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Victoria’s Children

by Dr. Noh
illustrated by ashe

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/168361.html)

Jack Draper stood on the hotel’s balcony and watched the bright streaks of tracer fire from the Tower Bridge arc across the darkened sky. The dark was half a smothering dusk, low clouds, the threat of storm, and half stinking black smoke. London was burning. Three years of peace was too much to ask.

He pulled out a small box of tobacco, shook a measured amount into his palm, and laid it in a precise line on the rolling paper. There was good and bad here. It would make the actual job easier, but his departure afterward would be complicated. Two days ago, when the first bomb went off, he’d considered staying to be evacuated with the rest of the hotel’s foreign guests. That was before the fighting had marched across the city until a wall of smoke and gun fire lay between the hotel and the glibley tunnel to France.

The Jesuits would have to come up the Thames or through the city now. If they came. Jack sucked at his cigarette and listened to the talk around him. There were only two topics of conversation: the Jesuits of course, and Leopold, Victoria’s youngest son and most recent heir to the throne, presumed dead like his brothers before. This time it was a bomb blast.

A French bishop held court just inside the French doors. A flock of wives, mothers, and sisters fluttered around him. They wanted reassurance that the next dawn or the one after would see the black ships sailing up the Thames to begin the evacuation. Their husbands, sons, and brothers wanted the same thing, but their pride kept them just out of earshot, hands occupied by brandy and cigars to ward off the fidgets. The bishop looked as if he could do with a humidor of cigars, an entire cask of brandy.

It was funny to see how attached people could be to the idea that looked less and less likely every moment. The bishop repeated it over and over: Yes, they’ll come, of course they’ll come, and we’ll be safe. But in truth the black ships had a large draught even empty for their relatively small stature. They would never make it up the much depleted Thames.

And there, standing apart from the twin poles of Leopold and salvation around which the rest of the company spun, was the young lady in mourning. She wore a heavy crepe veil of the sort guaranteed to shed dye and irritate the eyes and throat, and her dress was likewise crepe, dull black with white at the cuffs and jet beads at the high neck. She wore silk gloves rather than kid, but Jack had not heard any of the company fault her for it, not in this pernicious, cloying heat.

She was alone, without even a lady’s maid, which was scandalous, but she kept so strictly to herself and answered all inquiries in the most polite terms and was so obviously a lady that the company seemed inclined to forgive her. Rumors that she was the recent widow of a duke or an earl made far more entertaining gossip than social transgressions, and so a widowed duchess she became, fleeing for France alone and trying desperately to preserve honor and propriety in the midst of war, and had they not all read that piece by Miss Irene Morrow, in which she wrote: “Still less should mourning prevent one from taking proper recreation: the more the heart aches, the more should one try to gain cheerfulness and composure, to hear music, to see faces which one loves: this is a duty, not merely a wise and sensible rule.”1

Quite right, even so. It would hardly do for the poor girl to keep to her rooms day and night. They all nodded to each other, and the wobbling social sphere was set right.

Jack had read the article as well, for there was little he didn’t read or wouldn’t read, and what he read, he remembered. He remembered other things, like the way a lady walked, or a middle-class woman held her hands, or the way a whore would grin at anyone. He noted differences: between one printed bible and another, between silver tea from India and silver tea from China, between two oranges from the same tree. He was, like God, a noticer of small things, of falling sparrows and pavement cracks and the thousand details that made a woman in English society distinct from a woman in any other society.

Mrs Merriweather Ashmore had none of those thousand things about her. It had taken Jack most of an evening’s observation to determine that this was not because she was French, or Italian, or Russian, or even from the American colonies. It was because she was not a woman. Which only went to show that even Jack’s eyes and memory were merely human, no matter what price they brought. Proverbs 31:10 listed the price of a virtuous woman as “above rubies,” a muddy appraisal to be sure. Jack’s eyes and memory and occasionally his hands and revolver fetched a price roughly equal to a middling sized Jager diamond these days, although he generally took his payment in gold.

Jack’s two poles, at the moment, were the distinctly masculine Mrs Ashmore, and the state papers to which he ought to be applying his eyes and hands. The papers were half a burning city away, and Mrs Ashmore was not. His orbit swung toward her as his cigarette and London reduced themselves toward ash.

“Mrs Ashmore.” He nodded to her. “Tea for dinner again. I can’t say I approve.”

“For myself, I do not mind it, Mr Weston, though it is a lapse of standards. I find it difficult to contemplate more than sandwiches.”

