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a comfortless well

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“Ladies, gentlemen, Bunbury.” Richard nodded gravely to the table. “We should take our leave as well. I apologize for any offense taken from intemperate and wine-induced words of my friends; I’m sure further apologies will be forthcoming.” He stood, making a silent plea that Dominic would follow his lead. “If you’ll excuse us. Good evening.”

He glanced at Dominic, who was still firmly seated. He had dropped his hands from his face, but he was still leaning heavily on the table, expression set.

“Dominic, will you join me?” Richard asked, voice light but his look as commanding as he could make it.

“No, thank you,” Dominic replied clearly.

Richard cursed him, silently but comprehensively. “Dominic,” he said, firm and warning.

They stared at each other for a long, too-long, moment. “Ladies, gentlemen,” Dominic said finally, voice perfectly polite but his gaze not leaving Richard’s. “If you’ll excuse me.” He stood, and Richard lead the way out, confident now that Dominic was following him.

They had to wait for the carriage to be brought around, and did so in silence. Richard could feel the anger radiating from Dominic, and was only thankful that he wasn’t loosing it with Bunbury’s servants in earshot. When the carriage did arrive, he let Dominic go ahead of him, pausing for a brief, low-voiced word with his driver before climbing inside. Dominic was already seated, eyes closed and forehead leaned against the edge of the window.

When he spoke, however, his voice was cold. “Don’t do that.”

Richard settled himself into the seat opposite as they began to move, bracing himself for a Dominic who was drunk, argumentative, and no longer constrained by an audience. “Do what?”

Dominic’s eyes opened, his gaze on Richard icy. “Call me to heel,” he said, each word clear and disdainful.

Richard sighed. “I apologize. I saw no other way of ending this perfectly atrocious evening, which I think we can agree was in everyone’s best interest.”

Dominic scoffed. “I was hardly the cause of its atrocity. Your blasted cousin--”

“I know,” Richard said. “I’m sure Julius has caught up to him by now, and I can assure you I will myself be impressing upon him with greatest force the need to keep quiet on the subject of politics.”

“And not only politics,” Dominic said darkly. He had sat up, and his eyes shone dangerously in the incidental streetlight that found its way through the carriage window. “What he said to me, on the subject of law-breaking--”

“I know,” Richard said, “I know.” The intemperance of it had shocked him; and scared him, too, more than he’d like to admit. “I’ll be having words with him about that, as well.”

“If we cannot trust him--”

“We can,” Richard said firmly. “He is new to our world, that is all. It’s his safety at stake, as well, and Julius’s.”

“And if the event at Quex’s last month is any indication, neither of them can be relied upon to keep their mouths shut.”

Richard sighed. “No harm was done, and none will be from this, either--I sincerely doubt his meaning occured to a single person at that table. Not to mention, he evidently went to visit that thrice-damned bookshop the other day--”

Dominic looked away. “I don’t want to know.”

“I’m only saying, I’ve no idea what that man Mason might have said to him. He may not be feeling any particular warmth for you at the moment.”

“Then be damned to him,” Dominic said harshly. “If he doesn’t know where his loyalties lie, then he doesn’t deserve to sit at that table in the first place. Let him try returning to that den of treason and filth for good, and see whose side he comes out on.”

Dominic’s tone was scathing, but his voice shook slightly. Richard found that his heart ached for him, despite everything: for all that Dominic’s troubles were of his own making, Richard could not help but feel regret for the confusion and anger and hurt he had seen roiling in him, these past few days. “Dom--”

“Don’t.” Dominic was staring fixedly out the carriage window, and as they drove past a streetlight his face was washed briefly by its glow, revealing every tense, exhausted line. “Don’t pity me, Richard.”

“I don’t,” Richard said, low and, he hoped, conciliatory.

Dominic gave him a look he couldn’t read; Richard could see only the movement of his head in the again-dim carriage interior. “Or condescend to me.”

Richard sighed. “I’m not. I do not understand what you’re going through--” Dominic made a sharp, uninterpretable sound “--but I understand that you are--hurt, and confused--”

Dominic made a easier-to-interpret sound at that, harsh and disparaging. “I’m not confused. I’ve never been less confused.” His voice was flat and bitter. “Harry wasn’t wrong, you know. The idea that somehow there is the law for us, and then the law for everyone else--”

“Dominic,” Richard said firmly. “Don’t start.”

“Why not?” Dominic asked, tone slightly wild. He was drunk, Richard reminded himself, and had just suffered a terrible, terribly personal blow. “The idea that personal morality can or should supercede the law of the land is a fallacy of the highest order. If everyone went around doing what they thought was right or justified, we’d have anarchy.”

