Two plates, a cup, an Echo and the Bunnymen record and two chewed up biros are the sum casualties of the week so far. Scripps is keeping count, only in his head though, because lately Dakin is liable to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation.
Dakin has been in a foul mood for the past four days and even Scripps’ legendary stoicism is wearing thin.
Four days ago is, incidentally, the amount of time since Dakin went on his first visit to the GUM clinic, after a single suggestion from Irwin, no less. Never mind that Scripps has been trying to persuade him to go every term since they started uni - and Dakin started shagging four new people a week.
A page of sheet music that Scripps had (apparently unreasonably) left out on the coffee table along with a couple of newspapers has now joined the list.
“Bloody hell, Dakin, I left it there because I wanted it this morning!”
“How was I supposed to know that?”
Scripps bites his tongue from pointing out that Dakin is sounding like his mother, the observation would doubtless be monumentally underappreciated.
“The place was a state, I’m trying to clear up a bit.”
“Alright, Fanny Cradock…”
“She’s a fucking cook!” Dakin rolls his eyes as if Scripps is being unreasonable and starts filling the sink to wash up.
“Stu, please leave it, I’m not sure my nerves could stand any more breakages. Can you get on with an essay or something to take your mind off things?”
“That’s not very Christian of you. I’m under a lot of stress right now, you might be a bit more sympathetic.”
Scripps’ pencil becomes the week’s latest victim as he grips it so hard it snaps in his fingers.
“I’m not filled with sympathy because, as you’ve insisted to me time and again, you don’t have anything to worry about.”
“Yeah well, the nurse said I was at ‘moderate risk’ whatever the fuck that’s supposed to mean.”
“It’s not like I haven’t mentioned to you before that you need to use protection for oral sex. You kept telling me I was a virgin and that nobody does that.”
“What? You’re not telling me you do?”
“Doesn’t Posner mind you treating him like he has some deadly contagious disease?”
“Is it this weekend you’re pissing off to London?” It’s about as unfriendly Scripps has ever been towards him.
“No, I’ve got too much work on. Tom’s coming here.”
“Doesn’t he have a desk at his place?”
“I’m not lugging all my books on the tube. It gives you a chance to go over to Posner’s and spend time together anyway, what’s the problem?”
“I prefer to spend time together in the privacy of my own home. He has a flatmate, too you know.”
“Yeah, I think I know her, arty girl, gay isn’t she? What’s her name?”
“Andrea. You do know her, she’s been out with us a few times.”
“That’s the one. Shame, she’s pretty.” He continues as if he doesn’t notice Scripps’ mouth hanging open in horror. “Don’t you like her?”
“No, I do like her. I have a lot of sympathy with her, in fact - even more after that last comment. Nobody wants to hear their flatmate banging. It’s a bit… off-putting if I think she can hear.”
At least Dakin’s forgotten his own troubles for a minute, even if it is in favour of teasing Scripps and being lecherous and unsavoury. Actually, he’s practically back to normal.
“I’m off out, I’m supposed to be meeting Pos for music practice, not that we’ll get far without the music. If possible, don’t destroy the place while I’m gone.”
“Have fun, Rubber-sucker.”
“It’s so nice and sane here.” Scripps sighs into the stillness of Posner’s room.
They’re both reading in companionable silence, for the most part. Occasionally asking each other questions.
“Still living on the wild side at your place, Scrippsy?”
“Dakin’s in a flap about his HIV test results, it’s like living in a war zone. One with landmines, only instead of limbs I’m liable to get my head pulled off at any second.”
“That’s an awful thing to say!”
“And instead of Princess Diana, we get Irwin coming round.”
“Don! I think you might need to go to confession this minute.”
“My lot don’t do confession, you’ll have to forgive me instead.”
He puckers his lips for a kiss, which David grants him, along with a cheeky grin.
“I forgive you, but only because you’ve clearly been under a lot of stress, and because I know you’ll probably make a donation to the landmine charity tomorrow to atone for it.”
He probably will too.
“You finally managed to persuade him to get tested, then. How long has that taken?”
“If only I had. Irwin got him to go in the end. They want to stop using condoms, apparently.”
David's eyebrows almost disappear into his hairline. “You know quite a bit about it, I see.”
“You have no idea. If I don’t get it from Dakin, I hear it through the walls. No aspect of their sex life is a mystery to me.”
