Richard always finds him. No matter who Zak is or where he goes, Richard always finds him. Eyes on his back as he crosses a room, a whisper against his neck on public transport, the ghost of a hand on his elbow.
Rome at it's height, while Zak was declaiming law. Da Vinci's Florence, whispering inspiration. Restoration England, treading the boards. Revolutionary France, trying save what people he could from the guillotine. Then war. Every war for one hundred and fifty years.
Richard is always there. Sometimes he helps and sometimes he hinders but he's always there. Mountjoy sets him tasks and then leaves him to it, telling him how wrong he went only when he gets called home. If Zak lets himself think about what that means, that his only real constant is actually Richard and not Mountjoy, it scares him more than he'd ever like to admit.
He doesn't always see him, Richard did always like to watch, but Zak always knows he's there and there's something in that.
York is a confusing and endless rush towards something dangerous and potentially world destroying and out of all the places Zak has worked he finds it endlessly amusing that it all comes down to one decision, in one northern English city. Apparently.
Zak sits at the bar in the pub, contemplating the bottom of his second pint, and tries not to think about the way his heart stops beating whenever Hannah speaks to him. She's not supposed to be here, he passed Mountjoy's test by sending her away, but Richard is interfering again and now everything about her is tied up in all the things he represses about Richard.
Richard. Watching his mouth as he talks, keeping his hands in his pockets to show just how much he isn't touching Zak, being obscene and leaning into Zak's space and slowly driving him mad. Things had been so much easier between them before bodies came into the equation, before Richard had so many tricks available to him to show Zak what he really wanted.
And Richard wanted. He always wanted. That fierce, burning want in him had been what drew Zak to him billions of years ago, was what had made Zak stay at his side even when he started talking treason and why Zak turned away from him when Richard begged him to fall. Because it was terrifying, yes, and because Zak found himself wanting too.
“Gist,” Richard's low rumble and the sound of a pint glass settling on the bar. Zak looks up as Richard slides onto the stool beside him, brushing unnecessarily close.
“Pembroke,” Zak acknowledges him with a dip of his head, too weary to start a fight, accepting Richard's presence.
“I have to say I expected to find you cosied up with Hannah,” Richard says, gesturing to the barman for another pint. “Heads bowed together, knees brushing under the table, a stolen look here, a touch of a hand there and then that wonderful tumble into someone else's sheets.”
“Spent a lot of time thinking about it, have you?” Zak asks with a snort, staring down into his pint again.
“I may have spared it a thought or two,” Richard says, waving a hand. He takes a long swallow of his lager and Zak studiously avoids looking at the stretched line of his neck. “I have it on good authority she was going to ask you, so what happened?”
“It's not going to work,” Zak says, turning on his stool to face Richard. Later he'll tell himself it was so he could make his point more effectively. But later isn't now and he enjoys being able to see all of Richard at once.
“Pretty certain I don't know what you're talking about, old chap,” Richard says, his eyes sliding away from Zak's. It's a calculated indication of a lie and all the more annoying for it. Zak makes an irritated sound.
“I'm too tired to play these games today, Richard,” Zak says, making a dismissive gesture with his hand. “We both know why you're here – I'm not going to fall into your traps.”
“Do we?” Richard asks, very still on his stool. He turns his head very slightly towards Zak and it's strange, the stillness, Zak doesn't like it. “Know why I'm here?”
“Distract me with Hannah,” Zak says, fixing his eyes on Richard's face. It's almost certain that any physical cue Richard gives will be something deliberate, he's been practising the art of deception for so long, but Zak can't stop himself from watching all the same. Richard's stillness is unnerving. “Take advantage of that distraction to lure Tom down the long road.”
“The long road,” Richard echoes, a hint of amusement in his voice.
“You know,” Zak says, shifting forwards slightly. “The one paved with good intentions.”
Richard laughs then, letting his head fall back and his eyes fall shut, and he's beautiful, which Zak always forgets, and a greater temptation than most things Zak can imagine. Zak finishes his pint and waits for him to stop.
“Well,” Richard says, tilting his head forwards again. He raises one eyebrow at Zak. “Now that you've uncovered my dastardly plan – what shall we do for the rest of the evening?”
Richard's stillness is replaced by a loose insouciance that Zak feels the moment doesn't merit. He's missed something, he realises, hating again the way their confinement to human bodies makes it so difficult to read Richard.
“I'd suggest we get completely plastered,” Zak says, turning his empty pint glass in his hands. “But I'd worry that you'd use it as an opportunity to take advantage.”
“And what would I be taking advantage of, dear thing?” Richard asks, lifting that eyebrow again.
“I'm sure you'd find something,” Zak says, dancing around the edges of the fucking giant elephant that lurked in any room they met in. “You always have before.”
Zak holds his eyes for a long moment and Richard makes no move to confirm or deny. Which is new, actually, and there's definitely something going on here that Zak isn't quite grasping but he just doesn't have the energy to dig it out. Zak raises a hand and gestures the barman over.
“Whiskey,” he says, not taking his eyes away from Richard's. Richard's lips quirk up at the edges. “Best you've got.”
