“He has specifically asked for you, Mister Smith,” Curie sighs, levelling Zolf with a look. She’s holding her hands in a way that implies that, if he annoyed her too much, she wouldn’t hesitate to flick her fingers and turn him into a gecko.
“Why – why on earth would he do that?” Zolf asks, frustration seeping through his voice. For gods’ sake, last time he saw the man, he basically left him to die in Paris. That, and they hate each other.
“He’s looking for someone he knows he can trust.”
“And he asked for me?”
“In the absence of your old companions, he seemed to think that you were his best option.”
Zolf sighs, trying to wrap his head around the concept.
“Madam Curie, have you met Wilde? Do you genuinely think he and I could work together?”
Curie raises an eyebrow, unimpressed. “I have, in fact. He has his… flaws, but he is also an incredibly talented mage, and has been up to this point an impeccable meritocratic officer.”
“Who we now work with, apparently?”
Curie shakes her head. “The world is changing too fast for us to bother with old allegiances, I’ll take my allies where I can get them. And shall I remind you that you used to work for the Meritocrats?”
“I-” Zolf tries to argue, before realising that he doesn’t know what to say to that. He nervously runs a hand over his beard. “That’s not the point. Wilde is vain, he doesn’t take anything seriously, he’s incredibly irritating-”
“Well, good to know I’ve left an impression.” A voice cuts in from behind him, and when Zolf turns around, Oscar Wilde is standing at the doorway, leaning against the frame like he’s here for a dinner party and not an important meeting regarding a mission that could save the world.
“Mister Wilde,” Curie greets him, cold and practical. “It’s good to have you here.”
“Madam Curie. Pleasure to be here.” Wilde tips his head at her, but less dramatically than Zolf would have expected. He looks – different than the last time Zolf saw him. His hair is shorter, and his clothes are still perfectly tailored, but more practical and devoid of colour. He’s holding himself nonchalantly, but Zolf can detect tension in his shoulders, like he’s ready to spring into action at any moment. And, more strikingly than all of that, he looks like he hasn’t slept in months.
“What the hell happened to you?” Zolf asks before he can stop himself, and Wilde’s eyes settle on him. They look colder than Zolf remembered.
“I am perfectly fine, thanks for asking. What is it with the white hair?”
“None of your business.”
Wilde raises his hands in mock surrender.
“We don’t have time for this,” he says steadily. “Has Curie explained to you?”
“I was just doing so,” Curie interrupts them. “But I’m afraid that Mister Smith has some objections.”
“Alright, first of all,” Zolf says, frustrated, “no need to take that tone. Second, you have barely explained. All you’ve told me is that Oscar Wilde wants me for a mission, which is already confusing enough as it is.”
“Alright, then,” Wilde sighs. He sounds tired. “I’m trying to get to the bottom of it.”
“Of what?” Zolf gestures vaguely. “Everything?”
“Pretty much, yes.” Wilde’s lip twitches downward for just a second, then he adds, slowly, “your old companions left behind some leads and I’m trying to follow them up, but I can’t do it alone. I need a partner.”
The memory of his old friends, now gone, stings Zolf like an open wound. If he’d stayed with them, maybe, they wouldn’t need Wilde to continue their research, maybe they could be doing it themselves, if he’d only just –
“Why me?” Zolf asks, shaking himself out of the train of thoughts.
“I need someone I can trust.”
“And you choose me? Come on, Wilde, you have plenty of friends, surely you have someone who hasn’t tried to punch you.”
“You’d be surprised,” Wilde says, and while his tone is casual, his eyes are cold. Zolf wonders, not for the first time, what the hell’s happened to him.
“Last time I saw you, I left you to a potential horrible death.”
Wilde sighs. “And I’d appreciate if you didn’t do it again, but at that time, I needed your team to get to Prague, and leaving me behind achieved that. I need someone who I can trust to stay focused on the mission, no matter what.”
His eyes are hard steel, digging into Zolf. He looks like a different man to the one he met in London what seems like an eternity ago.
Zolf nervously rubs his beard considering the man in front of him. If he’d stayed with his friends this wouldn’t have been a problem. Maybe if he’d stayed they would be working on this together, maybe they wouldn’t be gone. But he didn’t, and the harsh truth is that Zolf is never going to see them again, and the world is ending, so what the hell.
