The Spaces in Between

One dreary August afternoon, he starts dreaming.

The transition from autumn to spring is blurry-edged and inconspicuous, tapering into a curious mixture of vague softness and crisp, sharp clarity—an uneasy intermediate in the decay of a reality into a dream.

He dreams of: an open sky, cherry blossoms, an aisle, a man. Everything else feels (is?) irrelevant. He's seated in the front row, at the front of a group of still, lifeless people, an onlooker, painfully unimportant. The man, decked in a charcoal suit made duller by the pink of drifting cherry blossom petals, has his back to him. This is all that matters.

His footfalls are guarded, careful. This is also important. The countenance of the bride is radiant; she vibrates with fervor. This is of no consequence to him.

It is, quite possibly, of no consequence to the man either. He pauses, hesitates in that single instance of judgment, of sweeping realization, and the man on the aisle turns. The man turns—turns through just that little bit of distance, that sliver of air between their mouths, that hand's breadth separating their knees, that one meter from his window ledge to his balcony—and his left cheekbone is, the corner of his mouth is, the tip of his nose is, he is—

He awakens in a daze. The fading daylight plays a familiar pattern of reds and oranges on his ceiling. He's home.

For some reason, the tears won't stop.

"You look awful, Mal," his baby sister says to him. She's draped upside-down on the arm of their living room couch, auburn hair swept haphazardly into a mess of tangles atop her head. Her sky-blue penguin pajamas look awfully soft, worn and near-threadbare at the ankles and elbows. Malcolm bought them for her at the city zoo when she was fourteen.

"Got any more of those?" he asks, gesturing to the peanut butter Oreo dangling precariously from her hand.

"None, sorry," she says, sounding decidedly unapologetic, and plops it into her mouth. "You know I love these things more than you."

He pinches her cheek harshly as he passes the sofa, ignoring her indignant squawk. Their kitchenette is pitifully small, but it's been scrubbed spotless and the hot water doesn't run out and the fridge is stuffed full of meat and cheese and eggs—and that's really all they need, he decides. It's all they've ever needed.

He's rummaging through the bottom compartment in search of lettuce when he muses, "Ronnie, we've never been to Japan, right?"

"Why would anyone want to go to Japan? I'd much rather go to Greece," comes her familiar drawl from the lounge, rising above the faint static of the television. "Imagine seeing the Parthenon in person—it'd blow your mind, Mal!"

"S'that right?" he says absently, scrutinizing the lettuce with a scrunch of his nose. Ah, it's gone bad. "The cherry blossom trees would be nice, though. I wouldn't mind painting them."

"You sound like you've seen them before," she says, craning her neck to glance at him inquisitively. Been researching Japan? he hears in her voice, scratchy from sleep, blithe and unreserved and the voice he knows above any other. When he says nothing in reply, she presses, "Well, have you?"

He thinks of drifting petals, their edges hazy and unclear and their cheery brightness muted by a wedding aisle. The knife and chopping board seem suddenly unreal in his hands. He blinks, and the moment is gone.

"No," Malcolm says. Smiles over the counter-top. "No, of course not."

It starts, you see, like this:

"So," Ronnie begins. "There's this guy."

Malcolm blinks and stills. He's been trying to scrub his hands clean for the past twenty minutes, but bits of indigo-blue paint are stuck stubbornly under his fingernails still.

"Yeah?" is all he says, quiet and thoughtful over the torrent of tap water gushing into the kitchen sink. He promptly turns it off, revels in the punctuated, undemanding silence of their home for a second, for two, and then—and then, he's her brother again. Again, he's her constant, infallible in his unobtrusive knowledge of her and his ability to pry her open in the only way she welcomes. "Tell me about him."

She smiles, relieved.

(Or, maybe, that's not quite right. Maybe, it starts like this:

"You—hey, are you new here?"

A few seconds, a stare, brown eyes (inscrutable, large, warm—) and then, "I just moved in. Who are you?"

"Who are you?"

The corner of a small, pursed mouth twitches. The boy sighs, says, "Daniele," and promptly closes the window.

S'kind of a girly name, Jamie thinks. His balcony door clicks shut, three parts dismissive and one part wondering.

Maybe it starts with an open window after seven years of closed, lonely spaces.)

Watching Noah Walker tiptoe into their lives is like listening to Ronnie plod down the stairs in her woolen, rainbow-coloured socks. He's lying half-asleep on the leather sofa, faded with age, and her footfalls are muffled by the wool and amplified by the quietude of the late evening all at once, and it stirs the unstirred air of their home in the faintest, deepest way. It's like a very, very gentle hurricane. Later, Mal will remember the paradox and think, that's it. He will think, he's a hurricane—again, and again, and again.

For now, though, he will only smile and say, "It's great to meet you," with a mind carefully wiped blank.

"Ronnie never shuts up about you," Noah says—laughs out, really. His mouth is wide and quick to give way to a smile. It stretches to his dimpled cheeks, all the way to his eyes in one smooth movement, one explosive spark. Laughter spills into the air between them. It feels strange—too close, too novel.

But Ronnie's peering at him from behind Noah's left shoulder, tongue darting over her lips in that nervous habit she's carried over from childhood. He almost mumbles a habitual, 'Don't nibble on your lips, Ronnie,' before his eyes stray back to Noah, still standing tall and expectant in the middle of his girlfriend's living room.

"Nothing too embarrassing, I hope?" Mal says to him, gives him just enough to convey a distant sort of acceptance.

"No, no," he chuckles. "She wouldn't dream of it, I don't think."

"Dinner's almost ready," Ronnie interjects, stepping forward. "Noah, come into the kitchen with me, would you? I need help setting the table and, Mal, you look kind of knackered."

He doesn't, really, but who is he to deny her? He sees, after all, the way she's tugging at Noah's elbow and shuffling her flip-flop-clad feet in the direction of the kitchenette and glancing at Mal repeatedly over her shoulder and—and, yes, Mal knows that look. He knows that one point of intensity behind her eyes, thrown sharply into relief on her otherwise undisturbed visage.

As always, he settles her with the smile she's been waiting for—the smile Ronnie knows better than she knows herself, the smile she waited for when the neighborhood bullies tore apart her Crissy doll, the one she waited for in the emergency room when their parents' bodies were being wheeled to the crematorium, when she accidentally dropped his iPod down a flight of stairs, when she handed him her assignment on ecological sampling for proof-reading, when she wrote him a letter of appreciation for his tenth birthday, handwriting crude and ink stains all over the paper—

(—when she asked him to give her away and he refused—)

"I'll be in my room if you need me," Mal says. "Call me when dinner's ready?"

"Sure," his sister says, and he hears thank you, clear as day. The next moment, she's Ronnie again, spring in her step and arms swinging by her side, chin raised and voice loud.

He watches them walk away. Noah's back is broad and muscled; it dwarfs Ronnie's easily. Vague ideas drift languidly across the jagged plane of his mind, and Mal lets himself think, stillness and quiet and spilling laughter. It takes all of two seconds. That's all it takes, he thinks decisively and a little self-deprecatingly, a solitary acknowledgement. He starts to make his way up the stairs, and does not watch their backs disappear behind the kitchen alcove.

Dinner is a generous bowl of spaghetti and three plates of fried chicken wings. Ronnie's brought out their china set for desert; the caramel pudding looks impeccable and flawlessly prepared, set out on rusty-red porcelain. The meticulousness of it is just a little staggering, a foreign sight that sits heavy and unfamiliar in the pit of his stomach when all he can recall are late nights with the T.V. flicked on and half-eaten take-out boxes shared messily on the couch.

It toes the line between awkward and socially acceptable, as all introduction-to-the-family dinners are wont to. To Noah's credit, his occasional questions sound neither forced nor overeager—an unassuming so how much older than Ronnie are you? here, a candid your mannerisms are pretty alike, did anybody ever tell you that? there, a scratch at his chin, open gesticulation, a laugh, then another—he's free-spoken and unguarded, silver-tongued in the most dangerous way. When Mal smiles at him, honesty forces itself into the curve of his mouth.

"Thank you for dinner," he's saying forty minutes later, standing in the doorway of their home.

"Don't mention it," Mal says. He grips Noah's palm in a quick handshake. It's warm. "It was great to meet you."

"The pleasure was all mine," he hesitates, "Also, I'd like to take Ronnie out tomorrow night, if that's okay."

"Bring her back by nine."

"Oh. Uh, alright—"

His mouth twitches. "I'm kidding, Noah. Take her out whenever; that's up to her, not me."

"Right," and there it is again—the spilling laughter, the unrestrained, explosive quality of it, exposed to the cold air between them for the nth time this night and still, it grips Malcolm by the edge of his smile, prods it until an odd, genuine uncertainty wells up in the space in between.

"I'll see you then," he says, drawing back.

Noah departs with a, "I look forward to it," all wide smiles and loose shoulders and quick footsteps in the snow. Isn't he cold at all? Mal wonders absently, tugging the frayed sleeves of his cardigan over his palms and blowing warm air onto his fingertips.

"Mal, close the door, will you? You'll let all the cold air in," Ronnie chides.

"Sorry, sorry," he calls, pushing it close with his foot. "He wants to take you out tomorrow, by the way."

"I heard," a smile; private, precious, a touch of bashfulness, "and 'bring her back by nine,' Mal? Really?"

"Don't look at me like that, I'm only trying to protect your virtue."

"I can protect my own virtue, thanks."

"You sure? He seems awfully charming, your boyfriend."

"Doesn't he? He'd charm the pants off of the queen if somebody gave him the chance, I swear—" she starts, and then stops. Catches herself with that age-old, embarrassed twist of her upper-lip, pulls her turtleneck up to her chin, begins again, "Well, you get the point. You know I'm not one for casual dating, but he's—Noah is pretty—" she breathes in, "—yeah."

"Yeah," Mal agrees. The smile feels ancient on his lips. "I'm glad, Ronnie."

The maroon dress suits Ronnie perfectly; it's smooth and unwrinkled and hugs the curve of her waist just right, fades into soft vermilion and brightens into pinkish raspberry with just the right accents. Her skin shines against it. His sister is nineteen and golden, and Mal feels acutely the newness of her in her wedge sandals and permed hair and petite frame when he says, "You look beautiful."

"I'm off, then," Ronnie says with an impatient tap of her heel. She kisses his cheek and flashes him a decade-old grin—lopsided, dimpled at one end, made vaguely alien by the rose-coloured lip gloss. He makes one last note of her before she slips out the door (gait is stiffer, hands clenching and unclenching, spine straight, chin raised higher. Eyes are shining.)

The newfound knowledge of a third person is a pinprick between the fitted puzzle pieces of his customary solitude. It demands reformulation, awakens an elusive sort of discomfort. It leaves the air thick and stagnant but ringing with a vestigial phantasm of his younger, weaker self, and Malcolm shifts with unease in the midst of it.

Ninety-two minutes crawl past, and the ticking of their dust-ridden pendulum clock sees him buried under a blanket up to his chin, brown eyes visible and focused on a television screen. It's almost too bright, too cheery against the quietude of a November winter night—but, well, Sherlock re-runs are on and there's no one to tell him to go to bed early.

He's halfway through the Baskerville episode when his cell-phone starts vibrating from the dinner table. He takes a moment to knit his brows at the mechanical vocaloid number (Ronnie, he thinks exasperatedly) before snatching it up with a sigh.

"Yes, hello?"

"Uh, this isthis is Malcolm, right? Ronnie's brother?"

