"Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life."
Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Bradley can't make himself leave.
London is cold this winter, snow and ice, bitter winds whistling down the streets and through the parks. The theatre closes out the traffic noise from Sloane Square and focuses on wounded, fictional characters being brought to life.
Last week Bradley had asked Colin if he could sit in on a rehearsal, and a week later he's still here; he keeps returning like a ghost. But where the ghost would be restlessly looking for something lost in another life, Bradley looks for something he hasn't yet had in this.
He gets glances but so far no one's asked him to leave. If he only keeps still and quiet they'll come to regard him as part of the fixed interior, he thinks. Besides, being still and quiet is nice for a change.
The theatre is chilly today and Bradley rubs his hands over his arms as he leans back and watches Colin take direction. There are shadows under Colin's eyes and below his sharp cheekbones but his acting is never affected, however tired he is.
Part of the reason Bradley keeps returning is to watch Colin create a character so very unlike Merlin. Carlos is self-centred and deeply unhappy, jaded and immature, manipulative and painfully honest all at once, balancing on the edge of that butter knife that will make the audience laugh and then choke on their own laughter.
But the main reason why Bradley returns is to watch Colin.
I can't keep pushing it away, Bradley thinks.
It's been there almost from their first meeting, when Colin was the weird guy that Bradley wanted to figure out and couldn't. He isn't sure he has Colin figured out even now, but there's a connection between them he can't quite explain. It's deep and direct; it cuts straight through differences and extraneous noise and makes Colin laugh at Bradley's jokes in his sleep.
On stage, Carlos wraps his arms around himself for dramatic effect or to alleviate real pain. Bradley leans forward in his seat, forgetting how cold he is, propping his elbows on his thighs and his chin on top of his clasped hands.
He hadn't counted on being so impressed. After all, he already knew that Colin could create different characters with the look in his eyes and the set of his shoulders; he's used to seeing people around him go in and out of their roles and personae – used to doing it too. There's no reason he should be upset by this – by seeing Colin as Carlos; used, abused and doomed. But Colin is like a stranger, and this is why Bradley can't make himself leave. Not until Colin is familiar again.
Bradley is back in the audience at the dress-rehearsal. The play has evolved since he was here last, about two weeks ago – the edges have been smoothed out, the cues are more subtle, things have fallen into place. There are some hiccups but the wheels and cogs are connecting and the machinery works. A few drops of oil and they'll be home.
The final scene is chilling. Bradley claps until his palms sting.
In the dressing room after, Colin is twitchy and tense.
"That was shite," he says as he pulls his hoodie on top of three layers of shirts.
"Dress-rehearsals always are," Bradley replies from where he half-sits on the corner of the table. "They're supposed to be. Now you know where the last creases are, and you'll iron them out for the opening performance."
Bradley is spouting platitudes; Colin isn't listening.
"I can't believe I fucked up my lines." He's electric with adrenaline and irritation. "And not just my own lines – I ruined it for Eugene as well."
Bradley has to laugh. "Carlos' drama queen behaviour rubbing off on you, Col?"
Colin gives Bradley a dark sideways look and then a sudden smile, like sun breaking through thunderclouds. His hair is falling into his eyes and curling around his ears; his dimples under the scruff make Bradley's fingers curl into his palms. He has to clear his throat before he can speak.
"I should be going," he says and gives Colin's arm a light punch.
When he leaves, Colin is downing a pint of water, his throat working. Bradley closes his eyes and walks out blindly, bumping his shoulder against the wall.
It's a good thing there are things to do, or Bradley doesn't know where he'd be. There are scripts to be read, friends to see, football to be played, travelling to be done, but he can't stop thinking about Colin. Not always consciously, but Colin is there at the back of Bradley's mind, quiet and insistent, refusing to leave. In the night the images are clear and bright, standing out in the dark like they're on a screen.
Fantastic, Bradley thinks and groans, turning over in bed. I have a cinema inside my head.
The variety of actors isn't overwhelming. The centre of the stage seems permanently occupied.
"Diva," Bradley says out loud, and under the bright lights Colin smiles.
