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The High Cost of Living, 24th, AM- Xmas 1677

Lucas Cole

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Higgins & Hoare's


Located just off the Strand this was one of the most exclusive jewellers of London, one of the suppliers of His Majesty. As most jewellers did, the shop doubled as a bank, offering costumers an interesting rate if they stored their money with the owners.


Had Lucas Cole had any money to speak of (and he did not), it seems unlikely that he would have had the foresight or the wisdom to store it with any sort of banking establishment when there were so many perfectly lovely things it might be spent on. In fact, money (or lack thereof) had always seemed to him to be a mere inconvenience; and for many years, it had been his habit to defer anything in the least bit inconvenient in the mistaken belief that it might be put off indefinitely.


In this he was quite incorrect, though let us give the man some credit (something he would surely appreciate, considering) and note that the troubles and travails of last six months had not left him entirely unchanged. A hundred bad decisions catching up at once tend to take their toll; in the end, one must always pay for the damage.


Lucas, dressed modestly in plum-coloured linen, his thick wool greatcoat folded tidily over one arm, leaned forward to more closely inspect a particularly exquisite pocket-watch, and was at once overcome with a memory of the tone of his sister's voice:


Ydych yn torriw calon tad.1


And he wondered if he could afford it.




1. You are breaking father's heart.

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Lucas was by no means the only gentleman perusing the wares of Higgins & Hoare's without the necessary means of making a purchase, but in all likelihood (and insofar as his perhaps self-described literary counterpart was concerned), he was the only one that concerned himself with this tedious, nagging detail.


Of course, it would have been difficult for an outside observer to tell that James O'Neill was in fact, spending coin that he did not truthfully possess. The teal and cold gray of his outfit was embroidered in a dark green and, in accommodation to the latest fashions, new and cut in a manner not dissimilar to a military arrangement. Accompanying this was a fur-lined cloak with silver clasps, and the entire ensemble was worn by a young man who, in every step, seemed to move with the purpose and swagger of one entirely certain and comfortable with their place in their world, cocksure smirk kept even and utterly fixed on what lie ahead: which for the moment consisted mostly of a new pocketwatch, one rather inconveniently misplaced during an ill-fated (if quite fortuitous for courtly fashion, James could not help but think) venture at the finest gambling houses of London.


And it was that aforementioned smirk to which Lucas Cole, composer, would find himself treated to if he turned to meet the young man currently several paces behind him, the same who quipped in ready Ulster brogue, “Ah, the immortal genius graces us mere mortals with his presence. You have done me a great dishonor, sir, whether you realize as much or no.”


The face that Lucas could have turned to meet would have held as much contrast as the immaculate state of James' outfit and that of his finances. The curls of his hair, now falling near his shoulders, were maintained well and carefully, and the look in his eyes may have implied nothing but the utmost energy, excitement, and all-around intensity...but careful examination would have noted the circles under his eyes, darker and more full than before, and a slight hollowness to his cheek that was missing the last court season.


“A potential collaborator. That was what you labeled me before your disappearance, was it not?” James' words, accusing as they were, delivered themselves with such an obvious self-amusement as to either be clearly facetious or entirely arrogant, whichever was the case. With quick, light steps, he moved from the display he had been examining -a silver ring unrelated to his endeavors or interest, but nonetheless held a sort of beauty in its simplicity- and towards Lucas, smile yet to fade. “And yet I am treated like the rest of the rabble. Given a common invitation to your magnum opus. The audacity.”


Every step seemed to hum with the power of thunder, and every uttered word must have (for James knew this, seemingly), been as clever as a Socratic quip and as reverberant and warm as (to indulge in some Christmas spirit) a crackling tavern fire. With a mocking groan and absolutely no consideration for either the proprietors or employees of the shop, he closed the distance between him and the one man he yet considered a friend among court. “I demand satisfaction, Master Cole. You must tell me everything..”

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The store was plushly appointed, as one might expect from an establishment catering to the elite. A large gentleman opened the door to the gentry and chased away those not suitably attired. A clerk attended the main counter with glass surfaces. Another clerk was in sight behind him, working on repairing common items. More voices could be heard in the back room. The clerk at the counter looked up expectantly as Lucas, then James, entered the establishment.

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Lucas recognised that Irish brogue at once; he smiled, and ostensibly to the pretty, gilded pocketwatch he was inspecting, said, "Ah, Master O'Neill." Then he straightened up and turned, still wearing that faint, amused smile, and remarked companionably; "You know, of all the thieves I've known, I believe you might be my favourite..."


By way of contrast, the composer looked remarkably recovered from the sad, wasting creature he had been mere months ago. His colour was much improved; there was a certain brightness to his eyes where once they had seemed dim; and while he was still slender, true, there was no longer such an emaciation about his person. And yet for all that he affected an easy geniality, he seemed to do so from some remove, as though he were not entirely present. As though he were guarding himself fastidiously.


But at least his act was a fine one: Lucas listened amiably enough as James berated him, now modestly inclining his head in agreement, and then lifting his hands in surrender (one still clutching his greatcoat), chuckling as the Irishman demanded satisfaction.


"Now now, let us not be hasty," He began, smoothly, "I have been back in London for months, lieveke1, and easily enough found. One may simply follow the sound of my..." A pause, a smirk, "Immortal genius. If you had wanted a personal invitation so very badly, may I suggest that it might have been wise to seek it out... personally?"


Lucas provided no details whatsoever regarding his disappearance, and scant little else of note besides that oddly-placed foreign endearment. But in truth, he rather doubted providing James with everything would be in the least bit possible: that look in his friend's eye was familiar enough. He did not expect to be able to get a word in edgewise.


