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Winner's Circle

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You make me feel
Like I'm livin'
A teenage dream
The way you turn me on
I can't sleep
Let's run away and don't ever look back,
Don't ever look back
“Teenage Dream” – Katy Perry

++

Shadows from the low light of the fire threw constantly shifting shapes upon the thick line of trees that surrounded the clearing that Charles Phipps and Charles Grey currently found themselves in; destruction lay thick around the two Queen’s Butlers, and what had once been a thriving base of operations now remained in something less than ruins: buildings had been torn apart by battle, few still standing and those that remained were less than bones. Bodies, too, littered the open space—victims of the Queen’s less compassionate side when she no longer bothered to don her civilized mask.

Sitting like the calm center located within the eye of a hurricane, Charles Phipps was settled near the flickering light that the fire provided, back curved over his double-breasted jacket as the glint of a sewing needle flashed between his experienced fingers. The collars were riddled with holes from the fight that had just wrapped up—the destruction the only thing that the Double Charles bothered to leave standing—and, even with the expertise that Phipps wielded the needle with, the work being done was patchwork at best.

But the lanky man was one of the Queen’s Butlers first and foremost before anything else, and Phipps knew that to do her work as anything less than fully presentable was a stain upon Victoria’s reputation and honor—something to be avoided and abhorred at all costs. However, there was little enough that the swordsman was able to do considering the fact that the base that he and Charles Grey had hit was, quite literally, in the middle-of-nowhere-Germany. The nearest town was days away.

A solid weight settled against Charles Phipps’ back, hotter than the fire that the taller man faced, and the shaggy-haired man continued working on repairing his coat even as Grey hooked a possessive arm over the curve of his partner’s shoulder to clench fingers in the fabric at the opposite side. The pointed tip of a chin came to rest uncomfortably near the bend of Phipps’ neck, tucking itself close against the vulnerable line of the taller man’s throat. The shorter man remained silent for several long moments, instead spending the time watching the other butler repair bullet holes that had come increasingly closer to striking Phipps’ torso. There were a great many near-misses on display, and Grey’s fingers curled that much tighter in his partner’s undershirt.

Swordplay and fighting at larger were only games when those that mattered remained unscathed—and it was obvious that this fight had given Charles Phipps one too many close calls.

Mood darkening at the stark reminder that battle always had consequences—sometimes ones that Grey himself had to pay—the shorter of the two men whined petulantly and pressed his face against Phipps’ throat. “I’m hungry,” the butler whined and shifted to settle more of his weight against Phipps’ back; despite the awkwardness of the position as he remained curved over his damaged coat, as well as the unwieldy presence of his partner slumped against him, the shaggier-haired man did not shift from his position as holes melted away beneath his focused attention.

“Phipps. I’m hungry,” Grey repeated once more even as he slumped more thoroughly against the svelte line of the other’s back. Phipps grunted quietly in acknowledgement, though the complaint wasn’t enough to distract the taller butler away from his work.

It was as he remained settled against Phipps’ back that a quiet crunch of leaves being crushed underfoot came from the side of the makeshift camp. Phipps’ attention remained upon the coat sprawled across his lap, though the slight tilt of his head gave truth to the fact that the sound had been noted and promptly ignored. Grey, for his own end of things, reached forward just enough to pluck Phipps’ third best set of sewing scissors—the third best because the first remained in their quarters at the palace and the second always remained with the taller man’s luggage—from their spot next to the other butler’s thigh.

A flick of Grey’s wrist had the scissors flying through the air, aiming towards the small break between the trees. A solid thud of something heavy landing on the ground came shortly after on the throw’s heels, and Grey turned his head just enough to the side to press an open-mouthed kiss to the beauty mark on the left side of the other man’s chin. The gesture was both possessive and protective, and Grey’s tarnished silver eyes watched the treeline from beneath the thick line of his lashes, tensed and waiting for any following sign of movement.

None came, however, and the slighter butler hid a small smile against the sharp line of Phipps’ jawline.

