Word count: 4967
It didn't surprise Will at all that David wasn't at the pub when the work crowd arrived. He was pretty sure that if he had been in his spot, invited to a gathering of strangers, not to mention unsure of himself, he would have gotten cold feet and neglected to show up. However, he wasn't going to worry about him. Though he might be having some difficulty relating to people, he seemed to have his life arranged the way he wanted it. It didn't do to push someone along faster than they wanted to go.
The group from work settled in cushy armchairs and couches around low coffee tables, away from the flat-screen tellies that were broadcasting some football game or other. Will found that much to his pleasure, most of his fellows fell on the geeky end of the spectrum, preferring to discuss the latest science fiction films and video games rather than sports and politics. Even the female coworkers, who in Will's previous company had nearly nothing in common with him, joined eagerly in the conversation, about the new superhero films and television programmes that one of the comic book companies was planning for the next two years.
Will had almost finished his beer when the first plates of food began to appear. Glancing up at the waitress who was placing a basket of chips in front of him, he spotted behind her David standing near the entrance of the pub. From his expression, he seemed to be enjoying himself watching the activity around him.
"'Scuse me," Will mumbled as he rose from his seat and crossed the floor to meet his friend. "Hey, you made it!" They grasped hands and Will clapped him on the shoulder.
David looked pleased to be welcomed so warmly. "Well, of course. I said I would."
"I thought you might change your mind."
He shrugged. "I considered it, but you're right. I need to do this." He glanced around again, smiling. "This is good."
"Oh, by the way, I got a call from the removal company." He patted the pocket his mobile was in. "They'll be here tomorrow with my things and a quote on the compensation."
"Brilliant! I'm glad for you, Will!" David grinned broadly.
"I told them to call at your house for me. And then I'll finally be getting out of your way."
"It's been no bother at all."
Will clapped David on the shoulder again. "Well, come on."
As Will turned to lead him to the rest of the group, David grabbed his arm. "Er, Will? What did you tell them about me?"
"Nothing really. Just that you're the guy whose house I'm staying at and that I owe you for it." David looked uncomfortable at that thought. "No, I really do. But come on. Let me introduce you around, and then I'll order you something, if you want."
Will led him to the table he'd been sitting at. "Hey! This is David. He's the guy that's giving me an actual bed to sleep in, instead of a cold floor. David, this is, well, everyone."
He began trying to name everyone and what they did at the company, doing a tolerably good job considering he'd only met some of them once. Ben was Will's fellow programmer, Markus and Mary were designers, Pete was a server admin, and the one person Will couldn't remember, Amy, was a graphic artist. David favoured each one with an eager smile, thrusting a hand forward in greeting as he murmured, "Nice to meet you" or some variant thereof each time. After the introductions, the party shifted seats to make room for the newcomer as Will asked David what he wanted.
"Oh, a pale ale, if you don't mind."
"Sure." He headed off to the bar as David took the seat that was offered to him.
Pete spoke up first. "So, David, Will said you're an inventor?"
Taken aback, David ran a hand through his hair as he tried to come up with a suitable reply. "I... I suppose. Though I think I'd have to actually invent something that worked to take that title."
"So, no copyrights yet. No billion-quid genius idea that we could get in on the ground floor of?"
David laughed. "No, nothing yet. Nothing's panned out yet. Though, to get a billion quid, I'd have to build something like a time machine."
"Well, there you go! Easy!"
David's smile was guarded. "I'll get right on it."
"No, really." Markus leaned forward to get David's attention. "What's it like, working on realising new ideas? In my work, the ideas come from our clients, and whilst I have to design them, I know what it's coming from and what framework I have to work with."
"Well, for the most part, I spend my days with my nose in a book. It's all research, learning what other people have done before you and trying to see where you can take things in different directions. And you want to find out what questions they're asking. That's where the real ideas come from."
"What do you work in? Electronics?"
"I dabble in a lot of things. Currently doing some work in power management."
"Move into software, will you?" Ben had been gulping his beer and brought the glass down on the table with a thump. "Create the world's greatest web browser so that I don't have to develop for IE anymore."
As Mary groaned in sympathy, Pete shook his head. "That won't help. You've already got Chrome, and people still use IE. The problem isn't providing the perfect solution. The problem is getting people to adopt it."
"Aye, and there's nothing I can make that would help with that." David shrugged in mock helplessness.
"Help with what?" Will had just returned and sat down next to David.
"Getting people to give up IE in favor of Chrome," Mary explained.
"Ah. Nothing short of mass mind-control will get people to stop using IE." He turned to David, grinning mischievously. "You can do that, can't you? Mind-control device, easy, right?"
