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It’s not often that Jonah finds himself in London these days. While the need to make the trip occasionally rises when correspondence by letter won’t suffice, he’s spent the better part of the last year away, buried up to his ears in work. And though it’s been immensely satisfying to finally have a place to put down roots and grow his institute, Jonah finds that he misses the city. So when the invitation comes across his desk, requesting his company at a party to be held at Robert Smirke’s Charlotte Street residence, Jonah makes the necessary arrangements and is on his way.

It’s the start of the season when Jonah arrives in London, and everyone who’s anyone has already swanned their way back into the city after a long, idle summer spent in the country. Even Albrecht’s in town, having sailed into the city not a week past by way of a trade ship out of Hamburg—on business, he had insisted. Jonah finds that rather hard to believe, given how much time Albrecht has spent in his bed, but decides to keep his doubts to himself.

The days have grown short and brisk in summer’s absence, with a cool snap to the air that nips at Jonah’s cheeks as he makes his way to the carriage out front of the townhome he’s rented for the season. Albrecht huddles up close to him inside the carriage, face tucked under Jonah’s chin, one hand on his knee. He whispers soft words into the space beneath Jonah’s ear, words he doesn’t catch but can readily imagine. And though the tip of Albrecht’s nose is cold against the column of his neck, the reverent kisses he presses over his pulse keep him warm on the carriage ride over.

The party is well underway by the time they arrive, the ballroom already more than half-full of cheerful partygoers huddled around gaming tables or talking amongst themselves. It’s late enough in the evening now that the sun has fully set, the tall window panes turned darkly opaque against the night sky pressing in against them. The room is similarly dark, the oil lamps kept off in favor of the flickering, golden light of dozens of candles spread throughout the room on mantels and tables. It makes the large room feel smaller, closer—at once more intimate and yet more mysterious.

“I’ll fetch us drinks,” Albrecht tells him, squeezing his elbow gently before he heads off. Jonah nods absently as he surveys the room, taking a moment to look over the gathered company before he himself enters the fold.

Despite the costumes and masks—attire required for entry, according to the invitation—Jonah finds that he can recognize most everyone he sees. There’s Barnabas Bennett, predictably sat at one of the gaming tables, wrapped in a feathered cloak and donning a mask with the short, curved beak of an albatross. And across from him is most assuredly Mordechai Lukas, broad shoulders moving under a silver-grey pelt as he deals the cards. And though Jonah can’t see his face from where he stands, he would bet whatever money Barnabas had already lost that it’s obscured by a lupine mask.

All in all, Jonah finds himself a touch disappointed. He had been counting on a bit more surprise from a masquerade party. The sort of excitement that only a dimmed room and costumed anonymity can afford—where a mask conceals the identities of friends and strangers alike, and the intimate press of a hand at the small of one’s back could just as easily come from an amorous acquaintance as a particularly bold stranger.

“Looking for someone?” Albrecht asks him with all the good humor of a man who knows exactly where he stands. Another man might have bristled at Jonah’s wandering eye, taking it as a sign of inattention or disinterest. But not Albrecht. He’s known Jonah for far too long to make that mistake.

Jonah accepts a glass of warm mulled wine from Albrecht, murmuring his thanks as he continues to look over the room.

“No one in particular,” he replies, watching Giovanni carry on an animated conversation, speaking as much with his hands as with his voice, face obscured behind a Venetian mask. He takes a sip of his drink, and the wine is spicy and sweet on his tongue, the added brandy suffusing his limbs with a gentle, banked heat.

“Shall we, then?”

Jonah looks sidelong at the hand Albrecht offers, then up to his face. There’s color high in his cheeks already, his eyes bright and just slightly unfocused. The glass in his other hand is near empty, a scant finger of liquid left at the bottom. Jonah wonders, not for the first time, at how easily Albrecht falls into all of his indulgences—how quickly he is taken under their influence. He dips his head, shooting Albrecht a rueful little smile to take the edge off his refusal.

“Forgive me, Albrecht,” he demurs, “it’s rather earlier in the evening than I’d prefer to begin dancing.” He takes another sip of his drink for emphasis. Albrecht shrugs easily, the movement causing the gleaming scales covering his robes to catch the light. It reminds Jonah of a school of shining fish gliding through the water—or perhaps a thousand luminous eyes glittering out of the darkness.

“As you like,” he says, lifting his glass to finish off the last of his drink. “Shall we instead go greet our host?”

Jonah catches sight of Robert by himself in a corner of the room, hunched over and fussing with a large, intricate jackal mask. Smirking, Jonah takes Albrecht’s arm and says, “let’s.”

They weave their way through the crowd, Albrecht leading with a single-minded focus that leaves Jonah walking just a bit faster to keep up with his long-legged strides. By the time they’ve crossed the room, Robert has gotten the mask back over his face and is now adjusting the sit of the heavy gold collar around his neck and shoulders.

“Robert!” Albrecht calls, voice a little too loud, a little too jovial. Robert jolts, surprised, and turns in their direction as Albrecht extends his hand. “Good to see you.”

“Ah, Albrecht!” Robert replies, a smile evident in his voice as he reaches to clasp the other man’s hand in his own. “Likewise. And Jonah,” he continues, turning toward him and taking his hand. “A pleasure, as always.”

“Robert,” Jonah returns, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. “Or should I say Anubis?” Jonah nods his head, gesturing at Robert’s costume. “Fancy yourself some great judge of man, then?”

“Oh, I should think not,” Robert replies, squeezing Jonah’s hand back just once before letting it go. “After all, I invited you.”

There’s silence for a beat, and then Albrecht laughs, a full-bodied, musical thing. It wasn’t as funny as all that, Jonah thinks mildly, but it’s difficult to remain unamused with Albrecht laughing beside him.

“Very clever,” Jonah concedes. He lifts his glass to Robert and takes a deep, long drink.

“You know, the ancients considered peacocks a symbol of immortality,” Robert says, reaching out to rub the lapel of Jonah’s coat between his thumb and forefinger, the turquoise and emerald shot silk iridescent in the low light of the room. “They’ve also been associated with royalty.”

