May was nearly over. The current twelfth year class at the Birmingham Academy of Magical Sciences were heading into their last week of school before beginning their Apprenticeships. Classes had officially finished a week ago, and the students had been busy since then putting the finishing touches on their final magical creations before exams began in June.
Two of those students were not particularly concerned about their exams, though. While everyone else was busy practicing, Roy and Hugh had other plans. They had both gone out to the neighbouring woodland, where they would be away from everyone else. They had spent the last summer building a small hut, and had used it when they needed to get away from the Academy and its sometimes stifling halls. Magic was practiced here that would not be acceptable elsewhere, lest they get in trouble for casting magic they were not allowed to use, at least not yet.
Hugh was a particularly gifted magic student. The only son of Mage Jeremiah McDowell, 2nd Baronet of Cathedral Manor, with whom he did not get along particularly well, he prided himself on his skills and ingenuity, and was constantly seeking to push magic to its limits. Discarding most of the magical rules they had been taught over the years, Hugh spent his time between the library and this hut, seeking out new spells to cast. Most were his own creation, and some, like the one he wished to cast that day, involved magic they were strictly not meant to be using. Hugh preferred it this way. He felt he was good enough to be Apprenticing already, and felt no guilt about using magics that were beyond them.
Roy was not so ambitious. He was the youngest son of Sir Frederick Wood, 4th Baronet of Castle Bromwich Hall. Roy had mixed feelings about magic. He was indeed a talented young wizzard; he was top of his year for a reason. But he lacked Hugh's desire to experiment and master magic; at least, he would not cast any magic he was not permitted to cast. He did not wish to get in trouble. He felt some of his mother's concerns about magic had seeped into his mind, making him doubt whether he should be casting magic at all, even though magic was the only thing he was good at.
The first thing they had built once the hut was done was the fire pit in the middle of the room. They sat before it now, watching the perpetual fire before them that was burning in a cast iron bowl, which itself was cradled by a selection of rocks to keep the floor from burning. It was not a proper pit, but it did make for a safe enough place to burn things.
Hugh took out a small packet of orange powder from his coat, made a gesture Roy did not know, and sprinkled it into the fire before them. The dark orange flame immediately flared up, and Hugh smiled.
"Now, all we need is those last two ingredients, and we should be done. You did bring them, Roy, did you not?" Hugh said as he picked out two small, smooth stones from his pocket.
"Of course, I remembered to bring them. I do not know if it was worth my career to steal them from the kitchens, though. I do too much for you some days." Roy reached into his coat and took them out. One was a packet of dried herbs, and the other was a collection of cinnamon bark. He handed them to Hugh. "What are you even trying to do?"
"Well, I know I haven't got the initiations done yet, but I just have a feeling this will work," Hugh said evasively. He gestured over the last two ingredients before adding them to the fire. The two stones had a series of gestures made over them before they too were thrown into the fire. With one final spell, it was cast, and the fire flared again and turned bright yellow. Hugh let it settle a minute before he clapped his hands sharply and the fire was extinguished. "Right, let's see if we've got us some lunch."
Roy peered nervously over the pot as Hugh brazenly reached in to see if there was anything there. To Roy's amazement, Hugh brought out two spiced buns from the bottom of the pot, and they looked quite edible, at that.
Hugh grinned broadly. "I told you it would work. Look at that. Magical bread. I shall never need to acquire food again."
"You have not tasted it yet. It might taste like rocks," Roy countered.
Hugh offered him one. "Go on, then. Try it. I promise it will taste fine."
Roy was not convinced. It was true, the bun in his hand did look edible enough, and it felt like bread, but magical appearances could be desperately misleading, and he feared he might end up poisoning himself if he took a bite. "You go first."
Hugh braved a bite, and Roy looked on, expecting him to spit it back out again. Instead, Hugh just kept on smiling, and finished the whole bun.
"That is eminently good food. Try it, Roy. It is marvellous. I am a genius," Hugh said.