And, in order to ensure he could not, he immediately turned the conversation back upon James; "Are you newly returned to London, then?" A smile, a platitude. A tactical fencing-off. "And how is Ireland?"



1. Little sweet one (Dutch)

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And so it was within seconds that the two of them, composer and poet, were at it again. Eyebrows raised expectantly as Lucas turned to meet him, James fired back immediately. “Certainly the most charming and winsome. Perhaps talented, if I might be so arrogant, to be outed so readily and yet remain so unconcerned...”


His green eyes swept the room, going from Lucas towards the clerk, who was treated with a smile as ready as it was warm and a dip of his head, the two combining to form the amiable-but-dismissive 'in a moment' gesture. Jewelry had, at first sight of his friend, become largely irrelevant, little more than a suitable backdrop for James' impromptu stage.


There was so much Lucas had to be told, to understand and share in his experience. The words simply could not come out fast enough.


“Personally?” James couldn't help but laugh; caught in its throat, the sound that escaped had its natural lyricism altogether diminished by a hoarseness that was relatively unknown to both the audience and performer. “Now now, Master Cole,” he began, words mimicking the composer's own, “One does not ask for an invitation. Surely you are the better-versed in courtly matters to know this, my sage friend? And you would not, I hoped, expect me to be so crass as to stoop to the level of one who needs to prove their own value...”


The odd term of endearment had been noted, in honesty, but brushed aside by the strange nature of Lucas' evasion...only for that, too, to be left by the wayside as the conversation was quite deftly deflected towards one of James' preferred subjects: himself, by way of Ireland. “Ireland, yes,” he explained, tone chipper and with an enthusiastic nod towards nothing in particular. “It is...cold, currently. Wet, as well...” He smirked, as if this was some great feat of wit, and began to rattle off a list of otherwise obvious facts. “And full of the Irish, like my father, or His Grace...who has a remarkable family, I simply must tell you of them...but you asked after London?”


Instinctively, his posture straightened, and with a slight flourish of his hand towards the tip of his brow, adjusting an errant strand of hair, James offered in further, blithely merry explanation. “Ah, I have been preoccupied, my friend, despite my early departure. I have just...” His pale lips pursed for a half-moment, mulling over choice of word. “-secured, that would be the appropriate terminology, a publisher. A book, Lu- Master Cole!” His idle hand swept to the side in order to best impart this significance, and he began to beam, with a slight sigh adding, “Isn't it simply...grand?”


Grand. That was a magnificent word, the only appropriate term for the young man with the thoughts less prone to racing and more towards barreling, of light step and easy smile...who in this moment could only feel grand, always grand. Even when he wasn't.

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It was an odd feeling, wasn't it? Almost akin to a rush of vertigo, to watch as his friend's green eyes flicked restlessly from surface to surface, his expressions and hands and voice all dancing from one thing to the next almost anxiously, as though he feared to leave something untouched, or unsaid. One almost wondered if the world itself had slowed, that Lucas himself, the shop and all the of the people of London existed in stupor, and James alone operated at the proper tempo. The composer found himself wondering how dull they must all look, to the Irishman's eyes. How inert.


"I hardly expected you to ask, Master O'Neill," Lucas put in, as succinctly as possible, as though he were worried that too many words might wreck the entire conversation as easily as a branch shoved into the spokes of a carriage wheel. A brief, sly smile; "When have you ever asked?"


Short enough, perhaps, for now James' conversation ricocheted from (a largely irrelevant) description of Ireland's weather, to London, and just as quickly to some happy piece of news that hadn't been asked for in the least. The Irishman, it appeared, had tasted success.


No wonder he is so... ebullient.


Lucas smiled, a broad and genuine smile, and clapped his friend upon the shoulder. "A book? My dear friend, how grand indeed! My heartiest congratulations! A book of poetry, I presume?" He left the briefest pause here, allowing only for confirmation and nothing more, before smoothly adding, "Why, I could not be more delighted. And who is this publisher of yours...?"

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Was it truly that the world had slowed down and lost its true pace, leaving James the sole, lonely bearer of that torch? It would have been a difficult question to answer, had it been voiced even in the more self-aware moments he was known to experience. Perhaps there was a more accurate synopsis would have been a comparison to a sudden whirlwind at sea: swift as it was inexorable, potent and moving only by the whim of Providence; undoubtedly a magnificent sight from afar, but equally fickle and undirected. There was a certain safety in this: nothing could have dampened the spirit of James but James himself and the surge of intensifying emotion that beat on ceaselessly as a high tide. He was completely, utterly, and terribly liberated.


“Asking, Master Cole, is a great deal of work, and removes the friction of the unknown besides.” James' eyes darted back to Lucas, flashing brightly with mischief. “And as such, is unmistakably dull. To imply I would ever condescend to ask is therefore sinful. Must I pray for your soul, my genius friend?”


Friction, of course, created heat. And where Lucas was smooth, cool, and apparently collected (considerably, if one had the wherewithal to recollect their last meeting), James desired nothing more than to have enough heat as to be considered incendiary. In due time, surely... A grin, unprovoked, danced boldly across his lips as he considered once again his own private, potentially grandiose premonition of a true entrance into London's literary scene, before Lucas' questioning was posed upon him. “Poetry, yes, of course, in part-”


His words cut short, James took a pace aside in uncontrolled irritation, jaw tensing at Lucas' unnecessary interruption. But this was tossed aside in an instant as another question was raised, one he answered readily and almost overly-eagerly. “Ah, you would not know her, I would think. But for inquiring minds...” He raised an eyebrow, teasingly. “She is one Constance Mercer, a widow who operates the late Master Mercer's publishing house on behalf of her lackwit son. So it goes among the merchant class, one supposes.”


