by Shinju Yuri (真珠百合)
illustrated by calintz
The first person Walter had ever fallen in love with had attracted his attention by hitting him over the head with her wax-headed doll, and bursting into tears when he started bleeding. The resemblance was sometimes striking, he thought, looking over at Frederick. He wondered what type of little girl Frederick had fallen in love with. Not someone like Walter’s first love. If Frederick had been hit over the head with a doll, he would have hit her back harder, and then they would have clung together in angry tears. Walter chuckled.
“Nothing,” said Walter, and refilled Frederick’s tea. It was his third cup, so he would wake up all the way soon. Slightly mollified but still suspicious, the hedgehog retreated to his burrow of newsprint. Walter chewed on a piece of toast and began to read an article in The Journal of Steam Engineering and Mechanics. There was a very interesting and totally incorrect article about the future possibilities of electricity. Walter began to compose a polite response in his head.
He had just gotten to “but supposing, merely as a matter of correct procedure, supposing the learned author of the article had in fact spent five minutes observing a steam engine from the distance of a mile–“, when Frederick shrieked like a screw stripping itself of its threads in the most painful and damaging way it could. Walter looked up. Frederick cursed steadily in the sort of language Walter reserved for equipment failure at three am, and finished by slamming the paper down and glowering at the corner.
For a moment Walter wondered if Frederick was actually reading some sort of trade journal. He couldn’t be. One of Frederick’s careers was business, and Frederick wasn’t reading that section of the newspaper. The other — well, if Frederick’s other career had a trade journal, Walter would have paid money to read it.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
Frederick growled and bit viciously into a crumpet. Walter waited, pushing the plate closer to Frederick. Finally, Frederick shoved the paper over to him. “Read that article,” he said.
Walter skimmed quickly through. “The Grey Ghost? Who is–” Frederick glared at him. “Oh,” said Walter. “Well, I can’t say it’s a becoming nickname, but if you must insist on wearing grey –”
“Not that,” said Frederick impatiently. “Read further.”
“‘Following the latest wicked deed committed against one of our best families’ — why is it always the best families?”
“Because they own the newspaper,” said Frederick, whose family owned the other one. “Go on.”
“C– to one of our best families, a ray of hope has begun to dawn on our metropolis. St John Edwards, the well-born detective, has returned from his trip abroad and has promised to exert his utmost effort to capture the dastardly villain preying on our fair city. Beware, Grey Ghost!!!!!!!'” He looked up. “I don’t know what you’re worried about. The last detective that tried to catch you is still limping. Who is this St John Edwards, anyway?”
“Not ‘saint John’,” corrected Frederick. “Sinjin. Kind of rhymes with dim.”
A horrible thought struck Walter. “You didn’t happen to go to school with him?” he said carefully.
“I hated him so much,” said Frederick violently. “He was an ass! And a prefect,” he added, as an afterthought. “He was always after me about my books.”
Walter covered his face with one hand. Frederick had gone to one of the schools training the next generation of well-bred young gentlemen for the leadership of our country, and had, as far as Walter had ever been able to tell, spent his time alternately fending off the advances of his classmates and running a gambling/banking operation that made Walter turn cold whenever he heard another detail. Somehow he had also acquired five languages and a voracious taste for reading. He said, “Do you think he thinks you’re the thief?”
“Hah,” said Frederick, “he never even figured out who nailed his pants to the wall.”
“No, that’s what I had Mimsy for,” said Frederick.
Walter rolled his eyes and continued to read. “‘”– no matter who the sinister wrongdoer is,”‘” said Edwards, his noble profile serious and stern, “I will bring him to justice. Even the noble ties of our alma mater could not save this villain from the hands of righteousness.”‘ Does he really talk like that?”
“Goddammit!” shrieked Frederick.
Frederick banged his way through the morning housework, washing dishes with vicious speed. He snapped the water out from the towels and nearly flung them on the drying rack. Then he yelped in surprise when the rack lifted itself up with a smooth hiss of steam to a position by the warm wall of the stove, and another rack, filled with dry towels, rose smoothly to take its place.
This thoughtful display of consideration for his work and habits did nothing to lessen Frederick’s temper. He took a deep breath and glowered around for any signs of grease or dirt on his perfectly kept floors. He saw none, but he suspected in his heart that his lovingly hand-scrubbed floors had been cleaned by one of Walter’s machines. Frederick twitched.
Then he made a large batch of molasses crinkle cookies and took them to Walter, because he was sincerely trying not to be crazy and ungrateful like the rest of his family.
