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What the Master Doesn't Know

Chapter Text

It would be an understatement to say that Mr. Norrell - first magician of the age and lately of Hurtfew Abbey - had no conception of the many goings on in his London household, all of which were handled with stoic aplomb by the gruff Yorkshireman he'd hired years ago.

Mr. Norrell knew, of course, that Childermass handled his finances and correspondences (he'd been entrusting these things to the man for a decade), as well as his many special tasks, like fetching musty old books from Scotland in the middle of winter or arranging odd meetings in York churches. But aside from those things he specifically required, Mr. Norrell - now of Hanover Square - was pleasantly blind to nearly all of what went on outside his own library.

For example, Mr. Norrell did not know that they could not keep a housekeeper, for the many matrons that came and went were leery of Childermass and his unorthodox position in the house, as well as his unique hold over it. (The rest of the help, however, were more than content working under Childermass.) Mr. Norrell did not know that much of his staff came on without references, or at least without the expected sort of references a butler would approve of. (The Cards of Marseilles were often reference enough for Childermass.) And Mr. Norrell did not know that because of Childermass, his servants were some of the most content in all of London. (Childermass made sure of it.)

Mr. Norrell did not know, because he did not need to know, because his man Childermass saw to all these things without the least fuss or worry.

= = = = =

Another thing Mr. Norrell did not know was that his kitchenmaid, Dido, had been dismissed from her two previous positions out of no fault of her own, but only due to the sort of luck inherent to the lowest classes(one master hadn't liked her, and another had liked her entirely too much), and that Childermass had hired her on despite a lack of references because before he'd let her in the back door, he'd drawn L'Amoureux and La Mort side by side, and didn't need any more proof than that.

She gave the Christian name of Dido, which was hers, and the surname of Smith, which wasn't. Every one below stairs called her Dido or miss, and after her initial adjustment to a new household, she turned out to be a lively girl of quick wits and bawdy humor who did her work well and complained little. Her only complaint, in fact, was that the male servants did not pay her enough attention.

The cook was a Welshman nearing middle age named Oliver Priddy who was kind to her, especially since she had been elevated to the position of kitchenmaid, but he did not interest her, nor - she suspected - was she of the right shape to please him.

Young Davey - too pretty for his own good - might have been suitable, if he'd ever treated her as anything other than a sister in service.

No, it was Lucas who'd caught her eye and who she was determined to have, for he was often cheerful and always kind, but he was also strong and handsome (which any young man ought to be if he possibly can) and so it was Lucas to whom she applied her affections.

"My shoe, Lucas!" she would exclaim upon going upstairs with her hands full of the tea service and her shoe having slipped from what was undeniably a dainty and well-shaped foot. And Lucas would laugh at her, and scoop up the shoe as he knelt before her, and slip it back on with a warning to, "Take care in future, miss."

"Lucas, I need you in the pantry!" she would cry out as soon as the cook's back was turned. And Lucas would scamper through the kitchen to the pantry to fetch things from the top shelf that she couldn't possible reach, and if she happened to lean into him with his long arms stretched overhead - the better to ensure he laid his hands upon the right thing - he would blush and stammer, "Easy on, miss, I have it," and hand it down to her and scamper off again.

"A mouse, Lucas! In the kitchen!" she would shout, and stand upon a chair, and direct him to the proper corner. And he would not find the mouse, but would finally help her down from her chair, and then he would tell her, "You're nearly as bad as Mr. Norrell, miss!"

It was all very disappointing.

Dido had never had such difficulty procuring a lover, and it put her into a bit of a mood as time wore on and her only solace was her own hand, which was not equal to the task of keeping her as satisfied as she wished to be.

On one of the many nights when the servants gathered together around the table in the servants' hall to sing songs of home and drink whatever might be found (so long as it was shared) she stayed later than usual. She stayed after Sarah the little scullery maid had gone off to do her evening chores. She stayed after Hannah, the chambermaid, had gone off to spend another night with her books. She stayed after Lucas waved Davey off to bed and then followed himself soon after. She stayed after the housekeeper of the month excused herself. She stayed after Lucy yawned herself upstairs. She stayed even after Oliver Priddy finally gave into the call of sleep, until it was only John Childermass who slouched at the end of the table, pipe in hand and glass at his elbow, watching her from behind ragged black hair.

The songs had cheered her, and the drink loosened her tongue and eased her nervousness around him. Now, it wasn't that Dido was afraid of John Childermass, for she did not frighten easily, but there was an otherness about him that did not have to do with Yorkshire (which she had never seen) nor authority (to which she was accustomed) nor any other thing that she readily knew about him, but stemmed from somewhere between his unexpected stillness and rough voice.

They watched each other in silence then, he enjoying his pipe and she her drink, until John Childermass slowly began to smile.

Dido could not but smile back, though she could see no reason for the glint in his eye nor the knowing look upon his face.

"Why do you smile so at me, sir? Is my person out of place?" she asked, looking about herself as though expecting to find an unpinned apron or loose edging on her sleeve.

"Your person is well," he assured her. "But I do wonder if you intend giving up on Mister Lucas altogether."

"You…" she stopped, thought, sat back in her chair. "I haven't the faintest idea what you mean, sir."

Childermass eased his shoulders and looked away, almost hiding his grin. "I'm not like to turn you out anytime soon, Dido. Just wondering if he'd caught on at all, and just what you think he'd do once you had him."

Dido leaned forward, examining his easy expression and unconcerned posture. "Well," she said in something of a whisper, for the servants' hall was hardly private, "if he doesn't catch on soon, I'm sure to give up, for I suspect he wouldn't have a clue what to do with a woman even should he get one." She nodded as though in final agreement with herself before adding, "Begging your pardon, sir."

He gave a nod that meant no offense had been taken at all and then he looked into her from behind the edges of his hair and observed, "Tis a shame such charms should go to waste." He put pipe back to lips and drew in the smoke, every movement heavy with intent, dark eyes never leaving her face.

"Oh," said Dido.

Well, of all the things… why had she never given thought to John Childermass?

For there he sat before her, all long legs and strong hands and shoulders broad enough to be going on with, and eyes deeper than most any other man she'd ever seen. He was no Lucas (with his youth and curls), but Lucas was not there and Lucas had not noticed. But here was this Northerner sitting across from her, the blue pipe smoke wreathing his dark head, and he had most definitely taken notice.

Dido let the wicked grin spread across her face, starting in her dimples and ending at the crinkling of her happy eyes. She leaned on the table with her bosom pushed out before her and declared, "Why, Mr. Childermass, I did not know there was anyone in the house to notice my charms at all."

"Indeed, there may be more than one, as Lucas is hardly blind." Here, Childermass glanced down at her display, "But I fancy he's tried your patience sore enough."

"My patience is worn as thin as the King's breath, sir."

"And your charms have been displayed as proudly as the King's arms."

"There's more of them to be seen, sir, though not in the servants' hall."

"No indeed." Childermass drew his legs back under him and stood, going through the nightly ritual of tamping down what was left of the leaf in his pipe and ensuring the back door would hold proof against the night, all while he spoke to Dido. "I'm sure there's another place more suitable."

"A bed perhaps?" she asked.

"Hm," he agreed, peering briefly out into the night.

"My bed's been cold too long," she said, standing up to collect the glasses.

"But mine would better suit," Childermass instructed as he corked the last of the wine. "Be careful as you pass Mrs. Steele's room," he added as he walked by her, close enough to touch.

"What do you take me for, a novice?" she asked with a grin over her shoulder as he sauntered out for one last look about the place.

"Fifteen minutes." His voice came from the hall.

"Too long, by far," Dido muttered, hurrying through to the kitchen to rush through the washing up.

= = = = =

With the last of her duties done, Dido weaved her way up the servants' stairs to the room she shared with Lucy. (Hannah and the little scullery maid Sarah had the room even further off. And Mrs. Steele's room stood between her own and the narrow, rickety stair that led up to Childermass's room in the attic.)

In their room, Lucy lay already asleep. Dido removed shoes and stockings, but did not dare ready herself for bed, should she be caught out of her room in her night things.

Dido was not by any means a novice.

Although she had not heard Childermass ever come up, she let herself out of her room at the appointed time and eased down the hall. She hadn't been there more than a year, but knew well enough which boards groaned the worst. It was an easy task to slip along the narrow hall and up the far steps to Childermass's room, where the light of a single candle showed the shape of the door before her. She did not knock, but let herself in to find Childermass in his shirtsleeves on his bed, reading by the light of that candle.

At first, he did not look up when she came in, finishing the passage he was on as she closed the door behind her and slid the latch she found there. She examined the room with little interest. It was small and mostly bare with a makeshift shelf holding a few books and his candle. The one concession that he made was a sturdier bed than was to be found in the servants' rooms one floor below, though the same stiff white sheets covered it.

When he did look up, it was only into her eyes and nowhere else and she saw a fire there to match her own, a fire that she'd been primly tending for overlong. Dido untied and unpinned her apron. Piece by piece, the uniform of a maid came away, set aside with care. She was fiercely aware of his eyes on her, though she kept her own down. She shouldn't be nervous.

Then a sun-hot hand clasped behind her knee and she gasped.

Dido turned to regard Childermass, sitting still upon the bed, the book put away, the firm and needful hand at her leg, his dark eyes like burning shadow. Dido moved closer to him then and met his unwavering gaze as she finished disrobing. Straps slipped from shoulders, laces pulled loose, all manner of fastenings undone.

His hand pulled her closer yet, until she stood between his angled knees in only her shift. This she pulled over her head, revealing heavy breasts that swung free, nipples hardening in the exposed air. The shift fell to the floor and she stepped closer still until he looked up between her breasts, his face but inches from her belly. His stoic expression did not change as he leaned slowly in, burying his nose in the dewy curls between her legs.

Her hands flew to his ragged hair, as though to still his eagerness, but Childermass began slow, with nothing more than the ardent press of lips, his long nose pushed into the downy skin of her, his large hands around the backs of her thighs, kneading and stroking.

Dido's hands eased from nervous claws to stroking fingers, loosening the queue of his hair, threading through the strands of it, mussing it well beyond decency.

She gasped as a hand slid around and between her legs, but the hot fingers threatened nothing but soft pets and swirling touches, carding though the curls alongside his mouth as he eased his tongue inward to do no more than taste.

It was as though every touch he promised withheld the best of it, until she leaned her hips forward and pulled his head in.

She could almost feel his smile against her. His hands firmed, his tongue delved further and he murmured in his Yorkshire burr, "Why, Miss Dido, you're wet as sin down 'ere."

"An' all for thought of you, since your eyes caught me over the table."

"So shocked you were, at even the thought-- like you didn't know I was a man at all."

"I have yet to see the proof," she said with a grin, canting her knee in to run along the inside of his leg, near to a certain goal.

"All in good time," he said - another promise - before resuming his efforts between her legs, his tongue caressing the folds of her, a single finger petting over her entrance, ever closer to breaching her.

He encouraged her curious knee up until one foot rested on the bed, opening her to him.

Dido braced herself on his shoulders and bowed her head to see the wild mane she'd made of his hair.

Between clever fingers and cleverer tongue, Dido was soon keening low in her throat and moving her hips to a rhythm she well liked.

"Mr. Childermass," she whispered, slowly pulling away from him. "I do so feel underdressed, sir."

Childermass slowly stood, fair towering over her as those clever fingers went to his own throat. The quickness of his motions betrayed his calm and Dido smiled coyly up at him as she worked the buttons of his shirt. Soon enough, neckcloth and shirt were tossed aside, revealing a sleekly muscled chest, long arms, and a back that bore the long-faded punishment of some old misdeed.

Dido ran her hands over the sparse hairs of his chest, her tongue peeking out in mock concentration as her fingers found the thicker trail of hair that led to the placket of his breeches.

"Now, that is a man," Dido flattered as her hands molded what she found through the fabric. It was not unimpressive.

She watched with lower lip clasped between her teeth as he revealed the last of himself to her, breeches and stockings and all cast aside. Without the weight of his clothing, his prick stood out from him, long and thick.

"Such as this I've not seen in too long a time," she promised, her hands moving from his hips to his groin to enfold the length of him in firm and eager hands.

"You've been wanting, then? So have I," he said, and then swooped down upon her, his long fingers bracketing her blooming cheeks as his tongue swiped away the shock of her lips, the bite of her teeth, the breath of her mouth in their first kiss.

She ensnared him in her arms, wrapping them about his torso, one hand writhing up into his hair, the other clutching at his firm buttocks.

His prick pressed into her stomach, the need of him hot and twitching.

Dido could taste herself on him, and the smoke he'd had, and the wine they'd drunk, and all of it fixed to ruin her.

She broke the twist of their kiss and vowed, "I won't wait another moment for you, John Childermass," and slipped, eel-like, around him to lay herself out on the bed, one foot on the dusty boards of the floor, the other bent up on the bed so that she unfolded herself to him, arrayed like an opening flower in spring.

An impatient gesture of her hand brought him up alongside the bed and an eager hand about his cock led him onto it.

He straddled one of her plump thighs, his prick pressed between their flesh as he bowed to her breasts, testing their sensitivity with mouth and fingers. He tested her nipples to the point of redness and he tested her patience to the utmost limit as she rocked desperately against him, his prick falling into alignment between her legs, yet another promise he did not fulfill as he shifted down along the bed, his hands clutching at every curve of her flesh as his mouth tasted between her breasts along the gently curving stomach and into the crease of her thigh.

Dido drew his head where it best served her and Childermass set to work in earnest, no more teasing now as one finger sought the heat of her and his tongue found its throbbing target.

Dido gave a single strangled sound of pleasure before remembering their position and then brought her own hand up to bite upon as he dandled his tongue upon her clitoris and slid his finger in and out, curving and curious.

Her hips heaved into his face in her favorite way and he did naught to stop her, but reapplied himself to his task with vigor.

She gave another cry as she gave forth a lubricious release, shuddering and chasing her breath all around the room.

Childermass eased away from her, casually wiping his mouth with his hand before reaching down to take himself in hand.

"Just," she panted, "Just give me the scantest of moments…"

Childermass slowly frigged himself as he watched her recover, all her parts heaving with delight as the sweat sheened her like dewdrops.

"All right, you," she said with a smile, opening her eyes again and beckoning him forward.

Childermass laid himself atop her until she bore his weight and gave him a quirked, knowing eyebrow.

"You'll do me no harm?" she asked as he probed her wet sheath with the head of his rigid cock.

"Not for all the world," he promised as he eased himself in.

And so lubricious had been her spending that he found not the least resistance. He pushed well forward until he was fully seated and then bent to play their lips together as the length of him well filled her tightness.

Their hands roved freely, clutching what was firm and petting what was soft until he began to move in her, shallow and lazy as though all the night stretched before them without need of rest. She heaved up and down in her turn, and they quieted their moans in one another's skin as the thrill of it coiled inside and between them like kindling.

She encouraged him with quiet words of praise and excitement as she urged, "Faster, sir… Yes!" and the like as he rolled his hips in joy to give her the greatest pleasure.

He matched her thrust for thrust as she pulled at him and moved with him and called him "dear" and "love" and "darling."

Their steady pace grew first faster, then shakier, until she whined into his neck and drew him all the way in with her legs and her hands and she shook fair apart around him.

He waited then, petting and kissing her as she slowly relaxed, but still they both of them breathed hard and fast. Slowly then, they eased apart, and Dido reached for his prick, devilish hands coaxing his pleasure from him as she watched his face transform in ecstasy.

Childermass thrust wildly and spilled over her hands as she watched in wicked glee.

He swept down upon her then to crush her lips in a kiss and lay them both together in the bed, close as skin can be to skin, until their breathings finally returned to something like normal.

The night was quiet about them, and the room darkening as the candle dwindled, beginning to choke itself in its own wax.

Dido turned to bury her head in his shoulder and laughed.

Childermass smiled into the dark and asked, "Something to amuse you, Dido?"

She whispered, "And to think I had just about given up finding an agreeable companion in the household."

At this, John Childermass laughed, too, and kissed her brow.

When they were tired enough to invite sleep, John Childermass said, "Won't it behoove you to return to your own bed this night?"

"I'd far rather stay here with you, much as we both of us could do with a bath."

"Mm. And what will you do when Sarah does not find you in your room?"

"Oh, she can be made to believe anything."

"And Lucy?"

"Lucy will not mind."

"Do you tell Lucy everything, then?"

"Who else can I tell my secrets to?"

This reminder of their own small bond of servitude in place of any family to tie them elsewhere quieted them, and the pair lay together, both with their pale skin and dark hair, and finally slept.

Chapter Text

The house at Hanover Square had been busy all day, with various important personages coming and going throughout, not that the servants ever saw the likes of Sir Walter Pole or even the other two gentlemen who were such frequent visitors (excepting Mr. Norrell's man of business, of course, for John Childermass had a hand in just about everything that happened about the house, whether in the larder or the library.)

And even though he'd been at the Bank of England in the morning and was due to be far further afield by evening, John Childermass took time out of his day for the single afternoon that Hannah had off each week. They sat together in the servants' hall with a book between them, discussing the more difficult words and concepts in one of Shakespeare's plays.

Oliver Priddy was hard at work in the kitchen, and Dido swung around them quite often with this and that as she went about her duties, but there was nothing to interrupt them until the tinkling of the library bell.

Childermass frowned up at it and asked Dido as she swished by, "Have you seen the lads?"

"Not since this morning," she replied.

So Childermass sighed and excused himself and made his way upstairs.

= = = = =

In the library, Mr. Norrell sat perched upon his desk (much like his wig was perched upon his head) with his tidy feet side by side upon a chair and his knees primly pressed together.

Childermass raised an eyebrow.

"A mouse," Mr. Norrell told him.

"I'll fetch the traps," Childermass answered.

He sighed and dismissed himself, returning downstairs to an all-purpose storeroom in a faraway corner of the house where was kept anything that would not be spoiled by cold and damp.

Much to his surprise, he opened the door to find Davey and Lucas with their breeches undone and their hands wrapped around one another's pricks, faces flushed and mouths panting.

When the door flew open, one of them shrieked, the other gasped. One turned red, the other white, and - in their haste - nearly overturned the box they shared as a seat in their flurry of desperation to cover themselves.

Childermass narrowed his eyes at them.

"S-sir," Lucas managed, though Davey looked ready to cry any moment.

"Make yourselves presentable. Go to your room and do not leave it again."

"Yes, sir," Lucas acknowledged, standing so abruptly that it knocked Davey off the box to land upon the brick floor.

Davey gained his feet with some difficulty and they finished tucking themselves away and they slunk out of the storeroom together, heads bowed.

John Childermass stood in the low light that filtered in from the hall, replaying the scene in his head: Lucas with his fair, curly hair and hollowed cheeks flushed red in his panting fascination, brows drawn together in something like pain, eyes fluttering closed, the lashes dark and fine as moth wings. Davey was an equal picture (if opposite) with his bonny blue hair clinging to his pale forehead as lips (far too generous for a man's) pouted plump and pink in ecstasy, the swanlike bend of his neck redolent of the allure of Adonis.

Childermass locked the memory in place and gathered all that he needed: the mousetraps, as well as a small glass bottle and - after a short search amongst the scrap lumber - a wedged sliver of wood, roughly triangular.

He swung by the kitchen to beg a bit of bait from Oliver, then to the servants' hall to let Hannah know she must finish her Shakespeare alone, and then returned to the library, where Mr. Norrell still balanced upon his desk, book in hand and insensible to all else.

Well-used to Mr. Norrell's own brand of eccentricity (and obliviousness), Childermass went about the room and laid the traps in the usual places (out of sight, but easily retrieved), all the while keeping an eye on his master.

"We could get a cat," Childermass suggested in as offhand a manner as he was able, going about the room, finding the little places where a mouse might creep.

"No cats," Mr. Norrell replied, glancing up severely at him before returning to his book.

"Cats chase mice," Childermass pointed out.

"Cats… shed," Mr. Norrell retorted, though it sounded more like a conjecture than statement of fact.

Childermass made a face that somehow conveyed both his amusement and his disbelief as he continued his prowl about the perimeter of the library.

"You have everything you need for your journey tonight?" Mr. Norrell asked.

"As ever," Childermass answered, kneeling to set another trap. "Just need to give some instructions to Lucas and Davey before I go."

"Ah," Mr. Norrell replied before returning his focus to the book.

Childermass ensured the light was good enough for it before excusing himself with the slightest of nods, not that Mr. Norrell even noticed, embroiled again as he was in the text.

As Childermass wound his way through the London house, he thought again of the boys, Lucas and Davey. And then had to remind himself that they were not boys any longer. They were men, sure enough, able-bodied and smart as tacks, for all they lacked much book learning. Not smart enough to hide themselves away in a place that made sense, though: something that must be rectified, and would be directly if Childermass had his way.

Their youthful indiscretion in the storeroom spoke of ignorance and shame and this, too, would not do.