Surprised, David stared at his friend for a moment. His eyes caught the pub lighting, sparkling golden for a moment, before he rubbed over them with his hand, then gave a humourless grin. "Well, sure. Mass mind-control coming right up. I'll have that ready for you by lunch tomorrow." His hand wandered to his chest, where he fingered what looked like a round medallion hanging from his chain, hidden under his shirt, its shape apparent under the cloth.
"Now there's a waste of a mind-control device." Markus shook his head. "So many better things you could do with something like that."
Ben shrugged. "I'd just be happy with the death of IE, myself."
“It always starts like that, though,” interjected Amy. “You have the best of intentions at first, but then you're tempted to do things for more selfish reasons. I think half of all sci-fi villains start that way.”
Popping up straight in his chair, David lit up more energy than Will had seen in him previously. “Oh, yes! But that’s what makes them interesting! It’s not that they’re evil; it’s why they’re evil. Take Voldemort, for example.” He gestured expressively as he spoke. "For the first few books, he was just the evil overlord, doing insane things, but just a background character. Then you learn about his family and his upbringing, and that's when you start to understand him. He only becomes a true character then, and it's his contrast to Harry that makes the books. It's the path to the dark side that you want to see."
"Nah," replied Ben. "Voldemort didn't need all of that to be cool. He had the whole world shaking in its boots and was almost immortal. He was only defeated because he thought he was invincible."
"See, you only care about what he did and how evil he could be." Mary grabbed a chip and waved it at him. "But motivation rounds him out. It's when he becomes a real person in your mind that you start to relate to him and you get drawn deeper into the story. And the fact that similar upbringings caused him to develop exactly opposite to the way Harry did makes Harry all the more heroic."
"I never looked at it that way," Amy murmured.
"The one that got me was the bad guy in the fourth book." Pete stared at the ceiling as he tried to remember. "Barty? Yeah, him. His story in the book was tragic, having turned evil after the way his father treated him, and then they gutted him in the movie, made him just this psycho Death Eater. No personality. Just crazy."
David coughed, hiding a smile behind his hand. "Yeah, that's what I'm talking about. You need that why to make a character truly interesting. Otherwise, he’s just empty and flat.” His hand switched to stroking his chin. “I wonder, what would it take to make a completely normal, everyday person to do something horrible, like commit a murder in cold blood? Now there's a character I'd like to explore."
"Revenge, maybe?" offered Ben.
"Nah, not just revenge," replied Mary as David's drink was placed in front of him. He thanked the waitress and took a long swig from it. "This is what I was telling you last week, Markus. The bigger the change in a character, the bigger the motivation has to be. It'd have to be something deeper, something closer to home. Like, killing your wife's murderer."
"Or your child's killer." David placed the glass back on the table and leaned back, listening intently to the ideas being discussed.
Amy leaned forward. "Especially if the killer got off unpunished."
"Or if this isn't his first murder. Maybe he's a serial killer." Mary waved another chip at Amy as she thought. "If he could rationalise killing the killer by thinking that he was preventing more deaths, then he might convince himself he wasn't doing it just out of revenge. That’s the worst evil: when the evil person thinks he’s doing good."
"See?" David grinned in triumph. "Now there's a story I'd love to see. You should write that."
Mary laughed. "Me? Oh, no, no. I'll write it when you build that time machine."
David pointed at her. “Deal.” He grinned at her with a wink. “But really, you should! You're brilliant at developing character and motivation, and you’ve got the basis of a great story right there.”
Mary had taken a drink of her beer and nearly choked on it at David's praise, waving him away with her hand. “Oh, no, I’m not a writer. I just pretend, talk about designing characters and plots. I mean, everyone dreams of writing the greatest novel ever, don't they? But there's a chasm between dreaming and doing, both in motivation and talent."
"But that's just it. It's not about writing an instant classic. It's about giving voice to what's in your heart. Talent is irrelevant, when you're writing from here." He tapped his breastbone. "What you need is that little spark to inspire you. I know you have beautiful, intricate worlds inside, just waiting to burst out onto the page. You've got to nurture that impulse. Creativity and storytelling is the way we can explore the entire universe without ever leaving Earth."
The others at the table stared at David, silent, the chatter from the rest of the pub grating in their ears. David's eyes flicked from one stunned face to another, and spots of colour rose on his cheeks. Clapping a hand to his forehead, he ducked his head down. "Oh, I'm sorry. I've done it again. I get overenthusiastic sometimes."
"No, that was brilliant," breathed Mary. "You made me want to run home and start typing right away. But you're the one who should be the writer. You've the most extraordinary way with words, and you seem to like that sort of thing, character motivations and all.”
