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Notes:

Let me introduce you to my army of betas: Bina, the mother of this fic, who was there from the first second and whose inbox may never recover, but without whom NONE of it would've ever happened. Staraflur, who taught me a thing or two about The Ways of Sides, skateparks and who somehow managed to pick up on my subtle Cook obsession. Itachi, who never gave up on even my freakiest attempts at grammar and who reminded me where the uncles are at. And kc, whose insights never failed to make me go !!! and who saved Gaius from a lifetime inside a closet with a Segway. Also want to thank my brilliant cheerleader, ZaraT, who dubbed this fic 'The Hineyken'. I love you too hard, bb. A million hearts in eyeballs to everyone who listened to me whine, who helped in any way and to the public railways, where most of this madness came from in the first place.



He takes whatever sleep he can get.

On a bench at the station, tightly folding his arms over his chest and holding his chin in the dip of his collar, he manages a few minutes of rest that—in retrospect—won't contribute anything at all, even if they do feel too crucial to let pass right now. Occasionally, he cracks open one eye to woozily check the hour, vaguely aware of the blurry crowd on the platform: schoolbags, suitcases, sunglasses; heads intermittently jerking up toward to the grand clock hanging above.

There are pretty faces around—buying coffee, balancing on heels or talking—and he follows them all for a brief moment before giving up, too tired to care as much as he wants to and knowing he's perhaps still a little drunk, still too close to passing out to chance one of those private glances that get him attention—the good kind—when sober. So instead he remains unmoving, half asleep, until the train rolls in with a whoosh of air and a lot of rumble. For this he wakes, grudgingly obliging to routine, clambering to his feet with maybe one too many grunts.

The compartments' low windows angle the morning sun, letting the light through and colouring it a shade of brown in even, rectangular shapes on the platform floor. He blinks and numbly takes notice, wading through the brightness of it, not quite sure what day it is or how to differentiate this morning from any given morning of the past three years. Though it isn't a necessarily bad thing, just an observation, and he thinks of that and not much more as he hops in and travels the aisles, lazily, flopping into the first window seat he spots. Dumping his bag at his feet, he rests his head against the sill, sinking into a shallow sleep that will last an exact thirty-five minutes.

Once in the city, the chances of getting longer periods of uninterrupted rest drop drastically. There's perhaps a minute or five of closed-eyed stillness to be had on campus, outside the lecture hall, head lolling back against the wall as he waits for either classes to commence or for someone to casually tap his cheek with a flat hand and an amused,

"All right, mate?"

To which he squints open one eye and replies, hoarsely,

"Just brilliant, Art." And then, giving the friend a weary look-over, "You?"

"I'm fucking hyped, mate!" Art says from next to him, adding a shockingly loud whoop of laughter as he arches against the wall—eyes wild, dilated with whatever he's been taking "Still reeling on that shit from last night. That was fucking ace, wunnit? I mean—" Art's back of a hand to his chest, thumping for emphasis, "wunnit?"

And then there's the two-hour span of classes. In general, these prove harder to sleep through than expected, though sometimes he's lucky and Art is too spaced out, or simply over his high and suddenly too tired to talk to him. On days like that, they quarantine the back of the hall, splaying themselves over the chairs that weren't made for sleep at all, dozing off to the sound of lectures they'd attended before in previous years but in which they—every time again—had forgotten to pay attention.

Most days, however, Art doesn't show up, and so he ends up sitting with some other people he sort of recognises. They talk, somewhat, but not in the constant, unhinged and whispery manner Art does, so there's little keeping him from paying attention to the projected presentation below but too much keeping him from simply resting his head on the table and passing out.

Though even without the excuse of sleep, concentration often comes with difficulty. He stares at the backs of people's heads sooner than he listens to information coming at him; reads the messages scribbled onto the chair in the row in front of him, adds one of his own, plays a game on his phone, scans the room for Accidental Cleavage and—on finding it—brings it to the attention of his neighbour for a quickly shared leer.

And if that isn't enough, as it usually isn't, aimlessly looking around often does the trick.

He hooks an arm over the back of his seat, casually glancing back and going through the faces: Penny, up in fifth row, who got famously drunk last term and flashed everyone at a faculty party. A couple of second years, some unfamiliar characters furiously taking notes—clearly not from here, he concludes.

The Twins, whose facial reactions always eerily match and whose names he never remembers being told. Ben, only two rows up, whose earpiece-extension forever dangles from the tangle of his hair and who always gives him a jerky nod of hello—one which he'll imitate, later, with his friends in a pub somewhere and have a laugh over.

Then that particular group of girls who always sit together—and out of all there's only one he thinks is hot but she never looks up at the right time—sitting next to Heineken, a broody kid who takes his skateboard to class, and whose real name is forever lost due to a supposed incident during first year introduction that involved a beer bottle, an unsavoury way of putting it to use and a partner too drunk to care.

He holds out, though, until catching a glimpse of Rose—usually in the back, fiddling with her phone. Lovely, lovely Rose, who replies to his slow grins with a long-nailed middle finger and who'd sometimes blow him in the coatrooms of parties.

Someone calls him, a mate or someone's mate, a sharp, "Oi, Tony," usually toward the end of the lecture or maybe even after it, as they saunter their way towards the cafeteria. "You up for it, tonight?"

To this he thinks for a moment, tries to calculate the amount of times he's closed his eyes for longer than five minutes over the past twenty-four hours, but quickly gives up and complies with a sighing chuckle and a, "Sure. Why not."

He gets another total of two hours after that: starting with thirty minutes on the way back, in the train. He dumps his things at home and says, Hi, mum, and, Classes were insanely fascinating as usual, mum, and Yes I'm going out with the blokes, mum, and Check up with you later, yeah? and All right, bye, mum—I'll—yes, bye! I'm going! I'm—no, I'm sure, but—no, bye! Bye!

Then another thirty on the way back to the city, whether in the train or in the passenger's seat of Art's mini. The extra hour only comes early in the morning, when he leaves the city and his friends with boisterous laughter, briefly gripping their shoulders before taking off. He strolls down the somewhat deserted streets in the lingering summer heat, hands in his pockets all the way back to the train station. Another trip back home. He takes a shower, inspects the kitchen and grabs a handful of cereal on which he munches—loudly—as he sits at his mother's bedside and says,

"No, got back a while ago. Yeah, just on my way out. What? Oh, yeah, sure. Was fun. Dunno, some seminar, I think. No—no. I'm eating, see? You just go back to sleep. I'll see you this afternoon, all right? Yes, I—yeah, love you too, mum. Now go back to sleep. Bye. Have a nice—yeah. You too."




(day one)



The sun, if they stare at it for long enough, is more like a hole than anything else: a small circle letting in the light from an impossibly bright backdrop, as though the sky is just a thin sheet stretched over the atmosphere, keeping everyone from going blind.

It's a good day, they decide. One of the better ones they've seen so far. It's quiet and summer, and even though they call it sneaking out there is really no one who seems to mind their absence in the slightest. They had plans of swimming, of seeking the cooler grounds of the forest, but never made it past the grassy incline behind the castle—collapsing halfway up, sweaty and out of breath. Only for a second, Arthur had said, and kept on saying so even an hour later, when they hadn't moved an inch. Merlin just hummed in muffled agreement, having untied his scarf and draped it over his face, the bridge of his nose already too deep a shade of red, his skin agreeing to the sun's insistence much more easily than Arthur's.

"So," Merlin says.

"What?" Arthur replies, voice deep with the angle of his neck.

Merlin folds back a corner of the scarf to squint at Arthur through one eye. "Was wondering, yeah, d'you ever think about . . . when you'll get to be king, and all? I mean—as in, what you'll do. Or plan to do. Or . . . something."

Arthur, eyes still closed—head propped on his folded arms—lazily smiles up at the sky. He doesn't need to turn to Merlin as he replies, "I'd have to be pretty bloody stupid, not to be thinking about that by now, wouldn't I?"

Merlin silently looks at him for a while longer, the blue fabric covering the rest of his face muddling with Arthur's profile. "Well," he says at length. "What's the wildest thing you think you'll do? As king?"

Arthur's eyebrows slightly pull together. He tries to blink open his eyes, to give Merlin a glance, but can't for the brightness of the day.

"For yourself, I mean," Merlin clarifies. "Something you'd do for yourself."

Arthur's frown doesn't go away as he untangles an arm from under his head, brings a hand up for shadow—lifting his head to give Merlin a proper look. Whatever he thinks to find in the small triangle visible of Merlin's face, he doesn't, and sinks back into the grass.

"I don't know," he says. "Allow sparring indoors? Always wanted to do that. Like a sparring room, where you can, sort of—jump on the tables, and all, with the swords and . . . I don't know. I'll cut down on the dances, probably." He thinks about this for a moment, and then, "I hate dancing."

Merlin laughs, short and lightly. "That's the craziest you can come up with?" he wants to know. "Fewer dances?"

"What? It's—I can't just do whatever! There are—" he stops, makes a bit of a face, but sounds less certain all the same when he adds, "duties." Then, as a hurried counter-attack, "Why, what would you do?"

"If I were king?" Merlin pushes his scarf off his face, giving Arthur a deadpan look.

"Yes," Arthur says. "If you're so clever."

"I'd . . . " Merlin considers, thoughtfully shifting a on the grass. "One crazy thing?" he asks for confirmation, worries his lip, and, "Probably paint the castle. Green, I think."

Arthur's head slowly turns to blankly stare for a long, long moment. He blinks, once, and Merlin can't help the bark of laughter that Arthur's unimpressed face pulls out of him.

"What!" he says, smiling. "To shake things up. It's not like—It's hypothetical. And besides, 's still better than your banning of all dances." He raises his eyebrows to this, underlining his point and perhaps challenging a little, but Arthur won't go for it. He just snorts, shaking his head, and turns to the sky again—arms folding back, propping him up and he closes his eyes. But Merlin keeps his gaze level on Arthur, quietly watching the slightest movements of his features, and he is comfortable in realising how familiar they are.

"It's weird, you know," he continues after a while. "Thinking of you as king. Ruling and stuff."

Arthur gives a soft huff of amusement, murmuring, "And stuff."

Merlin looks away, settling more easily on his back. "Guess you'll have to get married and everything," he says.

"That's the general gist of it, yeah."

"Do you . . . do you think you'll. You know." Merlin tugs at a tuft of grass by his hand, piling the loose blades on a pile next to it. "Like her? Your—wife? Or—"

Arthur sighs, loud and sharp. "What's with the questions, Merlin?"

"I'm just curious, is all. I mean, I'm thinking . . . . It's just, if I ever, you know." Another fistful of grass, yanked out with the dirt still clinging to the roots. "Settle down or whatever. I'd want it to be with someone I . . . you know. But when you're king, I guess—It's just not fair, is it? That you don't get the chance to—"

"You don't know that," Arthur interjects, suddenly losing the joking edge to his tone. "You don't know what'll happen."

Merlin is a bit wary for a moment. He's unsure of his boundaries, constantly, and attempts what he thinks is a respectful step back by saying, "No." And, "I suppose I don't." Yet can't help himself, no more than three heartbeats later, and blurts out a quick, "Have you ever even been—?"

"Yes," is Arthur's reply, immediate and shameless.

At once, Merlin wants to ask more. Who? Where? When? Before I—Do I know—How was—

But he doesn't. Something incomprehensible settles at his throat and he flushes, unnoticeable in the heat of the early afternoon. He glances at Arthur, quickly, hoping to see something of embarrassment—or explanation, or anything—but Arthur is lying still, closed-eyed and mellow in the sun. So Merlin turns his head to the other side, seeing only a long stretch of faintly swaying grass.

"How about you then, Merlin?" Arthur says after a while, now with a smile in his voice, foot lightly nudging Merlin's leg. "You ever had it bad?" he enunciates every word separately, clearly, making fun already.

"Well." Merlin tries to think about it, but, "Yeah, I guess. Or. No. I don't know. How do you know, anyway, when you're in . . ." He grimaces at the sky. "Yeah. You can't, not really, not—"

"Oh," Arthur interrupts with a small, haughty chuckle. "You'd know."

With an instinctive reaction, Merlin turns to look at him again—sharply and in question. Arthur turns too, a wry little smile on his lips as he repeats, again,

"You'd know."

"Oh," is all Merlin has. That and an awkward grin, nervous eyes that suddenly can't look away from the crease of his sleeve.

"Yep," Arthur says, lightly, and Merlin can see the widening smile dancing just outside his vision.

An inevitable silence settles in, and they both return to squinting up at the scatter of two or three clouds. It's companionable enough, though, each left to his own thoughts—flittering and vague as they may be. It's such an easy moment, and so unforced when Arthur calmly rolls over and briefly presses his mouth to Merlin's—that it almost isn't shocking at all.

Though it is. A little.

Arthur doesn't seem bothered. He just laughs, pushes himself to his feet, claps his hands free of dirt and says,

"C'mon, idiot. Race you to the castle."

Merlin frowns at him, propping himself on his elbows, the sun making it hard to see what Arthur is looking at—what kind of expression he has to go with it, too. Though, when Arthur extends a hand to help him up, Merlin takes it, unthinkingly, and pays for it when Arthur uses the leverage to suddenly push him down again. He takes off in a backward jog, laughing, calling—

"Come on, then!"

So Merlin comes on, then. Arthur is fast, but not so much today, and when Merlin passes him he shoves at Arthur's shoulder, liking it when the man stumbles a bit. Arthur just seems to enjoy the prospect of losing to Merlin even more, grinningly catching up and shoving back—sending Merlin toppling to the grass, willingly going down with him and making a half-hearted attempt to pin him to the ground. Merlin doesn't feel the gifted victory is any less of a victory when he rolls them over in a bit of a scuffle and ends up on top—straddling Arthur, holding his hands to the ground over his head. Arthur is beaming up at him, eyes bright with the playfulness of the game, and he wordlessly laces his fingers with Merlin's—sending both their hearts skidding and sliding and falling all over themselves within their chests.

Merlin fills up and then runs over with it, with the goofy grins and wide eyes, and leans down in a brief, quick movement—lightly kissing Arthur, for just a moment.

It's then that the first deep and low ripple flows through the ground beneath them. Through the field and further, under the city and the line of earth it follows. It's the most unusual occurrence, the rarest, and yet goes by without the slightest notice. Merlin feels it and thinks that's just what it always feels like, the pressing of lips and everything that comes with it. Arthur doesn't note any of it, not a thing at all, his eyes fixed on Merlin as the boy clambers off him—as they get to their feet and laugh for no discernable reason, shove at each other some more, running and racing and smiling, newly oblivious to the world around them in a wonderfully incurable manner.




He stuffs his jacket behind his head, in the nook of his neck, trying to get comfortable between the seat's upholstery and the window sill. The day had once again proved too hot, and he'd ended up walking with the jacket in hand—then slung over a shoulder, then stuffed into his bag, then back into his hand again, annoyed with the lightness of it, that didn't balance out with how much space it took up. Now, however, it proves to be rather useful, cushioning his half-hearted attempt at rest and catching the shakes and jumps of the train as it races over the tracks.

Settling like that, arms crossed high over his chest, he lazily peers at the pathway—the compartment, at the scattered crowd of people, squinting at windows, illuminated in flashes of light skidding along the trees whooshing past outside.

When he sees a familiar face he stops for a moment and realises, quietly, that it must be Friday. He knows of a few people from the old school who moved to the city and now make the short trip back only on the odd weekends, looking strangely troubled for people who are supposedly going back home. Sometimes he would cross paths with one of them at the station, or end up sitting in the same compartment, and the thirty minutes would be filled with stunted talk of what they used to be like when they were seventeen, and how silly they were, and how much they've changed. That would hang in the air for a while as they looked around, thinking about how little they have changed after all.


But the train is long, has enough coaches and departs often enough for this to be the exception rather than the rule. Usually, Anthony has no one's company to resent but his own.

The bloke with the face he almost sort-of-knows slumps a bit lower in his seat while anxiously fiddling with a lighter, opposite Anthony himself only a few good rows back. In the back of his mind, he is vaguely relieved at never having spoken to the guy, not having to look up in recognition. He's rather sure they didn't go to the same school, the only comprehensive in town, but has seen him here often enough to be certain that they're always heading in the same direction. His gaze, wary with the late hour of day, shifts lazily to the weekend bag at the guy's feet, next to the propped up skateboard, and he grapples uselessly for a name—convinced he's must've heard it before—but gets no further than what he knows. Heineken.

Anthony wonders, Why Heineken again?, then remembers the story someone (Art, probably, the sole source of most repulsive tales on campus) once told him of where the nickname came from and feels his interest dissipate into a thin conviction of, ugh, sick.

The train stops. Some people get off, and Anthony closes his eyes for a while, waiting for the movement to resume with a jerk and a hum that easily travels through the fibreglass body of the compartment. When he next looks about it's because the train has stopped again. He tiredly glances out, sees nothing but farmlands, empty fields, and assumes another train has to pass—or maybe they hit a small animal on the way, which happens sometimes and they always have to stop, check, make sure it's nothing bigger than a deer. The light outside has lowered into pinks and the seats around him are mostly empty. There's just him and that kid, still flicking his lighter and blankly staring out the window.

Anthony sighs, rolls his shoulder, sits up and tugs his jacket from behind him. The lights flicker on and off, which is a more unusual occurrence than this momentary stop, and he pauses—frowning up at the ceiling, then automatically across the compartment, at the lighter-guy.

Heineken glances back, then sideways at nothing—raising a brow as the lights flicker again, then turn off entirely.

With a jerky movement, Anthony sits up higher. The jacket falls to his lap as he holds on to the headrest of the seat in front of him, looking behind him and up again, listening to a rustling in the speakers—for anything that might indicate an announcement. Nothing.

He turns in his seat once, twice, sighs again and stops, sending an irked look toward his sole companion in the coach, expecting to see it reflected—a moment of shared, 'god, can you believe this shit?'. He doesn't get it, though, and instead is given a slightly amused look of patience in the dim light of dusk.

"It's probably nothing," he says out loud, as if to himself—as if to prove something—while settling back in his seat, feigning indifference.

"Whatever," is the guy's muttered reply. Anthony scowls and watches him arch slightly to dig into his pocket, take out a flattened pack of cigarettes and tap the bottom to make a few surface where the paper's been ripped off the carton. He picks one with his lips, lets it dangle there, and brings up the lighter huddled between his palms.

"Hey," Anthony says, peeking over the seats. Then, sliding towards the aisle, "Hey, you can't smoke in here."

He glances up, pausing still in the process of lighting the fag. He looks at Anthony, straight at him for a moment, then flicks his lighter closed—pockets it, takes a long drag, then lifts the cigarette, limp between two fingers.

"My bad," he says, smoke filtering out the corners of his mouth as he stands up. The red end of the fag glows in the shadowed compartment as he takes another drag and grinningly strolls backwards down the aisle, giving a mocking salute before turning around and pushing at the lever of the automatic door.

Anthony inches back his face, staring at the closing door in troubled annoyance. He looks up at the dead lights again, then hisses out a sigh—shoves aside his jacket and pushes himself out of the seat. Walking towards the end of the coach he lightly pounds fists to the heads of seats as he passes, anxious as he is, and gets to the partition just in time to see the Heineken guy hop out of the open doors of the vestibule.

Confused, he starts after, hanging on to the balance pole as he leans half out of the train.

"Where—" he calls after and stops, incredulous, watching as the bloke casually ruffles his hair with his cigarette hand and looks around while walking further into the high-grass field. Anthony exhales in disbelief and finishes with a, "Where the fuck are you going?"

For this he gets a short, dismissive glance. "Having a look around?" the guy says from a distance, shrugging.

"The train could start any second." To underline this point, he leans back a moment to look into the coach. "All your shit is still in there, too. No one's gonna wait."

"Really?" The guy pauses now, turning back to look at Anthony—two hands in his pockets, fag loose between his lips. "You think it's just a glitch or something?"

"Uh, yeah," he replies, making it sound obvious, raising his eyebrows to it too. "Probably."

The guy nods, thoughtfully and slowly, cigarette lifting a bit as he takes another drag. "Then explain to me, please," he says around the fag, "why in fuck's name the doors were open?"

Anthony looks at him. He rolls his tongue, cocks his jaw, then reluctantly takes one step down the one stair of the high rung meant for boarding from equally levelled platforms. Like this, holding on to the door's pole and swaying out of the train, he peers down the length of the locomotive. For as far as he can see, all the doors are open. All the lights are out.

They are the only ones outside, though.

"Well," he says, uneasy. "They can still get the electricity or whatever running any—"

The guy laughs, turning again to resume his walk into the fields. "Then by all means," he calls out without looking back, "stay in the train."

Frowning at the silhouette retreating into the knee-high weeds, Anthony takes a moment or two to contemplate a course of action if the train really does start to move right now—would he jump back in? Out? Would he try to find a conductor, take the guy's things back home with him, leave them there, give them to a—

"Fuck it," he mutters to himself, lets go of the pole and hops off the step, landing in the sloping gravel of the tracks, making the dust rise up around his legs for a second before he walks through it and down the continuing descent, into the grasses. Heineken is a good while away, so he tries to walk a bit faster—jogging over the uneven ground, all the while casting nervous glances past his shoulder at the train, still unmoving and dark behind them.

"Wait," he calls when within earshot again, slowing down into a normal pace. "I'll—I—" he cuts himself short as the guy comes to a stop, shooting him a calm, questioning look. Anthony feels a little silly, then, and covers it up by forcing his hands into his pockets and keeping his shoulders high as he says,

"What're you looking for, anyway?"

"Dunno," the guy says. Then, taking his fag between two fingers again and toeing an ankle-high wall of crumbling stones hidden in the weeds, "What d'you reckon this is, then?"

Anthony raises a slight brow at the small rocks tumbling off each other at the mere nudging contact. "Stones," he says, as though it's a question, "and shit?"

The guy gives a noncommittal hum, then starts walking down the path of the little wall. "S'not a pasture wall," he mutters. "Look at it." He quickly glances at Anthony, eyes shining in the darkening surroundings. "Doesn't look like it belongs here."

"D'you seriously care?" Anthony laughs lightly. "I mean, who the fuck . . . " he trails off at the stony look he gets in reply, clears his throat and shifts his gaze to the single tree nearby. It's thick and seemingly hollow, twisting oddly into itself. "You don't know that for sure, anyway," he says instead. Then, glancing back at the guy, "Bet you're making that shit up as you go, aren't you?"

This, at least, gets him a wry smile. "Yeah," he says on an almost-laugh of a breath. "Whatever."

"You're a second year, aren't you." Anthony strolls after as the guy skips over the wall, following its inclining path—up a slight hilling easily mistaken for higher grasses.

"What of it," he says, flicking what's left of his smoke to the ground, stepping on it as he goes.

Anthony shrugs. "Nothing. Just . . . " He pushes himself off on his knee, climbing up the ascend. "We have some classes together, don't we?"

"Do we?" A quick, wry glance. "Never noticed."

Noting the thick sarcasm to that, Anthony nods while pursing his lips into a thin line. He looks down and pretends he and his friends haven't—once or twice in a distant past—on seeing this guy skate across the campus path, shouted something ugly in his direction for the sake of a laugh.

He flashes a look back at the train, ghost-like and dark from where they are now. It's still there, quiet and calmly unmoving, and something about it sends an uneasy shiver down his spine.

"We should probably go back," he says, sounding quiet even to his own ears.

"Then go back," is the reply, accompanied by the chafing sound of soles on dirt as the guy slides down the slope to the small valley-like lea below. The momentum gives him a bit too much movement and he nearly runs the last few steps, jogging into the field before setting in a slow walk toward the single boulder placed—quite randomly—in its middle.

Anthony glances back one more time, sucks in a breath between where his teeth are worrying his lip, then slides down as well—using one hand on the ascending ground for balance.

"Jesus," he hears a while away, and looks up from dusting off his hands to see the guy standing by the boulder—the rock, really, some kind of erratic or a misplaced wall of a dolmen—one hand on the surface, admiring its size.

"This thing is huge," he says when Anthony catches up, frowning at the mass of stone.

"It's a . . . " He snorts, slapping the cold surface of it. "Rock."

The guy ignores him and continues to round the rock, fingers tapping along the cracks of it.

"So what's your name, anyway?" Anthony asks, leaning against the side of the stone as the guy disappears around it.

"Oh, you know my name," he says, voice condescending even without a face to go with it. "What's that one you and your mates have taken such a liking to? Oh yeah. Heineken. 'Preciate that, by the way, that's real . . . " he trails off for a moment, long enough for Anthony to shift around the rock to face him again just as he laughs out a surprised, "What the hell?"

Anthony shrugs himself off the stone with a mumbled, "What?"

"Look at this," he says, tentatively pulling at something sticking out of the veined, grey surface. Anthony turns, comes to stand closer and feels a cackle of his own escape his lips at the sight of eroded metal—a distinct hilt of some sort—peeking out of the stone.

"No shitting way," he says, still laughing, watching Heineken pull harder—setting one foot against the rock for leverage, making a real effort, pulling a face to it and everything.

"What are you doing?"

"Ensuring my rightful place as the king of England," the guy says, trying to shake the thing into budging. "Obviously."

"Obviously," Anthony agrees, incredulous as the guy pushes up his sleeves—tries for another angle and, with a quick chuckle of laughter, pulls at it again.

"Shit," Heineken says after a long moment of still effort, letting go and inspecting his red hands, fisting and opening them again with a hiss. "There goes my kingly reputation."

"Well," Anthony says, briefly cocking his head before stepping forward, shouldering the guy away. "My turn."

Heineken gives a short, unimpressed huff, which immediately earns him a quick and annoyed glare. To this he shrugs, says, "All yours," and lifts his chafed hands as though to welcome Anthony to do whatever he wants with the rock and any of its extensions.

Anthony slowly turns back to the rock. He makes a bit of a show of rolling his shoulders, of lacing his fingers and stretching his arms out—cracking the joints—then shaking them out, sniffing twice as he goes.

Behind him that same patronising huff sounds, and he sucks in an irked hiss.

"Silence," he throws over his shoulder. Then, in not much more than a mutter as he faces the crumbling hilt-like thing again, "peon."

He digs in a heel, takes on the stance, and curls two hands around as much of the metal he can get at. It's rusty and flakes with bits of wiring, odd elements and whatever else went in it, crunching and crumbling a bit in his grip. He gives it a trying shake of a movement and is surprised at how loose it feels. Easy, he thinks, and pulls.

Nothing. The thing won't even budge.

"Oh yeah," comes the comment from behind. "Real impressive there, your highness."

Anthony sighs, loudly, and realigns to the rock. "Shut up," he says, and tries again. The guy laughs and replies to this, but the beginning of the sentence—whatever the word is, the syllable—is suddenly lost in a rushing whoosh.

It's an odd, unexpected breeze, a strong rustling where a moment ago there was nothing but summer heat and insects buzzing. He casts a quick look back over his shoulder, sees the guy's confused expression as a misplaced gust of air begins to whip around them—folding their fringes over their faces, making it hard to see. Anthony tries to say something, say What the hell, or anything to that line of thought, but he doesn't have time to react, to wonder even, before it hits him a split second after: a force like wind, coming from behind and in front of him, from the sides—scraping like a sandstorm, whirling, and when he tries look up through bleary eyesight, the colours are blurred into a massive sea of white.

He opens his mouth for some purpose, to cry out and make some noise, assure himself of his own firm presence, but nothing comes out, or maybe it's simply swallowed up, immediately, by the sucking whirlwind pushing and pulling at him.

Without a thought, without a single thought but a stunned blankness, his grip goes loose and he lets go of that which he's holding on to. He feels a stream catch him—pull him—and gives over to the storm, disappearing into the play of unnatural air, the hiss of particles scratching at his cheeks. It seems like forever, like moments in slow motion, his mind muddled and racing at the same time while everything around him speeds to circling—

"Boy."

—there is an anchoring weight at his side, his shoulder, digging into his bone and—

"Boy."

—shaking him, steadying too, setting him and stilling the winds that—

"Oi!" A light tap to his cheek and he comes to, at once breathing in air and scrabbling around him—trembling, clinging on to the scratchy fabric of the train seats.

"You need to get off," someone tells him. He blinks, slowly bringing up a hand to rub at his throbbing head as he looks up at the conductor. The yellow light of the coach makes the man look oddly wax-like, sweaty as he is in this weather, damp hair plastered to the side of his face from where it peeks out from under his hat.

"What?" Anthony tries, weakly, hand still at his head.

"The train," the conductor says, not all too patient. "It's stopped, yeah? Not going any further. You can't sleep here. You have to get off."

"Oh," he says, for a lack of anything else, blearily looking around him. The coach is empty, completely, and it's dark outside—he can barely make out the neon signs of the station's restaurant through the reflective mirroring of the windows.

"I, uhm . . ." He lets his hand travel to the back of his neck, distractedly kneading. He sucks in a breath, confused and trying to recall, remember what'd happened. "Wow," he says on a sleepy breath, blinking again to clear his mind. "What time is it?"

"Time to get home, boy," the conductor says, stepping aside as if to underline his point.

Anthony frowns up at him, still not entirely awake, not entirely sure of what and where. It takes him a long moment and a couple more blinking glances down, then out the windows again, for him to catch up, to breathe in and say,

"Yeah." He swallows away the dryness of his mouth, grabs his jacket and bag, and shuffles toward the aisle. "Of course," he adds, shaking his head at himself, pushing up. The conductor follows him until he's out of the train, is sure he's out on the platform, and Anthony acknowledges it with a curt nod and a, "Cheers."

He gets a nod in return, and the doors close. The station is quiet, it must be late, and he wonders how long he slept—it must've been hours, or at least long enough for the last of the summer daylight to disappear into night completely. He breathes in the cooler air, his mind less cloudy now, and tells himself he seriously needs to do something about his sleeping pattern—for the second time this month, for the nth time this year, and knows he won't change anyway.

Pulling on his jacket and slinging his bag over a shoulder, he starts the short walk home. It's a small town, small enough that even when he shuffles along and stops every other street he can't be on foot for longer than ten minutes. It's a nice night, clear and calm with only a handful of people out—greeting him with a faintly raised hand on passing. He wonders about the weird dream, the vividness of it, and how strange, how odd it was to have been so casual, almost plausible until the very end. And peculiar, he thinks, how peculiar he should dream of a random face like that. He wonders about that some more as he strolls up the path of his front garden, rattles with the keys as he pushes at the door and then forgets about it altogether once inside—the hallway bright and the house warm from the day, his mother calling from inside,

"Tony? Is that you?"

He tosses the keys on the small table under the coat rack, toes out of his shoes and replies with a tired, "Yeah", dumping his bag on his way to the living room.

His mother twists around from behind the computer, looking up at him as he shuffles toward her on socks. He gets a tight-lipped smile as he bends down to press a quick kiss to her forehead and mumbles that he fell asleep in the train.

"Yes, well, that wouldn't happen," she tells him as he makes for the open kitchen, rifling through the cabinets, "if you went to sleep at decent hours. Like the normal human being I raised you to be, yes. Not a hamster."

"Do not appreciate being compared to a rodent," he remarks, settling for some jam and a spoon.

"You had a hamster as a child," she tells him, rolling her chair back to properly see his face. "You loved it very dearly."

He raises an eyebrow. "I did not have a hamster."

"You might've," she says, seriously. Then, "And for god's sakes, do you have to eat it like that? There's some leftovers in the fridge if you're really that—"

"No, I'm . . . " he trails off, looking down at the jar for a moment before screwing the lid on once more—spoon held in his mouth. Sliding it onto the counter and disposing the spoon in the sink he says, "I'm not really hungry. Actually I'm—a bit . . . " He touches his somewhat sticky hand to his neck again, leaning into the counter. "Got a bit of a headache."

"Of course you do," his mother says, but she frowns at him all the same. "What with the lifestyle you've been . . . " she finishes with a flourish, flapping hand of a gesture.

"Yeah," he says, sighing. "I know."

A long pause later, a pause in which he returns his mother's scrutinising look with a calm, quick smile, Anthony makes a soft grunting noise and pushes himself back to his feet—nudging a chair closer to the dining table while he's at it before walking around it toward the staircase.

"Gonna go to bed," he says, and his mother wheels her chair further backwards to watch him go.

"Night, Anthony," she calls after.

"Night," he says back, almost setting up the stairs before, "Wake me up if you need anything, yeah?"

"And what do you think I should be needing, exactly?" She gives him a wry smile with a nod, urging up to his room. "I can manage perfectly fine on my own, thank you very much. Now off you go, child. Sleep."

For a little while Anthony stands where he is, looking at her, before relenting with a soft snort and a, "Child. Right."

Later, in his room and alone again, he tosses his shirt at a random chair and passes over the idle thought of his mother, and how odd it is to have her as a mother. And if this thought startles him, shimmying out of his jeans, if it strikes him as a misplaced idea to be pondering over, it disappears completely by the quickly-followed marvel of, My god, this house is small.

He stops for a second, looks around the walls of his room that he always considered quite comfortable, and thinks, Huh.

Giving himself a minute shake of the head, Anthony gets into bed, lazily pulling the thin sheets up to his midsection and no further—the heat too thick to allow for anything more. He falls asleep easily, quietly, and dreams in faded flashes of a nook in the wall of a tower, of tar behind hollow, straw-laid walls and of a wild boar, mad and old, stampeding through an open clearing.

~


At breakfast the next day, he looks up from the spot on the table he's stared at for an undefined length of time, his mug gone cold in the cradle of his palms, and says,

"Have we ever . . . " He frowns, glances at his mother from across the kitchen. "Have we ever been to the woods, when I was a kid?"

His mother, not looking up from her paper, "Of course we have."

"Oh." He uncurls his hands from around his mug. "Have you ever given me a spear and told me to kill a boar, then?"

A pause. His mother folds down a corner of the paper, blinking at him from behind her reading glasses, and says, "No, Tony. We never have."

"Right," he nods, wipes the back of his hand to his lip in momentary thoughtfulness—then lets it drop, resuming his staring at the corner of the table.

Then, around the afternoon, out in the garden—in the middle of a half-hearted attempt to get some reading done for Monday's exam—he puts down his book down on the plastic garden chair and walks back toward the house where he leans against the sliding doors.

"Mum," he calls, half hanging over the doorstep, feet still in the garden. "Mum, did you ever—have you ever let me ride a horse? On my own, when I was little?"

He can't see her from where he stands, but her laughter sounds clear through the rooms. "Not very likely, sweetheart."

"Right." He clucks his tongue in anxious thought, drumming his fingers to the doorframe. "Have we ever stayed in a castle, then? I mean—I don't know. A big mansion, maybe? Or . . . "

"Well. There was this once, your father and I . . . " She's quiet for a moment. "You were about two, or three. We took you to the seaside one weekend, stayed in this hotel right by the beach. Huge building, really . . . beautiful. Used to be a castle. Can't imagine you'd remember, though."

"No," Anthony agrees. "That's probably . . . probably not it, then. It's—" He pushes himself off the doorframe, strolls back to the garden with a muttered, "Strange."

And it is, irrefutably, most definitely strange. It stays strange when he looks at the microwave and marvels at it, thinks: how peculiar. It is strange when he scours the room for a pendant he forgot somewhere before realising that What, and What? And that he doesn't have a pendant, hasn't ever been given one by a great-uncle because he doesn't have a great-uncle and it stays strange throughout the day—giving him headaches, confusion thumping at his temples, and he thinks it's perhaps really gone on for too long, he's gone without regular sleep for too many years and that's it, he's gone mad, he's gone off his rocker and this is how—

"Tones!" Art sounds muffled over the phone, chewing on something. "Mate! You up for it tonight, right? 'Course you are, you utter wanker. Say no more my ill-refuted friend, I'll swing by at around ten, yeah? The boys from the garage are coming too, s'gonna be brill, yeah, all right, I'll see you when—"

He goes out that night. He goes, Fuck the exams, and changes his shirt, ruffles his hair and—looking in the bathroom mirror—hollows his cheeks, slaps the sides of his face to a quick rhythm. He listens for the telltale honking of the small car when it stops out in the street, and when it comes he jogs down the stairs, keys in hand. I'm going, he calls out to the rooms of the house. Be back later.

"Wait, Anthony, come here for a second," his mother replies from her bedroom behind the kitchen, and he goes—smiles in the doorway as she makes a vague gesture for him to come near, help her out without actually saying it. He crouches by her side, then, lets her hold on to his neck as he lifts her out of the chair and sets her down on the bed.

"Early night, then?" he asks, watching her fuss with the blankets.

"Lazy night," she corrects, nodding at the television. "Can't seem to concentrate, either way."

He hums noncommittally, jiggles with his knees. Outside, Art honks again. She looks up at him, smiling her thin smile, and tells him to have fun.

"You too," he replies, and briefly touches his hand to her shoulder before leaving. On the way out, walking the path down to the humid street, he lets the frowns and thoughts be drowned out by the mad hollers that are Art's way of greeting, continuously honking until a neighbour opens a window and shouts.

Laughing, Anthony slips into the small, rusting car—mindful of the door that'll fall off if you pull it wrong. Art gives him a light punch to the arm, says,

"How's your mum, you bastard?"

"Brilliant," he says, and they're off with a cough of smoke and half-failing engines, not so much speeding but gradually making their way toward the city.

It turns out to be a good night. He's glad he went, he isn't always glad but tonight he is: the weather feels like the season it's supposed to be, his friends are loud and happy with it, and the bars are crowded enough for it to feel like they're all there for the same reason and that reason—although beyond them—must be something good, must be something ingenious, to make for such a commotion. There are lot of them this time, a lot of people that Anthony doesn't even know but Art does—Art meets people in the oddest ways, has stories to go with that'll make you cry laughing, and with all the bloke's loudness and impropriety people can't seem to stay away from him. So the rounds keep coming, beer and shots, but it's not too much yet, they all can handle it, they're all grown boys and can hold their drink rather well for the most part.

That is, for the most part until one of them gets maybe a little too friendly, too courageous and when one of the guys from Polisci looks at a girl leaning over the bar and says, God she's fit look at that bum, they all are a bit too easy in urging him on—telling him to go on, to be a man, to pull that bird because look at her, what've you got to lose? Go on, mate, then, you go and we'll buy you two a drink, deal, deal? Is that a—

The Polisci guy swaggers, stupidly grinning as he makes his way to the bar, and they all watch from a distance—hiding mean laughs behind fists—watch as he tries to make himself interesting despite being completely shitfaced. The girl looks at him as he talks, unimpressed, and he blushes but doesn't give up, continues to talk, adding his hands, shrugging a lot and giving weak smiles and it's funny, it's absolutely hilarious until another guy comes to stand behind the girl—one hand on her waist, face stoic as he asks their friend a question.

There is obvious stammering. Sorry, man, didn't know, man, I was just trying to make conversation, I didn't— But the girl's boyfriend won't relent, starts to push at the guy's chest, and none of them have to be geniuses to see the way his lips are forming insults, cusses, slightly inebriated challenges that rarely end up in overall amusement.

"Shit," Anthony says, lager still somewhere between the table and his mouth. The boyfriend steps in front of the girl and shoves properly, sending their friend toppling backwards into the sea of arms elbows.

"Great," is Art's contribution, downing his drink and slamming it on the table before getting up on his chair—stepping on the table and hopping off on the other side. "You coming," he says, casually, and Anthony gives in with a long suffering sigh.

Together they cross the bar, feeling far too invincible for two not all that beefy blokes, and on approaching the scuffling beginnings of a fight, Art goes for the boyfriend while Anthony holds back the flushed and flailing Polisci guy. But Art isn't one for tactics, and screaming in the man's face with the intention of scaring him into backing off doesn't work as well as it usually does, and in the end Anthony has Art to hold back as well—getting between his two friends and the furious boyfriend. He places a firm hand to the man's chest, pushing him back a bit and shouting over the din,

"That's well fucking enough, mate. You've had your fun, yeah, now leave 'm alone."

The man's eyes narrow on him, and the muscles of his chest ripple dangerously under his hand.

"Did you just call me 'mate'?" the man asks, loudly and with an accent that doesn't bode well. "I'm not your fucking mate, mate, all right?" And he shoves, then, shoves hard enough to make Anthony stagger back a step. He opens his mouth to retaliate when another shove comes, along with a grunt and so much force he's actually sent fumbling to the ground—his balance already wobbly with alcohol. He half expects someone to block his fall with an awkward hand or any limb, really, but that doesn't happen and he meets the floor in a graceless, embarrassing manner: hands scrabbling for purchase on someone's shirt, face screwed up in an 'oh shit' mode, the back of his head knocked against the leg of a stool with a hollow thunk.

It could be that that makes him suddenly see white. It could be his addled brain reacting to the blow that confuses him for a moment with a rushing flash of things he doesn't remember ever happening but that are still in his head. It could be that but it probably isn't, and he's dizzy when someone hooks a hand under his arm, under both his arms and hauls him up. He hears a faint, good-hearted laugh, a 'Jesus Christ Tones you weigh like a million pounds' as he's dragged along in an indistinct direction. He tries to blink, struggles for clarity through the muddle of faces, mind trailing off on a thought of outside, of markets in summer, of simple fun with friends and of a stranger with a familiar face and a wry smile getting in his way, telling him he's had his fun, friend. Friend? was his answer, Do I know you?

"Well," Art says, sitting down next to him on the sidewalk and pressing a wet towel he got from god knows where to the back of Anthony's head. "That was a whole lot of fun."

Anthony snorts, weakly, and takes over the towel—hissing a little at the pressure he applies. "'Least we've got a story to tell," he says, voice deep from talking too loudly in the crowded bar.

"Not much of a story, though, issit?" Art says. "Some tosser shoved at you and you bravely retaliated by fainting the fuck all over yourself. Well done, Tones. Well done."

"Oh, fuck off, Art." He smiles, stretches his legs onto the asphalt. "I fell, is all, and broke my fall with my head. A very courageous move, if you ask me."

"Yeah, all right," Art replies, sarcasm heavy on his words to clearly show he's humouring him. Anthony glances at him, not amused, and Art grins in reply. Though he keeps his gaze level even when Anthony looks away, lowering his hand to inspect the towel.

"You all right, Tony?"

Anthony fidgets with the towel for a moment. It's folded around a couple of ice cubes, probably borrowed from one of the busy bars behind them. He gives a half-cough, something like clearing his throat, and says,

"D'you know that guy, the—He's in some of our classes, a second year, he . . . " He briefly glances up at Art. "People call him Heineken."

Art flashes him a quick and amused smile, as if remembering the story to go with the face. "Oh yeah," he says, nodding. "That tragedy."

"Yeah. Him." Anthony puts the towel down on the pavement next to him, bracing his hands behind him and leaning into his locked elbows. "Do you remember his name? I mean as in, his real name?"

"Dunno. I think . . . hm. Hawk, something? I remember because of the skateboard. Because that was funny, how his surname's Hawk and he's, like, all into skating and stuff. I remember thinking that was funny. Well, that and the fact he tried to shove a bottle up a—"

"That's not true though, is it? I mean. S'just one of those rumours, right, because—I mean, you don't know that, right?"

Art looks at him oddly. "Uh, I don't know, Tones? Why the fuck're you upset about this?"

"I'm not—" He pauses, rolls his eyes. "I'm not upset. Just wondering, is all. Met him on the train the other day. We . . . we talked for a second," he lies, easily and for no reason he himself can discern. "He seems like an all right enough bloke, is all."

"Oh. Well, I . . . " Art sighs, shrugs and adds, "For as far as I know there's something dodgy about him. They said the other bloke, the one from the introduction, the one he woke up with? Yeah. They said he tried to sue Heineken—or, Hawk, whatever. He always denied it and shit, but then again . . . " He stops, probably for effect, and looks up with a slow smile. "How d'you explain the other bloke dropped out a week after it all supposedly happened?"

"What? That doesn't make any—"

"He's supposedly really filthy rich, you know," Art cuts in. "The Hawk bloke. So, yeah, all I'm saying is—you never know what his family did to keep it all hush hush. You know how they are, old money and all. Don't take very kindly to bottles up the arse."

