All’s Well that Ends Well

© Carole Cummings

Not Rated

 

Written for the Spank or Treat anthology.

~

All right.

Fine.

It wasn’t all that bad, really. Other people had worse days, he supposed. People, for instance, who got eaten by wolves or sat upon by a troll or some such, though Lucas wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see either wolf or troll—or both—show up at his door in the next… how many more hours were left of this never-ending day? Probably seventy-two, the way his luck was running.

Lucas slumped down on the front step and shut his eyes. He sighed, not caring that it came out all wobbly and dramatic, moved to rub at his brow and caught himself just in time. Bad idea. With a sour curl to his lip, he maneuvered the hand back down between his knees where he’d got it, and lifted the other. Sank his fingers into his hair and kneaded.

Ow.

Well, there was the headache. He supposed the day wouldn’t have been complete without it. He blew a runaway hank of hair out of his eyes. Because fixing the ribbon right now was out of the question.

A sharp curse came from around the back and the clink of tools; Mister Greenly was having words with the pump again.

Squinting down at the paving-stones, Lucas examined his toes. Not too bad; he’d managed to get most of the black off, anyway and, he supposed, with one more wash, he’d be able to safely pad about the house without worrying about ruining any more carpets. If he ever got one more wash.

He slanted his gaze toward the side of the hill where Mother’s hearthrug lay drying in the afternoon sun. Lucas had done his very best, but considering that it had been buried beneath a veritable mountain of soot (all right, maybe not a mountain, but a considerable little hill, anyway), several tons of rotting leaves (tons, ounces—there really wasn’t a notable difference when it was all billowing onto your mother’s parlor floor), and a nest almost the size of Lucas’s own little house (so, it was a robin’s nest and you know, this was his little whinging episode and he would appreciate it if facts and commonsense stopped trying to shove their annoying foot in the door… feet… fine… whatever)... wait, had there been a point somewhere back there? Oh, right. The rug. Well. He wasn’t holding out much hope for it. Even if it looked clean when it dried, he’d never get the smell out. And Mother would notice, because that was what Mother did.

Lucas frowned, bent his neck and sniffed at his shirt. He winced. Well, that was for the bin. Just as well; he couldn’t even remember what color it had been when he’d put it on this morning.

Ah, this morning, when he’d risen in his old bed from a lovely night’s sleep to the sound of birdsong and the warmth of sunshine, and everything had been right with the world.

So, fine, he’d actually awoken to a cat yowling somewhere down the lane and the sun was only glowing all over the place because he’d forgotten to close his bedroom window—and the curtains and the shutters—and it had been bloody freezing this morning and he’d thought for a few minutes that his toes had gone missing as he’d yipped and acked his way across the room to shut the window, only to find two apparently-courting squirrels mooning at each other on the windowsill—all right, yes, they were shagging—and not at all pleased at his interruption. Who knew squirrels could hiss? Luckily, the shriek he loosed when he startled backwards and caught his feet in yesterday’s trousers scared them off. Of course, it took a while for Lucas to notice because he’d been busy inventing new profanities, and only when he’d finally picked himself up off the floor, wondering if one was supposed to apply ice or heat when one sprained one’s arse, did he notice that he’d apparently quite literally scared the shit right out of the ratty little duo.

He’d groaned in disgust, decided no one in the world could possibly look askance if he opted to at least have a cup of tea—or six—before even thinking about how none of the lessons on how best to care for a home imparted by various busybodies over the years had ever, even once, mentioned the leavings of the common squirrel. He would be on his own for this one and he absolutely refused to so much as pick up a cleaning rag and soap until after that cup of tea. Or six.

That was when he’d discovered the water problem. Or, rather, the lack-of-water problem. Because, seeing as how this had turned out to be The Worst Day Ever, it only made sense that it had started out as it had.

The first thing Lucas had done with his newfound and still rather unbelievable fortunate financial circumstances was to send Mother and the girls off on holiday for as long as he thought they might willingly stay away for two weeks in Hasherbon to visit relatives. Of course, Mother being Mother, a good turn obviously deserved suspicion and imposition, and the only way she’d go was if Lucas agreed to stay in and care for the house for the duration. Which, all right, wasn’t horrible—his old bed was much wider and considerably softer than the one in his little house down the lane, and Miss Emma’s talent at stocking a larder was clearly superior to Lucas’s—but he’d grown used to having the walls closer about him, and to not having to don boots and coat in the middle of the night to retrieve a book not a room away but all the way down the hill and in another house entirely. (And, all right, he’d admit his reading habits might be a bit... eccentric, but sometimes a specific passage from a specific book would pop into his head and clamor for attention like a needy toddler, and the only way to quell it was to actually reread the book of which the particular passage was a part. Shut up, Alex thought it was adorable.)

Also, the whole situation made Cat quite cross with him. As much as Lucas’s general existence seemed to annoy her overall, it seemed his absence was grounds for increased hostilities and perhaps even the cat-equivalent of a declaration of war. Every time Lucas ventured down the hill to check on her, he found more dead rodents in inconvenient places, and he was sure he’d be unearthing strategically placed hairballs secreted amongst personal and irreplaceable possessions for years to come.

Bramble, on the other hand, seemed to see the temporary change in living arrangements as nothing more than his due as King of the Goblins, and spent his days pretending to be a very large and very problematic and immovable piece of furniture. No carpet, couch or bed was, apparently, complete without his full-body imprint and halo of shed hair. Which, again, wasn’t necessarily horrible. With Alex away on his father’s business, and the walls of Mother’s house much farther away from Lucas than what he’d grown used to—even if his old room had, somewhat disturbingly, been kept exactly the same as when he’d lived in it—Bramble found himself a touch more welcome as a large, furry substitute hot water bottle than he normally would be in Lucas’s little house.

Which took the fact that Bramble had happily slept through yowling cats and hissing squirrels from “curious anomaly” and right into “treacherous betrayal”. The fractious grunt and slow bemused blink when Lucas threw a book at his furry haunch from the undignified shagging-squirrel-induced sprawl on the floor—and the subsequent apathetic yawn and return to sleep—only made the betrayal worse. And put Lucas’s now sooty feet firmly on the path to the Worst Day Ever.

Because it didn’t stop at squirrels.

He’d forgotten to fill the kettle last night when he’d banked the stove and it had simmered itself dry overnight. At least he’d remembered to bank the stove and hadn’t burned the place down. He was able to console himself with that thought for about ten minutes—the length of time it took him to understand that no amount of pumping (or cursing) was going to make water come out of the spigot—before he had to admit that having no tea was going to be the least of his problems this day.

All right, so it hadn’t exactly been a good morning. Still, it was the best part of this stupid, bloody, never-ending day, and Lucas remembered it almost fondly.

The gate squeaked; Lucas refused to look up. That would be the wolf or the troll. Or both. And he’d be damned if he was going to lift his head and bare his throat… although, one didn’t necessarily need to bare one’s throat in order to be sat upon…. So. Maybe best to get it over with.

Lucas sighed again and lifted his head, then scowled when he saw who it was.

“You’re late,” he growled.

Alex stopped in his tracks, blinking. “Um… I’m two days early, in fact.”

Lucas slumped. “Oh,” he said, voice smaller than he liked, “two days….” He tilted his head with a frown. “It’s still only Mid’s Day?”

“Er… Surprise?”

Lucas dropped his head back into his palm and closed his eyes. “Huzzah,” was all he said. He would have twirled a finger in the air for more effect, but one hand was busy holding up his head and the other was… well… not.