“What we do affects no one but ourselves,” Richard said, keeping his voice low and even. How dare Dominic dredge this up, only because he was guilty and miserable and had no one to blame for it but himself. “Saying that in this case the law is wrong, does not mean that all laws are wrong.”

“Doesn’t it? Claiming that it’s our natural right to fuck each other--”

“Don’t be vulgar--”

“Speaking of rights like damned Jacobins--”

“It is not revolutionary to suggest that men have certain God-given, yes, natural rights,” Richard said, “nor seditious to say that what we choose to do, privately, with others who feel likewise, will not bring down the British state. I am done discussing this.”

Dominic closed his eyes, leaning back against the seat. After a moment, he said, low-voiced, “He was a great believer in rights, you know.”

It took a moment for Richard to understand who he was talking about; when he did, he felt a great, unnamable unease begin to bloom in his stomach. “I don’t want to hear this.”

“Not surprising, I suppose, since he was a Jacobin,” Dominic went on, as if he hadn’t heard Richard, or couldn’t stop himself; “or as good as. Endless discussion of rights--though he wouldn’t have agreed with you that they were God-given; he was an atheist to the core--

Stop,” Richard said, louder than he’d intended. “Dominic, stop it.”

Dominic fell silent, but Richard couldn’t see his face clearly in the darkness, couldn’t tell what he was thinking, and it made him uneasy. The silence sat in the carriage like a third passenger, the noise of the outside world distant and muffled.

“You knew,” Richard said finally. “Before you raided the shop. You knew what he was.”

“No,” Dominic said, his voice almost too quiet to hear over the rattle of the carriage wheels. “But--yes. I knew enough.”

“And yet you still met him, week after week.” Richard shook his head. “You were that--desperate?”

Dominic laughed, or at least Richard thought he did: it was a painful, choked sound. “It doesn’t matter. It’s done.”

“Yes,” Richard said, firm, and not a little relieved. It was discomforting to hear Dominic talk this way, as though he were still craving an assignation that had only just visibly brought his world crashing to pieces around him. And discomforting all the more, he thought, to know that Dominic had become somehow friendly with the man: enough to know his thoughts on philosophy, of all the damned things. It scared Richard, was the truth, nearly as much as when he had believed Dominic’s meetings had consisted only of the kind of violent, anonymous sex Richard had tried his best not to imagine. That this dark, hungry thing inside Dominic defied even the most unequivocal reason, that he would abandon every principle and ideal, everything that made him truly Dominic, just to feed it.

“Yes, it is,” Richard repeated himself. “Forget this, Dom, and forget him. We will fix this, and everything will return to the way it should be.”

“Yes,” Dominic said, his voice quiet and exhausted. “Of course, Rich.”

The carriage shuddered to a halt; in the moments before the footman came to open the door, Richard reached across the gap between them, and took Dominic’s hand, holding it tight for a moment before letting go again.

Dominic’s eyes opened, the startled, grateful look he gave Richard illuminated by the footman’s lantern as the carriage door swung open. That was enough, Richard thought: that was enough for tonight. Proof that Dominic could still be reached, that he was not so far gone that he could not be found, could not find himself, in the darkness.

“Will you come in with me?” Richard asked, quiet, from an impulse he couldn’t quite explain. “My driver will take you to your rooms, of course, if you wish, but. . . stay. I’ll have a room made up for you. Just for tonight.”

Dominic looked away, but not before Richard saw the line of his mouth break: as though he were about to weep. Richard felt his chest constrict, heartache and anxiety making themselves known in equal measure. He wanted Dominic near him, overwhelmingly: wanted to know where he was and what he was doing and who he was with. Wanted to know, to be able to assure, that he was safe.

But Dominic, who never allowed help, who had never let Richard aid him or care for him in any way, shook his head. “I can’t.”

Of course you can, Richard wanted to shout at him: there is nothing stopping you, nothing at all, but your own damnable stubbornness.

But he did not say it; he had spent so much of his life so hurt by Dominic’s refusal of him, over and over again, and he did not want to be hurt by it again tonight. Or, at least, he did not want to show it, wanted to remain the steady one, generous and sure.

“All right,” Richard said, evenly. But he hesitated, once more, before he left. “Be well, Dom,” he said finally, hoping, perhaps uselessly, that Dominic would understand.

“You too,” Dominic said, the corner of his mouth crooking up in what was perhaps supposed to be a smile.

“Yes. Good-night.”

“Good-night.”

Richard climbed out of the carriage, past the impassive footman, and said a quick word to his driver. Then he watched, silently, as the carriage door was shut and the horses spurred to action, and Dominic was carried away from him.