Colonel de Luce had been in his study all day. When Dogger stopped by to bring him his tea, the lunch he'd brought several hours earlier was still untouched. This, he knew from long experience, was a bad sign. He knocked at the heavy oak door. At least he could ensure that the tea made it into the study, if not into his master's body.
A quiet "come in" assured him that he was permitted to enter. He found the Colonel sitting at his desk, staring at certain leaves of paper in his hands. Although he didn't make any attempt to read them, he could tell from the letterhead that they were from the Colonel's bank. Beside them was the large, leather-bound account book in which the Colonel kept careful records of the estate's incomes and expenditures. That was never good news. He knew enough to know that the de Luce family finances were constantly in a perilous state, although the Colonel usually kept those concerns to himself.
Dogger sat the tea tray down at the Colonel's elbow, and paused, considering whether he ought to say something. At last he settled on, "Will there be anything else, sir?" It was safe, and left the door open for further conversation if the Colonel felt so inclined.
The Colonel looked up as if seeing him there for the first time. Behind his spectacles, his blue eyes looked weary, as though he hadn't slept in days. Perhaps he hadn't, even though Dogger had helped him prepare for bed each night as usual. It worried him to think about the Colonel lying awake by himself in the dark. "Is it teatime already?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," Dogger replied. "You seem to have missed lunch."
Colonel de Luce sighed, removing his spectacles for a moment to rub the bridge of his nose before putting them back on again. "Is it beyond hope?"
"Well, I'm sure the soup is stone cold by now, but the bread and cheese are still edible."
The Colonel gave a fleeting, tight-lipped smile. "I meant the question more broadly, although I suppose the lunch will do for now. Bring me the bread and cheese, if you would, and we can share it, along with these lovely seed biscuits Mrs. Mullet has provided for tea."
Dogger had already had his tea in the kitchen, and could attest that the seed biscuits were not especially lovely, but nevertheless he gathered up the remains of lunch and brought them over as well. The Colonel had put away the pile of papers by the time he returned, clearing room for the second tray, and he gestured for Dogger to draw up another chair. Dogger ignored the offer long enough to pour the tea, and then sat down.
For a span of time, they sat in companionable silence, eating the stale bread and cheese as well as the dry, crumbling biscuits. It wasn't a wonderful meal by any means, but far better than the fare they'd subsisted on while they were imprisoned at Changi during the war, when they'd lived on meagre portions of rice, rats that they'd bred for meat, and the occasional stolen coconut. Dogger didn't like to think about that time - indeed, parts of it were only a blur of heat and pain and men dropping like the ever-present flies. Thinking about it too much could trigger one of his bad spells, and that was the last thing he wanted. He focused instead on the taste of the tea - so sturdily English, strong with sugar and milk, not like the tea they'd had in Singapore - and on the watery late afternoon light filtering through the clouds that he could see outside the Colonel's window. He concentrated on the Colonel, who was there, safe and sound, even if he was unhappy about something. It could always be worse.
"Dogger," the Colonel began at last, "there's a rather... troubling matter I need to broach with you."
"You can tell me anything, sir," he replied, keeping his voice calm and steady.
Colonel de Luce cleared his throat, and stood to go look out the window. He always voiced his most difficult thoughts more easily when he wasn't facing the person with whom he was conversing. "It's a financial issue, I'm afraid," he said, sounding embarrassed to even have to bring up such an awkward subject. "As you are no doubt aware, there are presently some difficulties in that area."
One would have to be blind not to notice that Buckshaw was slowly falling apart, staffed by only the cook, Mrs. Mullet, and Dogger, the man of all work. Repairs that were beyond his power simply remained undone, with the result being a decaying hulk, a shell of its former self, in which the Colonel's daughters were permitted to run wild rather than being sent to school or even having a governess who could provide them with some modicum of education. Granted, the young Misses Ophelia, Daphne, and Flavia had driven off their last governess, and seemed to be educating themselves relatively well with the resources they were able to find in the house's library, music room, and chemistry laboratory, but that didn't mean Dogger wasn't concerned about them. "Are these particular difficulties worse than usual, Colonel?" he inquired carefully.
