Thomas worked in front of the barn. With one eye, he cleaned and stored roots for winter; with the other, he monitored the horizon. Woodstock--the king's hunting residence--was just over six hours to the west by strong horse which meant that now, five hours past sun up, his particular visitor could be expected any time.
His sight not being what it once was, resolving cloud from galloping beast was no longer an easy task, but soon a hazy issue resolved itself, and at an impressive gallop.
Thomas put up his sack of roots. Like every morning, he'd drawn fresh well water at dawn, but today he'd saved it until now. He doused himself--head, chest and arms--and scrubbed hands and nails as well he could with a horse-hair brush. His king had never cared to linger amongst the unwashed. It seemed unlikely that that would have changed.
When he stepped back out into the dim winter sun, Henry was almost upon him, belled harness jingling his arrival and bright purple wool flying out behind like a banner heralding his presence, as if aught else was needed.
"Thomas! Thomas!" he shouted, his left arm waving in salute.
The cry brought back memories of another day, another county, a beach. The last words that passed between them now had become the first.
Thomas doubted that Henry had taken pains to plan this detail just so.
Henry dismounted in a vault that the most expert horsemen wouldn't risk. He wrapped Thomas in a fierce embrace that spoke of the power that so many of his enemies had not lived to describe in words. "Thomas, I have missed you so."
"It's good to see you, too, My Prince. I have missed you as well. It brings me no little pleasure to be back by your side.
"Are you cold?" Thomas asked, observing Henry massage his cheeks. "I have a fire inside and some stew. It's not palatial fare, but it should warm royal stomach as well as common."
"No." Henry threw off his outer cloak and tossed it over a fence rail. "I've been riding for hours. I'm quite burning up inside. My face is just a little numb." He beamed a ruddy grin that brought back memories of younger times in an unanticipated surge.
"My horse is lathered, though." He nodded his head to his mare where she indeed lathered and foamed. "Have your boy see to her."
"My...boy is dead."
"Oh, well then--"
"I'll see to your horse." Thomas grasped the bridle and whirled, leading her into a stall at a crisp pace.
When Henry realized he wasn't coming back, eventually he followed them in.
Thomas had her tack off and her hindquarters brushed out. She was a beautiful animal: sleek and lean--solid muscle covered in a milk-white coat. Henry had never before seen her in her natural condition. It was truly gilding the lily to outfit her in the artificial trappings of state.
"What's she called?" Thomas asked.
"I don't know." Henry waved the question away. "Are you still angry with me? I don't want to fight. I didn't go through that cathedral act just to continue to fight."
"You shouldn't have had the boy killed." Thomas moved up to brush the mare's back, dryly wondering exactly what it was that Henry had "gone through."
"I didn't!" Henry protested. His tone spoke more of irritation than offence.
Thomas paused his strokes. Undoubtedly true. Brother John would not have even registered as worthy of a passing thought in Henry's mind. More likely it had been a bit of impulsive sport on the part of Henry's brutish retinue.
The worst part was that dying to protect something he believed in passionately was probably the happiest moment of young John's life.
"You loved him," Henry said.
"He was a sheep in my flock. I cared for him."
"As you cared for me?" Henry asked, his own brand of sly cleverness seeping into his tone.
"I never tarnished his vows or mine. As you should know."
"Yes, I know all about your new-found holy virtues and your so-called care for others." As always, Henry made anything contrary to his particular interests sound indecent.
"I never asked you for this!" Thomas practically shook with rage. "I begged you not to do it, but you had to insist that you knew best!"
"Yes. I did. I was wrong."
Rage gone, Thomas dropped the brush and sank to the straw.
"As I usually am without your guidance," Henry continued with the unfiltered honesty a king could seldom afford and in front of so precious few. "So now the question remains: can you forgive me?"
Because of regal upbringing, Henry did not to flinch or look away, but neither did he try to keep the sadness from his eyes.
"It is not my place to offer or deny forgiveness," Thomas continued. "For your part in Brother John's murder and for other worldly acts, you will one day be judged by God and forgiveness meted out as only He can. But as for my part, for whatever measure of absolution one man may provide another, you have that from me. If He would die to forgive all the sins of the world, who am I to balk at living to forgive one?"