Shrugging, he carried on, light and effervescent as a cool breeze... “It lacks importance, truly. What matters is that it will feature the longest, piece I have ever written, at least those worthy of public viewing...oh, I ought send you a copy when it publishes- no, now, I can arrange for it nigh immediately. It must be now...” Pacing to the side, back to where he had examined the displayed ring, James shot a look somewhat backwards, towards the composer. "Ah, if only my Boudicca could rival your Actaeon, a chara1!"


"Although, if the centerpiece of my epic must be diminished by another...it may as well be your own, no?”


1: Irish Gaelic for "my friend", with the "a" part referring particularly to an intimacy, as opposed to "mo chara".

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"Ohhh, it's far too late to pray for my soul, dear," Lucas smirked. "As well you know."


Ordinarily, some glib remark about friction from a handsome gentleman might have thrown up all manner of deeply unhelpful imagery, of the sort to which Lucas was unusually vulnerable. Today, he merely raised one eyebrow jauntily, and set the subject aside. It had taken a while, but he'd finally learned better than to pursue pointless, destructive affairs with friends... no matter how very tempting it might seem to make some untoward remark about seeing them on their knees.


Thankfully, James was operating at such a remarkable clip that if one wished the conversational topic to change, one need only wait a few moments. A most convenient whirlwind, arranging and rearranging the verbal scenery into all manner of interesting new shapes. Lucas considered it wise not to brave it until he was directly invited, and then:


"Let us not speak of the opera, I pray. I hear of nothing else," Lucas dismissed his Actaeon in as cavalier a fashion as he could muster, with one vague wave of his hand. "I would far rather hear of your masterpiece." His nonchalance was affected; despite his efforts, there was a certain uneasiness about his evasion that he could not entirely disguise.


But then, the opera's debut was so very near, now. Looming, like the nebulous threat of a storm upon the horizon. The weight of the charged air bearing down upon him was making him restive... it was a storm he could not divert, and was afraid to weather.


"Boudicca! A most noble subject," The composer persisted, and that complacent smile reappeared. If it seemed a little pasted-on at first, it quickly grew to seem more natural. "I do hope you are going to improve upon Beaumont and Fletcher's tedious opus; I always thought their treatment of the Celtic Queen to be far too trivial a thing; seemed to practically trivialize Boudicca herself. A sin if I ever heard one... perhaps it is their souls that need your prayer, Master O'Neill, and not mine?"

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Briefly, James felt he could ascertain a degree of discomfort in Lucas, though nothing outwardly appeared wrong or indeed at all different with the composer. Indeed, if anything there was a certain sharpness and clarity to his friend that had never gone noticed before...a sharpness that implied a certain edge. It was almost disquieting, to see such...


And then Lucas spoke again, of opera and Boudicca, Fletcher and Beaumont, and the thought was pushed through the maelstrom of James' psyche, crowded out by a host of a hundred others of its kind. With them came a change in the winds, a sudden change in pressure that made the knowing sweetness in his voice cloying and the toying of his fingers against the hem of his coat a necessity to steady himself against the sudden feeling of vertigo, his eyes all the while searching for Lucas' soft blues and some sense of balance until the words -and a passably easy smile- came to him.


“Prayer, Master Cole?” Though an observer would notice very little beyond the hurried way the question presented itself, inwardly, James' throat felt warm enough to melt in on itself and stop the words from leaving. Surely enough, however, humor came to him quickly, and its arrival brought about enough steadiness for his energy to be harnessed, his speech becoming rapid-fire in an obvious progressive. “Heaven itself forbid that I pray, for you or for the long dead, great as they may have been!” Mockingly, he threw up his hands, and his faltering smile regained warmth as quickly as it had wavered moments earlier. “You would not wish that upon me, my dearest friend. The sheer astonishment would stupefy my lord father unto death. And then I would become the Baron Iveagh, obligated to marry some polite dullard of a girl and raise my voice among those bickering, bloated lords of Hibernia.”


“Or perhaps,” his voice lowered, a flair for the dramatic far more easily reached than any actual true semblance of propriety. “The toll it would take on my knees would only confirm a few of his utterly dreadful suspicions.”


More loudly, he continued, “But yes, the very image of Boudicca was profaned by the otherwise stainless Fletcher and Beaumont. Mine is accordingly defiant of this tradition- of all tradition, save for those of the proud Britons.” Smirking at this, James stepped forward as to bridge the gap between him and Lucas further. “To understand fully, one must recall that peculiar tendency, the concept that we may consider so very Roman,” for the obvious meaning provided a patriotic contrast to the underlying, soon-to-be explained sentiment, “to be obsessed with virtue and honor, and how blatantly hypocritical this was to the Iceni of my Boudicca, a true Queen beyond even an Elizabeth.”

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After the weaknesses of the flesh had been comprehensively stripped away, all that could remain were skeletal sharp edges. When court made a jade, it did not shirk in the honing of him. A brutal process, perhaps; but what remained...


Lucas smiled a crooked, well-practiced smile, the kind with a kind of calculated kindness. Something in his clear blue eyes seemed vaguely amused. "Far be it from me to wish such misfortune upon you, I'm sure. A Barony, a wife? And a fortune, presumably. How very tedious." He turned upon his heel smoothly as James paced about, a measured tranquility to James' erratic vigor. "I suppose it would be remiss of me to point out that any untoward rumours might be easily dispelled by your polite dullard of a girl? Never mind."


James moved on to Fletcher and Beaumont without so much as a breath inbetween, and Lucas nodded along, his lips pursed in thought. "You have never been one for tradition, as I recall," he put in unnecessarily, perhaps for no other reason than to remind his friend that he was still present. He lifted his chin just a touch as James moved closer; an unconscious defensive gesture, though that smile did not falter for a moment.


