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Be All My Sins Remember'd

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Having seen his brother and sister in faith perish, their mangled bodies made spectacle for a bloodthirsty crowd, Gerard had little doubt about where his own path would lead him, sooner or later. He prayed and prepared to follow in their step into martyrdom, hoping however, that his demise would serve the cause. Yet with Wade’s hand grasping his neck, sealing his impending end, he would be lying if he said he felt prepared. He did not want to die… However, he was a practical man, he knew he did not matter. 

With a sickening clatter the chains secured him, stretching him out vulnerable to his tormentors. The quiet business-like voices of the torturers apprised him. Wade touched him proprietarily; opening his shirt, prodding his ribs and stomach while consulting with other guards how much and for how long this pathetic body would hold. He inquired on what torture would provide the most effect without immediately killing him. Gerard drowned out the gruesome details with the comfort of sacred Latin. After all he had been through, words of prayer still maintained their sway over him.

Gerard had no doubt in God and in the faith of his father. Since childhood, God filled his life with a sense of dispersed shapeless love that felt like his mother’s silk skirts, smelled of lavender and incense, and echoed in the mysterious prayers that his father taught him. When he was five, his father disappeared, and when he returned, he was a changed man, limping, weak and melancholic. This new father placed Gerard onto a cleric’s path. Gerard felt gratified to be entrusted with his father’s God. In his innocence he found joy, pouring over the pages of the manuscripts in the college and Jesuit libraries; the fantastic bright colors, flowers, people, angels revealing to him the realms filled with His Grace. Later, he attended a seminary in Rome and the Vatican, surrounded by the splendor of Divine Light in countless churches, cathedrals and chapels filled with luminous paintings and frescoes, echoing with solemn hymns that rose through the high ceilings.

Gerard never doubted God, however, he grew to doubt the men who served Him. His father wrote to him regularly, confiding in his son the perils that befell the Catholics in England. How could he avert his gaze when his family and many more were singled out and persecuted with growing severity for any meager transgression! The decision came easy to him, having finished his studies and receiving the sacrament, he traded the comforts of Catholic countries and came back to fight for the true God on his native soil. He was detained, investigated, and had to learn to hide and fire a musket. Initially, his high status and relatives sheltered him from the worst of it. Yet when the king retracted his policy of leniency towards Catholics and the real terror began, The Lord revealed to him the hypocrisy of those who spoke at length without taking action. The weakness of Father Garnet, in Gerard’s eyes, appeared no less than an insult to the God whose Love the man evoked whenever it suited him. God could be both merciful and punishing, and as is He, in times of crisis, those who serve God were obliged to rise up in arms. Was it not His will that Gerard finally met these fearless people, who now led him alongside England to salvation?

Gerard breathed into his intent. The words of the prayer, the lull of the chant allowed him to fall back into familiar trance. He would meet his Lord in a few hours, and he had to go with honor. He prayed to the merciful mother of God to watch over his mind and to stave off delirium, lest he reveals the names or plans of his companions. He was a practical man; he prayed for an accidental death. His body was weak, it would not hold if the torturers slipped up. His cause would be safe then. The verses he chanted under his breath started to merge into screams when his tormentors began, yet they did not become words of betrayal.

Spanish water torture did not leave marks on his body, but it tore his chest from the inside – he was drowning. Black and red burst behind his eyelids, bile rose up to his throat, burning the esophagus, yet they were careful not to let him die just yet. Wade perfected his art, reading the man’s body effortlessly. 

Tears streamed down his face as the stench of his own seared flesh choked his throat. How much time had passed? Was it hours or days? Maybe years… maybe he had lived for years, wrought with pain, and did not notice? At some point, his body stopped differentiating the pain levels and agony became a constant. When the chains were pulled and his joints were popping out, one after another, wrists, shoulders…. he simply wailed the prayers, like a windup musical automaton, his mouth moving around syllables that his lungs pushed out in a continuous scream. Then his vocal chords gave out…

He was being asked something. Wade held his face almost gently – the pervasive smell of his bad teeth made Gerard dry heave. He refused again and again to respond to the questions. By now, his torturers could easily pray in Latin if they so desired, but he was losing his coherency. The small short delirious gasps that the priest’s breath had become, came out of his mouth with a string of saliva; they were not enough to form words even if he wanted to. Blood rushed down, his head emptied, filled only with the rapid heartbeat that rose from his throat. Gerard’s world swam in the white light; his suffering was coming to an end… Praised be the Lord in His Mercy...

 

 

Pain brought him back when his shoulder collided with the cell floor. His consciousness seemed dislocated, existing in a different timeline, and his body did not feel real. The pain lit up every mangled joint of his shoulders and wrists, burst in the stretched and bruised legs and hips, in the torn fingernails, and enveloped his lashed back. Suffering was becoming reassuring, all encompassing, almost elating. It didn’t register as foreign to his body anymore, and he surrendered to it. His mind was drifting; the chill of the cell, the fire of his fever all mixed into the final white light behind his eyelids. He still tried to pray, and found calm in thinking the rack surely would push his heart over the edge. If it would stop there, he would stop being a threat in his half-conscious state. His eyes were becoming unfocussed, the walls letting his gaze slip through as he prayed for death. 

Through the fog he saw two jailers coming towards his cell. The next thing that happened he attributed to his fevered mind. He blinked once, and suddenly, strong hands were lifting him up; the warm body pressed into his for support, as Catesby’s familiar voice, so close it almost sounded in his head, confusing him for a moment, was asking if he could walk. He couldn’t if he was honest with himself, but he had to.

The will to fight woke his broken body, rage and gratitude lifted him off the dirty cell floor, and pushed him out. Gerard was taller, but so thin it posed no problem for Robin to practically lift him to his feet, manipulating him like a pliant string-less marionette. It was a strange luck that his torture was so recent; every joint was secured within the cushion of the inflammation. His useless dislocated shoulders and arms were draped around Catesby, Gerard felt how the muscles on his friend’s back and side shifted and strained under his weight, as he bodily pulled and supported him, while the priest’s legs shuffled and skidded, yet by miracle moved on.

Sloshing through shit, his mind was going blank from the fumes, but the almost hysterical fire of God’s love burned him from the inside. He focused on the stocky figure that led him, pulled him, pushed him, and supported his every step; not letting go, whispering into his ear a prayer just for him. Catesby called his name, not Father Gerard, but John, John, like no one had called him since the seminary. The warmth of his name was pulling the priest out of the stupor again and again. Gerard sloshed through the dirt with tears streaming down his cheeks, blinding him. Catesby led the way, powerful and luminous.

 

 

Gerard finally passed out in the boat. The ordeal was behind him, or postponed. For now, he was safe, his face pressed into the shit smeared shoulder of his savior. 

His mind spirited him away from the suffering his body could not bear anymore. Childhood dreams returned, colorful and so real. He dreamt of laying on the warm carpet of needles and dry grass of a forest clearing. He smelled the pines in the warm air, and felt the faint breeze and the soothing touch of an angel’s hands on his hair. He remembered this place from his early childhood, when his father was still with him. Wild blueberries in a wicker basket lay next to him. Nothing had changed the strong feeling of love. He stood up and walked on, towards someone’s voice, towards light and warmth.

A voice was calling his name…

 

 

— —

 

 

The awkward body was laid out naked in front of Robin. The elderly medic Brother Glynn was fussing over the countless injuries that marked the pale skin, the hairless chest, the concaved abdomen, the blue-black shoulders, arms, and mangled wrists. He knew there were lash lines on the long narrow back that was currently bleeding onto the linen. The lower body was not as affected, apart from angry bloody circles on the ankles from the manacles.  After their trip through the sewer, the inflammation was a great concern. The medic soaked strips of cloth into his potions, murmuring, wrapping, dabbing. His low voice calmed Robin’s anger at Wade and his clique, turning it onto himself and his doubt in the man. 

Catesby helped wash the wounds, glad that Gerard was unconscious when they were soaking off the shirt off his back, or peeling it off the burns on his chest. It took countless rags and vats of hot water to wash off the shit, the dirt, the blood, and every layer of gunk and clothes revealed more and more details of the priest’s time in The Tower.

For the first time Catesby managed to tear out someone from the executioner’s hands. But as he thought back on the reason, guilt ate at him… He let Lady Dibdale be squashed like a bug, he saw the angel-like child-priest be butchered like a pig; was it because they were not a threat to the plot. But now, with the fate of England on his shoulders, they went after the priest. Catesby could not allow this thin, fragile looking man to break under the torture, and doom England, God, his pride... When the jailer replied to him the blood-curdling “nothing”, the wash of the relief was rapidly replaced with shame, as sharp as a slap in the face. He had to do it. God gave him time to make sure that Gerard was either safe or safely dead before the tortures would get serious.

But Wade was serious, and yet the priest did not break… With his arms akimbo and this gaunt bruised body, Gerard looked like a crucified Christ. Robin felt his knees buckle, and he sat heavily on the bed. A nervous laughter was rising in his chest. There was relief, underscored with disgust at himself, and beneath it all Faith that God was on their side, giving them this man and many martyrs who came before as a beacon. He touched the ankle over the shackle mark, sliding the hand up, feeling how thin and bony it was, almost delicate.

A chill ran down his spine with recollection of Gerard’s feverish whisper in the boat, the priest’s face tucked into Robin’s neck, lips ghosting over his skin: “Praised be our Lord, Jesus Christ… Robin…”

He bent onto himself, almost touching the bony knee with his forehead, clutching at his chest, and shaking. Guilt, shame and doubt in himself and his judgement engulfed him. 

— Sir, you need to rest, sir! You look like you are about to faint, — the doctor was at his side, shrouding him in the scent of herbs and honey, — Please, wash up and rest, you have done enough, I will stay the night…

— Thank you…

— He is an inspiration to us all, sir… and so are you, —  the warm round hand patted his back.

Catesby tried to get up, to only sit back down almost toppling over the naked body and causing more damage. The doctor steadied him and called Thomas to help him get back to his room.

— Who would have thought, — his cousin glanced at Gerard’s prostrate form. The medic went back to trying to fit the wrists into their sockets. — Tough little man…

— He is not little… — Robin whispered.

— Aye, you are littler, — his cousin chuckled, slapping his head, which reached just a little bit over Thomas’s shoulder. — God was on our side today. Let’s celebrate! Also, you stink, cousin.

 

 

Having washed up, Catesby tried to join the men. Indeed, they had to count their blessings in such times. He raised his glass, feigning mirth. But neither food nor drink seem to settle well with Catesby and his companions’ high praise of his valiant rescue of the priest didn’t sit well with him either. The image of the prone body seared in his mind. The half-dead form in the next room that spelled out so much suffering did not feel like a success. It was so different from Gerard in his cell, the one covered in layers of clothes and dirt, yet responding to Catesby with this strange light in his eyes.

Thomas praised Gerard with his toasts, again and again, and the men were repeating the same sentiment. No one expected the “little priest” to hold out. Someone commented that Gerard looked like a little Jew rather than a Catholic priest, and would not look good as an etching of a martyr on the pamphlets that are sure to be printed. Everyone laughed.

Catesby stood up, and walked out.

 

 

— —

 

 

Night brought fever.

Gerard thrashed, sweating, rasping through the damaged throat. Brother Glynn’s attempts to hold him down only did more damage. In his dream, he was trying to run from the pain, but it chased him relentlessly, and spurred him on. Fever robbed him of reason; he was unable to break away from the engulfing stifling nightmare, even though his eyes were open, staring blindly in front of himself.

Catesby woke up to the commotion of servants shuffling up and down the corridor, carrying water and utensils. He walked into a hellish scene, choking on the heavy hot air rancid with bodily fluids and sickness. For a moment the sight threw him back to another room, where a broken frail body lay still on sullied sheets, baby’s cries resonating beneath high ceiling.

— He is hurting himself, — the medic’s voice rose high in desperation as Catesby froze on the threshold. However, the servant in the corner wouldn’t budge, and only made the sign of cross over his chest. To the ignorant man the priest looked possessed.

Gerard lost the gravitas of a crucified Christ. The cracked lips parted, and a string of exhausted bile went over the bed’s edge, most of it ending up on the bunched up covers. The man who was always so composed in his quiet dignity, who covered his thin body neck to toe in black robes should not have been the contorted naked body on the blood, sweat, and probably piss-soaked linens. The elderly medic did not have bodily strength to hold the priest down, only succeeding in smothering Gerard’s horrified face into the covers. It must have gone on for some time, as the Brother looked exhausted and lost. The servant slipped out of the room.

