Fandom: The History Boys
Rating: probably a hard R
Word count: 8486
Notes: This is for schiarire; things I stole from her include Buber's idea of I-thou relationships, and les didascalies. Things I stole from the Magdalen College website include the existence of the Florio Society, which meets and critiques the anonymously submitted poetry of its own members.
I have done my best to recreate what Ji calls the PERFECT STORM OF SEXUAL TENSION that exists in the film. This is a Herculanean task no matter which way you look at it, and I am always suspicious of fics when the writing process feels like eating chocolate mousse with a silver spoon (indulgent and guilty-pleasurey), but I hope you enjoy it.
I am a highly unsuitable person to be writing in this fandom because a) I usually write in speculative universes, and b) I took a single semester of history in Year 7 and haven't touched it since, so I know extremely little about the history of anywhere. Through sheer force of will I have (mostly) managed to avoid mentioning science, choosing instead to wallow around in Shakespeare and Auden and French and a whole lot of other lovely things that I also wish I were better educated in. There is now a director's commentary which explains all the references in more depth, but read the fic first :)
This was supposed to be all intellectual and stuff, but it surprised me by becoming one of the dirtiest things I've ever written. Not extensively, but...intensely.
when our falsehoods are divided
...song and sugar and fire,
Courage and come-hither eyes
Have a genius for taking pains.
But how does one think up a habit?
Our wonder, our terror remains.
- W.H. Auden, 'The Sea and the Mirror'
In the imperfect subjunctive the verb mentir becomes mentissions, its edges dragged out into alluring sibilants. First person plural, because Dakin knew that neither of them were ever completely honest; imperfect, because the past had never been anything but.
Dakin had never forgotten what it took for him to win that first look of true admiration. Subjunctive history: having stolen ideas from both Hector and Irwin, he mixed them together until he forged something that was original enough to hook their attention. The technique had served him well ever since -- you can mix just about anything if you do it with enough flair and a large enough vocabulary -- but he valued it first and foremost because it had made Irwin look at him with a smile that had no mockery to it.
Because that was the point, wasn't it, that sharp stone-in-the-shoe that was his embarrassing need for validation from the mouth of Tom Irwin. Even when he'd found out about the lies, they hadn't bothered him, because they'd just meant that Irwin was capable of being consistent within his own underhanded system: the system that got Dakin into Oxford.
First person plural, with all its suggestion of complicity.
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts, Dakin thought, but life had never been that fucking easy. Memory wasn’t like history: it couldn't be rewritten, not even by the victors. The gaps and the blemishes remained.
"At least nobody's expecting you to come up with something that's never been said before on the subject of Dickens," Scripps was saying. Dakin tucked the phone under his chin and rummaged for the half-empty packet of biscuits he could have sworn was underneath his Theories of Civil Justice notes.
"You offering to swap, then?"
"Fuck off, I wouldn't touch your law books if you paid me."
There was a comfortable pause. Dakin located the biscuits, shook some crumbs from a folder, and inhaled with studied carelessness.
"Oh, apparently Irwin's here in Oxford for a bit, did I mention?"
"You little shit," Scripps said then, sounding disgusted. "So that’s what this bloody phone call was for."
"You made me sit through all that rubbish about your family and your readings and some new bike you're probably not even thinking of buying, you'd just run out of safe topics, because you want to talk about Irwin. Jesus. I thought you were over all that."
Dakin kicked at the leg of his desk and grinned. Good old Scripps. As willing as ever to take Dakin's bullshit, and as likely as ever to spit it back in his face. "Thought I'd give it another go."
"Why, for fuck's sake? You surely don't feel like you still owe it to him, or whatever mad justification you were waving around back in the day."
"Why not?" Dakin countered, shoving the tip of his pencil into his mouth.
Scripps groaned. "Don't make me start listing reasons, Dakin; you won't listen to them anyway, and that's not why you called."
"No? Why'd I call, then?"
"To gloat," Scripps said, "as per fucking usual. Though I really think you should just let it go, you obsessive wanker. That stuff, it's all in the past. It's history now."
"Yeah," said Dakin. "Exactly."
To Dakin's mind, the most irksome moments in the study of thinkers were those moments when someone from the past outlined your present faults, humbled you and brought you to task from behind their shield of years and printed words. Dakin was too bloody educated to consider himself unique, but it didn’t mean he appreciated feeling like an example of any of humanity's common failings.
Striding against the wind with his hands in his pockets and a smattering of stage fright in his chest, Dakin passed Corpus and thought about the first time he'd set foot inside the place. On a mission. Nice to think that he'd known something was up, but he hadn't even suspected that Irwin might have been lying; he'd just wanted to find something, a clue perhaps, some indication of how Irwin had come into being. He'd wanted to ask questions, discover the forces that had shaped the man and then confront him the next time with a fuller understanding. That was what you'd needed, to win anything with Irwin: a fuller understanding.
Dakin recognised, without much rancour, his most human failing: the fact that he was accustomed to thinking of other people only in terms of what they could give him, how they related to him; objects in the convoluted sentence of his life, of which he was the only subject. And for a while Irwin had been the object that stood between him and universal approval, the object shaping him into Oxbridge material.
