by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)
The clear sounds of an altercation without his office door drew David’s attention at last from his proofs, and he looked up with a slight frown between his brows. Hard to say what reason there could be for a scuffle and raised voices at four o’clock in the afternoon, particularly not with Hopkins out for the week.
Protruding his head from the doorway, however, revealed a most peculiar sight. In addition to the seven or so shouting and wrangling newspapermen in shirtsleeves he might have expected, clung to by a miasma of smoke and ill temper, there was also nearly occluded in their midst an Oriental man, of indeterminate age, clearly greatly indignant at the general attempt to remove him bodily from the office. Only after several bemused moments’ spectatorship, however, did David match movements of mouth to one of the angry voices in the general din, and realize with a start that the Oriental was in fact attempting to defend his case in perfect — albeit agitated and mildly spicy — English: “Oh, for heavens’ sakes! Off me, you great jackanapes, I only — now see here!” This made the likely explanation, that he had wandered in off the street for one reason or another, perhaps for purposes of solicitation, significantly less likely — as did his clothing, David realized too late; the man was a bit disheveled and disreputably hatless, but otherwise shabbily but smartly dressed in the English style — and at last curiosity more than temper drove him to speak.
“What the devil is going on out here?” If not all concerned were stopped by the command of his voice, they were at least given pause; David Chamberlain was infamous for a number of things, but most of them all was his foul temper. “No, all of you may restrain yourselves; we’d be here a fortnight. You. You there. Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“He’s a lunatic!” George Jackson burst out, quite pre-empting any possible answer, and David contrived not to roll his eyes. Jackson was a tall, slim, rather sallow young fellow with a pencil moustache, good for a quick phrase but not quick with much else, David feared. “Marched in here without so much as a by-your-leave, gabbling some nonsense about — ”
“Actually I think you’ll find I did say ‘by your leave,’ several times, or you would if I hadn’t been shouted over,” the Oriental cut him off icily, and David found himself forced to conceal a smile. The man’s accent was also curious, now that he could hear it better: not even a touch Oriental, for all he could tell, but as English as Queen Victoria herself, whatever that was good for. Furthermore, while not moneyed exactly, it was certainly no lout’s mangling of the tongue: educated, in fact. Where did an Oriental acquire not only English, but an education in it?
“I believe I said not you, Jackson,” David said rather than any of this, settling them both into glaring silence at once. “I am addressing the Chinaman. Do you have some purpose here, other than to agitate the animals and upset the zoo generally?”
Sensing their cause perhaps defeated, the writers had drawn off by this point into truculent silence, and the Oriental made just a bit of a business of straightening his topcoat before answering. “I want to write for your paper,” he said, rather more defiantly than was necessary. “In spite of my reception thus far, for reasons I can scarcely imagine. And I assure you, contrary to what these gentlemen might believe, I am fully able.”
But this news, it seemed, was too shocking to the ears around them even for proper hoots of derision. David stared at the man a long time.
“Come into my office, then,” he said, at last. “The rest of you, I believe, I am still employing for some purpose, and I suggest you get to it lest conditions change suddenly.”
He did not miss the mutterings as he and the Chinaman retreated back to where he had been interrupted moments before — the Chinaman more than a bit smug, he imagined — but rather enjoyed them. After all, one did have a reputation to maintain.
“Sit down,” he said, once he had closed the door behind them, and the man did, smoothing his tails. He took the moment to size the fellow up, having him apart and no longer shouting nor glowering at anyone in particular. He was brief of stature — most Oriental men seemed to be, David had observed — and lithely built, angular shoulders from which his clothing hung as though from a coat-tree smoothing to a trim waist and hips beneath his vest. His hair was not quite solid black, but had an almost bronzey tone to it that David could not help but find quite striking. He had a broad, pleasant enough face, though inscrutable about the eyes as David had ever found any Chinaman’s. “Let us have first things first. What is your name?”
“Wu Li,” the man said promptly, which took David a moment to sort out from the ‘woolly’ that he’d heard, which would have been a startling appellation to say the least, into two separate words. “And you are David Chamberlain; I know that much. I’ve been reading the Crier for some time, and I much admire your work.”
…Well, this was an interesting tack. David found his way back behind his desk, there to sit facing him. “Why thank you, Mr… Li?”
“Oh… ah.” The Oriental seemed startled, then chagrined. “I apologize, I have not properly explained. Wu is my family name; I am wont to arrange my name in the Oriental fashion.”
“…Indeed.” Well, it just went to show you. Something or other. David rummaged in his desk drawer for his paper of cigarettes, and lit one up in the already stale interior air. “And why is it you’d want to write for a muckraker’s rag like the Crier, Mr. Wu? For all your flattery aside, I’ve no illusions as to what my critics think; indeed they seem to seek me out to keep it thus.” Nor did Wu attempt to argue, to his credit. He shrugged only, with one shoulder. There was an easy grace about his movements.
“well, it’s rubbish, of course. They only say so because you make plain what they expect to see swept under carpets, which could be said to be the only true vocation of a journalist.”
“Not in public,” David said drily. The Chinaman — Wu — flashed a sudden and rather dangerous grin.
“That all depends.” He found his course again then, before David could even properly begin to debate whether to pursue that line of thought. “I like the Crier because it has made itself a voice for those who have none — and those many would prefer to see remain that way. The issue on ‘The Beggar In London’ was well worth the scandal. But there are voices in London you overlook; and I mean one in particular that is kept quieter than any other.”
“The Chinaman,” David said. He had to try very hard not to be surprised; his reputation for world-weariness was just as important to maintain.
“Quite so,” said Wu. “What I propose is this: you offer me a bare 500 words in the Crier per issue. And I offer you a perspective not to be found in any like publication in all of London — perhaps of the English-speaking world! — and one that is not like to be, any time in the near future.” His eyes, so hard for David to read, roved at length over his face; they were extremely grave, but that did not mask the slight smile curving at his lips. “Do you agree?”
The sheer bald-facedness of it had David at a loss to answer for long moments, and more out of admiration than anything else. What an appalling cheek! He was almost inspired to break a lifelong rule against such things and like the man at once.
“I do not,” he said at last. He let the words send up their shock only for a second or two, before adding, “800 words. And I want them on my desk tomorrow morning. The next Crier goes to print before the week-end, and I’ll not put off a deadline for you nor for any man, Mr. Wu.”
And again, a more unexpected and unexpectedly affecting reward than he could have imagined: that lightning-swift, rogue’s smile.
“May I never disappoint you, Mr. Chamberlain,” Wu said. And that was rather abruptly that.