— Please, sir, can you help me, hold him up? I need to re-bandage his back and secure his shoulders…

Robin stepped out of his boots and sat down on the bed, sliding next to the man, who curled now onto himself in a fetal position that elevated his crisscrossed back, but rested heavily on the damaged shoulder. Bony legs were moving restlessly, like a dreaming dog’s – in his nightmare he was running away. Catesby aligned himself clumsily, back to the headboard and tried to sneak his hands around the priest. With desperation and anger in wide unseeing eyes, the priest shrunk away from his touch. He held on, lifted Gerard up gently, circling his arms around the narrow ribcage, trying to save the damaged shoulders. Unable to put any strength in his useless hands and fight, Gerard was twitching, bodily trying to escape. Robin settled the convulsing body into a careful hug, allowing the priest to lie on top of him, face tucked into the crook of his neck. He pulled him up more, guiding the long naked legs to fold securely on both sides of his thighs, revealing the back. The doctor looked at them uncomfortably. 

— Don’t touch him yet, — Robin whispered to the medic.

— Robin… — a faint rasp under his ear.

— John, don’t leave us, John… — Catesby ran his hands along the sides, feeling ribs expanding and contracting rapidly and the desperate thud of the other man’s heart. His palms were soothing the twitching long body like the hurt animal that Gerard had become. His mind regressed to fear and pain that he tried to stave off in front of his torturers. It was let out now, as the fever crumbled all walls in his mind and smashed reservations.

— Robin…?

— Yes, yes, it’s me, you are safe!

— Pray for me…

Catesby turned into the man’s temple, lips to his ear, and began a long quiet prayer, rocking side to side. The body in his arms shook, teeth chattering. He went on and on, one prayer after another, then anew. Doctor froze, afraid to aggravate Gerard any further. The lull of Catesby’s voice, however, was doing the trick, and the thrashing subsided. Now sobs rocked Gerard in painful waves, but he stopped struggling. Edging closer, the doctor got to cleaning the back with careful round hands, covering the wounds in honey. The convulsions were merging slowly into pained whimpers and moans, saliva and tears pooled in the crook of Catesby’s neck trickling down his chest. He did not notice. The doctor was almost done now and Gerard seemed to be losing the strength to hold up the emotional high. The rasping breaths became longer, deeper… sometimes Robin heard his name, sometimes names of saints or Jesus. Robin carefully lifted the prone torso, supporting the lolling head, allowing the medic to tighten the bandages around the damaged flesh. Then white stripes secured purple shoulders and bloodied wrists. 

The doctor let out a long breath and finally spoke in a hushed voice:

— He is so lucky; no bones were actually broken. If the back heals well, the joints are just a question of time. The fever seems to be going down; maybe it came from his mind. Holding the pain inside may do more damage than a whip.

Robin let Gerard’s body settle into him again, now drifting into sleep. The man was hot and heavy, draped over him in an intimate embrace that the priest would do good not to remember.

The medic sat down next to the two men, resting his eyes on the strange sight. It would have looked obscene, but stone faced Lord Catesby appeared to negate any implication. Were they close before? Why did the priest calm down like that? Must be the prayers, Lord heard them… Quiet settled over them, exhaustion gripping the old physician’s limbs; he looked away, rubbing at his eyes.

— I would not dare to ask, but could you stay like this a moment longer? Let me think of how to lay him out better, — he was shrinking by the moment from a commanding doctor into a small old man.

— His chest is less damaged? — Catesby’s voice sounded as tired as Brother Glynn’s.

— Yes… we need to change the sheets too, — the medic rubbed the damp dirty cloth between his fingers in tired disgust and stood up to call the servants.

— Give him a moment, I am afraid to wake him up. — his mental strain left, and Robin felt empty

— Yes… yes, — the doctor nodded. It wouldn’t do to be seen like this.

For several long minutes they just sat, unable to move, sharing a moment of quiet understanding. The safety they felt after such a long battle was but ephemeral; a wounded man could become a liability if they were attacked again. Yet at this moment, it felt like a blessing, the life in his arms. Catesby’s right palm was still moving up and down along the priest’s ribcage, left was supporting the head on his shoulder. Gerard’s slow breath rasped quietly, moving the hair behind Robin’s ear.

Catesby carefully maneuvered their bodies, until he could lift the man up, wrapping a cleaner sheet around him to preserve the delayed modesty. He sat gingerly onto a chair, holding the taller body like an oversized child, while servants changed the linen, throwing sidelong glances at their lord with his burden. Catesby stared them back with heavy dark eyes, to the uneducated religious folk he must have looked like a sorcerer or saint. The tall tales of him exorcising the priest will doubtlessly spread come morning.

— He lost a lot of fluids sweating, but he may need to urinate at some point. The bowels are empty at least… — the doctor shook his grey round head.

— I will stay the night, — not a twitch on the lord’s stoic face. — I have been to war, there is nothing a human body can do that would surprise or upset me.

— That is a good outlook on life, my lord, — a tired smile. — If you do not mind, I will rest in the next room for an hour.

Lastly, they settled the prone body with his back upwards, arranging a nest of pillows to keep the airflow open and elevate the strain from the shoulders. Catesby insisted on putting Gerard’s drawers on, the doctor shrugged and agreed. Robin pulled the sheet up around the priest, and sat down on the bed. Gerard’s face was turned to the side, mouth parted just a fraction. Catesby touched the forehead, covered in beads of sweat, as a low-grade fever was cleansing the body of residue infection, but he breathed slowly, deeply.

— You are a fighter, Father, — he traced high cheekbone with his fingers, brushing the mussed damp hair off the pale face. There were a few gray strands on the temple he didn’t notice before. There were a lot of things he did not notice about this man before. 

An uncomfortable thought wormed its way into Robin’s head. Losing him to fever now would not have hurt their cause, perhaps make Gerard’s martyrdom even more poignant, but Catesby felt queasy imagining it. His faith led too many to their gruesome deaths, and he hadn’t noticed when, but somewhere along the line he stopped believing that they would survive the plot. Moving on the momentum of anger and pride, deaths became an almost welcome fuel for his hatred and righteousness.

It was when Gerard’s body began to quiet down in his arms, that Robin felt that life mattered for the first time, that having someone live mattered. It felt like hope, and the closest he ever felt to God. It must have been a sign. He needed this man alive, if only to believe that it was possible to survive the insanity of the world around them, that Gerard’s Faith could give hope.

Throwing a few pillows to the floor, he settled and rested his head on the side of the bed, listening to the rasping breath that measured time in pre-dawn silence.

 

Chapter Text

Gerard was thrust out of the comfort of his dreamless sleep into an urgent need to relieve himself. He moved automatically in an attempt to get up, but unable to push himself off the bed, only twitched like a caterpillar. One leg sliding off the bed, his bony knee collided with something soft, warm and moving. Wide blue eyes suddenly confronted a pair of brown ones that rose over the edge of the bed, blinking sleepily.

 —  Father, you are awake, — Catesby nodded, making the false assumption that the priest was still attempting to run. — Do not worry, you are safe. Do you remember anything?

— Yes… I think so. I cannot move my arms… — voice still gone, the air scratched in the priest’s throat producing barely a whisper.

— It is just the swelling in your joints. The left hand will heal faster, and in two months everything should heal. Try not to exert yourself. 

— How… what should I do? — dazed with the aftermath of fever, Gerard genuinely was at a loss, while his body demanded its due.

— What do you need? Please, rest, I will bring you anything.

The priest’s eyes, brimming with mortified desperation, locked onto Robin’s, and the color rose in his narrow face starting with the ears, spread in blotches over hollow cheeks, dusted with rusty stubble, and further down the bandaged chest. Finally, Catesby seemed to have grasped his meaning.

— Oh… just a moment...— a bucket was procured from under the bed. The servants had emptied out the vomit and rinsed it.

— I cannot… — Robin hoisted him to sit up on the edge and lowered his legs to the ground. A wave of dizziness almost pushed him over backwards. Gerard felt every angry welt on his back as a hand around his shoulders caught him and settled to rest against the other man. Blood wasn’t moving fast enough to keep up with the sudden change of direction, heavy head lolled onto Catesby’s shoulder.

Gerard heard the man speak.

— I understand, this is not the best solution, but would you allow me to help?

—  Huh? — the bucket was in front of the priest now, yet there was no way to untie his drawers or for a fact… aim. The information processed slowly, and the terror layered on as Gerard registered what he would have to ask for. But the need was indeed pressing.

— Father? 

— I… what should I do...

— Let me help you?

The priest gave a mortified twitch, biting lips, brows furrowed over darkening eyes. With one hand steady on Gerard’s shoulder, Catesby reached for the drawstrings, but the man jolted again at the touch.

— No… I don’t need your charity! —  the priest bristled.

— Would you like me to call the doctor? Servant?

Gerard looked through Catesby, he was exhausted. God had tested him all his life with this awkward narrow body that refused to grow bulk. Sickly since childhood, he was moved between tutors, schools, and sanatoriums. Even if his father and mentors assured their young discouraged charge that his body was as good as any to serve His glory, it was hard to believe them when he would land face first in a puddle, swallowing dirt, kicked in the stomach by the village boys, who hunted him down outside of the Jesuit school. Shame still haunted him, when he recalled his spiritless despair at the ridicules of the peasant girls, who used to corner him on his errands, pushing him to the ground, lifting their skirts over his face, kicking him and laughing at the young disciple’s pain and humiliation. The necessity to prove his independence still tormented his divided mind, now he was painfully aware this was nothing but the sin of pride. Yet again, the Lord was humbling him with this useless body.

He took a long deep breath, — No… you are right, — he conceded.

Gerard watched Catesby’s hand untie the drawstrings, and felt the first touch of calloused fingers. He clenched his teeth and swallowed a protest. The tanned hand guided him, stark contrast to his white skin.

— Father, it is better not to look… — the voice in his ear was understanding; it mitigated his shame, and sent a wave of unexpected sense of security down his spine. Gerard’s eyes closed, he turned his head away for good measure, breathing heavily through his mouth. Yet his body obeyed. Shuddering internally at the humiliation and immodesty, he welcomed the release.

Having been tucked back into his drawers, and gently lowered onto the covers, Gerard attempted to focus on the distraction of pain, collecting himself.

Without a word of commentary, Catesby disappeared with the bucket and came back with the doctor.

 

 

The fever was down. From the remarks the men exchanged he understood that perhaps it was best not to remember the night. When he focused on the superheated darkness in his mind, two contrasting emotions – fear and calm – surfaced, but refused to shape into a concrete event. Brother Glynn nodded, agreeing it is better not to dwell on such anguish.

Miraculously infection did not set in his back. His right shoulder was dislocated, while the left was severely sprained. Yet he could move and feel all his fingers, despite the weakness in the swollen joints. The three of them joined their voices in a simple prayer of gratitude, sharing in feeling more and more encouraged by the singular continuous luck that He bestowed upon them. He was going to heal. The only thing that troubled him was that his injury would prevent him from joining in the Catesby’s plan. They were discussing sending him away from London, with further intent of being shipped to France. A protest hung off his lips, but the conversation exhausted him. He dozed off.

 

 

In the afternoon Gerard’s light sleep was interrupted by a distant thunder and the sound of the first heavy raindrops on the windowsill. With a knock, a servant entered to close the window. Gerard wanted to object, but was ignored. He noticed that servants were reluctant around him. Those who helped Brother Glynn only handled tools, trying to stay well away from the bed, to the medic’s ire. He asked for Lord Catesby. The servant murmured from the threshold that the Lord had to return to his estate in Chastleton, immediately shutting the door behind him. Gerard thanked him, automatically smiling, even if the man had already left.

Behind the window, the storm was growing with every minute. Slanted sheets of water hit the glass, the smell of rain filtered through the uneven old frame, as the gusts of wind slipped in with a rattle. Gerard counted to ten after a flash of lightning, before the roll of thunder reached him. Another and another, flashes came in close succession. The priest strained his back trying to catch a glimpse of the raging sky though the blurry window, but it was impossible. He gave up, instead drawing on his imagination. The uneven, whimsical broken lightning stripes illuminated the reddish grey sky, dangerous in the empty fields. In his childhood at his father’s country estate he saw mighty oak split in two, charred by a lightening. For years through his travels he carried a piece of it, shaped by his nanny into a crude cross. It disappeared on his voyage home. He counted seconds between the flashes and the thunder chasing it; the storm was coming closer. The congestion in his heart was releasing, personified and set free by nature’s unbridled force. Closing his eyes, he let the feeling flow through him. The excitement of the thunderstorm drained his anger, the deafening crash of thunder that followed in just a second after the flash sent a jolt through his body that was followed by pain shooting through his many injuries. It felt liberating; he didn’t notice when he fell asleep again, and slept well.

 

 

——

 

 

Several hours of rest were by far not enough for exhausted Catesby after the rescue and assistance with Gerard’s fever, but duty called. The following day, Thomas promised to introduce another member who would join them, and revealing the Lambeth headquarters would have been too risky. Thomas made haste, inspired with Gerard’s escape, perhaps more than Catesby himself, seeing in this a sign, a definite promise of success. With a heavy heart, Catesby made his long way to Chastleton.

