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Wild Card

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September, 1925

“I thought I’d find you out here,” Luck says. It seems like these days Claire spends practically all his time on the balcony outside his room, practicing acrobatics along the rail that give the maids fits of nervousness.

“Clever,” Claire says. He’s doing a handstand on the rails, and lets himself spill over backward, slowly, his back arched in a deep bow until his feet touch the rail again. Luck doesn’t run to catch him, but only though an effort of will. If Claire missed that landing, or unbalanced even a little bit too far to the right—

But he doesn’t; he never does. Instead he lets go of the rail and rights himself with the same careless grace, and walks along the rail as comfortably as if it’s a city sidewalk until he gets to the door where Luck stepped out onto the balcony. “Why were you looking for me?”

Luck takes the paper from where he’d tucked it beneath his arm. “Thought you might want to see the headline,” he says. Father took them to see the Shenandoah moored at the naval base just last week, and Claire was certain that the airship could only meet a bad end. He always likes to be proven right.

Claire hops down from the rail, and his eyes widen as he takes in the front-page photograph, the wreckage of the airship like a gigantic, sprawling skeleton, too wide to fit across the page. “Utter disaster,” he says. He reaches for the paper. “You wouldn’t catch me traveling by airship, that’s for sure.” He shakes his head. “Not when there are perfectly good railroads.”

When he flips the paper over to read the article accompanying the photo, Luck gets a better look at his hands, and frowns. “You’ve been fighting again?”

“What?” Claire says. He turns his hand over and looks at the scrapes on his knuckles. “Oh. Yes. There was a new boy in my class this year. Marius Torreo, I think he was called. And he thought he was being clever about my name.”

“Can’t be helped, I suppose,” Luck says. The Torreos aren’t especially important; it shouldn’t lead to anything really serious. “You didn’t get in trouble, did you?”

“Not this time,” Claire says. He smiles brightly. “I did break his nose. But he insisted he was fine and didn’t want a doctor.”

Luck can’t help smiling back. Claire has that effect on him. “You’re a regular force of nature, aren’t you?”

“Flirt,” Claire says, and Luck would protest—he’s not flirting, wouldn’t flirt with Claire, of all people—except that Claire is setting the paper aside already, and holding Luck’s eyes. Something has his attention, then, something more important than a disaster that vindicates one of his pet theories.

“What’s on your mind?” Luck asks.

Claire shakes his head, without looking away. “What’s on yours?” he says. “You’re clever, Luck, and you have a pretty face, so people want to trust you. But you’ll never get anywhere if you don’t ask for what you want.”

And every once in a while, of course, Claire is a fascinating puzzle himself. “Thank you for the advice,” Luck says. “What brings that on now?”

“You really don’t know?” Claire takes a step closer. Luck doesn’t step back. Claire’s eyes are such a warm color, like the whiskey the family brought in through the harbor last weekend, the first job Luck’s been old enough to help out with. He remembers tasting the one bottle they kept back from the stock for sale, the burn of the liquor down his throat.

“Let’s say that I don’t,” he says. “Would you explain it to me?”

“I’ll do you one better,” Claire says. He takes another step, and the hair stands up on the back of Luck’s neck. “I’ll show you.”

He still doesn’t do anything until Luck nods, and then his hand comes up, scraped knuckles and all, to catch Luck by the lapels and — of course it’s a surprise when Claire kisses him, but it’s also no surprise at all, the way it’s no surprise that Claire always, always comes up with the last wild card in the deck. For about the first two seconds Luck wonders if this is a test, an experiment on Claire’s part, and then Claire’s tongue brushes his lips and he doesn’t care if it is, because this is what he wants after all.

Luck reaches for Claire’s suspenders and pulls him closer. Claire says, “There, you see?” almost without interrupting the kiss, and Luck bites his lip. Yes, he does see. He’d almost be annoyed at Claire for knowing him so well—better than he knows himself, it turns out—except that somehow Claire has never tried to use it against him. Even when Claire pushes him back against the wall, and the brick scrapes against Luck’s back, the thrill that runs down his spine is good.

“Nothing stops you, does it?” Luck asks. His back to the wall should feel like a threat, but it doesn’t—doesn’t seem like trouble at all, and it’s not as though Claire isn’t dangerous; Luck knows that as well as anyone.

“What would be the point in that?” Claire says, and grinds his hips against Luck’s. He’s smiling like he’s just pulled off an especially complicated flip, and his pupils are huge and shining.

“No point,” Luck says. He feels dizzy. Is this what Claire feels like when he’s doing those ridiculous stunts three stories above the ground? Weightless, like all the rules are somewhere far away and can’t touch them. He can hear his blood roaring in his ears. “This is what you wanted to show me?”

“Some of it,” Claire says. “You should come inside with me, so I can show you the rest.” He probably already knows what Luck is going to say. Nothing comes as a surprise to Claire. But still he waits for Luck to say it out loud.

Luck smiles back. “Yes,” he says.

Claire laughs. “I knew it.”