8 November, 1865
Captain Steven Rogers, formerly of the United States Army, Union forces, tilted his head back to look up at the never-changing simulacrum of the sky. There was no such thing as nighttime, when the stars pinned to the cavern ceiling failed to move and the moonish light provided by overhead fungus changed without rhyme or reason. Carriages pulled by the solid-boned equine survivors of the Fall rattled by infrequently, their wheels like gunshots on the cobbles, drivers hunched over against the damp chill. Only the candles and gas lamps provided by Mr. Fires were any relief from perpetual gloom, and it was poor mercy when held up to the warm memories of sunshine. Three months in London, but it may as well have been three centuries for his heart.
If it hadn't been for Mrs. Parker's generosity in granting him use of her spare bedroom, he feared he would have been like any other newcomer to the Neath who had no ties or favors. Living on the streets, perhaps in an abandoned tomb or a shack until he could collect enough secrets to trade for a room, dodging the constabulary to avoid a trip to New Newgate. He had surface currency, but American dollars had a poor exchange rate in echoes, if he could even find someone who would accept such a bargain. Londoners seemed mostly interested in secrets rather than money, and secrets were difficult to acquire without a level of subterfuge or outright illegality that Steve found terrible uncomfortable. Trading on gossip seemed unbefitting of a Captain, and though he was retired from duty, he took it as his moral obligation to not besmirch his position.
Melancholy pressing down on his shoulders, Steve brushed the peculiar "snow" of the Neath off his shoulders and stepped into the warmth and light of Widow Parker's home. She spared no expense on candles or gas, using them freely, until Steve could almost imagine that the world of Fallen London faded away when he entered her doors. Thick carpets patterned in rich burgundy and black lined the floors to muffle steps, and sturdy wooden furniture glowed with polish.
"Perhaps you should step into the parlor, sir," the footman said as he took Steve's cap and coat for him. "Mrs. Parker was asking about you."
Steve thanked him and hurried down the hall to the parlor, where the door had been left open and bright candlelight was spilling out.
"Captain!" The lady of the house set aside her sewing and stood, elderly face wreathed with smiles. Skirts rustled as she hurried to him, black bombazine and crepe draping her to the toes, offset only by stark white weepers and an equally pale collar. Steve didn't know how long the widow had been in mourning, but she seemed determined to see it out to the very end. Even her widow's cap was darker than the heart of the Neath. "I near sent Peter to find you. You never take so long on your errands! Did all go well?"
Steve let her embrace him, as it seemed to give the woman joy to treat him as a son, and he could not deny it eased his own heart some. Before descending, he'd not quite grasped the pleasure such a small touch could give. How much we take for granted. After a day spent hunting the depths of Fallen London for information, a smile that didn't better suit a corpse was a welcome sight for his soul, and another American voice was even grander. "As well as could be hoped, ma'am. I found some possible work on Watchmaker's Hill, and hope to no longer be an inconvenience to you soon."
She let out a delicate little huff of indignation and tightened her arms, gripping him to her bosom so thoroughly that he couldn't escape. For all her age, she was strong; Steve suspected that he wouldn't be able to leave her arms even had he wanted it. "Don't be ridiculous. You're hardly an inconvenience, and I'll not hear another word of the sort."
Touched, Steve risked hugging her back. "Thank you kindly, but—"
Mrs. Parker's grip switched to his arms to give him a solid shake before setting him free. "I said, not another word. Now, come along to the kitchen. You're late enough that the cook and maid have gone to bed, but I took the liberty of making a hot meal for you, and you received a letter this afternoon. One of Peter's little friends delivered it while you were out."
Touched by the effort she'd put in to cooking a meal with her own two hands, Steve had no choice but to follow her to the kitchen where the odd cookery only found in London waited. "A letter? From the surface?" He didn't know anyone in the city who would be sending him correspondence. A few contacts made, perhaps, but no friends to be found other than the ones who shared their roof with him.
The widow directed him to the table, all but forcing him down into a chair with a stern look and a pointed touch. "No, not at all," Mrs. Parker said as she bustled about the kitchen, scooping piles of roasted mushrooms and slices of what he could only hope was beef. "It's devil's parchment. You don't find that up above."
Devil's parchment? Steve feared what sort of monstrosity such a thing was. His imagination painted panoramas of rusty-red ink on human skin, or perhaps fashioned out of the dying cry of a child's soul.
When Steve failed to respond in a suitable time, Mrs. Parker turned, still holding a tureen of some sort of root vegetable. "It's made from mushrooms," she laughed, blue eyes bright with amusement. "The large ones that grow near the Observatory. Anyone can purchase it at the Bazaar, but it's somewhat expensive all the same. They say it will refuse the ink of a lie."
Feeling a fool, Steve ducked his head. "Expensive? By my standard, or by yours?"
She shook her head and turned back to loading his plate with more food than he thought he could eat in a week; Mrs. Parker was half-certain that Steve was still growing, despite being a decorated Captain of twenty and five years. "By mine, now, as well. Cheese does not sell so well down here as it does above," she confessed calmly, turning to slide the plate in front of him. "I think it may be the air causing it to mature differently. I'm looking into a side-business to help. Now, eat up."
Steve frowned, but obediently picked up his fork to prod at the foodstuffs that had been presented to him. He didn't recognize most of them, but that was most likely for the best, all things considered. "Do you need help? I would be glad to lend my hand."
