Alchemy Chapter 2

By Calista Echo

As Blair grew stronger, his determination to make James understand the impossibility of their friendship grew stronger as well. He respected James too much to bring him down with his sordid past.

James, for his part, seemed unfazed by all of Blair's revelations. Blair had taken to detailing each crime, waiting for James to comprehend the enormity of his transgressions. James seemed incapable of comprehension and Blair wondered whether the deprivations of wandering in the mountains had fundamentally altered his friend's moral code. For James had believed in things, things this cynical time scoffed at, but that James had held dear and unassailable. And now he listened to Blair's crimes without so much as a raised eyebrow.

"Look, O'Malley, what do you want me to do? Turn you in? Turn you away? Call the authorities on you? It ain't happening, not in this lifetime."

James walked over to the mantelpiece and idly rearranged the candlesticks. Then he moved to the chair closest to him and began to straighten the journals

Blair watched from his well-worn chair where he spent a good deal of his day now that he had been released from bed. There was something mesmerizing about watching James as he moved around the room with inborn animal grace. Blair drank in the sight of his friend hungrily, starved for the continued visual confirmation that, yes indeed, James was alive.

A cough wracked Blair, breaking his concentration on Jim's lithe form. When his lungs cleared, he left his hand on his heart, telling it to calm down. It felt heavy in his chest, full of the love he felt for the man who stood before him casually handing him his tea.

Blair looked up at James as he took the offering. It was deucedly odd to have James wait on him like this and not a little uncomfortable. It seemed to be one more thing that James was oblivious to.

A tall pile of books were stacked haphazardly next to his chair, on top of which sat a plate with a wedge of yellow cheddar and a warm loaf of fresh baked bread. Blair had been too distracted to eat, all his attention going toward doing what he thought was the honorable thing: getting James to disavow their friendship.

 

When James realized that Blair had yet to take a bite, he took the plate and started to cut up the cheese. Tearing off a piece of bread, he added the cheese to it, placing it in Blair's gesturing hand. Blair didn't even pause, simply continued his argument.

"Jamie, consider the ramifications should my true identity be discovered. No, wait, perhaps that would be for the best. I shall go back to being Blair O'Malley." Blair took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. "I could become your man. No one ever looks at a valet." And he would be able to stay by James' side, night and day.

"Hmm, somehow I doubt you'd be overlooked." James put up a hand before Blair could protest. "And it doesn't matter, because you are not going to be my servant. Put it out of your mind."

Blair sighed. It was inevitable that they part. James would return to his regiment and Blair would enter Cambridge. Right now, Blair would gladly give up his chance to study if it meant seeing James every day.

"Were you always this stubborn and I, in my hero worship, never noticed before?" Blair finished the last bite and James collected the plate.

"I'm your hero?" James quirked an eyebrow, grinning with the news.

Realizing he'd revealed more than he'd meant to, Blair blushed.

"Well, you're older, so it's only natural." Antagonize him and perhaps he wouldn't look at that too closely.

"First I'm your hero and now I'm merely old?" James frowned as Blair smiled, the man was so predictable.

"We were speaking of your stubbornness, Jamie, do try to keep your ancient mind from wandering."

"Now I'm ancient? How did I go from hero to decrepitly obstinate? And just what do you call your refusal to gracefully accept my authority on this, if not mulish to the extreme?"

"I call it preternatural wisdom." Blair yelped when James' hand delivered a playful blow to the back of his head.

"Well, save your energy, bantling. You're up against an older AND wiser member of the gentry."

Blair slumped against the back of his chair, grinning. James could see the morning of study and conversation had sapped what little energy Blair had. When Blair put his book down, James noticed that his hand trembled with fatigue.

"Come on, you're past due to be back in bed." James put his hand out; Blair ignored it.

"James, I'm fine. All I've done is sit. I can do that for a bit longer." Blair reached over and picked up the tome he had just put back. Opening it, he resumed his study.

James backed off and continued to move through the room, gathering errant papers and journals. Every once in awhile he would glance at Blair, who kept his face buried in the book. Eventually he was rewarded for his patience with the thud of the book dropping. Fast asleep, Blair listed to one side, head down on his chest.

Reaching down, James took Blair's hand this time, pulling him up. Hand under his elbow, he steered a sleepy Blair to the stairs.

Blair attempted to dislodge the hand and regain his chair. "I just shut my eyes for a moment. I don't need to take to my bed."

"Egads, who's the stubborn one now? Indulge me." James enjoyed the resistance, but had no intention of losing this round.

"I suppose I must, you being my ancient elder and all."

James gently nudged Blair along, keeping the momentum going until they reached Blair's room. It had changed in the last few weeks. The cot that had served as Blair's bed had been replaced by a four-poster bed, heaped with blankets and pillows. The windows were swathed in a rich green velvet. Bookcases now held Blair's stash of reading material. Grumbling all the way into bed, Blair maintained his protests, but once his head hit the pillow, all sound ceased.

It had been much too close. Jim shuddered involuntarily as he relived the awful moments of wondering if Blair would make it through the night. And once through that first night, the next day, and then the night again. James had slept in snatches, unwilling to leave Blair's side, hoping his presence would give his friend strength. Afraid that these might be the last moments he'd get with Blair.

Staring down at Blair sleeping, James was touched once again by the changes that had occurred in his young friend. There was still something of the boy there, particularly when he talked about the things that fascinated him. But for the most part, the boy had been absorbed into the man.

Blair had a lean, dark beauty and even asleep, projected a surprising aura of danger. There was new strength, a hard edge that hadn't been there before. What had transpired in the years that James had been gone to bring about such a transformation? His hand hovered over Blair's face. He missed touching Blair as he had done all through his illness. The excuse was gone but the need wasn't. Snatching his hand back, James held it to his chest, as if to keep it in check.

Wandering to the window, he smiled, he marveling that he hadn't left this house in over two weeks and yet hadn't felt so free in two years. His headache was gone, his senses, manageable. The hallucinations had all but disappeared, with only the occasional awareness that he was tuning into things impossible for him to note. Conversations three floors down, Blair quietly mumbling in his sleep, the cat purring in the kitchen. He knew it was past time for him to leave and resume life in his own household, but instead he'd slowly had what he needed moved here.

As soon as he'd entered the narrow house, he'd known it was decidedly odd. The servants, all two of them, seemed to make up their duties and then perform them with haphazard enthusiasm. The house was so sparsely furnished it would have suited a religious order. There was no understanding of the underpinnings of running a house this size, no sense of order. That alone should have driven James insane, his need for order at Saybrooke had been legendary.

Instead, James had found the disarray comforting. Each pile of clothes discarded without thought, the pages of notes that were scattered liberally throughout the house, the random placement of vases with flowers, mostly dead... spoke to the way Blair's mind worked and what he valued.

Mrs. Duncan had been stationed in the front of the house, taking Alice in hand. Her natural disdain for the slovenly and ill-trained girl had changed to grudging admiration as she realized Alice had never had any proper instruction. Once taught the ropes of housekeeping, Alice had shown a natural zeal for the domestic arts.

Danyon shadowed Baines. Being a natural mimic, he picked up every nuance and inflection. Blair had taught Danyon the few phrases he might need for the random personage at the door, never expecting to actually have anyone enter. Subsequently, Danyon had never gone beyond, "May I help you?" with arched eyebrow and icy tone and "Master James is unavailable," accompanied by the door swinging shut. Now Danyon was learning the seemingly endless variations on just how one said, "May I help you?" depending entirely on whom one was addressing. He was learning the fine art of the aggressive denial masquerading as subservience and enjoyed it very much.

James had had Baines order new beds, fine linens, plush rugs, snug draperies, and a roomful of bookcases. Alice and Danyon were outfitted in a wardrobe of understated elegance. Throwing open Blair's wardrobe, James had shaken his head at the scantiness of its contents.

Blair had spent money only on what he needed to project the image necessary to gain him the entry to the gaming tables. James removed a white shirt made of fine lawn and studied it. Next, he studied the coat and recognized the tailor by the way it was cut. Knowing that he would have all Blair's measurement's on hand, he had Baines send a footman to Tolbert's. The tailor arrived the next day in a carriage loaded with fabric samples, leaving with an order for a complete new wardrobe, from riding apparel to formal attire. Blair would have all he needed to move through English society with panache. James had delighted in choosing a wide range of fabrics and colors, mostly gray, with hints of blues and greens, aware of how they would suit Blair.

For the first time in two years he had an appetite. Even Alice's underdone potatoes had tasted delicious and so James hired a chef, much to everyone's delight. All in all he had shaped Blair's house into one he had no intention of leaving. He paused in his self-congratulations.

The truth was, that even if Blair had lived in a hovel, he would have stayed. He didn't understand it, but as soon as he'd come in contact with Blair again, he'd felt whole. The sensation of being shattered into a hundred pieces had ebbed. The agonized pain he'd endured had left. He could draw breath without gasping at the horrifying smells, could eat without the sensation of his mouth being on fire.

James didn't understand it, but he knew it, knew it as well as he knew his own name. Blair made him sane. Blair's presence kept the demons at bay. Within Blair's enclave, James was safe.

Safety had never been a high value for James. He had been a man of reckless courage, and when he was hurt, and that was often, took the pain in stride. He had faith in his body, it would heal. He had confidence in his abilities, he could handle any horse, any pistol, any threat that came his way.

But the madness, oh God, the madness terrified him. It was like a whirlpool with malicious energy, ready to suck his soul into the maelstrom. He had no defense against it, and nothing he'd tried controlled it. It was beyond all reason, beyond all effort to contain it, suppress it, eradicate it. And yet... and yet, here in this eccentric house, James had found relief.

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Blair woke a few hours later. He hated the weakness that still plagued him. He knew he'd been very sick and that it took time to get entirely well, but still, it irked him. // It's not being as weak as a newborn cat that's bothering you, it's being weak as a newborn cat in front of James. Aye. There it was.// James had left him when he was on the cusp of becoming a man and now he *was* a man, full-grown, yet still a boy in James' eyes.

He pushed the heavy quilt aside and got to his feet. At least James had stopped making him undress for these impromptu naps. It had made him feel even more the child in James' eyes. He couldn't deny the sweet comfort of James' hands on him, however, as he undressed him for bed.

Even when his hands were more than capable of the task, he allowed James to peel off his clothes, breath held, waiting for the touch of James' fingers across his bare skin. James was very careful, but it almost always happened at some point in the undressing.

Blair took a deep breath. The pain still stabbed through his lungs, but not quite as fiercely. He took a few more, forcing his lungs to accept a volume of air they wanted no part of. He folded gracefully to a sitting position on the floor and went through the exercises he'd learned in one of the first books he'd ever read. It had been called The Life of A Yogi and Blair had read it when he was seven years old.

Oh, much of it had been incomprehensible to a child, but Blair had intuitively understood that he'd found something important, something he could use. So he had studied the words about meditation and breathing, about positions and stretching and he'd begun to use them.

When he first had funds, he'd scoured the booksellers and stalls until he found The Life of a Yogi. Holding the closed book in his hands for a long time, he'd traced the words embossed in the leather cover with his fingers. He was afraid he'd made it all up; that the world of the yogi would not hold the magic it had for him as a child. As soon as he saw the first illustration, he was drawn back in, back into the mysterious world of India and its holy men who could control the uncontrollable.

The little he had understood as a child had served him well, enabling him to contain his fear in the dark, high places he'd been forced to go as a climbing boy. It had made pain endurable. It had even been able to put a small dent in his loneliness, for he found when he mediated that he had a hidden place inside him, protected from all that happened outside.

Now he sat, cross-legged, breathing, centering, trying to find the place where understanding lay. The confusion he felt threatened to overwhelm him. James had moved in and showed no signs of leaving. Blair simply could not understand it. He had been a servant. He was a bastard. He was Irish. He had picked pockets. Fine clothes and a house on Belgrave Square did not make him a gentleman. It only added fraud to the long list of things that made him quite unsuitable as a companion to James. And yet...James would not go. Wouldn't even discuss going.

He was stuck with him. The center spoke. It said, learn to cope with it. Blair smiled. Fine, he'd cope with it. He was delighted to cope with it. He was astonished that he was going to be allowed to cope with it. Blair rose, ready to cope with it.

**********************

"Jamie, you've been in this house for a month. I have it on very good authority that you have not so much as stepped one foot outside the front door."

"Have you set spies on me now?" James scowled, crossing his arms.

Blair looked at James more closely. The tone had not been not playful.

 

"Well, no, of course not, you know what servants are like, this is just common knowledge."

James looked slightly mollified and Blair decided to continue.

"Come on, walk with me. I want to see the sky and feel the sun on my face."

"You go, cub. It'll do you good. I have some... some correspondence I need to catch up on. Perhaps tomorrow."

Blair knew it to be a lie, but James' rigid posture communicated his resolve.

"Just come outside with me for a short walk. I promise not to take up too much of your time." Blair placed his hand on James' arm and looked at him, willing James to capitulate. James held firm for two more heartbeats and then the tension ebbed away.

Shaking his head at his persistent friend, he said, "You win. We'll go for a short walk."

As he went to get his jacket, James wondered about his reluctance to step outside. When Blair had been sick, he'd told himself it was because he didn't want to leave him, but that didn't explain his disinclination now. The world outside seemed impossibly large and loud, and James dreaded the assault on his ears and mind. So far, he had managed to keep this...change in him from Blair. The thought of simply telling Blair crossed his mind and was rejected. Some part of him knew that was wrong, but he didn't try to push past it. He just knew he was deeply unwilling to have Blair look at him differently.

Watching James' retreating back, Blair pondered James stubborn resistance to going outside. It was so very unlike him, but then, there were many things that were so unlike him, so many ways he'd changed since his ordeal in India.

It wasn't enough that James' regiment had been betrayed and sacrificed in some unfathomable game of military strategy. James, the only man to live through the massacre had been stranded in the Himalayas. He had spent a year there, until finally he'd found someone willing to guide him though the treacherous mountain pass.

From what Blair could piece together, James had been found by the mountain tribe of Van Gujars. He was sick with the infection from the saber wound he'd taken in his side. The tribe had thought him holy, as he had been the only one of ninety-seven men to live. It was a marginal territory, barely sustaining the people who dwelled there and James had spent a great deal of time foraging for food to contribute. His hunting had taken him deep into the mountain wilderness where he had often spent weeks on his own.

Had he simply grown used to so much silence that the bustle of London overwhelmed him? That was possible. They'd walk to Kensington Park. It wasn't as fashionable as some of the other parks and would be peaceful this early in the day.

The walk to the park started out well enough, the sun having finally burned away the clouds that had stubbornly settled in for a week's stay. It was unfashionably early and the only people out were nannies with their charges, merchants sweeping the night's debris from their doorways, and clerks hurrying by with stacks of important papers clutched in their hands. Wagons delivering goods clogged the streets and everywhere there was a sense of purpose and industry.

There had not been a day like this for James since India and he soaked it up, wondering if perhaps whatever had been wrong had now gone away.

Kensington Park was quiet and they wandered the walking paths for over an hour. As they came to the middle of the green enclave, they were intercepted by Cordelia and her cousin Richard.

"James!" Cordelia's voice cut through the companionable haze James had been in with Blair.

Latching onto James' sleeve, Cordelia pulled him towards Richard. "You must meet my dear friend, James Ellison. James, my cousin, Richard Treebly."

Blair hung back, watching the beautiful woman claim James as her own.

"Of course I remember James, Cordelia. It wasn't that long ago we met."

"Oh, yes, how stupid of me to forget." Cordelia's little laugh at herself was an octave too high for James' comfort and he winced. Cordelia noticed and pouting said, "James are you still in a foul mood? I expected to hear from you much sooner than this. Just where have your manners gone?"

"Forgive me, Cordelia," James began, then stopped, as a sharp pain shot through his head. Involuntarily, he put his hand to his temple, trying to press the pain back. Cordelia leaned in, asking, "What's wrong, James? Is it one of your headaches?"

Her scent, perfume mixed with lax hygiene, hit him hard and James reeled back, gasping, "Yes, headache."

"Oh, you poor dear. Richard, have the carriage brought around. We need to get James home." Richard lifted his hand, signaling his desires to the driver that followed them.

James looked at Blair, panic in his eyes and Blair stepped forward, saying, "That won't be necessary. The walk home in the fresh air will help, I'm sure."

Cordelia looked at him, irritation evident on her lovely face. "And who are you? I don't believe we've been introduced."

James moved to Blair's side. "My manners are remiss. May I introduce Mr. Blair James of Belgrave Square? Blair, this is Miss Cordelia Vanblond and her cousin, Richard Treebly."

"How do you do?" Blair made a small bow over her hand and then turned to Richard, saying, "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

"Mr. James," Cordelia said, speculation in her tone, "I don't believe I'm familiar with that name."

Before Cordelia could begin her inquisition, James interrupted.

"I'm sorry to beg off like this, but I'm afraid I must get home and--"

"Of course, you must. Here's the carriage. " Cordelia gently pushed him forward. The pain in his head had grown worse and James had a difficult time finding the words to refuse.

"Blair-" James tried to turn aside, but Richard had the carriage door open and was guiding him in.

"It's okay, James, I'll meet you back at the house." Blair kept his distance from the trio entering the coach. A look came across James' face, and Blair started forward. James had that peculiar look of concentration and distraction that he'd worn the morning Blair had informed him of his past. James seemed suddenly very far away and Blair felt an urgent need to make contact. Before he could make it to James' side, Richard had maneuvered him into the coach.

In short order, the carriage was on its way. Blair watched until he could no longer see it, and then turned back to take the shortcut through the park. Racing along the paths he and James had so peacefully meandered a short time ago, he was oblivious to the outrage he caused by his unseemly haste.

He burst through the front doors, looking around for any sign of James. It was quiet in a way that made it clear James had not yet made it home. He should have. Where could he be?

For the next hour, Blair paced the house, unable to stop worrying, but having no way to track down where Cordelia and Richard might have taken James. He berated himself for not going along and trusting those two with James' safety.

At last there was the sound of a carriage pulling up and Blair raced to the door ahead of Danyon. Yanking it open, he watched as James was supported by a footman and escorted to the door.

"James!" Blair grabbed hold as the servant released him and James leaned into Blair, his eyes unfocused.

"Blair?" James inhaled sharply and Blair put his shoulder under his arm, taking on more of James' weight and moved to get him inside. Surprised by how easily James accepted his help, Blair urged him towards the stairs.

"How's your head?" Their progress was halting, watched by the entire household.

"God, it hurt. Better now." James inhaled deeply and closed his eyes, letting himself be guided by Blair's strong hands up the last of the stairs.

"Where in the blazes did those people take you?" Blair's sharp tone made James stiffen.

Blair ran his hand up and down his arm in silent contrition.

"They took me to a doctor they think highly of. Thank God he was in surgery and I was spared another examination."

"Another? James? What is it, what's wrong?" Blair had been strung tight as a top ever since James had been put in the carriage and now all his fears took flight.

"Not now, Blair, too tired to talk." James mumbled and indeed, his eyes were still closed as he shuffled to his bed.

Blair sat him on the edge and Danyon hurried in, kneeling to take James' boots off. Blair shook his head, saying, "I'll do it," oblivious to the shock on Danyon's face.

Removing each boot with practiced ease, Blair then helped James' undress the rest of the way, both falling back into accustomed roles they thought they'd left behind.

James had just gotten settled in bed when Alice came in with tea, Mrs. Duncan right behind her with a tray of pastries.

"You're hungry, I'm sure and perhaps this will put a dent in that growling beast I can hear from here." And it was true, James stomach was making it clear that it needed food.

James cracked open an eye and almost laughed, but didn't, knowing they would never understand and not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings. The room was crowded with George, Baines and Danyon hovering at the door, Alice and Mrs. Duncan at the foot of his bed and Blair, perched on the side of it. He'd seen men less well attended on their death bed and here, he'd merely suffered one of his blasted headaches.