"This is bullshit," Anthony says, deadpan, adding a small laugh. "Seriously, Arthur. This is complete bullshit."

"Whatever, mate," Art says with a returning laugh. "Believe what you want to believe. All I know is I'm not gonna flash my backside to that character if I can help it."

Anthony laughs at this, a genuine laugh, leaning forward to dust off his hands between his knees before pushing himself back to his feet.

"One thing, though," he says, watching Art clamber upright as well. "For someone who's supposedly swimming in money, Art, the guy looks suspiciously homeless, don't you think?"

Art shrugs dramatically, lifting his hands in mock defence as he says, "All I know, Tones. All I know."

Anthony smiles in ironic disapproval, shaking his head at his friend. "Come on, man of little faith," he says, pushing into the pockets of his jacket as he sets down the street. "Let's go get some food."

It's beginning to turn from late to early by now, and so when they find an open kebab stand and settle on a nearby bench with their what-may-as-well-be-breakfast, the skies are already taking on a brighter shade, the horizon cloudy but pinkish nonetheless.

"You know," Art says, swallowing down a mouthful. "There's something different about you."

Anthony sends his huff of laughter into his pita. "Is it," he says, muffled into the food, "my astonishing maturity on account of my coming of age so very soon?"

"Nah. That only just made you a bit more of a wanker. No, it's . . . s'something else, I guess. Dunno." Art takes another animalistic bite, chews it down thoughtfully as a bit of grease dribbles from the bottom of his kebab paper to the pavement. "I can't quite," he adds after a while, "put . . . my . . . "

Anthony stares at him. He doesn't notice as his grip goes lax and the meat-filled bread slips from his hands to the ground. Art turns to look at him, surprised, glancing funnily from the kebab at his feet to his face, and all Anthony can do is frown, blink, and try not to panic as his mind rushes forward to race over unfamiliar territory—a blurry, odd landscape of a something like a life, something that doesn't belong to him at all.




(day two)



Arthur's room would be a whole lot less dusty if Merlin did something right every now and then, but at the same time, there is something to be said for the catching presence of particles in the morning, sliding in and out of the lit squares stretching out over the chamber's floor. And besides, Merlin reasons, sitting on the table and working down a considerable part of Arthur's breakfast, dusting is rather silly, if you think about it. You kick up the dust, it twirls around for a bit, and then settles back down. And then you do it again. Much better to just leave it be, he says before swallowing some bread with a gulp of water. Saves everyone a considerable amount of time and worry.

"Let's go somewhere today," Arthur says, distractedly, swaying his chair on its back legs.

"Yeah," Merlin replies as though in question, eyes flickering over Arthur as he sums up the amount of words he's said that Arthur hasn't even heard. "Like, where, exactly?"

"Dunno." His chair clunks down into balance. "Anywhere."

"Oh, Anywhere." Dropping the last of the bread back on the plate, Merlin flicks the crumbs from his trousers. "Great place. Love it. Brilliant food, good ale, and the women are—"

"Well," interrupts Arthur, giving him a quick glance. "I see someone's stepped out of the smart arse side of bed today. No matter. I can always ask Leonard. I'm sure he'll be more than thrilled to accompany the crown prince wherever he may wish to visit."

"Leonard? The stable hand?" Merlin huffs, locking his elbows behind him—hands propped up on the table—as he looks to the window. "You'll attempt murder within thirty minutes. Forty, tops."

"I'll have you know, little servant, that Leonard and I get along splendidly—"

"He lisps, Arthur."

Arthur raises his eyebrows at Merlin, faintly amused, in a question of, "What of it? His inability to express himself like a proper human being in no way reflects on his character, is what I say. And may I add, Merlin, that you have shown yourself to be unexpectedly prejudiced by this horrible assumption that—"

"Oh come off it, Arthur." He snorts up a laugh, jerking his chin in Arthur's direction as he adds, "First week here, right, you accused me of being purposefully gangly because you'd thought I'd picked up on how much it annoyed you."

For a short moment, Arthur looks ready to retaliate. He catches himself mid-breath, though, and instead glares—sits back, slowly, exhales and says, "Oh, yeah."

"Oh, yeah," Merlin mimics, making his voice stupid, mumbling. Arthur smiles at him for this, which is a little unwarranted and a bit unnerving, and Merlin has to look away when Arthur's gaze slips over his chest and down as he says,

"I remember those days."

Merlin, for the sake of saying something, ends up with a nervously muttered, "Yeah, well. So do I."

In the end Arthur goes, cheerful with his quick and strong strides, and Merlin follows—uneven, quickening steps in the prince's wake, broken off by the occasional exasperated pause and the question of, Do you even know where you're taking us? Are we lost? Have you even any clue where—

It's hot. Merlin's sweating in a sticky and smelly way that feels so much more disgusting than Arthur's damp spots on the back of his shirt. They've passed the quiet pastures beyond the castle and are now making their way up a rocky hill where the goats jump from the one crumbling path to the other, chewing at the long blades of grass peeking out from between the stones. Halfway up the incline, Merlin gives up and collapses on the dusty road, all sweat and heaving breaths, one arm slung over his face. He hears Arthur come to stop a while ahead and chuckles, breathlessly, as he yells, "Don't worry about me, Arthur!" He vaguely waves his free hand in the air, dismissing the approaching man. "You just keep on keeping on. Really. I'll be fine. Here. Dying. You just—just save yourself, go, don't look back."

Arthur laughs, gently nudges at his chest as Merlin slumps, sticks out his tongue to the side, rolls back his eyes and fakes dead.

"You, my friend," Arthur tells him, hooking two arms under his shoulders and attempting to heave him up to his feet. "Are a loser."

The insult is enough to momentarily break Merlin away from his act, half staggering to his feet when Arthur lets go of him. He is about to say something about the definition of winning and how it applies to certain people, when he's confronted with the hot and wet expanse of Arthur's back hunching before him.

"Come on, then," Arthur says, extending his arms slightly to the sides.

Merlin blinks. First at the shoulder blades moving under the fabric, then up at the damp nape of a neck. "What?"

"Come on," Arthur repeats, a bit more gruffly this time—twitching his fingers in an annoyed invitation. "Not gonna say it again, Merlin. Either you take it or—"

Merlin gives him a light cuff about the head. Arthur voices his indignation, is ready to turn around and voice it some more when Merlin wraps his arms around his shoulders—muttering all the while—and awkwardly clambers onto Arthur's back. Arthur hooks the crooks of his elbows under the backs of Merlin's knees, muttering in reply, and hikes him up—earning a strangled laugh in return.

"You are a very sweaty man," Merlin tells Arthur a while later, cheek resting on his shoulder.

Arthur, a bit breathless with exertion, tries for a sarcastic laugh but gets as far as a puff of breath. "I am carrying you up a hill," he says on an exhale. "You might want—to show—a bit more—" The gravelly stones crumble under them, and Arthur steadies his footing. "—Gratitude."

Merlin smiles into his neck, holds on a bit tighter and says, "You are soooo strong." And, "The power of your arms is enough to render us mortals speechless."

Arthur grumbles and Merlin moves his lips close to his ear, adding a quiet, "My Arthur. So chivalrous."

"Shut up," Arthur says, but strokes his thumb along the side of Merlin's knee all the same—small, continuous rhythms all the way to the top. And once there, the midday sun high and dangerous above them, Arthur drops Merlin rather unceremoniously and collapses by the edge—lying back in the dusty, yellow-grassed earth, catching his breath with his legs dangling over the ledge. Merlin quietly sits down next to him, shoulders locked close to his neck as he leans back on his hands and takes in the view of the kingdom.

They sit there for a long while before either stirs, makes any notion to move at all. Merlin looks down to see Arthur's fingers mindlessly playing with the hem of his shirt, running along the seam and twisting in it, letting go again, not meaning to do anything but keep busy. When he glances back, squinting against the sun, Arthur is looking. Calm and thoughtful—just looking, then tugging, easily, tugging again until Merlin is leaning back on his elbows.

Merlin sinks into it a little. Into the nearness, a little nervous but at ease all the same, and Arthur's fingers uncurl from the hem of his shirt—skid up over his arm, chest, the line of his throat and then back to his neck, fingers threading in the short hair and pulling. Pulling down and Merlin goes, would've gone even without the encouragement, ghosting his breath over Arthur's lips—brushing their noses together for a testing moment, feeling the heat of the day off each other's skins—before letting it fit, catching Arthur's upper lip for a kiss.

At first it's what they know: the quick pressing of lips, the overrunning emotion manifested by a harsh mouth on mouth. But neither seems in a hurry to move away this time, both content with sliding back and forth, purse and then quietly insist, going from the upper to the lower, to corners and arches. Then it's a small sigh from Arthur, and he opens his mouth and licks, licks and sucks in a kiss from a lip. Merlin has to break off two consecutive attempts at breathing, has to settle for a heaving stuttering inhale of sorts as he tries to swipe the taste off Arthur's mouth with his tongue. It's immediate, then, that they meet, and as Arthur slides his tongue along Merlin's—licks into his mouth, then urges him back, sucking on his tongue just to see what kind of sound that'd unleash into the higher altitudes of the landscape—it is silently decided between the two of them that they won't be doing much other than this for as long as they can manage.

And they can, it turns out, manage for an impressive period of time. It's slow and hot and slick, Merlin's elbows giving out eventually and then they're moving from Merlin half on his back to Arthur half on his back to facing each other, never breaking contact, laughing into each other's mouths at the fumbling attempts to get comfortable. Arthur's hand is warm, clammy and blissfully restless as it weighs at the nape of Merlin's neck—playing with his hair, stroking the skin, dipping down to lightly pull at his ear. Merlin's hand is a fisted ball of cloth at the small of Arthur's back, twisting and untwisting, smoothing it over and digging in nails, allowing him to revel as the way the finesse of their kiss gets jumbled every time either pulls closer.





He's not sure what he's waiting for, looking for, over the murmuring morning crowd slumped against the walls outside the exam hall. There are books about, study guides strewn around the feet of crazy-haired students attempting a last minute memorisation spree—sleepless faces, grinning with panic and nerves. It's the first exam of the last term, first of many, and Anthony's been here before—has stood there, knowing he should concentrate on the subject at hand but completely unable to at the same time. He's done this before, has gone in unprepared and distracted, laughing it off and doodling in the margin of questions he can't be bothered to answer. In all honesty he can't afford to mess it up again, doesn't have the funds or time to get him through another re-sit but figures that if anything warrants a cataclysmic fuckup, imminent insanity is it.

And that must be it. Insanity. Some kind of insanity, somehow. His mind is a muddle of confusion, of oddities and unfamiliarity and he's rather sure he's lost it, isn't certain how or even how to explain it to anyone, put it into words without making himself sound even madder than feels. This is the best he can come up with, fidgeting from his vantage point at the edge of the crowd, looking toward the end of the hall and keeping track of the people filtering in. Blond, blond, redhead, bald, long hair, brown, blond—

Someone talks to him, asks something with a prod to his back. He ignores it, mumbles a noncommittal reply. His hands are clammy at his sides, and he hears the telltale rattling of wheels on the parquet floor of the hallway before he sees him. The boy, easy on his skateboard, manoeuvres his way around two girls with an arched back—balancing, swift, the glowing end of a cigarette limp between his lips. Reaching the crowd he flips up the board, finding footing without missing a beat, glancing around for a second before taking a last drag and then flicking the fag in the coffee cup of some guy studying by the wall—a gesture so casual no one even notices as a little puff of smoke lifts from the Styrofoam holder.

Anthony is walking before managing to register the way his heartbeat picks up, the way his nerves—already frazzled and out of sorts all weekend—jolt to attention like a warning as he approaches the boy.

"We need to talk," is how he starts, standing closer than strictly necessary—angry for no good reason.

The boy immediately inches back a step, observes him from under a sarcastic frown. "Pardon?" he says on a little laugh, smelling of cigarettes.

Anthony exhales a tight breath, looks up and glances around him. It's noisy and no one's paying them attention, everyone focused on their own academic crises, but he still jerks his chin in the direction of a narrow passageway leading to a single, obscure administrative office.

The boy gives him an odd expression, amused and a bit wary, as if not understanding what Anthony wants from him. Which is probably true, considering, and yet it only serves to annoy him even more. He grumbles an, "Over there," stalking toward the passageway and expecting the boy to follow as he throws an urgent glare over his shoulder.

The boy raises an eyebrow, looks around, finds no one to join in on his blatant condescension, and sets after with a strained sigh. Anthony waits with crossed arms, anxious, watching as the boy slumps against the passageway wall opposite him.

"Well?" he says when Anthony fails to continue. "What the hell d'you need me for?"

"Well you—" he cuts himself short, his train of thought cluttering and leading nowhere. He tries again, a strangled, "I—you're—", and instead ends up with a pointed finger in the direction of the boy's chest as he blurts out a hissed, "You were on that train."

In the short silence that follows, the statement hangs awkwardly between them, the boy gazing at him bemusedly, unimpressed. "Yeah?" he says after a moment. "What if I was?"

With huffed breath, Anthony lets his hand drop. "What do you mean what if—what does that even mean? Jesus, I—was there a crash? I mean . . . " He runs his tongue over his lip, nervously, blinking rapidly. "Something's wrong. In my—" In a shaky pause, he briefly touches his forehead. "I can't—think right. We . . . got off the train, right? That wasn't—I didn't dream that we . . . "

At this the boy's bravado slips a little, and there's a bit of an edge to his voice when he replies, "I don't know."

"You don't know what?"

"I don't—look, can't we just—" He gives the hallway a quick glance. The exam hall doors have opened, allowing the people in with a lot of nervous chatter.

"No," Anthony says, aggressively shifting a bit to get back in the boy's vision. "No, you know what I'm talking about. You know. You can pretend like I'm being all weird here, but you know, something is fucking off and you—"

"Yeah, well, what of it?" He shrugs. "What d'you want me to do about it, exactly?"

Anthony looks at him for a blank moment, then, "Did—is this your shit? Did you do this?"

"What?"

"What you said—you, you were all pissed off because we call you Heineken and all. Yeah, you were—" He stops, eyes widening, his mind skidding over odd conclusions. "Oh my god, are you some kind of—some freaky voodoo priest, is this your sick idea of—"

"Fuck you!" He laughs, incredulous. "Fuck you, all right? You don't know me. You don't know shit about me. You don't even know my name."

Anthony breathes in through his nose, loud with nostrils flaring as he looks to the hallway and then back to the boy, serious. "Did you have anything to do with this, though?"

There's a flicker of an exasperated smile on his face before he shutters down, closing his eyes and opening them to a curt, "I don't even know what you're talking about."

"What? But you just—"

"I have no idea," he interjects, speaking slowly now, "what you are talking about."

"You're bullshitting me, right?"

The boy shrugs, offers a mumbled, "Whatever," before slinking past Anthony, out of the passageway and back to the hallway—flipping his board back to the floor, wheeling in the direction of the double doors leading to the exit. Anthony jogs after a few steps before coming to a gradual stop, spreading his arms in question as he calls after,

"So—what, you're just gonna walk away? That's it? You're walking away?" Then, as an afterthought, "From an exam?"

The boy lifts a hand, flipping the bird at him without bothering to turn around. He curves the board as he reaches the double doors, pushing them open without even stopping, and Anthony is going to shout something—something insulting, loud, anything, but the intention gets stuck in his throat at the familiar yet impossibly alien idea of something like this, of him and the boy and a fight, a market and—oh, don't walk away!—the stumbling, the laughter, like nothing that had ever happened before and yet—

He pushes the heels of his hands to his eyes, hard, making the pressure in the back of his mind build up and checker-shaped forms appear behind the darkness of his eyelids. He swallows, slowly drops his hands, blinks—once at the doors, then back at the exam hall—and backs away. He takes a few careful steps toward the hall before turning around and walking properly, striding inside, a bit dazed as he locates a couple of friends talking by a bunch of empty seats, waiting for the supervising teachers to start handing out the question sheets.

"Tony? Tony are you . . . "

He slumps into a chair, frowning, blank for a moment.

"Tones? Mate? Are you—You look a bit—"

His throat feels dry, thick like a recovering cold all of a sudden. He looks up at a friend sitting on a tabletop opposite him—head ducked to Anthony's level, gazing at him warily. He's holding a cup of cooling coffee, and Anthony glances at his face for a small second, muttering a vague, "Can I—" before grabbing the cup from him, taking a generous gulp. His friend reacts with a loud, 'OI!", snagging back the cup before Anthony can finish swallowing but he's also somewhere else, grabbing someone's else's cup—goblet, chalice—from their hands, saying no, no you idiot no, you can't—won't—

"Oh, shit."

It's a done deal, now. He can't even—can't even control it, hasn't even the strength to try not to get up, not to walk out of the hall again as his friend shouts after a confused,

"Mate! Where are you going!"

Anthony turns in step, walking backwards as he replies with a half-laughing, "I have no idea!"

"But—" His friend almost gets up, frowning and glancing at the teachers. "Tony, the exam?"

Despite his best intentions, the only thing Anthony has to say to that is, "Fuck the exam."

The quick, skipping walk with which he manages to traverse the hallway without stopping turns into a jog, then a full-on run as he crosses the oval, marble-floored entrance hall. Already a bit out of breath, he nears the exit, storms through it and down the steps, coming to a stop on the paved path leading down the quad. He looks about a bit frantically, unsure of why he'd think the guy would still be around—would be here, but it is necessary on some level to jerk his eyes from the one building to the other, over the lawns and benches, the spray-painted statue and rusted bicycle stand. He rubs his hand to the side of his face, pushes his hair back, feeling out of sorts, panic, and then—then, there he is. Sitting on a low stone wall by the flower beds, hunched over, the heels of his hands digging into his eyes.

Anthony's guts roil. Madness, he thinks. Total, anarchistic fucking madness, takes half a step forward, and the boy—what is his name? He's almost sure, almost aware of that first syllable, the second the—the boy jolts into attention, looking up as if distracted by the sound of someone calling. When he sees Anthony, though, his look—as faraway as it is—darkens a little, closes down and he quickly shifts his gaze elsewhere, getting up, walking away with his skateboard towering over from behind him, tucked as best as possible into his backpack.

"Wait!" Anthony follows, or tries to, but the boy ignores—keeps on without acknowledgement. Again he tries, calls out a, "Hey! Wait a second!", running a little to catch up. When he's close enough and there's no reaction still he thoughtlessly reaches out, grabs the boy by his elbow—forces him to a stop, forces him to turn around a little as he grits out, "I told you to wait a . . . "

He trails off.

The boy's arm tenses under his grip. The movement of muscles shifts against his palm, through the fabric of his plaid shirt, and Anthony's heart is sent racing. The inexplicable reaction of recognition has him fixing his jaw, clenching it, trying to hold it down—keep at bay the dozens of ideas, thoughts and pleas that push at his mind, clearly not his, never his, yet somehow there, like a noise that's been turned up.

The boy doesn't move. He stares at Anthony with a furious lack of understanding, a tenseness, a sense of suspense in those expressive, wide-set eyes. It is such an odd face, such a peculiar sharpness and build, but he feels no need to look at any particular part of it—the image so easily detailed in his mind already—thinking of a birthmark on the side of the boy's neck before his gaze flitters down to see it.

His breath leaves him as his hand slips down the boy's arm, holding on still but now to his wrist. Swallowing, he runs his thumb over the edge of the sleeve—then tugs under it, brushing over the warm skin, back and forth on the inside of his wrist.

"Merlin," he says, croakily, not sure what it means but feeling it all the way to the pit of his stomach.

The boy takes in a shaky breath. "Fuck," he whispers on the exhale, and his fingers curl down—briefly touching Anthony's before he snatches back his hand, fisting it at his side. He glances around quickly, as though wary of anyone having seen them, and on finding the quad as good as deserted save for distanced voices—a faraway visitor taking a picture of old corridor arches—turns back to Anthony, licking his lips as he says,

"Not here." And, "Come on."

He catches Anthony's eye with a look that could be contained anger as well as some other unreadable intensity before walking away, setting down the path he went before. This time Anthony follows, wordlessly, and the boy accepts the company with a defeated dignity that—amidst all the confusion—still manages to unsettle him.

As they leave the grounds behind, crossing the street to weave their way through traffic, going west and away from the city's centre, the boy lights a smoke. His hand trembles slightly as he brings the cigarette to his lips, and Anthony can't keep his eyes off him. His hollow cheeks, the yellowing calluses between his fingers, the way flicks the tobacco from his tongue with a dismissively quick thumb. The boy notices, eyes dark as he returns the gaze, and Anthony has to clear his throat—turning away, looking about at the suburban street, asking where—

"—are we going?"

"My place," he replies in a mumble, blowing out smoke to the other side. Then, as if unsure, he adds a hesitating, "I'm—I'm Emory, by the way." A pause, and—"My name, that is. I'm—yeah. Emory Hawk."

Anthony gives him a short, quick glance and acknowledges with a jerky, upward nod. "I'm Ton—"

"I know," he—the boy, the oddity, Emory—interrupts. "I know who you are. I mean—who doesn't, right."

Anthony tries to huff some kind of laughter at this, any kind, a snort or a guffaw, hopes to aim at something condescending, manages only a funny sounding sigh. He has no idea where he's going, doesn't recognise this part of the city as well as so many other things. He doesn't know, most of all, has no clue why he's walking these streets in the first place while his future is happening in an exam hall not so far away from their shuffling footsteps, this old pavement. The only comfort, if at all, seems to be that he's not alone in his bafflement; Emory, stealing tense glances in his direction, looks just as lost, as curiously horrified.

The neighbourhood around them changes. The houses get smaller—more compact, giving way to the occasional small grocery shop, some takeaways or empty dirty-brick wedding shops with the graphitised meshes rolled down. The end of a long street is overshadowed by a group of unimpressive buildings, flats from the eighties—all brown and grey, balcony galleries serving as hallways, the rows of iron balustrades giving the overview a rather striped impression. It's there that they stop, Emory determined—Anthony gradually, eyeing the building questioningly. He wants to say something about it, word the thought of, 'You live here?', but it's obvious enough as it is when he fumbles with a set of keys at the heavy front door, doing some kind of trick of a shoulder-push and a heel-handed tap to the handle.

Inside there's a lift, but Emory heads straight for the staircase and so Anthony follows—hapless, feeling like a cartoon character hovering in the wake of the animated scent of a pie: a bit delirious and heading there whether he likes it or not. On the fourth floor Emory sets down a hall, seemingly edgy but otherwise fine, whereas Anthony is one and all breathlessness from the brief exercise—rubbing the back of his neck to distract from the sharp pain at his side. It's an indistinct number of doors from there on, and then he's led inside a small apartment room—he can oversee most of it with one glance. Kitchen. Mattress. Television. Closet. One door, a bathroom probably, and that is it. It's mostly empty, and the clutter amounts to some strewn clothes, the uneven number of pillows on the bare, bedless mattress—the half-eaten cereal bowl on the table.

Emory closes the door behind them, dumping the bag by the wall and tossing his keys onto the nearby counter. It's unclear, in a very blatant way, what is supposed to happen next. Awkwardly, Anthony clasps his hands together as he looks around—a little bit in the middle of the room, having no specific direction to turn to. There are a few posters on some of the walls, some skating personalities, apparently famous yet completely unknown to Anthony and probably the majority of the people he knows. When he spots a Tony Hawk calendar hanging from the closet door he grabs onto that, giving a feeble smile and an attempted friendly, "Fan of the Hawk, huh?"

Emory, leaning back against the wall by the door, doesn't reply. He lifts his chin minutely, his adam's apple moving as he swallows. He is a lean stretch of limbs like that, from that small distance, thin arms and scathed, bony knees, all of him lolling into the surface behind. He looks at Anthony, evenly and betraying no emotion, but yet—yet. The half-hearted smile slowly slips from Anthony's lips, blood rushing past his ears with a sudden, deafening thickness—up, then down, setting him in motion before he processes the thought. With a few swift, easy steps he's there, getting closer—nearer still, feeling Emory's hitching breath brush his cheek as he leans his body onto the other man's with a single sweeping movement. It's heat, heat all the way down his chest, lower, against his legs as he settles them between Emory's with a nudging knee and not much of a warning. The boy is unexpectedly pliant, giving way and curling around him as he closes whatever distance was left, aligning their bodies completely and pushing Emory flat against the wall. It's a shared, guttural little sound between the both of them, Anthony burying his face in Emory's neck—breathing him in greedily, like he's been missing it, like he wants it back—Emory curling a leg high around Anthony's thigh, head tilted back, fingers threading harshly into his hair—urging, frantic.

"This," Anthony breathes to a tendon in Emory's neck, coherency faltering, mouth opening with a slackening jaw when the boy rubs up the length of his thigh to his groin, all rough friction of denim and god he's hard, has been for a while now and—"This is—" he tries again, stuttering out breaths as he grinds down against Emory's leg, "—wrong."

"God," replies the boy, barely an exhale to the shell of Anthony's ear. He rolls his hips in time, shifting restlessly against Anthony's hip, his thigh, unmistakably aroused and strained in the fabric of his worn khaki shorts. "I know."

Anthony grips his hip with his free hand, pushing them harder together, tilting his face to mouth at the soft skin where neck meets jaw. "I can't stop," he manages to grit out before placing a wet, open-mouthed kiss below his ear. Emory arches into it, murmurs, "Fuck—no, we can't—", then tries to push Anthony away with a weak pull to his hair. But Anthony just grumbles, pushes forward, bites down on already reddened skin, sucks it in and grazes his teeth over it again—then his tongue, lapping over the bruise, tasting, knowing exactly how it would make this boy—

"Fuck." Emory tightens his hold, the rolling, upward movements of his hips losing accuracy as he gasps out, "Arthur, god, Arthur, don't—"

All Anthony can do is reply with a low, "Merlin," and, "Merlin, Merlin, Mer—" as he kisses his way down his jaw, tilting up to get his teeth on those lips--Christ, those lips—but Emory turns his head with strained certainty, muscles moving as he clenches his jaw. Anthony tries to follow it, but Emory stops him with a forced, "Don't."

"You think I'm—" Anthony instead settles his forehead to Emory's sweaty temple, brushing his lips to the lobe of his ear, "—think I'm not trying? You think I'd even do this—If I could—" He lightly bites down on the flesh, sucks on it, and Emory has to swallow a strangled moan. His arms clench harder around Anthony's shoulders, hands sweaty to the nape of his neck and he starts moving in earnest, pace quickening, breathing a foreign name with each give and take. Anthony's hissing little exhales shorten, speed up, and his eyes are closed—a grimace settling on his face. Against him Emory loses all sense of rhythm, leg clenching around his thigh and Anthony can feel the hot wet through his jeans. Emory bites down on his own bottom lip, white teeth stark and deep in the pinkish skin and his head falls back—holding back whatever noises he was so close to making. He stills slowly as Anthony continues to move, grunting with frustration now, and with that very same unexplained knowledge of each other's bodies, Emory runs his nails along his neck—almost lazily—and that's all it takes. Anthony comes with a final grunt muffled into the line of Emory's neck, hands clutching to his hips, desperately rutting him into the wall until he's ridden it all out—has nothing left in him, slowing down, coming to a gradual stop.

They don't move for a long time. The space between them is wet, the fabric damp, sticky, perspiration pulling their shirts close to their skin. Emory swallows and Anthony can feel it, feels his muscles work against the side of his face, the movement of Emory's lips to his forehead as he closes his mouth. Anthony breathes deeply. That smell, damnit, that scent is just enough to—

He pulls back with tense uncertainty. He has to close his eyes in order to stumble back the following few steps, which is embarrassing but necessary, and not nearly as shameful as everything that just happened—as the visible dark spot on his jeans, the one he knows is there, can feel cooling against his skin.

When he looks up again, now a messy distance away, it's Emory who's screwing his eyes shut—grimacing, breathing hard. There're traces of stubble burn along his jaw, his neck. A bruise. Angry-red teeth marks.

Anthony quickly glances away, staring to the television on the floor—opposite the mattress—with wide-eyed seriousness. Blinking, he rubs a hand over his face. Licks his swollen lips. Spares Emory one last, painful look before making his way out of the apartment—half swaggering, fumbling at the door for far longer than he should, his damp fingers continuously slipping off the doorknob.

He stumbles out into the hall, dazed and perplexed, and has to lean into several walls—several staircase railings—before finding his footing, before even managing to exit the building.




(day three)



Today Merlin has no time for Arthur. Over the course of the night, a light wind from the east has pulled the clouds from the sea to trek over the lands, thinning high on the atmosphere like a pale stretch of murky waters. The temperatures take no heed, however, and the heat of the season is newly mixed with a dampness that settles heavily between the castle walls. And Merlin still has no time for Arthur.

After two days of having accomplished practically nothing in the royal household, the general staff begin to notice. They approach him gingerly with sharp-edged smiles, saying that if he has nothing to do either way . . . .

He helps in the kitchen for a few hours in the morning, dragging buckets of water inside for the periodic cleaning of the ovens. There's a summer feast later that week and preparations are already stirring into action; large table cloths being taken from the back of the pantry to the front shelves, foods being brought in at double the usual amount, a murmur of bustling anxiety echoing around the belowstairs corridors.

Arthur finds Merlin in the early afternoon, in the backrooms of the kitchens, dirty and tired and scrubbing at a massive cooking plate caked with burnt soot. He makes his hello with a ruffling hand to Merlin's hair, pushing at his head, and Merlin replies with an annoyed grumble and a speeding heartbeat. Arthur, a wooden bowl of dried fruit in his hand (clearly nicked from the main kitchen), perches himself on the table opposite Merlin's working station—distracting him, eats as he talks, going on through a mouthful about how he should ditch the work and they could go for a ride somewhere. Ride somewhere, is how he says it, adding a slow, dubious grin—wrenching a bite of a big strap of dried apple. Merlin snorts, shakes his head, and scrubs more furiously at the plate.

"Come on," Arthur insists, nudging Merlin's ankle with his foot.

"No," Merlin says, frowning at the black metal under his hands.

Arthur wants to know why. Why, why must Merlin ruin all the fun, must insist on getting himself absolutely filthy doing a job that isn't even his to begin with rather than have mad fun with Arthur—which is, theoretically speaking, more or less his job.

"Because," Merlin explains quietly, "the rest of the household dislikes me enough as it is."

Arthur gives him a disbelieving look. He pushes off the table, flopping onto the bench next to Merlin without much grace. "Why would they dislike you?"

Merlin pauses for a moment. "Do you know of any other servant who gets time off to laze about with his master because it's too hot to work?"

Slowly sliding closer is Arthur's reply to the question. "You certainly didn't object at the time," he says, voice low, breath sweet on Merlin's cheek as he tilts his head to get at his mouth.

"Yeah, well." Merlin pushes Arthur away with a rough hand to his chest. "I'm objecting now."

Arthur laughs, absently rubbing at his chest before leaning close again, trying with another, "Come on, Merlin, just give us a little—"

Merlin pushes at his forehead this time, unable to keep the smile out of his voice when he tells Arthur to, "Shove off, pervert."

Arthur doesn't quite give up. He sits next to Merlin the entire afternoon, either nagging insistently or wildly attempting to distract him by breathing hotly against his neck in the moments before being pushed off or replying to just about everything with shameless innuendos. It serves only to annoy Merlin even further. As the day progresses, the staff's nervousness increases, they're running behind or things go wrong, and Merlin—even though he's there with the intention to help, not because he has to—feels it rub off on him, too. Arthur flitters behind him as he works, following him around with that stupid grin, chewing on the fruit and asking what's that ("A spatula." "Oh, right."), what was that? ("Dunno." "Felt like—the ground was, uh, shaking." "They're probably just taking down the chandelier upstairs."), and once, when they're alone, sliding close with a hey, hey, what're you doing?

"Washing the cutlery, Arthur."

"Is the cutlery dirty, then?"

"What?"

"Is it very, very dirty, Merlin?"

"What?"

"Is it very, very—"

Merlin scoops up a cup of stale, shaded water and throws it unceremoniously in Arthur's general direction. Half of it is caught by his face, dripping down his front, staining his shirt. They both stare at the damage for a long moment, open-mouthed and disbelieving—did that actually just happen?—before Arthur starts laughing. Incredulous at first, a bit gasping, but soon it's a genuine laugh—rolling, loud, and Merlin can only give a weak smile as he picks up a piece of dry washcloth and tosses it at Arthur with the command to get himself cleaned. Arthur continues by tossing the cloth right back and following that movement, saying, "Oh, I'll get myself cleaned," trapping Merlin with two arms and rubbing his damp and dirty face into his neck and over his shirt. Merlin protests, trying for serious but not exactly managing anything more than cut off exclamations of laughing disapproval, pulling Arthur's hair to get him off but quietly liking the stolen touches of grazing teeth to his neck. But then the amusement gives way to a more gasping sensation when there's sudden suction on his skin, a tongue, and Merlin tries to really mean it when he shoves at Arthur's shoulders—sending him stumbling back a step.

Arthur grins at him, steadying against the table behind. "You're a tease," he says, breathless.

"And you're a bloody animal," Merlin replies on a huff. He's smiling feebly as he turns back to his work. Behind him Arthur sighs, loudly, and comes to stand at Merlin's side with a put-upon and overdone flair of dramatics. He rolls up his sleeves, shoves his hands into the water, and picks out a dirty plate to scrub at. Merlin raises his eyebrows at it, but doesn't look up—doesn't say a thing. Arthur, all nonchalance and soapy clumsiness, starts to idly chatter about the feast. The new servant maid who set fire to the tapestry. The tapestry they used to have in the east wing with the weird imagery that made no sense until someone hung it upside down one day, and once it did make sense it had to be taken down altogether. Merlin snorts, shakes his head at Arthur and the way every single one of his stories always ends up repulsive in some way, and then continues to tell him about a time when the boys from Ealdor found a tree in the wood that faintly resembled the shape of a woman. How they used to sneak around it, were convinced they were sinning like nothing else when lying out in the dirt in front of it, sometimes blushing with one hand down their trousers—sometimes just words, telling each other what they were going to do if they met a willing lady, how she was going to fall at their feet, how they were going to make her want it. Boasting boys, really, completely clueless but desperate to impress and horny as hell, giving the tree a name—Cynewise—and imagining what she'd look like, talk and act if she were a real woman.

Arthur sees this story as a free pass to share his entire collection of filthiest childhood memories, and the rest of the day is spent with Merlin voicing his astonishment, appalled, and Arthur saying, You think that was bad? Wait until you hear what the duke did after he found out that the lady—

They're walking back from the laundry rooms toward evening, a corridor lined with tall windows letting in the light of dusk, shading the grey walls with an unnatural glow of orange. Arthur is still fervently explaining the mechanics of a crossbow since Merlin had let slip, had incidentally muttered that he'd never really got how to operate the sordid thing. He talks with hands and gestures, far too enthusiastic, and Merlin stops him with a gentle pull to his sleeve. Arthur, mid-sentence, turns to him in question as Merlin simply tugs at his wrist—pulls him closer, mirroring Arthur's widening smile of dawning comprehension.

"Oh," Arthur says slowly, smugly, wrapping his arms around Merlin's waist.

"Oooh," Merlin mimics, comically, folding his own arms around Arthur's neck—brushing his nose to Arthur's cheek.

"Well, hello," murmurs Arthur, placing a small kiss to his jaw, the corner of his mouth.

"Hello," Merlin replies, tilts his head and aligns, brushing lips and chastely kissing for an easy minute before letting it open up, deepen with a small sigh. Arthur's mouth is hot and he continuously tries for more, slackening his jaw further, sucking Merlin's tongue deeper as the kiss progresses, hands light and straying below the hem of his shirt. Merlin flushes against him, flushes for the wet sounds that echo in the empty corridor, for the warmth of Arthur's body pressed against his, for the way his heart drops a little when he slides his tongue along Arthur's and tilts his head for a new angle at the same time, feeling the rough brush of their unshaven skin around their mouths.




After thirteen hours of uninterrupted sleep, Anthony wakes up groggily, an insistent ache at the back of his head. He hadn't bothered taking off his clothes the day before, having made his way home in a state of half delusion—gone up to his room without a word of greeting to his mother and collapsed into his bed not a second later.

His mouth tastes like some shade of death, all dryness and sand. Sitting up with a grumble, he blinks at the dimness of his room, the light of the streetlamps from outside filtered through the drawn curtains. He breathes deeply, pushes his legs limply off the mattress, scratches at his neck and with the next breath recalls the previous day. A dream, he thinks for a second. Another dream, like the others he's had lately, a sickening dream that leaves him frightened and annoyed—but no. He glances down at his jeans. Not a dream.

With a pained, quiet groan he gets to his feet, awkwardly shimmying out of his clothes as he walks to his closet. He changes, tired and miserable, then stumbles out of his room and down the stairs, taking a few moments while shuffling to the kitchen in the dark to realise it is the middle of the night.

He mumbles a hoarse curse, flicking on the light and by sheer routine grabs the kettle from the stove, shoves it under the tap, lets the water run with a yawn and then sets it back on the grid. Opens a drawer. Scrambles through the contents with quick fingers, finds the matches, turns on the gas and lets the fire catch.

In the dead silence of the house, waiting for the water to boil, Anthony thinks. He stares at the counter, eyes distanced and miles away, and thinks. It's not long that he has before the shrieking of the kettle shakes him out of it, but it's enough to settle down a little inside his own mind—to decide on two things.

One, medieval legends. He pours the water into a mug, drops in a tea bag, and walks to the buzzing computer in the living room. Two, the internet.

First thing he does is google 'King Arthur'. It's probably not the best he could've done, not the most original of thoughts, but under the circumstances it's all he can mange. First result is the regular wikipedia page, a concise and clear summary of most Arthur-related subjects. He knows some of it from school, some from television or films. It's just information. Scrolling down he scans over dates, hyperlinks and names, mostly stopping to glance at the pictures, but if he expects to feel anything—to feel that spark of insanity grow stronger, feel some kind of inane recognition, it doesn't happen. He gets bored rather quickly, leaning back in the squeaking chair as he drinks.

The next attempt doesn't prove much more helpful. He feels silly for it all, typing in 'Merlin' and immediately forgoing the meta results for the images. He has no idea what he thinks to see, find, and all in all the pictures of an old guy with a beard are to expected. A dragon. The occasional bird. Mostly a man by a tree with a girl at his feet. Anthony snorts involuntarily. Whether at himself and what he's doing or at something else completely, he's not sure.

With the third go, he looks about the living room with quick, wary glances before reminding himself that right now, he's got very little dignity left to lose. He gives a shallow sigh, ticks in the single combination of words he never though to use on his home computer, and clicks enter. Gay, the search bar says, below it a varying array of half naked men, transvestites and cartoon jokes. He raises a mellow eyebrow at the screen. With a smiling sense of self-deprecation, he adds a word to the search. Goes to the regular results. Picks the least virus infected seeming site he can find, turns down the volume and is already half grinning with impending shame as he starts to play one of the videos on the main page. Three seconds in, hearing the muffled utterance of, 'god, your ass feels like cake—' through the speaker boxes, Anthony starts and fumbles to click away the entire window. Shocked, he blinks at the screen, frowning over a baffled expression before choking out a guffaw, a cough of laughter that echoes awkwardly through the room as he sits back again, weakly shaking his head.

Not a big gay revelation today, then, he thinks a little while later, sipping at the last of his tea while idly reading over a sentence in the one tab left open—not taking any of it in, just passing over the words and trying not to put too much effort into making sense of things, his head already slow, aching, blood pounding under his temples. Merlin, he reads. Advisor—Tintagel—Avalon—Geoffrey . . . .

By simple, unassuming association he remembers a jagged scar on the inside of a thigh. He remembers its indefinable shape and finding it on an evening, the way he put his mouth on it, kissed it, licked it, remembers the heat of skin and the strong, human scent and how he tried to guess—murmured words against the stretch of flesh—how it'd got there. Got caught on a nail? He recalls asking. An accident while carving? Walked past a poorly-made fence? But he'd just been laughed at, warm and tired, as a hand threaded through his hair and tugged his face up a little, higher up that thigh, in the unmistakable direction of—

Anthony pushes his chair back with a small grunt of frustration. He's looking down at his lap, disgusted and puzzled all at once. His boxers are tented, embarrassingly, and he can't get around the fact that it's not internet porn that did it but words, for fuck's sake, historical recounting of a—about a—

He quickly turns off the screen, runs a shaky hand through his hair. He gets up, walks back to the kitchen to wash his face—cool down, perhaps, thinking to ignore it, wait to calm down. And if there's one thing any boy who's been outside at least once or twice in his teenage years knows how to do, it's to talk himself into calming down.

So he breathes. Splashes some water on his face, digs a set of fingers into his eyes. Stays like that a moment, then shoves his head under the tap completely, scrubs at his hair for distraction. With his hands on his neck, the water dripping from his chin to his shirt, the memory of different fingers scraping their nails to his scalp—hot laughter close to his ear, a leg brushing the back of his calf—conjures itself with ease. He turns off the tap, breathing ruggedly as he leans into the counter. An odd array of moments plays in his mind: people, flashes, snatches of conversation and that face—always that face. In the morning light, at night, outside, covered in mud or wet from the rain, smiling, sleeping, unaffected and unshaven, a beard, no beard, a cut under his right eye, young and older, an entire life of observations. The name, that name—Merlin—rolls between the split seconds, repeating itself insistently even when Anthony stubbornly tries to override it with a no,, and a no!, and, Emory Hawk, his name is—Emory Hawk, that is not—that is not—there is no Merlin, there is no—we are not—I am not—

He ends up locking himself in the bathroom upstairs, tossing off with his forehead pressed to the surface of the door—eyes screwed shut, jaw clenched, trying replace the image of chapped lips and a big mouth moving up and down his cock with the time Rose sucked him off behind some trees in a park. It only helps in distracting him, and eventually he comes with the hem of his shirt pulled down and the shadow of a hoarsely whispered, "Will you always be this hard for me, Arthur?" lingering in his ears.

~


When his mother, eyeing him with subtle, judgementally raised brows but otherwise politely quiet, asks him how the exam had gone last Monday, Anthony doesn't skip a beat in answering,

"Fine." Then, a breath later, "I mean, I guess. Was long."

His mother hums noncommittally, and looking elsewhere adds, "Must've been some exam, putting you to sleep like that."

Anthony nods, turning back to the telly, blankly flicking through the channels for a few minutes before switching it off and disappearing into his room—a mess of clothes, clammy air, drawn curtains and the bluish light emitting from his laptop.

He stays there for days, coming down when hungry or too bored to even lie on his back and do nothing. Within the hermitic space he's made for himself he often wakes up disoriented, only faintly aware of the stack of books at his bedside—open pages, highlighted passages, dogeared corners and words he's supposed to be studying but that can't manage to hold his attention for longer than a few seconds before his mind drifts off again. It's a blur of memories, what he sees, random and never selective, never clarifying itself but gratifying—relishing in newly remembering the sweat on the back of the boy's neck, the bumps of his spine, the shadow of him under the blankets, and Anthony is unable to resist it. Unable to stop himself from grinning into his pillow and pretending they're his own thoughts, his own past, and doing that is just so much easier than fighting it—questioning it—just shifting and rubbing onto the mattress, hiding his face in the fabric until it's over, until the images slink away for a while and he can rest, have a moment to himself.


Thursday morning finds him in the kitchen, disinterestedly chewing on some old crackers, listening to the sounds of his mother waking up. He calls a vague good-morning through a crumbling mouthful, then sets to brush the crumbs off his hoodie as his mother replies with a muffled,

"I thought you had an exam, Anthony."

Anthony mumbles a quiet negative, pauses, then, "What day is it?"

There's a short silence from his mother's bedroom before she answers with a hesitant, "Thursday."

Pushing himself off the counter, Anthony takes a single step forward—freezing in realisation. "Oh, shit."

He half-jogs, half straight out runs to the station, sporting a dark five o'clock shadow down his neck and trying not to stumble over his flip flops, dressed in little more than swimming trunks and a hoodie. It's a bit of a pathetic sight, he's aware, but can only manage a burbling sense of panic at having missed another exam while sitting in the train, desperately willing it to go faster.

