That Saturday night, Kip lay naked on the bed in the room two flights beneath the stage, eyes shut, recalling the week prior that had changed his life. He felt her juices still slick on his loins, his seed drying in his nether regions, and wondered not for the first time since first arriving at the theatre how great calamity and perfect fortune could appear wearing the same black hat, the same gold waistcoat, the same brown eyes.
Applause thundered through the house, so tremendous it could even be heard here below. The vanishing lady, he supposed. The audience never tired of that one.
With a great sigh, he pulled himself from bed and lifted his clothes from the uncommonly bare floor. There was nothing for it, then, but to get dressed and climb the thin metal stairway, not to the show but to the street, where he would proceed to the police station and set in motion the events that would lead to his death.
She stared at him from the poster, painted eyes blue and luminous: CIRCE, SIREN of the SOUTH! You will be SPELLBOUND by her SORCERY! See her at the VAUDEVILLE THEATRE! Some further words at the bottom were obscured by a hastily printed, hand-added notice: THIS WEEK ONLY!
It wasn't her real name, of course, but in this business, putting 'Violet Cranford' on a bill would have caught the eyes of a mere handful – namely, the boring and the desperate. Even to those who did not know their classics – into which category he numbered everyone currently on the Manhattan street save himself – the name 'Circe' had a mythical ring, the allure of the overeducated unknown. Sergeant Kip Putnam chose to ignore the inappropriate conflation of Odysseus' sorceress-cum-lover with the shipwrecking singers, paid his admission to the greasy ticket-taker, and stepped inside.
The dark theatre was made even darker by the heavy cloud of smoke that hung in the air; weak-lunged from his youth in a tiny coal town, Kip had never acquired that particular vice. Taking care to keep quiet, he found the nearest open seat and settled himself into it. The mid-Monday show was already into its third act, a pair of jugglers in baggy frock coats, but he did not care. After all, it was not they he was here to see.
The following acts reminded Kip why he had never bothered attending theatre such as this before; clumsy acrobats, third-rate musicians, and near-catastrophically bad tightrope walkers were less than entertainment, even by his lax standards. He waited through them, patient, eyes never quite focusing on the stage but always searching the darkness around it, waiting, watching and waiting.
After nearly an hour of this, though, he was feeling considerably less watchful and more flat weary. The quality of the acts only declined as the show progressed, until he found himself cursing his commander for what was rapidly shaping up to be the worst assignment he'd ever been given. He weighed the consequences of leaving against the consequences of staying, and had not reached a sufficient conclusion by the time the stage caught fire.
It was so startling that he had risen half from his seat before he realised that the rest of the audience was not screaming, but applauding, and he jerked his vision to the stage again in time to see a man stride forth from the flames, the brim of his top hat perched impossibly at the end of his cane, smiling broadly. "As the phoenix rises from the flame..." The magician spoke almost to himself, and his words had a shape that identified the conjurer as an Englishman. The flames were swallowed again by darkness, leaving him alone on the stage. "I am Count Helios, master of the uncanny!" He opened his palm, and a flame danced there. "What you are about to see here will defy all natural reality!" With a flick of his wrist, the flame became a rose, which he tossed to a delighted older lady in the third row. "Not mere illusion – but a wizard's alchemy!"
And that must be James. The briefing had only glossed over the brother, but Kip had still been warned to keep an eye open, as siblings were wont to be closer conspirators than most. Kip leaned forward in his chair, studying the magician with keen eye.
It was impossible to tell age cleary from the audience, of course, as paint and stage lights had a way of disguising such truths, but Kip gauged the man to be perhaps a decade older than he, though surely no older than his middle thirties. He was of small stature, nearly the same height as his blonde-locked assistant, but carried himself grandly, performing conjuring feats great and small with the same flawless showmanship. He rolled up his sleeves to show there was nothing in them, baring light brown arms that ended in slim, graceful hands capable of plucking even the largest objects from thin air. Now here was an act worthy of a place at the Broadway theatres, Kip thought. Such talent would not play such a back-end audience without quite compelling reasons.
"Return tonight!" he heard 'Count Helios' promise, and Kip realised that he had missed the body of the man's act, so intent had he been on watching the man. "For these are but mere trinkets of the true power I hold at my hands! Return tonight, and you will see a woman vanish before your eyes! Tonight!" And with a bow, he left the stage in a distinctly un-magical manner, the heavy curtain falling down behind him.
Before Kip could decide to follow, the curtains parted again, revealing a woman in a deep blue dress, her curly brown hair cascading over her bare shoulders. Unlike the magician, she did not speak, not even to introduce herself, but only began to sing – and what need had they for introductions? It had been her face on the poster, after all, enticing every man in the theatre to come to know her better. She sang everything from opera to folk ballads, moving from one to the next without comment, and ended with a rendition of 'Softly and Tenderly' so heartfelt that it brought tears to Kip's eyes.
He slipped out before she had finished, and though a few stagehands tried to stop his coming backstage, he showed them his badge, and they withdrew, doubtless not wishing to get in any trouble themselves – though he wished he could tell them not to worry, he had not come for them today. He wound his way through the confusing bowels of the theatre, tangling with more than one rack of clothes, and twice had to ask directions to the singer's dressing room.
What he met there took him aback – it was the magician, leaning by the door, casually walking a dollar coin up and down his knuckles. Well, there was nothing for it but to play the part. Kip cleared his throat. "I'm, ah, looking for the Lady Circe."
"Of course you are," the magician smirked, not taking his eyes from the coin. His voice was soft and liquid, deeper now than his stage voice. "All the young, pretty men tend to be."
Kip chewed his lower lip, not certain how he was supposed to take that. "...Can I go in?"
"Oh, by all means." The man did not move, leaving only a small corridor through which Kip could pass. "She's been expecting you."
"S-she has?" That took Kip honestly by surprise, and he held his breath, praying not to have been found out.
