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Barefoot Amongst the Thorns

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Arthur’s hiding behind the house, scribbling shapes into his little journal, when his sister calls his name. He can hear the wagon on the road, bringing his future closer with every clatter of hooves in the dirt. In that wagon, driven by his father, with his mother on the seat beside him, is his future bride.

 

Because Arthur is the youngest of three, and only the second son, Arthur’s father had no real argument against his wife’s insistence that Arthur marry into her people. Arthur’s never paid too much attention to his mother’s heritage, only learning enough to satisfy her, and understand the repercussions of being found out. They’ve been in Bishop’s Castle, a small hamlet in southern Wales, for four years. His father is a mason, and despite it’s size, the town is growing at a promising pace, which provides an abundance of work. All that would be gone, snuffed at the end of a rope, if anyone knew they were Romani.

 

Despite marrying outside her people, Arthur’s mother is insistent that one of her children carry on her legacy. She carries the fear, as do most of the Romani of Europe, that soon they will be no more. Vanishing into the ether, remembered only as villains and thieves in cautionary tales.

 

Arthur knows her fear isn’t frivolous, he just doesn’t think it should be up to him to ease it. He loves his mother, but he loves his freedom more. He has plans for his future, and they don’t include a Romani wife. They don’t include a wife at all. Except now they absolutely do.

 

The wagon stops in from the house with a jangle and his sister, Lottie, calls for him again, less patient than before. Arthur slides his book and pencil into his pocket and goes in the back door.

 

“Stop hiding, it’s done.” She tells him, brushing pencil shavings from his shirt.

 

“Nothing’s done yet.” He says, stubborn to the end.

 

“You be nice to this girl, Arthur. She’s come a long way and she’s without her family. She’s probably scared half to death of what kind of man she’s getting.”

 

“I’m always nice.” He runs his hand through his hair, wincing when his finger catches on a tangle.

 

Lottie snorts. “No, you’re always Arthur.”

 

His father opens the front door, barking an order to come outside.

 

Lottie shoves him forward, out the door and into the watery sunshine. His mother is dusting off the dress of a small, olive skinned girl who has coils of long, dark hair. The girl’s hand is clenched tight around a large fabric bag and there’s a length of knotted cord around her neck. She looks up, violet eyes startling Arthur into stopping. Lottie pushes him from behind and he trips, stumbling. Humour flashes in the girl’s eyes and the corner of her mouth twitches.

 

“Arthur, really,” His mother scolds. “I promise you, Floure, he’s usually more poised than this. He’s just nervous.”

 

“Nervous?” The girl, Floure, asks, her voice deep and lilting.

 

“Well, it’s not everyday you meet your intended!” His mother says, haughtily.

 

“Indeed not,” Floure responds. “First meetings often happen only once.”

 

Arthur chuckles at his mother’s blank look. Okay, maybe this won’t be as bad as he thought it would be. Floure gives him a small smile, eyes travelling over his frame, curious and appraising.

 

Introductions are made and Floure is ushered into the house for tea. Arthur’s chest is a little less tight, but he’s still not thrilled at the prospect of taking this girl as his wife. And she is a girl, despite her sharp wit and careful gaze; Floure is only sixteen. The youngest of nine children, she’s come all the way from Moldavia to marry Arthur,  to carry on her family's lineage and traditions.

 

Arthur can’t help but worry, looking at Floure’s dress and visage, that she’s a little too obviously foreign. Bishop’s Castle is a close knit town, but its people wouldn’t waste a breath to save any of them if they discover what they are. Even his father would be persecuted for marrying into it and breeding Gypsy children.

 

Arthur and his siblings are Romanichal, like their mother, with dark hair and eyes, and light skin. His father’s dishwater hair and ruddy complexion helped to water down the Romani characteristics, and Arthur’s certain his dimples alone keep him above reproach. He knows for a fact Lottie uses hers shamelessly. Their mother has taught them how to hide well, something she will no doubt instill in Floure before she’s allowed to be seen by anyone in town.

 

Dinner is a stilted affair, his mother prying tidbits of information out of Floure, a piece at a time. She doesn’t trust them, Arthur thinks, and he likes her a little more for it. She doesn’t seem like a foolish girl, eager to be married, thinking it some fantastical adventure. She’s quiet and reserved, watching them all closely, for what, Arthur can only imagine.

 

After dinner, Arthur and Floure are ushered outside under the close supervision of Arthur’s mother, who pretends to trim her roses while listening intently to their awkward conversation.

 

Arthur struggles to think of something to say, but comes up blank. His mother had lauded his accomplishments over dinner, Floure smiling politely, but looking rather unimpressed. Arthur works at the store in town, covering the hours Mr. Dempshire struggles to get through since breaking his hip last fall. He’s thankful for the work, especially since it keeps him from the backbreaking work of his father and older brother. In his spare time, he works on his sketches, refining his skill and easing his mind.

 

“Is it always so loud here?” Floure asks, frowning at the darkening sky.

 

Arthur follows her gaze, listening hard to the soft hush of the evening. “Um, yes?”

 

“Hmm.” Floure sighs and fingers the cord at her throat.

 

“What is that?”

 

“My family. A knot for every member.” Floure turns to him. “I suppose I’ll have to make another once we’re married. The cord’s very short now, it may choke me once you’re there.”

 

“Um, let’s hope not.” Arthur says, unsure if she’s teasing him or not.

 

“You never know how these things will turn out.” Floure whispers.

 

“Rain’s coming.” His mother declares before Arthur can respond.

 

“Are you a diviner?” Floure asks, sounding interested for the first time since her arrival.

 

“Oh, yes, did your aunty not tell you?” Arthur’s mother and Floure retreat into the house, bonding over the peculiarities of the Romani.

 

Arthur frowns at the clear sky, stars just starting to pop out against the azure expanse. There’s a feeling, deep inside his chest, that whispers to him that nothing concerning this young, enigmatic girl is as simple as it seems. He sends out a silent plea for something, anything to save him from the future that awaits him as her husband. Arthur’s climbing the stairs to his room when he hears thunder in the distance.

 

*****

 

The next morning, Arthur is dressed and out the door before Floure appears. Lottie tells him the girl is probably exhausted from her journey and they should let her sleep while she can. She suggests Arthur leave a note before leaving for work. Arthur rolls his eyes and nabs a roll from Lottie’s basket.

 

It rained most of the night, and Arthur’s attention is on keeping his boots from the worst of the mud on his trek into town, so he doesn’t notice the rider until he’s nearly on top of him. A shout of warning is all he gets before the horse barrels past, sending Arthur into the muddy ditch to keep himself from being trampled.

 

“Sorry!” The rider calls, standing in his stirrups to look back at Arthur as he continues his race into town.

 

Arthur’s shoes are wet now, and there is grit between his toes as he trudges onward. Every fibre of him is screaming to return home to wash and change, but if he’s late to work, he’ll suffer worse than his mother’s scolding. He chances losing what little freedom he has if Mr. Dempshire fires him for being tardy.

 

The Romani people hold cleanliness next to godliness, and Arthur’s family is no different. He’ll have to take special care in cleaning his things to ensure his mother doesn’t find about this, or she’ll worry needlessly about him. Not to mention her fretting over Floure finding out.

 

When Arthur arrives, Mrs. Dempshire is sweeping the store. She takes one look at him at points around back. She digs out a pair of her husband’s shoes for him to wear, and a pair of thick, woollen stockings. Arthur dimples at her until she blushes and swats at him, letting him spread out his soggy items on the rack in the yard.

 

The day is busy, much like every day. Theirs is the only general store in town, and people are always willing to stop in and visit for a while. Arthur’s father and brother are well respected in their industry, and his sister is engaged to the solicitor’s son, so there aren’t many citizens that Arthur doesn’t know. The exception seems to be the son of James Brydges, a wealthy landowner and commissioner of the Castle Hotel, currently being built by Arthur’s father on the site of the old baille.

 

According to the townspeople, the son, John, has been away for some time, studying at Oxford, and has now returned to follow in his father’s footsteps. Arthur doesn’t have much use for the Brydges, regardless of their role in the success of his father’s business. James Brydges is a prince of corruption, having acquired his wealth and power through questionable means. He funnels large sums through the town, and seems dedicated to molding it into his own, small kingdom. Arthur doesn’t expect much better of his son.

 

Other than gossip, Arthur’s day is uneventful and he returns home in dry shoes in time for dinner. Lottie is conspicuously absent, and his mother tells him she’s dining with her fiancé Henry’s family. Arthur’s not the brightest man in town, but he’s not as blind to his mother’s meddling as she thinks he is.

 

“Why are you rushing this, she’s practically a child.” He hisses, helping to set the table as his mother stirs a pot on the stove.

 

“Hush now, she’s a lovely young woman ,” his mother says. “Why wait?”

 

“Because we barely know each other. Give us some time.”

 

“You’ll have plenty of time after you’re married. Nothing binds people together like a wedding night.” His mother winks.

 

Arthur chokes on his spit, coughing as Floure comes down the stairs, holding her shawl over her face.

 

“Are you sick?” She asks.

 

“Only of repeating myself.” Arthur tells her, glaring at his mother.

 

“Arthur does so love the sound of his own voice,” his mother pats him on the cheek. “It’s a wonder anyone else gets a word in.”

 

“I’ve noticed he uses many words to portray little meaning.” Floure muses, tilting her head at him.

 

Arthur feels his face heat up and he slaps a fork onto the table with more force than is necessary. “Where is Father?”

 

“In town still. He sent word that he’ll be late.” His mother wipes out their bowls and serves the stew.

 

They eat in silence, Arthur keeping his eyes resolutely on his meal while his mother and Floure hold a silent conversation, communicated in sighs and glances. Floure insists on doing the washing up and Arthur escapes into the yard, happy to be away from them. The two women seem thick as thieves already and Arthur can see what his life will be once he and Floure are married. Cowed into anything they deem fit, Arthur will no doubt be a father by this time next year. The thought makes him shudder. It’s not that he’s never touched a woman, it’s just that he doesn’t see the pleasure in it.

 

Margaret Tolley had let him kiss her when they were eighteen, placing his hand on her thigh behind the school while he mashed their lips together. It has been wet and warm, but altogether unremarkable. She’d declared him unfit as a husband soon after, telling Lottie he was cold and dismissive. Arthur couldn’t really disagree.

 

The rest of the week goes by much the same. Arthur goes to work, returning home to the women while his father is kept later and later at the worksite. It seems Brydges the elder has put his son in charge of overseeing the build, and it’s fallen to Arthur’s father to answer every question the man has.

 

“To his credit, he seems genuinely interested and set on his task,” his father tells him while Arthur sits with him late one night. “The hotel is important to his father, and he’s taking his responsibility seriously.”

 

“What does a Doctor of Civil Law even do?” Arthur asks, sketching his father’s tired form in his notebook.

 

“I’m not sure, really. Runs things, I suppose.”

 

“The people of this town aren’t here for his pleasure.” Arthur remarks.

 

“No, but we’re certainly not going to turn down the work, Arthur. We don’t have that privilege.”

 

Arthur ducks his head. His family is better off than most, and he knows they owe that to his father’s hard work and the whims of James Brydges.

 

“He’s not much older than you. Perhaps you should find an excuse to befriend him.”

 

Arthur snorts. “What on earth would I have in common with a man like John Brydges?”

 

“More than you have with the girl upstairs set to marry you.” His father says drily.

 

Arthur looks up from his book. “I may not have control over who I marry, but I would hope I am still at liberty to chose my friends.”

 

His father sighs and shakes his head. “You’re too much like your mother, you know that?”

 

“I should hope so, you all say it often enough.”

 

“Arthur, we all have a lot in life. This marriage isn’t what I would have chosen for you, but it’s what your mother wants. I’ve never been able to deny her, you know that.”

 

“It seems to me that everyone in this family has had the freedom to chose their own fate. Everyone but me,” he waves off his father’s protest. “I know the marriage is set, I’ve surrendered. But I would just like to point out that Iain and Lottie both chose their mates. Mother defied her family to marry you, and it feels like a punishment that I haven’t been afforded the same.”

