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now for a breath i tarry

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i. First year, Michaelmas Term
I look forward to my future new,
Where all is territory strange.

Upon reaching Oxford, they scatter immediately; Scripps wonders if they all secretly planned it that way, without a word spoken between them. He finds a stationers along a twisty old cobbled street and purchases a brand new journal that smells of cracked leather, then spends an afternoon just thumbing happily through the blank pages, imagining. For the first full month, he consciously or subconsciously avoids the others' colleges, and Oxford is large enough and new (old?) enough to swallow them all up.

It's not -- he didn't really ever make the decision to leave the Sheffield gang behind him, not deliberately. But there was just so much between them, years and history and poetry and adolescence; starting university's like a fresh new wind, and they're all taking gulping deep breaths of a world that's untouched by all that went before. It's such a relief.

But eventually the newness wears off a bit, and Scripps emerges from church one Sunday morning to realize that he misses having someone there waiting for him with a flip remark about Christianity and a pile of history books to review together. None of his new classmates know him well enough for that.

He wonders if Posner's found a new accompanist yet.

*

ii. First year, Hilary Term
Were I an oracular,
Very spectacular,
Regular football King.

Oddly enough, it's Rudge who breaks radio silence. Scripps is awoken one unseasonably warm February morning by a loud, rhythmic thudding; he yanks open the door to his room to find Rudge kicking a football repetitively against the corridor wall.

"About bloody time," Rudge says, unfazed. "I'm getting a match started in the yard, and you're less rubbish than Posner, so I'm claiming you now before Dakin gets a look in. He's already got Akthar, the bastard."

Scripps blinks. "What?"

Rudge shrugs. "Sometimes it's nice being around people who expect more from me than just sport."

"Okay," Scripps says, raising an eyebrow, "so dragging us all into playing football fulfills this need how exactly?"

Rudge just grins.

It's all five of them in the match, plus a couple of Akthar's new mates. Scripps ruins his trousers with mud stains, Dakin's grin is wide and manic, Akthar practically cracks a rib blocking one of Rudge's better shots, and Posner's utterly hopeless at sport but he leads them all in a few verses of Cole Porter as they kick the ball haphazardly around the yard.

Afterwards, lying in an unruly heap across the grass with Dakin's elbow pressing awkwardly into his ribs and Posner sprawled halfway across his lap, Scripps reflects on his bruises with happy magnanimity. He's fairly certain full-body tackles are considered illegal in proper footy, but then, Dakin can make just about anything a contact sport when he puts his mind to it.

"You know," Posner remarks, "I think I have class. Twenty minutes ago."

Scripps ruffles Posner's hair affectionately, ignoring the indignant squawk. "Yeah," he says, well content. "Me, too."

*

iii. First year, Trinity Term
they speak whatever's on their mind
they do whatever's in their pants
the boys i mean are not refined
they shake the mountains when they dance

Dakin's in a Mood, and that means alcohol, and that, of course, means Scripps and Posner in a booth at the pub trying very hard to ignore Dakin's tongue exploring the throat of a girl from his college while one of his hands explores one of her breasts and his other hand -- well, Scripps would rather not contemplate Dakin's other hand just now. It's a bit uncomfortable just sitting across the table from Dakin and his roving hands.

"You know," Posner mutters, wavering between irritated and depressed, "I'd rather hoped Oxford would change some things."

"This is change," Scripps says philosophically. "He'd never had Fiona right in front of us back in Sheffield."

From the dark look Posner shoots him, this wasn't the change he was hoping for.

Something shifts in the darkness under the table, and Dakin's girl gives a muffled little gasp. Scripps thinks his pint of beer is just fascinating, really, thank you very much.

Posner snorts in disgust. "Right, then, I'm off," he says loudly. Dakin doesn't even glance up, and Scripps can feel Posner's sigh in the sudden slump of shoulders pressed against his own. More quietly, Posner mutters, "Shove over, Scripps, I need to get out."

Scripps pushes away his beer and slips out of the booth, giving Posner the necessary escape route. "I'll go with," he says, because clearly, playing third wheel to Dakin and some bird is not a position he's lately aspired toward.

Then he sees how unsteady Posner is on his feet and mentally calculates the amount of alcohol his friend has consumed this evening. For a lightweight like Posner -- Scripps sighs and gets a good hold on Posner's arm, gently guiding him out of the crowded pub.

"Leave off," Posner snaps once they're outside, shaking Scripps off. "I can manage just fine on my own."

