe from all but the youngest pickpockets; there were no vice-filled rookeries nearby. He was forced to sidestep abruptly as a large stray dog pelted down the street, followed by a mob of young boys, all dirty, exhilarated and screaming as they gave hot pursuit. He tried hard to imagine that the canine was a beloved pet.
Jack turned to him. "Listen, wait here for a minute, okay?"
"Sure, what are…"
But his newfound companion had already disappeared into the crowd a little way down the street. He noticed a large crowd at a butcher's shop nearby, and tried to make sense of the din. Woman with large baskets cradled on hips made sturdy with hard work gossiped lazily in the approaching twilight, waiting for their turn. Young toddlers were dashing in and out of feet, tripping over the square slabs of pavement where they were loose, earning a scolding from irritated adults. The inner circle of shoppers were shouting out their orders, picking and choosing the best of the lot before others could get in first. An excellent butcher, obviously. It was a normal working day, rowdy and noisy as always.
Jack presently reappeared, carrying a baker's bag. Nicholas noticed his belly looked distinctly lumpier than it had been not twenty minutes ago. Jack held up the bag for his inspection.
"I bought us some dinner."
The blonde turned and started walking again, Nicholas broke into a little run to catch up, then fell in along beside the misshapen man. "Thanks." He poked at his companion's lumpy stomach. "What's this?"
"Oh, I see." Nicholas let his amusement show in his voice. "How kind of the baker."
"Yeah, top cove, ain't he?"
He grinned. Complain? Not likely. They moved through the crowd until they came to the end of the street, and Jack let out a gusty sigh. "Let's get out of here before someone eyes my stomach. Down this way."
The walk took twenty minutes, past the commercial areas and into a quieter, darker area, unlit. Nicholas assumed his companion had taken the route many times, for the short blonde's feet were sure in the darkness. After wending their way through a confusing maze of buildings, Jack stopped outside a building of flats. The structure was an old red and brown brick affair, but looked sturdy enough.
Jack's voice dropped to a murmur. "'Round the back." The narrow lane was deserted, instilling a sense of eerie calm to the area. Around them stood other buildings that suggested lodgings, tall constructions with identical windows at regular intervals, cheap clothing hanging from line strung up over small balconies. The area suggested tired, plodding lives, but he was beginning to understand that there were worse places.
Nicholas followed his guide around the side of the building, past a rusted little gate, and over a narrow pathway that seemed designed to send one to the surgeon with a twisted ankle; the pavement slabs were loose, broken and wobbled dangerously underfoot. They climbed the narrow metal staircase to one of the flats. The stairs swayed so much that he couldn't help feeling that the added weight of a stray cat would be just enough for the whole contraption to drop.
Jack took a key from somewhere inside his clothing and unlocked the door. It was pitch black inside, but the man walked in without hesitation. Nicholas blinked in the dark and hesitated while he waited for Jack to light a few candles. A little glow filled a room ahead of him and he saw he was standing at the front of a narrow corridor. He walked through it with his head ducked down and saw a room with chipped and cracked walls and a bare wooden floor. Tallow candles, of course; cheap, greasy and dirty. The bed in the center was indeed small and looked uncomfortable, and one of the closet's doors hung crooked. The one window in the room had cracked glass and thin iron bars against the outside. The fireplace was small, but the hearth was kept clean and on it were a cheap frying pan, a tin kettle and a large box. Jack moved over to the hearth and bent down at the grate. Nicholas winced. Must be freezing in winter. Cold enough now.
There was only one other room. He ambled over to the open door, picking up a lit candle as he passed it, and saw a hipbath was the main feature. It was shoved against the back wall, beside the large window that was covered with plain gray curtains, and it sang to him. Oh, to have a bath once again…it's been so long.
The only other features he noted was a standard cheap iron stand supporting a cracked porcelain basin and a shelf housing razors and a washcloth, an old mirror without a frame above it, chipped and faded, and a covered vase. Memories of a different room, not opulent, but comfortable, flit through his mind and he squashed them down. That's in the past now. Don't forget that, ever. He wandered back to the doorway, leaning against it. "You have a bath?"
Jack chuckled and stood as a fire started to flicker into life. "Yeah, it's my one luxury. The mort who 'ad this lodging before me owned it, but she snuffed it. I don't think the landlady knows or otherwise she'd have taken it from me, stupid whore. Gotta be careful when haulin' water up for it though, if she eyed it, she'd start getting curious, so I usually get the water in the mornings before she's awake."