This, at least, appeared to be true. The man posing as Mrs Ashmore was in his early to mid twenties and ought to have been capable of putting down one each of the five sandwich types, a serving of lobster a la Newburg, and certainly some of the chicken salad with which the hotel had presented its guests tonight, not to mention the cakes. He had, in reality, consumed one small heart-shaped sandwich of walnut-mayonnaise and cucumbers and one quarter of a serving of coffee jelly. Jack had eaten more than he, and Jack’s body at rest did not require over much in the way of fuel.

It was difficult to discern marks of either grief or illness through the veil. Perhaps it was not lack of appetite, but merely a practical measure to ensure he continued to fit into his corset.

“Was it a recent loss?” Jack pitched his voice appropriately to convey sympathy rather than the ravening curiosity he felt.

The young man dropped his eyes, but Jack read more relief than modesty in his stance and the regulation of his breath. It was always a relief to deliver a long-prepared lie.

“It was, and so sudden. At least one of our staff had gone bad, and after my dear Robert–” He extracted a handkerchief from somewhere about his person and clutched it to great effect. “He was murdered. In his own bed. I found him in the morning–” The handkerchief disappeared under the veil.

“And you didn’t know whom to trust. So of course you packed and came away. It must be difficult, managing on your own.”

He smiled. “Some of the buttons are rather tricky, I admit.”

“Well, you will find more civilized conditions in France, I’m sure. Is that your final destination?”

“No, I have family in New Amsterdam. I wrote to them yesterday, a tube message, and I’ve received their reply this morning. Costly, but it is a great comfort to me to know I have a place awaiting me. I don’t know how one could send a message like that by telegram. Husband murdered, stop. Superfluous relative arriving 12 October, stop.”

It startled a laugh from Jack, who was not used to laughing. “Just so. We’re lucky to have the transatlantic tubes now. My business would be impossible without them.”

“And what is your business, Mr Weston?”

Jack gave him a bland smile. “Vatican business.”

“Oh! Then you will be evacuated with the rest of us? I was concerned. You sound– I am sorry, I should not make such personal observations.”

“I sound English because I am, though I hail from the colonies. But yes, the Jesuits will take me. Vatican travel papers. And you, since we are making personal observations?”

“My husband’s family is from Prussia, though he was raised here.”

Jack let him spin more yarns about his fictional husband’s family until the bishop came to offer the young widow a sherry to keep her strength up.

Jack slipped away from the party and went up to his room. Ashmore might have a bit of difficulty finding out his room number, but Jack had no doubt that it was well within his capabilities. With the bait of a set of Vatican travel papers, almost anyone might manage it.

The bed was turned down, and the gas mantle lamps were lit. Jack took the papers from his code-box and set them on the writing desk. He added his gloves, tossed carelessly, and examined the effect. It would do. He whistled as he stuffed pillows under the bed clothes and rumpled them appropriately. When all was ready, he turned the lights low and stood behind the door to wait.

Jack was good at waiting, but, four hours later, he was beginning to think his patience was for nothing. He had heard the other guests retire to their rooms, heard the hotel staff moving about, retreating downstairs, cleaning up. Then, silence.

One more hour.

There it was: the sibilance of bare feet on wood. Any sensible person would do his sneaking about in bare feet if his only other option were fashionable, hard-soled ladies’ boots. Jack switched his cane from right hand to left and touched the butt of his revolver under his coat. This was far more entertaining than a smoky dash across London. This was new.

The door opened soundlessly. Jack stood quite still behind it. Ashmore looked to the bed with its apparently sleeping occupant, looked to the desk with the papers in plain sight, and stepped into the room. He made a greedy rush for his prize. Jack shut the door behind him just as he reached it.

“Turn up the lamp,” Jack said. “And give me your proper name, sir.”

The revolver was not needed. There was a moment of frozen stillness and then a defeated slump from his quarry. Ashmore turned up the flame until the mantle glowed white hot. He turned to face Jack. Stripped of mourning veil and wearing only a nightdress and robe, he was less convincingly female, more angular, thinner than might be expected for someone only feigning grief.

“Please,” he said. “Help me.”

“Your name. Your story. Then we shall see.”

“But you’re from the Vatican, you have to–”

“I am currently employed by the Vatican. They pay me. They do not own me. Give me your name, or you can leave this moment.”

“It’s Harry Morton, sir.” He made a confused movement, equal parts curtsy, bow, and forelock tug. “Please may I sit down? I don’t feel at all well.”

