The euphoria lasts most of the way to Oxford, despite unexpected roadworks on the M40 that confuse both Luke and K9 enough that they nearly end up in Reading, and a trip to what they agree is the most disproportionately-priced service station they've ever been to and K9 spent most of 2007 in backwater space where the Slitheen had what was often a literal stranglehold on local commerce. And after all there's no reason why it shouldn't last, thinks Luke. The sun is shining, he's helped rescue his mum and Clyde and Rani and the world from being eaten by the Qetesh, and he's going to university.
'Oxford University,' he says out loud. 'Oxoniensis, that is, of Oxford.'
Wedged into the passenger seat of the Beetle on top of a pillow, a kettle and two pairs of socks that Luke's mum had found after his suitcase had been jammed into the boot, K9 says nothing. Luke spares a glance from the slow-moving traffic on the motorway to look across at him fondly. The little metal dog has said far less than usual since they left the service station and Luke suspects that K9 is in sleep mode, although he has always vehemently denied that he naps. 'Constant vigilance, Young Master,' he has been known to chirp severely at Clyde who has sneaked up behind K9 once too often. 'It is only through the sensitivity of my sensors and swiftness of my reactions that you have not been neutralised by my laser capabilities.'
'Constant vigilance?' Clyde had laughed. 'Have you been watching Harry Potter, K9? Tell the truth: are you waiting for your letter from Hogwarts?'
Then Mr Smith had announced that he had always thought K9 would be in Hufflepuff and it had all gone downhill from there. Luke grins at the unrolling motorway and memories before he sighs. Of course he's glad that Mum had told K9 to come with him to Oxford. Everyone in the neighbourhood, down to visiting Vishklar dream hijackers, had known that Luke had been increasingly nervous in the days before his departure about his impending separation from the only home he's ever known, and it would be ungrateful of him to be unhappy about the way this has all turned out. Narrative expectation and motifs aren't really his field, but here he is, riding off into the sunset, caught between one unfolding story and the next, on the cusp between ending and beginning, and yet - it lacks something. He shakes his head in bemused dismissal; he's become a romantic, it seems. He wishes that he were riding into the sunset with someone other than a metal dog. He clicks his tongue impatiently and switches on the radio to distract himself. Stupid. That metal dog has proved itself a good and loyal friend time and time again, and after all, if he flips the story over, how many stories begin with a friendship between boy and dog? In that spirit, he wakes K9 to guide him through the wilderness of the ring-road and the bus-lanes, up St Giles' Street to the Back Gate, all honeyed stone and black iron grandeur in the autumn sunlight.
A very pretty girl in a fluorescent tabard leans down to peer in at his car window, and K9's head turns silently towards her.
'Hi!' says Luke.
''Lo,' says the girl, and muffles a yawn. 'Welcome to the college. Due to Freshers' arrivals, parking space is at a premium today. If you could pull over to the left, you'll be able to park and unload your child's-'
'Sorry,' says Luke, politely. 'I don't have a child. Is that good or bad?'
The girl blinks at him several more times and then leans further into the Beetle to give it a more comprehensive once-over and then she pulls back to lean wearily on the window. 'You are the child,' she informs him. 'Shit, it's too early for this. I don't know why they can't just inject coffee directly into my brain. So, your parents aren't dropping you off?'
'Uh, no,' Luke says, uncertainly. 'Just me.'
'I am here in loco parentis,' chirps K9 from beside him.
The girl blinks once, and then again, very slowly. ''Course you are,' she says, and points through the arch without taking her eyes off K9. 'Through the gate and round to the left. Sign out your key and Welcome Pack from the Old Common Room. You'll have half an hour to unpack your- uh, things, and then we'll have to ask you to move your car.'
'Great; thanks,' says Luke, cheerfully, and puts the car into gear, and before he can pull forward, the girl puts her hand on the car door, leans in, and says, 'Look, just out of interest, you'll be in which department?'
'Physics,' Luke says.
'Figures,' she says.
'Well, sometimes,' Luke says, and then adds, 'and graphs and coding as well.'
'Yes,' the girl says and rocks away from the window, already looking to the car behind. 'You're going to fit right in.'
