Word Count: 3899
Summary: As the new year bloomed, Jensen's days seem to shrink.
part 7 of This Small Dark Place at AO3
My deepest thanks to jj1564, and firesign10, for telling me just what I needed to hear at the time. This was a hard chapter. I'm glad to put it behind me.
This is the end of Footsteps. The next part is Sweet Chariot, and if I'm lucky, I'll start posting it soon! :D
As the new year bloomed, Jensen's days seem to shrink. What little time not centered on his chores was Jared's, but Jared seemed...distant. Distant, or perhaps sad, Jensen found it hard to tell anymore. His master was conflicted about something that Jensen couldn't unravel, something beyond the death of his mother and his desire to please his father, and twisted through it all wasanger, he was so angry all the time. He barely spoke to Jensen beyond ordering him to do one or another menial task. He sent Jensen out of the house and to the stables so often that he was mistaken for a stable hand on several occasions, and honestly, Jensen couldn't say that bothered him at all. He threw his whole being into caring for the horses, and why shouldn't he? Caring for them was real, necessary, and the horses responded well to his care. Plus they provided Jensen with company—uncomplicated, affectionate, non-judgmental company. Jen was well aware that it was a little pathetic to be grateful for the company of horses, but there you go, he thought. Until his place on the estate was decided, and Jared settled whatever it was that was eating at him, Jensen was more than happy to hide in the stables.
He did miss being able to work with glass and metal, missed the creative outlet of making clockworks, designing little baubles. It hurt, sometimes, not being allowed to express himself...but whenever his fingers cramped with longing, or skittered over a piece of wood, a shard of glass, he reminded himself that he'd been awfully lucky to have even had the opportunity to do so. Looking over his life in general, he had to admit that all-in-all, he was exactly what Mark called him—Lucky.
As for the former assistant Houseboy, Mark was...well, Mark was certainly not unhappy, not to Jensen's eye. He was where he'd wanted to be, under masterHusbandman's direction and no longer part of the house staff. This had been a great gift from, and a terrible trial, to Jim. Anyway, that was the take-away, if one went by what the man grumbled into his coffee, and his beer, and his tea—well, through all parts of the day, really. While Jim had come to reluctantly accept that Mark had stepped down permanently, and he was happy for the man, he was bitter about having had no say in Mark's replacement. Not entirely unexpected, Jensen thought. After all, Jim was a born thrall, and not many masters were in the habit of asking their thralls for advice—particularly the Padalecki Estate's acting master.
Jim's second now was some fellow who'd been sold out of an estate near Mistress Patricia's secondary holdings, where Master Gerolt had been invited to take himself off too. Banished just sounded a bit harsh, even if that's what it had been.
The man Master Gerolt brought into the household—Ashley—was dour, a surly piece of work who put Jensen in mind of a strip of camp meat: thin, dry, hard to chew, and totally flavorless. He did his job competently, and 'Houseboy had no real complaint about him, but it was obvious as fly-dirt on a mirror that there was no love lost between the two. Just another change that Jensen had to quickly adapt to—just normal life.
It was the afternoon before Toddlers Day; Jensen was doing some busy work in the stables as Jared had not yet returned from his shopping trip to the city with his father—and the man's entourage.
At the beginning of the week, Jared had ridden off with his father and a few of the man's friends to spend the week in the city. At the time Jared talked about his travel plans, he and Jen had been spending a rare few minutes privately, lounging in Jared's sheets and enjoying the chance to just be boys together.
He'd been sitting cross-legged in the rumpled pile of sheets, balancing a plate of orange slices on his knees to share between them, Jared had babbled on about the trip, told Jensen his father planned to introduce him to "important, people, Jen. People I'm going to need to know," he'd said. "I'm very excited about this, it will be great fun," he'd said, but there was nothing in Jared's eyes that made Jensen believe he'd completely meant what he'd said. In fact, under the veneer of excitement, he'd looked a bit anxious, and...resigned?
Jensen wished so hard he knew what exactly was going on between Master and Jared, to make him so un-Jared like. Still, a flicker of guilt washed over Jen whenever he remembered Jared reluctantly, temporarily releasing him into Jim's direction—Master Gerolt hadn't wanted Jensen traveling along with them. He'd felt, and still felt, a warm shiver at the feeling of freedom it gave him to be sent from Jared's side. It was terribly wrong to feel that way. He and Jared were practically best—Jensen froze, tack that he was putting away strangled in his hands.
Gods, they weren't friends. He wasn't sure what he was to Jared. Thrall, yes. Companion, of a sort. Certainly less than he'd been while Mistress still lived. Jensen had the unwelcome feeling that the vacuum he was currently in so far as the estate and his master was concerned was deeper and darker than he imagined, and too soon, it would be Master Gerolt who would decide just were Jensen belonged in the Padalecki scheme of things. A microscopic part of him almost wished to be sold away.
