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Providence of the Broken [m]

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Offline asterin

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A young woman strode at a relentless pace through the crowded hallway, packed with other girls hurrying by with carts of equipment and basins. The air buzzed with noise, coughing and feverish babbles, the turn of machinery and the ever-present puffs of steam, but she seemed unaffected by it, following a sound could not be buried by the din. “Alice, Alice--” a girl appeared at her side, struggling to keep up with her as she expertly wove through the gauntlet of a packed corridor. “Could you--”

“Not now,” she answered briskly, barely glancing at the young woman attempting to get her attention with that whiny tone. She was almost there. Unfortunately, a group of nurses wheeling by another patient forced her to halt, allowing the annoyance to catch up to her.

“Please,” she was saying, her wilting fingers folded together in some display meant to be convincing. “I just need you to mind the front for a minute, that’s all.”

“No,” she retorted dismissively as she brushed by, quick enough for it to be clear that she cared not a whit about her puppy dog eyes. Besides, Alice already knew what the blonde wanted to do--flounce off to powder her nose and fix her hair. Lucy was notorious for the painstaking effort she put into her appearance, and it really wasn’t for nothing that she was typically the first face one would see when they entered the hospital; she was rather pretty in that innocent ingenue way. With her doll-like features, spun-gold hair and sky blue eyes, she fit the saintly image the Abbeys so did favor for their establishment.

The blonde, however, proved to be as persistent as she was irritating, scrambling to block her way. As empty-headed as she was, she wasn’t stupid enough to try and catch her by the arm. “Oh, please Alice, just look at me, I’m a mess!” she begged, her lip beginning to wobble. “I promise, it won’t take me more than five minutes!” Indeed, the girl was less put together than usual, no doubt due to the swell of people that had come hobbling in since the wee hours of the morning. Of course, her loosening updo and the slight dewiness that was beginning to show on her forehead were nothing compared to state Alice herself was in.

Knowing she would not give up, the dark-haired girl heaved out a sigh, pressing a sleeve to her damp face. “Five minutes,” she told her sternly. At those two words she beamed back at her, clearly elated.

“Thank you, thank you! You’re an angel!” she cried, bouncing on the balls of her feet. Alice wasn’t paying much attention, already having filched the charts from her side. Even now, the grating noise was digging into her, but she could do nothing but turn away and walk out to the waiting room.

A roomful of haggard faces looked up at her when she swept through the doors, and she muttered curses to herself under her breath before taking Lucy’s place. “I apologize about the wait--please, line up this way,” she called.

The entire Shire had been in a frenzy for the past week. Every detail had to be perfect--not a speck of dust in a corner, not a crease on a span of cloth, not a silver spoon that wasn’t to be glowing bright. After so many years in the grueling war, their little boy was coming home, their pride and joy. From the luxurious estate to the looming monastery, the numerous sick wards in the hospital to the hell hole of an orphanage, the lists were to be checked and double checked. Every one of the numerous staff instructed down to the letter of the rule--and lastly, most importantly, the undesirables were to be kept far, far away from their precious son’s festivities. She remembered a similar parade thrown for the elder son’s return, perhaps five or so years ago. It’d been a farce, of course--it was clear Christopher was no war hero, but the Abbeys were always so careful to maintain a certain image.

As for her and the others not deemed worthy of being put on display, they were relegated to going about their usual duties in the hospital. The sick didn’t stop being sick for some welcome party, after all. In fact, she and the other nurses had their hands overflowing. The cough had been circulating in the area, which meant that the sick wards were jammed with people--particularly children. It was indeed just the perfect time for all their doctors to be away participating in festivities, leaving the fumbling interns and sleep deprived nurses to handle the mess. Serving only to further foul up her mood was that unbearable shrieking she could not block her ears from--it was maddening, absolutely maddening.

She glanced down at her pocket watch, a nail tapping out an impatient little rhythm on the glass face as the other hand obediently wrote down names and ailments. It was, unsurprisingly, past five minutes, teetering on ten. Though she had expected it of Lucy, it didn’t do her rapidly encroaching headache any good. The dark haired girl’s expression tightened, her fingers leaving the watch to touch the width of ribbon tied around her neck. She would have to wait. However, about fifteen minutes into it all that Alice had finally had enough--she couldn’t bear it anymore, she had to make it stop. “I’m so sorry, please give us a moment,” she hastily announced, something dark flashing in her eyes before she disappeared through a set of doors.

Once again, she found herself storming through the hallway--this time, nothing would stop her from putting an end to the sound that was driving knives into her head. She flung open the curtains to walk into the scene of half a dozen nurses flocking around a single child’s bed, trying to soothe the crying girl. “Miss Rosie, we need to give you these shots,” Evangeline was saying, receiving only an increased volume of furious wailing from the young girl.

“I’ve got some peppermints,” another tried, “would you like some, Miss Rosie?” Crying, more crying--screaming, on top of that. Just the sight of it made Alice want to tear her own skin off.

“What’s going on here,” she demanded loudly, striding up to the circle with a glare burning in her eyes.

It was Evangeline who turned to her first, exasperation in her voice. “We’ve been trying to give her these shots, but she won’t calm down,” she explained, gesturing at the two vials laid out on the tray.

The child continued to wail--mercy, did she not even need to breathe? “First Lucy, and now this,” she muttered to herself. “Alright, alright--everyone out!” Alice barked, a hand at her throbbing temple.

The girls looked up to her hesitantly, but Evangeline clapped her hands, motioning them towards the door. “Come on girls, let’s go,” she ushered. One by one, the frazzled nurses filed out of the room, leaving only the little girl’s crying echoing through the space. She let her cry as she prepped the shots, even though her jaw was seizing up at the grating sound. For a child to receive a room of her own, especially when they were so overcrowded was a clear indicator that she was likely the daughter of an influential person--not to mention how all of them had called her ‘miss.’ Well, that made no difference to her. Walking over to the bed, the young woman crouched over the screaming girl, fixing her with a piercing gaze.

“Stop. Crying,” she intoned firmly--to no avail. Of course, Alice knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. “Crying isn’t going to help you. It won’t change a single thing,” she continued sharply over the diminishing wails, her eyes boring into the girl’s watery ones. “Now you can keep sniveling pathetically all alone, or you can use your words. Which is it?”

“Percy,” the girl finally sniffled, her lip quivering. “I want Percy! I want--!” she began to wail again, only for the nurse’s deathly glower to cause her to settle back into soft whimpering.

“Who is Percy?” she asked evenly.

“M-My, my puppy. They, they won’t let m-me see him!” A childish outrage crossed her little face--she was likely used to having her way at home, and this sudden ban was something that turned her world upside down.

“Of course. This is a hospital, not a menagerie,” she replied matter-of-factly. As correct as it was, it was no doubt the same explanation the other adults had given her that had failed to persuade her. The girl’s big eyes filled with tears, her mouth gaping open into a cry. “But,” the nurse began sternly, cutting her off before that terrible dirge could start again. “But, if you are good, and you let me give you your shots, I’ll let you have a prize.”

“Percy?” she whimpered.

Not a chance, she thought. “He can be your Percy until you go back home,” Alice reworded, already rolling up the girl’s sleeve. Before the girl could move or voice her protest, she had emptied the two needled vials into her plump little arm.

“Ouch!” the girl squeaked, but Alice wasn’t about to give her the chance to dissolve into tears again. She pulled out an object from the pocket of her apron, promptly displaying it upon her palm for the girl to see. “What is that?” the girl asked, her blotchy face crinkling up.

“Percy,” the young woman retorted shortly, giving the pin on the miniature a brusque wind. “See? His tail wags.”

“Oh!” the girl seized the dog comprised of metal parts, her eyes glued to it as she turned it about in her hands, fascinated by the simple movement. “Percy does that,” she remarked, looking up from the toy. The nurse, however, was nowhere to be found.

As she escaped to the hallway, the ringing finally out of her head, Alice breathed a sigh equal parts relief and annoyance. “Thanks for that,” Evangeline sang, sidling up to her with a smirk on her pretty face. Like many of the girls who were employed in the Shire, she was a beauty--tall and slender with fair hair, paired with a sharp nose and cheekbones that might hearken back to some proud noble lineage. Alas, that wasn’t the case for either of the girls, or any among them, for the matter.

“It wasn’t for you,” she rolled her eyes, leaning against the wall for a brief respite. A hand wandered back up to her collarbone, unthinkingly fingering the ribbon around her throat. “I couldn’t stand that incessant squealing--I thought I was finally going to go mad.” There was nothing quite like the sound of children crying that tread on every nerve she had within her, but Evangeline already knew that from similar occurrences.

“As long as you’re doing my job, I don’t care,” the girl sniffed, nudging her aside for a span of wall to lean on as well.

“Someone’s got to get things done properly around here,” she jabbed back curtly.

“Ha! You’re one to talk!” Evangeline scoffed, directing a furtive hand towards the door that led back out to the waiting room. “Visitors have been lining up in your absence.”

Alice sucked in a slow breath, begrudgingly pushing herself away from the wall. “Still no Lucy?” she asked, half-heartedly brushing back the tendrils of dark hair plastered to her face. It seemed that she would have to play the part a while longer. Where was that ninny?

“You’re the one who was dimwitted enough to be fooled by her,” the other girl shrugged, smiling cattily. She too stepped away from the wall, having spent what little time either of them could afford.

“You’re a ratbag, Evie,” she offered with a tart smile of her own as they parted, melting back into the bustling stream of nurses and patients.

“Birds of a feather!” she called back with a wink.

Though she had fully expected a room swarming with people as she peered through the door to the lobby, she was surprised to find it almost completely empty except for a withered figure in the corner. Lucy? She thought, but the girl was nowhere to be seen. It only took her another second to realize that Evangeline must have taken care of the remaining people while she was occupied with the crying girl. Smiling faintly to herself, she swept through the doors with a much lighter step than before. While the sound of the doors opening wouldn’t have bothered most, strangely enough the fellow nearly jumped out of his own skin. As he stood and began to make his way to her using a cane, however, she could see that he wasn’t an old man at all--in fact, he was a very young man.

“Good day, sir,” she greeted him cordially, her eyes sweeping over this curious young man. “Are you here with the cough?” Though to be honest, with how scrawny he was she could’ve thought up a long list of ailments he could’ve been suffering from.

“Ah, no, I’m--I’m not a patient,” he told her, a small nervous chuckle escaping him. His bespectacled eyes glanced about the room, finally settling on hers. “My name is Nick, I’m the new doctor on staff here.”

She blinked. Him, a doctor? He looked more like he needed a doctor. “Oh, is that so,” the young woman replied somewhat belatedly, “We weren’t informed…” Where was Lucy? Surely, she would’ve been told to look out for a newly arriving doctor--then again, perhaps she was giving the pretty girl too much credit. Glancing down at her pocket watch, Alice could only think to go find the head nurse instead. “If you could follow me, sir,” she motioned, stepping towards another set of doors and waiting for him to follow. Once the head nurse had this all sorted out, she'd be glad to finally have a doctor on staff. “I suppose you’ve come at a good time, Doctor,” she remarked offhandedly. “We’ve only got nurses and interns here at the moment, so we’re a bit short on hands.”

“Where’re the other doctors?” he asked, frowning.

“The estate. For the parade,” she quirked her brows, her distaste briefly seeping through the mask of bland courtesy.

“I don’t know why they bother with things like that,” he commented unexpectedly as he limped after her.

At that Alice paused, turning to give the young doctor a measuring look. For a moment it seemed as if an amused smile had brushed by her face, an inaudible ‘why indeed?’ in her eyes. “Have you interned here before?” she asked instead with a thoughtful frown, tilting her head to one side. It was difficult to place a finger on it, but he felt oddly familiar. Just as she managed to get the question out, the heavy front doors suddenly flung open behind them. Nick flinched again.

It was none other than the good doctor Abbey himself who strode in, a cold gentlemanly figure in white. He hadn't changed much since she'd first since him as a child, always appearing to be looking down at the likes of her from the heights of an ivory tower or from the other side of a foggy glass. Distant, coolly disinterested. At the sight of the gaunt young man beside her, however, Alice saw something deep and emotional crossing his face before he rushed over. “Nicholas, my boy!” he blurted out breathlessly, instantly engulfing ‘Nick’ in a tight embrace. Alice froze, her head giving a quick spin. Nicholas? “Son, what’re you doing here? We’ve all been waiting for you at the estate!” Son? 

All at once she understood why he had seemed so strangely familiar. He was Nicholas Abbey, the boy all this fuss was for in the first place. He was Nicholas Abbey, the Good Doctor's precious legacy. As the realization soaked into heart and bone, she stepped back demurely with the pretense of giving the father and son privacy, though her gaze never left their form. Unbeknownst to all, her lips parted--then curved into a dazzling smile that would have outshone the sun itself, a smile that spread to her eyes and set them glowing. Within them lay a vicious hope. Within them, a dark promise burned bright.
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Offline Reigning King

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The villages were quiet, so quiet in fact, that they seemed empty.  From Kenbrooke to the gates of Hardoor, not a soul could be spotted from the Long road.  More specifically, not by the one individual traversing it.  A clunky but efficient motorbike bustled along the dirt road, the dust hovering in the air behind in its wake.  The rider donned a coat made from thick, durable mud-coloured canvas, the crossed maces of the Imperial Forces sewn into the sleeve of the left shoulder, his military rank and number beneath.  Medic, 056417, it read, printed in a uniform, black font.  He wore black leather gloves and a black helmet with scratched brown-strapped goggles.  The motorcyclist moved swiftly through the small villages surrounding the Abbeyshire, preferring the Long road to the Short, nothing in his side-car save a single piece of luggage.   

Entering Abbeyshire by the Long road instead of the Short had many advantages.  By avoiding the Square, the central marketplace of the Shire at the base of the big hill upon which the Abbey Estate sat, a commuter could avoid the thick of the traffic, where both buggy, bike and big-rolling-machine fought for position at the intersections.  Additionally, to pass through the Short road and beyond the Abbeyshire, one had to take the Narrow bridge past the monastery.  Though obviously more lengthy, the Long road carried travellers around the base of the hill that sprouted from the center of the Shire and its surrounding neighbourhoods, continuing through to White Rock harbour and the Mountain road beyond.  While out of the way, avoiding all the main attractions of the Shire, the Long road was also beyond the reach of prying eyes.  For the conduit of the sputtering motorbike, such a road suited just fine.  Luckily, this road brought a weary wanderer to the doors of the Abbeyshire Hospital which, fortunately enough, had been this rider’s exact destination. 

The motorbike was left stilled, leaning against a tree that grew beside two sisters near to the road.  With keys secured inside the pocket of the mossy green vest beneath his coat, he plucked his cane from where it had been secured along the side of his transport, a little modification he’d made himself, and started towards the hospital with his luggage in hand.  It took him a short while to make it up the steps and admittedly, he was a little pained after having competed the feat.  The pain in his leg however, the one that limped along with the metal cane, was a constant and so easily ignored, falling into the background like a white noise or an unpleasant smell.  Upon entering the hospital, the cripple was pleased to see that it looked much the same as it had since his last visit.  Seating himself in the vacant waiting room, he grunted quietly to himself as he tugged off the coat that looked too big for him, his frame much smaller underneath.  The luggage at his feet was small enough that it could be mistaken for a briefcase, so when the attending nurse returned to the front waiting room and assumed him to be seeking treatment, he was not surprised. 

“Ah, no I’m -- I’m not a patient.” He explained, laughing as he allowed the slight to roll off his back as though it never were.  “My name is Nick.  I’m the new doctor on staff here.” He offered helpfully, his tone light.  The nurse however, seemed unaffected by his gentle charm, apparently uninformed of his coming at all.  “I’m sorry.” Nick supplied at once, a wrinkle in his kind brow.  “This must be inconvenient for you.”

“I suppose you’ve come at a good time, Doctor.” She continued, further unmoved by his concern.  “We’ve only got nurses and interns here at the moment, so we’re a bit short on hands.”

“Where are the other doctors?” He asked in return, his coat folded over his free arm, held out to follow her through a set of swinging doors. 

“The estate.  For the parade.” She replied.  The way she said the words told him everything he needed to know regarding her opinion on the matter.  Nick himself, shared a similar ideal on the subject. 

“I don’t know why they bother with things like that…” His tone was more reserved than hers, but that reservation was dripping in thoughts unsaid.  After all, a parade made little sense when the individual for whom the parade had been thrown was uninterested in the affair.  Such a spectacle did little to make up for two years without a single letter or word.  Festivities and folly did nothing to bandage the wounds of wartime. 

“Have you interned here before?” She asked him, turning to gaze upon him with a queer look in her eye.  It was obvious, even at an initial glance, that she was a Grass-Blood.  A pleasant, broad face, black hair that fell straight, almond-shaped eyes and wind-worn olive skin; she had all the typical attributes belonging to those from the Dominion of the Queen.  Of course, the annexed nation would now formally be known as Greenlandia, beneath the heel of the Emperor and the protection of the Archbishop.  To the Grass-Bloods, no matter what the tsaivar mangas wrote in their books, the land would always belong to the Queen.  Nick would know that fact better than most. 

“Well, no, actually…” He started. 

“Nicholas, my boy!” Came a familiar voice, interrupting him.  Though it was a voice he had missed, a voice he had longed to hear for years, a voice that rang in him like the bells of joy, he had to take a moment and recover from the crashing entrance his father had made.  Flinching severely, in spite of himself and the calming breaths he had taken, he recoiled at first beneath his father’s rushing advance before his nervous expression cracked into a smile that seemed at least halfway sincere. 

“Son, what are you doing here?” He asked, peeling his youngest son from where he had flattened him against his chest.  Eyes roamed the sight of him, lingering on his leg, just as Nick had expected they would.  “We’ve all been waiting for you at the estate!”

