When the orchestra took another break, Z decided she wasn't going to give Tennessee a chance to escape after all. She stepped back, bowing gracefully, and as she straightened she offered her arm to Tennessee as though it was the most natural thing in the world, and when Tennessee accepted began to lead her along the path away from the pavilion. Tennessee crinkled her nose in amusement and let herself be led.
"I've been thinking," Z said, steering Tennessee around a shrub that trailed shadowy leaves into the path, "and I don't know that your helping your father to minister to the sick and wounded excuses you from ladylike sensibilities at all." She gave Tennessee a severe look, lifting one hand to tilt her mask. "A lady should be an angel of mercy to those in need, you know; I'm sure I've read that somewhere. Perhaps in the novels of Mrs Radcliffe?"
Tennessee looked serious. "I shouldn't think so. Mrs Radcliffe's heroines know to faint at the mention of blood."
They turned a corner in the path, entering a new and even more secluded way, hung with the ever-present fairy-like lanterns. Z gave Tennessee a sceptical look. "Really? I'd forgotten that." She waved a hand. "It doesn't matter. My point is that you'll have to do more to persuade me that you aren't the very image of a demure Almacks belle; I'm not convinced." She grinned. "Tell me something outrageous, Miss Thomas. No, better: tell me three."
Tennessee narrowed her eyes at Z. Then her lip curled in a smile and she held up three fingers, taking up the challenge. "One," she said, counting off on her first finger, "The first time I met the Duke of Wellington I had just been in the sickroom, and I hadn't had an opportunity to thoroughly wash my hands. He offered to kiss my hand in greeting, of course, and I went entirely blank on ways to refuse." She slanted a look at Z. "His face," she confided, "The way he wrinkled his nose ..."
Z choked into laughter, tugging Tennessee closer by the arm and making her laugh and sway.
Tennessee straightened her spine, holding up her hand once more. "Two," she said, "I once pretended to be my own maidservant at an inn, come on ahead with the porter, because my maid had come down with the cholera and I'd had to leave her behind, and I didn't want to scandalise the aunt I was visiting by travelling without a female companion."
Z lifted the hand Tennessee was counting with, pressing another kiss to it because she couldn't help herself. "That was very considerate of you," she agreed. "I hope your aunt appreciated the gesture."
Tennessee pressed her lips together over a laugh and didn't elaborate.
"Three," Tennessee said, gently drawing her hand back, "I waltzed with a stranger in a glade at Vauxhall, and let him ask the most ridiculous questions." She bit her lip. "There; your turn."
Listening to herself talk was one of Z's favourite pastimes. She was a little shocked to realise that she would have preferred to continue listening to Tennessee talk, just now.
Oh well. She tilted her head, considering for a moment telling Tennessee something true. She discarded the idea a moment later; she was quite aware that every scandal Lady Elizabeth Berg had ever caused was well known around town.
"I killed a man in Vienna, of course," she said airily instead. "He was a rake, and a wastrel, you know how it goes. You wouldn't have liked him."
"I suppose it's as well you killed him, then," Tennessee said gravely.
They passed another party, two young ladies whispering behind fans while their chaperone lagged behind; Z tipped her hat, her smile tigerish, and one of the ladies bit her lip and turned to gaze after them.
"I was almost killed myself, in Moscow," Z said, her voice even more of a swaggering purr than before. Good Goddamn, she loved this role. She grinned at Tennessee, delighted that she was so easily picking up the joke. "Cheating at cards in a gaming hell, you know; if I hadn't a quick hand to the draw I'd not be standing here."
"Mm," Tennessee said, drawing her brows together in concern. "I hope you weren't cheating against any rakes or wastrels?"
"Oh, every one of them," Z said. She flipped her coattails behind her, taking a more secure hold on Tennessee's elbow. "Three," she said, and two gentlemen turned into their path, one of them bumping against Tennessee and knocking her elbow into Z's.
He gave her a brief nod of apology, already talking to his companion again.
"I beg your pardon, sir," Z growled. She took hold of his coat sleeve and he spun around.
"The devil?" he demanded.
Z let go of Tennessee's arm, allowing her to rub her elbow. "I believe you knocked into my companion," Z said.
The two men looked to be in their early thirties, well-heeled and affecting immaculate whiskers. Both had abandoned their masks, one dangling his from his fingers with a careless air. The other, who had bumped Tennessee, gave her a glance up and down, taking in the elegant but simple cut to her dress and her flyaway hair. "Your pardon, ma'am," he said dismissively.
Z tilted her mask, directing a slit-eyed stare at him. "Your sincerity overwhelms her," she said. "Is this your manner with every lady? You must be terribly popular with them."
Tennessee made a small choking sound.
The gentleman drew himself up, his upper lip flaring. "You walk on perilous ground, boy."
Z linked her hands behind her back, sauntering two or three steps so that he was forced to turn to face her. "My favourite path," she said, a light edge of danger in her voice. "I am asking you to apologise appropriately to Miss Thomas."
"Er," Tennessee said.
The gentleman's companion plucked at his sleeve. "Enough, Rotham," he said uneasily. "This is nothing but a farce."
Mr Rotham curled his lip again. "My friend is right, pipsqueak." He smoothed down the sleeve Z had disarrayed, beginning to turn away. "I've no interest in you."
Z drew herself up, her eyes flashing. "What did you insinuate about my height, you cur?" she demanded. "You're lucky I don't strike you down where you stand."
"Oh my God," Tennessee said in a very quiet voice.
"You!" Rotham cried, his face flushing again. "You couldn't reach me, boy."
Z drew out a handkerchief in an impetuous motion, dashing it upon the ground. Rotham stared at it for a second, shocked.
Z drew herself up once more. "My name is Elliot," she said, breathless and icy, "and I am calling you out, sir."
"You dare," Rotham said blankly. His friend pressed a hand to his forehead, groaning.
Z lifted her chin. "The morning after tomorrow. Green Park at dawn. Name your second, so that my man will know whom to call upon."
Rotham stared at the handkerchief for a moment longer. Then he lifted his face, tearing off his mask. His face below it was mottled and furious. "My second is Winterworth, here," he said icily. He bowed to Tennessee, his expression vicious. "I wish you joy of your companion, ma'am; I fear you won't be able to enjoy his presence for long."
Tennessee had a gloved hand pressed to her mouth. She stared at him, nodding jerkily, then shook her head as she realised what she was agreeing with.
Mr Winterworth groaned again as his friend swept off. He shook his head, but drew out a calling card and presented it to Z. "Your man may reach me here," he said. "If he must, I suppose." He doffed his hat at Tennessee and followed Rotham up the path, hurrying to keep up.
Z was still buzzing with adrenaline. She turned to Tennessee. "There," she drawled, feeling something fierce and alive in her veins. She grinned, tigerish again. "I hate it when life gets dull."
