Black Hair and Bullets or A Matter of Honour

by Mikami Ren (三神 恋)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/166845.html)

The shop was mostly silent that morning, save from the constant ticking of the mechanisms filling the shelves. Sometimes a voice would drift through the open windows from the Sunday market below, but today London’s usually crowded streets were almost empty. In the wake of the previous day’s celebrations, most citizens were still abed or resting at home.

Vincent Thorne didn’t blame them for being only too willing to take advantage of the national holiday generously granted by the king. The joint efforts of their army and air force had given the Empire a great victory in India, and it was only natural that everyone would be in great spirits. There had been dancing in the streets and a great display of fireworks and many pubs had offered a round of drinks on the house to anyone who wanted to toast the king and his men.

This didn’t mean that Thorne himself had been overly inclined to indulge in these revels. He was a moderate man, not prone to drinking or to late-night dancing, and after sharing a beer or two with some friends he’d retired to the little bedroom above his shop and had watched from the window as the fireworks lit the Thames with green and red explosions.

He had always liked heights but last night he’d very much appreciated the fact that his rooms were many floors above street level and therefore muffled the sounds of the celebrations enough to let him go to bed not much later than his usual time. His friends might laugh and say that he had an old man’s spirit in a young man’s body, but Vincent would rather have the day to himself and work on Mister Whittaker’s order than spend the day nursing a hangover and regretting the possible loss of a client.

Now, after a simple breakfast of eggs and black tea, Thorne was hunched over his workshop table. His face was a picture of concentration as he pushed a lock of black hair out of his eyes and took the monocle from its case, slotting it in front of his eye. Steadying his hands, he picked up a small wing from a shelf and stretched it delicately in his fingers before placing it on top of the metal-and-leather bird in front of him.

This was the most delicate part and, despite having done it time and again in the past, he couldn’t help but hold his breath as he selected a small rivet with his pincers and used it to affix body and wing together. He spared no effort in making sure that the rivet wouldn’t come off and that the wing would move as it should, since it had been one of the biggest problems in the first birds he’d created.

Having reassured himself that all the joints were in working order, Thorne was about to start on the second wing when he heard the bell that signalled the arrival of the elevator. He looked up from his work, frowning at the interruption, but his voice was pleasant enough as he said, “Welcome! We’re closed on a Sunday, but if you’d care to come back tomorrow…”

His voice trailed off as his visitor stepped out of the elevator’s cage.

“Is that how you greet your oldest friend?” the newcomer asked, his face splitting into a huge grin.

Thorne hadn’t seen him in forever, but there was no mistaking the man’s perpetually amused tone of voice and the sparkle in his eyes as he threw back his head and laughed.

“Deveraux!” Thorne exclaimed with surprise, all thoughts of work forgotten. “Jean Deveraux!”

With a smile he tossed the monocle on the table and cleaned his hands on his apron, stepping forward to greet his friend. He stretched out one hand but Deveraux pulled him into a bone crunching hug instead, laughing again as he had to stand on tiptoes to put his arm around Thorne’s shoulders.

“You haven’t changed at all,” Deveraux finally said. He stepped back to scrutinize Thorne, who felt himself blush under the other man’s gaze. “Still impossibly tall and absurdly absorbed in your work.”

Thorne grinned as he replied without thinking, “I’m not tall; you’re short,” and they both laughed. It was a familiar conversation, one they’d had a hundred times while they were boys together, and with the memories came the nostalgia and a pang of longing.

Thorne had forgotten that Deveraux had that effect on him. He smiled fondly as he watched his friend walk around the shop, wondering how he could have gone on for so long without seeing him.

“I see you’ve taken over your father’s shop,” Deveraux said, looking around the room at the inventions filling the shelves and the display cases. Then he seemed to remember himself and turned back to Thorne. “I read about him in the papers,” he said in an undertone. “I’m sorry about your loss.”

Thorne gave him a small nod. “He went easily in the end,” was all that he could say. His death was too recent and Thorne wasn’t willing to talk about it. He’d looked at his post more carefully than usual in the weeks after the funeral, waiting for a letter with Deveraux’s familiar scribbles on it or at least a condolence card or a note. He’d heard nothing from his best friend for over a year and the memory stung.

He didn’t want to spoil their reunion though, so instead he said, “You look much different from what I remember.”

Deveraux’s freckles, for which he’d been mercilessly teased as a kid, had been replaced with a tan. His fair hair too, which was longer than Thorne remembered and tied in a short queue, looked sun-bleached. Deveraux had even exchanged his usually extravagant clothes for a simple shirt and traveller’s cloak. “Have you finally followed your dream to join the navy?” Thorne asked, but the other man only laughed in reply.

“I did nothing so respectable, I’m afraid,” Deveraux replied, leaning casually against the window sill. “I’m still the black sheep of the family: never holding any job for long, always moving around…”

He didn’t sound bothered by this in the least, but then again, Thorne knew very well that Deveraux had never cared about his father’s approval.

Thorne very much wanted to ask him for more details on his journeys, but it seemed to him as if the months-long silence between the two of them had cooled their friendship. He didn’t know if they were still close enough that he could brazenly ask Deveraux about his travels, or indeed talk about anything and everything as freely as they used to.

“Say,” Thorne exclaimed with as much brightness as he could muster, “why don’t we have lunch together at the Green Knight for old times’ sake? That is if old Tom managed to get out of bed after last night’s revels.”

Deveraux smiled at the mention of one of their favourite haunts. “There’s nothing I’d like more,” he said. “But I’m afraid I have a previous arrangement for today at midday.”

“That’s too bad,” Thorne replied, trying not to let his face fall too much and wondering if it would seem too insistent to invite Deveraux for dinner instead.

Before he could decide, Deveraux stepped away from the window and closed the short distance between the two of them. “I need a favour,” he said abruptly.

Thorne blinked, caught by surprise. “Anything for you,” he said more quickly than he’d intended. Then again, he would have walked through fire if Deveraux asked him to. Deveraux seemed strangely reluctant to speak, which seemed at odds with his usual easygoing nature. “What is this about?” Thorne prompted his friend.

Deveraux shook his head and started pacing the room. “There’s no good way to put it, so I’ll just say things as they are,” he began. “I arrived yesterday afternoon from France and by yesterday night I was in a pub in the East End drinking myself stupid.”

“Are you in some trouble?” Thorne asked, already dreading where this might lead. Deveraux tended to attract mischief, even more so when he was well into his cups.

His friend shrugged, still pacing. The heels of his boots beat a dull rhythm against the seasoned wood of the floor. “I guess I am,” Deveraux admitted with a small smile. “You should have been there with me, Thorne. I’m just not good at keeping my mouth shut.”

Thorne couldn’t return his friend’s seemingly careless grin. “What happened?” he asked.

“There was this navy man, Ethan Fredrickson,” Deveraux said. “We were both drinking alone, so it seemed natural to sit at the same table and drink together.”

Thorne nodded, picturing what the worst-case scenario could be. Had Deveraux gambled and lost? He tried to calculate how much money he could raise on such short notice.

“Fredrickson is a pleasant enough fellow,” Deveraux continued. “He was posted in India until a few months ago so he had plenty of stories to share about the war and that faraway country. We were toasting the king and having a good time. That is, until…”

“You said some things that would have better gone unsaid,” Thorne finished for him. It wouldn’t have been the first time that Deveraux’s mouth got him into trouble.

Mon Dieu, Thorne, I swear I didn’t mean to insult the man,” Deveraux said. “I just made an offhand comment.”

Despite his light tone, it was plain to Thorne that this remark had had serious consequences. “What did you say to him?” Thorne asked.

Deveraux sighed. “Just that no good would come from loving someone with black hair,” he said.

Thorne’s heart skipped a beat and he clenched his hands to stop them from running nervously through his own hair.

To avoid meeting his friend’s eyes he got up and started wandering around the room under the pretence of tidying up the tools and pieces of mechanisms lying around. Deveraux had never made a secret of his deep distaste for black hair and Thorne had never found the courage to ask his friend what about it irked him so much.

Even back in the days when they were schoolmates and spent every day in each other’s company, Thorne had never found the courage to ask Deveraux about it. Privately, he thought it was because of a girl that Deveraux had loved many years ago who hadn’t loved him back.

But Deveraux, usually so talkative, was reticent to talk about his love affairs with anyone and Thorne was loathe to ask him about the girl with black hair. He told himself that it didn’t matter even if he found out her story. His own black hair was no obstacle in their friendship, because friendship was the only thing that could ever exist between the two of them.

“That’s all I said,” Deveraux continued. “Had I known Fredrickson would take it so much to heart, I would have rather bit my tongue than talk. But we started arguing and he asked me to take my words back in no kind tones. When he started questioning my honour I couldn’t back out without seeming like a coward.”

