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'Trick of the Light' 9/?

Title: Trick of the Light
Fandom: The Tudors
Part: 9/?
Pairing: Anne Boleyn/Thomas Cromwell

9.

He has been unable to get warm ever since that blasted walk.

His appointment with tracking down the infamous Mr Abelard has fallen by the wayside, as do so many other sundry engagements and activities that are not carried out entirely for the benefit or service of the Crown. Cromwell has lost count of the number of (largely misbegotten) dinner arrangements he has had to forsake over the years, or the nights he has spent testing the limits of his eyesight by candlelight when some diplomatic crisis has erupted and dragged him from his bed like a criminal. A trip to the more nefarious districts of London is necessarily of small concern compared to the other demands on his time and person.

Tomorrow, he promises himself wearily, pushing the door to his private study shut behind him while simultaneously loosening the stiff buttons of his collar with his free hand. The Shoreditch house is in something of a disarray at the moment, with half the rooms opened up for airing, beds stripped and linen ferociously laundered, travelling cases sent on ahead stacked in the main hall like beleaguered coach passengers. The place has been entirely given over to a tumult and general chaos of rhythm that Cromwell would never usually have tolerated, but which in this case fills him with an almost inexplicable sense of yearning, anticipatory pleasure when he thinks about the reason.

Gregory is coming home from university.

He has not seen the boy for nearly nine months, not even for the advent of his seventeenth birthday last October. His letters home have been less diligent than Cromwell might have expected from a more studious child, but Gregory seems to have inherited none of his father’s linguistic acumen and has always resented the idiosyncrasies of the Latin tongue. His conjunctions in his last letter home had been shocking, but Cromwell knows his son is already long-suffering at the hands of his masters at Cambridge and so allowed the mangled grammar to go unmentioned. They say Latin has had its day, after all.

The important thing is, he is well and, by all accounts, thriving. Cromwell has to consciously stop himself from fretting over his son’s health (which has always been more than usually robust), painfully watchful for signs of illness or distemper. Two daughters and a wife are in themselves too striking a loss to bear; any remaining lives inevitably become violently precious. As it is, his heart nearly broke with fear two months ago when Gregory complained of what he cryptically described as ‘a slight ague’. He was instantly beset by nightmarish memories of delirium and night sweats, of eyes hot with fever and lips parched to paper, and all the more agonising for his physical distance from his son. He ached to be with him. After nearly a fortnight of silence from Gregory following this report, Cromwell was all but ready to drop everything and bolt to Cambridge, but just when his nerves were at shattering point a cheerily dismissive note reached him from the university, any mention of ill health entirely absent from its pages. Clearly Gregory had been rather less aware of his ability to terrify his father merely by putting ink to paper.

He wonders idly if Gregory will have grown at all since he last saw him, shrugging off the weight of his official robes as he moves across the room to where the fire has been newly stoked and throwing them unceremoniously across the back of a chair. The boy had been a late bloomer until he was fifteen when he suddenly achieved three inches in a year, although the last time Cromwell saw him he had still been a good half a head taller than his son. It is perhaps one of the unforeseen pleasures of protracted absences from him, to be able to see anew in him little details and changes that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. Every visit, despite his varying academic successes, the boy has visibly flourished in confidence and poise, a savoir-faire that is, admittedly, cast aside in order to run into his father’s arms.

He eases himself down into the armchair by the fire, toeing off his shoes and stretching his legs out in front of him. At this proximity, the heat from the flames feels blissful, and he rubs at his legs with both hands in an attempt at nursing warmth back into them. It seems useless, because the cold is centred somewhere deep inside him and he keeps feeling the irresistible fingers of a shiver playing up his spine. His senses are being tickled by a sleepy, half-formed fantasy of a cup of Mistress Cawley’s hot apple and cinnamon broth, something deliciously warming and fragrant that will clear the cloudiness he is feeling in his head and warm him from limb to limb, but the effort of getting up seems, at least at the moment, too great a sacrifice to make.

He is brought back to himself by the sudden, drowsy lolling of his head forward, and he sits up straighter with a small, startled sound, lifting his hand to rub first one eye, then the other with his knuckles. He had been wanting to get some work done before supper and bed, several bills that need refining and double-checking before Parliament is recalled, but the temptation to snuff out the candles and fall into bed is extremely strong. Maybe he could rise an hour or two earlier than usual in the morning, get some of the bills finished before the day begins in earnest.

