Lost and Found
© Carole Cummings
“Where in blazes did I put the blasted thing?”
It was annoyed, punctuated by a sharp bang and some frantic shuffling, but Alex could hear the sincere distress beneath the tone.
“It can’t be lost, it just can’t.” More shuffling, a strident, “Ow!” and: “Move, Cat, c’mon then, be a decent evil fiend just this once, will you?”
Alex stifled the snort, toed Bramble out of the way, and quietly let himself in. Bramble didn’t so much as grunt, just gave Alex a weary look over his shoulder. Alex had to smirk a little as he slid the furry bulk across the polished wood and away from the door so he could get through. A perfunctory swish and thump of Bramble’s tail was all Alex got by way of greeting, rather than the usual assault of slobber and great, clumsy paws-to-the-clothes. Lucas must’ve let Bramble tag along when he’d ridden out to the Grange this afternoon, and tired him out. Ha. Happy Winter's Heart to me. Alex grinned and pushed the clumps of holly hanging from the lintel away from his head so he could shut the door behind him before the chill could leak through Lucas’s little house. For once, there was a fire blazing high, which meant Lucas had probably let himself turn blue before he noticed the cold. At least he’d noticed eventually.
It smelled wonderful in here. There were baskets right next to the door filled with cloved apples set atop pine boughs—Nan's and Pippa's’s girls, no doubt; they loved their Uncle Lucas so. Alex set the one from his mum next to the others. A great clay pot steamed on the stove, smelling of spice and wine, with even more clumps of holly tacked to the wall behind it, along with some mistletoe. Alex sucked in a long, deep breath; Bramble seemed to take it as a direct greeting and puffed a polite but halfhearted woof at him before thumping his great head back to the floor.
“Who’s there?” came from somewhere up in the loft, where Lucas kept… well, just about everything he didn’t use daily, really. For one relatively short person, Lucas made up for in clutter what he lacked in stature.
Alex unwound his scarf and hung it on a peg by the door. “It’s only me,” he called back to the circle of lamplight bobbing about up in the loft. He started on his coat buttons. “Happy Winter's Heart!”
“Alex?” Lucas’s bright head poked aropund from behind a precarious-looking stack of crates that Alex knew held bits and halters and bridles. Leftovers from when this little house had actually been used as a carriage house, and before Lucas had commandeered it as a way of gaining some autonomy without abandoning his family. He kept swearing he’d one day go through all of the detritus, but he never seemed to get ’round to it. “Happy Winter's Heart!” Lucas returned with a grin that Alex could tell was sincere, even though he could also tell that whatever Lucas was looking for right now, he was terribly distraught that it was missing. “I’ll be down in a moment.” Under his breath, he muttered, “At least I hope so,” as he turned away and ducked back behind the stacks of crates.
Shaking his head, Alex hung up his coat and headed toward the ladder that led to the loft. “What are you looking for?” he wanted to know. “And can’t it wait? It’s Winter's Heart Eve.”
“Well, I know it’s Winter's Heart Eve,” Lucas retorted irritably. “Which is why no, it can’t wait.”
Ah. “Did you hide a gift and forget where?”
“No.” Lucas peered around the stack again, and scowled down at Alex. “Worse.”
Lucas’s hair was a mess, coming loose from the tail at his nape to fall in delectable disarray around his pale, angular face. The light from the lamp in his hand caught the strands, shifting through the auburn with streaks of gold and ruby and amber. Like a jeweled crown, Alex thought, and couldn’t help the soft little smile, to go with those emeralds he’s got for eyes.
“I’ve lost the splinter to light the Log.”
Alex was so caught up for a moment in the way the light flared a tiny arced prism from the right lens of Lucas’s spectacles that he almost missed the morose spin of the statement. “You haven’t.”
“I have.” Lucas’s shoulders slumped, and his face fell a little more—all too familiar self-reproach, like Alex had just kicked him and Lucas simply assumed he deserved it. “I put it in the basket on the mantel, exactly so I wouldn’t lose it.”
“Yes, but you said you were afraid Laurie would use it for kindling, so you—”
“—so I moved it to the shelf above the stove, because Laurie would, the boy has no sense at all sometimes.”
“And then you were afraid Cat would knock it down onto the stove.”
