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On almost the incendiary eve

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So you’ll tell those fables, storyspinner, and ache with the knowledge of their end.

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It starts like this. Or perhaps I should say it ends like this. There’s blood and dust and a heart cut out and thrown, beating, on the ground. Not the heart we expect, no, for heroes and villains get their just desserts in our stories, in our epics. This, however, is not a story of heroics. It’s a story of love and of pain, of vengeance and anger, devotion and loyalty. This is a story of a good man who loved a great man on the battlefield of London.

Let me begin.

Even children know of the time that was, of the war, disease, and greed which ruled the world and tore it to pieces. Thanks be we are now in a time of peace. But in the time that was, battle raged in the desert ceaselessly as small men and large empires fought over grains of sand. Out of one gunfight, a single battle out of many, emerges a man. Torn and bleeding, he begs his god for another chance, for a life to give another day. He has other battles to fight, and so he lives.

Bruised and broken, he crosses empires to return to the land of his birth. This is no land of warriors, though; this is a land only too thankful to forget the cries of children as their mothers lie torn open in the streets, to push suffering to the far edges of heathen lands, to gush platitudes of freedom without ever making a sacrifice. His world is dim and empty, a void without a purpose. Alone, he trembles in the dark.

In another corner of London, another man, a man of angles and grace, stalks the dark streets. He is a man of questions, of want and of knowing. A mercurial man, he lives poised on the edge of explosion. Alone by choice, his solitary figure haunts those who think destruction their due.

When they meet – oh! – meetings of kings had less import on our history. One touch of the hands and something new is sparked. The soldier has his captain and the solitary man is two. There’s a glory in their pairing, a glory and a fear and the treacherous sharp edge of danger.

They live in London’s loving embrace, their home built in bricks destined always for them, brass numbers on a dark door leading to a little slice of chaos. Within the melee of the city they exist, not as fixed points, no, not our heroes, but as comets across a sky broken by streets as old as man. They search and they chase and they laugh. They love and they fight and through it all they weave and tempt fates.

Theirs is a charmed life, not without wounds, but with the certainty of scars earned, of brilliance slashing through flesh, hot and wet and rough-edged, to leave behind proof of their feet on the ground and their minds in the ether. They dash, bruised but alive, the very bricks and dirt and glass of the city a cocoon, a shield from those who seek to kill. For London is theirs, their playground and their battlefield, and god help him who tries to stain her streets.

Their names are whispers in the dark, the stories told in the dank tunnels and broken spaces that make up the vast underbelly of London. The dark right hand of the Law – one finding, one judging – through them evidence is wrought and sentences sought. And when the justices of Law fail, well, there they are to put things right.

Their names are spread in the consciousness of the people, the Detective and his Doctor, mysterious and alluring to those who follow the trails of names and the whisper-yelled rumours of all that teems beneath the surface. Loved and reviled, the pair, but always a pair, shoulder to shoulder and arming each other, their faces half-caught in the flashbulb of fame and fate.

They beguile with tales, one face mutable and one face frank. They charm and threaten in equal measure and the indecent little puzzles of sordid human life spread and coalesce before them. Blows exchanged, between each other, with others, emerging bruised and grinning. Chases across nations, though none as sweet as those on home soil. Another caught and as our storyspinner pulls himself out of the dank, grimy waters that form the lifeblood of London, he curses the man he loves. Curses him and clings to him, mind rattled with the edge of loss so close he tastes the copper of blood on his lips.

After it all, in the quiet evenings that must needs punctuate the lives of all-too-human heroes, the soldier, our storyspinner, weaves the tales together: the triumphs and the losses, the unravelling of the small passions and betrayals which drive humans to blood. You know them well, these stories, told as they are to babes in arms and schoolchildren. For from them our world rose up, from the end of the stories came the start of something new.

The last story we know tells of a meeting. Two men on the edge of the world, two dark doubles, both with so much staked in a long-shot gamble. Two men, polestar neighbours, playing a game with no winner. Rounds and rounds of give and take. Their meeting echoes prophecies: thrice met, twice a stalemate. The first a testing of ground, a laying down of threats and boundaries and, yes, of weaknesses. A game. All walk out, not their day to die.

The second a meeting of wills. Cards on the table and all bets known in advance. Plans and plots, devices and deceptions, teem below the surface, of course. It’s villains and heroes, fables and myths, but we all know, don’t we, that life doesn’t end justly, that all mortal men may die and all hearts may break.

There’s little worship or prayer in the world they build, these star-bright sons; one follows truth and one destruction, shared litanies of knowledge. All else are small gods, or gods of small things. But truth, children, can take many forms: a kind eye, a steady hand, a friend in the dark, and a kiss in fear.

But here we are at the end. The final problem crackling in the air between two men, too close. Sparks fly and fade on their lips, truths – and untruths – exchanged. Laughter rings to the too-bright sun, laughter and a hand which cuts out a heart and darkens the light.

One stands with angels, one with devils, but they’re closer than mortal men know, heaven and hell, and they come together in a moment. Thundercrack and trigger pulled, blood raining down as one man falls, defiant even in death. A choice, then. A choice dark and sweet, a choice that breaks, and that saves.

The solitary man, our detective, stands alone, but not. The bricks of London under his feet once more, and will they protect him? A hand outstretched and a faith unbroken and a tear that burns his lips. A step, then: a step into the air and he’s not waiting on the angels, no, there’s nothing there to save him but one man’s belief, fragile and raging.

Our soldier, an acolyte, a lover, the beating, burning, luminous heart of two men, our soldier stands firmly on the ground as it cracks beneath him. As it quakes, as the air parts and the earth rushes up and the body that houses the man he loves falls. He falls too and lifeblood leaks out, staining the ground, and it’s there, his heart, their heart, dusty and bruised and raw.

He believes unceasing to the end because how could he not? He believes like he breathes, fire in his lungs, oxygen to blood that beats by habit and little else, now.

He buries him, then. Puts him in the ground and stands on his grave and asks for it not to be so. He holds his grief quiet, like a salve and a blade, to his broken shoulder, to his empty chest. He would shout to unlistening London, shout the truth before him, pay testament to his detective, unbeaten, but there’s few left to listen and those who do, know.

So he keeps his peace, writes the truth and then no more, stills his hand and locks in his fingers his own life, alone. He lives, we think, but we don’t know, for he ends his tale on a death, on a death and a thunderclap and the last loud whisper of faith.

Some say, though, that one day some years later a man with dark hair knocked on the door with the brass numbers and he and the storyspinner stepped out, hands linked, and were never seen in London again. It is not written, so we shall never know.