Actions

Work Header

Sparked Under Pressure

Work Text:

“Ride, ride, it goes to ground!” Nathan calls, and Sidney bends further over his hunter’s neck and whistles the hounds on. They’re in full cry, the lead couple snapping at the stern, but the fox goes to ground with a flit of its tail and the hounds mark the end of the line. All five and a half couples gather about the fox’s earth eagerly, but the fox is fully beyond their reach.

“Damn!” Sidney swears, pulling his hunter around to conference with Nathan, and yelping, “Hold hard!” as he catches sight of the man and his hunter barreling down upon Sidney. Nathan reins in just in time, and the two horses snap at each other before they turn their muzzles away.

“It was a good run today, Sidney, but a shame that you fouled the hounds from the kill,” Nathan declares, and Sidney urges his hunter sideways to push Nathan’s to shy.

“I fouled the hounds?” Sidney replies indignantly. He calls the hounds up from the earth and sends the pack back along the trail. “How did I foul the hounds when you nearly headed the fox right out of the covert! If you weren’t off on a lark while the hounds were drawing, they would have had it five minutes in!”

“And if we kept terriers, then we could pull the fox from earth and it would matter not,” Nathan replies, kicking his hunter into a trot to catch up with Sidney, who’s following the pack.

“’Tis a fine point, as they’d be a fair sight more useful than yourself on a hunt, Lord Mackinnon,” Sidney says haughtily.

“You shan’t issue such a challenge without proving your merit,” Nathan fires back. “If you can catch me, perhaps you can convince me of your prowess on the hunt, Your Highness!” He heels his hunter into a sprint, steepling a log, and Sidney follows eagerly.

Sidney’s hunter catches and surpasses Nathan, and he handily wins their impromptu race. They merrily argue over Nathan’s forfeit as they return the hounds to the kennel and the hunters to the stable. They lower their voices as they enter the semi-state apartments of the palace, but they are less respectful in the halls than they should be, words and laughter still echoing before them.

Sidney steps smartly aside as a steamserv chugs down the side-line past him, its low glass eye fixed upon the bright yellow line it rolls along as a covered tray balances upon its flat head at waist-height. Sidney can see that the lever marked “BLUE SITTING ROOM” upon its back has been pulled down, whereas the “KITCHEN” level has been pushed up, so it delivers a servant’s burden from the kitchen to whoever waits for it in the Blue Sitting Room. Its metal skin, cylindrical from the floor up to its tray, hides the complicated inner workings-- from the clockwork that guides it from room to room, to the wheels that allow it to move through the palace.

Sidney permits the sound of the steamserv’s engine to fade before he says to Nathan, “Allow me use of your best couple for a month, for a hunter as poor as you are does not deserve their fine noses.”

“My best couple for a month ?” Nathan echoes, sounding nearly horrified. “You will run them into the ground, and they shall be nothing but paw and fur for months afterward!”

“If you didn’t spoil them so, a good run would do them good, not wear them down,” Sidney says, shouldering into Nathan. Nathan returns the gesture, and they nearly start a match in the hall, as if they were boys of eight years again, when a servant clears his throat.

“Your Royal Highness, My Lord,” the servant greets, and Sidney nods curtly at him as they fall into line, hands tucked behind backs as if they were not just fighting like children. “Sir, Their Royal Highnesses, the Prince Regent and Princess of Canada wish to speak with you,” the servant says, and Sidney suppresses a sigh. “They await you in the Blue Sitting Room, and your valet anticipates your presence before joining your esteemed parents.” The servant’s askance look clearly communicates that he does not approve of the horsehair, riding boots, and sweaty brows thanks to the hot summer sun. Sidney resists any urge to return the man’s rudeness.

“Thank you,” Sidney says pointedly, and the servant bows and steps off.

“Are you sure that he is not truly the Prince Regent of Canada, the way he speaks to you?” Nathan whispers, and they guffaw together, shoving each other again.

“I must see what Pater wants,” Sidney says, stepping back and then leaping neatly forward, out of the way of another steamserv. “By Jove, the steamers are busy today. I’ll be lucky not to be run over before I reach my rooms.”

“Should I fetch the hounds so we can run the steamservs to ground?” Nathan asks, and Sidney despairs at the thread of joy in his voice.

“Do you remember the last time we brought the hounds into the palace?” Sidney asks, and Nathan grimaces. “I thought so. Do try not to wreck the place while I’m in with Their Highnesses.”

“I cannot give my gentleman’s word!” Nathan calls gleefully, already turning back to the stables, and Sidney shakes his head.

His valet, a tart-faced gentleman named Scuderi, waits in Sidney’s dressing room, perfectly still and yet exuding an attitude of terrible anxiety.

“Your Royal Highness,” he says, bowing precisely when Sidney enters from his bedroom. “If you will, I have laid out a suit for your meeting with Their Royal Highnesses.”

Sidney eyes the suit dubiously, especially the waistcoat of aggressively red silk, but he sighs and sits upon the dressing chair. Scuderi tugs off his riding boots, wrinkling his nose fastidiously as he carries them off, and Sidney quickly strips his breeches, riding coat, and shirt. Scuderi returns in time to help him into the fine shirt, and Sidney stands to pull on the trousers that Scuderi had brushed and laid out. Sidney eyes the shoes that Scuderi placed next to the chair-- newer ones that pinch horribly still-- and sends the valet for a new pair. He tucks in his shirt, pulls up his brace, and shrugs into his waistcoat and frock coat unassisted before Scuderi returns with a far more comfortable, albeit worn, pair of shoes.

“Sir, a pocketwatch,” Scuderi practically begs after reluctantly buttoning up the shoes, but Sidney waves him off.

“I’ve kept Pater waiting long enough, Scuderi,” Sidney says, hurrying out the door as Scuderi calls something desperate after him.

The blue sitting room is well out of the private apartments, but Sidney arrives in good time and pulls his coat straight and his cravat fashionably askew before pushing in through the door, where both his mother and father wait within. His mother stands as he enter, grasping his shoulder and kissing his cheek to greet him.

“Sit, sit, Sidney,” she urges, pulling him onto the settee next to her, across from his father ensconced in his favorite chair.

“You’re a fine young man of four and twenty years, Sidney,” Prince Troy starts, and Sidney feels a terrible sinking feeling beginning in his nethers, “And the Crown has seen your value, for it has a great need for the young men of the peerage to step forwards and carry the burden of the kingdom.”

“Has Britain entered the war between Russia and Turkey?” Sid asks, nearly dizzy with fear of being sent to die on the battlefield, but his father laughs.

“What Her Majesty asks of you does concern the Russian Empire, but we seek peace, not war,” Prince Troy says. “Tsar Nicholas has chosen to withdraw his interest in the lands of the Ottoman Empire should Britain offer them a stronger position in other matters. Her Majesty has asked for the regent families of Canada and Australia each to put forth a son of marrying age, for a wedding vow is the only promise that the Tsar will accept to seal the treaty between us and end their conflict with Turkey. Russia has offered a son of their own, and given your preferences, you are the first choice for Canada to offer.”

The thought of being married off to some unknown Russian does not return any hope to Sidney’s chest, instead providing a different, quieter dread. He has no opposition towards marriage to a man, that being his preferred set of affairs, but he fears the potential of a poor match and a miserable marriage. Perhaps Russia will choose the royal son that Australia provides, though, given that neither location is no more convenient than the other for its son to be sent to.

“I will serve my Empire in all the ways that I am asked,” Sidney says, his parents politely ignoring the shake in his voice. Yet he lies in bed that night, praying desperately to God that the Empire will not ask.

------

It’s but two weeks later, while studying with Taylor, that Sidney receives an urgent summons to the airfield.

Taylor sighs in relief as Sidney stands, and he places his hand upon her shoulder as he says, “I won’t be gone long, I expect you to finish this damned reading by the time I return.”

“Such language,” Taylor sniffs and dodges Sidney with a laugh as he attempts to tickle her ribs. He takes his leave gracefully, Taylor shouting after him, “I’d rather run a steeplechase than return to Shakespeare, you know!”

“You cannot avoid your studies forever!” Sidney shouts back before dashing down the halls and towards the airfield. The quiet anxiety that simmers in the back of his mind bubbles to the forefront; two weeks seems too quick for it to be news from the Empire about his potential impending marriage. He knows that his parents sent his official tintype to London to be passed along to the Russian family, but given the length of the journey even on the fastest airship, it seems far too quick to have an answer returned already.

Sidney bursts out of the palace and onto the airfield in time to see a massive and lavish dirigible floating no more than five hundred feet above the earth, with a ground crew arrayed about it and shouting as they line it up to moor. Sidney comes to a halt next to his solemn-faced parents, watching the dirigible sink lower, though his mother turns to arrange his hair and cravat briefly. She turns back as the dirigible grows close enough that the escutcheon on the door clears to show the unicorn-and-lion supporters of the Imperial Arms.

Prince Troy mutters a low, “By Jove!” as Sidney swallows nervously, his mother clutching at his arm.

The dirigible settles, and they move closer to greet their royal visitor. The door opens to reveal a herald, who steps smartly out and announces, “His Imperial Highness, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Duke of Saxony.”

Their own herald returns, “His Royal Highness, Troy I, Prince Regent of Canada, Duke of Toronto. Her Royal Highness, Trina, Princess Royal of Canada, Duchess of Toronto. His Royal Highness, Prince Sidney of Canada, Duke of Nova Scotia.”

They genuflect as Prince Albert steps forth, and he bows in return and says, “Your Royal Highnesses, it is a pleasure.”

“Sir, the pleasure is ours,” Prince Troy returns. “Let us retire away from the dust of the airfield. Perhaps Toronto does not have the comforts of London, but we can at least offer steady ground, unlike your previous accommodations.”

“I cannot say that I am overfond of air travel, so I appreciate that more than you know,” Prince Albert says, walking beside Prince Troy as Princess Trina and Sidney trail behind. The main hall was cleared of steamservs and human servants for their procession to the Elk Room, and they arrive to it quickly as a result. The butler, eerily efficient as always, has a lavish tea waiting for them, and Prince Albert falls upon it as a man starved for days finding his first meal.

Finally, Prince Albert dabs at his mouth and sighs. “Forgive my poor manners,” he says, settling back into his chair comfortably. “I find little appetite while in the air, but it returns with a vengeance as soon as my feet touch solid earth.”

Prince Troy pulls at the bell-cord for a steamserv as he nods. “The motion does odd things to one’s innards, I feel,” he agrees politely. The chug of a stemserv interrupts, slides its arm under the platter of dishes to lift them, and tugs the door closed after itself.

“I am sure you are aware this is no social visit,” Prince Albert says, apparently finished with the formalities, and Prince Troy nods. “We have received notification from the Russian Empire that they believe Prince Sidney is the appropriate match for Knyaz Malkin, the prince they have put forth for the alliance marriage.”

Sidney clutches his hand about the arm of his chair, clenching his teeth so that he doesn’t say anything untoward. Prince Albert and his parents watch him expectantly, but it is nearly a full minute before he can choke out, “It is my honor to serve the Empire and cement our alliance with Russia.”

Prince Albert relaxes perceptibly, leaning back in his chair as he nods. “The arrangements will be made immediately,” he says. “Russia has asked for the marriage to occur in a neutral location. The Holy Roman Empire has offered to host the wedding and both Russia and Her Imperial Majesty have agreed that Vienna is a sufficiently neutral location. St. Nicholas’ Cathedral was built with respect to both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox ways, and it seems sufficient for the purpose. We are still negotiating the treaty, but we expect the wedding will be required before Russia signs, and so it will likely occur within the next month.”

Within a month, Sidney will be a married man to the mysterious Prince Malkin. Sidney feels faint and very nearly tells his mother to call for smelling salts. What is Malkin like? How old is he? Will Sidney be chained to a child or a doddering old man? Will they ever speak, or will they have a chill marriage, carrying out their duties in the marital bed and doing naught else beyond that as husbands?

“Sidney,” his mother says insistently, and Sidney blinks, returning his attention to the room rather than his thoughts.

“My apologies,” he says faintly.

Prince Albert nods. “It is quite a change for you, sir,” he says kindly, and Sidney swallows and nods in return. “While you were dazed, I asked if you wish to pen a letter to your future husband. Unfortunately, there will not be much time for courtship, so there is no reason to delay. I will depart to London on the morrow, and I can carry your missive with me to have it delivered to Russia.”

“It would be my pleasure,” Sidney says, thoughts spinning frantically into anxiety again. What should he discuss? What is Malkin interested in? He glumly considers the steeplechase that Taylor requested from him and instead substitutes a late, sleepless night, writing and discarding letters written to a stranger.

“We are sure that you wish to make a positive first impression with your future husband,” Prince Albert says, the imperial plural unsubtly transforming the comment into a command. “You are dismissed.”

Sidney walks to his apartments in a haze, dismisses Scuderi curtly, and collapses at his desk, head cradled in his hands. He allows himself a brief moment of misery, of rage, of fear, before taking in a deep breath and picking up his head. He tidily sets out a page of his stationary and selects a pen and inkwell. The salutation of the letter flows easily as does the greeting, and he writes:

16th of July, Year of Our Lord 1854

Your Illustrious Highness,

I set ink to paper today to write to you, my future husband, in supplication and good wishes for our future. I presume my letter finds you in good health, and I suffer no ills myself. I hope that our marriage, though a sign of alliance between Britain and Russia, can also be a fruitful relationship for us.

Sidney pauses there. With all polite discourse completed, he is completely unsure of what to write. He sets aside the stationary and digs out a scrap of paper from the pile on his desk, pen nib hovering above it as he thinks. Inevitably, the scribbles he lays on that paper end up in his waste bin, as does the next scrap paper and the next. A steamserv brings him dinner, which he eats over his desk in all haste before bending back over the task at hand.

His desk clock chimes midnight as he finally leans back in his chair and sighs, rubbing his eyes and conceding defeat. If Malkin is displeased by the letter, then so be it-- Sidney has does his best.

16th of July, Year of Our Lord 1854

Your Illustrious Highness,

I set ink to paper today to write to you, my future husband, in supplication and good wishes for our future. I presume my letter finds you in good health, and I suffer no ills myself. I hope that our marriage, though a sign of alliance between Britain and Russia, can also be a fruitful relationship for us.

I find myself in a position where I must introduce myself via letter, so I hope I can adequately represent myself and that you take pleasure in this knowledge. I am four and twenty years of age, average in height, fair of skin, medium of eye, and dark of hair, as you may know from the tintype sent to you. I am a passionate rider and foxhunter-- though I am often convinced into boar or elk hunts by my companions-- and a lover of the natural wonders of Canada. I believe Russia has a similar temperament to my own country, a land of great chill and snow in the winter, with fair summers to reward us.

I read for classics at Oxford-- Corpus Christi, not Christ Church as my father wished-- and played cricket, as I was a very fine batsman, if I may so say myself. My reading has served me well to assist my sister, Taylor, in her studies, though she often succeeds in distracting me from her studies with the promise of a steeplechase. I spend much of my days with Lord Mackinnon, Earl of Cole Harbor, as he is similar in character to myself and an enjoyable companion without overmuch to occupy his time aside from our escapades.

Please give my regards to Count Alexander Alexandrovich Galchenyuk, should you see him in St. Petersburg as the final arrangements are made between Britain and Russia; we had the pleasure of reading together, in addition to being cousins of some ridiculous degree, and I am sure he remembers me well from the incident with the President of Corpus Christi and the tortoise and the bees. Thankfully, we have excised that particular debt, but I doubt Alexander Alexandrovich has quickly forgotten that night.

I look forward to our meeting and wedding. The day shall arrive soon, I believe, and I am prepared to fulfill my obligations as your husband fully and with great delight.

Your dutiful servant,

Prince Sidney Crosby of Canada, Duke of Nova Scotia and Heir to Canada

He once again wonders if fulfill my obligations as your husband fully and with great delight is too forward, but in the end, he sighs and pulls the whistle for a steamserv, folding the letter carefully and enveloping it into a larger sheet that he seals and addresses to His Illustrious Highness Prince Malkin. After a brief moment of contemplation, he writes from your future husband on the reverse below his seal.

He readies himself for sleep after he has dropped the letter upon the steamserv’s tray and sent it off. Sleep comes surprisingly quickly and in flagrant denial of the worries twisting through his mind and heart.

------

Little news of the negotiations reaches Toronto. Information drips across the Atlantic slower than cold honey, especially as winter storms prevent the passage of airships. Sidney feels as though he is always listening for the telltale thrumming of a steam engine overhead that heralds a dirigible ready to whisk him away to his own wedding, but none have arrived in the three weeks since Prince Albert’s visit.

Sidney is in the library, idly rereading the Odyssey to escape the summer heat, when the hum of a steam engine filters in through the stone. He sits upright, abruptly feeling rather ill, but sets aside his book and heads out to the airfield. He meets his father along the way, and they walk in grim silence through the palace doors.

The airship that greets them is not the opulent Imperial dirigible but rather a raggedy, tiny ’ship that drops abruptly with every sickly stutter of its engine. The royal guard rushes up around Troy and Sidney, and when the dirigible is moored, two figures emerge with their hands held up placatingly.

“We are refugees from the United Empire’s civil war requesting safe haven,” begs the man. Once he steps clear of the shadow of the dirigible, Sidney sees that he is fair of hair and with a clean, well-kept beard. His female companion is even fairer, though she eyes the guard far more warily than he.

“Identify yourself,” a guard says cooly, he and his fellow soldiers still standing at attention.

The man says, “I am Lord Philip, Earl of the Territory of Minnesota, and this is my sister, Lady Amanda. We beg your protection, for the war has taken all from us. Our home in the Minnesota Territory has been destroyed and our parents slaughtered by the advance of the war. We have nothing left for us in the U.E. but destruction and mourning, and so we have fled to Canada for safe haven.”

Troy signals the guards to stand down, stepping forward and offering a handshake to Lord Philip. “Be welcome in Toronto, cousin,” he says. “Your mother was Katharine, was she not?” At Lord Philip’s nod, Troy continues, “She was of my grandfather’s family, and I grieve her passing. In her memory, I am pleased to welcome you into my house.”

“Thank you,” Lord Philip says, eyes haunted.

Prince Troy bows his head briefly. “May God grant her peace in heaven,” he whispers. “I will not hold you from your rest; I am sure the war has been difficult for you. The butler will show you to our guest rooms and will provide anything that you require.”

“I will escort them, Pater,” Sidney says hurriedly. He admits to no small curiosity in regards to the war in the U.E., and now is the time to extend a hand of friendship to Lord Kessel and Lady Amanda.

“Thank you, sir,” Kessel says, eyes tired, and Sidney gestures them forward to the palace.

“I believe we can place you in the Treaty Rooms temporarily, until the butler is able to prepare more permanent accommodations for you,” Sidney says as they cross the flat, empty plain around the airfield. “I hope your journey was not accompanied by any additional difficulty.”

“’Twas more upsetting than we would wish,” Lady Kessel says, gathering her skirts as she ascends the steps into the palace. “I do not know what reports you have received of the conditions in the heart of the United Empire, but it is dire at best. To procure a functional airship, even as ragged as she is, took us nearly three months.”

“We have heard very little,” Sidney admits, ushering them into the state apartments. “It seems that the war runs so brutally that not even messengers can escape.”

“I would believe it to be true,” Lord Kessel says with a heavy sigh. “We have faced horrific loss in the Minnesota Territory, and yet we are on the greatest outer fringes of the battle. I do not know if you have heard of the steam-guns that were invented--” He hesitates but, at Sidney’s nod, continues. “Well, their destruction has reigned over all. No man or structure can survive the onslaught. The North was quick to adopt the guns, replacing their cannons as quickly as they could and wreaking unbelievable havoc. It took some time for the South to acquire their own steam-guns, and they were nearly defeated, but now it is naught but slaughter. The trains cannot run due to the destruction of track, so all rely on airships.”

“Have you ever seen an airship fall from the sky, Your Royal Highness?” Lady Kessel asks, her voice flat and empty, and Sidney winces at the thought.

“I have not, ma’am,” he says.

Lady Kessel’s eyes are empty as she says, “It is the most horrific sight, to see the balloon deflate and drop. The screams of the passengers are audible from a great distance, even above the hiss of escaping steam. This is how our parents perished, and ’tis a death I would wish on none.”

Sidney exhales sharply, crosses himself, and murmurs a short prayer. “Will there be aught left of the U.E. by the time a treaty is signed?” he asks.

“Perhaps it is the best for all for the United Empire to destroy itself from inside,” Lord Kessel says, and the knowledge of whatever horrors have transpired there is writ large upon his face.

“My apologies for pursuing such a discomforting subject,” Sidney says, pausing before the door of the Treaty Rooms. “I assure you, the court of Toronto welcomes you with open arms, and I sincerely hope that you may find peace here. Beyond this door is the Treaty Rooms, and the servants will deliver your luggage forthwith. Please take your rest in the knowledge that you are safe here. Inform the servants should you desire anything, and I will ensure that it is provided.”

“Thank you, sir,” Lord Kessel says, opening the door and gesturing Sidney inside with them. “I cannot properly express our appreciation for your hospitality. We are as war-torn as our country, and the reprieve that Toronto offers is sorely needed. Your kindness shall not be forgotten.”

“Of course, Lord Kessel, it is our pleasure to offer the comforts you sorely missed.” Sidney loiters awkwardly near the door. “Also, I wished to escort you in so that I could make an offer. You are new to court, and I assume you would appreciate introductions to the appropriate social circles, so I offer my services in regards to this matter.”

The Kessels exchange a glance before Lord Kessel nods. “We would not be opposed to such assistance, thank you. I am sure you understand that we are not yet prepared for the rigors of court, but with some time to recover, it will be a relief to return to society.”

“It would be my pleasure to sponsor you in Toronto’s court,” Sidney says, relieved. “When the time comes, I wish to introduce you, Lord Kessel, to Lord Mackinnon. Lady Kessel, I believe you would enjoy the company of my sister, the Princess Taylor of Canada.”

Lady Kessel collapses upon a sofa, cradling her face in her hands, and her brother glances at her before bowing to Sidney. “Indeed, Your Royal Highness; we shall send a note as soon as we are prepared for such. But if you would please excuse us, it has been a long and harrowing journey after a long and harrowing year.”

“Please, excuse me, and find your rest,” Sidney says hurriedly, bowing and stepping from the room.

Despite the poor news Lord and Lady Kessel bring, Sidney cannot help but feel some relief that their guests arrived from the United Empire and not from Britain bearing news of an impending marriage.

Sidney retreats to the library as his mind swirls with panicked thoughts. Though he takes a well-loved copy of the poems of Catullus with him to his favorite chair, the book lays open and unheeded upon his lap due to the force of his musings. He knows that the treaty intended between Britain and Russia would prevent such horrific conditions advancing to the world rather than remaining isolated in the U.E.-- though indeed, the Ottoman Empire has not escaped war given Russia’s continual assault-- but he is caught, trembling, under the onslaught of his own fears and wishes. He feels as though he is a condemned man, waiting beneath the sword above his head, unsure of when it will drop and spell either his doom or the world’s.

Sidney had labored under no illusion of bachelordom unhindered for the remainder of his life; indeed, he had always looked forward to marriage, though it felt as if it were a distant objective. His parents had been perhaps too lax with him, permitting him to run free at an advanced age for the heir apparent. As a result, it never seemed to be an urgent enough matter to attend the Season in London to find an appropriate partner. Now, though, the end of his bachelorhood is perhaps soon to arrive, and a great anxiety settles upon Sidney’s shoulders.

Sidney attempts to step back and carefully evaluate the positive and the negative aspects of the situation. He cannot admit any disappointment from being offered a husband over a wife, as his desires lie strongly in that direction. Nathan had always teased him that his preference for a masculine form is surely what drove him to read in the classics at Oxford, and Sidney always flushed and defended the mastery of the ancients as the root of his interest. Still, it remains a relief to Sidney that the Empire did not request a match that would not inspire passion in him.

His idle dreams of marriage included a full partner, someone he could love with all of his heart and happily join with in the marital way. A marriage without conjugal relations is no marriage at all, a sham and a disgrace upon the families that approved it, and Sidney cannot ignore his concerns over such performances. Should the Russian put forth by his Empire to become Sidney’s husband not be completely fulfilled in all the ways that a husband ought to be, there would surely be severe consequences. Yet, with no opportunity to court or be matchmade, it seems like too much of a flight of fancy to arrive upon a favorable match.

Above all, Sidney muses as he stares out upon the gardens, he wishes for a good match in order to create a happy continuation of his family. He wishes for a husband for himself but also for children-- children not just to be heirs, birthed by an honored surrogate to continue his family line, but to be his children, a joy upon his life. He feels the dream slipping through his grasp, ephemeral in the face of his duty to the Empire, and yet he must fulfill a parody of it to ensure that the marriage and the treaty is true.

Sidney shakes his head as his thoughts turn in endless circles, pulling him into the dark waters of overthinking. Instead, he bends over Catullus, enjoying the sharp wit and indecency of the writing, and firmly places any thoughts of marriage from his mind.

------

Sidney’s guard relaxes after Kessel’s arrival, and he is deeply ensconced in a Greek lesson with Taylor not even a week later when a servant clears his throat.

“Yes,” Sidney says absently, meticulously correcting Taylor’s abysmal grammar.

“His Royal Highness Prince Albert requests your presence,” the servant says, and Sidney shoots up from his chair, nearly spilling his inkwell across Taylor’s work. She yelps and snatches the well before it tips, giving him a displeased look before he dashes from the room.

“They await in the Elk Room!” the servant calls at Sidney’s back, as if he is unaware that Imperial guests would only be greeted in the Elk Room. Sidney pauses to catch his breath outside the door when he arrives to the room, tucking his clothes into place and smoothing his hair down before entering.

“Ah, Sidney, please join us,” Prince Troy says as he opens the door, and Sidney sketches a quick bow in Prince Albert’s direction before settling into the chair his father motions towards.

“Your timing is impeccable; we were discussing you, sir,” Prince Albert says, and Sidney nods, tucking his shaking hands into his lap. “The British and Russian Empires have come to an accord, and Russia has requested your wedding occur with all possible haste to Prince Evgeni Vladimirovich Malkin. He is not of the imperial family, but princely through his family’s sacrifices made to the Empire that took his parents’ lives, and is something of a scientist or engineer, as I am given to understand. We have many items to attend to before you depart, but I imagine you are most eager for this.” He holds up a letter as he says, “A missive from your future husband in response to your earlier letter. I fear your courting will be cut dreadfully short, but I presume any word from Prince Malkin is welcome to you.”

“Indeed, sir,” Sidney replies, eyeing the paper that Prince Albert so jovially brandishes. He can see, even from a distance, that the envelope is titled HRH, Prince Sidney of Canada, so at least Prince Malkin knows the appropriate styles.

“We shall give you your privacy, Sidney,” his mother says as Sidney daintily receives the letter from Prince Albert. “Your father’s study is empty should you wish to retire there to read the letter. The rest of the business can await your return.”

“Thank you,” Sidney says, standing on shaking knees and carrying himself across the hall to the Maple Room, empty of any guests with his parents’ attentions on Prince Albert. He sits at the desk within before picking up a paper knife and wielding it on the seal. The metal of the knife reflects the fine tremor of his hand as he cuts the seal, and the letter unfolds easily once it is loosened. Malkin’s handwriting is angular but legible, and the letter stretches across two sheets of stationary. Sidney swallows and then bends his head over the paper, ready to learn about his future husband.

7th of August, 1854

Your Royal Highness,

It is a pleasure to receive a letter from you. Indeed, you find me in good health, though with anxiety to begin our life together. Please see enclosed a tintype of myself.

Sidney scrabbles through the stationary pages for the tintype, which is also marked on its rear face by a Julian date, 1st of August, 1854. He flips it over to see a serious-faced man, looking to be near in age to Sidney, which causes him an immediate sigh in relief. Malkin’s eyes are dark and drooped under hair neatly styled in the Continental fashion, and he wears a devilishly skewed cravat and what looks to be a very loudly patterned waistcoat. Sidney considers that perhaps Malkin would enjoy Scuderi’s attentions, allowing Sidney to return to his favored grey waistcoats rather than the bright monstrosities that Scuderi so preferred dressing his charge in. Sidney places the tintype aside for further study and bends back over the letter.

7th of August, 1854

Your Royal Highness,

It is a pleasure to receive a letter from you. Indeed, you find me in good health, though with anxiety to begin our life together. Please see enclosed a tintype of myself. I attended Trinity at Cambridge, so we are sure to be mortal enemies in the way of our universities, and read for physics and engineering. The engineering curriculum at Trinity, though new, is exemplary, as you may be aware-- the steam engine, steam car, airship, and steamserv all were invented at Trinity! I have a great passion for technology and have been greatly involved with the Bessemer process, which has propelled us forward into a new age. My continuing studies revolve around this process and how to leverage it for materials other than steel.

The Bessemer process, should you not be familiar, is the most advanced method of metal purification. It utilizes a converter, which is able to oxidize iron in order to purify it and create excellent steel, though I research the use of other materials in the converter for more advanced applications.

Sidney leans back, covering his eyes with a hand. Malkin’s handwriting grows rushed, blots and splatters of ink showing his passion, but Sidney wishes for nothing more than liberation from the topic at hand. He skims the balance of the letter, focusing back in on Malkin’s final paragraph, where the word “Bessemer” does not appear even once.

My studies aside-- I look forward to meeting you and beginning our marriage, as well. I hope that I am able to serve adequately as your husband and represent the new unity between our Empires.

Your faithful servant,

Prince Evgeni Vladimirovich Malkin

Sidney places the letter down and stares again at the tintype. Malkin is not terrible to look at, he decides, and he wonders why Malkin didn’t mention any associates in his letter and instead focused on such scientific items. Does he isolate himself in his laboratory, laboring over steam engines? Will Sidney only see his husband when he emerges on odd days, his eyes red from steam and his voice hoarse from not speaking to any but himself? He looks too handsome to be a strange recluse, but perhaps Sidney is wrong in that evaluation, having not interacted much with science types, even in his university days.

There’s no point in worrying; regardless of the man’s temperament, he is to be Sidney’s husband for the good of their Empires. Sidney tucks the letter and tintype back into the envelope and crosses the hall to rejoin Prince Albert and his parents. They turn expectantly to him as he enters the room, and he nods stiffly and sits.

“How do you find your betrothed?” Prince Albert asks, and Sidney unconsciously smoothes the envelope in his hand.

“He is suitable,” Sidney says evenly and receives an approving nod from Prince Troy. “I have great hope that we will have a beneficial union that can represent the alliance of our Empire and his.”

“Jolly good,” Prince Albert says. “Then the planning can continue apace. Russia has accepted Vienna as an appropriately neutral location for the wedding, as the Holy Roman Empire has thus far remained aloof of the scuffle among much of the rest of Europe. Russia has demanded an Orthodox ceremony in St. Nicholas’s Cathedral; in recompense, we have required that you will continue to reside in Canada with your husband joining you, and Prince Malkin will forego his previous title and accept that of Duke-Consort of Nova Scotia, as is appropriate for a subservient husband.”

Prince Albert speaks blithely, as if he is setting the menu for a court ball. Instead, he sets in motion the entirely of Sidney’s life, and Sidney swallows down the sickness invading his gut. For others to make these decisions eases his path, he firmly reminds himself. It is his duty as a royal son to accept a political marriage and bear it with good grace.

“Has a date been selected?” Princess Trina asks, hands fluttering. “I fear we haven’t seen the tailor or the jeweler or made any appropriate arrangements. We are not prepared in the least!”

“Three weeks hence, with your departure to Vienna being in two weeks,” Prince Albert says.

Trina gasps. “There is no time to waste!” Sidney closes his eyes briefly, imagining the appointments he has ahead of himself. The tailor is sure to faint when they tell him to prepare Sid’s wedding suit within a matter of days, and likewise the jeweler for a wedding crown. No doubt the butler will have a fit as well, as Sidney’s chambers are too far into bachelordom to be rescued, and so a proper set of apartments will need to be arranged for them. He and Malkin are sure to take a bridal tour upon their return to Canada to show their new union to the nobility and the commoners, and the arrangements for that will drive the full court to distraction.

Prince Troy and Prince Albert continue to discuss the negotiations as Sidney glumly contemplates the new realities of his life. He has two final weeks to say goodbye to the life of a bachelor lord and accept his new duties to his husband and country, and damned if he won’t enjoy them.

------

On Sidney’s last day of freedom, Nathan drags him from the library where he has taken shelter from the chaos. Scuderi is in Sidney’s rooms in a whirlwind of packing. Princess Trina is likewise drowning under final bridal tour details, and so Sidney hid before any tasks were assigned to him.

“There you are, hiding among the dust again,” Nathan says jovially, leaning over the back of Sidney’s chair to pluck the book from his hand. “You’ve been nothing but agony in the garden all week, I shan’t have your last day here as a bachelor wasted as well.”

“Reading is not a waste, Nathan, how many times--” Sidney protests, but Nathan cuts him off by dragging him up by the arm.

“Come, come, I had the hunters saddled and the hounds woken. Let’s go rouse a fox for a good run!” His energy is infectious, and as much as Sidney desires solitude and contemplation, he can’t resist the opportunity for exercising the hunters and hounds.

The chill of an early-fall morning slaps Sidney as they tumble from the palace towards the stables, and for the first time this week, his mind feels bright and alive. Sidney’s worries fall away as they draw their favorite covert, and they end up rousing a brace of foxes, one going to earth successfully and the other caught by Sidney’s favored couple. They’ve entirely missed afternoon tea by the time they return to the stables, but Sidney is of no mind, refreshed by the chase.

They retire to the Washington Room, gleefully recounting fine jumps on the steeplechase, and argue over which of their couples is the finest before they pour whiskeys and settle into chairs. Finally, the thrill of the hunt settles in their veins, and they fall into repose as Sidney stares at his whiskey glass in contemplation.

“I doubt that it will be that bad, you know,” Nathan offers delicately, and Sidney snorts. “I’m sure he’s not a tyrant, and he’s your consort, so he’ll be at your mercy.”

“I don’t want him at my mercy,” Sidney says moodily. “I accept my duty to the crown and the Empire and will do as asked, but-- I cannot say that I am necessarily pleased by it. He seems to be…” Sidney searches for a polite way to express his disinterest in Malkin’s scientific passion, but Nathan beats him to it.

“An old, stodgy stuffed shirt with no interest in things that aren’t driven by steam?” Nathan says.

Sidney sighs. “There’s no need to be impolite.” Though he holds no passion for the man, he feels driven to defend Malkin, as neither of them have had much choice, and surely he does not find Sidney any more to his taste than Sidney finds him.

