1. Hold Me Close, until the Shadows Pass

If there was anything more maudlin than the waiting room of a hospital on the front lines Basil decided it was being in said waiting room while a violin was playing. Bright blues traced side to side until he spotted the musician who was dressed for an upscale dinner. He was perched on the back of a battered chair that bore anonymous stains, violin set to chin with ardor usually resolved for lovers. Long dark hair hung against pale features and he was given over entirely to the music. The captain recognized who that was but couldn’t quite place a name, just one semi-famous musician or another who was paying their home front dues. Basil was pretty sure the fellow was Italian. The man’s soft grey eyes slit open meeting Basil’s as they did so and he smiled. The song ceased weeping and bow was taken away. The instrument’s dancing partner was used to motion the Captain over.

Basil popped a brow before he grinned gap-toothed and drifted to the violinist. “Yes?”

“Captain.” The man’s voice was placid and bore with it the rich warmth of the Mediterranean. “You hardly look like one of the walking wounded. I suspect you are here to visit some of your men then. I must say that His Majesty’s Army could use more commanders like you if that is the case.”

“It is and they could. Captain Basil Redgrave.” He offered out a hand with a sniff.

The artist declined to give a shake or his name. There was a polite smile as bow was turned to tap on Basil’s shoulder. It was of modern make, ends encased in gilded gear works. The violin on the other hand was clearly an older piece. “Well then, Captain Redgrave choose my next tune if you would?”

“Hold Me Sunshine, if you know the tune.” His choice was emphasized with a nod before Basil pulled dirty blonde hair back into place with a run of fingers.

Inky tresses flowed back down over blue-blood features when the violinist dipped his chin. A satisfied sigh swirled from him to have face cradled against his wooden lover once more. “I have heard it a few times. Best of luck, Captain.”

“To you as well sir.” After a quick salute Basil turned and weaved through the sick and shattered to nurse’s station. Even on a day when Scarborough wasn’t under attack from air, inland, or sea there were still plenty who required care. Disease in these dark years was as dangerous any whizzing bullets or falling shells. He drew in a curl of air through the nose and grinned hearing the slow draw of strings and first familiar notes. The violinist however made it sound too much like a last dance instead of the hopeful tune it was meant to be.

After a quick check of the desk during which he had to bend and tilt away from gurneys and wheelchairs five times Basil gave the nurse on duty a crooked smile and a wave. Then it was off to the stairs which he took two at the time while patting at his jacket’s side pocket. Hopefully this little slip of paper would give Hurst some cheer. He hung a left and the melancholy strings chased him. Basil was too busy dodging past the most unkempt orderly he’d ever seen who was shuffling the other direction to pay attention to the music. Really he was sure that hospitals had sanitary laws and his nose wrinkled with how greasy and haphazard the man’s hair was. Basil didn’t say a word though. He knew the staff was over-worked. After the captain passed half-a-dozen beds he slowed down and mouthed the numbers painted on them. Far too many beds along the way were empty save for bloodied bedding waiting to be removed and cleaned. He swallowed as the truth sank in deep as to where the private was resting now. This was where men were sent to wait to die.

His feet stopped and he sighed out a prayer to the good Lord. Hopefully the old man was listening for once. Basil was sick of losing privates. Fingers twitched and anger flared along the skin of his back. Basil wasn’t going to give up on Hurst. When he heard the farm boy’s voice croaking out lopsided smile returned and he forced energy into his limbs and eyes. Marching to the foot of Hurst’s bed the Captain tapped fingers against one covered foot.

“Hurst, I’m afraid I am going to have to dress you down.” The half-scot smirked and rocked on his heels. “You weren’t at bugle this morning.”

“Sorry, Captain.” Smiling weakly Hurst tried to shift in his bed but didn’t have enough strength to move. His face was sunken and pale save for bright red lips and bloodshot eyes. Still he had yet to lose his sense of bulk and perhaps that was a good sign. “The sawbones don’t want to let me go yet. They say I should be putting my affairs in order.”