But there had also been that new, driving need, and in trying to puzzle out why he should care so damn much about the opinion of one teacher, eventually Dakin had been caught on the idea of Irwin as a whole person; found himself curious about Irwin's contexts, the things he did that had nothing to do with Dakin at all. Visiting Corpus was part of that. And the itch remained: he wanted to know who Irwin had been and who he would become and how they'd managed to reach that one perfect frame of accord, one moment in history; Dakin wanted to know how any two people ever found themselves wanting each other at the same time. It seemed a fucking miracle. True and fleeting at best -- false and falsely extended at worst.
He'd planned something clever but it had disappeared once he'd wheedled Irwin's phone number out of the hotel, once Irwin had heard his voice and inhaled with enough sharpness to pull unrehearsed words out of Dakin's mouth:
"How about a drink?"
Pause. "A drink."
"Sometimes," Dakin had said, poorly affecting a German accent, laughing at himself as he did so, "a drink is just a drink."
He could have said anything. Irwin was always going to say yes, because it wasn't often that any historian got the chance to tread over dead ground.
A tentative rain was beginning to fall as Dakin stepped inside the pub. Irwin was easy enough to spot, his pale blue shirt and long limbs silhouetted against the dark brick of the wall as though he were lounging outside a Parisian café instead of surrounded by friendly pub din. A magazine was spread out in front of him but he wasn't looking at it; as Dakin watched, he spun a pen slowly in one hand and cast a glance at the door. It was clearly an automatic action -- his eyes passed over Dakin, drifted to the magazine, and then snapped back again as though on elastic.
Dakin shrugged his coat off as he wove his way to the table, and Irwin did four things almost at once: put the pen down, closed the magazine, stood up, and let his face fall into a smile. He looked exactly the same.
"Dakin." He held out his hand and Dakin took it; considered laughing at the formality, but the firm touch of Irwin's palm against his was actually a comfort in a way. Something familiar. A good place to start.
"Can't really call you sir, now, can I?"
"Call me Irwin, I suppose. Or --" a sharp dip of his head "-- Tom. Considering the circumstances."
"Yeah?" Dakin smiled, releasing his hand. "And what are the circumstances?"
"I see you haven't lost your knack for layered questions."
"I see you didn’t answer my question."
Irwin's mouth quirked. "No. What'll you have to drink?"
"They do a good German Pilsener here, I'll have one of those. Thanks."
Irwin nodded and moved towards the bar, fast. Dakin watched him go. Another plan that'd been swallowed by Irwin's voice: he'd wanted to be the one doing the buying, it was the role that came the most easily to him and he thought it might have helped when it came to keeping control over the evening. He made sure a question was sliding off his tongue as soon as Irwin sat down again.
"What're you doing in Oxford?"
"Giving a talk." Irwin pushed one of the lagers across. "Perspectives on the events preceding the Treaty of Paris. Nothing really good or exciting, but apparently it's being recorded for radio."
"Your usual creative interpretation of the truth?"
"No point. I'm not trying to stand out from hundreds of other talks, and I've been given instruction to write for a general audience." He gave an dismissive flicker of one hand and then used it to lift his glass. "What about you, what have you been doing with yourself?" A quick glance, like a dare. "Sports? Theatre?"
"Oh, I bet you're good at that," Irwin murmured, almost lost in the ambient noise.
Dakin smirked. "Trained well, wasn't I?"
"Hector's classes?" That, there -- the first flash of a lie, even though it had barely been more than careful false modesty.
"Yeah, and yours." Anything was fair play from here on in, Dakin reckoned; Irwin'd started it. Dakin held his gaze and leaned in far enough to run a finger around the rim of Irwin's glass. "Couldn't have done it without you. You'd have liked this debate I was in last month -- I talked about Kneeshaw."
He watched for it, the confusion melting into recognition. Irwin gave a startled laugh. "I can't believe you think that's worth bringing up, after all this time."
"I can't believe you let me mispronounce Nietzsche." Dakin shook his head. "And you my esteemed teacher, too."
"Oh, sod off," Irwin said comfortably.
"Kneeshaw. Jesus. That's when I knew."
"That you were a bit of a right bastard, under it all. Letting me wank on and on about it -- why'd you do that, anyway? You were meant to be improving me, it wasn't like when you were being rude about my essays. At least that was useful."
Irwin looked down at Dakin's hand, which was now lingering in the no-man's-land between the two of them. Dakin quelled the twin urges to move it closer and to pull it away. "I know, it was my job to correct you, and -- I didn't. I don't know why."
Another lie, though God only knew what it was obscuring. Dakin raised his eyebrows. "But what if I'd slipped it into my interview? Mispronounced his name in front of the Magdalen panel? Very unprofessional of you."
"You would hardly have talked about nihilism at your interview, Dakin."
"I could have. That would've been daring of me, you'd have liked that."
"I'm only human." Irwin gave that asymmetrical smile he had, as though a memory had caught and amused him for a moment, surprised him into frankness. "But you, you were so sure of everything. It was like nobody had never said anything bad about you before I called you dull."
"People said plenty of bad things about me."
"Bollocks. They were bad things you liked hearing. But hearing you weren't as clever as you thought -- that got under your skin."
This wasn't quite the kind of nostalgia Dakin was after. He drew both hands around his glass and found himself glaring; ruffled, already, and Irwin had barely had to try. "God, you really did get off on making me look a fool."
