"He's not ticked off at me, is he?" asked Mark.
"I doubt it," said Nevin. "Has he actually said anything to you?"
"No." It was four days since the Book of Job argument. "He's still coming with me for our morning runs, but he's not played chess with me in a while. I haven't seen him at cricket practice. At judo this afternoon, he partnered with Phillips instead of me."
"And he just isn't talking to me like he used to. It's like he's holding back. Not zinging me about my batting, not provoking me with nasty comments about Adam and Eve's kids committing incest and all that, you know?"
Nevin said, "I don't think all that stuff you're talking about necessarily has to do with you."
"What do you mean?"
"I think some of that is just Ashton being a coward."
"Ashton's not a coward!"
"Ha," said Nevin mockingly, "That's 'cause you haven't known him long enough yet."
"So what's he afraid of?"
"You think he's stopped playing me at chess because I keep beating him?"
"He's not that shallow."
"No, he's not. His is a deep and complex cowardice. And it's gotten worse this term."
"So what should I do?" asked Mark. "Let him win?"
Nevin laughed then put his arm around Mark.
"I think you're wonderful just for considering it, but no."
"Let him be," said Nevin. "He's got this self image thing. It takes him a while to accept that he isn't a superhero sometimes."
"But eventually he does?"
"Mostly. Eventually it dawns on him that life isn't set up to be all or nothing and that he doesn't have to be the best at everything."
"How long?" asked Mark, looking worried. "Usually?"
Nevin shrugged. "A week? A month? I still can't get him to play me at tennis anymore and it's been two years."
"You play tennis?" Mark eyed Nevin's skinny frame, doubtful.
"On X-box, yeah."
"So how was it?" asked Ashton. He was sitting next to Nevin under their tree, looking over Gronding. It was Sunday morning.
"Spectacular." said Nevin. "Hurt more than I expected, though. I thought I'd prepared, you know? But I guess it's different with an actual person and an actual cock."
I wonder how it would be with Mark's cock? Ashton smiled. I bet it would be heavenly.
Nevin leaned against Ashton and put an arm around him. Then Nevin giggled. He said, "The third time we did it, he was really... vigorous and I ended up biting his shoulder to keep from letting him know it was hurting. He was bleeding afterward!"
Ashton laughed out loud. Then he leaned over and ruffled Nevin's hair. "So you finally did the wild thing. Wow. I still can't believe it."
"Yes." Then Ashton asked, "So when are you two goin' to do it again?"
"I don't know. Like I told you, we're taking things easy."
The two boys sipped Coke and ate cookies for a while more. They did not talk much. When they were done, they cleaned up the litter and packed everything away, including the Frisbee they usually tossed around. After they had shouldered their backpacks, Ashton reached over very formally to Nevin and extended his hand. Nevin took it with a smile.
"Happy Birthday, Ashton," he said.
"Happy Birthday, Nevin."
Ashton liked chocolate cake. Nevin did not. Naturally, then, the cake they shared that night was chocolate. There were twenty-eight sparkling candles on it. Fourteen yellow ones for Nevin and fourteen red ones for Ashton. They leaned in together and blew out the candles as their friends, gathered round them in the lounge, cheered them on.
They made it as much of a party as they could. There was fruit juice with a leavening of smuggled vodka. There were cookies and chips. There was a laptop in the corner, where Upton and Simmons argued over whether they should play Beenie Man or Kylie Minogue. There was no dancing, though.
Duncan had come, Nevin was happy to see. The older boy had already given him a 'happy birthday' kiss--and blowjob--in the woods that afternoon. But, it meant a lot to see Duncan there among his friends. It made things complete. He watched Duncan talk to Ashton for awhile, then decided to join them. As he got within earshot he heard Duncan saying, "...need to talk to you later. I think I'm going to need your help with-"
Duncan stopped talking when he saw Nevin. "Hello, Birthday Boy. Having fun?"
"Um, yes. What do you need Ashton's help with?"
"Prefect stuff. Nothing important."
"So you're really going after this Head Prefect position?" asked Ashton.
Nevin could not help feeling a twinge of fear. He knew what it would mean for their romance if Duncan got his coveted spot.
"Well," said Ashton, "I wish you all the best." He slapped his hand down on Duncan's left shoulder in what would seem like a strong, friendly gesture to anyone else. Nevin, however, knew right away what Ashton was up to.
"Thanks," said Duncan. Ashton seemed puzzled, leaving his hand on Duncan's shoulder. Then Ashton smiled, switched sides and squeezed Duncan's other shoulder, while he said, "Anything I can do to-"
"Aarghhh." Duncan twisted away, then sucked in his breath.
"Trouble with your shoulder?" asked Ashton, with a sly smile.
Nevin decided to bite his tongue.
"Um, yeah," said Duncan, giving a nervous glance at Nevin. "Twisted it in training."
"Oooohh," said Ashton, with more fake concern. "Hope it doesn't affect your javelin throwing. We'll need you come Sports Day."
"In the meantime," Ashton continued, "you'd better go light on your, um, training."
Nevin glared the hardest he could at Ashton, but Ashton just smiled and walked away.
