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A weary sigh flowed out of Maurice's mouth, his lips curled in a grimace of pain and commotion, eyes wandering through the room with the sort of dread that is typical of a harmless prey conscious of being in the hunter's sight. He felt a flame of terror arise in his chest, fear mixed with an unresolved feeling rustling in his head. The grip on the telegram tightened, he was scared. And even more scared he was, when he came to the realization that the fear he was feeling was directed to himself.

There it was, the wrinkled telegram, cloaked in a truth that felt to Maurice's heart more like a mystery rather than the cordiality it was supposed to emanate. And there, right in between the boldly printed words, the voice of a friend he had once loved reverberated with the fervor of a storm — and memories of a life that was once so treasured before its fall were brought back to life.

Maurice blinked at the sheet, his eyes tingling of both turmoil and compassion. Holding back his breath and tears of an unknown source, he forced himself to give it one more reading.

“Hello, Mr. Hall — or, may I still call you Maurice? I hope you have pursued the dreams you have always desired to see come true. On my behalf, I presume I have come to terms with my own person, which I wish happened to you, also. Cutting through all formalities, I have taken the liberty to contact you out of respect for our old friendship and out of the respect I have for you, as you might as well know. It would make me utterly delighted to have a talk with the good, old friend of mine you are. The door to my house is everlastingly open, to you. I have reasons to trust that you will not miss to answer my call.
C. Durham.

Amidst the hurricane of thoughts that had overwhelmed him, Maurice heard himself murmuring Clive's name. His heart sank in the awareness of a bond that had been severely wounded by the gunshots of a cold, evil reality that could not be fought in any way and his eyes wished to be closed so to let the mind find refuge in a new, hopefully kind dimension.

Maurice shook his head in what outwardly looked like an attempt to stave off the arrival of the memories of those days that had given him so much to be happy about in the past, and yet so much to suffer for life. He told himself he would not comply with his friend's invitation, he forced himself to believe he would not give in to his passions, now dozed off in his burning chest, and spare himself unnecessary sufferings.

His eyes roamed around the room, providing himself proof that nobody was actually any near to him, albeit conscious of the impossibility of the presence of a human figure standing at his side. A smile, tense but equally tender, dawned on his face as he persuaded himself to think he would turn down the offer and not lose sight of his right way.

But Clive was right, he had not missed. And the day that followed, he was already sitting on the seat of an old, creaking carriage, staring at the fields that preceded Pendersleigh, and throughout his trip he let himself be cradled by the memories of a past now way too far away for him to bring it back — so he thought, in spite of the flame that, still inside of him, had not stopped burning for an unrequited love.

The sudden shriek of the worn wheels snatched him from the jaws of melancholy and as he projected his gaze to the outside world, he felt a stitch piercing his heart. There he was, once again… in the house that had felt to him like a sort of safe place, where his once loved Durham would sneak into his room to seal their lips together in an innocent, yet amorous kiss, where his friend would give him looks of awe and amusement during lunches and dinners with the family. He would not be capable of coping with the whirl of memories and emotions this time, Maurice thought with his heart aching, and still he took a deep breath and headed to the main door where – to his surprise! – the figure of his old friend was waiting for him, the back rested against the wall and arms folded, almost impatient to welcome him at first sight.

Maurice gulped. It had seemed to him to discern in such a posture the sternness blended in fondness that once used to typify his friend, and that gave origins to the pure admiration he had once felt towards him. Nothing would ever feel like it had felt at the peak of their emotional awakening, nothing could ever be as it had once been. An unbridgeable gap had come unclenched between them and pushed their bodies at the two extreme poles of two different, irreconcilable worlds. Now he would be Mr. Hall to the person he had once gifted with all his heart, no longer Maurice; and there would be no Clive flowing from his lips, but an austere Mr. Durham.

What an ending, lamented Maurice with a lump in his throat. What an ending the two of us have written to each other’s lives, Clive. And as he got lost in the reminiscences of a youth he had and felt loved, he wished that would not be the last time he could call his friend by his name – because in the recondite depths of his heart, he knew how much he had loved Durham and how difficult, if not even impossible, it would be for him to forget what had once been of them.

