Eames cannot believe that he might have spent a lifetime without knowing this side of Arthur.
He knows Arthur is capable of mischief, and that it only takes moments for his mind to pick up a challenge and emerge one step ahead. He knows that it is easy to make Arthur laugh, once one understands how to do it. He knows that Arthur smiles in secret even when nothing shows on his face.
What he did not know was that Arthur could delight in things. That he could pick up a game because it was a game, and not because it could be won. That his mouth could soften and that he could look, for long moments, unguarded and carefree and so young.
Arthur tucks himself into narrow spaces, moving in to tighten Algernon’s saddle belt when Eames has already approached Algernon to mount. He watches the other Thomas’ angry approaches with assessing eyes, doing nothing, but at the last instant he turns the tip of his nose into Eames’ neck, or steps just that tiny, infuriating step closer. Sometimes, when they are alone, when no-one is watching, he sits next to Eames on a bale of hay, and in the middle of Eames saying something, he slides his hand just close enough for their fingers to touch.
Eames breathes slowly through his nose. He swallows more than is necessary. He smiles less than he wants to, and when Arthur bends closer, he always, always, makes space.
“It can’t be for gratitude,” he says, desperately, thinking of all his ridiculous trinkets, lined up one against the other, and of Anne’s cheerful, pleasant face.
“It can’t be for duty. Please,” he says, clenching his fingers in his own tunic, trying to make sure that the other Thomas, who is watching as Michael saddles his own horse nearby, does not overhear.
Arthur curls the tips of his fingers against Eames’, and pulls Eames’ hands open like flower petals unfurling.
“It’s not,” he says softly. “It was never.”
His uncle takes the Earl Marshal and his cousins hunting, and Eames remains because there is business for him in the fields. He’s walking back to the house and staring unthinkingly at the sky when Ella seemingly appears out of nowhere, calling for him. He waves as she approaches, and she smiles prettily at him.
“Sir Thomas,” she says, bending her knees slightly, and Eames narrows his eyes meaningfully at her.
“Eames,” she says, laughing a little, and he says,
“Your aunt wishes to speak to you,” she says, and Eames nods.
“She’s in the house?”
“In the gardens behind the kitchens.”
The corridors of the house are dark compared to the bright sunlight of the courtyard, and Eames stumbles a little as he walks in. Ella smiles at him, with that warm fondness that Eames is becoming increasingly familiar with on other people’s faces, and says,
“There’s to be a performance tonight at supper, I’ve heard. I think that’s why the Lady Catherine wants you.”
Eames’ aunt is directing several people as they cut roses from her bushes, and she does not turn to look at Eames right away. When she finally does, her face is flushed from the sun, and soft with the same familiar affection.
“Thomas,” she says, motioning to the kitchens.
He follows her to the door, and the two of them stand in the shadow of the cool stone, trying to escape the heat.
“Your cousins tell me that there’s a troupe in the village,” she says, fanning her face with one hand. “Performers and magicians,” she says, laughing a little as she says the last word.
Eames has heard something similar; he nods.
“I spoke to your uncle before they left yesterday, and as the Earl Marshal will be leaving us at week’s end, we thought we would organise something special for him this evening, when he and your cousins and uncle return.”
“Yes, Aunt Catherine,” says Eames. “Of course. Ella says you need my help?”
“Your boy,” she says, and Eames thinks for an instant that she’s about to open up another strand of conversation entirely. He tenses slightly, but then she continues, “He is lettered, yes?”
“He was apprenticed to the shire reeve’s steward before he came to your ladyship’s household,” he says.
“Good,” she replies, drawing some parchment from a fold in her dress. “Will you send him for the performers? Tell him to deliver this, if they can read, and to explain to them, if they cannot. We’ll offer lodging and a meal and payment, if they’ll come tonight.”
Eames nods again.
“I need you to do the rounds with the merchants, and quickly. The kitchen has done most of what I asked, but we’ll need more fruit, and a new cloth hanging for the wall by the windows. Can you hurry?”
Eames’ aunt has a tendency to think of things at the very last minute. She is very like Eames’ mother was, in that sense, and Eames has always loved her for it.
“Yes, Aunt Catherine,” he says, bending to brush a kiss on her cheek. “I will hurry.”
Arthur is reading a book by the stable door when Eames walks up. Eames’ family took most of the horses hunting, and most of the stablehands went to assist the riders, so the yard and the stable itself are both quiet.
“Hello,” says Eames, and Arthur gives him a slow, lazy smile, glancing quickly down at his book before closing it.
They stand too close to each other. If they ever stood another way, Eames has forgotten it.
“Can you come into the village with me?” Eames asks, quietly.
Eames has spent a life speaking more loudly than is necessary, but in the last few days, he has often felt as if near-silence is the only thing that will do.
“Why?” asks Arthur, smiling and being difficult for the sake of it, and Eames counters,
“Maybe I’m busy,” says Arthur.
For every teasing word that has been stolen from Eames, Arthur seems to have been granted one.
“Are you?” asks Eames.
His hand is hovering, cupped, just above Arthur’s hip. Arthur glances down at it, and moves so that he fits into the groove of Eames’ hand.
“No,” he says. “I’m not.”
Eames hands him his aunt’s parchment, and says,
“My aunt wants you to bring the performers from the village back to the house. I have to collect a few things for her, but you can return before me. Do you know where they’re lodging?”
“The dream-weavers?” asks Arthur, mockingly. His voice sounds the same as Eames’ aunt’s had, when she had said magicians. “Yes. They’re at the Cat and Eagle, but they’ve also got two carts with their things, for travelling. Shall I get them to come with everything?”
“I don’t see why not,” says Eames, looking down to find his thumb running against the soft skin between Arthur’s breeches and his tunic.
Eames wants the night to be over. He wants the performers to have come and gone. He wants the Earl Marshal and the other Thomas away to London. He wants whatever it is they’re waiting for to make itself known.
“When I return,” says Arthur,
“You’ll let me welcome you home?” asks Eames, teasing.
Arthur gives him another slow smile: it is almost as if his face melts around it.
“Maybe,” he says, stepping away from Eames and heading towards Algernon’s stall. “Or maybe we can speak about the book you gave me yesterday.”
He holds up the book as he walks, turning his wrist and moving it back and forth.
“Arthur,” says Eames, happily. “We can do whatever you want.”
Eames’ first glimpse of the performers is actually the line of Arthur’s neck.
He’s delivered a bolt of cloth to his aunt, and told the cooks when to expect riders from the village. His aunt tells him that she’s put Arthur in charge of accommodating the performers’ needs until that evening, and Eames goes to look for them, more curious than he really cares to admit.
