The Ballato estate is one of the oldest holdings in all of Sunderland.
The family has been a mainstay in the most fertile corner of the country for centuries, their coat of arms recognized by all in the region. They are known for their fair treatment of the people on their lands, the quality of the food they produce, and their contributions to the coffers of the state.
More recently, however, they are also known for standing out in other ways: passing down the property to the eldest child of the family regardless of gender; their close (some say inappropriately so) relationship with the staff of their home; and the artwork produced by the young mistress.
It is said that the young mistress’ mother encouraged such things, and there are rumors about how the young mistress is allowed to conduct herself. Such idle talk quiets down when the elder Mistress Ballato dies suddenly, though; one doesn't make such comments about the new owner of a powerful estate.
There are other rumors that are harder to quiet, though. Particularly those relating to the family's views on the sale and exchange of pleasure slaves. It's known that they haven't kept slaves for years, possibly ever; it's whispered that perhaps they have ties to Nordia, where all slavery is outlawed, even the body slaves that have been favored by the Sunderland aristocracy for generations.
This atmosphere of rumor and intrigue fuels the scandal which erupts when the estate’s steward, Frank Iero, is taken by slavers.
Most slaves are culled from the poorer families of the southernmost tip of the country, where the land is hard and more than one family has had to make the choice of which child to feed and which child to sell. But up in the fertile center, where the Ballato estate is situated, the slavers conduct kidnapping raids for new men and women to sell, and local magistrates look away for the price of a coin or two.
The Ballato Estate has the means to protect its denizens when they are on the estate, but the powers of the Ballato name and influence do not extend to protecting a member who is abroad late at night. Everyone's reach has a limit.
Lindsey should be more accustomed to the routine by now, but she isn’t.
Jamia had left to check out their latest lead on Frank two days ago. Lindsey attempted to actually manage the estate again on the first day Jamia was gone, tried to take back some of the work that she'd been foisting off on Jimmy for weeks now, but she could barely focus on the figures in the ledger, and when Jimmy finds her in the library hunched over the books, he draws them away from her and closes them.
"Let me do my job, Lindsey," he says, pushing away her hand when she reached out for the book again.
"It's not your job, though."
He looks at her steadily. "It will be until Frank returns."
There isn't anything she can say in response to that.
It would be best if Lindsey could simply go to the East Wing, could stand in front of a canvas and paint for hours--to have an outlet, a distraction from her worry and dread and increasingly pessimistic thoughts about whether or not they’ll be able to find Frank and bring him home. But while Lindsey has been able to make herself walk past the staircase leading to the East Wing, getting closer than she'd managed for the first nine months after her mother’s death, actually climbing the stairs is far beyond her abilities, and opening the heavy doors is still inconceivable.
Instead she goes for long rides in the mornings, allowing Kitty to make her laugh while they saddle her horse together. She wears the breeches her mother helped her sew--they’d sat together in the front sitting room, following the pattern her mother had first drawn to fit men’s pants to a more delicate figure when Lindsey was eleven. She can still remember the first time Jamia had joined Lindsey for tea on a Saturday, the look on Jamia’s face when she’d come into the parlor and found Lindsey in a loose blouse and trousers rather than a dress. Lindsey had felt her face flush even as she lifted her chin and stared at Jamia; she had thought that Jamia was different, that out of all the girls at the town school she was the most likely to understand, but if she didn't--
"Can you show me how to make those, too?" Jamia had said, delighted and intrigued. Lindsey had known then that she had just made a friend for life.
Lindsey remembers too the look on Frank's face the first time he saw both of them in pants, sitting up in one of Lindsey's favorite trees, talking and munching on the apples from its branches. He’d looked proud and scared and impressed, all at once, and when he’d climbed up next to them, pointedly silent, Lindsey had caught Jamia's eye and grinned.
There isn't a part of the estate that doesn't remind Lindsey of something she can't bear to think about at the moment, so she rides, letting the rhythm of hooves hitting the dirt lull her into a sort of trance for a few hours until she’s sweaty and tired and it's time for lunch.
The first time Jamia had left to investigate a lead, Lindsey had thought it would all be over quickly. Jamia would find Frank, pay whatever exorbitant price the slave camp insisted on, and bring him home. He would need some time to recover, physically and emotionally, and the collar that would remain around his neck for the mandatory two years of service would make things difficult, but he would be home. The rest could be dealt with.
It was only when Jamia came home alone eight days later, tired and dirty and heartbroken, that Lindsey understood just how hard this was going to be.
Lindsey’s memory of the night that it happened still seems like a bad dream.
She had been reading in her study, curled up in her favorite chair, when the banging on the front door startled her. She ran to the front hall to and saw Jimmy fling open the door to reveal Jamia, her clothes sopping wet from the rain and stuck to her skin, eyes wild.
"They took him," Jamia said, and Lindsey couldn’t breathe.
The raids had been getting progressively more frequent and more daring for months. Any business or event that took place in one of the seedier areas of town was at risk of being targeted; regular payments of bribes from the slavers meant the authorities were more than willing to look the other way when it came to protecting people or organizations for which they had little affection.
Lindsey knew that the saloons Frank played at weren’t as safe now as they’d been even six months earlier; stories of other restaurants and meeting halls in neighboring towns getting hit and dozens of patrons and performers and sometimes even random passersby being taken were slowly trickling in through the community.
Lindsey also knew that the increasing danger didn't change for a second what Frank was going to do, what he had to do. He wouldn't be Frank if he stopped playing music, stopped connecting with strangers and friends alike with his guitar. But she had always assumed that it would be that same defiant nature which would make him impervious to the risk.
In retrospect these seem like simplistic lies that she had told herself, to keep from worrying every night: Frank would be all right; Frank was special.
He was special, but not in the way she had thought. He was the only one who was caught that night; everyone else had gotten out through the back door to the cellar and a tunnel to the next block over. According to Dewees, who had come to Jamia at a quarter past one in the morning, Frank had gotten everyone else out, and then realized that if he followed, the slavers would discover the location of the hidden exit. And so he stayed and waited for them to get through the front door locks.
"I would be ready to kill him and tear his hair out if he wasn't so--" Jamia shook her head.
"--So fucking Frank," Lindsey finished.
Jamia took a sip of the whiskey-spiked tea Jimmy had served her. "Exactly. He makes it impossible to be angry at him."
"I don't know about that," Lindsey said. She was sick to her stomach and full of rage, unsure whether she wanted to scream or rip off her nightgown or run outside and ride in the dark, risking her neck and her horse's legs in the process. But she wasn't about to let her anger and terror affect Jamia. "He's still a little shit. He hasn't changed much since he was eight."
Jamia's glance was far too knowing. "Well, when we find the little shit you can yell at him then."
"Where are we starting?" Lindsey asked.
Jamia shook her head. "Dewees said that Frank called out something about the house to the left as he was running into the tunnel. I think it’s a code, but I don’t know what it means yet."
Lindsey hummed, wishing for a cup of tea for herself. Her hands were cold and felt like they belonged to someone else. "So we'll start looking at sunrise."
For the first couple of weeks it was easy to believe it was just a matter of time, or effort, or money. Jamia had the time, they all were willing to put in the effort, and Lindsey had the money. She knew that Jamia didn't want that to be Lindsey’s contribution, that Jamia was already planning to sell her and Frank’s cottage to buy him back. But Lindsey was certain that a man of Frank's appearance and capabilities wasn't going to be a bargain at auction, and she was willing to put up whatever of her own money she needed to in order to bring him home.
Then there was the greater fear gnawing at Lindsey’s gut--the fear that they would find the camp that he had been taken to, but that they would be too late. Lindsey hoped that he would be simply too mouthy, too rebellious, too unslave-like to garner the sort of attention he would otherwise, but that sent her mind down a different path of worry. Frank wasn't always the best at self-preservation. It was a tall order, expecting him to both avoid interest and remain in one piece.
Lindsey’s part of the search focused around the possibility that Frank had already been sold. She put her mother's contacts to use for the first time in a year, reaching out to old friends, distant acquaintances, and longtime admirers, requesting information on whether anyone in their social circle had recently come into possession of a new body slave. He would be short, but fit; wide smile, large brown eyes, expressive hands. And most of all, his torso and arms would be covered in ink, including a heart on his hand and a name on his chest.
Buying him back from a new owner would be complicated, and expensive, but while Lindsey didn't often trade on the family name, she had no qualms about doing so for this.
Jamia, for her part, focused on the camps, communicating with all of her and Frank's contacts from the clubs. She had what seemed like three near misses in the first four months, arriving at a camp and hearing about a boyish man who sounded just like Frank, and if that was what she was looking for, pretty lady, she should check back in a month or two--provided, of course, she left some security that she would be back to retrieve him.
"What, are we supposed to request that Frank be put on hold for us the next time they happen to see him?" Lindsey said, exasperated and despondent the last time Jamia came back with this report.
"Yes, and leave deposits at slave camps all over the country, with no real assurances and no means of getting any of it back," Jamia said, eyes sunken with exhaustion. She glanced up at Lindsey. "I considered it the first time, Linds. I thought to myself, I have the title to the cottage with me, I'm never there anyway, and what's the harm. But now." She shook her head. "I don't know that I believe that any of them have him. Or ever did."
Lindsey wrapped her arm around Jamia's shoulders, drawing her in close. "Where are we looking next, J?"
After a rather lengthy pause: "I think I need to head North this time."
Jamia had tried to stay in her and Frank's cottage for the first two or three weeks after Frank was taken. But after two or three nights in a row of Jamia fretting over maps and possible leads in Lindsey's library later and later into the evening, Jimmy broke through.
"Your usual room is ready for you, Jamia." He was leaning back against the wall of the library, hands pulling at the pockets of his pants.
Jamia looked up from the book that she was supposedly reading, thought Lindsey hadn't seen her turn a page for half an hour at least. "Oh no, I can walk back home, Jimmy, it's not too late."
His eyes flicked over to Lindsey and then back. "What, we’re not good enough for you all of a sudden?" He pressed his hand to his chest and fell to the floor in mock despair.
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic, Jimmy.”
"Jamia. Stay. It will save you time in the morning and at night, and you might actually get some rest here. I can see from the bags under your eyes that you're not sleeping. You look like shit."
Jamia stuck her tongue out at Jimmy but still followed him upstairs to her usual room, and Lindsey snorted, unsurprised by both Jimmy’s tactics and his success.
It wasn't until later that evening that Lindsey realized just how necessary Jimmy’s actions were, and she resolved to thank him for it in the morning, possibly with an extra bottle of his favorite scotch. Lindsey couldn't claim to be sleeping well herself these days, but when she woke in the early morning hours, it was not from restless dreams but the creaking of the wooden floors in the hall outside her rooms.
She got out of bed, throwing a robe over her night clothes to combat the chill, and opened the door to look out. She wasn't surprised to see Jamia pacing the hall.
Lindsey brought Jamia into her room, ignoring Jamia's protests that she would surely disrupt Lindsey's sleep, as if Lindsey had been sleeping more than a few hours every night and sometimes a snatched hour or two in the afternoon when Jimmy threw her over his shoulder and dragged her upstairs.
Jamia didn’t stop trying to argue with Lindsey as she shut the bedroom door behind them. "Lindsey, this is ridiculous--"
"Well, then, the next time you need to pace at two o'clock in the morning, don't do it outside my door where I can hear you," Lindsey said. Jamia blinked back at her steadily, and Lindsey sighed. "We're not going to get through this if we don't rely upon each other."
"Did you read that in one of your books?" Jamia stood with her arms crossed over her chest, but her posture had softened a little even since she'd come in, and Lindsey knew this was the right decision.
"No, I'm pretty sure it’s something Bob told me," Lindsey replied, and that did it, finally, Jamia shuffling over and sitting down close to her on the bed. Lindsey wrapped an arm around Jamia, tucking her head against Lindsey’s neck, and they breathed together for a while.
From that night on, if Jamia was home from searching the slave camps, she didn’t retire to her old room, but followed Lindsey up to her suite and crawled into bed next to her. They held each other tight and whispered their plans together, plotting as they used to, only now their adventures involved methods of digging up new leads, or theories of why the slave traders might have taken Frank specifically, or sometimes, when they couldn't help it, daydreams of how they'd make up to him the days, weeks, months of his life he'd had stolen from him.
Jamia has only been gone for four days this time when Lindsey gets the call. She's out for a walk behind the estate when Jimmy comes running out to find her.
"Lindsey! There’s news." He stops and pants, bent over his legs with his hands on his knees as he tries to breathe.
“What is it? Have we found him? Where is--”
Jimmy holds up his hand to halt her questions. “Be quiet for just one moment. Dewees sent a messenger ahead. The good news is they found him at a caravan and were able to purchase him.”
She stares at him, her heart pounding. “What’s the bad news?”
He looks up at her. “He’s not alone.”
Lindsey has spent the last four months waiting, but it’s never been like this before.
She attempts to do something other than pace while she waits for Jamia to return, to no avail. She thinks about going for a ride, or bugging Kitty for a bit, or even just taking a long walk around the gardens, but she needs to be in the house when Frank and Jamia get here, needs to see them and welcome them home and be the first person they see when they open the door.
She tries to apply herself to paperwork, only giving up when she realizes she's read the same page a half-dozen times without being able to focus on anything beyond the refrain of they're coming they're coming they're coming running through her mind. She picks up the cross-stitch Frank had bought for her a year ago as a joke. He’d smirked when he told her that the shopkeeper had assured him it was an appropriate gift for a lady of her station. She had hit him over the head with the pattern, spools of colored yarn falling out of the bag onto the floor.
When Frank was first taken, she had pulled it out of the sewing closet and just held it, remembering how he had laughed and protested the assault, cautioning her not to damage such an extravagant present. She had left it out on her nightstand, at first unable to make herself work on it, but over time it had become one of the only things she could do that could keep her mind and body occupied, counting rows and stitches and watching the pattern emerge before her. She wills herself into calming down, frustrated at the shaking in her hands and mentally berating herself for being even less steady now that they've actually found Frank, now that it's almost over.
Lindsey is listening so intently for the wheels of the carriage that Jimmy’s knock startles her, and when she turns to look at him he’s got his hands spread wide, smirking a bit.
“Sorry to scare you, Lindsey--”
“You didn’t scare me, just wasn’t expecting to see your ugly face,” she says, throwing the cross-stitch onto the table next to her lounge, ignoring the disbelieving look on Jimmy’s face. “What is it? Are they here, or--”
“No, from what Steven said I don’t expect them for another hour or so.” Lindsey can feel her face fall but she forces herself to listen to Jimmy as he continues. “I’ve had Jamia’s suite freshened, and also the corner bedroom down the hall. Should any other part of the home be readied?”
Oh. Lindsey’s heart seems to go into double-time, and she focuses on breathing in and out, waiting until she can look back up at Jimmy with a neutral expression. “No. That’s perfect, Jimmy. Thank you.” He continues to gaze at her steadily, and when she stands up he walks to meet her and pulls her in for a hug.
And that’s enough to make her lose her composure completely, because Jimmy may spend half of his time insulting her and making a ruckus around the house, but he’s also known her all her life and been a member of the household forever. She cries into his shoulder as he holds her, murmuring into her hair, hands squeezing at her waist.
“It’s almost over,” he says, and she pulls away at that, wiping at her face furiously before putting her hands back on Jimmy’s shoulders.
“That’s a fucking lie and you know it,” she says, smiling unwillingly when he smirks and nods back at her.
“Of course it is. But at least I love you enough to lie to you.” Lindsey hiccups out a laugh and hits his arm, which is when she hears the carriage coming up the lane. She can feel Jimmy tighten his arms around her before he lets her go.
“I thought you said we had an hour!” she says. “Or was that just more strategy to distract me?”
“I think we may have been standing here getting all weepy for a bit longer than I planned on,” he says, almost out the door and into the hall before he pauses and turns back to look at her. “Well, are you coming, or what? I suppose now might be a good time for you to run to town, if you’d like.”
“I hate you so much,” she says. She brushes down her dress and stops a moment to compose her face before joining him in the hall. She is red-eyed and wan, certainly, but that’s hardly out of the ordinary for the last couple of months.
She gets into the hall just as Jimmy opens the front door. Jamia is on the threshold, Frank’s hand clutched tightly in her own. Lindsey makes a small sound of distress when she sees Frank, dirty and half-starved and clearly exhausted, rings of grey under his eyes.
Before she can continue cataloguing his injuries and making a list of what he needs--food, water, sleep, a hot soaking tub every night, possibly a masseuse--Frank is in her arms, his hug the same as it’s always been, clinging tightly around her neck, nose pressed up against her jaw.
“Hi, Linds,” he says into her throat, and Lindsey presses his body to hers as much as she dares.
“Welcome home, Frankie.” She examines his beloved face, noting the half-healed bruises high on his left cheekbone and the inflamed cut above his right eye before focusing unwillingly on the collar around his neck.
Its beauty and exquisite design make it even harder to look at. Two keys are needed to unlock it, one of which is transferred to the owner on the date of sale, the other of which is kept at the county register and can only be retrieved by the owner after the two-year anniversary.
The appearance of the collar and its meaning are even more incongruous on the neck of the man who stands behind Frank, a few steps away from Jamia. “Gerard,” Jimmy murmurs into Lindsey’s ear, and she nods in silent thanks for the information.
Gerard’s hands are clasped behind his back, clothes loose on his too-thin body, but Lindsey thinks she would be captivated by his huge eyes even if they weren’t sunken in his half-starved face. He looks almost otherworldly with his pale skin and black hair falling into his face. And while he looks curious and almost shy, what he doesn’t seem to be is scared.
That changes when Lindsey shifts to move towards him, and two things happen at once. His hands instantly fly up in front of his chest, a silent plea to stay back and don’t touch me, and Frank steps in front of him, holding his arms out as if to protect Gerard from a blow. Lindsey stops immediately, glancing over at Jamia, who looks just as spooked as Lindsey feels.
Lindsey holds out her hands, palms open, and looks at Frank as she speaks. “Frank. It’s me. I’m not going to hurt him, or touch him. I don’t even have to go near him, okay?” She forces herself into stillness. “I just wanted to introduce myself to him. I’m Lindsey, and Jimmy said your name is Gerard?” she asks, shifting her gaze to the man partially hidden behind Frank.
He nods, resting his hands on Frank’s shoulders and squeezing a little until Frank slowly relaxes back into the touch. “Frank,” he says softly, and Frank tilts his head until it’s next to Gerard’s, almost nuzzling him for a moment before he moves over to Jamia and wraps his arms around her waist. Gerard continues to look at Lindsey, and while the fear in his eyes is mostly gone, Lindsey can see how tense he is, his body taut and alert.
Waiting to see what the threat might be.
“I don’t know how much Frank or Jamia told you about me, or about what is going on,” she begins. “But this house is your home, for the next two years. I’m not going to pretend that it’s going to be easy, or that the fact that I didn’t buy you for the reasons that most people buy a slave changes the fact that I own you. It doesn’t, not in the eyes of the law, and not in the realities of what you can and can’t do for that time. But I don’t expect you to be a servant to me, and I certainly don’t expect you to be my--my slave. Your time here will be your own.” She stops, unsure of what else she can even attempt to say. “If you’d like, Jimmy can show you to your room now. It’s down the hall from mine, but Frank and Jamia’s suites are even closer.”
“I want him to stay with us, for now,” Frank interrupts, the words sounding like they’ve been ripped from his throat. Gerard is staring at him with wide eyes, a look of--dismay? Confusion?--on his face. Lindsey glances at Jamia, who seems unsurprised.
“That’s fine with me, if that’s what Gerard wants,” Lindsey says, and Gerard jerks his focus back on her.
Jamia speaks for the first time since they’ve come home. “Gerard, I can stay in Lindsey’s rooms, if you’d prefer that,” and Gerard almost jerks away from her, eyes darting around the room.
“No, you can both be there,” Frank says as Gerard interjects, “No no no, that room is yours. Yours and Frank’s. I’ll just--”
“Gerard,” Lindsey says, and he shuts his mouth and snaps his eyes back to her. “Unless I’m mistaken, they both want you there.” She glances back over at Frank and Jamia, who both nod, faces solemn. “You can sleep wherever you’d like.”
Gerard looks at her and then focuses first on Frank and then, for a long moment, on Jamia.
When he finally sighs and nods, Lindsey feels the string of tension up her back release a little. One problem solved, at least. “Frank can show you the way.” She always knew she’d have to adjust back to sleeping alone; she would be fine. Everything would be fine.
Frank lives in a castle.
Of course, Gerard is aware that the castle itself belongs to Mistress Ballato. But it’s where Frank and Jamia live now, and Frank clearly knows it well, greets everyone there by name, clutching Gerard close behind him as they navigate the stone hallways.
This is a world in which Frank belongs, at least a little. Gerard envies him for that, but squashes down such feelings. He's only here at all because of Frank; Gerard thinks Frank should have everything in the world he wants.
Gerard attempts to find out from Frank what he should be doing now, but he brushes aside his concerns.
"You just need to stay with me for now, Gerard."
"But the mistress--"
"Lindsey won't care that you're with me," Frank says, matter-of-fact.
As if it's that simple. Still, since no one else aside from Jamia even comes near Gerard, much less tells him what to do, he continues to follow Frank around. He feels vulnerable, exposed, but he doesn't want to leave Frank's side, and even when Frank is so foolish as to kiss him in an empty hallway that anyone could walk down at any moment, Gerard has to trust that Frank isn't completely wrong about this place.
On the first day that Frank ventures outside of the castle, he takes Gerard beyond the boundaries of the Ballato estate and shows him the house that had once belonged to him and Jamia before Jamia had sold it to supplement the cost of searching for Frank and buying him back. That it had been necessary for Jamia to do this makes Frank twitch with guilt, regret, anger.
Gerard understands, a little, though--“It’s only a house, Frankie,” he says, staring up at it. A very nice house, of course--bigger and better-made than the house where Gerard and Mikey grew up--but still so much smaller than Mistress Ballato’s castle. Frankie’s little house is two stories tall, and neatly made, with fresh-painted trim and tight-woven thatch and fitted shutters on the downstairs windows.
“It’s not only anything, Gerard,” Frank says. “It was ours. You know--I know I must have told you--I wanted to marry Jamia for years and years and years.”
“Since the first time you made her angry and she wrestled you into the mud and sat on you,” Gerard says. He loves that story.
“Yeah,” Frank says, and smiles. “Ever since then. But I wouldn’t ask her to marry me until I had somewhere for us to live. I didn’t want us living with her parents, or with mine, or in a rented room somewhere, or with Lindsey--though of course she offered. She would have given us the whole North Wing if we’d asked. But I wanted to give Jamia a place that was just for us.”
Gerard considers this. It sounds like a sweet idea in theory, but from the rest of Frank’s stories, and from what Gerard has observed of Jamia herself, he doesn’t think Jamia would have had the patience to wait for Frank to decide when the two of them were to marry. And he also doesn’t think that Jamia would have thought much of Frank taking such a decision--and all the responsibility of finding or building a house for the two of them--on himself, as though Jamia didn’t have just as much of a right to those things as Frank did. “Um,” Gerard says.
Frank casts Gerard a look from under his lashes. “Yeah, I know,” he says. “It didn’t take long before Jamia got fed up with me and asked when I wanted the wedding to be and what I was waiting for. And she was furious when I told her what I’d been thinking. She doesn’t like it when I make decisions without her. I can’t even imagine--” Frank trails off. “When she found out that I’d let myself get taken, how she must have...”
“She loves you, Frankie,” Gerard says, ignoring the ache in his chest. “More than anything. All the times you were thinking about Jamia, telling me about her, she was thinking about you and looking for you.”
“I know,” Frank says heavily.
“And yeah, maybe once she’s done being really fucking relieved that you’re home, she’ll get mad at you,” Gerard suggests, glancing back in the direction of the estate, “but you’ve got another year and a half where she can make you sit and stay if she wants to yell at you.” He slips a finger under Frank’s collar and gives a gentle tug. “I’m sure that’s enough time for her to forgive you for being an idiot and getting yourself captured and sold into slavery.”