No. He shook his head. No, this was his Jared, and it would be Jared and Jared alone who would make the decision concerning Jensen's place. Whatever he resolved, it could never be as bad as anything Gerolt would do. Jared had a good heart. He'd been raised by a principled and civil woman. He'd trust that Mistress' influence would hold out above all others.
He was just dumping a pan of dirty water into the hedge that framed the stable doors when he heard a familiar laugh. His chest tightened with pleasure. Mark.
Jensen stopped at the stable's threshold and listened; a few seconds went by before he heard the rumble of Jim's voice as well. It held an almost playful note, considering who was speaking. The accent that normally was barely present was out—Jim must be feeling sociable this afternoon. There was another voice, one that took him a moment to recognize as Wagonhandler, a notoriously close-mouthed man—Master Gerolt refused to talk to the man, he aggravated him that much. That alone made Jensen view Wagonhandler with favor.
Jensen turned back and hurried to the rear of the stable, to the back wall where the windows were, the set that let light onto the work benches and small table the stable hands usually took their lunch at. A bit of luck for him that no one was there at the moment; he clambered quickly atop one of the stools and peeked out through an open window.
He could see Mark and Jim and Wagonhandler hanging about the sturdy post-and rail fence that outlined the paddock. Closer to them now, he could clearly make out what it was they were saying—Wagonhandler was cheerily smoking some disreputable-looking pipe that emitted clouds of acrid smoke. Jim was leaning on the post next to him—but not too closely—his arms folded over his paunch, staring out across the fields. Mark was perched on the top rail near Jim, with a bag of sunflower seeds in his lap. He crunched into, then spat the shells out in a steady rhythm. From the state of the ground in front of Mark, Jensen figured the men had been sitting there for a while.
Motion at the corner of his eye caught his attention. One of the little trayboys came running down the path with a flask in her hands and a covered basket over her arm.
She stopped in front of Jim and bowed.
"'Cook sends the flask and basket and her best." The little trayboy leaned closer, as if she was about to impart a grand secret. "We're having a big lunch today. The Master bein' gone is like a holiday, it is. It's nice, isn't it? No one to pinch you or look at you funny, it's very nice." She chattered away as she poured cocoa into the cups Jim and Wagonhandler held out. Both the men made appreciative noises as the heavy scent of cocoa filled the chilly air.
Mark, on the other hand, peered at the basket with a grimace of disappointment. Jensen pressed his hands over his mouth to smother laughter. Cocoa for Mark. That was a laugh—the man rarely drank a liquid without some alcoholic content. Suddenly Mark's face lit up, a wide smile making his cheeks crease. Seems there was a bottle of beer in the basket just for him.
Jim sent the trayboy back, and after a few contented sips of cocoa, said, "So, go on then, Will. What happened next?"
"Well," Wagonhandler—William, Jensen thought; right, he remembered now—said, "He gawped like a landed fish when I opened them damn garage doors, ha! And I'm up there remembering all the times the mistress drove that thing into town, and everyone 'bout died trying not to laugh out loud at her in her finery, sitting proud and regal as a queen in that ancient collection of gears and smoke. Gods. What a rattle-bucket that car was." Will laughed again, wiping his bald head with a bandanna. He shook with mirth, laugh lines deepening into dimples in his mahogany-hued cheeks. "Mistress was something else. Was not a damn thing that could scare that woman. Not a damn thing at all." He stopped, drew on his pipe and let out a long, thoughtful plume of smoke. He went on, "She wasn't a jumped-up, self-important cow like most of them." He talked right over Jim's harsh "shhhh!" and Jensen's horrified gasp.
"What? She wasn't. She liked things that worked, and if they worked, she kept them. Guess new master won't be riding 'round town in her good old 'Doble Steam Touring Automobile'."
He chuckled again, and Jim couldn't help but chuckle himself. "Old Reliable," he laughed.
"Yep." Will sighed. "Well, she's headed for the scrap heap at last, poor old thing. Guess he'll get some fancy piece of shit to replace her. Con artist...."
"William, you need to watch yourself, man. Not everyone on staff is a friend, y'know that. 'Sides, Master could turn up at any moment," Jim muttered. Jensen could see the man fighting down a smile regardless; what an odd look it was on old Jim.
Mark tipped back his bottle, drinking the last of his beer.. He tossed it aside and said, "You know Jim's right, Will. You be careful. We've had the knick-knack out here more times than ever we did with the mistress. The man's more than a con artist—he's an animal, vicious, stupid, and dangerous because of that."
