Spending the night at Elizaveta and Roderich's house had been an amazing idea. Alfred and Kiku had slept on the floor in the main room, right in front of the fireplace, with an old blanket covering each of them. It wasn't the most comfortable of sleeping arrangements, but the warmth and relative safety of being indoors was something they didn't often get to experience. The life of an outlaw certainly wasn't luxurious.
They had refused breakfast the next morning, despite Elizaveta's protests, and then Roderich's when he returned from his overnight stay at the scrivener's shop. After telling a few more rollicking adventure tales to the children, and pressing a bag of coins into Elizaveta and Roderich's hands, Alfred and Kiku said their goodbyes.
The streets of Nottingham were bathed in morning sunlight. Unfortunately, the two of them couldn't take in the warmth, forced as they were to stick to the shadows. Ivan had already passed by them once, in what was possibly the closest miss they'd had yet. They were just lucky that the poor blacksmith down the street had chosen that moment to hobble out on his broken leg and catch the sheriff's eye. Alfred winced at the sound of Ivan throwing open the smithy's door, but there was nothing he could do. Not yet, anyway. He muttered quick, unheard thanks to the blacksmith before hurrying after Kiku.
That was how they spent most of the rest of the day- dashing from house to house, hiding behind any cover they could find. It would have been far easier just to retreat back into the Forest, but they had a job to do, one Alfred had taken on the moment he turned his back on his bloodline, and one Kiku had agreed to shoulder when they met some months later.
"Excuse me, miss," Alfred murmured, tapping the young woman in question on the shoulder. She turned to look at him and her eyes widened. Before she could speak, Alfred pressed a finger to his lips, and Kiku slipped a few coins into her hands. Her lips immediately twitched up into a watery smile. With a bow, both men vanished back into the shadows.
They never stayed to hear the people's thanks. As far as they were concerned, they didn't deserve them.
By the time the evening began to approach, Nottingham was a town slightly happier than it had been the night before. Alfred reclined back against the wall of the old church at the border of town, running a hand through his hair. Kiku had gone inside to meet with the priest, an old friend of theirs, and so Alfred was left alone to stare over at Nottingham Castle. The two towers rose high above the surrounding castle wall, their flags moving gently in the evening breeze. Faint torchlight flickered from the windows.
Alfred sighed. It was all kind of nostalgic, really, and he wasn't sure whether he liked it or not. Nottingham Castle looked a lot like the castle where he had grown up- the castle that he had abandoned. Well, not completely abandoned. He'd left, certainly, but he hadn't thrown his people to the wolves. Matthew had been there to take his place as duke. Alfred had always known that Matt was more suited for the position than himself, but as the eldest by about ten minutes, it had fallen to him. He wondered vaguely how Matthew was doing.
The familiar voice startled him out of his reverie. Alfred turned to grin at the two men approaching him. "Hi, Gilbert."
"Friar Gilbert has been telling me about the state of his church," Kiku murmured.
Alfred nodded. "So it's been as bad here as the rest of the town?"
"As bad?" Gilbert snorted, crossing his arms over his chest. "I'd say it's far worse. Have you looked at my church? The roof's caving in over the door, the pews up front have cracks down the center, the hinges on the door itself are getting rusty, and that's only the beginning of the list. No one can spare any money. I don't have another job to pay for the repairs, and in these times, no one can hire me." He shrugged. "I've been making do with what I can do myself, but… Well, you can see the results."
"Yeah." Alfred let his gaze sweep across the rundown old church, taking in all the damage and signs of age. "It doesn't look all that bad, actually." That wasn't entirely a lie- though the building was obviously suffering some damage, the repair work was sturdy and seemed to have been done by someone who knew what they were doing.
Gilbert rolled his eyes. "Out here, maybe. Inside it looks like a herd of wild horses stampeded through."
Kiku nodded. "It's true."
"Ouch." If Kiku was agreeing, it had to be awful. Alfred stepped a little closer to the building, reaching out to rap his gloved knuckles against some of the repair work. It didn't budge. "Who helped you with this? I mean, you're a good friar and all, but I never figured you to be a carpenter."
"You'd be surprised," Gilbert shot back good-naturedly. "These priestly hands of mine can swing a pretty mean hammer!" He punched Alfred in the shoulder to demonstrate, playfully yet without holding back, and he certainly wasn't lying about his strength. "But you're right. I did not do it all myself. You'll be shocked when I tell you who helped, though!"
