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Temptation. December 24th, Late.- Xmas 1677

Lucas Cole

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Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.

I'll meet you there.


When the soul lies down in that grass

the world is too full to talk about.


He'd lied to Francis, today.


The real reason for Maddox's absence, this evening, had very little to do with throttling the poor man (though that was never entirely outside the realm of possibilities), and rather more to do with a simple desire for solitude. The tumult of the evening's long crescendo had left Lucas... worn... and while anyone might expect him to be out carousing, or some such thing, he'd found he wanted nothing more than peace and quiet. Some time spent alone, free from the tension and travails the months of rehearsal had visited upon him, at long last.


There was a second reason, too, but that was rather more difficult to explain. It came in a small, brown, glass bottle, and was presently sat in the very center of a table. Lucas, sat in silence, shirttails, and a chair clear across the room, was staring at it thoughtfully.


He'd found it the day before, while hunting for some scrap of a discarded allegro; wrapped in a twist of paper and fallen beneath the bed, quite forgotten. The right thing to do would be to throw it away, he'd told himself, repeatedly, even as he'd tucked it into his pocket for safekeeping. Somehow, merely having it nearby offered almost as much comfort as the contents could.


For emergencies. Right.


Now, the opera was over, and he was out of excuses. Now he was free from responsibility and, if he wanted to, he could indulge. Except that he knew perfectly well where that led, the consequences of bottled contentment; remembered all too well the hell of the voyage to the Low Countries, and the pain he'd endured. Balancing this against the possible benefits ought to have been an easy equation, but somehow... it wasn't.


Lucas sighed, sinking back into his chair and lacing his long fingers together, as though to guard against any unsanctioned action on their part. He'd very nearly made up his mind...


But not quite.



OOC: Placeholder for James.

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  • 2 weeks later...

This was not what the night -this night, in particular- should have held in store for James.


Granted, despite (or in spite of, if the two contradictions could be held to be at once true) the brevity of their odd, intense friendship, it was becoming quite apparent that Lucas Cole was far from a predictable man. Their encounters had already run the gamut from the utterly pleasant to the peculiarly amusing and back to painful, true enough, but... Not like this, James' loudest thought pleaded as the hackney pulled up to the entrance to Barn Elmes. Anything other than this.


Uncertainty was a most loathsome feeling, in the best of circumstances, and when brought about for the first time in regards of Lucas, it was rapidly reaching the point of being unbearable.


And why would it not be so? It was James who had to live at unbearable extremes and yet suffered Lucas through his own, for the sake of the kindness he knew the man to be capable of. It was he who burned with want and need, rage and envy alike at the sight of such a great talent withering away under his own deceptions, only to be treated with the sullen, alternating courtesies of light humor and scorn.


Was it truly so much to demand answers, whether they led to resolution or further scorn, if only to avoid the feigned moderation of their earlier encounters?


And now the opera was over, and Lucas was out of excuses. Failing to catch the composer as he left the opera, James found it an easy enough affair to eventually work his way over to Barn Elmes, and a simpler matter still to brush past the wearily-polite footman at the door wishing to know if 'his lordship' wished to be announced. “Master Cole is expecting me,” he declared with an unnecessary boldness, handing his cloak to the man with feigned easiness.


Or ought to be. Racing heartbeat egged on by the drinks he'd had in Buckingham's box and a partially-empty flask of Scotch, and cheeks rosy with the results thereof mingling with a particularly brisk gust of wind before his entrance, James nonetheless carried himself towards Lucas' room with a focus entirely unlike him in these frenzied mood. Calm was easy to affect when was driven enough, particularly when bolstered by liquid courage...though the ruse may have been given up easily by a keen observer by the anxious tugging at the seam of his coat, followed by a slow, steady, and completely useless breath upon arriving at Lucas' door. 'Either extreme...is sweeter than a calm estate.'


“Half the sensible lords of London would toast you tonight, Lucas,” he offered by way of greeting, green eyes rising immediately to the challenge of meeting his counterpart's gaze, only briefly distracted by the (mercifully unopened) brown bottle on the table. A weary expression played upon his lips, too soft to be a sneer and too grim to be a smirk, as he raised his own flask to his lips as if in demonstration, stepping closer to the bottle. “Most would be glad of it, but instead I find you here. Curious, that.”


His tone, meanwhile, belied the obvious fact that James did not find the situation curious in the least...but neither, truly, was it as sneering as earlier. It was steely and it was tired, and it was -as much as its wielder- sick unto death of ashes.

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It was almost a relief to see James appear, as if in answer to some unspoken prayer; a silent arbiter whose mere presence could dissuade a wrong decision. Without even touching it, he'd put the bottle of laudanum entirely outside of Lucas' reach. But this relief was tempered, at once, by the knot of trepidation, tightening, beneath his breastbone... it could be so hard to tell anxiety from anticipation, when they were separated by nothing more substantial than a breath...


"Master O'Neill," the composer murmured only an acknowledgement at first, sinking deeper into his chair and stretching his legs out before him as though he imagined relaxation was a thing that could be forced. "James."


He took the same long, deep, unhelpful breath that his Irish friend had tried, with equal success... and he did not say anything further, not at first. Instead, Lucas seemed to give it some thought, his eyes falling to his folded hands where his fingers had twisted about one another, silently betraying him. He managed a watery and unconvincing smile, of the kind employed when a private joke proved more bitter than funny; pushed an errant curl behind one ear.


"Where else would you find a coward?" And now Lucas looked up, forced himself to, but could not keep his eyes on James for more than a moment; his gaze slid away, resting on the dresser, the tabletop, the carpet. Anywhere else. A wry twist of his mouth, a slow visual circuit of the room before returning once more to those damnable, piercing green eyes. To that accusation.


"Is that what you came to hear, then? Are you... satisfied?" Lucas wondered, softly. It was not an accusation, it did not possess the teeth for that. It was merely a question.

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Alas, that Lucas had not been present for the altercation that transpired months ago, when, just outside the self-same room they were speaking in now, James and the dour footman Maddox had discussed the composer's use of laudanum. Perhaps then the signs of inner tension reaching a breaking point would have been more obvious; his tone had become as smooth and lifeless as marble, his expression bland, body language controlled and still. Another deception in a day filled to the brim with them.


If Lucas did manage to recognize the storm clouds for what they were, however...there was no guarantee of sympathy. Not anymore.