“You’ve got a deal,” he says, and offers a hand for Wilde to shake.
Being quarantined sucks. Zolf has learned this after having done it more times than he can count at this point, sometimes on his own, sometimes with company. What he’s never done before is be quarantined with five more people, most of whom do not want to be here. He can’t blame Hamid and Azu for being frustrated, they don’t quite understand how important following procedure is, they haven’t seen the danger yet, he just wishes they weren’t complaining so much. And Carter was already annoying to be around at any given time, no matter when he was locked in a room for a week.
“So what now?” Hamid asks eventually, once the door has been locked. Zolf is sitting on the other side of the room, outside the cell, to avoid the anti-magic field stopping his legs from working. With how close he is, they’re already malfunctioning. “We wait an entire week to debrief?”
“Yes,” Zolf sighs. “It’s the only way to make sure that the information isn’t compromised.”
“And you do this every time?”
“Yes. We – messed up, once, when we still didn’t know very much about this, and it’s-” he stops himself, trying not to reveal secrets that aren’t his, “-we don’t do that anymore, we follow the rules, because not doing it is dangerous.”
“I know that,” Hamid sighs. He looks so much older and so much younger than he did when Zolf left him in Prague. “I just – I just want to understand this new world better.”
Of course, Zolf reminds himself. Of course, he hasn’t had time to get used to any of this yet.
“I know,” he says, desperately wishing that he had better words. Azu was right, for someone who’s trying at honesty, he’s not very good at talking. “I’m sorry, it’s just – I know this is news for you, I just need you to understand how important it is.”
“No, it’s fine. I get it. Brave new world.”
“I’m sorry about the – talking to your family thing.” Zolf blurts out.
“It’s fine,” Hamid repeats, but his tone is strained. Zolf rubs his beard. Some day – soon, he hopes, they’re going to have a real conversation. But not here, not now, not when they are tired and everyone else can hear them. For now, this will have to do.
Wilde checks on them the following day. He stands at the door, eyes as cold as ice, as they all slowly take off their clothes, checking for marks. Zolf has done this enough times, with Wilde, and even Carter and Barnes, that he’s started seeing it as routine, but the cramped space and the others’ presence is making him wish he could disappear into the floor. Almost accidentally, he catches Cel’s gaze, who’s holding themself stiffly, and Zolf remembers how uncomfortable they’d been doing this when they first met. He gives them his best attempt at an encouraging nod, and a corner of their mouth lifts for just a second.
Wilde nods at him, clearing them without a word, and leaves, barely deigning them of another look.
“Wish he didn’t do that,” Carter mutters under his breath as they all start dressing. Zolf is under the impression that he wasn’t intending for anyone but Barnes to hear that.
“Give him a break,” Zolf admonishes him, stiffly. He doesn’t like it either, when Wilde does this, but he understands it.
“What happened to him?” Azu asks. She’s just finished putting her clothes back on, and her eyebrows are knitted together in genuine concern.
Carter glances pointedly at Zolf. “Wish I knew,” he says. “We weren’t here yet, and Zolf won’t tell us.”
“That’s because it’s none of your business,” Zolf snaps, and Carter has the decency to look away. Behind him, Barnes raises his eyebrows at Zolf in a silent apology.
“Before, you said that you didn’t follow procedure, and-” Hamid starts, but this time, Zolf cuts him off.
“It’s not my story to tell,” he says, firm, his mind filled with memories of a dark night during their first days in Japan, cleaning blood off the floor and the sound of the pouring rain. “Just – I’m the first to agree that sometimes he’s a bit much and all, but give him a break about this, okay?”
The others stay silent.
Wilde all but stumbles into Zolf’s room, his movements frantic as he almost falls to the floor.
Zolf, who’s been checking his legs for any sign of malfunction, jumps up, dropping the towel he’s holding.
When Wilde looks up, he looks angrier than Zolf has ever seen him, and has a gash on his cheek, bleeding copiously.
“What happened?” Zolf asks, making his way to him, trying to tap into his magic.
“Don’t.” Wilde almost shouts, taking a step back, away from him. “We don’t know how it transfers.”
Zolf replays the words in his head, slowly. He knows what they mean, but there’s a burning sense of denial. He doesn’t want to believe them.