"I'm fine, or I will be, once I devour one of Cook's glorious confections." Blair handed one to him and James bit in, his mouth exploding with the sweetness of cream and sugar, the tang of lemon and the dense moistness of the cake.

There was a collective sigh in the room as James looked up and smiled, the pain lines almost banished.

The staff left, murmuring to themselves and heading to the kitchen for their own tea.

"All right, now I want some answers. What is going on?"

"It's nothing. Sometimes, I get headaches."

Blair stood up and began to pace. "This was more than a simple headache, James. There was the way you looked just before you entered the carriage. Like your mind was far away."

James swung his legs off the bed, and sat at the edge of it. The day he had tried to keep from coming was here. Blair was demanding an explanation.

"I-sometimes-there's too much...too much of everything, sound, taste-oh, it was the stench of Cordelia that nearly undid me."

"The stench? She smelled like Madame Nanciose's best perfume. Granted, she wore a bit much, but stench?"

Putting his head in his hands, James leaned forward and tried to think how to explain. Blair sat down next to him and waited.

"I could smell beyond her perfume, to...the point of gagging. I am glad you believe in regular bathing."

"So she smelled bad. I know there is more to this."

James could see that Blair was determined to unravel the protective cloak he had so carefully worn for this last month. There was no telling how Blair would accept what he had to say, but James prayed Blair would not immediately begin to treat him like a cracked invalid.

"The doctors don't know what it is. No one's said it out loud yet, but they all think I'm going insane. I hear voices when no one is near, conversations that I can't possibly be hearing...I see things that I can't possibly see...sometimes the most innocuous food tastes vile and sharp...and..." James hesitated and looked to see how Blair was receiving the information. Blair was hunched over, mimicking James posture, a small frown on his face.

"Yes? Go on, tell me all of it, James."

James stifled a groan, wishing he'd never allowed himself to be coaxed outside.

"Sometimes I lose myself. Time goes by and I...I'm just not here. And then something "wakes" me up."

"How long?"

"They last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours."

"No, I mean, how long have you been experiencing these things?"

James sat back. "Since I was in India."

"So it is connected to India. You were in the Himalayas, yes?"

James nodded.

"India is a most mysterious land. There's no telling what brought this on. I need to study, I'm sure someone has written about this."

"About what, Blair? Men going mad after being in India?"

Blair looked at James, shocked. He stood up.

"Mad? No, James, not madness. Coming back from India with heightened senses. There are many people with acute eyesight or hearing, it's just that they usually possess these abilities from birth. We just need to find out about the sudden onset of your acuity."

"What, you believe I actually can hear voices, blocks away, see things a mile distant?"

"Yes."

That simple declaration made James weak with surprise and relief. He didn't believe it himself and yet that Blair would prefer some farfetched theory rather than entertain the idea of madness was further testimony to the kind of friend he had in Blair O'Malley.

"You do that, Blair. If anyone can find the answers you can." James swung back into the bed and laid his head back.

"You look positively done in, James. Rest." Blair pulled the covers up, glad to be the one on this side of the bed for a change.

 

*****************

 

During the next few months, Blair hunted for information. He tried to coax James into doing some tests, but he refused, saying he didn't want to be an experiment. In truth, he feared Blair learning that he was closer to a madman than a savant. James stayed close to home, venturing out on rare occasions and having no more incidents.

On a clear, cold, beautiful fall day, Blair set out for his daily walk. All morning there had been an electricity in the air, and James had struggled to keep his mind on the book work. It was one of those days when his madness crept around the edges of his mind, darting forward and then retreating. James said nothing to Blair about these days. He said nothing to anyone, trying desperately to keep it all contained and invisible.

James looked from the entry he'd just made and watched as Blair descended the stairs. Blair looked back at the house, and seeing James in the window, waved. He could hear Blair humming a tune. Smiling, James was inordinately pleased to see Blair in the sunshine, the wind ruffling the curls into a riot about his face.

He listened to the humming for a long time and as he listened, a frown replaced the smile. Blair had to be a good two blocks away now and yet he swore he could hear the humming. The madness dwelling within him wanted out. James turned away from the window and got up, determined to find a place where he could hear only silence.

Going to the third floor, James surveyed the rooms up under the eaves. They were small and tidy and oddly comforting with their irregular corners and nooks. He found a room that served as storage and in there, an old rocking chair, banished from a nursery long ago.

Sitting down gingerly, he was unsure it could still bear weight and surprised to find it sturdy and comfortable. He rocked, the only sound, the soothing rhythm of the chair gliding back and forth on the well-worn floor. When he felt sure he had a measure of control he got up and took in the view from the tiny window set in the alcove. The window faced the park, which was lightly green from the smattering of tender shoots braving the unpredictable March weather. He could see all the way to the clearing by the pond.

What? Was that Blair? His distinctive red scarf made him stand out and James leaned in closer. He could see Blair speaking with a tiny woman. Flowers exchanged hands and as Blair inhaled the bouquet, he turned back toward the house. James could see him smiling, saying something to the tiny woman and the next thing he knew, he could hear Blair. Oh God. He stumbled away from the window, Blair's voice following him, saying, "All women love roses. It's one of the few things in life you can count on."

He couldn't be hearing that, my God, he couldn't be seeing it either. His first instinct was to flee to the cellar, where there were no windows, but he stopped himself. He had to face this, quell it, or he would never be able to leave this house again.

He turned back just in time to see two ruffians come up behind Blair. Each one seized an arm. At this point James was halfway down the stairs. As he reached the first floor, he yelled for Danyon and Baines, but didn't stop to see if they'd heard him, leaving the house at a dead run. It wasn't far to the park, but James knew what damage could be done in a very short amount of time. James ran at a speed that had the world around him a blur. His eyes were focused ahead, searching for the red scarf, the dark curls, his friend.

There, by the pond, a coach had pulled up and the two hooligans were trying to force Blair into the dark interior. Blair was fighting like a man possessed. As James ran up he saw Blair slip out of his jacket, eluding once again the men bent on his capture. One of them realized that Blair was getting away and latched onto Blair's hair with brutal efficiency, pulling him to his chest. James came to an abrupt halt when the man who had Blair, showed his knife, flashing it at the throat already red with wool.

"Hold up, guv, not a step closer or I'll have to slice 'im. Jeb, keep an eye on the fancy man there." The rogue showed his teeth in a feral grin. They were black and rotted, making the man look like he had a hole instead of a mouth.

"Don't worry, Harry, I'm watchin'."

Blair stood very still, his chest heaving as he tried to get oxygen into lungs that still seemed compromised by his illness. He was white and drenched in sweat, the effort to win his freedom taxing every muscle and all his stamina.

James stood very still, knowing how quickly the man could end Blair's life, how quickly Blair's blood could soak through the red scarf. Blair looked at him, his blue eyes dazed, unafraid. The frozen tableau lasted for several heartbeats and then Harry began to shuffle backward, dragging Blair toward the carriage. James hesitated, unwilling to risk Blair's life.

When Blair realized he was going to be forced into the carriage, his eyes finally showed fear. His hands came up to the arm at his throat, which tightened, cutting off Blair's air and galvanizing him into action. He threw himself backwards with enough force to take the thug down, Blair on top of him. The knife sawed across his throat and James cried out, already moving. Jeb was also moving, attempting to get his friend up and Blair into the carriage. James kicked Jeb's knee, dropping him, allowing him to turn his attention back to Blair. The knife had fallen to the side, just out of reach. Blair and Harry were wrestling on the ground, arms flailing as they each sought to gain the knife.

A crowd had gathered, watching with interest, the women giving out little cries, the men talking to each other, discrete bets being placed. James waited until Harry was on top and then grabbed him by his neck and pulled him up. As he did that, he punched Harry in the face and gut, enjoying the sound of ribs breaking.

As soon as Harry was down, James moved to where Blair still lay, who blinked up at him, dazed.

"Is it gone?"

James looked around.

"Is what gone, Blair?"

"The carriage?"

"Yes, as soon as you toppled Harry, it left." When Blair showed no signs of getting to his feet, James knelt down.

"Where are you hurt?"

Blair absently patted himself. "Just bruised."

Blair looked up, noticing the gawkers for the first time. "I want to go home."

With James' help, he made it to his feet and stood for a moment, trying to keep his balance. Danyon ran up, cudgel in hand, looking for someone to bash. As his fierce gaze swept the onlookers, they backed up and began to disperse.

"You al'right, m'lord?" Danyon stooped to retrieve Blair's coat from the ground.

"I'm fine, Danyon. I just want to go home." Blair's voice was shaking along with the hand he extended to James, who captured it in his bigger one, pulling Blair in close to his body. They walked slowly, each lost in their own private hells.

Danyon walked behind, his eyes alert for any new threat to the man he had come to love as a brother. The thought that he might have lost the quirky gent who had changed his life scared him. The fear surprised him. It had been a long time since he had felt attached to another human being. Not since Mick...he clamped down on the wash of loss engulfing him.

James held tight to Blair. He pushed his fear to the side to try and sort out the two problems that were clamoring for attention. One was the confirmation that the original attack that had happened months ago had not been random. His initial instinct had been right and as he realized that, he tightened his hold on Blair.

"Ow." Blair protested the new bruise.

"Sorry." James eased his grip. He thought back to that night he'd found Blair shivering on the floor. The nausea and vomiting had seemed wrong, inconsistent with the inflammation of the lungs. James had feared poisoning and now he was sure. He looked down at the man at his side. Blair walked with his head lowered, hands tucked in his pockets. He needed this man, needed this friendship. It made him feel....human, grounded, sane.

Which brought him to the other problem. His sanity. It would seem he had some. He had seen Blair, had indeed been able to hear Blair. They were not hallucinations. He didn't understand how that could be, but he was grateful. The madness had proved good for something.

*********************

They'd almost succeeded. They'd almost gotten him into that carriage. Blair's mind was unable to go further than that. Why they might want to and what the purpose they might have, were mysteries he'd think about later. Right now his mind tried to cope with the terror still coursing through his body.

He'd been a climbing boy, placed in Saybrooke's dark, filthy chimneys to scrub at the soot. He spent hours alone, in the dark, battling the feeling of being squeezed to death by the four walls, shivering in the cold damp of the unlit chimneys, coughing up the dirt that clogged his lungs. At times he felt sure he would suffocate from the soot particles in the air.

Finally one day, his lungs had been so congested he'd been unable to stop coughing. The harness he wore was old and uncared for and the continual jerking on it when Blair coughed had caused a strap to break. He'd fallen two stories to the ground, breaking his leg. It had healed and Blair had finally grown too large to fit in the cramped spaces. He'd been released from that job. Released into the light, into spacious rooms with plenty of air to breathe, where he could see the birds soar through the windows and feel the sun on his face.

Warbeck had learned of Blair's original position in the house. He'd learned that beatings and whippings could hurt O'Malley, but not break him. Being placed in the dark, and especially small, dark places, caused the boy to beg to be released, crying out with hysterical fear. It took a lot to find a reason to punish the boy. He was smart and conscientious. But he had his weaknesses and Warbeck learned to exploit those weaknesses. He made sure to punish the younger staff when O'Malley was near, knowing it would cause the kind of insubordination that justified serious reprisals. Any who tried to intercede soon found themselves without a position or reference.

Blair's isolation had increased, the remaining staff somehow blaming him for Warbeck's ruthless actions. Only Mrs. Martin had remained his ally, though she took great care to hide it. Not out of fear for herself, though she was afraid, but out of concern for what would happen to Blair if she were forced out. As it was, she made sure he got enough to eat and patched him up. She looked after him as best she could and perhaps most importantly to Blair; she kept his books safe in her room.

 

Nothing Warbeck did made Blair leave, which secretly pleased Warbeck to no end. Only the certainty of James never coming back again had made Blair abandon the only home he'd ever known.

**********************

Blair looked up at James, drawing strength from his presence. He took in a deep breath, and as he exhaled, he tried to push the fear away. The stubborn fear held tight, refusing to budge. Blair tried to reason with it. All the old arguments were trotted out....the dark can't hurt you, there will be enough air, the walls don't really move. As true as he knew all of that to be, it had no effect on his mind, which persisted in it's belief that dark, cramped spaces would squeeze his soul out.

Blair shut his eyes and allowed himself to be guided home by James.

*************************

At the door, Ms. Duncan and Alice waited, holding hands. When they saw their men through the trees, Alice said, "Bloody 'ell, Blair looks right knackered."

Mrs. Duncan gave her a sharp look and nudge, saying, "Thank the good Lord they're all safe."

Alice failed to look contrite. "Aye, thank the good Lord and Master Ellison's swift feet they're safe."

"Yes, child, that's how the Lord works."

James heard this conversation as they drew near and it gave him pause. Was this madness God's gift? Did it have purpose? These thoughts gave James some hope while the cynical part of his brain dismissed it out of hand. He could neither contain 'this gift' nor control it. Perhaps it was God's gift, but he was simply a poor vessel for it.

His father and Manning had gone to great lengths to make him aware of his faults and failings. They would share a hearty laugh if they knew James had entertained the idea that he'd been gifted. No, his mind was not the instrument to deal with this. Now if he had Blair's brain...He could feel that Blair had used up the last of his energy. As they entered the house, Blair stumbled and James swung him into his arms. It was ridiculously easy, he couldn't weigh more than eight stone. That would have to change. Climbing the stairs with Blair tucked in, close to his chest, James felt awash with sensations. Tenderness mixed with something a great deal fiercer. His face grew hot as he realized he'd grown hard carrying his friend.

He hurried to Blair's room and quickly placed him on the bed, backing off and letting Alice finish taking care of getting Blair settled.

The mood was somber that night. James had gathered the staff together in the cozy room Blair used as his study. The fire in the grate cast warm shadows, but did little to chase away the chill that had descended on the group. Blair was upstairs, asleep. It was time to pool their resources and information and develop a plan to keep the man they all felt keen loyalty to, safe.

"Danyon, can you think of anyone who might wish harm to Master Blair? Did he ever say anything to you about the men he gambled with?"

"Ah, well now, Master Blair wasn't one to say much 'bout people. Not 'bout individual people, anyways. 'e liked to talk an awful lot 'bout peoples if you know wot I mean. Like them pygmies over there on the Dark Continent. We 'eard a lot about those people, wot they ate, ugh, and wot they wore. Nothing much! And how good they were to their children...." Danyon's voice trailed off in a wistful sigh.

"Aye, 'e loved to tell us 'is tales. But I don't think I ever 'eard 'im say a mean word 'bout nobody." Alice twisted the apron in her hands. Her face was scrunched in concentration as she tried to remember anything that would help Master Blair.

"Were there any letters delivered to the house, any messages?"

Danyon shook his head. "No," he said slowly, "no one came 'ere 'til you."

James sighed. He hadn't expected this to be easy and Blair would be the real source of information when he woke. The group strategized ways to protect Blair, but no one was able to shed light on what a possible motive could be.

Closing down the house later that night, James checked each door and window. He made his way up the stairs, needing to check on Blair, needing to reassure himself that Blair was safe and asleep. The room was lit by one candle, as always. James pulled a chair close and sat down, not ready to face sleep just yet.

The bruises, while were not quite as spectacular as the first time, were still ugly reminders of someone's deadly vendetta against his friend. There was a cut on Blair's neck, where Harry's knife had managed to connect, despite the scarf. It wasn't all that deep and perhaps would heal without a scar. James traced it lightly, running his finger along Blair's adam apple, continuing up the edge of his jaw, the hollow of his cheek, ending at his temple, which James stroked lovingly. Blair's sleep was deep and he didn't stir.

James was grateful as he didn't know how to explain his need to touch. Blair shifted in his sleep, a small moan sighed out and James snatched his hand back, afraid to see Blair open his eyes accusingly.

When that didn't happen James leaned back in the chair, and stretched his feet out in front of him. Tomorrow he would contact Rafe, the Bow Street Runner who'd been in charge of the search for Blair. He could be counted on to be discreet. The first order of business when confronted with a puzzle was information. Rafe would be able to gather it.

It was hard to believe the man lying in bed had made an enemy. James was well aware that there was much about Blair he didn't know and years of Blair's life he had missed. He needed to fill in those blanks and would, starting tomorrow.

 

Watching Blair sleep relaxed James and he felt his eyes starting to close, nudging him to his own warm, soft bed. He got up, whispering, "Goodnight, cub," and trudged down the hall.

***************

Waking in the middle of the dark night, James kept his eyes shut and held himself still. Something had awakened him. He heard it again and this time recognized it. It was Blair and he was-moaning? No, crying. James didn't know what to make of that. He was deuced uncomfortable when a woman cried, let alone a man.

What did one do when a man cried?

One left them alone, allowed them their moment of weakness. If he went in, Blair might feel embarrassed. No, he'd let Blair work it out. Out of consideration, James tried to tune the sound out, burying his head under his pillows. It didn't work; Blair's soft sobs still reached his ears.

"pleease..." Blair was pleading. His voice cracking with need. Who could he be talking to? "pleeaasse." It was said quietly, but was desperate for all of that. James got up, leaving his dressing gown and slippers and hurried down the chilly hall to Blair's room. There was no other voice. Just Blair's mumblings.

"i'm sorry, i'm sorry...i won't...not ever... please-- just let me out." The sobbing resumed and it was heartbreaking in its quiet intensity.

The room was black, the candle snuffed, curtains drawn, no moonlight penetrating the darkness. James found that his eyes adjusted quickly and he could see that Blair was in bed, the covers wrapped around him in such a way as to bind his arms to his sides. James approached the bed.

"Shh, shhh. It's James." He whispered it, afraid to startle Blair. He pulled Blair up and unwrapped the sweat-drenched sheet from Blair's body. Holding Blair to his chest, he pushed the damp hair away from Blair's brow. "Shhh....it's all right." James continued to free Blair from the confines of the bedclothes.

Once Blair's arms were free, the sobbing slowly came to a halt, leaving only an occasional hiccup.

It was a quandary. On the one hand, James wanted to wake Blair and learn what had caused such night terrors. On the other, he didn't want to disturb Blair's peace. When he was sure that Blair was well and truly asleep, James reluctantly settled him back down on his bed.

Blair had gone to sleep so early his candle had burned out and James went in search of a replacement as well as fresh linen. He didn't want to wake Alice, but he really wasn't sure where such things were kept. After a few false starts he found the cupboard he was looking for. Blair still slept, but now on his stomach, arms out flung, as if to ensure the sheets could not imprison him.

 

After James set the room to rights, he paused. Blair looked peaceful enough now. James considered the old, worn chair with a baleful eye. It was not a chair to induce sleep and James should know, he'd spent a many night in it when Blair was so sick.

Why hadn't I thought to have that replaced when I was busy installing new furniture? Because once Blair recovered, you never thought another night would be spend bedside, James silently argued with himself.

James moved toward the door. Blair was fast asleep. He was fine. James flopped down in the chair and put his head in his hands.

He'd been begging. Someone had been hurting him and Blair had been asking for mercy, for a mercy that never came. Rage swept through James. He wanted to know who that someone was. He wanted to know what that someone had done to Blair, Blair who was so self-contained, so strong. Whatever the someone had done, James wanted to do it to him and make him beg. He got up and went to the window, pulling back the heavy drape. The fog was deep, wrapping the house in its humid embrace. No stars could penetrate this atmosphere. Inside, the one candle did an admirable job of warming the darkness.

Blair moved restlessly, kicking at the covering. He made inarticulate sounds, his legs pushing at the mattress. James returned to the bed and laid his hand on Blair's back. It was once again damp with sweat. James rolled Blair over and felt his forehead, but could detect no elevation of temperature. What was going on here?

Blair's eyes opened and he immediately looked at the candle and then up at James.