“Oh, shut up,” Frank says, but he’s smiling again, and sways into Gerard’s hand when he tugs at the collar again. “Also, what the fuck, don’t talk to me about being forgiven. Mikey’s going to have some choice shit to say to you when we find him. I can’t wait.”
“Tell me about the house, Frankie,” Gerard says. He’s spent the last nine months keeping Mikey locked up safely in his head and his heart, speaking about him only to Frank, only at night, only when they were locked up somewhere claustrophobic but secure. Gerard is certain this has worked; if Mikey were still in danger--if Mikey were dead--he would know. He’s not going to jinx his extraordinary good luck now by talking about Mikey in daylight.
“Oh. Well. Jamia sat me down, and we figured out exactly how much money we had and how much we were willing to borrow, and what we wanted in our house. You know, a little bedroom with a big bed. A big kitchen. A table big enough for all our family, a solid fireplace to keep us warm in the winter. Lots of windows for the summer. Nothing fancy.”
“Sure,” Gerard says, squinting up at the house once more. The outside walls of the house gleam a little in the sun, thoroughly weatherproofed. The house itself looks solid and strong, situated in a garden that looks both functional and organized--likely Jamia’s work, as the grounds around Mistress Ballato’s castle bear the same hallmarks. All of the upstairs windows are glass. This is Frank’s “nothing fancy.”
“So--we put together our money, and borrowed some from Lindsey and some from the bank, and asked our families if they’d help, and... they did. My dad and grandpa and uncles, and Jamia’s mother and grandma and grandpa, and a bunch of our friends from town, and Lindsey and her mother and half their staff came and helped us build our house. We got married first, because we didn’t actually have a reason to wait, and we stayed at Lindsey’s until we were done building the house. We started building as soon as the snow was gone, and we were living in our own house by the next winter. See that window on the second floor, in front?” It’s stained glass in what looks like ten different colors, rich reds and purples, blues and greens; it’s uncommon in that the glass isn’t arranged in any particular image, but is soldered together in an abstract mosaic. “Lindsey and Mistress Ballato--her mother--made that for us as a housewarming gift. We never closed the curtains in front of that window. When the sun came in, our entire bedroom would fill up with colors. All over the walls, the floor, the bed.”
Gerard closes his eyes and can picture it, Frank and Jamia’s little loft bedroom with a big bed, the wide stairs leading down to a clean-swept kitchen. He can see Frank and Jamia sprawled on their oversized mattress at noon, kissing lazily in the bright sunlight, Jamia’s graceful compact body splashed with bright exclamations of color. Frank, lean, muscular, callused, above or beneath her, hands on her hips awash in blue and red. His smiling face, the beautiful line of his neck without a collar on it.
“We loved our house so much,” Frank is saying. “It was... There was room for anybody who wanted to come visit, but it was perfect when it was just me and Jamia. All our own things, all our own space. We were...” He pauses, looking frustrated. “We were safe there. Comfortable. It’s not that I don’t like Lindsey’s place, but. It’s not mine.”
In that sense Gerard can share Frank’s regret. He would feel much more comfortable in Frank’s old house than in the castle. Although of course, as Gerard must keep reminding himself, being comfortable is not the point.
Frank tried to teach him these things, over and over again, during their long months in the caravan: that to settle in anywhere, to take comfort from anything except the people you know you can trust, is to resign yourself to the fate the motherfuckers have dreamed up for you. It is to resign yourself to serving strangers with your hands and your mouth and your body, to a lifetime of a collar.
For Frank, it was a future without Jamia; if he’d given in, it would have meant taking off his makeshift wedding ring or letting a master cover up Frank’s Jamia tattoos with designs suited to their own liking. For Gerard it means forgetting about Mikey. It means giving up on imagining the search for Mikey that he’ll undertake when he is finally free. It means letting go of his dream of another house, smaller even than Frank’s little house, like Elena’s home in Nordia, where he and Mikey can be safe again.
Gerard used to imagine such a house in the thick of impenetrable woods, where nobody could find them. Now, though, he can conceive of a path there, well-hidden and difficult to navigate, so Frank could come to visit sometimes. Or so Gerard could go visit Frank.
In the meantime: “You’ll have a place that’s all yours, Frankie,” Gerard says. He lets go of Frank’s collar and takes Frank’s hand instead. “Maybe you can get your house back when you’re free.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Frank says, his tone noncommittal. “Who would give that house up, though? If they didn’t have to?” He shakes his head, turns away. “Well, you wanted to see the house, and now you’ve seen it. We should probably get back to Lindsey’s now. I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
For the first week after Frank comes back home, Lindsey hides.
She pretends that's not what she's doing, first blaming her isolation on a series of headaches, and then claiming that she's needed in town on urgent business that somehow hadn't been necessary for all the months during Frank's absence, and finally abandoning all pretense and simply taking her horse out early for three straight days and not returning until mid-afternoon, and retiring shortly after to take her tea in a seldom-used back parlor.
Lindsey knows she's being a coward, but she trusts that Jamia is speaking to Frank, and that Frank will talk to Gerard. She hasn't been able to stand facing his eyes again, wary and aware of her every movement. It's been easier to pretend that he isn't there at all, that her responsibility for him starts and ends with providing him with food and shelter.
Her mother's voice in her head has kept sleep from her, the knowledge that this is a lie, that Lindsey is being the worst kind of mistress, negligent and dismissive and selfish.
One morning her shame is finally too great for her to ignore, the cost too large. Lindsey can only spend so many hours in her bed staring up at the ceiling. She still goes for a ride first thing, trusting that the familiar rhythm will help focus her thoughts better than her too-big bed did, but she returns to the house after only an hour, the day still young.
By the time she arrives back at the kitchen entrance, shirt sweaty and breeches covered in dirt, she feels marginally more prepared to begin this new era of her life. She shakes her head at the thought; as if her life is the one that matters in this situation.
"Bob!" She looks for him in the pantry and then hears a noise behind her. She turns to see her head chef. "Oh, there you are."
"Here I am, indeed," he says, a crooked eyebrow asking as plainly as words what exactly she's doing in his kitchen. She wonders if most estate owners feel as managed by their staff as she does, or if that's one more way in which the Ballato Estate is unique.
She smiles at him, relieved that at least some things haven't changed while she's been acting like a child.
"As I'm sure you already know, we have a new addition to the household." He nods, and she breathes deeply before continuing. "In light of that, there are a few matters I should like to go over with you."
Lindsey waits in the breakfast room, her coffee and toast both gone cold by the time Jamia, Frank and Gerard arrive. Jamia and Frank enter the room first, hands clasped and standing so close together they look like they couldn't be physically separated.
This illusion is broken, however, when Frank looks to his right and then behind him at where Gerard is lurking in the doorway. He detaches himself from Jamia and goes to Gerard, putting his mouth to Gerard’s ear. It’s impossible to hear him, but whatever he says is enough to get Gerard to step into the room and sit down at the table.
Lindsey tries not to take it personally that he sits in the seat furthest from her.
"Good morning," she says. "I can have eggs brought out as well, if any of you want some." She takes a sip of her coffee, attempting to act as if there's nothing unusual about her being here in the first place, like this isn't the first morning she's been brave enough to face Gerard.
To manage her slave.
Frank looks at her for a moment before responding. "Toast and fruit will be fine for me, Lindsey. Gerard?"
He startles at his name, eyes flicking to Frank before returning to focus on Lindsey. "No, toast and fruit, yes." He hesitates for a moment. "And coffee? Can I have coffee?"
"Of course." Lindsey rings the bell for Chantal as Gerard moves to stand.
"No no, I can..." he says, trailing off as Chantal enters the room with a hot carafe. He sits back down slowly, watching her as she pours him a steaming cup and comes over to Lindsey to warm hers up.
“You’re going to be bouncing off the walls all day long if you keep drinking coffee like this, Lindsey,” Chantal says, adding more to her cup even as she chides her.
“I think I know how much caffeine I can handle, Chantal.”
“Doesn’t bother me, I’ve missed you stomping around the house. I’ve barely noticed you at all this week!” she says, widening her eyes in mock innocence.
Lindsey shakes her head at Chantal as she adds more milk and sugar to her coffee before taking a sip. “Go find Jimmy, I’m sure he’s missing your lip.”
“It’s not just my lip he’s missing,” Chantal throws back as she leaves the room, and Lindsey smiles to herself for a moment before focusing back on Gerard.
On Gerard, who is still staring at the coffee, a look of disbelief on his face, and Lindsey glances over at Jamia, who shrugs back. She drinks more of her coffee and decides to begin.
"I'm sure that Frank has been showing you around, but I wanted to let you know a little bit more about your, your new home," she says, stumbling a little. "Obviously you know Frank, and Jamia, but I'm not sure if they told you what they do here?" She waits for Gerard to answer, and isn't surprised to see him shake his head.
"I'm the head groundskeeper, and Frankie is the steward," Jamia says, buttering a piece of toast.
"The rest of the staff is headed by Jimmy, whom you've met, and then there's our coachman, Steven, and Bob, who's in charge of the kitchen, and Chantal, who lives to vex me, and then Kitty, who manages the stables. She's also an excellent source for any basic medical needs, although of course we can call a doctor if we need to for anything serious." Here she pauses, unsure of how to broach this topic and appalled at herself for not mentioning this earlier. "If there are any injuries either of you need to have looked at, we can call her in."
Frank smiles at her, a faint impression of his old self. "Ah, just a couple of lingering bruises to the face and ribs, Lindsey, nothing to bother Kitty about."
Lindsey nods at him and then turns to Gerard. "Gerard? Anything that needs tending?" She isn't surprised when he begins shaking his head no before she can complete the question. "Well, good. Of course, there are other people here who help run the estate, but those are the people you really need to know about. And now I'd like to know something about you."
Gerard stares at her. "About me, Mistress Ballato? What is there to know?"
"Well, I don't know what you did--what your profession was prior to meeting Frank, but if there is a place on the estate that would match your skills, or if there is something you'd like to apprentice in, we could do that." She glances over at Jamia and Frank, whose faces are mocking and fond.
Gerard, on the other hand, doesn't look like he comprehends any of this. "Are you--are you giving me a job?"
She shakes her head. "Not if--not if you don't want one, of course. I was merely thinking that this could be a way for you to--"
"Earn my keep?" Gerard's voice is wary.
"No. There is nothing you need to do at all for that, Gerard." Lindsey doesn't know how this got away from her.
"So then I can go and do as I please? A slave without a purpose?"
She shakes her head, frustrated. "You can have whatever purpose you want, Gerard, that's what I'm trying to tell you."
He laughs, but it's not a happy sound. "Oh, can I." He looks over at Jamia, then back at Lindsey. "Well, if I must follow someone around like a lost lamb, I suppose it had better be Jamia."
"Gerard, you can work with me--"
Gerard cuts Frank off. "I don't want to get in your way, Frank. I know you have much to catch up on." He stands up. "Well, if that's all then, Mistress Ballato?"
"There is actually one more thing." She forces her hands to release her coffee cup, tries and fails to relax her shoulders. "You may go anywhere on the grounds you would like, and in the house, except for the East Wing just beyond your suites." She glances down at the lace tablecloth, unable to maintain eye contact. "It is out of use, and no one has access to it at this time." When she looks up at Frank and Jamia, both of them have looks of such kind understanding on their faces that she can hardly bear it. Focusing back on Gerard's blankness is almost a relief.
"Whatever you say." He turns to leave the room, only glancing back once he's at the door. "See you soon, Frankie?" Gerard’s voice changes completely when he speaks to Frank.
Frank nods. "I'll find you when I can."
Gerard leaves the room. Lindsey relaxes a little, but even being with Frank and Jamia isn't the same as it used to be.
When Frank covers her hand with his own, though, squeezing gently, it starts to feel at least a little familiar.
Gerard doesn’t entirely understand exactly what Frank’s job on Mistress Ballato’s estate entails. When he asks, Frank simply echoes Mistress Ballato and says he is--or was, at least; though he’s assuming all his own duties once more, he can’t officially hold such a position as a slave--Mistress Ballato’s steward, and seems to expect that Gerard knows what that means.
Gerard has no idea what that means.
Gerard grew up sharing a bedroom and a bed with Mikey in his parents’ crowded, cluttered single-story house in a crowded, cluttered town that answered to a noble family entirely unlike the Ballatos. Mistress Ballato’s estate and house are always busy, full of both servants and townspeople with things to do. Gerard doesn’t quite understand what all of it is--there are various harvests, that he knows, and there are other businesses in town that report to Mistress Ballato, and a school for the children of the town that it’s Mistress Ballato’s responsibility to maintain; but it all seems weirdly informal and simple and prosperous and willingly done. In Gerard’s hometown, the nobles stayed shut up on their estate, and certainly nobody from the town was welcome there.
It’s surprising to feel like he is understanding Frank less and less the longer they settle into the Ballato estate, rather than more and more. There are a lot of things Frank takes for granted, like knowing what a steward does, and knowing what it is to own a house with his wife that is “nothing fancy,” and doing complicated math in the evenings, running columns and columns of numbers for some indeterminable purpose. Frank spends his days walking up and down the hallways of Mistress Ballato’s castle with Jimmy, muttering over sheaves of paper and, between the two of them, taking turns laughingly bossing other people around.
In the caravan, when Gerard and Frank spoke late at night, Frank never talked about any of this--his day-to-day responsibilities, all the little ways in which he is accomplished and rich, though he doesn’t seem to think these things of himself. He barely spoke of Mistress Ballato, which Gerard finds bizarre. Frank has known her for as long as he’s known Jamia, and the three of them are close friends who take many of the same liberties with each other that Gerard sees between Frank and Jamia alone. Frank talked about Jamia, mostly, about how clever and brave and forthright she is, about the thousands of ways she’d been cruel and kind to him since they’d met as children.
Gerard loves knowing all of the things Frank knows about Jamia. He’d loved every secret Frank had entrusted to him as it was told, had marvelled over each of them one by one. Before Frank, the only person that Gerard had loved and trusted implicitly, had held above everybody in the world, had felt responsible for, was Mikey. It had been entirely beyond anything he could have imagined to lie curled up with Frank, feeling this new love, so different but no less overwhelming than his love for Mikey; to let Frank try to explain Jamia, to try to understand a whole other love--to find all of this in a slave caravan. It had felt a little ridiculous to have such rich unending loves as these as a secret balm for the day-to-day misery and fear of being a pleasure slave. Gerard feels fairly sure he would have managed to stay whole enough on his own had Frank not been there, but he is grateful every day that Frank was.
Still--it’s odd to find, now, that despite the fact that Gerard is quite sure he knows almost everything important there is to know about Frank, there is a whole host of things that he must now learn from scratch. And Frank, catching up on in six months’ worth of work and nervous at being home-but-not-home and trying urgently to keep everyone from treating him too kindly by distracting them with his competence, is not making it easy for Gerard to learn the things he needs to.
If he thought it were truly an option, Gerard would happily follow Frank and Jimmy around. He is pretty sure he could manage not too talk too much or ask too many questions. Probably. Surely he could find a way to make himself useful. Maybe he could carry things for Frank and Jimmy so they could have their hands free to gesture emphatically while arguing or to fix all the little things Frank finds in the castle that need to be fixed, by Frank himself, immediately. If Gerard told Frank he needed him, Frank would let him come. But the truth is that Gerard can’t spend all day in Mistress Ballato’s castle.
It’s too big, is the problem. It is too open and too closed at the same time--ceilings soaring off into the sky, hemmed in by walls of oppressive blank stone, interrupted here and there by rooms that make Gerard twitch. Gerard doesn’t know what any of Frank’s masters or their houses were like; Frank doesn’t like to talk about the things they had to do as slaves, though Gerard thinks he himself might, given the chance. He doesn’t feel particularly ashamed by thoughts of the things that were done to him, or that he was made to do. He feels angry, sometimes, though more often frightened and disgusted, which is how he’d felt at the time. Frightened and disgusted--and, weirdly, relieved. Fierce and joyful. Because these things happening to him meant they were not happening to Mikey.
Gerard doesn’t know exactly which things make Frank cringe, though there are certainly patterns that Gerard is sure he’ll come to understand better in time. But the first master Gerard himself was sold to had rooms full of things the way Mistress Ballato has rooms full of things. Rooms full of carven furniture; down cushions; silk drapes; rooms muffled in carpets imported from overseas; rooms full of china and glass figurines balanced on spindly tables; rooms with ponderous portraits of other masters and mistresses on the walls; rooms cold enough for moisture to turn to frost on the stone walls or rooms hot with fireplaces lit high enough to make Gerard sweat. Gerard learned a lot of terrible things in rich rooms like these.
It is jarring to come into these rooms now and to be allowed to sit on the couches, to have the right to stoke the fire if he is cold, to sit at table and hold fork and knife in his hand like a person rather than kneeling at someone’s feet waiting for scraps like an animal. It does not feel how Gerard thinks it would feel to do all these things in Elena’s house or in Frank’s; it feels like Gerard is doing wrong--like he is playacting at being a master--and that it must fall apart, any minute. Like someone will come along and see Gerard in his collar, acting like a person, and make him stop.
It is worse when Mistress Ballato is around, though Gerard knows this is unfair to her. Frank loves and trusts her, which ought to be enough to make Gerard do the same, as he does for Jamia. But this is different, though for Frank’s sake, Gerard tries to convince himself otherwise: Mistress Ballato owns him. She could do anything she wanted to, though Gerard is fairly sure she will not. Oddly, it makes him more nervous when she reminds him that her family has never owned slaves, that this situation is as alien to her as it is to him. It would be better if one of them knew what they were doing.
All of this means that though Gerard would like to follow Frank around, to relearn Frank and to come to act less like a frightened animal in Mistress Ballato’s castle, Gerard can’t bear to spend his days indoors. Instead he spends a little while wandering the grounds on his own, walking the paths of Jamia’s cunningly organized gardens, occasionally seeking shelter from the sun in the little wildernesses plotted around the boundaries of the estate, until eventually Jamia comes to find him.
She tracks him down when he is idling on a rope swing a good ten-minute walk into the woods behind the castle. She makes plenty of noise as she comes, and calls his name when she is close.
“Hi, Jamia,” Gerard says, and pushes off the ground a little with one foot.
“I thought I’d have some lunch, and then repot some of the exotic flowers in the conservatory,” she says briskly. Gerard likes how she looks, standing in her ugly, practical workboots and canvas trousers, her hands on her hips like she’d rather be doing something useful than just standing around. He cocks his head at her, tries to imagine how he’d paint her if he had the supplies. He’ll tell Frank about this later, how Jamia is just as beautiful as Frank always said she was.
“You seem like you’re at loose ends,” Jamia continues, “and Bob says you haven’t eaten yet. Would you care to join me for some lunch and then some work?”
“Like Mistress Ballato wanted me to?” Gerard says. Jamia is just as busy as Frank is, in her own way, though without the sense of urgent focus that Frank carries, as though his work will run away from him if he looks away from it for even a moment. Gerard has felt wary of asking Jamia for work. She never seems to need much help, given the combination of her ruthless efficacy and her small army of gardeners.
“Well, yes,” Jamia says, “but Lindsey won’t be angry if you don’t come. Neither will I. Neither will Frank. Though we’ll all worry if you don’t eat, at least.” Gerard likes how direct her gaze is. Both Mistress Ballato and Frank sometimes look toward but not straight at Gerard. He imagines that this is a symptom of Mistress Ballato feeling guilty that she owns Gerard, and of Frank trying to think about other things, about anything but the camp. Jamia doesn’t seem to have much that she’s unwilling to think about.
“Okay,” Gerard says. “I’ll come.”
Jamia let Gerard try to find ways to occupy himself for more than a week before she took pity on him and went to offer him some real employment.
Well, “real” in that it’s useful work that will keep him busy and give him something to take pride in. Of course she can’t pay him, of course Lindsey can no longer pay Frank, though you wouldn’t know it with the way Frank has taken on his old duties. Before he’s ready, in Jamia’s opinion, though she’s learned through long experience how to tell which fights with Frank are the ones she can win, and this isn’t one of them. At least Jimmy takes care of Frank for her, steers him away from anything physically strenuous; as far as Jamia can tell, they’ve mostly been catching Frank up on paperwork, a task Jimmy is handling with more patience than Jamia would, in his shoes.
Frank is exhausted and bruised and nearly starved and as unbearably stubborn as ever. He’ll settle when he’s ready to settle, though it’s a hell of a thing for Jamia, to wait for him--to feel a little as though her exhausting, terrifying search for her husband still isn’t over.
Gerard is perhaps worse off than Frank, owned by a stranger in strange surroundings with nothing to keep him busy. Jamia watches him watch Frank, watches him make the same choice every day after breakfast to leave Frank be.
She watches him watch Lindsey, too; she sees how he leans away, tenses his shoulder, clenches his jaw, how he switches between keeping his eyes lowered like a good slave and trying to make Lindsey meet his gaze like a free man as if he can’t remember which he is. Which is fair, given that he is neither and both at the moment, and nobody will give him proper cues for his behavior.
The first thing Gerard does every day, the moment it’s not inexcusably impolite, is leave the house. Jamia doesn’t exactly follow him around, but she sees him here and there as she goes about her duties, which take her to every corner of the estate. He doesn’t appear to actually enjoy fresh air and sunlight; mostly he keeps himself entirely covered in the well-made clothes Lindsey has had tailored for him and slinks around with his hair in his face, looking for shade. But outside Gerard looks... a little less like he’s expecting someone to grab him from behind.
It would probably be best, then for Gerard to work with Jamia as Lindsey suggested. Jamia considers, briefly, holding some resentment against Gerard; he’s a full-grown man, but a helpless one, and if Jamia isn’t careful she could set Gerard up as her rival for Frank’s affections, rather than just the man who happens to share them with her. But then she remembers that it is entirely due to Gerard--Gerard’s devotion to Frank and attention to detail--that Jamia has Frank back at all, and then the thought of resenting the man to whom she owes so much becomes clearly, utterly, absurd.
Jamia can remember that day as clearly as this morning’s breakfast.
Jamia arrives at the caravan in the late morning. It’s cold and damp out, and though it’s nearly noon, still misty and grey. She remembers this time to wait in the carriage until Steven can come around, open the door, and hand her down the steps; it’s taken them some practice, teaching Jamia to act like a lady of consequence while they venture across the country, searching for Frank. Lindsey would be better at this, at getting strange men to treat her with respect. Though Lindsey likes to pretend otherwise, she was brought up noble. She knows how to use a tilt of her head or a flick of her wrist to imply that she is wealthy and spoiled, used to getting her way. Jamia has had caravan-masters spit at her feet. She is pretty sure that would never happen to Lindsey.
Still, Jamia is stubborn, and this is necessary, so she has learned to wait like an idiot who can’t lift a latch by herself so Steven can open doors for her. She’s learned to dress like a woman of Lindsey’s caste, in heels and corsets and too many skirts, and learned to act like she was born to it. She’s learned to let the Ballato coat-of-arms on the carriage speak for itself, and to hint at bribery rather than to offer it outright. Frank, if he knew--when he finds out, because Jamia will rescue him--would find it all hilarious: his Jamia, who goes about her duties on Lindsey’s estate in trousers and workboots, whom he first knew he loved (or so he has said) when she wrestled him to the ground and sat on him for saying something stupid, having to turn to what he insists on calling the “womanly arts” to bring her husband home.
Steven escorts Jamia from the carriage and across a bleak, muddy square to a canvas tent. There he stands at her elbow while she speaks with the caravan-master and tells him what she wants: a male slave, standing about as tall as she, with black hair and inked arms and an attitude problem. Jamia has learned not to tell these men that the slave she’s looking for is her husband, kidnapped by raiders; that makes them suspicious of the legitimacy of Lindsey’s seal, not to mention more likely to try both to deceive her and to drive up the price. Instead, she says she is looking for a pleasure slave she’d sold, then regretted. That makes these men smirk, but they don’t think she’s lying.
This man certainly believes her. He tries to exchange a sly look with Steven, though Jamia’s sure Steven is having none of it. “I’ve quite the selection of feisty boy slaves with decorative ink,” he says. “I’d be more than happy to bring some of them in and show you a sample.”
