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Selkie Cove: Chapter Five

With Selkie Cove coming out July 25th, I’ve decided to post a chapter a week until it comes out. My apologies for not posting another chapter earlier in the week, but it was my birthday and I was spending it at my favorite place on earth, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you haven’t pre-ordered Selkie Cove, you can here.

Just as a heads-up, if you’re a paperback fan, they will be out by the end of the month, but they will not be available on the 25th (due to my own incompetence). I will let everyone know when they are ready to order.

Catch up on:


Chapter Five

Evolution

When Immanuel surfaced from the creature’s corpse, the blackbirds and robins outside the alley window had begun their morning trills despite the brumous day. Squirming on the narrow stool, Immanuel cracked his back and neck as he leaned back to examine the creature, which now lay in pieces. She was real. At lunch the day before, he never would have thought it possible. Even after seeing her final moments, he was hesitant to believe it hadn’t been a hallucination, but after working on the dissection all night and carefully documenting the anatomy of her organs, he knew he had found a human-pinniped hybrid. If only he had a microscope and supplies at home, then he could prepare slides and study the creature’s microanatomy. He had only studied human tissue under a microscope, but if he could get his hands on some seal samples, then he could—

“There you are!” Adam called as he threw open the workroom door but immediately brought his hand to his eyes. “Dear Lord, it’s bright in here.”

A weary smile spread across Immanuel’s features as he watched his companion grimace and squint. Serves him right, he thought, eyeing him warily for any sign of drink. Beneath Adam’s blue silk robe, he still wore his shirt from the previous night, but now, it had been buttoned to his collar. His hair had been brushed down, and without pomade to keep it in place, it stood out in floppy waves around his bloodshot eyes. As Adam took a step forward, he yelped a curse as Percy darted in, nearly knocking him over as he flew past. At the edge of the worktable, the cat wiggled his hips and flipped his tail. Adam reached for him as the cat dove for the liver sitting in the nearest metal tray.

“No! Don’t you dare!” Immanuel cried as he swatted at the skeleton cat.

The cat’s eyes locked on the liver as he took a slow step back. His tail wiggled and snapped, but when he pounced, Immanuel caught him, the scalpel clattering to the floor. Grimacing at the cat’s claws sinking into his wrists, Immanuel shoved him into Adam’s waiting arms.

“Take him, please. I’m not finished yet.”

“Fine, fine. Just stop yelling. My head is killing me,” Adam grumbled as he held Percy at arm’s length. “Ugh, he smells like a corpse.”

“I’ll bathe him later. Just put him in the kitchen.”

Tossing the cat into the other room, Adam shut the door and stood at Immanuel’s shoulder as he settled back into his work. Adam’s eyes flitted over organs he vaguely recognized before landing on the nearly empty cadaver. He had hoped that what he had seen the day before had been a nightmare from far too much gin, but even disarticulated, he recognized its mermaid-like form. While its hands still reached for something unseen, Immanuel had cut along its forehead and peeled the skin back to reveal a nearly empty human skull, its sightless eyes hidden beneath the flap. Adam shuddered at the thought that this nightmarish being lived inside of him, and one day, it would live on without him. Averting his gaze, he meandered around the room, looking through Hadley’s remaining tools and bobbles before turning to the gleaming wall of windows.

When his eyes started to burn and his head pulsed in time with his heart, he sat at the work table and began picking through the pages littering the table. Immanuel’s notes ranged from drawings as detailed as Da Vinci’s notebooks to page upon page of observations written in tight lines of German and English. Pushing through his hazy mind, Adam calculated the time he thought he fell asleep to when he came downstairs and divided it by the speed of dissection with pauses for reflection and study.

“Have you been at this all night?”

Immanuel continued working with his head down.

Adam frowned. “Why didn’t you go to bed? You have to go to work soon, don’t you?”

“I told Sir William I would be working from home today,” Immanuel replied, his accent formal and clipped. “He agreed, so long as I have a report on the deceased by this afternoon. If you don’t mind, I must get back to work.”

“I see.”

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Adam tried to remember what had happened the night before, but it only came in smatterings and blurs. He remembered the creature, he couldn’t forget that even if he wanted to, but what had happened to make Immanuel cross with him? It wasn’t like him to be so curt. He had awoken with the taste of stale gin on his lips, a splitting headache, and the only body in his bed an undead cat nestled on Immanuel’s pillow. As he stared at Immanuel’s notes, a pit formed in his stomach at a vision of Immanuel’s face breaking with hurt. Adam tried to remember what exactly he said, yet all he could see was Immanuel. What had he done?

“I made an ass of myself last night, didn’t I?”

“You could say that.”

Adam drew in a slow breath and winced as he scratched his wrist. Blood coated his nails, but he tucked his injured arm out of sight before Immanuel could notice. “I don’t remember what I did or said, but I am sorry I took it out on you, Immanuel. You must believe me. I would never try to wound you.”

Immanuel paused, his pencil hovering above a sketch of the creature’s lungs. “I know, but you did.”