"Let us not be so rash as to condemn all things Roman outright." (Naturally, any discussion of theirs which included such concepts as virtue and honor would be one of scathing condemnation.) "I recall finding the Satyricon liber to be quite... instructive, in my teens." A tactful phrasing if ever there was one.


"Though that would have been cold comfort to Boudicca, I am sure," the composer continued without pause. Lingering on Latin erotica was never wise. "How may I side with any other over a Celtic Queen? She has always reminded me a great deal of Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, you know; her attempt to drive the Normans from Wales. Some of my countrymen are still heard to cry out, 'Revenge for Gwenllian!' as they go into battle."


Lucas smiled that crooked smile, almost as though he'd forgotten how to leave off. "How desperately we cling to history when there is no future to be had."

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Calculated kindness or no, James took as well as he gave, and treated Lucas with a quick flash of a smile in acknowledgment of the reproach. Perhaps it truly was as selfish as his friend implied, to know the burdens of being a peer and to want none of it...but in the same breath, could a composer so sharp of wit and otherwise have denied the absolute gloom that would have been the responsibilities of being Baron Iveagh.


Yet it was to Lucas' later remark that he replied, for few could have wished to dwell, while in the heights above the clouds, upon anything but the clever and passionate. “Master Cole,” James scoffed, eyes shifting around the room. “I would have to delve into the depths of Hades itself and retrieve fairest Persephone herself before Lord Iveagh even began to consider that his precious heir was anything more than an Italian-” Nervously, he looked towards the counter and the clerk there, cutting himself short in an unlikely moment of forethought. “-an Italian.” Their reputation, at least, spoke for itself, without being utterly obvious as to the implications for any onlookers.


Which, of course, continued to be of less concern as James went on. It was easier, far easier, to lose himself in this conversation, to roll with the riptides of his own energy rather than struggle against the current or fly against the headwinds. “The Satyricon liber? Perhaps I should pray for you, despite the damage it would do my own standing... He chortled, remembering the book quite vividly. “For I was under the very distinct impression that everybody of import knew Martial was Petronius' superior, and for solid reason.”


Lucas could make of that what he would, for James would keep on smirking as if nothing was out of place with remarking on Latin smut in a jewelry store. Such things were all but natural when one lived on the plane of if and when rather than then and now. “My Boudicca is rather like Martial, I suppose; fearless to the utmost, proud as a Briton, and willing to vehemently defend what is hers. This freedom makes her as admirable as it does tragic, I should think, just as it does your Gwenllian and the Irish Granuialle.” His hurried speech nonetheless implied a note of passion, of near-fevered defense akin to the one of which he had been speaking.


“She is much more subtle, however; that I will allow.” Admitting this, James took a step back from Lucas, listless eyes falling on his boots. “In words if not deeds. Few would suspect her opposition to the prudence of Rome and our era alike until later, I should hope.”

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An Italian...? Hah. The hesitation there was revealing enough. And Lucas noted it with interest, running mental fingers over the shape of those words left unsaid, an unspoken appreciation for their familiar form. Even as the conversation rolled inexorably forward (with James at its helm), flattening the past in its wake, Lucas felt vaguely heartened by it, for reasons he did not entirely understand.


"Oh, pray for me if you must, my dear Italian. I've always enjoyed a... novel experience." A soft shuff of laughter through the nose; a wry, amused look. "Though if the good Lord heeds you, I shall be perfectly astonished." Whatever it was Lucas made of the opinion that Martial was Petronius' superior, he kept to himself.


Boudicca was far more likely to get him talking. "Another of your fiery, courageous women," Lucas noted, leaning back against the jewellery case he had been perusing, and folding his arms. Was that a faint glimmer of approval in his eyes? "You do so like them. If I did not think so highly of you, Master O'Neill, I might accuse you of becoming predictable." The composer smirked. "Will she possess as sharp a tongue as Martial, I wonder? I do hope so..."

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It was likely for the best that Lucas simply let the hesitant rainfall of words wash over him, though James would have never processed the sentiment as such. Less-than-subtle implications were one matter, easily bandied among friends in a manner not dissimilar to the discussion of weather among lesser minds But the other...ah, it was fortunate that consideration for his own speech was a priority ranking only somewhat higher than consideration for the clerks and potential other patrons of Higgins and Hoare's.


Yet the conversation continued to careen from idea to idea, with James as far less of a helmsman and more the singular soul who could even begin to fathom the course ahead of them, and then only intuitively. “Novel, Cole?” James exhaled sharply, making a tch sound in mock derision. “You wound me further. I aspire for my experiences to be nothing less than revolutionary.” Pale fingers, the first two and thumb of his right hand calloused from use, scraped the side of his chin in a passable imitation of thought. “I suppose I ought pray, now, if only for the remains of the collective shock to live on in testament to this. Ah, what form the world would take, if the possibilities it carries within it were awoken!”


“Perhaps it may even alleviate the fears that I might become so crass as to be predictable.” He shot a dimpled grin at Lucas, moreso at what may very well have been hidden acknowledgment (that admittedly should have come naturally from one less gifted than the composer) than the broadsides of wit that seemed to be flying about. “Yet I cannot lie, a chara. There may be a similarity of theme with The Rising and those works you are already familiar with, even if passionate Grainne speaks solely of the personal, and Boudicca far more general in her wants and reasons, her entire call to arms...”