But the magician shrugged, unconcerned. "She saw you in the audience. You have the look of a man determined enough not to be deterred by little things such as NO ADMITTANCE signs."
Kip swallowed a little. "...I liked your act."
"Did you, now?" That earned him a glance from the magician; in the dim lamplight, Kip could see age more clearly, that the faint grey at the man's temples was stage paint but the lines at his eyes were real. "And what was your favourite part?"
There was no appropriate way to admit I missed your show because I was staring at you, so Kip went for what he did remember. "The beginning, with the fire. It was— I don't know how you did it."
"My dear boy, that's precisely the point." The magician smirked, patting his pockets. "Now, could you be so kind as to lend me your handkerchief? I seem to have misplaced mine."
Kip fished into his pockets and withdrew his. The magician reached to take it, but no sooner had he made contact than Kip felt the proffered cloth change, a brush too fast to see that left him holding not his handkerchief, but a red rose. "What did—"
"Go on in." The magician gestured grandly toward the door, which unlatched and swung open. "She's been expecting you."
Kip stepped awkwardly inside, sparing a last glance over his shoulder, but seeing nothing but darkness in the hallway behind the closing door. He stood alone nearly a full minute in the empty room, certain that he had been tricked, before he heard a small huff of breath from a previously unseen corner. "Should we start with why you're here?" Her words had the same round quality as the magician's.
Coughing once, Kip stepped in her direction. "...This may be for you," he told her, holding out the rose.
With a wry smile, she took it, and a line creased her brow as she examined the petals. "Real," she mused. "Isn't that interesting."
Kip had been prepared to use theatrics, but found no need to feign the nervousness he felt in her presence. She was even lovelier in the half-dark, body full and uncorseted beneath her silk robe. "You have a nice voice, ma'am," he offered lamely, hoping sincerity would cover a multitude of deceptions.
"Circe, please," she purred, slinking toward him. "And you are?"
It took him a moment to remember his own name. "Kip."
Her red lips curved in a smile. "An unusual name."
"With respect, ma'am," his hands fidgeted at the hem of his jacket, "no more unusual than yours."
That won an actual laugh from her, and she wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing their lips together as she swung him toward the room's sole bed. It took her less than a minute to divest him of his clothing, and a tenth of that to remove hers, until she was straddling his waist and riding him before he quite knew what had happened. She moaned as he rubbed her nipple between his fingers, and though he might have sworn he saw the door open out of the corner of his eye at the same moment, when he gathered himself to look again, it was shut.
He came inside of her, unaware of the etiquette involved in such a situation, but in no place to refuse; and indeed, she smiled and bent down to kiss him before politely dismounting her softening ride. "Stay," she told him, turning the gas lamps down as she exited, leaving the room in total, windowless darkness.
This was rapidly becoming curiously awkward for Kip, whose sexual experiences had been few thus far in number, and never with such little preamble or epilogue. He closed his eyes in the dark (though the place was black enough that such a gesture made little difference), waiting for her return.
He supposed he must have dozed off, for he did not hear the door again, nor did he sense another presence in the room before he was brought back to awareness by the feel of a mouth around his cock. Kip had thought himself spent, yet the sensation brought him fully to hardness again. His eyes snapped open, yet there was no light to be found, no visual cues that might showcase his nimble-tongued assailant. Half-awake, he reached down to pet the woman Circe's cheek – only what his fingers found first were not her heavy locks, but hair of a much shorter, finer quality.
Somewhere between the realization of whose mouth had swallowed his member and the decision of what to do about it, Kip thrust his hips up off the bed, coming in a rush so intense it was nearly painful. He felt it jolt through his body, down to his curled toes (and here he had always thought such a thing a myth), out to his clenched fingers, one fisted tightly in sheets, the other grasping at what purchase they could find in that magician's ear-length hair.
The mouth that held him did so for a long moment, then withdrew, leaving Kip damp and exposed, and Kip felt such an intensity of loss in that moment that he instinctively gasped, "Wait!"
A stillness set upon the room, followed by an audibly wry smile. "...For what?"
"For—" Kip was forced to admit he had not thought that far. This seemed above and beyond the call of duty, and surely he would not mention it in his report later, but right now, it made perfect sense. "...Come here? Please?"
For a moment, the magician's hesitation led Kip to believe he had offended the man or humiliated himself, or perhaps both. Yet with a soft sigh, the magician knelt back on the bed, then reclined alongside Kip's prone body. "And now you have me."
Kip had never kissed a man before, but found it much like kissing a woman – particularly when the man's lips were as soft and full as James'. He grabbed James' face between his strong hands, pulling him close, tasting his own seed on the man's tongue. His other hand slid down to the waistband of James' pants, then beneath, reaching for a hardness he was entirely relieved to find, as any less would have been mortifying. But James was indeed aroused, and he moaned into the kiss as he leaned into Kip's grasp, pressing his clothed body to Kip's naked one.
James was, Kip was soon to discover, a man with a very long fuse. There, in the dark, warm room, Kip judged he might have held the magician in his arms for nearly half an hour, stroking and kissing all the while – though with no way to judge time, for all he knew, it might have been days. Even having come twice previous in fairly rapid succession, Kip was already nearing hardness again by the time James' breath hitched and Kip felt a sticky wetness suffuse his fingers. His hand slowed its rhythm, but he did not withdraw its contact.
"Hm." James nuzzled Kip's ear. "You're a patient fellow."
"I—" Having no words left with which to explain himself, Kip prepared for the situation to be intensely awkward."I mean—"
"And a considerate one." Shifting their positions slightly, James settled his body atop Kip's, kissing the underside of his jaw. Their dissimilar frames fit together rather well, considering. "Most men hardly consider reciprocity the post-fellatic order of the day."
Kip swallowed, feeling his adam's apple bob against James' chin as he did so. "...It seemed polite."