When he stepped through the door of the shop, Walter was nowhere in sight. Frederick stayed by the door and whistled sharply, and was answered by another whistle from above. Frederick looked up. Walter was hanging from the ceiling, holding a wrench.
“I made some cookies,” called Frederick.
“Wonderful,” said Walter. “I’ll be right down — oh, put on a pair of earmuffs, please?”
Frederick set the plate down and picked up a pair of heavily padded earmuffs from the shelf by the door. The background noises of the steam-generating machines of the shop faded abruptly into nothing. He gave Walter the all-clear sign, and Walter slid his own earmuffs on, and pulled a lever with the wrench. Even through the insulation of the muffs, Frederick heard the scream of steam escaping, and the slow, pounding beat of the machinery beginning to move. As Frederick watched, massive gears began to shift, moving slowly, and then faster and faster. A little puff of steam bubbled out from somewhere, like a conductor leading the massive symphony of the gears. Walter swung away from his perch. He was wearing a heavy leather harness. He sank to the ground beside Frederick and unhooked himself, folding the pieces of harness and putting them neatly and in order on a shelf. He tapped Frederick’s shoulder and pointed toward the small room on the side of the high-ceilinged workshop. Frederick followed him.
Inside, Walter took off his and Frederick’s earmuffs. “Noisy thing,” he said. “I think I’ll have to specify sound insulation.”
“What is it?” said Frederick curiously.
“Prototype for an automatic bridge,” said Walter.
Frederick scowled. “How much did you charge?”
“Enough,” said Walter, vaguely, which meant he had again underpriced his services. He took the plate from Frederick and set it on the desk. He turned back and kissed Frederick. “Thank you for the cookies,” he said, very close to Frederick’s lips.
Frederick flushed a dull red. He still wasn’t used to Walter’s casual affection. It wasn’t that he disliked it, but it made him feel strange. His chest got all warm and skittery. “Thank you for the towel rack,” he said, putting his hand on Walter’s arm. It was warm and hard under the rough linen of his shirt. “I was very surprised.”
Walter had the wit to look embarrassed. “I er. Must have um. I’m sorry, I meant to show it to you.” He reached up and pushed Frederick’s hair from his face. Frederick sighed and leaned into Walter’s hand a little. When he looked up, Walter was watching him, his golden-brown eyes very intent. Frederick looked down and took a step forward, so he stood within a few inches of Walter. Walter made a low, pleased sound, deep in his throat. The hand not in Frederick’s hair curled around Frederick’s hip, pulling him closer yet. Frederick sighed and put his hand on the nape of Walter’s neck. Walter kissed him, a bare brush of lips against Frederick’s. Frederick let his mouth open and kissed him back, his hips swaying forward to fit against Walter’s. He felt curiously slow and languid, rocking his hips against Walter’s. The sound of the machinery outside echoed his heartbeat.
“I should get back to the house,” he said, pulling away a little.
“Hmm,” said Walter, kissing him again and backing up, pulling Frederick with him.
“I should –” he began, and caught his breath as Walter dragged his teeth softly against the side of his throat. Walter half-fell on the faded couch in the corner of the workroom, pulling Frederick down with him so he straddled Walter’s hips. “I have work to do,” said Frederick. His protest was weakened by the way he was stroking the linen covering Walter’s chest, but he felt that it should be made.
“Mm-hmm,” said Walter agreeably, kissing him again. His hands slid down to Frederick’s hips. Frederick shifted restlessly.
“Jennings,” he whined, shuddering as one of Walter’s hands slid up and brushed over one of his nipples, under his shirt.
“Rochester,” mimicked Walter. His long, clever fingers unbuttoned Frederick’s shirt. “Ah,” he sighed, pushing it open and sliding his hands over Frederick’s shoulders and down his arms.
“Don’t — don’t you have to watch your gears or something?” said Frederick. It wasn’t proper, kneeling on Walter like this, grinding slowly and luxuriously against him, and watching with half-lidded eyes as Walter’s eyes fell shut and his head tilted back, exposing the smooth golden line of his throat.
“No,” said Walter, and let out a long breath when Frederick bent and kissed his throat. “It’s a run test, it has to go for a while.”
“Oh,” said Frederick, and gave up thinking in favor of unbuttoning Walter’s shirt and unfastening both their pants and then trying not to make a complete fool of himself as Walter’s hand closed around him. Walter kissed his face and neck, breathed incoherent words into his ear as their hands wrapped around each other and Frederick shuddered. “Walter,” he said, “Walter.”
