Build Your House, Call Me Home | PG | 10,000+
William’s House of Orphans AU
William/Gabe, others implied
William is not entirely certain how this happened, how he became a veritable magnet for downtrodden orphans, but he’s going to blame Jon.
Warning: this is not even remotely historically, geographically, or culturally accurate in any way.
A/N: I don’t know if this qualifies as actual fic? I’m sorry. I’m just—really, really sorry. Title comes from Sara by Fleetwood Mac.
William’s House of Orphans AU
William/Gabe, others implied
William is not entirely certain how this happened, how he became a veritable magnet for downtrodden orphans, but he’s going to blame Jon.
Warning: this is not even remotely historically, geographically, or culturally accurate in any way.
A/N: I don’t know if this qualifies as actual fic? I’m sorry. I’m just—really, really sorry. Title comes from Sara by Fleetwood Mac.
Build Your House, Call Me Home
William is not entirely certain how this happened, how he became a veritable magnet for downtrodden orphans, but he’s going to blame Jon. Jon, who currently looks like a common street rat, dirt streaking his rosy cheeks and just south of his pert smile, perfectly serviceable breeches just that morning now torn beyond repair.
“Care to explain yourself, Jonathan?” William asks, arching an eyebrow.
Jon just grins wider.
Honestly, William’s been saddled with the cheekiest ward. He doesn’t think he was this much trouble when he was sixteen.
“This reminds me exactly of you,” Gabriel says, slouching negligently against the hearth mantel, curve of his mouth much too amused for William’s comfort. William’s trying to be firm here, to lay some ground rules, so as young Mr. Walker can’t, er. Walk all over him. It’s bad enough Jon’s talked him into having the laconic, kitten-eyed Ross and his fierce protector hanging about, snagging his best guest rooms, pestering Cook for warm tarts and hot cocoa.
“Stuff it, Gabe,” William says, cutting him a small frown before turning once again to Jon and the little bit of a thing clutching the back of Jon’s once snowy-white shirt. “Jon.”
Jon’s smile falters the slightest measure at William’s tone, and William watches as the little bit of a thing’s eyes widen, suddenly fearful, and William isn’t an ogre. William’s entirely too soft for his own good, apparently.
“You there,” William says, and Jon’s mouth downturns even further, like William doesn’t have a good ten years on him, and his voice is practically a reprimand when he says, “His name’s Brendon.”
Jon is a whelp and the bane of William’s existence. He’s lucky William’s so fond of him.
William pinches the bridge of his nose and ignores Gabriel’s snickering. “Just. Clean him up, would you,” he says, because he won’t stand for grubby little paw prints all over the manor.
“Stop fussing,” Greta says, lightly smacking Siska’s fingers with her clutch.
Siska gives her a shaky smile and obediently folds his hands on his lap.
Greta covers them with her own, squeezing. She understands his nerves, Siska thinks, sympathizes, but she won’t let him wallow, even though what Siska sincerely wants is a good wallow. He most certainly doesn’t want to show his face at Beckett Manor.
“There’s absolutely nothing to worry about,” Greta says.
Siska isn’t so sure about that. The thick cotton of his trousers is rougher than he’s used to, chafing the insides of his thighs. He feels strangely exposed, even though he knows he’s not wearing anything different than he’s seen Sir William wear himself.
Greta thinks he doesn’t know, but he does. Lurking just outside the study, he’d overheard that heated argument between her and Sir William just four months before, Lord Saporta sprawled low in a wing-backed armchair, bouncing an amused gaze between them. She thinks he doesn’t know about Sir William’s words, his, “He’ll grow into that chin, you know. Within the year he won’t have those plump cheeks and what will you do? You can’t keep him in skirts forever, Greta. He’s fourteen. Very nearly fifteen.”
“I’m not keeping him in skirts,” Greta had hissed, hands balled, ever-present smile absent from her mouth. “It’s his own choice, William, I promised his brother—and I don’t see how this is any of your business. I thank you for your concern—”
“My concern,” William had said. “My concern is that he’ll no longer be able to hide behind female trappings. Do you realize, if anyone gets wind of this, this.” William had floundered, one hand flapping, and then he’d visibly deflated. “You know I love you both, Greta, I’d just hate to see him hurt. Butcher’s—”
“Don’t,” Greta had interrupted, and her face, Siska will remember her heartbroken face forever.
“Siska,” Greta says, snapping him back into the present, into the stiff cloth of his jacket, the rocking of the carriage beneath his sturdy-booted feet. She reaches forward and pushes a stray curl behind his ear and he blinks back moisture at the corners of his eyes.
He doesn’t want to be a boy.
“I’ll love you no matter what, Siska,” Greta says.
Siska drops his gaze to his lap, avoiding the sheen of sadness in her eyes. He doesn’t want to be a boy, but he’s well aware now that he has to be one. “Adam.” He clears his throat, but he still can’t bring himself to look up. “Call me Adam.”
Brendon has never felt a mattress so soft in all his life. He presses the flat of his hand onto the covers in awe and he thinks, not for the first time, that Jon Walker is magic.
“Who’re you?” a voice says, and Brendon snatches his hand back, caught, and turns wide eyes towards a boy. He’s older, with shorn hair and an inquisitive but not unfriendly cast to his face. His fingers are oddly smudged with different colors and there’s an echo of the mess, darker, like they’ve rubbed together to make purple, running down the length of his jaw.
Brendon smiles. “Hello. I’m Brendon.”
The boy arches an eyebrow. “Another one of Jon’s strays, eh?”
“Um.” Brendon’s smile holds, but he shifts awkwardly on his feet.
And then the boy sighs and scrubs a hand over his head and says, “I’m Butcher. William’s my brother of sorts, although officially we’re cousins. Welcome to the manor.”
It sounds the slightest bit rehearsed, and Brendon really wonders just how many strays Jon’s brought home. He hasn’t met a single one of them yet, but the house is huge.
Brendon bites his lip and holds his breath and swallows back words – Brendon loves to talk, but he’s found most people don’t like to listen. He wishes hard for Jon to come back, back with the fresh clothes he’d said he’d find, back with the bowl of clean water he’d said he’d send for. Butcher seems very sure of himself, and that makes Brendon nervous.
“Butcher,” Jon says, swinging into view with a huge smile. “You’ve met Brendon, good.”
Butcher rolls his eyes heavenward and slides his hands into his pockets. “Jonny Walker, I swear. One day William’ll stop indulging you.”
“You don’t believe that,” Jon says, still grinning. “He loves me more than you, anyhow, and he lets you alone with Siska.”
Brendon watches, fascinated, as Butcher burns an interesting shade of red. He doesn’t duck his head, though, or react in any other way than to cuff Jon’s shoulder lightly and say, “Siska’s a child, Walker. Let’s not prove yourself a letch even before your voice has properly dropped.”
Jon ignores the jibe, merely points out pleasantly, “Siska’s only just over a year younger than me, and everyone knows girls mature faster than boys. Admit it, Mrotek, you’re in love.”