Even without having seen the scene, Thorne could picture it very well: Deveraux, his cheeks reddened by wine and anger, trading heated words with a stranger. Instead of focusing on those words and what they might have meant, Thorne tried to focus on how his friend was very likely in trouble.

“Did you go to blows?” Thorne asked, though Deveraux didn’t look injured in the least, not with the way he was striding up and down the floor.

Deveraux shrugged again. “Would that we had. That might have been better. We just exchanged words, and when the discussion grew too heated I told him I had a pair of duelling pistols that I would dearly like to show him.”

Thorne drew a sharp breath at those words. “You challenged him to a duel!” he exclaimed. “That is madness!”

“It was just one of many things that I said last night,” Deveraux scoffed, waving a hand dismissively. “I don’t even have those duelling pistols any more. They’re back in France with most of my possessions.”

“But still,” Thorne insisted, shaking his head. “The danger in this! What if this man Fredrickson took it as a challenge too? Navy men are often great sharpshooters.”

“They’re also forbidden to duel by the king,” Deveraux said. “At least until the war goes on, as is the case right now.”

Thorne pursed his lips, not at all reassured by his friend’s tone, and true enough Deveraux added, “Or so I thought.”

“What happened?” Thorne asked again.

Deveraux finally stopped pacing and perched on the window sill, making a show of watching something that was going on in the street below. He didn’t speak for several seconds but, from his grim face, Thorne could already figure what he was going to say.

“Fredrickson accepted my challenge,” Deveraux said so quietly that his words were almost drowned out by the sound of blood rushing in Thorne’s ears. “He said he’d meet me and my second at noon today at the docks.”

Thorne clutched at the table in front of him for support. As much as he could understand that Deveraux wanted to defend his honour, duelling over a quarrel seemed too extreme. He told his friend as much. “You need to apologize to this man and get him to withdraw the challenge,” he pleaded.

“That’s impossible,” Deveraux replied at once. “Because it wasn’t him who issued the challenge, it was me.”

“Then it’s even easier, just withdraw your challenge,” Thorne insisted. “It was not a proper challenge to begin with. Being forbidden to duel, Fredrickson should be only too happy that he won’t have to break the law.”

Again, Deveraux shook his head. “That’s also impossible,” he said. “He questioned my honour and to withdraw now would mean admitting that I’m a coward.”

Thorne was despairing that he’d manage to get his friend to see reason, but he felt as if he had to do all that he could to try. He went and sat next to Deveraux on the window sill, carefully balancing himself on the narrow ledge.

“It wouldn’t be cowardice,” he said. “I know you can shoot as well as the next man, and you’re afraid of nothing.”

“Why are you trying to stop me then?” Deveraux asked. He put one hand over Thorne’s arm. “I know I’ve been a fool and you’re welcome to tell me so, but please, don’t make me go back on my word.”

Thorne sighed. He couldn’t admit out loud that he was more concerned about his friend’s safety than he would have been about his own so he simply said, “You mentioned you need a favour. Do you need a second?”

“Yes,” Deveraux nodded. Thorne’s heart caught in his chest. He didn’t like to see good men kill each other, even less so if one of those men was his best friend, but there was no way he could possibly refuse such a request.

The thought of Deveraux’s lifeless body sprawled in the middle of some deserted field made Thorne’s blood run cold in his veins. At the same time, he didn’t think he’d be able to stand waiting for noon to pass in his workshop without knowing what might happen.

His hand was still on Thorne’s arm, a solid and warm presence. Thorne tried not to think about that same hand growing cold and stiff. “Of course,” he said, lowering his eyes. His voice sounded strained to his own ears but Deveraux didn’t seem to notice anything amiss since he grinned and pulled Thorne into another tight embrace.

“Thank you,” he said. “I knew I could count on you, and I’m terribly sorry about pulling you away from your work for something like this.”

“Don’t mention it,” Thorne replied. “That’s what friends are for.”

Deveraux laughed bitterly. “I’m afraid I haven’t been much of a friend to you lately,” he said. “Hardly ever writing and only showing up on your doorstep because I needed help.”

Thorne shook his head. He’d often thought about this in the past year but he couldn’t be angry at Deveraux now that the other man was standing in front of him, not with the threat of a duel in a few hours.

“There’s something else,” Deveraux added after a moment. “The accursed pair of duelling pistols. I have no way of getting mine by midnight today, let alone noon. I was hoping you’d have a pair to lend me.”

Thorne nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I have a very nice set of pistols.”

Deveraux grinned expectantly as Thorne got up and took a small ring of keys from his trouser pocket. From this he retrieved a small brass key which he used to open an oaken cabinet in the corner. He selected an oblong box made of plain leather and placed it on an empty spot on the table. Deveraux studied it with great curiosity.

“The box isn’t much to look at,” Thorne said, almost apologetically. “But the pistols inside are some of my finest work. I made them only last month for a client who changed his mind at the last moment.”

“Can I?” Deveraux asked. Thorne nodded and Deveraux immediately opened the box with two quick motions. He made an appreciative noise at the sight of the twin pistols lying on soft velvet. Made of dark iron with golden inlaid decorations, they looked more like a work of art than a weapon.

“They are beautiful,” Deveraux commented and, despite the situation, Thorne couldn’t help but feel a surge of professional pride at those words. “Much, much better than my own,” his friend added, taking one in his hands to test the balance. “Thank you.”

“I would be happier if I didn’t think one of those pistols might kill you,” Thorne couldn’t stop himself from saying. He already regretted giving Deveraux the pistols, although he had no doubt that a refusal wouldn’t have stopped his friend from getting the weapons elsewhere.

As if he’d been reading his mind, Deveraux carefully put the pistol back in the box and took Thorne’s hand in his own.

“Once again I owe you,” he said shaking Thorne’s hand. “I wouldn’t know what to do without you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Thorne replied, though the words made him happier than he could have said. To cover his emotion he took his pocket watch from his waistcoat and checked the time.

“It’s already past eleven o’clock,” he pointed out, swallowing audibly. It seemed as if ages had passed since he’d been at work on his bird, though it had scarcely been one hour ago.

He tossed some pieces of cloth on the workbench to protect his creation from the worst of the dust. He didn’t feel like putting everything back in its place.

“There’s still plenty of time, no need to hurry,” Deveraux said.

Thorne envied his calm demeanour. As for him, he was more upset than if the duel had been his own. His shook his head brusquely as he tossed his apron aside and shrugged into his jacket. A simple thing, nothing like the fancy clothes that Thorne used to see gentlemen duel in, but Deveraux was wearing everyday clothes too so he hoped his adversary wouldn’t stand on formality.

With a last glance to his abandoned workshop, Thorne tucked the case with the pistols under one arm and got into the elevator. Deveraux quickly followed and pulled the lever that made the contraption go down.

The docks weren’t too far from Thorne’s workshop and they wouldn’t be late even if they walked at a leisurely pace. Thorne had meant to make a last attempt to get Deveraux to apologize and withdraw the challenge he’d so recklessly issued, but he couldn’t find any time for that.

Deveraux had either become even more talkative than usual or had guessed what was on Thorne’s mind and wanted to avoid discussing his impending duel. He kept distracting Thorne with questions about their mutual friends or about the new buildings that had been completed while he was abroad or even about Thorne’s own work.

Thorne wasn’t sure that Deveraux cared much about the inner workings of his mechanical birds, since he’d never shown any interest in engineering when they were in school together, but he did his best to explain and was rewarded by Deveraux’s rapt attention and several more questions.

It was only when they’d arrived at the Docks that Thorne realized that he’d been doing all of the talking, and there wasn’t any chance to persuade his friend to withdraw from the duel now.

Here on the riverside the streets were busy like on any other day and Thorne had to raise his voice to make himself heard above the noise. The merchants returning from a trip hadn’t had any chance to join the previous night’s celebrations, and those about to embark on a new journey didn’t want to delay their departure.

Thorne and Deveraux had to jostle several workers on their way, but they managed to reach the meeting place unmolested. The couple of red jackets patrolling the area were doing a good job of keeping the cutpurses and troublemakers away.

The pier where Fredrickson and Deveraux had set their meeting turned out to be reserved for airships. A couple of small merchant dirigibles were tied there and their officers were supervising the loading and unloading of goods.

“There is Fredrickson,” Deveraux said, nodding towards a couple of men deep in conversation. At their approach, the taller man turned around and gave Deveraux a stiff and formal bow.