“I’ve told you, you can stay with me whenever he’s coming over.”
Scripps runs a hand through his hair.
“That’s all very well, but I walked in on Dakin having phone sex the other night!”
“I assume so, I didn’t ask.”
David chortles softly. It takes him another second before he looks up from his book with a frown, pencil poised in mid-air.
“Hang on, I didn’t know he had a phone in his bedroom.”
“He doesn’t. This was in the kitchen!”
David dissolves into helpless laughter.
“I’m glad you find it funny, I had to sit in my room with my earmuffs on. I was afraid to come out!”
David collapses off his chair and onto the floor, tears of laughter running down his face. Watching him try to compose himself, Scripps sort of sees the funny side.
“You poor thing.” David gasps when he can speak again. “But I’m sure you looked very sweet.”
“It’s nice and everything that he’s got what he wants, and he’s my best mate, obviously I’m happy for him. It’s just a bit difficult to hang onto that when I can hear him thumping and gasping through the wall all the time. I mean it was fun, in the old days, hearing a bit of gossip when it was all still a big mystery, but I never wanted actual intimate details, let alone in real time. Besides, it’s a lot less interesting now I’ve got my own sex life.”
Smirking, Pos perches on the bed next to him.
“Maybe we should invent some tales to tell him.”
Dakin lies tucked into Irwin’s side in the afterglow, it should be peaceful and still and all that bollocks. Maybe for Tom it is, he can’t see from his position, with Tom’s pulse thumping against his lips and his eyelashes catching against the late-night stubble of Tom’s jaw.
It’s unusual for them, him clinging like a limpet to Tom after sex. If any clinging is done then it’s more often the other way around and, astute as he is, Tom is bound to have noticed something’s up.
There’s been a blessed lack of questions or hints about anything being wrong. It dawns on him while they lie together in silence that Tom is waiting patiently for Stu to tell him what the matter is, as if he were a stubborn child.
The thought of being so thoroughly patronized is unbearable and he speaks into the darkness before he can second-guess himself, if only because it means winning the small victory of being surprising.
“What if when the results come back- ?”
“You’ll be fine.” Tom kisses his forehead in an obscenely tender gesture and Stu prickles with irritation.
“Yeah, but what if I’m not?”
Tom shifts a bit to look him in the eye. “Why wouldn’t you be?” He still doesn’t sound alarmed which is pissing Stu off no end. “You’ve been careful haven’t you?”
“Yeah. But what Scripps says, the nurse too. About using them for oral and those plastic sheet things with girls. You don’t do you?”
Tom bites back a smile, not quite quickly enough. “The condoms I assume you mean. No, I don’t like them. He’s right though.”
Stu tuts in disgust. “I know he’s right. Don’t you start.”
“Look, it’s not easy to get it, you need to get it into your bloodstream, so you’d have to have a cut in your mouth or throat or something ok?”
One of Tom’s hands rubs his back gently and the other comes up to stroke through his sweaty hair. Stu hates how comforted he is by it as he burrows his face against Tom’s neck.
“It’s done now and you can’t go back and change it so don’t waste your time worrying.”
“How come you’re not bricking it?” He’s slept with a lot fewer people, obviously, but if Tom’s anything at all then he’s a worrier. Besides, if Stu has something then Tom’s at risk too. He’s got no reason to be so fucking complacent.
“The first time I got tested I was convinced I was going to die. I stayed up all night panicking, but in the end, everything was fine and all I got was a restless night.”
Stu nods and lies staring at the sulphurous glow that marks the gap in the curtains until he thinks Tom must be asleep.
It’s only a whisper but Tom’s hands begin their slow massage again. “I know.”
“Just say it is, you know. What then?”
“It wouldn’t change anything.”
Stu’s throat is suddenly so tight he can barely breathe. He wants to say it back, but he knows if he does then he damn well better mean it. He places a soft kiss on Tom’s neck and lies there breathing him in.
If anyone had asked, Stu would say he had an entirely sleepless night, but he wakes up with a crick in his neck and the sun in his eyes, so he supposes he must have drifted off at some point.
Tom is propped up reading, glasses in place. Stu’s head is still on Tom's shoulder, which explains why his neck feels like someone tried to cut off his head but gave up halfway through.
He gives a groan by way of good morning and Tom smiles.
