Where I've been
And where I'm going
In between wondering why
And finally knowing…
Every light is like a promise
Every light could be a clue
One of them might be you
(“Crossing a Bridge”, Anastasia: The Musical)
Russia, Dex thinks as he moves through the open-air market in the square, is a particular type of freezing that doesn’t occur anywhere else.
It’s biting, is the thing, dry and sharp and wicked. It’s nothing like the damp cold of Dublin, where the air was wet and heavy and clung to his skin, or the sticky, dirty cold of New York, where he’d slogged through slush and sweat through his shirt under his coat.
No, Russia’s cold is bitter and harsh and unmerciful, just like much of the people who live there. Dex huffs and pulls the collar of his jacket up, tossing down another pair of rejected gloves and moving along to the next stall. He’s lived here nearly his whole life, except for the few years his ma dragged him back to Ireland after the Revolution and then his own brief rebellion in New York before making his way back to gloomy Russia, but he’s never, ever really gotten used to the cold.
He wonders sometimes if it’s gotten colder here since the Revolution ten years ago, or if things are just--gloomier. Bleaker. He’d been twelve when the palace had been attacked and the royal family taken, and he still has nightmares about that night sometimes--the screaming, the fire, the gunshots. Absently, he touches his right temple, where there’s still a faint scar under his hair from the butt of a rifle.
(No one, not his parents, not even Chowder, knows how he got it, and he’ll take that secret to his grave.)
“--heard what they’re saying? About the prince?”
Dex startles, glancing away from the pair of gloves he’s been studying for holes and toward the pair of women whispering over a newspaper.
“It’s just a rumor,” one of them is saying. She’s older than her companion, bent, her back hunched. Her eyes are tired, but then, everyone’s eyes are tired, these days. “If he was alive, we’d know. It would have come out by now.”
“Maybe someone was hiding him,” the younger woman argues. “Someone in the palace must have been loyal. And Prince Derek, you know, he was always the favorite--”
Dex drops the gloves.
“Hey!” the stall owner barks at him. “You mess those up, you’d better pay for them!”
“They’re fine,” Dex snaps. He snatches them up off the ground, dusts the snow off them, and then, deciding they’re fine, forks over a few rubles. He shoves them onto his hands and heads away from the stall, his head buzzing.
The last time Dex saw Prince Derek Nurse, Dex was shoving him and his equally royal grandmother through a hidden servants’ passage in the royal nursery. The prince had been wide-eyed with terror, clinging to his grandmother’s hand, and Dex had wondered, a little wildly, if he’d known that his whole family was probably dead.
And then Dex had pushed the door closed, and a Bolshevik had smashed a rifle into his head, and Dex hadn’t thought about anything for a long time.
Now that he’s listening, really listening, he can tell that the market is buzzing with the rumor.
“They say his grandmother’s offering a reward,” a shopkeeper whispers to a bearded man holding the hand of a small child. “Ten million rubles to anyone who brings the boy to Paris and proves who he is. Ten million.”
“It’s nonsense, of course,” one very pregnant woman is saying to another. “Everyone knows that poor boy died with the rest of them. Why bring up the past?” She looks thoughtful. “It would be such a fairy tale, though,” she says, and her friend laughs.
“Cloak for sale!” a vendor yells, brandishing a fur-lined cape. “Straight from the palace--wrap up the prince and bring him back to his royal grandma!”
He’s reminded, very suddenly, of a tiny jewelry box, kept safe in the rooms he shares with Chowder. Authenticity, he thinks, and grins.
He has some train tickets to buy, and a plan to make.
“Do you have to leave?” Vanya asks for the fourth time.
He’s all big, watery eyes and trembling lips, and Nursey sighs, casting a pleading look up at Katya. She clucks her tongue and steps forward.
“Yes,” she says, firm but not unkind. “He has to leave. It is the rules, my love.”
Vanya’s lower lip wobbles, but he doesn’t cry, and Nursey’s glad. Katya would be gentle with him, if he cried, but only to a point--she’s a compassionate woman, but with twenty children in the Orphan’s Home, she only has so much patience. Most of the children here have Nursey’s coloring, or darker--since the dead Tsar married his African Tsarina, to the outrage of the court, there had apparently been a surge of mixed-skin babies born from St. Petersburg to Moscow, and then, after the Revolution, those babies were just as quickly abandoned to Orphan’s Homes like Katya’s.
Nursey’s not sure if he’s one of those abandoned children. He doesn’t remember anything before he was eight years old, except the occasional flash of hands or eyes or scent or voices--no faces, no names. He was found, Katya tells him, wandering on the train tracks, in the chaos of the Revolution.
He’d gone through four different Homes before Katya had taken him in--the knock to his head that had ruined his memory when he was eight had given him dizzy spells and made him clumsy, and the Comrades running the first four homes had found him too difficult to work with. Katya was kinder than most, and, being half-Ethiopian herself, had a soft spot for children the system found difficult and spat away.
“I’ll come back to visit, maybe,” he tells Vanya gently, before getting to his feet. He touches a hand gently to Vanya’s cheek, and Vanya gives him a brave smile. Nursey smiles back. He’d gotten his name--nickname, really--from how quickly he’d taken to the nursery in the Home, and Vanya had been just a baby when he’d gotten here.
Leaving all the little ones hurts, but leaving Vanya hurts the most.
Katya puts a hand on his shoulder. “Come, love,” she murmurs, and he gives Vanya a last smile before he lets Katya guide him to the door.
She walks with him to the foyer, stands with him while he puts on his hat and gloves, the patched overcoat and used but well-fitting boots. He picks up his duffle, packed with the few books he’s managed to pick up over the years, the few journals, the worn clothes, and spreads his hands, a ta-da! gesture. “Well?” he offers nervously.
Katya clicks her tongue. “You’ll freeze,” she says tartly, and pulls her own scarf off the hook by the door. Reaching up--he’s been taller than her since he was fifteen--she wraps it around his neck. “Better,” she says decisively. “Now, come.”
They walk outside together, into the bitter cold. Katya, of course, shows nothing on her face, but Nursey shivers automatically.
“There’s a job waiting for you at the printing factory,” she says as they walk toward the gate. “You remember how to get there? Straight down the path, and then a left at the fork--Nursey,” she says, a little sharply, and he startles, a little guiltily; his mind had been starting to wander. It happens, sometimes. “Are you listening?”
“Sorry,” he says. “My head was in Paris.”
It’s a shorthand, a code, for when he drifts. Into his head, he likes to think, or into his imagination--maybe, if he’s lucky, into flickers of memory.
Katya frowns at him, and steps close. She unfastens the button of his coat, reaches beneath the scarf for the chain around his neck, the pendant he’s had since he was found wandering the streets. Together in Paris, it says, in lovely engraved script. He’s clung to it like a lifeline, so many dark, lonely nights.
“My love,” she says, quietly. “I know what you wish for--a family waiting for you, in France. I know you want it to be true.”
He swallows. “Someone gave this to me, Katya,” he whispers.
She smiles softly, but her eyes are sad. “It’s a very good fairy tale, my heart,” she says. “But it is a fairy tale, nonetheless.” With gentle hands, she tucks the pendant back beneath his jacket, and smoothes the scarf back over it. “Left at the fork,” she says. “And two miles to the shop. Mila will meet you there, and she will let you a room in the attic. She’s a good woman, and she’ll be good to you.”
Nursey nods, not trusting his voice. It feels like too much, suddenly.
Katya pats his cheek. “Go left, Nurseyek,” she says. “And don’t look back.”
“Okay,” he whispers.
She hugs him, a tight squeeze, and then pushes him firmly through the gate.
He doesn’t look back.
The path is snow-strewn under his boots, and he trudges along. The urge to look over his shoulder gradually eases, moving from a desperate yearning to an uncomfortable itching and finally to a quiet buzzing between his shoulder blades. Nursey keeps his gaze fixed firmly on the road ahead. It’s a five-kilometer walk to the village; he ought to keep moving if he’s going to make it there before nightfall.
Absently, he slips a hand under his coat and rubs a thumb over the stylized edges of the pendant around his neck. It’s the only thing he has left from before he was found. It’s been his lifeline, on the darkest days, the days he wakes up and feels like he’s nothing, no one, like he’s never, ever mattered to anyone.
Through the fabric of his glove, the edge of the pendant is dulled somewhat. Nursey thinks he can still feel the words, but he knows it’s just memory--the only memory that’s ever mattered.
Together in Paris.
He reaches the fork in the road, and he stops, looking up at the sign. He hadn’t realized he’d moved so quickly.
“Go left,” Katya had said.
Go left. For a job at the press, a lifetime of printing government-approved books. Abandoning any chance of knowing who he is. Who he was.
Nursey looks up at the signpost. The village lies left. St Petersburg--Leningrad, he knows, now, they never changed the sign--to the right.
There are trains in Leningrad--trains that run right out of Russia. Through to Germany, to France. To Paris.
He snorts. “That’s ridiculous,” he mutters, toeing at the snow. He’s got next to no money, first of all, and no passport, and…
But he could get a job, maybe, in the city. And find a way to get papers. And…
Sighing, Nursey tilts his head up to the sky. He’s not a religious person, but Katya does this when she’s exasperated, and it always seems to help her, so--
“Give me a sign, or something,” he tells the clouds. “A hint?” He resists the urge to throw his hands up. “Anything?”
Something rustles in the bushes behind the signpost, and Nursey frowns, crouching down. Another rustle, and then a small, fluffy grey head pops out of the snow, followed by a small, fluffy grey body. The dog wriggles itself out of the bush and gives its body a shake, then trots off down the right fork a few feet before turning back to look at Nursey. It barks once, wagging its tail, tongue lolling.
Nursey stares. “You can’t be serious,” he says.
The dog barks again, wagging its tail. It sits down in the middle of the path and cocks its head to one side, looking at him. If a dog can look expectant, this one does.
“Really?” Nursey asks. He looks back up at the grey, cloudy sky. “Really?”
The sky, predictably, says nothing.
Nursey sighs. “Alright,” he says. He takes a few steps toward the dog, and it leaps back to its feet, barking happily and leaping at his knees. Nursey bends down and scoops it into his arms, and the dog licks at his chin. Despite himself, he laughs. “Okay,” he says, looking at the road ahead and squaring his shoulders. “I guess we’re going to Paris.”
“You know,” Chowder says, as yet another prospective Derek Nurse leaves their makeshift audition room with slumped shoulders, “you’ve had a lot of dumb ideas. But this must be the worst one.”
Dex snorts, leaning back in his chair. He and Chowder get along well--Chowder had been an attache to the Chinese ambassador in Tsar Nicholas’s court before the Revolution, and had stayed on in the country even after the rest of the delegation had left in the wake of the riots.
(“I like the weather,” he’d told Dex, the first time they’d met, in his accented Russian.
“You like the weather,” Dex had repeated, incredulous.
Chowder had nodded, his cup of strong coffee held between his cupped hands as they sat together in the teahouse. “In Shanghai, it’s always warm, even in winter--well, not warm, but wet.” He sipped his coffee. “It’s cold here, but at least it’s dry.”
Dex had squinted at him. “You’re a very strange man,” he decided.
That was two years and eight cons ago. Chowder’s rarely stopped grinning since, and honestly, neither has Dex.)
“We’re not gonna find him,” Chowder says. He gestures at the list of names on the table in front of them. “We’ve seen twenty-six boys today, Dex, and none of them could play a convincing Derek Nurse.”
“Come on, C, where’s your adventurous spirit?” Dex twirls his pen between his fingers.
Chowder tugs up his collar. They hadn’t bothered renting a heater for the small room. The low lamplight makes the lines around Chowder’s eyes look deeper, showing his age. “I’m just saying. We’re running out of applicants, my friend, and we spent half our food money on renting audition space.”
Dex waves a hand at their makeshift stage. “We needed to see them in the right lighting,” he says, and then snorts a laugh. “Look, relax, alright? We just need someone with the right look. Then you fill his head with the right history, teach him a little etiquette, and as soon as I wave this around--” he slips his hand into his pocket and brandishes the jewelry box, wiggling it in Chowder’s face-- “the Empress will have to see our Prince Derek as the real one.”
“Ah, yes. Your Ace in the hole.” Chowder plucks the jewelry box from his hand, running one long finger around the seam. “Have you ever figured out how to open it?”
“It needs a key,” Dex says with a shrug. “I figure the Empress has it.”
“With your luck, the Prince has it,” Chowder says dryly, and hands it back. “I still can’t believe you took that from the palace.”
Dex slips it back in his pocket. “I was just a kid,” he says. “And there was a lot of chaos. Besides.” He grins, a little wicked. “Everyone was doing it.”
Chowder shakes his head. “William,” he says sadly. “What would your father say?”
Dex thinks of his father, who for all his duty and love of his children had still been an opportunistic bastard, and grins.
“He’d buy me a vatrushka,” he says dryly. With a sigh, he leans back in his chair, feeling his spine crack, and rolls up the list of applicants. “That’s it for today,” he says. “Let’s get some dinner, and find a bottle of wine, and go home.”
It takes three days for Nursey to get to St. Petersburg, thanks to a truck driver who offers him a ride three miles from the fork in the road and offers to take him into the city in exchange for him helping load and unload crates in each village they pass. He’s an older man, starting to hunch a little, and he nods to Nursey’s shoulders when Nursey asks why he’d picked him up.
“You look like you’ve got some strength in you,” he’d said. “And my arms aren’t what they used to be. You want the ride, or not?”
Nursey, not one to question good luck, gets in the truck. They work well together, Nursey doing most of the lifting while Vitaly directs him, holding Nursey’s recently-adopted dog in his arms and scritching him between the ears from time to time. Nursey had named him Puck after a few hours of calling him “dog” and watching him mischievously prance through the snow, biting at bushes, pulling the name from the slim translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in his bag, one of the few books he’d taken with him
When they drive, Vitaly is talkative, telling him stories of Russia before the Revolution. Nursey listens, intrigued and curious. Vitaly doesn’t press for details about Nursey’s own story, and Nursey’s glad for it, but he’s kind, if a little rough around the edges; makes sure Nursey drinks enough water and has enough blankets at night.
It’s the closest Nursey’s ever come to having a grandfather.
They reach the city the morning of the third day, and Vitaly lets him out as close to the city square as his truck can get. He gets out and walks around to the other side of the cab to Nursey, offering him a handshake. There’s a slim wallet in his palm when he draws his hand back, and Nursey blinks up at him, surprised. which takes Nursey by surprise. Vitaly shrugs. “You’re a good lad,” he says gruffly. “And you remind me of my son.”
He pauses, and then, with the reluctant half-smile Nursey’s come to recognize over the past few days, nods towards the dog in Nursey’s arms. “And I like that pup.”
Nursey laughs softly. “Thank you,” he says. “For everything.”
Vitaly gives another one-shouldered shrug, the same way he has every time Nursey’s thanked him, and then fixes Nursey with a steely-eyed stare. “What’s your plan now? Have you got a job waiting for you?”
“Ah, no.” Nursey adjusts the strap on his bag over his shoulder. Puck licks at the bottom of his chin, like he’s trying to be reassuring. It half-helps. “I’m going to have to get one, though, if I want to get a train ticket.”
Vitaly raises an eyebrow. “Where you trying to go?”
“Paris,” Nursey says, before he can think to stop himself.
Nursey feels his face heat at his incredulous voice. “I know it sounds crazy,” he admits. “But it’s--I have this feeling, I guess. That I have family there.”
Vitaly’s pale blue eyes fix onto his, thoughtful and calculating. “That will be an expensive train ticket,” he says after a moment. “And you’ll need travel papers.”
“I know,” Nursey admits. “But I figured, you know--there must be plenty of people without the proper papers since the Revolution, right? Without birth certificates or whatever, who might have lost them in the riots? So…”
He trails off as Vitaly just looks at him, his expression unreadable. Nursey sighs. “Am I out of my mind?”
Vitaly snorts. “Yes,” he says. “But.” His lips quirk. “What can I say? I’m Russian, I like a crazy idea.” He reaches out, takes Nursey’s bag, and hoists it over his own shoulder. “Get back in the truck. We’re going to see someone.”
Nursey has learned, over the past few days, not to argue with that tone of voice. He gets back in the truck.
They trundle along in silence for a few minutes before curiosity gets the best of him--he’s never been able to resist the urge to instigate. “Where are we going?”
“The old palace,” Vitaly says.
Something trills under Nursey’s skin--anxiety? Excitement? Interest? He’s not sure--and he shivers slightly, pulling his scarf higher up on his neck. Puck burrows more deeply into his arms. “Why?”
“There’s a man there,” Vitaly says. “Goes by the name of Dex. I think he can help you.”
Nursey frowns. “Why would he?”
Vitaly makes a sound that’s half-chuckle, half-grunt. “Let’s just say I think you can help him with a project he’s working on as well.”
Puck yips. Nursey scratches him behind his ear. “That’s vague,” he says.
They drive. Vitaly seems to know the roads well; he doesn’t double back or make wrong turns. Nursey runs his fingers along Puck’s fur, the softness soothing the itch in his nerves.
The palace looms out through the clouds and snow like a ghostly monument, eerie and dark. Nursey catches his breath, leaning forward in his seat. “Oh,” he murmurs. “It’s…”
Vitaly glances at him. “Yes,” he agrees. “It strikes most people like that, the first time.”
“It’s beautiful.” Nursey finds he can’t look away, his eyes trying to drink in every window, every doorway, every brick. “Haunting, but beautiful.”
“Some people do say it’s haunted,” Vitaly says. He pulls into a small driveway, away from the main roundabout path to the palace, and turns off the truck. “But I don’t think you’ll find any ghosts there will want to harm you.”
Nursey starts to reach for the door handle, then stops, looking back at him. For the first time since he left Katya’s, he feels real anxiety. “You’re not coming with me?”
Vitaly regards him for a moment, and then reaches into the back of the cab. He pats around until he finds a scrap of paper, then scrawls something on it. “I’ll be at this address for three days,” he says. “If things don’t work out with Poindexter, you come find me--anyone in town can show you the way.”
Nursey takes the paper and tucks it into his pocket. He feels an odd lump in his throat. “Thank you,” he says. “Just--for everything. Thank you.”
“Like I said,” Vitaly says, sniffing slightly as he leans back in his own seat. His eyes are soft, though, and Nursey thinks he’ll miss him, when the truck drives away. No one has ever been kind to him without any obligation before, not even Katya, who he thinks might have even loved him, a little. “I like that dog.”
It takes Nursey some time to find a way into the palace. The doors are barred and the windows boarded up--to deter squatters, he’s sure; looters, too. There aren’t any police around, though, and whoever did the job wasn’t perfect. After about ten minutes of hunting, he finds a door that’s been propped open by a well-concealed steel bar. It’s cleverly done; if he hadn’t been looking, he wouldn’t have seen it.
Cautiously, he sets Puck down on the ground, pushing the door open. He expects it to protest against his touch, but it opens without much effort, the old wood only groaning slightly as it swings in. Puck squeezes in ahead of him, trotting inside. Nursey hisses, “hey!” but the little dog doesn’t pay him any mind, heading off into the shadowy palace, and Nursey swears under his breath, squeezing through the door and letting it close behind him.
The palace is dusty and dim inside, and Nursey feels a chill creep up his spine as he moves into the hallway. He thinks this must be--have been, he reminds himself, it’s nothing now--a service corridor of some kind. The hall is narrow, the walls plain, with none of the finery he’d expect in a passageway in the Imperial Palace.
They reach another door. Puck paws at it and pants.
“You think?” Nursey asks.
It’s not like he has any better ideas.
This door opens out into a wide, spacious hall. A dining room, once, he thinks; long tables spaced out across the floor, draped in white sheets long turned grey with dust. Something in his chest draws him toward the table at the head of the room on a slightly raised dais. It takes Puck two tries to jump up next to him when he steps up.
