“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”
– Jawaharlal Nehru
“You’re so crooked, Dickie, if you swallowed a nail you’d shit a corkscrew.”
– Sir Gerald Templer to Lord Louis Mountbatten
It’s all Akthar’s fault, really.
Irwin had been a little surprised when Dakin first mentioned that he was still in touch with some of the other Cutler boys, but he supposed that the bond of Sheffield, school, and maybe even Hector could be strong enough to keep them connected after all these years. As it is, the way Dakin describes it he sees Scripps on a frequent basis, and Posner and Akthar once a month or so when they all four meet up for dinner or drinks.
Dakin and Irwin have been doing – whatever it is they are doing – for three weeks or so when the first of these reunions rolls around. “You should come,” Dakin tells him.
Irwin raises his eyebrows. “I’m sure you all have a lot to catch up on,” he hedges.
“Oh no, after all these years we’ve bored each other to death with variations on the same stories,” Dakin says, smirking a little. “Even Posner can’t really spice things up any more. Come. They’ll be glad to see you.”
And how exactly can Irwin say no to that? Or, really, to anything that Dakin cares enough to ask for, especially more than once.
It’s not that Dakin wanting things from him is anything rare; on the contrary, Irwin is generally appalled at himself for how often he gives into Dakin’s whims. He never asks Dakin for anything himself though. He doesn’t even know how to. Perhaps it balances out.
And so Irwin finds himself squished into a booth at a pub near Scripps’ paper with three of his former students, god. They’ve all just gotten out of work and are meeting up before dinner for a quick drink, since Akthar and his wife have theatre tickets for later. Frankly, Irwin’s still digesting the fact that Akthar being married was not just one of Dakin’s jokes, and loses the thread of the conversation.
“– and then he tries to tell me that Churchill was responsible for the entire thing,” Posner is saying with a laugh when Irwin tunes back in, presumably a story about one of his students.
“Cocky little shit,” says Dakin.
“You’re one to talk,” Scripps snorts, and Dakin swats his arm.
“The boy does have a point,” says Akthar, grinning. “Churchill was an asshole about India.”
“True, but I don’t think we can say that negates his general contributions to the history of the British Empire,” Scripps points out, Dakin nodding his agreement.
Akthar shrugs. “I’m just saying, I think I would like this lad. Churchill’s romanticized far too much, and this kid clearly isn’t blinded by all that. Cheers to him.” He takes a sip of his pint, then puts it down and looks at Irwin. “Hey, Irwin, you should do a segment on that. A brilliant exposé on his time in India and his ridiculous racist sentiments. You could call it ‘Churchill Was an Asshole’.”
“I’m not sure how the BBC would feel about that,” Irwin says dryly. “The title, at any rate.”
“Have you ever done a program that focused on Britain’s imperialist history?” Posner says, frowning.
“Well, no,” Irwin admits, rubbing absently at his leg, an old habit that he still retained even after years of medication and therapy had more or less treated the pain.
“Why not?” says Dakin, raising an eyebrow. “Too controversial? I’d have thought you’d like that.”
“It’s just not the kind of topic I generally investigate.”
“Oh yes, because complacency is truly at the heart of great television,” says Posner, looking unimpressed.
“Tell you what,” says Akthar, an intent but somehow devilish look on his face that seems to spell trouble for Irwin. “This August – the 15th – is the fiftieth anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence. You should do a program focusing on Britain’s involvement in some part of the process, maybe the Partition specifically, and how badly they fucked up.” He cocks an eyebrow at Irwin, challenging. “If you do I will use it as a teaching tool in my class. Maybe even get the headmistress to screen it for the whole school – she’s rather fond of me.”
“I would use it in my class too,” Posner chimes in.
“Well, I don’t know,” Irwin says, doubtful. “Plus my show’s been doing just fine for years without your publicity, thanks.”
“Come on,” says Dakin, smirking. “You can expose facts that aren’t generally taught in the history classes, provide a different perspective. We all know how much you like that.”
“I’ll have to run it by my producers,” Irwin says carefully. But Dakin’s looking at him as if his compliance is a given, and Irwin knows he won’t be able to hold out long against that.
