It’s the squealing that makes her stop when she’s half-out the window of a barrister without the common sense to hide his bazaar permits in a safe.
She knows that sound; for a year, she heard it nearly every night when she tried to fall asleep. The flophouse was a pretty choice spot - gambling games to sit in on, a fence who never asked too many questions about the things Hester brought him, and occasionally a bowl of opium when the nightmares became too much to handle - but the downside was the occasional screaming of some Rubbery Man getting a knife in his guts.
Hester started keeping a stack of loose cobblestones in her room to throw out the window when the noise became too much. It lead to a few altercations when gambling men took a stone straight to the skull and their Rubbery prey got out with their guts still intact, but she discovered that the easiest way to solve those disputes when they came to visit her was to throw them out the window as well. Hester finally managed to save up and move on to a better set of lodgings, and she hadn’t spared many thoughts for that smokey, stuffy little room or her neighbours since.
The Rubbery Man’s been stabbed at least once judging by the shrillness of his sounds and the way it makes the base of her spine cold. She can see straight down the alley to a pair of revolutionaries menacing the poor thing. That noise is going to wake up the barrister any moment now, and Hester cannot afford to have the constables after her, not when they’re already keeping an eye on her.
“-messing up our well! We told you once!” one of the men says, though maybe boy would be more precise since it looks like he’s never had a razor against his throat. The other grunts his agreement, looking more like hired muscle than a philosopher. Hester spots the bloody knife in his hand, and chooses to drop on his head, since he’s the one who might stick it in her next. “You’ve got no one to blame but yourself- Eben!”
Eben hits the cobbles, hard, with Hester’s boots dug into his shoulders and neck, and there’s a snap as she breaks it. Good; she won’t need to worry about him for at least an hour or two, assuming he’s been on the boat often enough to get off of it fast. All there’s left is the first revolutionary, and he’s not so eager to challenge her, dropping his knife and running. She could catch him and put a knife in him, but she’s got limited time here and she’s not about to waste it on him. Let Jack of Smiles catch up with that fellow and take him for a ride. Hester turns her attention to the Rubbery Man.
It’s hard to tell how badly the Rubber Man’s been hurt. He looks up at Hester, clutching the leaking wound in his battered greatcoat and burbles out what she recognizes as an apology. She’s heard it enough from them when she ‘accidentally’ runs into them while out pickpocketing. His tentacles undulate and quiver, perhaps afraid that Hester will finish what the others started.
“Can you stand?” she asks him, waiting for an answer. He says nothing, not even making one of those watery sounds his kind usually make. Hester gives him a boost onto his feet and the Rubbery Man manages to stay upright, clear goo oozing over his arms. Hester picks Eben’s pockets and leaves his corpse below the window. If she’s very lucky, the constables will assume his broken neck was from falling, not being fallen on, and he’ll wind up in New Newgate in her place. She heads for the alley, pausing when the Rubbery Man just stands there. “Well? Go on then. Your own kind can patch you up.”
He warbles at her, takes a few steps, and falls down. Apparently it’s worse than she thought. Hester glances up at the window, cussing when she sees a light come on. Damn and double damned. She quickly gets him onto his feet and all but drags him out of the alleyway, leaving the corpse behind to mask them.
“Where are your people? Out by that well again?” she asks, hoping perhaps he’s got some way of speaking she’ll understand. Hester gets an answer, but it’s just squeaking and slobbering. She thinks she hears a ‘no’ in that mess, but she might have also heard a ‘yes’ or ‘directions’ or ‘stop thief’. There’s a doctor not too far from here she could dump him off at and hope the doc is willing to stitch him up. Or she could just set him down against a wall somewhere and let him finish bleeding out.
His legs slip out and his weight sags down on Hester. She’s just about to take that last option when he looks up at her with those sad eyes of his and struggles to dig in his pocket, pulling out a handful of deep amber. Even though he’s bleeding out, he’s trying to pay her. Hester digs her teeth into her lower lip, remembering the last time something inhuman was this close to her. They certainly weren’t offering her anything, unless you counted offering to take.
