1. Shore Leave

“Oh, I see why we’re going this way.” Harper’s laugh was as deep as usual. It was the sort of reverberating sound that only barrel-chested men could make. It was heartier than warm that was for sure. Its tone was off of course because it was still in the process of mending it back together. Harper thought it was entirely too muffled and nasal at the present.

Still, Becca Thorn found it made her skin tingle and her mood lighten unlike anything else these days. Her father’s murder and the circumstances around it had understandably nearly broken the blue-blood’s spirit. If it wasn’t for the resolute seaman’s company she was sure that she would have fallen fully into the pit if despair. However, she did fix him with a pinched look. “I thought you said you were one hundred percent, Mr. Carson.”

“What do you mean?” Harper blinked with all the lying skill of a toddler with his hand in a cookie jar. The crooked streets of Scarborough’s poorer district were considerably less threatening in the sunlight. That wasn’t to say that they were any less confusing. Sunlight was splintered by the haphazard arrangement of different angled and sized rooftops above. The street was too narrow for anything but foot traffic. Most of the alleys in between were even worse.

“Your face narrowed with pain when you laughed.” The woman smiled as bright as she was able, with a promise that one day it would be brilliant to behold again. Becca took a few extra steps an impishly stopped in front of the towering gent. She peered up him and once she caught his gaze poked him in the side. “And your nose is of course broken.”

No matter how hard he tried not to Harper had little choice but to recoil. “Ow. Okay, Okay Ms. Thorn I’m still healing.”

“Becca.” She didn’t let him get too far from her. The fabric of her white skirt rustled as she narrowed the gap between them. The major’s daughter set her palm tendering over the big lug’s injured side as if that might heal it. “We did give my chaperone the slip quite some time ago, so please… Becca.”

“You’re just trying to distract me from where we’re going.” Harper succeeded on fighting off the foolish urge to see how her lips tasted. He distracted himself further by pointing on a twisted set of concrete steps that zigzagged between two lopsided houses to the next street above. This was the spot that they’d first crossed paths, on that bloody and terrible night.

Becca didn’t turn her clear blue eyes to the spot, though. It held a lot of memories, both good and bad. She’d wandered this way with Harper because she wondered if today would be the day she’d overcome the bad ones. It wasn’t. Instead she settled against the fellow and laid her cheek against his sternum. Her other hand settled delicate against it as she listened to his breathing. “You are trying to distract me from your side. I think it is only fair, Harper.”

“I’ll be fine. I just need a bit more time for my ribs to mend. I promise. I just didn’t want to worry you any.” He reassured her and after a moment settled one of his big hands between her small shoulders. His own breathing hitched when he felt her body shift and then relax. The socialite always felt too delicate in his arms, like he might break her. He was still astounded she wanted to have anything to do with him. Yet here they were. She’d arrived at his hospital bedside the day after they’d returned from fighting Professor Scabious’ ‘daughters’ and had stayed until her chaperon, Harold, finally came to chide her away. He figured that he’d replaced the male figure in her life that she’d lost.

On the other hand Becca had not thought too deeply on the why, it didn’t matter too her. She liked being around Harper, she felt grounded. The endless platitudes of her peers and fall garden parties left her feeling empty now. Everything about her privileged life tasted of ash. Here, like this, she felt safe. She nuzzled his chest before muttering a small apology. Red speckled her cheeks. “Promise me.”

“I promise.”

“Good.” She practically purred before pulling away from him and grinning. One slim nest of fingers was held out to him. “I want to go down to the beach, before Harold finds us. He will be ever so sore and make me return post haste I am certain.”

“I’m sure.” For a short stretch Harper considered her request before taking her hand. He nodded with a strong mm and goofy smile.

Now, Mr. Thyme felt uncomfortable as she watched the budding couple secret off down the streets in the direction of the shore. She was perched on one of those crooked roofs as still and heartless as any gargoyle. One of her hands pressed against an upturned brick to keep her poise perfect. The new arm was functioning properly, they always did. The gynoid wasn’t sure where this… feeling came from. After all she had only followed Mr. Carson to make sure that the injured brute didn’t get into any trouble. She’d been… well concerned was a strong word. She had worried after his condition for he had taken quite the pounding while valiantly fighting the madman. In her opinion he should be resting at home instead of skulking around town with the colonel’s daughter. Was that why she was uncomfortable? It was hard to pin down where the sensation was. Maybe it was because she was playing the peeping Tom and that was something a proper young lady should not do. Then again she was not a lady but a facsimile of one, something her peers often forgot. Certainly it could not be jealousy, she was incapable of that.