The London Weekly Crier (chief editor David Alfred Chamberlain, aka the current Baron Chamberlain of Hastings, albeit in obscurity) had in fact been called much worse than a muckraker’s rag in its time, but he would be a shocking liar to say even still that he had no pride in it. The paper was in fact the only passion of his unwed manhood, much to the disgust of most of his contemporaries and relations. He would also be a shocking liar to say that was not part of the pleasure he took in it.
It was more of an editorial journal than a true newspaper, on the whole, containing mostly a great deal of morally outraged fist-shaking — as his newcomer had so aptly pointed out — on behalf of those most downtrodden in London’s increasingly corrupt society. Where others obsessed to what was in his view an unhealthy degree over the various moral degeneracies of prostitution and sodomy, he opted in the main to pursue issues of poverty, the working class, orphans, child laborers — all more to the point, in his opinion. The newspaper was not precisely a successful business venture (“Nobody wants to read about children starving in the factories and it’s all their fault,” his sister had sniffed in one of her increasingly infrequent letters), but it did not precisely need to be; the family fortune was his, after all, had been since the death of his father when he was still at university, and well exceeded his ability to squander it on his own modest bachelor’s life. A spectacular failure was his to choose, and he did so with relish, and with those few fanatical or foolish enough to plunge beside him.
Among whose ranks, it seemed, could now be accounted a mad Chinaman. But that was the beauty, wasn’t it, of not giving a damn what anyone thought of you.
He was nonetheless startled to hear the clacking of typewriter keys when he let himself into the office the following morning, not long past dawn, when it was his custom to arrive with the light still dim and grey outside, and get a head start before the office could be filled with din and chatter. He was no little amused to find that the typewriter Wu had chosen to commandeer was in fact Jackson’s own, and hung back hanging up his coat and hat for a moment, watching the man peck furiously at the keys.
“You type?” he said at last, but the satisfying jump he had anticipated did not come; Wu merely sat back, stretching his laced hands over his head and turning his head to grin over his shoulder at David. It was most disconcerting, that grin.
“Poorly, I’m afraid. My thoughts are already done, at any rate, and my fingers should trudge in behind within the hour.”
That raised David’s eyebrow, and he came up behind the chair where Wu perched — quite a bit shorter than Jackson, he was — making a point of not reading over his shoulder. “You’ve been here a while, then? What on earth are you doing about so early? By ‘morning’ I didn’t mean in the most strictly literal sense, you realize.”
Wu shrugged again, turning his attention back to the typing-paper. “I never left.”
Now David could only stare. “I beg your pardon?”
“Last night, I didn’t go anywhere. Hung about where I could, then got thrown out of hanging about where I couldn’t. Got chased by a policeman once or twice, and that’s always good for a bit of fun, provided you run faster.”
“Why in God’s name — ”
“Well, I knew I’d never make it back in on time if I went back to my rooming-house,” Wu said, pragmatically enough, advancing the paper. “The trip takes hours under ordinary circumstances, and more if there’s been a stabbing along the way.”
A terrible picture was beginning to form. “…Where is your rooming-house?”
Wu gave him a slow, sardonic look, but his smile was kind enough. “The Chinese quarter, of course. Where else would they have me?”
David paused to give that ample thought. Which, he was forced to admit, he had not given it before. He had forgotten so rapidly, somehow, that Wu was a Chinaman; well, hadn’t forgotten, exactly, but… Perhaps it was his faultless English that caused the confusion. “Well, that won’t do at all,” he said at last, in the most officious tone he could muster. Which any number of people would tell you was quite satisfactorily so. “I can’t have you alternating between ascetic deprivation and tardiness with a chance of being stabbed in transit.” He knew what his mouth was about to say in time to have stopped it, but was taken so aback by the knowledge that it managed to escape him anyway. “My own home is not four blocks away, and far too large for my sole occupancy. If you’d like, you may join me as a lodger, until such time as you may find more suitable accommodations a bit closer to the paper.”
It was, at last — and not without a certain satisfaction — Wu’s turn to stare at him. “…Mr. Chamberlain, you’re very kind, but I couldn’t possibly,” he began at last, but David let him come no farther.
“You could, and you will,” he said in tones of decision, and somehow managed to wonder what in God’s name he was doing — the lifelong bachelor, who could scarcely tolerate the company of the few servants necessity could not spare him from keeping on. “Only until you’re able to find other lodgings, you understand.”
“Of course,” Wu echoed; and from the tiny, soft smile on his lips, David eventually had to turn away. He had scarcely imagined there could be any such expression in that rather dangerous face’s repertoire. It made him seem a far younger man, gentling quite suddenly the often bitter razor’s-edge of his good humour.
David cleared his throat, straightening, in any case, and gestured vaguely at the typewriter. “Within the hour, you said? Then lay on.” He paused a moment longer, ignoring Wu’s nod, and considered. “…We’ll have to run it under an English by-line, of course; your pardon, but it is just the way of things.” He chose not to dwell on whether he would have even thought to ask for any such pardon a mere twenty-four hours before. “Well, Lee is fine, how do you feel about, say… Lee Brown?”
“Disgusted, but resigned,” Wu said cheerfully. “Go on, then; I look forward to your red pen.”
It was full days later before he thought to wonder if that had been meant as some sort of a joke.
To say his home was too large for him was absurd understatement, of course; it was ancestral and enormous, and on any given day he used half a wing of it at best. He scarcely saw his lodger for the first few weeks, as Wu settled into a set of spare rooms and proceeded to be agreeably unobtrusive. And even when Wu began to make his presence known, David found to his surprise he did not mind. He enjoyed the man’s company, his unfocused anger, his ready wit. His pieces for the paper were not only perfectly literate — as David had never feared they wouldn’t be, really — but quite good, by turns scathing and clever, not unlike the man himself. David had so little criticism for him ultimately that Wu became extremely disliked. Not that it was an especially lengthy journey.
He opened his door at another uproar several weeks later to find Jackson clutching his arm, splattered with ink, shouting, Wu seated staring and insouciant with arms folded, most of the others laughing this time. “He’s a madman!” Jackson spluttered, pointing, when he saw David’s look of dour inquiry. He hadn’t changed his tune much on the subject since the first day. “He threw an inkpot at me! Of all the — ”
“Was he provoked?” David interrupted. Jackson gaped at him like a fish, but Chesterton, a reasonable enough fellow, replied in his stead.
“Oh, beyond all reason. Jackson was being appalling. I might have thrown something myself, but I must admit the inkpot never occurred.”
