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the wonder that's keeping the stars apart.

Chapter Text

The story of the Little Mermaid begins not at the beginning but at the very ending; when a man tells children a story.

“Can I tell you a story?” the man asked.

From the moment he saw their faces, he knew he had to tell them.

The rain raged down on Chicago, down on the streets and down on the river and almost brought down the glass roof of Union Station. The rain was coming down, drop by drop by drop per second and by a trickle, into buckets that the janitors had to mop up and the train officers had to phone the engineers, all in the case of where the glass roof was to join the rain and come down, down, down intertwined on the train-waiters, in dancing sheets of silver.

The rain came down on Jodi Erikson; it came down and nearly left her soaked, her dark hair sticking to her neck and almost coming undone into frizz and curls (despite her earlier attempts to straighten it). The rain came down on the roof and filled the grand corridors of marble with sound, to replace the words Jodi was looking for (mind your language, remember how damn lucky you are, the social worker reminded her, make a good impression because don’t count on something like this happening again.)

The rain came down on Carlo Washington also; it came down and left Carlo shivering where he was already trembling with the nerves that rattled his insides, blue now tinging the clay of his skin (hoping he cut his hair short enough for today). The rain was coming down and Carlo could only hope that water didn’t seep into his bag of store-brought hormones (as for you, the social worker noted, her voice clipped, it’s best you say little about what and… why you’re taking those things, Carla. At that stage, Carlo was too tired to fight with her.)

The rain was coming down on Chicago; down on the roofs, down on the old streets and gathered in Ned Andersen’s blue eyes, tears gathering and but not coming down; rain making his ankle-foot orthoses sing with each swing of his feet, the rain caught in the strands of his reddish-pale hair.

The rain came down and down and down, wet and pulsating and shining, and filled the silences between the three, those three sitting right next to each other on the bench, waiting for the train to come and take them away.

“Would we know this story?” Carlo asked.

A brief pause. “I would hope so,” the man mused.

“What’s it about?” Jodi sharply said.

He paused, thinking. “About mermaids.”

A light filled Carlo’s eyes. “Mermaids?”

“Like the Little Mermaid story?” Carlo asked

A smile, soft as the down of a bird, bloomed on his mouth. “Yes,” he said. “It’s a story about mermaids. And, Mr. Washington, you are most certainly right.” Carlo smiled. “But you’re also wrong.” Carlo’s smile died just a few seconds later; an expression of befuddlement replacing that recently-killed smile.

“How can someone be right and wrong at the exact same time?” Jodi piped, her cheeks now red with second-hand anger, second-embarrassment (everything about her second-hand; the clothes she wore, the hair dye she burrowed, the colour of her eyes – Ned looking at her from the corner of his gaze and seeing his own eyes, a flowing river-colour of grey and silver and dark blue, looking back at him).

“They can be right about one thing,” the man explained, the tone of his voice apologetic, “and be wrong about another thing. Because Carlo is right about it being the story of the Little Mermaid. He definitely is. But, you see, it’s more than just the story of the Little Mermaid. More than the story you’ve heard about, that is.”

“More than the Disney version?” Jodi asked.

“Yep,” Ned replied.

“Then, well,” Carlo asked, his face now wide with questions, “what is it about?”

“It’s about many things,” the man started. It’s about a place that is like Paris but isn’t Paris, a place that is like New York but isn’t New York and many other places. It’s about a time about the 1900s but isn’t the 1900s. It’s about about world that is like this world but isn’t our world.” He turned around, faced them fully in his seat, his sad eyes now meeting theirs (them looking at him and seeing déjà vu; him looking at them and seeing jamais vu instead.)

“It’s a story about the impossible becoming possible," he said, his voice low, warm and sultry, luring the two children in, his voice a siren’s voice reeling in two sailors. “It’s a story about stars and oceans and humans being humans. It’s about mermaids becoming humans, or wooden puppets becoming little boys, or even women becoming men and men becoming women.”

“Really?” Carlo asked (like me, about people like me, was Carlo’s unspoken question, his heart fluttering).

“Oh, yes,” Ned said, “it’s about change, the ways people change, big or small. It’s a story about adventure, about crime and politics and royalty and the poor. About wars and revolutions, exploration and discovery, science and magic, lust and temptation and family.

“It’s about love,” he said. His voice wavered, almost losing strength, as if the rainwater in his eyes was now filling up his throat and stopping the words from leaving his tongue. “If this story, the story of the Little Mermaid, is about anything, it’s about love. It’s about how a mermaid looked up at the sky and fell in love with the stars. How a mermaid looked at the world beyond the sea and loved it, and all the people in it so much, that she decided she wanted to become a part of it and didn’t want to leave it”

The rain was thundering down onto Chicago and, according to the news, would do so well into the night. From what Jodi heard, there could only be sunshine and warmth in Los Angeles, where the train was to take them down the railways.