“Well, here’s hoping the BBC find it in their hearts to show something with a little truth in it,” says Akthar, raising his glass again. He looks at his watch and then drains the rest of the pint before standing. “Right then, I’m off.”
They all take that as a cue to leave, Posner and Scripps arguing about the likelihood of BBC execs having hearts at all as they pull on their coats and pay the tab. Dakin leans in close to Irwin and murmurs, “Are we eating out, or did you have something planned at your house?”
“I bought some salmon yesterday,” Irwin says, trying not to shiver from the warm gust of Dakin’s breath on his ear.
“Well, that settles it,” Dakin decides.
It’s not unusual for Dakin to come over – quite the opposite, in fact. Although the first night they’d fallen into bed at Dakin’s place, they now spend the majority of their time in Irwin’s. Partially because that first morning had involved at least ten minutes of excruciating awkwardness before Dakin had left for work, but mostly because the first time Dakin had come over to Irwin’s house he fell absolutely in love with it. He seems to love the way everything is arranged, the furniture and the décor that Irwin had picked out with a man he’d been seeing years ago and had liked too much to change after the relationship ended. He loves the kitchen, clean and modern in contrast with the age-old feeling of the rest of the house. And he loves to run his hand over the bookshelves, picking out tomes at random and laughing at Irwin for having books like Subsistence Farming in the Late Nineteenth Century and The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Most evenings that they’re both free Dakin comes over straight from the office and settles himself in Irwin’s living room to continue working. Irwin usually joins him for some time with research material for whatever show he’s working on. The truth, though, is that Irwin rarely gets much done in that time just after Dakin arrives. Inane as it is, Irwin is somehow still surprised every time he finds Dakin at his door, and the novelty of watching Dakin make himself at home in Irwin’s house has yet to wear off.
Dakin has both the easy physical grace and the open personality that allow him to be comfortable anywhere, but Irwin can tell that he thoroughly enjoys being here. He works messily, strewing various files and papers all over not only the coffee table but the sofa as well, and sometimes the floor. Irwin suspects that he’s not this way at his firm, that he takes the opportunity to let go of the formality of the day once he’s here with the glass of wine that Irwin hands him and his tie loosened just enough for Irwin to be continually distracted by the pale skin at the hollow of his neck.
That night, after they’ve come home and Dakin’s settled in to work, Irwin doesn’t even last the normal amount of time in actually focusing on his work. As usual, he has to give in to the fact that he’s spending more of his time sneaking looks at Dakin – who, immersed in work, is for once not giving him the sidelong glances and smirks that make up a good three-fourths of his facial expressions – than getting anything done, and leaves to figure out their dinner. They eat late, never before nine, and these days Irwin cooks more often than not. In his days of singledom it was more often a lonely pizza or curry, but Irwin finds that he enjoys the precision and elegance of cooking when it’s for two. That, and the fact that Dakin is as openly and honestly appreciative of good food as he is of any other pleasure, and it makes something spark in Irwin’s stomach when Dakin enjoys what he’s cooked: heat, and desire, but also something else, something softer, that Irwin is afraid to put a name to.
After dinner, Dakin does the dishes while Irwin takes advantage of the short time when he can’t be distracted by Dakin to tie up any loose ends he actually has from work. But it’s never long before Dakin shows up in the doorway, hands still damp from washing and tie gone, shirt unbuttoned down far enough now that Irwin has to stop and remember to breathe before he abandons everything else and strides forward to kiss him.
And just as it thrills Irwin to see Dakin fit so easily into his life, as if he has no thought of being elsewhere, he revels in the way he is becoming familiar with Dakin’s body and Dakin with his. Dakin doesn’t talk much during sex, which had surprised Irwin at first, but the intensity of his gaze raking Irwin up and down, and the careful way he palms the junctures of bone at Irwin’s hips before kissing them, say far more than Irwin ever expected.
But Dakin never sleeps over. At first he’d made excuses about needing to get ready early for work, which Irwin had only half-believed even then. But even after all this time he never stays longer than ten minutes after they're shagged out. The only difference is that these days he doesn't offer an explanation, even when it's a weekend night like this one.
