Maurice spent the war in an office behind the lines, secretary to some toff he met at Cambridge who still claimed him as a friend.
Alec spent the war in the mud for six months and then the rest of the war at home. He was glad for Maurice, really, but he sincerely wondered if Maurice knew how many blessings he had.
Alec woke up aching. He stretched in the dawn light, trying to ease his muscles, and sighed when Maurice began to rub his thighs. "I slept well," Alec said, relaxing into Maurice's hands.
"So did I," Maurice said.
It was too damn hard to think when his legs were paining him. He let Maurice think for him, asking, "Where do we start the day?"
"The kettle is on the hob and we've a lovely pair of peaches. After that, you are repairing Mrs Palmer's chair and I'm putting Blower's pasture fence to rights. Then we are quite at our leisure," Maurice said.
"No work this afternoon?" That didn't seem right.
"Not until Monday."
"You need to look harder."
"All is well. It's Saturday. It's the weekend."
Alec sniffed. "Weekend, says he. Weekend meant we worked harder because all you toffs came up to stay--"
Maurice tumbled Alec back into the sheets and tickled him with his roughened palms. "I wasn't a toff," Maurice growled.
Alec grinned, closing his thighs around Maurice's waist. Maurice pressed his lips to Alec's throat. Alec placed both hands atop his golden head and shoved him down.
Maurice slid down easily. They'd grown familiar with each other's parts and all the joy they could bring with their bodies. It wasn't difficult to teach him, he wanted so badly to learn, but Maurice was a virgin when they met. Hard to believe when Maurice was so lovely, but he was.
After Maurice brought him off, his legs didn't pain him at all.
Maurice made the tea while Alec got himself washed and dressed and into his chair. He had three chairs, one upstairs where they lived and one downstairs where they worked and one for outside, and he had a pulley and a basket to get from floor to floor so he didn't ever require Maurice to move him from place to place.
Mind, he did like it when Maurice moved him from place to place.
He rolled into the kitchen and sliced a peach while Maurice made the tea and toast, and he fed him juicy slices and they traded a sticky kiss, and then they went to work.
Mrs Palmer's chair was an intricate bit of gluing and sanding work. Alec had learned proper woodworking, not just banging about with shingles, during the war, after his service was over. He and Maurice had been labourers for a while before the war. After the war, things were different. It wasn't so strange that two ex-soldiers would go into business together.
The post came while the glue was setting up. There was a letter from Alec's brother. He put it aside for later. It would be more crowing about how well he was doing and what an idiot Alec was for missing his train more than a decade ago. It could wait.
Word came down from Brinkley Court that they had work for Maurice come Monday. The gardener needed help replacing the glass in a dozen windows because some tit had knocked them out with golf balls. Alec accepted, laughing to himself about Maurice fixing the kind of damage he'd once inflicted when he was a toff. Served him right.
The fellow lingered, though, after he gave Alec the orders. "What a curious chair," he said. "Forgive me, I have seen wheelchairs before, but not of this design."
"It is my own making," Alec said. The fellow was tall, dark, and handsome, and Alec liked the way his eyes lingered on Alec's arms.
"How ingenious," the man said. "Everything in the shop is your own work?"
"It is." He made toys and pipes and other things, some copied from catalogs and magazines which were the more popular, some of his own design drawn from the sky and the land.
"I shall take note. One never knows when one will need a craftsman of skill and imagination."
That was when Maurice came back, when Alec was pleased at the compliment and the tall man was definitely admiring his arms. The man glanced at Maurice and raised his bowler hat. "But your partner is here and I must be going. Good day."
Maurice watched him leave. "He was trying it on with me," Alec crowed as soon as the door shut.
"You should have seen his face fall when he saw you. I could have had him in a moment."
Maurice locked the door and leaned against it. "Could you then."
Alec grinned with his tongue between his teeth. "I could."
Maurice growled. He rushed the counter, Alec chortling madly, and grabbed Alec out of his chair and carried him upstairs to bed.
Twice in a day. That was living.
Sunday morning they attended church, as they did most Sundays. The vicar told good sermons and Alec liked the singing. Maurice wasn't a believer but he came with Alec anyway.