The rain fell down onto the first day of Jodi Erikson and Carlo Washington’s trip to California; a special treat from Ned Andersen, an author in his 40’s, a man who held of adopting the pair and wanted to spend a little treat on them. A treat regarded as a miracle, seeing their circumstances of age (Jodi being 15 and Carlo 12) and other circumstances.

The rain fell, blue eyes meet two pairs (one blue, one dark).

The rain fell and three souls regarded each other and Jodi and Carlo didn’t want to leave his side; not for anything or anyone.

Jodi and Carlo didn’t want to leave the storyteller until they left knowing the story (even through, somewhere, in the shifting shadows of their skulls, the story dipped in and out, they remembered but also didn’t remember.)

And the man had waited so, so long to tell this story that it might as well have grown as a second heart in his chest.

Southwest Chief, Chicago to Los Angeles on aisle 21 is now boarding. The attendant called out, people rose to their fee, their feet carrying them down to the aisle with baggage in their hands.

“Do you want me to tell the story?” Ned asked.

A pause, a shared look between the two.

“Yes, yes, tell us the story,” Jodi and Carlo said back.

The rain fell and Ned told Jodi and Carlo the story, gathering their luggage, the three heading forward and not looking back. He told them the story as they boarded the train, helping them up the steps and easing them into their seats. He told them the story, as the train rushed out to the open air of the world made wet and silver and new with rain, towards Los Angeles.

Dear reader, be it raining wherever you are or be it not, the story that Ned Andersen told Jodi and Carlo is the story I’m telling you now. Just as the rain fell in another world, in another time, down on a little mermaid when she made her first encounter with a human, hard and fast and unrelenting.

Her first encounter trying to save that human and by that action, went from breaking one rule to breaking more rules until, by the end of the story, she had broken all the rules.

(A cruel coincidence when you understand, that in the beginning, the true beginning, no matter what story of the Little Mermaid by Andersen or Ashman, all the mermaid wanted to do was just bend one rule.)

Chapter Text

The beginning of a little mermaid’s law-breaking and fate-shattering starts as it usually should for stories about mermaids; in the lightless depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

There is no light – be it the sun’s gold or the moon’s silver – that touches Færriagite. The beating, buzzing, living heart of the Mer is instead alit by the colourful bioluminescence of the coral that Cair Thalattē was created from millenniums ago; by the houses and streets and windows decorated by lanterns and candles lit by the orange-gold sparks of submarine submarine volcanoes. No light from above the seas can ever touch Cair Thalattē but never make the mistake of there being no light at all. As the Mer commonly say, the sea provides for her children all that they need.

Cair Thalattē – the capital city of the Færriagitean Empire, where the tomb of the Tiamat lay and the official residence of the Imperial Palace was placed – had centralized itself where the south and north of the Atlantic Ocean meet, the way the skies meet the oceans to become the horizon, caught perfectly even between the continents of Amèriga and Europa.

This city was alive, no matter what hour of the night or day, with the movement and sound of music. There was the plainsong dedicated to the goddesses of old that poured from the temples and into the currents for all to hear; the shanties, crooning under their breathes of wives that lived far away from barracks, that rose from the mouths of Imperial officers who patrolled the streets; the lilting hymns of young mermaids, faltering but learning, being taught the ways of magic by more, practiced voices.

There were the bright ditties that rang out in the alleyways, by children a-swimming in play; the calling tunes of merchants in Cair Thalattē’s city square, singing of their fares, of sea-silks and fish-meats and sweet-wines and glided-jewellery and other little delights; the popular love songs, chanting of the miracle of breath-bound lovers and the tragedies of old fate-crossed pairs, that echoed from the theatres of the west of Cair Thalattē’s more wealthy and glided sections.

For all the music that was born upon the mouths of Cair Thalattē’s people, these songs, the talk of the people was not all done by its official language of Færriagitean (the lingua franca, so to say, for the seven seas). People from all seas and oceans brought themselves to Cair Thalattē’s steps – from warm waters like the Erythraean Sea or the Indós Ocean, or cold places such as the Southern and Northern Kína Sea or the Ursian Ocean.

But the pearl of the oyster that was Cair Thalattē, the stewing and thinking brain to the capital city, was that of the Imperial Palace. The palace was a harmony of mother-of-pearl and limestone and coral, married as three to create an airy composition of balconies and loggias and high-reaching windows and depth-defying towers and turrets.

Schools of jewel-toned fish – clown-fish and tuna and red-fish and mandarinfish - flitted in and out of the windows and through loggias, passing by the almost thousand soldiers at their posts. Seals sailed on the smooth and polished sea-shell roofs, shining so bright that the roofs were almost mirrors to the Surface above. A palace placed in a sea of anemones and coral and kelp-trees, part of the high-walled Imperial Gardens that surrounded the palace at every side.

In the north of the palatial gardens, a mermaid, our mermaid, sat amongst the brilliant-golds and eye-searing reds of the anemone-flowers she attended to.

