I have no idea what I'm doing

Category: Your Time Starts Now

Get the Egg out of the Egg.

Team days were the worst. Alex was only one man, and often had enough trouble when he only had one person to look after. Three people was often more than he could handle. But Greg wanted teams, so Alex found himself standing in the garden trying to wrangle too many people who had grown to hate him. He watched as the three of them huddled around the shed in their boiler suits, reading the task he had set out for them.

“‘Transport as many eggs as possible from bucket A to bucket B,’” Libby read slowly.

They all took a moment to locate both buckets, one against the fence near the lab, full of brown eggs, and the second empty bucket by the caravan.

“‘You may not move either bucket,’” Libby read on. “‘You may not transport any egg shells, and you may only use your bare hands to transport the eggs. Only one person may transport eggs at a time, and you must take it in turns to transport eggs. You have ten minutes. Your time starts when someone asks a question.’”

Alex stood ready to start the clock, counting down the seconds until he asked if they were ready. Libby, Keiran, and Theo all stood huddled together, looking around the garden for any more clues.

“Hang on, what?” Kieran asked, snatching the task from Libby.

Alex started the clock, watching quietly as Kieran read the task again, more slowly as he pointed to each item in turn.

“Alex, what the fuck is this shit?” he asked finally.

Alex wrote that down. “Which part don’t you understand?” he asked.

“The whole fucking thing,” Kieran said. “Move the eggs, but don’t touch the eggs, but you can’t use anything else?”

Alex nodded. “All the information is on the task.”

Kieran picked up a pebble from the ground and threw it at Alex. Alex managed to duck out of the way, allowing the pebble to fly into the hedge behind him.

“Clock’s running,” Alex said.

The three of them all looked up at him with a sharp jolt, having clearly not realised they’d already started the time. While Libby and Theo rushed over to the bucket by the fence, Kieran read the task over again.

“Oh!” he shouted as he tossed the page aside. “God, okay. Hold out your hand.”

He grabbed Libby’s wrists, arranging her hands so they were cupped above the bucket. Then, he picked up an egg from the bucket and cracked it into her hand.

“Hold it there,” Kieran said, his words drowned out by Libby letting out a disgusted shout.

“How many can you hold?” Kieran asked.

“I don’t fucking know,” Libby said.

He cracked another egg into her hands, even as the first was already dripping through her fingers. Alex watched them scramble, marking down each egg that got cracked open. After three, Libby ran across the garden, leaving a slimy trail of egg behind her. As soon as she dumped what remained in her hands into the bucket, Theo began cracking eggs into Kieran’s hands, establishing a cycle. It was difficult for Alex to pick out any specific conversation to write down, as the three of them all shouted over one another as they worked out exactly what it was they were doing.

Their plan all fell apart when Libby tried to crack eggs into Theo’s hands. With her hands still covered in egg, she couldn’t get a good grip on the ones she picked up, and she dropped three to the ground.

“Fuckssake!” she shouted, struggling to grab another one well enough to crack it open. “I can’t get the egg out of the egg!”

She only managed to break one egg into Theo’s hands before she gave up and sent him running. By the time Alex blew his whistle, they had more eggs on the ground than in the bucket by the caravan. As soon as their time ended, the three of them all seemed to deflate a bit as they abruptly stopped and turned to glare at Alex.

“Thank you,” Alex said loudly enough for all of them to hear. “Go inside now.”

“Fuck you, Alex,” Kieran said.

He picked up one of the remaining eggs from the bucket and threw it at Alex, but Alex dodged that one as well.

“Thank you,” Alex said again.

He watched as the three of them trudged back to the front door to go get cleaned off. Once he heard the door latch, Alex stepped over to the first bucket to count the remaining eggs, making sure to account for the one that was thrown at him after the whistle. They only had eight remaining, out of 50, which was better than he had expected. But when he checked the second bucket by the caravan, that one told a different story. Even with the broken egg yolks, it was obvious that there was nowhere near 41 eggs in the bucket. He picked up the bucket and took it to the shed, where he had already set the tare on the scale to account for the weight of the empty bucket. At barely over 700 grams, Alex’s quick maths gave them a tentative total of about 14 eggs in the bucket. He’d double check that figure later, but for now, he had to clean up the mess and get the next task started.

Alex heard the noise outside, but didn’t register what it meant until he turned to open the shed door and found it locked. He thought maybe it had got stuck, but repeated attempts to open the door brought a rising fear each time he shoved his entire weight into it.

“Hello!” he shouted finally. “Open the door, please!”

He could hear laughter on the other side, and thought it was Libby and Kieran.

“Please unlock the door and go back inside,” Alex said.

“No, I think this is better,” Kieran said.

On the scale of indignities he had suffered at the hands of Greg’s guests, being locked in the shed was relatively low, but that didn’t change the fact that he had completely lost control of the situation. Alex set his clipboard down and looked around for anything that might help him, but all he could see was the window. He’d have to break the glass to get out, and even if he did that, the frame wouldn’t allow him to get more than just his head out. Greg may have liked to call him little, but Alex was well aware of his size. Still, he pulled the curtain aside and tried to look as menacing as possible through the glass.

“Unlock the door. Now,” he said, done with manners and politeness.

Kieran and Libby did not unlock the door. They threw the remaining eggs at him, smashing them against the side of the shed. Two of them struck the window, cracking the glass panes.

“Stop it!” Alex shouted.

They did stop, but only because they ran out of eggs. After that, they both ran off where he could no longer see them. Alex was sure he could brute force his way through the door with enough time and effort, but he would already be punished for this. If he damaged the shed any more than it already had been, Greg would be even more annoyed at having to get it replaced. For the sake of the shed and his own shoulder, Alex ignored the door and searched for anything else. But the shed was unhelpful by design, full of broken charity shop rubbish and old sport gear. Alex tried once more to get through the window, hoping he might be able to pop the entire frame out to make a larger gap. If he could get the whole thing out in one piece, it might be easier to repair, and he could get out and put a stop to whatever was going on without him. But the frame was well secure, and it took only a few smacks with the flat of his hand to be apparent that he wasn’t going to work it loose.

There was one other option available to him, and it was the one most likely to make Greg angry. At the same time, it eliminated the possibility of Greg finding out later, and accusing Alex of undermining him somehow. Greg still wouldn’t be happy, but Alex hoped that maybe he’d at least be lenient. He looked around the shed one more time, hoping for another option, but nothing stood out to him. This wasn’t a crafty puzzle to solve; it was quite simply a disaster he needed to fix quickly, so he pulled his phone from his pocket and took a moment to accept the inevitable.

He had to tell Greg directly. Anything else would be taken in the worst possible light. But he couldn’t call, because Greg wouldn’t answer anyway. It would have to be a text, and Alex knew that text would be answered on Greg’s time. Alex sent the message quickly, and then looked for a way to at least get comfortable while he waited.

Greg personally showed him the cottage. Together, they walked along a narrow path that skirted around the golf course to a small, fenced in area near the road. As they walked, Alex flipped through a stack of pages on a clipboard he’d been given, though he couldn’t quite make sense of them. He got as far as working out that it was various floor plans of the entire cottage, individual rooms, and the garden, but there were little boxes with Xs in them scattered throughout. That they were included at all was enough of an indication for Alex to figure out they were important, but he couldn’t think of anything the little boxes might be representing. Each page was also shaded oddly, with seemingly random geometric shapes scattered throughout.

They went through a hidden gate, painted green to match the hedges it was buried in, giving Alex his first look at the cottage itself. There was an odd whimsy to it, with high arched gables and a big clock on the one facing out over the garden. Greg led Alex round the front door, leading the way into a scene that felt almost shocking. The giant portrait of Greg hanging on the wall, so it was the first thing anyone saw when walking through the door was perhaps the least surprising of it. The man had an endless collection of portraits of himself, which had already faded into normality for Alex. One more wasn’t going to change things there. But the small house was so fundamentally different to the manor that for a moment Alex wondered if they were in the wrong place. Black and white zebra stripes covered the floor, while random knickknacks and baubles decorated the walls. The whole thing radiated a sort of chaotic discomfort that Alex couldn’t quite overcome.

But he noticed something else right away, even before Greg pointed them out. In the corners, up by the ceiling, were cameras. Alex looked down at the documents he’d been given, and realised what the strange geometry overlaid on the floor plan was: blind spots.

“Are the cameras always rolling?” Alex asked, unable to shake the feeling that he’d wandered into something sinister.

“Always,” Greg said. He led the way down the hall, stopping to show him a cluttered kitchen. “We take security very seriously.”

Alex didn’t believe that; or at least, he didn’t believe that Greg’s words were the whole truth. It was the first thing Greg had said that Alex rejected, and he didn’t like it. But he also didn’t openly question it, and instead nodded along.

“When we have guests, they’ll mostly be taking care of themselves,” Greg said. “But you’ll want to get to know your way around the place anyway.”

“What exactly will I be doing?” Alex asked.

The kitchen at least seemed like a kitchen. Nothing untoward happening in there, aside from perhaps an ungodly amount of eggs beneath one of the windows.

“Just making sure everyone has what they need, really,” Greg said. “Some of my guests can get a bit out of hand, and you’ll need to keep them in check.”

He turned across the hall and opened a door to a small, cosy living room. Alex followed him, unsurprised to find yet another giant portrait of Greg hanging on the wall, this one in a modern graffiti style reminiscent of Banksy.

“Right,” Alex said. “Will I be staying here?”

Greg was leaving crucial information out of the brief, and it was getting to a point that Alex could no longer ignore it.

“No, no,” Greg said, waving off the idea entirely. “You’ll come here in the mornings, open the place up, and stay for the day. Nobody stays here overnight.”

Again, Alex nodded. That at least seemed more reasonable somehow, even if he still had no idea what he’d actually be doing.

“Guest rooms, where they’ll spend most of their time,” Greg said, leading Alex back out to the hall.

He showed Alex two small rooms that didn’t feel like they were in the right place. They reminded Alex more of a waiting room than anywhere a person might wish to spend their time. But that was immediately forgotten when Greg opened the door at the end of the hall. The room on the other side sent a shock of terror through Alex that he couldn’t quite clamp down. An empty white room, draped in plastic sheets from floor to ceiling.

Rooms like this were usually only used for one thing.

“What’s this?” he asked slowly, not quite able to force himself to step inside.

“Lab,” Greg said, as if that explained anything. “Some of the activities we host get a bit messy.”

Alex couldn’t keep up the façade much longer. Every time Greg spoke, he made less and less sense.

“I’m sorry, I don’t quite understand,” he said, trying not to let his frustrations show. “What activities, exactly?”

The brief silence that spanned between them was just enough to make Alex think that he should have continued to go along with things; that whatever activities happened in this room would next feature him.

“Oh!” Greg said suddenly. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out an envelope. “Completely forgot. I meant to give you this last night.”

He handed Alex the envelope, and watched him almost expectantly as Alex turned it over to inspect it. The first thing he noticed was that it wasn’t a typical envelope, but a heavy sheet of paper folded in thirds and sealed with red wax. Alex looked up at Greg, waiting until he was given a small nod to break the seal. He unfolded the page, finding a long, handwritten list laid out for him. Alex read over it slowly, finding the contents just as confusing and nonsensical as everything else.

“I’m sorry. ‘Eat a plate of spaghetti without using hands.’” He looked up at Greg, unable to hold back a nervous laugh. “What is this?”

Alex knew, just by the look on Greg’s face that said he saw nothing unusual with this list, that he had wandered into something he might not be able to get out of. This wasn’t normal behaviour, even for eccentric men with titles and money. But at the same time, he was compelled to stay and see whatever this was through. If he walked out without notice, he’d never get work again. A bad reference from a peer would haunt him for the rest of his life, no matter where he sought work next.

“It’s what you’ll be doing when we get back from Spain next month,” Greg said. He nodded toward the clipboard still in Alex’s hand. “Place that ad tomorrow, and get all that typed up before we leave.”

Greg had a way of saying a lot without saying anything, leaving Alex muddled and wondering if maybe he just hadn’t been able to keep up. He nodded quietly and shifted through the pages on his clipboard to the very end, where he found the ad Greg wanted placed. It was going into a paper Alex had never heard of, but the information was plainly laid out so all he had to do was phone the number provided.

“‘What would you do for a million pounds?’” he read out.

He looked up at Greg, ignoring the critical stare now being levied at him, and then around the terrifying serial killer room they stood in. And suddenly, Alex understood. He nodded, and slotted the list and the ad onto his clipboard with the rest.

“Right. Of course,” he said. “I’ll get right on that.”

“Get familiar with the place. I’m going out with Roisin for dinner, so take the evening for yourself,” Greg said.

Again, Alex nodded as Greg strode past him. “Thank you,” he said.

He stayed where he was until he heard the front door slam shut, and only then rushed to get out of the so-called lab. As he went through each room, taking meticulous notes on everything he could find, Alex tried to figure out when and how to go about putting in his notice. The Spain trip had already been arranged, and if he left before then, the reference from Greg would be just as poor as if he’d turned and walked out of the door right then and there. He could put his notice in during the trip, but then there wouldn’t be much time to find and train a replacement. Alex had already made a few notes of his own in the instructions he had inherited, and knew firsthand how difficult it was to learn a job like this without any real training. He’d at the very least need to stay on to train his replacement to make everything easier for everyone.

After the trip, then. That was the only time for it. He’d wait until they returned, and then give his notice.

He forgot all about the matter when he opened a drawer in the kitchen and found it full to the brim with Hundreds and Thousands, spilling over onto the floor from the momentum of the drawer being pulled open. Suddenly, the only thing on Alex’s mind was working out where the broom was kept.

The sun had sunk low to the horizon, and a cold wind had picked up by the time Alex heard the gate open. He heard the car roll down the drive, and the doors slam shut before footsteps crunched along the gravel.

“I’m in here!” Alex shouted, no longer worried about the consequences.

He was cold and his entire body sore from sitting on the floor all day, and he just wanted to go home, take his punishment, and go to bed. But he knew it wouldn’t be that easy as soon as he heard someone on the other side of the door fussing with the lock. Until then, Alex had assumed the door had only been latched. Of course, it had been much worse than that. Sighing, he got to his feet and ignored his stiff muscles and joints protesting it, and stepped close to the door.

