Chapter 1: Night One
Amongst the Dirigible Tremaine, gossip was rife amongst the staff and guests. TJ could hear the hushed whispers as he, Doug, and Anne approached the landing pad, ready for a night of schmoozing and networking.
TJ adjusted his mask slightly to keep the edges from digging into his cheekbones and felt the circlet of his costume digging into his temple. He smoothed out his gold and red waistcoat and wool coat, which was custom cut and sewn to flair out the back like a red cape of Prince Charming.
Doug was similarly attired, only his mask had faint suggestions of a silver wolf with forest green and bronze embroidery on his waistcoat, while Anne wrapped her arm around his elbow, her dress was red and lacy with a hood sewn onto the back of her bodice, the lace and collar climbing up to emphasize her long neck and delicate thin features. Her hair was styled down and into scandalous pigtails to suggest she was but a young maiden instead of a married woman.
A dowager scoffed at Anne’s scandalous hair, causing poor Anne to shrink back a little, but Doug sent the old woman a cold look, and the dowager pulled back before Doug turned to Anne.
“Ignore her my dear, you’re very beautiful tonight.”
Anne smiled shyly at that, but TJ could see that she wasn’t reassured by that, and remembered hearing her say something earlier that night about beauty being fleeting.
The main chamber of the Dirigible Tremaine was made of marble floors, polished to shine, wall decorated with burgundy velvet draperies, tables were of polished walnut and myrtle wood, containing hors d’oeuvres and a mechanical swan which ran on clock work and a music box playing a bright and cheerful tune over the din of the guests.
The Ballroom Chamber was built more like a cage, TJ noticed, with large bronze support structures climbing up the wall between the drapes to meet on the ceiling at the base of a large clock with four different clock faces in four different directions, with a large crystal chandelier hanging below, lit with faint light bulbs giving off a golden light reminiscent of candlelight and gas lamps of old.
“Oh hello, why isn’t it the Hammond boys?” Their host for this evening, an older woman with a much younger gentleman on her arm, her silvery blonde hair was pulled up into an elaborate bun with a small top hat and hat pin, decorated with a sapphire hummingbird over a satin dress of the same color over her large expansive body and generous curves.
“Hello Mistress Clocksgeare,” TJ replied with a bow as he accepted her sapphire gloved hand and gave it a suave kiss on the knuckles.
“A Charmer like your old father,” Mistress Clocksgeare chuckled. “This is my guest Pierre,” She said gesturing to the young man at her side who bowed and said nothing. But she turned her glittering blue mask upon Anne. “And who might this young lady be?”
“Oh, how rude of me, please forgive me, this is my wife Anne,” Doug introduced, “Anne, darling, this is an old acquaintance of our grandmother and mother, and our hostess for this evening, Mistress Fauve Clocksgeare.”
“How do you do?” Anne asked softly as she held out her hand, which Mistress Clocksgeare took with a smile.
“Please enjoy yourselves.” Mistress Clocksgeare finished with a small bow and they were ushered deeper into the ballroom.
The room was filled with a mess of different perfumes and colognes which tightened TJ’s nose and made it run, but he grinned and bared the strong scents with the plan that his nose will grow numb to the smells at some point in the night.
TJ approached a myrtle wood table close to the kitchens, and leaned backward to observe the large six-foot-tall ice sculpture on it. It was clearly a portrait of Mistress Clocksgeare, if she were modeling the Birth of Venus, the ice impregnated with small chips of gold leaf inside. At the Ice Sculpture’s feet, in thin gold and silver platters were covered with many oysters and caviar on crackers.
TJ could see the sun set behind Ice Venus, which started to create a golden lighting to add to the sparkle effect of the sculpture, and he heard a chuckle next to him.
The man standing next to TJ wore a navy blue wool waistcoat and thin white stars and shooting stars were embroidered into the material. On the stranger’s face a mask with silver and white stars were imprinted in pale porcelain.
“What’s so funny?” TJ asked.
“It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a sculpture like this, and the lighting was much, much different.” The Star Man answered.
“I see,” TJ answered. “I just thought it was placed here for maximum golden shine.”
The Star Man chuckled at that.
“Indeed,” He answered, “Honestly, I liked the other sculpture over there better. I think it’s themed on a statue of Neptune, it’s got the sea king teaming sharks on horseback.”
TJ turned to see where the stranger pointed, and sure enough, could see a dynamic statue that had gold leaf inside the human subject of the sculpture, while the trident and horse were in silver leaf, and the sharks were left clear and almost water like. The lighting from the sun did add to the metallic sparkle, and “Neptune” was once again replaced with Mistress Clocksgeare in the nude.
“I’m not sure we’ll get out of our generous hostess’ gaze tonight.” TJ smirked, glancing around he could see more of the Greco Roman Parthenon being replaced with Mistress Clocksgeare in gold leaf.
“You should see how she interacts with her staff, she is, err, most attentive there too.” Star Man added.
“I see,” TJ paused, “Say, have I met you somewhere before, I don’t know how, but I feel like I’ve met you somewhere before.”
“I don’t think so.” The stranger added in a slightly weary but insistent tone.
TJ tried to place the voice, but nothing came up, and no face came from his memory, so he decided to move on. His eyes moved up and down the vest, showing that the stranger had a lithe and flexible form that was most pleasing to the eye.
TJ followed the form up and was met with bright brown eyes peering through the mask with just as much appreciation. Both men smirked, and the Star Man winked.
“So, tell me, what is it you do?” Star Man asked.
For a moment TJ was thrown, how could this stranger not recognize him? Then it occurred to him that tonight, and for the next two nights, it was all masquerade balls, and his mask was enough to conceal his identity to those who did not know him well. His heart rushed to play the mysterious stranger for the night.
“I entertain, and aid my family in getting things done in certain political spheres.” Hopefully that was cryptic enough.
Star Man smiled, clearly interested. “I’m into research and solving scientific mysteries myself at the university.”
“Perhaps we’ve met there? I’ve sometimes been known to play piano in the music building from time to time, but the university library.” TJ pressed, eyeing the combed back black hair, but nothing lined up in mind or famous people he knew in any of his family’s social circles, or people he has seen at the university.
“I don’t think so, I’ve never had a chance to go into the music building, but I might have heard you play on my way to the library.” The man added with a wistful sigh before he smirked cloyingly, “But I’ve heard many musicians there, so I’m afraid I wouldn’t know your style of music from others.”
“I could play for you if you’d like?”
“Perhaps if you can persuade me to make the time?”
Now TJ had to know who this man was.
“I think I might like that,” TJ added, “But I can see you’re being rather vague.”
“Well, that’s the wonder of mystery, spoils the fun otherwise.” Starman added cheekily, his shoulders moved more towards TJ’s, which made his nerves buzz in anticipation.
TJ had to solve this mystery, and preferably in bed. “What kind of mysteries shall we solve tonight?”
“Depends, what pulls at your curiosity? All I can guess is that you might be interested in solving music related mysteries.” Star Man smirked.
“Why not tell me more about you? What of your family name? Perhaps we’ve met at a function where we’ve intermingled.”
“I doubt that.” The Stranger snorted.
That gave TJ pause, but before he could ask what Star Man meant, he felt a firm hand grip his shoulder in a jovial gesture.
“TJ!” a slightly slurred voice filled his ear before he turned and was eye to eye with an old acquaintance of his father’s.
“Hello, Mr. McCulley,” TJ began, before answering questions of his father’s health and wellbeing. By the time TJ got the man to drunkenly wander off in search of more wine, the tantalizing Star Man was gone.
But TJ wasn’t about to let that stop him.
The clock chimed eight before he caught sight of the stranger again, daintily attempting to eat an oyster with poise, and trying to master the willpower to swallow with elegance. The mask thankfully hid most of the grimace.
TJ smirked and from a passing waiter, grabbed two wine glasses, and slowly made his way around the dance floor. He caught a glimpse of Doug and Anne waltzing around his peripheral vision, but he kept his eyes on Star Man, who he could see was trying to find a potted plant to spit out the oyster.
“Here, try to wash out the taste with this instead.” TJ offered, and he could see the stranger look at him in surprise, and a little mortification.
Star Man’s face turned Pink around the white and silver star mask, and the oyster went down with a hearty sip of white wine, and what looked like an act of willpower to keep it down.
“It’s an acquired taste.” TJ added weakly, and could swear that Star Man looked a little green.
“And to think Papa said they were good for me,” Star Man croaked “Ab-Grandmother said he was crazy.”
“My grandmother was the one who told me about the trick with the wine, but that could have been her excuse to drink more wine.” TJ said with a wink.
“C-can we get some air?” Star Man asked weakly, clearly trying not to throw up or laugh at the joke.
TJ guided Star Man past the perfumes to the one of the side balconies along the deck of the dirigible. They weren’t out there long; the warmer fall night below couldn’t reach the cold clarity of the air in the sky. Clouds floated in and out of sight illuminated by the city below, and the stars twinkled and danced in a steady rhythm across the sky as if someone had spilled a cup of salt across a table covered in black paper, the Milky way taking up the center of the spill.
TJ rubbed the Star Man’s back and the stranger leaned in to the gesture instead of pulling away.
After a few moments the stranger’s stomach had settled, and he sighed gratefully. “Thank you for that.”
“Any time,” TJ replied.
Star Man nursed his wine glass, and added with a sigh “This must be one of the best wines I’ve had.”
TJ paused, sniffed the wine, and took a small sip, letting the wine slide around his palette contemplatively before he swallowed. It didn’t seem that remarkable a wine to him.
The wind gave a particularly cold gust, and both men shivered a little.
“Shall we take this inside?” TJ offered
Star Man nodded, and they rejoined the party inside the dirigible and found a small side room meant for intimate conversation, with decorative paintings on the off-white walls and small bronze and oak wood benches which had burgundy cushions scattered about.
“You mentioned your grandmother earlier, could you tell me about her?” TJ asked to break the ice.
Star Man paused, almost startled to remember that he had mentioned her. “Yeah, my mother’s mother, she watched us when our parents were working. On top of managing her restaurant, I don’t know how she does it.”
“My grandmother likes to sing and play music with me.” TJ nodded, and he could see Star Man smile.
“Did she teach you how to play?” Star Man enquired, his gloved fingers twirling the wine glass stem.
TJ smiled and shook his head, “No, I had a tutor who did, but she was more than eager to encourage me, I think she wanted someone to perform with.”
“Must have been nice,” Star Man observed.
TJ tried not to think about how much he was liking this relaxed version of Star Man, as he reclined deeper into a seat on the bench, TJ joining him on the seat next to him.
TJ remembered how much he enjoyed playing, practicing, and rehearsing the music so he’d play extremely well alongside his grandmother’s elegant singing.
“It is, and she would have been the life of the party if she was able to make it tonight.”
“Is she alright?” Star Man asked concerned, and TJ realized how that must have sounded.
“More than alright, she's’ currently traveling with a few friends from the old days along the coast, she’ll be back the day after tomorrow.” TJ assured his companion.
“Oh, that’s good.” The Stranger finished his wine with a hearty drink, one TJ would have coached him to slow down if he thought the man was a new drinker of wine.
A comfortable silence fell between the two, and the stranger glanced out the window where the two saw a view of a lightly lit ocean, the waning crescent glowing above the sea.
Star Man sighed before he spoke, his brown eyes not leaving the window. “My Father loved the sea, and he had so many stories of creatures of the deep he and his friends saw from their boat.
“Did you know he once jumped into shark infested waters to save a crewmate from drowning?”
“No, I didn’t.” TJ gestured his guest to keep talking. Which Star Man took enthusiastically.