Ms. Thyme turned her head away and didn’t observe which way the other two went. Instead her green gaze flitted across the rooftops spread around her. Her sisters had been unnerved since returning to their base of operations as well. No doubt Ms. Parsley was drowning such worries in Captain Redgrave’s company. That of course could only end poorly. The swordswoman’s lips curved down. She wasn’t going to follow after Mr. Carson, to do so would be ridiculous. She didn’t want to be like her blonde sibling. Ms. Thyme stood and made her way across the roof. Today her city was peaceful.

It was hard to imagine that monsters from another world might strike at any moment. The sky was so clear, so blue with only a few thin clouds stretched across it like fraying gossamer. One of the Crown’s airships floated over the coastline, the flying behemoth an eyesore on the otherwise perfect day. A long stream of black smoke rolled behind it. Warships, trawlers and civilian skimmers mixed in the harbor under its watchful eye. There was no sign of a threat on the horizon. Still, it was hard to imagine this was once a resort town on the seaside. She casually jumped the span of a block silently so those walking on the streets below didn’t have a reason to look up.

With little effort the clockwork beauty walked across the zenith of an arched roof. She didn’t even extend her arms for balance, she didn’t have to. Ms. Thyme was a near perfect weapon of war, finely tuned. That was all she was… all she was. Like the airship and the warships she was there to protect and serve. From her new vantage point it was easy to see the castle’s cannons facing out for the water. Her gaze dropped down to carefully constructed tangles of protected streets and armored shelters spread around it. Once the fomorians were gone, what would they do with the city then? It bristled like an armored knight waiting for its black-hearted enemy to charge. Yet when the sword could be set down… She doubted that day would ever come though. Fourteen years of war had passed and neither side was ready to fold yet. Still, better the city stuck with reminders of a long passed conflict than what the Vain would do so such a place if they were victorious instead of mankind. Her mind refused to imagine what that might be like. Instead she leaned over the far edge of the building she was on and watched pedestrians bustling about. Their simple lives would be protected; she’d make sure of it. For Harper’s sake.

Her frown grew.

Did the other girls have these sorts of introspections, or was she malfunctioning in some way? She should speak to the Widow about her concerns. Ms. Thyme’s black hair fanned out behind her and her skirt followed suit as the sea breeze changed direction. The smell was nice. It brushed the battle-hardened scene spread before her with its gentle strokes as if trying to distract the citizens from the dark times they lived in. The fighter was unmoved by the scent, the warm sun on her face and the constant thrum of human life around her. The Widow, she suspected, would be unavailable for some time. Ms. Thyme had not seen her since they returned from dismantling a great deal of their new enemy. Given whom the madman turned out to be one could imagine that Elsbeth was overwrought at the moment. Human hearts were fragile and useless things after all.

“I am glad my core is made from crystal and copper. Are you, Ms. Sage?” Ms. Thyme spoke softly just as the somberly dressed woman settled behind her. She didn’t turn to look back at the other gynoid. It would whip her hair in her face and that was always distasteful.

With a demure turn of wrist Ms. Sage shuttered the cavorite in the umbrella’s crook. She didn’t have to fight the breeze to stow the metal shade either. Her pointed boots shifted so she could stand comfortable atop the angled roof. “It does have its uses, sister dear. What are you doing lingering on rooftops?”

“I could ask you much the same.” Ms. Thyme folded her hands before her in a proper fashion. Her gaze shifted to watch the bay once more, focused on the white sails of ships. It was a lovely sight. Her discomfort was nearly gone. “I was keeping an eye on Mr. Carson and Miss Thorn as her chaperone is lacking. I decided though that Mr. Carson can he trusted with her honor.”

“Oh.” Ms. Sage looked over the edges as well seeing if she could spot the pair.