There are two carts pushed under the shade of the beech trees behind the stables, and two horses are tethered nearby, drinking from large pails of water. One of the carts is painted in bright colours, and the other is covered in an equally bright blue cloth. Eames can see legs moving on the other side of the coloured cart, and two people are standing at the back of the other, under the shelter of the blue covering. The cart’s back panel has been opened, and they are leaning against the slat of wood, reading or perhaps writing something, if the movement of their arms is anything to go by.
One man is a stranger. The other is Arthur, and his head is curved steeply towards whatever the other man is showing him. The muscles in his neck and his shoulders are tense: he is concentrating, and Eames recognises fascination in the speed of his nods, and in the movement of his hands.
“Hello,” he hears someone call behind him, and he turns to see a young woman dressed in a light green shift. Her hair is long and dark, and she has intelligent eyes nestled underneath a high, elegant forehead.
“Hello,” says Eames, and Arthur and the man he is speaking to turn at the sound of his voice.
They approach Eames and the woman as one, and the man inclines his head slightly, and says, respectfully,
“Please,” says Eames, holding up a hand and looking between him and Arthur. “Any friend of Arthur’s…”
He’s testing, cautious, trying to figure out what Arthur might have told the other man. The two of them are clearly at ease with each other already, and there are ink smudges on Arthur’s fingertips, from where he and the man have been writing against the cart’s boards.
“Mmh. Eames, then,” says the man, smiling widely. Eames can’t decide if he’s happy or disgruntled to hear the man change his address, though it means Arthur must have spoken about Eames to him already. “I’m Dominic Cobb.”
“I am very pleased you could come on such short notice,” says Eames, still careful. “And my aunt is more pleased still. I thank you.”
Arthur is looking at him warily, as if trying to gauge his mood. His eyes flick between Eames and Cobb, and Eames smiles at him, very slightly.
“Dominic is explaining to me how it will work tonight,” he says. He motions to the cart behind him with one arm; his eyes are lively and focused. “It’s fascinating, Eames.”
Eames nods. He’s happy to see Arthur so animated, though he plans to remind Arthur of how derisively he called these people dream-weavers, only hours earlier.
“You have everything you need?” he asks Cobb, and Cobb slides his eyes from Arthur to Eames.
“We do,” he says. “Arthur has been very helpful. Ah!”
He has seen someone behind Eames, and he waves them forward with a smile.
Another woman appears from Eames’ back. She is beautiful, and her eyes are startling. When she looks at Eames her gaze is piercing: not in the way people usually and carelessly suggest a look can be, but truly penetrating, in a way Eames has never experienced before.
“My wife, Mallorie,” says Cobb, and Eames bows his head in her direction, embarrassingly quick to slide his eyes away. “And you have already met the Lady Ariadne,” Cobb continues, pointing at the woman who first approached Eames.
Eames turns quizzical eyes on her, and she says, offhandedly, “Third daughter of Sir Miles Bradley, of Bath.” She shrugs. “I was to be married the week after Mallorie and Dominic came to my father’s house. They offered an alternative. It seemed preferable, so I took it.”
Eames looks at her again: at her proud bearing, and her calloused hands. He dips his head at her too, admiring.
Two more men have appeared from behind the brightly-coloured cart. They are laughing together, and Cobb motions them forward as well.
“Master Yusuf,” he says, pointing to one, “and Master Saito. This is Sir Thomas; this is his uncle’s manor.”
Yusuf and Saito nod at Eames, and he smiles and nods back, trying to infuse the gesture with as much sincerity as possible. He cannot put his finger on why he feels so uneasy around Cobb and the other performers—these other people, who are clearly Cobb’s family, if the way they look at each other is anything to go by—but he is suddenly eager to get back to the house, and to have a moment to think.
“You are very welcome here,” he says. “I have business to attend to at the house, but please say if you require anything before tonight. We have prepared—”
“We will lodge with our things and our carts, Sir Thomas,” says Mallorie, smiling. “But thank you.”
“Of course,” says Eames. “Arthur?” he asks again, and Arthur gives him an indecipherable look. His eyes shoot to Cobb, and Eames suddenly understands what Arthur wants, and pinpoints the source of his own uneasiness.
“You’ll stay with Master Cobb and fetch me if anything is required?” he says, and Arthur smiles at him gratefully.
Eames tries to ignore the uncomfortable twist of his stomach as he smiles back.
“Thank you for sending Arthur to us,” says the Lady Ariadne, turning kind eyes towards Eames. “It is sometimes hard to know what to prepare for an evening, especially when we have not been in a place long. He has been marvellously helpful.”
“That’s Arthur,” says Eames wryly, unable to dislike people who so plainly appreciate Arthur’s mind, and his ability to worm himself into places and pockets of knowledge where he doesn’t belong.
The afternoon sun is filtering through the beech leaves, warming Eames’ face. Eames lifts a hand in farewell, repeating his request that they inform him if they need anything, and spins on his heel to head back towards the house. As he does so, the sun slants sharply into his eyes, and he blinks, startled. He hears Cobb’s wife take a sharp breath, and the man Cobb introduced as Saito says, softly,
“Excuse me?” he asks, curious.
“It’s nothing,” says Cobb, smiling genially. His eyes are trained on Eames’, however, and when Eames turns to look at Arthur, his lips are parted and his eyebrows are knitted, as if he has gleaned some meaning from Saito’s word.
Eames raises an enquiring eyebrow, but Arthur shakes his head slightly, as if to confirm, It’s nothing.
“All right,” says Eames, awkwardly, thinking of Arthur’s earlier departure, and of the wonderful, warm thing that had been between them then. It has been superseded by the dynamic Cobb and his people have brought with them, by the energy of the unknown; it is not, however, gone. It thrums gently between them when Arthur turns one corner of his mouth up, looking directly at Eames.
“Well,” Eames says, raising his hand again, returning Arthur’s intent look. “I really must go. But you are most welcome again.”
It’s hard to say, after, precisely what it was like. One minute Yusuf is handing Eames a cup, from which he is instructed to take only a small sip; then Cobb and Mallorie are speaking, talking in low voices, and then he can hear Ariadne, saying,
“Now. It’s ready now.”
Saito is responsible for getting a house full of strangers to trust Cobb and his people: he promises that they mean no harm, and that they come only to show something that the people of the household might not otherwise have seen. His voice is low and entreating, and when Yusuf asks Eames to drink, Eames does not hesitate. He has forgotten the doubts that have plagued him all afternoon; he feels almost certain that something good will come of this.
Arthur is in the corner, and he watches Eames’ lips as Eames draws the cup towards his mouth.
Then Eames is somewhere else, somewhere half-remembered. There are children; the colours and the people there remind him of a market. He can hear a woman laugh, and she sounds like his mother. A man walks past, and he looks like a man Eames once knew, a man who once taught him how to quickly slide something—anything—up his sleeve, quicker than anyone could see.