“Papa was sailing in a storm with his friend got washed overboard, and there was a net that had broken loose, so people were even more worried about the friend getting tangled in to net and being pulled even deeper. Pap didn’t want his friend to drown, so he grabbed a rope, tied it around his waist, pulled out his fishing knife and dived in, and he reached his friend who was still alive and unharmed. Papa found his friend’s ankle was wrapped up in the net, and cut him loose as the net sank to the bottom.
“As they were on their way to the surface, Papa came face to face with a great white who loomed out of the darkness, but it ignored them for a nearby seal who tried to avoid it. So, Papa pulled his friend back onto the ship with nothing but the rope and a knife between his teeth.” Star Man reported with an excited tone of what must have been a much-loved childhood tale.
“Sounds like he was really brave.” TJ pointed out. “He faced a shark and lived.”
Star Man nodded behind his mask, his smile soft. “Papa once brought home a baby shark for supper when I was younger, I got to help Mama clean it, and I got so curious about how it works, did you know they have two huge livers?”
“That-that’s different.” TJ worked to swallow having no idea what to make of that strange information.
“Yeah, I wanted to study them in the wild, and go on expeditions to explore the oceans of the world.” Star Man nodded.
“Are you’re in college to study oceanography?” TJ asked.
Star Man’s face froze a little in a grimace before he opened and closed his mouth, and cleared his throat. “So, seeing as you know me so well, I think I should know your name, my prince.”
“Call me TJ.”
“You can call me Ash.”
TJ decided not to question the obvious subject change.
“So, TJ, you didn’t tell me how you know our hostess.” Ash added.
“She’s an old friend of the family, mostly Nana, but she’s been a supporter of my mother’s work in the Suffrage Movement.” TJ said.
Ash looked surprised.
“But I don’t want to talk about my mother’s work or Mistress Clocksgeare tonight, if anything, I’d like to get to know you a lot better, if you’ll allow me?” TJ asked, leaning closer to Ash, smelling the white wine on his breath, and the warmth of his amber skin underneath the mask and costume.
TJ wanted to test temptation, to taste forbidden fruit that was Ash’s lips, when the clock chimed midnight.
Ash gave a curse that TJ was sure wasn’t English. “Is that the time?”
“Uh, yeah, but the party isn’t until dawn, which is in six hours, and the dirigible is already in the air, so it won’t land until the party’s over.” TJ added confused, but Ash got to his feet.
“I’ve got to go, it-it’s been really nice, have a good night TJ!” Ash said in a rush before he dashed out of the sitting room, with TJ scrambling to catch up.
“But wait! Where are you going?”
Ash disappeared into the crowd and TJ kept going in the general direction Ash ran, but lost track of him by the time TJ reached the kitchens, and almost ran into a waiter who rushed out to start his shift, and like others of his profession, disappeared into the crowd like a specter.
TJ tried to spend the whole night looking for the familiar mask, or the embroidered navy blue wool waist coat with white stars. Instead he was met with bright flashes of colors, glittering jewels, and sophisticated masks, a sight he’d normally welcome. Tonight, it was as if he was immersed into a sea of fancy doves, when all he wanted was a plain pigeon.
It was maddening, and if not a little embarrassing.
Even the wait staff was unhelpful, the first one looked extremely startled and confused when TJ asked where the guest with the blue waistcoat and white star mask went.
“I’m sorry sir, but I don’t recall seeing a guest wearing the costume you’re describing, but he might be on the observatory deck,” the waiter offered, and TJ made a quick and breezy trip back into the starry expanse only to find nothing but young couples who wanted a clandestine getaway. Ash wasn’t anywhere to be found.
And Ash couldn’t have left early, the Dirigible Tremaine didn’t make any unscheduled stops and was making a round in the countryside, slowly moving away from the ocean in a controlled circle, but then, that was how Mistress Clocksgeare loved to party, taking her guests on an adventure with her while they talked, laughed, and enjoyed extravagant luxuries and exotics from around the world.
Disheartened by one forty-five, TJ grabbed a strong whiskey from a passing waiter, and went schmoozing and networking amongst his parent’s political contacts who were in attendance, hoping that his kind words and flattery would give his father a boost in the polls, or give his mother’s suffrage movement the political clout to give women the right to vote.
The more he talked and worked, the more alcohol he was offered, and he was too disheartened to turn down offered drinks.
After an attempt to curry favor from Madame Vivienne de Fer, a woman from humble origins in the Caribbean who worked her way up until she married into a powerful wealthy French family ended in failure.
“You should most likely consider laying down my dear, I can see your heart’s not in it, and I wouldn’t want you to embarrass your dear mother his way. Sit down and have a rest, we must not look unseemly before our lesser or equals.” She coached firmly, her dark eyes pinning him with a firm look under where black and white mask before she walked away.
Embarrassed, TJ gave up and took the noblewoman’s advice.
As he took a seat he found that the wait staff cut him off from alcohol, and only gave him bread and water to settle his stomach, which had started to rebel from the drink. With nothing to occupy him or take his mind off Ash’s sudden disappearance, he spent the rest of the night sitting by a window in a sitting room and stared moodily out the window into the predawn countryside until the dirigible landed.
Chapter 2: Day One
In which there is an opportunity...
When the Dirigible Tremaine landed, TJ got up from his seat, and followed the sound of his brother and sister-in-law laugh at something at the party, and was glad that at least someone had a good time.
TJ tried not to grumble, but after he got cut off from alcohol he sat long enough to feel the starts of a self-inflicted hangover pulse at his temples, and heaved a miserable sigh.
The Dirigible Tremaine landed on the tarmac and the guests filtered out like tired glittering grains of sand sliding out between loose fingers.
TJ quietly shut his eyes to the bright sunlight and loud sounds of the chattering guests, but said nothing. He now had the overwhelming desire for his bed, soft covers, and dark curtains to shut out that light. Perhaps even a lot of that headache medicine and quiet would put his head to rights.
Of course, he doubted that would fix the pangs in his chest.
He grinned, although that might have been misunderstood to be a grimace, as Anne happily talked about the elegant costumes and decorations. Doug talked about all the people he had conversations with before he waved some of his new acquaintances off.
“What’s got you in a bad mood, TJ?” Anne asked, she had taken her Red Riding hood mask off, the mask leaving temporary red imprints on her skin.
“Nothing.” TJ dismissed, his own mask and crown in his hands, the lack of pressure was a massive relief, almost enough to make him feel a little light headed. Privately it was enough for TJ to decide to forgo his pajamas when he went to bed, instead just go to bed naked, and oh, to get out of this hot and itchy costume…
It seemed like a plan.
Sadly, Doug did not seem content to leave his brother to fantasize about the softness of his bed sheets.
“You’re oddly sullen TJ, normally you’re the life of the party.” Doug pointed out as they walked to the street where their ride would pick them up to take them home.
“It’s nothing, I’m just tired, and it’s really loud right now, alright?” TJ tried to dismiss again, he didn’t want to snap at his brother, because then Doug would jump to the wrong conclusion, and think the worst of TJ, and not without cause. So, TJ looked his brother in the eye and gripped his shoulder gently. “Really Doug, I’m alright, I just need some rest.”
Doug was not convinced, but TJ didn’t expect him to be, but TJ could see he was tired too, so he and Anne would probably head home after Doug reported to their mother.
The whole family had been extra careful after mid-winter and mid-summer when the public was surprised to learn that TJ had fallen ill twice in a six-month period. So, TJ supposed Doug’s caution wasn’t without cause.
The first time TJ had fallen into a nearby frozen river, and was lucky to be fished out by their mother who had happen to be returning home after a long night of work. When she had managed to get him home and to a doctor, he had been feverish and sick, and spent weeks afterwards bedridden with pneumonia, which frightened the whole family all through Christmas, and he fully recovered after the new year.
Midsummer was too soon to talk about.
At this rate, if TJ were to “fall ill” again, there would probably be rumor of him suffering from consumption, which would really get the gossips excited.
TJ’s musings were thankfully interrupted by the sound of a car horn, and TJ’s hangover was not enough to drive away the grin that nearly split his face.
“Nana! I didn’t think you’d be home for a few more days?” TJ laughed when she took off her driving goggles under and she looked down upon them with a grin under her driving coat. But what was most surprising was what she was driving.
Margaret had finally gotten her new car, and it looked like she chose a Havers 6-40, which was a shiny black car with large wagon like wheels in the front, an open cab with a cloth canopy and two rows of bench like seats, one of which was occupied by Margaret with her small steering wheel in front of her.
“It ended early when I got word that this car was available for sale, and the other ladies wanted to avoid a coastal storm further down the beach. Or at least that was their excuse.” Margaret explained, “Well are you three coming or are you going to make this old lady sit in her new car and face the traffic alone?”
TJ didn’t need to be asked twice.
“Thank you for the ride Nana.” TJ kissed her cheek and took his seat next to her as Doug and Anne climbed in. With Margaret ’s presence TJ could rely on her to take over the conversation. She waved TJ off and as TJ expected, she began to ask him about the first night of the masquerade ball.
TJ yawned and began to relax. He was starting to feel sleepy as Anne reported all she saw at the party, and Doug talked about all the people who were there. TJ tried to ignore the loud sounds of the car and the bright light of the rising sun, but his hangover was fighting him tooth and nail.
He had hoped if he stayed silent, they’d forget about him.
But TJ Hammond, first son of Bud and Elaine Hammond was several things, lucky was not one of them.
“And TJ seemed to have a good time until around midnight.” Anne reported.
“And then he tried to garner more support for Mom’s movement after having too much to drink, and then he spent the night sulking by the window.” Doug added.
“And now he’s hung over and eager to be home.” TJ muttered.
Margaret looked at him in the corner of her eye.
“I’m fine Nana.” TJ sighed, and Margaret handed over her flask, ignoring Doug’s protest in the back.
TJ grinned and took a swig, he knew why Margaret was his favorite.
Before anyone could say anything, they arrived at Elaine’s house, the main house that Elaine claimed after she and Bud annulled their marriage about three years ago, much to the scandal of Washington DC. TJ was just glad he could get some peace for the rest of the day.
Nothing to disturb him until tonight. He fought a yawn. Shy smiles, a starry mask, and coy flirtations would doubtless haunt his dreams but right now he’d prefer it to the other guilt laced dreams he normally faced.
Elaine was waiting for them when they arrived in the foyer.
“We’re home, Mom.” TJ greeted, knowing his mother would likely be very suspicious and worried about his behavior if he didn’t attempt to at least be a little polite, and after brushing off an offer for breakfast, TJ made his escape to his chambers where he was quick to pull of his costume, clean off the perfumes of the dirigible’s crowd with a warm wet cloth, drank some water, took some of the powders for his headache, closed the curtains, and crawled into his bed, pulling the duvet over his head to shield his throbbing head from the light.
Ash’s laughter filled his dreams.
But such dreams were not refuge for long, and Elaine was not about to let her son slide out of the discussion without a proper account of last night’s events.
TJ awoke to his mother pulling his covers off him, and he felt the cool autumn air hit his skin with a scandalized yelp.
“Mom! I’m not decent!” He exclaimed, ignoring that she had seen him in much less dignified or healthy situation, some unfortunately too recently. TJ quickly tried to cover himself with a sheet, and only managed to conceal his genitals from her firm scowl.
Doug, true to his character, must have told her about how TJ made an ass of himself, and their mother was not about to let his behavior off without a proper explanation, and possible discussion about whether he should attend Mistress Clocksgeare’s second night tonight.