"James, is everything all right?" Blair threw off the blanket and started to get up.

"Are you all right?"

James stepped closer and stopped Blair from getting out of bed.

"I'm fine. You were having a nightmare and I just came in." James decided to leave out the details.

"A nightmare?" Blair looked confused and then his eyes shut. Just before they closed, James caught a flash of pain that instinctively brought his hand to his heart. He put his hand on Blair's forehead.

"Yes, a nightmare, a bad one. Care to tell me about it?"

Blair opened his eyes. In the candlelight, they were blue as the sea and utterly shuttered, revealing nothing.

"I don't remember. Something about an animal." Blair sat up, dislodging James' hand. "I need to, you know...and some water..." Blair stood up, his damp sleep shirt sticking to him, the hair on his chest peeking through the unbuttoned front. James swallowed hard.

 

"I'll fetch you a glass." James retreated, unsure of how to handle his reactions to Blair or Blair's obfuscating. It was clear Blair did not want to talk about it. Well, want to or not, he would. James would make him.

 

Morning came; the fog departed with the sun's arrival, and Blair awoke in a mood no one had ever seen. He yanked his clothes out of Danyon's hands, snarling that he was perfectly capable. He ate his breakfast in silence and without his appreciation, a first. He closed the door to his study emphatically and stated he wanted no interruptions. After breakfast, the entire staff sat in the kitchen. They didn't look at each other and each sat his own little misery of Blair's making.

James entered into the usually sunny room and recognized the gloom immediately.

"You all look like kicked dogs this morning." He paused in his tease, the color draining from his face. "Has something happened to Blair?"

 

Danyon shook himself and answered. "No m'lord. Master Blair's in 'is study." Danyon returned to sitting with his head propped in both hands.

"Then what? Honestly, I've never seen such glumness."

James took the cup of chocolate from Mrs. Duncan's hand. She sighed and said, "He blames us, he does, for not protecting him."

"Nonsense. I'm sure he doesn't." James inhaled the heavenly scent of cocoa. Blair certainly had a nose for business. Hot chocolate was the rage in London and Blair was part owner of one of the most bustling shops in all of London.

"Then explain this mornin'. 'E refuses me help with 'is dressin', comes down ta breakfast with nary a word ta dear Alice or Mrs. Duncan, eats wit' a frown on 'is face and locks 'imself in 'is study without so much as a Bob's your uncle, 'e does." Danyon nodded and looked around the room. They all confirmed his recollection of the mornings doings.

James frowned. The damn nightmare must have set something off. If there was one thing he knew it was that Blair would never blame his staff for the attack.

"You're not the cause of his foul mood. He had a nightmare last night, a bad one, and I think it's got him shook."

Alice and Danyon exchanged quick looks which James couldn't help but see.

"He's had them before, then?"

 

"Yes, it's one o' the reasons 'is room is far from anyone else's. 'E 'ated to disturb anyone's sleep."

"So is he regularly such a bear the morning after?"

Alice shook her head. "Maybe more quiet-like. But then if 'e was in the middle of writin' something, 'e got all quiet, so you never really knew. 'E never was all growly like this."

"Hmmm, well, I think it's best if we allow him time to himself today." James moved to the stove, but before he could help himself, he was intercepted by Mrs. Duncan.

"Here now, sit down and eat a proper breakfast." She relented when he used the look he'd learned from Blair, and served him another half cup of the warm chocolate.

***********************

Blair sat in his chair, books scattered at his feet, the journal open on his lap and stared at nothing. The dream had been more vivid than ever before. It had brought back details that he'd fought so hard to forget. Now he was awash in memories. He tried to shut them out, they ate away at the walls he'd thrown up.

Blair remained sequestered until mid-afternoon, when he finally wandered out of his study. James had just come in from the blustery spring day and looked the picture of health, his cheeks red and wind-chapped, his eyes bright with morning energy. Blair felt the contrast keenly. Catching sight of himself in the mirror in the hallway, he looked more than pale and the bruises used the white of his face to good effect. One eye was black, the other, nearly so with the deep shadows underneath it. The cut on his neck added a macabre touch.

Of all his injuries, the one that bothered him was his hand. He'd punched the man called Harry in the fray and the impact had bruised and bloodied his right hand, the one he wrote with. It was most inconvenient.

James saw Blair flexing it as he walked in.

"Blair, let me take a look at your hand." James took in his and studied it, then looked up and studied Blair's face.

"Hurts, I know. I think one of your fingers is jammed." James took hold of the index finger and slowly pulled. Blair bit his lip

"James," Blair hissed, "I don't think this is helping." Just then James jerked it and a popping sound was audible.

"There. Better?" Blair looked down at his hand. It still ached, but it was better.

"Yes, thank you, although I think the cure was probably worse than the bite."

James shrugged, "It got the job done. Hungry? You missed mid-day. I'm sure it would please Mrs. Duncan to make up for it."

"No, I had a big breakfast. I'm looking for that journal on the excavation

going on in Egypt. You haven't seen it, have you?"

"It's in the breakfast room where you were reading it this morning."

"Oh."

James decided to plunge ahead and he asked, "About last night..."

Blair's head jerked up, a mix of shame and fear written on his face. "I really must get my hands on that journal." He abruptly turned away from James and went toward the sunny room they broke bread in.

James shook his head. Getting Blair to confide in him was going to be a harder task than he'd thought, but it was going to happen. James stalked after Blair, determined to get to the bottom of all this. Blair was standing at the window looking out as he entered, but whirled when he heard James approach.

"James..." He held his hand out, silently begging James to give him some peace.

"Blair..."

Each mirrored the other's stubborn stance. James had the advantage of his military training and he ruthlessly used it, invading Blair's space.

"You will tell me about what went on last night." James wanted answers, his fear demanded answers, and it hardly mattered to him that he was using the tone one would use with a servant, a servant far beneath him.

Blair blanched, backing up. Shaking his head in denial, Blair said, "No, James, this doesn't concern you."

James felt unexpected anger that Blair was going to keep something so vital from him. "Not concern me?" He bellowed. "You're my friend, of course it concerns me."

Blair was sliding along the wall, trying to get by James. "Drop it, please. I don't wish to discuss it."

James cut off Blair's retreat, grabbing Blair's arm. "Oh, no you don't. You aren't leaving this room until you tell me what's going on."

Blair's face paled and he looked at James in shock. "Let me go!" Twisting in James' hold, Blair tried to win his freedom.

Blair's shout was unexpectedly loud and James instinctively let go and covered his ears. Blair used that opportunity to bolt from the room. James stood there, shaking his head, recognizing that he'd handled that very badly and waiting for the ringing in his ears to stop.

There had to be a way to get Blair to confide in him, but trying to force him had to rank right up there as one of the stupidest ideas he'd ever had.

"Blair!" James called, as he entered the study, but he wasn't there.

"Blair!" James yelled, charging up the stairs. He was afraid. Afraid because he realized, as mad as it seemed, that he couldn't "hear" Blair. He could always hear Blair. He heard Blair muttering as he argued with the books he read. Heard Blair's pen scratching across the paper as he wrote, and for a long time he'd been able to discern Blair's breathing because of the distinctive wheeze in his lungs, leftover from his illness. He could distinguish Blair's footsteps from any others, and sometimes imagined he could recognize Blair's heartbeat.

Until yesterday, despite Blair's belief in him, he'd known it for madness. Now there wasn't a doubt in his mind that Blair was no longer in the house. Not a doubt that he knew this because he could not hear Blair's footstep, his breathing nor his heartbeat. There was no time to ponder what that meant. He had to find Blair.

*********************

Without thought, driven by fear and need, Blair ran from the house. There was no reason operating as he dashed down the street, heedless of the stares directed his way. Just the need to be in the open, to see the sky, to breathe the air. Just the fear of being held against his will, held down, put in a small space, left in a small space without enough air, without light or sound, alone...

He ran until he couldn't any longer. Sinking down on a bench, he tried to get on top of his spinning emotions. He would go back. James would be even angrier and demand to know what the nightmare had been about. That was never going to happen. The idea of making the memories real by speaking them out loud left the taste of bile in his throat.

Once he caught his breath, he looked around and saw he was at Charing Cross Road. He knew he was a sight, no jacket or cravat, hair wild, bruises making him look like a footpad, but he ignored the people muttering around him and kept moving, unsure of what to do or where to go.

It wasn't long before he wished he hadn't missed the mid-day meal, as his stomach protested the meager breakfast he'd consumed. He had no money with him. It would have been child's play to lift enough for a fat sausage, the crowd being ripe for the picking. Blair frowned at that thought, dismayed it had entered his mind. Those days were way past him; he was no longer fighting to survive, he merely had an empty belly. Had he gotten so soft that one missed meal would compel him to rob?

Leaning against a wall, he tried to breathe and control the panic that was coming back. A different kind of panic-- the fear that he everything he was, everything he had attained, was a sham. He looked down at his rumpled clothes and felt revulsion for the fine dandy he had been playing.

He was a bastard, left by his father before he was born, left by a mother who had sworn she'd come back for him.

Had sworn she would write...but she hadn't, not after the first year, and had only come to see him a few times in all the years they'd been apart. The first few years had been the hardest as each week he had been so sure she would come. So sure she would take him away and he would never have to go up another dark chimney. But she didn't come and the only thing that put a stop to his imprisonment was the breaking of his leg. Then the delayed growth spurt that finally made it impossible for him to do that job.

Imagination had been a wonderful thing then. He'd imagined all sorts of reasons why she couldn't come. He knew she was working hard, trying to make a life for them. He imagined she had put all her money away for the house they would rent, and that was why she had no money for postage, no money for travel. They would have a cat and he would wake to her sweet voice saying "Good morning, sleepyhead," the way she always had. He imagined his father had come back and found her. He'd been shanghaied by pirates, but had never stopped loving Naomi and had finally won his freedom by saving a Prince's life. He was ecstatic at the news he had a son, and soon they'd come for him.

He had never imagined that she hadn't wanted to come for him, that she had fallen in love and chosen to stay away from him. Finding that out shattered every dream that had sustained him through his childhood.

Who did he think he was? He was a servant who aped his betters. A thief and a gambler, he had no business living in a house on Belgrave Square, attended to by servants. He had no business crying friends with a man like James Ellison. It was time to go back and take his place at some estate as a servant, it was time he accepted who he was, who he'd always been. He would tell James, and not be weak this time. He would put an end to James' protests and do what was right for both of them. Starting back to his house, * his house,* as if such a thing were possible, his head was down. He never saw the men who took him down, his head hitting the pavement with enough force to knock him out.

************************

Danyon shook his head. "Pure folly, after yesterday, but Blair of'en got caught by restless feet, 'specially after one of 'em dreams. Fact, after one of 'em he never could abide the house, always took off."

He should have remembered that, should have warned Master Ellison that Blair was flighty after a night of dreams.

"Do you know where he'd go?" James needed a starting place. He'd already sent George after Rafe with a message to search for Blair. London was a huge city, filled with an unending supply of places to find trouble in.

Alice came from the kitchen, straightening her hat and tugging her cloak about her.

" 'E' might go to the booksellers. I'll check Marsten's."

"Aye, that's where 'e'd be. I'll go 'round to Hatchard's in Picadilly." Danyon sighed in relief. At least Alice had kept her wits about her and figured out where Blair could be. He felt paralyzed and unable to put two thoughts together.

"What other shops are likely?" The three emerged from the house. The day had started out full of sun, but as the afternoon wore on the bright light had dimmed. Rain hovered above, waiting for some unknown signal to begin its descent.

"There are the ones in Charing Cross." Once again Alice supplied the information. She had been trained since she was a small child to pay attention to men and what they wanted and needed. Her ability to predict and please had served her well in her life before.

"Then that's where I'll start." James patted the pocket holding the small pistol. He hoped he'd have no need to use it, but where Blair's safety was concerned, he would do whatever was necessary.

Mrs. Duncan stood in the doorway, "I'll check the streets around here and make some inquiries with Mrs. McMerty, she always has one eye on the street, she does."

 

Charing Cross Road teemed with all manner of people, sounds and smells. James' focus was so narrow that none of it had impact. His height helped him to look for Blair, but he saw no one even vaguely resembling his small friend. His inquiries brought no satisfaction, until he chanced upon one of the smaller booksellers who remembered such a man as Blair. Encouraged, James searched every shop and stall. When the last store locked its door, James had to admit defeat and return home.

The rain that had started as a fine drizzle, had grown into a full-blown drenching. James prayed with each step bringing him closer to the house on Belgrave Square, that he would find Blair safe inside, fussed over by the women, cozy by the fire.

He was condemned to more disappointment. The group he encountered was as wet and as discouraged as he was, and trying desperately to think of the next thing to do.

James could see they'd all come to the end of their endurance; it was late, and there was little hope of discovering Blair's whereabouts in the dark.

"To bed with all of you, come morning we'll resume the search."

James gave it his best air of command and was glad to see he still had it. The goodnights were subdued and James shared their glum expression.

When the kitchen was empty, James snuffed the lamps, banked the fire and sat down at the long table where so much unlikely camaraderie had passed. Friendship and learning, skills shared, meals consumed, books read, torches passed. The wind rattled the windows and the sound of gravel being swept up and thrown against the house made even this haven seem vulnerable.

So far in his searching, James had been able to keep the madness contained. Perhaps it was the intensity of his focus, he couldn't say. The old headache, the one that gripped his skull like two hands trying to squeeze his brains out, was creeping back on him.

He would rather be back in the barren mountains of India, unknowing of his fate, than to be in this warm kitchen unknowing of Blair's.

Everything in him called for walking the streets all night. He knew that for folly; nothing could be found in the dark unless you knew where to look.

Sense dictated he sleep, but something else ruled this night. James put his coat on and left the house.

 

Oh God, it was dark, altogether dark without a crack of light or hint of air. Blair curled himself into a tighter ball and clamped his lips together. He wanted to yell questions, Where am I? Why am I here? Can I come out?

But knew as soon as he opened his mouth that it would be babble that would pour forth. And whimpering and then the begging.

No, better to hold on tight and wait. Wait until they decided to come and get him from this dark place. They would come. They would, wouldn't they? They wouldn't just leave him here.

At that thought, the air seemed to thin and Blair gasped. He knew what was coming, the fight to get oxygen into his body, his heart beating at triple speed, his body, wet with sweat. Trying to contain all this before it was too late, Blair breathed the first deep breath, in through his nose, releasing slowly through his mouth.

Again.

It tamped his heart rate down by a bit. Keeping his eyes closed so as not to see the dark, he told himself if he opened his eyes there would be light. And birds singing and breezes fresh from the sea. It was only because his eyes were closed that the dark was wrapped so tightly around him.

Tentatively, he reached out with his hand along the wall. When he didn't immediately feel another wall, he relaxed a fraction. Not an impossibly small space then. He could hear his breathing, a faint rasp, in and out, and nothing else. It was the nothing else that had haunted him through all the small, dark spaces.

Hugging himself tighter he started talking to himself. 'Not alone, not alone...James is in my life now and Danyon and Alice...even Mrs. Duncan counts...they all count...not here, but they're here...' Blair hated what the darkness did to him, the way it sucked him back to being a motherless child. His intellect seemed poorly suited to doing battle with the dark. The dark knew all his weaknesses, all his faults, every fear, and used them with ruthless precision against each defense he tried to put in place.

But this defense, this chant, held some power, worked some magic, gave him some measure of peace. He was not alone. He was able to sleep.

**************

 

James trudged through the near deserted streets. It was getting close to dawn. The buildings were silhouetted in a pink hazy light as the fog began to drift off. James had found he had no trouble seeing London in the night. His eyes were able to pick out a thousand details, the footpads lurking in corners, the children asleep in heaps to stay warm, the rats scurrying everywhere. Christ, at one point he thought he could see the fleas riding on the rats. But in all the many things he saw during the endless night, what he didn't see was any sight of Blair.

The house, Blair's house, was only a few blocks away. James planned to get some food and maybe wash off the night grime that clung to him with an oily residue. Then, back out.

The kitchen was ablaze with light, heat and voices. Everyone was ready to get back out and search. Baines had a map and was assigning districts. When James walked in, all talk stopped as they looked to James with hope on their faces.

James shook his head and shoulders slumped. Baines gestured to the map. "Perhaps you'd like a look see. Tell us if there's some better way to go about looking." His hand was shaking as he handed the map over.

James took the map as Mrs. Duncan put a cup of hot chocolate in his hand. Baines had done a thorough job of marking the likeliest areas to search and matching it with the right servant. James looked up from the map and really looked at the man who had served him for close to two years.

The previous butler had quit, declaring, "He didn't work for loobys, even if they were gentry." Baines had never seemed in the least perturbed by James' odd behavior or being relocated to another's house. He was the soul of disinterest. Until now. The man was clearly distraught. Leave it to Blair to pull something from the stoic Baines.

His headache was worse, the pressure behind his eyes fierce and unrelenting, Still, it was up to him to think of something, to lead this band in a plan. He set the map down, smoothing the wrinkles out. Before he could begin, there was a knock at the door and

Alice hurried to open it. Rafe filled the frame, looking apologetic.

"Sorry to come by so early, sir, but I got news on that Harry and Jeb and thought you might want it right away."

It was if the room brightened with this news. Alice hurried to set another plate for the handsome detective. Danyon scowled, "So whatcher find aht abaht them 'olligans wot set upon Master Blair?"

"I tracked them down to a hovel near Newgate. They were half-bosky, so it wasn't too hard to scare the name out of them. Hired by Charles Wettig." Rafe held his hand up as they all started to speak.

"Yes, I know who he is. For small time crime, he's big, the hub you might say, of a lot the nastier bits of business that go on round here. I have one of my men in his circle. Henri runs for him and keeps me informed. Should be hearing something from H soon. I told him to hightail it here when he knew anything."

James slumped back in his chair. Finally they had a thread to tug on, a thread to begin to unravel the conspiracy against Blair. There was no more point in running the streets.

"That's a marvelous piece of work, Rafe."

"At least we believe he's been taken, so this news couldn't have come at a better time. Stay. Eat. Perhaps you'll be of some more use when we have the name." James tried to convey confidence to his misbegotten troop. Confidence he didn't feel himself. All he felt right now was exhaustion, pain and fear.

Mrs. Duncan must have been aware of all that, because she took James by the arm, until he was facing the door and then gave him a little push.

"There now, go on up to room and have a nice lay down. Even a few minutes will do you good and we'll fetch you as soon as we have word from this Henri." When he didn't move right away she gave him a little shove that seemed to break his inertia.

"Right. A little lay down. All right. But you'll call as soon as Henri shows up?"

"We'll call." It was said in unison, from everyone but Rafe, who looked stunned at the volume.

*******************

When Blair woke, the darkness still held. He stood up, bumping his head hard against the low ceiling. Shuffling forward, he hit a wall, turned, took three steps and hit another wall. A small space, but he'd been in smaller and he held onto that thought to keep the panic at bay. The night had slowly leeched the warmth out his body and he sat back down in the corner. Pulling his knees up, he wrapped his arms around them and rocked a little, hoping to calm the shivering that was building. How long would he be made to stay here?

Why? Why do this? He tried to think how much time had passed. Hunger made him lightheaded even sitting down and his stomach ached with emptiness, but it was how very thirsty he was, and how much he needed to use the water closet that told him he'd been in this place twelve hours or more.

For a short while he was able to breathe and meditate, keeping the old demons at bay. But the nightmare had eroded much of his center and in the dark he couldn't find what was left. He thought about James and hugged the thought of him tight to his chest. Thinking about James had always given him some measure of peace.

With his mother gone and making only sporadic appearances in his life, Blair had not only been a lonely little boy, but a boy without any sense of belonging. For all that Mrs. Martin had liked fussing over Blair when she could and Perkins had treated him with a gentleness not usually shown boys in service, he was no one's and no one was his. Until James. He breathed the word, playing it out like the fishing line James had taught him to use.

