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No Handholds in Water

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" - Don't see what the problem is," grumbled Mal.

Wolfe raised an eyebrow as he set a bucket of fresh water by the tub. Mal wriggled unhappily in the steaming bath and puffed on his cigarette.

"You ought to put that out," said Wolfe.

"Why?" Mal cupped a protective hand around the little roll-up. "Not going to set the water on fire, am I?"

"Probably not," agreed Wolfe. He carefully moved the oil lamp a little farther out of Mal's way.

Mal fidgeted a little more in the tub, water slopping over the sides and onto the floor. "Blech," he muttered. "All wet. Don't know why I let you talk me into this."

"It is good for you to bathe," said Wolfe. "Very hygienic."

"I was just in the rain!" Mal waved his cigarette, dropping ash into the graying bathwater. "I'm clean. Was clean already."

"Walking in the rain does not make you clean," explained Wolfe, patiently. "Walking in the rain makes you sick."

"I never get sick," said Mal.

Wolfe ignored this egregious falsehood and rolled up his sleeves. "Rain also makes you smell like, eh. Wet dog."

Mal sucked on the cigarette while glaring at Wolfe with narrowed eyes. "It does not."

"Clean," continued Wolfe, "needs soap, and good warm water, and also you must take your gloves off."

It was impressive that Mal had managed to get undressed and into the tub without Wolfe noticing that he had not yet removed his gloves. Wolfe tried to cheer himself by focusing on the fact that Mal was actually in the tub. It had taken a very long time and much discussion to get to this point.

Despite Mal's protests, Wolfe was certain that he would be happier when clean. Everyone would be happier. Ben had been complaining about the wet Mal smell ever since they got back to the office. And, if nothing else, Wolfe would be happy when Ben and Mal stopped arguing. Correction - Wolfe would be happy when Ben and Mal stopped arguing about this. A complete end to argument would probably only occur if one of them died. Which would obviously be terrible. Obviously.

But it would be much calmer.

"Fine!" Mal rolled his eyes. "I'm taking them off, don't make that face at me."

"Sorry." Wolfe recalled himself and smiled. "I was lost in thought."

"Hnh." Mal held his cigarette in his teeth while he pulled the gloves off, tossing them into a corner. Wolfe shook his head fondly and picked up the gloves, setting them on the neatly-folded pile of Mal's clothing.

It was strange that Mal said nothing about this; normally Mal would mock Wolfe's fastidiousness while backhandedly thanking Wolfe for his thoughtfulness. Certainly this had happened when Wolfe had first folded the clothes Mal had shed all across the floor. But when Wolfe turned back to the tub, Mal was folded in upon himself, his knees pressed together and his arms crossed now one way, now another. Trying to make himself small. It was as if he had only just realized that he was naked. Wolfe's smile faltered.

"I am making you uncomfortable," said Wolfe. "I should go. I will only be in the other room, if you need anything."

"No," said Mal. His arms crossed and uncrossed again. Wolfe hesitated next to the door, unsure what Mal meant. No, don't go? No, I don't need anything?

Mal puffed his cigarette, which was rapidly dwindling to a stub. "Just, wait. Don't run off."

Wolfe edged a little closer. "I wish only to help."

"I know," said Mal. Breathe in, puff out. "I've never been so hegemonic."

"Hygienic," said Wolfe.

"Yeah, that." Mal's shoulders loosened a little, and Wolfe took another step closer. "Where's the soap?"

"Under your leg." Wolfe was right next to the bath now, next to the bucket of fresh water. "You know - you know I would not ever do anything, yes? I would not... take advantage."

"I know, I know." Mal soaped himself with one hand, carefully keeping his cigarette out of harm's way. "Can we just get on with this bath already?"

"Of course," said Wolfe, and then grinned as a thought occurred. "Ready for the rinse?"

"Yeah, just - "

Wolfe dumped the bucket over Mal's head.

"Agh!" Mal sputtered and splashed water at Wolfe, dampening Wolfe's trousers and sending the sodden remains of the cigarette flying. "What the bloody hell - "

"You look much cleaner already," said Wolfe, solemnly.

And happier, he thought. Mal tried to look stern as he pushed his wet hair out of his face, but his lips kept twitching and his eyes were twinkling. Though perhaps that was just the water.

"You're not as nice as people think you are." Mal waved a finger at Wolfe. Wolfe shrugged and smiled and brushed at his trousers.

"Alright," said Mal, giving up. "You got me. Are we done? Bath complete?"

"Not quite." Wolfe reached out a hand. "If you let me have the soap, I will help you wash your hair."

The expression on Mal's face was worth a thousand words. Most of them were very rude. But he handed Wolfe the soap, and he leaned back into it as Wolfe worked the lather into Mal's hair and massaged his scalp. For a few moments, there was silence. Except for Mal's slow breathing and Wolfe's occasional murmur of concern when he pried a particularly large stick, chalk scrap, or other general detritus from Mal's hair. Still much more silence than was normal.

Wolfe began to hum. Not anything in particular, just scraps of songs as they came to mind. Mal sighed and relaxed, inch by inch, until he finally looked boneless and comfortable in the tin tub with its cooling murky bathwater.

"Almost there," said Wolfe, as he sluiced the last of the clean water across Mal's hair. "I will bring you a towel."

"Mhm." Mal opened his eyes, blinking lazily at Wolfe. "Yeah. Hey."

"Hm?" Wolfe picked up a fluffy towel, borrowed from Ben's cupboard. Well, taken. But Ben would have surely agreed if Wolfe had asked.

"Dankeschön," said Mal. His pronunciation was careful and practiced - not the high German tones of an educated foreigner, but a pitch-perfect imitation of Wolfe's prußich accent.

The smile grew on Wolfe's face like ivy, grew on him like an irritable friend who let you see all of their vulnerabilities. Possibly that was too on the nose - Wolfe would have to work on the metaphor.

"Nichts zu danken," said Wolfe, and held out the towel.