And...here's how that turned out.
Anyone who tries to say something along the lines of 'but Fahye, 7500 words is not a drabble' really doesn't know my writing habits AT ALL.
(Title from the Hunters & Collectors song 'When The River Runs Dry' which is a sneakily eyai-perfect song, to me.)
good news for beautiful people
"There are no waterfalls in London," says Julian Verey.
"It doesn't have to be a waterfall," says Dom.
The point is this: if you gaze at a waterfall for long enough, or any other stream of contant motion in a single direction, then transfer your gaze to an immobile surface, that surface will appear to move in the opposite direction. Waterfall moves down, rocks -- seem to -- move upwards. Or anything similar. The common name for this is the waterfall phenomenon, but the correct name is the motion aftereffect.
"How does it work?"
Dom sees Tee's mouth flick into an approving expression. Asking that question is an indication that Julian is the right sort of person for their line of work, even if he is hopelessly underskilled.
"Neurons in the visual cortex tire after a certain time, which allows the system to adapt to any constant input, so that it can react with greater sensitivity to any change. Those cells tuned to the direction of movement will have tired by the time you look at the motionless surface, and so will have a lower baseline firing rate than those cells tuned to the opposite direction. Creating a transient impression of movement where none exists -- movement without displacement, actually, because that's processed by higher centres."
Julian looks at him for a while; not confused, just looking, as though Dom might add something else and he doesn't want to miss it.
"How did we stray onto this topic?" he asks finally.
"Julian," Pru calls, and Julian darts off to see what she wants.
The motion aftereffect is of absolutely no use in the real world. It is purely an artefact of design, an illusion spat out by the visual system because the ability to adapt to continuous input is of use, under other circumstances. Dom believes in the elegance of the human machine, and spends far more of his time trying to replicate it than trying to improve upon it, so Blacksheep eyai -- indeed, most eyai except those coded by the most pedantic and strange -- will experience the waterfall phenomenon. It's easy enough to include the technical explanation for the illusion in the basic store of scientific knowledge uploaded to any given model, but approximately 60% of the time Dom doesn't bother. Humans, after all, don't come with their own psychophysical lexicon, and they've had to work it all out for themselves, piece by piece, culminating in people like Dom who see the human mind as an exquisite circuitboard.
How they strayed onto this topic: Julian moves about the office like a human twitch, seldom stationary, never in the same direction twice. You could watch him for hours and never adapt to him at all.
It takes Dom a long time to realise that Agatha is the twin in whom their odd, raw idealism has set down the deepest roots, because the ratio of their voices in the office air is a good 2:1 in Julian's favour. Blacksheep accepts their lofty frequencies quickly; their philosophies less so.
Agatha has a formidable silence in her arsenal, but Julian's strategy seems to involve announcing himself in little sounds, soft things, meant perhaps to soothe, or simply to avoid startling anyone. It can't be shyness: once he has clicked his tongue against his teeth, or huffed out his breath, or hummed something in a crescendo from nothing, he thinks nothing of invading one's time and space.
He slides into Dominic's frame of vision, a frown pinching his face like a peg applied to the skin in one place. "Is it very impolite to talk about money?"
"With strangers," Dom says, and looks up. "I thought you had discarded etiquette."
Someone tweaks the peg, then removes it altogether. "Inherited privilege," Julian says, snobbish and sincere, "is not the same as good manners."
Dom swallows the irony and nods as though he agrees, which he maybe even does, though he can easily imagine his mother's hard stare and her elaborate table settings, the uneasy swirl of culture through their lives. Curry wiped from fingers onto starched white napkins. Manners as the frank upwards glance; manners as the hand lingering against the cool metal of the Filter.
"We aren't strangers," Julian's saying.
"And so I take it you want to talk about money." It's difficult to maintain the right mindset when it comes to Julian and serious conversations. Dom is eternally waiting for the punchline, for the twitchy smile to appear, but perhaps he's projecting. He himself never took anything seriously at seventeen, with the exception of clothing.
"I'm interested in the variety," Julian says, defensive. "Tee's so tube it's incredible, Pru and Robin have always been pipe and always will be, I understand that, and Stephanie --" He shrugs. "I can't decide which century she's living in. But she says that your best project has been your own life."
That’s an old line of Steph's, and Dominic wonders how she came to impart it to Julian. "Nobody cares about my name, or my ancestors, or my profession. I dress to fashion, I live to fashion, and I speak well. I am exactly as pipe as I'm assumed to be by my neighbours, which is: entirely."
Julian smiles. "You do speak well. But your accent is strange."