The rain seeped through Catesby’s cape, it ran under his collar - the patter on his hat and the staccato of the horse’s hooves resonated through his spine. The horse’s back was the one remaining source of warmth protecting him. A numbing chill, the ebb and flow of the gallop, and grey road stretching into grey sky made it hard to maintain focus. Catesby’s mind wandered, detached from the bleak scenery, as he was rocked by the powerful shift of the horse’s muscles beneath him. Time slowed down, before his mind’ eye he saw Catherine again. Even heavily pregnant she would hurry down the stairs to meet him, awkward and ungraceful with her swollen stomach. She was a promise of such happiness…

Catesby wondered if her death was that first death - the one that outweighed all life for him. Even if her passing brought into the world an innocent spirit, he had no eyes for the child. He chose to focus on the deaths.

And there were so many… The King’s and Cecil’s politics started with fines and taxes, but more and more dues had been paid in blood. His Catholic kin was hunted down for their estate and wealth that migrated into the King’s bottomless purse. The claim that allegiance with the Catholic Church endangered the King’s sovereignty rang through Elizabeth’s reign, and now Cecil used this convenient drivel. He could not recall the exact moment when the plan came to him. It had not been a revelation, rather an accumulation of anger, fear, indignation. All the poison that silently simmered within Robin Catesby crystallized into this reckless enterprise.

Perhaps the response of the Spanish became the tipping point. No matter where he turned, other Catholics abandoned their English brethren. Their suffering was ignored; at most he was offered prayers and empty words. Was God turning away from England?

And was there God in this at all? Just like James and Cecil in England tormented Catholics, and Mary in her time – Protestants, The Spanish Inquisition taxed and killed Jews. Two of these hapless figures turned into screaming pillars of flame in front of his very eyes. It felt wrong, these were people, they hurt, they died for their truth…. Talk of God began to unsettle him, his conviction wavered.

Deaths remained the only truth. Deaths of his family, his friends, people he knew, he knew of, and those he could only imagine. Poverty and hunger killed impoverished Catholic peasants, stripped of their livelihood by the King’s taxes, while those well-off, like himself, had to plan on selling their estates to buy temporary safety from the bloodthirsty crown, perversely postponing their inevitable demise.

Catesby was ready to forfeit eternal salvation for the pain to stop in this retched lifetime. The thought unsettled him. Were they all on the path to the eternal damnation?

He asked Garnet once if the right cause would be worth the innocent victims. The man drew on the example of rightful wars, of the crusaders, of the collateral whose lives were inevitably lost protecting one’s land and truth. The man changed his tune now, siding with all the other so-called Catholics who offered prayers over the graves instead of hand to the needy.

Only Gerard had dared to call out the church. His thoughts returned to the night and morning. What happened was a miracle, it challenged his despair with hope. Yet Catesby was afraid to hope.

 

 

The shadow of the estate’s buildings rose in between the grey earth and darkening grey sky. It will be pitch black by the time he reached it. It had been three hours since his last stop, and the horse was getting tired from the punishing pace. He spurred the beast on anyway, returning to the present.

On the road, through the rain he glimpsed his wife’s silhouette. He saw her every time he returned, sometimes on his way, sometimes by the pond, other times she would be in the darker corner of the house itself, outlined by a flickering candlelight or reddish glow of ambers in the grate. Forever so beautiful. 

When he finally reached the gate, the nightfall blurred the led sky, sparse growth and colorless shadow of the manor into one solid shape, only several orange windows were his beacon. If he hadn’t known the road, he would have never reached his destination in the drenched, icy darkness.

Jumping off the horse, he slid in the mud, breaking the fall by grabbing the stirrup. The horse shivered and gave a questioning nicker. Stable boy rushed to pick up the reins as Catesby headed to the doors, which opened for him. Anne’s stately silhouette was outlined in eerie candle glow. The hall was not warmer than outside, and he strode to the fireplace directly, lowering himself heavily on the stool. Anne followed silently.

Finally, away from the raging weather, he let out a long sigh. Having sat the candle on the table, his cousin stood over him. She struggled with the clasp of his cape, prying him out of the heavy dripping fabric that now prevented the heat from getting through to his numb skin.

— Hello Cousin, — Catesby greeted, smiling up at her.

— Hello Cousin, — Anne responded in kind.

He allowed himself to be tended to by her kind hands, his fingers numb from holding the reins, refused to cooperate. She shuffled between the room and the kitchen, and soon, some left-over gruel, bread and meat appeared in front of Catesby on a tray. He looked at her as he ate; she wore a soft pensive expression. Lately, she hardly smiled when they met, always prepared to resume her attempts to curb his dangerous ideas.

To her, his life was important. Still important.

But she was silent tonight.

— I thought you were with Garnet in London? — Catesby broke the silence. He wanted to express his discontent with the old priest, who abused her hospitality, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.

— Robert is my family too, Robin… — the dowager exuded calm, but her dark grey eyes looked tired on the pale face.

— Thank you, — he felt hardly worthy of such devotion.

— Father Gerard escaped with your help, I hear? I have heard he was… — her eyes filled with sorrow, — … tortured…

—  He went through a terrible ordeal. Last night was not easy either, but his fever broke today.

— Praise the Lord, — Anne whispered a quick prayer in Latin. — He was brisk with Father Garnet, but he is such a fine compassionate man.

— An inspiration to us all, — his words were not meant as a rebuke, but the moment he heard himself speak, he felt uneasy. Yet she only nodded with a fragile sad smile.

— It is late, I will prepare your room, — Anne stood up, skirts whispering across the floor, as she disappeared into the storage rooms.

 

 He left most of the food untouched, too tired to deviate from his goal. Rising to his feet, he headed upstairs, but young Robert was not in his room. Catesby stood in the corridor, perplexed, almost heading down to inquire, when a soft keening sound drew his attention to the master-bedroom.

He opened the door silently, unsure if he would find his wife’s ghost in the bed where she died, or his son. The latter seemed more unlikely, yet there he was, caught in the ghostly light of the moon that drifted between the parting clouds. The boy was breathing steadily, lost in a dream, murmuring something from time to time. Robin’s stomach gave a sickening jolt. Laying prone, sinking in soft white pillows and shadows, young Robert’s face was hardly distinguishable from Catherine, if not for the shorter straight hair. Catesby closed his eyes at the rising pain in his chest.

— Why are you here?! —  he heard his own sharp voice. The boy, ever a light sleeper, lifted himself on his elbows, blinking owlishly.

—  Father? — the bleary eyes still had a dream lingering in them.

— Who let you sleep in this bed? — Catesby pressed on. Now fully awake, his son’s pale face sharpened with fear, the boy shrunk into the shadow of the poster.

— Aunt allowed it... — he hiccupped. — Forgive me, father…

Robin fell silent, taking in the sight in front of him. The boy was sitting up now, clutching the covers in tight fists, trying to pull the blanket higher in an unconscious attempt to shield himself. His son was terrified of him. Catesby never raised a hand to Robert, and considered himself a kind man for that. What was he doing to the child? The boy would run to him, as soon as he would recognize his father’s footsteps in the house. Run to him in hope that, this time, his father notices him. Yet Robin only walked by, or worse, found yet another reason to chastise Robert, looking for a reason not to look into the eyes that had the same gold flecks in grey like Catherine’s. He spun the circumstances to channel his grief and anger. If ever was there one to blame for his wife’s death, it was the neglectful husband who made her pregnant, even after the loss of their first child. He chose to hurt the child she entrusted with him as her last gift.

There he was, frozen, ready for another chastisement, another groundless rebuke.

—  Father, forgive me…

— Forgive you, Robert? You… you, forgive me. This is all only my fault, — Robin sat on the bed, pulling the boy into his arms and fitting his face to his chest. He probably smelled of horse and sweat, but the boy did not try to pull away, he only clung harder. — You look so much like your mother… —  a lopsided apology.

In that instant, he knew he was going to die. One way or another, maybe before the plot comes to pass, maybe in the aftermath, but he sensed no future for himself. The realization hit him – he came to make amends with his son. He wanted forgiveness and knew he was going to get it from his child, who possessed every virtue of his mother. This was their last time together. Robin will soon stand before Catherine... What would he say to her? Then again, he hardly could hope to end up in the same place as her.

… after what he had done, and what he will do… 

— Robert, forgive me... — The worn linen of the boy’s nightgown was soft under his palms. Through it, he felt the racing heart and shallow breath that moved the narrow chest rapidly. Robert was crying; his silent tears were warm seeping through Catesby’s shirt.

— Father… — the child said. Of course he was forgiven. He ruffled the soft hair, pressing the kid into himself. He will do everything to protect this: all that was left of that love and happiness that a kinder more innocent Robin Catesby once knew.

He tucked his son in, sitting with the boy until the soft breath told him he drifted off to sleep. Tomorrow, before Thomas arrives, he will talk to Anne – arrangements are to be made. He was selling the estate; the money will support them through their travels.

His son, Anne, Thomas... he was surrounded by people who were so much better than him… Gerard…

 

 

The following day he drifted through the meeting, Wintour’s enthusiasm and new recruits lifted his spirit. They needed the resources direly. But new responsibility, new lives depending on his judgement also sharpened the sense of unease. He was swept away with the momentum of the plot, spurred with Thomas’s honest enthusiasm. Later, his doubts and fears sunk heavily under his ribs, spreading cold needles of premonition down his back, as he watched Thomas’s broad backed figure on horseback disappear behind the grove, new members following in his stead.

Talk with Anne and preparations for her and Robert’s travels fed into his discontent, fear made his thoughts sluggish, slowing him down into a stupor. Decisions didn’t come easy, Anne had to suggest everything herself, he nodded halfheartedly. Finally, the conversation stalled, she clearly noticed his distress, but he refused to answer any inquiries about the reasons. She looked at him for a long time in pointed loaded silence, but conceded to drop the issue.

Again and again his thoughts came back to Gerard’s rescue, clinging to this success. He brought back the details of the morning, the feeling of gratitude and prayers. Brother Glynn’s approving nods. Gerard’s long fingers, secured with bloodied bandages, visible skin shredded and scabbing, but still twitching, proving that no permanent damage was to be expected.

Catesby wavered between clinging to the hope and suspecting his luck. It began to seem to him that Gerard held the answers, a hope tortured him, a hope that the priest survived to guide him, to share in his burden. Scalded with guilt and awareness of his own selfishness, he prayed for clarity.

That afternoon, exhausted, he watched the sun grow heavy in the sky, leaning towards the horizon. He watched his estate bathing in golden light. Robert played in the yard, chasing the dog with puppies. A breath, heavy as a sob escaped his chest. He could not bring himself to ride back to London tonight. Catesby allowed himself to rest and spend another day with his son, suspending his heavy heart. Robert’s enthusiasm gradually molded his fear into softer melancholy.

 

 

——

 

 

A mild fever chilled Gerard’s body and then pushed it into hot flashes. Exhaustion seeped the strength and will out of him. Resting in a light daze of weakness brought on by pain and low-grade fever, the priest watched the sun move by the shadows on the wall. He was apprehensive of the darkness of the night; he saw how nightmares haunted people, compelling them to relive the torture repeatedly. Yet for the most part he slept without dreams, waking up only a handful of times to a sense of dread rather than anything specific. He would gasp into the pillow and his eyes would fly open, blinded with darkness around him. Vision adjusting to the orange glow of the fireplace, he scanned the thick shadows of the room for Wade’s face, sometimes hearing the echoes of Cecil’s impassive voice. However, exhaustion would take hold of him before he would consciously process the onsetting fear, and the release of darkness would come again.

The first few days, Gerard only woke up to have the medic help him tend to his multiplying bodily needs. Sometimes he would stay awake enough to recite a prayer. He desperately begged for humility, as he fought his instinct to recoil from Brother Glynn’s hands that fed him a few sips of soup, and gagged when the man tried to offer him water that burnt all the way down his damaged throat.

Gerard was noticing with growing suspicion that human touch, that would have been merely unwelcome to him at the best of times, in his current helpless state, was becoming unbearable. He recognized the symptoms. He had seen tortured men and women, whose spirit lost control over the impulses of the flesh. When the kindly old medic touched his wounds, retracing the torment with salves and honey. Gerard fought to control himself, every muscle taut like a bowstring, physically keeping himself from flinching away, forgetting to breathe.

Brother Glynn noticed something, but refrained from commentary. Gerard suspected that he would probably discuss it with Catesby. The two appeared to have developed some sort of understanding where he was concerned.

 

 

On the fifth day, Gerard woke up feeling stronger, his damaged back was sore, his joints refused to cooperate, but his head was clearer, fever completely left him. Wounds were healing well, although stiff scabs on deeper cuts tended to break painfully when he was not careful enough.