An hour later, Luke isn't as sure. This place is big, and it seems like an ant colony, and everyone seems surprised that his parents aren't with him, and how can he possibly explain that his adoptive mother is probably saving the world, and his biological parents are a deceased, megalomaniac space-squid and a marketing campaign for a fizzy drink?
'According to the schedule provided, refreshments are being served in the Junior Common Room,' K9 informs him. 'And there are tours around the college thereafter. This would be an ideal time to initiate social and professional relationships with your fellow students, and to establish the geographical parameters of your academic life.'
'Yes,' Luke says, and braces his hands against the closed door. 'Yes, it would be.'
There's a moment's silence before K9 says with awkward delicacy, 'I would come with you if it were at all advisable, but-'
'No, of course.' Luke straightens, but he is hyperaware of every brush of movement, every susurration beyond his closed door, every iota of sensory input registering as a possible threat that must be faced and challenged and won and overcome, and he is so tired of fighting his way through life. All of it, each flinch of his senses, adds to the gestalt of this unknown world, the danger beyond this door, until he feels swollen and sick with it, like a gorged tick about to fall. He hasn't felt this dislocated since the Nightmare Man trapped him into his own recursive fears, and before that...
Before that, the terror is built into memories of his birth, memories of being built and not knowing how to connect things to words and words to words; prone on a metal stretcher as he reached helplessly to string meaning to the sounds and smells and sights of his own body, and every other psyche being harvested and grafted onto his own shrinking consciousness. He'd been aphasic, he'd realised later; genius aphasic, but helpless nevertheless without controls by which to operate, stars by which to map his way. First had come Maria in the factory, then his mum, and Rani and Clyde; always Clyde. Clyde was as cheerful and dependable as the sun, explaining to him how to be human and male, but never forcing the issue, easy with the knowledge that Luke was more intelligent than him and so was often perplexed by the way the world worked when there were so many more options that would be fairer and more efficient.
'You must go out and interact with the student populace. My research shows that success is often closely linked to stable, reciprocal interpersonal relationships and a secure ideation of self,' says K9.
'I have been watching Trisha,' says K9. 'It has been most informative. It would appear to show that statistically no-one's children's are really their own, and that those involved in a romantic relationship will at some point commit an indiscretion with their partner's family.'
'One at a time or altogether?' says Luke, brow furrowed.
'That was not made clear,' admits K9, sounding perturbed. 'Lack of clarity is a failing; I plan to send a communication to the production company in question. I shall also point out that their lie detector test procedure seems unnecessarily imprecise and dramatic.'
'Should I be leaving you alone?' asks Luke, only half-joking. 'If you spend any more time watching daytime television, you could get a sudden rush of illogic to the CPU and apply to appear on Jeremy Kyle.'
'Negative, Master Luke,' K9 says, severely. 'I have inhibiting chips in place that will prevent any such reckless action, and you must attend introductory events. I believe there will be tea and biscuits provided,' he adds in what is clearly meant to be an incentive for Luke to leave the room and let K9 start downloading terrible talk shows on Luke's internet connection. Luke snorts.
'Okay,' he says, determinedly optimistic. 'I've done this before. How hard can it be the second time around? And, after all, there are tea and biscuits.'
'Oh, hello, love,' says his mum, absently, a week later when Mr Smith patches his call through to the monitor in the attic. 'Hang on a second, Mr Smith's just hacking into NASA; they're only trying to explore Mars again!' She clicks her tongue, her mind obviously elsewhere, and Luke swallows back what he wants to say, the instinctive appeal to his mum to let him come home, let him be a child again because he feels like he's failing at being an adult, failing at being on his own. Failing at being human. But he knows that it's impossible, that he can't go back in time. Actually, he suspects that he could, with a little help from his friends, but it wouldn't achieve anything, and perhaps that's the point. The huge, dim pyramids rising from the harsh Martian landscape on Mr Smith's monitor are an object-lesson in time manipulation; two minutes back in time are all it took for the Doctor to save the world from Sutekh, his mum had told him, but what would Luke achieve by going back? He knows it would be pointless, but still he wants to go home, back to Bannerman Road and his mum, sitting in the attic with Clyde and not in this impersonal room after a tutorial where the other students had clearly disapproved of Luke's enthusiasm and volubility.
So instead of what he really wants to say, he makes up half-lies and prevarications about his fictional "uni mates" and how much fun he's having, until Rani swings in through the door and distracts Mum and Clyde with the news of her mum and dad's new membership of BURPSS.
