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A Close Call

Chapter Text

Lady Portman was walking swiftly down the long corridor in the wake of the footman.

She could not say she had expected any visitors, particularly this one, but now that she was on her way to one of the Palace’s many rooms suitable for a one to one chat between ladies she found she was more than simply glad. Her excitement, though superbly concealed as always, was growing every second.

The footman stood aside in the doorway to let her enter.

And indeed, this meeting was already worth the urgent interruption of Lady’s Portman’s afternoon activities and the long walk through the hallways, as the elegant sight of Miss Charlotte Drummond greeted her.

She was facing the fire, with her back to the door where she had not yet realised the person she came to call on was already standing, watching her. Lady Portman allowed herself to take advantage of these few stolen moments to take in Miss Drummond’s slender frame, the fashionable colour of her dress, and her brown hair that always seemed to want to escape the styling that had been forced upon it.

But she sensed at once also that this was not going to be a simple taking up of that offer for tea. She was tense, her arms kept straight at her sides, her hands in fists, and she kept scratching at the skin at her nails nervously.

And when she turned to face Lady Portman, she looked as if she had seen a ghost.

‘L-Lady Portman,’ she uttered, so anxiously Emma’s heart skipped a beat.

She really was on the verge of crying.

‘Lord Alfred… He’s…’

 

It was the hottest night of the summer. Alfred had just turned 21 and though he had enjoyed his studies, and the popularity he had also enjoyed among the boys, he was living his best life yet at the academy. Particularly this evening, as he and a merry group of his most amusing pals were heading to the docks to inspect a naval ship that had just returned from China, by way of India, Cape Town, and Portugal.

‘Personally, I shall do a lot of inspecting,’ said Featherstonehaugh in the carriage, a dark burly lad who shared Alfred’s dorm room the year before with six others but unlike them never his bed. Probably the reason why they could remain such good friends, whereas Alfred was beginning to forget the rest of his former roommates’ names already. ‘Of the barrels of rum they are certain to have below decks.’

‘Now, now, Birdie,’ Alfred said to him once the carriage quietened after the remark – the nickname coming from that time they had a bit of a fight in the dorms and Featherstonehaugh grabbed a pillow to throw at another roommate but it had got caught on a nail sticking out of the wall, thus causing him to spread down feathers all over the room. They all got a week of cleaning duty but the argument was settled as no one could stand it without doubling over laughing at him. ‘They’re sailors not pirates. Besides, I believe we must first salute the brave cadets and the captain, so be nice and let us put our best foot forward.’

‘What’s the point if there are no women around?’

‘Ah, Birdy would like to put something else than his foot forward, were there ladies present,’ another one of the young men commented, gesturing lewdly, prompting another bout of laughter among the soldiers.

The banter continued until they reached the docks. They all put on their polite, public faces before getting out of the carriage. Greeted by a uniformed naval officer on land, they were led up the wooden steps, all aboard.

A number of cadets and officers were lined up neatly, in their own uniforms, on the deck. The cavaliers, including Lord Alfred, walked down the line, saluting them and thanking them for allowing them the opportunity to have a bit of a peek at the workings of Her Majesty’s royal navy. Until they reached the Captain of the ship, to whom they repeated all the same courtesies, hoping to return the favour while they’re in England.

Next, a tour of the ship followed, which was actually truly fascinating, Alfred thought. He always did love ships, indeed he dreamed of the day he would purchase his own, allowing him to travel to France whenever he wished, now that he had become so proficient at the language. And he, unlike his friends from the delegation, would certainly not have minded the sole presence of men for weeks and weeks at sea… He would have minded the lack of access to many a thing life on land offered, though, such as long hot baths and an endless supply of champagne and cigars. And he did love his horses. It was the cavalry for him. For now, he supposed… the more he heard from the Captain and the crew about the hardships they had just had to endure in Asia, and on the lengthy sea voyage, the more he saw his training as a sort of formality. He was a damn good equerry, a sharp shooter, and an excellent swordsman, but he felt his calling would be elsewhere in the end.