James' laugh had an uncanny resemblance to his sister's. "A gentleman in America." He clucked his tongue. "Will wonders never cease?"
"Why am I unsurprised to find you here?"
Kip yelped rather unmanfully and dropped the papers he had been rifling through, spinning on his heel and trying to look innocent. "...Should I go?"
"Of course not." James sauntered into the dressing room, slipping his heavy cloak off his shoulders and hanging it on a hook. "Though I know it's not your badge's ability that lets you walk through locked doors."
Caught again – and doubly this time – Kip flushed and tried to stammer toward the more pertinent of the two accusations. "I'm not here to arrest you," he said, and it was half the truth.
James upended his hat and shook out a pair of birds, which fluttered out and up to the rafters, where they perched, cooing. "I'm pleased to hear it, Sargeant. Surely the streets of New York have pickpockets and loose women who are far more pressing cause for concern than I."
"How did you know?" Kip stuck his hands in his pockets.
James just cocked an eyebrow at him. "Really, Kip. You act as though you're the first officer of the law who's used his status to penetrate the bowels of a theatrical establishment."
Kip decided that he was uncomfortable talking about bowels or penetration at this moment, and thus needed to change the subject by confessing to breaking and entering. "The lock on the door needs work."
"Or perhaps we need to give you a key," James smirked, "if you are to become a regular visitor."
"Well, I can't become that regular," Kip pointed out. "This week's your last performance, isn't it?"
James nodded, removing and folding his gold stage vest. "Indeed. Then to dreary England, where the sun deigns shine on London once a year or so."
"You sound like you don't want to go back."
"Of course I want to go back. All your tea is stale by the time it gets to your shores." Smiling, James ran his fingers through his hair, and Kip could see fine wisps of true grey starting to creep in past the paint at the temples. "Your country has been lovely, but I shouldn't wish to overstay my welcome. At any rate, she should be down shortly."
Kip swallowed, his eyes lingering on the papers atop the writing-desk. "...I didn't come to see her," he admitted softly. It was a gamble, perhaps, but surely one that had not been tried before – novel enough even to distract him from his suddenly and inadvertantly acquired attraction to this curious British man.
That caused James' eyebrow to arc nearly into his hairline. "And you're not here to arrest me, since you said as much earlier. ...Really, Kip, why have you returned so soon?"
"To see you." And it was true, the full truth, and that was the hell of it.
James extended his arms in a quite theatrical flourish, the collar of his shirt undone enough to expose his bare throat. "And thus have you found me. Which leaves the real question – what are you to do with me?"
It took less effort than Kip might have imagined as recently as the previous day's morning to cross the three paces that spanned the distance between them, reaching down for James' face and pressing their lips together. James' long arms wrapped themselves around Kip's neck, and Kip was surprised to find just how light the magician was as he lifted James from the ground and transported them both to the bed.
When Violet entered the room nearly a full hour later, she did not comment, but with a wry smile slipped beneath Kip's prone body, wrapping her legs around his hips (and, by proxy, her brother's) as though she had expected to return to nothing less. Afterward, they lay spent, one sibling curled against each of Kip's side – yet neither asked him about or for anything, which left him uneasy. Had he unintentionally given himself away? Or was the last American show only a formality, an honest performance before disappearing with their already-sufficient secrets forever?
"She's dangerous, this one," his commander told him with a very serious glare. "We don't know who she's working for – the British have said no, and apparently we believe them."
The federal marshal, the one who had come with the folder full of her photographs, folded his hands atop the table. "Stories remain much the same – young, star-struck officer winds up talking too much in bed, carelessly brings his papers with him to see her, in one case brings her to perform for his fellow soldiers. In all cases, important information is compromised."
Kip stood ramrod-straight. "She's a spy, then, sir?"
"A suspected spy, and don't walk up to her accusing her of it, or this will all fall through," said the marshal.
"You're young, Kip, and you haven't got a family or sweetheart – 'less you've been keeping them from us." Kip shook his head, and the commander, satisfied, continued: "Good, couldn't send a man with a sweetheart to do a job like this."
"Other evidence has fallen through because the men involved have been ... shall we say, less than willing to offer up their own potential complicitness with espionage as proof. On the other hand, if you go in knowingly, armed with fabricated intelligence, you wouldn't be the least bit culpable upon her capture."
Kip listened to the briefing and agreed it a fine plan – though he was uncertain about his lack of experience, the marshal assured him it would make him all the more convincing. And so he went to the theatre that first afternoon, then again every day that week, each following morning returning to the station and reporting on his findings, each subsequent account of nothing suspicious met with sterner disapproval as the time available to them shortened.
What Kip could never tell them, not in his first report nor in those he gave as the week progressed, was that Violet was not the dangerous one. No, that honour belonged to James.
Kip furrowed his brow in concentration. Surely this was just as easy as James had made it seem. With what he hoped was a very theatrical breath, he reached for the handkerchief in James' hand – and ended up not only somehow missing it, but letting the silk rose fall from where he'd tried so hard to secret it behind the palm of his hand. "Oh, that's it. I'll never get this."
"Of course you will. It's easy, look." James, sitting cross-legged on the bed facing Kip, retrieved the dropped objects. "You just want to hold it like this—"
"Don't listen to him, Kip." Violet shook her head, brushing out her long curls and watching the two men on the bed. "He's laughing at you on the inside."
"I am not!" James protested. "Now, Kip, hold it right here, just on the inside of your cuff."
Kip rolled his eyes, but continued to be the eager pupil, as James had seemed so amused and eager when Kip had inquired after the cloth-to-rose illusion from the first night of their acquaintance. "It's not going to work if I can't grab the handkerchief in the first place," he pointed out.
James smiled as he tucked the rose back behind Kip's cuff. "Well, you do have a point there. But that's what practice is for."
"Has he ever tried to teach you this?" Kip asked over his shoulder.