Childermass remembered how the light from the open door was cast upon them, and realized they must have been alone in the dark there, too shy even to glimpse one another in their folly.

Before he gained the door to their shared room below stairs, he snatched up an unlit candelabrum.

He opened the door to their room to find Lucas sitting upon his bed, elbows upon his thighs as his hands trembled before him and his head bowed so low that only the fair curls could be seen. Davey moved about the room with short, jerky movements, packing all his worldly possessions into the shabby black case he'd brought to Hurtfew Abbey not so long ago. He faltered in his motions when Childermass ducked his tall head to enter the room, but did not stop. Lucas did not look up.

Childermass shut the door.

There was no window in their room below stairs, and a scant two candles lit them, both their actions and inaction.

Childermass asked Davey, "What are you doing, lad?"

Davey flinched and looked up, met his eyes with what defiance he could muster despite the tears that had started to fall and told him, "Packing my things, sir. I'll see myself out shortly." And he turned back to his task.

"Stop that, now," Childermass told him. "I'm not sending you anywhere quite yet."

While Davey merely stilled, as though a wind-up creature had ground to a halt, Lucas's head shot up for the first time, hope alight in his desperate eyes.

"You don't mean to dismiss us, sir?" Lucas asked, half begging.

"Not at the moment, no," Childermass assured him, setting the candelabrum upon a low stool beside the door.

"But," Davey said, turning slowly toward him, "We've done wrong, sir."

"I'll say you have," Childermass answered. "Committing such acts with nothing between you and the world but a closed door. What were you thinking?"

The lads exchanged looks, unsure. This seemed an odd criticism, and certainly not what they'd been expecting.

"Well, it's far removed from the rest of the house, sir," Lucas suggested.

"And our room doesn't lock," Davey added.

"No," Childermass agreed. "Servants' rooms never lock, but nor does the storeroom. Did you not think you'd be safer here, for who would enter without knocking first?"

Again, Davey and Lucas looked at each other. They had not particularly thought of this.

"Would any of the womenfolk below stairs think to open your door without knocking first?"

No answer.

"And what of Oliver Priddy? Does he not knock to announce himself?"

They slowly nodded. He did.

"And myself?"

"Generally, sir," Lucas admitted. "'Less it be some emergency."

"And the storeroom. Is it often visited by many below stairs?"

They nodded miserably.

"And who would knock upon a storeroom door?" he asked.

No answer.

Childermass withdrew the scrap of wood from some hidden pocket. "Do you know what this is?" he asked.

"A… shim," Lucas told him, nonplussed.

"And what is its function?" he quizzed them.

"To… shim things up," Davey suggested, not quite sure he'd got it right as he shared a glance with Lucas.

"To fill in space?" Lucas offered.

It was a very confusing conversation for both of them.

"Yes, and serves an unlocked door very well," Childermass said. He dropped the shim, toed it into place under the door, aligned with the handle, and gave it a kick to wedge it in. "The harder a push from outside, the further the door is jammed into place." He gave both of them his most serious expression. "There's your lock," he told them.

One of them blinked in astonishment. The other gave John Childermass a near-worshipful look.

"Now," Childermass said, "as to your… private pursuits." He gave a raised eyebrow, the expression full of insinuation.

They both bowed their heads and Davey slowly sat upon his own bed, mirroring his friend.

"Right," Childermass went on. "Do you - either of you - have any notion what you're doing?"

They did not answer.

John Childermass folded his arms across his chest, leaned back against the door, and crossed one leg over the other in the very picture of eternal patience.

He would not prompt an answer this time.

"It's only…" Davey finally tried, "it feels rather nice."

"And we wouldn't want to trouble the maids," Lucas quickly added.

"Trouble the maids," Childermass quietly echoed, rumbling in the back of his throat. "Some of the maids might not mind such trouble," he told them.

"…Really?" Lucas finally asked, his interest perked.

John Childermass suppressed his look of amusement by narrowing his eyes at them and frowning severely.

"And you, Davey?" he then asked. "Would you be interested in bothering the girls?"

"I… I quite like Lucas, sir," Davey said, pale face taken over by a confused blush.

"Mmm," Childermass answered, maintaining his position at the door and looking between them both. "And you, Lucas, would you have an idea of what to do with -- Dido perhaps? -- should you get her?"

Lucas's expression betrayed the fact that he had not the slightest clue. He did not give a verbal answer.

"Would you like to?" Childermass asked.

"Would I like to have her? Or would I know what to do with her? Which is your question, sir?" Lucas asked, his first sign of rebellion.

Childermass broke away from the door, strode across the small room, towered over Lucas like a great thunderhead about to erupt, and demanded in his fierce, rumbling timbre, "Would you like to know what to do with a woman?"

Lucas shrank back, his face flushing red again, Cupid's bow lips shuddering open as he shivered all over.

"Or with a man?" Childermass asked, glancing back at Davey.

Davey unconsciously licked his full lips.

Childermass let slip the smallest smile as he slowly stood upright again.

"Would you like a lesson then, the pair of you? Since it seems you're sorely in need of it."

Lucas did not quite take his meaning.

It was Davey who said, "Do you mean it, sir?"

"Have I ever said something I did not mean, Davey?"

Davey shook his head and looked about him, as though wondering how to prepare for such a lesson.

"And you, Lucas?"

"A… a bit of knowledge never did a man poorly," Lucas proposed, still unsure what exactly was on offer.

"Mm-hmm," Childermass said and unbuttoned his jacket.

Lucas and Davey watched him like mice uncertain if the cat would pounce.

Childermass pulled at the door handle to ensure the door was indeed secure and then hung his jacket upon it. He looked about the room, ignoring the lads as he examined it and undid his vest. He eyed the cleanliness of it. Hannah and Sarah kept all the rooms clean and shining (excepting his own which he guarded with a certain paranoid selfishness). He examined the few personal effects: a battered deck of cards, a pair of whittled dice, an old pocketknife with its carefully kept edge, the footman's livery kept brushed and clean on a shelf of its very own.

He placed the bottle he'd fetched from the storeroom upon the night table between their beds.

"Davey, light the candles," he said, with a rough gesture to the candelabrum as he hung his vest atop his jacket.

Davey hurried to do so, and the place soon glowed with a warm and cheery light.

A curt gesture from Childermass instructed Davey to sit beside Lucas, and Davey did so, though at a respectable arm's length away from his fellow servant.

Childermass strolled up to stand before them and regard them thoughtfully, as though deciding on how to proceed.

"Take off your breeches."

"But…"

"Um…"

Childermass sat opposite, on the other bed, and told them, forthright, "I'll not force you, but I do intend to teach you, lest you pass the rest of your lives in miserable ignorance."

Davey moved first, somehow stripping off his breeches without either standing or removing his dark stockings, which remained folded in place below his pale knees-- an odd but enticing contrast.

Lucas stood and removed everything but his shirt, which hung low and hid him well as he quickly sat down again.

"What is it you've done?" Childermass demanded.

Lucas and Davey exchanged looks, guilty and uncertain.

"What began it?" Childermass tried again.

"Well," Lucas offered, "it was quite cold one night, and we thought there'd be no harm sharing a bed… it was certainly warmer together."

"But, being so close to Lucas," Davey took up the story, "I couldn't sleep. It was… I was…"

"Yes, I understand," Childermass said. "You'd a cockstand. And then?"

"I-- It must have woken Lucas, and… well, I was afraid, but he said it was alright, because we were both… that is…"

"I thought there wasn't much harm in it," Lucas said. "Not… but then, we slept for a while. But in the morning, we…" It took courage, but he forged ahead, "We both had standing pricks, and so, we… that is…"

"We rubbed together," Davey said, biting that luscious lower lip and looking at Childermass as though expecting disapproval any moment.

"And we cleaned it up as well as we could, so the laundress would not see."

"And did it happen again?" Childermass asked deliberately, "whenever it turned a bit chill, perhaps?"

They nodded, looking anywhere but at their superior.

"And today?" he asked. "What prompted this assignation in the storeroom?"

"Only Miss Dido has been tormenting me, sir, little though she knows it," Lucas said earnestly.

Childermass grinned. It was not exactly a friendly expression.

"And Davey," Lucas went on. "He's always-- I mean…"

"You're young, yet, the both of you," Childermass suggested. "Such things do come easily."

"Aye," Davey agreed quietly. "So, Lucas said maybe we would be safe in the storeroom, and we might touch each other like we did in the night--"

"I see. And did you never kiss?"

"Kiss a man, sir?" Lucas asked. "But…"

"But what?" Childermass asked. "It's how such things often start. Much like a greeting, or a question. You can learn much from such undertakings, not to mention build the ardor… not that you need it, at your age." He looked at Davey then. "Davey, might you oblige me?"

"'Sir."

Childermass stood and sat between them, one young man warm and close at each side and their eyes all full of wonder.

"You might try it like this," Childermass suggested and turned to Davey. Childermass cupped his peach-fuzz jaw and met his gaze with something remarkably closer than just looking, and finally drew him forward. Childermass kissed his forehead, the tip of his chin, and then his lips just long enough to show him what might be worth the having. He pulled back to ask, "Would you say it warrants an experiment, Davey?"

"Oh, yes sir."

"Other times, you might try it like this," he taught them, and leaned in to kiss Davey firmly, and then longingly, and then overpoweringly as his mouth plundered those plump lips to taste the heat beyond. His large hands framed Davey's head and then smoothed along his firm shoulders and drew down his strong arms over the fabric of his white shirt for a final clutch of hands to hands before drawing away completely, leaving Davey open-mouthed and powerless and unmoored, as though he might float off any moment.

"Oh," Lucas said, as though having witnessed some awesome miracle. For him, it was - indeed - a revelation.

Childermass turned with a rather self-satisfied air to regard Lucas. "Would you like a go?"

Lucas gave a sort of choked nod.

"Me or him?" Childermass asked.

Lucas looked between them. They were both dark with pale Northern skin, but that was where it ended, as Childermass had his usual day or so's worth of scruff and his long hair all at odds and the thin lines at his eyes that spoke of things neither of the younger servants had ever known, but with his lips well-used and pink-looking now, and wet. Then there was Davey, his dearest friend, all flushed with arousal and sweat pricking his forehead and eyes astounded and hair sticking up every which way… he was debauched, though Lucas did not know the word at the time.

Since Lucas could not find his voice, it was Davey who spoke up with, "I'd very much like to try it with you, Lucas."

So Childermass stood, returned to the other bed, and sat down, as though he'd like nothing better than to watch these two youths thoroughly enjoy the practice of kissing. When they did not move, Childermass folded his arms and arched a peevish brow.

They slowly inched toward each other on the bed, suddenly shy, like they hadn't known each other for years (and rather more besides, already).

"May I, Lucas?" Davey asked, as his hand fluttered up towards his friend's fair face.

Lucas nodded, and so Davey pressed his hand to his cheek and leaned in, not bold exactly, but not afraid either as he kissed the side of Lucas's mouth with a firm press of lips, and then slid over to kiss him more directly.

Lucas opened beneath him and Childermass could see his entire body straining forward, as though he could complete the kiss if only he could use the whole of himself instead of only his lips.

When Childermass stood up, they both turned to regard him warily, but the man said, "Don't stop on my account," as he moved to sit behind Lucas and take up the bottle he'd brought.

They still had their eyes trained on him, though, and so seriously that Childermass wanted to laugh. He doubted they'd ever pay such close attention to a tutor under more bookish circumstances.

"Do you know what this is?" Childermass unstoppered the bottle and held it out.

Lucas took it and sniffed, turned it to pour a tiny amount into the palm of his hand.

"Oil, sir. The good kind, for cooking."

"Yes. Most any kind will work, though you'll find this pleasanter than most." Childermass reached out to take it back and Lucas returned it to him.

"May I touch you, Lucas?" Childermass asked, and his eyes were the burning of shadows as he looked into him.

Lucas knew he did not mean in any casual sense, but slowly nodded his permission.

Childermass brought himself up alongside Lucas's back and leaned into him, wrapped an arm around him to pull the shirt out of the way and reveal the fine standing cock that had been hidden.

Davey watched with avid fascination.

The presence of Childermass behind and around him made Lucas's breaths come quicker and he watched as though hypnotized as the long-fingered hand rested on his pale thigh and drew in closer to the needing part of him.

Lucas let out a sound like the desperate mew of a small cat when Childermass touched him, just thumb and two fingers at the very head of his cock.

"It feels well enough?" Childermass asked as he kept his touch firm but light and dragged his hand down and back up.

All of Lucas's inhibitions suddenly vacated. He transformed all at once from a tense and hunched and embarrassed poppet to a man of singular need. He fell back into Childermass's arms, his head at the man's broad shoulder, one arm flung out to clasp Davey's hand as the other met on his own pego with the one already tending him so expertly.

"Sir!" he managed.

Childermass let him swoon in his own pleasure this way, silently showing him all the ways a hand might serve for pleasure.

Childermass went on with the lesson: "You've already learned the touch of someone else far exceeds that of your own. But unwanted friction does no one any good."

He ceased his ministrations - Lucas gave a delicious little whine - and brought up the bottle with his arms still around Lucas, to pour a measured amount into his hand. He thrust the bottle at Davey with a curt, "Stow this somewhere safe," before rubbing his hands together to coat the palms and fingers generously.

Davey clutched the bottle in two hands, too enraptured to look away for even a moment.

Lucas watched, half gone already with the lust of it.

But then John Childermass wrapped two oiled hands around his curving member and squeezed.

Lucas convulsed and moaned and thrust wildly into the tight heat of those slick hands.

Childermass eased his grip, kept one firm hand sliding up and down as the other reached below to stir the balls in their tight purse of furred skin.

"Davey," Childermass muttered and his firey-dark expression caught Davey's eye. He nodded at the bottle. "Slick your hands."

Davey fumbled to do so, almost spilling all in his eagerness. Childermass watched those strong hands smooth the oil on, between the fingers and rubbed together until they glistened in the candlelight.

Childermass slowly withdrew until his hands settled on Lucas's thighs, gently kneading.

Davey scooted as close as their muddle of legs and knees would allow and reached with hardly any hesitance at all. He settled his fingertips on Lucas's knees and slid slowly inwards, teasing touches until his hands passed overtop Childermass's - Davey cast him a brief, heated look - and continued on their way toward the prize of Lucas's attractively darkening prick.

Unlike all the blind fumblings of their nighttime transgressions, Davey took his time, and he looked all his fill as his own hands wrapped around the ready cock. He moved them up and down, together and apart, light and tight, fast and slow.

And all the time Childermass coaxed him.

"That's right, Davey, take it slow at first. Watch his face; you can see what he likes. Keep him guessing, though; don't make it easy. Squeeze the base for a moment. Did you see him shudder. Stroke him again. Again. Then squeeze. Tighter. Just there. Smooth your thumb over the tip-- see if he likes that… Oh, he does. Do it again."

Davey's gaze jumped from his own hands at their work to Childermass's dark, enflamed eyes to Lucas's handsome face transfixed with ecstasy.

Lucas's hips moved in small helpless thrusts, unable to move very far at all, pressed as he was between two strong men.

"Shall we let him spill?" Childermass asked, the faintest smirk at the corner of his mouth as he met Davey's eyes.

Davey bit his lip and nodded, and Childermass finally moved his hands to rejoin them.

Four oiled hands moved on him, squeezing and stroking. One rough hand eased up under his shirt, massaging as it went until clever fingers pinched a nipple and twisted.

Lucas shouted out and pressed his head back into the crook of Childermass's neck and thrust forward into the mess of oiled hands.

Childermass dragged the scruff of his cheek up Lucas's neck and let his curly head drop down just enough to kiss him. He pressed his tongue past the confused lips and sharp teeth.

Lucas spilled forth with a series of shallow, erratic thrusts and a cry into the mouth that covered his.

Childermass cradled him then, let him catch his breath and close his eyes to the joy of it all for just a moment.

"Up with you, lad," he instructed after a time. "The lesson's hardly done, yet."

"But," Lucas complained, "I can't…"

"No, you can't. Not yet," Childermass agreed, wiping his hands on a handkerchief he'd pulled from somewhere, and then pointed out, "But what about poor Davey? Would you have him stewing there while you regained your wits?"

"No, sir," Lucas said and scooted around him to sit up against the iron headboard and let his head fall back onto the wall, eyes bleary with pleasure and lids half-mast as he watched them both.

This left nothing between Davey and Childermass, who stared the former down like some wild predator.

"Sit at the edge of the bed," Childermass told him.

Davey slowly dropped his other foot to the floor until he sat in an attitude much like earlier, but his anxiety this time came not from fear and stress but from arousal and anticipation as his eyes alit with expectation.

"Do you think hands are the only manner of pleasure?" he asked, "or base frotting?"

"I… I'm afraid I don't take your meaning, sir," Davey said.

Lucas looked equally bewildered when Childermass cast a glance his way.

"Then watch," Childermass instructed, sliding slowly to his knees upon the floor.

As though either of them could possibly do anything else when their dark and burning idol fell with such grace to his knees, still in his shirtsleeves and breeches and hose-- all worn thin and ragged, much like he himself seemed at times, and then eased Davey's knees apart to kiss the inside of a pale, quivering thigh.

Lucas made some curious noise in the back of his throat and the shivering of Davey's legs traveled all through his body to his hands until he steadied himself with a death grip on the mattress's edge either side of him.

Childermass's hands gripped his ankles over the thick, dark stockings to circle the bony protrusions there and then ease up over the fabric that encased the strong calves of a footman and man-of-all-work until his thumbs scraped over the pale protruding knees. All the time he looked up at the young man, his pale flesh quickly flushed with such pretty pinkness that Childermass wanted to see how far down it went.

"Off with your shirt, Davey."

There was no hesitation this time and Davey ripped the inconvenience over his head and sent it into a far corner of the room, revealing pale skin all over lean muscles and intriguing shapes like clavicle and nipples and navel.

The blush went half down his chest and Childermass drank in his fill through his eyes as his learned hands pressed into the flesh of thighs and moved nearer their apex.

Davey had resumed his anguished hold upon the bedding.

Childermass's hands, still slick with the remainder of the oil, grasped him firmly and worked the head of him and drew out the sack from beneath to roll them in his palm.

Then he leaned forward to take the crown of the handsome, slender prick into his mouth and suck.

Two cries - one of pleasure, one of astonished delight - rang in the room and Childermass drew back for but a moment to rumble, "Do I have to tell you to be quiet?"

His willing pupils hushed themselves with effort as Childermass returned to the task at hand, dragging the scruff of his cheek up the pinking thigh to mouth at the nest of curls around the base of the standing prick.

His tongue was long and hot and found all the most thrilling places as he worked, nor were his hands idle as they clutched and soothed at turns and occasionally dug in his nails for something more exciting.

Davey was a mass of nerves and it was only by the most Herculean of efforts that he emitted nothing but little panting puffs of need and astonishment.

Throughout this stimulating display, Lucas sat up with interest - having recovered himself - and slowly moved closer until (with a curt nod of approval from Childermass) he eased behind Davey, his own back pressed to the wall, and encircled the young man with his legs and arms. Lucas gave his hands free reign to explore the hollow of hips, the peaked nipples, the reddened throat, the curving ear. He pressed the smallest of kisses to what he could reach: neck and shoulders and the curve of a strong jaw.

Davey was in such raptures he hardly knew who was where and then lost himself almost completely when hot lips enclosed the tip of him and then slowly slid down so that he was constricted inside a hot, wet mouth and even nearing the throat.

Lucas gave him the meat of his own palm for Davey to bite into as he shrieked in surprised elation and tried to thrust forward and found he could not and tears pricked his eyes at the devastation of it all.

Childermass pulled back and calmly asked, "Does it please you, Davey?"

"Sir… I-- I'm all a'tremble."

He then went on, nearly as dry as Norrell upon some obscure magic, "If it's your mouth at work, be prepared for the mess, whether to catch it in a cloth or spit it out into one. Unless you swallow. The taste is… a learned one."

Childermass licked his lips and resumed his work, winking at Lucas over Davey's shoulder.

He soon began to bob his head up and down and let Davey's slender prick enter the back of his throat on every fourth thrust or so. Davey was nearing his peak and Childermass was frankly surprised he'd lasted this long, so he pulled back and this time asked, "Might I show you something, Davey; something I think you'll like."

"Anything, sir."

"You ought to have more care with your words. Watch me now, the both of you, and learn what must be done if you haven't any oil to hand."

Two pairs of enraptured eyes watched as Childermass brought his own hand to his mouth and sucked in his forefinger. He showed them how to wet it thoroughly with saliva until it dripped and glistened.

"Trust me, now," he said and reached beneath Davey to slide in toward the puckering rosebud behind his balls. The pad of his finger tapped gently as though requesting entrance and Davey shuddered and leaned back heavily onto Lucas to expose himself to Childermass's curious finger.

"There's a muscle here," Childermass instructed. "Bare down in the usual way; it will help."

And that's how Childermass eased a finger into the incredible heat of Davey's bottom hole, with nary a sign of pain or complaint.