“Something worries you as well. The professor’s words I assume.” Unexpectedly the shorter woman swiveled on her heel, the sudden splay of dark hair across her English-pale skin be damned. It framed one lifeless green eye perfectly as she stared at the other woman.

Moments stretched out into minutes after Ms. Sage set her closed umbrella over one shoulder. She merely stared back at the other false female over the top of her spectacles. When it was clear that Ms. Thyme was not going to give up on this line of conversation she slowly nodded. Still a deep-rooted sigh came and went before she finally spoke.

“Yes. I cannot say I am unshaken. I have considered many a different way to attempt to broach this subject with Mr. Thistle. I am afraid as if yet I have yet to come up with an adequate manner. After all it seems a terribly small thing to trifle him with.” The bespectacled beauty lied at the end.

That was another skill that Ms. Thyme did not have. “Simply be blunt. There is no reason to dance around the subject.”

Again a veil of quiet fell between the two women. It was pierced now and again by the sound of sea breeze cutting between them, or a trace of murmur from below. The hulking airship banked in the distance before its shadow crept back along the shoreline the way it had came. Some duties were never ending; they were the best for machines to do.

“I… do you ever wonder who we used to be?” The Spanish Rose realized that was an inane thing to ask before the final word slipped past her lips.

“No.”

“Of course not. You are the most pure of us, Ms. Thyme. I just, it has been weighing on me of late.” After removing her glasses Ms. Sage settled to sit, balanced still at the roof’s peek. Neither woman had any fear of falling. “I have been meaning to speak to the Widow about this matter as well. However, now she is caught up in her own affairs. I can hardly blame her for that.”

“Nor can I.” Though she nodded in agreement the swordswoman did not add anything to the conversation. Her gaze had returned to the sailing ships. She too had odd tremors but drowned them so thoroughly each time that they had yet to wash back up.

“Pity to lose one’s husband twice. I can only imagine the heartache she… must feel.” The leather of Ms. Sage’s combat corset creaked as she pushed both of her palms against her stomach. She had a vague idea what that might but she did not know why. “I knew how to fix Ms. Rosemary back at Melrose. I was never programmed how to do it, I just knew. Isn’t that odd?”

Ms. Thyme made a small sound before nodding. Yes it was.

“The Professor made his abominations out of living women, implied that he had worked on the project that made us as well.” Ms. Sage peered down at her glasses. The wind kept hair away from the sides of her face.

On the other hand her sister had to fight to remove black strands from across her lips. Once they were out of the way Ms. Thyme talked. “You believe he was telling the truth?”

“There is no man more honest than a mad man.” Ms. Sage’s hazel spiced gaze moved to the tip of her shoes. She wiggled them but her expression remained sullen. “So yes, I believe that he did though there is no mention. Given the Widow’s reaction I suspect there was some dire reason he was stricken from the record. We were women once, too. But, well we are not any more. Why do I remember then?”

“A malfunction.” From anyone else the response would have been taken as curt. It spilled out of Ms. Thyme’s mouth, though, it was merely to the point.

“Perhaps. Thus why I wanted to speak to the Widow. See what she can to… fix me.” A quaking of fear crept through the dusky woman’s voice. She shook her head as if to try and chase it away. Ms. Sage was going to say more but lapsed into silence once again.

That fear finally dragged Ms. Thyme’s gaze down to the other weapon of war. Such wasn’t something they were supposed to be cable of. Nor was such a frivolous thing as love, but Ms. Parsley had always been addled. She took dainty steps until she reached Ms. Sage’s side then sat beside her. After a tick of hesitation she reached out and settled her hand atop one of her siblings. It was more an imitation of what she’d seen the living do than an instinctual response. It took her another tick to recall that she should squeeze. “Then what is it that you wish to discuss with Mr. Thistle?”

“Who Isadora was.”

A flock of gulls screamed as they surged to the streets below. A crate of eggs had overturned, spattering yellow and white everywhere.