"Oh, I'm better at it than he is. But he can't carry a tune to save his life—"
"That's quite enough out of you, now."
"—And so it was only natural that I bear the musical burden in this family, while he tries his hand at parlour tricks."
"You're really a horrid person, did you know that?"
Their quarrels always made Kip laugh, as they were about as sincerely injurous as puppies at play biting at each other. "Violet, please. I'm learning a trade."
She sighed, gave up on working through the mass of her hair, and settled on the bed behind Kip, putting her arms around his waist and resting her chin on his shoulder. Kip's hands were otherwise occupied with James' fidgetings, so he turned his head to give her a brief kiss. She was so freely affectionate, so casual and warm with her touch, that he had to admit he'd scarce known a woman like her. "So when they fire you from the police for spending all your time at the theatre, you can earn tuppence on a streetcorner."
"Violet, please." This time the reprimand was James'. "In this barbarian land, it's pennies." The trick fully reset, James settled back, holding out the handkerchief.
"Alas, my error." Before Kip could make a move, Violet reached from behind him, her hands trailing the length of his outstretched arms. There was a small flurry of activity, and Kip barely had time to register motion before the handkerchief disappeared, to be replaced in James' hand with the rose from Kip's own sleeve.
James rolled his eyes and settled back on the bed, tossing the rose at them and hitting Kip square in the chest. "Well, thank you for all my hard work setting that up gone to waste."
Violet giggled, and Kip hugged her, her warmth and their company keeping the thought that anything about the two of them could be sinister banished millions of miles from his mind. "You know what they say, don't you? Behind every great man...."
"...Is a meddling woman," finished James for her. "Am I to take it the lesson is over now?"
Kip shrugged. "Unless there's something else you wanted to teach me?"
He had meant the question as entirely innocent, of course, but was soon to discover the full ramifications of his unintentional innuendo as Violet laughed and pushed him forward, toppling them both into James' waiting arms.
Friday night's show would go long, James had explained – the evening shows always did, the crowds bigger and thus more demanding. Kip waited until what he estimated to be the show's halfway point, then strolled into the theatre, past ticket-takers and stagehands who all knew his face by now, down to the room where James and Violet slept.
By now the tiny dressing-room had an intensely comforting feel to him; it was bright and cozy, stacked floor-to-ceiling with accoutrements of two people with whom he had of late become very familiar. His own apartment, by contrast, contained little but necessities, and as such had come to feel that much more barren during the week spent at the theatre. In just a few days, he had come to find a home amongst trappings that he would never have been able to gather single-handedly. Kip was surprised at how much meaning things now had for him – there hung the red dress he'd helped Violet fasten at the back, only to the great enjoyment of unfastening it later; there lay James' second favourite stage cane, which he'd acquired as a present from a beloved mentor but which had never worked quite right; that was the blonde wig that Violet wore when she was masquerading as Count Helios' assistant; that was the ragged manuscript of Italian songs James had bought Violet for a penny, only to find it had been penned and signed by Giuseppe Verdi himself (Kip supposed he should appear impressed by this, and thus did). They had laughed into the night and talked and told him tales, and Kip had come to realise that he could never, not in a thousand years, accumulate for himself a life to match what the two of them had built.
And now, he thought coldly, he was going to have to destroy it.
With unhappy hand, Kip returned to his examination of the papers on the desk. They seemed innocent enough – contracts, mostly, signed with theatres and production companies. A few were letters, though those read as entirely mundane, records of financial transations, transportation arrangements, employment inquiries. Kip's search became increasingly frantic as he neared the bottom of the pile. Everything here was legitimate, and nothing resembled either the false hints he'd let slip or the real intelligence purportedly stolen earlier. Kip found his heart unexpectedly joyed at the thought – were they, in fact, innocent?
Such dreams were rent asunder as he heard a familiar deep voice from the doorway: "Looking for these?"
There was no possible denial at this point – Kip was the proverbial child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, papers displaced all around him. "I thought you were on stage," he said without turning.
"Mm. I was. Friday night's order gets changed around a little. I go on before the dog act, it gives Violet more time to warm up between getting sawn in half and performing excerpts from La traviata – which is my favourite opera, by the way, and which I shall have to blame you entirely for missing tonight."
Fists clenched tightly, Kip lifted his head to look at James, who was still wearing his show costume, but now sporting a large brown folder in one hand. Somehow, he had expected this would be easier, confronting the enemies of his country, performing the duty he had sworn to do. Instead, it gnawed at his core. "Is that—?"
James nodded. "You know, she was the one who suspected it of you. I couldn't believe it – or, really, didn't want to. You didn't seem to have the mettle of a spy."
Kip felt his temper flare. "Do you feel betrayed? How am I supposed to feel, then?"
"I never lied to you! Not once!" James snapped, the first time Kip had heard anger rise in the man's voice; this crack in James' customarily unflappable demeanour startled him into silence. "The satchels that you carry – don't you think I know what's inside? Violet refused to touch them because she thought you false, and I refused to touch them because I thought you true! See which of us has now been proven the fool!"
"Those secrets," Kip pointed to the folder James carried, "could put my country in danger! They could put the lives of people I care about in danger! I can't let you sell them!"
"Are you here to arrest me now, then?"
"If I must, yes!"
James' face froze as though he had been struck. The fury evaporated from his shoulders, and he slumped against the doorframe. "...You'd do it, wouldn't you?" Though it made Kip's heart ache to do so, he nodded, and James choked out a defeated laugh. "Of course. God and country, and duty, it's all what makes you so noble. So God-damned decent. I see now why Violet knew you truly – no man as honourable as you would find himself in our company in the first place."
"James," Kip breathed, finding once he got there that there was no more to the sentence than the magician's name. His hands trembled against the desk, and he felt his resolve waver. It was not too late, then, to go back, to claim he'd found nothing, to let them disappear from his life as quickly as they'd appeared – yet even as he had these thoughts, he knew that if he did, he would be unable to live with himself.