He dropped his gaze low and reacted in horror at the shivers that were puncturing his body. Soon he caught himself feeling disgust towards his own person. He could not understand why he was letting a meeting with an old friend now gone destroy his peace with such an indefectible force. After all, he considered, wasn’t Mr. Durham the same Clive that had confessed his love to him, heedless of their friends that were talking nearby? Wasn’t Mr. Durham the Clive he had kissed with a tenderness he did not even know to have? The Mr. Durham that was now waiting for him at the door had been the Clive that had loved first, once; and the bond that had connected their hearts together would stay in the hidden recesses of their souls until the end of times, no matter how hard they would try to get rid of the past.

“Mr. Durham,” he heard himself say in a transport of recollection, his body drawing near to the place he was waited.

“Hall,” exclaimed the other, running to him. Maurice thought he had seen a glimmer of happiness dawning on his face, but he preferred to keep his expectations low. He walked towards his friend with a forced smile on his lips, which involuntarily turned into a sincere one as Durham held out his hand to him. Once they would have hugged, or even kissed, he realized; and his smile faded into the grayness of anguish.

“Regardless of the faith I had in a return of yours, I wouldn’t believe you could come this promptly. But you have always been a good, dependable boy, so I shouldn’t even be surprised,” he said, holding Maurice’s hand in his with a respectful smile. “You must be tired.”

“No… not really,” Maurice muttered, his eyes roaming through the vastness of the surroundings as if he were attempting to elude the other’s gaze.

A wrinkle scarred Durham’s forehead and his thoughtful mind did not take long to realize the distress Maurice was afflicted by. “You may want to come inside and have a rest, won’t you?” he asked, inviting the friend to follow him inside.

But Maurice did not feel ready to be back, to go back to the place he had tasted the exquisite sweetness of a happiness that had brutally dissolved into bitterness. He would have wanted to shake his head in response, turning his back to Durham and leave with a sudden fever as an excuse. He had stopped loving, but not caring; and in spite of his yearning for home, he could not falter in his respect for the friend.

“It’s not my place to refuse, I suppose,” he sighed, his heart racing of an ineffable tension – and Durham smiled at his approval.

The second that followed, they were sitting one in front of the other in the parlor, their eyes inspecting one another and their bodies showing a melodramatic rigidity. Nobody dared to speak for a while, busy as they were studying each other all over again and casting around for the changes that might have occurred to their skins since they last had the opportunity to admire the other’s features.

At first blush, it seemed to Maurice that a wraith of wistfulness had preponderated over Durham’s face stiffening his lineaments. He did not give it much of importance, though, for he considered it a blunder made up by his euphoric heart — but his conjecture would soon reveal itself in all its validity in conjunction with Durham’s behavior. This latter had just hidden his shaky hands behind his back when his friend let his eyes fall on his arms and at that point, Maurice was sure he’d caught sight of a bandage looped around Durham’s right wrist.

He was not given the time to grasp what he had just seen, that Durham’s voice broke into his thoughts attracting his attention with the softness of his voice. “Thank you for coming, Hall.”

Hall, not Maurice. Maurice’s heart sank into gloominess, nevertheless he managed to put on a smile and hide the pain such a situation was brutally putting him through.

“I thought it would be nice to see you again,” explained Durham with a certain tone of respectability that only plagued Maurice’s heart with even more cruelty, although unwittingly. “Your presence is always welcomed here, and yet there has not been a day I saw you. Not one day, not one time did I get pleased by your visit. You knew you could come here as much as you’d like, didn’t you?”

“I did,” admitted Maurice, a bittersweet accent permeating his words. “But I… didn’t feel like coming.”

Durham gulped louder than usual, pointed his head towards the ceiling and smiled heavily. “Of course.”

There was not a time in his life when Maurice had repented his words as at that moment, and more than ever he wished for his speech to return to his mouth and never get out again; but he had already spoken by then, and Durham intervened in order that Maurice would not be overwhelmed by a sense of guilt.

“You have always been so frank with me,” he said, letting out a soft chuckle. “I used to adore this trait of yours, and I am glad to see you didn’t get rid of it.”

“Durham, I’m sorry–” Maurice had opened his mouth to make up for his discourtesy, when Durham interrupted him raising a finger in front of his face.

“No, no, don’t. I like it about you, it shows how much of a trustworthy person you truly are.”

