by Nix Winter
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Not that such an event would be difficult. A rich Englishman and a poor Irishman, even living in China couldn’t take away the sting of heritage. Dr. Black straightened, tongue pushing against the inside of his upper lip. Chinese night wrapped around him, soaking into short dark hair. Shoulders tense, he moved down the wooden sidewalk in the British Quarter with a firm step. The muted lights and laughter, drunken conversation, filtered out into the street. Chin to chest, Dr. Black glanced back over a shoulder, tingles across shoulders worried about being followed, about all manner of things that could hunt a lone, diminutive Irish person into the night.
His thumb smoothed over Derringer in his coat pocket, the metal warm under his touch. Some secrets could not be... ignored. Panic was cold black iron in his throat, knotting up his breath.
Whitehall lacked all honor and even basic reasoning skills. Black’s jaw clenched.
“Hello, honey,” a female voice said, softly honeyed English draped in Chinese mystery and temptation. “You lonely?”
Dr. Black pulled his hand from his pocket and cleared his throat. The woman leaning closer to him wore what once had been a lady’s dress, but had, quite obviously, seen several owners. Thick black hair pulled up into a bun, pinned with jeweled, but unmated hair pins, powder lightened her face, but dark eyes still watched her prey.
“No, really, I’m looking for a British man, dark hair, violet eyes,” Black said, taking a step backwards.
The woman titled her head, red painted lips parting slightly, then slowly rising into a smile. “He not like men, like that.” The smile broadened a little. “You dress wrong.”
Black’s lips drew into a tight line, nervous energy tingling over deft surgeon hands. “Do you know this personally,” Black asked in Chinese.
Tittering, nightingale laughter, and a cunning smile, the woman pointed across the dirt road to a stone building, warm light filtering through closed shutters. “Dice there,” she said, staying with English. “Everyone know Dice. Even the men.” The last carried a suggestive smile, the flick of a pink tongue against red lip.
Backing away, Black lost his balance when the side walk ended, but kept his footing on the half mud road. Glaring up at her as she walked on, Black’s hair stood on end. Turning on his heel, he picked his way across the muddy street towards the bar, brothel, tavern, whatever it was on the other side. He stepped up to the other sidewalk, jerking his coat tight around him, face grimacing.
Dice’s voice was light, floating among the others, his Chinese lovely and nuanced as he called for another round. Black stood there, just the dark side of the threshold, listening. Violet eyes, fine black hair that could catch the sunlight or rise on the breeze, a little too long for a properly groomed gentleman, Emile ‘Dice’ Whitehall was what one got when one mixed British nobility with too much intelligence, too much money, and a spirit that couldn’t be bound by anything short of death.
Explaining anything to him required a language that had not been taught in Dublin, nor Boston, and certainly would not adapt to broken medical centric Chinese. Black’s stomach dropped, the iron panic sinking from throat down to pin feet to the wood sidewalk. He was a siren, with twilight eyes and reckless poetry spilling from soft lips. There are some thresholds in life that one crosses, knowing that they can never be uncrossed.
Head held high, Dr. Patrick Black walked into the noise of Dice’s foxhole. The argument wasn’t over until it was over. Explosions, memories, made white noise in Black’s thoughts, wiping out much of treasured reason. Pistol out, pressed casually behind him, he was seventeen again, with great secrets, entering a building to find his captain and the American. The scent of mustard colored the air with fear and his pistol felt wrong in his hand.
Someone screamed at him in Chinese, which was so out of place, jarring, and he suddenly found himself back in a bar in China, a man the size of a German tank and inked in black dragons glaring at him.
“No entry. Members only!”
“Oh yes,” Black growled, pistol under the man’s jaw so quickly. “I want Dice. Dice Whitehall.”
Dr. Black backed the man through a curtain of jade beads into the light and opium din of the room beyond.
A lovely woman, willowy and graceful, slipped her fingers between the guard and the four barrels of the little pistol. “Now, such difficulties do not belong in The Lotus of Joy. I don’t want you shooting my best customer, Dr. Black,” Bai Lian said.
Black blinked, a couple of times, drawing his pistol back. “I don’t want to shot him. I want to... talk to him.”
Bai Lian trailed her fingers over Dr. Black’s hand, up to one neatly starched cuffs. “You smell like you want to fuck him. I know the smell of another woman who is ready to fuck, especially one that doesn’t work for me. Trousers alone don’t change what you are, Doctor.”
“I’m,” Dr. Black started, licking thin pale lips, chin dropping slightly, “I’m Dr. Patrick Black. I fought in The Great War. I don’t know what you’re talking about, woman.”
Long nails touched Dr. Black’s cheek, lightly tracing towards a softly curved jaw, over towards the curve of a lip. “Europeans are blind. I will not forgive you if you take away so much of my profits.”
“Blackie,” Dice said. He emerged from the smoke that puffed out around him, but he cut it in half when he closed the door. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Dr. Black hastily slipped the gun back into a coat pocket. “I needed... to talk to you.”
“She wants to fuck you,” Bai Lian complained, “Probably for free. You know the rules about bringing other people’s women into my places.”
Dice ran a hand through wild black hair, pushing it back from his face. “Black’s my friend. He’s small, but... He’s no woman. He’s a doctor, for shit’s sake.”
“Whitehall,” Black snapped, gaze snapping back through the path he’d entered from, eyes and soul on the floor. “I’m sorry.”
Just walking away shouldn’t have hurt so badly. The pain only made Black walk faster.