“To call a spade a spade is hardly impoliteness!” Nathan protests.

“He’s to be my husband, Nate, the best you could do is accept the situation and not worsen it,” Sidney says sharply, swirling his glass until the whiskey in it is as agitated as he feels.

“If that is what you wish,” Nathan says sourly, and Sidney nods. “Well, then, a toast to the future Duke-Consort and your happy marriage.” Sidney raises his glass and drinks in tandem with Nathan.

“Take heart, Nathan,” Sidney says when they’ve finished their toast. “Should he spend all his time in the lab, I’ll have naught but time to myself for our hunts and adventures.”

“’Tis folly that you thought at all that married life would rid you of me,” Nathan says, and Sidney does not admit to himself the relief he feels as they laugh together.

------

The next morning, Scuderi rouses Sidney at a horrific hour to begin the journey to Vienna. Sidney stumbles in a haze from his apartments to the dirigible. He collapses gratefully into his cabin and falls back asleep before Scuderi has even finished arranging his belongings about him.

He wakes again-- well past eight by the pocketwatch on his nightstand-- and dresses himself so that he can head to the saloon to break his fast. His parents are leisurely sipping on tea when he arrives, so he joins them at the table, idly listening to their gossip about the aristocracy in Vienna and the Russian dignitaries they expect at the wedding.

They’re scheduled to land three days hence, with the wedding to occur the day after, and Sidney suspects it will be three days of utter boredom in the dirigible followed by a day of complete chaos. They are also scheduled to return immediately, not even permitted a night of rest on solid ground after the wedding.

“Demonstrating our seriousness in receiving Malkin into our family is tantamount to Russia’s confidence in this arrangement,” Princess Trina says as Sidney privately wonders about-- well, his wedding night. To have such an occasion aboard a dirigible seems to be foolhardy at best, but he cannot raise the topic with his parents without expiring from embarrassment.

Indeed, by the time they land in Vienna on the third day of their journey, Sidney has worked himself up into a froth from forced idleness. Reading is all well and good, but without an opportunity to intersperse it with breathing the air or riding a horse, he quickly loses patience with books. He spends most of the second day pacing restlessly about the dirigible, and he bursts free from his cabin the second the fieldmaster calls the mooring complete.

His father holds out an arm before he can exit, though, and says, “The landing party awaits, and while they will appreciate your eagerness, they will not be impressed with your appearance.”

Sidney sighs but arranges his clothes and hair to something less desperate, and they step forth as a herald announces them and then continues to name their landing party.

“Prince Pavel Valerievich Datsyuk, Ambassador of the Russian Empire to the British Empire. Palatine Thomas Vanek, representative of Franz Joseph I, by the grace of God elected Holy Roman Emperor, forever August, et cetera.”

The proper genuflections are exchanged before Palatine Vanek says, “Welcome to Vienna and the Holy Roman Empire, Your Royal Highnesses. We are pleased to host the union of two of our great allies. His Imperial Highness has opened Schönbrunn for your comfort in advance of the wedding. You may wish to retire to the Gisela Apartments to refresh yourself, as Prince Malkin awaits your presence in the Millions Room, eager to meet his future husband.”

“Thank you, Palatine Vanek,” Prince Troy says. “Prince Datsyuk, we appreciate the honor the Russian Empire does us by sending their most noble representative.”

“It has been my pleasure to broker this new peace with the British Empire,” Prince Datsyuk says. “I look forward to accompanying Your Royal Highnesses and Prince Malkin later this day to ensure a smooth introduction between the sons of our two great Empires. However, as I am sure you are aware, there are many matters that I must yet attend to, so I will be off. It is a pleasure, sirs and ma’am.” He bows and walks briskly off. Sidney fights back against a queasy surge in his stomach at the not-so-thinly-veiled expectations the prince expressed of the first meeting between himself and Prince Malkin. Prince Datsyuk does not seem to be laboring under any delusion of this wedding being a love-match, but his stake in the events is clear, and Sidney is not interested in disappointing the representative of the Russian Empire in any way.

“Please, sirs and ma’am, may I escort you to your apartments?” Palatine Vanek says, and Prince Troy nods.

They exit the airfield into the famous, elaborate gardens of the palace, entering the middle of the Great Parterre with the Gloriette to their left. Sidney valiantly attempts not to stare like a country cousin at the dignified crouch of the Gloriette up on the hill above the sprawling Neptune Fountain, but he does turn his head too far as they angle towards the palace before snapping it back around. Thankfully, Palatine Vanek makes no comment, though Princess Trina aims disapproving eyes at Sidney.

They enter the doors at the far wing of the palace. Sidney immediately notices the lack of yellow sidelines for steamservs. He had heard that the Holy Roman Emperor had little patience for modern convenience, but he is still shocked by their absence, and he wonders how great the servant population must be to keep Schönbrunn habitable. His thoughts are interrupted as Palatine Vanek stops before a door and bows.

“Your apartments, sirs and ma’am,” he says. “I shall wait here until you are prepared to proceed to the Millions Room.”

They enter the apartments after murmuring thanks at Palatine Vanek. Sidney stops at the sitting room clearly hastily converted to a bachelor’s quarters, and his parents proceed to a bedroom deeper within the apartments. Sidney drags his feet through refreshing himself, hands shaking with a sudden bout of nerves. His parents hover impatiently over him after he has piddled about for half an hour, and the mantle clock is chiming four o’clock as they finally exit the apartments. Palatine Vanek springs up from a servant’s chair at their reappearance and ushers them attentively along the corridors of the palace to the Millions Room.

The Millions Room is the finest example of European decadence, and Sidney resists the urge to wrinkle his nose, too accustomed to the more restrained elegance of the palace in Toronto. The entire room is paneled in rosewood and heavily gilded, with dozens of delicate Oriental paintings set into gilt-edged cartouches interrupting the heavy wood. A strange man stands up from his seat, Prince Datsyuk following at a more sedate pace, and Sidney’s heart lurches and stops as he recognizes the stranger’s face from the tintype: Prince Malkin.

A quiet moment falls over the room as Sidney and Prince Malkin evaluate each other. The tintype was a good representation of Malkin, accurate to his sleepy, dark eyes and pouted mouth. What Sidney did not expect is the man’s height; he’s more than a hand taller than Sidney, perhaps a hand and a half, and the height isn’t false, as Sidney doesn’t see an elaborate French heel when he sneaks a glance to Malkin’s feet. Malkin is also thin of limb, not nearly as stocky as Sidney, looking almost coltish despite obviously being past the awkward time of growth between boyhood and manhood.

Sidney notices the motion of Malkin’s dark eyes, and he wonders if Malkin’s private evaluation of him is favorable. He cannot detect a frown or other expressions of displeasure on Malkin’s face, so he supposes the verdict could be worse, unless he is a more finely trained statesman than his letter indicated.

Finally, Prince Datsyuk breaks the silence. “May I introduce Prince Evgeni Vladimirovich Malkin, honored for familial services to the Empire.” Malkin bows after his introduction, a graceful but somewhat unpracticed motion.

Palatine Vanek replies, “May I introduce His Royal Highness, Troy I, Prince Regent of Canada, Duke of Toronto; Her Royal Highness, Trina, Princess Royal of Canada, Duchess of Toronto; and His Royal Highness Prince Sidney of Canada, Duke of Nova Scotia.” Malkin extends his hand as Sidney and his parents bow, eyes not wavering from Sidney’s, and Sidney steps forward briskly to shake it. Malkin’s grasp is firm and slightly overwarm, but Sidney notices moreso how enormous his palm is against Sidney’s. Malkin is gentle as he releases Sidney’s hand, and Sidney is caught again by Malkin’s gaze before he remembers his manners and settles into a chair.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Prince Malkin,” Sidney says politely once they are all seated.

“The pleasure is all mine, Prince Sidney,” Malkin returns. “I trust your journey was well?”

“As well as can be expected,” Sidney says with a twist of his mouth, skin pebbling at the force of attention from his parents and the other dignitaries as he begins to navigate the first steps of his relationship with his fiancé. “I admit, I do not enjoy the limited space of a dirigible for extended periods of time, though our accommodations were most comfortable. The wind did not favor us, but we had no significant delay thereof. And how was your journey?”

“Similarly confined, I fear,” Malkin says. Sidney can detect the slightest roundness to his words, a mix between the familiar lilt of the Queen’s English plus what he assumes to be a more Russian influence on his tongue. “Though the journey from St. Petersburg to Vienna is fairly short, I have been travelling often from Magnitogorsk to the capital and in return. While the small spaces of travel are wearisome, I am continually delighted by the wonders that steam brings us.”

In retrospect, Sidney should not be surprised that Malkin has latched onto the opening that Sidney gave him to enthuse over what is clearly his favorite topic, and he diverts the conversation before Malkin can warm to the subject. “Your passion is inspiring,” Sidney demurs. “I am not a scientist such as yourself, but I am sure you shall provide me with many opportunities to increase my knowledge throughout our years of union.”

“And I believe you shall return the favor, and provide me with a greater appreciation for the artistry of the classics,” Prince Malkin says. “I am grateful for the opportunity that the Empire has provided me in this pairing, and I assure you of my faithfulness even in advance of our wedding.”

“I promise you no less in return,” Sidney says, throat clicking as he swallows, palms sweating where they are tucked neatly in his lap. “I shall give to you in full the honor you provide myself and the British Empire in becoming my consort.”

The air in the room begins to move again, Sidney’s parents and Prince Datsyuk quickly sinking into gossip about mutual acquaintances and the odd shared cousin now that Sidney and Malkin have fulfilled the required pleasantries. Malkin is equally as reserved as Sidney, apparently even less involved in St. Petersburg’s court than Sidney is in Toronto’s. Unsurprisingly, the topic of Count Galchenyuk eventually arises, and Sidney is forced to recount the details of their incident with the President of Corpus Christi and the tortoise and the bees, to much mirth at their youthful indiscretions. Otherwise, Sidney is as much of an observer as Malkin is, and the boredom of discussions about half-remembered persons is interrupted by a servant.

“His Holiness the Roman Emperor requests your presence for dinner in the Stallion Room,” the servant announces, and the room rises as one. Emperor Franz Joseph I awaits them in the Stallion Room along with Prince Albert, Empress Elisabeth unsurprisingly absent given her notoriously poor attitude about any involvement with the court. Another round of introductions and greetings follows, and Sidney already feels exhausted by the trappings of court that he so studiously avoids in Toronto, even given the fairly intimate audiences of the day.

Dinner is merely an extension of the previous audience, though the addition of Emperor Franz Joseph and Prince Albert necessitates the repeat of many previous items of gossip. The favored topic, after exhausting the annals of the European courts, is the United Empire and its civil war, and all attending are keen to hear the news of Lord Kessel’s flight to Canada and the safe haven that Prince Troy has given him and his sister.

Dessert is finally served in the form of Sachertorte, which Sidney is determined to enjoy to its fullest, the rich chocolate and sweet apricot appealing to him greatly, especially in comparison to the more savory of the traditional Viennese foods. Unfortunately, Emperor Franz Joseph feels that it is now the appropriate moment to bring up the purpose of their visit.

“I presume you are prepared for tomorrow’s joyous union?” Franz asks, and Sidney is careful to not choke on his torte; he would never forgive himself for wasting such a decadence, though it is quickly spoiled by the ashy taste of nerves regardless.

“We are--” Sidney starts at the same time Malkin says, “I am sure--” They both stop, exchanging wide-eyed stares as they wait for the other to speak.

Finally, Princess Trina says delicately, “The arrangements have been made to each Empire’s satisfaction, Your Imperial Majesty. All that remains to bring a new time of peace to both their lives and their Empires is for the betrothed to exchange their vows.”

“Wedding nerves,” clucks Emperor Franz as he looks at Sidney and Malkin ducking back down to focus on their desserts. “Even now I recall so clearly the moment I approached my dearest Sisi at the altar. I thought I would faint like the greenest of court maidens in front of the entire court! Fortunately, I did not such thing, though Sisi claims to this day that I swayed alarmingly through most of the ceremony, and she was prepared to catch me should I fall.”

He pauses for the polite chuckles of his guests before continuing more seriously. “But though it is natural to hesitate at such a change, I am sure you both will adapt well to married life, as this union is not only for your benefit but for the entire world’s. A strong union between Britain and Russia as showcased through you is critical to return stability to Europe and as much of the Americas as possible, especially as the U.E. tears itself apart from within. Your marriage shall be a symbol, but to permit it to remain symbolic only will ruin us all. All the eyes of Europe will be watching Canada to ensure you serve each other as husbands must, in all the ways that husbands should.” There is no question about what aspect of their marriage that the emperor is pointedly referring to, and Princess Trina gasps lightly at his frankness, covering her mouth politely over her outburst.

Sidney feels himself flush as all eyes turn towards himself and Malkin. He glances up to see Malkin blushing similarly, nose buried in his torte. Prince Troy clears his throat meaningfully, with a pointed expression at Sidney.

Sidney clears his own throat before croaking, “Thank you for your wise perspective, Your Imperial Majesty. I am sure that I speak for us both when I say that we are devoted to be all that we must to bring forth a new era of diplomacy between our empires.”

Emperor Franz nods, apparently satisfied, and Sidney eases out a quiet sigh as the conversation returns to some point of gossip about the ton in London. Sidney escapes soon after, waving off the offered snifter of brandy and begging to take his leave to rest up for the wedding, which Emperor Franz kindly grants. He thinks he hears Malkin scurry out behind him, but he is so desperate for rest that he doesn’t stay his step to walk with him, instead nearly sprinting towards his temporary apartments.

Scuderi clearly arranged his room while he was at dinner, with the most damning evidence of his activity being Sidney’s wedding suit, brushed and laid out in preparation for tomorrow. Sidney groans and collapses onto his bed face down, stifling himself in the covers until the need for air grows too great. He has become very familiar with Orthodox wedding ceremonies over the past three weeks, but even mentally reviewing his knowledge does not settle his nerves for tomorrow’s festivities. It is difficult for him to decide if the wedding or the reception is more intimidating, and he soothes himself with the thought that should he embarrass himself, it will be many years before he is Prince Regent of Canada and must once again face the courts of Europe and whatever reputation he makes for himself.

It is strange to contemplate that a man he has only just formally met today shall be, at this time tomorrow, his husband, and he cannot separate his mind from the thought as he prepares himself for sleep. He knows that many before him have carried out their sacred duty to the Empire and made marriages for political gain, but to intimately feel the reality of his situation is another matter entirely. To make matters worse, Emperor Franz’s final comments have stirred a deeper fear and wonder in him; his apprehension grows at the thought of fulfilling the highest of marital duties. Surely Malkin must find pleasure in the masculine form, as the request was specifically for husbands, but perhaps Malkin is also being struck by this same epiphany that is consuming Sidney and finds himself unprepared to tend to Sidney’s needs now that the situation is nearly at hand.

The sweet oblivion of sleep interrupts his musings, and Sidney’s last thought is that he is on a train barreling forward, unstoppable and powerful, a beast that could drive the world to a great peace or an even greater war should he make the wrong decision.

------

Scuderi mercilessly rouses Sidney to prepare as the first blush of dawn touches the sky. While the ceremony is not scheduled until ten thirty, the procession from Schönbrunn to St. Nicholas’ Cathedral is over a full seven kilometers and is sure to take a hellish amount of time as they are travelling by horse-drawn carriages rather than land-steamers.

Sidney grumbles as Scuderi pushes him into his dressing chair, raising arms and legs, and standing and sitting as requested. A plate of cold cuts, bread, and cheese sits at his elbow, but he takes no more than five mouthfuls before Scuderi finishes with him. Sidney stands, stomach tense with nerves, and looks down at his severe black morning dress in approval. Though Scuderi ensures Sidney is finely appointed in the wedding jewelry his mother commissioned, he leaves him bareheaded in anticipation of the wedding crowning, and Sidney’s head feels strangely light without the tactile reminder of his rank in conjunction with his unusually fine dress.

The door to Sidney’s room opens just as Scuderi finishes, and the valet bows as Sidney’s parents step in before quietly taking his leave. Princess Trina sits down on the settee across the room, gesturing Sidney towards the empty space to her left, and he reluctantly stands and joins her as his father claims the chair next to them. As he sits, his mother grasps his hands between hers, leaning close against his near arm.

“My dearest Sidney,” his mother says, an immense fondness in her voice bringing an immediate lump to Sidney’s throat. “We know you have faced this day with some apprehension, and yet you have persevered. Remember that, even as you continue on in this new life, we will always support you and your happiness. You are making a great sacrifice for your Empire, but this noble gesture need not lead to your eternal unhappiness. If all else fails, your father and I will ensure that we will do everything in our power to right the wrongs in your life.”

“Thank you,” whispers Sidney, unexpectedly swept away by his relief. They sit together quietly until a knock sounds at the door and Scuderi enters.

“Your Royal Highnesses, it is time,” he says apologetically.

Sidney nods firmly, filled with a new determination as he gently disentangles his hands and stands. “Let us proceed,” he declares. He holds his head high as he follows Scuderi out to the front drive and the waiting carriages. At the front of the line is an open, single-seat barouche, finely appointed in red and drawn by a brace of shimmering white stallions. A footman steps down as Sidney approaches to hand him up into the carriage, and the driver whips the horses up the second Sidney has taken his seat.

As Sidney suspected, the procession is dreadfully slow once they exit the drive to Schӧnbrunn, the winding streets packed with commoners eager to bask in the glow of royalty. Sidney waves and nods, waves and nods until his arms and neck ache with the continual movement. He heard the bells chiming nine o’clock just as he departed Schӧnbrunn, and he is filled with pitiful relief when he hears ten o’clock sound an infinity later.

They turn upon the cathedral not ten minutes later, and Sidney marvels at it, a tiny piece of Russia hidden deep within Vienna. The cathedral is built of red brick but richly decorated with white and teal, topped in the five golden domes representing the flames of Jesus and the four gospel saints.

Sidney is handed down from his carriage and shepherded into the vestibule to wait for the ceremony. His less-than-enthusiastic but dutifully thorough preparations had informed him that the traditional step at this time is the breaking of the karavoy to determine the head of household. Thanks to the first of many political changes to the traditional ceremony, the karavoy is not needed, and so instead he waits to begin the betrothal ceremony with a quiet relief that he will not have to attempt to take a larger bite of bread than his future husband to establish his household position. Rather, Sidney has already accepted the role of the leading partner and Malkin the following, taking the title of Duke-Consort to Sidney’s Prince, as per the treaty.

Most of the guests already wait within the nave, as only the most important remain in the vestibule for the betrothal, and Sidney’s spirits lift as his parents join the esteemed crowd. The final guests to arrive are the Russian dignitaries, and they begin filing in, the church doors shutting with a thud on the heels of Malkin. The vestibule is dark in the wake of the closed doors, and Sidney has to blink rapidly to adjust his eyes to the wavering gas-light.

Malkin steps up next to him, and Sidney has a moment to evaluate him. His morning coat is suitably modest for a wedding, though Sidney can see a brashly patterned silk vest peeking out near the collar. His tie is dark and plain to offset the vest, and Sidney is relieved that Malkin’s man had the good sense to not send his charge forth with clashing vest and tie. His pants are dark and striped, just as Sidney’s are, and Sidney completes his evaluation as he flicks his eyes back up to Malkin’s face. Malkin smiles hesitantly, a tiny quirk of his lips, and Sidney returns the gesture as the priest approaches them.

The betrothal begins with little fanfare, the past three weeks of planning and worry coming to fruition. First, the priest cleanses Sidney’s hands and face in a baptismal font, symbolically baptising him so that he can be married within the bounds of the Orthodox church. The priest then receives the rings and blesses them, interspersing the recitation of various holy passages into the blessing. Sidney struggles to follow along; his Russian is poor at best, and the words quickly blur together into meaningless noise under the stress of the event. He clumsily recites his vows as the priest waits, tongue twisting uncomfortably around unfamiliar syllables, and the priest passes the rings between their hands thrice before sliding each onto the third finger of their right hands.

With the betrothal complete, the priest leads them into the rear of the nave where the waiting crowd turns as one to face them. Sidney’s words ring through the nave and fade into the ceiling as he avers that he comes to this wedding freely, without coercion or constraints, and tries not to feel that his words were a lie as Malkin echoes him. The priest then hands both Sidney and Malkin a lit candle to hold in their left hands, and as Sidney and Malkin link their right hands together, he wraps his stole thrice about their clasped hands, binding them together.

The service is long and baffling, Sidney giving up not five minutes in on trying to follow. He feels the heavy, warm weight of Malkin’s hand in his, wrapped securely in the priest’s stole, and takes comfort that he is not alone. The priest crowns them, not with traditional wedding crowns but with their proper crowns, to symbolize that their wedding is beyond that of joining two men with God but also two empires. The longest part of the ceremony follows, a sermon describing the origin of marriage and the duties. Sidney forces his eyes open as they drift close under the heat of the church; Malkin squeezes his hand warningly each time he begins to sway and droop.

Finally, long after the bell above has chimed eleven o’clock, the priest ends the sermon by giving each of them three sips of wine from the common cup. He then leads them by their joined hands to the center table for the dance of Isaiah, and Sidney’s feet throb alarmingly before he works feeling back into them. They circle the table thrice as a choir sings, slow, measured steps marking a similar shape to the cupola above them. The bells mark noon as they finish the third round, bursting into a joyous carillon as Sidney and Malkin are led to the altar and presented as a married couple for the first time. The priest shouts, “Na zisete!” to the assembly as he unwinds his stole from their hands, and Sidney nearly sags in relief as he realizes it is done. He is married-- but the day has only just begun.

They are ushered out before the church ahead of the rest of the guests delaying the traditional receiving line to the reception, and as they step blinking out into the bright noon sun, a herald announces them: “Prince Sidney of Canada, Duke of Nova Scotia, and his new husband, Duke-Consort Evgeni Vladimirovich of Nova Scotia!” The assembled crowds cheer as they bow together, then step forward to the open, double-seat barouche that waits, similarly decorated to Sidney’s previous but with two brace of carriage horses.

Malkin hesitates as he nears the carriage, and Sidney remembers in a flash that he is now Sidney’s responsibility. It is strange now to know that he has a spouse that he must care for and provide for. He cannot admit any pleasure at having another person subservient to him always, the Duke to his own Prince, but it is the way of the world now, and Sidney must be a good husband. Sidney offers his hand, helping Malkin up into the carriage, balancing on the tips of his toes in order to reach high enough to ensure Malkin is safely within the barouche. Sidney follows before a footman can assist, settling next to Malkin as the driver whips the horses up to a trot.

It’s a mere two kilometers from the cathedral to the Hofburg Palace, and the journey takes a mere twenty minutes. During those minutes, they do not speak to each other-- there is no value in attempting, given the noise of the crowds about them. Sidney and Malkin acknowledge the people, though Sidney can feel a fine tremble running through Malkin through the point where their arms brush together. He wonders what Malkin is feeling: exhaustion, fear, elation. It’s impossible for Sidney to know which is the correct answer, though he worries over the question like a hound worrying a fox.

When the carriage stops before the palace, they repeat their previous performance in reverse, Sidney jumping down and reaching up with his left hand to steady Malkin and hand him down. He can feel in his grasp the firm shape of Malkin’s wedding band upon his finger, and yet again he is sharply reminded that Malkin is now his husband.

A waiting servant leads them into the palace, going directly to the hall for the reception, the Zeremoniensaal. It is breathtaking in size-- nearly twice the size of the Hall of Ceremonies in Toronto-- and glittering, the light of the twenty-six chandeliers glittering off of massive columns of golden marble and elaborate white detailing. Sidney and Malkin pause together just over the threshold, staring about, and Sidney laughs nervously and says, “By Jove, they haven’t spared any indulgence, eh?”

“Indeed not,” Malkin says, craning his neck to stare at the chandeliers. Sidney abruptly realizes that he hasn’t yet let go of Malkin’s hand, and he drops it, shocked by his own forward behavior.

“Your Royal Highness, Your Grace, if you will follow me,” their servant-escort urges, arranging them by the door to receive the guests. The reception line is an endless blur headed by Sidney’s parents, Emperor Franz Joseph, Prince Albert, and Prince Datsyuk. The hundreds that follow murmur good wishes that fly past Sidney’s ears to stick to the wall behind him as he numbly shakes hands and accepts genuflections or embraces. Sidney receives all the congratulations of the guests, as head of their household, and Malkin stands quietly except to step forward and greet those he personally knows, though he does not do so often.

Sidney is in a haze by the end, and Malkin takes him gently by the elbow to lead him to their table. Unsurprisingly, they are seated with the same guests as were at dinner last night, plus a number of other dignitaries, and Sidney nearly runs at the thought of having to entertain them all.

He persists, and through grim determination alone remains upright through fifteen courses of dinner, hours of dancing, hundreds of tiny exchanges with people he doesn’t know and likely will never seen again. Malkin is by his side through all of it, quiet but steady, and Sidney finds himself feeling surprisingly grateful towards his new husband.

Finally, when both of them are visibly sagging, seated back at the head table and ostensibly picking at snacks, Prince Albert approaches them and sits in the chair next to Sidney.

“Well done, Your Royal Highness,” he says lowly, and Sidney bobs his head, too tired to form words. “Your dirigible awaits you at the airfield just outside this palace; your parents shall depart Schönbrunn on the morrow. I believe your bridal tour will depart from Toronto after you are presented to court, so take all the rest that you can on the journey. Be well, sir.”

Sidney dredges up enough energy to return, “Thank you, sir,” as he stands and taps Malkin’s arm. Malkin’s head jerks up, looking around wildly, and Sidney bends enough to say into his ear, “Time for us to depart.” Malkin sighs explosively and stands, and a servant appears behind them to escort them out. The guests are distracted by a waltz competition occurring on the dance floor, so they are able to duck out without being captured by polite goodbyes. A maze of marble-lined hallways later, they emerge into the airfield, where a small dirigible with the arms of Canada on the door awaits.

There is no discussion between them necessary, for both of them beeline towards the bedroom as the steam engine whistles to announce their imminent takeoff. Sidney sheds his shoes and his coat, placing his crown into its box as he loosens his suspenders with his other hand. Off comes his vest, and now he hesitates-- Malkin is his husband, but it still feels terribly immodest. Sidney remembers with a nervous thrill of his stomach that he is expected of far more immodest duties, and he desperately hopes that Malkin has no such expectations of husbandly performances after such a dreadfully long day. Thankfully, when Sidney looks over, Malkin appears deeply focused on removing his own garments without tripping or passing out rather than full of amorous thoughts. He unselfconsciously strips down to his unmentionables before digging through the chest at the foot of the bed and removing night-clothes, so Sidney shrugs to himself and follows suit.

Sidney has not even finished dressing by the time Malkin slips into the bed, and when he finally, hesitantly pulls up the blanket to lie down, he realizes that Malkin is already asleep, mouth slack and breath deep and even. Sidney swallows down an odd mix of relief and disappointment over the brief respite from fulfilling the final marital duty. The consummation can wait, he supposes, and for today he will instead appreciate the new experience of sharing a bed and being warmed by another in his sleep.

------

Their failure to consummate that night-- and every night thereafter-- stays as Sidney’s secret for six miserable months. Their long first winter of marriage is cold in both weather and affections, Evgeni either entirely absent from Toronto or a quiet ghost on those few weeks he is about the palace. Sidney wished to find a partner in marriage, but in actuality he finds nothing more than an extended bachelorhood after vowing his life and spirit to another.

Therefore, it is no surprise that upon the dawning of the first clear day of spring, Sidney is alone in his marriage bed. He is awoken by Nathan barreling into the Crown Prince Suite, shouting and sprinting about as Sidney thrashes his way from his lonesome sleep.

“Up, up, sir, ‘tis a fine morning, and so you are coming with Kessel and me to air out our saddles and remember what fresh air feels like!” Nathan shouts and Sidney groans, flipping to bury his head in Malkin’s cold, untouched pillow.

“Five more minutes,” he grumbles into the pillow before shouting as Nathan grabs him by the ankle and attempts to enthusiastically drag him from the bed.

“I’m up, I’m up!” Sidney bellows in desperation, and Nathan gives him peace enough to dress and scrub his teeth before dragging him off to the stables, where Kessel awaits them with three ready mounts.

They sprint gleefully through the forest for some time, steeplechasing where the snow has melted enough to run the horses safely, and trotting along well-known paths where not. Sidney feels invigorated, refreshed after a long winter trapped inside, and Kessel shares the contents of his saddlebags to break their fasts with as they breathe in the chill air and soak in the weak, early spring sun.

“Are you eager for the return of your beau for the Spring Ball and the beginning of the Season?” Nathan asks as they slow the horses upon entering a glen, and Sidney briefly contemplates urging his horse back up to a canter and outrunning the situation.

Instead, he shrugs. “I have not found these past six months of married life far different from bachelorhood,” he says, attempting to appear off-handed, though likely seeming more apathetic. “Malkin is undoubtedly a fine man, but I fear as I am as poor of a match for he as he is for me. My routine and life changes little depending on his presence; in fact, I would say that it has no effect at all.”

“No effect at all? Yet surely you know that many ills can be cured in the bedroom,” Nathan says wisely, yelping as Kessel throws a half-eaten apple at him. “Easy, man, you’ll stain my coat!”

“A true tragedy,” Kessel says, straight-faced but with his tongue edged in steel. “But not so great a tragedy as you being a presumptuous nit, to discuss the business of husbands in public.”

“And I’m sure the trees and the foxes are desperately interested in the gossip of court and the private going-ons of our esteemed son of Canada,” Nathan returns, equally sharp. “Damn, Kessel, if he cannot discuss such things amongst us, then what friends are we?”

Their argument is liable to continue apace until they return to the palace should Sidney not interrupt, and the secret that he has hidden inside burns too greatly to be withheld any longer. “We have not consummated,” he blurts, and Nathan and Kessel come to a stunned halt in tandem, staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at Sidney.

What? ” Nathan finally manages as Sidney’s horse shifts uncomfortably, sensing his unsteady emotions. Sidney preoccupies himself with turning his steed until it calms instead of looking at his friends.

“Sidney, this is a serious matter,” Kessel says lowly. “It is the truth?”

“Yes,” Sidney says, nearly a whisper. “The wedding exhausted us both, and we hit many storms in the dirigible on the return journey, and the bridal tour was equally as exhausting, and-- perhaps they are weak reasons, perhaps we are cowards, and likely there is no excuse enough to justify this, but it is the truth. I have not been able to entice him into forming an attachment to myself since, despite my best efforts. I have invited him to hunt, to ride, to read, I have asked him about his research and his passions, but nothing that I have done has reached through his preoccupations. Our wedding cannot be called a marriage, and I have no faith that it ever will become one.”

“Should Russia find out, I have no doubt they’ll declare war,” Nathan says, and Sidney whirls on him.

“Do you think I am unaware of the political implications, you bounder?” he shouts, and Nathan raises his hands in surrender. “I have no interest in having the lives of millions resting on my nonexistent marriage, and yet regardless I must consider the world in my personal affairs!”

“Certainly, it’s a failing not entirely on your shoulders,” Kessel says, urging his horse forward, Nathan and Sidney following. “As you are head of your household, it is Malkin’s duty to ensure your needs are met, and yet he is constantly journeying back to Russia. It is no marriage at all without consummation, and I think it is clear now that it is a poor match. Should you desire it, I am sure an annulment would be examined favorably and a new match would be found. If he stirs no passion in you and brings no benefit to your life, it is nothing more than a farce.”

Sidney very nearly admits that there is not a complete lack of passion in himself stirred up by Malkin, but it seems less than wise given Nathan and Kessel’s predilection to prodding. Upon examination, they are feelings not specifically in relation to Malkin, but rather to all men of his... particularly large stature, which is an interchangeable trait and not something to base a marriage on.

“It seems too hasty, to request an annulment after barely half a year,” Sidney offers instead, and Kessel shrugs.

Before he can speak, though, Nathan interrupts. “If he does not take advantage of your assets after six months, he should not be entitled to them!”

“Nathan!” Kessel roars, and Nathan’s horse starts, galloping to the other end of the glen before Nathan can get its head under him again. “Sir, I urge you, consider the possibility that an annulment is the correct action for all,” he says. “Speak with Malkin when he returns for the Spring Ball, and if an arrangement cannot be reached, I believe your parents must understand the complete situation.”

Sidney is ruminating on an answer when Nathan returns and says, “You know, Sidney, should you have any urges that need to be attended to that your husband has been neglecting, I can recommend a number of excellent and attentive establishments, and I am happy to escort you to introduce you to the finest that they have on offer--”

Sidney and Kessel are forced to run him down and thrash him into submission, and though the morning ends on a playful note, the thought of annulment rests heavily on Sidney’s mind.

------

Malkin returns just in time for the Spring Ball; Sidney goes to sleep the night before the ball alone in his bed and wakes in the dark of the night to a chill, groaning as he realizes that Malkin has returned to their bed and stolen all of the blankets. Again. He stumbles from the bed to fetch one of the spare blankets he keeps in the chest at the foot of the bed for this exact purpose, wrapping himself up and grumbling wordlessly until he warms enough to fall back asleep.

Sidney wakes up too hot, every single bed covering lumped atop him while the other side of the bed stands empty and cooled. This is not an unfamiliar situation either, and he has previously resigned himself to the fact that it is probably Malkin’s way of apologizing for his midnight thievery. He rises-- he is far too sweaty to fall asleep again-- and dresses, sneaking down to the kitchen to steal some bread and cheese before going out to the stables. There is no point in lounging about the palace to wait for his husband to appear; Malkin will be in the steam room all day, tinkering and inventing as he always does when he’s avoiding Sidney and the rest of the court.

The stables are quiet at this early hour, with the only movement coming from the stablehands going about their morning chores in the half-light of dawn. Sidney tacks up a horse himself, not his favored hunter but one of his mother’s riding mares, even-keeled and calm as the stallions around her snort with morning energy.

The riding paths in the forest are dewey and chill in the morning light, mist rising off of the ponds and streams, and Sidney rides as if through a dream. Kessel’s words trouble him, as irritating as a grain of sand stuck against tender skin. It feels like treason to reject the marriage required of him by the Crown, but he also cannot deny Kessel’s argument that a marriage unconsummated is no marriage at all. He worries at the thought as if he will arrive to some conclusion that will relieve him of the burden of his marriage without interfering with his duties as a royal, but he only arrives to an upset stomach.

Sidney returns to the palace in no better mood than he left it, leaving his horse to the stable hands to tend to before proceeding up to Taylor’s study. She looks up from her books as he enters and her tutor stands and bows before taking his leave. Taylor waits until the door is closed behind him before she remarks, “Have you been breaking your fast on lemons again, brother, or has your face finally frozen in such a dreadful expression?”