“Fitting for our Mr. Magnus, don’t you think?” Albrecht rests a hand on Jonah’s back, just a bit low to be entirely proper. “A beautiful costume for a most beautiful man.”

Jonah can feel Albrecht’s eyes on him, hot, nearly a physical thing, and though he can’t see Robert’s eyes behind his mask, he can feel them on him as well.

“You flatter me,” Jonah says, hiding his smile against the rim of his glass. He tips his head back and finishes his drink in one smooth swallow, keenly aware of the two pairs of eyes that follow the movement of his throat. “But,” he starts, lowering his glass from his lips and giving it a small shake, “as much as I like the direction this conversation has taken, I find myself in need of another drink.”

“Of course,” Robert says, voice colored with amusement. “No doubt I’ll see the two of you again this evening.”

“No doubt,” Albrecht agrees, offering his arm once more for Jonah to take. Jonah smiles and accepts, allowing himself to be led across the floor to the small bar where the drinks are served.

This time around, the drink is rather more brandy than wine, and between the alcohol and the compliments, Jonah’s mood has much improved. He and Albrecht settle in next to the fireplace, and warmth washes over Jonah in gentle waves. It’s comfortable—cosy even—and he finds himself content to simply listen while Albrecht speaks, half lost in his own thoughts while Albrecht explains the bit of business he’s on in town. It’s likely for this reason that he doesn’t notice the figure that approaches him until it’s nearly upon him.

The skin at the back of his neck prickles, the hairs standing to attention as he registers a presence behind him. In his periphery he sees a black shape, nearly formless in the dim of the room, blending into the dark-paneled wood of the wall behind. Jonah turns, jerky and startled, and finds himself facing a man, clothed in black from head to toe, face hidden completely behind an avian mask. It’s as if he appeared out of thin air—as if the shadows themselves have condensed and coalesced into this singular, imposing figure, tall and dark and silent. The eyes of the mask are lensed in darkened glass, and Jonah can see his own face reflected back at him on their surface, eyes wide and white behind his own feathered mask, uncovered mouth slack in his shock—caught completely and embarrassingly unawares. He schools his features into something less raw, into a more controlled expression of surprise.

“You snuck up on me,” Jonah says, smiling coyly up at that blank, corvid face. Better to let this man take him for some soft, foolish thing—set him up to underestimate Jonah to his detriment. He looks him up and down, disguising his assessment as interest, though he can’t deny that he is interested.

Who is this man?

Jonah can account for the identity of everyone else in the room, no matter how complicated or involved their disguise. But not this newcomer, dressed in what Jonah can now place as a plague doctor outfit. He almost laughs. He knows only one person who would think to dress as such a thing; only one man morbid enough to consider it.

But it can’t be Jonathan. When Jonah had asked whether he would like to accompany him to the party, Jonathan declined, explaining he would be out of town for the week on some business pertaining to a patient in his care. There was no reason to doubt his sincerity; he had seemed regretful enough in his refusal. And indeed, Jonah has not seen Jonathan all week. Surely Jonathan would have made the effort to see him were he not otherwise engaged, given that Jonah is so infrequently in London now that he has his institute in Edinburgh to see to.

Still, there’s something so familiar about this man. His frame, the way he holds himself—even his silence. Jonah can’t seem to put his finger on it, and that, more than the costume and the abrupt appearance, is what unnerves him.

“Have we met?” Jonah asks, cocking his head to the side. “I should think I’d remember someone who cuts such a figure as you do.”

Silence. The man doesn’t move, doesn’t even seem to breathe underneath all those layers of black canvas and leather. Simply stares at him, or so Jonah assumes. He has nothing to go on about this stranger besides the itching, nagging suspicion that he knows much more about Jonah than Jonah about him. The annoyance chafes at him, makes him impatient. He can see the way his expression sours in the reflective surface of the mask’s glass eyes.

“Can I help you,” Jonah says, too flat to be a proper question. And again, no response. He’s just beginning to wonder whether the man can’t hear him through the mask, obscuring his ears as it does, until he leans forward on the cane held in his left hand and stretches forward his right.

Jonah looks at the proffered hand, eyeing it with no small measure of suspicion. It’s slim but long-fingered, wrapped in a well-fitting glove of supple black leather that conforms perfectly to the curve of his hand. The glove is worn smooth and shiny, and there’s a moment where the flickering light of the fire behind the grates plays across it, making it look as if he cradles a small flame in his palm.

Jonah doesn’t know what his game is, and he knows he shouldn’t trust him—doesn’t trust this one stranger in a roomful of familiar faces and intentions. But he’s willing to take a risk. Willing to see what this man has planned for him, and whether he can coax and push him into playing a game of his devising.

Jonah shoots a quick look over his shoulder, finding Albrecht staring at the two of them with an odd expression on his face, somewhere between confusion and amusement. But Albrecht will be there later, good and dependable and waiting for Jonah to return so they can leave together the same way they came. There’s no wonder or mystery there. He turns back and flicks his eyes down to take one last look at the hand in front of him before he meets the stranger’s dark and glassy stare.

Jonah takes the hand.

The leather is warm under his touch, soft and smooth as it looked. He doesn’t flinch when the hand closes around his own, enfolding his fingers completely, but he can’t stop the shudder that runs through him when the thumb brushes over his knuckles, light and strangely tender. He places his glass, half-full still and wine now cooled, on a nearby table and lets the man lead him from the room.

The hallway is dark without the numerous candles to light it, but the stranger—the doctor, as Jonah is starting to think of him—doesn’t seem to need them. He makes his way down the hall with Jonah in tow, and even his footsteps are curiously silent, boots making no sound against the hardwood of the floor. Jonah is self-conscious of his every breath, loud and graceless in comparison. It’s not often that he’s made to feel so clumsy and unsure, and he bolsters himself with the reminder that he was chosen. That out of a room full of dozens of people in glittering finery, the doctor approached him and him alone.