“I’ve got the only key,” he said.

“Can you get it through the door?” the man on the other side asked.

Alex pulled his keys from his pocket and looked at them with a tired sigh. “Yes, one moment.”

He wasn’t supposed to let anyone else handle the keys, but he couldn’t see a single other way out of this. As his mystery saviour walked around to the side of the shed, Alex worked the key from his ring, so he could only be accused of handing over that one, and not all of them. He was able to lean against the door just enough to force a small opening at the top, though which he could slip the key to the other side. Alex couldn’t see what was going on beyond the door, but he could hear the person on the other side picking the key up from the gravel. As soon as Alex was freed, he took the key back and put it back in its place with the rest of them. The man who had freed him wouldn’t even look directly at him, and Alex hated it. The man had to have known that Alex was the one who would be punished for this, but every now and then Greg managed to hire someone with a conscience, it seemed. Alex wished he knew the man’s name, even though it wouldn’t have done him any good. So he stayed silent on the matter as he steeled himself for the inevitable. Then, with a deep breath, he looked toward the house and decided to get on with it. First, he tried the door to the living room, but immediately found it bound shut with gaffer tape.

“Fucking hell,” he hissed quietly.

It was worse than just gaffer tape holding the door shut. Just by looking through the glass, he could see that the entire house had been trashed. Alex wasn’t going to be getting home any time soon, and he knew it. He gave up on the side door and went round to the front. They had barricaded it from the inside, but Alex was still able to get it unlocked. It gave him just enough leverage to force it open enough to step inside, past the living room table and a chair from one of the guest rooms. It was clear that every single drawer had been emptied, and every shelf upended onto the floor. Ketchup and salad cream had been smeared all over the walls, and something purple dripped from a large patch on the ceiling.

Greg was absolutely going to kill him for this.

Alex found the three of them in the lab, where they’d all torn the plastic sheeting from the walls and used it to build a fort. He stood silently in the doorway, half-expecting them to rush him. But it was clear that the game was over. Alex needed only step aside to make room for the three of them to get up from the floor and shuffle quietly past him. The handler took them from there, leading them out of the house and into the car that would take them back to their rooms. For a long moment, Alex stood in one place, just looking around the mess that had been made. But it wasn’t going to clean itself, so he took off his jacket to find somewhere safe to hang it so he could spend his night scrubbing jam and Nutella from the floors.

Alex started in the lab and worked his way toward the front of the house. The convenient thing about the house being the way it was meant that everything Alex needed for repairs could be found somewhere on the property. He re-hung fresh plastic sheets and got all the cameras re-positioned, both relieved and surprised they had only been fiddled with, and not completely broken.

He ran out of energy halfway through cleaning up the living room. Alex knew he’d be back the following day to finish cleaning up, and had to resist the urge to kip up in the caravan for the night. Someone else might have been able to convince Greg that it was a good idea that would save him time getting the house put back together, but someone else didn’t have other duties to see to. Alex had completely skipped dinner and all his other evening chores, and he knew Greg would not be happy if he also skipped breakfast the following morning. So Alex trudged back up to the manor so he could at least be present in the morning. He expected to be able to sneak in unnoticed, but he got as far as the front door before those hopes were dashed. He barely got his key in the lock before the door swung open, revealing Greg on the other side. For a moment, they both stared at one another, neither moving or saying a word. Then, Greg stepped aside and crossed his arms over his chest. Alex stepped through the door and braced for the inevitable impact, but it didn’t come. Instead, Greg grabbed him by the collar and pulled him along down the hall like a disobedient dog. Once Alex realised he was being taken to the study, he knew he was in for a serious dressing down over what had happened.

Greg didn’t let go of him until they were inside the room, with the door closed behind them. Alex put a few steps of distance between them, but he knew it wouldn’t matter. Greg could be surprisingly fast for a man of his size, and there was only so far Alex could run in the confined space.

“Am I some sort of joke to you?” Greg asked.

Alex shook his head quickly. “No,” he said.

Greg leaned into Alex’s space, so close their faces nearly touched. “Then what’s with this Lord of the Flies bullshit you’re letting happen?” Greg asked lowly.

Again, Alex shook his head, resisting the urge to take a step backwards. “They locked me in the shed. There was nothing I could do about it,” he said.

“Yeah, and about that,” Greg said, barely letting him finish. “What’s this I hear about you handing your keys off to someone else, huh?”

Alex barely clamped down on the urge to back away. “Just the shed key,” he said.

“Just nothing,” Greg said. “First it’s the shed key, then who knows what’s next?”

Alex could feel himself shrinking beneath Greg. He wondered if he’d get small enough to slip through a crack in the floor. Greg certainly made him feel that small, looming over him so he was finally forced to take a step back.

“It’s just the shed,” he said. “I don’t see why there shouldn’t be more copies of it.”

He had just enough time to register Greg backing away from him before Greg struck him across the face. Alex stumbled from the force of it, but the shock overwhelmed the pain. His face was the one area that Greg always tried to avoid, so he knew he had truly misstepped for Greg to forget even his own boundaries.

“I’m sorry,” Alex said quickly as he took another step backwards to put more distance between them. “I—I shouldn’t have said that.”

He was starting to stammer, and soon he’d be tripping over his own tongue. For each step he took backwards, Greg walked toward him, until Alex was trapped with his back against the wall with nowhere to run.

“No, you shouldn’t have,” Greg said, his voice low and even. “But you can be a real mouthy cunt, you know that? And I don’t punish you enough for it.”

Alex held his mouth closed tightly and shook his head again, because he knew that anything he said would be the wrong thing. There was no getting out of this in one piece, but he could at least get out alive.

“I’ve just about had it with you,” Greg said. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t have you replaced tomorrow.”

Words and reasons tumbled through Alex’s mind, every one of them getting caught on his tongue and keeping him from saying anything. He fought with all of them, starting to speak half a dozen times before he even knew what he ought to say.

“I’m here for life. You keep saying that,” he said finally, praying it was the right answer.

Just by the way Greg shook his head, Alex knew it wasn’t.

“And you think that’s my problem?” Greg asked. “You think I don’t know how to get rid of a mouthy little prick like you?”

All Alex could do was shake his head and stumble over his words. “No, I think you do,” he finally managed to stammer out.

He stared up at Greg, barely able to even make himself blink. Every part of his being wanted to run and hide, but he didn’t dare move a muscle. If he ran, his punishment would be ten times worse than whatever was already going through Greg’s mind at that moment.

“You know what I can do to you,” Greg said. “And you still let those bastards destroy my house?”

A thousand responses raced through Alex’s head, but he knew none of them were the response Greg wanted to hear. But he had to say something, so he opened his mouth and said the first words that jumped to the front of his mind.

“It would be a lot easier to do things right if I had help,” he said.

He knew even as he spoke it was the wrong thing to say. This time, he was able to brace himself for the strike across his face, but bracing only did so much against a man of Greg’s size. His head swam from the impact, but before he could recover Greg grabbed him by the neck and dragged him across the floor. Alex barely managed to stay on his feet as Greg hauled him from the study and down the hall. All he could do was keep up with Greg’s stride, because he knew even if he stumbled and fell, Greg would not stop. He’d be dragged through the house by his throat if he didn’t keep up, and he knew it from experience.

Alex couldn’t even be surprised when Greg threw him into his cupboard, or when he heard the familiar scrape of the lock fastening on the other side. There was a certain comfort in the cupboard, alone in the dark as Greg’s stomping footsteps receded. Whatever Greg might do to him wouldn’t come immediately, and that was enough to let Alex begin to relax. As long as he was in the cupboard, he was safe. He sat on the floor and leaned against the wall, giving himself time to remember how to breathe. Alex knew Greg wasn’t done with him though. Being locked in the cupboard wasn’t much of a punishment, and they both knew it. Alex was locked in the cupboard so he stayed out of the way while Greg decided what his true punishment would be. Very occasionally, Greg would lock him in the cupboard to give himself time to cool down, but Alex didn’t think this would be one of those times.

As Alex calmed down, his exhaustion from the day quickly caught up with him. He took off his jacket and his shoes and lay down to sleep on the floor. He had only a thin blanket to curl up with, which he had to do because neither the blanket nor the cupboard were big enough to allow him to stretch out properly. Despite everything, he fell asleep quickly, though he did not have a restful night by any means. He hadn’t been allowed to eat anything all day, and now with nothing to distract him from his hunger, it was enough to keep waking him through the night. Each time he woke, he checked his phone for the time, having to squint against the bright screen. Even on its dimmest setting, it was like a torch blinding him, but it was somehow comforting to know how much time had passed since he had last checked. As the night dragged further on, Alex became increasingly aware of a bigger problem than his phone screen burning bright spots in his eyes. At first, he thought he could ignore it, but it wasn’t long before his need to have a wee kept from from falling back to sleep at all. No matter how he twisted and turned and curled himself up, it didn’t go away.

Watching the clock became less of a ritual to ground himself, and more of an act of desperation as the night wore on. He knew Greg wouldn’t come for him until after he’d sorted his own breakfast out, and Alex became increasingly certain he wouldn’t be able to wait for that long. Alex’s usual morning started earlier than Greg’s, but that didn’t help him with the lock on the outside of the door.

He gave up on sleep when it became apparent he was heading toward real trouble. One way or another, Greg would open the cupboard to find it reeking of piss, and it was up to Alex to pick how he wanted to be punished for it. That was how Greg’s punishments worked. Alex would be punished either way, but the form that punishment took was always up to him in the end, determined by his choice of actions. He sat up against the wall, trying to find any way he could to buy himself more time. As need turned into painful desperation, Alex began to properly consider his options. Ultimately, he only had two, and neither were good. Either way, whether he pissed in the corner or in his pants, Greg would be furious with him. In the corner, Greg would treat it like some act of wilful defiance. In his pants, it was a shameful lack of control. His choice came down to whether he’d rather sacrifice his last remaining shreds of dignity, or take the harsher punishment.

In the end, all it took was a cough, and not even a big one. A small tickle in the back of his throat that quickly turned into a sharp, choking gasp as Alex grappled with the dissonance of relief and a bone-deep self loathing that started with his pants becoming rapidly soaked. Even as urine soaked into Alex’s trousers and onto the floor, he stayed where he was, fist held tightly against his mouth to keep any other sound from escaping. Once it had started, it seemed it would never stop. He did nothing to try and fix the situation either, staying where he sat against the wall as a puddle of piss grew around him. But it did stop, and still Alex stayed where he was, suddenly far too tired to even get up to shed his clothes. But sleep still eluded him, as his soaked pants and trousers began to chafe against his skin as everything cooled. He’d had only tea all day, and soon his own stink began to make him gag with each breath, but he still did nothing to fix the situation because there was no fixing it. He could strip completely, and he’d still be locked in a reeking cupboard. There was still a large puddle on the floor that would need to be dealt with, and he had only the clothes he wore and a blanket at hand. A blanket that had no doubt been collateral damage already.

Alex stopped checking his phone after that, letting the darkness within the cupboard fully consume him. If he checked his phone, it would cast enough light for him to see the true scope of the situation, and he didn’t want to see it. Even in the dark, he kept his eyes closed as though he could hide from even himself. Like that, sat against the wall with his knees brought up to his chin, he almost felt like he could cease to exist entirely. There was no cupboard, and no world beyond it. No Alex. His mind was completely empty, barely even conscious of the mess he had made before long.

He didn’t know how much longer he had been left in the cupboard. Whether it was minutes or days, it all felt like the same thing. He barely registered the scrape of the lock on the other side of the door, only realising the door had opened at all when he instinctively flinched away from the light.

“Jesus Christ!” Greg shouted.

He slammed the door again, and Alex thought he’d be left alone again. Beyond the door, he could hear Greg gagging, but he didn’t seem to be leaving. Then, the door opened again, pouring light in once more, and Alex could see the true extent of his problem. He had just enough time to look up before Greg was inside the cupboard with him, grabbing him by the back of the neck.

“You disgusting pig,” Greg said as he pulled Alex around.

Greg wrestled Alex to all fours while he avoided stepping in the mess himself. Alex had no choice but to brace himself against the floor, hands planted beneath him as Greg tried to shove him all the way to the ground. But Greg was bigger and heavier than him, and he pressed Alex’s face closer to the floor with seemingly little effort.

“No, please,” Alex said, trying to resist having his face shoved into his own piss.

“No?” Greg asked. “How about learning some goddamn control over yourself.”

With one more harsh shove, he pressed Alex’s face against the floor. Alex sputtered and coughed against the stench as Greg continued to hold him down into his own piss. Alex’s eyes and throat burned, and even though he knew it was useless, he tried to push himself up again. Each time he tried, Greg leaned more of his weight against Alex, holding him down even longer.

“I’m sorry,” Alex said through his teeth, trying to keep his mouth as closed as possible.

Greg shoved Alex, as though trying to scrub the floor with his beard. Alex tried to brace himself against it, but he was quickly running out of any ability to fight back or resist.

“Sorry’s what you say when you’re not going to do it again,” Greg said, shoving Alex against the floor once more. “Are you gonna do it again?”

Alex huffed against Greg’s weight atop him, struggling to keep his face turned away enough to breathe. He wanted to say that he wouldn’t do it again; that he’d learned his lesson and would be more careful next time.

“Yes,” he said instead, because he knew better than to pretend he had any control over what Greg might make him do in future.

Greg pressed harder against Alex, dragging his face through his own piss one last time before he let up. Alex had just enough time to lift his head before Greg took him by the back his neck and hauled him to his feet. Stinking and soaked, Alex found himself dragged through the house fully on display. If anyone had seen him, it would have been painfully clear what had happened. Still, he struggled to keep up with Greg’s long strides, even as Greg took him to the back of the house and outside. There was no immediate back garden. That was beyond a low fence that blocked off a small gravel patch that held rubbish bins and deliveries that hadn’t been processed and gardening equipment. Greg let go of Alex as they hit the gravel, shoving him so he fell down to his knees. The cold air stung sharply against his wet skin, and he wondered if it might be cold enough to freeze.