"Yeah, sure, but let's eat first. I'm starved."
Jack disappeared into the bathroom. When he came back out, he was lugging a large vase in his hands. He set it down in front of the fire, then collected a second and third vase from the bathroom and placed them next to the first. "So the water will be warm," he explained.
"Uh, great, thanks."
Jack then opened up his coat, revealing a cheap blue waistcoat cradling two small bread sticks and a large sweet bun, then tossed a stick over to Nicholas. "Sorry, but I don't have anything much to go with this. I ate the last of them cheese and eggs yesterday, and all I got left is some ham and a few 'taters, but I can't be bothered to cook 'em up tonight." The man shot him an apologetic look and rummaged in the bottom drawer of the closet, his voice coming out muffled. "I'm pretty sure that I got some wine but…hang on a minute…ah, found the bugger." He reappeared with the wine, ripped the cork off with his teeth and took a swill. "God, I needed that." The blonde held it out to him. "Here. No glasses either, sorry. Tomorrow we'll go nab some decent food, hm?"
Nicholas took the proffered bottle and took a few sips. Jack reached into the box near the fire and brought out the remains of a ham and cut enough slices to go with the bread. Nicholas accepted his half gratefully, and they both sat on the edge of the bed and ate in silence for a while. They shared the wine. It wasn't until his companion ripped the sweet bun in half and proffered the larger piece to him that the man spoke once again.
"Do ya snore?"
Nicholas chuckled around his mouthful. "No. At least, I don't think so."
"Good, I don't either. Not that it really matters. The bed's so uncomfortable you won't sleep a wink anyway."
Nicholas edged a weak grin onto his face. "Great."
"C'mon." Jack stuffed the last bit of bun into his mouth and continued indistinctly, "We'll save the other loaf for breakfast, huh? Let's have that wash and turn in. I'm all done in."
He moved over to the closet and threw the doors open. It was packed with clothes. Not expensive clothes of course, but decent. The smaller man noticed his hastily suppressed surprise and gave a shameless grin.
"Stole 'em all."
Nicholas laughed. "How do you earn your living, then? You don't seem to earn much, whatever it is."
Jack made an expressive grimace. "As an apprentice carpenter."
Nicholas stared at the man, trying to imagine him making chairs. Somehow, it seemed odd. Truth be told, the man looked like a thief.
Jack gave a hard laugh as he rummaged in a pile of clothing on the closet floor. 'First up outta the workhouse, I ran afoul of a vicious bastard – name of Pike - who forced me to be his chimney boy."
"Chimney sweep? God, I've seen those kids working." Nicholas stared at the man, picturing him younger and smaller, with a chain around his wrist, being forced up into the grimy, airless holes to scrape soot into his own eyes and choke with dust and ash and claustrophobia. Never had he been able to watch them suffer without overwhelming pity for them and gratitude that his own fate had been more fortunate.
"Yeah, nasty, ain't it?" Jack shrugged into his coat. "Well, he croaked it after about 3 years, thankin' heaven kindly. After that, well…Course, first I tried being one o' them ratcatchers, but I couldn't do it; felt too sorry for the rats." He shrugged. "Then I figured I'd be a pieman, but…yeah, I felt sorry for the rats."
"Then I got a job I loved as a stable hand at Tattersalls, but got kicked outta that one, worse luck. Manager's son wanted it. Then after a while, I got this apprenticeship. The boy who had it afore me snuffed it, and I was just there at the right time. I was lucky to get the job, I guess, but…miserable life, workin' for my boss. It's the usual sad old story. I do the work, he gets all the credit, and I get paid practically squat. The hours are long, the work piles up higher and higher, and I'm sick to death of gettin' beaten senseless by the miserable sot, often not getting paid so I'm forced to steal or go hungry, near freezin' to death in winter, and seeing all the misery and suffering and viciousness of human society. I want out."
"Me too." Nicholas shrugged. "Can't find work here, though, not unless I…" He didn't need to finish the sentence.