It's a lost cause, really. By the time he gets there, people are already filtering out of the hall, even though the majority is still hunched over their tables—scratching the backs of their heads with their pens. Standing outside the doors, looking inside through the small embedded glass window, Anthony takes a good few minutes to pull at his hair—to grunt out his frustration, kick the wall once or twice, then slump against it. With his elbows resting limply on his knees, he waits, absently nodding at people quietly slinking out of the hall—faces he sort of knows. He wonders if he can maybe talk to the teacher, to anyone, to fix something—anything, get this under some kind of control. He feels shockingly clear-minded here, away from home, in the cool atmosphere of air-conditioned academics.

Then, as a dark-haired kid closes the door behind him, hitching his backpack higher up his back, Anthony's heart jumps up to his throat before he can even register it's not who he thinks it is. He swallows, looks away, and against better judgement wonders whether the boy is in there—sitting at one of those tables, his skateboard swaying annoyingly under his feet, under his chair. Frowning at the exam. Chewing on a pen.

He pushes himself to his feet, goes to stand by the doors—presses his face to the window again. Heartbeat stuttering wildly in his chest, he scans the heads, tries to make out who is who. He doesn't really know what to say, hasn't figured out how to approach a person you've got off up against a wall without much of a warning or explanation, a person who—in your mind, has somehow—

Well. He frowns against the glass, unable to make any kind of distinction. Someone finishes, leaves their papers at the professor's desk, collects their jacket and makes for the door. Anthony steps away, annoyed, and it's only once the door is open that he realises he's scowling at Art. And oh, it is something, that—of all people—Art should be the one to make it to an exam Anthony has missed.

"Mate!" is Art's exclamation of a greeting, after a small pause of quizzical blinking. "Where the fuck've you been? I've been calling you for—"

"Sick," Anthony says, quickly, nervous already.

"Yeah, I can see that." He laughs, plants two hands on Anthony's shoulders. "You look like death warmed over, Tony."

Anthony sniffs, glances at the door—rubs a hand to his jaw. "Hey, listen, do you know if . . . " He looks at Art, tries for nonchalance, and finishes: "If Hawk's in there?"

Art's hands slip off his shoulders. "Hawk?"

"Yeah, you know. Emory. Hawk. The guy with the—" He makes a vague gesture. "Skateboard."

". . . Heineken?"

"Yes! Yes. Do you . . ." He quickly looks to the door again. "Is he in there?"

"I don't know?" Art says by way of a question, looking puzzled, as if unsure of the funny in the joke. "I don't give a shit? Look, Anthony, are you—"

"You were just in there, what d'you mean you don't know? I mean, for fuck's sake, the guy has a skateboard with him, how fucking hard is it to miss someone walking around with a—"

"Oi!" Art interrupts, pulling back a little. "Oi! Calm down. I haven't seen him, all right? Christ, mate, what the hell is your problem?"

Anthony, agitated and now with his attention completely back to Art, stares at his friend for a small moment and wonders how, in god's name, to put into words what the hell his problem is. Instead of answering, though, he runs a hand through his hair, takes a starting step back, pointing his fingers then snapping them at Art as though remembering something while telling him that he'll—

"—see you later, mate, yeah? I've—got some things, to do, yeah, I'll . . . I'll talk to you later. Call me, yeah? We'll—yeah. Later."

He leaves a somewhat baffled friend behind—(arms wide, going, 'what?')—to wander through the streets, looking for familiar houses, for details in the suburban din that he can recall. The way isn't that complicated to begin with, just a bit long, and by asking a lady at a shop about large buildings nearby he manages to get back without too much difficulty.

Standing at the entrance to Emory's building, buzzing his apartment for ten minutes while looking up—squinting, trying to make out people on the balconies—he makes a bit of a sad display. He knows this, knows it very well when no answer comes, even more when he barely even hesitates to stop the door from closing when a girl and her dog come out of the building, shuffling past him without recognition.

He doesn't know how long he stands pressed to the apartment door, face smooshed against the surface, knocking and knocking and grumbling long-stretched, open uuuuuups. Eventually one of the neighbours barges into the hallway, looking sleepily irritated, and tells him in not all too gentle terms that—

"—in heaven's name, man, he's not home. All right? Not. Home." The neighbour closes his eyes for a moment, takes a breath. "Now could you please, please fuck the hell off. Please."

Anthony looks from the neighbour to Emory's closed door, hesitates, opens his mouth to ask something when—

"—Please."

At a loss for what else to do, Anthony leaves. Bangs his head against the door for good measure, and leaves—one begrudging step at a time.

~


And yet the very next day finds him right back at the foot of the towering building, rhythmically pushing at the buzzer—rocking back and forth to it, over and over, waiting for an answer. None comes, not for a long while, and no one leaves the building either. So he tries the next buzzer, pressing once, twice, thrice, and—

"Yeah, what, what?" the metallic voice sounds through the intercom.

"Uhm." Anthony shifts, looks around. "Hi. I, uhm. I'm looking for Hawk?"

Silence. Then, "This is not him."

"Yeah, I know, but he's not answering so I thought—"

"Wait, are you that annoying guy from yesterday?" A small, hollow laugh turns static in the connection. "Waiting in the hallway?"

"Uh . . . yeah. That's." He glances down at his shoes, gives a little wry smile. "That's me."

The neighbour person snorts. There's a bit of shuffling, then, something moving along the receiver. "Listen. He's not gonna be home for a while, okay? He's at work. Will be all day. So why don't you come back later this evening and—"

"Work? Where does he work?"

"Oh, I'm not gonna tell you that."

"I'm a friend," Anthony says, sternly. "A good friend."

"Oh yeah? How come you don't know where he works, then, good friend?"

"Old friend," he hurries to correct. "Good, old friend. In from out of town. Urgent matter. Life or death. Would you like to have that on your conscience, then, mate? Would you like face the bloke once I've told him you're the reason I couldn't get to him in time to tell him his—"

"Okay! All right! Christ." He sighs. "Don't get all worked up, mate, it's all good. He's just at the supermarket around the corner, yeah? So you can pop by, do the life or death thing, and leave me the fuck out of it, yeah?"

Anthony looks up, peers down the street, and sees the orange sign he'd previously walked past. "All right," he says quietly, and is already on foot when the neighbour replies—something too boxed and far away now for Anthony to hear. He's got a shaky smile on his face by the time he reaches the shop, walking through the automatic doors into the cool air and immediately starting to scan through the aisles—looking for dark, tousled hair and scathed knees.

It's ridiculously easy, in the end, how he finds him.

The boy is sitting on a crate by the meat aisle, with an oversized uniform shirt, scanning products and placing them back on the shelf with a bored expression.

Anthony, breaths coming shorter now, his grin dying on his face, walks up to Emory with sharp, determined strides. He stands for a swaying moment, the ends of their shoes barely an inch apart, and waits for Emory to look up.

Which he does—slowly, grimly, a pre-packaged chicken filet in his one hand, the scanner in the other. From his seat on the crate he stares at Anthony, face either blank or unreadable, moments ticking by as he blinks, gradually letting his shoulders slump.

"What?" he says at length, brows lifting to the question.

"We need to talk," Anthony says in one breath. It's a little hard, coherency, when he can name the exact number of darkened freckles down the back of the boy's thigh.

"Yeah." Emory gives a small laugh, turning back to his work. "Because that went so well last time."

"It's—" Anthony stops when Emory holds the scanner to the merchandise, allowing it to emit a small beep before putting it back, picking another. He leans down instead, puts his hand on the scanner as if to grab it, making Emory pause—try to pull it back.

"It's different this time," Anthony tells him, serious, letting go of the scanner. "It's . . . " He sighs, rubs a hand to his brow. "It's getting worse. I don't know. I keep on—remembering. You. And, well, these things that we—"

"—Whoa!" Emory gives him a warning look, immediately glancing around—eyeing a chatting colleague in a nearby aisle. He puts down the scanner and gets to his feet, nervously, saying, "Okay, let's. Okay. Not here. Again. Let's . . . " He inclines his head in a vague direction, and Anthony gives him an odd look before following. Emory leads them out the back, to a small alley with a skip bin, plastic crates from previous deliveries and a pair of ramshackle chairs for the smokers.

Anthony takes in the surroundings, turns to the wary looking Emory, and manages to restrain himself for first half of the boy's disdainful speech of,

"Look, I don't know what's going on or what the hell Monday was all about and okay, yeah, it's all weird and shit but you can't just stalk me down here and just—"

He's cut off by the suddenly advancing Anthony, and tries to get back a staggering bit but isn't quick enough. Anthony's already got his arms around him, around his waist, pulling him closer despite the fact Emory's pushing at him, choking out surprised, "What the—" and, "No, Tony, get off, get—"

And Anthony is not that strong, but he's got enough in him to keep the boy from getting away, tightening his grip on his baggy work shirt and dropping his forehead onto Emory's shoulder—burrowing into the heat at his neck, breathing in, all at once ecstatic and relieved and saying, "I missed you," into his skin.

"What?" Emory croaks out, the hands pulling at the back of Anthony's jacket stilling for a moment. "Jesus, Tony, not—not here, please, you don't even know what you're—"

"I missed you," Anthony repeats, now to the shell of his ear. "I've been going crazy." He kisses the skin below, softly, adds, "Please. Please." Then, with a puff of hot air, "Merlin, please, I—"

Emory clutches at him with a hissing gasp, fingers digging harshly into his neck while the boy speaks to the stretch of his shoulder, asking why—

"—are you doing this? Why do you have to—"

Anthony leads them back a few stumbling steps, gracelessly pushing Emory into the alleyway wall in a manner a little too familiar. Both their breaths catch, Emory's probably because of the collision—Anthony for the sudden friction. He wastes no time, now, hooking his hand under Emory's knee and hiking up his leg—pushing his own between, groaning quietly into the pocket of warmth below Emory's jaw.

"I've been wanting this," he tells Emory, slowly rolling his hips and listening to the sharp intake of breath to the side of his neck.

Emory buries his face deeper into the collar of Anthony's t-shirt, lips mumbling a quiet, "Yeah?" as another roll of hips follows, thighs shifting, rubbing along each other's clad, half-hard erections.

"Yes," Anthony says, wetting his lips, pushing with more intent. "Been thinking about it all week. About you. Your voice. Your mouth." He closes his eyes for a moment, adds a lowly whispered, "Your cock."

Emory grunts at this, arms clenching around Anthony's neck as he bucks up—speeding up, making them both harder, wanting quicker, faster, hissing out, "Fuck, Arthur, come on, come on, come—"

So Anthony does all he can do; pushes his hands under Emory's shirt, greedily moving over the skin before raking his nails down the line of his spine, making him arch off the wall—grind down on Anthony's thigh. He mouths down the length of his throat then up, dragging wet lips over the tilted jut of Emory's chin, but when he leans in Emory turns away again—eyes closed, moving incessantly but still able to muster a breathless, "No."

But even without that, even when it's just them against a wall—clothed, horny and remarkably teenagers all over again—it doesn't take much longer. Anthony comes first, face buried in the line of Emory's hair, gasping out a name that isn't his, then helps to bring him off with a quick and hard hand to his crotch—stroking him through his jeans, hissing yes when he feels Emory still, feels the warmth under his palm.

Afterwards, catching their breath on vast opposite sides of the alleyway, Anthony clears his throat as he awkwardly pulls down his shirt.

"What I meant to say," he starts, voice small and strained, "is that we . . . " He trails off, looks down, then adds in a thoughtful mutter: "We need to figure out what the fuck is happening."

Emory, a little more ruffled, still blushing as he tries to straighten out his hair. "Yeah. Well." He shrugs. "That was my lunchbreak, so."

"What? You can't leave it at that!" Anthony takes an instinctive step toward Emory, who in turn mirrors the action with a somewhat frightened step back. Anthony stops himself, then, tries for a kinder tone as he continues, "Aren't you even a little bit troubled by all this? Don't you want to—I don't know. Make it stop?"

But this does nothing in terms of pacifying. Emory, going from wary to a kind of angry in a flash, lashes out in a hissed, "Listen, you're having your weird, quarter-life gay—crisis of—whatever. I don't care. And somehow, ironically, you've decided to take it out on me. So excuse me if I'm not thrilled to—"

"Do not," Anthony interrupts with another half-aborted step. "Do not make me out to be the crazy one. Don't even—You were there. On that train. Out there. You were there. You—when I touch you, you call me—"

"Shut up." Emory says it with a threatening finger in Anthony's direction, then again, "Shut up. Stop." And with that he turns around, hand rough in his hair as he walks back into the shop.

Anthony watches as the door slowly closes behind him, considering going after—but not really knowing what else to say, how to convince someone of something he himself doesn't understand at all. He slumps onto one of the crates, plants his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands and mutters, "Fucked."

He sits there for a little while, going through everything in his mind again, trying to perhaps pick up on anything to clarify—something that might convince, or make it final, or prove it's just insanity, a case to be dealt through medicine and not sporadic rutting sessions against any given wall. It was probably only a matter of time, he figures. Child to a single mother bound to her wheelchair, living at home at twenty, no father figure around to mould him into a respectable citizen—who wouldn't expect this, sooner or later?

The door to the alleyway is pushed open again, and Anthony looks up immediately. Emory, now without his work shirt and with the skateboard in hand, walks past him. His expression is stony, and Anthony can only watch as he walks toward the end of the alleyway before stopping, turning, grumbling,

"Well?" He flips the skateboard to the pavement, balancing it with one foot. "I told them my grandmother died, so this better not be bullshit."

Anthony manages a few silent seconds at a loss for words, then—as the boy starts to skate away—hurries to his feet, jogging after.

"Where're—wait!" he calls, rounding the corner of the alley. "Wait, what—Where are we going?"

Emory slows his skateboard a little, gives him a sharp look over his shoulder and says, "To the station." Then, turning back ahead, "Unless you have a better idea."

~


It's an odd déjà vu, sitting in the rattling train—squinting his eyes at the brightness of the light coming in through the window, then glancing across and seeing Emory opposite, doing much the same, shading the view with a hand to his brow.

They are not the only ones in the coach. There's a handful of disinterested people reading books, snoozing in their seats—heads slipping against the window—quietly bobbing their heads to music as they stare outside. The first stop comes and goes, and there are still far too many people on.

Anthony looks to Emory. He had thought, maybe, that if they'd both be there again—in the same compartment, together, that everything else would happen naturally. The train would stop. Lights would go out. Doors open. But—

"Maybe we should . . . " Anthony juts his chin at the sliding door of the vestibule. It seems as good a plan as anything right now. Emory glances from the window to him, to the other people in the coach, then nods. Wobbling, they make their way to the back of the coach, and once in the vestibule clutch on to the pole for balance.

The view flashes by in blurry greens through the exit door windows. Here, the rumble of the train is louder, the faint screeching of the wheels on the rails more metallic—closer to the floor somehow.

Anthony's eyes follow a distanced farm until it's out of view. Then a collection of trees, a shed, grazing sheep. "What do we do," he asks, "if we pass it and nothing happens?"

Emory turns to him, shrugs. "Emergency break?"

Anthony huffs up a chuckle, but the lingering smile fades at the seriousness on Emory's face. The emergency break. He thinks about it, looks back to the unassuming crowd in the coach, and figures—well. If any occasion calls for an emergency break . . .

He goes to stand by the doors, intently taking in the scenery while waving behind him a vague gesture supposed to tell Emory to keep station by the break. It shouldn't take long, now, not at all. A slightly hilly field is what he looks for. No houses, only a tree, a low wall visible in the weeds and—

"It should be here," Emory says. "I remember it was a minute after that last farm, it should be—"

"Don't pull!" Anthony, with his face close to the window, doesn't miss a beat of the small village they pass by—then a large farm, a small pasture, a—

"Tony, it should be here, we're—if I don't pull now we'll—"

"It's not there." He keeps looking, still hoping, waiting for it. "It's—there's nothing that looks like it, I don't—"

"Fuck."

Anthony glances at Emory over his shoulder. His one hand, hovering over the break, grudgingly comes down to his side. Anthony gives him a tight-lipped expression, but the boy ignores him, comes to stand beside him—puts two curled hands to the pane, places his face between them, gazing out as though he thinks that while Anthony failed to notice the giant, deserted field, he will pick it right out.

But there is nothing. Nothing of the like for a long while, nothing all the way to the last station—home.

The frustrated sense of failure, of collective tenseness and exasperation is heavy for the both of them as they linger on the platform, sitting on a bench—hesitant in what to do next, disappointed.

"Well," Emory starts after a while. "I'm gonna take off."

"We should go back tomorrow," Anthony blurts out without so much of a thought. But he finds he means it, means it a lot and adds, "I mean, on our own. Like with a car or something. Do you have a car?"

He gets a funny, sarcastic look for this. "Does it look like I have a car?"

He watches as Emory gets up, steadies his skateboard on the ground, and runs through his options in his head. "Fair enough," he says, nodding once. "S'fine. It'll be—I'll take care of that."

Emory looks down, wheeling his board back and forth, and Anthony figures silence is the closest he'll get to any kind of agreement. Another train rolls in behind them, comes to a noisy stop, and by way of making conversation he asks, "You going back to the city, then?"

"Nah." He looks up, eyes on the train as he talks. "Might as well pay a visit to old ma and pa. They will be thrilled." There's a hint of a wry little smile on his lips as he adds, "Anyway, it's easier. Tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" Anthony repeats, frowning up at him over a slight smile of his own.

"Yeah." He pulls a face like he's going to roll his eyes, makes a mocking voice to cover up the uneasiness when he says, "When you're gonna pick me up."

"When I'm gonna pick you up," Anthony agrees, feeling pleased for the way Emory avoids looking at him as he adjusts his skateboard, makes to step on it, readying to set off. He stops him a second later, with the sudden realisation of, "Wait, Emory, I—" He pushes himself up, standing with his hands in his pockets. "I have no idea where you live. Your parents."

"Oh. Right. Well." He glances from the end of the platform to Anthony, worries his lip for a moment. "You know the video rental shop at the end of the main street? Well, if you go past that, and past the garage, and keep on going down the road, eventually you'll—"

"But that's just . . . " Anthony looks sideways, recalling. "Like, trees. It's a—road, I'm pretty sure there—"

"Oh, it's there. Just keep on down that path and . . . yeah. It's pretty hard to miss." Emory seems uncomfortable, finishes with a half-hearted nod, and sets off on the ground—skating off in the direction of the station hall, the wheels of his board skidding loudly across the indents of the empty platform. Anthony watches him go, stays there until the sound of wheels rolling over a sidewalk disappears completely, then waits a little longer still—carefully breathing, trying not to sigh out the sudden relief—before starting down the platform as well, languidly making his way home.

~


Standing in the small shed and wiping the dust off the seat with the sleeve of his jacket—scraping clogs of oil from around the engine—Anthony was pretty sure that this was a very bad idea. His throat had tightened at the thought of getting on the motorbike, of—more accurately, telling his mother he took it out again. But now, speeding down the small shopping street with his sunglasses on, the wind makes the pleasant heat of the day that much cooler and it's easy again, like this, to remember the appeal of this, the thrill and carelessness that pulled the smile straight from your lips.

He passes the video shop, the garage, follows the laid road winding between thickening rows of trees—keeps to its path as the tarmac turns to gravel, to dirt. The sun seeps through the canopy at irregular intervals, flashing him with occasional brightness, the smell of growing nature fresh in the air. He's keeping an eye out for a glimpse of a house, a big cabin perhaps, or a small one, or—it could be anything, really, and he has no idea what he's looking for. Couldn't miss it, Emory had said, and so he rides on, leaning lightly onto the handlebars—steering them to the curve of the road, momentarily distracted by a fence disappearing into the vegetation. But only a small distance further the wrought, decorative old iron panels come into view again, lining the trees as though binding them to some kind of estate.

Something faraway and pale shows between the trees for just a second, and Anthony leans back on the bike, tries to get a better look.

"Shit," he whispers to himself, the fence ligning the road growing higher—and in the distance he can see a path leading from it, an arching gate marking where it branches off from the main road. He smiles, slow and disbelieving. "No fucking way," he says, making a turn at the gate that kicks up the dust from the dirt road—hanging like mist in places where the sun strikes through the leaves.

The smile slips from his face as he advances down the path, turning into a breathless laugh at the sight of the large—large, huge—mansion house before him. The trees give way to a wide lawn on either side, rounding the house and reappearing at its front in a roundabout-like manner, a fountain in its midst.

A fountain. The guy has a—fountain.

Anthony parks his bike unceremoniously, coming to a stop by the circle of grass and plunking down the stand without consideration to the random placement—straightening in his seat, staying on the bike for a moment as he takes off his sunglasses, hooks them over the collar of his shirt as he looks up at the mansion.

It's old and big and reminiscent of white, the years having worn the colour into something more greyish. But the ivy has taken over some walls, flanking them impressively, and the grandeur is not lost in any of it. He shakes his head at it, incredulous and wry somehow, getting off the motorbike and fixing his jacket—brushing the dust off the leather, straightening the collar before setting toward the entrance. There's a bell and a rope type thing and he isn't sure what to pull, ring, so he settles for knocking—tentatively at first, then realises it's a mansion, and the chances anyone would be walking past to hear it are miniscule, so he knocks harder, feels ridiculous for it, and rings the bell anyway.

He still has to wait a good minute before the door opens. By now he's got a clever opening line at the ready, somehow expecting it to be Emory to open the door, despite the fact this is a fucking castle and he shouldn't be surprised at all when a woman in uniform opens the door—shouldn't be surprised at all, but he is.

It's a moment of opening his mouth, closing it, blanking out when he's politely asked his business. And then, when he can't give an immediate answer, is told that the household does not wish to purchase merchandise from any door-to-door business and how, dear sir, did you acquire this address?

"What? No, I—I'm not a, erm, I—"

"Who is it?" someone calls from inside, a boyish drawl he doesn't place as Emory's but he hopes still, glancing over the maid's shoulder to see an unfamiliar face crossing the main hall in a lazily entitled stroll.

"I'm sorry, I'm—uhm, looking for . . . "

Anthony stops. The boy, no older than sixteen and a pug-nosed, broader version of Emory, more or less freezes entirely when he sees Anthony—blinking, then frowning, then giving a single, loud bark of laughter.

"Anthony Orson!" he exclaims, ginning madly—and as though by cue the maid steps aside with a small inclination of her head. The boy approaches with his arms wide, laughing, clapping Anthony's arm in a companionable manner and pulling him into a half hug. "What the bloody shit are you doing here!"

Extricating himself from the hold, a bit shocked and confused, Anthony stammers a, "I—I'm sorry, do I . . . know you?"

"No!" the boy laughs, still, stepping back. "Of course you wouldn't, you tosser! I know you, though," he quirks his brows at that, that mad grin still in place. Then, as though shaken out of the initial surprise, he gives a little jerk and says, "Come on in!"

Anthony replies with a feeble, "Uhh," but passes the threshold all the same, the keys of his bike nervously jangling in his hand. The boy leads them across the bright marble-floored hall, talking all the while, going on about how—

"—when my mates hear this, won't fucking believe me. You're a legend, man, a fucking legend! That prank you pulled in the fifth? People still talk about that. And I mean, it's been a while, yeah, and that's saying—"

"—Wait." Anthony stops in his pace. "The fifth? What, if you don't mind my asking, are you talking about?"

The boy pauses, turns to Anthony with a confused frown and a smile. "St Vincent's? Comprehensive?" He gives a questioning nod. "You don't remember me, yeah, I just started when you were doing your last year. But mate, you have not been forgotten."

Anthony replies to this with an incredulous laugh of his own. School. Oh, he remembers school. Right now, however, he sort of wishes he didn't. He's not sure what about this makes him uncomfortable, but he's uneasy as he glances around—finding it hard to think.

"Your picture, yeah?" the boy keeps on, apparently encouraged by Anthony's silence. "Still hangs in the sixth form. I shit you not. Gold plaque and everything. Legend. Absolute, fucking legend."

"Uhm, listen," Anthony starts, brushing his hand to his mouth as he briefly looks up at the high ceiling, something like distraction. "I'm looking for someone. Emory? Hawk? Is he—"

"My brother?" the boy interjects. Laughs, again, shakes his head. "What the fuck you need him for? Oh, no, what'd he do? Did he fuck it up with one of your mates? Because listen, I know he can be a real shithead like that, but I'm sure he didn't—"

"What? No, I—we—listen, can you just go get him for—" He doesn't get to finish the sentence when, from the open doorway in the back of the hall, Emory barges in—half-running, gradually coming to a stop on seeing the two of them. There's a long moment of silence, each closely watching for the other's reaction, until it's broken by Emory's clipped command of,

"Adam, bugger off."

"Fuck you, Em, I'm not gonna—"

"Fine," he cuts his little brother off, starting toward Anthony. "Can we go?"

Anthony splutters for a second, managing a few 'uhms' in both Emory's and the younger boy's directions, frowning from the one to the other until Emory passes him with eyebrows raised in question. "Sure, yeah," he says, uncertainly turning back to the door. Emory is already stalking toward motorbike, and Anthony follows—glancing over his shoulder once, giving the brother, Adam, a tight-lipped smile before quickening his pace to catch up with Emory.

"A motorcycle?" Emory says, standing by with a disbelieving stance.

Anthony looks at him. "You live in a bloody castle, Hawk, and you couldn't even manage a car. You don't get to complain."

"I don't drive," he says, a bit less sarcastic now, watching Anthony get onto his bike.

"Then I guess we're gonna have to settle for this." He pushes the motorbike off the stand, rolling it forward a bit to wake the engine. "Get on."

Emory blinks at him, then at the back of the bike, thoroughly unimpressed. "What about a helmet?"

To this, Anthony can only give a huffing laugh, twisting his wrist to make the motor rumble. Emory shoots him a snarling look, and it takes a long, staring moment—interrupted by Anthony's quiet, "Well?"—before Emory puts two clammy hands on his shoulders with a blank expression, climbing on behind him. Once he's seated the hands are gone and Emory's shifting back as far as he can without falling off. Out of the corner of his eye Anthony sees his hands braced on his own knees, and says,

"I think you'd better hold on."

Emory doesn't move when he replies with a, "I think I'm good, thanks."

Anthony sighs, tightly, and unhooks his sunglasses from his shirt—puts them on as he kicks off the ground, pushing enough life into the engine to get it going. The sudden movement jerks Emory forward, and in the surprise a hand comes up to brace flatly to the centre of Anthony's back. He circles the fountain once before setting down the path, giving Emory a quick glance and a half-shouted,

"You still good?"

The hand is snatched away. "Yeah," replies Emory, stares off the other way, and by the time they turn off at the end of the path—a sharp move that must throw him off balance—he only reacts with a jerky, hesitating shift, determinedly ignoring Anthony's solid presence before him.

~


Through the dark glasses the summer crops take on an odd shade of brown, blurring alongside the narrow road as they speed past, and Anthony tries to concentrate on that—on the unchanging horizon of scenery—and not on the slight pressure on either side of his knees: the spot where Emory can't quite keep the inside of his legs from grazing the sides of Anthony's thighs.

In the distance, on the other side of the stretch of farmland, a train wheezes past with a faraway rattling of wheels on rails—the sound carried on by the wind, catching up with them belatedly. Ahead there's an unused pasture, an empty grassland with a twisted willow and the moment Anthony sees it, thinks, oh yes, Emory leans forward a bit and with a jab to his arm says,

"Over there."

"I know," Anthony shoots back, voice lost in the forward movement. He manoeuvres them off the road to the soft dirt, wondering how, how they could've missed this yesterday. When they stop, the cloud of dust is thin around them, and Anthony cleans his sunglasses with the hem of his shirt as Emory steps off.

Rubbing absent circles with the fabric, Anthony glances up, watches Emory through slightly sun-squinted eyes as Emory surveys the field—taking a few steps into the grass, looking around, shaking his head.

"Shit," he says. "This is it."

Anthony turns his eyes to the field too. The tree is there, the easy slope is there. The stone, however, is blatantly absent; a glaringly empty space where Anthony thinks it should be.

Clipping his glasses over his shirt again, he steps off the bike and sets off into the grass. He passes Emory and walks farther still, swatting aimlessly at the high weeds.

"What're you doing?"

Anthony gives Emory a quick look over his shoulder. "Checking," he says with a shrug. "Maybe there're . . . I don't know. Traces. Whatever."

Emory waits a moment before following him, calling after, "There's nothing here."

"You don't know that."

Emory comes into his view with a slight jog to his step, warily eyeing Anthony. So he raises his eyebrows and adds, "Or would you rather give up?"

Emory says nothing to that and frowns, looks elsewhere. Anthony continues his hapless detour about the pasture, shielding his eyes and wiping his forehead as he toes at the places where the stone wall had been—looking for indents, flattened stems, holes in the ground where he remembers path winded up. But he can't find anything, and the traces he does note could just as well be his imagination—a play of nature, or just the way things have always been in this stretch of quiet land.

Frustrated and too hot in his jacket, Anthony looks up from the ground and locates Emory a distance off: sitting in the grass, a mop of black hair peeking out over the weeds. He has to huff to himself, to look around with annoyance one last time before getting his feet into movement, walking over to the boy, flopping down next to him with a sigh of resignation.

"Well," he says, and not much else. Emory is poking at the ground with a twig, turning up the dirt. He glances up at Anthony for a brief moment, then turns back to his undirected digging.

After a short pause filled with the rumble of another train passing and the sound of crickets, Anthony announces that, "We're fucked. No pun intended," he adds in a mumble, looking down.

Emory stops the digging. He waits a moment, then tosses aside the twig in favour of rubbing his fingers to his eyes. He seems tired.

Somehow, this only spurs Anthony on. "So what's the deal with the mansion, then?"

"What is the deal with the mansion?" Emory throws back, hand dropping from his face as he turns to Anthony.

"Dunno." He shrugs. "How come no one knows?"

"Knows what?"

"That you're obscenely rich."

Emory looks away quickly, then, the colour of his eyes bright in the sun as he says, "I'm not rich."

"Oh, you're not, are you?" Anthony chuckles a single, hollow laugh. "So you're just renting the place for a few days, s'that it?"

"I'm not rich," he emphasizes. "My parents are."

"Same difference."

"No, it's not. My parents are—they . . . I'm not my parents."

"Oooh," Anthony laughs, mockingly nodding as he leans back on his propped up elbows. "A rebel, now, are you? How very noble. Very original, too."

"And who are you, exactly?" Emory gives him a tight, sharp look over his shoulder. "Bad boy with a reputation, comfortable enough to take the Mickey out of everyone yet still lives with his mum?" He turns away with a scowl. "Don't talk to me like you know me."

Anthony stares at the back of his head. He frowns, notes the tense set of his shoulders under his worn shirt—the taut lines of his back. Reaching out, soothingly stroking the small, exposed stretch of skin along the side of his lower back, Anthony quietly says, "I do know you."

Emory pushes away his hand, irritated. Anthony stops, exhales a pent up hiss, then pushes himself up to a sitting position again, shoulder to shoulder with Emory. He half expects Emory to shuffle away somewhat, but in a quietly resigned fashion he refuses to move.

"Do you . . . " He searches for the right terms, words, gaze fixed on the space between his and Emory's knees. "Do you remember people?"

"Remember?" Emory repeats. "You call them memories?"

He shrugs again. "They feel like memories."

"They're not my memories." Looking at Anthony, then, serious and nothing like the short glances from before, Emory says, "We're not them, you know."

"We look the same," Anthony replies, feeling weirdly defensive of this point.

"Yeah, but that's a part of the mindfuck. And that's what it is." He keeps his gaze level, earnest. "A mindfuck."

Anthony pretends not to really listen, continues with a, "Well I remember Gwen. She was cool. He liked her, anyway. That is, your . . . " He nods vaguely at Emory. "Merlin."

"He did not—" Emory catches himself, closes his mouth, and exhales his annoyance as he looks away again—shortly closing his eyes in frustration.

"And Morgana," Anthony keeps on, unfazed. "Fucking hell, that body. And the mouth on her! She would've fit right in here. Girls would hate her, but blokes would—well I suppose they always did but—Oh and Gaius, who—and I have to say, that is one fucking unfortunate name—and him, always running after—"

"—Stop talking," Emory chokes out, and it's a bit strangled. He swallows, back to rubbing his eyes—pinching the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb. "Please."

Anthony, caught-mid breath, waits a small moment before dutifully closing his mouth, licking his lips as he occasionally glances up. "You do remember them, though?" he asks after a while, voice purposely small, unobtrusive.

"I don't remember," Emory insists. "It's—they're all just there, okay," he says, indicating his head with a small, nodding movement. "And I don't know. It's all . . . jumbled up. I can't—I'm not sure—"

"I know. Me too." Anthony tries to catch his eye. "But I remember him, though. All of it. It's like . . . at least it feels like I'm remembering you."

"I am not him. I'm not."

"I know. It's just—" He pauses, trying for the proper words. His eyes linger over the side of Emory's face, the angle of his cheekbones, the tuft of a curl at his temple, the . . .

"He had a mark," Anthony says, lifting his hand to gently put it to the skin behind Emory's ear. "Right here." He rubs his thumb to the spot, fingers light in the nape of his neck. "Like you do. And a dimple, when he laughed, just one, right—" He lowers his hand over Emory's jaw, fingers soft as they stop at the side of his chin, below his mouth. "—Here. And a scar, from when he climbed a tree as a child, right . . . " His hand drops from Emory's face and comes to rest on high his thigh, fingers softly inching up and down the seam as he adds a whispered, "Here."

"Actually," Emory says, voice strained and quiet, eyes dark on Anthony. "It was on my father's boat. Snagged on a cleat."

"All the same." He moves up his hand, tracing easy patterns, fingers dancing just outside the outline of his crotch. "I know what it feels like," he says as he leans in, lingering close to Emory's cheek, "on my tongue."

Emory exhales, shallow and low, as he closes his eyes with a frown. Anthony takes this as all the invitation he is going to get, and palms him through his trousers. Emory hisses but is unmistakeably hard against his hand, gets even harder as he grinds the heel of it hard to the base of his cock through the rough fabric. The small sound that escapes Emory at that, the minute widening of his legs goes straight through Anthony, dropping hot and nervous to the pit of his stomach and lower—to his groin, urging him to work Emory harder, the way he'd want a hand on him right now. He tries to fit his palm to the shape of it, rubbing up and curling his fingers around as far as they'd go, squeezing, repeating it when Emory breathes a weak gasp at the motion—tilts his hips into it, unable to stop himself.

Anthony brings up his other hand to the curve of Emory's jaw, turning Emory's face to his, resting their foreheads together. Emory complies without protest, barely noticing, mouth slack and mind full with the quick hand between his legs. Anthony, eyes greedy on Emory's hapless, breathless expression, wants to know how far he can take this—how much of him he can get like this, pliant and wanting—and his fingers slip from Emory's jaw to where his hand is twisted into the grass. He plies it loose, tugs it toward him and lightly places it between his own legs.

With his own hand warm over Emory's, he squeezes their fingers around the bulge of his erection, groaning low and close to Emory's mouth at the feel of pressure.

Emory slowly opens his eyes, looking up at him. His pupils are blown wide and the blue is something else, something deep and full with the promise of wonderfully bad things. Anthony is panting now, unable to turn his gaze away, his hand speeding up on Emory's damp arousal, and when his fingers slacken over Emory's—covering his own cock—the boy takes over with a furious flicker to his eyes. He's harsh in his movements, kneading a little too hard and making the zipper dig a little too deep, but it's perfect like that, and soon Anthony's moving his hips to it too—feeling Emory's quick breath on his lips, watching as his eyes glaze over.

Emory first, face screwed into a frowning grimace, mouth open and jaw low as his breath hitches—driving his groin hard up into Anthony's hand as he climaxes with a long, voiceless hiss. Almost immediately, his hand stops moving on Anthony and so Anthony has to press it close again—twine their fingers over the shape of his cock, rub up and down with quietly emitted whimpers as his forehead drops to Emory's shoulder. He comes with a grunted, yes, keeping Emory's hand in place through the aftershocks.

And for a few stunned moments, Emory lets him. It still feels like a world too soon, though, when he snatches his hand from under Anthony's—leans away and stays frozen like that, catching his breath, staring.

Anthony falls back into the grass with a shaky laugh, slings his arm over his eyes. He hears Emory move beside him eventually, hears him get up, and when the boy mutters an angry, "Ah, Christ," he peeks from under the crook of his elbow to see him plucking feebly at his damp-stained jeans.

~


When Anthony finds the willpower to trudge his way back to the motorbike—finding Emory waiting, leaning against the seat while he smokes, nervously—the boy says,

"Take me back to my apartment."

"Um," Anthony says, swallows, looks at his bike. "Aren't—your stuff, it's still at your—"

"Didn't take anything with me." He flicks his mostly finished smoke aside, breathes out the last of it. "Remember?"

Anthony remembers the skateboard and little else. He says nothing, however, and as he steps onto the motorbike—Emory settling stiffly behind him—the boy quietly adds, "The city's closer anyway."

The ride away from the field, speeding into the urban outskirts of the city, seems infinitely shorter than the route they'd taken from Emory's home. Perhaps it is shorter, there is no easy way of telling, but the silence that settles in the small space between back and chest is sharper than before—laden, a bit frazzled, with Anthony trying to come up with things to say and Emory doing his best not to move an inch.

When the brown building comes into view, Anthony pulls up near the entrance and without a word gets off the bike when Emory does too, hands casual in his pockets as he follows the path Emory walks to the heavy door. But Emory notices that he's following, and standing before the flat—turning to face Anthony, warily, back to the door—he stops, about to say something, and Anthony quickly cuts him off with a blurted,

"D'you wanna—uh. Grab a drink, or something?"

Emory gives him a slight frown, looking a bit annoyed. "I'd really rather change," he says, indicating his jeans—nodding back at the door behind him.

"That's cool," Anthony smiles tentatively. "I can wait."

Emory stares at him for a long moment at this, expression first unreadable, then oddly upset—exasperated. "We're not friends, Tony," he says, and Anthony can't help but pull his head back a bit—pulling a reactionary ugly face of defence.

"I—Look, all I suggested was that—" He cuts himself off, ends with a loud puff of a breath. "S'just so that we can, I don't know, work out a way to fix—whatever. This. The . . . "

"How do you figure we'd work out a way to fix it, then?" Emory raises his eyebrows, shrugs in question. "Field's gone. Rock's gone, sword's gone. It's just us, Anthony. And we're obviously not making it better, so maybe we should just . . . sit it out, or something." He looks straight at Anthony, adds, "Wait until it goes away."

In reply Anthony laughs, hollow and mean. "Yeah, right. You think that's gonna work? That it'll just stop because you ignore it? We have to at least figure out what the hell is going on before we—"

"Yeah. Well. Maybe I don't want to figure it out. Maybe I just—" he stops abruptly, glances away for a second as he licks his lips. "Maybe I just want to get the fuck on with my life and forget this happened altogether."

Anthony's hands slip from his pockets, come to hang aimlessly at his sides. "You honestly think that's possible?"

But Emory doesn't reply. He stares at Anthony, jaw set, looking angrily conflicted—his gaze flickering sideways a few times. Eventually, with a tight and short little sigh, he half turns away, toward the door, as he says, "I'm gonna go inside." And then, with one last, blank look at Anthony, "I'll see you around, I guess."

Anthony watches as he rattles his keys, fumbles with the slightly jammed door, shoulders it open. Watches as Emory goes inside, the locked and tense set of his back, shoulders pulled up because he knows Anthony's eyes are following him all the way.

Through the blurry window glass of the door, Emory disappears as oddly shaped blotches of colours up the stairwell. Anthony stays in his spot for a few seething minutes after, feeling the nasty sting of insult boil low in his gut—then get stronger as he remembers feelings, days and sacrifices, and tries to get his head around what this boy, this boy is doing, why he's acting like this, stupid and stubborn like this, someone he's sure he's known for so long but knows he doesn't know at all and—

But he doesn't. He doesn't know him. And Emory is right, they are not friends, they don't owe each other anything and then it's anger roiling in his blood, making him flush hotly in the midday sun.

He kicks a trash bin. Gets even angrier when it just rattles a bit in its embedded frame. So he swears instead, kicks it again, then marches back to his bike. He can't even get it off the stand, his movements too wild and clumsy the first few times. So he stops, sitting on the bike with the engine off, breathing hard.

Fuck this, he thinks, and takes out his phone. Art, when he picks up, sounds thick and sleepy, and Anthony knows he just woke him up. Oddly, this makes him miss his friend more than anything this past week and in a flash, he wants it all back. Life without Emory, without the memories, with the going out and the being bored in classes, of having his mother worry for his health rather than mind.

"Some shit happened," he says when Art asks, groggily, where the hell he's disappeared off to.

"Some shit?" sounds from the other end of the line, some rustling.

"Yeah. But." He looks up at the building. "S'over now. So."

"So," Art says.

"Can I come over? We can catch up and shit. We can—"

"Yeah. All right." Then, after a short pause, "You okay, Tony? You sound a bit . . . strange."

"I'm fine," he says, shifts on the seat, hooks a hand over the handle—ready. "I'm coming over, yeah," and with that he hangs up, throat thick and breath shallow as he rumbles the engine into life, kicking off the crumbling sidewalk onto the road—teeth clenched, sunglasses on, blinking rapidly behind the plastic shades as though from the force of the wind.

~


He knows that 'catching up, and shit' at Art's place usually constitutes a fair quantity of alcohol and manly confessions of all the bad stuff they vowed never to tell anyone, he knows, but doesn't quite remember the exact madness of his friend's life until he's there. Passed out on the couch in the company of people he's sure he's never seen before—one of them definitely their pizza delivery guy, still with his hat and logo jacket on, a different one in a dirty plaid shirt, one of Art's Polish neighbours—and he's blinking in and out of consciousness, drowsy in the fumes of someone's bong.

At some point Art's sitting on the floor below him, head propped up on the couch as he says, "You ever gonna tell me what happened, mate?"

"Doubtful," Anthony slurs in reply, looking up at the ceiling.

"All right," Art sniffs, nodding. "D'you feel better now, then?"

"Loads," he says, smiling slowly, and from there on everything's a bit of a blur. When they stumble out of Art's dingy little room, the streets are darker than before, stripes of pink about the horizon, dragging on the approaching night. There are some pubs and he doesn't have money on him, but hey, what are friends for if not an appalling amount of drinks—loud conversations, loud laughter, taps on the back and the promise that, "You're all right, mate. You are all right."

And it's great. It's exactly what he needs, what he's sure he's missed and what this last week was supposed to be like. He's grateful for this man, this friend who doesn't need words to get him, doesn't give a shit whether what he says sounds stupid or smart but listens just because Tony wants to share some thoughts. Anthony knows this man, has known him for a good number of years now and there's no confusion there, who they are around each other and what they mean when they say—shout over the din of the bar—anything, any random thing, and it's wonderful. It's wonderful down the streets, at some club, wonderful even when Art disappears for a while and Anthony ends up at the bar, looking around lazily.

Then a guy, a dark-haired man with a somewhat careless swing to the way he sways to the music, glances at him from the other side of the bar, and things stop being quite so wonderful. Because Anthony looks back, keeps his gaze, feels hot and dazed all over—can't even bring himself to walk away when the bloke strolls over, easily, eyes scanning over Anthony's appearance, up, down, lingering at his neck and when he's looking him in the eye again he's close, sliding closer, leaning in as he whispers a low hello. Anthony replies with a nod, unable to keep his eyes off the man. He's a bit too tall, a bit too broad, but he's got the right eyes and hair Anthony doesn't pull away when a hand curls behind his waist—between the stool and the bar—fingers edging over the small of his back with a little tug. He moves back into the touch and the guy whispers another, "Let's go."