Dom's accent is the result of lazy cultivation. It could be cloudier, if he worked at it, but he's perfectly content with his current situation, and luckily a little bit of strangeness never hurt anyone in the upper classes. "It gets me by," he says.
"I meant no offence. I like it." Julian bites his lip for a moment before bursting out with -- "How can you have grown up down here, and still support the system to the extent that you do?"
Weirdly enough, it's a question with pipe echoes to it. You need the memory of money to ask that kind of question. Dom finds a joke in his mouth and lets it lie there until it dissolves, then turns his tablet around and taps a finger on a line of code. "This is a system. I can change it however I wish. But the Pipe and the Tube are life; all you can do is work within the system as it exists. I have ability and now I have money. I wasn't about to sit around on one side of the Filter just to make a point."
Julian is staring at him. This is happening with greater frequency.
"We are opposites, you and I," the boy declares, probably sounding not even half as grand as he hopes. It's that itch of laughter again, undermining his voice. "What is the opposite of nouveau riche? Vieux pauvre," he adds, without a pause. "No, that just means the same thing. Nouveau pauvre."
"You look just as pipe as I do," Dom says, "if we're pointing fingers."
"These are the only clothes I have," Julian says, defensive again now. Uncertain. He crosses his ankles, uncrosses them, crosses them the other way, as though too conscious of his own limbs.
"Are you expecting me to suggest that you sell them?" Dom says. "Or burn them? That waistcoat is by Duncan Armitage."
Julian looks down at the gorgeous line of his own chest and runs his fingers across the intricate intercut silks in peacock blues, the watery brilliance of the overlaid stitching. It's a work of art. Dom has been stopping himself from touching it all day.
"Who?" Julian says, and Dominic could cry, he really could.
"No!" Tee lets the tablet fall back onto the desk so that he can use both hands to express his vigorous displeasure via the medium of his own hair. When he's done it looks even more disastrous than usual and Dominic's scalp is itching; he has the sudden urge to find a mirror. "This really ain't -- Pru!" Tee yells.
Julian's arms are crossed tight. "I did my level best, Theodore."
"Who're you calling Theodore?" Tee glares.
"I believe I'm rubbing off on him," says Pru. "What's the matter?"
"This." Tee waves his hand over the tablet. "Maybe it works for Agatha's code, but kid, I don't know what this annotation means."
Julian springs forward to snatch the tablet up and wave it before Tee's nose. "No, no, it's really very simple. I used a mutated version of the Suzuki markup protocol, with some extra --"
"Pru," Tee wails, and screws his eyes shut.
"Julian, dear," says Pru. "Pass that one to me. Take this one of Dominic's -- I'm halfway through, so you can use my markup as a guide."
"Why must his code always be full of maths?" New tablet in hand, Julian sulks over to the couch and sits up on the back of it. His trousers are charcoal grey with a blue pinstripe, one leg crossed over the other. He looks up to see Dominic watching him and wheedles, "Come and help me."
"That rather defeats the purpose of having betas," Dom points out.
"I won't know how to do it in the future unless you explain it to me now," Julian says. It's midway between a statement of fact and a threat.
"See how much of it you can muddle out in ten minutes, while I finish running this."
He frowns. "I don't like to muddle."
"That's a lie," Agatha calls.
"Do be quiet, Agatha," says Julian, sounding exactly like Pru.
Dom turns back to the simulator with a smile on his face.
The sky above Wembley Stadium goes all the way up.
"Fair vast it is," says Prerna, who is quite drunk already, and will likely break into song at any moment.
"This is Julian Verey," Dom says, hastily forestalling. "Our newest beta."
"Hello," says a nearby mass of synthetic orange wool. Julian, enthusiastic, has already purchased a lot of colourful merchandise in order to support a team whose name he hasn't yet managed to pronounce correctly. "Delighted to meet you." Rain drips off his long nose.
"Likewise. Robin not here today?"
"He's sitting with Steph." Dom waves a hand to a distant area of the stadium. "One of her friends wanted some free tech advice."
"Robin's too good-natured for his own -- good." Prerna chuckles to herself.
Luckily it's not as cold as it could be, given the season, and so the only real threat the rain provides is to visibility. It does make for a more entertaining game. The players send up muddy triangular sprays as they skid towards the ball, bodies at angles incompatible with staying upright for very long; they stike the ball or don't, collapse and rise again, the rain already washing the most superficial dirt from their hands and knees. Long grubby trackmarks criss-cross the field.
