by Hana Chikai (羽名血海)
There was, as there always is, a boy. His name was Michel Valentine, and imagine for a moment if you will a tall, lanky figure with messy brown hair, a wide mouth with smiles tucked into its corners, and blue eyes that look far older and wiser than his nineteen years. He was on his way to Bytherand to look for work, as many do; he had apprenticed with the physician in his town for three years, and Doctor Louis had declared Michel ready for bigger things. Of course, he had only said so after walking in on Michel sealing a gash on an unconscious farmhand’s leg with nothing but his thoughts.
It hadn’t been easy parting with his mother, but Michel had carefully packed the reference papers from Doctor Louis, shouldered his bag and hefted his case, and walked bravely out into the world.
The gleaming city of Bytherand sprawled beneath his feet as he clambered up a hillock to peer down at his soon-to-be home. Behind him, passengers and crew alike were milling about the little station and stretching their legs before the last three hours of the overnight locomotive journey into Bytherand itself. Michel grinned down at the billowing clouds of steam and the lone hovering airship in the skies above, soaking in the first rays of dawn, and hoped everything would go well.
The main traffic artery of Bytherand was called Arthur Street, and was a fascinating study in Bytherand society. As Michel strolled down the road, the buildings started to get older and the horse-drawn carriages clopping along the cobblestones gave way to the metallic purr of automobiles. A slight commotion caught his attention, and Michel turned to see a man in a rather smart-looking ensemble; his hat alone looked more expensive than Michel’s entire outfit. He looked rather put-out, though, sitting on a bench along the fence of a small, pretty park and clutching his shoulder while another man, probably a carriage driver, apologised profusely at him.
From what Michel could gather from the conversation, the well-dressed man had been driving past when the carriage horse had gotten spooked by the noise of the automobile’s engine; the former had then alighted and tried to calm the horse but had gotten kicked in the shoulder for his efforts. Michel glanced over at what was probably the horse in question; it looked docile enough, with its head in a nosebag and its tail switching in a calm, unbothered manner.
Still, the doctor in him felt like he needed to do something when there was someone in need, so Michel walked up to where the driver was being waved off impatiently. “Are you injured, sir?” he ventured. “I’m a doctor, can I help?”
“I think it’s dislocated,” the man said with a distinctive pout in his voice. “I have aerial drills tomorrow, this is ridiculous.”
“May I, sir?”
The man let go of his shoulder. Michel took one look and realized that it was really quite a clean dislocation; a quick push in the right direction with a liberal application of Michel’s personal ‘medicine’ would set it properly. “Now sit still,” he instructed, placing his hands on the man’s back and torso. “I’ll count to ten. One, two,” and then he shoved, both with his hands and his mind. There was an awful clicking sound and then a garbled throaty noise, and suddenly Michel was nose-to-nose with a lot of justified but no less amusing rage.
“You said ten,” came the inevitable accusation.
“You would have tensed,” Michel replied serenely. “Stretch the shoulder out every hour or so and don’t sleep on that side tonight, and you should be well enough to do your drills tomorrow.”
“You’re one of a kind, aren’t you,” muttered the stranger, but rolled his shoulder lightly anyway. “What’s your name? I’m Antoine Mellor, pleased to meet you.”
Michel shook the offered hand obediently. “Michel Valentine, sir.”
“Well, Doctor Valentine, welcome to Bytherand.” And then Antoine was gone, driving off with a guttural engine roar.
An hour and a half later, Michel found himself standing in front of a well-dressed older gentleman with a monocle and eyebrows that may or may not have been possessed by the devil.
“Louis sent you, you say,” the professor muttered under his breath, and the left eyebrow climbed upward. “I don’t know why he bothered writing references; his penmanship is completely illegible.” The right eyebrow joined it up top, and the eyes below it glanced up at Michel. “How old are you again, boy?”
Both eyebrows met in the middle as the professor frowned. “Young. Have you completed any surgical procedures successfully?”
“Describe,” came the command.
“I’ve set several broken bones, reset a dislocated shoulder, stitched up lots of people, prescribed remedies and medicines for quite a few colds and the like, and I assisted in two births. Mostly bringing the water and towels, and smelling salts for the husbands,” he added.
“And how many of those had… extra help?”
Michel winced mentally. He knew Doctor Louis had sent him to Professor Jacques because the professor was one of very few practitioners of a very specific study of medicine, but nobody except his own mother and the good doctor had ever talked to Michel about it. “I usually only think at them to reduce the pain and close the wound as much as possible, sir,” he explained. “I don’t use it for hay fever and things that don’t involve bleeding or breaks.”
It took a few tense silent minutes, but the eyebrows seemed to come to a conclusion about him, and the right one waggled slightly as if in greeting as the professor extended a hand. “Welcome to the University of Bytherand, Doctor Valentine.”
With a grateful smile, Michel took it. “I’m extremely pleased to be here, Professor.”
“Call me Jacques,” said the professor, shaking once before letting go and turning back to the burner he had turned off when Michel first arrived in the laboratory. “And before you ask, I do not have a last name.”
A nice lady named Genevieve was the head administrator of the university, and she got the paperwork settled for Michel efficiently and cheerfully. Later, standing outside in the sunshine, Michel examined the papers she had given him. The booklet contained instructions for new apprentices, including useful offices, book stores and apothecaries, while the paper bore only an address and directions to said address. Michel tucked the sheaf into his jacket pocket, hefted his case, and set off to look for 93 Pond Road.
