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For whereas in general the conspirator has to fear before the execution of his plot, in this case he has also to fear the sequel to the crime

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One effeminate and cowardly, another bold and brave; one affable, another haughty; one lascivious, another chaste; one sincere, another cunning; one hard, another easy; one grave, another frivolous; one religious, another unbelieving, and the like. And I know that every one will confess that it would be most praiseworthy in a prince to exhibit all the above qualities that are considered good; but because they can neither be entirely possessed nor observed, for human conditions do not permit it, it is necessary for him to be sufficiently prudent that he may know how to avoid the reproach of those vices which would lose him his state; and also to keep himself, if it be possible, from those which would not lose him it; but this not being possible, he may with less hesitation abandon himself to them.

(Machiavelli - The Prince)

****

"How is kingship suiting you, cousin? Not too heavy, the crown, I hope."

"No." Henry sat down heavily in the armchair facing the fire. As he sat out to pour himself some wine, Richard quickly sprung up to pour it for him, with exagerated pathos to his every action.

"No, good cousin! Dear king! You must not as menial a task do. Especially in the presence of someone who's suited to every task at all as there's no more meaning to his existance."

Henry sighed, faced with another of his cousin's neatly woven traps, reminding him of a spider, up here in the Tower. Richard looked better now. Than he had, thin and pale and covered in grime, which had felt as if the dirt had been layered on his own skin to join there the sin of deposing a king. Did he not know what to do with Richard, he certainly knew what not to do with him. Oh, he still feared him. And hated him. Mostly for the fact that he'd never apologized for how he'd wronged him. A simple apology from Richard's lips and Henry might have forgotten everything and bent his knee before his golden king. But it was too late now. All he could do now, was ease his own conscience by easing Richard's life. He looked around the room, furnished maybe not as befitting a king but certainly as befitting a lord, a fire burning in the fireplace.

"Are you well, Richard?" he asked then. "Is there anything you need?" He had to remind himself that this was the man who'd let his father die alone. Who had spent his heirloom and bereft him of his birthright. So maybe it had been only his right to bereave him of his in turn. But then, Richard had been king, well in his rights. Who had Henry been other than a usurper? And it felt hard to hold onto his wrath when all he felt was relief that Richard was starting to look less like a ghost. Fragile he'd always been, but Henry had only loved him more for it, because he'd felt he could be of use to him in his own brutishness. Had always felt like this was how a king was to be: Ethereal in a way other men could not touch.
But other men had touched Richard. With a claim Henry had never had and never even dared to admit he wanted to have. And his perfect image of Richard had been sullied through it. For he knew not what to make of him. Still as beautiful and pristine as before no matter how he sullied himself. And Henry had not been able to love him any less, until it had been Richard himself who'd broken their bond. By pushing Henry away. And now hate and love washed through him. Heated emotions in either way, at the same time and impossible to make sense of.

"Need anything? What could I need, when my kind and gracious lord has already granted me my boon? And contented now Richard shall remain here." Richard smiled at him, cottonwool with a knife inside. "As contented as I was to pass the crown. More mercy has my lord shown me than surely I deserved."

Henry's sigh was weary now, discontent and impatience bubbling up in him. "Why do you never say what you mean, Richard? Every exchange with you an elaborate dance."

"You talk of dancing, sweet cousin? Little use I'd have of it here, with neither room nor music or companionship."

"It is companionship that thou lackest? I should have guessed. But unless Bushy and Green in afterlife you wish to join, your only companion from now on I shall be."

"My companion you wish to be, my lord?" Richard looked at him doe-eyed, with that look that Henry'd learned held no innocence at all. "Oh, you flatter me too highly."

"Do not twist my words."

"Where were your words twisted, my liege? Have you spoken them yourself and poor Richard only hath repeated them."

"Maybe I should not begrudge you your wicked tongue, as it's the only pleasure left to you."

"Of tongues and pleasure we speak now?" Still so very little allusion in his voice when so filthy the meaning, making Henry once more the fool.

For once Henry wanted to turn that sharp dagger back on him. "For all the way you twist and turn my words, I wonder if it is not what you are wishing for."

"Wish for? Me? No, kind lord. I am contented. As I'll always be henceforth." Another of those smiles, delicate, edges waiting to draw blood.

"Contented you say? You are nothing but. Except maybe when you can needle me as if you were still king and I still subject." He was weary and angry, wondering why he'd bothered to visit him, knowing the outcome from the beginning. There was no way Richard would have been humbled by what had befallen him at the hands of Henry Bolingbroke, now Henry the illfitted king. Would he have truly wanted him to be? Maybe not. It was hard to say what exactly he wanted from Richard. Not this scathing contempt, that was for sure. Enough of the mockery and belitteling, when he'd tried to be kind (after he'd been cruel). So he spoke again, as scathing as Richard's own words beneath their honeyed crust. "And if you would take your pleasure out of mocking me, maybe I should take my pleasure out of you." A threat, the last he truly had, beside the final one. A wish too, if he was true.

Richard was not fazed, though. Why would he? When what would disturb honest men, he did for play and sport. "Oh, I'm sure I must be mistaking your meaning again, my lord. And I would not wish to offend."

"You offend with every breath you take."