Tentatively, Roy picked off a small crumb and ate it. It was not accompanied by any sensations that might suggest he was being poisoned. Indeed, it tasted almost sweet as well as spicy. He picked off another slightly larger bit, just to see if it was indeed good food. The taste intensified. Perhaps it was alright to eat, after all. He took a small bite, this time, and again, discovered nothing more than a tasty bun. He was shocked, but pleasantly so. Then again, he had not seen Hugh get a spell wrong yet, so perhaps his cynicism had been misplaced again.
"I cannot fathom how you have done this. I really do not understand it at all," Roy said.
"Think I should use it for my final exam? That'd shock those old men out of their seats," Hugh said, mischief creeping into his eyes.
Roy looked horrified at the idea. "Oh, no, Hugh, you can't. You know you can't use that kind of magic in the exams. It's against the rules to use magic from elements we haven't been initiated into yet. You'll get thrown out."
Hugh sighed as he sat back. "If I didn't care so much about my Apprenticeship, I would do it, just to show them it could be done. But you're right. I can't use it for my exams. The Mineral and Vegetable magics would invalidate it. But I will use it for my First Degree, unless I come up with anything better. I'll have those initiations by then, and I know I can use it once those are done. This kind of magic is invaluable. Perpetual food from perpetual fire. No one need go hungry ever again."
Roy sat down beside him as he finished his bun. It still tasted just like it was meant to taste, and he was very impressed by it. He had never dared try to use the higher elemental magics yet. He was waiting until he was an Apprentice, where he would be allowed to use them freely.
"How did you even know it would work? I have never even seen half the gestures you used just now," Roy said.
Hugh gave him a confused look. "I just knew it would work? Have you never felt that way about magic? That you just know when something is going to work?"
"I have never felt that way, no. I am not sure anyone can be so certain about magic," Roy said.
Hugh sat back. "We clearly cast in very different ways. Intuition is my guiding light. It has never steered me wrong. Your problem, Roy, is that you do not trust your own abilities. You are too scared of failing, so you never discard the rules. You will never be a great wizzard while you are so conventional."
Roy lowered his head, having heard this criticism from Hugh before. "I just do not understand how you can be so sure of yourself while working with such an uncertain science."
"I do not know how you can say that when you have discovered a new way to cast magic with your music," Hugh countered.
Roy blushed, feeling embarrassed at the suggestion he had discovered something entirely new. "I just followed the rules. I am not using anything new at all."
Hugh turned to face him. "But it is new. Have you not looked at the exams archive in the library? No one has ever cast this way before, but somehow you can do it. You can trace out gesture symbols and play the right notes, and you can cast magic. This, Roy, is something brand new, and I wish I had something just as impressive for my exams."
"What are you casting for your exams, anyway? I don't think you've told me yet," Roy said.
Hugh shrugged, looking nonchalant. "Oh, I don't want to spoil the surprise. But it's not as good as your flute."
Roy caught a slight hint of smugness in his voice, as if he knew he had something even more impressive than Roy's creation, but refused to brag about it, at least not just yet. Roy found their magical rivalry utterly frustrating. Roy was the top of their year, with Hugh just below him, but Roy always felt that Hugh was much more creative than he was. Hugh was the true genius; Roy would always just be a good wizzard.
Hugh brought an arm around his shoulders and brought him close. It was strange to think they were nearly finished with their formal education at the Academy. But there was excitement, too. After the summer, they could begin their Apprenticeships, and begin making proper magic of their own. They'd talked of nothing else for years, waiting for the time when they could begin to master it for themselves. Lying beside each other late at night, they would talk in whispers about who they wanted as their supervisors, and what they wanted to work on. Hugh would regale him with talk of magnificent machines, brought to life with magic, while Roy would talk about all the colours in his head and the magic he wanted to work out, even though he had no name for it yet. There was a song he could not forget that kept him going, speaking of mysteries yet undiscovered.
They shared a soft kiss then. It was all the intimacy Roy would ever allow between them. He was not willing to give in to his desires as it would clash with his faith. Even when his desires were so strong, and he desperately wished to allow Hugh to lie with him, he would not allow it. He would allow himself only the intimacy of his lips.