“I think that would be wise.”

He made as if to pull the desk chair out and then picked it up and bashed it against Jack’s side. He wrenched the door open, slammed it into Jack’s hip, dove through it, and was away down the hall.

Jack was up and after him in a moment, grinning fiercely, making mental plans for the moment he was caught chasing a respectable widow in her nightdress through one of the finer hotels in London. This was better than the tedium of smoke and violence, even if it would not pay nearly so well. Harry – probably his real name – was clearly a servant, likely butler or valet as his table manners were impeccable and his easy familiarity did not suggest footman. His confused gesture of subservience gave away that much, but little more. Harry Morton, Harry Morton. The name meant nothing, but his face…. Jack dredged up the memory of a certain photo from a newspaper article several years back. The royal family at dinner, a face in the background.

Harry skidded to a stop and pounded on the bishop’s door.

Jack punched him hard in the kidney, and Harry folded up into his arms just as the door opened.

“I found her passed out in the hall,” Jack said to the bishop. “Please, can you stay with her while I fetch the doctor?”

Of course he couldn’t. A bishop alone in his room with an undressed woman? It didn’t matter how good the reason; there would be rumors. An upwardly mobile career in the Catholic Church was one unmarred by rumors. The bishop went to fetch the doctor.

Jack laid Harry out on the bed and shook him, once. “Will you come with me or stay here and let the doctor examine you? Decide quickly.”

“You’re a bastard,” Harry wheezed. He clutched his side. Kidneys were sensitive things.

“You didn’t have to try pinching my travel papers, did you?”

“I must get my bag.”

They were both right in it now, which was how Jack liked it. Staying at the hotel was not an option. They collected a bag from Harry’s room and climbed out his window. Harry tried to run as soon as they hit the ground, but he was still winded and besides which hampered by the boots he’d stopped to put on.

“What do you want of me?” Harry hissed, as he ducked behind a pile of crates and struggled into a corset and black travel dress.

“Have you no other clothes?”

“Would I be wearing these still if I did? I might’ve got out of there clean, you bastard.”

“I was curious. Had you told me your story, we might both be peacefully asleep in our own rooms right now.”

Harry glared at him. “You set a trap for me.”

“I didn’t force you into it. Come, this way.”

“Why should I go anywhere with you?”

“Because you’re lost, you’ve got no travel papers, the story will spread all up and down Foreigner’s Row by morning and any hotel will view you with suspicion.” Jack nodded to a group of navvies clustered by the dock. “And because I’ll tell them you’re a man if you don’t.”

“What do you want?”

Jack surveyed the city, laid out in points of light and flame. The big glass lantern projection screens were either dark, or broken, all but one. Shadowy images moved stiffly across it, spelling out the news from three days ago and advertising bloomers. There was fire on the Tower Bridge.

“I want the signed and ratified treaty that will bring Russia into this war on England’s side. Given you were Prince Leopold’s valet, I expect you will be useful in locating it. In return, I can get you safely out of England, even as far as the Vatican if you like.”

Harry gaped at him. It was a surprisingly attractive look. Without the veil, and dressed in silk instead of crepe, he looked yet younger, sweeter, cheeks and lips flushed.

“How–”

“We haven’t the time. Is it a bargain?”

Harry nodded. Jack caught his hand and pulled him down toward the river.

“Leave the bag,” he said, but Harry clung to it stubbornly.

The Thames was shrinking away from its banks in the heat. London Bridge’s first arch was dry and had been taken over by children.

Jack disliked children. They were not properly human yet and had therefore none of the levers he was used to pulling. One might as well appeal to a wolf’s sense of duty, a fox’s mercy or tenderness. They stared at him, bright eyes in dirty faces. A few held knives. Many more had stones or broken bottles. Harry edged back behind him, but made no attempt to run.

“Are you hungry?” Jack said to them.

A girl stepped forward. She had a knife, and she looked to be the eldest, perhaps thirteen. Her hair was cut short, and she wore trousers and a feral snarl. “Hungry enough to eat you,” she said.

Her stance was good, and her grip on the knife spoke of experience. Amateurs tried for an overhand stabbing motion, but experts knew that up and in with a twist was the way to go. The quickest way to any heart was through the stomach; otherwise the ribs got in the way.

“We need to cross the river.” Jack squatted down and balanced on the balls of his feet. It put him a few inches below her eye level, made him less threatening, and a smaller target. “You’ve got a boat.”

