Emma gets married on a Sunday, in the flush of August heat, just before Stephen's birthday. It happens outside in the gardens, in a ceremony carefully stripped of all hint of religion. It is, Stephen thinks, a carefully cultivated mix of pagan and civil ceremonies, organized so well that one hardly notices the distance between the two.
At the reception, there are fireworks once it gets dark enough. They all watch from the balconies at Cliveden House, hearing the explosive hiss and squeal of fuses and then watching the sky go bright with colored sparks. Stephen says to Hugh, "It's rather like we've fallen into a painting, isn't it?"
Hugh smiles and says, "Oh, nothing less."
There are toasts and speeches throughout dinner, continuing even as men and women in uniform clear away the corpse of the wedding cake. There is brandy served with coffee and then more wine, until finally Ken stands up and beckons them all into the main ballroom, where the music has already started.
"Where the wild Astors used to bloom," Stephen tells Hugh, as he watches the crowd slowly waltz back and forth before him. He's mildly scolding himself for not venturing out, but he's also sure that he'll ask someone to dance and then trip over something or knock somebody over, and he doesn't want Emma to remember her wedding day as 'the time Stephen put half my guests in Casualty.'
Hugh nods absently. He's watching the crowd too, it seems, or maybe he's just thinking about something else. His eyes have a certain inward gaze - but not, thank God, unhappy; Stephen's known him long enough to recognize when he's closing down. Hugh taps a finger against the stem of his wine glass.
"It was Aladdin, did I ever tell you?" Hugh says suddenly. "The pantomime."
"Where I met her. Do you know, I've completely forgotten who I played? She was Aladdin, I remember that far."
"It was a memorable entry onto the boards, I suppose," Stephen says.
"Deeply." Hugh spins his glass. "She was nineteen. I was nineteen."
"I think I've heard this from Em," Stephen says. "It was back when you used to sleepwalk."
Hugh lights a cigarette. "She adores that story, doesn't she?"
"I believe I'm being talked about," Emma says, from off to the side. She's somehow contrived to change out of her wedding dress - a bright, whimsical wedding dress, like some pagan summer goddess - and find something simpler, lighter, more suitable for a long night.
"Mrs. Branagh," Stephen says, and stands. Hugh fumbles for an ashtray before joining him. "Lovely to see you."
"Mr. Fry," Emma says, and kisses his cheek. Her eyes are bright, her skin stained pink with heat and excitement. Stephen thinks, Hello, old friend, and then lets her go.
"Hello, Emma," Hugh says gently. She opens her arms; he kisses her cheek.
"The toast was lovely," Emma tells Stephen when Hugh lets her go. She folds herself into the sofa, onto the middle cushion. Stephen takes the left side, Hugh takes the right.
"Went on a bit too long, I suppose," Stephen says. "Enraptured by the moment."
"You weren't the only one," Emma says. "Ken's mother cried, it was very sweet."
"Hopefully they weren't tears of agony and boredom."
"Where's Ken got off to?" Hugh says. "I'd thought he'd never leave your side."
Emma smiles and waves a hand at the crowd around them. "He's across the room. Someone's got him talking. He'll be hours."
"Lot of the bridegroom," Hugh says. "Keep the crowd entertained."
"I'd thought it'd at least be a kind of team effort," Stephen says. "Ken gets himself ensnared in some endless conversation and he'd then -"
"Call in the reinforcements," Hugh says.
"Reinforcements," Emma says. "Do you think they'll say that I'm shirking my duties?"
"Only proper that they do, I'd say. Don't you agree, Hugh?"
"Quite right." Hugh picks up the wine bottle and offers her a glass.
Emma curls her fingers around the stem, but doesn't drink. "Are you both really quite happy here on your own? Stephen, I'd thought you'd enjoy the whirl. You could spend the time impressing people."
"It is a blessing for you both that I'm staying still at the moment," Stephen says.
"Hugh," Emma pleads. "Do something with him."
"Completely unqualified for that, I'm afraid."
"Bastards," she says tolerantly, and drains her glass.
"What do you think?" Hugh asks. "Now that you're married."
"I don't think I've had a chance to think. There's been too much planning." Emma leans forward abruptly and waves at someone. "Shall I ask Ken this?"
Stephen watches Ken move through the crowd, small and stocky and pugilistic, his black suit progressively more rumpled than it was at the ceremony. Emma stands up.
"I was looking for you," Ken says, draping a hand around her hip. "And I found you, didn't I?"
"Hello," Emma says softly, almost shyly, as if they've just been introduced. "I was -" She gestures at them.
"Stephen. Hugh," Ken says. "Great!"
"We've been talking to your wife," Hugh says. He sounds a little drunker than he actually is; his voice has thickened, his elbow half-sliding off his knee as he leans forward. Stephen thinks of remarking on it, then changes his mind. Hugh tends to adopt various mannerisms when he's nervous and trying to be amusing.
"Me missus?" Ken says, and grins, suddenly, incongruously schoolboyish and wide-eyed.
"I was saying," Stephen says, to deflect any possible awkwardness, "that I rabbitted on too much at dinner."
"Stephen, you're starting to obsess over this," Emma says.