The warm and orangey hue of the lanterns that was decked at every palace windows set the mermaid’s tail alit – the lush green scales that covered her sinuous tail, the scales that freckled her shoulders and arms and torso, were glittering like little emeralds. Waves of melted cooper, rich and thick, was pinned up upon the nape of her neck – strands falling in front of steel-silver and Arctic-blue eyes.

The long, scarf-like fins at her muscled tail, flaring at the blades of her powerful shoulders and small and delicate at the insides of her wrists – the fins sheer, light green, no matter where they were – fell and moved to the gentle passage of the currents. The gills at her ribcage – underneath her dress, rich ochre reaching to her muscled wrists and flaring to her slender, scarred neck – flared, in and out, with every breath that entered her lungs and made its leave soon after.

She wasn’t alone. Eight guards – four at each side of her, as decreed by the regent, Emperor Tristan - held by; ten feet away, their eyes sharper than flint, their constant stare a cold patch on her back. One she grew used to (but never could find the ability to fully ignore).

By her side, seating upon one of the garden benches, was another Mer; her advisor, her carer, half-man and half-crab. Half-man in having a human-like torso, gills breathing in and out underneath his waistcoat of sea-silk and crisp shirt and upon his neck, under his kinking bearded jawline. Half-human in his rich amber complexion, the dark kinks of his beard and hair laced with grey, his voice lilting and soft, a remnant of his life within the azure depths that surrounded the Iëre island. Half-crab in where his humanity ended at his waist, where it emerged from the rich rouge that was his shell where hips should have been, eight spindly, hard crab legs emerging from below.

The mermaid was within her garden, being read an old epic from the reign of Empress Ptolemais by her advisor, something soothing to listen to in the small time without duty to steal her away, when it happened.

It was in that garden, under the sea, that the first rule was broken.

(Then again, reader, I would be wise to assume this is not the first story of a rule that was broken in the bliss and shade that is a garden. And you, reader, would be wise to know that the differences between the garden of Eden and the garden of the Imperial palace, when it came to what happened, was the fact that Eden had no rose coral-trees or golden sea-pens for the scenery.)

It was broken started when Ariel Alighierioo, the Empress Regnant of the Færriagitean Empire, the little mermaid, found it.

It being an object, half-buried in the white sands up-taken by the roots of seaweed-choked anemones Ariel was tending to – as she always did, after visiting Princess Consort Delphina’s burial grounds, offering up the needed hymns to the old goddesses.

The object in question had a spine which connected to two sheathes of what looked like the thick skin of an eel, the outer skin almost falling apart in the current when Ariel found it. A thick skin covered, crystallised, made stiff when it was not soft with what seemed like decades of collecting sea-salt. Picking it up, the object almost fell apart in her fingers, Ariel quickly laying it once more in the sand.

“May I ask, your Imperial Majesty, but what is that?” Sebastian, his neck craned to see what Ariel was handling, no longer occupied with the tablet of a battle won long before he and Ariel were born (or his mother and father were born, for that matter).

“Something I was asking myself,” Ariel quietly noted, her voice hushed, still regarding the object. “Would you have an idea?”

Looking closer, squinting, Sebastian could not make sense of it. Even leaving the bench, slowly scuttling to Ariel’s kneeling side, all he could do was have a questioning sound, a hmmmmm, leave his mouth. Already, Ariel could feel the cold patch of the guards’ gaze turn hot (potentially suspecting another seizure, perhaps, the second for this week?).

“I can tell you this much, Ariel,” Sebastian said, addressing her by her name in low tones, “it is no shell to bring as a present for one of your nieces.”

“I can see that,” Ariel drily replied. “Question is, should I handle it?”

Another regard; Sebastian, cautiously (now praying to Tiamat that the fates be kind to him and not prove disastrous) poking at the object with his leg, almost expecting for it to fling to life, to attack, to scurry, to do something worthy of calling the guard. Only to disrupt the sand, sending it dancing in the water current, and push the object further into the anemone patch.

“Seeing I still have a leg,” Sebastian noted sarcastically, “and there’s no orifice for some damned animal, we could reasonably assume it’s not alive.”

“From what I remember,” Ariel recollected, “red algae is technically not alive but won’t stop it from killing you if it gets in your pores.”

Grabbing her garden gloves (usually reserved for the hardier sections of the Imperial Gardens), swiftly putting them on, Ariel looked again, her mind racing. Paying attention back to the object, Ariel noticed the sheathes between the thick skins. A careful, tentative and gloved hand pulled the thick skin up, revealing another skin – washed down with grey, assumedly with what appeared to be ink? – underneath that. Skin was that connected the spine (like the thicker sheathes); skins that almost fell apart if it were not the glittering sheen of sea salt, like the softest jellyfish flesh Ariel’s fingers encountered, when Ariel tried to pull back that skin.

However, it wasn’t the most peculiar part, interestingly enough. What was highly peculiar was what was on the skins, as Ariel found. On the cover, on the thin sheathes of material (possibly constructed out of fan coral, Ariel could only rationalize) were shapes.