“I’m here,” said Walter, kissing Frederick’s shoulder and throat. Frederick moaned and shuddered. He slumped bonelessly over Walter, even as Walter sucked in his breath and shuddered deeply. Frederick’s heartbeat began to slow as he relaxed. Walter’s arms were around him, and Walter’s heartbeat, strong and steady, was beating under his cheek. “I should get up,” he said, rubbing his cheek against Walter’s chest. He yawned. “Can’t laze here … all day…”
Walter kissed his forehead.
At dinner that night, Walter said, “Are you going to do something about this Edwards person?”
“Squash him,” hissed Frederick, his eyes glowing with hatred. “Squash him like a nasty bug!”
Walter blinked at him. “Is he really that bad?”
“Well no,” said Frederick reluctantly. “He’s always been a bit stuffy. Uptight and crazy in the head — I’m sorry, did you say something?”
“No,” said Walter, looking down at his plate. “A-anyway, do you think he’s going to be a problem?”
“I don’t know,” said Frederick. “He’s pretty stubbor — there, are you choking on your food?”
“I’m fine,” said Walter, taking refuge behind his napkin.
Frederick frowned down at his plate for a second and then said briskly, “Anyway, there’s no use borrowing trouble at high interest. Mimsy’s having a little get-together soon, I think. I’ll see what I can do.”
Walter groaned. Frederick’s friends’ ‘little get-togethers’ invariably involved starched collars.
Frederick got up and began to clear his plate. Walter cleared his throat. Frederick stopped. “I’m not hungry,” said Frederick.
“You promised my mum,” said Walter. Of course his mum had been looming over him and Frederick had been a little shell shocked after a week at Walter’s family’s home, but he had promised and Walter was going to make him stick to it. Frederick hesitated and then sat down again and ate a few more bites, as Walter watched him. Frederick lived mostly on nervous energy and tea with sugar in, and would, if not bullied, sit and watch people eat instead of eating himself. Then again, Walter tended to stay awake twenty or thirty hours at a stretch working on things unless Frederick came in the shop and dragged him bodily to bed, sometimes by the ear. “Thank you,” said Walter.
Frederick ate one more bite and stood up. Walter stood up and leaned over the table to kiss Frederick on the forehead. Frederick flushed a deep red, transforming the usual ivory whiteness of his face. Walter straightened up and Frederick dropped his eyes, as if to hide a small smile.
A few days later Frederick cornered Walter, handed him a starched collar and cuffs, and pointed inexorably at the wash basin. Walter made a whining sound in the back of his throat and dragged himself through getting ready. It wasn’t that he minded parties exactly, but he loathed wearing formal clothes. He always felt like a giraffe in a cravat, especially next to Frederick.
“Hold still,” ordered Frederick. He eyed Walter for a moment and then began to smooth and pat his suit ruthlessly, rather like a mother cat with a kitten whose fur was mussed. He twitched Walter’s labels into place, shook his head dolefully and tried to get Walter’s hair to lie straight. Finally he pulled Walter’s cravat loose, made an irritated face, and retied it with quick jerks and tugs.
He took a step back and studied Walter. “You’ll do,” he said. That was high praise from Frederick, who hardly ever said anything. It was all in his actions. Sometimes Walter wished Frederick was better at expressing things, but he thought maybe if he was, he wouldn’t be the Frederick Walter knew. Anyway, if he was better at expressing himself, he probably wouldn’t have settled for Walter.
“Thank you,” said Walter. Frederick always looked so cool and elegant in a suit, like the well-bred young man he was, not the person who got oil smudges on his cheeks and pulled his hair back into an absurdly wispy ponytail and ruled the kitchen and went a little crazy on house-cleaning days. It made Walter feel a little lonely when Frederick wore a suit.
“Maybe a little too good,” said Frederick, scowling suddenly. “Someone’s going to think ‘who is that and why is he with Frederick Rochester?’ and I’ll have to kill them.”
“Because they’re jealous?” said Walter, surprised.
“Of me? Well, yes, that’s why I would have to kill them.”
“I don’t think they’d be jealous of you,” said Walter. “I mean. No more than people usually are.”
Frederick’s scowl became a glare.
“I’d be jealous,” said Walter. “If I wasn’t me. I’d think, ‘who is that stupid lucky bugger with Rochester?’”