“Lunch will be served in ten minutes, and I’d like to talk to you during that mean, and better dress nice, Madame de Fer has requested to come calling in an hour.”
TJ’s stomach sank, it might be worse than he thought.
Slowly he nodded, and his mother gently kissed him on his forehead like he was a young child instead of a man of thirty, which meant she was afraid he had slipped into his old ways.
“I’m fine Mom, I’ll be down for lunch.” TJ said, trying to sound as reassuring as possible.
She thankfully took mercy on him and left him alone to dress in privacy, which meant he hadn’t scared her as bad as he was afraid he had.
Still, eager to reassure his mother, TJ dressed quickly, cleaned his mouth, and chewed on some mint and parsley leaves to get rid of the horrid taste the hangover left in his mouth.
Once presentable, he climbed down the stairs and saw Elaine was sitting at the table with a nice lunch spread, and TJ’s stomach rumbled and tightened with hunger, so TJ took a seat.
Elaine waited until TJ had eaten half of his plate before she pulled out her political skills for the interrogation.
“So, Doug told me something upset you last night?”
TJ knew from experience that saying “nothing” would not go over well. So, he tried a different tactic, the truth in as vague terms as possible.
“I had a conversation with a young scholar from the university, and then over indulged on alcohol.”
“Was Sean there?” Elaine asked.
TJ blinked in surprise. “No,” he responded honestly.
“So, care to explain why Madame de Fer wishes to come calling to ‘see how dear Thomas is doing?’”
“We had a conversation about last night about your suffrage movement.”
“After you had overindulged on alcohol?” Elaine pressed.
TJ had a feeling his mother wanted to ask him what he did talk about but refrained, which probably was for the best.
Sighing internally, he gave her more details about the night, sparing any information or any hint of attraction he felt for Ash, not because he thought she’d be ashamed of his attraction to Ash, but because she had seen the dark turns his passion had taken him, and he didn’t want to remind his mother of the scary time he ‘fell’ into the river and afterwards when she was afraid his fever would kill him.
To her, Ash was just a polite young scholar who impressed TJ before the young man moved on.
Madame de Fer arrived after the lunch dishes were collected and Elaine wasn’t about to spare TJ his hosting duties, so he joined his mother in the parlor with Madame de Fer.
Madame de Fer was resplendent as usual in a pearly white and grey afternoon dress with shoulder puffs and a parasol that was left in the umbrella stand in the foyer, the dress accentuating her graceful form and complimented her ebony complexion.
Madame de Fer walked into the room with authority which TJ had rarely seen replicated in other women apart from his mother.
“Elaine my dear, you look radiant this afternoon.” Madame de Fer said softly before she kissed both of Elaine’s cheeks and took her seat.
“Thank you, Vivienne, and must I say you look well this afternoon.” Elaine returned with gracious tones and smiles, and TJ bowed to greet their guest, giving the necessary pleasantries.
“Now, I am pleased to announce that no one noticed young Mr. Hammond’s sullen mood for half the night last night, but my dear Bastian and I have a dilemma. One I think Mr. Hammond would likely be ideal to remedy my dear Elaine.” Madame de Fer began expediently. It was clear she wanted something, and saw TJ as the ideal means to that end. He knew she was a shrewd woman, and one who did not act unless she saw an opportunity with little chance of failure. She was a pro at this political game that Washington DC was apt to play.
“And what would that be?” Elaine was more than aware of Madame de Fer’s own machinations, but had more years’ experience than TJ.
“My dear Bastian has two nieces that wish to come out into public, but alas my dear Bastian will not be able to stay awake long enough to supervise them the whole night. Even though he loves these kinds of gatherings, and I do not dare leave him or the girls unattended, so you can see my problem.” Madame de Fer began. “But your son was in earnest in his offer to help, was he not?”
TJ had no recollection of this, but of course parts of the night were a sullen blur.
“Within reason, and in exchange for your support for Mother’s suffrage movement his coming election, yes.” TJ added.
“Excellent, fortunately Mr. Hammond, you do not have the reputation with young women as your father, and the idea of you spending time with these young women would be nothing more than a benefit with your mentoring and companionship.”
Of course, TJ’s reputation was that of a womanizer, TJ’s usual preference for men took care of that, and that was not discussed in polite company. But if TJ was sheen chaperoning tow you women hanging on his arm, well he’d likely to appear to be courting one, which would bring attention to other possible ideal suitors for the young women. From the way Madame de Fer was eyeing him now, he had a feeling she was eager to snare him as a nephew-in-law as well.
TJ felt his stomach sink.
“I think it's’ a good idea, and will give Thomas something else to do this evening. “Elaine added, because she could see the increased benefit of having the de Fer and the de Ghislain families in their debt. It was just politics, but it also meant that TJ could not back out.
Mentally cursing his fate, but having no one to blame but himself, TJ agreed to the arrangement for the night.
Chapter 3: Night Two
In which there are pranks, dancing, and TJ is given a very special gift.
Doug seemed to like the idea a lot, but he did have a few strong words about leading the girls on as TJ straightened his new waistcoat--blue and silver tonight, he wanted a subtle hint to Ash that he was his--and Doug pulled on his gloves and tugged at his lion’s mane mask while Anne entered the room in her huntress inspired dress.
“You’re going to do fine TJ,” Anne said, “I’ve met Josephine, and she’s a really sweet girl, she’s a smart girl who likes stories of adventure and daring. Conversation should be easy with her.”
“And Sera?” TJ asked, knowing nothing about the other niece. Anne’s faltering face said enough.
“Ah, Sera, I don’t know much about her, but I don’t recommend taking your eyes off her, she clever and easily bored.”
“Meaning she’s prone to pranks,” TJ summarized, and Anne shrugged helplessly.
Great, so TJ was going to spend half his night with a dreamer and a prankster. And that was only if the Duke de Ghislain decided to not to stay up late enough to spend time with both his nieces.
Well, Josephine was self-sufficient, so TJ’s job would be to discourage unwanted attention if Josephine encountered an entitled ass who wouldn’t listen to her.
Sera would require constant mental stimulation and distraction.
TJ took a deep breath and nodded.
“Well, let’s go.” Doug urged, offering his arm to his wife, and she smiled softly and accepted it.
TJ followed both out the door and into the cab awaiting them. TJ carefully adjusted his prince mask, having a color change to match the waistcoat, and hoped that would be enough for Ash to find him.
Mistress Clocksgeare and Pierre’s decorations from last night were replaced with even larger ice sculptures of Mistress Clocksgeare as she reenacted Ancient Egyptian art tonight, which looked eerily disfigured with her face facing to the side, bare breasts facing forward, hips to the side in the same direction as her face, and thick arms raised up to greet the sun of Ra, and knees bent in an exaggerated march. Once again, the Ice was impregnated with gold and silver leaf.
At the ice sculpture’s feet were thick reeds and stained-glass lotus flower candle holders and every table had clockwork ibis, egrets, ducks, and herons which tinkled softly playing jaunty tunes in music box gangles as the birds mimicked what TJ assumed were hunting moves and cycling to mating dances and back.
At the Entrance greeting their guests, their hosts were dressed as Cleopatra and Mark Anthony.
TJ scanned around the crowded room quickly, slowly edging away from Madame de Fer and her family, hoping for a quick moment with Ash alone.
Thankfully his luck was with him tonight, and he was well rewarded.
“TJ?” Tonight, Ash was wearing a creamy white waistcoat, and TJ could see subtle moon phases in the waistcoat, and TJ realized it was knitted in such a way that the lunar phases were in the stitches. The mask was made of ceramic and had little craters on the surface of the mask, which was clearly in the shape of a round smiling face, reminding TJ of the movie “Journey to the Moon.”
“Good evening Ash,” TJ greeted. “I’m pleased to see you again tonight.
“You flatter me,” Ash demurred coyly.
TJ turned to face Ash, and was about to ask to learn more about the mysterious Ash, when they were interrupted.
“Excuse me, Mr. Hammond? I’m Josephine Montilyet, and I wanted to thank you for being our companion for this evening.”
Both Ash and TJ saw a young woman with a thick Spanish accent dressed in a gorgeous blue and gold dress, with golden sleeves and collar, and a brown leather belt around her middle. She was shorter than TJ and he could see her black hair was elegantly braided into a knot at the back of her neck, and a fine golden filigree cat mask surrounded her eyes.
Josephine was very pretty, and from her manners, TJ wasn’t surprised that she and Anne were friends.
“You’re most welcome Miss Montilyet,” TJ agreed, and he noticed Ash tense up, and he realized the impending awkwardness, rushed to fix things. “This is my friend Ash,” He began, feeling his conscience kick his heart with a sudden jab, and he could see Ash appeared hurt by the title, but TJ had to press on, the sooner Josephine left, the sooner he could tend to the accidental hurt he inflicted on Ash. “Ash, this is Josephine Montilyet, her aunt and uncle are friends of my family.”
TJ had to admit that was a stretch, but he hoped it would be enough.
He noticed Josephine’s bright grey eyes flash under the mask at some realization, and her smile was kind when she spoke to Ash, “I’m quite thankful to meet any good friend of Mr. Hammond. I was here to ask you gentlemen if you would be most gracious as to sign my dance card? I’ve only got the dances after midnight open.”
And indeed, her dance card had all the dances before midnight already filled, and it appeared she loved to dance. There was a wide variety of names, but TJ did notice that the name “Col. Blackwall” filled up quite a few. This meant that Josephine already had a suitor, which made TJ’s job a lot easier.
“I’d be happy to join you in a dance,” TJ offered, and signed the card for ten after midnight.
“Thank you for your attention miss, but I don’t dance,” Ash answered, TJ tried to decipher his tone, and that didn’t help TJ figure out how hurt Ash was.
“Oh, well, thank you for your time, and I must be off, I’ll come find you for our dance Mr. Hammond.” And with that Miss Montilyet disappeared into the crowd.
“She really is just a friend of the family.” TJ offered as quickly as he could when he was sure there weren’t any eavesdroppers.
“Why should I care about that?” Ash snapped.
TJ held up his hands in surrender, “I felt it was too presumptuous to call you something other than my friend, and it didn’t seem right to call you anything less than that.”
“And what are we? To each other I mean?” Ash asked, his voice sounded curious, and TJ might have been deceiving himself into thinking some of that tone was hopeful.
“Whatever we can work out. I believe we have time to talk that out.” TJ felt his heart race, but it was the most natural feeling he could find.
“Well, we did just meet last night.” Ash snorted.
“Say, where did you get that waistcoat, it’s amazing.”
“I made-I mean I had it custom made for me.” Ash began showing the small stitches that made up the waistcoat. “See the moon’s really important for tides, and that inspired this piece, seeing as a sailor depends on reading the tides for safe sailing.”
TJ could see the bottom of the waist coat had little waves on the bottom.
“This is inspired.” He admitted.
Ash shrugged, his face blushing quite brightly, “It’s about placing where to knit and where to purl, not that big a deal.”
If TJ said something like that in front of one of Margaret ’s drinking/former saloon-girl friends, TJ would have been creamed by a bunch of angry old ladies with knitting needles the size of wooden stakes.
“If it’s not that big a deal, you owe who ever knit this an apology, my Margaret has friends who knit, and they are very sensitive about their work. It’s very work intensive.” TJ pressed.
Ash’s blush turned from bright pink to crimson.
TJ did notice his fingers seem to twitch in a strange pattern, almost as if her were fidgeting with a pair of pens in each hand.
“You really seem to like the ocean.” TJ observed.
“What, besides me waxing poetic about it you mean?” Ash asked with a sly grin. “But what about you? What makes you get up in the morning? What makes you eager to start the day?”