Still, tonight, he didn’t care much about the big questions. All he wanted was to join the party on deck and have a bit of a break.

The sun had set by the time they were allowed to freely mingle with the crew. Indeed, there was a bit of a party developing – the relief of being home after such a journey was great, and the excitement of having illustrious guests over in the form of the delegation made for a lovely excuse.

Alfred was particularly red cheeked all night because most of the men were as tight as ticks! Did he choose wrong after all, should he have elected to go into the navy instead? If the sailors were so handsome!

The only problem was, the ship seemed to have brought with them the heatwaves of exotic places as well. Alfred excused himself and walked over to a less crowded part of the forward deck for a bit of air.

From the lack of lights, he only realised he wasn’t alone when he was but a few feet away from the beak. Squinting in the dark, wishing for the moonlight to be stronger, he became aware that the silhouette of a man at the very peak of the ship was not merely the carved figurehead but one of the crew sitting on the railing, staring out at the Thames, at London, into the night.

When the man turned around, Alfred’s gaze was caught by wistful eyes the colour of open seas. His black hair was longer than the fashion of the time and his wavy locks were moving ever so slightly in the light, warm, summer breeze. The image of a hero in a novel.

Alfred had spent the evening in the company of handsome lads, but this man was just stunning. And it wasn’t his superficial good looks. There was a depth to him that was mesmerizing, though dangerous. Really, Alfred was reminded of the Sirens, only he did not need to hear him at all to know he should have loved to drown in those deep blue eyes of his.

He had no idea when he apologised for intruding that his fancy of the tall dark man was nothing compared to the instant fascination with Lord Alfred that he would have in return.

 

Where was he? Alfred thought impatiently, checking his pocket watch in the moonlight.

He was freezing. Primrose Hill was white and frosty, with a fresh layer of snow covering the grass and the leafless branches of the surrounding trees. He had given specific enough instructions – the time and place and the means of the duel were made perfectly clear. He checked his watch again.

Five minutes till midnight.

He glanced at the carriage a little way away, where he had left Edward. His heart was aching for doing this to him, the absolute terror in which he put his love, but he had to do this. Lucky the ladies were there to withhold him, and the key to the carriage door lying in his breast pocket. He wondered if it could stop a bullet, should the need arise… Then instantly perished the thought. Or tried to.

Hearing the sounds of hooves in the snow, he turned around.

William was riding towards their meeting place, a meadow surrounded by trees and shrubs in the middle of the park. He pulled to a stop, got off, tied his horse to a suitable tree, and walked over to Alfred, taking out a cheroot.

‘You wouldn’t happen to have a tinderbox on you, would you?’ he asked nonchalantly once he came to a halt.

He was standing tall, and seemed much calmer at the prospect of the duel than Alfred felt.

‘It’s three minutes until midnight.’

‘Exactly. Just enough time for one.’ William offered his cigar case to Alfred. ‘Come on, have one. For old time’s sake.’

Alfred shot him a glare. But he was full of nerves so he took one, glad he didn’t have to fumble with shaking hands for his own light as William sparked a fire, lighting his own cigar, then Alfred’s.

 

‘Thank you,’ Alfred said, exhaling smoke slowly, enjoying being watched closely by Lieutenant Peel, as he introduced himself, basking in the soft moonlight on the deck. He thought he had gone mad from being at sea for so long but the vision called Lord Alfred Paget turned out to be quite real. The bright red of his uniform, his sparkling blue eyes, his golden hair and flushed fair skin were luminous in the dark. And when he opened his mouth, the smooth velvety voice that William did not expect to hear felt to him like tasting molten chocolate or swallowing warm brandy.

He walked back to the thick of the party with him. Introductions were made left and right, drinks passed around, more and more lewd stories of the soldiers’ training days and escapades with women outside the walls of the academy or the ship, on land and sea. Alfred came alive anew every time he was brought to a fit of giggles by some well-aimed quip or incredible story, most of which were told by William, as he soon became addicted to the sight. He really found he had to laugh out loud Lord Alfred was so beautiful.