Jackson gaped at him in wounded betrayal, but David again cut off any further protest. “Then you see, Jackson, Mr. Wu is not a madman at all, but clearly one of reason and of justice.” He paused, considering. “Not to mention exquisite aim.”
And then he shut the door again, on the others’ roar of laughter and Jackson’s outraged curses alike — and not without catching Wu’s eyes as he did, both amused and considering above the hand that concealed his mouth.
Time passed. Wu did not find other lodgings, and David did not press him. They came to make a habit of taking a brandy together in the evenings in his study, where they spoke of the paper, of politics, had delightful roaring arguments and even more delightful roaring agreements. They became, in short, friends, and there was perhaps nothing in the world David had less expected ever to have again. He had acquaintances, generally. That had always seemed enough.
He woke one night, perhaps a month into Mr. Wu’s disconcertingly flourishing entrance into his life, from a dream of Italy: of John standing by the water, light flaring in his dark hair and his smile an unending vastness of the heart, saying David, come and swim. And somehow, even now, he found the nerve to be surprised. He hadn’t thought of all that in years.
It was in the December of that year when Jerome K. Jerome published his attack on the Oxford magazine The Chameleon, citing its indecency in general and in particular; in the study the evening following, Wu — or rather, Li, by then, as they had lived under the same roof to the point where David had declared the use of surnames an unpardonable absurdity — joked that they ought to run a response titled “Famous Author Fails To Mind Own Business.” David respectfully declined. In truth, he was already preoccupied, even that early on. Li seemed agitated by the whole issue, almost more so than David had ever seen him, and it made him worry. He of all people knew by now when Li’s jokes were genuine, and when they were bright and cheery tinsel wrapped around a knife.
When Wilde was tried and arrested under the Labouchere Amendment, it came as something of a paradox: an inevitable shock. They covered the trial between the two of them, by unspoken agreement, but only cursorily; still, it was enough to have them in the gallery under the banner of Press. Li was in a black mood indeed when they came home, the night after the verdict was announced, and to be honest David had to admit he was as well. The case had upset him in some profound way he supposed he could define, but preferred not to, and they sat up for long hours at the ancient and enormous dining table in shirtsleeves and with whisky at hand rather than brandy, tearing their proverbial teeth into one another for lack of any better target.
“If it were a real law, that’d be one thing, but that’s the hell of it,” Li was snarling into the hand on his forehead when David turned back from the window. “It’s a hill of dung Labouchere left for a joke on a stretch of road not worth walking anyway, and now Wilde’s slipped and fallen on his prat in it.”
“Quiet. You know it’s true as well as I do.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “The whole thing just reeks; they can call it ‘public morality’ ’til everyone is blue in the face, but the fact remains that no one much cares what one does behind closed doors, provided one refrains from being Irish and tolerates abuse reasonably well.”
“You’re taking this a bit personally,” David opined, measuredly — but Li slammed his hand down on the tabletop so hard and suddenly he jumped a bit, and had to take a breath to recover himself.
“Too right I’m taking it personally! I happen to be one of the dogs they want carted off the street in this sort of net, or hadn’t you noticed?”
“You’re mixing your metaphors.”
Li snorted, snagging his glass. “Bugger my metaphors.”
“Not on Mr. Labouchere’s watch.”
That actually won him a laugh, spared by bare seconds from becoming a splutter in Li’s whisky. “No, I suppose not. David — all right, you’re English, yes? Can you explain to me how private, consensual behaviour that harms nobody can possibly be a detriment to public morality?”
“Oh, certainly,” David said, and at Li’s curious glance in his direction allowed a thin smile. “My father, you see, was a devout Christian, one of the first of the sort who have turned up with such great concern for London’s virgins in recent years. I daresay he explained it to me enough times that I could do you the same honour with no trouble at all.” He sighed, at last, and leaned back on the wall, fumbling out one of his cigarettes and a match with which to light it. “I suppose what it all amounts to is that the less people can remember about what the word of the Lord is actually supposed to mean, the more they wish to appeal to it as implicit confirmation of their every political view. Or perhaps that the more young men there are about with new and exciting ideas, the more old men are sure to follow, telling them they’re contradicting all the oldest ideas they can find, as though that somehow made them superior.”
Li, to his credit, did seem to give this considerable thought — then slumped down in his chair, planting his face in the folded circle of his arms on the table. His whisky remained mercifully out of harm’s way. “Bugger London,” he moaned; “and kindly don’t mention Henry Labouchere again, David, or I shall be sick with tremendous enthusiasm.” He managed to straighten again, or at least lift his head from his arms, to favour David with a bleary, defeated look. “I was in India before this past year, you know, and I saw the same thing then, as well. It’s like you lot want to make it so it’s London everywhere you go, but every time I come back to London all I can think is that you just want to make sure you’ll never want for the sight of a rat, or for somebody to throw garbage at you.”
David blinked, quite thrown off track. “You’ve been to England before?” Li blinked right back at him, then snorted again.
“Of course I have. How did you think I learnt to speak English?”
“How old are you?” David blurted, then caught himself, mortified. “…I beg your pardon, Li. What a thing to ask!”
Li shrugged. “Older than you, younger than some. You’re pardoned; you’ll have to try harder than that to offend me.”
“I shall keep it in mind.” He dragged off his cigarette, and peered out at the gas-lamps and night. “I can hardly imagine why you’d ever come back to London, if your previous visits have left you so piquant on the subject.”
That won a tired smile out of Li, aimed at him over the hand his jaw reclined upon. “Every time I do, I find something interesting,” he said softly. “As with everywhere I go.”
David looked back at him, wisps of smoke drifting up from the curling paper of his cigarette and wreathing ’round his vision. “The Crier, you mean?” he asked at last, amused — although he could not account for the sudden dryness of his throat and mouth, except to blame the effects of the tobacco. Li had gradually ceased to look anywhere near him, and his hands dropped into his lap, his shoulders slumped. He no longer looked dangerous or arch or even angry; only tired, and all at once, very old. David had not bothered to argue his assertion about being the older of they two, but only now could he actually believe it.
“The Crier… yes.” He sighed, and rubbed one of his hands across his face again, then let it drop as though it had no strength nor purpose. “Yes, and yet, I don’t know… Oh, it’s a fine thing, don’t mistake me, a spit in all their eyes… just, what difference… No insult to you, just what changes? What ever does? Freezing and starving race to claim children on the doorsteps of the well-to-do, and they take a man off to prison for loving somebody. And you call it the Age of Reason, when really it’s just every other age there’s ever been: the Age of No Good Reason. I… ah, bloody hell.” He heaved himself to his feet, still fixing his gaze upon the carpet, which to be fair was fine enough to merit such attention. “I’m drunk and crawling half out of my skin, I’m sorry, David.”