He frowns. "Yes? Who is this?"

"Oh, thank god, I didn't know if you'd beanyway, it's"


"Yes! Yes, it's Noah," a frazzled laugh bursts forth, fractured over the hum of static, "I'm sorry, you're probably busy, but we're in the middle of a restaurant and Ronnie's just collapsed and I don't know what to do"

"She's what? What do you—I don't understand, what—?"

"I'm not an expert or anything but this sort of looks like an allergic reaction to menot to me, obviously, that would be stupidto something else, I mean; anything else, it could be anything" a strangled noise breaks through the connection, "oh, great, I think I'm panicking"

"Noah, breathe. I need you to breathe, yes?"

"Yes? Yes," Noah chokes out, and then again: "Yes. Yes, of course."

"Rewind a bit, please? You were at a restaurant, and then...?"

A deep inhale. Steady, even through the crackle of a telephone line. His voice is stronger. Mal can recognize him, now. "We ordered our dishesI think she had pepper steakbut a couple of minutes into eating, Ronnie said her stomach was aching. It got really bad really fast, and sheI don't think she passed out, actually, but she's close to fainting. Holding it in right now but I think she needs to vomit it out, too."

"Can you just—keep her steady? I'm on my way—"

"No, don't do thatI'm driving her home right now. I'll be there in ten so just stay put, yeah?"

"Yeah," he sighs out. "Yeah, okay."


A pause, expectant, and then the dial tone is sounding through the connection line. "Thank you," Mal breathes out in a slow exhale, long after the End Call beep. It takes a stretch of a moment, deep and tired and all sagging shoulders and calming heartbeat, and then he is alone again.

He waits.

("Hey," Jamie says. He's sixteen and stupid and in love. "D'you ever think about running away? Justjust running. You know?"

Daniele looks at him, and it's like it always isit's everything it always is, Jamie thinks. It's distant inquisitiveness and scrawny arms around bony knees, glassy eyes and unblemished fragility. They're sitting on a pile of hay near the side of the barn. The mid-afternoon sun is sweltering and the red paint is peeling off the walls and the light is hitting the side of his face just right. Filling into the hollow of his cheek. He looks like a doll.

"From what?" Daniele says.

He's fourteen, and always asks the right questions.)

"Guys, please, I'm okay," Ronnie is insisting—a buzz in his ears. "Mal, no hovering. We discussed this, remember? No hovering."

"That rule's been rendered null and void and you know it," Mal says sternly.

"I'm sorry."

"Forgetting your allergy pills? You're not twelve, Ronnie."

"I—" she starts, and then wavers. Her eyes flash in that instant—a crest of emotion intrinsically recognizable to him, even through the kohl around her lashes. It dies out, and she sighs. "I know. I should know better—I do know better, usually. I guess I got too swept up in it all this time."

"You'll be careful next time?"

"Sure," she says, and Mal lifts an eyebrow. Ronnie's lips twitch into a faint smile. "Yes, Mal, I'll be sure not to do anything to warrant another tongue-lashing from you in the future. Swear."

"At least I didn't call you 'Veronica,'" he says dryly.

"Get out," she playfully hisses at him. "You're disrupting my healing process, both of you. Out."

"We'll leave you alone then," Mal laughs out. Ronnie shifts noisily under her quilt—it's too big for her and bright, gaudy orange and cross-stitched, and every time Ronnie complains about it Mal feels a little lighter.

Noah is still quiet.

His silence is pensive, self-critical—a weight pressing down on them after the click of Ronnie's door. Mal leans against the whitewood for exactly three swings of the pendulum, opens his eyes and watches the shadows play against the soft, subtle lines of Noah's profile.

He pushes himself off and does not mention stiff limbs, or tight-lipped mouths, or ailing girlfriends. Just says, "Let's get some colour back in you, yeah?" and brews him some apple tea.

"That," Noah says, when the cup is half-empty and the tea cold, "was not how I was expecting it to go."

"Don't beat yourself up over it," Mal says without a beat's pause. "I mean it. She can take care of herself. Don't beat yourself up over it."

"You didn't sound like you thought she could take care of herself in there," he says, doubt in the furrow of his eyebrows. Malcolm almost smiles.

"I'm her brother," he says simply. "I trust her, but I'm allowed a lecture every now and then. You, on the other hand—"

"Yes," Noah stretches the word out, ducking his head, "I get it, I do. I've only known her for, what, three months? And we've only been dating for—are we even dating? I've taken her out to dinner a couple of times, but that's it. Granted, she brought me over to meet her brother, which is, yeah—"

"Noah," Mal interrupts. Smiles. "I know."

Noah stops mid-word. He looks as if he wants to say something else, wants to say something more about his girlfriend, or her strange brother, or their strange co-dependent relationship—but he blinks and closes his mouth, and Mal can't read him anymore.

"Yeah," he says, and then laughs weakly. "Yeah, okay."

It's not quite the spilling laughter from before—but Mal can stand up and pile their saucers and stack their half-empty teacups together and ask, "Help me wash the dishes?" and Noah can grin and say, "Sure."

"That was so embarrassing."

"Shame," Malcolm says serenely, sipping at his morning coffee. His nose scrunches up at the sweetness. "How much sugar did you put in this?"

"That was incredibly embarrassing," Ronnie continues.

He gives up with a quiet exhale and a small, vaguely affectionate smile; dog-ears the twenty-seventh page of his novel, sets it aside and turns to his sister. She's pouring milk into her coffee with a practiced, mechanical precision, but her eyes are too reflective and her hand is loose around the saucepan handle.

"I'm sure it was," he tries, "but people have had worse first dates, Ronnie."

"Mal," she says, and turns her head. There's something vaguely horrified in her expression, Mal is amused to notice.

"He'll take you out again soon," he says emphatically. "You can make it up to him then, okay? Now cheer up and come over here."

"I'm cheery," she mumbles, shuffling over to the loveseat. Her hands are small and firm and stubby around her coffee mug—and, yes, they're a little darker, and her fingers are a little longer, and there's that scar on the pad of her thumb from the potato peeler, but they're just the same as when she was eight and squeezing his fingers in the ER.

"You always are," he laughs out, feels his eyes softening.

Ronnie senses it (of course she does) in some stray cadence or casual gesture of his. She stares at him for one, two seconds—then sighs and knocks her shoulder against his.

"Careful," she warns. "I might make you spill that coffee."

"And then make me some more?"

A pause. "Maybe," and then, "you're limited to three cups a day, though."

She nestles in close to him, the steam from their cups mingling above their heads, shoulders touching. The pressure is light, familiar. He feels her warmth through the cotton of her penguin pajamas—too small, too old, worn thin and washed-out, but theirs—and smiles into his coffee. She will see it, he knows.

She does. He feels it in the moment she tenses and then unwinds, in the way she shifts against him and crosses her ankles, in the way her breath hits the side of his face and it's slow and easy.

"You're right," she huffs. "I'm being stupid."

"No, you're being human. The stupid one would be Noah if he didn't call you," he pokes the tip of her nose, "and lucky for you, I know that's one thing he's not."

"Yeah," she laughs out. Nestles in closer. "Yeah, he's smarter than he lets on."

"He'll call," Mal says to Ronnie. He will, Mal thinks to himself, and the certainty of it catches him by surprise. Noah will call, he thinks again, and it echoes like the crack of a hammer on something cemented, like a thread of knowledge spun again and again, tired, unrelenting, embedded, cherry blossoms against charcoal grey—

"Mal?" he hears, distant and invasive all at once. "What's up?"

Ronnie's staring up at him, the ever-present frown between her eyebrows deepening. She twists the corner of her mouth in a silent question. Mal can feel himself mirroring it, caught in the midst of a flash flood come and gone, and left curiously unchanged.

"I think," he says slowly, "I really need to get working on that art project."

"The new one? Japanese-style tower?"

"Temple," he corrects.

"What's got you in a painting mood all of a sudden?"

Answering that question is like catching smoke, he thinks without words, and says only this: "It won't paint itself."

She looks at him closely, then says, "You always used to say your paintings had minds of their own."

Malcolm smiles. "I'm afraid it's not the painting this time."

This, he supposes, is when the skies and seas begin to cave in. He feels western winds stirring at his doorstep, sees grey, lightless patches overhead, watches thickening sea-foam collect at his feet when the waves start crashing. Wednesday afternoon, he's sitting cross-legged in his makeshift studio and dotting amaranth, rose, lavender pinks onto his canvas—Thursday evening, he's watching Ronnie's face light up again, listening to her pace up and down the carpet, speak in low tones into her phone—and Friday night, he's opening the door to an incoming storm, dressed in jeans and a maroon cardigan.

"Ah," he says. "Noah, nice to see you again. Come in."

"Thanks, you too," Noah replies. He's all restless energy, pulling at his sleeves and glancing every which way.

"Ronnie's still getting ready, she'll be down in a minute. You guys going out drinking?"

Noah hums. "With a couple of friends, yeah. She didn't tell you?"

"She mentioned you, not the other couple of friends," Mal smiles slyly, "go figure."

Noah blushes, and it looks absolutely ridiculous—clear and dusty-warm on his tanned complexion, and awkwardly out of place on a man nearing 5'10 in stature; Mal has to laugh. Noah looks at him sideways and grins back, and he laughs even harder. The little crow's feet folding into the corners of Noah's eyes compel him to say something, some formless, mysterious sentiment—because his smile is growing wider, wider, and Mal can see it coming, the spilling laughter—

"Sorry I'm late," Ronnie calls out. She pauses at the foot of the stairs, tilts her head at them. "What are you two laughing about?"

"Nothing you need to know about," Noah teases, walking over to the banister and jokingly offering her his arm.

She smacks his elbow instead. "Oh, get over yourself—"

"Okay, no flirting inside the house," Mal interrupts amid his laughter. He pulls open the front door. "Come on, shoo."

"So eager to kick us out, is there something you're not telling us?"

"Yes, there's a painting upstairs awaiting my full attention," he says, and squeezes Ronnie's shoulder when she walks by. "Have fun. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

Noah leans in close to him then, whispers, "Ronnie's not a lightweight, is she?"

"She could drink me under the table any day."

He chuckles, and a breath of air warms the shell of Mal's ear. Everything about him is always so warm. "Good to know."

Mal watches them disappear into Noah's beat-up Chevrolet. They never once pause their conversation, angling their heads ever-so-slightly towards each other and touching the backs of their hands and adjusting each other's scarves and collars, all with a casual sort of intimacy that burns too bright against the stagnant blue-black of late winter evenings. He feels as if he's lost something, like a train of thought broken and chased away or a memory almost remembered but interrupted—some wayward emotion dissipated into smoke.

And again, he is just the same as before, thoroughly unchanged.

"I thought you said she wasn't a lightweight."

"Obviously," Mal says dryly, eyeing Ronnie's drooping eyelids and sagging shoulders, "I was mistaken."

"Sorry," she groans, her head lolling back against the cushions. "Drank too—" she lifts a hand to her mouth and grimaces, "—t'much."

"Did you do tequila shots? You know you can't handle those."

"Didn't," she says emphatically. "Swear."

"She puked most of it out, to be honest," Noah chips in.

"Yeah, m'practically sober," she sighs, "just dead tired."

"Let's get you to bed, then," Mal says, tugging her arm gently. "Come on. Up."

After his sister is half-asleep in a comfortable bed instead of sprawled across the sofa, Malcolm comes back to Noah leaning his weight against the side of the dinner table. His breathing is slower, the muscles of his back loose. His eyes aren't glazed over, but they're roving aimlessly over the woven fleur-de-lis pattern of the carpet. He looks up when Mal steps closer.