Roy's fingers brushed against the stubble on Hugh's face, tracing it along his jaw line. It scratched against his own skin as he kissed him, and the scent was always more arousing than he would ever say. Hugh held him tight, as he always did, and Roy mirrored the embrace, knowing he would probably never be any more intimate than this. Hugh's hand still slowly moved down Roy's chest, always testing to see if, maybe one day, Roy might allow something more, but Roy just squirmed and pushed away a little.
"No, I just - we should not do such a thing. It is wrong in the eyes of God," Roy murmured.
"I wish your body agreed with your mind, then. I know you want this. You say you cannot, but you know what we have shared over the years. We are closer to each other than we are to anyone else," Hugh said.
Hugh dared to move his hand between Roy's legs, stroking him gently. Roy hated that his body responded to it, and he could feel himself begin to swell with arousal. He did not like that he had these desires within him. His faith constantly told him it was wrong. He was committing a sin in the eyes of God, to allow another man to be sexually intimate with him. And yet, it felt so good to be touched like that. Why did it have to be wrong? Why would God give him such evil desires when they felt so good?
"Please, Hugh, we should not do this. I do not want to condemn myself because I have given in to these unnatural desires," Roy breathed, though he did not sound so sure of his convictions as he spoke.
"God cannot claim to make you the way you are, and then condemn you for it. If He did not wish me to seek pleasure with men, He should not have given me these desires. I refuse to believe in such a God. He does not deserve my worship, if He will set a man up to fail and refuse him any chance of salvation. No, my God loves me the way I am, and if your God cannot cope with that, then He is more petty-minded than I ever thought possible. Sometimes, I think your Church is entirely more masochistic than mine," Hugh replied.
Roy gasped, and not just because Hugh had begun nuzzling his neck, nipping ever so lightly at the skin in such a way that Roy felt shivers all the way down his spine.
"I wish you did not say such things, Hugh. I wish you would not speak such heresy to me. I could have you condemned for it," Roy said.
Hugh smiled. "You would never do such a thing, for you would condemn yourself if you dared. You love your precious Church too much to speak out against me."
Hugh's kiss became more intense, and Roy wished he did not have so much guilt about what they were doing. Hugh's hand pressed hard against him, and he knew he was growing harder. His trousers were becoming much too uncomfortable, but he could not bring himself to allow Hugh to relieve him of his frustration. As his hand threatened to begin undressing him, Roy pulled away, refusing to go any further.
"You will keep your hands to yourself, Hugh. Do not tempt me, you devil," Roy said.
Hugh merely glanced at the bulge in Roy's trousers and sneered. "I'll stop when you cease to enjoy it, my friend."
Embarrassed, Roy turned away from him, ashamed at his visible arousal. Yes, he had made one mistake when he was younger, and had allowed Hugh to touch him, but he was older now, and he would be expected to be married soon enough. Giving in to these desires had to end if he was to be a proper husband. At that moment, though, as Hugh came up behind him and gently embraced him, all Roy wanted to do was give in, if he could throw away his faith long enough to do so.
"I wish you would allow yourself to love me, Roy. We have been closer to each other than we have ever been to our own families. Life without you would be meaningless. I wish you could find the peace I do with my faith, so that you could be mine forever," Hugh said, his tone much more serious.
"How do you do it, Hugh? How do you reconcile your faith with your desires? God does not like these desires in me, and yet, He surely gave them to me before I was born. What have I done to be cursed in such a way? I must be worthless in His eyes if He should condemn me before I was even born," Roy said. He sighed, forlornly.
Hugh held him tighter, bringing him close. "Oh, Roy, you are not worthless. God has given you a great talent for magic. Your church does teach that it is a gift from God, does it not? How could He wish to condemn you if He would give you such great power?"
Roy shook his head. "The Church does not approve of magic. I believe it can benefit society - perpetual fire is proof enough of that, and I would love more than to be a great wizzard, but it does make me question my faith. I am not so sure I am correct. And yet, would my father have sent me and my brothers here if he was so afraid of it? Would he have sent us here if he believed magic was evil? I am just so unsure. I do not know what to believe."
"You are too unsure of everything, my friend," Hugh gently chided. "Do you really feel there is such a conflict between magic and your faith? What makes you doubt yourself?