“She would. She’s evil. So I moved it again.”
“To the shelf where you keep your money box.”
“But it wouldn’t fit inside the box, and I didn’t want Bramble to mistake it for a stick.”
“So you put it in your clothespress.”
“And it made my shirts smell of ash.”
“So you put it….”
Lucas huffed out a great sigh, the lamp dipping precariously as his shoulders sagged. With a heavy groan, he thumped his head to the nearest crate. “I can’t remember.”
Alex’s smile this time was one of fond sympathy. “Lucas. Love. It’s—”
“Don’t tell me it’s going to be fine,” Lucas cut in, the anger in it entirely self-directed. “The harvest was difficult enough, and we’ve already had snow and ice, the winter is going to be such a bugger, I can tell already, and we need all the luck we can get. I can’t believe I’ve lost—”
“That’s what I’m—”
“Yes, I know, you’re going to tell me that it’s not that important, but it is, it was my responsibility. How hard is it to keep track of something so important, one little piece of wood, and I’ve managed to pox an entire year because I’ve gone and lost it. I don’t know why I ever thought I could do this job, I’m a terrible Master. The whole of Rolling Green would be better served if I just wandered into all this bloody junk up here and never found my way out.”
Alex crossed his arms over his chest, lifted an eyebrow. “Are you done?”
“Well, I don’t know.” Lucas straightened from his slump against the crates then slouched around to plop in front of it, legs dangling over the edge of the loft. Cat slunk out from between the stacks of flotsam and rubbed against his elbow; Lucas gave her an absent skritch behind her ears, his expression and drooping posture the very definition of ‘abject’.
Morose. Distraught. Misery personified. Alex wanted to hug him.
Lucas peered down to the floor below as he set the lamp beside his hip, away from Cat’s twitching tail. “I was thinking of jumping, but I’d probably only break a leg.”
“And then you’d have to move back up to the main house until you healed, and let your mother take care of you.”
The threat only evoked a small shudder, which was quite telling in itself. “Only what I deserve,” Lucas muttered.
So cute. Alex didn’t just want to hug him—Alex wanted to squish him.
Instead, Alex only sighed. Sometimes, Lucas could be entirely too hard on himself. “Come down,” Alex said, very carefully making it an order and not a request. Lucas was just as likely to balk at either, but in this kind of mood, Alex judged a command would be more effective.
“Can’t you just come up?” Lucas asked, the tone a little bit petulant, but in a way that made it adorable, not grating. “We could hide out together.” He waved his hand to the stacks and piles around and behind him. “No one would ever find us. We could get Cat to hunt for us and bring us food.”
Alex snorted. “Cat is nothing more than a great, hulking cushion with legs. And she wouldn’t know what to do with any game if it walked up to her and impaled itself on her claws.” He shook his head. “Lucas. I don’t want to live up in your loft. I don’t want you to live up in your loft. I don’t want you to jump from your loft. I want to greet you properly, get my Solstice kiss, and then go to the Bonfire with you so I can watch you do your Master thing, and then scowl at anyone who tries to steal you away for the dancing. Now.” Alex paused, patted at the nearest rung on the ladder. “Come down.”
Lucas sighed again, deeper this time and too obviously heartfelt, but he nodded. “It was nice to think about for a minute, though,” he said, then handed the lamp down to Alex before he started down the ladder. “I don’t know what one is supposed to do when one loses the splinter. No one’s ever done such a thing. Figures. Just leave it to me. Do I confess to the gathering, or do I just take a bit of kindling from the woodpile and pretend?” He set his feet on the floor and turned to Alex. He opened his mouth, closed it, then just slumped into Alex’s chest, his face crammed into the silk of Alex’s tie. “They’re going to be so… disappointed.”
Which, Alex knew, was what this was really about. Lucas Tripp—who managed somehow to keep the rents affordable for all of his tenants, his books in the black, and Rolling Green’s granaries, vineyards, and orchards all showing profits that were the envy of every landlord in the province, all while still somehow keeping the black hole of debt that was his family’s estate from complete financial collapse—Lucas Tripp was afraid his people would be disappointed in him if he’d lost the splinter to light the Winter's Heart Log.
Alex could love him just for that.