He'd been hoping to see the wording of that one hit a nerve, but Irwin just bounced it straight back. "Please, as if you weren't trying just as hard. Sitting there asking me questions about Auden and kissing students and all that, in front of the whole class. I was hardly the only one acting like a right bastard."
Difficult to argue that one. Dakin faked an impressed look. "Admirable composure there, sir, on the word kissing."
Got him. Irwin glanced sideways, breaking eye contact, and took another gulp of his drink.
"I found out some more about Auden, actually," Dakin pressed. "Fell in love with a young creative type, then wrote spiteful poetry about the chap when he discovered that he'd cheated."
"I suppose." Dakin tilted his body forward; a lesser step than the hands, but a reminder nonetheless. "Why?"
Irwin shrugged. "Talent and emotional distress are generally a good combination."
"I suppose," Dakin repeated. "But that's not the interesting part. The interesting part is the fact that it was written at all." He stopped there, left the silence hanging like a promise.
The look Irwin wore as he finally looked back at Dakin was that of someone diving for a ball even though he knew that it was heading out of bounds and he'd ruin his chances at a penalty if he touched it. "Please," he said dryly, "do tell me why."
"Because it's not the things that happen that become history, but the things that are found out. If he'd never known of Kallman's infidelity then Auden wouldn't have written the poetry. The canon of our cultural imagination is built on the events that influenced our writers. And history's the same. It's just another layer of the subjunctive: what about the things that did happen, but have never been discovered? Or the narrative that history could have been if certain secrets had remained buried?"
Dakin gave another debater's pause: he inhaled, sipped his drink, and checked his opponent for any hint of triumph or frustration. Irwin didn't say anything, but his mouth did something ruefully pleased and magnetic.
"I might have lied a bit, before," Dakin said immediately.
"About the euphemisms. Or lack thereof."
"You -- still?" Irwin said, and then blinked, as though he hadn't meant to say that. "I mean --"
"You want more Auden? We must love one another or die."
Irwin shook his head; smiling, but only just. "Terrible. Terrible, Dakin, even for you."
"How I've missed your scathing assessments of me, sir."
There it was again, that little stir of something in Irwin's face; Dakin had thought he'd imagined it, the first time. Dakin produced a Cheshire grin and, through force of academic habit, automatically extended his own metaphor as he spoke.
"Curiouser and curiouser."
"Got a bit of the old schoolboy fetish, do we, sir?"
The flush, swift, barely there but there, rose from Irwin's throat. "Don't be absurd."
"Would it have helped if I'd worn a tie?"
But he knew as soon as he said it that he'd yanked too hard. Irwin blinked twice and then stood, his body unfolding with surprising grace.
"I have to go."
"Bullshit you have to go." Dakin stood in his way without thinking about it, just doing what he usually did, using whatever advantages he thought he possessed. It took him a couple of unsettling seconds to refocus, to realise that meeting Irwin's gaze required him to lift his eyes.
"I have to go," Irwin repeated, more softly. "I have some notes to go over for tomorrow. But -- another drink. Same time. Friday?"
Simple proximity had never been enough to mess with Dakin's head before, but something was going on, because he couldn't work out whether Irwin's 'drink' had just been 'drink' or if it had been, well, drink, and he was damned if he'd ask for clarification.
"Good. Yes," he said, and stepped aside.
"What? You took him out for one drink and he didn't follow you home and ravish you immediately? How shall you live with the shame?" Scripps was using his declaiming-voice, composing dialogue as he spoke.
"You can stop sounding so damn pleased with yourself," Dakin told him. "He had work to do -- I'm seeing him again on Friday."
"Yeah, I think I'd make sure I had work to do. If I were meeting you for a drink and I wasn't sure that I wanted anything else to happen."
"Scripps, you sly dog, I think that was a compliment. But he suggested the second drink, not me."
Silence. Dakin removed a mutilated pencil from his mouth and started drawing nonsense on the back of some case summaries, waiting.
"D'you remember," Scripps said finally, "Le Dernier Métro? One of those endings we did for Hector, Posner doing Catherine Deneuve practically better than la grande dame herself, the final scene beginning with two characters trying to pick up where they left off years ago. One of them convinced it would work -- j'essayais de vous oublier, je n'ai pas pu -- and the other one saying no. That it was never anything real to begin with: une idée abstraite."
"How the fuck do you remember all that?" Dakin demanded, as though he didn't wake up with frustrating scraps of poetry swimming through his mind, even now.
"Words," Scripps said, tight. "I remember words. Couldn't tell you how Posner and Lockwood looked as they said them, or how they said them, but I remember what they said. Anyway. That's not the point."
"Do enlighten me as to the point."
"You know damn well what my point was."
"Hang on," because his mind was dredging something up, now, "Le Dernier Métro, I do remember. That twist at the end."
A wry laugh from Scripps. "I was hoping you'd have forgotten that part."
"Depardieu gets out of his wheelchair, Deneuve comes back onstage --"
"Yes, it was all a dream," Scripps drawled.
"An act." Dakin smirked at the desk, gazing down at his own doodles. "It was all an act."
"Well, you'd know."
Another of those silences into which, Dakin knew, they were both smiling.
"Abstract nothing. This is something I need to do," he said eventually.
"Yes, or it seems you'll be insufferable about it for another three years, God help us all." Scripps let his voice deepen. "My blessings upon you, my son. Now sod off and let the rest of us carry on with our own lives, tragically free of homosexual adventures though they may be."