“All the doctors as well?” He asked in response.  “I understand none of them are here.” His father didn’t answer but instead flicked a quick, venomous glance to the nurse who had stepped beyond Nick’s weak peripheral vision.  “You at least need a surgeon scheduled during an event, what if something should happen while everyone is busy having fun?” The tone he spoke with was light enough that Dr. Abbey Senior softened beneath the warmth of it, an empathetic hand falling against his son’s shoulder. 

“You’re right, of course.” He conceded.  “We’ll send for someone.  Let’s hurry to the party, the parade will be starting shortly and your mother is very excited to see you.”

For a fleeting instant, that same old terror gripped at his belly like when he was a boy.  Stiffening, as though struck by an icy breeze and frozen in place, his eyes stayed tuned onto his father, changing beneath the glass of his lenses.  “Didn’t you hear me?” He asked, the warmth gone from his voice.  “There must be at least one surgeon on staff at all times.” He repeated, this time more sternly.   The two men, practically mirror images of one another, save for the hollowness of Nick’s cheeks and the frailness of his body, starred each other down as though each were confronting a stranger.  Nicholas had once been an obedient little boy.  Dr. Abbey had once been an attentive and passionate physician.  Six years was a long time to be away, to be gone.  Just as he had suspected…

Things had changed. 

“Why don’t I stay for now?” Nick offered, a bit of that same charm sneaking back into his voice now.  “You can send two physicians back to the hospital from the party, and in the meantime if I have any questions I can just ask, Miss…” He had to rock onto his good leg and turn his body to find the corner where the nurse who had initially helped him had sequestered herself.  Brown eyes found hers and raised their brows expectantly, she hadn’t given him her name, so he had no way to politely finish the thought. 

“No, no!” Dr. Abbey insisted, stepping in between the nurse in question and his son.  “I’ll send an intern.” He assured him, wrapping an arm around his shoulder.  “Why don’t I show you around myself, son?” Christopher Abbey Sr. proposed, guiding his son down the main corridor of the facility. 

“Yes, why don’t you.” Nick agreed, a slight edge behind his tongue.  Casting his gaze one final time, over his shoulder to the nurse who had first greeted him, he offered her a polite, “thank you,” before following after his father, feeling again like a boy but this time, different, in far more ways than just one.  Time could make men of boys, but war makes monsters of those same men, just as helpless to the horror as the passing of each second. 

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Offline asterin

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The nurse watched the doctor lead his limping son away with a small streak of frustration, cursing Lucy once again in her head. If only she’d been here, doing her actual job, she would’ve been able to do some much needed research for the plot that had begun to rapidly emerge within her. It was then that the very blonde came bursting through the door, sheet white with fear--or was it powder? Apparently, she hadn’t been wishing hard enough. “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what happened, time just flew by--” she babbled, clearly afraid of the backlash she would receive from the prickly girl.

Fortunately for Lucy, Alice was too occupied to give her a tongue lashing. Pushing the charts back into the blonde’s arms, the nurse brushed past the girl with a distracted “It’s fine,” which seemed to stun her. Alice couldn’t care less--there was more important prey afoot, after all.

As father and son wandered down the corridors of Abbeyshire hospital, neither of them seemed to notice the slight figure of the nurse who trailed them at a good distance--unsurprising, since there were many uniformed nurses abound and she was simply a number among them. Had Dr. Abbey been alone she would have dared to follow more closely, for the Good Doctor’s eyes always had a way of sweeping over the undesirables, but his son seemed much more...alert, if not jumpy.

Nicholas Abbey. She eyed the emaciated young man from across the hall, her gaze cool. Now that the two men were together, she felt silly for not having recognized him--he certainly took after his father. While that was to be expected, whenever Alice encountered the second son of the Good Doctor over the years, she’d only ever been able to see that one particularly pathetic memory of him splayed over his face. Of course, she doubted he remembered her; they were all too insignificant for the likes of the Abbeys. 

As they made their slow rounds about the hospital and its wings, Alice strayed close enough at times to be able to catch snatches of the doctor giving a quick summary of each area. The doctor seemed to be in a hurry to get through the tour, judging by the details he was glossing over--but even she could not refrain from laughing scornfully under her breath as Doctor Abbey referred to the Female Trauma wing as some marvelous act of charity, providing their female patients with much needed privacy and respect when it came to ‘sensitive matters.’ Oh, she remembered her own stays in the wing well enough, and to her it was quite clear that the actual reason the male staff was barred from the area was so that the Good Doctor could continue to turn a blind eye to the very real horrors that the girls were put through. Of course, Alice was not surprised by this revision to the cruel truth--what she was surprised by, however, was the flat out lie uttered when they reached the door to the basement stairs.

“That leads to the basement, but stay out of there, son--it’s under construction. There’s a lot of rubble and the floor’s quite torn up,” he told the young man, unable to prevent a meaningful gaze from wandering to the cane he held.

Any one of the girls--including Alice--would have instantly known that to be a lie. There was no such construction going on in the basement of the Abbeyshire hospital. No, it housed the crematorium...and a tunnel. While the crematorium wasn’t used as often anymore, the tunnel was frequented daily by at least a good number of the girls working at the hospital. It only took a brisk walk through the tunnels to reach the richly decorated east wing of the estate, filled with beautiful salons and the grand ballroom. It was no secret what went on in there, so why the lie?

Deep in thought Alice continued follow the duo as they moved on, but once they reached their destination she instantly regretted the decision. It was the pediatrics ward, filled with crying, screaming children. Trying not to feel too ill, she stopped at a corner as the two doctors entered a room filled with fussing, wailing brats. She tended to avoid this very ward when she could, though the sound of crying would more often than not summon her to the bedside of the offender to somehow silence it. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t be able to go bursting into the room this time. Her headache was beginning to return with a vengeance, and she threw a glare towards the roomful of children, a hand beginning to creep up to her neck. The sight of Nicholas Abbey standing there with the sound of their wailing only brought the first memory she had of him rushing back.

It’d been the same summer she’d lost Chryssa, the same summer she’d met him, the summer everything came colliding around her. On a particularly sweltering day she’d escaped the orphanage once again and found her way to the outskirts of the maze-like gardens, hoping the heat would discourage her jailers from searching for her. It hadn’t been to cause mischief, she’d just wanted to be alone--to be free from surveillance, to forget what she was running from. Though she had gone through the pains of secluding herself in the farthest corner of the vast gardens, her hopes of solitude had been dashed when the unmistakable sound of sobbing assaulted her ears through the greenery.

When she’d peered through the wrought iron fence she’d spotted a young boy about her age crying pathetically into his frilly sleeves, dribbling tears onto his polished leather shoes. The moment he looked up and met her dagger-like gaze with his tearful one she’d realized who he was--and never before had she hated someone so instantly. What do you have to cry about? she had wanted to shout, to rage at him. He had a living family. He was so rich he could have been dining from gold plates for all she knew. He had everything he could’ve wanted, he had everything she didn’t--thanks to the misery his family wrought. How dare he cry? How dare he? Before she could give voice to the venom boiling in her veins, however, the ever-familiar sound of her keepers angrily searching for her had echoed across the green labyrinth. She’d fled the wretched scene then, hands balled up into fists and teeth clenched tight. Of course, within a few hours she’d been discovered and dragged back to the orphanage for the usual punishment--but even the blows of the rod could not break her away from the seething thoughts in her head. Even now, the memory caused her nails to press against her palms.

“Doing a little bit of spying, eh?” a voice interrupted from behind her.

Too annoyed with the sound of crying and the memory alike to be fazed at being caught red-handed, Alice glanced over her shoulder to greet Evangeline with a grim quirk of the lips. “And look at you, all dolled up,” she retorted. Indeed, as worn out as the girl had appeared earlier, her hair was now arranged back into perfection, and her cheeks boasted a youthful flush of colour. Though she was dressed like any other nurse, had Evangeline ventured into that room she certainly would not go overlooked by the Good Doctor. Oh, she was a beauty, of course, but it wasn’t so much that she was the most exquisite among the others--rather, it was that her beauty closely resembled a very particular woman.

It was no real secret that Evangeline frequented the bed of Dr. Abbey far more than his actual wife did. There was a certain amount of power that came with such a status, and while most girls deferred to her, she had also become an object of hidden disdain for others. As for Alice--well, she didn’t fall into either category, a fact that both of them were quite aware of. “What can I say? I heard he was here,” Evangeline shrugged, tucking a lock of her strawberry blonde hair behind an ear. A sly smile playing on her lips, she peered around the corner--only to hesitate at the sight of the gaunt young man next to the doctor. “Is that who I think it is?” she asked, not bothering to turn around.

“It is indeed,” Alice answered, just as the father placed a hand on his son’s shoulder.

“Hm,” Evangeline hummed back, her lips curving down the way they always did when she wasn’t too impressed or pleased. She’d been in something of a mood ever since they’d begun preparing for the festivities in earnest--she tried to not let it show, but it was clear enough to Alice that something about this whole reunion rubbed her the wrong way. “I suppose I shouldn’t disturb them,” the fair haired girl concluded primly, turning back with an air of smothered disappointment.

“Suit yourself,” Alice returned lightly. Though she had a few educated guesses to the reason behind the other girl’s darkened mood, she didn’t bother commenting upon it or asking for confirmation. She didn’t stick her nose into Evangeline’s private business, and vice versa; it was most likely why they got along so swimmingly, even when there was no semblance of real personal affection between them. In fact--

A sudden sound made her stop short. “Alice?” Evangeline questioned, her brows quirked at the sight of her stiffening. Instead of answering, the dark haired girl twisted around to look into the room to confirm what she had heard. Indeed, it hadn’t been some strange trick of the mind.

“They’re laughing,” the words slipped from her lips as she stared in disbelief. The children that had been whining and crying were now grinning from ear to ear, some giggling aloud despite their sore throats, their eyes all focused on the scrawny skeleton of a young man. 

“So, they’re laughing,” Evangeline repeated, obviously not seeing what the fuss was about. “Children do that.”

Pulling herself away from the unnatural sight, Alice turned to the other nurse to try and explain. However, her eyes darted to two men hurrying down the corridor behind them, their white coats flapping behind them--the replacements from the estate. “The doctors,” she hissed, and the two young women sprang apart, quickly finding ways to look occupied with some sort of task.

As she wrung out a rag in a basin, she watched discreetly as father and son exchanged a few words with Doctor Bonham and Doctor Westcott. After a round of firm handshakes, the Good Doctor and his son left for the estate, leaving two irritated doctors to run the hospital. Barking out orders and assignments, the doctors sent the weary nurses scurrying to all different corners of the Abbeyshire hospital. The sick don’t stop being sick for a festival, the doctors reminded them, and Alice couldn’t help but roll her eyes.

The world was quiet. Sprawled carelessly in the grass, the dark haired girl let a slow breath escape her, palming the tendrils of green between her fingers. Above her, the sky was beginning to take on a soft orange glow, the sun beginning to make its descent down towards the valleys. In a few hours her presence would be required, but for now, there was no one to come looking for her--for now, she was neither a nurse nor a whore, and she could close her eyes and let herself pretend she had nothing to do with this accursed place. Not Alice,Yuuka.

She still remembered how at nighttime she and her brothers would lay out on the grass while her mother told them stories about the heros in the stars above, the sound of the crickets crooning along to her lilting words. One night it’d be about the Celestial Maiden and the Cowherd, the lovers who could only meet once a year upon a bridge of birds. Another night it’d be the legend of the Five Sister Queens, who avenged their father by driving back the enemy and lead each of their respective dominions to prosperity and greatness. 

The young woman could almost recall her mother’s voice forming the syllables that had rusted and lost their meaning long ago. As hard as she had tried to grasp at the threads that formed the tapestry of her homeland, it’d all started to unravel the moment she’d been ripped from it. Now she could speak no more of her mother tongue than a toddler could, and she did not even remember the full name her parents had given her. She could despise the reality all she wanted, but there was no denying that the empire had succeeded in doing what they set out to do--civilize the barbarians. A bitter, mocking smirk seized her lips for a brief moment before her senses picked up on the approach of footsteps. Her eyes flew open and she immediately bolted up into a sitting position, tensing up considerably. “Who’s there?” Alice demanded, her voice sharp with the hostility that usually ensured she would be left alone. 
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His dress uniform didn’t quite fit him like it used to.  Looking at himself in the mirror, smoothing his parted, greased hair down against the side of his head, he shifted uncomfortably beneath the weight of his garb.  When the war had first started, he had been broader of shoulder and thicker around his middle.  The stiff black fabric of his pristine service dress felt more like a shell than a uniform, oversized and too heavy.  Smoothing out any remaining wrinkles and adjusting the gold-plated buttons of his jacket with his white-gloved hand, he took deep breaths from his nose to steady his beating heart.  Glancing down at the watch on his wrist, the one he never took off, he rubbed a smudge from the scratched glass-covered face.  Though it was late afternoon, early evening now, the watch on his wrist read eleven-thirty-two, and never a second otherwise.  Covering the watch with his sleeve and setting his red and black peaked cap onto his groomed head, the gold stitching of the Imperial Crest dulling the look of his sandy hair, he made for the door that would take him from his rooms.  They remained just the same as when he had first left the Estate.  In truth, it had been much longer than six years since he had been away.  After graduating early from boarding school at a tender age, Nicholas Abbey had immersed himself at once into University, only returning to the Abbeyshire on holidays or specially marked occasions.  While the hallways looked just as they always had, the ornately wallpapered corridors as familiar to him as they had ever been, there was something new lurking in their shadows.  War had sharpened his senses and something about this place he had once called home made the hairs on his arms stand on their ends.  Fortunately, his effects had already been left in a vacant residency room at the hospital, conveniently close to the pediatrics wing and the South doors which led to the orphanage behind.  It had taken some convincing but finally his father had surrendered to the notion of keeping his childhood rooms empty for at least a little while longer. 

The day he returned to the Abbeyshire had been, thus far, just as he had forever hoped it would be.  He had seen his mother and elder brother only briefly during the parade, before wasting the hours into the afternoon with his father.  They strolled through the crop fields like they used to when Nicholas had been merely a boy, though this time son was not skipping or running ahead of his father, stopping next through the carnival that he had initially avoided upon his arrival in the Shire Square.  Both father and son each tried their hand at the various games and attractions that squeezed themselves in between the shops and stalls, before letting a butter beer settle their excitement and fill their bellies enough not to spoil the spread for the formal party later on.  Catching a carriage not long after to the Cathedral of St. Christopher, Dr. Abbey stumbled upon a few of the orphans who would now be beneath Nicholas’ care, introducing him to the pewboys and marvelling at way by which they took to him at once.  When finally the hours had fluttered past for long enough to make them both late to their most important engagement, Lord Abbey had whisked his son back to the Estate, parting from him only to allow for the privacy he needed to change into attire more suitable for the function.  Christopher Abbey seemed, without care for hiding the fact, full of selfish want for his son’s attention and luckily the feeling was exceedingly mutual.  Nicholas had missed the comfort of a warm bed, the fullness of a good meal, the ease of a restful night, while away at war; but most of all, more than anything else, he had missed his father. 

“Look at you.” Came that gentle, coaxing voice Nicholas loved so much.  He stood at the top of the grand staircase, donning a handsomely tailed coat and his formal robes, the ones that hung heavy and red around his shoulders and marked him as a Lord of the Holy Empire.  Yet, when compared to the medals, pins and sashes that clattered and swayed against Nicholas’ chest, the Lord Abbey might have almost looked plain.  “They took my boy and gave me back a man.” He remarked, feeling misting his eyes and making his voice catch in his throat. 

“Most of him, anyway.” Nicholas retorted, his cane moving in tandem with his left leg, ruined beneath the pleated black of his trousers. 

Lord Abbey laughed along with his son, both chuckling in the same throaty fashion.  “Are you ready?” He asked his son compassionately.   

“Not at all, but I don’t imagine that matters very much.” He let his eyes meet those which were an identical shade of warm, honey brown.  “I expect the food has already been paid for, better just to get on with it.”  Again, both men giggled at the jest.  Doctors had a morbid sense of humour, a trait that perhaps Nicholas had inherited from his father or maybe acquired throughout his study of medicine.  No matter the causation, it was a trait they both shared, among countless others. 

“I know this is probably a lot.” Nicholas’ father empathized, his brows coming together at the middle of his forehead in earnest worry.  “Let me know if you need a distraction, I’ll buy you a minute to get some air.” He offered, the smile returning to his lips as he put a hand on his son’s decorated shoulder and guided him towards the staircase. 

“Well, we’re starting the night off with sodding stairs, so I think I’ll be holding you to that.” Once more, both men laughed and father extended a helpful elbow to son, one he was kind enough to pull back once within the sight of the crowded grand ballroom. 

As a child, all things seem larger and grander from behind innocent eyes.  Aging tends to take away the sparkle from places that once seemed magical.  Something that before looked big and beautiful later seems smaller and more boring.  The grand ballroom of the Abbeyshire mansion was not one of these places.  Glistening parquet flooring carried the reflected light from the shimmering crystal chandeliers overhead from one corner to the other.  At the end of the ballroom opposite the grand staircase an orchestra pit was filled to brimming with musicians, a singer bellowing an opera for the enjoyment of guests from the stage above.  While one long wall was filled with windows that stretched from the floor to ceiling, the other was adorned with large gold-framed mirrors that reflected the glow of the setting sun across the scene of revelry.  From the balustrade Nicholas clung to with the hand opposite that of his cane, to the candelabras held by winged saints, all the details of the lavish grand ballroom were gold.  Red banners bearing the Imperial Crest, the crossed maces of the Mace Dynasty, the Sigil of His Excellency, the Holy Emperor, hung upon the walls between mirror and window alike, reminding guests just for whom they were brought together.  With eyes flicking from one piece of artistry to the next, one painted face in the crowd to the next, the ballroom felt just as grandiose and overwhelming as it had when he had been a small boy.  Even before he had descended the final step and entered the throng of the ballroom crowd, the familiar hand of anxiousness had gripped him and begun squeezing at his throat, his chest, his belly.  The panic came in waves, the course of which were a familiar navigation for Nicholas, he could deal with the panic, but the terror…

My darling,” That familiar slithering voice hissed from behind him, striking more fear into his broken heart than all the horrors of war combined. 