The words began to falter, the rate at which they came to mind much faster than that which even James' rapid brogue could deliver, and with them, the entire process verged on setting itself on end. But something in Lucas' direction caught him, and so it was with a slow, deep breath that he concluded with much more brevity than before: “...and should that call be found to have hidden barbs, ah, such is solely the interpretation of the reader.”

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"It seems I do nothing but wound, today," Lucas inclined his head, slightly, in a very reasonable facsimile of contrition... which might have been more convincing had he not continued to smirk. "If you do happen to find yourself on your knees, perhaps you might ask the Lord about my manners, while you're down there? But do not trouble yourself on my account, I pray."


Lucas tried very hard not to think about that dimpled grin. All latent potential of the universe aside, there were certain dreams it was foolhardy to pursue. A little harmless verbal jousting, though... now that he could get behind. James had consistently proved himself an adept partner, which suggested his Boudicca would show just as sharp a wit, at least to the interpretation of all but the unforgivably dull.


Martial would be so proud.


"I shall await your manuscript eagerly," the composer promised, and meant it. He'd thought of nothing but his opera for months, and had very little idea of what he might do with himself once it was finally staged. A distraction would prove very welcome.


"Speaking of courageous women, your publisher... Mercer, was it? Why am I not in the least bit surprised to discover your partner in this endeavour is as unconventional as her star?" Lucas meant that as a compliment, and fully expected James to take it as one. "She must be a shrewd woman indeed, to recognise true talent when she sees it."

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“Ah, but I'll send it immediately!” James declared, sweeping gesture of his hand announcing his intentions just as sufficiently as words would have done. “Tonight, if I can remind myself- a suitable ludus1 to your grand triumph, perhaps? If a private one, for the moment.” His smile relaxed somewhat from its previous point of exhilaration to a soft, nearly earnest one that Lucas would perchance recall, one nearly exclusively reserved for the actual substance of his poetry.


For there were very few subjects that James could truly consider off-limits to the composer, already a dear friend who understood more of him than both, in all likelihood, realized. The nature of his writing -his life's work, if it was not pretentious to say- was not quite such a topic, but it remained nonetheless an exercise in self-consciousness, one unfamiliar to the heir of a baron who was quite accustomed to getting his way.


In poetry, as in all art, there were no such considerations. One's way was defined only by the whole added to the sum of its parts: only form, meter, verse, and sound combined to perfection. James O'Neill could accept nothing less than this...which made his considerations in regards to Constance Mercer rather uncomfortable, even for him.


Pride was simply a terrible thing.


And it was in regards to her that his smile became bland and inoffensive, implying none of its usual humor. Indeed, as point of fact, one might have noticed that most of his behavior assumed that pattern; while little was discernibly wrong with James after Lucas' question, a certain quietude may have appeared to manifested upon him, a sudden halt to his favored tics and twitches. “Mercer, yes,” he agreed, tone still warm and brisk even as his body language began to slow itself down to normalcy, hands at his side. Nonetheless warmly, he added, “Shrewd would certainly be a qualifier I would apply to her. She has...exceeded my expectations with a consistency. Indeed, I almost thought her impervious to the manner of others, before my persuasive arts miraculously persevered...”


He glanced towards the ground, chuckling half-earnestly, more out of habit than anxiety, for in this moment, his body language was as controlled as could be, still as an oak. “Like attracts like, isn't that the saying? I cannot fault her for her impeccable taste.”


1: Singular, public entertainment in ancient Rome, known for accompanying the triumphs of conquerors and emperors.

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Something about the mention of this Constance Mercer seemed to stifle James' enthusiasm, as if the wind had suddenly dropped and all the bluster and movement ceased in favor of an eerie calm. It was almost unnerving.


Lucas, drawing from the only experience he could muster, could only assume that this meant the young poet was not particularly fond of this publisher of his... that perhaps the terms of his arrangement with her had not proved as favorable as he'd hoped. If she were as shrewd as claimed, maybe she was mercenary, too... had demanded a far greater share of the profits than was fair, perhaps even all of them, and the only benefit James could hope for was the distribution of his work.


If Lucas had held any hope of an introduction to this publisher (and perhaps, the possibility of his own work in print), he set that hope aside. "I am amazed that she required any persuasion whatsoever," he remarked, hoping to raise James' spirits. "Your work speaks for itself, I would think. Succinctly, and elegantly! Never fear; once this volume of yours is published, and England comes to appreciate your talent, you will not be the one who stoops to persuasion. Publishers will be fairly knocking down your door, begging to publish your next volume. Of that I am quite certain."


The composer clapped James upon the shoulder, a gesture of affection meant to reassure; his complacent smile had thawed, just a touch, to something more closely human. "Now, oblige me, if you will, and employ your own impeccable taste in the matter of this cravat pin." He gestured to a rather plain silver pin, adorned with a single, modest pearl. "I have need of something for this evening..."

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Regardless of the inaccuracy of their origin, Lucas' reassurances were not unwelcome; indeed, James' smile softened somewhat at his words, and a slow nod of comprehension signaled a return to his earlier warmth. His friend's opinion, while to his knowledge not backed by any demonstration of his own talent in composition, was worth more in artistic matters than half the publishers in London combined. And while their acquaintance had been altogether brief, he viewed himself as nothing more than a kindred spirit to the composer. The ideas they had shared last August had been only the soil for the root of their sudden, bizarre understanding of the other to grow in.


And so James could only conclude that their future collaboration, were it still to happen, would blossom into something worthy of the laurels Lucas gave his current work. A more introspective moment, perhaps, would have led to the conclusion that this was the root of his evasion: above all, this was the one respect he needed to earn. Preferably outside of the bedroom.