"You don't wanna mess with them backgammon players 'round here," Jack warned. "They know they can get away with murder in these parts. No lie." The blonde rose from his crouch with two sets of thick cotton pajamas over his arm. Nicholas hoped one set at least would fit him. "I don't deal well with people. Not at all. I'm sick to death of the lot of them, vicious bastards." The man stretched his back out to release a few kinks. "I figure a position in the country, no matter what it is, no matter who I'd be workin' for, would be better then this." He waved his arms around in a vague, all-encompassing gesture. "I have a hard time imagining anything worse, anyway. If it turns out to be a bad mistake…well, there's always the razor, right? Hence my little chat at the bar. Don't ya reckon?"
Nicholas shrugged. "Um, I've lived my whole life in the city. I don't really know much about the country. But I need a job, damn it, any job, I don't care where it is. And how bad can it be, right?" His voice turned somewhat vague. "Fresh air, grass…chickens, cows and horses…dairy maids and stuff..."
"That's what I figured."
Nicholas rubbed his finger over the side of his jaw. "Of course, the society would be limited…not so exciting, and less people."
"Even better." Jack wandered into the bathroom and dragged the hip bath out until it was in front of the fire. "All right, usually I just have a sponge bath. Ya need it, workin' as a carpenter." He yawned. "All right, strip off."
Nicholas stood there, scratching his head, embarrassed as hell as Jack started to tug off his cravat and undo the cheap waistcoat. The smaller man paused and glanced over, puzzled. "Well? Do you want a wash or not?"
"Yes…I do, but…"
Jack snickered, not without sympathy. "Look, I know the bath is pretty cramped for two and we're going to be gettin' pretty close, but don't worry, I'm not going to jump on ya, I promise. And if it makes you feel any better, you got a heaps better body than me, so there's no need to start blushin'."
He offered a diffident shrug. "We could go separately?"
"Yeah, yeah. But frankly I'm done in and I don't wanna wait around while you be dainty."
Nicholas gave a sheepish grin and bit his lip. He scratched his head, froze for a second, then suddenly ripped off his cravat and struggled out of his clothes. "Let's share." Damn it, I want that wash. Being shy is pointless now.
He shrugged off his boots and stripped out of his remaining clothing, shivering a little. God only knew what bathing was like in winter, and he wasn't looking forward to finding out. In the past, he'd had a large fire in a plain, but snug room to wash in front of. Well, he'd been luckier than most, then. He had reality now. He noticed Jack give him the occasional flickering once-over, but true to his word, the man didn't get too close. Surprising, really, how friendly this man was turning out to be, despite first appearances. Perhaps it was because they looked to be the same age, or because they were united in their need. Nicholas shivered and looked around at the cold, cheerless room. Or perhaps he's just damned lonely.
Jack handed him some soap, hopped into the bath, tipped water over his body and started to scrub, so he did likewise. Oh god, finally…to be clean again…He scrubbed vigorously, trying to ignore the staring and playful little smile of his companion. He scrubbed his body hard, and soaped it up once again, sighing with pleasure. Jack was still staring as he lathered his belly and slid his hand lower. Still that smile remained. "Jack? Um…" He used a joking tone. "You promised you weren't going to jump on me."
"And I won't." Jack shrugged. "But I never said I wasn't going to look. You must know what a good looker you are." The blonde gave a small, uncertain smile and made a show of relaxing, but his body was still tense, obviously waiting for the usual gasp of horror and righteous condemnation. It made Nicholas smile a little, in spite of himself, then sigh. Yes, I know I'm attractive. Until I smile, anyway. God knows how I know, and how much I wish I wasn't. Strangely enough though, this man's staring didn't bring the usual desire to have been born ugly. It was neutral enough and seemed harmless. Seemed.
"Hell…" Nicholas paused, then flushed. "I'm really not so great, you know."
"Oh, come on." Jack didn't even attempt to hide his disbelief. "You expect me to believe that?"
"No, really." He hesitated and flushed. "My teeth."
"What about 'em?"
Nicholas looked down. It had always been a sore point with him. "…More crooked then Stonehenge."
"Really?" Jack perked up, looking interested. "Lemme see."
Nicholas sighed, and gave an expressive grimace.
"Oh." Jack grinned. His own teeth had small gaps at the side of each canine, but Nicholas thought it did nothing but add to the man's appeal. It was distinctive. His were merely revolting. "Well I see what you mean, but it's not that bad, and it's only on one side. The right side's okay. What, someone step on the side of your face when you were a little brat?"
