Oh, The Places You'll Go

Further On Up the Road

Notes: Philippa, Chaucer's wife, only turns up in a deleted scene (or the extended version), neither of which I've seen. Therefore, I'm not counting as canon the fact that Wat knows about her. Just so you know. Thanks again to mrs_laugh_track for the up-pointing thumbs (of great justice). And to the medieval church for being so screwed up it wouldn't recognise love if it bit it in the ass.

'It is agreed among all men that there is no good thing in the world, and no courtesy, which is not derived from love as from its fountain. Cappelanus, The Art of Courtly Love, btw 1174-1186


The room stands quiet and empty, waiting. Not silent, though, for the cheerful strains of music and the thrum, thrum, thrum of tabors mixed pell-mell with the rise and fall of a hundred, a thousand, happy voices, make the dust motes dance even as they disappear into darkness. Outside the window the walls of the White Tower stain orange by torchlight, as if dipped into a dyer's vat and pulled too soon.

The wooden door clatters open and though but two men stumble in, laughing and pulling at each other, the room is full. It is satisfied.

*****

Chaucer, tousled from the stop-start journey to the room, brushes his legs against the narrow bed, falling backwards upon it and pulls his companion down on top of him.

"Oof," he says, "fewer tansy cakes for you, Wat, you great lump."

Wat tweaks Chaucer's nose and says, "No, but Geoff, we can't be in here. This is a...I'm a squire, if they catch me they'll put me in the White Tower or worse. I can't go in the stocks, my back's not what it used to be."

The wave of affection that rises to meet Chaucer at these words is measureless and unquantifiable, and in its wake it brings ripostes and witty remarks, fond looks and a strong desire to take Wat's shock of hair and shake it until some sense falls out. But the moment is brief because Chaucer chose this quiet corner for a reason and the wave crashes around his head and he can barely breathe.

With one swift move he grabs Wat by the hands and flips them over, pushing up so that he straddles Wat's thighs. He keeps hold of Wat's hands; for fear of what may come or to keep the connection, he does not know. As he settles, Wat pushes his hips up with a leer, still visible in the deepening gloom.

"Oh yeah," he says, wriggling under Chaucer's weight. "That's the way it is, is it? Screw me and screw the consequences. You better make it worth my while, Chaucer."

"Wat," says Chaucer and his voice is as dark as the room.

Wat stills and his face adopts a serious cast and a part of Chaucer wonders why he chose now, of all times, to prove that he wasn't as daft as he looked.

"Wat," he says again, and tries to meet his eyes, only he can scarcely hold the gaze for two, three beats before he has to look away. "I have to go home." He pauses, feeling Wat's eyes on him, and tightens his grip on Wat's hands. Breathing deeply, he berates himself for cowardice – after all, a single stab to the heart is an easier way to die than by a thousand lashes.

"We're not in France any more. I can't. I have to go back to my wife. To my son."

He does manage to look, then, and is grateful for the night because he sees only the impression of shock and pain, as if Wat had heard the news aeons ago and slowly faded, leaving only his shadow behind. I'm so sorry, he wants to say, but knows it can mean nothing, now, because if he knew how to be truly sorry they never would have begun.

Wat's fingers grip fiercely and Chaucer waits for the walls to ring with anger and fire but Wat is quiet when he speaks, when he says, "Of course," and, "One more time, Geoffrey. Please."

Chaucer is shaking when Wat winds his legs around him and urges him deeper. Wat has flayed himself for him, laid himself open and bare and loved him and, Jesus God, Chaucer doesn't understand how he can feel he's on the verge of some great discovery, like wings are budding from his shoulders and he's about to take flight and at the same time be crumbling into ashes, a moth flown too close to the flame for too long. He buries his head against Wat's shoulder and squeezes his eyes shut and shudders at the weight of Wat's hand on the back of his neck.

They dress in silence, standing close. Wat has spoken nothing save fevered words of encouragement since they began. The quiet is unnatural and it hurts more than any punches ever have and it's too much, poison in the wound and Chaucer needs to spit it out.

"You know, in the grand scheme of things, in the great world gavotte, you and I, Wat, we're not so important. This thing-" he waves his hand in a gesture guaranteed to infuriate, "-why, we'd only just begun."

The shift from muted acquiescence to roiling anger is swift and disorienting. Wat steps up into Chaucer's face and his words bite through the air.

"Well, if the great Chaucer says it's not important then who the fuck am I to say different? Off you pop then, home to the missus. I'll just stroll about the gardens and maybe find myself a nice serving wench. Even unwashed cunny smells better than saddle grease, anyway."

Chaucer nearly stumbles from the venom, but gains his balance and fires back, "Do try to remember to fuck her in the right place, women tend to take exception to a rearguard attack. Oh, and cucumbers are hideously expensive, so if you make her use one, use it well."

