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Love is a Killing Thing, or, how Neal changed everything

Stephen Murray

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“Murray, eh, hand us the bottle,” Allan MacDonald slurred, gesturing with a broad sweep of his hand that nearly slapped Stephen across the cheek. The room they shared was so small it barely held two beds and a narrow trestle table, but both of them were younger sons and couldn’t afford much better.


“I think ye’ve had enough,” Stephen enunciated, fingers closing tight around the bottle’s neck. MacDonald, for all that he was a decent friend when sober, was known to drink himself to excess frequently. “We’ve the lecture tomorrow, ye ken.”


“Bugger the lecture,” came the swift reply, and MacDonald leaned across the table, fingers groping across Stephen’s fastidiously copied equations and smearing in half-dried ink as he tried to make a pass at the bottle. “Ye are nae my nursie.”


“Ye’re richt there, laddie. Ye willna get any coddling from me,” Stephen spat, lifting the bottle to his lips and drinking deeply. “Ye can bluidy weel find yer own drink.”


As far as rows went, it was a fairly tame one. MacDonald threw on his coat and periwig and ran out into the street, presumably to the local tavern they frequent, and Stephen settled down to recopy all of his work.


He collapsed into bed in the wee hours of the morning to sleep for a few hours before heading to the lecture. MacDonald’s bed had not been slept in, but he found a pamphlet shoved under the door when he left—a peace offering if Stephen had ever seen one.


Allegiance and Catholicism, by N. Munroe, it read, and Stephen tucked it into his satchel for later. It was a good enough apology, he figured, and that was the last he thought of it before heading to his lecture.

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“That one there, the tall one, he wrote the pamphlet I left for ye,” MacDonald announced rather out of the blue. The Black Cauldron was dim with tobacco smoke, which made it difficult to see, but eventually Stephen twigged as to who MacDonald was gesturing at.


“Him?” Stephen stared, for the man MacDonald had indicated did not seem the studious, pamphleteering type. Tall, broad-shouldered and well-dressed, his head tipped back in laughter—he wasn’t the pamphleteering type at all. “Ye’re drawin’ ma leg,” he accused, pointing at MacDonald’s cheery face, shaking his head.


“Eh, Munroe!” The spastic waves from MacDonald did their job, and Stephen flushed red to his hair. “This one’s read yer pamphlet—the one about Papists.”


“Has he now?” His voice was warm, an ever present smile lingering at his mouth, and Stephen found that he had been holding his breath while MacDonald had been introducing them.


“A pleasure, Master Munroe.” He choked out, forcing a cheery smile as he gestured to one of the empty seats at the table. “Indeed, I found the argument tae be verra sound, but a wee bit heavy handed. I dinna wish tae seem rude, ye ken…”


“Not at all, Master Murray,” Neal laughed, taking the offered seat. “Do tell me yer thoughts—‘twas my first pamphlet tae be published, an’ I hope it willna be my last.”


After many cups of ale later, Stephen realized that MacDonald had left him to his own devices—he had been too busy talking to Munroe to even notice. He had interesting views on politics to be sure, being a law student, and had very little qualms about discussing them with others. Stephen, who had only been in the city a matter of months, felt quite daft around him—Munroe appeared to be so knowledgeable that Stephen feared he would never catch up.


“I ken that we’ve only just met, Master Murray, but would ye be amenable tae proofing my next draft? I can use all the pairs of eyes that I can find, an’ ye’ve a head for phrases.”


Stephen couldn’t resist such earnest flattery, face flushed with a mixture of embarrassment and pride at having caught Munroe’s attention. “I would gladly read yer draft. Nothing would please me more, Master Munroe.”

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“I didna mean tae bleed all over the page, Munroe, but I fear ye werena in top form when ye wrote that.” Stephen handed him the sheaf of paper, smiling apologetically. He desperately wanted to please Munroe for a variety of reasons, but that didn’t mean that he would shirk in his promise to actually read his writing.


“Bless ye, Murray—I wouldna ken what tae do wi’out ye. Whisky?”


Stephen couldn’t help but smile at the praise, flushing with pleasure as he dropped into the indicated chair. It was strange that Munroe’s roommate was not about—Lithgow generally was, scribbling away on his own pamphlets, a glass of whisky at hand. “Where is Lithgow this fine evening?”