“Have you got gold? Bank notes ain’t no good now.”

“I have better than gold.”

“Jewels?”

“You can’t eat jewels.”

She squatted down as well. Her pale brows drew together in a frown. “What are you offering then?”

“Buckingham Palace.”

One of the boys laughed and started forward with a bottle, but the girl waved him back. “What’s that mean, then?” she said.

“It’s mostly abandoned since the bombing. I know a way in. All the food you want, clothes, shoes, a place to sleep…”

“You’ll hand us over to the guards the second we get there. Try again.”

“I won’t. I’m going there to steal something.”

She pressed the flat of the blade against her lips. “You’re lying.”

Jack shrugged. “I am or I’m not. Want to flip a coin?”

“Have you got one? I haven’t.”

“I’ve got a bullet.” He shifted, and his coat parted. It was only a token threat. He couldn’t shoot them all.

She retreated to confer with two boys and another girl, ages roughly nine to eleven. Jack rested his hands on his knees. Harry stood behind him, skirts raised to keep them out of the mud.

“Isn’t there an easier way to do this?” Harry said.

“Perhaps. Not a faster one. The bridge is guarded, and you saw the Tower Bridge. The others will be just as bad.”

Harry sighed. “Three days ago I was choosing his cufflinks and waiting up for him to get back from a family dinner with her majesty.”

“You enjoyed that, I suppose.”

“It was a good life. My father was a pig farmer.”

“You don’t sound like the daughter of a pig farmer.” Jack took out tobacco and rolling papers.

“Funny bastard, aren’t you?”

“I mean the way you speak. Like a gentleman. Or a lady.”

“I went into service at thirteen and listened to the butler and the valets. Practiced in private. When I went for the next job, at a bigger house, I talked like that from the beginning, wore the clothes I’d saved up for. That’s all it is. Clothes and manners and how you talk. I can read and write better than the half the royal family, you know that?”

“Better than Leopold?”

“No. Not better than him. He had a brain. A better one than I do.”

Harry fell silent, and the only sounds were of dripping water and the susurrus of the children’s high-pitched whispers.

When the girl turned back to them, her knife was sheathed in a bundle of rags tied to her thigh. “We’ll take you,” she said. “I’m Bet. This is Hiram and Pleasant.” She jerked her head, indicating the boy who’d had ideas about his bottle and Jack’s face, and another, perhaps seven years old, caked in mud up to his waist and with muddy stripes painted on his bare chest.

“Jack. And my friend, Henrietta.”

Bet had no questions. Jack guessed she simply didn’t care why a woman in obvious mourning was traveling with a self-proclaimed thief across a burning city and into the heart of its trouble. Hunger was always an effective remedy for curiosity and conscience, and she might’ve had neither to begin with.

The children produced three coracles made of mud and reeds, bits of wood and cork and bottles, anything that would float.

“Me and you in the first,” Bet said. “Hiram and your woman in the second, and Pleasant will come behind.”

“I should prefer to take…my woman across myself.”

“Sure you would, and ditch us I guess, but you can’t. These won’t hold the two of you together, big as you are, and they steer like a drunk lech in a whorehouse. You’d never make the other side.”

“Then I will go with Hiram. You take my woman.”

Harry kicked his ankle, quite hard. Jack did not allow his expression to change, though he would’ve liked to smirk.

Bet shoved her hair back and put her hands on her hips. She stared at him. After a moment, she nodded sharply.

It took some time to get Harry settled in a coracle with all his skirts pulled close about him. Jack was thankful fashions had shifted away from the immense hoop skirts of a few years ago. Harry’s bag went with Pleasant. Harry let it go easily enough, but his eyes lingered on it. Jack stepped into Hiram’s boat and crouched there. There was no proper room to sit. It was a balancing act between them, and the coracle bobbed and shimmied across the sluggish current of the Thames.

“Gonna kill you,” Hiram muttered.

They both bent forward to keep the little boat from tipping to far to either side, and his words were warm and stinking on Jack’s face. His oar was a stick with a bundle of rags tied to the end, but he kept them on course.

“I believe you mean to try,” Jack said.

“That was smart, making your woman go with Bet. She would’ve been easy. But I’ll get you still, I will. I’ll be behind you and cut your throat and take every last stitch off you and sod your corpse. You’re no fine gentleman.”

“No. I am not.”