"He's continuing to obsess," Hugh corrects. "He started a long time ago."
"Ah, I'd forgotten that," Emma says.
"You utter beasts."
Ken looks rather lost. Stephen winces inwardly; bad calculation on his part. There's always a chance of Ken getting left out with the three of them, it's a simple matter of dynamics.
"Now," Hugh says, "are you going on honeymoon?"
"Los Angeles." Emma looks at Ken. "Just us and the film crew."
"Working holiday," Ken explains.
"You should do it like that, shouldn't you?" Stephen says. "Shakespeare by day and surfing by night. I suppose that's the best way to develop a style to become accustomed to."
"Oh, we won't become accustomed," Ken says hurriedly, as if Stephen had been accusing. "Born in a trunk, weren't we, Em?"
She smiles fondly at him. "You were, my darling."
"It's good fun," Hugh says. "Getting to go away and then come back again. Unless the glitterati take you up over there. Which they may do. Are you well prepared, Ken?" He smiles.
"I'm just looking forward to the sunshine," Emma says. "Ken, you're being summoned again."
"Must dash, then. Will you come?" Again, the schoolboy look - but that was wrong, it seemed even younger than that, a child unwilling to let go of a spectacular present.
He lets her go, briefly; Stephen bends down and wraps his arms around her shoulders. She's at once tenderly familiar to him and already half-distracted. He feels suddenly protective. It occurs to him that she probably won't get the chance to come around again tonight; there are too many people that they need to see. He says, "Please come round to the house when you're back. Both of you. I want you to promise."
"I think it's a given." She kisses his cheek and then turns to Hugh.
Stephen claps Ken on the shoulder; why has it always got to be so bloody awkward, these moments? Ken always did keep himself a little apart from them. It was inevitable, really. "Congratulations. It's a wonderful wedding."
"Glad you were here," Ken says, and grins. Hugh is saying something in Emma's ear, and she's saying something back, both of them too low to hear. There's a faint nervous light in Ken's eye.
It must be odd, Stephen thinks, to be thrown between your wife and your wife's old boyfriend.
Hugh lets Emma go; she floats back to Ken's side, resting her hand on the back of his neck. Hugh, still smiling, shakes Ken's hand and says, "Now take good care of her over in America."
"We'll have to take care of each other, won't we?" Emma says. "It's dangerous over there."
Stephen stands with Hugh and watches them drift away, back into the crowd.
"I suppose they have to keep moving," Stephen says. "Make sure everyone's behaving correctly."
"Is there even room to enjoy themselves?" Hugh says.
"Charles and Diana's wedding," Stephen says, "required less coordination. I doubt they have time."
"It doesn't seem fair, does it?" Hugh says. "To not even get a chance."
"It doesn't really."
"I suppose - it's been good fun though," Hugh says.
The final tone startles him. "You sound as if you're leaving."
"What? No, I'm only - you know, I'm not terribly sure." Hugh rubs his neck. "I might go stand outside for a minute."
"Lack of oxygen or lack of nerve, Hugh?"
"A bit of both, I think."
"Would you rather be on your own?"
"Not really, no."
"I'm feeling somewhat anaerobic myself, I think. Where are we going?"
"Somewhere in the gardens," Hugh says. He starts walking, gently maneuvering his way around people. Stephen follows, taking the wine bottle with him. He goes down the stairs after Hugh.
Outside, the air is heavy and not much cooler than inside the house. There's a faint buzz of insects, and leaves rustling, and Hugh's footsteps crunching on the gravel path. He follows the sound up to the fountain, where Hugh has stopped. The fountain is lit from below, cherubs and goddesses shown in stark fluorescence, water splashing softly around the plants and the crafted shell.
"Pulling a runner," Hugh says. "Thank God I was never in the infantry."
"You'd have been shot for desertion."
"Completely." Hugh runs his thumb along his jawline. "I'll go back in a minute. Sorry, I shouldn't have made you come with me. If you'd rather go back inside -"
"I'd rather be here."
Hugh looks at him, perhaps to check that he's not joking. Finally he smiles, gratefully. Stephen offers him the wine bottle and waits for him to speak.
"I suppose I always knew they'd get married," Hugh says. "Follow through with tradition. Once you live together, that's it, isn't it?"
"Married in name if not by law."
"I think so." Hugh takes a drink and hands the bottle back. "He'll be good for her. A proper actor. Poised to take over the world."
"She'll be the next Ellen Terry, our Emma," Stephen says, and drinks. "Extraordinary thing."
"Forsaking us for Shakespeare."
"Hugh. That is nonsense, and don't sound so dismal."
"It's not exactly the correct way to behave at a wedding," Hugh says. He reaches his hand out; Stephen passes him the bottle. "I can always find the most inappropriate thing to do, can't I?"
"You might," Stephen says, "be thinking of -"
"Stephen, that's not it."
"Rather quick to answer an unspoken question."
"I think I've just guessed what you were going to say. It's been years, Stephen. More than ten years."
Gently, Stephen says, "But you don't exactly let the past go easily, Hugh."
"Ah," Hugh says. "I suppose that's right." He takes a drink, the fountain light throwing shadows on his body; he seems eerie and not quite human. Stephen puts a hand on his shoulder.