“Celebrating, Mr Gist?” the barman asks and Zak looks away from Richard. “I hear you won today. Um, sorry Mr Pembroke.”
John, the man's name is John (born in Barnsley, moved to York to marry his wife, barely left Yorkshire all his life), smiles as he takes down a dusty and expensive looking bottle. His hand hesitates over glasses and he flicks his eyes towards Richard. Richard inclines his head slightly and John plucks two glasses from the shelf.
“Something like that,” Zak says, taking the glass that John slides across to him. “Though perhaps it wouldn't be fair to rub it in my colleague's face?”
John winces and pours a little more whiskey into Richard's glass than the measure requires. Richard stifles a laugh and takes the glass.
“Don't worry about it,” Richard says and Zak can't tell who it's directed at. “I'm sure the best conclusion was reached for all parties concerned. Which is all we can ask for, in the end.”
John nods to both of them and backs away, leaving the bottle on the bar, still convinced that he's somehow put his foot in his mouth. Richard casually reaches a hand out and flicks a finger lightly against John's hand as he turns away. The atmosphere lightens and Zak blinks in surprise. Richard avoids looking at him, instead taking another long swallow of pint, and Zak turns the whiskey glass around on the bar.
“What?” Richard asks when he looks up, something flickering far in the depths of his eyes. Zak raises his glass and after a moment Richard raises his own.
“To old friends,” Zak says, naming the thing that always hangs over them both. Richard makes a deep noise in his throat.
“Old friends,” Richard says and somehow his version of the toast carries far more weight than Zak's.
They knock their glasses together.
“Do you remember -” Richard is saying, five glasses later. “Do you remember that time in France? With the knights?”
“Oh – oh I do,” Zak says, letting out a short laugh. “They didn't know which way was up by the time you were finished with them.”
It wasn't funny at the time, of course, because Zak had been the one to put them right again. This far removed from it, though, the thought of five hundred English knights going in circles in one patch of French woodland for days was hilarious.
“I never did figure out why you did it,” Zak says, leaning on his hand. “Put it down to your constant need to interfere in everything I did. Your lot didn't even have a stake in that war.”
“Ah,” Richard shifts awkwardly on his stool, long legs sliding about. “Yes. That was – I needed you distracted so I could make a run at that Black Prince of yours.”
“Edward? Really?” Zak asks, his eyebrows raising what felt like comically high on his forehead. “Oh, that was you. You bastard.”
Richard smirks but there's no real heat in Zak's words, not over a man who died centuries ago. Go down there and straighten him out, Mountjoy had said. We can use him. Of course, cancer had done for Edward of Woodstock in the end, riddling his body, and by then he'd strayed so far away from Mountjoy's ideal that Zak hadn't felt too bad about it.
“He was a ruthless man, Zak,” Richard shrugs, pouring himself another whiskey. “Even your best wouldn't have been enough to crush that out of him. He was always going to be one of mine.”
“So you were interfering for interfering's sake after all, really,” Zak says, placing his hand over his glass to stop Richard from pouring for him too. “Why am I not surprised.”
“I had nothing else to do,” Richard admits. “I knew where you were and thought I'd see if there was any fun to be had. I saw what you didn't want to see in Edward, made an opportunity to whisper a few suggestions into his ear, and left you to it.”
Zak stares at him and Richard smiles slowly, an equally slow furl of warmth uncurling in Zak's stomach at the sight, before throwing back the last of his whiskey.
“You should thank me, really,” Richard says, leaning forwards. “If I hadn't stepped in you would've been mired deep in that interminable angst of yours for years. 'Why won't he change, Mountjoy?' and 'I'm doing everything right' and so forth. It would've been terribly dull, old thing. You never were cut out for the guardian jobs. You're a soldier, Zak. Always have been, always will be.”
“Making you the officer that looks out for his people?” Zak snorts, shaking his head. Richard leans back, tracing a finger around the rim of his glass, not quite meeting Zak's eyes.
“Didn't you know?” he says, focused on the movement of his finger. “I'm your very own guardian angel.”
It's an utterly ridiculous statement, made all the more laughable for the tiny hint of seriousness in it, and for a long moment all Zak can do is continue to stare at Richard. Something's changed in him since the last time they butted heads (was it already fifty years ago? Mortal time moves so quickly) and Zak doesn't know what to do with an occasionally honest Richard.
They're both far too old to start changing their spots.
“Don't you ever get tired?” Zak asks, finally finding his voice.
“Of interfering with your plans?” Richard asks, meeting his eyes again. “Never.”
“Of this,” Zak says, waving around him. “Humans, life, Earth – the whole thing. You've been down here longer than anyone I know of, us or them, don't you ever take holidays?”
“You've run into me on sabbaticals before,” Richard says with a careless wave of his hand. “It's not all luring people over to the dark side.”
“That's not what I mean and you know it,” Zak says, huffing out a breath. “Don't you ever go home, man?”
Richard freezes, his eyes going hard around the edges, and Zak realises that for the first time in a long time he's scored a palpable hit against Richard's cast iron armour. Oh.
