The room is cold and dusty. Arthur stands with his foil poised at the ready. There is no buzzer or bell to guide them, no timer or clocks to keep track of the match; Arthur locks eyes with Francis and they lunge. There isn’t a sound besides their shuffling footsteps and harsh, heavy breathing. Arthur sees an opening, and lands an attack on Francis’ right side, dull thunk of the blunted tip against the padding. His point. Across the room, Francis cocks a smile at him. Sometimes the blue of Francis’ eyes is terrifying, like looking out onto the ocean on a starless night, the sick twist in the pit of his stomach, darkness above and below and pressing into his chest.
“Peace,” Arthur says, blowing the ink to dry it as is his custom. He slides the paper over to Francis. “The mortal enemies declawed, did you ever think you’d see the day? Weren’t you trying to take over Europe but a century ago?”
“A phase,” Francis says with a smile and a lunge. “If it weren’t for your stubbornness, what would Europe be today, I wonder?”
Arthur parries, their foils clack together, messy. He gives Francis’ blade a playful tap. “If not for your arrogance, where would be the sport?”
There is a rush of air near his left ear as Francis lunges at him, missing him by inches. He feels his hair ruffle. What happened to his mask? Again, he dodges, and it feels like the softest kiss on his cheek. Again, and Francis’ fingers are on the nape of his neck as dark smoke wafts around them, sweet and heavy. His kisses are soft and languid, almost tentative, and Arthur frowns and remembers teeth and blood and bruises on his ribcage. Was the clash of steel only his imagination?
“I want you,” Francis mutters into his ear.
Arthur looks into Francis’ twinkling blue eyes. “I never know when you’re serious,” he says, flicking his pen, spattering black ink across Francis’ cheek. Francis rubs at it, smearing black ink in dark streaks across his face. Arthur can’t help but smile.
“I am always in earnest when it comes to you,” Francis tells him. “How many times have I said it? You never believe me. How should I make you believe me?”
Arthur doesn’t know the score but he knows they’re tied. He licks his lips and tastes his sweat there, salt on his tongue. Francis moves forward, too quickly, Arthur is off-balance, he stumbles backward. There is a sharp pain at his shoulder, and Arthur looks down, sees the blood staining the white fabric, smeared along the thin point of the foil.
Arthur is already gasping in pain and shock as his hand slowly clenches at the wound. There is a clatter as his weapon falls to the ground. Francis is holding him, propping him up, his legs have gone strangely weak. “You won’t die from a nick like this,” Francis says.
Arthur reaches up to touch Francis’ face, drags his fingers down his cheek and across his lips. He leaves bright red trails of blood in his wake, harsh and ugly against the white skin. Francis catches his wrist, and slowly bares his teeth.