Scripps releases him. "Look," he says, aiming for sympathetic and consoling but probably landing well on the wrong side of awkward, "it's just -- Dakin. It's what he's like. University was never going to change him."

Posner slumps against the wall, and Scripps winces inwardly at the muck he'll get on the back of his jacket. "You think I'm pathetic, don't you," Posner says, not a question.

There is a time for speaking openly and honestly, and this is absolutely not it. Scripps does anyway. "Only when you're having a sulk like this."

He really, really should've remembered Posner's quicksilver moods, the way he can snap from one emotional extreme to another in a heartbeat. Being drunk only exacerbates this particular quirk. Still, Scripps couldn't possibly have anticipated being belted in the jaw.

It doesn't really hurt -- furious or not, Posner doesn't have much of a right hook -- so Scripps reels backwards more out of surprise than anything else. Before he can do more than gape, Posner's pushed off and away, stalking down the alleyway with all the drunken dignity his narrow frame can hold.

*

iv. Summer Hols 1984
Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.

The Sheffield summer proves old and strange; home yet not, and Scripps feels somewhat adrift in familiar pastures. He sits in the old church one Sunday morning and finds he can't hear the vicar's sermon properly; they've become just words, that's all, strange bumpy shapes of sound.

It's not that he's lost his faith or anything melodramatic like that; his long-suffering love affair with God is just as poignant and frustrating as it ever was. Maybe it's just that something's shifted, somewhere deep inside of him, and he's found himself on a new-old spiritual plane. It just clicks into place as he listens to the droning empty sermon -- an overwhelming sense of well, that's all right, then.

This is the moment Scripps gently, fondly, firmly releases his vow of chastity.

Not that he's going to run out and have a wank, or an affair, or anything sordid like that. That's not what this is about. He's gone without long enough that he doesn't feel the lack; and even if it weren't for the promises to Jesus, he'd never had much issue with self-control. It's just -- what's he saving himself for, really? He's long since come to the gradual realization that, well, marriage isn't a likely future for him. Not that he's ruled it out entirely, but he's not just some randy schoolboy anymore (well, not in that sense), and he never really thought of this as a phase in the first place, whatever pert sentiments Posner might have once expressed on the subject. So absent marriage, it looks like he can either go to his grave an untouched virgin, or...not.

He never intended to be a monk, after all. (Although if Timms' crude speculation's taken into account, that never stopped anyone.) And that's that.

The sermon ends. He sends up a silent prayer of thanksgiving to a merciful and tolerant God. God, he feels, understands. And isn't much bothered one way or the other.

When he steps out of the church, he finds Posner at the gate, leaning against his bike and munching an apple.

"Got any more where that came from?" Scripps asks cheerfully.

Posner rolls his eyes. "Thought you'd be full with all the blood and body of Christ," he remarks archly -- but he also pulls another apple out of his knapsack and tosses it over.

Scripps catches it easily, grinning, and takes a bite. It's a really lovely day.

*

v. Second year, Michaelmas Term
A thought went up my mind to-day
That I have had before,
But did not finish--

[Excerpted from Scripps's journal, sometime late October, 1984.]

obfuscate, v.: to make so confused or opaque as to be difficult to perceive or understand, also known as Dakin's primary tactic concerning his actions and emotions regarding one Tom Irwin, former teacher, who apparently now has a gig on a television news station when they need a history analyst or some rot like that. Also known as Irwin's primary tactic concerning the history he doesn't think we need to know -- see: journalism.

The programme's not half bad, actually.

There's been some debate in tutorial regarding what constitutes an economic recession vs. a depression vs. possibly the End Times. I wouldn't consider Thatcher's stewardship to be even remotely analogous with 1930s Germany, but the bulk of my classmates in this particular section seem to be in favor of a new student revolution. Might want to consider the success rate (or lack thereof) of same in 1800s France. Hadley posited that perhaps the difference between "recession" and "depression" could be quantified primarily by the general national character and attitudes at the time; I'd prefer to think economics aren't entirely a state of mind, but given what I know about how the stock market functions, I can't really refute that.

Speaking of which, ran into Posner in the library today. Still don't think he's particularly happy here, but

Oh dear God Dakin just burst in shouting something about Bismarck and polo mallets, this should be good.

[Entry abandoned]

*

vi. Second year, Hilary Term
That in a time when under pleasant trees
Pan is no longer sought, I feel a free,
A leafy luxury, seeing I could please,
With these poor offerings, a man like thee.

"That's nice," Posner says dreamily, perched on the windowsill of the music room with his face half-pressed against the cold glass.

