life is but (a dream)

“He’ll live,” the doctor says. His face is pinched and gray with age and disapproval. “With a couple weeks of bedrest, he’ll be healthy as he’s ever been.”

Which is not terribly, he leaves heavily unsaid, not in a house like this, that sweats poison and breathes miasma, not with a family that would allow a boy barely into his majority–force him, if the rumors were correct–to make a contract with such a notorious chain. And so few seemed to actually care–the Lainsworth heiress had bee much younger, but her chain less deadly, and her family more concerned: her waiting-room had been overflowing with family and servants alike.

Here, in the Nightlay House’s main estate, only three people are waiting: the Duke himself and his two other sons. The younger is already sullen in a way that can only grow over the years, but the elder–the middle child, the second adopted son–sways gracefully to his feet. He is most certainly no legal adult, but there is a deliberate heavy grace in his footsteps that makes the doctor nervous. This is the Nightlay House, who plucked two urchins off the street and raised them into would-be lords, and who better to do a rat’s dirty work than rats themselves?

“May we see him?” the young man–the boy–asks. “If he’s all right.”

“I said he’ll live,” the doctor corrects brusquely. He is more nervous than he would like to admit, that the Duke himself has said nothing: just watches, with his narrow dark eyes and strange unnerving smile. “He needs rest if he’s going to recover.”

“I just want to sit with him,” the boy replies, his tone almost wheedling. “He’s my brother, after all. I’m worried.”

The doctor begins to protest again, and then: “Vincent,” the Duke says.

Vincent Nightlay doesn’t turn at the sound of his name. He stares at the doctor, and his mismatched eyes almost seem to glow in the dimness of the waiting-room. “I just want to know, Father,” he says sweetly. “I’m so worried about Gilbert, after all.”

“You just want to sit with him?” the Duke asks. He sounds amused. “To be his bedside nurse?”

“I’d like it ever so much, Father,” Vincent purrs. He has not blinked once, staring at the doctor like he is. “I mean no insult to the fine servants of our family, of course.”

“Of course not,” the Duke says. “You’re dismissed,” he adds, and it takes the doctor a moment to realize that it must be directed to him, because Vincent finally breaks eye-contact with him to slink past, into the patient’s room. He half-turns, the protest on his lips, and suddenly Duke Nightlay is before him, dark eyes glittering.

“Let them be,” he says. “They’re blood-brothers in this adopted house. I believe that no one will care more for Gilbert than Vincent.” Another queer smile quirks his thin lips. “In fact, I would swear by it. You are dismissed, doctor.”

He very nearly protests again–this isn’t right, this isn’t proper, but he is only one doctor of many employed by Pandora, and he is an old man. He is not foolish. Stiffly, reluctantly, he bows to the Duke, then to youngest Nightlay son, who swings his legs in his chair and sucks his cheeks into his scowl, and he takes his leave as quickly as possible. Superstition warns him not to look back as he climbs into the waiting carriage, and for once, he listens.

+++

Gil wakes slowly, dimly aware of the distant, dull ache of his entire body. He feels as if he has been hollowed out with a blunt-edged spoon, with all the inside parts of him left exposed and raw to the air. It is a different sort of all-encompassing pain than from that one day five years ago; as he wakes, the pain becomes more excruciatingly real, and when he opens his eyes and blinks down at his own body, he can see that both of his arms are heavily bandaged from palm to shoulder, and more still are wrapped tightly around his chest. Across his stomach, there are already faint dark spots of blood beginning to show.

“Ah, you’re awake,” says a voice by his head. With effort, he turns and looks at Vincent, who smiles widely at him. On another man, his expression might have been sweet, but this is Vincent, and there is something hungry in his mismatched eyes. “I’m glad, my dear brother, I was worried.”

Vince, he tries to say, but doesn’t have the voice for it; all that emerges from his throat is a low rattling creak Vincent’s smile widens.

“You mustn’t strain yourself,” he says. He reaches for something and pulls it into Gil’s line of sight: a teacup full of fragments of ice and set with a tiny bone-handled teaspoon. Vincent levels a small amount of ice into this and reaches to press it against Gil’s lips, and the damp chill of it is blessedly sweet. Gil can feel it trickling down his throat in slow degrees, and when Vincent offers another spoonful, he opens his mouth for it. His entire body still hurts, but eventually, finally, he finds himself able to speak.

“Vince,” he croaks. “I …”

“My brother, you were so brave,” Vincent says. He puts the teacup aside and takes one of Gil’s hands in both of his own. Gil expects it to hurt as every other movement has hurt, but Vincent is excruciatingly gentle now, gloved fingers resting against bandaged. Some of the odd anticipation fades from his eyes, and he is gentle, which is so rare that Gil finds himself silenced again. “I was worried.”

Gil grunts a little, and tries to flex his fingers, pressing them against Vincent’s own. He is tired and he is in pain and his brother’s kindness is bewildering. He blinks at that bowed golden head and

he sees nothing but a red-tinged darkness; somewhere very close by a piping childish voice is singing a familiar lullaby about birds in their nests–he doesn’t know where he’s heard that song before, but he recognizes it clearly, the words resting on his tongue, waiting for his voice and

he squeezes his eyes shut. One of Vincent’s hands vanishes from its place over his and replaces itself across his forehead.

“Poor Gilbert,” Vincent says softly. “Raven’s not used to its new master yet. You should sleep.”