"It was easier back then, though," Hugh says. "When we were back at school, or even in Australia, it seemed much simpler. I wouldn't have said so at the time, but."
Stephen doesn't move.
"That's the point, isn't it?" Hugh says quietly. "I wouldn't have said so at the time."
It took a day to fly from London to Sydney. They arrived at six in the morning, gray-faced and incapable of coherent speech, with no idea of what day it was. They'd all been booked into the Hotel Ibis. Stephen liked the name of the hotel - ibis, that delicate-legged wading bird, ancient Egyptian symbol - but on the way there he wondered who chose the place, and where exactly they were going, anyway.
In the end, the hotel looked like any other. His room was next to Hugh's and across the hall from Emma's; Paul and Tony and Penny were likewise clustered at the other end of the floor. They weren't due at the theatre until late afternoon.
He had a bed, a wardrobe, a desk, a television and a window. There were personal touches, there had to have been, or the hotel version of personal touches - some bright bedspread, watercolors on the wall - but they cohered awkwardly. He'd never felt more monochromatic.
Too restless to sleep, Stephen sat on the edge of the bed and circled names on the travel map until someone knocked quietly on the door.
"Not asleep?" Hugh said. It was rather a preposterous question, which Hugh seemed immediately to realize; he rolled his eyes briefly before twisting his face into a clownishly puzzled rictus, asking anxiously, "Well, are you?" He still hadn't combed his hair. Stephen laughed.
"Merely a passable imitation of sleepwalking, I'm afraid." Stephen gestured him in. "Give me your wisdom."
Hugh remained on the threshold, distractedly rubbing at the back of his neck. He didn't seem to quite fit in the doorway; Hugh had been massive in those days, all broad rower's shoulders and legs like tree trunks. "Stephen, I'm entirely convinced that we're not going to make the call. Do we even know where the theatre is?"
"It's not exactly a theatre, is it?" Stephen said. "My understanding was -"
"Of course, I'd forgotten. This is hopeless. I don't even know where we're performing. Is it too early to phone them? It's probably too early."
Stephen resisted the impulse to offer some joke, or some reassurance. He wasn't entirely sure it would help either of them. Hugh's worry was inexorable, magnetic - you tried to soothe it away and wound up working yourself into a froth alongside him, equally convinced of disaster.
Hugh's worries also tended to mirror his own, which just rendered him even more incapable of easing the burden.
The sun was glowing through the drawn curtains. He'd been awake for thirty-six hours and even the faint light stung, but the room was somehow less impersonal for it; everything seemed somehow golden, like a Renaissance painting. It even seemed to stem the tide of Hugh's fretting; he fell silent and shaded his eyes with one hand - his eyes must have been aching, too - and looked at the dust motes floating in the reflected light.
"I should open these," Stephen said, half to Hugh and half to himself. "Is there anything to see?"
Hugh didn't provide him with an answer, only waited.
Stephen opened the curtains. The sun had risen over Sydney, but it still seemed tiny in the endless sky, light drifting over Darling Harbour more than shining. Clear and bright, the loveliest of winter mornings - it was a shock to remember that, that they were in the middle of winter now, while England, oceans away, was still braised in summer heat. Stephen felt almost overwhelmed with wonder.
"Hugh, come see. Hugh."
Hugh came to stand beside him, squinting at the light. He put a hand on the sill and leaned forward. Stephen wasn't sure what he was looking at, only saw him swallow and draw a breath.
"Oh," Hugh said softly, and touched his mouth. "Look at it."
"It's impossible not to."
"Emma should see this."
"She should - is she awake?"
"I'll see." Hugh pulled himself away from the window and drifted out the door. Stephen tried to remember if he'd brought sunglasses.
Emma was hollow-eyed and sullen with exhaustion when Hugh guided her into the room; the first words out of her mouth were, "Stephen, you'd better tell me that either someone has died or something has gone terribly fucking wrong, because if you don't -"
"Hello, petal," Stephen said.
"Hugh, let go. What is -"
"Here," Hugh said, gesturing her towards the window. Stephen moved aside; he was on her left side, Hugh on her right. Emma winced at the sunlight and started to say something else, but then cut herself off.
For a moment, Stephen thought she might cry.
"Oh, it's gorgeous," she said, her voice gone choked, "oh, isn't it lovely."
"See?" Hugh said, his hand on her shoulder. "I said you would like it."
"Doubt is unbecoming, young Emma," Stephen said.
She rubbed at her eyes. "It's such a little thing, isn't it, but it's so -"
She didn't finish, and they all stood quietly, watching.
"It's easy to make things complicated, isn't it?" Stephen says. "It's not always right, but it's always easy."
Hugh takes another drink and then considers the statement. "Fairly sure that's it. Are you getting drunk?"
"Afraid so." Stephen puts his hand out. "It's not proceeding as efficiently as I'd like it to."
"That's a problem." Hugh passes the bottle. "What time is it? Is it too dark to read a watch?"
"I thought -" Stephen pats his pockets with his free hand. "I don't have it. Bugger."