This was not a possibility James was prepared to consider in the slightest, and the fact that the thought had already begun wriggling its tendrils around his latent fears was merely the first crack in the facade, a hint of honesty playing in the anxious flicker of his eyes. Satisfied. he considered, unpleasantly grim humor forcing the corners of his lips fractionally upwards as he offered in cool retort, “Oh, I don't know. There are plenty of ways in which to hide from oneself. Taverns, brothels...politics, to hear tell.”


The half-accusation came with the usual reflexive irony, but noting the avoidant gaze of Lucas brought about the second fracture, an inescapable moment of honesty brought about by impulse and hurt that revealed more than mere anger. “Witty rejoinders, perhaps.” He glanced to the side, opposite of his friend's wandering, sudden swelling in the throat cleared with a brusque ahem and a light shrug. Dueling instincts were whirling in his mind, not unlike dervishes in their ferocity as they fought over whether or not to resist the sea change. Cold. Every one of my words is cold. And yet I am ablaze.


Sympathy was not so easily reached when one thought -no, knew, in the way one knew their heartbeats and breath- they were being wronged. But when that wrong was over a desire to help, understand, challenge the infuriating man in front of him...fuel was fuel. Fire did not discriminate in what it burned, so long as it could.


But when the flames roared higher, James tensed. Hands nearly balling into fists, he folded his arms and with an air of breeziness moved nearer the wall, reclining against it. The words came softer now, though no more warmly than before, cautiously. “Your honesty does you little credit. I was finally beginning to enjoy exchanging mutual barbs for reasons I hardly comprehend.”

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If James grew still as he spoke (albeit with all the tranquility of a cobra poised to strike), Lucas seemed to stir from his stillness, to grow more animated, more present as the moments passed. The Irishman's choice of words stirred the embers of a fire he'd hoped to leave dormant, kicking up sparks... and spite. His reticence dissolved in the face of it, in favor of something... far, far worse.


A simple admission of cowardice had not been enough. He would need to try harder... and James provided the perfect opening:


Your honesty does you little credit.


"It never has," Lucas retorted acidly, his lip curling in annoyance. "Far too inconvenient. Tell me, which lies do you prefer?" And abruptly, he found his mouth running away with him; the pent up frustrations and miseries of the last year boiling over, and no way to prevent it. "You are so manifestly unhappy with this version of me, I can only imagine you wish for something more agreeable. Please, advise me. I rather doubt you want the composer, at this hour; and if you wished for a shoulder to cry on, surely you'd have unburdened yourself the moment you walked through the door. Best way to open my arms, I'm sure."


"No, let me guess... you want the whore, don't you? The witty, pretty, biddable whore, compliant and convenient: fuck me and be kind to me and then throw me aside as though I'm perfectly worthless the very moment something better comes along." His voice was deceptively light, the effect only magnified by that melodic Welsh accent of his. But his blue eyes glittered with barely contained fury. "And, ohh, anything is better. Such shock, such pity that I hoped to be anything more, that I could ever wish for something so absurd and impossible!"


"Hide from myself? Uffern dân, I'm the only person from whom I need never hide! But oh, every other soul who draws breath has no use for my honesty, for all my inconvenient feelings, my foolish dreams, my unwanted ideas. No. No, I'm through with it, and with all of you. I will not be your plaything, I will not bend to you. I will not comply."


If he noticed the way James tensed, perhaps he took it as a reaction to his defiance. The coldness, some indignation at his refusal to conform to his proper place. But such was his anger, such depths of rage unearthed, that perhaps Lucas simply did not see... or did not care. He was sick to death of being used, abused, and discarded. His trust in other people, particularly in anyone foolish enough to make a pass at him, had sunk to such a fathomless low as could not be sounded with the longest line.


No more. No more games of hope and heartache; no pretense, artifice, nor lies. Lucas had simply opted to stop playing the game altogether. It was that, or die. And he wanted to survive.


If this was cowardice, so be it.


The composer sat back in his chair once more, folding his arms before him. The white of his knuckles betrayed his studied calm; the twitch of a muscle in his jaw, as he ground his teeth. "You may take me as you find me, or not at all. And I don't care in the least whether you like it. Why should I? Not a soul has ever cared a whit for me."

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Odd, that it would happen so quickly.


Up until this point, the steps of their little dance had been intricate, slow, and as choreographed as a stage fight. James could feel the tension knotting his muscles, the thickness welling in the bottom of his throat, the pressure building up and demanding an ecstatic release of fury. It took all his effort and the grace of whatever higher power watched over the possibly mad to reign in the cries to liberate himself from the suffering of control, and little else could have been expended to note the change in Lucas' expression. When it arrived, therefore...veteran sailors had seen devastating storms more gentle.


At first, all he could do was stand there, armored in iciness and mockery but finding it entirely useless in the face of such a barrage, paranoid and hurting as it was. Then the attack began to find its mark, stripping him of all his defenses, the layers of reflexive mockery mingling with attempts at sympathy and carefully calculated control. James' expression grew worried, before worry turned to scowling anger, his folding arms first tightening their grip and then falling to his side to drum anxiously against his coat.


And then Lucas drove in the knife. 'I will not be your plaything, I will not bend to you. I will not comply.'


As they say, it was all downhill from there.


“You- y-” The words caught in his throat, whipped onwards by a thousand thoughts of anger, hurt, and bewilderment and forced to scramble for deliverance. “Dia ár sábháil!1 That...that's what this is about?” His head jerked towards the composer, and no longer bound by any need to feign indifference, his posture stiffened, confrontational and defiant. “What- what you believe of me?


To think that the loyalty he displayed in repaying the kindness Lucas had shown him would result in nothing but a complete reversal from the man he had met months ago... “You presume to know my intent on the basis of some- some nebulous everybody,” he snarled, once-lyrical brogue now rasping. “Saints preserve us, you're out of your...out of your fucking mind, to assume you know such about me! As if I would even fucking bother with all-” He gestured wildly to the side, a sweeping, fierce, frantic thing. “-all this hiding, the confusion...the laudanum, this- this entire blasted everything!”


Heart pounding like cannon fire during a battle, James tore his gaze away from the torment Lucas' sight would bring. All I've tried to do...He must understand! Perhaps understanding was too much to ask, however, for almost immediately after the initial outburst he found himself storming across the room, until he caught himself near the doorframe and veered about face.