So he goes. Follows the dark back of a head, catching the flashing lights of the club, all the way to the toilets. In a small, pen-marked stall, the man goes to knees and works Anthony's trousers open. Anthony watches, winds his fingers into the man's hair, stroking it back in a mockery of intimacy as the man pumps him a few times with a spit-slicked hand then takes him into his mouth. Anthony hisses, bucks, listens to the wet sucking noises over the muffled techno music from outside the doors. If he looks down through his lashes, blurs his vision a little, then it's exactly what he wants to see—exactly the right shade, cheekbones peeking from under the messy mop and tight lips bobbing up and down over his cock. Anthony groans, fists the hair and calls him Merlin, and the man doesn't seem to mind that much. After, Anthony pushes him against the stall wall and kisses him, frantic and deep, wanting to know what it feels like. He's got his hand down the man's pants and from there on it doesn't take long, is an easy deal, feels good until he pulls back as sees a wrong face—until he swaggers out of the loo with the man in tow and Art's there, at the urinals, first looking up with a quick greet and then doing a double-check, frowning, slowly taking in the frozen, ruffled situation.

In an attempt to get away from any kind of confrontation, Anthony shoulders his way out, through the club and out to the street, feeling sick and fucked up. Art catches up with him moments later, having run after, shouting something and Anthony only catches the last of it, the angry words of,

"—that it? You're a poof now? Just fucked off one day and disappeared so you could be a fuckin'—"

"—So what if I am?" Anthony shouts back, turning to face Art—surprised to find him closer than he'd expected. "Maybe I'm a big fucking homo, yeah? What you want to do, Art? You wanna fight me? Punch me? That it?" He spreads his arms, giving him the chance. "Go on. Go on then. Punch me."

Art looks at him, seething, face red and drunk and twisted in some kind of mad repulsion—but does nothing, arms tight at his sides. Anthony laughs, punctuates his point by stepping even closer—standing a breath away, hissing, "Go on."

Art narrows his eyes, wants to flinch away but doesn't—chin jutting forward, mouth curling into a snarl, and Anthony grabs his face, roughly, kissing him flat and hard on the mouth in a true intoxicated display of emotional breakdowns. It lasts just a moment and then he pushes Art away, shoves his face with a movement nearing a slap, and walks backwards—eyes determined and challenging on the unmoving Art for a long minute before he turns around again, staggers off into the night.




(day four)



It's with the servants bustling down the hallways, the kitchens a mass of panic pulled together with steam and the smells of cooking food, that Merlin hardly has the time to notice that today, it's Arthur who doesn't have time for him. He's sweaty under the weight of steaming pots brought to guest rooms and distracted by the time one of the cooks pushes a tray of drinks into his hands and tells him to bring it to company the king is entertaining in the great hall. It's early afternoon and the party has just arrived, has just been shown the castle, and it's only when he shuffles into the hall—one of the other ten or so servants holding similar trays of foods and refreshments—that Merlin thinks, Oh yeah. The crown prince. His stomach does a nervous little jump.

By a tall, coloured-glass window Arthur is talking to the son of the visiting earl. He seems enthusiastic, animated, in good spirits if not a little jittery. Merlin can hardly keep the stupid smile off his face as he attempts grace in his walk over to the two nobles, tries to keep his back straight and ignore the fact that he knows he smells like a good day's work. The earl's son spares him a quick glance as he takes a cup from the tray, but Arthur's eyes are restless in doing their best not to look at Merlin—the corners of his mouth strained as he tries not to show the twitching, excited little smile that threatens to take over.

And it's simple happiness, a bit stupid in its nature but also brilliant, not to be helped, and the sort that feels like he'll never get over this, over this mad urge to jump, to be silly like pulling faces and dancing foolishly but at the same time pretend he's not bothered whenever Arthur is near. And when Merlin walks away, Arthur gives him a look over his shoulder, swift and involuntary, a shy smile on his lips. Merlin's heart gives a heavy thud and he's grinning, trying to suck in his cheeks to wipe it off his face, finds that he can't, finds that he's blushing all the way back to the kitchens and that his face is starting to hurt.

What is wrong with you, some of the other servants ask as they hurry down the corridor, and Merlin can only swallow down the laughter and school his face back to normal—literally knead it with two hands, fingers pulling his mouth into a serious line.

He sees Arthur a handful of times that day: brushes past him in the hallway, fingers skidding along the back of his wrist just to see the comical flash of warning shot his way. Childishly sticking out his tongue at him when helping to carry the tables into the hall, nearly crying with contained laughter when Arthur—regal in his royal display, hands behind his back at his father's side—crosses his eyes for a split second. In the courtyard, when rolling in wheelbarrows with flour sacks, Arthur on his horse a good distance away. From a window, on the training grounds, and one last time—in his chambers—when Merlin comes up help him with his robes. He's in a hurry, has to be downstairs again in minutes, but still presses close for a short moment—breath high in his throat as Arthur pulls him in, and they're chest to chest, ridiculous with their excitement. Merlin holds on to Arthur's arms, wound tightly around him, his smile a short exhale from Arthur's mouth.

"Have to go," he says, too high-pitched, and pulls away with an anxious puff of a laugh—fully aware of the burning tips of his ears, the warmth at the back of his neck as he hurries out of the room.

The feast, when it begins, will forever be remembered by the both of them in snatches of colours, of wine and the kind of secrets no one cares about but the ones involved, of delirious, lost conversations that seem important years later—when none can recall the words—but at the time are just ways to get the other to speak, to put their voice to some kind of use. There's dancing and singing and Merlin watching it from his station by the wall, Arthur from his chair, there's filling cups and occasionally there's the two of them in a deserted little corner, Arthur's body leaning into him as he leans back against the wall, stifling their laughs and shh! or, no you shh. Arthur bringing his cup to Merlin's mouth and telling him to go on, to take a sip, and Merlin taking a sip and then another, Arthur still holding up the cup until it drips over his chin and then Merlin has to laugh again and so it all spills down his front. Arthur snorts, then quietly dips down to lick it up the length of his neck—sucking away the traces of wine, from the hollow of his throat and then the line of his jaw, tongue dragging warm and wet over Merlin's skin and when he gets to his mouth—where the taste of wine is still deep and pronounced—he curls his way in with a small, urging noise. They get too needy too soon, making it open mouthed and faster, dripping, arching and moaning softy at the shift of legs between legs.

"I have to go back," Arthur says into his mouth, then sucks on his bottom lip.

"Then go," Merlin says, smiling, hands twisted in Arthur's shirt.

"I really have to go back," he insists, nuzzling Merlin's cheek.

"Then go," he breathes on a laugh, lightly pushing at Arthur. "Go."

"I'm going," Arthur says, kissing his lips.

"You're going," Merlin says, kissing back.

"I'm going." Another kiss. "Right now."

"Yes."

"Going."

"Going."

Arthur stares at his mouth, then looks up—a bit tortured, searching for sympathy, and Merlin pushes at him properly, raising his brow with a long, "Goooo!"

Arthur manages two steps before turning with a weak groan of defeat, walking back the short distance and leaning right back in. It's dragging mouths, slow tongues and hushed, "Just one more. Just one more and then I'm going, just—okay two more, just two more and I swear I'll—"

The end of the night finds them stumbling away from the lights of the summer fires, both a little drunk and in need of support and a heavy arm wound around their waists. It's not really about getting to Arthur's room so much as making clear to the other how not drunk they are, how very gone the other is, how much more sober they can act in comparison—swaggering, staggering, sliding down walls for how much they're laughing, limbs weak and limp with it. In Arthur's chambers it's a matter of trying to sound as awake as possible, getting as far as long-winded strings of slurred, "So how was your day?" "Thrilling." "Yeah?" "Yeah." "Yeah?" "Sure." "Yeah?", before giving up on talking and settling for licking into each other's mouths—reactions perhaps a bit slow, tongues thick and lazy, but it's good in its own way with their fingers fumbling and seemingly far too big as they struggle with laces and cloth.

Frustrated with their unchanging state of dress they both decide it'll all be easier horizontally, and with tugging hands and tangled legs they fall back into Arthur's bed, pushing under shirts and below waistbands, breathing urgent come ons and get it offs into each other's ears.

Arthur rolls away for a moment to get off his shirt, and before he can even lift the hem halfway up, his chest slumps into the mattress—sleepily incapable of anything. Merlin clumsily shuffles over him with the promise that if Arthur can't do it, he will, and lives up to his word by promptly falling asleep—his lips still fitted to the curve of his jaw, slackening, slipping off in a wet trail across Arthur's throat. Arthur who, on his turn, minds it for two whole seconds before half-heartedly shoving Merlin off—not managing it entirely—then sighs, relaxing into the bed, falling asleep with his hand still on the small of Merlin's back.




The local library is basically a hall the size of a small gym, linoleum floors and tables borrowed from the school attached, half the shelves dedicated to children's literature or old magazines. So he moves to the one in the city, an old, restored monster of a building, four floors and a basement—coffee machines and a small kiosk. People are always bustling about, going up and down the stairs, walking the aisles or marching to the front desk, frustrated, unable to find something they're sure should be in section 4BE—but it's quiet, hushed, even in the busiest times of day it's so quiet that if it weren't for the sound of distanced traffic and the city crowd outside, it would be easy to think—after a few days of uninterrupted visits—that it's a matter of hearing, of something stuck in an ear rather than the surroundings.

And Anthony, who in all his life has never read more than three books outside of school—two of them of the Harry Potter variety, the third a favourite of Playboy's girl of the month—by now knows the entire layout of the second floor (history), knows his aisles and sections, knows which tags to avoid and which abbreviations to look out for—which articles he's waiting for, essays that have yet to be brought back, knows the fiction from the scientific papers, his Marie de France from Layamon. Half of it barely makes sense to him, the language and the references, but the more he reads the more certain he is of what's not true—what's made up, fabricated, the line bold and bright in his mind. So he comes back and pours himself over the books, not taking notes or knowingly searching for anything in specific, but just taking in the words, the information a soothing connection to something he can't set aside—cannot, for the life of him, ignore. He's a slow reader and everything takes forever to get through, and it's embarrassing when he finds himself in need of a dictionary at his side when working on the more advanced papers, but a bit necessary, and also important in a small but significant way.

Often, more often than not, he falls asleep over the table after an hour or two of reading. He's making up time again, catching ends of rest with the coffee cup still in hand, tying them together over a course of a week to make a total of so and so hours. Never enough, but it keeps him up—on his feet, still walking that small distance from the library to the bus stop, from the bus stop to the pub, to the other pub, to the bar and the pub, back home for a small hour, ignoring the stack of mail his mother leaves behind on the table (university, university, bank, insurance, university), changes a shirt or a pair of jeans and then he's out again—leaving the house with a grumble of, I'll be back later.

And Art may be mad at him, not really talking to him, but that aside, there are more than enough people he knows who go into the city at night—whom he can call and say, You busy? And they'd say, You kidding? People who don't mind how loud he gets now, after a few drinks, how easily he bumps into people and how casually he offers to take it outside, to tackle someone with a shoulder and some weight—take a punch, swing one back, laugh as he slides down a wall and licks at a bloody lip. People who don't mind him disappearing, too, slinking off into loos or narrow, foul-smelling alleys with a strange bloke or a dark-haired girl, don't mind how he comes back (if at all), wild-eyed and guilty, sitting at a sticky table and burying his darkly shadowed face in his hands.

But that's the nights. During the days it's just him, sitting at a table close to one of the windows overlooking the green little garden courtyard. It's a dry sandwich from the kiosk and words of Guinevere, words of Uther and Morgana, Mordred and Arthur—me, he thinks on every occasion, feeling strongly about it, convinced—thinking, this is family. And the stories might not always correspond, sometimes feel silly or contrived, but it's still the right names and the right sentiment, and he ends up wishing himself into the stories rather than this—this life, the smell of his clothes and sting of his black eye. And who wouldn't want this, what man can look back at his life, whether short or longer than that and say—I wouldn't rather be a prince, a king, the most badass one known to date, the one they name restaurants and attraction parks after, companies and brands and anything, really, anything associated with good and honourable.

"I'm worried," his mother says, quietly one day when he's on the couch, pressing a frozen pizza to his face. He doesn't hear her and so she urges with a firm, "Tony." And another, "Anthony. Anthony!"

Anthony blinks at her, then, and there's a lump in his throat at the realisation he'd been expecting a different name—has, even in his own head—stopped referring to himself as himself. He swallows, looks up at the ceiling, and his mother continues,

"Tell me I don't have to be worried, Anthony."

"I'm fine, mum," he says, flatly, and nothing more.

That night, when he moves close to a brown-haired girl with deep-set eyes and a shirt that sucks right onto her skin and she asks him—a breath to his mouth—what his name is, he looks at her for a short moment before answering with a husky, "Arthur."

She smiles, slow and nice, and maybe it's in his head how much this reaction differs from when he says Tony, or even Anthony, maybe he's making up the differences because of what he wants to see, but that still doesn't stop him from keeping up the act—from liking it, liking being Arthur to her, going through the night as the king of a dead England. He doesn't even bother to ask her name, he's so wrapped up in his own enigma, revelling in it, showing it off as a shade short of egotism. Arthur, she calls him at the bar, dragging him by the wrist behind her—softly dragging out the quiet r's, as though testing out the name for him. And again, Arthur, out on the streets—into the crook of his neck, through a grin. And Arthur, Arthur, "Arthur," in her car, parked a good while away from the nightly din of the city for a half-hearted attempt at privacy.

"Arthur," on the back seat, her hands fumbling with the button of his jeans, her shirt pushed up and bra showing. "Arthur, d'you have any—anything on you?"

Anthony pulls back from between her breasts, breathing hard and not processing. "Wh—what?"

"Shit," she says, arching up a little, rubbing against him. "D'you have anything with you?"

He searches her eyes for a confused moment, then, "Oh," and, "Fuck, no, I thought—don't you—?"

She closes her eyes, hands dropping from his jeans, inhales a steadying breath. "No," she says, "Fuck. Okay, there's—there's a shop at the corner of the next street. I think. I—" She pushes him off a bit, pulls down her shirt. "I hope. You have money, right?" He nods, numbly, and she stares at him for a small minute before lightly shoving at him with a, "Go!" Little hands press him back, opening the door. "Hurry, yeah?"

And so he hurries, in a state of half undress and delirious arousal, in search of condoms, somewhere in the city's uglier neighbourhoods. It's the middle of the night and he tries to remember the way, looking and not finding the shop, not finding much else but a small casino and a kebab shop. In the end he asks a bum, a bearded man with a dog, desperately offers him a fiver in exchange for directions—even explaining it, rambling, saying, "Listen, mate, listen, I've got this girl in a car, this beautiful girl and she's waiting for me and I've got to—find this fucking shop somewhere or she won't—Listen, mate, you've gotta help me, you know how it is, yeah, I mean, I can't go back empty-handed, yeah, I can't—"

From there it's a five minute walk, and he half runs most of it. The shop is a shock of fluorescent lights, buzzing distantly above him as he walks the bright, mopped-shiny floors with one finger along the shelves—as if counting off the items, making sure he sees them all, doesn't miss what he's looking for. In his addled state of mind, he can't process that there probably won't be any condoms with the canned goods, or with the crisps. But he gets irritated with the slowness of his search rather quickly, turns his wild eyes to the rest of the shop, looking for a sign of a bright orange shirt matching the shop's neon sign outside—finds one stacking milk cartons a while off, pulling the older ones to the front, putting newer in the back. He marches past the aisles, hand frazzled in his hair as he starts with a,

"Oi, mate, d'you have any . . . "

He trails off. Emory looks at him, quiet and unmoving, eyes wide.

It's been weeks.

All at once his heart is thudding upward, blocking his throat, and he breaks out in a clammy, cold sweat and it's almost like a fever, this boy. The sight of Emory washing over like a quiet disease and Anthony wants out, he wants out of there, gone from the shop, barely even cares anymore about the girl—stupid condoms, fucking condoms, who the fuck even cares and who—

"Where d'you keep the condoms?" he finishes, willing his voice into something cool—smoothing out the tremble, pulling himself straighter, thinking—I don't have to care.

Emory doesn't say anything at first. He just stares, looking a little tired but otherwise fine, and there's nothing of annoyance or anger in his face as he takes in Anthony—scans his face, then replies with a frowningly admonished, "You look like shit."

Anthony's temper flares at this, and his retort is an immediate, "Fuck you."

Emory doesn't appear to even register, eyes still fixed on Anthony's bruised cheek. He lifts a hand, easy in his movement, as if reaching to run his fingers along the swelling cut should be a normal thing for the both of them. But Anthony isn't as quiet about it, the very nearness of the boy already setting him on edge like nothing else, and with a short, hissing inhale he catches Emory's wrist, roughly stilling his hand.

His attention sharply snaps to Anthony at the touch—looking him in the eye now, surprised but otherwise unreadable, nostrils wide as he twists his wrist in Anthony's grip. Anthony lets go, jaw muscles working—rippling under his skin as he watches Emory's hand come down, slowly. His fists clench at his sides.

Then Emory sighs. It's a tight, shallow sound and he shakes his head at Anthony—short, just once—as though already resenting him.

"Come on," he says, starting toward to the end of the aisle with a slight inclination—pausing for Anthony to follow.

But Anthony doesn't. He stares, stony, determined not to let him get the overhand again—to be the martyr in this, allow him somehow, then decide the next moment he doesn't care for it at all and put a stop to everything. His mind is made up, and he will not move, and he will wait and then walk away with his dignity, or at least some of it, and there is no way—

Emory reaches back, takes his hand. Anthony discovers he is that easy, as every resolve or any coherent thought crumbles at its foundations, then collapses when Emory pulls him along, his grip cold from the cool cartons and his fingers long, digging softly into the back of his Anthony's hand. He feels faintly sick, wants to pull away, still very much wants to want—bitter over weeks alone (though he wasn't alone), over a rejection (though he can't say it wasn't justified), bitter over being bitter in the first place, frustrated with himself and his own haplessness.

Though in the end, perhaps it's better that he has little choice over his actions now, that something else moves him rather than his own free will. It's embarrassing, surely enough, how little it takes for him to try to pull closer as they walk out onto the pavement—puppy-like in how he clings on, does not let go, waiting a few steps in the humid darkness of the street before shifting his hand and lacing their fingers, the length of his arm pressing close to Emory's. Emory, who lets it happen without the slightest sign of acknowledgement, who stares ahead—tolerating, permitting—and as much as it infuriates Anthony, he can't loosen his grip, squeezes harder, eyeing Emory in silent challenge as they approach the flat.

When Emory lets go of his hand to get his keys out, Anthony's hand sways empty and awkward by his side and for that moment, he can barely recall what he used to do with this hand before, how he held it or used it when not holding on to others.

They're quiet as Emory shoulders the door open. Quiet in the lift, quiet as it plings open to the hallway, quiet in the entrance to the apartment—Emory sauntering in unaffectedly, tossing his keys on the table, taking off his work shirt, collapsing onto his mattress as he would any other day, as he would whether or not Anthony stood watching from the door—arms crossed, locked defensively, anxiously looking around.

The place is exactly the same. Kitchen—table—mattress—walls white save for the handful of posters. A closet. Television. Nothing to remark on.

Emory watches him from his spot on the mattress, betraying very little emotion as his head lolls on the pillow—observing Anthony without a word. And Anthony, for a rising, panicking want of something to do, some display of control, turns to the kitchen, idly tapping on the sink, opening random cabinet doors and closing them again. He pauses, glances to Emory and says,

"You're not like him." He looks away, a nail scratching a restless tune along the seam of his jeans. "Just so you know. You're not like him at all."

Emory props himself up on his elbows, giving Anthony a mild, questioning look.

"He used to have things," Anthony continues. "He—had things."

Flopping back down with a huff, Emory replies with a murmured, "I have things."

"You don't have things. You have . . . I don't know. But he made things. Used to make these little . . . wooden figurine things, of birds. Had them up on his shelves. He had things."

Emory, giving a quick look and a laugh, says, "Oh, he didn't make those."

To this, Anthony's fingers still on the leg of his jeans. He stands, a bit frozen, angry all over again and staring. Emory, though, is unaffected by the livid glare of a reaction, and continues with a vague gesture and a,

"Yeah. That was, like, a spell." He gives a fraction of a smile, adds, "Just couldn't get over the stupid look on your bloody face whenever he showed you them. So I sort of pretended I—" he stops. Catches himself, the smile disappearing as he scrambles to correct, "He, he pretended. They. Not—I meant they. He. He . . . shit."

Anthony remains still. His anger falters, unable to hold ground at the sight of Emory's somewhat horrified stare—clearly going over the slip in his mind, a flush gradually spreading down his neck at the quick memory of it. Anthony's eyes follow the red blotchiness of it, disappearing below the collar of his shirt, the faint sheen of summer sweat thin on his skin—below his lip, too, at his temples, and Anthony can recall the exact saltiness of it, the clamminess when pressing his face close, feeling it on his lips when talking against the line of his cheek.

It must show, must flash a little over his expression, because when he catches Emory's gaze—his eyes right there, looking at him, and he looks back—the shock has made place for a different kind of earnest, a good deal unreadable but the intention is clear enough when he swallows, breathes through his nose a little too quickly, shallowly.

Anthony snaps with a hoarse, "Fuck," pushing himself off the sink and striding over to the mattress—stripping off his jacket as he goes. Emory watches him approach with big, dark eyes, makes no move to get away when Anthony drops to his knees at the end of the mattress. He reaches out, hooks his hands under Emory's knees and pulls—dragging him over the bunching sheet.

Emory looks up at him as Anthony slowly inches forward, hovering over him, his hands still on his knees—then, with their eyes still locked, he slides them below the furling hem of his baggy shorts, over the rippling muscles of his thighs. Emory sucks in a breath and Anthony runs his thumbs over the insides of his thighs, as low as he can get, then pulls again—roughly, drawing Emory nearer with spread legs, lowering himself between them. His hands slip from inside Emory's shorts, moving up—messily rucking up the boy's shirt as he drags them over his chest. Emory arches a little into the touch, breath coming short and quick, and Anthony keeps the momentum upward, rubbing flat palms over his arms, slightly raised over his head from the forced slide down. Biting on a lip, Anthony tightens his grip around the boy's wrists, tugging them to cross under his weight—forcing Emory's shoulders back, his chest an arch off the mattress, his head tilting back, baring his throat with a whispered, "God."

Anthony melts into his frame, settles down over him—face perfectly aligned to be buried in the warmth of his neck. Hands still holding Emory's up and in place, he breathes him in and breathes him in and bites, lightly, feeling the shiver going through the boy and replying to it with a slow, digging roll of his hips. Emory gives a quiet, nearly soundless moan, suddenly restless beneath him—rolling his hips up in return, legs curling around Anthony's calves, as he rubs up against him. Eyes pressed to the crook of Emory's shoulder, Anthony's hands slacken and in their combined, heated rhythm slip down again, search for a hotter touch under Emory's shirt—raking his nails over a quivering belly, then smoothing down the welts with gentle, skidding fingers, testing out the relief and feel of skin, of nipples and scattered hair, finally settling high over the sides of his ribs, thumbs brushing up and down the path of them. Emory's hands settle around his neck, down his back, fists clenched into his shirt and pulling him closer—pulling him to the give and take of their movements, rutting clothed and horny like they can't help it—which they can't, cannot, are at the mercy of this situation and each other, drugged by the nearness and the fast, heated pants exhaled in stuttering breaths against their cheeks, necks, ears.

"Why do you—" is Anthony's snatch of coherency, murmured wet and drowsy to the fabric of Emory's shirt, "—keep doing—this, Merlin, why do you—why can't you—"

And Emory, closed-eyed and feverish to the side of his face, mouthing to his brow—his eyelid—a continuous mantra of, "I'm sorry—sorry—Arthur, fuck, I'm so—sorry—I'm—"

~


He wakes up slow and uncomfortable, unfamiliar bedding under him and the sun too bright and red through his closed lids. The day is warm before it's even started, and he feels clammy—fallen asleep in too many clothes, his jeans and shirt already unbearable in the humidity of summer.

He shifts uneasily, trying to blink his eyes open. Sleep still weighs him down heavily, though, and for now he takes it easy—rolling his tongue around to get the dry taste out of his mouth, sighing a deep breath with a frown, wondering at how despite the ache in his back he still feels more rested than he has in a long, long time.

He opens his eyes, lazily, wary of the immediate brightness of the room. Emory lies facing him, already awake but silent. He watches Anthony with a mild expression, and his eyes are puffy with sleep but today their colour is blue like it hasn't been before. Maybe it's the window in the kitchen letting in the light, angling along his face, catching the slightly backlit silhouettes of the tiniest of hairs peeking from atop his ruffled head—but Anthony's chest still gives a dull twinge at the clarity staring back at him, inspecting, curious and not unkind.

The momentary waking into full awareness is long but not exactly uncomfortable, the embarrassment or regret still a long while away—if they will follow at all, Anthony thinks, chancing the smallest of shy smiles at Emory and wondering how he could possibly want to take this back when Emory replies with a shadow of a hesitant smile as he slides up to him, subtly getting closer. He thinks of yesterday, falling asleep on top of a gasping Emory, thinks of another time falling asleep with a mouth pressed to his jaw, and then Emory's hand is lingering between his legs, undoing the button, and then there are no thoughts to his mind, none at all.

The boy's face is red and wrinkled from the sheets, but the blush still spreads darkly down his neck when he pushes a somewhat unsteady and dry-warm hand down Anthony's open jeans, past the waistband of his boxers, long fingers trailing, skimming over his heady morning erection before fisting it. The action is timed with Emory locking his teeth over his lip, biting it as he gives a tentative stroke, and Anthony can only stifle an appreciative groan and try not to move into the touch, wary of doing something stupid, something that would make him stop, but Emory only inches closer—pumps him again, harder, and again and again, tracing a slow and deliberate thumb over the head, the slit and by then Anthony can't help the sleepy, guttural sounds that escape him, or the way his hips snap up to get more of the tight heat of Emory's hand.

And when, somewhere between closing his eyes and losing the ability to close his mouth, Emory takes his hand away, he is sure that it's done—that that's all he was going to get, and in a thoughtless wave of protest a hand comes to clutch at the boy's hip, pulling at him, almost like a voiceless whine. Emory, his face pressed close to Anthony's neck, smiles to the hollow of his throat and Anthony has to glance down—sees only a mop of hair—but feels the hand skid up his chest and feels as Emory brings it to his mouth, the shift of his head as he gingerly licks a stripe up his palm before lowering it back down, returning with a faster and slicker touch.

Anthony sucks in a loud gasp. Emory plants a small, dry kiss to the base of his neck and he's so timid about it, so cautious and diffident with his hand still so good and eager on Anthony's cock, and it's all he can take, is already scrambling at Emory's shorts, impatient and giving up on the zip for a moment to just rub him through the fabric, just feel him throb under his palm, make sure he's hard and that Anthony's not alone in this—and he's not alone, he's not—before pushing down the baggy shorts over the boy's narrow hips with a couple of harsh tugs, growling in his urgency.

This has never been particularly exciting for him, not in the toilets with random faces, not with another bloke and not from this angle, but right now—palming Emory's damp erection, feeling his stuttering breath against his shoulder in reaction, then working him in time to Emory's strokes on him, he can't think of anything hotter. Can't imagine a more erotic sight when he glances down and actually sees it, their hands on each other, the way their bodies react to one another and the collage of fingers and wet flesh, can't even look away when he comes like that—trying to keep his eyes down to see Emory's hand as it never falters and gets coated with it, with him. Anthony's reeling and not coming down, still heady with sex—the idea, the scent, the hard cock in his hand—and speeds up his strokes, strips the member a little too fast, too rough, making Emory voice it in muffled, short moans. He comes hot and trembling all over Anthony's hand, the sheets, their shirts. Anthony buries his face in his hair, kisses the crown of his head, and waits for their mad heartbeats to calm down—their breaths to slow in their pace, the sweat to dry a little on their skins.

It's comfortable and wonderfully familiar for a long time. There are mumbled words between them of today and patrol, of training, of how long can we stay in bed? and the humming, non-committal answers that come in reply. And then, then there is silence, a stretching, easy silence that allows for a slow realisation. The misplacement of their words starts to get to them, to sink in, the times and their surroundings, their names, even—and as Emory begins to stiffen in Anthony's hold, Anthony tries to subtly extract himself from it. Emory all too easily accommodates this, rolling away without looking up, and Anthony tries to blink away the awkwardness as he buttons himself up—wipes his hand on his jeans, sitting up, softly clearing his throat.

Emory covers himself with small, hidden movements as Anthony pads around the room in search of his shoes (and when had those come off?), picking up his jacket along the way, eventually finding them by the television—haphazardly thrown behind the screen. He's a bit clumsy in pulling them on, wobbling on one foot and flailing a bit in search of balance, careful not to look up all the while. And when he's gathered all the items he can remember shedding, has everything on him he had the night before, he just lingers in his spot—unsure, a little confused, wanting to say something but not knowing what.

In the end, he tries to cover up the awkwardness with feigned casual nonchalance, shoving his hands into his pockets, rocking back on his heels and saying, "I guess I should get going."

Emory, sitting propped up against the wall, stares at the edge of the mattress and nods, pulling his lips into a thin line of agreement. Anthony waits for a short moment, knowing there's nothing else but still giving it a chance. Nothing immediate follows, however, and so he turns with a vague nod of goodbye that Emory probably doesn't catch.

"Wait," comes all the same, a second later, and Anthony's not even at the door yet. He turns and Emory looks at him, flustered. "We could—maybe, tomorrow? If you want to. Get lunch or, whatever. We can . . . talk. About. Yeah."

Anthony stares. "But we're not friends," he says before thinking, but finds that even if he didn't mean to say it, it is a fair remark.

"I know," Emory says, looking sideways and then down again, uncomfortable. "It's just—" he stops. "It's weird. I don't know. You don't have to. I just thought—I don't know what I thought. Look, it's fine if—"

"Yeah," Anthony cuts in, nodding once. "All right."

And then, as Emory's gaze flickers up in confusion—unsure to what Anthony just agreed to, and Anthony clarifies with a final, 'I'll see you tomorrow."




(day five)



Arthur doesn't wake up because his manservant isn't there, yet no, he is there but not to haul him out of bed today, not to push at him with nagging heels of hands and mild threats—not today. And Merlin, for his part, doesn't wake simply because of the comfort cocooned around him, the easy warmth of the bed and cool shifting of the sheets.

There's a dull, niggling ache in the back of Merlin's head, a heavy dryness to his mouth, none of it enough to pull him to the surface of consciousness. At some point, an uncertain time into the morning, he opens one eye and sees Arthur is still asleep. So he blinks back into half-sleep, refuses to move, rests some more and when he squints around for the second time, Arthur is staring lazily up at the ceiling—eyes drooping closed. The next time there's a maid in the room, quiet and nervous and shuffling, and he barely even processes where he is. The next he is drooling on Arthur arm, then Arthur's arm whacks him in the face, and from there on out sleep doesn't come as easily.

Sitting up in bed Arthur chuckles a croaky, scratchy laugh and recalls aloud the ways in which they made fools of themselves the night before. Merlin watches him rub a hand over his sleepy face and says it wasn't that bad, that everyone was drunk and stupid and that they're always a bit foolish, anyway.

You're foolish, Arthur retorts, weakly, and collapses back into the mattress.

I guess so, Merlin says, eyeing Arthur up from his shoulder to his face. Arthur looks, softens, and turns to his side—face to face. Didn't even manage a slight state of undress, did we? he asks, toying with the end of one of Merlin's shirt laces, winding it around his finger, tugging, then letting it spin free again. Merlin sucks in his lip, bites on it, keeps it under his teeth as he gingerly puts a hand on Arthur's chest—over the cloth of his shirt, tracing a slow, halting path around the square shape of his muscle. His palm is sweaty and catches on the fabric as it goes, bunching it as he palms the hard curve beneath. This body is so unlike his, he thinks, and the sheer tautness—the tension rippling under his hand makes him swallow, push down the sudden thrill in knowing he could put his hands anywhere, that maybe Arthur wouldn't even stop him.

When he looks up Arthur gaze is level, brimful with a dark intent. Go on, he says, moving into the touch, and Merlin's hand drags down, playing with the hem of Arthur's shirt for a second shirt before slipping under, fingers skimming over the trail of hair low on his belly. And as Merlin feels his way up, over scars and skin, Arthur tangles his fingers in the laces of his shirt—hopeless, voicing frustration with little grunts, asking what the hell did Merlin do with these knots, he wasn't trying to tie a mast, just a shirt for heaven's sake and why wouldn't it just—

Merlin untangles the mess from around Arthur's fingers with a quiet smile, kissing his knuckles as he goes, muttering, Idiot, then pressing his lips to the centre of Arthur's palm. Arthur falls silent, has few words left altogether when Merlin opens his mouth to the inside of his wrist, flicks his tongue and follows it with teeth.

We should lock the door, Arthur says when Merlin guides his hand under his own shirt, flattens it to his navel. You lock the door, is Merlin's reply, breathless as Arthur starts to touch, pushes up another hand and roams over Merlin's chest, digs into the slight flesh, pulls him closer with a faltering exhale. Merlin lies back a little, shifting under Arthur, raising his arms up. Arthur looks at him, eyes a bit wild, and he's already tugging Merlin's shirt higher and nearly over his head when he breathes a pointless, Yeah?, as if he needs anymore encouragement and Merlin chuckles meek and nervous, says that it's a dirty shirt anyway, much better off than on, points out that Arthur's shirt is stained and wrinkled as well and Arthur, Arthur licks his lips, gives him a jerky nod and a,

Why don't you take it off for me, then?

And one day, maybe not even that far off—maybe even today but not now, later, they will learn how to move within the same space at great speeds. They will learn how it's done fast and light, joking and laughing in between, pushing each other down and smothering laughter in all kinds of ways. Before that, though, the slowness of uncertainty has to happen first. It's a shaky show, taking off each other's clothes, not knowing whether to move on to the next piece or stay and touch. They stay close all the while, palming elbows and hips, eyes turning down to the space between, under the sheets—they blush. It's a constant switch from shyness to urgency, which they start with light, dry kisses, and move on from there, deeper and wetter, Arthur's hands bracketing Merlin's face as he angles him with a tangle of tongues. Merlin's hands skim lower, settle high up a thigh and then he tugs, pulls, inching closer as he moves Arthur's leg between both of his. He rubs his thigh up and down along Arthur's, leg to leg, and then it's just a slight tilt of his hips and everything is touching—and there's not a breath so soft it could pass between them.

Merlin's hands settle on the small of Arthur's back, and Arthur's hands come down—slowly—to mirror the position, arms crossing Merlin's. The skin is damp, sweaty, and they pull each other closer with timid fingers—gasp softly into each other's necks, flushed and keeping close, movements minute but definite. It's so quiet the noises from the courtyard float in through the open window, and there're cartwheels and footsteps, a discussion concerning a horse and the height of a gate, the annoyed whinging of a child wanting to go with a friend and not his mother—right there in the room with them, and all the while Arthur and Merlin move. Slow and concentrated, so very young and amazed at each other, their differences and bodies, minds and ways, how they fit and how they don't, how they make each other feel and how addictive it is—how everything still isn't enough. Moving together, slick and intimate, tasting each other as they lick their lips—pressed to the crooks of necks—still not enough, feels like it will never be enough, and yet the closest thing to unconditional affection they've ever known.

"Tell me," Merlin says, later, a bit distanced as he dips a finger in and out and around Arthur's navel, "something you like about me."

Arthur smiles, strokes back Merlin's damp hair from his temples. "A thing that I like about you," he says, "is how you bump into stuff." A thoughtful pause. Then, "All the time."

"That's a very wrong answer," Merlin tells him, propping his chin on Arthur's chest. "Very. Now give me at least ten things you like about me."

Arthur looks at him, has to lift his head awkwardly, raises his brows and rests his head back down. "All right," he says, and abruptly rolls them over—looming over Merlin, easily settling between his legs. He grins as he slowly leans down, presses a light kiss to the corner of Merlin's mouth. "I like your smile," he says, quietly. "Especially this side. And—" Another kiss to the other corner, "this side, too. I like these lips in general, I suppose. This mouth, this—" He brushes his own lips in a passing touch, catching a hitch to Merlin's breath, adding, "—how you breathe when I'm close, close like this, and also this chin—" a kiss to his chin, "—and this jaw—" to his jaw, "—and your—fingers, your very long fingers and your fingernails and this wrist, this pale and lovely wrist of a man, and—"

Merlin stops him, clasping his hand—already against Arthur's mouth—over his lips, pressing. Arthur looks at him, open and waiting. Merlin gives him a quiet, "Save some for later, yeah?" but doesn't say anything of it when Arthur continues to kiss his way down his arm, wordless this time, as he trails a wet path down his body, tongue easy and curling over the jut of his hipbone and lower—better, brilliant—and then Merlin hears it all the same, over the slippery noises of Arthur's mouth around him and his own breathless moans, he hears it even though no one is saying it, no one is voicing it and yet it's there, in the air, in his ears, sounding over and over, the words like Arthur's tone, repeated as—

This man. This man. This wonderful man. This—




"Yeah?" Emory's voice sounds through the intercom, metallic and flat. Anthony hesitates, can't come up with any kind of appropriate greeting, then realises he's waited too long.

"It's me," he blurts in a hurry, a beat too late, awkward on his own out on the empty street. It's me? he asks himself, pityingly, then in a flash tries to save it with an even worse timed, ". . . Anthony?"

But Emory, if his light and unexpected laugh is any indication, doesn't notice. He replies with a quick, "Come up," and buzzes the door open. Anthony, not really expecting this, glances back at his bike—parked haphazardly by a streetlight—then pushes his way into the building's air-conditioned hall with a minute, pointless shrug. When he gets to Emory's floor, the door to his flat is already open in silent invitation. He lingers by the doorway, knocks on the frame as he peers inside. At first glance the room is empty, but then Emory saunters out of the bathroom and into view, in shorts and not much else, rubbing his wet hair with a towel.

"Hey," he nods at Anthony with a smile, and he—inexplicably, somehow, he looks like he's having a good day. A brilliant day. Anthony realises then that he's never seen this boy smile, not without sarcasm or wryness, not in this lifetime.

Uncomfortable, he steps into the room, key chain between his fingers as he claps his hands together—looks around, feigns interest.

"Just stuck my head under the tap," Emory explains brightly, tossing the towel over the back of a chair. "S'really bloody hot, isn't it?"

"Jesus," Anthony whispers, starting at the sight of Emory's face. "What the hell happened?"

Emory frowns at him. "What?" And then, as it dawns on him a second later, "Oh! This. No, it's—" He smiles again, far too happy for someone whose face seems to have been scraped along a sidewalk. "It's fine, I'm fine, It's—here, sit down." He kicks out a chair, sitting down himself, and Anthony notices that his shins are in a worse state than his face.

"Would you stop looking so freaked out?" Emory laughs as Anthony sits, the distaste probably clear on his face. "I had an accident skating. It happens."

Anthony, still not at ease, not sitting at the table—not with Emory's bright smile materialising seemingly out of nowhere—shifts and manages an awkward, "Yeah. Well. You look like you shaved with a grater."

"It was worth it," he replies immediately, smile widening as he pulls his chair a bit closer—leaning in with barely contained glee. "I have to show you something."

Anthony raises his eyebrows and gives a small shake of his head to say, go ahead. Excitedly, Emory reaches to the centre of the table—takes the old-looking saltshaker and places it on the edge. He looks up at Anthony, as if to see if he can stand the climaxing excitement of watching a saltshaker, and Anthony pulls his lips together in a sign of sarcastic approval.

"Just look," Emory tells him, readying himself on the chair. He stares at the shaker, squints his eyes, and keeps on doing this for a long while. He starts shaking with apparent effort and Anthony is just about to say something to break the odd silence when the faintest of flashes crosses Emory's eyes.

The salt shaker shifts a slow, stuttering inch to the left and then falls over.

Emory releases the breath he's been holding, slumping for a second before glancing up at Anthony—ecstatic. "It's magic," the boy says, lamely, grinning a zany smile at him.

"Magic," Anthony repeats, blankly, giving the shaker a disapproving look. "Huh."

"Huh?" Emory chuckles, loud and incredulous. "Huh? Tony, I can do magic. I mean—I was skating, right, and started to fall and I panicked for a second because it was gonna be a nasty fall and then I stopped it." He raises his eyebrows significantly. "It. The time. I mean—fucking hell!" Another laugh, sitting back in the chair. "Time! I can stop time!"

"And knock over a salt shaker," Anthony adds, unimpressed.

"Yeah!" he agrees, not picking up on the irony. "I still fell and all, lost it the moment I realised what was happening, but still. Pretty bloody impressive, don't you think?"

"I suppose." Anthony sits back too, scratches his jaw. "Not really that surprising though, is it? I mean, he had it. So. I guess . . ."

Emory's smile fades a little, hardens a bit around the edges. "But I'm not him, am I? This is new for me. I've never done this. It's special, yeah. For me."

Anthony looks at him, watches as the elation on his face slowly turns more serious, and feels like a bit of an ass. But he can't help it, the niggling feeling of chariness at the idea of Emory and magic—and, perhaps, if he's honest with himself, a tiny little bit of jealousy.

"All right," he says at length, twitching a little smile at Emory—who seems to relax at this, somewhat, and fiddles with the shaker for a moment before setting it right.

"What about that lunch," Anthony starts after a short silence, nudging Emory's bare foot with his shoe.

The boy sighs, says, "Yes," and, "Let me just . . . " as he scouts the room for what soon turns out to be a shirt, pulling it over his head and stepping into a pair of weathered flip-flops. Anthony stands, Emory dabs at his bloody shins with the still damp towel one last time, and they start to make their way outside. Not much is said after that, but Anthony can remember much worse silences, and takes the lack of an edge as a good thing.

Stepping into the high, midday heat, Anthony makes a slight, questioning inclination toward his motorbike, already flipping the keys into his hand. Emory keeps his pace further down street, though, hands in his pockets.

"Let's take the bus," he offers, squinting at Anthony through the sun.

Anthony pauses and gives his bike another wary look. But Emory's still walking, getting further away, so he has to make a loud, "Sure," of a reply to maintain the idea that he's agreed to this—wasn't more or less forced.

"You never had that bike before," Emory starts, casually, when Anthony catches up with him.

"Had it," Anthony says. "Just didn't take it out much, is all."

He gets a curious sideways glance for this, knowing exactly how vague he's sounding.

"You always take the train," Emory tells him, a fact. "It's not like that's much cheaper, or anything. Why bother if you can just—"

"It was my dad's," he cuts him off, quick, the tense obvious and purposeful. "Besides, I'm not twenty-one yet. Gotta have a proper license for that one." He looks at the boy, who gazes back evenly, giving away nothing. "And my mum hates it," he continues. "Gets real nervous when I take it for a ride. Used to do it all the time, couple of years ago, sneak out and hang out with some friends, just . . . drive around in circles on the school ground, nothing criminal or anything. Got caught one time, though. Had to go down to the station and everything. And my mum, she went . . . bloody mental." He laughs, an airy and dry sound—but the momentary amusement fades away, and then he's serious again, adding a mutter of, "Just hate upsetting her like that, you know?"

Emory nods slightly, vaguely sympathetic. "Not really, though," he says all the same. "Sort of love upsetting my mum, me."

Anthony smiles, glances down. "Rebel to the bitter end, right?"

"That's it," Emory agrees, good-natured, and Anthony finds himself wanting to say something inexplicably nice to this, to get another smile between them, and ends up blurting out an oddly timed,

"The magic thing." And then, to clarify his snatch of thought, "It is pretty cool."

The grin Emory flashes him is brilliant, his walk losing some of its cool as he straightens up to look at Anthony with a proud tilt to his shoulders. "It is," he concurs, grandly, and Anthony can only shake his head—amused and despairing of the both of them.

~


They sit on a park bench on a hilly elevation overlooking the city, eating chips out of paper bags and drinking beer, watching people walk by with their dogs and kids and kites. It's nice, Anthony thinks, normal in a way, and if the circumstances were any different, it could've easily been him and a mate sitting there, quietly comfortable, waiting for nothing.