He groans again. Tom puts down his book and tries to wiggle free.
“How long have you been up?” Stu rasps out.
“About forty minutes.”
That means it’s twenty to seven then. Tom’s biological clock, Stu has learned, is more finely tuned than an atomic one.
“Actually, I really need a slash, so can I have my arm back please?”
Stu rolls over obligingly and watches Tom walk naked to the bathroom. “Put on some coffee while you’re up?”
“You do it, my arm’s completely dead.” Tom's voice floats back from the bathroom.
“Can’t, my hair smells like your armpit. I need to have a shower before I pass out.”
“I didn’t ask you to sleep on me. Anyway, I’m here first.”
He hears the shower spring into life with a telltale thump.
“Prick.” Stu hops out of bed and follows him into the shower. Tussling over the soap is a better wake up call than coffee anyway.
It’s a beautiful day, too nice to spend trying to study indoors, so they’ve taken their bikes out along the river, their backpacks crammed with books, along with sandwiches and a flask of coffee, which they share on a quiet stretch of bank. Settling down with Scripps’ head resting in Posner’s lap, they try to concentrate on revising.
It’s a far cry from any bike ride Scripps remembers them going on back in Sheffield.
It’s only April but already there are dragonflies skimming the surface of the water, and the sun beats beautifully warm on their backs. Huge willow branches screen the far bank and there are families of ducks and swans floating past.
It’s enough to distract anybody from working, but it’s what Dakin said earlier that stops Scripps from concentrating.
“You don’t mind us being careful, do you?”
David hums at him, nose still in his book. “How’d you mean?”
“I mean, in an intimate sense.”
David puts the book down and grins cheekily at him.
“Don, you’ve gone the most spectacular shade of pink.”
“Shut up, I haven’t.” He says, although he knows it’s true. “Really though, you’re not bothered by it?”
“Of course not. It’s just sensible, I don’t want to catch anything either, you know.”
“Right. Except that’s not true, is it? You’re the only person I’ve ever...”
“Been intimate with?”
“Exactly. So it’s not you we’re protecting.”
“I know.” David picks up his book again.
Scripps watches two dragonflies chasing each other around the water’s edge until they disappear.
“It’s not that I think you’ve got something.”
“Don, it’s ok. If you want me to do the test, I don’t mind.”
“It’s not that. I just feel like I’m maybe, I don’t know, being rude.”
“Don,” David lowers his book once more and begins in a soft, pitying voice “It’s not rude to want to protect yourself. I don’t know whether this is coming from something Dakin told you, but you’re supposed to use protection unless you both get tested."
“It seems a bit unchristian, I suppose. What with the Bible stories about Jesus not being afraid to touch lepers and all that.”
David’s mouth opens and closes a couple of times, his face contracted in a frown.
“I’m going to pretend that you didn’t just call me a leper.”
“That’s not what I meant!”
“If I thought it was I wouldn’t let it go. I’ve never had unprotected sex with anyone, it’s not like I was secretly planning on starting with you.”
“Oh.” Don sits up, trying to will away the sudden sick feeling washing over him.
Perhaps it had been foolish to assume that David would be his last as well as his first sexual conquest. Normal people - people who aren’t him - accept that relationships would come and go, he imagines.
David must see something on his face because he goes pale and starts gabbling.
“I don’t mean that I’m not serious about us, I am. I just mean I was never planning to take advantage just because you’d never been with anyone else, I wouldn’t put you at risk like that.” He says in a rush, without pausing for breath.
It takes a moment before Scripps can think past the wave of relief that crashes through him. When his mind is clear again, only one thing David said seems to register.
“You’re serious about us? As in serious?”
It’s David’s turn to blush. He stares at where his fingers are plucking absently at a clump of grass. “Yeah, I mean… yeah.”
“Oh. That’s good then because I love you.”
It’s the first time either of them has said it.
David’s grin makes his eyes crinkle at the corners and Scripps can’t not kiss him. He clutches at David’s bony coat-hanger shoulders and pulls him into his own lap, folding his strong arms around David’s much slighter frame.
“I love you too.” David just about manages against Don’s mouth, before speech becomes impossible.
“I’d quite like a look round the Ashmolean today, they’ve got a new exhibition on. Fancy coming with me?” Tom’s voice is carefully, unconvincingly casual as he towels his hair dry.
