I bet you're eager for another chapter, right? I figured as much. I apologize for the current update schedule and I know that it will likely not improve much as I continue. Still, I'll keep writing and updating as long as people are interested. Time for a little educative info. Let's learn about corsets.
Corsets are not technically supposed to be as uncomfortable and hard to breathe in as everyone imagines. They were in most cases intended to serve as the equivalent of a bra or any other type of undergarment. The corset enabled the wearer to produce a form-fitted, moral, and fashionable appearance, indicating good breeding. Maintaining this level of appearance produced the impression of being upper-crust, enabling the wearer to appeal to a better class of husband and fit in with the desired social circle.
Yes, they would create more of an hourglass figure and encourage proper posture, but most only inhibited breathing and caused problems if they are improperly tightened. And if someone has been wearing the corset for years, then they'll be perfectly used to the normal level of tightness and would suffer no more problems than someone who regularly wears a bra in our era. Of course, if someone wanted to look thinner than they truly were…
There were variations, however, as time progressed so that some were more constricting than others. In fact, by the end of the Victorian era, people were starting to realize that over-tightening the corset was causing health problems and those who would subscribe to it were said to be slaves to fashion. This led to the introduction of the "Perfect Health" corset.
Generally, corsets of this time period used whale bones, and later steel and starch, in order to create the stiffness required for the supposed "I can't breathe" scenarios. During the 1890s, two fashionable styles were the corset waist and the extra long waist corset. The first was more flexible, used cording instead of whale bone, had shoulder straps, and was inexpensive and more popular with the working-class woman. The extra long waist corset was, as the name suggested, far longer. Often made of sateen, these corsets could also be embellished with decorative embroidery. It laces at the back and uses widely spaced clips on the front for fastening. This design also used a curved busk protector, additional pieces of whalebone inserted to the fabric of the busk (a particularly stiff section that, during this time was also converted into a buttoned or hooked front opening to the thing in case you didn't want to undo the lace to get out). Oddly, removable busks were considered gifts of endearment from men and were often carved with lines of poetry on them. Well, some guys today give their girlfriends sexy lingerie as gifts…
Okay, that's enough of that. On to the new chapter.
She'd nearly forgotten what hope felt like before the strange invisible man arrived and promised to rescue her. Charlotte stared at the door for quite some time after he left, trying to actually believe that there was a real chance of escape. This Mr. Skinner person might not be what she expected her savior to be, but it didn't matter. Something told her to trust his word.
She would escape this dark prison and return home. She would get to see the light of day again. She would be able to return to London, to see other people and hear the familiar sounds of civilization. She would be able to see her family home, to be welcomed back by the servants that were employed there, and sleep on a real bed again. There would be a warm and comforting greeting from her family. After all, her father contacted these people to rescue her in the first place. Victor would be distant probably and Father would undoubtedly show only a hint of the concern that would have spurred him into action, but Mother would welcome her back with open arms as long as it was a private affair. She would soon be safe. And she would be able to return and marry the Honorable Mr. Charles Ashmore.
She frowned briefly, curious why that last thought was not nearly as comforting as the others. She also found it odd that, even within her own mind, she preferred to think of him by his full name or just "Ashmore" rather than as Charles. After a moment, she dismissed it as a product of those wedding jitters that her peers would talk about and her time isolated in the dark cage. Surely she would become more enthusiastic and comfortable with the idea as her wedding day approached. For now, all that mattered was that she would get to experience that happy occasion. Her rescue was at hand.
A tiny voice in her head, the one that seemed more and more like Rodney advising her from beyond the grave, pointed out that there was still a chance that something could happen before Mr. Skinner could return. It wasn't a particularly reassuring thought, but that voice pointed out quickly that she could try and increase her odds of surviving until the rescue. If she could slow down or delay her captors from doing whatever that Mr. Morris was intending, that would give them more time to save her.
Initially, she was just as much at a loss of what she could do as before. Nothing in her entire life ever prepared her for facing kidnappers intending to carve out her heart. None of her lessons in etiquette would help her. So, she decided to once more draw upon her memory of Rodney. Just like how imitating his style of speaking managed to gain a reaction from her captors, he might just be able to help her again.
Her brother, who would sneak her out of their country home just to go play games that would have left her nurse scolding, was the answer. He'd tell her stories of knights saving damsels in distress or pirates that sailed the seas (though that tale gave her nightmares for a little while). Some of his games involved him fighting off imaginary foes with a stick for a sword, defeating the villain just in time to save the princess. These games weren't encouraged later on by her governess, who approved of more feminine pursuits. But a few scattered memories of her brother wielding improvised weapons in mock duels remained. And those memories started tugging at an idea that a proper lady would dismiss, but might actually give her a chance to stand up for herself.