Putting his work aside, he swiveled to face Adam. Their gazes locked, and the silent regrets snapped between them like a tether. In that moment, Immanuel wanted nothing more than to take Adam into his arms and kiss him until they both forgot the previous day’s trials, but he couldn’t do it. There had been a moment of alcohol-induced abandon when Immanuel felt the threat of impending violence. He swore Adam might hit him, and he couldn’t live with that fear. He refused to.

“Promise you will never do that to me again,” Immanuel said, keeping his damaged eye locked on Adam’s face even as it clouded. “I have to be able to trust you, Adam. I have been able to count on you thus far, but I can’t live with uncertainty when it comes to you. If you’re going to drink like that…” He shook his head. “I’m not trying to be dramatic. I just can’t do it after all that’s happened.”

Even if it means losing you. The words hung in his throat, but Adam knew they were there. He lowered his eyes to the floor and fingered the loosened scab on his wrist.

“I don’t know what to say, except that I will try not to do it again. I didn’t think it would upset you so. I thought it would take the edge off. It’s what I’ve always done.” He closed his eyes as Immanuel stroked his cheek. A little voice told him to tear his face away. He didn’t deserve it. “Anyway, after I get cleaned up, I’m planning to visit Hadley. I don’t want a position out of pity or loyalty, but the earl has connections and it would be foolish not to use them.”

Immanuel nodded, but as he turned back to his work, Adam put his hand on his arm and carefully turned him until they were face-to-face again.

“Immanuel, please trust me. I’m going to try to make things right. I promise I’m not going to let us sink.”

Drawing closer, Adam gently pressed his lips to Immanuel’s, his fingers sweeping his lover’s hair from his brow. Adam pulled him in deeper with the touch of his tongue upon his lips and a hand on his back. Entering his mouth, Immanuel could taste the tang of last night’s gin, and he wondered if Adam noticed the salt of the sea clinging to his teeth, a remnant of the dead woman’s final moments. Adam leaned between Immanuel’s legs, brushing his thighs as they parted. Heat sparked in Immanuel’s core as he rose upon feeling his lover’s hands squeeze his shoulders and slip along his side in time with their lips. He wanted to hate him, he wanted to be angry, but it seemed impossible to sustain.

“Am I forgiven?” Adam asked between kisses.

“We’ll see.”

Adam’s arms closed around him, hugging him closer until their bodies were flush. Stumbling back, Immanuel braced himself against the workbench as Adam’s lips skimmed the delicate flesh of his neck, sending a shudder through his form. As his palm brushed a metal dissecting tray, Immanuel stepped away and carefully guided Adam back toward the empty wall where crates of finished automatons had once sat. His lover’s hands kneaded Immanuel’s sides and back, cupping his buttock as his back collided with the wall. Immanuel lightly ran his tongue along Adam’s lip, eliciting a rough laugh from his companion as he tugged Immanuel’s shirt from his trousers. Before he could reach for his belt, Immanuel gripped Adam’s arm and slowly pulled it away. He stared at him through hooded eyes, his breath coming in heavy puffs as he steadied himself.

“We can’t,” Immanuel said, his voice hoarse with desire. “After, we will, but I need to finish this first.”

Disappointment flashed across Adam’s features, disappearing as quickly as it materialized beneath a concessionary nod.

“And I stink like a fishmonger. Please, Adam, I promise we can, but later.” Immanuel kissed him again until the tension released from Adam’s arms. “Later.”

Clearing his throat, Adam looked around the workroom as if seeing it for the first time. “I guess I’ll leave you to it, then. I’m going to take the train to Greenwich. Hopefully I can catch Hadley before she goes out for the day. Would you like to come? I could wait for you to clean up.”

“I would love to, but…,” he gestured to the glistening organs littering the table. “Send Hadley and Lord Dorset my love.”

Wiping his lips and straightening his clothing, Adam slipped out of the room. As the door shut behind him, a knot twisted in Immanuel’s stomach. Even if Adam had kept his head out of his cups long enough to think straight, there was something Immanuel still had to do. Reaching into a cabinet, he hefted a typewriter onto the only clean corner left on the workbench, a gift from Adam’s cousin and her husband upon his graduation. Carefully arranging his notes, he pecked out a report that would hopefully satisfy Sir William Henry Flower. He stared down at the page, rereading his half-truths and outright lies until he steeled himself against the knot in his stomach. If this plan was to work, he would need enough room to weave his story. There was only one missing component.

Reloading the typewriter with paper, Immanuel pulled his notes closer and hammered them out word-for-word. Judith Elliott asked for a comprehensive report, and he wasn’t going to fail his first mission as one of Her Majesty’s Interceptors.

***

Standing outside Miss Elliott’s door, Immanuel’s hand hovered, poised to knock. For a long moment, he merely stood in the hall, trying desperately to remember if he had brought everything he might need. During the entire journey to the Inner Temple Gardens, Immanuel had rehearsed all that he wanted to say, but the moment he reached the main hall with its sundial floor and practioners rushing between destinations like a swarm, his mind seized. What was he doing here?