93 Pond Road turned out to be one of a row of houses on the edge of the campus. Michel walked up the steps to the main door and rapped the knocker.
Michel soon found out that rent for the attic room was significantly lower, due to its small size, occasional spider and the sheer number of steps one had to climb to get to it. Michel wasn’t a small man, but wasn’t bothered by spiders and didn’t have much money, so half an hour later he was climbing said stairs and unlocking a door with worn white paint on it.
The room was tiny and the ceiling sloped dramatically, but it wasn’t too low for Michel’s six feet and two inches. He cheerfully unpacked, and two hours (and a very delicious supper) later was sitting by the little window in his room, looking out over the city. Bytherand looked quite different in the evening; the university campus was lit by gas lamps, but once out of the main gate, the streets leading up to the castle walls were lined with electric lights. Windows up and down the city were slowly lighting up, and the whole thing looked rather like glowing orange and white stars in a murky brick and steel sky.
The next day dawned warm and bright, and Michel was strolling past the statue of King Adrien in the main courtyard when a familiar voice hailed him. He turned to see the man whose shoulder he had fixed standing beneath an archway with a group of strangers; they were all wearing identical leather coats.
“Good morning, Doctor Valentine,” Antoine said cheerfully, breaking away from the other men to fall into step with Michel. “I do hope my shoulder’s well enough to fly today.”
Michel smiled and returned the greeting. “It will be,” he assured Antoine; a mental prod at the other man’s shoulder proved as much. “Just make sure you don’t lean your entire weight on that arm.” He paused. “What exactly are you going to be doing, may I ask?”
“You really are new to Bytherand, aren’t you?” Michel nodded. “Well, you’re in luck! The 37th Squadron is going to be performing several aerial drills today, and the public is welcome to view the proceedings.”
“So all of you are just going to get into your aeroplanes and then… fly around?”
Antoine laughed as they entered the College of Medicine. “We’re actually practicing formations for battle and making sure the planes run well, but yes, we are going to get into our aeroplanes and then fly around.” He winked at Michel and pointed with his chin towards the door marked ‘Professor Jacques’. “I’m sure you’ll be dragged to stand by with bandages and the like by Jacques.”
Michel was actually quite alarmed by the idea of people in metal frames that weren’t on the ground like proper vehicles should be, but didn’t say so; Antoine looked extremely excited about having people watch him fly his aeroplane. Besides, Michel was pretty sure he could save any falling planes from crashing horribly. Instead, he asked with a suitably apologetic look, “I’m terribly sorry for asking, but how exactly am I to address you? By your rank, or…?”
Another deep laugh. “I’m technically supposed to be referred to by my rank, but you may call me Antoine. Or Captain, if you like.”
The door beside them opened. “Antoine,” Professor Jacques said, raising an eyebrow.
“Good morning, Jacques. I was just delivering your apprentice.” Antoine gave Michel a hearty pat on the back and then turned to leave. “I do expect to see you both at the air field this afternoon, hear?”
“Yes, sir,” Jacques replied wryly, and waited for Antoine to leave before turning back into the room. “I didn’t realise you knew Antoine.”
“I ran into him yesterday and mended his shoulder,” Michel explained, setting his bag down on a clear space on one of the benches. “I didn’t know he was a military officer.”
Jacques’ eyebrows were going to kill him in his sleep one day, Michel decided, as he watched them fold together in a frown before nearly disappearing into the professor’s already receding hairline. Pushing a stack of books across a table at Michel and indicating the glue that Michel was to use to mend the tomes, he asked, “You think he is just a captain, then?”
“Well, unless he was joking with calling him that and he’s actually just a regular airman,” Michel said, confused, picking up the pot of glue.
Jacques sighed faintly, his attention mostly on the liquid in the flask above a small burner; it was turning from green to pink as it heated. “My duties in Bytherand are varied,” he began in a tone of voice that Michel was sure was the one he used in lectures. “The most obvious one is that I teach the art and craft of medicine and surgery to small children that can barely stand the sight of blood.” Michel was mildly offended, but was willing to let it go; the professor was probably seventy years old and Michel and the undergraduates of the college were nothing but babies to him.
“The second is that of scientist,” Jacques continued. “I concoct new medicines and investigate diseases.” He reached for a notebook and scribbled something into it before turning the burner off. “Thirdly, I am one of the many military surgeons serving the royal armed forces of Bytherand. Do be careful with those books,” he suddenly added. “It is extremely difficult to find books on certain subjects, and I do not fancy having to replace the ones I already have.”
For the first time since opening the bottle of paste, Michel read the title of the book he was holding, a thick green volume with beautiful illuminated letters on each page and extremely worn gilding on the cover. “The Magicke of the Worlde,” he read out loud. “An Introductione to the Forces that Guide Oure Lives.”
“I expect you to read all of those, cover to cover, once they are repaired.” Jacques eased his monocle off and slipped it into the pocket of his waistcoat. “As I was saying, I am a military surgeon, specifically posted to the air forces, and will be training you to become one as well. And finally, and most importantly, I am the head royal physician. This means I see to the health and medical needs of the royal family, who are, at this point in time, King Adrien and his son.” The professor gave Michel a pointed look. “Prince Antoine Stephan Leon Adrien Mellor.”