Gaining access to her corset without removing her dress was a little tricky, but Charlotte was feeling rather motivated at the moment. The stiff fabric of the undergarment seemed rather solid as her fingertips explored in search of the edge. She knew that there were some models that were less constricting, but they were more common with those of the lower class. One of the reasons was due to them being cheaper to produce using cording. As the daughter of Lord Talbot and the future wife of the Honorable Mr. Ashmore, she wore one of the longer and more expensive styles. Hers still contained whale bone in order to retain the proper shape.
Locating the edge, the young woman began picking at it with her fingernails. She tugged at the threads, hoping to unravel the garment just enough to gain access to the whale bone inside. There were tales of some girls who would over tighten the garment and snap one of the pieces. Being stabbed by the piece of bone was a painful idea, but it didn't seem to stop those who were still slaves of fashion. And if she could remove part of one of those whale bones inside her corset, she might at least have a small weapon to keep her captors at bay. They wouldn't expect such an action, especially after all this time as their prisoner. It might just be enough to buy her extra time for Mr. Skinner and his companions to rescue her.
There were untold numbers of mysteries in the world, some more amazing than others. He knew he'd learned more of those strange secrets in his long life than most people would even dream of. But even his years of experience couldn't prepare him for all of the oddities of the world. He'd adapted to being on a team with an invisible man, a pirate, an immortal, a vampire, and the intriguing Mr. Hyde, yet there were still surprises within the League for him to discover. Regardless, Allan was willing to discover the truth behind these new mysteries, even if it was something as unimaginable as Skinner being the son of a baron.
Sawyer had been the one to give a rather short and basic explanation of the thief's childhood and the events that brought them to their current location. He tried to keep it quick, though. The blond young man was also trying to keep an ear open to Skinner as the invisible man worked out a sketch of what he'd observed of the layout and reported everything that Morris said. By the point where he finished, every member of the League was beginning to look and sound tired. Considering they'd been apparently on the move since the day before, already fought one battle against magically-empowered villagers, and would soon be facing another fight undoubtedly during the rescue attempt, Allan suggested they move to a more easily-defended location so they could try to get some rest while he kept watch. When both the invisible thief and Sawyer tried to argue, he firmly pointed out that they needed to be at their best if they wanted to succeed and they grudgingly surrendered.
One of Nemo's men also remained awake to help keep watch and would likely be relieved at some point to ensure that none of them would be tired when they started the rescue attempt, but he was far enough away to allow Allan to be alone with his thoughts. The crew of the Nautilus was reliable as ever it would seem. Apparently at least some things never changed. And he didn't know if he was happy about that fact.
It was like he never left the League. He knew that slipping back into his old position would be far too simple. None of them would hesitate to welcome him back and part of him wanted nothing more than to continue with the adventures they were certain to attract. But he was old and he survived enough such ventures to satisfy even the most foolhardy of men. He would help the League with their current problem; he owed them that much. He wouldn't, however, rejoin. They were the future, a new generation for the new century. And he was merely a relic of the past that refused to let go.
"Why is it I keep finding people brooding like this?" asked Sawyer, startling Allan slightly out of his thoughts and surprising him with how little he was observing his immediate surroundings. "Is this some type of revenge for all 'moping' that Skinner kept complaining about?"
"You should be resting, boy," the old hunter pointed out.
He shrugged slightly as he sat down and stared out across the sun-baked landscape, "I did. For a while. I suppose the fact Skinner is actually sleeping instead of pacing around is a minor miracle, though." He glanced behind him for a moment before continuing, "I just woke up and couldn't fall back asleep. And if I'm going to be awake anyway, I might as well help keep watch."
When Sawyer fell silent, Allan took a moment to study the American. His earlier assessment that nothing had changed might not be completely true. He still held that wide-eyed optimism, though perhaps tempered by experience and loss. But there was a maturity to the blond young man that wasn't there before. He was growing up in subtle ways. The potential that led to the old man taking Sawyer under his wing in the first place was still there and something told him that it would certainly be fulfilled. Somehow, these observations left him feeling rather proud of the blond young man.
After several minutes of silence, Allan finally closed his eyes and said, "Go ahead. I know you've wanted to ask it since I showed up and you've been avoiding it so far. Ask the question."
