DISCLAIMER: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by Barbara Hambly and by Bantam Books. No money is being made and no copyright infringement is intended.
Posted by: Elspethdixon
Pairing: Shaw/January (mentions of January/Rose and January/Hannibal).
Yuletide Challenge fic written for Torch.
Dans le Défit de la Coutume
(In Defiance of Custom)
The hurricane of two days ago had washed New Orleans clean, leaving the pastel buildings of the wealthy Creoles pale and glowing and turning the streets and gutters in the faubourg of St. Marie into great morass of mud that for once was free of trash, dead animals, and the effluvia of emptied chamber pots. It was clean mud, smelling of dirt, and green things, and the fishy taint of the river.
It would return to its usual state soon enough, but for now January was enjoying the rare luxury of walking the streets without worrying about just what he might be getting on his shoes.
Ahead of him, Lieutenant Abishag Shaw of the New Orleans city guard limped along slowly, one hand pressed to his right side while the other steady the immensely long Kentucky rifle slung over his left shoulder. January would have carried it for him had he been able to, but of course, that would have been illegal; New Orleans city ordinances forbade slaves and free coloured from carrying firearms. And so Shaw was left to struggle with the rifle despite his bullet-gouged side and broken ribs, still oozing blood from where a rebel slave's bullet had taken him in the side at the Avocet plantation.
They had returned from their excursion down river only this morning, huddled in the back of Cut-Nose Chighizola's pirogue with Rose and Dominique, and Shaw had insisted upon going straight to the Cabildo to make a report to Captain Tremouille. He had asked January to come with him, to write and sign his own statement detailing how he had witnessed Annette Avocet's attempt to murder an officer of the law with a pen knife. Tremouille had listened to this, and to Shaw's explanation of how Mademoiselle Avocet had killed her brother in an attempt to gain possession of the inheritance that would have otherwise belonged to him, with an expression of utmost calm on his aquiline face. Tremouille's lips had tightened with disapproval when the Kaintuck had reached the portion of the story where Annette attempted to evade arrest by trying to stab him to death, but he had clearly been far more interested in hearing what his Lieutenant had to say about the Avocet slaves' rebellion. Shaw, utterly straight-faced, had assured his superior that all of the rebels had drowned in the storm. Yes, every single one of them. "It's purely amazin' how deadly these hurry-canes can be, sir. Now about Miss Avocet, iff'n you could see fit to issue me a warrant..."
Tremouille, unsurprisingly, had refused, telling Shaw to go home and rest, that there would be time enough to deal with the Avocet case later. Arresting a Creole lady of good family was not something one did lightly, and certainly not a task one left in the hands of a filthy, blood-stained, tobacco-chewing Kaintuck. If Annette Avocet were indeed to be taken into custody, January knew it would be Creole officers who made the arrest. If she were arrested at all.
Annette Avocet, safe behind the protection of her family's wealth and status, would not be found guilty of her brother's murder, and most especially would not be convicted on the say so of a Kaintuck police lieutenant and a coloured musician. It was not, he reflected, the custom of the country.
Shaw knew it too, despite his confident request that January repeat his statement at Annette's trial. There was a slump to his bony shoulders as he trudged down the muddy street to his boarding house, seemingly oblivious to January's presence behind him.
When the two of them reached the ramshackle clapboard building Shaw called home, the policeman stepped aside to let January in first, registering no surprise at the sight of the medical bag January had had Rose fetch from his own lodgings. "You goin' to come up an' doctor me some more, Maestro?" he asked. He shook his head, and grinned that gargoyle grin. "I might've guessed. Damned if I've met another man more given to worryin' at people."
"I like to make certain the people I doctor heal properly," January returned. "Call it professional pride."
Shaw shrugged, winced as the movement pulled at his broken ribs, and followed January up the rickety stairs to his rooms.
This wasn't the same boarding house Shaw had been staying in two years ago, when January had burst into his room in the middle of the night with slave stealers on his heels, but the sparsely furnished bedroom the other man waved him into was almost identical to the previous one. There was the same narrow bed draped in the neatly tied back mosquito netting that no sane person in Louisiana went without, the same battered chair that served as both seat and bedside table, the same row of wooden packing crates pressed into use as shelving, storing the same motley collection of books and weapons. On second thought, January decided, taking in the vast assortment of slung-shots, knives, pistols, and loose rifle cartridges, perhaps there were more weapons. Shaw appeared to collect them the way Rose and Hannibal collected books.