“I thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” Jamia says. If Frank is here, and is brought into the tent, she has no idea how she’ll react, never mind how he will. Besides, she’s accepted such an offer before, and it was all she could do to keep her composure when boy after pitiable collared boy stumbled, half-naked, to kneel at her feet. “I wouldn’t want to put you to the trouble. My man and I will have a look around on our own.”
“As you like, Mistress Ballato.” The caravan-master holds back the flap of the tent for her, and takes her and Steven around a corner to the series of paddocks where they are keeping the slaves. “Let me know if you have any questions, or if you see one that strikes your fancy.”
“Thank you very much,” Jamia says, and starts to look for Frank.
There are the bargain slaves first, which Jamia finds hardest to look at: men and women too old or too ugly to be pleasure slaves, or too weak or infirm to be laborers. Frank is neither old nor ugly, but he’s always gotten sick so easily, and Jamia has trouble imagining a Frank prudent enough to curb his sharp tongue even at the threat of injury. The slaves stare back at her. Some are defiant, some angry, some curious; the worst are the ones who seem blank, like slavery has driven away their souls and they’ve left only their empty bodies behind.
If--when Jamia finds Frank, if he has that empty-eyed look... she doesn’t know what she’ll do.
None of the bargain slaves are Frank. Behind her, Steven lets out a nearly-inaudible sigh of relief.
The laborers are next, though Jamia always feels doubtful when she checks them. It’s not that Frank is not strong, or that he’s incapable of doing hard work, but a prudent caravan-master would not put a man as small and as thin as Frank on sale for labor. Who would buy him?
None of the laborers are Frank, either.
Now the pleasure slaves’ pen--much larger than the others, with a canvas awning over the back half. Of course, pleasure slaves are quite valuable, and it appears that this caravan-master takes good care of his wares; these slaves are much cleaner and better-fed than others Jamia has seen. She looks at every face she can, though there are a good number of people clustered under the awning. None of the people whose eyes she meets are Frank.
They’ll have to start talking to the slaves, now, which is always an iffy process; some of them will be terrified of her, and some of them will lie in hopes of getting her to buy them, and some will gently tell her that Frank has likely be sold by now, and that her search is futile. And if she takes too long, the caravan-master will come to find what’s keeping her.
“Damn it,” she mutters, but before Steven can reply a slave says, “Jamia? Mistress Iero?”
Slowly, Jamia turns back to the pleasure slaves’ pen. A man is crouched alone in the corner where the fences meet, reaching out hopefully to her through the planks. “Jamia?” he says again.
Jamia takes a step closer. Steven is right behind her. “How do you know my name?” she asks.
The slave blinks at her. “I kind of figured it was you,” he says. “You look just like Frank says, and he talks about you a lot.”
“You know my Frank?” Jamia demands, striding straight up the fence. Alarmed, the slave backs away a little. Jamia tries to force herself to be calm. “I’m sorry if I frightened you,” she says. “It’s just that I’ve been searching for Frank for such a long time. I just want to buy him back and bring him home.”
The slave beams at her. It's an incongruously sweet smile that takes over his round face, incompatible with his pitiable circumstances. "Why, that is wonderful!" he exclaims. "Frank's been waiting--we knew you must be looking. He's been napping in the back. I'll go get him, okay?" He taps the fencing anxiously. "You'll wait here for me? You won't go?"
God, how could she ever? "I won't move an inch," Jamia promises. "Just bring me my Frank."
The slave nods and scampers away, ducking into the crowd of pleasure slaves vying for space under the awning at the back of the paddock. Jamia bites her lip as she watches him go. Should she have gotten his name? What difference would it make if she had?
"Be easy, Mistress Ballato," Steven says. Lindsey’s surname sounds foreign in his voice, his deliberate formality in this place disorienting as always. She will be much happier when she can simply be Jamia again. "He'll be back. He wasn't lying to you."
"How can you know that?"
"He knew you," Steven points out calmly. "He recognized you because Frank told him about you. He may be many things, but overly trusting isn't one of them. You know that if Frank told that slave about you it was because he deserved to be told."
Jamia lets his words settled into the part of her that are the most anxious and afraid, and takes heart. "Thank you, Steven," she says, and is distracted from saying more by a commotion in the crowd of slaves.
Throat tight with anticipation, Jamia curls her fingers over the rail of the fence, and gasps when a figure--too thin, too dirty, ill-dressed, but no less familiar and beloved--stumbles free to come up near her.
"Jamia," Frank says, and Jamia is so grateful that he sounds the same when he says her name that she almost starts to cry. She can feel the tears waiting in the pressure behind her temples, in the stiffness of her cheeks, but she can't cry here. Mistress Ballato, on a mission to bring home an errant slave, would have no reason for it. Instead, she lets herself say, "Frankie!" and watches his eyes light up.
"Holy shit," Frank says, and comes right up to the fence to touch the tips of his tattooed fingers to hers. There's nothing to stop him from crying; his eyes well up immediately as he croaks, "You're actually fucking here. You actually found me."
"Of course I found you, what the fuck, Frank Iero," Jamia snaps.
Frank just laughs at her. Jamia can't stop looking at his face: there are cuts and bruises, certainly, but underneath the injuries and the grime and the tears, the improbable arch of his eyebrow is unchanged. Even the disbelieving expression he wears isn't wholly new. Frank has been looking at Jamia like he can't believe she's real since the day they met. "I thought Gee had finally lost it," he says. "Look at you. I love you. You're wearing a dress, this is unbelievable. Hey, Steven," he adds, with a nod of his head.
"Frank," Steven says. "It's damned good to see you."
"You too," Frank says. "You have no fucking idea."
Jamia presses at Frank's fingers with her own. There's not room through the rails of the fence for them to hold hands, but she'll take everything she can get. He presses back, and the ragged end of his left sleeve falls away, revealing his second set of knuckle tattoos and a ragged loop of metal on his ring finger. "Frankie, what is that?" Jamia says.
"What? Oh," Frank says. "I'm sorry, honey, they took my wedding ring." What's ridiculous is that he actually does look sorry, as though there was anything he could have done to stop the people who did all this to him. "I had to make a new one. It was kind of pathetic for a while, but Gerard helped me smooth it out, wear the edges down."
"We'll get you a new ring, Frank," Jamia promises. "I'm so sorry."
Frank crowds even closer up against the fence, eyes wide. "What the hell can you possibly have to be sorry for?"
"Nothing, I just--I wish I'd found you sooner."
"Don't be stupid," Frank says fondly. Jamia hears Steven snort behind her.
"Look, I'm getting you out of here," Jamia says. "I've got enough money to match whatever price that asshole names for you, okay? Just--just hold on. I'm bringing you home with me tonight."
"Jamia." Suddenly Frank has his stubborn face on. Jamia can't think what there might be for him to be ornery about. "No."
Jamia is sure she must have misheard, because otherwise Frank truly has gone mad here, and she’s not sure what she’ll do. “What,” she says.
“I’m sorry,” Frank says, and he looks it, but he’s still talking. “You’ve got to understand. Gerard--the man who recognized you and came and got me, that’s Gerard. He’s... We take care of each other, me and him. I can’t leave him here without me, Jamia.”
“Never think that I am not grateful to your friend,” Jamia says. “But Frank, I can’t afford both of you. There is no way I can afford to buy both of you.”
Frank swallows and shifts his grip on the fence rail. “Then we’ll wait,” he says hoarsely. “Go home and--and get some more money somehow. It won’t be so hard to find us again. Gerard and I can find ways to stay with this caravan, I swear it. You can come back when you’ve got enough for the both of us.”
Jamia sucks in a sharp breath, the humiliation and hurt of being so matter-of-factly sent away hitting her like a kick to the chest. “And where,” she says, trying to keep her expression cool, “do you think I’ll get that kind of money from, Frank?”
“I don’t know!” Frank says. Despite the tone of his voice, he doesn’t look angry. He looks miserable, which is something. “Couldn’t we rent our house and live with Lindsey for a while? I know it’s not the best option, but--”
“We don’t have a house anymore.”
Frank stares at her, his mouth hanging open. “What?”
“We don’t have a house anymore!” Jamia shouts.
“Mistress Ballato,” Steven says warningly. “Remember where we are.”
“I remember,” she says. “Frank, we do not have a house anymore. I sold it because I did not have enough money to search for you and buy you back. I am living with Lindsey. We don’t have a house.”
“Jamia,” Frank says, and for a terrible moment Jamia thinks he’s angry at her and she’s not sure her knees will hold her up at all. “Shit, Jamia. Honey, I’m so sorry.”
“It was worth it,” she says, and glares at him, although relief is rushing through her at his words. “It was completely worth it. But it won’t be if you won’t let me bring you home.”
“You don’t understand,” Frank pleads. “He’s my--he can’t--I can’t leave him here alone any more than you could leave Lindsey, okay? I can’t.”
It’s on the tip of Jamia’s tongue to say I don’t need your permission to buy you, but she manages to bite it back, scowling ferociously. Frank would never forgive her, he’d probably run away at the earliest opportunity on some idiotic mission to rescue Gerard and teach Jamia a lesson at the same time and, if she is perfectly honest, Jamia would probably never forgive herself, either. Even overlooking that it’s an appalling thing to say and do, what kind of woman would it make her to leave behind a man who is so dear to her husband in a place like this?
She imagines, like Frank said, leaving Lindsey alone in the paddock of a slave caravan, and curses. “Damn it, Frankie. It’s not a matter of my whim, all right? If I can’t leave you here and I can’t afford to purchase a second slave, what do you propose I do?”
Before Frank can say anything, Steven gives an exaggerated cough behind her. “Mistress Ballato,” he says. “If I may. Just consider that you and I both have full authorization to use the Ballato credit should we need to. The caravan will certainly accept it, and if this situation isn’t an extenuating circumstance I don’t know what would be.”
“Jamia,” Frank says. “Can we?”
“Such an expense,” Jamia says, but it is a weak protest.
“Lindsey would find it worthwhile,” Steven says impatiently. “She tried to give you money before, but you told her no because you had other options. Now you don’t have any more options.”
“Without her permission--the purchase of a slave--”
“She will understand, Mistress Ballato. Jamia.” Steven puts a hand on her arm. “Don’t be an idiot.”
Jamia is too relieved to dredge up a glare. “All right.”
“Thank you,” Frank says. When Jamia looks back at him he’s got tears in his eyes again. “I’m so sorry about--but thank you. You don’t... You’ll understand, I promise. I couldn’t leave him here.”
“Frankie, I love you,” Jamia says.
“I love you too,” he says immediately.
“Now go get Gerard and wait together,” she says. “I’m going to get you both out of here, and then we’re going the fuck home.”
Lindsey thinks that she could deal with Gerard better if he were merely terrified of her.
She doesn't know how to own a slave, doesn't have a sense of how to behave around him, how to be kind in a way that he'll accept or understand. Her family have never been slave-owners, their eccentricities extending even to that rejection of the privileged world she inhabits. Their servants hardly even qualify as such, each owning their own percentage of the property and benefiting directly from the success of her family's fortune. She has no training to fall back on in this area of life, unlike so many others that she's chosen to ignore.
But even this isn't the true difficulty. The real problem is that Gerard is simply odd.
He's neither overly grateful nor outwardly hostile. He seems simultaneously terrified of Jamia and fascinated by her, trailing after her everywhere on the estate. His eyes follow Frank around whenever they're in the same room together, and yet he startles back if he’s alone and someone asks him where Frank is, as if the idea that he would know is somehow threatening. And when he occasionally forgets himself, he gets lost in the smallest things, running his hand over the wood of a desk for twenty minutes before darting his eyes up at her and leaving the room as fast as he can.
Lindsey had expected that Gerard wouldn't want to be around her, wouldn't want to have her come near him. But he scurries along the edges of each room like a mouse, dipping in and out of crevices, and practically squeaks if he's interrupted. She wouldn't be at all surprised if he were hoarding food away as well, even though she's made it clear to the cooking staff that if he ever comes near the kitchens, they're to offer him whatever he'd like, without hesitation.
She knows that treating him like a guest is inappropriate, but it's the closest model that she has, thinking of him as some distant cousin who simultaneously has free rein within the home and yet is not of it, not like Jamia and Frank.
Frank is the other issue, of course. Frank, whose bravado and infectious energy is still a pale imitation of his natural (or former, her mind whispers) self. He bustles around the estate on a constant tear in a seeming attempt to outrun something, and doesn’t laugh or joke with Jimmy or Steven or Bob. He'll interact with her if she initiates, but never does so on his own, and that makes his response feel--unsettling, to say the least.
"I don't want Frank to feel that he must spend time with me, if he doesn't want to," she says to Jamia, pouring another cup of tea. Frank and Gerard are somewhere upstairs, Lindsey thinks--she's not quite sure, only knows that an offer of tea would not have been kindly received for whatever reason this day. Sometimes they seem willing to sit in the parlor with them; other days Lindsey can tell when it's teatime by the sudden absence of both of them.
"I'm sure he doesn't think that’s what you want, Lindsey."
"Then what is it?" She tries not to get frustrated, tries to remember that as hard as this is for her, it must be infinitely worse for Frank, and for Gerard, a man who has no connection to this place at all beyond Frank.
Jamia laughs, and Lindsey startles at the sound. "Oh, Linds. You're not going to just be able to fix this, all right? Gerard is not going to suddenly know that we mean well, and even if he does, where does that leave him? What exactly can he do with that knowledge, beyond feeling less unsure of his next meal? His entire life is on hold." Jamia takes a sip of her tea before putting the cup down. "And Frank, well. Frank is going to power through until he can't anymore, and then we'll see."
"I don't understand how you can take this so well, Jamia, I do envy you your calm," Lindsey says, and it isn't until Jamia turns and looks her square in the face, expression grave, that she realizes her mistake. "Oh, J, I didn't mean to say that you have it easy--"
"No, you're right." Jamia swallows a little before continuing. "I am calm, but I wouldn't envy it. It's badly won. If I'm not calm, lord knows Frank won't be, and if Frank's not, Gerard won't be, and if he's not, I know you'll be a wreck, and then where would we all be?"
"Not that you're feeling overly responsible yourself or anything," Lindsey says wryly.
Jamia shoots her an amused look. "Well, Frank's been telling me I'm the most important person in the world for years, that sort of thing has an impact after a certain point." Lindsey laughs, taking a bite out of one of Bob's petits fours as Jamia continues. "But you know I never like fretting if it won't actually help, and it never does, so."
"So indeed," Lindsey echos, thinking. "Is there anything we can do for them other than just wait, do you think?"
"Aside from not letting Frank be any more of a martyr than comes naturally? I don't think so," Jamia says. "And as for Gerard, I think you just need to let him have his space, have the freedom to be--Gerard."
At that Lindsey leans forward, happy to be getting to the point. "That's just it, Jamia. I'm not wrong in thinking he's a little--strange, am I? I mean, not that I have much in the way of comparison, but he doesn't really behave like, well, you know."
"Like a slave?" Jamia supplies. "No, he doesn't. But I suppose if he did Frank wouldn't have brought him home like a stray puppy, would he? And as if you would have any better idea what to do with him if he did, Lindsey. You'd still be trying to give him half a wing to himself."
"He has a right to his own life!" Lindsey says indignantly.
Jamia looks at her. "No, he doesn't, Linds. And you might have the luxury of forgetting that, but he doesn’t. Now," she says, putting down her saucer, "how are you? Are you sleeping alright?"
Lindsey nods too quickly, regretting it as soon as Jamia frowns. "Oh, you know me, I can drop off like that," she says, snapping her fingers.
"Lindsey, you need your rest. If you're not sleeping well, you need to talk to Kitty about it--she can give you something to help."
She shakes her head. "I don't want to take anything, I need to be--" ready, her mind supplies, ready to deal with whatever crisis next befalls her household.
Jamia looks like she heard what Lindsey did not say. "I miss it too, you know."
Lindsey pretends to not understand. "Miss what?"
Jamia smiles slightly. "Knowing that when I wake up, I'll see you first thing."
"But you see Frank, at least." Lindsey can't quite keep the confusion out of her voice.
"Most mornings, but not all, these days. And you're not interchangeable, you know."
"I know that," Lindsey says, unexpectedly hurt. "I know that Frank is special."
Jamia's eyes look a little sad, but her mouth is mocking. "You both are, in your own ways.” She reaches over and squeezes Lindsey’s hand, and that's enough to melt away the momentary slight. “Well! I should see if I can convince Gerard to follow me back out into the sun. He’s still entirely too pale, you can practically see through his skin." She stands up, leaning over to kiss Lindsey on the cheek, cupping the other side of her face with her hand. "Try not to worry too much, love."
And if Lindsey can't precisely obey Jamia at this moment, she can at least try.
Frank doesn't mean to be strange, or unlike himself, now that he’s home. He actually intends the exact opposite, searching out methods to prove that he's back, the old Frank, and that if anything it's Jamia and Lindsey and even Jimmy and Steven and Bob who have changed.
It's hard to keep that up when even the smallest noise from behind him is enough to make him still and bow his head, or that every time he looks up and sees Gerard he wants to put his hands all over him, to check that nothing (and no one) has happened to him since he last saw him.
He knows he's lucky. He's been the luckiest bastard he's ever known since he was eleven and first managed to make Jamia and Lindsey pay him any mind. Why should that have changed, just because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time?
When Frank first arrives at the slave caravan, he thinks he's going to have it easy. He'll lay low, and Dewees will figure out the code he left for him, will figure out that he was taken by the same group that took Matthew from the house on the left two years ago, and they'll help him escape or even buy him back and it'll be fine.
And then on the second day he's sold to a different slave merchant entirely, and he realizes that he's fucked.
He keeps trying to stick with his plan, though: keep his head down, don't engage, stay as dirty as possible, make himself as inoffensively undesirable as he can.
It's mostly effective, if not perfect; he doesn't tend to get beaten too badly, nothing that will cause permanent injury or disfigurement. For the first two or three weeks, none of the buyers ask to see him alone, to examine the merchandise or take it for a trial run. His hair hangs in his face, and he focuses on looking despondent and not triumphant when the guards push him back into the pleasure slaves’ pen where he sleeps at night, the entire thing surrounded by a fence three times his height.
And then they cut off his hair, and put him in a threadbare, sleeveless work shirt and tight pants.
That gets him noticed.
The first time someone grabs him by the chin and raises up his face to them, petting over his lips and musing out loud about the suitability of them for certain acts, he has to clench his hands behind his back. The seller notices his reaction though, and backhands him across the face when the prospective client leaves without buying any slave at all.
"You’ll let them look at you and you’ll like it, boy. Do that again and I'll make more than just your head ache."
When Frank is chosen for a one-on-one “inspection” the next time a client arrives, he forces himself to follow, to go into the back room and submit himself to the client's eyes and touch and laughter and, finally, his release as he uses Frank's mouth.
He keeps his face still when they head back into the main room and mutters to the guard that he’s not sure if he should be pleased or offended when the client describes him as "not worth the price" and leaves with a girl of about fifteen in tow instead.
It gets him another punch to the face and a boot to the kidneys, but all in all he's pretty sure he's better off this way. It'll be easier for Jamia to find him if he's still waiting here for sale.
He never doubts that she's still looking, and he'll endure what he has to in order to be ready for her when she comes.
The first time Frank notices Gerard, all he can see is a man who looks even less prepared for this life than he had been. Frank can see that under the dirt and the lank hair that he's--captivating, in a way that worries him.
The man catches Frank looking and gives him a small smile. "It'll be okay, trust me."
At first Frank can only stare back at him. "You just got transferred into the pleasure slave pen, and you're trying to reassure me?"
Something in Frank’s stomach twists up when the slave’s expression grows kind. “Transferred back--I’ve been here before. You weren’t, though, I’d have remembered you.”
The same sentiment from any number of other slaves would have either made Frank’s blood run cold, or heat up in fury. Being memorable wasn’t a good quality to have in this pit. But he just says it so matter-of-fact, so completely without guile or implication, that before Frank can stop himself he sticks his hand out. “I’m Frank.”
The slave takes his hand slowly and shakes it carefully, eyes never leaving Frank’s face. “Gerard.”
And just like that, Frank’s life in the slave caravan shifts, irrevocably and completely.
Suddenly he has two of them to worry about, two people to protect and shield and focus on. Now, instead of doing what he can to make people’s eyes slide right past him as they scan the pen, Frank is actually making the prospective buyers notice him, is making sure that they see him, a tiny little thing, as more appealing and worthwhile than Gerard. He knows that he can take care of himself. He’s not so sure about Gerard, no matter what he’s been through before joining Frank in the pen.
It is better, overall, because now there's something else for him to focus on, something to reassure him that he's still himself, still Frank at the end of the day, no matter what they try to take from him. He’s not just alone, and waiting.
Sometimes he hates the fact that it’s not just himself that he cares about though, hates the way that Gerard throws into stark relief the reality that if he’s not the one purchased or beaten or sampled, it’s some other poor nameless wretch. Frank doesn’t let himself think about Gerard’s time away from the caravan anymore than he lets himself dwell on the way his body is no longer fully his own, no longer something he controls, but it’s harder to ignore now. But when his mind is going too fast, is too loud and overwhelming for him to sleep, he takes a deep breath and turns his face towards Gerard’s ear at night.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I found a bee’s nest next to our house and decided to take care of it myself without telling Jamia first?”
And Gerard’s little grunt of inquiry is enough to ground himself back into his body.
The biggest shift, the one that breaks Frank's heart and then puts it back together, is that for the first time since he was taken, being touched isn't just a bad thing. Frank knew, intellectually, how much he missed that, how much he longed to just be held, or even to just hold someone's hand, or have someone ruffle his hair. But being able to curl up with someone else and wrap his arms around them, to tug them close, is like a gift, one that both makes everything better and makes him even more fiercely aware of how much they need to get out, need to leave and run away and fix everything.
He knows they can't, of course, knows that if he gets himself killed trying to be a hero again that Jamia will learn black magic just to be able to raise him from the dead to kill him again herself. But listening to Gerard's stories of his brother and his grandmother, and telling him about Jamia and his home while tucked up against Gerard's chest, makes each day's passing easier and worse.
They are so much more than this.
One night Gerard is called for by the seller to meet with a new buyer, who looks very rich and very particular. He looks over every single pleasure slave, but in the end he requested only Gerard to come back with him to the main house for a trial. Frank can't keep still for the entire time that Gerard is gone, can't help pacing around the pen, even though he knows he's being stupid, knows that he's revealing himself to all the guards and also endangering the other slaves around him.
But he can't simply sit and wait for Gerard to return, wait to see if he does at all.
It's long past dark when the door to the pen finally opens and Gerard is pushed through. He stumbles a bit as he walks in, and Frank rushes over to him.
"Gerard," he breathes, cupping his face with one hand, and his stomach turns at how Gerard smiles back at him.
"I'm okay, Frankie--I wasn't what he was looking for, in the end."
Frank can't take his eyes off of Gerard, can't even turn around as he walks backwards toward the corner of the pen that he thinks of as theirs, and when his back hits the fence he pulls Gerard down towards him, settles them on the ground together and just holds on.
It's not enough, though, his hands running all over Gerard's head and face and back, Gerard's voice murmuring god knows what reassurances in Frank's ears, he can't hear any of them, can't process anything other than the fact that Gerard is back, is still here, and he cuts Gerard off mid-word when he kisses him for the first time.
Gerard freezes for a moment, and Frank just holds on, tears just beginning to crest over his cheeks, until Gerard suddenly breathes in sharply through his nose and kisses him back, mouth opening to Frank.
Frank pulls away just enough to whisper against his lips, "They can't take you, they can't," and Gerard nods against his face before he kisses him again. And Frank’s heart breaks apart as he simultaneously mourns that he could ever kiss anyone other than Jamia at all, and rejoices at the fact that he can still have this, somehow, that Gerard is in there with him.
Gerard doesn't completely escape the notice of the buyers after that night, but they never seem to take long with him when he goes with them into the back room. Frank always wants to ask, wants to find out why, if he says something or does something or has a trick or what, but he doesn't want to talk with him about what happens there, not really, and so he just waits in their dark corner for Gerard and gets his hands on Gerard's body as quickly as he can, licking over his neck and breathing in his scent as he presses their bodies together, Gerard's arms wrapped around them tight and shielding them from the world.