"All good?" he asks.

"She's out like a light," Mal reassures.

"Yeah? Well, I better get going then," Noah says buoyantly. Smiles, too—but it's tired somehow, stretched across its edges.

"Hold on a minute," Mal says quietly. "You got anyone waiting for you back home?"

"Uh, not really—I live in a student apartment, see, and my roommate's out and," he laughs and touches his chin, "and passed out in a bar somewhere, probably."

Malcolm clicks his tongue. "That's no good." He slips into the kitchenette and brings back a glass of water, offers it to him and says, "Here. Get some of that in you. Stay the night, and you'll get paracetamol and an actual breakfast in the morning, how's that?"

Noah looks at him, then. He gingerly accepts the glass but makes no move to drink, instead blinking down at Malcolm—it's slow, and a little bleary, and too transparent in his consideration, as if he's gauging some conundrum in the planes of Mal's face and every sweep of his eyelashes becomes a little heavier with scraps of knowledge. This time when he smiles, it's with the entirety of him again.

"You're too kind," Noah says, and means it. You really are, Mal hears—sees, in some deep-seated, unreachable place, somewhere between the sweet, secret curve of Noah's smile and the unafraid clarity of his eyes, paradoxically inscrutable in their openness.

Must be the alcohol, he thinks numbly. Says, "I'll take that as a yes," with the vague impression of listening to someone else's voice instead of his own. "Are you sleepy? I can get you some blankets—?"

"Oh, no. No, don't bother, I'm wide awake."

A pause, crisp-clear and still, and then: "Want tea?"

Noah breaks into a small, delighted laugh. "Please."

Malcolm smiles, and it's without a hitch, without a waver—because the cold is bleeding back into him and he welcomes it.

A hush descends over them, settling around the whistle of the teapot, the muted rustle of teabags, Noah humming Chopsticks under his breath. Their footsteps are light against the tiles, deft and careful around each other.

"Apple or cinnamon?" Mal asks absently, sifting through his stash of green tea. "I might have ginger, too..."

"Apple, thanks."

He shoots Noah a glance over his shoulder. "Sensing a pattern here."

"Oh, yeah," Noah chuckles. "Apples, man—who doesn't love 'em? Ma used to stuff my mouth with peas and carrots when I was little but," he shakes his head, "I'd only ever take the apples. A bit obsessed, probably."

Mal hums in assent. Takes the kettle off the stove with a dishcloth and murmurs, "Sounds like you," as if he knows him—as if envisioning him scowling at a plate of broccoli, scraped knees and stick-thin legs and all, is a matter of course and not a presumption.

Noah doesn't even blink.

"Canterbury had the best apples," he continues seamlessly. "Too big for little me to hold in one hand—and juicy like you wouldn't believe."

Mal feels something in him loosen, then. He's pouring boiling water into their ceramic mugs when it rises to the surface, an easy smile unwound and left floating unanchored. "I'd like to go sometime."

"Oh, you'd love it. You should, you know—Ma would be more than willing to give you a place to stay," he says. His voice is sweeter, lower. Nostalgic fondness presses down on the timbre of it. "She's always complaining about how the house is empty nowadays. Some company would do her good."

"Your mother lives alone?"

"Mm, yeah. Dad's all the way in Poland for his job. Comes home for the summer but—it's not the same, you know?"

"Of course," Mal says quietly.

They bring their cups to the little square table pushed to one side of the living room. It feels appropriate, somehow, to take the seat next to Noah instead of the one across from him. His fingers are tapping on the side of the mug, tracing out some simultaneously sluggish and agitated non-rhythm. Mal's eyes soften.

"You must miss her," he says tentatively.

Noah's fingers slow, and then stop altogether. "Yeah," he murmurs. Takes a measured sip of his apple tea and then says, much more clearly, "Yeah, I miss her. Like crazy, sometimes."

Malcolm says nothing—just sinks back into the faded, lumpy cushion of his chair, stares into his green-tinted reflection and hears (listens to) a tapped out staccato. They finish their drinks in silence—unpunctuated, for once. In the absence of a neighbour's doorbell, or a street cat's hissing, or footfalls down the stairs, the quietude is deeper, falls heavier around his tongue. It's an unbroken column of air between their sides.

When Noah sips the last of his tea and starts to stand, Mal stops him. Puts a hand on his shoulder and says, "Let me get that," with a smile. It's quick and unhesitating and unpitying, and it leaves Noah with his hands empty and his eyes restless.

"Uh, you sure?" he asks. "I should probably wash that—"

"You can wash both of them next time," says Mal, and Noah's laugh is three parts surprise and one part wonder.

(His mother starts dropping hints when he hits nineteen. "You're growing up a fine man," she says, "and you deserve a fine bride." Bakes him a cherry pie and says, "That Ainsworth girl, she's grown up nicely, hasn't she?" Waves him out the door and winks and says, "Ask Daniele if his sister's looking for a husband, eh?" Weeps over his father's abscess-ridden body and says, "He wanted to see you married, wanted to see your children—!"

Two years later, this is what he tells her: he's twenty-one and well-educated and in love.

This is what he doesn't tell her: he's twenty-one and well-educated and in love, but not with the person at the altar.)

The next time he feels seawater lap at his toes, he's—well, he's where you'd expect him to be: in a dilapidated bookshop, sliding his finger down the spine of a compilation of floral paintings.

He's thoughtfully tapping his nail on the corner of a rainflower-centered piece when the sound of humming interrupts his deliberation between white and lemon-yellow. He stillsit's Chopsticks.

Malcolm smiles and shuts the book with a flick of his wrist. A bit of lingering dust flies into his face, and he curses softly while scrunching up his nose with the urge to sneeze. The humming comes to an abrupt halt—Mal is gingerly putting the book away in its place when he notices, and this is when Noah peers out from behind the next bookshelf.

Oh, Mal thinks, watching him blaze and soften and curl open into a smile. Well, then.

"Fancy seeing you here," Noah greets. He walks over to Mal in three long strides, three quick and even tap-tap-taps on the linoleum floor, and the unapologetic certainty of it has Mal's lips twitching.

"It's a little surprising, yes," he says. "I didn't think I'd see you here."

"What, don't I look like a reading sort of guy?"

He laughs. "More like, you don't seem like a run-down, second-hand bookshop sort of guy."

"Ah, well—not my favourite place," he rakes a hand through his hair, "but I make do."

His smile is free, but the skin around his eyes seems strained. It's stretched, and fragile-thin, and perhaps a little marred by the first signs of dark circles—and yet, it gives way to one, two, three, four crow's feet no less unreservedly, no less unconditionally. Mal's mouth opens before the warning bells can ring.

"You look tired," he says. "Doing alright?"

"Oh, sure," Noah says, makes a vague motion with his gloved fingers. His eyes are brighter, suddenly. "Haven't had breakfast yet, s'probably why I look a little out of it."

"Driving halfway around town without breakfast? You should know better, Noah," a pause, a frown self-consciously melting away, and then a belated, "Excuse my mothering."

"Excused," Noah laughs out immediately. "Really, though, the student apartments aren't that far from here. I was just kind of," the strain is back again, like vestigal smoke rising and condensing through every flicker, "wound up. Had to get away, you know?"

"I don't think I do," he starts to say slowly.

"I guess you don't," Noah muses.

There's a subdued quality to the easy slip of his smile. It's remarkably familiar. Mal hesitates for a split-second in face of that familiarity. Then he presses his lips together and asks, "Would you like to go get some?"

He blinks. "What?"

"Breakfast. Are you in the mood for it?"

"Oh," he shifts in understanding, and the light hits him just right. "Oh, well, sure. That'd be nice, thanks." It obscures all the little lines and shades under his skin, and Mal relaxes.

They check out their books and stroll over to a little coffeehouse down the street afterwards. It's small and quaint, nestled between an ice skating rink and an abandoned theater. There's no bell chime but the employees are attentive, ushering them to a table near the jalousie window. Mal basks in the low lighting and warm summer colours, is used to how the raised quatrefoil pattern of the wall feels gritty against the pads of his fingers.

It's all new to Noah, though. He glances around with a slow-blinking, fresh sort of curiosity. Runs his fingers over the maroon checkered tablecloth, smiles when a waiter hands him the menu.

"The spinach omelette's pretty good, if you want to try it," Mal says, sliding his menu card aside. He always orders the raspberry pancakes.

"Can't be as good as yours."

"Flattery will get you nowhere."

"Really, though. Where'd you learn to cook like that?" He turns to the waiter. "Spinach omelette, please."

"Raspberry pancakes, thank you," Mal adds. "Nobody learns to cook an omelette, I don't think. It's an omelette."

"False. I put sugar in mine the first time," he shrugs sheepishly, "then Ma told me it was salt I saw her chucking in there every morning."

Mal grins into his fist. "You learn something new everyday, I guess."

"In my defense, I was eight," Noah says dryly. "But, you know, the point stands."

"Well, I didn't really have anyone to teach me," Mal says, "as I'm sure Ronnie's told you."

"Oh," the line of his shoulders goes tense, "she did, yes. She didn't tell me about—I mean, she did tell me but not, like—you know?"

"I really don't." He raises his eyebrows, not unkindly. "Relax, Noah. It happened years ago." You don't have to walk on eggshells.

"What I mean to say is—she told me about your parents," he hesitates for a moment, but ploughs on, "but not that you were so young. I'm sorry. I know you don't need it, but I still am."

Malcolm looks at him, then. The stretch of his own smile is reckless and too effortless, and he feels it as if he is a ghost and it is a raw, elusive remnant—touching and poking and displacing all these untapped places in him and itself staying untouched. He says, "It wasn't tragic, or earth-shattering," feels it in all its entirety, gentle and far-reaching and perhaps too honest, "just unlucky."

Noah feels it, too. There it is, right there—reflected in his confusion, then in his wonder, then in his spark of perspicacity, and finally in his settled calmness. When he smiles, it is all with his eyes and none with his mouth.

"That sounds like you," he says, and means many things, and understands all of them—and Malcolm is left, at the end, flushed clean and empty.

The cleanliness comes home with him.

"I'm back," he calls out to his sister. His voice swells, carries over unimpeded in the bittersweet absence of his parents' ghosts.

She looks up from the onion she's chopping, and the particular slant of her brows is hers alone now. His mother's undercurrent is dead and gone.

"Had a nice breakfast without me?" she drawls.

Mal shrugs helplessly.

"I'm making an omelette and you're not getting any."

"I already had mine, thank you."

"Liar," Ronnie accuses almost comically. "You always get pancakes, don't think I haven't noticed."

"Congratulations," he says, ruffling her bed-hair as per morning regulation. "Oh, but guess who did have one—?"

"Don't tell me," she promptly abandons the knife and onion, "you finally landed yourself a date?"

"For your sake I hope not, considering it was Noah I ran into."

The natural severity of her countenance cracks soft and open; the little pinch in her forehead smoothes out, lips parting a sliver and eyes going rounded.

"No kidding?" she questions. "What's he doing around these parts?"

"Can't say," says Mal. He shrugs off his coat and drapes it across the sofa. "Wanted a change of pace, maybe. He can only stay cooped up in his apartment for so long."

"So what did you talk about?"

"My superior omelette-making skills," he says, and aims a twinkling look at her from the corner of his eye, "and I told him he could drop by any time if he felt like sampling them again."