“Go and fetch my scissors, and I’ll finish up here,” Phipps ordered, nonplussed at Grey’s particular set of actions—both pragmatic to the extreme and used to his fellow officer’s antics. “Then we can head back to camp and discuss what to do next to finish up the mission.”

“Over supper?” came Grey’s prompt inquiry as he moved just enough to ensure that his entire weight now sprawled over Phipps’ back, perhaps figuring that an increase in weight would emphasize the fact that he was truly starving and fully expected to be fed—and soon.

Phipps didn’t roll his eyes at the question, though the temptation was there with how he glanced over his shoulder to meet Grey’s equally light gaze. “Yes, over supper,” he eventually answered, reply droll and dry and only lifting an eyebrow at the shorter man’s triumphant smirk as Grey’s attention immediately shifted over to the promised food he’d be eating soon enough. Before they wrapped up here, however, and Grey became more thoroughly distracted: “Retrieve my scissors, Grey. I don’t wish to leave them behind.”

Mainly because, while they were Phipps’ third best pair, it was pointless to leave behind useful tools—

And also because the scissors were engraved with a small rendition of the Royal Family’s Coat of Arms, tucked along the hinge of the blade; worked into the design to make it as seamless as possible, true enough, but still readily apparent for anyone who chose to actually look.

Though it took a moment or two, the order eventually had Grey unwrapping his limbs from Phipps’ to step back and away, heading towards the spot where the scissors had disappeared into the underbrush. It was second nature to move past various scrubs and reaching tree limbs, tracking down the blade’s path with an ease that gave truth to the fact that this wasn’t the first time that the silver-haired man had done such a thing. It didn’t take long before Grey came across the body of one of the base’s survivors (perhaps its only one), and the Queen’s Butler stared down at the unmoving form with a hard glint in his light gaze, mouth twisted up in an unhappy, angry frown.

A sniper’s rifle had landed not too far from the body’s outreaching hand—as if the man had still intended to have it go off, even in death—and the anger that had settled like a heavy weight within Grey’s chest sparked and burned at the memory of just how many bullet holes had riddled Phipps’ coat, how many close calls his partner had had this time: the thought lingered, as well, that perhaps this was one of the men who had nearly landed a hit on the swordsman’s partner.

The gesture was a petty one, but Grey did nothing to stifle the urge as his foot drew back to land a solid hit along the side of an unmoving ribcage. Unlike the time with the Watchdog’s butler, the Queen’s officer knew that this man would not be getting up again.

Anger momentarily appeased—there were at least three other bases that he and Phipps would be hitting over the course of the following week, ensuring that the smoldering heart of the shorter man’s fury would eventually be spent at some point during this mission—Grey leaned down and tugged Phipps’ pair of scissors from the body’s chest, cleaning the blades on the man’s clothing with quick, practiced efficiency.

“Ready?” Phipps called out from where he had remained in the clearing. “It’s almost time to rendezvous with the horses that John Brown sent to pick us up.”

Such was the life of one of the Queen’s Butlers, her trusted Private Secretarial Officer: Her Majesty’s tasks always came first and foremost—everything else was nothing more than a secondary concern. Even though Grey would have wanted nothing more than to fan the flames of his rage a little longer, a little hotter—would have preferred to have the chance to ensure that there were truly no survivors in this particular attack—the mission didn’t allow for it, and it was time to continue moving forward.

Heaving a softly dissatisfied sigh, the shorter of the two officers tucked the cleaned scissors into a pocket and turned on a heel to return to his waiting partner.

+

It was several hours later before the two officers were finally able to make camp—needing to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the destroyed German base—but, when they finally bunker down for the night, Grey resumed his previous position: slumped over Phipps’ back, watching with a silvered eagle gaze as the other butler began putting together a surprisingly well-done meal considering the limited access to both cooking supplies and food.