William also became aware that the notorious Marquess’s son was not so keen to share many stories of his own about adventures in seduction, which either meant he was as innocent as his naturally angelic features would suggest, or that his stories were not to be heard by the ears of all…

Even when he wasn’t by his close side, William was watching him, catching his eyes through the lively crowd of uniformed soldiers on the deck. And he was pleased to see, more than once, Lord Alfred seemed to have to look away from him, as if flustered by William’s gaze.

‘I wonder if you’ve been given a tour of the lower parts of the ship, Lord Alfred,’ William said only to his ears when a larger group of men broke up to get more drinks or talk to others.

‘We have, the Captain has graciously shown us some of the rooms below decks. She really is remarkable. As are your stories.’

‘I don’t believe you’ve been shown the cabin side, though? Where you shall be housed for the night?’

‘No, we have not.’

‘Would you permit me?’

‘Lead the way.’

 

Alfred’s cheroot was almost nearing its end.

‘Has the gallant Mr Drummond not accompanied you this time?’

‘He has,’ Alfred glanced at a carriage standing some way away in the dark.

His heart was breaking for how Edward had taken all this. Once he fully understood that Alfred and William were going to duel with guns at night, all the blood drained from him, he was paler than when he was shot back in the summer. He was shouting, crying, begging him to forfeit, nearly running out the door to chase after William to ask him to call it off, Alfred having to hold him down or drag him on his feet when he was about to actually kneel to plead for him not to go through with this – shouting at a footman in the process when one appeared to see what this noise was upstairs, prompting him to scarper right away, no doubt giving the servants something to chew on.

Eventually, he had to leave to prepare. He had to get his weapon and subdue his own emotions in order to be able to focus – this was no joke after all.

He briefly thought about writing a letter to his father. While he could, a nasty little voice in his head said. He didn’t think his Papa would have been proud exactly. But it would have felt right to. Alas, he couldn’t reveal the reasons for it in the first place.

By the time he got back to Edward’s house, Charlotte was with him, and Lady Portman, too. Apparently, after Alfred left, Edward went up to Charlotte’s room to apologise for everything and to tell her what was going to happen, all in floods of tears. She tried to calm him, even as he was crying, head on her knees, crumbled on the carpet. She was glad of his sternness before, as he was so broken now. She pulled herself together for his sake, called a housemaid to help dress her behind a folding screen, and left Edward in her bedroom in order to go to the palace, to find the person she thought could help: Lady Portman.

Charlotte feared she was making a mistake as there was no way she could tell her about the duel without also telling her about what prompted it. She was ever so glad the Baroness was not fazed to hear about the men at all. Her wisdom really surpassed all. She was, however, just as terrified at the prospect of Lord Alfred duelling Captain Peel.

Alfred was relentless. He could not allow himself to be emotional, he needed to stay focused. It wasn’t just for that kiss, it wasn’t just for the insults, or for the way he had been to Edward, it was for everything.

Duelling being an illicit activity, he cursed himself for having chosen such a central site but it was too late now. He wasn’t going to allow Edward to come with him but in the end had to compromise. He drove all three of them there in a carriage, on the condition that they would stay inside. Which, after hopping off the driver’s seat, he ensured by shoving Edward right back in the carriage after one last desperate kiss and actually locking the carriage door with a key swiftly.

Edward of course banged on the glass, calling for him to let him out, and still pleading for him not to go through with it.

But he had to.

‘And you?’ Alfred asked William in the silence of the park. ‘Have you come alone?’

‘You know me, Alfred. Always alone.’ He checked his watch. ‘Two minutes. Did I make you wait long?’

‘I was beginning to think you got lost. Or changed your mind.’

‘Never,’ William replied, as if this was amusement to him, not the last seconds until they were due to duel, with potentially tragic outcomes. Glaring straight into Alfred’s eyes for the reaction, he added: ‘You should know from the last time that I would never have turned down an invitation of yours.’