Maurice looked up into the private pew where the gentry sat. The mad nephew of the house was there. The village said his egg had been scrambled in the war, that he'd gone into the fighting right at the end and gone into fits during a shelling, that he had a special manservant to follow him around and keep him out of trouble. Alec leaned against Maurice's arm slightly. Just a little press. Maurice squeezed his fingers under the hymnal they held between them.
After the service, as usual, they took lunch with the Misses Bells. They were two sisters, sixty-five and sixty-seven years of age, the proprietors of the Swan and Lyre. They had taken on Maurice and Alec as soon as they moved to the village.
"There's a nest up the chimney, I'm sure of it," Miss Bell said. "Maurice, can you shin up with a chicken and see to it tomorrow?"
Maurice didn't answer. He was starting to push Alec into the road, too.
"Maurice? Maurice, where have you gone?" Miss Bell rapped him on the forehead.
"Hm?" Maurice said. "Oh, I'm sorry."
"Kindly do not push me into an omnibus, you ass," Alec said.
"I'm sorry," Maurice said. "I was thinking about Christ the man walking about Jerusalem ministering to the outcasts. I suppose I was imagining him walking down the road here. Wondering what he would think of us."
Alec scoffed. "I wouldn't mind him coming down and bringing my legs back. I can tell them where I left them in Flanders, he just has to pop round and collect them--" He stopped himself. "Sorry, Misses Bells."
"Pish tosh," Miss Florence Bell said. "If you think we haven't heard rougher than that, and for less cause, you are very much mistaken."
They reached the Swan and Lyre and Miss Bell sorted through the keys attached to her belt. She had the place locked up tight for fear of the shady toffs that visited Brinkley Court.
"How lovely to serve the son of God a pint," Miss Flo said. "And a pie, of course, and I wouldn't think of charging him."
Alec laughed out loud.
"I'm sure Jesus would love your meat pies, Miss Flo," Maurice said.
"I wouldn't mind a meat pie," Alec started, but then his eye was caught. "Blimey. Would you look at that? What a beauty," he sighed. He propped his chin on his fist and gazed at the motor-car proceeding up the road.
"Oh, dear, more visitors to the Court, more raucous goings on. Tsk." Miss Bell paused with the key, glaring at the motor-car.
"I would drive you all over," Maurice said softly to Alec. "Wind in our hair. One of those little two-seaters."
"Go on then! You're dreadful with machines. I would drive it," Alec said.
The motor-car slowed and stopped outside the Swan and Lyre. The window rolled down to show a lady inside. "Maurice--Mr Hall?" she asked. It was Mrs Durham, the young master's new missus, not looking so new any more. Looking downright haggard. Alec leaned over his chair and stared.
"Mrs Durham," Maurice said. He stepped slowly up to the motor-car. "How extraordinary to see you."
"Are you a visitor at Brinkley Court?" the lady asked.
"I live here in the village," Maurice said.
"I am visiting Brinkley Court. It's been ever so long, since before the...will you call on me there?"
"Erm." Maurice gaped a bit, as well he might. He and Alec both used the servant's entrance at the Court. "Yes, of course," Maurice said awkwardly.
"I shall look forward to seeing you."
"Quite. Lovely to see you again, Mrs Durham," Maurice said, stepping back from the road.
Alec raised his eyebrows at him.
"Hush," Maurice said.
"Well, come in then, it's time for lunch," Miss Bell said.
"She didn't even see me," Alec said as Maurice carried him up the stairs at home.
"She looked old," Maurice said. "Older than her age. Clive wasn't with her, I wonder where he is?"
"And if he were with her?"
"I don't know. I can't think what I would say to him after all this time. What would you say to him?"
"Tell him to boil his head," Alec said. Maurice giggled as he set Alec down on the bed.
"I did love him once. Or I thought I did." Maurice undressed, tossing his clothes onto the other bed they kept for show. Alec admired his back as the bare flesh emerged from shirts and pants.
"He kept me up working til midnight and up again at six," Alec said. "I never had an evening off but once a week until I left."
"Oh." Maurice, quite naked, looked back at him.
Alec opened his arms. Maurice smiled and joined him on the bed.
They lay entwined under the blankets. Maurice stroked Alec's chest. "Six, seven," he said, pulling on the white hairs he found.
Alec slapped his hand. "Give over."