His eyes raised, and caught in David’s. In the light from the lamps, with his sleeves rolled up and vest and collar undone, he seemed very poetic, almost beautiful: the bronze lights in his hair stronger than ever, the almond eyes David could now scarcely imagine how he had ever thought unreadable filled with anguish and anger and some unnameable distant longing. They stood looking at each other for a long time, a strange time. He seemed to feel himself growing both larger and smaller in Li’s regard: a picture in a frame, the world outside a window.
And then: “I’m sorry, David,” Li murmured, again, in a slightly choked voice and rather a different tone. His awkward, stumbling movement forward was such that David at first thought he had fallen in his inebriation — that was, until Li’s lips struck his own.
Struck, yes: le mot juste, as Pendleton at the paper would say and frequently did, only as la moat juiced in his absurd schoolboy accent. Their mouths collided like fencing foils, like a fist on flesh, hard enough to clash teeth and perhaps split skin in between. He was pressed into the wall beside the window and Li’s smaller, stronger body was pressed up to the line of his own, a hand sunk in his hair and another fisted in his shirt-front, tongues entwined, the cigarette burning to useless char in his limp, dangling hand, and who could blame him for knowing nothing to do for what seemed like a heartbeat and an age but kiss back, kiss back, kiss back?
It was only that he knew exactly who that could make him draw back his head, gasping, like a swimmer for the air. John, in his dream: David, come and swim. “Li — ”
“I’m sorry,” Li said at once, before he had even come further away than inches from David’s mouth, his eyes scarcely open. He dropped both his hands’ holds of David as though he were a hot stone, and stepped back, well out of arm’s reach. “…I’m sorry, David, I’m so sorry. God, what a mess.”
“Li,” David said again; when he swallowed his throat clicked against itself, and there seemed to be no words to hand. It was just like them to abandon him when he truly needed them. “Li, if I misled you, I… but I’m, I’m not — ”
“No, of course you’re not. I… please, forgive me.” Li pressed both his hands to his forehead briefly, then to his mouth, then dropped them to his sides. “…I’ll go. Give me an hour, perhaps, to collect my things, I don’t have much — ”
“No — ”
” — soon as I can, I promise, if you’ll just — ”
“No. Li, for heaven’s sake. You’re not listening.” He reached out to seize Li’s arm — then stopped himself, chagrined and in a misery, when Li jerked his shoulder out of range. The crimes, he thought idiotically, of what we feel we are owed. “You’re not going anywhere. You’re still my lodger, and you — ” Something not unlike a smile crossed his mouth, but in the face of Li’s downturned face could not last long. “You’ll have to try harder than that to offend me. I just…” Just what? What was there to say? “…I’m not like you are. In so many ways, and perhaps I wish I were, but — I’m not. I’m not.” He brought his cigarette shakingly toward his mouth again, grimaced to find it mostly stub, and took the welcome chance to turn away to crush it out in the ash-tray. “And it’s… it’s all slippery ground now, as we both know. You’re right about that.”
“I know,” Li said. David could not look at him as he did. He could not remember the last time he’d heard quite that same note in a human voice; that hollow boom of the closing door. Perhaps the last one had been his own.
“Anyway, I should be off to bed,” David heard his own voice saying, some indeterminate amount of time later. “See the lights out before you go, would you?”
He was aware of Li’s stillness as he left the room, passed him as he had to to reach the door; as far as he could tell Li never turned. He had no idea then or ever how long he stayed downstairs that night, nor how long he even stayed standing there, in the center of that room, head down, the lamp-light caught so gloriously in his curious and beautiful hair.
He slept fitfully that night, and woke from restless dreams to find dawn encroaching on the windows; in fairly short order he gave up on the exercise in disgust, throwing himself out of his bed and into his clothes and taking out to the streets for a walk. When he returned, he found Li sitting up in the study, reading some unremarkable book and drinking a cup of the biting greenish tea he brought back in loose packages from the Chinese quarter, from time to time. He’d not looked into the room on his way out, and found it only too easy to imagine that Li had been there the whole night through. He certainly looked ragged enough.
“Good morning,” he said softly, and Li still did not favour him with the satisfaction of jumping, only with his slight, tired smile.
“Good morning.” Li closed the book and waggled it in his direction, taking the pause to sip his tea. “Great Expectations. I don’t know whether that’s ironic or not.”
David opted not to understand this remark. “You like Dickens?”
“Mm. It depends.” David came over to sit in the opposite chair, and at his raised eyebrow Li offered that weary smile once more. “He’s very good, of course, but I have to be in the right sort of mood. Where I’d read the label on the tin of biscuits if the book weren’t already at hand.”
David laughed, and a pause divided them; then, in perfect foolishness, he said, “I must apologize — ” just as Li said, “David, I — ”
They stopped, looked at each other, laughed again unevenly, looked elsewhere by turns. “By all means,” David said at last, and Li cleared his throat.
“Well, I am sorry,” he said, as though David had contradicted him. “You’ve been very kind, but the truth is that I conducted myself most poorly as a guest in your home, and I owe you an apology.”
David looked at him for long moments, then shook his head, leaning across to the table between them to snag Li’s book and flip its pages. “No more than I owe you, and possibly a great deal less,” he said, without looking up. “I conducted myself rather poorly as a host in my home; and made a liar of myself as well.” He dared enough of a glance to see Li’s frown, and then returned his eyes to the words on the page; out of context, they were meaningless enough. “…To simplify matters, I feel I led you to believe certain facts about my person which… are not truly the case. And may have caused you to overestimate the offense you had given me. For this, I am truly sorry.”
From the corner of his eye he could see Li continuing to frown — and then his brow suddenly smoothing out, in surprised comprehension. “You — oh. Oh. I… I see.”
“Yes, I think you do,” David told the book. “…But you understand, of course, that I — ”
“Of course,” Li hastened to interrupt, and the rue in his voice left David with an unexpected pang: a cramp of guilt, or of regret, he could not be certain and hardly thought it mattered. “And you’re quite right. You are a man of some standing, and I would not wish to cause you any — discomfort.”
“Less than you think, but thank you.” David sighed, and gave up the pretense, closing the book and setting it back on the table. “So please, don’t apologise to me anymore; it is quite unlike you and I must confess makes me feel at a bit of a loss. Your offense is not great. I simply have the misfortune of being a law-abiding citizen.”
“You have my pity,” Li agreed in a murmur, half-toasting him in jest with his cup of tea; and a companionable silence fell. After his fears of the night and morning before, David actually found it something of a blessed relief. Strange, how the only thing he had needed do to restore comfort was discomfit himself so utterly.