"That's the problem with honourable men," James mused, still wearing a hollow little smile on his face. "You can always trust them to do what's right. I, on the other hand, am a thief and a charlatan. A conjurer's trade is in deception."
"And a singer's trade?" Kip found himself asking, his voice hoarse.
The magician waved his hand, a grand gesture. "Allure."
"So she's Siren and sorceress alike after all."
James' smile widened an honest fraction. "Her enchantments and mine are not unrelated." He took a deep breath and let it slowly out through pursed lips. "I suppose it's useless."
The finality of the statement made Kip wary. "What do you mean?"
"This." James tapped his fingers against the cover of the folder that presumably contained the purloined intelligence, then shook his head. "I wouldn't be able to sell them, anyway. Oh, they'd still catch a fine price, and I might even try, but then all I'd be able to see is that look on your face."
"That one." James turned toward the far wall, where the stove sat warding off the room's chill. "A man such as I cannot bear to see his image reflected in a pure heart. Confronted, he has left to him only two options."
Kip's hands tightened into fists, the edges of his fingernails making half-moon impressions along the inside of his palm. "What are they?"
James shrugged, a knowing smirk curving his features. "To quit the reflection, or to change his face." And with no preamble, he opened the stove and tossed the folder in.
The flames roared as they hit the dry pages, sending sparks into the room; Kip felt the bones in his knees turn liquid, and he reached for the writing-desk to keep from toppling over. If the reports were to be believed, what he saw immolated before him was nearly two years' worth of careful work and gathering, hardly a trifle to be cast aside. He stared stunned at the pyre, feeling in himself the full implication of the pages' destruction, barely even hearing James when at last he spoke again. "They say Diogenes roamed the earth with a lantern, looking for an honest man, though I don't think I ever heard what the sage planned to do with him when he found him."
The crisp smoke tinged the air as Kip breathed deeply. "Keep him?" he offered, half theorised solution, half desperate request.
"Hm. We'll see." Already James had drawn close behind him, wrapping his arms around Kip's waist, putting his cheek flat against Kip's shoulderblades – yet Kip remained fixed, staring at the fire, part of himself yet unable to believe what he had seen.
"...Were those actually the real pages?"
That provoked a surprised laugh from James. "Ah, it would have been clever of me to have made the switch, wouldn't it? But alas, I didn't think of it until a few moments before I tossed them onto the fire." The magician drew a small breath. "I hate you for it, too. In case you were wondering."
"I know." Kip's hands reached to cover James', twining their fingers together. "...And Violet?"
"Oh, she'll kill me," James nodded, perfectly matter-of-fact.
Kip shut his eyes, trying to sort through the myriad of feelings in his head at the moment. Regardless of the concerns that continued to surface, he kept returning to one point – this, here and now, felt more right than anything had before in his life. "Then I would have to stop her. In my duty as an officer of the law."
James wriggled his hands free from Kip's grasp and began undoing the knot of his tie from behind. "If you don't stop talking about your duty this instant, I'm going to toss you on the fire."
Such was quite incentive enough for Kip to be quiet, at least long enough for James to work his shirt and coat undone and off his shoulders. Bare to the waist, he turned to face James, reaching for first for the gold vest – then stopped, holding up his hands. "I'm not even going to touch that." When James frowned, Kip explained, "You're still rigged for your show. I'm going to trip a wire and ... and birds will fly out at me, or I'll end up sawed in half, or something like that."
"Don't be absurd," James rolled his eyes, though he took a step back and began disrobing – which, Kip was a little satisfied to note, took an amount of dexterity greater than Kip himself would have been able to manage. In lieu of participation, he leaned back against the foot of the bed as he watched, feeling his lips curl into a strange smile, one he'd never felt before. If forced to name it, he supposed he'd have to call it the smile of a free man.
Shirt- and vestless now, James hung both divested articles over the door to the dresser. "There." He patted his chest and pants. "No birds."
"One bird." Violet drummed her fingernails on the door frame, giving them both a start. She looked straight at James, her expression exasperated, but miles from earnestly upset. "And she may yet be the death of you."
Kip slumped back against the bed. "Please don't kill your brother."
"I'm not going to kill my brother. I'm going to kill you. And then my brother. In that order, so you don't have a say in it." She sidled over to Kip, still in her long gown, and pulled herself astride his lap. He supposed she had no reason to be anything but furious at him, yet she was smiling, and her eyes were soft. "Or perhaps I'll just kidnap you. I'd kidnap him, but nobody'd pay ransom."
"Now see here," objected James from over her shoulder, "I'm the one who got him undressed—"
"Only by half," Violet corrected him, "and if no one'd pay ransom, then he's useless, so ... death it is! Firing squad or hanging?"
"You know perfectly well I believe firing squads are inhumane. I choose hanging, but only if prepared by a competent executioner."
"You two are so odd." Kip shook his head at both of them. After the secrets had been burned, he'd expected some unpleasant repercussion, and as such felt as though he were still waiting for the axe to fall. They seemed too calm about this, both of them. Even the earlier argument with James had seemed a little too measured for the heat of the moment, almost as though – well, as though they'd expected this from the beginning.
Violet kissed him on the nose. "Practical. There's a difference."
"Indeed." James sat on the bed next to Kip, taking the other man's hand in his own. Kip squeezed James' fingers and smiled. "Well, darling sister, in case we can't go back to being spies, shall we get a headstart on our new life as kidnappers?"
She hummed thoughtfully, running her fingers across Kip's close-cropped hair. "With some brown dye, perhaps we could all three be siblings this time."
"Never work. Look at that jaw. I'm far too beautiful to be related to a man with a jaw like that."
Kip felt as though he should protest the scrutiny, or laugh off the idea of being kidnapped as a farce – yet the thought that going with them was only fanciful talk formed a strange lump in his throat. "...I don't eat much," he offered, a lame selling point.