“Well, I like that,” Alex answered, his tone indignant. “Shall I just toddle off and see if Laurie’s come out from under the skirts of Miss Helvenia yet, or would you like to invite me in?”

For a moment, Lucas actually considered sending Alex “toddling off”. All he needed now to top off this day was to be faced with the shining example of Alex Booker, who was everything a man was supposed to be and never had days like this one. Even after a full day on the road, or so Lucas had to assume, he was bloody spotless and Lucas had to stop himself from curling his lip. Alex’s stupid, sodding jacket, all clean and fresh-looking, and his stupid, sodding hair, all sleek raven-black and not a one out of place, and his stupid, sodding face, tanned with a touch of rose on nose and cheeks, and his stupid, sodding boots, all polished and clean but for the lightest coating of road-dust, and how dare Alex show up here with clean boots! Lucas would be willing to lay down real money that no squirrels had ever had their morning shag and poo on Alex’s windowsill.

Lucas sighed and blew his stupid hair out of his eyes again. His stupid red hair, because he couldn’t have nice shiny black hair like Alex, could he, noooo, or lovely blond waves like sodding Prince sodding Laurie. No, Lucas got a ridiculous red mop that could be seen from bloody Applethrow, probably from space, and which refused—refused!—to stay put in its stupid sodding ribbon that he couldn’t fix right now because of... reasons.

“I thought it was Lilac this month,” was all he ended up muttering.

Alex shrugged with a snort. “Who can keep track? Actually, who cares?” He tilted his head, eyebrows beetled. “You know, I say this with love and all due alacrity for ducking, but you look awful, love. You do realize your mother asked my mother to keep an eye on you, because your mother will never believe you are not, in fact, five years old—”

“No, she just thinks that will keep us from shagging all over the house while she’s gone.”

Alex shook his head, rueful. “It’s like she’s never even met us.” He grinned. “So, should I run off and collect Mother, then? She can come coo at you and put the apples back in your cheeks. But then, no.” He waggled his eyebrows. “I doubt she’ll shag you in the kitchen, you’re better off with me, so maybe you should invite me in.”

Lucas rolled his eyes. “I can’t invite you in,” he grumbled. “I mean, I can invite you to go in, but I can’t come with you. I’m filthy, in case you didn’t notice.”

The smile dimmed as Alex took a few steps closer. “What’s going on?” he asked, dropping his pack. “What’s happened to your clothes? And….” A pause while he got a better look. “And your feet! And your hair! Lucas, you’re a mess! What happened?”

Lucas unwillingly opened his eyes and peered down at himself; he really did look like something that had just crawled out of the dustbin.

“Well, it’s all rather the same story,” he answered, peering up at Alex. “Which part would you like to hear first?”

Alex leaned in closer, eyes narrowing and mouth dropping slightly open. “Well, how about you start with what happened to your eye!”

“Eye?” Lucas reached up and pressed at his cheekbone. “Oh.” He grimaced with a surly grunt. “Well, there was a bee.”

Alex’s eyebrows went up. “A... bee.”

“Yes, a bee. You know—black and yellow stripes, buzzes about and stings people it doesn’t like? A bee!”

Alex leaned closer, eyed Lucas’s cheekbone keenly, then: “But that doesn’t look like a sting.”

Was Alex being annoying on purpose or was it just Lucas’s mood?

“It isn’t a sting. But I was… well, it kept diving at my head and… well, and….”

“And what? It punched you?”

No.” Lucas’s cheeks were feeling suspiciously hot. “I tried to wave it away and… sort of… um….”

There was a pause while Alex waited for Lucas to continue; Lucas decided this was about where he was going to—most likely very ineffectually—dig in his heels. He buttoned his lip firmly and blinked up at Alex.

“Sort of what?” Alex pressed. “Pummeled yourself about the face to scare it away? Took a stick to your own head? Threw a rock at yourself? What, Lucas?”

Lucas only stared for a moment. Not only was Alex bloody ridiculously perfect, but he was going to force Lucas into admitting how far from it he was himself. He sighed and pulled his hand from between his knees.

Alex blinked. And then his eyebrows climbed higher. “Lucas,” he said slowly, “you’ve a vase on your hand.”

“Cheers, love, now perhaps you’d like to tell me what color grass is.”

“But….” Alex shook his head and crossed his arms over his chest. “All right, then—why is there a vase on your hand?”

“Because it’s stuck there.”

Alex waited for a few beats, but when Lucas didn’t clarify, he sighed and rolled his eyes. “Fine,” he said. “We’ll do it your way. How did you get a vase stuck on your hand?”

The scowls were coming so easily to Lucas now. “I had to show Lilly there wasn’t an evil sorcerer inside it.”

“And Lilly is who?” Alex wanted to know. “Your imaginary playmate?”

Lucas glared this time. “No,” he retorted. “Lilly is Olive Bankhurst’s little one. Olive came to pick up the washing since Miss Emma’s gone off with Mother, the traitor, and Lilly came along with her mum, seeing as how there was no one else home to look after her because of the to-do at the Rimbauds’ and I needed a break from drawing up water to clean the carpet, so I offered to tell her a story—”

“Carpet? Wait, what—”

“—and I took her into Mother’s parlor and told her the one about the sorcerer who lived in the magic jar. You know the one—with the three wishes?”

“Yes, but what about—”

“And it’s apparently a lot more frightening than I’d realized because the child started screaming about how she knew there was a sorcerer in the vase—called me a liar, can you believe it, in my own home; bring the child in, feed her cider and biscuits in the best parlor, tell her a story, and the next thing I know, my eardrums are vibrating out of my head with the screams—and I was afraid Olive was going to think I was trying to throttle the little beast or something, so I turned the sodding vase upside-down and shook it, but that wasn’t good enough, was it, nooooooo, said I had to reach in and grab him by his little sorcerer throat because he was magic and he could just cling to the inside of the vase if I shook it, couldn’t he, and then she—”

“Waitwaitwait, whoa,” Alex cut in and his eyes had narrowed again. “You took her into the best parlor? I’m not even allowed in the best parlor!”

Lucas looked at Alex sideways, then shrugged. “Well last time you were in there, you broke the tea table.”

Alex’s mouth dropped open. “Because you knocked me into it when you got your trousers tangled around your—”

Witnesses or it never happened, Alex!” Lucas took a long, deep breath then he sniffed, stubbornly ignoring Alex’s indignant sputtering. “Anyway, I couldn’t take her to the second-best, could I? Not after Stinky Mountbuckle got through with it.”

Alex’s look of indignation turned slowly to one of disbelief. “Is that someone’s name?”

Lucas sighed up at the sky. “Don’t ask.”

To his credit, Alex didn’t; instead he asked, “Well, what did he do?”

“He’s apprenticing with his father,” Lucas answered with a curl of his lip. “Evers Mountbuckle is the chimneysweep.”

Alex tilted his head. “And Stinky…?”

“Was practicing. Only, apparently, Evers hadn’t yet taught his son the part about how, when birds have nested in a chimney, one does not take a very long stick and try to poke—or, in Stinky’s case, ram—said nest down the flue.” Lucas again kneaded at his temple. “Nest, leaves and soot all screed down in one giant whoosh; Evers and Stinky and I managed to get the furniture and floors cleaned up, but the hearthrug is most likely in its death-throes over there.” A disgusted flick of his hand. Which would probably have been more effective without the vase. “I suppose it’s almost just as well, because after I finally got rid of the Mountbuckles and the lovely Miss Lilly of the Eardrum-Piercing Screech, I went back down to finish trying to clean the rug—one-handed, of course—and the bloody thing tripped me. Fell into a sodding lake of sooty mud because I couldn’t catch myself without breaking the vase and I had to twist a bit, landed on my arse for the second time today and would have gone rolling down the hill, had I not bashed right into the well.”

