Another AU that I've had in my head for what feels like an age.

London, 1884

Charles Carson stared up at the somewhat worn facade of the theatre in front of him, his mouth pulling into a tight, thin line as he took in the ripped posters that were pasted onto the boards outside. He glanced up and down the narrow street, the theatre was somewhat hidden down a lane off the main road, which he didn't think boded well for his purpose.

His fingers dug deeper into his pockets, the whole area had an air of sleaziness about it and he didn't feel entirely comfortable – but then that was nothing new. He let out a small sigh, there was little else for it though, he had spend the entire day traipsing around the different theatres, trying to secure a more permanent contract.

For three years now he'd travel the width and breadth of the country, struggled to keep Griggs' excess under control, struggled to put aside money for their rent never mind saving money for his own future. He needed, desperately, to put down some roots now, to have some security and if they got a long term contract they could have that, he could try and exert some more control on Griggs and perhaps, eventually he could save enough to find a way to move out on his own.

He could of course always return to Downton, return to service but he didn't want that, didn't want to return to that life of servitude and admit that the glamorous life of show business that he'd dreamed off had been the stupid fantasy of a foolish boy. He wasn't ready to admit failure, not yet.

And so he'd walked the streets, moved from theatre to theatre, turned down from every one. His back straightened in determination, the setting might be grim, but there was worse out there and it was the means to an end. After all he was hardly in a position to judge. He stepped forward, pulling the front door open with a creek that set his teeth on edge, walking into the shabby foyer, the red carpet worn under his feet.

The man in the ticket booth looked up, asking, "Can I help you, Sir?"

Charles nodded, replying, "I'd like to speak to your manager about performing here."

His eyes skittered over him, assessing him for a moment before he told him, "Wait here, I'll go let him know."

He disappeared out a door at the back of his booth, leaving Charles to survey his surroundings in greater detail. The gilding along the ceiling was chipped, the paint on the wall peeling in spots and on closer inspection he saw that the railings of the staircase needed polishing, what should have been shining metal clouded by multiple fingerprints. He shook his head, in his mind theatres should always be grand, places of escapism that reeked of opulence that made heads spin. It should not be this place of grubbiness and should not be as sordid as some of the places he'd performed in. His cheek twitched, he hoped that this was not one of those establishments.

There was a creak of a door, and Charles turned to see that the man was back in his booth while a second man made his way out of another side door, approaching him with a lopsided grin on his face. He was smaller than Charles by a good six inches, but heavily built with a frame that leaned towards fat rather than muscle, braces straining over his large, rounded stomach. His bearded face was beaming red, his eyes beady and surveying the newcomer to his theatre with a rather suspicious air. Nonetheless he held out his hand, "Mr Hughes," he introduced himself proudly. "Owner and Manager of the Arcadian Theatre, heard you're interested in performing here." He nudged Charles' arm with his elbow and chuckled, "Can't say I blame you right enough." He waved his arm towards the door he'd appeared from. "Well if you'd like to step into my office we can see if you'll fit in here."

Charles hesitated for a second, unsure if he wanted to take that step. He didn't like Mr Hughes, could smell the alcohol and cigarette smoke off him, didn't trust that loud, over confident voice with its Scottish burr, that self confidence and forced humour. But then what were his other options? To struggle to find a place to perform nightly, to have that uncertainty hanging over him, to never know if he'd be able to afford his room for the night. His decision made and his shoulders heavy, he followed Mr Hughes who needless to say hadn't noticed his uncertainty.

He stepped through the door, into a stone stairwell that reeked of damp, the air cold and foul smelling. His nose wrinkled in distaste as he followed the chattering older man up the curved staircase, barely listening to what he was saying. Charles shook himself, mentally warning himself to listen, that the words might be important, and so he forced himself to hear the booming words. "We do alright here, full most nights but one of my acts just walked out, ungrateful bastards, means I've got a slot in the show free."

Charles frowned at that, asking, "What do you mean by a slot?"

Mr Hughes pushed the door to his office open. "Well here we don't just have one act on per night. Each act gets a certain time every night to perform, we sell tickets for either the whole night or for singular acts. Means more revenue, doesn't it."

It wasn't a question and so Charles saw no need to attempt an answer to it. His gut twisted uneasily, he didn't like this and yet his feet kept moving into the overfull office, where sheets of paper were scattered over every conceivable surface. Hughes dropped into his seat, flinging his feet up onto his desk. "So what's your act?"

"The Cheerful Charlies," Charles muttered reluctantly, the name that had once held so much hope tasted bitter in mouth now. "There's two of us, we sing, perform magic tricks, juggle."

Hughes rested his hands across his swollen stomach. "Sounds like it could work, how long you looking to stay here?"

"As long as we can," he answered, the words sticking in his throat. He did not want to be here, did not want to have to reduce himself to asking this distasteful man for anything, never mind put his livelihood in his hands.

