Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Tank: Chapter Seventeen, Part One

Notes: Almost to the end, my darlins. We've got an epilogue to go, and then that's it for this one. I've got two options for what comes next, and I'll be looking for insight from you all on which to pick :) In the meantime, have some final Anton and Camille before we say goodbye--for now.

Title: The Tank: Chapter Seventeen, Part One


Chapter Seventeen, Part One

The series of farewells that followed Anton signing his life over to the Institute were disconcertingly rapid. Dr. Grable was the easiest to say goodbye to, and the one that also felt the least permanent, in a way. “You can’t possibly think I’m giving you up for lost to these bastards, can you?” he gruffly asked that evening. He was preparing to board the airship—Dr. Wictoryn was standing by to load him onto it, and perhaps to do a bit more, if the pink flush in her cheeks was anything to judge by. “We’ll be in touch, Seiber, and I’ll continue to communicate with Jourdain on a regular basis. The moment you’ve served your time, I’ll come and get you myself.”

“Thank you, sir,” Anton said quietly. It was as much enthusiasm as he could manage, the limit of how far he could push his mind to overcome the fearful flutters of his heart. The second after he’d made his deal with Lord Jourdain, he’d been frightened of the ramifications, but there was no way he could go back. His choice was made, and no matter what happened to him, he would see it through.

“Lord above, don’t thank me for being the one to drag you into this, lad.” Dr. Grable held out his hand, and Anton took it. His mentor’s grip was warm and strong. “We’ll see each other again soon,” he promised, and Anton was warmed by the assurance in the other man’s voice. That sort of confidence was catching, and when Anton straightened up again his carriage was a bit taller, his head a bit higher.

Seeing Caroline appear at the entrance to the Institute, dressed in her traveling clothes with two servants bringing her trunks behind her, was almost enough to break him down again. She looked elegant, like a woman who wasn’t being forcibly escorted off the grounds, but the expression on her face was pure panic. “Anton!” She ran to him, and he held out his arms and pulled her in close. She trembled, silent sobs wracking her frame, and it was all he could do to keep himself from joining in.

“I’m so sorry!” she wept into his shoulder. “I should have been more careful, I should have—I never meant for you to be dragged into such a mess. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I promise, I didn’t—I would never prey on your good nature, and when you told me ‘no’ I knew that was the end of it. I didn’t think you would—that you would—”

“I know,” he said as soon as he could get a word in edgewise. “I know, I promise. I never thought that, not for a second.” Caroline might have tried to use their friendship to get him on her side in the beginning, but his no had been final and she had respected that. If she hadn’t, he wouldn’t have offered himself in her place.

“I do not deserve it.”

“You do,” he assured her. This part, at least, he felt confident in. “You deserve to go home to your family.”

“To a husband that doesn’t even notice when we’re in the same room together and a child who probably won’t remember my face once I return.”

“He will.” Anton pulled back a bit. “You know he will. Children need their parents, and he will need you if your husband is neglectful. Be there for him. Do your research and improve your craft.” A knot welled up in his throat, but he managed to speak around it. “Try not to think of me.”

Caroline pulled back and stared at him, dumbstruck. “Are you mad?” she demanded at last. “To ask me not to think of you, as close to me as any brother, who puts me before you despite my terrible mistakes? Darling.” She kissed both his cheeks. “You might as well ask me to forget the sun. I will think about you every day, and pray for the moment that they let you go and you may come back home. Come straight to me.” It was half plea, half command. “Come to me and you will always have a place, and never have to worry about money or providing for your mother. You are always, always welcome in my home.”

“Thank you.” Anton hugged her again, one last time, pressing a kiss to the top of her head before reluctantly pulling back and letting her go. “You must leave now,” he said quietly.

“Yes, Lord Jourdain already informed me of where I am to be deposited,” Caroline said, wiping the corners of her eyes and regaining her composure until she was once again a lovely, haughty noblewoman. “Which, given the circumstances, I must be grateful for.” She caught his gaze one last time. “I love you very much, Anton.”