It takes him some time, to realise that he can hear people speaking French. He begins to look up, to try and figure out where he is, but then he is distracted by a smell, or perhaps it is a sound. Arthur walks past quickly, and Eames turns around to find he is still there, but now walking towards Eames from the other direction.
Eames does not realise his eyes are closed, until he opens them. Mallorie and Cobb are standing on either side of the Earl Marshal’s chair, and Mallorie has her fingers on his wrist. Yusuf is drying his cup with a cloth, and putting it away in a small wooden chest.
“It was…” Eames looks around for the voice; it is the Earl Marshal, whose eyes are wide and wondering. “It was just like the day I met her.”
Mallorie smiles at him, brushing a hand against his thinning hair. It does not seem odd to Eames, despite the inappropriateness of the gesture.
He blinks, and the room becomes sharper still. Mallorie is now talking to Ariadne; they are standing against a wall, nowhere near the Earl, and Cobb is speaking to Saito.
Arthur is still in the corner. His eyes are on Eames, and his smile is knowing.
“What was it like for you?”
It is Robert, asking the question that Eames has already heard a dozen times that night.
“Vague,” he says, same as he has told everyone else. “I thought it was maybe a marketplace, somewhere in France. I think I heard my mother.”
Robert nods slowly. His serious eyes are calculating.
“The Lady Ariadne explained it to me,” he said. “The place was from the Earl Marshal’s memory, but she—she worked the…”
He trails off. Eames can sympathise. The magic? The spell? The dream? There is no good word with which to finish that sentence.
“It was the place where he met his wife,” Robert says, and Eames turns his attention back to him.
This, for the first time all evening, is something new.
“In Bordeaux,” says Robert. “It was Arthur who found out, by asking one of the Earl’s daughter’s matrons. She used to be her wet nurse, and her mother’s handmaiden before that.”
Eames nods vaguely, and picks disinterestedly at his food.
“Mother has asked them to come back,” says Robert. His hair is in his eyes as he looks down at his plate, but he is not eating anything, either. “Apparently they can make it so that the dream is mother’s, or father’s. It would be sharper for us, because we know them better than we do the Earl. Father wants to try it, and Cobb has said they’ll come. They have a job nearer Peterborough in the coming week, but they’ll return after.”
“Aunt Catherine told you this?” asks Eames, confused.
“No,” says Robert. His eyes are on a table across the room, where the dream-weavers are eating. “I asked the Lady Ariadne.”
Eames rides Arthur home. For a moment he is afraid that Arthur will say he cannot go, but in the end, Arthur finishes whatever he is saying to Cobb, and agrees to meet with him the next day. Then he walks over to Eames, and says,
He’s standing too close, and Eames is desperately glad that this one thing, at least, is the same.
Cobb watches them as they walk towards the stables. As Eames is saddling Algernon, Arthur asks,
“What was it like?”
I don’t know, Eames wants to say frustratedly. How many times can one be asked that in a single evening, for heavens’ sake?
But Arthur did not take a sip from Yusuf’s cup, and his curiosity is different, starker and more honest. Hungrier.
Eames waits for Arthur to settle into the saddle behind him, and to curl an arm around Eames’ hip, sliding a hand over his stomach. Eames takes the reins loosely in one hand, and threads his fingers through Arthur’s with the other.
“It was like a marketplace,” Eames begins, and Arthur laughs, clearly happy.
“That’s what Matilda told me, when I asked about the Earl. That’s how Ariadne said it would be.”
Eames describes it to him: the smell of the damp earth, and the colours of the fruit in the stalls. The smell of sun-warmed mulberries. Arthur seems to think that that was of Eames’ own making, and though Eames does not fully understand, he can see how that makes sense.
“Would you do it again?” asks Arthur, when they are standing outside his parents’ doorway, and Algernon is grazing at their hedge.
Eames can see a candle flickering in the window. He shrugs, and says,
“I suppose I’ll have to. When they come back in a week’s time, once the Earl Marshal is gone.”
“Yes,” Arthur says, simply.
Then he steps a little closer, ducking his head. Eames reaches up and slips a finger into the neck of his tunic, just touching the soft skin, and Arthur smiles. In the dim light the curve of his lips is like a secret, half in shadow.
“Was it really like dreaming?” he asks, and Eames says, quietly,
“Yes. Just like.”
The dream-weavers are invited to break fast with Eames’ uncle and the rest of the household the next day. His uncle is already talking to Mallorie about their return, and Eames can see his aunt leaning over to offer her own opinion on the matter, obviously as often as she can. Eames’ cousins are sitting on either side of his uncle on the long trestle table, and at one corner, the Lady Ariadne is talking to Robert, pointing to a space she has built by leaning one goblet against another and tapping against the goblets’ bases with the fingers of her other hand.
Robert is nodding, and there is a slight flush on his cheeks.
“Sir Thomas,” comes a voice at Eames’ shoulder, and Eames turns to find Cobb sliding into the empty space on the bench beside him, hooking one leg over the wooden slat.
“Master Cobb,” he says, guardedly, and Cobb gives him the kind of smile that makes Eames think that Cobb knows each of his reservations, and is simply waiting to see if Eames will say something of his own accord.
“I wondered if I might be able to speak to you, when we return,” says Cobb. “I have a… proposition for you, you might say.”
Almost without meaning to, Eames turns to look out the window, in the direction of the stables. Cobb laughs softly, placing a hand on Eames’ forearm, and says,
“No. Not that.”
Eames does not know what he wants to do.
He wants to push Cobb’s hand away, and some part of him wishes that Cobb were not there at all. Another part of him, however, is more intrigued than he could ever say.
He can still hear the sound of his mother’s laughter.
“Well,” Eames says, swinging his legs over the bench and standing up, “I shall certainly be here, next week. And the week after that.”
Cobb nods, and then holds a hand out for Eames to take. The gesture is oddly formal, and if Eames presses a little harder than he otherwise might—if he allows his eyes to say what he cannot—then that is between him and Cobb.
Later, Eames will watch Cobb packing up the last of the dream-weavers’ things, helping his beautiful wife onto the back of the bright blue cart. Yusuf and Saito will be laughing again. When Cobb extends a hand towards Arthur, Arthur will also take it, and Eames will slide his eyes away, staring at the sun passing through the trees.
“Interesting people,” his cousin Robert will say, his eyes trained on the bench of the multi-coloured cart, where the Lady Ariadne will be sitting.
Yes, Eames will think. Out loud, he will not reply.
Arthur taught himself to read. He learned basic sums in his father’s market stall, and the first of his letters from men who came to them with their masters’ orders. One of his father’s older patrons took a shining to him when he was very young, and Arthur stole what bits of knowledge he could from the man and his two books. He hoarded what he learned, bit by bit, until he had enough to ask someone else for help, and then enough to offer the shire reeve’s steward. From there he wormed his way into an apprenticeship that should never have been.