"I thought you'd have one of your gadgets. Glow in the dark combination pocket watch and missile launcher with a bonus cappuccino maker."
"I have," Stephen says with great dignity, "no use for a pocket missile launcher. Pocket cappuccino maker might be useful, however. As long as it's kept far away from the testicular region."
"I'll expect you to buy one next week. Cappuccino maker, obviously, not testicles. Although you might want a spare of those lying about, I don't know. Here, give me the bottle." He takes a drink and swirls the bottle in one hand. "It's been quite an event."
"A spectacle, if you will."
Hugh looks at the fountain. "He's younger, isn't he?"
"I'm only saying, he's a bit younger than she is."
"By two years. It's hardly a generation gap. For heaven's sake, it's the same age difference as between you and me."
Hugh smiles and hands him the bottle. "I've always felt quite a bit younger than you, Stephen. And you haven't exactly discouraged me."
Stephen takes a drink before he answers. "Mental age, dear boy. I am simply waiting for my body to catch up with my sere and withered soul."
"This is not what I call a convincing argument."
"Notice that I'm not enumerating the other differences, including the obvious ones." He holds out the bottle. Hugh takes it.
"There aren't many differences apart from the obvious ones, Stephen."
Hugh left the bar - it was some hotel bar, possibly in Canberra, but it could have just as easily been Newcastle - earlier than Stephen thought he would. Stephen had been drifting around the edges; he'd argued a little about the perfect progressive tense with Tony, an argument where he wasn't sure he'd got his point across but was fairly sure that it hadn't done much to lessen Tony's intimidation around him, and watched Penny, circumspect and methodical, gather the empty glasses around her and arrange them into neat honeycomb patterns on the table. He was just thinking about making his way towards Hugh and tempting him into some sort of stunt - it had seemed a marvelous idea at the time, but whatever it was had been forgotten now - when he realized that Hugh was leaving, waving at him from the doorway.
Stephen waved back, hoping the disappointment didn't show, and watched Hugh disappear. He looked over the room again.
Emma was still at her place at the bar, bent over a napkin and a glass of wine. He went to order something - out of the corner of his eye he saw her writing on the napkin's cheap paper; it looked like shorthand from a distance, too small and cramped to make out.
She'd noticed him looking; she stopped writing and dashed quick sharp lines onto the napkin. The lines transformed into a face, sharply cheeky eyes, solemn mouth, bent nose. He watched his own caricature appear. She put down the pen and beamed innocently at him.
"My damnable meddling curiosity," Stephen apologized. "What's this then?"
"Future preparation," she said, and tapped the napkin. "For when this is over."
"There's still more than two months of the tour left, Em," Stephen said. "Rather a preemptive girding of the loins, don't you think?"
She smiled and shrugged. "I supposed it wards away anxiety. Gives some hope that I won't be just another unemployed ex-student."
"I'm rather doubtful." He took his glass; she gestured to the seat beside her. "Tell me what you're plotting."
"Think of me as a benevolent agony uncle."
She looked almost guilty. "I'm thinking of trying some standup, Stephen."
He must have looked startled, because she said, "Or does that seem rather like diving in without a life preserver?"
He thought a moment. If someone had asked him back then, he'd have said that he saw Emma moving into proper acting, taking her place as her parents' daughter, or writing plays or books. Standup seemed a rawer profession than he'd have immediately chosen for Emma.
"It does a bit," Stephen said carefully. "I'm not discouraging or dismissing you, you see -"
"I couldn't say," Emma said. "But I've been rather protected, haven't I? Part of the group. It's been lovely, but one has to cut the placenta at some point."
"The monologues have been rather going in that direction," Stephen said. "Superbly so. I suppose it's a natural progression, when I think of it. The defenses may need to be adjusted somewhat."
"It's rather a naked way to present yourself," Stephen said. "You haven't anyone to fall back on."
"That's what's giving me trouble," she said. "I suppose I'll have to develop a persona of some kind. Apart from this. But there seems like there's so few women comics, Stephen. Shouldn't someone at least try to get up there?"
Emma's plans usually had an element of social responsibility involved. If it wasn't that she had to do something, it was that she should do something.
She was also one of the few people Stephen knew who even made plans, who sketched out their future ambitions before undertaking them. Emma had a way of putting things in motion.
"Have you got routines?" Stephen said. "Or is that too far in the future?"
"Ideas," she said dryly. "Also, Stephen, I'm not all that keen on comics who 'tell jokes.' It's so artificial. People talking is funnier." She looked at the napkin. "Just not sure what to talk about yet. I'm rather ready to shoot myself, actually."
"There's still time, anyway," Stephen said. "Bask in our collective womb for a little while longer."
"Hope I'll be ready, anyway. But you don't think that it's an awful idea?"
"I think I'd like for you to be happy."
"I've picked the wrong profession to be happy in," Emma said. She laughed. "God, that sounds awful. The tortured artist. Good Christ. I'll be content, Stephen. That's the thing. And don't look so worried. You're just like Hugh."
"What does Hugh say?"
"He thinks I'm barking."
"Seems rather blunt for Hugh, doesn't it?"
"It's implied." She took a drink. "He wanted to find you earlier, did you see him?"