They stop in front of a closed door, the last one at the end of the hallway and the one in deepest shadow, the frame almost indistinguishable from the wall due to the dark. The door opens with a quiet creak, and the doctor ushers Jonah inside ahead of him with a hand low on his back. The rounded handle of his cane presses against one of the knobs of Jonah's spine, sliding the smooth fabric of his shirt against his skin in a way that raises gooseflesh along his arms. With a sightless look over his shoulder, Jonah steps inside.

Moonlight spills in from the large, uncovered windows, bathing the room in an unearthly silver glow. Jonah can see now that they’re in Robert’s study, building schematics and pencils and rulers spread in haphazard piles across the drafting table, lowered flat now that it’s not in use. Jonah moves forward, glancing over the drawings: the sweeping arch of a domed roof, a laddered row of Ionic columns, the rigid lines and sharp angles of a tower. He takes his mask off and places it on the table, bending his head over the schematics as if regarding them with great interest. He’s unwilling to seem overeager, even as he curls his hands into fists to hide how they shake in anticipation.

Suddenly, he feels the doctor at his back, a heavy, heady weight that has him holding his breath as it presses closer. He moves with it, swaying forward until his hips hit the edge of the table, spine kept arched back by a hand splayed just under his ribcage. Jonah knows his body gives his excitement away—that the doctor must feel the way his belly rises and falls rapidly with his breath, the way his heart thuds in his chest in a hummingbird beat. The moment hangs, long and still as if suspended in amber, tension stretched between the doctor’s fingers spread across his abdomen, pressed against the jut of his bottommost rib.

And then it breaks.

Jonah falls hard onto his elbows as he’s pushed down by a hand at the back of his neck. Instinctively, he struggles against it, leveraging against the grip by pushing upwards with his forearms, but his shirtsleeves slip against the drafts and he sprawls forward, hands pinioned between his chest and the table. He only just manages to turn his head as he pitches forward, his cheek catching the brunt of it instead of his nose, but it’s a near thing. The table is of a height that forces Jonah up onto the balls of his feet as he’s bent over it, the edge of it biting into the soft flesh of his hips as the doctor leans his thighs against Jonah’s arse, pinning him there.

“This is your game, is it?” Jonah asks harshly between shallow breaths. The more he breathes out, the further down the doctor pushes him with the hand at his nape and a sharp elbow digging into the center of his back. “Going to take what you want from me?”

But as he says it, he starts to doubt it. The doctor’s hips are flush with his but he can’t feel the tell-tale bulge of an erection pressing against him. He isn’t hard. His mind flashes once again to Jonathan, but he puts him from his mind and tries to think only of the situation at hand.

“What do you want?” Confusion colors his voice. It’s hard to play at confidence when he has no earthly idea why this man would lead him to the room farthest from the party and bend him over a table for nothing.

The hand that was pressed to his belly before now slides up his flank and back down again, touch soft and light, palm barely pressed against his side. He’s trying to soothe him, Jonah thinks. But why? Jonah stops trying to push back and free himself, and he’s rewarded with the removal of the elbow digging into his spine, the hand at his neck no longer pressing down but resting against his skin. The doctor remains silent, but Jonah thinks he’s beginning to understand.

“You want me to stay down…” Jonah says slowly. The hand at his nape slides up into his hair, petting at his scalp in a gesture that is unmistakably fond. Who is this man? Jonah thinks again to himself. He wonders who it is that has managed to ensnare him so, whose praise implied by the fingers carding through his hair makes his face heat and his knees weak. But he’s not inclined to give in, at least not without some answers.

“And if I do, what’s in it for me?”

The response is swift. The doctor flips the tails of his coat aside and slides his hand between Jonah’s legs, pressing two fingers against him through the fabric of his breeches. Jonah gasps and lets his legs fall open a bit wider, canting his hips upward to follow the fingers as they pull back. The doctor pushes down again at the base of his skull, and the message is clear: stay put and I’ll give you what you want.

“O-okay,” Jonah chokes out, trying his best to stay still and not press his hips back into the fingers resting against the seam of his breeches. “Okay.”

The doctor waits a beat, one hand at Jonah’s nape and the other between his legs, before he moves back, weight leaving Jonah entirely. Jonah pants against the top of the table and doesn’t move. He catches sight of the cane the doctor leant against the side of the table, slender and uniform until the last couple inches where it flares out, rounding into a grip that would fit in the palm of one’s hand. The moonlight shines against its lacquered finish, and Jonah focuses on the pale halo of color that the light casts against the curved surface as the doctor squeezes at Jonah’s hips and reaches around to the front fall of his breeches.

He makes surprisingly quick work of it, fingers deft and nimble at the buttons even with the gloves. Jonah hisses in a sharp breath as the doctor pushes the breeches down his legs and off over his stockings and slippers, exposing his bare skin to the chill of the room. A hand slides under his waistcoat and shirt, pressing down at the small of his back for a moment before smoothing up along his spine. The movement rucks up the bottom of his shirt, and his hips make stinging contact with the cold wood of the table. Jonah shivers, from the chill and the touch alike, and begins to grow impatient.

“Get on with it,” he snaps, arching his spine to push his hips back against the doctor’s.

In a moment, the doctor has Jonah pinned again with one hand fisted painfully tight in his hair and the other back at his hip, fingers dimpling the skin with bruising force. He leans forward, the coarse fabric of his robe scratching uncomfortably at the sensitive skin of Jonah’s thighs as he bends over his back and bears down, his weight flattening Jonah against the table. Jonah feels the mask’s beak graze the skin of his neck, the pointed tip pressing into the soft juncture of shoulder and throat. He imagines it piercing his skin, catching against an artery to spill his blood across the table, and he goes still. Barely dares to breathe as he waits to see what happens.

It’s silent save for the wild beat of Jonah’s heart, the rush of blood pounding in his ears, and every moment spent held still like this ratchets up his anxiety. He feels like a hare caught around the neck by a hound. Trapped in that peculiar, breathless moment before the kill, where there’s the small, desperate hope that if he just lays still, plays dead, the jaws won’t snap closed around his throat.

He holds his breath. He doesn’t move. He waits.