Now the guards were curious, the gaze on Ariel’s back even hotter. “Your Majesty?” The guard called out, Sebastian looking behind at the guard.

“Your Majesty,” Sebastian quickly said, worry seeping into his voice, “it may be a good idea to turn over the object to the guards.” (Because Sebastian did not want to find himself hip deep in another battle of words with Tristan about Ariel’s activities; especially seeing it took weeks of convincing to allow Ariel time to garden, a privilege, Ariel was frightfully aware, could be taken away.) “Please.”

“Just give me one more moment,” Ariel pleaded, “and I’ll do as you ask. Promise.”

A sound of disagreement was all that left Sebastian’s closed mouth; his hands now fiddling with the forgotten tablet, looking between Ariel and the guards (as if now watching for Tristan to come into view).

Carefully, thumbing through the delicate sheathes slowly, Ariel looked through it. Intricately drawn shapes – drawn in ink that meshed into the thin skin, almost incomprehensible. Scribbles, nonsense that made no sense –

Wait. Symbols.

Looking closer, squinting her eyes, Ariel held the book in the palms of her hand – her anemones now abandoned, soft grains of sand getting underneath her scales. She recognized these symbols. Symbols that stood for phenomes and vowels; for a and e and i; for strangely-drawn symbols that became letters, letters becoming words that formed sentences, Ariel’s eyes widening, gasping with shock that turned to fear, fear to realization, realization to utter wonder

In her hands, lay what appeared to be the guide to a language thought dead.

English.

The English language lay under the sea, on the palms of a mermaid empress.

That’s where the law-breaking began.

 


 

From here, reader, we must trade one ocean for another, one world below the surface of the ocean for the one above; if only for a little while, dear reader. From a breathing mermaid to a man drowning.

(Which if anything, should not be surprising; what man, in a story about mermaids, does not end up drowning – be they drowning in love or seawater or blood or potentially all three of these things?)

Reader, that man would end up drowning – drowning in love, drowning in seawater and drowning in blood, throughout all parts of this story.

That man would not be the prince, reader, as you expected. Through that’s not to say that there are no princes will come to their drowning (only that Ariel would look back and wish for it; note the wish, that'll be important for much later). Only that the man to drown was someone you’d remember not as a man; that man, known as Jim Rohan, that you’d known better as Jiminy Cricket.

But for now, that to-be-insect was just a man who wanted to know if he would die that day, all as he drowned in his blood.

And really, Jim (Jim Rohan/Jiminy Cricket; the water diviner/the wanderer/the healer) was wondering if it would matter at all if he died.

And for that matter, reader, many people were asking themselves many questions, if not that same question.

If a dead man’s wife, who long gave up her girlhood and the memory of how to fly, could get out before the flames engulfed her.

If a soldier, worn by the passage of a dozen wars and no age as evidence of it, would be buried under a grave bearing her right name.

If a brother and sister, one with royal blood to be spilt and the other destined to spill common red, would be survive to turn eighteen.

Five questions amongst the thousands upon thousands, four souls that rattled and prayed and half-lived and half-died in the chaos of the old Amèriga that clung to bloodied and gun-powdered breath in its deathbed, whilst the new Amèriga was in the midst of its own birthing.

And that, reader, is what we must trade for; if for only a small while.

Chapter Text

20th of October | 1909 | 3 PM.

The first drowning of Brennan James Rohan, the man to be known as Jiminy Cricket, started in the form of screams.

The first shriek made Jim look up from the opened-up private; a nurse was at the side of the make-shift surgery table, monitoring the make-shift anaesthetic gas. Dying and half-living men – souls weighed down by bullet-wounded, bomb-burned, bayonet-slashed and illness-bloated flesh – were at Jim’ north and south and east and west, under a linen sky of the tent.

Already, six hours into the battle – the battle raged on the gas-lit and stone-paved streets and alleys and roads of Buffalo and its results filled the stretchers of Allegany’s tents and lay bleeding on Buffalo’s streets, be they Amèrigan or Albionian. Almost every half-an-hour, nurses were forced to resort to horse-drawn ambulances to bring bleeding and screaming and pleading masses of soldiers to Jim’ aid.

All the patients could do was look up to the six-foot-five willow tree that was Jim, and how he held that height with careful awkwardness; look up at the reddish beard in need of trimming, at the softly comfort-murmuring mouth, at the eyes eternally soft and coloured with rain (just as they would be in Chicago, a lifetime from now).

They’d look up at Jim, a lifetime and all that went undone, their fears and regrets and hope passing through their eyes. All Jim could do was look down and lay his knowing and gentle hands to them with intent to mend and pray no civilian found themselves in the crossfire of bullets or cannonballs.

(Pray that maybe, just maybe, he could finally see the goddamned end to the Second Revolution. Anything to stop adding anymore faces to his nightmares.)

Screams soon coupled with the beat of hooves a-galloping against the frost-hardened earth.

