[November Breaks] BEFORE | 03 | Brett

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The third meeting at Stefan’s is over and things are happening, but not quickly enough to give me the satisfaction I was hoping for at this point. No-one really trusts anyone, but no-one really expected to. It’s fine. It’s better not to. Not yet. Not ever entirely.

It’s late, and the others have yawned, looked at their watches too much and left already, so it’s only the three of us still here. Ollie’s packing up her things and Stefan’s perched on the edge of his desk, watching her. I’m sitting cross-legged in his ridiculous executive chair, smoking a joint and watching both of them.

“I need coffee,” says Ollie. “I’ve been awake since yesterday morning and I still have to drive home without killing anyone because apparently that’s frowned upon.”

She heads for the kitchen and, when she’s out of earshot, I fire a side-eye at Stefan. “What’s the deal?”

“What deal?” he says, even though he knows.

“Ollie. You and Ollie. It’s impossible to miss. You staring at her. Her pretending not to notice. It’s a thing, obviously. So what’s the deal?”

“Oh. That. Nothing. We were sort of… almost. Before. But nothing actually happened.”

“Do you want something to happen? Because it could. Easily.”

“What do you mean?”

“What do you think I mean? Do you want something to happen with her? In an immediate way?” I’m so intensely bored after the anxious caution of the meeting and I need something to happen with anyone, anything, in an immediate way. So this is selfish, but it’s not only selfish.

“Now?” Stefan looks like he’s waiting for the punchline.

“Yes, now. That’s what immediate means.”

“But you and I—”

“But you and I what?” I get up and take a few steps towards the door so I can be heard from the kitchen without having to raise my voice too much. “Hey, Ollie!”

“What?” she yells back over the sudden launch of the coffee machine and Stefan winces.

“Scrap the caffeine. I’ve got something better.” I sit back down in the ridiculous chair. My jacket’s draped across it behind me and I reach into the pocket for a small bag of white powder.

Ollie comes in, looking like she crawled out of a burning building. “This better be good, Archer. I’m thirty seconds away from delirium.”

“It is good.” I hold up the bag and shoot one of those smiles at her, the kind that means business and gets results.

“Oh, thank fuck,” she sighs. “I thought you were going to offer me a fucking energy drink or some other useless shit. What are we doing? Speed?”

“Coke.” I hand the bag to Stefan. “Here. Cut lines.”

His face says he can’t believe what’s happening, and he isn’t sure where to put himself. He takes a card out of his wallet and gets to work.

Ollie stands in front of me, one hand on her hip. “You,” she points a perfectly manicured fingernail at me in bemused accusation, “are much more interesting than I thought.”

I feign offence with a gasp and a hand at my heart. “You didn’t think I was interesting before?”

“I did, kind of. You’re not as uptight as the others, but I was reserving judgement on whether there was anything deeper than a few useful skills and that face. Honestly, I thought you might have been a bit of a triumph of packaging over content.” She takes a step closer.

I sit forward and look up at her, lowering my voice. “I am both packaging and content and you know it or you wouldn’t still be here right now. And I have more useful skills than you can imagine.”

“Oh?” She raises an eyebrow.

“You might get to find out about if those you’re lucky, but it’s good to know how you feel about my face.”

“Right,” says Stefan, splitting the moment in two. “Lines are ready.” He rolls a note into a tube and holds it out.

Ollie takes it without a moment’s hesitation. Fuck, she’s an entitled bitch. But I am too, so.

She does a line and I nod at Stefan. He takes his and leaves the last one for me. I am nothing if not generous. I do my line, then open the window and stand in front of it, ducking low, leaning out, letting the night wrap around me, velvet and needles and frost. “How long have you two known each other?” I ask over my shoulder.

Stefan’s nervous. I get a kick out of being able to do that to him. “I don’t know,” he says. “Years? We went to uni together.”

“And you’ve been friends for that long?” There’s no way I’m making it sound like an innocent line of enquiry, but it doesn’t matter.

“Guess so,” Ollie replies. Maybe she can see where this is going, but I’m not sure.

“How did you end up working together on this?”

Ollie walks over and stands next to me, taking a deep breath of icy November air and leaning close. “Stef asked me. He made it sound like a good opportunity.”

“And is it?” I turn and sit on the windowsill, my shoulders resting against the bottom of the open window.

“Is it what?”

“A good opportunity.” My brain is buzzing. This is excellent coke, which is the only kind I tolerate, since it isn’t my drug of choice. Stefan is ignoring the goodness of this particular opportunity and I’m disappointed. I thought better of him.