“Um,” Brendon says, because apparently they’ve forgotten he’s in the room, and Brendon’s never been all that good at being ignored.
“Brendon,” Jon says, tossing him a bundle. “I stole you a pair of Ryan’s new trousers, he won’t even miss them. They’ll be long, but should fit everywhere else.” He looks slightly apologetic. “I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with a shirt of my own, though, since Spencer’s touchier about his things and Ryan tends to sew flowers all over everything he owns.”
“Thank you,” Brendon says sincerely, clasping the clothes to his chest. Jon Walker is his very own hero, his shining knight; Brendon believes this with every bone in his body.
Butcher snorts, amused. “Victoria’ll love this one,” he says.
Jon reaches out and ruffles Brendon’s hair, and Brendon tucks his chin down to his chest, grinning, cheeks heated.
Jon says, “I know.”
William has never had to worry overmuch about Butcher. He’s quite independent, always has been, just as much at age seventeen as age eleven.
Despite his penchant for holing up in his rooms for days at a time, no one could ever accuse Butcher of being shy or retiring. In fact, if they’d lived any closer to London than a fortnight’s ride, William’s sure Butcher would hardly ever be home, except perhaps for the times when Greta and her ward were visiting.
He’s worried about this, though. So much so that he’d rather be dealing with Pete, the scourge of Gabriel’s shipping company, than with this current mess. Which is saying something, since Pete drives everyone to distraction whenever he deigns to grace them with his presence, and he always tries to steal Patrick away in the dead of the night – until Patrick knocks him out with a candlestick or a vase or the bit of a bridle; he’d managed to drag Patrick all the way down to the stables that time.
William frowns down at Greta’s letter, mentally counts the days from the date etched at the top in her looping, nearly unreadable scrawl, and thinks perhaps they have one more day, full, before their arrival.
He almost wishes that Butcher was still off courting trouble in London, harassing the museums with Gerard and staking out perches in the park with his easel and paints – like he’d done those years before, before Jon’s mother had died. Nowadays, William’s townhouse stands largely unoccupied. He can’t exactly leave the boys and Victoria alone, and he’s certainly not going to drag them all into town.
Gabriel taps his pipe into the palm of his hand, and if William didn’t love him he’d probably slap that smirk right off his face. Gabriel, William thinks, takes too much enjoyment out of trouble.
“It won’t be pretty,” William says.
Gabriel stretches out his legs and crosses his ankles. “Oh, I don’t know. Siska’s always been a delicate little thing. I’d be hard pressed not to call him pretty.”
William scowls at him. “You’re so amusing, Gabe,” he says. Then, almost tentatively, “Butcher’s in love with him, isn’t he?”
“Her,” Gabriel corrects, and William feels a headache coming on. A sharp pain just behind his eyes.
He rubs his fingertips over his temples. “I never should have indulged Greta.”
“Like you ever have any say in what Greta does, Billy,” Gabriel says absently. He tilts his head back on the armchair and puffs at his pipe, teeth biting into the carved ivory.
Which is entirely true. They’re of like ages, and their families have been dear friends since years before either of them had been born, but if anyone’s the bully in their relationship, it’s Greta. William’s sure that’s how he’d gotten saddled with Butcher and Jon in the first place. If it’d been up to William, they both would’ve been raised in Derbyshire by Uncle Orlan, and William would’ve spent his bachelor years gallivanting about London, racking up massive gambling debts. Instead, he’s got Gabriel and a houseful of big-eyed orphans – but he thinks, in the end, he’s gotten a rather good deal. He’ll never ever tell Gabriel or Greta that, though.
“You fret like an old woman,” Gabriel says. “Butcher’s known Siska for years, it’ll all work out fine.”
William is disinclined to believe him, but there’s nothing to be done about it now.
Ryan never remembers to eat, but Spencer has long since stopped trying to collect him for dinner. It’s just as easy to cajole a tray out of Cook later than to ferret out wherever Ryan’s wandered off to.
So Spencer’s alone when he slips into the dining room and finds someone who he doesn’t know, grinning at Jon like Jon’s discovered chocolate ice cream or shoe buckles – Spencer’s awfully fond of shoe buckles – and Spencer’s stomach does this flip. This truly annoying giddy flip that he quickly covers with a frown and narrowed eyes. Spencer isn’t all that comfortable around strangers.
Victoria stops by Spencer’s side where he’s hovering in the doorway. Victoria has always been the greatest of tomboys, but she’s recently ceased lacing their fingers together, and she’s recently started donning the most ridiculous dresses that Spencer supposes are stylish, somewhere, but seem a great deal more hassle than the lighter skirts she could ruck up to her knees when they went tree climbing out back. She clasps his hand now, though, and tugs him further into the room, whispering out the side of her mouth, “His name’s Brendon, and I’m afraid he’s the most adorable boy I’ve ever laid eyes on.”
“More than me?” Spencer asks, smiling now, like he’s sure she meant to have happen.
Victoria pinches his arm playfully. “I just said, didn’t I?”
“Shrew,” Spencer says.
“Harpy,” Victoria counters.
Spencer’s still grinning when he takes up the seat across from Brendon, and Brendon swings his gaze to Spencer. All Spencer sees are big brown eyes, dark messy fringe over a pale brow and a wide pink bow of a mouth. Spencer swallows hard.
Victoria elbows him in a not at all subtle manner when she settles into her own chair next to him.
“Where’s William and Gabe?” she asks, even as the servants start bringing out the first course. They aren’t particularly formal there, but Cook insists on proper meals anyway.
“Study,” Jon says, stuffing a piece of bread into his mouth. He grins as he chews and talks with his mouth full. “Something about Greta and Siska, I listened at the door for a bit before Blackinton shooed me away.” And then he says, “Oh,” and, “Brendon, this is Spencer and Victoria. Spencer’s one of mine, and Vicky’s a relation of Gabriel’s, I think, or else she sprung from Satan himself.”
“Practically the same thing,” Victoria says dryly, and Jon laughs.
Jon’s laugh warms Spencer nearly as much as his words; Spencer, for years, had only Ryan to claim him. He thinks maybe his ears are red, but Brendon just bobs his head and grins at Spencer, and Spencer hasn’t eaten much all day – he’d passed on Cook’s lunch in favor of a hasty spread of cheese and bread before following Ryan out on his mare, Skip – so that must be why it feels like hundreds of tiny moths have taken over his insides.
It’s not unusual for Brendon to have trouble sleeping. He’s got too much energy thrumming through his veins and particularly after the excitement of the day—he just can’t seem to calm down. His feet jitter under the blankets, the swishing sound of the finely threaded sheets echoing in his restless brain, and finally he throws back the covers and slips from the bed, tugging his breeches on over his borrowed sleepshirt.
He lights one of the candles Jon left for him and quietly inches open his door. He isn’t sure who else has rooms in this wing of the house. Butcher, he assumes, since he’d stumbled upon him earlier. He doesn’t want to wake anyone.