“Have you been studying pertness rather than the classics again?” Sidney counters, taking the tutor’s vacated chair next to her. “I have no such expression, Taylor.”

“Must I remind you that you are never successful in hiding your lies from me?” Taylor says, turning in her chair to face Sidney. “Come, brother dear, tell me what has you in such a state.”

“‘Tis not an appropriate topic for a young girl,” Sidney says, and Taylor laughs boorishly at him.

“A young girl? You know as well as I do that Mater is taking me to London this season for me to come out. I am sixteen years of age, and though I shall always be your younger sister, no longer am I a child.”

“With such ill manners as to laugh at your family so indelicately, perhaps it is better to wait another year for your debut,” Sidney insists. He still sees the golden-haired hellion of their mutual youths when he looks at Taylor, not the prim and elegant young woman she has become, and he cannot resist deluding himself from her impending adulthood.

“Your weak distractions do nothing to throw me off the scent,” Taylor says haughtily. “Now, stop avoiding whatever topic pains you so and speak honestly with me. Did your husband speak to you improperly upon his return? I will duel him myself for your honor,” she declares, head held high, and Sidney laughs, perversely relieved that her willful streak still exists beneath her fashionable dress.

“Just because Robert Lyon challenged a man for a duel but two years ago does not mean you should consider it an option, Taylor,” Sidney chides. “You know as well as I do that the Crown has looked down upon duels for many years, regardless of what hooligans in Perth will do over the hand of a woman.”

“So it is Malkin!” Taylor cries, ignoring Sidney’s reprimand. “What has he done to you? If he has raised his hand against you, I will do worse than duel him!”

“Taylor, no!” Sidney says, alarmed, grabbing her arm as she stands and tugging her back into her seat. “Nothing of the sort, calm yourself. In fact, he has said and done nothing to me since his return, which is the true issue. We are husbands in name only, without any deeds behind it to prove the bond of holy matrimony.”

Taylor’s eyes widen and Sidney regrets her quickness, for not doubt she has fully understood his statement, even the aspects of it that no little sister should know about her brother’s marriage. “Oh, Sidney,” she says, sympathy in her eyes, pitching forward to hug him tight. Surprised, Sidney does not return the gesture immediately, but she persists until he relaxes and wraps his arms about her in return. He sighs gustily into her hair, feeling the guilt from burdening his sister dissolve under her fierce love. “If he does not treat you as a husband, then he does not deserve the honor of your marriage,” Taylor declares as she pulls back.

“And the reverse is true as well,” Sidney reminds her gently. “He deserves a dutiful husband as much as I do, you know.”

Taylor tosses her hair impatiently. “Don’t be foolish;  he is not my brother, so I care not! I wish for your happiness, and clearly he is not that, so he should be sent back to Russia.” She pauses, considering, before saying, “That would be of little difference to him than now, I imagine, with all that he travels back to his homeland. There’s no wonder why he has not fulfilled his duties to you, as even with his beloved steam travel, thousands of miles of distance hampers all marital activities!” She smiles unrepentantly as Sidney groans and buries his face in his hands.

“You are no lady, to make such comments to your own flesh and blood,” he says, and Taylor laughs, this time bright and joyous.

“Sisterhood transcends the duties of a lady,” she says mirthfully before growing serious. “I tease because I must, Sidney, but I do not think this issue is a matter of humor and nothing else. Will you discuss it with Mother and Father? You deserve happiness, and I have seen more loneliness in your eyes than happiness as of late.”

“I will proceed as usual tonight at the Spring Ball, and if his behavior does not change, I will speak with our parents,” Sidney admits lowly. “I fear the political repercussions, but I have been made aware that the false nature of our marriage could have even greater consequences should we attempt to continue the secrecy, as the truth being revealed is inevitable and disastrous.”

“Speaking the truth as soon as possible is always advisable,” Taylor says consideringly. “Especially with you, as you are abysmal at secrets.” He scowls at her and she smiles cheerily back. “Take heart, brother-- should you return to the marriage market, I am sure Lady Neal and her dashing son would be overjoyed to court you again!”

Sidney shudders, an instant, visceral reaction to the thought of young Lord Neal and his tragic everything, from his hair to his incapability to attend to any matter whatsoever with any level of success. The only way to divert Taylor from this favored path of teasing him over Neal’s previous and disastrous courting attempts is to return her to her lesson, and finally she bends over her books with him.

Taylor’s support carries Sidney through the rest of the day and the inevitable shouting match with Scuderi over his dress for the evening. Instead of the demure white or black waistcoat appropriate for a married man, Scuderi selected a bright gold waistcoat with red trimming. “If you must dress someone extravagantly, I insist it is Malkin and not myself!” Sidney bellows, clutching the white-on-white embroidered waistcoat that he selected for himself to his chest. “He is the peacock between us; I wish for modesty in my dress!”

“There is no harm in presenting the best of yourself, Your Royal Highness,” Scuderi protests, holding out the cloth-of-gold waistcoat as if its shimmer could entrance Sidney into changing his mind. “You are a married man, but of a youthful enough age that your modesty is not in question, and I beg of you to consider a less bashful choice of dress!”

“My decision is final, Scuderi,” Sidney says firmly, and the man wilts as he turns to replace his waistcoat choice in the closet. Sidney blows out a long sigh as he struggles into the waistcoat on his own; surely his discussion with Malkin, if it occurs, can go no worse than this argument with his eternally stubborn valet.

“I will discuss His Grace’s sartorial freedom with him upon his arrival to be dressed,” Scuderi says, tight-lipped, and Sidney nods.

“I would suggest, should he not arrive within the next half-hour, to send a servant to the steam room to fetch him,” Sidney suggests wearily. “If he has not already rousted himself, I doubt he will choose to do so in time for our presentation to the guests.”

“Yes, Your Royal Highness,” Scuderi says, and he finishes dressing Sidney in a chill silence. Sidney escapes to the library, sending a steamserv for a tray of light supper as he awaits the appointed hour for their entrance to the ball. He reads On the Nature of the Universe as he eats, trying to prepare himself to think with a scientific mind as best as he knows how. Lucretius is nothing like a modern engineer, but at least it is a work familiar to Sidney and a potential middle ground between himself and his husband. He forces himself to consider the science over the philosophy of the work for once, and he emerges from the book with a vague headache as the clock strikes eight o’clock.

“Damn,” he curses, sounding the whistle for the steamserv and hurriedly jamming On the Nature of the Universe back into its proper place on the shelf before dashing towards the ballroom. He waits before the Royal Doors for only a quarter of an hour before Malkin appears, sheepish of expression as he scurries down the hall. Sidney offers his arm and nods to the attending herald, who throws open the doors and announces them to the room. The guests turn to bow and curtsey in their direction, all except for Sidney’s parents, and Sidney strikes out immediately in their direction, Malkin following by virtue of Sidney dragging him by the arm.

“Your Royal Highnesses,” Sidney and Malkin say in tandem as they approach, bowing together so that they do not have to unlink their arms.

“Your Royal Highness, Your Grace,” Prince Troy returns. “Your Grace, it is a pleasure to see you return to Toronto. Was your visit to Russia productive?”

“The best that one can expect,” Malkin demurs, flushing slightly at the pointed comment. Sidney is struck by panic; had Kessel or Nathan mentioned to his parents the doubts he expressed? Or worse, Taylor? The moment passes as Prince Troy nods without any further line of questioning or signal to Sidney of his disapproval. Any further conversation is interrupted by the orchestra sounding the first dance of the night, and they are all swept up into a lively polka to open the ball.

Malkin is not a precise dancer but an enthusiastic one, and the times they have spent together on the dancefloor are the best of their marriage, in Sidney’s opinion. The polka is particularly well suited to Malkin’s exuberance, so Sidney permits him the lead with no discussion. There is little opportunity for conversation with such a quick dance, so Sidney does not even attempt it, instead enjoying the physicality of the dance as Malkin twirls him around and drags him hither, thither, and yon across the floor. Malkin’s hand spans the width of Sidney’s shoulder where it rests, the other curling comfortably together with Sidney’s in a loose grasp, and his usual serious expression melts away under an exuberant grin. Sidney feels, each time they dance, as though he begins to see a new man within Malkin, joyous and free-spirited, but it is never long before his seriousness returns.

They’re both panting when the orchestra strikes the final note, and Sidney nods towards the seats rather than attempt to muster up words. Malkin nods in return, leading Sidney gallantly to the set of royal thrones at the head of the room, handing Sidney down into his throne before taking the lesser chair to its right. They entertain a variety of guests in the interim before the next dance, though thankfully they all politely wait until Sidney has caught his breath to approach them.

Something unsettled rises within Sidney as he smiles and nods along with whatever Lady Neal is prattling on about, and it’s only after she has left and is replaced by Lord Daley that Sidney realizes the root of his disquiet: he is anxious to check his dance card and verify his partners, as he is so accustomed to doing during the Season. Now, though, he is a married man, forgiven of such duties and expected to dance each time with his spouse.

They return to the dance floor as the orchestra begins again, playing a schottische to transition from fast to slow, and Sidney and Malkin turn quietly about the floor. This is a dance for polite conversation, but only silence echoes between them, Sidney’s mind wandering elsewhere. As he leads them around the floor, he catches sight of his parents dancing at the head of the room. His mother smiles quietly up at his father and they move in easy tandem as the music guides them. Sidney’s heart aches briefly; the happiness of his parents is one he had always desired for himself as well, but to compare their easy, loving quiet of a bond that needs no words to his own painfully empty non-relationship brings nothing but pain.

Sidney sets Malkin free for the next dance and takes the opportunity to lurk at the sideboard and steal snacks. The court is joyous, happy to celebrate the return of spring after a hard, cold winter, and Sidney amuses himself with watching the new ebbs and flows of power. Taylor is surrounded by a large crowd, which is of no surprise given her impending coming out in London. The surprise is Lady Kessel, who is practically glued to Taylor’s side, dominating her dance card and smiling politely but with an edge at any who takes too much of Taylor’s time. It is quite forward for a new suitor, but very much so in the U.E. way, and Sidney wars with himself briefly. Sidney searches the ballroom for Lord Kessel, who is being the wallflower with Malkin and blanching at any matchmaking mama or potential suitor that approaches. He has apparently taken no notice of his sister and Taylor, and so Sidney resolves to chaperone them from afar; he holds no ill will towards Lady Kessel’s intentions, but Taylor will be his little sister even after her debut in London, and he cannot help the instinct to protect her.

Occasionally, Nathan will glance up to where Sidney socializes and pull an outrageous face or point towards the back of someone for mysterious reasons, and Sidney will frown and shake his head until Nathan behaves again. Sidney despairs for him; his manners are atrocious, and the whole of Toronto has learned of his poor behavior, even the most desperate of matchmakers leaving him off of their lists of potential bachelors to pair off.

Sidney receives a stern look from his father once he has sat out three dances, so he begrudgingly stands and fetches Malkin for the next. Fortuitously, it’s a varsouvienne, still new and popular enough to have the entire court out on the floor. The orchestra plays louder to compete with the low buzz of dance conversation, and the noise and focus of the other dancers leaves a perfect opportunity for Sidney to have a private conversation with Malkin. When he looks directly into Malkin’s eyes, though, he notices the bags beneath them, the obvious exhaustion lurking in the droop of his hair and the tilt of his chin. He looks worried, too, and Sidney cannot bring himself to heap another concern on his head. Not for the first time, Sidney wonders what drags Malkin back to Russia so often and weighs so heavily on his mind.

He turns his focus back to the floor, attempting to distract himself from the silence that has followed him all evening. Near to them is the Duke and Duchess Lemieux of Montreal, and again Sidney is filled with jealousy. They are speaking quietly to another as they dance, eyes locked but steps fluid from so many years of marriage. The story of their courtship is still told in longing voices by the bachelors and unmarried women of the court, and even so many years after their marriage, their love is visible and strong.

Instead of avoiding prodding at the wound of his broken marriage as he has done so often over the past six months, he seeks out every happy couple he can see and compares it to his relationship. The Marquess Dupuis of Laval and his wife turn along but five meters away, happy parents of four and mentors to much of the younger set of the court. The Duke of St. John’s and his Duchess have traveled in for the start of the season, though they are likely to return home soon after, as their newborn girl is not old enough yet to travel by airship, and it is a cruelty to keep parents separated from their children for so long. They radiate their joy, practically glowing with pride and love, and Sidney feels sick with desire and longing. The Count of Val-d’Or and his Countess only worsen the feeling; they are as recently married as Sidney and Malkin, though with a far more proper courtship beforehand, and they dance scandalously close, entirely wrapped up in each other as if they dance alone in the fields below the moon and not amongst hundreds.

Malkin stumbles slightly as the tune comes to a close, swaying with what must be exhaustion, and Sidney’s heart is too raw to survive hours more of utterly silent dancing. “Do you wish to go to your rest?” Sidney asks lowly, grasping Malkin’s elbow and leading him gently to a side door. “I imagine your travels have left you weary, and the difference in time between here and Russia is no easy gap to reconcile.”

“I do not wish to bring you the shame of standing alone at the start of the season,” Malkin protests, too noble for a man who has suddenly gone completely pale and shaking.

“It is no matter of shame to me, and I fear it will be more unfortunate for us all should you suffer from the vapors or faint in the middle of the dance floor,” Sidney says, and Malkin nods, caving surprisingly easily.

“Thank you,” he says earnestly. “Your consideration is greatly appreciated, husband.”

“You are most welcome, husband,” Sidney says, the word still tumbling awkwardly from his tongue, all edges and hurt, but Malkin turns away hastily, lurching out the door and leaving Sidney on his own.

Sidney socializes and visits the sideboard again, delicately picking out bites that will not stain his white leather gloves, and lurks near Taylor until Lady Kessel briefly steps away and he intercedes to claim Taylor’s next dance, a five-step waltz.

“Did you speak to your husband?” Taylor asks quietly after they find an easy rhythm, stepping closer into Sidney’s side, at just the edge of decency for a family member so that they can speak privately.

“Not a word about anything of importance,” Sidney mutters back, feeling a great wave of shame rise up at his cowardice. It must show on his face, for Taylor squeezes his hand in response. “In fact, all I said was that he had my permission to leave to find his rest, given his exhaustion.”

“Then perhaps that is as good of a sign as any that it is time to move on,” she says, wise beyond her years.

“I strenuously dislike when you are right,” Sidney says and Taylor laughs, not her rude, free laughter he has so often heard, but a delicate, tinkling lady’s laugh. He is reminded once again of her impending womanhood, and another thought comes to mind. “But as we are speaking of dance partners, I cannot help but notice that Lady Kessel has been most protective of both your dance card and your conversation all evening. I thought I would have to duel her to claim a dance with you, my own sister!”

Amazingly, Taylor blushes, her step stuttering before she catches herself. “It is of no matter,” she says weakly as Sidney stares dumbly at her. “She has been lonely in a new court, and devastated by the events which caused her to flee the U.E., and it is of little matter to me to provide her companionship.”

“Is that so,” Sidney says slowly, staring as Taylor reddens more under his scrutiny. He leaves the topic for now, though he makes a note to corner Lord Kessel as soon as possible to discuss such developments and ensure she is entirely aware of the consequences of breaking Taylor’s heart. “Well, she seems to be a fine companion to you, and I am glad that you have finally found a member of court that doesn’t bore you terribly.”

“Will you ever forget that incident?” she cries, immediately distracted by an old topic of teasing. “I was but eight years of age when I said that to the emissary from Sweden, why must I still be reminded of it so often?”

“I can only imagine that if we bored you when you were eight, that your weariness of us has only grown greater since then,” Sidney says earnestly. “I cannot imagine the difficulty of your days, surrounded by such dull specimens as us.”

“Well, it is a life of suffering,” Taylor says haughtily, sniffing and turning her face aside from Sidney’s. “Really, I don’t know why I tolerate you ignoramuses. Perhaps it is only through the goodness of my heart, which is more than you truly deserve.” They laugh together, finishing out the dance with more teasing before Sidney hands her back to Lady Kessel, waiting impatiently on the sidelines for Taylor. He scowls at Lady Kessel threateningly once Taylor’s back turns, but Lady Kessel merely raises an eyebrow and turns to offer her arm to Taylor.

Sidney is immediately approached by another young lady of about Taylor’s age to dance, and he acquiesces. Taylor is not the only son or daughter of the court anticipating coming out during this Season, and Sidney appears to be a favored partner for them now that his husband has departed. Every dance after that with Taylor claimed by a mother on behalf of her nervous child, all of which are dressed in white and prepared to offer themselves as one to be pursued during the Season for marriage. He is not familiar with most of them, and all are clearly practicing on him how to speak with the peerage of London, treading through worn paths of polite conversation. He doesn’t mind providing such a service, working to put each at ease without overstepping his own bounds, but it grows tiresome quickly.

By midnight, Sidney cannot tolerate another second of the proceedings, and as his parents pass by, he tilts his head towards the side door. His mother nods, his father winking roguishly at him, and Sidney takes his leave. No doubt his early departure was only permitted because of the assumption that he must attend to his husband, but Sidney will happily take advantage of such an assumption one final time. He detours through his study as he enters his apartments, penning a quick note: must speak with you, summon me for breakfast tomorrow when you are ready. His heart pounds as he tucks the pen away and folds the note, summoning a servant with a bell pull and handing off the note to deliver to his parents’ room. It is too late to reconsider or back out, and he enters the bedroom with his stomach in knots.

Unsurprisingly, Malkin is fast asleep, wrapped entirely around with blankets as Sidney passes through the bedroom to the dressing room. He changes quickly into night-clothes, carrying a set of blankets back with him to the bedroom for himself. Sidney falls asleep quickly, exhausted by his own nervous thoughts and the excitement of the ball, and he expects to sleep deeply until a servant awakes him for breakfast.

Instead, he wakes with darkness all about, blinking dumbfoundedly into the night. Why is he awake? Why is the bed moving when he is alone in it? His thoughts crawl toward reason, his mind as thick and slow as treacle, and he remembers that Malkin returned yesterday and thus must the cause of the movement. Sidney assumes the jostling is from Malkin rearranging himself in his sleep, but the movement is unending and too steady to be from tossing and turning. Malkin is fully behind Sidney,  as he is sleeping on his side facing the other side of the room, so he turns onto his back to look over and see what has Malkin so agitated.

Malkin’s back is turned to him, and Sidney can only detect some kind of movement beneath the blanket. He squints through the gloom of night-- is Malkin scratching his leg?-- before he realizes with a shock that such a movement is the response to a much less innocent itch. His heart thuds uncomfortably but with a thrill as he considers Malkin indulging in the solitary vice so close to him. A quiet curiosity floods Sidney, and he begins to extend his hand. He can hear Malkin’s breath coming quickly; is his skin also heated with the passion that stirs his breath? Does he tense and arch as he nears his emission, or does he relax into the need? How would his manhood feel in Sidney’s hand, or their bodies against each togher?

Sidney very nearly touches Malkin’s shoulder before he remembers the annulment. He hesitates, hand shaking as it hangs in the air. Would engaging with Malkin in such a nocturnal activity be enough to count as their consummation? Sidney slowly withdraws his hand as he realizes that it is too risky, given the conversation he wishes to have tomorrow morning. He tucks himself back into his blanket, rolling again onto his side in order to stare at the wall, and tries desperately to ignore his own need as he hears Malkin give a quiet moan as the shake of the bed stops. Sleep does not come easily again, but eventually he is carried off into blissful oblivion.

------

Sidney is awake and attempting to read a letter for Alexander Alexandrovich when a servant finally appears to escort him to breakfast with his parents, the clock near to chiming eleven. He stands abruptly, his chair skittering backwards, and leaves the servant in his wake as he hurries to the Maple Room, out of the private apartments and into the semi-state. He has barely been able to focus all morning, distraught by the mere thought of the conversation to come especially in light of last night’s… strangeness. The memory feels dreamlike and his doubts about the annulment exacerbates his self-doubt; was it merely a vivid dream? Was he hallucinating in the night? Or was it real, and if so he holds out for another six months, will their marriage right itself?

His arrival to the Maple Room brings no peace to his mind, and he stops outside the door for several minutes to take long, deep breaths. It calms his agitation enough that he is not visibly shaking before he enters and bows perfunctorily to his parents. They pause in their quiet conversation to greet him before returning to court gossip as Sidney serves himself from the sideboard. He settles next to his mother, and Prince Troy says, “So, Sidney, how did you find the beginning of this year’s Season?”

“Pleasant, as always,” he says, swallowing down the unrest in his stomach. “I found myself much more in demand as a safe target for our debs heading off to London within the week than I expected. ‘Tis a fine group that we are sending for their debut and first Season, and it was an honor to escort them.”

“Speaking of the Season, Taylor has requested that she does not spend the full Season in London,” Princess Trina says, lifting her teacup as Sidney frowns consideringly. “She claims it is unnecessary, given your political marriage, and that she would far prefer to spend her time in Canada than London. What are your thoughts?”

“I am sure that she has her reasons,” Sidney hedges. He suspects her sudden change of mind has rather a lot to do with Lady Kessel, but he feels no need to betray her confidence to their parents so quickly. “You know as well as I do that she is willful. Perhaps she will choose to spend a Season in London at a later date, after she can slowly acquaint herself of the ton.”

Trina hums noncommittally in response, surely aware or at least suspecting of Sidney’s greater knowledge than themselves. She doesn’t push the matter, though, returning to her tea, and his father says, “And how fares your husband? Your early absence was noted, but all expected it so that you could care for your husband.”

A long silence falls as Sidney attempts to gather himself, the rising panic and curiosity on his parents’ faces not helping his delicate nerves. Finally, he is able to evenly force out the words, “I fear the court labors under a misapprehension about the state of our marriage.”

“Does he take liberties with you that he is not owed?” Troy asks urgently, leaning over the table. “He has no right to discipline you, by his voice or his hand! You are the head of your household and he must obey your bidding!” At her husband’s words, Trina reaches out to take Sidney’s hand as tears well in her eyes, and he returns her grasp comfortingly.

“I refer to no such thing, Pater,” Sidney says firmly. “Malkin is an honorable man, though I know little of him, including… in the biblical sense,” he admits. “I fear the misapprehension that I refer to is the lack of consummation. We have had a wedding, but we have no marriage.” He stares determinedly at the table as he speaks the last sentence, too afraid to look up and see his parents’ expressions.

Finally, Troy says heavily, “Sidney, this is a very serious matter. Do you speak the truth to us? This information could devastate the peace we have created between Britain and Russia.”

“I am perfectly aware of the repercussions,” Sidney says bitterly. “But all of the tragedy that could result does not change the simple fact that the requisite activities have not occurred.”

“Perhaps he has a malfunction?” Trina says thoughtfully, and Sidney feels his face light as he remembers Malkin’s activities last night. It does not seem wise to disclose that his husband has turned to the solitary vice, let alone that Sidney observed and took no action, so he stays silent.

“Then Russia put him forth as a candidate for a political marriage in bad faith,” Troy says. “I would prefer not to assume such things. Is it due to his extended absences? I feared he was abandoning his duty to you by spending so much time in Russia rather than in Canada, as agreed by the treaty.”

“The root of the issue is deeper,” Sidney says wearily. “I have concluded that we have wildly different interests, and therefore no potential of forming a connection between us. Should you ban him from travel, he would spend all his hours in the steam room rather than in my presence, I have no doubt. I have attempted to express interest in his work; he has promised to explain and then disappeared the next day not once or twice but thrice. I have invited him to join me on a hunt each time I departed on one while he was in Toronto and he has declined. Any offer of dinner results in his appearance, hours later, with a shamed expression and an excuse that his work had occupied him so deeply that he forgot about the invitation until too late. I see no path to reconciliation; for this reason, I have been considering an annulment.”

“An annulment?” shouts Troy and Sidney winces. Trina raises a hand, and Troy settles.

“Though it is your right to request an annulment, I believe your father’s concern is not to be ignored,” Trina says gently. “An annulment seems to be a severe reaction when you had almost no time to court each other, exchanging only one letter to each other prior to your wedding, and then lived the next six months primarily apart from each other. It’s of no surprise, then, that you have no marriage to speak of, given that as your foundation.”

“I do not disagree with your assessment, but those actions cannot be undone,” Sidney protests weakly, and his mother returns her hands to his and squeezes reassuringly.

“Of course they cannot! But I believe it is only fair to give your marriage one final opportunity to flourish before informing the Crown that you will have an annulment and another marriage must be arranged.” Sidney glances up to see his mother’s kind expression and his father nodding along with her words.

“I cannot continue apace as I have,” Sidney says. “I wish for a happy marriage, not for endless months of torture in hopes of a spontaneous change! At the ball, I was confronted with all of those fortuitous matches that we have amongst our court, and it pained me to see that in contrast with my own situation. I beg of you, mother, do not ask of me to continue this farce! I desire happiness, not indifference or dread, when I see my husband, and to wait longer is to decrease my opportunity of finding such happiness.”

“And I am merely advising that we act with speed but not undue haste,” Trina soothes. “I do not believe months are necessary. Rather, I am thinking of the new fashion of a marriage holiday, where the new couple takes some time to travel in solitude and strengthen their bond. I believe the court would not look askance at you and your husband going on such a holiday so belatedly, and it is the perfect opportunity to find if there is any seed of a marriage growing betwixt you.”

“A fine idea,” Troy says immediately. “And, if upon your return, you remain stubborn in your resolve, then we will invite Prince Albert to court and begin the annulment.”

“No more than one week of holiday,” Sidney says immediately. Even the thought of a week alone with Malkin seems a trial, and already Sidney schemes to escape the confines of their apartments to go riding.

“One week at Cole Harbor, with no servants or others interrupting your time together,” Trina says firmly and Sidney’s heart sinks. The youth of the spring in Toronto means that it is sure to still be winter in Nova Scotia, and there will be no escape to the outdoors for him if he wishes to retain all of his extremities. Cole Harbor is his favorite palace, given his misadventures there during his youth, but it is the shabbiest of the family’s accommodations about Canada, poorly heated and drafty and therefore practically inhospitable any time except for summer.

“Why not Manitoulin?” Sidney asks desperately. At least there is a village and the potential to go riding on the island, but Trina shakes her head.

“You must be distant enough from the capital to truly be on holiday,” she scolds. “And Cole Harbor is quiet and peaceful, exactly what you and your husband need so that you may focus on each other.”

“I will send word down to the airfield that you shall depart early tomorrow,” Troy says, and Sidney realizes with a sinking feeling that the decision has been made. “Your week of solitude shall begin on the day after, and we expect your return in nine days from today.” He pauses, and finishes softly, “Sidney, we wish only happiness for you, but your husband and this treaty deserves your best effort. Prove to us that it is a poor match, and we will support you in ending this experiment and finding you a spouse that will fulfill your needs.”

“As you command, Father,” Sidney says stiffly. ’Tis only a week, he reassures himself as he picks at his breakfast. The room is utterly silent, any levity destroyed by Sidney’s proclamation, and he excuses himself not long after.

His misery has only just begun. Sidney knows his duty, and so he girds his loins and heads not back to the private apartments but through the state apartments and into the servant’s side of the palace. From the kitchen, boiling hot even this early in the morning, he heads out into the chill air, panting clouds of his breath into the air as he scrubs at his arms to keep them warm. The steam room-- an entire disconnected laboratory, really-- is far enough from the palace for Sidney to regret leaving without a cape. He throws himself into the steam room, shuddering as he closes the door behind himself and is fully enveloped in the hot, heavy air within. The low, comforting thrum of a steam engine chugging along fills his ears, and he pauses to blink into the gloom until his vision adjusts.

Sidney catches sight of movement at the far end of the long, low building, and he tentatively picks his way through the half-destroyed steamservs, massive engines sleeping quietly until they are fed with coal and water, and miscellaneous parts scattered all about the floor.

“Evgeni Vladimirovich?” he calls tentatively once he nears, just before an earth-shakingly loud whistle blows, gushing steam out of the hulking metallic beast that Malkin is fluttering over.

“Sorry!” Malkin calls over the ring of Sidney’s ears, stepping around the machine to grab Sidney’s elbow and lead him some distance away. “Overpressure,” he says apologetically, as if that means anything to Sidney. His hair is wild, clearly mussed by hands running through it constantly, and an errant streak of soot decorates his cheek, lending him an unusually dashing air. “How can I assist?” He bends his head politely in his attention to Sidney, but there is also the ever-present distraction deep in his eyes.

“I… cannot say that I am here to broach an easy topic,” Sidney hedges, and Malkin’s eyes grow sharp with focus. “I am sure that it is obvious to us both that the arrangement of our wedding has not led to the marriage that our empires hoped for. I have proposed an annulment, given that we have not yet-- er, fulfilled our final marital duty--” Sidney stutters to a halt, mortified by so blatantly approaching the topic with the subject himself, and Malkin seems to be flushing as much as he, though it’s difficult to tell if it’s from embarrassment or the heat of the room.

“I apologize that I have failed my duty to you--” Malkin says stiffly, and Sidney waves him off before either of them combust from the force of their embarrassment.

“I hold you as blameless as I do myself,” Sidney says, desperate to forestall Malkin’s apology. “I fear it was not as advantageous of a match as either of us, or our empires, expected. A poor union is only the fault of the haste that was taken in creating this arrangement. I requested an annulment to free both of us to find a happier arrangement; I know I am not-- precisely to your tastes,” Sidney babbles before firmly stopping himself. “Nevertheless,” he continues, steadier, “the request has been made that one final attempt be made before an annulment is granted. We are to travel to Cole Harbor, the palace in Halifax, and spend one week in solitude. Upon our return to Toronto, should the marriage prove to still be-- unfruitful -- we shall be granted an annulment, and our empires shall arrange another marriage to uphold the treaty.”

“When do we depart?” Malkin asks, speaking directly to the point as his eyes grow distant again.

“On the morrow, as early as we can be roused,” Sidney says apologetically, and Malkin curses lowly in Russian. “I will have Scuderi prepare a case for you, so that you can finish your work as best you can here,” Sidney offers awkwardly.

“Thank you,” Malkin says gratefully. “I must be off to the telegraph, please excuse me.” Malkin practically sprints from the room, and Sidney looks askance at the still-running steam engine before departing to make his own preparations.

------

The journey by airship between Toronto and Cole Harbor takes nearly sixteen hours, and for Sidney and Malkin, it is sixteen hours of silence underlined by the chug of steam engines and the occasional clatter of the crew about their work. Malkin ensconces himself at a desk for nearly twelve of the sixteen hours, feverishly scribbling notes and grumbling to himself, occasionally paging through a ratty journal to hunt down some bit of knowledge that allows him to crow in victory or groan in defeat. Sidney entertains himself as best he can given his companion’s distraction, pulling books from the special travelling case he keeps just for reading material and attempting to write some overdue missives to relatives and friends. The quiet is strangely exhausting, and Sidney emerges from the dirigible into the snow of Halifax dazed and tired, as if in a dream.

A sleigh waits to carry them and their cases to Cole Harbor, piled high with blankets and furs, and Sidney dives in immediately to escape the cold. Unfortunately, this means he has left Malkin to scramble by himself up into the sleigh, and Sidney squirms under the force of his guilt-- he strongly doubts that abandoning his husband to care for himself is what a good-faith effort in the marriage looks like. The dirigible captain passes a letter to the driver before bowing and returning to his ship.

Sidney shivers through the short ride to the palace while Malkin is alert and looking interestedly around, as if he can peer through the mist of snowfall to discern the nearby harbor or the wild earth of Nova Scotia. They are greeted at the front doors by the butler, Richards, who receives the letter that the driver hands him before bowing and saying, “Your Royal Highness, Your Grace, His Royal Highness sent word that you would be joining us. Though we have not had much time to prepare, Cole Harbor gladly welcomes you with all of the comforts that we can provide.”

“I think a fire is the first comfort I desire,” Sidney says pointedly, and Richards hurriedly turns and opens the door for them, closing it tight against the wind and snow-- though a draft still pushes at Sidney’s back, he notices bitterly, already mourning the loss of the spring he so briefly enjoyed in Toronto-- and ushering them to the Red Room, where they can safely drip onto tile as they stand before a roaring fire to warm their chilled bones. Sidney can see Richards reading his father’s missive from the corner of his eye, the man’s lips pursing as his eyes travel further down the page. Richards re-folds the letter, tucking it neatly into his pocket before saying, “Please, sirs, if I may escort you to the Lighthouse Room for dinner, while I make the final arrangements for your stay?”

The Lighthouse Room is Sidney’s favorite room of any palace that he’s occupied, not just counting the estates of Canada but also all others he has visited around the world. On a fine day, the Lighthouse Room’s pristine wall of windows stares down a cliff into the froth and foam of the ocean, an unparalleled view not dissimilar from the widow’s walk of a lighthouse, hence the room’s name. It is not usually a dining room, but the staff at Cole Harbor is well aware of Sidney’s enamorment with the room and set up a small table and chairs next to the window seat that is his usual haunt inside the palace. With the poor weather today, though, they are seated to a view of unending white, the only texture emerging from snowflakes hitting the panes and gently melting against the glass.

Richards departs after they settle into their chairs, a member of the kitchen staff emerging to serve them soup before disappearing again. They begin eating, Sidney shivering gently under the draft from the window, and the second course is served before he attempts a conversation in the name of good faith.

“During the journey, you seemed most focused on your work,” Sidney says awkwardly, trying not to wilt under Malkin’s surprised stare. “What captured your attention so deeply, I wonder?”

“My engineering,” Malkin answers slowly. “It is-- a very technical aspect of my work, I fear that you will have little interest in it.” He appears nervous, eyes darting about the room as he speaks, and Sidney tries not to sigh. He had hoped to spur Malkin into a ramble similar to the one he had penned to Sidney in his only courting letter, but apparently some shyness has struck him over the only topic that Sidney felt he could reliably be distracted by.

Sidney searches for a topic as the next course is served, and tries again. “I am sure you have gotten much gossip from St. Petersburg on your various journeys back to Russia. Do you know how Alexander Alexandrovich fares? He writes me often, you know, but I suspect he omits the most interesting details in favor of teasing me.”

Malkin’s expression becomes fully panicked. “I have not-- the courts of St. Petersburg are much different than those of the British Empire. My interactions are minimal at best, as I am granted few rights at court given that my title is estateless.”

“Oh, my apologies,” Sidney says weakly. “I was not aware of such, please pardon my ignorance.”

“All is forgiven,” Malkin says softly, and silence falls again. Sidney does not attempt to break it a third time, worn down by the vision of a week full of such moments, feeble attempts at conversation interrupting wide swathes of quiet illustrating the gulf between them.