There was a moment of silence, in which all three of them stood there waiting, before Alfred prompted, "Well?"
Gilbert rolled his eyes. "You were supposed to guess. Oh well. Anyway, it was the duke! He showed up here one morning, took one look at this place, and insisted on helping me fix it up." He frowned slightly. "He only managed to help with part of the exterior, though, before that stupid sheriff came up to talk to him."
"The duke?" asked Alfred. He'd heard of the man, of course, and obviously the castle was his, but he'd never seen the duke's face or caught his name.
"Yes, Lord Kirkland," Kiku replied. "What I have gathered from others is that he is well-loved by his people, but that once Francis came here, he started to venture outside less and less."
"Wait, Kirkland?" Turning to stare back up at the castle, Alfred found himself glancing across all the lit windows. Was the duke in one of those rooms? "I remember the old Duke Kirkland. Which one of his sons took over?"
"Arthur," said Kiku. "The eldest rebelled against the family and left, the twins died in the Crusade, and the quiet one went insane and vanished. Arthur was next in line, and then the youngest, whose name I cannot remember."
Alfred chuckled. "The youngest is Peter. He was really little the last time I saw him, probably not even three years old. But he was a nuisance even then." His grin faded slightly as his gaze continued its sweep across the castle. "Arthur Kirkland, huh? It's been a long time since we played together. I wonder if he still remembers me." He ran a hand through his hair, mussing it slightly, and shot his companions a lopsided smile. "Probably not, right? I mean, we didn't know each other that well."
Kiku frowned. "Alfred…"
But the outlaw just shook his head. "Anyway, that doesn't matter. What does matter is that Arth- the duke hasn't been showing his face since Francis got here. Either that means he supports Francis, or he's being trapped in there."
Gilbert raised his eyebrows. "You have a plan?"
"An idea." Alfred's eyes settled on a window far up in the nearest tower. "It's the duke's castle, so I bet that means he has the best, most protected room, right? Probably up in those towers. If I can climb up there and sneak in, I can find out if he's on Francis' side or not. Who knows, maybe we actually have an ally in there."
"Are you insane?" Gilbert grabbed the taller man's shoulders and shook him slightly. "Look at the wall. There are soldiers up there- soldiers loyal to Francis. With swords and bows and pikes."
"Don't tell me Friar Gilbert is afraid of a few soldiers," Alfred said with a grin.
"Afraid?" Gilbert scoffed. "I could take on all of them blindfolded. It's you two that would be holding me back. How could I beat them all while making sure you don't get hurt?"
Kiku stifled a giggle behind his hand, while Alfred laughed outright. "Sure, Gilbert, sure. But I've got a better idea." He gestured for the two of them to come closer.
An hour later, the setting sun found Alfred climbing up the side of Nottingham Castle with the aid of some very well placed trellises and a thick patch of sturdy ivy. Kiku and Gilbert were waiting for him back at the church, with specific instructions of what to do if he did not return by morning. The castle wall had been overcome far more easily than he'd prepared for- the guards were obviously not expecting anyone to try to invade, and Alfred had been able to sneak right under their noses. Only one of them had noticed him at all, a skinny brunet who looked more like a boy than a man, and all he'd done was wave slightly. Apparently some of the soldiers weren't as loyal to Francis as Gilbert had thought.
But now Alfred was drawing closer and closer to the top of the tower, and he hadn't yet found a bedroom befitting the Duke of Nottinghamshire. He hated to admit that he might have chosen the wrong tower, and that all this work had been for nothing, yet it seemed to be the truth.
Alfred sighed as he came upon another window, and he glanced inside almost uninterestedly. At first, there was nothing that caught his attention. Just another room, with a fireplace, a bed, various decorations on the walls, and a blonde man seated in a chair, bent over embroidery. Then Alfred's mind kicked in, and he leaned over for a closer look.
It didn't look exactly like what Alfred remembered a duke's room to be. The bed was covered in normal sheets and blankets, with no surplus pillows. Though there were a few items hanging along the walls, they were not too gaudy. Even the man in the chair was dressed in relatively plain clothing.
The man in the chair… Alfred leaned in closer. He couldn't see much of the man's face, but the hair color, and those large eyebrows- it had to be Arthur. It seemed he still enjoyed the more feminine hobby of embroidery, just as he had in their youth. Alfred tried and failed to suppress the fond smile spreading across his lips.