Shaw hung his rifle on the pegs driven into the wall over the bed for that very purpose and collapsed onto the mattress with a groan, sprawling across it like an angular marionette whose strings had been cut. "Remind me to keep my nose out of slave uprisings in the future, Maestro."
January said nothing. He set his bag on the chair and rotated his shoulder carefully, feeling the pull of torn and bruised muscles. After he finished seeing to Shaw, he would go and get his sister Olympe to take a look at it. And what would she have to say about his involvement, peripheral as it was, in thwarting the Avocet slaves' rebellion? Keep your mouth shut until the storm's gone by, she had told him, eyes inscrutable and serpent-dark. And January had. If he had done otherwise, he might have been able to keep Rose and Dominique out of danger, kept his pregnant sister and the woman he loved from being chased through the bayou by the rebels while the Mississippi did its best to overflow its banks and sweep them all away. And Olympe would have looked at him with contempt in her eyes and been silent.
She would have something to say about Captain Gambi's treasure, too, and about the gold ring Rose now wore on her left hand. You think if you got enough money, les blankittes will leave you alone? Let you go about your business? You think it was really the gold that made her agree to marry you?
Marry him. January could feel himself smiling at the thought, at the memory of the light sparkling in Rose's hazel eyes as she slipped the ring, still damp and gritty with mud from its long immersion in the bayou, onto her finger. Finding the gold had had nothing to do with her answer, but shaking off the constant threat of poverty had finally given him the ability to ask her the question.
"I'll need to heat some water to clean that wound," January said, breaking himself out of his reverie by an effort of will.
Shaw, lying with one grimy arm slung across his eyes, took a moment to answer. "I been soaked in enough water over the past few days to drown a fish. It ought to be clean enough."
January didn't argue the point, but set a pan of water to heating anyway, balancing it atop the rusty iron stove that squatted in the corner of the room. He had to light a fire inside first, and breathed a prayer of thanks that the wood stacked beside it had already dried from any soaking it had received during the storm.
Shaw didn't move the entire time the water was heating. January assumed the other man had fallen asleep, but when he finally removed the pan of now-warm water from the stove and approached the bed to wake him up, both grey eyes blinked open and squinted at him. "All right then," Shaw grunted, and sat up, peeling off his shirt to expose a bony torso mottled with green and purple bruising. He held out his hand for the washrag, and January shook his head.
"Lie back down and let me do it."
Shaw slumped back down onto his elbows and held still, watching with a kind of detached interest as January began to peel the bedraggled lengths of bandaging away from his injured ribs. When the inner-most layer, stiff with dried blood, pulled reluctantly away from the bullet wound beneath, he didn't even flinch, further strengthening January's half-superstitious suspicion that the Kaintuck was possessed of inhuman powers of endurance.
As he sponged away the dried blood, January could see that the wound was already partially closed, its edges the healthy pink of healing flesh. It was the shallow slash left by Annette Avocet's penknife that was healing badly, a thin red line across the pale skin of Shaw's chest. January could tell that the cut was going to leave a worse scar than the bullet wound, for all that it was the less serious injury.
"You goin' to stitch me up?" Shaw asked, only the faintest of catches in his raspy voice betraying the pain caused by January's ministrations.
"I shouldn't need to, sir" January said. "Everything seems to be closing well enough on its own, though you'll want to keep an eye on that knife wound."
"I like to introduce Miss Avocet to Kentucky Williams some day. It's a toss up as to which of 'em would win."
"My money would be on Kentucky," January said.
"Likely you're right." Shaw shrugged, and January set a hand on his shoulder to keep him still. "I've seen her take on three riverboat men together an' send 'em all away limpin' and groanin'."
Mademoiselle Avocet," January said wryly, "would not soil the blade of her knife with the blood of a riverboat man."
"Don't be too sure of that," Shaw told him.
January didn't answer, simply kept the washrag moving, shifting from the two wounds themselves to the expanse of pale, scarred skin around them. Shaw closed his eyes and sighed, relaxing under the touch in a way that he probably would not have done were he not already tired and in pain. He wasn't, January knew, a man who let his guard down often.
Shaw was nearly as thin as Hannibal, his ribs prominent beneath his skin and his collarbones sharp as blades, but there was a wiry strength in his long, angular frame that the Irish violinist lacked. January had seen him fire a rifle one-handed like a revolver once, something that ought by rights to have shattered his wrist, and then shrug off the recoil, reload, and fire again.