“I- I do not doubt that you are correct,” he agreed, sighing with another, more emphatic nod accompanying the reply, mind having already begun to move past the arrangement with Constance Mercer. “After all, you're more than likely already aware that I would put forward nothing that I did not consider wholly ready to represent itself.. Ah, between your opera and my book, London shall be completely at a loss as to what to do with the pair of us!” Not repressing the growth of his own smile as Lucas touched his shoulder, a gesture that provided more assurance than even his praise, he added with a throaty chuckle, “Beyond shower us with eternal gratitude, that is.”


His attention thus diverted, James turned his gaze onto the cravat pin in question, appearing to eye it with no small amount of thought. “The Duke of Buckingham's prized composer ought to consider gold, I should think.” What use was popularity and patronage if it were not spent well? But then- a mischievous thought surfaced, and the mutable smile of the poet shifted into a wicked smirk “Though I seem to recall a lady at one of his soirees who wore the most elegant pearl necklace, and charmed even Lord Langdon that night.”

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Curiously enough, Lucas' thoughts on respect (and the earning of it) were remarkably similar to James'... at least, that it ought to be had outside of the bedroom. Why, if one could earn respect inside, Lucas would surely have had the respect of half of London by now. And since that was manifestly not the case, it followed that other strategies must be employed.


Strategies such as proving one's artistic worth. But James already had Lucas' respect in that regard, or the composer would never have agreed to speak about collaboration in the first place. The only thing James might do to sully that reputation was to suddenly become inept. Which seemed unlikely.


And should we earn eternal gratitude for our artistic worth... why, wouldn't that be a nice start? Though I shall count myself perfectly content if I am not run out of London as a fraud...


Lucas kept his attention on the jewellery, and his thoughts on adulation to himself. The opera had seemed to become something closer to curse than a blessing, of late; he was too close, too involved, too familiar with every phrase and nuance... too invested. He could no longer tell if it was any good, or if it was, in fact, quite dreadful: all perspective had gone entirely out of the window. He longed for nothing more than for it to be over, for good or ill.


Cravat pins, gold or otherwise, were far easier to critique. A happy little problem with very little consequence at all. "If only London would express its gratitude for our talents in the form of jewellery." A brief, wry grin. "Now there's a reward I'd be glad of."


And perhaps the conversation might have continued in that vein, but James decided to mention Lucy, of all people. Lucas smiled such a thoroughly self-satisfied smile, then, that cats which had gotten at cream would feel themselves unjustly outclassed. The ornaments he looked upon had surely never been regarded with such wicked glee.


"Oh?" The artless tone he employed almost didn't seem feigned. "Charmed even Lord Langdon... my word. You shall have to introduce me."

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  • 2 weeks later...

Adulation was a worthy goal, as daunting of a task as it was desirable, but it was only one side of the die cast in regards to his lot. And in truth, it was no more seductive a fate than the alternative: James O'Neill craved nothing more than understanding and the reaction it brought. Whether that reaction was to be throngs of admirers -as Petronius, the elegantiae arbiter of Tacitus and Plutarch would have been- or the gasps of the shocked that only a Martial could have been familiar with was ultimately an irrelevant ending.


What mattered was the fire, not whether its flames soothed or destroyed.


But cravat pins were a more readily-accessible topic than adulation or the lack thereof, and with their tangible reality more captivating than a certainty of his future found only in metaphor -for now, even metaphor required more attention than James was willing to give the world beyond the physical and pressing- and as such, he stooped his head momentarily to better examine the suggested jewelry. “So long as they reserve the pearls for the musical elite,” he murmured, nodding in apparent approval, before turning back to face Lucas. “I desire something more...vivid. An emerald, perhaps. Or a garnet the color of an ember...”


The musing was cut short by the topic of the ever-fascinating Lady Lucy. “My word indeed. A face that could launch a thousand ships...” Lucas would have found his wry grin retaliated with another knife-sharp smirk. “Or at least Lord Langdon's. Not that such requires much exertion, to hear tell.”


Truthfully, James knew little and less of the man, but such considerations were lowly and unimportant. Their brief encounters had been enough, and a mere quip would have to do until a suitable metrical form and rhyme could be found for the phrase insufferably pompous lackwit.


“Though I might add that I found the pairing...intriguing.” The glint in his eyes grew with the taut smile across his lips. “Hers was a mentality I would have believed more intrigued by a pursuit than the...ready, cliched charms of a man in uniform.”

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A face that could launch a thousand ships...? The familiar invective rose to Lucas' lips unbidden, and he smirked as he said it; "Flatterer."


But it was what James said next, on the matter of pursuit, that drew Lucas' full attention. He lifted his head, turned, and leaning upon the cabinet he closed the distance between them until it was just on the verge of uncomfortable. The kind of proximity that held a charge, warm with the threat of intimacy... or violence.


"Perhaps you should test that little theory. See what happens." The look in the composer's eyes did nothing at all to clarify matters; his voice was a little more than a purr, the resonant undertone that warned of an approaching storm. And then he smiled, slow and wide, unnervingly defiant, and... abruptly turned back to the cabinet as though nothing at all had happened.


"I quite agree with your opinion on the pearls," Lucas declared, airily, eyeing the selection of pins with a nonchalance that belied the rebellious hammer of his heart. It was not clear where the source of his anxiety lay; nor did he make any effort to uncover it. A moment of weakness, that was all. A mere moment of weakness. He allowed himself to ramble on, listlessly; "Though an emerald would suit you better than a garnet. Green looks very well on you, I think. Or perhaps jade? There's something pleasingly exotic about jade..."


Adulation was a fine enough thing, in theory, but... life had very little patience for theory, in Lucas' experience. Practice was a beast of an entirely different stripe.