“They’re not going to be disappointed in you,” Alex told Lucas, and set a firm kiss to the crown of his head.
“Mmrph,” Lucas grunted into Alex’s chest, and slumped a little harder. “Yes, they are. I’ve lost the splinter!”
Smiling now, Alex slipped the ribbon from Lucas’s hair, and stuffed it in his pocket, hoping Lucas wouldn’t remember later and demand it back. Alex had himself quite a little collection going. Gently, Alex ran his fingers through the silky mess of rich auburn, pleased when Lucas loosed an involuntary little sigh. “No, they’re not.” He kneaded lightly at the base of Lucas’s skull, dipped down to whisper in his ear: “Because no, you didn’t.”
“Have you not been listening?” Lucas wanted to know. “I’ve been through every inch—”
“I’ve been listening very carefully,” Alex cut in. He wicked down the lamp to put it out then set it down and dug gentle fingers into the too-tight muscles of Lucas’s shoulders. “And you’ve been listening not at all. I’m telling you—you haven’t lost it.”
“Alex….” Lucas drew back so he could fix Alex with a halfhearted glare. “You’re making no sense at all. Of course I’ve lost it. If I hadn’t lost it, I’d know where it is.”
“Yes, you’d think so,” said Alex, grinning when Lucas’s glare ratcheted up a few notches. “But you’d be wrong. Again.”
“Alex.” A slight growl this time, with a touch of warning rumbling inside it.
Alex merely bobbed down and planted a quick, firm kiss to Lucas’s mouth. “Right,” he said, patted at Lucas’s arms and moved off towards the open space surrounded by squat cupboards that served as Lucas’s kitchen. For once, Alex avoided whacking his head on the pot-rack. “You put it on the mantel and then proceeded to worry about it for several weeks until you finally couldn’t take it anymore and moved it to above the stove.” He took out two cups and set about pouring the tea Lucas had apparently left to steep a while ago, gone dark and strong by now. He added honey to Lucas’s. “You then convinced yourself Cat would knock it down onto the stove, because Cat is just like that—”
“Well, she is.”
“—and you didn’t want it to get burnt up, so you moved it to the—”
“—to the shelf by the money box. I’ve been through this, Alex.”
“Right. It sat there on top of the money box for a good three months before it occurred to you that Bramble might decide it needed a good chasing, at which point, you moved it again. To your clothespress.”
Lucas gave his shirt a surreptitious and unconscious sniff before lifting his gaze again to Alex. Still smiling, Alex stirred the tea and took Lucas’s cup over to him.
“Now.” Alex paused for a sip of his own tea, withholding a slight grimace at the bitter nip of it. “What do I get if I tell you where it went from there?”
Lucas was staring at Alex over the rim of his cup, green eyes slightly narrowed behind his spectacles. “I should warn you, if the answer is ‘into the fire’ then a smart thwap to the back of the head.”
“And if it’s not?” Alex leaned against the ladder, staring. Just… staring.
It took a moment, but Lucas eventually fidgeted. “Stop smoldering at me,” he grumbled. Trying for ‘unaffected’. Not quite getting there.
Alex kept smoldering. “So, what do I get?”
Lucas fidgeted some more. “My undying gratitude?”
Alex sighed whimsically. “I suppose that would do in a pinch.” He took another sip of tea. “Though, I was thinking something a little more….” He paused, reached out, ran his fingertips along Lucas’s jaw to the sharp point of his chin. With a quick flick of his glance to meet Lucas’s bemused stare, Alex brushed at a streak of dust set on the jut of Lucas’s right cheekbone. “Tactile.” He smirked. “You know—something I can touch.”
“I know what—” Lucas stopped to clear his throat of the small but very distinct squeak. “I know what tactile means.” While Alex was still staring, rapt, into Lucas’s abruptly half-lidded eyes, Lucas turned his head oh-so-casually and nipped at the tips of Alex’s fingers. “And you can touch anything you like, any time you like.” He smiled, stepped in right up close. “I’m grateful every time you look at me like that.”
Gah, sometimes, Lucas could just make a man’s spine melt. Alex shifted the barest of shudders, leaned in and brushed his lips gently over Lucas’s. “I look at you like this because I’m grateful,” he whispered, dropped a feathery kiss to Lucas’s cheek. “But everyone likes to be the hero at least once. Now give me my Solstice kiss.”