Fredrickson was not how Thorne had pictured him. Auburn-haired and clean-shaven, he seemed a few years older than him and Deveraux. His lieutenant uniform was immaculate and he had all the bearing of a gentleman and a man of honour. However Thorne couldn’t help feeling uneasy in his presence.

“This is my second and my good friend, Vincent Thorne,” Deveraux said, brusquely bringing Thorne back to the present.

“Lieutenant Fredrickson,” Thorne said with a nod of his head, shifting the parcel under his left arm so he could shake the other man’s hand. Fredrickson’s grip was firm but Thorne almost shivered when he met the man’s cold and dark eyes.

“And my second, Captain Valerie Allen,” Fredrickson said.

With a start, Thorne realized that Fredrickson’s companion was indeed a woman. A peaked cap shadowed her face and hid most of her hair but, on closer look, her features were unmistakeably feminine. “Madam,” he stammered, unsure of how to address her.

She stuck out her arm and shook Thorne’s hand with a grin, as if amused by his surprise. “Please, just Allen will be fine,” she said.

During this exchange of niceties, Deveraux kept looking up and down the pier as if searching for something. “Are we going to duel here in the open?” he asked after another patrol of red jackets passed them by.

Allen laughed and shook her head. “No,” she said and turned to Fredrickson. “Didn’t you explain? By God, you were really too drunk last night,” she added bluntly.

Fredrickson shook his head. “I might have forgotten to,” he said. “But you will take us?”

“Of course,” Allen shrugged. “If it’s all right with Monsieur Deveraux and Mister Thorne.” The two of them regarded her interrogatively and she gestured to one of the dirigibles. “We’re headed for Ireland by way of Scotland next. I can take you on board, so your duel won’t take place on English soil.”

Deveraux nodded and then turned to Thorne. “Are you fine with the arrangement?” he asked. “I wouldn’t want to keep you from your work.”

Thorne sighed. “Will it take many days to get back?” he asked, though he already knew that he’d stay no matter what the answer would be. Allen looked like a good person but Thorne couldn’t in good conscience let Deveraux go without a second.

“I can have you back by tonight,” Allen replied with a touch of pride. “My Providence is among the fastest ships in the merchant navy. London to Belfast isn’t one of our usual routes, but I’ll make an exception this time.”

“I appreciate it,” Fredrickson said in an undertone.

“Yes, that would be perfect,” Thorne said. “Thank you, Captain Allen,” he added, unable to keep the formality out of his voice.

Allen nodded. “Then if you’ll excuse me, gentlemen,” she said. “I need to make sure that everything is in order before departure. Fredrickson, you know the way.”

She turned and walked away without waiting for an answer, snapping orders at a couple of deckhands who were trying to ditch work by hiding behind a pile of crates. Thorne watched her go, admiring the way she seemed to command her men’s respect despite being much smaller and shorter than any of them, and also a woman.

“Thorne,” Deveraux called him. “Are you all right?” he added in a whisper.

“I’m fine,” Thorne replied. “I should be asking you the same thing.”

Fredrickson led the way across a narrow platform and on board the dirigible. Thorne had been inside an airship only a couple of times, but it had been smaller passenger vessels. It was much different to be among the hustle and bustle of a merchant ship while the cargo was still being loaded. The small passages were full of crew members carrying around crates and parcels without apparent order or method.

The two officers directing them greeted Fredrickson as he went by, and he paused to inquire briefly about their wives and children. He seemed to be familiar with the crew members too: they all saluted him respectfully while giving Thorne and Deveraux dark looks.

Thorne had no idea why a navy man would be so well-known on a merchant airship, but he didn’t want to question a perfect stranger so he held his silence as they were led up a set of narrow stairs and into a quieter area that was probably the officers’ quarters.

Deveraux was also uncharacteristically silent, as if he had either realized the gravity of his situation or didn’t feel like engaging in a conversation with the man he was about to duel. The atmosphere felt almost oppressive, and Thorne was relieved when they were shown to a small cabin.

Fredrickson made no motion to get inside. “I’ll be on the deck,” he said. “I believe the flight won’t take more than a few hours.”

Thorne breathed with relief after he’d left. “I can’t say I’m not glad to see him go,” he said.

The cabin looked like a cross between a sitting room and an office, furnished simply with armchairs, a round table covered with maps and many cabinets and shelves filled with books and documents. Allen’s cabin, Thorne guessed. He could hear her voice coming through the door, giving orders for their departure.

“She’s a remarkable woman,” he commented.

Deveraux shrugged. “She has black hair,” he said simply, sitting down on an old leather armchair.

Thorne was surprised that his friend would be so dismissive of a woman that he’d barely just met, though to be sure Allen, with her coat and breeches, looked just like a man. He shook his head and sat down next to Deveraux.

“Don’t you think Fredrickson might have been thinking about her, when you two argued last night?” he suggested. “Maybe he felt that your words were insulting to his friend.”

“Maybe,” Deveraux conceded after a moment. “But then he wilfully misinterpreted what I said. I have nothing whatsoever against Captain Allen or her appalling black hair,” he added.

Thorne’s heart sank again. “If you keep saying things like that, it’s no wonder Fredrickson took offence,” he said.

Their conversation halted when the airship took off. Thorne wasn’t used to the rush of the engines or the feeling of suddenly being several hundred feet above ground. He clenched the armrests and willed himself to ignore the popping sounds in his ears as he adjusted to the altitude.

Deveraux also seemed to be ill at ease since he kept tapping his foot against the floor. Thorne tried to say something that would distract both of them from the impending duel but, before he could think of a suitable topic, Deveraux blurted out, “There’s something that I need to tell you.”

“Sure,” Thorne said, surprised by the emotion in Deveraux’s voice.

“It’s something I should have told you a long time ago,” Deveraux said. “I don’t know how you will take it, but for the sake of our friendship…”

“You know you can tell me anything,” Thorne replied.

Deveraux nodded. “Anything,” he repeated, strangely reluctant to talk.

A knock on the door made them both jump.

“We’re making good time,” Allen said, appearing in the doorway. “We’ll be crossing the Scottish border in less than three hours, and from there to the North Channel. There’s a quiet island just off the coast where your duel won’t be disturbed.”

“Thank you,” Deveraux replied, politely enough despite his earlier remarks.

Allen frowned as she looked at the two of them. Deveraux’s face was pale under his tan and Thorne guessed that, between the impending duel and the air travel, he wasn’t looking any better. “Can I get you anything for the journey?” she offered. “Some wine perhaps?”

Thorne shook his head. It was bad enough to show his nervousness and he felt he might throw up anything he ate or drank. Deveraux also declined her offer.

“It’s probably the first time I’ve ever refused a glass of wine,” he said after she’d left, but the jest sounded forced.

“You were saying something,” Thorne reminded him.

Deveraux bit his lip. “So I was,” he said. He was silent for so long that Thorne thought he’d changed his mind after all. “I got engaged a couple of months ago,” Deveraux said eventually.

That was so sudden and unexpected that Thorne could only gape at him for a moment or two before managing to reply. “My congratulations,” he said, his voice shaking a little over the formal words.

He told himself that the cold feeling in his chest was just bitterness at the thought of not having been told earlier, thus running the risk of finding out about his friend’s marriage from someone else or even from the papers, but it was a lie he didn’t believe any more.

Thorne looked at Deveraux again, trying to see the boy he grew up with instead of the man who was sitting next to him. His friend had changed so much that Thorne felt he barely knew him any more. A marriage would only drive them further apart.

Deveraux’s laugh sounded almost forced. “It’s nothing you should congratulate me over,” he said, glancing quickly at Thorne and then looking away from him and out of the small round window. Maybe he, too, felt the awkwardness of the situation.

“Why shouldn’t I congratulate you?” Thorne asked, guiltily because he knew he wasn’t being sincere. “It’s a big step. It… it shows commitment.”

Deveraux snorted. “I know,” he replied. “And that doesn’t sound like me at all.”

“Maybe you’ve changed in this past year,” Thorne remarked, but his friend pulled a face and just shook his head.

“Drinking myself into a stupor and getting into stupid duels?” Deveraux asked. “As much as I’d like to say I became a better man, I don’t think so.”

Thorne couldn’t help but notice that he hadn’t been formally invited to the wedding. This was perhaps a blessing since he didn’t know if he could stand the sight of his friend getting married to some girl, but it saddened him that Deveraux had waited so long before telling him.

However he wanted to be honestly happy about his friend’s upcoming marriage, personal and immoral reasons aside, so he fought his burning desire to change the subject.

“Who’s your fiancée?” he asked, his tone light and casual. “Is she anyone I know?”

Deveraux shrugged. “Just this girl I met in Marseilles. I told you I was back in the old patrie these past months.”