Nursey walks along the table, his hand drifting over the cloth. His fingers brush the outline of a plate, and he feels a jolt like an electric shock. For a fraction of a second, the room is plunged into sound and color. He’s overwhelmed by the smells of fresh-baked black bread and blood-red borscht and hot, savory shashlik, the air filled with ringing laughter and song, the tinkle of wine goblets of fine crystal. Someone is calling his name, but they’re not saying Nursey. It’s so familiar, but he can’t place the voice--
Puck barks, and Nursey startles. Puck’s front paws are braced on Nursey’s shins, his tail wagging, and if a dog can look concerned, this one does. Blinking spots out of his vision, Nursey steadies himself against the table, then crouches to scratch him behind the ears.
“I’m back,” he says. “I’m okay.” He takes a shaking breath. “Come on. Let’s keep looking.”
The double doors at the end of the dining room lead into out onto a sprawling staircase, which gives way to a vast, open space that can only have been a ballroom. Nursey finds himself slowing down slightly as he walks in, suddenly reluctant to rush. The ceiling is huge and arched, the chandeliers that must have once lit it long dark and dusted over, but the frescoes on the walls are still gorgeous, and the windows, however grimy, let in enough of the late afternoon light to keep the room from being too dim. Something catches in his throat as he takes slow, hesitant steps into the room, holding onto the marble rail of the staircase. He feels oddly dizzy, like he’s getting one of his headaches, but there’s no pain, just a strange, lingering feeling of familiarity that he can’t seem to shake.
He swallows, shaking his head to clear it. Familiarity? Come on, Nursey. Get it together.
Puck’s paws leave small prints on the dusty floor, and Nursey looks down to see decadent patterns set into the boards beneath the dust. The same sense of eerie beauty that had struck him when he’d seen the exterior of the palace sets in again, shivery and cool over his skin.
Something whispers around him, the faintest hint of a violin’s strings. Nursey spins over his shoulder. “Hello?” he calls, a little alarmed. “Is someone there?”
No one answers him. He frowns. Tucked close to his ankle, Puck growls softly. “Yeah, I know,” Nursey says softly. “Weird, right?”
Puck whines and hops up to nudge at his shin, pushing him forward. He’s surprisingly strong for such a little animal, and Nursey takes a step. “Okay, okay,” he says. “Alright.”
Feeling a little odd, almost lightheaded, he keeps moving through the room. He forces himself to keep breathing, carefully, so that he inhales more air than dust. “God, this place,” he murmurs, brushing his fingertips along one wall. “It’s strange, right? Do you feel like there’s ghosts, or is it just me?”
The violins strike up again at the edges of his hearing, but they seem louder now. Nursey takes a step, then another, and then the room floods with light and he freezes.
In the small suite of rooms in the Imperial Palace that he and Chowder have claimed for their own, splitting an overpriced bottle of wine and a thick wedge of cheese, Dex frowns, looking up and around. “Did you hear something?”
Chowder furrows his brow, a hunk of bread with a large slice of cheese halfway to his mouth. “No?” he guesses, and then pauses. “Wait.” He puts his dinner down, following Dex’s gaze. “Do you hear music?”
Dex sets his wine glass down on the crate they’re using as a table. “Someone’s downstairs,” he says. “Come on.”
The ballroom is bright, full of so much light that Nursey has to blink, hard, to clear the spots from his vision.
Where the room had been empty an instant before, full of dust and cobwebs, it’s full to bursting now--full of music, laughter, the sounds of people talking and the swirl of heavy fabric as skirts swish across the dance floor. The crystal chandeliers sparkle above him, a glittering brilliance that takes Nursey’s breath away when he looks up, and he’s about to reach forward, to try to see if he can catch the reflection of the light on something, just to see if it’s real, when--
Someone takes his hand, and he turns. The woman is dark-skinned and smiling, her hair in braids behind a diamond tiara, her off-the-shoulder gown an Imperial crimson. She reaches up with her other hand and touches his cheek, and he has a sudden dizzying thought--I shouldn’t be taller than her, I shouldn’t--and then she smiles, smoothing down his collar.
It’s only then that he realizes his clothes have changed, his many-times-mended trousers and sweater replaced by clean, tailored pants and a jacket with fringed epaulets, a banded sash across his chest. He frowns, looking down at himself, but the woman touches his cheek again. He opens his mouth to ask a question, but she just slips her hand into his.
The music swells again, and he hears the invitation to dance as clear as day. He’s never danced before in his life, but it makes sense to him, to move into it, to follow the steps. He knows the feeling of her hand in his as well as he knows his own heartbeat, he knows the smell of her perfume where she tilts her hair against his cheek, he knows the twist of the way she’s braided her hair--
Memory, he realizes. This is a memory, a memory mixed with a daydream, tangled together with something he can’t place, so vivid he can almost taste it. He’s had this dream before, he thinks, a thousand times before; has stood in this room, under these chandeliers, has heard this music play.
Somewhere, underneath the strains of the quintet, he can hear another tune. It’s totally discordant to the music of the dance, completely different--it’s a lullaby, he thinks, sweet and lilting, gentle. He finds himself drifting to it, straining to hear it, turning--
Nursey turns, and the memory breaks. The light floods from the room, the chandeliers going dark once more, the ballroom returning to dust and dimness. There are two men standing at a balcony overlooking the room.
They don’t look happy.
The kid in the middle of the ballroom can’t be more than eighteen, and for all he was wandering around the floor as if in a daze when they come onto the balcony, he sure as hell snaps to attention when Dex yells down to him. He looks ready to bolt, but Dex says “you just fucking stay right there” and he freezes instead, moving only to bend down and pick up a patched knapsack and a small, twitching dog.
By the time they get down to the ballroom from the stairs beside the balcony, the kid has inched his way halfway up the other flight of stairs, almost to the landing. Dex has to give him credit, he’s sneaky.
“Okay,” Dex says when he reaches him, a little out of breath from the run. The kid--and maybe it’s not really fair for Dex to be calling a teenager a kid when he’s barely into his twenties, but whatever--eyes him warily, adjusting his grip on the dog under his arm. The dog growls. Dex narrows his eyes at it briefly, then looks back at the kid. “What the hell are you doing here?”
The kid looks nervously between him and Chowder, clearly sizing them up. “I was just--”
“Trespassing?” Dex suggests.
Chowder begins to clear his throat, but the kid cuts him off before he can, his lip curling up into a surprisingly calm smile. Dex would almost call it a smirk. “If I’m trespassing, so are you,” the kid says. “I’m pretty sure no one’s supposed to be in here.”
Dex opens his mouth to shoot back, but something makes him look up, and the retort dies in his throat.
The kid is standing directly in front of the portrait of the royal family, and for the first time, it strikes Dex that he looks disturbingly--eerily--like the missing Grand Duke. The same bright green eyes, the same light brown skin, the same cheekbones, the same dark tousled curls.
He’s taller, of course, broader--Prince Derek was only eight when the portrait was painted, and the kid in front of them is almost fully grown, practically an adult--but the resemblance is uncanny.
Dex smacks Chowder’s arm. “Chow,” he hisses. Chowder glances at him, eyebrows cocked, and Dex tries, as subtly as he can, to hint at the portrait. Chowder follows his gaze, and Dex sees the instant that Chowder sees what he’s seen.
“Anyway,” the kid continues. “Is one of you Dex? Someone told me to come see Dex.”
There is no way, Dex decides, that they’re letting this kid walk out of here. He’s too damn perfect.
“I’m Dex,” he says, crossing his arms. “Who wants to know?”
The kid looks nervous for half a second before his expression sets into something determined. “My name’s Nursey,” he says. “A friend of mine told me that you could help me get to Paris.”
It takes every muscle in Dex’s face to keep his eyebrows from shooting up. “Paris?” he says. He pitches his voice into unaffected curiosity. “What’s a kid your age doing going off to Paris?”
Nursey snorts. He looks like he’d like to cross his arms, too, but he’d have to put his dog down. “I’m not a kid,” he says instead. “And it’s none of your business. Can you help me, or not?”
Dex glances at Chowder. Chowder gives a magnanimous be my guest gesture. Dex clears his throat, climbing up the last few stairs to reach Nursey. Face-to-face, he can see they’re the same height, which is rare for him--he’s used to being the tallest man in the room--but he doesn’t let Nursey’s narrowing eyes distract him. “Well, you see, Nursey,” he says. “You caught me at an interesting time. I actually happen to have three tickets to Paris.”
Nursey doesn’t look impressed. “Okay,” he says. “What’s the catch?”
“It’s just that we’ve kind of been saving the third one,” Chowder says. Nursey’s eyes flicker over to him. This push-and-pull is the way he and Chowder usually handle things; Chowder’s gentler, smoother demeanor blending with Dex’s rougher approach. “For him. Grand Duke Derek.”
“I...Oh.” Nursey looks like he can’t decide whether to be disappointed or surprised. He glances over his shoulder at the portrait.
Dex sweeps in, slipping an arm through Nursey’s free one. “It’s a whole thing, y’know,” he says, as if to be helpful. “I’m not sure if you’ve heard--you kind of seem like you’re from out of town--but there are rumors going around that he’s not really dead.”
“Everyone is trying to find him,” Chowder adds, easily scooping up the dog, which comes to him with surprising ease (better Chowder than him, Dex thinks; he’s not really an animal person), and linking his arm through Nursey’s. “To reunite him with his grandmother.”
“Who is in--” Dex begins, but Nursey cuts him off.
“Paris. Okay.” His expression is thoughtful. “And you think you’re going to find him? Out of everyone in Russia?”
Dex shrugs one shoulder. “I’m a lucky guy,” he says. “Where did you say you were from?”
Nursey hesitates. “I...didn’t,” he says slowly. “I mean, I--” The dog in Chowder’s arms makes a soft whining noise. Nursey glances at it, bites his lip, and then schools his face into a carefully calm expression. “I don’t really remember anything before I was eight,” he says. “The people who found me think I got separated from my family during the biggest riots in the Revolution, but I took a bad hit to my head and I don’t...I don’t remember anything about them. Who I was, what my family was like, anything.”
“Oh. That’s…” Dex trails off, because it seems insensitive to say perfect, but it pretty much is. He glances at Chowder.
Chowder, who is far better at emotions than Dex, makes a sound that manages to be sympathetic without being pitying. “There were a lot of lost children after the riots,” he murmurs, squeezing Nursey’s arm with the hand not tucked around Nursey’s little dog, which seems to have calmed down again, tucked into the crook of Chowder’s elbow. “I’m sorry to hear you were one of them.”
Nursey looks surprised by the comfort, but relaxes a little. “I...Thanks.”
“It’s just,” Chowder says, and pauses.
Nursey blinks. “What?”
“Well.” Chowder glances over Nursey’s shoulder at the portrait, like he’s just noticing it, and really, Dex thinks, he missed an amazing career in theater. “It’s just...you said you were eight, when the riots happened?” Nursey nods. “Did you know that Prince Derek was eight, too?”
“I…” Uncertainty, and then suspicion, flickers in Nursey’s eyes. “What are you saying?”
“Come look,” Chowder says gently, and coaxes Nursey over to the portrait. Nursey goes, a little reluctant, but with Chowder on one side and Dex on the other, he can’t really pull away. “You do sort of look like him, don’t you think?”
Nursey scoffs, pulling one arm free from Dex’s to gesture at his patched clothes and the scruff of stubble on his cheeks, but Dex clicks his tongue.
“C’mon,” he says. “Ignore the age thing. You’ve got the same hair, the same eyes--”
“The Tsar’s eyes,” Chowder adds. “They run in the family, you know.”
“The Tsarina’s cheekbones, her lips--” Nursey scowls, and Dex grins. “You’ve even got that Imperial frown.”
Nursey rolls his eyes. “Alright,” he says. “Very funny.”
Chowder shakes his head. “No one’s laughing, Nursey,” he says. He hands Nursey back his dog, and Nursey wraps both his arms around him, as if the little creature is going to protect him somehow. And maybe it will; it certainly growls at Dex when he tries to step closer into Nursey’s space.
“Nursey,” he says. “Come on. You really don’t see the resemblance?”
“I think you’re both out of your minds,” Nursey says, but he does look up again. That uncertainty drifts across his expression again, though, and Dex thinks gotcha, even as one of Nursey’s hands slips under his scarf briefly before reappearing, scuffing once over the dog’s ears. He looks at the portrait like he’s waiting it for it to tell him something, chewing on his bottom lip, and Dex has an uncomfortable realization that, in addition to really looking the part they need, he’s actually really, really handsome.
That could...that could be a problem.
After a long moment, Nursey turns to them, his face set and determined. “You really think this could be possible? That I could be--”
“We’d never have suggested it if we didn’t,” Dex says.
“And it’s...It’s not like it would be lying, right?” Nursey hedges, clearly still hesitant. “Because I don’t know, so I’m not...it’s not like I’d be walking in and saying I’m someone I’m definitely not.”
“Of course not,” Chowder assures him. Dex shoots him a grin when Nursey’s not looking.
“Okay.” Nursey takes a slow breath, and then smiles. It’s a really attractive smile, unfortunately, Dex thinks. He lifts up his dog, nuzzling their noses together. “Looks like we’re going to Paris, Puck!”
And okay, no, Dex is drawing a line. “Uh, no. The dog stays.”
Nursey raises his eyebrows. “The dog comes.”
“The dog definitely stays,” Dex retorts. He’s not gonna let some kid boss him around on his con--
Nursey adjust the strap of his knapsack. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Which of us is royalty, again?”
Dex sputters. Chowder bursts out laughing. “Alright then,” he says. “Looks like the dog comes.” He offers his arm to Nursey. “We’ve got some rooms upstairs, and dinner laid out. What do you say we go talk through some details, Your Grace?”
Nursey grins at him. “I’d be delighted, maestro,” he says, bending to set the dog gently on the floor and taking Chowder’s arm.
“We’re not done talking about this,” Dex grumbles. Nursey’s dog yips at him, and Dex scowls at it, following Nursey and Chowder up the sprawling staircase.
They’re about to turn the corner on the landing, leaving the ballroom behind them, when Nursey’s shoulders suddenly stiffen and he turns, looking sharply over his shoulder. “Did you hear that?”
Dex frowns at him. “Hear what?”
Nursey hesitates. “I thought I heard someone say…” he trails off, and then shakes his head like he’s trying to clear it, closing his eyes. When he opens them, he gives Dex and Chowder a faint smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Never mind. I think it’s just this place. It feels a little...haunted, you know?”
“Sometimes,” Chowder says slowly, glancing at Dex. They do hear strange noises from time that almost sound like whispering, moaning--they’re creepy, but a fair trade for living rent-free in an abandoned palace. Dex has always figured it’s just the building settling, the wind aching through the windows and walls. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
Nursey gives a slow nod. “Yeah,” he says. He gives himself another little shake, like he’s trying to shrug off a chill. “It’s probably nothing.”
Dex pats his arm. “C’mon, Your Grace,” he says, only half-mocking. “You’re not afraid of a few old ghosts, are you?”
Nursey scowls at him, and Chowder flicks his ear. “Ignore him, Nursey,” he says tartly. “Come on. Let’s get you some dinner.”
Dex does Nursey the courtesy of not mentioning that he notices him looking over his shoulder one more time, his eyes nervous and uncertain, before they turn the corner.
In the walls of the palace, something is watching.
It has been drifting, caught in that limbo between restless slumber and silent, screaming paralysis, for--well, what is time, anymore?
But something changes, sudden and startling, and the shadow is thrust into full wakefulness. It claws its way through cobwebs and dead earth with fingers that have not been fingers for years, opening eyes that have ceased to be eyes, but what is sight to a wraith?
The shadow does not need to see. The shadow can feel what has brought it back to the surface. It can taste the sweetness of a promise, so close to completion.
It reaches out, calling. If it can only touch--
The child--no, not a child, not anymore--is pulled away. The shadow recoils.
But there are weak places. The shadow can see them. The cracks in the facade.
And there is nothing binding the shadow to this place, not anymore, not now that the path to fulfilling the vow is clear.
Soon, the shadow thinks, watching the Prince and his companions move away.
finding the right mix between Dreamworks-esque camp and ~drama~ for this fic was a #challenge lemme tell you. I was thisclose to making Bitty the bat and just saying fuck it. THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU TRY TO WRITE YOUR FRIENDS QUALITY STUFF.
i make zero promises about an update schedule, but it will happen because i literally refuse to abandon a birthday fic. also, GO FLOOD HOENURSEY'S INBOX WITH LOVE BC IT'S THEIR BIRTHDAY AND THEY'RE AMAZING!!!!
Chapter 2: Act II
They leave Russia in a flurry of packing, logistics, and--for Nursey and Dex, while Chowder watches with rolled eyes--bickering.
(They don't leave alone.)
better late than never?
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sun going down
Shadows are falling
("Crossing a Bridge", Anastasia: The Musical)
Nursey, it turns out, has never been on a train before.
It makes sense, Chowder supposes, as they present their tickets and make their way into the passenger car to look for an open compartment. If he was orphaned at eight and in children’s homes for the past ten years, it’s not like he’d be doing much travelling. His face is curious and cautiously excited as he looks around the train at the carpeted floors, the embossed doors of the compartments--and Chowder can’t blame him. Passenger trains like this are some of the few things in Russia that still hold onto some of the pre-Revolution luxury.
They hadn’t had time to get Nursey any new clothes, so he’s still in his worn-in trousers and sweater, his patched coat. The only thing he’s wearing that looks at all new or clean is his scarf, which he touches from time to time, oddly protective. Chowder had strung the clothes on a line above a pot of boiling water with lavender and cloves while Nursey had taken advantage of the shower in Dex and Chowder’s rooms, the steam ridding them of the scent of travel and long wear.
Dex had fairly tripped over his own feet when Nursey had come out of the bathroom, clean and damp. Dex had loaned him his straight razor and Nursey had cleaned up the lines of stubble around his jaw but left the beard in place, his cheekbones more defined now, his eyes brighter, more relaxed and less tired, as if the hot water had soothed some tension out of him.
(When Nursey had gone to get dressed, Chowder had poked Dex with the toe of his shoe. “Is this going to be an issue?”
Dex flushed red enough that his freckles nearly disappeared. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he snapped, scowling.
Chowder had rolled his eyes, but dropped it.)
They find an empty compartment in the second passenger car, and Dex shoulders the door open. Nursey deposits Puck gently down onto a seat, and then reaches up to store his knapsack on one of the overhead racks. He plops down in the window seat across from the dog.
Dex raises his eyebrows at him. “Seriously?”
Nursey blinks. “What?”
“You’re giving the dog the window seat?”
Nursey tilts his head to one side, all innocent. “Puck’s never been on a train before.”
Dex opens his mouth to argue, looking at Chowder for support. Chowder forces back a grin, shrugging an obvious what can you do?, and Dex scowls, sitting down next to Nursey with a huff. “He can’t even see out the window.”
As if to prove him wrong, Puck stands up on his hind legs, putting his front paws against the sill and pressing his nose against the window. He yips and shoots Dex a look that, on a human, would almost certainly be disdainful. Nursey snorts.
“You were saying?”
“Whatever,” Dex mutters, crossing his arms.
Chowder lets his grin out, sitting down beside Puck and scritching him behind the ears. Puck wags his tail. “Play nice, kids.”
“We are,” Dex and Nursey say in unison. They glance at each other, roll their eyes in eerie mirrors of one another, and then sit back.
Chowder shakes his head. He’s become oddly fond of Nursey in the few hours he’s known him, but he’s getting the feeling that the dynamic between him and Dex is going to be an interesting one.
Maybe he should make a drinking game. Or start keeping a tally of successful insults between them. Could be amusing.
The train starts to move, and Nursey turns away from Dex, looking out the window. Chowder reaches into his bag, picking out their travel papers and a pen to work on the careful bits of forgery they’ll need to get over the border. Dex pulls out a notebook, reviewing the details of their plan to get to Paris.
They’ve been travelling for maybe twenty minutes before Nursey starts fiddling with a chain around his neck, shifting in the seat. Chowder glances at him, unsure if maybe something’s wrong, but Dex gets there first.