“I’ve got too much work on.” Stu says to his uneaten plate of toast.
“And you’re going to concentrate on that, are you? Come on, just for the morning. I’ll buy you lunch and then I’ll give you a hand with your essay, what do you say?”
“I don’t need to be babied.”
“I’m not trying to baby you, I’d like your company and I’d like to try and cheer you up, if that’s allowed.”
Stu’s look could probably slice right through him. He leans back in his chair and regards Tom for a long minute.
“It might be called cheating, your helping with my essay. You were my teacher after all.”
“We can call it extra tuition. I’m sure we can figure out some way for you to pay me.”
He half expects Stuart to call him out about his lack of Oxbridge degree; from the looks of things so far, pushing Tom away is very much on the cards, but the implication of sex seems to swing it.
After another long moment of deliberation, Stu rolls his eyes and pushes his plate away.
“Alright. What’s this exhibition on then?”
The morning does actually serve to take Stu’s mind off things. Tom is somewhat adorable in his enthusiasm as he explores the exhibit on Charles I and they manage to have a laugh over lunch, although it still makes Stu feel like a child when Tom pays, something he rarely allows him to do.
The afternoon is less successful. They don’t make much progress on Stu’s essay. He should have known it wouldn’t work, really.
They try, they construct arguments and explore possibilities and perspectives together until Stu’s blood sings and he has to lean across, right into Tom’s personal space, and murmur “Can I fuck you?” and Tom smiles and nods, pleased and almost shy, and any hope of being productive is lost.
He lets Tom sleep after, even though Tom asks him not to, just so he can get at least something written down.
“I may as well get tested, I suppose” David says from where he’s lying next to Don on the grass. “It’s nice to be sure, anyway.”
Don threads his hands slowly through David’s hair. “No, we’ll go together. Moral support and all that.”
Lining up with Pos at the tiny clinic, waiting to have his blood taken should be shit, but to Scripps the whole thing feels so right, he’s almost excited by it.
Sitting side by side on hard plastic chairs, underneath posters about HIV and Chlamydia, as they each fill out questionnaires about their sexual history, there’s a frisson in his gut at how very official it all feels. A promise of sorts, on paper, witnessed and validated by the NHS, to protect David, even though they both know it isn’t needed.
When Scripps smiles across and finds David already smiling at him, he reaches out for him and rests their clasped hands on David’s knee.
Friday night, when it isn’t piss-up-night or frantically-working-on-something-last-minute-night, is date night as far as Scripps is concerned.
He and David have fallen into a routine, necessitated by Dakin, but pleasant nonetheless, whereby they spend every weekend together. Every other weekend Scripps stays at David’s and every other weekend Stu fucks off to Irwin’s place in London, leaving the flat blessedly free and private and David stays over.
The next weekend being Scripps’ turn, he and David return to the flat on Friday night anticipating sharing a big bag of vinegary chips for dinner in front of the telly. David takes the food straight through to the kitchen while Scripps hangs back in the hallway, taking off his coat and shoes.
A startled yelp has Scripps rushing into the main room of the flat to see what the matter is before he can even hang his coat up.
David is standing, pink-faced and giggling, behind the counter that serves to divide the kitchen and living room; a flash of blue shirt and sandy hair disappear into Dakin’s room, closely followed by the slam of the door and a loud burst of laughter.
Irwin’s glasses lie abandoned on the coffee table.
Before he can think it through, Scripps finds himself rapping on the bedroom door.
“Stu, you’re supposed to be in London!” he calls through the wood.
“Last week was your turn, only you were kind enough to let me have it. Place is yours again next week. Now piss off.” Dakin is the absolute fucking limit sometimes, but his voice is thick with something besides laughter and Scripps really doesn’t want to know.
Back in the main room, David is waiting, still pink-faced, with the bag of chips in one hand and his overnight bag in the other.
“Come on, you can suffer my single bed one more weekend.”
As he passes the counter, Scripps notices two letters, each stamped with a blue NHS logo. The top one, addressed to Mr Stuart Dakin, is open and unfolded. A passing glance reveals the word Negative repeated down one column. He doesn’t dare peek at Irwin’s, but the fact he brought it with him to Oxford tells him everything he needs to know.
He scoops up his own post and heaves a sigh that’s mostly put on. “Yeah, I reckon I’ll manage.”