His expression was hard to read and he sounded not at all like his usual easygoing self. Thorne made another attempt to keep the conversation going. “Will the wedding be in France too?” he asked with more forced brightness, and Deveraux turned to look at him.

“Yes,” he sighed. “At the old family chapel. It was yesterday.”

It took a moment for the implications of this to sink in. Then Thorne’s eyes widened and he shot a glance at Deveraux’s hand, looking for a ring.

“You got married yesterday?” he asked, a million different thoughts going through his mind at once, but before he could voice any of them Deveraux shook his head.

“How could I have?” he replied. “Don’t be a fool. I told you I was in London yesterday.”

He turned away and made a show of studying the flight of some birds out of the window, avoiding Thorne’s eyes.

For his part, Thorne felt utterly confused. It wasn’t wholly out of character for Deveraux and, though breaking an engagement was not something to be taken lightly, he had done worse things in his youth. “Truly, I don’t know what to say,” he exclaimed after the silence became too heavy to bear.

Deveraux shook his head, still not looking at him. “You don’t have to say anything,” he replied. “My father has already said enough when I broke the news to him. I think this time no amount of apologizing and grovelling will be enough to bridge the rift between us.”

Thorne could only feel guilty relief at the thought of Deveraux not marrying anyone, but he could at least sympathise with his friend over his family troubles. He knew that the older Monsieur Deveraux was a hard man to live with.

“Don’t be sorry for me,” Deveraux said as if reading his thoughts, laughing mirthlessly. “I wasn’t going to get married to please him anyway.”

Thorne cringed at those harsh words that belied Deveraux’s light tone. “What about the girl? You know I’ll support you no matter what you decide,” he said, though those words were much easier to say knowing that Deveraux’s decision had been not to marry after all. “But leaving that poor girl at the altar…”

“I know I’ve been a rascal,” Deveraux replied. “In this whole accursed affair, she’s the one I feel sorry for. I think this is for the best, though, and in the end she’ll be all the happier for not marrying me.”

“You don’t think you’d have been happy with her?” Thorne couldn’t stop himself from asking.

Again, Deveraux shook his head. “She had black hair,” was all that he said. He didn’t have anything else to add about the incident, and Thorne was only too glad to change the subject and ask him about his travels.

Deveraux obliged and started telling him tales of his adventures across the Continent. Some of them were so wildly implausible that Thorne had to wonder if Deveraux wasn’t making them up, but he was a great storyteller and had a gift for theatrics.

If Thorne closed his eyes, he could almost picture himself next to his friend in some faraway city, seeing all the things and meeting all the people that Deveraux was telling him about. Thorne smiled as the other man started mimicking an angry shepherd he’d met on the borders of Prussia.

“It’s not funny in the least,” Deveraux complained, though he was grinning himself. “That man was really upset about me intruding on his sheep’s land and, believe me, you’ve never been properly cursed at until you’ve been cursed at in German by an angry shepherd.”

“Forgive me,” Thorne said. “I was thinking about our last year at St. George’s.”

Both of them had been studying geography with enthusiasm, much to the delight of their teachers. But instead of planning to join the army or to become merchants, Thorne and Deveraux secretly wanted to travel the Continent together after finishing school.

“It’s a shame things had to go the way they did, with the war and everything else,” Deveraux replied quietly. His smile turned sour. “We never did take that trip, did we?”

Thorne nodded. “But there’s still time for that,” he added, ignoring the weight of the duelling pistols resting on his lap.

Deveraux didn’t comment, but he sighed before resuming his anecdote. Even though his conversation was as brilliant as usual, Thorne wanted to kick himself for bringing up those particular events from their past. He knew it had all been a boyish dream and he could have never followed Deveraux to Europe.

At the same time, he had regretted his decision every single day since Deveraux left. It was painful to think that these were the circumstances under which they were finally leaving England together, with the prospect that only one of them would be coming back.

With those grim thoughts on his mind, the rest of the journey passed quickly. Only too soon the airship was losing altitude and the engines were slowing down, signalling that they had reached the end of their journey.

Thorne chided himself for those pessimistic thoughts, telling himself that Deveraux would be angry with him if he knew about them, but he wasn’t able to think of this simply as a stop before returning to London.

By some unspoken agreement, they both halted their conversation and stood up while waiting for the airship to stop completely. Thorne could feel his heart beating frantically in his chest already, and for the life of him he couldn’t recall what they’d been talking about just a minute earlier.

There was a knock on the door and an officer that they didn’t recognize peeked in.

“The captain says that Lieutenant Fredrickson is waiting for you whenever you’re ready, sir,” he told Deveraux.

“We’ll be with him in a minute,” Deveraux replied. He tightened the knot of his neckcloth and straightened his jacket.

Thorne clenched his fingers around the case of the pistols and felt very tempted to throw the damned things out of the window, if only it had been open.

“We could take a minute,” he suggested. “There’s no reason to hurry.”

Deveraux shook his head. “What for?” he said flatly. “Waiting is so much worse than anything that might happen.”

“Then, this is it?” Thorne sighed.

“It appears so,” Deveraux replied. “Unless you’ve got something to tell me?”

There were so many things Thorne would have liked to tell Deveraux, none of which he could have said in the frantic minute before a duel in a stranger’s cabin while another stranger stood at the door.

He realized that in the last hours he’d been unconsciously studying Deveraux’s gestures and mannerisms: the way he tugged at his neckcloth, the gestures he made as he spoke, the foreign accent still lingering in the way he said his A‘s and R‘s. Seemingly unimportant details that he was desperately trying to commit to memory.

Thorne blinked and looked away. “I wish you wouldn’t do this,” was all he could say.

For a moment Deveraux seemed about to reply, but then he shrugged and walked out of the door without saying anything. Thorne could only follow him and clutch the case until his knuckles went white.

Fredrickson was waiting for them in the corridor along with Allen. “If we’re all here, let’s go,” he said without any preamble, but Allen ignored him and turned towards Deveraux.

“Are you quite sure you don’t want the ship’s doctor to be present?” she asked.

“Yes, we’d rather not have any other witnesses,” Deveraux replied. Thorne bit his lip and didn’t comment.

Allen didn’t seem too pleased with the decision either, but she shrugged and motioned for everyone to follow her.

“We’re currently docked at a small island on the Channel,” Allen explained, leading her way in a different direction than where they’d come on board. “There’s no decent ground for duelling.”

“Then why did we come all the way here?” Deveraux asked.

“The good things about this place,” she replied raising two fingers, “are that it’s remote and outside of mainland Britain. The lack of flat ground doesn’t matter, because we’ll be up there.”

They stopped at the bottom of a stepladder and Allen pointed up to an open hatch. Craning his head, Thorne could see a sliver of sky outside.

“On top of your dirigible?” Deveraux asked.

“That’s right, I forgot to tell you earlier,” Allen said. “My apologies, gentlemen. I do this so often that I forget that not everyone knows about it on account of it being, well, only legal in the strictest technical sense. Will this be fine?”

Thorne wanted to beg Deveraux to take this last chance to back out, but his friend shrugged and started climbing up the ladder. Fredrickson went next and was much quicker to reach the top thanks to his sailor’s skills.

“I’ll take the pistols,” Allen said, taking the case from Thorne. “You’ll have an easier time without it bothering you while you climb up.”

“What about you?” Thorne replied. “Won’t it be too heavy for you?”

Allen just grinned and shook her head. She tucked the case under one arm and went up the ladder almost like a monkey.

With a start, Thorne realized that it had been the first time he’d spoken since leaving the room with Deveraux. It was happening too fast and everything was just a blur around him. He gripped one of the iron rungs to steady himself and started his ascent, which was much difficult than what the others had made it look.

Once he reached the top of the dirigible he had to squint against the glare of sunlight reflected on polished metal. The surface behind his feet was slightly curved, but at the very top it was so smooth it seemed like a long silver corridor several paces wide and over a hundred yards long.

Deveraux and the others were already waiting in the middle of it, the case with the pistols resting on the pavement between them. Thorne had to spread out his arms while walking to keep his balance against the strong wind from the coast.

“At first it always seems like the wind will carry you away,” Allen called to him. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it very soon.” Her own longcoat was snapping wildly around her ankles. Deveraux and Fredrickson were tossing away their own cloak and coat respectively to have more freedom of movement.

Thorne just clenched his jaw at the thought of Deveraux having to duel under those unfavourable conditions on top of everything. As if reading his mind, Allen took the pair of goggles that she had around her cap and held them to Deveraux.

“If it’s your first duel, it might be difficult to aim with the wind in your eyes,” she said.

Deveraux seemed to consider this for a few moments, then he turned to Fredrickson. “You’re not wearing goggles either, sir,” he commented.