Finally, the pressure of the beak eases off his neck as the doctor draws his head back. Tears that have gathered in Jonah’s eyes unshed now fall, streaking down his flushed cheeks and clinging to his lashes in drops that blur the moonlight into rainbows in his vision. Tension abated, Jonah lets out his held breath in one long, shaky exhale that sounds rather less like the relieved laugh he was trying for and more like a desperate sob. The hand in his hair loosens, the fingers rubbing at his smarting, stinging scalp in something almost like an apology.

Every muscle in Jonah’s body feels as though it has been tensed for hours, hot and aching now that he’s allowed himself to relax. When he’s finally caught his breath, no longer gulping down air like his lungs could never be full, the doctor moves, shifting to insinuate one thigh between Jonah’s legs.

Jonah gasps, jolting forward as the doctor slides his knee upward, raising Jonah up onto his toes as he scrabbles for purchase against the top of the table. The fabric of the trousers is smoother than that of the robe, but still coarse enough to toe the line of pain when the doctor’s knee presses up against his cock. He must be making a mess of his trousers, Jonah thinks, each twitch of his hips spreading his slick in minute circles over the fabric pressed against his cunt. But the doctor must know that—certainly he knows what a mess he’s made of him already, can see the way Jonah sniffs and shudders under him.

So Jonah takes the intrusion as an invitation, rocking his hips against the doctor’s leg, sparking warmth that pools low in his belly, coils up his spine, prickles along his skin. It’s not long before he’s panting, pleasure shuddering through him, calves burning from the effort of holding himself up, stretched out and up on tiptoe as held against the table by a firm hand at the center of his back. A finger presses against the tip of his ear, and Jonah moans, high and breathless, as the doctor runs it lightly along the curve of it, flicking gently at the lobe.

And then the hand slides forward, the doctor taking advantage of Jonah’s open mouth to push three gloved fingers past his slack lips. They stretch his mouth wide, pulling tightly at the corners of his lips, sliding back over his tongue until the outer two fingers rest against his molars, fingertips just shy of Jonah’s throat. The leather is warm and smooth against his tongue, tasting faintly of linseed oil and salt and something else slightly bitter and mineral. The doctor presses his fingers down, pinning Jonah’s tongue to the bottom of his mouth, and saliva begins to collect and pool around them, threatening to overflow. Jonah tries to keep it in, tries to swallow—but the movement of his throat pushes the fingers up against his palate, and he chokes and retches until it spills over, flowing over his lips and chin to pool under his cheek.

Jonah’s face heats, embarrassed at this debasement, furious at the effect it’s having on him. He hasn’t stopped grinding down against the doctor’s leg the whole while—he’s not sure he could have even if he wanted to. There’s less friction now, his arousal slicking the way as he rubs himself off against the doctor’s leg, surely soaking through the fabric of his trousers by now. The thought of his slick on this stranger’s skin wrenches a groan from him, muffled against the fingers that fill his mouth.

He lets his eyes flutter closed and gives in to fantasy—imagines that it’s the doctor’s cock in his mouth, hard and thick and stretching his lips wide around it. The hand on his back clenches into a fist as he begins to suck, pulling the fingers further into his mouth until he can run his tongue over the base of them, flick it over the top of his palm. Saliva leaks out around the doctor’s fingers, running down his palm and towards his wrist. The sound of it all is obscene: the soft suckling noises as Jonah laps at the fingers in his mouth; the slick, wet sound of his rutting against the doctor’s thigh; the small, contented moans he breathes against his palm. The doctor strokes his thumb gently over Jonah’s cheek, pressing momentarily into the hollow as Jonah sucks, pushing into the indent to feel his fingers inside.

When his fingers are covered in Jonah’s saliva to the point of dripping, the doctor slides them from Jonah’s mouth. Jonah tries to chase them, leaning forward to keep them from slipping free from his lips, but can’t follow them far. He whines at the loss, and does so again when the doctor slips his leg out from between Jonah’s thighs, leaving him twitching and squirming in the open air.

Indignant, Jonah moves to lift up onto his elbows, ready to chew the stranger out for leaving him high and dry—but before he can manage it, a hand shoots out, scruffing him by the neck and holding him fast to the top of the table.

“Really?” Jonah asks archly, struggling against the grip. “I’m not some pet you can just—"

Two fingers push inside him, swift and without warning, cutting his words off with a strangled cry. There’s little mercy in the movement, in the way the doctor presses his fingers in deep, knuckles brushing against the sensitive space between cunt and arse, thumb settled firmly over Jonah’s cock. The stretch of it burns, even with his slick and spit easing the way—it’s too much and not nearly enough and the groan that escapes him is almost a whine, high and needy. Heavy boots kick his legs wider, and he has to compensate for the height of the table by pressing even further up onto his toes, tilting his hips upward at an angle that edges on uncomfortable.

For a long moment, nothing more happens. The doctor holds him there, fingers hooked inside him, suspending him between impatient anticipation and tremulous trepidation. Would the doctor fuck him, bent over the table, hard and unforgiving, taking what he pleased from Jonah until he was reduced to a quivering wreck? Or would he keep him here, just like this, full but unsatisfied, pushed down and held open for no reason other than to see him so debased?

Jonah has long prided himself on being able to read people—to look at them and see something of who they are, know something of their minds. But the doctor is all but unreadable to him, blank as his mask, intentions as shrouded as the man himself. It sends a frisson of uncertainty down Jonah’s spine, tempering the liquid heat of his excitement into a shard of anxiety that nucleates in his belly until he’s full of cold apprehension.

And then the hand at his neck moves, sliding forward to cup the back of his head, thumb rubbing gently over the ridge at the base of his skull. There’s something achingly gentle about it, and something oddly familiar, too. It’s as if a switch had been flipped, his body relaxing in degrees until the tension melts from his jaw, his shoulders, his thighs. Heart no longer pounding in his ears, Jonah can hear the quiet sounds of breath behind the mask. The doctor is a man, simply a man like any other, and he doesn’t mean to bring him harm.

Jonah floats, almost drunk on the implicit trust that passes between them, unspoken but still clear. And when the doctor begins to move, fingers dragging over the spot inside him that leaves him breathless, the pleasure of it sings through his limbs unimpeded. The doctor fucks him open—slowly at first, with long, unhurried thrusts that have Jonah’s toes curling in his slippers; and then faster, spreading his fingers wide and grinding his thumb against Jonah’s cock each time he sinks them back in.

