The Ways of Paradox by Narya
Summary: How do you pass the time when you know you're facing eternity?

Maglor agrees to appear in a student production of The Pirates of Penzance, and gets more than he bargained for.

A shamelessly fluffy love letter to my alma mater, to student life, to Maglor (of course), and to the joy of friendship in unexpected places.
Categories: Fiction Characters: Maglor, OFC, OMC
Content: Angst, AU, Gen, Humor, Hurt/Comfort, Mystery
Challenges: None
Series: The Wanderer, Nárë a Lindalë
Chapters: 9 Completed: No Word count: 42902 Read: 1524 Published: May 07, 2018 Updated: September 23, 2018
Story Notes:
A couple of people have asked me if I have more stories about Maglor and Claire (who appears in Nocturne and Of Lapwings, Hares and Speckled Eggs). The answer is yes – although both of those fics and this one are intended to stand alone, so don't feel like you can't start here.

A word of warning: this fic is both self-indulgent and, in places, tooth-rottingly fluffy. Even so, the idea has been floating around in my head for a while, refusing to go away, and over the months it has accumulated in scraps and snippets in my notebooks. Today in particular I'm missing wonderful St Andrews, where I spent four years as an undergraduate, and this seemed like the perfect thing to start polishing up and posting.

Rated Teen for language. Allusions later in the story to grief and mental health issues.

1. Overture and Scene by Narya

2. A First Rate Opportunity by Narya

3. Our Pirate Fold by Narya

4. Song and Story by Narya

5. Pour, O Pour the Pirate Sherry by Narya

6. Away, Away by Narya

7. Ah! Leave Me Not to Pine Alone by Narya

8. Take Heart by Narya

9. The Paradox by Narya

Overture and Scene by Narya
I was getting good at predicting Xander's explosions.

The Pencil was the first thing to watch for. He'd jiggle it between his finger and thumb at first, then start tapping the end of it against his teeth. That was how you knew he was getting closer to Stage Two, The Glasses. He'd keep shoving them up the bridge of his nose like they were sliding down, even when they weren't – and the frames were small, so they'd end up jammed right into his eye sockets. If you were with him in the auditorium, you'd hear him sighing loudly.

The Arms were next. He'd cross them and slouch back in his seat, scowling – and then something would make him lean forwards, feet tapping, chin resting on clasped hands, knuckles white and stark under the skin.

Last of all was The Hair. He'd run his fingers through it until the corkscrew curls stood on end and it crackled with static. The more it crackled, the more trouble we were in.

We were already on The Pencil before the overture finished – a string slipped on one of the violins, so it was hideously out of tune, and its player had to scuttle off backstage to fix it. We got to The Glasses halfway through the pirates' opening number, which was admittedly a shambles, and then Harrison and Theo muddled their dialogue, which tipped us into The Arms. I got through my number without incident and shot back to the wings to watch Harrison's big solo song, but the spotlight that was supposed to follow him as he swashbuckled around the stage refused to budge, so he was standing in shadow as he gleefully pronounced himself the Pirate King. The Hair began to fizz and crackle, and I was already fleeing for a breath of fresh air when the inevitable happened. There was an incoherent shriek about footwork and three-legged giraffes – and then the heavy Union doors swung shut behind me.

I sighed, leaned against the wall of Blackwell's, and pulled a cigarette from the pocket stitched into my apron.

“You do know those will ruin your voice?”

I jumped. I had been so relieved to escape in time that I hadn't noticed him coming out of the bookshop. I recognised him, of course. He was a Philosophy post-doc, but research only, no teaching hours – much to the disappointment of that School's undergraduate community. I hadn't had much interaction with him, being based out of the School of English, although I'd seen and heard him practising the piano in Younger Hall. I swallowed at the memory of the sweet, yearning ache that awoke in my stomach when he played – and then I belatedly realised I was gawping, and forced myself to reply. “Not much there to spoil.” I attempted a nonchalant grin. “I'm just the comic relief.”

“I heard you singing. You're very good.” He smiled then, and the force of it could have turned back the tide.

King Canute, eat your heart out.

It suddenly dawned on me that I was still wearing my straggly grey wig. My cheeks and ears burned.

“Claire!”

It was my housemate, Rosie, holding the Union door open with her elbow, since her arms were full of batons for the policemen. Chatter and laughter from the bar tipped out into the street. An elderly man heading for the council office next door gave us a disapproving scowl.

“What's up?” I asked.

“Xander wants to pick up from your song with Theo.”

I sighed and stuck the unlit cigarette back into my pocket. “Duty calls.”

The musical philosopher raised an eyebrow. “And you are the slave of duty?”

I laughed. “You like Gilbert and Sullivan?”

“One could say that.”

My grin widened, and I stuck out my hand to shake his. “Claire James.”

“Mark Lowry.” His right hand felt odd in mine – and then I remembered the awful scarring I'd noticed before, and forced myself not to look down.

“Claire, come on!” Rosie was bobbing up and down like an anxious pigeon. “Sorry,” she added to Mark, "but the rehearsal's been a disaster so far, our director is in the worst mood...”

“I'm coming.” I glanced back at Mark. “You should come and see the show.”

“Do you think you'll survive the rehearsals?”

“'At any price I will do my duty,'” I quoted.

His lips quirked again, and my stomach leapt up into my throat.

“Claire...”

“I know, I know, I'm on my way.”

“Break a leg,” Mark said.

“Thanks.” I gave him an apologetic smile, and followed Rosie back into the Union.

As soon as the door swung shut behind him, she turned to me with wide eyes and a giddy grin. “Oh – my – GOD!”

“What?” I asked, although I had a fair idea.

“He is gorgeous! Who is he?”

I was right. “His name's Mark. He's a Philosophy post-doc.”

“How old?”

“Older than you,” I laughed. “I don't know – maybe early thirties?”

“That's not too old,” she said thoughtfully. “Single?”

“No idea.”

“Can you invite him over for drinks?”

“What? No! Rosie, that is literally the first time I've spoken to him - at least, properly.” And Theo would be heartbroken, I thought, but said nothing. “Anyway, I might never bump into him again.”

“Oh, you will.” She shook out her mane of honey-blonde hair with the confidence of the lucky few who believe the world will shape itself according to their wishes, because life hasn't yet been cruel enough to teach them otherwise. “That's the best thing about St Andrews – there are, what, like, five streets? Once you've met someone, you're bound to see them again.”

“Is that a good thing?”

From the auditorium, Xander let out a furious bellow.

A crinkle of worry appeared between Rosie's eyebrows. “Maybe not.”
End Notes:
TBC :)
A First Rate Opportunity by Narya
It turned out that Rosie was right about St Andrews; I did see him again.

It was Wednesday, four days after the disastrous rehearsal. I'd got up early and grabbed a few books out of short loan, and had planned on hiding in Taste to skim through them and make some notes. I'd assumed it wouldn't be busy, with most students either at class or still in bed, but all the tables were occupied by the time the barista handed me my chai latte.

Mark was sitting in a corner, scribbling in a black notebook. I didn't like to disturb him so I dumped my book bag on the floor, intending to stand at the bar until a table came free – then he glanced over, caught my eye, and smiled.

I wasn't so blindsided by it this time, and smiled back. “Hi.”

“Hi.” He put his pencil down and tilted his head to one side. “You survived.”

“Just about. I'm pretty sure Xander murdered a few of the policemen, though.”

His mouth twitched. “Well. The policemen can get away with a little incompetence.”

“Yes, but it helps if they actually come on stage in the first place.”

Laughing, he pushed his coffee cup and plate to one side so they took up less space on the table. “Need a seat?”

I felt a rush of gratitude. “Would you mind?”

“Not at all.”

I flopped into the chair with a sigh of pleasure. I hadn't walked far from the library but the book bag was heavy, and a dull ache was yawning across my back. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome.” He flicked his eyes at my bag. “You look like you've got work to do, so feel free to pretend I'm not here.”

Easier said than done, I thought, digging in my bag for The Western Canon. I was already getting envious glares from a brown-haired girl with thick-rimmed glasses and an iPad.

Mark, meanwhile, had gone back to his notebook. The pages were etched with manuscript lines and were covered in hastily-drawn staffs and staves. He was writing music, not words. I couldn't help smiling, but as I watched him work my eyes were inevitably drawn to the scarrring on his hand. Up close, in the light of day, it looked even worse. It was as though the flesh had been boiled into liquid and then reset around the bones in a melted mockery of its former shape – like an experiment from Dr. Doom's lab.

He looked up and caught me staring. I blushed, but he didn't seem to mind.

“It's not pretty, I know.” He smiled again, but this time it was distant and sad. He flexed his hand and showed me the palm. A strange pattern was seared into the skin there, an oddly beautiful geometric arrangement of polygons, like something from one of those adult colouring books. “Old war wound.”

“Sorry,” I muttered, averting my eyes – although I wondered what kind of combat would cause an injury like that.

“No need to be. It was a long time ago.”

He talked about it the way my great-grandad talked about Dunkirk. In spite of my embarrassment, I shot him another look. He was only a few years older than me – thirty-five at most. It couldn't have been that long ago – but I'd already been far too nosy just by looking. At least he could still play, I thought, remembering him in the practice room in Younger Hall, eyes half-closed, fingers caressing the piano like an old lover.

I was still struggling for something sensible to say when my phone went off. The old Nokia handset vibrated in my bag and made it hop along the floor like a Duracell bunny.

“Sorry,” I said again, retrieving the bag as it made its bid for freedom.

Mark just looked amused and went back to his black notebook. I searched among the books and papers for the earthquake-causing handset and eventually found it, although my stomach shrank a little at the name on the display. I pressed the Accept button. “Hi, Xander.”

“Hey, Claire. How are you doing?”

He sounded unusually concerned, as though he expected me to have come down with the flu since we last spoke. “I'm fine. What do you need?”

“I've spoken to Theo. Jesus, Claire, what are we going to do?”

“Um. What about?” Clearly I was missing something.

“The Pirate King, the show!”

“What are you on about?” I was definitely missing something. Surely Xander wasn't thinking of cancelling? “I mean, yes, Harrison's been a prat the last couple of rehearsals, but you know what he's like, he'll pull it out of the bag when he's got a real audience.” Silence. “Hello?”

“You don't know, do you?”

“Know what?” The squeezing sensation in my gut turned icy. Mark looked up from his composition.

“Shit.” Silence again. “I figured you'd know, I thought they'd have called you first.”

“Doing nothing for my nerves here, Xander.”

“Uh. Yeah.” I heard him swallow. “So earlier this morning, after they turned their essays in, Theo and Harrison decided to jump off the pier.”

Fuck. Bugger. Shit. “And?”

“There was a kayak tethered at the bottom – I guess from Canoe Club or something, I don't know. It was still dark, so they didn't see it. Theo missed it, but Harrison...Harrison didn't.”

The cold squeezing crept up my throat. An image rose in my mind of my ridiculous, stupid younger cousin with his skull split open, floating in the water, blood spreading around him in a pink cloud. The back of my mouth prickled and tasted of vomit. “Xander, for God's sake, just tell me.”

“His leg's broken.”

“And?”

“That's it.”

“Jesus.” I exhaled, my legs suddenly feeling hollow and weightless. I picked up my drink but my hand was shaking, and the milky liquid slopped out of the mug and into the saucer – and over my sleeve. “Fuck, Xander...”

“Are you OK?”

“No!” Aware that I sounded shrill and wondering what on earth Mark must think, I took another breath. “Well. Yes.” I shoved my chair back and climbed over my book bag, heading outside. “But you scared me.”

“Oh. I didn't mean to.” Another pause. “But he can't be the Pirate King with a broken leg...”

“I know that,” I snapped. “Look, give me a few minutes, I need to speak to them. I'll call you back about the show.”

The cool November air danced in off the sea. I inhaled it gratefully and leaned against the wall to stop my calves from trembling, then slowly breathed out. I forced myself to notice the warmth in my throat, the softening of my muscles, the weight of my feet on the ground, until my nerves and thoughts stopped racing.

Calmer, I dialled Theo's number.

“Pick up, you moron,” I muttered as the dial tone trilled for the fourth time. “God, you are such an idiot...”

“Hi, Claire.”

At least he had the good grace to sound sheepish. Even so, I stepped back into the character I'd worn in the courtroom for three long years. “Why the hell didn't you ring me?”

“It was early." An anxious, somehow pathetic silence. "We didn't want to get you up.”

I took another breath and counted three. “And where are you now?”

“In a taxi, on the way back from Dundee.”

“Theo, why didn't you just phone me? I could have driven you both to A and E...bloody hell, we only live together!”

In the background I could hear Harrison asking for the phone. There was the sound of something being dropped, then a scuffling and a string of muffled curses, then - “Hey.”

Relief washed through me at the sound of his voice. My legs wobbled again, and I pressed my back against the sun-warmed stone. “Hey, you wally.”

Harrison gave a tired half-laugh. “Claire, don't be mad at Theo – please. I was in a state, we both were, he wasn't thinking properly. He had to pull me out of the water and everything, it was like a scene from Baywatch.” I heard Theo making some stupid quip about Harrison screaming like a girl. Irritation flared in my gut, but its edges were dulled by the exhaustion of the morning's emotional rollercoaster.

I sighed and rubbed my nose. “Look, Harrison, I don't want to fight on the phone.” I wished I had him with me, wished I could fling my arms around him, wished I could slap his freckled face. “Just...please get back safe, OK?”

“Aye aye, Captain.”

I smiled in spite of everything. “Shouldn't I be saying that to you?”

“Not any more, I don't think, I can't play the Pirate King like this...oh, shit.” He swallowed. “Xander...”

“Never mind Xander, I'll ring him.” I'd promised to call him back after I spoke to the boys, but all my nerves coalesced into a leaden ball in my stomach at the thought. “I'll see you in a bit. And tell Theo he'd better look after you, or I'll shoot him with his own bloody rifle.”

When I got back to the table there was a fresh, steaming cup of chai waiting for me – and a slab of caramel shortbread. “What's this?” I asked stupidly.

“You were out there for a while.” Mark's silver-grey eyes met mine. “Your drink was cold.”

"Oh." I took a sip, ignoring the scalding heat and savouring the sweetness of it on my tongue. “Thank you. You're an angel.”

“Hardly.”

“And the cake?”

He shrugged. “I didn't know what you'd like. It seemed like the fail-safe choice.”

An aching warmth rose in my chest that I was fairly sure had nothing to do with the chai latte. “You didn't need to do that.”

“I think I did,” he said gently.

The easy kindness of it, on top of Theo and Harrison's idiocy, the anger and the worry, was too much. I felt the telltale closing of my throat, the prickling of my eyes, and swallowed. I wouldn't cry, not in here, and not in front of him.

He closed his manuscript book. “I heard most of your first call,” he admitted. “Is your friend alright? Leg aside?”

“Harrison's my cousin – but yes, he is.” I set my cup down and rubbed my forehead, trying to ease the headache I sensed building. “Jesus, what an idiot...”

“One of my cousins once climbed a tree blindfolded for a dare. The result was much the same.”

“Was he playing the Pirate King too?”

“No.” A furrow appeared between his brows. “No, I meant the leg.”

“I know. Sorry. Failed attempt at humour.” I took a bite of the shortbread and another sip of my drink. “I need to ring Xander back, but I'm dreading it; he's going to be furious.”

“Your director?”

“Mm. I mean, he's always furious about something, but having to cancel the show...”

“Don't you have an understudy?”

I shook my head. “Harrison's a bit of a diva.”

“Ah.” He gave a small smile. “'There is no understudy for La Carlotta.'”

“You're a Lloyd-Webber fan too?” I laughed.

He leaned back, arms folded, one eyebrow raised. “You don't seem quite as impressed by that.”

“Oh, no, I like Phantom,” I said hastily. “And La Carlotta isn't far off the mark.”

He nodded, stirring his own cup of black coffee. “Then if there's no understudy, what about your Samuel? Could he play the Pirate King, if one of the chorus took his part?”

I pulled a face. “Maybe. Rob's a decent singer, but I wouldn't say he's a Pirate King. It needs a bit of presence.” I gestured vaguely. “Confidence. Charisma. The X Factor.” I thought of sweet, short, chubby Rob, like a young Mr. Smee. “Bless him, he doesn't even look like a pirate.”

Mark's smile widened, as though he could see the picture in my mind. “Well, if you're really desperate...”

I took another drink and narrowed my eyes. “What?”

He shrugged one shoulder – a small, careless gesture, impossibly elegant. “I could give it a go.”

“You're not serious?” But I knew he was. I looked him over again – tall, imposing, utterly at ease in himself, and magnetically attractive. He'd be perfect. My heart thudded as I began to hope. “Can you sing?”

Again the half-shrug. He gave a mischievous, lopsided smile. “I'm a tenor really, but my lower range isn't bad.”

“And you know the part?”

“Every word and note.”

I knew he was musical. He sounded like he should be able to sing. I bit my lip, debating. “It isn't really my call,” I said eventually, and pulled my phone out. “Give me two minutes.”

Xander picked up almost straight away. “What's happening, Claire?”

“Theo and Harrison are on their way back from Dundee. Have you cancelled the show yet?”

“No.” I heard the hope rise in his voice. “Can Harrison do it after all?”

“Not unless you want a Pirate King in a plaster cast.” I glanced across the table, checking one final time. Mark nodded. “But I might have another solution.”

***

I went back to the flat when I'd finished my drink – partly to drop off the books, and partly to check on Harrison.

His door was open, so I didn't bother knocking. He was stretched out on his bed listening to music, pale-faced and with his left leg in a cast, but otherwise looking normal. A pair of standard-issue hospital crutches were propped at the end of the bed.

He pulled off his headphones as I entered. “Hey.”

“Hey.” I folded my arms. “What's the damage?”

“Displaced fracture of the left fibula.”

“English, please.”

“Clean break. Six to eight weeks on crutches. Hurts like hell.”

“I'll bet.” I perched next to him on the bed. “You're an absolute fucking moron.”

He tilted his head so a lock of curly black hair fell across his face, dark eyes widened in his best Labrador impression. “It was Theo's idea.”

My lips curled upwards as though pulled by magnets. I tried folding my mouth inwards, but it was no good; the giggles bubbled up inside me and I snorted like a piglet with a cold.

“What?”

I opened my mouth to explain, but whether it was nervous energy or sugar from the chai and shortbread, suddenly I couldn't stop laughing. A draft from the single glazed window chilled the tears catching at the corners of my eyes, and I gasped for breath. “You know when you were little? Did your Mum never say to you...” Another wave of laughter crashed over me.

“Did my Mum never say what?”

This time I inhaled deeply, forcing the giggles to simmer down. “If you did something stupid, and tried to get out of trouble by saying someone else told you to do it...”

Oh.” He grinned.

“Did she never say to you...”

“...'if so-and-so told you to jump off a cliff, would you listen?'” we finished together, and then we were both laughing, and I pulled him into a gentle hug.

“Idiot,” I said into his shoulder, and sat back. “What were you thinking?”

“Loads of people do it. The tide was high, it wasn't that dangerous.”

“Except for the bloody great kayak in the way.”

“Well, yeah, except for that.” He leaned into his pillows, looking sheepish. “Sorry about Pirates.”

“I'd keep out of Xander's way for a while if I were you – but it's not a lost cause yet.” I shoved him gently. “Even you're not irreplaceable.”

A look of sheer horror crossed his face. What little colour he had left drained away. “You're not letting Rob do it?”

“Nope. Someone new.”

“Oh. Are they as good as me?” he asked, posing half-heartedly.

“I'll tell you in about an hour.” I glanced at my watch. “I need to get over to Younger Hall. Will you be OK here by yourself? Rosie should be back soon, her lecture finishes at twelve.”

“I'll be fine.”

“Sure? You don't need me to do anything, or pick you anything up?”

“Er.” He shuffled. “I kind of haven't told Mum yet. She'll freak.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Claire...”

“Yes, fine, I'll ring her – when I get back, though. And she will want to talk to you,” I warned him. “I'll tell her you're fine, but she won't take my word for it.”

“I know. You're the best.”

“I try.” I hugged him again. “Be good.”

“Don't worry, I'm going nowhere for a while.”

It wasn't lunchtime yet but Theo was already in the kitchen, stacking slices of cheese and tomato inside a baguette.

“Leave that,” I snapped, suddenly irritated by everything about him, from his red trousers to his artfully messy mop of sandy-brown hair.

“But -”

“Theo, we're late!”

He sighed and cast a longing look at the half-assembled sandwich, then slouched towards the door.

“I don't know how you and Harrison stay so skinny when you eat so much.” Skinny wasn't exactly a fair description, and I knew it would needle him, but for once I didn't care. I pulled on my coat and wrestled with the zip.

“Why are we even auditioning this chap?” Theo examined the two green waxed jackets slung over the bannister, presumably trying to identify which was his and which was Rosie's. “I could be the Pirate King.”

“Don't be stupid. You look like an innocent little boy, which is exactly what you're playing.” He looked at me with hurt blue eyes, and I felt a nibble of guilt. It must have been terrifying hauling a screaming Harrison out of the water, whether he joked about it or not – and Theo wasn't a bad kid. He probably felt awful for suggesting the jump in the first place. I relented. “Anyway, nobody else has the range for Frederic.” I smiled, not quite ready to forgive him in as many words. “Come on – let's see what this guy can do.”

Mark was waiting for us on North Street, outside Younger Hall. He didn't look at all nervous, I noted approvingly. He stood completely straight-backed, the wind stirring his long, dark hair. Theo eyed him suspiciously.

“How do you know him?” he asked.

“Post-grad stuff.” I couldn't be bothered to relay the full story.

“He looks like he belongs in a guitar band, not a comic opera.”

“Never stopped Jon English. Don't be such a snob.” I smiled and waved at Mark as we got closer.

“I didn't know which practice room,” he said apologetically.

“My fault – I didn't say. Mark, this is Theo, our Frederic. Theo – Mark.”

They shook hands. If Theo noticed Mark's scars, he did nothing to show it.

“How's your cousin?” Mark asked.

I rolled my eyes. “He'll be fine, it's not a bad break.” I led them inside and down the corridor to the left of the auditorium. I could hear Xander running over the piano part for the Paradox Trio, and followed the sound.

“Done much Gilbert and Sullivan before?” I heard Theo ask.

“Some.” Mark kept his voice carefully even. I knew he hadn't missed the challenge. “It's been a while, but I'm sure it'll come back to me.”

Don't be cocky, I thought. Not until we really know you can do it.

Fortunately, he back-pedalled a little. “So – Frederic. You must have one hell of a voice.”

Good one, I thought, relieved.

“Oh, you know.” Theo put on his trademark plummy toff tones. “One does one's best.”

Xander stopped playing as we all trooped in, and scowled at us over the top of his glasses. “Where have you been?”

“Hi, Xander. Harrison's doing OK; thanks for asking.” I unzipped my coat, tugging as the slippery fabric got stuck. “He'll be on crutches for a few weeks, but it's not a serious break, so no need for a hospital stay. I'll be sure to let him know you were worried.”

Mark snorted and then coughed softly. Xander's scowl only deepened.

“What in the hell was he thinking? And you!” he added as Theo shrugged off his jacket and lounged against the piano. “What kind of shit did you smoke to put that in your head?”

“Oh, stop it.” I was still annoyed with Theo, but not enough to let Xander bollock him. “We've got an answer.”

“Maybe.” Xander looked at Mark appraisingly.

“Sorry. Mark, Xander; Xander, Mark.”

Xander nodded. “Alright, we're tight for time. We'll do a very quick warm-up, then we'll run through 'Paradox' from the top. Then I'll decide. Clear?”

Theo saluted silently. Mark raised an eyebrow at me; I shrugged and smiled.

Please, please, please be good, I begged him silently, breathing from my stomach as Xander gave us our starting notes.

He flickered his left eyelid, inhaled deeply, and sang.

He wasn't good.

He was unbelievable.

It was definitely a tenor voice, but it was unlike any tenor I'd ever heard. It was warm, deep, rich, pure. I thought of the sea on a summer's day – but at the same time I felt a curl of melancholy in my gut, a desperate yearning for something I could no longer remember. I'd felt the same way when I'd heard him play the piano. Theo's eyes widened, and Xander's fingers faltered halfway through the arpeggio.

Mark smiled at me, his expression one of relaxed confidence. I could almost hear the question in my mind. Will this do?

Oh, yes. I grinned back at him, delighted. I'd been hopeful, but this was beyond anything I'd dared to imagine.

After a few wordless scales and exercises, Xander went straight into the introduction to the Paradox Trio, not even stopping to criticise. My grin widened. I slipped into character, leaning forward slightly, right hand balled into a fist and resting on my hip. “When you had left our pirate fold we tried to raise our spirits faint, according to our custom old with quips and quibbles quaint...

Theo joined in with the performance, every inch the eager, trusting apprentice believing in his former comrades' good faith. He clasped his hands excitedly, inquiring after the paradox that had enticed them from their pirate lair – and when Mark joined in for the chorus, our three voices blended and soared, dancing over the ridiculous lyrics with light, joyous energy. I felt a tickle of guilt in the small of my back, thinking of Harrison laid up in bed. I loved singing with my cousin, we'd been performing together since we were kids – but I knew that singing with someone as talented as this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

He swaggered through his solo verses, buckling swash like he was born on the stage, hamming up the recitative in a gorgeous vibrato, and then we all came back together for the final chorus. I felt a heady rush as we held the climactic note, the three-part harmony ringing pure and true around the flaking walls of the little practice room – and then, eyes all on each other so it was perfectly crisp, we cut to silence.

My grin stretched to manic proportions. My cheeks ached, but I couldn't switch it off.

“Brilliant.” Theo crossed the room and shook Mark's hand. “Bloody brilliant.”

Mark shrugged, but he was smiling too, and I recognised the look in his eyes. It was sheer satisfaction with a performance that was as near to perfect as it could possibly be.

“Very nice,” Xander allowed.

I threw my hands up, but said nothing.

Theo did.

“Come on, Xander, the man's a bloody genius! I've never heard anything like it!”

“Hey, I said you all sound good together, what more do you want?” He pushed his glasses up his nose again, eyeing Mark critically. “How about choreography? It's nothing complex, but can you learn it in a week and a half?”