"Does that mean you don't want to hear about it, when it happens?"
"Don't be an arse," Scripps said. "Of course I want to hear about it."
Dakin laughed and hung up.
"Where did we get up to last time? Oh yes: the prospect of something more than a drink."
Irwin paused with his glass descending from his lips. "You don't waste time."
"Wasted almost three years, didn't I?"
"Listen to the boy. Three years at Oxford and he calls it a waste."
"Don't go changing the subject on me, Irwin."
Irwin's hands slid around the glass, his fingertips linking lightly on the side nearest Dakin. A few drops of condensation hit the barrier of his uppermost finger and began to build up, gathering the weight needed to fall off the glass and slide down his skin. Dakin realised that he was staring, and then realised that despite the invitation he'd not used Irwin to address him aloud before.
"Why are you still interested in -- this?"
"Do I need a reason? You're an unsolved mystery. You're a dropped stitch -- oh, fuck off," in response to Irwin's raised eyebrows, "I had a girl who spoke fluent knitting, all right -- drove me bloody bonkers, but she kept making me gloves, that was handy; fucking freezing, Magdalen in winter."
"History's full of dropped stitches," Irwin said.
"Mine isn't," Dakin said bluntly; sure of this, if nothing else. "I only drop the things I intend to drop. Like Introduction to Jacobean bloody Literature --"
"You've caught me." He raised his hands, going for melodrama, speaking truth. "I don't do the long haul."
"Not yet, perhaps." It was too wry, too academic, to be an offer.
"So everyone grows up and wants a cosy little partnership eventually, is that what you believe?" Dakin frowned. "How can you be a student of history and still believe in a shared human nature?"
"How can you be a student of history and not?" Irwin leaned forward, his face coming alive. "All these patterns we see repeated, all these conflicts and alliances and important events with their roots in such small, terribly, vitally human decisions. We can't learn from the past unless we accept that people will be brave, and people will be selfish, and people will keep tending to act like people."
"You're doing it again." Dakin found himself smiling.
"Teaching. Giving your passion to all the wrong things."
A quick smile, not quite comfortable. "I am a teacher."
"Not mine -- not here. You were my teacher." A satisfying moment in his mind, like the final note of a chord joining the others. The moment of delivering a strong argument; or something that sounded strong, which he knew that they they both knew was often the same thing. "What about your insistence on distancing ourselves from the recent past? Why shouldn't we be able to talk about it as easily as we talk about the inevitability of Caesar's assassination?"
"You --" Irwin stopped. Began again. "You're determined to throw my own words at me until I agree to something, aren't you?"
"You know me." Dakin looked away and then back, warm and abrupt. "Give me the slightest prompt and I'll start rewriting les didascalies."
Fuck, that hadn't been dropped as casually as he'd intended. Irwin gave him a knowing look, taking up the challenge.
"Stage directions. From the Greek διδασκαλια," he added, a hint of smugness creeping across his face.
"Fuck you," Dakin said, grinning. Jesus. As ever, impossible to win with Irwin if you played it on his terms; he'd have to cheat. "I've got a question for you."
"Of course you do."
"Was I the only one? Or just the first? Was I your first sip from the bottle, did you see me in other boys who took the piss in class and were too clever for their own good? Or was I a unique experience?"
Irwin looked at him for a long time, more inscrutable than Dakin could remember him ever being.
"Nothing." Irwin laughed the end of the word. "I'm trying to decide which answer would please your ego more, so I can withhold it."
"How about the truth? Dull and unoriginal though it may be."
"You weren't -- what I had expected." He was choosing his words with obvious care, back to taking refuge in caution. "I was prepared for lazy minds, faculty politics, an uphill struggle towards something I'd lied about ever achieving for myself. But not you. And in the end I managed to convince myself you hadn't meant it."
"Liar," Dakin said, pleased. Irwin hadn't answered the question, but then he hadn't really cared about the answer. This was better.
Irwin's flush returned, just enough for it to be visible. "Fine. I know -- I knew you meant it, but it was easier to think otherwise. I was fairly convinced you were offering out of -- intellectual curiosity, perhaps, or a misguided kind of pity, but the problem then was convincing myself to care enough."
"Enough to refuse?"
"But you didn't."
"Oh yes I did." He looked amused. "You just kept pushing past it, like the cocky bastard you probably still are."
Dakin leaned in; delivered it like a checkmate. "And you said yes. You said yes to me once. And we've been talking around the topic for ages, now, but I notice you haven't ever redacted it."
"The lion's mouth," Irwin said, absent, as though a stray thought had escaped through his open lips.
He started, a little; flushed again. Now they were getting somewhere. Dakin reached out and touched Irwin's forearm with his fingertips, a very deliberate action.
"Go on," he said.
Irwin cleared his throat. "Auden again, since you seemed so fond of him. The Sea and the Mirror. Do you know it?"
Shall we satisfy when we meet,
Between Shall-I and I-Will,
The lion's mouth whose hunger
No metaphors can fill?"
"My, my, Professor Irwin. Hector would be proud." But Dakin heard the flimsiness of his own mockery. Irwin was watching him steadily and had been ever since he began to recite, his mouth supple and honest around the words. Hunger, yes -- Dakin knew how to elicit that. And he could recognise it, now that he looked properly: the familiar helplessness bleeding away into a keen awareness of distance. The impression not that Irwin would reach out and touch him, but that the space between them was so volatile as to be dangerous.