"Let me know at once if there is pain or any unpleasantness, but if you allow me my way I think you'll find it worthwhile."

Davey gave a shuddering nod and tears leaked from his eyes, but whether they were tears of pain or overstimulation no one could say.

Childermass eased his finger in as far as seemed comfortable and then withdrew it, adding oil and kissing Davey's thigh to calm him. "Tell Lucas what you're feeling," he suggested and reintroduced his finger.

"Oh," Davey whispered, turning his head to breathe into his friends's ear, "it's quite unlike anything. I've never known something so strange, like it shouldn't be there, but it fills me up in some unpleasant but strangely satisfying way, I don't know that I can quite-- for the love of god what was that."

"Davey?" Lucas asked, quite worried.

"That," Childermass informed them, "is a unique facet of the man's body."

Davey could speak no longer as Childermass stroked that sacred spot inside him.

All Lucas could tell was that Davey was in agonies of delight and quite overcome.

Childermass withdrew and said, "Come down here, Lucas, and I'll show you."

So Lucas clambered out from behind Davey, who groaned and laid back fully on the bed, his pego standing straight up in the air like a flagpole.

Lucas kneeled on the floor beside his mentor, who added yet more oil. "You must be generous with such penetrations, no matter your kind of partner." Then he told Davey, "Lift you legs; hold up your knees, if you can."

Davey did so with eagerness, unashamedly exposing all of himself to their feasting eyes.

Childermass again breached him with a single finger, his hand rotating so that his palm faced the ceiling.

"You'll do this in a minute, Lucas. When you're in just past the second knuckle, curve your finger up to find the knob to press against. Do it gently, and learn how much pressure he can take. Stroke him from the inside. Oil your fingers well."

Lucas inexpertly did so, but his fingers were well-slicked in the end, and Childermass guided his hand to the opening. "You'll want to trim your nails better if you do this with any frequency, and it's best to clean yourselves well before hand, but this will do for today. Go ahead, press inside, neither too fast nor too rough."

Lucas experimented freely, never going too far in and smiling with delight when he found the spot that made Davey swear and gulp in great breaths of air.

Childermass eyed Lucas with interest. He said, "Would you know what it feels like?"

"…Yes, sir."

"Up on the bed with you."

So Lucas laid himself out beside Davey and bit his lips for nerves as he raised his heels to the bed, revealing himself.

Childermass sat back to regard with satisfaction the two young men spread out before him.

He turned all his attention to Lucas first, introducing wet touching, and slow breaching, before moving his finger farther in, all with quiet words of encouragement. He ensured both hands were well oiled, dedicated one to each fluttering hole, and curving his fingers.

They cried out in unison, stilling the cries as soon as they were made, and then wriggling delightfully.

Childermass gave them some small respite by leaving that stimulating organ alone and concentrating on filling them the best he could with a single finger, his eyes lingering on Davey's poor pego, red and straining, fit to burst with pleasure, while Lucas was only just regaining a measure of hardness after his earlier spending.

"There is another place a woman has, and you must be even gentler with her, and never without her permission, am I understood?" This he addressed to both of them, but aimed his warning glare at Lucas, who nodded through his unexpected pleasure. "Nor never with anyone without their say," Childermass added, with a forceful thrust of his finger into Davey, who moaned, "Yes, sir…"

"Right then. Do you know what sodomy is?"

"My brothers would joke about buggery," Lucas whimpered, "but I never knew what it was."

"Davey?"

"No. I'm sorry, sir. I know it's meant to be a vile thing, but you… Is it?"

"It's only as vile as any other bodily joining. If I were to put my own prick inside you here, that would be sodomy."

Davey gasped with unmistakeable delight while Lucas merely shuddered with something too like pleasure to be mistaken for disgust.

"And any caught at it are severely punished, which is why you must never be caught, eh?"

"Yes, sir," came the twin response, and Childermass nodded in approval when they turned upon the bed to kiss one another at their ease.

Then Davey broke away to ask, "And would you, sir? Sodomize me?"

"It would give me the greatest pleasure," Childermass answered, "but I'm afraid you are not ready for it."

"I'm ready for anything, sir!" Davey promised, glaring at him with open defiance.

So, Childermass slowly added another finger beside the first.

"Ah! Stop, sir!"

Childermass withdrew from both of them and stood to undo his breeches and display his cock, hard as anything and reddened with lust, purpling at the head for lack of attention.

Davey's lashes fluttered as though he couldn't quite focus on it and Lucas's eyes grew slowly wider.

"It would take a great deal of work indeed to fit this in you, don't you agree?"

"Y-yes, sir." Davey did agree, somewhat disheartened.

Childermass examined them both with a thoughtful expression as they lay spread out there on the bed beneath him.

"You're not like to hurt me, though," he murmured, half to himself.

Davey and Lucas just tilted their heads in curious question.

"How did you ever make it out of Yorkshire so innocent?" Childermass asked and removed all of his clothes.

Davey and Lucas watched, transfixed, at this revelation of skin and hair and muscle and lean determination. When he turned to set aside his clothes, Lucas gasped and sat forward.

"Your back, sir…"

"Yes, Lucas?"

"You…"

"There's more than one reason I would not dream of whipping the servants, even when they do such stupid things as hide in storerooms or misplace the silver."

"Mr. Norrell didn't…"

"No. It's much older than that and nothing to worry yourselves over."

"But--"

"You think I'll share all my secrets, now?"

"No, sir."

"Fetch up the oil, then, and see what you can do about preparing me."

He kneeled on the bed opposite and spread his knees.

Davey and Lucas jumped to their feet, sharing the oil between them and Childermass soon had four curious hands massaging the meat of his buttocks and probing between them.

"Easy, now. There's no rush."

They took turns breaching him, easing their forefingers in and out with Childermass telling them all the while what to do.

"Have some regard for your fingernails. The inside is sensitive and even a scratch will not do. Turn your hand the other way now. Och, there it is… Add more oil. Lucas, try two fingers. Slowly, now. Slow as you can, but keep going. Are you all the way in? Curve the tips of your fingers, press in hard…" Childermass shivered with it but kept in the sounds of his own pleasure like a stopped cork.

"Your turn, Davey, see how easily they fit with some stretching? Think about the size of your pricks and how well-open I must be before I can accept them. Add another finger, if it will go."

They whispered together between them and Childermass could feel them working together to open him. A finger from each of them sliding inside and exploring before someone added a third and filled him well up.

Childermass panted and rocked back toward their hands.

Then: "You first, Davey, you've waited long enough. Slick your cock well and start in slowly."

Davey lost no time in preparing himself and soon the head of his cock pressed forward. To Davey's shock, Childermass bore down and moved backwards, taking him in like magic.

Davey lost much coherence but clasped Childermass's hips in a death-grip and pushed forward to the utmost limit, despite Childermass hissing through his teeth like a tea kettle.

Nature informed him how to move and Childermass said, "Slowly, Davey, lest it be spoiled too soon. There's pleasure in the spending, true enough, but plenty more to be hand in the gaining of it."

So Davey slowed his thrusts and worked himself in and out of the extraordinarily tight body bent before him, trying new rhythms and depths.

And this time when Davey would have his pleasure, Childermass gave no word, but only tightened his muscles and moved against him until Davey was mad with it and thrust in and in and slammed himself in yet again, coming in fits of rapture.

Davey was draped over Childermass, who bore his weight without complaint and gave him all the time in the world to recover himself and slip from him in his own time.

"Your turn, Lucas, if you're willing."

Lucas had already smoothed the oil all over his prick and he moved into place after Davey had returned to the other bed to lay in a dazed stupor.

Lucas eased carefully forward, but the way was well open to him now, after such stretching and oiling and Davey's copious spending. Once he was fully seated, he naturally hooked his fingers into Childermass's waist to anchor himself and began to thrust.

Childermass let him work himself in and out, moving gently with him before interrupting, "It'll be different with a woman, who has her own sensitivities, and you'll find maidens will have great pain their first time without a great deal of stretching, and there will sometimes be a tearing of the maidenhead, even with as much care as you can take. So don't either of you go thinking you can forge ahead without such practices as I've showed you today. ...Now, if you just angle down a bit, and--- oh fuck yes!"

Lucas was a quick study. He remembered what he'd learned and figured out that by the right alignment of various parts, he could use his own cock to brush along that sweet spot inside, which Childermass seemed to enjoy very well.

They moved together and Childermass was more or less willing to let Lucas take his pleasure however he liked, which turned out to be strong, deep thrusts that sped over time to become a rollicking good fuck resulting in Lucas's finally spending himself in a great flood of lubricity, hiding his panting moans with his open mouth pressed against Childermass's scarred back.

Lucas stroked him with weak hands and kissed down his back as he withdrew.

Lucas and Davey sat side by side on Lucas's bed - one in just his white shirt, the other in only black stockings - naked and sated, heads lolling to together, light and dark.

Childermass eased onto his side on Davey's bed to regard them, his own leaking cock sorely unattended and hard as anything as he looked his fill and settled into the pleasurable ache that thrummed through him.

"Listen to me, lads, while you can still attend. It's a fine thing we just did, and can be done with a woman, as well, should she enjoy such things, but do you know what happens if you spend inside her womb?"

"She'll get with child," Lucas said, some understanding finally alighting in his eyes. A farmer's son would know.

"Yes. And that's called harm when you do so to a woman who is not your wife. Spend in her mouth or her arse or your own hand but always take care not to do her harm."

"Yes, sir," Lucas said.

"Not to mention there are diseases can be spread if you do not choose your lovers with care, men and women alike."

Davey just lolled onto Lucas's shoulder and appeared to all the world fast asleep.

Childermass rolled his eyes, turned on his back, and took himself in hand.

"There's something to be said for reciprocity, as well," he suggested.

He was rather surprised how quickly two tired youths could jump to their feet, cross the room, and manhandle a fellow as tall and sturdy as Childermass.

Lucas bent over to kiss him and clutch at his lean waist and broad shoulders while Davey settled between his legs and applied his mouth and hands with the most cunning he could muster.

Childermass let himself be loved in that moment, kissing Lucas with an ardor that was neither teaching nor showing off, but was felt keenly and returned with passion, while Davey tested the limits of his own mouth and keep his teeth reasonably clear and used his tongue to marvelous effect and then introduced a finger to Childermass's dripping hole, probing in and up and stabbing him there with the same rhythm as his mouth.

"Davey, I--" was the extent of his warning before he spent in a torrent of sperm and powerless thrusting and gasping through his crisis.

Davey swallowed what he could and wiped away the rest with the back of his hand as he grinned with devilish charm up at Lucas, who could not help but grin back as he petted through Childermass's tangled black hair.

"That'll, do lads," Childermass huffed out, calming his breath with a great deal of effort as he lay still and quiet. "I've riding to do today," he remembered with a touch of annoyance. "Let me up, now."

Lucas and Davey watched Childermass dress himself, uncaring of the mess, until he was as presentable as ever he was (still a bit worn and ragged and hair rather more a mess, but otherwise none the worse for wear, all shrouded in his black like shadows.)

"Make yourselves reasonably decent and I'll send Sarah with hot water. Mr. Norrell will need tending in my absence. See that he eats, and mention my name if he doesn't. Tell him there's been a mouse in the traps and it's gone, even if it isn't."

Lucas and Davey nodded and began their search for the clothing scattered about the room.

"Keep in mind all I've told you," Childermass instructed as he tied his neckcloth into place and toed the shim out from under the door. "And I've no doubt you'll learn more yet, from each other… or elsewhere. Good night."

And he was gone.

Chapter Text

John Childermass had ridden nearly all day in cold and - for the last several hours - snow. It piled up atop his hat and shoulders and thighs and the back of his horse, and by the time he made it to the city it was as though a white blanket had been laid upon all of London, but for the sludge and mire of the roads, which he navigated with care.

To keep his lips from freezing, he quietly sang:

"O could I as Harlequin frisk,
And thou be my Columbine fair,
My wand should, with one magic whisk,
Transport us to Hanover Square:
St. George's should lend us its aid."

A cheerful pair of drunks responded with a badly out-of-tune rendition of 'Good King Wenceslas.'

Finally, St. George's itself did come into view, and Childermass dismounted at the stable behind the "Coach and Horses", knocking up the hostler to take in his wearied mount. He ensured she would be well-cared for with the generous pass of a coin to the man before slinging the saddlebags over his shoulder and making his way along Maddox Street before turning amongst the back ways that only the servants and deliverymen knew until he reached his own back door.

It looked to be a cheerful fire glowing within, despite midnight looming near, so he gave his signal knock to announce himself before turning the key in the lock.

Lucy stood from the table in the servants' hall as Childermass closed and locked the door in the brief passageway that it opened into.

"Sit down again, Lucy," he said, laying his load against the wall with some care before hanging his battered hat on the waiting peg.

"Good even, sir."

"The Yule Log still burns?" he asked of the fire.

"We lit it late, hoping you'd be home for it."

"Well, here I am at last. Later than expected, but not too late, I hope."

"No, sir," Lucy said, her gaze flickering to the dark windows that reflected the cozy room back at her.

Childermass stood there dripping, regarding her solemn countenance.

"I've often found you sitting up of a winter, when good girls are long abed. What is it keeps you up so late on such a night as this?"

His comment about girls was made to coax a smile, for she was nearer him in age than all the other servants, but Lucy only stared at the fire, which glinted off the wispy straw-blonde hair which always escaped its pins by the end of the day.

"It's the cold will not let me sleep," she said. "And the dark of the night. It brings bad memories." She clutched unceasingly at her chest, at the place beneath which a necklace might hang.

"I'm sorry to hear it."

He stood still, making a generous puddle on the floor and thinking she would speak no more of it, but then Lucy said, "I had a sister once."

"Is that so?"

"She was my twin. Even our father thought us unnatural. But mother loved us dear and would let no harm come to us, no matter what anyone said. The parson called us cursed and the magistrate called us bad luck and my father called us bastards, for he was assured he could not have fathered such things. It was Mama who protected us…"

She stopped then, watching the piles of snow melting from his shoulders.

"Enough, sir. I've kept you too long. You must warm yourself and rest."

"It can wait. You've a story needs telling, and I'm one to listen if you need."

"I may. But I insist you make yourself comfortable," she said, standing to help him off with his great coat and hang it beside the door with his ratty old hat.

He removed his riding boots and leant them on the grate that stood upon the hearth for that purpose, and then pulled two chairs up cozy-like to the fireplace and indicated Lucy should sit. He held the back of the chair until she did so and promised to be back within a moment.

Lucy stared contentedly at the flames until he returned, his shadow falling over her as he bent to hand her a glass with something dark and red inside.

She accepted the glass with a questioning look.

"Port. T'will warm you and me both."

He sat then with his own glass at his lips, long legs stretched out toward the fire and crossed at the ankle, stockinged feet steaming as the damp cold was burned away.

This close, she could see he was wet through from the snow gathering and melting into him all the ride long.

"Are you very cold, sir?"

"I do not feel the cold as others do. I am well, Lucy." He held the glass out toward her in a toast, "Waes hael."

She murmured an echo of the old words and they both drank of the sweet burning liquid.

As the warmth of the fire washed over them, Childermass rumbled along with the crackle of the flames, "What was her name?"

"Laura," Lucy answered, clutching fiercely at that place below her collarbone. "I was born hours after her, and always sicklier. Laura was my life and joy. She led all our games and was unafraid of anything."

When Lucy stopped speaking, it was as though she had forgotten to turn the page of a book to see what happened next. Childermass watched her carefully.

"What happened to her?" he asked.

The hand at the base of her throat shivered and she whispered, "No one believed me."

"You think I won't?"

"I never know what to think of you, John Childermass."

He ducked his head, his face hidden behind the dark hair that glittered with the diamonds of melted snow. He spoke from behind it, "It's only fools don't believe children's stories."

"…How did you know we were only girls when it happened?"

"You spoke of games and girlish joys."

"Oh. Yes. We were ten. …It was the eve before Christmas."

She looked at him and saw the storm-dark eyes regarding her. Though there was no judgment nor malice in the expression, it still made her wary.

"I see why this night brings you pain, when so many others take joy from it. …You can tell me, and mayhap you will feel better, no matter what I believe."

Lucy took a fortifying swallow of the port and clutched the glass in two hands now as she returned her gaze blindly to the mellowing fire.

"We were sent out of doors early to tend the animals. We wrapped our feet in rags and old strips of hide. I was always miserable in the cold, but Laura could turn anything into a game. A race from the door to the pens. So many hops to the feed buckets. Could she turn out the eggs before I'd laid out the grain? I didn't know it then, but she must have let me win-- she was always faster, better… Don't mistake it for anything like jealousy. I loved her so dearly, I hardly noticed who won, so long as there was fun in it.

"I remember her cheeks rosy in the cold and her hair blowing free - like spun straw in the fairytale - as it began to snow. And we were near done with our chores when we heard something we'd never heard before near our poor hovel. We thought it was church bells, for we'd occasion to hear church bells on Sundays, when we could make the journey to town. But it didn't sound like church bells.

"Perhaps it was a tinker's cart coming along the road, we supposed, for such persons had passed us by before, but never had the banging of pots and pans been so melodious.

"We thought to seek them out to see what could be making such joyous tinkling, but as soon as we tried to follow the sound, we met a most unforeseen obstacle. For as soon as we had run North toward them, they would stop. And so we wandered back toward home, only to hear them next from the South, or the East or the West, until we had been turned in so many directions, neither of us could say for certainty which way was home, and all our tracks in the snow had been crossed over this way and that so that there was no help to be had from them. We should have froze before following all the ways we had gone to return home.

"But I saw smoke from our chimney over the rise of the earth and I knew we must go back or else freeze to death for sure-- for no matter how fast we ran or how much we laughed, it couldn't be denied that the cold was pushing its fingers through our skin to the very bone.

"We fought then. We must have fought before, as sisters do, but it is the only argument I can remember having with her.

"She asked if I had so little adventure in my heart that I would not follow the happiest bells we'd ever heard."

"I asked if she'd a mind to freeze to death.

"So we pouted and pointed and yelled and I finally turned from her, determined to go home and thought that she would follow me, for when had she ever let me alone when I was hurting or fearful?

"When I realized she did not follow, I turned to call, but she was no longer there. I had not gone so far… it was but a rolling field and no where for her to hide, despite all the past times we'd played hide-and-go-seek. I ran back to where we'd stood together, my own footprints leading me back. And there were our tracks from where we'd come wandering. And there she'd stood, her little feet leaving perfect marks in the snow. But no Laura to be seen. Not anywhere."

Tears spilled from Lucy's eyes, a hot outpouring of remembrance and grief as one hand dropped to a fist curled tight on her thigh.

"I know the fairies took her. For what else could it be? And I was meant to go with her! We were twins, and I'd heard the bells, too! But I was too fearful to go."

Lucy did not know when Childermass had moved. But he'd leaned in toward her, slouching in his seat to bring himself nearer her, so that when he reached out, he could lay one hand - with gentlemanly care - over hers where it trembled on her leg.

Her hand stilled itself under his touch, and she slowly unlocked the tight fist and looked from their hands up to his eyes. "Why, Mr. Childermass, you're so very warm already."

"I told you the chill is no great thing to me. And you still shiver, even with the fire so near." He withdrew his hand and observed, "Your glass is empty."

He retrieved the bottle from the floor beside him and when she held out the glass, he poured in a good measure.

"It's powerful generous of you, Mr. Childermass."

He ducked his head in a nod for her praise.

"Dido tells me you're generous in many things, Mr. Childermass," Lucy went on.

"Does she?"

"Would it be too forward to tell you I long for something to warm me on so cold a night?"

"Something more than the port and the fire, you mean?"

"Aye, I do."

Childermass turned to regard the dark, narrow hallway that led upstairs, though where his thoughts took him exactly none can say. He finally turned back to her and said, "Then you may be as forward as you like, Lucy."

"Do you know what I should like very much, Mr. Childermass?"

"I would know, if you're willing to tell it me."

"I should like to sit here with you, and drink my port, and watch the Yule log burn down, be it even so late."

"Late as it may be," Childermass said as the midnight bells tolled in the square, "it would be a fine thing with me, also."

"And then I should like for you to give me your arm, to walk with me like a lady to the doorway where the mistletoe hangs."

"It's a thing I should like as well."

"And would you kiss a lady under the mistletoe, Mr. Childermass?"

"A lady would slap a rascal like me for trying."

"I guess I am not a lady after all," Lucy said, quirking her head at him and sipping from her glass.

Childermass only raised a brow and smiled, his teeth showing behind curled lips.

This easy flirtation and promise of more had lightened Lucy's spirits for a moment, and the proof of it shone in her twinkling eyes and at the corner of her mouth, but the longer she sat still and unspeaking, the more the melancholy settled back around her like an over-heavy mantle about her shoulders.