 

They set down their drinks on a barrel, and, grinning like naughty schoolchildren, Alfred followed William below decks, careful to mind their heads, as the ceilings and doorways could be quite low. A labyrinth of tight, wood panelled corridors was their path, allowing them to peek into cabins left and right, some empty, some containing their inhabitants changing shirts unashamed from the open door, packing their belongings, or playing cards with a few others.

‘I believe this is yours for the night,’ William stopped at a cabin door.

‘Will I have to share?’

William had to bite his lip, to keep from smirking too much and saying that’s up to you.

‘I hope the room has been prepared to your satisfaction,’ he said instead.

Alfred eyed him for a few seconds.

‘Why don’t you come in and see for yourself?’ he asked, barely above a whisper. He thought he was right but one could never be sure. He was either taking a step towards a good time in there or angering the Lieutenant to the point of reporting him to the Captain, and his ruin would roll from there.

William instinctively checked that the loud cadets in the corridor and cabins around remained unassuming.

‘Would you really like that, Lord Alfred?’

Alfred licked his lips. Pleased to see it drew William’s eyes as he hoped.

‘I would,’ he replied, glad the Lieutenant seemed far from offended. Far, far from it…

And he opened the cabin door, quirking an eyebrow, as if challenging William… who, of course followed.

 

 ‘I regret this invitation as much as the previous one,’ Alfred said, his breath visible in the icy air, flicking his finished cheroot in the snow.

‘We could call it off,’ William said, still smiling at Alfred.

‘I could not. My father would never speak to me again.’

‘What makes you think he’d have a chance to in the first place? I see your hands are less steady than mine.’

‘I have a lot to lose.’

‘And I don’t?’

‘I can’t tell, William. You deceived me well enough before.’

‘Drummond told you, then.’

‘You may have been lying again. Maybe you did make a bet. Maybe you didn’t. Who’s to tell? Besides, it matters not.’

‘One minute.’

‘What?’

‘One minute left,’ William repeated, not wishing to revisit the time he claimed he had only taken Alfred to bed on a bet. He had done some questionable things to get his way or get out of tight corners across continents, on battlefields and in bedrooms alike, but the mere memory of time he had to tell a young, devoted, dewy eyed Alfred that he had only played with him was enough to want to turn his gun on himself on this December night instead.

‘One minute,’ Alfred braced himself.

‘Until you get your revenge,’ William remarked, throwing his own cheroot away.

‘Not revenge. This is for honour.’

‘Well, whatever it is, I hope you’ll find this satisfactory.’

 

The space in the cabin was small, the ceiling low, the single round window unsuited to let in any light, even if the city hadn’t been clad in darkness outside. The temperatures were not much lower below decks, but the sweltering heat was not the only reason why Alfred was longing to take off his uniform. And William’s.

‘Well, Lieutenant? Do you find this satisfactory?’ Alfred asked, once the cabin door was closed.

William stepped closer, much too close. He reached up to cup Alfred’s chin, feasting his eyes on his lips leaning in but oh… not yet tasting them, as Alfred so anticipated, earning a sweet giggle from him.

William looked at him, really looked. Alfred was just perfect, and he stared up at William as if he imagined he could give him the world.

Setting his heart and body on fire, William finally kissed him.

He needed this, William thought, even as he was reining himself back from handling Alfred too roughly. He seemed so delicate. Besides, though kissing was only something one had to do to open gates to bigger pleasures, now William found he was actually enjoying it with Alfred for the sake of it.

Alfred, however, was kissing him with more and more fervour, biting his lips to communicate his desires without spelling them out but was getting nothing… Was William shyer than he seemed from the searing looks all night? Or was he under the impression Alfred was to be handled with care? Or was he just waiting for him to say which way he would prefer him?

‘Fuck me,’ Alfred breathed against his lips when his patience no longer held.

William had to try and mask his surprise – Lord Alfred wasn’t so innocent and delicate after all!

