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A Handful of Soil

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Aumerle smuggles in apples for him, plucked off the trees in the orchard Richard is no longer allowed to walk in. They're wrinkled and small, caught by early frosts, their red blush faded, but Richard devours them as though they are the grandest delicacies of a king's banquet, the ones served only to the high table. To him they are as rich as a venison pie, as subtle in flavour as his favourite dish of doucetys, as sweet as marzipan. They are the fruit of his land.

Richard is tired now, always, his steps hesitant and his limbs oddly heavy. By day he rests against the slit of a window and peers out at green grass that shimmers with morning dew and trees that have mostly lost their leaves but are still strong, rooted deep to survive the coming winter. His land is beautiful, even with the nights drawing in, and he thinks his weariness is as much a lack of walking on its soil as it is the paucity of food he's allowed. A king, even one who has given up his rights, should not be kept from his soil.

He will not be held back from it forever, though. At night the soft approaching steps of death lull him to sleep, and by day its bony hands rest on his shoulders, the only weight he carries. He does not fear it. He will turn to embrace it soon, the way all men must whether they be kings or paupers or both. He will be buried deep, his bones fitly cradled.

Not today, though, for the footsteps he hears running light up the stone steps to his prison are those of his cousin, his familiar, welcome lover, whose words bring comfort and memories of kinder days.

The guard whispers something as he lets Aumerle in the room. A time limit perhaps, or a demand. There's only the one guard now who'll let Aumerle through, a trace of loyalty to the old regime and a fondness for the coin Aumerle offers.

Aumerle, his beloved one, the only one who still comes to him. He starts to kneel, but Richard holds him by the shoulders to sway him from that course, clasps him tight instead. There's a roughness in Aumerle's voice when he says good day – Richard thinks he must have seen the tremor in Richard's hands, the way his cheeks have sunk and the illicit grey in his hair.

"My friend," Richard greets him, as an equal, a treasured companion. He is that and more.

Richard is not too proud to admit that all he wants is warmth and comfort, a loving body pressed against his own. Aumerle slips off his cloak and wraps it around both of them as they lie on the simple cot in the corner. It is too narrow for two grown men, but the forced closeness is welcome. Aumerle presses kisses to Richard's face, and Richard drinks them in like hot spiced wine after a winter's hunt, like the very substance of life itself, more nourishing even than the apples that had drunk in the sun.

"I hear our cousin, Bolingbroke—" Aumerle starts, but Richard interrupts him, finger across his mouth, even though it stops the kisses too.

"Let us not speak of the king."

"You are my king," Aumerle whispers, soft so crows cannot whisper his treason into greedy ears. "Always."

"Then, when you visit next, bring me a handful of soil. I would walk on my land again ere I die."

"Richard—" Aumerle pleads, the first time he has used his name since they were boys. But it is nothing like the happy call it was when they were children, when "Edward!" and "Richard!" echoed in the air. Then it was a demand to fight with wooden swords, or hushed awe as they stood side by side and watched a mare give birth and the first stumbling steps of the clumsy colt that would grow up to carry Richard into battle, or a warning that their theft of plum pastries from the table had not gone unnoticed. Now Aumerle's voice breaks on his name, because he must acknowledge the truth of Richard's statement but does not wish to – his sad eyes admit the truth if his words won't.

"Will you bring it?" Richard asks, his thumb brushing away the salt trace in the corner of Aumerle's eyes.

"Yes," Aumerle swears, and rests his head on Richard's shoulder.

"Then I am content," Richard says. Though it seems that contentment is only prologue; now that he has his cousin's word, he feels a stirring of life, a giddy ache in his groin that he had not thought to feel again. He takes Aumerle's warm hand and presses it to the results of this new energy. Even under the cloak the cold is too bitter to shed clothing, but Richard fumbles with the laces of Aumerle's hose, clumsy as though he's never done this before, until he feels his cousin's impatient smile against his neck.

"We will be at this forever," Aumerle complains, as though he has not many times teased his king so long that Richard had need demand his own release. His fingers are sure, first on the laces of both their garments, and then on Richard's prick, stirring him to full tumescence, through the aching heights of his release and then stroking him until he's soft again, sleepy and safe for just a while.

They eat the remaining apple then, huddled together like boys, Richard taking two eager bites for each of Aumerle's.

"I can stay until the sun sets," Aumerle says, and Richard wishes he were Joshua and could command the sun to stand motionless in the sky. But he has no power now, not over sun or moon or earth or the people upon it, so he simply waits, Aumerle in his arms, and watches as the light begins to fade, the taste of an English apple still sweet on his tongue.