"Don't -- ohhh," Julian groans as the goalkeeper flails towards the ball, which is rising off a sharply angled kick, and misses by a barely perceptible distance. Barely perceptible. With the part of his mind that's always trying to work even when the rest of him is playing, Dom thinks about minimum visual angles of resolution and staircase testing. They're waiting for the ball to be retrieved from the net and the game to recommence. Prerna, along with half the orange-clad members of the crowd, is yelling insults at the unfortunate goalkeeper, who is busying himself with his gloves and bouncing up and down on his feet. Dom calls up from childhood the unstable feeling of marshy grass, the soft squelch on impact.
One all. A couple of penalties, missed. The rain feints at letting up and then settles smugly back down again. The match is almost over, Dominic is thinking ahead to the unfashionable and wonderful beer he plans to order when they retire to the pub, and the goal is scored off an unlikely pass before anyone has time to tense themselves in anticipation. Dom only really notices because the girl sitting in front of him stands up and throws her arms into his visual field.
"HUZZAH," Julian yells, his accent more ludicrous than ever, but everyone around them is making too much noise to notice or care. Prerna gives a musical whoop and throws her arms around Julian, who, after a frozen moment, returns the hug. "Oh, we do this," he shouts. "All right, I see," and the next second he launches himself at Dom with surprising momentum.
Dominic squeezes him tight, adjusting his feet to keep the two of them upright in the swaying crowd and on the wet metal, and smiles at the face Prerna is making at him over Julian's shoulder.
"Now you've done it," she says. "He's going to be a proper little fanatic, this one."
Dom releases his grasp on Julian and pulls back. "He needed a hobby."
"Your hair," Julian says despairingly, and kisses him. It's very fast. His lips are cold against Dom's, slick with rain, and when he pulls away he looks pleased with himself. Beneath the edge of the beanie his face is glowing with satisfaction. Dominic is on the verge of teasing him about overexcitement, but Julian gives a sudden sneeze and lifts his gloves to stare at the sodden rusty colour that the wool has turned. "I don't believe my hands could be any wetter if I'd plunged them into the Thames."
"Pru is going to have my head if you catch pneumonia at your very first match," Dom says.
Julian looks up, squinting and blinking against the falling drops. "No, I understand," he says, obliquely. "Everything else down here has a roof. It's nice."
A roof, on which something higher can be built.
"Tea," Julian declares, leaning much closer than is necessary to place it on Dom's desk. "Two sugars, you savage. Oh, and there's this. Happy birthday."
Dom picks up the small package, silky grey tissue paper folded and sealed with golden wax and stamped with familiar curlicue initials. "This is --"
"I looked into that Duncan Armitage fellow," Julian says. His voice is calm, but from the sound of it there's a grin emerging. "And would you believe, my father has a standing account at their Upper Oxford store. I'm sure he won't notice if a few extra items appear on the bill every now and again."
Steph whistles and grabs it from Dom's hand, using her much more effective fingernails to rip through the paper. Dom winces. He waits for her acerbic comment, but she simply whistles again and sets a tiny black satin bag down on the desk. Dom tugs the drawstring loose and then tips the contents into his palm: the cufflinks are certainly real amethyst, their silver rim etched with the same DA as the wax seal. Dom stares at them for a little while, imagining them set against the crisp white of his best dress shirt.
"Do you like them?" Julian bobs on his toes and leans in again. "Don't you want to give me something in return? I can provide suggestions, if necessary. And diagrams."
Dom laughs. "Back to work with you. And thank you; they're exquisite. Perhaps there's hope for your sense of style yet."
Julian grins again and veers off to his sister's desk.
"Dominic," says Steph, in a voice that bodes no good. Dom gives her his best smile, but she's been immune to it since they were ten.
"I realise you're enjoying the constant polishing of your ego, but are you ever going to put the lad out of his misery one way or the other?"
"He doesn't seem particularly miserable to me."
Her eyes narrow. "No dodging."
But pinning down his thoughts about Julian is difficult; like the boy himself, they twitch away, perpetually on the move. He is enjoying it. No other member of Blacksheep has ever done more than amiably mock Dominic's delight in following the fashions, his desire to create of himself something just as beautiful as his most elegant algorithms. Julian notices his new shoes, and will run the fabric of his best coats between two fingers, and looks at him as though he's a piece of artwork requiring no complex analysis in order to be appreciated. If the flirting were to stop, it would remove a lot of the fun from Dominic's days.
Not that any of this means Julian is actually serious about it, any more than he's ever serious about anything. Dom points this out to Steph, who actually takes off her glasses so that she can stare at him as though he's a malfunctioning eyai capable only of babbling nonsense.