“Fine, I’ll sew you up at my place. But you have to be quiet. They don’t like your kind there.” She changes their direction, heading for home.
The Forgotten Quarter isn’t the safest place to be at this time of night. She can see Devils lurking around, barely bothering to disguise themselves. Hester knows they hunt other humans for sport; she’s seen the trophies mounted where they think no humans ever go. She’s spent enough time digging up relics to know the safest ways through the ruins and she gets them all the way to the Brass Embassy, the windows lit up with firefox candles at this time of night. The Rubbery Man balks at the sight, trying to pull away, but she coaxes him along and into one of the hotel’s more covert entrances. Say what you will about Devils, but at least they know a thing or two about privacy.
Hester manages to get the Rubbery Man back to her suite without alerting anybody, stopping only to tug on a glove before opening her room with the netherbrass key. She gets him inside, taking one last glance up and down the halls to make sure they’re empty before ducking in after him.
“Grab a seat in-” She looks around the room, trying to find a spot where he can sit. It’s been awhile since Hester had guests and everything’s covered with bits and bobs she’s yet to finish sorting through. “Nevermind. Get into the kitchen and get your shirt open, I’ll grab something to put you back together with.”
It takes about an hour to sort out the Rubbery Man’s anatomy. Hester gets that ectoplasmic blood all over her dress and she can only hope it’ll wash out, and the Rubbery Man is useless, mostly squeaking and grunting softly as she tries to find what needs stitching up and what doesn’t. His skin feels weird to the touch, slimey and stretchy, and the fishing line tears through the skin like paper until she switches to tapestry yarn. “Hope you don’t mind purple, but it’s the only colour I’ve got extra of. I’m not usually crafty, at least not this kind of crafty. Never had much use for this stuff. A... friend tried to get me into it, but I am what I am, and what I am isn’t the kind of person to make things.”
If the Rubbery Man minds her improvisation or her chattering, he doesn’t complain. He’s an odd looking creature underneath the coat, a lot less human without the heavy wool to hide the imperfections. She’s seen them dead now and again, bodies hanging from lamp posts or lying in alleys under tarps, but they’re always dressed, even when dead. Nobody wants to touch them, not even for their boots. He’s even still got his coat buttoned up at the top, and nothing she could say was able to make him take the hat off.
Not that she blames him; while his greatcoat stinks and she’s certain it isn’t meant to be that colour, what she’s seeing of his torso is enough to make her suspect there are more mysteries he isn’t eager to show her. His hands are more like stumps with little suction cups all the way along the insides, which makes her wonder what exactly his feet would look like if you managed to get his boots away from him. The Rubbery Man’s face is hard to make sense of as well, especially when he’s got himself covered up. His wide eyes are set on either side of his head, and if there’s a mouth under those tentacles, she certainly can’t see one. There definitely isn’t a nose now that she’s close, which would explain why he seems so unaware of how badly his greatcoat stinks.
In the end, she gets him sorted before he bleeds out. The blood, if you can call it that, is easily wiped up and washed off, and she manages to run a bath for the poor fellow, doing her best to coax him out of his breeches and boots. He’s modest though and won’t get naked in front of her, leaving Hester’s curiosity unsatisfied for the moment. “Fine, just pass your clothes to me through a crack in the door, I won’t peek. Just be careful of the stitches. I don’t know if that yarn shrinks when wet. I’d rather not have it rip you open again. There’s fresh things to wear in the closet, so use those until I sort out the things you wore in. And yes, you do need to give me your dirty clothes, unless you want your blood to crust all over them as well.”
He barbles out an agreement and shuts the bathroom door, sliding the last of his things through the side of the door. She tries to peek despite her assurances to the contrary but doesn’t see a damn thing. His underwear is among the pile, matted and stained with something green. She wonders if the paper would pay for an article about this, then decides that she’ll shelve that for later, if she really needs the cash. Instead, she dumps it in the wash with her dress and scrubs until the water stops going grey and she finds out the greycoat used to be a sort of tan colour.