Michel’s jaw dropped. And so did the brush in his hand, thankfully onto the table’s surface and not the books. Jacques’ eyebrows judged him even as the professor reached over and picked the brush up. “Now that everything is clear, do continue. I expect you to have all these – as well as these medical texts – fixed and read, and you ready for discussion and practical application, by this time next week.”
The aerial drills were spectacular; by the second loop-the-loop, Michel forgot how flimsy a few sheets of metal and bolts could be, and applauded and gasped with the large crowd gathered around the air field as the pilots zipped past each other and formed patterns that presumably had something to do with military strategy and not just making the audience scream with delight. At the end of it, Michel only had the chance to wave at a beaming Antoine before hurrying to pack the medical tent and follow Jacques back to the laboratory for lessons and book repair.
The next few months were spent in a similar fashion. In the morning, Michel would report to Jacques, who would rattle off all sorts of questions on things like domestic uses of levitation magic and how they differed from other, more industrial uses, as well as more mundane medical knowledge such as how to undo a tourniquet properly. Lunch was often a hurried affair at the cafeteria down the hall, and then it was back to chemical analyses and practical lessons on the things Jacques had quizzed Michel about. Sometimes Jacques would leave Michel to the books while the professor went and taught various lectures, but at other times Michel would shadow him as he brought the undergraduates to the university’s hospital, lecturing about a random patient’s symptoms.
Michel had once again run into Antoine, who was extremely good-natured about the rank thing. Michel had babbled a lot and apologised when they had first seen each other after the drills. The conversation may have gone something like this:
“Good day, Doctor Valentine,” Antoine had said, stepping into place behind Michel in the line at the medical college’s cafeteria.
Michel had taken one look at the person now standing beside him and burst out, “Antoi—I mean, Your Highness. Um. Good afternoon.”
“I see Jacques has let the cat out of the bag,” the prince had remarked, a teasing smile on his face.
“Yes, and I’m dreadfully sorry for my rudeness,” Michel had said fervently. “I would never have been so presumptuous had I known.”
Antoine had grinned, all crinkled blue eyes and perfectly-arranged blond hair. Michel remembered noticing that the prince had oddly pointy eyeteeth; it was alarmingly endearing and not exactly regal and princely. “I did mean it, though,” he’d said cheerfully. “Call me Antoine. It’s your turn, by the way.”
Michel had hurriedly ordered the chicken and salad and turned back to Antoine. Before he could say anything, however, the prince told the girl at the counter to “make that two”, paid swiftly for both meals, ignored Michel’s protests, and invited Michel to join him for lunch with a raised eyebrow and another wide smile. They had had a good conversation, actually, once Michel had gotten over his own dreadful manners and Antoine had assured him several times that really, nobody called him Your Highness, and yes, Michel would still have to call the king Your Majesty, should they ever meet.
Summer heightened and then waned, giving way to a permanent grey cover of smoke and steam over the city as the air got chillier, the nights grew longer and heaters were turned on more frequently. Michel noticed the increasing number of immense airships in the smoggy sky above Bytherand, and remarked on them to Antoine one afternoon over what was fast becoming their usual Tuesday lunch; the prince was attending basic surgical lectures as part of his pilot training and had been in the cafeteria line with Michel so often that it started turning into routine for both of them.
“They’re surveillance airships,” Antoine explained. “They monitor the skies for potential air threats like enemy fighters, and can communicate wirelessly with a base on the ground.” He lowered his voice and added conspiratorially, “They also look really intimidating, don’t you think?”
The presence of the airships was only the start; Michel found himself preparing a lot more medicines and dressings than he thought was strictly necessary for a military not actually having a war, and Jacques had decided that books on gunshot wounds and defensive magic were suddenly more useful than those on broken limbs and theories on the origins of magic. Aerial drills had become less festive and more regimented, and once Antoine had mentioned being exhausted from strategy meetings with the heads of the military and his father.
Whether or not the country was preparing for a war, time still passed, and the wonderful red leaves of the tree just outside 93 Pond Road began to fall. One morning, Michel woke up freezing, and was painfully glad of his magical powers as he warmed his room up with a wave of a shivering hand. At least he had the fireplace in Jacques’ office to look forward to.
Naturally, the day was spent on standby at the air field. Jacques had declared Michel ready for solo duty, and promptly disappeared to a lecture, leaving Michel with two cases full of bandages and medicines and a deep frown.
The medical tent was as cold as Michel expected, and he tucked his hands into his magically-warmed overcoat pockets as the pilots ran laps and then got dressed for drills. He knew his presence was a necessity – the main building had a fully-stocked infirmary, but if there were any mishaps in the air, being able to sprint across the field to a landed, injured pilot could mean the difference between life and death – but it was extremely unpleasant. An eternity later, they all landed and got debriefed without any problems that Michel needed to address, and he gratefully packed his supplies, already dreaming of a hot cup of tea.
As he pulled his gloves back on and prepared to head back to the university, the steaming cup of tea from his dreams floated in front of him, followed closely by a man wearing a leather coat and a smile.