He didn’t have long to wonder though. Alex looked up to see Greg unwinding the hose from where it hung against the wall, muttering an endless string of profanity to himself. Greg turned the water on and tested the pressure with a quick blast to the ground before turning it on Alex. Alex shielded his face from the freezing torrent, unable to do anything more than gasp and hiss sharply.

“Strip, Horne,” Greg shouted over the water. “Filthy little piggy needs a proper bath.”

Alex struggled to open his shirt, finding his hands too shaky and stiff to work the buttons.

“Stop, please,” he said.

Greg didn’t stop. Alex turned his face away so he didn’t inhale the jet of icy water, and slowly worked his shirt open one button at a time. Once it was open, getting it off and tossed to the ground was the easier part. Then, he had to struggle with his belt and trousers, though getting his zip down was somewhat easier.

“Pants too,” Greg said.

Alex nodded haltingly as he pulled everything down, stripping even his socks so he was fully naked as Greg continued to spray him with the hose. Alex could still smell the stench of urine in his beard, so he turned his face into the jet once again, cringing against the cold water as it got up his nose and in his eyes. He stayed on his knees, head bowed as he shivered and trembled, even after Greg turned the water off. It was so cold, Alex wasn’t even sure he could move.

“You’ve got two messes to clean up now,” Greg said as he tossed the hose generally in the direction where it belonged. “Better get started, because I expect you home for dinner tonight.”

Alex nodded in a stilted, jerky motion, but said nothing. He slowly pulled himself to his feet and gathered up his soaked and discarded clothes to wring them out. With nothing else to cover himself, he held everything in front of his waist to cover as much as possible as he fled back inside to dress.

« ||

The Audacity to Look Annoyed.

Sometimes, very rarely, Greg would surprise Alex with a change to the routine. Alex was quite certain he could have muscled through the day with the same shoes that had caused the sores and blisters in the first place, but Greg told him not to wear them. Just this once, as a treat for being a good boy and getting all his work done the day before, he was allowed to go around in his socks. It didn’t feel right, and Alex didn’t entirely like it, but even he knew it was better than what Greg could have made him do.

Greg’s decision may have been influenced by the fact that Alex wouldn’t be going to the cottage that day. He’d be staying inside, and so shoes weren’t necessarily required. Instead, he saw to his morning chores and then fetched his iPad. The iPad had been another surprise; a small reward for good behaviour. Ostensibly, it was his to do with as he pleased, but he’d learned quickly that it had also been a test. A test he had failed almost immediately by downloading things Greg didn’t approve of, but how was he to know that? Greg never told him when something was a test or a trap. Alex was simply left to blunder into failure, which he seemed to do every time.

He’d learned that lesson, though. The iPad was his, but it was his to use only in ways Greg approved of. But what Alex liked about it was that it was much easier to use than the old system of laptops and wires and software that seemed to randomly breakdown with no warning. He’d always been savvy enough to fix the problems with they did come up, but not having the problems in the first place made Greg happier, and when Greg was happy, Alex’s day always went better.

Alex held the iPad close to his chest as he walked to the south wing of the house, and down to the cellar that had once served a purpose made obsolete by preservatives and refrigeration. Now, it had been made up like the rest of the house, with ornate moulding and panelling, expensive rugs and ancient paintings making it familiar and comfortable. He walked all the way to the end of the hall, stopping next to a long, wooden bench that stood out against the rest of the trappings. It was unfinished pine, simply constructed as a temporary item to suit a purpose, but somehow it had never been replaced with anything better. Over the years, it had been chipped at and drawn on in places, scuffed and banged around in others. Somehow, its incongruity with the rest of the house made it seem almost sinister, which may have been why it had never been replaced with anything better. By being out of place and jarring, it was the best thing possible for the purpose.

He stood next to the bench, patiently waiting for the door beside it to open. He said nothing as it did finally open, and the group of five emerged from the small room on the other side. He made notes to himself on his iPad as Greg’s current round of guests settled on the bench next to him, bringing an uneasy tension to the air. They all quietly chatted amongst themselves, none of them even acknowledging Alex’s presence. He did listen in though, taking note of the nervous energy coming from all of them. They were starting to turn on one another, right on schedule. Alex made note of that as well. Once upon a time, Alex had thought that’s what the fifth member of the group was for; to bring resentment and discord into these games Greg like to play with his guests, but now Alex knew that the discord was natural progression of events. They would all turn on one another eventually, whether or not Greg picked a favourite or made sure each group always had one person who wasn’t happy to be there.

Of course, it didn’t stop Greg from picking a favourite or making sure there was a wild card in each group. For this group, the latter was a young man who never quite accepted the situation he’d found himself in. He had been angry from the first day Alex processed him and took his photograph. He alone said nothing while they waited. He stared at the empty wall in front of him, quietly stewing on something, and Alex had a good idea what had got him so angry this week.

Alex waited until his watch read precisely midday before he stepped forward and opened the door. By now, they all knew the routine, and didn’t need to be told that it was time to get up. They filed past Alex, one by one as he held the door open, into the room and to their assigned seats. With them all in, Alex stepped in after them and made sure the door was properly latched.

The room wasn’t a large one, and Greg already sat in his usual place, in a high-backed chair against the wall. The room was unsettling, with ornate red and black damask that made the room feel even smaller than it was. A giant portrait of Greg hung on the wall, as the only decoration in the room. On the opposite wall was a large television, hooked up to the local network so Alex could control it from his iPad. For the time being, the screen was black.

It was a room meant to be unsettling and off-putting, and even after so many years by Greg’s side, Alex still felt uncomfortable in there sometimes.

He took his spot besides Greg while everything settled down around him. Slowly, the group of five quieted, but it wasn’t a quiet that lasted for very long.

“Why isn’t Alex wearing shoes?” one of them asked.

There were only two women in the current group, and Libby had done nothing to hide her contempt for Alex. She had been desperate enough to answer an ad, and signed on without even listening to how she’d be spending her next ten weeks.

“Never mind him,” Greg said.

He reached over to scrape his nails through Alex’s beard, pulling the hair and making him flinch away. Everything Greg did before his guests was done to unsettle and unnerve them, and it worked. The point had been made without giving a word of explanation, because everyone knew by now that anything Alex did was at Greg’s command. If Alex wasn’t wearing shoes, it was simply because Greg had told him not to. It was enough to settle the room back into an uncomfortable silence so Alex could begin reading from the notes on his iPad. Greg had his lists of things he wanted to see done, but it was largely up to Alex to decide the order in which the list got done. It didn’t matter that the things Greg wanted done didn’t make sense. If he wanted a room painted or the fridge cleaned out, he’d hire someone, or make Alex do it. The things Greg had his guests do for him made no sense because it was a thrill for him to watch strangers drive themselves to madness to please him, and then fight over the remaining shreds of dignity they still possessed. Had he been lord of the estate a few centuries earlier, Greg would have kept fools and jesters and made them fight to the death for his entertainment. As it was, he had to sate that part of him in other ways. And like so many other things, Alex had long since learned not to question it, and to simply do as he was told.

There was a comfortable rhythm to this game, and Alex fell into it easily. Greg was like a cat that preferred to play with the mouse it caught before finally crushing it, and Alex knew exactly how to do that for him. He let Greg’s guests think they had done well, and knew exactly how to pull the rug out from under them at the perfect moment to get them angry, and it took only a few minutes to get them all fighting with one another for Greg’s favour. It didn’t matter that they were fighting over frozen peas and egg cups, because it wasn’t about frozen peas and egg cups. It was about what happened later, after Greg made his final decision.

As the shouting grew louder, Alex found himself inching closer to Greg. Libby didn’t like him, and Kieran outright hated him, but neither would dare do anything to him with Greg so close.

“You can’t tell me he gets points for that!” Libby shouted, jabbing her finger right in Kieran’s face. “He had Alex counting for him! He didn’t count for me!”

Alex shrugged. “You didn’t ask me to,” he said.

“I did it by myself!” Libby shouted, now turning her ire to Alex. “I completed the task as it was written.”

Alex looked over to Greg and cringed dramatically, to make sure everyone knew what was coming.

“Except you didn’t,” he said.

Libby looked as though she was ready to launch herself from her seat. “Alex, you stay the fuck out of it,” she said.

Again, he looked over to Greg, having absolutely no intention at all of staying out of it.

“The thing is, I counted after you’d left. You only had ninety-seven peas in the egg cup,” Alex said. “The task was to get exactly one hundred. So actually, you get no points, instead of four. Right, Greg?”

Greg shrugged, almost indifferently. “If the task said one hundred, then she didn’t complete it as written.”

Kieran laughed wildly, Libby screamed, and Alex tried to find a way to hide behind Greg without leaving his seat.

“Look. If you’d followed the rules given to you, you’d have five points right now,” Greg said. He reached over to Alex, petting him on the head. “But you didn’t, so you get nothing. Isn’t that right, pretty boy?”

Alex nodded as he looked down at his iPad. There was nothing relevant on it, but it was a surprisingly effective tool at getting the guests more riled up.

“Those are the rules, yes,” he said.

Greg shrugged. “Then no points.”

Alex nodded as he marked the number down for both of them, and then moved on to the next. For over an hour, the same argument rolled on, changed only by who had made the next big mistake. Stakes were getting higher, and winning Greg’s approval meant more as the weeks drew on. By this point, losing meant something real, and for those who had rarely done well, losing would hurt even worse. For Libby, who had never done better than third place for the entire duration of her stay, it was starting to become personal.

This week, she was dead last.

At the end, they all got one final envelope before being taken back to their rooms elsewhere on the estate. Alex handed them all out individually, while they still sat in their seats, and watched as they read their tasks quietly to themselves.

“Do you all understand completely?” he asked.

One by one, they all nodded and mumbled confirmations that they had read and understood. They each had their own individual tasks to complete before their next visit to the cottage, but it was Libby he found himself most concerned with. These tasks wouldn’t help her win any approval or favour. They were punishment or reward for their work over the previous week. Theo, the week’s winner, had been given the single, simple task of enjoying his weekend. Alice had to watch ten films, each from a different decade and a different genre. Keiran’s weekend task was to send a text message to a given phone number once an hour over the next 48 hours. Adam was not allowed to eat or drink any item which contained the letters A or E in the name. And Libby, who stared daggers at Alex over the top of her task, had to arrange her room alphabetically.

“What does this even mean?” she asked.

Alex pointed to the task in her hands. “All the information’s—”

“Yes, I know,” she said over him. “But this is impossible.”

“You’re free to leave whenever you like,” Alex said.

For a long moment, Libby glared silently up at him. But he knew she wouldn’t leave. If she left, she forfeited everything, and she knew it. Not once had Alex ever seen anyone leave early. Every single person he’d helped Greg humiliate, degrade, and abuse stayed for the full ten weeks, even when it had passed the point of being bearable. He had seen people leave broken and worn down, but never early.

“Fine,” Libby said, slapping the task down on her knee. She looked at the rest of the group, shook her head, and shrugged. “Looks like I’ve got a busy weekend, then.”

Alex nodded, and after a quick glance back to Greg to make sure he was happy, he opened the door and invited the five to leave. A driver would take them all back to the terraced houses they stayed in on the other end of the estate. With them all out of the room, Alex closed the door again and turned back to Greg. It was always difficult to know what Greg would want after these games he played with his guests, so Alex simply waited patiently for Greg to decide. It took Greg a little longer than usual to decide, and when he finally made up his mind, it wasn’t what Alex had expected.

“Go wait for me in the sitting room,” Greg said, waving Alex away.

It felt like a trap, but Alex couldn’t figure out why it might be one.

“Oh. Really?” he asked, still trying to figure out how this might be something Greg could use against him.

“Go, before I change my mind and put you to work,” Greg said.

Alex knew Greg would do exactly that if he questioned him again, so he turned to leave as quickly as possible without looking like he was running away.

Moving out of the flat was embarrassingly easy. Alex didn’t have much to take with him, but getting it all into the boot of his car only highlighted the lack of belongings. He’d thought he’d at least have to cram some stuff into the back seat, and maybe ride with a box or two in the front seat as well. But it all fit a little too comfortably into the boot.

The room that would be his through the duration of his contract was small enough to make it look like Alex had a more appropriate amount of things for a man his age. His first full day working for Greg was to be spent getting to know the house and schedule. And that started with his room. The wardrobe had four matching black suits with a red silk lining, and four plain white shirts. Alex had half expected that it had all belonged to his unfortunate predecessor, but unless that fellow was also uncommonly tall, it seemed unlikely. More likely, Alex realised, was that there was a room somewhere that had the livery in all sizes, and that a particularly skilled guess had been made at which size to provide. The trousers somewhat confirmed this, being the first set Alex tried on was almost unreasonably long. He found another pair that wasn’t quite as long, and made a note to himself to have the others either hemmed or swapped out.

The biggest surprise of all of it was finding three packs of brand new socks in the small chest of drawers, all in various bright colours. There was a certain whimsy to it that made him feel a little more at ease with the whole situation. He had also received an enormous set of keys and an entire notebook full of instructions, which hadn’t seemed unusual given the size and scope of the job. But even upon double checking the section on dress code, Alex didn’t see anything that mentioned socks specifically. He picked a pair of bright pink ones and simply hoped they’d be good enough.

The keys were alarming. It wasn’t a giant comedy set, on a ring the size of a football, but there were considerably more than Alex had anticipated. The house was big, but Alex was surprised he’d need every single key to every single lock on the property. There were even two keys to two different cars. Nobody had told him about cars being involved in his job description. There were also half a dozen smaller, but robust keys, obviously for small safes and lock boxes, which at least made some amount of sense. Mr Evans had him doing a lot of admin, and Alex assumed that would at least be part of the “personal assistant” part of the job. Admin, he could handle. The numbers and spreadsheets made sense to him in ways he knew weren’t quite normal. Though whatever admin for an actual lord looked like, Alex could only imagine.

