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The Way You Thought It Would Be

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Gabriel woke to the dim light of his dying fire and the sharp smell of the candles on his desk smoking and sputtering and burning out. There was an imprint of his quill and an unseemly splotch of ink on his cheek, and ink had dripped onto the paper he had been scratching notes onto earlier in the evening. It was increasingly apparent as he blinked in the semi-darkness that he had fallen fast asleep while working in the night and by the time he had woken up, the imposing clock in the far corner of the office read very long past midnight. Outside the window, there was a heavy snow falling over what had been little more than a gentle dusting during the late afternoon.

The evening had started as a simple exercise in taking notes from a very old tome he had received from Benjamin Allworthy, the man who had until very recently been the Chrestomanci himself. Benjamin had retired quietly with four lives remaining, but occasionally sent messages to Gabriel when his successor desperately needed advice. (This happened more often than Gabriel really wanted to admit, and Benjamin certainly seemed to know just when Gabriel was at his wit’s end, and inevitably the solution that he hadn’t thought of just yet.) He had been planning to draft a letter to a very important dignitary who had recently asked his opinion on magical policies in his country, but it had been too easily forgotten.

Gabriel stood up and jammed the heels of his hands into his eyes, rubbing out the crust on his eyelashes. He could never quite shake the exhaustion that threatened to overtake him at any moment. It had been building since he had been made Chrestomanci full time, since perhaps before then, when he was still learning his way through the role at a faster pace than he would have liked. A great deal had changed, and very much of it faster than Gabriel cared to think about.

A careless glance across toward the mantle around his smoldering fireplace drew his flickering vision toward one particular picture frame, but Gabriel tugged his eyes away from the portrait’s lovely hair, curved neck and knowing smile. It was a mistake to dwell on the past, he thought to himself and wheeled around, pushing his hands through his hair.

The position of Chrestomanci was far from the most highly-desired of all across nine universes, despite the troubles that invariably arose as a result of it and the general feeling that as Chrestomanci, Gabriel enjoyed a life of immense power and luxury, with nothing to want for. Gabriel had never fully relished the thought of becoming the next Chrestomanci, though he had never had much time to get used to the idea after Benjamin found him, young and ambitious and quite intact, shortly after his twenty-fourth birthday. Nor had he been afforded very much training before Benjamin chose to leave (justifying his departure by reminding Gabriel that he had thought himself a very powerful enchanter before then, and he was perfectly capable of sound reasoning and moral duty). There was merely work to be done, always more than Gabriel thought himself capable of handling, and a pile of unanswered letters that he hadn’t realized was growing at a slower and slower pace, until no more came and he had never known that he had already lost everything. (Her, he would force himself to say to himself and acknowledge Victoria and the things she had lost, not merely the shapeless thing that had never come to bloom that he mourned.)

The door creaked open and Gabriel looked up quickly, his face pale and drawn with exhaustion and his features lifted in surprise. James, the old butler who had insinuated when Gabriel met him that he had worked for no fewer than three Chrestomancis before Gabriel himself.

“Chrestomanci,” he said with some note of surprise in his voice. “You were asleep when I was in here last.”

And he hadn’t thought to move the inky quill from Gabriel’s loose fingers and off his face, Gabriel thought grumpily, and rubbed the palm of his hand over the incriminating stain.

“I fell asleep while--while reviewing that book Benjamin left me,” he explained, realizing as the words were leaving his mouth that he had no reason to explain himself to anyone. James nodded slowly, his eyes sweeping over the stains on Gabriel’s silk shirt, his undone tie and folded-up shirt sleeves.

“Well,” he began carefully, in the measured way that Gabriel knew meant disapproval at the new master of Chrestomanci Castle; this younger man in chaos that was still learning his way about things. “I thought to bring you some refreshments.” A wave of his hand, and there was a perfect tray.

“Dinner,” Gabriel said hoarsely as he realized he had skipped the meal in favor of his study. “I can hardly believe I--”

“I can,” James interrupted dryly and cleared a corner of the desk so he could leave the tray there. It looked for a moment as if he was going to leave in a dour huff, but then he looked up and met Gabriel’s eyes with a very faint glimmer. “You have been working far too hard, Gabriel,” he said with all the air of a concerned old grandfather. “I have been doing this for a--”

“A very long time, yes,” Gabriel agreed, lifting the cup of fragrant tea James had brought on the tray.

“And,” James continued, unperturbed by Gabriel’s interruption, “I have never seen a Chrestomanci work himself to... ink spots and quill imprints on his face. Or one who has made himself so terribly unhappy in the position.”

“Maybe they were better at this then.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Gabriel,” James scolded and Gabriel remembered with an uncomfortable jerk that James, like all the rest of the house staff, was doubtlessly an extraordinarily powerful magic-user. “If you ask me--and three Chrestomancis have done so in the past--then you should get some rest and let that book rot on a shelf somewhere, and write that letter tomorrow morning after you’ve had some toast.” He patted his shoulder comfortably, his expression softening from the sour disdain Gabriel had grown accustomed to, and waved his hand at the fireplace so it would close and put out the remaining embers. The candles had already given up their ghosts and lay in mangled piles of cooling beeswax, but the snow outside seemed to glow with a light of its own that helped to illuminate the room.

Gabriel watched him and set down his cup of tea. “Oh,” he said numbly and looked down at his ink-splattered notes, the old book he hadn’t been learning all that much from as it was, and took another glancing look at the mantle. “Good night, James.”

“Good night, Gabriel. Do go to sleep, and sleep well.” James lowered his head in respect and smiled before turning his back and leaving Gabriel there alone with the wet sound of snow falling outside his window and the last weak pop of the fire.