 

“Did you have someone in mind, then?”

 

“No, of course not, but that shouldn’t matter.”

 

“Arthur, you’re twenty-two, it’s unusual for a man of your age to have no marriage prospects.”

 

“Why is it anyone’s business but my own?”

 

His father chuckles. “You know the answer to that. This is a small town, son, no one’s business is their own.”

 

Arthur smoothes his fingers over the lines on the page. “It just feels like such a mistake.”

 

“I know, son, I do. But it’s just nerves. Floure’s a lovely girl, and your mother and sister are working hard to train her up so that you may court her publically. You’ll be sweet on her in no time, you’ll see.”

 

“Did you love Mother from the start?” Arthur asks, desperate for reassurance that his misgivings aren’t out of place.

 

His father grins, dimples deep in his cheeks. “She tells me I did.”

 

Arthur smiles back, unable to frown in the face of the love his parents have for each other.

 

“I’m sure I’ll get used to her.” He says quietly, willing the words to be true.

 

*******

 

Three nights later, after staying for dinner with the Dempshire’s and going over the books with them, Arthur cuts through the Castle worksite on his journey home. He’s picking his way over the stones set out for the back wall when someone steps into his path.

 

Arthur rears back, stumbling in the dark. “Excuse you, sir!”

 

“Excuse me? Excuse you. What are you doing lurking in the darkness?” The voice is rough, the man’s face cast in shadow.

 

“I’m not lurking. I’m walking.” Arthur protests, trying to brush past.

 

The man tsks. “Through a dangerous area on a cloudy night?”

 

“It’s hardly cloudy, and I wouldn’t call a building site dangerous, I’ve been on them since I was a child.”

 

“Have you?” The man muses. “Who are you then?”

 

“I would ask you the same.” Arthur shoots back.

 

“I asked first.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Charming, but we already did that part. Who. Are. You?” He demands cheerfully.

 

“The chief mason, Mr. Bray, is my father. Now, will you let me continue home?”

 

“The mason’s son? Not the big one, what’s his name?”

 

“Iain,” Arthur spits. “No, clearly I’m not the big one.”

 

“Ah, you must be Arthur, then. The golden child.” The man leans against the half built wall, moving further into the shadows.

 

Arthur sputters. “Surely not! Where did you hear that?”

 

“What do you think of this project then?” the man asks, ignoring his protest. “Some citizens are of the opinion that it’s an extravagance.”

 

Arthur snorts. “I say that’s putting it gently.”

 

“Oh, really?” The man crosses his arms over his chest.

 

“Yes, really. This hotel is nothing more than a way for Brydges to wash his hands of his dirty dealings. That it provides employment and income for the town is a happy side effect.”

 

“Don’t hold back, Arthur, tell me how you really feel.”

 

Arthur rolls his eyes. “If the rest of the town wants to turn a blind eye to the corruption of our benefactor, that’s their decision. I’m no fool, and I refuse to play the part.”

 

“My father would be most interested in your opinion.” The man says seriously.

 

“Why? Who is your father?” Arthur takes a step back, wary of the change in the man’s tone.

 

The man steps into the moonlight, a crooked smirk twitching on his lips. “John Eames Brydges, at your service.”

 

Arthur takes another step back. “No, you’re not.”

 

The man laughs. “I assure you, I am. Ask your father if you don’t believe me.”

 

“Please don’t fire him,” Arthur pleads, reaching out. “You don’t know me, but I have a reputation for running my mouth faster than my thoughts, ask anyone. Please, my father is quite fond of yours, of you as well. I beg you not to hold my opinions against him.”

 

“Calm down, man. You have nothing to fear from me,” Brydges claps Arthur on the shoulder, shaking him gently and Arthur catches sight on the signet ring on the man’s left pinkie finger. “I asked what you thought, it would hardly be honourable of my to punish you for answering.”

 

Arthur watches Brydges closely, unsure if he should believe him.

 

“Forgive me, Arthur. I fear I have set us up for a most perilous beginning. Let’s begin again,” Brydges holds out his hand. “I am John Brydges, but you may call me Eames. And you are?”

 

Arthur stares at him.

 

“Why hello, Eames! Pleased to make your acquaintance. Arthur Bray’s the name, arresting son of the chief mason, I believe you know him,” Eames nods seriously. “Why yes, I do! Wonderful man, very patient with my hundred daily questions.”

 

“Stop. Just, do you often speak to yourself?” Arthur asks, confused and thrown off by Brydges’ nattering.

 

“Well, I have to speak to someone intelligent every now and then. Why not myself?” Brydges smiles his crooked smile and looks Arthur over. “You look quite intelligent, care to give it a go?”

 

“You are a very strange man, Mister Brydges.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“That wasn’t a compliment.” Arthur informs him.

 

“Wasn’t it? I could have sworn it was.” Brydges frowns.

 

Arthur leans forward, sniffing delicately. “Are you drunk?”

 

Brydges laughs. “Yes! Yes I am!”

 

Arthur sighs. “Are you even going to remember this conversation tomorrow?”

 

Brydges bends forward, close enough for Arthur to smell the brandy on his breath. “Oh, darling, how could I ever forget you?”

 

Arthur flushes, pushing him back and forcing his way past. “Goodnight, Mister Brydges.”

 

Arthur is almost clear of the work site when Brydges calls out after him. “I said to call me Eames!”

 

When Arthur arrives home, he claims a headache and retires to his room. He’s worried and angry at himself for once again running his mouth. If his father is fired it will be entirely his fault and they will be ruined. James Brydges is well known and no one will go against his word to hire a man he’s deemed unfit. The best Arthur can hope for is a reprimand. He’ll be forced to live with his father’s disappointment, but he’ll bear it if it means they keep a roof over their heads. Hoping John Brydges won’t remember in the morning is fruitless. The man didn’t seem drunk enough for that, and even if he was, Arthur doesn’t have that kind of luck.

 

In the morning, his mother clucks over his sullen silence and makes him swallow a teaspoon of honey to ward off a cold. Floure watches him closely, fiddling with the cord around her neck. Maybe if he comes down with something, she’ll refuse to marry him. Arthur holds tightly to the hope on his trek to work.

 

It’s barely one in the afternoon and Arthur is restocking tins of tea when the bell over the door chimes and his worst nightmare walks in.

 

“Arthur!” Brydges grins, arms wide.

 

Arthur ducks his head and swears quietly. “Mister Brydges.”

 

Brydges purses his lips. “Arthur, We’ve been over this. Please, call me Eames.”

 

“Why?” Arthur asks before he can stop himself. The Dempshires are upstairs for tea so there’s no one around to scold him for his forwardness.

 

“Truthfully?”

 

“No, please tell me a lie.” Arthur says and turns back to the tea.

 

Brydges chuckles and leans on the wall next to him. “Because my father loathes it. It’s my mother’s maiden name and he hated her father fiercely.”

 

“Do you enjoy vexing your father?” Arthur asks quietly, fighting a smile.

 

Eames sighs. “There is so little I can do to actually move against him, so yes, vexing him is all I have.”

 

Arthur turns to him, caught off guard by the sad honesty of his tone, but Eames has moved away to look at a display of soap. There’s a subtle slope to his shoulders and Arthur can’t help but wonder at the tight line of his mouth.

 

“Eames, I’m Arthur. It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance last night.” Arthur offers his hand and Eames grasps it with a wry smile.

 

“The pleasure was mine, I assure you.”

 

Mrs. Dempshire bustles in from the back, exclaiming loudly at the presence of Eames, whom she remembers well from his younger days.

 

“Goodness, the trouble this boy got up to!” Mrs. Dempshire crows, hand pressed to her brow. “Arthur, you’d never believe it! He needed a young man like you beside him, to keep him in line a little.”

 

“I didn’t turn out too poorly, did I?” Eames laughs.

 

“No, I suppose not,” she says, smiling fondly. “Still, a little Arthur in your life would do you some good. He’s due for a break, why don’t you take him to lunch?”

 

“Oh, no, that’s not necessary.” Arthur protests, feeling uncomfortable.

 

“What a lovely idea! Come, Arthur, let me spoil you a little.”

 

“I don’t need you to buy me lunch,” Arthur spits. “I don’t want your charity.”

 

The smile drops off Eames’ face and he clear his throat. “Of course, Arthur, I apologize.”

 

Mrs. Dempshire is looking from one to the other with wide eyes.

 

Arthur regrets his outburst and the pinched look Eames is now giving him “I am due for a break and need to stop by to speak with my father. Perhaps you are also going that way.”

 

Eames blinks and his face softens a little. “That I am. Mrs. Dempshire, it was lovely to see you. Give my best to your husband.”

 

Arthur grabs the sandwich Floure packed for him and the envelope for his father, and joins Eames outside where he’s squinting into the sun and brushing off his hat.

 

“You don’t really have to walk with me, Arthur. I won’t force you.”

 

Arthur scrubs a hand over his face. “I’m an ass.”

 

Eames barks out a laugh and turns to face him. “You are a little bit. But you’re kind of a lovely ass, so I can forgive you.”

 

“How big of you,” Arthur says, fighting a smile and setting off for the worksite. “You’re kind of an ass, as well, you know.”

 

Eames sighs dramatically. “I have often been accused of it. And I’m not nearly as pleasant to look at as you, so it tends to turn people off.”

 

Arthur flushes and looks away. “My father seems to like you.”

 

“Does he? That’s nice! I thought he might, but it’s so hard to tell sometimes if people merely tolerate me because of my name.”

 

“That must be hard.” Arthur says, unwrapping his sandwich and taking a bite.

 

“Not everyone is as honest as you, dear Arthur,” Eames grins. “Is that roast beef?”

 

Arthur rolls his eyes and hands Eames the other half. “You tricked me into honesty, I’m not sure it counts.”

 

“It does.” Eames says around a mouthful of bread and meat.

 

Arthur shakes his head and they finish their food in companionable silence. Arthur’s father is studying a building plan when they arrive, bent over a flat rock with a stick of graphite held between his teeth.

 

“Master Eames, I didn’t expect to see you here today.” Arthur’s father greets them with a smile.

 

“I simply could not deny your charming son my company, Mr. Bray. He is much too interesting.” Eames says, shaking Arthur’s father’s hand with both his own.

 

“Charming?” his father raises his eyebrows.

 

“Of course, how else would I describe him?”

 

His father laughs. “Oh, I could think of a few words.”

 

“I am, in fact, standing here. I can hear you.” Arthur scowls.

 

“And funny, too!” Eames grins.

 

“Wonders never cease.” His father agrees.

 

“I was bringing you your coins, but now I don’t think I’ll give them to you. Does mother know how rude you are at work?” Arthur asks.

 

“Coins?” Eames inquires.

 

“To lay between the bricks. It’s tradition.” His father explains, ignoring Arthur’s question.

 

“Why, Mr. Bray, are you superstitious?” Eames teases.

 

Arthur shifts uncomfortably, but his father’s smile is easy, practiced.

 

“Can’t hurt, can it?”

 

Arthur leaves them to their work and returns to the store, making sure to tell Mrs. Dempshire of their lovely walk, lest she worry about Eames’ reception of Arthur.

 

When his father arrives home, earlier than usual, Arthur’s heart skips a beat.

 

“Mr. Brydges the younger insisted I be home for dinner. Is this your doing, Arthur?”

 

“What would Arthur have to do with it?” Lottie asks, surprised.

 

“Mr. Brydges seems quite taken with our young man. Asked question after question all afternoon.”

 

Arthur’s ears are burning and Floure is watching him with a strange look on her face.

 

“Arthur, have you made a friend?” His mother asks, hopeful.

 

“It’s not that strange if I have,” Arthur protests. “I wouldn’t exactly call us friends, though. We’ve only spoken twice.”

 

“Mister Brydges would beg to differ. He considers you fast friends, I think.” His father says, squeezing his shoulder.

 

*********

 

There’s a note waiting for Arthur at work the next morning. The Brydges’ seal seems a bit formal for a simple request for Arthur to meet Eames “at the place of our first encounter”, but Arthur figures the wealthy are prone to their peculiarities.