By the time he adds a third finger, Jonah is nearly sobbing, his moans filling and echoing around the room until he’s almost certain that he can be heard from out in the hall. He wonders what would happen if some curious party guest wandered this way, drawn over by the sounds. Wonders if they would press their ears against the door, imagination filling the gaps implied by the noise; or would they instead be bold, brandy-granted courage driving them to open the door and see for themselves. He can only imagine the sight he makes, face pressed into the table, lips spit-slick and swollen, dripping cunt stuffed full of a stranger’s fingers. The thought of being found this way, so utterly debauched, thrills him nearly as much as it terrifies him, and his moans begin to turn desperate as he tries to gain the leverage to fuck himself back onto the fingers faster.

Suddenly, the doctor’s hand is at his neck again, fingers curling underneath his cravat and tugging until it pulls taut at Jonah’s neck. Gasping, Jonah rears back, cringing away from the unyielding line of fabric at his throat, but an elbow to the center of his back keeps him from doing more than arching his shoulders towards the man behind him. He tries to tug the cravat away from his neck, fingers scrabbling for purchase at the slippery fabric, but it’s no use. The doctor twists his fingers and it tightens further around his throat, cutting off his air as surely and thoroughly as the doctor continues to fuck him. Jonah makes little noise now, shallow breaths and choked off wheezes all he can manage as his world narrows to the thrust of fingers inside him and the stinging silk noose around his neck.

Just as his vision begins to darken, shadows at the periphery bleeding into his sight, the doctor lets go. Jonah slumps forward against the table, voice ragged and rasping as he shouts his way through an orgasm, clenching around the fingers now stilled inside him. His head feels heavy, impossibly heavy—as though all the blood in it were replaced with lead, weighing him down. His pulse throbs at his temples and behind his eyes and in his cock, heart racing in time with the flutter of his cunt as he comes down, and he gasps in as much air as his lungs will allow.

The doctor is still behind him, and silent. Unmoved and apparently set on simply watching as Jonah struggles to regulate his breathing and get himself under control. Jonah’s skin feels hot and tight and swollen, as if he were suddenly too big for it, straining against the boundaries of his own flesh. The sensation isn’t new to him—far from it. This is what he chases when he pushes his own limits: these few, vital moments where his body feels less like a cage from which he’ll never escape and more like a thinning membrane he’s on the verge of punching through, breaking free.

But it doesn’t last. It never does. The feeling slips through his fingers like so much sand when the doctor finally moves, drawing his fingers from Jonah’s body with a tenderness that Jonah neither wants nor appreciates. It’s never the pain that gets Jonah, or even the let-down. It’s the vulnerability that comes with connection, with being seen. People who would touch him with soft, gentle hands to distract from the way that they dig in, pry him open—bare him and all his secrets. The ones who would invariably leave him open and empty. When he squeezes his thighs together, they’re soaked with his slick, wet nearly down to his knees. He thinks of tears, of every time he’s ever been seen as emotional and weak, of all the times he’s felt pathetic and impotent and trapped in his body. Anger bubbles up inside him, bright and hot, burning up his chest and throat until it spills out of his mouth.

“Is that all?” Jonah sneers, letting all the vitriol he can’t yet show on his face fill his voice. “Not going to fuck me properly?”

Though he’s no longer touching him anywhere, Jonah can feel the man’s presence at his back, nearly a physical thing. Jonah turns his head as far as he can, craning to look back over his shoulder. The doctor is close, standing tall over him and still as stone—like some dark obelisk, reaching up to block out the moon, casting a dark, palpable shadow over Jonah.

Jonah reminds himself that he’s a man—just a man—and thinks maybe he could provoke him, goad him into speaking, into revealing his identity by giving away his voice.

“What—afraid you won’t be able to perform?”

Jonah imagines a flash of anger behind those lenses, some sort of acknowledgment of his words, his insolence. But the doctor remains impassive, silent and unmoving as before. It’s entirely uncanny—as if there were no life behind that mask, no spark of what makes one human. Jonah’s encountered monsters before: those who disguised themselves as men and those whose monstrousness made them men only in name. The doctor doesn’t strike Jonah as either. He seems to be something other, something entirely alien to him. Unease rises up alongside his anger, overtakes it, eclipses it.

Terror doesn’t come readily to Jonah. Not anymore, not like it used to. He fears plenty of things, of course—he isn’t a fool. But he has long since taken that terror, that fear, and made it his life’s work: something to see and study and understand. Something to be used against others, when the occasion calls for it, but never again something to be used to control him, something out of his control.

But now… now, he finds himself gripped by fear, paralyzed by it. It’s as if he’s been plunged into a frozen lake, icy terror rushing in to extinguish the bright heat of his anger, condensing into cold, leaden dread that fills his stomach, his lungs. He struggles to keep his breathing even, his chest tightening, his throat constricting, and—this is panic. He’s panicking. It buzzes and prickles at his skin, like limbs waking up from sleep, like cold fingers held too close to a fire. He doesn’t know what the doctor—what this stranger wants from him. He touches Jonah with hands that seem to already know the shape of his body, already seem to know his secrets, and he wonders what it means that someone he just met could see him and know.

He needs to leave. He needs to leave, but he can’t move. His body refuses to move. It won’t cooperate. If he could just catch his breath, just get his muscles to unclench, he’d turn, he’d shout, he’d—

Something cold and smooth presses against his side.

He flinches away from the touch, more on instinct than by conscious action, but it follows him, pressing steadily into the dip of his waist. It draws his attention, pulls him away from the spiral of his thoughts. It’s curved, he thinks, and about the size of his clenched fist. It warms quickly against his skin and it’s… it’s a cane, he realizes. It’s the doctor’s cane. Simple and carved from dark wood and with a curious, rounded knob for a grip.

The recognition makes him feel calmer—at least makes his thoughts a bit calmer. His heart still races in his chest and his breath still comes in short, shallow gasps, but the solid pressure of the cane against him is grounding, something he can focus on.

