A chambermaid entered with a box of candles, dropping a polite curtsy and a “m’lords” before she set about filling and lighting the room’s candelabra and wall sconces; apparently, the room had never been refitted for gaslight. Nikola fetched down cue sticks and Justin racked the balls – things a footman would do at Comfrey Manor, but that was more of an inconvenience than a convenience in this case – while the girl drew the curtains.
“Thank you, Mary,” Nikola told her as she finished. “That will be all.” The Haventure man leaned over to take the first shot as the maid withdrew again.
For form’s sake, Justin took a shot too, and was amused as the warping of the table turned a straight rebound into a curve after the ball lost most of its momentum. “Perhaps you should patent uneven surfaces for billiards, Striker. It adds a whole different feel to the game, gives an incentive to know the terrain well. Like trail-optional bowracing.” When Nikola didn’t respond, Justin looked up to see the man standing at his elbow, round blue eyes intent upon him.
“I don’t know how you can joke about it,” Nikola said, voice low. “I still have nightmares.”
“So do I, but only that I have to apologize to Southing again,” Justin took the cue stick from Nikola’s unresisting hand and set both on the table to hug him again. “I am fine. See?” he murmured into his lover’s ear. “Thanks to you. I am deeply in your debt, you know.”
That was the wrong thing to say. Nikola stiffened and pulled back, turning away. “No, you are not,” he said shortly. Justin grimaced at his back. I am not just letting this subject drop again, curse it. You will let me repay you. Before he could decide on the best approach, Nikola said, “You never asked me if you were crazy.”
Justin blinked at the non sequitur. “What?”
The tall blond man strode to one of the faded chairs before the curtained windows and fell into it. “You told everyone you’d asked me if you were insane. Which you had not.”
“Come now, Striker, you can’t be upset about that. I was being facetious. Everyone knew I wasn’t speaking literally! Besides, you’ve seen my mind a thousand times. It’s not like I’d have to ask,” Justin said. Nikola’s face was turned away; he didn’t answer. “…would I?” The heavily-muscled lord crossed the floor to stand before Striker, leaning down and planting his hands on the arms of the chair when Nikola still wouldn’t look at him. “Curse it, Striker, am I crazy?”
Nikola met his eyes at last. “Have I ever told you how my Blessing works?”
“I know how it works, you cast out demons, blood and death, Nikola, have I got one or not? Is this such a hard question?” Justin snarled, feeling as though if he were not mad already he was on the verge of becoming so.
“Yes, it is!” Nikola snapped in return. “It’s not – no, you don’t have a demon, yes, of course I’d say something if you did, curse it, Justin, sit down and let me explain.” Taking a deep breath to compose himself, Justin dropped into the armchair opposite. Nikola stripped off his gloves. “Give me your hand.”
Justin quirked an eyebrow. “You had my cheek against yours not five minutes ago, Striker.”
“Yes, and five minutes ago you hadn’t petitioned me. Now you have. Do you want an answer or not?”
Justin leaned forward, putting his strong, thick-wristed hand between Nikola’s long-fingered pale ones.
The other man exhaled. “There’s two causes for disorders. One is demons. Those are easy to spot and expel, and afflict, I don’t know, perhaps a quarter or a third of my petitioners. The other is…oddities in mindshapes. It’s hard to explain in words and I usually don’t, so just listen, Comfrey. All right? Just listen.” Nikola took a deep breath, his hands clasped tightly around Justin’s. “There is a great deal of variation in the way minds look, and most of it is what I consider normal. No,” he corrected himself, “I mean ‘healthy’. Because ‘normal’ implies ‘like everyone else’ and it’s not like that, it’s just…it feels right. Not obviously defective. If someone comes to me with their sense of joy the size of a grain of sand, I can tell that’s a problem. If it’s shaped like a flower on one person and like a corncob on another, though, I’d say they’re both healthy, even though those shapes are unique to them so it’s not ‘normal’. The Savior won’t let me change the shape of one to another if it’s like that – it’s come up, I’ve tried on depressed people whose shapes were particularly odd – because that’s not unhealthy. Just different.” Nikola spoke quickly, agitated, blue eyes unfocused. “Sometimes – much of the time – I can’t tell what’s wrong, And – I don’t tell people they’re crazy, Comfrey. You need to understand that. When people don’t petition me, I don’t look for things that might be unhealthy. Unless a demon or a pattern I know is unhealthy jumps out at me, I’m not going to assume that any of the odd things I see are anything but odd. Part of the natural variation.”
Ahh. “So I am crazy.” Justin felt oddly sanguine about this. It explains so much.
“No!” Nikola cut himself off, swallowed, continued, “I wouldn’t say that. But if you want to know if there’s anything unusual about your mind that would explain why you snapped after the – the fall – yes, all right? There is. Your mind is structured so you’ll become angry instead of frightened. Or find scary things funny.”
“And you were wondering how I could make jokes about it,” Justin said, dryly.