Alex only stared for a moment, then: “Second time?”

“Right.” Lucas grimaced. “The first time was because of the squirrels.”

Alex appeared to ponder that one for a moment. “Should I ask?”

“I’d really rather you didn’t.”

“All right, but what—”

“So I decided then I was done for the day because really—how much convincing does a person need before he realizes that Fate and Chance have got together and made a bet on how long it will take for him to either go completely mad or hang himself with his braces?”

“Well,” said Alex slowly, “You haven’t hung yourself at least.”

“I might have done,” Lucas replied, “but I was afraid I’d miss. And anyway, I can’t exactly tie a knot properly, can I?” The abyss of Maudlin and Morose was yawning ever closer and Lucas almost happily jumped in with both feet. “I can’t even throw myself off the roof,” he lamented.

Curse his ancestors for seeing fit to build the sprawling manor house much wider than it was tall. Two stories was useless for throwing oneself down in a fit of melodrama like a histrionic heroine tossing herself daintily from the cliffs.

“Well, I dunno.” Alex peered up, squinting a little, then he looked back down to the ground. “If you got a running start, you might hit the flagstones. Just have to make sure you go head-first.”

“I’d probably just trip and go rolling down the hill, probably through a patch of nettles while I was at it, because why not, and then I’d be even more sore, and it’s not like I can have a bath and a good, long soak, is it?”

“I should hope so,” Alex returned a little too quickly. “Sorry, love, but you reek.” As if Lucas didn’t already know that. “Why can’t you have a bath?”

Lucas’s mouth pinched and he leveled a surly glare on Alex. He held up his hand, and the vase, perforce, came along for the ride.

“What?” Alex lifted an eyebrow. “The sorcerer will drown?”

Lucas rolled his eyes. “God, you’re lucky you’re gorgeous. I can’t exactly draw water one-handed, can I?”

Alex ignored the insult. “Since when have you had to draw water for a bath? Did the bathtub explode, too, or something?”

“No, but give it time,” Lucas said. “And I’ve had to draw water since this morning when I woke and found the pumps aren’t working.”

Now Alex was the one frowning. “None of them?”

“None of them. Even the one in the back garden. So, I asked Olive to stop on her way to the Rimbauds’ and send Mister Greenly by; he’s been here since just after breakfast, fighting with various pumps and such and generally cursing Rolling Green and its apparently ‘new-fangled, too-modern and confusing’ plumbing system.”

“Three pumps and a well are confusing?”

“Well, according to Mister Greenly, three pumps is two more than ‘decent folk’ ought to have and he’s most definitely not impressed with a tub having a room all to itself. I didn’t have the nerve to show him the water-closet. Which, by the way, is also not working.” With a grumble, Lucas blew hair out of his eyes—again—annoyed that the vase prevented him from something even as simple as retying the stupid ribbon.

Alex gave his head a little shake then pinched at the bridge of his nose. “All right, so you can’t draw water from the well with the vase on your hand, is that the problem, then?”

Lucas only nodded and dropped his hand into his lap—gingerly, because really, all he needed now was a thump to the stones—and found himself vaguely disturbed that somewhere along the line, he’d come to think of it as “the vase-hand”.

“So, why don’t you just smash the poxy thing?” Alex wanted to know. “That’ll get it off.”

It would and it wasn’t as though it hadn’t occurred to Lucas, but: “First of all,” he replied, “it isn’t a ‘poxy thing’, it’s my mother’s and I don’t want to break it. She’ll kill me. And then she'll be disappointed. She'll give me the look. You know what the look does to me, Alex!”

“Which is why she does it,” Alex muttered under his breath. At least he didn't roll his eyes. His stupid gorgeous blue eyes. In his stupid gorgeous face.

Lucas slumped and bent again to examine the ground. “And second of all, the way this day is going, I’d probably open a vein in the process and I really don’t think—”

“Well, thar ’tis,” a graveled voice cut in abruptly; Alex and Lucas both turned to see Mister Greenly swaggering his way around the side of the house. Lucas quickly secreted the vase-hand between his knees again. Refused to acknowledge how naturally “vase-hand” was inserting itself into his thoughts. “’Twill have to be re-dug.”

Lucas blinked. “The well?”

With the patronizing look Greenly threw at him, Lucas was surprised he didn’t saunter on over and pat his head.

“Yuh,” was all Greenly said.

Alex turned to Lucas. “I thought you said you were drawing water from it this morning.”

“Well… yes, I was.”

Alex cast a wary glance back to Greenly. “Why would it need to be re-dug, if it isn’t dry?”

“Well, the pumps ain’t pumpin’ is they?” Greenly demanded, somewhat indignantly.

Alex’s eyes narrowed and he opened his mouth to retort, but Lucas cut him off. “How much will it cost?” Not that it mattered; he might just hand over the keys to the strongbox and Rolling Green itself right now, if he could just get a bath out of the deal.

Greenly turned that patronizing look on him again, and Lucas took a moment to wonder why he was feeling a little put out that Alex got a fiery glance from the old man and yet Lucas himself only rated condescension.

“Hard to say,” Greenly answered. “It’s charged by the foot and ’twould depend on how many feet down we’d have to dig.”

“And how long would it take?”

Please, please, please, let him say an hour or two….

“Hard to say,” Greenly said again. “I can have my lads out here tomorrow, but I wouldn’t count on having no water for at least a fortnight.”

“A fortnight?!”

No. Nonononono! A bath. All Lucas wanted was a bath! It wasn’t so much to ask, really. Lucas reeked, Alex had even said so, didn’t Greenly understand? And he was sore and he was tired, and he needed to sink into hot water up to his collarbones, revel in the slippery sluice of soap against skin, wash and rinse his hair until it didn’t smell like a days-old campfire and. Just. NO! He’d had a bloody horrible day and now he needed one lousy, stupid, sodding bath!

“That’s assumin’ we hit water on the first dig,” Greenly went on. “Sometimes we don’t and then we have to start all over again. ’Course, you’d still have to pay fer the first dig, whether we hit water or no.”

Lucas wondered if the sudden breeze was from the flapping of his jaw. “Well, can’t you tell where the water is?”

Greenly lifted a bushy gray eyebrow. “Can you?”

Lucas’s cheeks pinked a little. “Well, no, but… well, I’m not a well-digger, am I? Anyway, you said you had the dousing magic, didn’t you? I mean, isn’t that what it’s for?”

Greenly narrowed his eyes to glittering little slits. “Dousing don’t allus work, and it en’t exact. Sometimes it finds water deeper ’n I can dig.”

Lucas stood, quickly slid his hand behind his back, and tried very hard to look like a person who did not have a vase stuck on his hand, thank you. “Look here, are you telling me that if I want water, I’m going to have to pay you for however-many wells you decide to dig and that you expect me to—”

“It doesn’t matter.” Alex laid a quelling hand to Lucas’s arm. “There will be no well-digging because a new well is not necessary, since the old one still has water.”

Well, at least Alex got the patronizing look this time.

“Water or no, it don’t matter much if ye cain’t get it up from under, do it? Three pumps and not a one of ’em drawin’ water, and if that don’t call for a well dug, then—”

“Are the pumps in working order?” Alex cut in.