“You should really wash this more often.” She makes conversation, just because it’s better than total silence. Hester gets the response she expected, which is nothing but distant bubbles being blown in the bath. The deep amber she found in his pockets makes its way into her own, a fair price for taking him home and stitching him up and washing his clothes. It’s damn near magnanimous of her, except since there’s no one to see it, it doesn’t actually count.
It’s only as she pockets the amber that she realizes she never went through Eben’s wallet. She digs it out and paws through it to see what she’s got. There are a few echoes, a couple of fuzzy pictures of girls that may be sisters or sweethearts, and most importantly, there’s a dozen slips of paper with times and locations of future meetings. She knows a few people who would pay very handsomely to see this information disposed off, and at least one Master who would give Hester her weight in netherbrass to see the opposite done.
Hester’s tucking the slips of paper away when there’s a knock at the door. She glances at the clock and at the bathroom door. It’s too late for visitors to drop by and she’s certainly not expecting anyone. “Just a moment!” Hester shouts out and quickly heads to the bathroom, hissing through the door. “Don’t come out unless I ask you too.”
No response. Hopefully the Rubbery Man was listening. Because if it’s who Hester thinks it is at the door, she’ll be off to the Tomb Colonies the moment they catch a glimpse of her visitor. Another knock, louder than the first, and an all too familiar voice that makes her stop dead. “Essie, open up.”
She hasn’t heard from him in months, not since... not since she stopped being of any interest. Hester forces herself to get moving again, throwing on a dressing robe and mussing her hair up. She doesn’t even bother to smile, knowing how fake and strained it will look.
The Affectionate Devil looks like he always does, though she sees he’s updated his clothing to keep with the current trends. It’s been a long time since they crossed paths and she’s angry to see that she still feels all pins and needles around him. He gives her a smoldering grin and invites himself in, Hester feeling a flash of warmth as he walks past her. “I love what you’ve done with the place.”
“What do you want, Devil?” Her best efforts to keep her voice from going too tense are mostly a failure.
“Devil, am I? Aren’t we closer than that, Essie?” The sound of her real name on his lips rankles her and makes her wish she’d never told it to him. There’s a lot of things she wishes she’d never done with him, but the name is really getting under her skin.
“We were. Then all of a sudden, you stopped coming around. That sort of thing leaves a person feeling pretty sore.” Hester watches the Affectionate Devil as he walks around her flat, touching things he no longer has a right to touch. She’s torn between following closely behind him, taking things out of his hands, and keeping her distance from him. She can’t see his spirifer's fork, but she knows it must be on him. Devils always have their forks on them. “I’m not interested in a social visit. What do you want?”
“I want a number of things.” He runs his fingers along the edges of a clock she bought from the Bazaar last week, thin trails of smoke running between his flesh and the wooden casing. When he turns and smiles at her, Hester’s heart skips a beat and she hates herself for having any reaction at all. “But I’ll settle for you accompanying me to the theater. I have tickets to the Esteemed Playwright’s latest feature, a lovely little farce about court politics.”
Hester says no. Or, she tells herself to say no. It’s a great deal harder to say no, especially when he walks toward her. He’s just as handsome as ever, and it’s almost like nothing ever happened between them. It all comes rushing back; gas lamps and the glittering of moon-misers far above them while they walked through the park, the way he alway smelt of brimstone and aftershave, the heat of his lips as they hovered by her ear while whispering to her during the Opera, those golden eyes-
They both jump a little when there’s a splashing sound from the bathroom, Hester quickly taking a step back and the Affectionate Devil’s hand retreating from his pocket. She sees the flash of brass there and her jaw sets.