Scripps doesn't look up, eyes half-closed as his fingers stroke the ivories. This is Oxford, after all; the pianos in the music rooms really do have genuine ivory keys. He thinks. He's not sure he'd know the difference, but anyway, it makes him feel posh.

It's nice, too, having a piano that's been properly tuned; the one at Cutler's always had a bit of a plonk to it. That was fine for plonky sorts of songs like Hector's, but it just couldn't handle a proper sonata. He's not actually playing a proper sonata at the moment -- not even a lovely fugue -- but this piano could probably make Gracie Fields sound classy.

"What's the lyric, then?" Posner asks.

Scripps pauses, plays a single line of simple melody. "That's the start of the vocal part."

"Right, I figured that much out from the rest," Posner says, a little impatiently, and Scripps had almost forgotten Posner knew music nearly as well as he did. "D'you have a copy of the libretto for me, I meant."

"Not exactly," Scripps says. He reaches into his bag and pulls out a thin sheaf of music, reaching across the space between them to pass it over. "Here."

Posner takes the music and glances down at it, eyebrows raised. "It's the vocal part, but there aren't any lyrics written in."

Scripps shrugs. "Not yet. That's for you to fill in, if you like."

"What do you mean?" When he doesn't get a response, Posner sighs and slips down from the sill. "What's the piece called, anyway?"

"Hasn't got a title yet," Scripps admits. "I, um. Wrote it. Thought you might like to work out the words, y'know."

Posner just looks at him for a moment, face unreadable. "You're the one wants to be a writer."

"Yeah, well," Scripps says, shifting uncomfortably. This was supposed to be fun, not...awkward. "It's meant to be your song to sing. I thought it'd be a lark to work on it together."

It takes a second to sink in, but then Posner grins, wide and surprised, and he shines so painfully brightly for a moment that Scripps has to look away.

*

vii. Second year, Trinity Term
thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox
they tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe

When Dakin passes him the joint, Scripps isn't really paying much attention. He takes it absently and just stares at it for a moment, uncomprehending.

"You put it to your lips and inhale," Dakin's long-suffering roommate Albertson instructs him, all mock solemnity, and Scripps does without thinking much about it, then passes the joint on to Posner.

They're celebrating the end of exams and the (hopefully) successful completion of their second year at university, and if it doesn't have quite the life-changing connotations of another springtime celebration Scripps too well recalls, it's still something. It's something.

He's not paying attention to much of anything, really, beyond the warm spring air and the slight dampness of the earth beneath the grass beneath his back, and the way the stars wheel impossibly slowly overhead. They're swapping beers and smoking weed in Christchurch Meadow by the river, and he's two-thirds of the way through university and honestly, he can't say he's accomplished much. How should he quantify a university experience, anyway? In tomes read, lectures attended, papers written, exams sat -- drinks at the pub on Friday nights, cigarettes passed in alleyways, hours spent exchanging tales and lies about sexual conquests -- the number of stones in the corridors of Balliol and the number of books in New Bodelian Library and the number of boats punting down the River Cherwell on a Sunday afternoon--

"Hey," Dakin says suddenly. "Let's go swimming."

Scripps blinks slowly, feeling the turn of the earth in gentle counterpoint to the wheeling stars.

"No, really," Dakin insists, "it'll be brilliant."

On Scripps's other side, Posner snorts. "Brilliant," he echoes disparagingly. "No, really, might as well just find a college dean and dance about with signs around our necks saying we're totally baked, it'll be brilliant."

Dakin ignores him, as Dakin is wont to do, but Scripps laughs.

Later, when Dakin and his mates are caught dripping wet and not half covered in pond scum by the Oxford coppers, Scripps and Posner drag each other laughing across the meadow, tripping over the grass and occasionally making ineffectual attempts to shush each other as they make good their escape. Posner looks lighter and happier than Scripps can remember seeing him in months, and the hands grasping his are warm and firm, and this is how he quantifies his life at Oxford: moments like this.

*

viii. Summer Hols 1985
Please please tell me now
Is there something I should know
Is there something I should say

He wishes he could say he had a good reason for it, something that pushed him or prompted him. He could have made a gesture, said something poignant and profound, tossed away his notebook in a very pointed and deliberate fashion. He could have waited for the right moment, the right response, the right sardonic curl to Posner's lips that might somehow have cued him. All the thinking and dithering and writing Scripps has done in his life, one would think he'd have reached a proper conclusion to this nonsense by now.

But he hasn't, and that's not how it happens.