Lucas was torn between the satisfaction of seeing Greenly’s mouth pinch so tight you could probably jam a piece of coal in it and pop out a diamond, and indignation that Alex was in the process of trying to step into Lucas’s business and manage a situation over which Lucas had lost control with the first glimpse of mating squirrels.

“As I said,” Greenly grated slowly, “three pumps and not a one of ’em workin’ proper.”

“Yes, but are they not working or simply not drawing water?”

“Well, since a pump’s only purpose is to draw water, I’m thinkin’ it don’t rightly matter, do it?”

There was a telltale tic in Alex’s jaw before it set itself firm as his eyes took on thunder, and all Lucas could think was oh, here we go, this is more like it. Because he knew that look. He decided he would trade his indignation for what promised to be a bloody good show. There was an uncomfortable moment or two when he wondered if a filmy gown, a pointy hat and a scarf were entirely necessary to his new role as Damsel in Distress, but it turned even more uncomfortable when he realized he’d actually consider it if it got him a bath. Lucas mentally kicked himself in the arse—really, really hard—then sat back down and relegated himself to observer.

“If the pumps are working,” Alex answered just as slowly and just as firmly, “and not drawing water, yet the well hasn’t dried, it most probably means that there has been a drop in the water-table and does not mean a new well must be dug.” He turned to Lucas. “You’ve new tenants, yes? You said a few months ago that Dandridge’s cousin… what was his name?”

“Albon Senbrith.”

“Senbrith, right. You said he and his new wife had broken ground and the house would be finished before autumn.”

Lucas nodded, not at all sure where this might be going. “They moved in the first of this month.”

“And they’ve livestock?”

Again, Lucas nodded. “Pigs and cattle and a few goats. Almost a hundred head of cattle, actually.”

“Which take up a lot of water.” Alex turned back to Greenly. “Which, in turn, tends to lower the water-table.”

Greenly rolled his eyes, then looked at Alex as though he were a very slow child. “Yuh,” he replied with a bit of smug satisfaction. “So, when you run out of water, you dig a new well!”

Ooooh, here was a crossroads and Lucas eyed Alex carefully, waiting to see which way it would go. In ten minutes, Greenly was either going to want to call the constables on Alex or shag him into next week.

A slowly unfurling smile; a tilt of the head….

Lucas only just choked off a snort as he watched Alex’s gears switch and haughty temper turned, just like that, to solicitous charm. Lucas had no idea where Alex was going with any of this, but he’d seen him in action before, and he knew that one really shouldn’t argue over the nature of water and wells with the man who had basically, and quite accidentally, re-invented irrigation methods for half of Orchard Downs; Lucas simply leaned back against the porch steps and watched. Despite the lingering disquiet over the whole “Damsel” thing, Alex had officially engaged The Charisma and Lucas wasn’t about to miss Greenly getting blindsided by it.

“No,” Alex returned through a pleasant smile. “A man of your knowledge certainly knows the nature of the ebb and flow of the water-table. Why, you’re obviously very successful and know your business, else Master Tripp here wouldn’t depend upon you so to get him out of these taxing straits.”

Lucas tried to look suitably downtrodden.

“In fact,” Alex went on, “I’m only sorry you weren’t about when I was redesigning the water system for Booker’s Spinney. I’ve no doubt you would have had at least a thing or two to tell me.”

Alex stopped, his face twisting now into—to Lucas at least, because he knew better—comically overdone alarm.

“I’m so sorry, Mister Greenly!” Alex dipped a small bow. “Alex Booker, pleased to meet you.” He leaned in. “You must forgive Master Tripp for not introducing us. He’s having a bit of a day.”

Ah, there it was—that spark of recognition. Lucas could tell Greenly had heard all about the youngest Booker and the innovations over which so many had rolled their eyes. Until, that is, those innovations had proven so successful and now almost every large farm throughout Orchard Downs had copied or at least tried to copy Alex’s methods.

Greenly bobbed a mechanical little bow. “Dunston Greenly, a pleasure to—”

“So, anyway,” Alex said breezily, “I’ve no doubt you know that when there is water underground and in the immediate vicinity of already placed pumps, you needn’t go to all the trouble of digging a new well, am I right?”

A twist of the brow from Greenly. “Uh… yes?”

“Of course!” Alex widened his smile. “See? I knew you knew your business.” He cut a chastising look at Lucas. “Honestly, Lucas, why can’t you just let the man do his job?”

Lucas turned to Alex, thought about whacking him with the vase-hand, but decided he wanted water a whole lot more than he wanted to blacken Alex’s eye. At the moment, anyway. He shrugged, trying not to roll his eyes, and did his best to look chastened.

“What Master Tripp couldn’t know,” Alex went on, “because he is not, as he has already admitted, a well-digger”—Alex paused pointedly, and both he and Greenly cast sideways glances at Lucas, one eyebrow each sliding up skeptically; Lucas did roll his eyes this time—“is that when your water-table has ebbed—and I think we’ve agreed that it has, yes?”

“Er….” A slow nod from Greenly. “Yes?”

“Right,” said Alex. “When your water-table has ebbed, you simply lower the shaft of the pump several feet so that the siphon can reach the water that’s still down there, only a bit lower than it was!”

Greenly’s mouth snapped shut. He stared at Alex for a moment, jaw twitching, then: “Aye, I s’pose that might work,” he ventured slowly. “I was going t’ try that next.”

Alex must have recognized it for the grudging conciliation it was, because he merely nodded agreeably. “Well, why don’t you try it with one and we’ll see where that leaves us, yes?”

It was at this point that Lucas forgot all about any envy or indignation or embarrassment at Alex handling Mister Greenly better than Lucas did. Because it appeared he might, after all, have water. And a bath was topping the long list of Things Lucas Needs Right Now. A good, stiff drink was landing right about second.

“Start with the bathing-room one, please,” Lucas told Greenly and ignored the disapproving look he received in return. Perhaps the kitchen pump was the more important one in the scheme of things, but he could always wash dishes in the bathtub if he really had to.

“Yuh,” grunted Greenly then he stomped back around the side of the house.

Alex sighed, shook his head. “All right, you’re going to sit right there and not move, and I’m going to go and start the fire in the bathing-room then bring up some water from the well. By the time it’s hot, perhaps he’ll have that pump working and you’ll have your bath. How does that sound?”

Lucas’s eyes were not burning with tears of relief. “Heavenly,” was all he said, and he sighed then rested his head back to his hand.

“Good,” said Alex. “And we’ll have to see about getting you some supper, I think. I’ll wager you’ve not eaten today, have you?”

All right. Here it was: he could admit that his stomach was feeling a little as though it might start to eat itself any minute, since Lucas had completely forgotten to eat—what with all the ruckus going on all day, one thing right after the other, plus a vase on his hand, which made pretty much everything a little difficult to manage, let alone a frying pan, and let’s don’t even mention a fork—and chance whatever evil thing Alex concocted in Miss Emma’s beloved and pristine kitchen, or….

Or he could just starve.

He wondered if stomachs really could eat themselves.

“Big lunch,” he muttered to his toes. “Lots of nibblers and such, you know, not hungry at all, really.” His stomach gave a mighty gripe at the lie and Lucas hunched himself in, hoping Alex didn’t hear.

“Are you all right?”

“Fine, fine, just fine,” Lucas babbled. “No food, don’t need anything to eat, thank you, perfectly fine, just a bath.”