Frank loses track of time, at some point. He has no real sense of how long he's been there, or when Gerard arrived and he stopped being so alone, or whether there's any real hope of being found. He only knows that suddenly the idea of Jamia finding him is more complicated than he could have ever imagined.
Gerard doesn’t tell Frank about Mikey until they’d been together for three months, but Frank already knows.
He hadn’t known the specifics, obviously--that Gerard had a brother, or any of that--but he’d always known there must be a Mikey, a reason why Gerard was willing to be in the camp, why he didn’t try to escape or try to get bought by some of the nicer people who came through. Frank had seen a couple of the men who didn’t make his skin crawl look over Gerard, but Gerard never paid them any mind, which seemed to work well enough as a deterrent.
Most of the buyers value a little desperation in their new toys.
Frank sometimes pretends he has a Mikey too, a reason for why he’s here in the first place. He knows that he sacrificed himself for a lot of other people, and that he needs to keep it together so that he can get home to Jamia and Lindsey, but it’s not the same. He got caught because he was dumb, too stubborn to stop what he was doing even after the rumors about raids got louder and louder.
Thinking about what his bullheaded actions have done to Jamia keeps him up at night. Realizing that he doesn’t precisely regret them now because it would mean he would never have been able to protect Gerard makes sleep seem like something he doesn’t even deserve. And Gerard notices when he can’t sleep, curls himself around Frank and breathes steadily until Frank’s body finally overtakes his mind. But when he wakes up in the morning, he always remembers his revulsion at himself.
Gerard’s purpose and reason for living, for keeping himself together in this shit-hole, is admirable and brave. Frank’s is shameful and weak.
He still doesn’t regret it.
When Gerard comes running up to him one day, babbling about Jamia, he thinks for a moment that Gerard’s actually lost it this time, that something happened while Frank wasn’t watching that fucked him up completely. When he finally realizes that Gerard actually thinks that Jamia is there, he still can’t let himself believe it until he actually sees her himself, sees her through the fence.
He thinks about being free again. Or at least, essentially being free, because belonging to Jamia legally can’t really feel any different than he does already, he’s sure of it.
But that doesn’t fix everything. He can’t leave Gerard behind, even after Frank watches Jamia’s heart break when he argues with her.
The moment he realizes they’re actually going to buy them both is when he knows without any doubt at all that he is luckier than he could ever deserve to be.
Frank continues to throw himself into his old duties as Lindsey’s steward with a gusto that Gerard finds more than a little bewildering. It’s like Frank has never stopped moving from the moment they met, Frank bent impatiently over Gerard in the squalor of the pleasure slaves’ paddock. Once Frank decided that Gerard was his responsibility, he was everywhere, all around Gerard, ready to defend him from every side.
Gerard had thought that when Jamia rescued them Frank would finally get to rest. He had looked forward to being with Frank outside the dangerous grounds of the slave camp, to learn Frank’s stillness as well as his motion. But Frank doesn’t seem to want to be still with Gerard. He’s always coming and going, always finding things to do, as though by making himself a moving target he can evade whatever he thinks is hunting him.
Gerard would understand if it were only Gerard Frank refused to be still with. He knows that alliances formed by necessity in desperate situations like being kidnapped into a slave caravan might not always hold up in the ease of a more normal life, and besides--Gerard knows he is odd. He was odd as a pleasure slave and growing up with Mikey and he’s pretty sure he’s even stranger now, as a pleasure slave whom nobody will allow to do his job. He would understand if he no longer fit with Frank, given the way Gerard has been dropped, an confused and unanticipated interruption, into the middle of Frank’s real life.
But it’s not just Gerard. Frank won’t be still with Jamia, either, and that’s just worrisome--Jamia was what kept Frank going, all that time, his certainty that she was inconveniencing people all across the country searching for him, his insistence on wearing his scrap ring that he only let Gerard sand down because his fingers were a bleeding mess, the way he could tell entire stories about the sarcastic arch of Jamia’s eyebrow or her epic right hook. Now Frank pulls Jamia and Gerard close at night, lets Jamia comfort him and lets himself comfort Gerard, but during the day shoulders the burdens of all his former duties and more, inventing busy work to fill every moment he could have had free.
Gerard can’t think of anything to do beyond giving Frank what Frank seems to need, which is space. He parks himself near Frank for as long as he can bear to stay indoors, so that if Frank decides what he needs is Gerard, he can have it right away.
Jamia, who has known Frank for much longer than Gerard can claim to, seems to share his concerns. “He’s different now,” she tells Gerard.
They’re taking tea in the enormous conservatory near one of the rear courtyards of Mistress Ballato’s castle. The entire back wall is made of windows. A room such as this is such a terrific expense that Gerard tries not to think about it too much, and tries to hide from the sun besides, but it’s also one of the only rooms in the castle that feels safe instead of threatening, where he can sit without the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. Gerard has tugged a tree in a pot close to the wrought-iron table and chairs where Jamia has made herself comfortable. He scoots his chair back beneath the tree so he can have some shade. Jamia watches him from across the table, paused in the middle of adding a lump of sugar to her teacup.
“I know you prefer not to catch too much sunlight, honey, but don’t you think this is a little much?”
“No,” Gerard says. “Having my parasol open indoors would be too much. This is exactly right.”
Jamia laughs and stirs her tea. Her laugh makes Gerard smile--it’s like Frank’s, a little too loud and high-pitched for propriety. If the conservatory could have opinions about the people within its ridiculous glass walls, Gerard is sure it would disapprove of the two of them, Gerard for obvious reasons but also Jamia for her laugh and the way she stirs her tea too violently, so the spoon clinks loudly against the china and some liquid sloshes into the saucer.
Gerard pours some tea for himself, a little doubtfully. He’d rather have coffee, but Bob has forbidden any of his staff to serve Gerard coffee after breakfast since Gerard overindulged a little during his first week on the estate. He adds sugar to his cup, an extravagant two lumps, and milk, and says to Jamia, “Are you very worried about Frankie?”
“I’d thought--I had hoped--that he would find a way to rest a little by now,” she says. “You’ve been home for weeks now, and he just works every day until one of us makes him stop. He was never an irresponsible steward, he saved his little rebellions for playing illegal shows in underground bars and getting kidnapped into a slave caravan, but he’s never worked like this and seemed so unhappy while he was doing it.”
Gerard eyes Jamia a little warily, but the anger that has crept into her voice doesn’t appear to be at all directed towards him. “I don’t know if he’s unhappy,” he says. “I mean--look at him.” They both turn in their chairs to peer out of the conservatory’s ostentatious glass wall, through which they can see Frank stomping along the far line of trees with Jimmy. He’s gesturing emphatically and waving some papers around; occasionally he’ll stop and point toward something in the distance, and Jimmy will nod and point also. “I had thought he’d rest a little too,” Gerard confesses, as he and Jamia settle back into their tea. “I thought... Jamia, you don’t know how he missed you. You don’t know how he looked at me when I told him I’d found--I mean, that you’d found him. If being with you isn’t what he needs to be able to rest, then maybe... What do you know about sharks?”
“Sharks,” Jamia repeats, reaching for a muffin.
“They’re gigantic fish,” Gerard says, and tries to sketch the size of a shark in the air with his hands. “With lots and lots of teeth and--”
“I know what sharks are, Gerard,” Jamia says evenly. She breaks off the top half of the muffin and keeps it for herself, and puts the soft bottom half on the edge of Gerard’s saucer. “I just maybe don’t know where this conversation is going.”
“Oh! It’s just that some of them have to keep swimming, because they’re so heavy that they’ll sink to the bottom of the ocean if they stop moving, and then they’ll be stuck there. And I think maybe that’s how Frank feels, that if he stops for too long he’ll just sink.”
Jamia tilts her head. “You got all of your schooling at home,” she says. “How on earth did you learn about sharks?”
“But Frank, though,” Gerard says stubbornly. “Do you see what I mean?”
“What is it that Frank thinks he’ll sink beneath?” Jamia asks.
“Memories,” Gerard suggests. “Guilt.”
“Jamia,” Gerard says, and can’t stop the reproachfulness that creeps into his voice. “You know if you want to know something all you have to do is ask Frankie. If he wants you to tell you, he will, and if he doesn’t, I shouldn’t be telling you anyway.”
“I do know,” Jamia says, craning her neck around to look out the window after Frank. “I know.”
"Is there--" Gerard's voice gets stuck in his throat and he has to cough to clear it. He picks at his muffin-half. "Is there anything you would like to ask about me instead?"
He can feel Jamia looking at him and keeps his head bent intently toward his tea and muffin. There is a long pause before she says gently, "Gerard. Is there anything you would like to tell me?"
"I--Not really. Nothing in particular." Gerard's perfectly good muffin-half is rapidly becoming crumbs. "My time in the caravan was... You must know that Frank took care of me, once he arrived. I think he must have... I think his time there was worse than mine, so I don't know how much help or, or how much insight I could give you, talking only of myself. But if it would help you to understand him at all, I would--there is nothing I would not do, for Frank and for you."
"Oh, Gerard." The scrape of iron on wood makes Gerard look up as Jamia scoots her chair away from the table and closer to him in the shade of his potted tree. "May I--" She reaches out.
Gerard blinks. "Anything."
"Oh!" Jamia leans out of her chair and reaches for Gerard's shoulders. "I'm going to hug you now."
"Okay," Gerard says, and holds as still as he can when Jamia's arms come around his neck and she presses close. Nobody on the Ballato estate has tried to touch him much, but he finds himself getting nervous when anybody gets close; only Frank, so far, has been exempt from the jumpiness Gerard can't control. He waits for the inevitable instinct to cringe from Jamia, hoping she won't be too hurt or angry when he draws away, but it doesn't come. "Oh," Gerard says. One of Jamia's warm hands flexes where it is flat between his shoulderblades.
Hesitantly, Gerard leans in, pressing his face into Jamia's shoulder. She smells clean, like laundry soap and grass. Gerard is abruptly aware that he himself has not bathed in several days. He is not yet used to cleanliness being a safe state, and even before he was taken into the caravan he tended only to wash when Mikey reminded him. He thinks he'll try to remember to bathe more often, now that he can do so whenever he likes and nobody will find his having clean skin and glossy hair an invitation, so that it will not be too unpleasant for Jamia should she want to hug him again.
"Is this all right?" Jamia asks.
"Yeah," Gerard says, voice muffled by the soft cotton of Jamia's work shirt. "It's great. You're great. I didn't think--Thank you."
"Then hug me back, Gerard," Jamia says. Oh. Gerard has had his hands clasped dumbly in his lap the whole time. Now he brings them around Jamia's waist and it's even better. Hugging Jamia is like hugging Frank, only different: she's a little less possessive, and Gerard likes how she's not as skinny as Frank is, her softness, the press of her breasts against his chest, the curve of her waist and her lower back. She and Frank are alike in that they both hug with their whole bodies, hug like they wish they could get closer. Gerard thinks affectionately that they must have taught each other to hug and to hold hands and to kiss, how to love and to make love.
"I know that you and Frank took care of each other when you were together in the caravan," Jamia says. Gerard wants to protest. It was Frank, all Frank taking care of Gerard. "I imagine Frank protected your body with his body, because that's the sort of thing he'd do. But you took care of all the rest of Frank, Gerard. You protected his soul with your soul. I don't know what would have happened to him without you. And I can't think what the caravan was like for you without Frank." Gerard's whole body twitches without his permission. Jamia holds him through it, her embrace loosening enough that it's clear he is free to go if he'd like. He doesn't go. "Oh, honey," Jamia says. "Was it very--"
"--Yes," Gerard says. "It was very."
"But..." Jamia draws away, gingerly. Gerard tries not to show how reluctant he is to let her go. She keeps hold of his hands, squeezing his fingers in her own. "If it makes you feel that way just to think of it, why would you offer to tell me anything?"
"I told you," Gerard says. "There's nothing I wouldn't do for you and Frank. He talked about you all the time, Jamia. I knew who you were the moment I saw you because you were beautiful and pissed-off, exactly like he said you'd be. And you loved him so much you came and found him and bought him and brought him home and got Mistress Ballato to buy me, too. I just. I want both of you to have what you need, for Frankie to be well. If I can help, it doesn't matter how it makes me feel."
Jamia's grip on his hands is so tight it hurts, but it's a good hurt. It's a this-is-how-much-she-loves-Frank hurt, Gerard is sure. "I am so sorry for what you have been through," Jamia says steadily. "But I am so glad you are here now, Gerard, and I am so glad you and Frank had each other. That you were not alone."
"I'm glad too," Gerard says. "When I saw you at the fence--when I realized who you were, that you had come to take Frankie home, I never really thought he'd be able to bring me along. He'd tell me about it, how we'd be here together after, but I knew how expensive it would be to buy the both of us. Frankie never said he was rich. So when I saw you, I knew Frank would go with you, because he's yours, Jamia, he's yours all the way through. And that was the most terrifying moment when I sent him to you because I thought I would be alone again. I could have done it, if I'd had to," he adds. "I was there alone before. I would have been all right. But I was so afraid anyway."
"Frank could never have let me leave you there," Jamia says. "Frank loves me very much, Gerard--"
"--More than anything!"
"Just about. But he's become yours too, somehow, without being any less mine for it."
Gerard can't even speak, can only hold Jamia's hands as tightly as she's holding his.
Lindsey can tell that Frank is trying to be normal, to return to his traditional state of efficiency and organization and focus on his job and responsibilities to the estate. But it’s unsettling to see the shift in his demeanor whenever there’s an unexpected noise, or if he’s startled by someone new coming into a room. There is only so much he can do to control his unconscious reactions. Overall, however, he presents a good front, a decent replication of himself.
She'd be lying if she said that it didn't reassure her. Frank is in there, under the prickly exterior and too-careful behavior with Jamia. He’s there in the ferocious protection of Gerard that he attempts to pretend he doesn’t display, even after yelling at Bob when he forgets that Gerard doesn't like mushrooms.
Bob hadn't taken well to that at all, but he's about as lenient with Frank as everyone else is. If it had been anyone other than Frank so soon after his return, Bob would have tossed the entire pot of noodles with mushrooms and cream sauce onto his head.
"So how exactly did you manage not to lose the entire estate while I was away, anyway?"
Some things about Frank are exactly the same.
She puts down her book, glaring up at him from her favorite reading chair in the main parlor. "Anything you wanted to discuss with me, Frank?"
He flops down across from her on the chaise longue. "Just wondering if you realized that half the accounts underpaid for four months out of six."
Lindsey hadn't known this at all; she had barely been aware of any financial matters beyond how much Jamia had sold their little house for. Perhaps Frank didn't have to know that, though. "I thought it was time for there to be a slight reduction in expenses for certain families, given the bad harvest," she says, realizing her mistake as soon as Frank grins, the smile changing his face into something far more familiar to her than the blank face she's become afraid of seeing every morning. "There were no underpayments, were there."
"Nope. But not like you would have known it, if there had been," he says, smirking at her. "People would be robbing you blind, without me."
"Perhaps some of my tenants are loyal to the Ballato family, unlike certain people I could name," she shoots back, fighting off a grin of her own.
"Surely you can't be implying anything untoward about me, Mistress Ballato--after all, I think I've just demonstrated that I could fleece you for everything you have!" Frank protests. "Of course, who's to say I haven’t?"
She's up out of her chair before the words finish leaving his mouth, crashing down next to him and grabbing him in a playful headlock. Or starts to, anyway; the feel of his collar against her arm makes her freeze, for just a moment, and he stills in response before she can force herself to relax against him. She continues holding him for as long as it takes for him to release the tension that coursed through his body at the touch.
He told her on his second day back that he shouldn't treat him any differently; she's taken him on his word, as hard as it is sometimes.
Once his muscles have relaxed back against her, she starts running her fingers through his short cropped hair, smiling when he swings his legs up onto the lounge and over her lap. Her mother used to call Frank the little brother Lindsey had never had, and while Lindsey was never entirely convinced that she would have cuddled with an actual brother like she does with Frank, she was always grateful that no one in the house paid them any mind when they sat closer than propriety could grant.
She kisses him on the forehead, smoothing back the short bangs there. "Are you going to let your hair grow long again?"
He shrugs against her. "Don't know. It's kind of nice having the short hair." He falls silent, nose up against her neck. "I think Gerard likes it like this."
She carefully keeps her hands moving steadily when he says this, doesn't let her body respond at all. "What does Jamia think?"
At that he pulls away from her, looking back at her incredulously. "Are you suggesting that Jamia's affection for me could be altered by a simple hair cut? For shame, Mistress Ballato, my wife loves me for more than just my hair!"
"And Gerard doesn't?" she asks quietly.
Frank's face falls a bit. "Were you always this annoying?" he grumbles back, tucking his face back in against her neck.
"Pretty much," she says cheerfully, rubbing over his shoulders.
He huffs against her skin. "Do you think he cares about the hair?"
Lindsey shakes her head. "I'm not sure I know anything at all regarding what he cares about. Aside from you," she adds when Frank starts to tense once again. "Of that I am positive."
Gerard isn't used to being jealous of his owners on top of everything else.
His last master didn't inspire anything other than dread. If Gerard had had any room left for any other assessment or feeling towards the man, it would have been overwhelming contempt of his worth as a human being, that he could spend his money on making others suffer. But really, fear and eventually an almost soothing numbness to life and everything outside of himself were the only things he was capable of feeling in the presence of his last master.
He almost wants to laugh at how his former master's wealth pales in comparison with the holdings of the Ballato family. His sheets (on his own bed!) are far softer than his former master's bed linens were, the fabric like silk against his skin. He wants to reach out and touch everything, feel the solid oak and cherry wood of the furnishings and the marble of the fireplaces, run his hands along the curtains, even get down on the floor to rub his cheek against the plush rugs covering the hardwood floors. And he does, when he realizes that not even this base enjoyment of this house seems to incite punishment, that no one other than Jimmy even seems to notice what he's doing, and he merely suggests that Gerard might want to visit the bedrooms in the North Wing for their lovely velvet drapes.
Mistress Ballato seems to have everything one could want in this house, all the books and the musical instruments and the paintings on every wall, their colors bright and bold in a way Gerard has never seen before in a home of this status. Unlike Gerard’s other masters, she actually seems to appreciate her surroundings, interacts with her belongings like they matter to her as actual items rather than symbols of wealth and status.
Gerard doesn't know what to do with this, being a symbol himself.
He watches even more carefully how she is with Jamia and Frank, how she cares for them and treats them as her equals, down to the lack of formal address and completely inappropriate shared meals. He still doesn't know how to sit with her at a table, has to remind himself to stop looking at her directly, stop being so obvious, keep his eyes down like a smart slave does, but she never seems to mind, and he was never good at that part.
Frank didn't talk about Mistress Ballato as much as he did Jamia in the caravan; Jamia was always his focus, as if her simple existence was proof enough of his outrageous good fortune (and after meeting her Gerard is forced to agree). But he tells Gerard about her now, whispers about her bringing him onto her staff when he was sixteen and badgering him until he admitted that he knew how to balance all of the books better than Jimmy did because he had been borrowing them ("I just wanted to look!") for three years already.
It would be easier here than anywhere else in the world for Gerard to be happy, or at the very least be content, numb and secure and safe, even as a slave. Even with the knowledge that Frank will have to pull back from him eventually, that Jamia's inexplicable tenderness must run out, and that somewhere within Mistress Ballato there must be a typical estate owner somewhere, it's still better than he could have ever hoped.
And it makes Gerard sick to his stomach, because as long as he doesn't have Mikey, nothing else can matter. Every day that he spends here well and whole is one more day of not knowing, of wondering. Of failing.
The fears for Mikey that he could bury while in the slave caravan, because he could do nothing to find Mikey, had no resources, are suddenly thrust into the forefront of his thoughts. Here, he has a bed and a bedroom all to himself, has hot meals and vast gardens to wander, while Mikey could be suffering, could be in a caravan himself.
He keeps those thoughts private, as much as he can, terrified that all Mistress Ballato is waiting to find is his weakness, the means of holding him down. But he can't bear to keep Mikey out of the world all together, hates every minute that he can't say his name and tell everyone he sees about his brother, and so he does what he must and carves him into the estate.
Gerard finds the corners and the overlays and the edges of the fine wood and etches his brother's name everywhere. He isn't stupid, or suicidal; he keeps the marks small, and hidden, as much for his own appreciation of the finery as for his fear of being caught.
He wonders at her reaction were Mistress Ballato to catch him at this, what she would say at the small pile of wood shavings he blows away after he's done with the final curlicue of each letter. Wonders if that would make her finally crack and treat him like he should be.
Every morning he wonders if today will be the day his luck runs out.
Frank knows that they worry about him.
He knows that Jamia intentionally doesn't press him, doesn't ask him any questions about his months away from the house and his work and their lives, knows that she bites her tongue more than she ever has before. He answers her anyway, tells her with his eyes and his hands and his mouth, and after the first month, she starts being able to listen.
She starts being able to hear that he's okay, feel it in his touch and see it in his glances. She starts to answer back when he noses up her neck to kiss her ear and she shivers, breathes it in when she moves against him.
He tastes it when he's down between her legs, lips and tongue moving over her steadily, just right. And he feels it rocket through his entire body when he shifts up above her and presses inside, her legs wrapping tight around his back, and her hands brushing over his collar.
He was never theirs, he tells her as he thrusts inside, overwhelmed by her scent and her body and her simple existence. He was always, always hers, and now he has the collar to prove it, and it's only when her hands tighten around the collar and she cries out that he realizes he's speaking out loud, telling her in every way he knows how that he's hers, always has been and always will be.
It's different, now--before he was taken, he would drop off into sleep seconds after coming, leaving just enough time to arrange himself around her in a position that wouldn't leave one or both of them with pins and needles running through an arm or a leg in the morning. Now, even when she drifts off in his arms, he can't sleep easily without Gerard, needs to get up and lie with him most nights, to place a hand on his cheek and breathe in the same air. He knows Gerard is waiting for him to stop, waiting for him to leave the house and stake a new claim with Jamia someplace else. He keeps deflecting the comments, wrapping his arms around Gerard and waiting him out instead, counting to one hundred silently as Gerard relaxes despite himself. Sometimes that's still not enough, and Frank kisses him quiet, hands stroking down Gerard's sides and over his ass and around to his cock, gentle and giving and sure.
He knows that Gerard feels guilty about that, feels like he should apologize to Jamia, and he also knows that Jamia wonders if it's fair of her, to take him from Gerard at all. But they can both sleep, because of him, and he's used to ignoring the stupid things that people he loves occasionally do.
In the mornings he goes over the accounts and the ledgers with Jimmy, learning what was done while he was gone and catching up on the much larger lists of duties that were pushed to the side, delayed or ignored altogether for months. He shows Lindsey his daily progress, watches as her reaction changes over time from shock and sadness to guilt and blame to finally, finally acceptance and approval. He smiles to himself as she regains the expectation that his daily work will be done, and done right.
He can't tell them that he's okay and make them believe it. But he can show them.
The only wrinkle left that Frank hasn’t ironed out yet, that he knows won’t just be a matter of time and reestablishing his place in this home and continuing to bring Gerard forward as well, is telling Jamia everything about Gerard.
Frank knows that Jamia must understand that his relationship with Gerard isn’t strictly platonic. He looks too long at Gerard, his hands reach out to touch far too frequently, and while she’s never asked what precisely happens when Frank goes to comfort Gerard at night, he knows she knows.
At first he just let her be silent on the issue too, accepted it as being part of the new reality that wasn’t going to fit back together precisely the same way, no matter what they do. But the longer Gerard lives here, with all of them, the more he realizes that he can’t keep hiding the depth of his feelings from Jamia--or from Gerard.
There's plenty of work to be done outdoors today--the annuals Jamia planted have grown, bloomed, and are now wilting sadly, and it's time to dig them up and replace them with something hardier--but Jamia has given Gerard the afternoon off. He worked hard all morning; he started digging at the gate and began working his way up the drive toward the forecourt. He's got no compunction about getting dirty and is more thorough than Jamia would have expected. For someone who appears incredibly vague and distracted, Gerard has an excellent work ethic and a dedication to detail that makes him invaluable at weeding.