Lying has never been something he's seen as necessary or even particularly easy, but over the next week he spins stories like he never knew he could. Surprisingly, he seems pretty convincing; so convincing that when he next calls home, Clyde says half-enviously, 'Mate, it sounds amazing! Makes me almost wish that I was at art college already.'
'Well, you could always come and visit,' Luke says, nonchalantly. 'Next weekend?'
'Yeah, maybe,' says Clyde, and Luke seizes on that eagerly because he misses everyone, but he misses Clyde most of all, more than he ever believed he could. He's possessed by a sudden certainty that if he can just get Clyde here, everything will fall into place; things will be brilliant again if he can just make Clyde visit him. So he launches into another fake story about the fantastic time he's having and how Sanjay down the corridor is so funny and so clever and how he's such a good friend, and watches Clyde's eyes narrow and his mouth fold into a shape that is wrong, all wrong, and Luke thinks, guiltily and triumphantly, Got you.
'Luke Smith?' says the voice on the phone.
'Got a visitor down at the Porter's Lodge for you. A Clyde Langer?'
'Yes!' says Luke, breathlessly. 'I mean, yes, he is for me! My guest, I mean. Uh. I'll come down.'
'You do that,' says the voice, dryly, and Luke takes a deep breath before he tells K9, 'Clyde's here,' and then slaloms out of the door, down the staircase, and through the Garden Quad at full speed, slowing when he comes into sight of the Lodge so that he can saunter up to Clyde, only wheezing slightly, and says nonchalantly, 'All right?'
'Mate,' says Clyde, gesturing round the Front Quad, eyes wide. 'Mate, seriously, this is amazing,' and for the first time, Luke looks around and thinks, It really is.
'Come on,' he says. 'I'll take you up to my room.'
Every step Clyde takes is accompanied by an 'Oh my God, look at that!' like Luke hasn't looked at anything in the College since he arrived, and maybe he hasn't because now that Clyde is here, everything looks different: gilded and graceful, an adventure waiting to unfold just for them.
They burst into Luke's room, laughing and talking at full volume, and Clyde looks around approvingly before he crows, 'K9!' and crouches to pet him.
'Young Master Clyde,' squeaks K9. 'Despite your continual irrational attempts to scratch behind my ears and the fact that I am not programmed to have emotions, I believe that it is pleasing to see you again.'
Clyde laughs down at him, keeps scratching behind his ears, and says, cheerfully, 'Good dog!'
'Affirmative,' says K9, and if Luke didn't know better, he'd say that K9 was trying for a blissful wriggle despite his rigid metal casing.
'I can't believe I actually missed a robot dog,' Clyde says, after K9 has trundled diplomatically away to find them some biscuits to go with their tea. 'But I totally did.'
'Jonny down the corridor from me says that K9's creepy,' says Luke, trying to sound unperturbed. 'Like a metal teddy bear for the terminal overachiever. And then he called me a massive gayer. Is that a bad thing?'
Clyde chokes on his tea. 'Yeah,' he says eventually after he's wiped tea guiltily off Luke's desk with the bottom of his t-shirt. When he'd lifted it, Luke had seen a thin, smooth strip of his belly and the interesting shadowy dip of his navel, and had looked away with reluctant consideration. 'That's all kinds of wrong. This Jonny sounds like a right tosser. What did you say to him?'
'I said I hadn't gathered enough evidence as yet to determine whether I was in fact heterosexual or not, but I would let him know when I'd figured it out.'
Clyde sputters his tea again, laughing into the mug, and then notices he's blown a fine, tanninous spume over the desk and says, exasperated, 'Oh, bollocks. Sorry, mate,' before he puts his tea down and says, 'So you haven't been cutting a swathe through the hotties in this place? Male or female?'
'No,' Luke says, and then more slowly, 'The thing is, Clyde, I wasn't being entirely truthful when I was telling you about university, because the truth is... The truth is I'm - not fitting in. Again. And it's more than worrying about which gender I find attractive. I think I'm having trouble adapting to university. I've got no-one to talk to here, not really; I know Mum's at the end of the phone, or Rani, or you, but it seems like you're so far away and like this is something I should know already.'
