Chapter 1: Prologue
By God, he hated the ticking of the clock beside the bench he was sitting on. It was a cruel reminder of how quickly time passed and how little he knew about what was going on behind the door at the end of the hallway. His hands were shaking, holding onto the small handkerchief Wilhelmina had given him earlier. She had left half an hour ago in an attempt to find out if there was any hope left. Her absence made the aching in his chest even more unbearable.
The sound of women’s heels echoing through the corridor made him look up, scrambling to his feet. When Wilhelmina turned the corner, skirts rustling as she hurried towards him, Alfred didn’t know how exactly to interpret the look on her face.
“Is he…?” he asked, voice already wavering, unable to speak the dreaded word. She smiled, clutching his hands as she reached him.
“The doctors say he will likely make it. He has lost a lot of blood and he is still unconscious but they have retrieved the ball and managed to stop the bleeding.”
The weight that fell off his shoulders in that moment couldn’t be described and he hugged her, arms locking so tightly around her he was sure she could no longer breathe. She didn’t complain, only reciprocated the embrace with gentle hands. Of course he wasn’t out of the woods yet, he could still die from his injuries but at least this battle had been won.
“He must rest now, if he wants to have any chance of a full recovery. I’ve arranged with Florence and his mother that you can visit him later.”
The thought of facing Edward’s family made Alfred’s heart pound in his chest and he pulled away from Wilhelmina, his expression nervous and hesitant. He felt like they would all see through him the second they laid eyes on him. He couldn’t face that humiliation, not from his fiancée. What if he would then never be allowed to see Edward again? Wilhelmina felt his fear and she took his hand, squeezing it softly as she gave him a reassuring look.
“They believe you are worried for a close friend, Lord Alfred, and nothing will make them think otherwise.” Her voice was gentle and comforting, and he nodded in reply.
“Where would I be without you, miss Coke?” he said, smiling through the tears that had welled in his eyes and were blurring his sight.
“Now, you must return to the palace and inform the Queen. I will send for you when you can see him,” and with those words, her elegant gloved hands came to wipe a stray tear off his cheek. “All will be well, Lord Alfred. God has not forsaken us yet.”
Chapter 2: Chapter One
Alfred returns to the palace, finding it hard to keep up appearances.
I was planning to only start posting this fic after I'd finished the fifth chapter, but a friend's been pulling my sleeve and I figured, what the hell. Have this first chapter already. I'm hoping to post two and three some time this week.
It was a dreary morning in London, fog and soft rain covering the streets of London with an atmosphere that perfectly reflected what Alfred felt as he watched the houses pass by from inside his carriage. On any other day, he would’ve made the journey on horseback but not today. He could barely keep his mind in one place, let alone focus on riding. Leaning against the side panel, gaze cast out but not really seeing anything, he let himself carried away from the place he should be.
His eyes were tired, constantly fluttering shut in an attempt to get some rest after a night of nervous waiting, trying to suppress he growing ache in his chest. Shaking fingertips tugged at his tie, loosening it so he could breathe for just a moment. All this time, it had felt like a noose around his neck.
Thoughts wandered to the moment he had received the news, those few seconds his world had stopped turning. He’d been with the Duchess of Buccleugh and Wilhelmina, watching as the latter practiced her piano skills and keeping her elderly aunt occupied with small talk. All of them had been waiting until the Queen would call for them, but instead of a messenger requesting their presence in her quarters, the boy had brought a small folded piece of paper that he handed to the Duchess. She took a quick glance at it and then casually announced Robert Peel’s private secretary had been shot. It had taken all his strength and willpower not to collapse that very moment. He could still feel the sensation of Wilhelmina placing her hand over his, which was gripping so tightly onto the piano he was leaning on his knuckles had turned white. Luckily, she knew Edward’s fiancée and he was broadly believed to be a close friend of him, giving them an excuse to rush to his house immediately.
Of course they hadn’t let them see him. Surgeons had been desperately trying to save his life and so they had been left in a small salon, together with Peel and Wellington. He could see the blood on Peel’s vest and shirt, Edward’s blood, as they walked in and he hadn’t dared to give the prime minister another glance all night.
The carriage turned a corner and Buckingham Palace came into view, shaking Alfred from his painful memories. He knew the Queen would be waiting for news on Drummond’s fate and he couldn’t afford to walk in looking like the mess he was. Sitting up straight, he hastily fixed his tie and hair. Handkerchief was pulled out of his pocket, wiping fresh and dried tears off his cheeks before closing his eyes. Clutching onto the silk piece of cloth, he took a few deep breaths as they continued to rattle across the cobble stones and onto the palace courtyard. He was a Paget, for God’s sake. He could do this.