However--and Jamia will keep this thought for her own private amusement forever--Gerard is a bit of a flower himself, with a tendency to wilt if he's out in the heat too long, and it's particularly humid today. Jamia sends him indoors for lunch with instructions to relax for the afternoon.
Recently Gerard's seemed to be getting a little more used to Lindsey's house, a little less skittish, a little more absorbed in the staff and the food and the Ballato art hung on the walls than unnerved by whatever was upsetting him before. Jamia wants to give him the chance to become more comfortable. This is his home, at least for now.
Jamia has a light snack herself, refills her canteen, and sets her gardeners to work up by the forecourt where the sun is hottest. There are seven of them, all young men from the village. They're hard-working and she's glad to have them, but sometimes they talk too much. They can handle the heat, and hopefully they'll be too busy complaining to each other to bother Jamia. She walks down the drive to work nearer the gate, picking up where she and Gerard left off, grateful for the meager shade there.
Her right hand gloved to avoid blistering from the trowel, her left hand bare save her wedding ring so she can feel the dirt properly, Jamia sets to work and falls into an easy rhythm. It takes several tries for Frank saying her name for her to notice he's there.
"Frankie!" she says, pleased.
He smiles down at her and leans in to tuck a sweaty tendril of hair back into her plait. "Hey, J," he says. "You got a minute?"
"Sure, if you can talk and help me dig at the same time."
Frank rolls his eyes but kneels next to her good-naturedly enough, putting his hands where she tells him to. He doesn't say anything, though. Jamia suppresses her own sarcastic expression and settles back into the work to wait him out.
Eventually, he says, "So."
Jamia says, "Uh-huh."
"I just--I had a thing."
Frank tugs impatiently at a stubborn root and Jamia puts her hands on his to quell him. He'll just break it off if he continues as he's going, instead of getting the plant out whole.
"It's just --" Frank says, and sighs. "You and Gerard have been getting along well."
"Yes, we have," Jamia says. "He's a good man." They both know that Gerard is much more than just a “good” man, but the description does cover a lot. Hopefully Frank will let it slide.
"No man better," Frank says.
Jamia smiles and nudges Frank with her shoulder. "I can think of one who'll do."
Frank nudges back, as he's meant to, and returns her smile. "I love you."
"I love you too," Jamia says easily. "Is that what you came to tell me? That Gerard is a good man and that you love me? Because you're an idiot if you thought I didn't know both of those things."
"No. I mean, yes, but. Fuck." Frank scowls down at the dirt.
Jamia tilts her head. It's probably unfair of her to tease him; Frank hasn't exactly been the most willing to talk about what he's thinking and feeling since he's been home, beyond the many, fervent "I love you"s he's gone out of his way to press into her skin. Jamia thinks she and Frank have been getting closer, sorting and softening the awkward or dissonant places where they used to be easily intimate. Maybe Frank will never be quite the same--she suspects his new aversion to sleeping with anyone besides Gerard at his back won't be changing any time soon--but things have been feeling better.
Jamia's been minding less and less Frank's refusal to talk much, though his reaching out today is certainly welcome. She'd probably feel far less easy if not for Gerard, who's consistently proven his willingness to fill the silences himself or listen as needed. "Frankie," Jamia says. "Sweetheart. What is it?"
Frank makes a frustrated noise, a whine low in his throat. Jamia takes his hand in her ungloved one and he clutches it tightly, squeezing his eyes shut.
"Should I guess what it is?" Jamia says. "Is it something you're feeling guilty about?" Frank shrugs. "You have to give me something to work with, Frank, or we'll be here all afternoon. It's not about the estate, you don't have anything to do with the groundskeeping. Unless... Frank. Is it the orchids? Again? Did you not learn your lesson six years ago?"
"It's not the orchids," Frank says in an injured tone. "I know better."
"I should hope so," Jamia says coolly.
A pause, and then, "Six years!" Frank yelps. "You could let it go!"
"No," Jamia says. "If I never held a grudge, how would you learn to be very, very sorry?"
"Woman, you are the most evil," Frank says.
Jamia laughs. "So it's not the orchids, then. Is it anything to do with the estate at all? No? Is it about Bob? I know he told you if you kept sneaking Gerard coffee he'd stop making it for everybody, Frank, did you get caught?"
"No!" Frank says, affronted this time. "I am all stealth, Jamia, I have kitchen allies. I am like a thief in the night."
"Hm," Jamia says. "Well, it's nothing to do with your work; it's nothing to do with Lindsey, because I know you'd talk to her directly instead of hiding behind me--"
"Once! Once when we were teenagers!"
"Frank. If it's nothing you've done wrong to any of our friends or in the course of your work, then what?" She adds, as gently and with as much humor as she can, "You just told me you love me, so you're hardly trying to leave me."
"Nobody is ill and nobody is dying. Tell me."
"I." Frank coughs, turns to face Jamia properly, meets her gaze with eyes full of regret. "Jamia, I love Gerard."
Jamia is silent for a moment, waiting for the rest of whatever Frank is trying to confess, but Frank is looking nervous, now, like it's her turn to speak. "I know," she says, confused.
"I mean that I'm in love with him."
"You must know, Jamia, that my feelings for you are no less fervent despite my feelings about Gerard," Frank says earnestly.
"I know," Jamia says. "Sweetheart, is this what you needed to tell me?"
"Well," Frank says, looking a little lost, "Yes."
Jamia can't help but laugh. "Oh, Frank, surely--surely all of this anxiety wasn't for this thing that all of us already know?"
"All of us?"
"Well. Me and Gerard. Lindsey. All of the household staff."
"Oh, hell." Frank tries to punch at the ground in frustration, but the soil is newly turned, damp and soft, so the gesture is largely ineffectual. "Jamia... This was never my intent. When I found Gerard in the caravan, I never expected to come to know him so well, or love him so much. I never thought I would love anybody but you."
Jamia wants to pull Frank to her, hold him close and pet his hair, but they're outside on the edge of the drive where anyone could see them and her hands are filthy besides. She settles for tugging at Frank's hands and pressing a kiss to his frowning mouth. "I'm not angry," she says. "Or upset. I thought I should be, at first, but I couldn't."
"There's a first," Frank says.
Jamia feints a bite at him. "Shush, you. What is there for me to be jealous of? You and Gerard love each other. So? What do I lose? You and I are still as much in love as we ever were. I don't know if Gerard and I will ever be lovers as you and Gerard are--" Frank goes pink. What on earth did he suppose Jamia thought he meant? "--but he is easy to love, Frank. He's a dear friend to us both. Stop worrying because you have enough love to share."
Frank stares at her for a long moment. Jamia stares back, struck for the thousandth time with relief so strong it almost makes her dizzy that Frank is here to be stared at, at all. His mouth is turning up into an incredulous smile. It's her favorite smile of his; it's the one he wears when he is thinking about how lucky he is. "I love you," he says.
"I love you too," Jamia says briskly. "But don't think that gets you out of helping me dig, now. You volunteered."
The problem with being told to avoid a certain place is that it makes it seem so goddamn interesting.
Gerard still prefers to be outside most of the time with Jamia, attempting to help her as best he can, but he'd gotten a bad burn across his face the other day and had been told in no uncertain terms by her to stay indoors during the hottest hours. He spends some time pressing his skin and watching it turn white before blooming back into red, only stopping when Frank catches him.
"Gerard, what are you doing?"
"It changes color, Frank. Why do you suppose that it does that?"
Frank stares at him. "I don't know, but doesn't that hurt?"
Gerard shrugs, turning back to the mirror and pressing his finger in again. Frank huffs out a laugh, leaving the room as quickly as he'd come in, something he'd been doing around Gerard a lot lately. Gerard would worry about it except that Jamia is still exactly the same to him, still kind and funny and no-nonsense. He doubts that Jamia’s loyalty and affection towards him would survive very long if Frank no longer cared for him, so he is content to wait for Frank to resolve for himself whatever is going on in his head.
But between not being allowed to go outside for hours each day and Frank sliding away from his presence like a magnet held the wrong way, there's very little restraining his curiosity about the East Wing.
And finally, one late morning when his nose is still pink and peeling from the burn, he can resist no longer and sneaks down the hallway towards the big wooden doors, tiptoeing in an attempt at stealth.
Gerard picks the lock quickly, shaking his head a little at the frankly decorative device--would that all locks were so easy--and pushes open the doors.
And he stares.
Gerard was expecting another long hallway, with large rooms off it, or perhaps a ballroom fallen into terrible disrepair, unused and unneeded in such a large estate. When he first came here he had had dreams that this was where all the other slaves were, all the poor fools who had been lulled into a sense of safety and comfort before being thrown into a prison of terror and neglect, but he hadn't seriously feared what might be in this wing for many weeks now.
He had never expected to find himself in a massive single room, floor to ceiling windows flooding the space with light. It's filled with paintings on easels, some of them finished but many of them clearly in progress, and small tables displaying sculptures, some made out of colored glass and metal welded together, others pieced together with strips of fabric and wood. Gerard wanders around with his mouth wide open, his focus swinging from one piece to the next, and he swipes his fingers over one of the sculptures (a field of flowers, each petal twisted and warped and perfect) and comes away with a film of dust.
When he gets to the back of the room, he finds a long table with supplies covering the entire surface, oil paints and pastels and brushes.
Gerard reaches for them all.
Frank isn't accustomed to being the last to know everything, but perhaps he needs to get used to it.
"Gerard? Did you hear what I said?" He's staring, he knows, but Frank can't help it, not after he spent the last week fretting about how to have this half of the conversation. It was only once Jamia had told him that he was acting like a fifteen-year-old with a first crush that he finally got up the nerve to find Gerard at last.
Gerard blinks back at him, slow and lazy like a cat. "Yes? You love me. I love you too, Frankie. Did you not know that?" He looks concerned suddenly. "You did, right? Or--Does Jamia not know?"
Frank shakes his head. "No no, she knows, Gerard, I just--"
Gerard stands up suddenly. "Oh god. Okay. Well. You know I can't leave, Frank. I mean. Maybe Mistress Ballato could send me to a different house? Or I could live in one of the other wings of the house, god know it's big enough--"
“What are you talking about, Gerard? You're not leaving," Frank says crossly. His declarations of love went much better when he was twelve and they just involved dozens of rings made out of flowers that he presented to Jamia until she finally succumbed to his many, many charms.
"Jamia knows, and is fine with it, and apparently you did too and just thought that not telling me was the way to go," Frank says, flapping his hand at him irritably.
Gerard steps closer. "You're married, Frankie."
"Well." Gerard gets right up next to Frank. "You can see then how I might be a bit confused, then. Not as to whether you loved me, just--if you were supposed to."
And to that the only way Frank can respond is to surge up and kiss Gerard, cupping his face with his hands. The feeling of Gerard kissing him back out in the open, in the middle of the house, is the best thing he's felt since Jamia said she was bringing them both home.
He pushes the momentary thought of the slave caravan out of his head, focusing back only on Gerard, on how he’s gripping Frank tight around the waist. "Let's go to bed," he whispers against Gerard's lips.
Gerard pulls back. “We’ll miss tea, Frank. You know that Bob worries when we do that."
Frank bites his lower lip, shuddering with anticipation. "We can stop by the kitchens afterwards, for provisions. Now bed."
They push each other up the stairs and down the hall towards Gerard’s suite, not bothering to keep it down. Frank feels like something is bursting out of his chest at the moment; the idea of continuing to try as hard as he can to not disturb things, not be noticed, not participate in the day-to-day bustle of the estate is impossible right now.
He thinks that it might be impossible altogether, after this.
Gerard opens the door to his room, far larger than anything that would be appropriate for a man owned by anyone, but there's nowhere else Lindsey would have put him.
And then Frank closes the door behind them, and locks it.
Frank takes a minute to just look at Gerard, to let his eyes take him in, noting the way his face looks now that he's had time to eat properly, his cheeks a little fuller, collarbones not quite so prominent.
Gerard’s eyes are the same though, bright and intent on Frank, his focus overwhelming in a way completely different from Jamia. She is a constant, a sense of home and balance that permeates every part of Frank from the inside out. Gerard pins him, takes him over, and for the first time he can experience both, feel the way they both hold him up and make him whole.
Right now though, it's all about Gerard.
Frank walks up to him, conscious of how Gerard's gaze sweeps over him, and he leans in to Gerard's ear. "Take my clothes off?" he whispers, smiling a little at how fast Gerard nods and pushes him away slightly.
Gerard is so careful, so considered in his movement, Frank can hardly stand it. His fingers slide over the fabric of Frank's shirt, slowly undoing each button one by one until he can push it open, let the sides of his shirt hang open. Frank is breathing heavy, unable to do anything other than stand there for Gerard, stand and wait and feel.
Next are his work trousers, which Gerard unbuttons with the same methodical focus as his shirt, hands brushing against Frank's cock but never lingering. And then Gerard gets on his knees to work on Frank's boots, pulling down his pants and underwear once they're off. Frank feels lightheaded, like if he doesn't hang onto Gerard at least a little he'll just fall right over.
So he does, letting his hands rest gently on top of Gerard's head. But then Gerard looks up at him, and then straight ahead at Frank's half-hard cock, and when his mouth closes around it Frank's hands clench in Gerard's hair and he gives up any pretense of control or patience, groaning loudly and pulling him closer.
It's the first time Frank allows himself to actually respond verbally to what Gerard does to him, how he makes him feel, and he can't stop babbling. "Oh fuck, Gerard, that's--that's just right, right there, oh god," he moans out, the freedom to make noise ratcheting him higher, hands pressing over Gerard's face and then returning to his hair. Gerard's hands are tight around Frank's thighs, and he suddenly realizes that this isn't enough, he needs to be kissing Gerard, needs to feel him, needs--
"Wait, Gerard," he gasps out, and Gerard pulls away with a pop, looking up at him, his mouth cherry red and swollen. Frank crashes down to his knees and kisses him, tearing at his shirt and whining, trying to get as close to him as he can. "I just," he pants, trying to phrase what he wants, "I just want you inside me, please."
Gerard shudders against him and kisses him hard, and Frank goes pliant, letting Gerard get them back both to the feet and over to the bed. He sinks into the mattress, lying on his back and looking up at Gerard, who's finally, finally naked and holding a pot of salve in his hands.
"I don't." Gerard stops himself and shakes his head before speaking again. "I don't fucking deserve you."
Frank rolls his eyes, can't stop himself, and sits up to grab Gerard and pulls him down on top of him. "Well, you might not deserve me, but I certainly deserve you, so why don't you stop talking and fuck me, hm?" And when Gerard huffs at him, the smile he's clearly fighting breaking through a bit, Frank takes hold of the salve and runs his fingers through it before bringing his hand down between his legs and pressing two in.
Gerard watches him, eyes avid on the motion of Frank's hand, and Frank starts to talk again, can't seem to get himself to shut up with him anymore. "Just, I've wanted this for so long, Gerard, just you and me and a fucking bed and nothing else, no one to hide from, I can't wait." He gasps and then moans when he finds the right angle, and that seems to do it for Gerard, breaks through, because he's pulling Frank's hand away and slicking up his cock and then pressing in, leaning down to kiss Frank while he does.
"Wanted it too, Frankie, you have no idea," Gerard says, voice becoming uneven as he thrusts in, body shuddering against Frank's. "You're so goddamn beautiful, Frank, just, I want to look at you all the time, can't believe you let me."
"I want you to, please, you can see anything you want," Frank says, not even sure what words are leaving his mouth at this point. Gerard leans over him, tucking his face against Frank's, and the metal of their collars clink together as they move as one, a reminder of what brought them together in the first place, what they've overcome.
Frank feels like he's flying apart, like his entire body is humming with energy, and he lets himself shout it out, lets out every sound of his love and his rage and his want, lets his body feel it as Gerard takes him over and over, finally breaking and coming, his hand tight around his cock.
"Come on, Gerard, come on, come inside me," he chants, crying out with relief when Gerard finally does, the feeling overwhelming him. Gerard collapses on top of him, and Frank pets over his back, running his hands all over his skin, touching as much of him as he can.
Giving himself all of it, finally.
Lindsey runs into Jamia on the way back to the house from the stables. She's surprised to see her without Gerard right next to her, poking his head into whatever Jamia's working on now; she can't remember the last time she saw Jamia without either Frank or Gerard plastered to her side.
Lindsey's glad; it's been too long since she's been able to spend time with Jamia alone.
"How does the planting schedule look?"
Jamia glances up at her, the sun lighting up her eyes. "Fine. We're a bit behind where we were last spring, but nothing too bad."
Lindsey nods. Between her mother's death and Frank's capture she's just happy anything on the estate is still running smoothly. "I'm sure Gerard will be happy to help you out."
Jamia smirks. "Yes, if by helping me out you mean telling me the history of irrigation and crop rotation in this part of the country, which of course is completely different than how it works in either his region of Sunderland or on his grandmother's old farm in Nordia. He always adds something to a conversation."
Lindsey smiles back at this. Gerard still is more quiet around her, hasn't quite loosened his tongue, but even getting the stories secondhand is entertaining. "That's the impression I've gotten, certainly." She stifles a yawn.
Her attempt at hiding her exhaustion is unsuccessful. "Are you still not sleeping?"
"I'm fine, Jamia. I'm sure it can't be worse than what you're dealing with."
Jamia leans over and puts her hand on her arm. "You know if you ever need anyone to talk to before going to sleep, or anything, I'm here, right? And not just for Frank, or Gerard."
Smiling, Lindsey covers Jamia's hand with her own. "I know. I'm doing better, I promise."
Jamia eyes her. "Better enough to start working on your art again?" Lindsey freezes for a moment and is still trying to find the words to respond when Jamia continues. "It's not just your sleep that I'm worried about, Linds. Now come on, if you can't sleep, you can at least drink more tea with me. The mistress of the Ballato Estate can't be seen yawning like that, it's far too common."
"Since when have I cared about that," Lindsey protests, but she lets herself be led back to the house.
Frank is trying to not disturb Jamia's sleep, but after he turns over for the tenth time and knees her in the small of the back, she pushes herself up on her elbows and glares at him.
"Frank, will you calm down."
"I am calm, just can't sleep."
She rolls her eyes. "You are worse than Lindsey, I swear to god. Always kicking and fidgeting and then looking like a lost baby bunny if I try to turn away."
"Maybe I should just go see if Gerard's awake."
"What an excellent idea."
He leans in and kisses her. "Sorry, honey."
"Go away," she says, and he grins back at her before walking to the adjoining door to Gerard's room.
Gerard's still awake when he enters the room, his black hair gleaming in the moonlight as he turns to Frank. The shades on his windows are never drawn; Frank is pretty sure he doesn't want to know why.
He climbs up onto the bed and flops down onto his pillow. "Can't sleep, Jamia kicked me out. Thought I could bother you instead."
"You can always bother me, Frank."
Frank hits him in the arm. "Asshole, you're supposed to say I'm never a bother to you."
"Oh, of course, that's what I meant," Gerard says, and Frank flips him off before sighing.
"At our old house Jamia would make me run outside to calm down before getting back into bed with her if I was like this, or sometimes I'd lie down on the floor outside our room, waiting until I was just about to fall asleep before coming back." He snuggles in closer to Gerard. "At least this is more normal."
Gerard snorts. "As if anything in this house is normal."
"Fuck you, it is too."
Gerard looks at him like he's crazy. "Frank, nothing about this place is normal. You're a collared slave that people listen to and respect, for fuck's sake. Mistress Ballato--"
"--Mistress Ballato argues with Jimmy like he's her equal, and Jimmy argues back. Bob scolds her about not eating enough. I saw Kitty push her over into the mud near the stables and Mistress Ballato just laughed. To say nothing of how she treats you and Jamia!"
"Have you been skulking about spying on everyone? And here I thought you'd been hiding in the cellar or something."
"I'm serious, Frank!" At that Frank draws Gerard closer, kissing his brow and frowning when he realizes that he's jittery with tension.
"Hey. What is it?"
Gerard exhales heavily against Frank's throat. "It's not that I'm not grateful, or even happy, Frank, but I still don't understand how this works. I've accepted that you and Jamia are weird and love me and let me love you too, but I don't get who this mistress is, or what I'm supposed to do, or why no one has touched me or even looked at me like I'm a slave."
Frank sees red for a moment. "Lindsey would throw them off her land if someone even thought about it."
Gerard squeezes his arm. "And that's weird, Frank. I don't know how you don't know that, but it is."
Frank is quiet, choosing his words carefully before speaking. "It's not that I don't know how rare Lindsey is, Gee, or that most mistresses don't consider their steward and groundskeeper to be their closest friends. But that's how it's always been here. Her mother was the same way.
"How did she die?" Gerard's voice is soft in his ear.
Frank closes his eyes, remembering. "A sudden fever. I'd had it first, like always, but it took hold of her even worse. I don't actually remember a lot of that time, I was still sick myself for most of it." He squeezes back when Gerard wraps his arms more tightly around him.
"Mistress Ballato doesn't talk about her much."
"No," Frank agrees. "She bottles up her feelings until they rush out of her like a volcano erupting."
"Yeah, that's not a terrifying thing to hear about your mistress or anything," Gerard says wryly.
Frank tugs Gerard's head back, his hand caught in Gerard's hair, and kisses him until the remaining tension fades out of his body. He finally breaks away and looks at Gerard.
"I know it's hard for you to trust Lindsey. But you can. Or at least trust me, okay? I would never have brought you here if I didn't know that Lindsey would keep you safe."
Gerard nods against his cheek. "I know, Frank. It's just not something I can know yet. But I'm trying. And you're right," he continues, brightening a little, "anyone that both you and Jamia love can't be all bad."
Frank laughs. "That's the spirit."
"I mean, Jamia loves you, and you're, you know, just you, and so it figures that if she loves Mistress Ballato just as much that she must also be excellent. It's like she's a poison taster for a king."
Frank cuts him off before Gerard can really get going. "How do you know how much Jamia loves Lindsey, anyway? I thought you were helping her work all day, not discussing her feelings."
"Because I watch, Frank." Gerard stares at him in the dark. "That's all that I do. A slave always needs to be watching."
"We'll watch together, then," Frank says, pulling Gerard over and arranging himself on the pillows. "And now it's time to sleep, you fucker, keeping me up all night like this." He smiles when he feels Gerard snort against his neck, and he’s finally able to sleep.
The sight of Frank and Gerard kissing on a lounge, or Frank perched in Gerard's lap as Gerard reads out loud to him, or Frank sitting with a guitar on his lap picking out a tune while Gerard hums along is becoming more and more common.
Lindsey would be concerned for Jamia, in theory, if it weren't for the fact that Frank has always worn his heart on his sleeve for her. If anything, he's become even more doting, and attentive, and occasionally obnoxious in his need for attention, which Jamia handles as she always does, which it to say by mocking him until he grins back at her, face beaming.
And Gerard has spent a fair amount of time during the past two or three weeks walking around with a look of uncertain joy on his face, like he can't quite believe what's happening but he's not arguing with it either. He seems to be happy, really happy, for the first time since he's been a--well. Since he came to live here. He was always comfortable with Frank, but now he seems to sink into his relationship with him, without any hesitation. His relationship with Jamia, always cordial and productive, has become warmer--more intimate.
If he still occasionally locks himself into his room for five hours and won't come out for tea, or disappears to somewhere on the grounds or in the house itself that she hasn't yet managed to locate, she can't blame him for that.
She tries not to blame herself for it either, but that's more difficult.
When she mentions this to Jamia one afternoon while Gerard is off who-knows-where and Frank is in the library, going over the accounts, her response is rather predictable.
"Yes, you really are a terrible, terrible person, to have rescued him from a slave pen and kept him with the only person in the world he still had left."
Lindsey pushes at her on the lounge, and Jamia smirks back at her. "I know I'm not to blame for his--predicament, okay? I can still want him to be happy."
"I thought you just said he was."
"He’s, just. He's happy because of Frank, and because of you, and I know that's good, that this is the reason it was so important to keep them together, but I still wish there was something I could do, some way I could make this better. Which is selfish, I know."
Jamia is quiet for a moment. "Has it really never occurred to you that you are giving him something? That the space he has here, to feel and react and be, is actually huge? So he's not your bosom friend. He no longer hides from you, or flinches away from Frank or me when you're in the room. I think that's the best you can truly hope for at the moment."