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Lucas' steps forward were met first with confidence and poise; James neither flinched or withdrew, sly leer sharp enough to cut glass. He wore the leading role easily and with the assertive swagger of an especially fine dandy, and the expectations that preceded the Welshman's approach were those he had honed in playing this particular part.


That Lucas Cole, composer, continued to subvert, exceed, and break the expectations set before him should have, by now, been less surprising than they were. Nor should James have felt himself entitled to a momentary discomfort as his own words were flung back in his face like a gauntlet daring him to seek satisfaction, a flush of scarlet meanwhile tracing the contours of his cheek up to his ears. And perhaps, with consideration towards that surprise and sudden fluster as his head jerked ever-slightly to the side and his gaze fell towards the ground left of Lucas, it was equally inadvisable that the challenge brought to bear a sensation as familiar as it was rare.


It took two to make a pursuit worthwhile, after all.


“Perhaps.” The concession was slow, formal, without eye contact; still as a storm's eye and full of the same static. Caught between a flurry of mixed signals and racing thoughts, there was little choice but to concede the moment and recover, letting the sudden turn back to jewelry provide a necessary respite, a distraction in which shock could be suitably processed...


“Jade, you say. . Hm.” James spoke softly, equally as breezily as his counterpart as he forced his eyes to look upon the cabinet. “Your keen taste prevails again. An exotic touch, like Alexander returning from the Orient...” A small, half-step forward, as if joining Lucas in his consideration of the displayed wares. Voice lower, his delayed riposte: “Adorned in the fruit of his conquest. My, there's an idea.”


“Now then.” Hand running through his hair and smoothing a disobedient curl, he became louder, speech brisker and more conversational. “If you're truly serious about a cravat pin, allow me. In celebration of your opera.”


“I do so hate to see good pearls wasting on the undeserving.”

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Was it a deliberate cruelty? A formal drawing-of-lines, over which no untoward familiarity might stray. Perhaps. But it was James who flinched first, the young poet's cheeks colouring as he looked away. And perhaps that was the answer Lucas had been looking for... perhaps that told him everything he needed to know.


Whatever else it was, it was certainly an effective way to change the subject. Small mercies.


"I'd have thought a man needs to conquer something first, before adorning himself in... fruit," Lucas put in, wryly. "Then again, I suppose your conquests might be many, and I am simply unaware." It wasn't exactly a question... or if it was, the composer did not seem in the least bit interested in an answer, absorbed as he was by the display of jewellery. At least, that was how he seemed.


He did not look up at all until James, with characteristic impetuousness, offered to buy him a pin. Lucas seemed mildly surprised. "Presumably you mean swine, before whom pearls are cast," he supposed, rhetorically. The ghost of a smile crossed his face, as though it found the territory unfamiliar, and was reluctant to stay. "I'm thankful for your... good opinion. But I'm afraid I cannot accept such kindness."


There was the briefest pause, as though Lucas were contemplating the various shades of honesty, and choosing the one most suitable for the occasion, much as one might choose an evening jacket. He opted for: "Bad luck, you see, celebrating before success. And... not a risk I'm willing to take, I fear." It even sounded rather like the truth, despite that brief, brittle smile. And perhaps it was.

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While Lucas unleashed another barrage of quips, James faltered inwardly where he had just before succeeded externally. His eyes waited only a second for Lucas to turn, and when said anticipation failed to materialize into reality, found the small, anxious comfort of wanderlust instead. His fingers dug into the bottom of his coat, toying with the thread.


His bravado -the sweet, merciful indulgence of thought run wild- failed, and the brief recovery had fallen upon deaf ears as inelegantly as a sack of flour thrown against a stone wall, their playful banter beginning to feel anything but. Lucas had seen right through him. Foolish, James wordlessly chastised himself. This is foolish. He is a friend, and a better one than most deserve. Particularly...now. Whatever that meant, it was all he could do to feel fortunate that the composer had not turned to meet him and see what damage was wrought when intrigue mingled with insecurity.


Small mercies.


“Scarcely a soul who knows you would scarcely describe you as unaware, my friend.” Taut as a bowstring, his strained voice lowered to an intimate level while Lucas turned to meet him, smile contorting briefly into a grimace and then into a ghost of its former self. The mere physical motion was enough, however fleetingly, to adopt a measure of feigned control, and he soldiered on. “And far be it from me to correct you on the nature of Biblical allusion...” Good. Keep talking. Let him...proceed. Far better, far safer than the alternative of holding his gaze on the blue of Lucas' eyes, of dwelling on his strange words and the even stranger sympathy and safety he could recall so vividly...


He has seen me at my worst. There were moments in which that had seemed a shelter from a storm, and there were moments where the other man was too inscrutable for that memory to be anything but cold comfort. A dwindled flame that had burned bright for only an instant.


And there were moments, long and painful, that burned with a heat incomparable, where James knew the clarity with which he had spoken to Lucas the day of Kingston and Melville's outing. And it was in those moments -this moment- that he knew he was not the storm to which his friend silently likened him or the flame that would ignite a nation's soul. He was a crack in the earth itself, as prone to friction as it was fissures.


One day, it would either erupt like magma from his veins or be torn asunder entirely.


Sympathy and intrigue pulled at James and he pulled away, literally and metaphorical backpedaling. His voice still low as he addressed him, one last look was chanced towards Lucas, one that didn't meet the eyes any more than his smile did. “Lucas, you-” Are bloody impossible. The cravat pin was forgotten. A sigh, exasperated, and one last attempt at composure before necessity dictated he was elsewhere. “-do not need luck. And you know this as well as I.”