"Why didn't I let you know what happened after you returned me to Africa?" He shook his head slightly, "A number of reasons, though most of them are of no real consequence except to me. Mostly I felt it was best for everyone if they forgot about me and moved on."
"Forget you? Do you honestly believe that there is a single member of this League who could forget you?"
"Fine. If not forget, they could at least look to the future instead of the past. I've served my purpose and lived my life to the fullest, Sawyer. I helped ensure that peace will exist for this world a little longer. I've gone far beyond my prime, meaning I shall only become less useful with time. Everything I wish to accomplish has been achieved." In a mildly softer voice, he added, "I've even managed to have a legacy to continue after I'm gone." Allan glanced briefly at the young man before stating, "My life has reached its conclusion. I'm just too stubborn to stay in my grave yet."
"Does this have anything to do with what you told Nemo about old tigers? Because I would expect you to keep fighting, not give up on the remainder of your life like this," Sawyer remarked, gaining a slightly dangerous edge to his voice.
"Just because I am no longer charging straight into danger in an attempt to go out in a blaze of glory does not mean I am giving up."
"Then why didn't you contact us? Because you knew we would invite you back and you wouldn't be able to say 'no' to the offer. Now at first glance that sounds like you're done with the action, but you're out here hunting for monsters and evil that Rasul said was wandering around. You can't turn your back on adventure or the hunt, Quatermain." Quieter, he added, "You don't turn your back on that. Only us."
Even a blind man could see that the American didn't mean turning his back so much on the League as he meant turning his back on Sawyer. And Allan was far from blind. He placed a hand on the young man's shoulder.
"I'm old. My reflexes aren't quite as sharp as before and I need glasses for my long-distance shots. The dangers of the world aren't going to get any easier."
"So you're just going to give up? Fine, we'd understand. There's nothing wrong with retiring. But you still could have sent a message that you were alive. You should have at least done that much."
"Sawyer, you might be better with a gun than in the past, but you're making up for it by firing your mouth too soon. Let me finish." He waited a moment to see if the young man would obey the instruction before continuing, "I've died once and I'm living on borrowed time now. Next time I meet death, it will be final and it'll undoubtedly be soon enough. I've buried far too many friends. And family." Allan stopped, staring firmly into the young man's eyes. "That is suffering I would wish on no one, but I've inflicted it upon you once already for my sake. Do not ask me to be so cruel as to make any of you go through my death a second time."
Before the young man could react, the old hunter turned his gaze back towards his surroundings in at least an attempt to appear to be keeping watch. He knew the pain of loss, of standing helpless while someone died in your arms and there was nothing you could do to stop it. He remembered Harry's death vividly as if it was only yesterday that he held his son during his final moments. He was also quite aware that his own demise placed Sawyer in that same situation. Allan did not intend to do that to the American a second time nor would he put anyone else in the League in that position. He also didn't want to be the one holding the blond young man as he died someday, but that was of a lesser concern since it was far more likely that the old hunter would return to his grave soon. There had been enough pain already. He didn't want to make them go through it again.
After several moments of silence, he began to believe that the conversation was over. Then Sawyer scratched the back of his head and started speaking again.
"I guess you never found out how I ended up at knife-point… back in Mongolia. Remember when we were separated because I bumped into Skinner and told you to keep going?"
"I do seem to recall that," he nodded.
"Well, it turned out not to be him. One of M's men managed to turn himself invisible and ended up being a real problem to deal with. I couldn't shoot him since I couldn't see him and just when I managed to deal with him, things got worse. This man, covered in metal, stepped into view with a weapon that shot out flames and I barely avoided being burned alive as he trapped me in a corner. The only reason I wasn't killed right then was Skinner. Somehow he showed up and stabbed the container for that weapon, telling me to run." He paused before shaking his head, "I wasn't hurt, but he was set on fire saving me. The other invisible man caught me when I tried to help Skinner. And after… everything else happened that day, getting back to him through the rubble caused by the explosions was tricky. When Henry saw him, and you could actually see some of him since the burns on his body was so bad, everyone could tell that he wasn't in good shape and that the doctor knew how slim his chances were. But even if he probably wasn't going to survive, we couldn't leave him behind."
"But he did live, obviously."
"Only because our doctor is a miracle worker, though he's too modest to admit it. And do you know what the first thing Skinner told me once he started healing?" When Allan shook his head, Sawyer said, "He told me to stop apologizing for everything and that it wasn't my fault. He told me that if he was crazy enough to get set of fire saving my neck, then it was his responsibility. And he's been making sure I don't forget that ever since."