Eames wonders what Arthur might have done with his life, if he had been born noble. If his parents had been able to give him what books he pleased, and tutors to help him make sense of what he read. It is only now, after long months with Arthur, that Eames truly understands why Arthur had sounded the way he had, that first time: I was apprenticed to the shire reeve’s steward, and now I look after horses.
Arthur loves his brother, and he loves Anne. When his brother was offered his own lands by Eames’ uncle, Arthur opened the way for him to have a new life with the same meticulous care that he had opened his own path since childhood. He learned how to polish leather and how to tell when a horse had to be re-shod, and, with a few exceptions, he never let on how much this change had cost him.
But Eames sees it. He has always seen it, and he has tried to give Arthur what alternatives he can, by bringing him books and inks and wax tablets. For some weeks he has been thinking about asking his uncle to apprentice Arthur to his own steward: the man already has several boys and men working under him, but Eames is certain Arthur would quickly earn his place.
It is different now, however. Cobb and his people have come and gone, bringing with them Eames’ mother’s laughter and whatever Cobb told Arthur. And Eames is certain that Cobb must have offered something: more than once he has caught Arthur looking down the road with an odd look in his eye, or scuffing strange shapes into the stableyard earth with the tip of his boot.
“What’s a forger?” asks Eames, when the two of them are crouched by Algernon’s hooves, digging clumps of dirt out from them with a blunt hook.
“Exactly what it sounds like, I should imagine,” says Arthur, smiling at him from under lowered lashes.
Arthur, Eames knows, never looks away from whatever he’s working on if he can help it.
“Come, darling, don’t be like that,” says Eames, tempted to throw a clod of grass and earth in Arthur’s direction, but concluding it would not be at all appreciated.
“Like what, Eames?” asks Arthur, still teasing, and Eames feels an unexpected pang in his chest and almost says, Like someone I can’t reach.
Then he thinks better of it, and says, still not entirely carefully, “I want you to be happy.”
“I know that,” says Arthur, immediately sober. Then, more quietly, “Eames.”
When Eames looks up at him again, Arthur says deliberately, as if he knows how hard it will be for Eames to believe it,
Julian needs to ride to Peterborough for some undisclosed motive, and asks Eames to come with him. Eames has developed a marked predilection for not leaving his uncle’s lands, but he can think of no real reason to decline. He tells Julian he will meet him at the southern gates and goes to collect Algernon, stopping at Robert’s rooms on the way.
“I’ve brought you something,” he says as he walks into the stables, and Arthur looks up, feigning disinterest.
Eames motions Robert forward, and Arthur looks between him and Eames, obviously confused. Later, he will pretend he had not looked at Eames’ hands first, as if to glimpse what it was that he had been brought.
“Sir Robert,” Arthur says respectfully, and Robert, who isn’t one for preamble, says,
“How many buckets of water fit in that trough?”
Arthur glances at the wooden trough behind him, and says, cautiously, as if still trying to make sense of what’s happening,
“Why?” asks Robert, and Arthur looks at Eames, raising an eyebrow.
Eames shrugs, and Arthur says, cocking his head as if he knows it’s not the right answer,
“Because it’s a dozen-bucket trough.”
“And how much water fits in the bucket?” asks Robert.
Arthur shoots another quick look at Eames; he now looks angry. He hates not understanding what is happening, and he clearly feels Eames is to blame for this particular instance of it.
“A bucketful?” he says, sullenly, and Eames laughs.
Arthur narrows his eyes at him, in a way that promises nothing good for later.
“What if I were to drop four large stones in the trough? How much water would fit in it then?” Robert continues, seemingly oblivious to Arthur’s exasperation.
“A dozen bucketfuls, not counting…” Arthur stops, looking consideringly at Robert. “Not counting the space taken up by the stones, which would otherwise be filled with water.”
“Yes. Good. Tell me, Arthur… Eames says you know some mathematics.”
“Some,” says Arthur, cautiously. “For sums and accounts, mostly. Not much.”
“What about the mathematics of figures?” asks Robert.
“I helped my brother build his pens, and fence his fields,” says Arthur.
His entire body radiates interest now: he’s stopped looking at Eames, and his brow is furrowed as he looks at Robert.
“Very practical,” says Robert. “And very useful. But what about mathematics that are not used for practical things? Mathematics as a challenge. Geometry.”
Arthur shakes his head, very slowly. His gaze flicks to Eames, and there is something delighted in the lines by his eyes.
“No, Sir Robert,” he says.
“Would you like to learn?” asks Robert, and Eames laughs. Arthur is so clearly eager that the question seems ridiculous.
“Are you offering to teach me?” asks Arthur, guarded as ever. “I can’t—”
Robert is already walking towards the trough; he does not seem concerned with Arthur’s uncertainty.
“Come here,” he says simply, and Arthur looks at Eames one last time before following.
His eyes are warm, but there is also something else in them—something like an amused sort of disappointment, which Eames can’t fully make sense of.
“I’m going to Peterborough with Julian,” Eames calls out, already heading towards Algernon’s stall as the two of them bend their heads over the trough.
Neither of them looks at him.
Eames is not entirely sure how the fight starts. One minute Julian is telling him there’s only one last thing, can Eames just wait a minute, and the next thing Eames hears is the sound of a woman’s raised voice, the slam of a wooden door, and then there’s Julian, running pell-mell out of the public house and shouting,
“The horses, Eames, the horses!”
They’ve been to the cloth merchant and the smith’s, where Julian picked up some new pieces of armour: Eames is wearing a mismatched backplate, rerebraces and besagues, because it seemed more practical to put them on than to carry them in a sack. He’s also weighed down with a bag of bones for his uncle’s hounds, and when Julian stumbles into view, it’s not the easiest thing for Eames to jump into action.
“Run, Eames,” pants Julian as he runs past, just as a man emerges from the pub behind him and swings a piece of wood—Is that a chair leg?, Eames has just enough time to think—at his head.
The man catches Julian’s shoulder hard, and when Julian drops like a stone, Eames lets go of the bones and runs towards him, already thinking that Julian will owe him for this for a long time to come.
It’s not entirely clear, amidst Julian’s terrified laughter, the sound of a woman screaming, and the frequency of punches being landed on or near Eames, how many men end up coming out after them. Eames knocks at least one down on the ground, and then he somehow manages to get Julian on his feet, lob a besague at someone’s head, and get them both stumbling towards the horses. The piece of wood—it is a chair leg—connects hard with Eames’ thigh as he swings up into the saddle, but, all things considered, he and Julian actually manage to emerge fairly unscathed.
“I left the hounds’ bones,” says Eames, churlishly, once they are far enough away that they feel confident slowing Algernon and Maximus to a slow trot.