The notebook itself was a whole other situation to deal with. Every instruction had been handwritten, and as he flipped through the pages to familiarise himself with the rules and expectations, he noticed that it hadn’t actually been laid out very well. The hand changed at least six times, and each person who added to the pages seemed to have amendments to something that came before. As he got farther along, it became clear that something wasn’t quite right. There was an underlying urgency, and maybe even a paranoia about some of the later instructions. At first, Alex wondered if it was some sort of hazing ritual, but it didn’t seem like anything of the sort as he read further on. With each page, it became more and more clear that there was some sort of obsessive-compulsion at play. Alex was expected to cook, clean, drive, shop, and generally run errands for Greg, even though some of those jobs would be better suited for someone who specialised in that area. Alex knew there were other staff in the house, because he had seen several of them, but they hadn’t seemed very friendly toward him. Now, he thought he might have a better idea as to why.

His entire first week was spent learning how Greg liked things done. He expected everything done to a certain standard, but it was a difficult standard to meet with all his bizarre eccentricities. But that was the thing about people with money and titles, wasn’t it? They were allowed to be a bit odd. Alex just hadn’t counted on Greg being quite as odd as he was.

Alex was expected to be on call all hours of the day, but he was given time to himself once Greg had his evening bath. After that, he liked to unwind by himself, and didn’t much like to be bothered. Alex spent this time in his room, working on memorising names and routines he was expected to carry out. Usually, he wound up falling asleep fairly early, because Greg had absolutely been right about the amount of work Alex needed to do in a day. He was certain it would get easier as he learned certain tasks by rote, and figured out which corners could be cut, but as it was the job was nothing short of exhausting. After the second day, he no longer even cared that the man who had slept in his bed just weeks earlier was dead.

It all went to hell when Greg shot someone in the back.

The man was an old mate of Greg’s, and Alex hated him immediately. He was loud and had an opinion about everything, and his opinions were never wrong, even when they clearly were. Whether he’d got Greg wound up, or Greg had got him wound up was academic. All that mattered was that Alex was up three hours past when he’d usually gone to bed, and the two of them were shouting at one another in the sitting room. The argument was either about money, or a dead sheep. Alex couldn’t keep up. But he didn’t dare try to step in and stop any of it, because it wasn’t his place. And then, suddenly, there was a gun, and Greg shot the man right in the back.

It took a long moment of stunned silence for Alex to realise the gun hadn’t been real, though in Greg’s hand it certainly looked it. It seemed to take Rhod a moment to figure out what had happened, and when he did, he shouted even louder than he had before, calling Greg so many foul things the air practically turned blue.

While Rhod shouted, and Alex tried to figure out what the hell he was supposed to do, Greg laughed like he’d been possessed. Then, Greg pointed the gun at the brand new laptop Rhod had been showing off not ten minutes earlier, and put a hole right through the screen, proving that the gun had not been quite as fake as Alex had thought. Again, a stunned silence fell over the room, broken only as Greg began laughing again.

“Well. That’s the Mac fucked,” Rhod said.

Without another word, he strode out of the room and saw himself out. For a long moment after, Alex stood with his back pressed flat against the wall, too frightened to say anything. Then, Greg tossed the gun down onto the table and waved his hand toward the destroyed laptop and turned toward the door.

“Find out how much that thing cost and send him a cheque, would you?” he said on his way out.

Alex nodded, still struggling to process what had just happened. “Uh. Yes. I’ll do that.”

Alone in the room, Alex looked around frantically for anything that might help him out of this situation, but it was just him and a broken laptop that had its screen smashed through. Alex took a moment to examine the machine, and realised that although the laptop had clearly been destroyed, he had once again misread the situation when he found a BB lodged deep in the screen. Rather than digging it out and risking causing even more damage, Alex pretended he hadn’t seen a thing. Even if it was only a BB gun, Alex wanted no part of whatever that display had been about.

As he stared down at the broken laptop, Alex realised he had absolutely no idea how much such a thing cost. The easiest way to find out would have been online, but Greg didn’t seem to own a computer, and Alex couldn’t afford one. Unable to do anything until morning, Alex made sure all the lights had been turned off and went to bed. He spent several hours the following morning phoning various shops in the area and getting quotes for the destroyed machine. Going with the average, he wrote out the cheque and left it on Greg’s desk to sign.

Two days after that while carrying out his morning chores, Alex found a strange woman in the sitting room, covered in powdered cheese dust and sleeping on the sofa with the telly on full volume. How she could sleep through the racket, Alex had no idea. Worse, he didn’t recall seeing her the night before. But there she was, snoring loudly like she belonged there. For a long moment, Alex stood by awkwardly, unable to figure out where to even start. He’d never had to kick anyone out before, and had no idea how to go about it, especially when the other person was a woman. He imagined if it was a bloke, he could simply haul the invader out through the front door, but that didn’t seem terribly appropriate now, given the circumstances.

He got as far as shutting off the television before Greg wandered in and rescued him from the situation. The first clue that throwing her out would not have been the right choice was the way Greg immediately burst into a mad, cackling laughter at the sight laid out on his sofa. That woke the strange woman up with a sharp jolt. Greg called her a disgusting mess, she called Greg a fat old gorilla, and the two of them left to go have breakfast together elsewhere.

Alex didn’t like any of Greg’s friends much, he decided. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for Greg’s friends to pick up on it.

Sometimes, very rarely, Greg let Alex sit on the sofa with him. Alex didn’t particularly enjoy watching Greg’s boring old World War II documentaries, but he did like being snuggled up next to him, with Greg’s hand petting his hair. More than once, Alex drifted into a light sleep, content to simply have a chance to rest. But then some loud noise would come from the telly, or Greg would shift to get a bit more comfortable and Alex would wake again. But after a while, sitting around doing nothing began to feel like a trap. There were a dozen things he could have been doing that Greg would have appreciated more than this, and somehow not doing them gave Alex the uncomfortable feeling that he was getting dangerously close to becoming an annoyance.

“Shall I go start on your dinner?” Alex asked, already sitting up.

“Yeah, you do that,” Greg said flatly.

It was earlier than Alex would have normally started dinner, but he thought he might need the extra time. He was stiff and sore from sitting in one place for so long, and even in just his socks, standing proved more painful than he’d expected. But he’d worked in worse conditions, and he knew how to get on with it without annoying Greg. As he reached the kitchen, Alex used his phone to play music. His phone wasn’t meant for playing music, but on this Greg looked the other way as long as Alex didn’t play it too loudly.

He moved slowly, taking his time to make sure everything was exactly the way Greg liked it. Greg had barely moved when Alex brought him his dinner nearly an hour later, and hardly looked away from the television as Alex took small bites from his plate to show he hadn’t done anything to it. He left Greg alone again to go tidy up after himself, and he took his time at that too. When he was done with that, he reshuffled the fridge to make sure anything that needed to be used quickly got rotated to the front, to keep it from going into the bin.

Once Greg was in the bath, Alex set about getting his bed ready, making sure the blankets were turned out properly and his pyjamas ready. Once he had everything perfect, he poked his head back into the bathroom to see Greg involved in his book again.

“Can I help you with anything?” Alex asked.

Greg shook his head and waved him off. “No, go have your dinner and wait for me.”

Alex nodded. “Thank you,” he said.

He wasted no time getting back to the kitchen, and ate quickly once he was there. By the time he was done, Alex was acutely aware of every ache and pain through his body, and wanted nothing more than to lie down properly. After locking up the kitchen, he went to go change for bed, moving through the halls as quickly as possible. He nearly made it all the way to his little space before a member of the security detail caught up with him.

“What are you doing here?” Alex asked.

It never meant anything good when the staff sought him out, and Alex needed only see the determination on the man’s face to know he was going to hate whatever was said to him. Alex didn’t even know the man’s name, which somehow made it even more irritating to be waylaid by him.

“We’ve had an alarm at the other house,” he said.

Alex stared at him for a long moment, willing it to be some unfunny joke. There were only two copies of the keys to the cottage, and Alex possessed one of them. The other was upstairs with Greg, and only a suicidal fool would ask him. Instead of getting into his pyjamas, Alex gingerly slid his shoes on instead and followed the security officer through the house. He had hoped that maybe the man would be lazy enough to drive around the long way, rather than walk, but his hopes were shattered as they made their way to the front door. The earlier snow had given way to wind and rain, and Alex took a moment to stare out the window at it before doubling back to the coat room to fetch his overcoat. He popped his collar against the wind, which he thought made him look cool, even though Greg always told him it made him look like an idiot. But cool guys didn’t like rain running down the back of their necks, and Alex didn’t like rain on the back of his neck, so it must have made him look cool.

Neither man said anything as they trudged down the path along the golf course. Even though his socks, his shoes rubbed against the same spots that had been rubbed raw the day before, but he clenched his jaw against it and tried to hurry. The faster they got to the cottage to figure out what the problem was, the faster he could go home and go to bed.

The gate leading to the garden remained locked, as did the gate to the road. Still, he’d have to check everything, so he unlocked the front door and stood aside so the security officer could enter first. While he looked around for intruders, Alex walked straight back to the lab, having a good idea of what might have set off the alarm. Sure enough, he found one of the mounted cameras knocked at an odd angle. He reached up to try to fix it, but the hinge that mounted it to the wall was too loose to hold it properly, and it fell back to its previous broken position as soon as he let go. Alex was not in the mood to fiddle with it, so he stood by and waited for the security officer to figure out that there was no one else in the house. The security officer wandered through the house, taking ages to check every single room, before finally making his way back to the lab.

“This thing’s fallen again,” Alex said, pointing to the busted camera.

The security officer actually had the audacity to look annoyed. “Why didn’t you say that?” he asked.

“I did say it,” Alex said. “Just now.”

Sometimes he wondered what would happen if he annoyed someone enough that they took a swing at him. He knew what would happen to himself. It would hurt, and he’d probably bleed a bit. But he wondered if Greg would get angry at the person who hit him, or at him for being overly irritating in the first place.

The security officer didn’t swing at him though, so it was a question that remained unanswered. Instead, he shook his head and turned out of the room. Alex spared one more glance to the camera, knowing he’d have to fix it before Monday. But there were two full days before then, and he could deal with it when he wasn’t quite as miserable. He followed the security officer back through the front door and made sure the door was locked before beginning the trudge back home. He had been perfectly fine before he got waylaid for this pointless trek, but the rain and the wind on his face and his shoes rubbing his ankles raw all over again had caused his good mood to completely evaporate. He took his shoes back off as soon as he stepped through the door, and before he even got his coat off. There was no thanking him for opening the house for inspection, or an apology for wasting his time over a camera he already knew was broken. The security officer simply left him at the door without a word.

By the time he got dressed for bed and returned to Greg’s room, Greg was already out of the bath and waiting for him. Alex halfway expected him to be angry about being made to wait, but he gestured for Alex to join him in bed instead. Part of Alex thought he’d rather sleep in his spot on the floor, but he didn’t argue. He got beneath the blankets next to Greg, and immediately decided this was better. Greg had been handsy with him all day, and he continued the habit by immediately pulling Alex close and holding him there. But there was a certain comfort to it, especially now that his mood had been spoilt.

“What was the problem?” Greg asked, signalling that someone had already told him where Alex had gone.

“Camera in the lab fell again,” Alex said.

“Did you fix it?” Greg asked.

Alex shook his head. “Didn’t have the parts. I figured it could wait until tomorrow.”

“I suppose it can,” Greg said.

He scratched his fingers against Alex’s beard, getting too close to Alex’s neck for comfort with each stroke. Alex tried not to flinch away from it, but he increasingly felt like he’d wandered into a trap he didn’t know how to get out of.

“But you have been a very good boy these last couple of days,” Greg said. “Getting all your work done, without needing to be told, even.”

Alex dared to look up at him, acutely aware of how close Greg’s hand was to his neck. He didn’t know what was going to happen next, and the anticipation to find out, and the apprehension of knowing what could happen warred within him as his nerves slowly began to unravel and fray.

“I like making you happy,” he said, having nothing else to say.

He expected some biting, sarcastic remark; for Greg to call him irritating or useless. Instead, Greg hummed lowly.

“I think my precious little boy deserves a reward,” Greg said.

For a moment, the whole world stopped, and Alex nearly forgot how to breathe. He looked for any sign that this was a trap, but Greg looked at him expectantly as he continued to scratch at Alex’s beard. Understanding now, fully, Alex nodded and slowly sat up, never once taking his eyes off Greg. They both shifted around one another, Greg moving to sit up a bit better as he set his book aside, and Alex moving to between Greg’s knees. Even as Alex pulled the blankets away, Greg was already hard beneath his pyjamas, and all thoughts of getting caught in a trap vanished from Alex’s mind. He didn’t need to be told what to do next. He knew what Greg liked, and rested his weight on his elbows so he could get closer.

Greg’s hand was already on the back of Alex’s head before he even got started. He may have known what Greg liked, and knew how to make Greg very happy by doing it, but having a cock in his mouth was fairly low on the list of things he enjoyed. Even if it was Greg’s. He spared one more look up to Greg before pulling down his pyjamas and getting to work on him. He knew how to keep his teeth out of the way, and what to do with his tongue. But he forgot all about how much he hated it the moment Greg groaned above him and tried to grab onto a handful of Alex’s hair. Even as Greg forced Alex to take him deeper, holding him against pulling away, Alex wanted to give him more.

“That’s a good boy,” Greg said as he dug his fingers into Alex’s scalp.

With those few short words, Alex was no longer his own concern. When Greg was happy, Alex was happy, and he needed to hear Greg call him a good boy again.

“That’s a very good boy,” Greg said.

Greg held Alex in a tight grip, fucking his mouth. All Alex could do was keep up, unable as he was to even use his tongue once Greg took control. Each time Greg called him a good boy, each time he dug his fingers into Alex’s flesh did something to him that went through his body like a shock. He didn’t know why it made his cock hard the way it did, but he kept his hands on Greg so they didn’t wander where Greg didn’t want them. It still embarrassed him, filling him with a shame he couldn’t let go of. He could feel his face growing hot from it, but he couldn’t stop. He needed to hear Greg call him a good boy again, or he thought he might not survive this.

“That’s my good boy. Just like that,” Greg said.

Alex hummed against him and tried to shift up onto his knees so he wasn’t as tempted to start rubbing himself against the bed.

“Precious little boy,” Greg said.