Just silence, just observation, for the span of three breaths. And then something much smaller than history tipped over the balance and Dakin needed to know what it would take for Irwin's intelligent hesitance to shatter completely, what sounds he would make when it did, what he would look like unwound and uncautious on Dakin's sheets. Every tiny part of his body ached with the need to know. Hunger was exactly the right fucking word.
Dakin bit down on his own lip, hard, and then spoke.
"You want direct? No metaphors? Fine. Will you come home with me?"
A silence, not very long, and then --
"I will," Irwin said.
"This is the most effort I've ever had to go to to get someone into bed," Dakin murmured, trying for annoyed; the glance Irwin gave him as they climbed the stairs confirmed his suspicions that he'd only managed smug.
"Somehow, I'm not surprised."
Hands saccading up the polished banister and the gentle sound of their feet, and Dakin found himself thinking about his conversation with Scripps. Boys playing actors playing actors playing roles, swathed in the protective layers of performance. The rapid glide of Posner's voice, high and sweet as it had been then: Et pourquoi mentir, à qui mentir?
But this was true, Dakin thought; as true as anything he'd ever done.
"Hang on, there's someone --"
"Aren't you jumpy," Dakin said. Irwin's arm was taut under the heavy material of his coat, but he didn't pull away from Dakin's grasp, and they passed the man in the corridor with nothing more than an exchange of nods. "It's just one of the Scouts."
"The Scouts," Irwin echoed, amused. "And so offhand. You have settled in well."
"Haven't I just," Dakin said, and released him. He could hear Yorkshire's colour fading from his own voice and sometimes he tried to find it in his heart to be sad about it; sometimes he felt awkward and off-balance about the fact that he was living in a place that had its own servants. But mostly he was just glad to be here, where he felt he belonged, and where fewer people than he'd expected cared where he came from -- they just cared where he was going. And Stuart Dakin was going somewhere great.
"You don't mind --" The act of backing-away was entering Irwin's voice again.
"Oscar Wilde was at Magdalen." Dakin grinned. "I bet I could convince them I'm merely upholding a glorious tradition of the College."
And that took them into Dakin's room, where Dakin turned on the light and laid his coat across the back of a chair. Irwin pushed the door closed and paused with his hand on the knob for a moment, then turned to lean against it.
"You just don't care what anyone thinks of you, do you?" His arms were crossed in front of him, as obvious a shield as any Dakin had ever seen, but his voice held no hesitation. "As long as they don't think you dull."
Dakin didn't know what he was going to do until he did it, but Irwin's back was to the door and Dakin couldn't stop thinking about the way his mouth had moved around the poetry, and there was no easy escape. For either of them. He didn't know what he was going to do until his chest was pressed against Irwin's arms and his mouth was catching an exhalation of soft emotion; surprise, probably. This wasn't how he initiated most of his sexual encounters, but there it was again, his inability to fragment Irwin into an object.
Against his lips Irwin's were thin and dry, incurious, and Dakin felt the familiar surge of irritated inadequacy. But it didn't feel like a game. And it wasn't like Irwin didn't want this, no, they'd danced around that fucking nutbush quite enough, so it had to be something more complicated. He'd thought the years would have stripped Irwin of this ridiculous inability to engage.
Dakin pulled back, deliberately abrupt, and frowned. "Look --"
But Irwin gave that off-centre smile and said in a low voice like nothing Dakin had heard in his entire fucking life: "I am looking."
And he was, when Dakin himself took the time to look back; behind his glasses his eyes were intent and warm and terribly unshielded, everything the kiss hadn't been. Dakin heard his own voice saying He never gives an inch, does he? in the frustration of youth.
"Do you want me to --"
"Yes," Irwin said with the same low timbre, and that was the gist of it, the précis, in the end. Irwin was willing, but demanded seduction before he'd submit to the script. Stage directions, Dakin thought. All right.
"I'm starting to think," he said, twisting open the first button of Irwin's shirt, "you're more effort than you're worth."
"No. You'd have given up ages ago if you honestly believed that."
"Help me," Dakin ordered, and discovered that Irwin took direction well. There was something scientific in the way that his hands formed a symmetry with Dakin's: one button from the top of the shirt, one from the bottom, until they met in the middle and Irwin gave a quiet disbelieving laugh that set his stomach to shivering underneath Dakin's palms. Something about Newton that had been dropped into Dakin's memory once but had sunk too deep to be retrieved in any recognisable form; the mere skeleton of an idea about actions and their opposites. So Dakin pushed Irwin's shirt from his shoulders and Irwin pulled him closer, fingers deftly bent around the belt loops of Dakin's trousers.
It was slower than Dakin was used to; quieter, too. There was a distance between Irwin and the door, now, and that hot squirming need flooding through Dakin again, taking him by surprise. Whatever this had started out as, at Cutlers, it was something else now. Irwin, with his freckled angles and his too-clever eyes, had none of the easy good looks that Dakin usually found himself gravitating towards. But perhaps that was the key adjective in the passage: easy. Irwin was difficult, and worthwhile, and there was something elemental in the way his face was changing that made Dakin almost bite his tongue.
"What is it?" Irwin asked, but then he slid his fingertips across Dakin's mouth with an absorbed expression, finally initiating his own actions, and Dakin was too distracted to make the truth sound clever.