Ronnie snickers and starts off on a tangent about the supermarket's sale on day-old eggs.

I wonder if he will, Mal is still thinking, and he smiles and smiles and smiles.

(The scent of yellow roses around them is suffocating. There's a pile of bouquets on the coffee table, a smaller one on the divan, another one in the store room. The wedding is in two weeks. Mary said they would go well with the cream tablecloths.

Jamie reeks of cloying perfume, but Daniele sits close to him anyway. It's a respectable closeness, a discreet closenessbut their knees are a hand's breadth apart and he can feel the warmth they share, identical under their skins, and he dares not move.

He wants to draw him in and swallow him up and never let him leave, but Daniele speaks. He says, "Don't make that face," and it's harsh, harsher than just the hoarseness in his voice. He says, "You have a choice," and his placid doll plastic has melted in the sun.

He says, "You had a choice, so stop thinking you're the victim," and does not say, because my sister is going to be up there waiting to make hers—because I had one too and you never gave me the chance to make it.

When he leaves, the warmth doesn't leave an imprint like it always did before. Jamie's throat burns, because he knows where it is. It's with Danieleboth their shares of it.

It's not coming back.)

He does drop by, but not for the omelette.

It's mid-January. There's a chill in the air, condensing into mist over Mal's eyes and exposed fingers. Morning dew is long gone when Noah comes knocking—three slow, languid raps as always, successively louder against fresh-painted wood.

Mal is focused on the scallops he's chopping in the kitchen, but his ears catch, in quick succession: the rapid thud-thud-thud of Ronnie's footsteps down the stairs (she's wearing her rainbow socks again, he can tell), the obnoxious creak of a door they should probably oil soon, a murmur of conversation, a laugh (he smiles, here), and then—

"Malcolm, hey," Noah says, a little breathlessly. His cheeks must be flushed from the cold. "How're you doing?"

"Pretty good, thanks," Mal says. Doesn't turn around, but he's still smiling. "You guys going up to Ronnie's room?"

A beat of silence, light and innocent but striking an odd note amid the general loudness of high noon. All the scallop pieces are in the oil, so he turns around and catches the tail-end of Ronnie's shrug.

"We'll just hang around the living room, if that's okay with you?" Noah says—asks, because the question is all over his face, furrowed between his brows and held static in the slight parting of his lips. It's so openly hopeful that Mal has to smother a giggle.

"Sure," he says. "The scallops will be ready soon, if you want some."

A 'hell yes' and 'please' later, Mal is fishing out that packed set of faïence plates he and Ronnie purchased on a whim six months ago (ostensibly for 'guests'—although two orphans are rarely visited by any, but the little tulip motifs were too precious to ignore). He runs a finger over them now, tiny and yellow and stowed away in a corner, and lets the clinking drown out the sounds of Noah and Ronnie settling on the living room carpet fifteen feet away.

"I'm going to run out for a bit, okay? Need some paints," he tells them, once the scallops are fried and plated and handed over.

Ronnie stops in the middle of forking one on her plate. "Now? I thought you'd restocked them?"

Well, he had. "A couple are missing, turns out. I won't be long, don't worry."

"Alright, sure," Ronnie says, a little reluctantly, but the thirteen-year-old smile never leaves him. She smiles back eventually—slow and uneven, left corner a smidgen higher than the right.

Noah is still watching him, but Mal doesn't look.

He slips out the door, lets the smile drop. Stands on the doorstep for one, two, three seconds with a rusted gold key in his pocket and hands still spotted with oil. Feels another fifteen feet between him and Noah and Ronnie, this time heavier, this time more muted.

He fixes his eyes on the skyline as he walks to the stationary store. It's watercolour-soft, the buildings far away and huddled together and shadowed by the setting sun—and still like fragile things, like they're going to break apart around him. The winter breeze is a shock after the humid warmth of a stove. His innards are numb and his skin is lightning. He's gasping for breath in a tidal wave and sleeping on a seabed. Hurricane, he thinks.

The store is near-empty, when he reaches. A bunch of sixth-formers are milling about in the notebooks' section. The shelves are a tad disorganized. Half the paints are bought and gone.

His ongoing project is lacking in some of the darker shades, he knows objectively. It needs duller tones—for shading, for background, to offset the brighter pinks and greens. He picks up the grey, turns it over. It's heavy, and muted.

He buys the yellow instead.

Half an hour later—once he has the cobblestone walkways and webs of tree branches memorized—he comes back to that fifteen feet.

Ronnie is nowhere to be seen, but he can hear a muffled conversation from the room upstairs. Noah's lounging cross-legged on the sofa, T.V. remote in one hand and a plate of cold leftover scallops in the other. He looks up at the jingle of the keys. Smiles, close-lipped, and says, "She got a call from one of her professors, said she had to take it."

"Do you know them? The professor, I mean," Mal asks, locking the door and pulling off his jacket.

"Not personally, no. Marine biology, I think?" He looks at the shopper Mal sets down. "Got your paints?"

There's something guarded about that question. Mal's fingers tighten on the handle, fleetingly. "More or less."

There's a pause, then. Reluctantly, Mal stops fiddling with the shopping bags. Breathes in, straightens up. Listens to Ronnie's strong, brusque tones without making out the words. Feels something jolt in him.

"I don't suppose you'd like to, uh," Noah starts slowly. His eyes wander to the screen and he grimaces theatrically. "Watch this really bad sitcom with me?"

He was waiting for this, with an inevitability his conscious mind refused to accept. The something slots back into place, and Mal can breathe easy again.

"That depends," he says lightly. "How bad is it?"


"Well then, that settles it. Move over."

The close-lipped smile breaks into fullness, little by little—by one part when Mal sits next to him instead of on the other side, by another when their elbows knock together, another when they take to sharing the same bowl of chips, another when they laugh at the same times.

There's something to be said about a sitcom bad enough to enjoy. The romance is over-dramatized, the characters are two-dimensional, and the conflicts are blown out of proportion. Mal can't believe his eyes when the quintessential evil twin shows up.

"Who watches this?"

"We are."

"Who seriously watches this?"

"You know," Noah muses. "I actually think my sister would."

Mal turns to stare at him. Noah chokes on a laugh.

"Yeah, I know. My own sister," he says. "One time I accidentally accessed her internet history. Oh, man."

"What did you see?" Mal asks, helplessly curious.

"Yeah, not telling."


"It's for your own good," he insists emphatically. "It's bad enough another person on the planet knows she's into this stuff."

"What, underdeveloped romantic sub-plots and stupidly irrational main characters?"

"Well, yeah. Joanna's a sucker for all sorts of drama, even if it's melodrama. She'd be glued to the T.V. whenever these things came on," he frowns, "although I don't know if I can remember her watching this one...?"

"Credit to her, then."

Noah laughs, loud and full-bellied—hitching at the start and then spilling forward, as if he's been caught off-guard.

"You can tell her that for me, if it makes you so happy," Mal says absently.

Noah's knee knocks into his. "You can tell her yourself."

"In Canterbury?"

He blinks. "Oh, she's not in Canterbury anymore. Her college is in Warsaw."

"Isn't that—?"

"Right. Dad can keep an eye on her there."

"Right, then. I'll just fly across a thousand miles to tell her how proud I am."

More pressure against his knee. There's a tilt to Noah's smile, now. "She'd welcome you, trust me. Give her three days, tops, and she'll love you."

Mal shakes his head and says dryly, "First your mother, and now your sister? Does your whole family love everyone or am I special?"

"Take a wild guess," Noah says. His smile is small and private and takes up entirely too much of him. There it is again—that unreachable place, bared to him and ripe for the taking. Mal looks away with a weak smile. Mal wonders if Noah realizes.

He should be writhing for air but here he is again, sleeping on the ocean floor.

He thinks, what am I doing? and says, "They sound interesting. Does she call often?"

Noah smiles wider, and begins to talk.

The next morning, he's slicing bananas into his cereal. Ronnie's half-asleep and spinning lazily on the kitchen stool.

"Apparently, Noah's father is coming down to visit next month," he mentions idly. "D'you think he'll bring his sister along? I'd like to meet her."

She blinks awake, and her face is inscrutable to him in that moment. "I didn't know he had a sister."

Days pass. Winter passes, slowly and gently and with ocean sounds.

Mal's out again, basking in its dying breaths. He's petting some stray cats, finishing the last few pages of his novella, stopping and buying some ice cream on the way.

When he slips back inside the house, he's welcomed by a low, strangled grunt. He pauses. It's Ronnie—of course it is—but it's the sound that worries him. He knows it like—well, like he knows everything else about Ronnie. It's that little half-hum, half-growl she used to favour when she was an eternally angry three-year-old, suppressed and choked down with age.

She's pacing down the upper corridor, running a hand along the banister.

"Look," she says into her phone. "I'm not overreacting, no—I'll tell you what's wrong if you could just—" she pauses. The lines around her eyes tighten. "Well, how about next time, you ask me before making that decision?"

She pulls the phone away from her ear with a controlled sort of steadiness. Mal closes the last half-inch of the door and she starts.

He watches her for a moment, and then: "Should I ask?"

"No," Ronnie says immediately, then winces. Her eyes flit to her phone. She sighs, "It was Noah," and places it face-down on the lamp table.

The air grows hotter, presses finger-sharp against his throat. He swallows it down. Feels in his mouth the did you really not know? he thought but never said six mornings ago. He ignores the staleness of it at the back of his tongue and says, "Do you want to talk about it?"

"Not now," Ronnie answers. She looks up at him, freshly determined. "You know what I do want to do, though?"

She promptly steps forward and locks arms with him, steering him towards the front door.

"We're going to go watch a movie," she declares.

"I literally just got home," Mal says, but doesn't protest.

"What were you even doing out there?"

"Getting ice cream."

Ronnie narrows her eyes at the paper bag he's still holding. She asks, "Pistachio?"

He smiles. "Of course."

Her elbow is still neatly tucked against his, but her feet fall lighter and slower. The little twist to her mouth is conflicted and near-imperceptible.

To hell with it, Mal thinks. He carefully puts the bag away and tugs at her arm. "We'll eat it after we get back home," he offers.

She smiles, and it mirrors his perfectly.

Errors in Transmission, is the name of the film.

"Oh, god. Is this sci-fi?" he groans. "Ronnie, are you taking me to watch sci-fi?"

"It's a post-apocalyptic venture about a group of orphans overthrowing a dystopian government—"

"Damn it, Ronnie—"

"Bees might be involved—"


"It's good, I promise! I've wanted to watch it for months, Mal, please, come on."

"Slow down, of course I'm coming. I didn't let you drag me out here for nothing," he sighs.

"Two tickets, thank you," she says to the cashier, and then turns back to him. "You'll love it."

"Sure, Ronnie."

"You could stand to be a little more enthusiastic, Mal."

He soundly plucks the popcorn bag from her hands. "Sure, Veronica."

She pulls a face, vaguely disgusted.

To be fair, it's not so bad. The orphans are focused more on changing the world than their interpersonal relationships, praise the heavens. There's no overdone 'technology ruins humanity' theme. He can relate to the characters well enough to muster up some empathy. He's certainly not as engrossed as the rest of the cinema seems to be, but that's mostly owing to his natural aversion to science fiction.

Forty minutes in, he's digging his fingers in for a fistful of butter popcorn when he feels Ronnie's hand knock into his.

Mal shifts his gaze to her and she says, quietly, "I wanted to watch this with Noah."

He takes care to keep his hand where it is and asks, "Did you tell him that?"