"And still you allow me to do so." For the first time there was no veil of sweetness over Richard's words, a mere cold observation, a challenge maybe.

"Is it death you wish for, cousin?" Henry had not come here today to threaten him. And still here he was, with his humors coiled and boiling.

"You threaten me, dear cousin?" Richard replied, all soft-edges again. "Oh, you need not threaten me." A smile. "There's nothing to gain. And how could I possibly pose a threat to you, worth of being threatened in turn?"

A finely tuned insult once more. "Oh, I know my threats have little effect on you. For you do not fear me. Is it because you think me too weak to kill you? You spit on my mercy! As you spat on everything I ever had to offer. You spread your love easily among those undeserving. But none for your loyal servants."

"And where are my loyal servants now?" Richard asked laconically. "And my dear friends, dead by Henry Bolingbroke's hand. I always wondered, did you kill them because you were disgusted by what we did, or out of jealousy?"

"I killed them because they poisoned your mind!"

"Oh, I wish you'd hold me in high enough esteem to consider that my bad decisions were my own. So which is it you wish to regard me with, desire or disgust?"

"I see I cannot win with you. Why is it you deny me on every turn?"

"I would deny you nothing, my lord. Nothing at all. Did I not put my crown and myself at your feet? And would do so again, at your asking."

"Then put yourself at my feet. Now."

Richard sank to his knees with more grace than the act should have been allowed to have. Like a dying swan soaring from the sky. Landing in a graceful heap at Henry's feet. He leaned his face to Henry's boots.

"Like this, my lord?" he asked, eying Henry through his lashes, face still demurely lowered. And Richard was the only person who could make such an act anything but demure.

Henry reached down and lifted Richard's face, the other followed easily, then turned his face and kissed the inside of his palm. "Like this, my lord? he whispered against Henry's trembling skin.

"No." Henry all but whispered himself, trying to stop what he'd started and so completely lost control over, which really was his seizing of the crown all over again.

"Ah," Richard said. "Like this, then." He turned his face away from the palm, instead leaned forward, face against the cloth of Henry's breeches, lips brushing against the fabric.

Henry backhanded him in helpless panic and Richard's head snapped back, sprawling him out on the floor before him.

Very much like the wounded animal he posed himself before him. Fine-limbed and fragile. And Henry wondered for a horrified moment how he could have hit him. How he could hit something so easily to break. His former liege. Then, in an even more horrendous moment, imagined hitting him there, that day, when he'd sat poised in silk and brocade, surrounded by flowers and oh-so-more-powerful than Henry in his armor. Imagined in that moment striking him across the face and throwing him to the floor to have his way with him, in the same kind so many other men already had. Maybe Richard would have thought him less of a weak and easily played fool afterwards. But weak and easily played he was. As was testamented by the throbbing tightness in his pants that had swollen the moment Richard's lips had touched him there.

Richard had sat up halfway again, contemplatively touching his bruised cheek. And Henry for the life of him did not know what to do with him. Wanted to kiss him. To apologize. Beg him to finish what he'd started. Wanted to flee the room and finally sign his execution. Knew he could do nothing of it. And looked frozen at the creature who for years had held all of Henry's attention and still did. If undoing King Richard had not broken this spell, that could only mean that from the beginning his infatuation had been for plain Richard. The man, not the king. And how to undo him, other than by killing him? When everything else was already stripped away.

Then Richard looked at him with a look of true insolence, for the first time that evening. "Would you have me stay down here, my lord?"

That made the decision for Henry and he grabbed Richard by the hem of his shirt and dragged him over to the bed, throwing him on it.

Did he see fear there for the blink of an eye, he did not know. Cared not to examine it any further when no relief in answers was to be found. But relief he'd have from him.

The other was too passive, too docile as Henry tore his clothes off him. Too ill sat him off the mar on Richard's cheek that he'd put there himself.

"Enough of your games, Richard!" he accused the other. "Did you not play me to this end? This is not the time to weepingly throw the crown from you and call me a villain! I shall be satisfied!"

Richard's gaze was even and calm, mercilessly in this sudden strength he could exhibit when you least expected. "Seize then, cousin. As you did the crown."

"Why is it you seek to hurt me, cousin? Again and again." Henry felt foolish saying it, as he towered over Richard's so much lither body, with all his bulk and strength.

"Oh, there's no hurt to be found in me." Richard replied. "Only pleasure."

"You want this then?" he asked more desperate and helpless than he'd been when there had been a crown between them.

"How could I not? When it's all I've left to give my king."

 

It hadn't been his fault, he told himself afterwards. And still he knew the blemish that had been left was on him and not Richard. Just as before.

*

When Henry returned, three days later, three sleepless nights later and days filled with restless thoughts, Richard was sitting there, looking into the fire. Legs drawn up on the armchair. His eyes found Henry's without hurry. There was no accusation in them. Not fear either. Just mild, lazy curiosity.

"You made me do it." Henry started off, exhausted.

"I could not make you do a thing." Richard replied simply.

"You wanted me to do it, so you could hold it over my head forever. Because you knew I wanted it. Because you knew I wanted you."

"Not forever, no. Just as long as you see fit to keep me alive." A shrug and an equally cold smile. "Can you begrudge me exercising what little power I have left?"