He spent some time remembering that day and James calling him a guppy. His guppy. Blair smiled, he'd been inordinately pleased by that, but had somehow managed the outraged reaction called for.

He let his hands slide along the wall. Finding some stones only loosely embedded, he started to pry them out. It gave him something to do as he waited in the dark and the cold for what came next.

 

It took Henri half a day to learn anything and to find his way to Belgrave Square. As soon as he knocked at the back entrance, Alice headed upstairs to wake Master Ellison. James came awake slowly, testimony to his deep exhaustion. As soon as he realized Henri had come with news, he was in motion. They had all waited to hear what Rafe's man had to say, knowing James would not want to miss a bit of it.

James strode into the kitchen and Henri stepped back. The force of Ellison's determination to find Blair filled the room and made the hair on Henri's neck stand up. He knew he was in the presence of a dangerous predator and was damn glad they were both on the same side.

James wasted no time. "So what do you know about the people who took Blair?"

Henri swallowed. "It was a fellow by the name of Warbeck wot hired Wettig."

"Warbeck!"

"That'd be 'im."

"Do you know the man, Master Ellison?" Rafe was taking out pounds to pay Henri.

"Warbeck is my father's butler at Saybrooke and has always had something against Blair, but how he found him and why he'd want him..." James sat down and tried to think through the ramifications of what he'd learned.

Ever since he'd come home from the Himalayas and his madness had become obvious, his father had kept his distance, deeply embarrassed that one of his own should be so afflicted. Could his father have learned that he was living at Blair's and objected? If he had, James couldn't imagine that this is the way he's deal with it. Strong-arm tactics just weren't his forte, as well as the fact it would be James he'd want to see put away.

Could Warbeck be so obsessed with Blair that he would go to the trouble to track him down and take him? The only recourse was to go home and confront Warbeck and demand answers.

"Rafe, can you accompany me to Saybrooke?" He needed a good man at his back and while Danyon qualified, he needed someone who could blend in. That would be Rafe.

"Happy to." Rafe had never met O'Malley, yet in some ways, felt as if he had, having spent so many hours on his track. Blair's ability to elude him had frustrated him to no end. He'd cursed the man in three languages after coming to one blind alley after another, yet had come to admire the intelligence that fueled his quarry.

"Danyon, see to the horses." Nodding, Danyon set off at a trot to the stables.

James turned to address the concerned faces looking to him. " We won't be more than a night away, Saybrooke is just a few hours ride, and I don't mean to take my time with Warbeck. If need be, I'll send word. In the meantime, keep your ears close to the ground, you know the servants know everything first."

**********************************

Curled up against the wall, Blair thought he could hear voices. One of the voices he recognized. Warbeck. The cold that had him shivering, now deepened. The nightmare was real and it had a name. It took a moment for Blair to refocus on the voices.

"The key here is the dark. That and it being a small space. Doesn't hurt that it's cold but hot works, too. He's been in there close to twenty-four hours now, which ought to make him ripe for you." Warbeck seemed to tune into his pun and started to laugh. "Ripe, ha! That'll describe the bastard."

Another voice, cultured, impatient. "He'll do what I say?"

"You can count on it, Lord Ebury. And if he doesn't, well, just have him whipped and put back. Never takes long after that."

"Bring him out, I want to see the love of Naomi O'Malley's life."

The door opened, spilling pale light into Blair's prison. Hands reached in, grabbing hold and pulling him out into a room that was obviously used as a wine cellar. The light came from several oil lamps attached along the walls. Before him stood a handsome man who looked to be near sixty. He was dressed impeccably and it was easy to see he was an aristocrat, born and breed. He looked down on Blair from his imposing height and reached into his pocket for his linen, bringing it to his nose.

"Told you he'd be ripe." Warbeck's voice dripped contempt.

Blair tried to stand on his own feet, but the night and day inside the cramped, cold space caused his muscles to spasm, making him depend Danyon on the arms holding him to keep him up.

"So this is precious Blair. Dear, sweet Blair." Ebury stepped forward, and using his handkerchief, tilted Blair's head up. Blair looked into a pair of gray eyes that glinted with amusement. The man had the bone structure of an aristocrat, high cheekbones, a sharply defined nose, dark hair with a swath of white through it, making him look dashing and dangerous. The man had said his mother's name and Blair felt sick at the thought that this man knew her.

"He looks like the Irish bastard he is. No wonder Naomi never allowed him to come for a visit. I would have known just how well she lied, had I set eyes on him."

Blair tried to pull his head away, but Ebury tightened the grip in his chin. "Wha-what does my mother have to do with this?" His voice barely registered above a whisper. His throat raw with the need for water.

"Your mother is the whole point of this." Ebury's painful hold on Blair's chin eased up and he let go. Blair's head dropped down. Ebury began to pace the small room.

"I loved your mother the moment I set eyes on her. Well, perhaps love isn't quite the right word. I wanted her. Does that shock you? The idea that a man would look at your mother that way?"

Ebury laughed. "You're blushing. You have no idea what a magnificent woman you have as a mother. She's beautiful, passionate, sensual. Her time being ordinary just made her all that much more extraordinary. Every luxury delighted her, no matter how small. Every courtesy pleased her. She was-is-- intoxicating." The look in his eyes scared Blair. The were the eyes of a man obsessed.

Ebury came back to where Blair hung in Warbeck's tight grip.

"However, her attachment to you was a bit much. I knew if you were brought here her affection would be divided, and I wasn't about to compete with a bloody child for her attentions. She threatened to leave my employ, fetch you, and start over."

Ebury voice was flat. He shook his head ruefully. "Well, at first, I'll admit I didn't think anything of it. I've had my share of mistresses and it doesn't take long to tire of them. But when it seemed certain that Naomi was going to leave, I found I couldn't bear to let her go."

Warbeck shifted his hold and Blair, who tried to stand up straighter, and face head on the angry lord.

"She stayed, but only because I put Warbeck in place, and told her what would happen to her darling should she ever leave the estate. And that worked. Until you showed up at my door. Once Naomi realized you were free of Warbeck she became determined once again to leave me."

Ebury took Blair's face in his hand once more and turned him, first to the right and then to the left. "You look nothing like her; you have none of her beauty." Ebury seemed to be affronted by that.

"It pains me to do this. I really am loathe to resort to manipulation to keep a woman by my side, but Naomi is incomparable, a diamond of the first water, and I will do whatever I need to do to make her happy with me."

Blair lifted his head and tried to follow what the man was saying. It was difficult. There was a buzzing in his head, making it all the more arduous to decipher what the man in front of him was saying.

His mother, the man was talking about his mother. He loved her, and wanted to keep her and somehow Blair was part of the plan to keep her. He wouldn't do that, wouldn't make his mother do something she didn't want to do. She had always been a free spirit. It had cost her, but it was who she was. Blair tried to struggle out of Warbeck's hold, but a night and day without water or food, had taken its toll. Warbeck had no trouble keeping his grip on Blair.

"I won't..." Blair whispered, unable to shout it in the lord's face the way he wanted to.

"Oh, but you will...Warbeck has assured me that he knows exactly how to make you pliable."

Lord Ebury nodded at Warbeck, who pulled Blair up until he barely had his feet on the ground. Ebury pulled his fist back and sank his it into Blair's stomach. Blair's body tried to double up, but Warbeck held him and Ebury landed several more blows.

When Ebury was done, Warbeck released his hold and Blair fell to the dirt floor, his chest heaving as he tried to get air back into his lungs. He knelt there, on his hands and knees, and saw one impossibly shiny boot tip coming at him. It reached his chin and gently lifted Blair's head.

"Look at me boy. I'm your master now and you'll do exactly as I tell you, say exactly what I tell you to say. Do you understand?"

Blair had no intention of agreeing to any of it, but he couldn't find his voice to argue the point. Ebury lifted his head up and down in a parody of affirmation.

"I want you to tell your mother that you've decided to work here and you want her to stay."

Blair started to shake his head no, but Ebury stopped him, grabbing his hair.

"Think carefully O'Malley. You say yes, and I'll have you cleaned up, given food and water and a bed. You'll get to see your mother on occasion and if you prove useful, I may even allow you some privileges. Say no, and I'll have Warbeck throw your worthless carcass in that hole to rot."

Ebury removed his boot and Blair's head dropped back down to the cold floor. Blair was torn by his fear of that space and his fear for his mother. He couldn't let himself be used against her.

"No one wants you, O'Malley, no one will look for you, no one has any use for you, except me. I want you. I have a use for you. You know how important that is, don't you? To be of some use? To have a place where you are wanted? Your place is here."

"No." The whisper galvanized Warbeck. He hauled Blair back up and threw him into the cellar. Blair hit the far wall and scrambled to get to the door, only to watch it close in his face. He screamed and pounded at the door, but it didn't so much as rattle and Blair finally stopped. Shivering, he brought his knees to his chest and hugged them, trying to contain his despair.

The darkness pressed in, assaulting him. It smelled of death and decay and bone deep loneliness. As the hours passed it seeped into him, taking away all the things that made him who he was. For in the dark there was both nothingness and infinity. And neither could be touched, or measured or held. The nothingness was bad enough, it was horrible to share space with it, to breathe it into his lungs. But worse, it had gravity. It pulled and pulled, seeking to suck him in, to bury him in the nothingness. Bury him and then the nothingness would set about breaking him down, reducing his flesh to ashes, just like the ashes he had scrubbed and swept all those years before. He would be ashes and the wind would come and blow him away, erase him.

Before it could erase all of him, Blair fought back. He found a ledge, overlooking the vast emptiness. With painstaking patience, he pulled himself up to it and rested on it. Here was light, instead of darkness; life, instead of decay. In this small space, he had friends and he was loved. Someone wanted him. James?

Pressing himself to the wall behind him, he fought to stay put. It would be so easy to fall. The ledge was narrow and it took all his concentration to keep his footing. Chanting, breathing, he held steady.

There was no telling how much time had passed. Hunger had settled in and made his stomach cramp, but it was the thirst that truly tortured him. He could hear himself sobbing and his voice pleading with them to let him out. It was a pathetic sound, harsh and ragged, words barely discernable. The begging sickened him, but he couldn't stop it. The air was hot and thick with dust. It was hard to it get past his swollen and dry throat. His lungs labored to draw enough in. Finally the begging stopped and there was only the whimpering left.

When Warbeck pulled him from the tight quarters the second time, it was a very different man he saw. Blair hung in his hands, all resistance gone.

"Will you tell your mother you want to stay and work here?" He asked.

Blair didn't raise his head, but tried to say yes. He couldn't get the words past his swollen throat and scabbed lips, so he nodded.

"Good. I'm sure you'll be very happy here." Warbeck handed him to the two men who had accompanied him.

"Get him washed up and do a thorough job of it, he reeks."

The men grinned at each other and said a civil, "Yes, sir."

 

***********************

Blair lay in a cot in Warbeck's closet. The man was taking no chances with him. As ordered, he'd had Blair fed and bathed and issued serviceable work clothes. The feeling of stranger's hands undressing him had caused a panic and he couldn't stop himself from fighting them, until they had done the expedient thing. Tied to the beam in the wash house, his feet an inch above the floor, he was rendered harmless.

The pain to his bruised ribs nearly caused Blair to pass out, and he endured the rest of it without protest. It had been humiliating to hang there, helpless, as one of Warbeck's men ran the sponge over his body, all the while making lewd comments. Seeing the pain Blair was in as he hung there, the man took his time. When at last Blair was cut down, he'd fallen to the floor, and lay there, shivering, while clothes were fetched.

Finally shown to the broken down cot that he was to sleep in, he'd crawled in gratefully, immediately falling asleep.

The next morning Ebury had found his plans sidetracked, as Blair had developed a fever during the night and was barely coherent.

"I don't want him and his sickness in my room." Warbeck had a great fear of illness and wanted Blair put as far away from him as possible. That was difficult, as Ebury didn't want Blair's presence announced to Naomi until the boy could state convincingly that he had voluntarily made the decision to stay at the castle and work

Announcing he'd take care of it, Warbeck dragged Blair back to the cellar. This time, Blair was given blankets and light, but at the sound of the door clanging closed and a bolt being shoved in place, Blair had had to stifle a scream.

He looked up at the lamp, trying to see how much oil was left and how soon the room would be plunged into darkness. The shadows on the walls flickered and in Blair's fevered state, took on demonic dimensions. He feared the lamp running out more and so tried desperately to stay awake. Fending off the darkness by reciting sonnets, then switching to math problems, he couldn't manage to hold sleep back. When he awoke, his nightmare had returned. It was dark.

***************

 

"What do you mean Warbeck's no longer employed here?" James stared down at his stepmother. The tiny woman wasn't in the least intimidated by her husband's son, she knew he was mad, and probably a simpleton by William's account.

"I mean he no longer holds a position here, James. How many ways do you want me to convey the same simple information?"

"I understood you perfectly well the first time. What I'm asking is why did he leave and how long ago and where did he go?"

"I'm sure I have no idea where he went. He quit quite suddenly."

She studied him from head to toe. Icy blue eyes stared down at her. His face had the definite lines of command etched into it and he stood a good foot and a half taller than she. His jacket hung with causal elegance upon his graceful frame and his breeches clung to his long, muscled legs. The body was spectacular; too bad the mind was so spotty. She wondered once again from what part of the family James had sprung.

"....expect from you." She pulled herself back from her contemplation. Shaking her curls, she gave him one of her winsome smiles.

"I'm sorry, you were saying?" He didn't seem to appreciate the bestowment, his face set in a scowl.

"I said, madam, that I was going to question the staff and I hoped you would not interfere."

"La, if it amuses you, go right ahead, James." She placed her dainty hand in James larger one. James glanced down, the look on his face conveying his surprise and then as swiftly, his distaste.

"Then I will take my leave of you." James plucked the pink thing out of his palm and turned, moving quickly to the back of the house and the kitchen, leaving Geogianna feeling like the scullery maid.

In the pantry, James cornered Gilbert. The footman, was known as 'The Font' due to his uncanny ability to know every last scrap of information that passed through the house, the stables and the countryside in a two mile radius.

"What do you know about Warbeck and whose service has he entered?"

Gilbert looked at James. Known in the house as the looby one, he didn't take the question too seriously.

"Don't know nothing, sir."

James' eyes narrowed and he took a step closer. Gilbert belatedly remembered that no one had ever said he was a harmless looby. He quickly changed his stance.

"They say he went back to Saybrooke. They say he never really left Lord Ebury's service."

"What do you mean by that, never left his employ?"

"Well, I'm just telling you what I hear. That he had been in service to Lord Ebury, came here, but- not that I ever knew what they meant by this-- was still working for that other lord. And now he's done gone back there. Real sudden like."

"Wentworth is familiar, but I know nothing of this Ebury."

Rafe had been one step behind James all the way and now stepped forward. "Wentworth is where Naomi O'Malley works as governess. Of course O'Malley's not her real name and the Ebury heirs have all quite outgrown the need for a governess." Rafe managed the effect of a wink without the wink.

Gilbert nodded in agreement. "That be the word, she's his fancy piece all right."

Ellison took that in and turned it over in his mind. It couldn't possibly be coincidence, which left Ebury at the center, pulling the strings.

"Rafe, what do you know about Ebury?"

"Didn't look into him when I was hunting down O'Malley, but I'll put my ear to the ground and see what I can come up with."

"Wot you need to know?"

Both Rafe and Ellison turned in surprise to their reluctant informant.

James wasn't about to turn down the 'Font' if he had suddenly decided to contribute all he knew. "What kind of man is Ebury?"

Gilbert paused, clearly running through the relevance of what he knew.

"Besotted." Seemed to sum it up as far as Gilbert was concerned.

"Besotted? By what? Drink? Women? Gambling?"

"By the O'Malley woman. Word is he fell for her hard as soon as she came to look after the children. That be more'n ten years ago and he's still caught in her skirts." Gilbert's face showed his amazement. He thought a little more. "He likes his cattle, he does, known for spending a fortune on a stud."

"And?"

Gilbert made a show of scratching his chin and looking contemplative.

James motioned to Rafe, who understood and immediately drew out money, handing it to the footman.

"He belongs to one of them hells, the kind that likes their doings rough."

"Their doings?" There were all types of hells.

"Their naked doings." Gilbert winked.

James grimaced in distaste. Those "hells" were well known for their debauchery and craven inclinations. Everything he had learned about Ebury made his stomach twist with fear and loathing. There were only a few reasons a man like that would want Blair. James turned away from that thought, unwilling to let his imagination work.

Mrs. Martin came through the kitchen and catching sight of James exclaimed, "Dear boy! You're back! How are you feeling?" She moved with uncommon speed for a woman so large, patting James' arm and urging him to sit.

"Why James, you look much better. How is that London air agrees with you?" As always, she left very little room for replies and James just smiled, knowing he'd never actually get a sentence out.

She surprised him, pausing and then stated, "You've found Blair." Beaming, she took his face in both hands. "You clever boy, I knew you would."

Nodding, James looked into the warm brown eyes that had watched him grow up. The hands on his face were more familiar to him than his father's and certainly more comforting.

"Yes, I found him." James looked sharply at Gilbert, warning him with a scowl to say nothing.

"And? How is he, where is he, has he come home with you?" Mrs. Martin barely waited a beat until she launched into another soliloquy.

"Wait until he hears the good news! That evil beast Warbeck is finally gone. There's no reason Blair can't come back; the new man is a lamb. Tell him, won't you? Oh, it'll be good to have the boyo back, reading the papers in the evening. Och, I must go tell the cook, we've all been so worried." Mrs. Martin steamed back out of the kitchen in full gossip regalia.

James shook his head with fondness at Mrs. Martin's single-mindedness. He hated to disappoint her, but there was no way Blair would ever set foot in Saybrooke again as a servant.

"C'mon Rafe, I want to get to Wentworth as soon as possible. It's only a few hours ride from here."

It was already mid-afternoon and Wentworth, a good four-hour ride from Saybrooke, but Rafe made no protest to the brutal pace.

*****************

Nothingness. No light leaked into the cellar, it was deep with darkness. Blair clutched the blanket, grateful for the warmth, ducking his head under it. He tried to pretend that the darkness merely came from being under the cover and if he stuck his head out there would be light. For a time that fiction held. Too soon, Blair realized he needed to relieve his bladder and would have to pull the blanket down and face the dark. Shakily, he got to his feet. With his hands in front of him, he shuffled forward until he connected to a wall. He followed it to the furthest corner where Warbeck had indicated he would leave a chamber pot.

The number of steps it took to get to it reassured Blair that he wasn't in some small space, but still in the cellar. Thirst was his next concern and he backtracked to where he thought he'd started. He moved towards the center, but his feet failed to connect to the blankets he'd left there. Blair shuffled around, at first randomly, until the panic started to swell uncomfortably.

He forced himself to breathe again and begin his search in a more systematic way. No matter how he covered the room, he couldn't seem to find the place he'd started from, the place that had the blankets and the water. He'd lost his place, he'd lost everything, and no one would find him here in this darkness. No one would try. He paused in his panicked scramblings, leaning his head against the wall. The fever had yet to run its course, and the coughing fits hit him with a savagery that left him limp, his chest aching from the effort to clear his lungs. Putting his back to the cold wall, Blair sank to the floor. He'd rest and then start again.

 

*******************************

Rafe and James pushed through the evening gloom. The rain had started just after they stopped to eat and rest the horses, making the last hour miserable. Neither man said anything, concentrating on making progress. The cold and the wet barely registered with James, all his concern focused on Blair. He refused to think Blair might already be dead. The intent in both assaults seemed to be acquisition, not assassination. The two men at the center of this web seemed capable of anything.