“Why Essie, you should have told me you had company. The last thing I would ever want to do is interrupt you and your... guest.” The Devil tries to lure her back in, but the moment’s gone, and all his words feel insincere instead of inviting. Hester keeps their distance, stepping back and then to the side to prevent herself from being trapped between him and a wall. The Devil’s smile never slips, but his eyes aren’t so friendly anymore. “Who is it in the bathroom then? Your artist friend? Or that model you were so keen on?”
“Get out.” She doesn’t bother with politeness. Politeness is for people who have earned it, or who at least don’t mean to hurt you. Devils always want to hurt you, one way or another, and they’ll always remind you of that if you give them time.
The Affectionate Devil laughs, and closes the distance between him and the bathroom door, throwing it open. She expects a lot of things, but she’s not prepared for the way he recoils from the sight of the Rubbery Man, dripping wet and wrapped in her towel. Hester doesn’t recoil, but only because she’s seen much worse, though not much weirder. She had no idea that their heads really looked like that when you took the top hat off and they didn’t have a high collar to hide those extra face tentacles in. But she’s more interested in the Devil’s response, particularly in the way he can’t put enough space between him and the Rubbery Man. She’s never known them to fear much of anything, not even the Church.
Fear may not be right though, not when she sees his lips curl into a sneer, his fangs glittering by the fire light. Disgust may be more appropriate. Or maybe just plain hatred. The Rubbery Man doesn’t seem too pleased by the Devil either, choosing to stand in the washroom and warble unpleasantly. The Affectionate Devil finally tears his eyes away from the Rubbery Man to stare at Hester, all false charm gone from his voice. “What is that thing doing here?”
“He’s my guest you were so eager to meet. Why don’t you sit down with us? I’m sure we could find a few parlor games to play together.” She shouldn’t taunt, but she does, delighted to finally see the tables turned. Hester even manages to smile, though it’s not the same easy expression the Devil conjured when he came in. “Or we could all go to that play. I’m sure you could find a third ticket easily enough.”
“Enough.” He snarls, and Hester wonders why she ever mistook the Affectionate Devil for a man. Maybe it was easier to make that mistake when there wasn’t another monster in the room to bring out the beast. “Keep your poor company. I’ll come by when you’ve gotten tired of smelling like a fishmonger.”
He stalks out of the room, though he doesn’t even have the decency to slam the door or to stick around long enough for Hester to come up with some cutting remark about preferring one kind of monger to another. It’ll come to her later, when cleverness isn’t necessary. “Asshole.”
The Rubbery Man squeals out something that Hester is fairly certain means “rude”, since she hears that a lot when ‘accidentally’ bumping into them during pickpocket practice. She glances back over to him, this time aware of the bits of him poking out of the towel that don’t match up with what humans have. The Rubbery Man picks up pretty quickly that she’s staring and this time, she’s absolutely certain that sound means “rude”, since he shuts the door on her soon after.
Hester locks the front door and sighs. She’s had enough of visitors for one night. Hester leans against the wall, and all she can hear is the sound of her clocks ticking. Sometimes she loves the privacy of the rooms in the Brass Embassy and the knowledge that her neighbours can’t hear her, but on a night like tonight, it just makes her paranoia worse. Not for the first time, she regrets her choice of lodgings. It had seemed like such a good idea so many months ago, long before she soured on Devils entirely.
There have been too many nights when Hester found herself unable to sleep, afraid that some Devil would try their luck and give her the ‘gift’ of Abstraction while she was unable to stop them. Maybe she should have sought a room elsewhere, either the Royal Bethlehem or the Bazaar, but madness can be contagious and the Bazaar had too many people, and it had been too easy to let herself believe it was best to live among friends.
Some friends they’d turned out to be.
She’s shaken out of her righteous sulk when the Rubbery Man exits the bathroom, dressed in the spare clothes she turned up for him. He looks right at home in that workman’s suit and Hester can’t help but smile a little when she realizes the sounds he’s trying to make are ‘thank you’ in proper English. Bless him, he can’t speak it any more than she can speak his language, but trying does mean something.