Brendon marvels at how homey the manor is, even in the dead of night. There’s a warmth that comes from a full house, he thinks, and it makes him the slightest bit homesick. It still tightens his throat, pricks his eyes, even after all these months – he can’t go home again. There’s no home to go back to.
He swipes at his eyes with the palm of a hand and ducks into a room he’d seen earlier. He isn’t sure he’s allowed to be there, but there’s a mammoth piano that’s taken over one entire corner of the room, bigger than any upright Brendon’s ever seen. It’s a funny shape, three-legged and curved and open, but the keys look to be the familiar black and white pattern, the brand hovering over middle C.
Setting the candle down on top, Brendon gingerly sits at the keyboard, wriggling his fingers in the air just above it, testing the fit, the spread of his hands, and it’s indeed the same breadth, the same ebony and ivory as the battered but reliable piano he’d used at church.
He doesn’t know anything but hymns. He sings sweet and low as his fingers remember notes he hasn’t played in years.
He plays until his hands cramp, until his mind is fuzzy with exhaustion and his back is aching from keeping him upright. He stretches and stands, hooking a finger through the candle holder, finding the wax nearly guttered. When he turns to leave, though, he almost drops it in surprise, probably would have if his fingers weren’t curled tight and immovable from hours of use.
There’s someone there, someone folded into a seat by the window, a faint outline, eyes open and glowing from the light of the moon.
“You, uh,” Brendon says, a little breathless. “I’m sorry.”
The head cocks. “Why?”
Brendon sputters a nervous laugh. Why—yes, well. Brendon doesn’t actually know. “No reason.” He shrugs, and the person – boy, he thinks, with hair tousled about his ears and a gangly set to his shoulders – gets to his feet. He’s tall and whip-lean and Brendon clumsily backs up a step, underside of his knees hitting the piano bench. He just barely catches himself before falling.
Closer to his candlelight, Brendon sees he’s smiling, a quiet little smile, and then he tips an invisible hat towards Brendon and slips out the door on soft, silent feet.
Brendon isn’t entirely certain he hasn’t dreamed the whole incident. He lets out a heavy breath and shakes his head.
Maybe Beckett Manor is haunted. That, Brendon thinks, would be strangely exciting.
As usual, William has misjudged their arrival, and he’s hurrying down the front steps after Greta’s already harassed Morris into heading to the stables to fetch Carden for their horses.
“You’re a day early,” William accuses, pressing a kiss to Greta’s cheek.
“We’re exactly on time,” she says. She grabs hold of the carriage door and leans back inside, spotting Siska—Adam, frozen, eyes wide with something that looks only slightly less debilitating than out-and-out terror. Her heart squeezes. Adam is her closest family, and it’s killing her to see him so upset.
“Where’s Siska,” William asks, leaning forward, craning his neck to look into the carriage as well.
Greta elbows him backwards with a reproving glare. “Adam,” she says, “this is Adam, William,” and she gently takes Adam’s hand to help him down. He still moves like a girl, small steps and graceful turns, and Greta supposes that might never go away. She wraps an arm about his waist when he reaches the ground and arches an eyebrow at William, daring him to make any sort of comment.
William just arches an eyebrow right back, though, and says, “Adam. Good to see you,” and Greta almost laughs when she sees him visible resist grasping Adam’s hand and kissing his cheek, like he’s done millions of times before. Honestly, though, it probably would’ve made everything that much more normal if he had. As it is, Adam’s stiff as a board beside her.
Finally, after some laughable floundering, William takes one of Adam’s hands between his own anyway and says, “Everything’ll be fine, you shouldn’t worry,” as earnest as he ever is.
Greta is grateful for it. She doesn’t like to see Adam hurt. She’s fully prepared to take Butcher by the ear if he makes any move she doesn’t approve of, or is mean to Adam in any way.
William seems to guess the line of her thoughts. He says, amused, “You’re a bear of a mother, Greta. You need to marry that hulking Bryar of yours already and have some fluffy chicks of your very own.”
“And you, William, are quite possibly the rudest man I’ve ever met.” If they weren’t out in plain sight she’d punch him as hard as she could in the arm. She sees Adam crack a smile, though, and tightens her arm around him and says, “Now, it’s been a long trip. I think you should see about getting us some tea.”
Jon, while good-natured and generally affable, has always been horribly spoiled. First by his mother, and then by William and Gabriel - who are, Jon has found, no match for his very charming smile. Jon knows how to get what he wants. If he was any other sort of person, uncaring or cruel, that would probably be dangerous.
Being spoiled, though, has given Jon Ryan and Spencer and their happiness – which is really very important to Jon.
Three years ago, Spencer had been desperate and Ryan had been sick, and Jon had caught them just before they’d planned on boarding one of Gabriel’s merchant ships, stowaways that would’ve been enslaved towards heavy work if they’d been caught out in the middle of the ocean. Jon still shivers to think of it, to imagine how Ryan wouldn’t have survived, not with his health at the time, to imagine what losing Ryan would’ve done to Spencer. Jon had very neatly grinned and cajoled them into following him home, and William, the soft touch, had given Ryan a calf for his very next birthday, so Ryan and Spencer would stop hoarding food in the stables and plotting unnecessary survival plans for when William eventually tossed them out.
“Pet cows,” William had said, with some sort of half-grimace on his face, like the words weren’t his own, “lend an air of permanence, don’t you think?” Jon suspects Gabriel had been mostly responsible for that.
And now being spoiled has given him Brendon, and Jon wants to wrap Brendon in as many hugs as he can handle for all the rest of their days.
Jon has a favorite climbing tree down by the lake, one with a rope that swings out over the water. It’s gotten too chilly to swim, a bite in the air heralding an early winter, but Jon toes off his shoes and shows Brendon how to hook his legs up over the lowest branch and pull himself up.
Spencer watches from the ground, hands on his hips. Jon thinks it’s funny, the way he’s keeping a hawk-eye on Brendon, like he’s not sure whether to strong-arm him into keeping a respectable distance or pull him tight against his side.
Ryan is still asleep, will probably stay asleep ‘til lunch with the hours he keeps. He’s always blurry-eyed and mumbly until way past noon. Jon thinks Ryan will like Brendon a great deal, when they finally meet.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come up?” Jon asks Spencer, laughter in his voice.
Spencer scowls. Spencer is pretty horrible at climbing trees. It’s extremely amusing. “Very funny,” Spencer says.
“What?” Brendon’s got one arm locked around a thick limb. He’s practically upside-down, face flushed from the rush of blood.
“Spencer can’t swim,” Jon says, “and he’s prone to falling off things that’re more than three feet off the ground.”
“I can sit a horse, you ass,” Spencer says, crossing his arms over his chest.
Brendon pulls himself upright and then drops to the ground, knees bending into a crouch to keep him from tumbling over. “It’s okay,” Brendon says, almost breathless. He straightens up, and Jon bursts out laughing as Spencer stumbles back a step when Brendon advances on him.