Half-way across the city Ms. Parsley savored the feeling of sweat drying across her artificial skin, the way it tingled now that all her senses were both flushed and sated. The tips of her fingers walked along Basil’s bare bicep while her silken leg slid between his. The small sheet that covered them shifted, pulling away from her curves. Slanted rays of sunlight cast through the window stripped across her back, caused her tussled hair to glint. “You seem far too deep in thought, my handsome man. You best not be having regrets now. Once some things are done they cannot be undone.”

The soldier turned toward his lover and smiled in a crooked and boyish way. There was still a flush to his cheeks and his scalp was damp. He was sure where her nails had pressed in the last moments of congress was covered with welts, but he’d relish them too. Woman always liked to mark their territory, even one’s that weren’t alive. Though, he’d be hard pressed to call Ms. Parsley anything but alive, vibrant, and damn sexy. “Just wondering if my legs will ever work again.”

She thrummed happily as he leaned over to brush lips. The bed creaked underneath them while the sounds of other folks in the resort hotel filtered through the walls. It was mid-afternoon. Hardly the right time to foster scandal, yet here they were. They’d plan to join the masses down at the beach but one of them had suggested a private talk. She couldn’t recall which one of them that was, but it didn’t matter.

Talking had led to kissing.

Kissing to fondling.

Fondling to clothes being torn away.

Now here they were, lounging nude and steeped in delightful sin. She completed the kiss with a swipe of soft tongue. Then with a breathy sigh the willowy woman pressed closed to the captain’s frame and got comfortable. “We shall just get you new ones, Basil. You have no regrets.”

“Not a one.” He took her hand within the grip of his own thick fingers and kisses her palm. “You?”

“Of course not.” Ms. Parsley wished she could somehow press closer to him but her curves were already flush with his male angles. She had to wonder if all women felt this way, if they did well then, maybe she was more human than anyone ever told her. The light of her coiled copper and crystal heart spilled across Basil’s pectorals in time with her breath. While the love-making had been great she was touched even deeper that he did not turn away in disgust when he first saw the gap to the left of her bosom. After all the only visible difference between one of the Thistle Sisters and a human woman was there exposed heart. A cage of exquisite workmanship had been implanted above their breast and within it a crystal covered with wires pulsed like it was a beating hunk of meat. Ms. Parsley had asked the Widow Scabious about it once, why they were otherwise anatomically correct. After all to some it might seem silly that they still had lady bits. Apparently it had something to do with ‘proper resonance’ so their systems could control their body. Everything had to be in place. Ms. Parsley was glad that it was really.

“So what are you thinking about now?” Basil’s brows pressed together while his eyes sparkled with mirth. He found staring into his lover’s soft brown gaze warmed him like no hearth ever could. It was his fondest wish that this afternoon would never end.

“How much I hope I do not have a full diagnostic soon now that you have deflowered me, you rogue you.” A bell like giggle took control of the clockwork woman. She shifted her body a bit more and leaned on one elbow, which was set against the side of his chest. Her fingers brushed at the wisps of hair atop it. Her statement would be to some crude but it made the solider rumble with amusement.

“Really though, we cannot speak of this to my sisters.” The blonde continued, pale hair framing her feminine shoulders perfectly. “That goes for Mr. Carson as well. Best mate or not I do not want him spilling the beans to Ms. Thyme. I can only imagine how much trouble you and I would be in. After all, this should not have happened.”

“Clearly it was supposed to.” Basil countered easily enough. His hand let hers go and slid down her arm, resting behind one elbow. He was clearly anxious to explore every inch of her chassis. It still amazed him that the sex had happened, and yes even more so that she was put together just like a real woman. Though, she was a real woman to him. It was also nice to know they could indulge in all aspects of love-making without worries of complications arising. After all scandals of this nature were most often noted when a woman started to show a bump and could not keep down her breakfast. “Harper won’t breathe a word of it, trust me.”

She placed a slim and plush finger against his lips. Her eyes sparked wry. “Nor will you, Captain, to him. Trust me on this. The Widow alone would make our life hell. I would hate to see you shipped back to French Trenches to prevent any public embarrassment. So for now, not a word.”

“Just a clandestine and naughty little affair? Oh, you are such a romantic, Blondie.” Basil laughed again and sighed. A loving look took over his features. His hand lay against the warm metal where her heart was stored. That was the one thing that was odd; no heart-beat could be felt. Still, everything else was normal, or better. So he’d not complain.

