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The Watchmaker's Apprentice

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Keita cut a two inch thick slice of spice cake and put it on a plate, while Thaniel watched in dismay.

"She's really going to dunk the Haverly boys in the stream?" He didn't quite say, Won't they hate her for that? but perhaps Keita was distracted, because he answered:

"They're not used to girls. If Six keeps her distance, they'll tease and torment her mercilessly. They've done so a little already. If she dunks them in the stream, though, they'll treat her just as they treat each other. It's not ideal, but it's better than the alternative."

Before Thaniel could respond, a sopping wet Six reentered the kitchen with a triumphant look on her face. "Cake, please," she said.

Thaniel hurried to the door in time to see all three of the older Haverly boys clambering out of the stream.

"Here you are," Keita said and passed her the plate.

"I'll get you a towel," Thaniel said to Six, who seemed unconcerned by her wet clothing despite the fact that her lips were turning blue. The linen closet was in the parlor, and he could hear the conversation continue through the open door.

"You said the reward would be bigger if I dunked more than one of them," Six reminded Keita.

"What, you don't think that piece of cake is large enough for three boys' worth of dunkings?" No answer, but Six must have made some sort of face, because Keita laughed softly. "Very well. Your extra reward, then, is that I shall go to the workhouse with you after you've eaten your cake, and make arrangements for you to be my new apprentice."

"But not before you're dry," Thaniel added, coming back into the room. "Here," he said and draped a large towel over Six's shoulders and another across her lap. "You should take off your boots, and I'll put them by the stove."

"How long will I be your apprentice for?" Six asked, ignoring Thaniel. He sighed and crouched beside her chair. At least she didn't kick him when he tugged her overlarge boots off her feet, or when he considered further and pulled her socks off, too.

"That depends on how clever you are, but twelve years should just about do it."

Her eyes widened in surprise, but she didn't comment, just nodded and stuffed another bite of cake in her mouth.

When Six's socks were hung over a chair and her boots deposited by the stove, Thaniel looked at Keita. "Should I go with you to the workhouse?"

"We'll have an easier time of it on our own. I'm familiar to them now; better not complicate matters by presenting them with a stranger."

Since Keita had to be speaking from experience--of a sort--Thaniel didn't press him further, but said, "All right. You know where to find me if I'm needed." He was the one insisting that Six move in with them, after all. It was only fair to let Keita know that Thaniel was willing to help shoulder the responsibility of her care.

"Her birth name is Mary Sampson, if you were wondering," Keita said when he and Six returned from the workhouse. "They had it in their records."

"I'm Six," Six said in an annoyed tone.

"That's why I said 'birth name,'" Keita explained. "Not everyone keeps the same name his entire life. Actually, most girls don't. You can call yourself 'Six' as long as you like."

"I'll always want to be Six."

"In certain contexts, yes." Keita turned to Thaniel. "You went shopping while we were gone?"

"Just some groceries. We were running a little low." Thaniel wasn't sure what small children usually ate--though in Six's case, he suspected the answer was "anything put in front of her"--but he'd bought milk, cheese, apples, cabbage, potatoes, onions, and a loaf of bread, just to be safe. They could experiment with more exciting food later.

"Where will I sleep?" Six asked suddenly, with an uncomfortably speculative glance at the kitchen bench that Thaniel couldn't even begin to answer. He'd be happy to share with Keita and leave the spare bedroom to her, of course, but that wouldn't be at all prudent.

"In the parlor," Keita said promptly, while Thaniel was still dithering. "There's only a piano in there now. I'll have to buy some furniture. You may play the piano if you like, but only if your hands are clean, and you must play no later than nine o'clock and no earlier than seven. Thaniel's bedroom is above the parlor, and you'll disturb him otherwise."

"I can't tell time," Six said.

"Then you must certainly learn. You can't be an apprentice watchmaker and not know how to tell time."

"All right," Six said, with a small smile that she directed mostly at her feet.

"For now, you should put your things in your new bedroom. You and I have to go furniture shopping."

"I'll come, too," Thaniel said. Six gave him a blank look that he suspected was her version of a glare. Keita smiled at him.

"If you like," he said, and nudged Six gently towards the door.

Shopping with Keita was an interesting experience. He was rich, of course, and didn't trouble himself about the cost of anything before making his purchases.

But it was more than that. He also didn't browse or ask questions of the shopkeepers. The only person whose opinion he consulted was Six, who chose which of two beds she wanted in a furniture store and which of four dressers she wanted in a different furniture store several streets over. Pillows and blankets were selected by Keita without her input, though Six was allowed to choose a carpet; she picked a blue and green one patterned with birds.

"Do you want a carpet for your room, as well?" Keita asked Thaniel.