“You really needn’t,” Michel said half-heartedly, already reaching out for the tea. It was a bit too hot and scalded his tongue a little, but it warmed him up in a wonderful inside-out way magic would never.
“Thank you for staying out here and waiting for nothing,” Antoine said, even as Michel added that in this case, waiting for nothing was a good thing. The prince’s smile grew wider, and he continued, “I also wanted to invite you to the winter dance. It’ll be on the twentieth of next month at the castle.”
Michel couldn’t help but ask, “Aren’t you supposed to invite a pretty girl?” and then felt himself turn pink. He drank more tea in an attempt to cover it up.
Antoine laughed. “I can invite anyone I want to. I’ve already asked my boys.” He gestured at the other pilots, and those who noticed waved at Michel. “Do come, the food is fantastic.”
“In that case, thank you for the invitation; I will be there.” He finished the tea and was wondering what to do with the empty cup when Antoine reached over and took it from him. It was weird; should the crown prince of the country really be bringing him tea and fetching the crockery afterward?
“Wonderful,” the prince in question enthused, utterly unconcerned with the mental image Michel had of so-called typical princes. “I’ll see you there!” And then he was loping back across the grass to the catering tent.
Jacques had been singularly unhelpful when it came to preparations for the dance, and only commented that Michel had better dress appropriately. Michel wasn’t even sure what kind of clothing was acceptable; he’d been wearing the same few shirts and pairs of trousers since he got to Bytherand, with an additional scarf and jacket or coat, depending on the weather. He mentioned as much to Monique, the trainee nurse in neighbouring 95 Pond Road, and she immediately brightened and offered to take him to a tailor she knew.
Which was how, barely over a month and a significant percentage of his pay later, Michel found himself dressed to the nines and walking through the draughty stone corridors of Bytherand Castle, occasionally marvelling at the contrast between the brass and steel of the pipes and lamps installed throughout the castle, and the carved stonework of the archways and gargoyles. The main hall was supposed to be on his left, straight down and then immediately to the right, according to the footman at the main gate, but Michel had followed those directions and ended up in this corridor. He hoped he ran into someone soon.
Scarcely had he thought the words did he see someone in evening dress and a top hat walking briskly from the opposite end of the corridor. “Hello,” Michel called out. “Good evening. I appear to be somewhat turned around… Antoine?”
The prince stopped and looked up from where he was peering at his pocket watch. “Doctor Valentine,” he greeted warmly. “You look fantastic, but this is completely the wrong place to show yourself off in.” He slipped the watch back into his pocket and held a hand forward. “Come on, follow me.”
They walked in companionable silence for a while, before something came to Michel’s mind. “Why don’t you ever call me Michel?” he asked. “It feels odd, addressing you by your name when you keep referring to me by title.”
“That is a very good question,” Antoine mused. “Habit, I suppose. Shall I address you by your name, then?”
“Yes, please,” Michel said, somewhat hesitantly.
Antoine turned that ridiculously wide smile on him. “Good evening, Michel. You look wonderful tonight.”
“That’s the second time you’ve said that,” Michel observed, embarrassed. He didn’t think he was particularly interesting-looking, what with his hair always flopping into his eyes and all, but Antoine’s compliments seemed genuine.
“Well, it’s true.” They reached an area of the castle that was far more populated, and with a lopsided smile Antoine disappeared into the crowd to mingle and do princely society things. Michel went off in search of Jacques or maybe Laurence, one of the pilots he was friendlier with.
Two hours later, in the company of the 37th Squadron minus their captain, Michel had to admit that Antoine was right, and that the food was fantastic. Earlier in the evening King Adrien had made a speech about peace and goodwill and how the Bytherand military would crush all that threatened the country, except he said it with long words and meaningful euphemisms; Michel was reminded of the airships that were still hovering in the clouds, glowing gold from the lights of the city. There was a lot of dancing going on, and several pilots had gone and found pretty girls in flowing jewel-coloured dresses to dance with. Michel, not knowing any girls nor how to dance, had just sat at the group’s small table and eaten a shocking number of tiny pudding cups. The paper moulds that the pudding came in were stacked up high next to his elbow.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” came a familiar voice, and Antoine unceremoniously prodded at Gerard until the latter got out of his chair; the prince then sank gratefully into it. “I hope your feet are not suffering the same anguish that mine are.”
“That’s what you get for being available and nice,” Gerard said, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had danced with at least ten different women throughout the night. “Plus, the whole royalty thing really gets girls up in arms.”
Michel spooned pudding into his mouth and watched the pilots rib their leader, who grinned at them all and took it good-naturedly. It was a far cry from the stories he’d grown up with; the princes in the stories were always on horses, didn’t talk much, saved princesses from evil stepmothers, and generally swooped about being heroic and brave and dashing. They certainly didn’t pilot aeroplanes (though Michel thought maybe they were the modern equivalent of noble steeds), and didn’t bring tea to apprentice doctors, and most certainly didn’t steal said apprentice doctor’s pudding cups.
“This is delicious,” Antoine said happily, tipping the entire pudding into his mouth. “I can see why Michel is devouring the kitchen’s entire stock.” He winked at Michel, who nudged the empty cups further away guiltily. “Come on, Doctor, let’s dance.”
“I don’t know how to,” Michel confessed, gripping his spoon defensively. Laurence had already asked earlier, much to Michel’s shock; it was only after turning down that request that Michel had noticed a handful of men dancing with other men, and women with women.