“Oh you know it.” She pushed out her lower lip and then demanded another kiss; which he was far too happy to give.

Once the lip-lock ended Basil’s head sank back into the pillows. His expression was lopsided, his body drained and well… he was starting to feel hungry. That would have to wait for now. Cuddling first then he could go get some food and bring it back. “Then we should rent a flat somewhere on the crowded side of town, so we’ve got a place we can meet and carry on this dubious dance of ours.”

“Already one roll in the sheets and you want to play house. I should have listened to dire warnings about Scotsmen.” Her pale brows wiggled and a fresh giggle sprang out of her.

“Aye, and I was always warned about you English strumpets.” Plainly he was as giddy as she about this turn of events. A mutual nod was shared. Some sort of clandestine flat would be beneficial to them both for the duration of the relationship. Rightly, neither could imagine it ending at this moment. “Isn’t that our song?”

Hold Me Close filtered out of a phonograph in the room next door. It was such a perfect moment.

Ms. Rosemary wasn’t sure what was pulling her along toward Sutcliffe Church. After all it was still dedicated to the Church of England and the good Lord might strike her down for visiting it once again. Her soul was heavy, though, and she knew that she needed someone to talk to. Given the classified nature of her activities only Vicar Moss seemed the right one to speak to on this. After all he was more or less part of the fold. She had to tell herself that there were no other reasons for her wanting to see him as well. She was not as addled as Ms. Parsley or as complicated as Ms. Sage. Besides… he was an Anglican.

The fact of the matter was that she nearly died at Melrose Fortress. Then there was the confrontation with the cruel mockeries of her and her sisters. What was once accepted was starting to splinter – just what place did she have on God’s green earth? Did she have a place? Ms. Rosemary felt she had a soul even if she was a machine. That had to be where emotions and memories came from. Until now she kept the glimmers of the woman she used to be private. Would it be safe to spill them out now? Vicar Moss’ oaths to the Lord should keep them safe.

“Feh. Yer a mess lass.” She muttered to herself under breath. Her pace slowed and nearly stopped as she turned the corner where the church’s wall began. Right, she should just swallow all this silliness and focus on her work. That was what she was supposed to do after all. With a huff the Irishwoman brushed aside a wash of bright hair and squinted at the holy façade. Still, if he could help sort this all out and douse her fears then Ms. Rosemary could really focus. She could then help the others too. Ms. Sage and the Widow seemed worse off than she.

Her head tilted and expression squinted together. Was that a pained cry she heard filter from the graveyard? The back of her hand swiped under her button nose. Yes, it was and there as another one. Even though Ms. Rosemary grunted in distaste she wasn’t about to run away from someone in trouble. Over to the tall wall of overgrown stone she went and reached up. It wasn’t hard for the beautiful brawler to pull herself up to the top. There she crouched with a wash of her primrose dress over either edge. A poet might say it looked like freshly spilled blood. It didn’t take much of a scan over the headstones and depressing statuary to see what was going on.

Vicar Moss was huffing and puffing. The minister had managed to prop himself up on a headstone with one arm. It looked like he was spitting a wad of blood, maybe even a tooth, out of his mouth. His forehead was speckled with perspiration. Fine shoulders shook as the vicar righted himself and unsteadily turned to face his assailant. He brushed a thumb along facial scar and spat to the side again. Vicar Moss didn’t need to say a word, his stance said it all. He wasn’t going to fall to the well-dressed snob who had nearly broken his jaw.

In turn his opponent sneered in such a manner that it wiped away the veneer of civility that had been carefully cultivated. The fellow had a short beard that came to a sharp point which curled on itself in a devilish fashion. His slick-back and black hair helped complete the image, or maybe it was the tailed coat that he wore. The aggressor’s slacks didn’t quite reach his ankles though, revealing white socks that were stark among the dark colors. He took a step closer to the vicar and rolled his neck in a superior manner. His grey eyes shinned with utter contempt.

“Try that again, worm, and I’ll leave you with another scar.” The man’s voice churned with menace, which did little to soften the harsh accent he had. It wasn’t hard to peg him as a Prussian. “We wouldn’t want that, jah?”