Spencer clears his throat. “It’s—”
“No, I mean, I’ve never been on a horse before.” He looks up at Spencer, grinning. “We had a mule, once. It bit me.”
Jon sits down on one branch, legs over the side, settling his arms and chin on another limb just on level with his heart. “Bloodthirsty creatures, mules are,” he says, swinging his legs back and forth.
Spencer tilts his head up and glares at him.
Jon just grins wider and waggles his eyebrows. “Brendon,” he says, still holding Spencer’s gaze, “I’m sure Spencer would love to take you riding. He’s got his very own horse and everything.”
“Oh, I don’t.” Brendon bites his lip and hitches one shoulder up. “I don’t think—you don’t have to,” he says, color high on his cheeks.
“Well,” Spencer says. He looks at a complete loss. Jon thinks it’s hysterical.
All three of them are quiet for a few moments, Jon silently suppressing laughter, and then Brendon says, “I could teach you to swim?”
Before Spencer can answer – scathingly, Jon’s sure - Jon says, “It’s no use, Brendon, he won’t even venture out into the shallows. He’s an absolute girl about it—oh, hey.” He squints an eye at the figure stomping in a particularly disgruntled way down from the house, a steady path towards the stables. “I think that’s Morris! Greta and Siska must be here.”
The very first thing Siska does, on every visit, is find Butcher. So when Butcher wanders into the kitchens some time in the late afternoon, stomach growling from several missed meals, he’s surprised when he sees Greta’s favored tea set on the table, half empty pot and tray littered with sandwich remains.
He frowns, staring bemusedly down at it, wondering what could have possibly kept Siska from seeking him out, why on earth Siska would want to suffer through tea with most likely William and Gabriel.
Cook snorts and says, “You should find Sir Bill first, Andrew.” Cook and Blackinton are the only ones that bother to call Butcher his given name anymore, except for Victoria when she’s in a snit. He gives Butcher a pointed look - that is utterly lost on Butcher, because he can’t think of why he’d want to search out William on any given day, least of all when Siska’s there.
Butcher taps an even rhythm on the outside of his thigh as he climbs the back stairs, making his way through the upper servant floor, using one of the hidden doors to the guest wing. There is a certain set of rooms that Greta always prefers.
There’s a strange boy, though, in Siska’s bedroom. A strange, smallish boy, curled up on the window seat, forehead to his knees, long hair pulled back into a messy knot at the base of his neck.
Butcher clears his throat, pushes the half-ajar door open further, and the boy’s head snaps up, loose curls dancing around his face.
Butcher is very familiar with that face. He has sketches upon sketches of its smile, that moment right before laughter, a frown of concentration creasing the brow. Butcher is, needless to say, extremely confused.
“Siska?” he says, stepping inside the room. “Why’re you wearing, uh.” He scratches the back of his head, unsure if it’s impolite to mention Siska’s distinct lack of skirts. Even Victoria, at her most boyish, never wore breeches.
“Butcher, I.” Siska’s mouth opens and closes soundlessly. Finally, Siska says, “I’m Adam.”
“Adam? Does Siska have a—” Butcher pauses, watches the dip of Adam’s head, the blush on the tops of his cheeks, the way his fingers tug restlessly at his collar, and Butcher—he knows. He can see it, splayed out in front of him, and he knows. His throat closes up, too dry to speak; it feels like there’s a heavy weight on his chest, slowly pressing the breath out of him. He grips the doorframe with white-knuckled fingers, and he waits. He waits for Adam—Siska to tell him this is just a horribly unfunny joke.
All Adam manages, though, is a dejected, “I’m sorry.”
Butcher is not sure sorry’s going to be enough.
Ryan falls asleep in strange places, so Spencer isn’t surprised to find him curled up in the blue parlor, chair pulled dangerously close to a low banked fire, lightly snoring.
Spencer kicks him in the shin.
Ryan barely moves, just cracks one eyelid open. “Yes?”
“I have a problem.” He fists his hands and places them on his hips to help convey that this is serious business.
Ryan yawns. “Does it have anything to do with your trousers?”
“No, it—wait, what’s wrong with my trousers?”
“Never mind,” Ryan says, flapping a hand – something he’s picked up from Sir William, he’s sure – and straightening up in the chair. He reaches his arms above his head and smiles at Spencer like a lazy, contented cat. Something else he’s surely picked up from William, or maybe Jon, since Ryan had always been tense as a bowstring before coming to Beckett Manor.
Spencer would be insulted by his obvious lack of concern, except seeing Ryan this relaxed always brings a warm glow to Spencer’s heart. He’s somewhat soft on Ryan. They’ve been the best friends for more years than Spencer can remember.
Spencer utterly fails at glaring Ryan down.
Ryan says, “Your problem?” resettling himself and stretching his feet out towards the hearth, sock-feet nearly catching a flame. He wiggles his toes.
“I hate you,” Spencer says.
“Well, I can see how that’d be worrying, yes,” Ryan says, linking his fingers over his stomach.
Spencer groans and drops down into the armchair across from him. “You’re secretly an old man, right? You’d sneak Gabe’s pipe if you weren’t deathly afraid of tarring up your lungs.”
Ryan frowns. “It happened once, I’ve heard of it. And you shouldn’t call Gabe an old man.”
Spencer rolls his eyes. “I’m calling you an old man, Ross.”
“Oh ho, surnames, Smith,” Ryan arches both his eyebrows, “this must have something to do with the new boy.”
“I have no idea how you came to that conclusion,” Spencer says darkly. Ryan rarely, if ever, makes proper sense. He’s right, of course, but it has absolutely nothing to do with what he thinks it has to do with. Or something.
“Of course not,” Ryan says. “Adam seems nice, though.”
Spencer blinks. “Adam?”
“Little guy, dark hair, clever fingers?”
Spencer purses his mouth. “His name’s not Adam,” he says.
“I could have sworn.” Ryan taps a finger against his chin. “William was talking to Blackinton about an Adam earlier. Are you sure he’s not an Adam?”
“I’m sure he’s a Brendon,” Spencer says, nodding slowly.
Ryan narrows his eyes. “Dark hair, clever fingers?”
“I’m not even going to ask what you mean.” Spencer doesn’t want to think about Brendon having clever fingers, or how on earth Ryan would know it.
“Well then, who’s Adam?”
Spencer sighs. He doesn’t really care who Adam is, since it has absolutely no bearing on his current problem, the problem of Brendon and Brendon’s open smiles and huge eyes and, apparently, clever fingers.
Spencer is fifteen. Spencer’s had approximately two and a half crushes in his life – the half being Victoria, back when he’d first arrived at Beckett Manor, and it was only half a crush because Victoria is honestly very scary when you get to know her, despite being wonderful. It’s utterly ridiculous to think, after one day, that he’s in love.
Ryan, as he often does, seems to read Spencer’s mind. He says, “You shouldn’t panic, Spence, it’s just a crush. It’s exactly like that time you thought Greta was a fairy princess.”
“I never thought Greta was a fairy princess,” Spencer says, more petulant than he meant to be.