After being attacked by Lord Rose in its courtyard and returning after the disastrous affair involving Lord Hale, he told himself that he never wanted to step foot there again, yet every few weeks he managed to slip in during his lunch break to exchange books with Judith Elliott. As he wove between Interceptors and made his way up the iron steps, he felt the deep resonance of magic reverberate through his bones like the hum of a hundred tuning forks. There was a whole building of people who in some way were just like him. He bit his lip to suppress a smile at the thought. Even after working at the museum for months, he still felt the distance of being an outsider. He was younger, quieter, less charismatic, less sure of his convictions, less accomplished, and certainly less English than any of the other curators. From what he had seen of the Interceptor Headquarters, there were plenty of young people and even those with darker complexions and accents that betrayed their origins. When he left Germany, a little part of him thought it would be a grand adventure. Maybe he needed to listen to that voice more. Immanuel tugged at his collar and straightened the strap of his leather satchel before knocking.

“Come in, Mr. Winter.”

Immanuel froze with a frown. Pushing open the door, he found Judith with her head bowed and her eyes on the paper in front of her. “How did you know it was me?”

“I could see you through the glass. Besides, no one who works here waits or even knocks. If you don’t barge right in, you aren’t an Interceptor.”

Barely raising her gaze, she motioned to the seat in front of her. Immanuel sank into the chair, clutching his bag as his eyes ran over the whitewashed cabinets lining the walls. Judith Elliott always seemed at odds with her surroundings. Her dark blonde hair had been expertly pinned and tightly bound in an elaborate chignon that hovered above the mandarin collar of her military-style jacket. Lining the perimeter of her office were display cases and art nouveau wallpaper that led the eye from shelf to shelf. Sunlight from the tall window behind her desk glinted off the crystals and artifacts locked within the cases. He wished he could borrow her powers just for a moment to understand how such a martial woman could own such a feminine space.

Finally surfacing from her work, Judith gave him a slight smile. “So how may I help you, Mr. Winter? Come to trade books?”

“No, I— I finished the report you wanted.” Immanuel reached into his bag and pulled out his sketch pad along with the packet of typed pages. “I tried to be very thorough, as you asked.”

“I can see that.”

Taking the papers from his outstretched hand, Judith flipped through them. Immanuel watched, holding his breath as her eyes skimmed over his notes before traveling to the black sketchpad between them. She returned back to the page, but every so often her gaze flickered from the rickety type to Immanuel’s face. After a moment, she cleared her throat and set the papers aside.

Folding her hands on the desk, she said, “This is all rather technical for me. Tell me, what did you find regarding our dead selkie?”

“Selkie?”

“My apologies, I meant to tell you, but I didn’t want to influence your findings. Selkie is the common name for what she was. Sometimes the Scottish call them maighdeann-mhara. I did some research on our friend after she arrived. According to several legends, selkies are creatures with the ability to take on two forms: one human and the other seal. I’m sure you’ve heard of sirens or mermaids in fairytales. Much like them, selkies are often described as beautiful women who lure men to their deaths or fall in love with humans and shun their true, animal form. Some folklore talks about how their magic resides in their pelts, which allow them to slip between forms or, like werewolves, they may be merely shapeshifters. It’s still unknown.”

“Did— did you say werewolves? Are they real, too?”

“Don’t fret about them, Mr. Winter. They are of little consequence at the moment.” Leaning forward, she tented her fingers and focused on Immanuel’s bisected eye, her mind’s probing tentacle nudging at Immanuel’s thoughts. “So how did the selkie die?”

“She was murdered.” Immanuel fought his mind as it threatened to travel back to that awful moment under the silty green water. “She saw something. I’m not certain what it was, a sunken ship or a foundation, but as she approached it, she was attacked by someone.”

“Was it another selkie?”

“No, I’m certain it was a human or at least close to it. I didn’t feel the same sensation I felt when I saw her for the first time.”

“A sensation?”

Immanuel chewed on his lip and watched Judith warily. Something about her made him nervous. Even if he was telling the truth, he still felt as if she might uncover a secret he never intended to hide. It made it harder to think, to find the words he needed to make sense.

“It’s like what Nichols described to me when he talked about meeting another person with magical abilities. It’s like an itch or a frequency resonating in my bones. I felt it at the museum when Sir William showed her to me.”

“Interesting. Tell me more about the murder and the murderer. Thus far, we know the perpetrator isn’t a selkie nor a practioner. Even so, we could still have an incident on our hands that could result in an uprising. These situations are touchy. Go on.”

Immanuel swallowed hard. He rested his hands on the cool wood of the chair, fighting back the sensation of water burning his throat. Closing his eyes, he rubbed his brow as pain constricted his temples. “She was stabbed, but when she tried to fight back, I think— I think she began to transform into a human. Then, she pulled the blade out. I don’t know what kind of blade it was, but it was long and thin, on a handle. It only took a few seconds for her to begin to bleed out. When I examined her, I found a tear in her heart and a matching wound on her chest. I couldn’t tell whether she bled out or drowned first due to the preservation fluid.” As he released a tremulous breath, he bit down on his lip until the pain blossomed anew. “Her thoughts… They were so human. She was scared in her last moments for the others. Does that mean there are others of her kind?”

“Oh certainly,” Judith responded as she flipped through the collection of sketches. Her mouth parted in surprise as she turned to the two page sketch of the selkie’s body exposed for examination. “She was mid transformation. Do you realize how rare this is, Winter? To see a selkie transform is a once in a lifetime opportunity. They don’t change in front of humans, that’s why there’s pelt versus shapeshifter confusion. A selkie mid transformation,” she repeated, turning the page to study her organs and bone structure, “what luck. The cryptozoologists will be beside themselves at the news.”