With no further prompting or discussion, Lucas did. So deep and intense, that Alex almost sent his teacup crashing to the floor when he momentarily forgot it was in his hand. Bloody damn, but Lucas could kiss. Alex had once or twice thought about asking him where he’d learned the art, but really, they were both probably better off if he just didn’t know. But it had better not have been bloody Parry.
Lucas pulled back a little, wary hope in his deep-green gaze. “You really think you know where it is?”
“No,” said Alex, probably a little too smugly, “I know I know where it is.” He grinned, took Lucas’s teacup and set it and his own on the table. Without giving Lucas even a small opportunity for protest or argument, Alex took hold of Lucas’s hand and started steering him out of the ‘kitchen’.
Lucas lifted an eyebrow at him, but he came along. “And you think you’re getting your reward before you tell me?”
“Mm, that’s certainly worth some thought.” Alex tugged Lucas around the cupboards and through the standing bookshelves that served as a hallway between the main part of the little house and the bedroom. “But, surprisingly—and I don’t mean to shock you, so hold on to yourself—my mind is still a bit north of my trousers, for the moment.”
“Then why are we heading for the bedroom?”
“Because you wanted a place where Laurie wouldn’t be poking about,” Alex answered.
“Laurie pokes about everywhere. No place is safe.”
“Too true.” Alex paused to roll his eyes as Cat—down from her perch up in the loft—sauntered into their path, and tangled her slinky self about Lucas’s ankles. Lucas used his oft-practiced sidestep maneuver, and gave her a little nudge with the toe of his shoe while he was at it.
“So,” Alex continued, “you thought about just banning him from visiting altogether, but said he wouldn’t listen anyway.”
“That… sounds like me, actually,” Lucas said, a little more optimistic than a moment ago.
“And you decided he’d steer clear of the bedroom, because he’d carried on about going blind that time he walked in on us when we were trying that one maneuver—you know, where I’m behind you, and you do the twisty thing and put your foot—”
“He doesn’t know how to bloody knock, I swear. And there was no need for you to follow after him and explain it in such detail. I really do think you scarred the boy.”
Alex grinned as they stopped just outside the bedroom door. “I was going to give him step-by-step instructions and draw him some diagrams, but what with him claiming the blindness and all….”
“And I was terrified for months he was going to tell his mother.”
“What, she adores you, and she knows him all too well. Did you think she was going to order you put away in the Tower or something?”
“No, I was afraid she’d want the instructions and the diagrams!” Lucas shuddered. “It did put Laurie off this part of the house, though. So there’s that.” Lucas frowned into the room, eyes darting about, playing along and looking for likely places.
“So,” Alex said, “someplace Laurie wouldn’t go, because he was suffering fits of ‘ew-ew-ew’. And someplace Bramble wouldn’t get into, because there was nothing resembling food or things to chase.” Alex unconsciously brushed at the lapel of his waistcoat. “Or silk.” Sigh. “And someplace Cat would never go because there was nothing she could make a bed out of, and no handy fires to knock things into.”
Alex watched Lucas’s gaze settle on the—for a change, neatly made—bed first, then dismiss it. The clothespress with its stacks of lexicon books he didn’t have shelf-space for, set next to the vase of dried foxglove and decorative branches, because he wanted a bit of nature indoors but kept killing the potted plants. The laundry mound in the corner, under which hid a basket meant for a much smaller pile. The pot of the squat stove he never remembered to light until just before he fell into bed, and by then he was too tired to muck with it, so Alex always ended up doing it. Lucas paused to look thoughtfully at the wardrobe for a moment, before moving his gaze back to the—
Lucas’s jaw dropped. “Oh, for pity’s sake!” The tension left him so quickly it was like he’d deflated. “Someplace I couldn’t miss, I remember now.”
“Someplace you couldn’t lose it, or forget where you’d put it, because it’s not hidden.” Alex stepped up to the clothespress and the vase of dried… stuff, and pursed his lips. “Just a little dusty.” Well, very dusty. Lucas was not known for his housekeeping skills. Alex blew on the dried petals to prove his point.