Julian looks at him for a long, thoughtful moment—his left eye is going black, and there’s a graze across his cheek that looks as if it could only have been made by fingernails; his hair appears to be singed off near his ear—and then the two of them laugh, and laugh, and laugh.
“Eames!” Arthur calls, waving a hand as he catches sight of him.
Eames has Maximus by the bridle in one tired arm—Julian stumbled off into the house by the main entrance—and is fighting to keep himself upright on Algernon, but the sight of Arthur’s excitement makes him smile.
“You’ll never guess what Robert… What in the world happened to you?”
Eames swings one leg over the saddle, and slides down Algernon’s flank with a minimum of dignity.
“I wish I could say it was a long story,” he begins, tiredly. “But it really isn’t.”
Arthur shakes his head as if profoundly disgusted, and takes Algernon’s reins in one hand. They walk the horses towards the back of the stables and undo their saddles, and Arthur puts hay and water out.
“Better find them an apple or a carrot each, for services rendered,” says Eames, leaning against the wall, and Arthur gives him a deeply unimpressed look before doing as he says.
“Why are you wearing three pieces of mismatched old armour?” he asks, suspiciously, and Eames glances down to find that somewhere along the line he managed to lose one of the rerebraces, too.
He steps away from the wall and looks over his shoulder to find that the backplate is badly dented, and that the strap that he used to secure it around one shoulder has almost come clean off the metal. The entire thing is muddy and does, in fact, look as if it’s seen a month of battle, rather than a single brawl.
Eames shakes his head, reaching up to undo the straps on the remaining rerebrace. He winces when his left shoulder pulls painfully, and Arthur bats his hands away, undoing the leather bindings himself.
“Are you going to be all right?” he asks, sounding almost affronted, and Eames laughs.
“I’ve been punched before, Arthur. I’ll be fine.”
“Is there anything…” Arthur stops, as if considering his words carefully. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“What would help tremendously,” says Eames, as Arthur ducks to pull at the leather on the lone besague, “Would be a distraction from the fact that I went to Peterborough for the day with my cousin and returned battered, muddy, missing half of what Julian bought, and without the bag of bones I went for.”
“A distraction?” asks Arthur, ducking his head towards the place where the straps of the besague and the backplate have knotted under Eames’ left arm.
“Yes,” says Eames. “The kind of distraction where I pretend to arrive again, Arthur, and you come to me at the door, and you let me kiss you, and press you against the stable wall, and do with you as I will. Will you let me do that?”
“Yes,” says Arthur.
“Well, perhaps then only a single kiss will do, just he—” Eames reaches out to touch the ticklish spot below Arthur’s ear, and then— “Wait, what?”
“I said,” Arthur says, finally pulling the besague free, and straightening to meet Eames’ startled look with smiling eyes and a half-hidden smile, “Yes. You can do that.”
Eames gapes rather stupidly, and then says,
“Are you… Do you mean it?”
His tongue feels clumsy in his mouth.
“No, Eames,” says Arthur, laughing delightedly when Eames visibly deflates. “I don’t mean it. I need you to court me for another four months, at least.”
He sounds as if he thinks this would be a disincentive.
“Darling,” says Eames, leaning closer, speaking right against Arthur’s mouth, “You can be courted forever, if you like.”
Arthur puts a hand on Eames’ shoulder, and curls the fingers of the other in the hair at the nape of Eames’ neck. He looks at Eames carefully, breathing softly against his lips.
Eames wishes he could say that he waits to be pulled forward, but the truth is that he doesn’t know if he can, and that he doesn’t necessarily want to, even if he could, and that, ultimately, he doesn’t.
He presses his mouth to Arthur’s, and doesn’t wait at all.
Arthur’s mouth is soft. His body is yielding in a way that he himself never is: even now, he has conditions and suggestions for Eames, commentary on what Eames should or should not do.
“Really, Eames, is this level of savagery necessary?” as Eames presses him against the back panel of Algernon’s stall, holding him there with one hand cupped against the curve where his thigh meets his arse.
“No,” says Eames, loosening his grip, mouthing tiny kisses along the line of Arthur’s lips, his jaw.
Then he changes his mind—
“Yes; yes it is,” and Arthur laughs under him, mocking and amused, letting his body drape into Eames in one long, happy line.
He smells familiar. Eames had not realised he knew what Arthur smelled like, but when he presses his nose to the edges of his collarbones, it is like a small, ridiculous homecoming.
“I want… I want you in my bed,” says Eames, too busy pressing open-mouthed kisses to Arthur’s skin to worry about being heard clearly.
Arthur shudders once against him, hard, and says, the way Eames suspects he always might,
“Maybe I’m busy,”
“Maybe,” says Eames, pressing the heel of his hand against Arthur’s breeches, and catching Arthur’s uneven exhale with his own mouth, licking against Arthur’s lips as Arthur lets his head drop back against the wall, “You’re not.”
Arthur is a study of contrasts against Eames’ linens. There is the darkness of his hair, of his eyebrows, and the red of his panting mouth and the flush of his cheeks. His skin is golden against the bedclothes, and his angles sear themselves into Eames mind: the taut muscles of his neck, the sharp cut of his hips, and the curl of his toes, catching and releasing as Arthur breathes in small, heaving hitches.
Eames wishes his hands were bigger. Smaller, also, so that he could touch Arthur at every delicate juncture, so that he could trace daintier fingertips against his eyelids and against the spaces between Arthur’s fingers, where his and Eames’ hands are clasped together. But bigger, so that he could press his thumbs together against Arthur’s belly as the edges of his fingers cupped Arthur’s hips, so that he could press his palms against the back of Arthur’s thighs and hold him, open and bent double against the bed, for long, interminable moments.
Arthur makes a small, clearly involuntary sound when Eames puts his mouth to him, lapping gently around the head of his cock. When Eames puts a hand against the small of his back and lifts him, licking into him, Arthur’s body comes off the bed in one long, unbroken arch, his weight resting heavily against Eames’ hands.
Eames can’t decide where he wants his mouth. He wishes he had spent long months before now kissing Arthur under trees and nestled in the grass by riverbanks, because then he could have avoided this moment, looking down at Arthur’s skin and feeling trapped between desperate choice and desperate choice.
“Eames,” Arthur calls, gently, gently, until Eames feels the sharp sting of hands fisted in his hair and realises Arthur has probably been calling non-too-gently for some time.
“Mmh?” he says, nuzzling dazedly against the soft skin of Arthur’s belly, and Arthur looks at him with steady, hot eyes and says,
“I want to touch you.”
The tone is all Arthur, measured conviction tied up with some unnameable sense that one is being ordered about in the best of ways, and Eames slowly releases his grip on Arthur and allows himself to be pressed back into the bed, just as Arthur wants.