“Harrison can walk him through it. Well, not literally,” Theo added hastily as I glared. “But he can explain what he does and when.” He turned to Mark. “There's a bit of sword fighting, but you can always just jump about and wave the sword around if you get stuck.”

Mark laughed, a wonderful, melodic sound with a soft dark echo. “How hard can it be?”

Somehow I got the impression he was well-versed in stage fighting too. “Happy, Xander?”

He didn't look it, but I hadn't expected him to. “What the hell. The show must go on, right?”
Our Pirate Fold by Narya
“Is he really better than me?” Harrison looked a little forlorn.

“Oh, you're never getting cast again,” Theo grinned.

Rosie threw a cushion at him; I aimed a kick at his ankle, missed, and knocked over the side table. A collection of mismatched mugs went flying, and the four of us yelped as cold tea spilled across the carpet.

“Well, at least it's a manky colour to start with,” sighed Rosie, crossing to the bookcase and pulling handfuls of tissues out of the box. “It won't show any stains.”

Harrison lifted his cast carefully clear of the trails of liquid snaking across the floor. “Seriously, though. Just how good is this guy?”

“Very good,” I admitted, collecting the mugs and inspecting them to make sure none had broken. “But he's a fair bit older than you. He sounds professionally trained.”

“So why is he messing about with an Anthropology post-doc?”

“Philosophy.” I passed the mugs to Theo as Rosie knelt down to mop up the mess.

“Whatever.” Harrison flopped back into the pile of cushions on the sofa. “If he's so good then he should go off and do it professionally, and leave the student productions to us mere amateurs.”

“He wouldn't have gone near it if you hadn't thrown yourself off the pier,” I pointed out.

“On the plus side, he doesn't look like he'll take any bullshit from Xander,” Theo called from the kitchen.

This, I thought, was probably true. “Anyway, he's coming over tomorrow. You can inspect him then.”

“Not tonight?”

“Nope. Theo and I suggested it, but he insisted you'd need peace and quiet this evening.” I joined in with Rosie's efforts to clean the floor, sighing as one soggy tissue after another disintegrated in my hands. “Ugh, we need to get some proper cloths...”

“Try this.” Theo flung a tea towel across the room and sauntered across to the bookcase. “And check for crockery next time you decide to kick someone.”

“If you tidied up more often, it wouldn't be an issue,” I retorted

“Stop squabbling.” Rosie picked up the towel and dabbed at the damp spots on the carpet. “So Mark's coming here?” She flashed me a mischievous grin. “Exciting!”

“Wait.” Theo turned. “Have you met him?”

Rosie nodded. “Outside the Union on Saturday night. I told Claire she should ask him over for drinks.”

“Oh.” Theo pulled down a well-thumbed copy of Brideshead Revisited and sank into the beanbag, a faint frown on his face.

Harrison and I shared a look. It seemed Mark had gone down a few notches in Theo's estimation.

Later, in the corridor as we were heading to bed, Harrison asked me, “Do you think one of us should tell her?”

“What do you mean?”

He glanced towards the living room, where we'd left Theo reading and Rosie watching clips of corgi puppies on Youtube. “I don't know, maybe not tell her, but drop a few hints – get her to tone it down a bit in front of Theo when she's got a new crush.”

Oh.” I thought about it, and pulled a face. “No, we can't. It'd be so unfair on Theo.”

“I suppose.”

“They'll sort themselves out eventually – or at least, I hope they will.” I smiled ruefully. “At the moment it's like living in an episode of Dawson's Creek.

Harrison shook his head, grinning. “I don't know what that is. You're showing your age.”

“Oh, sod off.” I gave him a quick hug. “Seriously, I mean it – go to bed. You've had a long day.”

“Yes, Mum.” He ducked as I swatted at him. “Goodnight.”

It was still dark when I woke up the next day. I cracked my window to change the air, and smelled salt and fog and damp stone. My chest felt heavy – not tight and breathless, the way it used to before work, but weighed down somehow, like a pair of iron bars had settled under my ribcage. I'd dreamed of the sea, I remembered, as a gull wailed from a rooftop across the street – of the sea, and an ancient white light under the waves. Suddenly I felt deeply, achingly unhappy – beyond sad, drifting near the edge of despair, but too numbed to hurt now to feel its full force...

Jesus. I rubbed my arms. Hell of a dream.

I pulled on some leggings and an old baggy hoodie and slipped outside for a cigarette. The jagged edges of the cathedral climbed above the wisps of mist curling at the top of the street. The parking spaces outside the flat were almost all empty – a sign of how early it was. This was the closest free parking to town; past about half seven, it was always full, but there were two clear spaces on either side of my own battered Micra. Perhaps other drivers thought it was too ugly to park next to. I smiled fondly. Its hideous blue-purple colour had earned it the nickname 'The Bilberry' from Harrison – but it was mine, and in a funny way I was proud of it, far more than of the sleek BMW I'd hired on contract in my years as a lawyer.

As I lit my cigarette, a small grey cat emerged from behind the bins and chirped softly.

“Hello.” I squatted down and offered it my hand to sniff. It was a pretty little thing, with thick, soft-looking grey fur, fading into a peachy-pink bib that extended to its underparts. It was a tabby, I supposed, but marked with dark spots like a cheetah, rather than with stripes. I wondered if it was part wildcat; Theo and Harrison claimed to have seen one out by the sports hall one night on their way back from a house party at Fife Park. Then again, I thought, with the state they were in that night, they could have claimed to have seen a dancing bear and I wouldn't have been surprised.

I reached out to scratch the strange tabby's ears, but it hissed and backed away into the fog.

“Well, fine.” I straightened up and took a drag on my cigarette, savouring the cheap, bitter tang in my throat as my body relaxed into its nicotine hit. “Why did you come begging for attention?”

Across the street the proprietor of Janetta's was unlocking the door and switching on the lights. A few school kids on their way to Madras and St Leonard's called tired greetings to each other, their voices muffled by the fog. As I absorbed the familiar sights and sounds and smells of the town starting its day, the feeling of acute sadness began to dissipate, but I still felt strangely restless. Suddenly I was desperate to walk along the beach, to feel the sand shifting under my feet and the rush of the changing tide around my ankles. I glanced at my watch. Plenty of time for a walk down to East Sands.

The sky was lightening now but the cathedral grounds weren't open yet, so I cut under the archway by the school and plodded down the Pends. The fog shifted around the ruined towers to my left, and a cold tickle like a soft whispering breath ran up my back and across my shoulders. The air smelled stale and close down here, and I was glad to emerge in to the busy harbour, even with its cold, fishy taint.

East Sands, by contrast, was empty except for a few dog walkers. I unlaced my sneakers and let the waves break over my bare feet, staring out at the froth-flecked peaks of water further out. I wondered what on Earth had possessed Theo and Harrison to jump of the pier and into that. In summer, I might have been able to see the appeal – but this morning the North Sea looked like a monster waking from sleep. I imagined the vicious currents running under the waves and shivered at the thought of Theo and Harrison being tugged out beyond the bay, past help.

Stop it. I forced my eyes away, made myself look at the caravan park on the hill and focus on the ugly white blocks, like Lego bricks scattered on the grass. What is wrong with you today?

My leggings were getting soggy at the cuffs. I retreated to the dunes and dusted the sand from my feet, but its scratchy grains clung stubbornly to my damp skin, and eventually I gave in and pulled my socks on over the top. I did my best to ignore the itching and chafing as I trudged back to the flat, the mist curling my hair in directions that gravity shouldn't allow.

When I got back to the flat the cat had gone, and the smell of cheap meat in hot oil was wafting from the kitchen.

“Hey, Claire,” Theo called, poking his head out into the hallway.

“What's brought this on?” I kicked off my sneakers and padded down the corridor. “It's not like you to get up early and start clattering about in the kitchen.”

“I thought I'd take Harrison breakfast in bed.”

I pressed my lips together, resisting the urge to laugh when for once he was actually being thoughtful. “Don't let him get used to it.”

“I think I owe it to him, just this once.” He smiled uncertainly and pushed his hair back from his face. “Claire...I'm sorry about yesterday. I know you're still pissed off, but...”

“I'm not,” I interrupted him, and was surprised to find I meant it. “I was yesterday, but mostly because I was worried – about both of you. It could have been one hell of a lot worse.”

“I know. It was pretty stupid.” His smile grew puppyish and appealing, and he lifted his arms. “Truce?”

I did laugh then, and stepped into the offered hug, the aching sadness in my chest finally clearing. “Truce.” I stood on my tiptoes and peered over his shoulder at the pair of pans balanced on the gas stove. The big pan held eggs and white pudding, and there were mushrooms frying gently in the small saucepan at the back. “Need any help with anything?"

“You could butter some bread rolls. This is all going in a sandwich.”

“You've got to be joking.”

“It's something Harrison and I were talking about the other night – what's the ultimate breakfast sandwich? My grandma used to make this for me when I was in sixth form, if I'd had a few too many the night before.” He poked at the slices of pudding with a spatula. “It's amazing, but Harrison refused to believe it without trying it.”

“Hmm.” I considered the quantities in the pan. Even Theo and Harrison would have a challenge mowing through all that. “I think you need more than two judges – to make it a truly objective test.”

Theo grinned. “I'll see if I can stretch it to feed four.” He pulled a couple of extra eggs out of the fridge and returned to the stove.

Ten minutes later we were all sitting on or around Harrison's bed, munching our sandwiches. It was pretty good, I had to admit; Theo's Grandma clearly knew a thing or two about lining stomachs for the day ahead. I'd have to bear it in mind the next time we had a big night out.

“I'm not sure it's the best sandwich ever, though,” said Harrison, mopping up the last of the egg yolk with a scrap of bread roll.

“Best breakfast sandwich,” corrected Theo. “Best sandwich ever, full stop...well, that's a completely different discussion.”

Harrison's eyes lit up, and he smiled a smile I knew far too well.

“No,” I said.

“No what?” Rosie asked.

“Yes!” said Theo and Harrison at exactly the same time.

What?

“We're going to find the ultimate sandwich.” Harrison rested his chin on the kneecap that wasn't bound in plaster. “Theodore Morris Wentworth, you are a bloody genius.”

I rolled my eyes. “Well, you can find your perfect sandwich between meals; I don't want them for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day between now and the May Ball.” I glanced at my watch. “Right – time to get moving.”

“Me too.” Rosie wriggled out of the knitted blanket she'd tucked around her legs. “I'll walk with you.”

I kept quiet through my tutorial; the day before hadn't exactly been conducive to productivity, so I hadn't done as much of the reading as I'd have liked. I made a mental note to catch up over the weekend.

Afterwards I mooched for a while in the second hand bookshop, and picked up a battered old copy of Le Morte d'Arthur. A guilty twinge reminded my that my Mlitt was not in Medieval Literature – but then again, there were plenty of articles and books that read The Waste Land as a Grail quest. It was related. Kind of.

I also agonised over refreshments for the evening – I'd definitely told Mark to come after dinner, but he struck me as the cultured type. Would he expect drinks? Canapés? Chocolate? I felt like I should be able to offer something, even if it didn't get eaten.

Bloody hell, why not arrange parlour games too and be done with it, I thought, irritated with myself for caring so much.

In the end I settled for a couple of bottles of red and a cheeseboard, reasoning that if it didn't get used then Theo and Harrison could have the cheese for their mad sandwich scheme – and red wine would never go to waste in a student house. I winced a little at the cost of the cheese, but I squashed the guilt as the shop assistant rang it through. I'd been careful all semester; I could afford a small treat.

Cheese and white pudding in one day, though... I smiled, imagining the reaction of old-me, lawyer-me – the me who had bought Stella McCartney suits a size too small, then lived on kiwi fruit and watercress until they fitted. I wouldn't have set foot in a cheese shop.

The fog from the morning had cleared, and the crying of the gulls felt friendly again. The last vestiges of the weak November sunshine clung to the pavement and trees, and the air tasted clean and sweet. I remembered the muggy grime of the street I'd lived on in London, the strange flat I'd rented that was a converted room above a single garage, and I tipped my face upwards into the sea breeze, breathing deeply.

The cat was sitting on the bins again when I got back.

“Hi,” I said to it.

It flattened its ears and hissed.

I shrugged. “Please yourself.” I shouldered the door open, reminding myself that we needed to get the landlord to come and fix the lock, then checked the post (a couple of bills and an underwear catalogue I presumed had been ordered by Rosie) and headed upstairs.

To my astonishment the flat smelled of bleach and furniture polish. The worn red carpet in the hall had definitely been hoovered, and the laundry that usually adorned the bannisters was conspicuous by its absence.

“Hello?” I unzipped my coat and checked the impulse to sling it down on the nearest available surface.

“Hey, Claire.” Theo's grinning face appeared around the living room door. “What do you think?”

“Nice!” The kitchen worktops were gleaming; fresh air poured in from the open windows, and even the skirting boards had been wiped down. “How long did this take you?”

“Oh, all day,” he said airily. “But Harrison said it wasn't fair for the flat to be a tip when your date gets here.”

“Mark is not my date,” I said automatically.

“Tall dark handsome stranger volunteers to undergo ritual humiliation for a girl he hardly knows?” Harrison's voice echoed from the living room. “I think he is.”

“Shut up,” I called, then dumped the shopping bag on the kitchen floor and started to unpack.

Later, as I was doing the washing up, Harrison caught me alone in the kitchen. “Sorry about before,” he said sheepishly, “but Theo was still in a strop, thinking Rosie's into this Mark character.”

“Well.” I carefully dried the corners of the roasting tin. “She is.”

“Yes, but I had to say something to shut Theo up.”

“Teasing me isn't the answer.”

“I know. Sorry.”

I still couldn't feel annoyed with him. “I doubt I'm his type anyway. He looks like he'd prefer someone more...I don't know...glamorous.”

“You're glamorous.” He tilted his head, smiling cheekily. “Or you were, before you turned back into a scruffy student.”

I smacked him with the soggy tea towel, just as the buzzer rang.

“No stupid comments,” I added in a low voice as Theo went to answer. “I like this guy – not like that!” I sighed at Harrison's smirk. “But seriously, he's nice. Can we please not scare him away?”

He nodded. “Scout's honour.” His eyes widened and he suddenly looked hopeful. “Hey – if he's not into you or Rosie, maybe he likes guys?”

“Who knows?” I smiled at him. “Come on – let's get you introduced.”

I could already hear Mark's musical tones in the hallway.

“I wasn't sure what to bring...”

“Oh, no way – this is amazing!” I'd rarely heard Theo so enthused. “Bloody hell, Doublewood Seventeen...!”

“If he's bringing whisky then I approve already,” whispered Harrison.

“Ssh,” I hissed as we headed out of the kitchen. “Hi Mark,” I called down the corridor.

“Hi, Claire.” He smiled warmly at us both. “And you must be Harrison.”

“How did you guess?” Despite his grumblings of the previous evening, Harrison returned the smile and shook Mark's hand. “Thank you for saving the day.”

Mark laughed easily. “I don't know about that. It's a long time since I last sang Pirates; I'm horribly out of practice.”

“That's not what I heard.”

“It's total bollocks,” Theo confirmed. “This guy could walk into D'Oyly Carte.”

As good-natured as he was being, Harrison tensed a little at that. Luckily, Rosie chose that moment to sashay down the stairs; I noticed she'd changed from her usual leggings and man's shirt into a slinky black mini-skirt, glossy tights and a snugly-fitted cashmere sweater. The next few minutes were occupied with introductions, discussions of which degree everyone was doing, sorting out who was drinking what, and turning the living room into a temporary practice space. Once or twice across the general hubbub I caught Mark's eye and smiled a silent apology – for Rosie's brazen flirting, Harrison's jealousy, Theo's inane comments.

Don't worry. Again the lazy wink, the half-shrug, the lopsided smile – and again my stomach flipped.

The cheeseboard provided another talking point (I'd deliberately selected a charcoal-infused cheddar for its dramatic slate-grey colour), and eventually, glasses of red wine in hand, we settled into a quick run through of lines.

Mark, unsurprisingly, was word perfect as the Pirate King. Harrison read the Major General, Rosie read the various daughters, and by the end of the First Act most of us were falling about clutching our sides.

“Rosie, please audition for our next show,” begged Theo.

“I can't sing,” she objected.

“That doesn't necessarily matter. Isabel isn't a singing part – and you're so funny...”

Her cheeks turned a delicate shade of pink.

“I think you've got undiscovered range, too,” I said to Harrison, curling up against his side as he leaned into the beanbag. “You're a great Major General – better than Roosevelt. He's so...stiff.”

Harrison grinned, relaxed now after a glass of wine. “Say the word to Xander and I'm all yours. We can't have a limping Pirate King, I know that, but I could play the Major General on crutches...”

I elbowed him. “No way. You're having the most relaxed end to the semester possible – and anyway, Xander would have kittens if we had any more casting changes.”

“Come on, guys.” For once, Theo took charge. “Let's crack on, we're nearly at the end of the Act. Mark?”

Mark didn't respond. I propped myself up on one elbow; he'd been watching Harrison and I with a strange, almost hungry expression, and now he seemed to have retreated into a sad, distant daydream, gazing out of the window towards the cathedral.

“Mark,” I repeated, louder.

Another pause – then he jumped and turned as though he'd only just heard me. “Sorry – where were we?”

“'Orphan, frequently, only once,'” I prompted.

We got through the rest of the Act without incident, and then we pushed the furniture back against the walls so we could take Mark through the blocking. As Harrison explained the choreography for the Pirate King's big solo number, and Mark climbed onto the sofa (which was doubling as the pirates' ship), Rosie snorted and began to giggle uncontrollably.

“What is it?” I asked her, as Mark paused in the middle of waving his imaginary sword.

“Sorry,” she gasped, tears beading at the corners of her eyes. “But honestly...”

“Spit it out,” said Theo, who was balanced carefully on the arm of a nearby chair.

“You do realise that essentially we're a bunch of grown adults, playing at pirates like little kids?”

Harrison, Theo and I fell about at that, and Mark laughed too, apparently forgetting his earlier melancholy – and shortly after that the whisky was opened.

“Dude, you can definitely come again.” Theo closed his eyes in ecstasy as he passed the whisky under his nose.

Harrison nodded. “Agreed.”

“I don't know how you can have it with cheese, though.” Rosie wrinkled her nose.

“It actually works surprisingly well.” Theo proffered her a small piece of the Cashel blue. “Give it a go.”

She shook her head, honey-blonde highlights shimmering. “I'll pass.”

There was no more Pirates that night. After a couple of whiskies and some more small talk, Mark got to his feet to leave.

“I'll go with you.” I grabbed my book bag. “I have to go to the library anyway; it'll be quiet now, I might actually be able to find what I need.”

Harrison gave me a knowing smile. I rolled my eyes at him; he'd pay later.

Outside the temperature had dropped to at least minus five. Frosted flowers adorned the Bilberry's windscreen, and the pavements shimmered silver. Our breath clouded in the air; wind hissed through the crumbling walls of the cathedral, and I buried my nose in my scarf.

“'The North Wind doth blow,'” quoted Mark.

“Well, I hope we don't get snow,” I grumbled in response – although the sky was knife-clear, so it seemed unlikely, and anyway I didn't mean it. Harrison's pictures of the old town blanketed in white, the ancient spires looming against the heavy sky, and the frozen quad glinting in the pale sun, had been part of what had enticed me up here. It had looked like fairy-land. I'd sat in my poky London bedsit gazing at the photos of Harrison and his friends pelting each other with snow, and wondered what the hell I was doing with my life. I remembered sleeping on the floor in the tiny dorm room Harrison and Theo had shared in their first year, when I came up for my interview. We'd stayed up until three drinking Old Pultney and plotting to share a house the next year if I was accepted. I smiled at the memory.

Mark smiled too, as though I'd shared the story with him. “It's nice,” he remarked, “seeing family members so close. Often cousins drift apart as they grow up.”

“Not me and Harrison. We're both only children, so he's like my little brother. Better than, really,” I amended, thinking about it. “We didn't live together, so we didn't fight like siblings sometimes do.”

“And Theo and Rosie? Are they family too?”

“No. Theo and Harrison shared a room in halls last year, and Rosie lived across the landing from them.” I grinned. “They adopted me when I came back to uni.”

“Back?” he inquired.

“Mm. I did my undergrad at UCL, then did a law conversion.”

“Goodness.” He looked me over again, as though imagining me in my court robes and wig.

“It wasn't for me. Academia's more my scene.” I took a breath of the sea air, reassuringly cool, easing away the grey dread that had haunted my years as a London professional. “Anyway, how about you? Family? Previous unrelated careers?”

He laughed. “Plenty of the latter, none of the former.”

“What about your cousin?”

“I'm sorry?”

“The one who fell out of a tree.”

“Oh.” He stopped at the entrance to one of the wynds that linked the main streets. “He died a long time ago.”

I was glad that the dark spared my blushes. “I'm sorry.” I wondered why I'd pushed it; I knew he'd been a soldier, he'd told me so the other day, and I knew veterans sometimes found it difficult to talk about their experiences. I should have guessed he wouldn't want to discuss the past – selfish of me to have forced it, just because I'd wanted to change the subject.

“I was sorry too.” We couldn't see the sea from this part of town but he turned his head towards it anyway, and for a moment the lamplight burned in his eyes – then he looked back at me and his face was softer again, friendly, smiling. “Anyway, this is me.”

“Oh! You live in one of these?” I couldn't help it; I walked past the stone cottages every day on my way to the library and loved them, with their mossy stone steps up to the front doors and the little animals carved into their roofs.

His smile widened at my enthusiasm. “It's tiny inside. And of course, it isn't really mine – I'm just renting.”

“Aren't we all.” I was still jealous. “Are you free tomorrow evening? We should probably take you through the rest of the blocking before we throw you into a full rehearsal.”

“I can do tomorrow.” He glanced down the street. “I'd offer to host you this time, but unfortunately I don't have the room.”

“We don't mind.” I was pretty sure I was speaking for the other three too; Harrison and Theo had settled down again, especially since Mark had brought that astonishing whisky. “Same time?”

He nodded. “As long as that suits you.”

“Great.” I hesitated, uncertain. I didn't know him well enough for the easy goodnight hugs I exchanged with Harrison, Theo, Rosie and a few others – but a handshake felt too formal now. “Right. Anyway. Library.”

He lifted an eyebrow. “Good luck.”

“Ugh, don't.” The state of our library was a standing joke in the postgraduate community. “I'll see you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight, Claire.” His voice was gentle, like a breath of wind in the bay.

“Goodnight.”

I lit a cigarette as I headed down the wynd towards the library, my shoulders hunched against the cold, and as I put it to my lips I seemed to hear Mark's voice in my head, kind and a little reproachful.

I've told you about those.

“You and God knows how many others,” I muttered, staring at the orange glow at the end of the thin little cylinder. I wondered whether Harrison wasn't right; would I be imagining Mark's voice in my head if I didn't have a crush on him? But something in my gut told me that even if I did, it wouldn't be returned – and not only because, as Harrison had wistfully speculated, he might prefer men instead. Somehow I felt that such a foolish, childish thing as a crush would be wrong where Mark was concerned. He seemed above it, in a way.

I stubbed out my cigarette against the nearest wall and chucked it into a bin. It was a bad habit left over from London, a crutch that had got me through nights of sleepless worry and days of frantic, circling thoughts like rats scurrying in my brain – an escape from the crushing fear I'd woken up to every single day.

Maybe it was time to try and give it up.
Song and Story by Narya
“I can't find him anywhere,” Rosie complained.

“Hmm?” I glanced up from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. “Find who?”

“Mark.”

“You're not still on with that, are you? Some people don't have Facebook. It's not that weird.”

“It's not just Facebook, though. There's no Twitter either, or even a LinkedIn, which is weird for a wannabe academic.”

“He might be opposed to social media on principle,” Harrison chipped in. “Some people don't like the idea of faceless corporations harvesting our data.”

“And some people just like a bit of privacy,” I added, “so random strangers can't stalk them from the comfort of their living room.”

Rosie smiled mischievously. “But he's not a stranger now...”

A knock on the door cut across my retort. “That'll be him. Harrison, where's Theo?”

“Here.” Theo strolled in, the half-eaten remains of a peanut butter and Nutella toastie in his right hand.

“How can you be hungry? We just ate!”

“It's dessert!” he protested.

I snorted and made for the door. “Any excuse. Rosie, please stop Googling Mark.”

“Ssh!”

They scuffled to clear the table and push back the furniture, and I answered the door at Mark's second knock.

“Hi.”

“Hi.” He proffered a bottle of red wine that looked nearly as expensive as the whisky he'd brought the night before. “I hope you don't mind me coming straight up; the door was open downstairs.”

“The latch is broken, we've been meaning to get it fixed – wow.” I felt my eyes go wide as I accepted the wine and read the label. “Thank you...but you don't need to keep bringing stuff. Seriously, you're the one doing us a favour.”

“Nonsense, you're hosting me.” He shrugged off his leather jacket and hung it on the back of the door. “Claire, you don't happen to have a cat, do you?”

“Nope. Not allowed under our lease.”

“I suspected that was the case.” He bent to unlace his boots. “I only ask because one tried to follow me into the stairwell.”

“Grey tabby?”

“Yes.”

“It was there yesterday. Must be a stray.”

“Oh, I don't know about that; it seemed friendly enough.”

“You must have the magic touch, then – all it's done is hiss at me so far...”

We pushed back the furniture again, ordering things slightly differently to stand in for the grounds and temple of Tremorden Castle, then started off with the blocking for the Paradox Trio (not complex) and 'Away, Away' (almost non-existent).

“You really need to sing it through, though, to get the idea,” said Harrison. “It sounds a bit rubbish when you're all just saying the words.”

“One thing at a time.” I ran my hands through my hair. “OK – love duet between Frederic and Mabel, there's no point running through that, you're not in it – then another bit with the policemen – then it's the pirates again.”

Theo began to hum the melody for 'With Cat-like Tread' under his breath, a smirk of anticipation on his face.

“There's nothing breakable within kicking distance, is there?” Rosie asked, nervously glancing at the tables and shelves.

“Harrison's other leg?” suggested Theo. Harrison gave him a sharp jab with one of his crutches. “Ow!”