Tennessee pressed her hand harder against her mouth. Then she dropped it. "What did you do that for?" she asked, hushed.
Z shrugged, one shouldered, and offered her arm for Tennessee to hold. Tennessee took it, hesitantly, and Z gave her a sweet, exultant smile. "You should forget you heard that, probably," she said. "Shall I take you back to your family, or would you like to dance some more?"
Tennessee ducked her head, the mask entirely shielding her expression with her mouth in shadow. "I think I had best get home," she said. "I have a great deal to think about."
Z smiled again, the zing in her veins becoming something sweeter. "Don't think too hard," she advised. "It's never worth it in the long run."
Mr Elliot had said that they were staying with the Bergs, and when Brendon checked with Miss Elliot that that was the direction he should take her, her mouth quirked and she dropped her head, but she nodded.
"I can still get you a sedan chair," Brendon said. She shook her head immediately. He bit down on his smile, letting himself wonder if she wanted to make the evening last as much as he did.
This was foolishness of the worst kind, Brendon knew. It was foolish to spend a whole evening in the company of a girl he couldn't have a conversation with; foolish to start interpreting her different expressions as though they were entire conversations; foolish to kiss her; foolish to walk her home. It was just, he thought, that no one had ever willingly spent so much time in his company before – certainly not any of his sisters' fashionable acquaintances who took in his bumbling and his bad jokes and his too loud laugh, and thought No, thank you. No one had ever looked at him and raised their eyebrows in a way that made it very clear how much of an idiot they thought he was, and wanted to stay anyway.
Brendon was just a little infatuated – in a way he'd only been once before.
"Are you sure your shoes aren't pinching?" he asked.
She wrinkled her nose a little, smiling, and shrugged one shoulder. A moment later her foot turned on a cobble stone and she gasped, clutching at his arm with her other hand. She was laughing again, silently, when she tilted her face up to him.
"It's beyond me how women can walk in those things at all," Brendon confided, enjoying the way she was now walking just a little closer to him.
She pulled back to cast a sceptical glance down at his own boots, fashionably heeled thanks to Spencer's influence, and raised her eyebrows.
He flushed, laughing. "Yes, all right, but at least I could run in these if I had to. You," he said with certainty, "would break your neck."
She just smiled, leaning back in against him as they walked.
Brendon was conscious of the warmth of her, the achingly perfect way she fit against him, the meandering of their footsteps. Carriages and other pedestrians passed them, lanterns swinging, and Brendon didn't even bother to look up to see if there was anybody he knew. He felt drugged, the flickering light of street lamps and the night around them and the girl on his arm.
They did at last reach the square the Berg residence fronted, though. She dropped his arm, slowly, and looked at him.
Brendon wanted to do something, say something, more than a 'good night' could express. He darted over to a wall decked in climbing roses and went up onto his toes to pick the most perfect of them. A thorn caught him through his glove, spearing deep, and he hissed. When he turned to present it to Miss Elliot with a gallant bow, though, she smiled, ridiculously delighted, and Brendon forgot to notice the ache in his thumb.
She held it in her hands for a moment, turning it over and looking at him, a slim figure, the blue of her gown half shrouded by her cloak. Then she shook her head and turned away – and then her feet were light on the steps and she was disappearing through the door the butler held open for her.
She hadn't said a word or made a sign, and Brendon hadn't either. It came to him that he was holding his breath. He let it out in a rush, subsiding back against a wall.
Then, like the idiot he so clearly was, he lingered a little way down the street, on the opposite side of the road so he had a clear view of the windows of the house. It wasn't much like it was in novels; he couldn't see anybody through them, let alone any winsome silhouettes.
His finger was still throbbing. Brendon swallowed, remembering Miss Elliot's expression when she took it, and the way she had swayed forward for a moment.
In any case, his heart was still pounding too rapidly for him to go home and attempt to sleep. He may as well lurk here like a lovesick fool as go anywhere else.
Only a little time had passed when he was startled out of his own thoughts by the sound of a carriage clattering up the street. It stopped in front of the Berg house, and Mr Elliot climbed down the steps with a swagger, thumbs hooked in his belt. Brendon raised an eyebrow. He wondered what Mr Elliot had gotten up to all evening that had him looking so pleased with himself.
Mr Elliot turned around, said something to the coach driver and laughed loudly, counting money out from a small purse. Then the Berg house's door opened, light flooding out, and Brendon blinked in surprise as Ryan Ross came half-stumbling out onto the pavement, catching himself on Mr Elliot's shoulders.
Brendon supposed he was a friend of Lady Elizabeth Berg's, so it wasn't that strange, but it was still startling.
"Z," Ryan said, and Brendon took a moment to remember Mr Elliot's given name before he laughed softly to himself. They had their heads bent together, talking quickly; Ryan waved a hand around, looking distressed, then he screwed up his face and said, far too loudly, "A duel? "
Mr Elliot laughed, putting his hand in a comforting way on Ryan's shoulder. Ryan was clutching at Mr Elliot's forearms, and the streetlight shone full upon his face; Brendon could see his frantic expression, the nervousness there, his red mouth –
Brendon straightened. No, he thought, just as Ryan tilted his hand so that Brendon could see the rose Ryan was holding as if it was the most precious thing on earth. Brendon clutched onto the gate he was leaning against, feeling dizzy, and Mr Elliot shook his head at Ryan and grinned.
No, Brendon thought again, and then Mr Elliot was leading Ryan back inside. Ryan stopped halfway to the door, turning around and looking straight at the streetlight under which Brendon had stood with – with her – and he touched his mouth. Then he slipped inside.
"Fuck," Brendon said weakly.
The next morning, Z was still swearing that she was going to duel Rotham the following day. Ryan had hoped that maybe a night's sleep in her own nightgown would make her sensible, but in that he'd been ignoring the fact that Z was hardly ever sensible, dressed as a boy or not.
When he himself had got up it had felt strange to get dressed, his fingers clumsy with his waistcoat despite the fact that it was what he used to, and he had come downstairs to find Z twirling her father's revolver and wondering aloud if she could practice with the china cabinet.
"Only the ugly cups, Ryan," she said when he gaped.
He spent most of breakfast trying to talk her out of it, long after he knew he'd lost, just to postpone thinking about the other events of last night. He even considered dressing up as Miss Elliot again and tracking down Z's Miss Thomas to convince her to talk Z out of it. But it had to be admitted that mute Georgina Elliot would not be very good at talking people out of things, and in any case Ryan suspected that if he changed back into the dress he wouldn't be able to resist seeking Brendon out again. That wouldn't be a good idea.
He sighed into his juice. "Ryan," Z said, her eyes softening. She reached across the table to take his hand and squeeze it.