"Well, hell, Mark, what was I just saying to Will, eh? You all have the same sense of self-preservation as a gnat, I swear to the Gods. Don't make me put you all in the square," he growled, and Jensen could see he was genuinely upset. Jen started to back away, just catching Jim's, "Gods, I'm sick to death of these changes already, and now, we have even less choice than before. Them new forever thralls, they're not doing well at all. "
Jensen stepped down from the stool, and was wiping the top of it clean, when a shadow fell over him. He froze, his heart a lump of ice in his chest. He kept his eyes down—he had a very well developed sense of self-preservation.
He could tell by the shoes it was Master Gerolt. He wondered with a sick lurch in his gut if he'd heard Mark and Jim and Walter talking, but it seemed he hadn't. Jensen drew in a tiny breath of relief which turned to a stone in his throat when Master Gerolt spoke.
"How is it I come looking for stablehands and you're all I see here? I'm beginning to think the Gods want us to be close," he drawled, and ran his fingers down Jensen's cheek, traced a line around the collar of his shirt. Jensen made some noise, and apparently that was all the response Master needed. He pushed Jen towards the doors.
"Go gather up the lazy bastards who are supposed to be here to attend to us, and get the horses settled, and then, Jenny, go tell that cook woman to send up one of the trayboys with a decent bottle of scotch, none of that pig's whizz we keep for the freeloaders. And make sure it's pretty, a tender one."
As soon as he had permission to go, Jensen flew down the path away from the man. His gut clenched and his throat closed around a lump threwatening to choke him. He wanted to cry, he wanted to run far in the opposite direction and just keep running until he dropped, but he went to the kitchen like a dutiful little thrall. Told 'Cook Master Gerolt wanted the youngest trayboy sent to his room, managed to choke out that Master wanted only the youngest t oattend to him, and then ran back to the stables where he did his best to hide from everyone, thrall and masters, and himself.
Later that evening, he slipped back into the house, grateful he'd been able to avoid everyone, including his masters. He thought he'd sneak into the bath hall, maybe have the bath thralls help him prepare for Jared, not that he'd ever really asked for such a thing, but it might help to distract his master from the fact that Jensen had been missing for most of the day….
He passed by the kitchen on his way to the bath hall, and heard mostly stifled weeping—quiet and desperate. He peeked despite himself, and there in front of the hearth sat 'Cook, with a little boy on her lap. There were towels on the floor, and a bucket of steaming water. The thrall that had once been a nurse and now would never be anything but a thrall ever again was on their knees in front of the two, talking lowly into the little boy's ear. Jensen tried to draw back, but 'Cook caught him out.
"You. Get in here."
Jensen moved quickly, quietly to her side. She pointed at the buckets at her feet.
"Take these out," she ordered. T
he boy, curled in her lap and wrapped almost head to toe in a thin blanket, looked up at Jensen. His eyes, red and swollen, glimmered with tears. His lip was split, the corners torn, blood still oozed from the wounds despite 'Cook's dabbing at it. Another thin line of red snaked down from a cut in his hairline. A large red print covered one cheek, along with purple and blue marks around his neck as well—
Jensen knew it made him a coward, but he thanked the gods that he couldn't see the rest of the boy. One bucket held more than the bloody strips of linen he'd seen 'Cook wiping him down with from the doorway. It also held the bloody, ragged, mess of the trayboy's clothing. The bucket next to that held water swirled with pink. Jensen watched in horrified fascination as drops of blood dripped steadily off one small bare foot, to fall into the bucket and spread out in thin pink rings.
There was a jar of healing cream they used for the horses on the floor next to 'Cook's chair. The nurse looked over, caught Jensen's doubtful look. "S'nothing but herbs and a small amount of alcohol," they said. "It's the best I can do, since we can't call that sick bastard of a so-called physic in to look." The nurse dabbed at the cuts on the boy's face, and muttered, "I've no doubt he'd recognize these marks."
Jensen never thought that there'd come a time he missed the Nihonese physic the mistress had hired. He might have been part of some unpleasant instructions—all that, that 'intimate' instruction for Jared's sake—but at least the man had never actively tried to injure him. Jensen stared at the awful marks peppered over every bit of the boy's skin that he could see. He was certain Master Gerolt would call for this little thing again, despite his injuries, and the words just burst out of him. "What—what will we do with him? Master will—"
"The Captain will set things to right," the cook said fiercely. "I feel the air shiverin'. I feel a airship's comin' soon."
Jensen felt some measure of relief. Tonight, or tomorrow, or the next day, this boy would disappear, never be seen again, if the gods were good to him. Either the Airship Captain would take him to the safety of The Sea, or the boy would make it to a master less inclined to abuse his thralls to death, or...he looked at the pale little face, the shivers that racked the small body. He might go over, all the way across the Sea, past the border to the final rest.