Lindsey thinks about the way that Gerard does sometimes look at her, a mix of fascination and frustration evident on his face. She shakes it off as best she can, focusing back on Jamia. "I know you're right. Just like you were right about Frank and the space he needed. How are you coping with all the--changes?"
Jamia laughs. "It's surprisingly easy to cope with Frank not panicking every time he looks at Gerard while I'm in the room now. Aside from that, not much has really changed, at least not for me. I always had Frank, and now he has Gerard too, and well. I have you, too," she says, her voice going quiet.
Lindsey puts her hand on her knee, soothing. "Of course you do, Jamia. I would do anything in the world for you, you know that." She feels Jamia stiffen a little under her touch and takes her hand away, her mind wandering back to Gerard's less melancholy yet still odd behavior. "I still feel like there's something I'm missing about Gerard, or what he needs, or something." Lindsey falls back against the cushions. She reaches a hand up and brushes the hair out of Jamia's face. "Am I missing something, J?"
At that Jamia seems to pink a little, her cheeks growing rosy. "Possibly, but I'm not entirely sure it's about Gerard."
Lindsey's heart starts to beat a little faster. "What am I missing, then?"
And Jamia turns to look at her fully, and Lindsey can read everything she needs to know in her eyes, the eyes of someone she's loved so dearly for so long. She feels her entire body heat up, flushing under the focus in Jamia's eyes. "What, really? But I. I thought you viewed me as a sister, as merely--how could I have missed this?" she wonders out loud.
Jamia laughs, hiccuping a little. "I have no idea, love, given how many times I've asked you back into my bed."
"I thought you were concerned about how I was sleeping," Lindsey says, and Jamia grips her hands tight and leans in, kissing her gently on the lips.
"Not just with sleeping," she whispers, and Lindsey smiles against her mouth and kisses her back.
Jamia feels like coming home, everything about her so familiar and known, so well-loved. It makes it easy to push forward more, to wrap arms around her waist and pull her close. And Lindsey has never been so grateful to be wearing loose blouses and breeches, allowing her to feel the whole of Jamia's body pressed up against her own, to feel the contours of her curves.
She gasps into Jamia's mouth when she starts to push up Lindsey's shirt, her hands drifting over her ribs and around her belly, and she pulls away. "Hold that thought," she says, the breathiness of her voice shocking and obvious. She stands up and walks over to the door, shutting and locking it, knowing that neither Jimmy nor anyone else will disturb them in the front sitting room for anything short of an emergency. And even if they tried, well. Lindsey is the mistress of this house.
If she wants to use the front sitting room for this, no one is going to stop her.
She turns back to Jamia to find that she stood up to follow Lindsey and is now standing about three feet away from her, gaze calm and a little mischievous. It still feels a little forbidden to Lindsey, removing her shirt and her breeches and underclothes in the middle of the afternoon, the light streaming through the curtain and casting the room in a soft glow. She doesn't want to wait though, doesn't want to spend any more time waiting to feel Jamia up against her, skin to skin.
They've waited long enough, apparently.
Jamia disrobes along with her, the softness of her skin and the expanse of her breasts and belly and thighs revealing themselves to Lindsey, and as soon as she's stepped out from her breeches Lindsey pulls her in close, hands roaming all over her body as they kiss.
For all that it's familiar, being near Jamia and even her taste, it's also like nothing that Lindsey has ever experienced before, her duties to her home and disinterest in most people precluding prior romances. She was not one to casually share herself with people, and her relationships with Jamia and Frank and even Jimmy and Steven and Bob were far more important to her than any possible tryst.
She gasps when Jamia sweeps one hand down her belly and touches her down below, knees buckling a little at the pressure. She pulls her mouth back from Jamia and looks at her as she strokes her, slowly, and then Jamia's mouth is at her ear.
"Will you let me try something?"
Lindsey can't stop her hands from clutching at Jamia's hips, trying to stay up. "Yes, of course."
And Jamia steps back, taking her hand away and moving back towards the lounge. "Sit here?"
The idea of sitting down at the moment seems like a very good one. She looks up at Jamia, staring at her breasts and then down at the thatch of hair between her thighs, and when Jamia drops to her knees between Lindsey's knees she takes a deep breath in.
"I've always wanted to know what Frank keeps raving about," she says, and with that she pushes Lindsey's legs further apart and puts her mouth on her.
Lindsey falls back against the lounge, pushing her hips forward and holding onto the back of Jamia's head. The sensation is unlike anything she's ever felt before, more focused and yet more gentle than a hand. More than that though is the heat, Jamia's mouth so warm and soft against her. She hitches her hips rhythmically, gasping when Jamia follows her and just stays so constant, so right there and Lindsey can't hold on any longer, shuddering and falling about around her, her thighs shaking.
Jamia pulls back and stares up at her, wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand and looking like the cat who got the cream. "Frankie wasn't lying," she says, and Lindsey sits back up before sliding down to the floor, pushing Jamia down onto her back.
"Clearly I need to verify this myself," she says, and bends down for her first taste.
“I swear, if Jamia looks any more self-satisfied than she has lately I am going to have to check with Bob to make sure there’s any cream left for the tomcats in the house.”
Gerard looks up at Frank at that, dislodging Frank's hand from where it was playing with Gerard's hair. "You're both a little smug, if it comes to that."
Frank smirks. "And why shouldn't I be? The estate's finally running well again thanks to me, you and Jamia fight over me nightly--"
"We do not."
"--and Lindsey's stopped looking like she's going to die of anxiety every time she sees my collar. Or you in general," Frank adds. "Basically, I win."
"You may win, Frank Iero, but you also own me that back massage you promised if I killed that spider's nest," Jamia says as she enters the front parlor, Mistress Ballato following behind.
"I can't believe you endorsed the killing of spiders, Frank. They catch bugs! They're an important part of the balance in nature," Gerard says, grumbling a bit when Frank pushes him away.
"They can catch bugs because they're so awful that flies freeze in terror when a spider comes into view. Spiders are not allowed." Frank stands up and kisses Jamia before pulling her over to the other lounge, settling himself with Jamia tucked between his legs, her back to his front. Jamia moans a little as her head drops when Frank's hands begin to work at her neck.
Gerard looks up at Mistress Ballato, who's grinning at the pair of them, fingers playing over her lips. She catches his glance and drops her hand, smile growing a little uncertain but not disappearing completely. "Mind if I share your lounge? Seeing as that one is well-occupied at the moment."
Gerard shakes his head, smiling a little himself when Frank pulls a hand away from Jamia's shoulders for a second to flip Mistress Ballato off before Jamia smacks his leg, groaning when he digs into another knot.
He studies the fabric of the lounge for a minute, his fingers feeling over the texture of the pattern, noting where it's thinner from wear and long use. He wonders if she just hasn't had time to have it reupholstered, or if it's another area of the estate that's neglected just like the East Wing, but when he looks up to ask her about the history of the lounge the question leaves his mind as quickly as it came.
Mistress Ballato is mending her breeches in front of him.
"What are you doing?" he blurts out.
She doesn't look up from where her hands are repairing a split seam. "Undoing the damage caused by multiple Frank-tackles."
"That looks more like Kitty's handiwork to me," Frank says.
"You're both appalling," Mistress Ballato says, her voice as mild as it ever is when she reprimands her staff for being unpardonably rude to her.
Gerard is still stuck on the first point. "Don't you have people who could do that for you? Chantal, or a seamstress, or someone?"
At that Mistress Ballato looks up. "Of course I do. But why should they need to interrupt their real work to fix my personal wear?"
The way she says it makes it almost sound reasonable, even to Gerard, and that's when he realizes that she actually means it, actually thinks that's the way life should work, and for the first time Gerard begins to understand why Frank's the way he is, after a life in a place like this.
He's starting to feel like Frank and Jamia aren't the only ones deserving to be smug.
"At least you're better at this kind of sewing than the cross-stitch," he says honestly, and the strength of her smile and the sound of Frank snorting in agreement only confirm that.
Lindsey thought that she was getting used to the routine, had thought she understood the method to Gerard's madness, accepted his desire to push and prod and pry, and that there was nothing he could actually do that would change her feelings about that. He was making progress, trusting her inch by inch, sometimes without even seeming to notice the change himself. She thought she was okay with how things were.
And then she happens to pass through the ballroom under the East Wing one morning and hears a loud thump from above, and the racing of her heart tells her how wrong she was.
When she burst through the doors to the wing after running up the front stairs, taking them two at a time, she realizes that she hadn't actually expected for him to be there at all. She hadn't actually thought that he would invade that area of her life, of her past, when she had made it so clear that this was not for outsiders.
And she certainly didn't expect to find him with a paintbrush in hand, surrounded by canvases depicting a slight man with an inscrutable expression on his face.
Gerard's face reflects horror, shame, guilt and even fear, which Lindsey doesn't understand until she realizes that her cheeks are burning with anger and her hands are shaking, and she knows that she has to get out of there.
As she turns to run back down the hall and the stairs and out through the doors, she can hear him calling out "Mistress Ballato!" It's a name she can least bear to hear in this moment than any other, and as she runs to the stable to get to her horse, the tears fall hot down her cheeks.
When Lindsey returns almost four hours later, the sun dipping below the horizon, she's tired and hot and only slightly less angry, or less frightened by the strength of her reaction. She walks up the front steps of the house and attempts to smile at Jimmy when he greets her, although she's fairly certain she fails on that front.
"Gerard has been waiting for you in the front parlor for the last three and three-quarter hours, Linds." His face is impassive, without judgment
She shakes her head. "I am not sure I should see him yet."
He does smile then, looking rueful. "Frank told me that if you said that, I should remind you that Gerard is vulnerable here, and completely dependent on your continued protection."
"Frank is a manipulative asshole," she says, laughing a little despite herself.
"Oh, he knows." She turns at Frank's voice, watching him as he comes out of the kitchens holding a biscuit with jam. Apparently Bob is feeling indulgent this afternoon. "But he's also right." He looks at her steadily as he takes a bite.
She sighs. "Frank--"
"I know what he did, Linds. And I know that he was sticking his nose in places it didn’t belong, but he wasn’t trying to hurt you. He didn’t know why you’d locked that place up."
"You might have told him," she counters.
Frank looks at her reproachfully. "I would never betray you like that." And she knows it to be true.
"What of him are you hiding from me, Frankie?" she asks quietly.
His mouth quirks a little. "Well...”
"Frank." She squashes the part of her that is interested in that topic, privately cheered that he can even joke about it at this point.
He shakes his head, popping the last of the biscuit into his mouth and sucking the jam off his fingers. "That's not for me to tell either, Mistress Ballato. But a little sharing might not be a bad idea right now." He walks close to her and leans up to plant a sticky kiss on her cheek. "Go talk to him, Linds. I think he'll actually listen." He walks past her towards the back rooms of the house.
She sighs and looks at Jimmy, who merely cocks an eyebrow at her. Perhaps instead of riding until her legs ached she should have just found Frank first.
Drawing her head up, she strides towards the front parlor, only pausing for a moment to knock on the cracked door before pushing it open. Gerard turns to look at her, his hands flying together, and he takes a step towards her before stopping himself and falling to his knees, hands covering the top of his head.
"Mistress Ballato, I am so terribly sorry for invading your privacy like that--"
"Gerard." Now that she's in the room with him again she can't bear to hear him apologize, for him to look at her like that from the floor. "I'm not going to beat you, or sell you back, or even yell at you. I just want to talk for the moment."
He looks at her suspiciously and she sighs inwardly; she supposes she deserves that. “How did you get into that wing in the first place?"
Gerard looks shifty, as if he can somehow bluff his way out of having managed to gain access to a locked wing. Lindsey has an instant image of him at the slave caravan, at how his emotions and thoughts must have be as easily read there as well, and she is suddenly so thankful that Frank was the one to find him. Frank isn't exactly accustomed to hiding his feelings, but his means of expressing them tend to be unusual enough that she doesn't think most people would catch on as quickly.
Things could have been so much worse for Gerard.
Apparently not speaking and just waiting for him is effective at getting him to say everything, though. She pulls her mind away from this thought to hear "--and after I got locked out for the seventh time, my grandmother showed me how to pick most locks, and so I decided to try that here."
"Why didn't you try to escape the slave caravan, then?" She doesn't understand this at all.
Gerard looks stricken, and even more scared than he did when she found him in the East Wing. "I couldn't risk getting caught, or anything like that. I needed to stay--to stay safe."
The last thing Lindsey wants to do at this point is make Gerard look like this. "I didn't mean to suggest that you should have left. I'm sorry, Gerard."
He waves her off. "I just invaded your space, the one thing you told me I couldn't do." He swallows loudly, and she knows what he's about to say. "I really don't deserve anything other than to be sold."
"Stop it." She's angry with herself, furious that her own grief and inability to move on has led to this moment. "I would never sell you, Gerard, both because Frank and Jamia would never forgive me, and because I would never let that happen to you." You're mine, she thinks before she can stifle the impulse, and she continues on. "This is my fault, not yours."
He looks at her incredulously. "Yes, because me breaking into a section of your castle--"
"It's a house--"
"--estate is something to be blamed on you. Fuck, you're almost as bad as Frank is at this. Not everything else in the world is your responsibility." The frustration is evident in his voice, the anger that she's sometimes sensed in him before.
"That's true, it's not," she says. "And I'm not responsible for your actions; I know that. You decided to break in here. But I decided to hide from it in the first place. I didn’t want to go there, and I didn’t want anyone else to go there either.” She takes a deep breath before continuing. “It was my mother’s favorite part of the estate.”
The expression of instant understanding on his face is both comforting and hard to look at. "When did she die?"
"Almost eighteen months ago."
Gerard nods slowly. "So about five months before Frank was taken."
"That's right." She doesn't let herself think about that night. "And then it didn't seem so important."
He shakes his head. "That's what I don't understand. How could you stay away then? I've seen some of the work up there--it's yours, isn't it?" When she nods, he starts to pace back and forth. "That work is all emotion, how could you not use it then?"
"Because I couldn't bear to feel it!" she bursts out, regretting it instantly but unable to stop the cascade of words that begins. "Because the last thing I want is to feel it, or to get that down on canvas. Or to imagine what my mother would think of me, owning a slave." Her guilt is overwhelming, her body hot. She feels like she can smell it on her, sweat-sharp and damning.
Gerard steps towards her. "My grandmother was the best woman I've ever known. She taught me everything I know about painting, and about being a good--a good person, and about doing what needs to be done. And I never knew your mother, or what she was like, but if she's who you say she was, a woman of honor and creativity and peace, I think she would judge you as my grandmother would have: a person who is willing to take on something she never wanted to give a total stranger a chance." He's quiet for a moment. "I think your mother would be proud of such a daughter."
Lindsey swipes angrily at the tears streaming down her face, appalled that this beautiful description of how her mother would judge her is enough to affect her like this. "You never knew her, though."
He spreads his hands open wide. "That's right, I didn't. But I know who you are. And I know what kind of woman you would have loved, as much as you loved her, to deprive yourself of something like that wing." He takes one more step towards her, standing close enough to cup her elbow gently. "You don't need to do that any longer.
"Will you paint with me?"
The first two or three times Lindsey enters the East Wing, she can't pick up any brushes, can't do anything more than wander around and look and see what's there waiting for her.
The portraits she saw when she caught Gerard are still there, the same eyes staring out at her through a pair of wire spectacles. She wishes she could ask him about this man, about this image, but though Gerard has continued to volunteer more information about his grandmother, about what Elena taught him and how she shaped him, he hasn't offered any explanation for who this is.
She spends more nights with Jamia, needing her touch, needing to ground herself with something. Frank has started shadowing her as well, and she can't tell if she's happy that he doesn't feel the need to do that for Gerard at the moment or distressed that apparently she does, in Frank's eyes.
And finally, after half a dozen attempts, she manages to sit down in front of a canvas, a palate of dark colors in her hand, and she paints.
Her strokes are bold and unpracticed, but it loosens something in her chest, reawakens something that she didn't know was dead. She's aware of Gerard's presence in the room with her, but he's all right. She knows that.
It's time for her.
Gerard's days have developed a routine.
He wakes in the morning--sometimes with Frank, sometimes with Frank and Jamia, and, rarely, alone. In his own room, he washes in fresh water, despite having usually bathed the night before, and brushes his hair, and dresses himself, including his shoes. Though many of the others tend to walk Mistress Ballato's--Lindsey's--castle in stockinged or bare feet, Gerard has found he becomes less panicky when he has shoes on indoors. None of his previous masters ever wasted money on shoes for pleasure slaves. It's funny that such a throwaway detail should ground him so well in the present, but Gerard cannot mistake this stately home for anybody else's when he is walking the halls with his shoes on.
After he is washed and dressed, Gerard breakfasts with Frank, Jamia, and Mistress Ballato. Gerard has become used to helping himself to bread and meat, eggs and fruit, as he pleases. He's even becoming used to how Mistress Ballato keeps a subtle eye on him as he eats; it took him a while to realize she was watching not to take food away if he was too greedy, but to make sure he was not going hungry. After he fills his plate, but before he takes his first bite, Gerard drinks a cup of coffee straight down, and then refills his cup to sip from as he eats. Some mornings, Chantal harangues Mistress Ballato more vigorously than others; on those mornings, if Gerard is lucky, he can sneak a third cup. (Most mornings Chantal catches him and makes threatening gestures with a ladle until he puts the carafe of coffee down.)
After breakfast, everybody scatters to their various duties. Gerard still doesn’t quite know how Frank, or for that matter Mistress Ballato--Lindsey--stays occupied all day, but he cares a good deal less now that he has his own work with Jamia to attend to. Typically they work together, though sometimes if Jamia has to do inventory or sketch out a new plan she’ll set Gerard some task of his own. They’ll work and talk and sweat together all day, with a break for lunch, and in the afternoon there’s tea. On a good day Frank will sneak by with a contraband cup of coffee.
Gerard used to spend the free hour or so he had before supper in Mistress Ballato’s forbidden wing. For a little while after their confrontation there, Gerard tried to occupy himself elsewhere, but Mistress Ballato, bewilderingly, had accepted the mad invitation Gerard had extended for the two of them to paint together. Now, before supper, Gerard will venture up the gracious staircase to find his customary room already well-lit with candles, a new canvas mounted on his easel, his brushes set out and ready for his hands.
Mistress Ballato--who has started cheerfully correcting him with “Lindsey!” every time he says her name--is a good painting companion. She doesn’t ignore him, exactly, but she’s seems perfectly content to let them both work uninterrupted. She’s not doing the same kind of work he is, either. Gerard likes to draw or to paint; he uses pencils or charcoal or ink or watercolors on paper, rarely combining them, or oil paints on canvas. He barely understands what Mistress Ballato does, but he loves it: she uses oil paint like sculpting clay, the shape and volume of what she puts on the canvas more important than the color or image. She dyes leather and cuts it up and sews or glues or nails the resulting shapes onto her paintings, and she’s extravagant with ribbon, with silk, with lace. Sometimes she’ll mix paints and then scrawl all over a table’s worth of butcher paper with her bare hands. She comes to the table for supper afterward with her fingers stained green and laughs when Jimmy stops in the middle of pouring her wine to scold her.
Gerard is a little in awe.
He’s always been much more literal in his art than Lindsey is; he tries to communicate the people he knows, the stories he imagines, while she distills bursts of emotion, impressions of moments in time that are too emphatic for a mere two dimensions. Lindsey’s art explodes outwards. Gerard’s drawings and paintings, all inevitably of Mikey, are entirely contained. He can’t stop creating, but the more he creates images of Mikey the more he misses him and the more melancholy each successive Mikey becomes.
Every evening Gerard and Lindsey leave their art in the East Wing and venture down in time for supper, which is an even more ridiculous meal than breakfast, for though one or two meals a week are taken in the dining room, the rest end up in the kitchens with the castle staff. Gerard likes those meals better, though they’re poorly planned and much more confusing. As far as he can tell, suppers in the kitchen happen when Frank follows Jimmy below at the end of the work day and their conversation is so involved that Jimmy can’t be bothered to traipse up and down the stairs to set an elaborate table for only four people. On kitchen nights, Bob piles the sturdy table with platters and bowls full of hot things and cold things, cooked vegetables and salad, fresh meat or fish or fowl, the last of the morning’s bread and soup made of anything else left over, and lets everybody set to as they please.
Because the table is full, supper doesn’t really begin and end like the formal meals upstairs do. People sit on chairs and stools and the shorter stepladders and on the floor. Jimmy and Frank perch on the countertops and make Bob chase them off. Sometimes there’s milk with the meal, sometimes a little wine or ale, but mostly everybody drinks cold water. People disperse as they’re done; every time, Jamia’s little gardeners try to sneak out under the pretense of “getting home before dark”--all seven of them are still young enough that they live in the village in their parents’ homes--but every time, Jamia, Kitty, and Chantal grab them by the collars and send them back to help store the leftover food and wash dishes.
Sometimes after supper Gerard and Lindsey go back to the East Wing, but usually they end up in the library or in one of the comfortable studies with Frank and Jamia. Gerard likes this almost as much as he likes being allowed to paint, because here he is allowed to read. He’ll take a book off the shelf--all the walls of the library are covered in bookshelves up to the ceiling, and there are novels and history books, books about art, books about poetry; recently Gerard has been reading a book about exotic plants on Jamia’s recommendation--and sit in an armchair. Sometimes Frank will plant himself at a desk or a table to do some bookkeeping, but more and more often he’s taken to abandoning that early and coming instead to sprawl on a couch with his head in Jamia’s or Lindsey’s lap, or to squeeze himself into the chair next to Gerard.
In some ways, this time in the evening is the most difficult part of Gerard’s day, because he is most reminded of Mikey then. Of course in the East Wing he paints Mikey, always only Mikey; but in the library with Frank and Jamia and Lindsey, well-fed and content, Gerard will have moments where he forgets that Mikey is not here with him, and he’ll look up to share an idea or meet his little brother’s eye and Mikey won’t be there.
After the library there’s a lukewarm bath with scented soap, set up in Gerard’s own room, and then bed. Gerard’s particular sleeping arrangements vary from night to night. The biggest bed is in Frank and Jamia’s suite, and perhaps one night of every three is spent with the two of them in that bed, curling up behind Frank and reaching across him to touch Jamia’s hand, her hip. It’s bewildering and wonderful to kiss Frank in that bed, to put his hands all over Frank’s body and then tilt him gently to Jamia and watch the two of them. They always look exactly as Gerard had thought they must, small and strong and very in love. Sometimes Frank is full of energy, tackling Gerard and Jamia in turns, and other times he is happy to be passed back and forth between them, to be kissed and petted as sweetly as they can manage.
On other nights Jamia goes to Mistress Ballato--to Lindsey, leaving Frank and Gerard to mind each other; and sometimes Gerard stays in his room alone, sometimes with a book or paper and pencil in bed. Those nights alone were terrible at first. Gerard would lose track of time, half in the present and half in a former master’s house, frightened of being found sleeping in a bed instead of curled up on the floor as he should be. He would wake in bed gasping, certain his master was under the bedclothes next to him, and would end up wrestling himself into consciousness, putting on his shoes and and going to wander the castle halls in his nighclothes and a blanket like a madman until it was time to dress for breakfast.
Those nights got better after a little while, as Gerard became friends with Jamia and learned to meet Mistress Ballato’s eyes when he spoke to her, as he became accustomed to the bizarre customs of the estate and the people living and working there. But now he’s finding that though he’s settling into his days here, learning to look forward to the work and laughter and company, the nights are once more becoming hard to bear.
“Come to bed,” Frank says, from his nest of blankets and pillows and Jamia, who is curled up around him already asleep. Gerard admires the tangle of her hair spread across the embroidered pillowcase, the press of her face against Frank’s back, the way her arm is looped possessively over Frank’s waist. Frank has one arm resting on Jamia’s, the fingers of their calloused hands twisted together. His other hand is occupied in holding a ledger up, though from the droop of his eyelids, it’s unlikely that Frank will be up reading much longer.
“No,” Gerard says. “You have a night with Jamia. I’ll only keep you up if I stay.”
