“Do you think there’s any chance your ma would sit next to Jago for breakfast?”

Gideon wiped his hands on a teatowel and came to have a look at Lee’s strategy board. Apricot light was filling the living room. The day’s storms had rolled off over the Channel, leaving behind them a serene June evening, the sun still high and gold above Minions Hill. Lee seemed to have let his afternoon’s trial’s go south with the clouds. He’d eaten a good dinner and returned his attention to his foolproof seating plan, the one that would keep all their wedding guests happy and socially integrated.

 

His latest inspiration had been to set out chess pieces on the coffee table to represent the guests. Taking a seat beside him on the sofa, Gideon surveyed the battle lines. Old Mrs Frayne was regally represented by the white marble queen. Beside her was Jago, a barely tamed knight errant. “Not so sure about that,” Gideon mused. “Two wrongs might not make a right.” He picked up a stately bishop. “Is this one meant to be Ezekiel?”

 

“Yes. Have I got him in the wrong place?”

 

“No, but don’t you think...” He reached into the box. The chess set was an imaginative interpretation by a local sculptor, and he’d taken the concept of the rooks quite literally. Gideon lowered one hunch-shouldered carrion bird into the place of the bishop. “There. Much better.”

 

Lee snorted. “Don’t you be mean about Zeke. He ran about shouting bomb like a good ’un this afternoon, once he’d got the idea.”

 

“So I gather. I had to persuade Inspector Cole to drop charges against the two of you for falsely reporting an explosive device.”

 

“Shit. Really?”

 

“Yeah. He cooled off when he realised why you’d done it.” Gideon sat opposite Lee at the table. “How many lives you’d saved.”

 

Lee looked down. He began to shuffle their sample set of invitations like a pack of cards. “Makes a change from having him assume I was responsible. There isn’t really an alibi big enough for that, is there? No, officer – I was off the planet when the irreversible climate change occurred, honest.”

 

“Well, it might’ve been you up there loosening the topsoil. I tell you what – I’m sure I’ve got a set of toy soldiers packed up in the spare room somewhere. Would you rather have those?”

Just for a second Lee took him seriously. His eyes widened. “We’re not having that many guests, are we? I’ve still got loads of chesspieces left. I haven’t even started on the pawns.”

 

“I thought the soldiers might be more appropriate. Why is it becoming a warzone, love?”

 

Lee gave a reluctant laugh. “I’m making a fuss, aren’t I? I just want everything to be right.”

 

“It will be.” Gideon put out an arm. His heart lurched painfully as Lee pushed his chesspieces aside and curled up on the sofa beside him, hiding his face against his shoulder. This was where hostilities had broken out a few weeks ago, in front of the TV after a Horizon show on marriage equality. Newlywed same-sex couples stumbling out of registry offices and churches, sobbing with joy, tears and confetti flying everywhere... Absurd and divine, and Gideon couldn’t even remember which of them had spoken first. I’d like to marry you.

Well, I’d like to be married.

As simple as that. Gideon wasn’t sure why Lee had grabbed the idea and run with it so far, why the registry office had become the Falmouth town hall and then the Victorian gardens at Trebah. Gideon didn’t mind. He was charmed by all the plots and plans, the little things to go on tables, and he’d done as good a job as a big Cornish copper could of helping hatch and select them. He’d never have figured Lee for the Bridezilla type, but people were full of surprises, and no matter how the gig went down, at some point Gideon would get to sign his name in a registry book next to that of Locryn Tyack. “Why do I get the feeling,” he said, stroking Lee’s hair, “that there’s a huge amount of displacement activity going on here?”

 

“What?”

 

It was barely a grunt from his shoulder. Gideon smiled. “You know. Like when the dog scratches her ears because she’s got a tick on her arse.”

“Oh, charming.” Lee shifted, planted a distracting kiss under Gideon’s ear. “I don’t have a tick. Would you like to check?”

