The Prince went to the cloakroom at 12.15 am. When he pushed open the heavy oak door, bright sounds of festivity and merriment trickled suddenly into the small, stuffy space, and then were shut out again as he closed the door behind him.
"You will not believe," he said, "the night I've had." He leaned against the door, eyes closed, a small smile playing on his lips. He breathed heavily through his nose, and his bare throat was as white as virgin snow.
"Yeah?" said Buttons. He twiddled his pen round and round in his fingers; he was doing a crossword puzzle. His neck was itching under the stiff collar of his tunic, and he scratched it with the end of the pen.
"Yeah," said the Prince. He opened his eyes and looked at Buttons. "There was this girl..."
"Oh, yeah?" said Buttons. "Well, there's always a girl, isn't there?" He was stuck on 15 Down. Charred remnants. (7).
The Prince slid slowly downwards until he was sitting on the floor. "No, I'm telling you, man. This time was different. She was just--" he sighed extravagantly "--un-fucking-believable." He half-closed his eyes again, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. He looked as though he might be about to start purring.
"Mm, whatever," said Buttons. He looked at his watch. "What time does this gig finish anyway? I've got boots to clean."
"You're being paid, aren't you?"
"If that's what you call it."
"Well, shut up then. Nobody likes to be whinged at by the hired help, you know." The Prince stood up abruptly and turned round. He took hold of the brass doorknob, and rattled it experimentally. "Actually, does this thing lock? Oh, yes, so it does."
Buttons put down his crossword and looked at the Prince suspiciously. The Prince had dark brown curls, slicked back into glossy waves. He was wearing maroon velvet breeches edged with gold braid, and soft leather boots that clung to his calves all the way up. They'd been polished until they shone. You could probably see your face in them, thought Buttons. The Prince was smiling again. His fancy dress shirt had come all undone at the collar, and his cheeks were flushed from the dancing and the wine.
"Why did you do that?" asked Buttons.
"No reason," said the Prince, brightly. He flashed an amiable grin at Buttons. "This is nice though, isn't it? Just the two of us." He came over and perched himself on the little table where Buttons kept the book of tickets to hand out to coat-owners. He picked up the book and started absently tearing out the remaining tickets, one by one. "Hmm ... we never really get to chat any more, do we?" he said.
"No, well," said Buttons, shifting slightly in his chair. "That would be because you're a Prince, and I'm ... not." He swallowed. Up close, the Prince smelled of violets and expensive alcohol.
The Prince looked hurt. "Oh, mate! Don't say that! As if I cared about any of that crap. No, no, no. This is great, this is cool! It's just like the old days, isn't it? When we were kids?" He clapped Buttons affectionately on the arm.
"Yeah," said Buttons. "I s'pose."
The Prince drew his feet up onto the table, and hugged his knees to his chest. "Anyway, I have got to tell you about this girl. Oh my God, mate, you would not believe it, I tell you. Fucking gorgeous. Never seen her before, nobody seemed to know who she was. Kind of weird... Yeah, but she was ace. Loved me. No, seriously. All over me, all night. But then -- and this is the really weird thing -- suddenly she just fucks off! One minute she's there, next she's not. I was so just about to get her phone number, I swear..." He trailed off, his forehead creasing into a frown.
"Didn't she leave a message, or anything?"
"Huh? Dunno. Don't think so. S'pose I could ask the footmen. Doubt it though. Birds like that -- mark my words, they're all the same."
"Oh, well," said Buttons. "That's women for you." He noticed that the Prince had little tiny curls at the base of his neck, where they were beginning to spring free from the artificial smoothness created by the hair-cream.
The Prince sighed. "Anyway, I've totally had it with girls. I'm telling you, man, that is it. No more. No way, no how."
"Yeah," said Buttons. "Yeah, me too."
The Prince looked surprised. "Really? What about that one you're always going on about? Whatsername? Begins with 'C'. Scullery maid or something?"
"Oh, no, that's nothing," said Buttons hastily. "We're just good friends, really. Not like she'd ever be interested in me, anyway."