“You mean besides my mother ripping my blankets off and telling me I have to get up or else?” TJ joked, before he noticed the sincere curiosity in Ash’s eyes. “Well I love creating music, which I mentioned before, but I just like the kind of energy that people generate when they find a sort of music they like.”
“Must be a great balm for when times get tough,” Ash mused.
“I guess, but not always.” TJ’s heart twanged from the memories of last winter and mid-summer, compounding the error that TJ was incapable of taking care of himself. “I mean, life’s been highs, lows, mostly lows.”
“Like waking up one morning to find out Papa’s not coming home, and he and Mama had a huge debt to pay off?” Ash added, gazing out the window, trying to avoid eye contact.
“Damn, did that happen to you? I’m-I’m sorry for your loss.”
“It was last spring, I’m managing for now.” Ash shrugged weakly.
“I feel like that too, like I’m just managing.” TJ floundered.
They stood in awkward silence for about a minute.
“We’re at a party, we should probably talk about light things, you know, insubstantial things about each other that we’re bound to forget about in five minutes.” Ash muttered with a slight awkward one shouldered shrug.
“Do you have any siblings?” TJ began desperately in hopes for something lighter.
“Yeah, two older sisters, a younger brother and younger sister.” Ash seemed to latch on to the sudden topic change.
Relieved, TJ decided to add his own information to the conversation.
“I have a twin, and he’s married,” TJ pointed to Doug and Anne, who were currently enjoying themselves on the dance floor.
“Elegant couple, my sisters would kill for a romantic evening with their husbands, but then I’d have to watch my niece and nephews.” Ash sighed, and TJ had a feeling that was not something that happened very often.
“What do your other siblings want to do?” TJ asked, suddenly curious.
“My brother wants to be a chef, and Gabr--I mean my younger sister is working with our grandmother, I had hoped she’d go to school, like I did, but then, well life directed otherwise.”
“I see.” TJ said.
“When I was able, I offered to pay for her school, but she didn’t know what she wanted to study, and I guess it’s too late now.” Ash said sadly.
TJ’s heart twisted painfully, and he had an overwhelming urge to hug Ash, but TJ remembered they had an audience and was suddenly worried that Ash wouldn’t appreciate the gesture.
“It sounds like your family loves you very much.” TJ offered instead.
Ash seemed to figure out that TJ was trying to comfort and respect his boundaries because he gave a sad smile before asking “What about your family?”
TJ paused, he was pretty sure it was obvious he was a Hammond, and not only that, he was Thomas Jonathan Hammond.
Ash just looked at him with a calm curious expression, seeming to push his sadness down.
“I’m sure you’ve heard about my family, and I’m sure you’ve already guessed who I am…” TJ brushed off, but Ash looked confused. “I’m a Hammond.”
“So?” Ash shrugged, but TJ could tell he still looked adorably confused. “What’s that got to do with anything? Sure, your relatives are rich and important, but they aren’t you.”
TJ was blown away, if anything it made Ash seem more adorable, and his heart rose when it occurred to him that Ash’s friendship was sincere because he didn’t care about his family name, and seemed interested in knowing TJ himself. A foolish mistake that would only end in tragedy considering the drama in the family, but welcome.
The music on the dance floor had ended, and TJ caught a glimpse of Doug and Anne walking off the dance floor, hand in hand, before Doug broke hand contact to grab some refreshments from the table. Miss Montilyet and a young blond girl in some sort of red and yellow costume with plaid fairy wings on her back, approach Anne for conversation. Anne smiled and was quick to enter in deep conversation before TJ decided to go back to his own conversation partner.
Ash was gone, and TJ glanced around worriedly, but he wasn’t there.
Miss Montilyet glanced at the clock, and after finishing her conversation with Anne, approached TJ.
“Mr. Hammond, would be so kind as to join me for this dance?” She asked, and TJ, obliged because he signed his name on the dance card, smiled charmingly and took her hand to escort her to the dance floor in a courtly fashion.
The music arose in a bright and jaunty tune, suitable for a tango, and indeed that seemed to be what most of the other dancers seemed to think.
Miss Montilyet was a skilled dancer, her hands applied an even pressure to his, and while TJ had to direct where they had to go on the dance floor to avoid bumping into the other dancers, Miss Montilyet made it her job to see that the executed the tango dance moves with grace and fun. Both were grinning brightly halfway through the dance, her body pressed up against his, reading his body shifts like a book.
The song ended and TJ dipped Miss Montilyet, the room hot and a small amount of sweat made his waistcoat and shirt cling to his back and chest.
“Thank you for the dance.” Miss Montilyet said with a curtsey before another gentleman in a colonel’s uniform approached her with a bow. TJ relinquished his dance partner without another word.
He approached the refreshment table, desperate for a drink when the girl in the red and yellow fairy costume approached him from the side, TJ turned to greet her.
“Don’t tell anyone, but there’s a waiter who was watching you during the dance,” She whispered. “So, are you going to get off your arse and dance with me like Vivi wants you to?”
“Sera?” TJ asked, and Sera rolled her eyes. “I didn’t know you were close to your aunt.”
Sera shot him a disgusted look. “We’re not, she hates that nickname, but she and Uncle Bastian have gone to a side room to rest, so you’ve gotta dance with me. Now come on, I need an alibi.”
TJ didn’t say anything as he followed Sera onto the dance floor, but he did regard her suspiciously, but she had already schooled her expression to look like an innocent young girl being asked to dance by a handsome stranger, if one could call it that.
The song this time was a waltz, and TJ could direct Sera through the steps, but unlike Miss Montilyet, Sera didn’t seem to care about looking graceful or adding a dancer’s flourish. If anything, she seemed to misinterpret his directions deliberately, and he lost track of how many times he wound up spinning her. There were even times she seemed to smirk at something in the crowd and stick her tongue out at it. But whenever TJ tried to look, Sera pulled them away.
When the waltz died down and Sera let herself be dipped by the edge of the dance floor, TJ heard a crack behind him on the other side of the room.
He turned to see the decoration tables that had once had the ice sculptures, deserted with no people near them thankfully. The ice sculptures went from posing under the imaginary ancient Egyptian sun to an ancient Egyptian themed...orgy was the easiest way to describe it… a dog pile of giant icy bodies in gold and silver sparkles.
A pronounced silence filled the hall.
“Oh, someone’s going to get fired for that…” TJ heard a waiter mutter, but TJ couldn’t see who.
TJ turned quickly to look at Mistress Clocksgeare, who was pale under her Cleopatra makeup.
Then he heard clapping, which quickly spread throughout the entire ballroom, cheers arising from the crowd and words like “Oh, Performance art, Mistress Clocksgeare how brilliant, you must tell me the name of your artist! Bravo, Bravo!”
TJ instantly turned to Sera, who looked so smug, that left little room for doubt.
“She underpaid her staff.” Sera whispered.
And from the sound of the crowd, it was likely the staff was likely to see more business.
“Someone could have gotten hurt,” TJ whispered.
Sera scowled at him. “I had a friend make sure no one got hurt, nobody here deserved that.”
“I wouldn’t want to get on your bad side then.”
“Damn straight, rich tit,” Sera whispered sharply.
And Madame de Fer came out of the side room with a graceful flurry.
“Could you be so kind as to tell me what just happened, my dears?” She asked.
“Well, we just had some performance art while Mr. Hammond and I were dancing,” Sera answered innocently.
TJ nodded in agreement, and well, it was the truth. They were dancing, were still standing on the dance floor, with sera still in position for another dance, if the band felt ready to play again. “Indeed, we were just dancing.”
Madame de Fer glanced at them, unconvinced, but they were unable to provide her with proof of guilt, so she walked off, probably to look for evidence that Sera would likely not let her find.
“Thanks, maybe you’re not so bad…” Sera nodded approvingly.
“Just warn me next time,” TJ sighed.
“Nope,” Sera cackled, and she dragged TJ into another dance.
The performance art remained untouched for the rest of the night.
TJ stopped hanging out with Sera and Miss Montilyet when their aunt and uncle returned for them close to dawn, the older gentleman was looking less tired than when TJ saw him last.
TJ gave the adults a bow of respect, Miss Montilyet a kiss on her finger tips, and a wink for Sera, which caused the woman in red to laugh.
Madame de Fer of course had no room to complain, but she did try to impress upon TJ how much she appreciated having someone watch her nieces. TJ bit down a “I didn’t need to, they were able to watch themselves, I could only entertain them.”
But people like Madame de Fer didn’t wish to be contradicted with the truth.
The colonel from earlier did seem eager to have a quiet formal word with the Duke, so perhaps it’d be for the best.
“All’s well that ends well.” Sera whispered as she made her leave, “and tell Anne it’s good to be her friend.”
TJ wanted to ask Anne about that, since they spent quite a bit of the evening talking to each other.
TJ then saw a familiar knitted waistcoat in the corner of his eye.
By then Madame de Fer and her family had already made their exit, so TJ slid back and quietly made his way to Ash.
Ash looked nervous as he led him into an empty room, almost leading TJ to a hidden corner, which reminded TJ of lovers in plays and novels.
“Are you alright?” TJ asked when he got within hearing range.
“I’m fine, I just don’t know when I’ll see you again, this party ends tomorrow morning.” Ash fidgeted and reached into his pocket, and handed TJ a little cotton bundle.
“It doesn’t have to end tonight, or tomorrow.” TJ offered, “I mean I could come calling or--”
Ash interrupted with a snort of laughter, “And you’ll show up at my family’s home, and what ask if Ash is free for a walk? That’ll work, I saw how you looked with those women and--”
“Hold up, I only danced with those women as a favor for my mother,” TJ insisted, “I already told you that, it was nothing more than three friends dancing. Sure, we looked good while doing it but that was it.”
Ash didn’t look as reassured, or rather like he was struggling with something.
“Look, I don’t care where you come from,” TJ pressed, and it occurred to TJ that he doesn’t know Ash’s surname, or even if the moniker “Ash” was nothing more than a mask.
His heart tightened a little at the reminder of last time he kept a secret like this.
Not realizing he started chewing his lower lip nervously, Ash took a deep sigh before stepping mask-to-mask with TJ.
“Please tell me if this is unwelcome.” Ash whispered, and he pressed his lips to TJ’s in a chaste kiss, and TJ lifted his hands to cup Ash’s silky black hair, smell his slightly spicy scent with wine and dates, and TJ opened his mouth a little, and felt a rush as Ash’s tough accepted the invitation.
They kissed deeply for a few moments before there was a clatter outside the room, and Ash pulled out of TJ’s grip. But instead of feigning innocence like some of TJ’s past loves, Ash placed himself firmly between TJ and the door, as if he was enough to protect TJ from whatever was beyond the door.
“I think that the dirigible is getting ready to land.” TJ offered.
Ash turned to him, almost startled and nervous, before he burst into laughter and turned back around to look at TJ more fully.
“I’ll be here tonight, and unfortunately tomorrow night I’ll have to drop the name Ash.”
“It’s not your real name, is it?” TJ asked, the rush of their kiss fading into familiar dread.
“Which is why I’m asking you to hold this for me, so I can have the excuse to see you again.” And with that Ash left the room.
TJ looked at the bundle still in his hand, it was a white cotton handkerchief with a little wooden disk in the center, one side of it held a carving of the sun, on the other, a stylized shark prowling the open sea.
On the handkerchief in the lower right-hand corner was a little message embroidered in black, “a nuestro hijo, clase de 1901, somos tan orgullosos de ti, con mucho amor, mama y papa.”