"You have silver all over your head as well. It suits you." Maurice kissed his chest above the nipple. "Eight," he said, pulling sharply. Alec grabbed his hand and they wrestled back and forth until Alec heard something.
There was a rattling at the shop door. "Marauders!" Alec said, half meaning it. "Miss Bell is right."
"I'll see who it is." Maurice slid out of bed and into his undershirt and trousers quickly.
"Don't forget the blackjack!"
Maurice clomped down the stairs. Alec cupped his ear to hear what was going on.
Maurice opened the back door. "Mrs Durham! Come in, please, what on earth is the matter?"
Her voice was low and ghostly. Something about Greek, and libraries, and Greek again, what was she going on about?
"Perhaps you should sit down," Maurice said, and the lady burst into noisy tears.
Maurice dashed back up the stairs.
"What's happening?" Alec asked. He picked his clothes back up, thinking he mightn't want to be naked.
"I need the brandy. Mrs Durham is crying in the parlor."
"She knows about me and her husband."
"Fair enough," Alec muttered.
The lady ran upstairs as Maurice found the brandy. "Anne, please, sit down," Maurice said.
But the lady would not be soothed. "We never had any children. It was never the right time, he said, so we never tried, and now we never will!"
"Why have you come to our house?" Alec asked. Maurice pulled a face at him, meaning for him to shut up, but Alec shot Maurice a stern look in return. It was a perfectly reasonable question.
She wouldn't even answer him. Alec slapped his hand on the bed frame loud enough to echo. "This is my house!" he said. "Explain yourself!"
Maurice and Mrs Durham both stared at him. "You were the under-keeper," she said.
"And now I'm in me own house in me own bed looking at you at me own bloody table and wondering what the bloody hell is going on here and why I shouldn't throw you out on your ear!" Alec shouted.
"Alec, don't be so beastly!" Maurice said.
Alec snorted. "A beast would receive more consideration in his hole than me in my house."
"No, you're quite right," Mrs Durham said. Scarlet rose up in her cheeks. "I'm so frightfully sorry. I should have--but I had to see you privately. I had to ask about love." She was looking at Alec now, seeing him for the first time.
"All right. About love. I love Maurice," Alec said. A challenge. She'd hear it and like it or he'd fling her out the window. He could. His arms were strong.
Mrs Durham nodded and dropped her eyes. "I suppose you haven't heard about Clive. He came down with Spanish Flu at the end of the war. We thought we might lose him, but he pulled through...he simply never woke up. He'll stand and walk if we get him up, but he doesn't talk, he doesn't respond, his eyes don't even open. I bear it most days. But I wish that we had children. It's why I married. For children. For a husband. For a home. Penge will go to Clive's sister's son and I'll go into the dower house with the ghost of Clive!"
"No, I didn't know," Maurice said.
Alec rubbed his chin. "Hard to lose your home, any road."
"I didn't want--a man. I wanted children. I wanted to live respectably. But I didn't...want a man. How--this is what I meant to ask you--how do you just chuck it?" Anne asked. "For love, how do you just walk away from everything?"
"I don't think you can chuck being married," Alec said.
Anne wiped her face. "No, of course. No. I took him, I made a promise. No, of course, you are quite right. I should return. I don't know what I was thinking." Anne stood. Maurice stood. "I apologize for this intrusion," she said.
"It's all right. I'll walk you back," Maurice said.
"I came by bicycle."
"I'll walk you back, Mrs Durham," Maurice repeated.
Maurice leaned over Alec. Alec turned his face up for a kiss.
Maurice returned very late. "Your admirer met me at the gate and gave me a guinea for my trouble," he said, showing Alec the gold coin. "What shall we do with it?"
Alec disappeared the coin between his fingers and hid it among the bedsheets. "We shall leave it to me," he said. Maurice still didn't know the value of a coin. He would spend a guinea without a thought.
Maurice curled around Alec, stroking his chest. "She is so desperately lonely," he said. His hand found Alec's. Alec squeezed him; he wasn't alone. They would neither of them be alone again.
"Like me before I found you," Maurice said. "Before you found me and brought me to life."
"Don't spare her too much pity. She has everything in the world."
"And that is her own fault."
"How harsh you are! Shall she suffer her whole life for marrying the wrong man?"
"Yes," Alec said, because that is what happened. He married Maurice and he was happy. She married Durham and she was sad.