He did, and he wondered why Keita hadn't put one in without having to ask. Perhaps Keita had thought it would look odd to have his spare room look so much more luxurious than his own plain bedroom. After some deliberation, Thaniel chose a gold carpet the color of Keita speaking Japanese.

"You don't want one for your own room?" he asked Keita, who smiled and shook his head.

"I'll dress like an Englishman myself, but I'd rather my bedroom floor didn't."

"I want you to--"

"Not tonight," Keita said and slid down the bed to take Thaniel's cock in his mouth.

With great effort, Thaniel held his hips still; Keita's usual bad posture was accompanied now by winces of pain whenever he moved too sharply, and Thaniel worried about hurting him.

Keita's body might be a little broken at the moment, but his mouth was just the same, hot and wet and almost unbearably talented. Thaniel closed his eyes against the dim light of the coals in the grate and let pleasure wash over him in long, drawn-out waves that reached their peak sooner than he'd expected.

When Thaniel had caught his breath a little, he reached for Keita's cock and found it only half-hard. "Not tonight," Keita said again, tugging his hand away, and laid his head on Thaniel's chest. Bemused, Thaniel wrapped his arms around him. "In a quarter of an hour, Six will have a nightmare and come upstairs to knock on my door," Keita explained. "You should return to your room in ten minutes."

"You could have told me that earlier," Thaniel said.

Keita shrugged. "But then you wouldn't have been able to relax enough to finish as quickly as you needed to."

"I could've gone without."

"Shh," Keita said, "Let me enjoy these ten minutes," and cuddled more determinedly in Thaniel's arms. Thaniel only sighed; he'd make it up to Keita later.

Shortly after Keita had sent him back to his own bed, Thaniel heard a tap on Keita's door and the indistinct murmur of his voice. And then Keita must have opened the door, because his next words were just audible: "A cup of tea will help."

Thaniel wondered idly how long it would be before Six was willing to ask him for comfort after a nightmare. Keita might know...but the answer was undoubtedly much farther away than Thaniel would like. It was better not to ask.

Six was sitting alone in the kitchen when Thaniel went down the next morning. The stove had gone out and it was cold in the room.

"Good morning," Thaniel said and busied himself with the coal.

"I know how to light a stove," Six said in lieu of anything one might call a greeting. "But I didn't know how much coal I was allowed to use."

Thaniel almost said, As much as you want. Keita can afford it, but then reconsidered. Of course Six's childhood was nothing like his had been, but five years old seemed very young to be lighting fires by oneself. Keita wouldn't let her burn the house down, but Thaniel didn't want her blistering her fingers either.

"Mori or I will take care of the fire," he said and ignored Six's answering scowl. "Are you hungry?" he added.

There was a long pause, and then Six nodded.

"Bread and butter and tea all right? That's what I usually have for breakfast."

Another nod, without any pause this time. He put the kettle on to boil and started slicing bread, then spread it with rather more butter than usual. As small as Six was, she could eat an extraordinary quantity of food, and he could only imagine how badly she needed it. He could tell already that his grocery budget was going to increase significantly.

It occurred to him suddenly that he had yet to tell Annabel about the failure of his marriage. For all that she hadn't cared much for Grace, he thought she was going to be disappointed on his behalf. The truth of the situation was much less bleak than it appeared, but of course he couldn't explain why to anyone. And Annabel's boys wouldn't be able to go to school after all: a stronger and more personal disappointment.

He steeped the tea and got out the last of the cake for Six, in defiance of the small voice whispering that if he skimped and saved, perhaps... It was impossible. Far better to admit that and to not pointlessly deprive himself and Six, who needed good food and good clothes--her dress was almost as ill-fitting as her boots--just as much as Annabel's sons did.

"I have to leave for work shortly," he said after he'd placed the two cups of tea on the table and sat across from Six. She was already on her third slice of bread and butter. "But Mori should be awake soon."

"What's your work?"

"I'm in the Foreign Office at Whitehall. Mostly I send telegraphs and translate Japanese."

"Mr. Mori said you would teach me Japanese."

Thaniel blinked, surprised, and then felt warmed by the statement. Keita could teach Japanese as well or better than Thaniel, and he was going to be with Six constantly throughout the day. But this would be a way for Thaniel to spend time with Six in the evenings and on weekends. He might not know how to talk to her properly in English, but he could manage to come up with a few phrases in Japanese each day. "That's right," he said. "Repeat after me: おはようございます."

It took only four repetitions before Six could say the words perfectly. "Excellent," Thaniel said. "That means 'Good morning.' You should say it to Mr. Mori when he comes downstairs."

A determined expression crossed Six's face, and Thaniel watched her mouth the words silently several times, impressing them on her memory.

"Well, I'm off to work now," Thaniel said awkwardly. "I'll see you later."

Six crammed a slice of bread and butter in her mouth in a transparent effort to avoid having to respond. Thaniel just smiled at her and left; when he was on the third step of the stairs, he heard a mumble behind him that might have been the words, "See you later."