He tried to lift his body off the pillows, first putting the strain in his stomach. It did not yield any satisfactory result. Next he resolved to pulling his knees under himself and carefully dragging his upper body until he got a leverage to lift himself at the waist. He put weight on his shoulders and growled, shifting the center of gravity to his hips. Beginning a slow upward motion, he struggled to maintain the balance, as heat rose in his face and his heartbeat escalated. Injuries and several days of complete rest drained him mid-way, and as tension left his muscles, he fell face forward with his buttocks in the air, breaking the fall with his damaged shoulders. Gerard stifled a moan, almost chipping his teeth. Weakened hips slid down, and he was flattened with another wave of pain from disturbed joints and cracked scabbing on his back. Gerard felt treacherous sting in his eyes, but managed to suppress the tears, some of it ending up coming through his nose. Yet another indignity.

 

The doctor knocked at the door.

— Oh, Father, what did you do? — the medic hurried to his side, eyes on the fresh bloodstains on the bandages. — Did you try to move on your own? Please, the wounds are healing so nicely, you have to be careful.

— …, — Gerard responded with a pointed silence.

— Do you need help with…? — the old man caught the priest’s eyes and let his gaze drop to the bucket. The pantomime became a habit between them by now.

In a telling silence, Gerard allowed his body to be carefully manipulated to semi-vertical position. Drawers undone, the friar placed the bucket on a low stool to allow him to manage without his supervision. Fighting nausea, the priest pulled up his left hand into his lap, as the swelling was going down it began to restore some mobility. Having made sure that Gerard was not passing out and toppling over, he closed the door behind him, allowing his patient relative privacy.

The medic’s concern was welcome, but also meant the man was catching on the problem that Gerard was dealing with.

His pride. God was revealing to him his sinful, superfluous pride.

He prayed for humility as doctor’s kind hands were again invading his privacy.

 

 

The late morning turned into afternoon. Time stretched painfully in the stillness of the room, sometimes jumping forward when he drifted into sleep. As the healing progressed, he dozed off less, instead beginning to feel trapped with disconcerting thoughts. Gerard focused on attempting to move his right hand fingers one digit at a time, even if the doctor advised against it at such early stage.

In the afternoon, with a polite knock, Catesby walked in on him laid out face down on the clean sheets, Gerard was bored with the exercise and was happy with distraction. 

— Father…                                                   

— Lord Catesby, — settling in the pillows, Gerard turned to Catesby as much as he could, as the man walked into his line of vision.

— Brother Glynn had an errand to run, — Catesby approached the bed with the tray, — I brought you some food, — setting it on the small table by the bed he reached for the priest, words distracting, as he started to lift the thin body, — I heard, you don’t eat much.

— My stomach was never very strong… — Robin sat him up carefully, arranging a bowl of broth and another of Glynn’s herbal tinctures in front of him. The supporting hand chaffed against his back, but Gerard could not help noticing that despite discomfort, the touch did not make him flinch away. With more confidence, he pulled his left hand into his lap. Lifting it was impossible, but he pressed a napkin laid out on his lap. Catesby was looking at his attempts intently.

— If you do not mind, — careful not to disturb the shoulder, Catesby arranged the priest’s fingers around the bowl, placed his own palm on top, securing the grip, and slowly raised the soup to Gerard’s lips. The priest focused on the sensation of heat on his fingertips, it almost felt normal. The lip of the cup pressed to his mouth, and the broth slid down his throat surprisingly comforting. He felt hungrier with every sip, and didn’t stop until the rich liquid was gone.

Catesby watched the priests Adam’s apple bob hungrily up and down the long neck, framed with soft collar of a loose chemise. The priest looked thinner than ever, but nothing like the weakened senseless flesh that clung to him several nights ago.

Having finished the soup, Catesby helped him lower the bowl and repeated the procedure with a cup of herbal brew. Gerard settled into him, his body clearly loosing strength, but he was refusing to give up just yet. Only when the cup was empty, did the priest allow himself to lean dangerously forward, sliding across Catesby’s chest. The cup fell, as both Robin’s hands caught him under arms, maneuvering Gerard back onto the bed. 

Levelling his breath, the priest closed his eyes. His observation was correct; his body was accepting the touch, and did not recoil from the liquid. He reveled for a moment in what would otherwise be a source of discomfort. Catesby’s hands around his chest, the man’s left thumb pressing right into an angry burn on his side, lowering him to the sheets. Was it his determination, or was it because Catesby saved him? Whatever was happening to him, it was beyond his mind’s immediate control. His body acted on its own accord.

Gerard turned his head to study the face next to him. Beneath Catesby’s intent countenance, there was a strain of guilt tightening his features. Being a priest, Gerard saw that look all too many times in front of a confessional. Something was weighing on the man’s heart, and he was coming to see Gerard for exactly that reason. The priest breathed into the pillow, slightly smothered. Catesby’s hands immediately rearranged the cushions to open the airflow.

Catesby may have needed to talk, but Gerard needed his time: — I would like to try sitting up tomorrow, and I am afraid that Brother Glynn would not be able to support me up as efficiently. If I may inquire for your assistance?

—  Yes, of course… I will come to your room as soon as my work is done. 

— Thank you. Would you arrange for a chair with a back, maybe I could support my chest on it, this way I could at least try reading, — he had ample time to give it some thought. — This idleness is detrimental to my mind.

— Of course, Father. Anything else? I will send for a servant right away to prepare everything to suit you, — hastiness with which Catesby catered to Gerard’s needs – the fast response, the concerned hushed voice, the averted gaze – guilt…

— I will look forward to talking to you tomorrow, — Gerard dismissed the man and his mystery. He was not prepared to hear any confessions today. — Thank you for the food, — the priest’s voice warmed up. — You helped me more than you think.

— I will ask the servants to make your evening meal a bit heavier?

— Not necessary, I would rather not get ahead of myself and add a stomach ailment to the list of the troubles I already place upon Brother Glynn’s reliable shoulders.

Catesby laughed against his intent, Gerard joined him with a rasping chuckle that turned into a cough. On impulse, Catesby patted the bandaged back shaking with cough and laughter, and heard a gasp. Jerking his hand away, he apologized repeatedly, but despite involuntary tears of pain, the priest’s smile ignited the blue devils in his eyes, crinkling them at the corners.

Catesby asked himself, how old was this man? His face shifted in his mind back and forth from a wise sage who seemed to have understood the God so much more intimately, to a passionate youth, who joined their cause and burned with fighting spirit.

Catesby stopped fooling himself a while ago. The priest’s light drew him in, like a moth. His trust, his honesty, his fervor. He woke Catesby up, made him question himself, made him want to be worthy of the trust long before he almost made a crippling decision to kill him in the Tower.

There was rage and raw power inside of the man. It made him stand up and walk, crawl through the gutter… But there was also such human, vulnerable pride and brashness that Robin did not expect. Now, however, Gerard began to acquire another facet, a physical presence. Robin knew how that body felt, its weight, its heat, the smell. The wheat of his eyelashes, the scratch of stubble, the stormy blue of the eyes that were too big for his face. He even knew the softness of these lips, whispering into his neck words of gratitude and prayer.

Uncooperative mind’s eye would return to that night again and again, to the elation that Catesby felt when the hot body in his arms was quieting down, coming back from a brink of insanity to his call.

 

 

 ——

 

 

Catesby took a step back, releasing the priest’s shoulders. Gerard sat straight, holding his body up, straddling the chair, large bony hands rested on each knee. He moved his head from right to left with a pop, releasing the tension from neglected muscles. Despite him insisting on sitting up, Catesby placed a cushion in front of his chest. With help, Gerard managed to walk around the room twice before he settled by the window. Weakness made it hard to regulate the blood flow, took time for the heartbeat to calm down from the exercise. Yet he felt much stronger now that fever was not draining him. Every day felt completely different than the one before. Even yesterday’s morning and evening were incomparable. Gerard was in a hurry to feel stronger. But his shoulders remained almost useless. Even the left hand that retained some movement refused to carry as much as its own weight.

In front of the priest was kneeling Catesby, whose need to speak was palpable. Gerard was somewhat taken aback by the urgency. He looked down at the bent head in front of him – this man confused him. In Catesby, he found someone whose views resonated with his own. He chose to protect people despite the apathetic indecisiveness of the church. But initial respect and sympathy was changing into something… something vague, that Gerard could so far only describe as a visceral sense of safety. Even now as Catesby helped him to the chair, the priest acknowledged with unease, he did not want the simple contact to end.

— Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.

— We hardly need formalities at this stage, my Lord. Tell me what burdens your heart.

Catesby looked up. The stoic face was chalky, eyes set deep in sunken sockets with dark shadows underneath. Almost a week worth of reddish stubble sharpened and aged the gaunt face. Gerard smiled at him. Was it prudent to burden the priest during his convalescence. Robin averted his gaze. Yes, it was selfish. But Gerard was the only one he trusted not to be sentimental with him. The man’s judgment would not be clouded, neither would he hasten to forgive.

— When… when… When I came for you… in the Tower… — Catesby watched how the priest’s hand twitched involuntarily at his words.

— Yes…?

— I came… not to save you, Father… — he breathed out, keeping his eyes down.

— You came to make sure I did not talk… — the voice responding to Catesby held no judgement, only confirmed the fact.

— Yes…

— That is prudent. I have heard Lord Wade can be most persuasive, — Gerard let out a curt dark laugh, that sent cold down Catesby’s spine.

— I doubted you, Father! — he hurried to push the painful words past his lips.

Gerard took a moment to compose himself.

— Is there anyone you would not doubt in front of the rack? Would you not doubt yourself? — the priest’s voice was calm, a remaining scratching rasp made it sound lower, darker. Catesby shivered, and kept his eyes focused on the priest’s bare feet. He wondered if Gerard was cold.

— But you are not me. I see it now clearly… What you did…

— Do not worship me, my Lord, I was lucky, — he was choosing his words with deliberation, —Truly God was on our side that night… If delirium would have set in, I could have been dangerous, — it pained Gerard to relive the sentiment he held onto in the torture chamber.

— I saw your wounds…

A heavy sigh compelled Catesby to look up. The priest’s face was turned to the window, the light caught the blue in his eyes making them luminous and transparent like the sky. In such icy stillness Catesby wanted to rest. But when their gazes met, there was heaviness and darkness in them too.

 — Isn’t it obvious, my Lord? Nothing I would have said would save me, — Gerard struggled to maintain eye contact. — One way or another, I was going to die. This body, weak and useless as it is, has an advantage, it would not last long in their hands, I just had to wait. And not lose my mind… I would have welcomed death from a friendly hand, — the priest pushed himself to smile at this, but Catesby’s face looked like he had been slapped. — Do not blame yourself for protecting something that is much bigger than you or me.

— Your being here now…

— Do not praise me, my friend, my part in this is very small… — the resignation in Gerard’s voice felt wrong to Catesby.

— You are the only one, who makes me still feel… God!.. — he sounded like a child to himself.

— We are not doing God’s work.

— Father…?

— Why are you on this path, my Lord? — Gerard met his incredulous gaze, damaged voice was faltering.

— Our people are suffering…

— Yes, people are… but why do you insist on doing it for God?

Catesby looked up, losing the train of thought, perplexed… — Our Lord…

— Our Lord has a plan, but we don’t know this plan, and should not imagine that the magnitude of it can be at all accessible to us, — eyes narrowing, the priest curled his fingers in a loose painful fist.

Robin silently waited for the man to continue.

— Garnet is right in this, — there was anger in the priest’s words now, — But what we can do is to serve the God’s creations in any way we can. All you can do, is to help people who are suffering now, and will suffer even more if this is going to escalate at the pace it had been up to now. Is this not enough?

— I do not believe God is with us… at all… — Catesby voiced his biggest fear.

— Do you see any other way? — the man was relentless, narrow back straight and rigid, left hand fisted, he pushed his body into pain, sharpening the focus, chasing away the nausea and fatigue that were creeping onto him.

— No… but even this way… I don’t believe we can succeed. I feel like I am only leading these people to their demise, — Catesby’s voice rose, fears pouring out. He came for punishment and forgiveness, but was getting a horrifying choice thrust upon him. And he knew Gerard was right, he gripped the back of the chair with both hands, aching to stand up, but kept kneeling, challenging Gerard’s stormy blue eyes.

— That is up to God, I’m afraid, - the priest accepted the challenge with a strained smile. — If only we could know what he expects of us… but we don’t, Lord Catesby. And yet can we truly step away? Would you or Thomas run to France... — he raised his brows, — Can you do that?

— No…

— This is why I believe in you; you are a soldier. And now you are fighting for people, who accidentally also pray to the same God as you. At least, I thought so, — Gerard allowed his lids to drop, withdrawing for a moment, assessing his own state. He took a deep steadying breath.

— And if we fail? — Catesby needed this.

— Perhaps we will see another facet of the God’s plan then? — a mirthless laugh rasped in Gerard’s throat. — But don’t flatter yourself in thinking you know what the God wants. What we do will bring a lot of suffering to innocent people. A lot of pain to this country… before there is a chance to heal.