A pang of guilt rang through Immanuel’s gut. “Is this really something to celebrate? She’s dead, and it felt like my body was ripping in half when she transformed. Changing like that—“

Immanuel rubbed his arm where pain had radiated from the marrow as every bone broke and regrew in an instant.

“You felt it?” she asked, the joy sapped from her voice.

He released a tremulous breath and squeezed his arm to remind his mind that the visions of her underwater tomb were only a memory. “I feel and see everything they do as if I were in their bodies. It was excruciating. Her transformation, her fear, her death. Please understand that seeing their last moments is rarely a cause for celebration.”

“My apologies if I sounded insensitive, Winter. You must understand that we are an agency that studies these creatures, and selkies have been rather uncooperative and elusive despite living right off our shores. Don’t think this creature’s death was in vain. We can learn a lot from it. We already have. Your dissection findings and her remains will be preserved for future study, and who knows what we may learn from them given weeks or months to do so.”

Was she merely a specimen to them? Immanuel licked his lips before slowly meeting Judith’s eager gaze. “Miss Elliott, I’m not certain how to phrase this, but do you—and the Interceptors—view selkies as human?”

For a long moment, Judith merely studied him, her brassy curls blazing gold in the afternoon sun. The tendrils of her mind fell away as she said, “Cryptids, creatures of that nature, are not my area of expertise, so I claim no intimate knowledge of selkies. The Interceptors are divided on what constitutes a human being or, for lack of a better word, personhood.”

“I see.”

Clearing her throat, Judith rose. “Well, Mr. Winter, if that will be all, we greatly appreciate your time and help in this matter. We will send someone to investigate the case, but if we need any more information, we will contact you. May I borrow your sketches to have photographs taken? It will only take a few moments.”

“Yes, but—” As she reached for the doorknob, Immanuel opened his mouth twice, the words refusing to issue from his lips. He had to say something, for the selkie’s sake if not his own. Finally he called, “Miss Elliott, I would like to continue investigating this case.”

Judith stopped, her back ramrod straight as she looked back at the young man hunched before her desk. Despite her hard hazel gaze, Immanuel never wavered. She motioned for him to wait. Calling down the hall, Cassandra Ashwood appeared at the door. The dark-haired woman in her smart gown looked over Judith’s shoulder and spotted Immanuel as she gave her instructions. With a wave and a wide grin to Immanuel, she took the sketchpad from Judith’s hands and disappeared down the hall. When Judith turned back to Immanuel, her features were caught between annoyance and amity. Perching on the corner of the desk closest to him, Judith folded her arms across her chest and searched his face.

“So you want to join the Interceptors now. Why the sudden change in heart?”

Clasping his shaking hands in his lap, Immanuel fought to keep his eyes on hers. “I thought I could join unofficially for now. I would like to see if this is what I’m looking for before I agree to anything permanent.”

“You cannot possibly think you can join un—”

“It was in the contract. Read it for yourself, and you’ll see that I can be called upon to continue an investigation.”

“At our discretion.”

“At your discretion. You said it yourself that a scientist who is also a practioner isn’t easy to come by.”

“Yes, but we have everything we need from you. You finished the autopsy.”

Immanuel’s throat tightened. “I don’t know why the Interceptors want me and Adam to join together, except that you said we were more powerful together. It sounds like we would be an asset to the organization, and if they want us as badly as you make it seem they do, I’m hoping they might be willing to work with my terms.”

A faint laugh escaped Judith’s rouged lips. “Does Mr. Fenice know about your proposition? I seem to recall he was a tad skeptical of magic.”

“He has come around, but no, I haven’t told him yet.”

“That could backfire on you.”

“I know.” But both of them had so little to lose now.

“I’ll tell you what, I will plead your case to my superiors and get a file together for you. They may not agree, but there have been several discussions about how to bring you around,” she replied with a knife-sharp smile. “Now, you must know that a practioner doesn’t simply join the Interceptors like one joins a club. There are certain protocols that must be followed, especially regarding your and Mr. Fenice’s connection.”

“But I thought you said the Interceptors were tolerant of…”

“Not an emotional connection, a magical one. We can discuss that later. In the meantime, I would suggest you start figuring out what you will say to Mr. Fenice should they agree to your proposal. While you have your strengths and unique abilities, they want you and Mr. Fenice. You won’t get in by yourself.”

“I don’t mean to be forward, but why? What makes us so special together? Adam…” He paused for a moment, struggling with how to phrase it without coming off as insulting. “Adam isn’t a practioner.”

“Yes, but every practioner is better with their amplifier. Let me explain. You know that Cassandra is my partner in multiple ways, much like your Mr. Fenice, and she is a normal person. The reason why an Interceptor really needs a non-practioner partner is to ground us. They will see things we miss because we are too wrapped up in using our extranormal abilities. In your case and in mine, your partner is an amplifier, which means, as you have probably guessed, they can elevate your abilities by simply being in your presence. After the ceremony I mentioned before, Adam’s connection to you will be even stronger.”