The terror he had tried to outrun as a boy, the terror that had haunted his nightmares even in the midst of battle, the terror he had come home to… that which he was far less equipped to deal with. 

“Oh, Nicholas, my baby boy.” The Lady Abbey cooed as she swept her son up into her arms.  Long nails, painted dark purple, scratched against the scruff of his neck, tickling beneath the collar of his jacket.  Her other arm she wrapped around his waist, holding him tight against her full chest, as if she were a great snake from the forests of the Africannis, poisoning her victim into paralysis with her venom, before squeezing from them whatever life might remain.  “I missed you.” She said slowly, the words quiet enough to be for him alone, spoken into the ear against which her lips caressed.  At their utterance, his stomach dropped and his breath caught in his throat.  He tried to will his heart to beat, to make his lungs draw breath, but his was frozen in fear and completely helpless.   

“And look at you, so thin!” She exclaimed, holding him out at arm’s length, sharp eyes roaming over his broken figure.  Her fiery red hair cascaded in smooth waves upon the shoulders of her green, velvet dress, the same colour as her calculating stare.  “We must have a full examination done on the morrow,” she prattled on.  “My son, the hero, but oh, at what cost?” She gushed.  Nicholas moved between the hands that gripped him by the shoulders in the same fashion a rag doll might, his eyes void of feeling, void of presence, voice of Nicholas altogether.  It couldn’t be helped, the terror sunk its claws into him the same way every time, since the very first.  First came the cold, then the blank, then the wait.  The wait was the hardest part.  The wait for it to be over. 

“Is it over…?” The little boy inside of him asked into the darkness.  “Is it over…?”

“But, surely Doctor, there is something you can do?” The Lord of Rockmarch asked. 

“Yes, my good Doctor, with your formidable staff and even your own skilled hands…” The Duke of Bellewood agreed, pressing further. 

Nicholas hadn’t noticed the small crowd that had gathered around him, eager to catch the ear of the renowned Abbey’s or their famous son.  Only when Dr. Abbey Sr. stepped forward, putting himself between mother and son, did Nicholas begin to blink away the frost that kept him from drawing breath.  He put his arm against his son’s back, discreet in the manner by which he held him up beneath one good leg regaining its strength.  The sounds came back to him first, followed quickly by the sights.  While in the beginning both swirled together in a blurry, noisy, chaotic sort of haze, they began to settle until at last he could make out the pieces by which to put together the puzzle of the present conversation.  Dr. Abbey Sr., the Lord of the Abbeyshire, was explaining a new medical procedure, known as a transplant, a procedure that could supposedly correct the ruination of Nicholas’ kneecap and surrounding cartilage.  When the subtle sway of his thin frame found sure footing and a solid distribution of weight upon the cane in his left hand, Nicholas’ father let his hand fall away from his son. 

“Of course, we have much ahead of us before we think on such things.” Dr. Abbey assured the guests he conversed with, casting a proud gaze over to his son.  “Since my son is a certified physician now, he’ll be taking over some of the responsibilities at the hospital and managing the orphanage.”

“How noble!” One gentlewoman chirped in compliment.

“To return from war only to sacrifice even more, you’re too good Dr. Abbey.” That time, the words had been directed at Nicholas. 

“Oh,” he started stupidly.  “It’s no sacrifice.  Actually, I quite like children.”  This was well received, for whatever reason, a few ladies in the crowd even bringing their hands to their bosoms in a theatrical aweing.  He pretended not to notice the way he mother leered from the other side of his father, jealous for the spotlight stolen from she who rightfully deserved it.   

“He does have a way with them.” Abbey Sr. elaborated, his tone dripping with a shining pride that flirted with the borders of arrogance. 

“Even the horse-fuckers?” A man donning his own dress uniform inquired casually.  His chest was as decorated with resplendently polished metal as Nicholas’.  The insignia on his shoulder indicated his rank as a Lieutenant-General.  To most, it meant he was a man of position and title, someone to be respected.  Nicholas, however, knew that it meant he was a yellow-belly with a fat ass; nothing more than an old man who spent the war sitting in a bunker, sipping tea, while ordering young men to the front lines to die.  His duty uniform was probably as crisp and unstained as the day he had been handed the damned thing, along with a pair of boots and the word of the One, the Book of the Many. 

“Yes, Lieutenant-General, sir.” Nicholas offered in a measured tone, the light returning to his eyes but none of the warmth.  “Even the horse-fuckers.”

King Kade - Reigning from the North

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“You’re uglier than before.”

Christopher Abbey Junior had found his younger brother sequestered in a quiet corner of the ballroom, a plate of horderves in his hands, many of them already stuffed in his cheeks.  He too wore a dress uniform of the Imperial Forces, the same crossed maces patched against his shoulder like all the others.  While Christopher and his brother both donned the red, braided rope around their right shoulders and matching sash around their waists, Nicholas’ uniform varied from his brother’s in many ways.  While surely the white sash across his chest and the many medals dangling from his left breast pocket drew enough attention, the most notable of all his ceremonial decorations was the rapier sheathed at his hip.  The hilt was encrusted from solid gold, giving momentum to a thrust should the weapon be used in combat, but otherwise only adding weight to an already heavy ensemble.  The leather of the scabbard it was sheathed in was etched with phrases from the Book of the Many, the blade blessed by his Holiness the Archbishop and presented to the receiving officer by the Emperor himself.  It was the highest possible honour within the Imperial Forces, and like a jealous little boy, Christopher couldn’t stop staring at it. 

“You’re fatter.” Nicholas retorted, talking with his mouth half-full and pushing his circular lenses up his nose with fingers armed with further nourishment for his own withering physique. 

“So are you going to tell me what really happened?” Christopher asked, crossing his arms over his chest.  He wasn’t fat at all, Christopher Abbey Jr.  In fact, his was rather strapping, certainly more so than his younger brother.  Standing nearly half a head taller and more than twice as wide, he was built with all the strength and good looks that failed to reach Nicholas in their mother’s womb.  His hair shone like the sun itself, his jaw strong, his lips full and of course his bright green eyes could spot an eagle in the sky from ten miles off on a cloudy day.  Better at Nicholas in everything for all of their lives, constantly overshadowing him in every way, it was curious to see him struggling to get the attention he was typically accustomed to.  For once, the gleaming beam of fame and focus was not on him, but another and moreover, another who wanted it not in the tiniest bit.  How frustrated then, he must be. 

“What do you mean?” Nicholas asked in return. 

“C’mon, Nicky…” He started, stepping towards his little brother and looking at him in the same way he used to look at him before he hit him, or knocked the books from his hands.  “Everyone’s heard the story, the outpost that lost all its commanding officers, the medic who had to take command as Captain, the suicide mission that won the Empire the Eastern Front overnight?” He elaborated, raising his expressive gold-threaded eyebrows at his younger brother expectantly. 

“So what’s your question?” Nicholas asked. 

“My question is, what really happened?” He repeated himself, taking another step forward.  “Because there’s no way, not a chance in all the Many Hells, that a coward like you pulled off something like that.”

Nicholas flicked his gaze up to his brother’s and while there was not cruelty or even prickliness to be found in his brown hues, there was something swimming within them that gave Christopher a momentary pause.  Swallowing what he held in his mouth and finding a surface upon which to set the rest, Nicholas turned his attention to his older brother with a calm indifference.  “You’ve heard the story and that’s what happened, though not as glamorous as singers tell it -- did you know men shit themselves when they die?” His cadence was jarring, his attitude unlike himself.  Visibly, Christopher recoiled in confusion at the sight of it.  Nicholas had always been the type to turn the other cheek.  Their father used to say that compassion made a good doctor, but Christopher had only ever seen it make a useful and readily available punching bag of his brother.  He would take the cut lip, the cut feelings, always bleeding in one way or another.  The last thing Christopher would have ever expected however, would have been that this war would return to him a baby brother who had learned how to cut back. 

“Let me ask you something, brother.” Nicholas started.  This time, it was his turn to make the advance.  As his left foot came to the parquet floors alongside his cane, his brother’s same foot retreated in equal measure.  “If I’m a coward, what does that make you?” He asked, a hauntingly pleasant smile on his unremarkable lips. 

Christopher’s handsome features twisted into an ugly shape.  As his face started going red, he swung a kicking foot hard at Nicholas’ cane, meaning to knock it out from under him.  Instead however, the broad side of his foot struck hard against a seemingly immovable object.  Fortunately, his embarrassing yelp could not be heard above the roar of the party-goers and music as he buckled onto himself and clutched at his polished shoe.  “What’s…? How…?” He stammered, supporting his weight with one arm against the ballroom wall.  From the angle he found himself in, in the midst of his agony, he was able to better see the cane that his brother walked with.  Now he could see, as clearly as if he should have always been able to, that this was no ordinary cane.  His younger brother’s thumb pushed against a tiny notch, making a string of small gears and complex winding mechanisms moving along its length, a ghostly blue flickering at its base.  This was not something that could be bought on the street, or even in the black market, but rather something entirely new that Christopher -- with all his worldly knowledge -- had never seen before.  As the mechanism stopped it’s function, the cane that previously been impossibly rooted to the floor now moved in Nicholas’ hand as effortlessly as if it were a feather. 

“I installed a composite alloy, embedded into a lodestone, into the base which, when activated, connects its component atoms to that of the earth’s crust…” Nicholas explained flippantly.  Upon seeing the confused and bewildered expression on his brother’s face, he leaned forward and spoke slowly saying, “It’s a very strong magnet.”

“You know something, brother?” Nicholas continued, when he was met with only a slack-jawed response.  Righting himself and brushing the crumbs that lingered from the previously devoured horderves, the fought against the headache pressing in against his temples with a clenched jaw.  “You haven’t changed.”  Christopher had underestimated his little brother for their entire lives and would likely continue to for a little while longer still.  Eventually however, Christopher would come to realize, along with everyone else, that while they might not have changed, Nicholas had.  In fact, Nicholas was very, very different. 

“I think I could use that distraction right about now.” Nicholas whispered into his father’s ear, leaning in next to him after braving the crowd for long enough to find him.  Cleverly, the Lord of Abbeyshire made his way to the stage where he commenced a long-winded toast.  With everyone looking in the opposite direction, Nicholas was give the time he needed to make his none-too-hasty escape.  He retreated out the same way he oft had has a boy, through the garden doors behind the grand staircase.  They opened out first onto the terrace, but following the inlain stone path through the garden brought a wanderer to the hedges, wherein he could get lost.  He took his hat from his head, carrying it in his hand as he walked so he could better gaze up at the stars beginning to show through the translucency of the darkening sky.  Orange and pink had given way now to purples and reds, the moon beginning it’s nightly chase across the sky after her unreachable lover, the sun.  Walking soothed him, in spite of the pain.  As he walked he thought about the hospital, the children he had seen today.  The doctors seemed to be rather fond of him, though naturally Nicholas had to assume they were simply trying their best to be agreeable with him.  There had been, of course, that nurse who had initially received him.  She seemed serious, which Nicholas respected in a practitioner of medicine, but she also seemed unaffected by his presence, as though she didn’t care about him.  Nicholas liked that well enough, he didn’t care about him either, after all. 

Suddenly, as if by some weird magic, he spotted her sprawled in the grass in the glades beyond the gardens.  Halting at once in his tracks, he looked at her shape, like a toy dropped and forgotten by a careless child.  She was wearing her nurse uniform, looking just as he had seen her earlier that day, now laying lifeless amidst the green.  Nicholas felt his breathing become ragged as the next wave of panic rolled upon him, setting off his lip to twitching.  He blinked hard against the sight, willing it away.  Usually it wasn’t like this, usually it was…

Dust… Blood… Mixed in together, splashed against the rubble… It’s so quiet… Why is it so quiet…?   What’s missing… ?  Where’s the ticking…?


Can’t think about that. 

Don’t think about that.

His tongue tapped against the roof of his mouth as his lips pursed and flinched, whispering under his breath, “no, no, no, no, no…” The cane beneath his hand whirred to life as the gears moved into action, providing him with the stability that neither his mind nor his body could provide.  He shuffled forward, one step at a time.  There was a voice in his head that told him to look away, to run away, but he never did.  He had to see.  Always, he had to see.  This time was different from the others, though.  It felt off, as if there was something he was missing.  He had never seen someone like this, someone who he didn’t know, who he had just met, but here she was called forth from his thoughts.  The Major who had overseen his transfer after the incident had warned him about this, about how returning home could make things worse.  He had advised him to stay on for a while longer, but he had gotten that letter from his father and been so eager to return to the one place that made everything worse.  Each time he came home, things got worse…

Who’s there?” She demanded suddenly, sitting up. 

“You’re real?” He asked back.  When her head turned at the sound of his voice and her eyes found his, the breath he had been choking on rushed back into his lungs all at once.  Pinching his cap between his fingers and his cane, he pushed the gloved fingers of his free hand across his hair, as though that was what had been out of place and not his ill-functioning psyche or his broken mind.  “I mean, what are you doing out here?”  He tried, finding the words awkward in his mouth, the mask difficult to repair after having already shattered it from the first. 

The heavy, wet beating of his heart against his ribs had begun to settle and he limped his way towards the fence that separated them.  She looked familiar to him, but then again he had seen her face a hundred times, reflected in a hundred of her people.  The beauty of the riders from the Dominion of the Queens, was considered less desirable among the Elite of the Empire of Britannica.  Her face, however, was not a difficult one to look at.  Her features stayed pretty even in her dismay, even as they began to twist, even as they changed, like the colours do on the scales of a chameleon, in the glow of the rising moon.  “Shouldn’t you be out with the rest of the staff?” He asked conversationally.  He needed more words from her.  He needed to see, to be sure this was what it was.  “The lanterns are all still lit in the Square, most of the stalls still open too I think.”

King Kade - Reigning from the North

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“You’re real?” a voice rang out from the gardens and she twisted towards the sound, disdain flitting across her features.

“What sort of idiotic question is--” she began tartly, all too familiar with talking back at a moment’s notice, but the words lost their edge as the intruder came into view. The intruder was Nicholas Abbey. “...oh,” Alice uttered as her heart leapt. Before she could offer him a sincerely insincere apology, however, he was attempting to amend his clumsy question.

“I mean, what’re you doing out here?” he hastily asked, limping closer. It wasn’t a surprising question; young women had no business traipsing about at dusk alone, and they were certainly not to be rolling around in the grass. Alice, however, who’d been carelessly breaking those rules since she was a child despite her pearl-clutching keepers, was no stranger to letting that question go ignored.

Instead of answering she stood and mirrored his actions, walking up to the fence that divided the two of them and letting her gaze wash over him. He looked much more like an Abbey son now, decked out in an ill-fitting formal suit, and despite the soft light of the rising moon he positively glittered, the medals pinned to his chest polished to a brilliant shine. A decorated war hero. The same twisting, bitter smile began to well up within her. How many of her people had he slaughtered to earn those pretty trinkets, she wondered. On his shoulder was the familiar patch, the symbol of the empire that had torn her home apart, the very same she’d seen on uniforms and flags alike the day she lost her family. However, like many of the people, he would have met that night, her attention could not help but stray to the most decadent of all his accessories--the gleaming rapier at his hip. Like them, she stared, though the thoughts running through her mind were not ones of admiration or even envy. While his was encrusted with gold, she could recall plainer models gracing the sides of the soldiers who had overrun their camp and dragged her from the barrel her mother had hidden her in.

“Fuck! The little bitch bit me!” she could still hear the soldier scream, taste the iron on her tongue, feel the unpleasant chunk of flesh in her mouth. The rapier held high, glittering harshly in the dying light--

“Shouldn’t you be out with the rest of the staff?” he asked, and Alice forced her gaze away from the weapon and back up to his bespectacled eyes. “The lanterns are all still lit in the Square, most of the stalls still open too I think.” After a day of grueling work, some of the nurses and orderlies had still found it within them to try and enjoy themselves in the square. She’d overheard a group or two promising to meet up at such and such an hour, filled with the kind of excitement she believed was better off left to children. No one had invited her, of course, but Alice had no interest in parades or carnivals. It all seemed to her like a paper thin farce to mask all that was rotten with this place--no, she’d rather be buried in the tall grass, making fireflies her lanterns.

“I’m not fond of crowds,” the dark-haired girl answered simply. It was an honest answer--she saw enough of crowds and staff members during work hours anyhow. “Shouldn’t you be inside with the rest of the socialites, doctor?” she then turned the question back on him, tit for tat, arching a brow. “It seems to me we’re both a bit out of place,” she concluded, daring to equate herself to the young master of Abbeyshire. Before any sort of wounded pride could rear its head within him she tilted her head, a spark of mischief coming through in an impish half-smile as she leaned in conspiringly. “I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.”

In that short exchange alone she’d established common ground and bound them together with an inconsequential promise, a shared secret, an inside joke. This sort of game was child’s play to her by now--turns of phrases, a certain look in the eyes, the curve of a lip. It all began with finding out the kind of woman a man wanted. Some wanted innocent virgins too pure for the earthly world, while others wanted a devilish temptress or a scornful ice queen. She could be any or all of those, a man’s fantasies come alive to flesh and bone once the bedroom doors closed. Had Nicholas Abbey been introduced to her as a customer, she would have perhaps pegged him as the type to respond well to a shy, wholesome maiden, blossoming to attention beneath kind words. Of course, that mask was going to be a difficult one to don since he’d already encountered her as a very different creature indeed, but Alice was not concerned. 