"I'm afraid we must make certain economies," Colonel de Luce said, still gazing off into the distance. Dogger looked at him in profile, realizing how much older he looked than when they had first met. His hair was greying at the temples now, and the fine lines of his skin looked deeper as the shadows fell. "One of which, as much as it pains me to say so, will have to be your salary."
Dogger understood now why this was so difficult for the Colonel to speak with him about. It had to be terrible for him, terrible and shameful. "For this month, or indefinitely, sir?"
"Indefinitely," said the Colonel grimly. "Of course I will pay you for this past month, and two additional weeks at the time of your departure."
Now Dogger was truly shaken. "Departure?" The thought of having to leave Buckshaw - having to leave the de Luces - was bewildering to him. "Are you dismissing me, sir?"
Perhaps there was something in his voice that made Haviland turn to face him. "I... I can't pay you anymore, Dogger," he said plainly, as if perhaps he hadn't been understood the first time. He looked bereft.
"I understand that, but are you asking me to leave?" All honorifics dropped away as he tried to grapple with the information that was being presented to him.
"Arthur..." said the Colonel gently, calling him by his Christian name, "I would never ask you to leave my side. But I would also never expect you to stay under these circumstances. If I am forced by necessity to captain this sinking ship, it's my duty to make sure all my men make it off safely while there's still time. You understand?"
"I'm not leaving," Dogger told him. "I'll not let the ship go down on my watch. I don't need recompense for my efforts. It's nothing more than what anyone would do for... for family. As long as there's room for me here, then please... let me stay."
A look passed over Haviland's face - a mixture of relief and shame and gratitude. "You're too good to us... to me." He stepped away from the window, returning to sit beside his loyal companion. "If there's anything Buckshaw has in ample supply, it's room. And we can continue to provide board as well, of course. Even if it's Mrs. Mullet's fare."
"Best meals I can remember," Dogger said, with a slight quirk of his lips that passed for a smile.
Haviland finished his tea. "Indeed." He set down his cup and pushed aside the tray. "I haven't slept well the past several nights," he said, confirming Dogger's suspicions. "I think I might have a kip before dinner." He paused for a moment, as if considering what to say next. "Would you care to accompany me?"
Dogger understood perfectly well what he was being asked, and it wasn't for assistance with changing into pyjamas or turning down the bed. "Certainly I would," he replied. There were no sirs needed where they were going. There they would be on even footing.
As they made their way to Colonel de Luce's bedchamber, the house's peace and quiet was shattered by a shriek. "Flavia, you little wretch!" came Miss Ophelia's voice from downstairs. "If you've ruined the piano, I'll have your guts for garters!"
There was no sign of Miss Flavia, not even a telltale chortling from the landing, so Dogger reasoned that she had already made good her escape - if in fact she was truly at fault for whatever mishap had occurred in the music room. The odds, however, were strongly in favour of her being the perpetrator. He considered whether he ought to go and intervene, but Haviland took his hand, as if they were two schoolboys up to some mischief themselves. "Let them sort it out," he murmured. "If they're still at each others' throats by dinner, then you can have a word with them."
They slipped quietly into the darkened bedroom, with its massive Gothic bed looming dourly in the corner. The curtains were drawn, as usual, but the darkness made it easier to undress, easier to navigate by touch. They found their way beneath the covers in their drawers, not speaking because words only made things more complicated. Haviland nestled up to Dogger, who curled around him protectively, as though if they only stayed like this he could keep him safe forever. Without his glasses and in the faint light that seeped around the edges of the drapes, he seemed younger, more vulnerable - it reminded Dogger somehow of when they'd first met, years ago in Singapore, even though he'd worn spectacles then too.
Sometimes embracing like this was enough - being close and feeling the warmth of another human being against your skin, letting your breathing slow to match his. Knowing that you weren't alone. There were times when Dogger had been the one being held, on nights when he had especially bad dreams. More times than he could remember he'd come to at dawn with Haviland's arms wrapped around him, fending off the nightmares for him. If he could repay the favour, then it was the least he could do.