He had an important job to do, though, and he couldn't let old memories distract him. He didn't even know if Arthur was on his side. Pushing all his fond thoughts aside, Alfred carefully swung himself over the window ledge. His boots were silent as they hit the floor. Arthur didn't look up from his needlework. Well, now Alfred had found the duke's chambers, and the duke himself. All he had to do now was work up the courage to reveal himself. Somehow, all of his natural charisma seemed to be failing him right then.
At that moment, Arthur finally looked up from his embroidery, stretching out his arms and glancing out the window. Alfred froze, but Arthur didn't seem to notice him, instead getting to his feet and turning towards the door. The duke muttered something to himself about leaving, Alfred shifted forward very slightly to try and hear it, and Arthur's whole body tensed.
Alfred stopped breathing for a moment, staring at Arthur's back. He'd been discovered. But Arthur wasn't moving. Alfred's heart raced in his chest- what was the duke going to do?
Arthur suddenly lunged towards the fireplace, shoving his chair back so that it collided painfully with Alfred's knees. The outlaw let out a curse before following, no longer trying to be quiet. Luckily, he was taller than Arthur now, with a longer stride, and he caught up with Arthur before the duke could grab the sword hanging over the hearth. He seized the shorter man with both hands, pinning his arms to his sides and covering his mouth.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he muttered into Arthur's ear. "You just need to be quiet."
For about three seconds, he actually believed Arthur was going to listen to him. Then he felt the duke's lips parting, and-
"Oh hell!" Alfred yanked his hands back, shaking out the bitten one. There were definite teeth marks in his palm. "What was that for?"
"What was that for?" Arthur asked wildly, spinning to face the outlaw with fists raised. "You cannot-" His words died abruptly, eyes widening as they took in the man before them, and his fists fell slightly. "Alfred?"
Alfred knew he must have been imagining the sudden breathiness of the duke's voice, but some part of him really hoped he wasn't, because this was the first real look he had gotten at Arthur, and… Wow. He had really grown up well. Those brilliant eyes were as green as ever, and his eyebrows were still thick, and his hair was still naturally kind of messy, and he still looked slender. Yet though those things had made young Arthur look slightly ridiculous in Alfred's eyes, now they somehow made him look… wonderful? Amazing? Beautiful? Alfred wasn't sure what the right word was, but no matter what it might be, he liked it. He liked it a lot.
"Um," he said intelligently. He coughed and tried again. "Hi."
"Hi," Arthur replied quietly. It might have just been the rosy light of the sunset, but Alfred could have sworn the duke was blushing. "I, um…" Arthur closed his eyes and visibly shook himself. "Alfred Jones," he began again, far more seriously. "What is an outlaw like you doing sneaking into a lord's chambers?"
Good. Alfred was far more comfortable dealing with grumpy Arthur than with strangely attractive Arthur. He cast the duke a charming grin and spread his arms. "I can't just drop in for a visit?"
"Oh please, Alfr- I mean, Jones. You climbed all the way up this tower to my window. You obviously snuck past the guards." Arthur crossed his arms over his chest. "No one does that simply to drop in for a visit, particularly not with someone they have not seen in years."
Alfred sighed. "Call me Alfred. Only Francis and his lackeys call me Jones." He mimicked Arthur's stance, keeping his eyes focused on a spot to the side of the duke's face. "I came to talk, Arthur. Or is it Duke Kirkland now?"
Whatever Arthur was about to say was lost on Alfred, for at that moment cold steel was pressed up against his throat. The outlaw froze, eyes wide. Whoever was holding the blade had moved so quickly and silently that not even Kiku would have noticed him. He just hoped that this stranger wasn't in the mood to kill.
Arthur frowned. "Let him go, Hong. I don't think he means us any harm."
The blade moved slowly across Alfred's throat, the tip tickling the edge of his Adam's apple. "Are you certain?" an emotionless voice muttered into his ear.
There was a brief second of hesitation, in which Arthur's eyes flickered up and down Alfred's body- and in which Alfred was incredibly glad that he was so physically fit- before the duke nodded. "Let him go."