The screams grew louder and louder, shrill and piercing the air like a lance, the sounds sending Jim dashing to the outside of the surgery tent, joined likewise with others – of washerwomen, of the child-swaddling wives of soldiers, of hurried nurses and military officers, either recovering or ailing or forced to stay behind the lines of battle.

“THEY’RE COMING, THEY’RE FUCKING COMING!” A women’s voice, young and clear and brittle with terror, echoed out to them.

And suddenly, with a burst of beating hooves and flurry of speed, a woman came a-galloping, decked in the uniform of a nurse, her night-dark hair wild from its bun and her horse flaring with shallow breathes. “THE ALBIONIANS, THE ALBIONIAN ARMY!” the young woman screamed, her round face specked with blood and white with terror, “THEY’RE COMING, THEY’RE COMING TO ALLEGANY, THEY’RE COMING NOW!”

And coming, they were; for soon, behind the nurse could the sound of horses, of gallops that gathered together to create a building buzz of rapid beats, be heard rushing towards the direction of the nurse.

A buzz joined by faint shouts; a song of cavalrymen coming towards Allegany, the heart of the Amèrigan Revolutionary Army.

Jim Rohan ran back into the surgery tent, rushing back to the man on the table, the worried nurse at his side handling the blood bag; holding his face to a practised mask of calm beneath the panic.

“I need you to get this man stitched up,” Jim said, voice low, worry tinging his tones, “and put onto a stretcher and I need you to gather as many patients as you can onto stretchers or braces or wheelchairs, and be ready to head towards Valley Forge. Can you do this?”

The nurse nodded quickly, Jim leaving the tent even quicker, his heart thumping and beating against his chest the quickest.

(Jim didn’t even want to be apart of the Second Revolution; Jim didn’t wish to be here, having swapped one hell for another, death and disease and chaos his loyal attendants. But then again, by a stray bullet or contact with typhus, Jim could very well be a part of the men that left choking under the weight of their disease-bloated and death-wasted bodies; none of them wished to be amongst this hell.

Jim knew that, all too well, and figured some wishes should be made true.

Even if they weren’t his, never his.)

“Get all of this men onto stretchers and to the horses, immediately!” His voice was a call to the rest; mothers and daughters and sisters whose hands itched with the desire to be anything but idle during this war. Already,

The buzz of movement turned to a flurry, a panic, a great movement of rustling skirts and limping legs and stretchers accommodated with patients being lifted to the linen skies of the tent and straight outside.

Jim was amongst them; the creak of iron from knee-ankle-foot orthoses accompanying every frantic movement to rush a wounded man onto a wheelchair, onto a stretcher, Jim praying underneath his breath-

BAM.

A piercing whistle; a dull thud of bullet meeting flesh; a young nurse’s fresh white smock now seeped with dark red from the stream of blood coming from her neck. Jim saw it all, the young nurse (he couldn’t remember her name, goddamn him) at the opening of the tent; her eyes already empty as her body fell to the frost-hardened ground.

The staccato was now coupled with whistles; a death-song sung by firing rifles and speeding steeds.

They were here.

Chapter Text

20th of October | 1909 | 6 PM.

She shouldn’t have been there.

She shouldn’t have been there in a carriage filled to the brim with silence, gaining mile upon another mile away from Alleghany forest; shouldn’t be there with the sounds of cannons bombing and guns blaring just miles away from the Empire Express train, snaking down the black veins that made up the Hudson River Railway network.

But she, Wendy Darling, was there either way.

Lady Wendy Baird was there on the train instead of in Buffalo, trying to make her way to Boston on the quickest and earliest train she could get upon; a Darling still, by temperament and maiden name. An elegant figure donned in the colours of the night and of socially-recognised grief. Her radiant face, concealed by a dark veil, was lowered to the telegram she held at her lap; the rich, sunlight-caught mahogany of her skin almost blending into her widowing clothes. Clothes worn too early before they would come to fashion in the 1910s; clothes Wendy never thought she’d have to wear at the tender age of twenty-eight.

But if it weren’t for the shadow she wore as her veil, Wendy would have been Wendy Baird, wife to a freshly dead Albionian officer; the veil just made her another widow wearing her mourning in public, as women on the bench to the right of her wondered aloud if the Baird daughter could be tried for treason with her mother.

And it was only in keeping her eyes lowered as she came to the train attendant, asking a hushed how long will the train take to get to Albany, that the train-station attendant took a look at her, switching his gaze to his watch, and told Wendy she’d be there at 2 AM.

Ever since then, boarding the Hudson River Railway train, Wendy made an effort to hide into the shadows and silence of her train car. Folded her hands and folded herself into the dark and remembered, when she was not praying and trying not to fall asleep.

The hospital, as she remembered in that train car filled with dying light, was a-full of screaming men and with not enough bleach to scrub all of the red off the floors and walls. So much red, dear reader, that it hid underneath her fingernails; Wendy almost rubbing that red with every time her fingers flipped and played with the telegram paper.