"Didn't really get the chance," her eyes don't stray from the screen, "not this time, anyway. It wasn't really a big deal, but—these days I call and tell him I want to hang out and he goes, I'll come right over. And that's fine and good but—it doesn't always have to be at home. Home is great, home is comfortable, but sometimes I—" —just want to be alone with him, Mal hears.

His chest feels a little empty, but he squeezes her wrist anyway.

She looks at him, finally. "You know what I'm saying, right?"

"Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I do."

He does. He knows it so well he could cry.

By fate or by design, he runs into Noah the following evening. His lips are still cold from ice cream but he pulls them open and says, "Tea?"

Noah is a flare of warmth in the middle of a moribund winter, all windswept hair and strong hands around his cup of apple tea. His mouth is not unsmiling but it's thinner and paler and dimmer, and his gloves are warm leather but Mal can't miss the tap-tap-tap sounding against whitewashed wood, and—

"I'm guessing she told you," is what he's saying.

"Yes," Mal says, and nothing else.

The tapping melds into a restless crescendo.

"Are you—" Noah starts, and stops with a sharp inhale. It's all incongruously sharp—the start and the abrupt stop and the few syllables in between. They amount to almost nothing, but they're sharp against Mal's ears. He wonders if they're sharp against Noah's tongue, too.

Are you angry or are you sad or are you going to punch me or are you going to hold it against me—they all hang in the air, and Malcolm doesn't know which to pluck out but he says—

"No," he says anyway. The stretch of his lips is cracked, and dry, and meager—but it's all he has. This is all I have, he finds himself thinking. It rings in the now-hollow cavity of his ribcage, scooped out letter by letter from the cinema. N-O-A-H.

Still, Noah's eyes burn bright. He's still in the fire, and his leather-clad fingers are still tapping, and his mouth has stopped smiling.

Mal hesitates. There's a lump in his throat in the shape of a question.

He swallows it down. Asks instead, "Are you two okay now?"

Noah's smile is liquid. Mal could touch it and it would melt. "Sure," he says.

Malcolm is twenty-two, and always asks the wrong questions.

"Hey—whoa," Ronnie's voice sounds from behind him. "It looks almost finished."

Mal pauses in the middle of a fingerstroke. His hands are dotted with indigo on gold on Prussian blue, wet on the pads of his fingers and sticky under his nails.

He says to her, "I was inspired," instead of I needed to.

"That's the only time you fingerpaint, huh?" Ronnie murmurs, looks back and forth between him and the painting with a strange, murky sort of perspicacity. "I'm still lost about the cherry blossoms, to be honest."

"Don't worry about those," they're not yours to worry about, "they're just a whim of mine."

"Didn't know you had those," she says easily, but there's something rueful about the quirk of her mouth. He watches it falter and tighten and—a blink, and it's gone. Ronnie crosses her arms and rubs her feet together, as if the cold touches her through warm, closed air and the thick smell of paint. "Anyway, I wanted to let you know I'll be heading out soon. Don't wait up for me, yeah?"


His voice comes out smooth.

She nods and says, "Noah."

Mal's fingers itch for the grainy texture of a canvas; the blue and gold and indigo feel separate from his skin now, a cover cracked and disconnected.

"Have fun," he tells her anyway, because his voice is still his own.

Ronnie shoots him a smile, small and bare, before shuffling away to her room. Malcolm doesn't listen to her footsteps, doesn't listen for the dull sound of rainbow wool on wood, doesn't listen for the thud of her bedroom door closing. He turns back to the painting and dips his fingers into amaranth pink.

Things slot back into place, here.

Here is their makeshift studio, where Mal is again alone with his half-filled canvases. Here is a marble counter with no more than two plates. Here is a kitchen cabinet with a week-old, unopened bag of plain black tea. Here is a doorstep without waves. Here is him—him, Malcolm, in the middle of an empty house—him at eleven 'o' clock, not waiting up—him and sometimes Ronnie and then him again, week after week after week.

She watches him sometimes. Doesn't stare, doesn't linger, no—just peers over his shoulder at the stove more often, idles in the kitchen when he's fixing breakfast instead of wandering off to the lounge, presses her hand against his arm for a beat longer to wish him goodnight.

"Do you want to tell me something?" she asks him once.

Mal looks up from the scrabble board, fingering the N on his bench. It's easier now to follow up with, "Like what?"

Ronnie keeps still for a moment, as if in wait, then averts her eyes.

"Nothing," she says. "Never mind."

Mal slips the N in, spells INEVITABLE. He scores a triple word point.

Just once, he gives in (and doesn't).

The house is filled with the smell of early morning rain—smothered by concrete, dirt and grass hidden under his marble tiles. It's been twenty-two minutes since he woke up to an empty house and a powder-blue sticky note, stubby handwriting and a 'morning class today, will be back by 12. BRINGING CHINESE DON'T COOK.'

It's been fifty-eight minutes and he's stirring hot cocoa in a pot. The morning chill is sharpened by the rain outside; Mal huddles deeper into the feathery warmth of his blanket and breathes the steam in.

The cocoa is nearly done and simmering when the doorbell sounds. He puts the stirrer down, secures the blanket around his shoulders before glancing at the clock. Forty minutes past eleven.

Did she get off early? Mal is thinking as he trudges out the kitchen. Three knocks echo in his head, one-two-three, precise, demanding. He falters a step away from the door, but pulls it open.

"Hi," Noah says. Petrichor. The cold is pinpricks on his skin.

"Oh," Mal says. He rubs away the faint feeling of lightning on his arm. "'Lo there."

"Sorry, did I wake you? You sound—?"

"No, no, I just," he clears his throat, "just woke up, is all." He catches Noah eyeing the blanket trailing behind him. "I was cold," he explains, and promptly wishes he didn't.

Nonetheless, Noah smiles freely. He smiles easily and he smiles invulnerably—and here is Mal, with his childhood blanket gathered around his form and bare feet and sleep-heavy eyelids. Something like shame clings to the back of his throat but he doesn't swallow, does not swallow, does not blink.

The pitter-patter against Noah's umbrella prompts Mal to blink. He can't quite smile the same yet and his voice comes out lower than the raindrops splattering on asphalt outside—but the bright ache against his eyes is softening. He thinks, twenty minutes, and steps aside with a, "Sorry, come in."

"Thank you, I'll just—"

"Yeah, you can hang the coat there," he breathes in the scent of cocoa wafting through the lounge, "I'll get the hot chocolate."

The kitchen eases his nerves. The kitchen is small and isolated and the thick, saturated warmth of its air closes in around him like a boundary.

Rain falls heavily on his windows, bursting into sharp sounds that make the silence inside feel sacred. Malcolm offsets them with the dull scraping of a wooden spoon against the sides of the pot, if only to drown out the palpability of Noah's nervous energy. Mal can hear him shuffling, sighing, tapping, the creak of the sofa when he leans back and then forward again.

He's impatient. Mal doesn't quite realise what for—not yet—and so he says, "I'm sorry you have to wait. Ronnie won't be long—twenty minutes, tops."

Noah jolts a little. "Oh. No, that wasn't..." he starts, but trails off. Mal looks at him questioningly, setting down two mugs between them.

But Noah's face is a spectrum of all the things Mal swallowed down his throat before. He has behind his eyes an ill sort of vibrancy, concentrated and vibrating in its shackles. Mal can't keep looking and he can't look away.

"Wasn't what?" he says, almost shouts but his throat closes up.

"Nothing," Noah says immediately. He smiles like the sickness has crept away from his body wall into somewhere visceral. "I'll wait."

Something in him drops at that. His iron grip around the mug is him jerking awake from a dream.

"I'll be your only company for now," Mal says.

"I'm sure I can bear twenty minutes well enough," Noah quips. "I hope you don't mind me staying for lunch?"

"Of course not. Ronnie's bringing chinese."

"Fantastic," he perks up a little, "hopefully she won't forget the orange chicken."

"Your favourite?"

"I lived on it my first few months here," he says sheepishly, and then mischievously, "don't tell Ma."

Mal feels a smile coming on at that. It's ridiculously easy to envision: Noah sitting cross-legged on the floor right in the middle of his room, surrounded by notes haphazardly held together and books with the smell of that old second-hand bookstore, phone pressed to his ear and mouth running all sorts of yes Ma I'm eating healthy and no Ma I'm not wasting my money on overpriced restaurant food while twirling a mass of chow mein around his fork.

Before he can put it into words, his phone beeps from beside him. The screen glows with a text message from Ronnie: sorry mal, might be a little late. can we push it to 12 30 _

"Oh," Mal says. "Well."


He shows him the text.

Noah squints at it, blinks, then breaks into a sweet smile. Mal thinks it might be at the emoticon but he says, "She always calls you Mal, doesn't she?"

Mal puts the phone back down slowly—he knows that tone. He knows the flood it provokes, and he knows that it is unstoppable.

"It's a childhood thing," is all he says, and prays that he will not have to say any more.


"Since our parents died."

A hitch in the space between them, and then:

"Malcolm," Noah says slowly, and then, "Mal."

"Don't." A pause; unsettling silence tempered by slow, careful sips of his cocoa. "Can you not call me that, please?"

He expects Noah to flinch, but he only opens up wider. He opens to Mal in the most curious way. Slides to the floor and draws his knee close, plants his chin on it and watches Mal as if he has nowhere else to go for next couple of years—as if he has nothing else to look at for the next couple of lifetimes.

Mal hears a question, "Why do you look at me like that?" and then realizes it came from him.

"How do I look at you?" Noah says immediately. He sounds genuinely curious and not at all intimidated.

Mal thinks of all the questions he could ask: why did you never tell Ronnie about your family? Or that time you and she argued, why did you look like you were more afraid of my reaction than hers? Or why did you come here half an hour early? Didn't you know when she would be back? You knew, didn't you?

He opens his mouth, looks at Noah looking at him with all the patience to take him apart, and closes it again.

"Ask me," Noah says suddenly. "I promise I'll answer."

His fingers are tapping against his cheek. It's soundless, but the rest of the room is so still that it rings in Mal like a clock ticking down. Quiet, gentle, patiently invading, and Mal—Mal feels feverish. There is gasoline in his veins and the match is between those fingers.

He lives for a moment in the space between the 'when the hell did you pass your sickness onto me?' in his head and the, "I don't know what to ask," on his tongue. It falls flat and empty.

Noah's mouth twists into a tight, grimacing sort of smile.

"I'm sorry," Mal blurts out.

"For what? You have nothing to apologize for," Noah says. He sounds tired.

Mal opens his mouth, breathes in a gulp of air but doesn't know what to do with it when there's ash in his lungs. Noah isn't looking at him anymore.

I'm sorry, he thinks again. Says woodenly, "Should I heat up something? Ronnie's going to take a while."


He just wants Noah to look at him. But he doesn't, and Mal can do nothing except walk away.

Forty-seven minutes after, Mal is sitting at the edge of a tub with his palms pressed to his eyes. He tries to keep still. If he moves, he's going to sob.

He presses hard enough to see spots of colour. There's white, and yellow, and muted blue from the shower curtain, and—and then there is Noah, watching his bare feet and the blanket dragging behind him. Looking at the way his eyelashes clump together in the morning. Noah with his warm, blue eyes and something behind them that's so foreign but so terribly intimate.

He saw this coming. For Mal, it wasn't a sudden incline. It was water touching his toes. It was being rooted in the sand but being able to see the tide rising, one centimeter per day.