“Where’s your friend?” He asks, instead of addressing them.
“Dead.” Wilde lets out. His voice sounds like needles. “Upstairs, he was… I was such an idiot.”
Of course, Zolf thinks. Their new contact, the man who Wilde had called an old friend, his tone clearly implying that he’d been more than that. Zolf had left them alone because there were certain things he just didn’t want to get involved with, and now Wilde was bleeding.
“You need to lock me up,” Wilde says. “I was around him too long, I only saw them when-” he cuts himself off, abruptly.
“Alright,” Zolf says, slowly. Wilde is trying to stay calm, but Zolf can see waves of emotion behind his eyes, what must be too much for a single man to process. It reminds him of the sea during a storm. “Alright,” he says again. “We’ll figure it out.”
“Are you okay?” He asks once Wilde is safe behind bars.
“I’m fine,” The cloth that Wilde is holding to his wound is rapidly turning red.
Wilde looks down, avoiding Zolf’s gaze.
“I should have known better,” he spits out eventually, the words sounding like venom. “After everything I’ve been through, I should have known better, and I still-”
“You were happy to see him.”
“I was,” there’s a hint of a bitter laugh in Wilde’s voice, as he shakes his head. “What an idiot.”
Zolf’s stomach contracts unpleasantly. He’s never been a particularly affectionate person, not with anyone outside those he considered family, but all of a sudden he wishes there were no iron bars in the way, that he could reach out and hold Wilde, offer some sliver of comfort as he shakes on the cell’s floor. He forces the thought down.
“Wilde, if you don’t let me heal that,” he says instead, pointing at his face, the cloth almost completely soaked in blood, “it will scar. Maybe worse.”
When Wilde looks up at him, his eyes are ice.
After two days of quarantine, when they’re all starting to get fed up with each other’s constant company, Zolf decides to try his luck. Wilde clears them again, but this time, before he gets a chance to leave, Zolf calls after him.
“Wilde, can we at least get some books in here?”
Wilde hesitates a moment, his face betraying no emotion.
“Come on, or we’re all going to start killing each other soon, virus or not.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Wilde says, his gaze sharp and his voice colourless, before turning around and leaving.
Zolf doesn’t take the lack of a proper answer personally, he’s seen him do this every single time someone comes back from a mission. He’s seen him wake up breathless from nightmares and he’s seen him lightly trace the scar on his face when he thinks no one is looking. It’s fine.
He’s almost lost hope when three hours later the inn’s owner comes to drop off their lunch, and leaves behind a pile of books as well. Barnes, who’s closest to the door, picks them up like they’re invaluable treasure and starts passing them around the room. They look to be mainly Harrison Campbells, which Zolf can’t help but quietly smile to himself about. He hands one to Hamid, one of the newest, slightly more refined ones.
“Come on,” he says at Hamid’s horrified face, “quarantine book club.”
“Zolf?” Barnes asks, looking up from the book he’s picked. “I think this one’s meant for you, want to swap?” His tone is almost too perfectly nonchalant. Next to him, Carter’s grinning in a way that makes Zolf slightly concerned. He wonders if he’s got anything on him that Carter would consider worth stealing.
Barnes walks over to Zolf and passes him the book he’s holding, taking Zolf’s in return. When Zolf looks down at the cover, he finds himself undecided between laughing and groaning. It’s one of Wilde’s.
“Why did you-” he starts to ask, but when he flicks it open, a little note slips out. It says, in what Zolf has learned to recognise as Wilde’s handwriting, In case you decided to take a chance on some real literature, Mr Smith. Zolf snorts.
“Idiot thinks he’s funny,” he mutters under his breath. “Like he doesn’t secretly like Campbell’s books.”
Some sort of undignified sound comes from Carter’s direction, and when Zolf looks up he’s – coughing, Zolf thinks. His face hidden in Barnes’ neck, which Zolf does not remark on. They’ve got a silent agreement going, him and Barnes: Zolf doesn’t ask what the situation with him and Carter is, and Barnes doesn’t ask Zolf about the thing with Wilde. Not that there’s a thing with Wilde, per se. The whole point of the thing with Wilde is that there isn’t a thing with Wilde.
“So, what is it with you two anyway?” Cel pipes up. They’ve been eerily quiet for a lot of the quarantine, and Zolf almost jumps when he hears their voice.