Ryan just gives him a look.
Greta is golden and lovely with wisps of blonde hair dancing around her face, escaping in small curls from the clasp at the back of her head. She has plump, rosy cheeks, and fine, nearly glowing skin, and Brendon thinks she looks like a fairy princess.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Brendon,” Greta says, and her voice is melodious, round and full and beautiful as a hand bell.
Brendon has absolutely no clue what to say to her.
Jon wraps an arm around his shoulders and grins. He says, “Brendon is charmed, Greta. He’s been rendered speechless by your great beauty and, uh, eyes.” He waves his other hand a little as one of Greta’s eyebrows inches further and further up. “And hair that neatly matches your yellow frock—”
“Stop talking, Jon,” Greta says.
Jon presses his lips together and tips his head onto Brendon’s shoulder. He stage whispers in Brendon’s ear, “You should compliment her trim waist, girls like that,” and Greta flicks the end of his nose and calls him irrepressible.
Brendon amends his previous conclusion: Greta is a fairy queen.
It’s not unusual for Butcher to disappear for small chunks of time, but it is unusual for him to disappear while Siska’s in residence. William suspects Butcher is purposefully avoiding everyone, and William suspects he knows exactly why.
“I told you this wouldn’t end well,” William says.
Gabriel shifts in the grass so he’s propped up on his elbows, lying on his back, ankles crossed. He says, “Butcher’s just angry he’s been lied to. Give him a few days and he’ll be tumbling Adam in the stables.”
“Adam’s fourteen,” William says, face in his hands. He doesn’t know why he lets his orphans anywhere near Gabriel. Gabriel is bound to get them all arrested some day. It’s bad enough that he’s sent Patrick and Joseph off with Captain Lacey, of all scoundrels.
Gabriel shrugs. “A soft bed, then, with candlelight and rose petals.”
“Gabe,” William says. “Gabe, this isn’t any time to poke fun.”
“Oh, I think it’s the best time to poke fun,” Gabriel says, grinning wickedly.
William honestly doesn’t know why he puts up with him, except for the fact that Gabriel’s his one true love. “You have entirely too much time on your hands,” William says. He thinks that’s why they currently seem to have an extensive collection of shiny swords and equally shiny horses – when Gabriel’s bored he tends to either spend money or tempt his disreputable acquaintances into taking away the one thing that’s kept William sane for going on two years.
William, in all this mess, misses Patrick terribly.
“I don’t have enough time, Bills,” Gabriel says, tipping his head back to drink in what’s left of summer, the sun that’s finally broken through the clouds.
“There you are,” Greta says, wandering across the lawn towards them, Jon and Brendon trailing behind her, Brendon looking a little like she’s the sole reason for puppies and flowers and crisp autumn apples – Greta has that effect on nearly everyone, at first meeting.
“My dear Honorable Greta and company,” Gabriel says, somehow giving the illusion that he’s sketching a bow without actually getting up off the grass.
Greta kicks him light in the side. It’s more a playful nudge, really, despite Gabriel’s affronted face, and the way he clasps at his ribs like he’s dying. “Have you seen Adam?” she asks William over Gabriel’s theatrical groaning – really, William’s going to have to find him some kind of project, so he’ll stop being this ridiculously inappropriate.
“Not since tea,” William says, and thinks about Butcher, and thinks that perhaps, if they’ve disappeared together, things might work out fine after all. And not in any of the ways Gabriel had been implying.
Adam is not hiding.
Hiding would be a cowardly thing to do, and Adam is not a coward. He is, however, avoiding as many people as he can. With the houseful Sir William keeps, it’s proven surprisingly easy; in the hour before dinner the kitchens are bare of everyone except Suarez – Cook, although Adam’s never fully understood that affectation, since Hush Manor’s own cook has always been Faller, and he gets a disgruntled look in his eyes and mutters about marginalization whenever anyone tries to address him differently - and Michael Guy, since Suarez doesn’t like any distractions while preparing meals. He seems all right with Adam, though. Adam suspects he’s feeling sorry for him. Adam, honestly, is feeling sorry for himself, too.
Butcher’s his very best friend, and he’s afraid Butcher’s never going to want to speak to him again. He doesn’t blame him, but that doesn’t stop his heart from hurting.
“Stop crying,” Michael Guy says, but he places a thick slice of bread slathered with butter and honey in front of him to take the bite out of his words.
Adam sniffles. “I’m not crying.” He swipes at his cheeks, itchy from drying tears.
Michael Guy looks at him funny, but doesn’t actually call him on the lie.
“My life is ruined,” Adam says, stuffing the bread in his mouth, because no matter how upset he is, he’s not going to turn down anything made by Suarez and Michael Guy.
“Your life isn’t ruined,” Suarez says, flicking his gaze up briefly from the pie he’s meticulously assembling. It smells like apple and cinnamon. “All that’s different is your skirts.” He arches an eyebrow at him. “I don’t remember you acting all that ladylike before, anyway.”
Adam pulls a face. “I was charming,” he says.
“Just three months ago you came back from the lake covered in mud,” Michael Guy says, snatching an apple slice off the table and narrowly avoiding getting stabbed by Suarez’s paring knife.
“You stubbed your toe so hard one time you cursed enough to make Ryland blush,” Suarez says. “And on three separate occasions that I know of, you’ve let Andrew haul you over his shoulder and carry you off to god knows where.”
Adam blushes, even as the mention of Butcher causes his stomach to bottom out. “I was raised a boy,” he mutters. It isn’t like his mother or father would’ve approved. He’d just lucked out with Greta, and that wasn’t until he’d reached eight. Greta’s husband - his older brother - had died two years later. That had been a greater tragedy for Adam, softened only by his great love for Greta, since he’d never been particularly close to either of his parents.
“Here.” Michael Guy pours Adam a mug of milk. He sets the earthenware jug aside and leans forward so his elbows rest on the tabletop, hands clasped loosely. “You can’t let whatever Butcher thinks dictate your happiness,” he says.
“I can’t,” Adam says, although he’s not all that convinced.
Michael Guy grins and reaches out to ruffle his hair. “Nah, you can’t. And Butcher’ll come round anyways, he likes you too much.”
Brendon sneaks out of his room after he hears the heavy slide of Butcher’s door as it’s pulled closed. He doesn’t think he’d get in trouble if he’s caught wandering the manor at night, but he thinks perhaps, if Beckett Manor is haunted, he’d get a better look at the ghost if he’s nice and quiet, and if no one else’s around.
The music room is colder than it was the night before. Which is strange, since there’s someone bent over a desk in the corner, an oil lantern burning, hanging from a hook on the wall just above the someone’s head. Brendon sees just enough of his profile to surmise it’s the boy from the night before.
Brendon tries to slip in unnoticed, but the door makes a creaking sound as his elbow jostles it open wider, and the boy turns to look over his shoulder. Brendon freezes, candle gripped tight in his hands, gripping even tighter when the boy slowly gets to his feet.