Gerard looked into Catesby’s face with piercing blue eyes that reached through him. He continued and his voice rang in the room even if the throat still barely obeyed him.

— Wade… he did not enjoy torturing me, — the priest’s gaze became unfocussed, in the daylight and with Catesby next to him the past troubled him less. Only a hollow tightness in his chest. — I saw it in his eyes, the man is as tired as are all of us. He is trapped with fear rather than conviction. He does not have the luxury of believing his cause or his masters, — Gerard shivered, — Cecil is a devil, truly, I have never seen a more vile man, and more wise.

Catesby could not tear his eyes away.

— And I am a free man, — the priest continued, — I made a choice, and I know I may be wrong. All this may call the wrath of God upon us, but… — his voice faltered, Catesby read his lips, — I see no other way…

Gerard stopped and just breathed for a few moments, Catesby brought a cup to his parched lips, and a few sips appeared to revive the priest enough to finish the tirade.

— I wish someone else would tell me what is right… — blue eyes were swimming in and out of focus, — just as you do. And for that reason, I cannot be that man for you I am not in any way better or wiser than you. We can only follow our conscience.

Catesby’s breath was evening out, he kept their gazes locked, Gerard’s words and the conviction in his eyes seeping into him, clearing the pain and confusion in his conflicted soul. It felt like the priest’s words brought out to light all his doubts and fears and showed them to Catesby in such clarity and simplicity. Was there any other way…?

— Father…

— I can hardly be called a priest anymore, — Gerard smiled faintly, finally leaning onto the pillow, settling his forehead against the back of the chair, — …maybe I can be your brother in arms?

— You again open my eyes to the truth, — Catesby carefully took the priest’s less damaged hand, and brought it to his lips. But what started as a gesture of respect and gratitude was replaced with absolute focus on feeling the ridges of scratches on the knuckles with his lips, the coolness of taunt smooth skin, reverence merging into caress. His breath caught. The fingers twitched, trying to escape his grasp.

— I told you, do not glorify me. — Gerard’s voice was tired and brisk, like a snap of a twig.

— My friend, — Catesby restored the narrow wrist onto its rightful spot and looked into the man’s face. The priest’s temple rested on the smooth wood of the chair’s back, face turned to Catesby. The clear blue darkened, pupils delated and wheat eyelashes lowered at half-mast. A light flush rose on the high cheekbones. Lips parted to say something, but closed, only letting out a sigh.

Robin was mesmerized. Gerard closed his eyes, shielding himself. But Catesby saw the signs clearly, it was not just him, the priest shared in this intimate moment. Even if he refused to recognize it for what it was.

 

 

 

Thomas poked his head in with a knock. Appraising the situation, he lifted a brow at the kneeling Catesby.

— Cousin, this is a confession!

— Father, if he is proposing, I would not accept, — Wintour laughed, — Damn! — at that moment without warning Gerard started to slide off the chair. Catesby was still rooted to the spot. Thomas rushed to break the priest’s fall. Lifting the priest under knees and arms, without thinking, Thomas settled him on the bed onto the damaged back. Cursing under his breath, he carefully repositioned the unconscious body.

— Robin, what are you thinking? — he reprimanded his cousin, — The man is still weak. Was it necessary?

— Yes…— Catesby nodded guiltily, — yes, it was.

— Cousin, your burden is heavy, I understand, but… — Thomas’ brows furrowed over his kind dark eyes. Believing in what they were doing, he was no stranger to doubt himself. With changing parliament dates, Cecil’s meddling, Gerard’s imprisonment, they were pushed and pulled, as if guided by unrelenting force, relinquishing all control to circumstance. It weighed on all of them, but his friend was probably afflicted the most. — You were not yourself in Chastleton. What is happening?

— He helped me with that. I lost my way, but he… — Catesby was still coming to terms with his half-digested revelations and unexpected emotional high.

— He needs to recover, — Thomas continued to play the role of the voice of conscience. — Garnet wants us to send him out of the city. Staying in London is too dangerous, everyone is looking for him. And if he is found here, we will all go down.

— He cannot travel now; he cannot even eat by himself! — Robin bristled, voice rising, surprising even himself.

— Yes, another week, then he should be safe with a servant, — Thomas moved to let Catesby closer to Gerard. The man was unresponsive, but breathing steadily. It looked like he was asleep rather than unconscious. Catesby caught himself almost touching the priest’s hair, he stopped his hand, instead placing the palm on the man’s brow, checking for the fever.

— A week… 

— In his state he would only hinder us, — Thomas turned a pained face to Catesby, worried for his friend, for the plan, for Gerard.

— … he is the only life I ever saved…

— You sound smitten, — the moment the careless words left his lips, Thomas’s eyes widened in disbelief. Catesby just laughed, dismissing the remark. But when he turned to his cousin, the handsome face was calm and softer than he saw in years, as the man looked on at the priest, arranging the pillows. Wintour recognized the expression and implication frightened him, knowing the man as he did.

Gerard interrupted his reverie with a quiet moan, Thomas watched Catesby kneel by the bed, he took a step back, heading for the door.

— I will call Brother Glynn, — he exited in haste.

Chapter Text

There were hardly any servants in Catesby’s London mansion, as secrecy necessitated. The Lord’s valet took on most domestic duties. The cook and maid hardly came out of the kitchen, if only for cleaning, leaving Lord Wintour’s valet to rest. After a week, the small round monk became almost invisible to the inhabitants and guests of Lord Catesby. When their voices hushed as he entered the room, Brother Glynn understood. Lord Wintour, who brought him in to tend to the priest, explained bluntly that the less the friar knew the safer he would be if he was ever tortured. It was enough that these men stood up against Lord Cecil, even if, he suspected, their methods were not explicitly in the spirit of God’s Love. Brother Glynn escaped this moral dilemma by focusing on his moody patient.

The house was alive despite the lateness of the hour. The maid’s light footsteps told the cleric that the fires in the rooms were being lit. By the sound of several doors opening and closing, he dared to guess that Lord Wintour will be staying tonight, maybe also Mr. Johnson...

He heard a giggle as the maid ran into one of the valets on his habitual route, checking the windows. The muffled ebb and flow of animated discussion filtered from downstairs. Lord Catesby frequently had these “guests” who discussed, debated, celebrated or mourned. Lord Wintour stayed most nights, while grim Mr. Johnson came and went.

As the night approached, the old man was beginning to doze off. Lulled by the peaceful sounds of the house, he struggled to keep his eyes open. The calm contrasted with the presence of the heavily injured priest next to him. Gerard’s blackout was a result of his fatigue. He regained his senses quickly, and fell back asleep almost immediately. The medic still monitored him at Catesby’s request, but there was no sign of trouble.

Brother Glynn was a patient man, but his patience was tried in the last week more times than he cared to remember. He was not angry. He was, however, worried. The young priest was in such a hurry to feel better.

The friar’s eyes scanned the sleeping man in front of him. There was color in his sunken cheeks now, his chest rose and fell with slow deep breaths. Gerard was indeed recovering, surprisingly well for someone of his constitution and all his attempts to run before he could walk. But not all wounds scab over so easily.

It was clear as day – Gerard flinched away from any touch. By now, he was sure, it was not the collateral pain from doctor’s ministrations; the discomfort came from the damaged spirit taking precedence over the man’s mind. The friar did not have a remedy for that. Only time, safety, and kindness had any effect on this affliction. From what he knew, all three conditions were hardly to be met any time soon.  

 

***

 

Gerard woke up during the night to the dog’s desperate barking behind the window. He heard a curse, a shuffle and a whine from the animal. The small commotion drew his attention. He was getting stronger, and long naps resulted in lighter sleep. Brother Glynn, dozing off on an improvised cot made of two chairs and a plank, blinked at the sound of him moving in his bed.

In the low orange light of the hearth, the friar saw the thin figure trying to sit up. Gerard was getting better at it. He lowered his legs, turned onto his left shoulder, and gradually pulled his body up sideways.  

— Father…?

— This is so slow… — the man breathed out by way of greeting.

The fuss outside had subsided. Brother Glynn could not suppress a chuckle.

— If you are bored, you are definitely recovering, — he watched Gerard just sit quietly, looking down at his bare feet. The priest appeared to consider and reconsider his options. — Do not try to stand up on your own, Father!

Gerard’s tired face looked up at the monk with a sad smile. He pulled up his left hand, but the right one only dragged along the sheets at an odd angle when he moved his whole body.

— I should not be that ambitious yet, it seems, — he settled more comfortably. — You are a very good doctor. The pain is getting manageable.

— It is the willow bark tincture. Lord Catesby also got us some turmeric. It helps with fever and pain. You should try to have some more now. And let me bring you something to eat before you do, — Brother Glynn picked through his bottles and jars which were lined up on the table in a neat row.

— Your remedies are very innovative, — Brother Glynn’s hands stopped for a moment, then continued their ministrations in silence. The man was carefully weighing his response. Finally, he looked up from his task.

— They are not new. My father was… schooled in the old ways, — he appeared calm, but out of the corner of his eye he watched Gerard’s brows rise.

— He was accused of witchcraft. The abbot of our monastery took him in.

— Harbored a sorcerer…?

Gerard’s face wavered between apprehension and curiosity.

— Our abbot said, my father conversed with angels, — the priest’s eyes widened taking in the unusual thought, but no objection passed his lips, so the monk continued, — I am not sure if my father thought so as well.

— Oh…

— …but he lived to serve the ones in need. We found our sanctuary in the monastery and he continued his work at the infirmary until his last days.

— Are you… — an obvious question hung unspoken in the air. There was even a sense of trepidation in the young man’s face.

— Father said, my path is with Jesus, — the friar’s face mellowed. — The spirits never called out to me.

A shiver run down Gerard’s spine at the unfamiliar phrasing, the twitch did not escape the monk’s attention.

It was not the first time Gerard met people who followed a path different from him, yet appeared to move in the same direction. In over a decade of travels for Vatican, he learned to rely on the kindness nondiscriminatory of its source, seeing in it the mercy of his Lord. It also taught him to focus on what people did, not in whose name they did it. It did not take him long to see through Father Garnet’s convenient rhetoric, and drove him to join Lord Catesby’s cause.

— Your father accepted the faith that threatened him… — Gerard’s voice was low and pained.

— The Lord did good by us, Father, — the priest smiled, then his face fell. — The king’s men raided the monastery a few years ago… — he trailed off. 

Gerard leaned into the headboard. His convalescence was almost a respite from the ever-present suffering. Yet, it was never too far away.

Catesby’s face appeared within his mind’s eye, handsome and lost. Gerard believed in the words he spoke today, believed in being in the right place. However, even if he believed his own words, he wished there was no need to second-guess every step they were taking. He wished he could take some of the weight of the man shoulders.

Brother Glynn studies the priest in silence, apprehensive of the young man’s reaction. The brows were tense, but there was no fear or disgust.

The friar slipped out of the room to get the medicine and food, leaving his patient to digest the facts. As he returned, he helped Gerard to sit up again, feeling a tired, reflexive twitch under his palms. The transparent eyes, however, held no fear or judgment.

— My head itches, and I cannot do anything about it, it is excruciating! — the air was clearing.

— I will prepare some hot water and a basin so you could wash up properly tomorrow.

— That would be wonderful, — the priest responded with a genuine smile, and another nervous tick. Sipping soup and medicine was a familiar struggle, every swallow a calculated exercise.

— Brother…

— Yes?

— Please, could you not, — he rolled his shoulders and the friar’s hand obediently fell away.

— I don’t know how to stop this, — Gerard fisted his left hand in the thin fabric of his drawers, with apologetic mortified face. — I try, but to no avail!

— It will get better with time, — the friar sighed.

— Lord Catesby … what happened that night? What did he do?

— I noticed, his touch hardly disturbs you.

— This is so… confusing… — and then a terrified, — He should not know!

Objection hung off the friar’s lips, but he swallowed it, wary of the reaction.

— What happened to me that night? — the priest’s eyes were black, reflecting the orange of the embers, shadows hollowed out the already thin face. He looked skeletal, otherworldly, like the strange paintings by the Greek artist he glimpsed in Spain on one of his pilgrimages (*).

— Fever overtook your mind, Father. You were hurting yourself, trying to run away from your visions. And I could not hold you down, — Brother Glynn distracted Gerard with the words as he tried to make him drink the tea. Half of it ended on the floor anyway. Without missing a beat, the friar added more into the cup. — Lord Catesby heard the commotion and came to help. He helped me hold you.

— Hold me down?

— No… You asked him and he prayed for you… He also held you, — the friar weighted his next words carefully. — He held you… like one would a child, — the monk made a movement rocking an imaginary baby in his arms, and forced himself to meet Gerard’s blue eyes.

Even in the low light he could see desperate embarrassment flood the young man’s face with color. Apparently, it was a good idea to omit any further details.