Roy sighed. "My mother condemns magic, that is what makes me doubt myself, but my father always wanted me to come here and learn magic. I am still not sure how to reconcile the two. I fear my mother would prefer I left the Academy once I am done with this year, and leave magic behind for good. I wish to stay here, but I am not sure if I will get my wish. I wish I was in your position, Hugh, where my faith does not cause me such anxieties."
Hugh pressed a soft kiss to his neck anyway. "You will find your strength one day. Until then, I will be your strength, and I say you are worthy in the eyes of God. He loves you, just as I do, and He will not condemn one of His glorious creations. You are safe, Roy. You are always safe when you are with me. I hope one day you will come to believe me when I say it."
Roy turned around to face him, and Hugh took his hands gently. Roy met his gaze, and tried to believe his words. Hugh leant in and kissed him, and Roy allowed himself to kiss him back, giving in to this one pleasure. It did not help remove the bulge in his trousers, though.
"Allow me to relieve you of your frustrations, Roy, just this one time. I promise I will not ask again," Hugh murmured against his neck.
Roy brought him close, knowing he would like it gone before he went back to the Academy. Breathing in Hugh's sweat, he whispered his consent, and swallowed hard as he felt Hugh's hands finally unbuttoning his trousers. Roy dared not look down as Hugh's hand closed around his prick, stroking him firmly. He gazed absently up at the ceiling as Hugh brought him close, and they rocked together, Roy's arousal growing stronger the more Hugh touched him.
Soon enough, he came hard onto Hugh's hand, and leant against him, allowing all his sinful lust to dissipate. He closed his eyes as he felt Hugh move down and close his mouth over his prick. That evil tongue of Hugh's moved over him and Roy decided not to think about the consequences of Hugh devouring his seed in such a way, nor how good it felt.
His prick was limp and flaccid once Hugh moved away from him. Roy dressed himself and began whispering prayers to the Heavens, begging for forgiveness for engaging in such activities. He had given in again, and he hated himself for it.
"I love it when you pray like this. You are none so beautiful when you offer sacred words to God after I have given you pleasure. I will always cherish you like this, even if it never happens again," Hugh murmured as he watched Roy praying.
Roy refused to listen, and went outside. As he leant against the door of the hut, he tried not to listen as he heard Hugh bringing himself pleasure. He could hear his harsh breathing, and imagined what he would look like as he knelt on the floor, trousers pulled down, as he touched himself. He tried not to think about his prick, which he had seen only once before, and what it would feel like to have it in his mouth the way Hugh had done for him. Before it made him hard again, he broke away from the hut and headed back to the Academy. He could not stand any further temptation.
Roy went back to his room. There was no Anglican chapel in the Academy itself, and Sir Roy did not feel like making the short trip to the church down the road. Instead, he shut himself in his room and knelt by his bed, hands clasped in prayer. He dared not speak aloud his sins, lest he be overheard. His confession was only for Christ to hear.
He was prone to praying like this for hours. It had begun when he had first kissed Hugh, back when he was barely thirteen years old, and had begun to realise he had unnatural desires for other boys in their year. It had been a period of experimentation, and though it had progressed to nothing more than Roy and Hugh spending a dark, stormy evening touching each other, trying to comfort themselves, it was enough. Roy had reacted by praying, kneeling by his bed until he felt he had gained forgiveness for his sins. The pain in his knees from kneeling for so long on a hard, cold floor he saw as his punishment. Hugh knew there were bruises there; there were always bruises after Roy had been praying like this. Hugh did not like seeing him deliberately hurting himself, but Roy would not allow Hugh to help or take his pain away.
Roy hated that it had not even been the last time. They had engaged in such sinful behaviour back when they were fifteen. They had been experimenting with the pleasurable responses they could draw from each others bodies since that first stormy night, though it was not as frequent as perhaps Hugh wanted. The day Hugh dragged him into a darkened room in the basement between classes was the pinnacle of their experimentation. Roy had been somewhat keen, and Hugh had been encouraging him to go further. With the door closed, and the room in darkness, all Roy was aware of was Hugh's body pressed against his own as they kissed. Roy could feel Hugh's hands unbuttoning his trousers, and his breath caught in his throat as Hugh moved down his body and took his prick into his mouth. That was not the tipping point for him, though. He found himself unable to go further when Hugh turned him around and moved to push his own prick inside him. Roy was not ready for sex at all, and at the first sensation of his prick pressing against his arse, Roy broke away from him, afraid of committing such a horrible sin.