'What? The university thing or the heterosexual thing?' says Clyde, sounding determinedly casual.
'Both,' Luke says, looking down at his tea. 'I'm supposed to be smart, Clyde, a genius like everyone says, but Jonny said gay like it was a bad thing, and I just want to study and everyone else seems more casual about it. Shouldn't I have figured these things out by now?'
'I thought we'd established that Jonny's a dick,' says Clyde, seriously. 'And will probably never even find the Bodleian in all three years he's here.'
Luke makes a responsive face of horror at that thought, and Clyde says, 'Exactly. Okay, one: I'd be surprised if you weren't having trouble adapting to university. Even though these people,' and he makes a dismissive gesture towards the corridor, 'are probably some of the cleverest in Britain - lots cleverer than me but far less awesome - for most of them this is the first time they've moved away from home and they're going through all the things they told themselves they wanted to do when they were sulking in their bedroom-'
'Oh, like you've never sulked in your bedroom,' says Luke, already feeling inexplicably lighter.
'Shut up,' Clyde says maturely, grinning. 'That's not sulking; that's registering my displeasure by withdrawing the sunshine of my presence from my mum, who is insane, by the way. Anyway, my point is...' He pauses. 'What was my point? Oh, yeah, they've all come to university looking for excitement and independence, but you were engineered by aliens before you escaped, were adopted, and spent the next four years fighting Slitheen and the Trickster and demented dream-clowns and that. Of course you're still different, you're technically a grown up. Which technically means I am as well.' He frowns. 'Blimey, I did not see where that logic would take me. That's a disturbing thought.'
'It really is,' Luke says, fervently.
'I am mature like no-one even knows, Smith,' says Clyde, scowling. 'One day, you will come to realise this and you will come to me weeping, going, "Oh, I misjudged you, Clyde, you truly are the wisest of us all. And the handsomest." Which is a handy segue to the massive gayer thing.'
'Jonny was saying it like it was an insult.'
'It probably is to Jonny,' Clyde says, dismissively. 'The wanker. Look, did Sarah Jane never have the Talk with you?'
'You know,' says Clyde, raising his eyebrows significantly, 'the Talk?'
'There was that time she had too much sherry at Christmas when I was fourteen and told me where babies come from?' Luke purses his lips. 'Genetic engineering seems much more efficient.'
'I cannot believe you got out of having the Talk,' Clyde says enviously. 'I had to sit through an hour of my mum explaining to me, with diagrams, that I might experience certain feelings and there'd be hair in undisclosed places and that if I ever knocked someone up, she'd kill me. I have never wished so hard for death.'
'What did she- Was there anything that did not involve heterosexuality and its perils?' Luke says, awkwardly.
'There was,' Clyde says. 'Because my mum is awesome, and her uncle Stephen was apparently a devil for men in uniform. Anyway, she makes a lot of sense, my mum, because she said that some people are scared of anything different because it makes them feel insecure and threatened, but that those people are thick. Actually she said misguided, but I'm reading between the lines. And she said, what's the point of trying to be human if we're not all going to be humans together? We're all different except where we're the same, she said, a million, billion humans together, and then she told me that she loved me, and then she cried a bit, and then she showed me how to put a condom on a banana,' Clyde finishes, with the thousand-yard stare of a veteran. 'That's a sight that'll never leave me. Unfortunately.'
'Ugh,' says Luke. 'I like your mum, but- Ugh.'
'I know,' agrees Clyde, grimly. 'Anyway, there was a point in there, which is that you're Luke, no matter what, and we're pretty happy with you the way you are. And when you come to a conclusion, your mum and Rani and me and my mum - although I'd keep away from her if she tries to show you the banana thing - we'll still be happy with you. Because you're really brilliant, mate. And if you need to talk at any point-' He coughs, and claps Luke on the shoulder. 'Well, you're my best friend. I'm, you know, here for you and that. Always.'
Luke blinks rapidly and pretends he isn't a bit misty, and then they hug each other in a manly way until the backslaps actually start getting painful.
'So,' Clyde says. 'Hey, where's K9 got to with those biscuits?'
'What,' says Clyde, snorting with laughter, 'is this?' and he waves the coathanger around so that the suit trousers flap a little forlornly as Luke makes a wild grab for it.
'It's sub fusc,' he protests. 'Everyone has to wear it.'