How it happens is: the summer sun is beating down, unpleasantly warm, and he and Posner are walking down to the shops in Sheffield. There's some popular band that's just released a new album, and Posner wants to see if the record store has it yet. So Posner's blathering on about the lead guitarist's chord progressions or something as they take a shortcut through the car park behind the Hillards, and for no reason whatsoever Scripps just stops in his tracks and grabs Posner's arm to still him.

Posner blinks. "What--"

And then Scripps kisses him.

Because he can, mainly. And because he's an idiot. The part of his brain that normally circumvents moments of monumental idiocy like this has apparently been stunned into silence, which is fortunate because after a moment's shock, Posner opens his mouth and starts kissing him back.

It's really, really nice. Borderline brilliant. Except then--

"Oh fuck, it's Tottie," Posner mutters against his lips, and pushes himself away so hard Scripps nearly stumbles.

It takes a few seconds for the words to make sense as words rather than abstract sounds. "Oh," Scripps says belatedly. "Er, hello, Mrs. Lintott."

And she is in fact there, giving them her trademark wry smile that's somehow both pleased-to-see-you and what-unholy-horrors-are-you-going-to-unleash-upon-me-today at once. "My goodness," she says. "Posner and Scripps. How is...Oxford, was it?"

"Yes," Posner says quickly, with a bright smile that doesn't reach his eyes. "Still standing, I'm afraid."

"How disappointing," Tottie says dryly. "I'd expected you lot to have pulled the place down about your ears by now. You must be slipping."

"Timms is at Cambridge instead," Scripps points out. "With Lockwood and Crowther. We're not playing with a full team, it's rather difficult."

Tottie smiles. "I'm sure you've found ways to make up the loss." And the very pointed look she gives them makes Scripps flush scarlet and Posner stare intently at his trainers.

They spend a few more minutes on the pleasantries, but every moment that passes has Posner looking more and more uncomfortable, edging away from Scripps in careful inches. By the time Mrs. Lintott takes her leave, Posner's clearly ready to bolt.

"Hey," he says, not meeting Scripps's eyes. "I've got to--"

Scripps's stomach clenches. "Yeah," he says, as casually as he can manage. "It's all right."

And Posner's off, leaving Scripps to mentally bash his head against a wall. Idiot.

Next time he gets one of these urges, Scripps thinks darkly, he's just going to fucking write it down.

*

ix. Third year, Michaelmas Term
The warm bodies
shine together
in the darkness

Later he'll blame it on the alcohol, or the telly in the pub, or the scrawl-covered pages of his leather-bound journal. But blame implies guilt implies something resembling a crime, and Scripps can't bring himself to think of it that way, no matter what the prissy voice in the back of his head that sort of sometimes stands in for God might be saying. He stopped listening to it a long time ago, anyway. Mostly.

Okay, so he's a little bit put out that it's been two and a half months since the ill-advised kiss and Posner's still avoiding him, which might play some part in it as well.

He seems to be making a lot of impromptu decisions these days.

At any rate, he and Dakin are alone together in the pub, drinking far too much of some dark ale and debating the finer points of the Boer Wars, when the programme on the telly above the bar changes and suddenly there's Irwin on the screen, smiling out at them and adjusting his thin specs.

"Oh for fuck's sake," Dakin snaps at the bartender, "isn't there a match on somewhere or something?"

Scripps just watches him, remembering drinks that never happened and you're jealous and just of you being up for it. He'd actually envied Dakin's brashness once. The way Dakin just -- acted. But Dakin's no happier than the rest of them, in the end.

"You never did get that drink," he remarks, with a sidelong glance.

Dakin visibly bristles. "So what?" he demands. "It didn't mean anything, anyway. Well, maybe then -- I was still so fucking naive, you know? Thought I was so fucking brilliant 'cause I'd touched a girl's tits. But it's not like -- I wasn't in love with him, or anything ridiculous like that."

Scripps snorts. "So it was just about the sex, then, is what you're saying?"

"I'm just saying," Dakin says, almost angrily, "it doesn't have to be -- I don't know, flowers and ballads and fucking poetry, eternal love and literature and all that rot. It's just sex, and really, Scripps, really, sex is -- can be -- should be -- fun."

Scripps has a thought, stumbles over it, decides what the hell. He finishes his drink in one long swallow and turns to face Dakin. "Yeah?" he says, deliberately meeting Dakin's eyes. "Show me."

And that's how he and Dakin end up in the gents', pressed up against the locked door, flipping the bird to the men they can't have by taking each other instead.

