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cutting it close to curfew

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“Palp.”

Frank turned to meet the voice behind him. He knew who it was before he saw him, by the drunken slur and the familiar tone of voice. Scape swayed under a street light, looking only seconds from tumbling over. Frank felt a compulsion to right him, but he stayed steadfast in place. Instead, he watched as his colleague attempted to stay standing, a hand against his head.

Frank inhaled deeply. Exhaled. “What do you want, Scape? It’s almost curfew. I’m going home. You should too.”

Scape staggered forwards, miraculously still on his feet and not face-down on the pavement. He stopped about a metre away from Frank. He knew he could probably just ignore Scape- walk away, leave him to tumble into a river, like his father. No one would really miss him.

Apart from Frank, maybe.

“What’s even the point?” Scape said, tilting his head up to aim his gaze at Frank. He was flushed and rumpled, his shirt half unbuttoned, tie abandoned elsewhere. He looked pathetic. “In the curfew?” Scape hiccuped. “You know, and I know, that I’m going to fucking die, anyways, huh?” His voice had risen uncomfortably in volume, and Frank’s eyes darted about, searching for Civil Servants. “Ain't that right, Frank?”

“Scape,” he said, a note of desperation in his voice. “This isn’t safe. Can’t we just-”

Scape lurched again, teetering forwards, and Frank finally shot out his arms to steady him. He sagged in Frank’s hold, a melting ice cream of a man. “I’m sick of this,” Scape spat. “I’m sick of all this- this- hiding and cowering bullshit.” He looked up at Frank. “Don’t act like you aren’t too. Just tell me the fucking truth.

Frank looked down at him, tight-lipped. This was such a far cry from what he’d thought Scape was, in the entire time he’d known him. It was different from the arrogant aloofishness of his highschool years, and it was different from the budding maturity of new adulthood. This was something angry and messy, something so far from the “grey”, Frank would almost have said it was the same pink as Scape’s cheeks. It scared him a little. He’d only ever seen this somewhere in himself, or maybe Dawn, or Petra.

He cleared his throat and tried to right Scape. There was a temptation to slap him, to make him sober up, but Scape must’ve sensed this because he shook his head and broke away from Frank’s hands. He wiped one hand down his clammy face, eyes shut. “I wish you didn’t hate me so much,” he muttered between his fingers.

Now, there was a surprise. Frank had thought of Scape as- not necessarily an idiot, but a little dense, so to speak. He wasn’t exactly hyper-aware of other people’s emotions. Did Frank hate him? He hated his obnoxiousness, his disregard for personal space, his mockery and loudness. But despite all that, he was still Scape. He’d still taken Frank out for drinks, had still eaten with him in the cafeteria at lunch. Even now, he couldn’t figure out why Scape had done any of that.

“I- I don’t hate you, Scape,” Frank said, unable to help his tongue tripping up. “We’ve had our differences but you’re my colleague, so-”

Scape laughed suddenly, harshly. He almost sank to the ground with the effort of it. “Oh, that’s so fucking rich! You are hilarious, Palp, for how hard you try to be all brooding and serious. You think I don’t know Vertex and those other motherfuckers aren’t on to me? That you aren’t in on it, too?”

“I wouldn’t just report you,” Frank objected, his own cheeks flushing, muscles tensing. “I’m not a monster.”

“Oh, aren’t you? You took the position, didn’t you?”

“You told me to take it!”

Scape scoffed. “Only because I wanted the best for you.”

“The best?” Frank hissed. “The best ? I hate this, Scape! It’s the same as always, but worse. I don’t want to be the reason for people's’ disappearances, much less yours, but I’ve made this bed- I have to lie in it, or Vertex is going to skin me alive!”

“Then go,” Scape retorted. He hiccuped, unsteady again. “Fuck off. Pretend you didn’t see me. This was- it’s stupid.” He frowned, and all of a sudden his expression distorted, becoming something less angry and more desperate. “You could still- still have a good life. Good job. And there’s Dawn, too.” Scape groaned and heaved a breath inwards, mouth screwing up as if in pain. “I’m just dragging you down with me.” He sobbed, erratically, drily, and Frank’s stomach flipped. “So fucking selfish, I’m so selfish, I’m just like my-”

That was when Frank saw them- the civil servants, rounding the corner, in all their greyish glory- likely alerted by Scape’s warbling. There was no time for words now, no time at all. Frank darted forwards and drew Scape close to him with an assertiveness he didn’t know he possessed. Scape only managed a “what are you doi-” before Frank had curled his hand around the other’s mouth. Frank dragged the both of them into a nearby alleyway- a tight, dark and stale-smelling fit, but it would do for cover.