"You mad, mad man," she says flatly. "He's done everything but actually take his clothes off, and if it ever gets to that point then Tee will be forced to terminate his contract for the good of us all."
"We see each other every day, Steph," he points out. "I don't mind being someone's -- introduction, as it were -- but I feel as though I should draw the line at being their coworker as well."
She snorts, polishing her glasses on the knee of her trouser leg. "I'm afraid I don't think that highly of you. When you want someone, you're not the type to make excuses."
"Perhaps just once," he says, testing the idea. "To get it out of his system."
Dom's met, and fucked, men scattered from one end of the gender spectrum to the other, but he's still convinced that there are some facial expressions that require an X chromosome. Steph levels one in his direction. "Out of his system," she echoes. "Waris Dominic Qureshi. You honestly think that's possible, at this point?"
Stephanie Olivia Hope Euphemia Flynn -- who really should know better than to start playing the name game with anyone whose parents stopped at three -- is the only person alive, barring Dom's mother, who has the ability to make him feel guilty about anything. Dom isn't quite there yet, but Steph clearly thinks he should be, which is startling enough in itself.
"I take it you don't."
"Maybe if you'd done it months ago," Steph says. "Now the boy has a fixation."
Dominic juggles the cufflinks in his hand and looks across the room, where Julian is nibbling on a sugar cube as Agatha explains something to him, her face as animated as it only ever is when she's working. She and Tee both: they come truly alive when writing code. Julian glances over and meets Dom's eyes, sticks the rest of the sugar into his mouth and his fingertip with it, then smiles wickedly around it and directs his attention back to his twin.
Steph prods him in the side. "As I said."
All you can do is work within the system as it exists.
Dominic was wrong, as it turns out, brutally and completely wrong. The system can be changed. Dom, so sure most days of the distinction between reality and mere perception, feels on this night as though nothing is quite real; especially not he himself. He's acutely aware of his own apartment, a place that seems, now, very far away. It's as though he's a child again, glancing constantly upwards but trapped by gravity. The Pipe is still and silent. Robin and Pru are doing the same thing, the glancing, and Marie has to repeat herself when she offers them the use of her and Tee's spare room.
To everyone's surprise it's Agatha who then turns around and says, "And Dominic, you must stay with us." Dom would prefer to stay with Steph, really, but Agatha adds, "We would be very pleased to have you," and he looks at her more closely. Her right hand is clasped tightly in her brother's, while her left has a handful of good-quality silk and is creating a starburst of deep creases in her skirt. She looks as she did on the day the twins first arrived at Blacksheep: defiant, young, and lost.
Dom says, "Thank you. Of course."
He wins the courtesy war with Agatha and sleeps on the couch, which is long enough to fit him but so narrow that he's worried about rolling off. As far as he knows, the twins could easily afford a better place than this, the first apartment they could find after Tee grudgingly accepted them as apprentices, but they've never shown a desire to relocate, and asking about it would be impolite.
Dom wakes after only a few hours with the far-off familiar sound of the Pipe in his ears and makes an attempt to leave unseen, but Julian is drinking coffee in the hallway when he emerges. Julian has changed his clothes, but otherwise looks as though he's slept little or not at all.
"I'll come and help you," he says.
"There's no need --"
"Please don't argue," Julian says, sounding as tired as he looks, and Dom nods.
The journey could almost, almost be Dom's normal commute home; only a handful of people rising through the Filter but crowds and more crowds on the Pipe itself. The atmosphere feels as though it could go one way or the other, tipping into either silence or chaotic discussion, and the silence wins. Julian sits with his shoulder pressed up against Dom's and his hands clasped in his lap, a posture that looks casual but for the whiteness of his fingers and nails, betraying the force he's using. Neither of them say anything until Dom is opening the second lock on his door, the mechanical one, and pausing with his small bunch of keys in his hand.
"How many?" Julian says. "I've never asked."
"Two." Dom singles out his housekey and folds the others away in a bunch, in his palm. "Marie bought the models for me, she gets discounts from her tissue people if she orders in bulk. We patched up their code, of course. Bought some advanced cooking programs from one of Tee's contacts."
The apartment is silent and Dom thinks, has to think, about how involved Kate and Satine were in this revolution. Whether they finished the dusting, locked the door behind them and then went to plant bombs. Whether they simply waited for that voice on the radio. Whether he could have written something into them, somehow, to make them immune; whether he could have walked in to find them squeezing oranges for juice or wound down on the floor.