The Siege of Buffalo was swallowing garrisons of men whole to its delight and shut down the Sisters of Charity Hospital and the Buffalo State Hospital and shut down the Buffalo train station – leaving for voluntary nurses, fresh-faced and pale-cheeked with fear, to drive to Rochester by automobile ambulance to Rochester General Hospital.

The aid station, that once was the Buffalo train station, was packed with Loyalists, where once honeymooners communed to board train rides to Niagara Falls; Loyalist officers, Loyalist nurses, Loyalist physicians taking their places. Patients came in by stretchers – screaming or crying or praying or mute – to be marked with green or red or black ribbons, upon the handles of their stretchers. Those marked green were to be treated with bandages or sutures and ordered back into the madness. Those marked black to turn grey and silent. And those with colour and life that still beat-a-beat-a-beat in their faces and their veins, those still alive and with marked with red ribbons, were rolled onto the automobiles.

For the men and the Loyalist nurses and physicians who accompanied them alongside, with one sharp-eyed Queen’s Ranger for each ambulance, it was a long ride. The automobiles took a whole three hours to get to Rochester; the bumpy road from Buffalo to Rochester being 76 miles and the automobiles were only able to go 25 miles per hour, as fast as the steam-powered engines and the rubber of the tires would allow.

The automobiles went up to the front of Rochester General and laid the flesh-filled stretchers upon the lawns, left to wait, to be marked red or black once more. Those that were marked red were brought inside, to the rooms separated into wards and placed onto beds and prepared for physicians to cut their bodies apart or cut parts of them away to heal them or be administered antibiotics. Those marked black were brought into the tents, by the lawns away from the bustle, and given blankets and morphine until their pleas and prayers went quiet. The went from the tents and to the morgues soon after they fell into silence.

The automobiles came down and the hospital became packed, wall to wall and bed to bed; the beds became so full that nurses had to lay stretchers between the beds, so full that the stench of infected flesh and freshly-spilt blood that was becoming impossible to wash down, so full that whatever morphine could no longer be given to those marked black – only towards the surgery patients.

And you’d know this from the fact that Wendy was there. She was there to receive them, under the elegant pillars and open doors, in her crisp cotton shirt and Nightingale medal pinned over her heart. She was there to sort the patients from the red and the black, from those that would live and those that would not. And she was there in the wards, amongst the beds filled with the bloodied and dying, to attend and watch over those in her care.

She rushed up and down, her skirt brush-brush-brushing the wooden and bloodied floors, up and down the wards, four or six men (or to-be-corpses) to each nurse. Attending to putrid bandages crying to be replaced or check tourniquets now dyed almost reddish black with life or moisten the cracked lips of praying dead men with whatever water they had left.

That was all Wendy could do, no matter how else she wished otherwise; up and down and up and down those hallways, reminding herself to breathe through her mouth and not her nose, only look at the wounds in small parts, drab instead of swipe, don’t see your husband’s face staring back at you with his child warm in your stomach and him growing cold in the ground.

As you could imagine, this was easier to say than actually do. And that was without Wendy even having the knowledge of the blueberry-sized what-could-be blooming within her, as she went up and down amongst death.

Because it was in the end, dear reader, that the hospital wards were filled with Loyalist corpses; grey faces a contrast to the brightness of their coats, as turned those faces to the ceiling and let go. Oh, reader, how little colour there was in their faces when red seeped out of bullet wounds, seeped out of the places where limbs were supposed to be and stained the nurses’ hands dark and wet and sticky with life. All as Wendy prayed that she would give all she had within herself for the world to fall quiet, for just a moment.

The colour of those men’s lives was up to Lady Wendy Baird’s elbows when the telegram came. Why the news didn’t come through the telephone was because Wendy, herself, couldn’t use them; the shining brass of the freshly installed telephones was to be used by medical officers only.

Instead, it delivered came by delivery boy, searching for breath after running hard on cobbled streets, the telegram a bloodless-linen and bomb-flash white, whiter than the yellow of the knuckles that clenched it, when Wendy received it.

“For Lady Wendy Baird,” the delivery boy panted, hands on knees, “on urgent business from Boston, as addressed by Lieutenant John Darling of the King’s Rangers.”

So it did, reader. As quickly as Wendy found two pounds as payment to the boy (and when he certainly appreciated), Wendy was quicker to look at the telegram; the one that still played between Wendy’s fingers. And even quickest to find her way out of Rochester.

Riots have broken out in Boston, the message said, John Darling miles away, Wendy’s heart beating a tattoo against her chest, Loyalist families are being attacked. Can’t come to Jeanne, Jeanne’s still at the house. Get to Boston, get Jeanne and leave as quickly as possible. Leave Amèriga as soon as allowed. Be safe.

It was confirmed now. Jeanne and Wendy were no longer safe. The Albionians, for all the blood spilt and their assurances of King and Country, were going to lose the Revolution.

That last line was the final nail. It was only minutes later that Wendy Darling found the matron, told her what was needed to be heard.

That her beloved child was dying.