James had lived among men his whole life, lived among battle-hardened men and men who had no mercy. He knew what men could do, the kind of games that were played out as men vied for dominance and survival. He'd experienced most of it, seen all of it. Some of it had come close to killing him, but none had come close to breaking him.

James was, at heart, a warrior. Faced with an opponent bent on his destruction, he fought, feinted, dodged or retreated. He understood how to protect the center, how to take a beating that left scars, but no marks. Manning and his father had started that lesson at an early age. Instinctively he had seen their intent, their need to reduce him. Where they failed, the madness nearly succeeded. And it was Blair who somehow kept the madness at bay.

From the moment he'd set eyes on Blair, he'd been drawn to him. At first it had been curiosity. Then surprisingly, respect and finally, alarmingly, James had felt things he had fought against his whole life. Affection, attachment...for the warrior in James knew the danger in those things, instinctively knew that those things left the center unprotected.

James shook his head to rid himself of the thoughts as well as the rain dripping down his hat and under his collar. He didn't like to examine the feelings he had for Blair too closely. He knew the word affection was a mere shadow of the feelings he had for Blair. But to give those feelings articulation was to acknowledge the power Blair held over him.

James had been successful at denying the power until the madness. If not for that, James would have skirted his feelings for Blair. He would have served his country, found a ladylove, settled into a life of gentility and children, hunts, and old age with grandchildren at his knees.

The madness had put an end to that possible future and replaced it with Blair. James had been surprised there was no bitterness with that knowledge. No great pangs of regret for what he could no longer have.

Blair was enough. Blair would do.

James accepted that, was even grateful for it, but did not want to name it. But as James contemplated what men did to one another...out of power, fear, boredom, need...he couldn't fight, dodge, feint or even retreat.

And two men held Blair. Their purpose was unknown, but their capacity for pain and depravity had been established. For most of this time, James had refused to imagine what might be happening. He didn't have the strength to look at the possibilities.

As they drew closer to Wentworth, James realized he needed to prepare himself for what he might find. Blair was not a warrior, couldn't be counted on to know how to protect himself. The nightmare had already revealed how someone had tried to destroy him. They had not succeeded, but they had eroded the core. James vowed that if he found Blair alive James would make sure he survived whole.

Rafe interrupted his dark silence. "Almost there, just another mile and we'll be in view."

If they were in view of Wentworth, then Wentworth would be in view of them. That would not do.

"Know of a back way in?"

"Aye. Grew up in these parts. We'll have to walk the last half-mile."

 

Blair woke to a hand in his hair, pulling him upright. A moan escaped him before he was fully awake.

"O'Malley, only you could manage to get lost in two rooms. Cox, show O'Malley to his bed."

Blair opened his eyes. The lamps had been re-lit and Warbeck stood by the door, keeping his distance from the shivering heap of sickness. The man who had administered the washing to Blair, knelt beside him, his hand still painfully entwined in Blair's hair.

Struggling to sit upright and move away from Cox, Blair used the wall to gain his feet. Although the room had light, grayness edged Blair's sight and he knew once he left the support of the wall, he would fall. Cox put his hand under Blair's elbow, and pulled him forward. Blair stumbled, but kept his feet, allowing the man to lead him to the mound of blankets. Cox removed his support and Blair crumpled, fighting to remain conscious. He tried to pull the blankets around him.

"Give him the water, he seems unable to accomplish even that small task."

Cox took the earthen jar and supported Blair's shoulders, as Blair drank as fast as he could, afraid it would be taken away. Cox waited until Blair had enough, then lowered him back to the ground.

"If it were up to me, I'd let you fend for yourself, but Lord Ebury has need of you and that requires you regain your health. I'll send someone down with soup, make sure you eat every drop."

Blair watched Warbeck and Cox leave, wincing at the sound of the door closing. There was no accompanying sound of a lock clicking into place. He would wait until Warbeck was truly gone and then he'd try the door. Perhaps he could find his mother and they would be able to leave. Blair waited, but before the footsteps had faded away, he was asleep.

Blair came awake to gentle hands on his face, urging him to consciousness. "'Ere, now, can't be feeding you soup when yer fast asleep."

There was a girl, maybe twelve or thirteen, sitting next to him, a bowl of soup in her lap. With a great deal of effort, Blair sat up. The soup smelled divine and he took it from Daisy with shaking hands. The warmth of the bowl helped to steady him and he finished it all too quickly, wishing there was more.

"I'm Daisy. You were a right hungry one. Want me to fetch you another?" Blair nodded and Daisy took the bowl. She was small but there was something in her eyes that was old and Blair wondered what story she could tell.

"Be back in a flash." Blair pushed the blankets off. He was hot and sweaty and the blankets itched. Crawling over to the wall, he put his back up against it, welcoming the coolness. Daisy was as good as her word, returning quickly with a second bowl.

Blair took a spoonful. The hot liquid soothed the rawness of his throat.

"Daisy?' His voice sounded rusty and he wondered how long he'd been here.

"Yeah?" She waited, warily, for what he might ask.

Blair almost stopped himself; almost held back the question, but he had to ask. "Do you know Naomi O'Malley?"

She looked surprised at the question. "Course I know Miss Naomi. Do you?" The inflection in her voice indicated she found the idea of a man like him knowing Miss Naomi one of the most ludicrous things she'd ever heard, and Blair bit back the information that he was her son.

"Yes. Is she...all right?" Blair waited, his fear for what he might hear making him hold his breath.

"Is she all right? Of course she's all right. She..." Daisy paused, seemingly trying to decide what to say. "She's a favorite here, and what she wants, she gets. My goodness, just last month she up and decided she was bored and she demanded Lord Ebury provide some amusement. He had the Billings' Players brought in and they played their show here, just for the Lord and his lady."

Blair blinked at that. Tried to understand what that meant.

"But she has no freedom, she's his prisoner." The protest elicited a laugh from Daisy.

"Miss Naomi, a prisoner? Ah, pull the other one, why doncha. She goes to London for the Season and the little Season. She just came back from Bath. It's true, she don't ever stay away long 'less the lord is with 'er. They don't like being apart."

Well, he was talking to a child, what kind of information could you get from a chit of twelve. He put the bowl down carefully.

"Thank you for all your kindness." Blair tried to swallow the tears that were threatening, knowing it was just exhaustion and pain.

Daisy collected the bowl and spoon and moved the jar of water and blankets next to Blair.

"You gonna be all right?" Daisy round face looked concerned and Blair nodded his reassurances.

"I'll be fine."

"Well, okay then, I'll be back later. They says I'm to bring you more food later."

Blair was relieved to know that someone would be coming back.

***********************

James and Rafe crept the final yards to the great castle. It was full night now and that, combined with the rain, meant there was little fear of being seen. Nevertheless, the training they'd each gotten did not allow them to be careless. Now that he was close to Blair, James found himself trying to hear Blair, the way he'd heard him in the park. The first thing he heard was the clang of the pots being washed and marked the location of the kitchen in his head. There was conversation, but no mention of Blair.

Moving past the guttural speech of the servants, James listened for the rounded vowels of the upper-crust. There was a trill, the kind of laugh only a woman of leisure could have, light...airy...musical and it made him think of Blair. Listening to him speak was so often like following notes rather than words.

"Oh pish posh, Edward, you can't deny me a trip to Paris. It's been an age since I was there last--" She was interrupted.

"Less than a year, Madame." It was a tenor voice and held amusement, exasperation and affection in equal parts.

"That's an age, Edward. You know how fast fashion changes."

"But I want you to stay here for at least a week, love. I have a surprise for you."

"A surprise?" A delighted squeal that made James wince.

"Yes, love, but I need a week."

"Why? Why is it taking so long? Are you waiting for it to be brought here?" The pout was done with just the right child-like inflection mixed with impatience.

"I'm not telling you anything, except you will love it and you must wait a week."

"You're not making this up are you? Just to keep me here?"

"No, my dear, this has been in the works for quite awhile and it's only now coming together."

"Very well, darling. I will be a font of patience, for one week. Then I'm going whether this surprise is here or not."

"Thank you, love. Every week, every day, every hour, with you is treasured."

It was a shock that the bastard that had taken Blair was capable of such a pretty speech. It followed logic to assume that he was speaking to Blair's mother, who seemed to find it all to her liking. If Ebury was speaking of Blair as the surprise, why would it take a week? Where was Blair?

He moved on, not expecting to learn anything more in that room, but marking the voices to memory. The housekeeper was discussing household details, "I've decided to send word to Lenox and see if they have any people we can hire. Blast Warbeck! We can barely keep the scullery maids, let alone anyone with skill. The man manages to run them all off eventually..." James moved on, searching, listening for the one voice that mattered... a young voice, one that should have been in bed was saying, "'Er now, you 'avta at least drink somthin'." A grunt and then finally, the beloved voice, low, raw..."Th-thank you, Daisy."

More sounds of movement, the echoes telling James it was a small room, stone....

"I need to, uh....get up and..." Blair's embarrassment was obvious.

"You need to take a piss? 'Ere, I'll 'elp ya up. Just grab--" grunts and gasps and then the sound of Blair shuffling, each breath labored, rasping in and out of weakened lungs....

"James! James! Hell, James if you don't--" Rafe was in his face as James became aware of the dark, moist night.

"Yeah, I'm back, I hear you."

"My God, what was that? What the hell is wrong with you?"

James ignored him. "How long was I like that?"

"About ten minutes."

Ten minutes...James immediately went back to search for Blair's voice, afraid he wouldn't find it. Nothing, there was nothing....and then he heard Daisy.

"Och, why they have him in that cold, damp cellar if they want him well, is beyond me. He's sick as a dog and not gettin' any better in that place."

"Warbeck was clear, lass, and you don't cross Warbeck. That poor fella down there is proof of that. You get any of that soup into him?"

"No, didn't seem to have no interest in nothing, not hardly the water, even."

"Yes, well, given his suddenly changed circumstances, one can understand."

"He really gonna be one of us, Mrs. Clancy? Such nice clothes, even if they are all ruined now. He speaks like an upper and--" her voice dropped to a whisper, but James had no trouble hearing, "he asked about Miss Naomi."

"Did he now? Maybe the master caught him flirting with her and this is his punishment. Wouldn't want to be in his shoes. Master Ebury will make sure Warbeck has him well in hand and then probably make the lad haul in the water for her bath. Ever since he brought those men here, he thinks he can do anything to anybody and get away with it. No wonder we can barely keep this place staffed. Does the man think he's king? "

James pulled himself away, knowing he'd learned all he was likely to. James turned to Rafe, who hovered next to him, a familiar look of concern mixed with impatience on his face.

"He's in a cellar."

Rafe snorted. "And you know that by how? Divination?"

Now this posed a problem. James hadn't realized just when he'd made the transition from thinking he was mad to thinking madness or not, it worked. Now he'd blurted out what he knew to be true with no way to explain it.

"Well, it just makes sense, that's all." Hedging weakly, James started moving, hoping that Rafe would lose interest in the question.

"I suppose it's as good a starting place as any." Rafe grumbled and followed.

Getting in was difficult. Ebury ran his estate like a military operation, complete with patrols. James used his uncanny ability to stop and find them a hiding place, often in the darkest, most obscure corners, long before one of many servants wandered by. James thought the cellar would be one off the kitchen, but didn't give Rafe the reasoning behind that deduction and Rafe had worked for the aristocracy often enough not to bother asking.

At one point, they waited, nose-to-nose in a small alcove made by a stairway. James took the time to catalog Rafe's smell, acknowledging to himself the usefulness of each part of his fractured madness. If he and Rafe were separated, he'd have no trouble tracking him by his scent. Having had that thought, he sniffed, checking the air, seeing if there was a hint of Blair. He could not have named what Blair smelled like, but he knew he would recognize it without any doubt.

The castle was rife with the smell of unwashed bodies, vegetables rotting in the kitchen, dank air saturated with water, cloying perfume that was used to mask the obnoxious odors.

James started to gag and tried desperately to quash the heightened sense. It was utter folly to think he could make use of it and James castigated himself for his arrogance, as a footman rounded the corner into their hiding space. Rafe hit him, while James bent over; unable to control the gagging that had accelerated to retching.

They fought, the tight corner and James on his knees, making the combat awkward. The noise of the fight echoed along the walls. James pulled himself up and snaked an arm around the servant, and twisted, breaking his neck and ending the commotion.

"What's the matter with you?" Rafe hissed, irritation and concern in equal parts communicated.

"The smell..." James gasped out. His stomach, not full before, had emptied on the first volley and still, his body spasmed violently with the need to purge itself.

"Smell? What bloody smell? It smells exactly as it's always smelled." Rafe's assertion did nothing to calm James. Seeing that James showed no signs of getting over his peculiar reaction, Rafe grabbed James by the arm and supported him, quickly leading them back the way they had come.

Bursting out the side door, James collapsed on the ground, trying to get fresh air in his lungs and clear the stench from his nose. Rafe tugged and pulled and got James into the shadowed trees, where he lay, limp and defeated.

"It must have been something that you ate. Bad timing that, we almost got to him." James remained silent. Many minutes passed until finally he was able to get to his knees and then his feet.

"We go back in."

"Don't be insane, man. Did you see the patrols are set? He's got his own private army here, loyal to him and prepared to defend this place from the likes of you and me. They'll have found the servant dead by now and alerted the household. We'll have to come back."

"No, I don't want Blair to spend another night here." James would go after him alone if necessary.

Rafe planted himself in front of the large, imposing body of his employer. "I can't let you do that. Think. If we get caught there'll be no hope for O'Malley. We must retreat and find another way in tomorrow."

James' brain heard the wisdom, but his body fought Rafe all the same. He looked down at the dark-haired man.

"Please, we have to get him out." It took effort to make it a plea and not a command, but James knew, after that fiasco, he could no longer expect Rafe to put aside his judgement and simply accept whatever decision he made.

Rafe's face reflected shock that James had used the word please. It was a powerful inducement, but Rafe stood firm. His job here was to get O'Malley out of there, but he was pretty sure alive was also part of the job and to go in now was to bring the odds down on that outcome. Something was going on, something was going on with Ellison, and until Rafe understood it a little better, he wasn't about to risk all three of their lives.

So he shook his head and took Ellison by the elbow and guided him back the way they had come. Ellison hesitated, but allowed himself to be steered and when they were far enough away from the castle to be safe, they stopped.

"Look, " Rafe ran his hand through his hair, wondering how one countermanded one's boss and still stayed on the job, "this is going to take some finesse. We've alerted them now and there's no telling how they'll react to intruders in the house. I say we get Alice to come and get herself employed. A place like this is always understaffed. We get her in, she finds out what 's going on and then we get O'Malley out, quick as a tick and no one hurt."

Ellison listened with his head down. Whatever had been bothering him, was bothering him still.

Rafe took a chance. "And," he stopped, sure that this was a bad idea, "you have to tell me what was going on back there."

At that, Ellison's head came up and the look in his eyes chilled Rafe to the core. He was sorry he'd asked and sure he was about to become even sorrier.

Ellison shifted on his feet and Rafe instinctively took hold of his elbow once again, to make sure he didn't suddenly bolt back to the hulking pile of stones that held his friend.

"I came back from India changed." Ellison said it flatly and then paused. Rafe jumped in.

"Everyone comes back from India changed."

A tight, grim smile flitted across James' face. "Yes, well, not quite in such tangible ways." Ellison shuddered. "Suddenly I could hear what should have been impossible to hear, see, what was much too far away to be seen. My skin hurt all the time, food was poison and smells..." his voice trailed off and Rafe got a glimmer of what had just gone on back there.

Ellison continued. "I thought it was madness, the doctors thought it madness. And then...something happened. I saw and heard something from much too far away and yet it was real. It was at the park, when Blair was attacked for the second time. I saw it from the third floor window. It was real. Do you understand?" Ellison stood, tilted aggressively forward, daring Rafe to draw conclusions.

Rafe nodded, he understood. He performed the sign of the cross. Because he had seen the truth of these words today, and while he wasn't as superstitious as some, he knew that this was unnatural, this was...what? He knew the devil gave his favors...stood to reason Ellison had performed some deed, or maybe sold his soul, or more likely, sold some poor sod down the river...and this was his reward. Except it wasn't much of a reward if it made you puke your guts out and think yourself insane.

At Rafe's sign of the cross, James had sighed and clenched his fists. He really didn't want to hurt Rafe, he needed him and besides, he'd come to like him. He was on guard, waiting to see what Rafe's reaction would be and whether Rafe would decide he was Satan himself. He didn't want to die because of this blasted curse. Once he had, but no longer. And he didn't want to die with Blair caught in Ebury's machinations. He would kill Rafe before he'd let the man's religious beliefs get in the way of freeing Blair and that was all there was to it.

He watched as Rafe thought it all through. His stomach ached with a dull fire and his skin was clammy. If Rafe made a move, James would have to go for his throat. He didn't have the stamina to fight fair and he *would* win this fight.

Rafe nodded again and said, "I understand. Double-edged sword, eh? And a damned nuisance when it's not an asset."

Rafe was going to treat this like it made sense then. James shoulders eased back down and he tottered a little as he settled back on his heels, relaxing his stance.

"You got that right." James was glad to let it drop.

"We don't have time to wait for Alice to come and get herself hired on. But I have an idea..."

*********************

Blair woke to the total blankness of his personal hell. His breathing started to come in quick, hard pants as he tried to pull himself back from the hysteria edging ever closer. He bit his lip to keep the scream in and flung his arms out, reassuring himself that he had space around him. Hiccuping the cry back, he took in a deep breath and held it, held it and then slowly released it.

His ability to contain the fear was eroding and the only thing that gave him the resolve was his knowledge that Warbeck was purposefully taking the light away. The lamps held more than enough oil to stay lit and yet Blair always awoke to pitchy darkness.

The fever hampered Blair's ability to keep his head clear. The darkness of his mind was almost as frightening as the darkness of the room. He held on to the little piece of himself that still had light. James. But the fever continually tried to wrest that small piece away. It beat him down with the confusion, the dreams, the vertigo that came out of nowhere, spinning him hard to the ground. Sometimes he could hear James speaking to him, his voice tickling his ear, the sound like the faint echo of a lullaby. Sometimes he felt James' hands on his body, stroking him, soothing him, his touch holding him together. He'd open his eyes, sure that James had come, to the nothingness, which mocked him.

He told the nothingness that soon Daisy would come in. "Bloody hell," she would exclaim, and the rough words would sound ridiculously sweet in her clear, young voice, "what in blue blazes is wrong with that lamp?"

She would re-light it, her small stature belying her sturdy strength and ability. Then in her childish voice that still held a lisp, she would tell him to "eat, all of it, and now drink". She would bring the cup to his lips and hold it there until she was satisfied that he had taken in enough. Later, her thin shoulder would be under his hand, and she would guide him to the chamber pot. Finally, her little hands would tuck the covers around him in a mimicry of maternal fussing.

She would come, you'll see, she would. Blair held on to that thought, held on to it tightly, as he waited in the infinite darkness and the nothingness crept closer.

*************************

 

Rafe looked over the man in front of him. The clothes hung on him, making it clear he had missed too many meals. The jacket was shabby and patched, the breeches loose and threadbare. The man's head was bowed, his hands twisting his cap all out of shape, as he awaited judgment.

"Will I do?" He asked, his voice tentative and pleading.

Walking around him, Rafe pondered the question. The man was built for hard work, the muscles in his back and calves, speaking to a life of hard labor. He had spoken with a rough country accent, a little Yorkshire around the edges of his vowels. His shoulders hunched forward in the classic stance of the common man hoping for favor. He kept his eyes down, which was just as well. The sharp intelligence there would give it all away.

Rafe finished his survey, coming back to stand in front of the supplicant. The head lifted and the eyes that met his were dull, a little crossed, and lacking in wit.