He checks every room. Nothing is out of place. There are no notes left behind, and no acts of petty vandalism, not that Dom was really expecting either.
"I would make a comment about the size of your wardrobe," Julian says, once the tense circuit is complete, "but I appreciate that this isn't the time."
It surprises a smile onto Dom's lips. "Later, then."
Julian leans against his side again, for a moment and then takes half a circular step to stand directly in front of Dom. "You'll be fine," he says, and, ridiculously: "I promise."
Julian has that unserious face -- one could be forgiven for assuming that everything in his life is a joke to him and that he always knows exactly what he's doing -- but right in this moment he looks sober and a little scared and now older, now younger, than seventeen. He looks like his sister. Dominic has a moment of unexpected sadness; it feels incongruous. Then he remembers the events of last night and wonders why it should feel that way at all, surely sadness is expected, surely he can construct a great complex chord of it from the new losses in his life and the larger ones in the lives of others.
But the sadness passes, a momentary rebuke only, and he feels nothing but a shifting sense of relief as Julian hooks a firm hand behind his neck and kisses him. The boy pauses just long enough to be sure that Dom isn't pulling away, and then resumes. Like Julian himself, the kiss has no rhythm but makes up for it with sheer flair; Dom is momentarily too bemused to even think of reciprocating, and Julian notices this fast.
"A little help, here, Dominic." His voice is pitched level, but his cheekbones are pink.
Dom likes to think of himself as having higher standards than, if he's honest, he actually does. He's constructed cerebral levels of taste over and above the disappointingly frequent reactions of his own body, and he chooses carefully; intelligently. The truth is that he's wanted Julian forever in that gentle low-grade way that he wants people who pass him every day on the street, men with clean jawlines or well-tailored trousers or a certain way of smiling at the ground. It's an automatic wanting, that one, just so much background noise in the system.
But this is a spike, something more immediate, and it's almost a surprise. It certainly isn't cerebral but it isn't gentle either. On some numb nightclub autopilot that's a response to Julian's blatant youth, Dominic is checking the diameter of his pupils, but there's the right amount of iris visible in that strangely cold shade of blue. The autopilot says, realising how stupid it sounds as soon as it's uttered, "Are you sure?"
"Well, no," Julian says, with more sarcasm than Dom can remember emerging from the mouth of anyone who isn't Steph, his cheeks going even pinker than before, "No, actually, I've been trying to get you to sleep with me for eighteen months and I'm choosing right now to have second thoughts, Christ, will you please stop being an idiot --"
It's the please that does it, spat out in Julian's fussy voice, flattening the barrier that's keeping that initiating spike of desire away from Dom's motor cortex. Action potential. Conduction. And Dom laughs at himself, at the way his brain turns in these quick self-analysing loops, so when he kisses Julian it's with this amusement shaking his chest and widening his mouth. He feels young, ungraceful with haste, but at the same time -- comparing himself to Julian -- old. He knows all about relativity when it comes to the things people perceive, the relationships between magnitude and intensity, Weber's law of barely perceptible change. But it feels so good to be kissing someone that the working part of his mind is gradually silenced.
Julian has a mild taste to him, nothing easily distinguishable, nothing that leaps out and demands notice. His lips are easily led. Dominic counts down lungsful of air and then reluctantly pulls away, letting peripheral sensations leak in again. He is standing in his own living room. Hedonism is perhaps not the best philosophy at this point. There's a lot to be done.
"There's a lot to be done," he says.
"The sky has all but fallen, Dominic," Julian says, breathless. "What else do you feel like doing, if not this?"
Dom thinks about the eyai they passed in the street last night, the one with the gun. He thinks about the glittering disaster of the Gallows, and hates his own sour fear; he takes refuge in the feel of Julian's legs shifting against his, and the spiking desire -- stronger now -- that fills his body with aches. Weber's law: everything is so completely overturned that this one small change will hardly make a difference.
"Nothing at all," he says, and undoes the collar of Julian's shirt.
"Ah, I remember now," Dom says. "Clothing wasn't the only thing I took seriously at seventeen."
"Why are you talking," Julian whines, the hypocrite. Dom raises his eyebrows and Julian rolls his eyes in return -- "Yes, but you see, we can't both be talking," which is about as much sense as Julian ever makes when his mind is fixed on the other thing that seventeen-year-olds take seriously.
Prerna was right: a proper little fanatic, in this as in everything. When it comes to politics, most of Blacksheep's people are secondarily capitalist and primarily flexible, or to put it less kindly: self-interested. The twins have trouble maintaining the momentum of their ideas and take to bouncing them back and forth between themselves. Agatha then learns to start her conversations only with the eyai themselves, becoming the unofficial first point of contact for clients. She shakes their hands and listens to their desires, or whatever the word should be.