Frederick’s glare intensified, like a furnace just on the edge of overheating, and then suddenly he deflated. “Why don’t we agree to to continue in our fond delusions,” he said, not quite laughing. Walter loved it when he did it; his eyes laughed and a smile lurked in the corner of his mouth but it never quite showed itself. It was like a secret he was just sharing with you. Walter wanted to kiss him, to take him by surprise and catch the smile before it left his mouth. He bent his head and tried it, just because he could. Frederick’s smile widened and he chuckled, deep and low, in his throat. Walter tried to get a taste of Frederick’s laughter but Frederick pushed him away. “Stop that,” he said, smoothing Walter’s cravat. “You’ll get all mussed.”
Walter sighed and allowed Frederick to straighten his clothing again.
The first time Walter had met Mimsy, he had been surprised to discover that he was neither slow and thuggish or thin and nervous. He was a rather pleasant-faced and average person, with slightly thinning hair, and a calm manner. Walter had trouble figuring out how he had become Frederick’s minion. The only explanation he could think of was that Mimsy simply found it easier and more amusing to go along with Frederick’s cunning plots than it was to think of things on his own.
“I’m surprised Rochester came,” said Mimsy.
“He often goes to parties,” said Walter.
“Yes, but he doesn’t like them,” said Mimsy. “They’re hard on his nerves.”
Walter realized that Mimsy was right. Frederick was smiling and talking, but his shoulders were tense and his posture was tight and guarded. As Walter watched, Frederick looked around the room. Their eyes met for a second, and Frederick’s posture relaxed.
“It’s good though,” said Mimsy. “That you’re here.”
Walter flushed. “I hope so,” he said.
“I think so,” said Mimsy firmly. “By the way,” he added, with no change of expression or tone, “what sort of mischief has Rochester gotten himself into this time?” Walter supposed that living in close association with Frederick Rochester for the better part of seven years would give you a pretty good idea of what Frederick could come up with.
“Nothing,” said Walter guiltily. “Much.”
“Huh,” said Mimsy. “I knew he was being too calm about the investment group thing.”
Walter choked on his wine. “Sorry?” he managed finally.
“I’m not going to ask,” said Mimsy, “but it’s not that hard to work out.” There was a silence. “My father was one of them,” he added abruptly. “Rochester knows it. I’ll do what I can.”
A tall man approached Frederick — as tall as Walter, but not so broad-shouldered. Frederick’s posture suddenly changed, going to coiled and eager, like a cat scenting a mouse. Mimsy said, sounding suddenly cheerful, “Ah, there’s Edwards.”
“Oh lord,” said Walter.
“We’d better go separate them,” said Mimsy sadly. They moved toward Frederick and the other man. Walter saw that his hair was pale blond, and his face was just short of overbred; his mouth, full and rather well-shaped, and a chin determined to the point of bull-headedness, saved him. He was standing an inch or two closer to Frederick than Walter quite liked.
“Rochester,” said the man, in a rich and educated tenor. “It’s been quite a while.”
Frederick smiled. At least, his lips parted and he bared his teeth. Walter moved across the last few feet faster than he had begun them, and touched his arm. With a visible effort, Frederick said, “We’ve been busy since school, haven’t we.” He didn’t move away from Walter’s hand, but said, “Jennings, this is my schoolmate, St John Edwards. Edwards, this is my partner, Walter Jennings.”
Walter admittedly was not clear on some of the finer points of protocol that ruled Frederick’s world, but by the way that Edwards’ eyes narrowed, he had a feeling Frederick had just scored some sort of subtle point. He bowed slightly to Edwards. “It’s a pleasure,” he said. Edwards bowed back, his face cold. Walter tried to think of a polite way to get Frederick away before he did something foolish.
He opened his mouth, but even as he did, Edwards said, “Have you heard of the Grey Ghost yet, Rochester?” and Frederick bared his teeth for real.
Walter and Mimsy exchanged a look of perfect understanding.
“Rochester, where’s the refreshment room?” said Walter piteously.
“Edwards, Bootles particularly wants to talk to you,” said Mimsy, inserting himself between Frederick and Edwards with the ease of long practice.
The next day, the newspapers had headlines screaming GREY GHOST CHALLENGES SOCIETY DETECTIVE!!!! ELEGANT TOWN RESIDENCE OF BEST FAMILY THE STAGE!!!!! and Walter had a headache. Even if Mimsy knew and was tacitly allowing Frederick access to his house, Edwards was going to make sure it was sealed tighter than a steam pipe. Frederick of course was going about his morning chores with a spring in his step and a bloodthirsty light in his eyes. Walter looked at him, sighed, and went to his shop. Maybe if he made something, he thought.