— His voice and prayers calmed you down, — the old cleric shrugged, spreading his arms in defeat. — I don’t know why, but he could get through to you. Maybe with his help, you can gradually overcome this…

— If only I could remember… — Gerard’s eyes fixed on the crucifix over the bed.

— I don’t think it is any good to recall. You were in so much pain.

— But it feels like it holds the key to this… this affliction!

— Maybe if he prayed with you, it could help, — the monk smiled sadly, helpless to alleviate his charge’s distress. — Our Lord heard him that night. He brought you back, without fever, without lasting injury… it was truly a miracle!

Gerard looked down at his useless hands.

— He called my name…

— What? Oh… yes, I think he did?

A shiver ran down Gerard’s spine. The sensational memory of a caress through agony of his wounds caught him off guard.

— If only I could remember, God…! — Gerard almost cursed, catching a swear at the tip of his tongue with a guilty grimace. — Oh… — he lowered his eyes, hands twitched in his lap as he instinctively tried to lift them to cover his face.

The friar’s hand on his back startled him into another sharp jolt that echoed with familiar pain throughout his tired, sore frame. He looked up into the old man’s kind face. It held concern and understanding.

— It will not be easy, but it will become better. I am not sure if Lord Catesby is the conduit to your recovery, but you should try everything, Father.

Gerard could not find it in himself to reply or make a decision at this point. Brother Glynn was neither pressuring nor even asking. He only gave another soft smile then got himself busy with helping the priest to retire for the night.

 

 

***

 

 

Guido followed Thomas with his eyes. He hadn’t seen the familiar face in sunlight since their return from Spain. How haggard the man looked now… There were deep shadows under light eyes. The skin had paled and lost the healthy sheen that the Spanish sun gave him. During their journey, Guido got used to reading his companion. While neither really were eager to share their past, by force of necessity in the present, Guido and Thomas were very well acquainted with each other’s habits and moods. This knowledge assured survival, it also seemed to dilute the loneliness that dogged their every step.

Thomas would take a short trek to the window, squint at the pale sunlight, then lower his gaze to the floor and his feet, as he walked back to the table. Repeat. Every other time, Wintour would take a sip of the wine or carry the pewter cup with him.

Catesby left before sunrise, with a plan to rent the cellars under the parliament building and confirm shipments of gunpowder. Routine. No difficulties were expected, so it was not that which bothered him. But it seemed personal, so Guido was reluctant to ask. Then again, Thomas made his mood so obvious, almost coaxing the inquiry out of him. The silence between them was becoming uncomfortable.

— What is going on? — Guido gave up, breaking the pace of the pantomime with a deadpan question. The mood swing was jarring. Just the other day, coming back from the estate, Wintour was exhilarated with the new recruitment and acquisition of horses. Another step of the plan accomplished smoothly. Yet a day later, he was wearing out the soles of his boots in front of Guido.

Thomas seemed not to hear him.

— Hey, Wintour, is there something I need to know?

— No, — the man finally looked at him. — No, it is personal.

— Really? You have personal?... — he lifted a brow at that. After Spain, Guido would have known, if there was “personal” in his companion’s life. Thomas was hell bent on changing the world. He would die trying. Guido tilted his head, emphasizing the silent point he was making.

— It is not mine, and it is personal, so it is both none of your business and it is none of my business to talk about it.

— Mystery solved, — Fawkes nodded with a smile.

— Mystery?

— Could not really imagine you with a “personal” …

— I see, — Thomas refused to take a bait, — at least Robin will not get soaked again…

— Indeed...

— …, — apparently Wintour was not keen on elaborating.

— You trust him, why are you worried?

— Yes! — finally Guido got his attention. — I trust him with my life, my country, and my God! —the non-answer was too hasty for Guido’s taste. So personal was troubling Thomas and it was Catesby’s personal.

— That is a heavy burden, — dark eyes met light grey in a long appraising gaze. Thomas looked away first, realizing that his friend was reading him. Somewhere along the line, Guido became what Robin should have been to him: an attentive friend.

 

Years ago, on a Spanish battlefield of a meaningless long war, God guided him out of the massacre and gave him strength to crawl out of the haphazardly heaped bodies of his compatriots and enemies. He woke up in a small monastery, was given shelter, help, and council, despite his uniform and language. There he discovered a new purpose. There was a bloody war in his own country against people who served the God that saved him. Guided to this revelation, he converted to Catholicism and came back to fight the righteous battle.

 

Sharing forbidden faith made him closer to his cousin. He observed how the plan formed in Catesby’s head during all their long discussions; first tentative then more and more daring and concrete. He believed in it because he saw the hand of God, leading him to the true and only cause.

He needed Guido to see that there was no doubt in him.

— I trust him, — he looked into the dark eyes of his friend. — What is troubling me, has nothing to do with the plan, — for now a small almost-not-a-lie had to suffice.

— I trust you, my friend, — Guido nodded. He saluted with a cup, dropping the subject. — How is the priest?

— He seems much better, — Thomas jumped at the leeway. — I saw him yesterday. Still weak, but recovering very fast.

— He has to be transported somewhere else soon, — Fawkes looked at his hands. Staying in London, the priest was a danger to them and himself.

— He cannot yet take care of himself… — he was repeating Catesby’s words. — Maybe in a fortnight?

— The sooner the better for all of us, including the padre. The latest dates for Parliament are in early November.

Thomas stopped his pacing and sat at the table. More wine was poured, but he pushed the cup away. A secret not his own was eating at him, and there was no way of sharing it with Fawkes.

Guido’s large hands fidgeted with his own cup, face set with intent and suspicion. This man’s trust did not come easy, and Wintour was violating it now.

He was afraid to formulate his concern even to himself. Some sins God forgave easier than men.

 

Anne once said after Catherine died Catesby was not himself. Thomas only knew him that way: driven, angry, and proud. This was the man whom he started to call his friend. They shared conviction. Robin possessed the focus to turn desperation into a complex and precise plan. Each detail of the plan he would attack ferociously with his mind, dismantling it into single steps. He found ways to make each step possible, then found and persuaded people he needed for this utter madness to work.

— Catesby is doing what no one else could do… — Thomas looked at Guido again. — He sacrificed everything for this.

Guido nodded, acknowledging his defeat. The mystery remained a mystery. He accepted Thomas’s conviction as an answer yet again. At least he trusted Wintour where he did not trust Catesby.

 

Thomas took another trip to the window and stayed there, gaze fixed on nothing.

Robin was never easy.

They were drinking to Thomas’s departure for Europe, saluting in hope for success. Winter night made bearable with a good helping of liquor, they were on their way back to Catesby’s residence. The plan was set in motion. There was hope and apprehension, alcohol heightening both. It was hitting Thomas in stages, perhaps ill-advised on the evening before departure. He was dizzy; steadying himself with a hand on a brick wall, he tried to formulate an answer to Robin’s barrage of ideas and questions.

— Do you think we can save… anyone? — Robin looked up into his face, his breath came out in white puffs, saturated with warm alcohol fumes. The man was pressing him into the uneven bricks, switching from passionate tirade about how no one had ever used gunpowder like this before, to sudden melancholic intent on Thomas.

In the dim frosty light of a December back alley the dark eyes were hungrily seeking in Thomas alleviation of his doubts. Too close. Catesby’s breath tickling his neck, Thomas used his height, looking above the shorter man’s head, to escape the questioning, feverish eyes. He felt the other’s body leaning into him, heavy and warm. A moment later, with a slow blink, Catesby woke up from his haze, and moved away. As his warmth dissipated, Thomas felt the cold potholed wall behind his back. The strangeness of the moment seeped away into its chill.

Thomas locked the door behind himself that night.

The knock never came.

Come morning, the soldier almost managed to persuade himself that alcohol played a trick on him, were it not for Robin’s apologetic, cautious distance. Thomas felt a treacherous twinge of relief as he boarded the ship, headed for Spain, leaving England and Catesby’s ambiguity behind.

 

Guido’s voice brought him back, — What is happening? — The house was mostly empty, but something heavy was being carried up and down the stairs.

— Brother Glynn wanted to help Father Gerard to wash up. Must be hot water?

Thomas shrugged at Guido’s raised brows.

 

 

 

Caustic soap irritated Gerard’s skin. He’d expected the familiar bite to give him a sense of normalcy. His body, however, thought differently. The necessity to hold himself still twisted the muscles under his pale skin to the point of spasming. Most distressing was the heat that made him lightheaded, made it harder to keep track of Brother Glynn’s ministrations. From time to time, he jerked, forgetting to expect another swipe of the washcloth. Gerard almost stopped breathing, holding head high; he refused to look down at the marks on his body, exposed in their entirety. Palpitating heart and light nausea chipped at his composure. He sat up straighter, squeezing his eyes shut, as Brother Glynn poured hot water over his head and back, washing off the suds into the deep basin. The friar was talking to Gerard amicably, attempting to distract him with words. By the end of it, the priest had no more air to spare for answers. He just nodded, breathing through clenched teeth.

An extra pair of eyes, watching his every move from behind his back did not help either. The servant’s uncouth curiosity pained him more than the occasional crack of wet scabs. The scrutinizing eyes and straining neck loomed in the polished side of the water pitcher, a distorted garish gargoyle. A suffocating fit of anger blindsided him. Weakened with the exercise, he was biting the inside of him cheek to hold himself from an outburst. Sharp words sat in his throat refusing to be swallowed down.

Wintour’s valet was eyeing the scars on his back. As the water softened and disturbed the wounds, some of the deeper ones cracked and bled. Pain, humiliation, and disorienting heat materialized Lord Wade’s face. The memory was so vivid that Gerard drowned in it, unable to shake off what his mind’s eye was forcing onto him.

Wade’s whip would strike him, then the man would walk around to hold his face up, sometimes with humiliating tenderness, sometimes with degrading roughness. He would look into Gerard’s eyes, ask him again and again the same questions, but get the same answer. Gerard prayed for his soul in Latin, while the invisible Cecil’s calm quiet voice translated it for Wade.

His tormentor passed the whip to another executioner while he remained in front of Gerard, eyes locked on the priest. He would nod gently to signal the next strike, watching how the thin body would flinch, inching away from the anticipated blow. Wade would cock his head expectantly, tracing with an empty gaze how his victim’s head was falling backwards, back arching momentarily and then sagging, whole body weight skinning the mangled wrists and twisting shoulders.

 

Refilling the pitcher, Brother Glynn caught Gerard’s frantic empty gaze a moment before a low sob escaped from his clenched throat. The friar got in his face, locking eyes.

— Father… Gerard! John!!!

— Please… — soul slipped back behind the priest’s eyes.

— Would you like to get out of the water?

— …make him…

— Who?

— …go away, — barely a whisper. Gerard’s resolve crumbled without warning. Suddenly tears were streaming down his face. He shook violently, curling into himself. Darkness at the edge of his vision filled with colorful dots. He tasted sour as bile burned its way up the esophagus.

Brother Glynn turned to the servant, shifting his doting focus from the patient and noticing the ruthless attention.

— Get out, — his voice was quiet yet definitive. Gerard would have felt mortified at such a patronizing tone, but at this point his pride, for once, was overshadowed by gratitude. He heard the man retreat. — Forgive me… I did not realize, — the cleric turned to him.

Even his tormentors could not humiliate him as much as this simpleton, who looked at the wounds as if they were a spectacle. An execution crowd of one, breathing heavily in perverse excitement, anticipating the trapdoor opening beneath the man’s feet, a dagger cutting into quivering abdomen, a steaming spill of intestines.

Gerard looked down at the suds in the water, gaze falling onto the burn marks. His face contorted, eyes glassy and wet. As the door closed, he had just enough spirit left to slowly bend over the rim of the basin and finally allowed himself to be violently ill until nothing was left inside, and his heart was empty. After purging, pain and a rush of weakness gave him respite from the angry hopeless noise in his head.

Pride… all this pain was from his pride. It was just a sin that he could not overcome. His cruel imagination – his endless penance for his own weakness.

Tears stopped, deep shuddering breaths making him lightheaded. He slipped deeper into the cooling water, raising his knees to his chest and hiding his face.

Brother Glynn silently kneeled next to him. Everything in him wanted to touch the crumbling man, hold the thin body that curled onto itself.

— Let’s get out of the water, Father, — fragile and awkward body with long legs and arms that hung limply along his narrow emaciated frame unfolded, standing up heavily. The friar supported him as much as the man allowed him. Stepping over the high rim of the basin was a struggle, but they managed. Wrapped in a linen sheet, Gerard curled on the bed. His healing left shoulder nearly allowed him to rest on that side. He pulled up his knees, bathwater soaking through the bedsheets.

At loss as to what to do, the old cleric resolved to cleaning. The remaining washing rags were used to wipe up the vomit, the bucket taken out behind the door. The large basin required assistance, but it could wait.