'For what?' says Clyde. 'Hoovering? Popping down to the Sainsburys for a ready meal and some Nesquik?'
'Dinners, and collections, and matriculation. We have to wear the gown as well, but I get mine from the Porter's Lodge.'
'Bloody hell. I'm glad I'm going to art college!' says Clyde. 'I'd look like a right tit in a white tie and shoulderpad streamers. Like a cut-price Batman.'
'It's a gown,' Luke says, trying not to laugh even though he's still a little uncertain about Batman and why Clyde thinks he'd win in a fight against the Master. 'I don't know; I think you'd look -' For some reason, his throat dries up as Clyde threads the white tie - Luke's white tie - around his neck and, frowning, tries to knot it. Ignoring it in favour of batting Clyde's hands away and coaxing the material into a bow, Luke waits until he steps back and admires his handiwork before he clears his throat and finishes, '- alright.'
'Alright?' says Clyde. 'Alright? I have never been so insulted in my life. This is pure class here,' he says, sweeping a hand down the bow-tie and t-shirt and battered jeans. 'It's okay to admit it, mate; I am dangerously attractive.'
'Um,' says Luke, and oh God he can feel himself blush and he hopes against hope that Clyde won't notice. Except of course he does, and Clyde says, hurriedly, 'Oh, right. Uh, Luke, I wasn't-'
'No, it's okay,' Luke says awkwardly. 'You've got to get used to me changing as well, I guess, and you feel-'
'No,' Clyde says, sounding a little angry, 'I didn't mean that you automatically fancied me because you're not sure about, you know, stuff; I meant that I didn't mean to embarrass you or poke at you about it. '
'Oh,' says Luke. 'Does that mean it's okay if I tell you that you are dangerously attractive?'
'Frankly,' says Clyde magnanimously, 'I take it as my due. And for the record,' he says, blushing himself, 'I understand if you do fancy me. Weaker genetically engineered geniuses than you have fallen prey to my magnetic charm. Now what do you do for dinner around here? I'm starving.'
In the early hours of the morning, Clyde hears Luke surface from sleep with a noise like a breaching whale, or a badly startled Judoon. He waits until Luke has settled back breathing determinedly deep, before he offers a diffident, 'Alright, mate?'
'Yeah,' Luke says after a moment. 'Still- getting used to the dreams, I suppose.'
Clyde sits up in the dark, interested, and pulls his sleeping bag up around his shoulders like a cloak. 'You're dreaming still? I thought that was a one-time only kind of deal because of the Nightmare Mime.'
Luke snorts a little breathily. 'I don't know whether I learned it, or whether he just flicked a switch that the Bane had built in.'
'Like a lightswitch?'
'Or like a tripswitch maybe,' says Luke, sounding more comfortable now that they're discussing neurowhatevers and genetic engineering. 'I mean, coming to university and leaving home, I was a bit -stressed. Perhaps it's some kind of psychic outlet.'
'A bit stressed?', Clyde says. 'You were a giant ball of emo. It was all "Oh, what if no one likes me? Oh, what if the big kids take my lunch money? What if I can't keep up with the work even though I'm smarter than Stephen Hawking and I've got a brain the size of Germany?"'
There's no warning before a pillow descends from the darkness to hit Clyde in the face.
'Get lost!' he sputters.
'You get lost,' says Luke, gleefully, and hits him again, and Clyde could sigh in despair because all that brainpower, and Clyde's careful tuition, and Luke still can't craft a decent comeback to save his life. He rolls over and burrows his hand under Luke's duvet so as to dig his fingers into his bony, emo ribs. Luke makes a high-pitched and frankly hilarious noise of protest and tries to roll away from Clyde whilst flailing away blindly with the pillow. His elbow thuds into the wall at the same time as Clyde gets the business end of a feather pillow in the face. He protests loudly, and Luke practically giggles, and there's suddenly a heavy thumping on the wall beside them and someone shouts, 'Jesus Christ, have sex in the afternoon like any civilised person! Some of us are trying to fucking sleep!' and they both freeze like rabbits, only the startled gleam of their eyes visible in the dark.
'Ridiculous,' Luke says, eventually, in no more than a thread of a voice.