As Sidney’s stomach fills with warm food, a great exhaustion rises up in him despite lazing about an airship all day. When Richards fetches them to escort them to their apartments, Sidney is blinking slowly, limbs loose and heavy with tiredness. He stumbles after Richards, Malkin hovering attentively at his elbow and reaching out at Sidney’s every stumble. He does not ever need to actually catch Sidney, though, even as he stops in surprise as Richards leads them to a door he did not expect.

“This is the Prince Regent apartments,” Sidney says unsteadily, not moving even as Richards opens the door for him and gestures.

“Indeed, and you will be occupying them as per your father’s orders,” Richards says firmly. “It will be able to fulfill all of your needs for the week, as you both will remain in solitude within this suite for the duration.”

“I must--” Sidney attempts to protest, but is interrupted by Malkin gently grasping his elbow and pushing him into the room as he follows.

“Thank you, Richards,” Malkin says pointedly, and Richards sketches a bow.

“Good night, sirs. Enjoy the week; should you require anything, we will have a steamserv in attendance for you at all times.” Richards closes the door with a snap that sounds far more final than it should be. Sidney stares at the door, dumbfounded, before Malkin jogs his arm.

“It is time for sleep,” Malkin says gently, and Sidney shakes off his shock and betrayal and follows Malkin deeper into the Prince Regent suite, from the receiving room through a study and a drawing room before arriving at the bedroom. Their cases are tucked neatly along the wall, likely emptied by servants while they dined, and their sleep clothes are tidily set out on the bed. Sidney shudders at the thought of removing any clothes given the frigid air in the room, but miserably confronts his fate and changes as quickly as possible.

Cole Harbor, being a meaner estate and one meant primarily for summer use, still exists on stove heat rather than the modern and comfortable steam heat, and Sidney shoots a baleful glance at the stove. He nears it to check the flame and finds it distressingly full of coal given the chill in the room. Sidney grumbles wordlessly to himself before sliding into the bed, gasping at the shock of the cool sheets against his skin and instantly breaking out into wracking shivers. By the time that Malkin joins him, he has warmed his side of the bed, and Malkin lifting the covers disturbs Sidney’s pocket of comfort. “My apologies,” whispers Malkin at Sidney’s dissatisfied noise, but Sidney does not respond, just burrows deeper into his pillow to warm his nose.

Sidney hopes for a quiet night of rest as he drifts off, and yet finds himself wide awake at some dark hour, face and feet entirely numb from the cold and the tiny corner of blanket he has left to cover himself. He curses; frostbite is imminent, he fears, and he clumsily stumbles over to the stove to check it. It has gone cold, so he pulls the bell for a steamserv, teeth chattering as he fetches another blanket and dives back into the bed to preserve his own heat while he waits. When the steamserv arrives, he quickly away with a request, and it returns within fifteen minutes with its top tray loaded down with a heavy heap of coal.

Sidney begins to extract himself from the bed as the steamserv directs itself towards the stove. Instead of coming to a stop as it should, the steamserv hits the wall next to the stove and practically bounces off, coal scattering everywhere. Sidney yelps in surprise, dodging errant coal lumps that scatter in its wake as it hits the wall again and again. “Malkin!” he yelps, afraid to step nearer to the steamserv in case it runs over his foot, and Malkin moans loudly from the bed. “Malkin, the steamserv is malfunctioning, help!”

It’s nearly another minute of chaos before Malkin appears next to Sidney, scrubbing at his hair as he stares blearily at the machine still stubbornly ricocheting off of the wall. Malkin sighs, a huge, heaving sound, before kneeling and smacking at an innocuous section of the steamserv’s shell. A metal flap pops open, and as the steamserv backs into his hand again, he reaches in indolently.

The steamserv shudders to a halt with a dying whistle and the winding-down sounds of a steam engine, surrounded by an explosion of coal and coal dust. Sidney and Malkin survey it together, and Malkin slurs, “It’s late for big mess, come to bed.” His voice rumbles lower than usual, accent thick and no care taken for correct English, and Sidney is shocked to realize how charming of an effect it is, Malkin sleep-rumpled and requesting for Sidney to return to bed with him.

Sidney regains his composure slowly, blinking out of a dumbfounded stare before complaining, “I was cold, the stove fire died and you stole the blankets again and I needed more coal.”

Malkin snorts, turning back to the bed and ignoring the mess of coal. “If you’re cold, I’m keep you warm,” he tosses over his shoulder, sliding back into the bed and re-creating a cocoon of blankets as Sidney clenches his fist against a sudden rush of interest in feeling truly warm. First, though, he shovels the remaining coal on the steamserv’s tray into the stove, cursing as his numb fingers fumble the matches. He finally nurses a flame into the coal and pads back to the bed, legs numb from toes to knees, and crawls into bed.

Sidney intends to stay politely to his own side of the bed, sure that Malkin’s comment was from ill-humor at being woken, but he is barely settled when Malkin passes the clear line of delimitation between them and invades Sidney’s space. Malkin hisses as he wraps his arm around Sidney and groans as Sidney’s cold legs touch his, but he holds fast, wrapping his long limbs about until Sidney is swathed in equal amounts of Malkin and blanket. The chill in his bones recedes quickly under such an assault of heat, and Sidney is lulled to sleep by the regular shushing of Malkin’s breath in his ear.

------

When he thrashes free from the grips of Hypnos on the following morning, he’s alone, and that realization comes with a strange disappointment. However, it’s quickly followed by a quiet clang and an emphatic Russian curse, and Sidney sits up to see Malkin sprawled out on the floor next to the steamserv with tools in hand as he tugs off the back panel and surveys the innards of the machine.

“Come back to bed, I’m cold,” Sidney complains, attempting to flatten his hair where he feels it stand up wildly. Malkin, wrapped in a housecoat and draped in a spare blanket like a royal cape, waves a hand distractedly.

“‘Tis but a simple fix, as the timing gear has jumped from the drive gear, with the drive piston also misaligned,” Malkin says, leaning forward enough that his head nearly disappears within the body of the steamserv. His voice is smooth and his English back to being mildly-accented and precise, a strong contrast to the last words he spoke to Sidney. “It will take me fifteen minutes, no more, and then I will return to you.”

Sidney sighs, collapsing dramatically onto the bed and rolling himself into the bedsheets, though the warmth isn’t comparable to that which Malkin provided. He lies on his stomach, props his chin on a fist, and watches as Malkin contorts himself to now fit both his head and right hand within the steamserv. It is a fascinating sight; Malkin moves with thoughtless confidence around the machine, roughened hands cradling steel like it is lighter than feathers and more tender than clay. He does not hesitate in his motions, clearly so familiar with the mechanisms that the repair requires no thought.

Sidney falls into a dreamlike state as he observes, only roused as Malkin’s elbow jerks and a loud clang sounds in the room. Malkin curses, staccato and loud, and Sidney tries not to giggle or gasp. He breaks into a fluid stream of Russian, scolding the steamserv and a variety of other objects that Sidney’s Russian is not advanced enough to interpret. No further mishaps occur, the mechanisms perhaps cowed into obedience by Malkin’s lecture, and after the promised fifteen minutes Malkin withdrawals from the machine, dropping his tools carelessly onto the ground before hooking the skin of the steamserv back on.

Malkin activates the steamserv much as he deactivated it last night, and the quiet clicks and chugs of its awakening fill the room. It will be many minutes before the steamserv can move, Sidney knows, as the engine must warm and the steam build up for it to operate, but the sound of the engine is a pleasant background noise regardless.

With his task finally accomplished, Malkin slides back into the bed. Sidney yelps as he places his metal-chilled hands on Sidney’s chest and stomach. “My apologies,” Malkin says, but he doesn’t sound apologetic in the least, and Sidney grumbles to himself as Malkin’s hands leech the cozy warmth from his skin.

They lie together, diagonally across the bed with their heads towards the foot, in silence that feels nearly comfortable for the first time in their marriage. Sidney’s neck grows sore, though, and eventually he must say, “I need a pillow, Malkin.”

Malkin gives a hearty sigh, so huge that Sidney can feel the press of Malkin’s chest against his back and the gust of air he exhales. “So many needs,” Malkin murmurs, and a thrill chases down Sidney’s spine at the implications. “And yet you call your husband by his last name?”

“I did not want to seem overly familiar,” Sidney says, but his voice weakens and drops as he realizes the ridiculousness of such a statement in light of their matrimonial vows and current physical position.

“I do not think over-familiarity is an issue,” Malkin says, and Sidney winces. “At least call me Evgeni, yes?”

“As you wish, Evgeni,” Sidney says, the word tasting strange in his mouth. It is the first time he has spoke it aloud-- or even thought of it, truthfully-- since they exchanged their vows, and he tries not to dwell too greatly on the symbolism of it.

“And now we must attend to your comfort, again,” Evgeni says, his tone a parody of long-suffering, and Sidney yelps as Evgeni manhandles them about the bed, somehow aligning them the correct direction without getting hopelessly tangled in the sheets. He then solicitously fluffs a pillow for Sidney, which Sidney accepts with what little dignity he has left after lying full-length atop Evgeni as he moved them. “Does this suffice, o illustrious husband?” Evgeni says solicitously, lips twitching with a smile that he clearly attempts to suppress as he teases Sidney.

“It will do,” Sidney says loftily to hide the jump of his heart at Evgeni’s playful prodding. He had not suspected such a lively spirit to live within Evgeni, after surviving half a year of absence and silence and reticence. He wonders what other secrets lie buried deep within Evgeni, and tries not to hope too strongly that he will uncover more happy surprises throughout this week. “I admit a curiosity after seeing you repair the steamserv-- I assumed you worked with more, well, lofty engines than these, and yet you had no trouble in your work with it.”

“The principle remains the same between steamservs and most other steamers,” Evgeni says, and his voice rumbles through his chest where it is pressed against Sidney’s back. “Steam and pistons and clockwork functioning precisely together to create movement, that is all every steamer is, be it the simplest of child’s toys or the largest, strongest train or airship. It is why we are able to discover new applications daily, from household items such as automatic cooking devices, to tools of war like the steamguns that the U.E. uses so vigorously against itself.”

Evgeni’s voice twists around his words, nearly cradling them with his audible love. Sidney cannot bear to hear such affection without also seeing the corresponding expression, so he twists in Evgeni’s arms until they face each other, legs laced together. “Though I have not the knowledge of engineering that you posses, I still can admit an admiration of your mastery and passion,” Sidney admits. “It seems that there is a world of information within you that is just waiting for my attention. I have a great curiosity for whatever work has so engaged you throughout our time together here and the past six months.” Strangely, Evgeni’s expression creases into something approaching worry before it smoothes out and he launches into an earnest monologue.

“My primary research is complex and focused on new materials to assist the further development of steam mechanisms, but the basic principles of machines are accessible to all,” he enthuses, delving into an explanation of basic steam engine function. Listening to Evgeni speak about his passions in person, eyes sparkling and hands darting between them to sketch esoteric shapes, is an entirely different experience than reading of them. What was lost in ink-and-paper is entirely alive here, and Sidney could listen to any topic at all when presented with such enthusiasm and passion. He is like a child telling to a parent his exploits of the day: I fell into the river! There was a fish so big, it nearly ate me! Except, for Evgeni, it is: And through this mechanism, we harness the true power of water! The potential of steam is limitless; already we have seen steam open the world to us, accelerating our travel, recreating our industry, pushing us forward from reality into that which we only dream of.

Evgeni is interrupted by the shrill whistle of the steamserv completing its awakening. Sidney’s stomach rumbles immediately after, and Evgeni laughs. “Shall we send it out for our breakfast?” he asks rhetorically, disentangling himself from Sidney to stand and direct the steamserv to the kitchen. Instead of returning to the bed, as Sidney quietly wishes him to, he disappears into the dressing room, and Sidney sighs to himself. Through his disappointment, he admits it is probably for the best to arise and go about their individual ways for the rest of the day. He reminds himself sternly that the surprising pleasantness of Evgeni’s company should not outweigh the true goal of this venture: survive the week trapped together, return to Toronto, and have their marriage annulled. Sidney nods to himself and rises, turning his mind to how he will entertain himself for the remainder of the day.

They pass the next hours in quiet companionship, an unexpected air of comfort surrounding them as they go about their own activities. Breakfast is shared but quiet, and Sidney retreats to the drawing room to read in the window seat there, looking out over the tumultuous waves. The snow has stopped, but clouds loom low over them, threatening more inclement weather, and Sidney wraps himself in several blankets to stay warm as he reads the Bible and completes his devotions for this Sunday. Evgeni disappears into the study as he labors under an enormous pile of books and loose papers, clearly prepared to occupy himself, and Sidney puts any thoughts of his husband firmly out of his mind.

Lunch does not bring them together, the steamserv trundling into the drawing room with half its content missing, presumably plundered by Evgeni as it passed by him. Sidney shrugs to himself and takes his portion, moving to the desk so that he can prevent any undue mess from eating. He finishes quickly, sending the steamserv back to the kitchen and retiring back to his window seat.

Sidney becomes restless after tea-time has come and gone in much the same manner as the earlier portion of his day. He does not take well to confinement, and his ears are beginning to ring from the utter silence of the drawing room. That, combined with forced inactivity, has him pacing fitfully about the room as the time nears six o’clock. He is so overwhelmed with tedium that he cannot help but ruminate on the events of this morning, the easy companionship that Evgeni provided. In light of his aim for this week, it seems foolish to seek him out and increase their bond when he has no intention to continue their marriage after they leave Nova Scotia, but regardless, his feet lead him through the door to the study.

Evgeni is ensconced at the desk, three books propped open at his elbows as he is surrounded by drifts of scribbled-on or crumpled-up papers. He looks up, surprised, as Sidney steps towards the desk, and his eyebrows are high as he surveys Sidney over the rims of a pair of spectacles. His hair is wild, as though he has run his hands through it many times today, and there are speckles of ink decorating his face and hands. Sidney feels arrested by his gaze, sharp and focused, and he swallows dryly as he sways forward, drawn in by Evgeni’s dark eyes.

“Can I be of assistance?” Evgeni asks politely after nearly a full minute of Sidney staring dumbly at him has passed.

“I find myself without adequate entertainment,” Sidney manages, stepping close to the desk so that Evgeni must tilt his head back further, looking at Sidney squarely through the lenses. “This social club is quite lacking, and I will be sure to inform my parents of the poor hosts we have been saddled with upon our return.”

Evgeni guffaws at Sidney’s admittedly weak attempt at humor, settling back in his chair. “I fear I will be no better entertainment than aught else within the suite,” he says, gesturing towards the papers before him. “My current work is less than exciting to the layman, and though you were patient with my explanations this morning, I fear your tolerance will more quickly run out on this topic.”

“I am not a man to back down from a challenge,” Sidney says, snatching up a small wooden chair and carrying it around behind the desk to place next to Evgeni. “If you do not currently work on the steam engines we discussed this morning, then I must know more details of your research that can capture your attention so thoroughly that I must read myself into a stupor all day today.”

“Please forgive my rude inattention to you,” Evgeni says immediately, but Sidney waves it off.

“I understand the passions that can overcome a man,” Sidney says, and then blushes as he considers the implications of such a statement further. Luckily, Evgeni makes no comment, so he continues, “Your notes look-- mathematical,” he says hesitantly, the Greek letters set in equations rather than sentences bringing him back to his miserable days of algebra tutorials. Some pages are a mix of Roman letters and numbers in a form not known to him, looking similar to equations but of an esoteric type.

“Indeed they are,” Evgeni says, sweeping a space clear on the desk in front of Sidney so that he can lean forward, propping his head on his arm. “Though mostly theoretical, hence the chemical equations to establish the details of the process we create.”

Sidney wonders in the privacy of his mind what exactly has led to this moment where he is willingly discussing mathematics, but he resigns himself to his fate. “And so this complex mathematics and chemical equations will help you with your research on… materials?” Sidney guesses, trying to remember Evgeni’s comment from that morning, and Evgeni once again collapses into worry before speaking.

“Yes, we are researching a new material that has astounding properties, but it is very difficult to smelt and alloy accurately, especially given that we are not entirely sure of the correct composition ratios,” Evgeni says, and Sidney bites his lip.

“Smelt? Alloy?” Sidney asks, and Evgeni turns to face him fully.

“Of course you know of steel?” At Sidney’s nod, he continues, “Steel is born of iron and carbon, primarily, which is an alloy, a combination of two materials that is greater than its parts alone. Smelting is the process of taking the ore from the ground, filled with good metal but also many impurities, and reducing it to its purest form. It is through these two processes that we unlocked the power of steel and launched into the steam age.”

Sidney nods slowly. “But you work not with steel, but with a different metal?” he guesses, and Evgeni nods in return, speaking even more quickly in his excitement.

“We have not yet named this metal, but it is not steel or iron-based. We are able to leverage the Bessemer process-- which is how pig iron is converted into steel-- for refining our material, but our success at creating the correct alloy has been infrequent at best. Thus, I am attempting to calculate the exact compositions of all of the alloys that we have created in order to better understand the target ranges for each alloy component.”

Sidney fixates onto the one word that he can recognize in the deluge. “I recall you writing of this Bessemer process in your letter to me,” Sidney says, and Evgeni smiles, seemingly thrilled that Sidney remembered such a detail. “I fear you grow too technical for me, though, so I beg of you to excuse my ignorance of the scientific ways. I admit a curiosity-- you speak of a ‘we’ as you discuss your work; do you have colleagues that assist you on your work?” Perhaps Evgeni is not as much of a recluse as Sidney had feared, and he is desperately interested to know if Evgeni has peers and what they are like.

“Indeed, I have two associates who are performing the majority of the work in Russia. My-- frequent absences were to rejoin them in our laboratory there,” Evgeni adds hesitantly, as if in fear of acknowledging his abandonment of Sidney to visit these associates, but Sidney just nods encouragingly, as he does not want Evgeni to become distracted from sharing about his relationships. “They are brilliant scientific minds, both of them, but also very dear to me beyond such. Sasha-- Alexander Mikhailovich Ovechkin-- and Seryozha-- Sergei Viktorovich Gonchar-- are their names. Sasha is very close in age to me and a right cad, though brilliant in designing systems and clockwork mechanisms; he can build anything, should he put his mind to it. Seryozha is the most experienced of us, a practical metallurgist that is our expert in casting our experimental alloys. I am the chemist, so to speak, and I attempt to determine what alloy wish to create and how we must do so, with their help, of course.”

“What are they like?” Sidney asks eagerly, less interested in their engineering capabilities and more so in how Evgeni interacts with them.

“Sasha is nothing but trouble,” Evgeni says with a laugh, reddening about the ears as he presumably recalls some caper or another. “And many times, he can convince me to join him in trouble before my better mind intercedes. Seryozha is forced to clean up after us far too often, but I believe our spirit of youthfulness, as he puts it, brings him energy and passion as well. Sasha and I argue often, and Seryozha will smack us back to reason when it is needed. They are--” Evgeni hesitates for a long moment, eyes downcast, before finishing lowly, “They are all that I have in this world, and I would trade anything for their safety.”

Sidney feels his brows rise at that ominous comment, and he is preparing to inquire deeper when the door opens under the urging of a steamserv. It is loaded down with their dinner, and Evgeni turns to it brightly, clearly latching onto the distraction. He resists any attempts from Sidney to return to the previous topic, instead pressing question after question about Sidney’s reading for the day, and Sidney begrudgingly permits himself to be led onto new conversations.

They part again after dinner, Evgeni politely but firmly turning back to his mathematics with great focus. Sidney retreats to the drawing room and soon after to the bedroom in a desperate bid to alleviate his ennui with sleep. He is still awake an indefinable amount of time later when the door creaks open slowly and Evgeni pads into the room. There are quiet sounds as Evgeni fumbles through the room towards the dressing room and then back to the bed. Sidney shivers as Evgeni lifts the covers and lets out the warmth trapped beneath, and Evgeni enters the bed with alacrity before pausing. Slowly, ever so slowly, he shifts behind Sidney, until his broad palm lands on Sidney’s back, stretched between Sidney’s shoulderblades. Sidney leans back into the pressure instinctively, and apparently that is all the signal Evgeni needed to tuck up behind him, curved together like two apostrophes paired together in a quotation mark.

Sidney’s mind returns to contemplating his husband as he lies within the careful embrace of the man in question. He has always felt that Evgeni was a fine gentleman, and this first day of solitude between them has only reinforced that feeling. To think that he is so lonesome in this world pains Sidney; surely he deserves the love and support of a spouse and a greater family than just the two engineers that he has now. Sidney sighs loudly to himself and repositions as he attempts to banish the final thought of that train, as it is nothing that he is equipped to solve, given Evgeni’s rejections of him in the past.

Evgeni gives a pained grunt at Sidney’s movement, and Sidney still immediately. “Evgeni?” he whispers, and at Evgeni’s sound of acknowledgement, continues, “Are you well?”

“I fear the steamserv left its mark on my wrist this morning, when my wrench slipped,” Evgeni replies at a more normal volume. “Your elbow rediscovered the injury in your thrashing.”

“My apologies,” Sidney says, ashamed, and gropes about the bed until he finds Evgeni’s right hand. Heart thrumming, he cradles it between his hands, raising it to his eye level. The weak moonlight streaming into the room is just enough light to permit him to discern the dark bruise on Evgeni’s wrist. Trembling, he draws Evgeni’s hand closer, tilting his chin forward to set a soft kiss to the tender flesh. Evgeni’s gasp at the touch of Sidney’s lips to his skin echoes about the room, and Sidney lingers in response, ensuring that he busses every inch of the mark. When he is sure that his apology has been fully rendered, he guides their hands back beneath the blankets.

They speak no further, though Evgeni nestles Sidney more closely to him, pressing his chin into the top of Sidney’s head as his arms hold them close together.

------

Evgeni has already risen and left the bedroom when Sidney awakens the next morning, and Sidney groans to himself upon the discovery of this fact. Any ease that they had found yesterday was apparently whisked away in the night, and he bites down his frustration at this development. A solitary breakfast awaits him in the drawing room, and Sidney takes it for the suggestion that it is to leave Evgeni to his solitude in the study.

Restlessness arrives earlier today than yesterday, leaving him pacing about the room by noontime. He settles as he hears the rattle and chug of a steamserv approaching the door, and it opens to reveal the machine in question, Evgeni surprisingly looming behind it.

“Good afternoon,” Sidney greets, manners not to be forgotten even in light of such a surprise, and Evgeni returns, “Good afternoon. May I join you for luncheon?”

“Please,” Sidney says, gesturing to the table that the steamserv has halted next to. They eat in silence, Evgeni regularly taking a deep breath as if preparing to speak and then shaking his head and taking another bite of his meal. His plate is empty far quicker than Sidney’s, and he watches Sidney as he fidgets, clearly waiting for Sidney to finish.

“Is there something that you wish to say?” Sidney asks once he swallows his last forkful.

“I greatly regret that I am not what you have needed or wanted in a husband,” Evgeni exclaims, leaning over the table in his fervor. “I wish for you nothing but happiness for the kindnesses you have shown me. If there is aught that I can ever do to ensure that you find your satisfaction in life, I am ever your dedicated servant. I know I cannot absolve myself of abandoning you for six months for other matters, but I wish to do my best by you in our last chance together.”

“Your offer is too generous,” Sidney says, taken aback. From the quiet, withdrawn man he had been married to for six months, a mere day and a half of isolation reveals such an impassioned plea for Sidney’s happiness? Is this the power of their nightly embraces alone, or some hidden spark that has lived within Evgeni all along? “I too must apologize, for I have fallen short as well in being a suitable partner to you.”

Evgeni’s mouth turns down and his chin tucks to his chest as Sidney speaks, hands twisting together atop the table. He is silent for a long moment before he says to his plate, “I fear we have already trodden this road to its end.” Sidney’s brow wrinkles as he attempts to decipher the statement, but Evgeni continues apace before he can understand. “I admit a curiosity to know what traits you desire in a husband, for although I cannot make amends for how I have failed you in our marriage, at least I can ensure that our final week as husbands is pleasant.”

Sidney purses his lips. Such a request seems to be dangerous; in outlining his desires, does he not highlight all of the ways that Evgeni has fallen short? He is about to protest when Evgeni looks up, his face flooded with stubborn determination, and Sidney relents. “I suppose, more than anything, I desire companionship, someone that I can spend many hours with and not tire of, that I can share my passions with and vice versa. To know that any loneliness can be banished by their presence, any pain soothed, any joy shared would bring to me the contentment that I seek. Such a person would be a steady consort on the day that I must assume the responsibility of Prince Regent, and I must be able to trust my consort in all matters when that day arrives. Still, I do not wish for an overly dour partner, but someone that brings levity and laughter to my life, for life is too short for seriousness.”

Sidney feels laid bare, raw from speaking so honestly of his wishes, but Evgeni looks nothing other than serious and dedicated, not mocking as Sidney half-feared. “And for you?” Sidney asks. “It is only fair for me to return your courtesy through this week.”

“That is not necessary,” Evgeni protests.

“I insist,” Sidney replies firmly, and Evgeni sighs before relenting and giving his answer.

“I wish for a partner that can support me, that will respect my passions though does not need to understand them. My research does not come at the expense of my dedication to them, however, and it would bring me joy to be a dutiful husband and fulfill their desires. I only ask that they challenge me to reach beyond what I am now and become something greater and better, for myself and for him. And-- in all fairness, I too desire a spirit of playfulness in the matrimonial bond.”

Silence falls between them, Sidney unsure how to acknowledge the deep desires each of them has revealed about themselves. Finally, he says, “I appreciate your honesty, but in truth, I know not what to speak of after such confessions.”

“I am equally stupefied,” Evgeni admits, and they share a tremulous laugh.

“Well, at the very least, we must clean the table before we face an invasion of ants,” Sidney says, eyeing the mess before them. Evgeni springs up before Sidney can even touch his own plate, solicitously stacking the dishware and returning it to the steamserv that waits patiently for its burden. He pauses, pursing his lips as he is apparently struck by a thought, and hastily pats down his waistcoat. Somehow, he discovers a scrap of paper and a pen within its folds and scribbles a note, dropping it atop the plates before sending the steamserv off.

“Of what do you write to the servants about?” Sidney asks, idly curious more than anything else.

“It is of no matter,” Evgeni evades, and Sidney narrows his eyes suspiciously at the immediate denial. “Shall we retire to the study?” Evgeni says, clearly a distraction, and offers his hand courteously to Sidney.

“If we must,” sighs Sidney, taking Evgeni’s hand and allowing himself to be pulled to his feet. “Excellent company notwithstanding, I already weary of our confinement.”

“Each day passed is one less left to be spent here,” Evgeni says as he leads Sidney to the study, Sidney’s hand tucked into the bend of his elbow.

“And one day closer to my final descent into madness,” Sidney grumbles. “I long for fresh air and enough space to stretch my legs! I enjoy the pursuits of the indoorsman as much as any gentleman does, but a fine book is no substitute for a horse beneath one and the wind is one’s hair.”

“I am sure, upon your return to Toronto, you will be able to ride until you are sick of it,” Evgeni soothes. “Spring will be fully arrived, and there will be mud aplenty for you to cover yourself in. I hear it’s the finest spa treatment these days, you know.”

“Mud?” Sidney says, incredulous. “You wish to make a fool of me!”

“Not at all, not at all! It is most popular in the Dead Sea, and much of the St. Petersburg court regularly visits there for the mud baths. They say it is excellent for the soul and brings a new, youthful vigor to your skin and body.”

“Really,” Sidney says, permitting Evgeni to hand him down into the wing backed chair of the study before tucking a blanket around his lap. “Thank you,” he says, as there’s no reason to be impolite, and Evgeni takes his hand and busses it in acknowledgement before moving to seat himself at the desk.

Sidney gapes open-mouthed at Evgeni’s back, and snaps his jaw shut just in time as Evgeni turns to sink into his chair. The gesture was extraordinarily forward for Evgeni, and Sidney puzzles over the meaning.

“It is rather difficult to read when I am here and my book is in the drawing room,” Sidney says neutrally, and Evgeni jumps guiltily before saying, “Pardon!” and hurrying back to fetch it. Sidney purses his lips now that he is alone with his thoughts. Evgeni’s behavior is curious, and years of surviving a younger sibling urges him to check his pillow for pepper or some other prank that waits for his unsuspecting presence.

Evgeni returns with the book without anything terrible befalling Sidney, though, so Sidney accepts the sudden kindness with a minimum of suspicion and only a cursory glance through the pages for cured meats slipped between them.

They comfortably go about their own pursuits throughout the afternoon. Evgeni occasionally mutters to himself as he vigorously scribbles, sounding more worried and upset as time passes, though Sidney knows not what upsets him or how to comfort him. Instead, Sidney focuses on his book, humming in pleasure or annoyance at favorite passages or poor decisions by Elizabeth or Mr. Darcy. Surprisingly, Sidney feels more settled now than earlier in the day, content to read instead of itching to escape, even with Evgeni’s agitation.

Sidney is jarred from his peaceful contemplation by the rattle of a steamserv. He looks up to realize that darkness has fallen, having entirely missed tea time, and Evgeni has lit the gas lamps within the room, one placed thoughtfully on the end table next to Sidney to light the pages of his book. Evgeni jerks up from where he is hunched over his notes, staring wide-eyed as the steamserv chugs past him. “Dinner time, it would appear,” Sidney says, and Evgeni nods before uncurling to stand, rolling his shoulders back and sighing explosively. He intercepts Sidney as they approach the door to the drawing room, placing a hand neatly into the small of Sidney’s back and guiding them through the doorway and to the table.

There is a small, covered silver tray atop the pile of dishes, and Sidney reaches for it only to have Evgeni snatch it out from under his hand. “This is for later,” Evgeni says, placing it neatly on the middle of the table before helping Sidney arrange the rest of their dinner, root soup followed by a brace of cornish hens and finished with venison.

“Was your afternoon productive?” Sidney asks politely as they cut into their meals.

“Well enough, though I have once again run afoul of the same problem that I have been attempting to circumvent,” Evgeni says, frowning down at his soup before spooning up another portion. “Was your reading pleasurable?”

Pride and Prejudice is an old friend and indulgence that I return to often,” Sidney admits. “So no surprises lie within, just the simple comforts of a plot well known and loved.”

“And yet, when I handed it to you, you paged through it as if you expected the Devil himself to leap from its pages,” Evgeni teases, and Sidney flushes. “Oh? Is that a blush I see?”

“It is nothing but a bad habit,” Sidney says, busying himself with scraping his soup bowl rudely.

“A bad habit?” Evgeni presses, and Sidney privately curses his tenacity.

“My younger sister has a… free spirit, which often manifests itself as pranks,” Sidney says, settling his bowl back on its plate. “One of her favorites was to hide slices of meat between the pages of my books. Thankfully, she never treated any of our more precious volumes in such a manner, but I have had more than one book permanently marred and smelling of pork due to her.”

Evgeni throws back his head and laughs, shoulders shaking with the force of his mirth, and Sidney cannot help but to join him. “Now I regret even more deeply not appropriately utilizing the little time I have spent with her,” Evgeni says, and Sidney scowls and wags a finger.

“No! I will not permit your socializing if all you do shall be plot against me!” he says, and Evgeni assumes an innocent expression.

“Have I said anything about plotting?” Evgeni asks, but Sidney only scowls harder at him. “Here, it is time for the next course,” he offers up instead as a distraction.

They explore gentler topics throughout the rest of dinner, sharing the most ridiculous meals and balls they have visited, attempting to best the other’s story each time. The third course has long been obliterated when Evgeni pauses in their banter and says, “I expected you to assuage your curiosity about the surprise by now, to be truthful.”

Sidney eyes the covered plate between them; in all honesty, he had forgotten about it in the vigor of their conversation, but now his curiosity is piqued anew. “I was merely being polite,” he tries, but Evgeni’s no-nonsense look makes it clear his disbelief of such an excuse. Regardless, he reaches forward to lift the lid and reveal a chocolate pudding, and Sidney cannot help the gasp that escapes.

“It is to your liking?” Evgeni asks, and Sidney can barely nod his assent through his excitement. Chocolate is a rare delicacy even in Toronto-- aside from hot chocolate, which is all he and the ladies of court drink throughout the winter months-- and he cannot recall a time in which the kitchens at Cole Harbor managed chocolate pudding, yet here it is.

“Very much so. Was this the topic of your note earlier?” Sidney says, struck with remembrance, and Evgeni tucks his chin down shyly.

“Perhaps,” he demurs as he serves out the pudding to their plates, scooping an appreciably larger amount onto Sidney’s plate.

“Your consideration is too kind,” Sidney demurs before diving into the pudding, groaning at the first sweet taste. Evgeni flushes, perhaps proud of his success, as he spoons up his own portion.

Sidney is suffused by a gentle happiness for the rest of the evening, smiling to himself as he lies down to sleep that night. Perhaps this week of solitude will be a pleasant respite from court rather than the punishment he expected it to be at the beginning.

------

A warm hand on Sidney’s shoulder awakens him the next morning.

“What?” he mutters through lips thick with sleep, prying his eyes open to see a very awake and dressed Evgeni leaning over him, seated next to Sidney on the edge of the bed with a cheery smile.

“Breakfast has arrived,” Evgeni says. “It is time to rise, or else it will grow cold without you!”

Sidney groans, rolling over to hide his face in his pillow before speaking. “I will join you presently,” he says, once words are possible again, and Evgeni squeezes his shoulder lightly before the bed shifts as if he stands.

“Five minutes!” Evgeni chides, and Sidney reluctantly drags himself forth from the warmth of the bed to dress.

When he passes to the drawing room after making himself decent, he finds their table covered in a fine spread, a full English breakfast supplemented with a large bouquet and a hopeful-looking Evgeni. “By Jove,” Sidney says, weak with surprise. “It looks lovely, Evgeni, thank you.”

“You are most welcome,” he says, eagerness and a shy pleasure suffusing his face. Sidney settles in his chair as Evgeni begins to serve from the dishes, filling Sidney’s plate first before attending to his own. Sidney takes the opportunity to examine the bouquet, an explosion of pink roses, both deep and light, with three red peonies and a single yellow rose: admiration and gratitude in spades, with a hearty helping of devotion and a hint at affection. Sidney supposes it is meant to be an incredibly effusive and personal thank you to him from Evgeni, though he cannot recall in any fashion what he has done to earn such praise.

They eat in companionable silence, Sidney admiring the bouquet regularly as he chews. When they are finished, he asks, “You are full of plans recently, husband mine. Do you have any for today that I should know about?”

Evgeni searches Sidney’s face for a long moment, until Sidney shifts uncomfortably and wonders what about his comment derived such a reaction. Finally, Evgeni says, “I had thought-- you have been most absorbed with your book, and if you are amenable, I would enjoy sharing it with you.”