I must understand.


“This is the real Lucas Cole, then,” he declared loudly. “Honest as the day is long, save when it suits him. All that you told me?” James shook his head in frustration, wincing at the very memory. “The sympathy, the way you begged me to live on as I am? Clearly fabrications! The promise of a better life...what I thought I saw in you. What I thought I wanted! Was there even a kernel of truth in that?” Grimacing now, the words came slowly as regret as he chanced a last look at Lucas before leaving...


And he faltered. Unable to risk leaving without hearing the answer and unable to bear the possibility that his accusations were correct, James stood, a wounded deer in the sight of a predator. Defeated by curiosity and false hope. All he, a self-proclaimed student of wordplay, could manage was a parting query to salvage his pride. “Was there?”

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"Ohh, coc y gath,"1 Lucas groaned, a sound closer to rage than frustration. "Yes, I'm sure you'll be the one person in my entire life who doesn't fucking use me. How many times have I believed that one, only to be disappointed yet again? Pen bach2... at some point am I the idiot for never learning my damn lesson! It isn't you, it's fucking me, it's who I am, my lot in life! I'm not claiming to know you, James, but I do know me."


"God almighty," the composer huffed, breathing hard, making some vague attempt to get his temper back under control, with indifferent success. In fact, it was not until James had crossed the room, turned, and made his final declaration that Lucas felt his fury finally begin to cool, from a rolling boil to a simmer. The fire abruptly dimmed.


Was there even a kernel of truth in that?


Lucas hesitated, frowning to himself, refusing to meet James' eye. "Ahh, you're being ridiculous," he began, but without much in the way of malice. "I..." he hesitated once more, grimacing, "I meant what I said, James. About the life in you, the fire..." This was hard, this kindness. Backing down seemed an act of weakness, and required he swallow his considerable pride.


He shook his head, scowling even as he spoke, "I meant it. Dduw anfon ni i gyd i uffern3, I bloody like you, James O'Neill..." the composer licked his lips, shook his head, and spat the words out. "A great deal. And this morning, at the jewellers, when..."


...when you started to flirt with me...


He couldn't say it. Couldn't even mouth the words. "Mmph. I thought... I knew I was to lose you." Lucas made a small, frustrated sound; his voice had sunk, at last, to something closer to a murmur than a roar; and his whole self seemed to have sunk in concert, becoming smaller, considerably less. Defeated. He frowned upon his hands self-consciously, twisting his fingers together to the point of pain, as though he imagined that if he did not look, he could not be seen. "I couldn't bear it. Not again. Not you."



1. An expression of frustration close to 'goddamnit'. (lit. 'the cat's dick')

2. Idiot (lit. 'small head')

3. God send us all to Hell

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James watched the rise and fall of Lucas' temper with the morbid curiosity of one viewing a burning building, unable to turn away from the spectacle yet pained by the display and the certainty of knowing destruction was imminent. For all the protestation and self-loathing on display, acquaintance with loss was hardly the sole domain of the composer. Self-destruction remained self-destruction. Their interpretation only implied the regrettable, natural consequence.


Having seen who James truly was time and again, Lucas had the unfortunate intelligence to back away. It was the easiest, simplest, most logical conclusion. 'I couldn't bear it. Not again. Not you.'


Of course, when had his interactions with the Welshman ever been logical?


The conclusion was a twist of the knife already lodged in his chest, a realization that being proven wrong and horribly, terribly right at once could be more bitter than the boundless implications of their earlier words. “I-” The question halted before it was ever formed; James' eyes searched for recognition, for peace, in the blue of Lucas' own. “Lose me.” Eyes widening, he spat the words out like a curse, remaining anger almost instantly dissipating in the wake of a further unexpected pain, inexplicable as it was, leaving only an edge of defensiveness. Lose me? “And- and I'm the ridiculous one?”


A bitter joke, its impact undoubtedly lessened by the lack of mirth in the poet's forlorn expression. Tentatively retreating closer to Lucas, his gaze became an empty stare, fixed ahead but entirely unsure of how to process this new information. “Lucas. A chara. Can't you see? The life in me...the fire... It- it means nothing without somebody who...who I can even pretend has any fucking understanding what it means.” James grimaced, his inexorable approach towards Lucas halting near the table. “And knowing that-” He looked away. “By God, Lucas, I can scarcely begin to tell you what it means.”


A heavy pause set in like a fog of doubt. Lucas had spoken of earlier and the fears it brought about, but- but James had to understand. “I detest this sincerity. When well-meant, it comes...less easily that verse, lacking a structure and purpose to their saying.” Shaking his head brusquely, what very nearly could have been sheepishness manifested in his smile. “But you...I have known since we spoke after Melville's party what you are- and that these people...I cannot speak for them, but-”


“No, no. Such people- such people always exist, Lucas. Fools. The world is full of them...” Gingerly, he looked back up at Lucas, green eyes sorrowful and longing as he heaved a sigh. “But it still holds a beauty. They matter not. You are more than that. More than they are...”


“And you are why I am here. Íosa Críost, I thought that would have been apparent.”

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Anger was a contrary strength. It formed an admirable shelter, for example, from awful truths; from the pain of insecurity; from any sort of regret. Of course, it was the self-same force that exposed all these terrible things, and once it had inevitably collapsed, why, there was nothing at all left to act as protection for a soul stripped bare. Anger undid a man, as surely as it propped him up.


Lucas kept his eyes upon his fingers, wrapped around one another as if seeking some spare comfort. He wanted to say, but, I'm afraid, and he wanted to say, but, it can't be everyone else who is the problem, and he wanted to say, but, you can't possibly know...


But most of all, he found he wanted to apologise: and this was an awful, destructive habit in itself, because at his heart, Lucas did not know how to function as a separate, complete person. He found he wasn't entirely sure who that might be. It was easier, safer, more comfortable to cave to that unbearable urge, to become the man who was needed... to please, reassure, offer comfort. He could play both the villain and the peacemaker, and bear the weight of the responsibility and blame quite alone... and perhaps his reward might be the balm of others' gratitude.


Lucas knew he defined himself by these acts of sacrifice; survived on their warmth. He'd never learned how to do anything else but please. And perhaps they had been fools, then, but only because he'd deliberately, carefully fooled them all... they'd never had the chance to meet Lucas Cole. Not really.