His mind already half-made up, he reaches inside the breast pocket of his jerkin and takes out his small, leather-bound appointments diary. The frosted black of a January morning is never enticing, but he has a meeting with Sir Richard Rich at seven to discuss the dispensation of a newly attainted estate in Sussex, and then a summoning of the Privy Council at nine. If he wants to get anything done towards the bills, he will have to make the best of the silent hours before dawn.

He pauses halfway through the act of thumbing through the diary, his hand still flexed to turn a page, looking up in some surprise as he feels a prickling at the back of his nose. He straightens a little as the sensation overtakes him, unexpectedly potent, turns his head with his hand lifting as a receptacle, and releases a single, precise sneeze. He hesitates, hand still curled to his face, before he takes another breath and sneezes again.

Well. That was never a good sign.

He is fumbling in his pocket for his handkerchief when there is a soft knock on the study door, followed by the materialisation of a discreet manservant.

“My lord.” A bow. “Archbishop Cranmer is here.”

Cromwell sighs, feeling all his hopes of an early night expiring in a blink. He presses the cloth of his handkerchief against his nose and nods in weary acquiescence. “Send him through, Russell.”

The man bobs again and disappears. Cromwell gives his nose a swift, efficient blow, and has just finished quickly putting his shoes back on when the manservant returns, with entirely unnecessary ceremony:

“His Grace, the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

There is a small, uncertain altercation at the door as the manservant tries to retire unobtrusively but is intercepted by Thomas Cranmer almost walking into his back, who in turn makes an awkward attempt at navigating both the door and the man. They take a couple of clumsy steps around each other, Cranmer apologising skittishly, before the man manages to free himself and darts for the door.

Cromwell, who has watched this performance in amusement, waits until the door is shut before he moves towards Cranmer to clasp the other man’s hands in greeting.

“Thomas,” he says, warmly, “I fear you have caught us at a time when we are quite overrun with clutter!”

Cranmer gratefully returns the welcoming squeeze of Cromwell’s hands. As ever, he is attired soberly, the heavy, dense fur of his cloak all but concealing the heather-purple of his cassock, and when he steps back away from Cromwell his hand makes a habitual, nervous assignation to the cross that hangs around his neck. He carries with him the smell of cold air and wood smoke and damp leaves, and his cheeks are lightly flushed with the wind-snap.

“My dear friend, I am truly sorry to impose upon you without notice - and at such a dreadful hour.” His voice is even more timidly fluting than usual, and his brown eyes search Cromwell’s face imploringly as he speaks, as though he is worried that by the very instance of his arrival he has caused some terrible offence.

“Nonsense,” Cromwell says briskly, gesturing that Cranmer should precede him over to the fireplace. “It is always a great pleasure to see you. We neither of us seem to have adequate time these days.” And, despite his earlier reservations, he means it. His few friendships that have managed to endure through his rise to power are ones that he holds as particularly precious, and the more isolated he finds himself growing at court with regards to personal acquaintances (that is, as opposed to necessarily cultivated political allies), the more he finds himself longing for a bygone warmth and companionship that he suspects is largely imaginary, but which seems somehow bittersweet when he considers that last Christmas was spent alone in his office, with several dozen dissolution proposals, three reports of treason in the provinces and chronic back-ache for company. Cranmer is among the few who he would never turn from his door, no matter the hour

Now, he indicates that the archbishop should sit down. “Can I offer you anything? A little ale, perhaps?”

“Actually - ” Cranmer nervously smoothes the folds of his cloak as he turns to look behind him at the chair, before settling himself on the edge of its seat - “Some wine would be most agreeable, if it is not too much trouble?”

“Not at all.” Cromwell moves to the mantel to ring the small bell there, before sitting down himself.

Cranmer smiles at him thinly, lacing his slender, supple fingers together where they are clasped in his lap. He seems about speak, but then apparently thinks better of it, wetting his lips, before glancing around as the door opens and a serving maid enters the room.

“Some wine for His Grace,” Cromwell tells her. “And, er…some of Mistress Cawley’s apple concoction, if there is any left,” he adds quickly, with a small smile. The girl curtsies and departs.

Once the door has closed behind her, Cromwell looks back at Cranmer. The firelight is playing across the angular planes of the other man’s face, and he is rhythmically arranging and rearranging the cuffs of his cassock, seemingly preoccupied by some internal debate.