Something caught in Ryan's chest. He yanked his hand back and stood quickly, his chair scraping backward.
"Excuse me," he said. "I think I may go for a morning walk."
"Ryan," Z said. He folded his arms and set his jaw, and Z slumped in her chair. "Where will you go?"
"Just up to Hyde Park, maybe," he said, fiddling with his cuffs. "I just – need some air."
"Don't go too long," Z said. "Come back here and we'll have hot cocoa and I'll trounce you at checkers again."
"Right," Ryan said, and made for the door, snatching up his hat and coat on the way.
The park was busy, couples strolling and groups of small children running amok. It was a windy morning, and Ryan considered wandering across the street to the public house there for something hot to drink, but he was still mostly full from breakfast and he didn't really need anything. He just wanted to walk with the cool breeze and his hands in his pockets and not think about anything in particular, anyone at all.
Last night had been stupid. It had seemed like a good idea, and Z was still idiotically pleased with herself this morning, but all Ryan could feel was miserable. It had been stupid to think that one night with Brendon would be enough. At the time Ryan hadn't known better, of course, but he'd woken this morning feeling equal parts elated and awful, and then he'd sat and stared at the rose for a while, and remembered kissing Brendon, and it was no good. Ryan thought he might go away for a while. He was ruined for town.
His gaze having somehow dropped from the sky to his feet, Ryan didn't notice the person waiting in front of him until he bumped into them.
"Excuse me," he said, stumbling back, and then he looked up and met Brendon Urie's eyes.
Brendon was paler than Ryan remembered from last night, although that could just be the morning light. There were shadows under his eyes that made Ryan wonder if he'd gone back to the party after taking Ryan home. He was holding his hat in his hands. Ryan stared.
"Good morning, Mr Ross," Brendon said gravely.
Ryan swallowed. "Mr Urie." He bowed. The movement brought him closer to Brendon, and a for a second Ryan breathed him in, the warm boyish scent of him. Last night, Ryan had smelled like Brendon when he got home, the imprint of Brendon's hands on him.
"How are you this morning?" Brendon asked.
"Quite well, thank you," Ryan said. "And you?"
"A little tired, I confess." Brendon shrugged one bony shoulder, not taking his eyes away from Ryan's face.
Ryan curled his hands into balls in his pockets to keep them from shaking. "Were you," he began, and then stopped, cleared his throat, tried again. "Did you attend the masquerade at Vauxhall Gardens last night?"
"Yes," Brendon said. "It was." He swallowed, looking away. Ryan's heart was stuck in his throat. "An enjoyable evening," he finished eventually. "Did you? Go, I mean."
"Unfortunately not," Ryan said. "I was feeling unwell. A sore head. I don't think the music and fireworks would have done me much good." He realised suddenly that he hadn't even seen the fireworks. He must have been too distracted to notice when they were set off.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Brendon said.
They stood silently for a moment, then Ryan managed a smile. "Well, Mr Urie, it was a pleasure to –"
"May I walk with you?" Brendon asked. "For a little while?"
Ryan stared. "I'm not sure your family would approve."
"My mother's nerves will survive," Brendon said lightly. "What of yours?"
"My father is dead several years now," Ryan said automatically. "If I want family censorship, I must offend myself."
"Well, then," Brendon said, soft. "Shall we?"
Ryan very nearly took his arm.
He ducked his head, pretending he had been adjusting his cuff. Arm-in-arm was perhaps a little friendlier than Brendon had been thinking when he'd proposed flouting the family feud. He tucked his hands behind his back, instead, trying to look as though he was strolling casually. His hands were shaking.
"It's a shame you missed the masquerade last night." Brendon shot Ryan a grin, which Ryan had no idea what to do with. "There were some amazing costumes."
Ryan bit his lip. "By 'amazing' do you mean 'horrifying'?" he asked, trying to slip into the joking style of conversation Brendon seemed to be going for.
Brendon grinned wider. "Totally horrifying. Lady Dreybridge had all four of her daughters dressed up in peacock feather headdresses; you couldn't even see them through the feathers."
Ryan hadn't seen the Dreybridge girls last night, but he could picture it. His smile began to feel more natural.
"Old Sir Ambrose Finch was on the prowl, too." Brendon widened his eyes. "Jaguar mask," he said, lowering his voice to a hush. His eyes were bright. "And a night-black cloak. I nearly pulled something trying not to laugh."
Ryan gave him a horrified look. "Hell, is that how he sees himself, do you think? As a jaguar? "
Brendon twirled his hat in his hands, putting it back on and dipping it to a rakish angle. "A lithe and predatory grace to his every movement," he drawled.
He was still struggling with a sense of unreality. Maybe the family feud wasn't the life-and-death rift that it had been in his father's time, but it was there and it was real. And Brendon was strolling along at Ryan's side joking with him as though he didn't even care; as though this was something they had ever done before. It wasn't something they had ever done before.
Ryan kept wanting to sway into Brendon's side.
"Was ..." Ryan heard himself start. "Um, who else was there?" Are you still thinking about me? he thought. About her? Then he had to look down because it felt as though his gaze must be burning a hole in Brendon, he wanted so badly to know.
Brendon shot him a quick, conscious look. "I saw your friends the Walkers," he said. "And ... I actually met some cousins of Lord and Lady Berg. Their daughter Lady Elizabeth is a friend of yours, isn't she? So you might ... you might know them."
"Oh," Ryan said. He fought a brief war with himself over whether to feign ignorance, and lost. "You mean the Elliots? What did, um. What did you think of them?"
Brendon seemed to be finding his hands fascinating. "I thought they were nice," he said quietly.
Ryan had to bite down on his lip to keep from letting his disappointment out.
"I thought they were unlike any people I'd met," Brendon said. He looked up, straight at Ryan, and Ryan couldn't breathe properly. Brendon's gaze was intent under a down-drawn brow. "But it's difficult to get to know people at a masquerade. They're probably not much like I imagine them to be."
Ryan couldn't hold his gaze. He looked at the path at their feet, shrugging with one shoulder. "Maybe a masquerade's the best place to get to know somebody," he said. "In some cases."
"But don't you ever –" Brendon broke off. When Ryan looked over his eyes were fixed on the middle distance. He bit his lip, not looking at Ryan. "Don't you ever want to find out what somebody is like out in the sunshine? In their real life? Masquerades are all ... glamour and shadows and cloaks. And –" He darted a look at Ryan, and away again too fast for Ryan to be sure of his expression. "And I like the shadows, but ... I want ..." He shook his head. "Never mind."
No, go back, Ryan thought.