David looked up, a tentative smile on his lips. “Oh yes. I love stories and characters. Always have. I was, I mean, I wanted to be an actor, back when, because I wanted to be those characters and tell those stories.”
“You know, mate, you still can.” Will nodded at him. “You should take your own advice. I bet you’d be brilliant at it.”
David gazed down at his hand with a small self-effacing smile. “Nah. Those are days past for me. I hope to get my stories from travelling, when I can. Someday.”
"It doesn't have to be someday," Ben remarked. "Plenty to see right here." He turned to Will. "I know you've only been here a few days and haven't had the time to explore the town, but you should. Lots of historical buildings, a museum of military history, if you like that sort of thing, ruins of the Norman keep. And the old church is nothing to scoff at."
"Part of the grounds are restricted though," Amy added. "They discovered an ancient Roman fort buried deep below the church, and they've opened an excavation. They don't allow anyone near except for paid tours, but it's fascinating watching the archaeologists work."
"I hadn't heard that," remarked David, perking up at the news. "I'll have to go see that sometime. I wonder if they accept volunteer help? Doing some hands-on work, seeing just how the buildings and the artefacts have survived through time, that would be brilliant!"
"That's university work, so they might not, but science museums usually will welcome volunteers," Mary suggested. "I'm not sure what might be the closest one, but the one in Glasgow is an easy enough distance."
"Oh, fantastic! I never thought of that." David's grin glowed with excitement.
"You're into all kinds of things, aren't you?"
WIll detected a not-so-subtle note of interest in Mary's question, and he eyed David for his reaction. The man still had that wide smile on his face as he answered. "Oh, yes! There's so much to see and learn, and never enough time, don't you think?" It didn't surprise Will at all that David didn't pick up on Mary's cue. Glancing away, his eye was caught by Ben, who flashed him an amused smirk. Will nodded back and rolled his eyes.
Mary shrugged. "Well, they say you have to make the time to do what you want, not just let life pull you along."
"I suppose that's true. None of us will have the time to do everything we want, will we?" David picked up his pint and took a long drink.
Will wagged a finger at him. "You at least have control over your own time. You could probably make as much time as you wanted to do that kind of thing."
Gazing up at the ceiling, David nodded slowly. "I suppose you're right. I suppose I do have more time than most people to devote to other things. Perhaps I'll pursue the idea further. It's a way I can help, isn't it?"
"I'm sure it will be appreciated." Amy smiled at him.
"What did you say earlier?" Mary thought about the quote. "'Giving voice to what's in your heart'? This is just another way of doing that."
David smiled. "You know, you're right. You're exactly right. I will head down to the excavation site tomorrow and inquire, and if that doesn't work, I'll research some science centers. Well, I'll do it on Monday. I understand I'll be helping someone move into his new house tomorrow." He jerked his head to the man next to him.
Pete caught on first. "Oh, is your stuff finally getting here? Do you need help unloading?"
Will grabbed a chip and popped it in his mouth. "Finally, yes! And no, I don't need help. After all this, I'll make sure the removal company puts everything just right."
"That's right, you will." Pete held up his glass in a toast.
"And I'll finally get out of David's hair." Raising his glass but in his host's direction, he flashed him a grateful smile.
"Oh, you've been no bother. I've liked the company." David thumbed his own chest. "If I had my choice, you'd stay."
"Well, then, I guess I'm saving your brother his scuffed floors."
"You have a brother?" Mary interjected, and Will had to stifle a laugh at her transparent interest in David.
"Yes," David responded immediately, then amended himself. "Well, it's his house I'm staying in."
"How nice! Does he live in town, too?"
David wriggled uncomfortably. "Er, no. He's, um, he's passed on." His eyes dropped to his hands around his empty glass amidst a chorus of "I'm sorry" and "Oh, David."
Will reached around and patted him on the back. "I'm sorry, mate. I didn't know. I wouldn't have said..."
David leaned back in his chair, letting the glass rest on his knee. "It's okay, Will. I knew it was coming, but it's still a wee bit raw, you know?"
"I know. But hey, if you need anything, if you want to talk..."
"Yeah, thanks. I'm fine." He smiled and nodded, trying to communicate that the solicitousness was unnecessary.
"Were you close?" Mary asked.
"Aye. Actually, here." David reached into his pocket and pulled out his mobile. His fingers danced over the touchscreen and he turned the image that came up to the table.