Antoine shrugged and got to his feet, holding a gloved hand out. “I’ll lead, then. You can’t come to a dance and not, well, dance.”
It was really awkward to be led out onto a dance floor by another man, but Michel allowed his hands to be positioned, one at Antoine’s shoulder and one out to one side, grasped gently by one of Antoine’s. A new song started up, and Michel shuffled nervously along as Antoine stepped about gracefully; the prince was nice and warm under his hands.
“Are you having a good time?” Antoine asked, and Michel realised with some surprise that the other man was actually half a head shorter than he was. How had he never realised it?
“The food is extremely good,” Michel offered. “Thank you for inviting me.”
“You’re very welcome, Michel.” They twirled around in time to the music, talking of the various dinner courses and what the pilots had been saying about Antoine in his absence. “Have I told you how nice you look?”
“Thrice,” was the dry reply; Michel was fairly sure Antoine was just being silly by now. “You look absolutely ravishing yourself, Your Highness.”
Antoine’s expression suddenly flickered, prompting Michel to step back a little in surprise; he hadn’t realised how close they had gotten. “What do you think of me, Michel?”
Michel was confused by this sudden turn in the conversation, and nearly trod on Antoine’s foot. “Well, you’re the prince of this country, and you’re a military pilot who likes to fly aeroplanes.” When Antoine didn’t say anything but nodded in encouragement, Michel racked his brain for more possible answers. “You’re not at all what a prince is supposed to be in stories. You’re shockingly nice to everybody. You prefer fish to chicken, but chicken to lamb. Your teeth are adorable,” he added stupidly, and wondered when the hall had gotten so hot.
Antoine grinned suddenly. “My teeth?” he asked, and his grip on Michel’s hand tightened. “Do you really think so?”
“Well, yes,” was all Michel could say before Antoine suddenly stepped away, whirled, and tugged Michel off the dance floor, out of the hall and down some stairs until they were standing directly under an archway with a particular ornate-looking lamp.
“I have to do something,” Antoine said in a low voice. Michel felt his pulse speed up for reasons he was sure he knew but couldn’t really articulate, so he kept silent, feeling his heart thud in his throat and chest and, for some reason, his head. He nodded, just slightly, apprehensive.
And then Antoine leaned up, just a little, and kissed him softly on the mouth.
Michel staggered, and stepped backwards. Antoine’s lips thinned into a line, and he didn’t move. “I’m sorry,” he ground out.
“Don’t be,” Michel said automatically, and then realised he meant it. “I just didn’t expect that.” He took a step forward hesitantly, back into the puddle of light. Antoine frowned, but didn’t move away; Michel grasped at a hint that may not have existed and pressed his lips to the prince’s.
They stood that way for long seconds, and then Antoine reached up to grasp Michel’s arms, tilted his head back, and suddenly they were pressed up against the stone wall behind Michel, tongues tangling and Michel’s hand in Antoine’s lovely blond hair. Michel’s knees felt a bit like the pudding he had been eating, and the fact that Antoine’s hands were cradling his jaw and unbuttoning his waistcoat wasn’t helping matters. Michel really wanted to reciprocate, but Antoine had a funny sash over his waistcoat and a great number of medals all over the front of his jacket, and Michel didn’t want to dislodge any of them.
A sudden noise made them both jump, and Antoine was suddenly arm’s length away, his lips messily swollen and cheeks flushed. He mumbled something about needing to go, and Michel waited for him to leave guiltily as they adjusted their clothing, but he didn’t move.
“Well, come on, then,” Antoine said instead, holding a hand out; Michel took it, confused, and they walked in silence, hand in hand, back to the dance hall, where they fell back into conversations and dances like they were never gone. But Antoine’s blue eyes caught Michel’s over the snow white hairdo of an elderly guest, and Michel’s ankle caught Antoine’s beneath the unofficial squadron table, and future conversations hung in the air between them like winter frost.
Five days later, the war began.
It started with sirens and the flickering, unmistakeable glow of fire; Michel woke with a start and peered out of his attic window, but he couldn’t see anything but reflected orange light in the clouds. There was a queer wailing sound piercing the once-silent night, and Michel hurriedly got dressed. Jacques had briefed him on this; if there were sirens, no matter the time of day or night, Michel was to report to Jacques’ office, and they would head directly to the air field. As he all but ran to the college of medicine, faint explosions and the crackling of fire in his ears, the implications of the instructions bled into his consciousness: the aerial drills and strategy meetings were about to see practical application, which also meant that the 37th Squadron would almost certainly be deployed.
Jacques didn’t say anything when Michel opened the door, merely shoved a flask of hot tea into his apprentice’s hands, lifted his sturdy black bag, and strode out the door. Michel picked up the remaining two cases and hurried after him. The drive to the air field was tense, and the grim faces of the air base personnel didn’t help to ease the lump in Michel’s chest.
It turned out there needed to be hours of discussions and pointing at maps and lots of shouting before anything could be done, and by the time the last meeting was done, it was almost nine in the morning. Michel sat in the infirmary, wrapped his hands miserably around the flask of tea, wondering if any of the shouting men in impressive uniforms had had breakfast yet.