Julian, however, rechannels his fanaticism into less high-minded pursuits, leaping from a discussion about logic loops in the barely-comprehensible Verey coding language, to impressing Dominic's footy-mad brothers with his new appreciation for the offside rule and season averages, to weaving his imagination and physical energy around Dominic in a fixed and giddy orbit.
"I feel old," Dom says to Steph, and she ruffles his hair with a sadistic flick of her hand. Her smile reveals a lot of teeth.
"That's all you've got to complain about, ain't it?" She's been arguing code with Tee all morning and has snapped up some of his speech patterns in either revenge or self-defence. "You're loving every bit of it. Don't you lie to me -- I know what well-shagged looks like on you."
Perhaps not every bit: Dom has never before considered the consequences of having the same person in his bed for any long period of time. Julian has begun to adopt pieces of crockery in Dom's kitchen for his personal use, and he is starting to get his head around the myriad cues for Dom's deliberately complex sound system. Dom is awaiting the day he returns home to find that Julian's irrepressible urge to tinker has left the entire thing a mess of command lines that go nowhere and trip over their syntax, all the invisible wires and cogs brought out into the light of day and rendered useless.
But by and large, certainly Dominic is happy about the sudden jolt of energy with which his life has been injected. It's a distraction, and a good one. Everyone at Blacksheep talks about Aggie as the precocious twin, but Jules has a stealthy briliance to him as well: like eyai he has very little instinct to begin with, but learns at the speed of light -- and, having processed the lesson, pauses only for a moment before turning his expectancy on Dominic again; that curious blink of his eyes that says, yes, and now?
"You know," Dom says, "most people are content just to have --"
"How dull," says Julian, talking over him. "Now, this time you should be Oliver Wolf, and I'll be the unwilling labourer eyai who needs to be seduced into joining the Cause!"
Jules, Dominic is realising, would probably have ended up writing depraved and unrealistic erotica had the opportunity not arisen for him to act it all out instead.
"Your displays of politics are becoming deeply twisted."
Julian grins. "I like to think of it as a sign of solidarity. Wear this." He shoves an armful of white silk at Dom.
"I am perfectly capable of accessorising my own sexual fantasies, thank you," says Dom.
"Of course you are." Julian dives straight for the weapon that Dom hasn't had time to become immune to: he pats a hand over his own hair, and then looks Dom straight in the eyes and says in his twitchy offhand cumulonimbus voice: "Please?"
There's a transparency to Pru's moods that Dominic finds comforting on most occasions, but today he's regretting it. Around lunchtime his shredded attention span forces him to march over to her desk, place his hands flat in the gaps between old teacups and blank dead tablets and beg for a clean blow, if not mercy.
"Whatever the conversation is, Pru, could we please have it now?"
Pru nods as though he's done something praiseworthy, and stands. "In the kitchen."
Once in the kitchen, Pru strokes two fingers down the side of the kettle in a motion that looks more automatic than anything else, and turns to face him with her hands clasped regally in front of her. A green shawl tesselates the white skin of her arms.
"I believe," she declares, "that it's time for us to talk about Julian. You surely know --"
"What is there to talk about?" Dom wonders if it isn't too late to make a break for it.
"Please don't interrupt, Dominic," Pru says.
By us, she obviously meant me. Dom brushes invisible dust from his sleeves so that he doesn't have to look her in the eye while she carefully and sensibly explains that Julian is young, and prone to wild enthusiasms, and that as the older and more experienced party it is entirely Dominic's responsibility to safeguard everyone's emotions and set some reasonable boundaries.
Dom moves on to polishing the toe of his new boot on the back of his trouser leg and wishes gloomily that he had any sort of poker face. As soon as his thoughts start to drift, it will show. Though it's hard to ignore Pru when she's being rational at you; her eminently logical mind will construct a watertight argument and then, without pausing for breath, she will demolish any points of objection you might have been constructing along the way. She makes her living finding flaws. Dom's thoughts manage to sneak along the almost-tangent of wondering if she was in the debating leagues at her Pipe school, and if so how many people she reduced to tears along the way.
"-- and I know you're a decent man," she's saying, in a promisingly conclusive cadence.