That there might not be much time left.

That she got a telegram from her brother and she needed to come to Boston right now.

(Looking back, Wendy would think of it with guilt. It was the only case where she’d ever lie to the matron, ever lie at all. But for all Wendy knew, Jeanne was close to dying, and she’d never forgiven herself if something bad happened, all because Wendy placed the oath of a nurse higher over her promise to her daughter.)

It was with the brush of skirts that Wendy was out of the hospital doors, running, without damn to decorum, running to gather her luggage and trunks from her quarters. Sooner after, exchanging her nursing whites and reds for widowing blacks did Wendy whistle for a taxi and set herself inside, chasing the setting sun to Rochester train station.

She said goodbye to no-one (looking back, she would wish she had; there was so many she never got to say goodbye to).

And looking back, on that train carriage that click-click-clicked to Albany, as night painted the skies violet and the air grew cold, Wendy realized she would give anything for noise. Funny, isn’t it, she realized, how now she wished for the opposite once she found what she wanted. Anything to pierce the silence; oh, how the noise of the hospital, the noise of war’s results, made Wendy a stranger to silence.

Only Wendy was not brave enough to pierce it. She wanted to keep as much as she could for when the time really came (for Jeanne, for Jeanne).

Instead, reader, Wendy’s fingers went from the telegram to the kiss lined upon a silver chain, a thimble made into a necklace. There, she rung between her hands and let her mind wonder to the skies outside.

Wonder if the silences of the heavens – the wind singing in her ears and the stars above her - was what she really wishing for, back in that hospital.

Chapter Text

One drowned in silence, another found themselves swimming in a sea of sound that was the battlefield. Deborah Stern was amongst that sea, when Buffalo was making history; making history with the air filled with fresh screams and the sharp tang of gunpowder, it’s bricked walls pierced with bullets, it’s paved streets swarming like ants with red coats and blue coats, with broken shop-window glass crunching under their boots and the glittering stars looking down, down, down, as they always do for every single war that raged below them.

Already, blue upon blue had swarmed Buffalo city, wave after wave, the way an ocean chased up the stretch of the beach on high tide. That was the way Roosevelt and Lee went over it, as Deborah remembered.

Remembered, reader, because she was there amongst them; going over the map of Buffalo city by the yellow light of the lantern, inside the cotton walls of the Patriot’s war room tent. She could remember the bustle of dozens of couriers coming in and out the tent, delivering Western Union telegrams to assistants and secretaries, sent by trembling yet sure hands of Patriot spies from places like Columbia or Boston or New York City. Remembered the oaken table, stretched from one edge to the other with a map of Buffalo city, little wooden statues of red and blue positioned over etched avenues and rivers of ink. Remembered the drinking songs and the warmth of bonfires beckoning from every time a courier or officer or secretary came through those doors. More importantly, she remembered Roosevelt and Lee, the two men who stood at the map, stood at the heart of the Amèrigan Continental Army.

There was Theodore Roosevelt; fifty-one years old with grey in the lion’s mane that was his hair, gold-framed glasses perched at the end of his nose and age leaving faint lines in Roosevelt’s face to mark its presence; yet still did he hold his frame upwards with strength, his moustache and beige uniform perfectly maintained to military standard as Deborah always saw him, all as he read the latest telegram from Buffalo.

There was Washington Lee, stretched over the map on that table at the heart of the tent, as Deborah also remembered; thirty-six years old and handsome with his sepia-dark and sharp features coupled with those brown eyes, filled to the brim with thoughts and plans as he moved those pieces of blue and red one avenue to avenue.

And there was Deborah Stern herself; the third one in the war room, just two days ago, bathed in the light of the lantern and filled with the itch for fingers to type news to her sister in France via telegram (and none to her sister’s mother). The one going down Delaware Avenue, four-hundred men behind her in beige and dark blue, as she looked back to that night, leading the garrison with her rifle held high and her chin higher.

There she was, in that tent and down that avenue with bullets singing, night-eyed and morning-gold-haired and wearing her golden oak leaf on her shoulder as evidence of her status as Major.

She wore that insignia as well as she wore her uniform, with pride soon anointed with red from brick-dust. As well as she wore her old body and false name that didn’t belong to her (in other words, with practiced and exhausted precision).

The false name she wore, dear reader, in that light-filled tent and that shadow-plagued avenue and in the whole of her military career, was David Stern, not Deborah.

No, Deborah Stern was the twin sister to Major David Stern, the accomplished and bold thirty-year-old aide-de-camp to Theodore Roosevelt. Deborah Stern, who came to Camp Liberte just minutes after David went searching for a midwife, who helped deliver Lee’s firstborn son; Deborah making quick but polite leave for the direction towards the river and David soon appearing afterward to share celebratory drinks with the officers.

Deborah Stern, who attended the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania and made herself useful in attending the lice and typhoid and poverty swamped districts of New York City and Boston while her brother went to war; Roosevelt enquiring about her, joking that she could meet with his son Ted at the next soiree held by Edith, if Alice wouldn’t take an interest in David and not be made Theodore’s son-in-law.