“I’d rather have you being obnoxious and kicky in bed with me and Jamia than up pacing by yourself,” Frank says.
“I’ll be fine,” Gerard says. “I’ll see you in the morning, Frankie.” He ducks out, guiltily closing the door behind him without his customary good-night kiss, and goes to put in a cursory attempt at sleep.
He opens his bedroom window, which he does every night no matter how cold it is--it helps his bedroom feel less like the closed cell he’d had at his first master’s house--and gets into bed. The soft sheets are deliciously cool against his anxious skin, and Gerard indulges himself with a long stretch, taking up more of the bed than he usually dares to, and falls asleep with a blanket over his head before he can remember to be surprised.
When he wakes, sweaty and gasping, clawing at the pillows and blankets to get his body free, the chill from the window is a punishment, exactly what he’d deserved the night Mikey was nearly taken, exactly what he’d felt his first night in the pleasure slave pen, stripped of his own clothing and shivering in the thin cotton shift all the slaves wore--
-- He tries to feel for Mikey, the way he always has, the way he has always known if Mikey was hurt or lost or frightened or alone. Is he broken now, or was he only imagining it before, his sixth sense, his Mikey-sense? What will it feel like when Mikey is far enough away to be safe? Will he feel it when Mikey crosses the border?--
-- and Gerard wrestles free of the bedclothes and falls with a thud to the floor, burning his arm on the bristles of the worn rug and banging his ankle on the foot of one of the bedposts. Gasping for air, he gains his feet and stumbles to the door like a drunkard. He has a bad moment when he can’t open the door and then remembers that is is locked--locked from the inside--locked from the inside because he locked it, because this is his room in Mistress Ballato’s castle, in Lindsey’s house, and he may lock his own door if he pleases.
When he manages to open the door and stagger into the corridor he is so relieved he has to lean over and brace his hands on his knees, wary of anyone who might come around the corner for him--but that won’t happen here, it has never happened here--but it might--but it won’t --
Mikey, he was dreaming of Mikey. Gerard forces his legs to move, slapping one hand against the wall for balance as he goes, because he is trying to feel Mikey and he can’t, or he thinks he can’t, he isn’t sure. He’d stopped trying once he was sold to his first owner, terrified that if he could sense Mikey, Mikey would certainly sense him, sense the things Gerard was made to do with his hands and his mouth and his body and would surely do something wildly, wonderfully stupid like try to come rescue Gerard. But now Gerard can feel his own pulse jumping in his neck, can hear the heartbeat thumping in his ears, but he can’t feel anything beyond his own body, and --
“Gerard!” Lindsey, all indistinct brushstrokes and indications instead of clear lines in the low lamplight of the East Wing, rises from her stool in front of a canvas, hands outstretched toward him. Her dark hair is a blurry tumble around her shoulders in her soft dressing-gown; Gerard realizes to his horror that he has grabbed her by the shoulders, is digging his fingers in, and makes himself let go.
“Sorry--Mistress--Lindsey. I. Sorry, I dreamed--”
“Ssh, Gerard.” She takes one of his hands between both of hers, gently stopping him from trying to gesture her away. “Ssh. You didn’t hurt me. Ssh.”
Gerard stares at her gentle face, the calm curve of her mouth, of her cheekbone; thinks that if he could paint anything but Mikey, he would love to paint Lindsey, to try to convey by playing with shadows the softness in her eyes. Oh, but Mikey. Gerard’s eyes and teeth feel too big for his skull; he has to tell her, has to explain--Mikey is out there, is waiting, Gerard needs--
“Ssh, I know, ssh. You can tell me in a minute, but you have to breathe for me first. Gerard. Look at me. You can squeeze my hands as hard as you need to, you won’t hurt me, you can tell me about Mikey in a moment. Ssh, darling, breathe.”
Hearing her speak Mikey’s name makes the pounding in Gerard’s head ease so abruptly he sways on his feet. “Oh.”
“There you go, Gerard, good boy. Easy, now. Ssh. You can tell me all about Mikey if you’ll just breathe. There you go.” Lindsey raises her right hand to cup Gerard’s chin. Her skin is hot on his, and he realizes he’s still shivering. “All right, Gerard? I’ve got you, okay? Can you feel my hand on your face, my hand in your hand?” When he nods, hesitant, she smiles. “Good. We’ll sit, all right? Can you sit with me?”
Carefully, Lindsey maneuvers them both to the floor. Gerard isn’t sure what his legs are doing, but Lindsey’s are tucked neatly underneath her in her thick men’s pajama pants. He can see the curve of her calf, the jut of her anklebone. “Lindsey,” he says.
“Keep breathing for a bit,” she tells him firmly. “Hold my hand and breathe.”
She sits with him, the only steady thing in the world, until Gerard is able to meet her eyes and say, “I’m okay. I think. I--sorry, I --”
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Lindsey says. “Did you have a nightmare?” When Gerard nods she says, “Are you awake now? Do you know where you are?”
“Yeah. We’re--your castle. House. The East Wing. Your mother’s studio, you were up painting? You should be getting more sleep.”
Lindsey laughs at him. “You and me both, I think. Now. Why don’t you tell me all about Mikey.”
“He’s my brother,” Gerard says. “He’s my little brother. Michael James.”
“Mikey for short?”
“Mikey all the time! Nobody calls him Michael.”
“Okay. What was -- what is he like?”
“He’s my best friend,” Gerard says plaintively. “He’s my little brother. But he’s taller than me. And skinny. You’d completely miss him in a crowd if you didn’t know to look for him. He’s tricky like that.”
“You draw him all the time.”
“He’s the only thing I can draw. Or paint.”
“Was he always the only thing?”
“No,” Gerard says. “Just after I got taken. So, just since I’ve been here. I wasn’t allowed to draw or paint anywhere else.”
“Tell me more about him,” Lindsey suggests.
“He’s quiet,” Gerard says, a little doubtfully. That’s all wrong. He says as much and then adds, “I mean, it’s true that he’s quiet, but that’s not an important thing about him. When he talks he’s so smart. He understands so much. It makes me want to breathe less loudly so I can listen, but I always end up talking more instead. He’s really good at making me talk. I always explain things better when he’s with me.”
“Gerard,” Lindsey says. “Where is Mikey now?”
Oh. “Nordia,” Gerard says, trying to make it a statement and not a question. “I hope. That’s where I sent him. It’s where he’s supposed to be waiting.”
“You sent him away?”
“To save his life!” Gerard exclaims, though Lindsey didn’t sound accusatory. “They would have taken him and put him in a collar and made him -- and made him -- I had to send him away!”
“Ssh,” Lindsey says. She keeps hold of his hands in one of hers and strokes his cheek with the other. It feels like that first time Gerard let Jamia hug him. He keeps waiting for the urge to duck away from Lindsey, but it doesn’t come. “From the beginning, Gerard. Breathe and tell me.”
“It’s not a long story,” Gerard says. “A band of slavers came to our town and, and held us hostage. They took over the inn and some of the houses, our house, and took whatever they wanted. Food, clothes, weapons. People. They didn’t care if some people escaped, the people they didn’t think would sell as pleasure slaves. They knew our noble family would never send help in time. But one of them saw -- he decided he liked Mikey.
“He would sit at our table or he’d stalk Mikey around the kitchen and he’d say the worst things. Awful things that he’d do to Mikey if he could, but he didn’t want to ‘damage the merchandise’. He just stayed with us, waiting until their leader decided they were done. He was going to take Mikey with him when he left. And I knew if he did I’d never see Mikey again. Mikey was just -- he was too young. And they would hurt him. And it was my job to take care of Mikey, so. I thought maybe I could make it through my two years and go find Mikey afterward, instead.”
Gerard raises his eyes to Lindsey’s. She is kneeling in front of him, still holding on to him with both hands. Her expression is sad but steady, and she nods at him, a gentle indication to continue.
“So I made a deal with the slaver. I told him that if he let Mikey go I’d come with him instead and I’d do it willingly. And he made me do -- he made me prove my good faith. In the kitchen while Mikey was sleeping in our room. And obviously I knew it was stupid. And a really long shot. But it was for Mikey, so it was better to just try than to let them take him away.
“Some of Mikey’s friends were, the slavers were letting them leave. So I had to convince Mikey to leave me and go with Gabe and Ryland while he could, while our slaver was still in the mood to let him go. I made them swear to keep him safe. Mikey was so angry at me. And scared. And I promised him, I promised I’d come find him in Nordia. As soon as I could. As soon as I was sure he had escaped far enough that the slavers wouldn’t try to find him and bring him back. But then I... I was in the caravan for so long and I was never sure if it had been long enough, if he was safe or not, and then Frank came and I couldn’t leave Frank.
“But it’s been long enough, now, and I dream about Mikey all the time and I miss him so much and I’m afraid if I wait much longer he’ll come back into Sunderland looking for me, so I have to go find him. I have to go.”
"I have to find him." Gerard keeps repeating it over and over again, and Lindsey strokes his face with her hand, soothing.
"I know you do, Gerard. We all do." Her mind is already racing, planning out when they can leave and how they can plan it, but that's for the morning, not right now. "Do you think you can sleep now? Or do you want to paint with me?"
He looks at her blankly for a moment, the terror still not completely erased from his eyes, but finally his brow clears a little and he shakes his head. "I think-- I think I want to go to bed."
Lindsey nods. "Okay. I'll bring you to Frank and Jamia."
Gerard shakes his head. "No no, they're already in bed, I don't want to disturb them," he says, and Lindsey wants to laugh and cry all at once.
"Frank would spend all of tomorrow morning and most of the afternoon yelling at me if I left you to sleep alone tonight," she says. "And Jamia would do the same. Come on." She stands up and pulls him up with her. She risks putting her arm around him, figuring the comfort is worth the possibility of spooking him, but he slumps against her as they walk through the halls back to his suite.
Lindsey knocks on the door loudly and then pushes inside.
"Lindsey? What's going on?" Frank's voice is soft and mumbled, but she can see he's a moment away from panic at the sight of Gerard.
"Gerard had a bad dream and needs you," she says, pushing Gerard towards the bed.
"Hey, come here," Frank says, opening his arms to Gerard and pulling him in. "Hey. Hey." Frank looks up at Lindsey, his face questioning.
Lindsey shakes her head a little. "We'll discuss it in the morning." She hesitates, then pushes on. "Look after him?"
Frank simply nods, hands combing through Gerard's hair. Gerard is already limp against Frank's chest; she's sure he'll sleep now.
She closes the door to the room and leans up against it for a moment before pushing off down the hall. There is much to do.
When Lindsey tells Gerard the following morning that she has begun planning their journey to Nordia together, his reaction isn’t quite what she’s expecting.
He stares at her. "We're all going to go?"
She nods. "Well, obviously you need to go, and I can't imagine that Frank would take well to you going off on an adventure without him, and Jamia isn't likely to want to stay behind while Frank and you are gone. And of course I must go."
Gerard shakes his head. "It isn't right that you should all have to leave your home just for me."
Sometimes Lindsey is unable to comprehend how Gerard came up with this idea that he's unworthy of her giving him anything, and then she forces herself to remember why. It's a luxury that she can forget this, that she doesn't have to think of him that way; it's not his responsibility to be the one to constantly remind her.
In this instance, however, she still needs to impress upon him the necessity of her doing what he doesn't understand. "Gerard, this isn't a matter of choice, or what I would rather do. You need to find Mikey, right?" She smiles at him when he nods back, a little uncertain still. "Well, then what I need to do is whatever I can to make that happen. And besides, a trip north this time of year is always lovely. A bit cooler than the heat we've been dealing with here."
He certainly doesn't look completely appeased, but she'll take even a bit of cooperation at this point.
When Gerard had first mentioned Mikey, Lindsey's primary concern had been how on earth they would even start to find him, but that turned out to not be an issue at all.
"Oh, I know where he's gone," Gerard says confidently.
"Did he leave you a secret message or something?" Jamia asks, holding Frank's hand tight on top of the table in the smaller dining room right off the kitchen.
Gerard looks at her fondly. "No, he's just gone the only place either of us would ever go, if we were to leave our home--he went back to Nordia."
“Where your grandmother is from,” Jamia says slowly.
Gerard beams. “Exactly. I had thought about going back there a couple of years ago, when things started getting bad for people our lord didn't seem interested in protecting, but Mikey hadn't wanted to leave our home, and I wasn't about to go without him." Gerard stops, his face and eyes closed off. "I can't imagine what would have happened if I had left without him. If I hadn’t been there to take his place."
"Well, you were," Lindsey says, taking control again. She’s selfishly glad that Gerard had given himself up for his brother, had been there for Frank at the caravan and also for her, in the East Wing and everyone else in their home. To make her feel again, and express it in art.
She can never make up for the past two years, but she and Jamia know a little something about finding missing loved ones. "Let me talk to Steven, and we'll be on our way."
It takes them another couple of days to prepare the estate for their absence, but Lindsey is relieved to note how comfortable Jimmy and Bob and Dewees appear to be at the thought of running things while she's gone. Jimmy in particular seems unworried, to say the least.
"It'll be good to not have you underfoot all the time, to be honest," he says, cutting her off as she attempts to explain the weekly maintenance. "Always bitching, never doing a lick of work yourself. Just terrible."
She bumps his shoulder, trying not to let her smile show, but when he wraps his arm around her she drops her head against his chest. "I don't know how long I'll be gone, Jimmy."
He rubs her arm. "We'll still be here when you get back."
She shakes her head a little. "Is it wrong to be a little excited to be doing this? It feels, I don't know, like a--"
"Like an adventure?" he answers. She nods against his chest. "Well, I think it's high time for you to go off and do something instead of riding your damn horse on the same trails every day. Wouldn't you say so, Gerard?"
Lindsey turns in his arms a bit, ready to apologize to Gerard for her callous remarks, only to find Gerard nodding with a smile on his face. "I think it's time, yes."
Lindsey flushes a bit before pulling out of Jimmy's arms. "Well, then we'd better continue getting things ready."
Three days later, they set off at dawn.
The first morning and afternoon of the journey are pleasant, and it's easy for Frank to forget that he hasn't been off the estate much at all since they brought him back.
Frank is aware of the fact that the last few months had felt--not normal, not really, not with Gerard in his bed half the nights. But it was a new status quo, knowing that his wife was laughing at him for how his eyes followed Gerard around the room, and that when he kissed her all over her body later that night that she was giving him the room to love Gerard, and love her, and be loved in return by both of them. He felt the strength and sincerity of that gift in every moment he spent with her.
So while he might not be able to think of his life as being normal anymore, he certainly felt whole, like he was Frank Iero and not a small nameless pleasure slave in a pit of others indistinguishable from him. He no longer felt like his mind was a blank slate he tried to paste himself onto when talking to Jamia or Lindsey or Steven.
So it comes as a bit of a shock how quickly that blankness reasserts itself when they enter an inn on their first night of the journey, and he feels Gerard stiffen next to him in response to being looked over and assessed by strangers.
For the first time in months he can feel the weight of the collar around his neck, the way people see that and not a man.
He moves closer to Gerard instinctively, grabbing his hand and squeezing tight, keeping his head high and gaze off the floor only with a huge amount of effort. He can feel Gerard vibrating next to him, and suddenly this is familiar. The need to be the bait, the lure, the decoy is sharp and necessary. He's about to do--to do something, turn and put himself on display, or snarl at someone, or maybe even get on the ground, when he hears Jamia's sharp intake of breath and she steps in front of him and Gerard.
Lindsey is the last to notice, the last to feel the way the room has turned to look at two women and their pleasure slaves entering an inn, but she's also the most effective at shutting down the response. "Where might I find the keeper of this establishment?" she calls, her voice crisp and clear through the din, her aristocratic diction biting in the air.
Frank lets himself huddle closer to Gerard, lets himself take shelter in Lindsey and Jamia’s protection, even as he longs to spit in the face of the greasy old man who continues to leer at him and Gerard from the bar. His skin starts to crawl when the innkeeper comes up to them, his face changing subtly as he looks behind the women and sees two men with collars peeking out above their shirts.
"What might I be able to do for you, fine lady," and Frank almost laughs at the tone, knowing how little Lindsey will care for such obsequiousness.
"We require two rooms for the night, keeper, and dinner for all four of us, as well as lodging for my horses and my man out back," she says.
"Certainly, we have two of our best rooms still available upstairs, and you and your slaves would be welcome to dine in the main room--"
"We will dine upstairs in the privacy of our rooms," Lindsey says smoothly, reacting immediately when Frank grabs her arm at the innkeeper's words. "Our slaves are not for public consumption, after all."
"Of course, of course not," the innkeeper babbles, and Frank lets himself think about her meaning rather than the innkeeper's understanding of her statement.
They follow the innkeeper upstairs, Jamia dropping back to flank Gerard and Frank as they go through the inn, and when they are shown to two rooms adjoining each other, Frank breathes a sigh of relief. He looks at Jamia, who barely even nods back before saying to Lindsey, "I think the front room will do for us, don't you?"
That night he can't get close enough to Gerard, wanting to be inside him and over him and under him and taken by him in every way, the door double bolted to the rest of the world. He can hear Jamia and Lindsey crying out faintly through the walls, and he lets that carry him even further away from his thoughts, lets it soothe his mind and focus back on Gerard and making him whole.
Gerard is cognizant of how much of a sacrifice Lindsey is making by leaving her home in order to indulge her slave, her property, in his need for his brother. He feels that debt deep in his heart, even more so than he felt his obligation to her for buying him in the first place, or to Frank for refusing to be parted from him, or to Jamia for being willing to share her husband's love and affection.
It is one thing to rescue a person, to clothe and feed him, to protect him from harm. It is another thing altogether to embark on a journey to another country to find the most important person in his life.
He is also beginning to appreciate that Lindsey doesn't view this as a sacrifice, or unreasonable, or even a dangerous thing for a woman to do for her slave. She seems to think anyone would do this for another, if one had the means. He knows that she’s mistaken. Being benevolent and kind when one has the world to offer should be expected, but that has not been Gerard’s experience.
It isn't until that first night in the inn that he realizes that Lindsey isn’t the only one of them to have sacrificed something on this journey. He watches and sees what Frank has given up by coming with him, the way he responds to Gerard's involuntary reaction to being viewed as a slave rather than an unusual long-term house guest. He doesn't know how Lindsey managed it, how she influenced her household so completely, but it's only once he feels upon him the eyes of men and women who look at his collar and see a man they could have, could punish or fuck or beat or leave to starve in the street, without any fear of any sort of legal ramifications, that he appreciates that none of Lindsey's estate ever looked at him like that.
And given the strength of her reaction to the normal, expected behavior of average citizens, he's beginning to actually believe that if any of them had, she would have let them go without a second thought.
He didn't realize how much of a sacrifice it was for him to ask Frank to leave that world, though. He hadn't missed Frank's fierce protection at the estate, or at the very least hadn't missed the necessity of it, but there was something reassuring nonetheless at Frank's instant response that first night, at how all three of them closed ranks around him.
He can't stop staring at each of their faces during the second day of the journey, watching Jamia as she reads and Lindsey as she works on that terrible cross-stitch that Gerard longs to take from her so that he can do it as it was meant to be done, or Frank as he sleeps, face soft and relaxed against Jamia's shoulder.
They are more prepared when they walk into the second inn, Lindsey immediately commanding the attention of the innkeeper and staring down the patrons, daring them with her eyes to even attempt to look at what is hers. They make their way through the room with little to no interference, and all seems well when they follow the innkeeper up the stairs to the rooms.
He should have known that there would be something new to deal with.
"Do you not have adjoining rooms? Or at the very least, rooms directly next to each other?" Lindsey was smiling politely at the innkeeper, but her eyes were hard, and Gerard didn't envy the keeper in that moment.
"I am so terribly sorry, but we are unexpectedly full due to a festival two towns over," he says. "These are the last two rooms I have at all, I'm afraid."
Lindsey looks at Jamia, then nods at the innkeeper. "Well, I suppose we will have to make do, then. I will come for you if we require anything further, keeper." He bows at her a little too low before making his way down the hall, his gaze catching on Frank before he remembers himself and bustles off to the stairs.
Lindsey looks at Jamia again, and Gerard speaks before this nonsense can go any further. "So Jamia and Frank will be in this room, and Lindsey and I in the other?" Lindsey and Jamia both stare at him, and he almost rolls his eyes before he continues. "You both know as well as I that to divide as we did yesterday is foolish on multiple levels. I am more than happy to sleep on the floor--"
"You shouldn't have to sleep on the floor," Frank interrupts, and Lindsey looks like she's about to protest too.
"--Or, if that is not acceptable, I am more than happy to share my bed with Lindsey. I hardly think I need to fear for my virtue at this point," Gerard continues, smiling faintly at Lindsey, who inexplicably blushes. Gerard's smile fades a little. "And of course, you needn't worry about your own. Or. I mean."
"Oh my god, Gerard, stop talking," Frank says. He walks over to Gerard and kisses him on the mouth before cupping his cheek. "I will see you in the morning, then."
Feeling vaguely ridiculous, Gerard says good night to Jamia next, and then looks away when Lindsey and Jamia also kiss good night before he follows Lindsey into their room. It's small and cramped, the bed taking up most of the floor space, and when a servant brings up their dinner Gerard's heart starts to pound at how close everything is, how dark and near and threatening--
In the space of about fifteen seconds Lindsey manages to get the servant out of the room, Gerard up onto the bed with his back to the wall and the curtains drawn and windows open so he can breathe the fresh air and see the space around him. She stands across from him, back against the wall and taking up as little of the room as she can, and he takes a series of deep breaths until he's calm again.
"Thank you," he says eventually, and she nods back at him. He gestures at the dinner tray she placed at the foot of the bed. "You should eat something."
"So should you," she says back, but she still sits down near him and begins to eat.
Later, after they climb into bed next to each other, each of them kicking the bed linens loose so that their feet aren't constrained, Gerard falls asleep easily without Frank's presence for the first time since he's been a slave, the steady rhythm of Lindsey's breathing soothing and known, somehow. There's a thought in his head that he can't quite follow before he drops off, but it makes him hum.
The next day Jamia isn't surprised when Lindsey insists on going into the next inn by herself first, to ascertain that two adjoining rooms are available, and also to impress her status upon the patrons. Lindsey doesn't trade on the Ballato family name often, but when she needs to she's remarkably accomplished at it.
The door to the carriage opens, and Lindsey beams up at them all. "I think this place should do nicely."
They follow her in, the innkeeper not looking at Frank or Gerard at all, and as Jamia follows them up the stairs to their rooms she wonders what on earth Lindsey said to him, and how, and wishes she had gotten to see her in action.
She does love it when Lindsey pulls out all the stops.
While the last two nights go far more smoothly than the first two, Jamia breathes a sigh of relief when they finally cross the border into Nordia, knowing that if Gerard's theory is correct, they could be within mere miles of his brother.
She doesn't let herself consider the possibility that Gerard is mistaken, or that Mikey never actually left as his brother instructed, or any number of a hundred scenarios.
Jamia knows little about this country; her focus has always been on Lindsey's estate and the day-to-day practicalities of her life rather than anything further afield. She hopes that Nordia's attitude towards slavery will engender a willingness to assist them as they search for one missing brother in an entire country, but she is more than willing to be as aggressive as necessary in her inquiries.
Once they make it through the crossing, talking with the border guards and showing the papers for both Frank and Gerard, Jamia looks at Lindsey and then back at Gerard, her arm tightening around Frank's waist. "So, Gerard? Where to?"
He bites his lip, face a little flushed. "I think we should start talking to some old friends."
He directs Steven to the nearest town, and they get out and walk once they make it to the main thoroughfare, Gerard turning around in circles as they walk, his gaze scanning over all the store fronts.
He stops in front of a bookshop. "My grandmother would always take Mikey and me here. I don't know if the same owner will be here, but it might be worth a look."
When they enter the shop, its shelves crammed full of books as well as art supplies and sheet music, Jamia's first thought is that they couldn't possibly be in the right place, because the woman behind the counter is about their age, young with bright green eyes and dark hair and a kind face. Still, they have to start somewhere.
Jamia glances over at Lindsey, who is stuck staring at Gerard, who in turn seems unable to even look at the woman behind the counter, let alone speak with her. It’s up to Jamia to go to Gerard and put her arm around him, with a gentle squeeze for reassurance.