Her eyes dulled as though she looked through a fog at the past. She said, "I shouted till I was hoarse and my brothers came running, thinking me half-mad. All the neighbors round set out that day to find Laura. But no sign of her was ever seen again. …And no one believed me about the bells. They thought I dreamed it, or the crueler ones thought I'd made it up. But I know what we heard."

"I believe you," Childermass said.

"You do?" she asked, looking sharply at him. "Then you're the first to do so. Even my mother wanted to believe me, but said in the end that all the fairy ways closed long ago."

Childermass gave a shrug of his shoulders (it was not meant to be an elegant gesture, but appeared one nonetheless) and said, "Who's to say what ways are open on a solstice night, or on a fair morning, or in the presence of twin girls who longed for something better?"

The Yule log shifted then, breaking itself apart and dwindling as it burned.

"I miss her in my bones," Lucy said. "And the cold always makes it worse." Lucy tried to recover herself and went on to speak about what had happened during his absence.

"You missed a cheery evening below stairs, Mr. Childermass. Even I felt gay and light-hearted for a time. Oliver made the wassail and Lucas chased down every girl for a kiss-- all but Hannah who blushed and turned away. Even little Sarah offered up a cheek and we all laughed to see her giggle so. We sang carols until Mr. Norrell called down that we disturbed him, and so we went outside to sing at the neighbors for a time. Then we came back in to play games and Mr. Norrell had to come down to chastise us for being so loud-- and he asked after you and we had to remind him you'd gone. Then he forgot to yell at us and went back above stairs. He must have gone to bed because we did not hear from him again after that.

"There were even a few gifts to be had. Hannah drew up sweet little cards with bible verses on them with that fine paper you brought for her. I crocheted a shawl for Sarah, and she cried when I gave it to her. With your help, we all pitched in to buy Hannah a book-- that new novel she's been wanting by the lady author. And Dido vowed to take any chore of our choice for the next week, for she already spent all her money. Davey and Lucas gave everyone the finest candles they could afford-- 'to help keep winter at bay,' they said. Oliver and Dido and Sarah made us the most wonderful dinner… All yours are on the mantel there." Lucy nodded to the mantelpiece where a few things sat in a tidy stack, some in neatly tied ribbons.

"The port was for you all to share," Childermass said. "But it looks like we've made good headway, just the pair of us."

"It was kindly meant, even if we are the only beneficiaries."

Childermass stood and removed a few things from his saddlebags. These he placed on the mantel and then retrieved the little gifts that had been put aside for him.

"You are all over-generous," he said, carefully fingering the pair of white candles before slipping them in a pocket. He examined the card that Hannah had written out in her careful hand, as well as a handful of matching black buttons in a small tin. He glanced aside at Lucy.

"I know you're missing some from your second-best pair of breeches. I got those for a good price and will sew them on for you later."

"Thank you, Lucy."

"Happy Christmas, sir."

"Happy Christmas."

She stood then to examine what now lined the mantel. "Let's see," she mused, picking up a plain box to examine it. She gave it a light sniff and then smiled at Childermass. "Chocolates for Oliver." She absently slid over a neatly wrapped package of crisp brown paper, pressing in to feel the softness of it. "New gloves for Davey." Another small package was declared, "A new cap for Sarah." A little box that rattled was, "Nibs for Hannah's pens." Lucy picked up the next package and examined it closely. "New stockings? For Dido? Very forward of you, sir." This she set back down and then tapped the box at the end of the mantel thoughtfully. "For Lucas…" she wondered. "Ah! His playing cards have worn awfully thin. You've got him a new deck."

"You are a marvel, Lucy," Childermass said, a touch of wonder in his voice.

"I've learned a good deal from you, you know."

"Have you?"

"Mm," she said noncommittally and then pretended to examine the mantelpiece again, as though counting the presents. "Have you forgotten me, John Childermass?"

"Of course not, you being my oldest friend in the household."

"And yet I see no box, no brown paper here for me."

"Maybe you want to come upstairs to receive it," he suggested.

"Maybe I do."

"The fire's all but cinders now," he observed.

Lucy looked down in surprise. "So it is," she agreed. "And my port's all gone," she pointed out.

Childermass set their glasses upon the table with what remained of the port, and then turned the chairs back to their places and tucked his saddlebag safely away.

He turned to Lucy, bowed in the low light, and offered her his arm. "M'lady."

Lucy gave a quiet laugh and took up the candle that would light their way.

"I see it does not matter which doorway," Childermass observed, "as Lucas has covered quite all of them in mistletoe."

"Lucas and Dido together, sir. Thick as thieves these days."

"I shouldn't wonder," he said as he escorted her to the narrow servants' stair where they turned to face one another.

"Are you such a lady as to refuse a rascal a kiss?"

"Come here, you," Lucy said. One hand held the candle carefully away from them as she reached with the other for the back of his head to tilt him toward her.

Childermass kissed her lightly and with reverence and whispered to her, "Shall we go upstairs now, Lucy?"

"Aye."

So Lucy led the way with her candle up the stairs to the servants' corridor at the top and then even further to the little stair that led to Childermass's garret room.

They settled themselves comfortably side-by-side upon the bed, the door latched up tight and the candle a soothing glow in the darkness.

"Will you have your present now, Lucy?"

"I would, sir," she said with a smile.

From within an inner pocket, Childermass pulled a small twist of tissue paper and handed it to her.

With a wry look, Lucy accepted the little thing. "And what is this?" she asked. "A bit of dirt left over from your travels?"

"If it is, it's very fine dirt," he answered dryly.

Lucy untwisted the paper and then gasped as a string of gold slithered out onto her fingers. Her hands began to shake.

"I noticed the one you wear is but thread plaited together. You deserve something finer."

"I…"

"May I see what it is you're always wearing about your neck?" he asked gently.

One of her trembling hands clutched the golden chain and the other reached up to pull at the carefully braided thread about her neck. Lucy lifted and revealed an ancient and battered locket.

"My fingers shake. I cannot open it."

Childermass reached out carefully, his dirty nails prizing it open to reveal a curl of straw-blonde hair carefully wound in each half.

"Yours and your sisters?"

"Yes. My mother cut it when we were six. When she passed, I got the locket. But I never could afford a proper chain."

"Now you have one," Childermass said.

With her permission, Childermass used a small knife to cut off the thread that had been knotted into place years ago, and he slipped the locket onto the chain, and he slipped the chain about Lucy's neck, and he clasped it in place with care.

"There you are," he said.

Childermass sat back and regarded Lucy without expectation, but still with some degree of pride.

Lucy leapt forward and flung her arms around him.

Childermass laughed and returned her embrace, holding her close for a moment, just holding her. And finally they relaxed into one another and he whispered in her ear, "Are you well now, Lucy? Or do you still seek warmth on this cold night?"

"I am always cold in winter, sir. And I-- I think we would please each other?"

"You please me very much already, but I would take more if you gave it."

"Then take it, sir."

And Childermass slipped one sleeve down her shoulder to kiss her there.

Lucy shivered with more than cold and bowed to press her forehead to his shoulder, somewhere between disbelief and surrender.

Childermass's clever fingers found all the little ties at the back of her gown and slowly pulled them free, massaging his rough fingers over her chilly skin as he went.

Her hands found their way under his jacket and her fingers curled themselves into the fabric of his waistcoat as though she might break apart if she did not hold him so.

Childermass let her cling there, though it would prove an impediment to his undressing her. He simply loosened her gown and rubbed warmth into her back, and then nuzzled into that soft place beneath her ear, which had a delightful effect upon her breathing.

His attentions seemed to press the nerves from her until her hold upon him loosened. Instead of clutching helplessly at the fabric that encased him, she pressed though it to discover the shape of him, to learn that he was little more than skin and muscle beneath the flagrantly out-of-fashion layers that shrouded him.

Childermass tugged at her loosening gown to reveal the edge of her shift at her bosom. He traced a finger slowly above its border, drawing a line of fire on the skin that made Lucy sit up and regard him with astonishment.

"Do such touches agree with you?" he asked.

"Oh Lord yes."

"Good," he said, and leaned in to kiss her, his hand settling over her decolletage, fingers at her neck, thumb repeatedly chaffing the dip above her breasts just below the locket as she began to work the buttons of his waistcoat.

"You have far too many buttons, sir."

"Then why did you get me more?" he asked, smiling into her as he kissed along her jaw and to her neck.

She laughed and let him pull the top of her dress down her arms, her chest heaving in delight as he regarded her with an intense expression of ardent something that she could not quite name.

She pushed the jacket from his shoulders as he attempted to undo his own waistcoat at the same time.

With his arms momentarily pinned to his sides, she laughed at him and gave kittenish little kisses to every part of his face before standing up to let her gown fall away.

Childermass freed himself of jacket and waistcoat and began on the buttons of his shirt, watching Lucy all the while.

The candle lit her from behind, showing the shape of her through the shift.

"Does my form please you, sir?" she asked, less flirtatious than uncertain.

"Your form delights me, Lucy." He examined her closely and asked, "Why do you wear a question upon your face?"

"Only… why have we never done this before, Mr. Childermass?"

"It's unbecoming a fellow to take advantage of those beneath him."

"Were you waiting for an invitation?" she asked.

"Something of the like," he agreed, his loose shirt billowing around him now, revealing his chest as he worked at the knot at his throat.

"There are many times I've thought of you with desire," she confessed, delicately reclaiming her seat beside him on the bed.

"And you never thought to question if I felt the same?"

"I never--" Lucy stopped, thought, tried again. "You aren't like any other man I've ever known."

"How's that?" he asked, slipping the cloth from about his throat.

"They're obvious in what they want-- servants and gentlemen both. They touch without permission, and make clear their sentiments." All this was said rather slowly as Lucy had difficulty looking anywhere but his chest. "But you, John Childermass, have remained a mystery to me in many ways, even so long as I've known you."

"I don't think I'm so mysterious as all that."

"Oh? Then why is your attic room barely chilly, when it should be as cold as ice up here?"

John Childermass smiled.

Lucy leaned in to confide, "I suppose Mr. Norrell thinks he's very clever, but he has nothing on you, sir."

"Mr. Norrell sees what he expects to see," Childermass said, "unlike you, Lucy-- you see a deal more."

"I'd like to see a great deal more," Lucy suggested, the tips of her fingers settling on the firm muscles of his thigh over his old breeches.

Childermass drew the shirt from his arms and then plucked at a strap of her shift. "And are you so modest as to keep this on?"

"Not at all, sir," Lucy said, reaching behind her to loosen the ties as she stared at his arms.

They shared a bit of silence then, as she undid the buttons at his knees and he attended to those at his waist.

Lucy took the opportunity to seek out the lines and planes of him as she did so, finding the sort of strength in his legs that one might expect in someone who spent a good deal of time riding and walking.

And Childermass took the opportunity to peek down the front of her loosened shift at the swell of breasts, firm and inviting as they teased him.

Lucy looked up to catch his eye.

They shared an expression that was more than a smile but less than a smirk as she sat back up and drew her hands up him as she did. She pressed along the muscles of his thighs and up his firm arms to his bare chest, where her hands alighted as though mesmerized.

"Has it been so long since you've seen a man?" he asked.

"I don't think I've ever seen a man like you," Lucy said and leaned in to kiss him again.

Childermass returned the kiss with a more pressing passion, one hand smoothing up her arm as the other settled at her waist only briefly before searching higher to explore the tempting swell of a breast.

"Oh yes," she breathed, the air harsh in her throat, "your hands…"

"Like my hands, do you?"

Lucy made a vaguely approving sound as she nodded and leaned into his touch.

Childermass bent his head to apply his lips as well, slowly drawing her shift down and kissing the flesh he revealed.

Lucy's incoherence spurred him him on and she eventually had to push him away so that she might draw the shift away completely, exposing herself to the cool night air and breathing hard, as though she'd just won a dare with herself.

Childermass's hands - warm as summer - drew patterns along all of her: thighs and belly and arms and breasts as he kissed whatever seemed appealing, but especially her breasts, for she emitted the most awed and delighted moanings when he did.

He concentrated his mouth on one nipple, his expert attentions fit to drive Lucy mad as she began begging nonsensically under her breath, and clutching at whatever part of him she could reach. One of his hands played at her unattended breast while his other hand sought southward, finding the swell of her belly, the flare of her hips, and then delving (hot and easy) between her legs to card at the soft curls there.

"God, your hands," Lucy said and shivered all underneath him, finding that he'd bent her back onto the bed and she could not for the life of her recall exactly when. But she spread her legs and clutched at his arms and sent up prayers and pleas most breathlessly in her excitement.

Childermass slid a finger inside her and rubbed at her clitoris with his thumb and teethed her nipple until she reached her crisis.

She swore at him like a sailor, and every muscle of her was strung tight for a few seconds as she held her breath, savoring it in an extended moment until she absolutely had to breathe, and then she sucked in great gasps of air and let him sooth her like a child, petting her face and arms and kissing through her straw-blonde hair.

"You're not a man, John Childermass," she finally whispered, "you're a force of nature."

"Nothing so unfathomable, I'm sure," he denied, laying close beside her and speaking low and rough, his voice thick with desire.

When she had sufficiently recovered, Lucy sat up to work his breeches off him, finding he wore naught underneath, but was one of those men who preferred to use the long tails of his shirt to cover what needed covering, and she was more than delighted with what she found there: a ruddy cock heavy and wanting her.

"Only think I might have been enjoying this sooner, had I thought of it."

Childermass let out a soft groan as she wrapped him in her cool hands and stroked. Her touch was light and teasing, and then firm on the crown of him, but Childermass did not move, his face only reddening a bit as he held very still and watched her in the light from the candle, which lit up her wisping blonde hair like a halo.

Lucy worked him slowly and very admiringly, squeezing out that little trickle of viscous fluid from his slit to help oil him.

Gooseflesh raised on his arms and he reached out to carefully pill the pins from her hair until it fell about her, a headful of straw and gold.

She smiled very pleasantly at him and leaned over so that her hair trailed along his chest, and she leaned slowly in as though to kiss him, but then pulled away, coy as anything even with her hands all over his prick. And then she said, "Would it be all right if I sat atop you in this way, sir?"

"Lucy, you're like to kill me if you don't do something."

She slowly laid down atop him, his cock pressed between their bellies as she let him have her lips while her feet nuzzled his still-stockinged legs, her breasts squeezed hot (the locket a shock of cold) against his chest.

"It's been a long time for me, sir. I'll have to take you in slow."

"And how would this be different from the rest of our evening?"

Lucy dropped her forehead to his shoulder to laugh, and then sat up, resting her hands upon his firm chest as she wiggled, her wet cunt sliding along his prick. She slowly eased her hips up and reached between them to grasp him firmly and rub the blunt head against her opening, slick from her own spending and eased a bit more by the leaking of his own evident excitement.

Childermass watched her very closely, from the intent expression on her face to her breasts (still rosy from his earlier attentions) hanging pendulously above him to her belly taut with the tension of holding herself up and then to that place where she was joining with him, slowly easing him in, her impossible tightness opening to him by agonizing degrees.

Full minutes passed as Lucy worked him in, seeming to take perverse pleasure in the unhurried pace of it, and though her face sometimes scrunched up in open-mouthed feeling, he suspected it was not only pain that caused it; he felt her flutter around him, and the sounds she made - though not words - spoke of wanting.

The further she took him in, the slower she moved until she breathed in some special rhythm and finally sank down as far as she could.

He was fully seated within her, and she was in no way cold now.

They burned where they pulsed together, and waves of heat rolled from one to the other of them as they fought to breathe in a manner than did not sound completely ridiculous.

"Shall I move for the both of us?" Lucy asked, sitting upright and looking down on him with hazy eyes.

"If you do not move, I shall…"

"Yes? You shall what?" Her smiled pierced her voice.

John Childermass looked up at her, a grin growing on his face as he muttered, "You're the very devil, Lucy."

She slowly rocked in place, earning from him a shocked groan and quick burst of panting before he settled again.

Lucy slowly leaned over until their eyes aligned and she whispered, "I've never been so full."

His eyes flared and he had to employ every effort to keep his hips still.

"You'll drive me mad," he said.

"I think it would take more than a good fuck to ruin your sense, John Childermass… but I must say I quite enjoy the sight of you arrayed beneath me, and your muscles all strained with tension and your face flushed with desire." Then, she leaned even lower until she could speak directly to his ear, "Would you like to spill in me? Have no fear; my loins are not fruitful, or I should have had a fat belly long before now."

He made some noise in the back of his throat, but was unable to give her an actual answer.

So Lucy sat back up again, braced her hands on his upper chest, and slowly rose up.

It was only a minute gesture, just enough to register the friction before she eased back down. And again. And again. Like the gentlest waves upon the seashore of a calm bay.

Her movements were never quick, always purposeful, never abrupt, but smooth and assured.

Childermass flared his nostrils and sucked in his breath and let her do as she would.

When her hands eased up to find better purchase on his shoulders, she rose a bit higher, and when her hands slid down to his elbows, she decided upon a rolling motion of her hips, and when her hands moved to settle over his hands on the blankets, she slowed again to a subtle rocking with him buried in her.

Then, she pressed down hard on his wrists as though to pin him there and she closed her eyes and ground down on him in little twisting plunges until she cried out her pleasure, her eyes opened wide and her chest heaving as all those fluttering muscles inside tried to milk him.

John Childermass smiled to see her, but he did not spend, not yet, and when her hands relaxed and she leaned over him again to rest, he wound his arms around her to hold her tight.

She stayed there, content, rubbing her smooth cheek upon the sparse hairs of his chest, panting out little puffs of air, curled up atop him and trembling all the while.

Soon enough, though, she sat up, grinning as she began to move on him, more quickly now, as though determined to pull his pleasure from him.

His hands travelled from her thighs to her waist to her breasts, touching everywhere as she moved over him, not only to please him, but to find her own ecstasy again, chasing it down-- this time with uneven fervor as she moved on him.

She tugged on his hands until their fingers intertwined, laced together, palm to palm as she increased the tempo, bounding up and down upon him, her head thrown back with the thrill of it as she began chanting, "Yes," over and over, whether in affirmation or appeal neither of them knew.

As Lucy approached her peak for the third time, she squeezed his hands in a vice-like grip and stared into his eyes as she quietly begged, "Fuck me, fuck me…"

Childermass finally moved against her, thrusting up forcefully as she slammed down on him. Each impact jolted a cry from them both until Lucy spent herself a final time with something like a sob. Childermass continued to thrust mindlessly up into her until he reached his climax, spilling into her with abandon as she collapsed atop him, breath ragged and chest heaving.

At first, Childermass barely had the strength of mind to hold her, but as he returned to himself, he smoothed her hair back and quietly asked, "Are you warm enough now, Miss Lucy?"

Lucy gave a good thump to his shoulder and laughed as he slowly withdrew from her, that they might burrow under the covers together to sleep the rest of the cold night away in the arms of one another.

Chapter Text

Oliver Priddy had been in Mr. Norrell's employ for a good ten years before Mr. Norrell could remember either his name or that he was the cook. (Oliver would joke below stairs that he might as well have been a fairy servant, for all that Mr. Norrell assumed his food would simply be there-- whether he ate it or not.)

Oliver Priddy did not mind, for he had little use for the upper classes, excepting of course that they paid him.

He was by far more content to worry about his own kitchen, and really he thought-- it was all the life below stairs that pleased him.

Dido was a quick and happy worker, always ready for a joke, and eager to learn anything he could teach her about food or listen to his stories of misadventure as they worked together. She was not the most principled of kitchenmaids, perhaps, but what fun would that have been?

And the scullery maid they had in London, Sarah, (though still young) was not the overworked, bedraggled thing he'd seen in other households, but still content to be a girl and wonder at the world around her and would ask to learn every word of every song that Oliver ever sang. She was surprisingly content in her work (and everyone pretended they did not know about the litter of kittens she'd saved from the gutter, and to whom she fed milk by the means of a dropper she made from hollow straws from the stables, and kept in an unused pot in a warm corner of the scullery.)

Lucas and Davey were always good for a laugh, and when they came slinking in to see what the marvelous smells could be, Oliver only begrudgingly chased them out of the kitchen, for he loved to watch them so beautiful and so happy and artless in their happiness while below stairs.

And Lucy and Hannah - though of inherently quiet natures - were perhaps the sweetest things about the place, and he would do whatever he thought of to see them blush and laugh at them.

But the real reason he had stayed in the employ of such a strange man as Mr. Norrell was undoubtedly the master's man of business, John Childermass.

John Childermass kept the household running with stoic diligence, and never had an unkind word for a servant ('less the servant markedly deserved it), and was altogether such a fine picture of a man, that Oliver's wanderlust had kept him in Hurtfew (and now Hanover Square) without a second thought.

It helped, of course, that Oliver Priddy and John Childermass had come to an understanding years ago.

= = = = =

Dinner was over and the kitchen clean, so Oliver Priddy had leisure to lounge about the servants' hall and make a nuisance of himself, which was by far one of his most favorite things to do.