They had argued. Roy had dressed himself, and after making it clear he did not wish to engage in such carnal knowledge with him, he left, hoping no one had heard them and knew what they had been up to. He went straight back to his room, and shut himself in. He prayed on his knees for twelve hours, fasting and praying, hoping he would be forgiven for his sins. He was becoming much more aware of what he was doing with Hugh, and how it was wrong in the eyes of God to be doing such dirty things with another man. He carried guilt and shame with him now that he had not carried before, and it had not yet left him.
As he knelt there, his knees began to ache. He was going to bruise them again, he was sure of it, particularly since he had allowed Hugh to go further than he had ever gone before. Hugh had not only made him spill his seed, but he had taken him into his mouth and pleasured him. The memory was too fresh to have been completely stripped of its arousal. At the mere thought of it, Roy felt a surge of pleasure in his groin, and he tried desperately to be rid of it. He closed a hand tight around the bulge in his trousers, trying to make it go away. He squeezed until it hurt, until it was no longer pleasurable.
"Please, God. Please, God. Please, God. I am not meant to be this way. I am not meant to like men. I will fall in love with a woman, and be happy. I will not give in to these unnatural desires. Lend me your strength, Lord. I fear I am not strong enough to fight this on my own," Roy murmured as audibly as he dared.
He took hold of the small wooden cross he wore around his neck, hoping it would give him strength, and preserve his faith. He spoke his confession to the Heavens, begging for forgiveness. His sense of worthlessness brought him to tears, and he had no idea how he would ever be free of these evil inclinations. He had been born tainted with sin, and he was not convinced he would ever be good enough to get to Heaven.
Roy whispered the Lord's Prayer over and over to himself, the Latin words slipping off his lips effortlessly. Hugh had taught him to pray it in Latin, and he loved how the language moved him. He had learnt enough Latin at the Academy to appreciate it, and moving away from English helped him slip into a more prayerful mindset. He didn't notice Hugh watching him from the doorway, though Hugh did not disturb him. Resigned to the fact that Roy would probably never find enough courage to love him back, Hugh left him alone, retiring to the library.
Roy was still praying when Hugh came to get him for supper that evening. It did not look like Roy had moved at all. Hugh went over and sat beside him. He wanted to reach for his hand, but decided that he might not appreciate any intimacy at that moment. They sat there in silence a moment before Hugh spoke.
"Roy, we're expected in the hall for supper. Are you going to come with me?" Hugh asked, keeping his voice soft.
Roy glanced over at him, but didn't reply. Hugh's intrusion had shaken him from his prayers, and it took a moment to settle back into reality.
"I'm sorry about this afternoon. I pushed you too far, didn't I?" Hugh said.
Roy nodded. "I'm sorry. I wish I could be with you like you want me to, but I am not certain I will ever be alright with it. It is a sin, Hugh, and I cannot shake that belief."
Hugh brought an arm around his shoulder. "I would never ask you to leave your faith for me. I will not ask again, I promise. It is not something you can give me, and I cannot force it from you."
"Might we have supper up here tonight? I am not sure I can bear the dining hall right now," Roy said.
"I'll have something brought up for us, but only if you let me heal your knees," Hugh said.
Roy smiled a little, and agreed. "Alright, but can you help me up? I keep forgetting how stiff I get after doing this."
"I daresay that is a sign you should stop doing it, but I am not sure you ever will," Hugh said as he helped Roy to his feet.
Roy staggered a little, unsteady on his legs, as Hugh helped sit him down in a chair by the window. Roy gazed out at the darkening sky as Hugh went to get supper for them. His knees did ache quite a lot, and he could hardly bend them properly. It would be a while before they recovered, but he still felt he deserved the pain for what he had done.