“Durham, I did not mean it,” said Maurice in a rush, fearful of the awakening of old feelings that were supposed to stay locked up in the oblivion.

Durham’s eyebrows discernibly twitched, his neck snapping in the direction of the friend’s face. He stared at the boy in front of him with his eyes overflowing with bewilderment and Maurice was left stupefied by his astonishment, judging it a quite odd reaction from the one who had confessed his love with the aid of the Symposium. Even so, Durham was quick to get a grip of himself and forcing a fit of coughing to clear his throat, snickered: “I had just finished singing your praises and you are already making it hard for me to understand if you’re being honest or not. Either way, it’s good to have you back.”

Perhaps if you didn’t let me go, it would be less painful for me to be back to you. Maurice smiled, biting his lower lip to suffocate a dawning grimace of pain. Understanding that it would have caused him an immoderate suffering if the conversation had focused on him only, he made an attempt to steer the dialogue in another, less harrowing direction.

“I don’t think I have had the chance to see Mrs. Durham yet,” he pointed out, gaze wandering around the house to search for the woman. “It would please me greatly to greet her.”

“She is not home at the moment,” revealed Durham lowering his sight. An unutterable bashfulness had now made its appearance on his face, as if he were worried Maurice would begin looking at him with a suspicious look whilst mistrustful thoughts crossed his mind.

His retiring reaction did not go unnoticed by Maurice who, just like the blundering creature he was, could not figure out why his old friend was acting so shyly. Much had happened between them, but Maurice had been able to keep their waned love preserved from any harm and bigotry.

“Well, that’s too bad. I hope she is doing well.”

“She is, indeed,” said Durham. But the ardor that left his mouth at the name of his mother served as a clue for Maurice to presume something had occurred with the woman.

Maurice’s first impulse was to ask his friend if he was feeling alright and offer his help if he asked for some, but the cold face of a reality that had torn them apart led him to feel meaningless and so much as inadequate to the point that all the words he would’ve loved to speak died right in his throat, leaving him with nothing but a sour silence on his lips.

“We are – we are alone, if that does not bother you,” admitted Durham playing shakily with his fingers. “I know I should have warned you beforehand, so not to surprise you with this vile setback… but I promise my intentions were faultless. The thought of meeting you once more had made me so delighted that it slipped my mind. I’m sorry about this, deeply.”

Maurice blinked in amazement. He could not believe his ears were actually making him listen to such an unprovoked apology, rather he even refused to conceive it. After all they had been through, after all their kisses on the grass and in the bedroom, their confessions in the midst of other students and their bodies clung to each other, he mightily repudiated the fact that Durham would really make amends for something that prosaic. But also, his heart writhed in grief at the sight of what had been of his lover and what had become of his insurgent disposition.

Durham was tense, Maurice noticed, and deprived of his plucky confidence that had managed to bring them together. He felt the rush of wonder burning inside him and his heart beat of the necessity to know what had happened to Durham and in Durham. At that point, he was certain something was going on with his old friend and reckoned his sudden invitation to be more than a bare call – more of a request, he hazarded. He could no longer keep his tongue under control, but he did not even mind.

“Are you all right, Durham?”

“I am, I believe,” the other giggled, then shrugged putting on a pouty face. He would try so hard to hide himself from Maurice, he would subject himself to great sufferings in order to be loyal to the austere figure of composed man he wanted to put on around the other, but nothing would ever deceive the kind heart of who had once been his lover.

“Why would you invite me over, Durham?”

Durham felt his heart skip one, two, handfuls of beats. His gaze crashed onto the ground, hands quivering behind his back and breaths getting heavier second after second – and his hopes of playing the contrived man he knew he would never be around his friend were sunk as Maurice’s voice echoed in his mind shrouded in all its kindness.

He could not do anything more than letting out a sigh of surrender. “Like I said, I thought it would be nice to have your company over. You are a nice guy to spend time with, anyway, and a smart tongue to have conversations of any sort with.”

“In that case, I should get myself prepared to leave, then.”

He had just got up from the chair, turned his back to Durham to go grab his cloak, when the firm grip of a hand grasped his arm and seized all of his movements. Maurice’s eyes widened, his heart pounding sweetly. He slowly turned his face to the friend who, in response, was staring at him with such a calm expression that Maurice thought to be unconscious of what had just happened. And he was not wrong: it took Durham a few seconds to realize his actions and the impulse that engendered them, but as soon as he did, he let go of the friend’s arm forthwith.