“While we are on the matter of the law, might I make of you a legal inquiry?” Li said, a moment later. There might have been something of an arch tone in his voice, or else David might have been very much mistaken. He glanced over with a raised eyebrow.
“My only regret is that I am not a lawyer, and as such cannot justly charge you for the privilege. Inquire at will.”
“Well, as a hypothetical case…” Li stared reflectively into the distance, formulating his words. Those were the clothes he had been wearing last night, David realized suddenly: his initial hypothesis must have been correct. “While of course gross indecency between two gentlemen is entirely out of the question these days — ”
“Yes, Mr. Labouchere has shown us all the error of our ways.”
“I said I would be sick, David, and I meant it, mind your phrasing.” He laughed and made an apologetic gesture, and Li ploughed onward. “Suppose that one gentleman, hypothetically speaking, were to be ravished by brute force and against his will by someone decidedly not a gentleman — a raving, delinquent, unwashed heathen Chinee, for example? How would that stand, with respect to the law?”
It was all David could do not to splutter, and he wasn’t even the one drinking the tea. He recovered himself with all the aplomb he could muster. “Well, I — ” He cleared his throat, then found that he hadn’t done a sufficient job, and cleared it again. “Hypothetically speaking?” Li nodded, his eyes glinting with mischief. “Well, I should expect… it still wouldn’t be lawful, naturally, but I expect that fault would be found with the, ah, the aggravating party. And not with the, as it were, the aggrieved.”
“Aggrieved?” Li echoed, musingly and amusedly, but before David could do anything to defend his case, he nodded, amiably enough. “Indeed, it is as I had thought.” He glanced over — and smiled again, slowly and richly, and with no cigarette upon which David could now blame his drying mouth. “Thank you, David. I shall keep that in mind.”
He would be three times a shocking liar to say he did not wait, after that — but the other shoe never dropped, and curiously frustrating though it was, even of all that, nothing came. He continued to dream, off and on, of times of his youth he had done his best to put out of mind; he and Li continued to have highly satisfactorily debates in his study of an evening; Li continued to write exceptionally for the paper, and to be viciously loathed by Jackson and rather amiably loathed by the rest; life, in short, went on as it had done for some time. If he did not much mistake himself, there was a small glint in Li’s eye where it fell on him now, just the briefest trifling light really, but there… but whether it was in courage or in conscience where he was thwarted (and David did not like to think that it was neither, but rather a desire to drive him to precisely this same madness), he did not act. And nor did David. And nor did anyone, particularly not the poor man whose two-year sentence had started off this dreadful wonderful business.
Li had by now taken him to the Chinese quarter once or twice, where he had stood supremely uncomfortable and out of place, feeling the need to reassure every passer-by that he was no half-witted sailor in search of an opium den and a prostitute in natural harmonious progression, while Li in his Englishman’s clothes dickered with some pigtailed gent or another in lilting incomprehensible language for some herb or seasoning or noodle he simply could not live without. As David began to take walks more and more frequently in the evenings, however, he occasionally found his steps drawn there, seemingly of their own volition; he strolled (or rather, cringed, if you would prefer to be cruel) down dark streets, and always managed to venture inevitably into the seedier areas where Li never seemed to require to go. He passed by the bawdy-houses and those selfsame opium dens, never stopping, taking in only the gaudy light and raucous noise from their windows and doors, as he himself stood out in the evening chill. He walked further, into places where he supposed he was taking his life into his hands, until at last he began to pass street-edges where Chinese rent-boys, barely more than children, stood out seeking trade, watching him with almond eyes both like and unlike Li’s: both wiser and more innocent. He never stopped. But he was always aware of their gazes as he passed, and they, he had no doubt, of his. The exercise revolted him, made him write articles in his head on urban squalor and the plight of the Chinaman (and -woman, Li had begun to insist). But he could no more halt them than he could tear apart all London and remold it into paradise, and he could no more stop looking than he could pluck out his own eyes to prevent himself, as surely his father would have preferred he do.
He came home sick, and cold, and hungry, and wondering how long the heathen Chinee was known to wait.
“Italy!” Li trumpeted, with an expansive gesture of his brandy-snifter. “Now that’s more like it. It’s not that it’s so much better, exactly, as it is that I don’t mind what anyone calls me when it’s beautiful and the sun comes out occasionally.”
“The sun does come out in England,” David objected. Li snorted his derision.
“That’s not the sun, David. That’s a thrupp’ny bit someone’s stuck to the clouds for a practical joke.”
“Sedition against the fine tradition of English weather, is it! They’ll deport you for that sort of thing, you know.”
“Good! I’ll go to Italy!” He took another sip and set the snifter aside, the more safely to gesture. “The Tuscan sun… their history, it’s all beautiful, the buildings and art, they live in it, it doesn’t squat on their heads like a big ugly toad one can’t acknowledge but can’t put down. The food…”
David smirked into his own brandy. “You’d eat anything.”
“Well, if you’d spent as much time as I have eating nothing, so would you!” Li laughed, then shook his head. “Although I really don’t think you can beat India for that. Paris may be technically superior, but when I was in India it was like everything I ate meant something.”
“Have you been everywhere?” David inquired at last, when he’d hit a pause, cheek leaned on his hand. There was nothing quite like Li’s face when he was actually excited: the light in his eyes, the vast expanse of his smile. The firelight found bronzes and golds all throughout his skin and hair.
“Not everywhere,” Li demurred, settling back to only a tiny smile. “But I should like to go back to Italy. You ought to come with me, David, you’d love it. By which I mean you’d hate it, but you’d love complaining about it so much you wouldn’t notice.”
“I’ve been, actually.” Li glanced at him, surprised, and he tried to put off from his face any sign of how deeply that invitation — so casually made — had affected him. Or how had the memories the mention still stirred, especially of late. “Many years ago. …I didn’t hate it.”
“Well, then all the more reason,” Li said with a soft smile; and the silence that followed was long.
“Li, might I ask you a possibly intrusive question?” David said at last, after scarcely bothering to nerve himself up. That was the brandy’s job, he supposed, although he was unsure of its success. Li glanced at him, an eyebrow raised, as he retrieved his brandy.
“By all means.”
“Are you going to ravish me or not?”
No miracle of timing saved Li from spluttering this time; he appeared to very nearly return his mouthful of brandy to the snifter, over which act David supposed he would have to call for some sort of duel of honour. It was that sort of vintage. In the end he managed, and set the glass very carefully back down at once. “I, ah. …I beg your pardon.”