“Go to hell.”

“Arrogant fool.” The German raised one hand like a conductor getting his orchestra ready. The hell-stone set in a ring of silver embossed with brass pulsed with unclean energy. The damp air about the graveyard grew suddenly humid. ‘Tears’ ran down a few of the angelic statue faces. Flames started as ghostly wisps in the man’s palm before dancing freely without scorching his skin. This intruder was supposed to say something else when he was knocked off of his feet by a good sized rock in the side. More than likely the sound made as stone hit flesh was that of ribs cracking.

Ms. Rosemary had been the source of the attack of course. Her Irish was riled up as she stalked across the grounds now. She’d already rolled up one sleeve and was working on the other. Today she’d decided to go without her steel mitts. Which was fine, she could still bust this Kraut up without them. “Damn fomorian worshiping scum.”

“Mein gott!” The fellow tried to scramble to his feet, holding his side with one hand. The other was still enveloped in ghostly fire. Never before had Ms. Rosemary seen any human use a moon rock just like the Vain did. He clearly had to be dealt with, dragged back for interrogation. This meant she’d have to leave either his fingers or his toes intact.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways.” A fleeting and wry smile passed along the reverend’s face. He moved between the redhead and the fallen man and spread his arms wide. Blood trailed down Vicar Moss’ chin. “Thanks for that, Ms. Rosemary. While he is an ass he’s not one of the enemy, not exactly. We just have… history.”

“He’s a witch, warlock… whatever!” The pretty pugilist was shocked enough to suddenly stop. Her expression twisted together but after a moment she relaxed and settled her hands on her hips. One of the cocked to the side and her lilt thickened. “He was going to light you on fire!”

“Just still might.” The German tried to pull himself to his feet. “Who the devil is she, Stuart?”

“You really do not get out much, do you Derek?” Good humor had vanished from the holy man by then. He did spare a look over his shoulder at the other fellow. After Vicar Moss gave him a pointed look the fire went out. Though, when the reverend offered a hand up was offered it was swatted away. The minister shrugged and used that hand to wipe at his lips. He frowned subtly at the blood on calloused flesh. “This is one of the Thistle Sisters, namely Ms. Rosemary. Careful she’s Catholic.”

The woman huffed and considered leaving. However, she needed to find out who the hell this Derek was. More importantly how he was wielding forbidden magic, after all he was a human being. As far as she knew that was impossible. “Tch. I shoulda’ve let ‘im burn sense inta ye.”

“Yes. You should have.” Derek groaned and swept a hand over his beard to get it into proper place. He rubbed at his side gingerly and wondered if anything was broken. His erudite expression though was mired tellingly at the edges – he had mucked up something quite royally. There was something akin to a cornered rat’s expression in his eyes. Oh, he was going to get in quite a bit of trouble for this. “I should go.”

“Oh no ye don’t. “ Ms. Rosemary tried to step around Stuart and snatch the Prussian. She was stymied, again, as the man of the cloth slid in front of her.

Vicar Moss shook his head slowly. His arms did lower fully, though, and hands slid into his pockets. The scarred man wiggled his jaw before he spoke. It really did hurt like the dickens. “It really is best if you don’t press too much for details, Ms. Rosemary. Please, take my word on this. Herr Brier is as much an enemy of the fomorians as we are. He just flirts with damnation.”

“Not this again.” With his dignity mostly recovered Derek turned away. He managed to fold his arms and take up a stern stance once more. Not one trace of his threatening demeanor from moments before remained though. A slight look was given to Ms. Rosemary as he stroked at his chin. It was a sinister motion with very little bite too it. There was little he could do against her.

“… Okay so why were the two o’ ye fixing to knock another’s heads in then?” She was not quite convinced.

“We were going to discuss the silver handed fairies.” The minister spoke quietly and with that weighty manner he had. He motioned for Derek to stay put and then for Ms. Rosemary to come a bit closer. They each represented one of the three different human forces at work in the world. Together they could come up with something to solve this dire puzzle now before them. God had brought them all to this spot –at this moment- for a reason, of that Stuart was convinced.

To be continued

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