“It’s not my first duel up here,” Fredrickson replied curtly. “I’m used to it.”

“Yet I wouldn’t want to put you at a disadvantage,” Deveraux said. “Thank you for your offer, captain, but I’ll have to decline.”

Fredrickson bowed his head at him while Allen shrugged and put the goggles back. Thorne was torn between admiration for Deveraux’s chivalry and frustration at his stubbornness. It was also worrisome to think that Fredrickson had most likely won his earlier duels, making him infinitely more experienced than Deveraux, who had only fired shots at a painted target before.

“Before you start,” Allen said, turning to Fredrickson. “I must ask you: is there no way to settle your dispute peacefully?”

Thorne held his breath at that, but Fredrickson just gave Deveraux a dark look. “I wasn’t the one who issued the challenge in the first place,” he said. “I would only withdraw after hearing Mister Deveraux’s apologies for what he said last night.” His words weren’t rude, yet his voice sounded sharper than needed.

Three heads turned to Deveraux expectantly. “Deveraux,” Thorne almost pleaded. “Are you really sure?”

“My stance on the subject is just as it was last night,” Deveraux insisted.

At that, there was nothing to do but go ahead with the duel. Thorne had long since given up hope that Deveraux would change his mind, but he still wasn’t ready to see his friend and his rival take a pistol each and slip some of the round lead balls in their pockets.

“Twenty paces,” Fredrickson said.

“As we agreed,” Deveraux nodded. His voice was steady and without emotion but, before retreating to one side with Allen, Thorne was sure he saw Deveraux’s hands shake ever so slightly as he grasped his pistol.

They watched in silence as the duellers counted twenty paces from each other and started loading the first shot.

“Is this your first duel?” Allen asked, glancing at Thorne. “You seem so young,” she added despite the fact that she was barely older than him.

He shook his head. “I’ve been on the sidelines on some occasions before duels were outlawed,” he said. They’d been barely more than children, him and Deveraux, never thinking that one day one of them would be the one staring at someone down the barrel of a gun. “It’s my first time being second for a friend.”

Allen nodded at his words. “That’s always the hardest part,” she said with a frown, looking at Fredrickson.

“Is it quite safe to duel up here?” Thorne asked. “A stray bullet could tear a hole in the hull.”

“No chance of that,” Allen replied, tapping her boot to demonstrate. “The walls are reinforced, even by shooting straight at them you would only make a dent. We are perfectly safe, unless a stray bullet bounces off and hits one of us.”

She had probably meant that as a joke to lighten the atmosphere. Thorne appreciated her efforts, but he didn’t feel reassured much by her words.

“Don’t worry,” Allen hastened to add when she saw his expression. “With these strong winds, it’ll be hard enough for them to hit their targets, let alone anyone else.”

Thorne nodded shakily. Concern for Deveraux’s safety still trumped everything else in his mind, but he couldn’t help liking Allen, even as he was hoping for her friend to die so that Deveraux would be saved.

“Are you ready?” Allen called, cupping her hands around her mouth so that her voice would carry to both Deveraux and Fredrickson.

The two men nodded and an uneasy silence settled over the small group. There was nothing else that Thorne could say to delay the inevitable. He prayed for Allen to be right about the wind. Maybe, if both duelers missed often enough, they would eventually give up trying to kill each other.

He regretted giving them a good pair of pistols instead of a faulty one that would have made it even harder to aim. It would have been very base of him and a gross insult to his friend, but Thorne would have rather done anything to stop Deveraux.

Thorne waved for Allen to start the duel. He couldn’t find his voice and didn’t think he would have been able to do it himself. He could barely stand to watch as Deveraux turned to one side so as to present his adversary with the smallest possible target.

Allen raised her arm and the two duellers levelled their pistols at each other. Thorne held his breath as she gave the signal by lowering her arm. He felt as if time had stretched into infinity. Two almost simultaneous shots rang out and Deveraux was surrounded by a cloud of white smoke. The wind quickly cleared it away but Thorne couldn’t breathe freely until he had reassured himself that the shot had missed his friend.

The ordeal was far from over though, since on the other end of the airship Fredrickson was also standing unscathed.

As soon as both duellers noticed this, they started reloading their pistols for a second shot. Thorne went even paler when he realized that Deveraux had fumbled and dropped the lead ball he’d been holding. Despite being too far to hear what he was saying, Thorne was sure his friend was cursing in a mix of French and English as he watched the ball roll away from him.

Deveraux gave up and took another ball from his pocket to finish loading the shot. Thorne wasn’t usually superstitious, but he felt this had been an ill omen.

“Mister Thorne,” Allen called him. He frowned, not understanding what she might want from him. “Mister Thorne, if you would…”

He’d almost forgotten that it was his turn to call the next shot and for a moment he considered refusing. If he did nothing, the duel couldn’t go on and would be forcibly stopped. It was a less-than-honourable course of action but, to Thorne, saving Deveraux’s life outweighed everything else.

However, ending the duel in such a way would tarnish Thorne’s own reputation and Deveraux’s too. Thorne valued his friend’s life over his honour, but it wasn’t his decision to make. He stared at Deveraux, who nodded.

With a heavy heart, Thorne raised one arm. As the two men levelled their pistols at each other once again, the wind died. Thorne stood still for a moment, listening to his own heartbeat in the sudden silence, then he let his arm fall.

Nothing happened in the second after the two new shots, but even before the smoke had cleared out Thorne could see Deveraux staggering.

“Jean!” he cried out as his friend fell to his knees, and he ran to him.

Allen was saying something, but he couldn’t make out her words. Nothing else mattered, save that he’d had the chance to stop this from happening but he hadn’t.

Deveraux was hunched on the floor, clenching one hand over his chest. He had gone so pale that he looked like a ghost and the front of his shirt was turning red with blood.

Thorne slid one arm around his shoulders to help support his weight. “Deveraux,” he called, shocked at how easily the other man sagged against him, as if he had no strength left. “Jean, it’s all right. It will be all right,” he added.

Allen and Fredrickson were both hurrying towards them, calling out questions.

As their footsteps approached, Deveraux looked up. “Did I miss?” he asked, squinting into the distance as if he couldn’t quite see.

“It seems so,” Thorne replied. The other man seemed unscathed, but he couldn’t bring himself to care about that. All he wanted was to stop Deveraux from bleeding to death.

However Deveraux shook his head at his words. “I can still fight,” he said, struggling to get back on his feet. “The duel isn’t over yet.”

“What on Earth are you talking about?” Thorne said, trying to keep him down. “You can’t even stand on your feet!”

Deveraux shook his head again. “No, I’ll be fine in a moment,” he said. It was a bold-faced lie, because he was growing paler and weaker with each passing second.

“You need to get him to lie down,” Allen said, kneeling next to them. Deveraux wouldn’t stay still, and he struggled against Thorne’s arms so much that Thorne was afraid he would hurt himself even more.

“Please, let us treat your wound,” Thorne said. “You can’t possibly think of firing another shot.” However Deveraux just closed his eyes without replying, silently shaking his head. “Sir,” Thorne pleaded, turning to Fredrickson instead, “you must see that he’s in no condition to fight.”

Fredrickson shrugged. He was still standing and Thorne had to crane his neck to see his expression. “I’m willing to accept Mister Deveraux’s apologies or continue the duel as planned,” he replied impassibly. “Either is fine for me, there are still plenty of bullets,” he added. Thorne gave a cry of dismay at that.

“Ethan!” Allen snapped without looking up. “The man is almost delirious, he can’t make a proper decision.”

She leaned forward to examine the wound while Deveraux tried to swat her hands away with a motion that was much too weak to be effective.

“We need to get him to lie down,” she told Thorne, and together they managed to gently push him to the floor. Thorne took Deveraux’s hand. His skin felt as cold as ice.

“How bad is it?” Deveraux croaked. Thorne didn’t even think that he could still be conscious.

Allen pursed her lips. “You shouldn’t speak,” she admonished him. Then she took a closer look at the wound, poking and prodding in a way that made Deveraux squirm uncomfortably. Thorne could barely bear to look at all the blood. “It doesn’t look as if the bullet hit any vital organs,” she said eventually. “It’s not a pretty wound, but you might still live.”

The relief that Thorne felt at those word mixed with fear at the sight of Deveraux’s expression. He feebly squeezed Thorne’s hand, at the same time looking for Fredrickson. He was too weak to form a coherent sentence, yet it was clear to Thorne that he would issue another challenge as soon as he was able to.

He got up before that could happen, placing himself between Fredrickson and Deveraux. “As his second, let me take my friend’s place,” he said, heart beating madly in his chest.