“And I you,” he replied. Then she was gone, off to the airship, and he was left to watch as a few minutes later it floated into the sky, moving so quickly that it vanished into the clouds in moments.

It was so strange, to be here without anyone to anchor him now. He had come with people he relied on, people he cared for and communicated with—now there was just him. Hrym came to see him at dinner, which Anton ate in the big room without the benefit—or blight—of more company, but Hrym was intensely distraught himself, and not easy company.

“I thought God loved me,” he said, as confused and hurt as a caged mouse. “I thought I was his child, beloved by him. That’s what Cardinal Proulx told me. But he wasn’t telling the truth. He thought we were bad.”

“God does love you,” Anton said, feeling greatly out of his depth but trying anyway. “God loves all of us.”

“Even those with no souls? Or those of us born outside of holy matrimony?”

“Of course. We are all made in God’s image, aren’t we?” Anton tried. “How could he despise us for faults that are not of our own making? If God’s hand is in everything, then it’s in the making of us as well. No person is perfect, but he loves us just the same.”

“Then why did Cardinal Proulx try to kill Lord Jourdain and his brother?”

Anton’s meager appetite slipped away, and he set his napkin down in his lap with a sigh. “I don’t know. He was a man with many harmful thoughts, Hrym. I don’t know why he did what he did.”

“But you don’t think he was right?”

“No. I don’t think he was right at all.” The rest of the meal passed in slightly-less-painful silence, which Anton was grateful for.

He kept the rooms he’d been originally given, entering them was both a relief and a sadness at the end of the interminable day. He’d been set up with his own laboratory, and all of his possessions left at the university would be coming back with the airship. He could pick up his research where he’d left off, with more supplies, more assistance, and more financing behind him than ever before. He would be unstoppable. And soon, Napoleon III’s forces would be as well.

He showered that night alone. He undressed and got into bed alone. He had thought he would fall asleep alone too, his room only brightened by the light of a huge full moon, but just as he finally began to drowse, the comforter moved, and a second later a warm body pressed in behind his.

“You came,” Anton murmured.

“I did.”

“Where were you?”

“Readying for my departure.” Camille’s voice was pained. “I leave before first light.”

“But Montgomery is already here. Who else do they have for you to hunt down?”

“The list is endless.” There was a moment’s silence, then Camille pressed a gentle kiss to the back of Anton’s neck. “I don’t expect you to forgive me. But you should know that I don’t leave lightly, and I will return to you as often as I can, if you wish it.”

If I wish it… Anton wiped his face across his pillow before rolling over to look at Camille. He seemed exhausted, a shell of himself, dry-eyed but pallid and too thin through his face. Even his moustache drooped.

“I always want you with me,” Anton said simply. Fighting his desires was too much, now. He couldn’t do it, even though he was angry over all that Camille had kept from him, and all he would have to continue to keep from him. As a lumière, Camille belonged to his country, to his emperor, first. Anton had to accept that.

Camille swallowed hard and closed his eyes. “Then I shall return as soon as possible.”

“Good.” There was no lust between them tonight—Anton was too afraid, and his lover looked too exhausted. He tucked himself into the curve of Camille’s arms and closed his own eyes. “I shall depend upon it. I’m…” Sorry I didn’t listen to you, sorry we’re both stuck here, sorry I’m not sorry that you’re part of my life. “I’m glad I won’t be alone,” he whispered at last, ashamed but honest.

“Never. As long as I’m alive, I will be here for you whenever I can.” He kissed Anton’s forehead. “Sleep. We both need it.”

“Yes,” Anton agreed, and with the warmth of Camille’s body and the thrum of his steady breaths to lull him, he fell asleep in moments. He slept harder and better than he had in days.

When he woke up, Camille was gone.

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