Sometimes Irwin thinks that Dakin is testing him, trying to force Irwin to ask for something, to ask him to stay. He thinks he can see it in the look Dakin sometimes shoots him before he leaves, challenging and disappointed all in one, and it hurts to think that he could do something about it for both of them.
But there’s very little that Irwin has been sure of in his life, and this nebulous thing they have is still teetering in a space of indecision and insecurity for Irwin. One thing he is certain of: it’s better to let Dakin lead the way, to have Dakin make all the moves first. It’s safer, for both of them. It always has been.
It’s another two weeks before post-production on his current show wraps up, and Irwin begins researching in earnest for the Partition piece. It’s not a particularly enjoyable two weeks – Dakin happens to be so overloaded with work that he actually has to stay away most evenings, which Irwin spends trying to remember what he used to do by himself just a month ago. But Dakin’s case finishes, finally, and they go out to celebrate at a new Argentine restaurant that Irwin had read about in the Guardian.
“I have to admit, Akthar was right,” Irwin says when Dakin asks about his work. “There’s plenty of material here. I merely have to narrow it down into something I can use.”
“I don’t know much about Indian Independence,” Dakin muses, sipping his Malbec. He shoots Irwin a sly look over the rim of his wineglass. “I don’t recall you teaching us much on that front.”
“Well, it wasn’t on the Oxbridge entrance exam, was it?” Irwin points out. “Besides, you had all the freedom you wanted with your Oxford degree, but you chose an English history track all on your own. Why anyone would ever want to spend that much time learning about Cromwell is beyond me.”
“Hmm,” is all Dakin says. “So what are some naughty details you’ve found out?” he adds, leering.
“Oh, all sorts,” Irwin says, trying not to smile because sometimes Dakin is completely incorrigible. “I could look at Cyril Radcliffe, for example, the geographer who was assigned to draw the lines dividing the former Raj into the ostensibly ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ sectors that would become India and Pakistan.”
“What’s the story there?”
“He drew the boundary lines on his first visit to India, after only being there a few weeks.”
Dakin snorts. “That’s ridiculous. This country, Christ.” He looks genuinely pissed off, even about an event that happened half a century ago, and Irwin has a sudden thought that Dakin’s no longer the boy who would compare the Holocaust to the dissolution of the monasteries.
He nods in grim agreement, cutting into his steak. “I may have to focus on Louis Mountbatten, from purely personal fascination.”
Dakin frowns. “Mountbatten? Wasn’t he some naval hero?”
“From the first war, yes. Also a grandson of Queen Victoria, the last Viceroy of India, and something of a renowned playboy. Marital problems too. It’s rumored that his wife had an affair with Jawaharlal Nehru, later the first Prime Minister of India, during their time there.”
Dakin lets out a low whistle. “Next you’ll be telling me the affair was because he was a poof!”
“Unfortunately not,” Irwin says, quirking a smile, and Dakin laughs.
The wine is as excellent as the food, and they go home more than a little plastered and have sloppy, undignified sex that involves more laughter than moans of pleasure. Afterwards, Irwin wonders if Dakin will be too tired and spent from the combination of alcohol and still-fantastic shagging to leave, but he says nothing when after a few minutes, Dakin gets up. After all, Irwin’s not really surprised.
Irwin’s just about got the general outline for the program finalized by the time the next Cutler-Oxford reunion rolls around. Fortuitous timing, he thinks, and he takes the material with him to show Akthar.
There’s a lot there, certainly. Irwin could have followed any number of facts and threads. But he’d decided eventually on the one that made seemed the most compelling and cohesive to him, and thus presumably to his viewers. It may not be the most academic of investigations, but it will certainly be entertaining.
Akthar finishes reading the outline and looks up at Irwin. “So your premise is that if Nehru hadn’t fooled around with Edwina Mountbatten, then Mountbatten might have been more careful and not minded staying longer in India to sort out the independence, and thus Partition may not have happened?”
“Yes,” Irwin confirms.
“But…it’s not true,” Akthar says slowly.
Irwin frowns, puzzled at the reaction. He’d expected Akthar to be…pleased. “It could be.”
“You’re going to present it as if it’s fact, though,” Akthar points out. “As if it’s the focal point between what could have been and what was.”