“I’m not,” Nursey says instantly, as if it’s an automatic response. He drops the chain, shoving it under his sweater, and crosses his arms.
Dex huffs. “And don’t slump, c’mon.” He nudges Nursey’s boot with his shoe. “You’re a Grand Duke, Grand Dukes don’t slump.”
Nursey rolls his eyes. “And how exactly do you know what Grand Dukes do or don’t do?”
“It’s my job to know,” Dex retorts.
Nursey opens his mouth, and then pauses. Chowder raises his eyebrows, curious, as a slow smile spreads across Nursey’s face. “Dex,” he says, “do you really think I’m the real Derek Nurse? That I’m lost royalty?”
A flash of exasperation flickers over Dex’s face before he smooths it away, gives Nursey his con-man smile. “Of course I do,” he says, with what Chowder knows is supposed to be total sincerity. Chowder, because he’s worked with Dex for awhile now, knows it’s totally fake.
He loves Dex, but sometimes he’s kind of an awful person. Then again, they’re kind of awful for a living.
But Nursey just smiles, bats his eyelashes at Dex, and reaches down into his bag to pull out a battered paperback. “So then shouldn’t I be telling you what to do?”
Dex sputters, and Nursey smirks, opening his book and burying his face in it.
Chowder suppresses a snicker.
He’s definitely going to start keeping score.
“Talk. To. Him.”
Dex scowls. “He’s obnoxious.”
Chowder rolls his eyes. “You’re being obnoxious,” he says. They’re sitting in the dining car, Dex having stormed off after Nursey refused to trade his book for a lesson in royal lineage and their disagreement about priorities having dissolved into a near-screaming match that Chowder had finally had to break up, citing their neighbors in other compartments. “We need him, Dex.”
“We can find another lookalike,” Dex grumbles. “He can’t be the only man in Russia who looks like Derek Nurse.”
“We’re already on our way,” Chowder points out. “And what are we going to do, drop the kid in the middle of the country with no money and no contacts?”
Dex doesn’t actually think the prospect sounds too bad. For someone who grew up in orphan’s homes Nursey is remarkably snobby; maybe a little bit of starvation and self-reliance would be good for him.
Chowder narrows his eyes. “Dex.”
“Okay, okay.” He sighs. “What do you want me to say?”
“Start by apologizing for being an ass,” Chowder suggests. “You can go from there. Maybe try to--I don’t know, find something in common.”
Dex snorts. “Chow,” he says. “Come on.” Chowder kicks him under the table, hard, and he winces at the flare of pain, biting back a yelp. “Okay, Jesus! I’m going.” He drains his coffee, throws a few rubles down, and gets up. “This damn reward better be worth it.”
“Ten million rubles,” Chowder reminds him.
“Yeah, yeah,” Dex mutters, stalking back towards the passenger cars.
He finds Nursey right where he left him - in their compartment, curled up in the seat by the window. His expression is tight and tense, but there’s a sort of melancholy in it that wasn’t there when Dex had stormed out. It’s almost enough to make Dex hesitate, but screw it--he’s already here. He clears his throat.
Nursey looks up, and immediately narrows his eyes. “What do you want?”
It takes Dex by surprise, but he sounds almost more exhausted than angry. He feels an odd pang of empathy--he knows what that’s like, the weariness that can come in the wake of a wave of temper. “I…” He takes a breath, swallows his pride. “I’m sorry. For earlier.”
Nursey blinks, clearly not expecting that. Dex can’t really blame him. He doesn’t apologize much--ever, really--and Nursey’s obviously figured that out pretty quickly. Nursey’s lips part, and then he swallows visibly. “Yeah,” he says. “Okay.”
Dex narrows his eyes. That’s it? He wants to say, but he doesn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. He gestures at the window seat across from Nursey--Puck is curled up in Nursey’s lap, sleeping--and Nursey gives a jerky nod. Dex sits down.
They sit in silence for a few minutes, Nursey looking out the window, Dex watching Nursey. Even in patched and long-worn clothes, there’s something oddly regal about him, Dex thinks, and sighs inwardly. Chowder’s right--the chances of them finding someone as perfect for the part as Nursey are slim to none.
“Look,” Dex says. “I’m sorry you and me got off on the wrong foot. But you can’t get moody like that when you’re supposed to be a Duke, alright?”
Nursey lifts his head from the window, narrowing his eyes. “I didn’t see you reigning in your temper, Poindexter.”
“My temper isn’t going to be the one on display,” Dex retorts. He crosses his arms. “What happened to your whole chill routine?”
Something Dex can’t place flickers over Nursey’s handsome features, his face tensing. “It’s not that simple.”
“What’s so hard about keeping it together?”
“I--” Nursey bites his lip, and then huffs a sigh. He twists around, puts Puck down on the seat next to him, and then leans forward, putting his elbows on his knees, regarding Dex with serious green eyes. “Look,” he says. “Something happened, when I hit my head as a kid. Sometimes my moods just--they drop, or jump, and I can’t--I can’t do anything, okay? There’s nothing I can do.”
He sounds frustrated and annoyed with himself, and Dex purses his lips, uncomfortable. He never really knows what to say when people tell him things like this. “Oh,” he says. “I--Sorry. That sucks.”
Nursey raises his eyebrows as if to say, really? “Yeah,” he says.
Dex lets his leg jiggle a few times, an awkward habit he’d never been able to break. “At least you’ve got the head trauma excuse,” he offers, after a few moments of uneasy silence.
Nursey frowns. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Dex shrugs, leaning back against the cushioned seat. “It means I don’t have anything to blame my shit temper on,” he says. “Except my dad’s Irish blood, I guess, if you ask my mother.”
“Ah.” Nursey looks almost amused. “That explains the hair.”
“Hilarious,” Dex says, deadpan. “Honestly. I’ve never heard that one before.”
Nursey chuckles. Silence settles between them again, but it’s less strained now, almost companionable. Nursey looks out the window, watching the countryside flash past them with a half-lidded gaze, and Dex, against his better judgment, watches Nursey. His eyelashes are really kind of stupidly long, he thinks, looking at the sweep of them over Nursey’s green eyes; it’s like no one ever told him that that’s dumb, that they might get...caught, if he blinks, or something, or…
Jesus. No wonder Chowder’s been giving him looks.
“Are you going to miss it?”
Dex startles. “What?”
Nursey gives him a confused look, but gestures out the window. “Russia,” he clarifies.
“Oh.” Dex leans back. “No, not really. I don’t love the cold, and everyone’s always cranky. But I can always come back.” He raises an eyebrow. “Why, are you?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t decided.” Nursey gazes back at the forest rolling past them. “I always felt a little out of place, I suppose. Like something wasn’t quite right for me here.”
Dex tsks. “You can’t say that when you’re supposed to be Russian royalty,” he chides. “You’d better come up with something better. Some kind of ‘I longed for the feeling of home that I could only find in mother Russia’s arms’ shit.”
Nursey bursts out laughing. “Seriously?”
“You do better, then,” Dex says.
Nursey hums. He pulls a leg up onto the seat, wrapping an arm around it, and reaches down to scratch Puck between the ears. “‘Paradise is hidden in each one of us, it is concealed within me too, right now,’” he says. “Yet if I wish, it will come for me in reality, tomorrow even, and for the rest of my life.’”
Dex stares. “Bullshit,” he says. “No, bullshit, you did not just come up with that.”
Nursey laughs. “No, man,” he says. “That’s Dostoyevsky.”
“Oh, God,” Dex groans. “You like literature, don’t you?”
The glint in Nursey’s green eyes is answer enough, and Dex groans again, leaning his head back against the headrest of his seat. “This trip is going to be a nightmare.”
A shuffling outside the compartment door distracts him from Nursey’s laugh as Chowder pokes his head back inside. “Dex,” he says, his face carefully calm in that way he gets when he’s quietly panicking but doesn’t want to show it. “Can I talk to you outside for a second?”
“Absolutely,” Dex says emphatically, getting to his feet and following Chowder out into the hallway. Chowder closes the door behind them, glancing around. An older couple bustles past them and into another compartment, and Chowder tracks their movement uneasily until their door clicks shut. Dex frowns. “Chow,” he says slowly. “What’s going on?”
Chowder huffs out a nervous sigh, and pulls their carefully forged travelling papers out of the inner pocket of his coat. He opens one of them, displaying the blue ink.
Dex has a sudden, visceral memory of walking down the hallway to the lavatory and overhearing two other passengers griping about having to get new travel papers at the last minute, how much they disliked the vivid red ink the new government used for everything.
“Oh,” Dex says. “Shit.”
“Yeah,” Chowder says. “We have a problem.”
The shadow slides alongside the train, leaving a trail of embers and sparks along the tracks. Rearing up, it filters through inside, dipping into darkened corners and the crevices of molding.
It spools, floating. Thinking.
And then it scatters.
It flies along the walls of the train, slides away through vents and gaps in window panes to scour the outsides of the cars. It weaves its way along pistons and cylinders and valves, searching and searching and searching, passing over one car and then another, until--
Ah. Fire, and heat, and pressure.
If the shadow had still had lips, it would smile.
It can work with fire.
“Here we go!” Chowder says, bright and over-cheerful. “Isn’t this more spacious?”
Nursey squints at him, because something’s...definitely up. “Uh, yeah,” he says. “It’s really great, Chow.”
At the other end of the baggage car, Dex tosses his duffle onto a crate, covering his snorted laugh with a cough. “Really great,” he says. Nursey shivers a little in the draftier air, and Dex frowns. “You alright?”
Nursey shrugs, slipping his hands into his pockets. “I’ll live,” he says. “Though I’m a little confused about why we--”
Something jolts under the tracks, and Nursey goes stumbling across the car, sprawling forward and directly into Dex’s chest. Dex catches him with an arm around the waist, stumbling back at the impact, and for half an instant Nursey finds himself staring directly into wide, startled eyes, and--oh, shit, have they always been that warm, honeyed amber? Because--
Dex grasps him firmly by the waist and pushes him back, looking around the car. “What the hell was that?”
“Something hit us,” Chowder says, picking himself up off the floor with a wince. Puck gives a disgruntled bark.
“What do you mean, something hit us?” Dex demands. “We’re on a train!”
Nursey steadies himself on his feet with a hand against the wall. “Maybe it was something on the tracks,” he says. “Or maybe--” He peers out the window to look, and can’t stop the strangled noise that comes out of his mouth. “Uh--guys?”
Dex and Chowder turn to look at him. Nursey points out the window. “Were we attached to the dining car a minute ago?”
“What?” There’s a scramble as they both try to get to him at once, following his gaze out the window. Dex swears, low and long, and Chowder looks, for the first time since Nursey’s known him, decidedly unnerved. “Shit,” Dex says, staring. “Oh, shit. Okay, we gotta get further up, get to the driver, or something--”
There’s a roar ahead of them, and they whip around in eerie unison. Nursey starts to step forward, used to handling things himself, but Dex throws out an arm, catching him. “Stay here,” he snaps, but there’s worry in his eyes.
Chowder’s already made it to the front of the car, and his face is grey and horrified when he turns back. “The engine car’s burning,” he says. “The whole car.”
Dex goes pale. Puck whines. Nursey swallows. “I’ll check it out,” he volunteers. “I’m good at climbing shit, I can--”
He’s not good at climbing shit, actually. But Dex and Chowder have each other, they’re friends, they care about each other. Nursey’s no one. If he climbs up and gets burned to a crisp, well, at least they’ll have a good story. Maybe they’ll look after Puck for him--
“Not a fucking chance,” Dex says. “It’s not safe.” He’s already unbuttoning his coat and shrugging off his jacket. “Stay here.”
Nursey bristles on principle, even though he can’t remember the last time someone put his safety first. “I’d be fine,” he begins, but Dex has already crossed the car, sliding the door open. A blast of steaming air hits them, buffering the freezing cold from outside. Before Nursey can even make a sound of alarm or tell him to be careful, Dex launches himself out of the car, over the attachment and up onto the coal car. He takes half an instant to steady himself, then starts climbing forward, disappearing out of sight.
“He’s lost it,” he says, awed and a little terrified.
Beside him, Chowder snorts. “He’s selectively impulsive,” he says. “You get used to it.” There’s a yell from up ahead, barely audible over the roaring flames and the sound of the wheels on the tracks and the wind whipping past them. “Hell,” Chowder mutters, and takes Nursey’s arm. “Come here, step back--”
He yanks Nursey away from the door, just as Dex all but throws himself back into the car. His face is smeared with coal and sweat, his hair in wild disarray. “Nobody’s driving this train,” he says, wide-eyed. “We’re going too fast.”
Nursey’s stomach twists, his throat clenching. His heartbeat leaps, his head spinning, and he forces himself to swallow, to breathe. At his feet, Puck whines and paws at his leg, and Nursey bends down automatically, lifting him up into his arms and cuddling him close. Something about the warm, slight weight calms him a little. “What do we do?”
“We’ve got to get off this train,” Dex says flatly, pushing his sweaty hair back.
“Are you out of your mind?” Nursey says, incredulous, fear flooding him again. Dex turns to him, glaring, but Nursey just jabs a finger at the woodland streaming past them at terrifying speed. “Look at that.”
Dex opens his mouth to argue, but then follows Nursey’s pointing finger and swears under his breath. “Damn it.”
“We can uncouple the cars,” Chowder offers. “No engine, and eventually the momentum will slow--”
“Yeah, yeah,” Dex says. “Okay, get me a wrench, or a hammer or something--”
Puck barks sharply, wriggling in Nursey’s arms, and Nursey has to let him go. He bounds across the car and paws at a wooden crate. Nursey follows him oven the semi-darkness of the car, Nursey can make out the words DANGER: EXPLOSIVES in large red letters on the side of the box. “Huh,” he says, and turns to Dex. “You got a light?”
Dex follows his gaze. He looks surprised for half an instant, and then grins, broad. “Chow,” he says, “you got those matches?”
Chowder sighs, and reaches into his pocket, tossing a small book to Dex, who catches it with a grin.
The explosion that rocks through the car as the dynamite ignites, separating them from the engine car, sends them all jolting. Nursey winces, reluctantly acknowledging that fine, Dex was right to huddle them all together in the corner--otherwise they’d have gone flying. Dex’s arm is tight around his shoulder, all but pushing Nursey into his chest.
He thinks, wildly, that he can’t even feel the heat of it, surrounded too tightly by Dex’s scent, the pressure on his skin.
The engine car races away, but their car doesn’t slow nearly enough. “Is it gonna slow down more?” Nursey asks. Dex doesn’t answer, and when he looks over at him, the grim set of Dex’s jaw is not reassuring. “Dex?”
“Maybe we’ll coast for a little while,” Dex begins, clearly doubtful. “And that’ll--”
There’s a horrifying sound from outside, a shattering roar, and above it, something like a scream that--it must be the wind, Nursey tells himself, tightening his arms around Puck, but it chills him to the core. “Oh, shit,” Dex says, getting to his feet. Nursey follows him to what used to be front of the car, and his blood runs colder at the sight of the jagged end of track where the approaching bridge used to be.
“We have to jump,” Chowder says. “There’s nothing--we have to.”
He sounds nervous, but firm, already moving to pick up Dex’s duffle and toss it to him. Dex grabs it out of the air as Chowder slides open the side door of the car. “Nursey, come on,” he says. “Let’s go.”
“I--” His breath catches in his throat, and Nursey takes a shaking breath. His legs aren’t moving, and his chest feels tight. Not now, he thinks, a little frantic, but the thought just makes his heart beat faster, blood pounding in his ears. Not now, not now--
He can’t move. He can hear the pounding of the train’s wheels on the tracks, the wail of the wind racing past them, but he feels--he feels small, somehow, like he’s not really here.
For a brief, dizzying instant, he’s not here. He’s on a different train, a different set of tracks, and his lungs are burning as he clings to--what? Someone’s hand?
“Hold onto me, darling,” someone is calling, desperate, and he’s running, trying so hard to reach out, and he can’t, he can’t.
But that doesn’t make sense, because he’s never been on a train before, has never even been near one--
Dex’s yell rockets him back to the present, and Nursey sucks in a breath. Dex is standing in front of him, his fingers digging into Nursey’s biceps, and from the look on his face, it’s not the first time he’s said Nursey’s name. “I--” Nursey starts, and swallows, hard. “Sorry. Sorry.”
“Come on,” Dex says. “We gotta go.” He takes Puck out of Nursey’s grasp and thrusts him at Chowder, who tucks him carefully into his own arms, and shoves Nursey’s bag at him. “Chow, you go first.”
Chowder nods, shooting Nursey an encouraging smile. “It’s gonna be fine,” he says, reassuring, and Nursey tries to nod jerkily back, but his throat feels too tight to say anything. Chowder takes a breath, curls himself in around Puck, and leaps out of the train, out of sight.
Nursey moves before he can stop himself, sprinting forward to watch him. For a sickening moment, all he can see is Chowder flying, hitting the ground in a crumpled heap and, too quickly, getting smaller and smaller. But then Chowder sits up, waving his arms at them, and it’s too dark to see his expression, but Nursey thinks he might, somehow, be grinning.
“See?” Dex says. “It’s fine. He’s fine.” He takes Nursey’s arm. “We gotta go.”
“I can’t,” Nursey says, his voice finally working, the words rasping out of him. “Dex, I can’t.” And he can’t explain it, why it’s so paralyzing, but he can’t, he knows he can’t do this.
“You can,” Dex says, firmly. “Come on. I’ll be here. Count of three, alright?” He tightens his grip on Nursey’s arm. “One. Two--”
There’s a crash up ahead of them, and Nursey whips his head around to see something large and dark--a tree, maybe?--fall onto the tracks ahead of them. Too close, too close, they’re going to hit it--
“Three,” he grits out, cutting Dex off. He grabs Dex around the waist, and flings them both out of the car before his mounting panic can stop him.
They hit the ground hard, the fresh snow just barely cushioning their fall, rolling a few yards before they come to a stop. They land sprawled together, Nursey half on top of Dex, their legs tangled. “Get off,” Dex starts to say, “You weigh a ton--”
The train car hits the tree on the tracks and flips, rocking off the tracks and rolling twice, three times, before screeching to a halt, upside-down and smoking. Dex stares at it, his eyes wide. “Holy shit,” he says.
“You’re welcome,” Nursey says, dazed.
The flood of adrenaline leaves him, and he doesn’t bother moving to make sure he won’t crush Dex as he passes out.
The shadow watches as the train car rolls and crashes. It watches as the bodies fly from it, watches the royal child pick up his head, snow-blown and terrified, but safe.
The shadow screams.
Nursey’s quiet as they make camp that night, withdrawn into his coat and barely speaking more than to reassure them he was fine after Dex, more panicked than he’d ever admit, had shaken him back to consciousness. Dex catches Chowder giving him worried glances, often followed none-too-subtly by pointed looks in Dex’s direction, as if Dex could fix him somehow. Personally, Dex doesn’t mind the new silence. If he has to choose between silence and Nursey’s smug, smarter-than-you voice, it’s an easy decision.
Eventually, Chowder starts talking, probably just to fill the silence. Dex nibbles on the hard cheese they’re sharing between the three of them--they didn’t have much by way of food to start with, but Dex is pretty glad he decided not to snack on the train, since this’ll have to last them til they get to the nearest village--and listens vaguely, mostly tuning out his friend’s voice in favor of planning what they’ll have to do next. If he remembers the train route correctly, they should only be about twenty-five kilometers from a small town. It’s not a huge distance, but winter’s set in early and the ground is cold, and they don’t have much food, and no water. They can melt snow, they’ll have to, but…
“No, it’s true! Dex can back me up!” Chowder kicks his foot, startling Dex back into the conversation.
Chowder rolls his eyes at him. “Nursey here,” he says, with a pointed gesture at Nursey, who looks like he’s starting to come out of his self-imposed shell a bit, “doesn’t believe that I had a torrid affair with the Empress’s lady-in-waiting.”
