A Kind of Alchemy
by London Lampy
The five of them only just fitted around the kitchen table, and Fran was grateful that Earnest hadn't stayed last night or no doubt he'd have ended up eating his breakfast leaning against the counter top again. Fudge and him had waged something of a battle over Earnest sleeping over in her room, her argument hinging on the fact that Ed didn't simply stay the night occasionally but now actually lived in Sam's room and that she wasn't asking for Earnest to move in permanently, only stay occasionally. Ed had somehow never gone home after they'd rescued Sam, and now that the Anglemol house had been sold Fran's house had become his permanent residence. Not that Fran minded the situation, but it had given Fudge extra ammunition for her fight.
He accepted that he was being unfair, but Sam wasn't his child, and an unplanned pregnancy wasn't going to occur no matter how much time Sam and Ed spent having sex. Which he happened to know was quite a lot as the party wall between the boy's bedroom and the kitchen wasn't really designed to be soundproof and he'd had to bang on the door to ask them to keep the noise down on more than one occasion, there were some things you really didn't need to hear while you were cooking. Fudge had sulked and grumbled about double standards until he finally gave in, but not before he had endured a long and embarrassing talk with Earnest about his responsibility to his niece, and the importance of contraception. It had turned out that Earnest knew rather more about that particular subject than Fran actually did, and Fran had found himself blushing almost as much as Sam was disposed to, although he seemed to do that rather less these days than when he had first come to the city.
"I've put clean bedclothes in the spare room so you can make it up." Fran said to Sam, squeezing in next to Mulligan and reaching across to pick up the tea pot to pour himself out a cup, only to find that there was nothing more than a few stewed drops left. "What time does her train get in?"
"Four o'clock." Sam replied through a mouthful of toast. "So I'll need to leave work about three if that's all right?"
"I'll make some more tea." Fudge took the pot off him and went to refill the kettle.
"That's fine." Fran tried to hide his smile. Arranging for Sam's mother to come and stay with them for a few days had involved a fair bit of subterfuge on his part. Sam had never discovered that he had been in regular postal contact with her, and while she had initially been the one to suggest the idea to him they both knew that the invite actually had to come from Sam himself. Getting Sam to think that it was his idea had involved a lot of subtle suggestions, although it was helped along by the fact that since his brush with death Sam had begun to write to her regularly, and had even disclosed his address so that she could write back.
It seemed to have been Fudge's seventeenth birthday that had finally made his mind up, it was the first year that Fran hadn't bought a card and a present and pretended that they were from Ava, and Fudge had calmly accepted this, saying that she knew she may never see, or hear from, her mother again, and that she was fine about it. This appeared to have got Sam thinking because the next day he had come to Fran and asked him if he invited his mother to the city she could stay with them.
"Are you going too?" He asked Ed, outside of their working hours the pair of them were generally inseparable.
"No." Ed shook his head. "Just Sam, I'm meeting up with them when I get home from work."
Once Fudge had made the tea she went off to have a bath then Sam and Ed drifted out of the kitchen to get ready for the day, leaving Fran and Mulligan alone at the table.
"Are you all right Frannie?" Mulligan asked as Fran poured himself a hot, fresh cup of tea with a heavy sigh. True to his word the magician had been home a lot more these days, and although this made the house even more crowded he wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
"Are you still worried about the police?"
Fran looked out of the window at their small concrete yard, last year Fudge had planted dozens of tulip bulbs in containers in an attempt to bring some much needed colour to the greyness, now they were in flower and were without exception all a shade of deep crimson. Fran wished very much that they had come up any other colour than the one he now saw when he closed his eyes, and that every night threaded itself through his dreams. He would never again be able to see that shade and not think of the sight of Sam's slit wrist pouring with blood.
"A bit." He admitted. "I know it's been over six weeks now, but they could still turn up."
Mulligan had needed to persuade Fran several times not to go to the police station and confess their part in two murders and one act of arson. Fran was convinced for weeks after they got home that the police were going to turn up and arrest them, and he felt sure that if they gave themselves up it would make things better in the long run.
"Look, how many times do I have to say this? The cops don't care that much about what happened to Pault. They all knew he killed that girl and that he was a nasty piece of work, his house burns down, he's never seen again, they write it off as an accident, and that's the end of the story."