Hugh set their supper aside while he knelt before him. Roy watched him ease his boots off and set them aside. It did feel good to be free of them, though he would not have said so. He had never wanted Hugh to see the damage he had done to his knees over the years, but what did it matter now? Hugh had always known about it. Perhaps it would be nice to be free of the pain. He did have his final exam to prepare for, and he did not wish to be delayed.
"I am going to have to remove your trousers, my friend. I daresay it will be less painful than trying to push the legs up. I promise I will not touch you inappropriately. I just wish to heal your knees," Hugh said.
Roy sighed. "I thought as much. Just be gentle. My legs are aching."
"That is no one's fault but your own, Roy," Hugh chided gently as he unbuttoned his trousers and began to shift them down.
Roy squirmed a little, and shifted in his seat as Hugh removed his trousers and hose. He looked away, ashamed, as Hugh caught sight of the bruises. "Do not pity me, Hugh. It is my punishment."
Hugh didn't reply. He did not think Roy would appreciate an argument at a time like this. Instead, he took some salve from a jar he kept in his jacket, and began gently rubbing his knees. His touch was as gentle as a soft breeze, barely touching him at all. Roy squeezed his eyes shut and gripped the chair, trying to forget about the pain. Even the lightest touch sent pain right down his shins, and it stung like mad.
Hugh bandaged them to protect them from further damage and whispered a small spell he had learnt to speed up their healing. If it worked properly, they would be fine in a day. Once he was done, he straightened and brought Roy into a gentle hug.
"I wish you would not hurt yourself like this. I wish your faith did not cause you to do this," Hugh whispered, holding him close.
Roy could find no way to reply. Hugh kissed him, softly, tentatively. He held him as Roy wept against his shoulder. Hugh wanted nothing more than to relieve him of his pain, but while he could heal his knees, he could not heal his heart. He could not offer him any peace, not yet. But he would persist in trying to woo him, because he was not willing to let go of him. They had been friends for far too long. Roy was all the family Hugh needed, but he was beginning to suspect he may never have him, not if Roy was unable to reconcile his faith and his love for him.
June came along far sooner than either of them wished, and though it brought some sunshine with it, there was no happiness yet. Summer holidays were still two weeks away. Roy had done his best to prepare for his exams, but he had not slept well, and now that his exam was only two days away, he was beginning to panic.
He felt he might have been able to explain it away if his dreams had not been quite as disturbing as they were. He had not even told Hugh about them, too embarrassed to even admit he was having them. They had left him conflicted and ashamed, and it had distracted him completely from putting the finishing touches on his exam piece.
In spite of Roy's desire to forget the dreams, he nevertheless wrote them all down in a small journal, magically charmed so it could not be read by anyone but him. He filled the book with the details of every dream he had. It was like a confession, meant only for God, except for how filthy and sexual the dreams were. He felt the Devil deserved it more.
Roy could hardly believe he was even dreaming of the Earl, particularly in such disturbing ways. He knew of him, as his family had connections with him, but Roy would not have said they were close. And yet, Lord Aylesford plagued his dreams, tempting him the way Hugh tempted him. The Earl would hold him close, and in some dreams, he would slowly undress him. In others, he would ride in on his horse, naked, bearing a spear in hand. There were several that involved the Earl appearing to him as Christ Himself, and Roy did not understand those ones at all. The most shameful ones of all involved the Earl making love to him, kissing him and touching him in highly intimate places. It was these last ones that woke Roy, his body horribly aroused.
He was still not sure what had first triggered the dreams. They had been with him for years, as far as he could remember, though they were not always a constant presence. Sometimes, they disappeared for months, before returning with a vengeance at a time when he did not need the distraction. He was thankful he did not see Lord Aylesford very often, or he felt he might not be able to speak to him without thinking filthy thoughts about him. Perhaps he was being tested to see if he could resist the unnatural desires inside him. Praying did not seem to make them go away forever, either. They would always come back, making his prick hard. It had become so intolerable, he had almost given in and taken care of his frustration himself, but he just could not bring himself to commit such a sin.