Dex snorts. Nursey raises his eyebrows. “Now I’m confused,” he says. There’s a hint of a smile in his voice, and Dex hates that he’s a little relieved to hear it. “Does that mean he did, or he didn’t?”
“He did,” Dex confirms, only because if he has to hear Chowder soliloquizing about Lady Caitlin’s skin and hair and eyes, he’s damn well dragging Nursey down with him. “Good thing for us, too. Lady Caitlin is the Empress’s cousin, and her friend--rumor has it you’ve got to get through her before the Empress will see you, so we’re lucky that C can get us an introduction.”
The smile drops off Nursey’s face like it had never been there. “Wait,” he says. “What? What do you mean, get through her?”
Dex leans back against his duffle, letting his legs sprawl, and shrugs. “I mean, she’s royalty, and there’s a hell of a reward out there for reuniting her with her grandson. That’s a lot of competition. You can’t expect her to meet with every asshole claiming the Nurse title, can you?”
“But--” Nursey’s skin is starting to take on a greyish tinge. Puck whines and licks at his chin, but Nursey doesn’t seem to notice. “But I--you never said I’d have to do that. How am I supposed to…”
He trails off, giving them a hopeless look. “I’m not...I’m nobody,” he says, and his voice is so small that Dex actually feels a twinge of sympathy. “I’m no one. The only reason I thought this might have a chance was that maybe she’d--she’d look at me and know who I was. That I’m...someone to her. But I can’t just--I can’t…”
Dex looks at Chowder, alarmed. They didn’t think this through, if Nursey’s gonna back out over something as small as ethics.
Chowder just purses his lips briefly, and then he exhales hard through his nose, gets to his feet, and walks around their small fire to sit next to Nursey. “Hey,” he says quietly. “Listen.”
Nursey’s left cheek hollows, like he’s chewing on it. He doesn’t say anything.
“You’re somebody,” Chowder says. He’s speaking softly, the same voice he uses when Dex is getting too angry to think and someone needs to calm him down, and Dex tries not to feel offended by that. It works on him, after all. “You might be the Grand Duke, you might not be, but whoever you are, Nursey, you’re not nobody.”
Nursey snorts. “Right,” he says. “Sure.”
“I mean it,” Chowder insists. “You’re smart--smarter than you probably should be, given your history. You think we didn’t see the books you’ve got with you? And you’re kind. And brave--”
“Brave?” Nursey scoffs. “I almost got me and Dex killed on that train because I was too scared to move.”
“But you didn’t,” Dex cuts in. Everything had happened so fast, but this, this, he remembers. “You got us off in time. You saved both of us.”
Nursey bites his lip. He doesn’t protest, though. Dex counts that as a win.
“Look,” Chowder says. “I know that you’ve been raised to see yourself as nothing, because that’s what the system wanted you to see. But that’s not what I see. I see someone with amazing strength, and more wisdom than makes sense for how old you are, with command and energy. I mean--look at you and Dex! You had him under control in less than a day!”
“Hey,” Dex objects, but the slightest hint of a smile is starting to pull at Nursey’s mouth, and--alright, fine. He’ll let him have this one.
Chowder winks at him, then turns back to Nursey. “I know the signs of royalty when I see it,” he says. Nursey scoffs, but Chowder shakes his head firmly. “No, I mean it. I was part of the Imperial Court--I know what to look for, Nursey. I do.”
He puts a hand on Nursey’s arm. “I can’t say for sure if you’re the Grand Duke, Nursey. None of us can. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if you were. And if all it takes to find out for sure is learning a little trivia, a few skills--it’s worth it, isn’t it?”
Nursey’s quiet for a long moment. And then he sighs, finally lifting his head and looking squarely at Chowder. He looks bone-tired, but there’s a flicker of humor lighting his eyes. “The ladies at Court must have loved you, if you could make speeches like that,” he says.
“You’d better believe it,” Chowder says, winking again. He takes Nursey’s hand, presses a dramatic kiss to the back of it--Nursey laughs--and then pats it gently, letting him go. “Now,” he says. “I suggest we get some sleep. And in the morning, we’ll start some lessons. Sound good?”
“Sounds like we don’t have a choice,” Nursey says, but he’s smiling now, really smiling, and Dex finds himself almost disturbingly happy to see it.
“Exactly,” Chowder says. “Now. Who’s got the rest of the cheese?”
“No,” Dex says, for the third time in a row, trying to keep the frustration out of his voice and hearing himself failing. “You were born at Peterhof, not at Pavlovsk.”
“What difference does it make?” Nursey complains, dropping his head into his hands.
“Because knowing where you were born is a basic thing, Nursey!” Dex exclaims, exasperated. “That’s the first thing she’s gonna ask you!”
“You don’t know that,” Nursey argues, leaning across the table of the tiny inn where they’ve holed up, waiting for the next bus. “She could ask--”
“Gentlemen!” Chowder interrupts, bustling into the room in a flurry of cold wind and enthusiasm. “I have good news!”
Dex sits back in his chair with a huff. “Is it a bullet?” he asks sarcastically. “That I can put in my head so I don’t have to listen to Nursey’s voice anymore?”
“Screw you too, buddy,” Nursey mutters.
Chowder ignores them both. “I found horses!”
For one very odd moment, Dex finds himself in perfect unison with Nursey as they both blink at Chowder in confusion.
“Sorry,” Nursey says finally. “Did you say horses?”
“Riding,” Chowder says, sitting down in the one empty chair and casually stealing Dex’s beer despite Dex’s half-hearted protest, “is the kind of thing that royals know how to do! There’s a man with a farm on the outskirts of the village with a pasture, he said he’s happy to let us do some riding if we don’t mind mucking out a stall or two.”
He punctuates this with a significant glance at Dex. Dex follows that train of thought to its conclusion, and groans.
“Seriously? Why can’t Nursey do it?”
“Because Nursey is royalty,” Nursey says, grinning. His smile fades slightly. “And also Nursey has to learn how to ride a horse. Chowder, I’ve never been on a horse before.”
Chowder wags a finger at him. “Grand Duke Derek Nurse has been riding since he was three, which means you have been riding since you were three.”
Nursey groans. “If I show up to meet the Empress--or Lady Caitlin, or whoever--with a broken leg because I fell off a horse, it’s gonna be your fault.”
Dex perks up a little at that. Nursey falling off a horse? Now that’s worth cleaning out a stall or two.
Except, as it turns out, Nursey doesn’t fall off the horse. He’s a little nervous as he approaches the mare the farmer picks out for him, and he’s a little unsteady as he swings himself into the saddle for the first time--with a little help from Dex, who reluctantly gives him a boost.
Except, once he’s astride the horse’s back, something--changes. It’s as if something settles over him, the tension bleeding out of his shoulders. His posture, which is already oddly good, gets even more so, and he adjusts his position in the saddle without being prompted, running an almost absent-minded hand through the horse’s mane.
“Huh,” Nursey says, his voice soft and surprised. “This...isn’t so bad.”
Dex, who has been on one horse in his entire life and was immediately bucked off it, scowls up at him. Nursey must feel the weight of his gaze, because he glances down and then grins.
“Sorry,” he says, smirking. “Guess you’re out of luck, Poindexter.”
“You haven’t started riding yet,” Dex pushes back, but it’s useless. He can already tell that there’s no way Nursey’s falling off that horse.
And he doesn’t.
Back at the inn that night--Dex is grateful for a bath and another night’s sleep in a real bed before they get on the bus--they get back to family histories.
Gratifyingly, Nursey is less good at this. Dex sips his beer, feeling quietly vindicated while Chowder runs through questions.
“Now,” Chowder says. “Uncle Vanya. Where was he from?”
Nursey looks blankly at him. “Um,” he says. “I--” He trails off. “I’m sorry. I don’t remember.”
Chowder sighs. “Okay,” he says. He flips through his notepad. “Uh...Alright. How about Count Witte? You called him Count Sergei. Now, he was--”
“He had a cat!”
Chowder stops. Blinks. “What?”
“Count Sergei,” Nursey says, brightening. “He had this--that huge fat yellow cat, right? He used to bring it to Council meetings, and everyone hated it, but we used to coax it down to the kitchens and give it milk, and--” He breaks off, frowning. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?” Some of the excitement dims from his face. “Did I mix something up again?”
Dex opens his mouth to answer, and then pauses. He looks at Chowder, who’s looking at Nursey, his face carefully blank.
Because Sergei Witte did have a huge yellow cat. It was famously bad-tempered, and, according to the gossip Dex remembers from the palace, the absolute bane of the Council of Ministers, but Witte was the Chairman, and no one would make him get rid of it.
Except that they didn’t tell Nursey that.
They didn’t tell Nursey any of that.
“Um, no,” Chowder says finally. “That’s--that’s right. You did good.” He glances at Dex. “Right?”
“Right,” Dex says. Nursey raises his eyebrows at him. “What?” Dex says, defensive. “Even I can acknowledge when you do something right.”
Nursey snorts. “High praise,” he says. He picks up his beer, downs it with an ease that should be alarming for an eighteen-year-old who grew up in children’s homes, and then puts it down. “In that case,” he says. “I guess we can call it a night, yeah? I’m pretty tired. And I’d like to bathe off some of this horse smell before we get on a bus.”
Chowder grins up at him. “Go ahead,” he says. “You did great today. Just tell them to bill the bath to our room, we’ll settle up before we go.”
Nursey gives Chowder a smile, scrunches his face up at Dex--dick, Dex thinks, and is mildly horrified to find that the thought feels affectionate--and heads up the stairs.
Chowder lets out a breath, turning to Dex. “So,” he says. “What the hell do you make of that?”
“I don’t know,” Dex says.
It’s not a feeling he’s used to.
He doesn’t like it.
“I got you something,” Dex says, as they settle into their tiny cabin on the boat that will take them from Germany to France.
Nursey blinks, sitting on the bottom bunk, his knapsack open on the floor next to him. “You...what?”
Dex waves a bundle at him. “I got you something,” he repeats, slowly, like he thinks Nursey’s some kind of idiot.
(Which, given their interactions so far, he probably does.)
“Sorry, no, I heard you, I just--no one gets me things.” Katya gave him her scarf, sure, but she was worried about him freezing on the road. This...this doesn’t seem like that. Nursey reaches out, willing his hands not to shake, and takes the bundle from Dex. “What is it?”
Dex shrugs, slipping his hands into his pockets now that he doesn’t have anything to hold in them. “Some new clothes,” he says. “Don’t get excited--you need them.”
Nursey frowns at him. “What’s wrong with my clothes?” he asks, trying not to bristle.
“Nursey,” Dex says flatly, and Nursey winces. Okay, so his trousers are about an inch too short and there’s a strip of fabric sewn into the back of his sweater so he could get another year of wear out of it when his shoulders started getting too broad for the seams and his jacket has a lot of patches, but they’re his.
On the other hand, he has to look presentable enough to show up to the Empress’s cousin’s door and convince her that he’s related to her.
“Okay,” he sighs. “I...thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Dex says. “I mean, it’s not like you--I had to guess on some of the measurements, so they might not be exactly--” He huffs, his cheeks pinking. “Chowder wants us on the deck,” he says, changing courses completely. Nursey blinks. “So just--get changed and meet me up there, okay?”
“Uh, sure.” He watches Dex go, the door to their cabin slamming behind him, and raises his eyebrows.
“Okay,” he says, and shakes his head. He unfolds the bundle, coming up with a crisp white shirt and a pair of black trousers. There’s an undershirt, too, and a new pair of socks, and Nursey feels weirdly touched by that--people don’t usually think about socks, he muses.
He holds the shirt up to his chest, looking down at Puck. “What do you think?” he asks. “Can I make it work?”
Puck gives an encouraging yip. Nursey snorts. “Right,” he says. He looks down at the shirt. He’s pretty sure it’s the cleanest thing he’s ever seen. “I wish I had your confidence.”
“Oh,” Chowder says, looking over Dex’s shoulder with wide eyes. “Oh. Okay.” Dex starts to turn, and Chowder grabs his arm. “Uh,” Chowder says. “You might wanna. Brace yourself or something.”
Dex frowns. “What?” Chowder gives him a look that’s half leer and half grin, and nods at something behind Dex. Dex squints at him, and turns to look.
Nursey slips his hands into the pockets of his new trousers, rocking back and forth on his heels. He gives Dex a slight, hesitant smile. “Well?” he asks. “Are they okay?”
It shouldn’t make that much of a difference, he knows. It’s just clothes. Nursey’s been handsome--Dex knows he’s been handsome this whole time. But the cut of the shirt emphasizes his shoulders and the cut of his waist, the thinner fabric showing of the curve of his biceps and the sleeves rolled up to expose his forearms, and the trousers are--
Nursey clears his throat. “My eyes are up here.”
Dex snaps his gaze back up, his face burning, but Nursey’s just grinning at him, and if Dex didn’t know better, he’d think there might be a slight flush on Nursey’s cheeks, too.
No, he tells himself. No way. Just the sun hitting his skin as it sinks low in the sky. That’s all it is.
“Let me look at you!” Chowder exclaims, cutting through the silence that’s starting to stretch too long between them. He gets up, just as Nursey turns to him, his nervous grin shifting to something a little more like preening. “Gorgeous, man! Court won’t know what hit them.” He winks, and beckons at Dex. “Right, Dex?”
“Uh, yeah,” Dex says. “I mean, you look--yeah.”
Nursey arches one eyebrow, but Chowder just plows on ahead. “Now,” he says. “Since you look like you’re ready to head to court, it’s time you learned how to dance like you’re there, too.”
The smile drops off Nursey’s face. Dex resists the urge to smack himself in the face. They really need to be better about easing him into this shit. “Sorry,” Nursey says nervously. “Uh--dancing? I’m not really...I mean, you might have noticed that I’m not the most graceful--”
Dex, who has been smacked with one of Nursey’s flailing limbs about eight times when Nursey wasn’t doing anything more complicated than walking, snorts. “Understatement.”
Nursey makes a rude gesture at him without missing a beat. “Are you sure dancing is something I’ll have to do? I mean--maybe they don’t do that in Paris?” Chowder looks at him, incredulous, and Nursey sighs. “Yeah, I thought not.”
“Don’t worry about anything,” Chowder says, patting him reassuringly on the shoulder before giving him a firm push toward Dex. “Dex is a good dancer.”
Dex sputters, because he knows a basic waltz, but no one has ever called him a good dancer in his entire life. “Chow.”
“Dex can show you the ropes,” Chowder amends, and yeah, that’s more accurate. He crosses over to a phonograph tucked into a protective alcove on the deck, winding it. There’s a crackling sound, and then a soft, sweet music starts up, gentle and rhythmic. Chowder comes back to them, nudging Dex closer to Nursey.
“Okay,” he says, firmly. “Now, Nursey, normally you’d be leading, but for now, just let Dex show you the steps, okay? The partners you have later’ll thank you if you know what it feels like to be guided around a little.” He grins, quick and wicked, and Dex manages to stifle the impulse to step on his foot. “So Dex, you put your hand here--”
He pulls Dex’s hand firmly around to the small of Nursey’s back, and suddenly they’re much closer together. He can see the flecks of grey and gold in Nursey’s eyes. And he’d thought they were just green, Dex thinks, a little dizzily, and then shakes his head to clear it. “And Nursey, you put yours on Dex’s shoulder--good. And take his other hand.” Nursey slips his right hand into Dex’s left like it was made to fit there, and Dex tries not to think about that too much.
Chowder beams at them. “Great,” he says. “Now, I’ll count you off. Nursey, just follow Dex’s lead.”
Dex tears his gaze away from Nursey’s stupid eyes, focusing on Chowder instead as he starts to count them off in a clear, steady voice, a gentle repetition of one-two-three, one-two-three. Dex focuses in on that for a few moments, trying to remember the steps, and Nursey, to his credit, doesn’t fight or challenge him on it, just lets Dex lead. He’s more graceful than Dex is, though, even looking at their feet and learning as they move--there’s an easiness to his movements that seems to be settled right into his bones, just like when he swung into the saddle of the horse, or startled both Dex and Chowder when he’d flawlessly quoted Tolstoy in a discussion about organized religion.
When they’ve been dancing for a minute or two, and it’s clear Nursey gets the steps, the silence between them gets to be too much, and Dex gives up. “You, uh--” He clears his throat. “They look good on you. The, uh. Clothes.”
“Thanks.” Nursey gives him a slight smile, glancing at him through his eyelashes, and that’s not necessary; they’re the same height. Dex feels a flush of heat over his cheeks. “I don’t know if I...if I really thanked you like I should have.”
“They’re just clothes,” Dex says quickly.
“Not to me.” Nursey’s fingers shift gently around Dex’s as he adjusts his grip. “No one’s gotten anything new just for me since...since I don’t even know when. So just. Thanks, okay?”
Dex licks his bottom lip. He must be imagining it, but he could swear Nursey’s eyes flicker down to track the motion of his mouth. “You’re welcome,” he says. “And I, uh--I meant it. You really do look good.”
Nursey gives a soft, self-deprecating laugh. “Except for the beard. I need to shave before we meet the Empress,” he says ruefully.
Dex, who’s never grown more than a sad few whiskers in his life, shakes his head. “You shouldn’t shave it,” he says, before he can stop himself.
Nursey blinks. “No?”
“I mean, you’ll have to clean it up, get rid of the scruffier bits--” Nursey makes a sound of protest. Dex barely notices. “--but you shouldn’t get rid of it. It looks good on you.”
“It does, huh?” Nursey smiles. “Well, if you think so, I guess I’ll have to keep it.”
Dex snorts. “Didn’t know you put so much into my opinion.”
“You and C,” Nursey says, shrugging one shoulder. Dex feels the muscles of his back move under his hand.
He’s quiet for a moment, and Dex lets him have the silence, the two of them still moving in rhythmic unison as Dex guides them around the deck. The music has all but faded to the background.
“No one saw me for a long time,” Nursey says finally. Quietly. “Until you two did. And I know that you--that you were looking for someone like me, but…” He gives Dex another one of those smiles, the soft ones that aren’t half-smirk or fall short of his eyes. “But you saw me. You picked me. What you two say will always mean something to me, for that.”
Dex swallows, his mouth suddenly dry, and he nods, because he can’t think of anything to say in the wake of something like that.
In the end, like he always does, he settles for practicality. “We’ve been spinning for awhile,” he says. “You told me--your head, sometimes--I mean, what I’m asking is--”
“Do I need to stop?” Dex nods, grateful for the out. Nursey bites his bottom lip, and then shakes his head. “I don’t want to stop.” He hesitates. “Do you?”
Yes, the intelligent part of Dex’s brain says. Yes, it’s time to stop. We should take a break, get some water. Try this again. You need to learn how to lead. We’ll do that.
“No,” Dex says. He tightens his grip on Nursey’s hand, lets his fingers splay over Nursey’s back. “I’m good here, if you are.”
Nursey smiles at him. Dex doesn’t think they’ve ever gone this long without fighting. He’s not sure what to think about it.
“I’m good, too,” Nursey says, and the music keeps playing.
There’s a strange tension in their cabin as they prepare for bed that night. Both Chowder and Dex insisted on giving Nursey the bottom bunk--“A prince shouldn’t sleep on the floor, Nursey,” Chowder said, sternly--and they flip a coin for the top bunk. Dex loses with decent grace, setting up a pallet for himself on the floor with extra blankets and his bag as a pillow.
Nursey finds himself feeling awkward in way he usually doesn’t. He and Dex keep bumping elbows in the small space--the cabin clearly wasn’t meant for three grown men, two of them close to two meters tall--and the antagonism they’ve been running on since they met has dissolved into flushes and faint laughter and awkward apologies. Chowder rolls his eyes every time it happens, but Nursey thinks there might be some fondness for it.
Puck doesn’t notice any of it, more interested in climbing all over Dex’s blanket nest and duffle bag. He looks delighted. Nursey almost regrets that he’s going to have to call him over to him when they go to bed.