“Black!” Dice yelled. His voice already faded with distance. “You sodding idiot! Come back! Patrick!
Of the two of them, Dice knew the city’s streets and back ways much better than the doctor ever would. The doctor ran from demons more frightening that a British playboy would probably understand. Closer to dawn, the vaporish yellow light fingering between buildings, the playboy caught the doctor. On his hands and knees, forehead to the filthy road, arms over his head, Dr. Black cried.
Dice plopped down on the open dirt of the alley, arms around his bent knees. “You’re really not a girl.”
“Really,” Black asked sarcastically.
“Hell yeah, even some crazy Irish woman won’t try to shot someone for asking her to marry them.”
“I wasn’t going to,” Dr. Black started, then sat up, running a hand through short hair the color of a dark mouse, mouse brown hair, “I wasn’t going to shoot you. I just, I just didn’t want to go through the streets unprotected and well, I needed to see you.”
“So you see me? Look, I just... what was I supposed to say?”
Dr. Black reached out a hand, brushing dirt from Dice’s trousers. “You say what it is you mean. Why on Earth, just because you found out.... that.. why would you ask me to marry you?”
“Well,” Dice said, drawing the word out. “It’s just, I, well, for the longest time, I’ve found myself happier when I’m with you than when I’m not and it’s not like the world is a good place for a woman alone. I wanted to, you know, protect you.”
“Be my knight in shining armor,” Black snapped, arms across a very flat chest. “I don’t need such a thing. I won’t marry you.”
“I should still like to kiss you,” Dice said, tentative, voice soft. “I’ve thought of little else, since, I realized really.”
“And when was that,” Black snapped, chin tucked away to a shoulder, face hidden.
“That time, when we were out with London, Christmas shopping. Black, Christ’s Hell, I just want to do things honorably with you.”
“That would be marrying me? Can’t you want me as I am? London and Jonathan don’t have any trouble being together.”
“I pity the poor bastard that gets in London’s way,” Dice muttered. He reached out, dirty fingers ruffling over Black’s short hair. “Has your hair always been short?”
“No. Before my parents died, it was down to my waist. I was a poor example of a girl, bookish and awkward. I couldn’t stand the idea of being’s someone wife or someone’s whore. When my mother died, and I loved my mother. If I could have been a woman like her, that would have been a different thing. She was so brave and strong, but I’m not. I just wanted to work, to make my way, and when Dr. Lamb took me under his wing... Medicine just was easy and made so much sense. I started being able to help people, and I wasn’t going back. I wasn’t going to be nothing, just something to be owned by some man.”
Dice scratched his chin with the back of his thumb, a foot sneaking closer over to Black’s foot. “You never knew my mother. I guess I don’t understand, but that doesn’t mean I don’t... love you, cuz I do.” Dice leaned back a little, watching the sunrise turn the edge of the building golden. “So, when you said I was attractive? What did you really mean?”
“I meant that I wanted to have sex with you,” Black said, words coming out in a rush. “I’ve never and well, I thought, because, well, you’re very beautiful and I didn’t think....” Black turned to look at him, their eyes meeting, souls clinging to each other. “The last thing I thought was that you’d ask me to marry you.”
Dice raked his hair back from his face. “I could only think of one reason you’d just come out and ask me to have sex with you.”
Reborn anger sparkled in hazel eyes. Black rose up a little, a dark eye brow arching, challenging. “And what would that reason have been?”
Sheepish, Dice tugged at his ear and shifted his gaze away from Black’s. “I thought.. maybe you might be pregnant already.”
“And you thought I’d trap you? So why not just jump full hog into something with a woman who would try to trap you in marriage? Is that so?” Black’s voice had become a touch shrill.
“Well,” he tucked his chin, scratching his head, “It’s not like that!” He got to his knees, putting himself slightly above Black, violet eyes smiling down. “It’s just that if you were in trouble, I’d want to be there with you. I just wanted to protect you.”
Black pushed up to his feet. “I can’t believe you’d think so little of me. Did I not take a bullet out of your buttocks without so much as flinching? I saved lives in The Great War! I studied medicine in Boston. Marriage would be more of a trap for me than for you, in any case.”
Also on his feet, Dice pulled a silver cigarette case from his vest pocket. “It’s not like I’m the one made to wear skirts.”
“The more I talk to you, the more I do believe we could have descended from apes. If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Whitehall!”
Black stalked off, shoes a sharp rhythm against the sidewalk. “OH yeah? Some of us descended from shrews, but I’m a child of god!”
“Oh?” Black paused and shouted from the other side of the street. “I didn’t know God had by blows! I’ll be sure to let your father know!”
“Bastard,” Dice growled, taking out a smoke. He was smiling though, and after a moment pushed off the corner he was leaning on to follow the indignant doctor home.
He didn’t know why, but by the time he’d reached the academy grounds, he was smirking as if he’d made the best conquest of his life.
“Mr. Whitehall,” Jonathan greeted him, as they both half jogged up the stairs to the administration section. “Far be it for me to mention, but perhaps you might wish to change prior to reporting for work and what have you been up to? Did you win substantial amounts last night?”
Winking, Dice found his grin only grew. “I’ve a change of clothes in my office. I lost badly last night, but I do believe I’ve finally found the right game.”
“All the better then!” Jonathan said, nodding politely before pivoting and striding off with a sheath of papers under one arm.
Dice waved to one of the staff maids, asked for washing water in Chinese and slipped into his office. Still smiling, he wondered if the good Dr. Black would like poetry. It was going to be a lovely day!