What with all the activity about the house these days, most of the servants had already sought their beds, but John Childermass sat reading the news of the day while Hannah sat unobtrusively beside him with her novel, occasionally making quiet inquiries about various words.

Oliver drank what he could afford (today it was rum) and watched the two of them with a contented air until he could take the silence no longer.

"Was it not it Mr. Childermass taught you your letters?" he asked Hannah.

"Yes, sir," she said.

"As you well know," Childermass added in a grumble without looking up.

"And was he a patient tutor?" Oliver went on, unperturbed.

"Yes, sir. Like a saint."

Oliver barked his laughter as he slapped the tabletop in his amusement.

Clearly, this was hilarious.

Childermass lowered the newspaper just enough to scowl over it.

Oliver stopped laughing. But he could not stop his cheeky smile as he observed, "I do not think you've ever been so patient with me, sir."

"And why should I be, thick with insolence as you are."

"Well," Oliver mused. "I'm thick with something."

"Yes, thick in the head," Childermass told him, and gave him a warning look before returning his attention to his newspaper.

"And how is your novel, Hannah?" Oliver asked.

"It is most diverting," she said without any clear emotion.

Oliver shook his head and drank his rum, and then muttered, "Use a diversion, I could…"

"Oliver…" Childermass warned.

"Only what is it so fascinating about books? They can't give you anything."

"They can give a great deal!" Hannah spoke out, more fire in her eyes than she would usually show. "Begging your pardon, sir. But a story can give you any number of diversions."

"I'll take your word for it, Hannah," he said. "I find my pleasures elsewhere, as do a good deal of the household these days, I believe."

Hannah gave Oliver a questioning look, but Childermass put down his paper and said, "He'll be like this the rest of the night, lass, and you'll have no good reading in the servants' hall tonight. Why don't you off to bed?"

"Yes, sir. Good night, Mr. Childermass; Mr. Priddy."

"So proper," Oliver shook his head. "Good night, Hannah. Enjoy your book."

"If my candle does not make Sarah wakeful, I will."

And she took herself upstairs, quiet as anything.

Childermass sat at one end of the table, glaring. "Happy now?" he asked.

"Well, yes. Got you to myself, haven't I?" said Oliver from the other.

Childermass snorted and lifted his paper once more.

Oliver stood and stretched and wandered about the room, checking that all was as it should be and that Hannah had indeed gone. Once he was sure that they were all alone, Oliver came to a halt in his wanderings somewhere behind his senior servant.

"I hear you've been poking the maids."

Childermass sighed. "You don't know the half of it…"

"Oh? And what of poor Oliver?" said Oliver, trailing his hand across Childermass's shoulders.

"I thought poor Oliver was being seen to by the poor coachman at Limmer's."

"Poor Oliver was, but the coachman at Limmer's has shit for brains-- he's taken up with that lusty little roustabout from Ireland who's always hanging about the Coach and Horses, and besides," he said, bending suddenly close to Childermass's ear, "I miss the way you bent me over the gardener's table at Hurtfew."

"That table was just the right height," Childermass fondly recalled, turning a page of the paper.

Oliver settled a firm hand on each of Childermass's shoulders, digging in with his strong fingers to chase the tension away. He put his lips close to a suspicious ear and said, "I need a good seeing to, John."

"You need something," Childermass agreed, rolling his eyes and in no way compelled to rise to the bait Oliver was so determined to dangle in front of him. Not immediately, anyway.

"You live to torment me," Oliver sighed, wandering away again and pouring himself another tot of rum.

"Not at all," Childermass denied, "but it is a fine hobby when I am not otherwise engaged."

"Quite engaged you've been, I hear tell. Dido and Lucy, sir?"

"Mm," Childermass answered, in the least agreeable way possible.

"Is Hannah next?"

Childermass only glared.

"She utterly adores you, you know."

"She's but a girl," Childermass muttered.

"Not if you ask ask the grocer's boy."

Childermass folded down the top of his paper to inquire in his lowest rumble, "The grocer's boy?"

"Oh, follows her like a puppy, he does. Sweet as anything. She - the poor dear - is oblivious, but not for long, I think… She's old enough for it."

Something - a muscle or tendon - began ticking in Childermass's jaw.

"You've got that funny protective streak, don't you?" Oliver pushed. "I remember you gave that stevedore a tidy punch on his nose when I rebuffed him and he wouldn't take no for an answer. And you guard the master like a bulldog, you do. Or a mastiff maybe. I suppose Hannah will remain chaste as anything so long as you're around to chase off all her lovers---"

"Oliver."

"Yes, John?"

"What can I do to make you stop talking?"

"You know the answer to that," Oliver promised with a wicked shift of his lips. "Put my mouth to better use, you must."

"You're hard up," Childermass lightly observed, picking up his paper again.

"You are a positive scoundrel, John Childermass, teasing me so."

"I'm only a man of business in a fine London house," Childermass said.

"Man of business, my foot," Oliver retorted, slamming his glass down on the table. "I have business that I'll be seeing to in my room, and if you aren't there to join me, I can make your life miserable."

"Do not you do that already?" Childermass asked, unimpressed.

"Damn you," Oliver swore out, leaning over the table as though anyone was capable of intimidating John Childermass in such an obvious manner.

Glass of rum and newspaper forgotten, they grinned at one another like fiends.

"I will fetch the oil," Oliver said.

"Be sure you're good and ready for me," Childermass said, slowly standing. "For I'm not of a mind to wait tonight."

Oliver Priddy waggled his eyebrows in a ridiculous fashion and turned on his heel to make for the kitchen in something like a sprint.

= = = = =

Oliver Priddy's room stood beside the kitchen, at the other end of the down stairs from the room shared by Lucas and Davey. Like their room, his had no windows, but he could boast that he had the place to himself, which was better than many a London servant got, excepting the luckier butlers and housekeepers.

But Mr. Norrell kept a skeleton staff, for his own needs were comparatively few, and John Childermass was not overwrought with needs of his own either.

Oliver Priddy stripped down to nothing after his candles were lit, and he ignored his growing cockstand to pay attention to the part of himself that so needed a seeing to.

When Childermass entered his room and toed a doorstop in place, he found Oliver on his knees upon the bed, working himself with three oiled fingers, back bowed and muscles straining.

John Childermass stood there with his unreadable expression, just watching as Oliver prepared himself: casting lascivious glances at his sometime-lover and grinning like some wild forest beast.

"You're not likely to last long," Childermass finally observed. "I feel I must restrain you, or our fun will be too soon ended."

Oliver let his forehead hit the bed as he groaned in anticipation.

Childermass swaggered about the room until he found Oliver's discarded neckcloth. Then, he approached the man on the bed with something of a predatory air.

"So," Childermass deduced, "You've had your fun with the coachman… Stings, doesn't it, a woolybacked Taffy like yourself thrown over for some bogtrotting Paddy? And who do you come to in your state of need with your bed left cold?"

"You, John Childermass."

"And have I as fine a cock as your coachman?"

"Better, John Childermass."

"And what would you have right now?"

"A damn dirty fucking from you, John Childermass."

"So I see," Childermass said, still fully clothed and with only a mild look of interest on his face. He shook his head at the sight before him and casually stated, "You'd put your whole fist in if it would fit."

Oliver gave a lewd moan and thrust his own fingers into himself as far as they might go. "You damned, dirty, fucking--"

"Language, Oliver," Childermass warned, grabbing him firmly by the arm and turning his face toward the edge of the bed. "You made something of a promise, did you not, to find better use for your mouth?"

"Yes, sir."

Childermass undid the fall front of his breeches and shifted the tails of his shirt out of the way to reveal himself, only half-hard but still big enough to threaten.

"Well, Oliver?" he asked. "Have you a mind to prepare me or shall I go in dry?"

Oliver only shot him his filthiest grin before sucking the tip of him into his salivating mouth and digging into his breeches with his hands to stir the ball sack and the skin behind it, encircling the length, and moving about with such eagerness that he hardly knew what to touch first.

He sucked and slobbered until Childermass was hard and slick with it.

Childermass pushed him off with a hand in his sandy hair and told him, "Leave off that now, and let me take care of you," and he dangled the forgotten neckcloth out to the side.

Oliver moaned as he laid back on his bed, obediently crossing his wrists above his head, eyes lit with want and mouth sinfully red and wet.

Childermass leaned over him with one knee upon the bed and wound the cloth around the strong wrists and then between them and then tied it off at the headboard with a sailor's ease.

Oliver was surprisingly silent throughout this operation, raking his eyes up and down Childermass's still clothed form, lingering upon the man's clever hands and handsome face. (Oliver knew Childermass would never call himself handsome. Oliver sometimes thought John Childermass did not give himself quite enough credit.)

Once this task was done, Childermass eased himself over Oliver, displaying his lean bulk to the best of his advantage before leaning down to kiss Oliver like they used to in the woods behind Hurtfew.

Messy and hard and biting and then somehow easing into sweet and tender in a way that always caught Oliver off-guard, no matter how often Childermass pulled the trick on him.

Not that it lasted. As soon as Oliver's guard was down, Childermass sucked into his mouth like some screaming Sidhe come to siphon the life out of him. Oliver wondered if he was mixing his mystical creatures before just about every thought was driven out of his head together.

John Childermass left off his mouth and licked (with little bites) behind his ear, beneath his jaw (with a firm tongue), and then laved over his Adam's apple (wetter than water) in a way that was completely unfair because Oliver could not retaliate by paying such attentions to all those similar places he'd found on John Childermass that turned the man mad. Because, of course, being tied up had seemed such a good idea at the time. Now all he could do was lay there and buck up into the man and curse at him.

"Jesus fucking Christ John Childermass, you fucker, you devil--"

Childermass calmly undid his own neckcloth and wrapped it round Oliver's head, over his mouth until words became no more than muffled sounds, and the Yorkshireman smirked all the while.

"You're like to bring the whole house down if you go on so," Childermass explained. "And there are some, at least, who have no need to hear such things."

Oliver had a smart answer for this, but it was lost in the cloth across his mouth. John Childermass kissed him over it and laughed at him and then smacked him on the hip and told him, "Turn over."

Still somewhat pinned beneath him, Oliver managed with a clever bit of wriggling to lay down on his front and then press his arse up against the hot length behind him.

Childermass pulled away and grabbed the ends of the neckcloth he'd wound about Oliver's mouth, using them as reigns to pull him into a kneeling position, or as much as could be managed with the man's hands bound still above him.

Oliver laced his fingers together and pressed down against the pillow in an attempt for some leverage, and helplessly pumped his hips against the air, for he had nothing to press down into nor to press back against. He could feel the weight of Childermass somewhere on the bed behind him, but the man was frustratingly out of reach.

But then John Childermass touched him, one burning-hot hand settling between Oliver's shoulder blades, just a firm presence and pressure.

"Shall I remind you of better times, Oliver? Or shall I force thought of every other man out of your head?"

Childermass slowly descended upon him, his rough old clothes dragging all along Oliver's sensitized skin until Childermass could speak directly to his ear: "The one could be sweet. The other… not."

Oliver tried to answer through his gag and pushed eagerly back against Childermass.

"Easy, now," Childermass calmed him as though Oliver were a worried horse, patting his sides and speaking low and calm. "We've all the night ahead of us, Oliver, and no matter how we go, you know it won't be quick."

Oliver simply writhed, begging for contact until he dropped to hump desperately against the bed.

"None of that now," Childermass told him, grabbing the traitorous hips in a vice-like grip and lifting him up again. "What shall I do with such disobedience?" Childermass muttered, as though to himself.

Oliver wiggled his arse in offering.

Childermass snorted, unimpressed, and instead reached out to pinch the man's sides in relentless nips.

Oliver squirmed and screamed, writhing desperately.

"You are making this far too easy," Childermass said, slapping him once on the arse before parting those tempting cheeks to press inward with a spit-wet finger.

But for the shivering that ran through his limbs, Oliver suddenly stilled, as though every bit of focus narrowed down to a single point.

"You're well open already," Childermass observed, his tone still casual and unimpressed.

Oliver made to speak, and then groaned with frustration through the gag.

"I'm thinking you're more desperate than you let on," Childermass said, withdrawing completely.

An obscene moan was pressed through the gag as Oliver looked over his shoulder to see Childermass thoroughly coating himself with the oil, eyes shadow-dark as they regarded Oliver all trussed up and helpless on the bed.

Childermass shrugged off his jacket, but this was his only concession to intimacy before he grabbed Oliver's hips, dragging him to the foot of the bed, arms now forced straight above his head, the cloth tied to the headboard stretched to its limit.

Oliver hooked his feet over the edge of the thin mattress and thrust his arse back, even as his shoulders and head were forced down into the blankets. He sobbed.

Childermass pressed up against him, the length of his hot prick settling into Oliver's crease and dribbling onto his lower back. One firm hand along Oliver's spine stilled any squirming, and Childermass rubbed his oiled prick up and down, pretending to ease in a number of times without actually breaching him.

If Oliver could speak, Childermass had no doubt of the curses that would be tumbling out. Childermass laughed briefly before finally pressing forward, past the tight ring of muscle. He halted, but Oliver pushed back in quest of more, so Childermass thrust in as far as he could easily go. He clasped Oliver's hips and set into an easy rhythm, testing how far he could press in before Oliver squealed, and then drawing back to try again.

It was not long (he knew it would not be) before Childermass could sink in to the hilt without much difficulty.

Childermass advanced the pace almost ruthlessly, knowing exactly how much Oliver could take, and more significantly, exactly how much Oliver wanted it.

The man positively writhed in pleasure, howling through the gag and straining against his bonds in furious rapture.

Childermass put his head to one side, admiring the mess of him before reaching out to drag the nails of one hand down Oliver's heaving back.

The man panted and shuddered, and so Childermass did it again. Hard. And the red welts he left behind were so pretty that it did it again.

He left off such artful efforts for a time to concentrate his forceful thrusts just where Oliver wanted them, angled slightly down and hard as could be.

When Oliver took up an endless wailing behind the smothering fabric, Childermass slowed, pulled out, and let Oliver collapse onto the bed.

His cock still standing proud before him, Childermass went round to the head of the bed to carefully untie the neckcloth.

Oliver's face was drenched in tears, the neckcloth wet through with saliva, his mouth reddened with the chaffing of it.

"You're all right," Childermass muttered, bending down to kiss him slowly.

"Which kind of fucking was that…?" Oliver muttered, batting his eyelashes and smiling through his ill-usage.

"Can you remember your coachman?"

"My who?"

"Exactly. Roll over. Onto your back now."

Oliver let Childermass shift him back up on the bed, easing the strain of his arms before parting and lifting his legs out of the way.

"Fuck," Oliver muttered as Childermass knelt half-beneath him and butted his cock at the ready hole before sinking in all the way.

Childermass began a slow and steady cadence, though deep, as he watched the various transformations of Oliver's face: obvious ecstasy, delight-tinged pain, red-faced pleasure, and wicked bliss.

One hand was hard at work keeping Oliver's hips roughly where they needed to be, but with his other hand, Childermass reached out to begin chafing one of Oliver's pert nipples.

"Oh god, you remember that…" Oliver moaned.

"I remember everything," Childermass vowed, a fire burning deep in his voice, lighting his promise like a flare in the night.

He pulled relentlessly at the stimulated nipple and Oliver's neck strained with the tension of having to keep his own silence now.

Childermass kept his thrusting tempo as steady as a metronome, but the hand that was not engaged in supporting Oliver's bulk eased away from the nipple, dragged nails down his heaving stomach, to settle at the base of Oliver's leaking cock.

"Oh fuck, don't, you bastard," Oliver wheezed.

Childermass grinned. He delicately took Oliver's cock in hand, gathering the dripping fluid from the tip and smoothing it down his cock with a touch light enough to tickle. Then dug a cruel fingernail into the slit at the head.

Oliver cut off a scream, transforming it with what willpower he had into a low groan that scraped his vocal chords raw.

Childermass squeezed the base of Oliver's cock to forestall any premature excitement.

"Not yet," Childermass said calmly. "You know you don't want to yet."

"Yes, I do," Oliver argued pettishly, practically breathless. "I've had enough…"

"I'll tell you when you've had enough."

Oliver threw his head back and sucked in breaths like a hard-ridden horse.

Childermass worked his cock hard for a few strokes, then clutched round the base again, ruthless.

And all the while he fucked into Oliver, steady and relentless.

Finally, Oliver was only capable of lying there, fiercely whispering, "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you…" over and over again.

Childermass played their little game a few more times before letting go of Oliver's cock to scoop his knees up under his elbows and fuck into him hard.

Oliver held his breath as he came with only the smallest friction against his prick.

Childermass fucked him through it and then finished by bending Oliver over completely to thrust into him like an animal and loose himself in a fiercely hot spending inside Oliver's quivering body.

Oliver's wheezing breaths altered very little as Childermass slowly withdrew, gently let down his legs, and slipped from the bed, wiping himself carelessly on the sheets before tucking himself away.

Childermass unbound the cook's hands to retrieve his neckcloth. He took one of Oliver's hands and kissed and laved the inside of his wrist until Oliver pulled away, murmuring, "Too much, you right sod."

Grinning, Childermass knelt upon the floor to bring their faces on a level.

Oliver picked up his head and closed his eyes and Childermass granted him a kiss as slow and loving as near-perfection can manage.

"I'm not able to keep up with you anymore, Oliver," Childermass said, stepping back and finding a blanket to pull over Oliver's rapidly cooling body.

"Now that is a shame," Oliver muttered, sleep dragging already at his eyes.

"You know Lucas has taken up with Dido," Childermass conversed, shrugging his jacket back on.

"Of course."

"It's left Davey quite out of it."

"Really?" Oliver asked, perking up at once.

"Truly," Childermass said. "Only remember he's young yet and not up for such games as we play."

Oliver chuckled with delight and said, "You old goat. Were you a matchmaker in another life?"

"Don't be ridiculous. Go to sleep and no more insolence from you around the young ones."

"Welshman's honor," Oliver promised.

"No such thing," Childermass whispered with fond affection before kissing Oliver's brow.

He blew out the candles and left the room like a shadow.

Chapter Text

In the end, Childermass only allowed them to keep two of the kittens from the litter of six that Sarah had saved that spring. Sarah claimed one: a huge tabby that she declared would be a proper mouser, and indeed it (or rather she, for both were she-cats) proved admirable in her duty, and behaved the proper cat: slinking about mostly unseen and keeping the place well clear of mice.

Lucas had fallen in love with the tiny grey runt with the bent tail, a creature that Oliver said ought to have been put out of its misery in the Thames. This proclamation scandalized the softer-hearted servants and a vicious argument erupted below stairs. The quarrel had only been broken up when Childermass chased Oliver back to the kitchen and said the big tabby and the little grey could stay (could stay below stairs), so long as the rest of the cats were gone from Hanover Square within a week.

Sarah and Lucas and Davey found homes for them all, for while cats were hardly prized companions in the city, they had their jobs too amongst the stables and other places that wished to reduce the rat population.

The tabby was simply called "Cat" and Sarah was the only one to whom it showed any affection.

Lucas dubbed the grey "Dusty" and it loved everyone with doglike devotion, and would sit upon any lap that held still long enough.

Even Oliver finally gave in to it, and on a dark night after a long day's work he would sit drinking in the servants' hall with Dusty draped over his lap, both of them content as could be.

On one such night, he petted the boneless feline absently and sipped his drink (tonight: brandy) while Childermass sat rather stiffly and puffed at his pipe rather slowly and examined the ceiling rather disinterestedly.

"Is it true she's been sent to a madhouse?" Oliver broke the silence.

"Of sorts," Childermass agreed.

While the subject was likely obvious to any in the household, it was still a sign of their shared history that the men could take up in the middle of a conversation they'd started over a fortnight previously.

"Poor woman…" Oliver muttered.

Childermass glared.

"I mean," Oliver corrected with an overt clearing of his throat, "how IS your shoulder?"

"Fine," Childermass grunted.

But Oliver could see how rigid he kept himself when he was making the effort to keep so still, and so he poured the man a drink-- what would be his first of the night if Oliver was not mistaken (and Oliver rarely was mistaken when it came to food or drink).

"Here." He slid the glass along the table and Childermass slowly curled his fingers around it but did naught else, as though he could - through some magical osmosis - take in the distilled heat from the alcohol through the glass.

Oliver carefully leaned back in his chair. Throughout his pouring and serving of the drink, Dusty had not moved, remaining a pool of gray fur in his lap as he shifted about. He returned to petting the creature fondly and watching his oldest friend, brows furrowed.

"Is it true you were doing magic?"

"Why should you think that?" Childermass casually asked around the stem of his pipe.

"Davey said. Something to do with water, and you didn't look well at all, and you knew… You knew there was to be trouble."

Childermass shrugged and then immediately hissed in a breath.

"Drink that, you should," Oliver helpfully pointed out.

"Yes, Doctor Priddy," Childermass grumbled, but set aside his pipe in favor of the brandy.

Oliver watched him very closely for a while before going on, "I thought there were but two practical magicians in all of England."