There was a large number of things one learned in her profession, but one of the surprising things she’d come to understand was the very simple key to building a relationship. No matter the kind of relationship, feigned or genuine, platonic or romantic, people wanted to feel special, to be a unique existence to another person unable to be replaced by just another body. Men always seemed to want to forget that they were just another customer to her, even if she was just another whore to most of them. Therein lay her simple but effective ploy; she would have him believe that he alone was able to see through the cracks in her cynical, barbed mask. Real skin turned to a mask, a mask inverted into skin.

Perhaps it was all madness, a delusion of a mind that had started to fester too long ago. There were many reasons why people played the game of seduction, but at the end of the day it was about desire, want. Some wanted a fleeting, torrid distraction from the boredom of their lives, and others chased after a desirable marriage. Many of her fellow girls continued to play the wretched game out of a base desire for survival, while ones like Evangeline thirsted and hungered for every scrap of power that could be wrested from between tangled sheets, climbing higher and higher on the teetering ladder.  As for Alice--well, once as a silly child she had wanted nothing more than a pair of wings so she could fly free from this cage, but now she understood it was an impossible dream. She’d long given up on such folly. As she regarded the young man before her, her piercing stare momentarily took on the starry, pious gaze of a girl kneeling at the altar. Her wants were of a smaller, more humble nature now; she’d learned, she’d repented. A single match would suffice, one little match to have it all go up in flames--oh, just a tiny wish, she thought--won’t you grant it, dearheart?
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“Oh, I can keep a secret, alright.” He assured her at once, taking another limping step forward.  Reaching for the iron-wrought fence that separated them, gloved fingers curling around the bars, he winced at his own folly and drew forth a bashful laugh from his shy expression.  “Did that sound too eager?” Nicholas asked, a nervous smirk tickling at his lips, twisting his broad-set mouth.  “You’ll have to forgive me, I’ve been at shoulders with nothing but soldiers for too long, it seems I’ve forgotten how to talk to a woman.” Having stolen a brief reprieve for his good leg, he unfolded his fingers from around the bars of the fence to slip them between, offering his hand to the young lady on the other side.  “I never did get your name, Miss…?” He let the words hang in the air the same fashion they had in the hospital, his eyebrows lifting towards the starry sky in the same expectant way.  Nicholas had always been charming and likable, even as a young boy.  There was a subtle edge to his lighthearted gestures now, a barely recognizable nuance in the darting of his smart brown eyes.  Once the innocent traits of a good heart, now the rag rubbed raw against hands that would never be free from the stain of red. 

“Well met.” Nicholas returned politely before withdrawing his hand from hers.  Alice.  It wasn’t a name often heard amidst her kind, like others that echoed between calling keepers like bells chiming. 

A silence hung in the air between them that was both peacefully mutual and jarringly familiar.  Each had come out to this quiet place for their own reasons, but sought the same ends.  Silence and solitude.  There was safety in the silence, a reassurance born from having only oneself to be aware of and in engagement with.  The chaos of the party, the clatter of jazz music and the dank odor of overdressed bodies pressing in tightly served not in making Nicholas feel at home, but instead just the opposite.  Coincidentally, it was in the moment when people were at their highest point of elation, that they were closest to that teetering edge over which one toppled into the endless abyss.  They all smelled too strongly, made too much noise, and looked surprised to find themselves without footing and falling, the light fading from them.  Rather, in Nicholas’ case the light pushed in too fiercely around him, rapping incessant knuckles against his skull.  Out in the gardens however, where the breeze could touch his skin but the bushes hugged in close enough to brush their leaves against his shoulders, he found the breath he had been searching for. 

“You want to hear the silliest part of all of this?” He asked her, leaning his weight against the hand that gripped his cane.  “I’m not fond of crowds either.” He hissed conspiratorially, letting a giggle ripple the performance.  “Isn’t that the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard?” There was a small part of him that was mildly aware that he was allowing the conversation to stray beyond the point that was typically appropriate between members of the Abbey family and their attending staff.  “It’s meant to be a party for me, after all, isn’t it?  But I hate parties.  And I mean, truly, I hate them.”  There was a larger part of him however, a much more broken part, that craved conversation with someone, anyone, who wasn’t hanging onto their last threads, who hadn’t already gone completely around the bend.  This Alice wasn’t a patient babbling nonsense, nor a socialite clucking bullshit.  She was a person and she was talking to him.  For Nicholas, that was more than enough. 

“Really, I always have.  No honestly, there’s no excuse for it.” Smiling along with the melody of her laughter, stifled into the back of a dainty hand, he found himself grateful for her company.  Difficult to approach and heavily guarded, he had been up against fiercer odds and still managed to wrangle a happy moment from tragedy.  It was his greatest talent as a doctor, to pull pleasure from pain.  Though, admittedly, he was less well-versed in the wrassling it took in the instance of some women.  He knew not a thing about them, beyond the anatomy working beneath the flesh, sinew and muscle.  Always however, he’d been called a quick study. 

“I hope I’m not keeping you.” Nicholas added, the laughter still lingering on his lips.  “Will I see you at the hospital tomorrow?”

Christopher found his father, after the meaningful and tearshedding speech he had given, out on the veranda that overlooked the gardens.  He had heard him coming, turning at the sound, but when his eyes found those of his eldest son he turned away, uncaring smoothing his features.  For an instant, Christopher hesitated.  With a head tilting slightly to one side the way a little boy’s might, he regarded his father and his handsome tailed coat.  The eldest of the Abbey sons did not often speak with his father about matters beyond those of the Estate’s affairs.  They exchanged sums and lists, stoney featured and business-like in their conduct.  “And to my brilliant son, Christopher, my namesake, I could not be more proud…” He’d spoken the words tenderly in the toast he had made to the ballroom.  They toasted to his Excellency the Emperor, the Abbey legacy and sure even Nicholas but they had also toasted to Christopher.  It was more than he’d ever let himself want for.  Not all, as Nicholas so often thought, and not even some but rather, just a piece of his father’s love.  Just one, tiny piece of it. 

“Don’t linger, Christopher.” His father suddenly called, keeping his back to him.  “Either tell me what you want or go away.”

“Of course…” Son started at once, coming to stand beside his father.  “I wanted only to -- oh.” Coming to the edge of the terrace and looking out across the gardens, Christopher could see that their father was watching after the younger of the Abbey sons.  His frail figure, resplendent in the moonlight with all his shining achievements, was at the rear of the garden.  He looked to be talking with a nurse he didn’t recognize at the distance, still donning her uniform. 

“We have to be careful with Nicholas.  He can’t know too much.” Dr. Abbey started, the serious tone he usually carried settling in place of the warm one with which he had conducted the previous monologue to the crowded ballroom.  He had a knack for that, Christopher’s father, to turn your conversation around on you and make it his.

“Why?” Christopher asked, bitterness seeping past his lips in spite of his best efforts. 

“He isn’t ready.  The War took much from him.” Never did Dr. Abbey take his eyes from his youngest son’s figure in the gardens.  One hand he kept tucked neatly in his pocket and the other pinched a long-necked glass of champagne between careful fingers.  He looked the picture perfect image of a Noble-born Lord, doting upon his child.  Except of course, for the fact that another child stood before him, utterly neglected in the eclipse of his adoration for his second-born.  “Once he’s adjusted, I’ll explain things.  I don’t expect he’ll like it but I’m sure he’ll come to understand.”  Pausing, he took a sip from his glass.  “It’s just the way of the new world, after all.”

“But what if he never adjusts?” Christopher tried.  “You know, father, I could…” He started, seeing Lord Abbey’s brown eyes turning to him at last.  He had hoped he might see promise there but instead he saw the all too familiar chill of his usual icy stare. 

“You could what?” He spat back.  “What is it that you could do, Junior?” Christopher always wondered if perhaps his father would say that word with just a drop of pride if it had been Nicholas to whom the name was given.  “You’re a fool, a waste of my time, a waste of a well-paid education.” Dr. Abbey hissed coolly, turning away again.  “I’d have already had you killed if your mother didn’t find you useful.”

“But… But you said…” Christopher tried. 

“What?  That, in there?” The Lord of the Abbeyshire retorted, a cruel sneer on his mouth.  “You think I meant a word of that?  That I’d really be proud of you?  That I’d really be proud of this?” He reached for his son’s wrist.  When Christopher pulled away he grabbed harder, twisting at the joint and bringing his gloved hand into the light of the moon.  Both father and son knew what lay beneath the white of the dress uniform gloves, the ragged scar of the bullet that traveled through the palm of Christopher’s hand.  It was a well known wound, seen often in the Imperial Forces.  A cowards wound.  As Christopher winced at the pain in his wrist, his father smirked with pleasure at his discomfort. 

“But, but I’m your heir.” Christopher whined. 

“You’ll get the title, even the Estate…”  Dr. Abbey started, dropping his grip on his son’s wrist as casually and coldly as when he had first seized it. 

“The hospital?” Christopher asked suddenly. 

“To your brother.” He answered without inflection, simple fact. 

“But everything’s tied up in the hospital, all the investments, all the capital, it’s all…”  Wide, desperate eyes looked to his father, startled somehow to find them looking back. 

“Like I said, Junior,” Lord Abbey began, taking a threatening step to close the space that separated himself and his son.  “You’re a fool.”  As he spoke he tipped his champagne glass forward, letting the remaining sparkling wine drip down the front of Christopher’s uniform.  “And now look, you clumsy thing, you’ve gone and spilled all over yourself.” He took on the mocking cadence of a concerned parent, the closest he’d ever come to actually playing the role of one for his eldest.  “Best to turn in, son.  You seem a bit in your drink.” He offered, patting his son on the shoulder, a gentle gesture turned ingenuine and cruel.  When he lingered an instance too long the theatrics fell away, and with a freezing malice he told his son, “fuck off,” whilst waving a dismissive hand to him.  He didn’t bother to watch him go when he finally did, turning back instead to the gardens and his youngest son in them.  Finally, with his eldest having stormed off someplace else, his beloved likely already in the arms of another, he set his mind to his precious boy instead.  Charming, brave and with enough filling out, perhaps even strapping, Nicholas had become everything that his father had ever wanted for him.  Now, he was home, at last.   Finally, the good doctor could begin to put his plans and pieces into place, setting the board for the game to be played.

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“Did that sound too eager?” he added with a nervous smile. “You’ll have to forgive me, I’ve been at shoulders with nothing but soldiers for too long, it seems I’ve forgotten how to talk to a woman,” he admitted, and Alice could not help but utter a little laugh that was more genuine than not. But of course, of course! He had left the nest too young to partake of his family’s own business, then spent six years surrounded by men. He knew nothing about what both hunter and husband could say about the female of the species.

“Forgotten how to talk to a woman?” she echoed, smiling teasingly. “Well, I’m having no trouble understanding you.” She almost felt a pinch of pity for him--the poor boy, she’d swallow him whole. She’d take and take and take until he had no more to give, until she had his soul between her jaws, his future under her nails. Possessed, obsessed with something he’d never attain, she’d watch him wither away to nothing along with the Abbey name. It’d be a fitting retribution for the family who had sucked their victims dry, perhaps even too kind of a comeuppance--but by now Alice knew to take the small victories.

“I never did get your name, Miss…?” he asked.

“Alice,” she supplied, placing her hand within his gloved one. It was a name that slid off her tongue easily enough by now, though her keepers had rarely referred to her as thus when she was a child. It’d mostly been variants of ‘impossible little savage’ or the like--of course, most of the time the monikers had been well earned by her antics. Oh, she’d been a horrid child, wild and spitefully rebellious, completely falling flat of such a pretty name--but now she knew how to say the name with a charming smile, to play the fitting role too.

She leaned closer still to the iron bars as his voice dropped to a secretive hiss, letting out another laugh. It was easy to play along, too easy. “No excuse, indeed. It’s a ghastly secret--a socialite who hates parties--imagine the scandal,” she whispered back, joking with the gaunt young man. Open, trusting, and inexperienced with women to boot. Could it be any more perfect?

“I hope I’m not keeping you,” he said, still smiling. “Will I see you at the hospital tomorrow?” At that innocuous question, she knew she had him.

“Oh, they won’t miss me for a little longer,” she waved her hand dismissively, settling back down in the grass comfortably without a thought for grass stains. Drawing out her pocket watch, she checked to see where the needle was striking before closing it with a crisp click. “After all, it’s not like I’m the guest of honor at a grand party or anything,” the dark-haired girl retorted, shooting him a mirthful look through her lashes. Well, she was safe for the time being, anyway. There’d be hell to pay if she wasn’t there on time.

“But tomorrow? Maybe, if you can find me among the dozens of other nurses,” Alice challenged lightly, her smile impish as she shrugged. “Think of it as a scavenger hunt.”

As the great clock tower in the heart of Abbeyshire chimed out its song to signal the flow from dusk to night time, many across the shire began their own transitions. Strapping young men and fetching young women each shed their daytime appearances to become flowers of the night, blossoming madly underneath the cold glow of the moon. All handpicked by a certain pair of sharp, appraising eyes, each had their unique allure and charm, and the looks and skills to back it all up. Dressed up to please, to enchant, to arouse, they were placed carefully as any other decoration for private parties or sequestered in a lavish apartment like a wrapped sweet to be ripped open and devoured.

Poised at the center of the massive bed, Alice absentmindedly ran a hand over the luxurious threading that made up the covers. She picked at it with the edge of a nail, prying a thread loose before letting her gaze wander around the room for what had to be the hundredth time. It was a gorgeous sight, richly decorated with furniture of the finest quality, including mahogany, crystal, and ivory. Next to a carved desk and chair a large mirror hung, polished to a brilliant shine. Though her own personal quarters were devoid of such finery, there was not a trace of awe in the dark eyes reflected in the looking glass. Her expression was blank, her delicate features taking on an eerily doll-like quality--empty, lifeless. She hated this part, possibly even more than any other part of these bloody encounters. With no character to play, the several minutes of waiting in an empty room stretched out to eons, leaving her with nothing to do in the silence but see the wretched truth reflected back so callously at her. Here, she could hear all the words rattling around her head. It was sickening. It was maddening.

The sound of footsteps in the hallway shook her out of the swirling miasma, bringing her attention to the door before her. She stared at it as if she could look through the heavy wood if she tried hard enough, every nerve in her body quivering to attention as the door began to creak open. As a face finally came into view, the very air seemed to shift in response as she came alive.  

“You came back!” she gushed, delight in her voice as she leaped up from the bed, jumping hastily to her feet. Though she was standing now, her fingers excitedly fidgeting behind her, she made no move to approach the man. He was a middle-aged gentleman, the slightest hint of silver beginning to mar his well-coiffed chestnut hair. Though his youth was fading, there was a lively spark in his eyes that spoke to his desire to remain buried in those nostalgic days.

“I’m a man of my word,” he winked, carelessly removing his coat and tossing it over the plush chair. “Did you miss me?” he asked, spreading his arms towards her.

“More than you could imagine,” she pouted, loneliness tainting her expression as she crossed her arms, refusing to step into his embrace. “You’ve a cruel heart to leave me for so long.”

“Sweetling, I’m a busy man,” he reminded her, his tone placating. “I promise I won’t be long next time.”

“Promise?” she asked, hope trickling into the question.

“Promise,” he repeated, smiling broadly. “Now come here, love.”

She hung back for a moment longer before she finally gave in, cautiously approaching the man who immediately scooped her up into his arms. Letting out a squeak of protest, her cheeks flushing red, the girl struggled half-heartedly in his arms as he chuckled in amusement. He sat her on the edge of the bed before easing himself onto it as well, reaching out to peel off the layers sheltering her flesh as her fingers shyly unlaced his clothes. His lips and hands roamed over her skin, but when he came to her neck he paused, regarding the accessory ringing it.

“You were wearing this last time too, weren’t you,” he murmured, his hand trailing up to her neck. The girl who had been so obedient in accepting his touches suddenly shied away, blushing furiously.

“I-I, I can’t take it off,” she stammered, her hands pressed against the width of ribbon as if it would fall away.

“Why not? I can’t kiss your pretty little neck like this,” he cajoled. He reached for it once more, only for her slender hands to grasp them and lead them down to her breasts instead.

“It was a custom from my tribe for girls to wear a woven thread around their neck,” she informed him softly, looking thoroughly embarrassed. “The legends would say that a girl who wore it until she married would be blessed by a happy marriage and healthy babes.” He looked at her, amusement tugging at the corner of his lips. “I-I know, I know it’s silly, but… I believe in it.” She averted her gaze. “Please don’t be mad,” she whispered pleadingly.

The gentleman let out a laugh, reaching up to grasp her chin. “Mad? What a delightful little thing you are,” he crooned indulgently, as if he were speaking to a child. “So charming, I might just steal you away to be my bride.”

Of course, he was lying. Promises made in bed held no meaning, and she understood that as well as any of her fellow playthings. It was almost quite hilarious, seeing that Alice had caught on from their very first encounter that he was married. Still, he could utter these meaningless lies effortlessly because, in the end, she was nothing but a toy to him. A commodity, a service, not fully human. He did not have to fear breaking her heart, because girls like her had nothing left to break. Despite knowing it all, despite the black anger in her heart, she never let any of it show. After all, who was she to judge them for lying? She lied better than the lot of them put together, the queen of pretend. So instead of laughing bitterly and spitting in his face, she lied back, letting her eyes grow round, glowing with childlike wonder. “Really? Would you really?” she queried, the very image of sweet naivety, the gentleman’s favored brand of poison.

He chuckled, pressing a kiss to her lips. “I might consider it,” he breathed, his words dripping with meaning. “If you’re a good girl.”