 

“In a minute. Once you’ve told me what happened this afternoon. Because you see a hell of a lot of things, sweetheart, but so far you haven’t seen the future.”

 

Lee lay very still. His breath stirred warmly against Gideon’s neck, the rhythm of it taut and too quick. “That’s what your brother said.”

 

“Zeke? What was his brilliant take on the situation?”

 

“He said, you predicted this. You saw the future.”

“Then he chucked holy water on you? Snapped out his handy portable stake?”

 

“No. He seemed... a bit thrown, actually.”

 

“And so are you.”

 

“Well, I...” Lee put out a hand and felt along the edge of the sofa. “Where is she, by the way? That dog I used to have?”

 

“With Laura again. Sarah says she and the kid are inseparable. Do you miss her?”

 

“Yeah, but a kid should have a dog. And once we’re married we can get another one. And a cat, and a goldfish, and a baby I haven’t had to steal out of a high chair in a café.”

 

“Yes. All right, the whole menagerie. Now talk.”

 

Lee looked up. He gently cupped Gideon’s jaw in one hand, his expression peculiar. “You know, any normal guy would be running screaming for the hills right now.”

 

“I’ve got my taxi booked.”

Excerpt

(Rufus has finally arrived, on a very delayed train. Drusilla - now Lady Birch, of course - has brought them a festive gift, in the form of a huge stag's skull.)

“I’ve never done this before. I’ve never had this.”

“What, my love?”

Archie swallowed hard. His heart was thudding in astonishment that Rufus would risk the endearment, here on the path where the yellow roses had closed over their heads in the summer, and the green leaves provided such sheltering shade. There was no concealment now, only thorns. His fingers on one hand were laced tight through Rufus’s. He had to wait before he could answer, and his words came through gritted teeth. “Waiting for someone. Long enough to wonder if they were alive or dead.”

“Oh, God.” Rufus turned to face him. He lifted his face, and Archie wouldn’t kiss him, not out here, but somehow their brows were resting together. Giles had discreetly vanished, all the noisy new arrivals briefly quenched. If the house itself had a power of protection, channelled through his transformed spirit and the watchful souls of Drusilla and Maria Nettles, they would be safe. “I’m so sorry. The railways seem to like to keep their most urgent work for the busiest time of the year, and...”

“And what?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“No, not nothing.” Archie picked up and followed the glimmering threads of unease, his keys to the labyrinth of his lover’s mind. “Why else are you late?”

 

“Oh, Archie. Someone jumped in front of the train. One of the reporters who... who went into Belsen and took all the photographs, the guard said it was. Another one.”

 

Archie closed his grip tighter. He said, for want of a wiser or more consoling word, “Fuck.”

 

“Sorry. I wasn’t going to tell you.”

 

Archie gave him a gentle shake. “Why on earth not?”

 

“Because I’ve come home for Christmas. And there’s nothing festive about...”

 

“A body on the railway line. For such awful reasons.” Quickly Archie checked around. He’d learned that one glance wasn’t enough, that observers could congregate without a breath or shoe-scrape of warning. He hated his vigilance, but he’d pay the price a thousand times over if it meant he could lay a hand on his lover’s face, give him that comfort right now when he needed it, not half an hour later when – knowing Rufus – he’d have found a way to choke the trouble down. “I’m so glad you did tell me. We’re being called post-war England, you know. I read it in the Times.”

Rufus pushed his cheek against Archie’s palm. He’d closed his eyes, and the relief of the loving touch at the right moment had softened the lines of pain on his brow. “So everything’s over, is it? Shall I break out my demob suit?”

“Oh, did you finally get one of those?”

 

“Yes. I shouldn’t have, really, because they more or less shipped me home in a bucket, and I never did get to trade in my uniform for civvies at one of the centres. Still, they issued me one, and sent it care of the museum because they didn’t have my address down here. It’s rather dapper, I have to say – pinstripes, with a little waistcoat to match. I should have brought it with me. It’s just that...”