“Och, something about this lass he’s seeing. Illicit an’ whatnot,” Munroe answered breezily, pressing the glass into Stephen’s hands. Their fingers brushed, and Stephen felt the tingle not only in his fingers, but all over. “I didna think the lad had it in him, truthfully,” Munroe laughed, settling into his own chair.


“Dinna be so hard on him, eh? Just because he’s shy an’ all—it doesna mean that he canna feel passionate about someone.”


Munroe simply stared at him over the rim of his whisky glass, and Stephen flushed under his scrutiny, looking away. Had he said too much? He wasn’t sure how to name what he felt about Munroe, but it was far from proper.


“An’ what would ye ken about love, Murray? Ye blush fair as any maid.”


“I ken plenty, sir,” Stephen retorted, bristling, but his face burned nonetheless. The smirk on Munroe’s face made him frown into his whisky glass before draining it. “Ye dinna ken anything about me.”


“Oh, I ken plenty about ye.” And Stephen could feel his eyes on him like a brand, burning through his clothes, staring into his soul. The rustle of fabric almost made him look up, but he couldn’t—if he did, Munroe would see everything he wanted to hide. He kept his eyes trained to the floor, examining the whorls of the wood under his feet.


A hand settled on his tense shoulder, and Stephen nearly jumped out of his skin. His eyes skittered to Munroe’s face, face set with confusion.


“I want what ye want,” Munroe said, sincerity written plain across his face, and Stephen had only a moment to try and decipher what he meant before Munroe’s mouth was on his, warm and soft.


He had never kissed anyone before, so Stephen froze. Every muscle went still, his eyes still wide open as he stared at the blurry pale curve of Munroe’s cheek. After a moment Munroe drew back, and they simply stared at one another.


This is verra wrong, Stephen’s conscience supplied unhelpfully. He knew that he ought to leave, but it felt as if his feet were rooted to the floor. He got to his feet anyway, but instead of turning on his heel and leaving, he found himself reaching for Munroe.


Trembling fingers slipped up his shoulder, dipped into the open neck of his shirt, before smoothing over the angle of his jaw. Stephen held his breath, afraid that Munroe would push him away, but he didn’t. He had freckles across the bridge of his nose, Stephen realized, and the want very nearly overwhelmed him—he wanted to kiss each and every one of them.


“I dinna ken what tae do,” Stephen admitted shyly, eyes seeking out Munroe’s, flushed with embarrassment.


The answering grin, pleased but sly, made something tighten in Stephen’s chest. A pale, ink-stained hand carded through his hair gently, but with the promise of something more. “I’ll teach ye, Stephen.”


This time when Neal kissed him, Stephen kissed him back.

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  • 1 year later...

(Just putting all the Neal backstory snippets together!)


“Damnable cold outside,” Stephen announced, unwinding the woolen scarf from around his neck and knocking the snow off his boots. January was usually the worst for both snow and cold, with the wind blustery and biting. “I amn’t sure I didnae freeze something on the way over,” he pointed out with a cheeky grin.


Neal submitted himself to be kissed, and Stephen reached for his half-full glass of whisky, polishing it off in record time. “Ye dinnae feel so frozen tae me, laddie,” Neal replied, but it was distant.


Stephen frowned and settled himself on the arm of the battered armchair. “Are ye alricht?” He peered down at Neal, eyes sweeping over the familiar, beloved planes of his face like he could discern what was wrong simply from that. He leaned over to rest a hand on Neal’s shoulder, tugging on a wayward strand of hair gently, a fond smile playing across his mouth.


“My faither is being troublesome,” Neal sighed, one pale hand curling over top of Stephen’s on his shoulder. “I’m sure ye ken the sort.”


Stephen shook his head, expression rueful. “Aye, I’m sure I do. Dinnae fash, laddie—there’s so much tae be done here, wi’ yer pamphlets an’ all. Put yer faither out of yer mind, eh?”


Of course it was easier said than done, but Stephen was trying to be helpful. Neal huffed a laugh, but it sounded defeated.


“Dinnae be like that," Stephen said, and now his smile was sly. He shifted to sit in Neal’s lap, long legs thrown over the arm of the armchair. Neal’s expression wavered, slipping into something closer to a smile, and Stephen felt like his heart was bound to burst.


He leaned in, forehead to forehead, and whispered, “I willnae leave ye, ye ken that, aye? I couldnae bear it.”