Nicholas grunted. "Guess so."
Nothing more was said. He liked that. His parents had always told him he was too paranoid about it, but then, who ever listened to what parents said? When Jack was finished washing, he gestured with his hands. "Here. I'll wash your hair for you. Turn around."
Nicholas hesitated for a second, but Jack insisted so he turned around, sat in the tub, and felt gentle, yet efficient hands lather up his hair and massage. Perhaps it was time for a cut, he'd always tended to let it grow longer than normal, but now strands at the back were reaching his shoulders, and he could tuck the rest behind his ears. Jack's legs edged around his torso, and then hands were gently drawing him back.
"Hopefully this'll get rid of all the nasty itchy crawlies there. You've been scratching all night, poor thing," Jack murmured. "Most of 'em, anyway. I found after a few baths I never got 'em again. At least, not much, anyway. A lady sold me some oil that keeps the little buggers away too, I'll put it in for you afterwards. It'd be a shame to cut off all that beautiful hair."
Nicholas could feel his face burn, and he was grateful that Jack seemed so natural about it. To think he'd once spent half an hour a day simply doing his hair, fixing his clothes, making sure he looked just right…A hot, choking feeling of fury and shame threatened to squeeze his throat shut and he swallowed. Damn it...
Jack tilted Nicholas's head back, washed the suds away and what seemed like countless tiny dead lice. Then he lathered it up once more and washed the hair clean again, more little lice floated in the water. When Nicholas saw it, he shuddered and refused to think about it. Now they were in a bath with dead lice in it. Disgusting. Then he realized his head was resting against Jack's upper thighs and tensed, trying to squirm away a little.
"Don't move or you'll make me hard."
Nicholas froze at the amused voice and held still. He could hear Jack give a nervous laugh.
"Never mind. Too late anyway."
He tried to say something, he didn't even know what, a joke to relieve the tension, maybe, but nothing came out.
Jack laughed all the harder, but the embarrassment and fear was there. "Don't worry. I really won't rape you. But…if you were feeling lonely…It'd be nice to fuck with someone else for a change. I'm so sick of doing it by myself."
Nicholas choked with laughter and scrambled up to look over his shoulder. "Are you serious?"
Jack gave a small sigh. "Yes and no. Of course I won't touch you, but…I meant what I said, too." Then the man scrambled up out of the water, his hand covering between his legs, and wrapped a towel around his shoulders. "Here." He tossed a towel over and it landed near the bath.
Nicholas took it and stood up as Jack snatched some clothes and disappeared into the bathroom, he then dried off. He felt bad for not taking more time to ease the man's embarrassment. Probably he was already regretting blurting out that admission. A dangerous thing to do in the society they lived in, but maybe the man was too lonely to be guarded, or perhaps well aware he wouldn't cause difficulties. And who cared in this kind of place, anyway?
Nicholas hung the towel over one of the cupboard's doorknobs and dressed himself in the pajamas and wrap Jack had provided for him. After what seemed like a long time, the man re-emerged, clad in oversized pajamas, his hair towel dried, his face still a little pink. Nicholas opened his mouth to say something, but Jack looked so defensive he didn't have the faintest idea of what to say, so he said nothing. But he did rush to help the man drag the bath back into the bathroom.
Jack opened the large window. "Give me a hand?"
Jack went to one side of the tub and so he went to the other side. It was quite heavy, but not so bad with two. Out went the dirty water, and the disgusting lice. Hearing the splash was very satisfying, somehow.
"Come on." The man appeared to have gotten over his embarrassment. "I'll get you that oil I was telling you about."
"Okay, thanks." Already Nicholas could feel the difference, it made him want to swoon. He watched Jack search in the cupboard, find some woolen socks and shove his feet into them, toss him a pair, and then he was back with the bottle and a fine-tooth comb. The blonde made a diffident gesture towards the bed.
And so Nicholas did, then shoved his feet into the socks. Jack went over his scalp in systematic sections, combing out his hair and brushing oil through it. The oil was rather pungent, but he didn't mind. The worse it smells or tastes, the better it works. And mothers were always right.