“Uh – what?”
“Well, because when I first got here I thought that you and the serious guy with the scar were like, a thing, but then you said it wasn’t like that, but now he’s leaving you secret messages in books, so I’m just, I’m just really confused, buddy.”
All of a sudden, Zolf thinks that if Poseidon had actually decided to strike him down, at least he wouldn’t be having this conversation.
“It’s not – it’s really not like that,” he says slowly. When he hazards a look in their direction, Zolf finds that Barnes is very pointedly staring at the wall, while Carter is glancing between him and Cel, a frustrating grin on his face. Zolf isn’t sure Carter knows about the agreement.
“But you are close.” Azu cuts in. Of course, of course he had to have this conversation with a Paladin of Aphrodite in the room.
“Listen, it’s not like that,” he says, pointedly. “It’s just – I know I said I would stop hiding things which is why I’m trying to-” he rambles on, once again wishing he had the capability for words that almost every important person in his life seems to have. “We are not a thing. And I – I understand why you would think that, but it’s not – we have a mission, here, and it’s not like that.”
“You know,” Cel says, slowly. “When the world is ending, people die. Like, a lot. So if that’s your excuse, then, just saying, but-”
“Wait, Zolf,” Hamid interrupts them. His voice is slightly more high pitched than usual. “Do you actually have feelings for him? For Wilde?”
“It’s not-” Zolf sputters, and his ears are now turning red, because Hamid joining this conversation makes it ten times more painful. “Listen, I know what I said, about, being more open with my emotions, and everything, but,” but this is too big for me talk about. There is not enough words for this. “-but this is not something I’m ready to talk about just yet.”
Hamid is still staring at him, his eyes narrowed. They’re learning a lot about how they’ve changed, these days.
“Alright,” Hamid says eventually. “When you are ready.”
It’s a night almost like any other. The inn is empty except for the two of them, the air is tepid and the rain is pouring outside. Tonight, Zolf has found Oscar close to falling asleep on his papers, and has dragged him out of the study with the intention of forcing him to get some sleep, but they’ve gotten lost somewhere on the way, and now they’re sitting on the steps at the inn’s entrance, just far back enough that the rain doesn’t drench them. They’re more than a couple of wine glasses into the conversation.
“No, I’m serious,” Zolf is saying, a laugh hidden in his voice. It’s one of those rare nights when he feels free to remember the past. “It just sort of happened? They were just very nice people, okay?”
“You just ‘sort of’ became a pirate?” Oscar giggles. The way he smiles now, only half of his face opens, but it usually reaches his eyes. Zolf finds that he likes it better.
“Listen. I got picked up by pirates, and they were very nice pirates, and I just sort of tagged along?”
“Mister Smith, your ability to casually commit treason fascinates me.” Oscar’s tone is fake serious, and he’s holding back a laugh. Zolf snorts.
“Oh, shut up.” He mutters. They’re sort of leaning against each other, but it’s fine. Blame it on the wine.
The rain keeps tapping against the porch’s ceiling. Tap tap tap.
“Why did you leave?” Oscar asks, eventually.
“The pirates. Why did you leave them?”
Zolf sighs. At the time, he’d told himself that it was time to go. Now, he wonders.
“I’m not sure,” he says. “They were too close. Guess I was never much good at sticking around.”
“Don’t do that.” Oscar interrupts him, firmly. He turns, so that his eyes are digging into Zolf’s.
“If I had stayed with them-”
“-then you would also be gone.” Oscar’s brow is furrowed, and Zolf is tired. He lets his head drop, resting against Oscar’s shoulder.
“You know, if anyone could make it out of Rome, it is your friends.” Oscar adds. If he’s bothered by Zolf’s weight against him, he doesn’t remark on it.
“I know,” Zolf says, and he does know. He also knows that Wilde has stopped believing in miracles months ago. If he is saying this, he believes it.
Zolf lets the silence linger, Oscar a comforting weight against him. He’s breathing deeply, his chest slowly rising and falling.
“Aren’t you going to ask me?” Zolf exhales, eventually.
“If this time, I’m going to stay.”
Oscar huffs, his breath warm against the top of Zolf’s head.
“I don’t need to,” he says. “I know you will see this through.”
