Zsiga carried in another box and laid it down on the bed, next to the others. His old bedroom was a mess. He had never properly moved out, not consciously, but after dividing his time between the Atrium office and Carl’s London flat in the past years his things had simply drifted off into new locations. Now that he had returned to the old house he found his room more or less the way he’d left it. The same old carpet, the same clothes hanging neatly in the wardrobe, the same view from the attic window where you could just see the swing and the apple tree. Even his old Academy notebooks and the dog-eared comics that he hadn’t touched since his teens still stood exactly where he’d left them.
Not that he’d worried about it. Béla never touched his things without permission, and despite his disapproval of his thing with Carl he had never made Zsiga feel like he couldn’t come back if he so chose. Zsiga gave the blanket a tentative sniff. Okay, Béla had definitely washed the sheets for him, at least. How courteous of him.
He opened the top-most desk drawer and started stuffing things in it. IDs, wallet, receipts, his barely touched Oyster card (he rarely commuted, unless there was a specific reason to behave like a mundane, but he always kept some money on the card just in case). He opened the bottom drawer and halted, surprised.
“Sir? Well I’ll be,” he said out loud. “This is where I left you?”
He pulled out a small and battered-looking stuffed duck and set it on top of the pillows. He smiled wryly. The duck had been Béla’s birthday present to him when he’d turned… how old had he been? One? Two? He had no recollection of it – his first memories of Béla started from when he was ten awkward years old – but the photos proved he’d been there for at least that one birthday party. Sir the duck. The story has it that he was white once upon a time, many years and several neglected laundry days ago. Little Zsiga had thought he looked polite; he even had a faded little bowtie around his neck. Béla had fixed him up and sown in a ridiculously small shirt button to replace his missing left eye to make him look less sad.
Zsiga grabbed the box cutter and slashed open the packing tape on the nearest cardboard box. Out sprang a disarray of paper. Academy documents and old exam papers (why had he kept them? His parents had never cared about how he did in school), essays, classroom notes with chicken-scratch tic-tac-toes scribbled on the margins. He recognised Kim’s scrawl immediately and smiled, despite himself.
At the very bottom was a stack of envelopes, bound together with string. Béla’s neat, joined writing was clearly visible in the address line. He wrote his z’s and g’s with flourish, fancy loops and all. Zsiga brushed the exam papers aside and sat down, already untying the string.
The Academy was possibly the most miserable place in the whole country for the kids of the most ancient, most conservative magical families, and Zsiga had mostly hated his years there after the attack on the Atrium in 2003. All school holidays cancelled, all kids kept under tight surveillance under the Academy’s increasingly harried teachers’ eyes while the Party investigated the incident. Anti-pureblood activity, they called it afterwards. Kim had cried herself to sleep for a month when her parents’ letters had stopped coming. All inbound mail had been inspected before being handed to the students. Only Zsiga and Gizi had gotten their letters on time, just because they all came from Béla.
He opened one of the letters and a newspaper clipping fluttered on his lap. A black-and-white photo of father, speaking in a press conference in front of the Atrium, and a serious Béla in a formal suit behind him, holding documents stamped with the government seal. ‘Government representative William Brown (TPP) on the attempted attack: “The safety of our communities must come first”’ screamed the headline above the photo. He didn’t bother reading the article. The speech had effectively imprisoned a majority of the country’s magical kids in their schools for a year.
“Thanks, father,” Zsiga muttered. He stuffed the clipping inside an envelope.
Béla’s letters didn’t address the attack at all. He and Zsiga had reached an unspoken conclusion to keep their correspondence as normal as they could, for which Zsiga had been glad. Béla had written about such casual things, like he always did. About his office chores that became even duller after his promotion, about trying to learn to sleep without snoring during the weekly Party meetings, and about how he swore his camera fright just got worse every time he was forced to speak to the reporters. His dry humour coloured his stories and made even the ordinary ten times more amusing. His letters had managed to make Zsiga smile when nothing else had. Some of his classmates had resented him for it; they’d all been anxious for any news from the outside world, and Béla’s letters provided none.
Zsiga glanced out the window. Coming home after a long last had been a relief then, too. In a way it was soothing that nothing changed in the old house. He started when he heard the stairs creak, and after a second Béla’s head popped in at the doorway.
“I was wondering where you went,” he said, eyes falling on the boxes covering most of the bed. He looked handsome as ever, unshaven or not. “Half of your stuff’s still downstairs.”
“Just taking a trip down the memory lane.” Zsiga pointed at Sir. “Look who I found.”
Béla smirked when he saw the plush toy. “You carried that thing with you everywhere. I hear you kept him under your pillow at the Academy.”
“I did not.”
“That’s not what Gizi told me.”
Zsiga chucked a pillow in his direction. “Either lend a hand or get lost.”
Béla laughed and tossed the pillow back at him. “I’ll order us something to eat. Try not to drown in all the dust.”
“No promises. Pizza?”
“Sure. It being moving day and all.”
He went stomping down the stairs and Zsiga turned back to his reading. Not all memories were bad, he decided. He left the stack of letters on the table next to the bed. Perhaps he could do with some bedtime reading on his first night back home.
The mouth-watering scent of melting cheese was what finally drew Zsiga downstairs and into the living room. He threw himself on the couch. He heard Béla moving about in the next room, muttering to himself, followed by the faint clinking of cutlery. Moments later Béla appeared carrying two pizza boxes. He had to navigate through a maze of haphazardly placed cardboard boxes to reach the couch.
Zsiga whistled when he set the pizza boxes down on the table. “Pre-sliced? Whatever place you ordered from, I’m impressed.”
“Actually, that was me. We only have one pizza slicer in the house, so I figured this would make things easier.”
“Great service, either way. You’re now my favourite restaurant.”
Béla laughed. He pulled his wand out and flicked it in the direction of the kitchen. Almost instantly two cans of beer came hurtling towards them. Zsiga snatched his mid-air as the other one landed neatly on the table.
“Cheers,” he said and opened the can.
Picking up his things from Carl’s and the office, then hauling them all back to the house had taken most of the day, and he realised he was famished as soon as he took the first bite. He couldn’t recall if he’d actually eaten anything apart from the one, hasty cup of breakfast tea. Carl had been his typical passive-aggressive self on the phone and Zsiga just wanted the whole thing over and done with as early as possible to avoid having to see him face to face. To his relief Béla hadn’t protested or asked questions.
Zsiga devoured three slices at record speed before remembering the beer. He drank it too quickly, perhaps, for it left a pleasant buzz in its wake. He was only vaguely aware that Béla had turned on a movie.
“Thanks for helping out today,” he said while gnawing on another slice.
Béla glanced at him and his whole face lit up as he smiled. “Don’t mention it.”
“Still. Sorry for making you go to the office on your day off.”
“I don’t mind, I’m just glad to have you stay here again. This house is way too big for one person.”
It was something of a relief to see him smile like that. It softened some of the edges that had taken root in him, and for a while his eyes didn’t possess the haunted look that always seemed to linger there. Whatever apprehension Zsiga felt about returning to the old house evaporated now that it really sank in; he wouldn’t be there alone, and he’d get to live with Béla again.
Everything always felt less daunting with him around. There was something soothing about it.
Zsiga returned the smile and ate the rest of his pizza in silence.