"I assume you're telling me his for some reason other than merely to describe what occurred after my death."
"I am," he nodded. "The League is made up of extraordinary people, but none of us are immortal. At least we aren't since Dorian was killed, though Mina is fairly close. And we spend our time in dangerous situations in most cases. Dying and losing members will always be a possibility, but we'll face it together. We look out for each other, even if it means suffering for our decisions. That's what families do and, after everything we've gone through together, the League is definitely a family."
Allan stared at the blond young man a moment, causing Sawyer to duck his head briefly. He found it curious that Sawyer would say such a thing, especially considering how often the old hunter tried not to continuously compare him to Harry. Admitting that he sometimes thought fondly of the American as another son was difficult, even if he was only admitting it to himself.
Sawyer clarified, "That's the funny thing about families. They aren't always who you'd think. I should know. I was raised by my Aunt Polly and I wasn't the only child in the household, but there was another boy I knew that was my brother in all but blood. He was the sort of person I would trust my life to without hesitation. He wasn't related to me, but he was family. He was certainly a better brother to me than some people are to their blood relatives. Look at Skinner. He'd beat up his father if given the chance and with good reason. But he's risk his neck for me without even thinking about it. And Edward fought to protect Mina yesterday when those villagers got a lucky hit and you died to save me in Mongolia. That's what family is. They're the ones you can depend on and who will stand beside you, regardless of whose blood you share. They've got your back and you'll guard theirs. The price of family, though, is the pain you feel when you lose it." He stopped a moment, his expression stubborn, before adding, "I don't know about you, but I'm willing to pay that price. I know it'll be painful if Skinner dies. Or Mina. Or Nemo. Or Henry and even Edward. But I'd rather run that risk and the risk of hurting them in turn if I die. The only other option is to abandon them and I won't do that. And if the price to have you back in the League is watching you get hurt or die again, I'll do it gladly. But that doesn't mean we won't fight to keep you alive as long as possible."
Staring at him closely, Allan remarked slowly, "I've heard men speak passionately about Queen and Country enough times that such speeches bore me more often than they motivate me. Such loyalty to a 'noble cause' can grow tiresome on the ears. But you've always been rather talented at capturing my attention and… you're right. There is always a risk of hurting those important to you and being hurt in return. But that is no excuse to let such a risk dictate your life and I've never been one to shrink away from a challenge merely because of the danger." He smirked briefly, "Rasul implied that spending my final days lounging around Africa alone was not what I was meant for and that I needed a new purpose. I guess rejoining the League is as good a plan as any."
"Wonderful," Skinner's voice remarked from an empty space to the right of Allan, startling the older man slightly. "Glad to have you aboard once more."
"How long have you been listening?" asked Sawyer quickly, spinning to face the source of the voice.
"Long enough to wonder if I'd have to knock some sense into the both of you if you kept moping around," he answered casually. "Not to mention the fact that our dear Tom seems to like giving those motivational speeches that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Ain't it precious?" When Sawyer swung an arm in the invisible man's general direction, Skinner added, "The others should be waking up soon and then we can start planning properly. Not to mention you can tell them that all our freaky darlings will be back on the Nautilus together again."
"Skinner," Allan began calmly. "I believe I was quite clear in the past about being clothed at all times and what would occur otherwise. That threat is still in place. Put something on now."
Sleep was supposed to be calming. It offered an opportunity to forget your troubles for a time and to gather your strength to face a new day. And while dreams and nightmares might visit the mind during this time, there are those who claimed that an innocent man will always rest easy and only a guilty one will find his sleep plagued by horrors.
Of course, Henry knew he was not truly an innocent man as long as Edward was part of him. Perhaps his other half was improving, but there was still plenty of blood on Edward's hands. And those hands would become Henry's once the formula wore off. Though nightmares were common enough during the time when Edward was at his most active and violent, the combination of joining the League and the mellowing of his alternate personality greatly diminished the frequency and intensity of such things. Monsters now rarely stalked his dreams and whispered horrific ideas to his sleeping mind; he generally experienced enough such events in his waking life whenever he caught a glimpse of a reflective surface.
But on the rare occasion when such comments growled from a mirror were not enough, Edward would drag him into the neutral territory of dreams so they could speak face to face. Generally, he did not use such a technique, satisfied to insult and distract during daylight hours and to leave the doctor at the mercy of whatever nightmares might appear. The reprieve from his other half while he slept was often a blessing. In the rare meeting between the two in the mind, Henry was rarely left at ease. He always feared awakening to learn that Edward took control somehow during the night. Even the improving relationship between the two halves didn't completely banish that dread.