Uniforms fell on the floor before long and Alfred pulled William on the single narrow bed with him.

 

‘It’s time,’ Alfred said, pocketing his watch. ‘Get your gun out.’

William did so, pulling his pistol out of its holster the breast of his coat. So did Alfred, whose weapon was perhaps more elegantly decorated but just as deadly.

‘Want to compare sizes?’ William winked at him.

‘Just turn around.’

‘Why, you know I prefer to face you.’

 

William could have finished just from hearing Lord Alfred’s velvety voice moan his first name aloud sinfully, even if it meant he had to frequently interrupt his devouring of the sensitive skin on his neck. It was so soft and fair, so unlike the rough sunburnt skin of anyone who would do in any port when the urge came.

‘God,’ William giggled, not believing this, after even louder sounds of approval when his hands began wandering places on Alfred’s body. ‘Alfred, you must keep your voice down, else the cadets next door shall—’

William’s further warnings were drowned by heated, wet kisses. It was insane, just next door they could clearly hear a loud group of sailors playing bridge – surely, the noise was a good cover for their own ones but the walls were as thin their way as it was on this side!

At first William thought he offended Alfred somehow with the scolding but he only broke their kiss and embrace to roll over under him, with difficulty on the small bed. Once William understood what he was doing, he grabbed his shoulders and pinned them back on the bed, and dived in for more of those heavenly kisses he found he just could not get enough of.

Alfred was complying, feeding his tongue to William in a way he knew drove men crazy for him, but he was confused. Did he not want him after all…? And why did he take his time so? Alfred was used to things going far quicker – this was supposed to be using each other’s bodies, hands, mouths, other parts, in library nooks after hours or in dusty attics, for relief, and then going their own ways, never mentioning it again. But William wasn’t just using his body like all others.

And then, as William did things to him even as they never broke their kisses, Alfred had to pull away and check his face. Oh, William was far from reluctant. He realised he wanted him this way.

 

‘Just play by the rules for once, William,’ Alfred instructed, turning his back on him.

Judging by the sounds of footsteps in the snow, William did as told, turning his back to Alfred, too.

‘Fifteen steps, on the count of three. One shot.’

‘On three or after?’

‘William…’

‘What, I’m just asking.’

‘Yes, you wouldn’t want to fire too early.’

 

The headboard of the bed was knocking against the wood panelled wall of the cabin with every thrust. Alfred prayed the cadets next door would not be aware of this over their own loudness and the haze of the drinks they were surely consuming because it was too good to stop now.

But William faltered in his movements anyway.

‘It’s not that loud,’ Alfred panted, trying not to sound too impatient, opening his eyes.

Turned out, William couldn’t care less about the headboard, as a mix of emotions was apparent on his face. Brows furrowed, breath held, biting hard on his full red lips, he tried to focus to hold off his orgasm.

Alfred was almost touched. In his heart, that is.

He reached up to brush a loose strand of his jet black hair from William’s sweat-kissed forehead, calming him with the gentleness of the gesture.

‘Sorry, I…’ William whispered when Alfred gave one of his breathy giggles.

Some seconds later, his hot shivers subsiding, he exhaled slowly, his warm breath caressing Alfred’s flushed red cheeks.

‘Good?’ Alfred asked.

William was nodding.

‘Good,’ Alfred now not at all asked as he took William by surprise more than any time before by pushing himself up until they were sitting on the mattress in a close embrace, Alfred in William’s lap, legs tight around his hips, arms around his sculpted shoulders, beads of sweat on foreheads pressed together as they picked up pace again once Alfred began to move up and down, steadied by William’s hands on his hips.

William was younger but he had seen a lot more of the world, too much for anyone’s good. But he had never met anyone like Lord Alfred. Usually, the men he had been with like this were… not exactly enduring it, no, they were enjoying it, but they were taking it rather submissively.