“Hell isn't a home,” Richard says, and Zak knows this, he's parleyed there often enough to know this, but Richard's never talked about it before. “Hell is screaming and hatred and fear and terror. I may revel in unhappiness – but that is not what they deal in there. It's extremes and crowds and infinite boredom all crammed into an extra-dimensional loophole that Mountjoy must've invented for a reason.”
“Sounds like you hate it,” Zak says quietly, watching Richard's still face with trepidation.
“Hate isn't strong enough a word,” Richard says, sliding off his stool. “Even if they asked me to come back -” there's a story there Zak needs to know now “- I wouldn't dignify them with my presence. I have no home.”
Richard's tall enough that he's on a level with Zak despite Zak still being seated and his eyes bore down into Zak's, seeing all the way through him like they had the first time Richard looked at him billions of years ago. It makes Zak feel small in a way that not even Mountjoy makes him feel. It also makes him feel like there is nothing but himself and Richard in the universe.
He shivers and Richard pulls back.
“I stay, Zak,” Richard spits his name and Zak almost flinches. “Because here I can take anything I want and do anything I like with it. You'd do well understand that.”
Zak knows a few things about Richard that have never changed. The main one is that Richard always goes on the offensive when he thinks he's exposed himself. He runs the conversation back through his head as Richard pulls out his wallet to pay. He reaches out absently, as he would with anyone else, and catches Richard's wrist loosely in one hand.
boiling anger and how dare he how dare he who does he think he is does he know he can't know if he knew he wouldn't he would he would he won't because he's never understood never no matter how many times I tell him home home what is home he is home but he just won't Richard jerks his arm away and Zak clutches his hand to his chest as if burnt.
“I have not drunk enough for this,” Zak says when they've stood in silence for too long. He doesn't remember getting off the stool and John is giving them a strange look from the opposite end of the bar which means another probable lecture from Mrs S. on proper human-like behaviour.
Richard leans in; his mouth breathing hot air on Zak's ear, one hand on a safely covered shoulder.
“Or maybe,” he says, his lips almost brushing against Zak's ear. “I just need to remind you to take what you can have.”
Richard's gone between one breath and the next, leaving Zak to pay for the truly expensive Mrs S. is going to kill him whiskey. Zak grabs his jacket from the stool on the other side of him and slides it on, picking his discarded tie up from the bar and tucking it into his pocket.
He stops when he gets outside the pub, taking a deep breath of the smoky air that lurks outside all such places now, and watches Richard's retreating back from the corner of his eye. He turns towards the Belfry and pauses, hands tucked into his pockets.
Richard's wrong. He does understand, at least a little, he just refuses to think about it. Because amongst all the things he's done the only thing he thinks he truly deserves to Fall for is the betrayal of his oldest and closest friend (but weren't they so much more than friends). Yet Richard still holds all of that inside him.
Zak hadn't known.
Take what you can have.
Zak turns again and follows Richard's steady footsteps. Richard must notice because he slows his pace until Zak catches him. Zak says nothing when he joins him, simply touches a brief hand to Richard's elbow, and they walk on again.
Zak can allow himself this, this one small thing (a small thing that is secretly everything), and who knows? It may even stave off the inevitable with Hannah.
If Mountjoy wants to complain he can jump. This is his fault in the first place; he pushed the two of them together, right back at the beginning of all things, he has to shoulder the blame one day. Why not today. With his clocks and his enigmas and his deliberate misinformation he deserves this: Zak turning to the one person who's been honest with him more than fifty percent of the time he's know him.
“Stop thinking it through,” Richard says quietly, his voice low and familiar. “Spontaneity, Zak, do as the humans do for once.”
When in Rome and all that. Zak stops and reaches out to Richard, pulling him in close and touching their noses together. Richard's body trembles briefly at that touch of flesh to flesh. The power they hold over each other is intoxicating and Zak tilts his head up to kiss him, licking his way into Richard's willing mouth.
He stops when the streetlight overhead pops and they're cast suddenly into darkness. It would be an unsubtle metaphor if Zak didn't know that it was a direct response to Richard's flailing power.
“You always did lose control when I did that,” Zak says, thinking back over centuries of falling together again and again and again.
“It was less of problem when this planet wasn't riddled with electricity,” Richard admits, smoothing a hand down the side of Zak's face.
“I'm invoking the treaty,” Zak says, mind suddenly made up. Richard makes a soft sound of pleasure.
“It's been a while,” he says and Zak can hear rather than see the smirk. “Are you sure you're up for it?”
“I might be rusty,” Zak allows, sliding his hands down to rest on Richard's hips. “But I'm sure I'll remember as I go along.”
Richard laughs and catches his mouth again, this kiss deeper and hungrier. The laugh pleases Zak more than the promise of imminent gratification. It's the laugh that he remembers, that he hasn't heard for millenia.
“Take me home,” Richard whispers against Zak's mouth and Zak's heart squeezes in his chest for the briefest of moments.
“Alright,” Zak says, nodding. “Alright.”