A pause and Lucas could almost feel Alex’s assessing gaze. “All right then,” was the doubtful reply. “Now, you just sit tight and… I’ll… who is...? Oh, bugger.”

Lucas didn’t even have the time to lift his head and follow Alex’s disgusted gaze, before the voice hit him square between the eardrums.

“Hoy, there, Lucas Tripp, I’ve a bone to pick with you!”

“Oh,” said Lucas as he watched Walker stride up the lane, “this just keeps getting better and better.”

Bastion Walker, Lucas had decided a very long time ago, was one of the very few people Lucas genuinely didn’t like. Which was fine, because Walker despised Lucas with a passion he made obvious in every narrow look and lordly sneer. A bully and a greedy grasper to boot, Walker had made it quite clear amongst those who might listen that, not only could he do better as Master of Rolling Green than Lucas ever could, but that Lucas’s relation to the Queen was obviously the only thing keeping him from a lifetime spent wallowing in gutters reciting very bad poetry for crusts of bread.

And all because a six-year-old Lucas had once refused to relinquish his holiday spending money to a seven-year-old Walker. The resulting fracas ended in a bloody nose for Lucas on top of a magically induced case of hairy palms, and then a hasty and ill-advised but well-meant threat from the Palace itself for Walker, noting that if he didn’t desist immediately from laying hands upon the Queen’s relations, he might find the now-defunct but fondly remembered tradition of the stocks had come inexplicably back into fashion. Not only that, but Walker would be barred from ever practicing magic in the Realm, should he not learn “how to better contain his paltry and really quite cheap ‘gift’ for unenviable parlor tricks.” The Queen’s words, not Lucas’s.

Okay, Lucas’s too.

The threat was immediately retracted—the first part of it, not the second; the Queen could be reasoned with... mostly—right after Walker was compelled to lift the curse and Lucas’s palms no longer needed shaving, but a Walker, apparently, never forgives nor forgets.

“What do you think your game is, is what I’d like to know.” Walker gave Alex a narrow, sideways glance and lifted his nose. “Booker.” The name came out as an audible sneer.

Apparently, Alex had decided that Walker wasn’t worth The Charisma, because his face took on bored disgust and he rolled his eyes. “Wanker,” he said, then, “Oh, so sorry, I meant Walker, of course,” before dismissing Walker in favor of inspecting his fingernails.

Lucas had to stifle a snort when Walker bristled. “Good afternoon, Walker,” Lucas said and he really did try, but he didn’t think he kept the amused resignation out of his tone very well. “What’s this bone, then?”

Walker was still glaring daggers at Alex, but he lifted his chin and turned to Lucas. “Well, aren’t you going to invite me in, at least? Or shall I stand out here on the step, without so much as a cup of tea, pleading my case to the Master like a common tenant?”

Lucas didn’t miss how the beady eyes scrutinized him from tip-to-toe and very obviously found him, as usual, quite lacking. Though, considering the state he was in at the moment, Lucas didn’t really have an argument against that one.

“Please forgive me, Walker, but, as you can see, I’m not exactly presentable today and the house is in a bit of a state as well. I’m afraid you’ve rather caught me out.”

Walker snorted. “Well, that’s nothing new, is it?” Walker’s eyes sparked with malicious humor. “Been digging about for the old man’s treasure, have you? Not like he might actually have left any, since he was just as worthless as—gargh!”

It really was quite something to watch the fabric of Alex’s coat stretch over his shoulders as he lifted Walker by his collar and shook him a little. Walker’s pale, spidery fingers latched on to Alex’s arm, scrabbling somewhat weakly. Lucas would go to his rescue, but… well, there was… um….

Well, there must be a good reason somewhere.

“That’s such an old joke, Walker, and quite used up by now, don’t you think?” Alex said almost pleasantly. He snatched up Walker’s hand just as a tiny yellow ball of sputtering magic lit in his palm. “Ah-ah-ah,” said Alex and squeezed until the ball fizzled out. “I said,” Alex pressed,  “your joke isn’t funny, don’t you agree, Wanker—oh, do excuse me, I meant Walker.” He shook Walker like a disobedient puppy. “Say you agree.”

Walker only made small, whimpery gagging noises, but he nodded.

The vase-hand! There it was. Lucas couldn’t very well go rescuing people with a vase-hand, could he? He knew he’d think of something.

“And really not very funny when it was new, come to think of it,” Alex went on. “Because, as you may or may not be aware, considering you’re rather known to be somewhat... challenged when it comes to sense”—Alex paused with a wicked little grin, and ooh, he gave Lucas delicious little shivers when he got that touch of devilry to him—“making light of a man’s father—a father, I might add, who never got to be a father to his son, and is mourned more sincerely than you’ll ever be, it’s... well.” Despite his burden, Alex managed an eloquent shrug. “It’s really not well done of you.

“And really,” Alex went on, “when you insult Lucas, you insult me, along with all Bookers. We will, after all, be uniting with the Tripp family eventually, just as soon as either Lucas finally agrees to have me for good—”

“Hey!” Lucas put in. “I said I’d—”

“—or my brother Anson manages to get Lucas’s sister Tress drunk enough to say yes.” Walker’s eyes widened a little and Alex tilted his head. “Ah, so Anson’s somewhat colorful reputation does indeed precede him, then. Good. As well it should. Now, you wouldn’t really want people thinking that you’re besmirching the Booker name with rumor and malicious innuendo, would you?” A quick jerk of Walker’s head. “Because Bookers, as a whole, are rather….” Alex turned to Lucas. “What word am I looking for, Lucas? Not violent….”

“Big?” Lucas answered helpfully. “Strong? Always ready for a bloody good row? A right-hook like a sledgehammer? A little too fiercely protective sometimes?”

Fierce! That’s it! Thank you, love.”

“Not at all, glad I could help.”

Too fierce? You think, really?”

“Well, you’ve rather a tight grip there.”

“What, he can still breathe.” Alex turned back to Walker. “Bookers are a bit fierce sometimes and we wouldn’t want someone mistaking your little joke for willful slander, would we?”

A bit of a mewl this time and Walker shook his head again. Alex nodded, still grinning, and Lucas didn’t know how he did it but he managed to make it both cheerful and frightening all at the same time.

“Right.” Alex’s tone was light and pleasant. “Because then we might have to get some of our uncles and cousins involved and—” He turned to Lucas again. “Have you seen Marsden lately? Damn me, but I think he’s doubled in size since he took over the threshing last season.”

Really?” Lucas asked. “He was almost as wide as Samish, last I saw.”

“No one’s as wide as Uncle Samish,” Alex replied. “And you’ve not seen Marsden since last Solstice, I don’t think. You know, you really should get to the Spinney more. Mother’s always asking me, ‘When’s Lucas coming for a visit?’ and I keep telling her—”

Glurgh!” said Walker.

Alex turned back, eyebrows raised, as though he’d forgotten entirely that Walker was still squirming at the end of his arm.

“Perhaps you’d best let go,” Lucas told him. “I’m quite done in and really can’t be bothered to look for a place to hide the body today.”

Alex looked disappointed. “Must I?”

“Well.” Lucas shrugged. “Unless you want to dig the hole.”

Alex looked Walker up and down with a critical eye. “Eh, not worth it, really.” He let go his grip on Walker’s collar and let him drop to the ground. He brushed at his own lapels. “New jacket,” he told Lucas by way of explanation.

Walker sat panting for a moment, face red and twisted with rage, though Lucas didn’t think he’d dare a cross word now.