Ollie moves closer to me. “It is so far. It could get better.”

“It could always get better.” Without taking my eyes off her, I address Stefan. “Bring the bag over here. And the note.”

I undo the top two buttons of my shirt and pull it down over one shoulder. Taking the bag from Stefan, I tap a small pile of powder into the space behind my collarbone. “Here. Go for it.”

Stefan, who has definitely consumed various substances off parts of my body multiple times, looks at me like I’m trying to give him sweets from the back of a van.

I shrug my other shoulder, the one that won’t tip drugs all over the floor if I move it. “This is the best coke you’ve ever done in your life, but feel free to waste it if you want to be an ungrateful asshole.”

He snaps out of whatever nervous state had overtaken him, or the first line’s kicking in. Either way, he gets his shit together, takes the note from me and inhales the small pile from my skin. When he stands up again, he has a brief moment of imbalance, and I put an arm around him to steady him. He leans into me and doesn’t move away when he finds his feet again, fingertips absentmindedly stroking the back of my neck.

I tip more coke behind my collarbone and hand the note to Ollie. She inhales it, breathes out heavily, pushes her hair back and sits on the windowsill next to me. Then she looks from me to Stefan and back to me. “What are you two, anyway?”

I take my arm from around Stefan, reach up, and pull him down into a kiss. “We are what we are.”

Ollie grins with not a hint of awkwardness. “That was hot.”

I kiss Stefan again. “I know.” There’s a moment of tension, of who-knows-what-might-happen-next. I let it hover and hang in the air between us, crackling and sparking with possibility. Then I snake my arm around Stefan and turn to Ollie, leaning slightly closer to her. “I…”

“You what?” she says, and our hands are touching on the windowsill, not enough for it to seem intentional, but enough for both of us to notice it.

“I’m going to roll a joint for us.” I lean in more and tilt my head slightly. We’re both out of focus. “You may as well stay and smoke it. And,” our lips touch, but only just, only for half a second, “I have a bottle of something strong stashed in Stef’s freezer, so after I roll the joint, I’m going to open that and we’re going to have a drink.”

She blinks and there’s another brief brush of our lips and Stefan’s hand on my back twists into my shirt and it pulls tight against my neck. Ollie nods, uncharacteristically lost for words. And I’m marginally less bored than I was a few minutes ago.


Stefan sits behind me, chin resting on my shoulder, and his breath against my ear when he speaks is a spark of the divine. “What’s your tattoo about?” He traces the shapes across my back with his fingertips and I feel the molecular structure of epinephrine, drilled into my skin, glowing under his touch. He does something to my neck with his teeth and I swear to god I’m going to die and I don’t even care.

“Adrenaline. Significant to me, for obvious reasons, but there’s nothing deep about it.”

“That’s a shame. I was hoping for a story. There’s something about the way you tell them.” His compliments have this way of striking right at the core of my ego, and I know he knows that. I know that’s why he says what he says. But still. It feels good. His hands are warm and I’m starting to sober up, but I don’t want to. I lift a half-smoked joint from last night out of the ashtray and light it.

“You just like the sound of my voice. I could be reading bible verses or recipes for soup and you’d still want to listen.”

“I’m not sure about the soup,” he says, “but you might be onto something with the bible verses.” He bites my shoulder, hard, and I can’t breathe. “Old Testament or New?”

I take a draw from the joint for a count of five. “New. Book of Revelation all the way.”

“You said it right.”

“What do you mean?”

“You said Revelation, singular, not Revelations. People always say Revelations.”

“OK. Anyway. All that end of the world business goes with the dreams.”

“You still having those?”

“I’m always having those.” Tidal waves and silent silver bombs, melting rock and melting skin. Ashes to ashes, dust to fucking everything. Another draw from the joint and it tastes unusual, but I can’t remember what else I put in it last night or why I didn’t finish it then.

Something stronger than weed hits me and gravity turns inside out. A small ripple of tension fires through my muscles, a shiver or an electric current. I give the joint to Stefan, then stand up to pull on trousers and a sweater. When I sit back down on the bed, I bend my knees up to my chest. His face turns into something else and, for a few seconds or a hundred years, I don’t recognise him.

He exhales a deep breath of smoke, and there’s a tornado in the clouds. “What else is in that?”

“I don’t know. Surprise, I guess?” I blink hard and get a cramp in my face. I yawn. I’m not tired. A dark tunnel opens up behind me. I try to count to five, but I get lost on the way.