"That's what Mr. Norrell would have England believe."

"And therefore it's what you would have England believe. And so She does."

"I think you overestimate my hand in the doings of English magic."

"I don't think I do at all. In fact, I think I've underestimated you, John Childermass, for all the time I've known you."

John Childermass said nothing to this, but only drank his brandy.

"And furthermore--- Oh, hello, Hannah," Oliver said, his eyes upon the servants' stair.

Childermass did not turn to regard her, but now could sense her presence somewhere behind him.

"Good evening, Mr. Priddy, Mr. Childermass."

But then she said no more.

"Is there a problem, Hannah?" Oliver asked.

"No… it's only… I'm having trouble with some words…"

"Come in, then," Childermass finally spoke to her, and indicated the seat beside him.

Curiously, she did not come sit at once, as she was always wont to do when plagued with literary questions. She did, however, utter a small, "Umm…."

Oliver made a fuss of coughing in the most unsubtle manner possible, upsetting Dusty, who ran off into the shadows.

"Going to bed, I am," Oliver said, offering a curious grin and loping off toward his room, snagging his brandy as he left.

"All right, then," Childermass said, turning his full attention to the chambermaid, his mouth a firm line of pain as he turned to look at her. "Oliver's gone, and you know I won't make a fuss. What is it you have there?"

Biting her lips furiously, as she always did when deep in thought, Hannah edged into the room, clutching something behind her back.

Childermass was abruptly reminded of Hannah as she'd been after two years of hard work in the scullery: reed-thin and almost a foot taller and determined to address him for the first time upon a subject he had not first introduced. At fourteen years of age, she'd spoken to him out of turn, asking if he might teach her to read. And ever since then, she'd turned to him without exception to consult over this word or that phrase, and he had always taken her aside calmly and collectedly and answered her questions to the best of his ability.

But there she stood, all sudden shyness and hiding a book behind her.

"You've not been in the library, have you?"

"Oh, no, sir! I shouldn't dare. It's otherwise…"

"Well?"

After some hesitation, still biting her lips for nerves and hesitant as a criminal's accomplice, Hannah crept up to the end of the table. She pulled from behind her back a small publication printed on bad, yellowed paper and worn enough to show it had passed through several hands. She could not quite bring herself to hand it to him and so laid it with delicacy upon the table. At first it was rather ridiculously out of Childermass's reach, and so - after a moment's reluctance - she used a single finger to push it toward him.

Childermass pulled it forward and leafed through a few pages. He did not smile as he examined it, but it was an effort. When his voice came, it was both quiet and lower than it had been. "And where did a lass like you come by such as this?"

"...Sir?"

"Come now, I'm not asking you to tell tales. There's no trouble, but I'd know how you came by it."

"...Miss Lucy gave it me."

Childermass made some interesting noise in the back of his throat, and muttered half to himself, "I'd supposed it was Dido."

"No, Sir."

"And is it the text that's troubling you, lass, or some'at else."

"I… I do not know the words, sir."

"Which words."

"Some… I've… That is, sir, I've heard some before, from the grocer's boy--"

"The grocer's boy?" Childermass's face darkened in a way that had nothing to do with the low light of the room. "I'll be having words with the grocer's boy… Go on, lass."

"It's only… I don't rightly know what they mean."

"And what would you have from me?"

"A lesson, sir."

Childermass stared her down. "Do you know what it is you're asking, Hannah?"

"Not… that is-- Miss Lucy said to ask Miss Dido, and Miss Dido said she ought not tell me, but that you--"

"Miss Dido said, did she?"

"Aye, sir," Hannah said, a blush rising on her freckled cheeks. "And then Lucy agreed. They…"

Childermass sat back in his chair, regarding her closely, as though Hannah herself was a book he might read. She'd grown considerably since she'd first appeared a tousled little thing on the back stoop of Hurtfew in a secondhand dress she'd worked two years to buy. She was still slender, but softly rounded now, and he knew that the hair she kept pinned up under her cap was a long and waving ginger.

"Which words?" he asked again.

Hannah bit her lip and slowly turned the pamphlet upon the table and bent to examine a page. Finally, she muttered, "Bubbies."

"Surely you know what those are."

And surely, Childermass thought, if she blushed any redder she'd catch fire.

"Are they my…" she slowly asked with what might have been an aborted gesture at her own chest.

Childermass gave a small nod, conveyed primarily through the slow closing and opening of his dark eyes.

"Oh," was her answer.

"And?" he asked.

She again bent to examine the page.

"Belly," she said.

"This part of you," Childermass said, and he risked reaching out the full length of his arm and laying his hand upon her, just the barest brush over her stomach, "and here," he added, shifting briefly to her lower abdomen before lifting his hand away again.

"Ah, um…" Hannah was much too flustered to give anything like a proper response. She could not meet his eyes now, and restricted her glances solely to the floor and the table.

"There are others, I assume," he asked her.

She nodded.

"You're flushed, Hannah. Are you well?"

"Don't know, sir," she mumbled.

"Do you feel faint?"

"I think not, sir," she answered, a bit stronger.

Childermass's long fingers reached out to drag the pamphlet closer to himself. He examined it but briefly and then said, "And this word?"

She slowly leaned in to read above the tip of his finger. "Kiss," she read out.

"Aye. And you do know what a kiss is, Hannah?"

"Yes of course, sir."

"And have you ever had a kiss, Hannah?"

"...No, sir."

"Would you like one?"

"I-- I-- Yes, sir."

"From me?" he asked, a dark whisper in the dark night.

Hannah drew in a shivery breath, but then said, "Yes, sir."

"Then, come here."

Hannah blew out an uneasy huff of air, almost like a horse's whicker, and warily braved the step that took her from an arm's length away to a hand's breadth near, willowy shoulders curled in and eyes darting.

Just as he would around an agitated colt, John Childermass slowly raised his hand, fingers curled in to avoid the appearance of claws, and then gently rested the pad of his thumb upon her pouting lips. His forefinger cupped under her chin (with as little pressure as a landing moth might apply) as his thumb moved in small strokes, awakening something that started in her lips and flared in her eyes.

He leaned forward in his chair at the same time that he drew his hand away, and waited.

Hannah took several shaky gulps of air before bending to bring her face to his, her eyes fiercely blinking and the rosy bloom of awakening upon her cheeks.

John Childermass tilted his head just so and aligned their mouths-- the only part of them that touched as he pressed forward, caressing her lips with his own, sucking at her lower lip until she trembled before giving her a taste of his tongue.

When he drew away, she remained there, slightly hunched over with eyes wide as anything.

For a long time, he regarded her.

"I can give instruction in many things. If this pleases you… come find me in my room."

He stood slowly, on account of his shoulder, but she still sprang back like a frightened rabbit as though he had darted upward. He nodded once to her and put out all but one candle as he left, easing himself slowly up the stairs.

= = = = =

Almost half an hour later, a tentative knock sounded at Childermass's attic door.

He rose to answer it, and when he opened the door, he filled up the entire doorframe with his presence, as though to scare away what he found on the other side of it.

Hannah blinked at the waistcoat tight over his chest (for she only stood so high) and slowly looked up to meet his gaze.

"Sir," she said.

"Come in, if you like." Childermass held the door open for her and he watched the minutest motions of her (the swing of hips and sway of skirts, the rising of her chest as she breathed, the loose tendrils of hair at the back of her neck pulled into bouncing ringlets) as she slipped into his room, the little manuscript clutched in her hand like a drowning sailor's lifeline.

Espying the bed and the suddenly obvious lack of any other place to sit, Hannah froze.

Childermass closed the door, but did not slide the latch as he moved around her in the narrow space to sit upon his bed and light more of the candles that he'd brought up. As yet he had only removed his jacket, and so in waistcoat and shirtsleeves he sat in the brightening light of the room as he worked.

"Ought I have a talk with Lucy about appropriate materials being distributed amongst the servants?" he asked. A touch of humor lightened his admittedly unconcerned tone and he looked sidelong at her to catch her reaction.

"Oh. I don't think so, sir," Hannah answered, ever earnest. "I… I was cleaning her room and asked to see what she was reading."

"And what did she say?"

"She said that… that I might like it, if I were not too young."

"And were you? Too young?"

Hannah's blush came back in full force. "I don't know, sir. I do not think so."

"How old are you now, Hannah?"

"About eighteen, sir."

He looked at her there, immobile in his cramped garret room, clutching her little book, and red as anything.

"Do I frighten you, Hannah?"

But Hannah relaxed at this and smiled, meeting his eyes for the first time since he'd answered his door. She shook her head and told him, "You can appear a bit of a brute, at times. But it is only appearance."

John Childermass slowly smiled at her. "When did you grow up?"

"In the little moments when you weren't looking, sir."

Childermass laughed freely at that and then said, "In that case, if it does not greatly distress you, come sit by me here."

With a bracing breath, Hannah approached and sat beside him on the bed, her spine stiff and the little book upon her lap.

"Have you any notion of what this book is about?" he asked.

"Lucy said… it's love?"

"That's a generous way of putting it," Childermass said, rubbing at his mouth and chin, not entirely sure exactly where he should start. He tried, "It is a kind of love, perhaps: that shared between two, or - I may say - more bodies. For enjoyment. But in these stories - and they are just stories - it's about the… excitement of the act."

"What act, sir?"

"Ah, the joining of a man and woman together."

"I don't understand."

Childermass narrowed his eyes in thought and then held out his hand for the book. "May I?"

Hannah handed it to him with the same care one might employ to transfer a dead snake, not quite sure perhaps that it is truly dead.

"Show me more of the words you do not understand."

Hannah leaned a bit closer to study the page he'd opened to. "The…" There came the blush again. "'The chink between her legs,'" she read out. "I… I know what that must be, but why should it be of interest to a man?"

"Mmm. We'll get to that," Childermass muttered. "Do you see what else it has been called?"

"Cunt," she read out. "Slit." She took the book back from him and carefully examined the pages. "Is this it, too? 'Her mossy grotto of love'?" she read out.

"Mm. Yes. Such flowery language delights some readers, I imagine." He did not sound particularly impressed by it.

He regarded her seriously for a moment before asking, "You do know it is something altogether different that a man has between his legs?"

"That's the… I mean, um… The impression I get… I've seen dogs rutting, sir, but surely with people it's different."

It might be the most straightforward she'd been about it yet.

"I should hope so," Childermass said. "Had you no little brothers or cousins to care for at home?"

"No. I have four sisters, as you know, sir. And no father after I was three."

"I see." Childermass transferred his gaze to the book she held. "You've read the names of it, yes?"

"Prick," she said immediately, not even knowing to blush as she searched amongst the pages. "Cock. Pego. I think… Mr. Priapus? Is that yet more high-flown language to describe it?"

Childermass rolled his eyes and nodded. He leaned in beside her and pointed out others. "Here they have it as 'Cupid's dart.' Oh, that's a good one," he went on, "'Rampant engine of love.' I quite like that."

Hannah gave a quirking smile as she said, "Is that ridicule I hear, sir?"

"You know me well, Hannah," he answered. "You've never seen a naked man, then."

The blush returned, suffusing her face with a warm glow. "I saw a dockworker once, who had removed his shirt in the heat."

"And what did you think of him?"

"He was very strong," she said thoughtfully, turning the memory over in her mind. "It… He was not distasteful to look upon."

"Well, that's promising, I suppose," Childermass said dryly. But then he sighed and asked, "Does this mean you have no earthly idea how a woman gets with child?"

"It… it remains a mystery to me, sir."

"Well, set your book aside and forget its distraction for a while, for I should like to give you the truth of the matter before silly romances fill your head with fantasies about the act that you cannot know may be false. Listen to me, Hannah, that place between your legs is the channel to your womb. And when a man plants his seed there, a child may grow."

"But how does he--"

"I'm coming to that. A man's cock will grow erect with excitement when his mind and body turn to lustful pursuits, such as the sight of a pleasing woman or suggestive talk shared between lovers or by a hand upon him. When he is erect, he may enter a woman between her legs."

"What? Do you mean, he puts it inside her?"

"That is precisely what I mean."

"But why, sir?"

"Because, when tis done correctly, both parties may find the act delightfully stimulating. There is great pleasure in it. Hannah… when I kissed you, did you perhaps feel some small pleasure?"

"Oh, I should say so, sir," she said, and then bit her lips and looked at him, frightfully uncertain.

"That would be a small taste of the delights to be had between two loving partners. But when a man and woman lie together… in the eyes of God they ought - by rights - to be married."

"But that is not always the case, sir," Hannah said. "In the book. And… and the things the other maids say."

"Some people choose to be free with their affections. So long as they take care to keep themselves and others from harm, and so long as they are not hurtful to one another…" he shrugged. "It is a tempting thing once one understands the joy in it." He picked up the book again. "You've read this through?"

"Only some of it."

"They will write of a crisis and of emissions. This is… the peak of sexual pleasure, Hannah. When a man experiences this climax, he releases his sperm-- his seed. When he does so in a woman's womb, then she may get with child. When a woman has this pleasure, she may also release a sort of discharge that eases the way for the man, and encourages his own orgasm. The entire act is designed for procreation, but people engage in it for sport because it is pleasurable. …Does that explain anything to you?" he asked, unsure.

"Yes! Yes, it explains a great deal…"

"But?"

"But what is this pleasure? What is it like?"

"That you will have to experience for yourself, when you are ready. I do not think I can describe it."

Hannah sat there, biting her lips and staring at him and blushing fiercer by the second, though she said nothing.

"What is it, Hannah?"

In one quick breath, words nearly running together and far more high-pitched than she intended, Hannah burst out with, "I should like very much to experience it with you, sir."

Childermass put on a look very much like a frown, with eyes narrowed and lips downturned. "How much of this did Dido and Lucy put you up to?"

Hannah looked taken aback. "They didn't, sir. I asked them…" Hannah had turned her gaze to the blank wall and a look of suspicion slowly closed over her face.

Childermass gave voice to what was suddenly churning in her head: "Lucy was reading where she knew you would see, I've no doubt. And what is the likelihood that you would inquire into a book? Of course you would have questions, then. And where did they send you?"

Hannah was positively pouting. "Those imps," she said, though not without affection. "But sir," she went on, turning to face him properly, "I should still like more than a kiss this night."

When he only looked at her and made no approach to anything more, her entire countenance fell apart. Her shoulders slumped and a very different kind of embarrassment overtook her as she blinked and ducked her head.

"I… I should not have presumed you would…" she muttered.

Before she could stand, Childermass reached out and laid his rough hand over hers where it clenched upon the bed.

"Hannah. Do you know why I make no move to your offer?"

"Because I am not pleasing to you, sir."

"Hannah, you are rather more pleasing to me than you can know, but you are young yet and still so innocent. I'm a hard man who's lived a hard life and I worry that I would take something you are not ready to give."

"My maidenhead?"

"Not only that…"

"But wait, what is it, exactly?"

Childermass closed his eyes, clenched his jaw, and took a breath. "It is a barrier of the flesh inside you. The first time you engage with a man, it can easily be torn and result in pain and blood for you. Then again, it may also be slowly stretched so as to cause as little pain as possible when you do finally permit such an intimacy. And on the subject of permission: Hannah. Listen to me. I do not care what a man may say, be he older or stronger or higher up in the world than you. A man has no right to this part of you - or any part of you - if you choose to deny him. Do you understand?"

"I do, sir. I understand what you are telling me. And I am telling you… that I would have no wish to deny you, John Childermass."

Desire filled his eyes and truth ignited his words when he frankly told her, "It is exceedingly difficult to resist you, Hannah."

"Is it?"

"It is," he said and closed what little gap there was now between them to kiss her again, his hand still covering hers upon the blanket.

Hannah gave out little surprised moans as he kissed her and did not stop. This was not a quick peck like Lucas gave the other girls under the mistletoe, nor even the lingering kiss she'd once seen him give Dido in the hall. It was not like anything she'd ever conceived of. His rough lips coaxed hers open and she learned that he tasted of pipe tobacco and brandy, and she found it rather less distasteful than she ever would have presumed. Maybe because if she had ever given it thought before, she might have said that of course John Childermass would taste of burning smoke and heady liquor.

His thumb stroked over her inner wrist in teasing swipes that sent odd chills all up her arm and down her spine.

When she finally realized that she was doing little more than letting him show her, she began to respond and mirror back to him the things she was learning, just like she always had done, (though never of course upon so intimate a topic.)

She tilted her head and kissed him back, and she turned her hand to still his thumb so that they could clutch together, palm to palm upon the bed.

"Oh, sir," she finally whispered against him, "I think I see what you mean about pleasure."

"I'm not entirely sure you do," he rumbled. "Shall I show you more?"

"Heavens yes, sir!"

He slowed their fevered kisses, withdrawing until they met but lightly, lips to lips, and then he drew his roughened face alongside her smooth one to kiss just beneath her jaw and lave at the sensitive skin there.

"Oh!" she called out in wonder and her wide eyes fluttered closed as she leaned into these marvelous new sensations.

"May I place my hand upon your thigh," Childermass breathed at her ear as he leaned further in, overwhelming her.

Hannah nodded, shaky and eager.

While Childermass braced himself upon the bed with one strong arm, he moved his other hand to settle it just above her knee, pressing through the layers of muslin to massage her as he continued to nose at her neck and kiss down along her shoulder.

"May I…" Hannah had some difficulty forming words for a moment. "May I touch you as well, sir?"

"Absolutely," he told her skin, his lips moving in ticklish patterns at the hollow of her throat.

Hannah lifted her hesitating hands to his upper arms, cautious at first, and then clutching.

Childermass continued to pay every attention to her neck and shoulders, occasionally dipping lower as his hand smoothed up the outside of her leg, the fabric rustling and bunching as his fingers spoke to her flesh, promising some secret they would not reveal.

Hannah's breath grew shallow and uneven and she clutched him harder as her hands moved to his shoulders.

Childermass groaned in pain and eased away.

"Oh sir! Are you all right?" Hannah jumped back, covering her mouth in dismay. "Your shoulder… I forgot. Is it very bad?"

Speaking through a clenched jaw, Childermass said only, "Stings a bit…" Then, eyeing the sincere worry upon her pretty face, he added, "Shall I show you?"

"Yes."

Childermass slowly worked the buttons of his waistcoat, and after a moment's hesitation, Hannah reached out to help him.

Together they eased waistcoat and shirt from his shoulders and down long arms, revealing pale skin, dark hair, lean musculature, and the reddish ugly wound of the gunshot.

Hannah laid her hand upon his chest just below the mark. "It's angry," she observed of the irritated heat that surrounded the wound. "You went riding too soon." She became momentarily distracted at having her bare hand upon his bare skin, but then went on, "You were laid up for days."

She was very close to him now and Childermass quietly asked her, "And was it your little hand I felt in mine as I lay in fevered dreams?"

"Aye, sir. We took it in turns to sit with you when you were at your worst. Even Mr. Norrell sat in with you at first, though when it was clear you would live, he left off until your were wakeful."

"Very reassuring," he muttered, but then lifted his hand to cover hers where it rested upon him. "I thank you for your mindful concern, lass. Why don't you off to bed, now? It's late enough."

"I…" She bit at her lips again, thinking as her eyes roved over his bare arms and chest. "Please may I kiss you again?"

Childermass only smiled, and so Hannah leaned in and up a bit and kissed at his chapped lips and his rough jaw and after a thoughtful instant, moved her soft lips down his throat, each press a gift and some wetter than others as she continued, giving a final kiss upon his chest over the fierce beating of his heart.

Childermass swallowed hard as he looked down at her. Hannah gently laid her head against his good shoulder, her eyes closed. "I do not wish to stop, sir," she said in a low voice, still so innocent, so nervous, but so wanting.

"Then, may I see your hair, Hannah?"

She drew away and reached up to take off her cap and pull the pins from her hair, her eyes never leaving his as she worked. She carefully piled the pins in the overturned cap, set the cap upon his shelf, and then turned back to face him.

"Well," she said with a sigh, "I know it is not like Dido's midnight tresses, nor Lucy's golden locks--"

"Hannah," Childermass said, "you have the most beautiful hair I have ever seen."

Hannah blushed behind her freckles. "People have only ever teased me about my hair."

"People in general are fools," he told her, and reached out to twine a thick strand of it between his fingers. He plucked and played with it until he worked his hand into the waving mass of it behind her head to draw her forward for a kiss.

She kissed eagerly now, discovering all of him as she placed two little hands upon one of his legs to brace herself as she leaned in.

Childermass allowed himself to be more free in his desires as he sucked her lips and delved into her mouth with his tongue.

Hannah was delightfully responsive to all these attentions and worked to pay him back with kisses of her own as her fingers curved into the muscles of his thigh in her excitement.

His strong hand moved to the ties at the back of her dress and she made no move to stop him as he loosened the garment and then abruptly moved from her lips to the valley just above her breasts, kissing the heaving swell of her and delighting in her sincerity as she gasped in astonishment and desire.