Arthur’s mouth and fingers are everywhere, and Eames struggles to focus his eyes on the bedposts, or on the plaster of his ceiling: anything to distract himself from the steady pleasepleasepleaseplease he can hear himself mumbling against Arthur’s mouth.
Arthur lowers his body onto Eames with infinite precision, with a gentleness and patience that are belied only by the look in his eyes and the sharp press of his fingernails against Eames’ shoulders.
Eames grips him by the hips, and tries his hardest to pretend he can’t hear himself speaking—“I want you on your hands and knees, will you let me; I want to lick into you for hours, until you’re shaking with it; I want your mouth on me and I want you to do what you like; please please, Arthur, can I, will you stay; please, your mouth, can I kiss you”—and he comes much, much, sooner than he would like.
His shoulder and his back hurt, and he can feel a bruise blooming on his face, but when Arthur comes in a messy rush against Eames’ hand and stomach, all Eames can feel is a warm, pleasant flush down to his toes.
“Sorry about the savagery,” he says, not really meaning it, and Arthur, slumped inelegantly over him, laughs.
“Next time,” he says quietly, “When I am on my hands and knees, was it? Next time you can make it up to me.”
Eames presses his hands more tightly against the small of Arthur’s back, and breathes heavily into his ear.
“I think maybe next time,” he says, and Arthur, quick as ever, finishes for him,
“What’s a forger?”
They’re sprawled in a sticky, debauched mess on Eames’ bed, in the sort of graceless disarray that Eames would not have thought Arthur capable of putting up with. Eames is not surprised when Arthur raises his head lazily to meet Eames’ eyes, looking sleepy and unimpressed. He is surprised, however, when Arthur says,
“I am disturbed by your single-mindedness, Eames,” because to hear Arthur complaining about single-mindedness from anyone else is somewhat surreal.
“Arthur,” he says, hoping that the pitch of his voice, entreating and earnest, will move Arthur to finally give him an answer.
Arthur shifts restlessly. He puts a cheek against Eames shoulder, settling, and taps his fingers against Eames’ side.
“Cobb didn’t explain in too much detail,” he begins. “But as I understand it?”
“Mallorie said that people bring the skills and vices of their waking life with them into dreams,” Arthur says. “So that a person with a talent for drawing, for example, might be able to make a dream realer, more believable, for the people they perform for. Because they can imagine towns and people and streets in dreams the same way they can bring them to life on paper, when they are awake.”
Eames tries not to interrupt. He fails.
“And a person who can make sense of others, who has a knack for learning secrets when awake. They could burrow more deeply into a dream, into a person? Help make a dream more concrete?”
Arthur does not look up. He continues breathing steadily against Eames’ chest, and says,
“That’s what I understood from Cobb. Yes.”
“And a forger?”
“Cobb said that it was possible to be in a dream… not as yourself.”
Arthur sounds a little unsure; Eames doesn’t blame him.
“Not as yourself?”
Arthur gives a disgruntled little sigh. Eames assumes he does not fully understand what he’s being asked to explain, and resents the request.
“Some people, Cobb says, can… dream themselves into others. Can change. They can convince the people that they are performing for that they are seeing someone else. So the Earl, for example—they might have been able to show him his wife.”
Eames is silent for some time, drawing a finger down the path of Arthur’s spine.
“Forgers can use looking-glasses,” Arthur says, not answering the question. “Still water. And light, I think. To change.”
Eames thinks of the bright flash of sunlight in his eyes, as he had turned away from Cobb and his family. He wonders what it is that Cobb will say to him, when he comes back. Whether he will say anything at all.
“I think,” says Arthur, quietly, “That it has to do with… a person who can be more than one thing at once.”
Eames makes an inquisitive noise in the back of his throat.
“Someone who can be, say, a gentleman and a thief.”
“Someone who can feel as if he has no family, but who binds himself to others as if they were brothers.”
Eames tenses, a little, but if Arthur feels it, he does not let on.
“Someone who can think he does not always have much to offer,” Eames feels every single one of his muscles tighten; Arthur, without looking up, runs a soothing hand against Eames’ ribs. The gesture feels almost distracted, utterly unplanned. “But who has made generosity a life practice. Someone changeable.”
They lie there, breathing, and for a long time neither of them says a thing. Finally, Eames ventures,
Arthur looks up, turning uncertain eyes on Eames. Eames reaches down to weave their fingers together, and says, quietly,
“I am not changeable in all things.”
“No,” says Arthur. His smile is like every soft thing that Eames never thought Arthur would show on his face. “I know.”
Cobb and the rest of them come in late afternoon, with candles burning dimly on the bench seats of both of their carts. Someone has replaced the bright blue cloth of the covered cart with a swathe of deep purple fabric, and in the twilight, the carts’ approach already looks like something out of a dream.
“You’ll put your boy to tending them again, won’t you?” asks his aunt, clearly excited already, and Eames says,
“Yes, Aunt Catherine,” not telling her that Arthur is probably already waiting for them behind the stables.
The nights have turned cooler, and Eames gathers some extra blankets from the house to take to the dream-weavers. When he arrives they have a merry little fire going, but Mallorie takes the blankets from Eames with thanks.
“I hope you don’t mind that we have lit a fire behind your stables,” she says in her soft voice, and Eames laughs and says,
“No, of course not.”
He finds it hard to imagine that people could begrudge this woman anything.
He looks carefully around the fire as he leaves, but all he sees is Ariadne’s warm smile, and the wave of her fingers from beneath the too-long sleeve of her dress. Arthur is not there.
The next morning Cobb and Mallorie and Ariadne join the household for its first meal. Robert waits to see where Ariadne will sit before taking his plate to the space next to her on the bench, and Eames sees his uncle furrow his eyebrows, and send William and Marguerite down the table, to sit across from Robert.
Robert shoots his father a single, exasperated look before turning back to whatever Ariadne is explaining, this time with the aid of three pieces of fruit.
Eames wanders aimlessly towards the dream-weavers’ carts while the rest of his family is eating, not sure what it is he’s expecting to see. When he arrives, Saito and Yusuf are sitting in silence. It’s not until Eames steps closer that he realises Saito is asleep, and that Yusuf is keeping a careful, quiet watch over him.
“What is he…?” he asks, before he even says hello, and Yusuf turns to him and smiles.
“He is dreaming,” he says, simply.
He gestures to the ground by his side, and Eames goes to sit beside him.
“It is not always easy to dream,” says Yusuf, looking at Eames, then at Saito, “When you do what we do. But none of us have yet lost the ability to do it. Mal won’t let us perform too often; she says she’s heard that that’s how it begins.”
“There are others like you?” asks Eames, and Yusuf shrugs, giving Eames a small smile that is almost wistful.
“We assume so.”
They sit quietly, watching Saito sleep.
“Arthur explained to you. About forgery,” says Yusuf, suddenly, and Eames, startled, nods.
“How did you know?” he asks, “That I—?”