"Oh, that's utter rubbish." Violet patted his sides. "A strapping young lad like you probably eats twice his weight a meal."
"I can carry heavy things!" Kip flexed his free arm to show his muscles.
James patted his hand down. "That's what stagehands are for."
"Or I could work in your act!" The joke had evaporated from this discussion, and now Kip felt nigh-desperate. The option to go with them had been presented, even if only in jest, and though he knew not where they were headed, he knew this might be his only chance to convince that he wasn't joking, that it might in fact now kill him if they left, and left him behind.
"Well, can you sing?" asked Violet.
"No," said Kip, "I mean the magic act. You could ... you could do something to me there."
James' lips quirked. "Such as...?"
Kip thought back to the times this week he'd watched Count Helios' magic show, not only the trimmed-down afternoon version, but the full evening performance, filled with even greater pyrotechnics, more fanciful banter, flashier costuming – and the show-stopping trick that never failed to leave the audience breathless. The woman (Violet, adorned with her golden-locked disguise) would walk to the front of the stage, where the magician would cover her with a great, flimsy piece of lavender silk, that her outline could still be seen. Then, with trademark flourish, Count Helios would whisk the cloth away, and leaving stunned spectators gazing upon a chair that remained, but a lady that had vanished.
"Well," Kip offered, "you could make me disappear."
The siblings (though with what Violet had said earlier, Kip had begun to doubt they might truly be related by blood) exchanged glances, communicating with their eyes volumes in a language he did not speak. For a moment, he anticipated them at best to laugh and pat him on the head, and at worst to bind him and throw him into the Hudson River, both of which he expected he deserved right about now. Quite a reward for victory, he thought – which was amusing, really, the idea that he had completed his mission, and rather successfully at that. He wondered if his commanding officer and the federal marshal would see things in the same light, overlooking the sodomy in light of a job well done. He both sincerely doubted it and couldn't really find it in himself to care.
After a moment's consideration, James inclined his head toward Kip. "Think he's worth the trouble?"
"No," answered Violet flatly, though she punctuated her reply by kissing Kip full on the lips. Hitching her performance skirts up around her waist, she straddled him more fully, pushing him back onto the bed.
James flopped back against the mattress with them, propping his head up on one arm. "Anytime you're done...."
Kip was in no position to turn toward James, his mouth occupied as it was, but he released an arm from its embrace of Violet and reached for James' hand, smiling into the kiss as he felt James' fingers twine with his again. He had been smitten by them both, to be sure, but even now he stood by his earlier assessment as correct – Violet's temptations were legion, but one underestimated James' allure at one's own peril.
He wondered, as he lay there, Violet astride his waist, James' fingers secured against his own, when it had been that he had fallen in love.
"All right," Violet finally sighed, relinquishing Kip's mouth and struggling off him. She walked over to the trunk where her other outfits were packed. "This dress cannot be removed in a seductive manner, so I'd thank you to distract him, James, so the illusion is not destroyed by my fumbling at buttonhooks."
"I have to do all the work around here." Yet Kip couldn't help noticing that James' complaint came in direct contrast to the speed and enthusiasm with which he claimed Violet's vacated position atop Kip's body.
Though eclipsed by James' frame, Violet rolled her eyes in a manner which could be clearly heard. "Next time, I'm taking the American and leaving you by the roadside."
"She's just jealous because I'm the beautiful one," James told Kip in a conspiratorial stage whisper.
"You are," Kip agreed, because it was true. He reached for James' face, brushing his thumb across those perfect, soft lips.
Now it was James' turn to roll his eyes, though Kip though he could detect a faint flush beneath all expressions to the contrary. "Flattery will get you nowhere." His fingers began to work at the fastenings of Kip's trousers. "Nowhere good, at any rate."
Kip pulled himself more securely onto the bed, slipping out of his clothes as he did so. Less than a week ago, such exposure might have been unthinkable, but a week with them had convinced him that nudity was the order of just about every day. James grinned and tossed the pants over his shoulder, where a cry of protest told them they had hit Violet. "Bleeding poofs," she muttered half-under her breath, and though Kip didn't know the precise nature of the insult, the gist was clear.
James just smiled and settled himself between Kip's legs, unfastening his own pants. With a wink, he bent forward and took Kip's cock into his mouth, swallowing him nearly to the root. Kip groaned loudly and let his head fall back, shutting his eyes. "God, yes," he whispered, lifting his hips in encouragement.
The bed creaked next to him, and he turned to see Violet, naked now, curled beside him. She brushed her fingers across his forehead and cheek, shaking her head with a gentle smile. "Silly boys." She leaned down to kiss him, fingers curled against the side of his face, slipping her tongue into his mouth as James' hand pressed lightly against his balls. He had never been the source of as much attention as he had commanded this past week, and felt as though he never wanted it to stop.
James tapped Violet on the hip, and she pulled away from the kiss to see that he was pointing to the chest beside the bed; rolling her eyes, she leaned over – providing a lovely view of her round body as an added bonus – and produced a small jar. She tossed it in his direction, and he plucked it from the air, his mouth never once having left Kip's member, never even having faltered in its minstrations. Truly, James was a man of many talents.
Momentarily, one cold, slick finger slipped inside of him, and Kip cried out, clutching the bedsheets. Though certainly not unwelcome, the sensation of intrusion was something to which Kip had not yet grown entirely accustomed. He moaned as James' fingers stretched him gently, and kissed Violet's waiting mouth. It was almost too much to keep up the concentration needed for the kiss, which might have failed utterly had Violet not been so active a participant. She caught his lower lip between her teeth, tugging it out from his teeth playfully before drawing it between her lips and sucking; Kip let go of the bedsheets with one hand to knot his fingers in her dark hair.