"I saw him leaving. Pressing engagement?"
"Self-enforced sobriety, I think. He's playing tennis or swimming or some other appalling thing in the morning."
"Needs more stamina," Stephen said. "Or he needs to give up the healthy business altogether."
"I've tried. He will not budge."
"I'd have thought that as his loving helpmeet, you'd have more sway over him than -"
She waved a hand to cut him off. "I don't think that's the right word."
"Then what -"
"Hugh doesn't know if he wants a girlfriend, a wife, or someone to go down the pub with."
Emma gave away intimate details carelessly, half-jokingly. He was never quite sure how to take them.
"I'm sure, my lovely, that it's a bit less casual than that."
She smiled. Leaning in conspiratorially, she said, "It's a marvel that his cock can even commit to an ejaculation."
"Oh," Stephen said. "Oh, my."
"You are blushing," Emma said with wonder. "Stephen Fry, I have made you blush."
"Oh, nonsense," Stephen said. His face was on fire.
"I'd have thought, with all the smut that emerges from your mouth -"
"This is not exactly a typical situation -"
"Because it's a joke about Hugh?"
"Well, yes," Stephen said. "Because it's not abstract, is it? Because it's about Hugh."
"I should keep in the abstract, then."
"In the ether, yes."
Giggling, she swayed against his shoulder, knocking against him like an affectionate cat. "You old repressed Victorian, you."
"Madam, you are a shameless harlot."
She just waved her hand and ordered him another drink. He leaned over her and watched her write, the words appearing on the napkin in impenetrable code: Childhood. School. Love.
"Why do you think you didn't marry Emma?" Stephen asks Hugh. They've moved away from the fountain now, walking farther along the drive, past trimmed hedges and towards the sound of the river. The sounds from the reception get fainter and fainter.
"Why do you think you didn't marry Emma?" Hugh says.
"Because a marriage of convenience would be both monstrously unfair and the most unsuitable thing in the world for Emma. And probably for me."
"I suppose so." Hugh swings the bottle in his hand. "Have I bothered to express my admiration for you lately, Stephen?"
"Oh, fuck off," Stephen says, laughing. "You are drunk and sentimental, and -"
"It doesn't make it any less true, does it?"
He told Hugh prison stories. He told other stories too, ones about general rotten behavior at school and schoolmasters he'd enraged in younger years, but the stories about Pucklechurch and how he got there were the ones Hugh asked after.
He'd first mentioned the subject by accident; walking back to the hotel after the last show, Hugh had asked, "Do you think you gained more by entering university later? Give you the chance to build your character up?"
And he'd said, "Well, I was in prison for half the time, so I lost some character and then had to recover it, I suppose."
Hugh had possibly thought it was a joke at first. He stopped dead, in the street, when he realized it wasn't - something about the image still makes Stephen smile - and said, with a fair amount of warmth and a degree of hurt, "Stephen! You haven't told me this before!"
"It's not a topic that easily emerges over dinner, is it?"
"But how - how'd that happen to you?"
So he'd brought Hugh into the hotel bar and told the story for the first time, expecting and waiting for Hugh to take it badly - Hugh was still mulling over the possibility of joining the police force, and he'd only briefly fondled delinquency once - it seemed to have something to do with either drinking or fighting at Eton, but Hugh always went red and shame-faced when asked to elaborate further - but that didn't happen. Hugh just said, "Christ, Stephen, that's extraordinary," and there was Hugh's arm around his shoulders and a split-second squeeze; Hugh was always shy about touching. And then they ordered butter-soft white wine and talked about Carl Orff for the rest of the night.
The house is almost completely out of sight now, and the light is bad. They walk with exaggerated care on the manicured lawn. Stephen follows Hugh's footsteps, hoping against hope that they don't wind up plunging into the Thames together at the end of the night.
"It's fairly absurd," Hugh says from somewhere in the dark. "Not wanting to let go. Might as well stop time while you're at it, it all goes together."
"But it's not like that," Stephen says. "It's just natural progression. We're not letting go of anything. I invited both of them round after they get back from America. They'll come to my house for Christmas and we'll work together again, most likely. You are equating a natural change in dynamics with an endstop."
"Stephen, do you think it works that way, really? Have you thought about the Christmases they won't spend with you? Or wondered if they'll decide to come back from America at all? You know how ambitious he is. Isn't there more for them there than here?"
Stephen stops walking. He feels the twitch of something in his chest.
"It's a marriage," Hugh says. "It has to come first."
"It doesn't - it's not always like that, Hugh."
"You can't always keep everyone together, Stephen," Hugh says gently, coming towards him in the dark. "Have you thought about having to let go yourself?"
After the last show in Brisbane, they were all a little drunker than they should have been, a little higher than they should have been - they were moving on again in the morning, and it was all hotels and bars and there was no time for anything else, and they only left the theatre at quarter to two.
Tony had charmed Paul into going to some other bar with him (he tried the same thing with them, but the directions got convoluted and Tony seemed to lose interest halfway through), and Penny had already gone, drifting down the street in her abstracted way back towards the hotel. Stephen had a half-empty bottle of vodka in his left hand and his right hand hovering somewhere above Emma's shoulder as she struggled into her jacket.