Almost unwillingly, Zolf pulls himself up, just so that he can look at him. Oscar’s grey eyes are serious, carefully holding Zolf’s gaze.
“And how do you know that?”
Oscar smiles again, a helpless, breathless smile.
“I trust you.” He says it simply, but it feels like much more. It feels like the words carry the weight of different words, left unsaid.
He’s looking at Zolf carefully, grey eyes dark and cloudy. They are the last thing Zolf sees before he kisses him.
He feels Oscar tense against him, for just a second, before returning the kiss, cupping his hand around Zolf’s face. It tastes bittersweet, awkward and genuine like a first kiss and desperate and frantic like the last one. More than anything, for a handful of seconds, it feels right.
“Zolf…” Oscar exhales against his lips once they part.
“I know.” Zolf says. He’s running his hands through Oscar’s hair, taking in all he can in this moment.
“I’m sorry.” Wilde says. “I-”
“You don’t need to say it,” Zolf cuts him off, because he knows. He knows that the world is ending, he knows that no matter their feelings, the mission comes first.
Wilde huffs, his forehead still pressed against Zolf’s, halfway between a sigh and a laugh.
“Once the world stops ending,” he says, “I’d very much like to do this again.”
“You better,” Zolf laughs, pulling back from him.
Wilde grabs his hand. “Soon.” He says it like a prayer.
They sit quietly, hands entwined, for long enough that when they finally part, the first lights of the morning are coming up on the horizon. The rain keeps tapping.
Quarantine ends, eventually, fortunately with no murders and no blue veins.
“I understand if you need to take some time away from me,” Wilde says as he lets them out of the cell. “Come find me when you are ready to talk.”
“I think what we want is a proper bath,” Hamid says, as he and Azu untangle from each other and get up. “Take care, Oscar.” He adds before leaving, glancing at Zolf one last time. Zolf sighs. Soon, they’ll actually need to talk.
Everyone slowly trickles out of the room, Cel giving Zolf a big thumbs up before they leave, which he doesn’t have the energy to unpack. Carter and Barnes are leaning against each other, and both Zolf and Wilde glance at them as they head out looking like a strange four-legged creature.
“Do you know what that’s about?” Wilde asks, one eyebrow raised.
“Nope,” Zolf says. “And I’m happy to keep it that way.”
Zolf knows that that’s his cue to leave, but neither of them make a move towards the door. Silence stretches between them, taut and awkward.
“Are you alright?” Wilde asks eventually. He sounds like he’s deflating, and when Zolf looks at him, he can see the tension in his jaw. His eyes are circled in red.
“Have you slept?”
Wilde doesn’t reply. Instead, he kneels down, so that he’s more or less at eye level with Zolf, and says, “You answer first.”
Zolf groans, but Wilde’s eyes are digging into him, and he gives in. “I’m fine. But things were – grim, down there.”
“I’m sorry,” Wilde says softly. Zolf isn’t sure what he’s apologising for, maybe everything.
“Your turn.” He rebuts.
Wilde sighs, dragging his hands across his face. “Yes,” he says. “A couple of days ago.”
The way he says it, so matter-of-factly, makes Zolf almost more frustrated than the words themselves.
“Wilde, we have-”
“I know,” Wilde cuts him off. “But if I have to stay up worrying about you all, I might as well get some use out of it.”
Zolf looks at him, tense and tired and, despite the mask, so very caring. All of a sudden, he’s hit by the realisation that at some point, in the last few months, he’s fallen in love with this man. He holds out a hand for him, and Oscar takes it, gently.
“How was it?” He asks.
“Bad,” Zolf exhales eventually. Oscar’s thumb is tracing circles against his hand. “I’ll tell you later, with the others, but… yes. Not good.”
Oscar’s brow is furrowed, the expression on his face such genuine concern that Zolf is suddenly overwhelmed. He realises how rare it is to see this Oscar, how blessed he is to see the man behind the façade. Soon, he thinks to himself.
“You want to know the good part though?” He asks him, feeling a hint of a smile appear on his face.
“What is that?”
“We are one step closer to saving the world.”
Oscar smiles, brightly and genuinely. His eyes lit up with the rest of his face, centuries away from the man Zolf first met in Paris.
“Soon,” he says, and this time, it sounds like a promise.