"Okay," Emory says, nudging him with an elbow and nodding at a guy speeding past on a Segway. "Gaius."

But then again, Emory is—quite clearly—not like any mate of his.

"A Segway?" He gives Emory a look, unimpressed, drops a chip back into the bag and thinks about it. "Freak out, at first, and—"

"A given," Emory interjects. "Think we established that by now."

"—Freak out, let me finish thank you very much, then probably hide it in a closet. A broom closet. Take it out every month or so under the guise of scientific research and drive it around little circles in his lab." He chuckles once, staring after the Segway guy wheeling down the path as he adds a high-pitched, tiny, "Wheeee."

Emory snorts, loud, and Anthony turns to him with a sharp, "What?"

"You're a dork," Emory tells him, then looks away. "Who'dathunk."

"Hey," Anthony starts, pointing a defensive finger before deflating, letting it go with a grumbled, "S'my turn." He looks around, searching for something, then down at his beer. "Gwen," he says, triumphantly tilting his bottle. "Fizzy drinks."

Emory laughs, shakes his head. "An addict at first sip, definitely. Or, well," he gives a considerate quirk of a brow, "after we've established it's not the drink of the devil."

Anthony nods, adds a thoughtful, "Dr. Pepper."

"Cherry coke," Emory emphasises, using his bottle to underline the point. Anthony agrees with a mock-serious nod, trying and sort of failing to hide the grin tugging at his lips. He settles for masking it with a long swig and a sideways glance at the Frisbee playing party not too far off in the grass. Later, after tossing the oily bags in the bin, after finishing the last of their drinks as they saunter down the busy shopping street—stopping by a streetlight, Anthony grinning, saying, Uther. 'Do Not Walk.'—after that, Emory clears his throat, starts with a,

"So."

They're at the bus stop, waiting. There's gum flattened into the stones of the pavement, grey and as much a part of the scenery as any other part of the city.

"Your dad, he's . . ." Emory, apprehensive, falters before simply settling for a blunt, "Dead."

"Yeah," Anthony says, blank. "Died in a rocket ship explosion."

Emory snaps up to look at him, surprised. "Really?"

Anthony has no idea why he just said that. He hasn't made up stories about this for years, and immediately feels ridiculously silly. He forgot how quickly people believe you when they think the subject is too painful to ever make fun of. Rubbing his hand to his brow, he briefly closes his eyes. "No," he says. "I—it was a car. Crash. Car crash." A meek smile. "Not quite as exciting."

Emory doesn't react to the rocket ship comment, stares at him with a questioning air. "Sounds exciting enough," he says, quietly grave. "Were you, like—a kid?"

Anthony shrugs. "Fourteen. So I suppose, yeah." He thinks about it, repeats it with a distracted, "A kid."

"Sorry," Emory says, leaning back against the pole of the stop.

"It's okay," Anthony says, never having figured out how to react to people apologising for this. It's not okay, not really, not his dad not being alive and all—how could that be okay?—but it wasn't everything anymore, either. And he didn't mind people asking, it was just that he never knew what to say. Not once in all those years.

"It's not fair," he says abruptly, quite out of nowhere. Emory doesn't move, unsure what Anthony is referring to, and so he continues. "That you get the magic. What do I get?" He toes a loose brick sticking out of the curb. "A bunch of memories. Yeah. Fat load of good that does me."

"That's not true." Emory grins, swaying back against the pole. "I can assure you, you've many charming qualities in common."

Anthony gives him a look, nonplussed, and Emory's grin widens. "Maybe it'll come," he says. "You'll be in a shop or something. Start rounding up grannies and kids into an impromptu army, lead them into the streets. Fashion a suit of armour out of plastic bags. It'll be great fun."

Anthony manages a straight, humourless face for a few good seconds before a chuckle breaks his resolve. He looks away, mumbling an unimpressive, "Shut uuup," and Emory laughs—again, clear and light. On the bus back, Anthony watches the doors sigh closed and says, "Morgana," and "Bus," and barely listens to Emory's haughty rendition of a disapproving Morgana inspecting the scribbles on the back of the seat in front of them because their thighs are touching all the while, their knees bumping to the sway of the bus.

In front of the building again, Anthony lingers back a bit—hand in his pocket, already toying with the keys to his bike. Emory, busy with the heavy front door, notices and gives him an over-the-shoulder glance. "You're not coming?" he asks, nonchalant as he pushes into the hall.

After a moment of speculative silence, Anthony rocks back—uneasy, suddenly unsure of how to act now that it's not thoughtless or rash but calculated somehow. Emory rolls his eyes with a, "Oh, now you're gonna be a girl about it?", walking inside and holding the door open with a foot, waiting.

And Anthony, for his part, doesn't quite have the willpower to decline. He trails after Emory up the stairwell, his arms feeling too long, his legs too heavy, fumbling and uncoordinated in his own body. Outside the apartment door, he stands close to Emory's back, close enough to feel the heat of him without touching, and once inside Emory quickly makes for the kitchen—getting himself a glass of water as Anthony falls back into a chair, exhausted from the weather and himself.

He sighs and tips his head back, limply.

"Tell me something you remember," Emory says. Anthony looks up in question, and Emory—leaning back against the sink, legs crossed at the ankles—gives a small nod. "I mean, it can't all be the same, right? The things we . . . remember. I guess. Whatever, I just want to hear about it."

Anthony considers this, sinks a little into his chair. He digs a little, tries to come up with anything, and goes with the first one that makes him smile in remembrance. "There was this one time," he starts. "I think—Gwen's birthday? No, yeah, her first birthday in court, that's it. And he—Arthur, wasn't sure what to get her. I mean, he knew what to get her, as a queen and all, but like—as a person, you know? And for some reason he thought it'd be a good idea to ask—Merlin, for advice."

"Oi." Emory shrugged out his arms, feigning insult. "Royal advisor, yeah."

"Somehow, yeah," he smiles, quirking his brows. "I'm not sure exactly why, it probably had to do with that hidden stash of ale you—he, he was always keeping under his bed, but we came up with this idea that—that she'd like something that would make her laugh. Something funny."

"Oh, god," Emory starts laughing, clearly remembering, covering his face with a hand.

"Yep. A royal, golden chamber pot." He shakes his head at himself. "Engraved. With her name."

"So stupid," is Emory's muffled reaction, mumbled into his palm.

"Gwen, naturally, completely missed the highly intellectual metaphor inviting her to feel at home in her new . . . well, home, but . . . " he trails off. "God, that one backfired properly, didn't it?"

"She thought the chamber pot reminded him of her," Emory tells him, dropping his hand. "Engraved."

Anthony's shoulders start shaking with soundless laughter as he pinches the bridge of his nose, leaning an elbow on the tabletop. Emory's amusement calms a little as he takes a sip of water, and ends with a short sigh, setting the glass on the counter. Anthony's arms fall to the table, and he looks up, smiling weakly, sobering up quickly at Emory's pensive expression.

"He married Guinevere," Emory says in a small, low voice.

"Yes," Anthony says, sinking back into seriousness. "He did."

It hangs between them for a while, Emory mulling it over and Anthony feeling hapless somehow.

"And he and . . . " Emory begins, pauses. Puffs, frustrated, and continues. "After that, the both of them, they never . . ."

"I know."

"But why did . . ."

"I don't know," is Anthony's mumbled reply. "It's all . . . fragmented, Emory. I don't know."

"It must've been really bad." Emory bunches his shoulders, crosses his arms. "What happened between them."

Anthony looks at him, looks at him for a long moment before chancing to voice his thoughts—eventually doing it quietly, carefully. "Or maybe they just came to their senses."

Emory freezes visibly. His eyes harden on Anthony, a dark, angry flush spreading up his pale throat. "Their senses?" he repeats, quiet and dangerous, an incredulous lightness to his tone.

"Oh come on." Anthony's palm turns up on the table in obvious question, adding a minute shake of his head. "It's not like we don't know what it was like. Back then. I mean, now is bad, but then . . . . And besides, he, Arthur—you know who he was, what he . . ." He can't finish, not knowing how to say it and not make it sound worse. He sighs, tensely, says, "Maybe he just couldn't afford it."

Emory laughs, and this time it's short and hollow—unpleasant in every way. "You have no idea, do you?" he asks, truly seeming to wonder, frowning over a disbelieving, nasty quirk to his lips. "Do you even know how—fuck. He cared so much for Gwen. All right? So much. But for you—for him—he. He stood by his side every day, didn't he? Being his best friend, great mate and everything, laughing or giving him advise or whatever, but always from a bloody distance, never being able to—" His voice breaks. It's a first. "For years. Yeah? For years. And it was—"

"You think I don't know?" Anthony cuts in, the slow anger rising up, collecting at the base of his throat. "You honestly think I don't know? Don't you think I—he—Shit. I know, all right? I—He, he—every day he woke up and you were the first sordid thing on his mind. Went to sleep to the thought of you, and next to my wife, my wife, d'you understand? My wife. And I loved her. And there was always war, somewhere, always people in need of their leader or needing help or starving or dying and I still woke up to you, didn't I. Always. No matter what I did. So fuck off. Don't talk to me about not knowing. About—"

Emory pushes off the sink, strides over, takes Anthony's face in his hands and looks down—looks, and looks, Anthony's own hands white-knuckled fists at Emory's sides, in his shirt. It's not a broad chair, that Anthony's sitting on, but there's enough space—enough wood, enough support for him to climb on, to straddle Anthony's lap, looming over, raised on his knees. Instinctively, Anthony buries his face in Emory's chest, wrapping his arms around him in a tight embrace. Emory mirrors the hold, arms winding around Anthony's head, fingers clutching at his hair—keeping him close to his chest. And Anthony opens his mouth, wet and breathing over the fabric, inhaling the smell of soap, of cotton and sweat, of men, of this man, turns his head to get closer still—puts his ear over Emory's chest, the heart beating wildly, out of sync with his own but fast. Emory says something unintelligible, something faraway with a thick voice, and Anthony replies with a strangled sound—agreeing with the sentiment no matter what it is.




(day six)



Another ripple tears through the grounds beneath them, setting the castle and surrounding villages atremble—shaking the cups on the tables, the candles and the chairs, the swords in the armoury clanging together noisily. Camelot stops for a while, scared and surprised, people frozen along corridors or in their rooms, one hand clutching at the nearest wall, the other to their hearts.

"What do you think it was?" Arthur asks, looking out the window as the courtyard slowly comes back to life.

"Perhaps the foundations are crumbling?" Merlin offers, offhandedly, mostly joking.

"That," Arthur turns to him, leaning back against the wall—all naked legs and a shift, "is absolutely not funny."

Merlin rolls onto his back on the bed, head dangling off the edge—so far back he can see Arthur upside down, glaring. "I do apologise," he says, voice weird with the angle of his neck. "That was a horrible lie." He laughs. "Camelot is most definitely not crumbling on its foundations. It was probably just . . ." He makes a vague, waving gesture above him. "The devil himself trying to escape the walls of the underworld. Or something."

Arthur, his raised brows looking like they're pulled in the wrong direction in Merlin's upside down view, strolls over to the bed. Merlin grins up at him as he bends down and braces himself on the edge, his loose shift hanging down in a pregnant arc behind Merlin's head, his face hovering close.

"Blasphemy," Arthur whispers, challenging, nose brushing Merlin's.

"I'm exciting like that," Merlin retorts, nudging up, trying to get at Arthur's mouth. Arthur laughs against his lips, the kiss opening and deepening without much transition. Merlin's hands, slung behind him, slowly inch their way up the back of Arthur's thighs, and the rest of the morning dissolves into the company of each other and the bed, the occasional wall and—on one memorable occasion—the table.

It's only toward the late afternoon that a voice, small and uncertain, calls through the barricaded door. Speaks of sire and your father and must speak to you, and other atrocious notions of the like. But they've been locked away in this room for a long time now, and venturing outside has to happen sooner or later. Later, it seems, and also at the royal command of the King. Of all the duties that have beckoned them from outside in these long hours since yesterday, this one is the hardest to ignore, and so they drag themselves from under the sheets.

Merlin dresses at intervals, picking up his clothes from their respective corners of the chambers, and he is lacing up his shirt when Arthur wraps around him from behind, hiding a smile in the curve of his shoulder.

"To be able to do this," Arthur says, a simple and marvelling breath to his neck.

Merlin leans into him, hands coming to rest over his arms. He traces along the lines of his muscles with easy movements of thumbs, says, "So this is how you know."

"Know what?" Arthur asks, and Merlin closes a palm over his hand, to the corner of his hip. He drags it upward, settles it to cover the left of his chest, his heart wild beneath.

"You just know," Merlin says.

"Yes," Arthur replies after a moment, his lips a moving kiss to the jut of his jaw. "You just know."


They walk down the corridors together, Arthur a step ahead, Merlin—heading in the general direction of Gaius' chambers—making the slight detour to the great hall, if only to spend a few more stupid moments trailing after Arthur. Just outside the high, wooden doors, as Merlin continues down the corridor where Arthur stops, he's held back with a tug to his sleeve.

"One thing you like about me," Arthur says, quiet outside the safety of his chambers, pulling at Merlin's sleeve again. "Make it good this time."

Merlin thinks about it for an amused second, then glances about—makes sure they are alone before replying with a private smile and a, "Keeping recent events in mind, I suppose . . . it would have to be me."

Arthur does not look very impressed. "You?"

"Yes," Merlin says, lifting a hand to straighten his cloak. "I am my favourite new thing about you."

Arthur huffs a laugh, shoves at him—lightly—and replies with a cheerful, "I'll see you later," as he walks backwards to the door, one hand already on the handle. Merlin answers with a smiling nod, light hearted as he shuffles back down the corridor, watching Arthur disappear into the great hall. He stays like that, hands in his pocket and a shadow of a smile on his face, for all of the ten paces he manages before a light shake to the torch next to him brings him to a stop.

He turns to inspect it. The torch shakes again, the wall moving with it. Bits of plaster and dirt trickle down the wall, and then the shaking stops. Everything remains still for a moment. Then the movement picks up again, and Merlin blinks up as the ceiling crumbles lightly on his head.

From there on, it all happens far too quickly, and he's never witnessed such a great change of matter in such a short span of time. The castle is huge, massive, took years and years to build, to inhabit and to age, to become a home. And yet, with just an easy shake to the ground below it, it starts to fall itself, a matter of seconds, seconds of equal length to any meaningless moments of any other day, but today they are everything—everything.


The slowness of his movements doesn't seem to quite match the speed of it all, and years later Merlin still can't wrap his head around how it happens, what he thought and doesn't know whether, if given a second chance, he'd do any of it differently. It's all snatches of panic, shouting things that in retrospect sound so much louder to his ears, of running from here to there, the colour of a tapestry, of dirt on a sleeve, the collective sound of a frightened crowd drawing a breath.

It's him stumbling back, watching a brick wriggle itself out of the wall, of the ground unsteady under his feet. It's scrambling toward the doors, which are brown and varnished, it's blood pushing down on his ears and the light blue of the visiting earl's jacket as he raises an arm to shield his head. It's Arthur, standing next to his father and staring up in shocked wonder as a loose, trembling beam creaks and rains down a shower of white dust, making the people below it blink rapidly. It's watching the ceiling come down, just a ceiling, a floor for the people on the level above them, a stretch of stone and wood and tar, not a personality or anything either benign or malicious; nothing but circumstances, folding down at an even speed and stopping, midway to the ground, held motionless in the air.


And then it's a silent moment, absolute silence, with the small crowd of people—crouched down, covering themselves with their own protective arms—realising that the force they expect to come down on their shoulders has failed to follow. They look up, awed, at the frozen scene above them: chunks of walls, beams, the painted ceiling unmoving in little bits of colour; even the smallest particles of dust static in between the larger ones, a tall stretch of the castle looming beyond, the dusty roof visible up high: the sun pushing its way through the closely-built wooden slats, catching the entire display in an eerie halo of light.

Then Uther's eyes, hard and small in the distance, peering at him. It's the longest stare he remembers returning, blank and hapless, trying to arrange the castle's debris as quietly as he can around them, setting down piece for piece. What else can he do? There is only this. He can't think of anything else to do. He tries to pile the bits that have no place left as neatly as possible, as aesthetically as he can, wondering—madly laughing in his mind, crazily—if maybe that would please Uther somehow, and maybe the consequences wouldn't be that bad.


In the end, the stacking of the ceiling's ruins in a perfect half circle flanking the King, his son and their visitors does nothing to help him.

The sun has barely been down for an hour when Arthur finds him in the dungeons. He brings with him a storm of movement, of wild arms and a raised voice, standing inside the little cell and pushing at Merlin's shoulders—shoving him back, yelling, repeating a constant of, "Magic? Magic? MAGIC?" Said over and over, and Merlin takes it, stays silent and takes it as he's pushed at with an anger that, in its frenzy, turns desperate, and with that same mindless abandon Arthur is clutching him to his chest. He's clinging on, hands scrabbling at Merlin's back, babbling madly and telling Merlin that he has to leave—must leave, cannot ever leave but has to leave, has to stay too and that he can't do this.


"I'm never leaving," Merlin says into the mess of Arthur's hair, honest and careless and stubbornly refusing to consider anything away from the walls of this kingdom. "I'm never leaving. I am never leaving, never, I'm not—"

"Why," Arthur pleads, voice broken and thick, "do you always have to be special." It's an insult, clearly, spat desperately to the side of his neck—lips to his skin as Arthur talks. "Why couldn't you've been just boring, Merlin, why couldn't you've—fuck, Merlin. Fuck. I love you. I love you so fucking—"

"Shut up," Merlin hisses, clawing into Arthur's back, telling him that, "You're not saying it because you're saying goodbye. You're not saying goodbye. Not ever, you hear? Not ever, Arthur. We're never doing goodbye. Not ever. Not ever."

Arthur curls deeper into his neck, and Merlin can feel the grimace of his face. There are hushed, nervous voices from a distance, the dragging of metal along the floor, the smouldering flickers of a dungeon torch.

Merlin closes his eyes. "Not ever."




Anthony's led through the house by a quiet maid, ushered past open doors where he wants to pause and lean back—peek. He's all feeble smiles and awkward disposition, a bit out of place in the grandiosity of the mansion—the high ceilings, white floors, broad banisters and doors, far too many doors for anyone to remember each and every one of their purposes.

He looks at the back of the maid's uniform as he follows and wonders how she must feel here. Serving people in a place that's not her home, living out only the tedious parts of other people's lives. He's never done that, hasn't even been a waiter (only for half a day, once, in an Indian restaurant where he and his mother used to eat a lot. He knocked over a bottle of beer on someone's lap within the first hour, flushed, got angry, said, 'Fuck this', grabbed his jacket and was out of there—never came back, after that), but he still feels a certain affinity with the woman. We the common people, he thinks, with a wave of pride.

"So," he says, wanting to establish this new connection. ". . . How about this weather, huh?"

The maid glances at him over her shoulder, stoic. She nods, turns back, keeps walking.

"Have you . . ." he tries again as they near the back of the house, a garden conservatory. "Have you worked here for—"

"Here you are, sir," she interrupts him, voice flat and mildly bored, turning by the conservatory door with a graceful motion toward the gardens beyond the glass partition. Anthony looks from the long stretch of lawn, aligned with a path and some flower beds, to the maid and then back, apprehensive.

"Down by the pond, sir. Right that way," she nods outside, rather more forcefully this time.

"Oh," Anthony says, and as the maid turns to leave with a polite inclination calls after with a weak, "Thanks?"

There's no reply, just the retreating back of her uniform, and Anthony stays in the conservatory for a long moment after—hissing out a whistle between his teeth, looking up at the branch of a grapevine winding around an iron beam spanning the length of the glass roof.

He goes outside, a small hop over the rail of the sliding doors, peering around the park-sized garden of the Hawk household. And yes, he notices a pond a while off, by the edge of the grass—where the trees of the wood have been held back in a neat line, marked with a low hedge of bushes.

Emory, he notices a moment later, is an indistinct figure by the water, sprawled out on a garden chair. Anthony smiles, slowing down his walk, comfortable now that he knows where he's heading. Getting close, he can see the skateboard under the reclining chair, Emory's bare feet toeing the edge of the board, earphones in and his mp3 player a titanium square on his sweaty, sunburnt belly.

Anthony jogs the last few steps, Emory oblivious to his presence, and then does something irrational: bends down over the back of the chair, arms loosely looping around Emory's shoulders, greeting with a playful bite to the boy's neck. Emory jumps, yanking out his earphones, wildly turning and on seeing a grinning Anthony—leaning, arms crossed over the backrest—he deflates, releases a nervous laugh.

"Animal," Emory says, still a bit breathless, wiping at his neck with his wrist.

Anthony jerks his eyebrows up in a quick movement, big grin in place. "It's a big house you've got there, Hawk." He motions to the mansion behind them with a minute nod.

"Massive, actually." Emory looks at him, turns off his music. "D'you want a tour?"

"All right." He straightens, watches as Emory picks up a discarded shirt from by the chair and pulls it on. "Your parents at home?"

"Nope," he smiles, tugging down the hem. "No one's at home."

"The maid's at home. Or don't the servants count anymore?"

"What? Oh, come off it, Tony, you know what—"

"Oh!" he laughs, grandly, following Emory as he makes back toward the house. "How the tables have turned."

"You," Emory tells him, "are full of shit."

Anthony bumps his shoulder into Emory's, sending him stumbling sideways for a small step. Emory grumbles, tries to elbow him back, doesn't get much of a result besides fuelling Anthony's growing amusement. By the time they get to the house Anthony's got his fists up by his face in a mock boxing position—jerking from side to side to avoid Emory's graceless attacks, all long arms and weak shoves. Anthony hits him lightly across the head, laughs, Emory tackles and Anthony catches his head in a lock, telling him to surrender, and Emory yells he will never surrender. So Anthony runs his knuckles over his skull, hard, and Emory struggles, grunts, and—"Okay, I surrender anyway."

The house is big, huge, the rooms mostly the same, but Emory makes it funny with comments like—"So this is where Adam walked into a wall when he showed up high for my parents' brunch. You can actually see the dent right here, see, right here." And, "This is where the dog pissed against the wallpaper. We had him for a week or something before mum announced he was too much of a handful. Which basically translated to, We just realised dogs shit and drool and chew on stuff, and therefore must be done away with." And, "Oh look! A linen closet. This is where we keep our linen, Tony. This is a linen. It's made of linen. That was our tour through the linen closet. I hope you enjoyed."

When they get to a large drawing room overlooking the gardens, Anthony happily marches toward the grand piano, perches himself on the stool and raises his hands with a flourish.

"Check this out," he says, and continues to hammer down on the keys with a broken, awkward one-fingered rendition of Chopsticks. He keeps a stoic, serious face throughout, faking concentration, closing his eyes with feeling. Emory stands by, leans against the piano, and when Anthony finishes he claps, slow and heavy, nodding his admiration.

"Thank you." Anthony bows his head slightly. "Thank you."

Emory plunks himself down on the edge of the stool. He pushes Anthony sideways for some space, gets comfortable. He settles his hands on the keys then pauses.

"Not one comment about this," he says, seriously, looking up at Anthony. "And I'm fit to threaten you now, yeah, magic and all."

Anthony snorts. "What're you gonna do? Move me two inches to the left and then knock me over?"

Emory gives him an ominous look, says nothing, and starts to play. And the boy can play. The music is nice, the sound grand and echoing with the acoustics of the room, and Emory looks like he pretty much knows what he's doing. It's a rather slow piece, and every now and then he reaches down to the lower keys, his arm brushing Anthony's. Anthony looks up after the second time, watches to see if he's doing it with some kind of teasing expression, but he's not. He's looking down at the piano, back moving lightly to the play of his hands, not particularly focused or concentrating but rather waiting for the next chord to happen. Anthony realises he must play this piece often, and dumbly remembers standing in his apartment, looking at the empty space and blank walls, thinking there was nothing to this boy's life but his skateboard and aggressive disposition. Remembers saying he had nothing, that he was nothing, nothing like—

Emory ends the piece, slips his hands off the piano and looks up with a happy little smile. "Pretty neat though, huh?" he says. "I mean, if you ignore the fact that it's piano."

"Yeah," Anthony agrees, clearly less cheerful. "Not bad." And then, in attempt to cover up the solemn tone of voice, "I mean, you're not quite at my level yet, but you'll get there."

Emory laughs. "Sure," he says, standing up. "You know what they say. Less practice makes less perfect."

Anthony follows his example, gets to his feet, but as Emory makes to step away he reaches out—clamps a hand around his wrist. Tugs him back. Emory gives him a questioning look, and by way of explanation Anthony slips his hand up to his hip, pulls him a little closer.

It takes a split second for the smile to fade from Emory's face. Anthony licks his lips, pulls him closer still. His hand travels to the small of his back, his fingers right below the waistband of Emory's sweats—tracing softly over the damp warmth.

Emory grips his arm, stopping him. "Wait."

"No one's home," Anthony quietly tells him, swallowing. "You said it."

"My brother's just out. He could come back any—" his voice breaks abruptly as Anthony's hand suddenly dips down even lower, trailing over his backside, his other hand travelling up—under his shirt, palming his bare back.

"I want . . . " Anthony barely knows what he's saying, grabbing the back of Emory's neck from under the collar of his shirt, at the same time digging his fingers into his flesh, lower, and it's quite clear what he wants—half-hard through his jeans, pushing against Emory's thigh. He still voices it, says, "I want—now."

Emory's eyes won't stop flicking back and forth over his face, wide and dark. Nostrils flared, breathing heavily, hands clutching high up Anthony's arms.

"Now," Anthony tries again, rubbing softly against him. "You."

Emory's eyes close at the friction, teeth clamping over his bottom lip. This is enough for Anthony to lose some patience, to roll his hips with more intention, listening for the hitch in Emory's breath. He can feel him through his shorts, feel him getting harder as Anthony's fingers slip down his back—and then he's got two hands in Emory's shorts, on his bare skin, gripping and letting go, gripping and pressing their hips, their groins flush together.

"Jesus." Emory's hands slacken on his arms, then drop to his sides, limp. With only Anthony's hands for support his shoulders slump backward a little, the arch of his back curving with it, and in a moment's thought Anthony pulls him up—sets him down on the piano. The instrument gives a false clang that sounds loudly in the room, but neither pay much mind to it when Anthony pushes Emory's shorts down just enough to cup his heady erection, rubbing once, twice before taking it out, flicking a thumb over the head to the sound of Emory's voiceless pants—puffed hotly against Anthony's cheek.

Emory opens his legs wider as Anthony jerks him off with a quickening speed, and Anthony steps between them—the fingers digging into Emory's hip letting go in search of Emory's hand, finding it clutching edge of the piano. He eases the boy's grip on the varnished wood, guides his hand to his jeans—a short distance, now—places it over the zip, intention clear. Emory fumbles with the button, uses both his hands and still slips and fails to get it right. Anthony helpfully slows down his rhythm on Emory's cock, squeezes the base, but Emory just drops his head onto Anthony's shoulder—stops trying altogether.

Frustrated and far too close to coming in his pants, Anthony lets go to undo his own jeans—hand slick on the button but still managing far more than Emory. He's quick with it, pushing down his jeans along with his boxers, and on the piano—clanging, jarring exclamations of keys accompanying his every movement—Emory pushes his shorts down his thighs, legs, dropping them to the floor. He follows them for a short moment, slipping off to shut the hood behind him before clambering back up and then—

And then he's just there. Open legs and a leaking cock heavy against his stomach, flushed and breathing heavily, looking like he's crawling out of his own skin with want—face etched with it, clear and unabashed, and all Anthony has to do is step closer. He places his hands on Emory's thighs, sliding higher, pushing them further apart before eliminating the small distance with a shift to his hips—dragging their cocks together, drawing a low groan from the both of them.


"Fuck," Emory gasps, moving in time with Anthony, snapping forward for more contact. "This—fuck, this—"


Anthony cuts him off by moving a lingering hand from his thigh upward, between them, wrapping his fingers around their heavy erections. He leans forward with the first stroke, breathing hard and open-mouthed against Emory's neck. Emory keeps his hands at the nape of Anthony's neck, soft beneath the line of his hair, whispering encouraging half-sentences in his ear as Anthony pumps them faster, Emory's long legs winding around his own—heels digging below the curve of his ass.

By the time Anthony feels it building up, it's already too late to go slow again, to stretch it out. Emory is right there, in his hand and so close, his voice and the scent of him, moving against Anthony and wanting it, wanting it and saying so, breathless, open-mouthed and wet to the side of his face, and like that Anthony comes—a gasp to Emory's shoulder, forgetting to breathe, spilling over his own hand and over Emory, pushing through the shudders.

He goes limp a moment later, loose-limbed and exhausted, waiting for his heart to slow its skidding beat high in his throat. He barely notices Emory still moving, squirming and pushing up into the loose circle of his fist until he bites down on his earlobe, impatiently reminding. Anthony grunts, tightens his hold around Emory, sets a hard and brutal pace all at once—giving him no time to brace himself, and Anthony can almost feel the emotions toppling each other behind the boy's chest as they speed through his climax, pulling him through it harshly, but it's not bad—good, even, if the sounds Emory is making are anything to go by.

They are still dealing with the aftermath of it, slumped into each other, catching their breaths with the occasional huff of a dazed laugh when somewhere, not too far off, a loud door slams shut. Someone calls out a questioning greeting, an unintelligible query of whether anyone is home, voice low and distinctly male.

Emory pushes Anthony off with a quick and woozy, "Oh shit."

Anthony stares dumbly as he slips off the piano, scrambles for his shorts, clumsily trying to get them back on. He nearly stumbles, catches himself on the piano, notices the stains. He laughs weakly as he wipes at the black surface, shooting a hissed, "Hurry the fuck up!" at Anthony over his shoulder.

Anthony blinks down, pulls up his jeans, starts to button himself up. He's barely finished when Emory grabs his arm, pulling him along, and when he tries for a confused, "What are we—" Emory beats him to it with,

"It's my brother. He'll freak out if he sees you, seriously you have no idea how that kid reacts when—" He stops. Listens by the door, then leads them through it with quick steps and a grin. "You don't want to deal with that right now, believe me. He's—"

They stop at another door leading to the hallway and Anthony pulls up close behind him this time, still light-headed when his chest brushes Emory's back. "So we have to hide?"

Emory gives him a slow glance over his shoulder. "Yeah," he says. "Have to be real quiet, too."

Anthony represses a smile, and as Emory drags him along—making an unnecessary show of it, running down empty corridors pushing themselves back to walls for no feasible reason—the laughter from before, somewhat shocked and excited, will not leave them. Emory has to cover Anthony's mouth with a hand, has to shush him with an attempt at serious behaviour as they make their way up a large staircase—all the while bumping into each other, pulling each other back to get ahead like it's a competition, like Emory's brother isn't already rooms and rooms away from them and not even caring, not stopping until they've closed the door of Emory's old room firmly behind them—leaned back against it and turned the key.

Anthony walks in, toeing aside a discarded shirt as he strolls toward the bed—a single, shoved up against the wall. He collapses onto the mattress with a groaned half-laugh, and Emory shrugs himself off the door, disappears into an adjacent room. Bathroom, Anthony thinks a moment later, at the sound of running water.

Tiredly, he looks around—dragging his gaze over the walls, the floor, all of it an unchanging and standing proof of Emory's not too distanced childhood.

The room is small, messy and crowded. A part of a wall still has a bit of Bob the Builder wallpaper, most of it clearly torn off in rebellion. The rest if is either painted or covered in posters, pictures, magazine articles—most of them skating-related, but there are the odd helicopter or aeroplane pinned up in a haphazard angle. There's a drawer cabinet and a closet, shelves covered with a strange assortment of trinkets and junk—candy wrappers, socks, action figures and broken models.

When Emory comes back, he tosses a wet towel at Anthony. It plunks on his chest and Anthony looks up, bemused. Emory says nothing, nudges him to move with a foot, and lies down the other end—head to toes.

Anthony sighs and falls back into the pillow, wiping his hands off on the towel—dabs at his shirt, uselessly, the stains there too obviously dark.

"So what I'm wondering is," he starts, letting the towel fall next to the bed, "how come, right, how come you live in this dump of a flat—no offence—while you're obviously, well . . . "

Emory, on his side, is quiet. Anthony snorts, shoves lightly at his shoulder with a foot. "C'mon. Your tortured silences do nothing for me, Ritchie Rich."

With a grumble, Emory rolls half off the bed—one arm under the frame, fumbling for something. He comes up a moment later with a half empty bottle, something alcoholic and indistinct, screws off the top.

"That bad? Christ."

"Nah." Emory takes a swig, cringes. "Just wanted to check if it was still there."

"Yeah, right," Anthony retorts, but accepts the bottle when it's passed to him, sniffing at it suspiciously.

"I pay for my flat m'self," says Emory, after watching Anthony take a tentative sip then pull a face. He laughs at that, settles back on his elbows.

"That your parents' idea?"

"No. I just didn't want—you know."

"Weirdo." He passes back the bottle, giving Emory a wistful shake of his head. "If I had the chance . . . God. In a heartbeat."

The sloshing of the bottle fills the pause that follows, Emory swallowing the foul drink with a grimace.

"So what's the deal with you, anyway?" he asks a heartbeat later, voice strained from the sting of the drink. "Still living at your mum's."

"Yeah. Well." Anthony doesn't like doing this. It's not that he's beyond playing the pity card, he's not—he'd do it gladly, often, with a number of things. Breakups. Botched up exams. His lack of a job. Sometimes even his dad, if he's in a particularly nasty mood. It's just—somehow, his mother has always been off-limits in that game. He tried it once, felt like throwing up after, never did it again. Simple.

"Yeah, well, what?"

"I help her out and stuff," he says, vaguely. Emory goes quiet, and he can practically hear his thoughts whizzing through the implications of 'helping out', all the things it could mean. With a prickle of annoyance he puts a stop to it. "She's in a wheelchair. Not incapable or anything, all right, just—" He frowns to himself. "Sometimes it's just easier if I'm there."

"Oh," Emory says.

"D'you wanna meet her?" Anthony has no idea where that came from, and wonders at that—idly—as it hangs in the air, abrupt and a bit too loud. He follows it with a casual, quiet, "Not that you have to or anything."

Emory props himself back up on his elbows. "Sure."

"Yeah?"

He shrugs. "Sure."

Anthony pushes himself up, eyebrows raised, a little surprised. "All right."

Marching through the house on their way out, they manage to somehow work up a noisy, busy air about them. Passing by the kitchen, they breeze past a slightly surprised Adam, eating crisps and flicking through a teen magazine. He tries a half-formed question of bewilderment and Anthony cuts him off with a chaotic string of—"What up, little man? All right? Yeah? Keep it up, yeah, way up!"—cuffing his head on passing, leaving him behind with a wink and a click of a finger-gun.


On the motorbike, on the short drive to the small town, Emory is a stretch of heat to his back. The wind works its way between them, whooshes past them—pushing back hair, stretching the fabric of shirts flat to their chests, but does nothing to cool the warmth of Emory's hands: tracing slow circles under Anthony's shirt, easy patterns to his belly.

~


It starts out as is to be expected. Emory isn't anything like his other friends, but still looks the part of a punk. His mother is appropriately awkward, Emory stunted, shaking her hand and bending down a little—he's tall. Anthony looks between the two of them with a strained smile. His mother does that thing she does around new guests, talking a little too loud and making painfully nervous jokes like—"it's so nice to, ah, finally meet one of Tony's friends. He never brings them 'round to meet his nutty old mum, does he? Afraid I'd embarrass him, ha ha"—and Emory resorts back to ahs and ums, smiling apprehensively and nodding.

Anthony says, "Well," and goes upstairs to change, lingers an unnecessarily long time in the bathroom, splashing water on his face and staring at himself in the mirror.

When he comes back down he finds the both of them in the garden—Emory on a chair, hunched and resting his elbows on his knees, smoking. The shock comes in the form of his mother, sitting next to him, taking drags and blowing the smoke to the side.

"You don't smoke," he tells her, flatly, stepping into the garden.

"Of course I smoke," his mother says, looking up at him in challenge. He raises a brow at her, and she falters a little, adds, "Well occasionally, then. In company."

"What company?"

"Good company," she retorts, giving him a proud hint of a smile.

Anthony's gaze snaps to Emory, who sits back with a defensive shrug, saying, "Not my fags, mate."

And, well. He's not big on the bonding over cigarettes deal, or his mum smoking or trying to impress his friends in this obvious I'm-a-cool-mum way, but there's no denying conversation is a lot easier after that. She goes through the obligatory, And what do you do?, gets the parents involved in the discussion, school and grades and everything that she needs to go over as a mother, and Emory answers in his typical mumbles—vaguely ashamed, adding breathy laughs and stupid smiles to distract from the subject whenever he avoids the question without finesse. Anthony jumps in, turning the discussion into a bit of a bicker, going in against his mother who retaliates with the help of Emory—who picks now as the time to step up and take on the role of the polite guest—and then it's Anthony telling Emory to shut it, his mother telling him not to talk to his friend like that, some cokes and peanuts, chicken for dinner and TV after dishes, lazy on the couch throughout the evening.

It's already dark when a comfortable boredom settles over the house, Anthony's mother already asleep and the two of them silently chewing on ice in the kitchen. In a moment of inspiration, wiping his freezing hands off on his legs, Anthony suggests—exclaims, more like it—that they're going for a walk around the town.

"Can show you my old school," he says, grinning, and Emory doesn't catch on as to why this is so exciting until he's standing in the middle of the deserted schoolyard, watching Anthony climb up a water pipe, heading in the direction of the flat roof.

"You are going to fall," Emory shouts at him from where he's standing. "You are going to fall, and break your neck, and there'll be loads of blood and I'll be the one—"

"Will you shut up?" Anthony's laugh is strained as he balances himself on a window frame, the pipe creaking dangerously under his weight. "I've been doing this since I was thirteen, all right, have a little faith."

"I think you're little bit heavier than you were eight years ago, Tony."

"It's all—" He pushes himself up, reaching for the ledge, "—muscle weight."

Emory takes a startled step forward as Anthony sways dangerously, manages a choked, "Gravity really doesn't give a shit what kind of weight it is, Tony." Another sway, a bit of a slip. "Tony, for fuck's sake come—"

With a mighty grunt he pushes himself higher, trying to get his legs up and over—and yes, definitely not as easy as it used to be, but still totally worth it the moment he rolls onto the gravelled rooftop, coughing with the occasional laughter, flushed from the effort but glad for it all the same. He's catching his breath, on his back, when Emory's small voice calls from the schoolyard,

"Tony?"

"Yeah?"

"You okay?"

"Brilliant. Come on up yourself."

"Oh, yeah. Funny."

Anthony lifts up to a half sitting position, hooking his elbows over the ledge—looking down. "But you're like, what? Thirty pounds lighter?"

"Well done," he says, dryly, nodding up at Anthony. "Flattery. That'll get me up there."

"Look, if you're not gonna do it then what's the point of us coming here?"

"I dunno!" He laughs, shrugs. "You dragged me all the way, remember?"

Anthony's arms slump, hanging limp and long against the school wall—his chin propped on the edge's elevation. "Come on, it's not like—you'll fall or anything. Magic and all, yeah?"

"Not reassuring," Emory tells him, reluctantly stepping toward the pipe. "In any way. At all."

Anthony smiles down, watches him awkwardly try to grip the wobbly metal—searching for a proper purchase. "Go on," he says, amused as Emory braces himself, shooting up a mean glare. His amusement is somewhat dampened, however, when after a short false start Emory clambers his way up with surprising ease—and probably in half the time Anthony managed it.

"Hah," he says, flopping down next to a sitting, scowling Anthony. "Sure was easier than you made it seem."

"Muscle weight," Anthony emphasises.

Emory chuckles and is unnecessarily surprised when he gets punched in the arm as a retort, rubbing the sore spot with a frown and a muttered, "Bitchy."

Anthony looks at him, bemused, shakes his head. Emory fusses over his arm for a little while, then drops his hands between his knees, shoulders slumped. He gazes around the not very spectacular view of the town—dark roofs, a few streetlights and two or three lit windows with the curtains drawn—and says,

"What now?"

"What now?" Anthony repeats slowly, mocking.

"That's what I said. What do we do now?"

"Well . . . " Anthony exhales a somewhat exasperated breath, motioning around them with a half nod as though to say that that was it.

"Oh."

"Oh?"

Emory gives him a half-hearted apologetic look and shrugs. Anthony rolls his eyes and gets to his feet, walks toward the square, elevated bit of concrete in the centre of the roof—its purpose has forever been lost on him, but it was flat and untouched, and therefore the perfect canvas for him and his friends to scribble out their messages to the world on.

"Look," he says, even though Emory is still sitting by the edge, and he's facing the concrete block—bracing his foot against it, gently and pointlessly kicking. A moment later Emory pushes up with a put upon sigh, comes to stand at his side with a,

"What?"

Anthony nods at the surface of the block, pointing out a particularly big message spelling out a faded 'Tony Orson is tha masterrr!' in black felt-tip pen letters. Emory snorts, looks at him.

"Give me your keys," he says.

"Why?"

"Just give me your keys." He plucks the keys from Anthony's hand, ignoring the distrusting look he gets in return, and carefully sits himself back down on the gravel—legs crossed. "So," he says, picking one of the keys and brandishing it like a weapon. "Did they really call you The Son?"

Anthony raises his eyebrows at him, a slow smile tugging his lips. "Where'd you hear that?"

"Adam. He calls you T-Son."

"Jesus." Anthony chuckles, sits down next to Emory. "No one's called me that for years."

"Yeah, for a good reason," Emory does that sound again—pushing air through his nose like a laugh. He starts scratching at the concrete with the sharper end of the key. "Makes you sound like a proper tit."

"Oi." Anthony nudges him with a soft shoulder. "I'll have you know that was an epic name in the nineties."

Emory smiles, doesn't look up from his work. Anthony watches as he etches a half-formed E into the surface, and waits until he's at the first leg of the M before adding, "You know, if I were like, a girl. And I'd marry your brother, or something, I'd be Hawk." He pauses for effect. "Tony Hawk."

Emory stops, turns to him. Slowly. Deadpan.

"You're jealous," Anthony informs him.

"A girl?"

"Jealous," he points out.

"Whatever. You're the one marrying my teenage brother."

Anthony widens his eyes purposefully, mouths 'jealous', and Emory rolls his eyes—shakes his head, turns back to the concrete. Anthony keeps his gaze on him for a while longer, waiting for that follow-up reaction that doesn't come, and resorts to flicking away stones—making them skid off, noisily.

"So what's the deal with your brother, then," he says a second later. Can't keep quiet.

"What deal."

"Well. You two don't seem very fond of each other."

Emory chuckles a sudden and loud laugh. "He's my brother," he says like it explains it.

"So?"

"We're not expected to get along. He's his own person. I'm my own person. We're completely different—"

"—Persons," Anthony fills in. "I get it."

"There you go."

"So you've never been able to stand each other?" He looks up with a wry smile. "He attack you with dummies as a baby or something?"

"Ha, yeah, no, that'd've been something." Emory pulls his mouth into a defeated line, raises his brows at the key in his hand. "Actually, we got along okay when he was a kid. I was twelve when he was about seven, and I went to this private school—troublemaker, yeah?" He grins. "Came home for the holidays with stories about all the shit that happened there, and he used to eat it up. Looked up to me like . . . Used to write letters and everything. Couldn't spell fuck all, wrote in giant letters, but yeah. Grew up proper though, didn't he?"

Anthony shrugs. "He's sixteen. Probably acts like a dick to anyone who resembles or has anything to do with his parents. It'll—"

"Don't say it'll blow over. Really." He huffs a breathy almost-laugh. "That is exactly what they said about me when I was his age. And here I am still."

". . . Rebel to the bitter end."

"Yep." Looking up with a thin smile, Emory hands back the keys. "Not so much like you, am I?"

Anthony lifts up a bit to pocket his keys, giving Emory a sideways frown. "What d'you mean?"