 

“It’s just that for you, it won’t ever be over. Not for you, not for the Jews, not for anyone who saw what happened in the camps. Not for me either, and that’s the good part, dear Rufus – we don’t have to hide from each other. We never have to pretend that everything’s all right.”

 

Rufus let go of an unsteady breath. Then he looked up, and gave Archie a smile of such brilliance that for a moment summer returned, and the scent of golden roses. “But the strange thing is that... knowing you feel that way, everything is all right for me, somehow. Come along, Squire Archie. You’d better introduce me to your house-load of Christmas guests.”

 

“I didn’t invite any of them, you know. They just descended. And you mustn’t call me squire, love!”

 

“I suppose you shouldn’t call me love, out here in the open, if it comes to that. Ah, if you could have seen yourself, though – standing on the doorstep surveying your domain, and all the birds flocking to you for shelter!”

 

“For Mrs Nettles’ mince pies, is more like it. Very well, then – come on in, if I’m not to be allowed half an hour with you in the bike shed first.” He took hold of Rufus’s wrist, drew his arm through his own. “We’re allowed this much, aren’t we?”

 

“Yes. We’re allowed this much.”

 

Together they made their way into the house. Archie’s whole attention had focussed on the link between them, where human warmth had made its way through tweed and cotton and was sending up bright signals to his heart. He barely noticed the new shadow falling across the hallway: stopped with a jolt when Rufus did, clamping one hand tight to his arm. “Good Lord, Archie. What’s that?”

 

Archie followed his gaze. The huge stag’s skull had been hoisted over the archway that led to the kitchen, and expertly lashed into place there, tinsel and all. “Ah. Drusilla brought us that as a kind of Christmas gift, although she doesn’t hold with new-fangled modern festivals. He’s for Yuletide, I gather. I’ve no idea how he’s ended up there so quickly – although, having said that, the house is full of able-bodied young men at the moment.”

 

“Oh, really? Who have you got? Captain Meredith must count for one.”

 

“Several, if being an adoring husband qualifies him. Billy Prescott is around here somewhere, come to show off his constable’s uniform. And then of course there’s...” Their eyes met, and they both finished out the thought in rich amusement. “There’s Giles.”

 

Stifled giggles exploded from the living room. Archie’s reflexes weren’t fast enough to pull his arm out of Rufus’s grip, and damned if he would anyway: we can have this much, Rufus had said, and Archie was ready to defend their small permissions and privileges to the death. Straight-faced and steady, he turned to the source of the noise. “Ah,” he said, as urbanely as he could manage. “Rufus, I haven’t yet had the chance to introduce you to...”

Oh, hell. He couldn’t remember their names. Worse, he couldn’t think how to define them, these glittering, silk-clad apparitions. And that was ridiculous, because if they’d been men he’d have simply said that they were Giles’s friends. Distress began to shadow the younger woman’s face, and Giles, as if receiving a silent summons, shot out of the kitchen. He edged past Archie and Rufus, smiling, and went to put an arm around her waist. “My fiancée,” he said firmly, making her beam in pleasure and relief. “And this is her sister, Greta. Ladies, this is Dr Denby, the famous archaeologist I told you about.”

“Oh,” said Loretta, “I’ve read about you in the papers, Dr Denby. Ever so interesting. Such an honour to meet you.”

 

Rufus would always have trouble with women, Archie wryly reflected. Despite his wholly restored reputation and growing fame, he brought a shy charm to introductions which inevitably bowled them over. He had let go of Archie and was stepping forward now, hand outstretched. “I’ve made your acquaintance too, in a way,” he said, and Loretta took his hand and looked as though she’d have liked to kiss it. “Yours too, Miss Lombardi. Archie and I saw you in a film, the last time we were in London. Highly...” He paused, and no-one but Archie would have detected his brief struggle for a word. “Most diverting. It’s my great pleasure to meet you both too.”