''Course,' says Clyde, strangled, because they're so close to each other now, and it's not like he's never thought Luke was the best thing ever. God. 'Because we're not-'
'No,' agrees Luke. 'Of course not. I've got labs in the afternoon.'
'Oh,' Clyde says, 'Okay?' and wonders at the non-sequitur. 'So. These dreams, are they all nightmares? Because if you're only ever having nightmares, we should probably check that out. Do you have normal dreams as well?'
'What kind of dreams are normal?'
'Well.' Clyde has to think about that. He absently rolls himself deeper into his sleeping bag and wriggles over to sit up against Luke's little single bed so that they can talk without disturbing his filthy-minded neighbour again. 'Last week, I dreamt that the maths teacher at school was a Terminator and I was John Connor - but early John Connor when he was still cool, not shouty Christian Bale John Connor - but I got away in a motorised orange.'
'And then what happened?'
'The orange went mouldy and I had to pull into a garage so Zooey Deschanel could give it a service.'
'You're telling me,' Clyde says, fervently. 'So yeah, weird stuff like that.'
'Yeah,' Luke says, soft and uncertain, and Clyde hears him shift closer to the edge of the bed, close enough that he can feel Luke's breath curl, warm and tickling, round his ear, and he shivers. 'But, um- if I have other kinds of dreams,' Luke says, low and hurried and intimate, 'is that good or bad?'
'Other kinds?' Clyde says, startled. 'What other kinds? You mean like of your Bane mum again?'
'No!' Luke says, loudly, too loudly, and they both freeze for a moment in wary anticipation of more hammering on the wall, but there's nothing so they shuffle even closer together, and Luke goes on, quietly, 'God, no. That's disgusting.'
Turning his head, Clyde finds that Luke is so close to him in the darkness that he has to try and make sense of his face like a jigsaw: the pale skin and sharp chin, his soft mouth and his eyes gleaming like stars.
'Well?' prompts Clyde.
'There's a strong, accompanying, physical stimulus,' Luke says, stiffly, and his light in his eyes flickers. Clyde realises he's blinking rapidly.
'Oh,' says Clyde, working it through. 'Oh!'
'Finally,' Luke says, somewhat grumpily.
'Perfectly natural,' Clyde says, his voice strangled again. 'Happens to everybody.'
'Does it happen to you?' says Luke in a tone of scientific curiosity.
'Everybody,' Clyde says, pointedly. 'Male everybodies. You just got started later than the rest of us. And,' he says, holding up a hand as Luke draws a breath behind him, 'before you ask, I do not think that dreams are conclusive, one way or the other, in telling you if you're gay or not. That's something to be figured out from all the evidence.'
'Like an experiment,' says Luke, sounding bizarrely pleased that his confusion could possibly be sorted out like a laboratory practical.
'Uh, maybe?' Clyde says. 'I'm not sure that it's entirely healthy to-'
'No, that makes sense,' says Luke, eagerly. 'I can solve this with science. I'll make a hypothesis, and then test it: a couple of experiments, some data-gathering, a graph or two, and I should have a conclusion. It's perfect!'
'Conclusion: in your face, Jonny Mercer!?' says Clyde.
'Precisely.' Luke sounds ridiculously happy; so happy that Clyde, despite his misgivings, is caught up in it. 'I knew things would start making sense again when you got here, Clyde. You make everything better. Good night!'
And while Clyde's still reeling from that unexpected drive-by validation, Luke drops his head back to his pillow, gives a relieved sigh, and drops right off to sleep.
'You're - welcome?' says Clyde to the silence and darkness.
Clyde doesn't say anything about their conversation all through the next day, but Luke knows first-hand that Clyde solves problems through a combination of strategy, sneakiness, and occasionally reckless sarcasm, so he shouldn't be surprised when Clyde eventually circles back around to the problem of Luke's non-existent social life.
'Okay,' Clyde announces that evening. 'I saw something about a College bar, and I demand to be taken there.'
'Really? Do we have to?' says Luke, but from the set of Clyde's chin, he knows he's already beaten.
An hour later, Clyde is standing by the bar, shouting happily at someone behind it, 'Really, though? Vera Duckworth? That's actually your job title? That's brilliant!'