“I suppose you could put it like that,” Irwin allows. There’s a note in Akthar’s voice that Irwin can’t interpret, and it sets an uneasy feeling in his stomach.
“But it’s not that simple, is it,” Akthar says, not asking, speaking heatedly now. “There is no easy turning point, there rarely is, and certainly not this time. Mountbatten could have been happily married and had lots of sex with his faithful wife, and it still might have turned out to same. And the truth is that the blame of Partition doesn’t lie on Nehru, or Radcliffe, or even Mountbatten, or any one person. It lies on the British Empire for being imperialist bastards in the first place, for perpetuating centuries of corruptive, oppressive rule on the Raj, and then for thinking that they could reverse all the ill-effects in a handful of years before giving up all responsibility altogether. All of those individuals played a part. People like Mountbatten certainly made it worse, but it doesn’t come down to one easy answer.”
Irwin stares, and it’s so ridiculous he has to laugh – not what Akthar is saying in and of itself, but that fact that he thinks it’s at all relevant to this conversation. “Of course,” he says, shaking his head a little. “Of course it’s Britain’s fault, of course imperialism is to blame. But no one wants to hear about that.”
“Oh?” says Posner, eyebrows raised. “And why would that be?”
Irwin shrugs. “I’d have thought it obvious – beating a dead horse, for one thing. Also, it’s not nearly as interesting,” he says. “And it makes people feel guilty to have the blame placed on an entire kingdom, an entire culture, and thus their own history, instead of a few specific individuals. One thing I’ve learned in television is that it’s never a good idea to make your audience feel personally culpable for anything – they’re liable to stop watching.”
“Yes, God forbid your viewers ever feel slightly uncomfortable about the horrors of the past,” says Scripps dryly.
Irwin frowns. “Look, this is entirely beside the point. The point is that everyone already knows the British Empire is at fault –”
“Do they?” says Akthar quietly, but Irwin continues without acknowledging it.
“– and as I recall, it was you who suggested that I put a new spin on this issue.”
“No, I didn’t,” Akthar shakes his head. “I suggested that you give light to some of the relevant facts that often get lost in these discussions, not sensationalize the details that barely matter. And I suggested that you talk about what really happened, not what might have.”
“But it’s all part of the same thing,” Irwin insists. He shoots a look at Dakin then – because he knows this is the way Dakin sees it as well, knows that Dakin lives his life in the same dizzying world of subjunctivity and intellectual fascination. But Dakin refuses to meet his gaze, brow furrowed and lips pursing just a little.
Irwin is forced to turn back to Akthar alone. “There is no true separation, you know that. History is relative.”
“In theory, yes,” Posner agrees. “The problem is when you forget that your preoccupation with the theoretical can have very real, tangible consequences. Like misrepresenting historical events and what led them to happen just to be able to put a spin on them.” He shakes his head. “Also, is there a reason we’re talking as if we’re completely separate from ‘the British Empire’? We may not have been around in 1947 but we’re still British. I think it’s our own complicity that you’re scared of.”
Irwin is still grasping for an answer to all of that, pinned under the scrutiny of three pairs of eyes, but very noticeably ignored by a fourth, when the waiter arrives with their cheque.
Dakin arouses himself from his reverie and covers the bill before anyone can stop him, then stands abruptly even as the others are protesting. “Sorry, have to go,” he says distractedly, and leaves without another word.
Irwin boggles at his retreating back, but it he grabs his coat and follows unthinkingly. He catches up with Dakin outside as he is walking away. “What’s the hurry? You do realize you hadn’t finished your wine? And it’s only half past eight.”
Dakin turns to face him, and the hard expression on his face makes Irwin stop short, chilled. “I have to go home,” he says pointedly. “My home. I have some work to take care of.”
And even if Irwin didn’t know that Dakin was lying – he hadn’t mentioned it before, had said nothing earlier to contradict the idea that they were going back to Irwin’s place as usual, never passes up sex voluntarily – Irwin would have been able to read it on Dakin’s face. It’s written in the ugly twist of his mouth and the calculated gleam in his eyes, as if he’s daring Irwin to say something, waiting for the provocation to let rip whatever has him acting this way.