The Prince shook his head. "No, no, no ... shouldn't do yourself down like that, mate. You know your problem, you're too quiet. You need to push yourself forward a bit, assert yourself." He leant forward and winked at Buttons. Buttons could feel the Prince's breath warm on his face.
"Get your foot," said the Prince, "in the door ... know what I mean?" His eyes were dark and sparkling, like pools under a moonlit sky, as he reached over to punch Buttons on the arm, and promptly fell off the table into a coat rack.
Buttons' mum had always told him off for swinging on the back legs of the chair. "You'll crack your head open one of these days," she'd said. "And then who'll have to clean up the mess? Muggins here, that's who."
But Buttons had never been much of a one to listen to advice. And this time, as it turned out, he had quite a soft landing, so his head seemed destined to remain in one piece for the foreseeable future.
"Oh," said the Prince. "Sorry." He was sprawled in a tangle of velvet and ermine and satin. Coats and cloaks and capes. Shawls and stoles and wraps. Robes of rich brocade and scarves of diaphanous silk, fine as the finest spider-spun gossamer. A heavy, musty scent floated up from them. Buttons was positioned almost, but not quite, on top of the Prince, having put out his arms to save himself as he fell. He sniffed. Smells like money, he thought.
"You're not hurt, are you?" asked the Prince. He looked up at Buttons. And it was true, Buttons thought; his eyes really were like pools. They were kind of... liquid. From this angle, you could hardly help but notice.
"Mm," said Buttons. "Fine. Not that I imagine you care, really."
"Yeah, I do!" protested the Prince. "I do!" He tried to dislodge his arms from the confusion of fabric, in order to make his point more forcefully, but only succeeded in dislodging Buttons. "Ow," he said, as Buttons collapsed on him.
"Sorry," said Buttons indistinctly. His face was buried in the starched ruffles of the Prince's shirt. The Prince's chest was warm and solid under his cheek. It moved up and down as he breathed. For about a year or so, neither of them moved. Buttons listened to the staccato rhythm of the Prince's heartbeat.
"Actually, I think..." said the Prince. His voice was slightly hoarse. "Actually, I think it's okay. Actually."
Buttons lifted his head. He looked at the Prince. He looked at the Prince's brown eyes, his liquid eyes, and his flushed cheeks, and the twisty knotwork of his hair, disarrayed as it was by the fall. The Prince's lips were slightly parted.
"Is it?" said Buttons.
"Er... yeah," said the Prince.
"Ah," said Buttons. "Good."
"I was thinking," said the Prince. "Could you come up here, maybe? There's something I wanted to ... yeah, thanks, that was it."
As Buttons shifted, scrabbling upwards, flattening his body against the Prince's body, as he fastened his hands tight in the soft coils of the Prince's hair, as the hundreds of tiny fastenings on his uniform (those endless, stupid little shiny gold buttons) scraped and scratched against the tight waistband of the Prince's velvet breeches, and as he rocked his hips involuntarily into the Prince's hips and the Prince's hips rocked involuntarily back towards him, as he felt the Prince's lips open up beneath his own, and as their breaths mingled together in a warm, damp mist, as he did all these things, he wondered, at the back of his mind, why it had never occurred to him to try any of them before.
"You know," panted the Prince, when Buttons came up for air, "your eyes are like beautiful grey pebbles, washed smooth by the sea. I've never noticed that before. Funny, isn't it?"
"Don't talk shite," said Buttons, rather desperately. He was struggling with a complicated hook-and-eye fastening at the front of the Prince's breeches. "Jesus, what the hell is wrong with zips, anyway? Oh..."
"Fuck..." said the Prince.
"Yeah..." said Buttons. The Prince was tugging at the front of his tunic; he'd managed to disentangle his arms at last. He pulled at the tunic, but it didn't budge. He pulled harder, and harder still. There was a ripping noise. Little gold buttons flew everywhere, pinging as they hit the floor and the walls.
"Um. Thanks," said Buttons. The Prince's hands were warm, travelling over his body, over the bones of his hips and the flat plane of his stomach, and the soft hollows under his ribs. Hot, almost. They were like flames on his naked skin. Like burning, red-hot coals...
15 Down, thought Buttons distantly. Cinders.