Jack had a number of things in his inner suit pockets for emergencies. One of them was a packet of dried meat strips. He took one out now and ate it slowly and licked his fingers clean. By the time they reached the opposite shore, Hiram’s cunning was lost to anger. It didn’t make him less dangerous, but it would make him easier to predict.

The heat and smoke increased they closer they came to the opposite bank. When they disembarked, Harry latched onto Jack’s arm with a grip that was more suggestive of panic than acting. “This is mad,” Harry hissed at him. “That boy you’re with has eyes like a rat’s, and the other one’s clearly mad, he’s going to steal my things. They’re going to murder us and leave us to rot and my mum will never even know why I stopped writing. She has to get the priest to read the letters out. I’m supplying the entirety of Dorset with royal gossip, I can’t just–”

Jack cut him off with a soft kiss. “Hush, boy,” he murmured against Harry’s lips.

Harry trembled. He was silent a long moment, and then: “How did you know?”

Jack hadn’t. He’d only meant to shock him. It was an interesting development.

The children were watching, Bet disinterested and impatient, Hiram murderous, Pleasant blank as he hefted Harry’s bag onto his back.

“Never mind,” Jack said. He cupped Harry’s cheek and kissed him again, let his tongue skate across his lips. “Don’t worry. I’ll look after you.”

Harry’s body leaned into him and went soft and easy at every point of contact. It was fascinating. People formed attachments with such ease and had levers and switches in the oddest places. Jack wondered if Leopold had looked after him like this.

They set out. Bet sent Hiram ahead, which meant she knew his murderous plan and, for the moment, disapproved. That might change once they reached the palace. Harry stuck to Jack’s side, which was not ideal, but with Harry and his cane on the left, he had his right hand free for his revolver. It was workable. Pleasant went just ahead of them with the bag, whistling something that now and then almost managed to be a tune. Bet brought up the rear.

Three times they were challenged by other bands of ragged children. Hiram launched into the first with broken glass and fury, and they fled amid accusations of madness and disease. The second was smaller, and Jack saw them off quietly with his revolver.

The third shadowed them, just on the edge of sight. Jack caught movement and the flash of eyes, but that was all. Bet drew their little party closer.

“I count at least four,” Jack said.

“Six,” Bet said. “The rooftops.”

Jack looked up. Half the houses along this street were burning from the inside. He had discounted the rooftops for that reason, and it had been a mistake. He could pick out one smoke-blackened face against the darkness on their right, and from above and to the left came now a shrill ululating cry.

Harry gripped his arm harder. “You can’t kill them. They’re only children.”

“I said I’d look after you, didn’t I?” Jack felt his face pull into a grin and turned away to grab Pleasant. “Stay with her,” he said to the boy, and pushed them both into a charred doorway as other voices joined in the cry.

Jack stood back to the back with Bet and Hiram in the middle of the street, waiting. The smoke was choking. He couldn’t see more than thirty feet. The heat from the fires combined with the wet heat of the air and burned his lungs. His mouth tasted of ashes. Figures circled them, drawing closer and then dashing back into the smoke.

The first rush broke them apart, and Jack found himself barreled over by a girl older than Bet. She fought with teeth and fists and such ferocity that he was concerned only with getting space between them for the first seconds. He shoved her back hard with both hands, but she clung to him, slammed her forehead nearly into his nose. He turned away just in time, but the impact still left his ears ringing. He clubbed her with the butt of his gun and drew the blade from his cane as she tumbled back.

He would’ve made sure she was done for, but another child was nearly on him, a boy he thought, though he wasn’t sure. Jack whipped his face with the flat of his blade and skewered him. The blade sunk into a wooden crate when it came out his back, and Jack lost precious seconds freeing it. Someone came at him with a yell and fire sliced down his spine.

He turned and saw Hiram’s face, saw the knife blade that reflected the murky red glow of the sky. He dived aside, but too late. It sunk into his shoulder. The cobblestones came up to hit his back. His head bounced off them and left him dazed. He couldn’t keep his grip on the revolver, and it skidded off out of reach. Hiram knelt over him and raised the knife in a two-handed grip. Overhand. Always a bad way to hold a knife.

“Stop it!”

Bet stood behind Hiram with the revolver pressed to the back of his head. Hiram was not going to stop. Jack closed his eyes. Getting blood in them was painful and tended to cause infection. There were the bone shards to consider as well.

In the silence after the roar of the revolver, Bet said, “He was always making trouble.”

Jack wiped his face and took the revolver gently from her hands. She stayed where she was, looking at the cobblestones slightly to the left of Hiram’s body. Above them, the gas light burned like a torch, casing gone but for a ring of glass teeth at its bottom.