“What the hell do they know anyway? Besides medicine.” Drifting along the side of the bed Basil settled in one of the stain stripped chairs. He didn’t like how it wobbled under him but remained sitting. “So I’ve got a treat for you, but you have to promise you’re not going to take a dirt nap, lad.”

“Is it some whiskey? I could sure use some whiskey.” Hurst’s chuckle was a bit too wet. Both men ignored it.

Running a hand through his hair Basil blew out a long breath and ended it with a fresh smile. “Nah but I’ll see what I can do about that later. So do we have a deal, Hurst?”

“James.” Not caring about protocol in what might be his final day on Earth the private lifted a shaking hand to his commander. “You have a deal captain.”

“Good.” After a firm handshake Basil fished out one of the newest Thistle Sister pinup prints and offered it out to him. Ms. Sage had suffered mild embarrassment at his request but signed the provocative picture of her anyway and even added a press of lipstick to the back. James Hurst’s face lit up and Basil swore he caught traces of color returning.

“Oh my goodness! You didn’t?” With as much strength as he could muster James took the photo to hold with both hands and admired the beauty of the Spanish flower’s handwriting. He turned it over to glance at the imprint of lips and stroked thumb over it. “Thank you, Captain.”

“Basil.” The sniper gave his man a squeeze of the shoulder and pat. A sniff was chased away with the brush of nose before he angled forward with a sinking of heroic soldiers. “Now you just keep your promise and I’ll see about getting her down her for a proper greeting.”

“Oh? You’re going to see them again?” The private’s eyes traced to the side but winced at the light outside.

Basil mm’ed as he nodded strong. “Aye. My mate Harper’s working for them as a coachman and escort now. ‘Sides if it wasn’t for Mr. Thistle’s intervention Vetch would have had me drummed out of the forces, cutting off of buttons and all.”

“I hear he’s taking Thorn’s place? Damn shame that.” Hurst snorted and then started to cough. He waved off Basil’s motion for assistance and rode it through. Red eyes turned back to his romantic obsession.

“Eh, just in the temporary matter. My friends in London don’t think he’ll stay there for long. Hopefully we don’t get an arse worse than he eh?” Basil cracked his neck and leaned back, looking out into the grime filtered sunlight. “Nearly bit my head off dressing me down, for not turning in Ms. Thorn and all.”

“How’s she doing at any rate?” Clearly the soldier so close to death wanted to know if he took those last few steps it was for a reason.

Basil rubbed at his chin. “She’s fine, James. The Thistle Society took her into the castle and out of Vetch’s jurisdiction for now. She’s healing up well enough, in body anyway. However being chased by that damn fairy… well we shall see if she ever recovers eh?”

“Yeah that thing was a nightmare… Basil.” His head fell heavy into pillows and James pressed the photo of Ms. Sage against his heart. “Even if I live I don’t know-.”

“You will live.” Gaze slicing back down Basil lifted his chin. “You promised.”

“Right.” After closing his eyes Hurst focused on making that the truth. “When I get out of here I’m not going to be able to serve. Hell I might not be even able to help out at the farm. Just let me say right now it was a grand few weeks working with you, Captain.”

“You too, James, you too.” Basil patted the man’s bicep. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Win this war?” The man’s eyes creaked back open to slits.

“Cross me heart.” Basil mimed the motion.

Hurst gurgled out another chuckle. “And shut that damn violin up? It’s been teasing at my senses all day. Now it’s playing a God awful song.”

“Hey now.” Basil’s laugh was full and lively. “I requested that.”

“Well your taste stinks, if I may say so, Basil.” Turning his face away Hurst let his eyes close. “Thanks for this, Captain. You’re a good man. Never forget that. However I need to get some rest.”