The kettle starts to whistle Handel at them and Pru blinks at it in surprise, confirming Dom's hypothesis that she hadn't actually wanted tea when she turned it on. It's simply the thing she does when she first enters the kitchen, just as Tee glances at whichever cupboard currently hides his unhealthiest snacks, just as both of the twins fetch their food or drink immediately, waiting until it's secure in their hands before they initiate conversation. Automatic scripts, unnoticed. Dom wonders what his own are.
The clap -- clap -- clap of Julian's thick-soled boot swung against the table leg is terrible counterpoint to the ache worming its way across the left side of Dom's skull, sending fingers down to his eye sockets. There's a problem with the gain in this project's sound modulation code and he's been trying to pinpoint it for four hours; for the last one of these, his frustration has been compounded by Julian's bitching about deadlines and best laid plans, punctuated by filthy promises that have hardly improved Dom's ability to concentrate on this stupid bloody piece of shit program --
Julian gives a louder-then-usual kick. "Surely you must be almost --"
"Not now!" Dom snaps, glancing up, his headache becoming loud fury in his voice.
Like a sheet pulled suddenly taut from all four corners, Julian's face loses all expression. "Yes," he says, in a careful voice that's close to unrecognisable, and then he coughs and turns normal again. "I apologise. I'll --"
"Jules." Dom knows better than most people how easily the human senses can be misled and manipulated, but still trusts the evidence of his own eyes. He takes hold of Julian's forearm; slides the grip to his wrist. His pulse is barely palpable against Dom's poorly angled fingers, but clearly coming down off a racing speed.
"Oh, good lord." Julian makes a face. "Please don't try to make me talk about it."
"Talk?" He makes a face in return. It's a gamble, if not an entirely truthful one. Maybe he doesn't want to talk, maybe discussions of emotions have never been his forte, but he's a scientist and he wants to know the whys and wherefores oiling the mess of human clockwork, as Tee calls it. "Does that strike you as in character?"
It's a gamble and it works, somehow, to some extent. Julian smiles and leans down to kiss him, fingertips beckoning against the underside of his chin, a gesture with far more affection than authority in it. "Until tomorrow, Dominic."
Dom has never been attracted to women in any way past a vague and aesthetic admiration, so it's strange to look at Agatha Verey and pick her features apart, feeling something akin to that quirk of dysfunctional cognition that can lead people to believe themselves surrounded by imposters, recognising a face but missing the essential physiological spark of yes, this person is mine. Agatha has lips that Dom has kissed over and over again, but hers are motionless, set in neutral. Agatha's eyes have opened sometimes sleepy, sometimes lost, on Dom's pillows. Agatha has Julian's wheat-shadow hair grown wild and untended, caught at one side of her neck and spilling down the scalloping of fabric that cradles her thankfully unfamiliar body.
In addition, her poker face is ten times better than Dominic's will ever be, and at least five times better than Pru's, so when she finally darts into the kitchen after him and slides the door shut, he's unprepared; if there were any warning looks, he missed them entirely.
"I want to talk about you and my brother," she says, and Dom narrowly manages to avoid saying, Not again. He's given a brief reprieve while Agatha opens the tin of biscuits and snatches up a handful of them, visibly pauses, then exhales and puts some back in again one by one, as though illustrating mathematics for children: if Agatha has five jam drops and she puts three back in the tin, how many will she be left with?
Dom waits for her to turn around again before he speaks. He is learning what is Julian's alone and what can be extrapolated to his sister, and he doesn't want to interrupt. She sets her biscuits down on a saucer, one neatly balanced on top of the other, and pushes it aside: these are for later, her action says.
"If this is going to be about reasonable boundaries," Dom says, "I think you of all people should know that Jules only believes in unreasonable ones."
Agatha tilts her head by the smallest fraction; Dominic feels unpleasantly as though his essential parameters are being calculated. "What are you getting out of it?"
As far as Dom can tell they both seem to be getting the same things out of it, to wit: large amounts of creative sex, and someone who doesn't complain when you break off in the middle of a play-by-play discussion of the footy to yank a tablet from your pocket and mutter abbreviations to yourself for a while.
"I'm not sure what you're trying to ask me," he says.
She leans against the nearest desk and glances down at her feet, then back up, an absent gesture which Dominic knows better than to interpret as modesty. His own eyes follow the round journey out of habit, and he is momentarily distracted by the mother-of-pearl buttons that peek through the stained brown fabric of her shoes. When his gaze has reached the top of the loop again, a split second after Agatha's, she looks exactly the same as before. No more and no less steel.