The one thing that might have taken his mind off the persistent dreams happened the day before his exams. As he was practicing his final piece of magic in his room with Hugh, a letter arrived. Roy thought nothing of it; it was probably from his mother, and therefore could probably wait until he was done. Her letters were never urgent, and he would sit down to read it after he had done his exams.
It was the first time Roy had seen what Hugh was preparing. While Roy sat on his bed, perfecting the little bird and the tune he was playing, Hugh sat around a small bowl of perpetual fire, making a selection of small fire dragons emerge from it and crawl all over the floor. Roy was fascinated by it. The dragons looked real enough, and they stood there around the fire, blowing small licks of flame from their mouths. Hugh had brought them to life beautifully, and Roy couldn't help looking at the small bluebird perched on his leg and feel inferior. His bird didn't look as good as those dragons did. Its body was not as well defined, and it still looked like it was made of smoke. The dragons moved like they were solid beings, and two of them were fighting, breathing fire at each other as they wrestled.
Roy frowned, and stopped playing. The bird disappeared. "Oh, I just knew you were going to do that kind of magic, ever since you heard about my little bird. I'm never allowed to have ideas of my own, am I?"
Hugh looked at him, confused. "My magic is nothing like yours, bar the use of magical animals. If you asked me to write another spell for you with your music, I'd never manage it. No, your magic is much better than mine. I'm just using simple conjuring tricks and some basic fire magic. It looks more impressive than it actually is."
Roy suspected that was not the result of basic fire magic, but decided against arguing the point. He knew Hugh was unlikely to be cheating; he cared too much about getting his Apprenticeship, and even though Hugh was generally a rebellious student, he still cared enough to do honest work, particularly when it came to magic.
"Are you going to read that letter?" Hugh said, changing the subject.
Roy glanced over at it. "Why? It's probably just another letter from mother informing me of what new achievements Sir Daniel has acquired. He's probably head of the Household Cavalry by now. I'm sure he was being sent there last time she wrote. I really don't want to deal with that right now. She thinks that by informing me of my brother's achievements, I will see the errors of my way and leave the Academy. But it just makes me want to stay here more, because the more I am here, the less I have to see her, and all the war medals my family has collected. It's getting embarrassing now. No, I am just grateful she writes, and doesn't see fit to come down and talk to me about it. I am better off away from her. I haven't read the last three. I threw them all in the fire. There is only so much of that I can take, and if she will insist on writing while I am busy with work, then she should not expect me to read her silly letters."
"I am glad my family leave me alone. Your mother, my friend. I am thankful she is not mine," Hugh said.
Roy looked distinctly ruffled. "She is still my mother, in spite of her propensity to write me boring letters every week."
Hugh didn't look as apologetic as Roy would've liked, but he couldn't blame him for that. Roy knew Hugh's relationship with his parents was worse than his relationship with his mother.
"I would prefer boring letters to arguments, my friend. The more time I spend here, the less I have to see those wretched parents of mine. It keeps me away from my father's rage, which he only turns on me because he will not turn on my mother. No, this is my sanctuary, and you are the only family I will ever need," Hugh said. "At least you will inherit that Hall of yours in time. I daresay I would not be getting mine at all if I was not an only child. My mother's womb has only blessed my father with me, and that, I fear, he has always held against me. But clearly God has some plan for me, or He would have provided me with a brother! Then again, at least I have none to lose, unlike you, my friend."
Roy shot him a look. "Do not speak like that! I may not have been that close to them, but they were still my brothers. They died defending the Crown. The least you could do is offer some respect to them."
Hugh stood and went over to him. Taking a seat beside him, he looked at Roy. "Is that the only reason why you even care about them? You never knew them. You were lucky to see them over the summer. Do they really mean so much to you?"
Roy sighed. "It is true, we never grew up together, but that doesn't mean I loved them any less. But I have always felt absent from them, and from my father, too. They have never really been part of my life, and yes, they are sometimes nothing more than portraits on a wall. But Sir Daniel still lives. I am not alone, not while he still lives. But I would prefer it if you did not belittle our family's grief, Hugh. It has been hard enough as it is. I do not need your scorn."