But then, nor had he.


"You're... kind," the composer began, haltingly, uncertainly. Groping for the edges of a thing he'd never given credence, before. He hedged: "Inaccurate, but kind. But what I feel for you, lieveke," He swallowed, hard, "You must never doubt. I promise you that, at least. Whatever you are..." The faint, brief impression of an uncertain smile, "Whatever we are."


And then Lucas sighed heavily, rubbing his eyes with the fingers of one hand, making one last-ditch effort to collect himself. "On the matter of sincerity you are quite correct," he complained, vaguely. "Awful thing... a wonder anyone counts it a virtue." He risked a look at James, then, albeit shy and uncertain. Swallowed his instinctive apology before it could form, and then wondered at the wisdom of that. "I hope you are not entirely sorry you came. I..." it forced itself out anyway, "I am sorry for my... behaviour. I... am... I don't know what I am. I'm..." Lucas took a deep, slow breath, letting it out. His eyes were distant. "I'm struggling, I suppose. I'm sorry."

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“Impossible. Next to bloody impossible.” A bemused crease set in around James' lips, the single word escaping in a not-unkind manner followed by a brief staccato of an anxious laugh. “That's what you are, Lucas Cole.” Dark curls bounced inelegantly at another shake of his head, more wistful than argumentative this time around, and he spoke more gently than before. “Some- somehow I can't seem to mind it overly much.”


A self-deprecating chuckle, strained as it was, belied the sentiment behind the statement more than words itself could. James was intimately acquainted with doubt and self-destruction, a running theme that could be traced in a bitter arc from Florence to Greyabbey. But devastation could be emboldening, a natural start of an attitude fundamentally and focused on defiance to the point of exhaustion...but never to the point of apology.


“I- you mustn't say that.” James made a pained noise, uncomfortable with phrasing these truths in such a forthright manner, hands raised and gesticulating in his attempt to make the point. “It's terribly...terribly unbecoming, and besides-” Brow furrowing suddenly, the poet stopped, catching himself in the act of glibness. Truly the most miserable of all virtues. The distance in Lucas' eyes was all too palpable, juxtaposing horribly with the frantic, fevered searching in his own. “Besides. I only mean that...God forgive me, do you think I am so unacquainted with anger that I cannot recognize its causes?”


Whether the two were still speaking at cross-purposes or merely explaining themselves in the chaotic manner of an over-full levee finally bursting open went unnoticed by James. “I am here of my own volition and want no apologies,” he declared with a sudden resolute nature, slow march back across the room depositing him nearly in front of Lucas. “It is simply that-” Another pause. James gulped down the welling in his throat and exhaled sharply through his nose.


“You speak of my fire, but deprive yourself of your own. It's not right, Lucas. It- it is not living, to merely survive.” Unthinking, he reached a hand out to rest under and around Lucas' chin, gently lifting it to meet his pleading eyes, hoping and praying that touch could communicate an honesty never found in words. Please.


“That...is all I have been trying to tell you. That I- want that for you. In a rather, ah, roundabout manner. Admittedly.”

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Impossible... the word seemed to rouse Lucas, albeit briefly; he managed a wan smile. You called me that once before, I think, months ago. I wonder if you're right.


Impossible would explain such a great many things, after all. Such as why he'd never felt quite like he knew his place, or even what shape that place might be... let alone what sort of man he ought to be to fit it. Occasionally, at his lowest, Lucas had even wondered if such an impossible soul should even exist, or if it simply was not viable. An aberration nature had always intended to weed out.


But James, by his words, his wry smile, seemed to think this impossibility a boon. And perhaps, from his improbable perspective, it was: some shared mismatch of psyche, neither fit but neither was wholly alone. Not any more. It could be easier to face a world with the surety of kinship, after all. Perhaps impossible and improbable made life possible.


This faint flicker of hope was so alien a thing that Lucas almost did not recognise it for what it was, even as James insisted on it. Even as he crossed the room, refusing the composer's apologies, demanding faith in a fire Lucas had long thought extinguished, even as he stopped before him and...


...reached out...


Lucas felt his breath catch in the back of his throat, his thoughts seize. Certainly, James must have felt how he froze, every muscle abruptly tense. That gentle touch seemed charged, as though it woke his skin to sensations it had long craved, long forgotten. He found himself searching James' face for some sort of sign, though what, he could not say; the gears of his mind had ground to a halt, nothing functioned. He only knew that he did not want this moment to end.


Not yet.


"I... wish I knew where to begin," he whispered, lead-tongued, fixed in place. His blue eyes were wide, unblinking, terrified. "I don't know how."

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Faith was a very strange thing. The more Lucas seemed inclined to believe, the more he shrank, actions and words alike cooling in the face of belief's warming light. Not so for James, however; the more the poet went on speak reassuringly, to promise what he himself was troubled by, the more he came to trust the moment and believe in his own words. And with faith came certainty and the knowledge that the world could indeed be faced not with the defiance of the doomed, but with the determination of an idealist not yet beaten.


And if this is yet burning, went the sudden resolution, smile widening somewhat even in the face of Lucas' fear and bringing a solitary dimple back to the fore. Then let the flames be a sight to rival Icarus.


For one pure moment, there was peace among Lucas' frozen features, in the knowing that however briefly this alone could not be misunderstood. Honest. James savored it green eyes earnest in their search for the composer's muted blues as his hand moved gradually from chin to cheek and along the jawline before pulling away. “Therein lies the joke,” he pronounced breathily, uttering another quiet laugh before his speech picked up once again in pace and inflection. “Nobody does. Nobody capable of higher thought, anyways. We're all just...fumbling around full of ignorance and blissful fools. Isn't that why we do what we do?”


Resignation to the misfortunes of the world was one thing, willingness to admit defeat quite another. Not when he- when they had so much left to do, to create. “Besides...” He raised an eyebrow, expression growing more impish as if in lockstep with any particularly grandiose undertones. Warmth was returning by the second, released from the careful controls only recently imposed. “Some of us are just too damnably winsome to fail. We...” What was it Lucas had said again? “We have an entire bloody world to set fire to.”


Smirking now, James took a half-step backwards, brushing Lucas' arm in an attempt to find his hand and perhaps pull him to his feet. “Now come on,” the poet mockingly pleaded. “Must I sing your praises some more, or will you move from that chair of your own volition?”