"I insist you keep your shift on," he said, though the burning fire of his eyes wanted more, "but let me take your dress off."

"Yes," Hannah murmured, moving to help him in sudden and awkward motions, working the sleeves down and then standing to let it slip to the floor.

She stood awkwardly for a moment, regarding him in her state of undress, bosom heaving and lips reddened and cheeks flushed and eyes bright.

"What shall I do, sir?" she asked after a moment, light-headed and uncertain.

"Do you trust me?"

"With my life."

"Let's hope it does not come to that," Childermass said lightly as he moved to sit up against the headboard and spread his legs. "Come sit before me and lean back against me."

Hannah bit her lips and climbed upon the bed, taking care to keep the skirt of her shift from tangling beneath her, and faced away from him, though she did not lean backward, either afraid of the intimacy or afraid of hurting him.

Childermass ghosted his hands up her bare arms, shifted her hair to one side, and kissed the back of her neck.

Hannah gave a gasp, a quiver, a helpless whine, and then pressed back, her skin thrilling where his steam-hot hands touched her: the insides of her elbows, the soft parts of her neck, then skimming along the lines of her shift where her breasts were, and then pressing through the fabric. He cupped her bubbies in hot hands, gently squeezing, pressing them together, clever fingers working to scrape industrious nails over the material where her nipples lay.

Her reaction was momentous; her hands flew to clutch his legs at either side of her and her breath had to claw its way through her throat as she suddenly squirmed with delight, quite unsure what to do as she began to moan with very womanly lust and without the least inhibition.

Childermass had his head tilted to one side, just watching her reactions-- every sensation bright and new to her. He eased his hands down then (despite the tempting heaving of her perfect little breasts) and smoothed his hands over her shift along her sides, light and firm at turns before clutching at her thighs as far as he could reach and then drawing back to rub his thumbs at the join of her legs, petting softly over the material until she let her legs ease open at his silent entreaty.

He dropped distracting kisses to her shoulder as he busied one hand with moving the material of her shift to best advantage: to the point where his other hand could stroke downwards in soft, kittenish pets over the thin muslin.

"I-- I--" Hannah tried, but in the end could only push back against his solid bulk and dig her nails into the fabric of his breeches and tilt her hips up to give him better access.

"You?" Childermass calmly prompted at her ear.

"I feel…"

"Yes?"

"I don't know," her voice shook with confusion.

"Do you want me to stop?"

Hannah bit her lip to scathing redness as she shook her head in a vigorous 'no' and then cried out as he dug his fingers in further, finding some strange thrumming part of her that tingled and throbbed for want of him.

"Oh, ssssiiirrrrrrrr!!!"

A constant shudder took up residence within her as she writhed and rubbed against him, against the dangerously clever hand between her legs. She was desperate for something, but did not know what.

Childermass nuzzled in behind her ear to kiss the most sensitive places he could find as his unoccupied hand caught at her breast and squeezed.

Beneath such an onslaught, Hannah slowly splintered apart.

Her little hands were anything but dainty as they clawed his legs for purchase and she twisted in the cage of his arms until she caught the rhythm of it, pushing her pelvis into his hand, the tough friction of the muslin arousing beyond belief against her.

"What-- what is that?" she gasped between heaving breaths.

"That's your most sensitive part, my darling," he hissed at her ear. "That's your clitoris, and it gives woman great enjoyment, does it not?"

"Oh, aye… Oh, oh, oh!"

The sounds she made bordered on pain, but Childermass's keen ear caught the pleasure of it: the ache in her moans, the surprise in her gasps, the need in her quivering whimpers.

He sucked a mark low on her neck as he tightened his grip over her nipple and dragged his torturing fingers along her until she spent herself in panting fascination.

Hannah lay back in his arms as he softened his touches, finally just holding her as she recovered her breathing and lay still and content.

Childermass lay his cheek upon her head and breathed in the scent of her as she calmed.

"And so," he eventually asked, "Have we found something to equal the diversions of your books?"

"Oh, sir, you've surpassed mere books by miles."

"I'm glad to hear it," he said, but then shifted uncomfortably.

Hannah sat back up in alarm and turned to face him. "Is it your shoulder?" she asked. "Have I hurt you at all?"

"No. S'not that."

"What, then?"

"It is… otherwise."

She examined him, but puzzlement writ itself across her brow.

"Your… rather lascivious motions have inspired desire in me, dear."

"Oh!" she realized, and could not but look down at his spread legs. "May I…?"

Hannah set one gentle hand on his knee and then let it slowly creep up over the muscles of his thigh and then to cautiously cup the bulge at the fabric between his legs.

Childermass let out a kind of shuddering sound, like a withheld groan.

Hannah quickly drew back, but looked up at him with eager eyes. "May I see it, sir?"

Childermass swallowed rather thickly and slowly moved to undo his breeches, his dark eyes never leaving her wondering face.

He watched her growing curiosity and surprise: the pouting 'o' of her lips and widening of her eyes when he revealed himself to her, his cock hard and wanting.

"It…" But whatever Hannah was to say seemed to dry up in her mouth. She could only blink down on him in wonderment. Finally, she glanced back up to his burning gaze and then back down and said, "But that… it surely cannot fit inside a woman?"

"The human body can be remarkably accommodating," Childermass told her.

"And…" Hannah steeled herself and went ahead with her question, "and how would you find your pleasure, sir?"

"Like this," he told her and took himself in hand: slow, firm strokes up and down the whole length of his member as she watched closely.

When she did not seem repulsed by his actions, he grabbed a small bottle at his bedside and poured a bit of oil into his hand before returning to his own pleasure.

Childermass was content enough to show her what he liked, but then Hannah asked, "May I touch it, sir?"

"If you will," Childermass said, his voice but a low scratch as he withdrew his hands and waited.

Hannah reached out and gently touched the crown of him with the tip of her finger.

Childermass clenched his jaw nearly to the point of grinding, but said nothing.

"It's… odd."

"That's very comforting," he said from behind his tense jaw.

"I didn't mean… I'm just not used to it."

"Nor should you be. I suppose upon first glance, a man would be an odd sight to a woman."

Hannah used two hands then to learn the shape of him, curious and light and discovering.

Childermass released a strained moan before finally saying, "That tickles, my dear."

"Sorry. Should I…"

"You don't have to do anything," Childermass said, "let me just show you…"

He brushed her hands away and took to pumping himself in earnest, sweat beading now on his forehead as his breathing quickened.

But before he was too far along, Hannah observed, "I think I can do that," and reached out to take him in two firm hands.

They worked together for a time until Childermass left off altogether, watching Hannah's face, who was looking down upon him with eager concentration as she worked.

He began to move in helpless little thrusts, and this did not put Hannah off but only encouraged her eager handling of him until he warned, "I'm about to spill, my girl. You'd best leave off."

"I don't mind," she said, gripping him harder as she worked.

Childermass lost himself in ecstasy. He tried and failed to hold in his own sounds of pleasure as he spilled over her hands and onto his own belly in several spurts.

"Oh," Hannah said, and then smiled up at him, pleased.

Childermass grinned back and leaned forward to kiss her before reaching for a handkerchief. He cleaned her hands first and then attended to himself.

"Thank you, Mr. Childermass."

"You're most welcome, Hannah."

She looked about uncertainly then, at the sloping ceiling of his room, the bare walls, the candle-- now nearly spent.

"Do you want to sleep beside me tonight, Hannah?"

"I should like that above all things," she said, smiling so sweetly.

Childermass undressed himself completely and settled beneath the sheets, holding them open for Hannah to slip in.

She lay beside him, stiffly uncertain until he took her in his arms and kissed her brow.

In silence, they watched the candle die, and then drifted to sleep in one another's arms.

Chapter Text

Hanover Square was in need of a housekeeper again, no thanks to Lascelles for convincing Mr. Norrell that such a presence was obviously needed in any respectable household.

Once 'respectability' had been mentioned, Mr. Norrell was - of course - easily persuaded.

"Why do we not have a housekeeper?" he asked Childermass that evening after dinner.

"Oh, we manage fine without," Childermass answered in his casual, offhand fashion while busy at his desk.

"That may be, but every respectable gentleman has a housekeeper. Did we not have one, once upon a time?"

"Five months ago," Childermass answered. "A Mrs. Ridgiton. She gave notice after three months here, and off she went to take a position in some townhouse in Gracechurch Street."

"And you've not bothered with filling our own position here?"

"We've gone near a year without, in times past."

"A year?!"

Childermass finally looked up at his master then, and told him frankly, "You never noticed, nor complained. Sir."

"But…"

"Lucy is a fine housemaid and all we need. Oliver and I see to the needs of the kitchen. All else is in order. What need have we for a housekeeper?"

"Well-- But-- It's only respectable!" Mr. Norrell finally managed.

"I'll hire one on then, shall I?"

"Immediately!"

= = = = =

Mrs. Pryer came at the recommendation of Mr. Lascelles. This predisposed Childermass to take a dislike to her, sight unseen, which all the other servants quickly observed and took to heart. (To be frank, Childermass took a natural distrust of anything that he did not have a hand in himself.) And he went out of his way to warn each of the servants to watch their tongues around this particular housekeeper. Not to mention their various comings and goings.

But the night before the new housekeeper was to arrive, Childermass caught Lucas sneaking out of the upstairs servants' corridor.

"Lucas."

"Y-yes, sir?"

"Is there a reason you're creeping about up here?"

"Reason, sir? I-- I-- was needed. To give a hand. Ah, the ladies… Needed help. Lifting. A thing."

"Mm." Childermass stared thoughtfully at him, his eyes raking up and down the young man's form, taking in his slightly disheveled state. "You'll have to do far better should Mrs. Pryer catch you where you've no business being. Any excuse will do. But it would be my preference she does not catch you at all. Am I understood?"

"Understood, sir? Yes, sir. Clearly understood. Sir."

"Lucas. Call me 'sir' one more time and I will kiss the tendency right out of you."

"Do you mean it, sir?!"

"That was meant to be a threat," Childermass grumbled.

"I'll take it as a promise!" Lucas said brightly, taking the stairs down with a skip to his step.

Childermass looked up to find Dido and Lucy peering out of their room.

"Can we watch?" Dido asked.

Childermass shrugged and rolled his eyes so hard they might as well have rolled right out of his head.

"Will you all just… please go to bed," he sighed, as Sarah was making her way upstairs.

"Oh," the little scullery maid said, "Hannah's not been in her own bed these past three nights together." She stopped, set down her buckets of water, and looked up at him. "Is it true that she sleepwalks? She never has before."

"True as the King's letters," Childermass told her. "Go on now. All of you."

Dido and Lucy disappeared back into their room with a giggle after taking in the hot water Sarah had brought them.

Childermass took his own hot water up to his room as Sarah returned to fetch the last for herself and Hannah-- if she ever turned up, apparently.

That night, he went through his evening ablutions with his usual haste, and he took his shadows with him to sit at his open door and listen to the nighttime wanderings of the other servants.

He heard Sarah return with her water, as well as a continuous stream of conversation and laughter from the room Dido and Lucy shared, though he did not stoop so low as to pick out their words.

He heard Hannah come up, though he did not think she went into her own room, and later heard someone go downstairs-- Dido, if he knew her steps as well as he thought he did.

At one point, he heard raucous mens' laughter echoing up the stairs all the way from the servants' hall. He hoped it would not wake Norrell and finally went to bed himself.

= = = = =

In the morning, he woke everyone before their usual rising time (with a self-satisfyingly vicious knock upon their doors), and told Sarah that as a special gift she could sleep in, so long as she was washed and cleaned and ready to work by eight. Sarah smiled with glee and plucked Cat from where the tabby was curled at the foot of her bed, and it allowed itself - with the sourest face a cat ever wore - to be snuggled. Childermass considered it a small miracle that everyone was in their own bed.

In short order, the staff was arrayed by seniority before the cold fireplace in the servants' hall.

Oliver stood, scratching his nose and giving Childermass a wary look.

Lucy slumped with arms folded, expression unreadable.

Lucas dug into the stone floor with the toe of his shoe, eyes down.

Dido bit casually at a thumbnail, eyes wide.

Davey bounced on the balls of his feet, quite unable to be still as his gaze darted all about the room.

Only Hannah stood like a proper servant, facing forward, arms at her sides.

Dusty crouched beside her, batting at the hem of her skirts.

Childermass stood before the wide window that overlooked the table, and the light of false dawn illuminated his tall silhouette there with his crossed arms and cocked head. He sighed and rubbed that spot between his eyebrows that collected tension like a well's bucket collected water.

"And now the proper order, please," he grumbled.

They shuffled themselves so that the men stood together, and the women likewise. Dusty decided Childermass would be fun to climb upon.

Attempting to ignore the little cat trying to climb his leg, Childermass stared them down. "Do you know Mr. Lascelles?"

They all gave some nod of acknowledgement.

Lucas and Davey had met him, Lucy had seen him, and the others had all heard of him.

"Do you understand that he is insinuating his own agent into our household?"

They nodded solemnly.

"Do you understand what will happen if she catches any of you - of us - at our tumblings?"

"But she would not have the authority to dismiss us," Oliver said baldly.

"Oh? And if she tells Lascelles? Who takes it upon himself to remark to Mr. Norrell upon the disrespectful behavior of his servants? I can only keep you here so long as Mr. Norrell keeps you here. Give her no reason, no reason at all to tell Lascelles anything. Must I make myself any plainer?"

They all shook their heads, some calmly, others vigorously, as Dusty hooked herself into Childermass's breeches with four sets of claws.

*Mrow?* she asked.

Childermass scooped the little thing into one hand before returning his severest glare to the help.

As one, the help smirked.

Childermass sighed and set the cat on the floor and put his fists on his hips and he said, "You're my family. I don't want to be the one to turn you out."

He left them then, to start their mornings how they wished, and to turn his final words over in their heads. No one saw him again until Mrs. Pryer arrived at the back door, at noon precisely.

= = = = =

Mrs. Pryer had never been married, but like any respectable housekeeper, she went by the title of a married woman. She had grey hair and grey eyes, and something of a grey tinge to her skin. None of this was aided by the greys she perpetually wore, though she could not be much past fifty, if that.

She spoke very little and asked only sensible questions as Childermass showed her about the house, lined up the servants before her, and then called in Mr. Norrell to view them all in the upper hall.

Mr. Norrell made his usual highly awkward speech to his servants, welcomed Mrs. Pryer to the best of his ability, and then sent them off to, "Do whatever it is that you do."

They scattered quickly and Childermass left Mrs. Pryer to Oliver's tender mercies in the kitchen before slinking back upstairs to his desk in the library's corner. It was a good location, giving him natural daylight to work in when the sun was out, and natural shadows to lurk in when it wasn't.

Lascelles was sure to show himself that day, and Childermass did his utmost best to ignore the man completely.

= = = = =

That night, Sarah and Hannah served the senior servants their dinner, as was their duty, and so sincerely had everyone taken Childermass's warning that morning that they ate in a silence that was only broken by the clink of silverware.

Childermass just shook his head and ate his dinner, supposing it was better than some of their more raucous evenings.

But after dinner, Lucas and Davey brought out their deck of cards to play a game, and (after her own dinner) Hannah sat beside Childermass with her most recent book, and Dusty curled up on Lucy's lap, and Dido and Sarah went chattering off into the kitchen. Oliver sat beside the new housekeeper and made the closest he could come to polite conversation.

An air of hesitance still hung about them all until Sarah came back from scrubbing out the scullery and tugged on Childermass's sleeve and said, "Sir, will you read my cards this night?"

Childermass gave her a small smile through the blue smoke that had gathered around his head from his pipe, and said, "If I must."

Sarah smiled at his teasing and sat opposite him at the table as he reached into an inner pocket.

Childermass flashed a look at Mrs. Pryer, who watched with the usual curiosity of someone who had never seen such a thing, and told her around the stem of his pipe (as though confiding a secret), "The master doesn't care for it."

"But everyone else does," Oliver said eagerly. "Come on then. Tell Sarah her fortune."

So Childermass shuffled his cards, and Sarah cut them, and he laid them out, two rows of five.

Everyone gathered to watch, unable to do anything else.

Childermass casually handed his pipe over to Oliver, who drew unthinkingly on it as Childermass read out the cards.

"Ah," Childermass said upon turning over the first card, "You've a bright and tender heart. Best take care with that, Miss Sarah. …What's this I see? A change in your future. Soon, I should think. And not for good nor bad, but different, I think you'll find it…" And so it went.

Sarah took all this in with the wide-eyed gullibility of youth, while everyone else fondly watched.

"And," John Childermass concluded her reading the same way he always did as he turned over the Dame de Deniers, as he always did, "You will move to Yorkshire, be married, and have five children."

The girl laughed and clapped her hands for joy, even as she said, "But it is true, Mr. Childermass?"

"O'course it is, lass. True as the King's Book."

"No such thing, is there?" Oliver whispered in his ear.

"Hush, Oliver. All right," Childermass said as he gathered the cards and shuffled them and eyed the eagerly assembled crowd. "Who's next then?"

"Can you really read them, Mr. Childermass?" Mrs. Pryer asked.

"Oh, he's always right, when the reading's clear enough," Lucas said, smiling.

"Then, can you read for me?" Mrs. Pryer asked, and there was something of girlish wonder in her tone and brightness in her mirror-grey eyes.

So, John Childermass turned to face this strange grey woman and set the deck before her. "Cut it anywhere you like."

Mrs. Pryer's thin fingers separated the deck into two parts and Childermass restacked them and laid out his two rows of five.

The other servants watched all this with interest and a certain amount of anticipation.

Childermass turned the first card.

"Neuf d'Épées…" he murmured. He stared at the card thoughtfully and offered no initial comment. He flipped the next card to reveal, "and the ten of swords." He tapped the card for a moment and looked intriguingly at her. "Yours has not been a life graced with many gifts. The death of… a child. The betrayal of friends." He moved on to the next.

"Ten of Bâtons… it is a card of false-seeming. But on your part? Or another's?" Childermass asked, not expecting an answer (nor giving one) as he turned over the fourth card: The King of Coins, reversed.

"Oh, him," Childermass grumbled. "Roi de Deniers. Here's your Mr. Lascelles, and no mistake…" he quickly turned the next card to show Le Diable, but he made no comment on it.

Childermass began the second row of cards, and it started with The Hanged Man. "Le Pendu. He's for you and the many sacrifices you've made in your life… too many." His deep and unfaltering gaze looked up to her in a shrewd evaluation and then back down.

"Your wheel is turning," he observed of the seventh card and then flipped the eighth. "L'Hermite, reversed… you've come here to serve Mr. Norrell, but your purpose is not so straightforward as we've been made to believe."

The ninth card: La Justice. "Hm," Childermass remarked and was quiet for a very long time before he told the group at large, "I think, then, you've little to worry about, Mrs. Pryer, nor do we." Then, just as he had for Sarah, he turned over the final card of the Queen of Coins.

Mrs. Pryer raised a single slender eyebrow and said, "You don't mean to tell me that I shall move to Yorkshire, be married, and have five children?"

Childermass smiled gently. "I should say not. For you, the meaning is otherwise." But he did not say what that meaning was as he gathered the cards to shuffle them again and Davey sat down to cut the deck.

= = = = =

After the maids had gone to bed, Childermass escorted Mrs. Pryer to her room at the top of the servants' stair.

"Is it not improper," she asked him after he pointed out his own room, "for a man to be situated so near the maids?"

"Oh, we don't stand much on propriety here, Mrs. Pryer. The men are below stairs and the women above and I have my attic room, 'tis true."

"But you might share with the cook, Mr. Priddy?"

"You've had to put up with Oliver for less than a day," Childermass said with a wry twist to his lips. "Can you imagine anyone sharing a room with him? Besides, I don't mind the attic, and none other cares to take it, small and much exposed to the elements as it is. …If there's aught else I can do to ease your worries or aid you in your duties here at Hanover Square, let me know."

He turned away then to seek his own bed, when Mrs. Pryer stopped him.

"Mr. Childermass… what is your position in the house?"

He turned back to her with a lopsided grin. "I serve as Mr. Norrell's man of business. And I see to what needs seeing to. Have a good night, Mrs. Pryer."

She did not stop him then as he made his way up the narrow attic stairs beside her own door.

= = = = =

As far as Childermass could tell, no one stirred out of bed that night, but he also knew that such good behavior might only last so long, and despite what small reassurance he'd received from his cards he thought he would do well to learn more of Mrs. Pryer.

Even before dawn was a threat on the horizon, Childermass set out to track down the coachman that had delivered their housekeeper the previous day and learned that she'd come from a ladies' boarding house in Stepney. So he made his way to the place (known as Woestalls) and spoke to the proprietress, who was very tightlipped until he passed her palm with a guinea, after which she was quite free with her speech.

Mrs. Pryer - whose Christian name was Twyla - had taken a room at Woestalls four months before and paid for her room up front every week, and never caused anyone the slightest amount of trouble. When at home, she often confined herself to her room and spent little time in the common areas with the other women, but she was also out quite often, though none could say where she went or how she came by her money.