“But what makes him an amplifier? Is it merely because we’re companions?”

“Well, a bond is necessary, but his alignments are the opposite of yours. You know about batteries and magnets, Mr. Winter?”

“Yes.”

“Then, you understand the power of opposite poles. What happens with extranormal abilities is that we tend to align with a specific element or pair of elements. In my case, mind-reading aligns with air while Cassandra’s personality is very much grounded in earth. Therefore, we are opposites.”

Immanuel fingered the stitching on his satchel thoughtfully. His mind reeled at the thought of the four ancient elements having any sway beside the growing periodic table. He wanted to reject the notion as superstition, but he had seen so much those past few months that sent his mind spinning yet it all proved true.

“What element is my ability? Air as well?”

“You,” she paused, “you are a strange breed, Mr. Winter. You have two elements. Which two do you think are most needed for life?”

He blinked, hoping the answer on his lips wouldn’t prove him to be a fool. “Water and air.”

“Precisely. My theory is you were born with the ability to manipulate water since you mentioned your alchemical heritage, but after suffering through a series of traumas, your body took on air as a way to adapt to your needs. It’s your wyrd.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your wyrd. Your fate. Your trauma shaped your abilities. It’s fascinating really. There are several known cases in ancient writings.”

For a long moment, Immanuel merely glared at her through his clotted eye. He had never found his traumas to be fascinating. Did they see him as another exotic specimen like the selkie? Swallowing down the thought, he added, “So that would make Adam fire and earth?”

“Perhaps. Though, he only needs one opposite element to boost your abilities. It would be ironic, wouldn’t it?” she said with a smirk. When he didn’t respond, she continued, “Adam, the Biblical figure was born of clay, and the name itself has its origin in the color red, which is your Adam’s most prominent feature.” With a dismissive wave of her hand, she added, “The point is by having Mr. Fenice with you, he will amplify your already unusual abilities, and the Interceptors won’t need to find you a partner. Trust me, Mr. Winter, you don’t want to have to tell your partner that they have been replaced by your lover. Peregrine can attest to that.”

Peregrine. Immanuel snapped open his pocket watch and nearly propelled out of his chair. “My apologies, Miss Elliott, but I have to go. I have an appointment with the director at the museum, and I didn’t realize I had been here for so long. If I don’t go—”

“Go on, then. We will be in touch about when the handfasting will be held, and I will have your sketchbook delivered to your address.”

As Immanuel reached the threshold, he felt the familiar touch of Judith’s powers knocking at the back of his skull. “Did I forget something? I really must go.”

“No. I was merely wondering what you’re planning to tell Sir William about the sideshow spectacle I brought him.”

“That it isn’t real, but the skin is. There’s a seal somewhere missing a pelt, and it’s possibly a breed I’ve never seen,” he replied slowly as her hold nudged deeper despite his futile efforts to keep her out. “That way I can keep the body a while more.”

“Very smart. You may want to start thinking of excuses for missing work.”

Immanuel cocked his head.

“You’ll need it if they agree to your terms, won’t you?”


Thank you for reading! Please let me know what you think, and if you’re interested, you can pre-order Selkie Cove on Amazon.

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Chapter Five of Dead Magic

dm-preorder

Since Dead Magic will be coming out in a little less than a month, I thought I would share the first few chapters here to whet your appetite for its release on November 10th. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be releasing a few more of the opening chapters. I hope you enjoy!
If you missed it, here are chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, and chapter four.