Deborah Stern, dear reader, who shared the brown of David’s eyes and the blonde of David’s hair and the roses of David’s skin and his high cheekbones and strong chin, who shared everything with him except for the lightness of her voice and the curves of her form and what lay under the suit trousers she wore as well as her twin.

(Except for the fact, unknown to Roosevelt and Lee and the four-hundred men she led and known only to us and few others, Deborah Stern and David Stern were just two halves of one soul. David Stern was just the old body; the body she wore into war and the body she came into the world and the body who had a note, the note holding her real name, tucked into a pocket in case she died in that body as well.

Deborah Stern was the truth and the name she wanted on her gravestone, in case one of those bullets actually did manage to find her way into her. Oh hell, she could only think to herself, I don’t think Death’s willing to go collecting me so soon if it’s been taking so damn long).

Either way, Deborah made good of Roosevelt and Lee’s plan and made her way and made the west of Buffalo blue with Patriots. It was her, who lead by the light of stars in darkness, took her battalion by boat to Black Rock Harbour; took to Niagara River upon fiercely and unusually strong and silent tides, as fellow soldiers noted, as if Deborah herself pulled the river to the will of her hand and brought them to the shores of the Harbour.

With the whistle of bullets and the thunder of rifles intertwined like lovers, redcoats fell and spilt red upon the cobbled streets. Black Harbour fell and as those who lay silent and bloodied turned grey on the cobbles, the battalion entered down Niagara Street.

One hour turned to two hours; two hours turned to four; four turned to eight and the glitter of glass from windows filled the streets as soldiers traded bullets with snipers who took hold in abandoned apartments, as red-coated Loyalists made barricades and sent cannons and bullets in their directions.

Eight hours turned to sixteen and Deborah spread her four hundred men from Niagara Street to Herkimer Street. “Keep your eyes sharp and your feet fast,” Deborah barked over the cannons, over to her men of blue and beige, “and more importantly, don’t waste your damn shot!”

The night came and the dawn chased behind and Deborah conquered Fort Porter and Prospect Park. And by every hour that crawled back, the British retreated back, hour by hour, from the birthing light of dawn to the heralding shadows of dusk. Hampshire Street, Massachusetts Street, and Rhode Island street was put to Deborah’s back, climbing and crawling and marching over abandoned barricades and greying soldiers, the whiff of brick-dust and tang of gunpowder now second-hand to her.

“Just keep going, men,” she said, in reassurance and in order (to both herself and to her men), “just keep going, we’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep if the red-coats over there don’t end up putting us to sleep first.”

“Sure, Major,” one soldier quipped; Deborah merely rolling her response, a chuckle escaping her before firing another shot.

Vermont Street, Connecticut Street, Porter Avenue came and went, sixteen hours born went to thirty-two dead and Deborah and her battalion kept going down Niagara Street. “We need to get to McKinley Square,” Lee said, Deborah recollecting that night with growing bone-tiredness, “and we can corner them in the south of Buffalo. We just need to push to the back of the wall until they pull their white flag.”

Until then, as they advanced down and down, Deborah sang.

One of the things, the soldiers noted, that Deborah and David shared was their singing voices. To those who listened, their voices were silky and watery deep; the sea hiding in their red mouths and revealing itself in every note that left their tongues. To the Loyalists, it could almost be said that it was Deborah’s singing voice that stilled their rifles so that they could listen – the last song they heard before Death take them under his shadow, a song that left them happy. And to the Patriots? Well, reader, if it did not help the men focus on their aim and on bringing one foot in front of the other… at the very least, dear reader, Deborah had made them feel brave with every song she sang.

“Listen to me and you shall hear,” Deborah crooned, her voice now hoarse with the hours that passed, “news hath not been this thousand year.

“Since Herod, Caesar, and many more, you never heard the like before.” Three-hundred voices answered back, joining her, harmonizing her, heralding three-hundred souls coming down under a sunless sky. “Holy-dayes are despis'd, new fashions are devis'd, Old Christmas is kickt out of Town. Yet let's be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn'd upside down.”

Deborah sang, to make them brave, to make herself brave. She sang to ignore the screams and gasps, ignore the squish of blood and crush of wood and glass under her feet.

She sang to them and she sang to herself, remembering to find Pearl Street, the apartment building by Lafayette Theatre. She sang and wondered if the boy she was supposed to find would hear her coming, a herald to his release.

She sang and wondered if that boy, Pierre Bonaparte, would remember her voice. After all, Deborah could only note; only those that heard her sing were those she helped bring into the world or those she brought out.

(To sometimes, she could only wonder in the quietest hours of the night, those soldiers only stopped because they remembered when she sang into being, as she sang them to their dying. She lived long enough, lived long enough to deliver enough children and lived long enough to kill as much in battle to ask herself that question.)

And yet still, into the night and down the street, Deborah kept singing.