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Beneath the Wallpaper

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The back door had barely closed behind Elizabeth's slightly-tea-spattered form before the tirade started. "I simply do not believe that's possible! How could she be going around buying Liberty wallpaper? The hand-printed, limited-edition sort, as well! There must be some mistake."

Richard looked up from his newspaper. He considered just trying to hide behind it, but some sort of response was clearly going to be necessary. "Perhaps she just liked it."

Hyacinth assumed her expression that informed him he had been irredeemably stupid. "Well of course, she liked it, Richard. What sort of right-thinking person wouldn't like it? No, the question is, how on earth could our neighbour - who is probably subsisting on some sort of spinster's allowance from her husband who's never there - possibly stretch to the very finest wallpaper this nation can produce?" An anxious glance about their own sitting room and a shake of the head. "We'll have to redecorate. Every room."

"But Hyacinth! We've only just-"

"-It will not do, you know. I simply refuse to have inferior wallpaper to a woman who can't handle a hand-painted periwinkle teacup."

Richard's attention was now thoroughly engaged, and he felt the full force of dread that usually accompanied one of Hyacinth's project ideas. The varnish was barely dry from the furniture's twice-yearly French polish, and Richard still had a slight limp from the tile-cutter that had fallen on his toe the previous week. Panicking, he desperately needed to think of a diversion. Aha... "Liz did say that she was only redecorating the spare room, though, didn't she? It's not as if anyone will actually see it when they go to visit. She didn't even seem keen to tell you about the wallpaper, until you insisted."

At that, Hyacinth's eyes narrowed, rather like a very plush fox spotting a small helpless mouse. "Yes. Yes, she did; quite right, Richard. And who exactly would put hand-printed, limited edition Liberty wallpaper in the spare room where no-one will see it?"

"Well, I don't know, but-"

"-Someone who's purchased an imitation, that's who! It's fake; I'm certain. Oh, and to think that I thought..." Hyacinth shuddered, as if contemplating a large-scale natural disaster. "Well, that simply won't do!"

Having hoped for a reprieve just then, Richard's heart sank once more. "What do you mean, 'it won't do'? It's not hurting anybody."

"Not hurting anybody? On the contrary, Richard! I will not live in a postcode that becomes associated with imitation wallpaper. People like I are patrons of the great British institutions, not complicit in defrauding them. One cannot stay silent on the matter; I owe it to Liberty's, really I do." She inhaled deeply, as if good class was something transmissible by air. Then, decision: "We'll have to set her straight. Oh, poor Elizabeth! Being taken advantage of in such a cruel manner, by heartless purveyors of second-class wallcoverings. Too naive to know the true value and expense of the genuine article. It's down to us, now."

The sinking feeling redoubled. "'Us'?"

Hyacinth shot an impatient glance in his direction. "Well, of course, 'us'. You'll have to find out where she got it from. Yes, that's it. I'll go and tell Elizabeth that you'll help Emmet with the decorating, and then you can read the labels on the rolls when you put them up."

"But-"

"-Not now dear, this is urgent." And with that, Hyacinth charged through the front door, her mind set.

Richard merely returned to his newspaper, and sighed.



*****




"Which tie are you going to wear, dear?" They were standing in the hall, the afternoon light filtering through the leaded-light inset door panel, announcing that it was past time that Richard be going.

"I wasn't going to wear a tie. I'll be decorating."

"Tush, tush! I will not have you going outside looking like a workman."

"But I'm going to be doing workman's work..."

Hyacinth shook her head in exasperation. "Don't be ridiculous, Richard; you'll be doing no such thing. You will be engaged in an act of neighbourly benevolence - while making key investigations to aid the greater good."

A pause; Richard decided to stand his ground. "I still say I'll be brushing paste on walls, so-"

"-Do stop being pedantic, dear; it doesn't suit you. Now, I think the paisley will do nicely." She held the tie in question against his shirt. "Yes, that's the one." Hyacinth dangled it before him, and resignedly Richard knotted the proffered item about his collar; so much for standing his ground, then. He did, however, put on his coat and exit slightly too quickly for Hyacinth to attack him with the clothes brush on his way through the door. Ah, sweet rebellion. Or something like it.

Seconds later, Richard rang the bell to Elizabeth's house. She answered, wearing a floral housecoat and a relieved expression upon noticing that he was alone. "Do come in, Richard. It's very nice of you to help Emmet with the decorating, but you do know you really didn't have to."