Harry, when Jack found him, was facing the wall with his hands over his face. Pleasant sat cross-legged in front of him, apparently sharpening a newly acquired knife on the cobble stones. Or perhaps merely wiping the blood off. Two bodies lay nearby. Jack stepped past them and around Pleasant to tug Harry away from the wall and into his arms.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said. “I never liked fighting, not even pub brawls, I don’t like getting hit, nor going about armed, and– My birthday’s next week. I want to go home. Not home. Somewhere with less pigs than home.” He sniffed into Jack’s shoulder.

“You hit me with a chair.”

“Desperation.”

Jack stroked his back. His own back was sticky with blood, but it was a shallow cut. The one in his shoulder was deeper, bleeding more freely. It would need attention soon, but this had to come first. Otherwise, Harry would bleed guilt all over him from now until they parted company. Immensely tiresome. As if staying out of a war you had no chance of winning were something shameful. Generally speaking, Jack preferred it when people kept out of his way during a fight.

He smoothed his hand down Harry’s back, tracing the ribs of the corset with his fingers. He was rather looking forward to taking that off.

“I’m sorry I’m such a coward,” Harry said.

“Everyone’s something.” It was a favorite phrase of Jack’s mother, one he felt he’d never truly understood, but it was useful for diffusing tension.

Harry laughed, a little choked sound. “I suppose that’s true.” He hugged Jack closer and gasped as his hands encountered blood. “You’re hurt.”

“Yes.”

Harry turned out to be a competent patcher of wounds, which made Jack all the more curious about his life with Leopold. One black silk petticoat sacrificed to stop up Jack’s shoulder, they hurried on.

“We’re almost there,” Harry said, as they entered St James’s Park. “Hold on.”

He sounded concerned, which struck Jack as odd. Jack was unlikely to die of this wound, and moreover had all but kidnapped Harry, dragged him through fire and blood back to the place he’d fled days ago. Attachment. It was baffling. Jack’s mother had cried when he left home, even after all that had come before.

Jack stumbled and caught himself against a tree. Harry took his arm and urged him on. Pleasant went ahead now, and Bet came behind. The night was taking on colors, swirls of red and green, blotches of light where there could logically be none. Jack shook his head and then pounded at it, but it didn’t help.

“You must show them the way in,” Jack said. “I may lose consciousness.” He thought a moment. “You should have my revolver.”

He would trust Harry’s attachment before Bet’s. Killing for a man created attachment as well, but Bet was probably sensible enough to put her own interests before his. Harry certainly was not.

“I don’t want it,” Harry said.

“It’s a good weapon if you don’t want to fight.” Jack coughed. The lights grew brighter. “It’s all over in an instant.”

He pushed it into Harry’s hands. Harry tucked it away somewhere, and then the lights got very bright indeed, so bright Jack had to close his eyes.

There were sounds, continued colors, voices, the smell of cordite and then of lemon. Jack never quite blacked out, but neither was he able to integrate his perceptions into anything that it was reasonable to think of as reality. Eventually, he was laid out on something reasonably soft, and the world started to weave itself together around him.

“We’re in Princess Vicky’s room,” Harry said. He held a glass of water to Jack’s lips and helped him drink. “She’s gone to Balmoral. Leopold said all this could’ve been avoided if she’d just married Frederick William as she was meant to. And they were so in love, too, you ought to have seen them together. I don’t know what happened.”

Harry had his sleeves pushed up to his elbows, but he was still wearing black silk, heavily muddied at the edges, ripped, and sagging on one side where he had clearly shredded still more petticoats to bind Jack’s wounds.

“The bandages I found weren’t what you’d call clean,” Harry said. “Dust and so on from the explosion. I found a bottle of iodine unbroken though. I think you’ll be all right.”

“You wear her highness’s mourning clothes,” Jack guessed.

“Yes. From when Albert Edward was killed. They were just being unpacked again for Arthur’s funeral. I was helping one of the maids when the bomb went off. Of course I ran down when I heard it. I knew Leopold was in the gardens.”

“Did you find him?”

The great mirror across from the bed was covered in black cloth, but that was the only sign of Arthur’s recent passing, only a week before Leopold. The roses in the great crystal vase had not yet begun to wilt.

“Yes.” Harry folded his hands in his lap and looked down at them. “Half his leg was off and he was caught under half a ton of bricks and rubble, but he didn’t scream. He didn’t even call for help. Knew there was no helping him, I suppose. I stayed with him until he stopped breathing. And a little way after.”