“Come back.” Stefan reaches towards me.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re over there. You’re wearing clothes. You’re distant.”

“I’m not distant.” I kind of am, though.

“You are.” He stretches and something in his shoulder cracks.

The sound makes me want him again, but I can’t get my shit together enough to do anything about it. I lie back across his legs and the pillows beside him, reaching for the joint laced with fuck knows what, smoking it almost down to the end.

Then I wrap the fingers of my left hand around my right wrist. My pulse is steady, considering. I imagine my heart beating in slow motion, like an animation in an educational film. I picture my whole body as a moving diagram, lit up from within, floating in vast, informative darkness. I let go of my wrist.

Stefan takes the joint out of my hand and does something with his fingers to my collarbone while he smokes what’s left. It hurts, but it’s good and his thumb presses into the hollow at the base of my throat. Then he slides down the bed and turns until he’s lying on his back and I’m beside him, his arms around me.

“This is strong. Fuck.” My voice sounds like it’s miles away, foreign, alien.

“Mmm.” He doesn’t say anything else and his hand’s on my back now, under my sweater. It’s distracting, in a good way.

I prop myself up on an elbow so my face is above his. I can’t see straight and I’m guessing he can’t either, but he pulls me down into a kiss and it’s hot and vicious and I forget where we are.

When I lean away from him for a few seconds to stop the world from spinning, my breath sounds ragged, detached.

He’s still touching my back, and it feels like an exploration. “Where did the scars come from?”

“Why did you never ask before?”

“I’m asking now.”

“Nothing deep there, either. You know what I’m into.” I kiss him again, partly because I want to stop the conversation, because I can’t be bothered with it, and partly just because I need to kiss him.

We come up for air, and our breath mingles in colours and sparks and gentle detonations. 

“What is this?” he says.

I’m hit by a sudden rush of recognition triggered by the repetition of a physical sensation and the clouds clear slightly. “Ketamine.”


“Ketamine. In the joint. I remember now. I have no idea who brought it last night, but someone did, so I rolled some of it into that joint, smoked half, thought better of it and left the rest in the ashtray.”

“No, I mean what’s this? Us.”

Fuck. Not again. “Why does it have to be anything?”

“Because it is something, Brett. It already is.”

I sit up and shuffle across the bed until my back is against the wall. “It’s fun. And we work together, sort of, in an unofficial and not even remotely legal sense. And it’s whatever it is, whatever we are. Isn’t that enough?”

“That night with Ollie—”

“Don’t tell me you didn’t want that. You totally wanted that. You know you did. You literally asked for it.”

He sits up next to me and reaches for my hand. “I know and it was good, really good, but I don’t know what it means or if it’s going to happen again or if it should.”

“Shit, Stef, calm the fuck down. It’ll happen if it happens.”

He lets go of my hand and his voice takes on a sharp edge. “If you want it to happen, you mean.”


“It’ll happen if you want it to, right? On your terms. Because everything happens on your terms.”

I bite my tongue in a rare moment of self-control. “We could have been a one-night stand, but I saw you again because you asked. I’m working on this project because you recruited me. I know Ollie because you introduced us. How much of any of that is on my terms? You’re projecting. You’re desperate to be in control and you’re terrified you aren’t, so you have to convince yourself that I’m trying to control you.” Thing is, I am. I know I am. That’s not the point, though.

“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. It’s… I think she likes you.”

“And what? Did she give me these bruises? Is she in my bed right now? Did she just smoke half a shitty ketamine joint with me? Is she asking me what we are to each other? Or is that you? You need to stop being so insecure.” I shift my body around so I’m facing him and I stare at him. I can wait.

Eventually, he sighs deeply. Frustrated, impatient. I lift a hand to the side of his face and lean in to kiss him.

He grabs my wrist and I freeze, hoping for something more interesting than how I was planning to stop him from talking again. With his other hand, he reaches back, takes a swing, and lands a solid punch against my jaw.

“Fuck.” My head spins and a luminous pain throbs behind my eye. I stretch my mouth open. It clicks to the side a little and something cracks. “Do that again.”

He gets up on his knees, leans over me, and grabs me by the throat with both hands. It feels so good I almost try to articulate what we are to each other. When he throws me back against the wall, my head hits with a muted thud and I want to take a breath, to savour the moment, but I can’t get any air. Perhaps I underestimated him.

And he lets go of my throat and grips my wrists again and pushes me against the wall and kisses me like he fucking hates me. Which he probably does. And this is what we are.