“Kicking distance?” Mark asked me quietly, smiling as the others bickered.

“Oh, you'll see,” I replied.

***

Saturday was the first full run through since Harrison's accident, and the cast's mood ranged from jittery to irate. There were plenty who felt that the replacement should have been selected from the remaining cast members, not “sneaked in by the back door,” as one of the policemen unflatteringly put it.

“So Rosie says this guy is really, really hot.” Ariana, who was playing Mabel, lifted a suggestive eyebrow as she scraped her black hair into a bun.

“I'm not sure that's the word I'd use.”

“He isn't hot?”

“I mean...” I arranged my makeup at the side of the sink, then hunted through my bag for my grey wig. “I don't know how to describe it.”

“Charismatic?”

“Well, yes, but more than that.” I automatically glanced around to make sure Mark was nowhere in earshot, although he was unlikely to be lurking inside the ladies' toilets in the Students' Union. “Beautiful, is probably the best way to put it – and unusual.”

“How so?”

I thought of the bright, fierce light in his eyes the night I'd walked with him towards the library, the carved symmetry of his features, the confident fluidity of his movements. Otherworldly? It seemed the wrong choice of word for someone so centred, so present; there was nothing frail or ethereal about him. “You'll see.”

She nodded, securing her hair with a white ribbon. “How's Harrison?”

“OK, I think. Feels pretty stupid.”

“He must be gutted about the show...sorry, could you unzip me?”

“Sure – and yes, he is.”

I undid the zipper on her Fairisle-print sheath dress; she stepped out of it and into Mabel's long, striped, high-waisted skirt. “How long is he in plaster for?”

“Six to eight weeks, they reckoned at the hospital. Should be off by the start of next semester.”

“Good.” She smiled as she fastened the buttons on her blouse. “Because a little bird told me Xander's thinking of doing Les Mis.”

Seriously? Ouch!” I'd jabbed myself in the eye with a hair pin as I turned to face her. “That's...quite a project.”

“I know, but we've got enough strong voices to make it work. Theo for Marius, you for Fantine...”

“You for Cosette.”

She smiled and shook her head. “Not necessarily. Put out a casting call for Les Mis and loads of people will want to audition.”

“But not many with a voice like yours.”

She shrugged, but her smile stretched a little further, dimpling one cheek. “Well. One show at a time – and anyway, I need to pick your brains, I can't sort out the last chapter of my dissertation...”

We talked Joyce and Conrad as we did our makeup, then headed back into the auditorium. Mark had arrived while we'd been changing; he was by the costume rail with Rosie and Xander, apparently oblivious to the whispering and staring from the rest of the cast.

“Oh my.” Ariana exhaled softly. “That's him, then.”

“Yup.”

“How do you know him?”

“I don't, really. I've seen him across the room at a couple of postgrad events, and I've bumped into him at Younger Hall, but until this week we'd never spoken properly.”

“I see what you mean, though. Definitely beautiful.”

He lifted his head and smiled at us; I waved, and slipped my arm through Ariana's.

“We have a problem,” Xander said as we approached. His curls were already fizzing.

I opted against several sarcastic retorts along the lines of “you astonish me”, “what else is new?” and “you should get that on a t-shirt.” Instead I uttered a calm, neutral, “Oh?”

“We didn't think about the costume. He's about six inches taller than Harrison.”

I glanced at Rosie, whose cheeks were a bright shade of pink. “We've still got a week,” she pointed out. “We can find something.”

“But what about tonight?” Xander's voice grew shrill.

“It's a rehearsal,” I pointed out with strained patience. “Nobody's watching; we'll just have to manage. By the way, Mark, this is Ariana; she's playing Mabel, so she's the one you need to kidnap at the end of Act One.”

“Hi.” Ariana reached out and shook his hand. Guiltily, I watched her swiftly-smothered reaction to his burned skin; I was weirdly glad I wasn't the only one bothered by it. “I've heard so much about you.”

Mark laughed a little. “News travels fast.”

“Not as far as the costume department,” muttered Xander, glaring sullenly at the rails of pirate outfits as though they had shrunk on purpose to spite him.

“I said we'd sort something out.” Rosie's tone was unusually tart. “Mark, come here; we'll have to pirate you up with accessories for now.”

Mark leaned against the edge of the stage while she dug around through boxes of props. She tried him first with a feathered, wide-brimmed hat, but decided it was more Three Musketeers than Pirate King.

“Maybe this?” she said thoughtfully, approaching with a long, silky, emerald-green bandana – but as she stood on her tiptoes to fasten it around his head, Mark jerked away.

“Sorry,” he said, clearly seeing her puzzled expression. “I just don't like my head being touched.” He held his hand out for the bandana. “I can tie it.”

Rosie shrugged and started pulling products out of her makeup bag while Mark sorted out his headgear, then I stood and watched her work her magic with contouring bronzer and smudged black eyeliner.

“Hmm.” She eyed her handiwork critically. “What do you think, Claire? Too Jack Sparrow?”

“Plenty of men wore eye makeup before Johnny Depp.” I tilted my head, considering the effect of it under the stage lights. It gave Mark's features a dark, wicked, rock star edge. “I like it.”

“Five minutes,” Xander called across the auditorium. “Places in five minutes, everyone, thank you.”

Half-hearted acknowledgements were called back to him; the daughters headed to the back of the auditorium, ready to prance down the aisle during their first number, and I trooped into the wings with Theo, Mark and the rest of the pirates. The policemen, who weren't needed until Act Two, settled themselves in the chairs to watch.

“Claire, your hair's coming down,” Theo whispered.

“Shit.” I put my hand up to my head and realised that my natural strawberry-blonde tresses were escaping from under the grey wig. I glanced around but there were no mirrors back here, and Rosie was in the wings on the other side. “I mustn't have pinned it properly...if I hold the wig up, can you clip it back into place? It doesn't have to be neat, it just needs to stay put.”

“I don't know what to do with hair!” He sounded horrified by even the idea.

“I'll do it,” said Mark unexpectedly.

“Would you?”

“Of course. Take it down; it'll be easier to start again.”

“Two minutes, people,” Xander called from the auditorium.

Hurriedly I unpinned my wig, tugging as it tangled into my hair.

“Don't panic.” Mark smiled at me as I passed him the hair grips. “We have the overture to redo it.”

He laid the pins on a small side table and gently finger-combed my hair, teasing out the worst of the knots and snarls. Around us the pirates went through the usual last minute checks on their props and costumes, occasionally glancing at Mark before pretending they were in fact looking at the curtains or the antiquated rope-and-pulley system. Mark ignored them, deftly separating my hair out into small sections, then twisting and pinning it into place.

“Were you a hairdresser in one of your previous careers?” I asked – softly, so that only he would hear me.

He laughed as the orchestra launched into the jaunty strains of 'With Cat-like Tread.' “No.”

It was the answer I'd expected, although I wouldn't have been amazed by a yes. Little would surprise me about Mark at this point. As the pirates trailed on in ones and twos, pretending to swab the decks of their ship and get it ready for Frederic's birthday celebrations while the orchestra played, I wondered where Mark had learned to style and pin up long hair. I'd never seen him wear his own dark mane any way other than loose around his face. Still, after my idiotic blunder earlier in the week, I wasn't willing to ask directly – not if he didn't volunteer the information first.

“There – now sit the wig on top.”

I obeyed, and he slid in a few more clips to keep it in place.

“Alright, that should hold.”

I poked at it gingerly; it seemed fairly secure. “Thank you.” I gave him a quick twirl as the flutes danced their way through the melody to 'Here's a First Rate Opportunity.' “How do I look?”

“Like a piratical maid of all work.”

“Good – I think.” On stage, three of the pirates were setting up an elaborate trap involving a mop, a sailcloth and a couple of barrels, but the rest were heading back into the wings. “OK, you're almost up.” I stepped aside as Theo flourished a pair of rapiers and tossed one to Mark. I was tempted to ask if he was nervous, but the effortless way he caught the blade and gave a few experimental slices told me he wasn't, not in the slightest. Theo smiled smugly, like he was in on some big secret. I knew they'd spent the morning practising the choreography for their opener, and hoped for all our sakes that they hadn't altered it too much, otherwise Xander was liable to explode. “I'd say break a leg, but I think we've already had enough of that.”

“Quite.”

The orchestra were on their last joyous, bouncing chords, and the remaining pirates exited the stage. Theo sauntered across to us.

“All set?” he whispered.

Mark nodded.

Theo grinned. “I can't wait to see their faces...”

“Please don't give Xander any heart attacks,” I begged them.

“Only the good kind,” Theo replied as the strings gave their final flourish. He raised his blade and I stepped back from them both, not wanting to get in the way – then the drumroll started, and with a raucous cheer most of the pirates leapt on stage.

Theo and Mark waited a few beats, then entered downstage left in a flurry of blows and parries. I laughed as Theo feinted left then pretended to strike at Mark from the right, and Mark's kohl-rimmed eyes widened comically – then I gasped as he tossed his blade into the air, rolled away, and caught the rapier in his other hand without even looking to check where it was.

“Bloody hell,” murmured a familiar voice behind me.

“Harrison!” I spun round and gave him a quick one-armed hug. “What are you doing here?”

“Taking your advice and avoiding Xander.” He pressed his cheek to the top of my head, still facing out towards the stage. “Theo's right. I'm never getting cast again.”

“Rubbish.”

“Well, I definitely can't pull stunts like that!” He looked wistful. “I couldn't miss it, though. Not after everything you said about Mark. I suppose I came to check out the competition, but let's be realistic, he's not competition. He's on a different planet.” He smiled a little. “And I haven't even heard him sing yet.”

“You will, in a few minutes.” I snorted as Mark expertly steered Theo towards the prepared trap. The other pirates gathered around, cheering good-naturedly, knowing what was coming. Mark's magnetic presence on stage seemed to lift his fellow performers, giving them an energy and verve that I hadn't even realised was missing before. Theo gamely tripped over the mop, causing the sailcloth to fall on top of him, then he wriggled and flailed as the other pirates seized his arms and legs, stuffed him into a barrel and rolled him across the stage. “Crikey, that bit never works...”

In the wings on the other side, Rosie caught sight of us both and waved.

“Well, at least I don't have to follow that opening number.” Harrison waved back, then turned to me, eyes glinting. “You, on the other hand...”

“Quiet.” I meant it; the pirates' drinking song was wrapping up, and if Xander heard us chattering away over their dialogue, there'd be a thermonuclear explosion. I added in a whisper, “Does my wig look OK?”

“Fine. Shouldn't it?”

“It started to slip. Mark had to pin it back on.”

Harrison raised his eyebrows. “A man of many talents.”

“Well, Theo was next to useless – right, time to go.” I checked my wig one final time and bent over into my middle-aged nursery maid pose.

“Knock 'em dead,” Harrison whispered as I bustled onto stage.

There wasn't a lot of scope for my number to go wrong; the choreography was looser and less frantic than the pirates' opener, and it wasn't a difficult song to sing. Even so, it went better than it ever had done before, with even the unnamed pirates (some of whom were not the world's strongest actors) looking involved and interested as I narrated the ridiculous tale of the inattentive nursery maid accidentally apprenticing her charge to a band of ne'er-do-well pirates. Of course, it probably didn't hurt that Mark stalked among them as I sang, glaring at those who looked inattentive and occasionally prodding them in the ribs.

Nicely done, I thought, catching his eye and smiling, allowing myself a brief moment out of character. It was a smart use of space and movement in a potentially static, visually unappealing number, adding a layer of interest without distracting from the song.

He returned the smile and bowed courteously as I finished my last verse, the tale told in all its silly glory. I risked a glance at Xander. For a change he was simply watching, instead of scowling and furiously scribbling notes.

I paused a moment to allow the applause to quieten down (at least, I hoped there'd be applause on the night; I wasn't sure the policemen sitting in the front row counted), then flung myself to my knees and took Theo's hand. “Oh, pardon, Frederic, pardon!”

“Rise, sweet one, I have long pardoned you...”

The scene continued smoothly – no fluffed lines, no awkward pauses, no catastrophes with props or costumes – and I rejoined Harrison in the wings to watch Mark sing the Pirate King's solo.

“Well done,” Harrison whispered. “That was really good.”

I smiled and demurred. “I don't think I can take all the credit.”

“You can for your voice, you sounded fantastic!”

“Thanks.” I slipped my arm around his waist. “Now shush, I want to watch this.”

“Me too.”

Together we crept forward, as near the stage as we could be without being visible from the auditorium.

The spotlight was working this evening; it followed Mark to the front of the stage as he flourished his sword and began to sing.

Oh, better far to live and die under the grave black flag I fly...

I couldn't help my satisfied grin at the astonished whisper that rippled through the pirates onstage, the policemen in the audience, and the daughters at the back of the auditorium. Mark's voice easily filled the space, his rich tenor echoing warmly, every syllable crisp and distinct – yet edged with a dark arrogance one rarely saw in a Pirate King. He kept the humour of the piece intact, but his eyes flared dangerously when the lyrics spoke of sinking ships to retain his crown, and you couldn't help wondering if he might just mean it – then he gave a playful wink to the audience and swaggered across the stage to duel the other pirates with one hand behind his back, all flamboyance and joy once again.

“Jesus.” Harrison's voice was full of admiration.

“I know. You should have seen Xander's face when we auditioned him.”

“What did he say?”

“'Very nice,'” I quoted.

Harrison rolled his eyes, and we both went back to watching Mark, who was now sparring with three pirates at once, ducking and lunging and feinting almost faster than the eye could follow. I couldn't help thinking of Harrison's complaint the other night about professionals leaving student productions to amateurs – but professional or not, Mark looked born to do this.

At the end of the rehearsal Xander called us all together for notes. Mercifully, they were short. There was the usual tirade against the policemen but, astonishingly, praise for the pirates.

“Really great energy, guys, just keep it tight, keep it sharp, stay focussed...Theo, fantastic, you nailed it tonight...”

I gave him a thumbs up.

“Mark...”

Mark had been leaning against a painted gravestone at the back but now stood straight, politely attentive without being over-eager.

Xander closed his notebook and tucked his pencil behind his ear. “Full dress run on Tuesday. Find a costume by then.”

***

“He probably just didn't know what to say,” Rosie reasoned as we sat in Mark's living room the next day. “Like, you're so good, feedback from someone like Xander would be meaningless.”

Mark gave her a warm smile and began to set out the armful of clothes he'd brought down. “It's kind of you to say so.”

I had a feeling he didn't especially need or want Xander's validation – but even so, the rehearsal had been terrific, in no small part thanks to Mark and the lift his talent and experience had given the whole cast. All it had needed was a word of acknowledgement. At least the rest of the cast hadn't been shy with their praise, I reflected, staring around. The little room wasn't at all what I'd pictured. It was tidy and clean, but shabby, and sparsely furnished. There was no sofa, and the wicker chairs looked like they might at one point have been garden furniture. Unlike our flat, which was overflowing with photographs and posters and fairy lights and cheap ornaments, the walls and shelves were bare, except for a faded watercolour print above the fireplace and a neatly aligned row of Philosophy volumes on the windowsill. There were no plants, no rugs, no stray shoes and jackets, no takeaway menus, no pots of pens and knick-knacks. It had the look of a cheap holiday let – a place to stay for a while, somewhere plain and bland that never really got to know the strangers spending time within its walls. I glanced back at Mark, who was still arranging clothes into neat piles on the carpet, and thought about his words the other night, when he'd said he had no family. He must have had one once, besides the cousin he'd mentioned. I remembered the lonely, hungry look on his face as he'd watched Harrison and I teasing each other, and wondered what had happened to them.

Rosie, meanwhile, had dropped to her hands and knees on the carpet, and was searching through the assortment of costume options. “I'm sorry to do it this way, but you're so tall...nothing we have is going to fit you...”

“Not to worry.” He watched her as she sorted through his things, a curious expression on his face. “How did you end up with this job?”

She gave a sunny laugh. “I know, it doesn't really go with Astrophysics, right?”

“I didn't mean...”

“I get it all the time.” She shrugged, still smiling. “I'm not most people's idea of an Astrophysicist, so if that is what you meant, it's fine.”

“It's not fine,” he said softly. “And it's not what I meant at all.”

I felt a sudden warm rush of gratitude towards Mark. It was true, people did tend to react with surprise when they learned what Rosie was studying, as though her long blonde hair and pretty face somehow precluded her from being a talented scientist. Not many of them seemed to consider that their undisguised bafflement – and in some cases outright contempt – might hurt her.

“Well. Anyway.” Rosie shook out a white linen shirt, considered it, then laid it to one side. “I live in a house of musical theatre nuts. I can't sing, but I wanted to be involved, and I like clothes – so here I am. Ooh!” Her eyes widened into excited blue saucers. She lifted out another white shirt, this one heavy and fluid, like water spun into silk. The sleeves ballooned dramatically before being nipped back into frilled cuffs, and there were more ruffles around the collar. It looked like something David Bowie might wear. “I like this one. Claire?”

“Very piratical.” I gave Mark an amused glance. “Where's it from?”

Rosie showed me the label; I swallowed my gasp at the thought of how much it must be worth. “No, I mean, what did you buy it for? Sorry, that sounded awful!” I added as both Rosie and Mark started laughing. “It's just it doesn't seem very...” I gestured at the simply cut jeans and dark sweatshirt he was wearing. “Very you.”

“It isn't recent,” Rosie said thoughtfully. “Must be vintage – it's in gorgeous condition, though.”

“Thank you. I – the previous owner took good care of it.” He gave me one of his lazy, lopsided smiles. “I went through a glam rock phase. In fact...” He hunted through the pile of trousers and produced a pair of supple black leather leggings. “I used to wear it with these.”

“Oh, yes!” Rosie pounced on them. “Oh my God, these are perfect!” She looked up at him hopefully. “You don't have knee high boots as well, do you?”

His smile widened. “Well, now you come to mention it...”

I covered my ears against her excited squeal.

***

The dress rehearsal on Tuesday went without a hitch – although Ariana had a sore throat, and was struggling in her upper range by the end of it. Terrified of losing another key cast member, Xander cancelled the run-through on Thursday so she could rest her voice. Mark, Theo and I met in Younger Hall at Mark's insistence, and ran through our sections one more time.

“Not that we really needed to,” commented Theo, packing away his score. “We know it back to front and sideways.”

“I'd like to hear you sing it back to front and sideways,” I teased him.

He opened his mouth, thought about it, then grinned and shook his head. “OK, you win. But you take my point.”

“I do, yes – and I agree, we don't need to be worried.”

He checked his watch. “Oh, shit, I'm late already...can you take this back to the flat?” He held out his satchel, his eyes wide and appealing.

I slung it over my arm. “Where are you going?”

He tugged his shirt sleeve. “I'm meeting Seb and Byrdie at Aikman's.”

“Oh.” I tried and failed to keep the disapproval out of my voice. “Well...don't do anything stupid.”

“When have I ever?” he asked with a smile that was equal parts angel and devil.

“I'm not going to dignify that with a response. Go on; get going.”

“Yes, ma'am.” He gave me a cheeky salute. “Bye, Mark.”

“Goodnight,” Mark called back from the piano stool.

He'd made no move to pack his own things away, and as Theo left, he leaned forward and made a couple of notes on his score.

“Are you staying?” I asked him. I hoped not. I'd made up my mind to ask him out for a drink – no hidden agenda, I told myself, but I'd enjoyed his company the past few evenings. I wanted to get to know him away from the distractions of singing pirates and eagle-eyed flatmates. I realised with a pang that I didn't have any close friends in St Andrews my own age. Admittedly Mark was probably a little older, but still, it would make a change to talk about something other than sandwiches and Mulberry handbags.

“I was thinking about it.” He sounded apologetic. “I want to play through the new piece I've been writing. I haven't had chance yet this week.”

“Since we've kidnapped basically all your free time.” I smiled, despite feeling slightly flat. Another time, maybe. “I understand.” I shouldered Theo's satchel and my canvas tote.

“There's no need for you to leave – in fact, another pair of ears would be welcome.”

“Are you sure?”

“Certain.” He dug through his own leather case until he found the black manuscript book I'd seen him use in the café. “I like to play for an audience – usually, anyway. I'm vain like that.”

I laughed and sat down in the chair next to the piano. “Don't you ever think about doing it professionally?”

“Yes. I've tried it a few times, over the years.”

“And it's never quite worked out?” I hazarded. It could happen, even to the most talented performers. Luck wasn't always the lady you hoped she would be.

“It has – to a certain extent.” He smoothed out the pages of the manuscript book on the stand and stared thoughtfully over the top of the piano. The electric light flickered, etching sharp shadows into his cheekbones. “But after a while I always seem to grow restless. Ever since – well.” He smiled at me, but it felt perfunctory, automatic. “Let's just say I don't seem to be able to stay long in one place, or settle to one way of life.”

I wondered what he'd been going to say – and how in his thirty-odd years he had apparently had multiple professional stints in the performing arts, fought in a war, and obtained the multitude of degrees necessary for a postdoctoral research position.

“I'm older than I look,” he said gently, as though guessing what I was trying to puzzle out.

I tilted my head, watching him as he ran his finger along the lines of music and made changes in pencil. There were a few creases around his eyes and a little silver in the long black hair, but even under the harsh fluorescent light, I couldn't put him above thirty-five.

“Anyway, speaking of age – am I perhaps going deaf, or is Theo meeting someone named Byrdie?”

I snorted. “James Byrd. He's an old school friend of Theo's.”

“One you don't approve of?”

I gave him a sharp look. “Not exactly, no.”

“Why not?”

“Theo says it's reverse snobbery – and maybe he's right,” I admitted. “At least partly. But whenever he goes out with Byrdie and Seb, he comes back ridiculously drunk and he usually throws up everywhere – I mean, we've all done it,” I added as Mark's mouth twitched, “but this is every time. And I'm pretty sure they take harder stuff too, but Theo tends not to come home then. In some ways that's worse.”

“You worry.”

“Yes.” I looked up at him. There was no judgment in the silver eyes, but even so I felt I needed to explain. He'd asked, after all. “I know they're adults, at least legally, and I shouldn't fuss after them the way I do, but Theo...well, you can probably tell he comes from money. Old money. His family have an estate in Northumberland, he went to Harrow, he's a sweet kid but he knows nothing about the real world. And Byrdie – I met so many people like him when I was working in London.”

“People like what?”

“Upper class twits.”

Mark tipped his head back and laughed. “I think Theo might be right about you.”

“Maybe.” I blushed. “But still, they have this weird attitude – a kind of assumption that there won't be any consequences to what they do, and they can have anything they want. Entitlement, I suppose, but it's so deep seated. They act like the world will arrange itself to suit them, and that they're right about everything, and anyone who disagrees with them is just ignorant and not worth listening to. Theo's not like that, like all the time, but he's a follower rather than a leader, and...”

“And you think this Byrdie will lead him astray.”

I shrugged. “I suppose so.”

He smiled, as though the whole thing amused him. “And this attitude, this sense of entitlement – you don't think that you and Harrison and Rosie have that?”

There was no challenge there, no goading spike. “I don't think so. Not to the same extent. Harrison and I...our family have always worked for a living, and even though we're comfortable, there's never been money to chuck around. Rosie's in between. Upper middle class, if you like.”

He shook his head. “However long I spend in this country, I will never understand the obsession with class.”

“Aren't you British, then?” I looked at him curiously. Lowry sounded like an English name – North West, perhaps, although maybe I was just thinking of the artist. But now I thought about it, Mark didn't speak in Theo's clipped, deep, received pronunciation, or Rosie's well-to-do London twang, or in any regional accent I could place. He didn't sound foreign, exactly, but nor was I any longer sure he sounded English. I thought of the line in My Fair Lady, about Eliza's accent being too perfect and practised for a native.

He put down his pencil and turned to face me. “Well, alright.” There was a gentle note of challenge in his voice now. “Since we're making assumptions, why don't you have a guess? What can you deduce about me from my voice and my manner and the clothes I wear?”

The blush in my cheeks warmed and deepened. I knew very little about him so I didn't have much to go on – which, of course, was exactly his point. Still, there was nothing hostile in his face or voice. I doubted he'd take offence, whatever I said; he seemed more intrigued by what I thought than anything.

I started with his clothes. I'd only ever seen him wearing simple designs in dark fabrics, but even so, the sharp cut and tight, neat stitches of his outfit gave it away as expensive – and I knew he had a taste for Saint Laurent shirting. “I don't think money's an issue for you, but you don't like to shout about it. You can't have made a fortune in the performing arts or I'd know who you are, and last time I looked the military doesn't pay that well either, so I'm going with inherited wealth. Not British, though, you've already given that away.” I moved on to the most obvious feature about him, the thing you'd notice first if you saw him in the street. “Your hair's long, which is unusual for a guy – you must have a pretty secure sense of who you are, or else it's sentimental. Maybe a throwover from your glam rock days.” I remembered the shirt and leggings again. “And I know you keep old clothes, so that's another mark for sentimental or nostalgic.” But there had been nothing in the flat, I recalled – no photographs or trinkets or mementos, and he'd told me himself he moved around a lot. “I don't think you came to St Andrews that long ago, and I don't think you spend a lot of time in your house. Having said that, I barely ever see you out around town either. I think...” I hesitated; I really was guessing now, piecing together the cryptic remarks and the strange, aching sadness that occasionally crept across his features. “Something happened to you – maybe in the war, or maybe it was something to do with the cousin you mentioned – but something awful, that you don't want to be reminded of.” His smile had faded now, and his left eyebrow was raised in an elegant arch. I paused, trying to read him as I'd read so many witnesses and defendants in the court room, but he gave nothing away. I pressed on. “I think you keep people at a distance on purpose.” I didn't mention I'd drawn this from his complete lack of a digital footprint; I didn't want him to know we'd been combing Facebook and Twitter for more details about him. “But you still volunteered to help with the show, and you've spent every evening since then with us and seemed to enjoy it, and you were so kind in Taste when I got the call about Harrison's accident...you don't hate people. I think you try to keep to yourself, but every so often you can't help reaching out because you're lonely.”

He turned back to the music stand.

I felt like an idiot. I hadn't needed to add the last part. My ears felt hotter than the radiator gurgling away in the corner of the practice room. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say all that. I shouldn't have -”

“Listen to this. Tell me what you think.”