"Well, you know. Tony Orson. Bad boy on campus, ooo-er," he makes the sound as if someone should be scared. "But look at you." He nudges Emory with a little elbow. "You're a pup."

"Fuck off!"

"You are," Emory insists, laughing. "I saw you with your mum, you know. You're a big softie, don't even try to—"

"I am not," he says, slowly. "A pup."

Emory scrunches his nose in some odd expression feigning endearment, reaches up to Anthony's chin—gripping it lightly as he coos an idiotically pitched, "But look at that face! How can anyone—"

Anthony grabs Emory's wrist, wrenching it from his face to push it away—not really angry, sort of faking indignant annoyance, but Emory's laughter quietly dies away and he takes back his hand, bringing it to rest between his knees again. Awkwardly calm now, he looks down, the other way. Uneasy and thinking he took it too far.

Anthony wants to say something. He takes a breath, has no idea what do with it, exhales. He glances away, keeps on in the tense, abrupt silence for a pregnant pause, then tilts his head to the side—casually leaning into Emory's shoulder.

Emory is still at first. Stiff. But he seems to get used to the idea, gradually, and slumps into it a bit—the side of his face brushing Anthony's hair in the smallest of touches. Anthony closes his eyes for a brief moment, feels Emory turn slightly above him—feels the light puff of breath on his forehead.

He looks up, not so much in question but eyes a little wide. Emory's face is too close like this, and he's looking at Anthony through half-lidded eyes, gaze flicking down, and after all they've done this shouldn't be this frightening—Anthony's heart shouldn't drop this suddenly, not with the memories he has, with all he knows about this boy and the way he tastes.

But it's different. His breath comes in shorter exhales still, and tilting up to nuzzle Emory's cheek feels like a first, like something he's never done before, no familiarity to soften the thudding in his ears when Emory brushes his parted lips to cheekbone.

The first touch of a kiss is light. The second, the soft pressure of Emory's lips fitting against his, the third, a dragging movement—slightly parted—and on the fourth, Anthony pulls a lip between his, sucks on it, feels Emory's tongue shy and tentative, licking along his upper lip and with a sound in the back of his throat it floods him:

The want to kiss this boy hard, to lick deep into his mouth, to suck on his tongue and get him groaning, get him mad with it. The want to mirror every other kiss in his mind, to make it better, the best, and then the intensity of it mingles with anger, inexplicable anger and desperation and he doesn't understand but feels it boiling in the pit of his stomach, roiling in his blood. He doesn't realise his hands are in Emory's hair, gripping, doesn't realise he's biting down on his lip too hard until it hits him—making him pull away with a strangled gasp, scrambling backward—a flash of a frozen hall, of a broken ceiling overhead, a dungeon and that night, that night, that disastrous night when . . . when everything . . . when . . .




(day seven)



The last aftershocks of the earthquake rumble below Camelot, adding to the unease of those on the lowest floors—in the dungeons, a sleepless few who wouldn't have found rest whichever way they look up through the window bars, warily watching as the sun comes up with a speed only known in these months of summer.

In his chambers, in his bed, Uther Pendragon lies. A lifeless form under a thin sheet, the season having been too hot to allow for anything thicker. His heart is still within his chest, his eyes are closed, his mind an eerie space of emptiness.

It takes the maids an hour of busying about the room to realise why their king won't wake up.




He doesn't have much recollection of getting off the roof. He can only imagine what he looked like, red-faced and fumbling, trying to make his way down the pipe before stumbling away—dazed. He doesn't remember Emory staying behind, even though he figures he must have, doesn't remember looking back to see whether the boy was watching him go.

He does remember going back home alone, flopping down onto the couch and turning on the telly. Watching infomercials until he falls asleep, waking up to the sound of a whistling kettle.

His mother says,

"Did your friend go home last night?"

He doesn't look up. "I guess."

"You guess? Well, he's not still here, is he?"

"No."

She pauses, takes a breath—then decides not to say whatever's on her mind. "He's a nice boy. Quiet. But nice."

"He's all right. I don't really know him that well, actually."

"Really? You seemed pretty chummy yesterday. Got along swimmingly, from what I saw."

"Well." He scrunches his chin, trying for an offhanded display of dismissal. "Dunno. He's a mate. It'd be a bit odd if we didn't get along, wouldn't it?"

"You haven't brought home a friend since you turned sixteen, you know."

"So?"

"So? I didn't even know he existed. You've never even mentioned him, never—"

"What does that have to do with anything? He's not that important."

"Isn't he?"

"What—what the hell is that supposed to mean!"

"I don't know. I'm asking, aren't I? I just wonder, Anthony. Because the one moment you're going off, disappearing, doing god knows what and staying out until ungodly hours, coming back looking like you've been walking into walls all night—then you're locking yourself up in your room, and the next thing I know there's this strange boy in my—"

"Jesus Christ, what do you reckon he is? My peddler? Emory has nothing to do with anything, mum, he's just a bloke I met in class, no—"

"Class!" she cuts him off with an exclamation. "So you do remember those! I was under the impression the entire notion of education had slipped your mind altogether."

"You don't—" He glances away like he can't stand to look at her anymore, adding a sarcastic little laugh. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"I know that you've been taking out your father's bike again."

His eyes snap back to her. She lifts her chin, minutely, in that way she does when wanting to show him she can take him on—even if he's tall, even if she's so much closer to the ground. But he knows her weaknesses all too well, and in some kind of state of automatic pilot they all veer to the surface of his thoughts like ammunition. He realises with a pang that he hasn't been in this position for years, hasn't been this close to wanting to spit out something truly nasty, something to hurt her properly—hurt her just for the purpose of getting even, getting her off his back.

"Tony!" she calls as he walks away. "Anthony! Come back here. We are not finished. Anthony. Anth—"

"I'm finished," he shouts from the base of the staircase before jogging his way up—three steps at a time—making sure to slam the door to his room behind him, completing the illusion that he is sixteen again, messed up over loss and change and taking it out on heavy, wooden surfaces that make loud banging noises.

And it's not right, he knows. None of it is in any way right. He lets his thoughts drift for just a moment and it's seven years ago all over again, it's having to buy black shoes with his aunt because he didn't have a pair and his mother couldn't take him, it's spending a day eating dry crackers at the buffet table and nodding sympathetically when people apologised to him. We're sorry. We're very sorry, we're so, so—

It's fine, he had wanted to say every time. I forgive you. Just make sure it doesn't happen again, yeah?

They're not happy memories. They're not horrible, either, not as horrible as the hospital bit or having to answer the phone bit (which he hadn't even wanted to, originally, was watching some Tom Hanks film on the telly—the one with the dog. He remembers having considered not picking up, considered telling his parents he'd been to the loo when it went if they'd ask, later, when they came back.) But they're still memories he doesn't like to go back to, would rather not have at all—even if those kind of things supposedly shaped you, made you who you are, bla bla bla. Whenever someone says that he always thinks, quietly and to himself, he thinks—well, if being a spineless, shapeless bastard would mean having his dad back, he would not lose sleep over which one to pick.

The point is—the point is, one set of bad memories had been enough. More than enough. But now the shoe-shopping mixed with trying to find a respectful, shiny, yet not too shiny pair of gauntlets—with not being able to find any, getting angry and kicking the rack, kicking everything that'd make a good amount of noise in the armoury. The crackers melded into the dry taste of duck at the silent feast, the overly weepy Nick Drake song they played at the reception into the plume of smoke that climbed over the turrets of the castle, the sickening sound of crackling fire and the smell he'd learned to associate with the death of both witches and nobility.

It feels wrong, somehow, to have the two overlap. Feels disgraceful, dishonourable and tacky. The plastic cuffs of his shirt impossibly insulting in comparison to the weight of his father's vambraces on his arms, the crowd of people surrounding the pyre fake and overdone compared to his family sitting in the living room, quiet for hours on end except for when his Nan asked if anyone fancied a cup of tea.

The worst part, the absolutely most horrible part is—he knows what happened seven years ago. He knows about the car, and his mum in the driver's seat, he knows that it could've been anyone that evening on the road—anyone, but it wasn't anyone, it was his parents. There's a morbid, nauseating certainty in that and while it's not something he likes having, it's something he's got used to.

What he's not used to is all this inexplicable confusion, this anger and helplessness, directed at one person with that very same certainty. It feels like a vast chaos of sentiments, some loving, most of them hateful, battling each other out and trying rashness against logic, coming up with nothing but an aimless bundle of no's and yeses and argh's.

Just thinking about it makes him queasy. Makes him want to break something a little, or maybe weep a little, or maybe punch a face a little. So he doesn't.

He most resolutely does not think about it. He plays games on the computer, shoots some pixelised shapes of people, opens some of the mail he's been ignoring (and promptly adds that to the resolutely-not-thinking-about list), watches sitcoms and old Hollyoaks episodes they put on when they think no one's bothered with watching TV. Every now and then he's struck by the weird image of Emory, still sitting on that roof, confusedly blinking ahead even days later. It's silly, because he knows the boy can't possibly still be up there, probably left moments after Anthony ran off—but he can't shake off the idea. Even if he's resolutely not thinking about it.

Emory calls him one time. At least Anthony thinks it's him, he's not sure. It's an unknown number, and whoever it is tries twice within ten minutes before giving up. Anthony never gave him his number so he doesn't know how he could've got it, but then he remembers the size of the mansion, the maids and the fountain, and randomly thinks—oh yeah. Private detective.

Ridiculous, of course. He knows it.

But he still makes a short detour on his way back from the grocer's, stands outside his old school with plastic bags in hand, and stares up at the empty roof. He's not sure what he expected. Not sure whether he thought to find a half-starving Emory still sitting up there, huddling his knees to his chest, warily looking up at the vultures circling him from above—eyeing him expectantly. Not sure whether the complete lack of anything telling, anything to prove something had happened there barely a week ago, is a relief or not.

He has no idea how he ends up on the bus heading out of town just days later. It sort of happens, and so he goes with it, mind blank all the while. The roots of the trees lining the road have grown toward the surface of the ground and are pushing the concrete up, making for bumps and uneasy sways throughout the ride. He gets off on a street where every day could easily be a Sunday, and has to walk fifteen minutes to the cemetery.

He hates it. Has always hated it, has never been able to work up any kind of tears at the face of a stone with his dad's name on it, and has always felt bad for it. He doesn't want to talk or anything, remembering how he thought anyone who did that (saw them when he visited with him mum, lingering back and strolling past the graves looking for funny names while she just stayed where he left her, staring), anyone who said everything from what they had that morning for breakfast to when their next dentist appointment was going to be, always looked like a bit of a wanker. So he ends up standing awkwardly with his hands in his pockets, looking around him to see what everyone else is doing, and feels a bit discouraged at seeing he is the only one around.

In the end, he just does something he'd seen on the telly once, and puts a little pebble on the stone. Only when he walks away does he remember it had something to do with religion, he forgets which, and while he cringes in realising how that makes it doubly as stupid, he can't bring himself to walk back and take the pebble off the stone again.

For a lack of something better to do, he goes into the small building behind the cemetery and tries to strike up a conversation with the guy behind the front desk. It doesn't really work. The guy is twice his age, bald, and suffering from the heat—his head shiny with sweat. Anthony tries to talk about last week's Manchester United game, which he missed but saw replayed in the rebroadcast of Sports News at 3 AM, about the weather and attempts to crack a joke about how business is slow. The guy gives short, monosyllabic replies, clearly far too absorbed in his sudoku booklet.

He doesn't feel better in any way on his return home. That's okay, he thinks. At least he hasn't made anything worse for himself, which is also a feat.

But then he walks the path to his front door, and then Emory is sitting on the front step, and then he panics a little and thinks that maybe this day is sort of shit after all.

His first reaction is to turn on his heel and run off again. It would be easy, too. He could hide anywhere, really, wait it out and—how long could the kid stay there? Not long, he concludes. Considering he's probably already been there for a while.

The thought tugs at an annoyingly loose thread of sympathy in his mind, because who knows how long he's been there, and Anthony wonders why he hasn't rung the bell—his mother would've opened the door, surely, would've told him Anthony wasn't home and he'd be off, surely, he wouldn't just plunk himself down on the step and wait. He wouldn't, no one would, that's just—

Emory, having sat with his elbows on his knees and head in his hands so far, looks up—surprised. He seems nervous, sunburnt and tired. He looks like he's been having a tough time.

Anthony swears, drags himself over, and sits down next to Emory with a sigh.

"We need to talk," Emory says, a bit of a tremble to his voice. He sounds hoarse.

Anthony shrugs, inspects his knuckles. "Talk."

"I—Look." He pauses and Anthony looks up, only realising a second later he meant a different kind of 'look'. "I can't tell you I didn't do it," Emory continues to blurt out. "Kill him. Your father. His father. Whichever."

"By all means, don't beat around the bush," Anthony replies after a stunned moment. "Come out and say what's on your mind, Emory."

"Yeah, well. I can't. I've been thinking about it and I can't." He pauses again, nerves clear as he swallows. "I just wanted to say that."

Anthony huffs a dry laugh, shakes his head. "Where've I heard that before," he says, remembers a dirty-faced Merlin at his feet, pleading him to understand, explaining his own haplessness—weeping through the words and unaware of it. The memory hurts, and makes him angry and he stops thinking about it abruptly.

"Well I still can't," Emory repeats, quietly determined, frowning.

"Fucking hell." Anthony closes his eyes, opens them, makes a decision. "Listen, it's not even—it doesn't matter. He wasn't even my—I mean. I'm not Arthur, am I? I'm not. I don't care. I can't. I just cannot." He looks down again. "One dad's enough, right?"

"Shit," Emory whispers it like he's just realised. "Oh, shit."

Anthony silently agrees. They're quiet for a while, and when Emory speaks again he sounds a bit louder, unnaturally so.

"So," he says. "What do we do now?"

"I don't know. Nothing, I guess."

"Oh. Okay." He hesitates, stands up, looks like he wants to leave—like he's definitely going to leave—but teeters on the spot, unmoving. Then he sits back down. "He did research, you know," he says, voice small again.

"What?"

"Merlin."

"Oh."

"Yeah. For years. Tried to figure out what'd happened that night. If it was—anything at all to do with him, or not, whether it was just . . . Uther wasn't that young, and he could never . . . "

"I know. It doesn't—"

"Yes, but, you don't. Not really. I mean . . . " He rubs his forehead, expression difficult. "He really did spend forever on it. For as long as I can recall. Nights and every free moment of the day, tried to somehow—trace it back. The history of magic, any kind of magic, which is crazy stuff, really, I can barely wrap my mind around it and it's in my mind as it is so that's got to say something. It's . . . He really, really wanted to tell you he didn't do it. Always. Didn't care about much more than that, to be honest," he adds in a quiet mutter.

Anthony doesn't know what to say to that, so he keeps silent, goes back to scratching his knuckles. It seems a long time that they sit there after Emory stops talking, between them just the sounds of birds and the distant rolling of a wheely bin over the pavement. The second time Emory stands, he doesn't waver before setting down the path toward the street, hands in pockets and movements slow.

"So you wanna . . . I don't know. Hang out, later?"

Emory stops, looks back. Anthony offers a thin, humourless smile and a shrug. Emory doesn't so much nod as jerks his chin, a vague agreement, says, "Yeah. Okay." He inspects his shoes for a thoughtful moment, then, ". . . Or we could do something else."

Anthony's eyebrows shoot upwards, and Emory replies with a small grin, shyly impish.

"Tomorrow?" he says, already walking away. Anthony wishes it wasn't a question, doesn't want to reply for some reason, but Emory is slowing his pace—waiting for an answer, and so he has no choice. He sighs, shakes his head into a reluctant nod with a half-lidded roll of his eyes.

Emory looks at him, oddly fond, and turns to travel down the last of the path—the feeble smile, half hidden from this angle, still twitching at his lips.




The clearing in the wooded area behind the Hawks' land is mostly shadowed, the day a bit grey on its own—the clouds hanging dark and yellow overhead, occasionally raining down with loud, hot showers.

Anthony's shoulders slump, the long stick in his hand dragging along the dirt. Emory—sweaty hair matted against his forehead and cigarette limp between his lips—laughs, hits Anthony's stick with his own, continues to circle him.

"C'mon, Tony. Stick up."

"I think I'd rather not, thanks," Anthony manages between breaths, wiping at his upper lip with the back of his hand. "No, actually, I'm pretty sure."

"You're seriously not giving up now," he replies, words mumbled around the fag. He nudges Anthony's limp stick up, teasing—takes a drag, one hand folded archly behind his back all the time. "We barely even started so up with your sword, mate, come on, up—up!"

Defeated, Anthony raises the stick with a long suffering expression—boneless and completely out of enthusiasm. "I don't know if you've noticed, yeah, but this is a bit embarrassing."

"I haven't a clue what you're on about." Emory smiles tightly, jumps forward with a swift sideways blow—puffing out a trail of smoke behind him as he goes, amused. Anthony barely blocks it, two hands clutching at the base of his stick, stumbling back like he's about to run for it.

"You're not trying," Emory tells him, taking a step back. "Come back here. Into your starting position, and stop looking like you're about to keel over, for fuck's sake."

"It's hard, okay. And I'm obviously rubbish at this, and you're obviously just getting a kick out of hitting me with a stick, yeah, so why can't we just call it a day and—"

"Are you kidding me? I was forced into fencing, I was horrible at it, quit the moment I could—this should be child's play for you, Tony. You just have to—I dunno. Tap into your warrior reserve, or something. It's gotta be in there." He pokes Anthony's chest with the end of his stick. "Somewhere."

Anthony pulls an unhappy face. He feels silly, waving the stick about, looking like a dancing lump of man with too many legs while Emory hops about around him, poking and striking—swirling, laughing, shaking his head. And yeah, all right, they are here under the guise of 'doing something else', but it seems to Anthony this is about some kind of payback.

"You do realise," he says, arm bending at an uneasy angle when Emory taps his stick like a warning, "that I'm not the one who instituted those training sessions. So taking it out on me will do nothing for your—"

"Oh, I don't know. You do look an awful lot alike." He grins, and his arm comes around to take his fag between two fingers, flick it to the ground. He breathes out the last of the smoke, says, "Except of course for the part where your swordsmanship is total and complete shit."


"Oooh, goading me. I see. No, not gonna work, nice try but—"

"Losing to a servant, though," Emory keeps on, ignoring him, teasing with annoyingly off-handed ticks to his stick. He sucks in a breath, hissing, "that's gotta hurt. Or even worse. To a skatepunk. What would your friends say? My god, lost to that scrawny kid, Tony? The one with the emo hair?"

Anthony snorts, momentarily distracted by the idea of explaining this very situation to Art ("--yeah, no, sticks, you see—") and Emory takes just that moment to charge with a series of quick attacks, precise and practiced. Anthony fumbles to deflect with an exclamation of, "The fuck!", but somehow ends up tripping and half standing on his own foot—just as Emory lands a blow right to the middle of his chest, making him topple backwards with a strangled 'whoa!' of surprise.

Lying back in the dirt, Anthony coughs up at the canopy. He thinks it's been quite enough.

"I think it's been quite enough," he says when Emory comes to loom over him—feet planted on either side of his chest. "It's the sticks," he adds when Emory peers down at him, a single eyebrow quirked. "I'm not big on the sticks."

Emory, apparently taking no notice of Anthony's admission, raises his stick back to Anthony's chest—digging it hard into the spot above his heart. He grins. A wide, huge, shit-eating grin.

"Do you submit?"

Anthony looks down his nose at the stick, cross-eyed, then back up at Emory. "What does it fucking look like, Emory?"

"Do you," he pushes the blunt end harder into his chest, "or do you not bloody submit?"

"Well it's not exactly looking up for me, is it? I'm lying prostrate on the ground you've got a stick jabbed into my chest, so what moves do you think I could possibly—"

He digs an elbow into Emory's bare foot. It surprises both parties enough that while Emory jumps back, hunched with his knee drawn up to nurse his foot, Anthony just stares at him—dumbly.

But then, then he moves. He grips the stick in his hand and holds it across his chest, holding on with one hand on either side and jumps up—stick swishing back to the one hand, twirling in his grip, and Emory's eyes light up at the sight of it. Anthony has no idea what he's doing, what he's going to do when Emory straightens, gets into position—charges—but oh, oh, he knows. He knows like training at dawn, aged six, knows like breaking a leg and an arm and an ankle—knows the sloppiness of Emory's strikes in a heartbeat.

A short defence turns to an offence, and he's coming at the boy from easy angles—underhand, sideways, circling their makeshift weapons around each other in an upward motion to stop abruptly, using the other end to dig bluntly into the centre of Emory's chest. He takes it with a pained grunt, swaggering back, hand over the sore spot.

Anthony, exhilarated, juggles the stick from hand to hand. "Come on, Em." He pokes at Emory's loosely gripped stick. "Sticks up."

Emory wheezes a coughing laugh, eyes dancing with mirth as he tosses his stick up for a better hold—bracing himself for another attack. Light on his feet, he twitches a set of fingers at him, palm-up. An invitation.

Anthony all but tackles him.

And it's brilliant. He can't compare it to much, doesn't have a lot of experience with putting other people's skills to the test with his own limbs, body—but the closest feeling to this he can recall ever experiencing is the stomach-dropping sensation of a trampoline. The kind that goes with a harness, where there are bungee wires attached and when you set off—when you go up, it's not your own force, it's not you who has the ability to jump thirty feet into the air—just a kid, short legs and spindly muscles—but it does feels like it. Like that distance between you and the ground is something that you did, ingeniously, like flying—superman-like, radioactive-waste-induced powers that only just kicked in—just now, on the trampoline, a coincidence because now no one will believe the flying bit, which is truly you, truly. And it really feels like that, the same way when Anthony moves in ways he hasn't known before but remembers, and right then he understands what Emory said when he told him the magic thing was exciting, because it was new.

And it is. It's new, sparring with Emory, working up a sweat, and the longer they go on the more confident Anthony grows in his strikes—his swipes, the turns he takes and decisions he makes. He's sure it'll take less than two blows to take out Emory, who is all right but not that good, though it's more fun this way—doing this, being good at this, because he's never been good at this.

When it starts raining, heavy drops falling through the blanket of leaves—barely noticeable at first, a drizzle that gradually turns into a full-blown shower—Anthony ends it with a quick, sharp blow close to the base of Emory's stick. Sends it flying out of his grip.

Emory stands there, empty handed, laughing weakly. Anthony bites his lip, smiles as he bares his teeth, makes a show out of pointing his stick at Emory's heart—gently digging it into his sodden shirt.

"Submit, then?"

Emory laughs again, out of breath. He takes a step backwards, and another, and Anthony follows the movement—stick still in place.

"Do you," he says when Emory bumps back into a tree, shoulder catching on the bark before he flattens himself against it—mad, grinning. "Or do you not?"

Emory grabs the end of the stick, pushes it off his chest—to the side, then pulls at it. Pulls Anthony with it, too.

"No," he says, rather pleased with himself as Anthony presses close, stick slipping out his slackening grip.

"No?"

"No."

"You don't submit?"

Emory's answer comes as a slow thigh slipping between his legs, two hands tugging him closer by the hem of his shirt. "I guess I don't," he says, voice dropping at the proximity—rain trailing down their faces, dripping off their noses, sideways down their brows.

"Cheeky," whispers Anthony, a breath to the line of Emory's jaw.

"A bit," Emory replies, a sly smile in his voice, hands coming round to the small of Anthony's back—dipping just below the waistband of his jeans, pulling him in all the way. They fit and lock and arrange themselves for easy movement, wet and warm through the damp cloth, and from there on it's not all too difficult. Anthony makes quick work of their trousers with Emory's hands restless behind him—over his back and lower, fingertips that trail fleetingly over his skin and then grip too suddenly—shoving their hips together as he drops his back against the bark with a gasp. The bared throat gives Anthony new direction, and soon his mouth is fixed on the long tendons, tracing the lines and licking up the rivulets of rain, thinking it's better this way—with Emory's face tilted skyward, panting, his lips a good distance away: pink and chapped and unmistakably dangerous, now to be avoided at all costs. But it doesn't prove too much of a task with the distraction of Emory's thigh grazing up against him so good, the pooling heat and the tight grinding against each other in the slowly abating rain, their bare feet muddy in the soggy ground. Emory drags his nails along the path of Anthony's spine, hissing, "Fuck, yes," sounding filthy for how quiet he usually is, and that only sets Anthony off, makes him bite and then suck a mark below his ear, whisper back something new, dirty, something that makes them both move with even more abandon. Would you suck me? is what Anthony asks to the shell of his ear, kissing it. If I'd ask you, would you—go on your knees, would you put your mouth on—fuck, on me, would you suck me if I—

The words are enough to get them both off in a matter of heartbeats. For a moment they're brilliant, genius somehow, and how had they not thought of this before and it's good—it's better than good until it's over, until their sanity starts trickling back like a shock of clarity into their consciousness. Neither acknowledges any of it later, when they're sitting on a grassier patch below one of the bigger trees, silently waiting for the rain to stop. Emory stares at Anthony when he thinks he's not looking, though Anthony notices, turns to catch him at it—but Emory glances away too quickly, blankly gazing up at the dark greenery. Anthony looks at him for a while, forgets he's doing it, realises only when Emory cocks his head at him—eyebrows raised.

He feels a blush heat the back of his neck and frowns at a nearby bush, jaw tense, still noticing Emory's every shifting movement out of the corner of his eye.

~


Art calls him. It starts out well enough, grumbled questions of how they've been—vaguely embarrassed on both ends, saying, 'all right' and 'you know, the usual', like the last time they'd spoken hadn't involved fists and shouting—but then when Anthony starts with a, "Listen, about what I said . . . " and Art interjects with an immediate, "S'all right. Forgive and forget, right? You were just being a bit of an arse, and I—", everything goes pear shaped.

Emory sits on the other end of the couch, obviously pretending to still be watching the telly as next to him Anthony explodes in the occasional bursts of, "Hold on, who said anything about apologising?" and, "I never did—what? What? You were being a complete pissing wanker, what I did was—I'm a WHAT?" And, "No, fuck you, Art! Fuck you!"

Afterwards, in the seething silence following the abrupt end of the call, Emory still stares at the television screen with a blank and even glaze as he mumbles a monotone, "Made up nice, then."

Anthony chucks the phone at his head.

A couple of days later, at the skatepark (which looks a lot more exciting in films than in real life—especially if you don't skate or have a BMX or rollerblades. It's not right, Anthony thinks, that there should be a place where people with rollerblades are somehow cooler than those without), Emory asks,

"So why did you two break up?"

Anthony is lying on the hot concrete of a flank bank between two half-pipes, arms folded under his head, eyes closed—having lost interest in watching Emory skate up and down and around a long time ago. He squints open one eye, sees Emory on the edge of the bank, skateboard flipped up.

"Who?"

"You and your boyfriend."

"Are you talking about Art?"

"Yeah. Him."

Anthony drops his head back, closes his eyes again. "First of all," he says, "not funny, idiot. Second, he's a shitheaded jerk, that's why."

"What did you fight about?"

"Is this any of your business?"

"No."

"Well then."

"You seem pretty upset by it."

"What." He props himself to his elbows, put-upon. "The hell. I am not upset."

Emory looks at him for a moment, then drops back down the ramp—wheels a hollow rolling sound against the smooth concrete. When he's had enough of that, when he calls it a day a good hour later and comes to sit next to Anthony, the latter reluctantly tells him that,

"We planned on having this party. Our birthdays are around the same time, so we rented this bar like—ages ago. But then, well, all the shit that's . . . " he trails off. "Anyway. I guess it's still on and everything. Just. I don't know." Then, as an afterthought, "This is bullshit."

"When's your birthday?"

"Two weeks. Twenty to the one, yo," he grins, makes a botched attempt at a cool gesture of some kind. Emory snorts, gives him a sad look. "Do you want to come?"

"To your I-guess-it's-still-on party?"

"Yes."

"Do I have to get you a gift?"

"Not if you enjoy being a heartless bastard," Anthony says, lightly.

"All right," Emory brightly replies, and quickly leans away to avoid a stray elbow to the ribs.

It's not much, what they do together. There isn't a lot to do, in the half-deserted city mid-summer, dragging themselves down streets to the rhythmic sound of flip-flops—sitting in the park and falling asleep on the bench, going swimming in the pond behind Emory's house, melting into the couch for long, mind numbing hours, watching cable at Anthony's: cooking shows, gardening specials, technicolour Power Rangers reruns on a kid's channel. First for the laughs, then with the serious undertone of a discussion concerning which ranger is the best—Anthony claims the red, then remembers the white and tries to switch, which Emory (who firmly believes the black ranger trumps them all, despite the clearly contradictory evidence) refuses to acknowledge. And there are other things, too, there are quick touches—brushing arms, hands, bumping knees that sometimes they ignore and that sometimes lead to more, to Emory pushing Anthony against the shallow embankment of the pond with one hand already down his swimming trunks, to lazily moving on Anthony's bed, tangled legs and breathy, exhausted laughter.

"I can call you Em, right," Anthony says, an unremarkable afternoon in the garden.

"No."

"What? Why? You call me Tony."

"Everyone calls you Tony."

"Yeah, 'cus I don't make a deal out of it. 'Cus I'm cool. 'Cus—"


"Still can't call me Em."

"You can't stop me."

"I can stop reacting when you talk to me."

"Who says I wanna talk to you?"

Emory laughs. "Then don't talk to me."

"All right, Em. Then you can't call me Tony."

"What d'you want me to call you, then? Anthony?" He gives him a look. "Like your mother?"

"You," Anthony starts to get smug, "can call me T-Son."

"Okay."

"What?"

"I said okay, T-Son."

". . . You're kidding."

"Why would I be kidding, T-Son?"

"Oh, piss off."

And overall, he doesn't think they're too obvious with it. They keep off each other in company, keep a respectable distance and their glances sufficiently disinterested—keep a good few feet apart outside when walking, stick to punches to the arm and nudging elbows to call for attention. It's almost like any other friendship, Anthony thinks, except for the part where they don't have that much in common and occasionally get each other off with their hands.

But maybe he's wrong. Maybe they're not at all as discreet as he suspects, maybe they're blatantly fucking obvious all over the place for as far as he knows because the day after Emory comes by to give him back his jacket—he forgot it, left it draped over the back of Emory's kitchen chair—wearing it as a sort of lark (Anthony looking at him, saying, "You can keep it if you want." And Emory laughing in his face, replying, "Fuck off, I'm not your girlfriend. And stop leaving your shit at my flat, yeah?"), his mother corners him with a no-nonsense glare and a,

"You're seeing him, aren't you."

"Seeing what now?"

"Emory. You're seeing him."

Anthony pauses, has to wait a moment before managing a properly blank, "I'm not gay."

"I'm not judging, Anthony."

"That's great. You do that. I'm still not gay."

"If you say so."

"Oh, I say so. And you know who else says so? Girls. That I've dated. Which makes for a lot of people."

She gives him a wry look, despairing for reasons he can't fathom, and ends the conversation with a sigh.

But now he's got this stupid sticker, isn't sure what to do with it—stares at it for a long evening in his room, flicking it between his fingers. He'd passed a skater shop earlier, suddenly felt entitled to go inside and have a look. Even if he didn't look anything like a skater, in his artistically faded jeans and brand shirts, didn't even look like anyone who'd know a skater. He scanned through items, nodded appreciatively at the skateboards lined against the walls—firmly ignored the ironic glare directed at him from behind the counter. He asked some questions, mostly concerning prices, if only to give the impression he knew what he was talking about (he didn't). The girl at the register, spacers in her ears and a straight, black fringe framing her face, answered, a little bemused, watching curiously as he flicked through the small box of skateboard stickers on the counter. By complete and random chance, then, he found a sticker in the bunch—started. It was black with fashionably curly white letters spelling out Merlin, and he slammed it on the surface of the counter, beaming.

"How much?"

"Two fifty," the girl had said, sounding suspiciously taken aback by his sudden enthusiasm. He'd barked out a laugh—paid, said thank you, pocketed the sticker and took off with all but a skip in his step.

Now, however, staring at it rather morosely—bluish in the light of his computer screen—he sort of wishes he'd never bought it. Then he wouldn't be stuck with it, or with the decision of what to do with it, wouldn't be so bothered with his mother's words or Emory's laughing I'm-not-your-girlfriend, wouldn't be putting far too much thought into a stupid gluing piece of plastic. But what can it possibly mean, really? What can anything under three pounds possibly mean? Not much, he concludes. Two fifty. He could've bought a beer with that. No one would've given him a tough time if he'd tossed someone—anyone, a friend or just a vague acquaintance on a visit—a beer, said, "Here you go, mate."

So having decided that for himself, having agreed that a two-fifty sticker was just that and not much else but a funny gift, it is safe to say that Emory's reaction throws him off completely.

"What the fuck is this?" He looks from the sticker Anthony had just planted on the kitchen counter before him, to Anthony, and back to the sticker again. "It's not funny."

Anthony has no idea what to say to that. He stands there, frozen. "Oh."

"Did you think it would be funny?"

"I . . . don't know?"

"You don't know?"

"Look, I—what do you want to hear? I saw it, thought of the obvious, thought—yeah, I thought it'd be funny, thought it'd be—"

"I'm not him. It's not funny." Emory looks up, serious. "It's a bad joke."

"All right," Anthony replies, pushing his hands into his pockets—hunching his shoulders, the best defensive stance he can manage. "Christ. Forget it, then. Sorry I even bothered."

He turns to leave with a huff, already marvelling at everyone's stubborn insistence on misinterpret things—of course, though, his mother didn't really misinterpret, he was just sort of half-lying, and the girl at the shop didn't misinterpret his being there because he really didn't have much of a reason to be in a skater shop, and Emory—well. It was just a two-fifty sticker, for fuck's sake, and there was no reason to flip out over a—

"Wait." Emory grabs his arm before he's reached the door, stops him. "I—look. It's nice. It's a nice thought. I'm just a bit—I don't know. Sorry."

Anthony doesn't turn from the door, still frowns at it as he mutters his reply. "Yeah. Well. Whatever." He swallows. "'S just a sticker."

"I know," Emory says, letting go of his arm. Anthony can feel him behind, stepping closer, feels Emory's chest against his back. It's almost familiar in every way now, Emory pressing his face to his neck, slipping his arms around him, staying like that for a moment before his hands start straying—under his shirt, at the waistband of his jeans, toying with the button. But Anthony can't help but think that this wasn't point of it, mind racing over everything from before and he wrenches away—pushes Emory's hands off him.

He turns around quickly to step back, and Emory is looking at him, darkly confused.

Anthony looks to the side, exhales a tight, shallow sigh. "I—" He rubs at his neck, apprehensive, glancing back to Emory. "Fuck. I didn't come here for that, okay? I just thought . . . maybe for once we could . . . "

In the silence that follows Anthony's unfinished statement, Emory slowly schools his expression into well-practiced indifference. He shrugs, laying his sudden disinterest on a bit too thick to make it believable. He walks over to his mattress—flops down, reaches for the remote, turns on the television and starts flicking through the channels without so much as a second's interval between each program.

Anthony stares at him, mildly bewildered. He wonders whether he's also like that, to other people, perhaps to girls he's known, switching off all communication centres at will—pretending it's not a big deal, none of it, distracting himself with something easy and mundane.

He supposes he is, sometimes. At any rate, he is the last person on earth to judge anyone's inability to communicate. With a huffing sound of dry humour stuck in his chest, Anthony strolls over to the mattress. Takes off his shoes, sits himself down next to Emory with a sigh—propped up against the wall.

Emory's frantic channel switching slows down gradually. There's nothing interesting on, as often is the case, and eventually he settles for something old, vague and Rambo-like.

"Okay," Anthony says, nodding at the television. "Uther. The tube. Go."

Emory replies by pushing air through his nose like a laugh, glances from Anthony to the telly, then pulls a face of outrage at the screen. "The images," he hisses, appalled. "They are moving! It's magic!" This he exclaims with his hands coiled into claws, palms up. Then in a flash of movement he stretches out his arms, points his fingers like a gun at the television—the remote half hidden between his hands—and as he pushes the off-button he pretends to shoot, adding a booming noise for effect.

"Aaah," he says, a moment after silence fills the room. "Peace at last."

Anthony looks at him, not knowing whether to laugh or keep on staring, a perplexed expression fixed on his face.

He settles for the former. Rolls his head back against the wall, laughs with his shoulders shaking, Emory joining next to him—reluctant chuckles that grow bolder, turn into full-blown amusement. It's not quite that funny, or anything, but there's something like relief in this. Maybe it's the joke being about Uther, maybe it's Emory acting like a dork as a silent peace offering, but all the same it keeps them laughing until they're short of breath and have to calm down, have to not look at each other until it dies down.

And when it does, eventually, Anthony takes a deep breath and glances to Emory with a soft smile. Emory returns the smile for a short moment. It fades as he keeps his gaze on Anthony, and for a moment Anthony thinks it could be something on his face—or maybe the way he's looking, or maybe Emory just thought of something, something bad, but then—

Then he slides down the mattress. His eyes are fixed on Anthony as he settles between his legs, slowly, not saying anything but almost waiting to be pushed away. Anthony's breath catches in his throat and he pulls back a little, trying for a strangled, "What are you—" even though he knows, and Emory knows, shows it by putting his hands on Anthony's hips and pulling him towards him again. For a moment he breathes hot and close over Anthony's groin, eyes still raised—gaze level, stormy.

Anthony licks his lips, leans back on shaky elbows.

Emory takes this as an invitation and lowers his mouth, pressing it open and wet to the shape of Anthony's hardening erection. He mouths along the seam of his jeans, pressing his tongue flat against the fabric—rolling it, moving his head to it, the dampness seeping through the fabric, through his boxers. Anthony fights to keep his eyes open, his lids drooping—eyes rolling back and he can't even keep his head down, it keeps falling back between his shoulders, his elbows slipping under him as he thrusts up. But he wants to see it, wants to keep watching Emory as he unbuttons, unzips, wants to see Emory's face as he breathes short and hot and so close to his cock.

He licks a quick, tentative lick to the head and Anthony is lost, his elbows giving way—falling back onto the mattress with a groan. He tries to glance down a few times, when Emory kisses the base, licks up the thick vein, and again when he takes in the length of him—as far as he can—but every time the sight of it is a little too much, as is the effort in keeping his neck at that angle with the feel of Emory's tongue on him, his mouth around him, bobbing up and down and humming. It's making him boneless and at the same time frantic for more, taking every part of the sloppy sensation—the teeth, inexperienced and painful on his skin, the saliva and the messiness whenever Emory pulls back too far and he slips from his mouth—Anthony gasping, grunting his frustration at the loss until Emory puts a hand on his thigh, steadies him, swallows him down again, lips a perfect circle stretching around his cock.

The next time he looks is automatically also the last. Emory's eyes are closed, cheeks hollowed, saliva dripping down his chin and he's sucking him like it's all he's ever wanted to do, making small sounds in the back of his throat—hand pumping at the base, head moving in time, hypnotising. Anthony manages a gasp of a warning a moment too late, already coming, and Emory makes a brave attempt to not move away—to swallow—but he can't, gags and coughs and pulls back. He's wet all around his mouth, down his throat and Anthony screws his eyes shut—throws his head back, slings an arm over his face.

A moment later Emory crawls over him. His knuckles brush his bare stomach as Emory undoes his trousers with a frenzied hand, pushing them down, and then he's rutting against Anthony's leg—face buried in his chest, softly grunting. It barely takes a few thrusts and he's there, tensing up and then slumping, melting into Anthony.

And Anthony breathes. Matches the rhythm to the slowing rise and fall of the chest pressed to his belly, a comforting weight that'll soon be too heavy but for now is just nice, close. He runs a hand through Emory's hair, and Emory turns his head—moves into the touch. Anthony keeps his eyes closed as his arm slips from his face, brushes his knuckles to the line of Emory's brow, his thumb to his cheekbone.

When he leaves, later, Emory is asleep—a curled up, tight ball of man under the sheets. By the telly he locates an old magazine, rips a page from it, scours the room for a marker or a pen, and on finding one by a pile of schoolbooks writes down the following in quick, messy penmanship: Party = Wednesday. Not showing up = not an option!

He sticks it to the fridge with a university-logo magnet, and exits the flat quietly—turning off the light before he goes, standing in the doorway for a second longer, peering in.

~


At first he's not sure how he feels about today being his birthday. It doesn't feel spectacular, but then again—birthdays rarely do. It's mostly a matter of sitting down with his mum and letting her pet his hair and hold his face and kiss his cheek. She gives him his presents and says, "even though technically, you've still got a few hours to go until it really counts," like she always does, even though the joke (not really a joke) stopped being funny (if it ever really was) a long time ago. She got him a book he hasn't heard of but thinks he's seen in the shops before, explains that she thinks he might like it because the main character reminded her of him, and also an extra controller for his PlayStation because she's had enough of listening to his and 'his friend's' bickering over the single one up in his room for hours on end.

Anthony looks at the presents, and then at his mother, and fills up with a sudden wave of affection. He knows he's not going to read the book, and that Emory and he are going to squabble over mostly everything whether they've got two controllers or not, but that's not the point. It's that she thinks about him and cares a lot, and he hasn't got a lot of other people to do that for him, and if—when he hugs her and says "thanks, mum"—he holds on a little too long, a little too tight, then that's just fine.

They have lunch together, which he calls fancy because she heats up some sausages and cuts the crust off their bread, which hasn't happened for years. It's nice, and there's tea and then his grandparents call, and then his aunt, and then his mother talks about how awful his birth was and how it went on forever and how she didn't understand a word of what the French medics were saying and how, because he was born a Brit in France, they could never decide whether it was five to midnight or one in the morning—the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth.

He knows the story but listens all over again, smiles, forgets to get annoyed at the redundancy. But after that she's still got some work to finish, still has some deadlines to make, and he ends up shuffling about the house for the bigger part of the day—aimless, bored, until he more or less forgets about the birthday and gets distracted by a computer game.

When it starts getting late, he decides he should leave. It's odd, going to his own party alone, and it feels as though brushing his teeth, shaving, putting on shoes and grabbing his jacket isn't quite a grand enough preparation. He's still staring at himself in the mirror, inspecting his jaw, when his mother calls from downstairs.

"Anthony, someone is honking outside."

And he is surprised, really, but maybe not entirely. It was the plan originally, for Art to pick him up, but he'd thought . . . well. The obvious. Friends have a row, stop talking, and all previously agreed on arrangements no longer apply. But there he is, in his little rusted mini, honking as loud as ever, making the neighbours open their windows—stare down, outraged.

"Keep it the fuck down," Anthony says, hurrying toward the car, shooting wary glances at the surrounding houses. "And what d'you want?"

Art stops the honking, slumps down in his seat. "Get in."

"Why."

"Because I fucking say so, you jerk." He leans over to the door, opens it for Anthony—sprawled over the passenger's seat. "And because it's your fucking birthday."

"It's not my birthday yet," Anthony grumbles in reply, lamely. He gets in anyway, shuts the door loudly. "You're still a wanker," he says as Art manages to get the engine running, pulls up into the street.

"Right back at ya, mate," replies Art, eyes on the road, a bit of a smile twitching the corners of his mouth up.

Anthony doesn't smile back and instead looks away, out the window. He resolutely keeps on not smiling for five minutes, reminding himself why he was angry with Art, and why Art is a shithead, but then the man goes and says something like,

"So I've banged Rose Phillips."


And Anthony has to smother the snort of laughter with his hand, has to try and frown seriously to cover it up.

"I just thought I might mention it, y'know," he adds, sensibly. "Since you two sort of have this thing going on and all."

Anthony looks at him. "She went down on me. Once." Then, "Or twice."

"Yeah, well. Like I said. A thing." He sniffs, concentrates on the traffic lights. "Thought you might appreciate the update."

It's probably the closest either of them is ever going to come to an apology. Anthony takes it for what it's worth and replies with a proverbial white flag: a sarcasm-laced, "Cheers."