“Right. Just remember your promise, Private.” Patting first at his knees Basil stood up and tugged at his cuffs. A nurse in passing glanced over the two and shook her head silently. Basil just narrowed his eyes in challenge. Men could beat the odds, they did ever day. That’s why in the end they’d turn back these damn moon-men.

“Will do, Captain, Will do.” Hurst stroked his photo once more before focusing on trying to rest and heal.

Basil excused himself quietly and began the long walk along cold tile to the ward door. Around him he heard those that remained wheezing, gasping, mumbling. His head dipped and eyes squeezed shut once more. How long would it be before he ended up in a place like this? Pain worked over his handsome features at the most damning of questions surfaced in his mind. How many more boys would he put in a place like this or in the ground? War was hell. As he pushed back out into the stairwell the captain expected to get a face full of sunlight from its main window.

Instead he got a face full of sun-spun blonde spiced with vanilla and oil. Sputtering he started to fall back to the wall before her slim fingers curled at the front of his vest and hold him tight. By then blinking eyes focused first on the wicked smile across thin lips Ms. Parsley wore then onto her doe brown gaze. The edge of her amusement grew another hitch before she gave him a strong tug. The sniper made a small yelp and nearly tipped into her.

“Ms. Parsley!” Basil felt his face flush.

“In the flesh and gears.” Her hand had yet to let go and down the willowy gunslinger angled to drink in his scent. It was nothing more than simple male musk and the smells of war that never left a soldier’s cloths. Their red officer jackets curled against one another like illicit lovers. “You are the fellow that saved my life I believe. Captain Basil Redgrave.”

The officer’s blush only deepened and his lungs ceased up for a second time today at a sudden strike of nervousness. “Nonsense. You could’ve gotten yourself out of that pickle ma’am. “

“Hush. I would have thought you would be a mote more charming.” Taunting with her voice first she followed it up with a tease of lips. It was just a testing brush to see how his breath tasted, how his nose fit against hers. She found a day’s worth of beard tickled at her soft skin in quite a satisfactory manner. Oh the Widow would be having a conniption of she saw this. The fact he was kissing his picture of female perfection washed away Basil’s hesitation and his hand curled around hers, heart thudding heavy. He could almost hear hers call in crystalline perfection. His deeper kiss was returned, strong jaw working and lips giving the right amount of pressure before he wallowed on the gourmet delight of her breath.

The violin played on and drew the song to a close. Hold me close, until the shadows pass.

Men and women only got so many perfect moments in life, slices where it seems that they lived in a novel or had been projected onto a silent screen. Both Basil and Ms. Parsley realized this was one of those moments but reluctantly the captain had to break the lip lock for air.

“Well maybe I saved it just a little.” He chuckled and she giggled with him before shoving him away against the window’s pane. A doctor coming up the stairs cleared his throat sternly. Both of them went red once more as the professional and his two nurses went by.

“Bother. You are charming and cute. My sisters said you were a great help dealing with the sluagh.” She brushed stray blonde filaments back into place before cocking slim hips to the side. Recovered and refurbished pistols jingled in their holsters. Hands settled against waist belt. “I stopped by your barrack house and they told me you were here checking in on a fallen soldier. Very becoming.”

“I’m glad that I shine so well in your eyes, Ms. Parsley.” This can’t really be happening, Basil thought. Damn he was going to have to thank Harper later instead of slugging him over the sluagh incident. His eyes dipped to her chest following pale exposed flesh between chin and corset top. There was a hint of scared skin and the faint glow of mechanical heart.

She caught him looking and took a deeper breath, puffing bosom out. “We shall see if that continues. I was wondering if you would like to walk for part of the afternoon and talk. As long as you have no pressing business Captain Redgrave and as long as you do not think it too scandalous.”

“Compared to snogging in a stairwell?” Only partially chiding he nodded and gestured up. “They have a lovely terrace set up on the roof for recovering soldiers to take in some sun and sea scents. Shall we?”