He could not. And still wanted to strangle him with his bare hands. The only thing he wanted more was to bury himself in that body again. With Richard a willing participant, desiring him as much as Henry desired him. "I will not be blamed for what you pushed me to do."

"Who should blame you?" Richard shrugged. "It is only you and I who know of it. And of course God. But his judgement is for neither of us to manipulate in any way. So what judgement do you mean? Do you ask me to turn my judging eye the other way? Or is it that you wish for me to convince you of your own innocence in this?"

Henry laughed hollowly. "You are a cruel and dangerous man. You do not let off your prey once you've drawn blood. I see now how little your own humiliation has cost you if you are repayed in my pain tenfold."

"Your pain, my lord? I would not cause you pain. Did I utter a word of accusation?"

"You didn't have to, for my mind does that service for you already."

"Well, I cannot control your mind, as I cannot control your body. I'm just plain Richard here, living for your command."

Henry slumped against the wall, sinking to the floor. He burried his face in his hands for a moment, before he stared into the distance, not at the other man. "Can we not cease to hurt each other, Richard?" he asked plaintively. "You used to do it for sport, all the time. And now that I am king, I seem bound to repeat the same pattern. I never wished to hurt you. Even though I doubtlessly did. Far too easily, and maybe it was the same for you. I do not wish to continue that."

Richard suddenly got up. Walked over to him on silent sock-clad feet and handed Henry a goblet of wine. Not like that mockery of a servant's demeanor he affected lately, but like one friend to another. "You are tired, cousin."

Henry grabbed his hand when he tried to pull away, a short moment of surprise in Richard's eyes. And for a second Henry wondered if Richard would let him have his way as easily again. Or if that had been the only time the other would ever let any such thing happen. Knew he well that only a word from Richard was enough to stop him. Either way he had no intention to repeat the shameful act that had been shameful not in it's defiance of God, but in the way something had been taken rather than given, despite the outward travesty of it being otherwise. But that wasn't what this was about either, these callous fingers he called his own, wrapped around the so much more delicate wrist. "I mean it, Richard. I do not wish for us to continue that way. Can there not be common ground for us?"

Richard knelt down before him now, leveling his body with Henry's. His hand cupped Henry's face gently, as gentle as his pensive eyes that beheld him. "Did I hurt you so much, truly, dear cousin?"

"You know you did. With intention too. That was even harder to bear than your former disregard."

"Oh, you will have to let go of that, cousin. You are king now. And I do not figure in on that anymore. I should not have the power to hurt you any longer."

"Oh, but you do." Henry stated with a tired sigh of a laugh.

"Hmm." Richard sat down now fully, leaning his back against the wall beside Henry, who startled when Richard rested his head on his shoulder. Richard treaded his hand into Henry's, the gentle touch as powerful as if it had been bruising. Henry could not have shifted if he'd wanted to. "We should try to be gentle with each other then, shouldn't we? Given the power we have." Richard stated pensively.

Henry lifted Richard's hand to his lips, careful, reverent, as he'd done when the other had still been king. Richard's face was still a heavy weight on his shoulder, comforting and fearsome at the same time.

Henry did not touch him that night. Left with nothing but that chaste kiss of deference.

*

Oh, but it could not stay that way, of course it couldn't. When Henry seemed bound to strive for things that weren't his to have and took them either way. Richard was nothing to take anymore, though. As unreachable as he'd been before, when Henry wouldn't have dared to even dream of such things. But dream he did now, as he was king.

And desperately he came to talk to Richard again, as if the other had the answers. Trying to ask for permission, without doing so explicitly. Circling around the past event that had left a tether in Richard's hands. A tether that led to either Henry's heart or groin, he did not know. Hoped for only the latter. And, God, he should not give Richard that much power. It was dangerous. Immeasurably foolish. And still he was greedy and could not deny himself.

"It seems only just that I should have had you." Henry said, not without self-irony. "When you already have me in each and every way."

"Again you flatter me," Richard smiled, stretched like a cat, where he reclined on the very same armchair that he'd put in front of the window so the sun fell onto it. "When once you beheaded men for the same thing. Was it jealousy then?"

"Oh, I've been jealous, I no longer deny it. But I told you, I killed them because they were poison to you."

"And you are the cure?" Richard asked, one eyebrow raised in polite doubt. "If only I drink from you enough I shall be restored?"

"I wish you would treat me as an equal and not as someone too dull to follow your mind."

"Oh, it is not possible for us to be equals, my dear. How could we? With me your prisoner. And still we are equals undoubtly," he added pensively. "Two crowned kings. Even though I am uncrowned now."

Henry's jaw ground together. There where only riddles to be found with Richard. And they all had the same answer, that Henry was a fool.

Before he could say anything in dismissal, though, and retreat from this, once more defeated by the hands of a defeated king, Richard laughed, light and amused. "No, cousin, do not frown like that. Come over here and kiss me instead." A fine-boned, slender hand stretched out towards him.

And Henry took it.

*

"Richard's not dead." Northumberland said.

"No, he isn't." York agreed.

"It's been three months."

"I'm well aware."

"Why does he keep him alive?"

"I am not the king, how could I fathom the turns of his mind?"

"Do not forget that you turned against Richard as well."