"Oh!" Mary jerked back. "Your twin brother!" She took the phone and peered at the picture of David, his brother, and a blond girl, all three mugging for the camera. With identical impish grins, the two men were leaning toward each other to fit in the frame, whilst the one on the left had his arms around the girl, who was lying against his chest with wide, shining eyes, her ponytail splayed over his brown pinstripe jacket. Mary leaned in closer to look at them, her eyes darting to the man in front of her a few times. "I can't tell. Which one is you?"
"On the right. John's on the left."
"Oh, okay." She stared at it a moment more, then passed the phone to Markus. "You look like you were very happy."
Markus did the same thing as Mary, repeatedly comparing both men in the image to the one in front of him. He murmured "Remarkable" under his breath. "This couldn't have been taken too long ago. No more than a couple of years."
David nodded. "Much less. Do you remember Christmas when the big red planet appeared in the sky? That's about when John died. That was taken about two weeks before."
Mary was horrified. "Not even four months then. Oh, I'm so sorry!"
"Don't be. As far as I'm concerned, he still lives on, in me, you know?” He pressed a fist to his chest. “As long as I'm alive, he'll never be gone, and I plan to stick around for a very long time."
"Why, that's a lovely thought!" Amy reached across to pat David's hand.
When the phone reached Will, the similarity between the two men stunned him as much as it had everyone else, and he leaned in to inspect them. Their facial features were exactly the same, even down to the tiny wrinkle lines around their smiling eyes, which normally develop individualistically even on identical twins. He scrubbed a hand down around his mouth as he tried to find any difference between them, but failed: he almost felt that the image had been graphically manipulated, with two pictures of David spliced into it to make it look like a pair of twins. He was quite sure that other than the fact that they wore their hair differently, there was no way to tell them apart. He passed the phone across David to Ben and returned to the conversation, which had moved on a little while he had ignored it.
Markus was pointing at the phone. "May I ask, who's the girl? His girlfriend?"
"My sister, Jenny."
"Oh! I hope she's doing okay, with this and all."
"I assume so. She's gone, too." At the horrified expressions on everyone's faces, David waved a finger. "Oh! Not like that. She left, not long after that photo. I haven't talked to her since."
"Doesn't she know that...?"
"Oh, she does. That's why she left. That was always the plan."
"I'm sorry?" With those two words, Mary voiced the confusion that everyone else at the table felt: how did they know John was going to die in two weeks, and if he was ill, why would Jenny leave her ailing brother so soon before he passed?
David rubbed the back of his head. "It's... complicated. I'm sorry, but I really don't think I could explain it all to make it make any sense."
Will raised his voice above the general chatter. "I think we're prying too much into your family's business, I do."
Mary startled. "Oh, no. I'm so sorry, David. I didn't mean to."
David smiled with relief. "Thank you."
Will elbowed him companionably, though he wondered, if his brother was dead, how could he still own the house that David was living in?
The group ended up staying at the pub quite late, chatting and laughing, and at one point, Markus remarked to Will that it had been a long time since the after-work crew had stayed out so late together. Will was pleased with the results: he felt quite welcomed by everyone and had gotten to know them a lot better, especially Ben, with whom he would be working closely. They'd discovered a mutual love of poorly-dubbed martial arts movies and had promised to get together to share their favorites some weekend after Will had settled in.
Will was also pleased to see David fitting in comfortably and seeming to enjoy himself in the company of these strangers. He began to see why his friend had described himself as bubbly, as he showed more enthusiasm in conversation during this one evening than he had the entire week Will had been living in his house. He was also pretty sure that this wasn't caused by the alcohol: after finishing his pint, David chose not to order anything else to drink, or eat for that matter, even when the party ordered their dinners. Will decided that if his friend was normally this open and excitable, then he'd definitely been holding himself back all this time. He hoped that David would continue to feel more comfortable with himself in the future.
He did notice that attention did seem to gravitate toward his friend quite a bit, though he wasn't sure if it was due to his natural charisma, of which the man seemed completely unaware, or if it was simply because Mary was trying to turn his head. With any new topic of conversation, she tried to get him to state his opinion on it or relate a story about it, and while he always responded kindly, it was with no special interest in sharing himself with her. She seemed rather crestfallen by the end of the evening, and after bidding a polite but controlled farewell to the group and to David in particular, she left with Amy. It wasn't long after their departure that the rest of the party broke up, and Will and David left together, stepping out into the cool air of the spring evening.
"Here you go, mate." Will held the keys out to David.
"Oh, you can drive if you want." They strolled toward the parking lot behind the pub.
Will tossed the keys to him. "You drank a lot less than I did."
"All right." Fumbling with the keys in the dark, David thrust the fob toward the car, unlocking the doors. "Thanks for inviting me out, for getting me to do this. I really needed to. I haven't had a night like this in years."