As expected, a lackey approached him as soon as his foot touched the ground and he was taking through the hallways of the palace to a sitting room close to Victoria’s chambers. The large double doors opened and he could already see the Queen on one of the sofas, together with the prince and the Duchess of Buccleugh. Their heads lifted immediately and Victoria rose to her feet, wringing her hands in her lap. Alfred bowed his head, his own hands folding behind his back to hide they were still shaking.
“How is he? Will he make it?” her soft, concerned voice asked as he kept his gaze directed to the floor.
“The doctors have succeeded in removing the ball and have stopped the bleeding. He is alive but it remains unsure whether he will make it. It’s in the hands of God now,” he replied, keeping his tone as serious and stable as he could, but he noticed the Duchess throw him a firm glance from behind the Queen. It made him wonder if perhaps she knew, if she had seen through the mask he had tried to put up. Blue eyes were cast down to the ground, trying to avoid the old lady’s piercing stare. He could hear the Queen sigh in relief and exchange a few words with the prince. Then, footsteps and her skirts intruded his view of the magnificent Persian carpet.
“Thank you, Lord Alfred. We know you have struck up a close friendship with mister Drummond and we can only imagine the distress this is causing you and his family. I will write a letter to his fiancée that you can take with you on your next visit and once mister Drummond has recovered, I will visit him myself.”
Suddenly, a small elegant hand reached for his arm, resting on it for just a second or two before disappearing again. Despite the shortness of the contact, it was oddly comforting to Alfred. He nodded in reply, giving the Queen a grateful smile.
“Thank you, Your Majesty. That would be a great comfort to Florence and his mother.” A short pause and then he added: “He will recover, I am sure of it.”
With that, the conversation was over and he was led out of the room again by a servant. Not that he minded, he could use some fresh clothes and a splash of cold water in his face to wash away the emotions of the past twenty-four hours. Long, determined strides took him through the hallways of the palace, heading straight for his quarters. Unfortunately, it seemed refreshing would have to wait a little while longer, as a raspy voice called out his name. He spun on his heels to see the Duchess of Buccleugh moving towards him with a dark expression on her face, her cane tapping harshly onto the floor with every step he took. In less than a second, he was overcome with a panic and he couldn’t help but stumble back a step, his body switching into flight mode. Earlier, he had wondered whether she knew and her pursuit of him was only confirmation of that worry.
“D-Duchess,” he muttered, swallowing harshly as he commanded his body to stay where he was, “Is there something I can do for you?”
“Yes, Lord Alfred. You can stop feigning such a surprise and tell the truth for once,” her harsh voice demanded and she came to a halt right in front of him.
Knees seemed to give in underneath him and yet he managed to stay upright, even though he figured he must be pale as a sheet at that point.
“I have no idea what you are talking about, Duchess,” he tried, weakly.
Her firm stare broke through his last defences and his shoulders slumped. This was the exact reason he had been afraid of acting upon his feelings for Edward. Despite whatever measures they would take to keep their affections secret, someone would always see through them and God knows what the consequences might be then. Social ruin, ostracism and perhaps even death.
“I may be old, but I am not blind, Lord Alfred. Besides, you aren’t a champion at being subtle, either.”
He wasn’t sure, but it seemed there was a hint of amusement to her voice. Hesitantly, he dared to look up at her and behold, there was indeed a small curl at the corners of her lips. He swallowed hard.
“Will you tell the Queen?” he asked softly, hands clutched together as he desperately tried to keep them from shaking too visibly.
“It is none of the Queen’s business,” he reply came, calm and simple, “But I suggest you are a little more… discrete about your affections, Lord Alfred. I am aware this must be a distressing time for you, but for the love of God, collect yourself. A forbidden love is one thing, displaying it so openly and emotionally is another.”
Her reprimand was firm, and yet he sensed some worry in her words. Those tiny, piercing eyes harboured a small twinkle of concern. Alfred couldn’t deny he appreciated it. With a slow nod, he acknowledged her advice.
“I will, I swear. It has just been an incredibly long night.”
Her gloved hand moved to touch his arm and then rose to pat his cheek ever so slightly.
“Then go and get some rest, my boy. If there is any news, I will make sure to wake you.”
There was a weak smile at Alfred’s lips as he bowed his head, muttered a thank you and then disappeared around the corner and into his chambers. Once the door fell shut behind him, he seemed to crumble, his strength finally leaving him and giving him no other choice than to collapse. Back against the door and hands buried in now messy blond hair, a series of muffled sobs escaped him. His tie was discarded on the ground, vest quickly following and he unbuttoned his shirt. Never before had his clothes felt like such a prison, as if they were too small for his body. His head fell back against the door and he stared up at the ceiling, feeling the urge to cry but knowing he had spent all his tears in the past few hours.
After about half an hour, he struggled to his feet and dragged himself to the bed on the other side of the room, letting his tired body curl into the sheets. His mind was still stuck with Edward, but the emotions of the past night had worn him out enough to sleep. It barely took him ten minutes before eyelids slowly fluttered shut and he was carried off into a deep, restless sleep.