"Don't fret so much, Northumberland. Leave it to the women to worry. Richard is locked away. He has no more power. What danger could he pose to you? Let go of your grudge."

"It's not a grudge I bear. It's merely caution, that would do all of you good to employ as well."

"Caution would suit any man. But do not start to see monsters in the shadows, good Northumberland."

*

"I wish not for us to be enemies." Henry said earnestly, running a hand down Richard's side, gentle fingertips against pale skin.

The other curled up with laughter, regarding Henry through his dark bangs, with amusement. "Enemies? Is that what you think this is?" Once more silent laughter shook his slight frame, as his gaze travelled between both their naked bodies and back to meet Henry's eyes. All the while, absentmindedly, one of Richard's hands ran up and down Henry's thigh.

"Do you not hate me?" Henry asked, with sad eyes, thumb trailing over Richard's lower lip. The other sucked it into his mouth, as if only that could have been the intention. Eyes never leaving Henry's. And Henry felt himself stirr again, already. How could he not? When his fill by far he hadn't had. After all those years where the unasked had been refused all the same.

But he would not be distracted now. He pulled his finger free, trailing it along Richard's chin, smearing saliva in it's wake. Eyed him, earnestly, frowning. As if the answer could be found in Richard's face, that cruel, ever-smiling mouth that seemed to be made for lying even more than for the other things Henry'd learned it could do.

"Hate you?" Richard finally spoke, hand still crawling up Henry's leg, and he could not push it away. "No. Certainly not. Or maybe a little." He smiled. "As certainly you must too. For all I did to you. No?" Eyes big and questioning, head tilted. Then he leaned up and kissed Henry. "Not even a little?"

He settled himself on Henry's lap again, kissed him once more, both hands to Henry's face.

"No answer for me?" he asked again, smiling, when he allowed their lips to part. Henry's arms slung around him by now.

"I do not hate you, Richard." Henry replied now, his voice a mess.

"No even a little?" Richard almost whispered, grinding down on him.

Henry threw him onto his back then, burrowing his face in the crook of his neck as he bit the skin there. Hooking an arm under Richard's knee to lift him up higher. Pushed inside him once more, Richard's body half bent in the middle. And forgot about his questions and wishes and dreams, when this one very palpalble dream was right in front of him. When Richard just now hooked his other leg around his waist, his skin prickly with goosebumps where Henry was nuzzling bitten flesh.

 

"I love you," Henry whispered later, in the mindless drowsiness of release that allowed for any folly. Words unable to be held be back, when they were so true, with Richard beside him. Mussed and sleepy. Possessed and marked. And Henry only had to reach out a hand to touch him, and did just that. Putting a hand on hot flesh that seemed to glow.

Richard laughed at him, a light, amused chuckle.

*

"What I said–"

"Oh," Richard brushed it away. "I would not hold words said in the throws of passion, against you."

"I meant them. I would have love not hate between us."

"You would have my crown. You would have my love. You are greedy, cousin. In time you woulds't have all of Richard. My head too, perchance?"

"Why would you say that?" Henry asked affronted.

"Oh, I know you're not going to kill me, cousin." Richard said laconically, from where he was still sprawled on the bed. "Who else could you talk to? Who else, who ever shared your burden, than this dead king? Dead in everything but form." He looked at his outstretched hand, rays of sun breaking through the spread fingers, making his flesh glow.

"Is it so hard to believe that my feelings could be true? I loved you well enough once." Henry said. "There was a time when you could have asked anything of me."

"And now there's nothing I could deny you."

"You know this is not what this is."

"What is it then, my king? Pray tell your humble subject."

"I do not know what this is! Why don't you tell me? Why do you allow it? I told you why I want you!"

"This again?" Richard scoffed. "What is this talk of love? Foolish words of a boy not a man. Certainly not a king. You wish to own me, I can understand that. You think you love me, I'll even allow you that fancy. But to ask those feelings returned? You might have taken everything but that's not in your power."

"What is this then, Richard? Why do you let me come to you?"

Richard turned around on his chair, away from the window. "To pass the time."

"Am I then?" Henry asked bitterly. "Am I making the hours of your day a little shorter?"

"A little." Richard conceded. "Not enough, though, to make me bare my heart to anything but your blade."

Henry shook his head in irritation. "No interest I have to rip it from your chest. Keep it then, Richard. Your cold heart and your cold embraces."

"Warm enough they were for you, I recall. What do you care whether it's lie or truth that accompanies it?"

"Was it enough for you? Cold flattery and hot flesh."

"You know it was, Henry. You know me so well after all. My shortsightedness and vanity. I was king of flatterers. And as I'm king no more, flatterer I shall be. And you, dear cousin, you shall be flattered. And be contented to be so." There was a certain malicious joy in Richard's words.

"It's not what I asked for. It's not what I want."

"But you see," Richard continued amused. "It does not matter. You will receive either way. That is your lot. That is what you seized with my crown."

*

Henry remembered when they'd been young, barely more than boys. He'd loved Richard back then already. Only the other hadn't been so full of derision yet. He could not have garnered such lasting devotion from Henry had he been. But then, Richard had never been truly condescending, only disregardful. Like he barely even noticed Henry there hoping for just a look from him. He hadn't been like that when Richard had only been a prince, when they'd grown up together. He remembered Richard's brilliant smile, letting Henry share in on his sharp wit instead of turning it on him.