Thaniel crossed out the newest sentence of his letter and sighed deeply.

"You don't have to write that," Keita said from the doorway.

Thaniel, accustomed by now to Keita's near-silent tread, didn't jump. "Annabel needs to know that I'm getting a divorce."

"Yes, but you already finished that paragraph, didn't you? The paragraph you don't have to write is the one where you apologize for not being able to send your nephews to school."

"Keita," Thaniel began.

"You didn't argue with me when I offered you a room rent-free," Keita said, sounding vaguely annoyed. "Why is this so different?"

The main difference was that Thaniel had taken the room under the suspicion that Keita was a bomber, but he couldn't possibly tell him that. "You've never even met Annabel, much less her sons." He wasn't certain how accurate that statement was: while Keita hadn't met Thaniel's family yet, he no doubt had the memory of meeting them in the future. But the general sentiment--that Keita had no obligation towards them--was entirely true.

"Miss Carrow hadn't, either, and she was willing to pay for their educations."

"In exchange for a house."

"I already have a house." Keita paused, and his eyes turned upwards briefly in thought. "In fact, I already have five houses. The school fees aren't anything to me. I'd far rather just make you happy."

Belatedly, it occurred to Thaniel that he might have missed the point Keita had been trying to make about Grace. If Keita were his wife--Thaniel squirmed a little inwardly at the thought, tried the words "his husband" and squirmed harder, and finally gave up trying to find a way to describe who Keita was to him. But if he were...that, then Thaniel wouldn't see any difficulty in accepting the school fees for his nephews, even if Keita weren't receiving a house in return.

"Annabel will wonder where the money's coming from," he said.

Keita shook his head. "Tell her that the papers are still being finalized by your lawyers, but that it's clear you'll have enough to continue paying your nephews' school fees. She'll be too relieved to inquire more closely."

A great weight lifted from Thaniel's shoulders, and he was eager now to finish the letter to Annabel, but he delayed a little longer to ask, "Will we ever tell her the truth about the money?"

"No. She's happier not knowing. Andrew will figure it out eventually, but he won't tell anyone for years."

"In that case--" Thaniel stood up and hugged Keita. "From Annabel, and from me." He couldn't quite picture Annabel willingly hugging a Japanese man, even one who was funding her sons' educations, but if they never told her about it, then there was no reason Keita had to learn that.

Apparently Six wasn't due to have nightmares two nights in a row, because Keita proved more than willing to fuck Thaniel when he asked him to that night. They'd lain drowsily together afterwards for some time when Thaniel thought back to their previous conversation, and what roles he suspected Keita wanted the two of them to have in each other's lives, and said, "You know, when I said Six should stay with us, I didn't actually mean as your apprentice. You don't have to think of her as your daughter, but I'd rather hoped she might be mine."

"She hasn't been anyone's daughter in three years," Keita said. "It's just a word to her. Later, she'll understand. But right now, she knows that being an apprentice means food and a place to sleep in exchange for honest work. I didn't want to terrify her on her first day here."

"I see," Thaniel said. That made a great deal more sense than that Keita might somehow have missed how fond Thaniel was of Six already. "Of course you didn't."

"She will be our daughter, you know. Mine as well as yours."

"Do you really like children after all, then? Or has Six just grown on you?"

"I don't like the Haverly boys."

Thaniel snorted. "I suspect that their mother is the only one who does." There was a long pause, and he nudged Keita with his elbow. "The interrogation isn't over yet."

"Why does it matter?" Keita asked, and then he let out a sigh as he saw Thaniel's answer.

It was something Thaniel wanted him to remember, though--so that Keita at least knew that Thaniel cared, even if he couldn't do anything about it other than sympathize at this point. Six couldn't go back to the workhouse, no matter what. "I worry that you only said we could adopt Six to make me happy," Thaniel said.

Keita shook his head. "I don't like children who act too childish. As unreasonable as that is. Also, children have a tendency to find me just as disconcerting as adults do, and they have fewer compunctions about admitting it. Six acts like a small person, and she actually likes me, so it's easy to be fond of her."

Another pause, and then he added, "I suspect that when I told you I disliked children, most of the possible futures I could see were of you with a family and me alone, or possibly me and Six by ourselves."

"You'd have adopted her without my prompting?" Thaniel asked, surprised.

"I did in one possible future. She seemed happy enough, from what I wrote, and by. But it wasn't one of my better memories."

"Could I read it sometime?" Thaniel asked.

Keita shrugged. "If you like. Is the interrogation over yet?"

"All done. Thanks for your cooperation," Thaniel said and gave him a kiss for his trouble. There were words on the tip of his tongue that he wasn't quite ready to say yet, but judging from Keita's soft gasp and the fervor with which he returned the kiss, he heard them anyway.