“I wonder if you came to see me at all,” Cromwell says. He means it as a joke, but Cranmer looks up quickly, his expression strained.

“You must forgive me, Thomas,” he says. He takes a breath as though mustering his resources before venturing on, an undercurrent of tension in his voice. “I am here because I have a favour that I must ask of you, though it pains me deeply to presume of your kindness in such a manner.”

Cromwell frowns slightly, leaning back in his chair. “You know you can always rely on me to be of service to you, in whatever capacity I can.”

Cranmer holds his gaze uneasily for a moment, but once again whatever nerve he is summoning is broken by the door being opened and the maid coming back in, bearing a tray laden with two jugs and two goblets in front of her. There is a studied silence while she serves the two men, pouring Cranmer’s wine and Cromwell’s requested hot, spiced brew, the very smell of which makes his nose tickle. Impatient though he is, Cromwell offers her a soft smile when she finally bobs in acknowledgment and heads for the door.

Cranmer is taking jittery sips from his goblet, and Cromwell drinks slowly from his own, a mixture that is more or less half-soup, half-cider, pungently fragranced and utterly delicious. He savours it, feeling the liquid’s warm passage down his throat as he swallows, before he leans forward and puts his goblet down on the small table, fixing Cranmer with a teasingly austere gaze.

“Tell me,” he says, firmly.

Cranmer fingers the stem of his own goblet, his eyes anxious as he looks back at Cromwell. A variety of different emotions appear to be struggling for supremacy in his face, and his lashes flicker hesitantly as he blinks.

“Thomas, I have no desire to be the cause or originator of any trouble…” he begins, haltingly.

Your Grace…“ Cromwell says sternly, his voice low. Cutting to the point has never really been in Cranmer’s nature, but this degree of prevarication is trying his patience.

Cranmer’s lips tremor, an almost anguished discomfort in his eyes. Again, his hand travels to the crucifix on his breast, running across it as though finding reassurance in its cold, hard shape.

“I am so very ignorant of such matters,” he blurts suddenly, almost stuttering the words. “I do not even know if to speak would be treason.”

“Perhaps you should let me decide that,” Cromwell says dryly, reaching for his goblet again.

Cranmer stares at him in naked distress for several seconds, then suddenly, all in a rush: “The King has approached me on a very delicate matter, one which I am most disinclined to meddle in. It is entirely beyond my jurisdiction, beyond the ease of my conscience, beyond any semblance of decency or integrity - !” Cranmer’s voice has risen steadily as he speaks, tightening shrilly, and abruptly he breaks off, breathing hard, lifting his hand to run his fingers across his lips.

Cromwell stares at him, goblet poised halfway to his mouth. “My friend, are you quite all right?” he says. “Surely anything His Majesty asks of you cannot be so entirely abhorrent to your sensibilities?”

“Oh, but you don’t see, Thomas,” Cranmer says, leaning forward beseechingly. “The very nature of the request troubles me deeply.”

“You have not yet told me of its nature.”

Cranmer lets his breath out in a gust. His hand trembles just slightly as he sips at his wine.

Then, with a deliberate effort to modulate his voice, “His Majesty has asked me to investigate as to the severity of the penalty that might be incurred should it become public knowledge that he has had, in the past, certain…relations with the Queen’s sister.”

“Mistress Stafford?” Cromwell says sharply, as though he does not already know more about that particular aspect of his King’s extra-marital history than he entirely cares to.

Cranmer’s worried eyes don’t leave his face. “He wanted to know if the consequence of such a revelation might be the nullification of his present marriage.”

Cromwell feels his mouth harden. Very suddenly, the sight of Cranmer’s tormented expression irritates him, and he stands up so that he does not have to look at him anymore, turning away and going across the room to where one of the tapers is burning low, just for the sake of something to do. The gulf between them is suddenly immense, darkened by an unspoken foreboding that neither is entirely willing to put into words.

“On what grounds?” Cromwell says at last, watching the slow list of the candle flame as it begins to finally extinguish itself in the wax-pool of its own melting.

“He…” Cranmer’s voice is uncertain. “He expressed some concerns about the issue of…consanguinity.”