Occasionally, though, they needed something more to drive away their demons. The first time they'd resorted to such measures, Haviland had been even more distant and withdrawn for at least a week afterwards, as if he was ashamed at what he'd done. Dogger still wasn't sure if it was because he felt guilty for perhaps taking advantage of a servant, a comrade, and especially one who was not always in his right mind, or whether it was because he convinced himself that he had betrayed Harriet. But whatever his reasons, he'd come back eventually, apologizing shyly, and the uncomfortable moment had more or less passed. Dogger himself had no particular qualms about anything they did together - he'd always been drawn to other men, and had occasionally been fortunate enough to find that attraction reciprocated. As for Haviland, Dogger was reasonably certain that while there had been schoolboy crushes and some clumsy, nervous fumblings in the dormitory after lights out, as an adult there had only been Harriet - at least, until him.
Haviland lay still and quiet for some time, long enough that Dogger wondered if he might have fallen asleep after all. He wasn't especially tired himself, but he was content to stay with Haviland while he rested, if that was what he wanted. He lay there and listened to the quiet ticking of the two clocks, ever so slightly out of time with one another, like their own two heartbeats. After five minutes had passed, though, Haviland stirred slightly, bringing his hand up to lay it on his stomach, atop Dogger's. "You've already given me so much, I hate to ask for more," he murmured.
"It's given gladly," Dogger replied, and slid their joined hands down Haviland's stomach. Haviland helped push his drawers down and out of the way so that Dogger could grasp his prick. It was stiff already, and hardened still further on being touched. Haviland tried to bite back a moan, but couldn't quite manage to keep the desperate sound contained. "You don't need to wait so long next time either," Dogger added, stern and tender all at once.
"I shouldn't need..." Haviland bit off whatever he was about to say, dissolving into whimpering as Dogger's thumb grazed across the tip of his cock.
"But you do," Dogger told him, continuing to stroke his length slowly as he spoke. "And it's all right. We'll take care of each other."
From the way Haviland's hips jerked back against his, that need he had tried to resist was becoming more urgent the longer they spoke. Dogger stopped talking, instead using his mouth to place kisses along the curve of his lover's neck and shoulder. Haviland urged him to a quicker pace, his moans soft and increasingly breathless, and Dogger did his best to provide him with what he desired. It was easy to give, since it was something that he wanted too. At last Haviland shuddered, letting go for a moment of the control he normally held so tightly, and finally fell still, apart from his chest heaving and legs trembling.
"I thought you were going to leave," he mumbled in the quiet interlude. "I had been trying for days to brace myself to let you go."
"Did you truly think I would?" Dogger asked, pulling him closer to embrace him once again. "After I finally found you again?"
"No... I didn't know," Haviland whispered, turning in his arms so that they faced one another. "Please, let me do this for you, Arthur." He edged his way further down Dogger's body, tugging his pants off to release his erection as he did so. Dogger held quite still, shutting his eyes as Haviland's lips closed gently around his head. This wasn't something they'd done together before, and he wasn't about to object to any excessive caution on the part of the other man.
As it turned out, there was very little to be worried about. Haviland was timid and clumsy at first, but obviously eager to please. A few words of guidance and soon matters were proceeding smoothly. When Dogger reached down to push his hair back out of his face, Haviland looked up at him with wide eyes, his lovely face half in shadow, and Dogger came completely undone. Haviland didn't shrink back as his mouth was flooded with spunk, but swallowed it down, lapping up any drops he'd missed afterwards. Then he crawled to lie by Dogger's side and clung onto him for dear life.
"I'm not going anywhere," Dogger promised him when he was able to form coherent words once more.
"All right," Haviland said. His skin felt flushed and warm, despite the chill that was inescapable at Buckshaw on gloomy days. "We'll go down with the old ship together, then."
"If we must. But we've faced worse," Dogger reminded him, stroking his arm. "Let's not give up hope."
A stray beam of the sunset's golden light made it through a slight gap in the curtains and brought an unaccustomed glow to the room. While the light lasted, they held one another, or more accurately and to Dogger's immense satisfaction, Haviland finally slept while Dogger kept watch over him.