Richard stepped inside with a wry smile. "Thanks, Liz. I'm not sure that's quite true, but I'm happy to be here for the day, anyway."

"Yes." The look that accompanied that word was kind; altogether too kind. Richard wasn't sure whether he enjoyed being the recipient of such sympathy. "Well, he's upstairs."

Richard ascended, and as he edged into the spare bedroom amid an obstacle-course of stacked furniture, paint pots and wallpapering tables, he was greeted by Emmet's broad smile. "A bit overdressed, aren't you?" Richard didn't answer; he just cast a meaningful glance in the direction of his own house. "Oh."

He nodded, and then proceeded to remove his jacket, tie and cufflinks. Sleeves could be rolled up, but there was nothing to be done for the fine wool trousers he had been forced to wear; he supposed he'd just have to be careful. "So, what are your thoughts?"

"Mmm?" Emmet had been watching him attentively, Richard was sure, but just then sounded as if he had been broken from a reverie. He almost sounded guilty. It was a little odd.

"The decorating. What's the plan? Where do you think we should start?"

"Oh, yes! The decorating." Emmet made some expansive gestures around the room, for all the world looking as if he had just noticed that he was surrounded by brushes and paint. "I think we should... um, start over there." He waved toward a bare corner and some pots. "Yes. Righty-ho, then."

Richard smiled. "Righty-ho then."

They worked together with aplomb and good cheer, Emmet doing the higher bits because he was taller, and Richard doing the fiddly bits because he'd had more practice. He found it pretty therapeutic, actually: brushing and rolling, the conversation flowing as easily as paint from the can. Richard liked Emmet very much; he always had. It was comfortable, companionable - and for a few minutes at a time he was almost able to forget the fact that sooner or later he'd have to go home to a litany of orders and a rather cold double bed.

The apparent reason for his presence, however, was nowhere in sight. It turned out that three sides of the room were just going to be done in lemon eggshell; the famed wallpaper must have been reserved for the bedside wall only. There was no way to slip it into conversation, either - not without sounding awfully unnatural - and Richard was having such a nice time with Emmet he didn't feel inclined to spoil things. Not until he really had to, anyway.

Two-and-a-half walls in, Liz brought up a tray of tea and biscuits and they paused to regard all that had been done. Emmet stretched like a cat - long and lithe - and wiggled his musician's fingers to loosen the stiffness of the brush and the dribbles of paint. Richard found himself watching; he couldn't not.

"I am impressed, though!" grinned Elizabeth after a time, "You two must make such a good team."

"Yes, I daresay we do," agreed Emmet, and slung an arm around Richard's shoulder, pulling him close, "A very fine team."

Richard found himself blushing a little, even though he couldn't say why. Deflection seemed a good way forward. "It's looking good in here. Just the woodwork and that funny-shaped corner left to go on these three." He waved a rich-tea to indicate the walls in question.

"Well, I wouldn't want to spoil the momentum..." Liz winked at them - in a way that made Emmet look mock-outraged, for some reason - and then left, gathering up empty cups as she went.

Emmet retrieved a brush, and turned his attention to the underside of the picture rail. "Yes, we have made good progress - thanks so much for all the help. But after the alcove - if you're still here, that is - we should probably get started on this lot." He turned then, and drew back a dust sheet with his free hand. A few rolls of wallpaper were revealed; none other than the Liberty-print hand-blocked wallpaper about which Richard had heard so much.

Aha. Still feeling rotten about it, but resigned to his errand, Richard recognized that this was probably the least painful moment to make enquiries. "That's, um... rather nice wallpaper that Liz has got there, isn't it?"

Emmet did a double-take, but then began to smirk between brush strokes. "Yes. Yes, it is."

"You don't, um... happen to know where she got it from?"

"Not the very slightest notion!" Emmet said so in operatic tone, as if delivering one of the camper lines of dialogue from Gilbert and Sullivan. Something had clearly amused him.

"Ah." Richard looked down at his feet. This was going to be harder than he feared, then; going home would be even less palatable than usual if he didn't manage to extract the information that Hyacinth wanted.

Emmet seemed to be watching him again, and the smirk was still in full force. "Or actually, perhaps I do recall. Yes, that's it. It was rolled on the thighs of Nubian Virgins."

"Oh." A few more strokes. "I mean, it was what?"

"Nubian Virgins. And the pattern was designed by the combined efforts of the past thirty-seven winners of the Turner prize, and laid down in gold leaf by members of the Royal family in between official excursions."