“We were not snogging.” Her smile returned in full pristine force and was followed with a playful slap to his arm. Ms. Parsley however bobbed her head in acceptance and stated moving when he did. Her hands folded against one another behind her back, partially hidden by oversized cuffs. Every step she took was airy and impish.

Basil of course found such good humor infectious and close to his own. His head tilted down to glance at coltish legs within military pantaloons. “I see that your legs have gotten better since we last saw one another?”

“Much.” With a wiggle of hips Ms. Parsley let her nose curl in amusement. “If you play you cards right, as they might say Captain, you may get to see more of them.”

“Oh hell.” Rolling his eyes and gaze away down to the dying ward as they walked past it Basil didn’t chuckle even if he was amused. “You really are a woman of scandal aren’t you?”

“Dreadfully so, if you believe my sisters.” She bumped shoulders with him and glanced that way as well. “Do you mind if I do meander through there on the way back down, Captain? I find a flirt and a smile are enough to give some solace to those that have sacrificed so much for King and country.”

“Is that why you are here today with me, Ms. Parsley?” Touching himself as if looking for a wound Basil smirked at her. “Do I have some sort of grievous wound that others neglected to mention?”

“You and I never meet before this moment, Captain. Would you mind terribly if I called you by your Christian name?” She batted her long lashes up and down becomingly.

He rolled his eyes again, bright blues drawn back to the undertow of her smile. “Well you are already familiar with my lips so I think that is fine.”

His arm was given another playful swat and the trigger-woman had enough common sense to cover her giggle this time. “I am hardly familiar with them… yet.”

They continued upward, passing the third floor’s door. He settled hands deep into his jacket pockets. “Oh really now. Well we shall have work on that, if by the end of this little walk you can still stand my presence.”

“Yes.” She dipped her chin and gentle gaze brushed closed. “I suspect the chances of that are quite high already. So your mother was Scottish I understand.”

She was shot a sideways look and for once he didn’t come back with words but a bare nod.

Obviously the cog-driven woman had stepped onto a touchy subject and kissable lips pulled to the side of her slim features. “Oh. I am sorry. I had Mr. Hawthorne do some digging. We women are creatures that are notorious snoopy after all and I wanted to know more about the dashing gent that saved my life.”

“It’s quite alright.” Shaking off long-lingering glumness Basil turned his face back to hers. “Really. Yes my mother was Scottish and my father from fine British stock not far from London.”

“It is hard to imagine they got along so well.” The off-handed comment made both of them grin dopily. The door to the fourth floor loomed.

“Love brings members of any species, race, creed or nation together despite matters otherwise. It overpowers every last lick of good sense after all.” He gestured to the door ahead and then looked back over to the clockwork beauty. “The first would be from my mother and the second one of father’s quips.”

“I see.” Her dimples made his surface as well. “So you joined the Crown’s forces and went off to India? Was that your father’s idea?”

“My own. I think I had something to prove myself to his side to the family. That even though I had hot blood mixed into blue I could be a disciplined officer and gentleman.” He opened the door to the top floor wider. Somewhere along the halls were the gated stairs up to the top. They’d have to track down a candy striper or orderly to unlock it for them.

“So how does it feel to be wrong?” She gave his fingers a fleeting caress to dull the edge of the taunt.

“Bloody fantastic if I may say so.” Shaking his head Basil gestured. “The stairs up are around here but if you spot someone official point them out eh? We’ll need keys. So how deeply did you look into my background, Ms. Parsley?”

She turned her face away and fanned at it quietly. “Well I have to say as always Mr. Hawthorne was quite extensive in his background check. I know that you performed admirably in the land of the Raj, mostly as a sharp shooter. There were some hints that you were involved with the thugee extermination as well. That must have been incredibly exciting.”