"You're ready to hail a horse-drawn carriage," Hugh said, laughing. He was coming back from the dressing room, where he'd been retrieving something - a coat or a handbag or a passport or some easily forgotten item - "The two of you, eager to get home and kiss the children goodnight -"
"Have you mistaken me for Mr. Micawber again, Hugh?" Stephen asked. "I'm not that naïve, I'm afraid."
"Pardon?" Emma said. "Am I to understand that I've somehow got married to you then, Stephen?"
"Your name is Emma," Stephen said.
"He's right on that," Hugh told her.
"Thank you, Hugh. Married to a pauper with four children to feed. How glamorous my life is." Emma fastened her jacket. "Are we going then?"
Outside Stephen fell behind to light a cigarette, and Emma tucked her hand into the back pocket of Hugh's blue jeans. Hugh looked over his shoulder and called, "We're going to lose you."
"That's most unlikely."
The night air was soft and mild, and despite the late hour people were still straggling down the street, talking and shouting and singing at each other, either on their way home or trying to get to some other place. The hotel was still blocks away and the moon was huge and yellow.
Hugh pointed at one of the all night convenience shops. "Shall we go in here?"
"What have you seen?" Emma said.
"Nothing really. It'd be cracking good fun though, wouldn't it?"
"Cracking good fun in a shop?" Emma peered through the windows.
"...I want crisps."
"So that's it," she said. "Go on then."
"Are you coming in?"
"If I eat anything now I'll be sick. You go, I'll wait."
Stephen waved his cigarette. "I don't think they'd take kindly to this."
"Well, you could always put it out."
"I could." Stephen exhaled smoke at the sky. "Doesn't mean I shall."
"Oh, impossible. Do you want anything then?"
"Licorice. No, chocolate. Oh, hell."
"I'll get you both," Hugh said grandly, and swept through the door.
He took Emma's arm and led her away from the doorway to prevent a collision from occurring. She stole a drag of his cigarette. "You know, I don't want to get on the train tomorrow."
"'Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience,'" Stephen said. "What does this count as, Em? It could be both, couldn't it, I don't know what Bacon was really on about, now that I think about it. Education never really stops."
"It does for a few of us."
"Yes, and it rather makes me vomit."
She giggled. "You missed your calling, Stephen."
"I'm not sure what that is yet," Stephen said. A man in a torn shirt, feculent with alcohol, came out of the shop, pushing his way through them. His elbow brushed against Stephen, not hard, just enough to jostle him slightly. Annoyed, Stephen said, "I beg your pardon."
As soon as the words were spoken, he knew it was just the wrong thing to do, that it was just what the man wanted him to say. The man turned around, showing a face full of broken blood vessels, and said, very low, "Who the fuck you think you're talking to?"
Christ, Stephen thought. Emma whispered, "Stephen, don't do anything stupid, please, let's go."
"Good evening," Stephen said. He took Emma's arm and crossed the street, walking very quickly as soon as they got onto the pavement.
They were being followed.
"Who the fuck says you can speak to me that way? Fucking -"
"He just wants a fight," Emma said thinly, holding on to Stephen's back.
"I don't think he's going to get one," Stephen said. All the same, he kept his hand tight around the neck of the vodka bottle, prepared to swing - he didn't think the bastard had anything on him, but you could never be sure, hopefully his height would be of some use if it came down to it.
"Who do you think you're fooling, with your arm around that scrawny bitch -"
He felt a jolt go down Emma's spine, her shoulders knotting. She was very pale. The blood started to throb in his head. He was half-turning, the bottle raised in his hand.
"Don't, don't, don't," she said, holding on for dear life, her hand shaking around his shirt, "keep walking, Stephen, please -"
"You fucking -" Stephen said, his voice high and strangled.
"Queer." The word hung in the soft night air; the man's face was mottled and full of vicious pride. "You and that bloody -"
Hugh slammed the man up against the wall.
Emma let go of Stephen, her hand up to her mouth, biting back a scream. Hugh had the man by the shoulders, feet off the ground; he was shaking him. There was a bag lying in the middle of the street, open crisp packet spilling out on the tarmac.
"Hugh," Stephen said once the blood in his head had stopped pounding quite so fast, over the man cursing and Emma pleading and Hugh cursing. "Hugh."
"You loathsome little fucker." Hugh's cheekbones were streaked with scarlet. The tendons in his neck looked ready to snap. "How dare you, you fucking filthy -"
"We are leaving, Hugh," Stephen said.
"Fuck off, you -" the man said, but there was a feeble sound to it, probably because Hugh was shaking him so that his head was rattling against the brick.
"Put him down, Hugh. Just put him down," Stephen said. Something had shut off inside him, and it was either fear or shock, but it was making him sound incongruously calm.
Hugh dropped the man and stepped back, breathing hard. The man seemed more a pile of rags and skin than a human being.
"Let's go," Stephen said.
Hugh backed away. Emma grabbed his arm.
The man seemed to try to get up as they were turning. Hugh whirled on him.
"Stop it," Emma said.