(It wasn't like it was for Noah—lying awake one night and thinking about soft touches around cups of apple tea, mouthing I love you and feeling it radiate down to his chest instead of out of his mouth, and it felt a lot like heartache.)

(His mother hugs him tight enough to hurt on the wedding day. Her jewel-encrusted gown digs into his uncovered skin, but he rubs her back and pats her shoulder and doesn't say a word.

The first dance is done and twelve couples are spinning on the dance floor now. The bride is dancing with her brother, a flurry of white amid a rain of cherry blossoms.

She's lovely—of course she is, she always is—but for Jamie, the man with her outshines her in the most devastating way. His laughter isn't quite as free as Mary's, but it's genuine. He's happy for his sister, if for nothing else. His steps are quick and careful and a little hesitant, just like him. His hold over his sister's waist is so, so gentle. And the fledgling light behind his eyes comes and goes with her every word.

Jamie knows he looks breathless. He knows his guests will look at him and coo over his love for his wife. His thoughts are his own.

"He's beautiful and not yours," they say.)

The thing is—the thing is, all these years between Mal and little Malcolm Slate have done nothing to temper or romanticize or subdue his inherent fragility. He's a man, he's a child, he's a boy standing at the end of a hospital hallway with his feet rooted to the sterile floor. He's still and listening: mechanical beeps through a door three feet away, bandages around his arm and stay put, kiddo, don't move. Okay? Don't go in there.

Ronnie called it courage once. Honestly, Mal just thinks of it as not being given a choice.

He pulls it from his memory in the middle of a painting. Times his strokes to beep-beep-beep and the thump-thump-thump of a tiny heart, and finally to tap-tap-tap. Stops.

His fingers are stained with fresh, childlike aquamarine. It's a nice colour, an innocent colour. It's the colour Ronnie painted her nails with this week. It's the colour of—of—

He stands up and walks towards the bathroom. When is this going to stop, Mal thinks. He's tired. There are bags under his eyes, and his skin itches and itches and itches. His fingertips itch, the soles of his feet itch, the corners of his lips itch. They want to reach out to the door three feet away. There's fire beyond it one minute, water beyond it the next, the sea, the hurricane, and if he could just—

Mal rubs soap into the blue of his fingers. He scrubs until the skin underneath is red and raw. Remembers the cold sting of winter rain on his fingertips in an open doorway.

He will hold his breath and close the door next time. He will not blink, and he will not swallow.

Unfortunately, life doesn't agree with his resolution; it pries his fingers away and wrenches it open.

In this instant, the door comes in the form of a creaky swing in a park. It was bright yellow once but the paint has chipped over the years to show dark, rusted bits underneath. The grass around it is dry, crackling under his shoes. It's small and nostalgic, and not quite worth the ten blocks from his house butwell, here he is. Here Mal is, and here is his door, and here is

"What are you doing here?" Noah asks. For once, he seems out of his depth.

"I come here all the time," Mal lies.

Slowly, Noah furrows his brows. He's almost too big for the swing, legs straight out and hands gripping the chain a little too tightly.

"I wasmy roommate and his girlfriend, they," he starts absently, as if only half-aware of what he's saying. He catches himself, blows out a puff of night air and says, "Sorry, I guess you don't care about why I'm here."

Mal is arrested, then, by some strange contradictory impulse. He wants to fist his hands into the collar of Noah's jacket, shake him to the same rhythm of restlessness that bursts in his ribcage now, pull him close and say listen, you fool.

Because he is cursed by a mouth too careful, he says instead, "I was painting. I wassupposed to be painting. I couldn't, so I came here."

The words hang in the air and then sink, as if too loud, fragmented in their stutter-pause-and-resume, not like him at all.

Noah leans his head against the chain of the swing. He looks at Mal with a gaze heavy and strained with sleep and content all the same. Speaks absently again, "Why here?"

"Iit was just," surprise dulls his tongue, "it was close," he finishes lamely.

Noah smiles secretively. Of course he doeshe's walked the ten blocks from here to his house before (Ronnie's house, Mal corrects himself). Still, he lets the topic drop and asks, in that same tone, "What were you painting?"

"Spring," Mal says simply.

Noah doesn't seem to mind the succinct answer. He sighs and smiles as if Mal's told him the secret of the universe.

"I'd like to see it," he murmurs, and the sweet curve of his smile tells Mal, I'd like to see you painting it.

And Mal can see itoh, he can see it. He can see Noah sitting cross-legged just a foot away, tracing the motions of Mal's aquamarine-stained fingers with his eyes. He can see the relentless set of them, almost cruel compared to the softness around his mouth. Mal wonders if he would, hours later, prefer to clean off the blue or spread it to his own skin. Either way, he would have to hold Mal's hand. For some reason, Mal is sure that he would.

Stop, please, he begs that part of himself. The desperation of it seizes him by the throat. Wretched.

"You can," Mal hears himself say. He clears his throat—clears away the last dredges of the hold. "If you want, you can."

Noah straightens. His mouth goes slack.

"You wouldn't mind?" he asks, sounding a little bit more like his usual self.

Would I mind? Mal reforms the question in his head, turns it over and over again and still it sounds pointless. Would I mind you? He almost laughs.

His voice feels too free in that moment, suddenly. It springs up from a small place in his chest where the restlessness is gone and replaced by a warm, aching fullness. Mal smiles easily and says, "I really wouldn't."

They walk shoulder-to-shoulder on the way back.

Mal feels curiously unafraid. At his heels are the traces of something that's snapped between them, some wayward reaction to the universe shoving them together and saying, to hell with your ethics, here he is.

He expects, instinctively, for something to have changed in the intrinsic fabric of his house—some shift of the air, some change in the way it carries their voices. But he opens the door and there is nothing. They walk into a space wholly unchanged, and removed from any other presence, and somehow it feels all too easy to be here.

"There's some blueberries in the fridge if you'd like," Mal says without turning. "Let me just set up the easel. It's the last door to the right."

"Sure," he hears Noah reply, already in the kitchen.

Upstairs, Mal gives himself a moment. Presses his back against the hard wood of the door until it's just the slightest bit painful. Breathes in the smell of paint and breathes out with it all his thoughts. Keeps his mind carefully blank. It works for a few seconds, and then his eyes fall on the aquamarine painting. He wonders if Noah will recognize the angle of his own jaw in monochrome, the plumpness of his own mouth when it's not stretched into a perpetual smile. Wonders if he's bracing himself against the kitchen counter downstairs.

Quietly, Mal strides across the room and throws a stray cloth over it. He pulls forward the painting with the cherry blossoms just in time for Noah to enter.

He shuffles in with two glasses of cranberry juice, says sheepishly, "Couldn't find the blueberries. I hope this is okay?"

"That's odd—thank you," he takes a glass offered to him, "I swear I kept them there yesterday evening. Maybe—" Ronnie ate them, he almost says. Doesn't.

Noah doesn't notice. Mal collects enough of himself to settle down and gather his paints, all the pinks and golds and deep grays. He revels in their familiar smoothness. And yet, the colours look wrong against his skin. Everything either pops too brightly or blends ashen in some brittle discrepancy that bleeds into the air outside the canvas.

He wishes, at times, that Noah would interrupt with a question or idle remark. But he's sitting perfectly still, in exactly the way Mal knew he would—legs crossed, forearms on knees, neck tilted half an inch, jaw tensed. Malcolm doesn't dare look at him, knows looking at him would sap all the strength from his fingers to paint.

A draft blows in. He rubs the pads of his fingers together; the paint is drying. His throat is a little dry, too. He wants to reach over to the glass of cranberry juice but there's a heaviness, an oppressive warmth in the room that keeps him buckled into a state of inertia.

At last, Noah speaks. Malcolm is mixing the cerulean with white when he hears it: his name, "Mal," strained and so very sudden, and he almost curls his fingers into his palm on impulse.

He jerks his head up. Noah is staring at the painting he put aside earlier, cloth fallen to the floor.

I guess he does recognize it then, Mal would think, if his heart hadn't stopped.

"That's not—!" he starts, and it's a mistake, it's a mistake because Noah turns to him then and his eyes are too clear.

"Mal," he says again. Mal doesn't have the heart to berate him for it.

"I'm sorry," he says instead, "I have to put that away, I'm sorry, I didn't—"

Noah closes his eyes, as if he's in pain, as if he's helpless, but Mal doesn't pause to take it in. He scrambles for a cloth, drags it against his fingers to wipe away the paint and, god, he's going to dislocate the joint if he pulls any harder—

"Stop." Noah takes a hold of his hand. Mal forces himself still. "Let me."

He puts the cloth away. His fingers are stiff with the effort to stay gentle, and his voice is hoarse, and Mal's not sure but he thinks he might be holding his breath. He's not smiling.

When he starts wiping away the paint with his own hands, Mal can't say no. When it achieves nothing but the spread of blue on both of them, he can't say no but he can make a noise of protest. It goes largely ignored.

Noah stills for a fraction of a second, here. He sighs out a slow, measured breath. It fans out just behind Mal's ear. Carefully, deliberately, Noah covers the back of Mal's hand with his palm, slots his fingers into the spaces between Mal's own. Mal watches him press unsteady, awkward lines of blue into the pale skin of his palm. It looks strangely obscene; blue on pale on tan on blue.

"That's not," he tries to say but his voice is failing him, "that's not how—we have to clean—"

"I am," Noah lets go of his hand, trails to his knuckles, his wrist, "I will."

"You're not," Mal grits out, a fierce whisper. Cerulean is not aquamarine and Mal is not Ronnie and he does not have a right to this.

A surge of pain and childish anger makes him close his eyes, and a touch of warmth and wetness on his face makes him open them again.

"Keep your eyes open," Noah says plainly. "What am I going to do, then?"

He's smearing just a dash of paint at the edge of Mal's lower lip. It's almost absent-minded in the way he does it. But there's an exact pressure to it—dragging but not pressing. His eyes are firm—not in a conscious, determined sense but in a sense of finality, of inevitability.

"What am I going to do, Mal?" he asks again. Doesn't blink. Mal doesn't either.

You're going to make me ask. Mal surrenders himself to the realization, just as Noah leans forward and kisses him.

His thumb digs into the side of his mouth where their lips are pressed together. Noah pulls away by a hairsbreadth and digs it in a little harder. Mal feels his lip yielding to a coiled, wanting kind of strength. Remembers the tension in Noah's fingers. He sighs against it and Noah's breath hitches in turn, jerks him back by another centimeter. The blue taken by his lip makes Mal feel as if something has slotted into place and collapsed all at once.

He's the one to raise a hand and reach for Noah's wrist this time. When he closes his fingers around it, something in Noah's eyes gives. A softness, a hopelessness, something hidden even amid clarity. Mal doubles back to a cinema and a bathtub—letters behind his ribcage and palms hard against his eyes. Hurt.

He kisses Noah and thinks, first, I'm sorry for taking so much time, and second, I'm sorry for doing it at all.

Noah pushes into him and Mal pushes back, opens his mouth under Noah's. A hand knots into his hair at the nape, rubs against his skin like sea salt and then retreats. Mal feels it everywhere on his body—gentle but disorientated with want, flitting from knee to side to shoulder to collarbone like it can't comprehend not being able to touch every place at once.

His hand slides up against the bare skin of Mal's neck, and Mal thinks that it is a different kind of desperation seizing his throat now. Is it his or mine?