“Oh, God, don’t tell me you forgot.” A mortifying possibility that had never occurred — however, thankfully, Li was already swiftly shaking his head.
“No, no, no. Nothing like that. Er.” He brushed at his mouth with his fingers for a moment, then at last raised a very sheepish gaze to David. “…I suppose I thought you might have reconsidered.”
In spite of the situation, in spite of everything, David could do nothing but roll his eyes. “Reconsidered? I’m not meant to consider in the first place! I can’t very well say, ‘By the by, I’ve given it some thought, and I think I’d like you to ravish me against my will if it’s all the same,’ perhaps it’s only me but I think that somewhat defeats the purpose of the exerci–”
But then Li was across the space between their chairs, and Li’s mouth was on his again, not a strike this time but a gentle and inexorable invasion, colonising with tongue and teeth to scarcely any protest; and there was nothing more to say.
When he drew back neither of them seemed able to breathe. “No choice in the matter,” Li murmured, half against his lips; his arms around David’s waist as Li crouched by his chair were exceptionally warm and like iron under his shirt, David might never have guessed at their strength without touching it himself. The feeling spread liquid warmth up through his spine, and down, of course, certainly down. “O, what a criminal assault on an Englishman’s honour is this. Et cetera.”
“That’s more like it,” David said back into his own mouth, trying to smirk through his scarcely moving breath, and then somewhere in another kiss he was pulled bodily from the chair and hauled entirely up into Li’s arms, with no more but a muffled squawk of protest. “Oh, now, really — ”
“Hush,” Li said, cheerfully, getting to his feet with his burden with no apparent effort at all. Heavens, he was strong. “Haven’t you heard we’re all savages?”
The bed in David’s set of little-used rooms — a concession to his comfort that he would be touched by later — took too long and also seemed to come too soon; he was deposited with decidedly unsavage care on its mattress before he knew it, but yet with plenty of time in transit to feel awkward and unsure. The room was dim, lit only from the hallway by this hour of night, and strange with shadows. Then Li’s body was hot and so hard, he must be all muscle under his clothes, and that was not the end of him that was hard under his clothes, hard and hot stretched out along on top of him, pinning his mouth with kisses, and there was mercifully little time for anything else.
“Are you going to be angry with me if I spoil your shirt?” Li muttered into his mouth a few moments later, as his own lips were passing away from it and down to the line of David’s throat, where his tongue made answer quite impossible for a moment. David nonetheless contrived to scowl.
He could feel Li’s grin buried in his neck, the teeth it let through pressed to tender skin below his ear, and shuddered with no will of his own. “Angry enough to stop me?” he pressed. David found a snort of laughter in him at last.
“I can’t stop you, you’re ravishing me. Good God, are all savages as forgetful as you?”
“No doubt. Well, in that case — ” David barely had time for a preparatory wince before Li’s hands — his strong hands — fisted in either side of his shirt, jerking them briskly against one another. A few buttons might actually have slipped their holes, but most were no match for such aggression: they simply popped free in a shower as his chest was laid bare, some pattering down on his skin to tumble and roll off him to either side. In the end he could not restrain his gasp. “Bloody things,” Li fairly growled into his ear, shoving a hand up the exposed line of flesh, “that’s better — ” and then David had him by the back of his neck, hard, and was kissing his mouth again, and when Li’s knee fell whether by accident or deliberation between his thighs he shoved himself up against it eagerly. Savagery did have its appeal.
His suspenders were shoved from his shoulders, and then the ruins of his shirt, while he gasped and clung; then Li’s hands were at his waist, unbuttoning his trousers, and tended to his shoes and stockings before pushing trousers and drawers alike off and away. He closed his eyes tightly against the exposure, fumbling for Li’s buttons solely by touch, and Li helped him, moving away for a series of rustling movements after which he returned to David bare to the waist and sounding short of breath. He touched Li’s chest, feebly, to see if it was as finely muscled as it had seemed, and bit back a groan at finding that it was. “David,” Li hissed in David’s ear, and gave him no time either to answer or be discomfited by the implications before kissing him again — and then shifting his weight between David’s bare legs, walking himself down on his hands along the length of David’s body.
And then his hand was gripped around the base of David’s prick and his tongue sweeping a wet, hot arc under its head, and it was really, really no point anymore trying to be uncomfortable about anything.
He was only aware of his hands knotting in the disheveled sheets when Li’s hand prised them from one fist, offering his own hand instead, and David seized it in a murder-grip. His eyes were shut so tightly they had begun to water. There was nothing about it like the grip of a hand, the relief of fingers and palm, save some distant relationship of pressure — it was all softness in this one part of Li, for all the strength of the rest of him, scarcely guessed at; it was a wet heat without friction, a pulsing perfection, an endless slipping descent. None of this could be real, he would remember thinking later, head buzzing madness and foolishness as he drew up his legs, as his other hand also let go the sheets and took a trembling grip in Li’s brief and burnished hair. Or else it was all real, and he wasn’t.
His climaxing surprised him as much as anybody. Li had scarcely taken him fully in his mouth, it seemed, scarcely begun to lash about his tongue in some exquisite terrible dance, and all at once his excitement, his anticipation, his terror swarmed him in the passion of sensation: and then he was in a pleasure he had never even guessed at, so few had been his past approaches. He was at sea, and then run aground, his ship scuttled, his eyes filled with water.
When the world righted itself again Li lay beside him, then over him, folding him into his arms. “David, David,” he was gasping into his neck, the curve of his shoulder, and only that, as though in his ardour the better part of his English had abandoned him, words coming in heaves like sobs, “David,” and his hands were fumbling in the vicinity of David’s belly and freeing his own prick from his trousers. In his haze David moved against the organ sleepily, to idly judge its hardness as well against the rest of Li — could he think of nothing else suddenly, but the consistency of his companion? — and sucked a small breath at both the confirmation, and the deep, hoarse cry that it drew forth from Li. A small wet smear lingered on his belly from the contact, and he reached clumsily for Li’s shoulders, to hold and steady him. The bed and both their bodies shook with the force of Li’s arm, as he stroked his prick in desperate hungry jerks, while half-crushing David and half-suspended over him, like a bridge over a river that has fallen on hard times. It did not last long, but long enough for David’s breath to come up short again, by the end, for the violence of Li’s movements to steal it all away. So gentle, really, and yet persuadable to such passion. It gave a man a sense of terrible power.