The man slumped back onto the pavement, mumbling. Stephen took Hugh's other arm and pulled him along. They made it back to the hotel in ten minutes, where they sat on the bed in Stephen's room, passing the vodka back and forth until they all stopped shaking.
Nobody said anything for twenty minutes.
Emma finally said, her voice coming out in a blur, "You could have been killed, you stupid macho stupid -" and burst into tears, pushing Hugh's hand away and then grabbing onto it.
"Just a drunkard," Stephen said, reaching his hand around to try to soothe her, managing to rub the top of her head. "They always back down quickly, don't they? Paper tigers."
"I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do," Hugh said, his arm around Emma now, stroking her shoulder. "Shh, shh. I came out of the shop and he was shouting at you two, and then I think you saw my method of defense, which could have had a bit more finesse. Shhh, it's all right."
"You're a fucking idiot," Emma said muffledly.
"I don't think I can argue with that."
"Sir Gawain and the drunken yob," Stephen said. "You should have had a more worthy opponent."
"I just surprised him."
"Men," Emma said, beginning to calm down. She sniffed. "And you, Stephen, you're as bad as this one is. You were ready to bottle him for upsetting me."
"Waste of mediocre vodka."
"And I dropped the bag," Hugh said glumly. "Stephen, I know I said -"
"Oh, I don't care. His feet -" Stephen began to laugh. "His feet were just drifting in the breeze, like a windchime with shoes -"
"Oh, God," Hugh said. "I thought he was rather heavy. Were you really going to bottle him? You should've."
"I know. Then I'd probably be arrested and promptly deported."
"Self-defense," Hugh said.
"I somehow think it would get turned around somehow -"
"Hugh, like Stephen says, it was just a drunk -"
"I don't care." Hugh was shaking again. "No one talks like that to you. No one can say those things to you."
Emma stroked the back of his neck and called him a great lummox, and Stephen rubbed his shoulder and said that that was very sweet but he was inclined to agree with Em, and Hugh said that they were both probably right but the point still stood.
They fell asleep in Stephen's room.
The bottle is empty. They have no reason to stay out here any longer. Hugh says, "Stephen?"
The passage of time is a marvel, Stephen thinks. "How much time have we spent together, in total, do you think?"
"Half of my life," Hugh says. "Maybe more, I don't trust my mathematics."
"It seems that way," Stephen says.
He wonders what's happening back at the house. He wonders if Ken and Emma are already preparing to leave, setting off for America and Hollywood glamour and an entirely different life.
"You were right, Hugh," Stephen says.
"I haven't thought about letting go either, I suppose." He looks back at the house, the lights too far away to really shine. "I don't think I'm ready."
"I know," Hugh says. "I'm not either."
"Shall we go back, then?"
"I don't see any other way."
Walking back, Stephen asks, "Hugh, what did you say to her?"
"When I was speaking to Ken back at the house, and you were talking to Em. What did you say?"
Hugh stops walking. He spreads his hands. "I said...I said that I only wanted her to be happy."
"Did she say anything?"
"She said, 'I know you do.'"
Two weeks before they were due back in England, Stephen sat on the hotel room bed with Emma and told her about Gordian knots. She probably already knew the story, but she humored him and lay on her stomach drinking red wine and listening while he talked, even though he was sure his tongue was working faster than his brain was.
Hugh had been sprawled out in the chair by the window, fingers twitching in time to his own private music. Drugs had a curious effect on Hugh; they only made him go quieter and more inward, until he was barely there at all. Stephen could barely hear anything over the buzz of activity in his brain, and Emma was cheerful and puppyish, and Hugh was just far away from both of them.
"You see?" Stephen said to Emma. He was trying to draw a picture of what the knot may have looked like, if it had ever existed at all. The bed wasn't a stable surface to draw on, and the hotel stationary kept tearing.
"It looks like bread," she said.
"Oh, it does not. It's meant to be rope. Perhaps it wouldn't have been rope, it could have been some other element that I've forgotten. But it must have been, because Alexander cut it, didn't he? It couldn't have been anything else."
"It looks like the loaves Mother used to bring us from the bakery. But smaller. Hugh, does this look like rope? Tell me."
"I can't see."
Stephen rolled over and held up the paper. Emma rested her elbow on his hip, peering over his shoulder.
"I can't tell what it is," Hugh said.
"Oh..." Emma said. "I think you're not being honest. He does have opinions about art, Stephen, he's just being Swiss about everything. Darling, do you mind if I speak about you as if you're not here?"
"No, carry on."
"I wouldn't exactly call this art," Stephen said. "People have been floating around theories about what the Gordian knot looked like forever, I don't know why I thought I could make one. God, such an ass."
"It looks like lovely bread, though," Emma said.
"While I'm sure your art criticism is staggering in its brilliance -"
She poked him in the stomach. "Just because I can use words with a modicum of restraint now means that you can tease me, sir?"
"Hugh, do something about your girlfriend, will you? She's becoming slightly invasive."
"I don't think I have the authority." Hugh had half-turned to face them, long legs still sprawled at all angles, chin resting on the back of his hand.
"Don't appeal to him," Emma said. "I think you're grownup enough to handle me on your own, don't you?"