“I am not a fine orator--” Sidney protests, but Evgeni interrupts him firmly to say, “I am sure that I will not notice any deficiencies in your reading; I have no doubt that your efforts will be a fair sight better than any attempt I could make.”

“As you wish,” Sidney concedes, and they clean the table before Sidney retreats towards the window seat where he left his book late in the night. Evgeni crowds up behind him as he bends to grasp the spine.

“Shall we sit here?” Evgeni offers, voice hushed and lower than usual, and Sidney pauses.

“I presumed you prefered the study to spend your time in,” Sidney says.

“For my work, where I need space to spread my papers, of course. But for reading, this place seems most suited.”

“The view i s fine today,” Sidney agrees, gazing out over the waters. “Well, let us sit, then.” He shivers as he speaks, the contrast between the chill draft from the window and the warmth of Evgeni’s hand too strong.

Quicker than thought, Evgeni settles himself long-ways on the seat, leaning his back against one side and stretching his legs out. Sidney hesitates until Evgeni splays his knees obscenely wide in an obvious invitation and then settles in the space made so clearly for him. Evgeni gently guides him to lean back, cradled against Evgeni’s chest, and though it is no more intimate than their nighttime closeness, it feels forbidden and risqué in the light of day.

Evgeni reaches around Sidney to drag a blanket up about their waists before saying, “Are you comfortable?”

“Yes,” Sidney replies breathlessly, more comfortable than he would care to admit. Any threat of shivering has fully receded in the face of Evgeni’s warmth, and he forestalls any further thought by saying, “Shall I begin?”

“Please,” Evgeni asks, and Sidney opens the book to start reading.

By the time the steamserv arrives with luncheon, Sidney is near to hoarse, and they take the meal in a quiet. “I believe it is your turn to entertain,” Sidney tells Evgeni as they finish, and Evgeni nods.

He disappears into the dressing room after they send the steamserv off and Sidney follows curiously, finding him bent over and digging through his luggage case. He emerges with a victorious noise, holding aloft a tiny metal device.

“Oh no,” Sidney says instinctively, and Evgeni turns a pleading face upon him, eyes wide and lips atremble.

“I am an excellent teacher,” he wheedles, and Sidney sighs.

The afternoon is spent in chaos compared to the lull of reading, the tiny device falling apart in pieces under Sidney’s hands and Evgeni’s guidance. This activity is not demure and peaceful like their morning was-- silence cupping around the measured dance of Sidney’s words-- but chaotic, filled with clanking and shrieks and entirely too many moments of excitement.

Evgeni is gentle as he guides Sidney through deconstructing the device. When they begin, it sits tidily in the palm of Sidney’s hand, just tall enough that he cannot curl his fingers entirely over it. Evgeni spreads out an elaborate toolkit, showing Sidney how to pry the skin off of the device. “What does it do?” Sidney asks, curious; he has never seen something like it, tiny and precise like a watch but without any sort of face, just a pair of knobby buttons.

Evgeni only chuckles, directly into his ear from how near he leans, and says, “If you put it back together correctly, you shall see.”

“I have to put it back together, too?” yelps Sidney, appalled, and Evgeni laughs harder. He cannot sulk long, though, for all of his focus is taken by this strange new challenge and none can be spared to maintain his frown for anything other than concentration.

Evgeni’s hands are gentle as they guide Sidney’s, soft in motion as they push him to and fro but with his calluses catching against Sidney’s skin. He leans behind Sidney where he is seated in the chair before the desk, arms wrapped around his shoulders so that their hands can overlay easily. As Evgeni speaks instructions-- loosen that screw, pull out that gear, no don’t move that yet! -- the words slip the short distance between his mouth and Sidney’s ear even as their bodies reverberate together. Sidney falls into a strange hypnosis after he has expunged his nervous energy, engulfed in the warm strength of Evgeni as they remove the last of a hundred tiny screws and gears and lay them neatly across the desk.

“There,” Evgeni says, satisfied. “You see? That was simple!”

“And yet I still cannot fathom its purpose,” Sidney complains half-heartedly. He feels pride swell in his chest as he surveys the forest of metal spread before him; for the first time, he begins to understand the root of Evgeni’s passion in engineering, and he feels a great fondness arise in his chest. He leans back against the strength of Evgeni behind him, and Evgeni stills against the pressure. Sidney very nearly draws away before Evgeni curls his arms tight around Sidney, tucking his chin against the crown of Sidney’s head. They pause for a long moment before Evgeni loosens his grip and clears his throat.

“Now, we must go in the reverse direction,” he says, voice still slightly hoarse despite his attempt to rectify it, and Sidney feels equally roughened.

“I trust you will not lead me astray,” Sidney says, and it’s meant to be jocular, but the words emerge with little levity.

“Your trust is not misplaced,” Evgeni returns, and Sidney shivers from the sincerity that echoes through the room.

Reassembly is far more complicated than Sidney expected, and he finds his hands clumsier now than earlier. Several times, Evgeni must cry, “No! Be careful, not in that way, you’ll break it!” and grasp Sidney’s hands firmly so that he does not complete the deadly action. Once, he is not quick enough, and a spring sends half the gears flying, Sidney giving a loud whoop in surprise. They scramble about the floor to find the scattered parts, laughing all the while as they crawl across the hardwood and search under furniture.

The sun has long fallen when Sidney carefully clicks the skin back into place on the device. “No worse for the wear!” he declares proudly, feeling more than seeing Evgeni’s answering nod. “Now, what is its secret?” he asks eagerly. Evgeni extends a finger and carefully depresses one of the buttons.

“Say anything,” he instructs.

“Anything?” Sidney asks, puzzled. “Why do I need to speak?”

Evgeni depresses the button again instead of answering. “Ssh, listen,” he scolds, moving his finger to the other button and toggling it.

"Say anything,” a ghostly voice says, wavering but unmistakably Evgeni, and Sidney gasps. " Anything? Why do I need to speak?”

“Is that truly how my voice sounds?” Sidney asks, wonderment transformed instantly into horror.

“ That is what you fixate on?” Evgeni says, sounding put-out, and Sidney shifts uncomfortably.

“It sounds… terrible,” Sidney says, crossing his arms defiantly, though he has to shrug the weight of Evgeni’s arms up in order to do so.

“It sounds lovely,” Evgeni says, exasperated. He wraps his arms fully around Sidney and squeezes until Sidney gasps, “Enough, enough! It sounds lovely!”

“I knew you’d see reason,” Evgeni says, surely beaming, and his unbecoming gloating is interrupted by the knock of a steamserv bumping into the door.

They serve dinner quickly, both apparently ravenous from the afternoon’s work, and Sidney says between mouthfuls, “I must express my gratitude for you sharing with me your engineering. I am sure to never become a great inventor, but now I better understand your passion. It is thrilling in its own way to arrange such a delicate arrangement of pieces into a single beautiful whole.”

Evgeni smiles at him, heartfelt and whole, and Sidney ducks his head as he flushes under the attention. The final dam is broken between them by Sidney’s words, though, and somehow his simple statement over dinner leads them to laughing together in bed, hours later, Evgeni nearly crying with mirth over the stories of Sidney and Nathans’ misbegotten youth and returning with stories of his and Sasha’s adventures. The chill of winter retreats completely under the warmth of their bed together, and Sidney slips into sleep with a wide smile on his face, more content than he could have ever hoped to be.

------

Awkwardness does not return the next morning, the easy flow of conversation continuing apace. Evgeni ostensibly works on his science as Sidney curls in a chair with his book cracked open, but neither do anything but talk.

By luncheon time, Sidney knows now of Evgeni’s brother, serving in distant battles in the Russian military, and in exchange Sidney shared many wild tales of his and Taylor’s greatest escapades. He can list Evgeni’s fears (drowning, spiders, and going hungry) just as Evgeni can likely list Sidney’s greatest happinesses (his first steeplechase and fox hunt, Taylor’s birth, the beginning of his and Nathan’s friendship). He wonders briefly if this ease and joy is merely Evgeni’s attempt at fulfilling Sidney’s wishes for a husband, but he firmly puts the thought from his mind to enjoy the moment.

They spend the afternoon in lazy contemplation in the drawing room, curled together in the window seat as Sidney reads more sections of Pride and Prejudice interspersed with Evgeni sketching ephemeral explanations of steam devices onto scrap papers that flutter to the floor soon after. Sidney’s eyes droop and head sags mid-afternoon, lulled by the simple contentment of the moment and the furnace-warmth of Evgeni’s body against his, and Evgeni bodily lifts him to prop him on his feet and lead him to the bedroom.

Sidney is half-asleep as he fumbles at the buttons of his shirt, desiring at least some relief from their constriction before sleep. His fingers slip thrice on the second button he works at, and Evgeni steps forward, reaching out hesitantly. Sidney drops his hands and tips his head back, permitting and inviting Evgeni closer, and Evgeni carefully loosens that button and the next before settling his hand on Sidney’s lower back and guiding them towards the bed. Sidney’s eyes sink closed the second he settles into the mattress, though he remains aware long enough to feel how he slides towards Evgeni as the man lies down next to him. Just before the final veil of sleep falls, he feels the gentle press of lips against the back of his hand and then the warmth of Evgeni’s arms wrapping about him securely.

When he wakes, he is alone and the far side of the bed is cold, yet his heart shares no chill of loneliness. He stretches luxuriously, rolling about in the sheets before sitting up and setting his clothing to rights. The sun has fallen during his rest, and he exits the bedroom to a full dinner spread being set out by Evgeni in the drawing room.

Evgeni twitches as Sidney shuts the door, head whipping around to stare at Sidney wide-eyed. “Good evening,” Sidney says courteously, stepping forward to assist Evgeni in unloading the steamserv. “Did you sleep well?”

“As well as can be expected,” Evgeni says, evading Sidney’s eyes as he busies himself at the table. Sidney frowns to himself but finishes laying the table, and he is able to tempt Evgeni into conversation about Russian dishes as they eat.

After dinner, Evgeni flees to the study after detouring through the bedroom, and Sidney frowns again. He nearly tracks Evgeni down, petulant at the sudden abandonment, but soothes himself with the thought that likely Evgeni is just overwhelmed by their closeness throughout the day and wishes for space alone with his own thoughts. Sidney places the behavior out of his mind as he settles in to write, finally tired enough of reading to attend to his social duties.

He is interrupted after an hour by the chug of a steamserv; he frowns and looks up as it enters the room, surprised that it comes for him and not to deliver a late night snack for Evgeni. Atop its tray stands tall an enormous bouquet, and Sidney cradles it carefully as he carries it to the table to set it beside the previously sent flowers. This bouquet is well-wrapped in ivy and holly, blushing peonies mixed liberally with red columbine and topped with a trio of blood-red roses, each as large as his fist. Sidney’s hand trembles as he reaches out to caress a leaf of ivy; this bouquet is painfully forward in its message, and he desperately searches for any possible misinterpretation. No attempts at rearranging the flowers and meanings finds a different message than his first interpretation: bashful yet passionate love, presented anxiously and born on a foundation of domestic happiness and marriage.

Suddenly, it is all too much, and Sidney returns to doubt. Does Evgeni toy with him, using the earnest confession made early in the week about what he desires in a husband against him? Does he hide now to avoid showing the lie he speaks through flowers?  Such a sudden change in heart seems too impossible to be true, and something angry bubbles in Sidney’s chest, masking the quiet hurt beneath.

He stomps over to the door to the study, prepared to give Evgeni what for, but the door sticks as Sidney pushes on it, and his lips purse at Evgeni’s boldness at locking him out. He wants to shout through the door, but it feels equally as childish as Evgeni shutting him out, so instead he retreats to stew over his thoughts on the window seat. He has reached no satisfying conclusion by the time he decides he must retire, and one last surprise waits for him in the bedroom, a pale square sitting atop the pillow he has claimed as his own.

My Dear Husband, the envelope reads, and Sidney grits his teeth in helpless fury. Is this a game? Does Evgeni go this far to play the dutiful husband during their final week together? It feels like cruelty rather than a blessing, a teasing glimpse of all that Sidney desires, yet ephemeral, twisting beyond his grasp and disappearing the second their confinement is over.

Despite his rising fury-- or perhaps because of it-- he tears the envelope open, tugging out the letter within. It is written on plain paper, not stationary, and the writing is unmistakably Evgeni’s in its strange, angular way. Dearest husband, this letter begins, an echo of the envelope, and Sidney must take a slow, calming breath in order to unclench his jaw.

Dearest husband,

How strange it feels to call you such, despite half a year of marriage. To set pen to paper to speak with you is a move more foreign than it should be, and I lament the grievous errors that led to our accelerated marriage, without any opportunity to write and discover each other through letters. Perhaps our wedding would have led to greener pastures, should we have been given the time that propriety demands to court. Perhaps I shall always regret the mistakes that I made early on in our time together, though regret does nothing to alter the past. Now, with actions already performed and words already spoken, I can do nothing more than apologize and beg your forgiveness for my actions, though I do not expect our amends to be made so simply or even at all.

I entered this arrangement at the behest of Russia just as you followed the wishes of Britain, and I left for Vienna with little hope and a grim determination to serve my future husband as best I could. I admit I failed greatly in that service, for reasons that were driven by fear but were nonetheless inexcusable. Despite my absences and poor behavior, you treated me with nothing less than dignity and kindness, a gift that I did not deserve or request. My heart has opened under your treatment as a rosebud opens under the sun, but again I am sure this reconciliation comes too late to alter the course that has been charted.

I cannot fully express my appreciation for all that you have done for me since our wedding-- though you may not believe my words, I assure you that you have protected and nurtured me better than you know. Regardless of how our marriage ends, rest assured that I will forever hold you in the highest esteem and affection. You have brought a new joy to my life that I did not expect, and I will treasure the memories of our time together for the remainder of my life.

Ever Yours,

Evgeni

The letter falls from Sidney’s nerveless grasp as he attempts to understand the baffling emotion that it holds. There is some deeper meaning that dances just beyond his ken, he is sure of it, and he sinks to the floor and frantically re-reads the letter time and time again in an attempt to suss it out. He finds no understanding, though, and he paces angrily about the bedroom as he worries over Evgeni’s purpose in the letter. Why must he disrupt the gentle peace they had found? Why can he not accept their week-long truce before they separate and go about their own lives?

His unhappiness boils until he wishes to shout at Evgeni, to rage at his childish refusal to accept the state of affairs that worked so well for them. The contentment that had suffused Sidney’s bones feels cruelly ripped from his hands before its course was run. Was it too much to ask to enjoy their week of solitude? What does Evgeni hide from him still, even as he’s revealed his heart to Sidney and seen Sidney’s heart in return, that has led to this?

Sidney chews over his thoughts, working himself up into a froth before changing into his night clothes and throwing himself down on the bed in a fit of petulance. He falls asleep faster than he expected, still stewing alone in bed, letter clutched in his palm tightly enough to wrinkle.

------

Sidney awakens early the next morning, the first weak rays of sunrise wavering into the room and across his face. He stirs within the warm circle of Evgeni’s arms, mind awash in a sweet fog of contentment, but as he shifts, something crinkles within his fist and the fog lifts. He scowls at the wall as he is overcome again with a wave of misery over Evgeni’s confusing behavior. It compounds with the helplessness of being trapped within this suite-- and trapped away from the sun and the wind-- until all of his emotion rises and coalesces into a great and furious beast within his chest. He cannot survive another three full days of this torture, he is sure, yet he also cannot devise any solution to either escape Evgeni or convince him to speak plainly.

He rages to himself with no outlet or solution until he hears a steamserv rattling its way into the drawing room. Realization dawns-- the steamservs, with their stubby arms that are unable to handle a key with any reliability, are still able to pass freely through the door to the hall. Therefore, the only thing that traps Sidney and Evgeni within is their dutiful obedience of Prince Troy’s orders, rather than a physical barrier.

There is only one thing for Sidney to do with that information, and he bubbles over with energy and relief as he assembles a plan. He prepares to slide out from Evgeni’s arms and disappear into the last breath of winter alone, but pauses. Perhaps a change of scenery would do them both good; outside of the crushing weight of the suite, would Evgeni speak more honestly? Running away from his problem is cowardice, he reluctantly admits to himself, and taking Evgeni with him is the only correct solution, no matter how it pains him. Surely Evgeni fights his own internal battles from their confinement, and he is still Sidney’s husband for the time being and deserves Sidney’s consideration and respect.

So instead of attempting to pry himself from Evgeni’s arms to go forth, he grabs Evgeni’s hand and shakes it, hissing, “Evgeni, wake up!”

Evgeni groans, long and loud, before mumbling, “Da?”

“Wake up and get dressed; we are going to leave the suite,” Sidney says, Evgeni responding with a puzzled noise.

“It’s day five,” he says, voice thick and slow with sleep. “We’re not permitted to leave yet, there are two more days after this one.”

“I have had enough of being trapped inside,” Sidney says. “I am leaving, and you are coming with me, and there is no one here who can stop us.”

“I’m not sure--” Evgeni says dubiously, and Sidney interrupts him by diving out of the bed and grasping Evgeni’s arm, dragging it towards him until Evgeni must either flail into an upright position or be dragged entirely from the mattress.

“I expect that you are fully dressed within the next fifteen minutes, or else,” Sidney threatens before taking himself off to the dressing room. Happily, Evgeni wanders into the dressing room, yawning and rubbing at his hair with one hand, as Sidney is finishing jamming his feet into a pair of heavy boots. “We are going outside, so dress warmly,” Sidney scolds, sounding just as his mother has on so many occasions, and Evgeni is kind enough to not roll his eyes at Sidney, though Sidney is sure that he is sorely tempted.

Sidney leaves the dressing room to wrap up some bread and cheese from the breakfast tray the steamserv brought them, tucking it into the pockets of the warm, heavy jacket he found in the dressing room. He is staring at the bouquet from last night when Evgeni emerges from the bedroom, carrying a similar coat and wearing equally rough clothing and heavy boots. Sidney nods at him, turning to pass through the study and into the receiving room, both pausing before the door to the hall.

“Are you sure that this is wise?” Evgeni asks, and Sidney shrugs.

“I am sure that it is the only possible way to prevent my descent into insanity,” he replies, taking a deep breath. “Are you ready to run?”

“The exercise will also do me well,” Evgeni says, and Sidney nods before pushing the door open. He steps forth to see a servant halt, staring wide-eyed and opened mouth, and Sidney hisses, “Damn!” as he grabs Evgeni’s hand and pulls. The servant shouts in their wake as they sprint down the hall, Evgeni following as Sidney tugs him along, and they fly past another servant at the intersection of two halls. Sidney can hear the pounding of the servants’ feet behind them, and he pushes harder, giggling breathlessly at the thrill of their disobedience. Evgeni joins in, guffawing and then shouting apologies as they nearly bowl over a maid dusting a sideboard. Finally, Sidney leads them into a side chamber that leads to a servants’ exit, and they come to a halt within the room. He releases Evgeni’s hand in order to drag on his jacket and Evgeni follows suit. The door behind them opens just as they open the exterior door to a blast of chill wind, a servant shouting, “Sirs, wait!” as they burst out into the world.

Sidney pushes himself forward even faster as soon as they clear the threshold, kicking up snow as he runs, relishing the burn of the cold air in his lungs. He feels fully alive, the uncertainty and imbalance of the past day melting away under the pumping of his heart and the joyous awakening ache of his muscles. Surprisingly, Evgeni keeps pace with him, running and then walking at his side as he slows to survey the land.

A distant shack, next to what Sidney knows is a frozen pond, sparks an idea. “Are you able to skate on ice?” Sidney asks, and Evgeni snorts.

“Better than you, I am sure,” he boasts, and Sidney cannot resist.

“Is that a challenge, sir?” Sidney asks, only slightly indignant, and Evgeni tilts a rakish smirk at him.

“Only if you think that you can keep pace with me,” Evgeni says, unknowingly echoing Sidney’s recent thought.

Sidney does not dignify that with an answer, deciding instead to sprint towards the skating pond to warm his limbs and prepare to show Evgeni who truly is the better skater between them. The shack hides a variety of skating boots, and he selects his favorite pair, sitting on the bench within to button them on. Evgeni carefully peruses the available options, hefting several in his hand to feel their weight and examining the blades of several more before making his final selection.

Sidney is able to waddle from the shack to the pond before Evgeni finishes buttoning his first boot, sliding onto the ice and letting instinct take over. It froze well this year, smooth and without uneven cracks, and there are only a few marks on the surface from previous skaters. Sidney reaches the far end of the pond and turns about just in time to see Evgeni step onto the ice. He moves confidently, Sidney notes, a smooth, long gait as he glides across to join Sidney.

“How do you propose we resolve the issue of who is the better skater?” Evgeni asks, and Sidney purses his lips as he thinks.

“We shall take one lap around the pond, and the faster man wins,” Sidney declares. “On my mark.” He turns to place his shoulder to the shore and Evgeni lines up beside him obediently as Sidney counts down, “Three, two one, GO!”

Evgeni is not as quick as Sidney on the first steps, and Sidney whoops as he handily pulls ahead. He can hear the snick of Evgeni’s skates in the ice behind him, and he is nearly halfway about the perimeter of the pond when he swings his left arm back and yelps as Evgeni circles his hand about Sidney’s wrist and pulls. Sidney whips around in order to keep his balance, and they spin together on the ice as Sidney indignantly shouts, “That is cheating!

Evgeni looks unrepentant and somewhat petulant, presumably at Sidney’s impending victory, and Sidney shoves at him gently and darts away. Evgeni chases him, and it turns into an elaborate game of chase-and-catch like children play, their breaths puffing into the air as they shout and laugh. Evgeni catches Sidney twice and Sidney catches him thrice before Sidney tires, and Sidney does not release Evgeni’s hand after the third catch. Evgeni’s face is puzzled now, cheeks red from the cold and exertion and eyes bright, and Sidney gently lands one hand in the small of Evgeni’s back as he laces their other fingers together, turning his feet to spin them on the ice in a smooth dance.

Sidney cranes his neck back in order to look into Evgeni’s face, and he smiles instinctually, helplessly, caught in the warmth of Evgeni’s gaze. The simple happiness in his soul is tempered by the hurt rising within him again over Evgeni’s behavior last night, and Sidney explodes, “I do not understand the meaning of the letter that you left for me last night!”

Evgeni’s face smooths as Sidney feels his own cheeks heat with passion. “I felt that there were certain things I had to express in light of what the end of this week shall mean for both of us. Did you take issue with it? Have I overstepped any bounds or propriety in some fashion?”

“So you do not aim to taunt me with letters and bouquets, and only arrive at such hurt by accident?” Sidney presses, driven by the ache in his chest. “This is not a game that you play to amuse yourself before we annul our marriage?”

Evgeni’s brows draw down, an injured moue forming on his face. “I do not wish to taunt you or cause you any pain with my actions, nor do I use you as the target of idle amusement. I offer my most sincere apologies for any injury I have caused you; it was not my intention in the least.”

“And yet you hid from me after leaving the letter and the bouquet. Do you act not in good faith as my husband, suffering our interactions rather than reveling in them? Is that the meaning of your cowardice, that you acted insincerely to fulfill my wishes for a good husband, and could not face me after this latest farce?”

Evgeni cuts his blades into the ice and brings them to a halt, shrugging Sidney’s hand from his back and changing his grasp on the other so that he can bring both together and cradle them within his palms. He leans close to Sidney, eyes sincere and voice pleading as he says, “Sidney, I assure you that I spoke nothing but the truth in the bouquets and the letter, and my cowardice came from showing my heart so clearly rather than from telling lies. Everything that I have said and done was in the utmost sincerity, and I hope that you can hear the truth in my words when I say that I could not imagine being happier anywhere in the world than here, where I have discovered the joy of being your husband.” Evgeni pauses, and Sidney swallows heavily, blinking to clear his eyes. He can feel Evgeni’s hands tremble around his, though it is not clear whether from the cold or from emotion. “I feared the consequences of my honesty, as you proposed the annulment and I had no inkling of a change in heart from yourself. I do not wish to pressure you into continuing a marriage that does not bring you happiness, but my admiration for you has grown so quickly that I could not contain it.”

“Admiration?” Sidney asks, so softly that the word is nearly whipped away by the wind, and Evgeni glances down at their hands, where their wedding rings gleam in the soft winter sunlight.

“Love,” he whispers, raw with honesty. The chill of winter is suddenly overwhelming, and Sidney tugs away from Evgeni and turns towards the shack to retreat from it. His mind is jumbled, the surety he felt in asking for the end of their marriage shaking under Evgeni’s confession. Is the annulment a mistake? But-- can either of them truly know within the space of four days that happiness and a true marriage is possible for them? He worries over the questions like a hound at a fox as he unbuttons his skating boots, Evgeni following him in silence. Sidney’s fingers are slow and clumsy with his mind elsewhere, and Evgeni finishes replacing his skating boots with regular ones long before Sidney, and he stands to return the skating boots to the shelf they came from. Sidney glances up as Evgeni turns around, and his heart throbs at the sight of Evgeni’s face suffused with pain.

In that moment, it is impossible to deny that Sidney would do anything to wipe away the suffering that plagues Evgeni and return him to happiness. He thinks of the way his soul sighs every time Evgeni wraps him in his arms, and how even the thought of a few hours spent apart now feels like a few too many. The picture that the last four days forms is damning, and there is only one thing that Sidney can do.

He stands, placing his skate boots next to Evgeni’s, and then extends his left hand. “Come,” he says, and Evgeni stares down for a long moment before joining his hand with Sidney’s. They walk demurely back to the palace, though Sidney tugs Evgeni around to the southern side instead of returning in the door they exited. Evgeni follows quietly as Sidney pushes into the hothouse, both of them shivering as the warm, heavy air slaps at their chilled faces.

Sidney does not let go of Evgeni’s hand as he searches the beds to find what he desires, and at the far end of the hothouse are the decorative flowers he looks for. It seems like the correct answer to Evgeni’s courting, and Sidney clumsily pulls three garden daisies using only his right hand. He struggles with the rose, the woody stem defeating his determined tugging, and Evgeni gently offers a pair of shears in his left hand. Sidney moves his hand to permit Evgeni to snip the stem, and Sidney dips his chin bashfully and offers the rough bouquet, daisy roots and clumps of dirt and all: I return your sentiment of love.

Evgeni places the shears down with a click, reaching out with a shaking hand to take the bouquet. He lifts it to his nose, breathing deeply of the rose, and turns a hopeful smile at Sidney.

“I am not sure that I can speak as elegantly as you, through flowers and letters,” Sidney admits, clutching tighter at Evgeni’s hand and taking comfort from Evgeni squeezing back. “I fear that any eloquence I possess dissolves in the face of my feeling for you. I did not expect to experience any emotion stronger than boredom throughout this week, and perhaps that expectation led me to resist what grew between us. But I can no longer deny the contentment that our time together has brought me, the delight I feel from our conversations, the pleasure of your arms about me.” He feels himself blush at the final admission, and Evgeni sways closer to him as Sidney gathers himself.

Any further words are forestalled as the door to the hothouse opens, the servant that entered emitting a shriek of surprise at their presence within. “Sirs!” she says, once she has regained her composure. “Sirs, please, the butler is frantic with worry at your disobedience. He has requested that you return immediately to the Prince Regent suites.”

Sidney swallows, disappointed by the interruption, but nods and says, “Yes, we will return forthwith.”

“If I may escort you, sirs?” the servant insists politely but firmly, and she does so, resting a sharp eye on them as they traverse the halls of Cole Harbor back to their apartments. Sidney’s attention is not on the familiar surroundings, though, but on the look of wonder on Evgeni’s face as he clutches the simple bouquet, his eyes fixed on the flowers as he smiles.

Richards hovers anxiously outside of the Prince Regent suite, face relaxing in relief as they approach. “Your Royal Highness, Your Grace,” he nearly scolds, and Sidney winces. “I was contemplating sending a telegram to the Prince Regent to inform him of your disobedience within the hour had you not returned! The staff has been run ragged searching for you.”

“Our apologies, Richards,” Sidney says, feeling like a small boy again, caught with dirt under his nails and smeared into his trousers from digging up half the garden and receiving a scolding for his misbehavior. “I am sure you understand our restlessness from such a long confinement. I assure you, we shall not defy Pater’s orders again.”

Richards sniffs but seems appeased, opening the door for them and saying, “As you say, sirs. Please enter, and as before, the steamservs can bring to you anything that you require.”

“Send a vase along immediately,” Evgeni says, and Richards’ eyes drop to the bouquet that Evgeni clutches tightly. To his credit, the only show of his surprise is the widening of his eyes.

Richards stutters, “Of course, Your Grace,” over a loud rumble of Sidney’s stomach. Too late Sidney remembers the cheese and bread that he secreted in his pockets, and thinks mournfully of the rest of their breakfast, likely gone dreadfully cold and jelly-ish.

“And perhaps a fresh breakfast,” Evgeni adds, smiling as Sidney, and Sidney smiles helplessly back.

“Yes, sirs, now if you please?” Richards begs, and they return to the scene of their confinement.

They have barely stripped out of their coats and boots and tended to the stoves when a steamserv arrives, heaped high with a full English and an empty vase. Evgeni snatches up the vase as Sidney sets out breakfast, returning from the bathing room with it filled with water. He takes a knife from the breakfast spread to trim the roots and dirt from the base of the daisies and pare off the thorns of the rose, meticulously arranging them until the bright red of the rose is prettily surrounded by the white-and-yellow of the daisies. Evgeni settles the vase in the center of the table between the bouquets he sent to Sidney, and they smile shyly at each other over the flowers as they eat.

A great shiver strikes Sidney as he places his fork down for the final time, and Evgeni makes a concerned sound. “Are you still chilled?” he asks, and Sidney nods as he scrubs his hands up and down his arms. “Well, we must rectify this immediately,” Evgeni declares, standing and disappearing off towards the bathing room, a movement followed closely by the sound of a bath being drawn. Sidney shrugs to himself before beginning to clean the table, though Evgeni re-emerges from the bathing room and tuts at him.

“I will attend to the table, go prepare for your bath,” Evgeni shoos him, and Sidney wrinkles his nose and sticks his tongue out at Evgeni before obeying. He changes into a robe in the dressing room before returning to the bathing room, where the bath is one-third full l and the steam from the water is beginning to fill the room. Sidney sweeps his hand through the water to find that it is at the perfect temperature, just on the comfortable edge of burning. He strips off his robe and sinks in, groaning in pleasure despite the fact that only his legs and hips are immersed. He leans back and relaxes, shuddering at the contrast between the chill porcelain and the hot water.

The water has risen to his stomach and he has tipped his head back against the lip of the tub, eyes closed, when he hears the door open and Evgeni say, “Is the bath heating-- oh!” Sidney’s eyes fly open to see Evgeni hovering by the door, politely averting his eyes to the opposite wall. Sidney resists the instinct to cover his nakedness and instead considers his options and the thrill that runs through his loins.

“The temperature is excellent, thank you,” Sidney says, and Evgeni nods and moves to back out of the room. “But!” Sidney adds sharply, and Evgeni stops before Sidney continues more gently. “I must admit a particular issue that I expect you can assist in resolving.”

“An issue?” Evgeni says unsteadily, and Sidney reaches forward to shut off the tap with the waterline still well below his chest.

“‘Tis a big, empty bath, and I fear there is not enough water to keep me warm,” Sidney says earnestly. “Yet I am sure that you can discover a solution.”

“But you turned the tap--” Evgeni protests before Sidney interrupts him by clearing his throat.

“I am sure that you can discover a solution to the great chill that I am suffering,” Sidney repeats pointedly, and finally his subtlety has an effect on Evgeni, whose eyes widen with surprise.

“Are you-- I could join you?” Evgeni asks unsteadily, and Sidney sighs in relief.

“That sounds like an excellent solution,” Sidney applauds, and Evgeni steps fully into the bathing room, closing the door behind him. His eyes remain averted from Sidney as he removes his frock coat and begins to unbutton his vest, and Sidney leans over the side of the bath, propping his chin upon his arms. “Do you intend to avoid looking at me the entire time?” he asks, and Evgeni pauses.

“I do not wish to overstep my bounds,” he says, mimicking Sidney’s words back at him from the beginning of their week together.

“I assure you that you will not overstep anything that I do not wish you to,” Sidney says, and his heart flutters with nerves as Evgeni slowly looks up to meet his eyes. He cannot deny the thread of apprehension that twists through his heart, but it is born not of a fear of his current vulnerability but of disappointing Evgeni. “But I hope in return that I do not ask of you to cross a boundary that you have no desire to,” he adds, wondering if such a reason was the heart of Evgeni’s hesitance.

“You have not asked of me anything that I have not wanted you to,” Evgeni admits lowly, and Sidney’s vulnerability recedes under a wave of surety and desire. Evgeni resumes removing his clothes, moving far more quickly now as he drops his vest and slides his suspenders down his shoulders, and Sidney greedily drinks in the sight, though he feels his cheeks heat with a blush at his own shamelessness.

Evgeni’s clever hands twist buttons through their holes, shirt front parting to reveal a pale, smooth stomach beneath the snowy cloth. Sidney cannot look away, filled with a ravenous need to know more intimately the shape of the tiny outward curve there, to run his nose down along the trail of hair that leads beneath the waist of his trousers, and to press his cheek next to the sweet indent of Evgeni’s navel.

Sidney’s pulse quickens as Evgeni carelessly sheds his shirt upon the floor and reaches for the placket of his trousers. Even the temptation of exploring Evgeni’s bare chest with his eyes is not enough to distract Sidney from his curiosity, and he bites his lip as Evgeni slides his trousers down his legs. Evgeni’s flannel drawers do little to hide the details of his manhood, but still he hesitates at the drawstring as Sidney stares. Sidney turns politely to face the foot of the bathtub, lowering his lashes in a way that he hopes appears demure so that he can glance from the corner of his eye as the drawers join the rest of Evgeni’s outfit upon the floor. He licks his lips and valiantly fights off a fit of the vapors as he considers the frankly outrageous length of Evgeni’s member and the particular acts he is already interested in experimenting with on such a specimen.

His-- contemplation -- is interrupted by Evgeni’s hand landing upon his shoulder, guiding him to lean forward. Sidney follows his direction, and the tell-tale splash of a body entering the water sounds out behind him. Evgeni’s legs slide along the sides of the bathtub, pressing tight against the outside of Sidney’s legs, and Evgeni pulls Sidney back into the cradle of his body. Sidney is blissfully comfortable except for the point of Evgeni’s chin digging into his scalp, and he hums as he moves his head, tucking it into the space between Evgeni’s shoulder and neck.