Chapter Five

Empty

Adam Fenice paused at the stove, listening as the grandfather clock in the hall struck six. A small grin crossed his lips. Immanuel would be home any minute, and Adam hoped to god he had a good day at work. They had only been living together eight days, but it was beginning to feel as if he had always been there. He had expected it to be harder to integrate their dissonant lives under one roof, especially when he had spent his life fighting to be seen as a separate person from George and Hadley and their businesses. With Hadley married and gone, Adam suddenly found himself alone, staring at gaps in shelves and empty rooms where she had once been. A quiet fell over the house that couldn’t be silenced. Something was missing, something he couldn’t fill alone.
When Immanuel appeared at the train station with only one trunk, Adam feared there would still be an emptiness, but soon science books appeared where ones on mechanics had once been and a sweet, soft voice singing in German chased away the morning silence. Suddenly it was as if he had always been there. No longer did his parents’ marriage bed feel too large or the house too empty for a bachelor. Hadley’s old room was stocked with Immanuel’s somber wardrobe and soon her old workroom would smell like bleaching bones and varnish. What Adam loved most was seeing two dressing gowns hanging in their room and the shallow indent in the pillow where Immanuel’s head had been.
With a groan, the front door opened. Glancing around the doorway, Adam could only catch a glimpse of Immanuel’s blonde hair and the swing of his leather satchel as he pulled it over his head. Adam turned his attention back to the stew and waited. Quiet footsteps padded into the kitchen, and within seconds, Immanuel’s hands were snaked around his stomach and his head was nestled against his shoulder. Adam drew in a long breath, inhaling the familiar soapy scent of Immanuel’s skin. His lips brushed Adam’s neck and cheek before returning to his shoulder.
“Have a good day at work?”
“Better than I expected,” Immanuel purred, giving Adam a squeeze. “I got you invited to the museum’s gala.”
“Oh really? And how did you manage that?”
“I threw your sister and brother-in-law’s names around. Once they realized we were all related and we shared a flat,” he paused as Adam turned toward him with a questioning henna brow, “they wanted to extend an invitation to the Countess’s brother, lest he feel slighted.”
“I’m sure you were put out that you had to invite me. I’m but a lowly money-counter.”
A grin spread across Immanuel’s lips as Adam wrapped his arms around his. “Well, I see you every day, so why would I want to spend an entire night with you drinking champagne and waltzing?”
Adam turned, catching Immanuel’s hands and pulling him closer until their hips were flush and their gazes met. Keeping their joined hands up, he tightened his grip around Immanuel’s back and took the first step of a sweeping waltz. Immanuel stumbled after him, half a beat behind as he was twirled backwards.
“Waltzes aren’t your strong suit anyway,” Adam replied with a toothy grin, his pencil mustache curling in agreement.
“Thankfully, I would rather not be asked to join when I can’t dance with my partner.”
Slowing to a stop, Adam turned, his blue eyes softened with thought. Immanuel’s grip tightened as he pulled him in for a kiss. Adam sighed, his eyes closing at the gentle push of Immanuel’s tongue against his lips. Arching back, he wrapped his arms around the taller man’s neck and his hand sliding into the curls of his hair. A chill washed over him at the skimming of fingertips over his spine. Immanuel’s hand dipped under his jacket and made its way toward the top of his trousers.
“We should wait until after dinner,” Adam whispered, licking his lips and resting his forehead against Immanuel’s.
Adam wanted to say more. He wanted to bang his fist on the table and cry that it wasn’t fair. That none of this was fair. At Hadley’s wedding, he and Immanuel had sat at the same table for hours, watching other couples dance with arms and eyes locked. He caught their knowing smiles when bodies brushed while he and Immanuel had to pretend they barely knew each other. Staring into his glass, he had wished he could take Immanuel by the hand and dance alongside the other couples, but as he tightened his grip on the stem of his glass, a gentle hand squeezed his arm. When he lifted his eyes, he had expected to find Immanuel giving him a reproachful look. Instead, he found Hadley staring down at him, her eyes heavy with guilt. Did she regret inviting them both to the wedding when she saw the misery etched into her brother’s features? That night when they returned to the house on Baker Street, anger had deteriorated into melancholy. Stripped of their finery, they had lain in each other’s arms until daybreak, a tangle of limbs and lips making up for lost time. Would they always be making up for those impossible moments?