His brother starts to pull away, and for a moment a terrible panic makes Gil’s heart skip a beat. He grabs for Vincent’s hand with his own, clumsy and not particularly gentle from pain, unable to stop the hiss of pain that rattles through his teeth.

“Stay,” he grinds out. “… Please.”

For a long moment, Vincent is completely, deathly still. Then his hands resettle over Gil’s, cupping it, and softly, he says, “If Gilbert wishes for it,” he murmurs, “then of course I will.”

He makes a noise that is both gratitude and pain, then settles back to concentrate on his breathing, trying to focus on steadying that rhythm over the agony of his injured body. In, out. In, out. In. Out.

In.

Out.

In–

“Are you happy, Brother?”

“Yes! Yes, I am.”

“Ah, I see. Then, if my brother is happy, so am I.”

–Out. In–

Gil’s tired and hungry and sore, but he’s only managed to beg a heel of bread and the money for a few scraps of cheese. It’s not enough for one person, let alone to split between two, so he tells his brother he’s already eaten, and watches smiling until his brother finally eats, small bite by small bite. As long as his brother survives–as long as his brother is all right–that’s all he wants. Gil presses a hand to his own empty belly and combs the fingers of the other through the dirty tangled nest of his brother’s hair, and he thinks, Today we’re still alive, and that means we win.

–Out. In–

The gentleman stinks too much of perfume to be anything other than filthy. His voice is high-pitched and nervous, and he has soft, grasping fingers that are slightly damp and sticky. He whispers promises and endearments he will not remember in the morning, smoothing his palms across Gil’s hair and his lips soft and slobbery against Gil’s cheek. Thankfully, all he really wants is to have a cute child to pet for the night, and he does not ask for the clothes back in the morning; Gil gets two gold pieces for the lot. One he saves in his shoe; the other he uses to buy bread and cheese and scraps of ham, and smiles to see his brother’s eyes alight with wonder at the bounty. He thinks that he has never been happier in his life than at this moment, with his brother by his side.

–Out.

Something touches his lips, so soft that he nearly thinks it’s another dream–a half-formed continuation of the last: things that aren’t memories, can’t be memories (his memories are bright sunny things, full of a light that he still struggles to recapture)–and then he breathes in again and tastes something that is far more immediately familiar than all his confused half-shadowed dreams.

Gil opens his eyes to his brother’s face, close enough to feel breath against his cheek. His body hurts less, but his head hurts more; he has to blink a few times before Vincent’s familiar features focus before his eyes. “… Vince … ?”

“Shhh,” Vincent murmurs to him, and lays a finger across his lips. His smile is strange, almost mad. “You’re still dreaming, my dearest brother.”

“I am … ?”

“You are,” Vincent soothes. He rests a hand on Gil’s bandaged chest, and Gil is vaguely surprised to see his brother’s naked fingers, stripped free of their habitual white gloves. “It’s a very strange dream, isn’t it? Getting a chain does that to you.”

“How do you …”

“I know many things, Brother,” Vincent whispers. He leans down and presses his lips to the soft place right beneath Gil’s ear. His mouth is soft, and his fingers are soft, pressing at the edges of Gil’s bandages. “Especially about you. In fact, you could say I know everything about you …”

Gil closes his eyes again. He says his brother’s name again, and his voice sounds odd to his own ears, pulled down somewhere low and rough. A smoker’s voice, he thinks distantly, though not quite the same as Master Oscar. His head aches with a dull pressure just behind his eyes, matched by the movement of fingers walking their way down his chest. He breathes slowly and carefully and moans once when it settles on his belly, tracing the bandages and the injuries beneath. When he cracks his eyes open, Vincent’s golden head is bowed over his stomach, face turned towards his, an odd smile playing over his lips.

“Vince,” he whispers. His tongue feels heavy in his mouth.

“Shhhhhh,” Vincent tells him, laying a finger to his lips. His other hand disappears under the blankets, skirting past the bandages with cool fingers; Gil makes a low noise, shifting under the contact. “It’s just a very strange dream, Brother. Don’t strain yourself. I’ll take care of everything.”

Gil closes his eyes. Cool fingers wrap themselves around his cock, stroking gently upwards, and another groan catches in his throat. He turns his head to press his cheek into the cool linen of his pillow and moves his hips restlessly up into that touch. It feels good, but it comes filtered through an odd haze of pain, and Gil can only gasp to catch his breath, fingers clutching and releasing at the sheets. He can see things fluttering in and out of his vision: long skirts and the flare of a coat and sunlight on golden hair, but they all fade and vanish in flashes of restless heat. Vincent’s voice continues in a low murmur, nearly in time with the rhythm of his fingers: You’ve worked so hard, you always work so hard, you should feel good sometimes, Brother, Gilbert, Gil

There is a voice on his lips when he comes, short and soft in his mouth. He isn’t quite sure what it is, but he can feel tears drying stiffly on his face. Lips touch both of his cheeks gently, like benediction, and Vincent murmurs, “Sweet dreams, Brother.”

He remembers nothing more after that.

+++

Elliot is still sitting in the waiting-room when Vincent emerges. He sinks low in his chair and kicks his feet, scowling.

“Well?” he asks. “Is he all right?”

Vincent pauses and then lays a finger across his damp lips, smiling. His eyes are heavy and smug, dark with secrets.

“Shh,” he says. “Our big brother is sleeping. Let’s not disturb his dreams.”

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