This was seeming to be true, according to the newspapers the house had just been left to burn as no one from the nearby village had any desire to attempt to extinguish it, and it was much too far from the city for the fire brigade to bother with. Despite the damp it had burned to the ground and unsurprisingly nothing could be determined from the rubble when it had cooled, not how it had caught fire or the number of people who had been inside. Mulligan had told the echoback slave to get out of the place if he wanted to live, but neither of them knew if he had, or if he had decided to stay and die along with his master.
"I know." Fran agreed. "But if they did start poking around there's the cab driver, I know we paid him off but he still might talk, and if the slave ever turns up..."
"We'll deal with it if it happens." Mulligan said firmly. "But it won't, now stop worrying."
"Actually, it wasn't that I was worried about, it was this." He pulled a crumpled envelope out of his pocket and handed it to Mulligan, who opened it, took out the single rectangular piece of paper it contained and examined it closely.
"Bloody hell." He looked unusually surprised. "Did you know she had this much money?"
"I had no idea." Fran took the cheque off him and briefly looked at it himself before putting it back in the envelope and placing it carefully on the table. "She must have invested her earnings wisely, or maybe the King of Surosa lent it to her."
Mulligan laughed. "How long have you had it?"
"About a week, in the letter that came with it she says she's been thinking about it for a while and she wants me to use the money to buy back the shares in The Empress that Mother owns."
"So what's the problem?"
"If I use Ava's money then I'll be in her debt. Not financially, she knows that I'll never be able to pay her back, but morally. She'll want to come here and see Fudge again, and I'm not sure Fudge, or Sam, could handle that, however if I don't use it then Mother still owns a huge chunk of my theatre. The question is which one is the lesser of two evils?"
"Your sister." Mulligan replied firmly. "She might be a bitch but she doesn't pimp children out for sex, or have people murdered just because they get in her way, at least as far as I know. And Fudge and Sam are stronger than you give them credit for, they can cope with Ava."
"You're right." Fran agreed. "The only problem is now I have to go and see Mother again and try to persuade him to sell me my theatre back."
"I'll come with you if you want."
"I do want." He'd only seen Mother on one occasion since they'd got Sam back, and it had actually been a curiously satisfying experience for once. Sam had appeared in the office while Mother was poking about in there and this had managed to confuse the vile man completely. The disappearance of Pault in the blaze at his house had made all the newspapers, and Mother must have read about it and assumed that Sam had also been killed because when he saw Sam he looked as if he had seen a ghost. At the sight of Mother Sam had rapidly backed out but that was all that had been needed, Mother had asked Fran in a shocked voice what Sam was doing at The Empress, and Fran had just shrugged and said that he had simply reappeared one day, finding his way back like a homing pigeon.
"Frannie, you need to worry less." Mulligan said, putting an arm around his shoulders. "Fudge is fine and almost grown up, Sam is getting better, according to Ed he doesn't have nearly as many nightmares as he used to, and with Ava's money you can finally get Mother off your back."
"But if I didn't have anything to worry about then I'd just worry about having nothing to worry about." Illogical as it sounded it made sense to him.
"Gods." Mulligan laughed.
"Look, if I didn't worry about things then I wouldn't be me, and if I wasn't me then you might not love me." Fran started laughing too.
"And I do love you." Mulligan agreed, kissing him on the side of the head.
Fran leant against him, enjoying the feeling of his lover's solid warm body against his. He glanced out of the window at the sea of blood red tulips again, wondering if next time he could persuade Fudge to plant some cheery yellow daffodils instead.
As Sam entered the station he realised that the last time he'd been there was when he had first arrived in the city, lost and alone with no idea of what his future would hold. That was now five months ago, but it felt to him as if five years had passed and when he thought back it was hard for him recognise the unhappy and scared person he'd been then. His mother's train wasn't due in for another fifteen minutes but he hadn't wanted to risk being late and was happy to find a bench to sit on and watch the comings and goings of the place while he waited.
Sam felt nervous, although they'd written one another several letters, Sam now sending his via Mr Harper's inn to avoid his father finding out, and his mother had assured him that she wasn't angry with him for running away there was still the matter of the stolen brooch to be attended to. He'd bought it with him, tucked safely into his trouser pocket, and he hoped that along with everything else she would be able to forgive him for taking it. If she didn't turn around and go back to Dovedale after that he was planning to tell her about Ed, and he hoped that she would be able to accept their relationship. Ed's parents had been surprisingly nonchalant about the whole thing when he had written to tell them, but Sam had always got the feeling that with them out of sight was out of mind as far as their oldest son was concerned, so as long as whatever he was doing was being done several hundred miles away they didn't much care what it was. Since the time the house had been sold and there was no longer any paperwork to be dealt with they hadn't actually bothered to contact him at all.