The party, once they arrive, has already made a feeble start without them. People don't need much, it seems. There aren't decorations up, no one bothered, no banners with their names or ages, but there's a bar, and there's music, and that is more than enough. Anthony remembers having shouted, "you're coming, yeah!" at people across hallways, remembers talking about it in class—doesn't remember inviting people in particular. But Art must've, had to have spread some kind of word of the event because the place fills up within the hour. There are faces, loads of them, from school or from around and he hasn't seen any of them in forever. They ask after him, or more like shout it over the music, and he shouts back that he's good—brilliant, even—and they laugh and wish him a happy one, and there're drinks and a good atmosphere, humid but exciting somehow, and soon he's laughing too. No discernable reason to it, just clapping a mate from last year on the back and clanging their glasses together, whooping to the music. There's perhaps some bad attempts at dancing on his part, a happy repetition of jumping around and using other people's shoulders for leverage—the routine of the drunk, ecstatic and rhythm-less few. But he is definitely not alone in this, old friends and new joining in with the ridiculousness, and when Emory shows up some thirty minutes to midnight Anthony is loud and pleasantly drunk on attention.

He laughs when he catches a glimpse of Emory trying to worm his way through the crowd, frowning, typically annoyed and uncomfortable. Handing his beer over to someone who'll gladly have it, Anthony makes his way over—greets him by slinging an arm over Emory's shoulder, startling him, pulling him into a short half-hug to yell, "You came!" into his ear.

Emory shrugs, gives a strained smile—distractedly looking around. Anthony gives him a friendly shake, and he is happy he's there, he is, but when Emory nods toward the bar in a universal sign for 'I'm gonna get something to drink' and someone starts talking to Anthony in the meanwhile, he gets sidetracked for a while—then forgets about him, just a little, just for a moment or two. Everything is just so loud and people so enthusiastic, he can't ignore any of it—can't bring himself to not talk to anyone who says hello, buy a drink for every person he knows, stand on a barstool when they all start to chant happy birthday. The night is good, good in a way it hasn't been in a long time and while he knows that Emory doesn't know anyone here—or at least not on good terms—is generally uneasy in crowds, the worry seems far away, unimportant right at that moment.

It comes rushing back, however, when he glances over the crowd in the pause between two songs and sees the oddly familiar back of a head slip out back—through the exit. Pushing down a wave of alarm, Anthony wades his way through the sea of people, already feeling the beginnings of guilt tug at his chest. He stumbles out the back exit, stands looking around for a heaving second—ready to run in whichever direction—before noticing Emory just standing there, lighting a cigarette, giving him a curious look.

"Oh," Anthony says, breathing out in a huff. "You're smoking."

Emory looks at him, brows high, then pockets his lighter—takes a drag. "Yes."

"Good. I mean—not good, but." He smiles, amused at himself. "Are you enjoying yourself, then?" he adds, coming to stand next to Emory, back against the wall.

"Not really, no."

"Yeah. Thought so."

"It's all right. I've never been big on parties." He shoots Anthony a quick smile but immediately overcasts it with a frown, as though remembering something. "So when's your real birthday, then?"

"One in the AM, my friend. On the dot. In France. So," he cocks his head, "either I'm already twenty-one, or I've still got thirty minutes to go. You pick."

"I'd say you're as good as there." Emory digs into his pocket, tosses something in his direction. Anthony catches with a bit of a fumble, and Emory nods, tightly, says, "Happy birthday, Orson."

Anthony looks down at the messily wrapped gift, a small package that's more tape than paper, and looks up in blank question.

"Oh don't give me that. It's just a—just open the fucking thing, will you?"

Anthony huffs a silent snort of a laugh, shaking his head to himself as he struggles with the tape—tugging at it ineffectively for a good while before it gives away. He's impatient in ripping open the present so it takes him a moment, once he sees what it is, to recognise it as anything at all.

"It's a . . . chain."

"Idiot." Emory lifts the necklace chain from his palm, shows the heavy pendant—that he didn't notice before—hanging from it, and puts it back down.

"Jesus. Is—"

"Not the same thing, obviously," Emory is quick to interject, muttering, looking down as he taps the ashes from the end of his fag. "There was this woman with a stand down at the market, and she had those, and I asked—well, it's . . . " He looks at the pendant, still in Anthony's upturned hand. Adds a line of a smile, as though that settles it.

"Thanks," Anthony says, at a loss for anything better.

Emory glances up, seeming suddenly uncertain. "Look, I know it's a bit, you know, creepy in a way but—"

"No. It's good. It's a good gift."

". . . Yeah?"

"Yeah." Anthony breathes a laugh, lifts the pendant over his head—lets it hang on his chest, the slight weight familiar. It looks a bit silly, over his shirt like this. It doesn't matter. "All right?" he asks, turning to Emory, showing.

Emory doesn't say anything. He nods, jaw tight, eyes flicking from a sideways glance at the pendant to the ground, clearing his throat, inspecting his smoke—pointlessly.

Something clenches at Anthony's throat.

"Let's go back inside," he says, voice dangerously wavering.

"Nah. I think I'll stay here for a while."

"Why?"

"Still haven't finished," he says, lifting his fag. Anthony snatches it from between his fingers, flicks it away.

"Fuck your cigarette, Emory," he says, and takes his hand—leads him back inside. Fuck it all, Anthony thinks, walking into the soup of people, twining his fingers with Emory's. Fuck it all, fuck it all, fuck it all as he pulls him past familiar faces, ignoring hands to his shoulder or anyone calling out his name. Fuck it all for good, and he stops at the open space where a few people are dancing to a vague tune, stops and turns, lets go of Emory's hand in favour of pulling him close, wrapping himself around him—arms winding all the way around his waist, chest to chest, his face lowered to rest on Emory's shoulder. He decides he doesn't ever want to not be able to do this.

"Anthony." Emory is stiff, apprehensive in the embrace, a softly pushing hand at Anthony's shoulder. "Tony, people can—" His push turns into a grip as Anthony burrows his face into the crook of his neck, kisses it. "Christ, Tony, stop. They'll—" A sharp breath at the first trace of tongue, "—see."

"I don't care," is what Anthony has to say to that, muffled into the crook of Emory's jaw. He moves slightly to the beat of the music, swaying them minutely as he repeats, "I don't care," to the hollow of his cheek. "I don't care, I don't care, I don't—"

"—Okay." Emory relaxes a bit, hands lightly inching up to the sides of Anthony's neck. "Okay."

Anthony drags his face up, lingering at the brush of noses—pressing his forehead to Emory's.

"I want to kiss you," he says. "So fucking bad."

"Can't," Emory says, a breath to his lips. "Flashbacks."

"I don't care. I want to." He nudges Emory's cheek with a touch of his nose, tilting his face. "Want you."

Emory doesn't have words for that. But for all it's worth he does have lips, and he's moving them over Anthony's and kissing—kissing with intent, mouth parting easily, tongues slipping together like they've been doing this all along, simply had a little pause and have now decided to pick up where they'd left off. It's not a filthy kiss, not yet, for now just slow and deep and soft noises—most things that good kisses usually are—but Anthony still blushes, the back of his neck heating up under Emory's finger, his chest tightening with some unknown sentiment.

There are a few catcalls, all muffled and faraway, nothing particularly interesting and the two just keep kissing, changing angles, speed, urgency. There are no flashbacks, no unbidden memories, nothing but the feel of Emory sucking down on his tongue—rolling his own into Anthony's mouth, licking, the quiet moan in the back of his throat when Anthony does the same. They go on, and on, Emory's hands threading into his hair and Anthony's hands gripping at his shirt and while Anthony has known long kisses—remembers being fifteen behind the school's gym—this is a new kind of long. This is hot waves down his back and getting ahead of himself in his own head, thinking of ways they could do this forever—learn how to walk in time, how to eat as little and quickly as possible so they can continue as soon as necessary, how to dress with their mouths attached.

"Tony," Emory mumbles against his lips, and Anthony hums in reply—licks into his mouth again, distracting him for a good minute longer until he starts laughing, saying, "Tony!"

"What?" he breathes, pulling back just a little—immediately resorting to planting small kisses around his mouth.

"A break," Emory explains, his smile brushing Anthony's cheek. He swipes a thumb to the corner of Anthony's mouth, wiping away the wet, and Anthony—unable to help himself—kisses the finger, too.

"Thirsty?" he asks, voice low, gravelly.

"A bit."

"D'you want something to drink?"

"You think you can manage that?" Emory playfully brushes their lips together. "All the way to the bar and back?"

"Not really, no," Anthony says, going for the bait, leaning down for another kiss—smothering Emory's airy laugh with a set of teeth to his lip, tugging, nipping before sucking on it, soothing it with a tongue and easily licking his way into Emory's mouth again.

"Tony," Emory manages a moment later, strained, forcing him back with two hands to the sides of his face. "Hey. No hurry, yeah?"

Anthony sighs, drops his hands from Emory's back. "A beer, then?"

"Sure." He almost smiles, eyes clear, fond. "A beer."

Nodding once, Anthony turns—gets as far as a step, swivels around, catching Emory's lips for a quick peck.

"One more," he says, making Emory laugh—kiss him, closed mouthed but warm. Anthony pulls away, takes a breath, and— "Okay, just one more," as he leans back in, a gesture for which he only gets a light bite to his cheek and a,

"Idiot. Go."

Anthony goes with an unhappy grumble, but does nothing to fight down the grin as he leans over the bar—bangs a flat hand on the surface as he waits for his drinks, too impatient, the barman too far away and distracted. He doesn't even notice the familiar figure at his side until a hand claps his shoulder and he looks up to a drunkenly cheerful Art.

"So," he says, lifting his brow. "You're really serious about this whole gay thing, huh?"

The barman plants two wet bottles in front of Anthony, shouts the price over the busy din. Anthony pays, laughs, takes the bottles by the neck and says, "God, you're a prick, Art. A complete and utter prick." He backs his way through the crowd, lifts his bottles for emphasis as he adds, "And I still love you, man. Wish me a happy birthday!"

Art pulls a pretend serious face, stands tall and salutes Anthony with his own drink, shouting, "Happy birthday, Anthony Orson!" He smiles, broad, adds, "May your life as a poofter be a happy one."

"Cheers!" Anthony replies, arms raised all the way before turning—finding his path through the people back to the impromptu dance floor. Emory has retreated to the side, is leaning against a wall with his back to the bar—probably watching the intoxicated bodies flail about before him. Anthony comes up from behind, slipping a hand with a beer around him, waiting for him to take it.

"A beer for the man," he adds to clarify, voice deep and amused, propping his chin on Emory's shoulder. Emory, however, makes no move to take it—staring ahead, face obscured. "Em?"

Emory slumps. For a moment Anthony thinks he's leaning back, but he's not, the weight is too heavy for that and he isn't sure what to do—confused for a moment, torn between holding on to the beers and dropping them to catch Emory before he slips to the ground. It's a ridiculous choice, far too easy to make though at that second it's what he panics about—spilling the beers. But then Emory slips further down and he doesn't really think at all, the bottles simply no longer in his hands as he scrambles to grab the boy under his arms—hauling him up, shaking him.

"Em? Emory?" He props him up against the wall, unconscious, gives him another shake. "Why does this shit always—fuck, Emory!"

He slips down the wall in Anthony's slackening grip, limp. People around start to notice, because he's shouting, and Emory has passed out and they're in a bar and have been drinking and it's pretty clear what it looks like. He hauls Emory back up, slings his unmoving arm over his own shoulder. Someone asks, "Hey, mate, do you need any—"

"No," Anthony barks back, dragging Emory toward the exit. And then, catching himself, "He just—needs a bit of fresh air."

The guy who offered stands behind—the Polisci guy, Anthony notes, distractedly—a bit baffled, nodding—helps anyway by trying to part the crowd best he can, holding the door open. Anthony grumbles a vague thanks as they step outside, and the guy frowns, says, "Look, if you want me to call anyone, or—"

"No, we're good. Just—" He hikes Emory up a little, pushes him against a wall. "He just needs fresh air, okay?"

It's the end of the discussion, that. Anthony turns his attention away, back to Emory, and the guy has no choice but to nod again—to close the door, slink back inside. He's nice. He can't help. Anthony fights down a wave of mad, mad panic and puts his hands on Emory's face—tries to open his eyes, peels back his eyelids with insistent thumbs and is surprised—isn't surprised—shocked but not really—at the sight of murky gold storming through Emory's irises, pupils blown.

His grip loosens, and Emory's eyes fall shut again. He starts to slip again. Anthony, heart thudding wildly in his chest—skidding up to his throat, blocking his airways and making him sick—goes down with him. Emory starts to shake, skin flushing feverishly and Anthony doesn't know what to do, sitting on the dirty pavement with Emory's head awkwardly on his chest. He pushes back his hair, tries to hold him still, taps his cheek with a flat hand—trying to wake him up with quiet, unsteady whispers of, "Come on, Em, don't—come on, not now, not—"

None of it works. Anthony's breaths come in loud, rumbling pants, air pushed through his nose and it's something close to anger, this panic, and he raises his voice without meaning to—shouting at him to wake up, and in a desperate moment of helplessness he slaps Emory across the face—hard, the force of it making for a horrible, flat sound that echoes down the street.

Emory comes to with a painful gasp—scrabbling back, hand at his throat, sucking in lungfuls of air like a man on the verge of drowning. Anthony lets out a strangled laugh of relief. He steadies himself on his knees, holding on to Emory's shoulders, face, saying, "It's all right, Em. It's all right. Take it easy. That's—that's right, that's it, that's—" as he helps him to his feet, the both of them unsteady.

Emory catches his breath slowly, hand slipping from the base of his throat. He looks about, a bit confused, trying to locate his surroundings—the time, the situation. When his eyes freeze on Anthony, close, barely a foot away, Anthony chances a little smile.

"Gave me a real fright there, you did."


Emory doesn't return the smile. He stares, stonily, a tight grimace pinching his expression into something painful.

"Emory?" He reaches up, touches a clammy hand to his cheek. "Are you all right?"

He knows it's a silly question in that situation, and of course he isn't all right—people don't go catatonic the one second, wake up and are perfectly fine the next, but it's something to say, something to get a reply even if it's a predictably negative one. But there is no reply from Emory, not any kind of reply except for the jerky movement he makes to shake off Anthony's hand.

Anthony pulls back, the insult momentarily shocking him into retreat. Emory takes this chance to push past, walk away with a brisk pace—taking a few steps backwards, staring at Anthony with a confused and angry expression, short of breath still, with a bit of an uneven sway.

Anthony stares back, frozen. There's nothing in Emory's look that he understands.

And then, perhaps a second too late, he goes after him. At this Emory turns on his heel—makes his walk a run, not looking over his shoulder to see if Anthony would follow. But of course he follows, jogs, runs, calling after, "Emory! Would you stop for a—the fuck, Em, what are you—!"

Emory rounds a corner, goes into an alley. Anthony does the same a moment later, a curse on his lips, but is forced to a stop—a gradual running, then slowing, walking and then a complete stop. The alleyway is a dead-end, a couple of bins, crates and a high mesh, a single sleeping cat. Empty, completely, not a sign of Emory or any kind of movement.

He stands there, out of breath and puzzled, shrugging out his arms—baffled—for a lack of anything else to do.




(a lifetime)



In the end, they were all meant for so much more. They were all worth so much more than their lives, their deaths. It's not that there is no honour in knowingly marching toward a battle, your last battle, to leaving home in the hope that ahead lies a greater happiness, to living with the burden of uncertainty, of not knowing the power of your own sadness.

The opposite, in fact. More than that. There is too much, far too much honour, so much that it consumes everything else, overshadows the parts of life that aren't supposed to be honourable in any way—the parts that are supposed to be minuscule, unimportant and forgettable, the ones that fill up days and weeks when nothing much is happening.

In that respect, it is sad that every one of them was destined for greatness. Because they were meant for so much more than just that, wanted to mean so much more than simply their grievances, their occasional triumphs. Arthur did not want to be his kingdom, to be the love his wife didn't have for him, to be his death. He wanted to be the rest of him. All the moments that made up the hours he wasn't in armour or in court, the words that he said when speaking to a friend, the face he pulled when disliking a flavour, the way he moved when restless in his sleep. And if only that could've been his destiny, if he himself, his own person could've been his own destiny, maybe there wouldn't have been so much heartache in the end, so much resigned and weary regret.

And Merlin, for his part, did not want to be his magic. He did not want to be the man at Arthur's side, the one who finished off the tasks the king's sword could not achieve. He wanted to be a man with an art rather than the art within the man. He wanted to stand at no one's side, wanted to just walk about, to sometimes be next to someone, have someone be next to him as well. He wished for no fear. But fear still came, from within him and from out. He never wished for love again, but love never went away, love grew tired of itself and of its own weight. Sometimes, he wished he knew for a fact he was the one responsible for the death that changed them all. Sometimes he wished for sleep. Sometimes, sleep came.

Morgana did not want to be her madness. Gwen did not want to be her throne, or her lovers. Uther did not want to be his hatred. None of them defined themselves as such, they remembered childhoods and long, bored hours doing nothing at all, they remembered a first kiss and learning how tickling worked, fingers to sides, not by their own hands but by others'. But the world did not see it that way, the world disagreed. The world treaded around them, careful to stay uninvolved, the world lurched forward at appropriate times.

The world remembered them at their best, their worst, yet not a single true word of who they were in between managed to slip into history. Uther's death was forever a mystery, Arthur took the crown, took Guinevere for his wife. Merlin was the court's advisor, the kingdom's sorcerer, a friend. Morgana left, Lancelot came back, took Gwen with him on his way out. Arthur died at the hand of Mordred, a knife to his side.

But also, also Arthur loved his father. Not despite his flaws, not despite anything about him. He just did, because he didn't know what else to do, because Uther was his family. The love came, whether warranted or not. And also, also he hated for a while, he hated a lot and hated deep, and even if Merlin couldn't say for certain what had happened that night Arthur was sure he knew—he was sure magic was the cause, for some time he was even sure magic was the earthquake. That was a time he did not see Merlin. Did speak to him, of him, and Merlin was bound to the west wing—not a prisoner, not exactly, but not allowed to come near the king, free to live as long as he did so quietly.

And when Morgana left, Arthur found Merlin. Half drunk and miserable, Arthur stood in the open doorway, stared at Merlin sitting on his bed. For a long, long time he did not move, did not say a word, and Merlin stared back—scared, foolishly hopeful and small. Arthur went away that night without an explanation, and in the morning the hate had gone, had left in its place something even worse, something uglier. Something like surrender.

And then, then when Arthur married Gwen he didn't love her yet, and it was something he had to learn, had to understand with a cold logic that saddened him at times while she was so beautiful, so easy to adore. And Merlin, with his gaunt eyes and uninspiring face, sat at their table during their feast, sat next to Arthur and when the boy's tears threatened to spill over Arthur had clutched his arm—tightly—had kept his gaze on his court. Do not weep at my table, he had hissed, low and angry. Do not dare to weep at my side.

And who, who would know this? Who would remember, who would remember the evening Arthur fell asleep in his throne and Merlin pulled up a chair next to it, sat with his eyes closed to recall the feelings of rest and Arthur together. Who would tell of the times they'd been tired or grieving or sad and slipped, slipped and put their mouths together, clutched at each other's hair, fitted between each other's legs in dark corners of the castle where they wouldn't have to pass again and recall. And where did all these moments go, all these days that they couldn't get out of their heads no matter how much they tried, who would care after they died? Who would care about the people they became on their way to fulfilling their destinies?

They knew they were done when they started waging a war against themselves. Morgana's army came at them, as though trying to chip away at the madwoman's history, wiping away all that reminded her of who she used to be. And they were all so young, yet so much older than they used to be, so incredibly tired of everything. A rumour had begun spreading amongst the streets of Camelot, talk of Uther's death, the curse he had brought out over the kingdom with his dying breath king of Albion, no king who rules with magic, shall know love, for Uther had lost his own, for he had lost his life for the evil that had brought it on.

The irony was not lost on any of them, most certainly not after Gwen had taken off into the night—had found something good, had run with it, had always been the smartest one of them all.

And one night, after weeks of fighting in skirmishes and keeping off armies at all borders, something lightened in the air. They were on a hillside, their battered and shrinking army resting in their tents, watching the bright spots of fires on the horizon, idly considering the strength of Mordred's men. Arthur was peeling off his armour, rusted from rain and stained, the leather straps worn and close to snapping. Merlin was lying back on the king's cot, because he could, and was waiting for commands, for instructions on tomorrow's battle.

The words never came. Outside, a solider began drumming a log with his gauntlets, others joined in and some chanted a marching song to the beat, getting louder and louder as their voices echoed through the valley. Later, it would be said that even Mordred's men could hear them from over the landscapes, shivered by their fires thinking it was a demon's song--an omen.

As the shadows played on the canvas of the tent, the otherworldly chants of soldiers foreseeing their own end filling the air, Arthur got into bed with Merlin. He crawled over him, covered Merlin with himself, making sure he was the only thing between the man and the rest of the world. They slept together for the first time since that week, that one week together, the one they'd both—unaware and separately—stowed away as something too good to think back to often. They moved slowly, carefully, afraid of reminding themselves of what, and why and where. They didn't speak before, or after, or the next morning when Merlin sat on the cot with the sheet pooled around his waist—watching Arthur put his armour back on, piece for piece.

That day, as the battle waged on, Merlin watched Arthur from afar and wondered whether he had somehow—without any of their notice—already given up the fight some time ago. Perhaps while they were on foot somewhere, or when they stopped by a town and had a drink in a tavern. Perhaps when he was sitting at a table, drinking his ale, he looked up at Merlin doing the same, and decided—all right. Enough is enough. And then proceeded, forgetting to mention it to anyone. Or maybe he just hadn't wanted to tell any of them. Maybe he thought it wasn't something you shared.

Mordred gets to him in the late afternoon, just after a brief and passing drizzle. A knife to the side is all it takes, in the end, a short and nearly invisible dagger through his loose chain mail. He takes his time in falling, doing it step for step: knees, legs, back, side. Even from across the field, Merlin can see he is surprised, swallowing through the pain. His eyes are wide and blank in a pleasant way, just blinking, watching, the side of his face sinking in the mud. Merlin doesn't move. Once he said they would never say it, never, not goodbye, not them. It's odd, he thinks, that he was right in that. He stays rooted to his spot, Arthur's gaze on him, a trail of blood trickling out of his mouth—down the side. He doesn't look away as Arthur blinks, slowly, his pale lips parting, closing again. He doesn't look away as Arthur closes his eyes, opens them, closes them. Opens, for a short moment this time, then closes. He stays like that, and stays, and stays.

With the next sunrise, Merlin steps into the line of fire. He lets go of magic, lets it sink into the ground where it may be put to better use. The arrows come up, the arrows come down. He is sad, he misses his love, and he takes it all.




Basically, his lead amounts to a skateboard. Which is not a lot. Or, also, absolutely bloody useless. Emory had left it behind under the coat rack, the idiot, and the barkeeper calls Anthony a few days later. One of your friends left their shit behind, he says over the phone, and Anthony springs upright at once—comically, even, he'd say, if he'd been bothered in the slightest. He is out of his chair at the first mention of 'skate' and thudding down the staircase in his socks by the time 'board' croaks out of the receiver—pushing his arm through the sleeve of a shirt. He spends the entire ride over going through possible scenarios in his head, finding a phone number under the board—a message, perhaps? Or maybe a clue, some kind of logo that's actually a map to an underground shelter, because he's not at home (Anthony had called), and not at his flat (Anthony had called), or anywhere else where he'd might feel inclined to pick up his mobile. And all right, it's only been a couple of days, and it's not like Emory hasn't got a mind of his own and maybe Anthony is overreacting, but—

Maybe Emory's just not picking up. Doesn't want to pick up. He knows that's an option, too, probably more likely than the underground shelter one. But it makes him feel more uneasy than the idea of Emory in hospital with both arms in plaster, literally unable to pick up anything, let alone a phone—so he doesn't go over the former quite as much, imagines instead finding Emory in emergency, a silly look on his face as he'd give him a shrug, both arms up in bandages. Anthony would roll up a magazine, smack his head, they'd have a laugh about it and that would be it.

It's a bit of a disappointment when he gets to the bar and the skateboard turns out to be—well. A skateboard. There are a few stickers on the underside, a marker pen doodle, and that's about it. No maps, no hints, just some colours and—he notes with a ironic little smile—the Merlin sticker, the one he'd given him.

He sits outside for a while, waiting. He thinks that there's a small chance Emory might come back for his skateboard today, any moment now, and he'd corner him—hear him out. Nod and understand as he'd tell him how someone ran over his phone. Stole his charger. Changed his pin. Whatever he'd come up with. Anthony knows that it's perhaps a bit—foolish, or at least he realises it in retrospect, but he still stays there for a good hour or two, blankly watching the traffic of people and cars go by.

Before he goes, a good deal quieter than when he ran out of the house earlier, he asks the barman to call him if anyone comes for the skateboard. Immediately, he enunciates, raises his brows. They nod, wave him off, and Anthony makes his way back home with a notion niggling at the back of his mind that he is missing something.

He calls Emory's parents again. He gets a housekeeper on the line, which is probably just as well because she can tell him young Emory hasn't graced his parents' floor with his presence for some time now. He calls the flat, again, over and over in a bored kind of way. Puts the phone with the receiver up next to him and lets it ring, lets it beep over into the answering machine before turning it off, redialling. He can do this while eating, or behind the computer or telly, he doesn't even need to pay attention. No one picks up anyway.

After a week and a half he goes to the flat. Buzzes and buzzes, and he feels such a sense of déjà vu that he laughs while doing it, even though no one answers the door. He hesitates for a moment, finger lingering over the buzzer of the neighbour.

"He's not in," is what is mumbled at him through the intercom. Sleepy voice.

"Excuse me?"

"Excuse you, yeah. I said, he's not in. You're the fourth person this week. Pass it on. The guy is. Not. Home."

Anthony runs out of ideas. He asks around, contacts some people he thinks maybe Emory hung out with before—other oddities from the back of the lecture hall. It's soon clear, however, he didn't talk much to anyone about anything. He manages to get hold of a girl who says they went out a couple of times, but that they didn't really click, and that he spent the entire night brooding and disliking everything. Anthony hadn't asked for the details. He got them anyway, the girl on the other end of the line sounding still a bit upset, like this was one of those subjects—that one date she brought up when talking to her friends about the bad ones. She's almost thrilled, he thinks, to have someone she doesn't know call her and ask her about it. Like the rest of the world, too, knows how horrible it'd been and wanted to have her talk about it some more. Anthony listens, laughs inappropriately, and says,

"Maybe he just really, really didn't like you."


The girl is silent. Anthony takes that moment to realise what that feeling is, the one skulking at the base of his spine, pushing up.

"I miss him," he says, a bit confused, frowning to himself.

". . . Oh?" the girl manages after a long moment, sounding as though she'd rather not even bother with the question mark. Or with the entire conversation, now that it's taken a turn from her woes.

"Yeah," Anthony confirms, sure of it now. "Quite a bit, actually. Fancy that."


"Erm . . . "

"He'll get a laugh out of this. Missing him. I'll never hear the end it." He scrubs at his face, smiling wearily. "I suppose he sort of grows on you. In that broody, unassuming sort of way. And—yep, there you have it. Broody fungus. That's him. In a nutshell."

The girl hangs up, and even the monotone beep she leaves behind sounds startled. Anthony closes his eyes, sees the irony in Emory having turned him into a weirdo, and bangs his head to the surface of the table. Grumbles.

In the short period that follows, Anthony finds out a number of things. He cannot skate, that's one of them. He tries on the road outside his house, wobbles on the surface—flails and stumbles off, sending the skateboard wheeling down the asphalt. He thinks he must look like an idiot, bulky and big on the board, so different from Emory's spindly sways that never seem to falter in movement. He still gives it a few more goes, calls it a day when he finds himself sprawled on his back—coughing, frowning up at the suburban trees lining the street.

Time, that's another one. He can't recall, not exactly, what it was he did before. Before spending most days hanging out with Emory, what he did when he didn't have this to worry about. This, this person, this ball of trouble, making him wonder when he was going to see him again, what was making him so unhappy, and how far could he take it, the calling and the visits and the talking, before it just wasn't cool anymore. He remembers friends and school, knows that when there were classes he always had something better to do, but it's not that, not exactly. It's more that before when he was doing something, he was either focused on that or on what he'd rather be doing at that moment. His thoughts didn't hang around him like a phantom limb, dragging along at his every movement, limp and useless. Like an uncut fringe, he thinks. Gets in your eyes all the time. Now he has to push it back, every time he gets up to keep busy, when he fills his days distractedly, has to push back the name and the concern. Because this cannot be his life, he decides. This cannot be the most important thing he has right now, this boy cannot have possibly become his entire life.

The thought makes him uneasy. He feels like he's been over this before, like something isn't right. He still goes by the bar the next week, just in case, just to see if maybe they forgot to call him after all. They didn't. He passes the flat, gets the neighbour to buzz him up, makes a weak attempt to kick in Emory's door and is chased out by the other tenants on the floor under the threat of police and restraining orders. At some point he gets Emory's mother on the line. She sounds like a nice enough woman, soft-voiced and reasonable, and she tells Anthony that really, really, this is not the first time her son has disappeared off the face of the earth—adds a muttered remembrance of a month before he finished school—and that he usually shows up sooner or later. When he's out of money. Or tired. It's a matter of time, she says, and gently hangs up on him.

He's sitting outside in a garden chair, pushing the skateboard back and forth with a foot, thinking about all the things Emory had said before, about his mother, and whether he had the right end of the stick all along. Anthony doesn't reckon he knows Emory exceptionally well, because knowing someone for a month isn't the same as knowing them, but he's pretty sure for someone who gives the impression of wanting to be alone all the time he is rather fond of company, as long as you insist enough. He's also pretty sure that while Emory knows how to say what he doesn't like about people and everything, things are a little difficult for him when the opposite is necessary. He knows that if Emory is hungry at your house he'll ask whether you ever even ate, or are you a zombie or something?, because that's easier for him than just saying please and thanks. He knows that if the guy wants to talk about something he'll be too quiet, and that if something is bothering him he'll cover it up with tetchy emotions and expect you to pick up on it. He also knows that the point of disappearing, just as it is for every somewhat insecure and stunted boy their age, isn't to be away. It is silly, pathetic, backwards and unavoidably human. It's wanting to see who'll come after. Anthony is pretty sure Emory's mother doesn't get this. He's also pretty sure no one but Emory gets Emory, but he's trying. Still pushing the skateboard back and forth, watching the sun reflect off the grains in the grip tape.

The phone goes and he makes to get up, wearily, then stops—startled. The sound comes from the open window of his bedroom, upstairs. He looks to the little plastic table where he's sure he left his phone, where he put it down an hour ago. There's nothing there, and the ringing keeps on, sounding far away and urgent in the garden. So he must be confused, has been in the sun too long, has been going over the same thoughts over and over and has addled his own mind.

He gets to his feet too quickly, is a little dizzy as he walks back into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes—pinching the bridge of his nose. The phone rings on and he mumbles a word of annoyance, running up the stairs with a reluctant air. When he gets to his room, the device is on his rumpled bedsheets—where he still doesn't remember leaving it—and the number recognition tells him it's a private one. He picks up, a harsh exhale of, "Hello?", but there is no one on the other end. Just silence, not even the boxed noise of a dead line. Irritated, he lowers his hand to look at the screen.

Nothing. No missed call, no data in the history, not a thing.

He stares at it for a long moment, tensing up, heartbeat accelerating. With a short hiss he then tosses the phone on his bed, sprints out of his room—down the stairs.

In the garden, the chair is shoved aside. The skateboard is gone, his phone—

Is on the plastic table.

Anthony stops. Looks around, slowly. "Oh," he says, a small laugh on his breath, "you little shit."


~


The thing is this time, he is certain. After wavering between the two addresses and handful of random phone numbers for two weeks, going on a strong hunch but never anything more, he is so fucking sure right now. Not a pull at his chest, not a vague notion in the back of his consciousness—not something supernatural, otherworldly. No. It's just there, just a full-blown and complete knowledge and it's so strong and clear and obvious he can't help but laugh. An incredulous, barking laugh as he fumbles with the bike, starts pushing it out of the shed.

He's running alongside the motorbike as he starts the engine, jumping onto the seat. He wishes he could go faster all the way to the mansion, cursing quick successions of fuck fuck fuck whenever a car wants to pass—whenever he has to slow down for a bump in the road, when the old engine falters for a moment. And when he's there, when he's finally there, the gates are closed and they're never closed, never have been before and the cursing gets louder. But he's still sure, he just knows where he needs to be now, and so there aren't a lot of options left. He goes with the easiest one, dumps his bike in the bushes—it tips over and he lets it, doesn't care that much right now—runs back a bit to where the fence isn't that high, and starts to climb.

It's not a rain pipe attached to a school wall. It's a fence set up to keep people out, and it does a fairly good job. He slips a dozen times and when he's finally at the top, his jeans catch on the sharp, spiked edge, and he has to hiss—pause, not move for a moment—before he can continue, breath coming in harsh puffs of air through his nose. Halfway down he jumps to the ground, impatient, hurts his ankle a little. But he walks it off, hobbling then jogging the long path toward the main entrance. He passes the fountain, hops the steps to the front door, starts knocking. Ringing the bell. Pulling the cord. Nothing. He resorts to shouting.

"Emory." He thumps a quick, insistent fist to the surface, forehead pressed against the door as he adds, "Emory! Open up. I know you're here. Open the fuck up."

He doesn't exactly expect any kind of reply. He's still angry when none comes.

"Aw, fuck."


The hard way it is, he thinks, already backing away from the house. He swaggers a step or two, forgetting the elevation and tripping over it—eyes up, scanning the windows, looking for any sign of life. He walks the length of the house, what feels like miles of it, and at the end rounds the corner—continues down the narrow side-path wedged between the stone and the high hedge.

He goes in through the servants' exit. He remembers where it is, hasn't forgot the day Emory showed him all the easy ways to sneak out of the house without attracting too much notice, and locates it again it without much difficulty. Inside it's a narrow hall lined with simple doors, an alcove midway giving way to a stairwell leading down to a large kitchen and even more corridors. Anthony keeps straight on until he's in the main house, and then it's even more doors—fancier ones, bigger, copper-knobs and carpeted floors. He opens them all. One by one he opens, peers inside, moves on. He's not sure what he's looking for until he finds it, a space he vaguely recognises—recalls having passed through the day they went to Anthony's, to meet his mother.

It's a big dining room, a long table and paralleling glass cabinets on both side, and on the other end a door leading to the domestic kitchen of the family—the one they don't really use for anything but storage, the cupboards full of crisps and biscuits, anything either Emory or Adam buys for himself and then refuses to share.

And Anthony knows. It's all noise in his ears, blood pumping loud and fast and thrumming in the back of his head, and in crossing the room the knowing ebbs away and overlaps with what is happening right now, fits with the present as he opens the door.

Emory stands with his back to him, a blur of movement, going through drawers and emptying their contents onto the counter—occasionally straight into his backpack. When he notices Anthony out of the corner of his eye he stops for a moment, frozen, staring with a blank expression of surprise. Then, as though the flicker of acknowledgment is enough, he turns back to his work like no interruption ever came. He rummages through drawers, drops to his knees to inspect the cupboard below the sink.

Anthony is reeling.He's come up with a lot of proper one-liners to open this conversation with over the past weeks. The one he ends up using, a barely voiced breath that's more shock than anything else, is not one of them.

"What are you doing?"

Emory doesn't answer. He pushes himself back up, looks into his bulging bag—shakes it, tries to get the zip to close all the way. His skateboard sticks out the back, and it's typical in a way the rest of the situation isn't close to being.

Anthony strides over, and he's so tense with anger that when he reaches out sharply to grab Emory's arm, he puts a little too much force into it—makes the bag fall from his hands. He regrets it for a second—even like this Emory won't look at him, is instead giving the bag a mildly annoyed glare.

"Look at me," Anthony hisses, Emory's arm, trying to meet his eyes. But Emory shoves him away with a hard hand, wrenching his arm from Anthony's grip. At least his eyes are raised now, dark and wild and level on Anthony.

He looks like hell. Gaunt and bloodshot eyes, his face sunken—sallow. Hair a mess, unwashed, stubble spreading up his jaw, down his throat.

"Christ," Anthony manages, quiet and disbelieving. "Where've you been?"

Emory swallows, tries to stand taller. "Away."

"Yeah, no shit, Em." He looks him over, again, still doesn't get it. "I've called. Everywhere. Why didn't—"

"I know you've been calling." A pause, then, "You need to stop doing that."

"I need to stop doing—" He stops himself, sputtering. "Have you lost your mind, Emory? You—bugger off in the middle of the night without so much as an explanation, disappear for two weeks, leave me and everyone else to wonder whether or not you've been—bloody run over, or killed or in a coma or maybe you jumped off a bridge, for all I fucking knew, and you think it's weird I call you?" Anthony laughs, cold and humourless. "Bloody hell, Em, it was the only thing I could do."

"Well." Emory's jaw works, tightens as he takes a breath through his nose, backing up a little. "Obviously, I didn't jump off a bridge. There you go. Now you know. So you can take that, go back home, and stop trying to—"

"What?" Anthony almost takes a step forward, stops when Emory jerks back. He straightens, tries to recollect himself. "What happened?"

"Nothing happened."

"Bullshit."

"You asked."

"Bullshit, Emory. Nothing? What are you even—Fuck, look at you. You're three seconds away from collapsing, you're sneaking into your own home to—shit, I don't even know, steal your parents' silverware? Is that it? You need money, is that what you came back for, Emory? Is that the one thing that—"

"You don't know," Emory cuts in sharply. "You don't know shit."

"Then tell me."

Emory opens his mouth with a breath, about to say something and immediately faltering, catching himself—closing down, expression turning blank. "You want to know what happened? I came to my senses. That's what happened."

"You think that means something?" Anthony gives a wry smile, a curious frown. "That doesn't mean anything. It meant fuck all when I said it. Still does. Come to your senses? I mean, fuck's sake, Em, what senses? Look us. Fucking—look at us." He gestures at Emory, at himself, at the situation as a whole. "Nothing about this is sensible. Sensible is on another fucking world. Hell, sensible is another universe. There're no senses to come back to. There's just this." He shrugs, adds a hapless huff—surprised himself with how much he means it. "A bit fucked up, but . . . "

"There's just this, is there? Just this?" He mimics Anthony's previous gesture sarcastically, mocking. "What is this, then, Anthony? What do you think this is?"

"It's—just . . . "

"That's just it. You don't even wonder about that. Magic? Sure, why not. A life, someone else's life, not yours but—yeah, no, no reason for panic at all. You just take it all in stride, don't you? Anthony?"

"And you don't, then? I don't remember you asking an awful lot of questions. Actually, what was it you said—about forgetting it ever happened, something about just moving on with your life? Please remind me, Emory, because I seem to've—"

"I was fucking scared out of my mind! Of course I said that. Of course I was—"

"So, what, now you've got all the answers then? You figured it all out, all by yourself? Ran off because you couldn't bear to have my ignorance drag you down?"

Emory stares at him. Scowling, lip curling as though a breath away from baring his teeth—hands at his sides, fisted, joints locked and tight. He makes to walk away, brush past, but Anthony's hand is clutching his elbow in a flash—pulling him back, and in that same movement Emory turns to him, is on him, slams his mouth to Anthony's. The impact is harsh enough to make teeth catch on the insides of lips, and just the shock of that—that tiny bit of blood—makes Anthony want to pull back. But Emory's holding him in place with a hand to the back of his head, starts kissing him hard, frenzied, licking at his tightly closed lips. Anthony opens his mouth to say something, maybe just to voice the jumble of thoughts incoherently, but never gets that far—Emory's tongue slicks its way in, brushing against his, urgent, restless, and Anthony is still. For a long moment he is still, and then he's kissing back, desperately, before he can even tell himself not to—remind himself of everything else that's far more important right now, words and questions and fuck, oh fuck, what good are those when Emory makes that sound and pulls him closer, presses his solid body flush against him.

Anthony's hand slips from Emory's elbow to grip at the cloth of his shirt, holding on. It's a mean kiss, more teeth than lips, more biting than brushing. It's open mouthed and wet, loud and needy. When Emory pulls away Anthony tries to follow, a quietly despairing sound escaping him. He's panting for breath, mind blank but for the passing flashes of monosyllabic ideas, of him and mouth and weeks.

But Emory looks at him, face pulled back. Searching. Waiting for something.

Anthony stares back, trying to understand by following the jumping back-and-forth of Emory's eyes, trying to comprehend whatever it is he needs to understand—but it's obvious that he's not getting it, that Emory's frustrated now, his fist tightening in Anthony's hair.

"What are you even here for, Anthony?"

Anthony barely even knows what Emory is asking. He licks his lips, blinking rapidly, trying to think, trying to come up with some words but—then Emory's kissing him again, pushing him back until he bumps into the edge of the counter.

"I know what you're here for," Emory says against his lips, husky as his hand slips from Anthony's hair, travels down over his chest, belly, to his fly—rubbing softly. "That's what you want, isn't it?" He presses the heel of his hand harder, mirroring Anthony's gasp with a mocking one of his own. "Yeah, this is it. It's good, isn't it? You've been wanting this, haven't you?"

Anthony tries to close his mouth, to will his jaw back into place—to say something right now, because yes he wanted, but no, not in the way implied, the way it sounds like right now and he needs to explain but he also needs Emory's hand not to stop, to keep moving, to—

"Been going out of your mind, haven't you," Emory says, breathing hotly to his cheekbone. "And all just because you didn't get any for a couple of—"

"No," is all Anthony can choke out, grimacing.

"No?"

"No, I—fuck, Em, stop—stop—"

And Emory stops. Emory's hand is gone, the nearness is gone, and for a moment Anthony thinks he stepped back—had listened to him somehow and was going to give him a chance now, to explain and to ask more questions. But that's not what is happening. What is happening is that Adam is there, that neither of them noticed him standing in the doorway, catching just the wrong snatches of speech before storming in—wrenching Emory off Anthony and not waiting a second before pulling back an arm, swinging a punch across Emory's face.

Everything is silent after that. Anthony still holding to the edge of the sink, Emory hunched over, cradling his face, Adam breathing heavily—his hand still a fist, looking down at his brother. The moment seems to go on forever, no one moving, the seconds ticking away and thickening, getting louder with anticipation.

Adam brings it all tumbling down with just some words uttered in a scratchy, breaking voice.

"You fucking bastard. Couldn't help yourself again, could you? Like last time hadn't been bad enough, had it. Just had to go and fuck it up again. Couldn't keep your faggot hands to yourself, could you, you—"

Emory tackles him so quickly Anthony barely even registers. The one moment Emory is looking up from under his dark fringe, the next he is shoving a fist into Adam's stomach—making him double over. Another fist and another and probably a lot more if Adam hadn't kicked up a knee to his gut. Emory stumbles back a step, coughing. He doesn't even have a second to recover—Adam is going in for another blow, landing an underhanded strike to his jaw, making his head snap back, adding a swagger to his backward momentum.

In the time it takes Emory to find his balance enough to retaliate, Anthony's stepped between—pushing the two apart, a firm hand to both their heaving chests. It takes him by surprise, how much force he has to put into it to make them keep this distance, as though they expect to be able to walk through him if they struggled enough. He has to literally shove at the both of them a couple of times, shout, tell them to back the fuck off before they settle for glaring at each other—for now.

Emory's got a cut high on his cheekbone. Anthony's eyes snap down to Adam's hand, taking in the ring there. Adam is coughing softly, trying to swallow the unease away.

Anthony's arms come down, slowly. He doesn't move away from his spot, however, stays a living barricade between the two. He watches Emory wipe at his mouth, glance down at the bloody sleeve, watches as he stares down at it for a long moment before looking up—eyes flashing from Adam to Anthony, and then he turns to go, picking up his bag on the way to the door.

Anthony goes after at once, and he's so good at that now—grabbing Emory's elbow, pulling at him, making him stay. Or at least—he should be good at it. Better than this, because it doesn't work, because Emory shakes him off, pins him with a furious glare.