"It's just -- it is about sex. After all."
"Incisive as ever," Irwin said, with too much sarcasm for Dakin's liking.
"Sometimes it isn't," he argued.
"Do you think you have to tell me that?"
"What is this for you, then?" he demanded, and Irwin produced a small rueful smile that gave Dakin the unpleasant feeling that he'd been seen, that his flaws had been underlined and annotated in ruthless red pen.
"Don't worry," Irwin said. "It really is all about you."
Seen and understood; and accepted. Dakin's stomach gave an uncertain swirl and he grabbed at the back of Irwin's neck with a new violence, not sure if he was angry or desperately pleased. It didn't matter. As though a foot had lifted from the brake of a motorcycle there was an increase in both sound and speed, until Dakin didn't need words to elicit the symmetry, just an impatient tap of his index finger against the fragile frame enclosing the glass. Action. Reaction. Irwin removing the final shield, laying his face as bare as the rest of their bodies.
This was the thing he'd really remembered, the gobbet that he'd have trotted out to support his arguments if he'd ever experienced one of Scripps' urges to write things down. That moment when Irwin had stopped looking away, or down, or at his diary; the moment he stopped absorbing all of Dakin's attention like an uncertain sponge and finally tossed something back. Taking off my glasses is the last thing I do -- a dirty little gem, delivered with no change in his voice, that told Dakin it was no longer about advancing fronts and negotiating terms, and maybe it never had been: it was a challenge accepted.
And it had taken long enough, all these years later, but Irwin had finally bent down once more and picked up the gauntlet from where it lay in history's dust, discarded in the rush, in the inexorable march of events. Here they were again: he and Irwin and the subjunctive. Playing the what-if all the way to a conclusion.
Irwin folded his glasses with one hand and seemed almost surprised, for a moment, that he had no shirt pocket to tuck them into. Then he produced another of those magical multiple movements and Dakin didn't know what to focus on: Irwin's fingers setting the glasses down on Dakin's disaster of a desk, the abrupt weave of their feet as Irwin stepped forward and forced him towards the bed, or Irwin's eyes, so keenly blue that they seemed to absorb the air.
Then he remembered, wondering how Irwin had made him ever forget it in the first place, that this was something he knew how to do. He laughed and grabbed the initiative back in the form of Irwin's arms, his thumbs laid across the soft hinge of Irwin's inner elbows, and then proceeded to thoroughly show off. There were unfamiliar aspects, of course, and the occasional flash of intrusive memory, but Dakin's philosophy when it came to sex was be generous and act confident and let everything else sort itself out.
"I've always learned fast," he said into Irwin's gasping mouth, and then stopped moving his hand entirely, experimenting with the extent of his control.
But Irwin's voice made it from inarticulation to annoyance with remarkable speed. "Come the fuck on."
Dakin smirked. "You don't want to make it last?"
"Nothing lasts, Dakin, you know that." Irwin's fingers at his collabone; he liked this newly-discovered habit of Irwin's, this need to explore with touch. "Everything changes. Regimes, dynasties --"
"Oh shut up," Dakin said, and leaned down to lick exasperation into Irwin's mouth, twisting against the maddening fingertips which moved so sublimely swiftly but never gave him enough pressure, fuck, Irwin was doing it on purpose, the bastard. Dakin made a rough noise of complaint and tried to pretend that he wasn't just a little tangled in the past. If he was the one pinning Irwin down, if it was his hands setting the rhythm, then there should be no space left in his body to feel like he was eighteen and ready to snap with the frustration of entitlement.
"God," Irwin was saying now, "God, God," and the break in his voice was fantastic, so Dakin closed his mouth on the names of his own deities and just listened; contented himself with the rush of air against his teeth and then, when they fell apart, the long, shallow breaths that slid over the excited pulsation of his slowing heart. Tap tap tap through his whole body like that damn motorcycle, idling at the lights.
He ran a hand over his own shoulder, slick with rapidly-cooling sweat, and watched with satisfaction the minute aftershocks that disturbed Irwin's body, tremors running down the flesh that only just covered the man's ribs and the reddened line of his neck.
"Enjoy that, then?"
Irwin gave a slow, tired smile, not opening his eyes. "It may surprise you to learn, Dakin, that I have no intention of grading you on this."
Stung, but not sure why, Dakin altered his approach, turning back to what had worked already. "All right, it was just a question." Pause for effect. And -- "But are you certain, sir, that you have no remarks to make about my…performance?" That was it, perfect, his flippant tone forcing it into a joke so that if Irwin took offence then he'd be the one at fault. Easy to accuse him of having thin skin.
"No." Irwin's eyes opened then, the colour sharp and surprising against his own freckles and the whiteness of the pillow. "Why not? Because it would be too easy. Say I agreed to mark you out of ten: if the mark were five or six you'd pretend not to believe it, but you'd stick around to -- as you'd see it -- show me how wrong I was. If were eight or thereabouts you'd consider the experiment concluded satisfactorily. But if I really wanted to draw you in I'd give you a ten or a one; then you'd know I was lying, which gives me two advantages. One: you like it when I lie. Two: I'd have refused to give you a true assessment. The curiosity would drag you back."
"Or you could compose a fucking essay about my character," Dakin snapped, barely able to talk past the dryness in his throat, "one, two -- Christ -- and ruin the entire fucking moment." He yanked himself and as much of the blanket as he could manage over to the very edge of the bed and then swung his feet to the floor. The chill made him wince, but he was facing the wall, so who the fuck cared.