Bradley doesn't go to see the play again until the last week it runs. The theatre is tiny and he sits in the dark, squeezed in on the hard bench with too many people. It's so hot he could catch a handful of air in his fist and squeeze it through his fingers.
The play's developed further; things have subtly shifted. Colin is so intense he's practically vibrating. The mutual love between him and the stage is obvious and the lighting adores him too, doing its best to show off his eyelashes and facial structure. But it's not just his looks – he has this presence, this quality that draws the audience's eye to him even when he isn't speaking.
His portrayal of Carlos has deepened, settled. He is alternately manipulative and sincere, powerful and defeated as he pushes and pulls the other characters along in a mad dance of the real and the imagined, the private and the public. He looks so thin in Carlos' drab clothes, frail and strong, masculine and boyish, and perhaps there are as many contradictions in him as there are with this character.
By the time they reach the scene where Carlos wears his startlingly red apron, the air is thick with emotion. Bradley leans forward, enthralled. In the whole play, this is where Carlos is most together, focused and powerful, his voice low but seething with subdued anger. Something lights up inside Bradley like a beacon as he watches Colin in a tight-fitting grey shirt and that red apron. His ears are red with the heat of the room, there's a dark crescent of sweat in his armpit, his long fingers part the segments of a satsuma and push them into his mouth one after the other…
… and Bradley can't breathe. It's too much, too real, too close, what he feels for Colin, all the admiration and respect and the fact that he fucking loves him, and he doesn't know what to do with it. He closes his eyes and watches the inverted image of Colin on the inside of his eyelids; it feels like it's imprinted on his soul.
They go for drinks after, their heads close together as they prop up the bar. Colin is still vibrating, electric, sparks flying off him as he talk-talk-talks the adrenaline out of his system. When he pushes up his sleeve to inspect a fresh bruise on his elbow ("there's a new one every night") from Sergio knocking Carlos to the floor, Bradley reaches out and touches it with a fingertip, feather-light, just to see what will happen.
Colin looks up through his lashes and grins, and Bradley smiles back as if they've just shared a secret.
They meet up again a couple of days after the final performance. Colin is tired but looks happy, the strain gone from around his eyes, and if he's not quite ready to start filming Merlin yet, he's getting there. Bradley's all ready to go, like an enthusiastic puppy.
When Colin is drunk he is either giggly and silly, making unintelligible jokes that still make Bradley laugh, or he is very, very serious. Tonight it's the latter.
The bar is noisy and Colin wants to talk but Bradley can't hear a thing, much less guess what Colin is saying in that accent that gets thicker with each pint. Bradley can usually make it out just fine, thank you very much, when they're both sober and Colin's voice isn't drowning in white noise, or black, or whatever. Whoa, Bradley's a bit drunk.
He suggests they go to Colin's place and pick up some beer on the way, and Colin nods.
In the taxi Colin's shoulder presses against Bradley's, light flitting over his face, white or red or orange or whatever colour the lights are that they're passing, stroking his cheekbones in lieu of Bradley's thumbs. They're silent in the confined space of the cab, but it's a gentle silence, intimate, not the kind you drown in. Bradley wants to take these ten minutes, put them in his pocket and carry them with him always.
With two six-packs secured, they stumble into Colin's flat. Music (something weird), a giant bag of crisps, and the night is theirs. Bradley gulps at the sound of that thought ringing loud in his head.
Colin sits cross-legged on the sofa with his back to the armrest, earnestly facing Bradley.
"There's this book," he says, "called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The main character, the narrator, has Asperger's."
Bradley nods, his attention focused on Colin's expressive face. He knows it so well that most of the time he doesn't really see it, he thinks – but from time to time it strikes him just how gorgeous Colin is. Like right now, when it hits Bradley with enough power to floor him. Images of Carlos, of Merlin, of the doomed Cathal flutter through his mind, and he thinks how lucky he is to be allowed to see Colin like this, when he's nothing but Colin.
"He likes prime numbers," Colin is saying, rolling his bottle between his palms, "because they are what they are and nothing else. He says that prime numbers are what's left when all the patterns have been removed, that they are like life."
Bradley nods again, approving the theory but wondering where this is going.