Li arched up off him at his climax, his shoulders rippling into David’s hand, shouting as in fury or in joy; his whole body shuddered as though it would burst, and then he was throwing himself into his hand, throwing his hand in with full force, and hot wetness spilled across David’s belly in a startling rush that rapidly cooled on his skin. Li hovered over him as he was for long seconds, mouth working, choking on a sound whose breath had stopped inside his throat, shaking with the strength of what had seized him… and then at last he had collapsed, panting, spent, back into David’s arms. They lay together, tangled, breathing. The room was very dim, and still.
Indecency, David thought, and within the circle of Li’s clinging arms he touched the small spill on his skin. No one who would use it so could possibly understand what that word meant.
“When I was about sixteen,” he said into the darkness later, with only the coal of the cigarette to light them both. “My family had a villa along the coast at Livorno — still do, as best I know — and so did another English family not far away. The Fletch-Huntingtons.” With hands that were only slightly shaky yet he pulled the cigarette away to exhale. He’d pulled a sheet across his lap, but not much else, and Li was a nude silhouette in the crack of light under the door. “Their son John was my age, and we were friends at once. Intimate friends. …Quite intimate, to tell the truth.” He sighed smoke. “His mother, who knew nothing of that, used to say we were complements: he dark and I fair, he cheerful and I somber, he adventurous, I bookish. She had the right of it, I think, although as time goes on I can less and less remember. His name was John, not short for Jonathan, but we pretended it was. David and Jonathan, you see, like in the Bible. Chums forever, under the eyes of God and the Mediterranean Sea.”
Li said nothing. At length David reached across for the ash-tray, to kill the fire in his cigarette.
“My father caught us at it,” he concluded finally, with a brittle almost-brightness he could not halt. “Sent me back to England at once, in disgrace. I was withdrawn from school — with a letter to the headmaster citing too many temptations — and tutored privately at home. No escape until university, and even that was apparently a concern, at least until he died and I hardly knew what to do with myself.”
“Oh, David,” Li said, in a murmur so low it could scarcely be heard. He shrugged.
“So there you have it.”
Li was quiet for a moment longer, and then eased back into the bed, coming to curl around David in a close embrace. “I don’t know about this religion of yours, I must say,” he said at last, into David’s hair. “It seems to me people don’t need more excuses for not having any patience for anything. …I’m not much for any of it, mind you, but I did stay a week or so with some Buddhist monks once at home — in China, that is, I don’t suppose I can really call it home anymore — and it was something to think about.”
David snorted, mostly for show. “You mean portly fellows contemplating their navels and such?”
Li withdrew his head enough to glare. “Don’t you start; I’ll find an inkpot somewhere, I promise you. No. I mean… letting oneself see the world as nothing but dust and shadows, and therefore as important as anything. Seeking truth, and finding it, and then seeking what lies beyond. Oh, I don’t know. …There are meant to be people — almost like minor gods, I suppose, and don’t make that face — bodhisattva, who have reached their spiritual fulfillment and could go on to, I don’t know, what I suppose you’d call a kind of paradise, but linger, so that they can guide others on their path. I’ve always been partial to the sentiment, even all else aside: that in the cosmic sense, we all remain neighbours. That one of us doesn’t go on without the other, whatever the cost. …Am I making sense?”
“No. I think you’ve started speaking Chinese by accident.”
“Oh, very clever. Go on like that and it’s too much for inkpots, you’re just going to get ravished again.”
He couldn’t help flushing a bit at that — this was all a side of Li rather unsuspected, to be honest — but smirked anyway. “Oh, perish the thought.”
Li hesitated, also smiling, in a slow, hot blossom… then stood, which was less pleasant than having him near but if nothing else showed there was something to be said for the naked savage. “Wait here. I need to get something.”
And before David could give too serious contemplation to the thought of his strolling over to the other wing of house in this state, he was gone.
He returned soon enough, in any case, and with some sort of small vial of vaguely pharmaceutical shape that David eyed sceptically. “What’s that?”
“Useful,” Li replied cheerily, but did not seem much moved by his glare. “Mystery of the Orient. Spread your legs apart.”
Well, that got his attention. He swallowed, thought of trying to say something else clever, and then just did as he was bid, sure that he was looking up at Li with wide eyes indeed. Li spilt some sort of fluid from the bottle and spread it over his hand, set the bottle aside, and passed his hand briefly over David’s prick before slipping it lower. Where it ended up wasn’t precisely a surprise, but the feeling of pressure did startle him a bit, and he tensed against the potential invasion by instinct.
“Relax,” Li was murmuring to him then, however, kneeling over him in the distant light in a way that was curiously comforting; “relax yourself, I’d never hurt you,” and he did, as best he could. The pressure intensified; it became a strange, not entirely unwelcome sensation of increase, of full where there had been no empty; and then more, and then the realization of Li inside him, filling his mind and making him shudder in anticipation. He’d certainly never done this before, thought of it, yes, but… his thoughts disconnected, floated apart, his dreams of John, of Italy… and hadn’t there been something nagging about his father, talking about his father and those humiliating times, his family, his —
“Oh, bugger!” he gasped, nearly sitting up, which would no doubt have been disastrous. Li blinked, looking quite taken aback.
“Er — anything about it in particular?”
“Oh, hell, I completely forgot — I’ve had a letter from my sister!” he hissed, gripping Li’s arm — the more unfortunate one, even — in his urgency. “She means to come to visit!”
“…You know,” said Li, “that’s not exactly the first thing I would have expected you to be thinking of.”
“Li, you don’t understand about my sister — she doesn’t even know you’re living here, and she’s just like the rest of them, she’s a miserable — oh, God, how could I possibly — ”
“Tonight?” Li asked in a measured, sensible voice. The question took a long time for him to make sense of, and then he shuddered for entirely different reasons at the thought.
“No — no. But — ”
“Then stop worrying,” Li murmured, leaning over nearly into his lips, and scissored in another spreading, stretching finger; and for at least a little while, David found all his memory and concerns quite lost from view.
The first time Constance Chamberlain Bracknell met Wu Li, she contrived to faint. At least, David maintained for some time that it had been contrivance. After that, their relationship went considerably downhill.
Constance had never much approved that David had received the Chamberlain house and inheritance in spite of his youthful indiscretions, and seized with renewed vigor on the new opportunity for critique Li presented. In the weeks of her visit David had much cause to be proud of Li, and much cause to be appalled by her; at least Jackson had deigned to acknowledge that Li could understand him when he spouted off, and Li had shown little enough tolerance for him, but when Constance opined at dinner that the savages that so ailed London’s moral health could best be cured with bayonetings and baptisms, in that order, Li only clutched his fork momentarily, then set it down and silently left the room. David whirled on her, nearly snarling, and found that smug superiority on her face that had so galled him as a boy as well: challenging him to challenge her, and find out what she knew.