Unsure if it was wise to leave Gerard alone, he looked over the motionless bundle on the bed. The priest’s body was still, only his ribcage rose and fell, breaths growing steadier. Taking his chances, the old cleric walked down the stairs for the calming brew. In the dining room, Lord Wintour and the man he knew as Johnson met him with inquisitive eyes. He must have been quite a spectacle, leaving wet footprints on the floor. One side of his robes, where Gerard leaned into him, was soaked and dripping. He did not comment, only a brief exchange of niceties, and he proceeded to the kitchens.

 

 

For a moment, the friar stopped in front of the door. Helplessness flooded him and then ebbed gently, replaced with dedication. At times like this, he felt his father behind his shoulder. He ventured in.

At first glance, the priest looked asleep, yet the strain in the neck and shoulders betrayed his alertness. The friar’s approaching footsteps sent a shiver down the long bumpy line of his spine. The white linens were stained with several blooming red spots.

— Father?

— I should have died… — the wet sound of a breath drawn through tears accentuated the bitter words.

— Lord makes no mistakes, — the bed creaked as the old friar lowered himself onto it with a small grunt, careful not to touch him, — accept that your journey isn’t over,

— Better people died…

— If we start asking such questions, we would end up judging God… — the cleric put the cup onto the small table. The brew was spreading the sweetly stifling scent of chamomile and valerian. — Your martyrdom inspires, and your salvation gives hope to many of us. The hand of God guides you. Please, accept help that is offered to you. Do not squander the miracle of your deliverance.

A watery glance cast over the shoulder, acknowledged the friar. He continued:

— Lord Catesby risked his life for you, I am sure he is willing to help.

Gerard smiled sadly. But yes, at the end of the day, Catesby saved his life and valued it. The priest attempted to sit up. Gerard struggled to lift his left hand again, to reach for the offered cup. The sheet fell around his shoulders, revealing healing burns and protruding ribs. He succeeded in placing the hand on the bent elbow of the medic. Surprisingly, this contact did not disturb him. He bunched the rough fabric of the friar’s robes in his fingers, gratified by the small success.

— Thank you, — Gerard’s hand fell away.

— You will heal, another week, and you will be able to tend to yourself.

Fatigue dulled even Gerard’s flight response, and the warm liquid slid down his throat with less resistance than usual. He stopped a few times to catch his breath and chase the nausea away.

— Anger is good, — the friar said, — anger is better than fear.

— I’m so weak!

— Your heart will need more time than your body, maybe years. But there is always hope.

— Brother, I…

— I will ask Lord Catesby to visit you for a prayer when he is back.

— No!

The cleric sized him up with unrelenting eyes.

— God placed him in your path for a reason, — he nodded with single-minded conviction.

And Gerard wanted to believe… yet…

— Please, rest now, and I think in the evening we can try to walk around the house. Your legs need exercise, and a distraction won’t hurt.

— Yes, — that sounded almost enthusiastic. By now Brother Glynn learned how to manipulate his stubborn charge. He had seen many proud young men. This one was no exception to the rule; headstrong and reluctant to accept help, missing the bigger picture.

— The more obstinate you are, the more time you will require to heal, — the friar pushed his agenda a step further.

Gerard looked at him, color rising in his face. Carefully, yet ruthlessly, his pride was being trampled on. A retort barely bitten down, he felt some of this energy warming his limbs again.

— …, — it took effort to swallow his indignation.

The friar lifted his bushy grey brows unapologetically.

— I see, you agree with me, Father, — almost through the door, his voice mellowed, — You don’t have to be alone.

Gerard nodded reluctantly, more to appease than to agree. The last words resonated in the hollow of his tired heart. Eyes drifting out of focus, he allowed himself to acknowledge how clean his skin felt with a deep sigh.

 

 

***

 

 

Catesby nursed a mug of stale beer, looking across the tavern’s dimly lit hall.

Luck followed him these past several days. He planned for a failure, yet so far, everything had worked out almost too well, one step at the time, slowly, yet without fail. The cellars under the parliament were available for rent. He hardly had to push, only use the name of Thomas Percy. The gunpowder was on its way, ordered on a name that would not draw attention. The storage rooms were ready, and even the lacking horses were arranged, through Thomas’s diligence. Lord Percy would assure Lord Northumberland’s assistance, guaranteeing leniency towards Catholics after the success of the revolt. Catesby refused to think in “if’s” anymore, only “when”. “When” gave him strength to face another morning.

 

Other errands took Catesby out of London and stranded him in this cheap inn for the night. His horse needed rest and so did he.

His idle glance stopped at the corner, where whores stood in a small, conspicuous group. Colorful clothes and low décolletage, not to mention they were the only women in the room. Among them was a handsome boy, apparently not a client. Tall and lanky, he had a head of short light hair that looked red in the dim light of the oil-lanterns.

With a practiced eye, Robin noticed him at once, even before the youth joined the gaggle of women. A force of habit, despite all these years of abstinence. The boy-whore walked lightly, swiping the clients in the hall with hungry, clever eyes. Here on the crossroads, it was easy for men who would consider his company to take their chances. No one was here to judge them. Fatigue and melancholy exhausted Catesby’s usual defenses. He caught himself following the boy with eager eyes.

His fanciful imagination undressed the narrow frame, placed him silhouetted in moonlight, the lanky body would straddle him, the long neck… His head would roll to the side, offering the straining tendons, his pulse on Robin’s lips. Only there would be no pain, no desperation…

Just a daydream – a moment of respite, he told himself. The thin body rocking slowly over his, transparent blue eyes and reddish hair bleached by moonlight. The familiar face, striking, but not beautiful – narrow, angular, with sharp shadows on hollow cheeks, lips parted in abandon, calling Robin’s name.

— John, — the sound of his own whisper jolted Catesby out of his reveries, urging the choking realization. The lull of his fatigue, pried open the doors he closed behind himself when he married.

Were the powers of darkness leading him astray?

He looked at the rent-boy again and closed his eyes in a horrified, desperate prayer. In his youth, he had explored his peculiar desires. With time, he learned to keep them in check. Since he met Catherine such temptations did not bother him anymore. He was cured… And with her death, no one could fill the void inside him. The grief became a safe harbor. The emptiness drove him for over a decade; he focused on it and turned it into the fuel for the conspiracy.

Now Gerard edged his way into the smarting hole in his heart. Gerard, who was so close to God, so… incorruptible, so impossible! The enormity and wrongness of the situation was reaching him in excruciating waves. Surprise washed away with horror, ebbing into crushing shame.

 

Meanwhile, the boy noticed his interest and started heading his way. He came to Catesby’s table, and bent down. There was some strange perfume on him. Sharp, as if masking another smell.

— My Lord? — unexpectedly warm and intelligent brown eyes were smiling at Robin merry with alcohol.

Lost in his own misery, Catesby bolted up with a clatter, attracting bemused stares. Catching his eye, the boy took a hurried step back. Unfinished dinner forgotten on the table, Catesby’s feet carried him out of the stifling crowded hall. The prostitute did not attempt to follow. At least he could take the hint.

Breathing in earthy smell of the autumn evening, Catesby prayed fervently, asking for forgiveness, asking for a sign. People walking past him to the privy, glanced at him with curiosity or contempt. He failed to notice. Breath clouding in the autumn chill, he looked into the clear night sky, strewn with icy stars, and a low new moon. It felt like someone was listening to him, and he begged and begged for clarity, for absolution.

Rubbing frigid hands, he stepped back into the tavern. Hunger forgotten, Catesby headed straight to his room. Sleep claimed him instantly, despite the turmoil. He dreamt of Gerard – a vivid dream, he could hardly recollect in the morning. But his heart became lighter filled with a lingering sense of the priest’s presence. God was testing him, and his feelings would not taint the bond they have. He would transform desire into Christian love, into gratitude and courage. Perhaps, hope would be a better fuel than despair and loss.

Finding solace in a crude crucifix over his bed; he put his hand over his chest and dared to hope. The premonition of his death no longer scared him. He would lay his life, and claim forgiveness for his sacrifice. His legacy would live on. In Gerard, in the new England, in the return of God to this country.

 

Nights were colder and days were getting windier. Weather was changing, tearing the leaves off the branches, spurring the steps of the servants, shuttling across the yard. Early morning clouded Catesby’s breath, steam rose from the horse’s sides. The beast was nickering and talking to Robin, muzzling his hand, chewing on his hair and shoulder. Brisk air filled him with energy, he breathed in chilly lung-fulls. Outside of London it was not putrid with pervasive miasma of the lived-in city and the rotting Thames.

The rent-boy from last night sat on the threshold, yawning and stretching. He looked harassed – hair mussed, clothes wrinkled. By the looks of it, he did find someone to keep his bed warm and pockets lined, so the evening wasn’t wasted. He nodded at Catesby in recognition, yet without any interest. In the light of the budding morning he looked nothing like Gerard. Catesby imagined waking up to this face next to him. Objectively, he was more handsome with sharp cheekbones, narrow face that was balanced well, divided by a straight nose, crowned with defined brows, and his brown eyes looked warm, mellowing the chill of the morning.

He nodded back at the boy as he got onto the horse.

Suddenly the boy spoke. His voice had a low, soft timbre that carried to Catesby.

— He is a lucky man… — the prostitute smiled with a shared vice behind his eyes.

Catesby showed no reaction, as he rode out of the gate, heading towards London. He sat just a little bit too straight in the saddle, knees squeezing the horse’s sides, until his hip joints spasmed, and he had to shift his weight, losing the rhythm. But by that time, there was no one to see him.

He forced himself not to hurry back.

 

 

***

 

 

Brother Glynn woke up in his charge’s room again. After the morning commotion and overall defeatist attitude that Gerard adopted lately, the friar felt it was a good idea to monitor the man for nightmares. Surprisingly, the priest slept relatively well. He woke up several times, and could not fall asleep for over an hour, but he did not have nightmares. This piqued Brother Glynn’s medical interest. It also gave him hope that, maybe, after all, the priest’s heart was healing.

Gerard spent part of the evening trying to lift his hand. He could lift it at the elbow easily now, although the shoulder still did not support its weight. He could grasp, and hold a cup with the elbow settled on the table.

They took a slow walk along the corridor. The friar did his best to tire the man out, hoping for a calmer night.

Gerard was no longer in danger of remaining disabled. Brother Glynn suspected that returning his mobility would help him overcome his fear of touch by restoring his control over it. Control meant a lot to the young man. He struggled to maintain what, to him, seemed like dignity, and to Bother Glynn, like an absence of common sense. Youth… the cleric thought, youth is prideful. The man had a singlemindedness in him that defined him and fueled his courage.

 

Autumn day was beginning with a chilly red sunrise. Yet another night the improvised cot served Brother Glynn as bed. His back was complaining. The friar fidgeted, listening to the slow breath of his patient. A thought he worked hard to ignore most days, wormed its way into the forefront of his mind. A chilling thought that he might end up burying all these young men who came and went through Catesby’s house. Staking their lives against Lord Cecil, they were ready for martyrdom. Gerard almost lost his life already. The friar was closing in on seventy, living on borrowed time. He never had to sacrifice a future for anyone or anything; a real tangible future, like one has at thirty.

He prayed for the young priest and Lord Catesby and Wintour. He prayed, repeating familiar words again and again, trying to drown out the impending sense of despair.   

 

 

 

That afternoon, with his horse tied in the stable, Catesby knocked on the door of his London lodgings and answered the valet’s greetings with a wide yawn. Sending the man to tend to the tired animal, he strode into the kitchens. Gerard’s bone soup sat on the hot coals, thickened with some vegetables. So the priest was feeling better. Hearing him rummaging, the kitchen maid hurried to gather a meal for him. 

Thomas loomed in the doorway until his cousin nodded him in. Sending a piece of bread into his mouth, the man looked Catesby over. Robin yawned again and then offered his report, which was received with agreeable grunts. It was past noon and the heavy autumn sun was starting to lean towards the horizon, but despite the early morning, Catesby’s fatigue was chased out with the excitement of the discussion.

With the second pot of tea, the conversation started to ebb. Robin resolutely refrained from asking about Gerard. Thomas filled him in on Guido’s recent news, finally mentioning in passing, that there was no lasting damage and that the priest did not faint again. His cousin’s pointed squint did not escape Catesby’s notice. He discreetly led the conversation away, until the two of them found themselves sharing an amicable silence. The coals, barely glowing through the thick of white ash in the hearth, crackled quietly.

 

The peace was interrupted with uneven footsteps on the stairs, followed by Brother Glynn’s alarmed voice and Gerard’s quiet decisive retort. The shuffling resumed, now distinctly descending the creaking steps. With a few ohhs and a couple short quiet prayers uttered in a tone more suitable for an exasperated hearty swear, Brother Glynn appeared in the doorframe with Gerard loosely holding at the friar’s elbow.

The friar acknowledged Catesby with a surprised bow. 