Trust Rufus to remember the womens’ faces, to pick out the one link between them. Over time, Archie had learned how close he’d come to losing him to Alice Winborne, who even in her grief had come down like a weary dove in response to his diffident kindness. Greta’s mouth had fallen open. She said, in what might have been meant as a whisper but carried clearly across the room,”Oh, my God, Lorrie. I know what you said, but I can’t possibly choose!”

 

Loretta went scarlet. She grabbed her sister’s arm. “That was a joke,” she hissed. “A joke between us, and a private one, you fool!”

Archie and Rufus watched in bewilderment as she dragged Greta to the door, then out into the hallway. Their voices faded off in a series of yelps and snarls. Giles, left behind and blushing vividly too, turned to face them. “I’m very sorry, gentlemen,” he said. He really was the pink of post-war English perfection, Archie thought, with his handsome, open face and immaculately cut motoring gear. Again over time, the memories of his emergence from the pit beneath the church had begun to seem like a dream. “I’m very fond of Greta, but the truth is that she’s travelling with us because Lorrie is so keen to help her find a husband, and... well, when I told them about the two of you, they had their little joke about which of you Greta would prefer.”

 

“Oh,” was all Archie could think of to say, and was relieved when Rufus added a slightly more articulate, “Good grief.”

 

“I know,” Giles agreed, nodding fervently. “I’d be angry with her, only I do remember how it was when... well, when I was like her. A man in his thirties has the world at his feet, if he’s talented and hardworking, which she is, in her way. An actress that age has to look around her. Most of them jump out of the business to get married, you see.”

 

Archie rubbed his brow. “And... she thought to land here?”

 

“Not seriously. It’s my fault really. I talked to them so much about you both – how kind you were, and how good. One of you a country squire, and the other getting so well known for making all those discoveries... I suppose they’ve come to think of you as what they call a catch.”

 

But I’ve already been caught. Archie didn’t know why he didn’t just say it. He hadn’t dreamed the transformation in the pit, the turning castle where his lungs had been healed by Rufus’s kiss and Gillian had turned into Giles. He was certain that Giles knew. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, keeping a tremor of laughter out of his tone, trying to imagine either himself or Rufus pairing off with such a bird of cinematic paradise. “You and your Lombardis stay here for Christmas. And perhaps you can find a way of telling Greta that, lovely though she is, she’ll find better opportunities...”

 

“Archie, look.”

 

He swung round. For a minute or so he’d been aware that Rufus’s attention had detached itself from the discussion of Greta’s hopes and dreams. Archie was used to these shifts. They happened more and more often, as Rufus healed and regained the gifts that had put him in the archaeological spotlight before his terrible war. He was standing with his hands in his pockets now, to all appearances just a quiet man at the end of a long journey, but his eyes were shining. With one hand he indicated first the great stag’s skull, just visible through the doorway to the hall, and then the painting over the fireplace – George Mount, the vast hilltop labyrinth he had discovered, now visited by historians, folklorists and historians from all over the world. He caught and held Archie’s gaze, smiling. “Look.”

 

Archie couldn’t look anywhere else. After a moment, Giles said, quietly, “Thank you, then, Squire Thorne. Dr Denby. I’ll go and help the ladies unpack.”

 

He strode away. Archie allowed himself a moment to wonder at his powerful movements, the air of sheer masculinity that had brought his polar opposites, the flickering, glittering moths, to flutter around his flame. Then he focused on Rufus. “You’ve discovered something.”

 

“Yes. Isn’t it strange? I could do this before the war, but only occasionally. Then when it all got knocked out of me, and I came to Droyton and...” His voice shook slightly. “And you put it back, you must have added something extra. Because now it happens all the time.”

 

Archie held himself stiffly back. Rufus’s gift for landscape archaeology, for picking out a site without so much as sinking a trench or turning a trowel-ful of soil, had flown them both off to all the round Earth’s imagined corners. Then he saw that Giles had carefully, lovingly closed the door behind him, and he crossed the lily-patterned carpet in four big steps and pulled him into his arms. “Rufus. Dear fellow. Thank God you’re home.”