"By jove, James, this could work. You are the very picture of a serf."

"Glad you're pleased, gov'ner. Got a lot of little mouths to feed at home and would be real grateful for the position."

Rafe nodded enthusiastically. "Get on with you now. The sooner you get hired on, the sooner we can get done with this rescue."

"Aye, aye. I'll meet you in two days, hopefully, I'll have Blair. If I fail to make that meeting, wait three hours and then ride back to Belgrave Square for help."

"Understood. Do this the old-fashioned way. you got that? You should have no trouble gathering information on O'Malley, the servants will be more than happy to tell you everything you need to know. Do-not-risk---it." Rafe looked Ellison in the eye and was happy to see a nod of acquiescence as Ellison adjusted the cap on his head and headed down the winding road.

***********

'Alfie' straightened from the task of placing the logs he'd chopped in neat rows and eyed his woodpile. It was symmetrical to an extreme and twice as large as Pete's, who had labored all morning alongside James. He felt the strain of the repeated movement, but he was well used to physical labor, even if he'd been less active in the last year and a half. The problem was Pete. He'd only been working for Ebury for three days and so had no information to divulge. James hoped the evening meal would bring him into contact with some talkative soul.

*************

 

Ebury studied the man who lay at his feet. Nudging the heap with his toe, he turned him over. Grimacing at the sight, he sighed. This had seemed like such a good idea when Warbeck had suggested it, but now it was all falling apart. The heap was probably dying and even if it lived, wouldn't be presentable to Naomi in four days time. O'Malley looked like a discarded scarecrow, his hair, wild and matted, his face, pale under the growth of beard. O'Malley opened his eyes and Ebury could see the sickness in the watery pale blue his eyes had become, looking nothing like the vibrant blue that he had first seen.

"Wha--?" The heap spoke and tried to sit up, but failed and subsided.

"If Naomi could see you now, what would she think of her darling boy, her brilliant, boy, her oh so intelligent, clever and adorable Blair. She wouldn't even recognize you, I wager."

"Sh-she would." Blair said through teeth clenched to keep from chattering.

"Would you really want her to? Would you want your sweet, charming mother to see what a dirty animal you are?"

"Not... ju-just sick." Getting the words formed and out was getting increasingly difficult.

"Really?" Ebury pursed his lips. "I think you delude yourself." Ebury reached down and pulled Blair up by his hair to a sitting position.

Leaning back, Blair tried to keep his balance, though the room spun and threatened to pitch him to the floor. He worked to keep his eyes open and pay attention but it was hard and he wasn't sure it was worth it.

"Have you always been more trouble than you're worth? God knows, you're more trouble to me." Ebury paced.

"Look, I can't have you upstairs, Naomi would come across you. I need you to get better so I can get you established in the household before Naomi goes off to London. With you here, she'll be sure to come back. So you see, I'm on a schedule here."

Blair looked up and tried to follow the man as he walked back and forth, tried to follow what the man was saying, but all of it made him dizzy and made his head hurt. Closing his eyes, he rested, but was snapped back awake by a slap that bounced his head off the wall.

"You will listen to me. You will get better, you will tell Naomi you want to be here and you will play the good son and servant. Do you understand?"

It sounded like an assent was called for and Blair nodded.

"Good. I'm sending a man down here to get you cleaned up and halfway presentable." Ebury watched as Naomi's son's eyes closed again and he slumped over. This one was almost too easy. He liked to see a lot more spirit before he brought them graveling to his feet. Who would have thought Naomi's son would be so afraid of the dark that he would willingly agree to servitude? There was something utterly delicious about having dear Blair here and in this state.

Ebury looked down at the son of the man he hated and the woman he loved and something twisted inside. Something dark took shape and grew. His eyes glittered with newborn interest. He would get the whelp cleaned up and healthy and then he would explore the makings of this man. Reaching down, he moved the blanket and sought O'Malley's cock.

When O'Malley felt a hand there, he jerked awake and tried to shove Ebury aside. It was a pathetically futile attempt. Ebury's hand roved up and own the soft organ, disappointed when it didn't grow in his hands. O'Malley's feeble efforts to dislodge him made Ebury grow hard and he bit his lip, relishing the pain. O'Malley was barely conscious and liked them to feel what he was doing to them.

He had plenty of time to find ways to make O'Malley squirm and beg, whether for more or to be left alone. He walked away, whistling. Yes, this had been a very good plan of Warbeck's.

*****************

For the first time when Blair heard the door close, he felt relief. Hugging himself close, he tried to forget what Ebury's hand on him had felt like, but he couldn't. He could still feel it, the cold, hard implacableness of the grope, the almost clinical way Ebury had touched him, like someone handling a dead thing. Cupping his penis, Blair pressed it, trying to erase the memory. The memory stayed.

Blair had little experience with sex, having lived an intensely communal life. Once on his own, his thoughts had been filled with grief and survival. Quickly he sorted through his memories of touch, trying to find one to take the place of the ligering vileness of Ebury's assault.

Mrs. Martin had hugged him on ocassion. The sensation of being buried in her massive bosoms had been both nice and alarming, like getting swallowed whole by Jonah's whale. The memory of Ebury stayed.

He couldn't remember his mother's hugs, though he was sure she had.

He thought of Alice, with her slim fingers, touching him on the street the first time they met. Her hand had been cool, her touch delicate and caressing. The memory of Ebury stayed.

A memory of James came to mind, of being held tight to his chest as he had been carried up the stairs. It had been embarrassing when it happened, being picked up like a child and carried to bed. But now the memory was magic as it dispersed the ugliness of Ebury's touch. He held onto it, held it close and fell asleep.

 

Waking, he was surprised to see the lamp still lit. He pushed himself up, his arms shaking with the effort. He needed to get up, to move, why? Something pushed at him, telling him he had to get to his feet. Oh... yeah, Ebury was sending his man down to clean him up. He could hear the rattle of keys as someone approached. The tread was heavy, nothing like Daisy's little skip.

Remembering the last cleaning he'd received, Blair forced himself to stand. He wasn't going to let that happen again. He positioned himself and as the door swung open, he brought the wine bottle down on the intruder's head. The man twisted and easily eluded the bottle, catching it in his hands and disarming Blair. Blair threw himself backward, a sob catching in his throat as he tried to think of some way to get away.

"Whoa there, cub, it's me, James." Blair continued to back up, not recognizing the shabbily attired man and only knowing something bad was about to happen.

James kept his distance, recognizing Blair's disorientation and not wanting to add to his distress, but it was hard. Blair was close to collapse, shaking and fumbling for another bottle.

"Blair, it's me, it's James, I've come to take you home."

"No, no, that's a lie. No, James wouldn't come."

"I came, I'm here. Look at me, take a good look, Blair."

Blair was shaking his head, not looking at James. "Couldn't find me, no, he'd never find me."

James couldn't help the exasperation that was creeping into his voice. "I did find you. I am here. And I will get you out."

Blair's head shot up and he looked hard at the stranger in front of him.

Lowering his weapon, he asked, "Ja-james? You came for me?"

"I've come to take you home." James repeated, hoping Blair wasn't as sick as he looked. "It's a little difficult, everyone is on their guard here, but I will get you out."

"Out? Away? Now? Please?" Blair stumbled forward and James bridged the distance between them, catching Blair before he fell to the ground. He held on, dismayed at all the signs of the illness that had almost taken Blair's life before.

Blair looked up at him, hope fading in his eyes. "I can't go."

"Yes, you can, I'll carry you out if I have to."

"No, you...I'm filthy, you'd.... no, but even if-- I can't, I must stay here. I said I would."

James looked at him as if he were speaking the Latin they had tried to decipher together.

Blair's exhausted mind couldn't find the words to make James understand what would happen if he didn't stay. The nothingness that would consume him and blot out everything. If he stayed, at least something would be left. None of the words that would explain that would come and he pushed at James, trying to separate before that became impossible.

James allowed himself to be pushed. Blair was eased back to the ground. The nothingness was gaining on his ledge and would soon devour it. Oh, God, it would take him if he went away and take him if he stayed. Which should he do? Could he leave here? Was that even possible? Did he have anywhere to go, anything to be that wasn't here?

Before that could happen, he felt James pulling him up

"Soon, Blair, I promise. I have a plan, but first, a man's coming down to clean you up." At those words, Blair started to struggle in his arms, panic giving him strength. James held on, trying not to add any more bruises, waiting for Blair's strength to give out. Which it did, quickly. What the hell had they done to him, to make the idea of getting clean so frightening?

"Blair, I won't let them hurt you. Shhh, you'll get this done and then it won't be long before I'll get you away. Okay? Trust me."

Blair lay quietly in his arms, blinking up at him, the look in his eyes one of confusion.

"Come on, Blair. It won't be long before you're back in your house, just work with me here."

James could hear someone coming. He needed to leave Blair, but it wouldn't be for long.

James stood and pulled Blair with him and holding him steady. "I'm not leaving you here. Even if you don't see me, I'm nearby and as soon as chance allows, I'll get us away."

Blair said nothing and his passivity sent a jolt of fear through James. He told himself it was the illness and that once that was dealt with, Blair would cease this idiotic talk of staying and going back into service. Leaning against him, Blair had closed his eyes. By the sound of the footsteps, the man sent to bathe Blair was getting closer. James carefully lowered Blair back to the ground and stepped behind the stacks of wine. It took all the discipline he had to stay hidden as the man came in and shook Blair, who'd fallen back asleep on the cold stone.

Blair woke and stared in confusion at the man looming over him. As he registered it was no longer James, he tried to scramble away. James recognized the man as Nickers, a man of great girth and little brain. It took one step for Nickers to catch up with Blair and then he did the expedient thing of reaching down and picking Blair up, carrying him like a babe in his arms.

James continued to listen as Nick took Blair farther and farther away from him, a strange cooing sound accompanying the sounds of their passage to the washing room. James found himself following those sounds, unable to keep his distance.

Nickers looked up when James entered and gave a shy smile. They had worked together rebuilding a fireplace the day before and Nickers had taken a liking to 'Alfie'. Alfie didn't tease or make jokes he couldn't understand. Alfie didn't hide and make him do all the work. Alfie had seen how hungry he was, and had shared his lunch.

"Hullo, Alf. Whacha doing down here?"

"Nickers, just the man I hoped to see."

Nickers smile grew wider; very few people ever expressed pleasure in seeing him.

"I was sent down to get some sacks of grain, but got lost. And I 'urt my shoulder yesterday and don't think I can lift 'em."

A frown of sympathy crossed Nick's face. "I'll finish with this fella and come help."

"They wanted them right quick, Nick. I could finish 'ere if you'd like."

Nickers looked down at his charge who was shivering and hunched over in misery. He didn't like this job. It didn't seem right to make someone take a bath when they were sick.

"'Kay." He said slowly. "But be careful wit' 'im, 'e's sick and kind of skittish."

"I'll be very careful and I'll do a good job." James moved in and took the sponge from Nicker's hand.

"I'll get the grain upstairs."

"Thanks, Knick, you're a good lad."

Smiling from ear to ear, Nickers left Blair with James, who wasted no time in kneeling down and seeing how Blair was doing. Blair's eyes were clenched shut and his arms were wrapped tight around his middle.

"Blair?"

At the sound of his name, Blair opened his eyes. "James? What are you doing here?"

"Don't you remember? I came to get you out."

"No," Blair said slowly, "there's no getting out. Too dirty. See?" Blair held up his hands, dirty and scabbed over.

"No, Blair. We are getting out." James took one of Blair's hands and said, "And you're not too dirty. Nothing wrong with you that a little soap and water won't fix."

He soaped up the washrag and carefully cleaned Blair's face, then moved on and washed his hands. The fingernails were torn and the tips scabbed over. Trying not to disturb the healing process that had begun, James carefully soaped each finger and rinsed them clean.

Next the beard that darkened Blair's face. After he got it lathered, James stood behind Blair and tilted his head back, then carefully scraped his face with the straightedge. Blair submitted passively, though whether from exhaustion or trust, James couldn't tell. It felt odd to perform such an intimate service and James was surprised at the satisfaction it gave him.

Did Blair feel this way when he did these things for him?

There was the sweet compliant way Blair allowed him to move his head this way and that in order to get a better angle.

The way his hands felt on Blair's face, as he guided the razor across the well defined planes and valleys. Taking his time, James enjoyed the sensitivity of his fingers for the first time as he mapped out the contours of Blair's face

The heaviness of Blair's head, resting on his stomach, sent warmth through James' body, as he scraped the whiskers from the long column of Blair's throat. Letting his hands linger there for a moment, he felt Blair swallow, felt the air traveling to his lungs, which rattled with the effort of breathing.

Blair's eyes were closed in total exhaustion and trust and James felt his desire for this man spill from friend and brother to something far more primal. He ached with it, a sweet, terrifying ache.

James pulled himself back from his immersion in the tactile sensations of Blair, realizing he needed to get a move on or he would be lost. After he wiped the soap and whiskers from Blair's face, he removed Blair's shirt, his eyes taking in the purple and yellow bruises mottling Blair's chest and back.

Soaping the rag again, he ran it up and under Blair's arms and across his chest and back. His fingers could feel the warmth and texture of Blair's skin through the cloth. The sweet ache grew.

Once Blair was rinsed and dried, James got the clean shirt on him. Blair had been silent the entire time and James hadn't said much beyond, "Arm up, that's good. Almost done, tilt back..." Knowing that Blair was beyond further communication.

Finally, James undid the ties and slid Blair's breeches off. This time he handed Blair the soap and cloth. Blair took it, but seemed unsure of what he was supposed to do, so James guided the cloth down to Blair's penis.

James was afraid he might be called upon to clean there as well. Afraid and hopeful, his hands were eager to touch Blair and yet afraid of what it would feel like. Understanding came into Blair's eyes and he put the rag to use, finishing the bath.

Once Blair was clean and dressed, James hesitated. He knew that Ebury had ordered Blair brought to the kitchen once he was clean.

What James wanted to do was get Blair out the side door and to the rendezvous with Rafe, but Ebury had set guards at each door after the break-in. Had Blair had been in better shape, perhaps they might have taken that chance. As it was, he just had to bide his time.

James recognized the need to stay in character. He must act indifferent to Blair's state and neutral as he went about waiting for the guard to relax. His fists clenched and unclenched as he looked down at the man he supported in his arms. Blair was sick and beaten and confused. James cupped his clean-shaven face and rubbed his thumb across the naked cheek. His skin was taut, blue-tinged and fragile, like a leaf too long off a tree. Blair looked up at him with sleepy, trusting eyes and James thought his heart would break. James would have forced his way out, but now, that was too great a risk. He would have to comply with Ebury's order.

Reminding himself that Blair's mother would take over his care and make sure a doctor was called, James tried to appease his worry for Blair's health.

Getting in and positioning himself inside the house had taken longer than he'd thought it would. It had gone against his natural inclination for action and he found himself grateful for the training Lewis had given him when he'd first been chosen to work undercover. The weathered Colonel had thrown up his hands in exasperation more than once, despairing that he would ever make the reckless young man in front of him understand the importance of patience and subterfuge. Somehow his lessons had lodged and James had been surprisingly adept at donning foreign identities and living alternate lives as he collected information.

But it was one thing to become someone else and take on the pain and humiliation of a role while working clandestinely. It was another thing entirely to see his friend abused and still have to maintain a ruse. James found this nearly unbearable.

In his time serving Colonel Lewis he had to do many things, endure many things that would have shocked the people of Saybrooke, who had known Master Ellison as a rather feckless and indulged young man.

Oddly enough, those things, rather than filling him with hard bitterness, had opened him to a world he had been blind to. A world in which one held a position, favor or friendship by virtue of what you did and what you were good for. That you had been born into the gentry, that your father was a lord, that your mother had the blood of king's in her veins...mattered for naught. And James had found out that that world made sense to him. That world was worth protecting.

Now he had to take Blair upstairs to a man he knew had orchestrated the state that Blair was in. He had to help present Blair to his mother, as she sat in her elegant surroundings and Blair stood before her, defeated and reduced.

But he would do it because he didn't yet have the safe means to get Blair out. And he would put his faith in Blair's mother, to get him well.

"Come on, Blair." James moved them toward the door, his arm around Blair's waist.

"Home?" Blair was so hopeful. He looked down at himself and back up at James. "Am I clean enough to go home?"

"Yes, you're clean enough. But first you have to go and see your mother."

"My mother?" Blair paused and looked at James with a frown.

"Yes, Lord Ebury has arranged for you to see your mother."

Blair slowly nodded. "Oh, yes, see my mother and tell her I want to stay and be in service here. Yes, that's right...'

James alarm grew. Blair's voice was toneless and confused and uttering total fustian.

"No, Blair. You aren't going to be in service here. You have a home. You're going to Cambridge to study. You'll just have a nice visit with your mother and perhaps recuperate a little here and then we'll go back home."

"No, James. I must stay. If I stay, my mother will stay. So I must stay."

James was set to argue, but when he saw how pale Blair was, saw the sheen of sweat on his face from the simple act of walking to the door, he knew this wasn't the time.

"First things first. You visit with your mother and get well and then we'll think this through." Blair nodded and James firmed up his hold on him. "Oh, and Blair? You must act as if you don't know me. Do you understand?"

Blair tilted his head back to look at James. His sunken eyes searched James face and what he saw must have reassured him, because he nodded and said, "I understand."

The trip to the upper floor was laborious and James knew Blair would not be able to stay conscious for long. When they reached the kitchen, a small mite of a girl flew at them and started chattering, asking questions.

James set Blair on a chair and turned to her. "Your name, miss?"

She barely glanced at him, keeping her attention with Blair and answered, "I be Daisy. It's my job to look after 'im. Who you be?"

"Name's Alfie, young miss. Have you seen Nickers anywhere about here?"

"He just brought up some grain and then said he was going to the garden. Did you need him?"

"Nooo, it's just that I expected to see him here. He knew what to do with Blair."

Blair was leaned sideways in the chair and might have fallen if James had not kept a hand on him.

Just then, Lord Ebury invaded the kitchen. "I heard that this was far as you'd gotten. We're done with breakfast and soon we'll be done with lunch at this rate." James kept his face passive and bowed, determined to keep his cover and try to stay by Blair's side.

Ebury strode over to where Blair sat, slumped in the chair. He took Blair's chin in his hand and tilted Blair's face up. Blair blinked at him blearily, his eyes unfocused.

"This will never do. He won't be convincing at all in this state. You!" He pointed at James. "Are you in the servant's quarter?"

James didn't directly look at Ebury and answered in a voice that barely rose above a whisper, "No, sir. I'm in Nate's old room off the stable. Looking after a mare that's due to foal any minute."

"Take him there. Do what you can for him. I need him steady on his feet by tomorrow. I need him coherent and convincing by tomorrow night, no later!"

"I'll do me best, m'lord."

"Good, now get him out of here, before Mrs. O'Malley sees him like this."

James waited until Ebury had turned his back and then helped Blair to stand. Daisy had watched the whole exchange with wide-eyed amazement.

"I've only seen 'is lordship from afar afore. 'E must be frightful mad at Blair to come into the kitchen." She bustled over to the pantry and pulled out vegetables and dried beans.

"I'll put together some soup for Blair, and fetch it to you in the stables." When James looked at her questioningly, she shrugged and said, "Well, 'is lordship did say as you was to make Blair better. Ya gotta get food into 'im to get 'im better, sos I'm jest following orders like." She beamed, seemingly proud of her logic and her ability to help.

"Thank you, Miss Daisy, I'm in your debt." James gave her a small bow and she hesitated and then did a clumsy curtsey back to him.

Steering Blair out the side door, James considered his options. The best one would seem to be waiting until dark, and then getting Blair as far away from here as possible. So for now, he proceeded to the stables.