 

He doesn’t tell his father where he’s going when he sets out that night, he simply expresses a need to clear his head, for he has a great many things weighing on it with his life on the precipice of change. His father nods in understanding and waves Arthur off, the shame of deception burning brightly inside him.

 

The feeling doesn’t last long, however, for over the course of a few weeks, he quickly finds his nights with Eames to be filled with laughter and lively discussion; something Arthur hadn’t realized was missing from his life. It has been a long time since he’s enjoyed the benefits of true friendship, and in Eames he finds that and much more.

 

Eames knows a great many things on a variety of subjects, and, being well travelled, is eager to express his thoughts and theories. In Arthur he finds a very willing audience. Despite having grown up wealthy with a powerful father, Eames has the benefit of having a gregarious personality that enamours him to the people his father employes, and often, as a young boy, he could be found accompanying the staff of the house on their many duties.

 

As a result, Eames can do everything from sweeping out the hearth to starching his own shirts. His latest quest is to learn the secrets of masonry from Arthur’s father, and is quite disappointed that Mr. Bray has thus far kept him at arm's length when it comes to the actual work.

 

“It’s not that he doesn’t trust you,” Arthur explains for the third time. “It’s just that you’re not a mason. They’re very furtive about their trade. If just anyone could do it, they wouldn’t be in demand.”

 

“But I’m not just anyone.” Eames argues, his shoulder pressing against Arthur’s where they sit on the cold stones of what will be the lobby of the hotel.

 

“No, you’re worse, you’re the employer.”

 

Eames shoots him an offended look. “I am not!”

 

“You are. Your job is to oversee this project. My father reports directly to you. The last thing he wants is for you to think you know everything and start questioning his methods. My father is an excellent mason, you need to trust him.”

 

“I do trust him, completely. His work is among the finest I’ve ever seen, and I’ve told him that repeatedly. I’m just curious, I don’t want to take over.” Eames sulks.

 

“I know that, and he is quite fond of you, I swear it. He talks often of how interested you are and how much you want to be involved. Honestly, I think it worried him at first. He’s not used to having someone on site daily. Usually your father commissions a job and only shows his face when it’s running behind or has finished.” Arthur shrugs, sipping from the flask Eames hands him.

 

This is another new development. Arthur’s never been much for alcohol, but the cherry brandy Eames keeps on his person is sweet and leaves a warm flutter in his belly. It doesn’t hurt that Eames is always willing to share and seems to take pleasure in the colour his vice brings to Arthur’s cheeks.

 

“It speaks to my father’s faith in him that he does that, you know. Not everyone is granted so much freedom.” Eames tone is bitter as he takes the flask back.

 

“Like you?” Arthur surmises.

 

Eames raises the flask in his direction and drinks deeply, the brandy staining his lower lip. Arthur watches as his tongue darts out, gathering the liquid and disappearing in one quick swipe. Arthur’s startled into a laugh when Eames catches him looking.

 

“You don’t smile much. Not truly.” Eames notes, capping the flask.

 

“My mother says I save them for times they’re truly needed. For when they’ll make a difference in someone’s day.”

 

Eames smiles and runs his finger along Arthur’s jaw. “I covet each and every one. That’s the third one you’ve given me.”

 

Arthur tries not to shiver at the touch. Eames is a tactile person, something Arthur’s not accustomed to, and he has had to force himself to remain calm when Eames throws his arm around his shoulders or collapses beside him, laying his head in Arthur’s lap.

 

“What’s Oxford like?” Arthur asks, moving the subject away from himself.

 

Eames huffs. “Dreadful.”

 

“Come on, it can’t all be bad. You got an unparalleled education, at the very least.”

 

“Everything comes at a cost, Arthur. Never let anyone tell you different,” Eames runs his hand through his hair, making it stick up. “Oxford is stuffy and grim, and the expectations are ridiculously high. I was considered ‘new money’ there, and the pressure to measure up, well, it was difficult.”

 

“You don’t seem the type to worry about measuring up. I mean, you’re here with me, aren’t you?” Arthur teases.

 

Eames turns to face him, his eyes tracing over Arthur slowly. “There is nowhere else I would rather be. Your friendship means so much to me, Arthur.”

 

“Hey, I know,” Arthur takes a chance and grasps Eames’ hand in his own, squeezing it. “You’re nothing like I imagined you’d be.”

 

“Hmm, and just what did you imagine? Silver spoon in my mouth?” Eames teases.

 

“More like shoved up your arse, but yeah.”

 

Eames laughs, falling against Arthur. “Oh, Arthur, what did I do before I knew you? Where was my joy?”

 

“Your life was bleak and hopeless, I’ve no doubt.” Arthur pushes him off.

 

“That sounds too close to the truth to laugh about.”

 

“Did you truly have no one? You’re so personable, I find that hard to believe. You’ve got half this town wrapped around your little finger.”

 

Eames gives him a small smile. “There are two of me, surely you’ve learned that by now. The face I show to you, and the face I show to others. No one can be that obnoxious all the time. I need my ‘Nights of Arthur’ to reveal my true, sober self.”

 

“Sober is not the word I would use to describe you.”

 

“You know what I mean. I’m different when it’s just the two of us, yes?”

 

“Yes. I consider it an honour that you allow me to see the true you.” Arthur flushes, his voice quiet.

 

“And do I get the true Arthur? Do you let me closer than any other?” Eames returns, voice just as low, his head only inches away.

 

Arthur hesitates. There are things he can never tell Eames, and things he never wants to. Floure being at the top of both columns.

 

“I try,” he whispers, lowering his gaze from Eames’ face. “It’s not easy.”

 

Eames’ finger slides under his chin, returning Arthur’s eyes to his. “I hope to one day earn your trust, Arthur. It will be my greatest reward.”

 

“I should go,” Arthur jerks his head away and stumbles to his feet. “It’s late and not all of us have the luxury of laying in bed half the day.”

 

“Oy! I’ll have you know I have people to lounge in bed for me. One cannot simply meet all the dilatory expectations society thrusts upon them.” Eames jokes, reaching for a hand up.

 

Arthur pulls him to his feet with a laugh. Eames never seems offended by Arthur’s skittishness, simply changing the subject or subjugating himself to put Arthur at ease.

 

“Tomorrow night, then?” Arthur asks, brushing off his trousers.

 

“Father’s having a dinner and I’m expected to attend. I doubt I’ll be sober enough to retire to my room alone by the end.” Eames says bitterly.

 

“Oh.” Arthur feels his face warm at the implication.

 

“Why, Arthur, where is has your mind gone? I meant without the help of my valet. Henry is indeed handsome for a man for his age, but hardly spry enough to keep up with me.”

 

Arthur chokes on a gasp and Eames laughs.

 

“You make shocking you too easy, friend.” Eames throws his arms around Arthur, rubbing his back vigorously.

 

“You are a detriment to my innocence, Master Brydges.” Arthur tells him primly, allowing Eames to sway him back and forth.

 

“I certainly hope so.” Eames says, kissing the top of his head and releasing him.

 

Arthur smoothes his hair down and scowls. “I am not your pet, Eames.”

 

“Of course not, duckling. Now, run along home before your father decides he must have words with me in the morning.” Eames shooes him away.

 

Arthur shakes his head and leaves, reaching the doorway before turning back. Eames’ eyes have followed him and he straightens at Arthur’s return.

 

“My father doesn’t know this is where I go. It’s nothing to do with you. I just--I have so little to myself. Do not fault me for wanting to keep our friendship between us.” Arthur bites his lip, unsure if Eames will take insult.

 

Eames cups the back of Arthur’s neck, drawing him in and pressing his forehead against Arthur’s. “Fear not, dear friend. I too wish to keep you to myself.”

 

Arthur smiles and squeezes Eames’ wrist.

 

“Four.” Eames says.

 

Arthur laughs and pushes away, leaving Eames in the dark skeleton of the hotel.

 

******

 

That night, Arthur dreams of Eames. In it, Arthur is at work when Eames appears, asking him for tea. When they leave, Eames brushes his hand over Arthur’s back and Arthur leans into the warm touch, allowing himself to drag his hand across the side of Eames’ thigh. They take tea in the garden of a little house, and Arthur is certain, in the way of dreams, that it is theirs. When he wakes in the morning he feels hopeful and content, his good mood causing the women of the house to comment and speculate as to its root.

 

“The moon is waxing, but that usually has the opposite effect on him.” Lottie says.

 

His mother tilts his head up, squinting into his face. “He’s was a summer baby, this is his season. Perhaps he’s finally decided to go along with his design.”

 

“Perhaps it’s the prunes I snuck into his oatmeal.” Floure says sweetly.

 

“You’re not half as sly as you thing you are.” Arthur tells her, brushing his mother away.

 

“Am I not? You found the maca root, then?” Floure asks.

 

“What maca root? What does that do?” Arthur squawks and his mother and Lottie laugh.

 

“Oh, Arthur.” Floure shakes her head and turns her attention back to her sewing.

 

“It’s no wonder Father is out the door at dawn if an agreeable mood is met with this badgering.” Arthur scowls, but it holds nothing of its usual heat.

 

“My dear boy, we are simply startled by your smile so early in the day.” His mother kisses his head and the memory of Eames doing the same makes him shiver.

 

“Am I truly so terrible?” He asks.

 

“No, Arthur,” Lottie assures him. “We would not have you any other way.”

 

“You’re surly, but not unpleasant.” Floure adds.

 

“There are worse traits for a husband.” His mother says, leaning over Floure’s shoulder to examine her work.

 

Arthur feels his mood sour at the reminder of their impending marriage. He excuses himself and leaves for town. With no Eames to look forward to, the day drags on, casting him deeper into a black mood. By the time he returns home his body aches from the strain of his foul disposition.

 

That night Arthur once again dreams of Eames. They’re settled for the evening on a small couch in front of the fire in the garden house. Eames’ hands are warm and firm as they rub the tightness out of Arthur’s muscles, and when he’s done, Arthur leans back into Eames’ embrace and he hums brokenly in Arthur’s ear.

 

Arthur doesn’t work the next morning and is startled when Eames arrives at the door, Arthur’s father laid out in the cart. Arthur’s heart leaps into his throat at the smear of blood on Eames’ shirt. His coat is missing and the bloom of colour against the snowy expanse of his chest is shocking.

 

“He’s fine. Arthur, He’s fine.” Eames grips his forearms and Arthur realizes his own hands are clamped onto Eames’ shoulders, shaking him.

 

“What’s happened?” Lottie pushes past them to the cart.

 

“A stone split and crushed two of his fingers. The doctor’s seen him, and he’s assured me he won’t lose them.” Eames explains, rubbing at the crease of Arthur’s elbow.

 

His father is drowsy with laudnum, his hand splinted and wrapped in strips of cotton. Eames helps Arthur get him into the house and settled into bed before Eames goes over the doctor’s instructions with Arthur’s mother and Lottie. Arthur wanders to the back garden, mind whirling. He knows he should be worried about what his father’s injury will mean for their family, but all he can think about is Eames covered in blood.

 

“This is where you’ve got to, then?” Eames says behind him and Arthur turns and fists his hands into Eames’ shirt. Now that he knows better, he can see that the blood is crusted and flaking under his grip, not the fresh crimson he’d imagined when Eames appeared at their door.

 

“Arthur?”

 

Arthur breathes heavily through his nose, pulling Eames closer. “I thought it was you. I thought, I thought you were hurt.”

 

“Darling, I’m fine,” Eames wraps Arthur in a hug, pressing his cheek to Arthur’s temple. “I’m whole, Arthur.”

 

Arthur closes his eyes and enjoys Eames’ embrace for a moment, aching with relief, before pulling away. “Of course you are. Of course. You’d hardly come here if you weren’t.”

 

Eames reaches for his hand, stroking his thumb over Arthur’s palm. “There is no one else I would seek if I were in need.”

 

Arthur laughs wetly and pulls his hand away to wipe at his nose. “Iain can take over at the site. There’s no need to hire a new mason.”

 

“I know that.” Eames frowns at him.