They were passing over a little stone footbridge. Willows draped over the low stone walls to either side, temporarily cutting out the bright sounds of fashionable London showing off its new hats and waistcoats or taking its morning constitutional. Ryan didn't need reminding of last night, because he hadn't stopped thinking about it, but right now the willows were putting him forcibly in mind of walking close leafy avenues with Brendon, arm tucked into elbow and talking without words. He shook his head, his cheeks getting hot.
Brendon cleared his throat, laughing a little. "Were you speaking from personal experience?" he asked. "When you said a masquerade could be the best place to get acquainted with somebody?"
Ryan blinked. "I, uh," he said. Brendon was studiously avoiding his eyes again, and Ryan took the opportunity to look at him for longer than a moment. His lashes were dark shadows against the wanness of his face, his bottom lip chapped as though he'd been worrying at it. Ryan hadn't settled what it was about Brendon's face that drew him – it was something in the mobility of his mouth, or the expression in his eyes – but right now just looking at him was sparking a powerful want in Ryan. He forced his mind away from the line of Brendon's jaw, and concentrated on answering Brendon's question.
"I think –" Ryan said awkwardly, "I think sometimes people will talk to you in a different way, if they think you're a mysterious stranger and not yourself?" He shook his head. "I – there was someone – I think there was someone who wouldn't have spoken to me at all, if I hadn't been wearing a mask. Once." He was looking at his feet. "Or wouldn't have spoken to me in the way they did; wouldn't have ... have shown me. Any of the things I wanted to see."
He looked up. Brendon was gazing at him, his eyes dark with a surprised emotion. Ryan had a moment of panic. He shouldn't have brought up the masquerade at all. What if Brendon guessed? Ryan didn't know how he could guess, but if he ... Ryan's mind skittered away from the idea in alarm. "That was in Paris," Ryan said, wildly and at random. "The masquerade I'm talking about."
"Oh," Brendon said. His voice croaked, and he cleared his throat. "Right. I've only been to Paris once, on my Grand Tour, after Spencer and I came down from Cambridge. But I do remember a ... a lot of costumed balls, yes. It's a bit of a blur."
Ryan gave him a startled look. He'd forgotten that Spencer had done his Grand Tour with Brendon. That had been before Ryan really cared who Brendon Urie was; Spencer had only got to be good friends with him after Ryan had come down from Cambridge himself, the year before, and had taken his inheritance and left the country before the ink was dry on his diploma. When Spencer left for the Continent Ryan had been keeping company with a vagabond earl's son and his curricle-racing lady companion in Florence, but their paths had never quite intersected; not until Ryan and Alex and Z finally arrived back in London.
Despite the family feud, Ryan couldn't remember being especially curious about Brendon at all, until that night at Miss Anne Monroe's coming out ball. Even then, he hadn't actually recognised Brendon – which had been the problem, of course. If he'd recognised him, Ryan probably wouldn't have struck up a conversation. When Brendon became interested enough in the conversation that he began talking with his hands, his eyes bright, Ryan wouldn't have found himself enraptured. When one of Brendon's sisters tugged him away, her eyes horrified, and Ryan heard the whisper, Urie and Ross, he wouldn't have felt it like something stealing all the air from his lungs.
If Ryan had kept closer tabs on what Spencer was doing after university, he could have avoided all of this, probably. He made a mental note to tell Z and Alex that this made it all their fault. They'd like that.
"Paris is like that, I think," Ryan said, giving Brendon a smile. It only felt a little awkward. "A blur for every night."
They'd reached the north edge of the park; carriages and foot traffic streamed along the road a little distance away. Ryan's hands were still trembling, and he thought he might not actually survive another turn around the path with Brendon. "I have an appointment with my tailor," he said, making up the excuse on the spot. "I should – I'm already a little late."
"Are you busy tomorrow?" Brendon asked.
Ryan blinked. "I ... um ..."
"I was thinking of taking a punt out on the river, if it's a fine day," Brendon said, an impulsive tone to his voice. "If you felt like some company?"
He was looking straight at Ryan. It made it hard to think. "It's ..." Ryan said. "I ... have to be at a dawn duel at Green Park, actually?"
Then he wanted to curse himself out for seven kinds of idiot, because who told people about their friends' secret illegal duels?
Brendon's eyes widened. He looked horrified.
"Oh!" Ryan said. "I mean – not mine. It's my friend's duel. I –"
Brendon was still staring at him. Ryan pulled his face into an anguished expression. "Can we forget I said all that?"
"Really a duel?" Brendon asked. Then, "No, sorry, I was not asking, wasn't I?" He looked as though the not asking was physically painful.
"Um, tailor," Ryan said. "I should – yes. I wish you a – a good morning, Mr Urie."
Ryan waited until he was out of the park and well out of sight before he stopped to rest his forehead against a lamp post. He pulled back to lightly bang his forehead against the post a few times, muttering, "So. Damned. Stupidly. Awkward," on each bump.
Z actually thought there might be a good chance of her winning. She eyed herself in the mirror and cocked her father's pistol again, granting her reflection a wicked grin. It wasn't quite the same effect when she was wearing a dress, but it was still pretty good. It wasn't like this was a duel with swords, either, where he would have had years of practice over her – Z was okay with swords, it was just that all her practicing had to be in secret, which made it hard to get very good at it.
Alex had taught her to use a pistol by the time she was thirteen, though, and she was rather a dab hand at it now. Pistols didn't require as much constant practice as swords; they were easier to master, and Z liked them a whole lot more, actually. As the injured party, the choice of weapon was hers, and it was definitely pistols. She twirled her gun experimentally, fingers bumping warm against the hilt, and then Hedges said, "Lady Elizabeth?" and she swore and dropped it.
When she turned around, Hedges was watching her, face straight and eyes bright. "A visitor for you, Lady Elizabeth," he said.
"Right," Z said, a little surprised that it hadn't happened earlier. She imagined there must be a long line of society misses who wanted to know what scandal Z had gotten herself into to keep her from attending the masquerade last night. Z grimaced, holding out the gun. "Ah, Hedges, would you do me the favour of putting this away for the moment?"
"Certainly, my lady," Hedges said smoothly. He left the silver platter with the calling card on it, and Z sat down on the sofa with a sigh, reaching for it.
Then she froze. Miss Tennessee Thomas, the card said, in a simple script. Z's breath caught in her throat, and she looked up just as Hedges ushered Tennessee in.
Tennessee looked different during the day, Z registered numbly. She was wearing a pretty yellow dress, and her hair was hardly styled at all, pinned simply back with a few delicate strands coming loose on her neck. She had neat white gloves on and riding boots, and Z wondered if Tennessee had honestly ridden through town in the middle of the day to the Berg house. She glanced quickly out the window; there was a boy outside leading a horse up and down the street, but no sign of a carriage, and oh God, Z thought, torn between beaming and just staring with starry eyes at Tennessee, oh God, she had.