"I can't ask her, you do it, see if she knows Mikey," he whispers, voice catching on the last word. She nods, kissing his temple, and when she lets go Frank is immediately there in her place, clasping Gerard's hand and looking at Jamia trustfully. She squares her shoulders and turns back around to walk up to the counter.
The woman's glance is more curious now than it was when they first walked into the store, but no less friendly, which Jamia takes heart from. "Good afternoon. I'm Jamia Iero," she says, smiling politely at the woman and sticking her hand out to shake.
The woman takes it. "Christa Toro, at your service."
Jamia leans in closer. "My companions and I have traveled here from many miles away. We were wondering if you've received any recent news from Sunderland."
Christa studies her closely, her eyes flicking to Frank and Gerard for a moment before focusing back on Jamia, and something flutters in Jamia's stomach. "We're certainly glad to have you in our town, but I'm afraid I don't know what you might mean."
"We were curious about any new arrivals in this parts of the country, possibly about eighteen months ago?" Christa startles a bit at that, and Jamia takes a chance. "Or does the name Mikey Way mean anything to you?"
Christa takes a step back, and just then a tall man with long curly hair steps out from the back room. "I don't know, does the name Gerard mean anything to you?" he asks, and Jamia turns around at the sound of Gerard collapsing to his knees behind her.
Lindsey decides to trust this new man when his response to Gerard fainting at the sound of his brother's name is to immediately fetch a clean cloth and water for him, hovering anxiously above Frank and Jamia as they revive him.
"I didn't mean to startle him like that! Do you think he's okay?" the man says, wringing his hands a bit. "Fuck, Mikey will kill me if I hurt his brother."
"I didn’t let him hit his head, so I'm sure he'll be fine," Frank says, standing and looking the man over. Lindsey isn't entirely sure how he manages to look intimidating while staring down a man a foot taller than he is, but Frank has always had that skill. "I'm Frank Iero. You are…?"
"Oh!" The man reaches out with a hand. "I'm Ray Toro. Christa's my wife."
Frank shakes his hand and nods back at him. "Do you own this shop? Gerard had said he used to know the owners, but he didn't seem to recognize you."
"It's been in my family for years. My uncle used to manage it, but now me and my brothers do. He knew Mikey as soon as he saw him, though--bet he'd know Gerard, too."
"Really." Frank continues to size Ray up suspiciously. "So I don't suppose you're just planning to lead us to Mikey or anything."
Ray blinks at this. "What else would we do? Once Gerard is okay, of course."
Lindsey answers. "Well, you don't know us at all."
At that Ray shakes his head a little. "It's not every day that two collared slaves and their owners show up looking for a man named Mikey who happens to have a brother who was sold into slavery," he says gently.
Lindsey's about to respond when Gerard makes a soft sound from below, and Lindsey drops to her knees to see how he's doing. "Gerard, how are you feeling?"
"Where's Mikey?" he asks, ignoring her question completely.
"This man says he knows where he is," Jamia says, and at that Gerard is up on his feet in a flash.
"What are we waiting for?"
It's clear that Frank buys Ray's story, and Lindsey herself has a hard time discounting that man's face, his concern for Gerard evident on his features. Still, she takes Steven aside and lets him know that he should be on the lookout for anything that seems out-of-place, doing her best to ignore the indulgent look on his face that says he knows perfectly well how to do his job.
They drive through the woods for miles, following Christa and Ray's open carriage. As their journey progresses, Lindsey becomes increasingly grateful for their guides, because Gerard's brother certainly seems to have picked a safe place to hide. It would have been nearly impossible to follow this same route on their own.
The forest and surrounding lands are beautiful though, the vegetation just dissimilar enough from that which is native to Sunderland to be new and interesting, and there is something peaceful about being in such a remote location. Oddly, the further they travel the more Lindsey relaxes and the less she fears that they're taking her on a wild goose chase.
The road finally narrows down into a rougher path that opens up into a clearing after ten minutes more. There is a woman in the front yard chopping wood, her dark hair pulled back into two messy pigtails and her dress covered in dust and dirt. She looks up at Ray and Christa's carriage and smiles widely before looking at Lindsey's carriage, her eyes curious but unafraid.
It’s the woman's expression, so similar to the one in Gerard’s portraits, that makes Lindsey think that this is indeed the place, that this is where they will find Mikey, and they climb out of the carriage clumsily, the four of them bumping into each other, anticipation coming off of them in waves.
Lindsey is about to introduce herself to the woman when the door to the house opens, and Gerard makes a high-pitched noise behind her and bolts towards the man who stepped outside.
Lindsey and the others follow him, making their way to the front of the house where Gerard is holding his brother so tightly she can barely tell where one of them ends and the other begins. She can hear the murmurs of him saying something, but can't make out the individuals words; the meaning behind them is hard to miss, however. Finally, Gerard pulls back just enough so that he can hold Mikey's face in his hands and look at him, his eyes intent and focused on his brother's face.
"Hi, Gee," Mikey says, his voice calm and soft, and Gerard gasps before leaning his forehead against his brother's.
"Hi, Mikey," he says in almost a whisper. "I am so glad I found you. Thank you for waiting for me."
Mikey snorts softly. "I had a plan, you know. We were working on it," he says, then: "But I had a feeling you were coming for me." And Gerard makes a little noise in the back of his throat and clutches him tight again.
Lindsey can't stop crying at the sight of Gerard holding his brother, and she grabs Jamia's hand and squeezes. She wants to go up to them both, wants to meet this man who means so much to Gerard, but she makes herself stay back. Frank has been edging closer to them though, his eyes wide and shining.
"So I see you've met Ray and Christa," Mikey says finally, and Gerard steps back a little at that, giving his brother some room, which is quickly filled by Frank stepping in between them and enveloping Mikey in a hug of his own.
"I am so fucking glad to finally meet you," Frank says into his shoulder, and Mikey raises one eyebrow at his brother over Frank's head.
Gerard shrugs back, a small smile breaking through the tears that are running down his face. "And now you've met Frank."
For the first two or three days that they're at Mikey and Alicia's home, all that Gerard can do is follow his brother around, beaming.
He tries to engage with the rest of the world, tries to pay attention to Frank and Jamia and especially Lindsey, who's given him something beyond what he could ever hope to repay even if there were anything in the world he could buy that she doesn't already have. But given what he sees in their expressions every time he looks at him, he's fairly certain that they understand that all of his focus, all of his love right now is for his brother.
His brother, who is bearing Gerard's desire to drape himself over him as well as anyone ever could. But eventually even they have to talk a little.
Gerard doesn't know exactly how to explain the last eighteen months--both the terrible things he had to do, and the utter lack of regret he has for them now, because he has Mikey again, safe and whole. And even more complicated are the people he would never trade, the family he has found, in Frank and Jamia and Lindsey.
But luckily, Mikey has never really needed Gerard to say much to know what he’s feeling.
"So Frank," Mikey says one morning after breakfast.
Gerard blinks back at him and then feels his face flush a bit. "So Frank," he agrees, watching his face carefully.
"And Jamia," Mikey continues. His hands are busy with a pencil, but Gerard can tell he's not really writing anything at the moment.
"And Jamia," Gerard says after a bit of thought. It's not exactly the same as Frank, not really, but he's been a little in love with Jamia since the first night Frank told him about her so long ago, and he's past the point of splitting hairs on this topic.
"And Lindsey," Mikey says with an air of finality, and that's what makes Gerard snap to attention.
"Well. I mean. She's my mistress. Or was, at least, while we were in Sunderland. But now, I mean. She's just Lindsey," Gerard concludes lamely. He snatches the pencil from Mikey's hands and starts to draw just to give himself something else to focus on.
"Uh huh." Gerard continues drawing, not looking at Mikey, hoping against hope that this particular method of avoiding something with Mikey will have somehow become more effective after their long separation. "And by 'just Lindsey,' you in no way mean 'just the woman I'm in love with,' then."
Apparently some things really don't change. He looks up at Mikey, who's watching him with a fond and familiar expression on his face. "Well. It's not like it's really relevant, given who she is, after all."
Mikey stands up at that, putting his hand on Gerard's shoulder for just a moment. "Have you thought about how you're going to thank her for bringing you to me?"
Gerard nods. "But there's nothing I can possibly buy for her, Mikey. I just. I need to let her know, what it means to me that she brought me to you. What she means to me." Gerard tugs on Mikey's hand until he settles onto Gerard's lap, and Gerard huffs against his shoulder, thinking.
When he glances back up at Mikey, his brother is already looking at him intently. “I don’t know, Gee, I think you know a pretty good way to tell people what you feel.”
Gerard stares at him, and then looks down at the doodle he's been making on stray scraps of paper ever since they found Mikey again. He glances back up at Mikey. "Have I ever told you you're the best brother I could have ever had?"
Mikey ruffles his hair. "And you don't forget it."
Lindsey isn't surprised at how much she likes Mikey, given both how much Gerard had talked about him once he was no longer a secret--sometimes it was hard to get Gerard to stop talking about Mikey--and how similar he is to Gerard. But his wife is equally delightful, and considerably less taciturn than Mikey tends to be with anyone other than Gerard, or Frank.
"So I first heard about Mikey from Ray and Christa, who thought that he'd be a good addition to our group," Alicia continues as they walk through the woods searching for herbs. "And when I met him, I just knew. He was so different than anyone else I'd ever met, so determined and fierce without being overbearing at all. But when he smiles, or laughs, it changes him completely." She stops at this and smiles at Lindsey, a little shy. "I wanted to be the one to make him laugh." And Lindsey understands this desire all too well.
"He always had total faith that he would find Gerard again," Alicia continues. She leans down to the base of a tree and starts to scrub up some plants, putting them in the linen bag she's holding before standing back up again. "He never wavered, not for a second. He just said that he knew that either he would find his way to Gerard, or that Gerard would come to him. But I have to tell you, these last three or four months have been hard. We'd been working on leads for months, but suddenly they'd just dried right up, and we hadn't had any idea why. We could never have hoped that the answer would be as wonderful as you and Frank and Jamia, though."
Lindsey shakes her head again, still uncomfortable with any sort of praise for this, more than anything else. "I just did what was right."
"Which is a lot more than most people in your position in Sunderland do," Alicia points out, and Lindsey can't say anything to contradict her.
She changes the topic slightly. "What I want to know is what more I can do, though. We can argue about how much of an impact buying one slave and treating him kindly is, but there has to be more."
At that Alicia stops walking and turns back to look at Lindsey fully, eyes thoughtful. "Well, I can help you with that part."
Lindsey spends most of the rest of the week holed up with Alicia, going over their group's efforts and outlining ways for Lindsey to help, both financially and otherwise. She begins to realize how she retreated from the world after her mother died, and that as much as her family has always done to improve the lives of the people on their lands, there is so much more that can be done by a woman of her power. It both shames and excites her, to know this is possible and yet accept what she hasn't done.
She attempts to explain this to Frank one day as they sit side-by-side on the grass, watching Jamia go over a new planting schedule that will maximize the produce from this land with Alicia. Frank is predictably unimpressed. "Lindsey, you're one person. One very important person with plenty of money and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, to be sure, but still: one person."
She pushes him over onto the grass. "I know I can't do everything, Frank, but I can still do more." She looks over at the house when Gerard and Mikey come barreling out the front door together, Gerard's arm looped over Mikey's shoulders as they walk over to join Alicia and Jamia.
Frank's quiet for a moment, and then he nods his head over at the four of them. "I'd say you've done plenty."
She watches the four of them, her heart heavy, the ache intensifying when Frank kisses her on the cheek before he gets up to go join them.
She can see what their life up here will be. And she's happy for them, truly, but she can only lie to herself for so long.
Gerard and Frank and Jamia belong up here together. They'll be happy, and safe, and whole. She knows this. And she tries not to let herself dwell on the long carriage ride home will be like, or arriving back at the estate by herself. But she knows she needs to leave, and soon. She can torture herself with this for only so long.
Still, she thinks she's bearing it as well as can be expected until the day that Gerard knocks on her door. Lindsey is curled up in Mikey and Alicia’s smallest spare room, sketching the tentative beginnings of a plan to funnel money up from Sunderland. She calls for Gerard to enter, schooling her features into neutral attentiveness.
He seems even twitchier than normal, and she briefly wonders if something has happened before he starts to speak. "I know that you've said that there's nothing to thank you for, and nothing that I can do to thank you for it, and I can never agree to the first part of that but the second half is true. Anything I could attempt would be hopelessly inadequate to repay you for keeping me safe for months and for Frank and for bringing me back to Mikey. But," he continues, reaching for something leaning next to the outside wall next to the door, "I thought I could at least show you."
He hands her a canvas, stretched across a crude wooden frame, and she takes it numbly, hardly even understanding what she's seeing. It's a painting of the four of them, Frank's bright eyes and hands gorgeously detailed, Jamia's huge grin and tilt of her head towards Frank exactly as Lindsey has seen her for years, Gerard a little off to the side, his gaze intent on them, face just as open and vulnerable in real life.
And in the center of it is Lindsey as she's never seen herself before, as she can't conceive of herself, painted with broad strokes of color, her lips red as cherries and her hands on her hips against the tops of her breeches.
She can't hear what Gerard's saying over the sound of her heart beating, but she catches something about him hoping she'll hang it someplace, not necessarily someplace special, but just somewhere, and she can't take any more of it.
Lindsey looks up at him and attempts a smile. "I will make sure to consult with Jimmy when I return to ensure its placement is deserving of its beauty. Gerard, I can't thank you enough."
His face has fallen a bit. "Well, I'm sure he'll be able to, he's got a wonderful eye."
"Indeed he does." She puts it aside on the bed, just managing to resist turning it over so that she doesn't have to see it any longer. "I will be sure to speak to him about it first thing, when I return next week."
His eyes widen. "Next week?"
She nods, praying that she can make this sound more certain than she feels. "Yes, I have almost finished arranging things with Alicia for me to continue working with her abolitionist group from Sunderland, and then I must go, I fear. So much to be done. And here there's no need to worry about your--your collar, and how people will treat you, or any of that. You're free here," she finishes lamely.
Gerard is nodding, his hands clenched at his sides. "Of course. Well. I should go find Mikey," he says, turning to leave the room.
She's speaking before she can stop herself. "Thank you again for the painting, Gerard." He nods his head without looking back at her, and when she hears him go down the stairs, she finally lets herself cry.
For the first time in many, many months, Frank is relaxed.
He may not be at his old home, or even at Lindsey's estate, but he has everyone in the world who really matters to him here, and for the first time since he's met Gerard, he's not worried about him, or trying to find some way to get him what he wants and needs.
Frank would have loved Mikey no matter what, just because of what he means to to Gerard, but he also genuinely enjoys him, and trusts him implicitly. Which is why when Mikey comes and tells him Gerard is upset but won't talk to him about it, Frank knows it must be serious.
Still, he isn't expecting to find Gerard sprawled out on his bed, staring up at the ceiling and not even looking over at Frank when he comes in. "Gerard. What the fuck is going on?"
Gerard doesn't answer for a minute, but when he does his voice is low and despairing. "She's leaving, Frankie."
"Lindsey." Gerard finally turns to look at Frank. "She's going back to Sunderland, Frank."
At first Frank can't even begin to comprehend this, and when his brain finally clicks into gear, he doesn't know what to say. Cautiously, he comes to sit next to Gerard on the bed. He’s unsurprised when Gerard rolls on to his side and hides his face against Frank’s thigh. "Well. How did she tell you?"
"She just said she was leaving! I gave her the painting, and was telling her all about where we could hang it here, and she suddenly started talking about Jimmy and how he'd know the best place to hang it. And then she said that she was leaving as soon as she figured out how to channel funds up here or whatever the fuck she's been doing with Alicia all week," Gerard says miserably.
"Did you ask her to stay?"
The little Frank can see of Gerard's face turns pink. "Of course I didn't ask her to stay. How could I? Why would she?"
Frank wants to close his eyes and shake his head, but he's pretty sure that wouldn't help Gerard at the moment. "Okay. Why don't you try to take a nap or something. I need to talk to Jamia."
"I'm not tired," Gerard says, but Frank sees how his eyes are starting to slip shut, and he knows how late Gerard stayed up the last few nights, working on his painting for Lindsey. Once Gerard's eyes stay closed for more than a second, Frank slips away and goes to find his wife.
When Frank finally finds Jamia behind the house working in the garden, he doesn't mince words.
"Lindsey told Gerard that she's leaving and going back to Sunderland, and Gerard retired to his room like a delicate flower."
"Did he ask her to stay?"
"Nope." Frank waits for her to realize the next part and smiles a little when Jamia looks up and shoves her spade into the earth.
"She doesn't think we're staying here without her, does she?"
"I think she does," Frank says, and steps out of Jamia’s way as she rips off her gloves and tosses them on the ground as she storms towards the house, no doubt to find Lindsey. Frank plops down in the grass, sprawling on his back and enjoying the feel of the late-afternoon sun on his face. His work here is done.
Lindsey is trying to focus on her ledger and plans when Jamia arrives at the door of her room, face smeared with dirt and her clothes reflecting where she just came from. But the look on her face is one that Lindsey's not seen for a long time. "What's the matter, J? Is it Frank?"
Jamia stares at her for a long minute before shaking her head. "I'm afraid not, Lindsey--the one who needs a good talking to is you."
Lindsey looks down. "I know I've already stayed too long--"
"Lindsey, what on earth are you talking about? Do you actually think that we would let you leave without us?"
"Gerard's place is here with Mikey," she says, her throat tight. "And I've seen how you and Frank are up here, the way you've both relaxed. It's best for all three of you to stay." She looks up only when Jamia's hand on her chin lifts her face up.
"Love, sometimes you are the least aware of all of us. Which takes something, when ‘all of us’ includes Frank and Gerard. We don't work without you." Lindsey shakes her head, but Jamia won't let her go. "None of us do. Frank, me, especially Gerard--did he paint that for you?"
Lindsey looks over at the wall where Gerard's painting is leaning. "Yes. It was a thank you gift."
When she turns back, Jamia is wearing an exasperated expression that Lindsey is quite familiar with, but is accustomed to see directed at Frank. "Lindsey. That is not a thank you gift. That is a declaration of love. That is a thousand clover rings in oil paints and canvas. Do you love him?" she asks suddenly.
Lindsey is so startled by the shift she has a moment of plain honesty. "Yes," she says. She gestures back at the painting. "How could I not love the man who made that?"
Jamia's eyes are kind. "Then tell him. And not in metaphors, or in a painting, or a stained glass window pane. Just tell him. After all," she adds, mouth quirking into a smirk Lindsey loves and hates in equal measure, "if I'm wrong, and he doesn't love you back, you can always just leave as you intended."
Lindsey may be stubborn, but she hasn't known this woman for twenty years without accepting that she's usually right.
When she finally works up the courage to find Gerard in the small art room at the back of the house later that night, she takes a moment to just watch as he paints, unaware of his audience. She looks over his face, the way his body moves as he creates, and she knows that at the very least she can't keep from him what he deserves to know.
"I love you," she says, not caring when he turns suddenly and his brush continues on down through the painting, ruining it. "I love you so much I can't stand to think of you unhappy, or without the people you love, or wanting for anything."
His eyes are wide and locked with hers, and she can see his Adam's apple bob when he swallows before speaking. "Then I understand even less now than I did before how you could think to leave me," he says. It takes her a moment to comprehend his meaning, but when she does she walks across the room, grabs his face with her hands and kisses him.
They overbalance and knock into the easel when they fall, taking it and paint and brushes and supplies down with them as they continue to kiss. The cramped room is a mess around them, but all Lindsey cares to focus on is the heat of Gerard’s mouth under hers, the way his skin slides against her body as they shed their clothes, and finally, the feeling of him pressing inside of her, her legs wrapped around his back as she tugs on his hair and they gasp into each others' mouths.
And all she can think as they pant and gain their breath back together as she stares up at the ceiling is that she's finally home, after all.
It takes some time before they're able to complete the designs for the house and start to build it to their specifications, but Frank has done this before, and knows that it's important not to rush things.
They pick out a plot of land not too far from Mikey and Alicia's, but still its own space, with a large expanse of land for Jamia to do with what she will, and enough space for stables, eventually.
Frank knows the home needs to have a room that will get lots of light and have high enough ceilings for Gerard and Lindsey to paint. And directly above that room on the second floor will be two large bedrooms with a connecting door between them. The door will start off closed more often than not, although after a time it will stay open more and more frequently. In the end it isn't necessary at all, because all of the inhabitants of the house will be in one room for slumber.
Eventually there will be more than four of them living there though, Frank is sure of that, and so there are three smaller rooms just down the hall, waiting for their future tiny occupants.
Before they even have a front door, Lindsey makes the window that will hang above it, a sunburst made of stained glass. The colors are bold and distinctive, the reds and golds crafted to shine on the heads of everyone who steps over their threshold.
Frank looks up from the plans of his new house, his new life and future, and he can see it all before him.
The carriage ride to the town hall nearest the Ballato estate takes approximately four days, when taken at a reasonable pace.
Lindsey feels that anything slower than a gallop doesn't qualify as reasonable, but Jamia had refused to ride the whole distance and Gerard and Frank had agreed that this would be the more--prudent option. She wonders a bit at when the two of them started making decisions based on sense and rationality, but when even Mikey doesn't agree with her argument that faster is better, she knows she's lost.
She doesn't mind the carriage, of course, or getting to spend four days with just Jamia, reading and finishing that damn cross-stitch. She’s going to throw it at at Frank’s feet and do a triumphant dance once it’s done.
She's just not accustomed to being away from Gerard, or Frank, for more than a day, and she'd be lying if she said it didn't make her antsy.
This journey will be worth it though, in the end.
It isn't until she has the second key in her hand after showing the clerk the paperwork certifying that Gerard Way, slave, has been in her possession for two years and four days that she begins to breathe again. It had been hard to trust that this would actually work, that they wouldn't question her desire for the key in the first place. In truth, masters and mistresses only rarely chose to unlock their slaves’ collars. Most of them wouldn’t bother to buy a slave only to set him free after a few years.
But the clerk doesn't bat an eye at her, or at Jamia, whose expression dares the man to comment. Jamia would enjoy telling off the clerk should he seem to judge either of them, Lindsey knows. All in all, though, the process takes less than ten minutes. Ten minutes to change two lives. Four lives, really.
They stop off at the house only briefly, even though staying the night would be more sensible. It feels wrong to be there now, to be there without Frank and Gerard, and Lindsey is more certain than ever that it isn’t the estate that matters to her. It’s no longer the estate that means home.
The return to Nordia is entirely different from their departure, Lindsey's heart light and free. The jangle of the keys on the chain around her neck is comforting, and she can tell from Jamia's expression that she feels the same.
The cross-stitch remains unfinished despite their days on the road. Lindsey's focus is instead taken up with kissing Jamia breathless, with spending the journey with their hands up each other's skirts. Lindsey is willing to acknowledge that there may be some benefits to wearing dresses instead of breeches.
Lindsey and Jamia tumble from the carriage as soon as they arrive home and burst through the front door, ready to search the whole house for Gerard and Frank and tear them away from painting or reading. But the men are already in the front hall, waiting for them with hands clasped together. Lindsey lifts the chain from around her neck, her own hands shaking as she brings one key to the left side of Gerard's collar and the other to the right.
The click as the keys turn in unison and the pop of the collar opening are the sweetest sounds she's ever heard. She unhooks the collar and hesitates for a moment, wondering if throwing it across the hall would be satisfying enough, or if simply smashing it under their feet would do.
Gerard makes the decision for her, covering her hands with his own and lowering them steadily. "Let me, Linds," he says, squeezing her hands before releasing them. He grasps the collar with both hands and tugs outwards, the collar coming apart in two pieces. Lindsey lets out a gasp and lifts her hands to touch the tender skin of his neck before pulling him in for a kiss. Gerard lets the halves of his collar fall to the floor and wraps his arms around her.
When Lindsey is finally able to let him go, it is only to reach out for Frank and Jamia, to pull Jamia into a kiss as Frank and Gerard hold each other as free men for the first time.