Lucas was too busy grinning and grabbing at the vase to be miffed by the swelling cloud that puffed up to film his spectacles. “I look at this thing every bloody day, how could I have been—?”
“If your next words are ‘so stupid’, I’m going to change my reward from a spine-melting shag to a free kick to your arse.” Alex leaned down and dropped a kiss to the tip of Lucas’s nose. With a mock-severe glance, he slid the splinter from amongst the brittle petals and artfully reaching branches, and held it between them. “You may have a big, giant brain inside your pointy little head, love, but—”
“—but there’s only so much room in it. You can’t expect to know all things all the time. And you’d’ve remembered eventually.”
Lucas didn’t look convinced. “I can’t believe I—”
“Lucas.” Stern, with a pointed lift of the eyebrow. “You put it someplace it wouldn’t get lost, and it didn’t get lost. It’s Winter's Heart Eve. Relax, just for tonight. Be happy.”
Lucas opened his mouth, probably on a protest, but he hesitated. With a small, rueful smile, he peered up at Alex. “You’re kind of obfuscating the whole ‘hero’ thing with practicality, y’know.”
“Mm, I love it when you use big words.”
“’S not such a big one,” Lucas said, leaning in a little, and bumping Alex’s arm with his shoulder. There was color blooming under the freckles sprayed across his cheeks and the bridge of his nose.
Good. The self-reproach was losing to the relief and pragmatism.
Alex merely shrugged. “You don’t need a hero. You’ve got too much important stuff in your head, that’s all. You just need a willing soul to keep track of the detritus.” He tapped at his own temple with the splinter, winked. “Might as well use it for something.”
Lucas’s smile was crooked but there as he traded the vase for the splinter, holding it with both hands like it was a priceless artifact. Alex supposed that, for Lucas, it was close enough. With a slight flush to his cheeks, his glance strangely half-shy, Lucas leaned up, pulled Alex down, said, “You are the important stuff,” and kissed him again. Tenderly, this time, slow and deep, gentling as much as arousing. Lucas’s hair was thick and soft against Alex’s fingertips; Alex could smell the cinnamon from the mulled wine in the silky strands, could taste the spices and the nip of spirits on Lucas’s tongue, overlaid by the honey from the tea. Alex groaned as he pulled away, pleasure and reluctance both.
“Don’t suppose we could get someone else to light the Fire?” Teasing but still a tiny bit hopeful, nonetheless.
Lucas was halfway smirking now. “You’re looking a bit overly smug, Mister Booker.”
“I’m thinking I’m just the right amount of smug, Mister Tripp.” Alex grinned. “There is, after all, the ‘hero’ thing, and there was talk of a reward. I’m sure I heard something about a reward.”
“Oh, you’ll have your reward. Count on it.”
“Now?” Alex waggled his eyebrows. “If we’re quick enough, you won’t even be late.”
Lucas was still smiling, a little dreamy-eyed, now that the crisis had been averted. “Oh, no,” he said with a smirk, leaned in for a warm cuddle, and nuzzled at Alex’s throat. “The reward I have planned for you has nothing whatever to do with ‘quick’. In fact…” He paused to slide the tip of his tongue up to Alex’s earlobe, a warm-wet stripe that sent a spangle up Alex’s backbone. “The reward I have planned for you will give whole new meaning to the word… slow.” Lucas pulled back, caught Alex’s stare, and licked his lips—it was deliberate, Alex knew it was deliberate, the cheeky little brat—his hair falling into his eyes, and his mouth slanting up into a smile full of intent. “And maybe ‘merciless’, while we’re at it.” A grin this time, a little bit wicked. “Perhaps even ‘agonizing’.”
Alex was staring. He knew he was staring. He should stop doing that. He cleared his throat. “I can’t tell if you’re talking about sex or torture.”
Lucas’s grin turned evil. “Maybe it’s both.”
“Oh.” Alex’s knees went distinctly wobbly. His trousers tightened. He could only watch as Lucas pulled away from him, backing up slowly, eyes locked to Alex’s, pure and perfect sin on legs.
“Later,” Lucas said, all smoke and sex. “When I can reward my hero properly.”
And then he pushed his hair back from his face, paused… frowned.
“Now, where in blazes did I put my ribbon?”