"Hello, Lady Elizabeth," Tennessee said. Z stood, belatedly, and Tennessee curtseyed. "I'm sorry to come so unexpectedly upon you like this."
"Not at all," Z said faintly. Tennessee smiled at her, brief and warm, and Z sat down again in rather a hurry. "I – a lovely surprise. I don't think we've met before?"
"No," Tennessee said. She drew in a breath. "Actually, I was hoping to speak with a relative of yours."
Z frowned. "I'm right here, though," she said petulantly. She shook her head and covered up the instinctive reaction with a smile when Tennessee looked startled, but really. It wasn't fair.
"Of course," Tennessee said. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply –"
"That I'm not incredibly entertaining?" Z nodded. "I'm very entertaining."
Tennessee's mouth twitched. "I've heard," she said.
"The stories can't keep up with me," Z told her, low and confiding. It was far too easy to fall back into this sort of exchange with Tennessee, Z thought, but at the same time, she rather liked it. "You should come along sometime, I'll show you the truth."
"The truth?" Tennessee raised her eyebrows. "I'm not sure my meagre spirit could keep up with you."
"Don't be silly," Z said comfortably. "We'd have a great time."
Tennessee smiled. "I'm sure," she said. "I just – all due respect, Lady Elizabeth, but I must talk to Mr Elliot. It's a matter of some urgency."
Z blinked. She wasn't sure why she hadn't realised immediately when Tennessee had said a relative of yours – after all, there was no reason for Tennessee to want to talk to her mother. She leaned forward, intrigued. "Oh? Really? Tell me."
Tennessee looked uncomfortable. "It's – sort of a private matter ..."
"You can tell me anything," Z said. "We're very close, Zedekiah and I."
"I don't know," Tennessee said, uneasily. "It was – not the sort of thing he might tell people –"
Z got bored. "Is this about the duel?" she asked. "He told me about that. Tomorrow at dawn, right?"
"Oh," Tennessee said. She smiled quickly. "Yes. I want to – I need to talk to him about it. I've been thinking and just – is he here?"
Z thought quickly. "He's gone back to the country for the day," she said. "To gather some supplies or something. His favourite pistol. He's looking for a second, too, or else he'll have to settle for Ryan Ross, and I can think of about eight different ways that will go badly." She grinned at Tennessee, but Tennessee's answering smile was automatic rather than real. Z frowned.
"Oh," Tennessee said. She ducked her head. "I'm just worried about him. I think it's a – very poor idea, and there must be some way to call it off. Rotham is a bastard." Z beamed at her, and Tennessee looked guilty. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to curse."
"You can curse all you like," Z promised, leaning forward. She was, she supposed, a little enraptured. Tennessee Thomas was too beautiful, though, beautiful and funny and clever and Z wanted to be her best friend in the whole world. She also wanted to kiss Tennessee's hand again, but she didn't think she would be able to get away with that in this guise.
Tennessee laughed, sudden and sweet. "Well, he is a bastard," she said. "But there are rumours about him and just – I really think it's a bad idea for Mr Elliot to face him. It's too dangerous."
Z waved a hand idly. "Zedekiah thrives on danger," she said. "He walks on the wild side."
Tennessee ducked her head. She was blushing, very faintly. "Yes," she murmured. "I noticed that."
Z stopped grinning, slowly. She said, "Oh, I. Were you –?"
"I only met him last night," Tennessee said, her voice low. "I'm not implying or suggesting anything, I just thought he was interesting and funny and not like anyone else I've ever met. I would hate to see him hurt."
Tennessee was still blushing, Z noticed. Tennessee liked him, liked Mr Elliot, which had been Z's intention all along, so why was she so furious right now?
Zedekiah Elliot wasn't real, was the thing, but Z was. Z was, and Tennessee was only talking to her because Mr Elliot wasn't available.
"Probably getting hurt would do him well," Z said, on impulse. "He's not very nice, really."
Tennessee looked up at her, surprised. "He seemed a very good person to me. A little – exuberant, but good."
"Oh, no, he's a liar and a scoundrel," Z said. "I – I bet he gave you the old India story, didn't he?"
"Yes," Tennessee said slowly.
"That's a lie," Z told her. "Total lie. He's never been to India in his life. He's barely been out of the country at all except – except – except I think he's involved in slave trading."
Tennessee leaned forward, her eyes huge. "No," she breathed.
"Yes!" Z said. "He's such a liar. And a scoundrel. I said that, didn't I? Yes. He's lazy, too. I don't think he's even very good at slave trading, he just does it because of how he's – he's probably evil."
Tennessee was frowning. "He didn't seem like the type to be involved in something like that to me," she said.
"Ah, well," Z said. "Liar, what did I tell you."
Tennessee looked faintly disbelieving. "Nevertheless," she said, "I should not like to see him die. And did you consider, Lady Elizabeth, that possibly he was only making fun, and you believed him? He did seem like the type to tease."
"Because of how he's a cad," Z insisted. "Really, you don't want to talk to him. I'm very sorry you've been deceived and all, but he's not worth your time."
"Um," Tennessee said, looking very confused.
"I am, though," Z told her, smiling as charmingly as she could. "Did you want to stay for lunch?"
"My father is expecting me," Tennessee said.
"Never mind him," Z said. She rested her chin in her hands. "Stay and talk with me."
Tennessee stared at her, then shook her head, her mouth tilting up. "You're very alike, you know," she said. "You and Mr Elliot. Maybe that's why you don't get on well."
"We're nothing alike," Z said stiffly. "He hates kittens. He steals sweets from small children."
Tennessee put her hand to her mouth, her eyes bright. "I will definitely take your warnings into consideration," she said, standing. "Thank you. I – if you see Mr Elliot before tomorrow, will you tell him that I would like the opportunity to speak to him, if I could? Please?"
Z tried not to growl. "I'll tell him," she said sulkily.
"Thank you," Tennessee said. "I appreciate it." She held out her hand, and for a moment Z was about to kiss it, but then she realised Tennessee wanted to shake. Z hadn't shaken hands with anybody in her life, or at least not beyond the super secret handshake she and Alex had perfected. Tennessee was so weird. Z couldn't take her eyes off her.
She shook Tennessee's hand, and kind of forgot to let go.
"It was nice to meet you," Tennessee said. "Thank you for your time."
"Thank you," Z said, and she finally let go of Tennessee's hand, and Tennessee turned and swept out of the room. Z crossed to the window so she could watch Tennessee retrieve her horse from the boy and give him a coin, before accepting his hand at her stirrup to help her spring up onto her horse. She did it gracefully, as she had danced gracefully the night before. She didn't notice Z, but Z stayed at the window anyway, chin resting on her folded arms, watching Tennessee ride away.
Ryan burst into the room, flinging himself down onto the couch with a low moan. "I think I'm in love," he said.
