In some ways, it was her father's fault. He was not particularly adept at recalling which of his studies were considered appropriate for young ladies of quality, and which were most emphatically not. Perhaps if she'd had a mother to stall him, she might have grown up quite unaware of these sorts of things, but she hadn't.
Instead, Cecelia Rushton had had a father who loved having an audience, and had been a child who loved to listen. This was how she learned of the loves of Achilles and Patrocles, Alexander and Hephaestion - and perhaps more importantly, the loves and disappointments of Sappho.
She had never quite dared bring it up, even with Kate. Perhaps especially with Kate. It had been, for almost all of their lives, hovering in the back of her mind. But while only she knew, it was just a matter of private longing. If Kate knew as well . . .
There would be choices involved. There would be a yes, or a no, or a maybe. And that choice was dangerous and possibly painful. So Cecelia kept it to herself and kept quiet. It had not been so bad. And then there had been James, and Thomas, and that had been better.
Thomas stole blankets. Kate and James had both warned, and Thomas denied, but as Cecelia Tarleton woke up she found she had curled very close to James and Kate both because Thomas had, indeed, wrapped himself up entirely in the coverlets and was sleeping in a self-contained, greedy lump. He was somehow much nearer the middle of the bed, as well, than one person out of four in a bed ought to have been.
His fingers were entwined in Kate's. Kate's head and all her half-tumbled messy waves of hair were against Cecelia's shoulder and smelled of Kate's lovely, lily perfume. James was in his accustomed place, his breath warm against the back of Cecelia's neck and (she discovered as she craned her neck) very nearly falling off the bed.
She was the only one awake. Cecelia knew what Kate looked like when dreaming, of course; her half-open mouth and fluttering eyelashes (and very quiet, very delicate little snore) were as familiar as Cecelia's own skin. And she slept as Kate always did, trusting and wholly dead to the world and completely unroused by Cecelia moving a lock of hair from across her eyes and kissing the side of her mouth.
James was James, and as long as Cecelia didn't try to get up would be quite as deeply drowsing as Kate was. That had annoyed her a little, at first; she remembered, even on their whirlwind through the Continent, her exasperation. "Do you expect me to fly out the window and never return?" she'd demanded. James had scowled and never, as it happened, actually answered her.
By now, she realized she would miss it, and wonder what was wrong, if he ever changed.
Thomas was the revelation. It struck Cecelia that, in fact, each of them would have one revelation in a bed-partner (at least, in respect to how they slept), and that she would be Thomas' as well. And Thomas?
Thomas looked almost like a child, which was terribly disconcerting. Without the animation of his features, the play of a thousand half-feelings and thoughts (always partly cloaked, reserved, but always there, earning him the "Mysterious" that he was so fond of), it was suddenly quite startling how long his eyelashes were, and how open his face.
The difference was so great as to make Cecelia wonder what would lead a person to walk through their life with such a very great guard over their expressions, such a very careful hold over how their thoughts showed upon their face. Foolish wondering, of course: the broad answer was war, politics and the politics of magic. But still.
She wanted specifics. She was not, she realized, likely to ever get them.
However, right now, she also wanted some of the blankets. So she reached over Kate (inevitably waking James a little) and took a hold of an available corner of coverlet and pulled, very firmly.
"I told you," James said, sleepily.
"Really," Cecelia replied, "it's a very small price to pay, don't you think?"
"Mmm," James said, agreeably, and kissed her neck as she spread the coverlets over all four of them again and let herself settle back down to drowse at least a little longer.
It had been a remarkably long time, Thomas realized, since he'd had any magician he trusted enough to work in close concert with. Well, besides his mother, and in a nice bit of irony they often had quite a bit of difficulty working in actual concert. They had discovered that very early in his own training, and his father had found it terribly amusing.
"It's because you're much too alike," he'd said, and neither of them had bothered to deny it.
Once upon a time, Thomas had enjoyed working in concert. It increased power, of course, but it was also damned interesting, the interplay of harmonics, of resonances and personality. Until suspicion and experience made it impossible.
Even so, he found the muscles of his shoulders tightening in preparation for a strike, until his mind caught the unconscious thought and tried to reconcile it with the idea of Cecy and fell apart into perplexity.
It really did annoy him that he'd got neither to kill Miranda nor even punch Bedrick in the face. Poetic justice, the right of a mother to avenge her son, all that aside, Thomas was quite sure he would feel better now if he'd had the opportunity then.
"Not bad," he said aloud, feeling for the edges of the spell's web. These were exercises, of course. And they were the sort of exercises that lady magicians did not, in fact, often do. Thomas wasn't sure why: it seemed natural to him that, of all people, women were those who could most benefit from spells that (for instance) told them whether or not an intruder was crossing the threshold of whatever bit of the world they had staked out as their own, or how to immobilize an attacker, and so on.