 

“You’ll tell your father, then? It was an accident, right? I shouldn’t reflect poorly on him.” Arthur crosses his arms over his chest, unable to meet Eames’ eyes. He feels foolish and out of step.

 

“Arthur, your father’s job is safe. The doctor thinks he’ll be back to work within the week. I should be happy, really. He can’t use the hand, so he’ll have more time to answer my unending questions.” Eames laughs weakly.

 

“You’re happy my father has been injured?” Arthur asks sharply.

 

“A poor choice of words, forgive me.” Eames steps toward him.

 

“Arthur?” Floure calls from the back door, watching them with a quiet intensity. “You’re mother is asking for you.”

 

“I’ll be right there.”

 

“Who is that?” Eames asks, watching Floure move back into the house.

 

“No one,” Arthur dismisses. “I have to go.”

 

“Arthur, wait,” Eames reaches for him again, frowning when Arthur moves away. “You’re upset, that’s understandable, but he’s really going to be fine.”

 

“Of course he will.”

 

“And us as well?” Eames asks, uncertainty written across his face.

 

“I have to go.” Arthur moves past him to the door.

 

“Arthur, please,” Eames pleads. “Meet me tomorrow night.”

 

Arthur stills, hands clenching at his sides. He wants to say yes so badly it hurts, but Eames is here. He’s seen Floure, and Arthur knows they both deserve the truth. He just wanted this for himself for just a little while longer. So he could have something to look back on when it ends.

 

Please , Arthur.” Eames repeats.

 

Arthur nods curtly and goes into the house, taking the stairs two at a time to his parent’s room. He hears Eames and Floure conversing in polite tones, then he jangle of Eames climbing back into the cart and setting off for town. Arthur presses his brow to the cool wood of the door and takes a deep breath before opening the door.

 

Later that night, once his father has been dosed and his mother calmed into sleep beside him, Lottie bids them goodnight and a heavy silence settles over the house. Floure is working her needlepoint by candlelight and Arthur is indulging in a tumbler of scotch.

 

“It was nice to finally meet Mister Brydges. You’re father speaks so highly of him, I must admit I was surprised to see his feet do indeed touch the ground.” Floure says, not looking up.

 

“That’s unkind,” Arthur tells her. “He’s a man like any other.”

 

“He is indeed a man. I wasn’t sure if you noticed.” Floure smile is sharp.

 

Arthur shifts in his seat. “I’m not sure what that means.”

 

“I may be young, Arthur, but do not think me stupid. I am aware of what men like that get up to in the shadows. You’d be best to cut the head off that beast before he draws you in,” she tilts her head in his direction and the hardness in her eyes unsettles him. “Or perhaps he already has.”

 

“What’s gotten into you? Eames and I are friends, that’s all.” Arthur’s glass clatters against the table as he sets it down.

 

“Eames? Is that what you call him? Not exactly proper, is it?”

 

“He’s my friend.” He repeats.

 

“For now. How long can a friendship like that last?”

 

“What are you talking about?” Arthur goes cold, caught in Floure’s violet gaze.

 

“You’re from two different worlds, Arthur. They say his father will be made a Duke before the year is up. As young men, a friendship like yours is one thing, but when Eames is a Marquess he’ll hardly have need of the son of a mason. You’re best to forget your fondness for him now before he casts you aside.”

 

“You have no idea what’s between us.” Arthur whispers, his throat gone tight.

 

Floure smiles sharply. “I saw you in the garden, Arthur. Your sentimentality betrays you. I saw how you clung to him in your worry. How he didn’t push you away. He sought out your touch like a lover would. Surely you cannot be blind to it.”

 

Floure’s ugly words make Arthur’s gut twist. She’s wrong, so wrong about which one of them wants more, and Arthur hadn’t realize how deep his affections run until Floure addressed it. He wants Eames. Wants his hands, and his mouth, and anything else he can get, as long as Eames’ attention stays on him. He feels sick with the realization, excusing himself and hurrying to the darkness of his bed.

 

His dreams that night are distressing and fevered. He’s running through the hotel, now completed, but none of the rooms match his memories of the building plan. He’s searching for Eames, a fatal deadline counting down in his mind as he rushes from room to room, his throat raw from shouting. Every time he thinks he’s close, when the smell of cherry brandy is just around the corner, or the echo of laughter is heard through a closed door, Arthur stumbles, crashing to the floor. His knees are bruised and aching, his palms scraped raw by the time he drags himself into the rose garden where Eames is whispering into Floure’s ear.

 

Her laughter is loud and dark, her violet eyes glittering in the moonlight, and when Eames looks down at him, his eyes are the same, lilac and hard as crystals. The rose bushes shudder around him, vines crawling out to wrap around his wrists and ankles, pinning him to the ground as Eames and Floure laugh at his screams. They circle his neck, thorns cutting into his skin and shearing down this throat as they crawl into his mouth. Arthur is pulled into the bushes, a macabre statue of the stain left behind by unwanted love.

 

He wakes with a shout, his throat dry and aching, sweat soaking the sheets. He jumps when a cupboard is slammed in the kitchen below. He shakes off the dream and washes quickly, checking on his parents before slipping out of the house. He can’t face Floure, not after last night, and his mother’s declaration that they will soon announce their engagement publically. Arthur will be expected to court her then, be seen around town with Floure on his arm. He just can’t face that today.

 

He leaves a sealed note at the work site for Eames, sharing a cup of coffee with his brother before heading to the store for work. Iain and he were close as children, but he’ll be a father himself this winter, and Arthur can’t help but feel like they’re in two very different places. Iain won’t understand Arthur’s uncertainty over his friendship with Eames and his marriage to Floure. Everything has come quickly in his brother’s life. Not easily, but he’s never failed to acquire anything he strived for and Arthur doesn’t know how to explain that everything being handed to him is the exact opposite of what he wants.

 

Eames is waiting for him when he arrives at the work site that night. The hotel is nearly complete and it’s shape is easily discernable in the bright light of the moon. Eames straightens from where he’s leaning on the garden wall. His hair is a mess and there are dark smudges under his eyes. Arthur is shocked to see the vast difference the past day has made.

 

“Thank you for coming.” Eames says, stuffing his hands in his pockets and looking more unsure than Arthur’s ever seen him.

 

“I said that I would.” Arthur stops a few feet away.

 

“I wasn’t sure. I thought that maybe you hated me now.”

 

“Eames, I could never hate you.” Arthur wants to pull him close and banish whatever weight Eames has on his mind.

 

“You were so troubled yesterday, I thought. Well, I was worried.”

 

“I know. I’m sorry for that, it was an upsetting day.” Arthur takes a step closer, unable to keep his distance.

 

“You were cold to me. You’ve been curt and sharp, but never cold. What changed?” Eames stares at him and he looks so pained Arthur takes another step forward.

 

“As I said in my letter, I’ve kept something from you. I had no real reason to, it seems silly now, but I just wanted so badly to keep you to myself. I couldn’t admit that this would end.”

 

Eames frowns and reaches for Arthur’s hand. “May I?”

 

Arthur gives him a small smile and clasps Eames’ hand in his own.

 

“Arthur, nothing you could tell me would ruin our friendship. I could never cast you aside. I care for you too much,” Eames threads their fingers together and pulls him closer. “I have things I have kept secret as well. Can we make tonight about telling truths? Let no secrets remain between us once the sun has risen.”

 

Arthur wants to pull away, to refuse him, but Eames looks so hopeful, so sure, that he cannot. He must tell Eames about Floure. And about the wants of his bitter and twisted heart.

 

“The girl, the one you asked about yesterday.”

 

“Yes?”

 

Arthur presses his lips together to ward off the panic rising inside him. “We are to be married.”

 

Eames’ face falls, but he doesn’t drop Arthur’s hand. His look of shock is glossed over in an instant and Arthur hates whatever part of Eames’ upbringing that made his mask so perfect.

 

“I suppose I should offer you congratulations, then.”

 

“Eames.”

 

“Why did you feel you could not tell me this? You are my friend and I am happy for you. When is the wedding?”

 

Eames lets go of Arthur’s hand and turns away from him. Arthur steels himself against Eames’ reaction and moves around him, forcing Eames to look at him.

 

“I don’t want to marry her. My mother has arranged it. I barely know her!”

 

“Well, I’m sure that won’t be true for long.” Eames smiles and it’s so false Arthur wants to cover it with his hands.

 

“Eames, please.”

 

“Please what, Arthur? I am glad for you! I’m sure you’ll be very happy.” Eames voice is full of false cheer and it echoes flatly against the hotel walls.

 

“I will be miserable. She’s strange, and quiet, and, and-”

 

“And what?” Eames says sharply.

 

“And she’s not you,” Arthur spits. “I mean. Oh my god, what have I done?” He stumbles backward in shock, tumbling into the newly planted rose bushes. He tries to move away, but his hand is caught amongst the thorns, pain flaring in his fingers when he tries to pull it free.

 

“Stop, Arthur, you’ll hurt yourself!” Eames grabs his wrist, moving the thorns away and raising the hand between them.

 

Arthur stares at Eames’ long fingers wrapped around his bony wrist and the blood that is seeping from his cuts, pooling in the creases where their flesh meets.

 

“I’ve never felt like this before,” he confesses, terrified of meeting Eames’ eyes. “I dream about you. Every night. I didn’t realize until she said it, but...I love you.”

 

Arthur flicks his eyes up to Eames’ face. Eames doesn’t seem to be breathing, but he’s watching Arthur like if he makes any sudden movements, Arthur might run. He’s not entirely wrong.

 

Eames leans closer, pressing gentle kisses to Arthur’s fingers, his tongue trailing across the wounds and lapping up the blood. Once he’s kissed them all, he raises his head and licks his lips.

 

“I have begged for you,” Eames says, his lips inches away from Arthur’s. “Got down on my knees and prayed to any deity I could think of to allow me to keep you. Spilled myself nightly to the thought of your hands on me. Your mouth on mine. Please, God, tell me you speak the truth and I can keep you.”

 

Instead of answering, Arthur presses forward, covering Eames’ lips with his own, their hands clutched between them. Eames groans and licks across Arthur’s lips until Arthur parts them, tasting his blood on Eames’ tongue. Eames backs him up against the garden wall, holding him in place with a hand to the back of neck while he delivers frantic kisses that make Arthur squirm.

 

“Is this real?” Eames pants, kissing across Arthur’s cheek to his ear.

 

Arthur jumps when teeth graze his earlobe, and he pulls Eames closer. “I have no idea.”

 

Eames laughs against his neck, shivering in Arthur’s arms. He winds his hands in Arthur’s hair, staring into his face for a moment before giving him a smile so wide it has to hurt. Arthur fists the back of Eames’ shirt and crushes them together, kissing him again, and again, until his lips are sore and his body is on fire.

 

He can feel Eames hard against his hip, and he longs to touch. He hitches his hips slightly, testing, and draws a sharp keen from Eames. Arthur’s hands drop to Eames’ hips, rubbing their bodies together with more certainty.

 

Eames groans. “God, do I get this, too?”

 

“Have you already forgotten my name?” Arthur teases, feeling bold and confident in a way he never has before.

 

“Arrrthur,” Eames moans, jerking forward. “I want.”

 

“What? What do you want? Eames you have to tell me. I’ve no idea what I’m doing.” Arthur pants, seeking more friction.

 

“Everything.” Eames whispers into his ear.

 

“You have it,” Arthur promises, finding Eames’ mouth once more. “Show me.”

 

Eames kisses him deeply, reaching between them for Arthur’s laces. Fingers brushing along his length makes Arthur gasp, thrusting forward into Eames’ hand.

 

“Yes,” Eames hisses, his palm sliding over the head. “God, Arthur.”

 

Eames pulls him out, stroking slowly until Arthur is arching into it. He paws clumsily at the front of Eames’ trousers, an uncoordinated attempt at getting them open. Eames chuckles and pushes his hand away, pulling at the ties until they’re gaping and Arthur can see Eames’ cock jutting forward obscenely.