Alex could feel his face burning, but it didn’t matter, because Greg was happy. It didn’t matter when Greg’s grip on him changed, shoving Alex away from him abruptly. Alex closed his eyes, but he still flinched at the familiar sensation as Greg came on his face. For a moment, they both stayed still, Alex keeping his eyes screwed shut as cum dripped over his eye and onto his cheek.

“Thank you,” he said after a moment.

Greg let go of him, giving Alex the freedom to sit back on his heels. Even as he worked out that his left eye had been spared, he couldn’t meet Greg’s gaze directly. He couldn’t look down either, because then he’d have to look at his own cock, hard and needy beneath his pyjamas. He stayed where he was, gaze averted off to the side while he waited for Greg to tell him what to do. Part of him wanted to run and hide in his cupboard. But the part of him that had managed to forget how much he hated this needed still more.

“You’d sit there all night like that if I told you to, wouldn’t you?” Greg asked.

Alex nodded, still not able to meet his gaze. “If you wanted me to,” he said.

Greg hummed like he was mulling it over, and for a moment Alex thought that’s exactly what Greg would make him do.

“Come on, then,” Greg said instead as he tugged on Alex’s wrist. “Good boys get rewarded for good behaviour.”

Even as his face burned hotter, Alex went where Greg wanted him, straddled against his hips. Greg played with Alex’s waistband, teasing him with promises Alex knew wouldn’t be kept, and he wasn’t sure if he hated Greg for teasing him, or was glad that teasing was all it would amount to. He could barely breathe through the need and confusion.

“Hands behind your back,” Greg said.

Alex did as he was told, and all it took from there was Greg planting both hands on Alex’s hips and forcing him to rock forward. Anything that was left of Alex evaporated in that instant. He forgot about the shame and discomfort of what he was doing. Hands still behind his back, Alex held his hand around the other wrist, holding tightly so he didn’t put his hands where Greg didn’t want them. He got whatever Greg gave him, and what Greg gave him was a needy, shameful rut against his body. Still, Alex took what he was given, because he thought he might just lose whatever was left of his mind if he didn’t. He shifted his body against Greg’s, trying to find the right angle, and the right place to seat himself. With his hands behind his back, he lacked enough balance or leverage, so he turned his head away to rest against Greg’s shoulder.

“You get spunk on my shirt, and I’m knocking your teeth out,” Greg said, doing nothing to stop him.

“Thank you,” Alex said.

Even in this state, he was acutely aware of the state of his face, and he did everything he could to make sure he didn’t make a mess on Greg’s shirt with his own cum. He wished Greg hadn’t have done that, because then he wouldn’t have to think about it, and it might have been easier to get this whole thing over with. But he was preoccupied with the mess on his face, and he worried Greg would get bored before he finished.

“God, you’re like a disobedient dog, you know that?” Greg said.

Alex didn’t know why that sent a different thrill through him, but he hated it.

“I know,” he said, getting desperate as he rubbed himself on Greg.

Greg didn’t do anything to help him. His hands lay still by his side, making Alex put in all the effort.

“A disobedient dog that needs to have his nuts chopped off,” Greg said.

For some reason, that did it. Alex came with a shuddering gasp, and immediately wished he hadn’t. He wished he’d had the control to not do any of it, but there he was, straddling Greg’s hips with cum on his face and all over his pyjamas. Struggling to catch his breath, Alex sat up again, staying where he was atop Greg with both eyes shut against the shame of having to look at him. It felt like an eternity that he sat there, face so hot he thought it might actually cause physical damage. Then, Greg patted him a little too roughly on the thigh as a signal to get off of him.

“Go clean up,” Greg said.

Alex nodded and tried to find his way to his feet. “Thank you,” he said again.

Only then did he uncouple his hands from behind his back. He got to his feet, finding his balance shaky and uneven, and walked across the floor to the bathroom. As he opened the door, he half expected Greg to tell him to use his one downstairs, but the order didn’t come. Greg reserved that command for when Alex had misbehaved somehow. But even that was better than being made to sleep in such a state.

He scrubbed his face with a flannel, making sure to get every last trace from where it had got in his beard by the end. Rather annoyingly, he didn’t have a second pair of pyjamas to change into, so he did the best he could to clean himself up from his own mess as well. Once he was done, Alex wrung out the flannel and tossed it into the washing bin so he could deal with it properly in the morning. By the time he stepped back out of the bathroom, he found Greg already back in his book. Alex cautiously got back into bed with him, still expecting the rug to be pulled out from under him. But Greg moved to make room, and let Alex cuddle up against him with his head resting on Greg’s chest. He barely even got settled before Greg’s hand found his hair and started petting him again.

“I want some teams next week,” Greg said absently.

Alex looked up at him, taking a moment to catch up with the non-sequitur. “All right,” he said.

“I want to see them hurry.” Greg didn’t even look up from his book as he spoke. “Lots of running.”

Alex nodded. “How about eggs?” he asked.

He knew there were a few things on Greg’s endless list that could satisfy this new craving.

“Yeah,” Greg said after a moment. “Something with eggs.”

Alex nodded again and tried to get comfortable enough to get some real sleep, but he was far too aware of the close contact between the two of them. Greg’s hand, scratching his hair and his beard, their bodies pressed together, Alex having nowhere for his arm beside draped over Greg. But he was a good boy, and Greg wanted him right where he was, so that’s where he’d stay.

« || »

An Overstuffed Penguin.

It hadn’t been terribly surprising that Greg wouldn’t let him back into the bedroom even after he’d scrubbed himself raw in a cold shower. Greg had commented on his hair, and Alex thought maybe taking care of that would help calm Greg down. He’d been cutting his own hair for years, and had got rather good at it using just cheap hair clippers. But even with showering after, all it meant was that Alex was forced to go to bed cold and itchy in his little cupboard. He hadn’t been made to sleep there for several months, and now getting used to the hard floor beneath the thin mattress was simply impossible. Every way he twisted and turned in the small space, some part of him pressed against the hard floor, just painfully enough to keep him from fully falling asleep.

After a few hours of it, Alex gave up. He was already in trouble for something he didn’t understand, and there was no point in trying to figure out what he’d done. He got up and quietly made his ways through empty halls, bare feet stinging on the cold floors. When he got to Greg’s bedroom door, Alex stood outside it for a long moment, staring at the grain in the wood as he tried to decide whether he was really going to do this. Then, with a tired sigh, he pushed the door open and crept inside. Greg slept heavily, and didn’t rouse as Alex dared to step closer. He had his little area beneath the foot of Greg’s bed, a big, soft dog bed where he usually slept. But that wasn’t his goal. He walked right past it and carefully, slowly pulled back the blankets next to Greg. Alex climbed into the bed, keeping a watchful eye on Greg to make sure he didn’t wake up, and settled in next to him. Greg’s bed was warm and soft, and Alex began to fall asleep immediately.

Greg rolled over suddenly, wrapping his arm around Alex’s chest and squeezing him so hard it was almost difficult to breathe. Alex hated when Greg did that, but he didn’t fight against it either, because he knew Greg didn’t mean for it to hurt. He was a big man, jealous and possessive, and he liked to keep Alex close when he could. It confused Alex, because he hated the close contact, but there was also a certain safety to it that part of him wanted to keep forever.

He didn’t get to keep it forever, though. He could feel the precise moment Greg woke; the quiet hitch in his breathing, and the sudden tenseness around Alex where he held him.

“Oh, you have some nerve,” Greg said, his voice a low grumble.

“Please,” Alex said.

Greg threw the blankets away and shoved Alex from the bed, knocking him awkwardly to the floor. Alex barely had the chance to right himself before Greg grabbed him by the back of the neck, his fingers digging deep into his flesh. Even as Greg started to drag him toward the door, all Alex could think of was the marks that would be left, visible to everyone who saw him. He tried to keep up with Greg’s long strides, but even getting his feet under him was difficult as he was dragged across the floor.

Alex managed to survive the stairs, only just, but it wasn’t a quick tumble that worried him. Greg took him all the way back to his cupboard like this, only letting go as he shoved Alex through the door. Before he could even right himself, Greg slammed the door shut between them. The scraping of a bolt locking on the other side was all Alex needed to hear to know that he wouldn’t be leaving until Greg allowed it. He listened to the sound of Greg’s stomping footsteps disappear back down the hall, and only once they had faded completely did Alex start trying to settle himself back in again. He didn’t know how long Greg would keep him locked up, but that didn’t matter. Greg was still angry with him, but at least now Alex had something he could properly beat himself up over, rather than having to guess.

The estate was bigger than Alex had expected it to be. He’d thought they’d all been hacked to bits and sold off by now, but it seemed there were still a few yet standing. The ad had seemed rather urgent, but now Alex wondered if he might be getting into something well beyond his skill set. Service wasn’t exactly the career he’d had in mind for himself, but it turned out there really wasn’t a lot of money or security in music. Especially when there were so many other people out there who were better than he was, and still struggling.

The ad had been for a personal assistant, but now that he saw the house and the extent of the grounds, he couldn’t help but feeling there may have been some error of communication. Surely, whoever lived in such a massive house would be looking for a butler or a valet or some antiquated thing like that. But he knew he wouldn’t find out for certain unless he went through with the interview. And the worst thing that would happen was he’d be turned away.

He expected some stuffy butler to open the door, but instead was greeted by the largest man he had ever seen. Alex suddenly felt very small beneath the man’s suspicious gaze, and from that came a whole new wave of discomfort. He hadn’t been made to feel small like that since he was in short trousers. As it slowly became apparent that he was expected to introduce himself, Alex realised he had been standing in a gawping silence for an embarrassing amount of time.

“Hello, sorry,” Alex said, still struggling to find his wits. “I’ve come about an ad for an assistant.”

“Ah! You must be Horne,” the other man said. He stepped aside and gestured for Alex to go inside with him. “How soon can you start?”

No ‘how are you’ or ‘how was the travel’ or anything else that might make the situation less awkward. Alex struggled to keep up, both mentally with the bizarre lack of introduction, and with the pace of the man’s stride. Though now he understood why the ad had specified applicants must be taller than six foot. Alex felt like if he were any shorter, he’d be at risk of being trod on.

“I suppose immediately, but I’m not even sure what the job is,” Alex said.

From the outside, Alex might have almost thought the house was maintained by the Heritage, but as he was led through a long hall and into a dimly-lit sitting room, it quickly became clear that this was a private house. Paintings and photos gave Alex a few more clues about what he had wandered into, letting him get on a more even footing with the situation, but he wasn’t sure he liked it any better.

“You must be Lord Davies, I presume,” he said, taking the offered seat in a large armchair.

“Call me Greg, please,” the other said, sitting on a sofa.

He seemed to take up almost the entire thing on his own, and Alex wondered if using his first name was a way of making himself seem less intimidating. Until that moment, Alex had thought men of that size were exclusive to American basketball players.

Suddenly remembering what he was meant to be doing, Alex quickly handed over his CV. The telephone conversation he’d had the previous night had been brief, and served only to arrange the time of the interview. He’d assumed at the time he was speaking to some sort of representative, but he began to get the feeling the conversation had been with Greg himself. Alex watched as Greg flipped through the pages, feeling suddenly very itchy about the whole thing. Something felt off, but he couldn’t quite figure out what.

“Why’d you leave your previous post?” Greg asked.

That was a normal, expected question, and Alex nodded as he grappled with the edges of his comfort zone.

“Mr Evans’ health had declined to a point that someone with medical knowledge became more appropriate,” Alex said. “He left a good reference.”

Greg nodded, still reading over Alex’s CV. Then, he flipped through the pages to find the reference Alex had brought with him, and carefully read it over.

“You’re aware this position is live-in, yes?” Greg asked.

Alex shook his head. “I wasn’t, but that’s not a problem.”

“Good,” said Greg. “Because you’d be doing a bit of everything. I don’t like having a house full of people buzzing about like flies. Your days will be busy, but I can promise you won’t be bored.”

Greg looked at him over the pages, with a critical gaze that made Alex want to shrink into his seat.

“All right,” he said.

“I do mean that,” Greg said. “I’m a busy man, and I need a lot of help to get everything done. Being without someone this past week has got me behind as well.”

Alex couldn’t fight the small worry that began to build up in the back of his mind.

“Why did your previous man leave, if you don’t mind me asking?” he said.

“Goddamn tragedy, that,” Greg said. “He had an underlying condition. Dropped dead right at the dinner table.”

Somehow, it wasn’t the answer Alex expected. Hearing it made him feel like he’d just been slapped in the face.

“Bloody hell. I’m sorry to hear that,” he said.

“Not as sorry as I was,” Greg said. “So I need reassurances from you that you’re fit for the job.”

Alex nodded. “Yes. No problems here,” he said.

“Good,” said Greg. He slapped Alex’s CV on the side table and stood again. “Shall I show you around?”

Greg took Alex all through the house, explaining the small eccentricities of a 400-year-old house and how it would all relate to Alex’s job. Greg hadn’t been kidding about Alex needing to do a bit of everything, either. He wanted someone not only to run his errands and take care of his correspondence, but to cook and clean and do the mending, and anything else Greg didn’t trust to just anybody. The job was that of a personal assistant, a valet, a butler, and a cook, all rolled into one.

But one thing for certain was that Greg was right. Alex wouldn’t find himself bored very often.

Greg showed him around not just the house, but the garden as well, all perfectly manicured and arranged. Alex looked around it all, unable to tell where the estate ended.

“It’s a lot bigger than I would have thought,” he said without thinking.

To his surprise, Greg actually laughed.

“It’s maybe a quarter the size it was when it came to my granddad,” he said. “We used to own everything on both sides of the water. That all went after the war. My dad saved a lot of what was left with leases. We’ve got some housing and a football club out of it.”

He pointed it all out as he spoke, giving Alex a clearer view of what he would be getting himself into.

“Mostly, you’ll be in the house, or down at the retreat with my guests,” Greg went on. “But it wouldn’t hurt to get to know as much as you can.”

Alex nodded. “Retreat?” he asked.

Greg pointed toward what Alex abruptly recognised as a golf course. “Little cottage down that way,” he said. “It’s been a few things through the years. I use it for entertaining guests.”

Alex couldn’t see it, but he assumed it was hidden out of the way somewhere. “And I’d be doing what, exactly?” he asked.