The mental landscape, in the past, tended to appear like the streets of London on a foggy night. It was always dark, always deserted other than the two of them, and it was always a familiar street. Sometimes it was the one Henry grew up on, sometimes the one he moved to when he began his practice, and sometimes it was one where Edward murdered someone. Regardless, the location for these meetings was always a familiar one.
This time, however, Henry didn't find himself standing in the streets of London as he faced the hulking figure of Edward. Instead, they were in the bright hallways of the Nautilus. A curious change, but he couldn't focus very long on the issue since Edward was staring at him.
"I am growing weary of this, Henry," he growled, looming over him and taking up a large portion of the hallway. "For a moment, we were united. We both wanted something and you took action. It was such a sweet victory, though not as challenging a sport as I prefer. And to the victors go the spoils. She isn't a prize that you toss on a shelf, but one you must continue to prove worthy of. The best kind of prize of all. A dangerous predator that hunts victims in the night." He grinned briefly in what might almost be called a thoughtful manner before snapping, "But you're ruining it. After you fought for her, you intend to pull away again? You're giving up. How spineless can you act? I know you can do better than that. I refuse to let you destroy our chances. You can't go back to calling her 'Mrs. Harker' and keeping your distance."
"She deserves better than us," Henry snapped back. "Better than me. I won't ask any woman to be involved with a monster. And I'm just as much a monster as you. You came from me, after all."
"She is not just any woman. She's a monster as well, just one who is as beautiful as she is dangerous. But we are better monsters than some," he stated. "Besides, she's far less fragile than most women. I'd have some trouble breaking her apart like a porcelain doll." He stepped forward, "Admit what you want for once in your life, Henry. Don't just let her get snatched up by someone else just because you're too much of a coward."
"I can't do that to her. I can't ask her to settle for anything less than what she deserves."
"Can't or won't? Remember, if you don't take action before I grow bored or if you keep backing away from her, I'll deal with her on my own."
A spark of courage made the doctor step forward and glare at the looming figure, saying quickly, "You will do no such thing. You can help protect her and the rest of the League, but you will not try to make her yours. You won't do or say anything that could ruin this. If you do, I'll step off the Nautilus and never go near the sea again. I'll march straight into the darkest jungle, away from any other human being, and keep walking until there is no possible way to gain access to the ingredients for the elixir. I'll vanish from society and leave you trapped in my head for the rest of our lives, even if you try to drive me mad." Not surrendering even the slightest, he took another step forward and stated firmly, "She's not ours."
Edward tilted his head slightly in response to the display, "How peculiar. You'll fight to protect her, even from ourselves. And yet you refuse to fight for her. I'd say your newfound spine needs a little adjustment. Why won't you just give up and let us try to have the beautiful and deadly Mina? It would be easier than continuing this fight and I know you want her."
"Because," he stated quietly, his moment of actual willpower fading towards his more usual temperament, "if you love someone, it is sometimes best to let them go." He was silent for several moments before adding cautiously, "Once, I wouldn't have considered it possible for you. But you've changed since I first took the formula. You love her too. Perhaps in a different, more aggressive way than what I feel for her, but a form of love none the less. That's why you keep pushing me to take action. You want her, but you know that you won't win her heart with violence and pain." When the hulking figure didn't immediately dismiss the doctor's words, he said, "Edward, we have to let her go."
As the white hallways of the Nautilus dissolved away, Henry realized he was waking up. He opened his eyes to see Nemo shaking his shoulder. It only took a moment for the doctor to recall where he was.
"Quatermain suggested that we should begin planning the attack now if we're to finish in time," the captain informed him.
Henry nodded his understanding and began climbing to his feet. It was curious that he could recover so quickly from a prolonged conversation with his other half, even if it felt that such a discussion should be exhausting at times and certainly should leave him emotionally drained. It was nearly as curious as how quickly the League recovered from the shock of their lost member's return to the land of the living.
He caught a glimpse of Mina as she moved to join the rest of the group with planning. She was scowling slightly in response to the African sunlight that tried to blind them. Even her less-than-happy expression made her still look beautiful.
Look, but don't touch. That was all he would ever be able to do.
The conversation between Allan and Tom needed to happen eventually. It isn't nice to refuse to call your friends and mention your resurrection, after all. And the continuing problems between Henry and Edward in regards to Mina… Man, you got to feel bad for him some days.
The rescue attempt should be quickly approaching. Everyone loves a good action scene. I hope you don't mind the wait though. And remember that feedback makes writers happy.