 

Arthur hesitates only a moment before running a fingertip through the slick seeping from the slit. He brings his fingers to his mouth, tasting the slippery offering. Eames chases Arthur’s tongue back into his mouth and pushes his own trousers lower so he can press their cocks together tightly.

 

Arthur nearly shouts at the first pass of Eames’ fist, their cocks so warm and close, rubbing against each other.

 

“Yes, darling, let me hear you.” Eames pulls back to watch, his hand firm as it slides over them.

 

It’s rare that Arthur touches himself, and having Eames’s hand on him, Eames’ body leaning into his, Eames’ breath moist on his neck, makes it all too good to last. His back arches over the low wall and his strangled cry is swallowed by Eames’ mouth as he spurts between them. Eames strokes him through it, his seed lending a delicious slickness that has Eames finishing moments later, biting Arthur’s name into the muscle of his shoulder through his shirt.

 

Their panting is loud in the silence of the night, the sticky fluid cooling as they catch their breath. Eames wipes his hand on his shirt and gently tucks Arthur back into his trousers, lacing the ties with fumbling fingers. Once he’s done the same for himself, he raises his head, the look on his face apprehensive.

 

Arthur’s still in shock, quite unable to fully believe what’s happened. He see’s Eames’ worry and seeks to banish it by pressing soft, wet kisses to Eames’ mouth until Eames relaxes and kisses him back.

 

Arthur smiles against Eames’ mouth, a laugh bubbling out of him.

 

“What?” Eames asks, returning the smile.

 

“I cannot believe we just did that.” Arthur grins.

 

“Five,” Eames says, sobering slightly. “Are you alright?”

 

“I am, beyond,” Arthur admits. “And maybe a little overwhelmed.”

 

“But good. Not horrified at what we’ve done?” Eames gives him a tight smile.

 

“No, Eames, no. I truly am not. Nothing in my life has ever felt as right as being with you does. I didn’t think anything could.” Arthur pets his hair, pulling him into a hug.

 

“We should talk about what this means. There will be complications.”

 

Arthur silences him with a kiss. “Please, please can we just have this tonight?”

 

“Arthur,” Eames starts.

 

“We will talk, I swear it. But for tonight, can we pretend nothing else matters but what is between us? I love you, and you are all that exists for me right now.”

 

Eames smiles, cupping Arthur face in his hands. “Why do I get the feeling saying no to you is going to be extremely difficult from now on?”

 

“Because you are a very smart man, Master Eames. And you know what’s good for you.”

 

Eames laughs, his eyes shining with happiness. “I truly don’t remember a time I have ever felt so content.”

 

“Good, let us hold on to that.”

 

“I love you, Arthur. I wish to God that was all there was to it, but despite everything else, know that I love you.” Eames’ smile turns sad and his eyes lose some of their luster.

 

“Hey, hey, just for tonight, right? We will be completely happy, just for tonight.” Arthur reminds him, tugging him to the ground and settling with Eames’ head in his lap.

 

“I’m sorry. There’s just so much at stake.” Eames says, pressing his face into Arthur’s stomach.

 

“I’ve never seen you like this. I’m usually the one lamenting the troubles of the world.” Arthur strokes his hair.

 

Eames looks up at him, troubled. “I didn’t have my chance at being truthful.”

 

Arthur stills. “Was all that not the truth?”

 

“Yes, of course it was,” Eames takes his hand and kisses it. “But I should tell you the rest.”

 

Arthur closes his eyes and leans his head against the wall. “Just one night.”

 

“Arthur, please. If I do not tell you now, I will regret it. I cannot leave you not knowing if this changes things.”

 

Arthur raises his knees, jostling Eames enough that he sits up, facing him. “Go on then.”

 

“This road we are on, it will not be easy.” Eames starts.

 

“You think I don’t see that? I’m the one getting married, Eames.” Arthur says, his words biting.

 

“You think you know, but you do not. I have seen what becomes of men who are found out. Who don’t have the benefit of wealth and power to protect them.” Eames gives him a miserable look.

 

Arthur searches his face, seeing the shame there. “You have done this before. With another.”

 

“Yes,” Eames flinches. “His name was Charles. He was on scholarship at Oxford, studying medicine. We were caught out in my rooms. All it takes is one person’s suspicions. One rumour being spread. It’s so easy Arthur, how a flame like this can grow out of control.”

 

“What happened to him?” Arthur doesn’t really want the answer, but he knows he must ask.

 

“He was expelled. They all but tarred and feathered him. They were going to charge him with being a calamite, but his father had a friend, some judge in London that stepped in on his behalf.”

 

“And you? What was your punishment?” Arthur asks, a ball of ice forming in his stomach.

 

Eames’ face is a picture of anguish. He shakes his head and wraps his arms around his knees. “Early graduation with full honours. A pat on the back and a warning to stay away from those who would seek to ruin me.”

 

Arthur shoves to his feet, furious. “And you just stood by and let it happen?”

 

“What could I have done? They wouldn’t have listened to me if I’d plead for his reinstatement! Too many people knew, Arthur. His reputation would never have recovered.”

 

“And neither will mine, is that what you’re telling me? Is that why you didn’t share this truth with me until after we’d condemned ourselves? Keep quiet, because your father can’t afford to bail you out, either!” Arthur shouts.

 

“No, please, Arthur, that’s not what I’m saying!” Eames scrambles up.

 

“Then get to the damned point!”

 

“We have to be careful. We both have responsibilities here, and I cannot tell you how things will turn out, but we cannot let anyone know. If I’m to lose you, I want it to be because we decide to end it, not because we’ve been found out and I am forced to bear witness to your undoing. I didn’t love Charles and it nearly tore me in two to see him cast out, it would kill me to have the same happen to you.” Eames gasps wetly, desperation clear in his every movement.

 

“All I asked was for one night,” Arthur throws his hands up. “One night where I didn’t have to worry about what everyone else thought. You couldn’t even give me that.”

 

“Arthur, I’m sorry. This is too important to ignore.”

 

“Did you think I would rush home and tell everyone that I simply cannot marry Floure because I’ve gone and let James Brydges bugger me? Do you truly think so little of me?”

 

Eames grasps him by the shoulders. “No, of course not. You were so honest with me. So brave in your confession, I only wanted to be as truthful to you. I want nothing between us, Arthur. I want you to know my heart, inside and out, but that includes the ugliness that also lies within it.”

 

Arthur is lost. So close to something that felt bigger than any experience before it, and now he’s stranded in the dirt and shame of the desires of his heart.

 

“I love you, Arthur. I wish this could be easy.” Eames hugs him, holding tightly.

 

After a moment, Arthur returns the embrace, feeling Eames shudder and relax against him.

 

“I don’t know what to do.” He whispers.

 

“I know. We just have to be careful. So very careful, darling.” Eames kisses his shoulder.

 

“How? How do we hide this? I’m sure it must show on my face exactly how I feel about you.”

 

“I know it feels that way, but people tend to brush off what they don’t believe to be possible. We have ignorance on our side.”

 

Arthur nods, a wild idea forming in his mind.

 

“We will have our nights, I won’t let them go, but we’ll have to be discreet and absolutely judicious when we’re together during the day.”

 

“We could leave.” Arthur blurts.

 

Eames holds him tighter, kissing the side of Arthur’s head. “Darling, there is nowhere we could go we wouldn’t risk being found out.”

 

“But we could try.” He insists.

 

“Arthur, have you truly thought about what leaving would entail?” Eames pulls back to look at him. “You would never see your family again. Your parents would be worried sick, not knowing where or why you’ve gone. If you’re alive. You would do that to them?”

 

Arthur’s trembling, terrified. “To be with you I would do anything.”

 

Eames stares at him, shocked. “Arthur.”

 

“There is no other for me than you.” Arthur says with certainty, the truth of his words calming him.

 

Eames’s kiss is forceful and Arthur’s teeth slice through Eames’ plush bottom lip, the taste of blood blooming bright and sharp on his tongue. Arthur’s cock twitches, filling slowly as Eames clings to him, his hands roaming everywhere they can reach. Arthur shoves his hands down the back of Eames’ trousers, pulling him closer.

 

Eames pulls back, laughing. “You’re insatiable.”

 

“For you I’ll be anything,” Arthur gasps, frantic with need. “Everything.”

 

The look in Eames’ eyes is dark as he slides to his knees, yanking Arthur’s trousers down to his knees. Arthur groans when Eames takes him in slowly, and nothing has ever felt like this. His knees buckle and he’s forced to brace himself on the wall. Eames’ mouth is wet and tight and Arthur thrusts into it with abandon. Eames moans around him, rubbing himself through his clothing.

 

It’s over quickly, even with their previous efforts, and Arthur is awed when Eames swallows his offering, shoving his hand down his pants and spilling after only a few strokes. Eames pants wetly against Arthur’s bare thigh, the fingers of one hand curled around Arthur’s calf, nails digging into flesh.

 

“You’ll be the death of me, darling.”

 

Arthur pulls Eames up, his own pants falling to his ankles. “Don’t jest about that.”

 

“Sorry,” Eames grins and kisses him. “Forgive me.”

 

“Anything.” Arthur promises.

 

Before they part, Arthur and Eames agree to meet two nights hence, knowing it’s best to space out their time together, lest someone grow curious. They trade a dozen more kisses, both unwilling to be the first to walk away. Eames finally releases him, stepping far enough back that Arthur can’t touch him when he reaches out.

 

“Two days, darling. We will meet again in two days.”

 

“Right. Yes. We can do this.” Arthur nods, taking a fortifying breath.

 

Eames nod. “Good evening, Mister Bray.”

 

“Master Brydges,” Arthur smiles. “Until we meet again.”

 

Eames winks and disappears into the darkness, leaving Arthur to collect himself before trudging home.

 

****

 

Arthur and Eames continue to meet two to three times a week and the nights grow warm and fragrant as summer blooms. Their passion is fierce, and Arthur learns things he never even imagined as Eames helps him navigate the untested waters of his desire. Eames was correct in assuming he’d be unable to tell Arthur no, and Arthur is shameless in his demands. His body craves Eames and his heart is fit to burst. The memory of their nights together, the marks Eames leaves on his body, are the only thing that gets him through the cold reality of his days.

 

Arthur has begun courting Floure, and she often makes the trek into town with Lottie to share a meal with Arthur on his break. Eames joined them once, having been roped in by Lottie when he happened past, and Arthur hasn’t failed to notice that Eames changed his route through town after that. The pain in Eames’ eyes was obvious to Arthur as Lottie and Floure discussed the wedding, though Eames smiled politely and added his opinion when it was asked for. It made Arthur want to scream, and the victory in Floure’s gaze when Eames excused himself, shook him to his core.

 

She knows, Arthur’s sure, and though she never asks where he goes the nights he’s away, she watches him closely when he returns, lamp shining dimly in the darkened house. It makes him nervous, the way she seems to catalogue the changes in his body with a simple look, like she could recount the details of his sins to him if he asked.

 

Floure’s taken to touching him more, as well. Laying her hand on his shoulder as she passes by him at the table, and taking his arm when they’re in town, her chilled fingers leaving goosebumps on his flesh. She demands a kiss one evening while they’re sitting in the yard, enjoying a break from the heat that’s plagued them all day. Arthur startles when his mother claps her hands together, suddenly remembering something she simply must do this instant in the house. The moment the door is closed, Floure in in front of him, hands behind her back and a wicked smile on her lips.

 

Arthur argues that they should save it for the wedding and Floure grabs him by the shoulder, hauling him down into a dry kiss. She holds him in place with surprising strength, opening her mouth slightly to lick at the tight seam of his lips. Arthur’s nearly bent in two to accommodate her height and his back begins to ache. He tries to pull back, but Floure makes and sharp protest, her knuckles biting into his chest.

 

When she finally releases him, it’s with a huff. Arthur rubs the back of his hand over his mouth, frowning at the anger on Floure’s face.

 

“Not everything you’d hoped for, then?” He bites out.

 

“This won’t stand, Arthur.” She warns.

 

“Forgive me for protesting being molested in my own yard!” His hand shakes as he cards it through his hair. A kiss is the least of the intimacies they’ll be expected to share in the very near future, and the reality of his situation has come crashing down around his head.