He didn't look at me, but he didn't sound cold or angry either. I shut my mouth and folded my hands in my lap like a schoolgirl, and listened.

His left hand sketched a pattern of offbeat, major-key chords, and a warm, yearning melody opened up in the right hand. I closed my eyes, letting the music paint its pictures in my mind. The lower part flickered and jumped like a new-kindled fire, and there was laughter in the melody, but sorrow too, like the darkened joy of a late summer evening, when the nights were still long but autumn is drawing near, and with it the bite of frost and the damp, bitter taint of rotting leaves.

But the melody soared up through the octaves, leaving the sweet sadness behind, and now I saw smiling faces, bathed in the dancing glow of firelight. They were all male, all beautiful, and long-haired like Mark – one red-haired, several dark, one silver and one golden. One of the dark-haired ones lay cradled in the arms of the redhead, who was stroking his brow, and the firelight glinted against the golden thread braided through his hair. My heart skittered with a brief, nagging sense that I knew them – not in person, perhaps, but as one might recognise a historical figure from a portrait, or a description of a distinctive feature. Then again, to a greater or lesser degree, they all had a look of Mark – one of the dark-haired ones could easily be his twin – so perhaps that was what I was seeing. I relaxed back into the music. The faces receded as though I was watching through a camera that was panning away, upwards, past marble-white trees that seemed as tall as mountains. Their leaves and branches were silhouetted against a night sky unlike any I'd ever seen – indigo swirled with pinkish blue and silver, like satin reflecting moonlight.

The melody faded into whispered, repeated chords, then died away.

I opened my eyes. Mark was staring at the manuscript as though the notes were the text of a riddle he must solve. “What did you think?” he asked.

“Beautiful,” I replied simply. “I felt...warm, somehow. But sad.” I almost asked him about the group around the fire, but stopped myself just in time. Of course they'd existed only in my music-fuelled daydream. Instead I asked, “What was it about?”

“A world that vanished long ago.”

There it was again, that strange light in his eyes, the dark, haunted quality in his voice. I waited a few moments, but he seemed to be staring at something I couldn't see.

Eventually, softly, I called his name. “Mark?”

For another heartbeat he stared – then with a soft sigh he pulled the music from the stand. “Forgive me.”

“Don't apologise.” I admired how deeply he seemed to sink into the music, as though it was more real to him than the physical world around him. Perhaps that was how it felt to him, I thought. “Would you play something else for me?”

He smiled, and the shadows lifted from his face. “What would you like?”

“Oh, anything. Not Pirates,” I added quickly. “I think we've all had about enough of that – but something happy.”

“Hmm.” He thought for a moment, then his smile took on a mischievous quality not unlike Harrison's “I've had a ridiculous idea that'll really wind you up” grin, and proceeded to play a jaunty, syncopated arrangement of 'Jingle Bells.'

“Stop it,” I laughed. “It's too early for that!”

He gave a flourish and stopped playing. “It's the first day of Advent on Sunday. I'm not too far our of season.”

“Maybe not, but it'll soon be on in every shop from Bonkers to New Look. We'll be as sick of it as we are of Pirates.”

“True. Alright, then – what about this?”

Lightly, carefully, the fingers of his left hand picked out the tune to a simple child's carol. I'd sung it in Primary School, or I thought I had – snatches of lyrics came back to me, ragged-edged like a half-lost dream. Something about starry nights and bright hills. With his right hand he added a counter-melody, a frosted, shimmering whisper above the solemn hope of the main theme. I watched him this time, resisting the gentle tug under my ribs that invited me to close my eyes and drift into the dream-currents curling at the edges of my mind. When he played, everything else – the threadbare carpet, the strip lights, even the plastic chair I sat on – faded out of reality. There was only him and the music, beautiful, magnetic, an arm's length away and yet somehow far beyond reach.

Another fragment of the carol drifted to the surface of my memory.

And all the angels sang for him...

For one flickering ghost of a moment I wondered how an angel's song would compare to what this man could do, and then I gave in, closing my eyes and letting the music pull me away.
Pour, O Pour the Pirate Sherry by Narya
Venue One still smelled of sweat and Red Bull from the Bop the night before, but the stage crew had worked all through Saturday to transform it back into a Cornish seaside cove. The rows of plastic chairs were back in position, the lighting rig had been double and triple checked, and Ariana's sore throat had cleared up after a few days of rest. Pre-show, our biggest problem was a broken police truncheon.

“I haven't got any spares!” Rosie wailed. “Xander's going to kill me!”

“It's not your fault,” Theo pointed out.

“When has that ever made a difference?”

The plastic had split right at the base, and the offending prop now flopped uselessly in her hand when she brandished it. Immature giggles bubbled inside me, but I swallowed them firmly – Rosie didn't look like she'd see the joke.

“Pass it here,” I requested.

Rosie sniffed and handed the truncheon over. I placed my thumb over the base and pinched hard, then held it aloft. “There, look.”

“But Aaron can't walk around with it like that all night,” she objected.

“No, I know. Hang on.” I rearranged my face into the goofy, servile expression worn by the policemen, and stomped around imitating their loose, elastic gait – then, as I waved the truncheon at Theo, pretending to chastise him, I loosed my grip. Theo and Rosie exploded into hysterics as the truncheon wilted, and I gaped at it in mock horror.

“Brilliant,” said Theo when the laughter had eased off. “Rosie, go give that back to Aaron and show him what to do with it; tell him Claire's saved the day.”

I shrugged. “I'm a lawyer; if something doesn't go to plan, it's not a disaster; it's an opportunity.”

“A first rate opportunity?”

I turned and grinned at the sound of Mark's musical tones. “Depends on what's gone wrong.”

He returned my smile, and nodded at Theo and Rosie. Other cast members called and waved across the green room as they spotted him; the nerves and animosity of last Saturday were nowhere to be seen. Xander, though, was heading in our direction, still scowling and carrying his pencil and notebook.

“Uh oh.” I got to my feet. “Right, team, look useful – I'd better go and get changed.”

“Me too,” said Theo, picking up his bag of pirate rags. “Mark?”

“I won't be a moment. I have something to ask Rosie.”

“I'm not sure I like the sound of that,” muttered Theo, throwing a jealous glance backwards as we headed for the toilets.

“Don't be daft. It'll be something to do with the costume.”

“Then what does she look so happy about?”

I glanced back too; Rosie was grinning and nodding enthusiastically. “Who knows? Trust me, Theo, he's not into her.”

“How do you know?”

I paused. In truth I didn't know how I was sure, but the more time I spent with Mark, the more certain I was that he wasn't interested in me, in Rosie, in Harrison, in anyone in the cast or even in the town. “Call it instinct. Look, why don't you just ask her out?”

He held open the heavy doors out into the back corridor. “What, tell her everything?”

“No, you wally! Just...go for coffee with her. On your own. Or out for dinner or something.”

“Isn't that a bit obvious?”

“You'll have to give her a clue at some point, if you ever want it to go anywhere.”

He frowned. “Do you think she even likes me like that?”

“I think it's more likely than Mark being into her. Anyway, even if she doesn't now, she might after you've spent some time together by yourselves.”

“Is that experience talking?” he asked with a cheeky grin.

I elbowed him gently in the ribs. “Don't make me feel old. And unless you're planning to follow me into the ladies' loos, you need to go that way.”

***

As we assembled in the wings, cool nerves prickled in the lining of my belly and crept down my arms. There was still time for a cigarette; I reached into my apron pocket, then hissed as I remembered I'd thrown them all out. Instead I took a shaky breath, pulling downwards with my stomach, noting the sticky floor of the stage beneath my feet, the musty smell of cheap costume fabric and sweating bodies, the soft chatter of the assembling audience. It would be fine. It wasn't court. I'd done this before.

Just not for a while.

One of the daughters clopped past in primly-laced, mid-heeled boots, and suddenly I no longer saw the stage flats and the excited cast milling about; I was in the wood panelled chamber outside the courtroom, waiting to go in, listening to the sharp rustle of robes and the smart mick-mock of sensible shoes on the polished floor. Cold sickness crept through my body, paralysing, like the deep aching lethargy of a hangover laced with the lethal ice of adrenaline. It felt like being poisoned. Breath wouldn't come and I wanted to throw up but I couldn't because there was nothing there, I could never eat on court days, my throat would dry up and refuse to swallow...

“Claire?”

I hadn't realised I'd closed my eyes. Mark stood next to me. The other pirates were stretching and passing weapons around; Theo and Rob were whispering about something in a corner. “Sorry. Miles away.”

Mark tilted his head back towards the green room. “May I have your opinion on something?”

“Er – yeah. Sure.”

As I followed him out of the wings my legs felt cold and clumsy, wobbling like chilled custard. I took another deep breath through my nose – quietly, so Mark wouldn't hear – then let the warm air slip out gently over my lips and teeth.. Get a grip, woman.

It was deserted backstage. The crew were all in position, and Rosie had taken up her customary post in the wings.

“Do not laugh,” Mark warned me,” and unlaced his shirt.

My momentary bafflement cleared when he held the silky garment apart, and despite his command not to, I couldn't help giggling. “Oh my. Please tell me that's not real.”

From his clavicle down to his abdomen snaked the curling tentacles of a giant kraken, inked in garish shades of turquoise and maroon. Only slightly less startling, even in the half-light of the energy-saving lamps backstage, were the sharp-ridged outlines of his muscles. Hastily I braked that train of thought.

Mark raised an eyebrow and looked offended. “Of course it's real!”

I folded my arms.

His wide-eyed, injured expression gave way to a wicked smile. “Alright, no, it's not. It's a transfer, but I didn't want to put it on until I'd spoken to Rosie. She was helping me with it just now.”

I remembered her grinning delight. No wonder she'd looked pleased.

“Don't worry, I won't give her any ideas.”

I looked at him sharply. He knew, then. Of course, she hadn't exactly been subtle about it – but it didn't seem to bother him. I supposed he was used to the attention. “Where on earth did you get it?”

“The card shop on Market Street – they had a bin full of Hallowe'en costumes and accessories on final clearance at the back, I suppose they're trying to make space for the Christmas things. I thought I'd go and see if they had anything piratical, and I found this.” He fastened his shirt back up over the top of it.

“But nobody's going to see it.” I hated to point out the obvious, but nowhere in WS Gilbert's script was the Pirate King required to remove his shirt.

Unfortunately.

Mark gave an enigmatic smile. “Oh, Theo and I have a plan.”

“Why don't I find that reassuring?”

Theo was waiting near the edge of the stage when we got back, leaning against a painted flat and whispering his lines to himself one last time. Rob, dapper as ever, was adjusting his waistcoat. I couldn't see the audience, but I knew Venue One was almost sold out; people were finishing essays and beginning the luxurious wind down to Christmas. A silly show about singing pirates was the perfect thing to kick off the festivities – although I felt a needling of guilt at the thought of my backlog of tutorial work.

Tomorrow's problem. Just enjoy this.

The shadows shifted and softened, and an expectant hush fell over the audience. There was a smattering of applause for the orchestra, and then the violins launched into the overture, and we were off.

There was something different about a real performance. The light felt sharper, the air thicker and heavier, tasting of makeup and hairspray and rosin. Even the pirates bumbling about on stage took on a strange, enhanced quality, hyper-real, as though we were watching them on high definition film.

“All OK?” Theo whispered in my ear.

I nodded – and meant it. Mark's ridiculous tattoo and the familiar rush of opening night had eased my nerves back to manageable levels.

“Good stuff. Mark?”

“Ready when you are.”

Theo grinned, passed him a rapier, and raised his own in salute. “'Truce to navigation!'”

“'Take another station,'” Mark returned.

“Save it,” I laughed as Theo opened his mouth to respond with the next line. The pirates returned from their onstage chores and assembled back in the wings.

Mark gave me a lazy wink. “Practice never hurts.”

“Neither of you need it. You'll be brilliant.”

The overture was done; there was a breath of silence, then the drumroll began, the lights flared white and crisp, and the pirates exploded onto the stage in a boisterous, capering riot.

“Huzzah!”

“En garde!”

Theo, Mark and I shared one last smile, and then they were on, jabbing and feinting and ducking, joyous grins splitting their faces. The pirates, expecting Mark's tricks and showboating now, gasped and cheered in appropriate places – as did the audience, I was relieved but unsurprised to hear. By the time I went on, Venue One was fizzing with energy and goodwill. I needn't have worried about the audience not responding to my song; even between the verses they chuckled and clapped, and at one point they let out a soft “aah” of sympathy at the Pirate King's wounded expression when I confessed Frederic had been bound as his apprentice in error. I gave Mark a glare that was only half in character.

Stop stealing my scene!

He widened his eyes into an expression that said, “Who? Me?” better than any puppy-face Harrison or Theo had ever given me.

The show wound its way through the ridiculous sequence of events that passed for its plot, and the pantomime incompetence of the policemen threatened to halt the entire production as the audience shrieked and wept with laughter. The response to Aaron's wilting truncheon, I was gratified to note, was particularly loud.

“Nice touch,” Theo whispered, waiting for his next entrance.

“Thanks. You guys all set?”

Theo glanced at Mark and nodded, and almost before the policemen had finished their doleful chorus, the pirates launched into the bouncing a cappella that preceded their entrance.

A rollicking band of pirates we,
Who, tired of tossing on the sea...


I covered my mouth to muffle the snort that escaped as the policemen scattered in horror, bumping into one another in their panic and in some cases leaping into each others' arms. A lively call-and-response ensued, and as the policemen scrambled off the stage to hide near the orchestra, the pirates stomped on, bellowing cheerfully about how very quiet and stealthy they were being.

'With Cat-like Tread' was always going to be the number that brought the house down. The infectious melody, ludicrous lyrics and buoyant swashbuckling of the pirates never failed to lift an audience, even in mediocre productions – which ours, I noted smugly, was definitely not. Even so, this was something special. Invisible threads of energy seemed to bind the pirates together, every single one of them radiating confidence, their characters flowing beyond their skins and costumes and inhabiting the stage utterly. Their movements were sharp yet fluid, their leaps and turns executed so perfectly it appeared effortless – and Mark led them through it all, alternately chivvying his crew along and encouraging the audience, acknowledging them, gauging their involvement, lifting them with a wink or a grin when he judged they needed it.

At the end of the song, cheers and whistles flew gleefully over the applause. The pirates bowed elaborately in all directions, but the noise did not abate; the audience wanted more. We'd planned for this. Mark and Theo gathered the pirates back to the centre of the stage as the orchestra played a slightly slower introduction to the chorus, and they belted out one more iteration of the main theme, gamely high-kicking in time to the music like a troupe of can-can dancers. I thought of Rosie's whimpers of anxiety when Theo and Mark had practised this in the living room, and smiled.

Even this, though didn't seem to satisfy the audience; if anything, the cheers were louder and longer this time. I caught Rosie's eye. It seemed a shame to cut the performance short when they were so geared up, but we didn't have a second encore prepared – although Theo and Mark seemed to have ideas of their own. They strutted up and down the front of the stage, each of them holding a solitary finger in the air, mouthing, “One more?” at the audience, and beaming.

What are you up to? I wondered, amused.

Mark flashed me a momentary grin.

Eventually the orchestra got the message and struck up the main theme again. The pirates formed two lines from the back to the front of the stage, each row facing the other. Mark stood at the far end – then as they launched into the lyrics, there were gasps and shrieks from the audience as he backflipped down the aisle the pirates had created for him.

Jesus. Even I hadn't expected that, and I was ready for almost anything at this point. Xander would hit the ceiling afterwards – as, no doubt, would the Union health and safety team.

But the audience still screamed and stamped their feet, and then someone at the back started chanting like they were at a gig.

“We want more! We want more!”

It spread rapidly, rising in volume and deepening in timbre. Mark, behaving for all the world like a rock and roll front man performing for a stadium crowd, cupped his ear and feigned bemusement. He glanced back at Theo, shrugged, shook his head and began to walk away – and the shouts and cheers soared in pitch. He paused, turned, and once more held a questioning finger in the air.

“One more?” he mouthed.

The response was deafening. I felt a warm glow in my stomach like I'd been drinking red wine.

My God, does that man know how to work a crowd.

Mark gave a devilish wink and nodded to the orchestra.

As the familiar chords rang out once more, all the pirates formed a semi-circle near the front of the stage – except for Rob, who trotted about looking politely baffled by the whole thing. On the ascending sequence of notes that was their cue, the pirates ripped off their shirts and jumped up and down in time with the music, swinging their tops around their heads like football fans at a cup final. The stage lights were as hot as a green house, and it was an energetic number anyway; all of them were sheened with sweat, but they flung themselves into the chorus like it was the first time that night they had sung it, not the fifth. The whistles and cheers reached manic levels – and it wasn't hard to see why. Most of the pirates were in reasonable shape, and Mark, hideous fake tattoo notwithstanding, could have walked into a modelling career.

I caught Rosie's eye, and we smiled at each other before bursting into giggles.

At the end, as the pirates roared one final time about stealing upon their prey and feeling their way with cautious dread, they let go of their shirts, and Rob gave a squeak of alarm as the garments flew here, there and everywhere across the stage. He scuttled around picking them up as the rest of the pirates basked in the adulation of the audience – who still wanted more, if the volume was anything to go by.

Enough now, I thought, even though my grin was fixed on my face, so wide that the bases of my ears were aching. It was one thing to give an audience plenty of what they wanted, but not at the expense of the rest of the show. Anyway, they couldn't possibly top that last encore.

Mark stepped forward, palm raised, demanding silence.

“Ladies and gentlemen – your indulgence, please.” He smiled as the racket subsided. “We haven't finished yet,” he explained.

It got a laugh. Everyone, of course, knew the show wasn't finished – and I knew he'd stolen the line from an Australian production from the 1990s, but I doubted many others would realise.

It didn't matter; it had the desired effect. The audience settled back into their seats, and it was the pirates' turn to feign panic as the Major-General approached. They scurried back into the wings, some of them trying to wriggle into their shirts as they went.

“Well?” asked Mark.

“Mad – but brilliant,” I whispered. “Now get dressed, you're back on at any moment!”

The plot's silly tangles were gradually unravelled, culminating in the Major-General's daughters all pairing off with the policemen and pirates – who were revealed not to be pirates after all, but “noblemen who had gone wrong.” We took our bows to a medley of 'Here's a First Rate Opportunity,' 'Paradox,' and 'When the Foeman Bears his Steel,' with particularly loud cheers for Mark, Ariana and Theo, then we sang one final farewell chorus of 'With Cat-like Tread' – high-kicking this time, rather than backflipping or removing clothing.

The audience were still on their feet clapping as the curtain fell. In a last-minute moment of inspiration, Aaron stuck his hand out between the two pieces of cloth and gave the audience a wave. There was one more chuckle, and then the applause died off. The sound of shuffling and chattering drifted through the curtain from the auditorium onto the stage.

“We did it!”

“Go team!”

“Bloody brilliant, Mark...”

“Ariana, that was gorgeous!”

Theo was nearest to me; with an excited squeal I turned and flung my arms around his neck. “Well done, you were amazing!”

“Thanks.” He hugged me back hard, lifting me off my feet, and I shrieked again. “You were great too – a scheming pirate wench from head to toe. And you!” He put me down as Mark approached us both. “Bloody backflips! That's not what we practised,” he added to me.

“I don't doubt it.”

Mark gave a nonchalant shrug. “One should always keep something back for opening night.”

“Opening and closing, in this case,” I said sadly. We'd only been able to book Venue One for one night, with all the Christmas events kicking off.

“All the more reason to get out and celebrate.” Theo looked around at the crowd of performers and crew members. “Where's Rosie?”

“She'll be collecting costumes and props back in. Anyway, we need to get changed first, and I've got to get this makeup off, I look about a hundred and twelve...”

Eventually we reconvened in the auditorium, where Harrison was waiting for us.

“Fantastic, guys.” He hugged Rosie and I, slapped Theo on the back, then turned to Mark and stuck out his hand. “Dude – thank you. You were incredible.”

Mark shook his hand, smiling. “You're very welcome. I look forwards to seeing what you can do next semester.”

“Come on.” Theo herded us out of Venue One. “Let's get next door and start the party!”

I heard a braying of post-pubescent male voices from the Union bar, followed by a chant of “Chug! Chug! Chug!” For a moment I felt like I was back in London on a Friday night, surrounded by Big Law graduates, running on alcohol, adrenaline and three hours of sleep.

I glanced at Mark, whose expression told me he had no intention of going near what sounded like the First Fifteen's pub crawl. I saw his eyes flicker between Theo and Rosie, unwilling to disappoint, and rescued him. “All that noise makes me feel ancient. I'm going for a whisky in the Pat – and maybe nachos.” I chucked that out as a lure to the younger three. The piles of melted cheddar, tangy salsa and soggy tortilla chips were like a siren call to Harrison and Theo, and Rosie would follow their lead.

“Sold,” said Harrison immediately.

“Me too.” Mark looked deeply relieved.

Theo made a noise of indecision. “I told Byrdie and Seb I'd meet them for one...”

That explained it. His Harrovian schoolmates were both on the rugby team, currently necking pints of Tennent's across the hall. “Please yourself. Rosie?”

“Oh, Whey Pat, definitely. They have Jenga!”

I smiled ruefully. I had a feeling her enthusiasm was not for the pub's collection of games.

Theo knew it too, his eyes travelling jealously between Rosie and Mark.

“See you later, then, bud.” Harrison set off, limping awkwardly across the hall. Rosie followed with a wave and a blown kiss to Theo.

“Yeah. See you.” Theo gave me a smile that didn't reach his eyes. “Keep an eye on them.”

“Always.” On impulse, I gave him another quick hug. “And you behave!”

He gave me one of his signature cheeky salutes, then crossed the hall and disappeared into the throng around the bar. Another braying cheer rolled out of the doorway; evidently he had found his rugby friends.

Mark watched him go, silver eyes thoughtful. “It must be hard for him.”

“Sorry?”

He looked back at me, one eyebrow raised. “He likes Rosie, doesn't he? That must be difficult, living under the same roof when she's oblivious.” A crease appeared in his forehead. “She is oblivious, isn't she?”

“Oh, completely.” I glanced into the bar, but could no longer see Theo's messy mop of hair. “I'm impressed you picked all that up.”

He shrugged his right shoulder, smiling a smile that was half mischief, half sadness. “It's hard not to. They're somewhat obvious.”

“They're young.”

You're young.”

“Older than them.” I narrowed my eyes. “And not much younger than you, I don't think, unless you've discovered some miracle anti-ageing formula as yet unknown to mainstream science.”

For a brief moment something like shock flitted across his face, as though I'd guessed too close to the truth – but how could I have, when the idea was so ludicrous? – and then all sadness and surprise were gone and his expression was carefully neutral, though still friendly. “Shall we? Otherwise Rosie and Harrison will drink the pub out of whisky.”

“Unlikely; Rosie hates the stuff. Anyway, have you been to the Whey Pat? Trust me, they're not going to run out...”

A short walk later, we escaped from the freezing November air into the thick stuffy warmth of the bar. I could smell the melting cheese from the kitchen in the back, and the yeasty, slightly sweet scent of real ale. It was busy but Rosie and Harrison had managed to claim our favourite table, in the corner near the dart board, and were setting up a game of Jenga. In the back room the folk band played a giddy, swirling version of 'Irish Rover.'

“What can I get you?” Mark asked.

I scanned the stacked shelves to the back and left of the bar, then shrugged and smiled. “Surprise me.”

He tilted his head. “Do you trust me?”

“To choose a whisky? Yes, I think so.” I held my arm out. “Here – I'll take your bag, then you're not juggling...”

“What took you so long?” Harrison gave me a knowing smile as I approached. Mark, perusing the whisky selection, didn't notice.

“Will you please stop it?” I hissed as I slid into my seat.

Rosie carefully slid a brick off the bottom layer and placed it on the top of the tower, a familiar sparkle in her eyes. “I'll have him if you don't want him.”

I tipped my head skywards. “I give up. I'm amazed we haven't scared the poor guy away.”

“Ssh!” Harrison jerked his head towards the bar, where Mark was now settling up.

I gave him what I hoped was a natural smile as he joined us.

“Here you are.” He slid one of the tulip-shaped glasses across the table towards me.

“Thanks. What do I owe you?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh, no!” I protested. “I should be buying yours, really; we've been drinking your wine and whisky all week, not to mention that you rescued our show.”

Harrison glanced up at that and gave me a guilty smile, before returning to the Jenga tower.

Mark shook his head, smiling. “You got me out of the library, away from the periodicals, and doing something I love. A drink is the least I can do.”

“Don't you love your subject?” I asked, nosing my whisky. It smelled like burnt chocolate.

“It passes the time.”

I raised my eyebrows. Postgraduate degrees were a bloody expensive way to pass the time – although I'd already surmised money wasn't much of an issue for him.

He winced, as though reading my thoughts. “I know, I'm lucky to be able to do it. Only...” He paused, eyes clouding for a moment, then he sighed. “Never mind. It's hard to explain.”

“Try me.”

He didn't respond at first, staring into his whisky glass – but when he lifted his head and met my gaze, I had to suppress a shiver. It was like he was looking at me for the first time, his silver eyes cataloguing and assessing everything about me, gentle yet intense and deliberate. My forearms prickled and my cheeks heated. I wasn't afraid, exactly, but somehow it felt as though he'd caught me naked – then he glanced at Rosie and Harrison and looked away. If he'd been considering explaining more, he changed his mind at that point; when he turned back to face me the piercing, unearthly look had gone, replaced by the neutral smile. “Do you like the whisky?”

I knew that was it for now. I sipped the deep gold liquid in my glass and let its warmth spread over my tongue and across the back of my throat. It was sweet and nutty, and softer than it smelled. “Gorgeous. What is it?”

The guarded mask slipped a little as his smile took on a teasing slant. “Guess.”

“No!” I laughed. “I don't know enough, I wouldn't know where to start – other than it definitely isn't an Islay.”

“Try.”

I leaned back. “You like your guessing games, don't you?”

He shrugged, his features once more impassive.

“Fine.” I sipped again. Walnut, butterscotch, cocoa. “Arran?”

He smiled and raised his glass to me. “Eighteen years old.”