But Irwin’s throat closes up, and he can’t. He has no idea what he did wrong, and can’t handle the prospect of finding out – even if it might give him the tools to fix it.
He just stands frozen, staring at Dakin, stifled by his own mental paralysis for what feels like hours. But even that is too short a time for Irwin to recover and stop Dakin before he strides off into the darkness.
“You shouldn’t be here,” says Scripps flatly.
“I know,” says Irwin. And he does, really. He absolutely knows that it was inappropriate and probably a little fucked up to barge into Scripps’ workplace like this to ask him questions (for help, his brain reminds him) about Dakin. But Irwin had spent the whole night staring at the ceiling and the whole morning pretending he hadn’t, and he’d almost calls Dakin’s office a dozen times, but even the idea filled him with a kind of choked fear that he hasn’t felt in years. And while he has sometimes resented the way Scripps seems to have an instinctive understanding of Dakin that he’s not sure he can ever approach, this is not one of those times. So Irwin is here.
“Look,” says Irwin, “I do know. But the alternative seemed worse.”
Scripps shakes his head incredulously. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”
“No, that’s not what I mean – Jesus Christ, Scripps, I’m here now, are you going to talk to me or not? For his sake, if not for mine.”
“It’s for Stu’s sake that I don’t want to talk to you. You should go ask him.”
“Please,” says Irwin.
Scripps must hear something of the desperation in his voice because he doesn’t reply, just stares at Irwin for a moment. Then he sighs. “Come with me,” he says, leading Irwin through the noisy press room and until they reach his cubicle in the corner, a small haven of peace amongst the chaos. He opens a drawer and rummages around in it for a moment, finally unearthing a small piece of paper and handing it to Irwin.
“Scripps, what –”
“Just read it,” Scripps says shortly, and Irwin looks down at the scrap in his hands.
It’s a clipped newspaper article – an obituary, faded though not quite yellowing, and Irwin nearly stops breathing when he reads Lt. James Lockwood, 3rd Battalion Lancaster and York.
Irwin had known, of course. He’d found out months after it happened when a fit of curiosity had led him to look up the fates of all of former students. In truth, Irwin had come up with Dakin’s name too, some legal brief that he’d written that gave the name of his firm, and he’d stared at it for a solid twenty minutes before clicking away.
Now, his fingers tremble a little to read the obituary again, trying to match the laughing, wiseass seventeen-year-old he’d known with the serious soldier pictured in the paper, and failing to reconcile either image as someone who was gone forever.
Eventually he looks up. Scripps has that clear, penetrating gaze fixed on him, something Irwin remembers from before and has only grown more potent over the years. “Do you know why Jimmy died?” Scripps says.
“Friendly fire –”
“That was the immediate cause, yes,” Scripps cuts in. “But the reason he was there at all?” Irwin doesn’t respond. Scripps sighs, “It was a means to an end. He joined the military not because he particularly wanted to, but because it was the only way he could pay for a Cambridge education.”
“I don’t understand –” Irwin starts again.
“And he thought that Cambridge was a prize so worthy that it didn’t matter what he had to do to get there – lying, cheating, compromising his values, or even risking his bloody life. He thought it didn’t matter what he was doing along the way as long as it got him to that end result.” Scripps cocks his head a little, still giving Irwin that piercing look. “Where do you think he got that idea?”
Irwin goes completely cold. This – is Scripps really trying to say – “So you think that Lockwood’s death was my fault?” he says, hollow.
Scripps gives a disbelieving snort. “Were you listening to anything Adil said last night? No one person is responsible for the entire chain of events. But you played a part. And I’m not entirely sure you realize that.”
Irwin’s fingers clench on the scrap of paper, and he has to put it down so that he doesn’t tear the damn thing. He looks evenly at Scripps. “If you have a point, you’d better stop beating around the bush and make it.”
“Alright,” Scripps agrees. “Why didn’t you ever come looking for Stu?”
Irwin blinks, shell-shocked from the abrupt change in the line of questioning. “Excuse me?”
“I’m sure you wanted to, and it wouldn’t have been terribly difficult with your resources. So why didn’t you?”