In that confined space, all Frank could see was the glint of Scape’s eyes, wild and surprised, by the light of the street-lamps. His skin felt hot and sweaty under Frank’s touch- there was no way he’d get home by himself in this state. Frank was going to have to do what he’d known he’d have to ever since Scape had confronted him. The sound of Frank’s own heart thundering in his chest, combined with the ragged tattoo of Scape’s breathing, made him feel certain that the civil servants would know exactly where they were. But they strolled right by, marching in uniform order. Just to be safe, Frank waited until their footsteps had petered away entirely. And then some.

He released Scape finally, who peeled away from him, stumbling. He caught himself on the opposite wall. There was only a couple off feet between them anyways. “You- if you hadn’t done that-”

“We’d be in deep shit,” Frank returned. “Thank me later.” He shook his head and exhaled.

“Frank,” Scape said, stickily, as if his larynx was swimming in treacle. “You-” But he didn’t get to finish the thought, because he promptly vomited- it was almost kind of impressive, Frank thought. He even managed to get it on Frank’s shoes. His nice, shiny new shoes. Whatever. They reminded him of Olivia, anyways.

“Alright. Let’s get moving.” Frank grabbed Scape and positioned one arm over his own shoulder, attempting to support Scape’s limp weight. He smelled terrible and he could barely walk, but somehow Frank made it work. Somehow.

Scape mumbled incoherently under his breath the whole way-  small, sorrowful lamentations that Frank couldn’t understand and wasn’t sure he wanted to. He tripped up continuously, and their legs kept tangling. Frank was agonizingly paranoid, craning his neck back and forth to make sure nobody was following them. They were cutting it so fucking close to curfew. Maybe Frank could get away with a tap on the wrist, but knowing how suspicious the Ministry was of Scape, catching him out would be the perfect opportunity to whisk him away.

“Where are you taking me?” Scape asked. They had arrived at Frank’s apartment building. It was going to be nigh impossible sneaking this unexpected guest past his parents, but he had to make it work. Had to.

“It’s gonna take too long to get to your house and return to mine,” Frank said. “And I want to keep an eye on you.”

“I’m not going to do anything stupid,” Scape mumbled, pouting and defiant.

“You’ve proved yourself wrong before on that account. Now. Up the stairs.”

Frank shouldered the door to the apartment open. He could hear the TV blaring in the living room. Evidently, his mother heard him, because she called out.

“Frank?” she said. “Is that you?”

Frank widened his eyes at Scape, holding a finger to his lips. “Yes, mother. I’m, uh, very tired so I’m gonna go to bed alright?”

“Oh, long day, sweetheart? Why don’t I make you some tea, or-”

“No, no, that’s fine!” Frank said, a little too quickly. Scape smirked at him. “Wouldn’t want to bother you. Night!”

She didn’t push the issue, which Frank was thankful for. He crept along the corridor, Scape attempting to mimic him and failing. They reached his room. Frank crossed his fingers and hoped that the Student wouldn’t rat him out.

The bedroom was empty- the Student was still watching TV with Frank’s parents, thank goodness. This would give Scape a chance to settle in. He was looking around the room, a little more alert now.

“This is depressing,” he said.

“I know,” Frank replied. “But it’s what I’ve got. And now, it’s what you’ve got- so deal with it.”

Scape grunted and sat heavily on Frank’s bed, staring into space. His brow was furrowed a little. Frank tilted his head, studying the other. Something had been bugging him about Scape- not just this evening, but ever since they’d become colleagues.

“What did you want from me today?” he asked, half-expecting no answer. But he wanted one, he realised. He did.

It took Scape a moment, attempting to speak several times. His mouth formed the shape of the words but they didn’t arrive. He frowned. “Do you know why the Ministry might have it out for me?” he asked, eventually, his voice hushed, and it was the first time Frank had heard him that quiet.

“I’ve read your journals,” Frank said. “I know you’re not a huge fan of them. And you know, what you said about getting that motorbike and driving away.”

“Yeah, but-” He swallowed, and Frank suddenly got the sense that maybe this was the first time Scape had ever said anything like this- maybe to anyone. “Well, you know this, but there are certain kinds of people the Ministry really doesn’t like. You know. People like- like-”

And it clicked. Frank blinked. “People like...Roland? People...wait. Scape, are you-”

Scape shushed him a little too loudly, flushed pink all over again. “Don’t fucking say it out loud, it makes it too real! It’s not exactly like that- I dunno if there’s even a word, for what I am. You know me and Olivia used to screw. It’s just that I’ve been doing some thinking, you know. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised how fucked this entire thing is. Not just the- the ‘Roland’ thing. Everyone. Living like machines, not feeling safe, worrying about who they are or how they live. And I used to think your philosophy was total garbage, I did, but you’ve been making a lot more sense recently Palp.”