“Oh,” the dark-haired girl murmured innocently against his lips, a stark contrast to the way her hand traipsed downwards. “I can be good. Very, very good.”
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“Six years…” She mused as she walked down the corridors of her grand estate, her arm linked through that of her husband’s.  “Has it really been six years?”

“Longer,” Lord Abbey answered.  “Nicholas was in medical school before the war, so really, it’s been more like ten years.”

The more common people of the Abbeyshire made their leave some time past from the lavish party hosted by the Estate.  They moved their frivolity to the Square, wherein the revelry would continue well into the early hours of the morning.  The younger workers, who were permitted to end their chores early in favour of a good sleep, would be sent out at dawn to clean the mess.  Though the halls of the Abbeyshire Estate, the very same that both Lord and Lady traversed down, were empty the Estate itself was decidedly not so.  Behind doors and curtains, behind screens and luxurious dividers, the boys and girls were being put to work.  It was easy enough to match a client with their companion, easy enough to see through a heart and know its deepest desires.  At least, easy for the Lady Abbey.  Some men were greedy, and wanted more than just one girl.  Some women were bashful, and needed to be told just which boy would have them.  There was a deeper truth to this world, a truth that the Lady Abbey had known since before she became a Lady at all; everyone wants something.  The people of the world, without delicacy or intuition, spent so much time trying to find or even figure out what it is they might want, they failed to understand the power in identifying the same in another.  Lady Abbey understood that power, however.  She understood it better than anyone. 

“Here we are, my love.” Lord Abbey said, opening the large double doors to her chambers.  She stepped inside ahead of him, but he followed after her like an obedient maid.  He would leave when, and only when, she dismissed him.  The honourable and clever Lord Abbey.   Like his father and his father before, and his father’s, father’s father, he lorded over the sacred land as was his birthright.  The Lady Abbey had been little more than a commoner, a banker’s daughter, when she had met her husband.  At once she had known what he wanted and how to use it.  Now, she had him.  Thus, she had the Shire. 

“Christopher left the party rather upset,” she began conversationally as she glided across the lavishly carpeted floor.  Lord Abbey, by contrast, stood with his hands folded behind his back near the doors to her rooms.  Such a good slave, he was.  “I don’t think our boys are getting along.”

“Our boys have never gotten along.” Lord Abbey returned.  “You should send Christopher away.”  Parents often denied having a favourite amidst their children.  The Lord and Lady Abbey were more honest with each other than most. 

“I will,” she began, floating her way into her closets.  “In time.” She called out from within. 

“I know you have designs to see him in Parliament,” Lord Abbey mused from his place by the doors, raising his voice marginally so it could be heard by his wife.  “But he has not the mind for politics.  He will fail at it, as he does all things.”

“I disagree.” She called back.  “He has a mind for finances, which will get him far enough.  Besides, he prefers the city to the country.” Emerging from her closets, she shrugged her satin, purple robes over her flowing nightgown, seating herself at the ornate vanity that occupied the central space of one wall.  “With Christopher in Parliament, he’ll choose of course, to stay in Londinium, and our operation beyond the reach of the law makers, Nicholas will be free to become Lord of the Abbeyshire in all but name.” She dragged a finger over the charcoal that lined her eyes, reaching next for a small jar of rouge that she patted onto her lips and cheeks.  Her husband watched her, knowing she did not freshen up or dress in gorgeous night robes for his sake. 

“Why not in name?” He asked, a bold question from a slave.

“Because names and titles are for sheep, and he is a wolf, like me.” The Lady Abbey answered smoothly.  “He does not belong to the Empire, or the Shire,” pausing, she found her husband’s gaze in the mirror before continuing in that halting voice of hers saying, “or even you.” Pressing her palms flat against the surface of her vanity, she rose from the small, plush stool she had been sitting in.  Turning to Christopher Abbey Senior, her wedded husband, she levelled him with her predatory gaze, smiling at the way he shrunk beneath it.  “He is mine.  And so he will stay, just Nicholas; my Nicholas.” 

“As you say, my love.” Lord Abbey conceded, letting his eyes fall to the carpeted floor beneath his feet.  He traced the patterns with his warm, brown eyes, the same eyes as their youngest son.  Padding her way across the room to him, she slipped a manicured finger beneath his chin, lifting his gaze back to her own. 

“Would you send for him?” She asked, her velvety voice caressing his cheek along with her wandering thumb. 

“What?” The Lord Abbey asked, incredulousness fixing his features into an expression of horror. 

“Like you said,” she started, stepping away from her husband and toying with the golden locket around her neck.  Within the finely crafted jewelry, rested a miniature of each of her children.  “It’s been nearly ten years…” she let her voice trail off as her feet carried her to the grand window of her chambers.  It looked out onto the gardens and the hospital beyond.  He’d be within the endless rooms of the large building, somewhere settling into a tiny cot where he could have instead a lavish and grand bed to rest his weary head.  Not even war could take from him his childish fears, still too afraid to even share a roof with his mother.  He must have known that this would be her first thought upon his return.  Clever boy.  More clever than his father had ever been, or his brother.  Clever like she was.  “Do you think he misses me, misses us?”

“No.” Came the Lord Abbey’s response, a surprise to his wife, as surprising as it surely was to him as well.  “No, I won’t do it.”

“What did you say?” He had never before refused her, not for anything.  Turning on him, her emerald green eyes narrowed into a wolfish stare.  “What did you just say to me?”

“Please, my love.  I’ll send for any boy you might want tonight, I’ll even pull them from their appointments and escort them myself just… Not Nicholas.” She was standing in front of him now, and while he might not have moved an inch, the hopeless and desperate expression he wore on his face meant he might as well have been laying on his back, a tiny forest creature beneath the tooth of the wolf who hunted him.  “I won’t survive it if he leaves again.” He added, attempting to appeal to whatever humanity might still reside within his wife, no matter how small, how microscopic it may be.  After all, there was something within her; something that made her cold heart beat.   

“Please, Lucretia,” he pleaded.  “I’m begging you.”

“Very well.” There was a gentility in her voice as she spoke, but the Lord Abbey knew better than to take it for genuine compassion.  Lucretia Abbey, née Blackmoore, had no compassion.  “You can bring me Dashielle, instead.” She supplied, a velvety delicacy overtaking her stunning features.  Beautiful beyond measure, and utterly terrifying.  The Lord Abbey never stood a chance, even from the first. 

“For now.”

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“Thank you again, my Lord.” A smartly dressed man praised, shaking the hand of the good Dr. Abbey.  Beneath his arm, he carried his top hat, using both hands to envelope that of their ruling Lordship. 

“Think nothing of it, Rupert, old friend.” The Lord of the Abbeyshire returned. 

“Well, we just want you to know the depths of our gratitude.” Rupert’s wife assured from the other side of her husband.  “You know, we lost our eldest to the cough two summer’s back.”

“I remember, my Lady.” The doctor agreed, nodding woefully to the Baroness of Hornhelm Point.  “I’m just glad this was only a minor case.”

“You must be very proud of your son, my Lord.” Baron Rupert Horn commented, his eyes falling to the limping doctor who walked ahead of them down the hospital corridors.  The hand not occupied with his weight against his cane, held their little girl’s tiny one as she skipped alongside his crooked gait, a smile painted on her face. 

“I am, indeed.” The good doctor replied, feeling bleeding into his professional tone. 

“Can I come back to see you?” She asked, the little girl that clung to Nicholas’ hand.  He gave her a tug, lifting her off her feet slightly as he did.  So distracted, as she was, looking up at him, she hadn’t seen the nurse’s caddy she had nearly hopped herself directly into. 

“Well, that would mean you’d be sick again.” Nicholas pointed out, playfully, shouldering through another set of swinging doors.  “We can’t have that.”

“What if I come back because I’m a doctor, like you?” She asked.  “I should like to be a clever doctor.”

“If you decide to intern after your primary lessons, I’ll put in a good word for you.  How’s that Miss Madison?” He asked back. 

“Can a Lady be a Baroness and and doctor?” An inquisitive finger came to press upon her lip in thought as she spoke her curiosities out loud. 

“I don’t see why not.” Nicholas returned, making the little girl smile even wider. 

“Come, you!” Her father called, coming up behind her to scoop the bundle of squirming child into his arms.  Holding her against his hip, he offered a hand out to Nicholas who took it without hesitation and accepted the grateful gesture of a shake.  “Thank you, doctor.” He offered, a genuine glint in his eye. 

“Wait!” The tiny Lady Madison insisted, fishing something from her pocket.  “For you.” She said, extending a tiny, mechanical dog to Nicholas.  He took it with a smile and even a little laugh.  “His name is Percy.” She explained.  “Now he’ll be your Percy until you get better too.”

“Thank you, Miss Madison.” Nicholas returned sweetly. 

Doctor Abbey came up beside his son, placing a hand on his shoulder and offering the Baron and Baroness of Hornhelm Point a wave and picturesque smile as they disappeared beyond the southern discharge doors of the hospital.  With the doors fallen shut and the patient gone from the premises, he turned to his son and extended a flat palm, eyes coming to the trinket in his hand.  “I’ll toss that for you,” he offered.  “We have many more patients to see to before…” Lord Abbey meant to go on, but his son was interrupting him. 

“Why would I want to throw it away?” Nicholas asked, a wrinkle in his blonde brow.  Regarding his father’s outstretched hand, he pulled the toy away from him and held it against his chest protectively.   

“Well it’s…” Dr. Abbey started, a scoff on his voice.  When his eyes found those of his son’s however, he stopped himself short and softened his expression.  “Forgive me, you’re right of course.”  Nicholas parted his lips, something unkind crawling up his throat, but both father and son were halted in their conversation by a third voice.  It was one that Nicholas recognized. 

“Dr. Abbey?” Alice called from behind the pair.  Both blonde heads turned at the call, but while one offered a passing, scornful gaze, the other met her with a broad smile. 

“You’ve found me.” Nicholas started, turning to the nurse and limping towards her.  “Now you’ve taken all the sport from the game.” He noted, his smile still hanging on his lips.  Had Alice not the attention of the good Dr. Abbey before, she certainly had it now.  He watched her interact with his son, one brow arched high in silent inquisition.  “Is this for me?” Nicholas continued, the pointing finger of the hand that still held onto Percy, gesturing to the files she carried. 

“I expect they’re for me.” Lord Abbey interjected, approaching the pair and snatching the documents from Alice’s hands.  “Come Nicholas, we have other patients.” He took only a few steps before realizing that his son was not following after him, but instead standing still in front of this irrelevant nurse, watching him with a harder look now. 

“Actually,” he began, sharp of tongue and stern in intonation.  “I have need of Miss Alice.” Nicholas explained, smoothly and calmly, in a way that reminded the good Dr. Abbey too much of his wife.  “Besides, we’ll finish our rounds quicker if we work separately.” He added, tapping fingers against the clipboard wedged beneath his cane-hand arm.  “See to the inpatient facility and I’ll be in the pediatrics wing if you have need of me.”

“Alright…” Dr. Abbey said dumbly, for what else was there to say?  “I’ll speak with you again, tonight.”  His youngest son had already turned his brown eyes away from his father, and so with no where else to look, Dr. Abbey shot his dark gaze to the whore that had stolen his boy’s attentions.  Eventually, she too looked away and so, dejected, Lord Abbey stalked off. 

“I’d like your help with a patient, if you aren’t busy.” Nicholas began, walking shoulder to shoulder down the hospital corridors with Alice.  “She’s one of our own, here at the orphanage.” He explained, trying to balance both the clipboard he pulled out from under his arm and the mechanical toy dog in the same hand.  “Her knee is dislocated, it’s not serious and could be popped back into place, but she screams and fits whenever the male physicians try to touch her.”  Looking back to the nurse he spoke with, he noticed that her eyes were not on him but rather the toy dog he held. 

“Oh,” he started, embarrassed of a sudden.  “It’s from a patient.” He explained.  “His name is Percy.” He added, before mentally chiding himself for doing so.  Wincing at himself, trying to hide the blush crawling up his cheeks, he pocketed the toy quickly and held before himself his clipboard and notes instead.  “Anyway, I thought she might feel safer if someone else was there as well.” Nicholas let his eyes fall to the floor, trying to steer the conversation back towards its desired direction.  “Would you mind?”

The pair walked side by side down the halls of the pediatrics wing in silence.  She seemed not to feel the need to fill each moment with words as some of the other nurses did.  Lucy, for example, was one such young woman who would talk for as long as you very well let her.  Fortunately, his father had been there to drag him away from the conversation he’d been too polite to cut short.  With his back against the wall, Nicholas waited outside the room as Alice entered ahead of him.  It was Nicholas’ idea, for her to go in first and talk with the girl, assure her of her safety, so that she’d feel less scared once Nicholas made his appearance.  Surprisingly however, it didn’t take long before he heard Alice call, “come in!” from within the room.  Stepping inside he found her at the bedside of the Greenlandia born girl who clutched desperately at Alice’s hand as though it were a liferaft and she, lost at sea. 

“Hello,” he began cheerily.  “I’m Dr. Abbey.”

“No you’re not.” The small girl retorted immediately.  Her hair was a matted mess from thrashing in her hospice bed, her cheeks stained by the tears surely brought on by the pain in her knee.  The longer it was left untended, the more it would swell. 

“I’m not?” He asked, cocking his head to the side like a startled toddler.  Tucking his clipboard under his arm, he tugged forward his long, white coat, peering down at the nameplate against his lapel.  “I wonder whose uniform, I’m wearing then?” Her eyes regarded him with the same suspicion, but the corner of her lips twitched slightly at his jest.  The first victory of many for Dr. Abbey, the younger.  “And you’re Helen, right?” He asked, approaching her bedside.  When she nodded in response he prodded at her with gentle words before even coming within arms reach.  “That’s a pretty name.” He offered.

“There are nine other girls in my dormitory wing with the same name.” She snapped back, his grip ever tight on Alice’s hand.  “It’s an ugly name.”

“And as you’ve pointed out, there is more than one Dr. Abbey, though I’m the only one with a sore knee, myself.” Nicholas returned, his disposition light and bright as a summer’s day.  “Seems we have a lot in common, you and I.” He continued, coming to sit himself at the edge of her bed.  She shifted her weight and shied away from him, but her stare had eased, if only the slightest bit.  “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you be Dr. Abbey, instead.” Unpinning his nameplate, he offered it to her.  Though timid, her small hand eventually reached out to snatch it from his, clutching it tightly against her chest like a treasure. 

“So tell me, Dr. Abbey, what seems to be the problem with the patient?” He asked her playfully.  At last, he had teased forth a full smile from the girl, even if just a fleeting one. 

“My knee.” She answered.  “Helen hurt her knee.”

“Do think it would be alright if I took a look at her knee?” Nicholas asked gently.  Her eyes flicked up to Alice before she offered the young man before her a solemn nod.  As Nicholas lifted the sheet that covered the girl, she flinched instinctively.  Yelping at the pain in her leg, she curled herself into Alice, biting down against the knuckles that gripped the Dr. Abbey nameplate in her fingers.  When Nicholas let the blanket rest against her mid thigh, even going so far as to keep her opposite leg entirely beneath the scratchy white fabric, she peaked out from behind Alice’s arm.  “Now, doctor, how did the patient hurt her knee?” He asked her, his voice dripping with honey in spite of the furrow in his brow.  The knee was dislocated, to be sure, sitting off centered and swollen.  Brown eyes did focus on the knee itself, so much as the bruising around her ankle. 

“Helen fell down the stairs.” The girl offered quickly.  As she spoke, Nicholas brought his hand to hovering over her skinny ankle.  Helen could not have been older than twelve, and yet the bruise above her foot looked almost like a handprint.  In fact, if he spread out his fingers, he could almost line the shadows up so that… “Her ankle got caught between the rails on the way down,” she supplied, the muscles in her leg twitching as she resisted the urge to flinch away from his touch.  “But that’s not what hurts.  My knee -- her knee, hurts.”

“Are you ready, doctor?” Nicholas asked.  As he brought his gaze up to meet that of the bedridden orphan before him, naught but sunlight poured from the warm, gooey caramel of his eyes.  “I need you to keep the patient very still for me.” He encouraged, placing his hands against her knee, fingers finding the ball of her joint.  “That’s wonderful, Dr. Abbey, you’re doing great.” She smiled at his words, a brave nod returned to the man who gave her his name.  “Now, count to three.”

“One… two-- Ah!” A quick yelp and a muted pop and her knee was back in it’s socket.  At once she bent it, as was traditional reaction, but a gentle hand on her shin kept her still enough not to overstretch the muscle too soon.  She took a ragged deep breath and then smiled as she regarded her knee, the joint back where it ought be by the One God’s design.  “You did it.” She noted in amazement, her hand falling away from Alice’s. 

“No, you did, doctor.” He reminded her, taking his cane in hand and coming to standing again. 

“Can I leave?” She asked. 

“We have to keep you a little longer, just to ice your knee so the joint doesn’t stiffen.” Nicholas replied, taking his clipboard in hand. 

“And you’ll go?” She asked. 

His eyes found hers then, pained by the sorrow he saw reflected in them.  “Yes, I’m afraid there are other Helens who need treatment and other Dr. Abbeys to report to.”  She gave him a sad smile at that.  “But let me ask you, Helen, what’s your favourite colour?”

“Blue.” She answered, her expression having fallen now that the game was over.  Once more, she was Helen. 

“Well then, Miss Helen Blue,” Nicholas started, drawing forth another smile from her, but this time a much happier one.  He set before her a scrap paper from his notepad, and a blue pencil made from dyed wax.  It was a simple trick, commonly made in the city but less so available along the countryside.  In his inner pocket, Nicholas kept a small collection in a variance of colours, a hobby he’d picked up from idle hours slumped in a trench.  It wasn’t by coincidence that he offered the tiny tool to her, noticing the childlike doodles on the corners of her file, accompanied by notes within the margins to keep pens beyond her short arm’s reach.  “Why don’t you pass the time, drawing me your favourite blue things, and when I come back to check on your knee, you can show me?” He suggested. 