A storm had started up sometime after the sun set and they left the deck, and the ship is rolling, rocking hard on the waves. It’s not bad enough to trigger the vertigo Nursey gets sometimes, but it’s more than enough to make him nauseous, and he wraps himself in a blanket, sitting with his back against the bunk as he tries to write out a few lines about the day in his journal. The writing isn’t helping his stomach, but he doesn’t like to miss a night--it’s a crutch, he knows, that comes from losing his memory once. He likes having a record that he can look at, just in case.
Chowder sits down on the bunk. “You doing okay?” he asks. “You look a little green.”
Nursey extends one hand out in front of him. “No,” he says, forcing his tone to lightness. “Still brown.”
Chowder chuckles. “Fair,” he says. Dex makes a snuffling sound in his sleep and turns over, and Chowder nods towards him. “He’s got the sleeping on boats thing figured out. I’ve never been able to.”
“It’s pretty unfair,” Nursey agrees. “Think I can make him give me his sleeping skills? Call it a royal decree?”
“I’m sure he’d love that,’ Chowder says dryly.
Puck finally succeeds in tugging Dex’s bag open without jostling Dex, and wags his tail in victory. Nursey smiles encouragingly at him, and can’t suppress a laugh when Puck tries to crawl inside the bag. The motion dislodges a small gold and green object from the bag, and the rolling of the ship sends it tumbling toward Nursey.
He picks it up without thinking. It’s heavier than it looks, roughly oval and a little smaller than his fist. He turns it from side to side, curious, peering at the engraving and the small pearls set into it. There’s a seam where it’s clearly meant to open, but it wants a key. There’s something familiar about it that almost sets his fingers to tingling as he holds it, and he recognizes it as the same odd feeling he got when he stepped into the Palace back in St. Petersburg.
“It’s pretty, right?”
Chowder’s question startles him back to the present. “What?”
Chowder nods to his hands. “The jewelry box.”
“Is that what it is?” Nursey looks more closely.
“What else would it be?”
“I don’t know.” He leans over to slip it carefully back into Dex’s bag, his hand brushing Dex’s hair as he does. He pulls his hand back quickly, before he can give into the temptation to linger, to see if it's as soft as it looks. “You’re right,” he says, trying to cover the heat suddenly clinging to his neck. “It must be a jewelry box. That makes sense.” He licks his bottom lip. “Not the kind of thing that I’d expect Dex to have.”
Chowder shrugs, climbing up to the top bunk. “He’s saving it for a special occasion,” he says, leaning over the side of the bunk to look at Nursey. “Will you be able to sleep tonight?”
Nursey nods carefully. As long as he doesn’t move too quickly, he doesn’t feel sick. “I’ll be fine.”
“Okay.” Chowder smiles. “Goodnight, your Highness.”
Nursey laughs softly, beckoning to Puck as he climbs under his own thin blanket. “Goodnight,” he says.
Puck jumps up onto the bed--it takes him two tries--and snuggles into the crook of Nursey’s arm, his head on Nursey’s chest. Nursey leans to kiss his wet nose and gets a lick in return, and then sighs, leaning back and closing his eyes.
It takes a little while, but eventually, slowly, the rocking of the ship stops making him woozy, and he drops, gently, into sleep.
The shadow is not used to open water, but it smiles without lips or teeth at the opportunity it gives.
It slips, slow and easy, through the vents and pipes in the belly of the ship until it finds what it wants, curling into the space of the small cabin.
The Prince’s face is smooth in sleep, soft and easy. The shadow reaches out with hands that aren’t hands, touches his cheeks, the curve of his jaw. He’s grown up lovely, the shadow muses, but then, that’s not unexpected.
A touch to his temple gives a flash of images--sunshine and warmth. A pleasant dream. Sweet.
The shadow smiles. Dreams are such fragile things, so easy to manipulate.
This time, the shadow thinks, there is nowhere to run.
The weather is warm.
Nursey smiles, tipping his head back against the grass. It brushes against his face, softly tickling, and he runs his fingers through it. It’s softer than he expects, and he hums a wordless tune, letting the wind drift over him.
The voice is young and happy, and he opens his eyes, lifting his head. A small boy, maybe six or seven years old, is standing a few meters from him, surrounded by fluttering butterflies. He’s smiling at Nursey, bright. “Hi,” Nursey says, sitting up.
“Will you come play with me?”
He can’t think of a reason to say no, so he smiles. “Sure,” he says, getting to his feet. The boy’s face lights up, and Nursey laughs at the easiness of making him happy. “Where are we going?”
“This way!” The boy grabs his hand, tugging at him. “I’ll show you!”
(He slips, barefoot, out of bed. The floor of the cabin is cold under his bare feet, but he doesn’t feel it. Jostled by his movement, Puck whines, nervous, but Nursey doesn’t hear.
He starts walking.)
The boy leads him up over a hill, through a field. He’s chattering happily, about simple childish things, and Nursey finds that he’s content to listen to him, to bask in the easy delight of his words.
Three women greet them at the top of the hill. They’re bright-eyed and dark-haired and lovely, and Nursey smiles, letting them kiss his cheeks and laugh at the lines the grass has pressed into his skin.
“Come swim with us!” one of them says, as her sisters--they must be sisters, he realizes--beckon to him before jumping over the precipice of the hill. Nursey blinks, leaning forward, and sure enough, there’s a pool below, full of still, clear water. There’s a man already in the water, bearded and older, his cheekbones sharp but his eyes gentle.
“I can’t swim,” he says, nervous, but the other two women just laugh, jumping past him to join the others in the water.
“You can!” the boy insists. “Don’t worry. It’s fun!”
(He climbs the stairs, emerging into the open air. On the deck there is no protection from the rain, and the wind lashes against him, plastering his hair and his sleeping clothes to his skin. He pays it no mind, following the butterflies to the railing. Meters below, the ocean is black and roiling, waves crashing against the side of the ship.
He doesn’t see it. All he sees is the sunshine, the warmth.)
It’s Puck’s whining that wakes him, startling Dex out of a dream he doesn’t remember. “Nursey, shut your dog up,” he mutters, trying to roll over. The whining gets louder, closer, and then there’s pressure on his chest, a wet nose at his jaw and paws pressing against his cheeks.
“What the hell,” he groans, opening his eyes. The dog is uncomfortably close, his face right against Dex’s, but as soon as Dex moves, the dog is whimpering at him, high and anxious. He jumps off of Dex, tugging at his shirt tails in the direction of the bunks, and Dex rubs his eyes, following the dog’s motions.
The bottom bunk is empty. Nursey is gone.
“What…” Dex frowns, looking around. His eyes catch on the open cabin door, and he realizes, suddenly, that the sound of the storm outside is much louder than it should be. “Nursey,” he breathes. “Oh, shit--Nursey!”
He’s scrambling before he can think to grab shoes or his jacket. Puck at his heels, he runs for the stairs.
“Come jump, sweetheart!” the man calls up to him, where Nursey lingers on the hilltop, still hesitant. “The water’s fine!”
“I can’t swim,” he repeats, uncertain. “Is it safe?”
“Of course!” one of the girls says, her smile bright, sweet. “We’ll help you!”
“Come on!” the boy says, tugging at Nursey’s hand. “You can do it!”
As if to show him, the boy jumps in himself. The splash goes everywhere, reaching Nursey on the hill, and he laughs despite himself as the water splatters his face.
(He climbs up onto the edge of the rail, his hand finding the guide wire to steady himself. He leans forward, the wire his safeguard. The water churns, deep and deadly.)
“You can do it,” the boy repeats, wet and beaming now. “I promise!”
“Okay,” Nursey says, because what’s the harm. “If you promise.” He inches forward.
(He puts one foot out, dangling over the water.)
The air is wet and freezing as Dex bursts onto the deck, soaking him instantly. He pushes his wet hair back, scanning the deck frantically. “Nursey!” he shouts, but there’s no answer, nothing audible over the screaming wind and rain.
“Come on,” he breathes, searching. “Come on, come on!”
His eyes catch on a figure at the rail, and his blood runs cold as he recognizes the broad shoulders, the white sleep shirt. Nursey is perched on the ship’s rail, leaning out over the water, and he looks like he’s going to--
“No!” Dex yells, and breaks into a run.
“That’s it,” the man says. “Jump!”
And then something happens. The man twists, his warm face turning monstrous and wrong, barely human. His teeth sharpen, his eyes grow, color vanishing as they fill with black.
“Jump,” he hisses, and his voice is a shriek. “Complete the curse. Finish it. Jump. Jump.”
Nursey recoils, but the butterflies around him have turned to something else, dark and sharp, their wings all but cutting him as they swirl around his legs and arms. They pull at his clothing with wicked claws, dragging him forward, closer to the edge of the pool.
“Jump,” the creature that was once the man says again. There’s command in his voice, and despite the fear coursing through him, Nursey finds himself compelled to listen.
“Jump,” the creature shrieks, and the winged things yank at him, and--
(“Nursey!” someone screams, but he doesn’t hear.)
HA FIVE MONTHS BETWEEN UPDATES IS NOTHING AM I RIGHT????
i have no excuses other than writing is Hard.
Chapter 3: Act III
Nursey steps forward, and the world goes syrup-slow.
Dex is moving before Nursey’s hand loosens on the guard wire, his face so horribly, horribly blank. The deck is slick from the rain, the air freezing, but Dex doesn’t feel any of it. He doesn’t feel the wet boards under his bare feet, doesn’t feel the icy rain on his skin, can’t feel the roaring wind in his ears.
All he can see is Nursey, tipping towards the edge of the ship, and all he can feel is the need to get there first.
one month between updates is better than five months, right?
WHATEVER IT'S DONE.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The parade travelled on
With the sun in my eyes you were gone
But I knew even then
In a crowd of thousands
I’ll find you again
(“In a Crowd of Thousands”, Anastasia: the Musical)
Nursey steps forward, and the world goes syrup-slow.
Dex is moving before Nursey’s hand loosens on the guard wire, his face so horribly, horribly blank. The deck is slick from the rain, the air freezing, but Dex doesn’t feel any of it. He doesn’t feel the wet boards under his bare feet, doesn’t feel the icy rain on his skin, can’t feel the roaring wind in his ears.
All he can see is Nursey, tipping towards the edge of the ship, and all he can feel is the need to get there first.
By some miracle, he makes it.
His arm goes around Nursey’s waist just as Nursey’s second foot leaves the rail, and Nursey doesn’t even have time to fall before Dex is hauling him back over the edge. He overcompensates and they both go tumbling down, the breath leaving Dex’s lungs in a pained grunt as he hits the deck with Nursey’s full weight on top of him.
“Jesus!” he yells, trying to be heard over the pouring rain. “What the hell were you thinking?”
But Nursey’s struggling in his arms, frantic, pushing at Dex’s grip on his waist. “No,” he says, his voice somehow both slurred and desperate. “No, no, let me go, I don’t want to, I don’t--please, don’t make me go--”
He’s still asleep, Dex realizes, fear dawning at the naked terror in Nursey’s voice. “Nursey, hey,” he says. He forces Nursey around in his arms, keeping one arm tight around his waist, half-scared that Nursey’ll bolt if he lets go. “Hey, Nursey. Nursey!”
Nursey sucks in a shuddering gasp and jerks, his eyes flying open. For a moment he just stares at Dex, his eyes wide and terrified. “Dex. Dex?”
“It’s me.” He loosens his grip cautiously now that Nursey’s awake, but Nursey grabs his hand. “Hey,” he says, alarmed. “Hey, hey, you’re okay. I got you.”
“Dex,” Nursey says again, and his voice breaks on the word. “I--I keep seeing them, and they felt so real, and they tried to--”
He crumples in on himself with a cracking sob, and Dex can only gather him in, his own heart still pounding in his chest with residual adrenaline. Nursey is shaking, his shoulders jerking as he cries, and Dex folds a hand over the back of his neck, his fingers right against Nursey’s pulse. His heart beats, sure and strong, and despite his lingering terror, something eases in Dex’s chest to feel it.
“You’re okay,” he says softly, rocking Nursey gently. It’s the only thing he can think to do. Nursey shudders, clinging to him, and Dex swallows, holding him tighter, like he can keep him together with his arms. “It was just a dream. You’re safe.”
Around them, the wind wails.
The shadow is not the wind.
But it is screaming.
Nursey’s quiet the rest of the way to France.
Chowder doesn’t know what happened to them up on the deck of the ship in the middle of the night--only knows that they’d stumbled back into the cabin soaked and shivering, Dex yelling for Chowder to wake up and get some blankets. Nursey’s face was tear-streaked and stricken, and Dex had walked him right to the bottom bunk and started stripping off their wet clothing with no regard to propriety or personal space while Chowder had scrambled to get warm, dry clothing out of their bags. By the time they’d dressed, Chowder had finagled some hot water and tea from the ship’s cook, who’d been cranky enough to be woken up in the middle of the night but plenty agreeable when Chowder had told him his friend had nearly gone over the side of the ship. Nursey drank with shaking hands, Dex pressed close against his side, and Chowder had finally asked what had happened.
Dex only shook his head. “Sleepwalking,” was all he’d said, a note of finality in his voice and something sharp and fearful in his eyes.
Sleepwalking, Chowder thought, doesn’t look like this, terror-grey and trembling. But now, he knew, was not the time to ask. Now was the time for quiet support and carefully wheedling both of them back to bed.
Everything would be better in the morning.
Except that it isn’t.
“I’m worried,” he tells Dex, two days after the incident. Incident is all he can think to call it, because Nursey’s been tight-lipped about it, giving only wan smiles and small shakes of his head when Chowder gently prods at him, and Dex hasn’t been any better. “He’s not acting like himself.”
“He’s okay.” Dex looks up from his cards.
They’re sitting together on the deck, the afternoon air cool and salty as it sweeps off the waves and up to reach them. Nursey’s several yards away, sitting on a shipping crate. He has a book in his hands, but even from all the way over here, Chowder can tell he’s not reading it. “How can you tell?”
Dex huffs. “I just know, is all.”
Chowder raises his eyebrows. “You two haven’t been fighting as much.”
“We--” Dex breaks off and narrows his eyes. “What are you asking me?”
“I’m just saying you seem like you’re getting along better.” Chowder puts his cards down on the crate they’re using to play gin. He’s treading carefully--he knows Dex favors men over women, but it’s not something they talk about, though whether it’s because of the risk of being open or because Dex is just a generally private person, Chowder’s not sure. “You stay closer to him, too.”
Dex opens his mouth, and then closes it with a sigh. “I’m not sure what you want me to say,” he says. “We’re--friends, maybe. I don’t know. But he was--he almost got hurt, Chow. He could have died. I’m just...nervous, that’s all.”
“I wish you’d tell me what happened,” Chowder says. “I could help keep him safe, if you let me know what to watch out for.”
“I told you, he was sleepwalking. If we keep leaving stuff in front of the door, we’ll both wake up if he tries to go anywhere in the night again.” Dex runs a hand through his hair. “Any more than that, and it’s not my story to tell.” He casts a glance over his shoulder at Nursey, who’s abandoned any pretense of reading, and is just looking out over the waves, his face distant. “I’ll just be glad when we’re back on dry land.”
Chowder presses his lips together. Oh, well, he thinks. Might as well go for it. “It’s just…I don’t think I’ve ever seen you look at someone like this before, Dex.”
Dex full-body flinches, whipping his head back around to look at Chowder. “It’s nothing,” he says, sharply. “I--” He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, his hands shaking around his cards. When he speaks again, his voice is resigned, tired. “I’m dealing with it.”
Chowder’s known Dex long enough to know when they’re done with a conversation. He sighs. “Okay,” he says. “Okay.”
In Paris, everything changes.
It’s amazing to watch; how quickly Nursey comes back to life. His eyes brighten, he smiles more easily, the grey pallor that’s clung to him since the nightmare leaves his skin, leaving him warm-cheeked and happy.
“You look good,” Dex tells him, as they wait for a cab at the harbor. “Better, I mean.”
Nursey smiles. It reaches all the way up to his eyes, and something that’s been tight for days loosens in Dex’s chest. “I’ve wanted to come here for as long as I can remember.” His hand is at his throat, fiddling with the thin gold chain he never seems to take off. Dex has seen flashes of a small pendant at the end of it, but has never gotten a good look. “It’s always...It’s been my only clue about my family, the only thing I’ve ever had that let me know that...that maybe someone was out there. Someone who wanted me.”
Dex raises his eyebrows. “Yeah?” He slips his hands into his pockets. “Are you going to try to find them?”
“Maybe. It’s a big city--I don’t know where to start, really.” He shrugs, but his smile doesn’t fade. “But I’m closer than I ever thought I’d get.”
“Well, who knows,” Dex says. “Once you’re a Duke, you’ll have all sorts of resources. You’ll be able to find just about anything. Or anyone.”
Chowder shouts for them, standing by a waiting cab. Dex picks up Nursey’s bag before Nursey can reach for it--Nursey rolls his eyes at him, but there’s a fondness in it that Dex isn’t quite used to, and it makes his stomach flip--and slings it over his shoulder, motioning Nursey to go on ahead. Chowder holds the door open for him, and Nursey slides in first, Dex behind him after stowing their bags in the boot.
“You know,” Nursey says, as Chowder climbs into the front seat, “I can carry my own bags.”
Chowder twists in his seat to look at him, his eyes wide with faux shock. “Like a commoner? Your Grace, we couldn’t allow it.” He grins. “That’s what you have Dex for.”
Nursey laughs, and Dex is glad enough for the sound that he doesn’t even mind that it’s at his own expense. “Whatever you say, Maestro.”
The hotel Chowder booked through friends is quietly elegant--nice, but not overly so. They check into their small suite in the late morning, with plenty of time to clean up before their late afternoon appointment with Lady Caitlin. Dex and Chowder shower quickly so that Nursey can have the most time to get ready, and as it turns out, he needs it.
“Nursey, come on,” Dex says, rapping on the closed washroom door. “You’ve been in there forever.”
He hears a disgruntled huff, and the door opens. Nursey’s face is half-shaven, the other half still slathered in soap foam. “I’m working on it,” he says, the first irritability he’s shown since they arrived in France. “My damn hands won’t stop shaking, and I’m pretty sure that cutting my throat wouldn’t make a good first impression.”
“I thought you were going to leave the beard,” Dex says. He’s a little sad to see it go, honestly.
Nursey shakes his head. “It makes me look older. And I thought--” He bites his lip, then makes a face when a stray fleck of soap foam gets into his mouth. Dex tries, and fails, not to find it endearing. “I thought there might be a better chance of the Empress recognizing me without it? But I keep shaking and almost cutting myself and I don’t want to show up covered in bandages, either.”
Dex looks at Chowder, who raises his hands helplessly.
“Don’t look at me, I couldn’t grow a beard if my life depended on it.”
Dex sighs in resignation. “Here, Nursey, I’ll help.”
Nursey takes a step back. “Poindexter, I trust you with a lot, but I don’t think I trust you with a blade to my neck.”
“Well, then, it’s a good thing I’m not offering to shave you, isn’t it?” Dex pushes past Nursey into the washroom and closes the toilet seat, then sits down on the edge of the bathtub and beckons him over. “Put the razor down, and come here.”
Nursey hesitates, but sets the straight razor down on the counter by the sink and sits on the closed toilet seat. He looks a little silly, with half his face shaved, but Dex can already tell he’ll look devastating once he’s done.
He squashes that down hard. They don’t have time for thoughts like that. “Give me your hands.” Nursey blinks, but holds his hands out. This close, Dex can see the faint trembling in them. He takes them in both of his and starts a gentle massage of his palms, digging into the muscle with his thumbs. “Nervous?” he asks.
“Yeah. I mean--obviously.” Nursey gives him a small, uncertain smile. “It’s the most important meeting I’ll probably ever have, isn’t it? And you two have worked so hard for this. I just...I don’t want to mess it up.”
“You’re not going to mess it up, Nursey.” He gets a short scoff at that, and Dex rolls his eyes. “I mean it. You’ve memorized everything we’ve asked you to, and beyond that, you’re--you’re you. You’ll be funny and charming and kind, and they’ll love you.”