Sidney sighs in contentment and writhes within the confines of the tub, the simple pleasure of comfort sparking throughout his body and demanding satisfaction. His movement discovers a point of discomfort in his lower back, though, and he pauses. Evgeni clears his throat roughly at Sidney’s lull, and Sidney realizes with a shock that Evgeni’s cock already swells with pleasure. A wave of excitement crests within him, warring with a tiny spark of nerves at the thought of finally completing their marital duties.

“My apologies,” Evgeni says roughly, and the rumble of his chest against Sidney’s back incites an even greater rush of anticipation within Sidney.

“You have nothing to apologize for,” Sidney murmurs in return, shifting one final time before stilling. “I find nothing about this situation displeasing… husband,” he adds tentatively, and Evgeni’s arms tighten about him. They luxuriate in silence, Sidney occasionally turning the tap with his foot to refresh the water, and more than an hour passes as Sidney’s eyes droop with relaxation.

Finally, Evgeni says, “I fear I will remain a prune through the rest of our confinement if I do not remove myself from the bath soon,” and Sidney laughs at the mental image.

“Well, I suppose we can rectify this situation and prevent undue wrinkles marring your dashing good looks,” Sidney says. He leans forward and gathers his feet under himself, standing with a rush of water and stepping forth from the bathtub. He turns to courteously offer Evgeni assistance, handing him over the lip of the bathtub, and they stand dripping for a long moment, neither daring to drop his eyes from the other’s gaze.

“Perhaps we should dry ourselves,” Sidney says breathlessly, and Evgeni’s eyes flicker to look behind Sidney where the towels hang.

“I fear there is an obstacle in my way,” Evgeni returns, voice deeper than usual, and Sidney turns slowly to take a towel from the rack. When he faces Evgeni again, Evgeni reaches for the towel, but Sidney draws it back from his hand with a headshake. Instead, he steps forward, placing the towel against Evgeni’s chest and smoothing it across and down, gently drying the water from his skin. Evgeni’s breath grows rough quickly, jumping as Sidney skirts his groin and proceeds down his leg, kneeling carefully onto the tile floor as he crosses Evgeni’s knee. He cannot help but notice at eye-height Evgeni’s softened manhood, which is rapidly rising again under Sidney’s ministrations. His own passion swells in response to the temptation before him, but he forces his hand to guide the towel up Evgeni’s other leg without any improper detours. As he stands, he draws the towel up Evgeni’s buttocks and back, lingering over the round shape of his derrierè before reluctantly reaching higher. He then passes over Evgeni’s shoulder and grasps Evgeni’s wrist to raise his arm and dry it, and he notices the gooseflesh that has arisen upon his strong forearm. When Sidney glances up to look in Evgeni’s face, he greeted with wide, dark eyes. Sidney licks his lip nervously and Evgeni mirrors the motion, setting a glisten to the fat, red curve of his lower lip. His jaw hangs open as Sidney sways forward helplessly, but Sidney is once again reined in by a shiver spurred by the water drying upon his own skin.

Evgeni grasps Sidney’s shoulders, moving them in a circle as if they danced before taking another towel from the rack. Evgeni returns the favor that Sidney bestowed upon him, and Sidney abruptly understands Evgeni’s shocked expression. Each touch of the towel sparks through him, adding flames to the fires that have begun to burn. Evgeni is tender as he dries Sidney, smoothing the towel meticulously across every inch of Sidney’s skin except those that demand the most relief. Sidney swallows a yelp as Evgeni grazes across a nipple, peaked and sensitive and begging for attention, and he feels sweat spring out across his forehead as his cock stirs. He can see, just barely, the curve of a smile upon Evgeni’s lips as he kneels to dry Sidney’s legs, and Sidney nearly faints at the thought of Evgeni’s mouth so close to--

Evgeni stands and surveys Sidney, apparently pleased with what he sees. The puckish smile still twists his mouth as he says, “I have returned the service that you bestowed upon me, darling, but I cannot help but notice that you have missed a spot that begs for your attention, and vice versa.”

A helpless swell of fondness drags Sidney under the waters of love; he has been blessed by God with a husband both ridiculous and perfect, and the nerves that accompanied his arousal begin to fade. “Perhaps I felt such an area requires special care and attention,” Sidney says slyly, stepping closer and brushing his hand across Evgeni’s chest.

Evgeni tilts his chin down, nose nearly brushing Sidney’s forehead, and he murmurs in return, “Then I look forward to the high quality of care that my husband shall provide to me.”

Sidney swallows with a loud click before stepping back and kneeling again upon the floor. He raises his left hand, in which he still grasps the towel, and delicately smoothes the corner of the cloth around the base of Evgeni’s cock. He swallows again as Evgeni’s cock jumps, and ever so carefully, he wraps the towel about the base and drags it up the length. HIs husband’s manhood is hot and heavy in his hand, already at an impressive size despite only being half-risen. Sidney forces himself to let go and continue at his task, cradling Evgeni’s bollocks with the towel as he caressed them. He dares not venture further, so he stands, feeling his face glowing with his bashful excitement as Evgeni watches him with dark eyes.

As arousing as servicing Evgeni was, it pales in comparison to the return of attentions. Evgeni’s hand is gentle as it follows the same path that Sidney outlined on his body, curving through Sidney’s sable fur before grasping his manhood. Knowing that the hand about his most intimate part is, for the first time in his life not his own drives Sidney immediately to the heights of need. He shivers under the force of the passion that floods him, but Evgeni looks up, concerned, and asked, “Are you chilled again?”

Sidney’s tongue touches the roof of his mouth, ready to deliver a No, before he changes his mind. “I fear we have not planned well,” he says, resting his hand along the side of Evgeni’s puzzled face. “There is but one robe here and two of us. I fear the only solution is to retire to the bed and keep each other warm.”

“As you desire, I consider it my command,” Evgeni says, drying Sidney’s bollocks and slipping a single finger behind them into the tender skin before his hole. Sidney whimpers from the shock of pure pleasure that jolts through him, and Evgeni withdrawals and drops the towel to the ground. Instead of leading Sidney out of the bathing room as Sidney expects, though, he steps around behind Sidney and wraps him in an embrace, nudging at the back of Sidney’s knees with his own to encourage a step. “I shall keep you warm every step of the way.”

“I appreciate your sacrifice,” Sidney says breathlessly, all of his attention focused on the firmness he again feels pressed against his lower back. They shuffle awkwardly out of the bathing room and towards the bed, Evgeni reaching around to push the linens out of the way. Once Sidney has settled, Evgeni steps about to his side of the bed, sliding in and settling tightly against Sidney’s back before drawing up the bedcovers

“Are you warm enough?” Evgeni breaths into Sidney’s ear, and Sidney makes a dissatisfied noise, squirming about until he faces Evgeni.

“This is better,” Sidney declares, permitting Evgeni’s arms about his waist again. “Though it is not perfect, I must admit.” At Evgeni’s inquisitive glance, he adds, “I fear my-- my lips are chilled, and I suffer greatly from their lack of satisfaction.”

“Is that so?” Evgeni says, eyelids lowering flirtatiously. “I shall rectify this immediately.”

“Please do,” Sidney breathes as Evgeni leans forward, pressing a soft, chaste kiss to Sidney’s lips. It is so kind and gentle that Sidney abruptly aches with the pain of the six months they have wasted since their wedding. How well could he know Evgeni today, had they begun their explorations of each other after the wedding? How much greater could their love have grown?

He pushes it away-- what is done, is done-- and instead sinks into the sensation, chasing after Evgeni’s mouth as he draws away. His desperation to keep Evgeni close is so great that his tongue darts between his lips, grazing against Evgeni’s mouth, and they both jolt in shock at the touch. The movement only brings them closer, awkwardly crashing together, and they both fumble desperately until Evgeni brings a hand to Sidney’s cheek and guides them into a deep, open-mouthed kiss. Sidney moans at the taste of Evgeni, the sound vibrating between them as they twist closer together on the bed.

Instinct, raw and full of desire, brings Sidney’s hips to motion, twitching desperately against the firm pressure of Evgeni’s body. They gasp in unison as Sidney’s cock slides along the length of Evgeni’s in a dry yet too-short motion. It is not perfect by any measure, yet Sidney desperately needs more, and he thrusts gracelessly against Evgeni’s body as he searches again for the perfect angle. Evgeni encourages him, pushing back in his own rhythm-less motion, and instead of aligning as they did before, Sidney’s cock slips behind Evgeni’s and between his legs.

Sidney curls forward, gasping with the intensity of feeling as he thrusts into the cradle of Evgeni’s thighs. Evgeni hisses in surprise, but as Sidney attempts to withdrawal, Evgeni clamps his legs tighter, eliciting a cry from Sidney. “God in heaven,” Sidney blasphemes, pressing his forehead into Evgeni’s chest, so close before him, and Evgeni curls his arms about Sidney’s back, encouraging him closer and quicker. Where their skin attempts to stick, sweat quickly smoothes the way, and they rock together in the most ancient of dances as they chase their pleasure.

Sidney cannot help but notice the smallest of details as he drives his hips quicker and quicker: the touch of Evgeni’s bollocks against the top of his cock, the firm hand that Evgeni has tucked around the swell of Sidney’s buttock, the smooth skin of Evgeni’s back beneath Sidney’s desperately clutching hand. No words pass between them as Sidney winds himself tighter, surrounded by the feel and the smell and the sound of Evgeni so deeply that he feels as though he drowns in an ocean of his husband. His husband.

“I love you,” Sidney gasps as he arches, spending his seed as he finally drowns in pleasure. Evgeni freezes but then cradles Sidney closely, curving his hand gently about the back of Sidney’s head to tuck Sidney’s face neatly into his shoulder. Evgeni does not speak to return the sentiment Sidney expressed, though his free hand smooths down Sidney’s back as Sidney attempts to fight the swoop of contented blackness that chases after his flood of bliss. He wins the battle against the temptation to sleep, perhaps only because Evgeni shifts, brushing his still hardened manhood against Sidney’s stomach.

“You have waited so patiently,” Sidney murmurs, his voice roughened by their activities. “I feel as though I should reward such restraint richly.”

“Any reward at all would suffice,” Evgeni says, strained. “Even the simplest touch of your hand would be the sweetest manna.”

“As you desire, so shall I fulfill you,” Sidney returns, sliding his hand from Evgeni’s back to drag it down his chest and towards his desperate manhood. As he wraps his hand about it, again he cannot help but to focus on the tiniest elements-- or rather, the l ack of tininess. Despite already dying the little death, Sidney revels in the sheer, hedonistic pleasure of rubbing his hand along the length of Evgeni’s cock, arousal struggling to build at the heat and softness of the skin in his hand and the many tiny sounds and movements that he finds he can draw forth from Evgeni. Perhaps a minute passes, perhaps an eternity, before Evgeni stiffens and his cock twitches within Sidney’s grasp. Sidney’s loins throb in tandem with the tangible evidence of bringing Evgeni to orgasm, and he tilts his chin up to watch Evgeni’s face as he shudders through the tail end of his pleasure.

They are sticky, a true mess undoing the cleanliness from their bath, but Sidney could not be more content. He tucks himself close to Evgeni, wordlessly demanding his embrace, and happily permits the darkness of sleep to fall upon him as Evgeni hesitantly complies.

Later, Sidney wakes slowly, frowning at the mid-day light streaming through the window. Contentment suffuses every bone, and it takes but a moment to recall why. He smiles to himself, turning within the circle of Evgeni’s arms so that they may face each other. Sidney is met with the sight of Evgeni’s dark, even gaze, lips lightly pursed with some mysterious thought, and Sidney smiles and places a kiss upon the tip of Evgeni’s nose.

“We have wasted all of the good efforts of our bath,” Evgeni says, echoing Sidney’s thought from before sleeping, and Sidney laughs.

“I am sure that we can cleanse ourselves again without undue distraction,” Sidney teases, but Evgeni’s eyes slide sideways to stare at the far wall. Sidney frowns at the sudden, uncharacteristic shyness, but quickly decides it is merely a nervousness born of the new experience that they have shared.

Despite Sidney’s internal assertion, Evgeni is tentative throughout the rest of the day, responding slowly to Sidney’s touches or kisses and never initiating any of his own. Sidney persists in requesting that which he wishes for, and Evgeni does not deny him, but as they approach the bed again for the night, Sidney cannot bring himself to push Evgeni to return to their previous activities. He will grow to become less reticent about their marital duties, Sidney is sure of it, and he happily accepts the kiss upon the crown of his head that Evgeni finally, hesitantly, gives him.

------

Sidney awakes to the sunrise on their sixth day of confinement and to Evgeni’s serious expression. “Good morning,” he offers blearily as soon as he can organize the correct words in his sleep-slowed mind.

“Good morning,” Evgeni responds swiftly, clearly well-awake, and Sidney feels off-balanced, disadvantaged for what is sure to be a weighty conversation.

“Does something trouble you, dear?” Sidney asks as he desperately kicks his mind into higher function.

“I do not wish to pressure you into a decision, but I must know-- do you still intent to request an annulment upon our return to Toronto?” Evgeni asks softly, and Sidney snorts, too far from awake still to suppress the reaction. Evgeni draws away at that, though, and Sidney turns over to face him and sees that his face is creased with worry.

“I equally do not mean to offend, but-- are you aware of meaning of the activities we have so recently indulged in?” Sidney asks, but Evgeni’s frown only grows deeper. “Our marriage is certainly no longer unconsummated, and so an annulment cannot be awarded.”

“Yes, I am aware, thank you,” Evgeni says stiffly, but he makes no move to embrace Sidney again, withdrawing further onto his own side of the bed and turning onto his back to stare at the ceiling. Sidney frowns, feeling quite put-out by Evgeni’s unsubtle rejection, and stews to himself. Why would Evgeni be so upset over a simple statement of fact? They have not yet fully consummated their marriage, but neither is it entirely unconsummated, and therefore he cannot request an annulment. Does Evgeni expect him to lie to his parents upon their return to Toronto and claim they have not touched each other as husbands? Does he have so little faith in Sidney’s strength of character, or-- even worse-- does he believe that Sidney is prepared to cast him aside after the week has run its course?

The last thought leads to a miserable sinking feeling in Sidney’s chest. Evgeni has shown his affection and love in a variety of ways throughout the past few days, and though Sidney has felt his own great love for Evgeni, he begins to see that he has not displayed it so clearly as Evgeni has. His own reticence, combined with an answer to the annulment question that communicates inevitability rather than his own passion, does no justice to either of them.

Sidney sighs heavily before turning onto his side again to face Evgeni, who still stubbornly stares at the ceiling. “It occurs to me that such an answer does not assuage your question as you intended it, and I apologize,” Sidney says, and Evgeni grunts in response. “With all honesty, should an annulment be possible in some way for us after the end of this week, I would not think even for a second to request it. Over these past days, I have discovered your heart and wit and cleverness and, more so than that, the great love you hold within you. I offer my assurance that what I expressed through daisies and roses was the truth of the matter. I have fallen in love with you and wish for nothing but your companionship throughout the rest of my life.”

Evgeni turns to face Sidney, his dark eyes searching Sidney’s face, and Sidney tries to let all of his honesty and love shine through his expression. It must be adequate for Evgeni, for he practically lunges forward to wrap Sidney in his arms. Sidney can feel the press of Evgeni’s wedding ring against the back of his neck, and for the first time, the weight of his own band upon his finger feels like a blessing rather than a shackle. The thought takes seed in his mind, and he wriggles out of Evgeni’s grasp, following Evgeni’s right arm down to his hand with his own and removing Evgeni’s ring before pulling his own off.

Evgeni’s face is startled, mouth half-opened in preparation for a question, as Sidney curls their hands together about their rings. “I wish for these rings to forever be a reminder that, no matter where either of us go, we carry with us the love of the other,” Sidney says, and Evgeni’s hands convulse between his. “I hope that every day for the rest of my life, the feel of this metal against my skin acts as a reminder of the great blessing I was given in you and how I nearly permitted it to slip between my fingers, never to return. Every day, I will thank God for His wisdom and blessing in bringing you to me as I feel the weight of this ring on my finger.”

“If you have been blessed by my presence, then surely I have been sent to Heaven and married to one of His angelic host,” Evgeni says, voice shaking and eyes shining. “For I could not ask for a greater miracle to come upon me than to be paired with you. I shall wear my ring with pride, knowing that I am marked by my love for you, my husband, for all the world to know.” Evgeni’s hands fumble, separating out their rings with shaking fingers and grasping Sidney’s right hand, replacing the ring in its rightful place. Sidney returns the gesture, receiving the warmed ring from Evgeni and sliding it on his finger. He realizes too late that it’s the left hand and not the right, so he must tug off the ring and switch it as they both laugh breathily.

Sidney lets his hands linger around Evgeni’s after he has properly placed the ring. He appreciates their breadth and strength, smoothing his fingertips delicately across the callouses and scars texturing the skin. He hesitates over a particularly large, red mark on the back of Evgeni’s right hand, and Evgeni softly says, “Steam burn, from when I was a boy too young to understand its power.” Sidney cannot find the correct words to acknowledge his statement, so he bends his head forward, dropping a soft kiss onto the scar.

The taste of Evgeni’s skin draws Sidney in, an irresistible indulgence, and Sidney blesses each and every mark upon Evgeni’s hands with his lips. Their tryst yesterday was brief and hurried, rushed with lust and a marriage unfulfilled, but today Sidney desires nothing more than to discover each inch of Evgeni deliberately and press his adoration and passion into it until Evgeni is indelibly marked, until he cannot doubt Sidney’s love.

“Do you permit me my exploration?” Sidney asks lowly, wrapping his hands loosely around the thin, delicate shape of Evgeni’s wrists.

“All that I am is yours for the taking,” Evgeni says, licking his lower lip, a motion that lights a fire within Sidney where only banked coals were. “I yearn for your touch, your kisses, your desire, and the relief I gain from the blessing of your attentions is only temporary. My greed for your attention grows so great that we would never leave this bed, were it my decision.”

“Then I shall do my best to sate your appetite as many times as I must to turn your fleeting satisfaction into something more permanent,” Sidney says. He presses one final kiss to Evgeni’s right hand, centered over his ring, before exploring up his arms. Sidney lingers where he desires, over the caps of Evgeni’s shoulders, around his pert nipples-- eliciting a groan and a twitch-- and especially along the softness of Evgeni’s stomach. He indulges himself as he wished to during their bath, pressing his cheek against the skin there, alternating between rubbing his face all over the luxurious smoothness and kissing every inch from just above Evgeni’s navel to the first smatterings of hair in his sable fur.

“Darling,” Evgeni says, voice strained, after Sidney has spent a few minutes there, “Do you intend to torture me until I expire? Or will you slake my thirst at some moment soon?”

“I hope you do not begrudge me my enjoyment,” Sidney breaths into his skin, and he twitches in response. “But from the first moment you undressed to join me in the bathtub, I could not help but desperately desire this moment to show my adoration for your perfect form and especially for the flawless shape of your waist.” He looks up to see Evgeni casting an affectionate but faintly puzzled expression towards him, and he shrugs and forms a moue into the waist in question.

“I am not sure that I shall ever understand all of you,” Evgeni says, sinking his hand into Sidney’s hair and gently scratching, until Sidney’s eyes fall half-closed in pleasure. “But I am sure that I shall always love you, oddities and all.”

The feel of Evgeni’s fingers against his scalp is too soothing for Sidney to protest the notion that he has oddities. Evgeni takes advantage of his distraction, quickly flipping them over even as Sidney squeals and thrashes at the unexpected movement. Evgeni grins smugly down at Sidney trapped beneath him. At Sidney’s pout, he says innocently, “Oh, good morning! Have I interrupted something?”

“Yes,” Sidney grumbles, before being struck by an excellent thought. He slides his legs out from between Evgeni’s, lifting them and wrapping them about Evgeni’s waist to pull them closer together. Evgeni grunts as he permits his hips to fall against Sidney’s, and they settle together for a long moment, bodies pressed tight against each other, heartbeats aligning until they thrum as one.

“I wish to take time for my own exploration of your physique, but I find a more urgent need arising,” Evgeni says before hesitating. “And I must ask if you intend to-- finish the full consummation of our union,” he says as he flushes, dropping his eyes to avoid Sidney’s gaze.

“I will not pressure you into what you are not prepared for,” Sidney says immediately, running a hand soothingly up and down Evgeni’s back. “I am more than willing to wait until you have readied yourself for-- ah-- penetration,” Sidney whispers at last, feeling his own face mirroring the flush on Evgeni’s.

Evgeni falls against Sidney even further, tucking his face into the soft spot between Sidney’s neck and shoulder. “I must admit that I have not done well by you, husband,” Evgeni mumbles, and Sidney’s heart kicks into anxious beating. “I-- I knew that a condition of our marriage would be that I would serve you in our union in all ways, and so I thought to prepare myself in advance of the wedding and train my body to accept you. Though we did not consummate our union immediately, I could not cease my shameful habit, so greatly did it please me. I beg your forgiveness for sullying the act that is meant to be shared between us as husbands alone.”

Sidney cannot respond immediately, heart pounding now from the thought of Evgeni exploring his own body, unexpectedly finding desire and guiltily pursuing it again and again. He recalls the night, not even a week ago now, where Evgeni took himself in hand in their bed; had he slept through other events, Evgeni attempting not to shake the bed frame and wake Sidney as he writhed upon his own fingers, arching in quiet pleasure before collapsing, exhausted? Sidney’s cock twitches at the thought, pressing briefly against Evgeni’s, and he has to swallow several times before becoming able to speak again. “If you demand my forgiveness, I can think of only one way that you shall earn it,” Sidney says slowly, and Evgeni falls completely still against him, not even breathing in anticipation of Sidney’s words. Sidney turns his head to whisper directly into Evgeni’s ear and finishes, “You must show me what you have learned, how I can bring you to the highest peak of ecstasy, and then once I have perfected this knowledge, I shall call the matter settled.”

Evgeni gasps against Sidney’s skin, pushing himself up onto his elbows to look searchingly into Sidney’s face. “Do you speak honestly? You are not angry with me?”

“How could I be?” Sidney asks, baffled. “You have acted in the best interest in our marriage, and found your own satisfaction besides. I am not without sin myself, and if you are damned by fulfilling your needs, then so am I.”

Evgeni sighs gustily, relaxing against Sidney and hiding his face again. “Thank you,” he mumbles, and Sidney guffaws.

“If anything, I should be thanking you,” Sidney says. “Now I do not have to stand upon noble actions and suppress my carnal desires, but rather I can bring you the greatest pleasure as you educate me to your needs.” He can feel Evgeni shake his head, smiling into his neck before kissing it gently.

“Oddities and all,” Evgeni repeats fondly before sitting up, settling his weight on Sidney’s hips as he looks down from his now-greater height. “How do you wish to proceed?” he asks, idly trailing a finger down Sidney’s chest.

“As I said before-- you must show me how I can delight you,” Sidney says, feeling gooseflesh arise even at the slightest touch that Evgeni gives him. “I shall follow your lead, and you shall direct us both to our mutual satisfaction.”

Evgeni flattens his hand, the broad center of his palm pressing against Sidney’s nipple, and Sidney ends his statement on a whine. Evgeni tips his head as he considers something, before nodding to himself and standing. Sidney rolls onto his side to admire Evgeni’s back, strong and tapered so nicely from his shoulders down to his pert buttocks, as he walks over to his trunk and opens it, bending to dig through it. Sidney licks his lips at the display and the first sight of the dark secret hidden in the depths of Evgeni’s posterior, framed from below by his bollocks. He does not disguise his leering as Evgeni straightens and turns about, a large, square vial in his hand. Evgeni’s manhood bounces with each step as he returns to the bed, and Sidney is struck by a strong mixture of mirth and arousal at the sight.

“What is that?” Sidney asks in an attempt to stave off his laughter as Evgeni lies down next to him.

“Petrolatum,” he says briefly, removing the cap of the container. Sidney’s eyebrows raise; petrolatum is rare and expensive, even five years after its invention, yet famed for its lubrication properties. A vial of that size would cost an impressive amount, and now that the cap has been removed, he can see that it is nearly half-empty, evidence of Evgeni’s previous and personal experimentation. Evgeni looks between the vial and Sidney’s face before continuing, “I suppose you expect me to demonstrate for you?”

“I would appreciate it,” Sidney says, suddenly breathless, and Evgeni scoops up some of the petrolatum, quickly coating three fingers of his right hand. He still faces Sidney, though, so as he arches his back and reaches around behind himself, Sidney cannot see anything of interest, and he inadvertently makes a dissatisfied noise. He does not wish to dissuade Evgeni, but-- the thought of watching, of seeing the movement of Evgeni’s hand as he pleasured himself--

Evgeni must see in his face his distress, for he carefully rolls, propping himself upon one elbow and his knees and raising his posterior. Sidney sits up, greedy, and rests his hand upon Evgeni’s buttock as he watches Evgeni’s clever finger circle his hole, the skin already glistening from the petrolatum. He teases at the tight flower of muscle, barely dipping in and withdrawing several times, massaging gently as the rim before finally, achingly slowly, pushing a finger in, up to the first knuckle, then the second, then until it is fully seated.

Sidney realizes he is panting, open-mouthed, as he watches Evgeni begin to move his hand, sharply twisting his torso so that he can drive his finger as deep as possible. Sidney can hear Evgeni’s breath deepening as well, a quick exhale accompanying each of the powerful movements of his hand. Sidney leans closer, until he can smell the rich musk of Evgeni and sex, his hands creeping inwards on Evgeni’s buttocks until they nearly touch the rim of his hole.

“Will you assist me, or shall you watch until I reach completion?” Evgeni grits out between thrusts, and Sidney scrambles for the vial of petrolatum, nearly tipping it in his haste. He coats his left hand messily, surely staining the sheets with the driblets that fall, before returning to Evgeni’s side. “Just one, to begin,” Evgeni instructs, removing his hand and bracing himself more securely against the bed. “Slowly, and then in the rhythm I used.”

His last admonition is unnecessary; Sidney is so enraptured that he cannot go quickly in fear of missing some sensation or reaction. First, he thumbs Evgeni’s rim, fascinated by the quick flutter of muscle in response, before slowly increasing the pressure until he breaches Evgeni’s hole, sinking his finger in nearly halfway. He is surrounded by slickness and warmth, and his eyes cross as he imagines such a feeling about his cock.

It is not long before Evgeni grunts, pushing his rump up and back until Sidney’s finger is fully within him. He curls it gently, curiously, and Evgeni shouts, stiffening instantly. Sidney removes his finger, a thousand apologies on his lips, but Evgeni harshly says, “No, again!”

Sidney cautiously obeys, questing with his finger until he finds the spot again, Evgeni crying out and shaking in response. He can just barely see the tip of Evgeni’s cock, and it leaks with every press of Sidney’s finger, inspiring a greater hardness of his own. Evgeni groans, “Don’t-- if you wish for me to last, you must-- stop this, and instead use two fingers, quickly.”

Time seems to disappear under the haze of passion,and soon enough, Sidney plunges three fingers into Evgeni as Evgeni writhes and heaves out great, sobbing breaths. “Enough, enough,” Evgeni begs, and Sidney pulls back, gritting his teeth. It is nowhere near enough for him, but he must respect and obey. “Now your cock,” Evgeni says into the silence, and Sidney could weep with joy. The petrolatum left on his hands is enough to slick his manhood, and Evgeni falls to the bed and rolls onto his back while Sidney busies himself.

They catch each other’s gaze as Sidney walks on his knees to settle between Evgeni’s legs, and they smile at each other, Evgeni reaching out his right hand. Sidney catches it with his left, their fingers slipping from the petrolatum before they grasp tightly enough to overcome it. “I wish to see you,” Evgeni confesses quietly, and Sidney leans forward to kiss him upon the mouth.

“As do I,” he says, letting go of Evgeni’s hand so that he can balance himself more securely. He wraps a hand about his manhood, settling into the cradle of Evgeni’s hips as he lines up their bodies. The head of his cock fits neatly against Evgeni’s hole, and he nudges gently, relishing the anticipation. It’s only when Evgeni impatiently kicks him in the side, giving him a frustrated pout, that he pushes enough to enter.

Sidney pauses, and they tremble together under the force of their first true connection as husbands. Sidney bites his lip, the sharp shock bringing him back to earth and control so that he does not immediately reach ecstasy. Evgeni smoothes his finger across Sidney’s lip until he releases it and then rumbles, “More, Sidney. Please.” Sidney sinks in, until his bollocks brush against the curve of Evgeni’s buttocks, and another gentle kick from Evgeni against the side of his hip startles him into pulling out partially.

“Do you ever intend to fuck me?” Evgeni asks, exasperated, and Sidney frowns at him.

“I will not rush, for I have no intentions of hurting you,” Sidney soothes.

“Consider me unhurt, and show me that you know the function of your cock,” Evgeni says, and Sidney sighs. “You asked that I guide you,” Evgeni reminds him, and Sidney laughs.

“And so I have learned my lesson that you are a harsh taskmaster,” he teases, interrupting any response by thrusting quickly until he is again fully seated.

“Faster,” Evgeni demands, and Sidney follows, though it is difficult to focus in the face of overwhelming sensation, the warmth and tightness of Evgeni’s hole. “Lower,” Evgeni says next, and Sidney pauses, confused.

“What?” he says, all eloquence gone, and Evgeni lifts a leg to sling over Sidney’s shoulder.

“Like this, now move!”

Sidney grasps Evgeni’s leg close as he thrusts, and that is apparently the correct move, as Evgeni begins to gasp and moan quickly under Sidney’s ministrations. Sidney pants harshly; it is too much, too fast, and he gasps, “My love--” as he orgasms, burying himself deep within Evgeni and spending his seed. He braces both hands upon the bed, head hanging between his shoulders as he blinks the dazzle from his eyes, buried under pleasure.

When he goes to pull out, however, Evgeni wraps his legs about Sidney’s rump and hisses, “No!” At Sidney’s questioning looks, he adds, “I wish for you to still be within me when I reach my own finish.”

Sidney shudders, his cock already growing sensitive, but leans forward dutifully to attempt to remain within Evgeni. Evgeni grasps his cock, hand moving quickly upon it, and Sidney kisses him, loose and open-mouthed, until he arches and stiffens. His hole throbs around Sidney’s cock, and Sidney whines, the sensation simultaneously too much and not enough, feeling every wave of Evgeni’s pleasure in the most intimate of ways.

Sidney collapses upon Evgeni as his softened manhood finally slips free, and they curl together in silence, Sidney slipping into and out of a light slumber.

Sidney can faintly hear the clock in the drawing room chime ten o’clock when he fully awakens again, and he shifts in Evgeni’s arms until they face each other. Evgeni is awake first, as he was this morning, but now his face is slack with pleasure and love instead of creased with worry. Sidney leans forward to kiss him softly, close-mouthed, and they settle together, briefly content with the simple embrace.

“I am sure that you are aware that in Russia, we have many forms of our names,” Evgeni says into the quiet between them.

“Yes, Alexander Alexandrovich introduced me to the proper forms of address when we were at Oxford,” Sidney says. “I am given to understand that ‘Sasha’ is somehow the diminutive of Alexander, for example.”

“That it is,” Evgeni says. “It is better not to ask how the diminutive is made, for I fear many times there is no logic to it. For Evgeni, you would say Zhenya, or Zhen’ka.”

“Would I?” Sidney asks quietly, suddenly unsure. It is easy to use simple endearments, but something so personal gives Sidney pause-- does he have the right?

“It would please me greatly,” Evgeni says. “But, as in all things, it is your decision.”

“As in all things, it is our decision,” Sidney corrects firmly, and belatedly adds, “Zhenya.” Evgeni pulls him closer, kissing at the back of his neck softly, and each press of his lips feels like the words I love you written into his skin. “But what shall you call me?” Sidney asks. He-- to have a name that only Evgeni calls him, not just the general endearments they have used thus far, fills him with such a joy, and yet to ask of it seems quite forward.

Evgeni hums consideringly. “I regret to inform you, Sidney is not a traditional Russian name,” he says solemnly, and Sidney elbows him gently until he laughs. “But I suppose, were I to invent something, I would say… Sid’ka, or Sidya, perhaps?” The S in both is more angular than how he usually speaks Sidney’s name, but the second flows from his tongue musically, and it is an easy decision.

“Sidya,” Sidney says, and he can feel Evgeni nod against his back.

“As you desire, Sidya,” Evgeni replies, and Sidney again is flooded with a depth of love that he could not have imagined a week ago. He wishes to never leave this bed, to always soak in their connection, and indeed, they spend nearly the entire day in that way, leaving the bed only to fetch food or drink from the drawing room before returning. They return to the bathing room instead of eating dinner, after Evgeni has reduced Sidney to nothing but moans and weak knees, pulling from him an orgasm so strong that his eyes tear up. Sidney collapses into the bed after Evgeni gently dries him off, falling into a boneless sleep as Evgeni climbs into the bed to join him.

They awaken from their satiated stupors at half past ten, the sun long set, and they send the steamserv piled high with dinner gone cold back to the kitchens for a more palatable repast. Likely in a fit of pique, the kitchen returns cold cuts and hard boiled eggs and bread for their new meal, though neither of them give it any mind. They are too absorbed in each other, blushing like a newly courting couple as they make eyes across the table. Evgeni puckishly prods Sidney’s foot with his own, starting a sub-table battle that leaves them both chortling breathlessly.

When the tray is nothing but crumbs and they have exhausted the foot-war, they move to the window seat, Evgeni settling down first in what has become their established position, pulling Sidney down to curl within his arms. They sit in peaceful silence for some time, Sidney’s cheek tucked up against Evgeni’s chest and his heart filled with a gentle joy.

Sidney’s good humor begins to dissipate as he considers their return to Toronto. Their time in Cole Harbor, though not yet over, already begins to feel as if a dream. He cannot help but wonder if the love and peace they have found together will shatter under the weight of court. Sidney’s greatest fear, though, is that Evgeni will return to his old travelling ways, leaving Sidney on his own for weeks at a time. Though Evgeni has been forthcoming about his research, Sidney cannot recall a time in which he explained his desperate need to return to Russia so regularly. Surely his peers and scientific equipment could be brought to Canada and placed in the steam lab in Toronto with little trouble, and his trips made redundant.

“Zhenya,” Sidney says, a quiet thrill running through him at speaking the diminutive. “I must inquire how you intend to progress with your research when we return to Toronto.”

Evgeni starts, and when Sidney twists to look into his face, his expression is guilty. “Do you hear my thoughts as they take life in my mind?” he asks.

Sidney nudges him with an elbow. “Not yet, husband, but I am sure that such a skill will be ours soon enough,” he says. “So then you think of your peers and your work?”

“I admit my mind wanders in that direction, yes. I have… some concern for my colleagues, with myself out of contact for so long.” He shifts uncomfortably, and Sidney frowns.