As he moved along through the halls Basil caught her fingers before they could get away. Up here everything was silent. He wasn’t sure if these were offices, storage or private rooms. Perhaps it was a mixture of all three but there wasn’t the expected sounds or scents. Large bay windows where covered with heavy curtains. “One might say that. I would say though Ms. Parsley that it was harrowing in all truth, that and your hands are incredibly soft. I expected them to be calloused from gunplay.”

“Ah.” She curled against his strong side and for the first time in a long time she was disappointed she had been built was so tall. “Why thank you. In my defense however I have advantages that most ladies do not. Does that disturb you? The fact I am a clockwork?”

“You’re lips are just as pleasant as any other living woman’s, Ms. Parsley.” The sharpshooter blinked as her fine brows started to go cross and brushed a thumb against them. They paused in the hall just before it split off deeper into the building. “You know what I mean.”

“I do.” Cooing the blonde still tilted away to look down the side hall and spotted the gate there. It was chained and she sulked only to have her bottom lip tapped by his finger. It had been, well never, since Ms. Parsley met a man that she understood so quickly. Not that she recalled anyway. “Thank you for the kindness.”

“You’re most welcome.” He savored the feeling of her fingers with his and the closeness of her body. Something though tickled at the edge of his sense of smell, something disheartenly familiar to any soldier. Eyes started to scan even though Basil’s first kiss addled mind hadn’t realized it was fresh blood yet.

“So I understand that you returned to Britain after ruination was visited on Scottish lands and meet our Mr. Carson during that time? I do have to say he is a very odd one, quite obsessed with our Ms. Thyme.” Watching his eyes the faux female marveled at how pretty they were for a man’s. They almost didn’t fit his boyish features.

“Harper? He’s as plain as the nose on your face. Really one of the most stable gents I know.” Basil stepped away from her, giving a tug of her hand, and moved away from the stairs up. The sense of something wrong was starting to chip away at a moment so right. “Hell if I hadn’t met up with him when I did and we didn’t have one another for support I might not be standing here now. He lost his whole family not many months after I lost mine. Misery loves company and well every bloke needs a drinking partner.”

“Too true. Is something wrong?” Clearly her escort was searching for something so Ms. Parsley’s soft brown gaze joined in. Augmented as they were for optimal aiming no matter the environs she was the first to spot red oozing out from under a door. “Blood.”

“Yes.” The single world put a name to the rich scent and it wasn’t one that the military man fancied. He followed her attentions and wished he had a gun on him. The urge to move the blonde behind him was resisted. After all Basil was the weaker of the two, being simply human.

“Well as this has taken a less than romantic turn.” Ms. Parsley drew one briar scrolled revolver and eased back hammer with manicured thumb. The gun wasn’t aimed yet but readied. Her pretty chin lifted. “How would you like to handle this, Captain?”

“Slow and steady. You keep me covered eh?” Taking a quick glance around he scowled and snatched a mop from bucket. The ‘weapon’ was given a good testing swing and after the half-scot shared a nod with his android companion Basil pressed his shoulders to the wall and inched his way to the bleeding door. He wasn’t sure if he should be pleased to find it slightly askew or not. Reaching out with the back end of his ‘weapon’ Basil edged the door open from as far back as he could while Ms. Parsley raised her oversized pistol as if it was an sparse bouquet. She drew the other just in case.

Neither of them startled when a corpse slapped against the floor and was followed by a second. One was a doctor without much of a throat left and the other was a nurse in much the same state. Thus an explanation for the dead silence up here. Once the Thistle Sister signaled it was safe even of her face was full of disgust Basil continued forward. There was another throat-less body curled within that was probably another doctor. Reaching up Basil pulled on the light chain and immediately wished he had not. It wasn’t the carnage that got him reeling but rather the fact that the cadaver was propped up against a homemade bomb. Several petrol cans were tied around a box that Basil could only presume was packed full of explosives and atop that held in place by linking wires was a faceless alarm clock counting down.

“Is that what I think it is?” Even Ms. Parsley’s stance turned wary.

Basil crouched and gave one of the drums of accelerate a tap with the mop. “Yep, it’s a bomb.”