The older man nodded. "Could work well," he muttered. "Would need to see it first of course, like I said I've got an empty spot tonight, you do well I'll give you a three month contract. You get eight shillings a week and ten per cent of the tickets sold for your slot. If you do well I'll put up your weekly wage. Like to offer a bit of incentive," he told him proudly.

Charles swallowed, it wasn't the best or the worst of what they'd made in the past, it would be enough for him to live on, to put something away so that he could break away from this life, start again – start again in what he wasn't sure, not yet anyway. "Sounds fair," he finally replied. "What time do we start tonight?"

"You're due on stage at nine tonight for an hour. I'll come find you and your partner at the end, get you to sign your contract if I like what I see. Deal?" He held out his hand and Charles shook it, the cold clamminess seeping through his skin, making him feel ill, although that could have been the idea of tying himself to this place.

"Yes, I'll see you tonight," he assured him lowly.

"Good, and remember to come in the stage door this time, I'll tell them to expect you. Well I'm sure you can see yourself out. Got some work to attend to, I'm sure you know how it is." He picked up some papers and shuffled them ineffectively.

Charles felt his brow furrow into a frown as he turned away, letting the door shut behind him his feet heavy as he made his way down the staircase again. Now he'd have to convince Griggs, although he was sure that once he knew it meant a steady income of money that he could drink and gamble away he'd agree to the performance. He just hoped that Griggs was sober enough to perform on this relatively short notice.

Opening the door at the bottom of the stairwell, Charles stepped out into the entrance foyer again, giving a polite nod to the man in the ticket booth, his frown deepening when he saw that his attention was firmly focussed on the wide, grand staircase to the right. He turned his head to see what the fascination was and his frown disappeared. The formerly smudged and stained railing was gleaming under the gas lamps now, the brass metal shining, and the reason for this change was halfway up the staircase, cloth and polish in hand.

She had dark hair that was pinned up in a neat hairstyle, one curled tendril escaping and dangling at her elegant cheekbone. Her skin was clear, her figure curved in all the right places. Her dress was dove grey and truth be told rather drab but perfectly neat and well tended. In all his years on the stage he had had multiple women throw themselves at him, painted women who dressed in bold colours and daring dresses and none had captivated him in the way this girl had managed to.

As though she felt his gaze upon her she lifted her head and met his eyes. He could not make out the colour from so far away but they were bright, alert and she studied him with interest, her head tilting slightly to one side. He watched her mouth open as though she were going to address him when he heard Hughes bellow from the top of the stone staircase, and he realised that the door was still open, his hand resting on it. "Elsie!" The older man roared, and Charles turned towards the noise for a moment before looking back to the stairwell, just in time to see her disappear up the central staircase, taking her wares with her.

Charles' frown reappeared at her reaction, his discomfort with the entire situation growing, still he'd made his choice now and he'd do what he always did, make the best of it.

Making his way back to the two rooms he and Griggs had leased. They were in a relatively well kept building that was only ten minutes from their new place of work but although Charles kept his own room immaculate, Griggs' always seemed to be in a state of constant state of upheaval, clothing and empty bottles littering the room. He never bothered to lock his room, when asked about it he would tap his nose and reply, "Got everything I need on me, Charles my boy, nothing worth having left in there."

That was another thing that irritated Charles about his business partner, the way he spoke to him as though he were still some green boy, not a man of twenty six who was only five years younger than him. Charles pushed open Griggs' door, finding him lounging on the small metal bed, drawing heavily from a cigarette. The older man glanced over at him. "Where you been? Found us a card game we can get into tonight, stakes are good, be a winner for us, I'm telling you."

Charles shook his head. "Not tonight, got us a gig, a permanent one if we do well."

Griggs sat up at that, shaking his head, the cigarette hanging from between his lips. "Not a good idea, better to keep moving, keep things fresh."

He managed not to snort at that statement, they moved so frequently to escape the men Griggs's had either angered or owed money to. "If we take this it means a steady income of money."

His greedy eyes glinted at that. "How much we talking?"

"Four shillings each a week plus ten per cent in takings, we get more if we do well."

"Not too bad I suppose, where is it?"

"The Arcadian."

Griggs's eyes lit up. "They have some pretty chorus dancers."

Charles heart sank, he'd known that place was suspect. "That wasn't what I meant," he got out between gritted teeth.

"Nice bonus though, keep us warm at the break," he winked. He laughed at Charles' look, telling him, "We can give it a go, and lighten up," He let out a plume of acrid smoke. "What you need is a good lay, don't you worry though, I'll find you a nice one."

Charles didn't bother to reply to that, instead telling him, "We go on at nine, so I'll be ready to go at seven, so we can get used to the set-up before we go on."

Griggs gave another chuckle. "Telling you, you need a girl to give a good seeing to, make the world of difference to you."

He simply turned on his heel and walked out, what would make the world of difference to him would be Griggs taking some responsibility for a change.