But Thomas had long ago come to the conclusion that it was simply that most people were quite stupid. It seemed the simplest explanation, since there was so much stupidity about.
"Slow," Cecy replied, as she was always critical of her own performance. "But my goodness, I can see everything if I push at it."
"That's part of why it's always better to set it amongst more than one person, if you can," Thomas replied. "If you're the only person receiving the spell's information, it can get slightly distracting. But it's saved my life more than once." Which he had not exactly meant to say, and before Cecy could use her annoying talent at honing in on precisely the bit of what he said he'd prefer she missed, he added, "Can you dispell it?"
But it was too late. "Yes," she said, "and when? I mean, when did it save your life?"
Thomas assumed a patience expression. "Do concentrate on what you're doing?" he suggested. Cecy snorted, shot him a look that said he didn't fool her at all, and then closed her eyes long enough to murmur the appropriate words to draw all the energy back to a web over their chalk-inscribed circle. It made a rather pretty web there: Cecy's blue-green woven in around his own flame-heart's blue. He allowed her the initiative of breaking off the contact, drawing her threads into herself first. It made his back itch a little, but instinct once again found itself confronted with the reality of Cecelia Tarleton and gave up. Mostly.
He folded his power back into itself, and was confronted by Cecelia's innocently curious look. "When did it save your life?" she asked, with a terrier's instinct for persistence.
Thomas waved it off. "In Spain," he replied, as if it were something of profound indifference. "As it
happens, in a campaign, if you can incapacitate the focal magician on the opposing side, you have an intense advantage in the attack."
"Self-evidently," Cecy interjected, which he acknowledged with a gesture.
"I happened to be the focal magician on a relatively frequent basis," he said, summoning up the appropriate off-hand arrogance for such a pronouncement. "Sometimes, I swear I was safer when I was spying." He stood up, and held out his hands to her, in an attempt to distract her from ferreting anything else out of him. The exercises had been enjoyable, and the feeling of having someone to work with comforting; he did not particularly feel like eroding that effect by letting his mind wander back to Spain, and the instances of not being safe in the God-damned camp at all. "Come on, Lady Apprentice," he said, to tease her, "we should both eat something and reassure your solicitous husband that I have not, in fact, accidentally turned you into a toad."
"Can we actually do that?" Cecy asked, distracted as he wanted her to be, and offering small, warm and soft hands for him to use to pull her to her feet.
"Probably. Frogs, however, lack a certain style, so I've never tried, but one particularly offensive highwayman in Spain is living out his life as a dog." Thomas paused. "Assuming he hasn't already done so, I suppose."
"You did not." Cecy looked at him in disbelief.
"I bloody well did," Thomas replied, forgetting (which he did much more often, now) that he ought to watch his language. "And he deserved it."
"How?" asked Cecy, eagerly, and he opened the door. He was quite willing to explain that, if it got her off her earlier line of inquiry. James, of course, would not approve, but Thomas had long ago ascertained that there were some things James disapproved of out of habit, more than out of thought. Before, it had not been his business, but now?
"With difficulty," he replied, and offered her his arm as they stepped out into the hall.
"Lord," said Cecy in a small and rather unusually pathetic tone of voice as she rested her head against the small pad of towels behind her, meant to cushion her against the bath's copper sides. "What a miserable way to go about getting children."
Kate started unbinding Cecy's hair and spreading it out, hanging over the edge of the tub to keep it out of the water. Baths were one of the few things that made Cesy feel better, at the moment, so she spent an awful lot of time in them. Today, Kate elected to keep her company, and decided to fuss with her hair, the way they had done for each other what seemed like such a long time ago, and was really less than four years. Before marriage had brought a world of ladies-maids and servants to fuss about them quite so much.
Combing out Cecy's hair with her fingers, she let it fall and leaned forward to cup her hand under the water and draw it up around Cecy's neck. "Did you drink your tonic?" she asked, meaning the stuff that Cecy made for herself, dutifully, from Lady Sylvia's recipe.
"Oh if everyone doesn't stop asking me about that stuff I shall be vexed," Cecy complained. "Yes, and that's why I'm not, well, being sick right now. But it tastes awful and doesn't do anything for the way that I can smell everything. If this is how you're starting out," she went on, addressing the curve of her belly where it came out of the water, "I dread to think the headaches you shall give me later on."
Kate smiled slightly and dragged her fingers through Cecy's hair and across her scalp, which made Cecy close her eyes in a certain amount of pleasure. "I'm sure he or she will be as lovely as any lamb," she said.
"Don't soothe me, Kate," Cecy groused. "I'm not sure I can abide soothing right now."
"You sound exactly like Thomas, did you know that?" Kate pointed out, and made sure she modulated the tartness with a smile.
Cecy glared at her. "Well you sound like James," she said, her voice slightly sour.