Puzzled but pleased, TJ stuffed the handkerchief and the medallion into his pocket and went to seek out Doug and Anne.
Chapter 4: Day Two
In which TJ does some homework.
“So, I take it that little cheer and request for another performance was you’re doing Anne?” TJ asked once all three of them were in the cab and on their way home.
“I can neither confirm nor deny that TJ.” Anne added, “But I do have tea with miss Montilyet next week.”
TJ held the handkerchief in his pocket, feeling the thin cotton between his fingers but otherwise kept his face blank.
“Where did you run off to before the dirigible landed TJ?” Doug asked, his eyes observing TJ from under his lion’s mask.
“Nothing exciting,” TJ was not about to reveal his scandalous affairs to his brother, less likely to have Doug get caught up in any incriminating drama.
“Oh, come off it TJ, this time yesterday you were miserable and hungover, and now you’re on cloud nine, don’t lie.” Doug snapped before his face turned worried and softly asked “Did you encounter Sean?”
TJ felt his heart, which had been lightened by Ash’s kiss, be drenched in the icy river water of last Mid-winter.
“What? He was there?”
Doug held the expression that he was reading TJ like a book, picking up way more than TJ would have liked, but like a typical politician, Doug was figuring out how to manipulate the puzzle into a picture he could hang on the wall and present the ideal image.
“Anne and I bumped into him and his wife earlier, I think it was while you were dancing with Miss Montilyet.” Doug admitted, and TJ could see his brother’s worry bleed from underneath the mask like a glass of spilt milk. Nerves bled into Doug’s pleading tone. “Maybe you should stay home tonight.”
TJ tried not to panic, he could remember the painful words they had exchanged when TJ and Sean were a couple, before Sean chose his wife the first time, and again in the spring when TJ just wanted to re-establish the friendship they had before.
He felt the medallion, and he remembered awkward whispers, cheeky flirtation, and adorable homemade costumes. The medallion seemed to work in frightening away his fears like a large shark had cruised through a school of fish, frightening his clouded vision, and giving him courage.
He took a deep breath, looked his twin and sister-in-law in the eye, and with a strong desire to see Ash again, to remove both masks and reveal who Ash truly is underneath, simply said, “I have no desire to run, and I will not let Sean or the fear of him drive me away. There are better things than that.”
“Like dancing with Sera?” Anne added in a confused tone.
“She’s a good friend to have, if a little unconventional,” TJ remarked, glad Anne hadn’t made the connection to Ash.
Doug was unconvinced, and TJ mentally debated coming clean to his twin, both he and Anne were aware for TJ’s preference for men, and were more than aware of the events last year, but something about revealing Ash’s presence, and telling them about Ash’s mysterious real name and status, or rather TJ’s suspicious about him, seemed more like a breech in Ash’s confidence.
“I’ve managed to avoid him tonight, and I’ll just simply avoid him tomorrow, we’ve got masks on, I can simply choose not to recognize him,” TJ pressed. “I’m not going to run.”
“That’s extremely brave of you TJ,” Anne observed, her smile bordering on pride.
Doug still looked unconvinced, and TJ knew he had acquired a chaperone, and Doug won’t let him out of his sight tomorrow.
TJ felt a slight stab at annoyance that his twin wouldn’t trust him with his own wellbeing, because he was an adult damn it, but he was also strongly touched that his brother only had his best interests at heart.
Either way, TJ resigned himself with another early luncheon with mother on Doug’s behalf.
They arrived at Elaine’s house moments after, and their mother once again greeted them, seeming more pleased at TJ’s better mood, as TJ excused himself to bed for more sleep.
TJ pulled the handkerchief out of his pocket, stared at it, and the medallion, and walked over to his wardrobe. He had inherited a small old snuff box from his paternal grandfather when he was young, a lovely ebony and ivory box with mechanicalized bronze hinges that opened and closed with a simple flick of a lock, and flicked the lock so it would open.
The snuff box buzzed and slowly slid open revealing the clean empty space within, and TJ gently folded the handkerchief inside, with the embroidery facing up and placing the medallion in the center sun-side up. Careful, he placed the snuff box on his bed side table.
Then TJ stared at the sun carving and realized that might have been a hint for Ash’s next costume.
He walked back to the wardrobe and pulled out his bronze, gold and light-yellow waistcoat, complete with a white shirt, pants, princely coat and shoes. Satisfied with tonight’s costume, TJ laid them out on the chair sitting at his writing desk, and changed into his long john pajamas and crawled under the covers.
TJ fell asleep, knowing his mother would ignore the powderless snuff box, as a handkerchief wouldn’t alarm her, and fell asleep to await her arrival.
To TJ’s surprise, it wasn’t mother who arrived to wake him up, but Margaret.
TJ was sleepily confused when he woke up to her nails gently scraping his scalp, rolling over to blink awake.
“It’s lunch time, if you want to join the old lady.” Margaret began, her eyes flickering to the snuff box with a raised eyebrow and TJ’s stomach growled.
The handkerchief wouldn’t alarm his mother, but his Nana would be intrigued.
“Alright,” TJ began, and he climbed out of bed as his grandmother left the room, and TJ dressed quickly, knowing she’d be back if he was a second late.
His grandmother was already drinking a martini while nibbling on the cold salad that had been served.
TH also pulled up his own plate, and more alert than this time yesterday, awaited Margaret to start the subject.
“You’ve got Doug and your mother worried again.” Margaret began, “But I can see you’re doing fine, so what gives?”
TJ knew from a lifetime of experience that he wasn’t going to get away with anything. “We found out Sean’s going to be attending the party, and I just started having a good time at them, and I’ve decided I'm not going to let him bother me.”
Margaret’s eyes sharpened shrewdly, “And there’s a lot you’re not telling me, so fess up, you came home with your hair messy, your mother notice, so you’ve either reconnected with Reeves,”--TJ must have pulled a face because she raised her eyebrow, and TJ schooled his expression into the salad--”Or found someone new, more likely because of the love token you tried to hide in plain sight, or struck a deal with one of de Fer’s nieces and have acquired a beard.”
TJ knew he was found out, and he wouldn’t get away with it. “It’s the second one.” He sighed.
“Thought so, so tell me about him, was he a good kisser, at least right?”
At least TJ tried to tease the information away. “A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell, grandmother.”
She snorted and finished her martini. “Bullshit.”
And he began to explain himself, he talked about meeting Ash, Ash’s charming costumes, and his mannerisms and speech.
He talked about Ash’s parents, the story of his father, the slip into another language when he’d curse, his laugh, his jealousy, his ability to let that jealousy go, and after he began to describe Ash’s brown eyes, Margaret waved him off.
“Enough, I preferred it when you waxed poetic about his ass, I could almost picture it. So, what are you going to do about it?” She asked.
“I’m going to ask him for his real name, and I don’t want it to end tonight.” TJ admitted.
“Well, it sounds like he’d treat you a hell of a lot better than that Reeves asshole, but just in case bring him to me, and I’ll judge.” She added shrewdly, “I might know his grandmother.”
“I doubt that.” TJ laughed, but she looked at him firmly before he shrugged.
“Well, I won’t tell your mother things you don’t want her to hear, but at least throw her a bone, she’s trying not to smother, and the last thing you need is a repeat of last winter.”
“I don’t want a repeat of that either,” TJ grumbled, but accepted his grandmother’s point.
“Good, and when this is all said and done, I want to meet this Ash, and call him by his real name.” Margaret grinned and got up.
TJ got up too, and hugged his grandmother as she pulled him close, and pinched his cheek to embarrass him a little, before she walked off with a wink and a grin.
“Oh, and the ladies at the former saloon girls knitting club want some eye candy on our next yarn crawl, I’ll pay for your booze, if you’ll join us tomorrow.”
“I don’t even know what to do with that stuff,” TJ complained, and then he remembered the homemade costume, and the show Ash had put up in pretending he didn’t know how to knit.
“Hence your job as eye candy.”
And Margaret was gone, as TJ agreed, thinking about the knitted waistcoat and handkerchief.
His mother loved languages, and she loved working with people from around the world, hence the value of such a talent, and thus her study would contain just the books he needed to decipher the message on the handkerchief.
TJ chuckled to himself, and decided to return to his room and solve the mystery that was the language on the handkerchief.
He found it right where he left it, in the snuff box on his bedside table, and wandered into the study where TJ looked through books of languages.
His mother found him not long after he closed the book of Portuguese in frustration.
He looked up to see Elaine in the door, looking worried, and Margaret’s words came back to him.
“Come in,” He said, gesturing to an arm chair next to him, and instead of picking up the next book (French), he turned to her instead.
“What are you doing?” She asked, eyeing the books with an inquisitive glance.
TJ decided to come clean, so he told her about Ash, about last night, about what they said, about the mystery of Ash’s identity, and finally, he told her about the handkerchief.
She looked at it with delicate fingers, reading the embroidery easily.
“Do you want me to read it to you, or would you rather I not spoil the surprise? This is a symbol of immense trust.” Elaine told her son.
TJ looked at her and then at the handkerchief, and TJ suddenly wanted to prove worthy of that trust.
“I’ll do it,” He said reaching for the French book, only Elaine placed her hand on his and shook her head.
“Try the one under it,” She suggested.
TJ did as she advised, pouring over the Spanish dictionary, looking up words, taking notes, and transcribing what was written before he took a double take, and deciphered the message.
His mother was right.
On the scratch paper in his own hand, read the following message, which had been tenderly stitched to celebrate such a milestone.
“To our son, Class of Nineteen aught one, we are so proud of you, with much love, Mama and Papa.” TJ read aloud, then it hit him.
Ash had mentioned losing his father a little while ago, and Ash had spoken about the man with such sad affection.
TJ looked closely at the treasured handkerchief, it did not look like something sewn by a neglectful mother, TJ suddenly realized Ash never spoke of her. Why? Was she gone even more recently, or was she still alive but on bad terms with her son?
Possible, but possibly not, his eyes gazing upon Ash’s parents’ love, their pride, in this gift that had to be eleven years old, and Ash took a chance. He trusted him, Thomas Jonathan Hammond, the screw up son of a pair of politicians, the embarrassment of a political dynasty, with a gift filled with parents’ love and pride.
TJ suddenly felt the world shift, and while he wasn’t wobbly, he put his hands on the arms of the arm chair, and looked at Elaine.
His own mother was watching him gently, her eyes soft, sad, affectionate, and a little frightened. She loved the man sitting across from her, loved since the moment he was born, or perhaps before and seemed to realize the implications of such a gift as much as she did.
Here TJ had been chosen to receive a gift, no, lent such a valuable item.
“Am I worthy of such a gift?” He asked weakly.
His mother didn't hesitate to pull him into a hug. “Yes, yes you are son.”
TJ could feel her heart beating in that hug, and he returned it like she was buoy in a storm.
“Please be careful, you are more than worthy of love, but TJ, you tend to give your heart away too freely.” TJ could hear the fear in her voice, and was reminded of the last time he heard such fear, barely conscious, cold, and waiting for death to pull him into a sleepy embrace. TJ then had been warmed, coaxed into wakefulness and life while his mother, cold and freezing herself, rushed him into the nearest building, having a doctor be fetched while people around him hurried to warm him up, to keep him alive when all he wished for was death.
The pain of Sean’s anger, the truth of being such a failure to his family stinging his soul so deeply, the lure of alcohol fueled ideas for forever silence and bliss, to no longer be a stain to the family name had been too much for him then.
But he survived, pulled and urged desperately by his family, the doctor examining him had assumed TJ had overindulged of holiday spirits, which had made him extra clumsy on the walk home. The doctor even hinted strongly that TJ’s survival was an act of divine intervention.