"Any time, mate. They do this every Friday, they said. You're welcome to join us."
"I might do. I might just do," he murmured.
As he opened the door, Will happened to look up at his friend. David had paused before getting into the car, biting his lip as he considered the idea with a contemplative but satisfied air, and it seemed to Will that David's eyes were shining, actually glowing with a subtle golden light, glimmering in the darkness. Then the man shrugged and began to climb in, and the moment was over, his eyes suddenly normally shadowed. Will scanned around the parking lot and spied a streetlight fifteen metres away, and decided to attribute what he saw as a trick either of the light or of the alcohol. The sudden roar of the engine as his friend started the car brought Will back to the present and he slipped in, pulling the door closed after him.
It only took a moment for David to pull out of the parking lot and set them on the route home. "Your coworkers are a friendly bunch. That made it all easy."
"'S funny. That's what Amy said about you. Actually, I think she used the word 'candid'."
David glanced at him, puzzled. "Really? What does that mean?"
"I think she meant that you say what's on your mind without worrying what people might think about it, but without being blunt or offensive."
Keeping his eyes on the road, his friend threw his head back and laughed. "Oh, that's exactly the opposite of what's going on in my head. I'm chanting to myself every second, 'Don't be weird. Don't be weird.' I didn't exactly succeed in that, too many times to count tonight."
Unseen by the driver, Will rolled his eyes. His friend worried too much. "You did just fine."
"Well, I'm glad they liked me. I tried my hardest."
"You succeeded very well, you know. Probably too well." David glanced at him with a confused frown, and Will stared at him in amazement. "You really didn't notice, did you?"
David's gaze was back on the road. "Notice what?"
"What about her?"
Will couldn't keep himself from laughing, and he had to stifle it with his hand. "I think you need to work on reading the clues, mate. She was falling over herself trying to get your attention."
Will was enjoying David's clueless reaction. "She didn't look at anyone else all night and barely spared Amy two words, and normally they're thick as thieves."
David dismissed the thought with a wave of his hand. "You're imagining things. We just talked a bit, is all."
Will mimicked David's scratchy Scottish tenor. "'Just talked a bit, is all.' Why do you think they left first? Mary got frustrated that you didn't even notice her enough to turn her down. It wasn't Amy who decided it was time to go." Will cast a sly sideways glance at David. "If you had responded favourably at all tonight, it would have been her in this seat instead of me going home. If you hadn't opted for the motel down the road, that is."
"Oh!" In the headlights of the oncoming cars, Will saw the blood drain from David's face as his jaw dropped open. "I didn't... I mean, no, but... I can't..." Will bit his lip hard to keep himself from laughing at his friend's discomfiture.
"Relax, mate. If you're interested in her, I'm sure this evening didn't hurt anything. And if you're not, well, she'll get over it." David still looked completely put out, so Will decided to needle him more. "Now, if it was Amy that piqued your interest, she wasn't so obvious about it, but I think she'd've responded, too."
David sputtered at that suggestion. "No, you don't understand. I can't do that. That's not a good idea. It never works."
"Oh!" Will finally realised what David's problem was, and he tapped his head back against the headrest. "I get it. Sorry, sometimes I'm a bit thick. But actually, that's a good thing. I'll just let her know it's women, and not just her. It's better than letting her bark up the wrong tree."
"What?" David glanced at Will in confusion before returning his eyes to the road. "No, I'm not queer."
There was a slight pause before he answered. "No?"
It was Will's turn to be thrown off-balance. "You don't know?"
David shrugged. "I haven't thought about it."
Will turned to stare at his friend. "You need to think about it?"
Another pause. "I guess?"
Will sat back in his seat. "Hey, mate, I'm sorry. That's fine. If it's not important to you, then it's not."
They pulled into the space in front of the house and the two men got out. David leaned against the car, his arms folded on the roof, and chewed his lip. "You know what? You're right. Tell Mary I'm queer. If in fact she was really interested - and I still don't believe you - it'll be easier for her, and it doesn't bother me at all. Maybe I am queer. I didn't used to be, but that doesn't matter now." He shrugged, completely unconcerned with the question.
Will tried to hide his perplexity as he listened to David's odd stream-of-consciousness. It puzzled him, but if the man was comfortable with his uncertainty about his sexual identity, he wasn't going to prod him about it. "You got it, mate."
David pushed off the car and circled around to join Will, locking the car with the fob as he walked. "Come on. I got a tub of custard in. We shouldn't let it survive the night, I think, and you can tell me more about how completely oblivious I am."
Will laughed as he fell in behind him. "Sounds like a fine evening."