Maurice turned over and showed Alec his back. "I shall write her," Maurice said. "Let her know she has a friend who understands."
"Write, yes. What did she want with your pencil out in the woods?"
"She wanted a child, did you give her one?"
"Then it was just to interfere with us and bring trouble to our lives. I'm not her servant any more," Alec said. He didn't need any grand lady demanding things off his fellow, talking about ghosts and Greeks and babies. "She shouldn't have taken him if she didn't want him in sickness and health. She made a vow."
"She isn't--rather, she is keeping him. But I cannot imagine Clive without his mind," Maurice said. "He's...nothing but his mind. He despises his body. But he's fragile. He's been ill before. I'm not surprised. But..."
He sniffed and Alec realized he was crying softly for his friend. Alec embraced him, arms around his thick chest, and kissed the back of his neck. "You took me," Alec said into his skin. "Didn't you? In sickness and in health you may never leave me."
"No, never, never," Maurice said, rolling over, taking his mouth, clutching his hands. "I couldn't without you."
Alec sucked the air from Maurice's mouth and returned it with a kiss.
The next Saturday they were down in the Swan and Lyre spreading a bit of coin around. Maurice was teaching young Milton chess, something about pawns nabbing each other as they passed.
Alec didn't hold with chess since Maurice told him it was a war game. All he could see then was kings and generals pushing the little soldier boys around. He headed to the bar. Another man stopped him midway.
"Alec, you can drive, can't you?" Wilmer asked. "Nearly time for haying and I haven't enough men. Need someone to drive the waggon."
"Aye, I can drive your beasts," Alec said. Wilmer's draught horses were soft-mouthed and good-natured. He didn't think he could hold a flighty carriage team, but Wilmer's horses could nearly walk the fields by memory. "And Maurice can pitch hay."
"Counted on him a'ready. I'll send word then. Should be next week if the sky continues."
Alec nodded and pulled up to Miss Flo's station at the tap. Milton Senior and Old Milton were nursing a pint each, talking to Sawyer and Miller and Mrs Smith the postmistress about the young people dancing these days and how nobody could do a proper jig. "I can do a jig," Alec said.
The older Miltons both peered at him. "Can you then? I would very much like to see that," said Old Milton.
"Bet you a shilling."
"All right then." Old Milton put his coin down on the bar.
"Let me just call me legs," Alec said, and both Miltons and their interested friends booed him good-naturedly for the trickery. Alec grinned and whistled bright and piercing between his fingers.
Maurice looked up. He came when Alec beckoned. "We're showing them how well we can jig," Alec said.
"Not very well," Maurice said.
"Doesn't have to be well, just has to be," Alec said, and he swung up onto Maurice's back. Maurice clasped his thighs firmly and Alec held onto his shoulders.
Young Milton leaned on the bar next to his dad. "But it'll be Maurice jigging, not you," he pointed out.
"It shall not," Alec said. He covered Maurice's eyes. The room agreed that was fair and someone produced a penny whistle while the rest kept time with their mugs.
And of course they could win that shilling; couldn't Alec ride Maurice just like a horse? With gentle nudges in his sides, sending him dancing forward and back, Maurice's silly grin pushing at his hands.
Sawyer whooped and leaped onto young Milton's back, sending him staggering into a table, which fell over, toppling them both into Maurice's knees. Maurice tripped with a startled "hup!" and landed on all fours, Alec still safe on his back, Maurice's eyes still covered.
"You, my lad, are a terrible dancer," Alec told Sawyer.
"Ow, my head," young Milton whined.
Maurice and Alec straightened up. They returned to the bar and Alec looked for his shilling. "Who's the villain who took my coin!" he bellowed.
"I took it for the price of those tables and glasses!" Miss Flo said. "Look at the state of the room!"
Maurice set Alec back into his chair. Alec pounded the bar. "Those are my winnings! Take the glasses off young Sawyer and his excuse of a jig!"
Maurice and Sawyer put the table to rights. Maurice raised the glasses, which were whole, if empty. Miss Flo sniffed and returned Alec's shilling. "Right then," Alec said, putting the coin back on the bar. "Pints all around! You may cheer me as the village dancing master."
And they did, Maurice loudest among them, his eyes bright against his brown skin, his mouth creased from laughing.