I dreaded to think what it had cost. “Great choice. Thank you.” I tipped the glass in a circle so the liquid coated the sides and clung on in flowing stalks. “You obviously know your stuff.”

“I obviously have too much time on my hands.”

“That's not what I meant at all.” The bitter, anxious tones of Alfred Prufrock tickled in my brain, and once again I pushed aside the guilt I felt about my coursework. I remembered his wistful comment about doing what he loved. “You should come to Quaich Soc – the whisky tasting society.”

At that moment Harrison and Rosie's Jenga tower collapsed across the table, to much shrieking and laughter. Harrison looked up with a grin. “You should,” he agreed.

“I'll think about it.”

“Five quid for five drams, you can't argue with that.” Scooping up the bricks, he looked up at his gaming companion. “Rosie?”

“What, whisky?” She started to shake her head, then looked at Mark and gave an elegant shrug. “Maybe.”

Don't encourage her. I tried to give him a subtle glare, and passed him a Jenga brick that had escaped into my lap. Carved into the top of it by some bored punter were the words “IRN BRU.”

“Or you could always tread the boards again,” I said to Mark. Rosie and Harrison were boxing Jenga away, evidently planning to switch their mode of entertainment. “Xander wants to do Les Mis next term.”

He looked interested at that. “I've always wanted to play Valjean.” He met Harrison's eyes, smiling. “Although I'm sure I'll have a fight on my hands, once you're fit again.”

This time Harrison's answering smile was a little cool. “I wouldn't let you have it easily, that's for sure.”

“You could both be in it.” I eyed Mark speculatively, thinking of his magnetic performance as the Pirate King. “You'd be perfect as Enjolras.”

His smile flickered. “Aren't I a little old?”

“I don't think so...anyway, under the lights, who'd notice?” He still seemed hesitant, rolling his whisky around in the glass and avoiding my eyes. “Come on, you'd be brilliant – waving that flag at the top of the barricade, stirring Paris into revolution...”

“I don't think so.” He drained his glass and pushed his stool back, scarred hand tensed in a fist at his side. The melted flesh was streaked red and white. “Please excuse me; I should go.”

“What did I -?”

“Nothing.” But it was too quick, too sharp. “I'm behind with my work. I hadn't realised the time.”

I passed him his bag, blood heating my cheeks, though I had no idea what I'd done or said. “Well, maybe we'll see you at Quaich Soc next week?”

“I'll let you know.” He nodded to Harrison and Rosie. “Harrison – get well soon. And give my regards to Theo.”

After he'd left, Harrison, Rosie and I looked at each other. In the back room, the folk band's violinist played an unaccompanied, soulful rendition of 'Leezie Lindsay.'

“Tell me I didn't say anything offensive,” I pleaded eventually.

They both shook their heads.

“Maybe he just really wants to play Valjean.” Harrison shrugged. “Fine with me. Enjolras leads the best song in the show.”

“I doubt it's only that.” Rosie stacked the final Jenga bricks in the box. “But he definitely didn't want to play Enjolras.”

***

We debated staying for nachos, but it felt like the gloss had gone from the evening after Mark's sudden departure. Rosie decided to meet some Physics friends at Ma Bell's, but Harrison and I headed for home.

“Cheer up.”

I looked at him, wrapping my arms across my stomach to protect from the vicious wind. “Hmm?”

“You've been in a glump since Mark left.”

In spite of myself I laughed. “A glump?”

“A rare and peculiar hybrid of gloom and grump, often caused by an excess of alcohol.”

His speech was deliberately slow and enunciated. “What on earth were you drinking?”

“Amrut cask strength,” he admitted.

I rolled my eyes. “I still can't believe you're old enough to drink.”

“Well, I am, and have been for quite a while.”

“A year and a half. That isn't 'quite a while'.” Somewhere up ahead I could hear a loud, tuneless rendition of 'With Cat-like Tread.' Clearly someone had enjoyed the show. “You hungry?”

He smiled. “Always.”

Twenty minutes later we were back in our front room with Simon and Garfunkel on the stereo, sharing a large, cheap, takeaway pizza smothered in garlic butter, chilli oil and spicy processed beef.

“I know it's not good for you,” Harrison said with his mouth full, “but it's so bloody delicious.”

“I don't know how you and Theo manage it. I'm going to be the size of a house by the end of my course.”

“You could join a sports team. Or go running – that's how we keep it off. Well, OK, not so much at the moment,” he added at my raised eyebrows. “Or there's the stables. You used to love riding.”

I hadn't been in the saddle for years. “Maybe.” I looped a strand of cheese over the end of my pizza slice. “I wish I knew what I'd said.”

To his credit, Harrison followed my train of thought effortlessly. “I don't think you should beat yourself up. It was something to do with that whole Enjolras versus Valjean debate, but I don't really think it was about him wanting the main part.”

“No, neither do I.” I didn't know Mark well, but such pettiness didn't seem to fit his character.

Harrison sucked thoughtfully on a pizza crust. “Don't you think there's something a bit...off about him? I like him, don't get me wrong!” he added swiftly as I opened my mouth. “Or I think I like him – no, don't snap!” He held up his hands as though fending off the verbal attack he'd pre-empted. “Jesus. Let me get this out; I'm not even sure I've got it straight in my own head. I hadn't thought about it until tonight.”

“Sorry.” I leaned back into my chair and tucked my knees up under my chin. “Go on.”

“This isn't about him taking my part in the show; I know that was my own fault, and it was pretty amazing of him to step into the breach like that. And you're right, he does seem nice, but don't you think it's all very...I don't know what the right word is...practised? Polished? A bit like the sugar coating on a Smartie. Along comes this guy who's super good looking and super charming and super talented, and everyone's crazy about him – but if I stop and think, I have no idea what sits behind all that. We know nothing about him at all.”

“We've only known him for a week and a bit!”

Harrison shook his head. “It doesn't matter. People let things slip. You know that, you're trained to watch out for it, right? Little things; it just happens naturally in conversation. “Oh, that place? My Grandma lives there.” “Oh, that film? I like that too!” “Oh, spiders? I've been terrified of them since my brother locked me in my uncle's cellar when I was four.” You see? People do it without thinking – unless they've got something to hide.”

I sipped the beer I was clutching. It was cold, bitter, metallic. “So you think Mark's hiding something?”

“Well, he's nowhere on the internet.”

“Not you too!”

“Come on, Claire, no Facebook is one thing, but this guy's like a ghost! It's 2011, for crying out loud. Everyone has a digital footprint.” He took a sip of beer. “You've noticed stuff too, haven't you?”

“What makes you say that?”

“I had half an ear on your conversation earlier.” At least he had the good grace to look apologetic. “Look, I'm not saying he's an escaped axe murderer. In fact, I don't really know what I am saying – except that I think there's more there than we're seeing at the moment, so whatever got to him in the pub, it's not your fault.”

I thought about the scraps I knew from the stray remarks he'd made – his lack of a family, his inability to settle, his vague explanation for his injury. “He's ex-military. That might explain why he seems guarded; he probably doesn't want to talk about the past. He might not even be allowed to,” I added, wondering for the first time exactly what the nature of his service had been. He didn't seem like a typical foot soldier.

Harrison nodded slowly. “Is that how he got that hand?”

“Yeah.”

“Where was he? Iraq?”

“I don't know. Does it matter?”

“Well, it might explain why he didn't want to play Enjolras.”

I tilted my head. “What do you mean?”

“That barricade scene is brutal – gunshots, smoke, blood...”

Oh.” Suddenly I felt stupid for not seeing it. My stomach twisted.

“Pirate swordfights are one thing. But if he's seen active service, I can't imagine he'd be in a hurry to re-enact the Paris Uprising.”

“No, you're right.” I took another swallow of beer. “Damn, I should have thought...”

“Why would you? Especially if he doesn't talk about it.” He put down his beer and leaned forward. “Go and see him tomorrow, if it worries you that much. You know where he lives, don't you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then.”

I stretched my legs out, smiling reluctantly. “So you're giving me advice now. Wow. My sort-of big sister role will soon be redundant.”

“Never.” The familiar mischievous glint returned to his eye. “Anyway, screw all that. We've got an important decision to make.”

“What's that, then?”

“Who gets to eat the last slice of pizza?”

We stayed up late drinking cheap lager and playing Buckaroo, and I tried to forget about Mark. Rosie texted just before one to say she was crashing at a friend's place out on the Scores, and at half two there was a scrabbling at the door as someone tried and failed to lift the latch.

“Theo,” I groaned, at the same time as Harrison said, “Bloody hell, he sounds like the velociraptor from Jurassic Park...”

What?

“You know, when it's trying to open the door to get at the kids...”

I got up to let him in, my annoyance tempered by the fact that he'd actually come home – that suggested he was probably just drunk, as opposed to anything worse – but whether by luck or judgement he managed to make the door swing open. It squeaked on its hinges, and I smiled tolerantly at the sound of him wrestling with his coat and stumbling around trying to take off his shoes.

“Hey, Theo,” I called.

“Hi.” He was pale-faced and unsteady, but he gave a proud (if wobbly) smile as he announced. “I came back!”

I bit back a giggle. “So I see. Sit down; I'll get you some water.” I cast my eyes over him quickly as I passed him to get to the kitchen, but there were no signs that he'd ingested anything harder than alcohol. I exhaled softly.

When I returned to the living room he had leaned over the back of Harrison's chair and engulfed him in a bear hug. “You're a beautiful, beautiful man, Harrison...”

“Put me down,” Harrison grinned, pushing ineffectually at the arms wrapped around his shoulders.

“OK, OK.” Theo straightened up again, and swayed a little. “Ugh...”

“Theo?” I put the glass of water down.

“I've had a few.” His complexion was rapidly draining from pale to grey.

“I can tell. Come on, let's get you to bed.”

“Bed. Yeah.” He took a couple of steps forward, one hand on the edge of the table. “Oh...the cat...”

“Cat?”

“Yeah. The grey one. It's in...it's in the stairwell again.”

And then he slid sideways and vomited neatly into the empty pizza box.
Away, Away by Narya
Despite the late night, I was awake early on Sunday. Automatically I reached for the box of cigarettes I kept on my bedside table, but my hand touched only empty space. I rolled onto my back and groaned. My limbs felt twitchy and restless, like I needed to kick or push against something; my throat tickled as though I was starting a cold, and I longed for the familiar bitter taste of smoke in my mouth.

You don't need one, I told myself. Stop thinking like a junkie.

But I did need to get up and do something. I left the others sleeping and took myself off to West Sands – a change from my usual loop around the harbour.

On The Scores the redbrick towers of Hamilton Hall peered longingly out of mist and shadow, its darkened windows seeming to search for the students that once slept, ate, worked and loved in its depths. There were rumours of it being turned into a luxury hotel for golfers. I hoped they were wrong.

Down the cliff path to my right the seals were splashing about in their play pool outside the aquarium. I smiled a little as one of the pups dived under the water and bobbed up nose to nose with its playmate. A seagull resting on the surface of the pool took wing at the babies' antics, squawking and flapping with fierce indignation, while the pups barked joyfully at this new entertainment. I wondered if their sensitive ears could hear the calls of their wild cousins in the Eden Estuary two miles away.

The tide was out and the rising sun was burning away the last wisps of fog. West Sands stretched before me, almost empty, shining in the pale light. The sea had left soft wavy trails across the beach, like some goddess of the deep had surfaced overnight and dragged languid fingers through the golden grains. A few early risers were out jogging in the surf, and stalks of coarse grass bobbed left and right on the dunes that sloped down to the Old Course. I scanned for golfers, but the manicured green was deserted.

Halfway out to the estuary I turned back to face the town that was slowly becoming my home. The smooth curve of the coastline swept inwards towards the golfing links, presided over by the stern Victorian grandeur of the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse. Gothic Hamilton sat at its shoulder, and the modern glass cube of The Seafood Restaurant nestled against the cliffs at its foot, the morning sun glinting sharply on its polished angles. Further along The Scores the mist had curled back to reveal the medieval spires of the University, the castle's squat square remains, and the jagged outline of the cathedral. The wind lifted and carried back the song of the bells from St. Salvator's Chapel, calling the town to Sunday worship. I felt a pang of regret as I realised my academic gown was back at the flat. I couldn't go to church in jeans, wellingtons and a battered cagoul – and suddenly I did desperately want to go, not because I felt the pull of some higher power, but something called out to me, a need to belong, like a bolt of electricity magnetising a garden nail. I wanted to slip into the oddball, genteel community and stay there forever, safe from a world I couldn't bear the thought of returning to.

Pirates had been a beginning, I thought, trudging back along the beach – a reclamation of an old hobby, a rediscovery of part of myself. I'd even started to hope that, after a term of spending most of my time with my cousin and his friends, I'd managed to make a friend of my own. The edges of my mood cooled. I wondered how accurate Harrison and I had been with our guesses last night, and whether for Mark my comments had touched on some traumatic memories of war.

Heading back into town, I used the small alleyways to cut around the gaggles of students and staff in academic dress. Most wore undergraduate scarlet, but there were a fair few in the blacks and navies and purples of various postgraduate disciplines. I slipped through the library grounds (empty on a Sunday), then across North Street to the familiar wynd of whitewashed cottages.

A stone mouse washing its whiskers sat at the bottom of the steps to Mark's front door. On impulse, I bent and touched its head for luck.

There was no answer when I knocked. Guiltily I wondered if he might still be in bed – but no, the chapel bells were even louder from here. Sunday lie-ins seemed an unlikely prospect on this street. He had to be out.

Or deliberately not answering.

The bells faded and the organ yawned into life, the resonant chords of 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel' curling around the old stone buildings, oddly mournful for a carol of redemption and joy.

The first day of Advent...

A deep ache blossomed under my ribcage at the thought of Mark's smiles in the practice room, the delight he'd seemed to take in that ridiculous arrangement of 'Jingle Bells', his wickedly joyful performance as the Pirate King – and then the taut, cold neutrality of the previous night.

I tried the door one more time, then touched my pocket, but I had nothing to write a note with. Hopeful rather than expectant, I drifted past Taste on my way home, where I'd bumped into him having coffee the week before last. The table we'd sat at, though, was occupied by a pair of chattering first years I vaguely recognised from the School of English, and he was nowhere else to be seen.

Later, I told myself. Another time.

***

But November dwindled into December with no sign of Mark anywhere in St Andrews. I tried his house a couple of times, but the lights were never on and nobody came to the door.

“Maybe he's gone home for Christmas?” Harrison suggested as we sat around the table one lunchtime.

“Bit early,” Theo responded. His mouth was full of his latest bread-based creation – an anchovy and camembert toastie.

I didn't say anything. As far as I knew, Mark hadn't mentioned his family – or lack of one – to the others.

I threw myself into my work, catching up on the backlog from my module on contextualising Modernist literature, and getting a head start on next semester's topic, contemporary literary theory. In between, we began to prepare for Christmas – shopping, planning which events to attend, and decorating the flat. Rosie bought a balding, lopsided fir tree on deep discount from the garden centre; I sent the boys to scour the charity shops for cheap decorations, and spent my evenings making gingerbread, chocolate truffles and berry-infused vodka.

The daylight hours grew shorter. Courses finished. Deadlines passed. I went to a postgraduate cheese and wine evening, telling myself it would be a useful networking event, but secretly hoping that I might bump into Mark. Unsurprisingly, he wasn't there, and I couldn't blame him – the red wine was oddly sweet, as though they'd mixed it with Ribena, and the cheese was processed and soapy and stuck to my teeth.

“Still, I managed to meet the country's foremost scholar on TS Eliot,” I shrugged, recounting the evening to the others over a glass of (much better quality) wine.

“Not a dead loss, then,” Harrison smiled.

“No, not entirely. Although the thing was so hideous overall that I nearly gave in and bought a packet of cigarettes from the garage on my way back.”

That confession gave rise to an irate chorus of “No!” and “Don't!”

“Come on, you've managed two whole weeks.” Harrison squeezed my arm. “The first month is the worst, so you're halfway through the hardest part.”

I groaned. “It's like waking up every morning with an itch I can't scratch. And I keep getting headaches.”

“You're only thinking about it because you're bored, with Pirates finishing,” Rosie said sagely. “You need to distract yourself.”

Rosie's idea of a distraction was learning to knit. She dragged me into the craft shop on Market Street and bought a bright pink Teach Yourself book, along with several balls of wool and half their stock of knitting needles.

“We can learn together,” she beamed. “It'll be fun. We can make scarves and gloves and things and sell them on Etsy.”

Knitting, however, turned out not to be my strong suit, and Rosie wasn't much better.

“Why does it keep going all boggly?” she asked, staring sadly at her knotted mess of a scarf.

The night before we left for Christmas, Theo decided to cook for us all. We'd investigated the possibility of a full turkey dinner, but decided it was too expensive and complicated to chance it in our tiny student kitchen. Instead we settled on spaghetti bolognese – but after a few minutes we heard a panicked yelp from the kitchen.

“Help! Fire!”

What?

I shot out of the living room to find Theo flapping at a pan of spaghetti with a teatowel. The spaghetti strands clearly hadn't been in for long; they stood upright in the pan, and fierce orange flames burned at their tips.

“Oh, Jesus, Theo...”

I rinsed another teatowel under the cold tap and threw it over the pan. Harrison limped through, took one look and started laughing.

“What the hell did you do?” I asked once the flames were out.

“I didn't do anything!” Theo gestured at the stove. “It was the gas; all of a sudden it started sputtering, then the flames shot up the side of the pan and the pasta caught fire.”

“The gas is broken?” That dampened Harrison's laughing fit. He gave the cooker an anxious glance. “Should we...I don't know...unplug it or something?”

“You don't unplug gas. And anyway, it'll be a problem with the appliance, not the supply.” I checked the dials to make sure everything was switched off and we weren't all going to be poisoned in our beds. I couldn't see anything obviously wrong, but I wasn't about to start fiddling about with it and risk another towering inferno. “I'll call the landlord tomorrow from the car. We should get him to fix the latch too, while we're away.”

“What about dinner?” Theo looked forlornly at the charred remnants of spaghetti. “I could go out and get some more pasta.”

I shook my head. “No; if the cooker's not working properly I don't want to use it.”

“Takeaway it is, then,” said Harrison cheerfully. “I'll fetch the menus.”

After an indecent amount of crispy belly pork, sweetcorn fritters and papaya salad, we watched It's A Wonderful Life and drank the rest of the whisky that Mark had left in the flat. Even Rosie was persuaded into having a tiny drop.

“To Mark – wherever he's buggered off to.” Theo raised his glass. “Thank you for the best bottle of single malt I've ever had in my life.”

“To us,” Harrison added, “and a successful first semester as flatmates.”

“I'll drink to that.” I clinked my glass against his. “Although let's go easy on the melodrama next term. No more broken limbs.”

Harrison smiled sheepishly.

“I can't believe when we come back it'll be exam time again.” Rosie looked soulful. “Does it ever end?”

“In two and a half years, when we graduate,” grinned Theo.

“Don't wish it away.” My chest tightened at the thought of how excited I'd been to leave UCL, supposedly free at last, and the rapid, grasping sense of panic that I'd actually got it horribly wrong, that I didn't want the life I'd been taught to aim for since I was twelve years old.

“Speaking of away.” Harrison sipped his whisky. “Claire, what time do we need to leave in the morning?”

“Eight. Definitely not much after.”

He looked at his watch and pulled a face. “Then sadly I think it's bedtime.” After a last lingering sniff, he swallowed his final precious mouthful of whisky. “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”

***

I set my alarm for six – not because I wasn't packed, but because I had a card to write.

I'd spotted it in the gift and trinket shop near Tesco – the same place Mark had found that garish fake tattoo. As Christmas cards went, it was unexceptional. It didn't fold out into a 3D snowflake, play a tinny version of 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas' or have a flashing red lightbulb in place of Rudolph's nose. It was a simple scene in black and white and gold – rolling hills under distant stars, with tiny shepherds and stick-limbed sheep staring up at the sky. The picture didn't show what they were pointing at, but on the ground was the faint metallic outline of an angel's silhouette, and the crests of the hills glowed with a soft light that could not have come from the stars.

Dear Mark. I paused and sucked the end of my pen. I'd put off writing it because I wasn't sure I wanted to send it; I'd kept hoping I might see him, but he'd vanished like the ghost Harrison had compared him to. In the end I'd decided to get up and do it because I doubted he'd gone home for Christmas, and for some reason I couldn't bear the thought of him alone, thinking that I hadn't cared enough to try and speak to him.

I'm heading home today – sorry I haven't managed to catch you. There; that would tell him I'd tried, but not that I'd spent weeks scanning the town for his face. I just wanted to say Merry Christmas, and thank you again for Pirates. I hesitated again before adding, I still owe you a drink!

Suitcase wheels rattled across the cobblestones below – someone else going home for the holidays. I checked my watch. I needed to wrap this up, but I wasn't sure how. I couldn't sign it 'With love from.' We barely knew each other.

In the end I settled for optimistic neutrality.

See you in the New Year. Claire.

I'd considered adding an apology for that night in the Whey Pat, but I wasn't exactly sure what to apologise for, and anyway, a Christmas card didn't seem like the place. I licked the envelope, sealed it, and wriggled into my coat.

The morning air stung my eyes. It was still dark, and fuzzy frosting clung to the cobbles. I slipped a little in my sneakers, steadied myself, and slowed my pace. One leg injury in the family was plenty to be going on with.

It wasn't even half past six, so I didn't knock on Mark's door. I slipped the card through his letterbox and padded away down the steps. I was almost at the turning back onto Market Street when I heard the slide and thunk of a Yale lock, and the creak of an old handle.

“Claire.”

Surprise and pleasure jolted in my stomach. “Hi.” The cold and the stone magnified my voice. Anyone trying to sleep through a hangover wouldn't thank me for shouting down the street, so I headed back towards the open door and added more softly, “Did I wake you?”

A small, swift shake of the head. I believed him; he was fully dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, and his eyes had a dark, sunken look I hadn't seen there before. I swallowed. I'd spent all the time I'd known Mark admiring him – his good looks, his talent, his charm and self-possession – but at that moment I longed to hold him as I still sometimes held Harrison, and protect him from whatever lay behind that haunted stare.

But he smiled as I climbed the stairs, even if it was a tired shadow of its usual dazzling blaze.

“I'm sorry it's so early.” I nodded at the envelope in his hands. “I just wanted to drop that off before I go.”

He turned it over in his hands. “May I open it?”

I grinned. “Well, I never think there's much point waiting for Christmas Day – not with cards. Better to get them up and enjoy them while you can.”

His eyes crinkled at the corners, and a little of the familiar silver light sparked in their depths. As he sliced open the envelope and read the card, I pretended to be extremely interested in the landlord of The Central lifting crates of Crabbie's into his store room, but I kept one eye on Mark's expression. I couldn't read all of the emotions that ghosted across his face, but I did catch a quick shadow of a laugh.

“Thank you.” From him, the two words had a weight and sincerity that they so often lacked in others' mouths. A small crease appeared between his brows. “I'm afraid I don't have anything to give you; I wasn't expecting...”

“Don't apologise.” My stomach curled inwards; I hadn't meant to embarrass him. “Anyway, you've already given me something.”

“Oh?”

I rolled up my sleeve, and the crease between his eyebrows deepened.

“I don't understand.”

“It's a nicotine patch.” I tugged my coat back down over my arm. Even after just a few seconds in the December air, my skin was frigid. “Plenty of people have tried to get me to quit; I suppose when you told me off outside the Union that night, it was the straw that broke the camel's back.”

He arched an eyebrow. “I did not tell you off.”

“Well, whatever it was, I was sick of being nagged. I'm three weeks clean and counting.”

“Congratulations.” Again, it was spoken with such intensity that I couldn't doubt he meant it.

The wind was picking up again. The hiss and rumble of the sea deepened, and I gasped and wrapped my arms across my body.

“I'm so sorry.” He stepped back from the doorway. “Come inside, you must be frozen.”

“I can't – but thank you.” I hoped I sounded as sincere as he did when I said it. “I have to get going. It's a long drive back down south.”

He nodded, half-closing the door against the cold and stepping out onto the top of the stairs. “You're leaving now?”

Was that regret? I couldn't tell. More likely wishful thinking. “Soon – if Harrison has managed to drag himself out of bed.”

“How's his leg?”

“Mending. He can put a little weight on it now, but the cast needs to stay on until the New Year.”

“I'm glad he's getting better.” He gazed over the top of my head. We couldn't see the sea from here, but his eyes were fixed in that direction. “Claire – when we were in the pub after the show...”

“I know I said something – although I'm still not sure what.” I tilted my head. I hadn't expected him to bring it up. “I'm sorry, if that helps.”

“There's no need for you to be. I shouldn't have left so abruptly, but the conversation...it stirred some memories I'd prefer were left buried.”

I nodded, slowly. “You did what you needed to. I can understand that.” I held my hand out to him. “Friends?”

Mark looked startled, as though he'd never heard the word before in his life. I'd intended it to sound light hearted, but it came out somehow plaintive and pathetic, like Harrison or Theo apologising for one of their harebrained scheme gone awry. Nevertheless he took my hand in his and squeezed it gently.

“Give my best to the others,” he said as he let go.

“Will do.” I tucked my hand into my coat pocket. I felt like it might float off by itself if I didn't fasten it into something.

“And drive carefully.”

“As if I'd do anything else in this weather. Anyway, I don't think the Bilberry can go much above sixty miles an hour.”

“The Bilberry?”

“My car. Long story.” I gave him a mischievous grin. “I'll explain next semester, when we go for that drink.”

He smiled again, but there was something lost and empty about it, and he didn't reply.

Carefully, hesitantly, I touched the fingertips of my free hand against the top of his wrist. “Take care, OK?”

He tensed at the contact. He looked down at my hand, then back up, and he stared at me like he had in the pub, like he was looking past my skin and hair and clothes at parts of me I wasn't even sure existed. His eyes were gentle enough, but if I didn't focus too hard it seemed like something stirred behind them – something white and ancient, like fire on the blade of a sword...

I blinked and it was gone. The air in my mouth tasted of petrichor and lightning. My knees felt hollow and the back of my throat was dry.

“Merry Christmas, Claire.”

The world settled at the sound of his voice. “Merry Christmas.” I inhaled the steadying smell of saltwater and stone, and turned to leave. “I'll see you in the New Year.”