The world behind his eyes explodes into fiery balls of reds and yellows as Wat lands a blow to his temple. He deserves it, God knows he does, and he would tell Wat so, but Wat is gone.

~~~~~

The celebrations go on around him; people spilling in and out of the Great Hall in ones, twos, threes, bustling on errands or furtively finding the shadows. Light spills from the windows, the stained glass casting angular shapes and patterns on the ground. Chaucer keeps to the edges, out of sight, alone, torn between the desire to get blisteringly drunk and make a fool of himself in front of all the great lords and ladies, and to get as far away from this place as possible. Wat is bedding in the barracks tonight and Chaucer does not know how he can stay away.

He flings himself down on the stone step at the entrance to the Queen's lodgings and leans his head in his hands. He can still see the comings and goings of the revellers, but they are chopped from the waist up. There are thin legs and thick, leather clad and beskirted, feet shod in wood and feet shod in velvet. They're not Wat, though, thinks Chaucer, morose and maudlin. He smacks his hand on the cold stone; it's absurd that he should be so turned-about by a brief affair, and with a dumb country squire, no less.

"Ho, there, Chaucer," says a pair of black hose and neat, leather shoes, gold-buckled.

Chaucer looks up, gaze travelling past the fine-trimmed tunic to the dark hair and clear eyes of Will's Prince. He sits up a little straighter and schools his expression into one of bland courtesy.

"You did a good day's work today. I suppose you would not come back to France with us? A few well-chosen words from you I'm sure would soon drive off the enemy."

"Your bravery far outstrips my meagre- Oh, finish the sentence yourself," says Chaucer and can't dredge up any concern that he's just been discourteous to the heir to the throne. He should consider his children's future, he thinks and laughs mirthlessly.

To Chaucer's surprise, Edward drops to sit beside him and nudges him shoulder to shoulder.

"What ails you, Chaucer? To see you wordless is strange, indeed."

Chaucer resists the pathetic urge to drop his head onto the Prince's shoulder and weep like a baby. He wraps his arms around himself, sticking cold fingers into his armpits, and shivers.

"Tomorrow, I return to my apartments. No more trudging or tournaments for me. Responsibility and duty bind me to my family, my lord. I shall wrap yarn and get more children and be quite the doting husband and father."

"Should not that be a happy time, man? It must be six months or more since last you met."

"You would think so, my lord. That you would think."

Chaucer's eye is caught by a glimpse of flaming hair lit by torchlight, away across the lawn, and he starts up. He knows straight away that it is not Wat; that the way he moves is wrong, that the twist of the head is unfamiliar, but he watches for a space, willing Wat into existence. The red-headed man disappears into the shadows and Chaucer sinks back onto the stone.

"Oh," says Edward and his voice startles Chaucer – he had forgotten he was not alone. "That's the way of it, is it? I see. Duty and love, you think you cannot have both? But Chaucer, do not you know that the church decrees passionate love a sin? That wives are for getting children and running the household, not for pleasure. And that, 'It is agreed among all men that there is no good thing in the world, and no courtesy, which is not derived from love as from its fountain.' So you see, Chaucer, if you are not to love your wife for sin, then you must love another for goodness' sake."

"But, my lord," says Chaucer, his heart beating like a wild bird in a cage, "How does that explain your good self and the Fair Lady of Kent? Your love shines clear for all to see."

"I do not care if I am branded a sinner, Chaucer. Do you? I shall be king if I sin or no, and does not every poet want a muse?"

Chaucer laughs truly, then, at the thought of fiery Wat a poet's muse. At the thought of Wat being the source of Chaucer's goodness. And yet...Wat. If passionate love of my wife is sin, he thinks, how could I expect to experience true love within my marriage bed? Therefore, why not seek out love at a squire's hand? If all love is sinful, then what difference does it make to my final rest with whom I love, Wat or wife?

It could work.

It could bloody well work. He laughs again, dizzy with renewed hope.

The Prince claps Chaucer on the shoulder and laughs with him. "A king may love a maid, why should not you love a squire?" He shakes his head and rises, still chuckling. "I will see you again, Chaucer, before I depart. I may have need for your services in earnest."

Chaucer rises, too, and bows. "My lord," he says. "Whatever you command."

Edward turns on his heel and Chaucer is left alone once more. He thinks that he should do something about that.

~~~~~

It takes considerable legwork and questioning folk about 'the angry, shouty, redheaded man" before Chaucer finds what he is looking for. The wharf stretches up along the riverbank from the gates of the palace and barges line much of its length, bedecked with torches and gay garlands in honour of the celebration. Above, the sky is clear and the moon full and her reflection silvers the water beneath in long, silky strands. Chaucer can hear the creak of tarred wood and the clanking of chains as the boats gently rise and fall on the estuary tide. He can hear the bawdy laughter of the docking crews as they sit higgledy-piggledy across the planks, pitchers clutched in hands or balanced on stomachs.

But none of this holds Chaucer's eyes or ears, not like the sight of a tall man, broad shoulders bunched and arm arcing overhead. Not like the sound of the steady plop, plop, plop of stones dropping into the Thames, going to their watery graves no doubt like Wat wishes Chaucer would. Chaucer braces himself and approaches.