It’s the truth, of course, but it cuts sharply at Irwin. He’s reminded of how aptly Scripps could always wield the truth, even in the face of Irwin’s shield of lies. Irwin has to force himself to open his mouth and say, as calmly as he can, “I’ve discussed this before with him. I was – scared.”
“I can see that,” Scripps says wryly. “But spell it out for me, would you? Why were you scared? Why were you ever scared?”
“I’d have thought that obvious,” Irwin snaps. “My entire reputation, my livelihood were all at stake – and Christ, I thought I’d done something terrible to make him want it, that it was my fault and the only way to solve that after Hector’s death was to stay away.”
“Yes, that’s what I thought,” Scripps says, soft. “Only, the problem is that making him want it wasn’t the only thing you did, and what he needed from you was not to stay away. He needed someone to tell him the world wasn’t complete shite, and the way you’d spelled it all out for us was.” Scripps looks down at his hands, and Irwin thinks that even Scripps with his worldly wisdom has his vulnerable moments. “I don’t think any of us properly understood it until Jimmy died, when we realized that you can do things to keep your life from being that way.”
It hits Irwin, then, how little he’s ever seen Dakin as a person, a real person. He’d been some figure built up in Irwin’s mind, even all those years ago, some kind of symbol of seductive temptation, irresistible and utterly perilous. He’d seen him as the one in charge, the one who pushed too hard, forcing Irwin’s hand.
Maybe he’d tried not to see Dakin as young because that made it more bearable in his head, but Dakin was. And Irwin’s mistake had been in thinking that as Dakin was the forbidden fruit, anything between them was only acceptable if Dakin forced it to happen, made all the fucking moves, plowed past Irwin’s barriers all by himself.
He’d never thought about what Dakin might have needed from him.
“Oh,” he croaks out. “Oh.”
“Yes,” says Scripps.
“Scripps, I –”
“For fuck’s sake just go,” Scripps says. “And don’t think you can make a habit of coming to me. You have questions, you talk to Dakin.”
“Thanks,” says Irwin, knowing it’s not enough.
Scripps rolls his eyes. “Well, I figured you should get one more chance. For Dakin’s sake, not for yours. Now go.”
Irwin goes straight from there to Dakin’s office. It’s his first time there, and he has to take a moment to look around. As he’d suspected it is frighteningly organized and spare: dense, tedious-looking books lined up on the small shelf, some of those stupid desk toys that people must have given as presents, and no picture frames or birthday cards or anything personal. He’s seen the more lived-in feel of Dakin’s flat, and certainly Irwin’s office is less than homey, but somehow this puts him on edge.
Dakin starts a little when Irwin comes in, his head shooting up from his computer, but he has yet to say anything. He looks expectantly at Irwin.
“Look,” Irwin says, and stops, licking his lips. All the way over he’d been racking his brain for the right way to approach this. Dakin has his own shields, after all; intellectual arrogance and personal pride that keep Irwin from saying anything outright because he knows Dakin would just push him away. Irwin knows his courage would not be enough to rally once more against that threat.
But although he’s at a disadvantage here in this austere office with Dakin turning a still unreadable look on Irwin, he suddenly spots the copy of his script that he’d given Dakin to read lying haphazardly on the floor near his desk, a lone piece out of place in the immaculate neatness of the room.
And then he knows exactly what to say.
“What do you think the British should have done?”
If Dakin’s surprised by the question, he doesn’t show it. “You mean in India and Pakistan?”
“Yes, yes,” Irwin says impatiently. “Do you think they shouldn’t have left?”
“Of course they should have,” says Dakin. “But the way they went about it was utter crap.”
“But that’s the problem, see,” says Irwin. “They knew they’d fucked up and that they had to leave, yes. They also knew that they might not have fucked up so badly if they’d left long ago. So they wanted to get out of there as quickly as they could after the…after the war, and they knew they had to leave it up to the Indians and Pakistanis to take care of things because any more interference by Britain would have made things worse.”