The thought is foggy and short-lived, drowned out by the sweep of Noah's thumb under his jaw. Mal mirrors it with a sweep of his tongue across Noah's bottom lip. Almost smiles when Noah bites and tugs at Mal's own in revenge. The blue paint must stand out like a terrible reality against the red of their lips now. The thought almost makes him groan, makes him press harder against Noah's mouth.

And for just a moment—for just a moment, it is enough for the two of them to map out each other's desires like this. For a moment—his lungs are burning, they're drunk on wanderlust, this is all the navigation they know—

Then, Noah closes his eyes and exhales his name into his mouth, unhurried and reverent. M-A-L.

—And Mal remembers, without warning, that that isn't (supposed to be) the right name.

Noah was waiting for this, perhaps. Mal goes still, and at the first sign of it he breaks away—slowly, and not without an agonizing sort of self-restraint. For one heart-stopping second he clenches his fist into Mal's shirt between his neck and shoulder, and then lets go.

Noah looks at him across the space of a hand's breadth and says nothing, hides nothing.

"I didn't—" Mal starts, voice weak and ragged and distant. He stops dead at the flash of pain that crosses Noah's face. It twists all of his features into an ugly, gaping wound. He looks away but Mal is left with the feeling of glass shards in his mouth.

Fucking liar, that part of him screams, you knew this was coming. You liar.

He did. He fucking did.

He draws in a breath, thinks about how he's breaking this boy down out of cowardice while he breathes out. Another. Another.

Says, "No." Presses his palms into his eyes. Presses harder when they start getting damp. "No. I'm sorry."

A long moment, and then Noah stands up. Walks out.

Mal, sitting on the floor with his shirt still crumpled over the left collarbone, doesn't move for the next thirty-one minutes.

Weeks pass. Noah doesn't come again.

Mal asks Ronnie about it, just once. One cold, discordant Wednesday, she sits on the floor with a book in her hand. Mal looks at her bare feet and thin ankles, rainbow socks nowhere in sight, and says, "It's been a while since I saw him here."

Her thumb, waiting at the corner of the page to turn it, slips off.

She says nothing.

A month. His feet carry him to an old little bookshop, and standing in front of its door is like dusting off one of the second-hand books inside.

He listens to it squeal open, brushes flyers away from his face and heads to the back. Makes for a spot he still somehow remembers: three paces from the back window, second-last bookshelf, maybe a little left of the center. The compilations of floral paintings have been replaced by cookbooks.

He leans his forehead against the spines and listens for Chopin, for a tap-tap-tap.

It doesn't come. He goes back.

A month and eight days. It's a coffeehouse with quatrefoil walls and warm summer lighting this time. Maybe tomorrow he'll search out the one with whitewashed wooden tables.

Like clockwork.

The tipping point is his own house, ironically. It's eleven at night and he's brewing apple tea when he almost burns himself.

He stops. Dumps it down the sink and takes the stairs two at a time to Ronnie's room and says, "We've some of that wine still left over in the cabinet. Please help me finish it."

("This once..." Ronnie says, forty minutes later, "I think he was going to break it off."

He's not drunk yet and he desperately needs to be, so he asks, "Did he?"

"No." Her head is pillowed on her arms and her blinks are long and drawn out—but then she opens her eyes and they're startlingly lucid. "I told him I loved him.")

Here is how it happens:

The tail-end of winter flares into one last dying ember that settles deep in his marrow. He revels in the ache in his bones because it takes away from the ache elsewhere. So he dons a threadbare linen shirt and ghosts along the grainy edges of an aquamarine face with dry fingers, then picks up the canvas and turns it around so he faces the back. With a grease pencil, he writes:

when did you start coming here for me and not Ronnie?

do you actually like apple tea that much or were you just indulging me?

when you told me about your family, was it because you wanted me to know something about you nobody else (here) did?

how quickly do you tend to fall in love?

how many times were you hurt by the things I didn't say? tell me all of them.

how many times did you think about giving up?

that time in the park, I felt like you were asking me questions and not really listening to the answers. did you do that just to hear me talk?

what cologne do you use? you smell like rain sometimes.

once, you got here half an hour before Ronnie was supposed to be back. was that on purpose?

I had a dream of us fingerpainting all the sidewalks in the city. would you be averse to that?

did you really think I would mind you watching me? did you really not know?

There are no 'why's. He knows all the whys. Except for one:

why did you kiss me like you were afraid to but it would still kill you not to? what were you afraid of?

I want you to kiss me like that again.

After a second of consideration, he leaves it uncovered. He puts back the grease pencil exactly where he found it and crosses the hallway to Ronnie's room. His knock on the door is patient and quiet and everything it has always been. She calls for him to come in and he says, "I need something from you."

"Sure, what is it?" Ronnie answers absently, highlighting a phrase in her textbook with red.

"Noah's address."

She freezes. Mal can see a dark spot forming under the highlighter's tip. She faces him fully then; it's the first time in days that she's looked him in the eye. Her mouth is slack and held with none of her usual dignified firmness. She sees something in his eyes that brings a miserable, crippling understanding to her own for a split-second. He would wonder what she saw had his mind not been filled with other things. He looks at her.

She tells him.

(Here is what she does not tell him:

Before her I think I'm in love with you, there was a space. It used to be a separation between her and Noah and the rest of the world, but it is filled with her brother now—echoes of the way he might have said something peculiar, his hand prints on the china he served them tea in, his place on the couch, the blanket he drags around, traces of himself that Noah follows and Ronnie notices—of course she notices, has always noticed.

"Why do you always make it about him?" she finds herself saying, doesn't remember if she meant to say it.

He stares at her like he's seen a ghost. Starts running his mouth every which way and still, still, it's Mal's name that she hears five, ten, fifteen times out of the fifty words he babbles—

"And Mal, he's—I know what you're thinking, but Mal—"

"I'm not Mal, Noah."

He stops, then. Ronnie's sure something's coming, something cruel and hideous and indelible—a 'no, you're not' laced with the characteristic, effortless softness of his disposition, or an 'I know' from some hardened, restrained part she didn't know he possessed. Either would do the job.

Only, he gives her nothing. "Yeah," Noah whispers. Plops down on the sofa and holds his head in his hands and repeats, "Yeah." He looks on the verge of crying.

Somehow, Ronnie finds this is the worst of all.)

It's barely a ten-minute walk. Something about that rings with irony—all the effort to push him away, and here is a ten-minute separation for all his trouble.

Mal stands in front of the door for a good three minutes. A young woman stops on her way down the corridor to gently ask if he needs help but he refuses with a polite smile, its nervous edge betrayed by his hands curling and uncurling above the doorbell.

It's Noah's voice that ultimately does him in—muffled, sweet even in exhaustion; it makes his fingers hastily press forward, as if the distance of it is too much, as if his own voice is locked and choking to respond to it in some way.

The door jerks open too early and he comes face to face with a red-haired man, generous mouth pulled into an 'o' and the freckles dotting his forehead wrinkled in surprise.

"Uh—?" he draws out.

"Sorry," he steps aside, "I'm here to see Noah?"

"Oh, he's in," the man calls out to Noah, then hesitates. He lowers his voice to ask, "Can I ask your name?"


Something dawns in his expression. A corner of his mouth twitches up, almost smug, but before he can say anything Noah intercepts him at the doorway with bare feet and thundering footsteps.

"Okay, thanks," he says loudly, "I can take it from here—thanks, um, Terry."

He regards his roommate with a heavy, almost stony gaze.

"Sure," his roommate—Terry—says after a beat of silence. He turns on his heel with a wave that seems almost too casual and ambles down the corridor without another look back. Mal doesn't watch him go.

"Come in," Noah says to him, staring at some point above his ear.

Perhaps a different day, Malcolm might have looked around—might have noticed all the shades of marigold-yellow and sunglow under his feet, over the walls. Might have wondered about Noah's favourite colour and jotted down another question on the back of a canvas.

As he is now, he knows only this: they've said nothing to each other, all the windows are closed, and he can't stop shivering.

He violently stifles an instinctive have you spoken to Ronnie yet? Please—have you? because this space, for now, is just theirs. This is the knowledge he braced himself with, coming here.

Just us. He repeats it over and over again in his head, and when the words stop making sense he changes it to Noah and I. Wants to hear his name in Noah's language—M-A-L.

It gives him the courage to murmur, "Can you look at me?"

Noah's gaze does not shift away from the carpet. "You don't have the right to ask that of me."

And yet, that mark of blue on their lips is going nowhere. The heat of Noah's hands will not leave his body. Across from him, Noah stills himself with a brittleness that explains how, if asked, he could catalogue every line and bruise he traced along Mal's skin six weeks ago. It is not his imagination. It is indelible.

Mal shivers again. Like a push-and-pull, Noah's eyes flicker to him for one jarring moment.

Feverishness, gasoline and too-bright colour, his every cell rife with it. A sickness, gloriously untreated.

Mal speaks: "I don't. But you told me to ask. I wanted to back then and I couldn't, so I'm asking now. I want you to look at me."

Noah does, then. Behind the stern set of his brows is a weariness, and behind that a recklessness, smothered but alight in its very struggle to free itself, and behind that—that one part of wonder, always there.

He thinks about the patience behind an 'I promise I'll answer' and feels sudden affection swallow him whole. Helplessly, he says, "I don't think your promise had an expiration date."

Noah wavers, and suddenly, all the layers in his eyes come meshing together. He breaks into a smile—finally, finally—and it is a terrible, crushing thing. He's a vibrant, contradictory mess and Mal has to close his eyes because it hurts to look.

He hears in the darkness: "That's what I'm afraid of."

There it is; Mal opens his eyes in shock because he didn't think Noah would give in first.

But why wouldn't he? He was always braver than you.

But there is no bravery here. There can be no running from this, he finally understands.

"It's not going to get better, is it?" Mal breathes. Noah shakes his head. They don't dare look away from each other, now.

His throat quakes in fear of some surreal notion that his voice will run out and he needs to say something, anything—

"You were—are—" Inevitable? Fatal? Permanent? For me? The air around his mouth is frozen and unable to reshape itself.

Noah, without blinking, says, "Give me your hand."

Mal scrambles out of his seat like he's wading through water on coltish legs. He comes to stand in front of Noah as he would stand at the edge of a precipice. He shivers down to his toes when Noah takes his hand as he would shiver peering down an abyss.

Noah stares at their fingers—loosely interwoven, barely even curled—for a long moment.

"I thought I wanted this," he starts, "and I do—god, I do—but it's also terrible, and not just because of—" his breath hitches, "it's because of me, and you—it's a me-and-you thing, just me and you," he stops then, curls his fingers tighter around Mal's hand. The seconds tick by. Mal thinks he's finished, or given up, or abandoned some godforsaken promise—but then he says, "I feel helpless with you."

—Mal knows that helplessness, suddenly. It is ancient in his body and mind, has festered for longer than he would like to think of and sanded its once-jagged edges to smoothly fill all his empty spaces. It is him.

"I know," he says, voiceless.

Noah pulls him closer to stand between his legs. He says, "Let me have this," in one low exhale, but then it distorts into something pained: "I know it's—if I'd met you before—"

Mal freezes. Noah feels the new tension in his hand and says, "Don't."

"I'm sorry," he says, wooden.

"Stop apologizing," Noah grits out, still doesn't let go of his hand—squeezes it harder. "Your apologies aren't what I want from you."

"They're not I want to give you either," Mal returns, a string snapped, "do you think I do? You don't understand."

"For f—I know it's not the same but, Mal," Noah looks at him desperately, "I loved her, too."

Loved, Mal thinks numbly. Loved.