“She’ll be gone soon, I promise,” he moaned to Li on the night Li snuck into his bedroom in spite of all, to his immense pleasure. “At least she left her husband at home, he’s almost worse…” Li only smiled, tightly; but it softened at David’s very real misery, and he leaned close over David’s body in a way that quite distracted him.
“You don’t have to apologize, David,” he murmured, and then a small, inspired glint came into his eye. “Although, you could beg for mercy…”
Finally, all Li’s patience aside, he could bear no more, and pulled her aside one night to let the argument finally take its course. “Say what you like to me, Connie,” he hissed, still holding her by her arm in the parlor entry, “you always do, but I’ll not stand for you inviting yourself by for a week and then being a shrew to my guest.”
“Your guest? I thought he was your lodger!” She wrestled her arm free and drew herself up, a pale and bony creature even before her white lace and corsetry. “Whatever he is, you must have him out of here at once. It’s a disgrace. In Great-Grandfather’s house — what would Father say?”
“I’m sure I don’t care.” She stared at him — and then a twisting, ugly look made its way across her face.
“Do you think I don’t know?” she said, more quietly still. He froze on the spot; and her ugly look changed slowly to a smirk. “I sleep very ill in a house with a heathen Chinaman, and I can certainly hear the floorboards creak. You never change — still filthy even now. So have him out, immediately, or you shall be very sorry once again.”
David continued to stare for long, long moments: trying to hear something besides the howling waste inside his head. Finally, he found the words, and found them an amazing liberation.
“Get out of my house.”
“David!” Constance was mostly false fire and affectation, but this time he could read genuine shock inside the word. He flung open the parlor door, hailing one of the malingering maidservants on the stairs.
“Mrs. Bracknell will be leaving us this evening,” he snapped at her, not caring for either of them or their shocked looks, letting himself ride on rage. “Have Thomas see that her carriage is ready and help her prepare her things.”
“You don’t dare!” Constance hissed, darting around in front of him again, and he brushed past her like a hanging coat.
“But I do,” he said, without turning. “Do your worst, if you will; but I’m sick to death of all of you.”
Li accepted the news in measured silence, and they settled in to wait. The policeman at the door was not precisely what he had expected — Connie generally had a bit more breeding — but he supposed he was hardly surprised, either. Nor should what happened next have surprised him, either… but perhaps years of professional cynicism had damaged, after all, his capacity for faith.
There was no reason he shouldn’t have been able to dodge the inquiry for a time, or perhaps even permanently (not being Irish, and tolerating abuse extremely well, to paraphrase how Li had put it), but he was interrupted before he could even begin his best efforts at being politic with the officer by Li stepping neatly in front of him. “Pardon me, officer,” he said quietly, thus quite startling the man twice in a row — with his visage and then with the voice that came with it, and how long ago had it been that David was startled by the same thing? “It’s me that you want.”
For long ludicrous seconds David thought that there had been some sort of misunderstanding, that there was perhaps something else Li was involved in — and then he remembered with an ugly jolt. Of course. What they had agreed. “Li! No — ”
“My friend is a very honourable man and does not wish me injury on his behalf,” Li said, with that same unearthly calm, right over him, “but alas, I have injured him. The crime Mrs. Bracknell has reported is solely and justly mine. I confess.”
“Li, for God’s sake — ”
“Shut up, David,” Li said, not unkindly; and then, without turning back to him: “Haven’t you heard we’re all savages?”
The policeman looked quite wrong-footed, and for a second David entertained the wild hope that he would find the situation too confusing and let it go entirely… and then he was stepping back, allowing Li a path to walk out of the house. “Right then, on you come. Can’t say as I know what all this is, but we’ll sort it out down at the station.” He looked at David, then seemed to find it uncomfortable, and glanced downward. “Ah, evening to you, m’lord. Thank you.”
Li never turned back, never looked at him, but he did not try to argue again as they retreated down the steps and into the street; but neither did he close the door, or go inside, until both policeman and Chinaman were well out of sight.
When at last he was able, at last could tear himself away, he went back inside, and into the study where they had shared so many fine brandy and finer arguments. He stared at it, unseeing, for a moment, then threw into his accustomed chair; and began, very earnestly, to think.
He arrived at the police station the next morning as the best daft, wealthy tempest he could muster. It took over an hour — longer than he’d scheduled for, blast the luck, but it should be all right — of making provocative announcements about “a Christian’s duty to forgive” and “well, they can’t help it, you know, never had a proper moral upbringing,” and of spreading liberal amounts of money about nearly at random, but finally a dazed- and rather shaken-looking Li was “remanded to his custody, there his good behaviour to be ensured,” and they managed to be in the carriage again before David thought anyone really knew what had happened.
“We haven’t long,” he said, peering out the window, when they were well in and moving; “things were confused already and I’ve only confused them more, it’s not a permanent solution.” He turned back to Li, who still looked moderately and amusingly baffled. “I’ve booked passage from Dover to Calais, and from there a few days by train to the Italian coast. It was the Tuscany region you were so enthusing over, was it not?”
Li nodded at that at last, and managed a wan smile; he was looking decidedly less enthused at present, David thought with mild annoyance, but he had likely had a hard night of it. “Thank you,” he said softly, sounding hoarse and tired. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“What else would I have done?” David checked the window again. They couldn’t clear the city fast enough for his taste. “I’ve packed up what I could, and I suppose if there’s anything else I can simply send for it once we arrive, assuming not all of my property is in bond by then.”
Li was staring at him, he became aware, and frowned back until at last Li spoke. “…What do you mean, you can? And we?”
Now his frown turned to a stare of his own. “Surely you didn’t think I was just going to send you away?” Li’s gaze slipped downward, and David’s heart seized. “…Oh, Li. What must you think of me?”
Li shook his head, brushing at his (as always bare) head with his fingers and keeping his eyes hidden. “No, I… I can’t let you do that in any case. I didn’t set out to take your life from you, David.”
He smiled at that, and reached across the carriage, taking Li’s hand in his own and making him look up at last. “Then how fortunate you haven’t,” he said; “for you see, I’ve brought it with me.”
And then Li did not meet his eyes for some time for an entirely different reason.
“Well,” he said when he had blinked back the worst, and could lift his head again with only the faintest over-brightness. “I can see there’s nothing to be gained from arguing with a pig-headed Englishman.”
“Quite so,” said David, smiling. “Then shall we go somewhere we can see the sun at last?”
And Li’s squeezing his hand in return was surely all the answer he needed.