“Why do you worry so?” Sidney asks. “Surely they are capable of operating your scientific equipment themselves.”

“That is not the concern,” Evgeni says, and a long silence falls. Sidney turns again to face him, and he looks worried, brow creased as he chews at his lip uncharacteristically. Sidney reaches up, delicately running his fingertips along Evgeni’s lip until he lets go of the tender flesh and Sidney can lean forward to place a soft, fluttering kiss upon it.

“Tell me,” Sidney says as persuasively as he can, and Evgeni sighs heavily.

“I admit that I have not been fully truthful about my research,” he finally says, voice low and regretful, and discomfort jolts through Sidney. “The details of it have been accurate, but I have not been clear about the application as I did not wish to burden you.

“I am your husband,” Sidney says fiercely. “It is no burden when it is something I must know to care for you and act in your best interest!”

“I understand that now,” soothes Evgeni. “But I had no intention of disturbing our bliss with such talk once I made that discovery. Now is the time for honesty, though, and I shall tell you all. We have discovered something that could be an amazing tool for mining and land-clearing, but equally so used as a weapon. There are certain parties in Russia that I believe are interested in re-starting the war machine that our marriage put to bed, and they feel that our particular discovery is the perfect way to do so. An explosive made of our material, placed in the correct place at the correct time, could annihilate the majority of the court of Russia or Britain without any sign of the culprit.”

Sidney gasps, horrified images of the London court burning to the ground coalescing in his mind. “But-- is not black powder or the new Dynamite equally as capable as such destruction?” he asks.

Evgeni shakes his head. “Black powder is too unstable; the slightest mistake will result in a misfire, and the amount needed to cause significant damage would be impossible to hide. Dynamite is even more dangerous, as a shock as simple as a drop from waist-height can cause it to fire. Our material is incredibly inert until the correct conditions occur, and explodes far more vigorously and completely than anything else in existence. A bomb the size of my fists together could turn the Toronto ballroom to rubble and kill anyone standing inside.”

A bomb that small could be hidden in a woman’s skirts easily, or tucked beneath a table that no one would notice, and Sidney sways under that horrifying thought. “Did you intend to create such a weapon of war?” he whispers, and Evgeni instantly shakes his head and shouts, “No!”

He takes a few breaths to calm himself before continuing, “We only wished to help the miners that risk their lives daily in the earth about Magnitogorsk, my home city, to bring up iron ore and create the steel that permits the advancement of society. It was not until war loomed on the horizon that we realized the full potential of what we had created. I return so frequently to attempt to protect my colleagues, who have even less political clout than myself, and also to contribute towards our research for safeguards that would prevent our material to be used in war.”

“And so, in being away from them for the time we have spent together, you fear for their safety?” Sidney asks, attempting to understand deeper.

“There is someone on our heels, desperate to acquire our scientific knowledge and use it for ill, as I have said. I do not know who, other than they have friends in powerful places, if they are not in a powerful place themselves. Keeping myself and my colleagues alive and safe has occupied all of my attention, leaving us helpless to prevent further attacks or discover who pursues us. They grow nearer to us each day, and we have moved our labs more than once to prevent discovery though that is only forestalling the inevitable, I fear.”

“So… you expect to return to Russia with the frequency that you have previously,” Sidney asks, heart sinking deep in his chest. Even now that he understands Evgeni’s motivations, he still greedily wishes to keep Evgeni to himself, to know that he is no further than a summons away during the day and always present in their bed at night.

Evgeni’s expression is anguished as he bows his head. “I know of no other solution, dearest,” he says, pain lacing his words. “I love you and wish to spend every moment in joy with you, but I must protect my colleagues from danger and the world from war.”

“You, you, you,” Sidney says, sharper than he intends, and Evgeni’s head jerks up in surprise and shock, his expression injured at Sidney’s tone. “All that I hear you say is ‘you,’ but are we not married? Am I not your husband, the head of our household, tasked with protecting our family from all that threatens it?” Evgeni nods unsteadily as Sidney belligerently stares him down, awaiting an answer. “Then it is settled,” Sidney declares. “We shall resolve this issue forthwith. What must we do in order to relocate your colleagues to Toronto with us and ensure that this mysterious troublemaker is not permitted to restart war between our countries?”

Evgeni stares dumbly back at Sidney’s expectant look. “Are you-- You are indeed serious,” he says, half-questioning, and Sidney nods. “I have not overly contemplated such potentials, for I spend all of my time and energy scrambling to ensure that tomorrow comes safely,” he admits. “But I am grateful for your support and willingly accept it.”

“Then we have all of tomorrow to devise a plan,” Sidney replies. He settles his hand upon Evgeni’s chest, looking coyly up through his eyelashes as he smiles. “Now, until then, I have thought of a few ways to amuse ourselves and pass the time.”

“Have you,” Evgeni asks dryly, a smile of his own creasing his face joyfully. Sidney wraps his arms about Evgeni’s neck and pulls him down as they passionately kiss.

------

Sidney is the first to awake the next morning, Evgeni fast asleep and snoring lightly beside him. Evgeni’s sloth serves Sidney well; he tucks a robe about his waist and pads out to the drawing room, settling at the table and picking at the remains of their cold dinner as he sets pen to paper. The words flow more smoothly than he expects, rising from within his heart to glisten in ink on the paper before him.

My Darling Evgeni,

I cannot apologize enough for my poor manners yesterday eve. Though it is no excuse, I admit my sharpness was born of fear: fear for your life, but also fear of failing you. The thought that you could not trust me with such momentous information drove me to a brief madness, a horrible panic that our new happiness would be extinguished due to my own behavior. That, compounded with the news of the danger you face, was altogether too much of a burden for my composure to survive. I hope that you can accept my sincere apology and vow that I will not speak in such a manner to you again.

Our time together-- truly together, not the mockery of marriage that we perpetrated for six months-- has made me realize how deeply I desired a partner, an equal who was capable of driving me to greater heights while bringing joy into my life. I have no doubt in my mind that you are the partner that God himself has fashioned for me, the perfect match to my soul. My future once stood barren and empty, yet now it fills with the quiet dreams of companionship and family. There is nothing more that I wish for in this world than to spend my life tending to your happiness, to solve our individual affairs as partners, and to raise together whatever heirs that God bestows upon us.

And although we cannot create heirs in the most direct manner-- I must also admit that my dreams for the future include continuing our husbandly services to each other nonetheless. Even the thought of the touch of your hand upon my skin excites me, and the act itself still elicits a rush of pleasure like no other. Written upon my very soul is the sounds of your pleasure and mine intermingling, and each time I close my eyes, I see only your face, shaped by pleasure, as you gift me with your seed. Given the choice, I would decree that we shall spend the next year in bed together, until I know intimately how every touch affects you, how to bring you to the greatest heights again and again, until we have been unmade and re-formed with pleasure.

Do you see how my hand trembles through the shake of my writing, darling? I must end here, before I waste the gift of my pleasure that is meant to be yours. Know that my passion and my love for you are both boundless, and I live to serve you as the best husband that I can be for our entire lives.

Yours, deeply and truly,

Sidya

Sidney sets this letter aside, ears burning with the thrill of writing such a brazen conclusion, and continues his obligations for the morning to settle his blood. The next item is to write a note to the staff to deliver a telegram to his parents, followed by the message itself: NO ANNULMENT STOP URGENT BUSINESS IN RUSSIA DEPART DIRECTLY FROM CH. The rest of the note is the details of how the dirigible must be prepared for a journey to Russia rather than Toronto, and he silently apologizes to the airship captain for the chaos Sidney is surely causing with these orders on the day before their departure.

Sidney sends off the note to the servants before rising to place Evgeni’s letter beside him in their bed and dressing himself. He is comfortably tucked up in the sofa of the drawing room, scheming, when Evgeni stumbles forth from the bedroom at half past ten. He intently searches the room with the focus of the still sleep-muddled before his eyes land on Sidney watching him with a gentle fondness glowing within. He heads directly to the sofa, collapsing onto Sidney and wrapping his arms about Sidney’s side, burying his nose in the side of Sidney’s neck.

“Good morning,” Sidney says, amused, and hears the crinkle of paper as Evgeni shifts slightly. “I take it you found the letter?”

“Yes,” Evgeni mumbles directly into Sidney’s neck, lips grazing upon the soft, sensitive skin at the join of nape and shoulder, and Sidney shudders in response, body awakening quickly.

“You must focus,” Sidney scolds, and he can feel Evgeni’s lips curl lasciviously against his skin.

“I am indeed quite focused,” Evgeni says eagerly, and Sidney groans.

“You must focus on preventing war and rescuing your colleagues,” Sidney says, exasperated.

“I offer merely a small diversion from the matter at hand,” Evgeni attempts. “After all, I am driven to these activities only by the sweet words you offered in your letter to me.” Sidney purses his lips, debating the wisdom of putting action to his words in the letter, before running his hand through the hair at the back of Evgeni’s head and using that to drag him upright.

“Oh, Sidya,” Evgeni says appreciatively, eyes darkening as he licks his lips. “I had no idea that you were willing to take such a firm hand with me.”

Sidney has to close his eyes briefly against the outpouring of desire at the thought of taking Evgeni in hand in such a way. Evgeni, so dutiful, waiting patiently for a command, permitting Sidney to handle him roughly-- “Zhenya dearest, I appreciate your passion, but there is much time for that later. We depart upon the morrow to Russia, and I hope to have some idea of a strategy prepared before we board the airship, so that any last arrangements can be made while we are still able to use the telegraph.”

Evgeni sighs heavily, as if Sidney tries his patience greatly, but settles backwards in the couch so that he can face Sidney squarely. “What do you wish to know?”

“I can be of greatest benefit in discovering who attempts to steal your invention to restart war,” Sidney says musingly. “My face is not well known in London, let alone in further courts, and I can easily masquerade as a British discontent, perhaps a war profiteer, or even an U.E. manufacturer looking for a new country to destroy. I could propose a partnership, but I need some way of communicating with those who hunt you.”

“Perhaps your first step is to send a cable to Alexander Alexandrovich?” Evgeni suggests. “He is well-connected within St. Petersburg, and surely if any has heard gossip of those seeking war, it will be him.”

“But your pursuer is in Magnitogorsk now, is he not?” Sidney asks. “Will Sasha know of activity some distance away?”

“SIxteen hundred kilometers between Magnitogorsk and St. Petersburg,” Evgeni muses. “A twelve hour flight by fastest airship, sixteen hours by rail if the tracks are not snowed. Russia may be large, but everything worth knowing passes through the ears of St. Petersburg with great haste. Magnitogorsk is a mean city, with little of note aside from the mining camp and steel works, and a rich visitor is always noted, so I doubt he has hidden well within the city. More likely he has spies of his own reporting back via cable as he rests comfortably in St. Petersburg.”

“So-- do we depart to St. Petersburg, or Magnitogorsk?” Sidney asks, worrying at the end of his pen with his teeth. He is used to the little machinations of court, but this is a new level of subterfuge, and he cannot help but fret. Evgeni reaches forward to gently pull at the pen, taking it from Sidney’s hand and placing it on the sofa between them.

“We shall go to Magnitogorsk first. The only safe way to move the laboratory surreptitiously is via rail; we have plans in place to escape Magnitogorsk, though they were meant to be a last resort. Once the train is loaded, we can delay it in a safe place between cities while you and I return to St. Petersburg to expose the warmonger. Then, once he is neutralized, we can release the train to arrive in St. Petersburg, meet us, and bring the laboratory to wherever we wish.” Evgeni speaks plainly, as if the deeds will be as simple as the words.

“And I am sure that all shall go to plan, with such vague details,” Sidney says, and Evgeni rolls his eyes rudely but leans forward to take Sidney’s hands into his own. The motion immediately comforts Sidney, so common is it between them now, and he is grateful for the gesture even as irritation bubbles within him at Evgeni’s lack of concern.

“I believe that together, we can conquer any enemy that stands before us,” Evgeni says, voice and gaze unwavering with his faith. “And surely any detailed plan created in haste will just as quickly evaporate once we arrive in Russia and assess the situation.”

“Fine,” Sidney declares, already plotting to return to the discussion while they are aboard the airship to Russia. “Ah-- but you say bring the laboratory to wherever we wish. Do you not wish for it to come to Toronto with you?” What a disaster that would be-- it would completely nullify the entire purpose of the rescue mission, in his eyes.

“I-- do not wish for you to feel obliged to host my colleagues and our laboratory,” Evgeni admits, and Sidney returns his earlier rudeness of eye-rolling.

“I assure you, the offer was made in nothing but good faith, and I will truly be disappointed should you choose to relocate your laboratory and colleagues elsewhere,” Sidney says. At Evgeni’s raised eyebrows, he adds, “Is it not clear to you that I am motivated by greed? I have no interest in you departing from my side for any more than hours at a time, if even that. The thought alone of you regularly taking journeys so far from me leaves me ill.”

“I feel no differently, my love,” Evgeni says, smiling gently, and Sidney feels a blush suffuse his face at Evgeni’s tender expression. “Rest assured, I will never part from your side again as I have in the past should I have any choice in the matter. We will bring them to Toronto.”

“Good,” Sidney says, and they smile at each other for a long minute, lost in each other’s eyes. He is sharply reminded of Pride and Prejudice and the eventual reconciliation between Elisabeth and Mr. Darcy, where love overcomes their individual faults, and it rings absurdly true to his and Evgeni’s past week. He is jolted from their tenderness as he recalls the urgency of their actions, and he exclaims, “Oh! I must send a telegram to Sasha, it would not do to drop in unannounced!” He scrambles up under Evgeni’s long-suffering noises to fetch another paper and summon another steamserv to deliver the note to the servants.

Knowing what awaits them upon the morrow, the rest of their final day spent in blissful isolation becomes something precious, a stolen moment that Sidney etches into his heart. They laze about, filling the time with gentle touches and soft conversation, ignoring the reality of the challenge they will soon face.

------

Sidney bursts forth from the airship, dragging a long, deep breath of fresh air into his lungs. The sun sits free of the horizon, shining with weak warmth down on them, and Sidney cannot even express his relief at freedom. Boarding the airship directly after their confinement felt like nothing more of the same, and no matter his blossoming affection for Evgeni-- and the many new ways that they could and did pass the time-- a man has needs for fresh air and space.

“I am glad that your love is so strong for me that you run away at the first opportunity, Sidya,” Evgeni says dryly, and Sidney makes a rude face at him.

“Perhaps I trusted that you would follow,” Sidney needles in return, stepping back to offer his arm gallantly to Evgeni. “Shall we, husband?”

“We shall, husband,” Evgeni responds, and as they step off, a mighty whoop sounds. A man runs towards them, stocky in build like Sidney, though far more exuberant in attitude. Sidney drops Evgeni’s arm and steps sideways in front of him, chin jutted forth and hands fisted, ready to raise and engage in the gentleman’s sport to protect Evgeni. Instead, Evgeni grabs Sidney’s upper arms below his shoulders and moves him aside, throwing himself forward to embrace the approaching man. They shout enthusiastically at each other in Russian, too quick for Sidney to follow, before Evgeni joshes the man roughly and turns to face Sidney.

“Darling, this is Alexander Mikhailovich Ovechkin, a rogue and a cad of the highest order. Sasha, watch your manners, for this is my husband, Prince Sidney of Canada, Duke of Nova Scotia.”

Alexander eyes Sidney up rakishly, lips pursed, before he says, “So, I must speculate that you--” and is cut off by Evgeni hissing and throwing a blow at him. The simmering fight is interrupted by the arrival of another man, who clears his throat from his position behind Evgeni and Alexander. They pause like guilty children caught in the act, hands lowering slowly as they adopt expressions of innocence.

“And for the final introduction, this is Sergei Viktorovich Gonchar. Seryozha, this is my husband, Prince Sidney of Canada, Duke of Nova Scotia.”

“Welcome,” Sergei says, measured, and Sidney nods in acknowledgement. “Now, if you two have had enough of acting as boys rather than gentlemen, I would suggest that we go forth and break our fasts.”

As they alight in a carriage and ride to the laboratory, Sidney watches Evgeni in his element, fascinated. Gone is the reticent engineer of the first six months of their marriage, replaced by the vivacious and playful man that Sidney had begun to uncover in their week together.

Breakfast is an impromptu affair within the massive, echoing space of the laboratory, hidden deep within the manufacturing district of the city. At the far end of the laboratory from a table-- obviously hastily wiped down, as it is still touched with soot-- stands a massive, fat-bellied metal container mounted on two sturdy legs, one to each side, presumably so that it can tip. It is more than twice Sidney’s height, sitting amidst a radius of blackened brick, and it points an angled mouth towards a massive hole in the wall, currently covered by what looks to be an oiled sail.

“‘Tis the bessemer converter I have told you of,” Evgeni says lowly into Sidney’s ear as he stares at the crouching metallic beast.

“It is more impressive in stature than I imagined,” Sidney admits as Evgeni leads him to the table filled with a simple breakfast spread.

“Our converter is much smaller than those used to produce steel,” Alexander says offhandedly as he drops inelegantly into a chair and tears into a loaf of bread, and Sidney feels his eyes bulge in surprise.

“How much larger are the converters used for steel?” he asks breathlessly, attempting to imagine a behemoth greater than the one before him.

Alexander snorts, leaning back in his chair with his chosen piece of bread held aloft. “Three stories high at least, they stand,” he says, and Sidney gasps. “Our is very small, the smallest it can be while still functional. A full size converter, you would walk beneath the vessel without bowing your head, and the blow creates a flame more than ten meters in length while refining a heat of thirty tons.”

Sidney stares at the converter, attempting to imagine a flame spouting from it, and the other three launch immediately into some conversation far beyond Sidney’s ken. He cranes his neck to inspect the lab as he eats, seeing ingots of metal scattered about, an entire table nearly twenty feet long filled with intricate clockwork designs, and in the far corner from the converter, massive glass jugs and copper rods.

His curiosity apparently does not go un-noticed; when the table has been cleared of all but crumbs, Sergei says, “Your Royal Highness, I see you have much interest in your surroundings.”

“Please, no titles are necessary between friends,” Sidney says firmly, and Evgeni’s eyes light as his hand gropes towards Sidney to grasp and squeeze it tightly. “But yes, I admit a great curiosity in my husband’s work. He has explained the very basics to me, but perhaps I can stretch my technical knowledge to understand the entire design now that I may touch it and see it.”

“Well then, come along!” Alexander says jovially, leaping to his feet and dashing to the long table in the middle of the lab. “Here, this one is complete enough to see the spirit but not fully encased.” When the others join him, he hands Sidney a contraption slightly larger than both of his fists together. A partial metal skin holds within it  a cylindrical ingot of metal, shining with a strange, flat grey color, next to a complicated clockwork mechanism.

“Here you see our alloy, which is the most brilliant aspect of the bomb,” Alexander enthuses, stroking his fingers lightly against its mottled texture. “It is like no other alloy we have seen before. When struck with electricity, it expands rapidly, like a great internal pressure is formed by the interaction. Yet without electricity applied, it is completely stable, unlike black powder or the new nitroglycerin.”

“Have you named the alloy?” Sidney asks, and Sergei shrugs.

“We have been calling it an electrical pressure metal,” he says. “But we are more concerned with other matters than a name.”

“Piezo,” Sidney says thoughtfully, and in response to the curious noises he gets, he clarifies, “It means to squeeze or to press in Greek. Perhaps it is then a piezoelectric metal?”

Alexander gives Evgeni a significant look, eyebrows raised, before saying, “It is as good of a name as any, and so I believe we shall use it-- ‘piezoelectric.’” Whatever he is attempting to communicate via eyebrow semaphore results in Evgeni flushing and clearing his throat.

“I am sure Sidney is interested in hearing of the application of electricity to the material,” Evgeni says significantly, and Alexander shakes his head but continues.

“In order to safely deploy the explosion, I have created a clockwork mechanism that can be set for various amounts of time,” he says, pointing to the winder. “A single full turn corresponds to ten minutes of delay before detonation, and the clockwork can be wound a maximum of six times for an hours’ delay. The clockwork nears this condenser here--” he points to a small, well-wrapped cylinder with wires protruding from each end, “a paper and foil condenser, which stores the electricity. When it touches the alloy, it discharges the electricity, and BOOM!” he shouts, Sidney startling so greatly that he nearly drops the mechanism. “It detonates!” Alexander finishes with a great smile, catching the mechanism and taking it back from Sidney.

“How large of an explosion would a mechanism of that size produce?” Sidney asks, and the other three exchange a glance.

“Incredibly large,” Alexander hedges. “I cannot say for sure, but I know that it could destroy this building very easily, and likely many around it. The converter would be the only item not totally destroyed, and even then, it would be severely damaged, cracked and unmounted from its legs at the very least.”

Sidney closes his eyes; in the wrong hands, the explosive could destroy nations in mere seconds. He opens his eyes as he feels a gentle touch as his elbow, and Evgeni again grasps Sidney’s hand, though this time in comfort rather than gratefulness. “And so we arrive to the purpose of our visit,” Evgeni says solemnly. “Sidney and I are here to prevent our pursuer from success and stave off war. We must relocate our laboratory and all of us to safety.”

“We shall only be followed by our pursuer, as we have so many times discussed before,” Sergei says, folding his arms as he frowns. “I fail to see how the situation has changed.”

“It has changed because I am here,” Sidney says, leaning sideways into the comforting presence of Evgeni. “I have my own allies within St. Petersburg that can assist us, and Canada shall provide you safe haven. We are ready to turn the chase back upon your pursuers and foil their plots.”

“No, we will not leave,” Alexander says immediately. “We are safest here, where we know our surroundings and our neighbors. No secret police lurk here, no mouse moves without us knowing, and all other locations hold mystery and danger.”

“You will leave,” Evgeni says firmly. “This is not a request, Sasha, this is what we must do to survive and prevent war. We have come to assist in executing the escape, so that you and our knowledge are safe before Sidya and I travel to St. Petersburg.”

Alexander and Sergei protest long and loud, but by noon, a railcar sits beside the building, waiting to be filled with the contents of the lab. Sidney removes his jacket and rolls up his shirtsleeves as he assists in loading the equipment, Alexander ordering him about mercilessly. They are finished by five o’clock, all four of them streaked in soot and grease and sweat. Sidney wipes at his forehead with the back of his arm-- his palms are coated in filth-- as he surveys the gutted laboratory. The others come to a halt next to him, and they stand in silence for a long moment.

“‘Tis a shame to leave behind such a fine converter,” Segei finally says, looking up at it mournfully.

“Another can be found once we arrive in Toronto,” Evgeni soothes. “What else must you have to prepare to depart?”

“Ksenia and Natalie and Victoria,” Sergei says immediately, and at Sidney’s curious look, he says, “my wife and daughters.”

“And perhaps also such practical matters as food and clothing,” Alexander adds dryly. “You find your family, I will acquire provisions, and we shall leave the lovebirds to guard the laboratory.”

Evgeni and Sidney sit in quiet exhaustion as Alexander and Sergei depart, tipping nearer and nearer until all that holds each up is the other. Sidney craves more, though, and twists his fingers through Evgeni’s, holding tight as they rest. Soon, they will load the final items into the railcar and send Alexander and Sergei and Sergei’s family off, to a secret waypoint between both cities, but until then, they soak in a calm moment in the eye of the storm.

------

The bells are striking nine o’clock as they land in St. Petersburg, and Sidney groans and drags himself forth from their bed. He evades Evgeni’s hands as they sleepily reach out to pull him back into the sweet comfort of their bed, instead directing himself towards their trunks to dress himself. It takes much goading and promises of kisses to tempt Evgeni out and dressed, and they are distracted another fifteen minutes as Sidney pays his debts. Finally, they alight from the ‘ship to see Alexander Alexandrovich waiting, his usual stoic expression creased with a tiny frown.

Alexander bows and, before Sidney can greet him, says, “Your Royal Highness, Your Grace, if you please, let us retreat to my family’s townhouse for breakfast and our discussion.”

They fill the carriage ride to Alexander’s townhouse with idle gossip about schoolmates, mostly centered around Alexander’s erstwhile companion, the Count Brendan Gallagher. Apparently, he is in town on his yearly pilgrimage to visit Alexander and up to his usual trouble, at least from what Sidney can parse of Alexander’s stories. They are filled with private jokes that Sidney barely remembers, along with a few that he would swear he was not involved with, and if it is difficult for him to follow, there is no doubt that Evgeni is completely lost.

Breakfast awaits them at the townhouse, a further distraction, and it is nearly noon before they settle in and discuss that which hangs over all of their heads.

“I admit, I had heard many rumblings for months of dissatisfaction with the alliance marriage,” Alexander says, Gallagher nodding along. “Lady Fortune must smile upon us, for I caught wind of scheming very early on, and so I faced no troubles in knowing who to turn to for information. I fear it is not good; the betrayal comes at the highest level, from someone within the Third Section.”

Evgeni’s face tightens, and he turns to Sidney and says lowly, “The Third Section is accountable directly to the czar himself and contains the his personal guardians and spies. What the Third Section wishes, they get, and woe betide any that stand in their way. It is no wonder, then, that what little investigation I was able to do turned up no answers, for they are well protected and have many secret policemen at their disposal.”

“Then how do we resolve the issue once we know the culprit himself, if we battle such a power?” Sidney says, his heart sinking in his chest, and both Alexander and Evgeni shake their heads.

“One item at a time, Sidney,” Alexander scolds.

“As I have told him many times,” Evgeni says, exasperated, and Sidney cannot help but pout at him. He smiles in return, learning forward to gently buss Sidney’s forehead, and it is enough for Sidney to forgive him.

“And so the first item must be for Sidney to delve into the heart of the conspiracy,” Alexander says, pointedly returning them to the conversation.

“If you intend to soothe my worries, Alexander, I regret to inform you that you have done the opposite,” Sidney says, dread growing in his heart.

“The stage is set; protestations are fruitless,” Alexander says mercilessly. “I have acquired a pin and an address of a teahouse. At this teahouse, should you display the pin on your lapel, you shall be led to a secret study where the conspirators meet. I have on good authority the hours that the leader attends to his tearoom, and so you must approach him with offers of an alliance.”

“And why exactly would I desire an alliance?” Sidney asks. “Canada has no benefit in Britain joining the Ottomans against Russia. I fear I will be discovered as duplicitous immediately. As I have told Zhenya previously, I would prefer to disguise myself as war profiteer, or even an U.E. weapons manufacturer.”

“The answer is simple, darling,” Evgeni says, mouth pulled into a tight line. “Merely return yourself to your experience but a few weeks ago. You are much safer in pretending to be yourself-- it will be much more difficult to expose you.”

“No,” Sidney says immediately under the curious gazes of Alexander and Gallagher. “Zhenya, I cannot,” he says lowly, turning to speak directly to his husband. “To continue even a charade of rejecting you-- I cannot--”

“You must,” Evgeni says firmly. “It is the only path available to us. You must convince our enemy that you wish to be rid of me, that you attempted to have our marriage annulled but were denied. Then, your only recourse is divorce, only possible should our countries declare war on each other, which is why you have come in supplication to our enemy.”

“Zhenya,” Sidney says weakly, as Gallagher exclaims, “Excellent-- it is the perfect story!”

“May we have a moment?” Evgeni asks icily, and Alexander nods, shooing Gallagher from the room before him.

“Zhenya, I cannot do this, I cannot act as if my love for you is nonexistent,” Sidney says desperately, and Evgeni kneels before him, lifting his hand to kiss it.

“It is your decision, and I cannot do aught else but implore you to reconsider,” Evgeni says, eyes round and trusting as he looks up at Sidney. “There is much to fear, and I tremble on your behalf to consider what we ask you to do. But inaction leads to equal danger-- Sergei and Alexander being captured and the world hurtling towards war is the inevitable conclusion should we sit back now. This lie will save us all, and it is one that we know to be a falsehood inside and out. Convincing our enemy of your lack of devotion to me showcases not a rejection of me, but an ultimate act of love.”

“It is a lie that perilously skirts the truth,” Sidney whispers. “I ache at the thought of how closely we approached such a reality, and to even breathe the words feels as though I am inviting disaster and a return to the coldness between us.”

“I do not deny that we neared such a conclusion of our relationship, but we did not take that final step, and it is not our future! Because you consider doing this for me, I give you my eternal honor and love, not in spite of it. I hold you in my heart as you do me; every lie that passes your lips is wiped away by the love in which you speak them. All that you do is to protect me, to protect what family I have left, and the words you must use to do so are nothing to me.”

Sidney takes a deep and shaky breath, leaning forward with the need to feel Evgeni’s sincerity. They kiss desperately but sweetly, gentle but with an edge of worry and fear, and when he breaks the kiss, Sidney tips his forehead to touch Evgeni’s, sharing the air between them as he gathers his courage.

“I will do this for you,” Sidney says hoarsely after many minutes, and Evgeni pulls him to the floor and wraps him in an anguished embrace.

Eventually, they must pick themselves up and call for Alexander and Gallagher to rejoin them. Evgeni and Sidney tuck themselves together on a small settee, their sides pressed together from shoulder to knee as they lean against each other.

“How shall we begin?” Sidney asks, and all assembled politely ignore the tremor in his voice as he speaks.

“At some point, we will need to rely on the goodwill of His Imperial Majesty to accost and punish our enemy, as it is a matter of treason,” Evgeni says. “This has always been a challenge, for I have not the ranking to gain an audience simply, nor did I have the allies necessary to lead me to the czar.”

“It is true that Czar Nicholas is not well-loved,” Alexander says bluntly. “He has beggard the Empire with poorly thought-out wars that expand our territory, and yet he has done nothing to increase the support required to properly running of the Empire at large. He will be reluctant to take action against whomever plots for war, for I have no doubt that he has some desire to continue fighting despite how poorly the Crimean War was progressing before your marriage ended it. But should the Crown Prince of Canada come to him in regards to a traitor, I have no doubts that he would at least entertain you once and hear out your case, if only to maintain a veneer of peace with Britain.”

“Then how do we convince him quickly of our need for his support against our enemy?” Sidney asks, fingers playing nervously with the hem of his frock coat.

“I believe the greater question is, how do we convince him of our sincerity?” Evgeni counters, watching Sidney’s hand. His own hand plunges into his pocket and removes the tiny mechanism they deconstructed together, and he presses it into Sidney’s hand. The weight is satisfying as he turns it again and again in his hand, and he smiles at Evgeni in thanks.

Alexander watches the exchange with a puzzled expression. “What is that?” he finally asks, gesturing towards Sidney’s hand.

“A mere curiosity,” Evgeni dismisses. “A toy that can mimic anything it hears. I have found it is a fine plaything when my hands must remain busy.”

Alexander gapes at him. “Mimic anything it hears?” he repeats incredulously. “How-- what--” He sputters, words devolving into mere noises.

Evgeni gestures for the toy back, and Sidney returns it. He depresses one of the two buttons, and it emits their words from days earlier: "Say anything. Anything? Why do I need to speak?”

“A mere curiosity,” Gallagher says slowly, Alexander still too shocked to speak. “You ask for how we shall convince the czar of our sincerity, and you call the vehicle of our redemption a mere curiosity?”

“You can provide indisputable evidence of whomever our enemy is, speaking words of treason, and yet you did not think to mention this earlier?” Alexander asks flatly. “I could shake you! Had you planned to mention this toy at any point today? And are there any other miraculous items hidden in your pockets?”

“They contain only a letter, which is a miracle to me, but to no one else,” Evgeni says, and his glance at Sidney tells all of which letter he holds close. “I had not considered-- I apologize for not mentioning this earlier, but I truly only consider it a toy.”

“Regardless,” Sidney says loudly, forestalling the fight that threatens to boil over, “We have this ability open to us, and so we must consider it. What shall I record?”

“Whatever you can,” Alexander says. “Evgeni, how much speech can this toy hold?”

Evgeni purses his lips consideringly. “Perhaps thirty seconds, at most. Should it be left recording for too long, it will erase that which has already been remembered, so I would not suggest leaving it active for more than that amount of time.”

“That is hardly any time at all,” Sidney protests.

“Ah, but the solution is simple,” Gallagher says, leaning across the table. “People who think that they are clever love to repeat themselves. Once he has revealed his intentions to you, you must merely ask a leading question, and likely he will happily repeat himself. Then, you can be prepared, and it is quite doubtful that he will catch on to your intentions.”

“And once I acquire this evidence of treason?” Sidney asks. The possibilities to misstep seem to multiply through each discussion, not reduce, and he can feel his knuckles growing white as he clenches his fists in his anxiety.

Alexander shakes his head. “While we know that eventually, we must involve the czar, we cannot know the correct path to convincing him of our case until we know who is our enemy, especially their rank and political connections. We must reconvene with whatever information you gather and decide upon our next move. What I can do now is make arrangements for an escape, either to the Winter Palace to gain refuge from the czar, or entirely out of St. Petersburg, for all of us. Does that soothe your worry, Sidney?”

“I am not sure that anything will put my fears at ease other than knowing our enemy is safely out of our way,” Sidney says. “But I cannot argue that an escape plan is a fine idea.”

“Then that shall be my task for the day,” Alexander says. “But none of us can stand idle today; Sidney, you must appear in town tonight and behave as a man who wishes to be unmarried, should you wish to have any believability in your story to the traitor.”

“And I suppose you know of the appropriate locale where our enemy’s conspirators may see me acting indiscreetly?” Sidney asks, resigned. He wishes for nothing more than to spend the rest of this day in hiding with Evgeni, absorbing every aspect of him in case the worst happens and this is their last peaceful day together. But duty calls, and he must answer in order to preserve the chance of their future together.

“A gentleman’s club in the style of the British, populated by not only members of the Third Section but also those who benefit from war, generals and peers and bureaucrats alike,” Alexander confirms. “Your rank will gain you admittance without membership, thankfully. But you have some hours before you must appear there, for the club is busiest in the evening, and I am sure that you wish to take your ease in preparation of the difficult days ahead of us.”

“Thank you,” Sidney says gratefully, and Alexander dismisses them with a nod.

If Sidney cannot spend all of this day in the manner that he wishes, then he is determined to at least take full advantage of the few hours that he and Evgeni have. Alexander’s valet leads them to a guest room, and they sequester themselves there in a strange reflection of their time at Cole Harbor. Sidney does not speak as he removes his clothing, stripping down to his drawers and collapsing into the bed. Evgeni quickly follows his lead, curling around Sidney comfortingly after drawing up the covers.

As Evgeni embraces him tightly, Sidney murmurs, “I had a thought on the night before our wedding that seems particularly apropos in hindsight. I imagined that I was upon a train that had run wild, barreling forward and driving the world towards a great peace or an even greater war, its course entirely dependent on whether or not I made a misstep. It seems that the train has arrived at war no matter how strenuously we have attempted to prevent it.”