"And when I read that, I thought," Colin says, his voice lower and his accent thicker, so that Bradley has to lean forward to to get what he's saying, "that prime numbers are like… love."
The word jolts Bradley and he's glad his beer is in a bottle or he'd have spilt it. Colin is looking at him with a small frown, not of disapproval but of concentration. When his eyes drop to Bradley's mouth for a second, Bradley needs to touch his lips as if Colin's gaze burns. A slow blush is spreading over Colin's cheekbones and he makes a couple of false starts before he continues.
"The positive whole numbers are the times you hear people say they love you," he says. "Fans, colleagues, critics sometimes – they mean it but not really, or they don't mean it but think they'll gain something by saying it."
Bradley snorts, nearly choking on a mouthful of beer. "That's cynical, Cols," he points out when he's swallowed. "Especially from you. The saintly Colin Morgan."
Colin makes a face. "Mention Mother Teresa and I'm kicking you out." Then he grins. "My point is that the prime numbers are the times when someone tells you they love you and it means just that and nothing else. Not that they love a character you've played or that they want to fuck you or don't want you to leave them. It just means that they love you; they love you. It's rarer than you'd think."
Bradley just looks at Colin while a thousand things whirl through his head and pound in his chest. If they don't change the subject right this minute he's going to make an idiot of himself.
He leans over and puts his bottle on the table with a click. "This conversation is too deep for me, Morgan," he says.
Colin laughs and turns to stretch out his legs in a lazy movement, in full control of his body even when he's drunk. "Yeah, I figured, intellectual lightweight that you are. Want to watch something?"
Bradley hits him with a cushion.
They fall asleep there on the sofa in the middle of some film neither of them cares enough about to stay awake. Some time in the night Bradley wakes up from Colin placing a blanket over him and leaving the room. Still more than half asleep, Bradley gets out of his jeans, stretches out on the sofa and pulls the blanket up to his chin.
When he wakes up for real, the light from the window is grey but too bright and he has a crick in the neck from the armrest. The blanket has slipped off and only covers his legs, the rest of it hanging off the side of the sofa. He's cold in his boxers and t-shirt and pulls the blanket back up. The small movement makes his head pound and he turns on his stomach, buries his face in his arms and groans. Tea would be good. And water. Pints of it. Rivers.
The thought of flowing water underlines the fact that he needs the loo, badly. On his way back from the bathroom there's a gravelly "morning" from Colin's bedroom. The door is ajar and Bradley pushes it open. It's dark in there. He blinks until his eyes adjust and he can see Colin, on his back with the duvet pulled up to his armpits and his forearms crossed over his face.
"Morning." Bradley sits down on the edge of the bed, bouncing a little and making Colin groan in protest.
"Oh, for… sit still, James, for once in your life."
Bradley grins, yawns, can't stop his gaze from sliding down the form of Colin under the bedclothes. Can't stop wondering if Colin is naked under there. His arms and shoulders are bare and milky white in the semi-darkness, the silky lustre of his skin making Bradley shiver.
"I dreamed about a decapitated turtle," Colin says, still with his forearms over his eyes. His voice is thick with hangover and sleep and seems to travel down Bradley's spine like something physical. An insect, a drop of water. A fingertip. "It still had a tongue though. It came darting out of the oesophagus to catch flies."
Bradley's mouth falls open. There's a long silence.
"Col..." says Bradley, squeezing his eyes shut and rubbing them with thumb and forefinger. "Your mind is a disturbing place. I need tea. And I need to get that image out of my head. Ugh." His head spins a little when he stands up, but not too bad. Then an awful suspicion sneaks into his mind and he turns to Colin, who still has his arms over his eyes. "There is tea, isn't there?"
"Mm. No." When Bradley squeaks in horror and indignation, Colin mutters: "Well, there's some herbal. I think."
"Coffee, then?" This is a desperate situation.
"Hmm, yeah, some… instant stuff."
"God," Bradley groans, "and I thought you were civilized."
Muttering, he retreats to the kitchen and finds that Colin's been having a bit of fun with him. While there's no tea except some stuff that smells like a hayfield, there is a cafetière and proper coffee. Bradley inhales the heavenly fragrance, puts the kettle on and pushes the thought of decapitated turtles firmly out of his head.