Not Alfred. William felt foolish now that he thought he would have to treat him with care, fearing he would break if handled too roughly, as he was proving all his assumptions wrong. All except one: that he would be amazing to bed. But he had definitely not expected for Alfred to be so vocal about his desires and to take the lead like this, thirsty in the sweltering heat, all impatient.

 

‘Shall we begin at last?’ Alfred urged, heart pounding, perhaps its last beats before William’s bullet found it, if he wasn’t quicker.

‘Might as well,’ William replied in the dark. ‘Aim well, Alfred.’

‘I always do.’

 

Alfred was moving faster and faster, returning sloppy kisses and gasping, panting rapidly. William had no chance of keeping this up for long but there was no need. As soon as he touched Alfred with his hand, Alfred tilted his head back and opened his mouth in a silent scream, spending on William’s chest and stomach.

 

And they started to march in opposite directions through the virgin snow, counting the steps.

One, two, three, four…

 

Driven savage by the sight of Alfred’s intense rapture and the sensations in his heated body, William lunged forward, pinning Alfred to the bed, definitely cracking some of its structure, following suit and coming into him, riding out his pleasure to its fullest, stifling his moans into Alfred’s neck.

 

…five, six, seven, eight…

 

Alfred stayed on the bed with his eyes closed, catching his breath. Not that he could move under William’s weight.

All too soon, he thought, emptiness replaced the warm body in his arms as William got off the bed. Of course, Alfred supposed, eyed still shut to the world, the Lieutenant would be missed on the deck above. In fact, both their absences might be noticed, they mustn’t be gone for too long…

 

…nine, ten, eleven, twelve…

 

Something wet hit Alfred’s stomach. Opening his eyes, he saw a wet towel. And William still there.

William hadn’t stood to dress, only to go to the wash stand in the corner and now he sat back on the bed and clean the mess off Alfred’s skin surprisingly gently. Such a contrast to how he had been just minutes before. He wiped himself clean too and threw the spoiled towel on the back of a chair.

And lay back on the bed beside Alfred.

Did he already want to have him again? Alfred thought, confused. But he just lay down, though the narrow bed wouldn’t have allowed them enough space to lie side by side. Alfred had to rest his head on William’s arm. Or shoulder… Becoming aware of those deep blue eyes on him. William was exhausted, eyelids drooping, but he kept watching Alfred’s flushed, handsome face until he had to give in and dozed off.

Alfred hardly knew what to feel or think or do. Of all the things that night, this was what surprised and touched him the most. This had never happened before. No one just… stayed after getting what they wanted. But then, he thought back to how everything had gone, how William seemed to turn to him with care, his endless kisses, his gentle touches, and the look in his eyes when he fell asleep…

He made himself comfortable in William’s arms, turning towards him, leaning into his body, close.

And for the first time dared to dream. Of a little more. Of William.

 

…thirteen, fourteen… And stop.

‘One…’ they counted aloud in the oppressive silence.

William couldn’t wait to see Alfred’s face again for the last time.

‘Two…’ Alfred tried to steady his hand on his pistol.

Get ready to turn…

‘Three…’

‘I FORFEIT.’

 

But he… he… did he just….? Before he could fall properly asleep, William opened his eyes slowly, to see for himself that this was truly happening. Lord Alfred had cuddled, actually cuddled close to him in his sleep. He had shared a bed with men before but never like this. What did one do now? Should he pull away? Should he wake him? Or should he hold him closer, as his instinct was telling him…?

He chanced a touch on Alfred’s arm, which was resting across his chest. He didn’t want to wake him – no man liked to be roused from his sleep after all, as he had learned through many smacks as a kid. But something told him Alfred wouldn’t be angry at him.

He watched him in his sleep, wishing there was more light to let him see better. Lord Alfred’s beauty surpassed any painting hanging in the finest galleries from Boston to Shanghai.