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If honesty was hard, then how much harder honest faith? The trust of a moment set against the trust of a lifetime; it was no wonder Lucas feared them both... and craved them. Success could bring about an honest, vital connection, unsullied by pretense or lies; that kind of profound acceptance that could secure the insecure against the world.


But failure... that could be a wholesale rejection of self.


Perhaps that was one of the reasons why Lucas remained so still. He was figuratively cupping his hands around this single, fragile flame of faith... protecting it, so that it might catch and spread, grow strong enough to survive. The slightest movement, breath, mistake could snuff it out... and how desperately he needed its warmth.


James smiled as though he understood. Perhaps that was source of the light in those hypnotic green eyes. Shyly, Lucas tried for a smile of his own, as the Irishman's fingertips ran along the line of his jaw... and he tried to deny the pang of disappointment, as James withdrew. His words... must concentrate upon his words, he told himself, firmly but rather ineffectually. Not everything could restored at once.


But what James said was worth attending to. We're all just...fumbling around full of ignorance and blissful fools. Isn't that why we do what we do?


"A hollow sort of joke." Lucas made a soft sound, something very close to a snort of laughter. It seemed as though he'd begun to thaw, at last... now that James had withdrawn to a safer distance. Now that something hopeful had been kindled, however small. "Sometimes, I wonder if I simply was never told the rules. It always seems as though everyone else understands them." Truth be told, James' assertion was far more hopeful than it appeared. Failure by chance was far preferable to that by design.


And so, when James offered his hand (with that tantalizing brush of fingertips, briefest touch and yet it seemed, in that moment, as though it was the only thing that Lucas could feel), the composer tipped his head upon one side, regarding his friend thoughtfully. And then he smiled, "Your singing voice leaves much to be desired, at any rate... even if your words are sweet." A perfectly obvious lie, given all the good the poet's kindnesses had done him, but at least his sense of humor was returning, at long last. Weak though it was.


He took James' hand, allowing himself to be pulled upright. "Tell me, what did you have in mind? Surely we cannot burn the whole of the world, tonight. Perhaps a few choice neighbourhoods of London, instead. To be going along with..." Lucas paused, as though he were actually considering it. This was so much easier than honesty. "I've never much cared for the Strand."

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“The best jokes are always hollow, Lucas.”


James could not help but grin at his own words, murky as the moral pleasure in the miserable situation the both of them had found themselves in. This was accomplishment, his hand in Lucas', the composer's spirits brightened at least somewhat from their muddy depths, their smiles genuine if not broadened to the point of utterly genuine mirth. This was touch, the sensitive sincerity he could only sense in its truest, most viciously honest form....this was the electrifying feeling of the composer's hand in his.


This was not something James O'Neill would be able to let go of easily.


“But what do we do about that, I wonder?” The question was posed innocently enough, if James' coy glance away and quite apparent tone as Lucas rose to his feet weren't enough to hint at something beyond mere friendly reassurance. Lucas had proven, time and again, that the reasons for their...earlier altercation were far more than what a more jaded mind might consider, beyond any considerations of use and disuse. Whether or not the composer was capable of realizing that was not yet the point. He simply was, as constant (and nearly as immoveable) as a rock in the the tumultuous of his own emotions and desires.


Gaze of yet unfocused, though refusing to meet that of his counterpart, he murmured a quiet “One is certainly left to wonder, after all...” Touch was real. Touch was grounding. “About what our world will look like. The Strand may be galling to appearances, but it has it uses, I contend.” James' fingers mingled with Lucas', curling around the Welshman's at the behest of none save his own wants, his own very selfish need to be understood through every available sense and then some...


For Lucas had seemed amenable, true enough...and certainly it would have been hard to mistake their earlier encounter for anything other than what it was...


...but Lucas was yet a friend, and already the best, most amicable he'd had in a veritable age...


...and yet he still found an inexplicable comfort in that gentle, if maudlin, sense of humor and that lilting, musical accent, in his unbidden exploration of the composer's jawline and the reminder that here, at least, he was not alone. "Besides, Master Cole..." James' smirk could have cut diamonds, how sharp it was. His grip on Lucas' fingers grew tighter, all but begging the man to come closer to its urgency. "Barn Elmes was the home of the old order...and I so do appreciate symbolic gestures."


He tilted his head just so, as to meet the composer's gaze head-on, their lips now level-set and matched, before declaring, “And as such I could think of a few more...immediate places to kindle our flame.” James' free hand reached, as if on cue, for a position on Lucas' hip, albeit slowly and not to be met if the composer so much as flinched, tentative as the gesture was. “But we've been over this, haven't we?”


Whether out of nerves or something more visceral, the poet briefly ran his tongue over his bottom lip, perhaps betraying some sort of uncertainty. But not quite.


“I scarcely need to say I'm here for what you want, Lucas.”

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Strange, how it came back to this. Round and round.


Now, the opera was over, and he was out of excuses; now he was free from responsibility and, if he wanted to, he could indulge. Except that he knew perfectly well where this led, the consequences of this brief contentment; remembered all too well the hell these dalliances left in their wake.


Balancing this against the pleasure ought to have been easy, but... it wasn't. It never was.


Lucas did not flinch, not as James clasped his hand, weaving their fingers together, not as he drew closer, his voice lowered to a warm murmur. The composer did not move at all, neither to encourage or deter; inaction as indecision, as a means to postpone both choice and consequences. In this limbo he could pretend blamelessness... he could not be at fault for the racing of his heart, no, nor for the flush of warmth to his skin at the pleasure of James' touch. That little, euphoric thrill of anticipation that he could not entirely deny. None of this was his doing.


Oh, and the fear. As James tipped his head upon one side, Lucas savored the curve of those high cheekbones, the thick, dark lashes, those mischievous green eyes... a visceral tug of want as his eyes were drawn, inexorably, to the Irishman's lips. When James laid a hand upon his hip, he caught his breath. Fear, a thread of poison turning the anticipation sour; a black need, brutal as sin.


James, wetting his bottom lip with a flick of the tongue. Mesmerizing.


Lucas felt his mouth filling up with other people's words, thick, like blood on his tongue. "What sort of sane person believes selling their body is a good way to make friendships, or relationships...?" he whispered to himself, rhetorically, closing his eyes, remembering. "Can anyone be surprised when gratification is selfish?" The composer sighed, clasping James' hand tight, tight. He opened his eyes, a breath away from recklessness; and stalled for time, reaching up to brush a curl of hair, gently, from the Irishman's eyes.