 

“You have been promised to me, Arthur, and I will have you.”

 

“Why do you even want me? You don’t seem to like me very much.” Arthur grouses.

 

Floure tilts her head. “We aren’t required to like each other, Arthur. We need each other, isn’t that enough?”

 

“How do we need each other?” Arthur frowns, thinking of how Floure is the very last things he needs or wants.

 

“You have a responsibility to fulfill to your family. You need a wife, a Romani wife to carry on the line. Without me your mother will have failed to contribute to our people. That’s a serious transgression, Arthur. She married outside her people. The only way to redeem herself is to return one of the flock.”

 

Arthur’s gone cold in the warm evening air. “What are you talking about?”

 

“Did she not tell you? The only reason her and your father weren’t hunted down like dogs when they wed was because of her offering of a child. Once we’re wed, we will return to my family.”

 

“You’re lying,” Arthur whispers, shaking with rage. “They would never do that to me.”

 

“Why not? You’re the third child, the second son. With Iain and Lottie, they have everything they could possibly want. You’re a spare. Only ever meant as an offering.” Floure’s eyes glitter as she smiles sadly at him.

 

“It’s not true.” He insists.

 

“It’s all right, Arthur. I need you as well. I have my own sins to make amends for. Marrying you will give me a clean slate. I can return to my family untainted and live the rest of my life as I see fit.”

 

“I’ll be your husband. Does your happiness not depend on my discretion?” Arthur snaps in anger.

 

Floure laughs. “Oh, Arthur, you are not capable of the cruelty it would take to reign me in. You’re soft. You will do best to follow my lead.”

 

Arthur balls his hands into fists. “I think you severely underestimate my capacity for cruelty if pushed. You may have them fooled into thinking you an innocent girl, but I suffer no such illusions. I can see the darkness in you, and I will cut it out of you if you force my hand. I have seen your path, and it is bloody.”

 

Floure stills, her eyes wide as they flick over Arthur’s face. “It’s true then. You have the sight.”

 

“I don’t need the sight to see what will become of you, little girl.” Arthur snarls and stalks out of the yard.

 

He doesn’t stop until he’s crossed to the other side of town, only half surprised at finding himself at the front gate of the Brydges estate. It’s a desperate move, he knows, but he needs Eames right now. He has no idea if the things Floure said were true, but he can’t help but believe her. It makes sense, and it breaks his heart to think that this has been kept from him. He wonders if Lottie knows. He can see exactly how it will go, his mother suggesting a journey East to visit Floure’s family once the first child is born. Proof of a fruitful union. His mother comvincing him his wife needs her own mother at this life changing time. Once there, Floure’s family will make it impossible to return. He doesn’t doubt that Floure is clever enough to have Arthur thinking it’s his own decision to stay. Eames throws a serious hitch into their plans, and Floure obviously knows of the depth of Arthur’s feelings, or she wouldn’t have spoken up.

 

He slips through the gate as the sun sets, making his way up to the main house and spitting in the dirt at the betrayal he feels. He asks for Eames at the door and is seen into the foyer to wait. A grey haired man appears with a kind smile.

 

“Mister Bray, welcome. I am Henry, Master Eames’ valet. Follow me, please.”

 

Arthur trails him up the grand staircase, marvelling at the woodwork on the walls. The house was built before the Bray family arrived in town, but his father’s been inside and had failed to mention its ornate nature. His father found such things gaudy and prefered to showcase his talents in the flawless set of stone, the perfection in his angles speaking for themselves.

 

Eames is in a small sitting room, wringing his hands before the fire when Henry shows Arthur in and closes the doors on his way out.

 

“Arthur.” Eames says, reserved.

 

Arthur shudders out a breath and throws himself at the other man, pressing his face into Eames’ neck when strong arms catch him.

 

“Darling, what’s happened? Is it your father?” Eames asks, fear evident in his voice.

 

Arthur shakes his head and clings tighter.

 

“Arthur, my love, you must tell me what has happened.” Eames squeezes the back of his neck and strokes his hand down Arthur’s back.

 

Arthur nearly melts into the touch, relishing the how warm and solid Eames is. He pulls back just far enough for his words to be clear, resting his head on Eames’ shoulder.

 

“She’s horrible,” he says, voice full of spite. “She doesn’t look it, but she’s a harpy and a vixen.”

 

Eames tenses. “Arthur, did you. Has something happened between you?”

 

Arthur rears back, shocked. “No, of course not! How could you think such a thing? I would never.”

 

Eames smiles as him sadly. “Arthur, she’s going to be your wife.”

 

“She’s not, I won’t allow it.” He insists.

 

“The date is set, you’ll break your mother’s heart.”

 

Tears prick at his eyes, and he sits heavily in an overstuffed chair. “They are destined to break mine, it seems.”

 

Eames kneels in front of him, concern evident in his face. Arthur tells him everything Floure said, every hateful detail, and by the time he’s done, Eames’ hands are clenched tightly around Arthur’s thighs. Arthur’s terrified of how Eames will respond to the confession of his heritage, but to his surprise, it has nothing to do with the first words out of Eames’ mouth.

 

“It can’t be true. Your parents love you, Arthur, they would never trick you into this.”

 

“Haven’t they already? Iain and Lottie have always had freedoms I have not. I have always been held back, taken from my schooling at a younger age, and kept at home to learn the ways of my mother’s people. They’ve been preparing me for this since birth. Why else would they have a third child? Before we moved here, we were much worse off. For all that I disagree with your father’s business practices, we owe our good fortune to him.”

 

“You owe your good fortune to hard work and skill, my father merely utilizes them.” Eames dismisses.

 

“What am I to do? I cannot marry her. But the consequences of breaking my mother’s promise could be deadly.”

 

“I wish I knew the answer, darling. I think we need to calm down, and perhaps a solution will make itself known come morning.” Eames rubs his hands over Arthur’s thighs, soothing him.

 

“I don’t know if I can go back there tonight without shouting down the house.” Arthur admits.

 

“I have no plans to return you to them until we have a plan.” Eames stands and moves to the sideboard.

 

“I can hardly stay here!” Arthur protests.

 

“Of course you can. My father is away, and Henry is very discreet. Impossible to shock as well, which is fortunate considering his charge.”

 

“Eames,” Arthur hisses. “What if we’re caught?”

 

Eames hands him a glass, the familiar rich scent of cherry wafting from it. “There is no one to catch us, I assure you. Arthur, if I didn’t think it was perfectly safe, I would be climbing out the window after you right now.”

 

Arthur relaxes, sipping the brandy. “Yes, you would. Forgive me.”

 

Eames runs his hand over Arthur’s ear, cradling the side of his head. “There is nothing to forgive.”

 

“You’re too good to me.” Arthur smiles softly, the exhaustion of his emotions catching up with him.

 

“I’m really not. All I can think about now that you’re here is having you in my bed. I’m terribly callus.”

 

Arthur blushes, rubbing his head against Eames’ hand. “I’d be terribly disappointed if you chose tonight to be a gentleman, Master Eames.”

 

“I am always a gentleman,” Eames kisses the tip of his nose. “I will treat you like a prince as I devour you whole.”

 

Arthur shivers. “Promise?”

 

Eames takes the glass from him and pulls Arthur closer, eyes soft. “I love you.”

 

“It doesn’t bother you? That I’m Romani? That I kept it from you?” Arthur bites his lip.

 

“Self preservation is nothing to be ashamed of, Arthur. It wasn’t just you at risk if I reacted badly. But no, I don’t care. Nothing you are, or ever could be would turn me away from you.” Eames tells him seriously.

 

“You give me too much leeway. I could break your heart.” Arthur frowns, his throat thick with emotion.

 

“It is yours to do with as you wish. I give it to you freely.” Eames kisses him, his tongue plunging into Arthur’s mouth.

 

Arthur whimpers, submitting completely to Eames. His mouth is hot, his tongue strong and slick as it explores, and Arthur can do nothing but take it, moaning when Eames’s teeth scrape over his lip.

 

Eames tugs him along, teasing him with kisses. “Come along, darling. Henry is a forgiving man, but he’ll murder me if we stain the upholstery.

 

Arthur laughs and allows Eames to drag him through the adjoining doors to his bedroom. They strip each other slowly, relishing every inch of skin as it’s revealed. Their activities have all been outside, in the shadows of the building site, and they’re often hurried and quiet, one eye on the night in case someone passes by. Having Eames, privacy, and time in front of him makes Arthur unhurried and deliberate, testing what makes Eames’ breath hitch.

 

He dips down to lick over a nipple and Eames’ hands grip his hair, holding him in place as Arthur nips and sucks at the stiffening bud. Eames groans, encouraging him to do the same to the other, and Arthur is happy to oblige. He knows where they’re heading and the knowledge settles inside him, making his stomach flutter with excitement and apprehension.

 

Eames frees Arthur of his pants, shoes, and socks, running his hands over Arthur’s legs, fingers digging into the back of his thighs and dragging back down. Arthur presses forward, smearing the head of his cock over Eames’ mouth. Eames smiles sweetly and licks up the length of him. Arthur makes a noise of protest when Eames climbs to his feet.

 

“Ah, ah, ah, I want this to last. I put my mouth on you and you’ll be spilling down my throat in minutes.”

 

Arthur grins and kisses him, wrapping his arms around Eames and sliding their bodies together in delicious friction. “That’s your fault and you know it.”

 

“Mmm, it is,” Eames agrees, hands sliding over Arthur’s ass. “And I’m proud of it.”

 

Arthur’s laugh turns into a gasp when Eames’s fingers dig in and pull his cheeks apart. He squeezes, pressing them back together and doing it again. Eames has done this before, while he’s had Arthur in his mouth, but Arthur feels ten times more sensitive with Eames’ naked body pressed against him.

 

“More,” Arthur begs, going onto his toes with the force of Eames’ manipulations. “God, please more.”

 

“Are you sure?” Eames whispers against his temple, teasing. They’ve discussed this before, Arthur’s face aflame as Eames purred his intentions in Arthur’s ear, stroking him slowly.

 

“Now is not the time to question my intentions.” Arthur warns, heat already building in his gut.

 

“What do you want?”

 

“Are you going to make me spell it out?” Arthur asks, face heating up.

 

Eames chuckles and presses a kiss to Arthur’s hair, sliding a finger over his hole and making him arch closer.

 

“I meant where do you want me? Shall I ruin you, or would you care to ruin me?”

 

“Oh,” Arthur pulls back, breathless. “I want both.

 

Eames’ smile is blinding. “We can do that.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Anything, darling.”

 

Eames leads him to the bed, bending to wrap his arms around Arthur’s thighs and lifting him onto the bed. Arthur laughs as he lands, throwing his hands over his face to hide his embarrassment.

 

“None of that, I want to see you.” Eames says, pulling a glass bottle from his desk.

 

“There’s isn’t much you haven’t seen.”

 

“Oh, Arthur, there are worlds of you I’ve yet to see.” Eames climbs on the bed, kissing his way up Arthur’s chest.

 

Arthur wraps his arms and legs around him, pulling Eames down, his weight pressing Arthur into the mattress and making him feel perfectly trapped.

 

“I’ll do you first, yeah? Then you can do me.”

 

Arthur nods, nervousness springing up. Eames opens the bottle, spreading the oil over his fingers, then Arthur wraps him back up in his arms, burying his face in Eames’ shoulder.

 

“Arthur, let me see you.” Eames requests, stroking slick fingers behind Arthur’s balls.

 

He steels himself and meets Eames’ gaze, the love and wonder smoothing away his own tension as Eames’ circles his hole. Eames kisses him, murmuring praise as he pets at Arthur.

 

Arthur bites his lips and nods, gasping at the first breach of Eames’ finger. Eames’s lips trail across his face as his finger presses in, dragging out and drawing a shuddering breath from Arthur as it goes.

 

“God, Arthur. You’re so beautiful.”

 

Arthur makes an incoherent noise, squirming a little against the intrusion. A few more strokes has him mewling, pushing into it and demanding another finger.

 

“Greedy,” Eames says in wonder, adding a second and twisting. “Lovely.”