*

But Henry could not stay away. The weight of his pride feeling considerably lacking, compared to the weight of his need. And so for now he'd take Richard's lie in favor of nothing at all.

Let Richard be amused a little longer by his folly, if that's what it took. So at least they were both getting something out of it.

*

"Why did you not let me have this earlier?" Henry asked, kissing Richard's brow. "If I'm not entirely detestable to you."

"You did not flatter me until after I lost my crown."

"You mock me."

Richard smiled. "Only a little."

And Henry pulled that contrary ever-changing face over to him. And kissed the lips that were even now smiling at him. Kissed him with still the same helpless hunger of years. Kissed him until they were both breathless. While he worked his hand in Richard's trousers, until the other was shuddering against him. Until he could have had him, pliant and agreeable, and most of all hungry, but finished him off instead, feeling Richard pulse over his hands. The lips, still against his, breathing out a moan that was swallowed up by Henry's hungry lips.

"My fair fair cousin." Henry whispered, holding the other close to his body.

*

"Richard needs to go." Northumberland said to the men gathered. "I did not think much of it in the beginning, took it to be sentimentality or maybe superstition that he could not bring himself to take that last step. But it's been too long already. And every breath Richard takes is poison to our king and cause." He paused, face bitter. Self-ironic too, maybe. "How curious that I thought Richard's continued existence would bring forth other dangerous elements and did not see the danger coming from within him. What I took for impotent hands, no more dangerous than a maiden's, he struck like claws into our king. But then, we all know that many a maiden has brought fall to men, no matter how high and powerful."

"What you're insinuating is treasonous." York said. "How dare you blemish your king's name like this?!"

"Oh, you misunderstand, York. Much prefer I would if Henry were to make use of Richard's body than his mind. The first would prove dangerous only to his soul, the latter might in time mean ruin to us all. Richard is no fool, for all we took him for it. He'll seize what power he can and make certain that all his prophecies may prove true in good time."

"It's only for yourself you fear, Northumberland!" Bagot exclaimed. "For you saw to humiliate him, denying him the dignity even he deserved."

"Be quiet, Bagot!" Northumberland replied harshly. "You should be grateful you're still alive, pardoned by our merciful king."

"In time it might be you who should be grateful to still be alive, Northumberland." Bagot returned scathingly. "Henry loved Richard dearly. And through all he never truly stopped. He may have deposed him, but believe me, he hates the men who helped him do it as much as he hates himself. More than he hates those who stayed loyal to Richard, like me and Carlisle. With all that, there's precious little hate left for Richard himself. So he must fall back to love him."

York raised his voice again. "Bagot speaks true. I will not believe that my nephew conducts himself as despicably as you insinuate, Sir, but I as well counsel you not to strike against Richard. Alive he's something for Henry to fear. But we only remember the best of the dead. So with him gone, Henry's bound to hate the men who brought about his end."

*

"I sense unrest among your men." Richard commented offhandedly, idly running a hand along Henry's arm, where he was lying in the other's lap. "Because of me?"

"You sense it?" Henry snorted. "You mean, you have men still, who will carry word to you, even in here."

"You first among them."

"This is true. But do not unduly worry yourself with troubles that are no longer concern of yours."

"So there are troubles."

"You are still alive."

"If only I was alive people would worry, but that's not the issue here, is it? They stayed no secret, your journeys to the Tower. And people talk. A great deal."

"No one knows." Henry replied insistently. "How could they even dare to imagine–"

"The truth?" Richard raised an eyebrow. "But, oh, I'm forgetting myself. This is no concern of mine." He sat up with a humble smile, putting his hands in his lap. "As all I'm fit to do is sit here and look pretty."

"Why's that a problem?" Henry asked more harshly than intended. "It's all you did before."

Richard threw his head back and laughed. "Oh! Well done! You put me in my place, my lord."

"Richard," Henry looked troubled now. "I did not–"

"Oh, no. No apologies for me. Certainly not from my king." The smile was demure but vicious underneath, as everything about Richard.

"From your king, no." Henry said somberly. "From Henry, certainly. For you deserve not my condescension when at the same time I would have your love."

"But is that not how kings do?" Richard asked ruefully then.

"I am not king in this room, nor have I ever been."

Richard smiled then, softly, none of his biting mockery in it. "I'll take your flattery, this time. For it is so well made that I can almost believe it."

*

"I speak it plainly, bewitched you are by Richard."

Henry regarded him harshly but outwardly unmoved from his throne. "You forget yourself, Northumberland."

"Oh, it is you who forgets himself. When you would take the side of your enemy against a true friend."

"A true friend? Is that what you are? Why is it then you seek to sow distrust and malcontent among the other nobles. Have you gotten a taste for the deposing of kings, friend?"

"You hurt me, Henry. And you do me grievous wrong. Nothing but your best interest I've always had in mind."

"In my best interest it is for you to keep your peace and not disrupt my newborn kingship. I need friends who stand by me and not strew gossip, like women."

"Is it gossip, truly? Whatever business takes you to the Tower so often, Henry?"