“Are you a ghost?” he blurts out, even though it’s obvious he isn’t one. He looks fully corporeal, now that there’s enough light to see the peach tint to his skin, the good humor lighting his eyes.
“Um. I don’t believe so,” the boy says. He tugs on his vest.
Brendon is unaccountably disappointed anyway. “Oh.”
“I’m Ryan,” he says, and Brendon says, “Spencer and Jon’s Ryan,” before he can stop himself.
One of Ryan’s eyebrows flies up. “If you want.”
Brendon isn’t sure what that means.
Ryan says, “And you’re not Adam.”
“No,” Brendon says, fidgeting slightly. He steps further into the room. “No, I’m not Adam.”
They’re quiet for a moment, Ryan watching him with a strangely intent gaze, and finally Ryan says, “Well, if you’re going to play, play,” without any heat, voice flat, in fact, although not honestly mean, either. His eyes are still smiling.
Brendon bobs his head and moves towards the piano, and Ryan snorts lightly and settles back down into his chair. The scratch of pen on paper is barely audible, and Brendon’s curious as to what he’s writing, but he doesn’t ask. He gets the feeling Ryan wouldn’t tell him anyway.
He slowly feels out the first few notes of Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones, before shifting into something more comfortable. Though generally beautiful, he’s never liked the repetition in hymns, the rigid forms, and he embellishes wherever he can. It’s not like there’s anyone there to stop him now, to slap his hands or pointedly eye up a metronome; Brendon gets lost and found when the familiar notes under his fingers spin into something new and sometimes manically different. The room seems to disappear, darken around him, and when he finally looks up again Ryan’s gone. The oil lamp is turned down, desk empty of papers.
There’s a sound at the door, but when he turns towards it, he doesn’t see Ryan. He sees Spencer, watching him—watching him fondly, Brendon thinks, lips quirked up on one side in a small smile.
“You’re very good,” he says, leaning into the jamb, cocking a hip.
“I’m okay.” Brendon shrugs.
Spencer shakes his head, laughing a little. “All right, you’re okay.”
Brendon tucks into himself, teeth cutting into his lower lip. He knows Spencer’s not actually laughing at him, but Spencer’s been curt towards him all day, like Brendon’s unwittingly done something to offend him, so he doesn’t exactly know how to take this – why Spencer’s suddenly being nice to him.
Spencer seems to notice his discomfort and his mouth softens. “It’s late,” he says.
Brendon tangles his fingers in the ties of his shirt. “I’m not very good at sleeping.”
Spencer nods. “It takes practice.”
“It does,” Brendon says, and he can’t really help it, his lips twitch up into a grin. Brendon has suspected - right from the start, when Spencer had sat down across from him with suspicious, pretty blue eyes, but a full laugh for Victoria and obvious love for Jon - that Spencer’s wonderful. He’s glad that Spencer doesn’t seem to hate him.
“Come on,” Spencer says, gesturing for Brendon to follow as he moves back out of the room, “let’s try it. We can even call it a nap, see how that works.”
“I like naps,” Brendon says.
“That’s like saying you like air,” Spencer says, waiting for Brendon to fall in beside him. He cuts him a sideways look and grin. “Or Cook’s apple tarts.”
Brendon says, “I wouldn’t know.”
Spencer grasps the sleeve of his sleepshirt, almost-tentatively. He says, tone light, “I’m sure you will.”
William’s morning is suspiciously uneventful. He keeps waiting for Pete to jump around a corner and demand to know where Patrick is or something equally annoying, like—well, there really isn’t much that’s more annoying than Pete.
And then Victoria saunters into his study.
“There’re kittens in the stables,” she says, but she says it in such a way that William is instantly on guard.
“What do you mean?”
She gathers her skirts and settles on the end of a chaise, looking far older than her fifteen years - she’d gone to Gabriel’s Elmhurst estate for the summer season and come back with breasts, and William bemoans the fact that sooner than later they’re going to have to launch her into proper society; she’s going to cause quite a stir, he already knows – giving him an enigmatic smile, quirk of her eyebrows telling him he’s correct to think that she’s mocking him, and mocking him well.
“Butcher’s found kits,” she says. “I think you’re gathering a reputation.”
“Do I even want to know what you’re really talking about?” he asks.
Victoria inclines her head slightly. “Probably not.”
“Right,” William says, and gets to his feet. He might as well get this over with now. “The stables.”
“The stables. Specifically Muffin’s stall.” She’s biting her lip, like she’s holding back laughter. This does not bode well.
Muffin is Ross’s blasted Belted Galloway. She holds particular dislike for William. “Wonderful,” he says dryly.
Kittens in the stables are not unusual; Jon has a peculiar affinity for them, so they always end up with more and more cats wandering the grounds each year. Which is why Victoria’s mention of new ones – when normally they don’t require any mention at all – is really very worrying. By the time William makes it down to the stable, he’s pondered many a scenario, all of them horrifying and ending up with more mouths for him to feed.
Gabriel is already there, of course, smirking, and Butcher’s looking uncharacteristically sullen – with Adam no where in sight – and dread, a large, ungainly chunk of it, settles low in William’s throat, making him queasy.
They’re both peering into Muffin’s stall. William solemnly joins them.
“There’s five of them,” William says numbly, after several long, agonizing seconds. Five boys, looking no more than six, all giving him the largest puppy-eyes William’s ever seen.
Butcher and Gabriel remain silent, but William can practically hear Gabriel’s mocking laughter in his mind. He imagines he’s silently cackling with glee.
“You know,” William says, voice faint, “this is getting a little ridiculous.”
“I demand to know where Patrick is,” Pete says, striding into the blue parlor. He’s got a short-cape on, swishing about his shoulders, and Jon knows Ryan’ll have one to match by the end of the week.
“Not here?” Jon says, not bothering to move from his sprawl on the sofa, his head pillowed on Ryan’s thigh. “You can’t have him, anyway.” It doesn’t matter that Patrick and Joseph are both older than he is – Jon had found them, and he’s going to keep them for as long as he can.
There’s a deep-seated sigh and rustle from above as Ryan turns a page of his book. Ryan adores Pete. Ryan, Jon knows, wishes Pete were as adamant about him as he is about Patrick.
“I’ve looked everywhere, it’s almost as though you’ve hidden him away from me.” Pete waggles his eyebrows. He’s ridiculous, and Jon’s fairly sure at some point in the far, far future he’ll browbeat Patrick into marrying him – or as close to marrying as two men are allowed.
“Lacey took him, Pete,” William says, entering the room and heading straight for the brandy. He pours himself a healthy amount, swallows it all in one go, grimaces at Pete and says, “He took Joe, too.”
Pete says, “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that. I’m going to pretend you didn’t let Gabe send those impressionable lads to Italy and, god forbid, France. And why are you drinking?” He sounds more curious than censorious. “It’s only past noon.”
“There are five very valid reasons why I’m drinking,” William says. He tips the decanter, filling his glass again, as well as another one that he hands off to Pete. He shoots Jon and Ryan a glance, sighs, then pours two more. “You all might as well join me. I say we get so sotted we forget this day ever happened.”