One could not fault Lord Ebury's judgment of cattle. The horses he owned were magnificent and it took a staff of ten to look after the considerable investment. They were always short-staffed and had drafted 'Alfie" from the wood-cutting detail on his second day. The house was also short-staffed and on the third day, 'Alfie' was put to work inside as well.

James maneuvered Blair to his simple cot and got him under the rough covers. Blair mumbled "Thanks," falling immediately into a deep sleep.

Daisy, true to her word, brought a pot of soup and bread to the stables at suppertime. James had a hard time getting Blair to wake, but eventually he propped Blair up against the wall and spooned the soup into him.

As he was feeding Blair, Shipton came in. He'd made his dislike of James known from the first moment they had met, and was further enraged when James was chosen to move furniture in the main house. Now he walked in and took in the scene before him with a sneer.

"You found something to keep you all warm at night, Alfie? I hope you plan to share. Thems the rules here, we share and share alike."

James never took his attention from Blair, though Blair's eyes had snapped open.

"Shipton, if you value your place 'ere, you won't go messin' with someone his lordship has 'is eye on."

At those words, Blair had swung his attention back to James.

"Wot 'e want wit a scaggy bit like that?"

"Don't know, why don't you ask 'im?" James voice was deceivingly mild.

Shipton looked torn between wanting to challenge the protection and knowing if he guessed wrong, there'd be hell to pay. He backed away, muttering about lords and their queer ideas.

James maintained his eye contact with Blair, refusing to give the interruption any importance. He was intent on getting a full bowl of soup into Blair.

"Come on, Blair, stay with me now and take another spoonful." Blair obligingly opened his mouth and swallowed the barley broth but immediately his eyes started to shut.

"Blair," James said more sharply and Blair's eyes snapped open, afraid. "Sorry, cub, just want you to eat the good soup that Daisy made for you."

"Yes, of course, I'll eat it." Blair's struggled to keep his eyes open but James could see it was a losing battle. Giving up, he let Blair fall asleep, then gently laid him down on the cot.

Wondering how long Ebury would give him to get Blair well, and not trusting that it would be long enough, James planned to act. For now he stretched out on the straw next to the cot, resting, waiting. Then he planned to get Blair out of here, carrying him if necessary, to the meeting place, where Rafe waited. Listening to the restlessness of both men and beast, James chafed at how long it was taking for the inhabitants of the stables to settle down.

It took several hours before James was satisfied that all were peacefully unconscious. Rising silently, he put one arm underneath Blair's head and the other underneath his knees and lifted. Blair stayed fast asleep and James strained his eyes to see in the murky light and then was amazed to be able to see everything with the clarity of day. They had almost made it to the outer door, when Shipton sat up saying, "Ere, now. What are you about, Alfie?"

James froze, knowing that Shipton could put an end to any hope of getting Blair to safety. Just then Blair shifted in his arms and started to gag and James took his cue.

"The lad's barfin' and I didn't want that in my bed. You want it in yours?" Swinging back to Shipton, James was delighted with the awful sounds Blair was making.

"Ew, get 'im otta 'ere." James obliged him and stepped into the cool spring night. Moving towards the edge of the formal garden, he was stopped by a hand on his shoulder.

Turning, he was confronted by two men-at arms, their scowls familiar.

"Where do you think you're going?" The hulking one asked.

"This here one was sick and I was just taking him to the bushes." Blair obliged him by making the sounds again. The smaller man stepped away, but the first was unfazed and said,' Very well, take him to do what he must. I'll have my eye on you. No one is to leave the buildings at night."

James nodded and carried Blair to the first ring of bushes, setting him down.

Whispering, Blair entreated James. "You can't outrun those two with me in this shape. I need to stay for my mother's sake in any case. Tomorrow you can slip away. I'll be all right, I feel stronger already."

James said nothing, knowing this was no time to argue. Blair finished miming being sick and straightened, his face as pale in the moonlight as if that were the truth. Supporting Blair with his arm around him, James got them back to the stables and resettled. The horses shifted in their sleep, the men snored, and James ground his teeth in frustration, finally using his military training to force all thought away and fall asleep, knowing he would need it.

******************************

The stables came to life early, as did the men who tended to the valuable beasts. Blair watched the activity from 'Alfie's' cot, happy to be in the light of day. The cough was running its course and the fever was finally ebbing. Daisy had brought breakfast and Blair held on to all of it, knowing soon he would be alone. It was odd to think he would be back in service, this time in the same house as his mother, the same house as Warbeck.

Before...ah, there were so many befores...before Perkins had died...before James had died...before Blair had stepped out into the world...before Blair had dared to dream...in any case, before-- he had not considered his life as a servant particularly hard or even unrewarding. It had been the life he'd known, the one he'd been born to and he shared it with his fellow servants.

His time away had softened him and made him aware of other ways he might live, of friendships, studies, adventures he might have given the chance. If he was going to survive, he needed to forget all that, erase it from his memory or go mad with the desire to have what could not be.

For now, all that was being asked of him was to lie here and get well. He had the comfort of James close at hand one last time, and the sweetness of fresh air. Blair tried to stay awake, to enjoy these things to the fullest, knowing he would need the memories in the future, but they slipped away from him, and he slept.

***************************

Worry kept James company as he mucked out the stalls and groomed the horses. Getting Blair out was looking nigh near impossible. Ebury couldn't have known what the intruders were after, but he was taking no chances, keeping a vigilant eye on all comings and goings. He protected something else, but James had seen no hint of it. Rafe needed to be told of the difficulties here somehow. He'd have to find a reason to leave the estate, but that was the last thing he wanted to do.

Now there wasn't anything to be done, but the job at hand and he did it with plodding efficiency. No way, no how, was he leaving without Blair. He would stay knee deep in horse manure if that's what it took to stay close. Eventually the vigilance would ease. Eventually he would get Blair out.

The only potential problem was running into Warbeck, and even if that were to happen, James doubted that Warbeck would credit the vision. In the meantime, James had no trouble being 'Alfie' and doing the work.

*****************************

 

"Hmm... you're looking slightly better, Mr. O'Malley. Had a good night's rest amongst your brethren and it's done you a world of good."

Blair opened his eyes to Warbeck's smirk and closed them again, only to be hauled off of the cot and slammed against the wooden stall.

"You stand when your betters are addressing you."

Leaning against the wall for support, Blair tried to focus his eyes and give the correct response.

"Yes-ss, sir."

"Stand up straight."

Blair pushed away from the wall and locked his knees, swaying, but staying upright.

"I'll tell Lord Ebury that you're ready to meet your dear mama."

Warbeck came closer and Blair resisted the desire to back up. Keeping his eyes lowered, Blair tried not to think of all the things the man had done to him, tried not to think of all the things he knew he would do to him again.

Instead, he thought of his dear mama and seeing her again. Their last time together had ended with Blair leaving and refusing to listen.

Would she be glad to see him? He should have listened when she had tried to tell him how it was. Instead he'd let his irrational anger turn him away from her, leaving her caught and at the mercy of Lord Ebury.

What kind of son was he, never thinking that there could be an explanation for her actions? What would she think when he walked in and told her he wanted to stay and work here? Would she hate him for walking away and hate him for coming back and trapping her? He didn't think he could bear to see her look at him as a cause for her misery. But if it meant she stayed safe...it did mean she would be safe didn't it? Blair tried to remember what he'd been told in the cellar, why he was to do this and why it would mean his mother would be safe.

As if reading his thoughts, Warbeck spoke. "Lord Ebury loves your mother very much and desires her happiness above all else. She, on the other hand, seems willing to throw that away in order to find you. Well, she's about to find you and everyone is going to live happily ever after." Warbeck tapped his cheek.

"Look at me when I speak to you."

Blair looked up.

"Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Someone will be out to fetch you shortly." Warbeck turned and left, and Blair sank back onto the cot and put his head back. Soon, he'd have to leave James. Too soon. But any time would be too soon.

****************************

James watched Warbeck walk away from the shadowed overhang of the outbuilding. They were running out of time. He had thought the guard would be let down after some time had passed without incident, but there was no sign of that. Before he could get back to Blair and ask him what had just happened, he was called to the house. Reluctantly, he left the yard and obeyed the commands that made up his day.

******************************

Blair felt the hand on his cheek and knew James was back. He soaked in the touch and sighed.

"Like that, whelp?"

Blair's eyes snapped open to see Ebury standing over him. He tried to sit up, but was held flat by Ebury's hand on his chest. The hand trailed down his chest. Seeing where it was going, Blair drew his legs in, but Ebury was not deterred.

"No!" Blair's voice contained the revulsion he felt at the exploration. He tried to rise, but Ebury shoved him back down, pinning him there. Blair kicked out, landing a glancing blow on Ebury's knee. It did nothing to stop him, simply made Ebury backhand Blair with a blow that snapped his head against the wall and brought unconsciousness.

When he became aware again, he realized that Ebury had tied his hands to a post and his feet to another. His breeches had been pulled down and Ebury was stroking him, his hand on Blair's cock. Blair weakly tried to buck his hand away, but Ebury held him down easily and continued, not saying a word. To Blair's shame, he felt himself responding.

"That's right, you're mine. See how your body knows its master? Do you spread your legs for all the stable lads? That will have to stop. I don't share." His hand continued its pumping motion and Blair pressed his lips together, afraid of the sound he would make.

Squeezing his eyes shut, he sought to take himself away from what was happening. To his horror, there was nothing inside, but darkness. There was nowhere to go, no ledge to retreat to. Ebury was panting and groaning.

Blair wailed, "Noooo!" and tried to twist away from the hand, which only seemed to fuel Ebury's desire..

Ebury slowed the assault, but only to begin unbuttoning his breeches. He looked at Blair and his tongue darted out, catching a drop of sweat.

"You are so like her. You are her male essence and I will have you." His grip on Blair had become a caress and Blair tried to squirm away from it, furious with himself for reacting as if this were pleasure.

Ebury's hold tightened, punishing the defiance. "You belong to me and you will serve me in every way I desire. Do you understand?"

His eyes were cold, all lust submerged in his anger. He jacked Blair's erection to demonstrate he could. "If you refuse me, I will make Naomi pay. You would hate to see your mother in this position, at my mercy." That thought brought the spark of desire back and Ebury fondled himself as he touched Blair.

Blair's world had narrowed to a hand roughly touching him, hurting him and making him feel lost, lost in the sensation, lost in his soul. Something was being taken and he couldn't stop it or run from it.

There was a howl, low and anguished, and Blair opened his eyes to see a scrawny dog approaching. Ebury noticed as well, stopping his motions.

Ebury yelled, but the dog, his head down, held its ground. Ebury turned back to Blair and the dog growled. Ebury picked up a pitchfork and the dog barred his teeth, moving forward. Blair watched, curiously detached, as Ebury tossed the implement at the dog, missing him. With a curse, Ebury backed away. The dog, more wild than domestic, all bunched muscles and sinew, padded to Blair's side, sniffing him. Seemingly reassured, it settled down on the ground.

Blair lay there panting, trying to free his hands, terrified Ebury would come back with a gun and shoot his defender, terrified any of the other men would come back and see him like this. It was pitiful, how little strength he had left after struggling and he made no progress on freeing himself. The dog watched his efforts with his head cocked and when Blair finally stopped, came forward and began licking Blair's face. The soft tongue removed all traces of tears.

"Thank you. " It felt a little silly to be thanking a dog but lord knew, he owed the beast his sanity and welcomed the comfort of his companionship.

Shivering violently, from the cold and the ordeal, Blair settled down to wait.

********************************

James finished carrying the last buckets of hot water upstairs and hurried down the back stairs. He didn't want Blair moved back to the house without being able to make some kind of plan. He wasn't going to be able to move as freely inside and it worried him, though he knew Blair would be safe enough. After all, Ebury's whole purpose was to unite mother and son.

As soon as he entered the stables, he heard a growl. Surprised that any dog that lived at the estate would have the temerity to growl, he slowed his approach, searching for a club. Blair would not be able to defend himself against a mad dog and he rounded the corner prepared to kill the beast with his bare hands, only to be stopped by what he saw. Blair's hands and feet were tied, and he was half naked. The dog stood next to him, the growl dying away as soon as it saw James.

"Blair!" James relaxed a fraction when Blair's eyes opened. He moved toward Blair slowly, not wanting to set the dog off.

Blair looked down at the dog, who moved closer to him and whined. "It's all right, James. He seems to have decided to protect my honor. Good dog." Wagging his tail, it gave James one more look before it ambled away.

"Who did this, Blair?" James knelt next to Blair and began to work at untying the ropes that bound Blair's hands.

"Ebury." Blair spat the name out.

James couldn't get the tight knots to loosen. "I can't get these knots untied--I need a knife." His shaking hands were at least part of the problem as he tried to contain the rage that Ebury had done this to Blair. Looking down at Blair's nakedness he felt himself respond and tore his eyes away. "I'll be right back."

"Wait! Can you...um...pull my breeches up?" Blair was blushing and shivering in the sharp November air.

James reached down, lifting Blair's hips a bit and then started tugging the material up. Keeping his eyes on Blair's face, he managed the task by feel. James hurried to fasten the buttons and be done.

"There. Done. I'll have you free in a moment." James was as good as his word, finding a knife and sawing the rope off. Helping Blair sit up, he was at a loss at what to say.

"He...came here and, um...once before he, he...when I was...but I'd thought that a nightmare." Blair stopped and looked at James through the camouflage of his hair. "I...I never, I mean...he just..."

Interrupting Blair's incoherent explanation, James reassured his friend, "It's him, you didn't do anything, he has a reputation for liking things rough."

Blanching at that news, Blair cried, "My mother! He's kept my mother here all these years with threats to me and maybe...with worse things." Blair's stricken look tore at Jim's heart. How could he tell him what he'd heard about Naomi O'Malley? He couldn't.

"I wouldn't worry overmuch. The scuttlebutt here is that Ebury adores her and is much attached. Everything I've learned says she is happy with him."

"But he said she wanted to leave him, wanted to come and find me."

"Those are two different things, Blair. She may have wanted to find you, but that doesn't mean she wanted to leave him." James couldn't help the exasperation in his voice.

From what he had heard, Naomi loved to find ways to make Lord Ebury twist in the wind and her desire to find Blair seemed like it was just one more of her tactics. She was an effective games player, but she would have to be, to keep a man like Ebury interested in her all these years.

"Oh, yeah, you've got a point there." Blair pulled his legs up and hugged his knees to his chest. "She wouldn't want to leave all this for me."

Damnation. Blair had heard the tone in his voice and had interpreted it the wrong way. He still believed in his sainted mother.

"No, I meant-" What could he say, it was true. Not because Blair was unworthy of her attention. No, Blair was by far the most worthy person James had ever met.

He wondered how much Blair understood about affairs of the heart and the passions that made people incomprehensible. James suspected Blair had little experience with love and even less with women. He didn't want to educate Blair using Saint Naomi as an example, but Blair needed to understand what was going on here.

James started again. "Sometimes, when a man and woman meet, it's like combustion. They come together and everyone around them gets scorched." James checked to see if his metaphor was working. Blair's attention on him was total, so he continued.

"They, um... meet and the feelings they have...take them, make them...some people like to hurt and some like to be hurt...some-"

Blair interrupted. "Are you trying to tell me that you think my mother enjoys Ebury hurting her?" Blair's voice trembled with outrage.

"No, no, I just mean, people have different needs and often find the perfect person to meet those needs and it could be-"

Blair clapped his hands over his ears. "No, don't say anything more, you don't know my mother. You don't know what she is like, how sweet she is. She doesn't have these...these needs you're talking about!"

James shut his mouth on all further arguments, concentrating instead on getting Blair buttoned. His wrists were going to need cleaning, but first...

"They're moving you back inside today." Blair stiffened at that news and James hurried to reassure him.

"That's good, you'll be seeing your mother. She'll be able to look after you. The only thing is-it may be hard for me to connect with you, or get messages to you for awhile. I just wanted you to know that even if you don't hear from me, or see me, I'm still here. I'm not leaving without you." James ran his hand down the side of Blair's face. Tilting it back, Blair looked up at his bedraggled friend. Hard to see the manor-born James under the dirt and shabby clothes.

"I wish you would reconsider, James. Go. Sometimes one simply can't fight one's destiny. I am where I'm supposed to be, doing what I was born to do. I accept that. Now you need to. "

"Forget it, Blair, if destiny needs a fight, I'll give it one. I'm not losing you again."

Shaking his head at his friend's stubbornness, Blair leaned back against the rough wall. There was a place for him here. It wasn't a very good place, but it was secure and required nothing of him except obedience. That is, if Ebury kept his distance.

And he could do obedience. Follow orders, routines, respond to commands. The days would be full of hands and feet moving. Things getting done, only to have to be done the next day. No need to try to make a new place for himself. No need to try to fit himself into a society that was quite clear in its opinion of him. It meant living with his curiosity leashed. It meant living without the company of James. It meant keeping his mother safe.

"--so I'll find a way to get messages to you." James had been talking and Blair pulled his wandering mind back.

"How?"

"I don't know how, seduce one of Naomi's maids, maybe. I will find a way to keep in touch."

The image of James with a maid sent new shivers across Blair's skin. The woman with her skirt hiked up, James leaning into her, his hands braced on the wall as he, as he....Blair's stomach twisted a the image.

"I'm-fine. And good...good. But promise that when you finally see it's hopeless, you'll leave."

"I promise." The tone was one of fingers crossed.

"James!"

"I promise, and I mean it. When I see that it is hopeless, I will leave."

James moved into Belle's stall and began to muck it out. Moments later, two men appeared and Blair realized James had heard them with his uncanny gift.

"Come on, Blair, we've orders to take you back to the house."

Blair pushed off the cot, and stood. He could see James looking busy yet still keeping an eye on him and he held that image all the way back to the stone walls that would be his prison.

 

Warbeck was waiting for Blair in his rooms. He gestured to the clothes laid out and said, "Get dressed. You'll be taken to see your mother in a few minutes."

When Blair hesitated, Warbeck picked up the clean breeches and thrust them at him. "Modest? Don't be. Get dressed. I want to go over a few things with you before you have your audience."

Warbeck turned his back and continued speaking. "You will address your mother as Mrs. O'Malley whenever anyone else is present. You will not speak to her unless she speaks to you. You will not approach her, nor send her messages. You will assure her that you are fine and that you have chosen Saybrooke to work at after looking into other positions and finding none to your liking. Whenever she asks about how you are getting on, you are to be convincing in your reassurances that you are happy and content. Am I understood.?"

Blair was finished dressing and nodded as Warbeck swung back around to him. "Yes, sir."

"Good." Warbeck walked slowly around Blair, assessing him. "Pull you hair back." Warbeck handed him a leather tie and Blair did as he said. "You look like hell. Tell her you were drunk last night."

"Yes, sir."

"Tuck in your shirt and let's be on our way."

Blair followed Warbeck down the stairs and down several long corridors, until they reached a pair of closed doors. Warbeck knocked and Ebury barked, "Come in."

At the sound of that voice, Blair blushed and pushed aside the memory of Ebury's hand on his most private part. He was right behind Warbeck and so did not see his mother until the big man stepped aside.

Naomi stood up, her face alight with astonishment, her needlework falling to the floor. "Blair, is it really you, darling?"

"Yes, Mother."

"Oh, Blair!" Naomi rushed to him, engulfing him in her embrace. She looked over his shoulder at Lord Ebury and said in a teasing voice, "So this was your surprise, Andrew. You naughty thing, keeping this a secret from me. Whatever am I going to do with you?"

Blair found it odd to be in his mother's hold now that he was grown. He swayed in her arms, overcome with the returning memories of being a child. Her voice in his ear, as she scolded Ebury, was so familiar and yet so exotic, with its low, husky tones and the little trill that accompanied the end of each sentence.