“Buggering bloody Booker,” Walker gasped.

Hmph. Well, what do you know?

Alex made a bit of a lunge towards Walker, and Walker squawked out a little shriek, scuttling back. Alex only snorted and shook his head.

“All right, that’s enough now, Alex,” Lucas told him. “I think Walker will behave now, won’t you, Walker?”

Walker shot looks of fiery hatred between Lucas and Alex, but his eyes kept flicking back-and-forth between Alex’s fists and Alex’s predatory little grin. Lucas again found himself thinking of damsels and pointy little hats, then wondered if Alex might agree to a shag right here on the porch steps. He decided thinking was probably not something he should be attempting at the moment. Besides, Walker ended up nodding and that was something, anyway. It usually took Lucas a lot of gritting teeth and politely oblique insults to get Walker this red in the face, and Lucas really did have to hand it to Alex. Even if he was disgustingly bloody perfect.

Tosser.

“Here, allow me,” Alex said pleasantly, dipping down to take Walker by the arm. Lucas couldn’t help the little bit of satisfaction when Walker flinched again, but Alex only dragged him to his feet, making a fuss over straightening Walker’s jacket and tugging his waistcoat down from where it had rucked up about his ribs. “There, that’ll do it. Here, let me help you with your tie, it seems to have—”

No!” Walker yelped and took a few frantic steps backwards. He raised shaking fingers to his collar and pulled the tie loose. “I’ve got it.”

“So you have,” was all Alex said then he turned his back to Walker, waggled his eyebrows at Lucas, and Lucas was torn between thwacking him so thoroughly he’d see stars and tackling him to the grass and shagging him so hard they dug up the daylily bulbs. And knew perfectly well that the only things preventing him from doing the latter were Walker’s presence and the vase-hand.

Lucas gave his arse another good mental kicking before he said, “Now that we’ve got the pleasantries out of the way, what is this bone, Walker?”

Walker was still seething, but there was a healthy dose of real fear beneath the rage. He glared at Lucas, but his glance kept drifting over to Alex, probably making sure he wasn’t inching closer.

“It’s that parcel from over to Rancing,” Walker said. “You’ve gone and stolen it right out from under my nose and I won’t have it!” He jerked a quick glance Alex’s way, and when Alex didn’t lunge at him again, Walker’s chin lifted a little and he tugged sharply on his waistcoat. “Just because you’ve Mayor Sherling in your pocket doesn’t give you the right to go snatching at every tract there is, you know.”

Lucas blinked. “You were bidding on that tract?”

Walker’s eyes narrowed and he snorted. “As if you didn’t know. As if you didn’t out-bid me apurpose, just to thwart me!”

“As if I’d do anything just because of you,” Lucas retorted. “And anyway, I didn’t even win the bid, so I’m afraid you’re picking your bone with the wrong person.” And it narked him doubly because Lucas really had wanted that parcel—not only would it have expanded Rolling Green, but it would have picked up tenants who were sorely in need of looking after, considering they’d already endured almost a decade of neglect from an absent landlord. Also, it wasn’t all that far from Booker’s Spinney, almost equidistant to Rolling Green, and if Lucas and Alex ever actually did make things legal and permanent, it wouldn’t be a bad spot to settle. And not only had Lucas not won the bid, but now he had to deal with Walker because of it.

“Oh, I believe that,” Walker sniped. He cast a wary glance at Alex but strangely, Alex had abruptly gone very quiet, only stood there, watching. “Just like you had nothing to do with Cráwa refusing my request to study magic at the palace.”

“My god, Walker, that was nearly twenty years ago, I was eight years old, how much could I possibly have had to do with it?”

“Oh, please.” Walker rolled his eyes. “Queen’s pet and now Mayor’s boy, no doubt.” He set his teeth. “I know you were bidding on that tract, Tripp, so don’t try this Gentleman of Honor rot with me. I know better, don’t I?”

Lucas sighed. He wasn’t even exactly angry, just very weary and very much in need of a bath, and very much in need of the lack of Walker’s presence.

“You know a lot less than you think you do, Walker, but that’s always been a problem for you. In point of fact, and whether you believe it or no, I did not win that bid. Not that it’s really any of your business.” Lucas stopped and narrowed his eyes. “And anyway, those were supposed to be blind bids—how could you know I was even bidding on it?”

Walker sputtered. “I should think that’s my concern and none of yours, so—”

“I should think it’s everyone’s concern,” Alex put in quietly. He shot a level glance at Lucas then a narrow one at Walker. “In fact, it’s of rather grave concern if bids held in private escrow somehow manage to become public knowledge.”

Walker’s face reddened and his lips thinned. “I am having a conversation with Tripp here, if you please,” was his sally—rather high-handed, if you asked Lucas, which told Lucas that Walker thought himself cornered in something and my, wasn’t this getting interesting? “And the things I know are the things I know and how I came to know them is another thing I know and not something you need to know, and as long as I know it, then I’m the one who needs to know and….” A pause while they all tried to follow that one. “And you don’t,” Walker finished lamely, added, “Need to know,” then went silent.

Alex lifted an eyebrow at Lucas, and shook his head. “It’s like watching a drunk trying to cross a frozen pond. On roller skates.”

He really shouldn’t have—Lucas knew he really shouldn’t have—but he couldn’t help it: he snorted. Then he swallowed. And blinked. With effort, he pulled a straight face and peered between Alex and Walker. Then he choked on another snort.

“Now, see here!”

“You enchanted Parsons, you slimy wretch.” Alex turned to Lucas, eyes sparking. “I was wondering how he was so flush after his dad cut him off—was all whingy over how he had to actually work now and was ‘reduced’ to apprenticing the clerk at the Mayor’s office. And then he was out to Applethrow just a fortnight ago, buying drinks for the pub and losing enough at darts to buy a good stock pony, and when I asked him about his good fortune, he turned all blank-faced and couldn’t seem to remember for the life of him where any of it came from.”

All good humor dried up. Lucas knew Walker was a worm—everyone knew Walker was a worm; well, excepting perhaps his mother—but this was beyond what even Lucas would have imagined from him.

And bloody damn, how did Alex know these things? First the water thing and now shady, backroom politics. Was it even the slightest bit possible for Lucas to feel any more inadequate?

Alex turned back to Walker, eyes narrowed and a knowing little smile curling at his mouth. “You sodding rotter! You dishonest, dishonorable—”

“Now, see here! I don’t have to stand here—”

“But your reluctant, oblivious inside rat wasn’t worth whatever you paid him, was he?” Alex went on, every word now grinding out through clenched teeth and a rigid, hard little smile. “Because otherwise, you’d know that I won that bid, wouldn’t you?”

...Wait.

You?” This from Lucas, who, despite having been treated to two quite lovely sights in the past five minutes—those sights being Alex’s broad shoulders flexing, and Walker choking and sputtering respectively—was suddenly reconsidering acquainting Alex’s head with the vase. “You were bidding against me?”

Alex opened his mouth, blinking. “Well, I didn’t know you were bidding, did I?” Not quite as indignant as it might have been otherwise. “They were blind bids, after all.” He aimed another sneer at Walker. “And I, unlike some, don’t go about bewitching people in the public’s employ for inside information!”

Well. Lucas had to give him that one. But still.

“And anyway,” Alex went on with a grim little shake of his head at Lucas, “you really shouldn’t be bidding so low on a tract like that, you know. The water-rights alone are worth—”

“And how do you know it was a low bid?” Walker snapped, all sniffy and heavy with unmerited umbrage. “Sounds to me as if you’ve your own inside information.”