The strange urge to take Alfred away with him on his next journey welled up in William. How his sight and his presence would ease the hardships of endless voyages. He imagined his wonderment at the exotic lands he would show him. And the nights they could have if they were half as passionate as this…

Ah, but that was an impossible idea, William thought sadly. He had not known him for long but anyone could tell the splendid Lord Alfred was not made for such a life. It wasn’t that he was fragile, as William learned not the hard but the most joyous of ways just now. But he Marquess’s son belonged not in the damp, crowded cabins of a 12-shooter or the dust, dirt, and grime of colonial battlefields that were William’s playgrounds. No, William knew Alfred was meant for spacious, gilded ballrooms and pleasant promenades in blooming English gardens.

And in the arms of a man who would love him.

I could love him, a cruel and unhelpful voice said in the back of his mind. And William froze, feeling like he had fallen twenty feet off the fighting top.

He took his hand off Alfred’s skin as if burned by it.

This wouldn’t do. No. He could not get attached. Could not. It didn’t matter that his heart was already screaming out for Alfred, set on fire, he could not do this. He was setting sail before the summer was over, to return to the Yellow Sea, as soon as Palmerston made up his mind and handed his letter to the Captain to deliver. Maybe he could see Alfred more until that day? But how could he hope to return to battle with a clear head when he was already getting ideas that ought not to be got?

He had seen men lose their closest friends on the battlefield and give up or get distracted by missing their loved ones, vulnerable to attack. He always thought he had survived thus far because he had nothing of the sort to split his focus. This was not the time to start.

Steeling himself, he tore himself away from Alfred, dressed, and ran out of the stifling cabin, out into the night, away, away from that damned ship altogether, to remove himself from even a trace of these ideas.

 

‘Oh, God, I can’t watch,’ Edward groaned in the carriage, burying his face in Charlotte’s scarf, expecting to hear the sounds of shots.

Which never came.

‘What…?’ Charlotte asked no one in particular, locking eyes with Emma over Edward’s shoulder.

‘What, what’s happening?’ Edward suddenly lunged at the window.

 

Though he had turned around, Alfred stood frozen, with his gun aimed at William 30 steps away, finger tight on the trigger but not shooting.

He didn’t think he heard it right.

But William hadn’t fired either.

In fact, he was holding his hands up in the air indeed.

‘I FORFEIT,’ William repeated.

 

‘You… you forfeit?’ Alfred had to ask again to believe it.

‘Yes. Yes, I do,’ William said loud and clear. For good measure, he dropped his own pistol in the snow some way away.

Letting his arms down slowly to rest by his sides, he started walking towards Alfred as if he wasn’t approaching a man holding him at gunpoint.

‘Come on, Alfred,’ he spoke when he was but a few feet away from him. ‘You didn’t seriously think I could shoot at you, did you?’

He came to a halt when his chest hit the barrel of Alfred’s still held out gun, right where his heart was.

‘Would you have at me?’ he asked, fearing the answer.

Alfred picked his jaw up the ground and lowered his pistol in shame.

‘No,’ he admitted, discarding of it, too.

William smiled, though there was nothing arrogant or calculating about it this time.

‘I’m glad to hear. Knowing your talents, wherever you would have aimed would not have been by accident.’

‘Why?’ Alfred asked about the obvious, still flabbergasted.

‘Alfred, I’m leaving.’

Alfred sighed, frustrated. ‘Fine, go, without a word, as always…’

‘No, Alfred,’ William stayed calm, knowing there was no point in furthering arguments anymore. ‘I’m leaving. For good.’

Alfred frowned. ‘Is this another one of your games?’

‘No, I’m afraid I’m not joking this time. The situation between my father and I has become such that I find we can no longer coexist on the same continent, let alone the same country.’

‘Continent…?’

‘Yes, I was thinking Africa this time. Then the Middle East. Perhaps back to India. Perhaps in this order.’

‘But… when?’

‘In the morning.’

‘What – now? This morning?’

‘Yes.’

‘God, William, are you sure? Can’t it be helped?’