Alfred was immediately released, and he looked back to see a dark-haired man slipping the dagger into his sleeve. The man didn't appear to be paying him any more attention, but Alfred had the feeling that if he made one wrong move towards Arthur, that dagger would be embedded in his skin before he could blink. He shuffled a few steps away.
"That's Hong," Arthur said, drawing Alfred's attention back to him. The duke was smirking. "He has been my servant and personal guard since I took over for my father, and he takes his job very seriously."
"I can tell." Alfred let out an awed chuckle. "No one's been able to sneak up on me like that in years."
Arthur's smirk gentled somewhat, almost fondly, before he sighed. "Alfred, what is it you want to ask? Your presence here… It's dangerous for the both of us."
"I only have one question," Alfred replied quietly, his gaze flickering over to the closed door. "What do you think about Francis as king?"
Silence. Arthur blinked at him. "What?"
"I mean, are you for or against Francis?" He hadn't realized the question was so hard to understand.
"I heard what you said!" Arthur barked. "I'm just- What do you think I am, Alfred?"
But Arthur didn't let him continue. "Do you think I'm a monster, Alfred? Some sort of power-hungry lord, who would follow an ignorant tyrant just to claim a share of the profit? Is that what I look like to you?" Alfred opened his mouth to object, but Arthur barreled on. "I cannot believe- You honestly think I'm that cruel? That I enjoy my people's suffering? That- That-"
"Arthur!" That stopped the ranting, at least, but Alfred found himself fighting not to shrink away from the glare the duke sent his way. He managed to stay his ground, though he did raise his hands in what he hoped was a peaceful gesture. "I wasn't saying any of that. I just- I had to ask, you know? Because… Well, whether you support him or not, you haven't exactly done anything against him."
"I…" Arthur swallowed heavily, his shoulders slumping. "I know. I haven't done anything." He turned away, the light of the fire flickering across his face even as his eyes fell into shadow. "I suppose I can understand why you would think such things of me. But believe me, Alfred, when I tell you that I do not support Francis in the slightest."
"I believe you." And Alfred did. After a reaction like that, how could he think otherwise? Not to mention the fact that Arthur had apparently helped Gilbert, and that, well… Alfred had wanted to believe him. Really wanted to, from the minute he saw the duke's face. He reached out to grab Arthur's shoulder, squeezing it slightly, and ignored the feel of Hong's wary stare on his back. "I know someone who vouched for you. You know the friar, from the church at the edge of town?"
Arthur relaxed into the outlaw's touch slightly. "The albino? Yes, I tried to help him repair his church."
"He told me about that," Alfred continued with a nod. "That's why I wanted to know. It's just not something one of Francis' lackeys would do." He grinned down at Arthur. "Now that I know you're not evil, you should come with me. Kiku and me could use a man like you."
"Oh, Alfred." Arthur sighed, patting the hand on his shoulder. "You really haven't changed much since we were children. Always thinking of the here and now, never of the repercussions of your actions." He returned Alfred's smile with a smaller, graver one, before looking away. "I can't go with you."
"What?" When Arthur refused to meet his eyes, Alfred stepped around in front of him, bending down in order to try and see beneath the shadow of his bangs. "Why not? Don't you want to leave, if you hate Francis so much?"
Arthur just shook his head, finally meeting Alfred's gaze. His eyes were steely in the firelight. "I won't leave my people to suffer in his hands. As long as I remain here, I can at the very least oppose Francis face to face. If I were to run away into the forest, it would be admitting surrender, and the people would be at his mercy."
Alfred frowned. "But… you would not be running away. If you were working with me and Kiku, you'd be helping them! You'd-"
"I would be running away, Alfred. My people need me here, even if I can do nothing more than be an annoyance to Francis, and sometimes venture out to help individuals. As much as I wish I could disappear into the forest, my sense of duty calls for me to stand firm," Arthur said gently, and Alfred was suddenly reminded of the boy he had known years earlier. The quiet but kind child who loved storybooks and rabbits, who did girly things like sew but who always refused to play the princess to Alfred's prince, and who was never afraid to stand up for what he knew was right. Alfred couldn't help but smile. Arthur's eyebrows furrowed. "What are you smiling at?"
"Nothing." He was lying, and of course Arthur noticed, but neither said anything about it. A strange sort of silence fell over the two of them. It wasn't uncomfortable, but there was something hovering in it, just out of their reach, that made eye contact awkward between them. The light of the fire flickered and sparked across their faces, and Alfred found himself staring at the patterns it made across Arthur's cheeks and neck. The duke's skin was flushed a light pink. Alfred couldn't help wondering if it was as soft as it looked.