While both spent some time in front of the fire to dry their hair, he pondered a few memories of his mother; brisk, no-nonsense and kind, and of his father; a vague, unorganized scatterbrain. During his years growing up, he'd never really thought about them much, they'd just been his parents, there in the background of his childish self absorption, making him go to school, do chores, forcing him to eat whatever was on his plate, telling him to get home before dark. If anyone had asked him as a youth if he'd loved them, he'd have probably rejected that notion with all the embarrassed scorn of the average boy; it hadn't been until he'd lost them both to severe influenza at eighteen that he'd understood they'd meant more to him than he'd realized. Sometimes he missed the simplicity, the cozy sense of belonging of those times. He turned to his companion. "Jack, are your parents still alive?"
"Don't know. They might be, I guess."
"You don't know?"
"Nah. I grew up in a workhouse. I haven't got the faintest idea of who they are. They could be alive, they could be dead. Who knows? The owners of the place always said they found me on the doorstep." Jack gave an aggressive shrug. "Just like an unwanted puppy."
"And twice as cute."
Nicholas burst out laughing and hunched into a protective ball as punches were rained down on him.
"Okay, that's it. Out. Get out of my house, you ungrateful bastard!"
He continued to laugh and protect himself. Once the blows had stopped, he unfurled and peeked with bright eyes from under his arm. Jack was panting and staring at him with a mix of amusement and resentment. "Is it safe to come out again?"
"Naw. Rot in hell."
But Nicholas saw the smile, so he grinned and sat up again. He hardly knew himself what had prompted him to that tease, really just the desire to pull Jack's thoughts away from an issue that was obviously painful for him. The other man then rose with his usual abruptness to stirred the flames and snuff the candles.
"Let's sleep. Sorry the bed's not any bigger," came the gruff voice. "It's uncomfortable as hell, too, but at least I'm never tempted to oversleep." He pulled the blankets down and got into bed, settling down with his back to his new room mate. "It's getting cold."
"Are you working tomorrow?" Nicholas gingerly crawled into the bed and curled up next to the smaller man, leaving enough space between them to be polite, buy not too much. He didn't know how to bring the previous subject of Jack's offer back up and wasn't even sure he wanted to, but it was unthinkable that Jack should believe him to be a horrified, moral little prig. Especially since he had no fixed preference for either sex himself.
"Ah, I forgot…" A valet's on call all hours of the day, seven days a week, Nicholas thought with pride. Our time off is when our lords are out for the night…Of course, those bloody bastards don't deserve all their damned privilege and money and position. Nicholas relaxed back down and stared at the tense body in front of him. Jack was right, the bed was cold and uncomfortable. The blonde suddenly reached out and snuffed out the candle that burned near the bed. The only light left came from the fire.
"Hn?" The man's voice came out tight.
"Thanks for everything."
"'Course. Nicholas? I don't wanna push ya, but…what's your story?"
He was silent for a moment. Funny, how he trusted this man beside him. The trust came so easily he was shocked. Didn't he decide to never trust again? That it meant being cheated? But this man had his trust, had taken it sometime during the night and he wasn't sure how or when it had happened. "It's not a particularly original story, I guess," he replied. "The old Joseph and Potifer's wife tale from the bible, if you're familiar with it?"
"Nah. If you're going to talk religious stuff, don't bother. I never went to church in my life, and anyway I…well, what's it about?"
"I was a valet to a lord. Her ladyship…" Nicholas choked the word out bitterly, "…decided I was a nice piece of meat to play with while her lord and master was away. She walked in on me while I was getting undressed for the night, tried to get me into bed with her, and naturally my lord walked in and she cried rape."
Jack pulled the covers up around his neck. "And you got the blame and got thrown out without a reference, right?"
He tried to force a sunny note, but it fell flat. "That's it."
"Bastard. Can't get a job again without one o' those references, right?"
"Right. All I had time to do was pack a few bags and get the hell out. And I'd served him so loyally…" Nicholas choked out. "I worshipped my lord blindly, I thought he was so wonderful. I was so proud to be a valet at such a young age, I wanted to be so indispensable to him…all the other boys my age hated me, of course," he continued. "Jealous. I've never had a real friend before…"
Jack was silent for a while. When he finally spoke, his voice was rough. "Me neither. Worked my way up from squalor fighting against everyone. Never trusted nobody, never had time to make no friends…Never had time for…" He trailed away, and they were both silent for a long time.
After a while, Jack spoke again, whispering. "…I still think you're lucky to be such a good looker."
There was no reply. Nicholas was already asleep. He sighed and let his eyes drift shut.