Someone sat down beside him. Michel assumed it was Jacques until a leather-gloved hand reached over and took his. “Do you want to get some breakfast?” Antoine asked, already in his flying jacket and hat, goggles slung around his neck. Michel nodded, and Antoine pressed a kiss to his temple and pulled him in the direction of the mess hall.
Various military men were just emerging from long meetings and pouring themselves steaming cups of coffee and tea, and Michel slipped through the crowd with his hand still in Antoine’s and managed to procure a plate of sausages and eggs. They sat at one end of the long squadron table, not speaking. Antoine’s leg remained pressed against his the entire time, however, and Michel grasped his hand in gratitude before making his way back to the infirmary.
The 41st Squadron was the first to be sent out, the planes’ small size and quiet engines ideal for reconnaissance. It was an extremely tense two hours that most people spent talking quietly in small groups or bellowing loudly into wireless communicators, and before anyone knew it the planes had landed again; there were three men with burns and other injuries for Jacques, Michel and the infirmary staff to tend to, and one man who was sent straight to the morgue.
It turned out there were fires all across the city, occasionally extending out into the fields beyond, but there hadn’t been any bombs (yet, crept the unspoken word through everyone’s minds). Michel wrapped up arms and heads, thinking them better, and knowing that Lieutenant Durand’s sight would never return despite the power Michel poured into him. Jacques pulled Michel aside and told him to reserve the magic for someone who could still be saved, and Michel excused himself to the lavatories and cried for ten minutes before returning, dry-eyed and determined, to reassure Lieutenant Bertrand that yes, it would scar, but he would recover full use of his hands eventually.
The day passed without much else happening beyond that initial deployment of the 41st, and there were meetings all the way into the night. Jacques and Michel were relieved by three other doctors, and they left at ten at night; Michel didn’t get to see Antoine.
More fires broke out, and the city had been put under high alert, but things continued to not happen. Antoine managed to find a few minutes away from the countless meetings to kiss Michel breathless behind shelves of medicines, and to inform him that there were definitely enemy troops coming in from neighbouring Thevon, but that was still too far out to tackle; there didn’t seem to be any immediate air threat beyond defensive airships just beyond Bytherand’s borders. Then they had kissed for another long while and Michel had been divesting Antoine of that ridiculously attractive leather coat when someone outside shouted for Antoine, and they parted reluctantly.
Apparently Antoine had spoken too soon, because the very next day bombs began falling onto Bytherand, and the 36th Squadron was to be sent out to gun down the bombers. Michel bit his lip and felt bad for being thankful that it wasn’t the 37th, even as he put together batches of burn creams and rolls of bandages.
The attack went well; Thevon was obviously under the impression that Bytherand had been caught unaware by the bombing, and weren’t prepared to have an aerial battle. Casualties were mercifully few, and all the men survived, even if a limb or two didn’t. Michel had his first go at amputating a leg, and even though the surgery went well and Michel hardly had to use his magic at all, he still had to sit outside in the cold air afterward, inexplicably wishing he had a cigarette.
Progress of the enemy troops was slow, according to Antoine and his men, Michel’s news sources, but it would be any day now that the 37th Squadron was sent out to “take them out like an eagle on unsuspecting fish”, in Gerard’s words. Antoine himself continued stealing kisses and touches behind doors and other handy shelves and screens, and Michel was surprised to find himself occasionally seeking Antoine out in the mess hall and kissing him briskly and surreptitiously around corners.
Almost a month after the first fires began, the 37th Squadron was deployed. Michel flicked a pencil between his fingers and watched from a doorway, ignoring the winter air on his bare arms. The identically-dressed pilots strapped themselves in and, one by one, took off down the runway. Then he turned and went back inside to prepare the infirmary for what was to be, inevitably, another group of patients.
The wait was excruciating. Snippets of overheard conversation kept him updated; the enemy was reeling, but the squadron had not reported back, and nobody was entirely sure of the exact situation as the events were taking place too far away for safe surveillance. Michel wondered about the airships, still silent beasts, but didn’t say anything.
Suddenly, as the evening started soaking like ink through the papery sky, there were roars overhead and familiar planes began circling the base, preparing to land. Michel stood in the medical tent with his heart in his mouth, counting the planes in his mind; there were three planes short of the full number, and the ones that were back were scorched and looked extremely battered.
As the last pilot – it was Gerard, Michel noticed – was helped into the infirmary, Michel heard a shrill inhuman scream come from overhead. It was an engine of some kind, one that none of the medical staff seemed to be able to identify and that the pilots collectively shrunk into their beds at. Michel frowned at this uncharacteristic behaviour, sewing up Gerard’s arm efficiently, and suddenly noticed that the one man he most wanted to see in the room was not there.
“He was the last to pull out,” Gerard said softly, and Michel looked up from the stitching. “Finish this up and go outside, he’ll be along soon.” Lips pressed together, Michel could only nod and leave the wound dressing to one of the other doctors before rushing out of the building.
The screaming was still tearing its way across the skies, and Michel pushed past people going in the other direction and stepped into the open air. There were two aircraft in the sky; one had the familiar colours of the Bytherand Royal Air Force’s 37th Squadron, and the other was something sleek and painted black he had never ever seen before, even with the variety of planes that the air force owned and that Michel had slowly become acquainted with over the months.