Neal kissed him firmly, and Stephen clung to him wishing he could keep him there, safe from meddling fathers and the outside world.

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It is April and a rare, rainless day when Stephen finds out the truth behind Neal’s father’s letter.


“Have ye heard, Murray? Munroe’s father’s landed him a verra rich bride,” MacDonald says over a pint of ale.


Stephen jerks, nearly causing the chair that he had been balancing precariously on two legs, to nearly fall over. “Ye’re havin’ me on!” The warm sunlight suddenly feels a bit too warm, or perhaps that is because his heart is racing.


“Nae, she’s some rich merchant’s daughter. A merchant, aye, but her dowry is apparently impressive enough that it doesnae matter for a youngest son.”


The more he hears, the more Stephen doesn’t want to believe, but things are falling into place. The many letters from Neal’s father, the way he wouldn’t talk about their contents, the way Neal had felt distant of late…


He’d known all along and seen fit not to mention it.


A series of knocks on the table finally draws his attention, and Stephen focused back on MacDonald. “Are ye alricht, Murray? Ye look verra pale.”


“Fine. Excuse me, please.” Stephen throws down enough coin to pay for their round and yet another, steeling himself for what he knows is coming. He is not the sort to shirk from confrontation, but the idea of this particular confrontation is nearly enough to make him consider running away and never coming back.


His hands are shaking with rage, face gone pale. His temper is hard to trigger, but Neal has set it alight—the candle is burning from both ends, and Stephen’s endless patience has finally reached its limit.


“I’ll see ye later at hame. Dinna wait up.” Stephen forces a smile but it feels more like a grimace, and heads with purpose towards Neal’s rooms.

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The look Neal gives him when he appears is resigned, and it is perhaps worse than a physical slap.


Stephen kicks the door shut behind himself and hisses, “When were ye planning on telling me ye’re tae be wed?” His face, absent of his usual good humor, is pale and drawn.


Neal gets to his feet, hands held up in surrender. “Did ye think that this would go on forever? We’ll marry—‘tis the way of the world.”


Stephen chokes on something that might have been a curse, but might have easily also been a watery sob. “But tae do it this way? I didnae think ye could be so verra cruel, when all I hae ever done is try tae understand.”


It is the truth. In personality, they are so dissimilar many cannot understand why they would be good friends. Stephen is quiet, self-contained upon a first meeting, and honest. Neal is loud, outspoken, a person who wishes for fame and adoration from all of those around him.


"Ye cannae begin tae comprehend me, or what I feel! I dinnae think ye can feel anything at all, enough tae empathize wi' another human being!” Neal shouts, and the look on his face is something that Stephen knows he will never forget. He is disgusted by him, and something inside Stephen cracks.


Stephen sucks in a ragged gasp, eyes squeezing shut. He had always been the more eager, the more willing to do what was needed to make Neal happy. How many hours had he spent with him, editing and discussing his work, or soothing an ill temper when the words wouldn’t come?


Actions hadn’t been enough, and he opens his mouth to plead with Neal, to tell him that he is in love with him, can’t he see that, but the words won’t come.


Stephen shakes his head, eyes burning with unshed tears but still angry enough that he’ll be damned before he allows Neal to see him in such a state, then squares his shoulders and turns on his heel.


He purposely does not run, for his pride won’t quite allow it, but every step is a torment. He has taken a piece of me… I cannae gie on wi’out him, God help me.

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He goes to a tavern where he isn’t likely to run into anyone of their set and gets so horribly drunk that he ends up sitting in the back alley behind the establishment, sobbing, knuckles scraped and bloodied from the brick. The hurts distract him from other hurts, but only so far, and the haze of drink will fade with time—it is only a temporary fix.


He presses a hand to his heart, where the locket with a bit of Neal’s hair lays under his shirt, and entertains the idea of throwing the stupid thing into sea, but finds he cannot bear to do it.


When he finally drags himself home, reeking of piss, with blood smeared all over his hands and onto his shirt cuffs, MacDonald is just getting ready for lecture.


“Dinnae lecture me, Allan,” Stephen bites out. He’s still drunk, and he fumbles with his clothes before falling into bed, still clad in his shirt, to sleep the dreamless sleep of the heavily intoxicated.


It is, notably, the first and the last time he ever misses a lecture.

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