“Not a lot,” Greg said. “Mostly keeping an eye on things and making sure their visits go smoothly.”

That strange feeling was back, but Alex couldn’t point out what might have been causing it. Working for a lord would be quite a big step up from working for a retired old banker, so he pushed his apprehensions aside and followed Greg as he led him back into the house.

The room he’d been shown that would be his was a small room, near to Greg’s own bedroom. It wasn’t downstairs, with the rest of the staff, because Greg needed Alex to be closer to him at all times. Some of the previous man’s personal affects were still on the nightstand, making Alex suddenly aware of just how recently the man had died.

But the job itself seemed like a good fit. Living in would mean he’d be able to save up more easily, and move on to other, more fulfilling things when he got a bit older. He signed the contract with only a cursory glance over it, and agreed to start right away. He could move his few possessions in later in the week, during a time Greg would be in Wales for a few days. Until then, he even didn’t have to worry about his own clothes, because Greg provided the livery. Alex did inwardly cringe at that bit, but lucky for him it wasn’t something that would make him look like an overstuffed penguin. A simple black suit and trousers, and a white collared shirt, worn open without a tie. It felt almost casual compared to what he had expected.

Alex woke sharply at the sound of the bolt on the door sliding open. He sat up, flinching at the light as the door opened. Greg stood in the doorway, looking down at him on the floor, an imposing silhouette against the light. For a long moment, neither said anything. Alex wanted to apologise and beg forgiveness, but he held his tongue and waited for Greg to decide whether Alex had been adequately punished. Without a word, Greg stepped aside, and Alex took it as his cue to get up. He winced and hissed sharply as tense muscles and stiff joints that were too old for sleeping in small spaces stretched and popped. Greg grabbed a handful of Alex’s t-shirt and steered him out of the cupboard and down the hall. Alex avoided the gaze of a young man who worked at cleaning dust from the paintings as they walked past him. He could never stand the look on their faces, especially when Greg trotted him out like this; the looks that said they were sorry to have seen it, but wouldn’t do anything to step in to help. The looks that said he deserved it all, because he couldn’t follow a simple rule.

Greg took him to the sitting room, letting the door swing shut loudly once they were inside. Only then did Greg let go of him, and only then did Alex realise it was later in the day than he had thought. Greg was already dressed, and the morning paper sat open on the sofa, already half-read. Sun poured through the windows, and when Alex dared to look at the clock, he knew Greg wasn’t done with him. The day had worn into the early afternoon, and Alex was still in his pyjamas. Never a good sign. Greg sat down on the sofa, and Alex followed him, taking his usual spot on the floor by his feet. He still said nothing, quietly staring at the floor in front of him while he waited for whatever came next.

“I don’t take joy in hurting you,” Greg said, drawing his hand over the back of Alex’s neck.

Alex hissed quietly at the sudden sting where Greg’s fingers brushed over the same spots where he had grabbed Alex the night before.

“I wouldn’t have to if you didn’t set out to irritate me so damn much,” Greg said.

“Sorry,” Alex said lowly.

“You keep saying that, but you don’t stop doing it,” Greg said.

He moved his hand to Alex’s hair, and as he carded his fingers through it, Alex had to resist every urge he had to lean into the touch.

“And then you show me that you do know how to listen, and I wonder why you’re so selective about it,” Greg continued.

“I try to make you happy,” Alex said, knowing he sounded like a desperate fool. “I really do. I promise.”

“Yeah, but trying ain’t doing, is it?” Greg said.

Alex shook his head. “No, I suppose not.”

Greg let his hand fall down to Alex’s face, his thumb scratching against Alex’s beard. Alex gave up on resisting and leaned into the touch, moment by agonising moment becoming more confident that this time, it wasn’t a trick. He let himself believe that this time, Greg really meant it.

“No, it isn’t,” Greg said. “Because I have to keep telling you the same thing again and again, and you never learn.”

Alex knew this wasn’t just about what he’d done last night. Greg was still upset about the other thing, whatever the other thing even was.

“Tell me one more time, so I don’t forget again,” Alex said.

“It’s not your place to be getting chummy with my guests, all right?” Greg said. His voice was calm and even, but there was a certain venom to it, highlighted by his grip tightening around Alex’s jaw. “They aren’t here so you can make friends and chat about me behind my back.”

Alex tried to nod, but Greg’s hold on him was too tight.

“What—what if they ask a question? Then what am I supposed to do?” he asked.

“If you’d done the rest of your job correctly, they wouldn’t need to ask questions, would they?” Greg said.

Alex tried to shake his head, but again Greg held him just a little too tightly to manage it properly.

“No, I suppose not,” he said.

“So why aren’t you doing your job correctly, then?” Greg asked. “I know what you’re like. Changing the words around so there’s something in it for you as well. You think I don’t notice?”

“No, I think you do notice,” Alex said.

Greg hummed and let go of Alex. “Go fix me my lunch,” he said. “Somebody wasn’t up in time for breakfast, and he’ll be punished for that as well.”

Alex quickly got to his feet and scurried out of the sitting room, but he didn’t go straight to the kitchen. He knew Greg would want his lunch quickly, but he also wouldn’t like it if Alex served him whist still wearing his pyjamas. He dressed quickly, pausing only when he noticed that every single pair of his socks had been reduced to half. He only had brightly-coloured socks in his drawer, and not a single one of them had a match. He knew which solution would annoy Greg more, and it was the option he liked the least. If Greg caught him wearing odd socks, there’d be no end to the bollocking he’d get over it. He couldn’t very well just wear one, either. So no socks it was. Alex slid into his shoes and needed only take a few steps before he knew he had made the decision Greg had wanted him to make. His shoes rubbed against his skin with each step, and had already begun to rub small patches raw by the time Alex made his way to the kitchen.

Greg didn’t usually have lunch, which rather threw a spanner into the works. There was no set routine for lunch, so Alex had to improvise. He settled on sandwiches and tea, and hoped it would be enough. He found Greg still in the sitting room, flipping through the paper with an attitude that was anything but casual. Alex set the tray down on the end table and took a step back, waiting for Greg to decide what came next. After a long moment of looking at what Alex had brought for him, Greg held out his hand. Without needing to be told, Alex pulled a small kitchen knife from inside his jacket and handed it over, letting Greg cut into the sandwich where he liked. He cut it diagonally across the corners, and then after another long pause, he pointed at the half that was furthest from him.

“That one,” he said.

He watched Alex’s face for any reaction that might give him away, but Alex knew there was nothing Greg needed to be worried about. Greg may not have believed him, but Alex would never do anything to harm him. With an easy nod, he picked up the half Greg had pointed to and took a small bite from it, letting Greg see there was nothing to worry about. Still, Greg regarded him with open suspicion even as he brought the plate to balance on his knee.

“No guests today, then?” Alex asked.

“No,” Greg said. He looked up at Alex for just a moment before returning his attention to his paper. “I’ve got other plans for you today. Starting with changing out my bedding. You got your scratchy, disgusting little hairs all over the place last night and I don’t want to sleep in it.”

Alex now fully understood what his punishment was, and he nodded. He made trips back and forth through the house to fetch the clean bedding, and put the old in with the washing. Then Greg decided that he wanted his study moved to the other wing, and Alex had to do countless more back and forth trips for that. Each step he took was like he had glass in his shoes, but he stayed quiet about it, because he had nobody to complain to anyway. By the time he was done moving Greg’s study, Greg wanted his dinner. Alex hadn’t got a single moment to sit, until he handed Greg his plate and once more proved he hadn’t put anything in it that might poison him.

Then, finally, Greg had him sit back on the floor by his feet. Alex tried to stay quiet even as the relief consumed him. He stretched his legs out, and for the first time saw the ring of red blisters round both ankles. Greg wanted him to hurt, and he wanted that hurt to linger far beyond the initial punishment, and Alex knew it. He knew it from endless experience. That was just how Greg worked, and yet Alex knew it could be worse. Alex knew Greg meant it when he said he didn’t enjoy causing him harm. And Alex knew that because for all of Greg’s menacing threats, he rarely did anything that directly caused harm. Alex knew he had pushed too far the night before, and Greg simply wasn’t awake and coherent enough to understand his own actions. Alex could have stayed in his cupboard, and nothing would have happened. But he went to Greg’s bed knowing it would make him angry. Part of him had almost wanted Greg to be properly angry with him, and in that Alex had got exactly what he wanted.

As Greg ate his dinner, his hand fell back to Alex’s neck, trailing light circles over what Alex now knew were faint bruises. That was another reason Alex knew Greg hadn’t meant it. Greg didn’t like leaving visible marks on him. He thought it was sloppy and unprofessional, the same way he thought it was sloppy and unprofessional when Alex let his tattoos show. Now, with the chatter from the telly as the only noise between them, Alex let himself relax into Greg’s touch. To Greg, Alex was little more than an obnoxious pet, and Alex knew it. Still, in these little moments, he knew that Greg did care, in his own way. He had meted out his punishment, and now things would go back to normal. They always did.

“Some of my socks seem to have gone missing,” Alex said, hoping he hadn’t misjudged the situation.

“Have they?” Greg asked.

He dragged his nails over the back of Alex’s head in a way that almost felt like a warning.

“Well, we can’t have my assistant going around without socks, can we?” Greg said finally. “We’ll see to that in the morning.”

Alex nodded, not terribly surprised that the issue wouldn’t be addressed quickly. He wasn’t terribly bothered about it either, though. He was exhausted, and every part of him hurt, and he soon found himself fighting against drifting off to sleep right there on the floor while Greg petted his hair. Then, abruptly, Greg knocked him behind the ear, just hard enough to get his attention.

“Go prepare my bath, and then you can finish that off,” Greg said.

Alex looked up at him, taking a moment to process what was said to him. Then, he nodded and carefully made his way to his feet, hissing and wincing at the fresh pain he had almost managed to forget about. He tried to find a way to stand that didn’t rub his shoes against his ankles, but that didn’t work. As he took the plate back to the kitchen, each step was a brand new agony. He wondered if he could get away with taking off his shoes, but the fact that he had to wonder if it would be all right stopped him from acting on it. He drew Greg’s bath and got everything set up and ready, and retreated back to the kitchen before Greg even arrived. He ate quickly, any self-consciousness over eating Greg’s table scraps long eroded. If he didn’t eat what Greg gave him, he wouldn’t eat at all.

He rushed to tidy up the kitchen, not wanting to spend a moment longer on his feet than he needed to. Then, he returned to the bathroom to check on Greg, and make sure there was nothing else he needed. Greg was already in the bath, dripping water on the floor as he held a book over the edge. Alex hoped Greg wouldn’t want anything more from him, because he didn’t think he had the energy left for anything more strenuous than hanging the towels back up to dry.

“Look at you. You’re a mess,” Greg said.

Alex braced himself for another harsh reprimand. “Sorry,” he said.

To his surprise Greg nodded toward his bedroom. “Go dress for bed and wait for me in there,” he said.

It felt like a trap, but Alex nodded and turned to leave. He considered showering, but the thought of being under the cold water on top of all his other sores and pains made his stomach do a flip. Instead, he sat on his sad little bed and carefully pulled his shoes off. He didn’t even want to look at it. He didn’t need to to know that it was bad. The damage around his ankles was the worst, but it wasn’t all of it. There wasn’t a single spot on either of his feet that didn’t feel like they had been scoured to the bone. Even changing into his pyjamas was agony as the fabric slid over the worst of it. He wanted to roll over and go to sleep right then and there, but Greg had wanted him to wait upstairs. Alex had to fight his own body to get to his feet, and to take those steps, one at a time, through the halls. He’d thought having his shoes off might have helped, but it didn’t. Not in a way that mattered, anyway. When he made it up to Greg’s room, he realised there was still work to be done in there. The bed hadn’t been prepared the way Greg liked, so Alex distracted himself by doing that.

He knew Greg would take his time. Alex also knew that if he waited in silence, he would fall asleep. So after he was done with Greg’s bed, he walked all the way to the new study, and carried the typewriter and and all of its trappings with him back to the bedroom. There was a small desk in the corner of the room, and Alex set up there, typing up tasks and stacking them off to the side to be marked and sealed later. He got through about half the list by the time he heard Greg get out of the bath, but by then he simply did not have the energy left to jump up and tidy up the bathroom. He looked up at the door just as Greg stepped through it, towel hung loose around his waist.

“Look at you, getting caught up on your other chores,” Greg said.

He clearly meant it to be scathing and mocking, but Alex chose instead to take it as praise.

“Needed something to do,” he said, shrugging.

Greg handed his towel off to Alex and pointed to the bathroom. He didn’t need to say anything, because Alex already knew what was wanted of him. He hung the towel up and mopped up all the water from the floor, before turning out the lights and locking the door. When he returned to the bedroom, Greg was already in his pyjamas and stretched out in bed and back in his book. Alex found himself standing stupidly in the doorway, having no idea what he was supposed to do. He looked at his spot beneath the foot of Greg’s bed, assuming he’d been allowed back to the bedroom for the night. He gingerly stepped forward, hating that he found himself second-guessing his every action.

“It’s supposed to be cold tonight. Why don’t you come up here with me?” Greg said.

Alex froze, uncertain he had heard correctly.

“Really?” he asked, aware of just how needy he sounded.

“I won’t offer again,” Greg said.

He didn’t need to. Alex made his way to the bed, careful to arrange the blankets over himself so nothing rubbed against his feet. Every little shift from either of them sent a shock straight through him though, and he knew that even in the warm bed, he wasn’t getting much sleep. As he tried to get comfortable, Greg pulled him closer, so Alex was snuggled up against his chest. It wasn’t a comfortable position, but it felt safe, so Alex stayed there. He wasn’t sure if he was allowed to go to sleep, so he fought against it as Greg absentmindedly played with his hair as he continued to read his book.