“It is a train set in motion long before you were asked to marry me,” Evgeni says, rubbing his hand up and down Sidney’s back soothingly. “And yet you have so selflessly acted to save us all.” He pauses, and continues lowly, “We have asked too much of you. The guilt I feel at the risk you take--”

“No,” Sidney interrupted, impassioned. “I have told you, this is a risk I am willing to take to keep you safe. I still fear what I must do, because I would be foolish not to, but I will do it. For you.”

“Do you realize that whoever you meet may ask you to bring him a sample of my work?” Evgeni asks, his hand stilling. “‘Tis my greatest fear, that you will be forced to deliver such an explosive, and we will have done nothing but accelerate tragedy.”

“I know that I shall do all in my power to prevent such a thing to happen, as will you, and Alexander, and Gallagher,” Sidney says. “I strongly dislike that we do not have a plan more detailed than that in this moment, but I do believe in our determination. We all have far more to lose than our enemy. We may be desperate, but if there is anything I have learned in hunting, desperate prey is wily prey.”

Evgeni sighs heavily but does not respond, merely clutching Sidney closer to his chest. They rest together, quiet and afraid of what the future holds, for an indeterminate time.

A gentle knock sounds at the door eventually, and Alexander’s voice filters through. “Sidney, it is time for you to attend at the club,” he says. “A carriage will be here in fifteen minutes to deliver you to it, and I suggest you be ready for it.”

Evgeni stands with Sidney and dresses him, running his hands over Sidney’s body after each piece of clothing is put in place. The ritual of being dressed by another takes on a new intimacy, and it feels as if Evgeni is dressing him for battle and sending him off into the fray. When Sidney’s cravat is tied and frock coat buttoned, Evgeni takes Sidney’s face in his hands and kisses him deeply, a thousand unspoken words transpiring through the gesture. When he pulls back, Sidney follows, for he is not ready for the moment to end.

“Go,” Evgeni whispers, and Sidney draws away, obeying.

The gentleman’s club is a twenty minute carriage ride away, and Sidney uses the time to attempt to drag his mind away from Evgeni. He is mostly unsuccessful, and so he must take several deep breaths before alighting from the carriage.

The door guardian eyes Sidney warily until he places his left hand upon the desk, clearly displaying his red-and-white agate signet ring etched with the arms of Canada. The man’s eyes widen, and he bows as he says, “Your Royal Highness, it is a pleasure to host you.”

“I am sure,” Sidney says offhandedly, channeling the arrogance and carelessness he has seen among his peers. “I find myself in St. Petersburg with little to occupy me, and a peer recommended this club to me.”

“Please, sir, follow me, and I will show you our amenities,” the guardian says eagerly, and the deception begins.

Sidney spends nearly seven hours at the club gambling, eating, and most important of all, socializing. He gains a crowd of sycophants almost instantaneously, and it feels as if every man within the club is eager to whisper into his ear. It is both exhausting and terrifying; Sidney must appear relaxed while maintaining a careful veneer of arrogant foppery and treating his company as the enemy that he must seduce.

And speaking of seduction-- Sidney is careful to not make reference to Evgeni often, and the few times he does, he shows great petulance through sighs and eye-rolls. He offers the younger crowd about him drinks, being sure to brush hands immodestly when passing the glass to them. Each wink and flirtatious smile leaves Sidney feeling filthy, a traitor to his marriage vows and the band upon his right hand. His hopes of earning information in return for his betrayal of Evgeni are not satisfied, learning nothing more but usual court gossip.

The clock chimes eleven and Sidney groans theatrically in the midst of another man’s sentence. “I fear I must depart, chaps. The mister gets most upset when I stay out past his bedtime, and I’ve heard enough of his nagging already this week, eh?” His statement earns him many commiserating groans and comments, and the young Count Nichushkin leaps up to escort him to the front door. Despite Sidney’s attempts to shake him, the Count insists on handing him up into his carriage, and he is daring enough to brush a kiss across the back of Sidney’s hand.

“Adieu,” Sidney says coyly as he withdraws his hand and signals the carriage to move, and as soon as it turns onto a new street, he spits upon the back of his hand and scrubs at it desperately. It does not remove the taint upon his soul, though, and Sidney slouches miserably through the journey back to Alexander’s townhome.

When he arrives, he can hear Alexander and Gallagher taking a nightcap in the sitting room, but he cannot tolerate the thought of facing them, and his venture was fruitless enough that his report can wait until tomorrow. Instead, he sprints up the stairs, stopping before the closed door of his and Evgeni’s guest bedroom. He places his hand flat against the wood of the door, snarling at the invisible mark from Count Nichushkin’s kiss. Sidney slowly opens the door and peeks around it to see Evgeni reading in their bed. Evgeni looks up from his book and sits up like a shot, throwing the covers to the foot and lunging across the room to embrace Sidney.

“Are you well?” Evgeni asks, low and desperate, and Sidney’s only response is a strangled gasp. “Sidya, oh Sidya, please tell me all is well!”

“I have not learned anything that we do not already know,” Sidney says.

Evgeni squeezes him tightly, curving his hand around the back of Sidney’s head. “I do not care,” he says fiercely. “I wish to know if you are well, my love.”

“Zhenya, my darling, I am scared and tired and I feel as though I have betrayed you so deeply,” Sidney says on the edge of a sob, words tumbling out one after another in a helpless rush. “I flirted and pretended you were nothing to me and it hurt me so. Count Nichushkin bussed my hand, and I feel fouled by his actions. I desire nothing more than for this nightmare to be over and us to return to Toronto and live our lives in the bliss that we have begun to discover.”

“I am so sorry,” Evgeni whispers, rocking them back and forth. “You do not betray me, as I have told you. I stand in awe of your sacrifice and determination, and I will do anything that I can to soothe away the pain on your soul.”

“Make me yours again,” Sidney begs. “Remind me that no one else on this earth can touch me as you do.”

“It is my honor to serve you,” Evgeni whispers, and he steps back to draw Sidney towards the bed.

They make love, slow and sensual, and Sidney finds himself on the edge of tears through it. He feels overwhelmed, drowning in fear and possibility, and Evgeni’s gentle hands bring him back to the present moment, the feel of their love upon his skin, and the happy ending that they so desperately chase.

------

At three o’clock the next day, Sidney stands before the teahouse of their enemy, hands quietly shaking as he surveys the cheerful exterior. He feels exposed and unprepared, even with a thousand thoughts and solutions running through his mind in nervous anticipation. Evgeni’s reassurances and faith in him feels tiny in comparison to the sudden reality of what he must do, but Sidney raises his chin regardless and steps inside.

The maitre d’ surveys Sidney, his eye lingering on the pin on Sidney’s lapel before he says, “Sir, I see you are an honored guest, and I ask that you follow to our private room.” Sidney nods, as haughtily as he can manage, and trails after the maitre d’ as he passes the front room, full of  beskirted ladies, and into a solemn wood-paneled hallway. The maitre d’ bows as he opens a door at the end of the hall, and Sidney passes through alone to a fine gentleman’s study.

“Welcome, friend,” the man within greets, and Sidney bows perfunctorily before evaluating him. His hair is curled foppishly above a large moustache and sideburns, and he wears a suit of no particular note, though a pin the twin of Sidney’s glistens on his lapel. His eyes are sharp as he surveys Sidney in return, and a moment of tense silence passes before the man says, “I am curious who stands before me as an ally yet I have not met him before.”

“I am Prince Sidney of Canada, Duke of Nova Scotia,” Sidney says, attempting to imbue a casual arrogance in his stance and tone. “My associates have made it known that you and I have similar goals, and have directed me here to discuss with you how we may shape the world to our pleasure.”

I am intrigued, Your Royal Highness,” the man says, standing to come about his desk and shake Sidney’s hand. “I am General of the Calvary, Count Alexei Fyodorovich Orlov, head of the Third Section of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery. Please, sit and join me.”

“Thank you, Your Illustrious Highness,” Sidney says as he alights in the chair before Orlov’s desk, waiting for him to retake his own chair before continuing. “As I am sure you are aware, I was married off to Prince Evgeni Vladimirovich Malkin in order to finalize the truce between our empires. I have found this to be a… less than ideal arrangement. My only recourse is divorce, which Her Majesty has denied thus far. However, should relations between our empires degrate, I feel that I may be freed from this sham of a marriage.”

“I have nothing but sympathy for your situation, sir,” Orlov says, leaning forward early.  “I too find myself bound to actions that result in the detriment of all. The Third Section is tasked with being the moral and political guardian of the state, and I wish to preserve my empire’s integrity. There are many forces acting upon us, pulling us this way and that, and I believe there is a simple solution for both of us to accomplish that which we desire.”

“I desire a divorce; what do you seek through our alliance?” Sidney probes, and Orlov gives him a sharp, evaluative look before speaking.

“His Imperial Majesty has recently increased the size and influence of the Third Section from sixteen investigators to forty,” he says, measured, as he folds his hands upon the desk. “This action speaks to me, and it says, Count Orlov, take care of Russia. Bring back her greatness. We are a nation of warriors without a battle to fight, and the people grow restless as the serfs stir up trouble without any war to distract them. His Imperial Majesty, may God shine down upon his soul, was pushed into this treaty, and it is my duty to liberate Russia from this shame.”

“Ah, well, Russia’s honor is of little matter to me,” Sidney sniffs, affecting the selfishness he has seen in many courts. He thinks of Gallagher’s words-- People who think that they are clever love to repeat themselves -- and now he knows what he must get Orlov to repeat. “If that is what you wish, I am happy to assist in order to be awarded my divorce.”

“I believe we can serve each other well,” Orlov says, eyes shining. “I must admit, I had never in my greatest hopes imagined that Malkin’s husband himself would come to speak with me. Are you aware of his scientific work?”

Sidney groans, long and loud. “So much more than I wish to be,” he moans, as if it pains him. “All I wish to do is hunt-- both foxes and other prey--” he smirks as suggestively as he can, “And yet he insists on boring me with this and that about, oh, I haven’t the foggiest idea, honestly.”

“He is creating a new explosive, better than any other that exists,” Orlov says. “With that, we can restart the war between Britain and Russia without any injury to ourselves. Should you acquire a sample and bring it to me, I will guarantee your divorce.”

“You wish for me to handle explosives ?” Sidney squawks. From his discussion with Evgeni, he is not truly surprised by this request, yet his panic is only half-acted. Now the true danger begins; now he must keep his wits sharp and his eyes open, for anything and everything can go wrong from here. “It is far too unsafe, I refuse to handle them! What if it detonates suddenly, as the new nitroglycerin is known to do? I will not risk my life in such a way!”

“It is perfectly safe,” Orlov soothes. “That is the beauty of the invention. It will not detonate until exactly when you wish it to. I have been attempting to acquire a sample for many months now, but he and his associates are most slippery. With your help, we can begin this war and liberate you from your husband within the month.”

It is the perfect opening that Sidney has been waiting for. “And Czar Nicholas approves of your actions?” Sidney asks doubtfully as he slides his hand as casually as he can into his pocket and depresses the button on the toy.

Orlov purses his lips. “Again, he speaks to me in tiny signs, but I assure you, we act in his best interest. He does not need to know the details, only appreciate the consequences. We do this for the good of both empires-- Britain, too, chomps at the bit for war, with many restless sons that can be better occupied, and a lower class that quickly forgets its place under the siren song of industrialization. We can restore proper order to both empires in one fell swoop.”

Sidney depresses the toy’s button to end its recording as he pretends to consider Orlov’s words, head tipped to the side as his heart thunders within his ears. He counts to thirty slowly, so slowly, as he fights the instinct to run from the crazed gleam in Orlov’s eye. The only thought that keeps him in his seat is the reassurance that he has gathered the evidence required of him to attempt to convince Czar Nicholas with. Finally, he says, “I suppose I’ll speak with Malkin. I am sure I can convince him to provide me with a sample of his work.”

“Excellent,” Orlov says early, learning forward. “When can you return with it?”

Sidney sighs dramatically. “I do not know,” he says petulantly. “Perhaps he will be amenable to me today, perhaps he will not. Why do you hurry so? It shall happen when it happens.”

“There is a perfect event for the disruption in three days’ time,” Orlov says, clearly beyond all caution. “A ball that many dignitaries from Britain and Ottoman will attend. To use the explosive at that time will enrage all, and they will scurry to pin blame on the others. We will be at war within a month, as I said, if we can leverage this opportunity.”

“Fine, then I shall attempt to acquire it by three days from now,” Sidney says. “Is there aught else, or may I go forth and attempt to perform my work?”

“Please, go forth,” Orlov says, standing to usher Sidney from the room. “May our alliance bring us both joy,” he says as he opens the door for Sidney. “I will await your return here by three days’ time at the latest.”

“Your wish shall be fulfilled, have no worry,” Sidney says dismissively, waving his hand. “I will deliver it as soon as possible-- I have no desire to keep such a danger on my person!” He holds his head high as he saunters from the teashop, and only when he retreats to the safety of a closed carriage does he collapse, shaking, gasping fearful breaths of air as he curses a blue streak.

He is still distraught after the twenty minute journey to Alexander’s townhome, but when he alights from the carriage, he must again wear the face of a self-centered courtier for the brief walk from the carriage to the door, in case Orlov has had him watched. The second he closes the front door behind him, though, Evgeni swoops down upon him, catching him as his knees collapse from under him.

Sidney fists his hands in the back of Evgeni’s frock coat, gritting his teeth and resisting the urge to sob like a child as Evgeni holds him, steady and gentle and strong. When his limbs stop their trembling and his mind stops its panicked babbling, he realizes Evgeni is shushing him, rocking Sidney in his arms as he mutters a soothing litany of, “You did it, you have done so well, I am so proud of you, my darling husband.”

When Sidney is able to take a deep, calming breath, Evgeni carefully leads them to the sitting room, where Alexander waits, a bouncing leg the only sign of his impatience. “Well?” Alexander demands when they have settled on the couch, Sidney leaning into Evgeni’s side with Evgeni’s arm looped protectively about him.

“Count Alexei Fyodorovich Orlov,” Sidney says tiredly, and Alexander stands and storms about the room as he curses. Evgeni’s reaction is quieter, emitting a vicious hiss as he tightens his arm about Sidney.

“Did you record him?” Evgeni asks, and Sidney fishes the toy from his pocket and hands it over. Evgeni depresses the button, and it waveringly recites Orlov’s manifesto atop the sound of several relieved sighs from within the room.

“Were there any others present?” Alexander demands as he settles back into his chair, and Sidney shakes his head.

“The count is the sole architect behind the conspiracy, I truly believe it,” Sidney says. “He trusted me too well and too quickly, but perhaps rumblings of our previously uncertain marriage had made it to him, and my story only confirmed it. He has asked that I bring him one of Evgeni’s explosives for an event three days hence, to assassinate not only Russian but also British and Turkish dignitaries.”

Alexander curses again, but Evgeni says, “It is no more than we expected. What have you promised him?”

“Delivery of a sample within three days,” Sidney says miserably. “So the clock has begun, and the bell will toll in three days’ time regardless of if we are ready for it or not.”

“You are not alone in this,” Evgeni says fiercely. “You know that I will do all within my power to ensure we find victory without undue risk to you.”

“The risk is already accepted,” Sidney says, closing his eyes. “I welcomed it into my life when I decided to do all that I could to save you and Alexander and Sergei from the dangers that awaited.”

“That is not an answer I accept!” Evgeni responds, eyes blazing with passion. “I vowed my life to you when we married, and I feel no different towards you than you do to me. I will not accept any danger to your person that I can do aught to ensure it does not befall you.”

Any rejoinder is prevented by Gallagher, who bursts into the room, red-faced and sweating mightily at his temples as he pants for breath. “Have you heard?” he demands, not permitting time to respond before continuing, “Czar Nicholas has fallen ill; word in the court is that Czarevich Alexander is on the cusp of ascension!”

Sidney straightens suddenly, nearly tearing Evgeni’s arm from his shoulder. “You speak truthfully?” he demands in return, and Gallagher nods frantically. “Alexander, does this resolve our fears of inaction from the imperial throne about this issue? Can we trust the czarevich?”

“He is well-regarded amongst the court,” Alexander says. “Should you go to him, I have no doubt that he would award you an audience with alacrity and be most interested in the treason that the count plots. It is well known that the Third Section seeks to return the serfs to their lowest position, and Alexander is a strong proponent of raising the serfs and granting them new privileges. To bring to him such irrefutable word of treason would give him gladness and an excuse to remove his enemy even before he ascends to the imperial throne.”

“Though this timing shows the grace of God shining down upon our mission, still we cannot go openly to the palace to deliver our message safely,” Evgeni says. “The Third Section has many gendarmes, and we know not who watches us. We must assume that any who depart from this house shall be followed.”

“So we must be subtle, and all must leave,” Alexander says firmly. “This is the exact reason that I devised our plans to escape this townhouse for. We shall request safe haven from the czarevich himself, and my servants shall maintain the illusion of our comings and goings and habitation here.”

Sidney’s head spins; he is overwhelmed by the quickness of events. Not an hour ago, he sat across from Orlov, hearing his plan, and now they must escape to the Winter Palace to appeal to the czarevich. “Does subterfuge always move so quickly?” he asks, dazed, and Evgeni pulls him close again.

“Only when it is so dangerous,” Alexander says grimly. “Come, there is no time to spare. We must each learn our paths to the Winter Palace and begin to depart.”

Sidney is the first to be sent off with directions that send him on a labyrinthine path through gentleman’s clubs, sartorial houses, and hotels, gaining and shedding various items of clothing where he can and summoning new carriages after a pause at each. His heart swells in his throat each time he steps outside, skin prickling with the sensation of eyes watching him, real or imagined. The final stop is Alexander’s club, and Sidney is bundled through the front hall and into a private back room with alacrity upon his arrival. As he sits in the quiet of the room, his head spins with the actions of the past few days. He wishes for nothing more than a moment to catch his breath and take comfort from Evgeni, but he suspects that neither will arrive in any great amounts soon.

Gallagher and Alexander arrive together nearly an hour later, as the clock chimes eleven. Sidney fidgets at the edge of his seat as they collapse into chairs of their own. “Have you seen Zhenya?” he bursts forth, overcome with sick fear, and Alexander shakes his head slowly.

“You know that none of our paths crossed before this club,” Alexander reminds him gently. “And his final stop was the airfield, far more distant than any of ours. We will only know that he is safe when he arrives here.”

It is nearly eleven thirty when the door opens again, Sidney nervously springing up even before he sees who is there. “Thank God,” he shouts before sprinting into Evgeni’s open arms. “You’re safe,” he murmurs, and Evgeni echoes back, “I’m safe.” They tremble together for some time before Alexander clears his throat politely.

“It is a relief to see you alive and well, Evgeni,” Alexander says. “I hate to cut short your celebrations, but we really must be on our way to the winter palace.”

“Yes, of course,” Sidney says, though he wraps his hand around Evgeni’s as they are escorted to the back door of the club. They all don long, hooded cloaks, concealing their faces and clothing as best they can as they hurry into the carriage that waits for them.

The trip passes in exhausted silence, and they arrive at the Winter Palace well past midnight. The carriage pulls into a private, inner courtyard, and they dash as one into a tucked-away side door.

A servant awaits them, standing smartly as they enter and bowing. “I am Prince Sidney of Canada, Duke of Nova Scotia, and I request safe haven for myself and my companions from His Imperial Highness the Czarevich and an audience at the first blush of dawn tomorrow morning,” he says, showing his signet ring. The servant bobs again, eyes wide, and scurries off as they sit to wait for a response.

Another servant returns after a nerve wracking half-hour, bowing as he enters. “His Imperial Highness offers you and your party accommodations for tonight and an immediate audience tomorrow morning to discuss your situation, given the apparent urgency,” the servant says smoothly, and Sidney offers his arm to Evgeni as they all stand.

Thankfully, they do not have far to walk before they arrive to the guest apartments. The servant gestures Sidney and Evgeni towards the first door, and they nearly fall into the room from their exhaustion. Sidney does not take any notice of their surroundings; all he notes is the bed, and the room could be a cell otherwise. He and Evgeni strip themselves with all haste and slide into the bed nearly simultaneously, and Sidney barely notices Evgeni’s embrace before he falls into the waiting arms of sleep.

------

A servant wakens them not long after dawn, and they dress in their clothes from yesterday quickly before being hurried through the halls of the palace. Czarevich Alexander awaits them in a study behind a desk, and Sidney’s skin rises in gooseflesh at the similarity to his earlier meeting with Count Orlov. All four of them bow precisely as the servant closes the door behind them, and the czarevich gestures them forward.

“I must admit a great surprise to see the crown prince of Canada in St. Petersburg with no warning,” the czarevich says mildly. “What brings you with great urgency to me and drives you to request safe haven?”

“Your Imperial Highness, I know that you have no reason to trust me other than my marriage to your countryman, but I implore you to hear my words. There is treason brewing within His Imperial Majesty’s Chancellery, and lives beyond our own are in danger.”

Czarevich Alexander places down his pen, turning an expression of intense interest upon Sidney. “Speak, and I will listen,” he says. “You are not known for flights of fancy, Prince Sidney, and so I have no reason to doubt yet.”

“Count Alexei Fyodorovich Orlov schemes to restart the war between Russia and Turkey that was ended by our marriage,” Sidney says, and Czarevich Alexander shows no more than a frown at the words. “I went to him yesterday to convince him that I was an ally, desperate to find any method in which to divorce Evgeni. He promised me this result should I deliver to him an experimental explosive that Evgeni and his colleagues have invented, which he would use to assassinate many in some event two days hence.”

“Has he stated his intentions for starting again the hostilities between our empires?” Czarevich Alexander asks mildly.

“He believes both empires ache for war, and even more so, he wishes to utilize the war to ensure that the serfs remain in service to their lords,” Sidney says, and finally he garners a reaction from Czarevich Alexander, a thinning of the lips and hardening of the eyes.

“Your report is truthful?” he asks harshly, and Sidney nods.

“I swear upon my love for my husband that this is true, and if that is not enough, I can prove to you Count Orlov’s words,” Sidney says.

“How?” the czarevich asks simply.

“I have with me a technology-- not my explosives!-- that I wish to show you,” Evgeni says. At the czarevich’s nod, he extracts two of the voice recording toys from his pocket and holds them up for inspection. “These toys can listen, record, and mimick what is said around them,” he explains. “Here, I will show you with this one-- say anything.”

“I am the Czarevich Alexander the Second of Russia,” he says, and Evgeni depresses the buttons until his words replay. Czarevich Alexander’s eyes widen. “That is an amazing invention,” he breathes.

“To me, it was but a toy,” Evgeni admits. “But amongst us, we realized that it could serve a greater purpose.” He holds up the other voice recording toy and depresses its button.

The room fills with the ghostly voice of Count Orlov: Again, he speaks to me in tiny signs, but I assure you, we act in his best interest. He does not need to know the details, only appreciate the consequences. We do this for the good of both empires-- Britain, too, chomps at the bit for war, with many restless sons that can be better occupied, and a lower class that quickly forgets its place under the siren song of industrialization. We can restore proper order to both empires in one fell swoop.

Czarevich Alexander says nothing, though his lips thin and his eyebrows draw down into a thunderous expression.

Sidney grows anxious in the face of his silence, and says, “I have acted only to protect my husband and bring him and his colleagues to safety. Their invention is a boon for industrial purposes, but to have it used for such destruction would be nothing but the greatest tragedy. I beg of you, Your Imperial Highness, our love is new but strong, and our only chance at a long, happy marriage is dependent on your support. Please, believe us, and accost Count Orlov before he brings about a great calamity.”

Czarevich Alexander looks at them evenly for a long moment before nodding decisively. “The servants will escort you all to a room where you may wait. I will return hopefully within but a few hours.”

“Thank you, Your Imperial Highness,” Sidney says, wilting with relief.

Czarevich Alexander rings a bell, and a servant appears almost immediately. “Take them to the Malachite Drawing Room,” he commands, and the servant ushers them away.

The Malachite Drawing Room is, unsurprisingly, a drawing room decorated lavishly with malachite. Sidney cannot appreciate the beauty of his surroundings, however, instead collapsing heavily onto Evgeni after they sit in a settee. Alexander and Gallagher look equally as dazed as Sidney feels as they take to chairs of their own. They begin a quiet conversation, but Sidney has no energy to join, instead drifting into a doze to the sound of their murmuring.

Sidney startles awake some indeterminate time later to Evgeni gently shaking his arm. He attempts to sit up and blink away the sleep from his eyes, but he is trapped within Evgeni’s arms, held fully in his embrace as they lounge on the settee. “Zhenya,” he grumbles, elbowing Evgeni gently, and Evgeni grumbles back wordlessly but releases him.

“Your Royal Highness, we have apprehended Count Orlov and require your confirmation that he is the conspirator,” Czarevich Alexander says from his stance in the doorway, and Sidney shakes the fog from between his ears as he prods Evgeni up.

“Thank you, Your Imperial Highness,” Sidney says. “As soon as my dearest husband can find the will to rise, we shall depart.”

“I can appreciate the difficulty of your recent days as you conspired to save our empires from war,” Czarevich Alexander says. “But haste would not go amiss; confirming the traitor is necessary so that we may take further action amongst the Third Section as well as meting out punishment to the traitors.”

Evgeni finally stands, and Sidney waves Alexander and Gallagher down as they follow the czarevich. A maze of corridors later, they descend a flight of stairs to a dank dungeon to where a number of guards surround a chained prisoner. The prisoner raises his head, and despite his bloodied forehead and mussed hair, he is unmistakably Count Orlov. Sidney flinches back, Czarevich Alexander’s hawkish gaze surely not missing his reaction, before he says, “Yes, that is he.”

“Damn you!” Count Orlov shouts, spittle spraying into the air between them, eyes wide and wild. “I trusted you, I promised to liberate you from your husband and this is how you repay me? I could have brought greatness back to both of our empires, but now they will continue on their slide towards filth!”

“Gag him,” Czarevich Alexander says cooly while Sidney steps in front of Evgeni, pushing him backwards and muttering a low string of threats to prevent Evgeni from completing the forward lunge he had started at the count’s words. “He will be punished in accordance with his crimes, Duke-Consort Evgeni,” Czarevich Alexander adds, and only at that does Evgeni settle.

“Thank you for your trust in me, Your Imperial Highness,” Sidney says, turning and bowing as he speaks. “I owe you a debt for saving my life and my husband’s.”

“The debt is paid, Prince Sidney, though I would appreciate the gift of your husband’s fantastic recording device as our record of Orlov’s traitorous actions,” Czarevich Alexander says. “You have prevented the start of a war on the eve of my ascension to the imperial throne that I have no appetite for. If recompense is owed to any, it is to you. For your own safety, I must insist that you remain within the Winter Palace until you are ready to depart. Your husband has invented a magnificent tool, but I must admit, the sooner that it and his knowledge leave Russia, the easier I will rest.”

“Our departure is conditional upon the arrival of my colleagues,” Evgeni says. “We greatly appreciate your offer of safe haven, and I must intrude upon your generosity even more. I beg of you, provide us additional protection when my colleagues arrive by rail so that we may depart by airship speedily and safely. Promise us this, and all debts shall be discharged.”

“Consider it done,” Czarevich Alexander says. “Sirs, I cannot say it was a pleasure, but I do thank you for your actions.” It is clearly a dismissal, and a guard steps forward to relieve Evgeni of the toy with the recording of Orlov and then escort them from the dungeon. Sidney takes a deep, shaky breath as they climb the stairs, and Evgeni gives him a long look.

“You have done what you promised,” Evgeni says, and Sidney nods.

“Yes, because I did it for you,” Sidney says, and Evgeni’s brilliant smile is worth it all.

------

The clock in the library chimes the hour as Sidney leans back to twist his stiff neck, and he freezes as he counts the chimes. Six-- six o’clock-- “Damn it all,” Sidney grits through his teeth, throwing back the chair and turning left outside of the library door to sprint back to his suite. He pauses, curses again, and turns about, bursting forth from a door and racing towards the massive new building, half-constructed, next to the old steam house. The sun beats down upon him, air hot and heavy with the first hint of summer, and he’s sweating by the time he throws open the door to the new laboratory.

“Evgeni!” he bellows, and three heads pop up about the laboratory in response. Evgeni is, much to Sidney’s resigned expectations, the filthiest of them all, a great streak of soot and grease across his forehead. “It’s six o’clock, we are late in preparing for tonight,” Sidney scolds, and Evgeni ducks back down before standing. Alexander and Sergei watch them with wide grins, as if they are the finest opera, and Evgeni has a hang-dog expression as he approaches Sidney. “We must go now, for we are already late. Scuderi is going to have a fit when he sees you, you know,” Sidney says, and Evgeni pouts.

“We were very busy,” he protests, and Sidney swats at his derrière to encourage him to move faster. They jostle each other the entire jog back to the castle, still play-fighting as they arrive in their suite, and Scuderi’s scowl only grows more pronounced at their entrance.

“I have run a bath for you, Your Grace,” he says stiffly. “I would suggest you begin there. Your Royal Highness, if you please, perhaps you should refresh yourself with the basin before I dress you.” Sidney attempts to follow Evgeni into the bathing room to use the basin there-- and perhaps distract them both with a variety of pleasant activities-- but Scuderi is wise to their ways by now and firmly points him towards the ewer and basin placed in the bedroom.

Thanks to Scuderi’s unyielding hand and careful separation of them both, they are ready for the ball but fifteen minutes after its start, though they do not arrive to the doors until half-past seven thanks to a lengthy diversion in an empty corridor. Evgeni helps rearrange Sidney’s hair where he has mussed it, but it is impossible to hide the kiss-bitten color of their lips, and they are announced into the ball with the evidence still visible. Sidney’s parents smile knowingly at the signs of indiscretion as Sidney and Evgeni greet them with precise bows.

“Good evening, my sons,” Prince Troy greets. “It appears that we are quite lucky to be graced with your presence here in the ballroom rather than having you remain in some back hallway in which you profess your love to one another once again.”

“Pater, must you,” Sidney groans as Evgeni swells pridefully.

“We are just happy that your marriage has turned out so well, Sidney,” Princess Trina says, laying a hand upon her husband’s arm to forestall more teasing. “It brings us joy to see such happiness blossoming in both of you.”

“And as we expect a happy announcement any day, we understand that you are greedy for each other’s attentions before a child arrives,” Prince Troy adds.

“Pater!” Sidney repeats, aghast. He is not entirely wrong, which makes it all the more embarrassing of a statement-- the discussion of children has just been between himself and Evgeni, and to have his parents interject is too much.

“I think it is time for us to socialize,” Evgeni intercedes politely, once again proving himself a good husband as he rescues Sidney from the embarrassment he cannot seem to escape.

They head across the ballroom to join Nathan and Kessel, who shake their heads as Sidney and Evgeni join them.

“So the lovebirds has decided to join us tonight instead of hiding in your bedroom, eh?” Nathan asks, and Sidney frowns at him. Evgeni, the shameless cad that he is, turns towards Sidney and tries to entice him into a most inappropriate display, which Nathan and Kessel encourage too eagerly. Sidney finally relents, permitting Evgeni to claim a small kiss, before they will all settle.

“How goes the scientific work, Malkin?” Kessel asks, and Evgeni shrugs.

“I believe we shall have the converter completed within two months,” he says. “Seryozha and Sasha are most impatient to begin alloying again, as the bulk of our work remains in that direction. They have managed to keep themselves quite amused thus far without the converter, and in ways that haven’t resulted in fires or explosions, so I must pronounce myself satisfied with our progress.”

“Who would have guessed that Sidney would marry a man that could invite such disaster,” Nathan teases, and Sidney puffs up in response.

“And yet, given the company he surrounded himself with previously, it is no surprise at all,” Evgeni inserts, and Nathan stares blankly as Kessel and Sidney laugh heartily.

“Hey--” Nathan says, realization clearly dawning, just as Amanda and Taylor join their group. They chatter until the first song strikes up, Amanda hovering protectively over Taylor and giving a cold stare to any that approach Taylor and presumably her dance card. As the first waltz begins, Amanda gallantly escorts Taylor to the floor, both blushing shyly, and Sidney and Evgeni dance close by to keep a watchful eye upon them.

“Amanda is quite forward, dominating Taylor’s card and running off all potential suitors so aggressively,” Evgeni says doubtfully, and Sidney shrugs.

“It’s the U.E. way, you know,” he says. “They’re damned barbarians down there. She hasn’t thrown Taylor over the back of her horse and kidnapped her yet, so I must say I haven’t found reason to complain.”

Evgeni’s wide-eyed look is worth the teasing, and Sidney snorts quickly, breaking his poor facade. “You are lying to me!” Evgeni accuses, and Sidney attempts to adopt an expression of innocence over his giggles.

“It has been known to happen,” Sidney tries as Evgeni frowns at him. “In the far west, away from civilization, I believe,” Sidney admits, and Evgeni crows triumphantly before adopting his own overwrought expression of sadness.

“The curse I bear, married to a man who would happily lie to me,” Evgeni says mournfully, and Sidney not-so-accidentally kicks his foot on the next step.

“My apologies,” he says smoothly. “But I swear I just heard you accuse me of lies, when just last week you told me that it is common to have pet bears in Siberia that eat at the kitchen table with their owners.”

“Should you ever meet a man from Siberia, you would understand my confusion,” Evgeni says, and Sidney shakes his head fondly.

“Sir, you are a menace,” Sidney says, and Evgeni’s eyelids drop suggestively.

“Am I?” he purrs, and Sidney feels a now-familiar stirring in his loins. “And yet I have not even begun to plumb the deepest depths of my depravity for you.”

“Well then, you shall have to prove to me your wickedness to me after the conclusion of the ball,” Sidney answers. “For I shall only believe it when I see it-- or feel it.”

“Then I shall begin to prove my case to you now,” Evgeni says, and their waltz turns from a simple dance into the most passionate of romances.

They are dancing a varsouvienne, several hours into the ball, when Sidney realizes-- his eyes have been nowhere but on Evgeni all night. No longer does he look longingly at the couples that surround him, wishing for their joy and peace. Now he looks only at the one who brings him that joy and peace, and Sidney’s heart swells as he edges closer to Evgeni, toeing the line of appropriate behavior. Evgeni smiles down at him, perhaps sensing the effervescent feeling that threatens to explode from his chest, and Sidney bursts forth, “I love you, Zhenya.”

“I love you too, Sidya,” Evgeni says, and Sidney aches with the need to kiss him, to lay his hands upon his husband and bring them both to euphoria. There will be time for that later, though, so Sidney and Evgeni turn and turn again upon the dance floor, helplessly absorbed in a love they nearly lost, sparked under pressure and nurtured into something so great that the happiness of it swallows them both.