There’s some color flushing into Dakin’s cheeks now, and it should feel like its own victory to Irwin but it’s poor compensation for Irwin’s agony. Dakin crosses his arms over his chest. “That sounds all very well and noble,” he allows, and Irwin’s heart speeds up uncontrollably, “but really it’s absolute shite. The bottom line is that maybe Britain thought it was merely their continued presence that was the problem, when it was actually the history of everything they’d already done. And drawing some lines as boundaries and quitting town wasn’t enough to fix that.”
Irwin thinks about the accident – how he’d blanked out the moments around it and had woken up in the hospital with the memory of Dakin’s thrilling, terrifying overtures as the last thing in his mind. He thinks of Dakin showing up in his ward, looking worried and confused and so, so young. He thinks of how he turned away from Dakin then and didn’t let himself see how Dakin had reacted to the rejection, just convinced himself that it was the right thing to do. And he thinks of the last time they met back in those days at Hector’s memorial, about the calm front Irwin had forced on himself for both their sakes, and Dakin’s own smooth mask that Irwin didn’t try nearly hard enough to see through.
He thinks, fuck.
“What should Britain do now?” Irwin says, his voice breaking a little.
Dakin breathes out through his nose, as if he’d hardly expected to hear the words. When he speaks, his voice is light, but his eyes are burning a hole right through Irwin’s entire being. “Not doing it again would be a good start.”
For a moment, Irwin doesn’t even comprehend the words, literally or figuratively, because there’s a roaring in his ears that drowns out everything else. When he does, he almost wishes the confusion would come back so that he doesn’t have to understand, doesn’t have to react and face the consequences of the meaning in Dakin’s words.
“Right,” Irwin says, empty and lost and devastated, “right,” and he turns to leave.
He must be having more trouble moving than he’d thought because he’s barely made it to the door when Dakin is grabbing his shoulder and wrenching him around. “No, I didn’t mean – Christ, you are so bloody thick, you know that?”
“Am I?” Irwin says, a little dizzy, because Dakin is right there and the bewilderment comes flooding back all at once.
“Yes,” Dakin grits out. “I wasn’t telling you to leave, this is exactly what I’m talking about, you’ve still got it wrong. Jesus, you’ve always been wrong; life isn’t just about results, lying and cheating doesn’t help you get anywhere you actually want to be, it’s ridiculous to think you can just keep on précis-ing the fuck out of everything – and you had me so fucking convinced that I hated you even more when I realized it wasn’t true –”
- and Irwin didn’t think anything in this conversation could hurt more than it already has, but that cuts at him for a split-second, pours salt into the open wounds –
“– but I got over it, then,” Dakin continues. “And I assumed you’d learn.”
“No,” says Irwin hoarsely. “No, I didn’t.” He chokes out a laugh. “I didn’t have anyone to teach me.”
Dakin swallows, his eyes bright. “Now you do,” he says finally, and Irwin has to kiss him.
He responds immediately, grabbing at Irwin’s shoulders and gripping them so hard it’s almost bruising. Irwin mutters apologies into Dakin’s mouth between kisses because he has to, even if it makes Dakin bite his lower lip hard and growl, “Shut up.” Irwin obeys, getting lost in the breathlessness and relief and the feeling of everything he’s ever fucked up washing through him but also away, now that he’s realized it, now that Dakin is here, still here, still with him.
Dakin pulls away, his face flushed, hair a mess, and his mouth so obscenely red that it makes blood rush to Irwin’s cock. “We should leave,” Dakin says, breathless. “We should go home.”
And oh god, all it takes is the word “home” to make Irwin go entirely hard. “Don’t you have work?” he protests, but even he can tell it’s weak.
“Fuck it,” says Dakin, grabbing his briefcase and pulling Irwin out the door, jamming furiously at the button for the elevator. “Fuck it, I hate this job anyway, it’s so bloody dull, they can fire me if they want to.”
“They won’t, though,” Dakin adds a moment later when the elevator arrives. He drags Irwin inside, barely waiting for the door to close before pushing Irwin up against the wall to attack his collarbone with his wet, hot mouth. “Do you know why?”
“No,” Irwin breathes, gripping hard at the nape of Dakin’s neck as Irwin tries to bite his ear.
Dakin grins, sharp and predatory. “Because I went to Oxford,” he says, and Irwin laughs until he nearly cries.