***

When I got back to the flat Rosie was in the kitchen, peeling and slicing kiwi fruit, melon and bananas.

“You're spoiling us.” I hugged her from behind. Her silky hair tickled my cheek and smelled of lilies.

“I was going to make French toast, but I don't want to set the kitchen on fire.”

“Probably wise. Is Harrison up?”

She nodded. “Even Theo's awake.”

“Crikey.”

“I know.” She sliced a lime in half and squeezed it on the juicer. I inhaled deeply, savouring the sharp, clean smell. “Where did you go?”

“To drop off Mark's Christmas card.”

Her pretty mouth puckered into a mew of concern. “Did you see him?”

“Yes, actually.”

“Oh!” Her expression cleared into a sunny smile. “Good – I thought we'd offended him that night in the Whey Pat.”

“Not offended, exactly.” I debated whether I should share what Mark had told me about why he'd left, but before I decided, the living room door open.

“Did I hear that right?” Harrison limped into the kitchen. “You've seen Mark?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“He sends his best and says merry Christmas.”

Harrison raised his eyebrows. “That's it? Nothing about the other night?”

“I didn't go to interrogate him!”

“What's interrogating who?” yawned Theo as he came down the stairs.

“Claire,” said Harrison, at the same time as Rosie replied, “Mark.”

Theo looked first at Rosie, then at Harrison, blinking muzzily. “What?”

I sighed. “You were actually right the other night, Harrison. He said he was sorry for leaving the way he did, and that the conversation had brought up some bad memories.”

“To do with the war?” Harrison asked.

“He didn't say. Does it matter?”

“What war?” Rosie frowned, opening a packet of blueberries.

“I don't know, exactly. But he told me he was in the military not long after we first met him.”

“Oh.” She tipped the lime juice and blueberries into the bowl of fruit chunks. “Well, that explains the scars.”

“Yeah.” Harrison shivered. “That hand...I don't want to imagine what could do that.”

“Hmm? Oh – sorry – I meant the ones on his stomach.”

“What?” Now I was puzzled. “I didn't see anything on his stomach.” And I'd examined it pretty closely, I admitted, blushing a little at the memory of that rabble-rousing third encore. “Well, except that crazy tattoo.”

“They were lower down.” Rosie was blushing too. “The leggings covered most of them, but I saw them when I was helping him put the transfer on.”

“You've seen him with his trousers off?” Theo's voice leapt up about three octaves.

“Lucky,” smirked Harrison.

Rosie's delicate pink flush deepened into dark coral. “Not all the way off.”

I was torn between irritation, jealousy, amusement and curiosity. The latter won. “What were they like?”

In spite of her reddening cheeks, Rosie gave a wicked smile. “What were what like?”

I took a deep breath and counted to three as Harrison choked and Theo spluttered. “The scars.”

All of them sobered up at that.

“Kind of jagged,” said Rosie thoughtfully. “And all silvery, like they were really old.”

“Bullet wounds?” asked Harrison.

“No,” Theo answered. “More like someone shot a canon full of broken glass at him.”

I gave him a questioning look.

“We got changed together before the dress rehearsal.” Theo shrugged. “I didn't realise you were all so curious.”

“It's none of our business anyway. He's a person, not a plot point in a soap opera.” I felt slightly ashamed now that I'd asked, remembering the lost, vulnerable look in Mark's eyes earlier. “I'll go and set the table, then we'll be ready when food is – and after that we should get going.”

But the others were still speculating when we sat down.

“It's funny,” said Harrison, pouring maple syrup over his fruit salad. “You say the scars on his stomach look old, but that scar on his hand looks quite recent.”

“Why is that funny?” I reached for the orange juice. “You can get wounded more than once in a war.”

“But they'd still most likely have happened within a few years of each other.”

I made a non-committal noise. “Maybe he was in the forces for a long time.”

“It can't have been that long – how old is he, thirty-two, thirty-three? And he must have at least three degrees if he's doing postdoctoral research; that's seven years of full time study, minimum. Probably much more. And I doubt he was nipping off to fight in the Middle East in between courses.” Harrison swallowed. “Something doesn't add up.”

“Why do you care so much?”

“I don't know.” Harrison grinned. “Hey, maybe he's an alien, and different parts of his body heal at different speeds.”

“Don't be stupid.” But almost unwillingly I remembered the fire in his eyes when he'd held my gaze in the pub, the uncanny way he'd seemed to guess my thoughts on occasion, and that tingling, unearthly sense of something strange and ancient in the air outside his house. I shook myself and checked my watch. Now I was the one being stupid. “Come on, Tiny Tim; eat up, then let's get you home for Christmas.”

***

We played cheesy Christmas songs for the first hour of the drive home, then got fed up and switched to Guns'n'Roses as we picked up the motorway south of Edinburgh. Harrison suggested a game of I Spy as we approached Berwick, and got an elbow in the ribs; at Alnwick we paused for a coffee and a browse around the second hand book shop.

“We should have given Theo a lift,” Harrison said absently, flicking through a volume on Icelandic volcanoes. “We're only about fifteen minutes from his house.”

“I don't think 'house' is the right word.”

He laughed. “They're really nice, you know – his family. They're normal people who drive normal cars and shop in normal places. It's not Downton Abbey.”

“Mm.” I ran my fingers down the spine of a book called Unlocking the Mind's Potential. “Well, he wanted to stay on for a few days. It might not hurt anything for him and Rosie to spend some time in the flat together.”

“Playing matchmaker?”

“Not exactly, but they're more likely to sort themselves out if we're not under their feet.” I pulled down the book I'd been considering, and turned it over to read the back cover. “Harrison, can I ask you something a bit mad?”

“Sure.”

“Do you believe in magic?”

He slid his book back onto the shelf and gave me a cheeky smile. “Claire, I hate to tell you this, but Father Christmas isn't real.”

I laughed. “That's not what I meant. I was thinking...maybe more like the stuff in Matilda. Telekinesis, telepathy – mental powers.” I hesitated. “Or ghosts. Things...things outside how we normally perceive the world.”

Harrison looked thoughtful. “I don't think so. If people could really move stuff with their mind, it'd be all over the internet. You wouldn't be able to hush it up even if you wanted to. Same with ghosts. Someone would have proved it by now.”

“You were the one talking about aliens over breakfast!”

“I wasn't being serious.” He gave me a sharp look. “Why are you asking?”

“No reason.” I slotted the book back into place. “Anyway, you're probably right.”

“Can I get that in writing?”

I took a half-hearted swing at him with my book bag.

***

The holidays passed in a lazy, tinselly blur. Our Grandma always stayed with us for a couple of weeks, but this year we were playing host to Harrison and his parents too, as well as Dad's younger sister Fiona and her twins, Amber and Ben.

“It's because we're all one one floor here,” my Mum had explained on the phone. “It'll be easier for Harrison.”

I didn't bother pointing out that after the first couple of days he'd had no problem with the stairs up to our flat in St Andrews. It was fun having everyone under the same roof instead of having to trek about visiting, although it made things a bit of a squash. Grandma, of course, had the spare room; Cyril and Jo, Harrison's parents, pitched camp on the sofa bed in the living room, and Fiona was on an air bed in Dad's office. Harrison and I were supposed to share my room with the twins, but I put my foot down.

“I'm glad.” Harrison unzipped his hold-all and started sorting through his laundry. “They're cute, but it's nice to have our own space.” He looked up. “You're sure you don't mind sharing with me?”

“Of course not. We did it enough when we were little. I just don't want to put up with the twins hissing and whispering and giggling all night when I'm trying to sleep.” I shook out a party dress and smiled at him. “The worst I can expect from you is a bit of snoring.”

“I don't snore!”

“Well anyway, they're better off in the dining room, where nobody can hear them. They can put a sheet over the table and make a den.”

“I do feel bad taking your bed.”

“You're not sleeping on a camp bed with that thing on your leg!”

He grimaced. “I can't wait to get it off. It's driving me mad – and Mum's gone back to treating me like I'm five.”

“She's been worried about you. If that annoys you so much, don't go leaping into the North Sea in the dark.”

“OK, OK, I was an idiot.” He held up his hands. “How many times do I have to say it?”

I grinned. “As many times as it takes.”

Christmas day itself started brightly enough, with Mary Poppins on the TV and delicious, savoury smells stealing through from the kitchen, but by mid-afternoon the twins were whiny from too much sugar, Dad and Cyril were asleep from too much red wine, and Grandma was grumpy from too much noise. I helped Mum tidy the kitchen, then sneaked upstairs with Harrison to watch The Fellowship of the Ring - his choice.

“It isn't very festive,” he apologised.

“It's fine. I think we need a break from being festive.”

We curled up together on the bed and sank into the familiar landscape and the lyrical score. Somehow its pensive nostalgia reminded me of Mark. I wondered how he was doing and whether he had anyone with him, and then as Gandalf and Bilbo embraced outside Bag End I let go of the outside world, and lost myself in Middle-earth as I had so many times before.
Ah! Leave Me Not to Pine Alone by Narya
Author's Notes:
Well, this chapter was a bit of an effort. Turns out that having a scene in your head for nine years is no guarantee of it being easy to write. Thank you to Gabriel for being honest about what wasn't working, but I think it's there now, or as close as it'll ever be.
“Claire.”

My mind swam upwards out of a fog of exhaustion and grief. I could smell burning, and taste the salt of the ocean on my lips.

“Claire, wake up.”

Someone was shaking my shoulder. With a dizzying rush my surroundings came back to me – camp bed, sleeping bag, fluffy Christmas socks on my feet. The burning I'd thought I'd smelled was the fading tang of incense; the grief wasn't mine, and the salt and damp were not from the sea but the tear tracks down my face. In the glow of the street lamps through the curtains I made out Harrison crouching next to me, his plaster-encased leg at an awkward angle.

“Hey.” He withdrew his hand. “You OK?”

“Mm.”

“You were crying.”

“Sorry.” Tears had cooled on my eyelashes and left them damped and clumped. I dabbed at my face with my sleeping bag.

He shifted so he could stretch out his leg. “What were you dreaming about?”

“I don't know.” It drifted away from me like sea foam through my fingers. “The land was splitting. There was lava, I think...”

“Mount Doom,” said Harrison with confidence. "Maybe The Lord of the Rings isn't bedtime viewing.”

“Maybe.” Strands of understanding stirred in my belly but refused to link together, like he was right and wrong at the same time. “Is it morning?”

“Not exactly. Ten to three.”

“Ugh.”

“I know.” He hesitated. “You all good now?”

“I think so. Sorry I got you up.”

“Any time. Well. Preferably at least five hours later than this, but you know what I mean.”

I laughed and curled up on my side. “You've been up miles later with Theo, drinking or playing that stupid online game.”

“It's different when you haven't been asleep in the first place.” He yawned and hauled himself back up onto the bed. “Sure you're OK?”

“Sure I'm sure. See you in the morning. Later in the morning.”

“Yeah.” He slid back under the duvet. “Goodnight – or – well, whatever.”

He was asleep again in minutes, his breathing deep and even, broken by an occasional sigh. I lay with my sleeping bag tucked under my chin, trying to knit together the remnants of the dream. I felt a deep, yearning ache as I slid back along its trails, a sense of loss and melancholy that followed me as I slipped into a shallow doze. I was in the practice room with Mark in St Andrews, listening to him play - and then an image came to me, something I knew, not from the dream but from somewhere else – a hand clasped around a shining light, a cry of agony and disbelief. A sense of certainty swept through me, as though I'd discovered proof of something important; my half-dreaming mind flew to the terrible burns on Mark's hand, the strange geometric pattern seared into his palm...

Harrison gave a soft snort. I startled back into wakefulness, and the dream – vision? – floated apart like fog, along with that wave of intuitive understanding. I tried to grab back what I'd thought I'd realised but my brain was fuzzy from sleep and yesterday's wine. It was like trying to climb a cotton wool tree. I pressed my knuckles into my eye sockets, shuffling thoughts and images in my mind like a pack of cards – Mark, the dream, the hand, the film, the sea – but none of it locked together, and a blunt ache built in my head as I tried to make it fit.

A moped engine sputtered and choked outside, dispelling the last of the dream. I sighed and rolled onto my back.

Go to sleep. You're being silly.

But sleep wouldn't come, and I lay listening to Harrison's snores until grey-blue light announced the tired drear of Boxing Day.

***

We drove back to St Andrews on the Monday after New Year's Eve. The latch had been fixed, there was a message from the landlord in my university inbox informing me that the cooker was working again, and the grey cat still kept watch on the corner of the street – although it could no longer push the door open and get into the stairwell, much to its annoyance.

Harrison, Theo and Rosie drew up study plans and covered the living room with stacks of notes and textbooks. Spidergrams about the Rainbow Mountains of Peru and abstract expressionism in the mid-twentieth century adorned the walls, and I took over most of the cooking and cleaning, since as a postgraduate I didn't have exams. In between I hunted down second hand copies of my set texts for the semester and tried to keep the worst of the revision madness under control – although as the exams drew closer I had less and less success. Harrison and Theo spent an entire Saturday talking in Gilbert and Sullivan quotations, and on the Sunday Theo started braiding parsley into Rosie's hair while she tried to memorise complex tables and formulae. She was so absorbed that half the bunch was gone by the time she realised, and in response she spent fifteen minutes chasing him around the flat, trying to stuff the remaining greenery down the back of his shirt.

On the following Wednesday I took Harrison to Dundee for his cast removing. We celebrated with cake from Fisher and Donaldson, but otherwise it was a muted, nervous evening. All three of them had exams the next day.

“Why does it have to be so wet?” Harrison stared wistfully out of the window as long threads of rain whipped against the single glazing.

“Dude,” Theo said with his mouth full of toast, “in case you hadn't noticed – you're in Scotland.”

“I need to go for a walk. I feel like I've been let out of a cage.”

“Is that a good idea?” Rosie asked. “Don't you need to do physio and stuff first?”

“He's not nintey-two.” Theo rolled his eyes.

Harrison grinned. “I've got exercises to do, but it wasn't a bad break. I'll be fine as long as I don't start training for a marathon.”

“When can you start running again?” Theo asked.

I glanced up. There was an unusual note of guilt in his voice.

“Not sure yet.” Harrison leaned back into his chair. “Why? Are you missing me?”

“Well, it's not much fun sprinting up and down Abbey Walk by myself...”

“Get Claire to go with you.”

“Not a chance,” I retorted.

“You said before Christmas you wanted to exercise!”

“If I do anything I'll go riding. Not that I have time for that at the moment, keeping you lot fed and sane.”

Harrison gave me a puppyish smile, then his eyes travelled longingly over the candleholder we'd made out of the Doublewood Seventeen bottle. “I wish we hadn't finished that,” he sighed. “Whisky's great for helping dinner go down.”

“I have an old bottle of Calvados in my room,” Theo offered.

Rosie frowned. “Calvados?”

“Apple brandy.”

She wrinkled her nose. “That sounds even worse than whisky.”

“In fairness I doubt it's any good; it's been open since the beginning of first year, and it was a cheap bottle.”

“Throw it out, then. Honestly...” I shook my head. “Anyway, spirits probably aren't the best idea the night before an exam. Not at this time.”

Theo didn't seem to be listening. “I suppose the off-licence might still be open...”

“Friendly hint, bud.” Harrison winked at me. “That was Claire-speak for 'get your backside into bed.'”

***

In the morning I was woken by Rosie thudding about in the room above me. I groaned and rolled onto my stomach. Some day I'd work out why she needed to open every drawer and closet in her room six times before she settled on an outfit, but it wouldn't be today.

Half an hour later I heard Harrison get up, and decided that was my cue to start on breakfast for whoever had time to eat it. Rosie appeared just before nine and refused my offer of porridge, instead hovering by the radiator and delicately nibbling an apple.

“I get sick before exams,” she explained, then looked around. “Where's Theo?”

“Not up yet. When's his exam?”

“Ten, same as mine.”

I rolled my eyes. “Harrison, can you get Theo up?”

“Why me?” He started spooning porridge directly out of the pan.

I swatted his wrist. “Get a bowl for that! And because it's less weird for you to barge into his room.”

“Fair.”

A few minutes later Theo emerged, tousle-haired and yawning. His eyes lit up at the sight of the porridge pot. “Claire, you're an angel.”

I couldn't help smiling as I passed him a bowl. “Eat fast; you'll be late.”

“Yes, mother.”

When the others were gone I curled up on the sofa with a cup of tea, relaxing into the cushions and savouring the peace and quiet. Tiny cold drafts fingered their way through the windows, sharpening and freshening the edges of the centrally heated air. I'd have to start another list of things for the landlord to mend – although there might not be much that could be done in this case, short of fitting double glazing, which was probably prevented by some conservation regulation governing the building. I tucked my knees under my chin and listened to the clunks and whistles of the boiler as it fought off the January chill.

I wondered how Theo, Rosie and Harrison were getting on. Their grades were normally good, although Theo's studying habits were hit and miss. I supposed it mattered less when your future career was managing the family estate. Harrison, I knew, had worked hard over Christmas. I felt a stirring of guilt that we hadn't done much to celebrate yesterday, and probably wouldn't for another week or so, when exams finished.

My eyes fell on the empty Doublewood bottle, and I grinned as an idea formed.

I showered and dressed and headed into town. Slits of white-gold sun peeped through the cloud bank, and a low breeze set the bare tree branches on South Street whispering. Shop windows were covered in signs advertising sales, but the town was quiet, as though still sleeping off its Christmas hangover.

I spent a pleasant half hour in Luvians browsing the shelves and barrels. There were some intriguing bottles of red wine in the bargain bin, but I didn't really want to encourage the others to drink too much while they were supposed to be studying; there would be time for that after exams. I stuck to my original idea, and after wavering for a while between a sweeter whisky or a peated one, I settled on a bottle of fourteen-year-old Oban.

My next stop was the bookshop on Market Street. After splurging on whisky I'd intended just to browse, but I came across a sweet, cloth bound edition of Northanger Abbey that I couldn't resist. I paid up, slipped it into my coat pocket and brushed my fingers against its corners, excited to slip back into Catherine Morland's wild imaginings, the grandeur of Regency Bath, and the gothic splendour of the Abbey itself. Henry Tilney had always been my favourite Austen hero, too – sweet, honest and uncomplicated. Elizabeth could keep her tempestuous marriage to Darcy; Emma was welcome to the staid and serious Mr. Knightley. Despite being the silliest Austen heroine, I suspected that of all of them Catherine had the best chance at real, long-term happiness.

Outside the fish and chip shop I bumped into Ariana, and we stood chatting for a good ten minutes about dissertations, coursework and Les Mis before she had to catch a bus back to halls. As I waved goodbye to her I realised I was ravenous – probably thanks to the smell of the deep fat fryer, I thought, wistfully eyeing someone else's cone of chips.

I couldn't justify eating a mountain of battered fish, not after the indulgence of Christmas. Instead I wandered further along the street to the Central, intending to order a sandwich and then spend the afternoon curled up in a booth with Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney.

There was no queue at the bar. I flicked my eyes over the blackboard listing the winter specials, and decided to be a little naughty. After all, I'd decided today was for me – a day of treats and relaxation after the chaos of revision week.

“Hot apple juice and amaretto, please,” I requested.

A light touch on my shoulder made me jump. “Happy new year.”

“Mark!” Pleasure ballooned in my stomach, and I felt the familiar magnetic pull of the corners of my lips. “Same to you – how are you doing?”

“I'm well enough.” He certainly looked better than when I last saw him. He was pale, but his answering smile was deep and genuine, and at least he looked like he'd slept. “What in the world are you drinking?”

“Rosie got me into it before Christmas. It's better than it sounds.”

Mark raised a disbelieving eyebrow.

“Hey, don't knock it 'til you've tried it,” I grinned.

The corners of his eyes crinkled. “I'm not sure those are words to live by.”

I turned back to the bartender to take my drink. “Could I get another one of those, please?”

“Certainly.”

“Don't look like that,” I added to Mark. “If you don't like it, I'll replace it with a whisky.”

That made him laugh. “It's half past twelve!”

“Which means it's half past five somewhere – as the song doesn't go.”

He shook his head, the smile slowly spreading across his features into its usual disarming blaze. “I think Harrison and Theo have corrupted you.”

I paid for the drinks and passed one of them to Mark. “I didn't take a lot of corrupting.”

“No. That I can easily believe.” He tilted his head towards a table in a booth behind the door. “Join me?”

The table was covered with books, notepapers and binders. “If you're busy...”

“I was about to stop for lunch.”

I looked at him again, properly. Dark shadows still sat under his eyes, and although the lost, haunted look had faded, he didn't look like someone who had spent a relaxing Christmas indulging in good company and festive cheer. “Then yes – thank you. That would be lovely.”

I helped him clear his things away to make space for drinks and sandwiches. One of the books was a beautiful, heavy volume with old thick yellow pages, bound in indigo leather and embossed with a design of eight-pointed stars. Something stirred in the depths of my mind, a kind of tentative recognition, like a familiar figure glimpsed through fog. For some reason I thought of Mark's burned hand, though I forced myself not to look at it. I remembered the image from my dream, the fist grasping a fierce white light, and the hairs stood up along my arms like they did when the Bilberry gave me a static shock.

I turned the book over, but there was no title or author on the cover.

“Are you interested in Philosophy?”

I gave a guilty smile. “I dabble, but only when I need background or context for something I'm studying.” I passed the book back to him. “I'm afraid it isn't my first love.”

“Nor mine – but you know that.”

I pushed aside my curiosity as to why he'd bothered obtaining several degrees in it, deciding that one of my new year's resolutions should be to stop putting my foot in my mouth around him.

“How's Harrison?” he asked, sliding the indigo book back into his bag. “And the others, of course.”

“All fine. Harrison's cast came off yesterday – although they've all got exams today, so we haven't celebrated yet.” I straightened the edges of a pile of notes and handed them over. “Actually I'm really glad I bumped into you. It's been chaos at the flat, I was in desperate need of some sanity...”

I filled him in on their antics as we decided on food, pleased to get more than one genuine laugh out of him. The apple juice and amaretto quickly disappeared, and we switched to pints of ale when the sandwiches arrived.

“I take it you aren't doing exams?” he asked.

I shook my head, picking at crisps. “Perks of being an Mlitt – as I'm sure you know.”

“Oxford Masters courses have an exam component – or at least they used to.”

“Is that where you studied?”

It was automatic, the same follow on question I'd have asked anyone who made that remark, but for a moment tension flickered on Mark's face. “I spent time there.”

I decided not to push it. “Well, anyway, I've been on cooking and cleaning duty since the holidays, so the others can concentrate on studying.”

Mark tilted his head, a curious look on his face. “Aren't they in their second year?”

“Yes. Why?”

“How do you imagine they coped before you arrived?" he asked gently.

I blushed. “Fair point.” The juke box in the corner thunked from Blondie to James Brown, and I took a sip of Lia Fail. “I suppose I'm too used to looking after Harrison from when we were kids together – and Theo and Rosie don't score highly in either independence or common sense.”

“Hmm.” He smiled.

“They are getting better,” I admitted. “Theo even tried to cook for us at the end of last term.”

“Tried?”

I giggled. “He managed to set spaghetti on fire.”

Mark's eyebrows almost vanished into his hairline. “I won't ask.”

“In fairness it wasn't really his fault.” I swilled the remnants of the Lia Fail around in the bottom of the glass. “Maybe you're right, though. Maybe I should have left them to get on with their own lives; I could have stayed in halls, it's what most first year postgrads do.”

“That isn't what I meant.”

I shrugged. “I do think about it sometimes. I could have done my Masters anywhere, I didn't have to apply to the same university as my cousin.”

“You're not telling me Harrison didn't beg you to come up here?”

“Oh, he did. Our parents weren't keen, though. They definitely didn't want us sharing a house.”

“Why not?”

“They wanted Harrison to have his own space – find his own way. They were probably right. University's supposed to be about growing up, at least for the undergrads.” I downed the rest of my beer. “But if I'm honest, at that point I needed him far more than he needed me.”

Mark leaned back into the green leather cushioning stitched over the bench. “That sounds like a story that needs another drink.”

I looked up, realising I'd told him very little about my life in London, and nothing at all about the aftermath. “Maybe, but not now. If I'm not careful I'll fall asleep; I'm not sure ale and amaretto were a smart combination.”

“A walk, then?”

I met his eyes, a little surprised at the offer, after his disappearing act at the end of last semester. “What did you have in mind?”

We ended up meandering along The Scores to the castle, after leaving our bags at Mark's house. The clouds had bunched and thickened again while we were in the pub, and the light had dimmed to a strange yellowish grey. Mark didn't push me about London, and I didn't raise it.

“We should have worn our gowns,” I commented as we crossed the bridge to the portcullis. “We'd have got in for free.”

“No need.” Mark showed his wallet to the curator, and she waved us in.

“What was that?” I asked as we emerged into the courtyard. “Psychic paper?”

He gave me a strange look. “No, a Historic Scotland membership card.”

I blushed.

Last semester I'd deliberately avoided going to the castle with company; I preferred exploring the town's old ruins by myself, and I knew that if I'd gone with Rosie and the boys I'd have had no time alone to think and absorb the atmosphere of the place. Mark, though, seemed content to drift around separately. After a while I lost sight of him and made my way down into the old siege mine and its counter, running my fingers along the ancient stones, feeling the damp and the mess and grit of history under my nails. I imagined the castillians and attackers crammed into the passage together, Scottish and French and English, scrabbling over one another, unable to tell in the dark who belonged to which side – and even down here the sea whispered, its sibilant voice stroking along the passage walls like a wandering spirit.

“Hello?”

I jumped at the sound of the curator's voice.

She smiled apologetically down at me from the top of the junction between the mine and counter-mine. “I'm sorry to disturb you; we're actually closing in a few minutes.”

“Oh.” I gripped the iron ladder and clambered back up. “I hadn't realised the time.”

“You've been down there for a while; I was starting to think you'd lost your way.”

I followed her out into the castle proper. Night hadn't fallen yet but the street lamps had been lit on The Scores, and the wind had gained a sharp, bitter edge. “Gosh, it really is late – we haven't kept you, have we?”