Alex’s jaw clenched tight. “I know,” he ground out, “because I bid low myself and if I won the sodding tract, neither of you could have bid higher than I did, could you, you arrogant, bloody ass!”

Walker’s eyes went black and glittery. “I don’t have to stand here and take this from some lowborn merchant’s whelp who spends his time tupping—”

“No, you don’t,” Lucas cut in, low and hard. “So, why don’t you just nip along before Mister Booker decides to re-check your tie size?” Good thing Walker hadn’t seen the vase-hand, else Lucas’s cutting tone might not be working so well. “Or better, before we both decide to have a sit-down with the mayor and have a look through all of the bids and awards that have gone through his office since Parsons has been in its employ. And then, perhaps a little talk with the Queen’s Magician is in order, since you still don’t seem to have learned how to better contain your paltry and really quite cheap ‘gift’ for unenviable parlor tricks.

Walker stilled. “You wouldn’t.”

Lucas let the corner of his mouth turn up just a little. “Oh, Walker,” he answered, liberally lacing his tone with pity and disdain, and he shook his head. “After all these years, you really have no idea what I would or wouldn’t do, have you?”

Ha! Something Lucas had done that finally worked on this bloody, stupid, never-ending day: Walker opened his mouth, closed it, did a rather good impression of a landed carp, then turned sharply and strutted off down the path. It wasn’t until Walker threw the gate open and left it swinging on its hinges in his wake that Lucas let loose a great, deep sigh and rested his head in his palm again.

Ow.

“Headache?” Alex asked.

“Mm,” was all Lucas replied.

“Well, it’s not a wonder.” Lucas didn’t look up as Alex sank down beside him, and began a thorough kneading at his nape. “After the day you’ve had, and I’ll wager that no matter what you say you’ve not had more than a bite.” Alex nudged at Lucas’s arm until Lucas opened his eyes and peered over at him. “Here, at least have a biscuit until we can get you something more resembling a meal.”

Lucas glared at the biscuit then slanted the glare up to Alex. “What is that?”

Alex blinked a little as he inspected the sweet in his hand. “Um… it’s a biscuit.” He creased a small smile. “I’ve a pocketful. Mum sent them along.”

Lucas glared some more. “It’s chocolate.”

“So it is,” Alex replied and good glory, if he got any more condescending, he really would end up with the vase upside his head.

Lucas stuck out his hand and offered it to Alex. “Hullo, Lucas Tripp, apparently we’ve not met before.”

Alex rolled his eyes. “I’m only trying to help, you know, and Mother sent them just for you, even told me she was going to ask how many got here so she could tell if I nicked some on the road, so I—”

“I hate chocolate!”

Alex blinked. “Well, I know that’s what you’ve always said, Lucas, but it’s just so wrong, and I thought maybe you were having me on.”

“Why would I have you on about something like that?”

“Well, I dunno. Why do you insist upon arranging your pens by size? Why can’t you sit down to have your supper unless you’ve checked three times that the backdoor is shut? Why do you always have to have the top on Sun’s Days? Why—”

“Just—You know—” Lucas shrugged Alex’s hand from where it was still kneading at the back of his neck. He rather instantly regretted that one, because he was pretty sore and it had actually felt quite good. Still. “Not that I should have to explain anything to anyone, but I arrange my pens by size so I can grab up the one I need without having to look up when I’m working. And I check the backdoor when I have supper because… well, because I don’t know, really, but Mother always used to shrill at me for leaving the door open behind me when I was late to supper and now it’s just a habit.” He paused, a bit of a pout tugging at his mouth. “Sincerest apologies if it bothers you so.”

Oh, someone just kill him now, could he be any more truculent and pathetic?

“I never said it bothered me.” Alex inched a little closer and put his hand on Lucas’s shoulder this time. Mercifully, he started rubbing again. Lucas, of course, let him, because indignation—however petulant—was one thing, but Alex was very good at this and it did feel awfully nice. “What about Sun’s Day?” Alex ventured.

A bit of a scowl pursed Lucas’s lips, and he hedged, “What about it?”

“Well, you have this ‘thing’ about Sun’s Days,” Alex said slowly. “Where does that one come from?”

Lucas felt his face grow hot. “I don’t have a ‘thing’ about Sun’s Days,” he mumbled at his dirty toes. “Just… It’s only that… Well…” He heaved a long sigh. “Well, I only said ‘because it’s Sun’s Day,’ that one time because I couldn’t think of a good reason, and you just assumed the rest. Who was I to argue?”

There. So, he was a deviant and a selfish deviant at that. And anyway, he’d had a good run with it—it had taken Alex nearly three years to catch on, and Lucas had had lots of pleasant Sun’s Days in those three years, so he supposed it only made sense it would all have to end today. Because today just wouldn’t stop coming.

“Hmph,” said Alex. Lucas peered over at him, expecting maybe indignation or accusations of trickery or something; instead, Alex was simply looking thoughtfully down the lane, his head tilted to the side. He blinked then turned to Lucas. “I see what you mean about habit,” he said. “I suppose I’ve a bit of a ‘thing’ for Sun’s Days now.” He shrugged with a crooked little grin. “I think we should keep it.”

Way too easy. Lucas narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Just like that?”

Alex waved a hand, breezy and blithe. “Why not?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Lucas answered slowly then tilted his head. “What about Mid’s Days?”

This time Alex’s eyes flickered but he only shrugged again. “If you want.”

“Crown’s Days.”

“All right.”

Right then, this was just too much. Lucas leaned in and peered closely at Alex. It was one of those ongoing things between them, that bit of a skirmish for control. Lucas had come to think of the tussle itself almost as foreplay over the years, and he was quite certain Alex did as well. With the exception of Sun’s Days, Lucas thought they each got their own way on a fairly even basis. And Lucas knew without a single doubt that Alex liked that control far too much for him to give it up just like that. Lucas had been a bit suspicious before; now he was downright wary.

“What if I wanted the top every day?” Lucas asked.

He could see Alex’s jaw twitching as he clenched his teeth and tried to maintain his easy countenance. “If it’s that important to you and it’s really what you want.”

“Hm....” Lucas leaned back, lifting an eyebrow and trying not to smile. Perhaps he was being petty for wanting a bit of revenge simply because Alex was too bloody perfect, but he’d had a really bad day and… and…. Well, he’d had a really bad day. “Miss Emma left a nice beef liver in the cold-cellar.” He smiled a little and killed the smirk that was trying to quirk at his mouth. “Why don’t we fry it up with some bacon, have a glass or two of bitter, then top it off with some raspberry cobbler while the coppers are heating?”

Alex’s smile was nearly a pained grimace now. And Lucas wasn’t sure but he thought Alex’s eyes might be watering. He had just named everything he knew of that Alex absolutely hated and still—

“Sounds lovely,” Alex said through his teeth.

Well, that tore it. Lucas had had quite enough condescension from Greenly, thank you very much, he didn’t need it from Alex as well, blast it all.

“Why are you being so agreeable?”

It came out sharp enough that Alex flinched back a little. His mouth flapped and he blinked.

“What? I only said—”

“You hate liver.”

Alex’s gaze flickered away quickly then back again to Lucas. “Well, I don’t actually hate li—”

“You hate it. And you hate bitter and you hate raspberries.”

“Well, yes, but—”

“You’re handling me!” Lucas accused.

Alex looked shocked. “What, I’ve barely even touched you!”