"You know what I want," Lucas admitted, hoarsely. "I don't want to lose you."

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James sighed, loudly.


“A handsome fool is no less a fool,” he muttered, smiling sadly at the tender brush of Lucas' hand. He, at least, had been prepared to discard the bluster and mind games, relishing perhaps too eagerly in the sudden charge of their impulsive closeness. Can he still not see? Want did not need to be so complicated, not when it came about so naturally between two minds who could share so freely and two hearts that, if never at the same tempo, so easily found themselves in a pleasantly consonant rhythm.


Or is the fault mine?


'...you have never once been able to live outside the world you have built in your own mind, have you?' Doubt was a worrisome trickle, and one that threatened to erode the seemingly-solid rock on which his new confidence was built, particularly where the recollection of a certain voice was concerned. Could that have been what this truly was? Another idealistic illusion built entirely away from the material world, another complex justification to take what he simply couldn't give?


But that had been another time, a fading memory that could not, James insistently thought, affect him if he did not let it. His' grip tightened around Lucas' hand, unable to pull away as the hand on the composer's hip made a slow journey to rest gently on his sternum. “Whatever we are.


James tilted his head downwards, letting their proximity and mingling suffice where eye contact became suddenly difficult, nearly whispering, “You're...unique, I hope you know. There are very few that I can- that even try to understand the, the...disjointed fucking mess I so often feel like.” Another pause for another steadying breath as he dropped Lucas' hand, still refusing to back away. “And I...would not lose that, regardless of this-”


Tone blatantly defying previous bravado now, he gave a breathy, stilted laugh, flash of scarlet creeping up his neck and cheeks. “Closeness. This closeness.” Now a sigh, and a step backwards, with a more brave glance up towards Lucas. “That- this is what I want. You, and the fight not to lose you. The rest is...”


Smile at once faltering and gaining in sincerity, James leaned in, planting a brief kiss on Lucas' cheek. “Well, not entirely terrible. In its own right.”

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It was not easy, navigating this strange maelstrom of fear.


A handsome fool is no less a fool, said James, and somewhere deep in the recesses of Lucas' mind, he could hear Stephen Murray repeating the refrain: Ye are the daftest person I hae ever met! What sort of sane person believes that selling their body is a guid way tae make friendships or relationships? Naebody will respect ye!


The composer closed his eyes. In the darkness that lay beyond, shielded from the myriad temptations of the moment, the tangible need to touch, to be touched... he could recall what mattered, at last. The long, stark wasteland of loneliness that hope had earned him, and everything he'd reaped for daring to follow his heart: the disgust, the blithe affection... the pity...


Offer me anything you care, but not your fucking pity.


The touch of the Irishman's fingertips tracing a path from his hip to breastbone tugged at his concentration, pulling him back to the present. The warmth of James' hand upon his heart, more immediate, more real than any of these cinereal memories, no matter how sharp. His voice, though, seemed little more than a distorted echo from some far off place; 'You're...unique, I hope you know,' said softly, in that gorgeous Irish brogue.


"I prefer 'ddiffygiol'," Lucas noted dully, opening his eyes... though he'd as well have kept them closed, for all the life that showed in 'em. "Means 'defective'. Comfort of the familiar." James let go of his fingers, and the composer made no effort to reunite them, to close the growing gap between them. Affection was a snare, he was sure, even as he felt the tug of James' words, the ache of a want of kindness... the need to be the man James needed, if only for a time. It could only lead to more heartache... but what else could he expect? This was the only kind of affection that the worthless would receive, he knew. The malleable people-pleasers who did not even know themselves.


Try as he might, he could not seem to hear what James was saying. All he could hear were the same lies he'd ever heard; 'of course I care for you, you mean so much to me,' and 'don't worry, we'll still be friends,' and... 'now, come here and take off those breeches'...


It was the kiss that sealed it, as soft and perfect as it was, how gingerly it hovered between decency and desire. It reminded him of Samuel.


"Fine," the composer mumbled, defeated, pinching the tears from his eyes with the fingers of one hand and refusing to look upon James at all. "You... care for me... and you wish to bed me, anyway. I've... heard it before, but... but fine. I won't fight you. I... know I can't ask for more than this. Tomorrow you'll tell me you're in love with someone else, and you'll be shocked when... if I dare voice my dismay. As if I could ever hope to be more than the briefest of flings, because we were just fooling around. Such disgust, such pity." Lucas spoke slowly, his voice level, entirely detached. "I wonder how it'll look in your eyes."


"But it's fine, I know my place. I know what I am," The composer lifted his head at last, and while he tried for defiance, it looked more like something had died in him. His eyes were empty of emotion, empty of life. "If you want me, you can have me. I'll take what comfort I can get."

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“Oh, for the love of fucking God, Lucas,” James snarled, almost immediately following the composer's display of self-pity and disgust, dropping his hand and reeling away a full step backwards. The strange pattern of Lucas' emotions had inspired sympathy in him, sure enough, but this- this was abhorrent, unnatural, and downright offensive to what he was saying. “I had not thought to come full circle,” he admitted tersely, hands falling to his side as abruptly as they pulled away. “Not so quickly. But this- this is indeed what you think.”


“I mean,” he began, not yet reaching the full force of his emotions, clenching his jaw until the grind of his teeth became unpleasant, soft smile at once transforming into something grotesque and erratic. “Far be it from me to wish for two things at once. Your fondness and your affection! As if both could not happen simultaneously! The gall!”


Perhaps it was his fault, and this was why it was happening so quickly. Posture reflexively stiffening, James tensed at this thought, and the unpleasant recollections it brought...though no memory quite sufficed to match the dismal nature of seeing one's affection laid bare and then discarded in the name of nameless others. “Ridiculous of me, truly, to wish for something more than your base...physicality,” the word became a hoarse curse upon his tongue, Irish brogue accentuating the dark nature of the pronunciation. “When your body could suffice, certainly!” Gaze defiantly fixed on Lucas, he rolled his eyes, unamused in the slightest by the assertion. “And from whence does this conclusion come?”


