When he was a child, Charles Shrubbery III had been an observer.
He sat and watched, and not gotten involved in anything until he had to. When there was a coup being planned in The Family, when Charlie’s father was in danger, he took action and became more than the boy with the wide, attentive eyes who watched idly as everything happened before him.
The day that Dominic was killed, Charlie became a true member of The Family. He was complicit. He became his father’s eyes, watching for any signs that something was amiss. As he grew older, he helped maneuver business deals by advising who to trust and who to kill.
Any time he thought of lying, any time he thought of defecting the same way Dominic had, he remembered that night—his own reflection, blood splattered across the other side of his window, and his face, guiltless.
He remembered how Dominic had always stopped to say hello to him when he was at the estate. How Dominic had been loyal. Something had happened while Charlie was away at school, and he only came back to see the marked change in Dominic, the shifty way he looked, the way he overcompensated his reservations to seem like he wasn’t nervous at all, even when he should have been at least a little bit.
Everybody had a tell, and Dominic’s was tapping the knuckles of his hand with the other. Charlie knew that Dominic knew it, knew to still it.
Dominic had taught him to play poker. It was one time when Charlie was at the estate on a break from school, and his parents were in America. Dominic sat across from him, holding his cards in both hands as he watched Charlie over them. He tapped his knuckles. He’d been doing it all game and the motion was standout compared to the rest of the tension at the table.
Dominic’s fingers stopped.
He smiled behind curtained bangs and reached across to ruffle Charlie’s hair.
He dropped the cards between them—a pair of sevens.
Charlie had three of a kind. He looked between Dominic and the cards. “You bluffed,” he realized.
Dominic smiled again, tapped his fingers to his knuckles. “Couldn’t help it the first couple rounds,” he admitted. “But I felt you watching me. I knew I could use it to my advantage.”
Charlie nearly pouted. “One more round.”
Dominic stood up and started packing up the cards. “Sorry, Charlie. I’ve got work to do for your father. We’ll play next time.”
Then Dominic swept his coat over the gun holster around his shoulders and went to work.
If Charlie had been, for lack of better terms, a “normal” child, Dominic would have been a wonderful uncle, he thought often to himself. He had been good at his job, was kind to The Family, was and unfailing in his loyalty. Charlie had thought of him fondly until the plot to kill his father.
When his father executed Dominic outside his window that night, Charlie’s ideas of his father changed as well. His father, who had rarely been home, who had never paid any attention to Charlie until that night, who had never thought of him except as an heir to the dynasty he was building. Charlie’s father had always been The Father—he was always cold, always gone. A responsible man who did what he needed to do for The Family, even if it meant killing his right hand who had been with him for over 20 years.
It hadn’t bothered Charlie until he saw the pride, the expectation, in his father’s eyes. Because along with that expectation came a threat. Even if he was his biological son, he could die just as easily as Dominic had right outside his window.
Blood meant nothing in The Family. He had heard people say it, had known it in his head as a fact to be true. But now, with his father’s newfound faith in him, he saw it.
He saw it when he stood at his father’s side during Family business meetings once he was old enough. When there was a gun pointed at his head and his father did nothing, because he had said something out of turn, and maybe he deserved this.
He saw it when Ray groveled at his father’s feet for a mistake, hands pressed together in a prayer. He had lost two fingers on his left hand for his part in Dominic’s mutiny. This time, he had killed the wrong person—the son of an influential aristocrat in Belgium.
“Is he lying?” his father asked Charlie.
Nothing was there but the overwhelming presence of fear of his father. Ray was an idiot. A follower with a bad temper. He went where he thought people would protect him.
“Yes,” Charlie said. “He has bruises on his hands from fighting. He reeks of alcohol. This was a barfight, not a political move.”
His father cocked his head to look at him, still half a head taller than Charlie was. Still immaculately dressed, as harsh and calculative as ever, as he pulled the trigger and shot Ray in the head.
Blood splattered across his father’s room behind Ray’s body as it slumped on the ground.
Charlie watched his father for the next move, stilling every movement of his own. Charlie watched him as he set the cooling gun down on his desk. As he stepped around the body to pour himself a drink. Only disgust in his eyes as he started down at the body staining his carpet.
“It was either him or you,” his father said. “And you had to go and tell the truth.”
There was blood on the glass as his father sipped vintage scotch.
“What am I supposed to do in a situation like that, huh?” his father asked. “It’s tough.”
He saw his reflection in the glass his father held.
“I couldn’t kill my very own son, now could I?”
He could have. His father could have—and would have—killed him.
This was a warning.
Was it the same for Dominic? He wondered. Is that why he had wanted to overthrow him all those years ago?
But you killed him. Dominic wanted to kill your father. He would not have wanted the same for you.
No, he didn’t kill Dominic, he tried to think.
But it was your direct interference that led to his death. His blood is on your hands. And now so is Ray’s.
His father stepped over the dead body between them and headed to the door. “Sometimes you have to make a choice, Charles,” he said, patting him with a heavy hand on the shoulder.
You could do it so much better.
Dominic would not have had a reason to betray you.
You would know how to handle Ray.
No—Ray was always a pain. He would have ended up dead on somebody’s floor, sooner or later.
And he was on yours. Your hands are already bloody.
You could be at the top. You could lead. You could—
He grabbed the gun from his father’s desk.
Charlie pointed the gun.