“No, I mean handle, like I’m one of your father’s customers or vendors or something, and all you have to do is get me drunk and laid and everything will be all better. We’re not going to have sex, you know, so just stop trying to maneuver me.”

Alex was indignant. “I wasn’t doing anything of the sort, and I don’t appreciate you accusing me of—wait, no sex at all?”

“No.”

“But….” Alex shook his head a little. “But it’s Mid’s Day and you just said—”

“You know, a blowjob isn’t a cure-all.”

“For five minutes it is.”

“I think if I lost an arm, you’d think a blowjob would make it better.”

“For five minutes, it would!”

“I cannot even believe you,” Lucas grated. “You show up here, all clean and perfect and bloody gorgeous, work your magic over Greenly and Walker, and leave me standing here in my drawers, looking inept and completely foolish, and now you want sex?”

Alex grinned. “I’m a big fan of you in your drawers.”

And blast it, why were the corners of Lucas’s mouth twitching?

“Whatever I did once upon a time,” he said, adding timbre to the unfortunately not-quite-stern-enough tone of his voice, “when we first became… close, I cannot comprehend. It must have given you the lasting impression that I’m a pushover, easy, a man without standards.”

“Well,” said Alex reasonably, “we did kind of shag twenty minutes after we met.”

All right, so... fair point. Lucas didn't let that interfere with his not-entirely-righteous wounded pride, though. He stood, rising to his full height, which could not, under any circumstances, be considered towering or intimidating, but he gave it a good go.

“Nonetheless, let me put you straight, shall I?”

Mm, I love it when you get all bossy and tetchy.” Alex stood, too, crowding close, his grin quite wide now, and completely undaunted by Lucas’s inability to loom.

And for all his annoyance, Lucas was quite stuck now, because that grin was doing things in his trousers that it should not be doing when he was so supremely irked. And “handling” him or no, Alex had a bloody amazing talent for turning Lucas’s moods from self-involved sullenness to cheer a vexing amount of the time, and Lucas didn’t think he wanted to let go of the irritation just yet.

“Please do set me straight,” Alex said. “Or I could set you straight, if you’d rather. I quite like you straight.” He nuzzled into the crook of Lucas’s neck and pulled him in tight. “You’re bloody gorgeous straight… and bent, and crooked, and upside-down, and twisted half-sideways, and that thing you do when you curl over backwards—”

Lucas shoved at Alex with a grumble that was more like a chuckle and a scowl that wasn’t even close to convincing. “Stop trying to flatter me,” he said. “Or you’ll never get the top again.”

And blast him, but Alex only waggled his eyebrows. “Watch yourself, love,” he told Lucas, his voice low and seductive, and he tugged at the hair that had escaped the tail at the back of Lucas’s neck. “Your ‘fiery redhead’ is showing.” He leaned in again and nipped at Lucas’s ear as he pulled the loose ribbon from Lucas’s hair. He sank his fingers in deep and tugged.

There went the irritation.

Lucas tried not to grin, he really did, dipping his head so at least Alex wouldn’t see it. He lifted his shoulder and nudged Alex away.

“Leave off,” he said and even he could hear the reluctant smile in his voice. “I reek.”

A sloppy kiss to his temple and Alex pulled back. “You do,” he agreed. “Stay here. I’ll go see how Greenly’s doing and start the coppers.”

All irritation was lost and immediately forgotten when Alex returned. Grinning.

And when he decided it was too late to cook and instead brought Lucas a glass of beer and a plate of cold chicken—in the bath—Lucas forgot there even was such a thing as irritation.

~

Lucas eyed his mother’s vase, safe and sound atop the press, just a little slick and greasy about the rim, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed.

“Owowow, leg, Lucas, ow, my leg!”

Lucas pulled back, growled a little. He eyed Alex: hair askew with tendrils of black sticking damp to cheeks and brow and yet still somehow perfect; face sweated and looking quite debauched; one long, thick leg curled up and bent over Lucas’s shoulder. Alex’s chest was heaving, lean muscle stretching and bunching beneath skin of bronze, filigreed with late-afternoon sun streaming in through the gap in the curtains.

“Have you any idea,” Lucas murmured to him, leaned forward again just to hear Alex’s sharp intake of breath, “how often you’ve twisted me into this very position?”

A gasp and a bit of a whine, then: “Well, you never seem to mind it much!” Alex grimaced as Lucas rested his weight on Alex’s thigh. “And in case you hadn’t noticed,” Alex grated through his teeth, panting with the strain, “you’re a bit more malleable than I am. Bloody wiry little—”

A quick thrust of Lucas’s hips, and he smiled at the sound that rolled up from Alex’s chest—something between a whimper and a moan.

“You are such a baby.” Lucas sucked his bottom lip between his teeth, closed his eyes and tilted his head back. “You act as though… oh….” That last as Alex rolled his hips, pushed up slow. “…act as though you’re made of wood.”

Oh, that right there, yesyesyes, again,” Alex breathed then, when Lucas pulled back to do it again: “Not all of us have bread-dough for bones, you know. Bloody freak of nature you are, in case—gah! owowow, all right, I’m sorry!”

Lucas released Alex’s ankle from where he’d lifted it above his head and let Alex’s leg fall back to a more natural position. With a smirk, Lucas pulled back and away, at which Alex gasped, hissed and clenched his teeth. He opened his eyes to blink up at Lucas, his brow creased.

“What are you doing?” Confused and indignant. “Why have you—?”

“Turn over,” Lucas said.

More blinking and a frown. Then a pout. “Sorry, what?”

Lucas smiled a little. He leaned down, dropped a kiss, soft and sweet, to Alex’s mouth. “You said anything I wanted.” A quick flick of his tongue across Alex’s bottom lip. “Turn. Over.”

“But….” Alex tried on a wounded look, which Lucas ignored. “But I like it better this—”

“And this is about what I like now, isn’t it?” Lucas climbed over Alex’s leg, pushed at his hip then gave him a sharp smack on the (stupid bloody perfect) bottom. He ignored Alex’s yip and said, “I’ve had a very bad day, remember? Come on, then, be a good lad.”

Alex sat up and gave the wounded look another go. “But….” He combined it with the pout. “But I like to look at you.” He dipped his head and peered at Lucas through his lashes. “Don’t you like to look at me?”

Lucas just barely kept himself from rolling his eyes. Instead he smiled again then laid another kiss to Alex’s mouth.

“Of course I do, lovely Alex-lad.” He ran his hand up Alex’s arm to swirl his fingers over one broad shoulder. “But right now I’d like to look at your arse and your shoulders. Quite lovely, you know.” He gave Alex another push and, when Alex didn’t move fast enough, another smack. “Come on, over with you, hurry on.”

Alex gave up the pout and turned it to a scowl, but he was moving now, so Lucas didn’t complain. “All business today, aren’t you, then?” Alex grumbled as he swung his legs over and rolled to his stomach. “You only love me for my body.”

“Nonsense,” Lucas told him. “I love you for your pretty face, too.”

“My body and my face,” Alex mumbled into the pillow. “I feel used.”

“Not yet you don’t.” Lucas moved between Alex’s legs, knelt, then ran his hands slowly from calf to thigh. “Mmm,” he breathed as he slid his fingers over muscle and rib and backbone, dipped down to run his tongue up the narrow valley of Alex’s spine. “But I promise you,” he whispered into Alex’s nape, “you will.”

 

Be sure to check out the Spank or Treat anthology for many more fantastic shorts!

 

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