After a couple of minutes Colin joins him in jeans and t-shirt, with tousled hair and bare feet. His arms are pale and wiry, the bones of his wrists protruding. Bradley wants to take Colin's hand and lift it to his mouth, kiss that jut of bone at the wrist, gnaw at a knuckle, dart his tongue between the fingers.
He is a little shocked at the clarity of that image is in his mind. He can feel it, the weight of Colin's hand, the taut skin under his tongue. His hands are unsteady as he presses the plunger down.
Colin reaches into a cabinet for mugs. He's so close that their arms are touching, and Bradley makes some kind of noise, perhaps, or just does a breathy thing, because Colin turns to look at him. And continues to look.
Time seems to hang suspended as Bradley stares back. Colin's hair is tumbling over his forehead and catches on the long eyelashes; the obscenely pretty mouth curves into an amused half-moon. Bradley blinks.
They're in London, it shouldn't be so quiet, London is never quiet.
"Last night," Colin murmurs and Bradley stares at his mouth, "I almost… for a moment, I thought you…"
He puts the mugs on the counter, very deliberately but without looking. His fingers touch Bradley's jaw, nudges his chin up a fraction, and he smiles a question into Bradley's eyes as his thumb traces Bradley's bottom lip. Nothing makes sense to Bradley just then, nothing and everything.
"Wanna try this?" Colin says softly.
Bradley can't even smile back; his brain's stuck on oh fuck. There's no need to ask what this is. His whole body knows it. His lips are tingling with anticipation.
"Yeah," he breathes. "Yeah."
The blue of Colin's eyes is very bright as he leans in.
It's been there for ages, of course, but Bradley's been afraid to admit it. It still scares him how important Colin is to him, how he can't think of his life without Colin in it. Now that he knows what Colin's hair feels like under his palms and between his fingers, what Colin's mouth feels like under his own and how their bodies move so well, so perfectly together – now it's even more unthinkable. It can't go away, can't be allowed to go away, can't be allowed to ever.
It's been a long and rainy day in Wales with mist and lighting problems, cold fingers and numb toes, scattered umbrellas like strange flowers growing out of the forest floor.
When Bradley finally returns to the hotel he's exhausted and chilled to the bone, his arms aching from the sword. He stands under the shower until it goes lukewarm and then slips out to knock on Colin's door.
Colin is barely conscious, moving as if under water. They just lean against each other for a minute before staggering to bed.
"I'm knackered," Colin mumbles with his mouth against Bradley's neck, his hand on Bradley's hip. "D'you mind if we just sleep?"
"That," Bradley replies with his fingers buried in Colin's hair, "is fine with me. I'll probably dream about swords and not even get the night off from work."
Colin makes an unintelligible noise and turns on his side with his back to Bradley, catching Bradley's hand and pulling it across his body so Bradley spoons up behind him. The darkness is soft around them and somewhere in the distance a door closes, a car starts outside. Bradley's arms are heavy with the satisfactory ache of a job well done and he's aware of being intensely content, of being exactly where he wants to be, of an overwhelming tenderness for the sleepy boy in his arms. It is what it is and nothing else, and it's good.
His lips touch the back of Colin's neck as he inhales the scent of shampoo and shower gel and hotel sheets, and gets a small, approving noise in response. Their fingers are interlaced and he moves both their hands up to rest over Colin's heart.
"Two… three…" he murmurs, kissing the warm skin at the nape of Colin's neck to punctuate each word, "five…"
Colin stirs. "Mmmwhat?"
"Seven," Bradley whispers, "eleven, thirteen..."
"What are you..."
And through the haze of his exhaustion, Colin realises what Bradley is doing. "Oh."
He turns around in Bradley's arms and takes his face between his hands; they try to look at each other in the dark but all they see are the glinting whites of the other's eyes. Everything is quiet and slow, waiting. Something, a word, a sound, catches weirdly in Bradley's throat.
"Nineteen," Colin says a little breathlessly and Bradley can hear his smile, "twenty-three..."
Bradley slides his hand down Colin's back and pulls him closer.