"Oh, no," Z said absently, and thought, Me too.
Ryan was almost glad when evening rolled around and he had to go and call upon Mr Winterworth.
He stopped by the hearth, fiddling with his gloves. "I'm supposed to try to negotiate a reconciliation with the other second," he said. "I don't suppose ...?"
Z had been working herself into a black, reckless mood all evening; Ryan wasn't actually sure why, and had been too preoccupied with his own troubles to ask. She looked up now, leaning her chin on her hand, her face half in shadow. "Elliot may as well be shot as not," she said lowly. She looked back down, drawing her finger in circles on the table she was seated at.
Ryan opened his mouth to speak again, then closed it. Maybe she'd be in a better mood when he got back. He was pretty sure he'd get nothing reasonable out of her now, especially not when she seemed inclined to murder her own alter ego.
He set his hat on his head and slipped from the room without another word.
Winterworth was as downcast as Ryan when his servants let Ryan in. He raised no objection to Ryan setting the field at the maximum number of paces honour allowed – no need to make it easy for Z and Rotham to fill each other full of holes – although he showed signs of moping when Ryan told him that Z demanded pistols rather than swords.
"He has a good pair of duelling pistols, at least – your boy's all right with Rotham providing his pair?" At Ryan's nod he continued, gloomily, "But he's already barred from returning to Paris for killing his man in a duel there." He took a gulp of whatever was in his glass. "And now pistols! Man's a devil with a pistol."
"Oh," Ryan said.
Winterworth gave Ryan an aggrieved look. "And worst of it is that for once it isn't even at Rotham's instigation! The times I've prevented him from calling some poor bastard out, and then he's challenged by a scrap of a boy at a masquerade! It'll be too bad of your young hothead if Rotham kills him and it leads to more trouble with the law, mark you it will."
"It will be pretty bad," Ryan allowed.
Winterworth scowled at his glass. "I can get us a good physician – know a man who's served as a military doctor, he's used to this kind of affair. D'ye mind if I take that part?"
"No; please do," said Ryan, who had forgotten that one of them needed to engage a physician for the duel. The thought made him ill.
"Might keep him from being barred from another country," Winterworth said blackly, waving the hand holding his drink and sloshing it a little as he subsided into his armchair. He took a gulp, then squinted up at Ryan. "Oh, terribly sorry," he said. "Cognac?"
Ryan accepted the glass Winterworth filled with a splash from the crystal decanter on the sideboard. Ryan stared into the depths of the alcohol, while Winterworth told some further story of his friend's devilry at duelling. Could Z truly be killed? Ryan wondered. Killed playing a trumped up game with a persona she'd invented for a masquerade?
The cognac didn't give him any answers, and it didn't clear his head any either, when he stood to bid Winterworth good evening.
He wondered, as he started the walk home, whether he should be stopping the duel. A man called out to offer him the services of a hansom cab, but he shook his head; he wanted the walk and the cutting night air to think. He could stop the duel, probably. If he got Z's parents involved, or if he somehow stole the only set of masculine clothes Z had had tailored to fit her, or if he let out that Elliot was an alias. If he went with that last option he wouldn't need to get Z into trouble, or let her name be linked to the matter at all, because there was no chance that a man like Rotham would agree to a duel if he found out the man who had challenged him had been playing a joke role – he would never permit himself to be made fun of.
Ryan hunched his shoulders, pulling his collar up higher and pushing his hands into his pockets. He'd never ruined a trick of Z's like that, and she'd never ruined one of his. It was the bedrock of their friendship – they promised never to be the voice of reason with one another. There were enough voices of reason in the world; Ryan had been almost stifled with them, before he left England that first time.
He changed direction, dropping by the Berg residence one more time. The rest of the family was in bed already, or out of the house, but Z was sitting up in the library, brooding by the light of one candle. Ryan stopped in the shadow of the doorway. He knocked softly on the frame.
Z propped her elbow on the table, turning to face him. Her chin was supported on her hand, her shoulders were slumped, and her hair had partly tumbled down; it was soft and mussed on her shoulders. Her eyes were dark, shadowed in the dimness of the room.
"Winterworth says Rotham has a good pair of duelling pistols; I told him you didn't mind if the two of you used those," Ryan said. Z nodded but didn't answer.
"And he's going to engage a physician for tomorrow; says he knows a military man."
"Good," Z said.
Ryan shifted to try if he could see her expression better. "You know if you don't turn up tomorrow, there's no way it can come back to you," he said quietly. "There's no dishonour to Lady Berg if Mr Elliot fails to make good on his challenge."
"You're not afraid he'd demand my second take my place?" Z asked, lifting her eyes. There was something bleak in her voice.
Ryan came further into the room, taking his hat off. "We're not in the middle ages," he said drily. "Duels don't run that way among civilised men."
Z curled her lip; it was more the shadow of a movement than a definite expression, with her face inclined away from the light of the candle. "Rotham hardly qualifies as a civilised man, and Elliot certainly doesn't," she said. "He's a slave trader, you know."
Ryan gaped a little, his fingers opening and closing on the bridge of his hat. "... really?"
"That's what I told Tennessee." Z turned back to the candle, prodding at the wax with her fingertip. She didn't seem to mind when it sizzled against her skin. "She still likes him better than me. Apparently even when I do everything right, I do it all wrong."
Ryan paused. Z had told him about Tennessee Thomas of course, and Ryan knew she had liked her a lot, but the information hadn't had a lot of significance to Ryan compared to the part where Z had challenged a man to a pistol fight. He was starting to think he might have got the highlights of Z's night a bit upside down. For a moment he wondered again about the possibility of hunting down Miss Thomas before the morning in case she could talk Z out of the duel better than Ryan could. Then he realised she must have sought Z out herself, if Z had managed to tell her that Elliot was a slave trader. Ryan was still having trouble wrapping his head around that.
"Maybe you could tell her about ..." he started hesitantly, and Z stood, making the candle flare.
"Oh, what's the use?" she demanded. "Tennessee wants the dashing cavalier she met at the masquerade, if she wants me at all – if she wasn't only following up on Elliot this morning because she thought he was a damned fool last night." She half turned, a restless movement that made her hair slip further down her neck. "What's the point of any of it? What am I doing with my life that's so great? I may as well go off and get myself shot tomorrow." Her voice was rustier than usual. "It will hardly make a difference."
"If you die –" Ryan tried, but she snorted.
"People hardly ever die in duels. You're giving that dog Rotham too much credit." She picked up the candle, the flame swaying and throwing a ghoulish flare over her face. "I'm going to bed now. I'll see you tomorrow morning. First light; that'll be something different for us."
Ryan was almost through the door before he remembered something and turned back. "Your coat buttons are too shiny," he said. "Get Hedges to dull them before tomorrow morning; they'll be too good a target to aim for."