"I shall be certain to ask if I've need of a strong back." She patted his head, pushing her fingers through his hair as if he were a small child in need of comfort. "Eat your vegetables, there's a lad."
The devil's parchment seemed heavy in his hand as Steve made his way up the stairs to the spare bedroom. It felt nearly like normal paper, but there was a slick sheen to it that wasn't quite right. Other than his name and address, there were no identifying marks on the missive at all; even the wax seal that held it folded was a simple dollop without emblem or design.
Peter, the widow's nephew, trailed him up the stairs, footsteps bouncing every other step. "Who is it from?" he demanded breathlessly, with impudence that Steve never would have tolerated in a man but somehow found charming in the child. He was in his nightclothes, having put off bed in order to better pester Steve. "May I read it for you? Are there secrets involved?"
"I don't know who it's from, no, and I don't know," Steve answered absently as he pushed open the door to his room.
Though not the highest of fashions, everything in the room was comfortable and well-made. The bed was actual wood, with metal framework that had yet to be touched by the damp that almost everything succumbed to. The bedclothes provided by the widow were, he was certain, made by the widow's own hand, fine linens in snowy white, topped by a quilt of scarlet and brilliant blue that was so daintily made that the stitches vanished into the fabric. Even the desk was solid oak, with scars and scratches, but more than suitable for Steve's art when he needed it.
Scamp that he was, Peter scurried in ahead of Steve and perched on the chair next to the small desk, knees drawn up to his chest. "May I watch as you read it?" he begged, eyes huge and pleading in his face. "I'll be quiet! Ask Aunt May, no one is as quiet as me. I could sneak up on a sorrow spider if I chose, I swear!"
Somehow, Steve found such a boast difficult to believe, but it brought a smile to his lips regardless. "You may watch," he conceded as he took a seat on the bed. "But silently, and I cannot promise to reveal anything in particular."
Peter nodded eagerly and pressed his hands over his mouth, signaling his agreement with the deal.
Bucky would have liked Peter, Steve realized with a sudden pang. Being the youngest son had been a long complaint of his; having a younger boy to cause mischief with would have suited him down to the ground, and perhaps made him realize precisely the sort of troubles he caused Steve in their youth.
Shaking off the dark thoughts, Steve slid his finger under the wax seal and opened the letter. The hand was a neat one, penmanship softly curved and gentle to the eye, save when it inexplicably turned sharp and jagged, as if written by another person entirely. Curious, Steve began to read.
My dearest Captain...
From the very first sentence, his face grew hot, a blush suffusing his cheeks until he glowed like a foxfire candle in the night. Instinctively, he leaned away from the shocking words, as if the sheer audacity of them might cause the paper to burst into flames at any moment. Every word seemed to drip with licentiousness, and he could nearly hear the rolling purr of a voice born of dark corners and spiced honeywine. Decorum told him without a doubt that he should cease reading immediately, and perhaps send a sharp note in response. In spite of that, his eyes hurried on, drinking the words as if they were water after a week spent in the parched depths of Arabia.
...if only I could convey the very great pleasure even the brush of your hand against mine gives me, and how eagerly I dream of those touches in more intimate scenes...
The harsher script took over where the letter turned even more scandalously blunt, hinting at acts that he hadn't thought to dream of, and yet was now certain that he would. Ink blurred and splattered at some points, from a pen not quite sharp, making it thankfully difficult to read precisely what the letter-writer intended to do with his army-issued belt. By the time he reached the end, the air had vanished from his lungs entirely, and he was certain that standing would afford the front of his trousers a most ignominious silhouette.
It was signed only with a blurred, soft-edged heart, and your most secret admirer in crisper text. Steve stared at the signature, trying to wrap his mind around precisely what he'd just read. It was closer to madness than even the dreams of dead men and storms had brought him, and yet exquisitely so.
Forgotten at the desk, Peter finally made a great burst of sound behind his locked fingers and nearly fell forward in his eagerness. "What does it say?" he blurted out. "You're so red— are you angry? Did someone get hurt? Is it from America?"
Impossibly, Steve's flush grew even brighter when he recalled that he wasn't alone in the room. He crossed his legs hurriedly, to hide away the evidence of the letter's contents, hopefully before Peter could see and ask ever more inappropriate questions. "It's private," he replied, throat tight and voice rough. "Perhaps the next one can be shared."
Peter's shoulders slumped. "Oh."
The faint raising of the ink caressed Steve's skin as he ran his thumb along it. It, too, was different than he was used to, bumpy and textured, almost as if it were thicker than normal ink. "Your aunt said that one of your friends delivered this. Could you send a letter back the same way?"
Instantly, the young boy's shoulders straightened and the spark returned to his eyes. "Sure I can! Miles can give it to the courier he got it from, and then she can take it where she got it."
Steve glanced down at the letter, then back up at Peter, in case the thing burned itself into his eyes. "I would be grateful," he finally said. "But for now, I think it best you see yourself to bed, before your aunt's wrath comes down on us."
Brimming with helpful glee, Peter stammered out an agreement and ran off, closing the door behind him. As soon as he was alone, Steve fell back to the mattress, parchment still in hand. A polite note in response wouldn't be too much, he reasoned. It was a very thoughtful piece of correspondence, after all, and the writer clearly was enamored. More to the point, if what Mrs. Parker had said about the paper was correct, then every word on it was the absolute truth. That sort of soul-baring positively necessitated a reply. He could write it before bed, and have it sent off very first thing on the morrow.
After, perhaps, a thorough rereading.