“Your grief was genuine. That’s why you were so convincing,” Jack said, instead of what he was thinking. Leopold had given Harry some mission, some message or package he must deliver, in those last few minutes. Else Harry would be on the way to Balmoral now. There was no need to rush the confession. Harry would tell him on his own in time.

“I miss him,” Harry said. “He was a good man.”

Soft sheets slid against Jack’s skin. His wounds pulled, but the pain was tolerable. He reached for Harry and yanked him down. Harry’s breath went out in a rush, warm against Jack’s face. Jack slid a hand over his waist where the corset pinched it in.

“You should take this off.”

Harry gripped the sheet until his knuckles went white. “Will you loosen the laces for me?”

“Take the dress off.”

The sound the dress made when it hit the floor was akin to leaves falling, all at once in a strong wind. Jack pulled back the covers. Harry lost his bloomers as well and slid in next to him. Jack pushed him over onto his stomach, and Harry turned his face away, one hot cheek pressed to the sheets. His ass was round and looked all the fuller for the contrast of the black silk corset. Harry had laced it tight, and it bit into his skin. Jack ran a finger along the edge, but could not slide it under. He pulled at the skin, pushed at the fabric, and revealed a hard red line.

“Does it hurt?”

Harry shifted, feet arching into hard points. “It’s uncomfortable. But I don’t have the proper waist otherwise.”

“No, of course.” Jack sat up and ran his hands down from the counterfeit curve of Harry’s waist, over his ass, across his thighs and down to mud-speckled calves. He bent one leg and brought Harry’s foot up to kiss his ankle.

“Do you want to fuck me?” Harry whispered. He worked the leg not in Jack’s grasp out to the side and drew his knee up. Jack could see the shadowed shape of his balls. “I’m hard.”

“Have you done it before?”

Silence.

“Harry?”

“Do you prefer virgins?”

“I prefer accurate information. Always.”

“Well. I’ve done it rather a lot, then.”

Jack pushed his thighs wider and knelt between them. “Did you do it with Leopold?”

“Lord, no! Him, with a servant? He would never. He’d think he was taking advantage. I would have though. There’s – On the nightstand. Princess Vicky’s hand cream. If you like. I can do without.”

Jack’s shirt was gone already, and now he struggled out of his trousers. The cream smelled of mint and lavender and tingled when he coated his cock with it. That was all the preparation he bothered with, and a thin coating at that.

“The corset,” Harry gasped.

Jack wanted abruptly to lace it tighter, to listen to Harry’s desperate snatches of breath as Jack fucked the air out of him. He gripped the laces. They dug into his fingers as he pressed the head of his cock against Harry’s hole.

“Please, please–” Harry sounded breathless already.

Jack’s shoulder throbbed along with his cock as he pushed in. The cream was barely enough. The friction built heat on heat, and Harry was already burning up inside. Jack groaned as he sank deeper.

“Ah– You–” Harry grabbed the pillow and twisted it. His thighs were taut, and his toes dug hard into the mattress. “That’s big,” he whispered, and his body clenched hard around Jack’s cock.

Jack held himself up with one hand, held tight to the lacings with the other, and drove into him again and again, sharp thrusts to hear Harry gasp. Harry moved under him, pressed back and took him deeper still. His back arched, and he leaned forward, head down, ass up, on display and poised at just the right angle for Jack to ride him hard.

Jack reached around to explore Harry’s cock and found it stiff and wet. Harry thrust against his touch shamelessly. “Oh, yes, Christ,” he moaned, and rutted against Jack’s palm.

The air was thick and wet. Both of them were covered in sweat. The smell of it warred with sex and smoke and the more timid scent of clean linens. Jack’s head swam, and he ached from head to balls. He licked sweat from Harry’s spine and neck. Each thrust seemed to unwind him, until he was slowing, resting in Harry’s body for long seconds before he pulled out again. With just the head of his cock inside, the air felt cooler on his shaft, and he paused there too.

“Fuck,” Harry said. “Weston! Don’t take all day about it!”

“Jack.”

“What?”

“My name. Not Weston.” Jack nearly let his true family name slip as well. Perhaps the head injury was more serious than he’d thought.

Harry reached back, grabbed his left buttock, and squeezed hard. “Jack. Stop day dreaming, and fuck me.”