Z lifted her candle in a mocking salute, already on the first step of the hall stairs. "I think he'll be able to see me to aim for anyway," she called. "I'm not that small. But all right; I will."
Ryan gave her a smile, but his worry made it awkward and unconvincing. He turned and let himself out of the house, not bothering to disturb Hedges to open the door for him.
At home, there was a tattered and stained missive from Alex waiting for him, but even Alex's rambling and heavily punctuated account of Egypt wasn't enough to cheer him up. Ryan folded it up halfway through reading and put it back in the envelope, leaning back in his chair and staring at the ceiling, trying not to think about the morning.
Z awoke feeling immeasurably more cheerful than she had the night before.
Or, that wasn't precisely true: when she first woke, it was to her maid Sophie shaking her shoulder, the candle in her other hand the only gleam disturbing the blackness of Z's bedroom, and she had some confused notion that Sophie was a fiend sent to drag her to hell. But once she'd had twenty minutes or so to wake up and get her head clear, and had stopped pathetically trying to coax Sophie into letting her crawl back into bed for another five hours like a regular person, the world began to look much brighter.
"You are ... sure about this, Lady Elizabeth?" Sophie asked. Neither she nor Hedges had been told what Z was doing this morning, but they seemed to have somehow guessed. Z didn't know what it said about her that her maid and butler could guess she was off to take part in an illegal duel. She'd always suspected the Berg servants of being remarkable, though.
Though there was the moment when they'd caught her practicing with a pistol yesterday to consider. Z supposed there might be a little more observation than psychic skills in play, especially considering Ryan dashing around looking more and more tragic with each new event.
"Of course I am!" Z said. She finished doing up the buttons of her waistcoat and nodded for Sophie to ease her into her coat. She ran a critical eye over her reflection in the full-length mirror. She looked marvellous. It was lucky she'd picked black for her masquerade clothes. Something like brilliant topaz, as she'd considered, wouldn't have done at all for this morning.
There was a bubble of excitement in her stomach. She grinned at Sophie, clipping the chain of her pocket watch into place with a flourish. "I'm going to be magnificent today," she confided. "Wait for my return and you'll see."
She gave Sophie a half sovereign, and Hedges another when he opened the door to reveal the hackney coach he'd called. It was standing a little way down the street, under the light of a street lamp. Robins, their coachman, could be a little stuffy, and might have reported Z's escapade to her parents; she grinned brightly at Hedges, appreciating the thought.
"Be careful, my lady," Hedges said. There was a shadow of worry in his eyes.
Z took out her pocket watch, flipping it in the air so it gleamed in the illumination from the hall. "I won't need to," she said, tucking her watch back and flipping her coat tails behind her. She took the three steps to the street in one jump, turning backwards and doffing her hat as she made for the hackney. "This morning I have all the luck in the world on my side!"
She jumped up into the coach before the driver could assist her, called out directions, and settled into her seat as they clattered into motion. She could feel it, a bright certainty: this morning she was going to be great.
It wasn't an especially long drive. Z supposed she ought to be using the short time for strategising on how to win, or perhaps commending her soul to God, but mostly she stared out the window. She was only used to seeing the city at this time of morning on her way back from a night of excitement, when she was usually too tired to pay much attention to it. Now, she watched the early morning mist rising up in the grey streets, the freshness of everything; even the horses they passed had their heads lifted high. They drove through St James Park, green expanses wet with dew, and Z stretched lazily in her seat, feeling as though the whole morning had been made for her.
Even Ryan's dour expression when they pulled up couldn't deflate her. Z tossed her driver a couple of coins as incentive to pretend he didn't know what was going on while he waited, and sauntered towards Ryan.
"Ross," she said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Damned good to see you."
"Mr Elliot," Ryan said, the corner of his mouth twisting down.
"Chin up, old boy," Z said. "This will be a simple enough thing, I imagine. Show up, shoot the bugger, be on our way. I imagine we could be having a hot breakfast at your club within an hour and a half."
Ryan coughed. "You might want to keep your voice down," he said. "Everyone is arriving. You should probably finish the first mess you made before you get challenged to a second duel."
"You are not even a little bit of fun," Z said, hooking her fingers in her belt loops and wandering away. The grass was long here, away from the road. Her boots were shining with dew, wet all the way up to her knee. Much better than a dress, she thought, nodding to herself.
Ryan hurried after her. "That's Winterworth, there," he said, nodding to the small man alighting from one of the carriages that had pulled up. "I don't recognise the man in the hackney – he might be the doctor."
"Or maybe a friend," Z said. "Come to see Rotham get beaten into the dust."
"You're not boxing," Ryan said, clearly annoyed. Z blew him a kiss, and Ryan's face went the kind of pinched it did when he was trying not to laugh. "And maybe don't do that, either."
"I'll try to resist you," Z said.
"Do," Ryan said, as they drew closer to the other group. "Look, here's Rotham now."
Rotham got out of a fine carriage, the coat of arms discreetly veiled in black (in case they wound up arrested or something, Z supposed). Her pulse spiked a little with excitement at the thought.
"Hello, boy," Rotham said, grimly. "No last minute repentance of your impudence?"
"I'm sorry, sir," Z said, feeling the character settle around her just right, "was that a cowardly attempt to slither out of this?"
Rotham's face twisted, pink with rage. "You would do well to tame your tongue," he snapped, "or someone may cut it out."
"Oh, you may certainly try," Z said. "You're looking a little portly around the middle, sir, I'm not entirely sure you would be able to reach me in –"
Rotham started forward, but Winterworth caught him by the arm. "Let's leave it for the duel, gentleman," he said wearily. "Mr Elliot, a quarter of the hour to weight the pistols and prepare yourselves. And may I introduce our surgeon, Mr Thomas Godwin."
Z looked at the doctor and nodded politely to him. Godwin was younger than she had expected, fresh faced and with a cap jammed on over his light hair that gave him a faintly urchin-like air. Z had expected someone as fastidious and bad-tempered as the man with whom she was duelling, and when Winterworth and Rotham turned aside, she favoured Godwin with a grin and a wink.
Godwin didn't smile back. He just regarded her seriously, his eyes thoughtful under the shadow of his cap. Z wondered if doctors didn't wear their bowler hats when there was a chance of blood getting on them or something.
She opened her mouth to give some greeting, she wasn't sure what, when they were all of them distracted by another coach pulling up.
"Who the hell is that?" Rotham asked, and Z squinted at the figure climbing out of the coach and tipping the driver. Then Ryan was clutching her arm, his fingers digging into her skin through the fabric of her coat. She shook him off, giving him a startled look.
"What is it?" she hissed.
"That's Brendon," Ryan said. "Brendon Urie. What is he doing here?"