The cane begins to move, first with a long, slow sweep down his side, nearly to his knee, and then back up to just below his ribcage. It’s regular and rhythmic, and Jonah finds himself trying to match his breath to its movement. Breathes in as it slides up, breathes out as it slides down. It’s hard at first, his throat and chest stinging with the effort, but he does it again. And it gets easier the more he does it, easier to match its pace, and so he does it again. And again. And again.

Soon enough, his body is fully back under his control, and he pulls his hands out from under his abdomen, shaking the pins and needles from his fingers as he blinks stinging tears from his eyes. He feels a bit foolish, letting his mind get away from him like that, letting it drag his body down with it. An unpleasant turn in what has otherwise been an exceedingly pleasant night. But there’s nothing to be done about it now. Either the situation can be saved and he gets to see where else the evening takes him, or it can’t and he extricates himself with as much dignity and grace as he can manage.

Luckily, he doesn’t have to wait long to find out which it is.

He hadn’t noticed when the cane stopped moving. His skin was so used to the touch that it had continued to react even in its absence, a faint, tingling memory of a line drawn up his side. But then there’s a hand at his thigh, smoothing up over the side of his hip, the curve of his arse, the divot at the base of his spine. It rests there for a moment, fingers spread wide and palm pressed flat, warm leather against warmer flesh, before sliding slow and smooth up his back. Not gently, exactly, or with hesitation: it moves with the questing deliberation of one trying to take the measure of the situation, as one would test a foothold in a rock before putting their full weight onto it.

Jonah twists at the shoulders to look back at the doctor, at that blank, impassive face. And though he no doubt looks wretched with his curls clinging limply to his sweat-damp forehead and his eyes red and swollen from tears, he lifts his chin and levels the doctor with a look of challenge. He won’t have the man’s pity—he’d sooner get up and walk out the door, leaving the man behind without a second thought.

There’s a long moment of motionless quiet, the doctor’s hand paused midway up Jonah’s back, fingers at the edge of the short stay he wears, the tips of them pushing just underneath. Jonah can’t see his eyes, but he knows that they’re watching him, calculating, pinning him with a stare. He watches right back, not daring to blink, hardly daring to breathe. The room suddenly seems closer, the air heavy with anticipation, the shadow the doctor casts over him somehow longer and deeper. It feels to Jonah much like the moments before a storm—like that particular stillness that falls over everything just before the tension breaks, before the very air turns kinetic, washing the calm away. Wind and thunder and ozone. Jonah can feel it building behind his teeth and he doesn’t move, doesn’t blink, doesn’t breathe.

And then the doctor cocks his head. There’s something distinctly birdlike about the movement, jerky and just a bit quick, but it seems more deliberate than instinctual, curious and considering. The moonlight hits the mask differently at this angle, pulling half of the face out of shadow and glinting off the dark lenses in a way that makes them seem a bit more like real eyes.

Whatever the doctor was looking for in Jonah’s face, he must have found it. He steps in closer to Jonah, until his robes brush the backs of his thighs, not quite flush against him. Dissatisfied, Jonah arches his spine and pushes his hips back, wanting to feel the heavy weight of the man against him.

He stops, surprised, when he feels the press of the cane against his cunt, cool against his heated flesh. The rounded top of it rests against him, a steady, unmoving pressure against his skin. Jonah recalls the size of it, how it easily filled the palm of the doctor’s hand, and imagines it inside him, fucking him open, filling him up. The groan that leaves him is strangled even to his own ears, and he lowers himself back onto his elbows to grip the edge of the table, bracing himself.

“Do it,” Jonah says, forcing some bite into his voice. His knuckles are starting to turn white where they curl over the edge of the table, his thighs beginning to shake in his anticipation. He’s eager for it—more than eager for it, now that the possibility has been presented to him. The low, slow burn of the stretch, the hot, shuddering ache of it deep in his cunt. He wants it. Wants it more than he wanted the doctor’s cock in his mouth, wants it more than anything else he can think of right now.

The hand at his back leaves, insinuating itself instead between his thighs, and he bites down on a grunt when it grasps one thigh with bruising force. His leg is lifted until his knee is balanced on the edge of the table, until he’s forced up onto his toes to avoid a twinge in his hip. The doctor runs his thumb over the tender place where groin and thigh meet, and Jonah imagines the man assessing him, appraising him.

Jonah’s spread open now, obscenely so, soaking wet and on full display. The doctor’s hand slips in a bit closer, pulling gently at the lip of Jonah’s cunt and exposing him further. The head of the cane bumps against his entrance, large and unyielding, but goes no further. A teasing touch that drives Jonah to impatience.

“Come on, then,” Jonah snaps over his shoulder. “Do—!”

He’s cut off by two fingers at his cock, punching a moan out of him as they rub gently just above it, brushing against the hood. Instantly, he’s suffused with heat, warmth radiating down into his limbs, up into his face. He arches back into them, seeking more friction, and finally—finally—the doctor begins to push the cane inside him, slick and smooth.

It’s good. It’s so very, very good. He could get lost in it, easily, give himself up entirely to feeling. He has more than half a mind to. Let the slow slide of the thick cane inside him and the steady movement of those clever fingers at his cock wind him up into a delicious frenzy and take him apart. He wants it—he deserves it.

But there’s something else he wants, too. Something he hasn’t yet been granted, though not for lack of trying. Throughout their encounter, the doctor has been cold, immovable, utterly silent. And Jonah has been entirely at his mercy, the only pawn in the game. Well, he’ll change that. All men have a weakness, no matter how hidden or well-guarded. And Jonah is nothing if not canny, drawn to a vulnerability like an arrow to a heel.

“Shall I imagine this is your cock, then?” He asks, looking up at the doctor with hooded eyes, a playful smile about his lips.

The fingers working his cock falter, stuttering momentarily out of the rhythm they’d built. It’s so quick as to be nearly imperceptible, but Jonah is quicker to smell blood on the water, to taste the beginnings of a victory on his tongue.