For the first time Fredrickson’s face showed emotion, eyebrows raising in surprise as he considered Thorne’s words. “I have no desire to shoot you as well,” he said eventually. Thorne would have hated the quiet arrogance in his words, if he hadn’t known he didn’t stand a chance to win any duel. “I have no quarrel with you.”

“Isn’t it enough to have won this match?” Thorne insisted. Wasn’t it enough to see Deveraux looking like that, bloodstained and barely clinging to life? Wasn’t it too much already? “Please, accept this victory and step away.”

“He has a point,” Allen put in, turning to Fredrickson. She was using Deveraux’s own neckcloth to stop the bleeding. “You won fair and square, nobody would question that.”

“Yet Mister Deveraux is the one unwilling to concede,” Fredrickson replied. “If he doesn’t accept his defeat…”

It was unlikely that Deveraux would change his mind about not wanting to withdraw, let alone apologize for his original insult. Thorne couldn’t understand the reason behind what seemed to him like a death wish, but he knew he needed to get Fredrickson to back down.

“I can make amends in Deveraux’s place,” Thorne said. “Just tell me what you want.”

“Are you offering me money?” Fredrickson asked, frowning. It was difficult to tell whether he was angry or interested.

Thorne swallowed a lump in his throat and nodded. He hadn’t thought Fredrickson would consider the suggestion.

The frown deepened. “How much?”

Thorne baulked at the question. He had no idea of which sum would be considered an adequate compensation to settle the quarrel, but his savings were certainly nothing to a gentleman. “I’m a watchmaker, I build clockwork mechanisms,” he sighed in the end. “I could sell my shop and my business, if you gave me enough time to do so.”

Fredrickson shook his head. “By God, you’re really serious about this,” he exclaimed.

He sounded surprised to learn that Thorne would do everything he could to help a friend. Either he was dismissive of Thorne’s lower status as a member of the working class or he didn’t think Deveraux was the type of person who could have true friend. Even Thorne, usually so patient, felt irritated by his smug attitude.

“So, do you accept?” Thorne asked, clenching his fists at his sides to stop them from shaking.

“Not at all,” Fredrickson replied lightly. Thorne’s heart skipped a beat. “I’m sorry, I was just curious to see if you’d agree to it. I couldn’t possibly accept money in exchange for honour.”

Thorne bowed his head. He would have been more surprised by the opposite, but it was frustrating to be toyed with in such a way. “Surely there must be something I could do,” he insisted.

“Like what?” Fredrickson asked. He took a couple of steps forwards, staring intently at Thorne. “What would you do for him?”

With a glance behind his shoulders, Thorne saw that Deveraux had passed out. Allen was still bent over his wound, but she was giving Thorne her back and he couldn’t figure out what was going on.

“I’d do anything for a friend,” Thorne said, staring back. “Anything.”

“Is that so?” Fredrickson replied, almost in a whisper.

Thorne had to will himself not to look away again. “You don’t think I’d do anything for him?”

“No,” Fredrickson replied with a quirk of his lips, and that would have been enough to make Thorne snap if it wasn’t for Fredrickson’s tone. For a moment he sounded almost sad. “I don’t think you’d give a friend a look like that,” he said, shaking his head.

There was nothing Thorne could say. Under different circumstances he’d have pretended not to understand what Fredrickson was implying or denied it outright, but it seemed pointless now. Fredrickson’s face was again devoid of any emotion and his eyes seemed to look into Thorne’s soul.

“I know that my feelings will never be returned,” Thorne said. The girl from Marseilles had received, if only for a moment, a promise of marriage. Other girls had gotten dances, kisses and smiles. It was much more than Thorne would ever get himself. “It doesn’t matter. I just want to save him.”

Fredrickson nodded and turned on his heels. “Very well,” he said.

Thorne glanced towards where Deveraux was lying, looking as if he was barely hanging on to life. “You accept my offer of money?” he asked Fredrickson, hardly allowing himself to hope.

Fredrickson was still giving him his back and his words were barely audible over the sound of the wind. “I didn’t say I would,” he replied. “But I won’t duel your friend again.”

He started walking away and, with a last worried look to Deveraux, Thorne hurried after him. He wasn’t sure of what had made the man change his mind, but he was ready to do whatever was needed to make sure that Deveraux would be safe.

“What do you want in exchange?” Thorne asked.

Fredrickson, already halfway down the hatch, shook his head. “Your words were more than enough,” he replied. Before Thorne could add anything, he said, “I’ll send for the doctor.”

There was nothing that Thorne could do but rush back to Deveraux’s side and take his hand again, telling his friend to hang on for only a few more minutes, begging him not to die now that everything was almost over. He didn’t care that Allen was still there, listening to his ramblings, and Allen didn’t say anything.

She was still holding the makeshift bandage over the wound. Deveraux had lost a great amount of blood, and both his shirt and the captain’s coat were soaked with it. At one point a lock of hair fell in front of Allen’s face and she pushed it back with an automatic gesture, smearing her cheek with blood.

“Why did he do it?” Thorne asked abruptly, too tired to still care about formalities. “I thought for sure he wanted to kill Deveraux.”

Allen sighed and shook her head. “I assure you, Fredrickson is a good man,” she said. “He has a fondness for hopeless love stories,” she added with a small smile.

Soon after, a group of men arrived to help carry Deveraux below deck. The ship’s doctor, a woman with iron grey hair and a stern face, took a look at him and snorted. “Duels!” she muttered under her breath. “People shooting each other over some drunken argument. I don’t like it in the least,” she added, pointing an admonishing finger towards Allen and Thorne. “Why didn’t you call me sooner?”

“Will he be fine, doctor?” Allen asked, wiping her hands in a handkerchief.

She snorted again before nodding. “He’d be better if he didn’t have a hole in his chest, but he’ll live.”

At that, Thorne was too overcome with emotion to speak. He followed the others down the stepladder in silence. He hadn’t noticed how cold it had been outside, but his fingers felt frozen and stiff. He almost slipped several times, and as he reached the bottom rung his legs gave out from under him.

Allen took his arm under hers. “Careful there,” she said, and she practically manhandled him down the corridor and back to the officers’ quarters.

When Thorne realized that they were back in her cabin, he tried to turn back. “I must see Deveraux,” he complained, but Allen pushed him down in one of the armchairs and took a bottle of brandy from a cabinet.

“He’s in good hands,” she said, pouring him a generous glass of liquor. “Milton has a sharp tongue, but I’d trust her over any other doctor in London.”

She stared at him until he took some sips of brandy. He immediately felt some warmth return to his extremities.

Allen set the bottle on a table next to him and shrugged off her bloody coat. “I need to get to the engine room,” she said. “We’re stopping here until the doctor’s done with your friend; it will be better if the ship isn’t shaking while he’s being stitched up.”

Thorne lowered his head. “Thank you, captain,” he said. “There are no words to express my gratitude…”

“Don’t mention it,” she replied, waving aside his protests. “Take a moment to pull yourself together, you can see your friend after his surgery.”

She was already walking out of the door when she paused. “About what I said earlier, let me add something,” she said, turning back her head. Thorne looked up from his glass. “Your story needn’t be hopeless,” Allen said, and she was gone before Thorne could reply.

He stared at the door for a long while, finishing the brandy and trying to stop himself from shaking. It was as if the world had been turned upside down several times in the space of less than one hour. Anxiety over the duel, sheer terror as he saw his friend get shot, and relief when he’d been told he’d live.

With all these conflicting emotions, he still hadn’t had time to consider the fact that he had finally admitted his feelings for Deveraux. Thorne had never thought that he’d ever tell anyone else. The fact that Allen and Fredrickson hadn’t condemned him for his words was quite possibly the biggest shock.

Even so, he didn’t want to think about that yet. The most important thing was to make sure that Deveraux was alive and well and, despite Allen’s reassurances, he didn’t want to leave him surrounded by strangers.

As soon as the engines started again, signalling their departure, Thorne got up from the armchair. He refused to look at the bottle next to his elbow. It was tempting and the liquor had helped him some, but he wasn’t used to strong drinks at all and didn’t want his mind to be clouded.

Outside, the corridor was quiet. Thorne approached the nearest aviator, a young midshipman, and asked him where the doctor had taken his friend. He was afraid he’d be subjected to the same cold stares that he and Deveraux had received when they first came onboard, but the boy just gave a look to the bloodstains on his jacket and directed him to a cabin further down the corridor.

The doctor was coming out just then, wiping her hands on her apron. “He’s fine,” she said, forestalling Thorne’s question. “He lost a lot of blood, but the bullet stopped against one of his ribs. I took out the bullet, stitched him up, he’ll be up again in no time.”

Thorne breathed a sigh of relief. “Can I see him?” he asked, trying to peek over the doctor’s shoulder and into the room.