‘No. This cannot,’ William replied, still calmly. And somewhat regretfully. ‘When I was thirteen, I joined the navy because it was a good way to escape being under the control of a father who made it clear that I was not to play with certain boys. So I joined a crew of men and left. I’m afraid what he only suspected then has now been proven to him. He was trying to reconnect with me after he was almost shot. I know, sentimental, isn’t it? But in reality, probably a political stunt. Anyway, I wouldn’t reply to his letters, of course. So he sent his valet on me, didn’t he? I was, shall we say, busy. But the damned valet took it upon himself to peek through the keyhole and saw me with a man. Reported it right back to his master like the obedient beast he is.’

‘By God, William… No…’ Alfred’s heart sank for him in a way it hadn’t before.

‘Yes, well, I’m not about to sit around until my father’s police takes me in and it all makes for another kind of political move.’

‘He wouldn’t, not his own son.’

‘Wouldn’t he, though?’ William challenged. ‘Anyway. This time I’m not going to a war, believe it or not. This is for… exploration. To enjoy.’

‘Africa,’ Alfred uttered.

‘I know. Shocking.’

‘Where…?’

‘Egypt. I’ve been learning Arabic – I’m going with the man who’s been teaching me.’

‘Won’t it be dangerous?’

‘Ah, what’s an adventure without a little danger, Alfred?’ William winked.

‘William,’ Alfred spoke, getting over all his surprise, or trying to. ‘Are you serious?’

‘Quite serious. That’s why I’ve been trying to catch a moment with you to talk. I was hoping I might clear up the mess I made before I leave on this final occasion. So… forfeiting not only the duel but my dignity and high horse, I would like to apologise for having acted the way I have now and all previous times we met briefly, and of course for that time. I curse myself every day for having hurt you so…’ William said sincerely, but not without a little grin dancing its way back on his lips. ‘You’ve got to admit, it was fun, wasn’t it?’

Alfred almost laughed out loud. ‘While it lasted,’ he admitted.

‘That’s fair. And I want to say… Drummond is a lucky chap.’

‘I’m the lucky one,’ Alfred said without missing a beat.

‘Then he is all the more lucky because you say that. I’m sorry I was such a cad to him, though he already has my apologies. I suppose the moment I realised you were his I knew I didn’t stand a chance, I mean he is ridiculously handsome…’

‘You’re not too bad, yourself.’

‘Why thank you…’

‘And Edward, he’s… he’s more than just handsome. He’s good.’

William smiled. ‘Good. So… have I made amends? I should hate to think we’ll part enemies.’

‘We were never that. I suppose I, too, should apologise for being so unrelenting before… I’m sorry.’

‘It’s forgotten. Nevertheless, humour me, Alfred and, seeing as this is the last we see of each other, please say we can part friends.’

‘Friends,’ Alfred repeated, eying William while he could. He didn’t feel anything for him anymore but he had been confidant to the strange way he had grown up and what it did to him, through their many brief quarrels over the years. Which would end now.

He nodded and smiled kindly.

‘Always friends.’

William was genuinely grateful and relieved to hear that.

‘I really hope you find some peace and happiness moving forward, William.’

‘Ah, moving forward. You know me, I’ll never stop.’

‘Do you… need anything? I mean, can I help? What can I do?’

William laughed and shrugged. This was odd but… well, if he couldn’t ask Alfred whether he wanted to travel with him, as the answer would be a definite no, he offered his hand.

Alfred took it. But it felt wrong. So, overcoming his past feelings, he hugged William like a true friend.

‘Goodbye, Alfred,’ William said when he released him, suddenly looking younger somehow.

‘We may meet again yet,’ Alfred quipped, staying on the spot even as William started walking away from him.

William just laughed at that, believing in his heart of hearts that that would never happen.

Alfred watched as he untied the rope and got on his horse.

Hit by the reality of it just now, he stepped forward, calling William’s name for the last time before the Captain left and set sail.

Alfred struggled to find the words. William watched him while he could, hoping he would never forget his face. And he was listening.

‘Good luck,’ Alfred said simply in the end.

William bowed from his saddle, and, swiftly before he changed his mind, galloped away from Alfred.