Yusuf smiles again.
“We don’t, always. Sometimes you think you have found the right person for something, and then it turns out you haven’t. Characteristics, virtues and defects alike, don’t always translate, in dreams. Saito claims he has a knack for it, and Ariadne and Mal believe him.”
“You and Cobb don’t?”
“Well,” Yusuf says. “We don’t not believe him.”
“Will you come?” asks Yusuf, looking straight at Eames. “If Cobb asks?”
Eames shakes his head, regretful and more unsure than he’d like to be.
“My family is here,” he says. “I have responsibilities. To my uncle, and my cousins. To these lands.”
“It is like nothing in this world, you know,” he says.
Eames thinks of the sound of his mother’s laughter for the hundredth time that week, and says,
“I can imagine.”
“That’s just it,” says a voice, quietly. “You can’t.”
Eames jumps; when he cranes his neck, he sees that Saito has woken, and is lowering his own neck to one shoulder, then the other, working out the cricks.
“Perhaps,” Eames says, wondering why it feels as if he’s lying when he says, “But I still wouldn’t come. I couldn’t. This is my home.”
“What about…?” Saito does not finish his sentence, but Eames knows exactly what he is talking about, of course.
“Ah, yes,” says Eames. “I am afraid on that matter I can only ask you— He must be kept safe, do you understand?”
“Cobb looks after his people,” says Saito, quietly.
Eames looks at Yusuf, wanting a second assurance. But Yusuf only looks at him, shrewdly, and says,
“Well. We’ll see if it comes to that.”
Eames’ aunt and uncle want a Yule for their dream, half-memory and half-wish. They explain about the house where Benedict and Julian were born, and Arthur takes Cobb and Ariadne to see the large cottage across his uncle’s own fields, which are worked by men employed in the manor itself. Mallorie spends time with Benedict’s children, and looks meaningfully at Marguerite’s round stomach as Eames’ aunt speaks about the family’s hopes for the future.
Eames can’t find it in himself to fault his aunt and uncle’s predictability, because it must be a fine thing to want people to build you a dream of something you already have.
When Cobb and Ariadne return with Arthur, Eames is waiting for them by the stables. Cobb and Ariadne ride their horses in and tether them under the beech trees, nodding as they go past. Eames only waits for Arthur to put water out for Algernon before he’s leading him across the fields, to the edge of the pond. He pushes him down into the grass, and Arthur shivers in the cool evening wind before Eames lowers himself onto him, holding his face in his hands and pressing their mouths together.
“Eames, what—?” says Arthur, but then Eames is kissing the corner of his mouth, and biting gently at Arthur’s bottom lip, and Arthur stops speaking.
Eames kisses him for a long time. The sky changes colour above them, and the water of the pond begins to lap more insistently against the banks as the wind picks up.
Arthur is warm and pliant beneath him. When Eames pulls back to look at him, his lips are kiss-swollen, but he stretches to follow Eames’ mouth. Eames can feel Arthur hard against his hip, and he slides against him distractedly, too busy kissing him to think about much else.
“I have to get home,” Arthur says, pressing closer.
One of his legs is wrapped distractingly around Eames’, and Eames says,
“You can take Algernon. You’ll come back early tomorrow?”
“Mmh,” says Arthur.
Whether he is agreeing or disagreeing is unclear; by the time they have kissed for two or three more hot, drawn-out minutes, Eames has forgotten what he even asked.
To Cobb’s credit, he takes Eames at his word, and says nothing of the difficult, unspoken thing between them.
“You spoke to Yusuf,” he says simply, as Eames’ family assembles in the hall.
Eames hums an assent, barely audible above his family’s excited murmuring.
“If you change your mind,” says Cobb, “We are moving north to Scotland, and should not be hard to find.”
“Don’t give me a reason to come find you,” says Eames, looking straight at the wall opposite, and Cobb laughs—an honestly surprised, delighted laugh.
“I shouldn’t think we will, Sir Thomas.”
Then Yusuf is there. He holds up a cup, and says,
Eames’ mother is there, dressed in a fine velvet dress.
The next morning, Arthur is gone.
Eames’ uncle’s men have been cutting firewood in the space just beyond the courtyards at the back of the house, and when Eames shows up and holds a hand out for an axe, Matthew hands one to him without asking any questions.
It’s a crisp, clear day, but Eames does not feel the chill of the wind as it flutters against the thin, damp linen of his shirt.
It’s Robert, standing at the road that leads from the house and holding his mare, Lily, by the reins.
Eames tilts his head upwards in what he hopes is an inquisitive way.
“Are you all right?” Robert asks, and Eames says, aiming for cheerful and unconcerned (and finding, to his own surprise, that some part of him is happy, in a broken, generous way),
“Yes. Just chopping firewood, Robert.”
“Fine day for it,” says Robert, agreeably.
His wide blue eyes take in the pile of firewood by Eames’ feet, and he laughs a little, shaking his head.
“I’m going to the village,” he says, gesturing towards Lily with a flick of his chin, “But I’d like to speak to you, when I come back?”
“Come find me,” Eames says, certain that when Robert returns he’ll still be there, putting the edge of Matthew’s axe to the old oak stump that they use for chopping.
An hour or so later something twinges painfully in his back, and he almost drops the axe, blade first, onto his foot. He shifts his grip to keep working, but as he lifts his arm, Matthew appears by his side, and holds his hand out for the axe.
“I think that should probably do for today, Sir Thomas,” he says, and Eames gives him a sour look.
Matthew laughs, pointing to the haphazard stack of wood next to Eames, almost waist-high, and says,
“It might even do for this winter, Eames.”
Eames’ shirt is clinging to his back, and his hair is matted to his scalp, and suddenly, he’s in no mood to be chopping firewood, or to be doing anything at all. He thinks of asking someone in the house to draw him a bath, but the wind on his face makes him think of the south fields, and of Algernon’s steady, clipping gait against the hard-packed earth.
“Thank you,” he says, raising a hand towards Matthew, and Matthew laughs again, saying,
“No need, I’m sure.”
Eames heads towards the stables, kicking dust up with his boots like a child, and when someone says,
“Good heavens, Eames, how old are you, five?”
“Oh, sod off,” before he registers the dry, familiar cadence of the voice.
He turns narrowed eyes on Arthur, wanting to say, What are you doing here?, politely interested, but then his mouth betrays him, and he says what he really means, an uncertain,
“Where have you been?”
Arthur gives him a strange, loaded look, and says,
“One of Dulcia’s back hooves needed re-shoeing. Matthew was doing the firewood, so I took her into the village for him.”
Something crumples a little in Eames’ chest, and he feels, suddenly, petty.
Arthur’s look speaks volumes. But then, because he never lies, he says,
“I thought about it.”
“And then I came in to your uncle’s stables. Having thought about it. Do you understand, Eames? Having weighed it.”