 

Arthur arches off the bed, fingers digging into Eames’ shoulders. Eames’ fingers speed up as Arthur opens to him, pulling sounds out of Arthur he hadn’t known he could make.

 

“Now.” Arthur begs, his cock full and hard against his stomach.

 

“Soon.” Eames promises, adding a third finger slowly.

 

Arthur holds his breath against the stretch, hissing when Eames starts to thrust. It’s painful, this fullness, and for a moment Arthur isn’t sure he’ll be able to accommodate Eames, who is larger than his fingers. Arthur cries out when Eames’ wrist twists and a lightning bolt of pleasure shoots through him.

 

“Yes! More, there,” he sobs, digging his heels into the bed and raising his hips. “ Eames.

 

Eames kisses him, hard, repeating the motion again. His fingers move in Arthur a little rougher, and Arthur groans, loving the burn in the stretch now, craving more.

 

“Can I? Are you ready?” Eames pants, eyes wild.

 

“Yes, please yes.” Arthur pulls at him.

 

Eames slides his fingers out and adds more oil, slicking his cock and settling between Arthur’s legs. The blunt head of his cock drags over Arthur’s hole, and Arthur can feel himself twitching.

 

“I love you.” Eames whispers as he pushes in, wincing against Arthur’s tightness, but not stopping until he’s in fully, hips pressed tightly to Arthur’s bottom.

 

Arthur gasps, clenching around the fullness and making Eames groan. Maybe this is enough, he thinks. He doesn’t need to be in Eames, if Eames will just stay in him forever.

 

Eames laughs, breathless and slightly unhinged. He rocks his hips and Arthur sobs, wrapping his legs around Eames and pulling him closer.

 

“Move!” He grinds out, biting at Eames’ bottom lip.

 

Eames pulls out and thrusts back in, slow and powerful, and shoving Arthur up the bed a few inches.

 

“Yessss.” Arthur arches into the next one, meeting Eames’ movement and gripping him by the back of his neck, holding his gaze.

 

“Darling,” Eames chokes out, moving steadily inside him. “Arthur.”

 

Arthur pets at his hair, clenching around Eames’ cock, and watching his reaction. It isn’t long before Eames is beyond words, and Arthur is fascinated by the sounds he can rip out of the man with his body. Arthur digs his heels into Eames’ lower back, pulling him deep, which makes Eames shudder and still for a moment before he draws out again. Raising his hips so Eames slaps against him has Eames growling, biting at whatever part of Arthur he can reach.

 

Arthur’s eyes squeeze shut when Eames’ cock runs over the spot his fingers favoured, and his orgasm punches out of him, surprising them both. Once he settles, Eames moves to pull out.

 

“Where are you going?” Arthur mumbles, drunk on pleasure.

 

“You’ll be more sensitive now, I can finish another way.”

 

Arthur grumbles, pulling Eames back, tightening his thighs around him. “No, finish in me.”

 

Eames doesn’t ask if he’s sure. He presses a kiss to Arthur’s chin and wraps his arms around him, rocking in, slow and deep. At first it’s overwhelming, having Eames inside and around, feeling his heat and breathing his scent, nerves on edge from coming, his body already aching for more. Soon, his nerves are singing again, his appetite for Eames insatiable as Eames’ thrust grow shorter and more erratic. He latches onto Arthur’s neck, sucking a mark into his skin, and biting down forcefully as he shudders and spills into Arthur’s body.

 

They hold each other until Eames is soft enough to slip out and Arthur feels his come trickle out of him, warm and thick. Eames showers him in lazy kisses, a dopey smile on his face. Arthur indulges him, lying still and giggling when Eames shoves his nose into Arthur’s armpit.

 

“Is this a Romani thing?” Eames asks, shaking his head at Arthur’s thickening cock. “Do you take special herbs?”

 

Arthur laughs, stroking himself to full hardness and watching Eames’ eye dilate. “I’m not usually like this. You inspire me.”

 

“I will gladly take the credit.” Eames bends to mouth at the head of Arthur’s cock as it appears from the clench of his fist.

 

Arthur groans and reaches for the bottle of oil. “My turn.”

 

Eames moans around Arthur’s cock, giving him one last, long suck before letting him go. Arthur props up the pillows behind him and slicks his fingers, crooking them at Eames.

 

“Lazy git.” Eames huffs, but turns to straddle Arthur’s body, presenting his ass as Arthur slicks his own cock.

 

“I need to conserve my energy,” he rubs oil over Eames’ hole, making him jump. “I’m going to need it.”

 

“Promises, promises.” Eames gasps as Arthur’s finger sinks into him.

 

Arthur focuses on his task, stretching Eames slowly with sure strokes until he’s two fingers deep and Eames is begging for his cock. Arthur pushes him forward, keeping his fingers inside until he’s lined up behind him.

 

“Is it okay like this?” Arthur rubs his other hand over Eames’ side.

 

“Yes, please, Arthur.”

 

Arthur spreads his fingers as he pulls them out, dragging a groan out of Eames that turns to a whine as Arthur replaces them with his cock. Eames is so much tighter than Arthur anticipated, and he worries if he’s readied him enough, but Eames is pushing back into the stretch and keening, so Arthur doesn’t worry for long. It’s a perfect glide into Eames’ wet channel, Arthur’s breath hitching at the tight clench around his cock. He tries to go slow, to let Eames adjust, but he’s greedy and lets Eames’s body pull him in the last two inches, bottoming out and rocking into Eames hard enough to make him sway. Eames makes a delicious noise and Arthur wishes he could see his face.

 

“That’s it, darling,” Eames reaches back to grasp at Arthur’s hip. “No need to be gentle.”

 

Arthur pulls out, whimpering as he presses back in. He gets another dozen thrusts in before Eames drops his chest to the bed and Arthur sinks in deeper. He grips Eames’ waist, pulling out and slamming back in, loving the sound of their flesh meeting.

 

Eames .”

 

“Yes, darling, keep going. Don’t stop,” Eames is working his cock, balancing himself on his forearm and shuffling up the bed until Arthur grabs him by the hips and pulls him back, thrusting into him. Eames keens. “There, right there!”

 

Arthur presses in again, trying for the same angle, crowing in triumph when Eames shudders a swears. He hits that spot relentlessly, feeling his own orgasm building as Eames clenches tighter and tighter around him. Eames’ heat grows almost unbearable and Arthur winces against the squeeze as Eames groans and shivers and spills over his own hand. Arthur’s cock throbs and he speeds up, grabbing Eames by the shoulder and ramming into him again and again until his own cry chokes out and his vision goes white and he empties himself into Eames. He thrusts through it, sliding out when Eames collapses onto the bed with a laugh.

 

“Jesus, Arthur.”

 

Arthur drapes himself over Eames. “Are you about to complain, because that would be a very bad idea.”

 

“Goodness, no,” Eames laughs, reaching back to pat Arthur’s thigh. “I was going as to ask if that was truly your first time.”

 

“I’m a quick learner.” Arthur licks the back of Eames’ neck, making him squirm and rolling Arthur off him.

 

Eames kisses him sweetly. “You absolutely are.”

 

They trade kisses and smiles, petting over sweat slicked skin and mapping out new bruises. Arthur’s starting to doze off when Eames noses at his hairline.

 

“I love you,” he whispers. “I want to take you away from this.”

 

Arthur groans. “You really just cannot let me have a moment of peace, can you?”

 

There’s no heat behind his words, but Eames winces all the same.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“No, it’s fine. I don’t have a lot of time to figure things out, so sleep should wait.”

 

“We.” Eames frowns.

 

“What?”

 

“We don’t have a lot of time to figure things out. We. I’m not leaving you along in this, Arthur.” Eames tells him seriously.

 

Arthur sighs, running a hand through Eames’ hair. “I know, I’m sorry.”

 

Eames nods, kissing Arthur’s wrist. “Are you going to ask your parents about it?”

 

“I don’t know. I don’t think I can take it if they lie to me. I just don’t have it in me. But I’m not marrying her.”

 

“They can’t actually make you. You’re of age and she’s not with child. You have no obligation to her.”

 

“But I do have one to my family. What if I refuse and they face the repercussions?” Arthur bites his lip.

 

“I wish I had more answers for you.”

 

“Maybe I should leave. If I go without a trace, it might look like something happened to me. They can hardly blame my family should I meet an untimely end before the wedding, right?”

 

Eames shivers, wrapping himself around Arthur. “Don’t say such things.”

 

“What other choices do I have?” Arthur asks, feeling desperate.

 

“What if,” Eames pauses to wet his lips, glancing quickly up at Arthur. “Please don’t take offense, but what if instead of you, they received a dowry of sorts?”

 

“What do you mean?” Arthur frowns.

 

“Monetary compensation.” Eames explains.

 

“Where would I get it? And I don’t think they’d take it over me. Floure said she has sins to atone for as well, that would only cover one of our problems.”

 

“Floure can go hang, I don’t care what she owes them. But I could get you the money, Arthur.”

 

“Eames, I can’t ask that of you.”

 

Eames holds Arthur’s head in his hands, inches from his face. “Arthur. You are not alone in this. We are one. I can get the money, then we can leave. Both of us. Together. Forever.”

 

Arthur’s lips part, but he can’t find the words to express what he feels.

 

“Say yes. Say yes and I will get the money tomorrow. We can leave once the sun has set. Walk away with nothing but each other.”

 

“But you said-”

 

“I know what I said, and that was true then, but things have changed. They’re selling you, Arthur, to cover their debts. I will not allow that to happen. Say yes, darling, please. Let me help you.” Eames pleads.

 

Arthur doesn’t hesitate. He knows his path in life, and it will always lead to Eames. “Yes.”

 

Eames laughs wetly, tears falling over his cheeks. “Truly?”

 

“Yes, absolutely. I would leave now if we could.”

 

Eames kisses him, pulling Arthur onto his chest and holding him close. “I love you, I love you.”

 

“Where will you get the money? It cannot be a small amount.” Arthur asks in between kisses.

 

“You’re right about my father, his dealings are not completely honest. He keeps a small war chest in his office. It will be nothing for me to get at it. I’ll bring it tomorrow night when we meet and we’ll leave it for your father to find in the morning at the work site. Then we’ll disappear.”

 

“Then we’ll disappear.” Arthur repeats, certain.

 

“It won’t be easy, we’ll still have to hide.” Eames warns.

 

“But we’ll be together. We’ll be cousins, no one will know any better.”

 

“Kissing cousins?” Eames teases.

 

“Whatever you wish, as long as I get to keep you.”

 

Eames pulls him close, putting out the light before kicking at the covers and tucking them around them. “You’re not getting rid of me that easily. Now, sleep. We have a big day tomorrow.”

 

“Acting normal will be difficult now that I know.”

 

“Oh, that. Yes. I was rather thinking about my ability to walk straight. You’re a hellion in bed, darling.” Eames squirms, wincing a little.

 

“You loved it.” Arthur flicks his arm.

 

“Mmm, sleep.” Eames kisses Arthur head and relaxes into the pillows.

 

*********

 

Arthur returns home early the next morning, stealing through the back door as his father leaves through the front of the house. He goes quietly up the stairs, avoiding the ones that creak by memory, and wondering if it’s for the last time. He washed before he left Eames, so he only has to change his clothes and gather a few personal items and head out again before the women rise. He doesn’t take much, worried Lottie or his mother will come in for his laundry and notice something amiss.

 

He pries up the loose floorboard under his bed and takes the money he’s stashed, along with a small knife, a flint stone, and his notebook with a spare pencil. He takes one last look around his room, surprised to find he feels nothing about leaving. He’s still angry, but he knows that will fade and regret will set in once he and Eames have gone. He won’t return, though. He can’t.

 

Floure is at the table when he slips downstairs. Arthur stops to stare at her, and it feels like some sort of face off. Floure cocks her head, eyes trailing over his body. Arthur raises his chin, daring her to say something about his absence last night. Her eyes narrow and Arthur scoffs, turning and strolling out the front door.