"My friend you may have been, Northumberland, but my subject you are as well. And no justification I owe to you. And a man who makes such assumptions about me can not call himself my friend. Leave us now, Northumberland. Tired of your countenance and treachery we are for tonight."

Northumberland angrily strode off for the door after only an infinitisimal bow, but turned around once more. "His ass he might have given you to sheathe your ceptre. But an ass he's made of you through it."

*

"Do you think he will thank you for it?" Richard asked, looking at the two men who'd at nightime stormed into his prison. "But very well. May Richard's death toll be Northumberland's as well."

"You think he'll kill me for this?" Northumberland scoffed. "No, as soon as the thrall of your thighs has passed he will recognize you for the harlot you are, giving your favors to whoever can pay the fare."

"Whoever can pay the fare..." Richard repeated slowly. "Is that it? Cruel Northumberland, misunderstood Northumberland. Is it jealousy that leads your hand today?" He smiled winningly. The goal could only be to stall Northumberland until either more guards arrived or any around them saw reason. And Northumberland was a proud man who hated him dearly. If he could coax an argument or some abuse out of him it was certainly more welcome than a too soon death.

"You dare speak to me like that?" Northumberland struck him hard and Richard spat out blood, but made sure to stand upright. No helpless meek deer for now, but something Northumberland could direct his anger at.

"Oh, certainly. Why was it you followed me to the Tower that day? What would you have asked of me, had not my dear wife interrupted?"

"Your wife?" Northumberland scoffed. "As if you'd ever had any use of her, playing the wife to whoever took your fancy."

"I did not always play the wife, now, did I?" Richard asked, his smile rich with suggestion. "Sometimes I was the husband. Is that what you're looking for?" he continued, voice like silk. "You already have a wife, maybe now you wish for a husband."

"Catamite!" Northumberland struck him again and this time Richard fell. A kick to his side that took his breath, followed moments later.

Northumberland crouched beside him and grabbed him by his hair, lifting him up. Richard laughed through bloody teeth as a knife pressed to his throat.

"A dirty bitch you are!" Northumberland said, seething with rage. So at least he'd gotten under his skin, a humliation that would stay with him long after Richard was gone. "And like one I'll put you down."

"Isn't it curious," Richard started, head tilted as if not afraid of the knife but relishing it's caress. "how the blade of a knife going into a body compares to a shaft parting the same flesh? Both seeking the heat of the insides to bury themselves in."

Northumberland let him go as if burned, a look of revulsion on his face. "Detestable creature! Art thou from hell?!"

"Oh, no." Richard shook his head absentmindedly. "But going there soon, it seems. By a deep thrust of Northumberland's powerful knife."

The knife cluttered to the floor.

Northumberland gathered himself, spitting out on the ground. "You are not worthy of my knife. I'll throttle you like a stray cat."

Not sooner had Northumberland's fingers touched his throat that Richard led himself to shudder lightly, looking at Northumberland through half-lidded eyes. "Flesh against flesh is so much more intimate, think'st thou not? Strong Nortumberland, valiant Northumberland. If any of you I desired, it would have been you. To have my flesh pulse in your hands for a last time."

Northumberland seemed drawn between impotent rage and petrifying revulsion. He looked to Aumerle. "You do it. Redeem yourself and rid us all and most of all yourself of this blemish."

Aumerle looked pale and unsteady as Northumberland pressed the knife into his hand, as he stalked over to where Richard still sat on the ground.

"Ah, sweet Edward," Richard said softly, tenderly. Sweet and unthreatening again. "Do not despair. It is quick work you have layed out before you. Only old Richard here. Ready for the slaughter. Weak and defenseless. Why are you shaking like that, dear cousin? There's no danger you need to fear from me. See," He lifted Aumerle's hand holding the knife to his own throat. "Just slide the knife in here at my throat and I shall simply drown in a flood of crimson. How very fitting for a king. A former king of course. Make haste now, Edward. Come, sit here with me as we sat on the beach on that fateful day. There's no time now for talks of graves and epitaphs. There's only time for knives and steady hands. Pray, make your hand be steady. I do not wish to bleed out in your arms too slowly from misdirected blow. And I fear Northumberland has not the pity to end my suffering."

"I..." Aumerle sat there petrified, unmoving. Helplessly turned back to Northumberland who impatiently ripped the knife from him, cursing.

"For God's sake!" He advanced on Richard again.

That moment the door sprang open and soldiers poured into the room.

"Desist, in the name of the king!"

Only when Northumberland and Aumerle had been arrested and led away by the soldiers, Richard saw that Henry was with them.

 

Henry watched Richard sitting there on the ground, leaning back against the bedframe, letting out a shaky breath. He looked pale as a ghost, in stark contrast to the bloody bruises across his face.

Henry knelt down beside him, holding to his lips a goblet to spit out the blood that pooled in his mouth. Richard did so and rivulets of it still ran down his lip that was equally abused as the rest of his face.

Oh, Henry'd been so afraid. So afraid, that he'd come himself. Afraid to only find Richard's broken body when he arrived here. Had not York uncovered his son's renewed treachery. But too late. Oh, too late. So he'd thought. He did not know how Richard had managed to obstruct the gruesome deed.

Henry gathered Richard in his arms. The other looked shaken but still ran a fine-fingered hand through Henry's hair. As if he was the one who needed comforting.