It isn't elegant -- it isn't sacred or tender or perfect -- it's hot and rough, grasping hands shoved ungently down the front of his trousers, the harsh rasp of stubble against his cheek, and it's messy and demanding and so, so much better than he's imagined.

There's no love here, but a certain camaraderie mixed in with need, and that's enough.

Scripps closes his eyes and gives himself over to sensation.

*

x. Third year, Hilary Term
Oh, soon we'll be out amid the cold world's strife.
Soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life.

It's Rudge's last match, and they all turn out for it, even the Cambridge lads coming down by train to cheer their fellow history boy on. And when Posner plops down in the stands right next to Scripps, he doesn't even notice at first; just one more Cutler's reunion among many.

Rudge makes a really nice throw on the field, and they all jump to their feet as expected, shouting and waving their arms about. Scripps isn't really one for rugby, but this feels good, the shared energy of the crowd and old friends and yelling oneself hoarse for no fathomable purpose.

He glances over to find Posner beside him, watching him keenly, an odd light in his eyes that might almost be described as fond. "What?" Scripps asks, a touch defensively. It's the first he's spoken to Posner in months.

"Nothing," Posner replies, with a short laugh. "Just -- you probably don't even know what the score is, do you?"

Something stutters in Scripps's chest. He ignores it, meeting Posner's gaze evenly. "No," he admits. "But neither do you."

Posner gives him a small, odd smile. "Not in the slightest."

But the next time Rudge tackles someone, Posner's jumping around and cheering like a twat along with the rest of them. His shoulders bump against Scripps's, almost cautiously, and Scripps almost laughs aloud in relief.

They'll sort the rest of it out eventually.

*

xi. Third year, Trinity Term
Now -- for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart--
Take my hand quick and tell me
What have you in your heart

Scripps is in the middle of packing when there's a knock on the door. He promptly trips over at least five boxes and narrowly avoids an ominously tall pile of books -- and it's not like his college room was ever that large to begin with. Deciding that death probably awaits him between the futon and the door, he gives up and just shouts, "Come on in!"

It's Posner. He's not surprised, although he probably should be.

"Scripps?" Posner peers around the mess. "Um." He takes a cautious step inside, letting go of the door.

"Oh God don't let it slam," Scripps says, too late. The door slams. The Leaning Tower of Textbooks wobbles threateningly, but doesn't quite fall. Yet.

For a moment, they just look at each other over the detritus of a university experience nearly completed.

"Hiya," Scripps finally says.

Posner's lips twitch, like the beginnings of a smile. "Moving?"

"Aren't we all?"

"Some of us less violently than others."

Scripps gives him a lopsided grin. "Yeah, well. Have a seat. On something."

After a moment's consideration, Posner picks his way across the floor, then swings himself up over the back of the futon onto its cushions. And a stack of papers, but whatever.

"So," Scripps says, when Posner gives no indication of starting the conversation. "What's up, Pos?"

"You kissed me," Posner says abruptly, fiddling with his shirt cuff. "Last summer. I never asked why."

It's entirely possible there is a way to make this situation less awkward, but Scripps is not the man to do it. He shifts his weight uncomfortably. "Are you asking now?"

"I guess I -- yeah. Yes. I am. Why?"

He figures he's got nothing to lose at this point, so he tells the truth. "Because I wanted to. And I thought maybe you did, too."

Posner glances up quickly and then back down again, fingers still worrying his shirt nervously. His voice, though, is completely steady. "And now?"

Scripps takes a deep breath, exhales. Okay. Why the hell not. His journal's buried under an ungodly amount of crap anyway, so no recourse there. "Yeah," he says. "I still do."

Posner's twitchy fingers still. He looks up at Scripps. His eyes are very wide.

After a moment, Scripps gives up waiting for a response and starts to turn away. But Posner reaches out and grabs his hand, pulling him in.

"Me, though?" Posner says, with a bitter twist to his lips. Not that Scripps is paying undue attention to Posner's lips or anything. "I mean -- you can't possibly -- I'm no Dakin."

Thank Christ, Scripps thinks fervently. "God," he says, with a strangled laugh, "for someone so bright you're really -- thick."

And this time, when he presses his mouth to Posner's, Posner doesn't pull away. Quite the opposite.

They do eventually knock over the tower of textbooks, but Scripps couldn't care less.

*

Quotations from: i. George Bernard Shaw, ii. Cole Porter, iii. e e cummings, iv. Walt Whitman, v. Emily Dickinson, vi. John Keats, vii. the Beatles, viii. Duran Duran, ix. Allen Ginsberg, x. Tom Lehrer, xi. A. E. Housman