"But this is different," he finishes. It sounds like an excuse, but it's worse because it isn't.

He doesn't know what to say. I know sounds redundant, tell me how superfluous and out of place. Mal gives himself a moment to piece together the exact words he would say had the world outside this room disappeared. No matter how much I want it, all of me can't be you. I can't be made of just memories of you.

In the end he just says, "Noah." Softly, not as a question or unfinished plea, but as a lone word self-sufficient. The grip on his hand falters, then tightens.

"You said I had a choice," Noah says, eyes spewing fire. "Well, I'm making it now."

I never said that, Mal doesn't say. I never said that, not

Noah breathes, "Let me have this," in exactly the same way as before, all the words in between rendered useless.

Very slowly, Mal lifts his other hand and clenches it into the back of Noah's shirt. He curves his upper body forward, more an instinct than a weighted decision, and Noah leans to meet him halfway. He rests his forehead against the small concavity just below Mal's ribcage, looks miserably small mouthing four-letter words against his belly. Mal wants to press a kiss into his hair.

"Okay," Mal whispers. It's unnecessary and vanishes like smoke.

(It ends with:

"You think I don't know that? You think I don't know what you're going to say—that I did whatever I did and said whatever I said and have no right to complain? That I broke your heart? I know, I think about it all the fucking time, okay? But that doesn't—you're breaking my heart, too. I have no right to complain and maybe I deserve it, maybe I don't, and I know you don't give a damn but I still love you and everything you say still hits me harder than anything else in the world," he's fierce and miserable and desperate and hopeless, and for all the tears swimming in his eyes, his glare is razor-sharp and tender-edged and shaped like an infinity of words. "So damn you for thinking I'm suddenly made of stone. Damn you for thinking for a second that I'm not tearing myself up, that the things you—that you're not supposed to hurt.")

Noah doesn't let go of his hand for a second through it all. It's vaguely uncomfortable, the bed sheet is scratchy where his hand is pressed into it, but Mal holds on to the grip like a man possessed.

They could spend hours like this, Noah memorising the dips and crevices between his bones with ghosting fingertips. He presses his lips there, as if the light pooling into them is a part of Mal and not just the afternoon sun, as if it will seep under his skin if he stays still long enough.

He's in the middle of mouthing the side of his knee, a languid nibble here and there, all the way up his inner thigh when Mal gasps, "Please, can you—can you just?"

"Let me take my time, will you?" Noah mumbles into his skin.

The patient ease of it makes Mal laugh, almost. He throws his head back and says through a smile, "I should've known this would happen."

"You should've." He's at the crease between hip and thigh now. "Indulge me."

Mal thinks, hazily, that Noah's favourite place must be the concave space above his hipbone. He's been at it for minutes there; a hard kiss, then a suck, then a blow of air over it that makes Mal's toes curl. By the time he gets any further, Mal is trembling all over.

"Noah," he breathes, expanding the sound of it slow and drawn-out in his mouth. Noah tenses and scrapes his teeth against a nipple, so he does it again. "I'm—Noah, please, I need—"

"I know," he sounds strained now, "me too."

He says it again, quieter but with more force, "Noah—"

Noah curses under his breath, then laughs breathlessly, "I wanted to—wanted to give you—"

"It's fine, it's—just—now, can you—?"

"Yes," Noah hisses. Climbs up and pries his mouth open with the relentless intent to swallow down all the cries of his own name. Kiss after kiss after kiss and in between, "Wanted to take it slow with you," he draws away until their lips are just barely brushing, and then—his voice is obscene, the savage want under sweetness: "But the way I want you isn't fucking fair."

His heart jumps to his throat. Mal wants to answer but the fingers spread at his lower back and sliding lower steal all his air.

You're not going to let me speak, are you? he thinks. Can almost hear Noah replying, we'll have plenty of time to hear your voice later.

And it's all in his head but—there's something strangely resolute in Noah's touches, like a promise that he will never forget Malcolm's voice—

(—so unbearably soft, a voice like porcelain, a voice that never breaks but sounds like it will any second.

No one speaks his name in quite the same way as Malcolm; there is no quiet brand of surety, no promise of implicit understanding, no tenderness in the shape of their lips when they mouth his syllables. There's a softness to him, and to no one else. No one, Noah thinks savagely, and means so much more than the imprint of his name.)

Hours later, the fire in their blood cools to stone. Mal can breathe again but he can't move.

He thinks about wrapping his legs around Noah's waist and Noah looking down at him with eyes wide and aching, as if he's seen a god, and says, "Pick a colour. If you could paint me."

Immediately Noah says, "Yellow."

(Except, of course, it never really ends, and it never really stops hurting.)

"You have to talk to her."

Mal picks up his discarded shirt from the floor and wrinkles his nose. He drops it, sighs and says, "I know. You do, too."

Noah's already at his closet and looking through his shirts to find him a fit. "Together?"

He waits until Noah faces him again to answer, "No. I want to do it alone."

He doesn't question it—only nods and holds out a plain white button-up. Mal's reaching out for it when he remembers, with a jolt, Noah wearing it and sitting with Ronnie and eating fried scallops. He takes it anyway, allows his fingers to dig into it and memorize the texture for a few innocuous seconds.

Then he smiles up at Noah and says, "You think your roommate would mind if I borrowed one of his?"

Noah draws a blank for a second, but then some lonely understanding seems to diffuse across to him from the curve of Mal's smile.

"Oh," he says, embarrassed and somewhat rattled, "shit, I—Sorry, I'll go get it."

Mal breathes out when he's alone, long and steady.

It takes Noah five minutes to come back with a different shirt and a cup of coffee. "Drink it before you go," he says, pushing the cup into his hands. "You're going to walk, right? Don't do it on an empty stomach."

"Ten minutes," Mal says simply. His lips twitch into a smile around the rim. Noah narrows his eyes at him.

When he's done, Noah tugs away the cup and soundly exchanges it for a close-mouthed kiss. The tips of Mal's fingers, sandwiched between the residual warmth of the coffee and Noah's hands, are thrown into sharp relief in Mal's awareness of them. He hums and revels in the strong beat of his heart.

"I should go," he says when they part. Is about to call Noah's name but decides not to, because the bed is right behind them and he's still shirtless and more than a little dazed.

Noah follows close behind him on his way out. Mal catches him shoving his hands into his pockets and opening and closing his mouth, but he only smiles and says, "I'll see you," at the door.

"You will," Mal says—wants so badly to kiss him again at the way his face lights up.

He settles for knocking his fingers against Noah's, just once. One more glance, maybe, at the particular blue of his eyes. One more fleeting thought to how mixing cyan and jade on his canvas doesn't quite compare.

Then he rearranges himself into a necessary order for the walk back, and turns.

The doorknob is strikingly cold against his warmed fingertips. It wrenches his senses back to the ground with unrepentant force and then soothes him with the artless familiarity of the house before him.

The hinges are still not oiled; he makes a vague mental note of this while stepping inside. The living room lights are all switched on, the hum of their old fridge in the background is unmistakable, the remote is peeking out from somewhere between a stack of books rather than on its rightful place on the wall shelf.

It looks lived in. Something in Mal collapses in relief at that.

"Mal?" he hears. "Are you back?"

"Ronnie," he calls back. She's coming down the stairs, red-framed glasses and messy bun and all. Woolen socks too—but the plain black ones, with white lilies at the cuff.

She smiles at him her particular smile of casual affection, where one eye squints a little more than the other and a single cheek dimple transforms the angular look of her features into something much more forgiving. It takes the knot in his stomach dissolving for him to realize how long it's been.

"Had breakfast?" she asks. Her voice is not soft but it is careful. It's a conversation waiting to happen.

So he shakes his head and offers, "French toast? We can eat together."

They cook in silence, Ronnie rummaging through cupboards for bread and Mal whisking eggs into milk and sugar. He adds a pinch of cinnamon for good measure; it's Ronnie's favourite.

Halfway through his first toast, he starts, "I'm assuming you knew where I was."

"I gave you the address," she replies immediately.

He sets down the fork. "Ronnie, I—"

She looks at him, piercing. "You're sorry?"

A long pause. Every tick-tock resonates in him.

"I'm sorry it had to be this way," he says quietly. "This isn't how I wanted it. I know that—I know you—"


"I didn't want to," he tastes the word in his mouth, bitter and inadequate, "take anything from—"

"Why are you—can't you just—?" She tosses her fork down and doesn't look up. Mal stops, if only because of how small she sounds.

After a moment he admits, with all the hopelessness of a man lost in his own private constructions, "I don't know what else to say."

The set of her chin is tired when she says, "We were over a long time ago, Mal. Doesn't matter if it was in words or not."

He waits.

Three seconds, tick-tock-tick, and her shoulders fall. She begins haltingly, "Still, I—still," a sound unsure and grating scrapes its way out her throat, "I met him first." She laughs. "God, I'm acting like a kid. That's such a fucking childish thing to say, butbut I met him first, Mal."

He nods—there's nothing he can do but that.

"He was different," she says weakly. Means it, for all the unsophisticated wording. Mal remembers but this is different and feels like crying for the two most important people in his life.

"I know," he chokes out, finally. "Ronnie, I know, I swear I do, I just—I had to give in. I understood everything you ever said and felt and I loved you for it but I had to."

The best and worst thing is that they both understand. Perhaps he will never know this particular brand of heartbreak and perhaps she will never know that sensation of breaking water and holding your breath out of stubbornness, and then suddenly and ineluctably knowing that the ocean is too big to not dwarf all the will in your body. But she's his only family, and he trusts her.

"One step at a time?" he asks.

"You're my brother," Ronnie says, because she's cut from the same cloth as him. "Always, you're my brother."

At the top of the staircase, she touches his elbow.

"I'm sorry I didn't grow up as fast as you did," she says, "but I'll get there, yeah? I'm getting there."

He has never felt luckier than in that moment, and never been prouder.

It will never be easy. It will take months, even years, for Ronnie to see Noah in their home and be okay with the fact that he is not there for her. Once, she will come upon the aquamarine painting and flinch away and Mal won't meet her eyes for the rest of the day. Sometimes he will look upon the cherry blossoms and some unknowable, unreachable absence will tear through him, oppressive and despicable. He will never finish that painting.

Yet, tonight he will walk ten blocks and find Noah waiting on a rickety old swing. He will know, immediately, that he has been waiting for hours—but Noah will smile at him the same way he did in the morning, when Mal was the first thing he saw. Mal will show him all the questions he wrote down one dying winter day and every day since, and Noah will tell him all the answers in between quick kisses and an impromptu waltz to Chopsticks. Some of his neighbours will shake their heads at him but Terry will wink and whisper it was about time in passing. And maybe, maybe—three or four years from now they will find a little two-bedroom flat right across the road from a bookstore and paint it yellow and blue and when Ronnie tells them how tacky it is they will only lean on each other and laugh.

and then, there is this.

'This' is not any number of years. It is not any number of words. It is not any number of places.

It is where questions are never right and never wrong, because fourteen is the same as twenty-two and 'you had a choice' is the same as 'look at me'.

(all of me is—)

But there is a presence he (sees? hears? feels?) knows is with him. Earth and rain and lightning. Thirty names and forty-three scars.

(i am made of memories of—)

There's a buoyancy in him, then—a knowledge without names, pure and weightless. He smiles in thought of its transience and hence the impossible capacity it leaves behind. Spaces in between to fill.

How long this time, he thinks (not in words). How long until I breathe and laugh and sleep and see—