"Leave me the fuck alone," he says, face pinched like he really, really means it. "We are done."

And with that, he is gone. Pushes past the door and is gone. Anthony doesn't know what to do. Not with himself, not with anything else at all. He is speechless, at a complete loss for words—in his throat and in his mind, struggling to understand, to process this somehow.

He finds that he can't. He does the next best thing.

Slowly, slowly, he turns to Adam. It takes one glance at him, this young and bulky version of Emory, this little cannonball of fear and uncontrollable emotion, and Anthony is brimming with anger. He stalks back the distance he'd walked a moment ago, grabs the boy by his face, fingers digging in harshly as he hisses, "He's your brother."

Adam tries to jerk back, startled and suddenly afraid, but Anthony keeps him in place—continues in a strained, thick voice. "Your brother. Your only one. Do you get that? There's just him, and when he's gone there's no one else and he fucking loves you, yeah?" He shakes him a little, and it's an effort not to break his face like this. "Do you fucking get that?"

Adam doesn't reply. He just stares, eyes wide with complete shock—anger, too, a bit of betrayal. Anthony doesn't fucking care in the slightest.

"Now whatever your problem is," he adds, grits out, teeth clenched. "Whatever your problem is with him being—whatever he fucking wants to be, is, has always been, yeah, just—Get the fuck over it. You understand me, boy?"

He waits, snarls. Adam's grimace turns into a pained one.

"I said, do you understand me?"

Adam nods. It's slow, reluctant, forced. Face twisted with disdain.

Anthony lets him go. Fingers taking their time in unhooking from Adam's face, half-moon nail marks visible on his temples, his cheeks blotchy red with embarrassment and barely contained hostility.

Swallowing, Anthony takes a step back. Runs a shaky hand through his hair, over his features. Enough, he thinks, and turns to go, knowing where he has to be, knowing that he probably always will—Emory's presence no longer a phantom limb like a memory in his thoughts but a simple and blatant demand to be wherever he is, to get there as quickly as he can.

~


The chase should exhaust him more, make him feel far more worn out and ridiculous. Emory disappears and he goes after, only vaguely aware of how he would've reacted no less than two months ago—probably would've shrugged, moved on with his life. He knows how stark the differences are, how worrying they should be, but for the life of him he can't decide which is better. They both seem inappropriate, too involved or too distanced, neither fitting the person he likes to think he is.

But he is not exhausted. Not as he jumps back on his motorbike—as he races down the road, leaving behind a lingering stripe of dust—not as he nears the dark outline of the city in the distance, tall buildings and spikes of antennas, chimneys. And he doesn't feel ridiculous, not as he dumps his bike outside the building, trying to walk away with one leg still straddling the seat and ending up stumbling toward the entrance. Not as the neighbour guy, on his way out, recognises him and tries to barricade the door with Anthony halfway in—trying to close it with Anthony's shoulder wedged between. Not when he ends up pushing back against the door with so much force the neighbour is shoved back, loses balance, falls on his backside on the cold lobby floor. Not as he whoops his victory, storming in and setting a run up the stairs, three by three.

There's no need for loudness this time. He gets to the door, breathing heavily, settles for a simple, "Emory." He puts his hand to the surface, fingers drumming with agitation. "I know you're there."

His hand slips down a little and he sighs, stepping closer to the door, lowing his voice. "I'll wait anyway, you know. I have time."

Anthony stops, listens.

"And you can disappear again if you want. But I'll know where you'll go. I'll know once you're there." He doesn't mean it as a threat, but the way it sounds is good enough. Maybe that's what he needs, he thinks, and adds for good measure, "I know that now. Can't really escape, now, can you?"

He reaches down for the door handle, pushes at it. "Emory. Please, just—" Pushes again, slightly more aggressive now and with a little bit of foot, kicking the bottom of the door. "Emory. Open up."

He rattles the handle, putting his weight against it, pressing up against the door. "Open," he grits out, jaw clenched, "up. Open up, open, open open op—"

A soft click sounds below his hand, barely noticeable, and Anthony doesn't register—is pushing just as hard when the door swings open, dragging him inside, making him trip into the flat with a frenzied lack of coordination.

It takes him a moment to put the situation together.

The room never had much to begin with, has always been unnervingly empty, and so the fact that it's a mess—that it had enough to make for a mess—distracts Anthony, and he blinks around as he steadies himself, not noticing Emory right away. But then he does, and the confusing jumble of improbabilities tangles further. Emory is on his mattress, on his back, knees drawn up and feet flat on the sheets. He's slung his arm over his face, eyes hidden into the crook of his elbow. He didn't get up to open the door, couldn't have possibly, and Anthony has to stumble over his own thoughts before recalling, oh, right. Magic.

Emory doesn't move. Does not acknowledge Anthony, doesn't say anything, just lies there—his chest moves to his breathing, an even in and out, almost quiet enough to be mistaken for sleep.

Anthony softly closes the door behind him, takes the few steps back into the kitchen, pulls a chair from the table and turns it to face the mattress—sits down. It's easy to be patient now, with Emory in the same room, rather small and fallible, hiding his face in his arm.

"I saw it," Emory says eventually, an uncertain amount of time later. His arm slips down over his head. "When you died. And everything else. I saw—" He swallows, blinks rapidly at the ceiling. "Everything."

Anthony looks at him. He tries to understand what it means, if it means anything at all, what it should mean, but can't get past one part of it, can't help himself and blurts it out before really thinking. "How did I—"

"No," Emory cuts in quickly, shooting him a bloodshot glance. "No. I'm not doing that. I'm not telling you that."

And with the next breath, Anthony feels the sour regret at having voiced the question. He doesn't really want to know, shouldn't, even if the idea doesn't sound like something that relates to him in any way. He doesn't feel like he's ever died, assuming that death is like what other people feel when someone they know passes away—only times a million. Like that is everything you become, that kind of sadness, and he doesn't feel like that would've ever been him. He tries to imagine that, that or just nothingness, like some people say it is, but comes up with just a blank feeling, no recollection at all. So he gets up, goes to the sink, searches for a kitchen towel and wets it. Walks back, walks to the mattress, sits himself next to Emory on the edge.

Emory's gaze slowly shifts to him, and he looks—lost. Tired. In need of unspecified help, something he doesn't have words for. His chin trembles and he looks away, jaw tense, eyes fixed on some indiscernible point above them.

Anthony presses the cool towel to his cheek, over the angry bruise there. The small cut. Emory winces but Anthony continues, wiping at the dried blood. Then over his temples, placing the wet cloth to his brows, tracing it over his languidly closing eyes. Down the side of his nose. Over his split lip, lightly, then along the line of his jaw—noticing all too well the way Emory's throat moves when he swallows.

"You look like you haven't slept in weeks," Anthony says thickly, hand and cloth slipping from Emory's face.

". . . Well."

Anthony drops the towel next to the mattress. "There," he pushes Emory's knees down, tugs the sheet from under him—pulls it to Emory's waist. "You need sleep."

It might be one thing that Emory needs, but of all the things that hang between them it feels ridiculously unimportant. But he doesn't know what else to do, what else to insist on, and so he arranges Emory into a typical sleeping position—pushes a pillow under his head, settles his arms comfortably on either side, over the sheet. Emory lets him, doesn't protest, eyeing him wearily throughout it all. And when Anthony gets up to turn off the lights, pull down the shades, Emory holds him back with a hand to his sleeve.

Anthony looks down at him, questioning, but Emory just holds on. Gives no explanation. His expression something like a silent, apologising shrug.

Sighing, Anthony slumps back to the edge of the mattress. With the hand Emory isn't clamping on to he scrubs at his face, digs a thumb and forefinger into his eyes. Then, blinking away the spots, he shucks off his shoes—easily pulls his arm from Emory's grip before clambering over him to get to the other end of the mattress. He flops down with another sigh and glances at Emory, a question again.

Emory stares back, that same hapless, vague expression still in place.

"Go to sleep," Anthony says, and turns to his side—back to Emory, keeping his distance, bunching a limp and old pillow under his head. The lights go out with a sudden fizzle, like a blackout, and the shades thud down the small window gracelessly. Anthony grips the pillow harder, clenches his teeth, ignores the queasiness at the idea of Emory and magic.

He doesn't expect to fall asleep. He closes his eyes, listens to Emory's breathing, the shuffle of sheets. The distanced traffic outside. After some time Emory shifts behind him, starts to turn restlessly, and Anthony wants to tell him to stop, to stop moving, to just sleep, but then there's a hot breath a little too close to his neck, a timid hand at his hip—hesitant at the hem of his shirt.

Anthony's intake of breath sounds too loud to his own ears as Emory places a strangely cool hand on the bare skin of his hip—travels upward, over his waist, slips down a little to rest at his side, next to his navel.

He feels around for something, small tracing movement of fingers over Anthony's belly, but whatever it is—there's nothing there but skin, texture, hair. The movements cease with an audible hitch of breath from Emory. He fans out his fingers, presses his frowning brow to the back of Anthony's neck, and from the palm of his hand spreads a shock of heat. It floods Anthony's senses like a gulp of alcohol would, smoothing and burning down his throat before the dizziness settles in—only now it's in him, rushing down and up, and now it's not the drunken aftertaste that follows it but something else, something far more horrible, stuttering and whitewashed flashes of moments forced to the surface. They come in quick succession, not making any sense at first, until there are so many of them that the timeline has no other choice but to click into place.

The memory, as a whole, feels too big. It presses against the backs of his eyes, his eardrums, the back of his throat like it's going to spill out of him. He breathes in harshly and tries to keep it in with a twisted grimace, the piercing sound of whinnying horses loud in his mind, the low humming of men outside his tent, Merlin moving against him in the darkness of the night and standing across the field in the light of day, face dirty and streaked, eyes wide as he stares back, hope draining away into ache. There's the cool mud on his face, the silhouette of other fallen men on his level, down in the dirt, outlining the relief of the battlefield. A chill crawling up his spine, a tiredness, and the evaporating will to keep his eyes open, to not look away, to be there and see for just a moment longer.

Behind him, Emory offers a small but useless, "I wish we didn't have to remember."

Anthony says nothing. Emory doesn't move away his hand, but his palm slackens on his belly, curling into itself somewhat—fingertips still touching the skin. His frown is still pressed to Anthony's neck, and it takes a long time for it to smooth out, relax. By then Emory's breathing is slow and deep, puffing rhythmically against the jut of Anthony's spine.

~


When he wakes up what feels like days later, Anthony is oddly calm. Emory is curled into himself on the other end of the mattress, sheets twisted around his legs, pillow locked in the barricade of his arms. Whatever light that seeps in through the small holes between the shades tells of the afternoon, of an unrelenting summer, the longest of his young life.

He gets up and shuffles to the kitchen, sleepy eyes and languid movements as he boils water in an electric contraption that has seen better days. He makes himself a cup of coffee, rethinks it as he takes a careful sip, then makes another. With two mugs in hand he pads back to the bedside, mindful of the hot liquid as he slowly sits down. He puts his own mug on the floor, holds Emory's ready as he tries to wake him with a gentle hand to his shoulder and a quiet, "Emory."

Emory breathes in deeply, uncurls a little from around his pillow, but doesn't wake.

Anthony glances at the coffee. "Em," he tries again, hand lifting to the side of Emory's neck—fingers below the nape, along the line of his hair where the skin is still warm and damp from deep sleep. Emory murmurs vaguely and Anthony brushes his thumb along the skin behind his ear, moves down his jaw, trails up to cup his cheek—tracing slow swipes to his bruised cheekbone, now a deep shade of purple and brown below his eye.

"Em," he whispers, brushing aside the hair plastered to his forehead.

"Hm?" Emory squints up with difficulty, dazed. He's flushed and the side of his face is creased with the imprint of the pillowcase, and he's blinking with a half-hearted attempt to wake up, mumbling a breathy, "Wha?" as he shifts to lie on his back.

Looking at him, ruffled and sleepy, Anthony feels a sudden and deep surge of affection. The seriousness of it frightens him immediately. It's not a memory of a feeling or something that's always been there but new, completely new, and the urge to lean down and press his mouth to any part of this man he can get at is as strong as the one telling him to jump away now.

Emory takes another deep breath, hums his exhale, unthinkingly moves into the touch of Anthony's hand. And whatever reserves Anthony had, that moment they melt away at the nervous warmth locking down on his lungs, making it a bit harder to breathe as he leans down and places small kisses to Emory's brow. The side of his eye, below it, the curve of his cheekbone.

Emory wakes properly with a long inhale that hitches as Anthony fits his mouth over the line of his jaw, sucks lightly. He's dizzy with it, head starting to spin and fill up with a thickness that he recognises as intent, his intent, his need. But Emory doesn't protest, brushes a sleepy kiss to Anthony's closed eye, and Anthony has half the mind to put down the coffee before moving down, kissing anxiously down Emory's neck—dark with stubble—over his Adam's apple, flicking a tongue over the hollow of his throat.

Emory hisses in a breath, tilting his head back and at the same time gripping Anthony's hair—pulling him up. Anthony goes but not without stopping, sucking wet kisses to the jut of Emory's jaw, to the soft skin below on his way to his mouth. Emory approves, is annoyed, tugs and presses up and says,

"Jesus, Anthony. Come here."

Anthony stops. Pauses, lifts to look down at Emory, winded, lust thudding at his temples. Emory looks up, eyes dark with the same sentiment and he knows, he knows what is different and winds his fingers around the back of Anthony's neck, pulls him down.

"Anthony," he breathes, making a point, presses their foreheads together. He tilts his face up, mouth already open as he brushes their lips together. They share a breath, two, Anthony's hand dipping from Emory's face to his hair, fingers winding gently as he changes their angle—slides a slow tongue into Emory's mouth as Emory does the same in return, slick and drawling, sinking into it with a low, throaty groan.

But for as lazy and slack-jawed as it starts, the kiss heats up quickly. They keep it open-mouthed but go deeper, faster, lose finesse in favour of conveying need by means of hands and sounds, making it closer, sloppier. Emory is the one who pushes them both up, pulling impatiently at Anthony's shirt, hands trying to get at skin to first but then just wanting to get him out of it—grunting into Anthony's mouth when he won't lift his arms up, unwilling to move his hands from where they're buried in Emory's hair.

But they get it off eventually, need two sets of hands to help the shirt over his head, breathily laughing against each other's lips once they continue where they left off, more nerves and a bit of uncertainty than anything else. Though there's enough distraction to keep their minds off the anxiousness that comes with undressing, with the purposeful touches and—god, haven't they done this before? Haven't they done this a million times, over and over with hands and mouths and—

It's not the same, this, Anthony decides. It's not at all the same, now that there's nothing clouding his mind except himself, his own thudding heart and his own affection mixing with the idea of sex, the thrilling discovery of lust born of a liking, a helpless attachment to someone's way of doing, thinking, talking. And even as they're touching, as Emory softly pushes him back against the mattress, settles on top of him—he's still frantic for more of it, for more of those hands rubbing along his sides, over his chest, more of that tongue, more of that mouth sucking him in, making it hard to think straight.

And it's worse and better at the same time. Worse for all the reality of it, of being driven by nothing but himself, of worrying about being awkward when they're more naked than they are right now and worrying about never having done it like this—flushed and wanting it to be good for Emory too, wanting it to be something, wanting for it to make everything more, perhaps—wanting it to be some kind of promise. Anything more than what they have to go on right now. And he's a bit embarrassed to be thinking that, that that is where his mind goes as Emory shifts a leg between his thighs, starts to move against him with an infuriating slowness—but he's also thrilled to be thinking that, in some adolescent part of his mind, can barely remember the last time it was like this. At fifteen with his second girlfriend, who was his first brush with true sarcasm and whom he'd been desperately in love with. He'd wanted to be with her all the time, hang out or just listen to her say anything about anything, and it'd just been an amazing and insane stroke of luck—he'd thought—that she happened to not mind letting him touch her breasts, or kiss her on the mouth. And when she'd taken off her jeans one day in her empty living room, toed them off along with her knickers, he just couldn't figure out why or what he'd done to make her do this, what he'd said right or did that afternoon, and had let it happen with a shocked sense of awe. He'd blushed the entire way through, went slow, wanted to be good at it so bad—wanted it to be something she wouldn't mind doing with him again and again and as often as possible.

He can't remember now why they broke up, when or how, but that feeling is the closest he's ever known to this, to the hot and cold shooting up and down his spine at the feel of Emory's mouth on his neck, biting, groaning softly to his skin as he rubs minutely against Anthony's thigh. He's got his leg between Anthony's, grazing against the fly of his jeans with every roll of his hips, movements so small and contained in comparison to Anthony's reactions—arching up, scrabbling at Emory's shirt—wanting it and saying so, gasping out his name and cursing, fuck and yeah, like—god, more, please, Em, I— and off, take it off, I want to—fucking shirt, I can't—touch you—Emory, take it—off—

Emory breathes hotly to Anthony's spit-slicked neck, slumps for a second—then pushes up, straddles Anthony's hips to pull his shirt off. Anthony follows him, barely waits until the shirt is pushed up before pressing his face to Emory's bare chest, distracting him as he tries to pull it over his head. It takes longer than it should with Anthony licking down the column of Emory's throat, lightly biting at the flesh over his heart, teasingly brushing his lips to a nipple.

When Emory manages to get out of his shirt completely, tossing it behind him, his hair is a mess and his eyes glassy—red, raw-kissed mouth slightly open, panting. Anthony's got his arms folded around him, raking his nails gently up and down his spine, sucking open, wet kisses to the skin below his ear—tilting up, biting at Emory's earlobe, at the curve of his cheekbone.

Emory hisses, arches forward, hands at Anthony's neck as he rubs their chests together—dragging Anthony's face up for a hard, messy kiss. And then something snaps, and suddenly it's not nearly enough. In time with the kiss their movements pick up in pace, Emory grinding down and Anthony pulling him against the push of his hips, their cocks dragging together through the fabric—far too much of it, and why are they not less clothed—of their jeans. They repeat the movement again and again, gyrating and reeling, getting off on the hot feeling of each other even through all the layers even if the friction is not enough. Between gasps, as the kiss turns more into wet touches and open-mouthed brushing of tongues, Emory's hands start fumbling at their zips with no coordination but a light tremble. The slight grazing of his knuckles to Anthony's groin is enough to set him off all over again, and with a hissed shit he tries to help it along—tries to get at the button of Emory's jeans—managing only in tangling their fingers, frustrating the both of them even further.

"Anthony, fuck, just let me—" Emory starts, pushing his hands away but Anthony won't let him, starts instead to rub him through his jeans, and Emory drops his head onto Anthony's shoulder with a small, despairing noise. "Shit," he says, and then, "You cheat," before biting down, hard, and for as far as distractions go it works pretty well. Anthony groans and his grip goes limp, hand automatically coming up to clutch at Emory's hair—unsure over whether to pull him away or push him closer.

Emory takes his opportunity and makes quick work of Anthony's jeans, as quick as he can while shaky with need. Anthony pushes up into the almost touch, licking his lips, and Emory's only warning before he shoves his hand down his pants is a hot, slow lick up his throat—which doesn't make the sudden touch any less of a surprise but all the more welcome. Emory closes around him with a hard fist, humming approvingly at Anthony's choked reaction, the uncontrollable snap of his hips, the quiet groan that follows—muffled into Emory's hair. It's good, it's so good all at once, Emory's fingers and his hot palm, the way he lets him thrust up into the tight circle of his hand—so good Anthony almost forgets about Emory until he starts grinding down again, looking for friction and finding it only when pushing against his own hand, the one wrapped snugly around Anthony's cock. They both moan when the cold fly of Emory's jeans, tight against the bulge of his erection, brushes against the base of Anthony's cock and they have to stop—hold back for a second, breathe, with Anthony saying,

"Shit, Em, we need to—"

And Emory cutting him off with a, "Lie back."

He doesn't need much more explanation at this stage and goes, lies back under the soft push of Emory's hands, bites his lip at the view that gives him—Emory, half naked and sitting on top of him, eyes wild and glazed over as he undoes his jeans, lifts up to his knees to push them down along with his boxers. Anthony reaches out with an impatient growl, tugging Emory down with a hand to his arm, to his hip. Emory, still trying to kick his jeans down all the way, huffs a strained laugh at this—keeping from falling onto Anthony by bracing himself with two hands on either side of Anthony's head. The lock of his elbow falters a moment later and he slumps closer, leaning on his forearms, one hand coming down to push his jeans from where they're bunched around his knees.

Anthony doesn't have the patience for that. He slides his hand from Emory's hip, moves it between them and palms Emory's heavy erection, greedily watching for the fluttering of Emory's eyelids—the half-roll of his eyes, the slight drop of his jaw as Anthony jerks him with an immediate, brutal pace.

Emory's head dips down, then hangs between his locked shoulders, hair brushing along Anthony's sensitised chest. He hisses, uttering an unconvincing, "An . . . sto . . . " as he rolls his hips into it, breath catching every other choked pant.

"Anthony," he manages a moment later, stilling Anthony's strokes with a hand to his wrist. He looks up, wrecked, tongue briefly wetting his lips. "Seriously."

Anthony smiles, weakly, loosens his grip in favour of running his nails down Emory's thigh—and gets a flash of a feeble, tortured smile in reply before Emory pulls away to kick free of his trousers. And then he's naked, all of him, and Anthony wants to touch again but instead of coming back up Emory slips down further—making Anthony voice an embarrassing whine of protest. It breaks halfway into a gasp when a hot breath passes over his now leaking cock, and then Emory is tugging down his jeans, urging him to lift up. He does as he's told, far too compliant now, holding his breath as Emory starts his way back up once that last piece of clothing is no longer an issue. He mouths an unnecessary path up Anthony's legs—because really, he's already begging for it, wanting it so bad—starting with a small kiss to his ankle, a series of nips to his shins—running his nose along his calves, pushing up his knees—then slowing down at his thighs, starts to lick and suck and Anthony is losing it a little, eyes closed and jaw locked low in a silent oh, thrusting up against nothing and grunting out voiceless breaths, hands clenched in the sheets.

Emory's mouth is not even on him yet. It's at the crease of his thigh, a languid tongue rolling a hairsbreadth from where he needs it, teasing just around the heavy base of his cock, lower—a hint of teeth to the thin skin there—and Anthony's exhales are now quickly hissed out, a push of air through his nose. He's so close to some kind of breaking point, and when he asks for it, says, "Please, Em, I—god, please, your—mouth, I need—" like it's a plea and a warning and he hasn't even finished his broken sentence when Emory strokes a hand down the length of him, leans in and sucks on the head of his cock—simply, almost lazily, taking little notice of Anthony's strangled cry, the way his head whips back against the springy mattress. Then Emory swallows him deeper, tongue moving rough and flat against Anthony's cock as he works him at an easy pace, hollows his cheeks and sucks, bobbing up and down a quick number of times before pulling off and moving lower, over Anthony's sac, licking and tonguing and Anthony can't help but wonder whether Emory's been thinking about this—has been wanting to do this, has had it all figured out for a while now—and the thought alone makes his cock twitch, fills his head with a hazy, distant understanding of what is happening. It all narrows down to Emory, his mouth, the way he seems to want to put it everywhere and how—when he slides two hands under Anthony's hips and lifts him, gets even closer—when he licks down a path that's completely new, presses his tongue there, it's all a part of that sensation. Strange and unknown but good, something he's known about in the back of his mind for some time now but that always made him wonder why. Though now, with the wet circles, the soft pressure, the hot slick tongue pressing in the slightest bit, he can't help but wonder why not, why not always, why not every single time as he rocks down against the sensation—legs spread, arching off the mattress, responding with unintelligible half-words of praise, of promises, of more and of fuck, fuck, yeah, don't stop, don't—

Though when Emory does stop, it's to rest his forehead against Anthony's thigh, eyes closed—and Anthony notices then, blinking down through the dazed mist of lust, the minute, hitching movements of Emory's hips against the mattress—controlled, involuntary all the same, and when he looks up his eyes are nearly black with want, face slick and he's red around the mouth, down his neck and chest, his hair matted against his forehead. And the sight of him, god the look of him, the way he says, "Anthony," voice so thick and scratchy, says it like a question, and suddenly it doesn't matter that much whether he stops or keeps going or decides on anything else because Anthony thinks he could come from just watching him, just like that. He must've said some of it out loud, or maybe just made some kind of sound, noise, a wordless request because then Emory's crawling up his body, touching and rubbing and turning the both of them to their sides—settling behind Anthony, an arm slung possessively along his hip, stroking him lazily as he thrusts, headily, into the spit slicked heat between Anthony's thighs. It's slower this way, chest to back, Emory's breaths wet to Anthony's neck, and the hot grazing of his cock without rhythm. But it's also closer and hotter and when Emory loses some control and pushes up hard, cock brushing along Anthony's sac, they both groan—Anthony reaching behind him, tilting his head back for a hard and messy kiss.

"Emory," Anthony says against his lips, his own voice hoarse and unfamiliar. "Do you . . . fuck, do you have—"

"Shit," is Emory's first reply, then another kiss, then, "Yeah."

Anthony feels the cool absence of Emory's body when he pulls away, turns to his back to watch him as he fumbles under the mattress on the other end—comes back with an awkward handful of condoms, two different tubes of lube. Anthony huffs a breathless laugh, props himself up on his elbows.


"Fuck," he says. "Have you been planning this?"

Emory glances down at his hands, suddenly looks apologetic—a bit confused, stammers out a combination of, "I—didn't know what—" And, "—bought it a while ago, I thought—" And, "—wasn't sure, but—"

Anthony cuts him off with another silent puff of laughter and a, "Christ, come here," pulling Emory toward him by the back of his neck, kisses him reassuringly, not stopping until Emory relaxes again, starts kissing back in earnest.

"It's good," Anthony says, lips brushing Emory's—briefly looking down at his full hands. "That you thought of it."

And then, as Emory's eyes widen darkly, glaze over, Anthony adds a whisper of, "I thought about it too."

Emory is the one who goes for his mouth this time, the suddenness of it forcing Anthony down on his back again—Emory following him, dropping his handful thoughtlessly at their side as he fights to make this kiss a memorable one, trying to say something with the seriousness, the lengths of his licks, the dragging of his tongue, something that Anthony might've understood if the nature of this conversation hadn't been so distracting to start with. He sighs into it, sighs as Emory settles between his legs, as they quietly move together—rubbing, cocks sliding together—and it's wonderful, it is, but then it needs to be more than that and Anthony grazes his thigh up the side of Emory's leg, says,

"Hey," and, "hand me your pillow."

Emory looks down at him, questioning, trying to place the request into context but unable. Anthony feels the colour rise to his cheeks, and he's already flushed, skin hot and damp with sweat, and now is not the time to get embarrassed about things but as he says it, tries to say it, "Do you—" and then, swallowing, "Do you want to touch me?"—his heart still jumps uneasily in his throat, the heat pooling in the pit of his stomach giving an anxious clench.

Emory opens his mouth like he's not sure what to say to that, wants to say something but the words escape him, and eventually settles for a throaty, "Fuck, yes."

Anthony wets his lips, corners quirking up in a shadow of a smile, nervous. "Then get me the pillow."

So Emory gets him the pillow. He lifts to his knees and reaches back, hands it to Anthony who makes no show of it, simply pushes it under his hips and for now the angle is awkward, stays awkward as Emory—still on his knees—reaches for the lube. Anthony closes his eyes, tries to ignore the blush spreading down his chest at the sounds of the tube clicking open, the wet noise that follows, another click.

"Yeah?" Emory says a silent moment later, a shaky question, and he sounds closer now—feels closer. Anthony looks up at the ceiling, then glances down, finds Emory above his chest, eyes fixed on him with unnerving concentration. Too much fear between the two of them, he thinks, and so he tightens his jaw, tilts his head back, and grits out a,

"Fucking hell, yes."

Emory's reply comes as a flash of movement. He shifts up, lowering his mouth to the hollow of Anthony's throat, sucking—distracting him for a second before slipping a slick finger low between his legs, rubbing along the cleft, and the easiness of the slide reminds Anthony of the feel of Emory's mouth, makes him bite down a moan. But maybe it has the same effect on the both of them right then, because Emory's breath stutters—chest hitching against Anthony's—and he moves higher up Anthony's neck, biting down on an earlobe as he presses in a finger, easily, Anthony still relaxed and wet. This elicits a gasp from the both of them, an immediate and impatient second finger, Emory speaking thickly and winded against his ear, saying,

"God, Anthony, you're so—fucking—"

Anthony cuts him off with an experimental roll to his hips, a gasped, "Move."

"What?"

"Move," he hisses, turns his head to press the words to the line of Emory's hair, "your hand."

It doesn't need to be said again; Emory curves his fingers, presses them deeper—pulls out, pushes back in, drawing choked sounds from Anthony, waiting until he's rocking down against him before adding a third and from there on the both of them are far too dazed to follow every exact movement. And when Emory's hand clamps at his hip, and Anthony's hands rake down over Emory's back there are suddenly too many limbs, legs tangling, lips sometimes brushing, sometimes whispering things, either voiceless or filthy or heartfelt. They breathe each other in, mouths open to their necks, eyes closed and everything smells of sex, of sweat and Emory's laundry detergent, Anthony's faint aftershave and it's easy to get high on just that combination—drunkenly writhing against one another, Anthony jerking Emory slowly as Emory fucks him with his fingers. And when they reach that point where coherency is rare, where speech is more breath than words, Anthony manages an impressive collection of, "God," and, "Em," and,

"Fuck me."

Emory doesn't ask anything this time. He just pauses, bites his lip, reaches for the scattered packages beside them. He needs two hands to rip open the foil, and Anthony doesn't care—whines at the loss, slumping into the mattress, breathing hard and loud and glancing down every other second, convinced it's taking too long, the sight of Emory rolling down a condom and slicking himself up not helping at all in calming him down.

And then Emory is there. Braced over Anthony, cock pressing close but not in, and he's trembling with effort, teeth clamped over his lip, not moving.

"Emory," Anthony hisses through clenched teeth, legs wrapping around Emory's waist. "Fuck me."

Emory shuts his eyes tightly, exhales in a shudder, "I—"

Anthony reaches down between them, guides Emory's cock in—mouth falling opening in a silent exclaim at the stretch of it. It takes a moment, but then his heels dig tightly into the small of Emory's back, pulling him in once his hand drops away to clench at the sheets. And there's pain, then, there's definitely pain but it doesn't seem very important, not as it throbs and subsides whereas the need doesn't, the ecstasy of having Emory tremble and bury his face in the crook of Anthony's shoulder because he's in him, is surrounded by him.

When they start to move it's slow, close, Emory still somewhat afraid of what he's doing—uncertain, mindful of hurting him—but there's only so long he can continue doing that with the way Anthony tilts his hips and moans, digs his heels deeper into Emory's back and asks for more, asks for harder, asks for Emory, please, and, Emory, I—

And when Emory lets go, starts snapping his hips in time with Anthony's rhythmic downward push, Anthony can barely breathe for how good it feels. Emory groans softly against his neck with every thrust, and the heat between them washes over Anthony like a fever. He holds on, two hands curled tightly into Emory's hair, says things he's not even sure of, mouth moving of its own accord—promising anything, anything at all, the world if Emory doesn't stop, won't stop, will keep on forever. And Emory can do nothing but move faster, curl his arms around Anthony—under his arching back and around, holding him—replying with broken sentences of agreement, saying, yes, and forever, and forever.

~


Someone at some point must've opened the window, because there's air in the room, and even through they're quiet there's sound as well. Even on the fourth floor the collective hum of the crickets, hiding in the bushes of the city, in the cracks of concrete, is unmistakable. It's not that dark yet, but it's not light or the lack of it that the animals go by, announcing the slowly sinking eve no matter how it approaches. Cars start below, a faltering engine, busy female voices agreeing vehemently with one another. The closing meshes of shops, rattling all the way down, the unfamiliar tilt of a foreign language rising up from the crowd that usually gathers outside the kebab shop around this time of day—the young distinguishable from the old, lighter voices falling back into English every other sentence. It's all far away, muted by the distance, but also right there in the room with them. With the quiet buzz of the light bulb hanging from a bare wire, with the hissing of sheets over legs, the ceramic clacking of mugs when a rare breeze finds its way in, passes along the rack in the kitchen.

Emory is tracing the lines of his face, lazily following the movements of his own fingers through half-lidded eyes. Anthony is on the verge of sleep, has been for a while, but Emory's hands keep on waking him—drawing him back to consciousness with slow strokes to his cheekbones, an edge of a nail to the line below his lip.

"Em," he murmurs when Emory starts tapping a two-fingered beat to his brow, the corner of his eye. "M'tired."

"You just slept for hours," Emory says, adds a breathy laugh, a puff of air to Anthony's chin.

"Y'wore me out," he replies, tries to sound indignant, ends up having to hide the curl of his lips in the hollow of Emory's cheek. "Some'f us are not that young anymore."

"You're a year older than me."

"It's a crucial year."

Emory snorts a laugh. Anthony mirrors it with a quiet and exhausted huff, his hold loose and boneless around Emory's waist, a knee locked between his legs there just to keep close. He slumps into it even more, stills with a sigh when Emory's fingers thread through his hair, nails gently raking along the base of his scalp.

"One thing," Anthony says, slurring his words, counting up and down the ridges of Emory's spine, "y'like about me."

Emory moves a little, trying to look at him. "Hm?"

"Tell me one thing," Anthony insists, talking to Emory's chin. "I wanna know. What you like about me."

He can feel the smile on Emory's mouth rather than see it. "Who ever said anything about liking?"

Anthony tightens his embrace, shifts. "You like me," he says, certain. "You adore me."

Emory's hands still on the back of his neck. He doesn't reply, not immediately, and Anthony has to slowly look up—force his eyes to focus on the close features of Emory's face. He notes the dipping beginnings of a frown, the seriousness, and says, ". . . Less than adore me?"

This gets him passing amusement, a quick and unconvincing smile. Emory says, "Anthony," like he's saying it, not addressing or leading up to a question.

"Yeah?" Anthony replies all the same. Then, a bit worried, "Em?"

The fingers on his neck start moving again, that restless drum from before, tracing down his neck, from his jaw to his temples, where they settle on either side of his face. "You can call me that," he says.

"What?"

"Em. Like the letter. It's appropriate."


"Emory." Anthony tries to glance at the fingers out of the corner of his eye, wary. "What are you talking about?"

Emory looks at him, sad and fond, and he seems tired, too, for all his talk. His expression shutters down a bit, like he's bracing himself, and Anthony catches up a second too late.

It's simple enough, in the end. Far less confusing than a lot of things, ironically enough. Not as complicated as understanding himself or understanding why certain things happen, why some don't. Not nearly as puzzling as ideas like family, friends, how they happen and how they end, relationships and unwarranted sentiments, or that inexplicable thing that happens sometimes when he hasn't wept for years and one day it just bubbles up from nowhere, mostly—embarrassingly—when he's in public.

No, it's far, far simpler than that. He's Anthony, and confused, and then he expands. Maybe it's his mind cracking open, or an unnoticed latch at the bottom breaking after all these years, or maybe it's threaded into his thoughts out of nowhere—plucked from the air, perhaps, history that's been hovering around, invisibly woven into the patterns of his brain. He doesn't know, really. It matters very little either way.

He's still Anthony, still confused, still human-sized and normal, but he's also who he used to be. There is no sideline, no less important or more important or better, but just him, just more of him. There's sometimes Arthur, sometimes Anthony, and both are just as well. There's twenty and thirty and occasionally motherless, other times fatherless, being five with Legos or swords, coughing at smoke behind a bus before it drives away, holding his breath at a fish market, kissing a girl or his wife or the one that he loves and there is, if anything, there is a lot, a lot of life.




(the beginning)



Emory's foot won't stop moving, jangling against the chair leg with an insistent, unrelenting rhythm. He doesn't even notice it himself, eyes glazed over as he lifts the salt shaker with a quirk of a finger, making it hover in a small circle before setting it back down—whooshing it from the one end of the table to the other before lifting it up again, nervously repeating the action over and over.

Anthony stares at his phone. He can still hear his mother's shaky voice over the line asking repeatedly if he's all right, if he's sure he's all right and if he's coming home, and when, and—

He whips his head up, focuses instead on watching the cycle of up, down and side to side for a while, letting the anxiety build up before snapping with a terse, "Could you please stop doing that?"

Emory stops at once, salt shaker mid-air. He looks at Anthony, expressionless apart from the hints of disquietude pulling at the corners of his mouth. Slowly, he lets the shaker sink back down to the table. The television is on in the background, filling the room with flashes of dim colour, sometimes also snatches of sounds—panicked crowds, a middle-aged man trying to explain what happened, or clear-voiced newsreaders reporting of "—recorded earthquake in Britain to date, and while experts are still unsure of the cause, the overall opinion—"

Anthony gets up abruptly, sending the chair skidding back. "Come on," he says, has had enough of just sitting there, waiting for something even more frightening than the two of them to happen. Emory still gives him that look, that wide-eyed blankness and doesn't move, so Anthony turns to walk to the door in the hope he will follow.

He does.

They're not in a daze, not exactly, too wound up and anxious to slow down and feel any kind of shock right now, but the people on the streets are. Most of them outside, in huddled groups, neighbours and friends gathering warily, glancing about suspiciously, talking while clutching at their hearts and nodding sympathetically as they exchange experiences. Who was where when it happened, what was everyone doing and did anyone get hurt, no? No one, no one you know, not a family member, thank heavens, thank god and—And like that it goes on, a shared sense of shock, of tragedy pulling the neighbourhood together, the city, even further still. Nothing bad has to happen, all they need is a scale and a change from the ordinary and it'll override so many things. Animosity, grudges, happiness or regret, and walking over the new cracks in the pavement, the same variation on a theme will be heard, an admonished and heartfelt, "I swear, Jane, I bloody swear I thought I was gonna die—"

The coach is empty when they enter. The trains probably shouldn't be going, the local transportation called to a collective stop until further information of the rail damage has been ascertained, but when Anthony collapses into a seat with a sigh—rolling his head against the backrest to show how much the heat is bothering him—and Emory slides open a window, hooks his elbows over the frame and rests his chin on the cross of his wrists, the train starts to move.

Emory stares out for a while, through squinted eyes, the wind mussing up his hair. Anthony glances from the window, to the reading light embedded into the train ceiling above, to Emory's shirt—at eye level, where black and worn cotton is flattened against his front by the breeze.

Anthony closes his eyes for a moment, resting, and opens them again when Emory slumps into the seat next to him—sprawling over him without much of an explanation, hooking his leg over Anthony's, leaning heavily onto his arm, dropping his head onto his shoulder. Anthony notes this by snaking an arm around Emory's waist, by tracing a lazy thumb back and forth to Emory's hip under the hem of his shirt. The swaying of the train pulls them closer, then apart, then closer again, and every now and then Emory would pause in his absentminded playing with Anthony's hand and stare out at a passing pasture. He'd lift a finger, then pick up something invisible in front of him. Outside, a hare would swoop out of the grass as though lifted by the skin of its neck, would hover over the high line of the weeds, travelling along to the train's speed for a few heartbeats before being let back down, gently, Emory's movements mirroring and small.

"Maybe you shouldn't do that," Anthony says, looking at Emory's empty hands. Emory shrugs, continues to busy himself with Anthony's palm. After a while he says,

"Could really use a smoke right now, you know."

Anthony smiles thinly, nudges Emory with a shoulder. The train comes to a slow stop, and when they get off the sun is still high in the sky—totalitarian in its way, a wide imprint of light writing off any hope of shadow for the coming afternoon. Emory leads the way into the field, pushing aside the longer grasses and wiping at his neck, already sweaty in the concentrated heat of open farmlands. They go up a little incline, kicking up dust clouds as they shuffle down, walk toward the stone—Emory holding up a hand to shield his eyes, Anthony with two hands in his pockets.

After circling it for an uncertain moment, Emory stops and turns to Anthony, raises his eyebrows and shrugs. Anthony eyes the hilt of the sword warily, a displeased scowl to his lip.

"Shall I go first, then?" Emory asks, patting the rock.

Anthony grumbles, steps forward, and pulls the sword from the stone. It goes easily, a smooth hiss of metal grazing the stone, and the air around them thickens a little—at least he thinks it does, could be wrong and it could be his own tightening throat, the gripping weight at his chest, could be the familiarity of the light, perfect little coolness in his hand.

The temperature is high around them, the hot air beating down and coming back up in ripples, blurring the landscape, making distance hard to discern. As Anthony looks around the waves of heat seem to shift, to take on a shape, and he's not sure whether it's the muddle of his mind or the cause of having been out in the sun for a moment too long, or maybe even magic because that's possible too now—there's magic in his life to explain things, magic to account for madness and to make it brilliant—but he sees it, still. Sees the blur of arches, of flags flapping lightly as though to a wind, of vague turrets and vague figures, a curve hinting of a cartwheel, a line of the tail of a dress, a silent movement where feet once walked, an absence of words where forever ago a simple conversation would've filled the air. It's a summer day like today is a summer day, like a morning when he dragged a boy—a boy like this one, to a field—this field, or one too similar, or one close by. And while the similarities are almost painful to acknowledge, the sameness of unchanging landscapes, of bad decisions made in the past mirrored almost exactly in the present, the differences are brilliantly clear as well. There's the ground, the grass, the same quick heartbeats and a tree, but this is not history repeating itself, this is how it moves on—grows, picks up where it left and when he looks to Emory, in that split second, it's gone.

He blinks, immediately doubts himself and wonders if he imagined it, then wonders whether it matters that much.

Not really, he concludes, toeing at the undisturbed dirt where the rock had been a moment ago. The field is just a field again, and they're just two kids standing in the middle of it, one scrubbing at his face, the other awkwardly holding a sword.

"So," Emory says, looking around with a conclusive air about him. "You gonna run for Prime Minister or something now? Save the world from itself again?"

Anthony chuckles a soft laugh, sticks the end of the sword into the ground. "With my impressive degree in politics and immaculate criminal record, you mean?"

Emory replies with a wry smile. "Yeah. With those."

"Well . . . " Anthony pauses, briefly glances sideways as though in thought. "The way I see it, last time? Mostly sucked. A lot. So now we get to have it again. Like a refund. So yeah, no, I know how I'm spending this one."

He swipes at the grass with the dull sword as he turns, starting back toward the train. Emory gives him a mock-questioning look as he joins him in a slow walk, as though to say, "Spending it how, then?"

Anthony can only look unimpressed, taking in Emory's smug expression before shoving at him—laughing as Emory stumbles to the left a step or two, indignantly rubbing at his arm. But it's only later, as the train races back the way it came, that Anthony quietly says,

"This one's for us though, yeah?" He sniffs, looks interested in the scenery flashing by. "No more bravery bullshit, no more walking into wars or all that stupid—yeah. Just—us. Just us." He glances down, then up at Emory, calm. "It is done. I have decided. You all right with that?"

Emory looks back, gives nothing away, says nothing for a while. Then, instead of a reply, he frowns and points out that, "I don't know what we call each other now." And, "Which name do you feel more like?"

Anthony shrugs, turns back to the window. "Dunno."

"I guess it doesn't really matter." With the side of his shoe Emory nudges the sword where it lies on the floor of the coach, between the benches, sliding up and down slightly as the train speeds on. A moment later Anthony is grinning, inexplicably, has to drop his head onto Emory's shoulder—hide his smile in the crook of his neck. He feels a bit silly for it, then bites lightly at Emory's shoulder to make it better and also because he can, because it's welcome, and says, "You." Then lets it be muffled by warm skin and a thick voice when he adds, "Forever, then."

Emory's reply is a low and short laugh, deep and rumbling in his chest, a set of fingers to the back of Anthony's neck. "Yeah," he says. "All right."

Anthony closes his eyes, listens to the tinny repetition of wheels passing over rails—so fast and in tune it's nearly a hum, not human enough to be chilling, not metallic enough to distract. He listens to Emory's breathing, feels the movement of his neck, and counts today as the first.

[end]




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