TJ just remembered thinking of his mother before he had a painful sneeze directly into the doctor’s face in accidental response.
Elaine and the family saw no reason to dissuade the doctor of his assumptions.
And now, three seasons later, TJ was facing the possibility of making the same mistake again.
No, that wasn’t entirely accurate, but he’d have to be wise about his approach here, and he’d have to be careful.
TJ looked at his mother, his heart racing in his chest.
“I’m going to the ball tonight,” TJ decided, He was going to see Diego again, and if he saw Sean again, well, TJ had more important things to waste energy on…
He ran down the stairs to the piano, a few ideas in the form of notes came to mind, and he’d have to hurry to write them down and play them before it was time to leave.
Chapter 5: Night Three
When things seem bleakest, sometimes acts of courage help more than thought possible.
Evening approached like it always did with the sun setting in the west, and TJ’s costume felt right, like the shark medallion and the handkerchief deep in his waistcoat pocket while TJ adjusted his mask for the final time. Doug and Anne were dressed as Eros and Psyche from Greek mythology.
“If it gets too much TJ,” Doug began but TJ looked to reassure him, nervous energy causing his internal organs to tighten and quiver.
Their mother had offered to join them, but with his hand on the shark medallion, TJ thanked his mother for her offer, but decided this was something he needed to do alone. Doug told TJ he could respect that, but TJ knew his brother would be on high alert tonight, which would make an opportunity to see Ash alone would be more difficult.
“I’ll be fine Dougie, and I’ve got you and Anne on my side.”
“I was going to say look to the de Fer’s nieces, they like you for some reason.” Doug said teasingly, his grin matching his tone.
TJ grinned back, and the cab was filled with silence for a moment before they arrived at the landing tarmac of the Dirigible Tremaine.
The sun had reached halfway down the horizon and Mistress Clocksgeare and Pierre were there to greet them as they boarded.
“I hope you enjoy the new decorations, last night was just inspired.” Mistress Clocksgeare said as they boarded, regal in her large red dress, which had scarfs and ribbons coming off it in a style reminiscent of an Indian sari, her hands covered in rings and jewelry that glittered and sparkled, and made it look more like her hands were made of gold and bronze.
And she was right, if by enjoyed she meant baffling and overwhelming. Tonight’s theme was the Parthenon of India, if the person responsible for showing off the Parthenon was drunk and deliberately messed with all the labels for the sake of a drunken prank.
TJ watched in silence as a clockwork statue of a six-foot tall god with six heads and twelve arms and five legs move in a stilted parody of a sword dance, the limbs twitching unnaturally, and the gears whirred and buzzed with each movement. As the god’s feet there was a small sign labeled “Kali, god of fertility and peace.”
Something about this made TJ feel uncomfortable, because he was pretty sure this was a living culture in India.
The rest of the crowd eyed the clockwork and gave the moving dancing statues a wide berth.
“That’s complete nonsense!” An offended young man at his side muttered, “I lived in India for a few years, did Clocksgeare do her research, or even show any respect for the living cultures she’s depicting?”
TJ didn’t have an answer for him, which made the unnatural movements of the statues even more disturbing.
And there wasn’t an ice sculpture insight.
The waitstaff seemed to be serving a milky cinnamon tea that TJ enjoyed, but the rest of the dishes simply looked like ordinary hors d’oeuvres that had few extra spices sprinkled on top.
Ash stood in near the kitchen, and like TJ, it appeared he decided to dress in sun colors. The mask was wooden, and carved to look like half of his face was covered in the sun, yellow and orange paint emphasizing the details. The waistcoat was a splash of color of bright yellows, orange, and a subtle shading in red.
He was perfection.
His heart raising, TJ walked over to approach, his hand moving to his waistcoat pocket.
“TJ?” Asked a familiar voice.
TJ’s heart skipped a beat, but he gritted his teeth, stood straight, and turned around to greet Sean Reeves, face to face with a politician's smile. His hand moved far from his waistcoat pocket, hiding any indication that there was anything of worth in it. TJ might as well get this over with and move on.
“Sean, fancy seeing you here, I didn’t know you were acquainted with Mistress Clocksgeare.” TJ began, hoping that an excuse would come to mind, and fast.
TJ’s shirt under his waistcoat grew to be very warm suddenly, but his heart was quivering under his ribs, almost like a small dog was trying to fight its way out of a cage.
TJ fought hard to take a deep breath.
“My mother-in-law knows her.” Sean answered, hearing a female voice clear her throat. Sean turned to gesture to a small blonde woman next to him, “This is my wife Harriet, Harriet dear, this is Mister Thomas Hammond, we’ve met charity work.”
Sean Reeves was one hell of a politician because that was not how they met.
“Hello Mr. Hammond, my husband says so little of work, but it’s nice to hear he’s made friends here.” Mrs. Reeves said with an earnest smile.
The small dog in his ribcage decided to dig under his stomach and taken refuge under his stomach. “Pleasure to meet you Mrs. Reeves, I’d love to stay and get to know you, but I made a commitment with a friend of mine, please excuse me.”
“Oh of course, Aunt Fauve said that you danced wonderfully last night, and I decided that since I was in DC I should at least attend at least one of her wonderful parties, I don’t have her artistic talent or vision, but homely little me has learned to make due.” Mrs. Reeves said demurely.
TJ bowed and made his way forward, the metaphorical little dog under his stomach was making him feel nauseous.
Sean’s last words to him before began buzzing in his head like the little dog had dug up a vicious hornet’s nest.
The crowd around him shifted slowly in unconscious movement, like a school of fish sifting around a slow-moving seal, and TJ's head felt a little like it had been dunked underwater with the pressure around him.
Moments later the crowd parted, and like a golden beacon, Ash stood, his wooden mask seeming to add to the brightness to his face before Ash made a worried frown.
“Hey, are you alright?” He asked.
“I’ll be fine.” TJ tried to brush off and will his stomach to quiet.
Ash deepened his frown and turned to a passing waiter.
“Luis, could you please fetch me two whiskeys?” He asked, and ‘Luis’ nodded with a puzzled frown.
“You can tell Abuela anything if she asks.” Ash sighed when Luis raised an eyebrow, then Luis dropped the eyebrow and walked off with a bright grin. Then Ash turned to TJ, “Do you need a seat, or anything?”
“I’ll be fine, thank you.” TJ tried to shut down, and Ash decided to let that go, but TJ had a feeling that he hadn’t avoided being mothered for long.
“Still that was a little presumptuous of you to order me a drink, wasn’t it?” TJ decided to deflect.
“Who said the second whiskey was for you?” Ash asked with a hip check. “Seriously though, you look like you just confronted a ghost and came out the worse for it.”
“I think I did,” TJ admitted, he wanted to ask if Ash thought of him as an embarrassment, or a mistake, or as a punchline, but TJ saw Ash’s face soften, and realized he already knew the answer to that question, and his heart warmed.
“If you want to talk about it, I’m here.” Ash offered genuinely.
“No, I’ve had enough of him ruining the night.”
Luis had returned with the drinks with a muttered “you owe me, man.”
Ash waved him off with an embarrassed shrug, both glasses in his hands.
TJ held his hand out for a drink, and with an eyeroll Ash obliged him.
“There’s going to be a meteor shower tonight, at about ten, if you want to watch it with me.” Ash offered, and TJ really liked the sound of that.
TJ followed Ash to the side of the room, the general avoidance of the clockwork statues gave Ash and TJ a place to sit and talk without eavesdroppers, and TJ began to share a little.
He shared to Ash a little about growing up, mostly about his favorite music pieces he loved to play growing up.
Ash listened attentively, and revealed he wished he could play, but his parents had to choose between his education and music lessons, but he did have cousins who could play music and play them well.
TJ talked a little about some of what his parents had accomplished, mostly focusing on his mother’s work on the suffrage movement, and found out Ash’s mother had marched for suffrage too, before she took ill two years ago. Now he and his sisters take up her banner.
“That’s amazing,” TJ said.
“What? Our women deserve the vote too,” Ash pressed.
And the more they talked the more comfortable TJ began to feel again.
“I still have your handkerchief, I translated the embroidery.” TJ reached into his pocket to give it back to Ash, but Ash placed his hand over TJ’s.
“Keep it for the rest of the night, I’ll take it when the party’s done.”
“What will you do after?”
“I’ve promised my grandmother I’d help her with her business, these things don’t pay themselves.”
“You need money?” TJ asked
Ash’s laughing grin slid off his face. “No,” He snapped with a sharp sting of hurt pride. “We can get by perfectly fine, thank you.”
TJ blinked, he hasn’t expected that reaction. “Alright then.”
“I think the meteor shower is going to start soon,” Ash explained, looking at the clock, “Come on, let’s get some prime seats.”
And TJ was more than happy to oblige, his mood greatly improved, and dropping the subject of money all together.
The outdoor deck of the dirigible was dark and slowly filling with people as they took seats to watch the meteor shower, the dirigible flying in the clear night sky to take in the best of the show.
TJ found a few lounge chairs and directed Ash to take a seat, which he picked the middle one gladly, TJ took his left side, and caught a glimpse of Doug and Anne.
Ash agreed to meet Doug and Anne, and TJ gestured for his twin and sister-in-law to join them.
As Doug and Anne approached, TJ felt Ash freeze up, and turned to catch a glimpse of a small blonde woman sitting on Ash’s other side, and her rather familiar looking husband.
Doug was smart enough to take his seat next to TJ, and Anne cuddled close to her husband. TJ turned his attention to Ash, who didn’t seem to notice the Reeves sitting next to him, and the Reeves hadn’t noticed them.
TJ would have to work hard to make sure they weren’t spotted, as his heart rate started to race.
“Are you alright?” Ash asked, and TJ nodded to reassure him.
In a few moments the deck was filled in silence as the audience waited on baited breath, before the first sets of ooh and awes began to fill the cold clear autumn air.
Pale quicksilver flashes of light began to rain from the sky. To ease in seeing the meteor shower, the lights inside the dirigible were dimmed. TJ took a moment to feel relief, the dark will aid to conceal them, and the spectacle of the show would distract Sean.
“Look!” Ash whispered, and TJ just managed to look at the right spot to see that one of the falling stars was golden in color.
He turned and saw Ash’s grin in the low light.
“Yeah, it’s beautiful,” TJ whispered.
The falling stars flashed through the sky like silver threads that cut the night sky in silver and gold before fading from sight; like a secret between the universe and the viewer.
TJ felt warmth of Ash beside him, and his heart glowed at realizing how much he had grown to care for this mysterious man, and tonight, TJ was going to show Ash his real face. No more mystery, not more secrets.
His thoughts were interrupted by Doug.
“Anne’s getting cold, can we move inside?” Doug whispered, as Mrs. Reeves gave a particularly loud coo.
“Yeah,” TJ agreed, startled into remembering that they weren’t alone. TJ didn’t want to deprive Ash of the show… but if they stayed any longer the Reeves would recognize TJ, and the small dog in TJ’s chest was pulling at the inside of his ribcage again, thinking about what Sean would say to Ash, or worse who he could report Ash to.
“Ash, my sister-in-law’s getting cold, may we move to another spot?” TJ whispered into Ash’s ear.
Ash looked surprised and confused, and attempted to pull his jacket off, clearly with the intent to give it to Anne. TJ, touched by this sweet man’s generosity, had to gently stall his hands, “Thank you, but I also wanted to give you something too.”
Ash continued to look surprised, and agreed to TJ’s request, but TJ could tell that he was disappointed the meteor shower was being cut short.