"Oh, my kind lord. Do not look so fearful." Richard said. "It would have been only poor Richard finally taken off your hands." He smiled that elusive pensive smile of his that seemed to carry miles of tragedy in it.

"I do not wish to be rid of you, my fair and sweet king." Henry replied before he'd even thought of his words. He did not correct himself. "I do not wish to be rid of you." he repeated again and pressed a kiss to Richard's forehead.

*

The guards came back two days later.

"Follow us, my lord."

Richard got up from his chair, backing away from the men. "Follow you where?"

"On orders of the king."

"Oh. This is very sudden. Do I not get time to compose myself?"

Two of the guards stepped forward, ironclad hands closing around his arms, dragging him off.

He had not heard or seen any of Henry since the fateful day. He did not know what Northumberland had said or if Henry finally had realised that you could not turn against your greatest ally to protect the king you deposed yourself. Had Henry finally realised his folly?

"Where are you taking me?"

"To the palace."

Not a public execution then, at least. Maybe only in front of the other lords. He shuddered. He feared death. Even more after how close he'd come to it, only so shortly ago.

They were not as rough with him as they'd been taking him here. There were shoes on his feet and no people to throw excrement at him. They did not let him stop though, pulled him on relentlessly.

He did not know what argument to make when they arrived. Should he beg for his life? Play on the guilt Henry felt, on the love he certainly must still feel for him? Should he make himself too pathetic to kill in the eyes of all? Or should he die with dignity?

When they arrived, Henry was alone. And the guards withdrew swiftly, leaving Richard off balance.

"What is this then?" Richard spoke into the empty hall. "My King."

"I've decided it is not save to keep you in the Tower any longer."

"And indeed it isn't. If men can break in to murder me, someone could break in to free me just the same."

"What?... No."

"I did not expect the death toll to come for me so soon again." He shivered for real this time.

Henry stepped towards him. "You will be save here, I promise you."

"Here? What talk'st thou of here?"

"You will stay at the palace. Where I can keep you save. Where I can keep you close to me." He reached for Richard's hair, but the other pulled away, irritation and disbelief stark on his face.

"Here, you say. Are you mad or am I? How could you keep me here? There's no place for a deposed king in the palace of his deposer."

"That's why it had to happen in secret. Why there had been such haste. No one must know you're here." Henry realised only now that Richard had been afraid. That he'd been afraid since he'd stepped into the room. "Sweet cousin." he said. "You must not stand here with a heavy heart. Only your safety I have in mind. Of my love you can be sure."

Relief flooded Richard so sudden and unexpected it made him almost faint. And he let himself lean against the other's chest for a moment. Let him carry his weight. And let himself be gentled as the frightened little bird he was in that moment. Allowed his heart to slow again. His mind and body alike to catch a breath. Not his end but a victory instead. But the more Henry elevated him the more dangerous this game between them became. For if he fell out of favor now, after everything he'd made Henry do, there could only be death for him. No more way for Henry to hide him away somewhere and pretend to forget about him. There where things you couldn't forget.

What game it was, though, they were playing? Chess the game of kings? Hardly, as Richard only had one piece left. Well, a game of chess played with only two kings. But then, Henry still had all his pieces. And still Richard was on the board. And neither knights, bishops nor queens could take him. And while he'd been surrounded by towers, unable to move, moves he'd made. One at a time. And now it seemed he'd moved out of the shadow of the Tower.

*

Richard looked at the golden rings on his fingers that Henry had given him, then his gaze went wistfully to the window where outside the trees were fresh and green. God, how much time had passed since he'd walked these gardens last? Months and months. "What a pretty bird in a gilded cage I am. Would you like me to sing for you?"

"What is it you ask of me?" Henry said. "I did all I could to make you comfortable."

"I want to go out, Henry. I want to feel grass under my feet and hear birds that aren't locked up in cages smaller than mine." He looked over to his monkey that Henry had brought back to him recently (making Richard wonder that Henry'd kept it all this time). "I start to feel like him. I thought I loved him, but I begin to wonder how he feels."

"I took many risks for you already–" Henry started.

"I've asked too much." Richard turned away from him in that mask of shyness and submission he knew how to wear to his greatest benefit, that Henry saw through and was still helpless against.

"Richard, no." He stood up, putting his hands on the other's shoulders. "If I cannot let you walk freely, the least I can do is let you speak freely in this room."

Richard turned back to him, face still coy. "You are too kind."

Henry's face hardened. "And I think the least I can ask for, is that you exert your right and speak the truth to me."

Richard's face hardened in turn. "Well then. I asked you for something, you denied me. What else is there to say? Would you like to go to bed?"

"You're not my whore, Richard."

"It's starting to feel that way."

"You are my companion, my equal."

Richard laughed, sharp and high. "Your equal? How could I possibly be that, when all I have and all I don't have is by your grace only? You give me pretty trinkets and expect me to bide my time until you call upon me."

"You're asking too much." Henry said harshly.

"I did not ask anything at all." Richard said in mock puzzlement.

"You ask me to set you free and I cannot do that."