Alex fought the urge to drift off to sleep, wanting to stay and enjoy this for as long as possible. He watched as Greg got lost in his book, glasses slid halfway down his nose. Every time he needed to turn a page, Greg performed a tricky balancing act against his thigh, rather than taking his hand away from Alex. He didn’t have one of those fancy electronic books that seemed easier to use. Greg liked reading the old fashioned way, with words on paper that got dog-eared and and yellow over time. Even though the fancy electronic books would no doubt be easier to read with only one hand, Alex liked that he used the paper ones. Paper books had a smell that Alex had come to associate with a certain safety and security. Alex was only allowed in to fall asleep in Greg’s bed when Greg wanted to lie down and read for a few hours, and in those moments he wasn’t someone to be afraid of. In those moments, he became the person Alex wished he was all the time.

“You’re wonderful,” Alex said, unable to stop himself.

Greg thumped him in the face with his book. “Quiet,” he said.

Alex sighed and settled in a bit closer to Greg, letting his arm fall over Greg’s chest. Not long after, Greg pulled his hand away from Alex’s hair and shifted to get his arm around Alex. Alex couldn’t help the way he flinched when Greg found his way beneath Alex’s shirt to draw lazy lines up and down his side. Again, Alex knew that Greg never meant to cause any real harm, because there was a time when flinching like he did would have got him another thump on the face with Greg’s book. But as time wore on, Greg came to accept and expect these small moments of protest. As long as Alex didn’t try to stop him, or get away completely, Greg was willing to ignore it. By now, he knew Alex couldn’t help it even when he tried. Even now, after so much time together, he hated being touched like this. But he endured it because he knew this was Greg’s way of showing that he did care, in his own way, and there was a certain comfort in that. Once the initial shock wore off, Alex was able to shut off that part of his brain and relax once more.

He fell asleep like this, being held and petted by Greg. It didn’t take long to get there either. Every part of his body was sore and exhausted, and once he let his eyes drift shut, it was simply impossible to open them again.

Alex woke the next morning, crushed beneath Greg’s weight behind him. He knew he must have fallen asleep earlier than usual, because the light through the curtains wasn’t yet enough to properly light up the room. He could just about make out the pattern on the wallpaper, but it certainly wasn’t daylight by any means. Not that it mattered, because he couldn’t get up anyway. Greg held their bodies together, legs tangled up as he breathed heavily on the back of Alex’s neck. Now that he was awake, and his body stiff from being in bed so long and craving motion, Alex was acutely aware of every single way in which their bodies touched. He dared to try to at least get more comfortable, but Greg responded by only holding onto him that much tighter. He was trapped, and the feeling of safety that lulled him to sleep the night before was gone, replaced by a need to flee. But he couldn’t get away; not until Greg eventually rolled over and let him go. Sometimes if Alex squirmed enough, Greg would roll over quickly, and Alex could flee and get ready for his day. This time, it only seemed to draw Greg closer, so he forced himself to lie still and stare at the wall. The damask wallpaper had exactly 918 repeats on the wall directly across from Alex, but he counted the design again, just to be certain he hadn’t miscounted or misremembered.

« || »

One-Man Band of Chaos.

The air had a sharp chill to it, which always seemed to make every noise throughout the house ten times louder. Every creak and groan the old house made echoed through the halls, piercing the still silence of the morning in infrequent intervals. Alex carefully pulled the door shut, one hand on the doorknob, twisted so the latch wouldn’t click, and the other bracing against the wooden panel so he could ease the whole thing shut. Even the low thud as the door met the frame seemed louder than it ought to have been, making him cringe as he froze in place to listen for the sounds of a grouchy old man being prematurely risen from sleep. No such grumbles could be heard, so Alex hurried up to get on with his day.

His day started with a shower, which was already extra awful before he even got the water going. Before he even got there, he had to walk along the cold floors in his bare feet. He wasn’t allowed to use Greg’s bathroom, even though it would have been more convenient and let him get to his morning chores faster. Instead, he had to go downstairs to the area that was specifically his, away from the rest of the staff. His room was barely more than a cupboard and a small bathroom with a small shower cubicle. It had been weeks since he’d last slept in his own room though, and it was starting to get a musty smell to it that would need to be dealt with soon.

Hot water had never been plumbed to this part of the house, and addressing this oversight had never been a priority. By now, Alex had accepted his morning ritual of a shockingly cold shower, and sought to get it over with quickly rather than trying to put it off. Even bracing for it wasn’t enough, and he still had to struggle against shouting as the ice cold water hit him right in the chest. He showered as quickly as he could, and then rushed to dress if only to get the chill off him. Alex didn’t have much of a grooming routine to speak of. He might trim his beard every now and then, but he wore aftershave regardless because he knew Greg liked the scent. As he rubbed it into his beard, he noticed that he ought to at least square up the edges, but he was already running late. Greg would care more about his breakfast being late than whether or not Alex tried to look nice for him.

Greg kept a small staff, but Alex was the only person allowed to attend to him directly. The other staff dealt with the house and the grounds and anything else that didn’t directly involve Greg. Alex alone dealt with all of his personal care and needs. His first chore was always the washing, collecting it from the basket in Greg’s bathroom. Greg always threw his waistcoats in with everything else, making Alex have to separate them out so they didn’t get ruined. He had made that mistake enough times to know to be extra careful as he went through everything, checking each pocket. He found a phone in one of them, and wondered if it was a test. There was a time Alex might have been tempted to try to figure out who it belonged to, or what was on it, but that time had long passed. He slid it into his pocket for safe-keeping and finished sorting through everything.

With the washing machine going, Alex moved onto the waistcoat and jacket. He knew Greg threw them both in with the rest just to be difficult, but there was no point in complaining about it. He brushed out both the jacket and the waistcoat before pressing and hanging them. Alex worked in silence, with no music or distractions. His morning chores were amongst the few moments of near-total silence he got each day, and he wasn’t going to waste any of it.

After the washing, Alex headed to the kitchen. He had one of only two keys to the door, which locked itself automatically as it shut. Greg had the other key. No one else was allowed to cook for Greg. He was a paranoid man, but it was a paranoia that was well-earned. He trusted Alex, and Alex alone with his meals, but even that trust only went so far. It didn’t bother Alex though, because even though he knew he’d never do anything to harm Greg, he knew there were plenty of people who would, given the chance.

The kitchen was big and airy, and Alex moved quickly through it. It was the same thing for breakfast every morning, as as Alex opened the fridge to get started, he realised he had fallen behind on his shopping. He pulled a small pad from the drawer and began writing out a list for himself, penning in his aftershave and a few other things he needed at the very bottom of the sheet. As he poked through the fridge, a cuckoo clock somewhere in the house chirped out the hour, telling Alex it was time to get back on track. He set his pad down and began preparing breakfast, trying not to bang the pots and pans too loudly. There were still plenty of eggs under the window, but he used up the last of the pork sausage and bacon for Greg’s breakfast. He hadn’t yet got to the cupboards during his inventory, but now he found only a single tin of beans left as well. Cringing at the bollocking he knew was heading his way, Alex opened the tin and tipped it into a small pot to heat up.

As he rushed to get everything ready in time, Alex made the same realisation he made every morning, and scrambled to get the kettle going. It felt like he was an hour late on getting it started, and by the time the kettle was boiling the kitchen had descended into a one-man band of chaos. As he scrambled to get the hob shut off and put everything on the plate, the dining room door slammed shut with a force that seemed to rattle the entire house. No matter how many doors Greg carelessly slammed shut, Alex still jumped at it every time. It was the signal that Greg was ready for breakfast, so Alex made sure he had everything on the plate, and the tea just as Greg liked it, and took it all across the hall. Greg was already sat at the table in his pyjamas, staring out the glass door to the garden.

“Here you are,” Alex said, setting everything before Greg.

Greg hummed gruffly and sat back in his seat, giving Alex more room. Alex pulled a second fork and knife from his jacket’s inner pocket and very deliberately took a small bite of each item from Greg’s plate, making sure Greg saw there was no tricky business going on. As he cut into one of the sausages, Alex could tell his day wasn’t going to be easy just from the way Greg stared at him. Alex pretended not to notice and finished off his performance with a few baked beans.

“The tea,” Greg said, nodding toward it.

Greg had definitely woken up in a paranoid mood, and Alex dutifully indulged him. He took a small drink from the mug and hoped it would be enough to satisfy Greg. Only once he swallowed it did Greg nod and sit forward again. He picked up his knife and fork, but it was clear just by his hesitation that he still hadn’t been fully convinced. Greg’s paranoia was not going to make Alex’s day any easier, and it took him a few moments to even build up the courage to say what needed to be said.

“I’d like to go do some shopping today,” he said, trying to sound casual.

Greg sat up again, giving Alex a sideways glare from behind his chunky, plastic glasses. It was the sort of glare that suggested Alex was already on thin ice, and the day had barely even started.

“It can wait until tomorrow,” Greg said.

“No, I don’t think it can,” Alex said.

He regretted his choice as soon as the words had left his mouth. Greg turned his sideways glare straight toward Alex, making him wish he could walk backwards through the wall.

“Then why wasn’t it done yesterday?” Greg asked.

“I didn’t noticed it needed doing yesterday,” Alex said, hoping his lame excuse was enough of an excuse for Greg.

The silence that spanned between them only lasted a moment, but Alex felt like it went on for about a year. Even as Greg shook his head and returned his attention to his plate, time seemed to be going in slow motion.

“Remind me why I keep you around again,” he said.

Alex knew it was rhetorical, but he still spoke all the same.

“Because you need someone to wash your back for you?” he said, wondering why he felt the need to answer at all.

Greg sneered at him then, and Alex knew that even his very best behaviour wasn’t going to make this day go by any easier. Of course, it would be even better if he could learn to simply keep his mouth shut.

“Well, get cracking on with the rest of your chores then, so you have time to go,” Greg said suddenly, waving his hand in Alex’s direction.

Alex did not need to be told twice to leave the room. He rushed back to the kitchen to wash up and finish his shopping list. Sometimes he thought he had got the timing of it down perfectly, so he finished just as Greg was done with his breakfast. As he rushed to get through it all, carefully rinsing each pan and cup and spoon before loading it into the machine, he was reminded that Greg usually just took his time with breakfast for the sake of making his own morning go more smoothly. This time, Alex was barely halfway through before Greg shouted across the hall for him. Each little change to the routine was only making Alex more flustered, and didn’t even take the time to put his jacket back on before returning to the living room. Greg’s critical stare fell to him immediately, his sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and wet patches on his shirt drawing an all-too-familiar disgust from the man.

“Sorry. Yes, I’m here,” Alex said, still not quite able to give up on the hopes that good behaviour could salvage something between them.

Greg never ate everything on his plate, and this morning was no exception. His breakfast sat half-eaten before him as he silently glared critically at Alex, studying his every imperfection. Alex tried to hide his bare arms by holding them behind his back, but it was no use. Greg had already seen, and he wasn’t stupid. Occasionally Alex wondered if Greg’s dislike of bare arms came down to Alex’s tattoos, but that was a bridge crossed and burnt to ash.

Alex had long given up on trying to hide his fear and apprehension. Greg saw any amount of confidence as obstinate defiance, and responded to it as such. But it wasn’t difficult to play the role Greg wanted him to play. The man could be terrifying without uttering a single word, and all Alex had to do was let him see that. The tension between them finally broke as Greg sighed and picked up his plate.

“Go draw my bath, then you can finish that off,” he said, handing it over.

Alex took it and nodded before Greg could change his mind.

“Yes, thank you,” he said.

He took the plate back to the kitchen, barely pausing to leave the plate on the worktop before turning right back out again to go draw Greg’s bath for him. By that point in the morning, others had started their work for the day, cleaning the house and getting it ready for use. None of the other staff said so much as hello to Alex as he walked past them. A part of Alex wished someone would say hello to him every now and then, but his infrequent attempts to be friendly with the other staff always seemed to end with him somehow coming off as rude and insulting. After a certain point, it was easier to simply not bother.

Greg’s bathroom was immediately next to his bedroom, with one door connecting the two, and another leading to the hall. There were bigger bathrooms in the house, but this one with its exposed plumbing on the walls and hand-painted tiles was the only one Greg ever used. Alex opened the curtains, letting light in from the single window, and began getting to work.

As the water filled the bath, Alex made sure there was a flannel and a towel ready, and took a quick inventory for his shopping later. He made sure the soap and shampoo were out and in their places, and then checked the water temperature as it ran, and adjusted it so it was just how Greg liked it. Once the water was at the right level—which Alex had only once remarked that it didn’t need to be very deep at all, and quickly learned never to make such comments ever again—he shut off the water and returned to the kitchen to finish washing up. He could hear Greg pottering about just beyond the door, and pretended not to. Soon enough, Greg took his paranoid attitude with him to the bath, giving Alex a little more room to breathe.

Once the rest of the washing up was finished, Alex quickly ate what was left of Greg’s breakfast and washed that plate up as well. With the dishwasher going, Alex returned to the washing, taking a few quick moments to move everything to the tumble dryer. Finally starting to feel like he was getting back on track, Alex returned to the kitchen to make Greg a fresh cup of tea. Every morning was the same, constantly running back and forth from this room and that, and as he scrambled to stay on track Alex let himself nurse a small resentment at not getting any help. He liked taking care of Greg, and the trust afforded to him in doing so, but it would have been a lot easier to see to him directly if he wasn’t in charge of every individual facet of it.

The second cup of tea for the day was more cream and sugar than actual tea, prompting a familiar musing over how Greg could even stand to drink the stuff. Alex fixed his sleeves and put his jacket back on, hoping to appease Greg just a little bit, and took the tea to the bathroom. Alex knocked twice on the door, but didn’t wait for an answer before letting himself in. Greg was already in the bath, his hair not yet even wet and still carelessly mussed from bed. He barely looked up at Alex as he brought the tea over, stopping awkwardly beside the bath.

“Do you want me to taste it?” Alex asked, still holding the mug.

Greg finally looked up at him, thinking something knowable. Then, he shook his head and motioned to the small stand beside the bath.

“Nah, set it there,” he said.

Alex nodded and set the tea down next to the old mug. Before he could pick the old one up to take it away, Greg reached out for him, grabbing a handful of his shirt and pulling him toward the bath. Alex struggled to keep his balance, and only avoided disaster by catching the sides of the bath as he fell forward. He looked up to find himself just inches from Greg, so close he could barely focus on him.

“What’re you playing at today?” Greg asked lowly.