Fortunately Fran hadn't seemed to mind Ed permanently moving in, and Ed did insist on paying rent which made him more formally Fran's lodger than Sam had ever been. For Sam having someone in bed with him at night had become crucial, he still suffered from nightmares two or three times a week, but having Ed there to wake him up and hold him until they ebbed away made them bearable, as did the sex that inevitably followed. It had taken Ed quite some time to become entirely relaxed with the sexual side of their relationship, although he clearly enjoyed it for a long time he would never initiate sex, partly down to concerns about his own abilities and partly down to concerns about Sam's physical and mental well-being. However that had slowly changed and now Ed was just as likely to jump Sam as Sam was him, and last week they had taken things a stage further.
Shortly after he had been rescued from Pault Sam had received a visitor who had brought with him a present, Victor had finally finished the portrait of him and had decided to give it to him as a kind of get well gift. It hadn't healed his wrist any faster, or stopped the nightmares, but it had made him smile and it'd been hung on their bedroom wall as while Fran admitted that it was extremely well painted, a picture of a naked teenage boy wasn't something that he wanted visitors to see displayed in his living room. Sam had understood this, and indeed it had been temporarily taken down for the duration of his mother's visit as it wasn't something he wanted her to see either. Ed liked the painting a lot, and Sam had suggested to Victor that maybe he should paint Ed next so that they could have a matching pair, however Victor had had another idea, that he would like to paint Sam and Ed together as a couple. It had taken a while for Ed to come around to this, as Sam had spelled out to him that a sitting with Victor was likely to involve a lot more than simply being sketched, but come around he eventually did. Last week they'd spent an extremely pleasurable afternoon in Victor's studio that had also been something of an education for Ed, whose experience was rather limited. They'd set a date for another sitting a couple of days after Sam's mother was due to return to Dovedale, and Sam was already looking forward to it very much.
As it approached four o'clock Sam made his way to the platform his mother's train was due to be arriving on. It wasn't long until the train pulled into the station with a loud hiss and a cloud of steam and he watched anxiously as the passengers disembarked, looking amongst the strangers for a familiar face. He spotted her before she saw him and he couldn't stop a smile from spreading across his face at the sight of her. She was wearing her best chapel going dress, knee length and mid blue with a pattern of white daisies embroidered around the sleeves and hem, it seemed to hang more loosely on her than he remembered, indeed her face was thinner than it had been too, her cheekbones were prominent and her cheeks hollowed. Her long, light brown hair was also more heavily streaked with grey than before, and there were new deep lines etched into her forehead, but when she saw him her face lit up and she hurried along the platform as fast as her battered suitcase would allow until she was close enough to drop it to the floor and fling her arms around him.
"My Sam." She said as she hugged him. "My baby."
He hugged her tightly back, she smelt like home and warmth and all good things just the way she always had. When they finally broke apart Sam noticed that tears were running freely down his mother's face.
"Are you all right?" He asked, picking up her suitcase.
"I'm fine." She sniffed. "I'm just being silly." She pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of her dress and dabbed at her eyes. "I can't believe it, I really didn't think I'd ever see you again." She tucked the handkerchief away and reached a hand up to his head. "Look at your hair." She said as she stroked her fingers through it.
"I bleach it." Sam confessed.
"It looks lovely, it's just like it was when you were a little boy."
"Are you hungry?" He asked, assuming that after several hours spent on the train she would be.
"A little." She admitted. "The food on the train was much too dear, do you know they wanted nearly a shilling for a cup of tea and two tiny biscuits?"
Sam remembered how expensive everything had seemed to him after he had first left the village, and he doubted that his mother had bought much money with her so he took her to a small café he knew of a couple of streets away from the station and offered to pay for some late lunch.
"Are you sure you can afford it?" She asked as she perused the menu.
"I'm sure." Sam tried to hide his smile.
They ordered, with Sam's mother choosing the least expensive things on the menu, a plain cheese sandwich and a glass of water, explaining that she didn't fancy anything else, a fact that Sam doubted but wisely decided not to question her on. Once the waitress was gone he took a deep breath, removed the broach from his pocket and set it down on the table between them.