"I did not–"

"For one thing because I don't trust you. Despite your harsh words, I do believe you warmed a little towards me. But I do not believe that you love me well enough not to turn against me, had you your freedom again. For another it would weaken my position dangerously would I let you go. Would I fake your death, people would demand proof. And if ever the truth came out people would depose me as insane. Which clearly I am." he added bitterly.

"You do me wrong, my lord." Richard said calmly but cuttingly. "I thought you treated me like a whore for lack of alternatives, but now just like Northumberland you called me one."

"I did not." Henry was quick to deny.

"If indeed that's what I am, as a former king I should demand higher payment for my services."

"I never thought of you–"

"But then, in the beginning I did not receive payment at all. When you took what you pleased." he continued almost conversationally again, an unsmiling smile on his face. "Unless of course my life was the payment."

Henry felt his face whiten as he was faced with Richard's disdain and anger.

"I love you!" he finally exclaimed helplessly. "You hold my heart and you've held it for a long time now."

"Oh, I know. I know. Yet seemingly all I do is, as Northumberland put it so well, give my favors to whoever can pay my fare."

"He said that?!"

"What does it matter? I do not care what Northumberland thinks of me, but Henry. And you seem to think I shared your bed to further my gain."

"Do not deny that you manipulate me, Richard."

"Oh, do not flatter yourself, I do that with everyone." He advanced on Henry dangerously. "So, I see now it was a business transaction each and everytime I spread myself for you." He stepped closer still and Henry backed away until his back hit the wall. "You've put up quite the effort then, Henry. There's no need for tender kisses or whispered pleasantries with a whore. Just take what you wish and be done with it. Maybe another golden ring for my troubles?" A scathing smile now. "Why, you are king and I am nothing, and my body shall swallow up all you have to give, and give you no complaints in return."

"This is not– You twist and turn my words as well as you ever did. Only this time I do not know whether to hurt me or to hurt yourself."

"Oh, I've been hurt, my lord. By you, though. But wait, that does not become a whore either. I shall be quiet." Richard sat down on the bed with a smile.

Henry cursed. "I cannot talk to you when you're like this, when there's no chance for me at all. But I cannot leave you like this either."

Richard just sat there.

"Speak, for the love of God!" Henry exclaimed.

"What would my lord hath me say?" Still Richard smiled, estranged and distant.

"Speak not then, contrary creature. I will speak instead. Will you make fun of my weakness? Of the fact that I'm not as interesting as Bushy or as beautiful as Aumerle! Must you mock me for my self-consciousness?! Must you mock my fear of losing you?"

"You talk of fear, my lord? What hath you to fear? All is yours. Richard's lands. Richard's crown. Even Richard himself."

"Do'st this include Richard's heart?"

"Well, the heart is part of the body, is it not?"

"Can you not give me a straight answer for once?"

"I once said that in the entire country there was no person left who loves me. Other than my sweet queen who isn't of English soil. But you, sir, hath loved me better than all my so called friends. So how could I turn from you?"

Henry stared at him aghast. "Forgive me." When he pulled him to his chest, Richard followed.

It was true enough, Richard had to concede. Acknowledgement tasting bitter and sad in his throat. Henry of course loved only an image of him. But it wasn't too pretty an image Richard had painted. Still such love of an fantasy was merely vanity. But when was love ever not vanity?

It was sad and simple that no one but Henry loved him. And Richard needed to be loved. Always had. And Henry so desperately wanted to be loved by Richard. So maybe they could continue this charade for both their benefits. And Richard could allow himself a while longer to be plied with sweet kisses and soft words. By the person who'd called him out on all his shortcomings and still seemed to love him for the very same.

Two kings in check by each other. A move that shouldn't have been possible. But it seemed bound to be a game with two kings and no winner.

*

"You can have from me whatever you wish, whatever you desire. Even your crown."

Richard smiled. "Oh, I don't think I want it back that terribly. It is time for others to make mistakes and for me to observe and have known better."

"Yet you counsel me."

"You have precious little need of my counsel, my lord." He kissed him. "But how sweet of you to indulge me anyway."

*

"Why, good Northumberland." Richard smiled. "Does my presence put you ill at ease? You must not fear anything. All is forgotten. Now embrace me as a brother, us both being Henry's loyal friends."

Northumberland dared not deny him. The creature had not only prevented his own demise, no, he'd also made his way back to court, sitting there, a place of honor among the nobles. And everyone knew he had the king's ear, and what else no one dared to voice any longer. Henry, himself a usurper, knew well to quell the roots of uprising under his reign.

Northumberland had been spared back then, but Aumerle had ended on the execution block. He wondered idly if Richard had at all cared, or if the view of his former lover's head on a spike, which the man must surely have seen since he was allowed to prowl the palace as he pleased again, had left him entirely indifferent. Had Richard begged for Aumerle's life, or had he asked for his head? Would Richard mourn Henry if he'd find his end in the same way, or would he facilitate just that? Northumberland did not know. Did not care for the fate of his former friend, his king, who'd made his own bed and very much lay in it for all they knew. Henry would have to bear the consequences on his own. Northumberland knew only that his position had saved him the last time, but with every day Richard became more powerful, and he did not know if his role as kingmaker would save him again, or if the next time it would be his head Richard would ask for.

So he could only play the game that everyone was playing. And flatter the king who wasn't a king anymore.

 

END