“Because you've fucking heard it all before!” Nearly shouting now, the poet threw up his hands, exasperated, tempted simply to leave and abandon the hapless Lucas to his fate. But not yet, another voice cried, perhaps one of reason, or desperation. “Does this happen often, then?” He asked, sneering back at Lucas, as if contempt would make the pain of seeing one's own affections thrown away so carelessly go away. “Those who care for you, apparently beyond all sense, confess what they feel to find themselves matched up against some standard they know nothing of? Is that your definition of used?”


James gritted his teeth, then, tossing his head towards the door, thinking to leave this damnable farce. “Or shall it become mine?”


Another long step towards the door became two, and then three. He did not care to look back at the Welshman and his fucking conceptions of pity. “I should expect nothing less, surely, from a world that discards the values of the heart so easily,” he murmured as he reached the doorframe, with all the warmth of a glacier. “I look for your fire, and find ashes. I find said fire, and the torch is moved out of reach. I find the cave it is stored in and-”


James turned back to Lucas, a redness in his eyes less noticeable in the dim lighting of the room than the strain and cracking of his voice. “-and I will not bother with metaphor any longer. I should not have wanted you, when there was no you to be found. Only this....”


He gestured, limply. “This...” Another attempt, with his opposite hand now. The look of the composer was nigh unbearable, and he flinched from it, taking a step backwards into the hallway. Had anybody been within a distance to see it, they would have noticed the slight sniffle before the poet spoke, along with the pang in which he tore away to glance towards the main hallway of Barn Elmes. “This...imposter.”

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Lucas flinched as James' anger erupted, as though he rather imagined the Irishman would resort to violence. James seemed able to occupy the entire room with a single sneer; those expressive hands of his, flung upwards as though in threat, were the whole of the world. Or perhaps it was the lingering effect of what had come before. Love - or the threat of it - had become so effective a weapon against Lucas, a thing that could undo him entirely; and so had James, in the very moment Lucas had begun to care for him. James, gritting his teeth, his eyes flashing... James could destroy him, with just a few well-placed words. It was more than the composer could bear.


It was not until the Irishman had turned on his heel and strode away that Lucas' thoughts came unstuck, at last. Not until he'd reached the door, that Lucas found his voice. Some last, desperate act of courage, before his hope could gutter, and finally go out.


"Nobody has ever wanted more," Lucas volunteered, softly. He sounded entirely defeated. "Nobody. Am I to believe you're the first?" It wasn't an accusation, it lacked the strength for that. Merely a question. "I'll tell you all about it, if you want," he began, tentatively. "I've a hundred stories; more than you've time, I'm sure. Of all the times I foolishly offered my heart to someone, only to find they never wanted it in the first place. And how little people like to be confronted with it; more often it's scorn than pity, but... always one of the two."


As he spoke, it seemed as though Lucas became a man in a trance; dazed, out of his head, his eyes unfocused. This dam of words, now unstoppered, surged out of him unbidden, and he was powerless to stop them. "Do you want to hear about the man who fucked me in an alley to, hah, 'help me relax', and told me I was handsome and oh, how he cared for me...? He was a dear friend, I thought. And one night, when I was desperately lonely and needed his affection, I said entirely the wrong thing, and he told me in no uncertain terms that I was a fool. A whore who was trying to buy affection with my body. He was right, of course. He fucked me again before he threw me out. And then I didn't hear from him for months, not til he needed a friend, and knew just who would come running when he called. And I did. Of course I did."


Lucas was swaying, slightly, on his feet. His mouth had gone dry, and perhaps his disorientation was a symptom of his fear; if he was not here, speaking, then whatever came of it could not affect him. Perhaps he was somewhere else entirely. "Or... how about the time I fell in love with a man who liked to tell me every day how much he loved me? He offered me every kind of affection... and then he ran off with someone else. And continued to tell me how he loved me, to kiss me, all the time. Oh, but he wasn't in love with me, he was... I don't know. Keeping me around, I suppose. Using me, because he knew I'd do anything for him. Never let me forget him for a moment. It was better to break me, slowly, by degrees."


It had taken time, this fracturing of self: a lifetime, all told. There were so many pieces left over, and Lucas had no idea where any of them went. Nothing lay in his future but confusion, his only certainties were in the past; "I tried... everything I knew, to be the sort of man who could be loved. I did everything right, James," he insisted, and shook his head, unable to understand. The only thing he could do was pick up the thread of what he knew once more; "There have been so many of them, men and women, over the years... countless chances, and none of them... I ruined them all somehow. It was always my fault. Said the wrong thing, wasn't... wasn't the right person. I don't know. I could go back further? Before London, before court. I could tell you about Wales... I've so many stories, every one the same. Or I could tell you about my family, and how well they loved me, at least until I was twelve and inconvenient. Second-best, all of a sudden, you see. Surplus to requirements and set aside, like a pair of shoes that has gone out of fashion."


And in the same dazed, distant tone he continued, without so much as breaking stride; "I decided I'd had enough last May. It was... the 27th, I believe. A Thursday. Set my affairs in order, made my attempt... failed at that, too. One of my lovers happened by and pulled me down before the rope could do its work. Poor timing on his part; can't say I'm grateful." Perhaps Lucas would have sounded flip, so lightly was this confidence delivered, if he hadn't sounded so... disconnected. "He told me how much I deserved to be loved, you know; not by him you understand, he was perfectly clear: just in general. General's so much easier. I think I'd have tried again til I got it right, but I broke my leg falling out of a tree the very next day. Some act of desperation; needed to be anyone but myself that night and... I suppose I misjudged. So, instead I fell into the laudanum bottle for a time. Very few options left to me, really."


"I can't do it all again, James; I simply don't have the strength, not any more. You're asking me to believe you're the first person I have ever met who... who might..." Lucas hesitated there, for the first time. Even from this remove, he could not find the words for such an impossible thing. "I... would love to believe that... I want to believe it, so badly, but I can't. Not again, not from you, I... I care for you James, and I don't think I can endure it, not again. It's my fault, I know, I have grown more fond of you than I should... uffern gols, I should have learned better by now, I'm trying so hard to survive, I... I have to protect myself!"