***

Immanuel looked up from his empty bowl at Adam. He had been abnormally quiet during dinner. Swallowing hard, he said, “I’m working with Peregrine Nichols this week, helping out with the exhibits.”
“Who?” Adam asked, snapping back to reality as he grabbed his bowl and stacked it on top of Immanuel’s.
“Peregrine Nichols. I’m certain I told you about him. He’s the one who reminds me of an imp. He’s always smiling and prattling. If he wasn’t charming, it would be maddening. It might still be when we work together. You might like him, though. I’m sure you will meet him at the gala.”
“Why are you working with him? I thought he worked with insects or something.”
As Adam put the dishes in the sink, Immanuel took up the hissing tea kettle and poured them each a cup. “Plants, but he’s behind on his work. With the gala coming up, it’s all hands on deck, and having a hand in the preparations really isn’t a bad thing for me. It will look like I have initiative.”
“I guess so. Though, it might be better if you stayed out of it and kept to your work.”
Immanuel frowned. “I know, but I can’t stand to look at another seal or walrus. Somehow my reputation as the seal expert has followed me here. I don’t want to smell like— like rotting blubber.”
Adam froze at the way Immanuel spat the word blubber. When he looked up, Immanuel’s face remained impassive as he doctored their tea and refilled the kettle, but he knew the old wounds were still raw. It was during a visit to Oxford that he heard of Immanuel’s nickname for the first time. The name Blubber had originated from his preparation of pinniped skeleton’s for the university’s museum and the malice threading through it came from the nightmares that followed his captivity and abuse at Lord Rose’s hands. Even now he wouldn’t speak of it except in the vaguest terms, but his university roommates couldn’t forgive him for crying out for mercy in his sleep.
“Immanuel, I can do that. Just sit down and enjoy your tea.”
“I will in a minute,” he replied with a weak smile.
Immanuel looked over his shoulder and spotted a vase sitting in the center of the kitchen table overflowing with fern fronds, forget-me-notes, and periwinkle traveler’s joy. Adam had given them to him when he arrived, but now their edges were curled and turning brown while their heads dolefully flopped over the side. Immanuel set down his tea and took up the vase. As he made for the sink, he turned, expecting to find Adam behind him but found nothing. He went to take a step forward and was knocked off kilter by something hitting his chest. Heat seared through his veins, snaking through his core until it hit his heart and shot through his body one beat at a time. Swallowing hard, he leaned against the counter, busying himself with the flowers to keep Adam from seeing the fear in his eyes. This time it wasn’t death gripping his heart. It was something that wanted in. He took a shuddering breath and closed his eyes, hoping the stutter in his heart would stop.
“Immanuel? Immanuel, are you all right?”
Immanuel jerked back as water overflowed from the crystal vase and ran over his sleeves. The creeping heat abated at the water’s touch until it only lingered as a tight ball lodged near his heart. Releasing a pained breath, he swallowed hard and carried the flowers back to the table without a word. As he raised his gaze to the dying flowers, a gasp escaped his lips. Before his eyes, the flowers’ heads uncurled and the bits of brown he had seen a moment earlier eating away at the edges of the petals disappeared. Across the table, Adam absently poked at a sugar cube bobbing in his cup, unaware of his partner’s sudden urge to pitch the plants out the backdoor. Immanuel averted his gaze, but when he looked back, the blues and purples of the forget-me-nots were more vibrant than the day he arrived.
Something was wrong with him. Something was very wrong.
“I— I think I’m going to lie down for a little while.”
Adam’s arm wrapped around his shoulders, pressing Immanuel’s back into his chest. “You look flushed. Are you feeling all right?”
“I’m fine,” he snapped but caught himself. “I’m just tired.”
“Well, I will come up with you.”
Immanuel crossed his arms. “I can get up the stairs by myself. I’m not feeble anymore.”
“I think you misunderstood me.” Adam slowly raised his gaze to Immanuel’s, locking eyes as he held his arms. “I want to come up with you.”
Immanuel’s mouth formed a soundless O, and before he could think about what Adam said, they were checking the locks on the doors and covering the windows. Darting up the stairs, Immanuel slipped off his jacket and tie and tossed them into his undisturbed bedroom as he passed. He waited at the threshold of Adam’s door, watching his companion carefully close the curtains to ensure no one could see inside. It had become a nightly ritual that Adam had begun months before Immanuel moved in to avoid suspicion from their neighbors. When the room was dark, Adam took his hand and led him to the bed. His hand slid under Immanuel’s shirt and ran along the flesh of his back. Even after a week together, Immanuel still hesitated, expecting someone to be just beyond the door. It seemed too good to be true to have such freedom.
“Mr. Winter,” Adam whispered into Immanuel’s skin as he planted a trail of hot, moist kisses down his neck, “I have been waiting for this all day.”
But why? Immanuel suppressed the question that would only elicit a strange look from Adam and an equally awkward reply.
Before Immanuel could stop him, Adam’s fingers were flying over the buttons of his waistcoat and shirt. He resisted the urge to stiffen and cover his deformed chest with his arms, and instead he followed Adam’s lead. Beneath his bright dandy’s clothes, Adam was as solid and strong as Immanuel felt frail. Adam pushed Immanuel against the bedpost, catching his mouth. His pencil mustache prickled Immanuel’s lip as the redhead’s tongue plunged and grazed against his. The breath caught in Immanuel’s throat. Closing his eyes, he let his companion explore his mouth and his ever-changing body. Adam’s hands worked along his sides before sliding over the firm flesh of his buttock, eliciting a soft groan from his companion. Heat crept up Immanuel’s form, tensing every muscle in his abdomen and sending his heart out of rhythm. Immanuel blindingly unbuckled Adam’s belt and felt his fine wool trousers slip down his legs. Reaching for his own, Immanuel kicked them off and pulled Adam toward the mattress.
The bed sighed under their weight as Adam climbed on top of him. His eyes drank in Immanuel’s form while his hands rested on his ribs. Adam caressed the dents where his ribs hadn’t properly knit together. Immanuel swallowed hard at the thought of being prone and unable to hide from Adam’s mental dissection. He hoped it was too dark for Adam to see him, but his mind was silenced by a shiver rippling from his scalp to his curled toes. Immanuel raised his eyes to meet Adam’s gaze. A wordless conversation passed between them, and Adam’s lips curled into a knowing grin. Immanuel stiffened, his hips twitching, as Adam nipped at his collarbones and ran his tongue along his sternum and down the scant trail of hair leading to his flannel drawers. His fingers twisted into Adam’s henna hair as a gasp escaped his lips at the rush of air and the goosebumps rising on the tops of his thighs as his drawers were pulled away.
“I want to make you feel better,” Adam murmured, his voice husky and his breath hot against his stomach.
Immanuel closed his eyes, fisting the sheets as Adam drew him in. He needed him. He needed this. He needed to be reminded that even after all that happened, there was still love in the world. More than anything, he needed Adam to make him forget.