Nursey’s quiet for a few moments, and when he speaks, his voice is soft, uncertain. “You really mean that?”
“I really do.” Dex loosens his grip on Nursey’s hands, holding them loosely in his. They’re still and steady, and he grins up at Nursey. “How about that?”
“Yeah,” Nursey says softly. “How about that.”
When he finishes shaving, he spends a few moments just looking into the mirror.
He always looks more his age without any stubble on his face, but it always takes him by surprise how young that age really looks. Clean-shaven, his eyes look a little larger, his cheekbones more defined, his lips softer. He leans closer to the mirror, plucking at his curls, using the pomade Dex had bought him to smooth them into a semblance of calm.
Hair tamed and face clean, he pulls on the white shirt and waistcoat Chowder and Dex bought for him, waiting on a hanger on the washroom door, and then reaches for his jacket. “Okay,” he tells himself, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. “We can do this.”
Before he leaves the washroom, he tucks his necklace under his collar, running his thumb over the worn engraving one last time. Together in Paris, he thinks. God, he hopes so.
Besides--who knows? Maybe it was someone royal who gave him the pendant. After all, it’s proper jewelry, real gold and a thin, fine chain. Normal people can’t afford that sort of thing, can they? He chews his bottom lip, giving himself a last look in the mirror.
If he’s just justifying this whole adventure to himself and doesn’t actually think that there might be a possibility that Dex and Chowder are right, that he’s really the Duke, he’ll never forgive himself. He might not have parents, but Katya didn’t raise him to lie to people.
“It’s not lying,” he tells his reflection. “It’s--” He takes another breath, closes his eyes and exhales, trying to calm his thoughts. “It’s just taking a chance. That’s not bad.”
There’s a knock on the door. “Nursey?” Chowder calls. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Yes, I’m coming.” He squares his shoulders, nods at his reflection, and steps out of the room.
Chowder and Dex are waiting for him in the small sitting room, both in suits. Chowder looks put together--though he almost always does; half a lifetime of diplomat’s habits never quite dying--but Dex looks...different. The suit seems to make him stand up straighter, and the lines of it emphasize his broad shoulders, his narrow waist.
Dex clears his throat, and Nursey jerks his gaze away from the place where Dex’s shirt tucks into his belt. “My eyes are up here, Nursey,” he says, but he’s grinning.
Nursey flushes. They’re the same words he’d teasingly thrown at Dex on the ship. He doesn’t know if Dex is actually flirting or just being playful, but either way, it makes his heart flutter. “Just making sure you look presentable enough to be my escort, Poindexter,” he shoots back quickly, and Dex’s lips twitch up even more as he extends an arm.
“Come on, Your Highness,” he says. “We’ve got a car to catch.”
Nursey nods, giving Puck a quick scratch behind the ears and then stepping forward and slipping his arm through Dex’s. Dex looks a little surprised, but pulls his arm in closer, so that Nursey’s is tucked safe against his side. “I look okay?”
Dex’s expression softens. “You look amazing,” he says.
“You boys,” Chowder says fondly, waiting for them by the door. “You warm my hearts, you really do.”
Nursey laughs despite himself. Dex takes his arm back, but sets a hand on Nursey’s lower back to guide him out the door and down to the cab waiting for them outside the hotel. “So,” he says, as Chowder closes the door behind them. “Are we going to stop for eclairs on our way to meet Lady Caitlin?”
“You wish,” Dex says. “We’ve got a last round of preparation to go through.”
Nursey groans. “Dex,” he says. “How am I supposed to remember everything?”
Dex puts a hand on his knee. “That’s why we practice,” he says. “And that’s why you’ve got me.” His eyes are bright and intense, and Nursey can feel himself starting to flush again.
The moment breaks, and Dex takes his hand away. “Now,” he says. “Where was Uncle Boris from?”
Lady Caitlin is a tall, gorgeous woman who throws away any chance of seeming intimidating when she shrieks in glee at seeing Chowder at her door. He all but falls over himself to shower kisses over her hand, endearments flowing in a jumble of Russian, French, and his native Cantonese while Caitlin laughs and lets him, her eyes sparkling in delight before she finally tears her hand away and invites them in.
Honestly, Dex still can’t believe they made it. Between the train crash, and the terror of Nursey almost throwing himself off the boat on the crossing from Germany, this whole plan had almost seemed cursed to fail from the start. And that was without the constant bickering and pissing matches between himself and Nursey--even if the tension between them has felt decidedly different for the last few days.
He’s very, very carefully not dwelling on that.
Nursey looks a little stunned, too, as they make their way into Lady Caitlin’s drawing room, his green eyes sweeping the room and taking in the windows and doors with an orphan’s awareness of every exit. It’s the only sign of discomfort he shows, and Dex can’t help but be proud--everything else about him is regal and calm, his shoulders straight and his posture relaxed and poised, a million miles from the rumpled, dirty dreamer they’d picked up in St. Petersburg.
Finally leaving off his affectionate kissing of Caitlin’s hand, Chowder clears his throat and straightens, making a sweeping gesture and indicating Nursey. “Now,” he says. “May I present the Grand Duke Derek Nurse?”
Dex holds his breath.
Lady Caitlin turns her warm eyes to Nursey, who bows to her smoothly, just as Dex and Chowder had taught him. She smiles at him as he rises, looking over his face carefully. “Oh, my heavens,” she says. Is Dex imagining it, or is there a touch of wonder in her voice? “He certainly does look like Derek.” She pauses, and touches her fingers to her lips, thoughtful. “But then, so did many of the others.”
Dex glances at Chowder, whose expression is unreadable, and at Nursey, whose smile is carefully soft.
She gestures to the table, and Nursey waits for her to sit before taking a seat across from her. “Where were you born?” she asks, and all right, Dex thinks, no pleasantries–she’s done this a thousand times by now, he expects, it’s an interview.
Nursey doesn’t miss a beat. “At the Peterhoff Palace.”
Caitlin nods. “Correct,” she says. “And how does Derek like his tea?”
Oh, that’s a mean trick. Dex winces, but Nursey isn’t caught. “I don’t like tea,” he says. “Just hot water with lemon.”
(That’s true, Dex had been surprised to learn–not just of the Grand Duke, but of Nursey himself. Chowder had tried to get him some tea after that awful nightmare on the boat, but Nursey had just asked for hot water. “Tea’s too bitter,” he’d said, his voice still hoarse from tears and screaming. “Just the water. Please.”)
It goes on like that, for what feels like hours. Nursey starts to sound tired, and Dex gets a little nervous–he hasn’t been sleeping well since the boat, he knows, has been having bad dreams. Nothing like that horrible nightmare, the one he still won’t talk about (Dex still hears that broken whisper, “I keep seeing their faces” in his own dreams), but Dex has woken, more than a few nights now, to Nursey crawling under his blankets with him.
They don’t talk about it in the morning, and Chowder hasn’t acknowledged it at all beyond a raised eyebrow and one pointed comment to Dex about propriety, but Dex hasn’t thrown him out, either. The thought hasn’t even occurred to him.
But Nursey answers every question. Lady Caitlin calls for tea, eventually–hot water and lemon for Nursey–and a maid brings it on a silver tray. The questions go on, and on, and on, and Nursey answers each one, and something like pride swells in Dex’s chest. He’s perfect.
After Nursey recounts an anecdote about Count Sergei’s yellow cat getting into the flour stores in the kitchens at Peterhoff and tracking footprints all across the carpeting that has the entire room laughing--Dex still doesn’t know where it came from--Caitlin, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes, sits back in her chair.
For a moment, Dex thinks that the cat story has done it, that they’ve swayed her, but then she hesitates, and touches her lips again, and her face grows serious. “You’ll most likely find this an impertinent question,” she says slowly. “But indulge me.” A curl of anxiety starts to grow in Dex’s stomach. This can’t be good.
Caitlin leans forward, toward Nursey. “How did you escape during the siege of the palace?”
Dex’s stomach drops.
The one question–the one question that Dex alone, out of every grifter who would try to pull this con, could answer, and they never prepped Nursey for it. Why the fuck hadn’t they prepped him for it? Maybe some part of him, some strange part, had thought they wouldn’t ask, that it would be too sensitive, too dark, too painful for the Empress to think, but–
He looks across the room to Chowder. Chowder meets his eyes, out of Caitlin’s line of sight, and his own are wide and vaguely panicked.
Well, they ran a good game. They got farther than Dex had really thought they would, deep down, and…
But Nursey doesn’t look panicked. His brow is furrowed, but not like he’s thinking or trying to come up with a lie. He looks like he’s trying to remember something, like he’s uncertain. One hand drifts to the center of his chest, where the necklace he never takes off must be tucked away. If they were anywhere else, he knows, Nursey would be fiddling with it, an absent, nervous habit.
“There…there was a boy,” he says slowly. His voice is soft. “A boy who worked in the palace.” He raises a hand, palm flat against the air, his eyes distant, like he’s looking at something far, far away, into the past. “He…He opened a wall.”
Dex goes cold.
Suddenly it’s ten years ago and he’s surrounded by chaos, and he’s in a bedroom and staring into bright, scared green eyes, and he’s pushing the prince into the servant’s quarters.
The force of his shove knocks something out of the prince’s hand, and he’s gasping, reaching for something, but Dex says, “Go, go,” and pushes him again, and then those eyes are gone, and the wall panel is closed, and he’s throwing himself in front of it and men with guns are in the room and all he can think is how scared those eyes were, how bright, and then pain was bursting behind his eyes--
He’s real. He’s real. Nursey--their Nursey, his and Chowder’s Nursey, his Nursey--is the Grand Duke Derek Nurse.
And Dex is--is no one.
“I’m sorry,” Nursey says, with a sudden, embarrassed laugh, giving himself a little shake, like he’s startling himself back into the present. “I’m sorry, that’s crazy. Walls opening, that’s not…”
Dex is no one.
But Nursey--Nursey deserves this. All Nursey has ever wanted--all he has wanted, since the moment Dex met him, was a family. And he has one. A real one.
Dex closes his eyes, allows himself half a moment, half a second to mourn what could have been, if they were anyone else in the world, if they could let their chemistry play out to its natural conclusion.
And then he squares his shoulders, and takes a breath, and quietly walks out of the room.
It’s time to let the Grand Duke go.
Caitlin is quiet when Nursey finishes speaking, her eyes thoughtful and the tips of her fingers brushing her lips, a motion Chowder knows means she’s thinking. “So,” Chowder says, gently prompting. “Is he the real deal?”
“Well…” Caitlin takes her hand away from her lips, gives him a small smile. “He answered every question.”
Nursey’s face lights up, and Chowder jumps to his feet, a thrill going through him. “You did it,” he says, giving him a tight hug. He’s distantly aware of Caitlin’s musical laugh, echoed by Nursey as he laughs into his shoulder, squeezing him tightly.
“I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Nonsense,” Chowder says. “We just got you the transportation.” Nursey gives another laugh, and Chowder pulls away from him, tapping his nose gently and then looking at Caitlin. “So when do we go to see the Empress?”
Caitlin’s laughter fades. “Oh.” She looks down suddenly, busying herself with returning the tea things to the tray.
It might have been almost ten years since Chowder’s seen her, but he knows that look. “Caity,” he says.
She sighs. “I’m afraid you can’t see her.”
Chowder’s heart sinks. “What?”
“The Empress--” Caitlin shakes her head. “She’s tired. And heartsore. She doesn’t want to see anyone else--” She gives him an apologetic look. “Pretending to be her grandson.”
Chowder winces, refusing to look at Nursey, who makes a soft, wounded sound behind him. They did not, he thinks, suddenly determined, come all this way just to fail now. “Caitlin,” he says, taking her hands and pulling them gently off the tea tray. “Lady Farmer. Light of my life. There has to be something you can do.”
She gives him a look that tells him she knows exactly what he was doing, but her eyes drift to Nursey and her expression softens. For a moment, she looks thoughtful, and then her face brightens. “Do you like the Russian ballet?”
Nursey looks at her blankly--Chowder can’t blame him; he’s pretty sure Nursey’s never been anywhere near a ballet--but Caitlin charges on. “They’re in town for a running performance--The Empress and I have tickets. She and I love the Russian ballet.” She whirls on Chowder and raises her eyebrows. “We never miss it.”
Chowder could honestly kiss her.
He doesn’t, because it wouldn’t be appropriate for the middle of her drawing room, but it’s very tempting. Instead, he turns--at least he can share some good news. “How about that, Dex--” He blinks. “Dex?”
Someone clears their throat, and Chowder looks around to see one of Caitlin’s maids coming to take the tea tray. “Monsieur Poindexter is in the garden,” she says, her voice softly accented.
Nursey looks surprised, but Chowder shakes his head. “I’ll go tell him,” he says. “You stay here and get to know your cousin.” He winks at Caitlin, who rolls her eyes fondly at him, and follows the maid’s gesturing hand.
Dex is out on the manicured lawn, sitting at a small iron table set with his head in his hands. “Poindexter!” Chowder exclaims. Dex looks up. “Where have you been? You missed all the excitement.”
Chowder flings his arms around him. “We pulled it off, my friend!” He squeezes him tightly, and hears Dex laugh a little dully, one arm coming around to pat at Chowder’s back. “We’re seeing the Dowager Empress tonight!” He pulls back. “Nursey was incredible, Dex--I didn’t see when you left, but he was amazing, so convincing--”
“Yeah,” Dex says, and there’s something dull in his voice that Chowder can’t place. “Of course he was, Chow. Because he’s the prince. He’s the prince.”
They’ve said it so many times, to each other and to Nursey, that Chowder just beams. “Exactly!” He flings his arm around Dex. “He was amazing. I mean, I almost believed him, and--”
Nursey bursts out of the door, his face bright and his eyes shining. He throws himself into their embrace. “Caitlin wants to take us shopping for the ballet!” he exclaims, and for the first time since Chowder’s known him he looks every inch an eighteen-year-old, eager and excited and without the weight of the world on his shoulders. “Isn’t that amazing?”
His excitement is contagious, and for a moment, Chowder forgets Dex’s weird mood. “It is,” he says, returning Nursey’s grin. “It really, really is.”
Shopping in Paris is incredible
Nursey’s never done anything like this before. Caitlin turns up at their hotel suite with new clothes for all of them--“I can’t have you as my retinue looking so bedraggled,” she says tartly, when Chowder halfheartedly protests the expense--and Nursey finds himself in a grey linen suit, clearly newly tailored, though how Caitlin knew his measurements he doesn’t even want to know. Chowder bullies Dex into a navy suit cut as well as Nursey’s, and it takes Nursey’s breath away to look at him, the deep blue fabric making his pale skin all but glow.
They take a cab to Montmartre, Chowder cocking an eyebrow at Caitlin when she gives the driver instructions and Caitlin just smiling back. “What’s that about,” he whispers to Dex, who just snorts and shakes his head, his cheeks flushed a dark pink.
He feels vaguely left out of some kind of joke, but the feeling of defensiveness dissolves as soon as they get out of the cab. The street is lined with art studios and small clothier shops, people walking the street hand in hand, bright with laughter.
A pair of men tucked into an alcove catch his eye--they’re pressed close together, close enough to kiss, and something tightens in his chest, something wanting and warm.
Nursey startles, jolted out of his reverie by a young man suddenly appearing in front of him. He’s a few inches shorter than Nursey, all bright eyes and messy brown curls, and he catches Nursey’s hand in his.
“Tu as de beaux yeux,” he says, pulling a bundle of flowers out of seemingly nowhere, his grin light and playful. “Ou as-tu été toute ma vie?”
Nursey only understands a few words of that, but he gets the compliment, and there’s no mistaking the flowers. He laughs, a little awkwardly, and takes them. “Merci, monsieur,” he says, trying to keep his smile under control.
The young man’s grin broadens. “Est-ce que tu es aussi doux que tes yeux?”
Before Nursey can even respond, Chowder slides smoothly between them. “C'est assez, merci,” he says, kind but firm, and the man laughs, slipping away. Chowder looks at Nursey, his cheeks a bit pink. “Sorry, Nursey. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Nursey says, dipping his head down to smell the flowers. They’re nothing fancy, but the fragrance is sweet. “He was nice!”
Dex scoffs. “If you like that sort of thing.”
Nursey winks at him. “Jealous?” Dex sputters, flushing red, and Nursey laughs, because he’s warm and happy and in Paris, really and truly and finally. He slips one of the flowers from the small bouquet and steps up to Dex, tucking it gently into the buttonhole on his jacket. “There,” he says. “Maintenant tu es parfait.”
Caitlin, stepping closer to them to slip her arm through Chowder’s. “You speak French?”
“Oh, I--” Nursey feels his cheeks warm. “Only a little bit. Katya--she ran the Children’s Home--she had a few novels. It, um. It came to me pretty easily.”
“How interesting,” Caitlin murmurs, glancing at Chowder. He arches an eyebrow at her, and Caitlin shakes her head. “Never you mind. Come now, darlings, we have a tailor to see.”
She pulls Chowder gently along with her down the cobblestone street. Nursey moves to follow her, and then realizes that Dex is still standing where Nursey left him. He’s taken the flower out of his jacket and is staring at it, holding it like it’s something fragile and precious.
His expression is unreadable, and Nursey frowns. “Dex?”
He startles, looking at Nursey with wide eyes. “Hey,” he says. “What is it?”
“What do you mean, what is it?” Nursey steps closer to him. “Are you okay? You seem...weird.”
Dex parts his lips, like he wants to say something, and then shakes his head. “No,” he says. “No, I’m fine.” He clears his throat and slips the flower carefully into his pocket. “Come on,” he says. “We’d better catch up.”
He starts to reach out for Nursey’s hand, and then, at the last moment, seems to change his mind, setting a steering hand on Nursey’s back instead. The pressure is light, but grounding.
There’s something you’re not telling me, Nursey wants to say.
But Dex’s face is calm and set and determined, and he’s gentle but firm as he pushes Nursey off in Chowder and Lady Caitlin’s direction. Nursey sighs, and lets himself be led.
Nightfall finds Dex and Chowder on the steps of the Palais Garnier, waiting for Nursey and Lady Caitlin. The Empress’s cousin had swept Nursey back to her own home after their impromptu shopping trip, informing Dex and Chowder that she’d make sure he looked his most absolutely royal before the ballet. Intellectually, Dex knew she had good intentions, but he can’t help but feel a little anxious about just what Nursey’s going to look like. A simple suit had been enough to have men in Montmartre bold enough to flirt with him on the street. He can’t imagine what a tailored tuxedo is going to do.
Chowder’s nervousness seems to be settling elsewhere. He’s pacing, his hands peeking out of his overcoat as he wrings them. “It’s not that I don’t think Nursey can be convincing,” he says, for the third time. “I’m just--what if he gets nervous? And forgets something?”
Dex shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“I know,” Chowder sighs. “I know that, I just--”
“No, Chowder, you don’t get it.” Dex catches his arm, forcing his friend to look at him. “He’s the prince.” Chowder frowns, and Dex hesitates for half an instant. He’s never told anyone this, nobody.
But Chowder deserves to know. “I was the boy,” he says, and it’s a weight off his shoulders to say it out loud. He’s been carrying this for ten years. “The boy in the palace, the night of the revolution. The boy who opened the wall. Who got him out.”
Slow comprehension dawns on Chowder’s face. “Then…”
Dex nods. “He’s the real thing, Chow.”
“Then that means…” Chowder’s eyes widen, and then soften. “That we did it. We brought our Nursey back to his family. He’ll be home.”
Dex drops his hand from Chowder’s arm. “Yeah,” he says tiredly.
He can hear the sadness in Chowder’s voice, and he swallows his own emotion. “I’ll walk out of his life. Permanently.”
A hand closes on his shoulder, and Chowder forces him to turn around and face him. “Dex,” he says, serious and calm. “Come on. You know that he--”
“No, Chow.” Dex forces a smile. “It’s--the heir to the Russian throne isn’t going to wind up with a broke con man.”