Nose twitching hopefully at the scents that were starting to waft up from Phipps’ frying pan, Grey leaned in more of his weight against the other’s back and reached over his partner’s shoulder, fully intended on snatching a bit of the shepherd’s pie crust; before Grey could come away with the thieved bit of mashed potatoes, Phipps’ spatula made an appearance, smacking the back of the shorter man’s hand before Grey could actually steal away any of the food.

“No,” Phipps said, tone both flat and firm—and Grey was familiar enough with that command: knowing that there was no point in trying to argue against it; the only thing that he could do was wait until Phipps was finally done. The sigh the shorter officer gave in response verged on mournful, and Grey purposefully settled his entire weight on Phipps in revenge.

“It’s been a long day today. I want doubles,” he muttered petulantly against the pale line of Phipps’ throat.

The taller man didn’t turn away from their dinner, still diligently working on preparing their meal, but Grey could hear the slight smile in the other’s voice as fingers briefly buried in the silk of his hair, cupping the back of his head in a lingering, affectionate caress that immediately had Grey’s eyes closing as he let go the last of the tension that had lingered in his limbs. It was such a small touch for the impact that it had upon the Queen’s Butler, but it meant enough to have Grey yet again hooking a possessive arm over Phipps’ shoulder—this time purposefully settling the palm of his hand flat over the steady beating of the taller man’s heart.

Several close calls today and the damage done to Phipps’ double-breasted coat lay testament to that fact: enough near misses that Grey would most likely be even more brutal than usual at the next base they were to leave in ruins—but a game was only a game as long as the silver-eyed man was winning.

And this was a piece that Grey had no intention of losing.

His gaze went half-lidded and lazy, watching as Phipps finished up the last of their dinner’s preparations; as the shaggy-haired man set aside the cooking utensils but before Phipps had the chance to reach for what would be passing as their cutlery until they returned home to England, Grey caught the taller man’s chin in an unrelenting grip and leaned in close to steal a kiss, soul-searing and hungry even as he slowly managed to coax Phipps’ lips into parting so that he could deepen it, turn it possessive and claiming with every slow, wet stroke of his tongue.

Phipps allowed it to continue for a moment or two longer, but he pulled away in the end. “I’m fine,” he chided his shorter counterpart, icy gaze calm and collected—and always standing as counterpart for his mirror. “I was unharmed during the attack. There’s no need to continue fretting, Grey.”

And yet:

The gentle words sparked something nearly feral within the other butler, burning as bright as the heart of a star as Grey brushed a thumb over the beauty mark that kissed the left side of Phipps’ jawline. “You’re mine,” Grey said and blazed, the hue of his gaze standing counterpoint to the storms that came in the deepest part of winter. “You’re mine, Phipps, and they had the gall--“

“But they did not. And that is enough for today,” Phipps interrupted before the barely-leashed rage was able to fight free. The curve of his smile was gentle as he watched Grey finally begin to resettle himself for the rest of the night, and the more composed of the two men leaned in to press an equally gentle kiss to Grey’s forehead. “Come and eat, Grey. And tell me about your latest theory about Phantomhive’s butler.”

The promise of both food and the chance to wax poetic about the suspicious actions of the Watchdog’s staff had Grey perking up slightly in interest—and it was one that grew as food began to fill the bottomless pit that had always been his belly and Grey began to explain the first of many new theories that he had drafted regarding the Phantomhive staff in general and Sebastian Michaelis in particular. One of Grey’s theories—that Michaelis was actually a demon contractually bound to Phantomhive (what seemed like half a world away, Sebastian paused in the middle of his duties, head cocking to one side as if listening to something that no one else could hear; he smiled slightly, eyes flickering for just a moment with balefire, bloody and violent and wicked)—had Phipps rolling his eyes at the outlandishness of Grey’s suspicions, so the shorter of the two butlers switched to his thoughts on how the burgundy-eyed man was actually a visitor from another world.

Astronomy was developing and growing in leaps and bounds, and the explanation was just as likely as any other, after all—and it neatly avoided any discussion of ghosts, as well, which was always a bonus in Grey’s opinion.