It’s barely dark by the time they’ve fucked each other into exhaustion. They’d both spread out on Irwin’s bed, panting, and Irwin’s bones feel quite pleasantly liquefied.
“Fuck,” says Dakin to no one in particular, or perhaps to the ceiling. Irwin can see the grin creeping over Dakin’s mouth and almost lets loose his open, wide smile, but there’s something still niggling at him that he knows he has to get over with.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” says Irwin quietly. “I…went to see Scripps this morning. To ask about you.”
He can feel Dakin tense beside him, even though his voice comes out calm, almost dry, and he’s still staring fixedly at the ceiling. “I’m surprised he agreed to that.”
“Only under duress, and even then barely,” admits Irwin. “But. I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Dakin asks, and it’s a test, it’s undoubtedly another test.
“For not coming straight to you,” Irwin says. Dakin is silent next to him, and after a long moment, Irwin lets out a nervous laugh. “I should have, I know. But you can be rather terrifying sometimes.”
Dakin does look at him then, his eyes searching. “You know if this is going to work,” he says softly, and Irwin feels his breath catch at the sheer depth of implication in the word this, “you’re going to have to stop being scared of me.”
Irwin swallows. “I know.”
Dakin nods, letting his gaze drift away once more. “What did Don tell you, then?” he asks, his tone carefully even.
Irwin tells him, in rough outlines, and Dakin says nothing throughout. And then, because Irwin is trying to learn about reaching out and not being scared, and because he has to know, damn it: “Do you blame me for Lockwood’s death?”
Dakin’s mouth tightens. “Back then, yes,” he says. “Despite never blaming you for Hector’s. Ironic, that.”
“And now?” Irwin can’t help but ask.
“No,” says Dakin simply. “Not anymore.”
Irwin thinks of his words before – I got over it, and I assumed you’d learned – and he realizes that there’s the central problem, right there.
It’s a problem Irwin can fix, he thinks, given the time to try, and try, and try again.
Irwin’s reverie is broken a moment later when Dakin sits up to begin rummaging for his clothes, his movements slow and unflustered as always. Irwin watches as Dakin pulls on his trousers and reaches for his shirt, no different from any other time they’ve slept together.
Except today has been different, and everything will be different from now on. Irwin doesn’t know it yet, but it’s true.
Tomorrow, Irwin will go into work and despite begin rewriting the program on Partition.
Two days from now, he’ll send back all the material his research assistant has brought him and demand new sources, because none of what they had was written by Indian and Pakistani authors.
This weekend, Dakin will take Irwin as his date to an office party, and Irwin will look only slightly embarrassed to be there, and Dakin will kiss him in front of everyone.
A month from now, they’ll go to their last party at the firm because Dakin has resigned to work for the BBC where, he says, fighting charges of libel and censorship should be much more interesting than tax law.
Six weeks from now, the program will air, receiving glowing reviews from both the media and the academic world for being compelling, original, and accurate, with Dakin’s name listed in the credits as in-house counsel just a few lines below Irwin’s.
Ten months from now the lease on Dakin’s flat will run out and he’ll officially move in, though without much fanfare about it; another year and they’ll get a dog, a foxhound because Dakin is sometimes rather absurdly English; and it’ll be another six years or so until Irwin’s presented with an award at Oxford for another penetrating historical investigation, and at the presentation ceremony Dakin will squeeze his hand and whisper, “Happy now?”, and Irwin won’t be thinking of the award or Oxford when he nods his assent.
Right now, though, Irwin can’t think in the past or the future, can’t see himself anywhere but right now and right here. And it’s a struggle, he thinks, because the present is a place where they still have problems, still have issues and doubts and complications to work through, and they’re not completely okay yet. Even the way Irwin has gone about handling this demonstrates that they’ve got a long way to go still. But he has enough hope and, he thinks, courage to go ahead, and he just says, soft, “Stay.”
Dakin freezes for an instant before he turns back to stare at Irwin. And Irwin smiles at him, trying to convey his willingness to keep working, keep falling and getting back up again, to learn how not to be afraid, and to use everything he learns to make up for mistakes of the past. “Stay,” he repeats, his heart in his mouth. “Please.”
Dakin drops the shirt, kisses him, and does.