Jon sits up then, suddenly worried. “Why?”
Greta ambles in with Gabriel, lips pulled into a frown even though her eyes are smiling. “Well, I don’t know what you think I can do about this,” Greta says to William.
“You can take them away,” William says. He hugs his snifter to his chest.
Behind Gabriel, Jon sees, are two little boys pushing each other. Scuffling, really, and then behind those two little boys are three more, and Jon’s mouth twitches.
“Oh,” Ryan says, “do we have company?”
“They’re all named Alex,” William says, both his expression and voice pained. “Or nearly.”
“Not really,” Gabriel says. He grabs one of the scuffling boys by his collar just when fists start getting involved, and flicks at his ear when the boy turns on him instead, using tiny feet on Gabriel’s shin. “This one’s Horatio or Sanchez or something. I remember the hair.”
“No.” William pinches the bridge of his nose. He always gets like that when he takes on another orphan. “No, I think that one’s just Ian.”
“Where do you suppose they came from?” Ryan asks. He pats Muffin’s head, the soft velvety hair on her muzzle. Ryan’s raised her from a tiny calf – he misses the days when she’d fall asleep with her head on his lap. She nudges his hand affectionately and moos.
Carden swipes his bare, sweaty forearm over his brow and bites into the apple Ryan had brought him. He shrugs, chewing.
Ryan tries not to follow the line of his strong, rounded shoulders with his eyes. His cheeks heat and he desperately hopes Carden doesn’t notice.
“They couldn’t have traveled very far all alone,” Ryan says, shifting his focus back to Muffin.
Carden makes a noncommittal noise.
Ryan silently tells Muffin all about how Carden’s noncommittal noise isn’t at all attractive, and that the man himself is far too dirty – he smells like horses and manure and he’s always sweaty and his hair’s unfashionably long and his trousers are worn at the seat, not that Ryan’s been looking.
When Ryan glances up at him again, Carden’s leaning against the wall, watching him speculatively.
Ryan holds his breath.
Carden scratches his throat, and Ryan’s gaze absolutely does not dip to the open v of his shirt.
Carden takes another bite of the apple, eyes still intent on Ryan. Finally, he says, “Lord Saporta’s man. Novarro.”
Ryan blinks. “What?”
“Ask Novarro,” Carden says, slowly, like Ryan’s an idiot.
Ryan isn’t an idiot. Ryan is as far from an idiot as he can possibly be, even if he does write romantic drivel for several serials, who happen to think he’s a much older woman going by the name of Lady Toutenworthington. Ryan’s mouth tightens and he straightens up into his full indignant height. He thinks maybe he catches a slight sparkle of amusement in Carden’s eyes – the ass. Ryan is not impressed.
Still, he says, “Thank you,” with pointed politeness.
Carden touches two fingers to the brim of his cap, mouth very nearly grinning. “Of course, Master Ryan.”
“How long are you staying for again?” William asks. He’s seated next to Gabriel on the loveseat in the blue parlor, head tipped back to stare at the ceiling. Herding the boys around - until finally abandoning them to Pete’s somewhat lackadaisical care, something to do with a stocking-puppet show and one of Patrick’s hats – seems to have sapped the strength out of him. It’s funny, after he’s spent so many years dealing with teenagers and Gabe.
“Three weeks, and then we’re off to London for a spell. Adam needs to be fitted for new clothes and we’re due a visit with the Ways.” Greta bites her lip. “I was going to ask Butcher to accompany us.”
“You should,” Gabriel says. “Butcher’s being a stubborn ass, but he knows he’s wrong.”
Greta rolls her eyes just as William says, “Gabe,” clearly scandalized, and cuffs him on the back of the head.
Greta stifles a laugh.
William says, put-upon, “Well, you may have to take him now, anyway. I don’t know if we’ll have room, what with all the Alexes and Not-Alexes.”
“There’s plenty of room,” Gabriel says, unconcerned.
Greta suspects Gabriel is fond of having a full house. He might’ve sent Patrick and Joseph off to sail the world, but Greta’ll eat her left boot if it didn’t half break Gabriel’s heart to do so, no matter his smug exterior.
William, too, for all his complaining.
Pete bursts into the room and shouts, “You’ve really sent him away?” like he’d thought they’d all been joking about Patrick and Joseph and Captain Lacey. “I checked his rooms. Twice.” Pete practically falls down into an armchair in front of the hearth, scowling. “I hate you all.”
“He’ll be back, Pete,” William says tiredly. Then he straightens up and says, “Wait, wait, if you’re here, then who’s watching the boys?”
Spencer stumbles upon Adam – Adam, who is a boy and not a girl, despite being, apparently, the same person as Siska, who’s Spencer’s known ever since moving into Beckett Manor - in the gardens; the ones no one claims to like, but everyone seems to tend to – Spencer’s particular expertise is foxglove.
Adam looks up at him from his not very good at all hiding place behind one of Ryan’s late-blooming tea roses, eying Spencer warily.
Spencer says, “Greta’s looking for you.”
“Okay,” Adam says. He doesn’t move from his cross-legged seat on the ground.
Spencer hesitates only a moment before dropping down beside him, glancing at him out of the corner of his eye. The trousers are strange, but otherwise he looks exactly like Siska always did – without the ready smile, though. Adam looks positively sad.
“Spencer,” Brendon says, head popping around the thicket of rose bushes, “there you are.” He says, “Why are we hiding back here?” pushing in next to Spencer, and then he says, “Hello,” to Adam, nodding.
Adam shifts over a little, so he’s not pressing his knee to Spencer’s thigh. “Hello. I’m, uh, Adam.”
“Yes, and I’m Brendon, I’m new.” Brendon grins, grabbing Spencer’s hand and threading their fingers together – Spencer very carefully does not blush – and asks again, “Why are we hiding? Is it a game? I told Cash I’d show him the lake, only I’m afraid he’ll drown, or drown one of the others, do you know how deep it is?”
“Who’s Cash?” Spencer asks.
“One of the Not-Alexes. The stocky one with the black eye.”
Brendon seems overjoyed at having a passel of six-year-olds running around the manor. Spencer mostly thinks they’ll be a lot of trouble.
Spencer frowns. “You should probably keep all of them away from the water.”
“All right.” Brendon sighs. “If they’re bored, though, I think they’re going to start breaking things.”
There’s a horrendous crash from somewhere inside, and Spencer can hear shouts through the second floor window, well above their heads. He winces.
Brendon laughs, turns and presses his forehead into Spencer’s shoulder. “Told you,” he says.
Adam makes a sound and Spencer looks over at him, just quick enough to catch a grin before he drops off his face, leaving him to watch Spencer with solemn eyes. Spencer has absolutely no idea what to say to him to make that go away, to bring back his humor. He suspects no one but Butcher will actually be able to.
“Brendon,” someone calls. A very young someone, Spencer thinks. “Brendon!”