It was more play than anything - he had the thought in the back of his head that he had to be careful not to hurt her - and she was giggling and he was losing his breath but trying not to let on, tickling her sides. She squirmed and thrashed and finally took his face with two hands and kissed him on the mouth, very fast, saying, "There, that should teach you."
He was raised up on one elbow, looking down at her; she lay with her face upturned, her smile going shaky as the more time passed. Her face was flushed, her hair spreading over the hotel pillows.
"There," she said again, but it came out as a question.
He meant to simply bend down and kiss her cheek, a brotherly gesture, but he missed and got her mouth instead. Every logical impulse in him was saying stop, because it was Emma and he hadn't so much as touched a girl for eight years and Hugh was there, but he was tasting wine in her mouth and her hand was resting delicately on his shoulder. He was touching her breast - he'd forgotten how soft girls were, curves and flesh instead of angles and bone - and she was trembling a little, but still strong as ever.
He finally broke away, murmuring, "Sorry, sorry, so sorry," and she squeezed his shoulder gently, thankfully silent, if she'd spoken he would have bolted from the room. He was already preparing to bolt anyway, but if she'd spoken it would have happened faster. He had the thought, This is my room, why am I doing this? but he was already checking to see where his key was.
"Stephen," Hugh said. "Stephen, look at me."
It took a minute, but he managed to turn his head and look at Hugh. Hugh was still in the chair, hands fallen silent. Later, Stephen would remember how peaceful he had seemed at that moment, all clear blue eyes and stillness.
"Come on, Stephen," Hugh said. "Don't leave. It's all right, believe me. Don't look so."
Emma sat up from the bed and took his hand.
He looked at both of them. Finally, Emma laughed, and then he laughed and sat back down, and she kissed his cheek and said, "Silly old bear." Hugh got up from the chair and came to sit between them, and then they watched television until Emma fell asleep on Hugh's shoulder. After Stephen turned off the set, Hugh leaned over carefully and pushed the hair out of his eyes, saying, "Christ, when are you going to get this cut? Lord bloody Byron."
The next morning, he woke up at noon, alone, with a note propped up on the bedside table, Hugh's scrawled handwriting reminding him of the directions to the theatre. He went down and sat in the bar, wondering if he'd managed to fuck everything up again.
Emma came in when he'd been sitting there for an hour. He waved her over.
"Hair of the mongrel?" he offered. She settled in beside him and nodded, almost shyly.
When the barman had brought her the drink and then turned away, she said, "He wants us to get married."
"Hugh. Perhaps it's not married, but it's something. I think it's been in his head for a long time."
Whatever he'd been expecting, it hadn't been this. "Hugh wants us to - what?"
She shrugged. "Oh...He says things like, 'I'm glad you get on so well.' That's not very much in itself, but he keeps saying it. He'll say, 'You're so alike.' A month or so ago, he got drunk and told me that he doesn't know why people don't think we're together."
"He hasn't told me this." It came out sounding more hurt than he thought it was going to.
"Well, you'd try to reason with him, wouldn't you? You'd provide a much more logical argument than I could."
"Hugh knows I'm - rather less than heterosexually inclined."
She shrugged again. He tried to figure out what she was feeling. She seemed unnaturally still.
"I think he wants for us to find a house in the country and spend our lives writing novels together. Inviting him over for Sunday dinner or letting him watch the children."
"I don't understand," Stephen said.
"Stephen, it couldn't be simpler. This way he doesn't have to choose between us."
"Oh," he said softly. "Oh, Em."
"You know I'm right. Don't you?"
He thought of Hugh, and he thought of her, and he said, "Yes, yes, I suppose I do."
"I thought you might. Do you want another drink?"
She waved the barman over and ordered, then turned back to him. "I'm a very selfish person, Stephen."
"That isn't true."
"I'm afraid it is. It's very, very hard for me to share."
"But no one is asking you to. I'll talk to Hugh. If he wants to continue with what is basically a fantasy -"
"Except for your being in love with Hugh. That's not a fantasy." She took a deep breath. "Please don't try to deny that."
He looked at his hands, rubbing his thumb along the side of his index finger.
"It's easy to fall in love with him, isn't it?" she said. "For all that he tries to make it difficult."
"Em, I've known both of you for a long time. I care deeply about you both."
"Except you're not in love with me. Don't deny that either."
"I can try," he said. "Believe me, I can try."
"That's very sweet of you." The barman replaced the drinks. She looked into the glass for a very long time.
"Emma, you know how he is. If you think he'll leave -"
"He won't," she said. "It'll have to be me."
"Stephen -" She closed her eyes. "I said I was terrible at sharing."
"I don't think I can stay in good conscience," she said. "Because there's really no room for me, is there?"
Stephen watches the lights grow brighter. He can hear the noise from the party drifting down.
"Shall we go in and say goodbye?" Hugh says.
"Yes," Hugh says. "Again."
The ground grows uneven as they approach the steps. More than half-drunk, clumsy, he feels his feet slip on the path. He lurches forward, imagining the ground rushing up to meet him. Hugh grabs onto him, holding him up by what seems to be sheer force of will.
"Easy, Stephen," he says. "It's all right. I've got you."