Eventually, however, the food ran out and Grey’s theories ran down; it left silence, lingering and thick, between the two silver-eyed and silver-haired butlers: Grey muffled its oppressive weight by once more pressing his face against the curve of Phipps’ throat, breathing in the familiar scent of sweat and horse and blade oil and the faintest trace of cologne that still clung stubbornly to the other officer’s clothes.

“Grey,” Phipps murmured, low and rough and brushed his fingertips over the corner of his partner’s mouth. The prompt and touch both were enough to coax Grey into tilting his head upwards once more, arctic gaze falling shut as Phipps’ mouth once more settled over his own. The kiss this time was sweeter, slower: losing the frentic pace that Grey himself had tried to push it towards—reflecting both men and the emotions that they felt for the other; Phipps was bedrock, strong and sturdy enough to weather the maelstrom that Grey so oftentimes became.

The kiss was enough to have Grey curling his fingers in Phipps’ jacket, using the hold to drag the taller man closer before taking advantage of his grip to shove the shaggy-haired man to the forest floor beneath them both; he slung a leg over Phipps’ hips, claiming the kiss for his own even as it deepened and turned hot burning inferno-bright within the whispering secrets that the night and its twilight-limed shadows provided.

“We have an early start tomorrow,” Phipps hoarsely reminded Grey when the kiss finally broke and they both panted for air against the other’s mouth; his fingers gave lie to the intent of his words, however: even as he spoke, Phipps was working at undoing the devil’s knot that Grey’s cravat had become.

“I don’t care,” Grey answered in turn and scraped his teeth over the beauty mark that had always managed to draw his attention, even from the very start. His answer managed to get a rough laugh, there-and-gone-again, from Phipps, but it wasn’t long before the taller man once more directed his attention to more—important—tasks, and Grey was left triumphant in the fact that he had managed to win this specific game of chance.

Claiming his prize was one that he relished in taking with great pleasure.

+

Violence was something that Grey had long ago grown used to, numbing himself to blood and pain and rage even as he buried deep within the visceral, primal symbolism of it all and embraced it with open, waiting arms: there had always been a darkness within him—within his family—and while there was honor in doing the Queen’s bidding, in being sword and shield both, there was something freeing in finally allowing that shadowed portion of his soul to stretch far and wide and take flight.

I win, Grey thought as he ducked beneath a charging soldier, sword flickering through the air to halve the other man’s revolver: never pausing long enough to watch in satisfaction as metal pieces went tumbling to the ground, followed soon after by its owner as a spray of blood arched through the air. One by one, challenging Fate in a life or death game of chance—outgunned, outnumbered, perhaps outplayed.

But Grey always managed to come out on top.

He won, over and over and over again, and managed to keep his life as the prize that everyone playing coveted and aimed to claim for themselves.

Blood and bodies were thick upon the ground, smoke filling the buildings to make it both difficult to see and breathe, but there was nothing that managed to stand in Grey’s way—nothing that managed to stand in the swordsman’s way and remain standing. Everyone fell even as the silver-eyed man darted forward and deeper into the base that held secrets that Her Majesty wanted for her own—running as the guard before Phipps and turning with prejudiced attention towards anyone who lifted a gun the taller man’s way.

No: Violence was not new—nor was it unknown.

And when the last soldier had fallen to the ground, struck down by Grey’s blade, the man had the satisfaction in seeing that Phipps was unharmed this time around—satisfaction settling like an ember within his chest as he turned and patted down the other’s double-breasted coat, noting that no bullet holes had managed to mar the fabric this time around. No close calls, no near misses: just his. Whole and unbloodied.

“You’re absolutely ridiculous, Grey,” Phipps said with a small shake of his head; even as the words escaped him, he caught the shorter butler’s forearm, bringing it up to press a soft kiss to the vulnerable skin of Grey’s inner wrist—and ignoring, as well, the crimson smudge that stained the lace at Grey’s cuff.

The exasperation didn’t matter, however, not in the end or perhaps even ever:

This game was Grey’s.

::fin::