The night of the burglary Frederick spent more time than usual checking his supplies. Walter had come up with several improvements to Frederick’s little toys. Mimsy had left his house to the tender mercies of the police and Edwards. Frederick’s nominal target was an ivory carving of a small bird that was displayed in the library, where the papers that Frederick was after were kept.
Walter stopped a few houses down from Mimsy’s townhouse and slid noiselessly into the shadows. He hated staying at home but he knew better than to try to follow Frederick. There were police officers everywhere, swarming over the grounds and in front of the house. Frederick’s dark grey clothing and domino mask made him blend into the shadows as he moved. He slid noiselessly through a break in the wall into the grounds, and stood still as two policemen clumped past him. He moved from one shadow to the next until he reached the house. He took cover by a bush and considered his options. Edwards had clearly taken care to choose such men as would not be startled by mysterious noises in the shrubbery. They were all large and broad shouldered, so finding a handy lone officer was out. Stupid Edwards and his stupid planning, anyway. He pulled out one of the little toys Walter had made, a large clockwork creature that looked like a spider. He gave it an extra twist for luck and threw it toward the wall above the policemen. It landed with a metallic clang, and both policemen jumped and began to swear. It vibrated and rang and twisted in circles on the ground.
The policemen tried to grab the thing and blow their whistles at the same time. Frederick covered his mouth with a handkerchief, counted to ten, and then ran like hell as the clockwork spider exploded in a flash of light and irritating smoke. He made for an unguarded window and smashed it open, firing a smoke bomb into the room. He opened the lock from the inside, pushed the window open and climbed in the room. He just barely made it into the hallway in front of the wheezing guard.
Outside, he could hear noise and movement, as if Walter had set off some sort of distraction. From the sound and the lights flashing in the windows, it would not have been out of place during Guy Fawkes Day. Frederick grinned and ran lightly down the hall to a small closet at the end. There was a built-over passage to the library inside it; he and Mimsy had spent an instructive and interesting rainy week exploring the townhouse thoroughly once when school had been shut down for measles. Frederick wasn’t sure how old the building really was, but it had more built-over staircases, forgotten closets and boarded-over halls than even the Rochester country house.
The passage was half-jammed shut on the other end, but Frederick coaxed it open. The policemen on duty had run toward the commotion outside. No doubt Edwards was lurking somewhere, but Frederick didn’t see him. He padded over to the desk and palmed a long, narrow tube of papers. Mimsy couldn’t work openly against his family, but if the papers were there and got lost in the excitement…
Not being an idiot, Frederick lifted the bird off the the stand with a long pair of tongs, and smiled without amusement as stakes popped up around the floor and bells began to shrill. He wrapped the little bird in a quilted cloth, tucked it in a cloth, and bolted for it.
In the hallway, he heard booted steps coming from both directions. Frederick rolled his eyes and jumped for the stairs, running lightly up the flights until he reached a balcony door.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Grey Ghost,” said Edwards.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Frederick involuntarily.
This clearly threw Edwards off his prepared posing about justice. Frederick inched closer to the side of the balcony as Edwards recovered.
“It really is you,” said Edwards. His voice was blank and rather lost sounding. For a second he looked like he had back in school when one of the boys had done something to upset his stupidly sensitive sense of honor. That, more than anything, was why he had been so good as a prefect; it was hard to disappoint the stupid bastard.
Except if you were Frederick. He personally had never had any problems disappointing the Saint, and he flung his cloak toward Edwards’ face and jumped, landing on the lower roof. Edwards swore and followed him. Frederick had to admire his guts. The roof tiles were slate, and it was only a mercy that it wasn’t raining. As it was, Frederick’s excellent balance was in his favor.
Edwards finally cornered him at the end of the room. Frederick stood, poised and tense, as Edwards came closer, his hair shining white in the dim light. He looked grave and a little anxious. Frederick counted ten steps between them before Edwards spoke. “Why?” he said. His voice was lost and confused and a little angry, and for a second Frederick wished he could tell him. He hardened his heart.
“You figure it out,” he said, and stepped off the edge of the roof. He heard Edwards cry out in panicked surprise, but he was occupied with twisting and reaching out to grab the little winged machine buzzing up to meet him. As it rose up before swinging back out to the park where he would meet Walter, he saw Edwards kneeling on the roof, his face white with shock. Frederick laughed.
Edwards sprang to his feet, and as the little flyer buzzed away, Frederick called, “Better luck next time.”
Frederick, for one, was looking forward to it.