"I'm so sorry I took it." He found that he couldn't look her in the eye and he stared down at the red and white checked cloth instead.
He felt his mother's warm fingers under his chin gently lifting it so she could see him. "Thank you for returning it." She said once they were eye to eye again, then she picked up the brooch and held it to the the sunlight streaming through window, making the fake diamonds sparkle and throw tiny beams of light back onto her face. "I really though that you might have sold it by now, it's the only thing of worth I've ever owned." She placed it back onto the table top with a small sigh. "I know it's very valuable, but it's also precious to me."
Sam opened his mouth to speak, to admit to his mother that he had tried to sell it, and because of this had discovered it was nothing more than a copy and that it's worth was very little, but then he saw how happy she was to have it back and he stopped. She believed that it was real, what would it do but disappoint her to find out that it wasn't? He thought of Fran's word, alchemy, his mother believed that it was the real thing, and therefore in her eyes it was, and he kept quiet.
"Your sister can wear it when she gets married in the summer." She said, placing it into her dress pocket as the waitress brought them their drinks.
"Marni's getting married?" Sam questioned. "Who to?"
"Adrian." She replied, a touch ruefully.
"But Marni always said he was scrawny and spotty." Sam protested, remembering his sister's assessment of the butcher's son, but then Marni had always had her heart set on marrying Jack, and that wasn't going to happen.
"Sam, he proposed to her and she needs to marry someone. With you gone there's no one to pass the farm onto now except your father's nephew, and he'd rather sell it than let that happen." She frowned at her husband's stubbornness. "But if Marni has a son then that solves the problem."
Sam closed his eyes, he'd never even thought of the implications him leaving home could have for his sister. "I'm sorry." He said again.
"Darling, don't be, I'm not chiding you, just telling you how things are. You had good reason to leave, but that doesn't make your absence any easier for the family."
Sam reached over to pick up his glass of iced lemonade, making the cuff of his shirt rise up a little to reveal the edge of the pink ragged scar he now had there, and he quickly tugged it down before his mother saw it. He hated the scar, and he doubted that even in the hottest of weathers he'd ever wear short sleeves again. "Does Dad know you're here?" He asked, taking a sip of his drink.
"No." It was her turn to look away. "I told him that an old friend from my service days had moved to the city and invited me to stay with her for a few days, if he knew the truth he wouldn't have let me come."
"I'm sorry." He felt that this was almost all that he could say.
"No Sam, I'm sorry for what he did to you, and that he drove you away and that I couldn't stop him, and I'm sorry for what that dairy hand did to you too, if I'd know it was happening..." She tailed off.
"It wasn't right, but he never forced me." Sam replied, feeling his cheeks start to redden.
"Oh." She picked up her own drink. "I have wondered. I spoke to Mr Harper about you, he's been very good to me over all this, he said that he thought you and Nanny's Jack might have been more than just friends, is that true?"
"Yes." Sam admitted. "That's why I came to Parnell, to find him, but by the time I got here he was gone."
"I know, he joined the army, Jane told me." She said as their food arrived. "And it was after you discovered that Jack was gone you met this Fran?"
"Yes." Sam picked up his ham salad sandwich, deciding not to tell his mother the exact circumstances of that first meeting.
"He sounds like a nice man." She lifted the bread of her sandwich to scrutinised the filling. "Is he...I mean are you and him?"
"Fran?" Sam stopped with the sandwich half way to his mouth. "Good gods no...he's like my uncle or something."
"I have to say I'm a little relived about that, he does seem a bit old for you. So is there anyone?" She obviously decided that the cheese in her sandwich was passable and she picked it up and took a small bite.
"Yes, his name is Ed and he's only two years older than me, you'll meet him later."
"Do you love him?" His mother surprised him by asking.
"Then I'm sure I'll like him." She nodded.
Sam had a sudden desire to go around to the other side of the table and hug her again, but he didn't, he settled for saying thank you instead.
"For...understanding I guess."
"I understand that you're my son, and that I love you, and that what makes you happy makes me happy. I only wish the things that make you happy didn't take you so far away from me." She looked like she might cry again, and he felt that this time he might join her.
Sam realised that when she looked at him she didn't see a boy who had stolen from her, shamed his family and run away from them, all she saw was her son, who she loved, whatever and whoever he was, and that this too was a kind of alchemy.
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