Luke cautiously touches his elbow to Clyde's, just to reassure himself that he can't wander away without Luke noticing, and looks out at the crowded bar. No one else here seems to have any trouble fitting in, he notices; they're all gathered into raucous knots of friends and tangles of involved conversation. He leans a little further into Clyde, and Clyde turns his head slightly to smile at him and say, 'I'm not carrying you back to your room if you get drunk on half a pint.'
'Yes, you are,' Luke says, comfortably, clutching his half a pint which, he's not going to lie, has him feeling a little bit warm and fuzzy. He's not used to cider at all.
'Yes, I am,' agrees Clyde, and turns back to Vera Duckworth.
'N'aaw,' says a soft voice beside Luke, and he looks down to see a small and curly-haired total stranger beaming at him. 'That's so sweet.'
Luke blinks down at her in confusion.
'Oh, sorry, I'm Clarrie,' the total stranger, offering him her hand.
'Hello, Luke,' Clarrie says, grinning. 'Your boyfriend's properly lovely. Why can I never find someone willing to carry me back to my room when I get drunk?'
'What? Clyde? He's not my boyfriend,' Luke says, bewildered.
'Oh,' says Clarrie, equally bewildered and then her expression transmutes into one that Luke recognises as pure horror, and she claps a hand to her mouth and says again but rather more muffled, 'Oh God! Oh my God, I'm so sorry! I just assumed - You seemed so couple-y and I just assumed that you and he- and that you were gay! Oh God. Would you prefer it if I slunk away and we never spoke of this again, or that I commit seppuku in front of you in atonement? Because I'm happy to do that,' she finishes, blinking at him earnestly and Luke surprises himself by laughing. 'Guts everywhere as a gesture of penitence.'
'No,' he reassures her. 'I prefer everyone's guts where they are. And since Jonny Mercer was far less polite about it, I'm not that bothered about you thinking I'm gay.'
'Jonny Mercer on staircase fifteen?' says Clarrie. 'You'll have to excuse him; he has a bad case of being an inbred, County twat.'
'That's what I said!' Clyde appears behind them, beaming. 'Except I was more diplomatic about it because I don't go here. It seemed presumptuous.'
'You should absolutely feel free to abuse Jonny Mercer,' Clarrie says. 'I've only known him three weeks and I've made up new words to describe him.'
'Awesome,' Clyde says, 'Clyde Langer, Luke's best friend from home.'
'Clarrie Taker,' she says, shaking his hand enthusiastically. 'Total stranger and social disaster.'
Clyde laughs and lets go of her hand, and Luke feels strangely relieved that they're no longer touching. Clarrie seems nice, and possibly even more socially awkward than him so he shouldn't really feel threatened by her. That would be ridiculous.
'So why were we talking about Jonny?' asks Clyde.
'I was telling Clarrie about Jonny's comments about my sexuality,' says Luke. 'Which is-' He hesitates.
'A work in progress?' suggests Clyde.
'Yes,' says Luke, grinning at the floor. 'That.'
'Oh God, stop. You two are ridiculously adorable,' says Clarrie. 'Let's get a drink and we'll restore the balance by bitching about Jonny Mercer and his stupid face."
It turns out that quite a few people in the bar are interested in bonding over scurrilous gossip and bitching, and by the time Luke and Clyde stagger back up the stairs, they've got a standing invitation to the table football league, and Luke's been invited along to the next social for BURPS, which thankfully turns out to be the college Physics society rather than the local chapter for UFO investigation.
'People were talking to me,' marvels Luke, drunkenly. 'Like they actually liked me. And they weren't laughing at me for being smart!'
'Why would they laugh at you?' Clyde slurs back. 'You're brilliant, mate. Mate, mate- Luke, mate, you're my best friend. No, no,' he says, waving away Luke's non-existent objections, 's'true, my best friend in the whole world.'
'No,' says Luke. 'You- you- you- you're the brilliant one. You're amazing. I knew that you'd make everything right again. God, you're so amazing.' He giggles uncontrollably as they stumble along the corridor.
'Shhh,' says Clyde, severely, before collapsing into giggles himself. 'Gotta be quiet. Can't be all woooooh like we're drunk or something.'
'No, but- No, but, Clyde,' Luke tells him as they crash through his bedroom door, still snorting with laughter. 'I'm serious. You're brilliant. I love you!' he finishes and kisses Clyde squarely on the mouth.