“Oh, no, there's no panic; I've a few wee bits to do in the shop, but we can't stay open once we've lost the light, it's a safety issue...”

I smiled. “I can imagine.” I wondered how many drunken students had tried to scramble down the mine in the dark, or climb down the cliff face to the beach.

“The gentleman you came in with – did he leave?”

Something twisted in my gut. “I don't think so.” It seemed odd if he had – after all, he'd initiated the trip out here – but then again I'd seen his mood change quickly before, and that time he'd disappeared for weeks. “I'll do a circuit and see if I can find him.”

He was leaning against the railings behind the keep, limned in amber by the dying light. Plumes of froth crashed against the cliff behind him. Something shifted and rose inside me like cold air – a sense of longing, of loss and grief, but also recognition. I'd seen – or imagined – this strange, melancholy tableau before. I'd felt the same thing at Christmas, and again in the pub, that maddening tease of familiar images that refused to blend and make sense.

A sharp gust blew in off the sea and lifted his hair from his face, revealing one pale, pointed ear.

Strands of excitement swirled inside me, knotting together, like my instincts were matching up pieces of a puzzle faster than my mind could follow. Again I felt that unearthly prickling in the air, smelled the scent of the earth after rain – but despite the clouds it had been dry all day. My heart pounded against my ribs, and my breath caught like the wind eddying through the cathedral spires. For one frozen moment I forgot the halogen lights behind me, the rubber boots on my feet, the mobile phone in my pocket. I'd slipped into a world beyond time and story, and it rolled over me and through me like a spell, a wave of enchantment, more real than anything I've ever felt, elemental, essential, terrible, ancient – starlight and silver and wine and blood and magic and stone and song...

The wind fell. His hair dropped back into place. The electricity and the scent of petrichor were gone, and the air settled and the world seemed to breathe again.

He isn't human.

The idea entered my thoughts like a whispered secret – and yet it was mad, impossible, beyond reason. Like Catherine Morland, my imagination was being led down ridiculous paths by my surroundings. But it wasn't the first time I'd considered the notion, I admitted to myself, or at least strayed near it. I couldn't entirely blame the castle and the sea and the strange glowing light. I'd toyed with it at breakfast on the morning Harrison and I had left for Christmas, and drifted towards it again in the bookshop in Alnwick, before my cousin's common sense and the promise of toasted crumpets in the tea room had squashed my fanciful thoughts. And then there was the way I felt when he played, the things I saw, that deep, piercing look he'd given me more than once – and the uncanny way he often seemed to answer my thoughts rather than my words...

The lights went off in the visitor's centre, and the words of Henry Tilney echoed in my mind.

Miss Morland, what have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live...consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable...dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?

I shook myself. I knew the curator would be back soon to find us – probably with a torch and a first aid kit. I padded down the grassy bank towards the railings.

“Mark?”

He didn't respond.

I tilted my head but I could barely see his face – the light was almost gone now, and the wind from the sea knifed my cheeks.

Carefully, cautiously, I brushed my fingertips against the back of his hand. For a few more moments he was still, and then he sighed and turned reluctantly away from the sea.

“Forgive me.” I felt rather than saw his sad smile. “I was far away.”

“I could tell.” I wondered where his mind had taken him, but I didn't dare to ask – not yet. “I wouldn't have interrupted, but we need to go; we're about to get thrown out.”

He glanced around as though startled by how dark it had grown. “What time is it?”

“Half four, at a guess.”

He nodded, and glanced back once more at the sea. “I'm sorry.”

“I was enjoying myself; I was down the old siege shaft.” I shivered. “I should be the one apologising, anyway. I abandoned you.”

Mark shook his head. “Not at all. Sometimes it's better to be alone in these old places.”

“Yes.” I felt the same rush of warm affection for him as I had when he'd understood Rosie so well, when we were finding him a costume for Pirates last semester. “Yes, exactly.”

We drifted back along The Scores to his house. The yellow lights in the windows made the harsh chill outside feel even crueller, and I sighed with relief when we reached his living room and the warmth of the central heating.

“Your lips are nearly blue.” Mark's voice sounded equal parts concerned and amused. “Can I make you a hot drink?”

It was deeply tempting. “I'd better not. The others will be back now; I need to start dinner.”

“'And indulge in the felicity of unbounded domesticity,'” he quoted, smiling. “Surely it must be their turn to cook for you?”

“We're celebrating Harrison's cast coming off – hence the whisky.” I held up my Luvians carrier bag. “Rosie can only make French toast, and if I leave it up to Theo we'll be on sandwiches and choc ices.”

“What's the matter with that?” he teased.

“Nothing, I suppose, but hopefully I can do a bit better.” I shouldered my bag. “Why don't you come back with me for a bit and say hi to them?”

He hesitated. “I'd hate to intrude if the four of you have plans together.”

Briefly I wondered if it was a good idea; if my thoughts out on the clifftop were even half of the truth, what was I doing inviting him into our lives? But it all seemed so silly back here, under the electric lights, with the faded watercolour hanging over the cheap gas fireplace – and I thought of his yearning gaze out over the ocean, what he'd told me about his family, my guess about how he'd spent Christmas. I dismissed the nagging feeling that there was still something obvious I was missing, one final leap to make. “Honestly, they'd love to see you. They've been in exams all day, they'll need cheering up.”

His lips quirked. “Well, if you're sure.”

I knew I hadn't fooled him, but I'd take it anyway. “We'll have to swing past Tesco's,” I said apologetically. “It'll be awful at this time, but our fridge is like Mother Hubbard's cupboard. There'll be nothing to eat otherwise.”

“Believe me, I've faced worse than Tesco's on a Thursday night.” He slipped his leather jacket back on. “'Lead on; I follow.'”

I folded my arms in my best Xander impression. “That's not your line.”

He grinned, and together we headed out onto the frozen cobbled streets.
Take Heart by Narya
Author's Notes:
This chapter got a little heavy. Warning for references to acute stress and thoughts of self harm/suicide.
When we got back to the flat I could hear the familiar sounds of Harrison and Theo's favourite online game drifting from the living room.

Enemy double kill...

Your turret has been destroyed...

I sat down at the bottom of the stairs, rolling my eyes at Mark's expression. “Please don't ask.”

Clearly the others had been cleaning – perhaps in a post exam fit of productivity. The skirting boards were white rather than speckled grey; that neat-edged, just-hoovered smell hung in the air, and a cherry-scented candle burned on top of the spare fridge we kept in the hall.

Thirty seconds remaining!

“Hey, Claire,” called Harrison over the serene voice of the game narrator.

“Hey yourself.”

“Where the fuck have you been?” asked Theo as the game's final countdown began. “We were about to come looking for you.”

Seven...six...five...

“Really?” I tugged my boot over my thick winter sock. “You sound pretty busy to me.”

VICTORY!

The two of them whooped and cheered, and the soundscape of the game was silenced.

“Seriously, though.” Harrison's voice carried through to the hall at a more normal volume. “What have you been doing? We got back and no-one was here.”

“I didn't realise I had to stay chained to the flat while you all went out.”

“Out?” Theo's clipped, crisp tones were outraged. “Out? My bloody wrist feels like it's going to fall off the end of my bloody arm, thank you!”

“Stop whining. I actually went to get stuff for you guys.” I glanced up at Mark, who was trying not to laugh. “But I bumped into someone.”

They both appeared in the living room doorway, and a huge grin split Theo's face. “Hey! Long time, no see.” He raised his eyebrows as he came forward to shake Mark's hand. “Shit, dude, you look rough.”

“Theo!”

But Mark's smile stayed in place. “So would you if you'd spent the Christmas holidays applying for research grants.”

I was pretty sure that wasn't how he'd spent the holidays, but I kept my mouth shut.

“And you both look like you got locked out in a hurricane.” Theo looked from Mark to me and back again, as Harrison and Mark shook hands. “What have you been doing?”

“We went out to the castle,” I replied as a door opened upstairs. “You know it's exposed out on the cliffs.”

Mischief sparked in Theo's eyes, and he raised his voice just a touch. “Rosie can lend you a hairbrush; she's got enough of them.”

“I heard that!” Rosie padded down the stairs, dressed in pale pink leggings and a big white hoodie. “Happy new year, Mark.”

Theo turned to me. “So what have you been buying us?”

“It's mainly for Harrison, since we couldn't do much to celebrate yesterday.” I submitted the blue plastic bag and its contents for inspection, and watched Mark's wistful smile as the boys exclaimed their approval.

“Brilliant.” Harrison turned the bottle around to read the spiel from the distillery. “Thanks, Claire.”

“No problem. Thank you for cleaning up.” I guessed it was Harrison who had chivvied the other two into tidying the flat, and gave him a quick one-armed hug.

“I'll get some glasses.” Theo was already heading for the kitchen.

“We haven't even had dinner yet!” Rosie protested.

Harrison looked up. “Mark, are you staying?”

“Ooh, yes, stay!” Rosie's eyes sparkled. I smiled; that look had undone so many male undergraduates last semester that I'd lost count, but it seemed to have no effect whatsoever on Mark.

He looked at me, questioning, almost waiting for permission.

“I got enough for five.” I picked up the carrier bags. “Theo, put the kettle on, I need a cup of tea before we do much else.”

“I can make tea.” Mark rescued one of the bags that was threatening to slip off my arm.

“All yours, dude.” Theo waved his arm vaguely in the direction of the kettle. “I'll only get into trouble for doing it wrong.”

“How did they exams go?” I called as the boys sloped back to the living room.

“Fine,” Harrison replied.

Theo gave an elaborate shrug. “They went.”

I shook my head as the faux-epic theme music of their game started up again. “What does that mean?”

“I think it means they didn't go well.” Mark passed Rosie a bag of vegetables to unpack, then opened the tea cupboard, finding his way around the kitchen with ease. “Are you sure you don't mind feeding me? I can't help feeling I've pushed in.”

“Don't be silly.” I dug in the cupboard, past the unloved packets of cheap cereal and the bulb of garlic that appeared to be mutating into an alien life form. “I meant it when I said I'd shopped for five – more, really, but Harrison and Theo eat like someone's about to re-introduce rationing.” I frowned, shifting bottles of cooking oil and vinegar aside. “Although I really hope I wasn't dreaming that spare tin of tomatoes...”

“I can run back to Tesco?” offered Rosie.

“No need.” I emerged, clutching my prize. “Sorted.”

“Cool.” Rosie perched on the windowsill and turned back to Mark. “Anyway, you came on a good night. It's Throwback Thursday.” She drummed her feet on the floor. “And it's my turn to pick.”

Mark glanced between us as he poured boiling water into the teapot. “Sorry – I don't follow.”

“Every Thursday one of us picks a film,” I explained, cracking eggs on the side of a glass jug and separating the whites from the yolks. “Something we used to like watching when we were kids. We stopped for a while last semester when everything got crazy with Pirates, but we've picked it up again since the Christmas break.”

A soft smile curved Mark's lips. “That's a lovely idea.”

Rosie nodded. “I know. It was actually Theo's; he's such a sweetheart, even though he pretends to be a twat.”

Mark laughed. “No comment.”

“Probably wise.” I shook the worst of the egg from my hands and turned the tap on with my elbow. “What's this week's show, Rosie?”

Her smile widened into an excited grin. “Snow White.

I raised my eyebrows. “Do the boys know?”

“It's my choice!” She folded her arms. “We sat through that stupid toaster thing for Harrison last week.”

“Toaster thing?” Mark couldn't have looked more baffled if we were speaking Klingon.

The Brave Little Toaster,” I translated.

He breathed a disbelieving curse that I didn't catch. “Someone made a film about a toaster?”

“More than one.” Rosie shuddered. “Apparently there were sequels.”

“There were indeed,” I confirmed. “I used to have to put up with them all when I stayed at his house when we were younger.”

Mark stirred the teabags in the pot, his face torn between amusement and horror. “The only thing I can think to say to that is – I'm sorry.”

“Usually the standard's a bit higher,” I reassured him. “Last semester we watched The Sound of Music - oh, and The Princess Bride. That was fun.”

“I don't know that one either,” he confessed.

“You've fallen victim to one of the classic blunders!” proclaimed Rosie, at the same time as I automatically replied, “Inconceivable!”

We both fell about laughing. Mark glanced between us, evidently lost.

“Never mind,” I said, lifting a whisk from the pot of utensils. “We'll lend it to you.”

Dinner was an unexpected success – my improvised cheesy aubergines worked well, the chicken and tarragon stew was a fail-safe, and my cheat's chocolate mousse turned out better than when I'd tried to make the real thing. Surprisingly, though, the real triumph of the evening was Snow White. Theo and Harrison predictably grumbled, but it soon transpired that Harrison had last watched it when he was six, and Theo had never seen it in the first place. They had both written it off as a sappy, silly film for little girls, but they were suitably apologetic afterwards.

“That witch was fucking terrifying,” said Theo.

“I know, right? The scene where the Queen transformed...”

“...and the skeleton in the dungeon...”

“...and that bit where she leaned in through the window...”

Theo flopped backwards onto the rug. “I'm going to have nightmares.”

“Mark?” I shifted so I could see his face. We were sharing the big sofa, and I'd sneaked glances at him throughout the film. He'd seemed as transfixed as Rosie. “What did you think?”

“I saw it at the cinema.” He pulled his eyes from the screen, his expression dream-like. “I remember being almost hypnotised...I'd never seen anything like it.”

“I bet it would be good on the big screen,” said Theo wistfully. “Not that many places re-run old films now – you must have got lucky.”

Mark blinked and tensed slightly, as though just realising something. “Yes – lucky.”

I wondered what particular memories he had tied up with Snow White.

“Anyway.” Harrison squirmed forward and ejected the DVD. “Whose turn is it next week?”

“Back to the top of the order, isn't it?” Theo grinned at me. “What are you thinking, Claire?”

“Not sure yet.” I looked at Mark, debating, and came down on the side of pushing my luck. “Mark? Do you want to join us again?”

He looked at me, and then his silver eyes glanced over the three younger ones sprawling across the rug, their expressions ranging from welcoming to eager. He gave a half-smile that reminded me of the sun breaking through the sea-fog at dawn. “If you'll have me.”

“You should pick the film!” said Rosie.

The smile slipped a little, and his face started to slide back into the handsome mask I'd known through the previous term. “I'm not sure about that; I wouldn't know where to start.”

“Well, what was your favourite film when you were a kid?” Harrison asked.

“I don't know.” He looked at me as though asking for help, but I wasn't sure what he wanted me to say. “We didn't have...we didn't watch a lot of films.”

“Where did you grow up, the 1850s?” laughed Theo.

I threw a cushion at him. “Pack it in.” I wriggled further under the blanket draped across the sofa I was sharing with Mark. “You don't have to decide now – it can be anything, really, as long as it's more than about five years old and broadly suitable for family viewing.”

He nodded, looking relieved. “Well, I always liked The Wizard of Oz.

“Oh, I love that!” Rosie squealed.

“Sorted, then,” said Harrison – but he shot me a significant look as he slipped Snow White back into its box.

I pretended not to notice. “What's the verdict on the whisky?”

Theo cast his eyes upwards in ecstasy. “Love it.”

“Agreed.” Harrison held his glass out for a top up. “Can't go wrong with Oban.”

An excited gleam lit Theo's blue eyes. “Hey – listen. For inter-semester, let's go out to the west coast – or even the islands. We could get a cottage on Islay and tour the distilleries.”

“Yes, that's great for someone who doesn't like whisky.” Rosie's voice took on a waspish edge.

I poured myself a refill and passed the bottle to Mark. “None of you will be going anywhere for inter-semester if you fail your exams.”

A three-part chorus of groans was accompanied by several thrown cushions.

“Careful!” I yelped as my glass threatened to go flying.

Mark steadied it and tossed the errant furnishings back across the room. “You were asking for that, I think.”

“I was...”

He gave me a lazy wink.

“Whose side are you on?” I laughed, folding my arms and trying (and failing) to glare.

“The side of the downtrodden.” He tilted his head and raised his left eyebrow. “In this case – theirs.”

“I knew I liked you for a reason.” Theo rolled onto his stomach. “Seriously, Claire, do you expect us to start studying again after we've been in exams all day?”

“And drinking,” Harrison added.

“And that.”

I thought of my years of training and pupillage after university – the diploma, the aptitude tests, the interviews, the long nights of research and preparation, even when my immune system was giving up and I was so tired that my arms and legs and fingers ached, never mind my eyes and head. “No, not really. Sorry. I guess I'm just being a grumpy old woman.”

“I think I know the cure for that.” Theo swallowed the last of his Oban. “Pub?”

“Yep.” Harrison hauled himself to his feet. “Rosie?”

She made a soft noise of indecision. “I'm wearing a hoodie...”

“And?” Theo shook his head. “We're not going ballroom dancing. Anyway, it's exam week. It wouldn't surprise me if there were people out drinking in their pyjamas – oh!” His eyes sparkled. “Idea. End of exam celebration – all day pyjama party.”

“With alcohol,” Harrison added.

“Naturally.”

I laughed. “Get going; we can talk about that later.”

Rosie pulled her green quilted bodywarmer over her hoodie and leggings. “Aren't you coming?” she asked.

“Not this time, I don't think. You guys have fun.”

“Mark?”

He smiled. “Thank you, but I'd better not. We were drinking at lunchtime.”

“Now we get to it!” Theo sighed. “Oh, to be a post-grad, now that January's here...”

“That doesn't scan,” I pointed out.

“Doesn't it?” He gave me a wicked grin. “I'd never have guessed.”

After the usual scuffle of coat-hunting, boot-finding, key-seeking and getting in each other's way, they were gone.

I let out a long, slow breath and leaned back against the cushions, eyes closed.

“Claire?”

“Hmm?”

“Thank you.”

I looked at him. Mark had curled himself into a half-reclined posture, one knee resting on the sofa arm, head leaning on his hand. He was more relaxed than I'd ever seen him, except perhaps on stage. “You're welcome. I don't mind cooking – and the others were glad to see you.” I smiled. “I told you they would be.”

His answering smile was warm and a little wistful. “They're good company.”

“I know. It's funny.” I tipped the remnants of my whisky around in my glass, breathing in its aroma of lemon peel and smoke. The candle out in the hallway sent shadows skittering across the wall, and raindrops began to flick at the windows. “When I first moved in with them they drove me mad – Theo especially.”

“I can't imagine why.”

I laughed. “But now I don't know what I'd do without them.” I finished my drink and got up to pour another, holding out a hand for Mark's glass as well.

He accepted my silent offer. “Claire, may I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Why did you leave London?”

I paused halfway through pouring and looked up at him.

His eyes were soft and kind. “You didn't expect me to bring it up again.”

“Well.” I passed him his glass and sat down in the armchair, flexing my ankles and pointing my toes. It seemed odd to squash myself next to him again with the others gone. “No.”

“Of course if you'd prefer not to talk about it then I understand – but you came close over lunch, I think.”

I hesitated, then took a measured sip of whisky and nodded.

“Only I wouldn't want you to feel that if there's something you can't share with Theo or Rosie or Harrison, you have to keep it to yourself. I know we don't know each other well, so perhaps I'm presuming...”

“No. No, you're not.” I wedged my feet under the cushions; the central heating was losing its ongoing fight with the cold.

He shifted, draping his long legs across the sofa like he was settling down for a story. Warmth blossomed inside me like a touch of sunlight as I realised that – gently, silently – he was inviting me to tell him everything.

“It's nothing very mysterious.” Heat prickled down the back of my neck and across my cheeks. “And Harrison does know a little. The stupid thing is, it wasn't even like I wasn't good at it.” I pressed my lips together, wondering where and how, exactly, it had turned downhill – but I couldn't point to a defining moment, one thing that tipped it in the wrong direction. “I just...I never really had a vocation. You know how some people have this one thing that drives them? Well, of course you do,” I added before he could answer. “You've got your music. And there's always the kid at school who wants to be an actor, or a vet, or a a doctor, and it's their dream, and they'll do anything it takes to get there.” I shrugged. “That was never me. I mean, I was clever, and when it came to choosing my subjects for sixth form my teachers tried to get me to pick sciences, but I preferred the Arts. English and Drama especially.”

Wind rattled the sashes. The rain grew heavier, like someone was flinging tiny pebbles at the glass.

“My parents were fine with it,” I continued. “Dad's a journalist and Mum works in a gallery, they weren't bothered about pushing me into medicine or engineering if it wasn't what I wanted, but there was always...” I frowned. “Pressure's the wrong word. Not even expectation. I guess an assumption that I'd go get a degree and turn it into a traditional, well-paying career. With a BA in English, that basically meant law. I was “wasting my brains” if I did anything else.” I smiled and rolled my eyes. “So I worked my socks off, I got my First, I filled my CV up with volunteering and internships and extra-curriculars, I did mini-pupillages, the lot. Everything they said I needed to be a barrister, I ticked off – oh, I know I was aiming high,” I added at Mark's slightly quirked eyebrow. “But everyone told me how good I'd be. I was confident speaking in front of people, I was articulate, I could think on my feet, and I got through all the written papers and the aptitude tests with high marks. By the time I was called to the bar, I'd even managed to convince myself it really was my dream.” I blushed. “I'm not a bad actor. I guess I convinced my interviewers too – and suddenly there I was. Brick Court chambers, gowned and wigged, one of the lucky chosen few.” I sneaked a look at him. “You don't seem surprised.”

He shook his head. “Why should I be surprised that you achieved something you set your mind to?”

I took another sip of whisky, chewing it carefully in my mouth. “But I only did it because I could – because people expected it of me. The others in my intake all seemed to be there for much better reasons. OK, it was commercial law, not criminal; some of them were definitely only there for the money, but at least they were honest about it. I felt like...like an impostor. Like I'd stolen someone else's dream job just because I was capable of it and I couldn't think what else to do with myself.” I looked at him again, almost daring him to judge me, but his face was kind, encouraging.

Go on.

My scalp tingled. “I think if I could have put it down at six o'clock, and picked it up again the next day at eight, I'd have been alright – but the problem with law at that level is that it's all-consuming, especially when you're starting out and you want to impress. “Building your personal brand,” they called it. What it means is late, late nights, cancelled weekend plans, early starts...” I paused. “Good grief, I sound pathetic.”

“No.”

“Well, my parents thought I was. Even if they didn't say so in as many words. And they were so proud when they told people what I was doing...they thought I was selfish to be whining about the hours and the stress when so many people would kill for my job. But it was like I was losing myself a little bit at a time, you know? The longer I played this character, the more she became me; I barely had time to read, let alone go to the theatre, or play the piano or the guitar, I hardly ever saw my friends, I only went home for birthdays and Christmas.” I paused, reflecting. “Maybe I didn't need to be quite so wrapped up in it, but it was like I was in competition with myself. How far could I push it? How good could I become, even at this thing I was starting to hate? I don't know – it's hard to explain.” Another sip of whisky. I savoured its mellow burn. “I couldn't bear the idea of being a failure. Even though I thought my clients were stupid plastic corporate drones, and some of my colleagues were...well, most of them were fine, but a few were just tossers, but for some reason I still so desperately wanted to be the best. I know it's mad.

“But when there's only one thing in your life, and you don't love it or even like it, you get worn out. And there's a lot of pressure with commercial law. Well. With most career paths,” I amended, thinking of my father's years struggling as a freelance journalist. “But when your clients are insisting a deadline needs to come forward, and you're working on three other things, and you've got courses to study for in your own time and you hate the whole damn stupid mess and all you want to do is sit in a corner and cry...” Horrified, I felt the familiar pricking at the rims of my eyes. “I had nothing to reach for to keep me going. No dream, no deep vocation – not even anything to distract myself with outside work. I got to a point where I didn't even want to read or go out. I couldn't face it. And it's not peaks and troughs, either. It's constant. There's no let up, no space. You're stuck on this hamster wheel. Once it's on top of you it's like some huge cage, there's no breaking through again; I'd feel sick whenever I walked into court, terrified that I hadn't prepared enough, or that I'd left something back in chambers that I needed. And I started to think that maybe, if this was my whole life, then actually I couldn't cope with that. I didn't want it. I couldn't sleep, and when I did I dreamed about work, and I'd wake up with a headache and it took me longer and longer to move on a morning because I couldn't stand the thought of going in. Weekends didn't help either – not even the odd ones where I didn't have things to finish off, or client calls to make. I'd just spend the whole time dreading Monday morning.”

A clunk and hiss from the boiler made me look up. I brushed my eyes. “Nobody knew anything was wrong. Like I said, I'm a good actor. I did a really great line in calm and competent and pulled together – if you can believe it.”

“Very easily.”

He sounded like he meant it too. “Well, anyway, one morning I woke up and all I could do was cry. I couldn't get up, I couldn't move...it was like someone was turning a wheel inside me, cranking out all this shite that had somehow got stuck...and over and over I kept thinking, I've had enough. I wish I wasn't here. I want...I want to...”

The word got stuck in my throat. Even now I couldn't bear to repeat it. It was as if saying it aloud might bring back the desire. I looked up at him, wondering what he'd been through, what he must be thinking – poor, spoiled little girl with her shiny London career, what could she possibly know about the call of the dark?

But instead he just looked deeply sad. “Oh, Claire.”

“Harrison doesn't know that part, and I don't ever plan to tell him, or the others.” Talking about it all seemed to have drawn my courtroom character to the surface, I thought, noting the steel in my voice as though it was someone else speaking. “It wasn't the first time I'd thought it but it was the first time I couldn't get away from it. I was...” The hard tone faded. “I was frightened. I called in sick and I stayed in my flat – oh, God, I haven't even told you about the flat. I don't know how they got permission to market it as a separate dwelling. It was literally a loft room above someone's garage, with a fold-down bed and a camping stove.” I laughed humourlessly. “Good old London. Anyway, I was signed off on a leave of absence, first for two weeks, then a month, and then before I knew where I was it was autumn, and while all this was going on Harrison had grown up and got his A-levels and gone off to university. He sent me pictures of him and Theo and Rosie and a few others in the snow at night...” I trailed off, remembering staring at the photographs, realising what a mistake I'd made with my life. “I had savings. I moved home for a bit – tried to pull myself back together. Did a self-taught crash course on everything that had happened in my field since I graduated, threw some applications together, and was accepted here.” I looked around the room, feeling a sudden rush of affection for the peeling paintwork and battered posters and the cheap fairy lights Rosie had strewn across the bookshelf. “Hundreds of miles from London, but happy. Or getting there.”