"Because I think... I want to live. It has been some time since I could say that. I'm... I don't know if I'm capable of love any more." He swallowed, hard, blinking back tears. "I'm not... not even sure... who I'm supposed to be any more. I tried so hard to please... everybody... it was the only way I could... ever get any kind of affection, don't you see? I didn't care who it came from, but if I tried... if I tried I could be pleasing, I could be loved, if only for a few moments. It... felt a lot like love, I think, I've... nothing to compare it to. Oh, sometimes it wasn't love, sometimes it was... a warm bed for a time, company... comfort. Friendship. Whatever my... compliance could earn me. And now... I... don't think I know... who I am, without that. I can't continue to do the wrong things over and over and hope for different outcomes, I can't... I think... it almost killed me. But... I don't know what else I'm supposed to be. I don't even know where to begin..."


Lucas seemed to run out of steam, at long last, falling silent... though he continued to stare into space and, after a time, shook his head in something close to frank amazement. "No... there... there is no me to be found. You are quite right," he admitted, finally, as though he could barely grasp the size of this truth. "I'm... I'm so sorry, James. I don't think I'm anybody at all."

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Lucas' words were a monsoon, beating down upon what remained of James' hope relentlessly until the waters rose and the flood began in earnest. He froze in the doorway, hearing the composer's explanation, not yet cognizant of its greater impact. One hand reached for the doorframe, slowly raising an arm to prop himself against it. There was so much to hear, so much to take in from his explanation, that it was all he could do to stay focused...


A hand through the hair here denoted the first sign of discomfort, as if that would communicate to Lucas the grotesque nature of the conversation. There was a tentative step forward was the second, given with all the enthusiasm of a dead man walking.


The third tic was more subtle. The slow march forward halted almost immediately, the wild expressions of James' hands finding an outlet at his side, where his right hand strummed nervously in alternation with a left that seemed to have nothing better than to do than rub at his face occasionally, a constant throughout his speech...


“N-no,” he began, unconvincingly, speech stilted and uncomfortable. “That's not what I meant, Lucas.” He sighed, voice hoarse from the conversation's back-and-forth and even rougher on the long exhale. “I only mean...I only wish for you to know...God, Cole, there is no you only when you refuse to allow that, when you...stop fighting. That...you should not- that you should feel this way, it's absolutely appalling.”


And no fault of mine.


It was a selfish thought. It was a needless thought, and useless in the circumstances besides. But it was there. James had only just promised to fight for Lucas, and as he drew in a sharp inhalation, could not think of anything else. “I- I may have misspoke. In...anger.” The words pained him as any defeat would. There...is a you that I see. The you that I am here for.” He hung his head as one would in utter shame, though discomfort and anxiety would have been closer to the truth. A free hand yet again rose to his head, this time skirting the top and ringing itself nearer the back, before he suddenly found it within him to exclaim once again. “I don't even know how you don't see it! You are...gifted beyond belief, a rún. You are stronger than what those men did to you. You are...you are fucking here, Lucas!”


"What you are is...inspirational." He sighed, canny enough to realize these efforts were in vain. "I could not give...a flying fuck about the rest, for it's what I admire." The welling in the poet's eyes became painful then, knowing such honesty would be ultimately undo him. Another step forward, once more unto the breach...


...defiantly looking up at the beautiful blue eyes of Lucas Cole, savoring the pronunciation of that jawline and admiring the crookedness of his nose...


...and realizing he could not have it. There would be no winning here. James O'Neill did the rarest of things for his ilk, and hung his head. “But what do I know?” The rhetorical question was followed by such a laugh as to be devoid of any humor at all. His voice became quiet, stilted, as forced as drowning. “No, I quite...I do not understand, but I will not fight this. I am your friend yet, and such is my...duty. I will speak to you no more of my wants, Lucas.”


Unconsciously, he tore away, looking at the bottle of laudanum on the nearby table, grumbling half in relief for what was said and half pleadingly, expecting and perhaps wishing for the truth as he spoke in hurried Irish. Once again, pale fingers danced through his bangs, toying with them in a blasphemously casual manner. "Siúil go ciúin, a rún ..."1


1: Go peacefully, my darling/my secret

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Lucas began to regret his foolish spiel almost as soon as he had uttered it; as he came back to himself, the depth of his folly was there waiting for him. His desperate need for James to understand could not outweigh the discomfort of burdening the poor man with these myriad, ridiculous problems. They seemed so vast to him and yet, he was certain, must seem foolish to anyone else. Confession was so selfish an act; asking another to shoulder these cares, too large a request. It had all been far too much.


He must think me mad. A perfect fool...


Lucas felt his skin crawl, a blush creeping up from his collar. Pressed his palms together as though he imagined the pressure could ground him and, not for the first time, fondly hoped the earth would yawn and swallow him up. Discomfort and anxiety, a madness shared by two: like a tension'd cord which united them as surely as it held them apart.


"I'm... struggling, I suppose," Lucas repeated, unsteadily, his voice still uncertain. His gaze fell to his hands, shyly, where he laced his fingers together just a touch too tight. "And perhaps I flatter myself that to struggle is to fight. But I am not very good at it. Not yet."


And duw, but I never wished to make you a casualty of this... this private war, my dear. I wish I were better at this. But I'm simply not, not yet...


Not yet. Perhaps that was a figure of hope in itself; not quite a promise, but... at the very least the fervent desire for things to improve, for his own confidence to grow, for things to be different than they were. He did not have the courage now, but how desperately he wished to learn it. And perhaps then, he'd be able to parse such words as 'inspirational', and 'gifted', and... 'admirable.' They shared a look, all hope and need and fear done up together. "I'm sorry, James," Lucas whispered, before he could grow too afraid. "I wish I were a braver man."


I wish I had met you years ago. When I had the courage to trust in more than just your... duty.


That word stung. And perhaps it was meant to; the cord that joined them fairly thrummed. At once, neither could meet the other's eyes, and James was murmuring something in Gaelic, some pleasing, rhythmic thing that could have meant anything. Perhaps it was the cadence that made Lucas look up, and follow his friend's gaze to the table, the laudanum.


He hesitated.


"I... wonder if..." It seemed too large a thing to ask even the smallest favor, now. But in a way, he almost needed to prove it, to himself... to James. That he needed to get better, that all he hoped for was this. "Would you... mind very much, taking that with you? I... I found it the other day and, well. I confess I have not yet managed to find the strength to throw it out. If you..." Lucas hesitated once more, second-guessing himself, regretting it. The only things he seemed to say were regrettable, these days. "Never mind. I have no right to ask anything of you, I'm sorry. I'll... I'll get rid of it myself."

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