And just like that, they're almost sober again, their mouths still pressed together, soft and damp with alcohol and laughter. They jerk apart. Luke stares at Clyde in horror.
'Uh,' says Clyde, round-eyed. 'Wow. Should we have seen that coming? I feel like we should have seen that coming.'
'I don't know,' Luke says, slowly. 'I- wasn't lying,' he says, testing the words for truth. 'And I didn't drink that much.'
'You are a terrible lightweight, though,' Clyde points out. 'You had like a pint and a half.'
'I could be allergic to alcohol,' Luke protests, and Clyde fixes him with a shrewd stare and says, 'Are you?'
'No,' Luke confesses. 'I really do think you're that amazing. And I do- love you. I think. Are you very drunk?'
'Not very,' says Clyde. 'Uh, I really think you're that amazing as well.'
'But I'm dull, though,' says Luke. 'I'm not funny like Clarrie, or beautiful like Rani. I just like to learn things.'
'And fix things,' says Clyde, looking puzzled. 'You're-' He pauses, frustration leaking through as he searches for the word he's looking for, like he's the genius aphasic now, Luke thinks, and then Clyde's mouth unfolds and his brow clears and he says, 'Noble. You're noble. You do all these good things and you try so hard and you think that you're not doing anything special because you're just trying to be human. But you're the best human I know, and you don't even notice that you're doing it better than other people. That's why-' he finishes triumphantly, the way Luke feels when he unfolds a proof and finds that it explains reality, 'that's why you're my best friend. That's why I -love you too.'
'Oh,' says Luke. He thinks for a minute that this is what it felt like when Derek Aspel hit him in the stomach back in Year Nine for being too clever. And then he thinks that no, this is what it felt like when Derek Aspel hit him in the stomach and he says, 'Clyde, I meant every word I said, but you should know that I think I'm going to throw up.'
'Oh, charming,' says Clyde, but he practically carries Luke to the toilets and holds his head and then he puts him to bed after making him drink a pint of water and putting the wastepaper bin next to his bed. Then Clyde puts his sleeping bag on the other side of the room in case of splashback, and passes out.
Sunday is bright and crisp, and the sun draws the gold out of the earth and trees and stone, and it would be gorgeous except that both of them are shaky and dehydrated and slightly nauseous. But they're greeted on the stairs by one of the girls from the bar, and they keep looking at each other shyly but with terrible, bone-deep certainty, and they can't stop smiling even though they try really hard.
'I've got to go home today,' says Clyde eventually after they've drunk buckets of tea and torn their toast to shreds.
'I'll text you. Every day.'
'Oh, good God,' says Clarrie's voice from behind them. 'You two really do look like an advert for a yuppie adoption agency.'
Luke blinks as she sits down beside him and steals his tea. 'Is that good or bad?'
Clyde smiles at him, and Clarrie says solemnly, 'It's awful. Are you going to eat that bacon?'
Clyde leaves him a drawing underneath his pillow of Luke as a knight in shining armour. When he looks more closely, he sees that Clyde has drawn Sir Luke riding K9 like a destrier.
'That is an act beneath my dignity,' says K9, sounding as affronted as his programming will let him.
'You have dignity?'
'Affirmative. Subroutine 6Z59-//DW-AP3,' confirms K9. 'It allows me to recognise and negotiate social relations in over fourteen thousand species. It has been- modified since K9 marks 1 and 2 to interface with subroutine ~UMBL/Π.'
'Humility. The Doctor judged that dignity, the value of one's self, must be balanced by the value of one among many.'
'Allow me to say, Master Luke, that you have never valued yourself as you should, and it is pleasing to see that Master Clyde will take over that task for you. I think yours will be a beneficial relationship; stable and reciprocal, and contributing to a secure ideation of self.'
'Is that-?' says Luke, cautiously. 'K9, are you trying to tell me that we have your blessing?'
'Yes,' says K9, equably. 'And also that if Young Master Clyde breaks your heart I will neutralise him with my laser capabilities.'
'Really?' says Luke, touched by K9's partisanship, but also trying not to smile.
'No,' K9 admits. 'But it is possible that I would run over his foot.'
'Good dog,' says Luke.
'Affirmative,' says K9, and settles down for what he will later deny is a nap, and Luke reaches for his phone with a smile on his face.