The Thevonian plane was faster, but the Bytherand pilot was more skilled; he was flying circles around the black plane, which was firing rapid bullets but missing every single shot. Michel clenched his hands in his white overcoat as the shooting stopped – maybe he ran out and would go away now – but evidently the enemy had different ideas, and flew straight at the Bytherand fighter in a suicide move that stole Michel’s breath in horror.
The propeller on the nose of the black plane ripped into the side of the smaller grey and red plane, and Michel could hear the crunching and tearing of metal that should never be mangled that way. The Bytherand plane managed to wrench away from the black plane, which fell like a discarded toy onto a far-off field and exploded, oily black smoke billowing into the air. Michel watched helplessly as the torn-open side of the grey plane exposed the pilot, who was still alive and struggling with his straps; the plane was starting to tip and spiral dangerously, and Michel was hoping that the pilot would be able to jump free and deploy his parachute when the winds ripped the hat right off the pilot’s head, exposing soot-streaked blond hair.
And then Antoine lost his battle with consciousness, still strapped into his seat, while the engine was beginning to stall; as Michel watched, the propellers gave up entirely and the plane began to dive.
An invisible shockwave thundered through the open air, ruffling Michel’s hair and making the bare branches of the nearby trees shake and clatter, and Antoine was wrenched out of his seat even as his plane crashed somewhere below. Michel began running in the direction of the wreck, his eyes never leaving the figure descending much slower than it should, and at the last moment remembered to will the parachute on Antoine’s back to open.
By the time he reached Antoine, the other man had already fallen to the ground, the canvas of his parachute covering him like an ill omen. Michel tugged at the fabric and pulled it off, hands and eyes automatically doing routine checks and hoping beyond hope that he had saved Antoine somehow, that the fall, aided by regular as well as magical means, hadn’t broken anything beyond repair.
The heartbeat was faint, but Michel felt it nonetheless; he clutched the lapels of Antoine’s coat and wondered how he was going to get help. Then hands came into his vision, and Jacques and several other people, only some of whom were medical personnel, took over. Michel mutely pointed out the various breaks and injuries he had noted to the older doctor, who nodded and began preparing to slide Antoine onto a stretcher. Suddenly, everyone was gone, and Michel was left kneeling beside a dirty parachute.
Antoine took three days to regain consciousness, and by then he had been cleaned, splinted, bandaged, stitched and magicked beyond measure. Michel was giving the patients one last check before he handed shift duty over to Doctor Fitzgerald when he heard his name being called from behind him. There were only five men laid up in the infirmary, and the four who weren’t Antoine called him Doctor Valentine; Michel turned, hoping his face didn’t look too stupid, and walked over to where Antoine was wiggling his fingers in an approximation of a wave.
“I feel like death,” was the prince’s greeting to Michel as he approached. “What happened?”
“There was an enemy plane. It crashed straight into yours when its bullets couldn’t hit you,” Michel explained through a suddenly dry mouth; he hadn’t thought about the incident since it happened, pouring himself into work, and having to relive it again was horrible. “Your plane was failing, but you must have jumped out and opened your parachute before you lost consciousness.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Your parachute was open when we found you,” Michel said, voice level. “You were probably doing it instinctively.”
There was a moment of silence as Antoine digested this information, frowned to himself a bit, then asked, “Are my injuries bad?” He tried to peer down his body, but the brace around his neck stopped him from moving his head. “I can’t feel much. I haven’t lost an arm or anything, have I?”
“You broke two ribs, both arms, your left clavicle, and your right ankle. You also have a dislocated right shoulder, a sprained neck, and cuts everywhere.” Michel poked at Antoine’s knee with his pencil and didn’t mention the cracked skull, broken jaw and collapsed lung that Michel had repaired fully, nearly knocking himself out in the process. “Your hair is also unspeakably filthy.”
Antoine grinned, and Michel’s chest tightened with how much he had missed that smile. “Scars are dashing and heroic,” he said cheerfully, then sobered up. “Can I ask you something?”
“Anything, my liege.”
“I didn’t open my parachute, did I?”
“Of course you did.” Michel glanced around the room, noted the even breathing that indicated sleep in the other patients, and leaned over to drop a kiss on Antoine’s nose. “It’s a lucky thing you did. I saw the whole thing; you would definitely have died otherwise.”
Antoine’s eyes are serious. “I didn’t open my parachute,” he repeated. “I also am quite certain I was coughing out blood before I lost consciousness, and yet you report no internal injuries. Care to explain, Doctor Valentine?”
Michel stared at him. “Could the impact have affected your stomach? It’s known to happen.”
“Perhaps, but I don’t know of any surgical process that involves nothing but the doctor’s bare hands.” Antoine glances down at Michel’s hands, which clench in nervousness.
“You were unconscious for days, how could you possibly know what kind of surgery we used on you?” Michel gripped his pencil and inched backwards. “I think you need more sleep, Antoine.”
“Don’t treat me like a child,” Antoine snapped, and suddenly Michel could see why he was the youngest captain in Bytherand military history. “What did you do, Michel?”
Michel glanced around the ward again, and sighed. “Do you feel well enough for a walk, Your Highness?”
They managed to get Antoine into a wheeled chair, and slowly they made their way to the empty doctor’s office on the other side of the ward. Michel closed the door, sat down in one of the chairs, and began telling Antoine everything. Antoine merely looked troubled throughout, not furious like Michel expected him to be.