“I’m sorry. That was not like me to irk you with such a coarseness.” He stepped back, frightened almost.

“There is no need to worry, Durham. Your… coarseness, like you have just called it, does not irk me in any way. The harshness you have with yourself, however, does irk me a lot, yes.”

Durham took a deep breath. He looked exhausted, to Maurice’s faithful eyes.

“You said you had come to terms with who you really are, yet you do not seem to be in great shape.” And while he was speaking, his eyes met the bandage that was covering Durham’s wrist. “Did you get hurt, there?”

Durham frowned slightly, not understanding what the other was hitting at. As he figured out his wrist was the object of Maurice’s curiosity, he hurried to keep it hidden behind his back. He then tried to dismiss the argument with a refined smile, but that did not sort any effect on Maurice; there, he had to accept the fact that he could stand no chance with the friend and the only road he could undertake was the one that led to honesty.

“Not hurt, just a bit wounded. I had a dispute, but nothing that is worth of being remembered.”

“With Mrs. Durham, I suppose?”

Durham chuckled, this time with a sweetness Maurice had not heard coming from him yet, then shook his head. A profound affliction darkened what was most dazzling about his face and Maurice knew, even without the boy speaking the language of truth, that Durham was hiding under that smile of an implacable storm.

“No, not that I care about, at least. I let myself get carried away by the flow of rage that was rushing within me, and I had to let it all out somehow.”

“You never give in to madness,” Maurice pointed out, an odd sensation of anxiety rising inside him.

“Thank you for pointing it out and showing me how much I have worsened in time,” said Durham joking around, but he could not comprehend Maurice was anything but in the right frame of mind for fooling around.

“Why would you lie to me?” asked Maurice, unable to prevent his bitterness from prevailing.

“I did…not lie to you,” was the response he received to his soft resentment.

“Why would you invite me over, bragging about being okay with yourself, and persist to say you are fine although you have clearly admitted to be feeling the exact opposite? What is going on with you, really? You tend to seem off, and never have you looked this off in your whole life. Listen,” and he got closer to Durham, who had now downcast his sight to disguise the pain filling his eyes, without daring to touch him lightly; “I know how it feels. I have been through it myself, but I had nobody to talk to. You do have somebody to talk to, now, if you care to be honest with me and open your heart to me, so that the wounds that now pain you so much won’t hurt any more. But you have to want it, first.”

Durham locked himself in the deafening silence of his demons, his heart at war with his mind as the first yearned for Maurice’s understanding words while the latter opposed to anything that was not the loneliness and tribulation he was sure to be destined to. Whereas his heart would rush into the old friend’s arms and dig itself in its sympathetic warmth, his mind would urge him to think about the discomfort he had pushed the friend into and the anguish he had awakened in him – and he would find himself forced to focus on all the evil he had committed, judging himself unworthy of Maurice’s accepting heart. And there he would cry at the lack of Maurice’s hug, where he would never feel condemned nor harmed, where he would mostly feel at ease with himself, where he would be safe from anyone and himself.

He kept staring at the ground, his sight lifeless and his lungs begging for air to breathe in. One side of him wanted to give himself out to Maurice, showing himself to him in all his contradictions and flaws, fears and weaknesses; but the other, the side of the guiltiness and loathing of the self, wished for him to suffer for life, declining anybody’s help so to suffer the pain he had caused to others. He felt his knees getting weaker, his legs threatening to collapse and his heart aching to the point of achieving a fainting. He did not deserve Maurice, he shouted at himself, and he was yielding to this wicked belief when Maurice extended his hand out to him, for him to grab it and hold onto it.

“It might be you the one to deserve some rest,” said Maurice, trying to keep ahold of his emotions.

Durham raised his eyes to his face, the mouth slightly opened in bewilderment and pupils shining of a tenderness he thought he could not ever see offered to him anymore. Inside his chest, his heart hammered against the ribcage to clutch such comfort and protect it from any atrocious tricks of the mind. A touched smile arose on his lips, his face emanating a poignant sparkle.

“I might be, yes.”