“But nothing,” he says firmly. “We go on like we planned. Nursey becomes the prince. We get the money, and we leave.”
Chowder looks heartbroken, and Dex hates it. He shouldn’t have said anything. “You have to tell him--”
“Tell me what?”
They both turn, and Dex loses his breath.
He should be used to this by now--Nursey rendering him speechless. But Dex had been right: he’s tall and sleek and beautiful in the fitted tuxedo, the fabric fitting close to his body. For half a moment Dex thinks it’s the tux that makes him look so elegant, but no--it’s Nursey himself, regal and calm. His hair’s been styled in a way that makes every curl look defined and soft, his clean-shaven jaw strong but not haughty.
“Tell me what?” Nursey repeats, his expression turning uncertain, and Dex forces himself out of his own head, swallowing hard.
“How amazing you look,” he says, because it’s true and he can’t possibly say anything else. He forces a smile. “Are you ready to go?”
Nursey bites his bottom lip. “I…” He takes a deep breath. “I think so.”
Dex puts a hand on his arm. “You’re gonna be fine,” he says, and he means it like a promise. Under his hand, he feels Nursey’s muscles tense, and then relax.
He guides Nursey up the grand staircase with careful propriety, a hand on his back high enough to be appropriate but firm enough that he can feel the tension in Nursey’s body ease slightly under his touch. Lady Caitlin leaves them at the top of the steps with a soft kiss to Nursey’s cheek and a reassuring smile before heading off to her own box with the Empress, and Dex and Chowder steer Nursey down into their own seats.
“There,” he says when they’re seated and he’s spotted the Lady Caitlin’s box, pointing as subtly as he can. The Empress is a tall, regal figure beside her much younger cousin, her grey hair piled in a complex knot on her head. Even from here, Dex can see the lines of sadness etched into her face. “Do you see her?”
Nursey follows his gaze, and Dex sees it the instant his eyes find the Empress. He clenches one hand around his program. “Do you think she’ll remember me?” he whispers.
Dex hesitates. The lights flicker twice, and then dim. In the darkness, he feels a rush of bravery, and reaches to pry Nursey’s hand away from his program, pulling his hand into his own lap and lacing Nursey’s fingers through his. “It’s going to be fine,” he murmurs. Nursey’s fingers tighten around his. “I promise.”
He doesn’t remember the ballet.
It’s an interpretation of Cinderella, he thinks, but there’s not much else he could say if someone asks. Nursey spends it with his eyes fixed on the woman who might be his grandmother, clutching Dex’s hand so tightly he hears him hiss a few times in pain.
When the lights come up for intermission, Dex puts his free hand over their joined ones. “It’s time,” he says. “Come on.”
Nursey barely feels himself stand up. Distantly, he recognizes what he’s feeling as terror--this is so much, it could mean everything, and he’s never been so scared before. But he feels it like a distant wind: he’s aware of it, he knows it’s there, but it’s not present, not really.
“Hey,” Dex says.
Nursey blinks. They’ve crossed half the theater, and are standing outside a closed door. He barely remembers moving. “Dex,” he says.
“Yeah.” Dex gives him an encouraging smile. “You with me?” His hands are on Nursey’s biceps, holding him steady. For half an instant, Nursey thinks he might fall if Dex lets go, but he swallows hard and steels himself.
“I’m here,” he says. “I’m okay.”
Dex loosens his grip. “Good.”
There’s a moment where they just look at each other, Dex’s eyes soft and honey-warm, and there’s so much Nursey suddenly wants to say. Thank you, maybe, or no one’s ever looked at me like you do, or you drive me crazy but please, please don’t go just because we’ve gotten to where we wanted to be.
“Nursey,” Dex says, slowly, hesitantly.
Nursey’s heart stops.
Dex looks at him, a long, lingering gaze, and then he swallows visibly and gives a crooked smile. “You’ve done great,” he says, and it’s so half-hearted that something in Nursey’s chest quivers and almost breaks. He pats Nursey’s shoulder and takes a breath. “Okay. I’m going to go announce you. You stay here, okay? I’ll come get you when she’s ready.”
“Okay.” He feels an ache when Dex steps away completely, turning away to knock on the ornate door.
It opens a moment later, Lady Caitlin’s smiling face appearing. She gives Dex a wink and steps back, allowing him inside. The door closes behind them, but it doesn’t latch. Nursey hesitates, and then, cautiously, creeps forward to listen.
“You can tell the Empress,” Dex’s voice says, strong and confident, “that I have found her grandson, the Grand Duke Derek Nurse. He’s waiting to see his grandmother, just outside the door.”
Nursey holds his breath.
There’s murmuring, then, a strong, feminine voice that Nursey can’t quite make out, and then Dex responding, soft but pleading. Nursey frowns, inching closer to the door, trying not to look too suspicious.
“No.” The word comes out in a snap. “You don’t think I’ve seen enough boys trained to be my grandson? Hm? I don’t care how you’ve trained him to act, how you’ve dressed him up to look. And all of you, just interested in the reward.”
Nursey’s blood runs cold. Reward?
“But Your Majesty--” Dex’s voice, desperate. “It’s not--it’s not like that, I swear--”
“William Poindexter,” the Empress says, and her voice is raised and cold. “I’ve heard of you. A con man from St. Petersburg. Holding auditions, to find the perfect Derek.”
No, Nursey thinks, nausea churning in his stomach. No, no, no--
“Your Majesty, please--I swear, it’s him, it’s really him--”
“No. I’m finished. Remove him.”
The door flies open and Nursey jumps back just in time for Dex to go all but tumbling through, landing in a sprawled heap on the floor. His jacket is askew, his bow tie crooked, and he looks ashamed and furious.
Nursey knows, because he’s sure the same things are on his own face, and Dex must see it the instant he looks up, because his skin goes pale. “Nursey,” he says, his voice broken. “Nursey--”
“You used me,” Nursey says, barely hearing his own voice. He feels sick and lightheaded, so angry he wants to scream. “You--you made me think that you cared about me, that you wanted to help, and you--all this time, you just wanted money?”
“No,” Dex insists, scrambling up to his feet. “Nursey, I promise, I--It might have been like that at first, but then I realized--”
He reaches out a hand and Nursey jerks away, his arm burning at the touch even though Dex’s fingers barely brushed his sleeve. “I trusted you,” he says, and to his horror, there are tears in his eyes. “I thought that you believed in me, and you…you made me believe that I really was--”
“Nursey,” Dex pleads, stepping closer to him, and Nursey sees red. His fist moves before he can stop it, the first punch he’s thrown since he was fifteen and Illya was starting fights in Katya’s living room. It connects, hard, and Dex stumbles back, his eyes wide and shocked.
The balcony door flies open, Lady Caitlin staring at them in alarm. She looks at Dex, fury written into the lines of her lovely face, and then her gaze shifts to Nursey.
Nursey feels his heart break. “I’m sorry,” he croaks, his eyes burning. “I’m so sorry, please tell her I’m so sorry--”
Lady Caitlin’s eyes soften. “Darling,” she says, and steps closer to him, laying a gentle hand on his arm. “What can I do?”
“Take me home,” he whispers. His breath is coming in short gasps, and he feels dizzy and broken. “Please. I can’t be here anymore.”
Caitlin’s expression hardens. “We’ll call the car,” she says firmly. With a last glare at Dex, she takes Nursey by the arm and begins to guide him down the hall.
Her grip on him is firm and guiding and Nursey can hear her voice, murmuring reassuring French as they walk.
But he’s never felt so alone.
“You fucked this up,” Chowder says.
Dex doesn’t take his head out of his hands. “I know.”
“No,” Chowder says, his voice almost a hiss. “You fucked this up so bad, Dex.”
“I know,” Dex snaps, lifting his head. “I know! You don’t think I know? Jesus, Chow! You didn’t see his face, not like I did. He’ll never forgive me for this. And he shouldn’t.”
Chowder glares at him for a long moment, and then his face softens slightly and he puts a hand on Dex’s shoulder, gripping hard enough to hurt. “You have to make it right. We have to make it right.”
Dex’s chest aches. “How?”
Chowder’s expression falls. “I don’t know.”
They sit together on the outside steps, their shoulders slumped.
Out of the corner of his eye, Dex sees a car pull up to the curb, sleek and black. A man in a crisp black suit climbs out, chauffeur written all over him, and, as Dex watches, he raises a hand to someone walking down the stairs.
To the Dowager Empress.
Dex steels his shoulders. “I know what to do,” he says, and gets to his feet.
“What?” Chowder follows his gaze, and then his eyes widen. “Oh, Dex. Dex, no.”
“Yes,” Dex says. “I’m doing it.”
“Dex,” Chowder says, alarm raising his voice. “Dex--”
He’s already moving.
The chauffeur makes a startled noise when Dex manhandles him out of the way and throws himself into the driver’s seat of the car. In the back seat, the Empress gives a decidedly undelicate yelp as Dex throws the car into drive, screeching away from the curb.
“Illya!” It’s almost a shriek. “Illya, slow down!”
“I’m not Illya,” Dex snaps, turning to look over his shoulder. “And I’m not slowing down.”
Her eyes widen in recognition, then go harder than they were on her private balcony. “You madman,” she hisses. “This is--this is kidnapping, this is a crime, this is--”
“I don’t care what it is,” Dex says, putting his eyes back onto the road. He’s glad, now, that he’d paid attention to the streets on their way to the opera. “I’m going to make sure you listen.”
She makes an outraged sound, launching into furious French, but Dex ignores her. He drives, and keeps driving until the hotel is in sight, and he doesn’t stop until he’s slamming on the brakes outside the front steps. Before he can give himself time to think--or panic, which is more likely--he flings himself out of the driver’s seat and vaults the front of the car, throwing open the back door and dropping into a crouch so that he’s at eye level with the Empress’s furious eyes.
“You have to talk to him.”
“I have to do no such thing,” she snaps at him, and he’s starting to see just how this woman helped to rule a country.
Fine, he thinks. Trump card. He reaches into the pocket of his jacket and pulls out the small golden jewelry box, thrusting it forward. “Do you recognize this?” he demands.
The transformation is instantaneous.
Her lips part in amazement, and her expression flies from shock to heartbreak to tentative, hesitant hope. “Where did you get this?” she breathes, reaching out a shaking hand.
Dex lets her take it from him, watches the wonder and grief warring on her lined, beautiful face. Her green eyes, so similar to Nursey’s, shimmer with unshed tears. He swallows. “I know--” He takes a breath. “I know I don’t deserve to ask anything of you. But he’s...He’s been alone for ten years. He deserves a family.”
She narrows her eyes. “You could go to prison for this,” she says, closing her hand around the box. “You should go to prison for this.”
“I’ll take that chance,” he says, grinning with a confidence he doesn’t feel. He straightens, and holds out a hand. “Please, Your Majesty.”
The Empress regards him for a long, serious moment.
Her hand trembles around the jewelry box.
But it’s steady when she reaches out to take his arm.
He’s not crying anymore.
Not properly, anyway. The real crying stopped when Caitlin brought him back to the hotel and let him sob into her shoulder in the sitting room of the suite, propriety be damned. He’d cried himself out, or at least, he’d thought so, but the tears haven’t stopped--they’re still running down his face, no matter how many times he swipes a frustrated hand over his cheeks.
There’s nothing he can do about it, so he lets the tears fall as he starts packing, shoving clothing and books into the new suitcase Caitlin bought for him. He’s taken off his bow tie, feeling like it was strangling him, and unbuttoned the top few buttons of his shirt, the chain around his neck dangling loose, easy for him to fidget with.
His hand catches on the handful of flowers the boy on the street in Montmartre had given him, and he has a sudden, visceral memory of Dex’s face when Nursey had stepped close and tucked one into his jacket. His chest tightens, and for a moment all he can do is stare, his vision blurring around the edges again as he looks at the petals.
The door opens behind him.
Nursey sniffs and wipes his eyes furiously. “Go away, Dex. I told you I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Then it’s quite a good thing that I’m not Dex.”
The voice is female, older, and cool, tinged with weariness and grief. It sends a shock through Nursey’s chest and he turns, staring with wide eyes at the Dowager Empress. Like him, she’s still in the clothing she’d worn to the opera, her posture straight and strong. “Oh,” he breathes, and drops instantly into a bow. “Your Majesty. I’m so sorry.”
“That’s quite enough of that.”
Shaking, Nursey straightens. The Empress is regarding him with sad, calm eyes. “Tell me, young man,” she says quietly. “Who are you?”
The laugh that forces its way past Nursey’s throat hurts. “I don’t know, Your Majesty.” He tries to muster a smile. “I’ve been no one for ten years. Dex gave me a chance to be someone, and I thought…” He shakes his head. “I didn’t know about the money, or the auditions, or--or any of that. I never would have gone with them if I thought…” His voice dies, and he takes a shaking breath. “I’m so sorry.”
Empress Marie looks at him for a long moment. He can’t read her expression at all. After an agonizing few seconds, she sighs. “Thank you for your apology,” she says.
Nursey swallows. “Of course.”
She inclines her head and turns away. A faint scent reaches him, and he frowns. “Is that peppermint?”
She pauses at the door. “Moisturizing oil,” she says. “For my hands.”
“Right.” He feels...weird, suddenly, detached and almost dizzy. The smell is familiar, and he finds himself straining to reach for a memory that he can’t quite grasp. He puts out a hand to steady himself on the dresser.
He hears footsteps, and then a hand touches his arm. “Are you alright?”
The smell of peppermint is overpowering this close, and Nursey closes his eyes, trying to stay on his feet.
“Alexei and I were playing,” he hears himself say. His voice sounds very far away, but he feels the fingers on his arm tense. “In the room you always stayed in. We were wrestling, and I knocked into the dresser, and the bottle of your oil fell and--and it broke on the carpet. Alexei’s nurse scolded us but it--it sunk into the fibers.”
He’s shaking, his head swimming, and he feels himself being gently guided away from the dresser and firmly but kindly pushed to sit down on a cushioned bench. “There you are, dear,” the Empress murmurs, her voice gentler than it’s been since she entered the room. “Take a deep breath.”
He forces himself to breathe, bringing a shaking hand up to clutch at the pendant at the base of his necklace, running his thumb over the well-worn engraving. “I used to lie on the carpet when you were gone,” he says.
Even as the words leave his lips, he knows they’re true, even though he can’t visualize it. The memory is all scent, all touch--the sharp scent of peppermint, the feel of carpet fibers under his fingertips. “Just waiting for you to come back.”
“What is that?”
Nursey drags himself back to the present. The Empress is sitting beside him on the bench, her eyes fixed on the pendant in his hand. “This?” She nods, and he uncurls his hand from it. “I’ve had it my whole life.”
The Empress extends a gloved hand. “May I?”
Wordlessly, he takes off the necklace and hands it to her. His throat feels bare and strange, but he can’t focus on that when she’s staring at the small pendant, her eyes filling with tears. “Your Majesty?” he asks, a pang of worry hitting him in the chest.
“It was our secret,” she whispers, not looking at him. She reaches into the small pouch pocketbook she’d carried in with her, drawing out the small golden jewelry box Nursey had seen in Dex’s bag. “My Derek’s and mine.”
Memory clicks. “It’s a music box, not a jewelry box,” he breathes, leaning forward. The Empress gives him a startled look, but he can’t stop himself from reaching out a shaking hand for the necklace and box. She lets him take it, and he runs his thumb around the edge of the box until he finds a small, delicate slot in the side, and, moving without thought, he slips the pendant into it.
There’s a soft, delicate click.
He finds himself humming before the music even begins, a sweet, faintly tinny melody that sends an ache resonating in his chest. He doesn’t sing--he doesn’t trust his voice--but he hums, hesitant and quiet.
A soft harmony joins him, and it takes a moment to realize that it’s the Empress, looking at him with tears on her cheeks, open emotion on her face. The song dies in his throat, but she reaches out for him, touches his cheek with trembling fingers.
“Derek,” she breathes, and his heart clenches in his chest. “Derek, my sweetheart, oh--”
She pulls him into her arms, the scent of peppermint sweet and familiar in his lungs, and he’s so overwhelmed he doesn’t even notice that he’s already crying.
When the Empress has been up in the hotel for a full twenty minutes without coming down and demanding that Dex be thrown in a French jail, he knows it’s done.
“Goodbye, Derek Nurse,” he murmurs, raising a hand in farewell and turning away. He needs a drink. He’s pretty sure he’s got at least a few friends left in this city who’ll let him drown for a little while.
He turns his back on the hotel, burrowing his chin into the fabric of his overcoat.
He doesn’t see the shadows moving as he leaves.
“Ten million rubles,” the Empress says quietly, two days later. “As promised.”
Dex’s head is still throbbing with a day-old hangover as he stands in her study, trying to keep his posture appropriate. He hasn’t seen Nursey since the night of the opera--hasn’t even tried--but he can already see the difference that being reunited with her grandson has had on the Empress. The lines around her eyes have softened, her lips curve naturally up in a smile, the grief smoothed away from her face.
He startles himself out of the temporary reverie. “Sorry, Your Majesty,” he says. “I…” He swallows. “Please keep the money.”
She raises her eyebrows. “I beg your pardon?”
“I can’t take it,” he says. “I don’t…” He shakes his head. “I don’t deserve it.”
“I see.” The Empress regards him for a long moment, and then she closes the lid of the suitcase of money. It latches with a soft, final click. “Sit down, Mr. Poindexter.”
He knows an order when he hears one, and lowers himself down into the one of the upholstered chairs across from her desk. Instead of sitting down behind it, she crosses around to sit in the chair next to him. She clasps her hands in her lap, looking at him with soft green eyes. “I have a very good memory for faces,” she says.
Dex keeps his expression carefully still. “You do?”
“I do.” She turns a garnet ring on her finger and Dex can’t help but picture the way Nursey tangles his fingers into the ever-present chain around his neck. “It’s the eyes, you know. People get older, their expressions change, but their eyes--eyes always stay the same.”
Cool realization coils in his chest, uneasy and strange. “Your Majesty,” he begins, but she raises a slender hand to stop him.
“You were the boy in the Palace,” she says. It’s not a question. “You saved our lives, my Derek and mine. And all these years later, whether you knew it or not, you returned him to me, safe and whole.”
Dex licks his bottom lip, takes a careful breath. “Yes,” he says.
“Yet you want nothing from me but my gratitude.”
“I…” Dex searches inside him for the place his greed used to live, the place where he’d held auditions for the perfect Derek Nurse, the place where he’d cared more about his wallet than breaking an old woman’s heart.
He can’t find it.
“I can’t ask for anything more from you,” he says, and means it. He swallows. “From him.”
The Empress looks at him. Her expression is impassive, and he wonders if that’s a function of royalty--keeping her face blank, her thoughts hidden. He wishes that he could do the same. “You should say goodbye to him before you leave,” she says finally.
Dex smiles, but it feels weak and half-hearted. “I don’t think he’ll see me.”
“Oh,” the Empress says. “I think he will.”
“I still wish you’d change your mind,” Chowder says, turning away from the mirror to look at Dex.
“I know.” Dex doesn’t get up from where he’s lounging on the low sofa in the room Chowder’s, idly watching Chowder adjust the epaulets on his formal jacket. “And I’m happy you’ve found a place, C, I really am. I know how much it means to you to be back with Caitlin.” Chowder flushes a soft pink, ducking his head. Dex smiles. “It’s just...this isn’t where I belong.”
Chowder shakes his head. “It could be,” he says. “You know that. Nursey would want you here.”
Dex laughs. “Come on, Chowder. You know that’s not true.”
“You’re not giving him enough credit.”
“It’s not him I don’t believe in.”
Chowder sighs. “Dex…” He crosses the room to sit down next to Dex, giving Puck a slight nudge. “I know you too well to believe that you actually don’t care.”
Dex looks down at his hands. Workman’s hands, rough and calloused. “What would I do if I stayed? See if the kitchen’s looking for dishwashers?”
“I’m sure Nursey’ll want a valet he trusts,” Chowder says, giving him a sidelong glance. “Or...maybe a Consort?”