At that, Richard had to laugh. He had been rumbled, but he found he didn't mind a bit, it being Emmet. "Ok, ok, I'm sorry! It's just that..."

Emmet's smile softened and he gave Richard's shoulder an affectionate pat. "I understand." It really sounded as if he did. "Sixty-five percent off end-of-line rolls on the internet, if you must be told."

Richard reloaded his paintbrush and gave a sheepish grin. "Thanks."

Emmet nodded kindly and went back to the picture rail. They worked in silence for quite some time, after that, each seemingly lost in his own thoughts.

The thing that gnawed at Richard's insides seemed hungrier than usual, that day. It was so nice, just being there with Emmet. He'd been looking forward to it since he had been billetted the day before, even though it hadn't been his idea and he could really have done without Hyacinth's ulterior motive for his helping. He and Emmet got on so very well - and that just made him all the more sad that at teatime he'd have to go away again and loose such friendly company.

Moments passed, but then all at once Richard let out an almighty sigh and Emmet drew a breath to speak the thing that he must have been thinking: "I don't know how you cope, Richard. I really don't." 

Emmet had told him as such many times before; usually it was light and in fun. The kindness was very much still there, only this time there was some heat behind it - and maybe it was that passionate tone, or maybe it was where his mind had just been dwelling, but this time Richard didn't quite feel able to spread his hands and chuckle as he typically managed. He put down his paintbrush and sighed once more. "I..." He wasn't sure what he might say. "I'm... not sure that I do."

Emmet, too, went still; for the second time that afternoon, his reply was merely, "Oh." Both men shuffled their feet, the plastic sheets that protected Elizabeth's carpet rustling expectantly. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have-"

"-No, it's fine!" Richard dived to reassure earnestly. Perhaps too earnestly. "I mean, I'm pleased to be able to talk about it." A relieved look crossed Emmet's features and he nodded, bidding Richard to continue. "Sometimes it feels as if I can't bottle it up any longer. As if - if I don't say anything - I'm just going to bubble over, or explode, or something!" He paused, and looked down at his smudgy fingers. "Or implode. Or... be chipped away at for so long that there won't be anything left. I'll just... cease to exist." 

No one broke the silence that followed. Richard felt a bit self-conscious, sounding so melodramatic; it wasn't like him. He was about to shrug and laugh it off, to apologize for turning so serious - but when he glanced upward, he found Emmet looking at him with a curious expression of such intensity it made his breath catch and his mouth go dry.

"Don't cease to exist." Emmet's voice was very low; not quite steady. "Please."

Richard wasn't quite sure what was happening, or why Emmet suddenly seemed to be closer to him than before. All he knew was that it was a good thing; a welcome thing. He suddenly felt the ridiculous urge to reach out, to clasp Emmet's shoulder, or to take his hand - and confused, his arm seemed to try to do both at once, landing awkwardly somewhere above the other man's elbow and shaking a little in the attempt. 

At that contact, firmer than it had really needed to be, Emmet drew in a shock of breath. Richard felt the force of his gaze even more potently, then; magnetic; beguiling. Softly, Emmet spoke once more. "There are... there are other things... that ought not be locked inside."

It was oblique, and Richard's conscious mind had no idea what Emmet really meant by that. His hands seemed to know, though; the fingers that tightened around Emmet's bicep, the palm that crept about Emmet's' back and came to rest in the nestle beneath his shoulder blades. They were perceptive and eloquent, both, and he could only blindly follow, enjoying the warm solidity and the short huffs of breath, now so intimate and close to his face. Emmet's arm encircled him in return, and the other hand came to rest against his cheek. 

"You have paint... here," Emmet whispered, and then wiped away the splash fondly with a strong thumb. Richard couldn't help himself from leaning into the caress; it felt so right, so good. In fact, he might even have closed his eyes, for he couldn't absolutely be certain when Emmet's lips had first touched his own. 

It was gentle; hesitant, yet Richard found himself shocked into stillness. His mind reeled and every nerve within him was alight - but just at the moment his sluggish brain was about to issue forth instructions, Emmet broke away and retreated several frantic paces across the room.

"Oh God. I'm sorry, I'm so very sorry, I-" 

Emmet was flushed and slightly shaking. He was not given the opportunity to apologize for a third time, however, because Richard surged forward and crossed the distance between them, crushing his lips to Emmet's with the force of twenty-seven years' of stoppered kisses.