“You’ll come back?” She asked, clutching at the blue pencil he had given her.  “You won’t forget?”

“Of course, not.” He answered.  “I’ll need to come back for the nameplate, won’t I?” He reminded her, inspiring her to tighten her grip around the shiny rectangle, holding it closer to her chest. 

“Thank you, Dr. Abbey.” She returned, her quiet voice nearly a whisper, her cheeks stained red and her eyes full of light. 

“You’re very welcome, Miss Helen Blue.” Before leaving the room, he offered the small girl a smile and even a deeply bent nod of farewell.  Following the nurse who had aided him, Alice, out of the room, a cloud fell across his sunny expression.  “That’s the third patient I’ve seen today who’s fallen down those damned stairs.” Nicholas mused, slumping against the corridor wall so that he might use both his hands to scribble down his notes.  “Oh right, Miss Alice, might I ask another favour of you?” He began, bringing his soft brown gaze to hers. 

“Do you keep a set of keys?” Nicholas’ eyes were kind but his lips were pressed together in a hard line.  “Every time I go by the orphanage, the doors are locked, and no one seems to have a free instant to fetch me a key.”  He explained, warmth in his voice but also more than a drop of serious concern.  “I’d like to see it.  I’d like to see these silly stairs.”

King Kade - Reigning from the North

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Offline asterin

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The hospital was abuzz, just as the day before, but it was fortunately not due to being understaffed. By now every nurse and orderly knew that the Good Doctor’s precious son was officially on duty at the Abbeyshire Hospital, and there was no shortage of speculative gossip going around in whispers and undertones. As it was usually the case she was excluded from these groups, but this time she had no need to trade favors for important information--she walked by the secretive little clusters of people without slowing to catch pieces of their conversations. After all, she had a feeling that when it came to the second son of the Abbeys she had far more insight than the gossip mongers and whatever half-truths they’d managed to scrounge up.  

Still, that was only half of the reason there was a faint smile hovering over her normally uncaring face. In her arms she carried a small stack of files, her fingers curled possessively around them as if someone would try and take them from her. These were for Dr. Abbey--senior, of course, but father and son had been seen to be rather inseparable, and thus it was all but guaranteed that she would find the skinny thing there. While these files weren’t enough of an excuse for a prolonged interaction with the young man, Alice didn’t need a long conversation to lure him a bit closer to the edge. A cheeky smile, a knowing look, an amused quirk of the brow--that was enough to insinuate and affirm the thought of a secret little connection. Now she wasn’t quite sure if it was luck or chance or fate that had landed these files into her lap, but whatever it was, it was smiling down upon her and she felt the urge to smile right back at it.

She found the pair at the southern discharge doors, no doubt having seen off some patients of importance. They seemed to be in a conversation, but she did not bother to wait for them to finish. “Dr. Abbey?” she called, her voice a tad more pleasant than it usually was when it addressed the Good Doctor. Father and son turned to her, both reacting as she had anticipated. The older man regarded her with frosty indifference--she would’ve surprised if he even knew her name--and his younger reflection smiled, easy and warm. What she had not expected, however, was for him to limp all the way to her side to speak to her in the presence of his father.

“You found me,” he commented with that smile, referring to her challenge from the night prior. “Now you’ve taken all the sport from the game.”

“I tried my best to stay away,” Alice replied slyly, a curl at the corner of her lips. “But alas, duties.” Letting out a sigh of mock disappointment, the nurse tapped meaningfully at the files she held.

“Is this for me?” the young doctor asked in response, but the sight of something in his hand delayed her response enough for his father to interrupt.

“I expect they’re for me,” the older man announced with the ring of authority in his voice, striding over. He snatched up the files, something sharper in his brown eyes as he shot a look her way. “Come Nicholas, we have other patients.” He began to walk away, but when his son did not follow, the doctor turned in what seemed like surprise or confusion at his boy’s disobedience. Alice watched the way the emotions flickered across his face as his favorite son denied him, choosing to strike out on his own with some no-name nurse instead. It took the young woman every ounce of self-control within her not to give the dumbstruck doctor a gloating smile. She could not give the game away too quickly now, could she? His eyes turned to rest accusingly on her and she lowered her gaze, feigning meekness to veil the light burning within her own eyes. They were the ones who had made her into this, carving her into an object of desire, a captivating snare--oh, they would come to regret it dearly--that, she could promise.

Her soaring mood, however, was somewhat dampened when he began to explain the nature of the help he wanted from her--he wanted help with a child, a child from the orphanage, no less. “Her knee is dislocated, it’s not serious and could be popped back into place, but she screams and fits whenever the male physicians try to touch her.” She glanced away, loathe to let him find any flicker of recognition in her expression, and her eyes fell to the clipboard he fumbled with. There it was again, she hadn’t been mistaken earlier…

“Oh,” he suddenly started, and she realized he had caught onto her stare. “It’s from a patient. His name is Percy,” he explained, even as the memory of the little girl screaming for her dog played in her mind’s eye. Indeed, she knew what it was because she’d crafted it by hand only three days ago, hunched over a light and tiny parts. She suddenly became acutely aware of the tiny mechanical bird nestled away in the depths of her apron pocket. He was blushing, but he wasn’t the only one trying to hide some semblance of embarrassment. It was a useless hobby, making useless trinkets from useless gears and clock parts--really, she didn’t know why she bothered, but she supposed it kept her mind occupied in those empty hours. Besides, it proved to be a good enough tactic to use with stubborn children.

“How sweet,” she remembered to say, offering him a small smile. She wasn’t sure if she was more surprised that the girl had parted with the toy, or that he’d kept it and remembered its name. Well, there was no point in telling him where it's origins lay.

“Anyway, I thought she might feel safer if someone else was there as well. Would you mind?” he asked, quick to get back to the problem at hand.

“Of course I don’t mind, doctor,” Alice responded at once. That was a lie, a bold faced lie. She minded--very much, actually. An unpleasant feeling began to eat away at her with every step that drew them closer and closer to the pediatrics wing, and she rubbed at her neck. No doubt there’d be crying and fussing about the ward, and she could only pray that the patient she would be ‘helping’ with did not also burst into tears--she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep calm if she was faced with the ordeal.

The blonde young man stopped at a door, gesturing for her to go on ahead, and Alice tried not to let her hesitation show. From what she could tell from outside, she wasn’t crying...yet. Sucking in a breath, she opened the door and let herself through, only to see the girl on the bed flinch hard as the door opened, and she knew--yes, Alice understood that reaction better than anyone else. It was all she really needed to see to know the kind of story behind the injury, and she knew exactly what the girl would say to explain it away.

“Fell down the stairs?” she asked, though the dryness of her tone made it clear it wasn’t really a question. It was that or the floorboards. The girl wordlessly nodded back, and they stared at each other from across the room, eyes filled with a dark mutual understanding. There was little else to be said.

With that one little shared interaction, the young girl instantly understood that the nurse before her had grown up in the same orphanage she was prisoner to, and seen the same horrors. That was the thing about it: they always managed to recognize one another somehow. Perhaps it was a certain look deep in the eyes, or a certain way of moving--it was like a stench that clung to them, and no matter what they did, it lingered. One only had to find the same despair reflected back at them, a twisted funhouse mirror of all of the nightmares they’d endured. This girl from her own homeland, a girl stolen away from her family just as she had been...well, she was quite the mirror. Her eyes were puffy with tears and the nurse tried not to look at them--the mere of sight made her a bit queasy. Luckily for Alice, the girl seemed old enough to refrain from crying when possible; now assured that the girl would not start crying, she finally stepped closer, her heart in her throat.

She had to see. She had to see if she wore one. She had to see… At her bedside, the dark-haired woman let out a breath of relief--disappointment?--to see she did not. She didn’t. Taking one more moment to calm her nerves, she turned to the door to call the waiting doctor.  “Come in!” she called, but before the words were barely out of her mouth, the girl seized her hand with such speed and force that Alice was the one to flinch this time. She looked down to see the terrified dark brown eyes staring up at her in a desperate, silent plea: please don’t go! The nurse let out a soft exhale and surrendered to the wordless request, sitting down on the edge of the mattress; the girl’s little shoulders relaxed slightly in response, though it didn’t loosen the death grip she had on her hand.

Her fingers only tightened rather painfully at the appearance of the young Doctor Abbey, but Alice did nothing to ease the feeling of her tiny nails digging into her skin. Like all too many of the boys and girls of the Shire, she knew too much about greater pains to complain about such a trivial thing. The young girl was nothing short of hostile to the doctor, but it barely seemed to reach him as he cleverly turned her words into his own charming jokes. He had a way with children, something his father nor the caretakers at the orphanage certainly didn’t have. She watched the girl unwittingly smile and recalled the sound of a roomful of children laughing from the day prior--now that she was witnessing it firsthand, it was easy to see how he’d gotten them giggling.

“Now doctor, how did the patient hurt her knee?” he asked. It was a question that would rarely ever go truthfully answered when a patient was from the Abbeyshire.

“Helen fell down the stairs,” the girl answered promptly, just as Alice had expected. It was one of the classic excuses for injury in the orphanage, one that their caretakers ensured that they used--one that she’d used countless of times. A time old tradition, she thought humorlessly. Just like the young doctor however, she too spotted the telltale bruising at the girl’s ankle, though she was not at all surprised by its odd shape. “Her ankle got caught between the rails on the way down,” Helen added hastily, trying to divert his attention back up to the knee. “But that’s not what hurts. My knee--her knee, hurts.” Clever girl. However, Alice knew better than most that her cleverness wouldn’t make things better for her in the end. After all, a quick wit and the ability to conjure lies were traits most desirable in the Abbeyshire’s nighttime workers.

In a more empathetic person that knowledge would have invoked a burst of pity, but to many of such workers, it was simply a bleak reality they had accepted long ago. With that cleverness and a face pretty enough, Alice knew that this would not be the last time she saw this girl in the hospital--and that in just a few years it would not be the pediatrics wing she’d be placed, but the female trauma wing. She raised her eyes from the ill-fated girl to the young man who beamed at her, coaxing her to count to three. As the girl complied, his hands worked fast, popping the misplaced knee back into place. Helen finally released her hand, smiling back rather sunnily at the doctor. She watched quietly, never missing a smile or a kind word as a question began to form in her mind. If he was so fond of children, how could he reconcile that with the way they were being treated? It circled her thoughts even as they left the room, leaving behind a girl who hardly resembled the wretch she’d first seen.

The blonde young man leaned against the wall, busily scribbling away into his chart, unaware of the way she watched him. “That’s the third patient I’ve seen today who’s fallen down those damned stairs,” he muttered to himself, and Alice could not help but doubt her hearing. He’d believed her? Believed all of them? Was this an act? She knew not whether to scoff or laugh, but of course she did neither, only raising her brows in an accommodating manner as he asked her for another favor. “Do you keep a set of keys?” he asked, looking quite serious as he explained himself. “Every time I go by the orphanage, the doors are locked, and no one seems to have a free instant to fetch me a key. I’d like to see it. I’d like to see those silly stairs.”

Her mind went in several directions at once. She didn’t have keys to the orphanage, because she did everything in her power to avoid that pandora’s box--in fact, she could count the number of times she’d returned to the orphanage after her graduation on one hand. None of those had been very pleasant, and she’d never wanted a key to the orphanage...until now.  “No, I don’t,” she answered regretfully, loathe to see such a golden opportunity slip away. Then she paused, regarding him peculiarly for a moment. “But I’m more surprised you don’t have a set,” the young woman commented carefully. 

It was said that the Good Doctor intended for his son to take care of the pediatrics wing and the adjoining orphanage, or at least, that was the common knowledge. Why would he be denied access to something he was to be in charge of? What did they have to hide? That was a silly question; there were countless malices to hide in that house of horrors, but why would they be hidden from an Abbey? The orphanage was a crucial part of their business, their livelihood. It was a strange mystery indeed--but the nurse abandoned the train of thought to focus on finding a way she could turn this around to work in her favor. “Now, I might not have the keys,” she began, stepping a little closer and lowering her voice in a way that implied the beginnings of a plot forming in her head. There was a lively little gleam dancing in her eyes as she held his gaze, her lips curving into a half-smile. “But I certainly know a few people who do.”
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Offline Reigning King

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“No, I don’t.” She answered.  At once his face fell and he turned his attentions back to the clipboard in his hand, the files which yet needed his focus.  “But I’m more surprised you don’t have a set.” Alice added, more careful this time in her tone. 

“That would make two of us, Miss Alice.” Nicholas answered, his gaze still upon the documents in his hands, brown eyes moving behind thick lenses.  The next patient he’d be seeing to had another case of the cough, but was unfortunately allergic to one of the active ingredients in its most common and effective medicine.  With half his brain already running through the options available to him as a physician, he almost forgot himself.  He started, a scoff on his voice as he said, “I mean, you could almost think that they…” when his gaze lifted and met Alice’s however, he hesitated.  “Never mind,” he finished flippantly, pulling his eyes away from hers again.  She brought them right back to her however, when she seized the opportunity to close the space between them just a little more. 

“Now, I might not have the keys,” she started, her voice hovering in the air just a notch above a whisper.  “But I certainly know a few people who do.”  Though her expression was perfectly open and helpful, there was a glimmer in her eyes that spoke to a cleverness from which originated that initial sternness he had seen in her at the first.  He liked that part about her, the rough bit lurking behind a soft and comely face. 

“And do you think one of those people might mind if I were to borrow their keys?” Nicholas returned, his own voice matching her volume.  When she affirmed this as a true possibility, he smiled, and not just because she was close enough now that he could smell her hair.  “Could you get them today?” He asked.  “I won’t be finished my rounds for a while yet, let’s say,” pausing he turned his hand over to check his watch before adding, “six o’clock.  I’ll be in my offices, at the farthest most corridor of the pediatrics wing.”  With the details of their small and quiet plan solidified, she turned from him.  He watched her go for a moment or two, but she had only taken a few strides before he found himself saying her name again.   

“Oh, Miss Alice!” He called to her, as though he had just remembered something.  When she turned to look at him however, he almost forgot it all over again.  “Thank you.” Nicholas said with a smile. 

The rest of the day passed in a busy blur.  The cough had affected not only the orphanage but also the village children as well as those from outlier communities.  There were plenty of doctors on staff, more than enough to tend to the children, but they were all so focused on catching Nicholas’ ear and impressing him, that they failed to realize their neglect of waiting patients had already discreetly graded their paper for them.  A few seemed unaffected by the name that followed his doctoral title, it was those who he took real note of,  Dr. Finnegan and Dr. Tulip among them.  He saw Alice only one other time that afternoon, and only for the briefest of moments.  She had been talking with another nurse in the corridor.  It had not been she who had initially spotted him but instead the young woman with whom she conversed.  She had a sharpness about her, something edged in dread that sat heavy in Nicholas’ stomach as he looked on at her.  When Alice had turned her head to meet his eyes however, he’d forgotten all about the strawberry blond thing who had been glaring at him.  He smiled at her broadly and waved, making to walk over to her but was instead pulled off in another direction by fellow physicians.  Nicholas had resisted at first, until he heard one of the interns shout, “code blue!” from a distant room.  As the afternoon waned into the evening, he found himself looking for her still, even as he walked to his offices, having finished his rounds. 

“Dr. Abbey?” Came a voice from the threshold of his office.  He’d left the door ajar, expecting Alice to come along any minute now, but the voice that greeted him was decidedly male. 

“Yes, come in.” Nicholas called from within.  He sat at a lab table that met his work desk at the corner of his office.  His glasses were next to him, his long white doctor’s smock hung upon a hook against the wall.  He was hunched over a microscope, analyzing a bacteria sample.  The circular brown frames that often occupied the space across the bridge of his nose lay upon a notepad scribbled with elemental formulas.  Having cared for a patient earlier in the day who was unable to be treated in the traditional methods for the cough, he’d stumbled upon curious discovery.  The slap of a heavy file against his lab table however, brought his eyes up from the microscope and the slide he had been studying. 

“These are the results for those tests you asked Doc. Finn to run.  He wanted to hurry home so he had me bring them by for you.”  The young man, dressed in the uniform of an orderly, explained. 

“Finn?  Oh, Doctor Finnegan -- of course, thank you…” Nicholas’ voice trailed off as he looked up from where he was perched upon a wheeled stool to the orderly who had been so helpful.  “Oh, I don’t believe we’ve met, just yet.” He noted, taking his cane in hand and rising from his seat.  “I’m trying to make a point of learning everyone’s name, Da--” As he begun to read the name printed on the identification badge hanging from the orderly’s breast pocket, the young man interrupted him and extended a friendly hand to be shaken. 

“You can call me Dash, Doctor.” He said pleasantly, smiling with a broad mouth.  The warmth coming from his dark brown eyes wasn’t unlike that reflected in Nicholas’ own gaze.  His hair was an earthy brown, the same colour as his eyes, his skin fair and his stature impressive considering how young he looked in both feature and manner.  Low-born, no doubt, but handsome and seemingly kind.  He offered Nicholas a inconspicuous respect without any of the grovelling or arrogance he’d previously played witness to this day.  Dash, he added the name to the little list he’d been forming in his head. 

“Good to meet you.” Nicholas responded sunnily.  As the orderly turned to leave and Nicholas took his seat at the lab table once more, Dash hesitated and sighed before turning back towards Dr. Abbey whilst fishing something from his pocket. 

“One of the children from the orphanage asked me to give this back to you.” He explained, extending a blue wax pencil to the blonde young man.  “I almost forgot.” He added, a shy laugh in his throat. 

