16. Aftermath - Book Four - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Joe had - for the last few minutes or so - been wondering if Dex would come to him, and, if he did not, what he might do then. One could hardly set off wandering down the icy, elaborate, tartan-wallpapered corridors of what was left of Balmoral, in the hope of finding one’s lover amid the splendour and the ruin. But it was not a night to be left with one’s own thoughts, either.
Even if the servants talked.
Before he could become too paranoid - or indiscreet - there came a familiar scratch at the door, and Dex - in answer to his polite cough - was revealed, awkward in flannel pyjamas and dressing gown. He thrust himself back against the pillows, and tried to pretend he knew what to say. Dex could hardly have been unaware that he had been prepared to rip the airship from the sky, even once he was certain that Dex was aboard, rather than risk the weapon being deployed against his King. A man would be scarcely human who didn’t resent that.
Dex got in first, though.
“Have you heard about Charlie?”
A chopped nod - Joe didn’t think he could manage more. Heard? When he’d actually seen the Avro, agile and gallant, rear up between him and his certain death at the hands of the smug German manufacturer, and heard the cold clipped tones of the man at the controls as he made certain of his last kill in the only way he could?
Dex was holding out his arms to him, and, abruptly - a brief sharp pricking under his eyelids - Joe realised that Dex was being inconceivably generous; that he was genuinely confused about how matters had been, as far as he and Charlie had been concerned. With horrified realisation Joe wondered if even, perhaps, Dex thought Franks had been some sort of convenient camouflage for Joe’s real interest -
God! How wouldn’t Charlie - most conventional of men - who was not yet in his grave, let alone cold, have revolved at that thought -!
And then as he saw Dex’s stricken expression another thought took him, and his own arms were out, pulling Dex down into his bed and against his body, and stroking, kissing, reassuring. Answering the question that had not been asked.
He had been more unfair than he had realised, these last few years. Since Nanjing, Joe had both known and dodged the knowledge that Dex - the only person who had been able to get past the defences he had thrown up then - had performed flawlessly to support him, reassure him, never asking anything for himself but the right to be there the next time he needed to rest his whole weight upon him in order to continue.
He’d been too blind - too much of a coward - to realise that Dex had needed to him to show he knew it.
It was too late, of course, but nonetheless he let his hands convey his want and his apology as they played over Dex’s body.
“Nothing like that. Truly. We had to take out the ‘birds,” he breathed into Dex’s ear. “There was nothing you could do until we’d managed that. And we couldn’t have done it without Charlie. Red and I were outgunned today. Without Charlie there would have been a Fascist Government under a puppet king in Westminster tonight. Without Charlie - and without whatever it was you and the Shuttleworth kid did to make sure he could fly again - I’d have been dead tonight too. So don’t blame yourself. Understand?”
He pressed his index finger lightly against Dex’s protesting lips.
“Ssh. Charlie knew the score, long before he got in the air. That leg was getting worse, not better. The stump was ankylosing, and he’s been in chronic pain for the best part of two years now. Rhys let on. Oh, yes I know the rest, too - don’t tell me. He was in love with Helen. And she was fond of him - she’d have married him in a heartbeat if he’d ever asked. But she was his cousin, he was twenty years older than her and a cripple to boot. Charlie wasn’t planning to ask. And it’d have been another three and three quarter years until leap year - “
Dex turned in his arms, trying to ease his own pain against Joe’s shoulder in a frantic clasp. He returned it. But the situation demanded something more. Grown suddenly reckless, Joe breathed in Dex’s ear,
“And?” Dex turned towards him, puzzled. He made his face daring and alive.
“Well, I rather thought that you were volunteering to participate in an illegal practice. Given you’re naked -” he blessed his impulse to remove Dex’s dressing gown and pyjamas at the first opportunity - “in my bed, you know. Shouldn’t we be talking about the constitutional implications?”
Dex, bless him, was blindingly sharp on the uptake.
“Of committing an illegal act in a Royal Palace?”
His body was hot and close. Joe pulled him even closer.
“Have you ever read any British history? Where better for it than a Royal Palace? And anyway, why limit yourself to one? You think after today we don’t reckon we can count on a pardon for all our sins?”
“How many sins had you in mind?” Dex enquired.
Joe’s eyebrows lifted recklessly. “How many were you planning to stay awake for?”