This time it was Emmet's turn to be shocked; he let out a soft 'oof' as his back contacted the sticky wall and an insistent thigh intercalated between his legs. He quickly rose to match Richard's passion, though, lips and tongues dancing and duelling, and hands searching and finding warmth around sides and beneath shirts. It was both exquisitely exotic and just like coming home after a very long journey. Richard was amazed at how very right it felt, being held like that by Emmet, feeling Emmet's vital, warm body against his own and searching his charming, clever mouth as he willingly gave himself over to the very same exploration. It was as if he could stay like that forever, and yet he also yearned for more...

From there it was only seconds until they needed to touch each other, and corduroy and herringbone and cotton were pushed aside with all the imprecision and enthusiasm that comes from not breaking a kiss in the process. When Emmet finally took him in hand, Richard felt as if he might spontaneously set aflame. He had never felt such urgency - not in thirty years, at least - and it was as if Emmet had awakened a creature in his breast; a powerful, magnificent, beautiful creature that could finally throw off its shackles and take to the skies. His friend felt wonderful beneath his touch - smooth and hard and eager - and Richard couldn't quite believe he was really wanted so much, so staggering it seemed to be. 

There was no time to ponder, though; as they both stroked and thrust it was impossible to tell to whom each moan, each stuttering breath belonged, and the perspiration of their brows mingled as did their frantic kisses. 

Quickly - all too quickly - Richard felt himself go tense in every muscle he owned and a bright bolt of ecstasy seared through him, his vision clouding at the edges as release claimed its prize. A couple more strokes, and Emmet followed, his hands gripping Richard's middle almost painfully when his head tipped backward, lips parted and eyes blissfully squeezed shut. The small part of Richard's brain that was still present noted that Emmet looked utterly gorgeous like that.

It seemed to take a long time for them to catch their breath, chests heaving, holding each other to stay upright, and nuzzling - noses to necks, lips against the shell of an ear. 

When at last they parted it was in a mess of clothes and paint and of other things, and Richard couldn't help thinking how comical they both must look disarrayed so - and of how little he cared. He couldn't remember ever feeling as happy. 

The look on Emmet's face became somewhat veiled, however; questioning, perhaps even shy. Wanting to leave no room for doubt, Richard scooped their hands together and pressed a kiss to those paint-spattered, pianist knuckles; so agile and clever and wonderful. "Yes. A thousand times, yes."

Emmet beamed at him, full of requital and promise. "I'm so very glad."



*****




Richard made it home rather late that evening. Liz had suddenly remembered an important appointment she simply had to keep, and there was lots to do - what with getting cleaned up, and then getting completely taken apart again in Emmet's cosy, extremely exciting bedroom.

As he let himself in, Richard tried to contain the enormous bubble of happiness welling up in his breast. Hyacinth did help with that, though. "You're rather late." The accusation had been made before he had even left the hallway.

"Yes, well, it's quite a big job."

"And?"

"...and...?" His eyes widened in panic. How had she found out? And so soon?

"For heaven's sake, Richard. The wallpaper! What about the wallpaper?"

"Oh, yes, the wallpaper!" he exclaimed, feeling slightly hysterical. "I discovered that..." Thighs of Nubian virgins - ooh, it was tempting.

"-Do get on with it, dear."

"...it's all above board. Elizabeth bought it from Liberty's in the sale, but only enough to do one wall in the spare room. I don't think you have cause to worry on either count."

"Mmmph." Hyacinth looked rather like a blood-hound deprived of its prey. "Well, if some people must make purchases in the sale..." Her muttering faded as she headed toward the kitchen.

"I think I'll be going back to help tomorrow," Richard called after her, trying to sound casual, willing his blood not too quicken just with the thought.

However, Hyacinth came back and treated him to the full force of an eye-roll. "Must you, Richard? Is it really necessary? I'm sure you've already done more than enough to show willing."

Richard couldn't help but let out an amused snort at that. "Well, once you've started something, it's only polite to show you're serious, isn't it?"

Hyacinth tutted. "Oh, if you insist. But do ensure that you're home in time to weed between the paving stones before Mrs. Rodenberry arrives for tea. I will not have overgrown paving stones in the company of a district leader of the W.I."

"Yes, Hyacinth." He turned to leave. If he was lucky, he might get enough peace to tackle the crossword before dinner.

"And Richard?" 

No such luck. "Yes, Hyacinth?"

"Do try and be more careful with your clothes, tomorrow, dear. I simply fail to understand how you managed to get hand-prints of paint on the back of your trousers."