Jensen took the buckets out to the garden, and cried as he buried the blood-stained rags, drained the blood-tainted water into the grass, and prayed.
When he came to Jared's rooms that evening, he explained away his tardiness and his damp clothing by telling Jared he'd had to wash the kitchen floors as punishment for not doing it right the first time, and Jared sighed in annoyance. "You need to not be doing drudge work, Jensen. It's a ridiculous waste."
They celebrated Toddler's day right after President's Day, even though it was so cold that the fields were rimed with ice. Considering the weather, Jensen was surprised that the master attended—even more surprised that Jared had. Jared hadn't come to a Toddler's Day since the first time he wasn't required to by Mistress. When Jared had finally, completely understood what it meant to be a thrall toddler and how different their lives were from freeman children, how Toddler day wasn't just a day for fun, that on some estates it was a matter of making it through the winter season with enough to eat, it had devastated him. Every Toddler's Day from that point on had featured a morose Jared, and Jensen doing his best to raise his spirits again. He remembered clearly the night that tiny Jared had hung onto Jen's every word, horrified, and angry; first at Jensen and then at the world, and had sworn that when he was grown and the estate was his, no toddler would ever have to run behind the harvesters, or work the fields trying to find the leftovers and crow about it "like it was a fun thing, Jensem, why does Mother allow it to happen? Why can't she just—give them things?"
'But she does, Jared, she gifts them in the Yule season,' Jensen had replied, and 'I hate the Yule,' Jared had said. 'When I'm grown, I'll fix it, Jensem, I will. Maybe Mother doesn't care, but I do.'
Jensen glanced towards the field when the ongoing racket drew his thoughts from the past—the toddlers shrieking made his blood run cold. He knew they were happy, and on this day were allowed to give vent to it. But those screams….Jen shuddered.
Jared glanced his way, his features set as blank as he could make them. He was here, following his father and some guests of his. They sat on the edge of the field in camp chairs, hot beverages served freely, the stink of cheap rum plain even from where Jensen stood.
Since the fields were frozen over and any last edible bit long ago gleaned from them, useless thrall candies were thrown out to the toddlers on the edge of the field. The strangers giggled and laughed, called the toddlers to them. They touched them, chucked them under the chin, stroked their arms, pinched their legs and Jensen was terrified he was going to throw up. He breathed a deep sigh of relief when finally the mothers were called to gather their toddlers and take them back to their quarters. Jared heard that undisciplined bit of noise, and turned fully towards Jensen, a frown on his face, his eyes like amber glass. Jensen dropped his eyes instantly, ashamed that he'd lost control like that. He folded his hands behind his back, the still full sack of candy he'd held for Jared bumping against his knees.
Jared walked to where he stood and leaned forward, speaking quietly into Jen's ear. "Go to the thrall homes and give out the rest of those sweets, then come see me," he said, and Jensen bowed and dashed off to the quarters.
Jensen passed out the candy to the disappointed mams, who'd no doubt been hoping for something substantial along with cheap treats for the children. He went from door to door, apologizing that the candy was all to be had, before returning to Jared's room.
He'd barely let himself in before Jared pointed at his pile of pillows and barked, "Sit."
He sat and only then noticed that Gerolt was in the room as well. Jared turned from Jensen, facing the window before speaking in a casual, diffident tone.
"Jensen, Father and I have been discussing your place here. What your position is, what your worth to the estate is."
Jensen kept his eyes locked on the fabric bunched under his knees, the appropriate expression on his face—relaxed into an attractive half-smile, but attentive. He wished he could scream. Jared turned back to him with a smile. "You know, Father wanted to have your legs...restructured. But I overrode him. I find them attractive, and not any of his business. But...he also suggested that I have you trained, and this I agree with, seeing as how it cements your position here, kind of settles your worth. Whatever my mother wanted for you just isn't worth the time, for either of us. So, this man," he pointed at a man in a black uniform, "is going to instruct you in everything you need to know. You got some points from the former physic, and you might be a little...old...to become a proper body thrall, but he will help to bring you as close as possible to being a useful body thrall. Understand?"
Jensen nodded, "Yes, master I do."
He glanced meekly up at Jared, only to meet Gerolt's eyes. The satisfaction on his moon face made Jensen wish for the power to kill a person with a thought; he'd settle for just one person. He glanced again at Jared, who stood at the window, refusing to meet Jensen's eyes. for a split second he really wasn't sure who he hated more and that thought left him breathless.
He dropped his eyes, tears pricking at them. It seemed his place on the estate was finally settled, and everything he'd hoped for wiped away.