Jack grinned down at the curve of Harry’s back and watched as it was partially obscured by the bright spots and colors of earlier tonight. He was sure he’d never smiled so widely while also being so close to passing out. He thrust in hard to hear Harry’s moan. It was too much effort for someone who’d lost so much blood, and he needed to see his shirt, to judge just how much that was and how long he might take to recover and–

Harry came in hot spurts against his palm as Jack’s hips shot forward again. Jack kept stroking him, focused now, feeling himself get closer, watching the lights get brighter and eat away at his vision. Worth it. He laughed and yanked at the corset lacings and came to the feel of Harry’s nails digging into his hip.

The last thing he saw was his fingers working at the bow until it came loose.

illustrated by ashe

Hearing returned first. Harry was yelling at him.

“Jack! You complete bastard, wake up!” There was a light tap on Jack’s cheek, which turned out only to be a warm up. It was followed by a stinging slap.

Jack got his eyes open. Harry’s face was pale and very close to his own.

“Thank the Lord,” Harry said, and dropped his forehead to rest against Jack’s. His hair brushed Jack’s skin. The corset was gone, and he was entirely naked now.

“You have a lovely body,” Jack said. He was smiling again, or still. The pain was less pronounced. He felt dozy and nearly drugged.

Harry smiled in return and kissed him. “You’re absurd. Don’t do that again.”

He rolled onto his back and left Jack gazing up at the canopy above. It was heavy, cream colored lace in a pattern of thistles, shamrocks, and roses. No leeks. Wales always got left out. Something else had got left out. What had he meant to ask?

“What did Leopold give you?” he said.

Harry was silent. Too blunt? Too soon? Jack couldn’t judge. His brain felt like it was on a slow boil, and he only wanted to sleep.

“What’s in your bag?” he asked. The words slurred together. Harry had dragged that thing all over London with him. For certain it wasn’t full of ladies’ bloomers.

“You know, don’t you?” Harry said quietly.

Jack nodded. Always the correct response to that question, especially when he did not, in fact, know.

“It’s the treaty you want,” Harry said. “I didn’t know if I could trust you.”

And you do now? Some of the disbelief must’ve made it into the questioning lift of his eyebrows. Harry smiled.

“I know we’re still almost strangers, but you do work for the Vatican, and Leopold wanted it delivered to the Vatican so His Holiness can make Russia do what’s right, and…perhaps I do trust you. A bit. You saved my life.”

And you saved mine. Jack couldn’t get the words past his thick tongue. Sleep came for him, and he couldn’t resist.

Scraps of conversation wove in and out of his dreams.

Bet: “Here. Bread and cheese and some old wine. The bottle’s gone all dusty.”

Harry: “No problems getting it?”

Bet: “It’s all like it was on the way in. Quiet as the grave.”

Jack dreamed of watered wine on his tongue and a wet cloth on his face and neck. He dreamed a sunrise and a sunset.

When he woke, Harry was gone.

“Back with us?” Bet said.

Jack reached for the glass she offered him and drank half of it before he could answer. “How long?”

“All day.”

“Have you brought your troops in to feed?”

“I told Pleasant to go back and fetch them. He wouldn’t. He’s attached to your friend. They’re listening to someone else by now. ”

“You didn’t go either. Who are you attached to?”

“My own hide. My full belly. My mum said, attach yourself to a gentleman if you want to better yourself.” She bared her teeth. “She meant a butcher or a baker or a seller of cloth. Suppose I attach myself to you?”

“I don’t fuck girls.”

“All the better as I suppose you’re attached to your prick.”

Jack made a show of considering it, but in truth he’d hoped for this. He would be saddled with Harry all the way to Rome, and it would be a dangerous journey. Bet had already proved herself a good fighter, and she would be trustworthy as long as their interests lay in the same direction.

“You’ll have to wash. And find clothes fit at least for a maid. Pleasant too. And shoes.”

She folded her arms over her chest. “We’re to be your servants?”

“Learn to speak and be what you like. Harry can teach you.”

“Huh.” She rose. “I’ll think about it.”

She met Harry in the hall. Jack couldn’t hear most of what they said, but he heard the last part.

“He’s a liar, a thief, a killer, and a spy,” Bet said. “You’re a fool to trust him.”

Harry glanced over and met Jack’s eyes. “Everyone’s something,” he said.

~{*}~
1. “Mourning and Funeral Usages”, April 17, 1886. Harper’s Bazaar, Nineteenth Century Fashion Magazine

Thanks as always to my wonderful betas.

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