The group got up, and crept across the deck, Madame de Fer, her husband, and nieces gave a curt nod as they passed.
Ash continued to look disappointed, but TJ caught sight of a second deck, where Mistress Clocksgeare and her personal entourage were observing the meteor shower. Just wat TJ needed to make things up for Ash.
“Ash, I know where we could get better seats.” TJ urged, and he guided Ash to the second deck.
Anne and Doug were content to stay inside with the hot cinnamon tea.
This deck was on the east side of the dirigible, and seemed to include more of the show but was less crowded and out of the wind.
Ash seemed startled when he noticed who they were sharing the deck with.
“We’ll just sit here?” TJ gestured to the side of the deck, farthest away from any other observers, all of who kept their attention on the meteor shower. Ash placed TJ between himself and the rest of the crowd, but TJ was happy enough to oblige.
They watched as the stars raced to the earth only to fade into mortality. The spectacle only noticeable if one has the luck to look in the right place at the right time. TJ felt Ash lean against him, and couldn’t help but compare himself and Ash, to a pair of shooting stars. He remembered meeting Ash, next to the ice sculptures two nights ago, and if TJ hadn’t been paying attention, he would have missed Ash altogether. But just like with the shooting stars, TJ’s time with his Star Man was only momentary.
The shower ended at about eleven thirty, but Ash was content to pull TJ back inside before the rest of the guests got up to head back inside, disappointed that the show was over but satisfied to witness such beauty.
The lights in the ballroom began to increase in brightness, filling the ballroom with a golden glow, the scent of many powerful perfumes and colognes filling up the room as the guests returned for more dancing.
Ash took a drink of hot tea with TJ and the two went back to wandering around while talking, and Ash led TJ into the side room they entered in the first night for more conversation.
“You said you had something you wanted to give me?” Ash asked curiously, and TJ suddenly wished there was a piano, so he could surprise Ash with it.
“Yeah, I wanted to invite you to watch me play at the college tomorrow. I know you can’t read it, but I wrote you a piece of music.” TJ fidgeted before he dug into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out a piece of paper that sat next to the handkerchief and medallion.
Ash’s eyes widened as he saw the notes on the paper, his face split into a wide grin. “Is-is that for me?” Awe filled his voice, “No one’s ever written music for me.”
TJ’s heart bloomed and began to flutter at Ash’s joy. “I wanted to let you know, you’ve been wonderful to get to know, and I wanted to ask if, if you’d be interested in--”
“Excuse me, but I’ve been informed that there is a party crasher attending my party?”
TJ and Ash turned to the doorway where Mistress Clocksgeare, standing in the doorway, and puffing up like a giant indigent hen, Pierre standing to her left like a quietly hissing shadow.
“No, just me and my plus one here.” TJ answered automatically, his heart pausing when he realized Mistress Clocksgeare had him greeted him, and then TJ had arrived sans guest.
Both sets of eyes of their hosts had sharpened coldly.
“You don’t say, and how did you manage to sneak this charming young man past us? Fauve my dear, it appears your dear niece Harriet and her husband may have been correct.” Pierre said, his voice was low and cold.
Ash didn’t say anything, and TJ put himself between Mistress Clocksgeare and Ash.
“How are we to maintain society if we were to have the lower classes so pollute our soirees?” Mistress Clocksgeare asked.
TJ was stunned, Ash looked crestfallen, and TJ was suddenly furious.
“Pollute our soirees? What with those clockwork monstrosities mocking an actual living religion? And from a culture that gets exploited? Are you that much of a hypocrite?” TJ burst angrily. “Is this the kind of woman my mother would want backing her while she pushes for Women’s Suffrage? And a man whose registered to vote, and quite interested in women’s right to vote? My mother will be quite interested in hearing about this, I’ll see to that.”
Mistress Clocksgeare pulled back and began to sputter in shock. She certainly wasn’t prepared for a guest, and one with such as powerful pedigree to stand up to her.
The TJ Hammond from last winter, or even last summer would have been stunned at his sudden courage, but they would have been proud too.
What TJ wasn’t expecting however, was that Pierre to appear behind Ash. TJ quickly stepped forward to stop Ash’s unmasking, when he saw Pierre reach up, but Pierre was too fast.
With the mask off, TJ’s heart broke. With his face bare, Ash was a young man, slightly younger than TJ, with tanned skin, clean shaven, with a broad nose and strong brows, and his expression was devastated. Bright brown eyes glittered, and perfect white teeth peeked out from underneath trembling lips.
“What is wrong with you? You had no right to do that!” TJ exclaimed, rushing forward to shove Pierre away from Ash, his face heating in rage, his hands suddenly hurting as they clenched. “And he’s not a party crasher, he’s here as my guest!”
“Don’t let this charlatan fool you, he’s one of the men I hired as a late shift waiter.” Pierre began coolly. “Hello Diego.”
Diego glanced at his employers fearfully before he looked down in submission.
“And it’s not his shift yet, so he hasn’t broken any of the rules.” TJ insisted firmly.
Pierre’s eyes lit up in anger.
“Hasn’t broken any rules? Then explain to me why he’s not ready for his shift, which should be starting any minute now, if he’s not in the kitchen by the time the clock strikes twelve, he’s fired.” Pierre demanded.
Then the large clock in the center of the ball room above the chandelier began to chime midnight.
One, two, three….
Diego grew pale, shoved passed TJ and Mistress Clocksgeare, and rushed into the crowd.
Four, Five, six….
Running after him TJ shoved pass Mistress Clocksgeare, brushed passed Sera and Miss Montilyet. TJ continued forward his heart racing, and he wanted to call out for Diego.
Seven, eight, nine…
However, like the other three nights, Diego disappeared into the crowd like a wisp of smoke the moment TJ entered the ballroom.
Ten, eleven, twelve.
Thinking fast, TJ rushed into the kitchen of the dirigible, only to find the way was barred off by the other waiters who refused to let him pass, and when TJ took a step back, his foot crunched on a piece of paper, and the turned around to see it. It was a sheet of music, torn in two.
TJ spent the next hour waiting outside the kitchen, trying to convince the waitstaff to let him see Diego, but no one let him in, and Luis was the only one who gave him any information.
“He doesn't want to see you.” Luis explained sadly.
“Well, can you please give him this message?”
“I’m afraid I can’t, sorry sir.” Luis replied as he walked away.
The other guests her oblivious, ignoring TJ, or shooting him odd looks, and it might have been the more observant guests who notified Doug, because his brother appeared behind him to pull TJ away from the kitchen door.
Doug guided TJ to where Anne was standing, and she was the first to speak up.
“What is it TJ?” She asked as they pulled him away from the crowd, but TJ caught a glimpse of Sera from not far away.
Taking a deep breath, TJ told them what happened with Ash, about the shock at Mistress Clocksgeare’s sudden appearance, how she had been told about As--No Diego, the man’s name was Diego--by her niece, Mrs. Reeves, or how Pierre had pulled off Ash’s mask. How Pierre had threatened to fire Ash, and Ash had to run so he could keep his job, and then he told them about the torn sheet of music.
“And now I can’t see him, and the other waiters won’t let me talk to him.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want more trouble,” Anne suggested, exchanging a look with her husband that TJ was too upset to try and decipher. “It’s likely he’s going to spend the rest of his shift in the kitchen, so he can keep his job.”
“Come on TJ, I think you need a drink, and maybe we can get one of de Fer’s nieces to dance with you.” Doug suggested.
“I don’t feel like dancing.” TJ admitted, as his brother guided him to the side of the ball room where he sat down in a chair, and his brother brought him a drink, and Anne brought over some small sandwiches.
TJ brushed off his brother and sister-in-law’s attempts to coddle him, and insisted that they go dance, that the ball needed Eros and Psyche to dance the night away, and eventually the couple relented, while TJ sat next to the clockwork of dancing drunken satyrs dancing around a tree and chasing a woman, which made TJ turn away in disgust at Mistress Clocksgeare’s disregard for Indian mythology.
And speak of the devil….
Mistress Clocksgeare honestly did look apologetic, which did little to fix TJ’s mood. Her hands were wringing, and the rings made her metallic looking finger sparkle unnaturally in the light.
“Mr. Hammond, I cannot express how much I regret the pain I’ve caused you and Mr. Diego,” She said, “shouldn’t have let Pierre do that. You’ve made it very clear that we shouldn’t judge someone by their origins or walks in life. Your esteemed mother wouldn’t have approved of our behavior either.”
TJ looked at her, his irritation and anger at her still simmering under his skin. He didn’t see Pierre anywhere. If her heart was in the right place, her sentiments were not.
“I appreciate the words, but I’m not who you should be apologizing too, and so should Pierre, but I don’t see him trying to make amends.” TJ pointed out before he took another sip of whiskey. “I’d also recommend you put a lot more thought and sensitivity into your decor, tonight’s insensitivity has made a lot of your guests uncomfortable, and you’ve insulted an entire culture with this display, and I’m just angry enough to say something.”
Mistress Clocksgeare walked off in a huff, but the clockwork statues were turned powered off and moved to a side room which nobody entered.
TJ didn’t know if she had honestly learned anything or was just humoring him.
TJ wanted the night to end, or have a moment to talk to and apologize to Diego, tell him he still cared.
Nothing offered itself up as a diversion until he heard a familiar giggle.
“Look to your left.” Sera appeared at his side.
TJ looked away from the place the satyrs used to be, and was surprised.
A table quivered, and a cup fell over the side of the table, standing next to it was Sean and Harriet Reeves. There were a few seconds before TJ heard Sera whisper “liar, liar, breeches on fire.”
Sean Reeves leapt up where surprise, there was smoke that appeared to be coming out of his backside. Mrs. Reeved shrieked and poured water all over her husband, and it appeared for the moment the small spark of smoke disappeared.
“Just wait, it gets better.”
“What happened?” TJ asked alarmed.
Mistress Clocksgeare made her way over, and the crowd fell into a hushed silence as she, Pierre, and members of the dirigible flight crew examined the area before one of the men spotted something under the table.
“It was just a little bit of dry ice for the punch my dear.” Mistress Clocksgeare reassured Mrs. Reeves before she turned to look at Sean and backed up in surprise.
On the spot where Mrs. Reeves had poured water to extinguish the fire, was some ink that was slowly appearing as the water was absorbed by the shirt. The words read “I’m a lying cheating git” bled into view.
“What was that for?” TJ asked, not bothering to ask about the smoke, seeing as they weren’t in danger for being burned to death.
“Well, I heard a little from your interaction with him this evening, and I caught him and his wife ratting out our dear little Ash, and I want it to be clear that nobody messes with my friends,” Sera explained, “And Josie agreed with me, so she was kind enough to bump the table at the right time, and the rich git can’t tell the difference between fire and ice.”
Sera reached into her pocket. “By the way, Ash dropped something on his way to work.” She handed the torn-up music sheet over.
“Thank you?” TJ offered weakly, he caught a glimpse of Doug approaching from the crowd with Anne by his side. “And his name is--”
“Don’t bother telling me, I never rat out a friend’s name, and Ash needs all the friends he can get.” Sera’s face turned very serious. “Nobody messes with my friends, so you treat each other right, got it Rich Tit?”
She left when Doug made it over.
“Did you see Sean Reeves burst into smoke?”
“Or how he’s now got literal dirty laundry to exposed?” TJ asked, as the crowd continued to watch Mrs. Reeves try to interrogate her husband about what the shirt meant.
Chapter 6: Day Three
So this is the conclusion of the story, there was orgianlly going to be a sex scene, but that didn't pan out with test audiences as it came off as awkward. I might try rewriting the epilogue in the future, but for now I need to move on to other projects such as my final year of college.