 

Eames will tell Arthur’s father that he stopped into the store, and that the Dempshires have asked Arthur to stay late to help with a delivery. Eames will then offer to have Arthur stay with him to avoid a walk home in the dark. It will excuse him from dinner, and by the time anyone notices their absence, he and Eames will be long gone, the money left in their stead.

 

They’ll head for London by wagonway, then buy passage on a ship to America. No one will follow them there, and they’ll be free to start over. Arthur passes by the Hotel site and hears his father’s voice, calling to one of his workers. Pain lances through his chest and he stumbles. He’s hurt, and he’s angry, but he still loves his parents, and leaving them won’t be as easy as he wants it to be. They’re good people, but he can no longer put their happiness above his own. He refuses to be their sacrificial lamb, and he refuses to lose Eames.

 

The day passes slowly and Arthur finds himself studying the faces of the townspeople who come in, committing them to memory. He’s sure to be extra polite to the Dempshires, spending his lunch break upstairs, letting Mr. Dempshire beat him at whist as they share the sandwiches Mrs. Dempshire made. He wraps and pockets the extras when he returns the tray to the kitchen. He refuses to leave the store, even for a breath of fresh air, not willing to chance running into his family and being unable to control his reaction. He spends the day in fear, every jingle of the door sending a spike of unease through him.

 

When closing time comes, Arthur insists Mrs. Dempshire go upstairs while he sweeps out the store and locks up. He makes meticulous notes on the day’s purchases, and debates for the hundredth time on leaving a note behind explaining his absence. If it falls into the wrong hands his parents will be in danger, and Arthur just can’t take any more chances. Leaving is one thing, outing them is another.

 

He putters around the store until he sees the workers from the hotel site passing the front window on their way home. He waits another half hour, then calls a goodbye upstairs and makes his way across town. He slips through the barrier and around the back of the building. The hotel is set to open in a month and it’s nearly complete form looms in the dark, casting a deep shadow over the patio off the rose garden, where Arthur and Eames meet.

 

Arthur settles in to wait, knowing Eames must endure dinner in full view of the house’s staff before he can excuse himself for his nightly stroll. His father isn’t due back for three days, and Eames planned to steal into his office during the day for the money. They’ll put it in a wooden butter box Arthur’s brought from the store and leave it with his father’s things in the small room Mr. Bray’s taken over as his office, now that the hotel has full walls. There’s a risk someone else may find it first, but it’s the best they can manage.

 

Arthur hears footsteps nearly two hours later, as he’s pacing along the stone wall of the rose garden. He turns toward the sound as Eames steps out of the shadows, pulling Arthur into his arms and holding him tight.

 

“Leaving Henry was harder than I anticipated.” Eames whispers, his voice rough.

 

“I’m sorry.” Arthur tells him, understanding completely. Not embracing and thanking the Dempshires was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. They had given him the only taste of freedom he’s ever had.

 

“He’s been with me nearly my whole life.” Eames’ chokes up, shaking slightly.

 

“Perhaps we can send for him, later.” Arthur offers.

 

Eames shakes his head, stepping back. “No, a clean break is what we decided is best.”

 

Arthur nods, biting his lip against the guilt he feels over making Eames leave his life behind.

 

“How was your day, darling?” Eames asks with false cheer.

 

“Awful.”

 

Eames nods. “It’s done now. We’ll leave the money and be on our way.”

 

Arthur open his mouth to agree but Eames grips his wrist tightly, gaze sharp on something over Arthur’s shoulder. Arthur turns, startled to see Floure standing in the middle of the garden.

 

“What are you doing here?” He demands, fear and anger powering his words.

 

“I knew you were up to something.” She says with a sharp smile.

 

“Floure,” Eames moves past Arthur, a false smile on his face. “My dear, what are you doing out this late? You’ll scandalize poor Mrs. Bray!” He laughs, but it falls flat as Floure cocks her head, eyes flicking over him quickly.

 

“Has he told you, then? What we are?” Floure asks, stepping closer.

 

Arthur pulls Eames behind him. “He knows everything. I won’t marry you, Floure.”

 

“Oh, yes, you will. You don’t have a choice. Neither of us do.”

 

“No, I cannot. I’m sorry, but I won’t allow my life to be used to pay a debt.”

 

“Your life?” Floure laughs. “It’s never been your life, Arthur. You were born for this purpose; your path is set.”

 

“I refuse to believe that.”

 

“You foolish, foolish man!” Floure stomps her foot, and Arthur’s reminded of her age. “Your life is not the only one that hangs in the balance!”

 

“I’m not responsible for your life, or for the sins of my parents. It’s not fair to hold me accountable.”

 

“Fair? What’s fair, Arthur? Was it fair when I bore a child to the man I loved, only to have him die before we could be wed? Was it fair for the child to be taken from me to be raised by others? To send me here, where I know no one, and have no say in what is mine?”

 

Arthur opens his mouth, but no words come out. He’d had no idea what had brought Floure to him, and he curses himself for never asking. She has her own pain, a pawn in this game of obligation, just the same as he.

 

“Floure, I’m very sorry for what you’ve gone through,” Eames tells her, stepping forward. “I cannot begin to imagine your pain, but surely you agree that sacrificing Arthur’s life isn’t the answer.”

 

Floure scoffs. “Why not? Is his life worth more than mine?”

 

Eames shakes his head. “It’s not, but neither of you should be held accountable for what others have done to you. You could come with us,” Eames looks to Arthur, a little desperate. “Start over.”

 

“I don’t want to start over! I want to go home. I want to return to my life, my child. Without Arthur, I get nothing. I’ll be cast out and shunned. Do you know what that means to a woman? To a Romani?” Floure is nearly shouting, fingers rubbing the twine at her throat.

 

“There are bigger things out there, you don’t need to go back.” Arthur steps closer, his hands raised in an attempt to calm her lest someone hear them.

 

“I want to go back. Don’t you see that?” Floure spits. “Marrying you is my only chance at getting my life back. I cannot simply let you run away.”

 

Arthur’s barely opened his mouth to respond when the knife flashes in the moonlight, the blade slashing quick and hot through the flesh of his outstretched palm. It doesn’t hurt right away, but blood trickles on the stones at his feet, spraying across the roses as he pulls it away. Eames makes a strangled noise and pulls Arthur back, away from Floure.

 

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Arthur roars as the pain sets in. He cradles the hand to his chest, gripping his wrist tightly to stem the flow of blood.

 

“Are you getting it now?” Floure sing-songs, stepping closer.

 

“Stop this!” Eames shouts at her, pressing his handkerchief against Arthur’s wound. “Floure, this is madness.”

 

“Yes, it is,” she agrees, swaying closer still. “I will not let him leave me here. Arthur is promised to me. He either marries me or he suffers, until our blood is one.”

 

“What does that even mean?” Arthur cries, waving his hand, blood wicking across roses along the wall.

 

“We’re destined, Arthur.” Floure whispers.

 

Arthur freezes as she steps into the full light of the moon. Her violet eyes are wild, colour high in her cheeks, her hair is loose and tangled with leaves and debris from the garden. Arthur turns his head to warn Eames that she’s gone mad, but Floure lunges forward, sinking the slick blade of her knife into Eames’ chest. She pulls it out, blood arcing through the air and over the open blooms behind her.

 

Eames looks down at his chest, then up at Arthur. He opens his mouth to speak and stumbles. Arthur catches him, the pain in his hand tearing through him, and Eames’ weight takes them both to the ground.

 

“No, no, no. What have you done?” Arthur screams.

 

“Only what you pushed me to do,” Floure looks down at them, seemingly unimpressed with the man bleeding to death at her feet. “He will not come between us.”

 

“Eames, Eames, can you hear me?” Arthur holds him close, Eames’ body growing heavy in his lap. “Please don’t leave me. I love you, please don’t go.”

 

Eames has gone still, Arthur’s tears soaking into his hair, his lips pressing against his temple again and again as he begs him to hold on. He’s shaking, his love dead in his arms, and the girl responsible standing impatiently above them.

 

He gently lowers Eames to the stone floor, struggling to his feet, gasping wetly between sobs. “I will never forgive you for this.” He rasps, voice raw with emotion.

 

Floure tilts her head, eyes narrowing as she studies his face. “No, you won’t, will you?”

 

“How on earth could you have though killing him would win my favour?” Arthur has to steady himself on the wall, his pulse is wild, a heaviness settling in his chest.

 

“My intention was not to win your favour, but to erase your options. Now you cannot leave with him.”

 

“And you think that means I’ll stay with you? Lie for you? Marry you?” Arthur demands, shocked.

 

“What choice do you have? The death of James Brydges’ son will not go unpunished. All I have to do is say I discovered you here, together. When he spurned your advances, you stabbed him.” Floure shrugs. “You come home with me and we say we saw Master Brydges’ being robbed by a stranger, but were too late to intervene. The murderer ran off when you shouted.”

 

“You think they’ll take your word against mine? My family is well respected in this town. You’re a stranger.” Arthur argues, unable to keep his eyes from returning to Eames’ body.

 

“How many will support you once they know the truth of what we are? What your family has hidden from them?”

 

Arthur’s eyes snap to Floure. “You wouldn’t. It condemns you just as much as it does us.”

 

“I’m no one to them. Your family has ingrained itself into this town, into the lives of its people. Betrayed them daily, for years. What do I have to lose?”

 

Arthur knows what she says is true. The town will be harder on his family than on her because of their history here. Arthur either goes along with Floure, or condemns his family to persecution. His eyes fall again on Eames, still and lifeless on the very stones they’d warmed with their bodies. He knows there’s no way he can marry Floure. To look at her everyday of his life and see what she’d done so carelessly, so selfishly, would drive him mad. The thought of lying with her incites a violence in his heart that Arthur wasn’t aware he could possess.

 

His family would support Floure’s plan, he knows. It clears them both, and settles their debts. Things will stay as they are for them, and all it will cost them is Arthur’s sanity. He shudders, knowing his only option is to run.

 

Floure takes a step back when he raises his head to look at her. “You’re a foolish man, Arthur Bray.”

 

“I will not allow you to ruin my life any longer. If anything, I’m more determined to leave now. Eames was the only thing keeping me from fleeing the moment I found out what was really going on. Stay here, out us, I don’t care.” Arthur’s tired, broken and lost, his dreams turned to nightmares at the hands of this girl.

 

“Oh, Arthur. You still don’t understand.” Floure looks at him like he’s amusing and hopeless, a dog chasing its own tail.

 

She speaks words he does know, in a language his barely recognizes. His breath punches out of him, leaving him to slump against the wall to stay on his feet.

 

“Until our blood is one.” She whispers, and with a sharp smile and a steady hand, Floure slits her own throat.

 

Arthur startles at the warm blood that sprays across his face. Floure’s body falls to the stones in a heap beside Eames, and Arthur realizes the horrible moan rattling his mind is coming from him. He covers his mouth with both hands, trying to silence his horror. The stones are slick with blood now, a crimson river between the gaps in the stones, soaking into the soil of the garden. Arthur gags on vomit as the smell hits him, and he retreats to the shadowed corner of the patio, squatting with his back to the wall, unable to tear his eyes from the bodies.

 

He counts to a hundred, then does it again, his breath evening out, and his pulse slowing. He knows he can’t stay here. If anyone sees him, he’ll be condemned before he ever receives a trial. He cannot return home, cannot simply pretend he was never here. He has to run.

 

He gently goes through Eames’ pockets with shaking hands, sliding the stash of money out of the inside pocket of his coat and placing it in the box, like they planned, but instead of leaving it for his father, Arthur sets it aside. He runs his fingers through Eames’ hair for the last time, pressing a kiss to his brow, his cheek, then finally his lips. He slides Eames’ signet ring off his finger, unable to leave with nothing but his memories of Eames to remind him of their time together.

 

“I will never stop loving you,” He whispers, tears falling onto Eames’ face and soaking into the collar of his shirt as Arthur leans over him. “Until the day I die, I will long for you. Come back to me in another life, my love. I promise I will recognize you.”


Arthur spares a look at Floure’s body, face down on the stones. “I hope you’ve found peace.” He collects the box and flees into the night.