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It was as though the air had grown thick... too thick to breathe, and charged with unsettling energy. Volatile. Lucas could almost feel the edges of it, the point at which repartee became a sort of verbal violence: the cracks which, with the slightest pressure, could form a breach. He was pushing James away... and yet, he could not seem to make himself stop.


I'm protecting myself, that's all. This thought to stave off the pang of regret. I'm... I must protect myself. No-one else will.


He could feel James backing away, a sharp loss tempered with the bittersweet guilt of relief. Whatever walls Lucas had thrown up within himself, they had grown barbs; cheval de frise, perhaps, some medieval gauntlet of viciousness that threatened to grow worse the closer you came to his heart. All the softness seemed to have drained from him, leaving only these sharp corners, these sharper words.


All of it an expression of his fear. It was easy to be afraid; to crouch here, alone, in the dark, and curse at any who tried to come near. Much easier than any sort of risk.


"I'm afraid we musicians are a superstitious lot. But perhaps you're right," Lucas supposed, softly. His eyes seemed momentarily distant, gazing on something further away than this pin, this counter, this mere jewellery shop; and then he looked up, and smiled. Present, but hesitant, as if he was loath to smile at all... considered it dangerous. "Perhaps I don't need luck... I'm sure I've never had any luck to speak of, anyway. Prudence will have to serve, instead."


It almost sounded like an apology, once it was said out loud... and Lucas seemed abruptly uncomfortable with that, looking away as though he hoped to outrun the discomfort by pretending it had never happened at all. He gestured to the clerk, "This cravat pin, if you please. I shall be paying. Thank you."


Prudence was wise, surely... it would keep him safe. He had no idea at all why it still seemed to hurt.

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Fear was cheap.


It haunted both the best men and the worst. It plagued the beggar and it plagued kings. And James, for his part, couldn't deny that he found the emotion convenient...indeed, fear was driving him back, step by horrible step, from the relentless assault of Lucas' sudden coolness. But that which was exemplified by the sudden step backwards, the brush of his pale fingers against the side of his cheek and an oblique glance front and center at that impossible jawline...at the slight displacement of his nose...


That was fear of the unknown. That was the fear of a world without limits belonging to one who desired nothing more than to transcend those very limits.


And not unlike a volcanic eruption, its realization was inevitable. It was brutal. But it was also natural... Stop this.


James' own eyes were nothing but distant, scanning Lucas' itinerant look for some sign of recognition. The smile he was greeted -for lack of a better word, as greeting would have implied some sort of noticeable emotional reaction- with belied little, as intimate as the grin of a shark...but then he heard what was said. And with it, what was not. Impossible.


Nearly everything about Lucas Cole could be summed up in that one word, pulsing as it did throughout his mind like a fevered Kyrie, eleison as the composer flagged down a clerk and spoke of such mountainside as cravat pins. And in it James thought he could he understand more of Lucas than he could claim to know the man, walled off and sealed from the outside world as he was, even as his own lips curled into a half-snarl of dismay at the brusque dismissal. But he could not accept an apology quite yet. Not when he could remember who Lucas Cole was, and the safety and comfort that he had felt, still felt, still desired...


And perhaps a little more. Stop. It.


As if these thoughts were able to be banished by a command, he spoke plainly. He spoke truly, with the honesty that Lucas seemed to lack. "Is it prudence, then?" James nearly whispered, offering only the bland and innocent smile one would normally associate with priests, vicars, and society matrons, and gave a barely-perceptible shake of his head. The words were not given harshly, with any tone of judgment that those he imitated may have had. Only sadness, a sense of defeat, and wist. "Or have you merely forgotten to distinguish such from...cowardice, Lucas?"


Shaking his head further, more visible now, he bowed graciously, eyes darting in direction of the door. And he spoke more loudly, more emphatically, in the vain hope this could be dismissed with his leaving. “I suppose I shall see you tonight, then.” The formality was completed with a brief bow, courtly as it was insincere, and he made for the door with a few fluid steps, scarcely looking back. “Good day to you, Master Cole.”


Perhaps time would give the space needed with which to process this. Or perhaps...perhaps prudence was a quality he would ever lack.


OOC: Fin for me! And I daresay that I don't have to thank you for the lovely thread

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The word stung Lucas like a blow, as just as deftly rendered him mute; he opened his mouth, hesitated, closed it once more. No words, though his expression spoke volumes. The composer had grown rather pale, his eyes unfocused; his grip on the counter-top tightened, as though he were holding himself still, eerily still and centered. As though, for now, he could not trust himself to move.


But before he could think to gather himself, before he could manage so much as a single word, James was taking his leave. Lucas found himself fumbling through an awkward bow, too late, too slow, with limbs that felt heavy and ungainly. And then the Irishman was gone, leaving only the echoes of his accusation. Cowardice, flung at the composer's feet like a challenge.


Its perfect resonance in the sealed chambers of his heart, enough to make his knees weak.


Am I a coward, then...? Lucas' mouth set into a thin, grim line as he ground his teeth, looking for an anger he couldn't quite seem to find. An anger he knew he ought to have easily, abundantly, to hand: something wild and ugly and... defiant. Instead, there was nothing there at all but a sort of horrible inevitability, a resignation. An answer as obvious and cruel as a knife-blade.


He... can't know. The regrets, the endless regrets... the... the misery. Is it bravery to repeat the same mistakes, again and again...? To blindly suffer...? No. He cannot know.


The space occupied by James seemed vast, once that magnetic, expansive personality had withdrawn. The jewellery store seemed much emptier, even more than it had been before he'd arrived. Colder, as though the chill December air had rushed in, to fill the void.


Is... that all I am?




OOC: Yup, and what a strange direction this went in, all of a sudden. I can't wait to see what comes next. :3

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