As he nears Wat, there is light enough to see that, despite the violence of his aim, Wat's mouth is twisted not with anger, but with abject misery. For a moment, Chaucer forgets how to walk and stops with one foot hovering above the wharf. He forces it down and himself to move.

"Go you with Will?" he asks when he is a few short steps away, out of reach of Wat's long arm.

"What else am I gonna do, now?" Wat replies without turning around.

Chaucer steps closer, so he stands behind Wat's shoulder. "What of the tavern?"

Wat shrugs.

"But Wat," Chaucer says, his voice low and warm, "can't you just see it? Not a great, bustling tavern, but a small place, intimate. The kind of place that sees the same faces every day, but where strangers are always made welcome. There's a horseshoe over the door that Kate has fashioned for you and the trestles and benches that fill the room you built with your own hand. By the fire are two great, creaking, leather chairs, worn with age but made comfortable with cushions sewn by Roland's nimble fingers." Chaucer allows his hand to rest lightly against Wat's back. Wat does not move away and for this Chaucer is grateful.

"There's a wooden counter for you to lean upon or leap over as you see fit, and a shelf behind with rows of tankards, some of them marked special for their owners, and two crystal goblets because sometimes ladies visit and you have to be ready. The ale is good and strong because you never water it down and you keep the best wine hidden for Lady Jocelyn, the days she visits with Will with her hair loose down her back and her finery left at home. You don't cook, but there's always bread and cheese for hungry bellies. And at the back, stables, where you keep your mare and sometimes regulars who sleep there when they no longer have the legs to get on home to their wives."

Wat breathes in sharply at that and Chaucer curses himself.

"You sleep in a quiet room upstairs, under the roof, and the sun slants in through the window in the morning and tickles you awake. And back downstairs-" Chaucer pauses to clear his throat, "in the corner of the tavern, there's a rickety table in the corner all stained with ink."

He w aits. Wat still does not turn and when he speaks his voice is thick. "The stool is empty?"

Chaucer closes his eyes and presses his lips tight together, unable to speak. He leans forward until his brow is pressed against the blade of bone in Wat's back. Wat turns then, the rough cloth of his tunic rubbing against Chaucer's face, and takes Chaucer's shoulders firmly, but gently, pushing him up. He lets go and Chaucer raises his head. Wat is still too quiet, his wide eyes and flaring nostrils speak more loudly than a whole cacophony of words. Chaucer wrote that pain, stark and clear, and now he must erase it.

"Sometimes," he says with a rueful nod. "Sometimes it stands empty for days and then in the night when the patrons are safe home and you are wrapped in the arms of Morpheus-"

"I'm not going to be wrapped in nobody's arms, I thank you. Not at least unless they have a decent English name." Wat's chin comes up and he looks belligerent. Chaucer has never felt so relieved.

"Idiot. As I was saying. When you are snoring, apparently dreamless, the rusty latch will lift and the door will creak and you will wake to the sound of a scribbling quill."

"Wouldn't it be better if you came straight to bed, dropped your pants and got in with me? Someone needs to rescue me from the arms of whasserface."

"What's his face." Chaucer reaches out to take Wat's unresisting hand in his. "Look, Wat, I can't promise you much, just that I will never be home until I am with you."

Wat pulls away, scrubbing a hand through his hair. "You need to be serious, Geoff, because I can't really bear it."

God, thinks Chaucer. God. How could he ever...?

"I am. Truly. This thing, Wat. This thing we have – had – could have again, it's not about goods and chattels. It's not about six fine linen tablecloths, a perfect set of silverware, an apple orchard in Kent." He clenches his fist and beats it against his breast. "It's about heart and blood and bone. It's about everything I am, standing before you, and it's everything I'm offering. If you'll take it." He holds out his hand, open-palmed.

Wat looks at him, long and hard and his eyes are shining in the torchlight but his mouth is a straight line and Chaucer doesn't know. He doesn't know.

"Do me a favour," says Wat, eventually. "Never introduce me to her. Or the kiddies. It's stupid to pretend, I know, but I never got an education so no one learned that out of me."

There is a tight band pressing around Chaucer's throat and Wat blurs in front of him. He blinks hard, nodding. Wat takes Chaucer's outstretched hand in his and with the other cups Chaucer's neck, pressing their foreheads together. Chaucer clutches Wat's arm and there they stand, clasped together until a familiar voice calls,

"There you are! Will's looking for you both. Come on. There'll be plenty of time for allegories later."

Reluctantly, Chaucer releases his hold on Wat and they turn together to face a beaming Roland.

"Chop, chop, time and tide and all that." Roland beckons with one finger and leaves without waiting for a response. They are Will's men, they will come.

Wat looks at Chaucer and smiles, a half-smile that crooks his mouth. Chaucer leans in quickly and presses a kiss to the crease of Wat's lips. Wat tweaks Chaucer's nose and is gone, following after Roland. He does not look back.

Chaucer does not move until he can no longer feel Wat's hands on him, until their imprints are only shadows of thought. Then he blinks back to life and begins to run after the departing figures, towards the light and noise.


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