Pulling away, she exclaimed, "Let me look at you! Oh, you've grown into such a handsome man. Blair O'Malley, you're the spitting image of your father, may he rest in peace."

She turned Blair around to face Ebury, who had a strangled look of pleasure, underlaid with rage. Blair nearly stepped back and wondered how his mother could prattle on in the face of such hostility. Then he realized that it was all being directed at him.

"Andrew, do you think me impossibly old now that you've seen my grown son?" Ebury stepped in close to Naomi and took her hand. Turning it until it rested, palm up in his bigger hand, he kissed it, slowly, his lips massaging the tender pad of her palm.

"You, old? A contradiction in terms, my dear. You are as lovely as the day you walked into my study." Naomi laughed and sighed as Ebury kept her hand in his, his fingers now kneading her slender hand.

"Oh," sighing again, she let herself be drawn to the couch and settled next to her lord.

"Your son is taking service here, Naomi."

Naomi looked up at her son. "Blair? Is this true? You're coming here to stay?"

At Blair's nod, she turned to Ebury. "Oh, this is a wonderful present. Andrew, you are the dearest man to arrange this. Blair, you'll be so happy here. It's a beautiful castle, the gardens are stunning, and everyone loves it here."

Blair nodded again. "Darling..." Blair almost answered before he tuned in that his mother was addressing Ebury again, "I want Blair to work in the gardens. He's too pale. Some sunshine will do him good. Is that all right? Did you have other plans for him?"

"No, no, my dear, the gardens it is. I'll put him to work there immediately." Ebury nodded to Warbeck, who stepped forward and took Blair's arm.

"Mother?" Blair was a little stunned by how fast everything was happening.

"Yes, dear?" Naomi was picking up her needlepoint and looked up at him, eyes wide and green.

"I'll see you-I mean, it was good to see you."

Naomi closed the distance between them and hugged him.

"My, dear boy, you've made me so very happy. I am sure we will have the best of times now that we are back together."

Blair followed Warbeck out, hearing as he left, his mother say, "He used to tell the dearest, funniest stories to me when he was young..."

Rather than lead Blair out to the gardens, as he expected, Warbeck led him back to his room and the closet that held the cot. He pointed to it and said, "You're in no shape to work yet. Lie down until supper and then we'll see how you're getting on."

Sitting down on the cot carefully, Blair then stretched out. He was worn out from the meeting with his mother. She had been warm and welcoming and delighted to see him. So why did he feel so bad? He fell asleep trying to puzzle out an answer.

**********************

Warbeck kept O'Malley close to him for another day. When it seemed that to him that the man had accepted his place and gained enough strength, Warbeck assigned him to the servant's quarters and to working in the greenhouse. It was late March and there was much to do to prepare for the coming spring. He would have preferred to keep O'Malley under his thumb, but as long as Mrs. O'Malley was in residence, her son would have to be seen in the gardens.

Blair had nothing to put away in the large room housing the male servants. The space reflected its male inhabitants, being dusty and devoid of any softening effects women always brought to their living spaces. The emptiness of it hit him, and he wondered how he was going to be able to do this for the rest of his life.

His next stop was the kitchen. Daisy's face lit up when she saw him. "You're looking like you feel a whole lot better, Blair." In truth, Blair looked pale, shaky and like he still belonged in bed. Even so, he did look much improved.

"Yes, the worst seems to be over." Blair patted Daisy's errant curls.

Blair looked around the large room, hoping to see James and startled when he saw another familiar face. Danyon was standing on a chair, putting away some pots. When he saw Blair looking at him, he winked. The door to the pantry swung open and Alice came bustling through, carrying a sack of flour for the day's baking. She smiled at Blair and moved past him without a word. Daisy tugged on his sleeve and when he looked down, she whispered, "You missed the morning meal but I put this together for you," and she thrust a wrapped, warm bun into his hands.

Cox came in, carrying overalls. "Put these on and follow me."

Blair's head was spinning with questions but Cox was waiting impatiently and there was no time to find out what was going on.

He spoke over his shoulder as he strode the paths to the greenhouse. "You'll work with Ames. He's the head gardener and he'll assign you your tasks. Unless he specifies that you are to leave, you are expected to stay in the greenhouse at all times. If you are found outside without Ames' permission, you will be disciplined. Warbeck has given me leave to watch over you and keep you in line. Do you understand?"

Blair buttoned up the overall, saying "yes, sir, I understand."

"Good. I won't hesitate and there will be no warnings, just so we are clear."

"I understand."

The greenhouse was a massive complex of glassed in rooms, each containing a different level of humidity and warmth. Hip high tables were covered with boxes of growing things, all in various stages of maturation.

The moist air was thick and difficult to pull into his battered lungs. The man Blair assumed was Ames spotted them and came forward.

"This be O'Malley?" He looked to Cox for confirmation.

"Yes."

"Kind of scrawny for this work."

"Yes, can't be helped."

Blair studied the man who would rule his world. Ames was tall and broad shouldered, looking like the farmer he had most likely been. His face was seamed with deep lines and even at the end of winter he looked tan. His hand came towards Blair, who flinched but held his ground. Instead of the blow he was expecting, Ames took his chin in hand and turned his face left and right.

"Boy ain't used to the sun."

"He'll get used to it."

"Yup, s'pect he will."

"Right. I'll leave him with you. You're clear on the special nature of his assignment."

"I'm clear."

"Good."

Blair shivered in the warm air, glad to see Cox's back.

"Okay, O'Malley, you know anything at all about propagation and the nurturing of plants?"

"No, sir."

"You'll learn. Come with me and I'll introduce you to Paters, who will teach you the ropes."

***************************

It took two days before James could find a reason to go to the greenhouse. Two days of waiting to see Blair for himself and confirm Danyon's daily report. He had been as surprised as Blair to see Danyon and Alice at work in the kitchen and even more surprised when he encountered Rafe in the stables, assisting the blacksmith.

James had been given the job of hauling the manure to the greenhouse and he'd loaded the wagon in record time. To his disappointment, the manure was destined for outside of the glassed house and he started to unload it slowly, casting his hearing out in the hopes of catching Blair's voice. One third of the way through his task, the door that lead to the glass house opened and James was assailed with the sticky sweet smell of flowers and...something else. He looked up quickly to see Blair standing there, shovel in hand.

"James!"

"Shhh! Alfie! Remember?"

"Oh, sorry...what are you doing here? For that matter, what it is Danyon doing here and Alice?"

James simply stared, mesmerized by the sight of Blair.

"Ja-Alfie? Are you--? Is this one of your--? Alfie?"

Blair took James by the arm and shook him, peering into his face. James' eyes fluttered and his hand came to rest Blair's cheek.

"I was worried. Has he come anywhere near you?"

Blair blushed, knowing immediately who James was speaking about.

"He's tried, but every time he's come close, Danyon or Alice show up, it's uncanny. They are like guardian angels."

"I told them to keep a sharp eye."

At that information, Blair blushed again and James hurried to reassure him.

"I told them nothing else, simply to keep an eye on you and Ebury and make sure he never found you alone."

"Well, it's working. So far."

James had had the same thought, that if thwarted long enough, Ebury would simply have Blair summoned. Time was running out.

"Has your time with your mother reassured you?"

Blair hesitated in his answer. "I've only seen her twice. The first meeting was with Ebury and then yesterday, she had me come to her rooms."

"And?"

"She seems happy."

"How long were you able to spend with her away from Ebury?"

"I haven't had any time--yet."

"What? Even yesterday she was with him?"

"When I first walked in she was alone, but Lord Ebury came in right away."

"We need to leave here, soon, Blair. Ebury's not to be trusted when it comes to you."

"I know he seems to have gotten some idea in his head about me, but now that my mother is aware that I am here, I'm sure he won't try anything. And I can't go, I need to stay and protect her."

James kept his thoughts on that to himself. When the time came, he planned on getting Blair out, whether Blair agreed or not.

"You said yourself she seems happy."

"But I need to speak to her alone before I know that for sure."

"So ask to speak with her."

"That isn't allowed."

"You're not allowed to speak to your own mother?"

"No."

"And your mother goes a long with this?"

"No! I mean, I don't believe she knows."

The system James had lived and thrived under had never seemed so vile as it did now, as he looked at the bowed head of his friend.

"I'll be in the kitchen tonight at eight. Try and meet me there, all right?"

"I'll try."

"Good. Were you sent to help me?"

Blair looked down at his shovel as if he'd forgotten all about it.

"Yes."

"All right then, dig in."

They worked in silence, and Blair was soon drenched in sweat, despite the coolness of the day. Blair had begun the shoveling enthusiastically, but his recent illness was severely taxing his stamina. James reached over and put his hand on the shovel.

"Take a break, Blair."

"A break? We've just begun."

"You're just getting over being ill. Have they been giving you jobs like this the last two days?"

"No. Master Ames is delighted to have found someone he can teach, who will listen to him ramble on about the nature of roses and the various blights they are susceptible to. So mostly I sit, as he pots and trims and sprays and talks."

"Good, you aren't strong enough to be doing this kind of work yet."

"Won't get strong enough sitting around being lectured."

"You volunteered for this." It wasn't a question.

"Yes, I wanted to get outside. They don't let me out, and I longed to see the sky."

"Well, enjoy the sky, cub, and I'll finish here. Tell me about your mother and Ebury."

Blair leaned on his shovel and looked dreamy. "She's just as I remember her, gay and lovely."

"What did she say about your illness, and the marks on your face?"

Blair fingered the cut that was still healing above his eyes. It was only one of the fading reminders of Ebury's attacks.

He swallowed. "She-she said..." and then stopped, unable to lie to James, even if it meant admitting his mother had not noticed.

"She didn't say anything, did she?" James guessed.

"No."

"Let me tell you how it went. She was delighted to see you. She hugged you to her bosom and exclaimed her happiness. Then she turned her interest to her lord and only noticed you when it was time for you to leave."

"How-how could you know that? You listened, didn't you? You listened in, admit it."

"Yes, I heard. But only the first meeting, not the other."

"It was much the same. My, God, James, how far away were you? We need to test this talent."

"As soon as we get home, I'll let you devise a test." James smiled at the idea that that would constitute a bribe.

Blair smiled a little and then shook his head ruefully. "You were right. She loves him."

"Afraid so."

"Then why did she tell him she would leave him?"

"Because it's a game they play, only this time she played it to well and Ebury got rattled. He believed her. And he acted to protect what is his."

"So what do I do?"

"You come home. She'll barely notice. You'll leave a note stating your devotion and telling her you've decided to go to Africa. She'll sigh and moan and Ebury will console her with baubles. She certainly will not make plans to follow you there."

"That's easier said then done. They watch me from morning to night."

"Don't worry, we'll get you out. And soon."

James could hear someone coming, probably to check up on Blair, and he motioned for Blair to resume. Cox burst out the back door and stopped when he saw the two men silently shoveling the horse manure into the troughs that served to hold it.

"O'Malley!"

"Yes, sir?"

"What do you think you're doing? Who told you you could be outside?"

"Master Ames, sir."

"Well, get the hell back inside and you there, get this job done." Cox grabbed Blair's elbow in a painful grip and led him back to the humid interior.

James listened until he could hear the lecturing tones of Master Ames and then finished up quickly. There was much to do before tonight.

 

 

**********************

Lying in his cot among the other servants on the top floor, Blair tried to compose a letter to his mother in his head. He found it hard to find the words that said goodbye without revealing the bitterness he felt at who she had chosen to love.

It was as if he had been on a clock's pendulum for the last few weeks. One moment feeling abandoned by her, the next, ashamed of his judgment and protective, then back to the realization that she had indeed, chosen Ebury over him all those years ago.

James seemed to understand what went on between a man and a woman, but Blair could only see it through the eyes of a child. A child waiting every day for some word that he belonged to somebody...that somebody thought about him for reasons other than chores, that somebody loved him.

That reassurance had been sporadic at best. His place in her life had been taken many years ago. He let the tears fall silently, one didn't let on in a roomful of men that one was crying. Chastising himself for the weakness, he turned on his stomach, wiping his face on the gray, rough fabric of the pillow. There wasn't any use in feeling bad that a beautiful woman like Naomi had found love and happiness and safety.

If only it wasn't Ebury. Shuddering at the memory of that man's hand on him, Blair tried to push down all the feelings it evoked. What kind of man was he that he had grown hard under that hateful touch?

As he lay there, caught in miserable awareness, a hand covered his mouth. Before he could react, he heard Danyon's voice in his ear. "Time to go, Master Blair. We're going home." Danyon removed his hand and both men rose silently, leaving behind a roomful of men.

Danyon led the way down the backstairs and out the side door. There was a fire blazing by the smithy and men were milling about, disorganized, waiting for someone to lead. Danyon nudged Blair toward the stable. They passed a guard lying unconscious.

"Alice's 'andy work. She put a the sleeping potion in their night's dram. Shouldn't be any trouble from that direction."

"And the fire?"

"Bloke named Rafe in Master James' hire set it, don't worry, it's nowhere near the 'orses."

"Where is Master James? Is he all right?"

"Course 'e's all right. 'E's readying the 'orses."

Through the smoke, Blair could make out James in full Alfie disguise, running toward them with three horses.

Meeting midway, James clapped a hand on Blair's shoulder and they exchanged a look of profound relief and determination.

"Where's Alice?" Blair shouted over the mounting noise and hysteria.

"She'll be by the back field. Rafe will meet us there, too. Let's go."

The three men were ignored as the fire shifted, following the grass toward the house.

Alice waited with Rafe, hidden behind the giant oak. They stepped out when the trio got near. At that same moment, a whirl of motion intercepted the reunion. It was Daisy.

"Take me with you, I'll be good. Good and useful. I work hard, know how to do things. Please?"

Everyone looked to Blair, who didn't hesitate but said, "Of course you can, but if we're caught, you must promise me to tell them we made you come with us. Understand?" Daisy nodded, looking baffled at such an odd command, and James picked her up and placed her behind Rafe.

Danyon and Alice shared a horse and James mounted Malvolio, a stud that still had plenty of vigor in him. Reaching down, he grabbed Blair's arm, hauling him into the saddle behind him and the six left at a gallop, moving away from the commotion and detection.

They rode hard and reached the edge of the estate, where George and Baines had waited each night with the five fresh horses needed to get them to safety. They tied Ebury's beasts to the tree and re-arranged themselves, four missing the cozy companionship of being doubled up.

James had watched Blair closely, and two hours into the night flight, had called a halt and transferred Blair back to his horse. Blair had protested but not for long, and a half-hour later, his head rested on Jim's back and he slept.

By dawn, they were on the outskirts of London and it wasn't long after that they saw the familiar gray door on Belgrave Square.

"Blair, we're home."

James felt Blair rubbing his face back and forth across his back, trying to wake.

"Home?"

Danyon spoke up. "Aye, and a pile o' bricks never 'as looked so good."

Rafe got down and reached up to pull a sleepy Daisy into his arms. She looked at the motley crew of ragtag servants and then back to the house.

"This 'ere is where you live? Who do we work for?"

James answered, pulling Blair from the saddle and getting him steady on his feet. "They work for Blair, miss."

"Blimey."

"Yes, blimey, indeed." James gave Blair a little nudge and Blair led the group to the door.

Looking back at Danyon, James asked, "Can you see to the horses, Dan?"

Danyon had already begun to gather the reins and lead the horses off. "I'll see to it that they're 'andled extra special-like."

The door opened and Mrs. Duncan stood waiting, tears streaming down her face.

"Oh, Master Blair, I was afraid I'd never see your face again." Blair stumbled up the steps and drew the woman into a hug, but it was clear he was dead on his feet.

"Let's get you up to bed. All of you look like you need a week of sleep. I'll bring trays to your rooms." Her eyes swept the group with relief and pride.

"And who's this?" Mrs. Duncan looked down at Daisy, who had tucked herself behind Rafe.

"I be Daisy, ma'am. I come to-to work. I can help with the trays." Daisy approached Mrs. Duncan with confidence, belied by the slowness of her step as she approached the housekeeper.

Mrs. Duncan looked to Master Blair who had a half-smile on his face and then to Master James who nodded.

"I could use the help. You come along with me." She took Daisy's hand in hers and led them all inside.

James steered Blair to the stairs but he had only climbed a few when he stopped and looked back.

"I don't know what to say, there really aren't any words to express my feelings, the debt of gratitude I owe you. I-I'll try to make it up to all of you."

James started to speak, but Alice was quicker.

"You belong to us, Master Blair and ain't no high and mighty lord gonna come along and snatch you away from us. And if 'e thinks 'e can, 'e's got a 'nother thing coming to 'im, 'e 'as."

Baines had his hand on Alice's elbow, attempting to bring the belligerent miss in line, but she shrugged out of his hold away and continued.

"And if your mum wants to see you, she can bloody well come to visit 'ere."

There were nods of agreement all around and Blair's smile blurred a little. "I think my mother has had her maternal curiosity satisfied. But we'll prepare a room for her just in case." He laughed a little at that but no one else joined in and he resumed his slow ascension up the stairs.

James followed. On the landing, he put Blair's arm around his neck and supported most of Blair's weight for the last leg of the journey. Blair's breathing was deep and slowing down and by the time his head hit the pillow, he was fast asleep.

Getting Blair undressed, he was reassured to see many of the bruises faded and only a few signs of the abuse Blair had suffered were still visible. Looking down at Blair, safe in his bed, he started to shake and stumbled over to the chair, sitting down hard. He'd come so close to losing Blair. So close...again...and it all had to do with fear, his and Blair's. It was time for them to face the things that terrorized them, face and conquer them.

Standing, James hesitated. Fear and longing fought each other and longing won. Leaning down, James cupped Blair's face, brushing his lips across the wide forehead. He rested his mouth there, refusing to call it a kiss, refusing to end it. When Blair stirred, James brought his mouth next to Blair's, letting it hover, waiting the clue that would tell him what to do. Deeply asleep, Blair responded to the feeling of being held.

Held, his head cradled, warm breath on his face, someone claiming him...he moaned. The deep loneliness that contained him cracked a little and he reached for the light that spilled in.

James drew back, sure that Blair's moan and hand reaching up was a protest to the liberty he had taken. Blair had just been assaulted by Ebury. He wouldn't be welcoming a man's touch.

Stumbling away from the bed, he didn't see Blair's sleepy groping for the warmth that had been offered and withdrawn. Instead he kept moving, finding his bedroom in a haze of reproach. What had he been thinking? The last thing he wanted was to lose Blair. Oh, God, no, he couldn't lose Blair.

It was broad daylight by the time he slept, but the heavy drapes kept his room as dark as midnight. His dreams were violent and urgent and always there was fear. When his body could no longer take the beating his sleep was giving it, he woke. Blair sat in the chair next to his bed, looking rested and clean, a cup of hot chocolate in his hand.

"Bout time you woke, James. I was getting worried enough to call in a surgeon."

"How long?" His mouth was dry and the words were barely audible.

Blair leaned forward and put his cup down. "You've been asleep twenty-two hours."

"No, that's not possible." James looked around the room in confusion, but there was no way to tell what time it was.

"It's midnight. You slept the night, the day and now this much of the night again."

Pushing himself upright, James felt the pressure in his bladder testifying to Blair's words.

"I'll go tell Mrs. Duncan she can finally feed you. She's been desperate to get food into all of us." Blair stood up. His look was one of concern and affection and James was nearly overwhelmed with the relief that Blair had no memory of his transgression the night before.

"Thank you. Blair? Are you all right?"

"About leaving my mother with Ebury?"

"Well, yes, that and everything."

"No one's ever all right with everything, James. I'm fine, really."

James read the unspoken pain in those words and vowed that someday all would be right-everything would be all right.

For now he had to settle for being back home, safe, all together, plus one.

 

 

end of Chapter Two......