"A lovely sight," James smirked, withdrawing his mouth and pressing a kiss to the inside of Kip's thigh. He straightened his back, settling himself between Kip's spread knees, and drew a pair of fingers down Kip's spit-slicked erection. Kip moaned and broke the kiss to look at James, who clucked his tongue. "Oh, please, don't stop on my account." Kip felt the tip of James' cock press against his ass, and drew his knees wider, a pose of unmistakable invitation. "I'm just getting started down here."
Kip's hand tightened in Violet's locks as James entered him. A week ago he would have rejected any attempts to convince him of buggery as something to be considered pleasurable to anyone, much less to be welcomed with enthusiasm – yet here he was, spread naked on his back, and all he wanted in the world was James inside of him. He was yet too proud to beg, though he wagered that pride would evaporate shortly if James did not quicken his pace. Freed from James' mouth, Kip's cock lay stiff against his belly, and he could feel his pulse thrum in it.
Violet took Kip's hand from her hair and kissed its fingertips, sucking on his thumb in a way that made him sure he would come right then and there if she kept it up. But she did not, and in fact withdrew from him entirely, shifting so she was kneeling on the bed, straddling his fingers. Kip opened his eyes as she lowered herself onto his fingers, her lips parted in a smile; with her hand guiding his, the pad of his thumb came to rest against the bud of her clit, and she groaned, rocking back and forth on her knees. As she leaned forward to brace herself against the wall behind the head of the bed, her bared breasts found their way near his face, and he caught one of her nipples between his teeth, pleased at both the sound she made and the corresponding gush of wetness around his fingers. He thought in that moment she might indeed be the second most beautiful thing he'd seen in his life.
The honour of the first, however, had to go to James. As Violet straightened again, driving Kip's fingers deeper into her, Kip was rewarded with a view of his magician lover. Flushed and aroused, James moved deep yet still slow into Kip, strands of hair falling into his face, almost obscuring his eyes. Yet James' gaze met Kip's own, and James rewarded him with a smile of great affection. One of James' hands reached out and wrapped itself around Kip's cock, and whatever hardness might have been lost there for lack of attention returns doubled.
'Overwhelming' seemed barely the word for a situation like this – Kip's attention was drawn and quartered, in too many places at once, too suspended and without any single identifiable source as his best hope for release. "Please," he breathed, need trampling pride in its wake, fixing half-lidded eyes on James. "I need – more, please, I need you."
James responded not with words, but with force, redoubling his speed and thrusting into Kip's body, his cock rubbing past the place inside Kip that always made him tremble. And tremble Kip did, rubbing his thumb against Violet's spot, listening to her moan as she rode his fingers. She let out a gasp, and James felt her soft muscles clench around him as she rocked to climax. Presently, her motions slowed and she extracted herself from Kip's hands with a small grunt, flopping beside him. "Well, I'm spent," she sighed, reaching down to wrap her hand with James' around Kip's cock, guiding James to increase his pace.
Kip felt his breath quicken, and he bit his lower lip, letting his head fall back against the pillow and shutting his eyes. He could no longer see either of them, but could feel them, around him, against him, inside him – and it was this last one that truly undid him. Crying out, not caring who in the building or even in the city itself heard him, Kip was drawn to climax. The force of his relief was intense, draining the tension out of him as he came spilling into their joined hands.
Far sooner than he might have expected, he felt James' body buck against his, then heard a choking cry as James came shortly following Kip, spilling warm inside him. Recently spent though it was, Kip's cock twitched in response, and Kip could barely muster the energy to breathe. He wished to stop time here, to freeze them all forever, until nothing in the world could stand between them.
His wish was not to be, however, and though it pained him, stiffening muscles compelled him to shift his weight back. James sighed and withdrew in kind, reaching for a ragged cloth that lay just beyond the foot of the bed. Violet, compelled not the least to aid in the clean-up process, tucked herself alongside Kip's body, petting his chest as James wiped both men dry of seed and ointment alike.
There was so much he felt like saying, so much he felt needed to be known in that moment. Yet he was somewhat irritated to find that his mouth and mind alike were heavy – an irritation that, admittedly, did not last long before he was borne off by exhaustion into the waiting arms of unconsciousness.
"Do you regret it?"
Though whispered, Violet's words dragged Kip up from sleep – yet, under the distinct impression that the conversation transpiring was happening only because they believed him to be slumbering, he did not stir.
"No." James' hushed voice came from his other side. "Do you?"
"Of course, you sod. We're never going to get paid now."
"Let it go. We'll find something else."
Violet let out a soft huff of air. "You're ridiculous when you're like this."
"Oh? Like what?"
It was James' turn to make a derisive noise. "Come off it."
"You toss our hard work away for a boy, and then you flutter about it like an adolescent girl. I don't have to come off anything. Not for another ten years, at the very least."
"I dislike you strenuously."
"If that's not love, I'm the Queen of Thebes."
Kip could feel James settle back in at his side, wrapping a protective arm around his waist. "...He's simply a remarkable being. And what could I do? He followed me home!"
"And you know it's going to be your responsibility to feed and walk and clean up after him."
"It's no use talking to me; I'm asleep now."
"Fine. So am I."
Kip waited quietly until he assumed that both siblings had settled into dreaming again, then tightened his embrace around James – and was not entirely surprised to feel a not-quite-asleep James press a kiss against his bare chest, just over his heart. Kip smiled, but found he could not go back to sleep for quite some time, as the gears in his head spun frantically against the gears in his heart in the direction of what he knew, deep down, he must do.
"Come quickly!" Kip burst into the police station, where he knew the late night would summon but a few officers from the building. Though he was not in uniform, they all knew him by face, and when he called, they came in force.
Down the streets they traveled, through the brisk night, crossing the few minutes' walk to the theatre, huddling around him so they could hear his voice. "They've made plans to leave tonight," he explained, omitting many relevant details; the less they knew of the situation, the better, and if confusion arose from the hastily outlined plan, well, it could hardly be helped. "Before the show closes. They're alone in there, taking down the magic act. If we hurry, we can catch them before they depart. Keep your guns at hand, but don't fire. They're no use to us dead."
