Despite claims to the contrary, he often brought his brain to work with him. Regardless of what he and the Master had agreed. He was no one's fool. He couldn't claim to be a particularly clever man, not when it came to books and learning. But he was shrewd and knew what he was about.
So that was why, when a burst of pleasure ripped through him only to wrench away just as quickly. Leaving him excited, but painfully empty the same night as the Thornton's wedding, he couldn't help but wonder.
He spent a good amount of time simply looking at the mark that'd been carved into his chest. It wasn't much to look at, at least at first glance. Just a simple bold line, straight and less than a finger-length wide. But every time he looked he couldn't shake the idea that it was missing two others, like a triangle of sorts. He had no reason to think it other than a feeling. But it lingered regardless.
And, as they are prone to, the feeling spiraled from there.
Forcing him to consider the timing. The way Margaret's dress had been such a wonder Mary hadn't been able to take her eyes off it. How both Margaret and the Master had looked into the crowd at the church and seemed to linger on them the most. He thought about the feelings that had shamed him. How nothing in his life had pleased him so much as being invited to their wedding as honored guests - personally no less. But at the same time, as soon as he saw them together at the alter, it felt like he suddenly couldn't breathe. Chest tight like his heart was trying to rip itself clear from him.
Then he thought about the events of the day.
How most people would be getting to bed around that same time.
Perhaps even newly wedded couples and-
It was there that he stopped himself.
He'd thought his fill and then he buried it. He didn't understand what had happened. What was happening. And what was more, he couldn't accept it. Such thoughts weren't his place. He had no right to covet another man's wife, if that was what this was. And even less right to covet the man.
It was clear the Master and Margaret didn't feel the same. They hadn't come to him. It was merely a coincidence or a mistake. Heaven had gotten its ropes crossed somewhere along the line. He was sure of that much at least.
And yet- if that was true, why did it feel like both the Master and Margaret went out of their way to see him these days? Sometimes he'd look up and find the both of them watching him from one of the windows of the great house. Offering excuse after excuse for him to stay and visit after his shift. Seeming to get pleasure out of his company - more pleasure that is then they used to.
He didn't know the answers, as far as he was concerned it was just wishful thinking or maybe a sickness coming on. God knows he'd never been prone to flights of fancy or high thinking. He just wanted peace. He wanted to be able to breathe again - to live again - without this weight crushing down on him. The feeling that something remained undone – unfinished – and was eating at him like a light acid. Thinning him out a little bit at a time.
He wasn't fond of complicated things. So, he kept quiet. He lived with the ache. Lived with the hurt and the emptiness and instead drank in their presence like a drowning man, a starved man, whenever he could. Figuring it would be enough. That it would have to be enough. That he was fooling himself for holding out the vain hope that they might feel it too. That maybe they were missing something, same as him. Looking for him even. Only they didn't know it.
And why would they?
He'd never heard of a common man having the mark. Nor of there being a union of three. It was bad enough he let himself think such things, but worse considering himself equal to the Master and Miss Margaret. It wasn't proper. So, in his usual fashion, he struggled through it. Putting one foot in front of the other, always working hard. Happy for the scraps he could get. Waiting for the day the ache would either stop or take him six feet under so he could finally rest.
At least up until the fire at the mill.
After that, all his best intentions faded like dew in the summer.
"Man the buckets! Fight! Come on lads!"
It hadn't taken much for the spark to set fire to the bales of raw cotton. The summer had been scorching. Hot enough to make everyone miserable and near collapse on the worst days. Even the Master looked it when he came out to inspect the lines. Treating the lot of them to great big blocks of ice in the food lodge that felt like heaven to even be near - let alone chipped off and sucked on like a sugar treat.
He'd been lucky to catch the moment the spark had glanced down from one of the machines and swirled together with the cotton fluff. Watching it peak, then settle in the cotton bundled by the windows. He was running before it landed. Jamming people out of the way as he shouted the alarm the same moment the bale started smoking.
"Come on, turn over those barrels. See what can be salvaged and make sure that fire is out!"
They were just out of the worst of it when he caught sight of the Master through the smoke. Looking quite the picture with his cravat and jacket gone, white shirt sodden with water and stained with soot. Proof enough that while he hadn't seen him, the man had been fighting alongside them.
In truth, he would have expected nothing less.
"Higgins, are you well?"
He blinked, weary on his feet as he turned towards the voice. Surprised to find the Master standing behind him. Looking at him with worry and maybe something darker as the smoke wavered between them like heat-sweat.