“Over here,” Brendon says, laughter still in his voice.
Spencer feels Adam scoot so he’s mostly behind him, and he awkwardly pats his knee to settle him.
“Brendon.” One of the Alexes, instead of simply stepping around the rose bushes, has decided to crawl under them, and Spencer knows it’s an Alex, because he isn’t sporting a black eye, and he’s definitely not the one Gabriel’s going around introducing as, “Ichabod or Isaac or something with an I at any rate, I can tell it’s him by his hair.”
“Alex,” Brendon says, serious tone matching Alex’s strangely serious face.
Honestly, they’re going to have to assign them all numbers or something, Spencer just doesn’t see this name thing working out well.
Alex has little fists balled on his hips. He’s got a short cap of shining blond hair and an indignant expression on his rounded face. “Brendon,” Alex says, “that wasn’t me.”
“What wasn’t you?” Brendon asks. He pokes Alex in the belly and Alex’s serious face wavers for a moment, eyes alight, before he schools it straight again.
“Singer did it, it wasn’t me, you have to tell Sir Billy, Brendon, or he’ll chop me up and let Cook stick me in the meat pies, Cash said,” Alex says stridently, eyes wide and suddenly brimming with unshed tears.
Spencer jostles Brendon’s side with an elbow and whispers, “Who’s Singer?”
Brendon gives him a bewildered look and shrugs.
Spencer asks Alex, “What does Bill think you did?”
“Um.” Alex shifts on his feet. He bites his lip, then blurts out, “Singer broke the snake.”
“Oh.” Spencer covers his mouth to keep from laughing. “The purple statue? The big one?”
Adam actually laughs, then. He laughs a lot, flopping back to sprawl out on the ground, hands covering his face. “Oh. Oh, Sir William hated that stupid statue,” he says when he gets himself under some control. He leverages himself up on his elbows. “Lord Saporta’s going to pitch a fit, isn’t he?”
“He might cry,” Spencer says, nodding. Gabriel tends to get fixated on the strangest things, like his recent penchant for scythes and thoroughbreds and pipe-smoking. And orphans, because Spencer thinks Gabriel’s feeling more than a little paternal about the five little boys, considering he keeps referring to them as his special minions.
Brendon says, “I’m missing something.”
“Nothing important.” Spencer squeezes his arm. “You,” Spencer says to Alex, “are lucky Gabe likes you so much.”
Butcher scowls down at his page when he realizes he’s sketched the slim figure of Adam. Or Siska, really, he doesn’t see why that has to change. It just makes everything even more confusing.
He furrows his brow to match his frown and concentrates on Siska’s wrist – it’s the same as it ever was, only now it’s attached to an arm with rolled up sleeves, the sleeves attached to an unmistakably masculine shirt. The differences, besides the very obvious ones, are few.
Butcher sighs and sets aside his charcoal. His fingers are smudged black, and he rubs his thumb and forefinger together, the residue fine and soft between them.
Butcher swipes a hand over his brow, unmindful of the mess he’s leaving behind. If Gerard were there, he’d tell him he was being an idiot. And then he’d dress up in Victoria’s clothes and parade around, just to make a point.
The thought makes Butcher grin.
He shakes his head and gets to his feet, suddenly determined. Something has to be done, that’s for certain. He can’t hide away forever. The only way to fix this, he thinks, is to actually talk to Siska.
So it’s fortuitous that he opens up his bedroom door to find Siska slinking past, trying unsuccessfully to hide behind Brendon.
“Butcher,” Brendon says brightly. “We’re heading to the kitchens, want to come?”
Butcher watches Siska curl even further into himself, and Butcher says, “No,” and, “Can I talk to you a minute, uh, Adam?”
Siska’s head jerks up and his eyes widen and Brendon, oblivious, says, “I’ll try to save you some cookies, but I can’t promise anything,” eyebrows waggling, and Butcher takes a second to ponder how easily Brendon’s slotted himself into the manor, none of the awkwardness from a few days ago present at all anymore.
Butcher nods at Brendon, watching him bound down the hall and disappear.
Siska stares at his feet.
“I’m never going to remember to call you Adam,” Butcher says. He cocks a hip, one palm curved over the bone, other arm dangling, trying his very best to look nonchalant.
“Uh.” Siska looks up, confusion coloring his eyes.
Butcher deflates a little, rubs a hand over the back of his neck, and apparently it’s his turn to stare blankly at the floor. “You’re my best friend,” he says. It’s more than that, but that’s all he can think of to say.
“You’re my best friend, too,” Siska says quietly. “I’m sorry I.” He pauses, and Butcher rolls his eyes, because Butcher knows exactly what Siska needs to be sorry for here, and he doesn’t think Siska actually does.
“You’re sorry you lied,” he helpfully provides.
“I’m.” Siska blinks. “Okay, yes. I’m sorry I lied.”
Butcher says, “You’re not sorry for being a boy,” and it isn’t a question. He doesn’t mean it to be one.
Siska’s expression goes a little wistful, a little sad. “I wish—” he says, and cuts himself off, almost ashamed.
Butcher, considering the past several years he’s known him – considering all the frilly skirts and hair bows and general adoration for Greta - figures he knows what Siska wishes for anyway. He hooks an arm around Siska’s neck, draws him close. “We’ll work on that.”
There’s an Alex asleep half in his lap, the tiniest one – five, according to the fingers he’d held up, since he isn’t much for talking – dark hair a short halo of curls, his knees tucked up on the loveseat by William’s hip.
The rest of the boys are, amazingly, playing marbles quietly by the fire.
“It’s ridiculous,” William says, but his heart feels all warm and fuzzy and full.
Gabriel is settled on the floor by his feet, an arm resting across William’s thighs. “How did they get here, really?” he asks, voice uncharacteristically soft.
William chuckles, low. “Novarro, apparently. With that new mare you sent him to pick up. You should’ve sent Carden.”
“Oh, but then we wouldn’t have this mess,” Gabriel says, smiling. An actual smile, with none of the edges Gabriel’s had so much lately; the bored edges that give William nightmares.
He doesn’t think Gabriel will ever leave him, not really, but with Patrick and Joseph gone and the others almost full grown—
Gabriel has never taken to gentlemanly leisure well. He’d spent the bulk of his childhood aboard merchant ships, traversing bustling harbor towns in exotic lands, and William lives in the country. William’s nearest neighbors are a good fifteen miles away.
Granted, raising orphans isn’t exactly the exciting life William’s sure Gabriel had planned, once upon a time.
“You’re frowning again,” Gabriel says. He’s looking at the pile of boys by the hearth, though, so William can’t think how he would know.
“I’m not,” William says.
Gabriel pats his leg. “You worry too much,” he says, then tilts his head back and arches an eyebrow. “Now, what do you think about archery? We could dull the tips, so the boys don’t stab each other.”
William thinks that’s a monumentally horrible idea. The worst idea ever, with stabbing the least of their worries if any of the boys get their hands on bows and arrows.
William says, “All right, fine.”