Cromwell’s breath expels sharply in a harsh, mirthless chuckle. “You should not trouble yourself needlessly, Thomas,” he says. “His Majesty is anxious to address all aspects that could pose an obstruction to the successful validation of his marriage to the Queen. He is simply being cautious.” He throws a sharp look over his shoulder at Cranmer, smiling narrowly. “You know the designs of Rome, after all; they have their spies in every detail, anxious to prove the King an adulterer and the Queen a whore.”

Cranmer visibly flinches at the word. He looks down at his lap, the skin of his forehead puckering in anxiety. “He seemed most insistent of the fact.”

“Of consanguinity?”

“Yes.” Cranmer looks up again, meeting Cromwell’s eyes across the room. “He said that he…that he is mindful not to repeat the errors of recent, painful history.”

“Indeed,” Cromwell says thinly. “As I say, caution is essential.”

“But you don’t understand, Thomas.” Cranmer is abruptly on his feet, crossing the room to where Cromwell stands, his face earnest and pleading. “For the love I bear the Queen, which is second only to His Majesty and your own self, not only do the implications of this matter trouble me most grievously, but I question my own abilities to carry out a task of such sensitivity and importance.” Once again, he is grasping Cromwell’s hands, almost desperately, looking into his eyes with an expression of genuine pain. “You must intercede with the King on my behalf!”

Cromwell feels a flash of temper that he is unable to keep in check, and he pulls away from Cranmer, moving past him towards the window. “You’re being ridiculous,” he says brusquely. “The King’s relationship with Mistress Stafford - which amounted to nothing of any consequence, I am sure - has been known within the court for years. There is no reason at all that its ramifications should be a source of any concern to you, or to anyone else.”

“And yet that is the very matter,” Cranmer says. His hands move in a helpless gesture. “If the knowledge that His Majesty once kept the Queen’s sister as his mistress has so long been by-the-by, then why now is the King himself questioning the issue? Why now, when the Queen is with child and the accession of the Pope seems imminent?” He stops, his breath quickening, his dark eyes intent. “Why now, when everything that the King has so long desired seems to be falling into place?”

Cromwell swallows, his expression thunderous. He looks wordlessly back at Cranmer, almost too frustrated to speak. An acidic retort forms on his tongue, but as though some better self is mindful of how much he would later regret cutting Cranmer down, he is taken off guard by a sudden, sharp tickle in his nose, and he just has time to turn away, sneezing harshly into the crook of his arm.

There is a beat of silence. He can almost feel Cranmer’s surprise, but he is inexplicably embarrassed and doesn’t look at him as he takes out his handkerchief and applies it to his nose. After several seconds, he hears the rustling of the other man’s cloak, and then,

“Bless you.”

“Thank you,” Cromwell says quietly. He finishes tending to his nose and pockets the handkerchief again, his movements deft and brisk. Cranmer is watching him with concerned eyes, and he feels horribly vulnerable beneath the other man’s gaze.

“You are well, aren’t you?” Cranmer asks, finally.

“Yes.” Cromwell looks at him, and smiles softly. “Yes. I’m tired, but I’m quite well.”

Though judging by the increasing scratch he can feel at the back of his throat, how long that will continue to be the case is another question.

“I am sorry,” Cranmer says suddenly. “I know that I have spoken out of turn, and now I am sure that I have offended you.”

“No.” Cromwell shakes his head firmly. “You have every right to voice any concerns you might have, and it is my duty to listen to them, not just as a minister but as your friend.” He gives a rueful sigh. “And I am far from infallible in that respect.”

Cranmer moves impulsively towards him. “It was never my intent to make you think that. I have nothing but the highest esteem for your wisdom and experience.”

Cromwell’s smile, when it melts onto his face, is slightly bashful. “I value your esteem,” he says. “And I have no wish to dictate how you should feel about such matters, but all I can say is that in this instance, you must trust me.”

Cranmer’s own smile is somewhat weak. “I do trust you, my friend. Indubitably. But it is just…” He stops, sighs.

Cromwell lifts an eyebrow. “Just?”

Cranmer bites his lip. “Just that, there are times when I think a certain superstition has its place.” He actually blushes slightly as he says it, laughing in awkward self-deprecation. “One does not like to tempt fate.”

“No,” Cromwell concedes, putting out his hand to rest on the other man’s arm. “But I am confident that we may rest assured on this matter.” He gives Cranmer’s arm a small, friendly shake, looking into his eyes with a smile.

“All will be well,” he says, and he almost believes the lie himself..