She shrugged and moved aside to let him pass. “Be my guest,” she said. “He’s still unconscious though.”

“Thank you,” he replied, hurrying inside. A couple of men were still tidying up the doctor’s instruments. Thorne forced himself to look away from a pile of bloodstained towels and a basin filled with water that was more red than clear.

Despite Doctor Milton’s words, Deveraux opened his eyes as Thorne bent over his bed. He still looked sickly pale, but his breath was not so ragged as before and his chest had been dressed in clean linens. “Thorne,” he croaked.

Thorne looked around the cabin for a chair or a stool and, failing to see anything he could sit on, he perched on the edge of the bed. “How are you?” he asked softly.

Deveraux pulled a face. “Fine,” he replied. “I’m good.”

He sounded far from his usual loud, boisterous self. Thorne immediately reassured him about his health, repeating the doctor’s words. “You’ve been very lucky, the bullet missed your heart,” he added.

“Lucky!” Deveraux repeated bitterly.

Thorne put a hand on his shoulder to stop him in case he decided to get up and go after Fredrickson. He couldn’t have Deveraux risk his health again, he didn’t think he could bear the sight of it.

Deveraux made no attempts to rise from the bed, but he pursed his lips and stared at Thorne. Suddenly, Thorne’s nervousness from earlier came rushing back. He’d stopped Deveraux from continuing the duel but, in doing so, he’d gone against his friend’s express wishes. Even if Thorne’s actions had most likely saved his life, Deveraux had every right to be angry.

It wasn’t a conversation that Thorne wanted to have in front of the doctor’s assistants. He looked at them, unsure if he had the authority to ask them to leave. However they both understood and silently walked out of the cabin, taking away the dirty towels and closing the door behind them.

Once he was finally alone with Deveraux, Thorne felt relieved and trapped at the same time. “Fredrickson agrees that your dispute is settled,” Thorne said. “Your honour is safe too.”

Deveraux was not happy to hear those words in the least, so much that Thorne was worried his agitation would make the injury worse.

“What did you give him in exchange?” Deveraux spat, clenching his fists in the sheets. Thorne paled. “I know you made a deal,” Deveraux added.

He looked so hurt and betrayed that Thorne’s heart sank. “I assure you, I didn’t,” he protested, but Deveraux only shook his head.

“I heard you talking with him before I passed out,” he replied.

Thorne’s mind went back to those frantic minutes on top of the dirigible. “How much did you hear?” he asked, trying to remember what they had said. If he had known that Deveraux was still conscious, he would have never talked so recklessly about his feelings.

Deveraux stared at him with cold eyes. “I heard enough,” he replied.

Thorne hung his head. “Deveraux,” he began, not sure of what he could say, but Deveraux shook his head.

“No, listen to me,” Deveraux said. “Whatever you told Fredrickson up there, I want you to take it back. I don’t want you to sacrifice anything on account of me. I don’t deserve it.”

“I didn’t give him anything,” Thorne replied. “I’m not sure myself why, but all of a sudden he changed his mind and walked away,” he added when he saw his friend frown.

Deveraux blinked and looked away. “But… I heard you two talking,” he said. “You were going to…”

“I couldn’t have stood by without doing anything,” Thorne said, immensely relieved that Deveraux hadn’t heard the end of the conversation. “What kind of friend would do that?”

Twice Deveraux opened his mouth to reply, only to shut it soon after. Thorne couldn’t help wondering if he was about to question his use of the word ‘friend’ too. He didn’t know what he would have done if that were to happen.

However, Deveraux had something else entirely on his mind. “I’m a coward,” he sighed eventually.

Thorne shook his head. “Don’t be foolish, nobody would say that,” he replied. “Not even Fredrickson after seeing how you acted today.”

“I’m not talking about the duel,” Deveraux replied, closing his eyes.

“Then what?” Thorne asked.

Deveraux sighed again. “Earlier, when I told you there was something I needed to say,” he began. Thorne nodded, trying not to think about it. “It wasn’t about my engagement,” Deveraux said. “In truth, I chickened out and couldn’t bring myself to tell you what I really wanted to say.”

“I told you already: you can tell me anything,” Thorne said.

“I’ve kept this unsaid for so long,” Deveraux continued, almost talking to himself. “Even when I thought I was about to die, I couldn’t find the courage to say the words.”

Thorne found Deveraux’s hand and squeezed it for reassurance. “Tell me,” he said, not daring to think what could be so important and so difficult to say.

Deveraux opened his eyes, looking straight at him. “I’m in love with you,” he said. “I’ve been for a very long time.” Thorne felt as if all breath had been knocked out of his lungs. He squeezed Deveraux’s hand even more tightly. Its solid presence under his fingers was the only proof that this wasn’t a dream.

His face must have shown his shock and surprise, because Deveraux hastened to add, “Please, don’t judge me. I was afraid I’d lose you if I told you.”

He tried to withdraw his hand from Thorne’s grasp, but Thorne didn’t let go of him. “I thought you didn’t like black hair,” was all that Thorne could say.

“I do,” Deveraux replied softly. “I hate people with black hair because they remind me of you. They remind me of how much I love you, and how I’d rather be with you rather than anyone else.”

They had moved so close that Deveraux was able to raise a hand and thread his fingers through Thorne’s hair.

Thorne couldn’t listen any more. He leaned forward and pressed his lips against Deveraux’s. Their first kiss was soft, tentative. They both broke apart too soon, both of them breathless and barely able to believe what was happening.

Deveraux’s breath was ragged and Thorne was afraid his wound would open again. Then Deveraux pulled him closer and smiled against his lips, and Thorne couldn’t think about anything but kissing him again.

At first he was unsure of what he was doing. His nose bumped against Deveraux’s cheekbone and their teeth clattered together. Then Deveraux put a hand on the nape of Thorne’s neck and gently guided him so that their mouths slotted together.

It was hot and messy and urgent, not at all what Thorne had always associated to kissing. To him, a kiss was a gentle peck on the hand of a girl he’d danced with. He’d heard other men telling stories of romantic conquests, of course, but it had never been something he’d been interested in. Now that he had Deveraux in his arms, he was kissing him as if his life depended on it. He needed it more than he needed breathing.

Under Thorne’s hands, Deveraux’s skin felt so warm it was almost feverish. Deveraux fisted one hand in the collar of Thorne’s shirt, pulling him forward to compensate for the fact that his injured shoulder made it difficult to rise from the pillows. Thorne was only too happy to oblige him, straddling him and pulling their chests flush together.

“Tell me if I’m hurting you,” he said, licking his lips nervously.

When Deveraux laughed, he could feel the laughter reverberating against his own chest. Deveraux trailed a few kisses on Thorne’s jaw, making him shiver. Then Deveraux’s hand slid further down Thorne’s back, tugging at the hem of his shirt, and Thorne stopped thinking at all.

He concentrated on the feeling of Deveraux’s mouth against his own, of his hand slowly unbuttoning the shirt and tracing the lines of his chest.

“You are beautiful,” Deveraux whispered, staring at him with heavy-lidded eyes.

Thorne had never thought of himself in such terms, but he didn’t feel like arguing. With that tone of voice, Deveraux could have told him that the sky was green and he would have smiled and nodded. If Deveraux asked, he would have done anything for him.

Deveraux was still trying to take off his shirt with one hand, so Thorne shrugged out of it and tossed it aside. If he’d thought they had been close before, now that they were skin on skin Thorne went almost mad with desire. He ran his fingers on the soft skin on the parts of Deveraux’s chest that weren’t covered by bandages.

All the time he kept checking that the linens didn’t have any bloodstain that meant that the stitches had opened. Deveraux didn’t seem to have any such compunction, because he kept squirming against Thorne with no regard for his injured shoulder.

Deveraux’s body shifted under him, and Thorne felt something pressing against the inside of his leg. He drew a sharp breath and pushed himself away as he was hit by the realization that not only Deveraux was hard, he was very much aroused himself.

For the first time since they had started kissing, Deveraux hesitated. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” he said, misunderstanding Thorne’s reaction.

“No,” Thorne replied, shaking his head and planting a soft kiss on Deveraux’s lips to emphasize his point. “I very much want this.”

“Me too,” Deveraux smiled. He tried to pull him closer again, but Thorne kept his distance.

“I don’t want your injury to get worse,” he said, clinging to his last shreds of moral integrity.

Deveraux whined. There was no other description for the sound he made, low and keening, as if the rejection hurt him more than physical pain. “Please,” he said, tugging at the front of Thorne’s trousers.

Thorne would have needed to be a much stronger man not to gasp at the contact. Deveraux pulled him closer, immediately pressing their mouths together to swallow Thorne’s moans. Thorne slid down a hand and finished undoing his own laces, exposing his cock to the cool air of the cabin.