Eames nods again, a little miserable at the thought of all that has crept through his head since the morning.
Suddenly Arthur is there, brushing his nose against Eames’ cheek.
“I know I made you wait,” he says. “And it’s not that I thought the waiting wouldn’t have consequences. I know who you are. And how you are, Eames. But I need to know that you’re going to learn, the way you taught me first.”
“Learn what?” says Eames, already knowing the answer, and Arthur says,
“To trust me.”
And Eames, admitting a meaningful uncertainty out loud for the first time in a long time, says,
“I can try.”
Arthur tries to send him off with a kiss by the stable doors, but Eames will have none of it. He lets his knees give way against a bale of hay, and he pulls Arthur with him, half into his lap. Arthur tries to make as if he’s eager to get away, but his knees settle more comfortably on either side of Eames’ hips with each tug against Eames’ grip, and Eames pulls at his tunic, leaning back against the stable wall and bringing Arthur towards him.
Arthur gives him a minute, maybe two, before he says,
“Someone will see.”
Eames is fairly certain he successfully indicates his utter disinterest in this fact.
“I’m working, Eames.”
“On what?” says Eames, but then Arthur says,
“Don’t you have to speak to the Wilkinsons about their fence? Wouldn’t it be best to be done with that sooner, rather than for it to drag into the evening, when I’ll already be heading home…?”
As Eames walks away from the stables, through the shade of the beeches, he sees the tracks where Cobb’s and Yusuf’s carts drove out. He can see the remains of their fire, too, and the faded outlines of numbers and half-drawn structures traced against the soft earth.
When he looks behind him, he can see Arthur clearing Algernon’s stall, working steadily and looking as if he belongs precisely where he is. Eames wants to tell himself that it’s that simple—that Arthur’s place is in Eames’ uncle’s household—but he knows that Arthur walked in from the village that morning not for his work, or for Eames’ uncle, or even for James and Anne.
Arthur has made it so that Eames can choose to do with this knowledge what he will. He can do anything with it, he supposes: anything except make it fade.
It’s still light when he returns to the manor from Harold Wilkinson’s house, and he takes the back stairs to his rooms, rummaging in his chests until he finds two heavy, battered boots nestled under an old cloak. He’s just about to turn one on its end when he hears a knock on the door. Robert walks in before Eames has a chance to put the boots away, and he smiles when he sees what Eames is holding.
“Enough to buy my father’s lands now, is it?” he asks, jokingly, and Eames thinks briefly about denying it.
Then he says,
“How did you know?”
Robert smiles at him, the fond smile of a brother.
“Eames,” he says. “Everyone knows.”
Robert watches in silence as Eames separates the coin into piles. Eventually, he says,
“You’re going, then?”
“I once told him he would find something that he was born to do. Now he has. And as for me… Well, they say they might have something for me to do, too.”
“Forging,” says Robert.
Eames is not surprised.
“Yes,” he agrees. “And if that doesn’t work out, I can always sell mulberries in Peterborough.”
Robert smiles at him.
“Cousin Thomas,” he says, the way he used to when they were children, “You know they only want you to be happy.”
Eames does know. That is precisely why he suspects that the awful disloyalty of it might never shake loose from his stomach.
“Can I show you something?” asks Robert, quietly, and Eames says,
“Yes. Of course.”
Robert leads the way down the corridors, towards the rear courtyards where he’d seen Eames earlier that morning. The road leading from the house is empty, but two horses are tethered to the young oak on the left.
Lily is still beside a stallion tugging at the rope attached to his bridle.
“Volatilus,” says Robert. “Or whatever you want to name him, I suppose.”
“As grateful as I am for the gesture of the almost-unbroken horse, Robert…”
Robert’s gaze is unexpectedly serious when Eames turns to look at him, and Eames stills at the sight of his cousin’s solemn, clear eyes.
“Can you ride him?” Robert asks.
“If pressed,” says Eames, cautiously, “Probably.”
“Good,” says Robert. He looks down the road, and says, quietly, “I thought we could go at dawn.”
Eames swallows the first and second and third things he wants to say—what is there to say, that couldn’t also be said of him?—and eventually settles on,
“I’m just the bastard nephew, Robert,” because it’s all he’s got.
“And I’m the third son in a family that has only sons, if my brothers, and Benedict’s three children, and probably the child Marguerite has coming, are any indication,” he says. “They’ll miss us, Eames, each as sorely as the other, but they do not need us. Well,” he says wryly, “Julian might, but it might do him good to take a punch intended for him, for once.”
They both laugh, a little more nervously than the comment warrants.
“We can always come back to visit,” Robert continues. “Ariadne says her father has consented to see her, in the last two years.”
It’s all rather more hopeful than either of them can afford, but Eames turns a thousand memories of his uncle’s kind, paternal smiles over in his mind, and thinks they may not be entirely wrong to hope.
“All right,” he says, shrugging and taking a deep, steadying breath. “We’ll meet you at the stables at dawn. I hope you have a boot of your own, cousin.”
“A small washing basin, actually,” says Robert, and Eames laughs.
“You go collect that,” he says. “And in the meantime, I suppose I’ll try to break this horse.”
When Eames finally returns to the house, dusty and with a vicious bruise on his upper arm, Arthur is waiting for him.
“I hear Robert went to the village and brought back a wild horse,” he says, feigning nonchalance.
“Apparently,” Eames says, pulling out a riding cloak and spreading it on the floor before beginning to pile clothing on it.
Arthur watches silently, and says, after what seems like a very long time,
“You know we don’t have to go.”
Eames looks at the warm, familiar darkness of his eyes. He thinks he understands that for some time now, Arthur has taken his gifts not because they were what he wanted, but because they were from Eames. That he will come with Eames now not because Eames is heading where he wants to go—which Eames just so happens to be—but because Eames is going, and because that is enough for him.
Eames takes two steps, and tucks his nose into the hollow of Arthur’s neck, the way Arthur has done to him dozens of times. He brushes his mouth against Arthur’s, quick and loving and uncomplicated. Then:
“Yes,” he says. “I know.”
What's up, least anonymous anonymous fill ever?
Give me a reason to make shit mediaeval. Go on. I dare you.
(Yes, all of the horses apart from Algernon are named after Temeraire dragons; shut up; hello, naominovik!)
Speaking seriously: many of you know that I have immense trouble letting words go, and right now, I need to make sure I do that. Failing at anonymity on the kinkmeme apparently facilitates this, at the moment; imperfections aside, I have to take it.
It defies belief (well, it defies belief in any fandom but this, perhaps, but it will always defy my belief), but the utterly wondrous cactus_rabbit drew art for this.
Please go and look at it, and tell her how much you love Arthur's eyes.
And for those of you who like some introspection with your mediaeval.
You are all lovely.