"Thomas." Henry fell to his knees in the soiled hay, and with shaking arms, clung to Thomas's neck with all his might.
After long minutes, Henry pulled away. He stayed there, on his knees, in the hay. "Where did they go?" he asked in shaking voice. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Thomas, where do you think they went? The young men who loved each other so freely--without a care in the world: where did they go?"
"Here, My Prince." Through the coarse fibres of his tunic, Thomas tapped his breast. "Look under the scars and greys and rheumatic complaints, and you'll find they still dwell within."
"Are you so certain? After all that's passed?"
Thomas replied in the familiar possessed timbre. "Of course. Where else have they to go?"
Henry laughed. "I adore the way you make the impossible sound so simple. I wish you'd never left me!"
The ambiance grew thick again.
"Could you find it within you to love me again?" asked Henry.
"I love you now. I never stopped."
"Through it all?" Henry wondered. "Despite all the loss?"
"Man is imperfect." Thomas made a wry face. It was not at all clear to which of them he referred. "The answer is yes; through it all, I've loved you still."
"Then come back to me," Henry implored. He grasped his hand. "Nothing's been right since you've left. You'll start tonight! We'll have a feast." Henry jumped to his feet and began to plan and pace.
Thomas interrupted him. Henry never could see that which presented in plain sight. "My Prince, I cannot. You, forget: the archbishop's crosier lies idle in abeyance. If I reappear, I shall be expected to take it up once again. Wherever it is that He wishes his flock led, I think we have seen that the path meanders away from the throne of England."
"Speak plainly!" Henry spun upon him. "It's answers I need. If it were poetry I sought, I would read books, like you."
"There are no perfect solutions on earth." Above, yes, but that was not something Henry was ready to hear. "If I appear in court, we shall be separated again. Thomas Becket must remain dead, or all will be as it was before."
Thomas watched Henry pace, and realized that he had spoken the truth before: beneath the burdens of the years, Henry was the same man he had known and loved--physically being the least of it--all those years ago. Those summer nights, on the grassy hillocks, under the stars-- before the crossbeams of the crosier had driven them apart at right angles--had been some of the most perfect he had known.
"You never get over your first," Thomas had heard it said. He had no opinion on whether or not that was true. But it was certainly true that Henry had always been one to keep what was ever his, until and unless he was the one to elect to let it go.
He had never elected to let Thomas go.
"The banquet hall is bright," said Henry. "You're right. You would be easily recognized indeed." He came back to the stall and fell down on the hay at Thomas's side. "But my bedchamber is kept pleasantly dim, if that might suit your needs of late."
"My King is generous and understanding," said Thomas, a long forgotten boyish whim rapidly stirring into a manly need.
"Without you I've had to learn to think for myself. I don't like it."
"You seem to be faring well." Thomas smiled. He took a breath. "And so, if a heavily cloaked and hooded woman were to present herself to the castle guards giving the name of--let's say, Rosamund--and bearing the king's signet--"
"She would be granted unquestioned admission and free reign of the king's chambers." Henry completed the thought with a flourish. "Rosamund. Rose a mundi. I like that."
"We must have a care still," Thomas cautioned. "The queen is shrewd and not nearly as indifferent to My Lord's affairs as she would have those who surround her believe."
"I can handle the queen," Henry snapped. "So, you will come?" he asked in quieter tones.
"I will." As if there had ever been any question. But it spoke volumes that Henry would consider to ask.
Through the rude fabric, Henry placed a hand high upon Thomas's leg. "Do you think it might one day be the same between us?"
"No." With the back of his knuckles, Thomas brushed Henry's cheek. "God willing, I hope that one day it will be a great deal better than it was.
The kiss was hesitant and questioning, like they never had in erstwhile days, but it also held a determination for the future as it never had before. As Henry's arm wrapped about his waist, Thomas thanked his God that his prince was the manner of man never to let go of anything rightfully his, no matter what the cost.