By the time Shaw's entire torso was scrubbed clean, the water in the pan was cold and clouded with dirt, and Shaw was sprawled out limply with his eyes half-lidded, like a half-feral hound warily allowing itself to be petted. And then January swiped the wet rag lower, across the concave hollow of his stomach, and the Kaintuck's bony hand shot up and caught his wrist.
"Iff'n I were you, Maestro," he said softly, eyes still nearly shut, "I'd stop there. I'm not 'xactly that fiddler of yours."
January blinked, honestly confused, and then his eyes moved downward, past Shaw's battered-but-clean torso and lower, and he understood. For one horrible, embarrassed moment, he was torn between protesting that his and Hannibal's friendship wasn't like that at all, and apologising, though he wasn't sure for what. For possibly the first time ever, he was glad that his complexion was far too dark to permit him to blush.
"My apologies-" he was flustered enough that it actually came out in French, rather than the English he and Shaw had been speaking.
"For?" Shaw opened his eyes and raised pale eyebrows. "I'm not sayin' I mind. Just that it ain't a good idea." Il n'est-pas une bonne idée.
January could have corrected him, explained that he had meant nothing untoward at all, but he could see a peculiar empty look in the other man's eyes, grey as rainwater, and something about that and the way those long, rough fingers gripped his wrist-infinitely gently, when he knew Shaw could snap bone with them-made him change his mind.
Feeling as if the door were about to swing open any second to reveal a shocked and indignant landlady, January reached up and brushed a handful of straight, colourless hair out of Shaw's face, and tugged his wrist free of Shaw's hold ever-so-carefully. Ignoring the little voice in his head that whispered that this was wrong, so wrong, a betrayal of Rose and a sin against God-whose God? A different voice that sounded like Olympe murmured-he reached down and unfastened the button at the waistband of Shaw's trousers, and slid his hand inside.
"I will be damned," Shaw said, some time later, "iff'n I can figure why Sefton took it into his head to absquatulate with that opera singer."
January, who had long since given up wondering why Hannibal did anything, shrugged slightly, trying not to wince as his shoulder protested the movement. There would be new bruises there now, small points of tender flesh left by Shaw's fingers, but oddly, it seemed to hurt less. "What does that have to do with..." he trailed off, then said, "Things weren't like that, with Hannibal."
And they hadn't been. It was only now, as he sat on the edge of Shaw's far-too-narrow-for-two-people bed and tried not to think too hard about the past half-hour or so, that he wondered why they hadn't been.
"Oh. Sorry." Shaw yawned, and handed January his shirt. January took it, put it back on, and buttoned the collar. "I always sort of assumed..."
"I'm beginning to think I've been doing too much assuming." January hesitated, not sure how to broach the subject of leaving, and then settled for simply standing and laying one hand on Shaw's bony shoulder for a moment. "Rose will be waiting for me," he said, then added, "I should come back in a few days to check on those ribs."
"Thanks, Maestro," Shaw said. His voice was light, but his eyes, where they met January's-and even that was a violation of custom, a black man looking a white man in the eye-were serious and a little sad. They both knew he was speaking of more than just the bandaging.
"Don't mention it," January said, then added, "sir," almost as an afterthought. The word seemed a silly thing to use between them at this point, and not simply because of what had just happened between them. Friends rarely needed titles.
"I won't." Shaw grinned, baring tobacco stained teeth. "Iff'n you're smart as I think you are, you'll write to Sefton. Tell him how things stand with you an' Miss Vitrac."
"Hannibal," January said grimly, "is going to laugh himself sick when he hears about this whole thing. The entire affair belongs in an Anne Radcliff novel." Or possibly in The Monk. The whole mess of murder and conspiracy would have been right at home in William Gregory Lewis's ridiculously sensational novel, the leprous Duquille and his sons providing a generous serving of the grotesque.
"Write to him," Shaw went on, as if January had not spoken, "and I guarantee you that opera gal he ran off with won't have a chance."
January nodded, but when he wrote days later he described Minou's baby, and how Rose was setting up a school once more with the money gained by selling Gambi's treasure, and how the two of them had been married on the twenty-fifth of the month, only five hours after little Charmian Viellard made her entrance into the world. He didn't say, "You and Rose are as different as Bach and Beethoven," or "Your eyes are the same colour Ayasha's were," and he certainly didn't say, "Come back to New Orleans before Rose and I both go mad missing you."
When he and Rose said their vows early that Autumn morning, Shaw, for once clean-shaven and wearing a freshly washed shirt, stood silently at the rear of the church, hanging back from the collection of free coloured musicians and places (friends of Dominique's and Livia's) who filled the pews. Aside from the priest, he was the only white man there.