“Yes, I think I will,” he says with a laugh, low and sultry. The cane presses insistently against him, sinking inside him just a bit more, and the breathy moan that leaves him is more genuine than it is for show. “Going to fuck me open on your cock?”

The fingers at his cock move in tight, fast circles now, a counterpoint to the slow push of the doctor inside him, maddeningly steady and measured still. It must nearly be at the thickest bit, Jonah thinks. His cunt is stretched wide and tight around it and it hurts better than anything. It walks the tightrope between pain and pleasure and he pants through his open mouth, fingers clenched around the edge of the table.

“G-going to make me scream?” His voice is high and breathy as he speaks. It’s impossible to keep it even anymore, and he doesn’t bother to try. He looks up to meet those dark, flat eyes and knows that he has him now. Knows that for all the man behind the mask tries to remain cold and unaffected, Jonah has found the hidden seam of him, the place where the role he plays just barely closes around and over the man he is. He digs his fingers in and throws it open.

“Going to finish inside me?”

In an instant, the doctor is bent over him, chest pressed to Jonah’s back, hand slammed flat onto the table at his side. He can hear the other man’s breathing again, muffled by the mask but still audible, harsh and quick. With the fingers gone from his cock, Jonah has a moment to clear his head, focus on something other than the tightening coil of his body. It’s then that he realizes that the doctor is fucking him with his left hand, his right braced on the table next to him.

Interesting.

There aren’t many left-handed gentlemen in London that he knows of—at least, none lacking the good sense to conceal such a trait from a stranger. And of those he’s aware of, all but one were made known to him by way of insult—the kind of thing divulged in the privacy of a parlor room over a drop of brandy, petty and mean, practically slander. A closely guarded secret one wasn’t likely to reveal to any but those in their closest confidence.

As it so happens, Jonah is an intimate friend of one such man… a man who was supposed to be away from London at the moment.

“Well, doctor?” Jonah presses back against him, flush to his chest where he can feel the heaving rise and fall of his chest. “Are you going to fuck me or not?”

The doctor obliges him.

With one short, sharp thrust, he bottoms out inside him, hand holding his cock flush against Jonah’s cunt. The tip of his cock bumps against Jonah’s cervix, ripping a shout out of him as the hot, throbbing ache of it radiates outwards, buzzes just under his skin. He clenches down around it, automatic and instinctual, but it stretches him so completely that he can’t, cunt fluttering uselessly around it.

He’s barely had a moment to catch his breath when the doctor’s hand snakes around the front of his neck, palm flat against the base of his throat, thumb and forefinger pressed just below the hinge of his jaw. His gloves are still wet with Jonah’s arousal, smearing Jonah’s slick across the underside of his chin.

The doctor holds him there, immobilized. Jonah’s heartbeat is loud in his ears, thudding in his temples, his throat, his cunt, breath wild and frantic. He feels nearly split in two by the cock inside him, by the near-unbearable pressure of it against the deepest parts of him. The hand at his throat feels like a vise, tight and constricting, slowly cutting off his air and blood flow both. He feels dizzy, like he’s falling towards some spinning euphoria, swimming in front of his eyes in silver streaks and flashes, like minnows in shallow water, like moonlight over the crests of gentle waves.

When the doctor loosens his hold on his throat, Jonah almost sobs with relief. It fills him in shuddering gasps like the air he pulls back into his lungs. Before he can equilibrate, before he can even get his bearings back, the doctor begins to fuck him. Not slowly, with long, smooth thrusts that build up speed gradually, steadily. No, the doctor fucks him with short, quick snaps of his hips, barely pulling back before slamming forward again, cock ramming against his cervix each time.

It’s loud—all of it. The filthy, wet sounds of their fucking, the hard slap of the doctor’s hips against Jonah’s arse, Jonah’s cries, high and broken as he’s jostled forward with each thrust. And more than that, it’s brutal. It feels personal. Like some punishment, real or imagined, that Jonah must endure. It’s hard and sharp and painful and Jonah loves it.

Loves every moment of it. Even when his thighs begin to sting, and he’s sure he’ll have a kaleidoscope of bruises halfway down to his knees. Even when his cunt starts to ache, and he knows he won’t be able to sit without the feeling of the doctor’s cock throbbing inside him for days. Even when the doctor squeezes his hand around his neck, fingers digging into the tender sides of his throat, cutting off his voice. There’s nothing sweeter than this pain, nothing more holy than this penitence, this retribution paid with his body, and he cries out noiselessly into the dark space before him, eyes wide and unseeing as he comes, gushing around the doctor’s cock.

Time leaves him for a spell. He doesn’t know if he lies there, prone against the table, shuddering and gasping, for an especially long moment or a particularly short lifetime. His awareness is counted in blinks and breaths and not much else. Even the slide of the doctor’s cock leaving him is muffled, his body gone so loose and pliant that the stretch of it is almost a memory, the ache of it inside him dull and quiet in comparison to the thud of his heart in his chest.

A hand in his hair brings him back, if only slightly. It’s gentle where it curves around the back of his skull, fingers brushing softly over the shell of one ear. This is familiar to him. The floating, cotton-stuffed comedown. The confluence of the physical and mental after taking a leave from both. The sure and steady hand that guides him back to his body. Knuckles brush tenderly over his cheek, like a recurring dream, like déjà vu. It only makes sense, then, that his mind supplies words spoken before in a familiar voice—there we are and you’ve done so well and so good for me.

It’s only in moments like these that Jonah allows himself to be fussed over, to let someone else see to his needs beyond his explicit control. He’s warm and muzzy and a bit blurred at the edges still, and so when a handkerchief is pressed between his legs, cleaning him up with light, efficient strokes, he lets it happen. Lets hands flutter at his legs and hips and waist, straightening his clothing, putting him back to rights, making him presentable again. Lets those hands smooth up his sides and over his shoulders, and tilts his face into the palm that presses, just for a moment, at his cheek.

By the time he’s fully back to himself, eyes open once again, blinking into the dark of the room, he is alone.