“Is that enough?”

“It's a start.” I wondered whether I should have been quite so open – but I hadn't been able to help it, somehow. And he had asked. “My parents think it's mad, of course, but I have pointed out what a university chancellor earns.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Which is?”

“Not as much as a QC barrister, but enough to keep them in style when they decide to retire.” My smile grew wry. “I don't actually want to be a chancellor either, but they don't need to know that yet. For now it's helping them get used to the idea of their high-flying daughter facing a future of low-paid short-term contract work.”

“Ah. The joys of academia.”

I shrugged. “I don't care. I just want the space and time to...to figure out what I really want to research, and then I'll go from there. But they'd say that was silly.”

A long, thoughtful pause. “Do they know?”

I didn't have to ask what about. “No.”

“Will you tell them?”

“No.”

He nodded, swirling whisky in the bottom of his glass. “You made the right decision.”

“Not telling them?”

“Only you can answer that.” He sat up, held my eyes with his strange silver gaze. “I mean that you were right to change your mind. To make your life different, instead of holding to a path that would only have hurt you and everyone around you.”

Something in his voice and face caught at me – a flash of the same deep yearning that haunted his music and song. I watched as he settled back into the cushions, elegant limbs draped, hair gleaming, eyes far away. In the soft-edged lamplight he looked like an oil painting, an angel fallen from the canvas of a Renaissance master.

“How about you?” I asked quietly.

He glanced back at me, surprised.

“Come on. Research grants?” I raised my eyebrows. “The others might buy that, I suppose, but...”

“But you aren't them.”

“Indeed.”

His mouth quirked. “Claire James, are you worried about me?”

“Well.” I blushed, not wanting to sound defensive – or worse, motherly – but after the conversation we'd just had, honesty seemed the best policy. “Shouldn't I be? You did disappear for weeks on end. And you look...” I hunted for the word. “I don't know. Worn, I guess. Even Theo noticed – although you look better than you did before Christmas.”

“Thank you.” A brief laugh. “I did suspect you might be taking pity on me earlier.”

The colour in my cheeks deepened. “I wouldn't say that, exactly.” Seeing his glass was empty, I passed him the whisky bottle. “But fair's fair; you get the same deal I did. No pressure to say anything if you don't want to, but don't think I don't care, or I can't cope, or I wouldn't want to know, or any of that rubbish. Not after what you just sat through from me.”

He poured another measure and handed the bottle back. The lamplight gleamed and flared olive-gold through the whisky in his glass. “Claire...”

A shift in the light and a trace of cherry and smoke on the air told me the candle in the hallway had guttered out.

“I can only tell you a little,” he said eventually.

I nodded. It was more than I'd expected.

“And only if you're certain you want to hear.”

“I'm certain.”

He sighed. “Alright.” Rain spattered against the walls and windows. “You already know, I think, that I've...I've watched people die.”

I wished I was nearer, wished I could lay my hand over his.

“Many of those deaths I could have prevented. Some of them I even caused. Some of them...” He looked at me, considering, deciding. “Some of those I watched die, I killed.”

As I inhaled my lungs seemed to hit a stone boundary – but it was no more than I'd already guessed. With his background it was to be expected. I tried, as he had done, to keep my face neutral, open, and realised with surprising detachment that I wasn't in any way afraid.

“My family are gone – I don't know where, not for certain, but what I suspect is terrible. I cannot reach them. I will not see them again.” His mouth twisted into a crooked half-smile that didn't touch his eyes. “I've had a lonely life, Claire, you were right about that. Few have ever known even as much as I've told you. I have to keep it at a distance, you see – put things in the way, because if I let it get too near...” A pause. He sipped his drink, thinking. “My memory is peculiarly vivid,” he said slowly. “I find it all too easy to get lost in the past; at times it is like it is happening to me over and over again, and there is no escape from it.”

I wondered if he was talking about flashbacks, or PTSD – but it sounded like even more than that. Every word was weighed and carefully chosen, as though each syllable concealed three more, and the grief in his voice was as sharp as the salt in the sea.

What the hell happened to you?

His silver eyes strayed to the window and he swallowed the rest of his whisky. “I cannot tell you any more than that.”

The wind hissed again, and a soft pit-pit sound came from the windowsill. The sashes were leaking. The radiator gave a creak and a pop, and out in the streets students shrieked, dodging the rain.

I bit my lip, acutely aware of the rise and fall of my breath. “Mark...”

He looked back at me, half-wary, as though he expected to be told to leave. The idea was like a knife-wound in my gut.

I leaned over and passed him the bottle of Oban.

Shock stilled his features for a moment. “Are you sure?”

“I don't think Luvians are going to run out of whisky. We can always get more.”

He took it from me slowly, like a talisman, relief and disbelief mingling on his face. “You know that's not what I meant.”

It wasn't easy, I admitted. My outstretched arm felt cold and heavy, and as he accepted the bottle I had the sense that I'd done something profound, irreversible. Thoughts of darkly shining stars drifted across my mind, and I shook myself. “One thing, though.”

“Only one? Goodness.”

I knew the sarcasm was only for show; it was the first time I'd heard anything approaching a tremor in his voice. “You've said you can't tell me any more, and that's fine. But if there is something else you need to keep hidden, for your safety or for ours or for whatever reason, then maybe watch what you say in front of the other three.”

His eyes widened. Clearly he hadn't expected that.

“I know what I said before, but they're not stupid,” I added. I thought again of his uneasy response to their questions about childhood films, their wild speculations before Christmas, and what I'd seen out at the castle that day. “And you're not always careful.”

“No.” He curled his fingers around the whisky glass, eyes clouding as though they rested on something I couldn't see. “No, apparently not.”

I poured another whisky for myself, wincing at the draft that whistled through the room. “Christ. Sometimes I think I was mad to come to Scotland. At least London was warm – relatively speaking.”

He looked at me, astonished, a smile curling at the corner of his mouth. “Claire...”

“Yes?”

A slow shake of that beautiful head. “You remind me of one of my cousins.”

“Really?” The last thing I'd expected was for him to start talking about his lost family. I hesitated, then asked, “What was she like?”

He was...” The smile slipped. “Many things, but above all, loyal. Whatever any of us did, however imprudent or cruel or stupid, he never stopped believing that we were good people, and that everything would come right in the end.”

I blushed. My first instinct was to protest that he was giving me too much credit, but I stopped myself before my mouth was even open. I couldn't bat away the comparison like that, not when I now had a better idea what it must mean for him to make it. “Is this the same cousin who fell out of a tree because he climbed up it blindfolded?”

A shadow and a ghost of a laugh flickered in his eyes. “Yes. Oh, he was a fool when he was young! He used to drive my brother to distraction.”

A brother too – but I'd already pushed my luck plenty of times tonight. I slid out of my chair and sat cross legged on the floor, my back leaning against the sofa, on the pretence of putting the whisky bottle where we could both reach it.

“But he grew up to be a better man than any of us.”

His drink was cradled in his right hand; his left hung over the arm of the sofa near my head. Unthinking, I reached up and took it – and this time there was no flinch, no start, no look of shock or surprise. He looped his fingers through mine and smiled at me, though I could tell from his eyes that part of him, at least, was a long way away from St Andrews.

When the others came home, much later, we were both on the big sofa again. I was reading Northanger Abbey, my knees tucked tightly under my chin; Mark had fallen asleep, his head pillowed on his right arm.
The Paradox by Narya
Author's Notes:
Credit to Spiced Wine here - there is a conversation between Rosie and Claire in this chapter that is very like the one they have in Summerland. I didn't realise how alike the two scenes are until I re-read this chapter ahead of posting, it must have been a subconscious thing; I hope you don't mind!! :)
He spent the night on the z-bed in the box room. Unsurprisingly, he protested, but the others had arrived back looking like they'd been for a dip in the North Sea; we were all adamant that the weather was too grim for him to walk home.

“We'll have to move the suitcases into the hall for the night, but it's fine.” Theo shook out his tousled hair like a gundog. “You're not our first emergency guest.”

That night my dreams were strange and muddled. I was back in the courtroom but it was all wrong; I was defending a criminal case, and I kept trying to protest that I was a commercial barrister and I wasn't qualified for this, but in the way of dreams my voice died away whenever I tried to object. The jury weren't right either; they were dressed in strange billowing shirts and leather jerkins, and they pointed at the defendant and cried, “Murderer! Thief!” I turned to the judge for help, and my bones turned to ice as I saw that there was nothing under his wig and robes – and I looked back at the defendant, huddling in the dock, clutching at the filthy rags he was clad in – and though long matted hair hid his face, I knew him. His right hand was horribly burned, the flesh raw and weeping, and the crowd's atonal clamour swelled around him like a sea-storm, its song a raging fury of betrayal and death...

“Mark!”

I woke with his name a half-strangled scream on my lips, and covered my mouth, glad that my room was a good way from the others'. My throat felt like I'd swallowed sand; my face burned, and the covers were damp with sweat.

Christ, I hope he didn't hear me.

I shoved back the duvet and took a deep breath. Unlike some of my nightmares, this one didn't take much unpicking. My sleeping brain had tangled my past with Mark's confession, and twisted the two things into something uncanny and frightening – probably thanks to the whisky, I told myself, lying back down as morning crept through the threadbare curtains.

“Thief,” though – that makes no sense, he's not a thief.

The rain had slowed to a gentle pitter. Outside on South Street, I heard the sweep and splash of a car trundling along the wet cobblestones. There was no movement upstairs. I'd wondered whether Mark might let himself out early; the old Yale lock didn't need a key from the inside, and after last night's revelations, I couldn't imagine him wanting to sit down with us all and chatter away over breakfast. My room was nearest the front door, though, and I was used to the other three waking me up as they dashed off to early lectures or came clattering in after a late night. I hadn't heard anything.

It was too late to try and go back to sleep. I pulled on a hoodie and a pair of loose jeans, then padded to the kitchen to put the kettle on, shivering at the grey chill clinging to the air. The linoleum was cold and almost damp under my feet, as though the morning condensation had seeped in through the windowpanes. A quick check of the radiator told me the heating hadn't come on.

Typical.

While the tea brewed I coaxed the boiler back to life, then, armed with an extra jumper and a pair of thick hiking socks, drafted an email to our landlord asking if someone could come and take a look.

Apparently the others had all slept through the clunking and thudding from the boiler room; there was still no sign of life anywhere else in the house. Cradling my mug, my mind drifted back over my dream, and Mark's strange story.

“I've watched people die...some of those I watched die, I killed...”

Was I mad to trust him, I wondered? The scant details and his warnings about the need for secrecy suggested some kind of deep cover operation. Maybe he was ex-Secret Intelligence, and not a war veteran at all. It would explain a lot – the mysterious past, the injuries, the difficult memories, the relocation to a quiet seaside town, the accent that wasn't quite English.

“My family are gone...what I suspect is terrible...I will not see them again...”

That might fit too. I sipped my tea, sifting through my hazy knowledge of British security and counter-intelligence. We'd been taught a little about the various departments and their machinery on my Diploma course, but only the barest minimum to provide context for the cases we were studying, and the ethics governing them. I didn't know whether they'd recruit someone with such an obvious personal and emotional stake as a lost family, however well that might work as a motive in a novel or a TV series.

But it made no sense of the stranger things I'd noticed about him, the breath of the ancient and forgotten on the clifftop wind, my utter conviction – however short-lived it had been – that he wasn't human.

Because he has pointed ears. The cool, rational side of me rolled its eyes, and I pictured Henry Tilney's gently incredulous smile as Catherine related her suspicions about his father. It's probably a birth defect, loads of people have them.

I set my tea down on one of the side tables and ran a Google search for “born with pointed ears.” There were a couple of cases, but nothing like the perfect, leaf-shaped tip I'd briefly glimpsed out at the castle. I considered doubtfully whether he might have had plastic surgery to make them look like that – but then I remembered he hadn't wanted Rosie touching his head when she was dressing him for Pirates, and he never wore his hair back. If he didn't want anyone to see them, it made no sense to have them altered.

He could have had the surgery and regretted it, I argued – but that made no sense either. I knew he had money. If he hated his ears so much he could easily have them altered – or altered back. They had to be part of whatever he was hiding, which led my brain right back to where it didn't want to go. In fact, if I followed my train of thought all the way to its logical conclusion, I knew very well which creatures of myth and legend were traditionally depicted as immortal and beautiful with pointed ears...

I opened Google again, hesitating, knowing I was being silly.

Oh, why the hell not. There was no-one here to see. I typed “Do Elves live among us?” into the search engine and hit return.

Yahoo Answers and Reddit were full of the usual deeply thoughtful responses - “LOL no you fucking moron”, “Are you high?”, “Hahahahaha go back to playing Dungeons and Dragons you mouthbreather”, and so on. Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of links to Tolkien fan sites and journals – and further down, several posts from or about people who claimed to have encountered the inexplicable, often in woodland or by the sea. Laughing voices, figures glimpsed through trees, the whisper of a song on the wind. Most of it was vague, and I suspected a good chunk of the stories were made up – but some accounts rang truer. An eighteenth century shipwreck off the Cornish coast, from which half the crew were rescued by an extraordinary individual who swam to and fro between the ship and the shore until all were safe, then refused any aid or care for himself and disappeared across the clifftops, never to be seen again. A walking party in the Lake District in the sixties, led to safety by a beautiful, dark-haired guide who vanished when they approached civilisation. A German soldier in World War One, lying wounded in No Man's Land, cradled and sung to sleep by a mysterious man who glowed with a light as old as the stars...

Upstairs a door creaked open. The box room. I closed the laptop lid and shoved it under the sofa.

“Morning,” I called, noting with relief that my voice sounded normal, despite the feeling that a veil was fluttering over my view of the world, offering glimpses of something I wasn't sure I wanted to see.

“Hi.”

“Did you sleep OK?” I hauled myself off the sofa and headed back to the kitchen. “The heating went off, it was freezing when I got up...”

“I didn't notice.” Mark leaned against the door frame, clothes a little creased, hair bed-tousled. “I was just glad I didn't have to brave the rain.”

“Well, you're welcome to crash here any time.”

He shook his head, smiling slightly, as though still not quite believing. “Thank you.”

“Tea?” I flicked the switch on the kettle.

“No, I should get back – but thank you. Again.”

I knew – or suspected – that there was nothing at his house that urgently needed his attention, but I understood. The weight of the previous night sat between us like a sleeping behemoth. Lounging about in the living room drinking tea with the others, or gossiping over breakfast, would feel distinctly weird. “Well, text me if...” I paused, remembering that I didn't have his number, had never needed it. “Wait, do you even have a mobile?”

A slightly rueful smile. “I'm afraid not.”

“Landline?”

He shook his head.

“I'm guessing no internet either, then.”

“Correct.”

I was no longer surprised, and added it to my long tally of items on the Not Normal list. “How do you do your research?”

He lifted one elegant eyebrow. “In the library.”

“Yes, but...” I broke off as the bubbling roar from the kettle clicked off and settled into a warm chatter. “Never mind.”

More doors opened upstairs; there was the sound of yawning and running taps, and Mark and I both winced asof something large and heavy clattered to the floor.

“Back to the day job,” I grinned, pouring hot water into the teapot.

He laughed. “Claire, would you let me cook dinner for you?”

I looked up, surprised and pleased. “I could be persuaded.”

His answering smile – dazzling, brilliant – was for the first time since Christmas the same one that had so thoroughly and consistently disarmed me last semester. “When?”

“Whenever suits you.”

“Tonight – say seven o'clock?” He glanced upwards at the thud of footsteps across the landing. “Let them fend for themselves for once. I imagine you need a break.”

“Too true.” I knew what the others would say, and I knew that wasn't what he was asking, but even so a flower of warmth unfolded inside me. I hadn't realised until he'd made the offer, but I'd been afraid that after last night he might pull away again, retreat into memories and secrets like he had before Christmas. “Alright. Thank you.”

Upstairs, the cheerful guitar chords of Bryan Adams were added to the morning cacophony.

“Seven it is, then.” Mark reached for his jacket, still hanging on the back of the door from the previous night.

“Should I bring anything?”

“No need.” He paused. “Claire...”

I looked up from stirring the tea. “Don't. It's OK.”

***

Rosie came trotting downstairs a few minutes after Mark left, still in pyjamas and a dressing gown but looking utterly immaculate. “Was that the door I heard?”

“It was only Mark heading off. He had things to do.” I passed her a mug of tea.

“Thanks.” She blew over the top of it, and gave me a cheeky smile. “Oh my God, last night. That has to be the cutest thing I've ever seen.”

Here we go. I hid my wry grin as we headed back to the living room and curled up on the sofas. “I wouldn't read anything into it.”

She snorted. “Rubbish.”

“It's not what you think. He's...” I paused. Could I call him a friend? It didn't seem the right word for the strange relationship we shared. On one level it felt like I didn't know him well enough to use it; on another it felt wholly inadequate. “He just needed a listening ear last night. That's all.”

She nodded, her pretty face serious. “Is he OK? Theo's right, he did look rough – for him, I mean – not that he was right to come out and say it...”

“Well. Subtlety isn't Theo's strong suit.”

“Definitely not.” Cat-like, she curled herself into the cushions. “So?”

“I'm not sure there is a 'so.'” I knew I couldn't repeat half of even the vague story he'd given, and nothing at all about my own wild ideas. “I think Christmas was tough for him.”

“I get that. It can be a lonely time of year.”

Outside the rain was clearing, and sun was breaking through the cloud bank. Theo was singing in the shower. “It's weird.” I pulled the blanket up around my legs; the morning air was still cool. “I think he needs to be around people, but at the same he needs distance too.”

“Just not from you.”

I shrugged. “I was there when he needed to talk. That's all.”

“That is definitely not all. You haven't seen the way he looks at you; if you were in trouble, he'd walk through fire and blood to get you out of it.”

“That's a bit melodramatic.”

“Well, it's true.” Her blue eyes glinted. “Anyway, I have a new theory about him.”

“I didn't know there was an old one.”

She didn't react to my sarcasm. “I think he might be royalty.”

What?” My eyebrows flew up towards my hairline. “Don't be daft, how could he be?”

Her cheeks turned the same coral pink they always did when she was embarrassed and annoyed. “I don't mean British royalty, we know what they all look like.”

“Even European royalty is stretching it, though. He'd have bodyguards tailing him everywhere.”

“Not if he comes from a deposed regime. It'd explain him having old scars, and not liking stories about revolution and uprisings – and don't you think there's something in the way he carries himself?”

“I think that's called confidence.” Harrison strolled into the living room and settled himself at the table with a cup of tea. “Morning, Claire.”

“Morning.” I glanced over at him. “So you've heard this theory too?”

“We were talking about it in the pub last night.”

I shook my head. “You're all as bad as each other.” And you're worse, a guilty voice nagged. I leaned down and picked up my laptop again, scrolling back through the story of the German soldier.

“Don't you think it's romantic, though?” Rosie sighed and fluttered her lashes, looking for all the world like a lovelorn Disney heroine. “The exiled minstrel prince...”

Something slipped and blurred in my mind, like suddenly I was seeing the world in two halves, each one from a different angle.

“Murderer...thief...”

The song, the sea, the fire...sorrow deeper than the earth...

...old thick yellow pages...indigo leather embossed with eight-pointed stars...a familiar figure glimpsed through fog...petrichor and lightning...a fist grasping a fierce white light...


Breath crept down my throat and over my galloping heart. It made sense, it made so much sense - absurdly simple, like most riddles when you see the answer - and yet it was mad, impossible, even more than my crazed idea that Mark might be an Elf, or whatever creature it was that had given rise to our stories of them.

I shoved back the blanket and crossed to the bookshelf on legs full of frozen air. Giddy sickness rose from my stomach to my throat. How could I be so stupid? I hadn't read them in years, but they'd been sitting there all the time, old friends who'd held my hand through my awkward, self-conscious teenage years and the wild London rollercoaster of my undergraduate degree. Once I started working I'd had far less time for reading, but they'd moved with me from student halls to my poky little flat near chambers, and now all the way up to Scotland – five volumes in a sleek boxed set, all in black paperback, a different symbol on the spine of each one. A dragon, an eye, a pair of towers, a crown – and, last of all, an eight pointed star. Again I heard the chiding tones of Henry Tilney in my mind - “Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable” - but I thought of the things I saw when he played, beautiful faces gathered around a flickering fire, their hair catching in the light of the flames, copper-red and silver and gold and deepest black. Triumph swelled in me as I dared to name them, and then plunged as I remembered their terrible fates – and the burn on Mark's hand. I'd seen what was seared into the ruined skin, that weird and beautiful geometric arrangement, like the facets of a jewel...

Exile. Minstrel. Prince.

“Claire?”

You knew already. I stilled my breath for a moment as a mad, cackling laugh threatened to escape. You've known for months. Part of me had realised the first time I heard him sing. I thought of the dream I'd had, the light beneath the waves, my aching need to be by the sea the next day.

“Claire?”

“Sorry. I – I've got reading to do. I thought I'd left one of my books in the pub.”

Harrison and Rosie shared a glance.

“It's fine. It's there. It's right there.” I sank back onto the sofa, calves shaking, and pulled my computer into my lap as they went back to their conversation. They'd moved on from discussing Mark, and were currently debating whether Harrison should ask out the cute guy from his Geography tutorial. They were safely distracted. I took a slow, steadying breath, and entered one word into the search bar on my browser.

Maglor.

In fairness, I mused, it wasn't an obvious leap to make. I'd laughed at Rosie's theory, calling it a stretch, but this...this bordered on insanity. Even now, as the wild rush of realisation ebbed away, I was beginning to doubt. He was a character from a book, for heaven's sake. How could he be real?

A most ingenious paradox, is it not?

I sent a flick of anger after the mocking voice in my head.

The search returned thousands of images. None of them looked like him – but then, why would they? I already knew from searching for Mark that he clearly avoided having his picture taken. I returned to the web links, and clicked on the first result.

Other names: Kanafinwë, Makalaurë.

Makalaurë. Mark Lowry. I snorted softly.

“You're not always careful...”

“...apparently not...”


I shook my head. Not careful...good grief, between his name and his hand he might as well wear a sign around his neck explaining the whole story...but no. I wasn't sure I'd ever met another person who'd read The Silmarillion - Harrison, I knew, had never got past The Lord of the Rings - and it was only yesterday that I'd seriously begun to consider that he might not be human. If I hadn't seen the tip of his ear out at the castle, if the wind had been blowing in a different direction, I might have accepted his sketched explanation, assumed he was an ex-spy hiding from his past in an out-of-the-way corner of eastern Scotland.

“I've watched people die...some of those I watched die, I killed...”

Ice and sick heat shot through me. He hadn't meant deaths in the line of duty, necessary for the defence of the realm.

I cannot tell you any more than that...

…“Murderer!”


I closed my laptop lid, slowly. Rosie and Harrison – and Theo now, I realised – were still discussing Harrison's potential date. A dull grey ache bloomed in my chest. What would I tell them?

Nothing. Tell them nothing.

After all, what was there to say? That their new friend was a fictional killer Elf, and wouldn't be coming over for dinner any more?

Dinner. Shit.

I rubbed my temples. I had no idea how to contact him and cancel – I didn't even know his university email address, he must at least have one of those – and then I gave a silent, bitter laugh as I realised I was panicking about the etiquette of avoiding dinner with...

With what? With whom? The kind stranger who had saved our show last semester, who had bought me cake when he knew I'd had bad news, who had calmed my nerves and pinned up my hair. The insightful man who had understood Rosie so easily, who had coached Theo into the performance of his life, who had recognised Harrison's jealousy and kept his distance until it abated. The brilliant, charismatic performer who had brought Venue One to its feet, cheering and whistling and screaming for more. The gentle musician who had teased me with guessing games in the practice room – almost, I realised, as though he was willing me to work it out. The lonely, haunted soul who had stared out across the sea, lost in a grief I couldn't hope to understand. The patient listener who had sat through the halting, emotional explanation of my aborted legal career, who had looked at me with nothing but compassion when I told him the truth that still frightened me, that I had kept even from my parents and my cousin.

Satisfied that my legs weren't about to give way, I took myself off for a long shower. I stood under the stream of hot water, hair dripping down my back, turning the facts over again as coolly and carefully as I could, the same way I'd have put together a court case – not that I'd ever had anything like this come across my desk. Evidence for the defence: student shenanigans and a weird emotional connection. Evidence for the prosecution: a work of fiction, albeit perhaps one with a basis in fact.

Maybe that was it. I hadn't heard Mark's – Maglor's – side of events. Maybe Tolkien hadn't got it right, or maybe there was evidence I hadn't heard. Extenuating circumstances. Hell, maybe I was really losing it, and there was a perfectly rational explanation for all of this, and Mark wasn't Maglor at all – although even as I thought it I knew he was, knew it with the same deep certainty that I knew the colour of the sky and the path of the sun. And suddenly I knew, too, that he wouldn't attempt to defend what he'd done. I wondered if he even regretted it. He hadn't said so last night, I realised, cold fingers creeping down my spine – but then I thought of the catch in his voice when he spoke of his cousin, his taut refusal to sing of revolution and bloodshed, the wary look in his eyes after he'd told me the barest bones of his story, like a hunted animal waiting to be shot. Tears clotted in my nose and throat. So much sorrow, so much grief – older than memory, and yet I'd felt it, in his song and in my dreams...

I turned off the water and pushed my hair back from my face, decision made. I had to talk to Mark – to Maglor? - no, Mark, easier to think of him that way. And I wasn't waiting for dinner, unless for some reason I couldn't find him. He wouldn't hurt me, that much I did know; I'd dismissed Rosie's words earlier, but if I hadn't believed before Christmas that he cared about me, trusted me, yesterday had shown it beyond doubt.

He didn't trust you enough to tell you the truth.

But the truth – if it was the truth – was so far beyond the bounds of sense and reason that I knew I'd have instinctively rejected it, if I hadn't got there on my own.

I dried my hair and threw on some clean clothes. Making sure the others were occupied with revision, I pulled The Silmarillion down from the bookshelf and tucked it into my coat pocket, where it weighed like a talisman against my side.
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