“I thought you said it was going to be a pleasant stroll, Captain.” Ms. Parsley snorted.

“Yes well, consider me a liar then. Hrm. I do not think we have long enough to get a squad up here to take care of it.” After giving a second can a poke the sniper sucked in a deep breath and moved forward to the device. Corpse was coldly pulled out of the way. “Help me with the other two eh, so I can see what I can do?”

“You are a demolitions expert?” Setting the revolvers back into their leather cribs to sleep Ms. Parsley stepped forward to peer over his shoulder. Both of her brows rose. That wasn’t something covered in the butler’s brief.

“No but I ran into a few when I spent a year on the French front. This one looks pretty ramshackle. Hrm. All the petrol tells me that its intent is more to start a fire than anything. But why the devil up here?” He whistled through the gap in his teeth. “There’s no one else up here unless they want to take out the recoup place up top.”

The gunslinger circled around to look within the room better herself then along the floor. Difference engine was hard at work calculating structural matters. She huffed and arched her back before looking to Basil. “There is a support beam that is between the walls I think. It could do damage to it and create a panic but most would still get out.”

“Which means I’d wager that there are more of these damn things below.” Basil whistled again and looked down before focusing on the naked gears and broken hands of the death clock. “How long do you think we’ve got?”

“If my shortest sister was here she could tell you down to the second, Basil.” Miming spitting to the side Ms. Parsley hung her thumbs on ammo-belt. Both of them spent as much time as they would dare watching the hands moving and judging. “Not long.”

“No chance to evacuate the building that is for sure.” Shaking his head the soldier stepped forward and squeezed into the space despite danger and gore. “Get near a window I’m going to see what I can do.”

“You cannot be serious! Oh hell, you are.” Ms. Parsley eased back and settled her tush on the lip of windowsill.

“Trust me.” Over his shoulder Basil shot her a strong wink before turning back to study the bomb. His head tilted to the left and right and he licked at his lips as he inspected every wire, coil, and rope. There wasn’t much too this device really. It was obviously slapped together on sight. Gingerly touching one strand of copper that came from the clock he followed it down by touch to the side of the explosive box and sniffed. All he could detect was gunpowder. The sniper tilted up on the ball of one foot and peered down. There were black grains slowly leaking from one crack in the small crate. This really was crude.

Watching the way Basil’s body moved as he worked on the problem Ms. Parsley rubbed at her bare throat and swallowed. Really God had put him together as well as Mr. Thistle had her. “Why should I, Captain Redgrave?”

“Because I’m going to take you out dancing and I can’t do that if we’re,” He gave the copper wire a hard tug until it came loose and then folded it away. The clock stopped ticking and their body parts weren’t spread everywhere. “Missing all our limbs eh. There that should do it. Whoever put this together only knew the basics.”

“Really now? It was that simple? I dare say I find a bit hard to believe.” Ms. Parsley pursed her lips. “Either way, however, bravo.”

Basil slipped on the gore as he backed up and flailed before landing on his ass with an urp. She giggled and he just winked back over to her while blowing out a pained breath. The clockwork dame offered him a hand up. Not soon after accepting it the captain searched the two doctors and nurse for keys. Lips turned down as he found none.

He brushed his hands clean. “Right then. What now, Ms. Parsley?”

“We have to find the other bombs and quickly without creating a panic.” She drew out one pistol again. It was pointed to the stairs down before her strut took her in that direction. “There will not be enough time to do anything else. Then you are going to take me to a dance.”

Bright blue eyes watched her graceful motions through stripes of sunlight, the way her oversized crimson coat washed with each step and how legs bent as she took them. Basil shook his head, his mum had warned him about British women and this was why. He spared a glance back at the bomb before double-timing it to catch up. The fall if his battered officer boots matched those of her immaculate ones. “Sounds brilliant to me, Ms. Parsley.”

To be concluded

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