It was a lot to take in. Frank’s cheeks were itching, and he realised that was because he was blushing. Something about this felt so ridiculously sensitive and unusual. He wasn’t disgusted, or angry, or anything- just surprised. And there was something else, that he couldn’t name.

“So- so what does this…have to do with me…?”

Scape rolled his eyes. “Jesus Christ, Palp. You’re not an idiot, I know that much. But apparently you’re fucking dense as pudding. Work it out.” Then he looked away, but Frank got a clear enough glimpse of the embarrassment on his face to have it fall into place.

Frank cleared his throat. “Ah.”

“Yeah. ‘Ah.’”

“I’m, um...flattered…?”

Scape shook his head. “Don’t, I feel shitty enough as it is. Thanks Palp, for everything. I’ll be gone in the morning and we’ll go back to work, and forget I ever said this. And I won’t be around for long anyways, so this won’t matter.”

“I...alright. You can take my bed, if you want.”

Scape began fumbling with the buttons of his t-shirt and Frank spun around quickly, leaving his room. He went to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of water. He tried to make it last, taking small sips. Frank caught his reflection in a mirror on the wall. He was red all the way down to his neck and he looked significantly more ruffled than he had earlier in the evening, sort of like a perturbed bird. It would almost be funny, if he didn’t feel like he’d been forcibly turned on his head.

He returned to his room, eventually. Scape was curled up on his bed, facing the wall, eyes resolutely shut. Frank watched him for a moment. Somehow, his face seemed to have entirely changed, and the rest of him had too. The Student pushed open the door not long after.

“I can explain,” Frank said quickly, as the Student caught sight of Scape. “He needs to be here. Just for now. Could you omit this from your writings maybe? Please?”

The Student’s surprise faded quickly and he nodded. “Yeah, of course.” He looked at Frank. “But...you know, I think it would be wise for you to leave soon, Frank. There’s really only so much I can do. Vertex is very, very keen to investigate Scape, and while he’s in danger, you are too.”

Frank swallowed. “I know,” he said.

He made himself a makeshift bed on the floor, out of a spare pillow and blankets. It wasn’t comfortable but he didn’t really care. Once the Student was snoring, he sat up, slowly, looking over to Scape.

“Hey,” Frank whispered into the darkness. He waited a moment. “Scape.”

Scape shifted under his blankets to face Frank, looking half-asleep. “What?”

“I don’t think you’re a bad person.”

“Gee, thanks,” Scape hissed.

“No, I mean- that came out wrong. I mean, we’re not best friends, obviously, but I don't want you to get hurt. You’re...I enjoy your company, funnily enough.”

“Wow. Why don’t you fucking propose to me while you’re at it, Palp?”

“Jesus! Stop being so snarky, I’m trying to tell you something.”

Scape rolled his eyes again, but he was quiet.

“Me and Dawn- we’re planning to get out of here. We’ve been saving up money for a while, and you’ve heard of the ghost tram, right? I figure whatever’s on the other side of that is better than this.”

“Don’t torture me with visions of your happy future life with your loving girlfriend that you’re gonna have a million babies with Frank. That’s just cruel.”

“Shut up and listen . I want you to come with us.”

Scape went to make another comment, and then realised what Frank had said. He made a soft little noise in the back of his throat. “Oh,” he said.

“Yeah. Oh.” Frank smiled.

“You’re- you aren’t fucking with me?” Scape asked, his voice hoarse.

“No. Scape, I don’t want you to be hurt.” Frank hesitated for a moment, before he reached out and found Scape’s hand tucked near his face. It was warm and balled up, like a stone left in the sun. Scape’s breath hitched, and his hand relaxed in Frank’s hold.

“Oh, come on, Frank,” he said, laughing shakily. “Don’t toy with my heart.”

“I don’t want to. I just...want to see where this will go. There’s a whole world of possibility out there, you know?”

“Dawn,” Scape said.

Frank shook his head. “She’s open minded.”

Scape looked Frank up and down, as if to deduce whether he was lying. He seemed to figure not, because he linked his fingers with Frank’s. He was trembling a little.

“Ok,” Scape said finally. “I think I want this.”

“I think so too,” Frank said.

Whatever “this” was.