"Alfred," Arthur murmured after a while, his gaze centered somewhere around the outlaw's collarbone. "I-"
Whatever he was about to say was cut off abruptly by faint footsteps in the hallway. Both of them were startled out of whatever spell they had been under, and they stood there a moment, just gaping at one another. Hong moved silently over to the door. "You should leave," he said emotionlessly.
Alfred shook himself back into his normal frame of mind- or as close to normal as he could get with Arthur so close. "You mean me?" he asked. Hong nodded.
"Is it Francis?" Arthur asked, a little breathlessly. Hong nodded again, and the duke shoved Alfred back over to the window. "You have to leave now, Alfred."
Alfred struggled against Arthur's insistent pushes. "Wait, I don't-"
"You need to leave," Arthur repeated more firmly, pushing the outlaw backwards until his lower back hit the windowsill. "If Francis finds you in here-"
"What is he going to do?" Alfred argued, though he did swing his leg over the sill to find the ivy foothold he'd used to climb in. "He's already-"
Arthur kept his hands against Alfred's shoulders until the outlaw was safely outside the window. "Yes, well, we don't want him to do anything even worse, do we?" He hesitated slightly, then reluctantly pulled away from Alfred. "You know, I…"
"I know I ran away," Alfred said quietly, reaching out to touch the duke's chin. "I know I abandoned my duties. But I don't regret it, Arthur. I would do it again if I had a chance." Those green, green eyes locked onto his, and all the air in his lungs seemed to vanish. Even Francis' footsteps in the hallway, now much faster and accompanied by a loud voice screaming something at Hong for closing the door, disappeared.
"I… " Arthur leaned forward, resting his weight on his elbows, and smiled softly at the outlaw. "You've grown up well, Alfred Jones."
Something warm and fluttery bloomed inside Alfred's chest, and he found himself smiling back just as softly. "So have you, Arthur Kirkland."
In that instant, the whole world consisted of just the two of them- Alfred and Arthur, smiling at one another through a tower window, the evening breeze ruffling both their hair. It did not matter that Arthur was one of the nobility, or that Alfred was a wanted man. The only thing they cared about was how close their faces were, the way their lips were angled in just the right way that if they met, it would be a perfect fit-
The door slammed open, knocking Hong aside to reveal a furious Francis. "What is going on here?" he roared. And then his gaze swept from Arthur's startled face to Alfred outside the window. His eyes bulged, his face burned red, and his mouth gaped open, but no words came out.
Arthur whirled back towards the window. "Go, Alfred! Before he calls the guards!"
Alfred hesitated for a moment. If he ran, he would be leaving Arthur to deal with Francis alone. But if he stayed, he would likely be captured, and there were people counting on him to stay free. He grabbed Arthur's hand, squeezing it gently, and whispered, "I'll come back, I swear."
"Alfred," Arthur sighed, but the outlaw shook his head.
"I'll come back for you." With that, Alfred began his long descent back down to the ground. Above him, he could hear Francis beginning to shout, screaming at Arthur and Hong and calling for soldiers. Arthur was yelling back, and there was the sound of a chair being thrown and breaking against a stone wall. Alfred winced as the noises grew louder. It took all his willpower not to climb back up there and help Arthur, but he kept descending. Right now he had to return to Kiku and Gilbert, and think up some kind of plan.
But if Francis so much as laid a hand on Arthur… Alfred would make sure he regretted it.
A/N- Somewhere in the midst of this chapter, my writing abilities took an impromptu vacation, and haven't returned yet. In other words, I'm so so sorry that I took so long to write this, and that it turned out so horrible. I'm a horrible Secret Santa. :P However, this chapter does mark the halfway point of the story- there should only be about four more chapters to go, maybe five if I'm particularly wordy.
Anyway, this chapter was actually written twice. I finished it the first time about a week ago, then read it over and deleted it immediately. Believe it or not, it was even worse than this one.
But thank you so much to all of you who read, reviewed, favorited, and alerted! Seeing one of those notices pop up in my inbox makes my day. The next chapter should be out soon-ish (definitely quicker than this one took), and it will finally have some action! Thanks for reading, and again, I'm so sorry about how long this took.