Hugh reached for his hand, and offered his apologies. "I'm sorry. I did not mean to insult you or cause offence. I was speaking foolishly. Of course your grief is real, and I should not have been so callous about it. I just find it strange you can grieve so much for someone you did not know. But it isn't my place to question that, and I am sorry for upsetting you."
"Thank you. I know I was not close to them, but they still matter to me. Once there were five of us, but now only Sir Daniel and I survive. I have been writing to him more often. I fear if I do not try to get to know him now, I fear I may never get the chance to do so. He may end up taken from me like everyone else, and he will be just another stranger to me," Roy said.
"I think you would have made more of an effort to get to know them when you were younger if you knew they would all be taken from you in time, but that cannot be fixed now. Again, I am sorry for my callousness," Hugh said.
"I must make the best of what I have, and it is not like they achieved nothing while they were alive. They have given great service to the country, and for that, I will always honour them. I can only hope I live up to their memories. That is all I can do now," Roy said.
"Are you sure that letter is unimportant? It does not look like all the other letters I remember you receiving," Hugh said, glancing at it again. It was bothering him for reasons he did not quite understand.
"Oh, I'm sure it is nothing," Roy said as he picked it up off the table. The handwriting on the front was his mother's, as he'd suspected. As he sat down beside Hugh, he tried to work out if there was anything different about it. "It looks like every other letter she has ever sent me, Hugh. What bothers you about it?"
Hugh took it from him and examined it. "I am not sure myself, but there is just something about this letter... It is bothering me more than I should like. Perhaps you should open it now. Maybe this time it is important."
Roy took it back, but he hesitated. Hugh had sometimes sensed these things; Roy did not know how he could sense it, but he had seen enough correlations to make him question whether it was purely by chance, or if there was some sort of other force at work. Perhaps he might listen to Hugh's feelings. He would be agitated until he read the letter, Roy knew that well enough. He would just keep asking until Roy gave in and read it.
The envelope opened easily enough. The letter inside was thinner than Roy expected. Normally, his mother wrote long letters to him, covering all the news he couldn't possibly care about, but this one was only two pages long. There weren't many reasons why his mother would write such short letters to him, and he had a bad feeling it was not good news. He handed it to Hugh.
"You read it. I'm not sure I can," Roy said, his voice unsteady with nerves.
Hugh saw Roy look away as Hugh opened the letter. Preparing himself for bad news, Hugh read the letter. It did not take long. "I'm not sure you want to read this."
"How bad is it?" Roy said, still keeping his back to him.
"Very bad, my friend. Do you want me to read it to you?" Hugh said.
"My brother has died, is that correct? Is that how bad it is?" Roy said, after a moment.
Hugh steadied his voice. "That is what she writes, yes. She asks you to be home as soon as possible to arrange the funeral. I assume you will go tomorrow after your exam?"
Roy closed his eyes and nodded. "Yes, I should like to get my exam out of the way first. Then I will go home. Oh. It will be my home then. I will be the next baronet. There is no one else who can inherit. Oh. I had hoped it would not be left to me. And to think Sir Daniel had written to me only last week..."
Hugh wrapped an arm around his shoulders, setting the letter aside. "I'm sorry, my friend. I am so sorry to have given you such grievous news at such a time."
Roy leant against him, appreciating his company. "It is not your fault. You were not responsible for this. I fear I may be forced to leave the Academy, though. My mother has never liked me being here, and she may wish to have me back at home now that I am the new baronet. But I hope I can stay here. Magic is all I am good at."
Hugh hid how much the mere thought of Roy moving away frightened him. "You know you don't have to stay here once you are an Apprentice. You could still study here even if you stayed at home."
Roy had not heard him, though. Amidst tears, he gazed up at the Heavens. "How could God have cursed my family so much? What have we done to have so many taken from us? How could He have forsaken us? What have I done to deserve this? Is it because of my sinful nature? Have I cursed them all to death for my sins? Surely He would not punish me like this. Surely it is just the cruel hand of fate..."
Hugh didn't know, and he decided against asking. Roy was not in the mood for a theological discussion about God, fate, and free will. Instead, he just held him close as Roy sat there beside him, numb with grief and pain.