Thank you so much for reading all the way though and I once again want to thank everyone involved in this fic.
The evening passed with little more excitement, but TJ didn’t see any more of Diego that night.
Dawn arrived with everyone tired, and TJ was sober and disheartened. He fell asleep on the drive home, and after a hug and kiss to his mother, crawled in to bed.
TJ didn’t want to get out of bed, wanted to stay in the warm cocoon of comfort, but he had to get up if he wanted to serve as eye candy for a bunch of old women.
His mother didn’t say anything as he ate a very light and simple lunch, and TJ appreciated it, as he didn’t feel like talking to people now, but knew he must, because he made a promise to his grandmother. His thoughts throughout the meal were filled with the man whose face had been formerly concealed by the sun, moon, and stars.
Margaret Barrish was more than ready, as she arrived shortly after lunch to pick up her grandson.
“Jesus Christ, did you get any sleep TJ?” She asked when he climbed into the Havers 6-40.
“Yes.” TJ answered, and she directed her car into traffic and off they went.
Margaret Barrish was fast behind the wheel of her car, and TJ had a moment of laughter as he grabbed the side rail of the car, his grandmother dodging traffic and avoiding pedestrians.
“Not to state the obvious, but I think that’s the first time I’ve heard you laugh in a while.” Margaret began as they reached the tea shop her knitting group met at.
“Right,” TJ began before he was reminded of why he hadn’t felt like laughing. He wondered what Diego was up to now, was he alright?
“Now, let’s hit the town and take those yarn shops to the cleaners.” Margaret smirked, pulling TJ into the present as he followed her out of the car.
“Margaret, it appears you brought us a young man.” one of the women observed with a wink and a giggle.
A second one stepped out from behind the group, and TJ noticed she had clear brown eyes, which glanced up and down him appraisingly. She was thin and stooped, with a broad nose and striking brows, but her hair was pulled into a tight no-nonsense bun. She wore a simple brown dress with an off-white shawl with an elaborate knitted pattern on it. It reminded TJ way too much of a certain waistcoat he saw the other night. When she got close, TJ caught a whiff of peppers and other spices.
“And what,” She asked in a faintly accented voice, “is this young man’s name?”
“Thomas my good lady, but my friends call me TJ.”TJ said with a slight bow of manners.
“Carmina, this is my grandson.” Margaret added as she stepped closer to the group.
Carmina nodded. “As you’ve said Margaret, and so you’ve bought this eye candy of a much younger man, I shall have to ask him if he’d be so kind as to escort me.” She added with a grin, looping her thin and frail arm around TJ’s own arm with surprising firmness. TJ could feel callus through the fabric of his sleeve.
The group made its way a block down the street to the local yarn store, the women gossiping about this, or that, and TJ tried to tune them out.
“So, I’ve been told you’ve attended a three-night masquerade ball?”
TJ glanced at his grandmother who was already intermixed with her peers, “Yeah, my grandmother must have mentioned.”
“No, your grandmother didn’t say a thing about that.” Carmina answered cryptically.
TJ glanced at her in surprise, but she kept looking ahead.
TJ tried to ask what she meant, but she tugged on his arm gently, and guided him inside the yarn store.
The building was lined with shelves of yarn and needles and such, but TJ had no idea what they meant or how they functioned inside those old wooden dark wood shelves.
“Oh, I have grandchildren who would love to come here, but the dears sent me here instead for my birthday. I suspect I’m using the money we got as a hefty bonus from work last night, such sweet children.” Carmina sighed wistfully.
“You have grandchildren Mistress Carmina?” TJ asked. “But you hardly look old enough to be a grandmother.”
“Charmer,” Carmina giggled before she let go. “I’m not much older than your grandmother, and I’ve got a few grandchildren about your age.”
TJ paused, “you mentioned a masquerade ball, did you attend?”
Carmina laughed, “Oh no, I’m afraid I’m not part of that crowd, do I look like a lady of fashion? Oh no, I was working those nights, and I’ll be working again.”
TJ meant to ask more, but Carmina disappeared next to a pile of loose wool that was labeled “Roving”, which baffled him slightly, but TJ had a strong feeling he had seen someone like this woman before, and she certainly knew enough on how to pull a vanishing act.
He continued forward, looking for her before a display of yarn on the back wall, under a sign labeled “Luxurious rare blends”. Several skeins of yarn, one of which was a mix of silver grey, slight gold, and off white caught his eye, and he reached forward to touch the thin delicate strands of yarn. It was mercifully soft, like a baby’s blanket, the softest of velvet, or a pair of lips he had the joy of kissing only a few days ago.
He pulled the skein off its hook and it flopped in his hand like a swooning woman in a romance novel. He turned the skein, examining the soft silky color beneath his fingers before he saw the label.
“Our alpaca and angora rabbits have been treated with the utmost care, and sheared with careful consideration and blended with the finest of silks to give you the perfect yarn to knit with. Color: Glass Slipper.”
TJ couldn’t bring himself to put back what must have surely been an expensive skein of yarn.
“Ah, there you are, your grandmother was wondering where you went, I’ll have to tell her.” Carmina said as she walked up behind him, almost fae like, before she reached forward to admire a skein labeled “Fairy dust” with a lustful sigh.
“You mentioned it’s your birthday, perhaps I should get you a skein?” TJ asked.
Carmina laughed, “Oh my dear boy, I’ve been spoken for years ago, besides, that’s a yarn you’d give someone you intend to marry.”
“Really?” TJ asked, he had never heard of this custom.
“With those prices, you’d better be willing,” Carmina released her skein, still hanging on the wall before she began to look closely at a more inexpensive wool blend. “Now your grandmother is looking for you, and I’d hate for her to disturb me while I pine for such blends, go on, off you get.”
TJ walked to the front of the store where his grandmother, and several of her peers, were waiting with stories from their days working in the saloons of the wild west.
“Oh, I recall what fun we had,” A woman spoke with a sigh, “It was rough and wild, and the men were hungry for love, and more than willing to pay to see a lady. This was before the west was settled into a more civilized society, but the land’s still rough, not at all like that bull the pedal at the Wild Bill Hickok show.”
“Don’t forget how much that land changed with folks moving west because of Manifest Destiny,” Another chimed in, then she sighed, “shame what happened to Carmina’s family.”
“Carmina? What happened?” TJ asked.
“Her family owned the ranchero and the land that hosted our saloon.” A woman mentioned, “But her family had their land seized when she almost inherited it from her father after he passed. Poor woman started working with us from then on, in Arizona I believe.”
“It was California my dear.”
“That’s, that’s awful.” TJ’s heart sank, and he thought of the small woman with the several grandchildren, and the work she had to endure, even at her age.
“That’s life, my family will get that land back, someday, we’re working on it. You’ll see, it’ll be ours again,” Carmina interrupted, an arm full of the wool she had looked at earlier. She saw the skein in TJ’s hand, “Well, are you going to purchase it, or stand there holding it until it goes on sale?”
TJ placed his purchase on the counter, and the middle-aged woman rang him up with the cash register. “That’ll be two dollars.”
Some of the women gasped at the price, but TJ, thinking of who deserved such a rich gift, and if he guessed correctly, would know how to use it.
He reached into his pocket, feeling the handkerchief and shark medallion, reaching past it to fish out his wallet.
Carmina and Margaret watched TJ with knowing eyes. And TJ was ready to ask Carmina where he could find her grandson.
The women made their purchases quickly, and Carmina walked off fifty cents poorer, but a few skins richer. She turned to Margaret and sighed sadly.
“Oh Margaret, I’m afraid I must have over exerted myself, would you be so kind as to drive this old woman home?”
“Of course, Carmina, but only if TJ doesn’t mind.” Margaret said.
“Why would I mind?” TJ asked.
“That’s generous of you dear,” Carmina sighed dramatically.
She sank into the front seat of the car while TJ took the backseat, and Margaret started the engine, and with a powerful burst of speed, they were off, Carmina gripping the side of the car with a tight grip.
They arrived outside of a restaurant with a catering side business sign attached.
TJ leapt out and opened the car door for Carmina, held out his hand, helped her down, and hoped he was right about his guess about who Carmina’s grandson was.
“What, are you going to leave your poor old grandmother on the sidelines?” Margaret asked from her driver's seat as she adjusted her driving goggles.
“Of course not, Nana” TJ answered, his heart was racing when he realized he might be right. His stomach was playing host to an eager shark which swam in excited circles under his heart, and he could tell he might start sweating from nerves soon.
“Abuela, you’re back early.” A familiar voice called out from the side entrance which was labeled “Staff Only.”
TJ’s heart skipped a beat, before it started climbing up his throat.
“I was catching up with an old friend from my saloon days,” Carmina called, “Stop worrying Diego, and I wanted to thank you for my birthday present, it was too kind. I even got you some nice wool for that project of yours.”
“Abuela,” Diego said in an embarrassed tone, he passed the entrance and dried his hands upon his apron, his face already pink, then Diego made eye contact with TJ and froze.
TJ smiled softly. Diego was dressed in his work uniform, with an apron on the front, with a bit of flour dusting his hair, but TJ didn’t care, because he finally saw Diego, in daylight, and he was just as amazing then as he was laughing at an over the top nude ice sculpture of a fat old lady.
“TJ, hi,” Diego began.
“I, I-” TJ reached into his pocket. “You dropped this.”
He held out the sheet music, which TJ had transcribed onto a clean sheet of paper early that morning.
Diego stood, rooted to the spot, his face blank.
“Well, I’m going to be in my office catching up with Margaret here, you may come in when you’re done here.” Carmina announced pushing past Diego, as the poor boy moved to the side, almost as if he were a leaf in the wind.
“I, thanks,” Diego began, reaching out to be handed the paper, and TJ decided, in for a penny, in for a pound. He deposited the sheet music, the handkerchief, and the skein of yarn into Diego’s hand.
“What’s this?” Diego asked.
“I wanted to return the handkerchief to you, as I was only borrowing it,” TJ said, his heart racing laps under his Adam’s apple.
“Thanks, but I meant what’s with the yarn.”
“Oh, I, uh, saw it and thought of you.”
“So, you looked at a skein of yarn, and thought of the guy you saw for three nights, before he got humiliated before for his shift?”
“Yes,” TJ admitted, “I saw it, and thought of the man who doesn’t like oysters, the man who loves to watch falling stars, and the sea, who can look at something with a fierce and horrifying reputation, and look past that to see a fascinating creature that he wants to know more about, I saw it and thought of the man who gave my life such joy these past few days.”
“Careful, that sounds a lot like a love confession, or the start of one,” Diego teased, and cleared his throat. His face turning even more pink, and he looked down.
TJ reached forward, and gently placed his hand under Diego’s chin, and brought it up so blue eyes could stare into brown. “And if it was, would that be welcome?”
“Why don’t you come inside and find out?” Diego began, turning around with a coy smile and a wink.
Inside her office Carmina Salvador and Margaret Barrish were toasting to their grandchildren’s happiness.
“That boy had better be good to Diego, Margaret, he needs a reason to be happy, and he hasn’t been since my son died.” Carmina warned.
“Trust me, if TJ messes up, I’d kick his ass into shape myself, but I think he’s smart enough to know a good thing when he sees one.” Margaret shrugged, closing her flask as the two women lifted their shot glasses for the toast and drink.
“No need, Diego’s more than capable of kicking asses for himself, but two smart grandsons are better than none.” Carmina snorted.
Outside the office there was a loud cacophony of teasing wolf whistles and hollers at Diego and TJ’s expense.