Hester’s never given much thought to what Rubbery Men looked like without their hats, but she’s fascinated by how it comes up into a sort of point with a dark green fin running along the edge. He reminds her of the squid they sell down at the docks now and again, especially with his tentacles lying flat on his suit. There’s something she’s never noticed before near the back of his head, like a strange sort of nose, and only when he makes a displeased sound does she realize she’s looking at how he speaks.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. You’re just... oh, you know how you look. But you don’t look so pale, so I suppose that means you won’t die.” She’s about to offer him the couch to sleep on, fully planning on seeing him out in the morning, when she changes her mind. Hester’s still thinking of the look in the Affectionate Devil’s eye when he saw the Rubbery Man and the way he recoiled from not just him, but her as well. “Do you enjoy sardines? I think I have a few tins.”
Not surprisingly, he does enjoy sardines, and her spare goldfish, and even some dried rubbery lumps, though she would have thought he would find those distasteful. He eats it all like he hasn’t had anything in days and thanks her all the while. For someone with a face full of tentacles, he’s fairly clean, and she marvels at how he doesn’t end up with even so much as a scale stuck in them. They quickly slip in and out of his mouth, which she can only get a slight glimpse of now and again when he sucks one tendril in, giving her the impression of something toothless but full of ridges.
It’s a good distraction, but it doesn’t entirely turn her thoughts away from what’s really on her mind, which is how she can use the Rubbery Man to her advantage. It’s not like she’s planning to rob him and kill him; she already had the chance to do that and didn’t. But she didn’t get where she is by not taking opportunities when they arise. For months, she’s been doing her best to hurt the Devils in any way she can, either by robbing their warehouses or helping out with the Church when they come to call, but it’s not enough. She doesn’t just want to steal a crate or two here and there; she wants to steal the whole shipment. She wants to see them hurting. She wants to shake Hell itself and send all its little agents out of their minds trying to solve that mystery.
Hester can’t do it alone though, and she can’t risk bringing just anyone into her plans, not when Hell can pay more than any heist she can dream of would net. Even if she could find someone who couldn’t be bought, they would have someone they could get ahold of - loved ones, family, friends, something.
But what do Rubbery Men have? This one doesn’t seem to have much of anything on him except a little amber. He also offers her an advantage that no human alive or dead has given her so far: something that even the Devils are afraid of. Everyone knows they think the Church is a joke — except for the Church that is — but that was genuine revulsion from the Affectionate Devil, and she’s never seen Devils interact with Rubbery Men at all. It’s as if they do their best to be anywhere but around Rubbery Men.
She wouldn’t be able to tell him what she’s doing, not at first anyway. Hester would need to make sure this Rubbery Man can’t be bought and sold, that he’s truly unattached from everything else. But if he is, he may be just what she’s been looking for.
As well, as much as she hates to admit it, it would be easier to sleep with him around. He’d scare any Devil who tried to come in here and give her time to wake up and guard herself.
“You know, you can stay here until you’re all healed up. I’ll make up the spare room, assuming you sleep in a bed. Then I can keep an eye on that wound and make sure it heals, and I can pull that yarn out when you’re all sealed up,” Hester says, finding the thin line between an attractive offer and a suspicious one. The spare room is lovely, but it’s also nearest the window and hopefully the most tempting to anyone who enters. Of course, someone still might enter her room, but this cuts the chance of someone choosing her bedroom first in half, and doubles her chances of someone waking. “It’s the least I could do.”
If someone made this offer to Hester, she would be out the window in a second. She knows full well that there’s no such thing as the kindness of strangers in this city. The Rubbery Man doesn’t though, and he’s all too eager to agree to it, gesturing to his drying coat and saying something about the amber. She assumes he’s trying to pay her again, and this time she takes it with a nod.
“Sure, sure, that’s fine with me. I’ll go make up the room. You can help me and we’ll get it the way you like.” Hester motions for him to follow her, already thinking about ways to put him to the test. The Rubbery Man follows, clearly too grateful to question any of her motives.