"Do you have any plans to discontinue your relationship with my brother?" she says, measured, as though conducting an oral exam. The comparison is a good one, Dom reflects, and then he starts to form an automatic protest against the word relationship, and then he tells himself not to be such a bloody git about it because he's an intelligent man and, truthfully, he knows a relationship when he's knee-deep in one. The thought process takes perhaps five seconds, aided by Agatha's unsympathetic gaze.
"No," he says.
"I have no intention of holding you to impossible promises, Dominic," Agatha says. "If at some point you do wish to end it, I will not judge you for that, but I will judge you on your handling of the situation."
For all her severity it's a good sentiment, a graceful one, and Dominic takes it as it's meant. "And I have no intention of hurting Julian in any way, I assure you."
"Good." Agatha sighs. Her voice is not gentle, but bordering on it. "I will destroy you," she says. She's gazing at an unremarkable spot on the wall and her hands are tracing the contours of a hex key that's appeared from one of the deep rustling pockets of her skirt. "Treat him badly and I will find some way to eliminate you from our world."
Being talked at by Pru was one thing; Agatha Verey is terrifying. Dom will never, ever ask either of the twins what they were running away from in the name of idealistic social descent, but he hears shadows of it now in Agatha's frank tone, just as he's learning to watch out for the same shadows in Julian's skittishness. In the presence of this darkness, this urge he has to shudder away from someone else's childhood as though it's an electrified wire, gratitude settles around his heart and lightens it.
"Do you mind if I use that?" he says. "Only my little sister never tells me about her boyfriends, but if she ever did, I'd want to give them that exact speech."
Agatha looks straight at him now, and Dom wonders if he's misjudged, but after a moment she smiles. It erases at least 75% of the remaining difference between her face and that of her brother. "Be my guest," she says.
"That's an interesting question," says Julian. "But easy. No, just let me think. Automatic scripts, that's a nice way of putting it."
Dominic waits, eyes closed for the moment, running a thoughtful hand through his hair. He'll need to get it cut soon; or perhaps not, the fashion seems to be tending towards length.
"Disinterest," Julian says finally. "Well, that's not quite the word, is it? Hesitation, when you're interested in something. You move past it like you're pretending not to care, and then you move back. It happens when you're choosing clothes. And food sometimes."
"And you," Dom says, teasing.
Jules laughs, which he doesn't do often. "I'd like to think so. But I know just how long it took me to wear you down."
Dom isn't sure how to take that, because Julian's odd occasional self-effacement doesn't usually appear in this context, but before he can say anything a cheerful pop song breaks out in the air. Dom lifts his head from the pillow. "What is that?"
"Your family is calling." Julian sounds excited. "Speaker!"
"There is going to be a conversation about your love of changing my call tones," Dom tells him, but he reaches sideways to press the answer button and flick it onto speaker.
"Dominic you hardly call us these days how is your work going?"
Dom tugs a blanket over his own legs, Julian having stolen most of the quilt, and sighs. "Hello, Mum."
"Hello," she allows, now that her initial burst has been delivered. Dom tries to answer calls from his family as soon as possible, because if they go to recorded message then his mother can deliver five impatient paragraphs without so much as a pause for breath. "I hope you have been using that recipe book I gave you?"
"Yes, thank you." Dominic achieved biryani for the first time last week, and wouldn't be much surprised to learn that his mother knew, somehow, the moment it occurred.
"And how is the young man?" his mother goes on, her voice doubling in weight. Dom's parents have no particular opinion regarding his sexual preferences but they do have strong ideas about flightiness and its undesirability in an eldest son. Julian is a clever programmer with impeccable manners who speaks in cloudy-pipe vowels and adores saag gosht and gulab jamun. Dominic has no hope, none at all.
"Perfectly fine," Dom says, and hears at least two younger Qureshi voices clamouring in the background.
"Please put him on," his mother orders, after a pause. "We have not spoken to him in a very long time."
"No, it must be at least a week," Dom says, but not loudly enough to be picked up by the room mike, and Julian gives an uneven snigger that tickles Dom's neck.
"And bring him to dinner," she says, food-glee entering her voice, "I will make -- yes, very well. Dominic, your sister --"
Julian leans over him to turn off the speaker and snatch up one of the earbuds for private conversation. "Hello!" He rolls nimbly away from Dom's half-hearted elbow. "Yes, yes, of course I will. Smashing."
Smashing? Dom mouths at him.
"Oh, well, it was my pleasure. Mm. Oh, is she? Certainly, I'd love to talk to her."
Dom gives him a flat look. "Am I needed for this?"
"Nadira my sweetling," Julian says then, eyes innocent and sky-wide, "it is delightful to hear your voice," and Dominic gives up and goes to make them some coffee.