“I told her she could keep that.” Nicholas returned quietly, taking the pencil but regarding it with a furrowed brow. 

“She said to tell you that ‘it’s like the name-tag,’ whatever that means…”  The brunette rubbed the back of his neck, his gaze falling to the floor.  While of course, Nicholas understood exactly what the little Helen Blue meant by those words, it was easy to see how Dash would perceive them as nonsense.  Yet, here he was saying them nonetheless, embarrassing himself just to do a kindness for a child.  It was at this precise moment, that Nicholas decided he liked Dash, for there was nothing he respected so much in fellow man as the courage of kindness. 

“Thank you, very much, Dash.” Nicholas said, his eyes on the blue pencil in his hands.  The little girl would mean to come back for it, the same way he had come back for his nametag.  Reaching over to the corner where his work and lab desks met, he set the pencil atop a growing collection of drawings, weighed down by a small mechanical dog.  When he looked back over his shoulder to the orderly standing behind him, he saw that Dash was eyeballing the small collection of trinkets from patients.  “Is there anything else I can help you with?” He asked, startling him from his trance. 

“Oh!  No, that’s everything.” He answered quickly as he backed out of the room.  “I’m glad you’re here, Dr. Abbey.” He added suddenly.  Nicholas turned to face him just long enough to see a sadness overtake his kind, brown eyes before he darted from the youngest Abbey’s offices.  He must have passed Alice in the hallway, because a moment later, with Nicholas still watching the door, she appeared like a vision once more. 

“You found me.” He said again, beaming as before. 

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“Six ‘o'clock, then,” the nurse affirmed, a small smile flitting by on her face as turned to leave. She had barely made it more than metre when he called for her and she stopped in her tracks, glancing back at him over her shoulder.

“Thank you,” he added, a kind smile taking over his features.

A heartbeat later her expression blossomed in turn, mirroring his genial smile, albeit with a cheekier streak. “Don’t thank me yet, doctor,” she answered, giving him one last parting nod before she left him, her mind set on her new task--obtaining the keys to the orphanage. Now that was something she’d never cared to think about having. While she knew a few nurses that held the keys to the orphanage, she didn’t have a particularly high rapport with any of them. That had always been the case, even back in the orphanage. No child had been stupid enough to befriend the incorrigible troublemaker and put their own hides at risk. That had suited her just fine, and even as an adult she did not bother enough with niceties to make herself a gaggle of friends. Besides, one didn’t have to have a multitude of friends in order to get things done--but in cases that required a more complex maneuvering, such as this, she knew exactly who to seek out.

She found Evangeline--unsurprisingly--in the same room as the Good Doctor himself, primped to feminine perfection. Her soft, pale hair framed her face in a way that might have appeared natural and unintentional to the male persuasion, but any girl worth her salt would know that such an appealing cascade would have taken her a good chunk of time and painstaking artistry. That was hardly the end of it--Alice could also tell with once glance that the other nurse had gone through the trouble of lacing her corset even tighter than usual.

Despite her meticulous attempts at turning herself into a stunning, living masterpiece, the doctor barely seemed to offer her more than a passing gaze. It was something of an anomaly and the dark haired nurse could not help but raise a brow; indeed, the Good Doctor’s attentions towards his young mistress had somewhat coolled in the wake of his son’s return. At last it seemed that her attempts had been foiled once too often for her liking, and Evangeline turned and strode out of the room, chin raised and eyes flashing crossly. So immersed was she in her seething thoughts, she didn’t even appear to notice Alice leaning beside the doorway.

“Evie,” she called, pushing herself away from the corner. The girl rounded on her as if to bite, but upon seeing who it was, she fluidly tucked away her open frustration behind the lacy veil of a smile.

“Alice,” the young woman returned, her voice a little too sugary in contrast to the smothered ire in her eyes. Neither of them had to say anything else to know that the dark haired girl had witnessed the farce inside the room. Alice, of course, wasn’t about to make any comment about it--not out of any feigned graciousness or goodness of her heart, but simply because that was not the nature of their relationship. “Up to no good, I presume,” Evangeline started as they began to walk, the smallest hint of an edge to her words.

“You know me so well,” Alice acknowledged easily, a meaningful smirk playing at the corner of her mouth. “Then I expect you also know why I’m here.”

“A favour? Why am I not surprised,” the other girl mocked, though it came out a little more breathlessly than intended--no doubt thanks to her tight laces. Their stroll came to a halt once they were a good distance away from the room the doctor occupied. Evangeline’s stiff body language had loosened more and more as the distance grew, and once they pressed themselves against the wall, now just two nurses blending into the busy swell of carts, white coats, and stained aprons, the young woman seemed more like her usual self. “So? What is it?” she asked casually, though there was no mistaking the spark of interest in her eyes. The two nurses might have spurned the idea of a friendship, but it was simply an undeniable fact that they were an extremely effective pair when they collaborated.

“I need to borrow the keys to the orphanage--a day or two should suffice.”

Evangeline gave her a look filled with disbelief. “Keys to the orphanage?” she repeated skeptically, “You want to go to the orphanage?”

“No, not particularly.” Alice answered honestly, letting out a dry laugh. “But someone else does.”

Evangeline uttered a small laugh of her own, regarding her curiously. “You, doing a favour for someone? You simply must introduce me to this new friend of yours,” she teased.

Before Alice could say anything in response, Evangeline’s gaze seemed to settle on something across the hall, her stance stiffening. As her green gaze turned scornful, Alice too turned to spot Nicholas Abbey himself. He had caught sight of her as well, and a boyish smile seized his features as his hand darted up in a wave. “I don’t think he needs much of an introduction,” she murmured to Evangeline as she smiled back, returning his greeting with a much more subtle flick of the wrist. It appeared he had half a mind to come over and chat, but the sound of a code sent nearly all of the doctors, interns, and nurses rushing off, the thin young man included.

Left in relative privacy once more, Alice turned back to the nurse who was now pinning her under a searing gaze, as if she was attempting to divine the game afoot. “Why would he need the keys?” the strawberry-blonde posed airily, but that wasn’t the real question she was asking. Alice could see it plainly in the disdain she was failing to hide--Why should I ever bother to help him?

“I have a feeling,” she started delicately, “Dr. Abbey doesn’t want him to see the orphanage yet.” I mean, you could almost think that they… He’d stopped himself there, but Alice never had trouble filling in the blanks. “Perhaps there are a few things he fears they will...disagree about,” she fixed the fellow nurse with a meaningful gaze, and watched the revelation sink in. It was only a hunch, but there was clearly something more going on here. Could it be…? Could it possibly be? If things went well, she’d find out soon enough.

Evangeline went quiet, her mind clearly working at a breakneck pace to weigh all the moves on the chessboard, but Alice was quite confident that the clever young woman would see the benefits to her own cause. As she expected, there was a telltale light in her eyes as the fair haired girl settled back against the wall, her movements as languid as a feline in the sun. Her earlier foul mood swept clean away by her new prospects, Evangeline turned to meet her gaze, a conniving smile creeping in over her pretty lips to mirror her own before she spoke. “Well, when do you need them by?”

As the busy halls slowly began to clear of staff, Alice began to make her way down to the pediatrics wing. Despite the fatigue of the day and the knowledge of the impending night shift weighing on her, her steps were light and eager as she drew closer to the offices at the farthest corner of the ward. It had been an agonizing shift as she waited for word from Evangeline, and it had only been a mere hour ago that another nurse had slipped the ring of keys into her hand with a stern reminder that they were to be returned the next day. Everything was going so smoothly Alice was having a hard time believing it, but there would be time for doubts later. For now, she had to get these keys to him.

She had not expected anyone to be about, so she couldn’t help but be startled when a figure rounded the corner and nearly collided into her. The young man instinctively reached out to steady her, but Alice flinched away from physical contact before she had even thought to do so.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the orderly apologized immediately, whom she recognized as Dashielle, another one of the Abbeyshire’s precious nighttime assets. With that mutual recognition, they nodded wordlessly at each other and hurriedly went their separate ways. Despite their professions--or perhaps, because of it, any dalliances between workers were not tolerated. It wasn’t wise to be seen in the company of a worker of the opposite gender, least misguided suspicion fall upon them. Especially, of course, when the lad was rumored to be a favorite of the Lady Abbey. It was something of a whispered joke amongst the misused youths how Lord and Lady Abbey seemed to favour bedfellows that resembled each other in their prime. With his brown hair and eyes, Alice supposed Dashielle fit the physical description well enough, but his gentle, unassuming countenance wasn’t something she’d ever seen in the Good Doctor. Well, perhaps it was just a rumour after all.

Pushing the irrelevant thoughts from her mind, the dark haired young woman approached the open door at the end of the hall and peeked in. He had apparently been waiting, because she was instantly greeted with the sight of him smiling sunnily in her direction. “You found me,” he said, repeating his first words to her that morning.

“So I did,” Alice answered lightheartedly, playing along as she slipped inside and closed the door behind her. “Though I do have to say, I think you’re letting me win,” she quipped. Her eyes roved about the office as she walked up to him, taking in the way the once abandoned and dusty space had been transformed. It wasn’t to say it was pristine, for already his desk was beginning to clutter with files and papers. She realized upon sighting the familiar metal dog upon his desk that the papers it sat on were not of a medical nature, but drawings scrawled by children. Of course, it made sense that the girl earlier was not the only one to receive a wax pencil from the young doctor, but she was admittedly surprised he did not see the drawings as a waste of space on his crowded desk.

“May I?” she inquired politely, gesturing to the miniature. Once he acquiesced she picked it up carefully, her nimble fingers turning it about on her palm to reveal the turning key at its underbelly. “Oh, there’s...a pin here,” the nurse remarked, as if she had just discovered it instead of knowing it to be there all along. With a quick twist, the rough mechanics jerked into motion, setting the stiff metal tail of the dog wagging. She set it back down to watch it, regarding her creation with a critical eye. It was far too simple of a motion for her to be pleased with, and she knew it would take further tinkering under lamplight for her to develop the kind of fluid and complex movement she wanted--a horse cantering, hooves raised delicately, and then in full gallop, racing through the wide fields as if it could go on running forever.  

As the crank wound down and the tiny dog stilled once more, Alice was reminded that no matter how many little metal horses she produced and no matter how real she made their movements, they wouldn’t be able to recreate that sound of a hundred hooves thundering over the ground or bring back the sensation of flight and freedom she’d felt atop her father’s stallion. Forcing the bitterness down and donning a startled look, she returned her gaze to the young man before her.

“I’m sorry, I’m wasting your time, aren’t I?” she began with an apologetic laugh, as if she had forgotten her purpose for a moment. Fishing out the ring of keys from her apron pocket, her fingers curled around them to muffle any jingling they might produce, she carefully singled out the two keys he would need to get past the gate and the main doors. “They’re all yours--for a day, anyways. I’ll need them back by tomorrow night,” Alice explained in an undertone, pressing the keys into his hand as she met his brown eyes. “I hope that’s enough time.”

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“How wonderfully charming,” Nicholas observed, smiling down at the mechanical dog that wagged its tail at him in the way a happy, furry companion might.  “Hard to believe that the child who gave it to me was willing to part with it.” He said, more to himself than to Alice.

Until you get better…” That’s what the little Miss Madison had said to him.  Though spoiled and perhaps, at times, neglected, the small young Miss still had the goodness of innocence in her.  She couldn’t possibly know that the kind doctor who had cared for her would, in actuality, never get better. As a matter of fact, it was infinitely more likely that Percy, the mechanical dog, would straighten his stiff legs and walk properly before Nicholas ever did.  Yet, in spite of his sorrow, life had yet to squeeze the goodness from him. Instead he held fast onto it, as though it were a single lifeboat and he adrift in a treacherous sea. Though innocence lost, the goodness remained, reaching out to touch upon its reflection in another, like the little Miss Madison; like Miss Helen Blue. 

I’m sorry.  I’m wasting your time, aren’t I?” Alice asked, interrupting his train of thought.  His fingers, which had previously been reaching for the mechanical pup, itching for closer investigation, were now recoiling in light of a new gift.  His eyes went down to the hand fishing through the pocket of her uniform, fingers reaching now for his glasses instead. Sliding the frames onto the bridge of his nose he took the collection of keys from her, clasping them with careful fingers by the isolated ones he would need.  “They’re all yours -- for a day, anyways. I’ll need them back by tomorrow night. I hope that’s enough time.” He looked at her then, meeting her gaze with a smile that warmed like a mid-July sun.

“That should be more than enough time,” he told her, allowing the gratitude to soften his voice and set his already warm smile aglow.  “I mean only to pop in quickly while the children are in the dining hall, have a little look around.” He paused, looking down at the watch on his wrist.  Eleven thirty-two; like always. “Actually, they should be eating their dinner about now.” He noted pleasantly as he rose from his seat. Straightening the collar of his button down, he allowed his eyes to meet Alice’s once more.  “Thank you.” He said to her. “Thank you, very much, Alice.” She had given him something simple, something that at a surface glance could seem almost meaningless. However, Nicholas was one to find the good in all things. In this gesture he found kindness, something he revered and valued.  Something he cherished. Transferring the keys into the same hand that gripped his cane, he reached for the blue wax pencil left beside the mechanical toy dog, Percy. Discreetly, Nicholas slipped the trinket into his pocket before escorting Alice from his office. Locking the door behind him, he turned to Alice with the same smile still painted across his features.

“I suppose I’ll be seeing you tomorrow,” pausing, he gave the keys in his hands a slight shake.  “For these.” He finished. “Thank you, again!” He called to her over his shoulder as he made his way down the hospital corridors.  Alice had her tricks, but Nicholas had a few of his own. One of his simplest tricks, the one he used most frequently on the patients he treated, was the promise of return.  This childish method of fast acquaintanceship had never failed him before and had, once again, proved effective in this instance. Twirling the keys in his fingers, his mind wandered from this night to the following, already looking forward to the moment that he would see Alice again. 

He passed through the front gates of the orphanage before the main doors themselves.  As expected, the central staircase that spilled onto the front foyer was in a state of dilapidation, much like the rest of the aged building.  Nicholas moved through the orphanage wearing an expression of disdain, fingers tugging at peeling wallpaper here, scratching at chipped paint there.  Lifting his lenses from his face he leaned in close to study what appeared to be mould growing about a bit of exposed plumbing. Beneath his feet, the floorboards creaked and groaned, threatening an impending plummet with each step.  Lord Abbey had warned him that the orphanage had been somewhat neglected since the passing of Father Aurelius, who had been the previous Chairman, but still the state of the place struck as a shock. The doctors had mentioned to Nicholas that Father Aurelius had cared for the children up until even his very final days, an admirable gesture but not one that seemed to garner admiration from the men who told the tale to begin with.  Judging from the state of the square, labyrinth-like, corridor-crowded design and its various rooms on only the first floor, it would have appeared to Nicholas that Father Aurelius’ attentions had not extended to the children’s own residence. Since the hour was that of supper, Nicholas was surprised to hear voices as he assessed the shape that the building had been left to fall into.

“What’s this then?” Spotting a gentleman donning the uniform of a footman, household staff, he followed the sound of voices and footfall as he moved through the halls.  Such an individual would have no cause to be in the orphanage unless accompanying guests or carrying a message. As Nicholas rounded the corner however, and entered the rooms from which the clatter of conversation spilled, he saw that this particular staff was completing neither of the aforementioned duties but instead dragging along a young girl whom Nicholas immediately recognized. 

“No, I won’t! I don’t want to go, again!  You can’t make me!” She was snarling at the man who hauled her along as though she weighed naught but a babe’s few ounces.  The footman paid her no heed but instead slapped a meaty hand over her mouth, muffling any further protest.

“Blue? Helen!” Nicholas exclaimed as he hurried towards the girl and her assailant.  Spotting him, she attempted to shout something at him but her words were stolen by the hand that sealed her lips.  “Get your hands off her this instant!” Nicholas ordered, his skinny arms pulling helplessly at those of the larger man’s. 

“Oie?  What is it, mate?  She your favourite?” The footman asked, regarding Nicholas with a cruel sneer.  “Jog on then, bruv’. You shouldn’t even be in here, go wait like everyone else.  You hear me? I said get outta’ here!” The burly man, without care for the child in his grasp, jerked his elbow into Nicholas’ stomach before giving him a hard shove in the chest.  Instinct forced his hip to carry back his left foot, but the momentum made his useless, ruined knee buckle under him as he fell backwards onto the splintering wood of the floor.

“Dr. Abbey!” Helen Blue called to him, the footman freeing her lips to shove the youngest Abbey son into the floor.  At her words, realizing his mistake, he released her arm and turned to the young man he had assaulted.

“Dr. Abbey… Dr. Nicholas Abb-- oh, bloody Hell… I’m so sorry Dr. Abbey…” The footman prattled as Nicholas began to rise.  Helen went to his side, offering her shoulder and handing the frail young man his cane. As he took it, his fingers prodded along the edges of his grip and a quiet whirring fell into the background of the footman’s pleading.  With his hand upon Helen Blue’s shoulder, he lifted his cane and pressed the base flat against the footman’s chest.  “I didn’t realize it was you, of course, if I had--” he was never given the opportunity to finish the thought as a high voltage shock travelled from the end of Nicholas’ cane, straight into his broad rib cage.  He convulsed and writhed in place as blue beams of current travelled through his body, visible to the naked observing eye before at last crumpling onto the floor as Nicholas gingerly returned his innocent looking cane to the wood beneath his feet. 

A beat of silence passed before the girl at Nicholas’ side said, “that was cool.”

“Yes, it was.  Wasn’t it?” Nicholas conceded in a gentle tone, trying to catch his breath as he stepped further into the rooms, seeing more footman and children staring back at him. 