Though a bit flummoxed by his haste, the half-dozen policemen in his wake nodded, taking positions behind him as he slipped the latch on the front door and walked into the theatre. On the stage, lit only by the lanterns at each wing, knelt James, dismantling a trap door with a screwdriver.
"James Cranford!" Kip's voice thundered through the empty house, visibly startling not only James, but the assembled policemen. "You are under arrest on charges of espionage! Do not run or we will shoot."
True to the instruction, James did not run, though he threw the tool at the stage and turned a look of pure fury at the intruders. "I trusted you!" he bellowed, his voice a volume to rival Kip's. "You liar!"
Kip swallowed, stepping forward. "I am an officer of the New York City Police Department, and a loyal citizen of the United States of America. My duty is first to my country, and to justice." He motioned the other officers to remain back in the shadow beneath the balcony, and himself walked down the aisle to the stage, gun levelled right at James.
"You bastard!" James' fists tightened at his sides, his mouth a thin line. "You've played us both the fool."
"Where is your sister, James?" Kip ascended the stairs to the stage, glancing around the darkened theatre. He'd only been up here once before, with the footlights burning his eyes, and was amazed at how much more he could see when not blinded.
"Gone," spat James, though he made a telltale slip as his head inclined instinctively toward the back of the theatre.
Kip turned his attention to the darkened balcony, searching for signs of movement, then back at his quarry before him. "She's the one we want, you know. If you turn her in, they might let you go."
"Rot in hell."
"You'd hang yourself for her?"
"Yes!" James stepped back, looking wary of the gun, though his movements gave no impression that he might be ready to run. "Because unlike you, I know something about honour!"
"Only the kind among thieves and spies. Give up. Tell us who she's working for, and save your neck" Kip shook his head. "Last chance, James."
"Let him go!" A woman's voice rang shrill from atop the balcony. Violet stood effectively out of sight of the other officers, brandishing a pistol. The sound of the hammer's being drawn back, however, was unmistakable.
Keeping his gun fixed on James, Kip turned up to the balcony. "The Siren sings! Come down, and I'll let your brother go!"
"You swine, you offal!" Violet's swears had always been the more creative. "I'll kill you!"
"There are six officers beneath you. You shoot me, and you both die next. Come down and be reasonable, and you could both live to see morning."
"To meet the gallows some week hence? Do you think me mad?"
"No," Kip said evenly, "I think you're a very sensible woman. You know you're doomed. It's only a matter of time. But if you give yourself up now, I promise I'll see what I can do to spare his life. On my honour."
"Your honour is shite," she snapped.
"Maybe so. But as I see it now, what choice do you have?"
There was a long, heavy pause in the theatre. Kip's palms were beginning to sweat, and he suspected the other policemen were just as anxious. For a long time, Violet stared at him, one foot perched against the railing, gun drawn, eyes level. And then, with a shaky sigh, she uncocked the hammer and lowered the gun.
"Violet, no!" James had become so quiet in all this that his presence could nearly have been forgotten, and Kip barely had time to whip his head back toward the other sibling before James began to rush him, a mad sort of dash made by a man whose options have run out. More reflex than conscious thought, Kip fired twice, point-blank, into James' stomach.
Violet screamed as James staggered back, grabbing the curtain for support. The cloth was old, however, and tore in his hands, sending both man and fabric crashing to the ground. As the curtain fell, it toppled the twin lanterns that had stood beside it; there was a crash, and then a burst of light as the curtain was engulfed in flames. They ran up the carved stage arch, igniting long-dried oil-stained timbers in a flash.
A gunshot sang out, and Kip's shoulder jerked back. He raised his gun to the balcony and fired twice more, and Violet went down with a mighty scream, though not before getting off another shot herself. Kip fell to his knees, then toppled to his side, feeling the worn wood of the stage against his cheek. It was yet cool now, but it too would soon begin to burn. The fire had already reached both the other side of the stage and the first row of seats, devouring everything in its path, a merciless eater. He was distantly aware of the other officers' commotion from the back of the theatre, but they were separated from him by a raging wall of flame now, more concerned with escaping with their own lives than rescuing a comrade who was already certainly done for.
The burning black smoke seared his lungs, and he closed his eyes. It was getting progressively harder to breathe in the growing inferno, and Kip trembled as he lay in the midst of it, knowing that it wouldn't be long now.
The headline the following day read THREE DEAD AS THEATRE STANDOFF ENDS IN BURNING TRAGEDY, accompanied by a hazy photograph of the blaze. As though the great bold letters weren't enough, the boy on the corner provided a shouted rendition, punctuated by the occasional 'read all about it' and 'terrible tragedy' for colour.
"Here, boy, give me one," said a tall man with a dark moustache, tossing him a penny for the edition.
The boy caught it. "Thanks, mister. D'ja see it?"
"I did," the man nodded, perusing the front page, eyes skimming over the copy. He spoke with the rasp of a heavy smoker. "Quite a fire."
"They was spies in there." The boy beamed a fascinated grin. "Two of 'em. The coppers got 'em!"
Folding the paper under his arm, the man smiled at the boy and dropped another coin into the boy's hands, this time a shiny dime. "Always good to see justice served."
The boy's eyes widened at his good fortune. "Thanks, mister!"
The man, hair obscured beneath a bowler hat a size too big, moustache slightly too askew on closer inspection as to seem entirely real, turned from the boy and strolled off down the sidewalk. At the corner waited a carriage piled high with luggage, whose windows revealed two waiting occupants – one a well-dressed man with tiny gold spectacles and hair fully grey, the other a stunning blonde woman with deep red lips. Casting one last look to the street, the man gave instructions to the driver and climbed in, and the carriage started off down the street, receding into the distance until it vanished from sight.
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