Dex snorts. “Even Paris isn’t that progressive.”
“You might be surprised.” Chowder sighs. “You’re making a mistake.”
“No. Not this time.” Dex opens his arms, and Chowder sighs, leaning over to give him a tight hug. “I’m gonna miss you, Chow.”
Chowder holds on. “Miss you too, Poindexter.”
Puck licks his hand, and Dex laughs, giving the dog a slight scratch on his ears. “Yeah, you take care too, you mutt.”
The door opens. “Chowder? Have you seen Puck--oh.”
Dex pulls away from Chowder and meets Nursey’s eyes for the first time in days. He looks...he looks the same as he did two days ago. Royalty hasn’t changed him, hasn’t transformed him into a completely new person.
He has his grandmother’s eyes, Dex realizes. The exact same.
Chowder gets fluidly to his feet and bows to him, and Dex follows his example automatically. “Oh, stop,” Nursey says, making a face. “People have been bowing to me for two days, it’s weird.”
“It’s only appropriate, Your Grace,” Dex says. The words taste stale in his mouth, stilted and formal. Something sad flickers across Nursey’s face.
“Well, no one’s looking, so don’t do it here.” Nursey looks over Dex’s clothing, then at the suitcase packed at his feet. “You’re leaving?”
“Yes.” Dex tries to say it with confidence, but it’s strange, the way Nursey is looking at him. It’s like it took barely a day for Nursey to learn the way his grandmother masks her face.
Nursey raises his chin slightly. “You got everything you wanted?”
The reward, Dex realizes.
“I…” Nursey’s eyes are cool, and Dex sighs. “I got what I came for,” he says, and it’s half-true. He wants Nursey safe. He wants Nursey happy. “If that’s what you mean.”
Nursey inclines his head. “You’d know better than me.”
“I guess I would.” Dex reaches down and picks up his suitcase. He nods at Chowder, who gives him a small, sad smile, and then bows to Nursey. “Goodbye, Your Grace.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Poindexter.” Nursey steps aside to let him pass, and Dex squares his shoulders.
If nothing else, he’ll walk out of this with his head held high.
He turns. It’s stupid to hope, but--
Nursey has a hand on the door to Chowder’s room, almost as if he’s using it to steady himself. His lips part and for half an instant, Dex thinks maybe, maybe. Nursey’s knuckles pale against the doorframe, and then he visibly exhales, raising his gaze to meet Dex’s. “Thank you,” he says quietly.
Go back, a voice in his head pleads with him. Go back go back go back.
He tilts his head, a last goodbye, and he leaves.
Barely recognizing his reflection is beginning to feel familiar.
The young man in the mirror is regal and calm, his eyes steady and his posture straight and strong. The ballroom finery is all clean lines and quiet luxury, the medals of state gleaming. His curls have been teased to softness by a Kenyan lady-in-waiting Nursey had poached from one of the ladies of the court--the one thing he’d put his foot down on was none of the white stylists on his grandmother’s staff touching his hair--and the slightly judgemental valet they’d given him had even let him keep the beginnings of beard that have started to grow back in.
He looks like himself, but not himself. He searches his reflection for some sign of the tired, anxious orphan he’s used to, and can’t find him.
A hand touches his shoulder. “Are you alright, my love?”
Nursey looks down and meets his grandmother’s eyes. He forces a small smile. “I’m fine. I’m just…” He gestures at his reflection. “I’m trying to find myself, I guess.”
“Oh?” The Empress steps beside him, her bearing cool and stately as her reflection appears next to his. “What is it you’re looking to see?”
“I don’t know.” He wishes he had pockets, so that he could put his hands into them and slump. “Someone who’s...playing dress-up, I guess.”
“I don’t think that’s quite true.” She places her hands on his shoulders, straightens his back a bit more. “You are missing something, though.”
“I’m not missing anyone.”
She arches one eyebrow, and he realizes what he said. He winces. “Anything.”
“Mm.” She gives him a soft smile in the mirror, and turns away to a small table beside the mirror, lifting the lid off of a jeweled box there. She sets the lid aside, and Nursey catches his breath at the sight of the glittering crown. It’s more delicate than the ones he’s seen in the images of Tsar Nicholas--his father, he reminds himself--but not as feminine as the one his grandmother wears with regal ease.
“Mémère, what,” he breathes, and she smiles, lifting it.
“Down you come, my love,” she instructs, and he obediently lowers his head so that she can settle the circlet on his brow. She adjusts it slightly, and then tucks a finger under his chin to lift his head. “There, now.”
With gentle hands, she turns him back toward the mirror, and he can’t help his gasp.
The person looking back at him is a prince, pure and simple.
His grandmother smiles. “Chin up, my darling,” she says. “You’re exactly where you were born to be.”
Nursey nods, unable to take his eyes off his reflection.
“But you should know,” she continues. Nursey looks at her in confusion, and she smiles. “Your young man didn’t take the money.”
“My--” One and one click together to make two, and his jaw drops. “He...he didn’t?”
“No.” Her eyes are gentle as she reaches up to touch her gloved fingertips to his cheek. “If you ask me, I don’t think that the money was what he wanted.”
Nursey stares at her, his mind spinning. “Mémère…”
Words fail him, and he forces his mouth closed, biting his lip. The Empress’s expression is soft and kind, and he realizes that no one has ever looked at him like this--with genuine, unconditional love. “You have gone through a trial to get here, my dear,” she says, holding his gaze. “And you don’t need to be next to me for me to be with you. Do you understand?”
“No?” he tries, but he does, somehow. She’s not saying goodbye to him, but there’s an acceptance in her eyes. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says, an insistence that he doesn’t quite feel, and her eyes crinkle at the corners.
She raises herself up on her toes to kiss his cheek, and he hears the soft click as her heels lower back to the floor. “I’ll see you at the coronation,” she says. He feels himself nod, and she taps his jaw again. “Chin up,” she reminds him gently, and leaves the room.
Nursey finds himself in silence.
The room is cool and quiet, and for a few minutes he just lets himself enjoy it. The ball downstairs will be full of people, all noise and light and music, and it scares him a little--he’s never been to a party like this before, and certainly never something where he’s been the center of attention.
Some air would be good, he thinks, and, with a last glance at his reflection, he slips from the drawing room and out onto one of the palace’s many terraces. The night air is crisp, just on the side of cold, and he wishes that his formal jacket was a little warmer--but then, he realizes, he’ll probably start sweating into it as soon as he enters the ballroom. He breathes out, leaning against the balcony and letting the wind ruffle his hair.
It’s the first night of the rest of his life.
So why isn’t he excited?
It’s loneliness, he realizes with a jolt. Chowder’s here with him, and Caitlin, who’s all but adopted him. But he knows what he’s missing.
Who he’s missing.
A sharp yip carries over to him on the wind and he snaps his head up. “Puck?” he calls, worry tightening his chest. Puck’s a quiet dog, but he’s heard him bark a few times before, usually when someone’s accidentally trodden on his tail or, more rarely, when Nursey’s been sliding down into a pool of anxiety, and he recognizes the sound instantly. He leans over the balcony, peering down into the garden below. “Puck?”
The bark comes again, more alarmed this time. Nursey casts a quick glance inside, at the warmth and light of the Palace. He could call for one of the house servants, he knows; that’s his right now, and they’d go find Puck for him…
Blowing quickly on his hands to warm them, he steels himself and jogs down the broad staircase leading down to the gardens, following Puck’s distant voice. The gardens are huge, high hedges and vast topiary bushes pruned into immense shapes. In the daylight they’re gorgeous, flowered and bright, but now, alone in the dark, they send an eerie shiver crawling down his spine. He quickens his pace, calling for Puck, but the barking has died away to silence.
Nursey slows, and then stops, turning to get his bearings. He’s gotten into the middle of the hedge maze without realizing it, and he feels disoriented, uncertain. “Puck,” he asks the silent air, more of a hesitant question than a real call.
The wind picks up again, whipping at the sash across his chest and the epaulets on his shoulders, and he shivers, wrapping his arms around himself. “Okay, not funny,” he says, raising his voice. “Puck? Come on, baby, let’s go. I’m freaking out now.”
Nursey snaps around, looking over his shoulder. The voice had been a hoarse whisper, barely carrying on the wind, but it had been there. His name.
He feels cold, colder than he should. The air is chilly, but it’s not this chilly. The hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
He’s heard that voice in his nightmares.
The hedges start to shift, more than the wind would cause, and horror coils in his blood at the realization that they’re growing, looming up and straining towards him, branches turning to long, claw-fingered hands. He takes a stumbling step back, crashing into one of the topiary bushes, and it creaks against his neck, leaves crawling along his pulse. He bites back a scream and twists himself away, feeling the sleeve of his jacket tear along a thorn.
A shaft of moonlight gleams down at the edge of the clearing--a way out. Nursey steels himself and breaks into a run, trying to get past the hedges. The trees curl forward even as he moves, the opening in the hedges shrinking, and Nursey just makes it through, his throat tightening as he wrenches past them. He keeps running, into the labyrinth of the garden, not trying to get back to the palace but just to move, to get out.
There’s a break in the hedges, far ahead, and Nursey pushes himself to move faster. He sees the stars, the open sky, and he runs--
He stumbles out onto a bridge.
Dark stonework and looming gargoyles and the barely-there sound of running water below him. He scans the empty street, trying to catch his breath.
Nothing greets him, no dark, looming villain. Nursey shivers and swallows, his throat raw and tight from panting for breath, and turns around, trying to figure out where he is. His head is spinning and disoriented, and he brings shaking hands up to rub at his eyes and temples--his mind has played tricks on him before, but nothing that ever felt this real.
The voice whispers into his ear, close enough that icy breath touches his skin. He whirls, searching, and then he sees the shadows.
Moving shadows, dark and almost liquid, coiling and pooling halfway across the bridge. Run, Nursey screams at himself, but he feels frozen, his muscles refusing to respond. The shadows sift and then grow, lurching upwards like a bubbling geyser, and they don’t look like mist but like sludge, viscous and oozing.
Then the shadows fall away, and there’s a figure on the bridge, cowled and cloaked. A man, Nursey thinks, uncertain, the shoulders broad and the chest flat, but the hand that emerges from the sleeve is almost skeletal, the skin rotting and mottled. The hand reaches up to throw back the hood, and nausea churns in Nursey’s stomach.
The face--if it can be called a face--is decomposing and rotten, gaps in the skin exposing muscle and bone, the eyes sunken, the cheekbones hollow. But they eyes are bright, so bright, glassy as if with fever. The lips spread and crack in a grin. “Prince Derek,” the man says, and the voice is a rasp. It sounds like wet dirt and decaying wood. “Your Imperial Highness.”
Nursey clenches his fists. “Who are you?”
“You don’t remember? I’m hurt, child.” The broadens, showing broken and yellowed teeth. “All of those hours I spent with your sweet little brother, all those days your mother spent, begging me to make him well...it meant nothing to you?”
Memory strikes him, vivid and sensory: a bedroom, a small boy wrapped in layers of comforters, his face pale and eyes closed. Nursey himself, young and frightened, curled on the bed beside the boy, holding a cool, thin-fingered hand in his. “Will he get better?” he hears himself ask, his voice small.
A gentle hand in his hand, a voice so soft it makes him ache. His mother’s voice. “Of course, kotik. The healer will help him.”
He turns to the look and there he is, sallow-cheeked and bearded, his eyes bright with ambition, bordering on madness. A bow. “Of course, Your Highness.”
Nursey comes back to his body, cold and shaking. “Rasputin.”
The cloaked man bows, mocking. “At your service.”
“You’re dead.” He still remembers it, vaguely, like a memory from a dream. “They--they killed you.”
“Yes, they did.” The broken grin widens. “But I am hard to kill. As, I must say, are you.”
Realization dawns. “The train.”
Rasputin’s rotting lip curls. “Among other things.”
“I don’t understand.” Nursey curls his hands, sharp pin pricks of pain where his nails cut into his palms. “You were their friend. Why would you--why are you doing this?”
“Your father,” he spits the words like they’re bitter in his mouth. “Was never prepared to rule. He was a weak man, weak and cold. Your mother, now, she was a gift. She would have made a brilliant ruler.”
“He defended you.” It’s coming back to him slowly. “He left you in charge. He trusted you.”
“And he let me die,” Rasputin roars, spittle flying from his mouth. Nursey takes a step back, fear turning his blood to ice. “He let me take the blame for each decision he was too weak to defend himself. He let them hunt me down like a dog. And Russia would fall to--what? You? A sick-minded, scared creature? Your dying little brother? Your sisters, with barely-Russian blood? Better to cut the line at its roots.”
He’s going to kill me. The thought strikes him at his core, steals the breath from his throat. “I don’t want the throne,” he says. “I don’t--they can keep it. Please. Please, I--”
Rasputin moves, faster than should be possible. A wraithlike hand lashes out and grabs him around the neck, tightening over his windpipe, and Nursey chokes. He scrambles at the grip but it’s strong, unnaturally so, and the smell of decay and waste rises, cloying, into his nostrils. “Your line is broken,” Rasputin hisses, without breath. “And it will stay broken.”
Nursey tries to shake his head but can’t, tries to break the grip on his neck but can’t. Spots flash at the edges of his vision, his throat working as he tries to pull in air. Dimly, he can see a glittering pendant hanging around the spectre’s neck, and a voice in his head screams important, important!
He can’t breathe.
He’s always thought he’d die alone.
“Get away from him!”
The shout comes from behind him, but Nursey can’t place the voice until something strong and furious slams into them. The hand around his neck loosens half an instant before he hits the pavement, the impact forcing air he barely has out of his lungs, and he sucks in a desperate breath, light returning to his eyes.
Arms close around his shoulders and he grabs at them, frantic. “I’ve got you,” Dex says, his voice close and panicked, and relief goes through Nursey like a wave. “I’ve got you.”
“Get out of here,” Nursey chokes, because it’s not safe, it’s not safe--
And then he realizes that it’s Dex and he lifts his head, eyes wide. “You came back.”
“I didn’t leave,” Dex says, a grim smile curving his mouth. “Good fucking thing, you can’t stay out of trouble for a day, can you?”
Nursey opens his mouth to retort, his head caught between spinning relief and lingering terror, but then the smell of rot hits him again, and he clutches at Dex’s hand. “We have to run,” he says, his voice a bruised rasp. “Dex--”
Rasputin is there before he can finish speaking, and Nursey has an instant to choke out a “no” before a revenant of oozing shadow blasts out. Dex goes flying--too fast, Nursey realizes, his heart sinking, too fast--and his body striking one of the stone gargoyles with a violent crunch. He crumples to the cobblestones in a heap and doesn’t move, and Nursey screams.
The spectre of Rasputin whirls to face him, but Nursey is already moving. He’s not a violent person, he’s not an angry person, but he grew up in Russian orphanages, he knows how to fight if he has to. There’s magic keeping this creature moving, he knows it deep in his core, but this isn’t about magic or spirits or dark rituals, this is about survival.
This is about vengeance.
They hit the stonework of the bridge in a sprawl. Nursey lands a punch, and then another, barely noticing the flares of pain as Rasputin’s claw-like nails rake down his neck. He can feel blood on his skin and the sting of something burning. Poison, he thinks wildly, but hardly cares.
Rasputin twists underneath him, clearly trying to hide something, and Nursey catches the shimmer of silver between his rotting fingers, the barest hint of a sickly, glowing green.
There, Nursey thinks. Got you.
He thrusts out a hand and grabs the chain, and Rasputin screams, clawing at Nursey’s face. He turns just in time and the nails dig into his scalp instead of his cheek, but it doesn’t stop him from yanking the chain until it breaks. The momentum sends him sprawling backwards, and he goes with it, scrambling further away until he can get to his feet.
“Wretch,” Rasputin spits, staggering to his hands and knees. There’s something wrong with his movements, jerky and inhuman, and Nursey takes another step way. “I will destroy you.”
Nursey looks down at the pendant in his hand. There’s a hairline crack running over the edge. It beats like a heart, pulsing in his hand.
He drops it to the cobblestones.
“Dasvidanya,” he spits, and brings his foot down.
The pendant shatters into pieces and Rasputin lets out a bloodcurling scream. Beams of light break through the gaps in his skin, brilliant and burning, and Nursey thinks Dex and flings himself forward to where Dex is still sprawled bonelessly on the stones, covering him with his body. The light hurts where it hits him, but Nursey doesn’t bother to look, just curls his head down over Dex’s and squeezes his eyes shut.
It takes a long, long time for the screaming to stop.
In the new, empty silence, Nursey slowly lifts his head.
Rasputin is gone. All that’s left is a torn and tattered cloak, the dust of decayed bones, the glittering shine of shattered glass. Nursey’s heart pounds in his chest. With the fading adrenaline, he can feel the ache in his body, the stinging cuts on his neck and head, the tackiness of blood in his hair.
None of that matters.
With shaking arms, he pulls Dex’s head and shoulders into his lap, bending to touch his hair gently. He can’t see any blood but that doesn’t mean anything; he knows impact injuries can hide, can be devastating and invisible. His fingers tremble as he touches Dex’s cheek. His skin is cool.
“Please,” he whispers. His throat feels raw. “Please.”
Dex’s lashes flutter. His forehead creases.
Nursey closes his eyes. He can feel tears clinging to his eyelashes. “Please.”
Half a prayer.
Nursey snaps his eyes open, blinking through the blur of tears to meet Dex’s frowning gaze. “You’re okay,” he gasps, and Dex sits up with a groan, rubbing his neck. “God, I thought--”
“I’m okay.” Dex furrows his brow and reaches out to touch Nursey’s cheek, and Nursey winces. “He cut you.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Nursey feels dizzy and dazed. His heart is flying. There are a thousand things he wants to say. “You came back,” he manages. “I thought--I thought you were--”
Dex shakes his head. “I was going to, but I--”
“There was so much I wanted to--”
“I didn’t want to go without--”
They’re talking over each other, words tangling together, and Nursey breaks off, an exhausted laugh shuddering through him. “God,” he whispers. He takes off the crown that’s clung to his head through everything, running his hands through his hair. His fingers come away bloody. “What a mess.”
He puts the crown on the ground and looks up at Dex. “You came back,” he says, one more time.
Dex opens his mouth, and then closes it. He gives a hesitant smile. “I came back,” he agrees.
Nursey swallows, holding Dex’s gaze. “No one’s ever come back for me before.”
They look at each other, still and silent on the empty bridge. Dex’s eyes flicker to the crown, and then he pushes himself to his feet with a wince.
He holds out his hand.
...for everything. I’ll never forget that I have family waiting for me in Paris. And we’ll come back to visit--with so many stories to tell you, I promise.
This isn’t the home I’m looking for, but I know it will always be waiting for me.
I’ll be in touch!
All my love,
The bed dips down beside him, and Dex puts an arm around his shoulders, kissing the healing cuts on his neck. “Are you almost finished?”
Nursey smiles. “Nearly.” He signs his name--Derek (Nursey), the name he was given and the name he chose--and folds the letter, slipping it into an envelope. “Yes.”
He sets the envelope on the bedside table and turns to look at Dex. He’s bright and tousled in his shirtsleeves, his red hair mussed. Nursey doesn’t think he’s ever been happier.
Dex meets his grin with one of his own. “So,” he says. “Where to now?”
Nursey can hear the hum and music of Montmartre outside the window of their small room, queer Paris bright and alive. The whole world open to him. To them.
He laces his fingers through Dex’s, leaning over to kiss him.
“Right here,” he says, and Dex smiles.
yep so 100% abandoned the camp and went straight-up horror at the end but YOU TRY KEEPING DREAMWORKS NOSTALGIA WHILE NOT PLAGIARIZING OK
SORRY YOUR BDAY PRESENT TOOK 6 MONTHS FREEZIE LOVE YOU KIDDO
a million billion thanks to @debz0rz for the proofreading and to @angeryginger and @sinbindos for the cheerleading.
want to yell about stuff? i'm on tumblr: @geniusorinsanity