***

Adam stirred. Something nagged at his sleep-drunk mind, but when he finally cracked open one eye, he found the bedroom dark and the street outside the window quiet. The bed shifted beneath him, followed by another quick jolt. Turning his head, he found Immanuel still beside him with the covers drawn up to his chin and his body curled into a ball. As he watched him, Immanuel’s body trembled and a muffled squeak escaped his lips. Before he could stop himself, he released a series of soft sobs. A pale hand shot from beneath the blanket and pulled his pillow down. Hugging it close, he hid his face, reducing his cries to twitches and faint hiccups. Fear sucked the air from Adam’s lungs as he watched Immanuel, keeping his eyes nearly closed in case he turned over.
The covers slid off Immanuel’s back, revealing a cluster of shiny circular scars inscribed into his shoulder blade. Adam swallowed hard. He had never heard Immanuel’s nocturnal cries. He knew about them from Immanuel’s stories from Oxford, but as he listened to each pained sob and choked half-word, his stomach knotted. The idea that someone had used this against his partner sent rage climbing up his throat. But what could he say to make it better? Offering words of comfort wasn’t his strong suit. He didn’t even know why he was crying, so how could he help him? Maybe it would be best to close his eyes and pretend that he had never heard him.
Immanuel buried his face in the pillow as another hiccup escaped his lips. Adam resisted the urge to scratch at his wrist. Inching closer, Adam slipped his arm beneath Immanuel’s side and rested his forehead against his neck. His partner stiffened in his grasp and drew in a crackling, drowning breath. He hesitated before slowly turning over to meet Adam’s gaze. In the scant moonlight, Adam could make out Immanuel’s glossy, red eyes. Immanuel blinked to squeeze away the burning ache behind his lids, but as he opened his mouth to apologize, Adam pressed his lips to his. Immanuel’s body quavered beneath his grasp as he held him close. Heat radiated from his thin form, soaking the sheets and catching his hair in a sheen of cold sweat. As they parted, Adam caught his partner’s bichrome gaze. Silent phrases passed between them, revealing months of pain and longing. There wasn’t anything left to say.
Wrapping his arms around him, Adam pulled him closer until Immanuel’s clammy forehead rested against his collarbone. Immanuel latched onto him, concealing his face and holding onto him as if he feared he would be set adrift. There was still nothing Adam could think of to comfort him, but hands and eyes could articulate what lips could not. As he rubbed Immanuel’s back and gently hushed him, Adam watched him chew on his lip. There was something he wanted to say, something threatening to bubble out. What if he wanted to talk about Lord Rose or the terrible place where he was held captive? Adam wanted to move on. They were together now and life was good. That was what mattered.
Finally, Immanuel drew in a deep breath and met Adam’s gaze. “I— I think something’s wrong with me, Adam. I really do. Something has to be.”
Adam wiped away the moisture clinging to the dark circles under his companion’s eyes. “Why would you think that? You may have a bad eye, but like I told you months ago, spectacles might help.”
Immanuel shook his head and shut his eyes, pressing them against Adam’s chest. “No, that’s not it.”
“Are you in pain?” Adam asked, his voice tightening. “We could stop by James and Eliza’s tomorrow. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind taking a look at you.”
“It isn’t physical. Maybe it is, but sometimes—” The words hung in Immanuel’s throat as he inhaled Adam’s familiar lavender cologne in hopes it would steady him. “Sometimes I see things.”
Immanuel hesitated. Should he talk about the cat skeleton hidden in his drawer? That he knew the cat had once been a beloved pet and because of that, he didn’t know what to do with it. How could he explain to Adam that when he touched something dead, he saw what happened right before it died and that’s why he couldn’t handle raw meat? It was embarrassing. It was more than embarrassing; it made him question his sanity, which was already precarious at best. What would he think if Adam told him he watched a vase of plants revitalize before his very eyes? He would think he was losing his grip on reality, and perhaps he was.
“They’re just nightmares, Immanuel,” Adam whispered, pressing his lips to Immanuel’s forehead, “and nothing more.”
“Just—” A loose laugh escaped his lips. Immanuel shook his head. He had it all wrong. “They’re not…”
“I know you still think you see Lord Rose, but it’s just your mind playing tricks on you. You can’t give into it. We know he’s dead and can’t hurt you now. If you keep telling yourself that, then all of this will stop.”
It had all been said so sweetly, so innocently, and with such a gentle kiss on his brow that Immanuel didn’t dare say a word.
His eyes burned with tears as he whispered, “Right. You’re right. Good night, Adam.”
Rolling onto his side, he felt Adam’s arms wrap around his bare torso and the hot flesh of his stomach press against his back. As Adam settled into slow, steady breaths, Immanuel’s eyes trailed to the narrow space between the curtains. Moonlight streamed into the room, illuminating the pile of clothes strewn across the floor. Biting back the urge to snatch them off the rug and fold them, Immanuel stared at the winking stars. Adam didn’t mean it that way, he reminded himself. How could he know that putting his kidnapper and abuser out of his mind was hard on a good day and nearly impossible on a bad one? No amount of love or good fortune would dispel the damage Lord Rose had done. His ribs still ached on humid days from where they had been broken and the cigarette burns on his back seared anew the moment his mind lapsed into daydreams. But how could Adam know the pain the past still caused?
Immanuel drew in a wet breath and squeezed his eyes shut. Against his will, a tear bubbled out and slid down his cheek. Pressing his face into the pillow, he tried to push away the disappointment and fear pooling in his sockets. Adam had been there since the beginning. He had seen his body shattered, a hollow skeleton of its former incarnation, and he had watched him carve out a new form meant to resemble what he had lost, yet he still didn’t understand.
For months Immanuel had counted down the days until he left Oxford and could finally be able to live without a mask, yet it wasn’t to be. How could he tell Adam about the strange sensations and the visions if it meant losing the one anchor of stability he had? He sniffed and shifted until Adam’s loose grip fell away.
Even with everything he could have wanted, there was no way to forget.


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