"Surely, she cannot have much money," the proprietress went on, "for I never saw her in any but two dresses and the same of everything else each time I saw her, though she was in her cups as often as she could be. Would you care for a cup of tea, Mr…?"

"No," Childermass said, "but I'd hear aught else of her you know."

"Well, tis very little. She confessed her father came from up north somewhere and her mother was from Prussia or some foreign place and she'd been in service all her life."

"And where was she situated before she came to Woestalls?"

"Well," she said, (as she began nearly every sentence she spoke) and this time leaned in with an air of conspiratorial confidence, "she would not say, but I had it from the boy who carried her valise when she arrived that she had lately come from a house in Kensington and was dismissed under very mystifying and secretive circumstances."

"Thank you," Childermass told her, and left before the woman could ask any questions of him.

In the market gardens of Kensington, Childermass found any number of folk willing to speak what they knew, some for a coin and others freely, and Childermass had to sort out the truths from the fictions. Finally, he found his way to the back door of an affluent townhouse, and he watched the comings and goings there until a young footman came out on some errand and Childermass loomed into his path.

"Your Mrs. Pryer-- why was she dismissed?" he growled at the youth, who stumbled backwards into a shrubbery.

The youth quaked in terror and stared owlishly up at him.

"It-it-it-it was a gentleman acquaintance s-s-s-s-said she'd borned a child out of wedlock. Th-th-the master turned her out that day."

"And the gentleman's name?"

"L-Lascelles."

"And how long had she been at service here?"

"Three y-y-y-y-years, sir."

"And how was her work?"

"B-b-but it was e-e-e-e-e-excellent, sir."

"All right," Childermass said, dropping a coin in his lap. "You may go."

The boy took off like a fox hounded from its den.

= = = = =

That night after dinner, Childermass was sure to casually open a bottle of wine, which excited Oliver and Dido greatly, was of mild interest to Lucy and Lucas, and which Davey and Hannah politely refused. Sarah requested to try it, and Childermass only narrowed his eyes at her.

When he came to Mrs. Pryer, he asked, "Care for a drop?"

Mrs. Pryer looked at the bottle and then gave a small nod. One bottle of wine did not divide generously between six people, but Childermass poured as evenly as he could and Davey passed out the glasses.

"Sarah," Childermass then said, "you know you are too young yet, even for but a taste of wine. So we shall sing whatever you like this night."

"'Pratty Flowers'!" she instantly demanded, bouncing in place.

Everyone looked to Oliver, who began the choral song, and which everyone shortly joined in, singing it through once before taking it again from the beginning to let Sarah sing the first lines of each stanza before everyone else joined in the four-part harmony, and in the end Sarah held the last note longest, her little voice ringing through the hall. She clapped with glee and then sat quietly in her chair, waiting to see what would be next.

"Sarah, run and get my fiddle," Oliver told her.

"Yes, sir!" she said at once and jumped to her feet.

When she returned, he played a joyful jig and smiled around the table at everyone as he did.

They clapped along and applauded him when he finished, but then Oliver turned to Lucy and said, "Why don't you sing for us tonight, Lucy? So fine, your voice is."

"I will, if you like. Sarah, what should I sing?"

"Sing that song about the pink, the violet and the rose."

"All right," she agreed, but then when Lucy began to sing in the most haunting way, a solemnity drew itself like a pall about the room.

"When I was in my prime
I flourished like a vine.
Along there came a false young man
And stole this heart of mine…
And stole this heart of mine."

As she sang the final 'mine', Dido and Hannah joined in with a soft and wavering 'ah' that sucked the soul from the room with its mournfulness as the note fell.

"The gardener standing by
He made three offers to me:
The pink, the violet, and red rose,
To which I refused all three…
To which I refused all three."

This time, as the women sang out their mourning 'ah', Oliver joined with a graceful draw of the bow upon the strings of his fiddle, reverberating a physical ache through the room.

"The pink's no flower at all;
Its blossom withers too soon.
The violet has too pale a hue.
I think I'll wait till June…
I think I'll wait till June."

Nearly every voice in the room found that falling, hollow 'ah' that rang out in perfect sorrow.

"In June the red rose blooms
But it's not the flower for me.
It's then I'll uproot the red, red rose
And plant a willow tree…
And plant a willow tree.

"And plant a willow tree.

"And plant a willow tree."

After the final 'ah' faded from their ears, a sweet silence filled the hall like the glow of the fire in the grate.

Mrs. Pryer dabbed discreetly at her eyes as Childermass shooed Sarah out to begin her evening chores.

Shortly after this, Lucy, Dido, and Hannah said their good nights and filed upstairs.

Childermass gave Oliver a subtle look and gesture and the cook rose to fetch a bottle from his room.

Lucas and Davey sought their beds as Oliver returned with a bottle of brandy, which was served up to Childermass, Mrs. Pryer, and Oliver himself.

Between sips of the brandy, Oliver would pick up his fiddle and scrape out a song or some melody he half-remembered. Childermass droned a heavily accented version of 'On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at', which made his listeners smile.

"Have you any favorite songs, Mrs. Pryer?" Oliver asked.

"Oh, not as such," she said. "Most houses I've been in don't have such singing as this. Does it not bother the master?" she asked, looking to Childermass, draped all in his shadows at the end of the table.

"If you were to ask him," Childermass said slowly, thoughtful with his words, "Mr. Norrell would have that it gives him the most trying headaches, and he would lay claim to how vexatious it is to have servants always yodeling about below stairs. He might complain that Lucas and Davey ought to drive the carriage and not sing away like fools as they do, or that Lucy could as easily tend to the dusting in silence as in song."

"That's what he would say?" she asked.

"Oh, yes."

"But sir, you smile so knowingly."

"I do."

"And why?"

"Because when he does not think I'm watching, he turns his head to listen. And once, he plain forgot I was in the library with him, and he got up to go to the door, and I felt sure any moment he'd go yelling down to tell them to stop their racket."

"And didn't he?"

"Nay," Childermass said, still smiling. "He stood at the door and listened. That's all."

Mrs. Pryer smiled back at him, but tears glimmered in the corners of her eyes.

Any number of things could have been said about loneliness then, but all was silent until the night was late and the brandy dwindling.

After Mrs. Pryer went to bed, Oliver - with a rather deliberate look at Childermass - pointedly went to bed in a direction that firmly was not his own.

Childermass shrugged and went about securing the house a final time before stopping outside the boys' room downstairs. He had to be content that he could hear only very little before heading to bed himself.

= = = = =

Mrs. Pryer had Sunday mornings for church and Wednesday evenings to herself.

For three weeks, Childermass mostly ignored her, but on the fourth Wednesday, he donned his hat and heavy coat, his shadows and his vigilance, and followed her out the back door.

He trailed her at some distance along Hanover Street, and then a bit closer as she joined the thicker foot traffic on Regent Street. This long path she followed until Regent became Coventry and then she cut across Leicester Square Garden to Irving Street. From there, Charing Cross Road took her to St. Martin's Place and William IV Street and then George Court to the Strand and finally to Fleet Street. At the last, she turned down the narrow Cheshire Court to the public house that was her destination.

It was not the most direct route, but Childermass well understood that a woman alone may not take the same back streets he felt so at home in.

Lingering in an opposing doorway several storefronts down, Childermass waited. Not even an hour had passed since leaving Hanover Square, and all the churches round about rang out the hour of six. St. Bride's, being nearest, was the loudest, but he could hear the nearby St. Paul's ring out down the way.

Childermass eyed the people roundabout going along their various ways on their various businesses and allowed himself to be seen.

It was not long before a young beggar approached him, hoarding his attention while a small hand slipped into his pocket from the other side.

Childermass grabbed the thieving wrist in an unrelenting hold. The little boy who'd had his hands cupped out before him took off like the hounds of hell might be after him and swiftly disappeared into the crowd. Childermass turned to regard the lass who'd tried to pinch the wrong pocket.

She was about sixteen, gaunt with hunger, with lank brown hair and wide brown eyes, glassy with fear. She did not speak.

"Running about Fleet Street with your eager hands… must be one of Pyewacket's gang."

"How-- how did you know, sir?"

He ignored this question to ask one of his own, "Should you like a pound?"

"A… a whole pound, sir?" Her fearful look turned mutinously suspicious. "For what?"

"I may have a job for a cunning young lass who can go about unnoticed. If I release you, and you do not run away, I shall give a shilling, and we'll talk then, yes?"

She stared him in the face for a long moment before agreeing with a single sharp nod.

Childermass released her and she rubbed her wrist and gave him a foul look, but did not run away.

Childermass produced a shilling, though from where she did not see, and handed it to her.

"Do you know the place?" he asked, with a nod down the street.

"Ye Olde Cheshire? O'course. But they don't let such as me in."

"I doubt they'll turn away a paying customer, howsoever… untidy she might be."

She looked across the street at the place and at the customers who came and went, and then at the barrel organ player down the way, and at the folk coming and going all about. She looked back to Childermass.

"A'right, then. What would ye have me do?"

"An acquaintance of mine is inside. I suspect she is meeting someone. Stand here with me awhile and we shall see."

The girl crossed her arms and gave him a sulky look. He did not see what she had done with the shilling.

"What's your name?" he asked, as he looked down the ends of the street at the passing carriages, Cheshire Court being itself too narrow for all but the smallest dogcarts.

She eyed him thoughtfully.

"No need to lie," he told her. "I'll know if you do."

"Edlyn."

"And I'm John."

She blinked at him.

"Ah," he said as a fancy carriage stopped at the Fleet end of the Court. "Stand back and hold still," he instructed, laying a hand over her wrist as though to inform her how to be so.

They watched as a well-dressed man descended, donned his hat, and sauntered down the center of the narrow street, forcing those before him to part to one side or the other. He looked neither left nor right as he made his way and entered the public house they'd been watching.

Childermass released his light hold on the girl and told her, "That is Mr. Lascelles." He held out a pound. "Go in. Order whatever you like to eat. Keep as close to that man as you can without being noticed, and report back to me when all is over. I'll give you whatever I think your information is worth, so long as it be truthful."

Edlyn nodded and pocketed the coin and dashed off across the street without question.

= = = = =

Childermass waited for almost three hours.

It was dark when Edlyn emerged, staggering across the street toward him.

"You're drunk," he said when she stopped and swayed toward him before righting herself.

"Only a little," she defended.

"How much did you have?"

"Two pints."

"Have you ever had such before?"

"Only a tot of gin from me mum when poorly."

"Well," Childermass sighed, "tell me what - if anything - you learned."

"That Mr. Lascelles, he sat in a shadowy booth at the back with the lady-- she was older and all grey about the edges…"

"That's Mrs. Pryer."

"Yes. He called her Twyla. I sat at the end of the bar nearest and had hot soup."

"And?"

"It was very good."

Childermass glared.

"I jest, sir. I could hear some of what they said, but not all. They spoke of trivialities the way rich folk do. Then he asked about how she was getting on in her new position. I figured she must be in service for the way she spoke. She said she saw her master rarely, and that all was as could be expected in such a place."

"And they spoke so for three hours?"

"Nay." Edlyn swayed toward Childermass, caught herself on his chest, and slowly righted herself again.

"Mr. Lascelles came right up beside me and spoke to the barkeep about a room for an hour. They did not notice me at all or should not have spoke so freely, I think. Mr. Lascelles paid and went up, and Twyla followed not long after.

"I thought it best to stay for to be sure I got what you would pay me, and I could not just sit there, the barman eyeing me so funny, I felt I should order something. They had stout. The woman came back down after an hour or so and went out the back way. I waited but did not see Mr. Lascelles again."

"What else can you tell me, girl?"

"Mr. Lascelles is much impressed with himself, and other people not at all. Your Mrs. Pryer is very quiet and I think she was afraid of him. Mr. Lascelles asked her a number of times about a man she works with. He has a funny name."

"Childermass."

"That's it! Yes. But she only said he was diligent in his duties, if a bit lax with his toilet and insolent at times, but Mr. Lascelles seemed to know all this already."

Childermass sighed before producing a handful of coins, which he poured into her eager hands.

"Now I have to get you home, I suppose," he said, eyeing her drooping eyelids.

"Yes please," she said, leaning into him, half asleep already as she tucked the coins away into a reticule sewn from scraps.

He wrapped an arm about her waist and followed her mumbled directions back to Fleet Street and then toward the Thames. She led him to a ramshackle structure near the water, the stench of the entire place rather obvious.

A group of ragged children ran out to meet them, including the boy who had earlier run from them. They were all in amazement that she had not been clapped in irons and wanted to know what he'd been doing with her for so long. He told them he'd hired her for a job and that she made an excellent spy, but oughtn't drink quite so much.

Finally, a raggedy woman of middle age ambled out, brandishing a rolling pin and demanding to know what exactly he'd been doing with her daughter.

Before any time had been allotted for an answer, she attempted to strike him over the head.

Childermass plucked the offending item out of the woman's hand and explained that he'd paid her for a job, nothing untoward, and it was on her own account that she'd drunk too much, and if Edlyn ever had a mind to turn to honest work, she'd likely be quite good at it. He returned the rolling pin then, and tipped his hat, and said, "John Childermass at your service," before turning his back on the whole lot of them and disappearing into the darkness.

= = = = =

He expected to find the help at their dinner when he let himself in the back door, but only found Mrs. Pryer quietly crying into a greyish handkerchief.

She sniffled as he entered and attempted to compose herself.

Childermass made nothing like a fuss, only hung up his hat and coat like usual and sauntered about the shadows of the room before approaching the table with a bottle in hand.

"You are unwell, Mrs. Pryer."

"No. Not-- It is only… something in the air. Very dry…"

"I've something to help with that, then," he said, sitting at an angle to her and setting down two glasses.

"You are very free with the master's liquor."

"Who says it is the master's?" he responded, pulling the cork from the ruby red wine.

"Well, then, I thank you."

He poured out the wine for both of them and after they had settled into their first glass, he asked, "Are you in some trouble, Mrs. Pryer? Anything I can help you with?"

She stared into her cup then, thinking. "There isn't a soul on earth can help me," she said.

"That is a sorry state, then," he answered, watching her carefully all the while.

She drank only sparingly, and Childermass could see her fretful mind at work, as the worse and worser thoughts crossed her face like descending storms of clouds.

"Mr. Childermass. My first night here, you read those cards for me. You said things no one could rightly know… Did you know ought of me before I came here?"

"Only that Mr. Lascelles was adamant about your taking a position here."

"But… so you didn't know I'd had a child? And lost it? Or that I'd been betrayed? By Mr. Lascelles himself?"

Childermass shook his head. "I did not know. Only the cards told me."

"But you never did say what the last one meant. The last card… what was it?"

"The Queen of Coins. It augers something good for you. Freedom from your troubles."

"But how can you be so sure?"

He shrugged. "The Cards of Marseilles have their own surety. I only read them."

"Oliver told me you'd been gone all day and missed dinner. …they all ate early, for the master took it in mind to have an early dinner."

"I'm gone from here much of the time. And the master eats when he pleases. And Oliver knows I look out for myself when I am not home for meals."

"Where did you go?"

"I followed you."

Mrs. Pryer sucked in a breath and made a tight, unhappy line of her lips as she bowed her head and tried not to cry. "Will I be dismissed, then?"

"And for what should I turn you out?"

"For betraying the house… for laying with a man not my husband."

"Do you wish to leave?"

"No, I-- Mr. Lascelles pays my way when I cannot make my own. If I am dismissed, I do not know what should happen to me…"

"Have no fear. I've no intention of turning you out, so long as you listen to what I say now."

Mrs. Pryer rallied her strength to look him in the eyes.

"Whatever Mr. Lascelles holds over you, I do not care. But I will not have you telling him anything at all of what goes on in the house… He's here often enough and can look all he likes for himself above stairs. He seeks to have me turned out and no mistake, but I can tell you right now that no inducement he could make to Mr. Norrell would bring such a thing about. I shall leave of my own accord one day, may be, but Mr. Norrell will not see me go, not for all Mr. Lascelles' pleas and complaints. Now, if you consider your salary fair, and have no complaints of your working conditions here, I see no reason why you should not stay as long as you like in Mr. Norrell's employ."

Mrs. Pryer breathed heavily as she turned all this over in her mind. Finally, she wondered, "And what of Mr. Lascelles? When I do not meet him, he shall surely tell Mr. Norrell about… about my unsuitableness."

"Will he?" Childermass asked, with something of a smile. "Will he tell Mr. Norrell that the housekeeper he himself so highly recommended is in any way inferior or disreputable?"

"He might. If… if he took great offense at my leaving off his demands."

"I think you'll find," Childermass said as he poured her more wine, "that when it comes down to it, I have greater sway over Mr. Norrell than all the Lascelles and Drawlights of London together, even if your past should come to light. Now," he said, sitting back and crossing one leg over his knee as he took a sip of wine, "shall you tell me your story? So that there may be no unpleasant surprises later?"

"And if I should like to keep my secrets to myself?"

"Then they are yours. Only mind: I will not betray you, like others have. A secret is as safe with me as a stone in the King's pocket."

Mrs. Pryer considered this for a long time, biting the insides of her cheeks as she pondered the matter.

Finally she said, "You seem a very fair man."

"Despite following you against your knowledge?"

"Well," she granted, "You had reason to."

"Aye," he agreed.

"My father was from Harrogate," she said, "and was in the King's service. He met my mother - who was from Saxony, but serving a Spanish Marquesa - shortly after the Battle of Valencia de Alcantara. They fell in love and she left her service to follow him and he brought her home with him at the end of the war." She shrugged. "His family disapproved of his marrying a foreigner, but such was his will. They cut him off and he was forced to return to military service to earn a living. He left my mother with me to care for during a hard northern winter. She took ill and never quite recovered. Father died abroad-- the West Indies. I was orphaned at the age of six, and his parents would not take me in, and no one knew anything more of my mother's family.

"So I was sent to an orphanage, and received my education, what there was to be had of it. I thought I might serve somewhere as a governess, if my learning was good enough. But no one ever responded to my letters, so when a newly married couple was looking for a ladies' serving maid, I took the position. But the husband was not content with his wife alone and took a liking to me as well. He would not have turned me out, I think, for he liked me well enough, only I had gotten with child. His friend, Mr. Lascelles, took pity on me and said he would help me… You can guess the rest. Mr. Lascelles took what he wanted and paid me for it, like a proper whore, and when I was too fat to please him, he sent me off to serve an old man in a cottage in Shropshire, who did not mind that I was round with child.

"It was a difficult birth, and Mr. Lascelles said I must send my child to an orphanage, for there was no such thing as a respectable unmarried woman who had a child. I… I longed to keep her, for she was mine. She was my own daughter, no matter how I came by her. But he convinced me in the end that it was not only my choice, but my only choice.

"Mr. Lascelles installed me in a home where he wished to know more of the family. I did my work as a housemaid and paid more attention than I should and answered back to Mr. Lascelles, who still took what he wanted from me, when it pleased him to do so. And so it has been for too many years now, Mr. Childermass."

"Would you have it come to an end, then?" he asked.

"Is it even possible?"

"I have found that many things are possible, when one is willing to seek a solution. Pay no attention to Mr. Lascelles, and do not believe anything he says, no matter what it is. He is a snake. And he has made you his snakelet. You are one of ours now, and answer only to me. Do your duty to Hanover Square and to Mr. Norrell. That is all I ask. I shall handle Mr. Lascelles."

Mrs. Pryer had abandoned her drink to better clasp her frayed handkerchief in two hands. "Can it be so easy?"

"I think you will find it is not. The other servants will have questions, and Lascelles may yet make trouble for us. But I shall stand by you."

"Why?"

"Because that is what ought to be done. Because I myself am a bastard. Because you have such a need as I can fulfill. Take your pick." He drank then, emptying his glass. "Do you meet him every Wednesday?"

"Yes."

"Then you have a week to make your decision."

"I-- I have already decided. I will not be beholden to Mr. Lascelles, not if you can help me avoid it."

"All is well, then," Childermass said, rising to deposit his glass - and Mrs. Pryer's, when she held it out - in the kitchen. He took his turn about the house, securing it, and returned to the servants' hall to see to the fire and put out the candles.

"Shall I see you upstairs, Mrs. Pryer?"

She slowly nodded and rose to her feet, and then led their slow ascension up to the servants' corridor.

She opened her door and stepped aside as though to invite him in.

Childermass merely stood upon the threshold, regarding her.

"I thought you would…" Mrs. Pryer began. "When a man escorts a woman to her room…"

"Let me make one thing very clear, Mrs. Pryer. I like women. Very much, in fact. But never against their will. Not coerced, nor through some 'understanding', nor because one feels owed to the other. I hope you will not dwell too much on what is past, but can look toward a new future. And I will help you how I might. You will sleep well, I trust?" He sketched something of a bow to her before turning to climb the steps to the attic.

Mrs. Pryer wonderingly closed the door.