A sigh from Irwin, behind him. "Dakin. Stuart."
"Present," Dakin said, the flippancy rising again almost without his consent. He curled his toes against the floor and thought: this, here, could be a turning point. Not a big one. But they never were, not really, not the personal ones.
"Stuart," Irwin said again, and Dakin looked over his shoulder. Irwin was sitting up, finding ungraceful purchase on the sheets, his back a slow curve of bare skin. His hair was rough and there was nothing for him to hide behind, no glasses, no rolled-up sleeves from which his arms could emerge like twin promises. This was a context entirely new and unfamiliar to Dakin. He liked it, liked it more than he'd expected to and far more than he should.
"Tom," he tried, and then addended himself at once: "No: I'm not going to call you Tom. It's lifeless. It's -- Tom Brown, and Tom Sawyer, all those literary rogues. You're not a Tom."
Irwin closed his eyes and exhaled through a smile. "No?"
"No." Fuck this. Dakin liked to think he knew when to let pride get in the way of a good thing, and when to grit his teeth and let it go. He waited until Irwin was sitting back against the headboard and then moved close again, swung one leg across, and settled himself -- along with a tangle of sheets -- across Irwin's hips. "You're not even a Thomas. It'll have to be Irwin, I'm afraid."
Irwin looked up at him -- up, yes, Dakin liked that -- and raised his eyebrows. "Stuart's no good for you, either. No wonder you didn't take to the Jacobeans."
Dakin groaned. "Talking history, even in bed. I shouldn't be surprised."
Irwin moved one finger underneath his jaw, slowly, and then drew it away with a flick. Smiled. "I talk about all sorts of things in bed."
"Good." Dakin caught his wrists and held them; tight and then tighter, shifting his weight until Irwin's breath hitched and he himself could only speak in whispers, his mouth set against Irwin's ear. "Let's talk about me."
Scripps gave a deeply put-upon sigh. "Well?"
"Oh, right," Dakin said, regretting his vague tone the second it reached his own ears.
Sure enough: "You fucking wanker, is that all you're going to give me? When I had to call you? I assume he had the sense to refuse, then."
"Tried to." Dakin smirked. "Not very successfully."
"Then --" Scripps paused. "For fuck's sake, I assumed you'd gone off to nurse your sorely wounded ego with Nancy Whatsername, or else you'd found someone else to brag to." Another pause, this one foreboding. "You didn't tell Posner about it, did you?"
Dakin's voice went thin with horror. "What kind of person d'you think I am?"
"The kind of person who's never been shy about declaring his conquests to his best mate, details and sad military metaphors and all."
Dakin shrugged, mostly for his own benefit; he wasn't sure himself why he'd hadn't bothered to call Scripps yet, so he didn't feel like chewing it over. "Been busy."
"Busy," Scripps echoed, taking twice as long to enunciate the word, injecting it with effortless innuendo. "It's that good, is it?"
Good was just as effortless, and true, but what Dakin didn't want to say was: the situation was comparable only to the few weeks he'd spent at the Florio, before he grew tired of the pretensions disguising any merit that might have been found in the apocryphal words. He wasn't a poet. The meetings had blurred and then melded in his mind to create one long winter evening of criticism and the soft sting of port against his tongue, and the softer sting of finding something so close to, yet so unlike, Hector's lessons. He'd been looking for a more sophisticated version of his adolescent arena, a higher stage on which to strut, and hadn't found it there; he'd had to start debating to find that. Likewise, he'd gone after Irwin in search of a victory that he hadn't found. Not exactly.
"It's odd," he said finally. "Good. But odd."
"Well, it's Irwin, isn't it? Christ, I can't believe you actually -- does he give you pointers? I can't even imagine it. Which isn't an invitation," he added. "I suppose I should be encouraging this sudden burst of mature non-disclosure. Though I still think you should've bought him a drink and left it at that."
"That's because you're a man of God, Scripps." He heard the soft, tolerant laughter and talked over it. "And a writer. You're a man who doesn't know what he's missing when it comes to shagging, but doesn't care because he's got his prayers and his blissfully inevitable alcoholism to keep him warm at night."
Scripps laughed again, more sincerely this time. "You know you're starting to talk the most godawful wank. It's like those calls I get at two in the morning, when you've been fretting your head over exams and reading Bertrand sodding Russell. This thing with Irwin, it's not anything serious, is it?"
Dakin let the automatic scoff linger in his throat, unreleased, because this was Scripps. Honesty was part of their agreement, and there was something about his friend -- something almost disconnected from the robust light of his faith, but not quite -- that encouraged confession. He'd make a bloody good journalist one day.
Scripps whistled, the sound hollow and gusty over the phone.
"Shut up, you arse, I'm thinking."
"The fact that you even have to think about it --"
"No," Dakin said, once he'd bullied a concise expression from his thoughts. "But serious isn't the same as important."
"Oh, well, as long as we're all still laughing," said Scripps.
There was a look that Irwin gave him occasionally that Dakin pretended not to notice. It was the look that Scripps wore as he watched his hands dance aross a piano, the look that Hector had swept over all of them but Posner in particular: equal parts pride and insecurity. The way you looked at a work of art, searching for pieces of yourself, wondering how you had managed to create such a thing. There were no words to accompany the way Irwin's fingertips mapped Dakin's body, but if it were possible to translate an action into speech then Dakin thought it might say: I changed you, and that makes you mine.