Do it. Make the decision.
He pulled the trigger.
And he ran. The house had been empty. It would be a few days before his father was found, before news started to circulate. His father had asked for a few days of privacy to handle the Ray matter, and everybody knew to stay away instead of getting in the way of his ruthless anger.
Charlie stopped by a safehouse—the nanny in service of The Family when he was younger. She got him some fresh clothes and a bed for the night and that was it. She knew better than to ask questions.
In the morning, she sent him on his way. He was in trouble—the voices in his head never paused to remind him. If he had stayed, he would be safe.
It was only partially true, he reasoned. There were precautions he would have had to take to ensure that nobody opposed him. He would have had to weed out those who disagreed with him, and bring in his own reign of what he thought The Family should be.
It would have been an oppression he was not ready for.
He laid low, avoiding large cities where people might have recognized his name, and working where he could with his head down until the news of his father’s death passed. The voices plagued him. He couldn’t stop seeing places where he could advance. As soon as the voices started to drown out the focus on his every day, he left for someplace else.
It was when he joined the Royal Air Force that he started to thrive. They had raised a brow at his name, at his background.
Just like Dominic taught you…
He bluffed his way through it, and they accepted him. It was dangerous to poke around anyway, and people murmured that whoever had killed his father did everyone a favor. (It hadn’t felt like a favor.) He went to basic training and the drill sergeants were louder than the voices telling him he’d made a mistake, that he was running away from—
Heat and sweat kept the sensation of eyes off his skin. Exhaustion and the bustle of soldiers and shouted orders were like a lullaby. People were close, but not that close. Charlie had learned to keep his distance. Even if he could see pasts, mistakes, and flaws broadcasted in everything they did, it wasn’t his job—his responsibility—to say anything. Nobody was ever out of line, nobody was ever plotting a coup, in the military. And if they ever were, higher officers were quick to correct them.
It was easy on Charlie, and he was confident in the choice once training was over.
He loved flying.
And he was doing good work.
It wasn’t about the choices he made—it was about Her Majesty’s Armed Forces as a whole. They were helping people, and he didn’t have to figure out how to do it. He didn’t have to think about if he was doing the right thing or not.
He could just follow orders thoughtlessly…
Even if it would hurt somebody in the process because that’s what the armed forces do. That’s what war is.
No, he thought. No. I don’t know that.
I do know that.
His superiors knew the whole story. They had facts he didn’t. They would send him in the right direction. He wasn’t making a mistake this time, he wasn’t—
“Shrub!” a voice cracked through the headset.
His attention snapped to the present. He was with his squadron, running drills in the skies. It was all blue, no eyes, no other people to distract him from the task at hand. Just… the voices to deal with.
“Shrub, what do you think you’re doing? Get back in formation!” the sergeant shouted.
“Shut up,” he scowled.
You could have been the king at home, and here you are taking orders?
“I can’t just abandon my squadron.”
You know they aren’t all as good as they pretend to be.
He knew. He knew, but that was no excuse to just leave them when they were depending on him. He closed his eyes.
Your father was depending on you, too.
He opened his eyes.
It was endless blue—nothing else but him in the sky.
“Pull up!” they shouted. “Pull up!”
Tree tops. A forest.
Nobody lived in the forest. That was why they’d do drills over it—so they didn’t disturb the public. And to avoid potential leaks in information.
He was going to crash.
His hands pulled up on the controls, but—
He would be alone.
Was he awake? He heard noise. Voices.
His head was splitting as he felt around him, scrambling for any note of where he was, what was happening. There were squeaks from rubber soled shoes, and all the voices around him were soft and sad. There was bedding, sheets, pillows… all of it threadbare and rough. Stiff in a way that meant it had been cleaned way too much.
He rubbed his eyes, but the darkness continued. Vague, blurry outlines shifted somewhere in his vision.
The smell of antiseptic hit him like a slap to the face.
“Hello?” he ventured.
Footsteps, hurried. The sound of rings on a rung like a shower curtain. A voice, but not a malicious one. “Ah, good morning!” She sounded relieved. Tired, behind the fake cheer.
Metal clinking on metal.
“Mr. Shrubbery. How are you feeling today?”
“I can’t see.”
A shift in the bedding. Warmth through the blankets. Had she sat down? He wasn’t sure.
“Did you sit down?”
“Yes, I’m right here.”
“Where am I?” he asked.
“Do you remember what happened?” Her voice was sweet. Soothing. Practiced to be that way.
His mind was running, but… on one track. Without having to see anything, he could only focus on his memories. The smell of antibacterial that surrounded him. “I was in my place running drills… that’s the last thing.”
“Yes,” she said. “There was a training accident. It looks like a malfunction in the equipment, but they’re looking into it. You got out mostly unharmed, but… it seems like you got smoke and possibly some chemicals in your eyes. We aren’t sure if the blindness is temporary.”
“Ah,” he said softly.
Charles shook his head. He could barely make out the figure of the doctor (nurse?) in front of him. Some body language. No facial expressions, no clothing to give anything away. “I can’t fly like this,” he said.
“I’ll call your Squadron leader, tell him you’re awake. You’ll have to decide what you want to do from here on out, though.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
A shift in the bedding again. Footsteps.
Quiet and the smell of a clean hospital around him, the feeling of the pilled bedding beneath him.
He would have to choose what to do.
He could do that.