Ryan took an uncertain step forward, then jolted backwards, making as if he was about to run. Z moved slightly so that she could block him if he did so, and Ryan didn't end up moving at all. He stood perfectly still instead, looking as though he would have to start trembling with the effort holding himself so tight.
"Can we help you, sir?" Winterworth was frowning at Brendon.
"Um, hello." Brendon was half-smiling, like he knew he wasn't wanted, darting a glance around at all of them. "I'm sorry, I just. I was wondering if I might be allowed to sit in. Or stand in."
"It's very improper," Winterworth began.
"What the devil do you mean by it?" Rotham stared, looking torn between outrage and confusion. "Do you have some attachment to the proceedings?"
"No real attachment," Brendon said quietly.
"I have no problem with it," Z put in coolly. "Of course, Rotham, if you wish to be disgraced in front of as small an audience as possible, that's perfectly understandable –"
"You will eat those words, boy," Rotham growled. "Damn it all, then. This will make me a laughing stock if it ever gets out; entertaining a stock of children, my God. You'd best hope your hand is as quick as your tongue, Elliot."
He turned and walked away, hissing furiously to Winterworth under his breath, and Z shrugged. She turned back to Brendon, grinning. "Hello, Mr Urie. It's a pleasure to see you again. Though a surprise, I confess. You know my sister isn't here?"
"I know," Brendon said. "I thought I might foist my company on you anyway." He took another small step towards their party. "Hello, Mr Ross."
"Mr Urie," Ryan said, bowing a little. His voice was low and a little rough. Z wondered if she was the only one who noticed. Brendon's eyes looked very bright, though that could just be early the hour.
"And, um," Brendon said, turning to the young doctor. "I don't believe we've met. Brendon Urie, it's a pleasure."
"Certainly," Godwin said, bowing a little. "Mr Thomas Godwin, at your service."
"You're a military man, Winterworth mentioned," Ryan said. His voice was shaking a little, but not obviously. Z was fiercely proud of him.
"My father, actually," Godwin said. "I shall be one day, I hope, but at the moment I'm an assistant surgeon at the Royal Hospital. My father was otherwise engaged today, I'm afraid, so you will have to make do with me." He smiled, neat and quick, and Z blinked. There was something very familiar about him.
"That's admirable work," Z said. "I was going to be a surgeon."
"You were never," Ryan said, not thinking, and Z burst out laughing. Brendon smiled, too, but Godwin just watched Z, barely blinking.
"I have heard tell of some of your exploits, Mr Elliot," Godwin said. "If you'll forgive me, they seem a far throw from medicine."
Z beamed, unable to believe that rumours had spread about her – him – already. God, she loved this gossipy town. "Oh, really? Do enlighten me."
"Nothing particularly impressive," Godwin said, "or not by my definition. I've heard rumours about off-shore activities, though, and the purchase of people for profit."
It took them all a moment to parse that.
"Slave trading?" Brendon said. He let out a short, startled laugh, then stopped at the expressions on their faces. "Wait. Really?"
"That's what I've been told," Godwin said, his gaze searching. Z thought he looked as though he did not really believe it, but was determined to ask.
"Really," Z said slowly, "I wonder who –"
She stopped. She knew exactly who had spread the rumours about Mr Elliot's slave trading background, except that she hadn't spread rumours at all. She had told one person, and Ryan. Now, she looked at Godwin's wide blue eyes, his hair, his cheekbones, and her breath caught.
"Oh," she said.
"I'm sorry?" Godwin blinked at her.
"Oh," Z said, and beamed at the young doctor. "Thomas Godwin. Oh, my God, you are a treat."
Ryan and Brendon were both staring at her. Z clapped her hands to her cheeks. She had a feeling she was blushing, pleased and strangely shy, but she couldn't help it.
"I'm – excuse me, I don't quite understand."
"I like your hat," Z told Thomas Godwin, Tennessee Thomas, oh God she loved this girl. She resisted the urge to seize her in a hug, or something else. "It's very fetching. Where did you get it?"
Tennessee looked caught, her eyes darting back and forth. "Um," she began.
"Tell me, Thomas," Z said. "– you don't mind if I call you Thomas, do you? No? Fine – tell me, how's your bedside manner?"
Tennessee stared at her. Then she took a deep breath. "Impeccable," she said.
"Oh, I hoped so," Z said. Tennessee kept staring. Then she shook her head, and smiled, very quickly.
"I think we had better go and watch the weighing of the pistols," she said. "If all parties are amenable."
"Wherever you want," Z said grandly. Ryan shot her another startled look, but Z just grinned at him and said, "Come along, fellows," and set off towards Rotham and Winterworth.
Tennessee was quiet, looking as if she was a little shocked, but when Z grinned at her again she smiled back, very small. Z would tell her soon, she resolved. She would tell Tennessee everything, and then Tennessee would see how they were clearly destined to be together forever, and everything would be wonderful.
"Are you nervous?" Brendon asked, sounding awkward. As he should be, Z thought. It was really bizarre that he was here, and she shot him a knowing look. Brendon flushed.
"Not particularly," she said airily. "Rotham is a cad. He needs to be put in his place."
"Right," Brendon said. "That's very – community-spirited of you."
Ryan made a choking noise. Z ignored him.
"Thank you," she said. "I like to think of it like that, too."
"He's doing the whole world a service, really," Ryan said, mostly talking to Brendon over Z's head. "Such a gentleman."
"I can only aspire to reach such heights," Brendon said, wide-eyed.
Ryan nodded. "I believe we can expect a royal letter of commendation at any moment."
"Surely His Majesty wouldn't be so stingy," Brendon said. "A knighthood, at least."
Ryan covered his mouth with his hand, smiling uncontrollably. Z rolled her eyes at the both of them, striding ahead so that the others had to hurry to keep up with her.
"What's going on here, Rotham?" she demanded. Rotham looked up, his mouth set in a frustrated line. "You look a little red in the face. You're not out of breath before we've started, are you, old man?"
"This damned catch is stuck." Rotham grunted, twisting the pistol in his hands.
"Careful now, Rotham," Winterworth put in, sounding a little alarmed. "Angle it down, there's a good man –"
"Don't niggle at me, Frederick," Rotham said, jerking his head up sharply. "You've done something strange with the catch, these are my best pistols, you can't just –"
Whatever Winterworth couldn't do was drowned out by a bang that echoed in the early morning. Z jolted back, staring at Rotham was still holding the pistol, eyes wide and mouth open.
"You cheat," she spat. "You broke the laws of engagement, you disgusting –"
"Z," Ryan said, sounding broken, "shut up." And then he was shoving past her and falling to his knees. Z turned, staring, and pressed her fingers to her mouth. Brendon Urie was crumpled on the ground, red blooming against his white shirt.