Which was pretty bloody arrogant for someone who had to be coaxed into bed in the first place, Dakin thought, and contented himself with changing Irwin in return. Irwin was a memory, he still lived as dictated by words on the lines of a diary -- but he was also, inescapably, a whole and immediate person. Whatever this thing was between them, it couldn't be about the past or the present; they had started in one and walked across the dead ground and run smack bang into the other.
Irwin was no abstract idea; he could be changed. He could be marked. But the thinness of his skin was, like the flush on his face and his slender limbs, deceptive. Dakin found that once seduced, once removed from his own clothes and contexts, Irwin stopped flushing. And once he stopped flushing he wound the tie around Dakin's neck and tied the knot himself, leaving room for three fingers to hook between silk and skin. He kept taking directions but also began to give them himself, starting with buttons and progressing until Dakin was on his knees swearing through bruised bloodless lips, all the blood having of course headed fucking south because Irwin was a capable cheat and just as good as Dakin at finding weakness and plucking at it until things unraveled. So Dakin curled yes, sir, please off his tongue, shamelessly seizing the power, and Irwin whispered filthy things while his fingers scraped Dakin's cock with never, ever enough force. It wasn't about winning, but it was about competing. Dakin wasn't sure if he was playing Peter Pan games or committing the most adult acts of his life to date, but he'd never been afraid of ambiguity so long as the two options were equally interesting.
Irwin insisted on appointments and turned up with a punctuality to set clocks by, until Dakin decided to push him further and sauntered down the stairs to meet him outside Magdalen's gates, just as the bells struck music from the drenched air. He took firm hold of Irwin's scarf and kissed him in the open space, in the rain, to make the point. To be the one making changes.
"No," he said as he pulled back, either pre-emptive or very belated, "I don't care what people think of me," which was not as true as it could have been, but it was an acceptable falsehood. Not black, not quite white, but the dissolving grey of the clouds.
Through the water on his glasses Irwin's eyes were amused and his mouth curved, at the side.
But -- "You're blushing," Dakin crowed, tugging on the scarf in delight. "Thought you'd forgotten how."
"That's enough," Irwin said, the authority entering his voice as it tended to now whenever Dakin played dirty. He looked up and around them in a series of darting magpie glances, as though someone might have heard, as though he could identify the trajectory of public disapproval and duck to avoid it.
Dakin laughed, generous in victory, and kissed him again before Irwin could move.
That day of terrible weather and not having enough chairs to drape their clothes over and not bothering to towel their hair dry and Dakin licking rain from Irwin's throat and Irwin's hands holding Dakin down as he slowly, thoughtfully sucked him off -- that was Irwin's last day in Oxford, and they'd never said a word about what would happen after that. Dusk was descending, subtle against the gloom of the sky, and Dakin thought, not for the first time, about how fucking odd a situation he'd found himself in. Irwin was half-sitting in his bed, mostly clothed again, wearing glasses, lifting and then frowning at a single leaf from the devastation of paper that decorated the sheets. Dakin sat at his desk and edited his own Ethics essay in dark green ink and kept clicking his teeth against the metal of his pen, forgetting that it wasn't a pencil to be slowly ground down and reshaped by his concentration.
He tried two different versions of a sentence out on Irwin, and Irwin looked up from his articles for long enough to choose the latter. His feet were bare and his shirt only half-buttoned and Dakin thought uneasily how simple it would be to just -- continue, until this was no longer exciting.
"When's your train?"
"Tomorrow morning, ten," Irwin said, with the same absent tone that he'd just used to say, go with the second one, it's less ambiguous. This time he barely looked up.
"I've got a lecture," and fuck, what was he doing?
This time Irwin's focus moved to him properly, almost tangibly, Irwin's faint smile layered with that uncomfortable red-pen recognition. "I wasn't exactly expecting you to wave a white handkerchief."
Dakin exhaled too many emotions to bother identifying, but the dominant one was probably relief. "Right," he said, and that was that until the external light was gone altogether, and Irwin was pulling on his still-damp coat.
"Well," Dakin said, hands in his pockets. "It's been -- what, what's funny?"
"You've got ink -- no, here," and there was one more intimate brush of fingers against his mouth before Irwin leaned in and kissed him, just once. It felt enough like repossession that Dakin wanted to pull away, but Irwin was already doing it for him.
Nothing lasted. Everything changed. This was life, ticking past like a crocodile's smile, turning into history the moment it passed them by.
"Give me a call when you're in town again," he said, and Irwin nodded.
"I will. Will you call me back?"
Definitely was at the tip of Dakin's tongue, but he caught the look on Irwin's face just in time. He recognised it from school, from the times when Irwin was pinning one of them to the chair with his questions, why and why not and says who?, watching to see if they'd break free by producing an original perspective.
Irwin had asked, What's the truth got to do with anything? But the point was that he'd always been able to recognise it, if only to encourage its demolition.
"Maybe," Dakin said, aware of the length of his pause. And then allowed, "Probably."
Irwin smiled -- steady, approving -- and Dakin's throat swelled with juvenile triumph. True and fleeting. It'd do.
"Well done," Irwin said, as he closed the door.