Alex shook his head. “N—Nothing,” he said. “I’m not playing at anything.”

He didn’t need to see Greg in clear focus to know that Greg didn’t believe him.

“Then why are you irritating me more than usual, huh?” Greg asked.

Again, Alex shook his head. “I’m not trying to,” he said. “I got a bit of a late start, and then I noticed the fridge, and I promise it won’t happen again.”

One way or another, Alex knew he was going into the water. But then Greg surprised him again and let go, allowing him to step back to a safe distance. He wondered if he had done something wrong the previous evening, and was only now being punished for it, but he couldn’t think of anything he might have done to annoy Greg. Before he could ask about it, Greg took off his glasses and held them up to Alex.

“Clean those for me, would you?” he said.

Alex took the glasses off Greg and used a fresh flannel to get the lenses clean of any smudges. Greg was good at keeping his glasses clean all on his own, but Alex did as he was told all the same. There was no noticeable difference even after he’d taken the flannel to each of the lenses several times, but he still spent what he’d hoped was a sufficient amount of time on them before handing them back. Greg seemed pleased, and dismissed him with a single nod.

With Greg in the bath, safely out of the way, Alex was able to continue on with the rest of his morning chores. He tidied up Greg’s room, making the bed and setting out a fresh suit, but his mind kept drifting back to the night before. He couldn’t recall saying or doing anything that might have upset Greg, but he had clearly done something. If he knew what it was, he could at least apologise for it, but Greg didn’t work that way. He either assumed Alex already knew what he did, or assumed that he’d figure it out eventually. Usually, it ended in Alex taking his punishment in silence and hoping he didn’t accidentally do it again.

Alex picked up the envelope left for him on the small table near the door, and took it to the study. It took him only a few moments to gather all the paper and wax ready. Greg would spend the next hour or so in the bath, until his phone ran out of battery, giving Alex plenty of time to do his work. He opened the envelope and pulled Greg’s task list from it, finding the list longer than usual. Alex carefully read over the whole thing, finding a solution to his late start buried in the incoherent demands scribbled out on the page.

He fed one of the heavy sheets of paper into the typewriter, carefully rephrasing Greg’s demands in a way that would benefit himself. Amongst the list were a statue that needed painting, and the construction of a device capable of firing snooker balls. Those would be the only two tasks he got done for the day, but it would at least let him do other things that needed to be done at the same time. It had been quite some time since Alex had questioned any of Greg’s demands, even as they grew more and more incoherent with time. He typed up both items onto their own sheet of paper, and then carefully folded each into thirds and sealed them with wax. Each got an inconspicuous mark on the outside so he knew which was which, before he slid them both into his jacket’s inner pocket. Finally, he was well and truly caught up, and even had a bit of time to get ahead, so he typed up more tasks and stacked them neatly in a small tray on the corner of the desk.

He was still typing up tasks when Greg got out of the bath. Greg said nothing to him when he walked into the bedroom with a towel loose around his waist, trailing puddles of water along the floor. Alex quickly cleaned up behind him, and once he had the bathroom cleaned, he locked both doors so no one else could get in. Greg didn’t like help getting dressed, so Alex simply stood nearby to wait patiently until he was needed. He took Greg’s towel and hung it to dry before it went into the washing bin.

“Oh. I found this in your washing,” Alex said as he walked back into the bedroom.

He pulled the strange phone from his pocket and held it out, trying to ignore the suspicious way Greg looked at him. Greg didn’t take the phone right away, letting an uncomfortable silence span between them that made Alex once more wish he could disappear. But then Greg took the phone from him and casually slid it into his pocket like nothing had happened.

“You’ve got work to do,” Greg said as he slid into his jacket.

Greg left moments later, heading off to whatever it was he did during the day. Alex’s few early attempts to find out went unanswered, and he had long given up on wondering. But Greg was right. He did have work to do. Alex quickly made sure he had everything he needed, and locked up Greg’s room as he headed out to do the the other job Greg trusted only him with.

It was only a short walk across the estate, but the morning was still cold enough that Alex took the time to put on a heavy overcoat and a woolly hat. Once more, just to be extra certain, he checked his pockets to be sure he had everything, and then headed out into the cold. There had been a light dusting of snow during the night, just enough to change the landscape and hide the trail. Alex had walked along the edge of the golf course enough times that he didn’t need to see it to know where to step to avoid any hidden hazards.

The big house sat on one end of the course, away from the busy road. Alex followed the line of trees all the way down to the old cottage on the other end, and found the gate hidden in the tall hedges that surrounded the garden. The first item on his agenda was a perimeter check to be sure everything was in order. He made sure the gates and the shed and the caravan were all still locked, and that nothing had been disturbed in the night. Foxes had been getting into the garden again, so he checked the grass as well to make sure nothing needed cleaning up. Thankfully, he was able to move on without having to pick up fox shit, which was always a good way to start the morning. If he could figure out where the breach in the fence was, he wouldn’t have to pick it up ever again, but every search around the perimeter had been a pointlessly fruitless endeavour. He was starting to think the little bastards could fly.

Confident that nothing had been disturbed in the night, by man or beast, Alex unlocked the front door and quickly got the house ready for the day’s guest. He made sure everything was tidy and in its place, and turned on lights and radiators throughout the whole house. Alex wasn’t allowed to eat anything from the kitchen, unless he was told to, but Greg did allow him to have tea, so he put the kettle on in the hopes it might help him warm up a bit.

He barely got his cup prepared when a car horn cut through the air. Alex quickly rushed out to open the gate at the top of the drive, letting his guest through. He spared just a moment’s glance to the driver who had brought her to the house, before swinging the gate shut.

“Good morning, Alice,” Alex said as she walked past him.

“Morning, Alex,” she said.

She was always cheery, and this morning was no exception. Alice was a small woman, and wore a red cape with her blue patchwork boiler suit. It was her seventh week at the house, which made Alex sad to think about, because it meant she’d be leaving soon. Alice was a rare guest who was nice to him, and she even waited at the front door for him to catch up after he locked the gate again. She was also there because she had answered and ad, which always made them more cooperative through their stay.

The ones who didn’t want to be there were the ones Alex dreaded.

The costumes were another thing Alex had long stopped questioning. Greg liked Alex to look a certain way, so it only made sense that he liked his guests to look a certain was as well. Usually, the costumes were the first clue Alex had over whether a guest had answered an ad, or if they’d been brought in through other means.

He walked with Alice through the house, stopping to unlock the door to the first bedroom. Alex held the door open for her as she stepped inside and sat down on the small sofa without needing to be told. There was no bed in the room, or in the other bedroom. They were both furnished comfortably, with old magazines and outdated video games to keep the guests occupied between their tasks. Alice immediately got settled on the sofa and picked up one of the tattered and dog-eared magazines from the table.

“Come to the living room in ten minutes, please,” Alex said.

Alice smiled at him, and Alex remembered how much he hated this part of his job. It was almost easier when they hated him, because then he didn’t feel bad about what he was about to do to them. But when they were nice, that small bit of conscience Greg hadn’t managed to completely stamp out of him got in the way of everything. He closed the door and went to the living room to get everything ready for Alice, glad that he had at least picked tasks she might find more fun than frustrating. Alex laid the first task out on the table and got his clipboard ready, making sure it had enough sheets of paper on it to get through the day. His clock had been charging all night, and was ready for another day of counting down the seconds, but lately he’d been finding his new phone slightly more convenient. He hadn’t put anything that would need to be done from a distance on the agenda, so Alex decided he would use his phone.

He hadn’t needed to tell Alice to wait for so long, because nothing needed to be done before she got started. Alex just wanted a few minutes of silence, without having to do anything. He sat in his seat in the corner and listened to all the little noises the house made. The low creaking from the radiator in the hall, a quiet rattle as the wind knocked something against the outer wall, the dull, constant roar of traffic from the road just beyond the gate. It was never truly quiet in that house, but these little moments were the closest it ever got.

The little reprieve didn’t last nearly long enough. Alex was pulled back to reality by the sound of the door opening as Alice stepped inside.

“Hello, Alice,” Alex said.

She smiled at him, and once more, Alex hated his job. “Hey there,” she said.

He watched her sit down and get comfortable before she picked up the task and broke the wax seal on it. She read it over silently first, and then read it once more out loud.

“‘Construct a device to propel a snooker ball the farthest. You have twenty minutes to order your supplies, and thirty minutes to build your device.’”

She sighed, already tired, and looked out the door to the garden.

“Last line, please,” Alex said, hovering his finger over the start button on his phone’s screen.

“Your time starts now,” Alice said.

Alex started the timer on his phone, counting down from 20 minutes while he waited for Alice to figure out what she would do.

“What’s this for?” she asked finally.

Alex shook his head. “I’m not given that information,” he said.

Alice picked up a pen from the table and started writing something out on the back of the task.

“The frustrating part is I still want to do well,” she said. “It’s a bit like that Stockholm syndrome, isn’t it?”

Alex hummed, somewhere between critical and confused, and wrote down what Alice had said.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Stockholm syndrome?” Alice said again.

“Yeah, what is that?” Alex knew what each word was individually, but he didn’t know what they meant put together.

Alice laughed, and he wasn’t sure if she was laughing at him, or because she thought he’d made some joke he didn’t understand.

“You know, where people fall in love with their kidnapper and that,” she said, still laughing awkwardly.

Alex wrote that down as well. “Is that what you think this is?” he asked. “That the Taskmaster’s kidnapped you and you’ve fallen in love with him?”

Alice’s laughter this time was loud and almost manic. “Haven’t you?” she asked.

Alex didn’t like this conversation. He needed to shut it down.

“Clock’s running, please,” he said.

Alice resumed writing down her ideas, and with ten minutes to spare, she had a full list for him. Alex took her back to her room, this time locking her inside so he could go do all the shopping that needed to be done. Even with only two tasks on the agenda, it was going to be a long day.

Alex was still on his hands and knees, scrubbing the floor with a stiff brush when Greg walked into the bedroom.

“Oh,” he said, pausing at the entrance to look around at the freshly-scrubbed floors. “Somebody’s been busy.”

“Sorry, yes. Almost done,” Alex said. Once again, he had his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up, rather than looking nice and presentable the way Greg liked. “You’re done early.”

Luckily, Greg didn’t seem too bothered by it this time. He stepped into the room just long enough to pick up the envelope Alex had left on the table.

“Need to keep you on your toes somehow,” Greg said. “Finish that and start on my dinner.”

He didn’t see Alex nodding. He disappeared back through the door to wait in the sitting room, but Alex knew he wouldn’t wait patiently for long. Hoping he hadn’t missed anything obvious, Alex stopped where he was and put his coat back on. He left the floor to dry and hauled his brush and bucket back to the kitchen to empty it.

Dinner was a much less frantic affair than breakfast tended to be. Greg always took his dinner in the sitting room in front of the telly, and remained much more patiently occupied while he waited. Unlike breakfast, dinner was a different meal each night, going in order through the cook books on the shelf. After enough cycles of it, Alex had most of them memorised, and needed only open the page to see which one he was up to. Tonight, it was a basic bangers and mash, which was easy enough. Alex got it all thrown together quickly, and found Greg still watching the darts from the sofa. Tasting it would have been a bit easier if Greg had sat at the table. Instead, Greg held the plate aloft, making it tricky to cut into the sausages without knocking anything over. But Alex managed it, and it seemed to please Greg. With Greg’s dinner taken care of, it was time for the evening chores. Alex took the washing from the machine and got it all pressed and folded and hung up and put away. He took the trash out to the bins, and did his evening walk through the halls to make sure all the doors that ought to have been locked remained that way. Once that was done, he did the washing up, and went to go collect Greg’s plate when everything was done.

He found Greg no longer paying attention to the telly. Instead, he held his plate on one knee as he read over the notes Alex had taken over the course of the day. Without a word, Greg handed his plate up to Alex. Greg never cleared his plate, but Alex knew it was too much to hope that he’d be allowed to have two meals that day. Instead of finishing it off, he threw the rest into the bin, and put Greg’s dishes into the dishwasher. Alex returned to the sitting room, expecting to wait patiently until Greg decided how he wanted to spend his evening. Instead, he snapped his fingers and pointed to the floor by his feet, clearly still irritated by something. Alex didn’t need to be told with words what Greg wanted. He sat down on the floor by Greg’s feet, half expected to get pulled around until Greg was happy. Instead, Greg surprised him by bringing his hand down to card his fingers through Alex’s hair. Alex let himself lean into his touch, grateful for even this small scrap of affection.

“Your hair’s getting too long,” Greg said suddenly.

“Oh,” Alex said. He hadn’t thought it was getting unreasonable, but he had apparently thought wrong. “I’ll take care of it tomorrow.”

“Good,” Greg said.

He hummed lowly, and Alex leaned a bit further into Greg’s touch and let himself relax against his leg.

“Rather interesting conversation you had with our guest today,” Greg said.

Alex wasn’t sure what Greg meant. “Was it? I don’t recall,” he said.

Greg’s gentle touch turned abruptly violent. He grabbed Alex by the ear, twisting so hard Alex nearly screamed. Alex scrabbled for anything to hold onto as he tried to keep quiet, but all he could find was Greg.

“You think you’re gonna get away with this?” Greg asked, his voice low and even.

Greg shouted when he wanted attention, but he got quiet when he was angry.

“I—I—I’m sorry,” Alex stammered out. “I won’t do it again.”

He didn’t even know what he’d done in the first place, so he had no idea what he was meant to avoid doing again.

“I’ve just about had it with you,” Greg said. “You’re easily replaceable, you know that? I could have someone in here tomorrow if I wanted.”

“I’ll do better,” Alex said, praying it was enough.

Greg twisted his ear harder, drawing a pained yelp from him, before he shoved Alex away from him.

“Get out of here. You reek,” Greg said.

Nodding, Alex quickly scrambled to his feet.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’ll—I’ll fix it.”

“You come back home smelling like that again, and you’re getting the garden hose,” Greg said.

Alex nodded, already backing out of the room. Even with the door shut between them, he could still feel Greg’s hand on him, pulling ever harder. He still did not know what he’d done, or how to make it better, but he knew it started with a shower to get rid of what very well may have been pickled onion vinegar.

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