“Tell me if you’re not comfortable with this,” Deveraux told him, calm and reassuring, as if he wasn’t the one coming from a gunshot wound and a surgery. He looked into Thorne’s eyes as if searching for confirmation before taking Thorne in hand and stroking him tentatively once or twice.

The motions sent jolts of pleasure through Thorne’s spine. He clung to Deveraux, fisting one hand in his hair, not knowing what to do any more. It was as if every nerve in his body has suddenly concentrated in his cock. He could feel the calluses on Deveraux’s hand, his warm, firm, solid hand, moving in a steady rhythm.

He came too quickly, making a strangled noise that he couldn’t quite muffle against Deveraux’s chest. For a moment his whole world went black and he collapsed on top of Deveraux. He breathed, slowly and heavily, trying to pull himself together.

Deveraux didn’t say anything, he simply wrapped one arm around Thorne’s shaking shoulders, and he wiped his other hand over the sheets. His breath too was coming in short gasps.

As soon as Thorne managed to collect his thoughts, he rolled off of Deveraux’s chest. “I’m sorry,” he murmured kissing his friend’s bandaged shoulder. Then he remembered that he was still hard. “Let me,” he said, quickly unlacing Deveraux’s trousers and wrapping one hand around his cock.

Thorne didn’t know what he was doing, had never done something like that before, but Deveraux immediately arched into his touch. “Please, more,” he groaned as Thorne swirled his thumb over the head like Deveraux had done for him. His eyes were dark, his face flushed, his mouth half-open. He’d never looked more beautiful.

“Deveraux,” Thorne murmured. “Jean,” he immediately corrected himself. “I’ve been in love you for so long, Jean.”

That was enough to send Deveraux over the edge. He threw back his head, gasping broken words in English and French as he came all over his chest.

“Today you keep calling my name,” was the first coherent sentence that he managed to form. “I like it when you do.”

Thorne smiled and snuggled closer to him. “You should do it more often too,” he remarked.

Deveraux pulled him in for a kiss. It was sloppy and messy and they were both still breathless, but when they broke apart Deveraux whispered against his lips, “Vincent.”

Thorne thought that it was perfect.

At some point before reaching Belfast, Deveraux fell asleep. Thorne studied him for a long while in the fading daylight, watching his chest rise and fall with every breath, and at sunset he got up and lit the lantern hanging on the ceiling.

He felt beyond tired himself, but he couldn’t sleep. The excitement and emotions of the day kept him awake, along with the idea of sharing a bed with Deveraux, even if it was just a bunk on an airship. It was thrilling to think that he only had to move his fingers a little to brush them against Deveraux’s cheek, and he didn’t have to pretend that it was anything but a sign of affection.

Finally, long after the stars had come out, he fell into a dreamless sleep.

He was woken by someone rapping on the door. Thorne felt as if no time at all had passed, though the lantern had gone out while he was sleeping and the first lights of dawn were coming in through the window.

Thorne immediately got out of bed, glad he’d taken the time the previous night to put his shirt and trousers back on. When there was no sign of anybody coming in, he went to the door and opened it.

Captain Allen was standing outside, nursing a cup of tea. She was wearing fresh clothes and a clean coat, but didn’t look as if she had slept much either. “Good morning,” she said. “How is Monsieur Deveraux?”

“Much better, thank you,” Thorne replied, trying not to blush.

She nodded a took a large gulp of tea. “I’m sorry to wake him up so early, but we have arrived in London. We’re only making a short stop, so…”

Thorne nodded. He hadn’t noticed that the dirigible had stopped. “Of course, I understand,” he replied. “We’ll get ready to disembark.”

“I’m truly sorry I have to chase you away,” Allen said with a self-deprecating smile. “Do you want any breakfast?”

“Please, we’re already very grateful for everything you have done,” Thorne replied.

Allen grinned again. “Some tea, at least,” she insisted, motioning for one of the deckhands to come forward with a large teapot.

A cup was pressed into Thorne’s hands before he could refuse again. The tea was strong and scalding hot. He took a careful sip as Allen tipped back her own cup and drained it.

Their conversation had woken Deveraux, so that when Doctor Milton arrived with fresh bandages she found her patient sitting up and devouring a plate of eggs and bacon. She harangued him as she changed his bandages, stressing the importance of bed rest and of refraining from any strenuous activity or indeed any activity at all. Deveraux rolled his eyes and tried to counter her words with jokes, while Thorne blushed furiously.

“Where’s Lieutenant Fredrickson?” Thorne asked Allen, who was very close to smirking. “We would like to say goodbye before going.”

Allen pulled a face. “I’m afraid he left last night in Belfast,” she replied with a shrug. “But he wishes your friend a quick recovery and hopes to meet both of you again under better circumstances.”

“Likewise,” he replied. Inside the room, Deveraux was trying to button a borrowed shirt with one hand, while Milton fussed over him. Given that Deveraux’s own clothes had been ruined beyond repair, it was yet another thing for which they were indebted to Allen. “My pistols,” Thorne said, hit by a sudden idea.

“They’re still in my cabin,” Allen said. “I’ll send for them now.”

“No, I’d like you to keep them,” Thorne replied. “As a sign of my gratitude.”

“I couldn’t possibly accept such a handsome gift,” Allen began, but Thorne cut her off.

“Please, I wouldn’t want to keep them around after everything that’s happened,” he said.

Allen hesitated for a moment, then gave him a small smile. “Thank you, then,” she replied.

Finally Deveraux managed to escape the doctor’s attentions and joined Thorne to say his goodbyes to the captain. They promised to keep in touch with letters and shook hands under Milton’s disapproving stare. Apparently, handshakes were also considered strenuous activity.

Deveraux was still a little uncertain on his feet, so Thorne linked their arms together to help support his weight. Deveraux gave him a grateful look and they walked down a short plank and back onto London’s cobbled streets. Allen and some of the crew saluted them from the deck before turning back to their work.

Thorne could scarcely believe that less than a day had passed since the start of their adventure. They walked together for a short while until Deveraux started showing signs of fatigue and Thorne hastened to make him sit on a bench facing the river.

“We should call a carriage,” Thorne said with a concerned look at Deveraux’s pale face. “You’re still not well enough to walk a long distance.”

“I’ll be fine,” Deveraux replied, shaking his head. “My hotel is only a few streets away.”

“Hotel?” Thorne repeated. He hadn’t thought of where Deveraux was staying, since he didn’t have a house in London, but after last night’s events it seemed natural that he would have come to stay with him.

Deveraux sighed and looked out to the ships on the river. “I can’t,” he said, as if following the same thoughts. “I can’t give you any more troubles than I already have. I’m going to leave London as soon as I can.”

“What are you talking about?” Thorne exclaimed. A few passers-by turned to give them a curious look, and Thorne hastened to lower his voice. “After last night, we can finally be honest with each other. We can be together,” he added, almost pleading.

“No, we can’t,” Deveraux insisted, his voice equally low. “Had you thought about what would happen if anyone found out about us? It would destroy your reputation. Think of your business!”

Thorne blanched. He had been so certain that Deveraux didn’t love him that he had never considered the social implications of entering a relationship with another man.

Deveraux was right: what could be acceptable on an airship among people of loose morality would be greatly frowned upon in any city. The respectable citizens of London would be scandalized at the very thought of it.

Seeing Thorne’s face fall, Deveraux gave him a sigh and a small smile. “It’s all right,” he replied. “I knew this would happen. Do you remember the last time we said goodbye?”

“Before you left for Europe,” Thorne replied immediately, frowning at the memory. Deveraux had asked him to come along so insistently that he’d almost missed his train. Thorne’s heart had been close to breaking, but he had his father and the shop to think of. He just hadn’t been able to go.

Deveraux bit his lip nervously. “You see?” he said, shaking his head. “I couldn’t possibly ask you again to leave everything for my sake.”

Thorne thought about his shop and about Deveraux. If he had to choose between the two of them, it was no choice at all.

He cupped Deveraux’s face in his hands and kissed him, not caring that they were surrounded by dozens of strangers. He tugged at his lower lip and flicked his tongue against Deveraux’s, until Deveraux made a low moaning sound in the back of his throat that was anything but respectable.

“Is that enough for an answer?” Thorne said, smiling.

And for once Deveraux didn’t have anything to say in reply and just returned the smile.

THE END
A special thank you goes to my beta, gallifreycalls, who suffered through first drafts filled with more typos than you could shake a stick at, endless rants about the backstory of minor characters and, in the last panic-filled days before the deadline, my inability to remember to send attachments along with my emails.

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