He pushes himself up onto unsteady legs, his knees weak and shaky as a fawn’s after so long with his weight off of them. Clear of the haze that clouded his mind in the aftermath, he feels a bit like he’s been scrubbed clean: sensitive and raw, but fresh, unburdened. He runs a hand over his face, wiping away the remaining wetness he finds on his cheeks and under his eyes, and makes his way to the door.

Jonah makes his way back down the hall, careful to lengthen his stride to hide the irregularity of his gait. His thighs are sore and his hips are twinging but the deep, satisfying ache low in his abdomen makes the discomfort worthwhile. When he gets back to the ballroom, he stops in the archway of the room, scanning the crowd for a solitary dark figure amongst the bright and glittering guests.

Nothing.

The room is dim, however, fallen deeper into shadow as the evening wore on without him, several of the candles now burned down to sputtering little flames. He does a surreptitious circuit of the room, pausing to say his hellos to those who catch him as he passes but never quite stopping in his search. It’s fruitless, he knows—a costume like that would have stuck out, and as dark as the room has grown in his absence, there’s no shadow long or deep enough to hide that imposing figure.

The doctor seems to have truly disappeared. Melted away into the night as suddenly and completely as he had materialized.

Put off, Jonah makes his way over to a group of familiar faces clustered around one of the gaming tables. He comes to stand next to Giovanni, who has apparently been cheerfully spectating a game of faro that seems to be going rather poorly for Barnabas. A small pile of notes has amassed before Mordechai, and what seems to be Barnabas’ pocket watch sits, for the time being, in the center of the table.

Jonah clears his throat before he speaks. “Have any of you seen a gentleman dressed as a plague doctor?”

Giovanni turns his face to him, eyes twinkling out at him from underneath his mask.

“Hello to you, too, Jonah,” he starts, cheerful but pointed. “Can’t say that I have, and I’ve been out here all night.”

Jonah manages to not roll his eyes, but it’s a very near thing.

“Dressed as a what?” Barnabas asks absently, staring down at the cards on the table and clinking together the chips in his hands. There’s a small furrow in his brow, and the tip of his tongue pokes out from between his teeth as he considers. He’s terrible at cards, Barnabas—too willing to gamble on any remote possibility, too caught up in the thrill, even if the cause is clearly lost. A proper meal for a man like Mordechai, who need not do more than raise an eyebrow in his otherwise impassive face to draw Barnabas into an unwise bet.

“A plague doctor,” Jonah repeats, impatience creeping into his voice. “Black cloak, beaked mask—maybe that of a raven or crow.”

Barnabas looks up at that, face brightening with interest. His face is flushed and his eyes are bright—clearly more than halfway into his cups. At least, Jonah thinks, he’ll lose to Mordechai in good spirits.

“A plague doctor!” he laughs. It seems to buoy him into making a decision, and he leans forward to place all of his remaining chips down on a single card, a Queen. He waits a moment—of course he does, because he’s Barnabas and can’t deny himself a bit of drama—and taps his copper down onto the stack.

“Betting on the loser!” Giovanni says, voice filled with delight. “Bold move, Bennett.”

Barnabas sits back in his seat, folding his hands behind his head as he looks over at Jonah with a smile that speaks more to bravado than it does actual confidence. “I’ll have to let Jonathan know next time I see him. Imagine: another soul as morbid as he out and about the city, and him none the wiser.”

“Another,” Jonah murmurs, a bit sourly. “Quite.”

The three of them watch as Mordechai turns the first card, revealing a Jack. Barnabas’ shoulders droop a bit. He won’t be making his money back, but he’s not yet lost the watch. It’s quiet as Mordechai goes to draw the second card, an excited tension in the air as they all watch as it’s flipped.

A Queen.

Barnabas swears something awful, cursing his ill luck as Giovanni cackles beside him. Mordechai leans across the table to snap up the pocket watch, and it’s only because Jonah has known him for so long that he can see the small twitch of his lips as he runs his thumb over the watch’s face.

“Well,” Barnabas says once he’s done with his moaning. “Can’t win them all, I suppose.”

“Or any of them, apparently,” Giovanni snickers, clapping Barnabas on the shoulder as he passes. It leaves Jonah and Barnabas alone at the table, Mordechai having already slipped away. Barnabas watches Giovanni go with a frown on his face, brows drawn and lips puckered in indignation.

“A menace, he is,” he grumbles as he pockets his copper. But when he turns to look up at Jonah again, his face clears, and the once-over he gives him is that of a man once again looking to try his luck.

“I don’t suppose you want to stay any longer?” Barnabas asks. He slides warm, broad hands over Jonah’s hips and pulls him in closer—apparently handsy now that he’s drunk and with nothing else to lose.

“I think I’ve had my fill here, actually,” Jonah replies, reaching down to wrap his hands around Barnabas’ wrists, encircling them. “Why do you ask?”

“Well,” Barnabas starts, voice low, eyes hot. “You look so very handsome right now, and I’m willing to bet you’d look even more so in my bed.”

“Haven’t you bet enough for one night?”

“What’s one more?”

“And Albrecht? He and I arrived together.”

“He’ll be here tomorrow, won’t he?”

Jonah pauses, as if considering, but his mind is already well made up. Albrecht will be there in the morning, as ever he is when he visits Jonah. And Jonathan—the doctor—is already long gone, it seems. Maybe Jonah is the one with nothing else to lose tonight.

“Fine, you’ve won me over,” Jonah says, standing back to allow Barnabas to rise. He’s a bit wobbly on his feet, so Jonah offers him his arm to hold onto. “But I can just as easily change my mind if you fail to impress.”

“Jonah!” Barnabas cries, pressing a hand to his chest as if truly affronted. “When have I ever?”

Jonah laughs then, patting Barnabas’ hand where it curves around his elbow. “Would you like me to list them chronologically or by severity?”

Barnabas makes an indignant noise, but falls into laughter beside him, giving Jonah’s arm a quick squeeze.

“You must tell me more of this doctor of yours,” Barnabas says as they cross the threshold of the room.

“What is there to say?” Jonah replies, looking over his shoulder back into the ballroom. In the furthest corner of the room, there’s a shadow a bit deeper than the rest, and Jonah imagines he can see the faint flicker of candlelight over dark lenses. “I have no idea who he was.”