Nikola laughed. “I suppose I should have seen the connection.” His expression sobered again. “I do not—”
A knock at the door cut him off. Stifling a growl, Nikola released Justin’s hand and sat back. “Yes?” he called.
Nikola’s valet opened the door. “Beg pardon, sir, but your five-thirty is here.”
Nikola gritted his teeth. “I’ll be with them shortly, Shelby, thank you.” After the servant bowed and left, the young lord leaned forward again, resuming where he’d been cut off. “My professional opinion is that you are sane, Justin. You said that situation had never arisen before, and if it – if anything like it – I don’t even know if being terrified is more useful than being angry anyway. For that matter, I don’t know if the Savior would change it if we wanted, and if it were up to me I would not ask. Changing something about a mind often has unintended consequences. It could, for example, make you more cautious, not just about physical danger but perhaps in…other areas of your life. It would not make you irrational but it would make you less you. Less who you are now. Usually my petitioners are people whose everyday lives have been made so difficult that the risks of such changes are comparatively inconsequential to them. But you…” He trailed off for a moment. “You’re not like that. Do you understand?”
“I believe I do.” Justin gave him a puzzled look. “But if you do not think it should be changed, why are you telling me about it?”
Nikola swallowed. “Because it is not up to me to choose. It is your mind. It is your choice.”
“Ah.” Justin paused, wanting to give the subject the consideration Nikola felt it deserved. Then his mind lit on a tangential realization. “If you did treat me, you would have to accept a gift from me.”
His friend jerked his head up to stare at him. “What?”
“You could not possibly balk at it: a gift for a Gift, amount at the discretion of the giver, Blessing involved, exactly conformed to the letter of the Code.” Justin grinned, dark eyes dancing at the thought. Yes!
“No!” Nikola rose, knocking back his chair.
“‘No’?” Justin tried to fight down his humor and failed. I have you now, boy. “Did I misunderstand something here? Would you refuse my request? It is my right and obligation to give in return, is it not?”
His stubborn friend set his jaw. “You wouldn’t – you couldn’t – not to—” He turned and stalked away, hands clenched to fists at his sides. “Fine,” he snarled.
Justin stood to follow him. “Beg pardon?” he inquired at his friend’s back, all light and innocence.
“I said fine.” Nikola turned his head sideways, angular face in profile over his shoulder as he spoke in clipped words. “Whatever ‘reward’ you want to give me, just do it. Say it’s for catching you after the fall or for a private consultation or, or, a curst naming-day gift. Whatever you like. Only, curse it Justin do not make me do this just so you can fucking buy me.”
Justin hesitated, struck by Nikola’s vehemence, and his curious turn of phrase. Buy him? But Savior knew when he’d have this opportunity again. “Agreed.” He offered his hand before Nikola could change his mind.
Nikola turned to face him, eyeing his hand as if it were a venomous serpent. “To what?”
“You will allow me to present you with a suitable monetary gift—” Justin chose his words with legalistic care “—in recompense for saving my life, and I will make the decision regarding my mind independent of any consideration regarding you.”
His friend bowed his blond head. After a moment, he lost his rigid, tense posture, shoulders slumping in defeat. “Agreed,” he whispered. His hand in Justin’s felt cold. Justin’s elation – Yes! Finally! – was marred by a twinge of concern over Nik’s attitude. It’s just a ding to his pride, embarrassed that he needs the money at all. He’ll get over it, and things will be much better between us without this foolish gulf in relative wealth. Justin released the hand to draw Nikola into his arms and kiss him, fingers curling around the nape of his neck. Nik was stiff in his embrace, but yielded enough to answer the kiss. He held Justin in return for a moment, then pulled away. “I should go.”
“Right. Your five-thirty.” Justin stroked his cheek tenderly. “I’ll arrange for the gift soon…it won’t be ostentatious, Nikola. Nothing untoward. I promise.” He gave his lover a last hungry kiss, earnest against their next time alone together, before releasing him.
“And…as far as your mind goes…?”
“If you don’t think intervention is advised—”
“I do not.”
“I trust your judgement.” Justin smiled at him. “I shall keep this quirk in mind and control my temper better the next time my life is endangered, in view of the likelihood that I will misjudge intentions in such conditions.”
Nikola exhaled, nodding. He looked wrung out, even paler than usual. The blond lord escorted him to the front door as was their habit, with Justin maintaining a flow of everyday conversation and receiving mechanical replies in return. Justin was used to upholding the occasional conversation with a partner who could not maintain their end, due to shyness, lack of skill, intimidation, or whathaveyou. But it was strange to be doing so with Nikola, who usually made everything easy. As Justin stepped into his carriage to depart the premises, he suffered from the same strange mix of pleasure and concern. It’s only pique at being outmaneuvered in this silly game we’ve been playing far too long. He’ll get over it.
Justin leaned back in the coach seat and smiled, imagining a future where Nikola no longer fretted about the amount of a wager, where he no longer needed to decline invitations because he could not reciprocate them, or feared hosting guests at Fireholt for lack of appropriate entertainment. Oh, yes. He’ll get over it.
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