Of course he was fine.
He opened his mouth to say so, only to realize he was bent double, coughing. Everything piling down on him at once as he struggled to catch his breath. The smoke. The heat. The sudden weakness in his muscles. The burns he hadn't noticed until just now as his throat rasped like ashes. It was too much.
He swallowed thickly, throat rebelling.
He couldn't breathe- he couldn't-
He couldn't stop himself from gripping the Master's arm as he dragged him down the yard. The thick smoke hiding the spectacle as the others ran around mopping up, yelling. Barely visible through the smoke and ash.
His head was spinning, hacking up great awful coughs that felt like they were shaking up his insides as the Master pulled him into a shed and closed the door. Setting him down on a bench as he hurried to the corner to fetch something. Leaving him to rip at his neck tie and collar. Desperate to breathe as he wavered, little splotches of light spreading across his eyes and-
The pail of water that hit him head on shocked him still. Freezing him in a way that had nothing to do with the temperature as he slipped off the bench and fell to the floor with the force of it. Barely having time to hiccup out a curse - lungs suddenly full of air again – before getting hit with another that doused him right down to the skin. Bringing his wits back and heat down as the Master handed him a mug of water and ordered him to drink. Pouring another bucket down his back and hauling him onto the bench as he spluttered.
"Enough!" he rasped, kicking to his feet and swiping his hair out of his eyes as water dripped down, soaking every inch of him. Losing control enough that he shoved the Master off him without thinking. "Enough, damn you!"
He wasn't sure how or when, but the next time he looked down he realized he'd never actually let the Master go. He still had his hand pressed against the man's chest, absorbing a strange wholesome warmth that seemed to be seeping from him in waves. Different from the searing heat of the flames or glare of high summer. And what was more, was the Master's fist had wound tight around his collar. Expression fierce, panting, mouth open like he was about to say something when-
He dropped his hands from the Master like he'd been burned. Immediately wishing he hadn't as the haze of good feeling abruptly dropped out of him like a sheared thread.
And all of a sudden, it was too much.
"I can't do this anymore," he whispered brokenly. Feeling it. Feeling that damned ache in his chest start up all the stronger. Shaking his head as the fist knotted in his collar tightened and pulled, lifting his shirt from his skin with a wet sound that made him look up. Waiting for a reply that wasn't there.
Because the Master wasn't minding his words or how out of place they were. He was staring at his chest. Right are where his mark would be and- oh-
"It's you," the Master breathed, meeting his eyes with an exhale that felt godly against his skin. Looking wrecked and found all at once as the curve of his cheek tilted down. Watching him through lashes stuck thick with ash and water. "Oh god. Of course it is."
The world might as well have stopped spinning as far as he was concerned. Leaving him dizzy and near breathless again as he planted his feet and fought through it. Not understanding. Not wanting to understand. Yet so desperate to give in that it came out like some queer sort of aggression. Finding himself shoving and pushing at him with bared teeth. Ready for a true tavern brawl as all his forward thinking, calmness and logic blew up like that bale of cotton in the mill.
He pushed the Master back, breaking his hold on his collar. Aware of something animal in both of them as the Master gave as good as he got. Tussling with him as they knocked over the bench, then the water pail. Wanting to get away. Wanting to touch. Wanting to keep and never ever let go.
But all that changed the moment he slammed the Master against the wall with a grunt. Because instead of pushing him back, the Master gripped him, pulling him close. Embracing him tightly as the spark of anger that'd been holding him together drained like water through a sieve.
It was just the ache left in him now. The warm throb in his chest that had turned to pleasure, contentment and belonging sometime between one moment and the next.
"We've been waiting for you and here you are...I'm so sorry, Nicholas. You were right in front of us and we couldn't see you."
He didn't know what to say to that. Words were trip-falls when a man had his blood up. But he did know the waiting was over and that this moment was going to be the first of many, god willing. He wasn't going to be without them from this moment on. Not alone. Not ever again.
They'd found him.
They were his.
They wanted to be his.
Exhausted tears mingled with the water as he leaned in and planted his hand above the Master's head. Allowing himself to take in the scent of him – smoke and all – as their bodies brushed. Making it surprisingly easy to break the moment first as his hand slid down the wall to cup the man's neck and bring his lips to his. Having his fill until the Master kissed him back. Greedy and wholesome in the best and worst of ways as the world carried on around them. Finding home in each other's skin until Margaret's pull brought them stumbling back out into the open, up the stone stairs of the great house and all but into her waiting arms.