"I shall be sure to break something straight away," Kate retorted, "so you can be sure to tell the difference."
Inexplicably, Cecy looked like she was about to reply, and then burst into open laughter. "Oh, dear," she said, sitting up in the tub, "I'm sorry, Kate, I just had the image of James in one of your dresses. I was about to say I was sure I could tell you apart by - "
But by then, Kate too had the thought in her head, and saw precisely what was so funny about it. Which meant that she, too, burst into peals of laughter. "Oh dear," she managed, echoing her cousin. "It's the expression, isn't it - "
"Yes," Cecy agreed, still giggling. "The way his eyes would - "
They looked at each other and the laughter got loud enough again to prevent speech. And of course, the moment they had calmed down enough to speak, Kate put a hand over her mouth and managed to choke out, " - and Thomas -"
"Oh my," Cecy said, mirroring her. "Except he would try to look like he'd meant to do it and there was nothing at all unusual - "
Kate felt herself nodding, her eyes watering with laughter as she burst into fresh gales.
Unfortunately, their merriment was cut off by Cecy's face going strained right in the middle of the giggles as she put a hand to her belly and made a grimace of pain. "No, it's nothing," she waved Kate off, "the baby just decided to tell me to be quiet, as he was trying to sleep. With his foot."
"Oh darling," Kate said, and leaned over to put her arms around Cecy, ignoring the wet.
"Just you wait," Cecy said with a wan attempt at a mischievous smile. "It'll be your turn, next."
There were particular things that stood out, bold and bright, in James' memory. They detached themselves from time and place, sliding away from the simple endless passage of days between earliest memory and furthest speculation of the future, and stood ready to be recalled at any given moment. He'd put many of them behind doors, in boxes that he locked and hid. Some of those were from childhood; many of them were from Spain; several of them involved Thomas. Many of the last two boxes overlapped, the memories existing in both of them.
Cecy was in most of the ones he cared to let stay, both of happiness and (given it was Cecy) of screaming terror. Cecy, Thomas, Kate: a web of everything worth keeping, memories in bright oil-paintings in his head.
He wasn't sure the moment of Kate very carefully handing him the small, gently moving bundle of blankets that was his new-born son wouldn't shine so brightly as to fade all of the others into their canvas.
James had not, previously, had much contact with babies. They were small and fragile and he wasn't quite sure how to manage them. Kate helped him arrange his arms, and he looked down into a rather squashed, tiny red face that was the most beautiful, wonderous thing in the world.
Then he looked at Cecy, pale but pleased-looking in the bed, her hair braided and falling over her shoulder, and knew that she was the most beautiful, wonderous thing in the world. And caught between both of those thoughts, he found the words - what words, any words, any sound at all, in fact - piled up in his throat and did not oblige him by coming out in any kind of sense.
With a very patient expression on his face, Thomas took hold of James' shoulders and directed him towards the bed, to sit by Cecy's feet so that he could (James supposed) gape like a wordless, smiling idiot at her and the baby both from a more comfortable position.
Thomas reached over, once he had James seated, and moved a little bit of the blanket away from the baby boy's perfect face, and said, in a thoughtful voice, "You know, I have to say that he looks exactly like," and then, with just enough of a pause for it to be Thomas, he finished, "a squashed potato."
"Thomas!" Kate said, coming beside him and prodding him in the shoulder. "You take that back right now."
Cecy was laughing weakly, and James still found himself muted by his own words.
"I can't, it's only the truth," Thomas protested. "I mean, a most adorable and lovely squashed potato, to be sure, but nevertheless - "
"You are the living end, Thomas," Kate said in a martyred tone of voice. "Come, James, ignore him - what's the baby's name? Cecy insisted you got to choose, if it was a boy."
The question jarred James' frozen mind into some sort of movement, and he swallowed and tried to clear his throat. It wasn't a difficult choice, in the end. He and Cecy had discussed it, of course, but other than making clear that there were a few names (such as Charlotte, for example) that were absolutely out of the question, they had agreed to surprise each other when the time came.
That saved him having to explain why, and opening another one of those boxes of memory he wished to keep closed, even as it was honoured. "Charles," he said. His voice came out rather hoarse, and Thomas was lucky Kate was looking lovingly at the baby, because he didn't manage to hide his reaction at all.
"Oh, that's lovely," Kate said, "that suits, I think. Don't you think, Thomas?"
And Thomas, who had managed to school his features, replied, "Quite, yes. Charles Potato Tarleton will be quite perfect." He ducked away from Kate's attempt to kick him in the shin.
"Charles," Cecy was saying, quietly, to herself. She held out her arms and James very carefully (and hoping he was not doing anything wrong) gave the baby back to her. "Hello, Charles," she said, as little hands waved above tiny face, and she kissed their infant son's forehead.
James said nothing. Just put his hand over hers, and looked up at Kate and Thomas, and hoped that was enough.