— My Lord, you are back already? — he spoke with a smile. For some reason Gerard pulled his hand away, instead leaning onto the doorframe, face complicated. — Are we interrupting you, gentlemen? – the medic continued.

— Please, join, — Thomas moved, to make space while the monk helped Gerard to settle on the side of a bench. — Father, you look stronger.

— Indeed, he is, — the friar nodded in agreement.

Catesby looked the priest over. Gerard sat quietly with a distant look, watching the exchange between the medic and the lords. He looked tired, and the reddish stubble was turning into a beard. It strangely suited his narrow face, making the priest look roguish and dashing. However, there were a few crumbs stuck close to the corner of the resolute mouth.

Brother Glynn broke the awkward silence with a small talk, asking about the lord’s journey. If he was tired, if the inn had clean bedding. The atmosphere was softening, Thomas piped in with a joke or two. The friar bustled around the kitchen, conjuring some heady tea.

Catesby turned to Gerard, supporting the man’s loose grip and holding the cup to his mouth. He felt Thomas’s gaze, but as he turned towards the man, his cousin appeared nonchalantly chatting up the monk.

When Gerard started to lean a bit too heavily on the table, the men fussed that he had to go up soon, or someone would need to carry him. To that the priest bristled, and stood up by himself, deftly stepping around the bench, but wavered, having to support himself on the doorframe. Brother Glynn sighed indignantly. Thomas made a step forward to help, but Robin beat him to it, offering his shoulder.

With a quick glance at the friar, Gerard turned his attention to Catesby, thanking him quietly with a nod. The two men started up the stairs, Brother Glynn closing the procession. Thomas followed them with a lingering gaze. Gerard still limped, but was stronger on his feet and managed to maintain his balance even on the stairs. Catesby mostly just steadied him with a hand on the small of his back.

At the end of the stairs, they stopped to catch a breath. With a grateful nod, Gerard extricated himself from Catesby and proceeded to his door.

The priest stopped and waited for the door to be opened. Catesby obliged, but hesitated, unsure if he was invited. The small friar, motioned him inside, under a surprised lingering look from Gerard, who however, chose not to object.

Catesby settled on the chair, looking at the sullen priest who sat somewhat awkwardly on the unmade bed. The monk busied himself with the fire, and then exited to tend to other errands.

— Thank you, — Catesby looked up at the speaking man.

— What for?

— You are very kind to spare your time on helping me, — the priest twitched his shoulders in an attempt to shrug.

— You are the one who helped me.

Gerard just looked at him. Dismissing an attempt at keeping tabs with a raised brow, the priest changed the subject.

— Did you get the gunpowder?

— Yes, as a matter of fact, everything went smoother than expected, — Catesby’s smile softened and he finally met the blue gaze. — It does feel like the higher power is on our side, — he settled on the chair to only jump up a moment later.

— Is it prudent for me to know?

— It would be an honor to share with you, — hands fluttering through the air, accentuating the words, excitement and anxiety spurring his restless legs, Catesby retold most of what he already told Thomas. The priest listened, nodded. He questioned his decisions and offered commentary. Catesby found himself on the defensive, Gerard had doubts about involving so many people whom he only knew through other members. His own smile caught the priest off guard. The discussion was heating up, he felt the familiar thrill much like during his missions from Vatican. The conversation did not just distract him, with every detail, his respect for Catesby’s ability to formulate the plan and enforce it grew. Strange, how he was only now truly rediscovering this man, whom he called his friend for a while now.

— I heard, Lord Percy met the king… — Catesby nodded at him, leaning lightly on a mantelpiece, catching the warmth of the fading embers on his back. Gerard gave him time to settle then continued, — I wonder what kind of a man would unleash such terror on his own subjects?

— Something happened between them, — Robin shrugged. — From Lord Percy’s words, the king is beyond reason, and frequents the torture chambers.

— He was not there during my… interrogation… Cecil was, — the priest fidgeted, face scrunching into a complicated unhappy frown. — The more I think of it… we should be weary of success.

— We should. Even if we do God’s work.

— Even if, my friend, — Gerard looked up at him with a sad smile, — I am afraid, with them is the Devil.

Catesby rubbed at the smear of ash on the floor with the toe of his boot, eyes growing distant. Gerard failed to catch his gaze.

— I wish, I could help you more. I am useless, like that, — the damaged hand was cradled in his lap. — Does Father Garnet know the details?

— Not all of them… only that the plan exists. It was a confession, he would not divulge...

— He is not going to help you either. It is inconvenient for him to believe in your cause.

— You are very tough on him, — Catesby smiled and came closer on impulse, but stopped half way to the bed.

— Be careful, — the priest let out a sigh. — I don’t want to speak ill of the man. He believes in what he preaches. God’s love… — Gerard’s voice faltered. — But he also believes, you go against his teaching, as do I.

— I almost believed him, that all of it is just my pride… if it wasn’t for you.

— He is too comfortable with the status quo. Too safe… — Gerard looked at the angry bracelets of scabs and yellowed bruises snaking around his wrists. Catesby squatted in front of him, covering the damage with his wide palm.

— I was trying to remember what happened after you rescued me, but even the way out of the Tower mostly escapes my memory, — Gerard looked at Catesby – the man refused to meet his gaze, still looking down at their hands. — Brother Glynn said, I asked you to pray for me, and Our Lord answered – my fever went down

— You would do best forgetting that… — Catesby stood up to return to his chair. — Lord knows, there are things I wish to forget… sometimes, it is a blessing.

— I seem… to… — Gerard struggled. — My body cannot bear anyone’s touch, — he finally managed, biting at the last word decisively.

— But...? – Catesby made a motion with his hand to Gerard’s lap.

— Yes… —a long heavy pause, the priest failing to pick the right words to phrase the core of the delicate matter.

— I see, — Catesby nodded, with a strange twinge in his chest of a very disturbing kind of gratification. He pushed it down, feeling dirty. — Is this why Brother Glynn didn’t shave you?

— He would end up cutting my throat, — Gerard coughed out a brisk laugh, reverting to his usual gallows’ humor.

Catesby felt his hands grow cold and heartbeat fasten.

— I can help.

— It is not essential, — even and distant.

— You have a piece of turnip in your moustache, — a jibe left his lips before he thought better of it.

— Oh, — a familiar shade of pink rose above the copper stubble. A hand jerked, as Gerard attempted to lift it, but only managed half way.

— Let me get a razor, — Catesby stood up.

— Now?

— As good time as ever, — comical surprise on the priest’s face made him smile despite his own apprehension.

There was no objection, but the priest’s face was set in a familiar frown, locking inside whatever thoughts he chose not to voice. Catesby fled.

Gerard heard his voice in the corridor, calling out to the valet to bring in hot water and soap to the priest’s room. He felt a shiver run down his spine, when a familiar voice responded. In a few minutes the servant from yesterday stepped in with the washing utensils. This time, Gerard’s direct gaze made the man lower his eyes and hasten to retreat with an awkward bow. He sat, waiting for Catesby to return, torn between gratitude and apprehension. Even now, help was being given to him by a kind and considerate friend without him having to ask. Maybe next time? Next time he could voice it…

He let the Lord guide him; what was happening was happening.

 

 

Catesby was so close, close enough to smell the horses and moldy autumn leaves. Gerard instinctively moved away from the cold smear of astringent foam. The first touch of the blade to his throat was… strange. It took his full focus on Catesby’s quiet voice and earthy scent not to move away. At least he did not twitch and cut his throat on the thin strip of deadly metal. The razor scraped along his neck, up to his chin in short swipes. Catesby held his head steady with another hand, eyes squinting, close enough for Gerard to feel his breath.

A thought occurred to the cleric, he could just push forward onto the blade and end this charade. Yet something within him rose in protest. Was he not ready to die…?

Calloused fingers maneuvered his head, careful not to nick the skin. Gerard noticed a light blush on the man’s cheeks, skin almost orange with the setting sun. When Catesby turned away, his eyes reflected it, brown turning a translucent, cattish yellow.

With a growing sense of safety, Gerard’s shoulders slackened. He allowed his eyes to fall shut, letting out a long breath. Guided by the steady warm hand and a gentle push and scrape of the razor, his head fell back. The motion stopped. He heard Catesby stepping towards the washbasin, sloshing the blade briefly. Chasing the touch, the priest leaned forward with a hidden smile on the tight lips. If only, he could keep this, this ease…

The sharp edge returned, colder – a small shiver ran up the priest’s spine. Catesby felt it on his fingertips. He steadied himself, biting the inside of his cheek. Breathed through the stammering heart, shifting on his legs. Gerard’s lips twitched as another smile was kept from him. The locked jaw was slackening. Robin watched the tight lips soften and then part, letting out a small peaceful sigh. Afternoon light filtered through the priest’s hair and eyelashes. Long shadows on the walls merged their two figures into an alien shape. Fireplace crackled softly, the room smelled of herbs and firewood. Shame ran in a piercing rush of chill down Catesby’s spine, as he watched the slow glide of the blade up the long, strained throat. Reddish stubble came off mixed with suds. He wanted to chase the blade’s path with a fingertip, to feel how smooth the skin became, to feel a shiver in response, a twitch of adam’s apple. Catesby licked his lips. As long as he didn’t act on it, as long as Gerard didn’t notice.

 

When they were done, Catesby scooped the water, and the priest put his face into his cupped hands, allowing the fingers to brush under his chin, behind his ears, slide across the revealed neck. The man had his eyes closed and did not notice how Catesby’s hands trembled, chasing the illusion of a caress.

— Thank you, — the priest shook his head, and lifted his face to be dabbed with the towel.

Catesby nodded, unsure of his voice.

— Brother Glynn suggested that by focusing on the touch that does not disturb me, I could gradually overcome the sickness of my spirit, — the matter of fact voice brought Catesby back out of his reverie.

— I see…

— I am very grateful for your help, — another eviscerating stab of shame – the clear eyes of the man in front of him held only trust.

There was still a patch of white foam in the corner of the priest’s mouth. Unconsciously Catesby reached for it. Gerard moved away, slanting his eyes at the hand. Robin noticed a sudden minute change in the man’s face; the instinct pushing him away, and then the trust was back, with a shade of confusion.

— Some soap, — Catesby pointed a finger, and the man allowed the contact, briefly closing his eyes, when the fingertip caught the smidgen of suds. Robin wiped it on his breeches. — Done, — the voice came out hoarse.

— Thank you, — Gerard leaned away and settled into the mattress.

— How is your back? – putting the washing basin on the floor, he took the chair.

— Much better, — a polite and impersonal reply, reestablishing a soft, yet unyielding, distance. — The shoulder is much better. There is some weakness but not much pain.

Catesby nodded, restoring a veneer of calm.

— Perhaps it is prudent for you to be moved to a safer location in a fortnight? If we are attacked here, you will be in danger.

Gerard’s face twitched with a bitter smile.

— We all had been for a while now… but I understand, I would slow you down, above all.

— Your work will be irreplaceable, after the plan goes into action. You have to live through this…

— I hope, we all do, my lord, — Gerard felt reality set in, never far behind a moment of peace.

— And even if we don’t it would have been worth it…

Gerard silently looked up at Catesby’s empty eyes, trained on the bleak wall.

— …if it works, — the man finished heavily.

— If it is our Lord’s plan, — Gerard forwent the encouragements. They were no longer necessary between the two of them. It was liberating.

— A free man’s dare…

— Indeed, — the priest’s voice grew warmer.

— I wish to help you, before we part, — Catesby stretched a hand towards him, and Gerard managed to take it in a loose grip. It was easier now, accepting the help, even if he had to swallow the automatic rejections. Catesby brushed his knuckles with the thumb. The touch felt reassuring, and the priest held onto it for a moment longer, then let go.

— You already have done so much, Lord Catesby, — he nodded at the man, unsure what else to say.

Their eyes met again, and again Catesby broke the contact with a rapid blink and a turn of his head.

— Could you help me with a book? — the priest struggled to cut through the awkwardness stretching between them.

Robin busied himself with setting up a table next to the bed, opening the bookmarked tome, then helping Gerard to settle, supported by the cushions. He finally left with one last glance at the thin figure hunched over the book with a candle. Birdlike, too thin in the fading warm light of the early autumn dusk.

He closed the door behind himself softly. In an empty corridor, he put his forehead to the rough wood, and finally let out a breath he was holding. The arousal washed over him in one crushing relentless wave. Whole body vibrated with the warmth and pulse of Gerard’s neck under his hands, the proximity, the intimacy of the act. He stifled a moan, pushing the air out of his lungs slowly, pulling it in through his clenched teeth, once, twice… until the frenzy started to abate, hands flat to the wall. Afraid to return to his room, to linger on it, Catesby pushed his fatigue aside and headed for the stairs.

A lucky man — the rent-boy’s words chased him.

 

(*) El Greco, it is a far stretch, but it fits so well…