“It was really hard mending your lung,” Michel finished lamely. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but how could I?”
“I understand.” Antoine drummed his fingers on the armrest of the chair. “Thank you for saving my life,” he added, one side of his mouth lifting. “I don’t think I could ever repay you for that.”
Michel shook his head. “I would have done it for any—” He paused. “Don’t thank me,” he said instead. “Just get better soon.” He began to lean over, but thought better of it and was sitting back again when Antoine reached up one splinted arm and gripped Michel’s chin.
“Don’t,” was all the prince had to say before he was shifting awkwardly in his seat to lean forward and kiss Michel properly. Michel melted a little, but his doctor instincts and training screamed at him to stop, so he did and pushed Antoine’s arm gently back down.
“You’ll never mend that way,” he said, amused at Antoine’s pouty expression. “Just sit still, all right?” And once he made sure that his patient and prince was arranged acceptably, he braced himself on his own armrests and kissed Antoine as hard as he could.
The war lasted over a year, and Antoine was stuck indoors for most of it under orders by the doctors, his superiors and his father to rest and concentrate on getting back to proper flying shape. Unable to go back to the front lines, he instead spent his time on meetings and battle plans, stealing occasional lunches to hide with Michel in the doctor’s office, eating chicken and chips and sharing greasy kisses.
Michel was asleep when the war ended, and he felt a sense of déjà vu when sirens began sounding across the city. Instinctively he began to dress, but paused when he realised the sound wasn’t the wailing of emergency signals nor the pulsing blare of air attack, but an actual tune, all brass and cymbals swelling like the ocean. It took him a moment to realise that it was the Bytherand national anthem, which meant only one thing.
He was at the castle within half an hour, racing past people celebrating in the streets, and waving at the guards who knew him by now as the royal physician’s apprentice. He was sprinting through a particularly dim corridor when he rounded a corner and ran straight into someone.
“I am so sorry,” Michel apologised, picking himself up off the floor and reaching a hand out to the other person. “I hope you’re not injured.”
“I think I’ll live,” Antoine said, laughing and taking the offered hand. “I take it you’ve heard our glorious anthem singing through the clouds?”
“It’s really over, then?”
“Signed, sealed, and surrendered,” Antoine said with a smirk. “Thevon never had a chance against us.” They gazed at each other, hands still grasping each other’s, and then they were kissing, Antoine’s back to the wall and Michel’s trousers suddenly, painfully tight.
Antoine pulled away first, wordlessly leading Michel up several flights of stairs and through a well-lit corridor hung with colourful tapestries and paintings. Eventually, they stopped in front of a large wooden door that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a fairytale castle. “Would you like to come in?” Antoine asked slowly.
Michel paused, and nodded. The prince flashed him a toothy smile, and they entered the room, which was really quite modern despite the medieval exterior; there was a sleek black typewriter on the enormous desk beside the window, and framed photographs on the walls. Antoine leaned against the now-closed door and smiled some more, and Michel decided he really, really liked Antoine’s smile.
“Your teeth are adorable,” he said instead, and Antoine crossed the distance between them and pulled Michel’s face down to his, their lips meeting and hats falling off somewhere onto the floor. Antoine slipped a thigh in between Michel’s, and smiled into their kiss as Michel let out a sound he never knew he was capable of making and shifted into the leg. He’d been with women before, certainly, but there was something to be said about the defined muscles of a man clad in far too much silk and cotton.
Antoine was licking at Michel’s ear, making it hard to think or even breathe, and the still air in the room closed in around them and made them pant. Michel wanted to do something in return, to make Antoine feel as good; he slipped his hand out from where it had been trying to unfasten Antoine’s waistcoat and palmed at the front of his trousers instead, and got a strangled moan for his efforts.
Suddenly Antoine dropped to his knees, tugging Michel down with him, and they rolled about on the lush carpet beneath them, kissing fervently. Michel was flat on his back with long fingers doing things to clothing that he really didn’t care to observe until all of a sudden, Antoine’s lips were back on his, and there was nothing but skin and hair and yes right there.
“That was impressive,” Michel bit out, thrusting hard into the hand Antoine had wrapped around both their erections. Antoine just grinned manically and stroked rhythmically, both their hips stuttering and Antoine nipping and licking at Michel’s ear and throat and shoulder. Michel raked blunt fingernails across Antoine’s ridiculously broad shoulders and gasped helplessly, senses overloading and toes curling and muscles clenching and all of a sudden the world was exploding around him, Antoine moaning encouragingly into his ear and following him into the wonderful shattered void.
Afterward, Antoine rolled off him and onto the carpet with a deep, blissful sigh. “Why have we never done that before?” he asked the ceiling.
“Both your arms were broken,” Michel reminded him. “We were also fighting a war.”
Antoine made a noncommittal sound; for a while, Michel thought he’d fallen asleep, but then he suddenly asked, “Is your magic specifically for healing?”
“No, I can move things with my mind as well,” Michel replied, puzzled. “I’m sure there are lots of things I can do, I’ve just never tried them.”
There was a long pause. “So,” Antoine began, his tone trying to be casual and utterly failing. “Have you ever tried using magic while having sex?”