“Can you do it again?” Blue asked, keeping stride with the young man at whose hip she stayed glued. 

“Let’s find out.”  He started, levelling his warm brown eyes on another footman and lifting the end of his cane.  At his slightest touch the mechanisms were sent a-whirring as the base of his cane began to crackle and hum with a blue spark.  “Hands off the children.” He warned the man who held one boy in the grip of each hand.  At once he obeyed and raised his palms in a surrendering motion. Further still Nicholas moved through the rooms, more footmen left confused and surrendering as more children fell into rank behind Helen Blue.

“Now, gentlemen…” Nicholas started, turning onto the footmen, paralysed in their bafflement.  He meant to go on, but was interrupted by someone who would prove to be a far more useful subject for interrogation. 

“What is the delay?!” Christopher shouted, marching into the rooms.  “We have people waiting and you’re lazing about like a bunch of… Oh, Nicholas.  What are you doing here?”

“The better question, brother, is what are you doing here?” Nicholas returned in a stern voice which lacked his usual warmth. 

“Really, Nicholas, we haven’t time for this.” Christopher started, rolling his eyes and stepping towards the children.  The young Dr. Abbey, broken as he was, had sense enough to notice, to feel the way the children around him all collectively recoiled.  “I’m simply having the children re-assigned to different rooms temporarily while we…” As he spoke, he made to reach for Helen Blue’s arm but was halted in his tracks by the flickering electric current thrust into his face, merely a breath from the tip of his nose. 

“Do not touch her.” Nicholas warned lowly. 

“C’mon now, Nicky, are you really going to hurt me?” Christopher asked and whilst there was a laugh on his breath as he spoke the words, his brother could see the bead of sweat trickling down the side of his face. 

“I might.” His younger brother returned coolly.  Beside him, Helen smirked up at Christopher Abbey Junior with hungry eyes, daring the fool to test his baby brother’s resolve. 

“Now, Nicholas, as Lord of the Abbeyshire, I’m fully entitled to--” Surely he had more in mind to say, but Nicholas was having none of it on this particular evening. 

“Lord is it?  Has father died in the hours since I saw him last?” He returned, bitingly. 

“No…” Christopher replied through his teeth. 

“Right, so that would make you, Christopher Abbey Junior, the son to the true Lord of the Abbeyshire, wouldn’t it?”  His older brother didn’t answer him, but instead looked on with burning malice at the thin young man before him.  That much suited Nicholas just fine, as he had more to say himself. “On the other hand, I am currently the Executive Director of the hospital and Chairman of this institution.” He continued.  “You and you!” He barked, pointing to nearby footmen. “Collect your man, here.” He ordered, gesturing to their peer who lay unconscious on the floor not far from them.  “When he comes to, please inform him that he has until the week is out to vacate the Shire and surrounding counties, or I shall have him hanged.” Pausing, he blinked at the aghast faces of the footmen who regarded him.  “Would you tell him that for me?” He repeated himself, some of the sweetness coming back into his tone but of the sort which tasted more like poison. “As for the rest of you, any household staff still in this residency by the time I have concluded this sentence, shall too find themselves exiled from the Shire and in search of new employment elsewhere within the Empire or without.” With the clambering of feet like a stampede, the last footman was gone from Nicholas’ sight before even the last few words had left his lips. 

“Come then, children.” Nicholas began, turning on his heel and taking Helen Blue by her small hand.  “You’re missing your supper.” As he started back down the corridors, surrounded by the children he had liberated from his brother’s needless cruelty, he paused to address Christopher over his shoulder.  “Oh, and brother? You can tell our parents I’ll be along shortly. I think I should like to dine with the family tonight.”

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Nicholas and the children he escorted were given a stunned and silent reception upon their entry into the dining hall.  It was a plain room, added to the cubic structure three or four generations back, in order to accommodate the newly invented utilities and appliances purchased for the kitchens.  The estate itself had been given a similar makeover, space made to quarter larger but more functional designs in the way of keeping house. At his gentle instruction, the children began to disperse from the cluster in which they had gathered around Nicholas.  A hush of hurried whispers began to clutter the corners of the small hall as children passed gossip across their dinner plates. Willfully ignorant to the cacophony, Nicholas started towards the only other adult in the room, a Sister of the Church of St. Christopher, donning the black and white garb of a Roma nun.  He was given pause however when he realized that Helen Blue still clung to his side, following as though she were his shadow.

“What is it?” He asked her gently. 

“Dr. Abbey, are you going to look after us now?” She asked him.  The last time someone had asked him that question, his answer had turned out to be a lie.  This time, he would be a bit more honest.

“I’m going to try, Blue.” He told her, bending down to meet her eye line as he produced the blue wax pencil he’d collected for her from his pocket. 

“But…” She started, however Nicholas already knew the words that would quell her concerns.  They sat in waiting upon the tip of his tongue.

“When you’ve drawn enough to use up the last of that pencil, I’ll teach you how to make another one.” He assured her as the warmth returned to his smile, the chill of his anger melting away like snow in spring.   

“You will?” She asked, the light from her toothy grin nearly reaching her sad eyes. 

“I will.” He promised.  “But only if you go sit and eat with the others right now, like a good little artist would.” Helen needed no further encouragement, and at once darted off to find her place at one of the tables in the dining all amongst her peers.  “Excuse me, Mother. I wonder if I might have a word?” He began politely, approaching the God-sworn woman.

“Certainly, Dr. Abbey.  In fact, you may have as many words as you like.” The jovial retort was enough to make the blond who approached her laugh, which she seemed pleased by.  An upturned nose littered with freckles scrunched up as she giggled along with her own jest, an immature but innocent gesture. “Although, I must tell you that for now, it is still merely ‘Sister’.” She added, her small features smoothing.  Upon closer inspection, she was indeed younger than he had initially assumed her to be, the hay blonde hair that peaked out from beneath her habit nowhere near the years that would change the colour to gray.

“Forgive me, Sister it is, then.” Nicholas offered, taking a measured step back.  The gesture returned the smile to her face, gratitude painting her features into a pretty contentment.  As a Sister of an Order to the Church of St. Christopher, she would be forbidden from even reaching a close proximity to the opposite sex, for fear of temptation lurring said young woman from the path of righteousness.  After taking her final vows, she would once more be permitted to shake the hands and meet the eyes of the men she encountered.

“What can I help you with?” She asked, her eyes tuned to the floor. 

He responded to her question with one of his own, asking, “who is caring for the children?”

“The Sisters under the Order of the Innocent care for the orphans,” she returned in a way that seemed practiced, perhaps even rehearsed.  When his brow furrowed and his cast his gaze to his feet in disappointment however, she continued saying, “although recently, the Young Master Abbey has employed the aid of household staff in much of the handling of day to day care.”

He could feel her eyes on his face as she spoke, and so he dare not look up for fear of turning her away and breaking the spell.  Instead, he prodded in only the gentlest way, his brow arching slightly as he repeated the word, “handling?”

“Primarily the transport from one room to the next, and…” Her voice carried off then, her feet shuffling beneath her.  “And seeing to the needs of the children much like they do with your good family in your own household, Dr. Abbey.” The carefulness was back in her voice, the rehearsed quality to her speech.  Sensing that the moment had passed, Dr. Abbey lifted his brown eyes to her, seeing that she was looking away herself now, over his shoulder.

“Actually, I’m not staying at the Estate.  I’ve taken a room in the hospital residency.” He explained as he regarded her with a curious stare. 

For the briefest of instants, her eyes flicked to his.  They were dark brown, almost black against her fair skin and round face.  It was completely forbidden for their stare to meet, yet in the darkness of her eyes he saw a flash of recognition, as though he had just revealed some very important information to her.  “Ah, here comes the Abbess of our Order now, Mother Eunice.” Nicholas followed the new direction of the young woman’s glance in order to face the cog that had halted the gears of conversation between himself and the Sister next to him. 

“Dr. Abbey, so good to see you again.”  While Nicholas might have expected someone stern and sourly, he was met instead with a towering, brute of a woman donning a smile so wide as could swallow a man whole.  When he extended his hand to her, she enveloped it completely with two huge paws, her eyes only narrow slits against the weight of the crescent moon and the large gleaming teeth within that eclipsed her face. 

“Again?” He asked, trying to make his inquiry sound polite instead of confused.  Surely Nicholas would remember meeting such a woman; such a woman as had to duck when walking beneath the chandelier in the center of the dining hall. 

“I don’t expect you would remember.  You were but a babe when we met, but we shared many a night alongside candlelight and story book, you and I.” She assured him, her smile still shining so big and so bright, Nicholas couldn’t help but wonder if she could even see him from behind the cleft her cheeks made against her brow. 

“I’m sorry, I don’t remember.” He offered shyly.  There was something intimidating about the woman, something about her grin which set the hairs on the back of his next standing on their ends.  He had only just met her and yet there was something in her cadence that triggered his combat instincts, as if he might have need to take flight at any instant. 

“That’s alright, dear.” Mother Eunice returned sweetly.  “It was many years ago, after all. I was still Sister Eunice then, the Abbess of our Order had been your elder brother’s wet nurse at the time.” She explained. 

“I didn’t know my brother had a wet nurse.” Nicholas said quietly, his mind beginning to drift elsewhere, to places he would rather it not wander. 

“Oh yes, they were quite close, the Young Master and Mother Mary.  Unfortunately, she passed away not long after you were born.” She disclosed accommodatingly.

“Were you my wet nurse, then?” Nicholas asked.

“Certainly not,” Mother Eunice replied, laughing as though Dr. Abbey had made the jest intentionally.  “No, your mother barely let anyone near you. She fed you at her own breast, as a matter of fact. Although, you always did have trouble going down for her, always needed new hands to rock you to sleep.  Such a sweet, fussy thing you were then.” It was hard to say for how long Mother Eunice and Nicholas Abbey stood in silence with one another in the orphanage dining hall, but it was certainly a considerable amount of time.  When finally the broadly built nun uttered a quiet, “Dr. Abbey?” and he started, looking up at her, the smile had fallen from her face, replaced by an altogether more terrifying sight.

Her eyes were larger than he had imagined they would be.  Slanted slightly and almond shaped, they were made visible while her wide mouth sat as flat and straight as the horizon, her lips no fuller when not stretched into a smile.  There was a shockingly blank quality to her features when not pulled back into a beaming grin, a haunting sort of hollowness crawling across her pale, pimpled skin. From beneath her black brow, her gaze fell blue and heavy upon him, but not blue like an ocean or a lake.  Rather, Mother Eunice’s eyes looked on with a cold blue heavy like an iceberg, like the endless void of the Northern Arctic wastes. They were empty and shiveringly icy, and yet they took from Nicholas everything; saw everything there was to see. At once he felt the need to be anywhere but before Mother Eunice, the nun in whom he’d sought refuge from his own mother as an infant. 

“Do you think I might have a look around while the children are eating?  I’d like to prepare a budget for some repairs.” Nicholas pulled his gaze from hers as he spoke, looking instead to the door that his feet might have already carried him out of, were it not for his knotted, mangled knee.  “Namely, the main staircase.” He added, doing his best to disguise his discomfort.

“Of course, Chairman.” Mother Eunice returned, the grin returning, tucking her magic eyes away once more.  “Sister!” She called over her shoulder. “Sister Beatrice will be more than happy to give you a tour of our facilities, won’t you?” She asked, turning to the young woman as she approached.  Nicholas hadn’t noticed that she’d wandered off to see to a pair of misbehaving children. The observation made him wonder how long Mother Eunice had left him to stand there, watching him sway as though he were a mannequin abandoned on a hilltop.

“Yes, Mother.  Right away.” She returned with a respectful nod.  “Shall we?” Sister Beatrice asked, squaring her shoulders to Nicholas but keeping her dark brown eyes from his. 

“Thank you.” He replied quietly.  Though he was tempted, he did not look back over his shoulder as he followed Sister Beatrice from the dining hall.  Nicholas could however, feel the chill of her stare on him as he left, sending shivers down the length of his spine.  It was hard to believe he’d ever known such a woman. Harder still, to believe he ever found any comfort from her. For now, such questions and curiosities could wait.  There was a great relief in caring for others. By setting one’s intentions to the needs of others, the mind becomes too distracted to worry at it’s own self. In this, Nicholas would find a temporary peace, at least until the work was done. 

Nicholas stood at the triage desk when his father approached him.  Having not slept well the night before after the long-winded row he had with his family, his mood was already sour.  The day had been long and not without work, the same cough still spreading throughout the various villages and townships, and sapping the warmth from his already withering self was becoming more exhausting as the afternoon wore on.  He had thought to forego sleep altogether, for fear of dreams pulling memories he’d rather not relive from the depths of his subconscious. Of course, then he hadn’t been able to think of anything else save that one thought, that one memory, and the sleep that he had eventually succumb to had only served to bring it rushing up to the forefront of his messy head.  Even as he leaned his weight on an elbow against the desk before him and focused his attention on the patient-file he flipped through, he could hear the words echoing in the back of his mind.

You’ll look after him, won’t you?” She had asked him. 

Of course, I will.” He had answered.  At the time, he had meant it. 

“Nicholas, I wonder if I might speak with you, my boy?” Lord Abbey began as he approached his youngest son, placing a gentle, paternal hand on his back. 

“Is it about a patient?” He asked coolly, not bothering to take his eyes from the contents of the file.  Perhaps there were a few more drops of nectar to be bled from the young man’s veins, but not for his father, not today. 

“No,” Dr. Abbey, the elder, returned patiently. 

“Have Christopher and mother approved the budget for the orphanage?” He asked next, the same chill in his tone. 

“Well, not just yet, but…” He started. 

“In that case, I don’t want to hear it.” Nicholas returned bitingly, turning from his father and taking his cane in hand as he started away from him.  He tucked the patient file under his arm as he limped along, very much aware of his father trailing after him.

“Please, son, just listen…” Lord Abbey begged as he followed after his youngest boy.  Stopping him in the corridor and wrapping his hands around his arms, those around them parted like the river for a bolder, giving only the most discreet of glances over their shoulders as they passed by.  “I’m sorry. Everything you said last night; you were right. I should have said so then, but I’m saying it now.” He blurted out, careless for the people around him who might hear.

Sighing, Nicholas put a hand against his father’s shoulder saying, “come on, then.” The pair meandered into an empty room, the silence that surrounded them when Nicholas closed the door to the clatter of the triage center outside echoed deafeningly.  “You promised me it wouldn’t be like this if I came back.” The young doctor said, finally breaking the heavy quiet. “Did you lie?”

“No! No, I didn’t lie.” Lord Abbey said, stepping towards his precious child.  “I’ll keep you safe this time, I mean it. You’re my son, I’d never let anything happen to you.”  He meant to continue, but Nicholas was interrupting him.

“But you don’t care about what happens to the children?” He challenged. 

“It was an easy decision at the time, to let your brother take over matters at the orphanage, but only temporarily.” Lord Abbey assured his son, though he looked not in the least bit impressed by the explanation.  “We tried to set everything to order before your arrival, but moving around the money and --”

“There was enough money for all that nonsense over the weekend, but not to fix the plumbing so that the children tending to your garden might bathe?” The grip with which he held his cane was white-knuckled, the file in the grasp of the other crumpling in his frustration.  “Do you know me at all, father? Did you really think this was something I wouldn’t be angry about, something so unimportant to me?”

“Son, we were only moving the children to new rooms so that we might arrange them into more comfortable lodging.  A few rooms became available and so --” Once more, Nicholas was interrupting his father.

“And why is that?  All those empty rooms…” After the first few beats of silence passed, it was clear Lord Abbey hadn’t prepared a lie in the instance of that particular question.  To Nicholas, it seemed that everyone around him thought him a fool, as though he couldn’t tell what was truth and what was fiction. “I care not for whatever excuses you can invent, what I take issue with is the way the children were being treated.  The way the staff was… handling them,” he borrowed the term that Sister Beatrice had given to him the night before.  “It was as if they weren’t children at all.” When his eyes fell on their mirror image in his father, the expression he wore was alarmed and pointed.  The Lord Abbey looked on at his son as if he had just said something unfathomable, but as quickly as the moment arrived it passed. Once more the Lord of the Abbeyshire donned the expression of a parent making desperate attempt to resolve a dispute.

“Your mother thought Junior would be suited to the task, obviously he wasn’t.”  The patriarch of the Abbey clan offered patiently and calmly.

“You’re still under her thumb, aren’t you?” Nicholas asked coldly. 

“No.  No, Nicholas, I promised you that this time --” Lord Abbey was interrupted by the knock on the closed door that separated them from the rest of the hospital. 

“Yes, come in.” Nicholas answered at once, much to his father’s disappointment. 

“Hey, Nick.” Came the familiar voice of the older man who inched into the room.  Upon spotting the Lord Abbey as well, he offered a polite but shallow bow and then said, “oh, Dr. Abbey, always a pleasure.” Turning back to Nicholas he continued saying, “could I borrow you for a minute?  I’d like your opinion on something.”

“Is it the Jackson file?” Nicholas replied.

“It is.” The doctor replied, a small smile curling up the corners of his compactly sculpted mouth. 

“I’ve got it, here.” He returned, pulling the patient file from where it was tucked under his arm.  “I’ll be along in just a minute, Dr. Finnegan.” He offered, accompanied by his own small smirk. Dr. Finnegan was someone for whom Nicholas would summon the tenderness of his warmth on any day, no matter how dreary.  Nodding, the older gentleman stepped out of the room, the curly ends of his shoulder length, salt and pepper locks always the last part of him to pass over a threshold. Turning back to his father, the smile fell from his face.  “If what you’re saying is true, then prove it.” He told his father sternly. When met with a quirked brow and an asking expression, he left him with only two final words before he limped from the room after the children who needed him. 

“Help me.”

King Kade - Reigning from the North

Character limits kill my vibe...