The lounge doors swung open just then, as two other boys arrived. Just behind them, Nevin caught sight of Harrick, staring through the door with an unreadable expression. Then the doors shut and when they opened again a minute later, Harrick was gone.
Mark was at the party too, Nevin saw. He spent most of his time standing around with the other boys of the cricket squad. Occasionally, he would go over to Ashton and they would talk for a while, but sooner or later, Ashton would wave at someone across the room and hurry away. Nevin saw this pattern a few times before Mark decided to stop chasing Ashton around the room.
The night came to an abrupt end early when Pilsich showed up. They had gotten sufficient warning to hide the juice, so it was just a matter of cleaning up the snacks while Pigstick stood by like a prison guard. With school the next morning, no one was inclined to put up too much of a protest.
Soon after Ashton and Nevin got back to their room, Mark showed up at the door.
"Oh," said Ashton. "Hi, Mark."
"May I come in?"
Ashton was sorting through his textbooks for the next day.
"Did you enjoy your night?" asked Mark.
"Well, yes. Pretty much."
As he tried to keep his eyes on the desk in front of him, Ashton's heart was pounding.
"I got you a present," said Mark.
Now why did he have to go and do that?
Mark was holding a little red-wrapped box. As much as birthdays were celebrated at Tudor, presents were rare.
"Thanks," said Ashton. He took the gift awkwardly from Mark and placed it on his desk. He went back to stacking his books. Belatedly, he noticed Mark's proffered hand and shook it once.
"Happy Birthday, Ash," said Mark.
"Anyways," said Mark, breathing out. "School in the morning, so I'll head off to bed. See you at five-thirty?"
"Happy birthday to you too, Nevin," Mark called on his way out.
"Thanks," Nevin yelled.
When Mark left, Ashton sat at his desk and took his homework out.
"Why are you treating him like that?" asked Nevin, standing near his bed and watering his plant. Ashton knew exactly what Nevin meant, but asked, "Like what?" and opened his 'Geography of Europe'.
Nevin just stared at him.
Finally, Ashton looked up and asked him, "Why do you even care?"
"He's sweet," Nevin said. "He doesn't deserve it."
"Well he isn't going to change who he is and I can't change who I am, so it doesn't make any sense encouraging him to hang around."
"So this is all because you think he's too religious?"
"He's a real believer, Nevin. He's not one of the hypocrites or glory hounds or self righteous pricks-"
"Even better then! When you tell him the truth about you, he's not going to get all hostile and stop being your friend."
"I don't want him as just a friend," Ashton said softly.
Nevin smoothed out his pillow with three firm hand strokes then looked at Ashton. "Yeah, I kind of figured."
"So, why are you pestering me?"
"Because it shouldn't matter. You had a big crush on Simmons when you first got here. You didn't stop being his friend when you found out he was straight." Nevin poured water onto Beyonce from his little green water can. Even now, the sight of the plastic plaything still amazed Ashton. Nevin constantly asserted it was the only proper way to water his plant.
"It's not the same." Ashton put the book away. "Being around Simmons never hurt like this."
"Oh, boo hoo. You're telling me it's true love?"
"Your words, not mine," Ashton said. "All I know is that the idea that I can't be with him makes me feel like shit."
"Is this some kind of male jealousy and possession thing? If you really loved him you'd be happy just to have him in your life."
"Can you possibly imagine what it would be like want someone to love you back and not get it?"
"You've got Duncan. What do you know?"
"I know how it feels every time my mother calls me from Geneva or Cozumel or New York or wherever she and the latest asshole are off to, so she can tell me she can't make it to visit me. I know I still love her and I still enjoy it when I can be with her."
Ashton could not help being a little mean. "Yes, well, you're stuck with your mother. You have to make the best of what you've got. I don't have to get involved in any no-win situations."
"Look, don't get upset 'cause I'm honest about your mother."
"I'm not upset," said Nevin. "I'm just being honest, too."
"How do you figure?"
Nevin counted off on his fingers: "You can't win at chess, so you quit that. You can't win at loving Mark, so you quit that. And don't think I don't know why you aren't going to cricket practice anymore."
"I'm injured, you dolt."
"You can run. You can jump. You've got the full range of motion in your arm. You're just not as strong is all."
"That's the whole point."
"You can still play. Your problem is you know that if you go out there, you won't be one hundred percent. You're afraid to let people see you be less than your old self."
"There is no-"
"Same reason you don't tell anyone about your nightmares."
"Don't look so shocked," said Nevin. "You may not want to talk to me about it, but I'm sleeping right here and I've got eyes and ears."
Nevin's anger made more sense now. Mark had just been an excuse for him to blow up.
Ashton said, "It's not that I don't want to tell you about the... dreams, Nevin. Don't get the wrong idea."
Nevin looked at him hard.
Ashton continued, "Sometimes stuff has to settle inside you first before you can talk about it."
Nevin considered this. "I understand what you mean."
Ashton said, "I promise I'll talk to you about it. I just need a little time."
"Okay. But it better happen or I'm goin' to ask you about it on the hill and then you'll have to talk to me about it."
Nevin set about his nightly ritual checking for incomplete assignments. Ashton sought to lighten the mood.
"You know," he told Nevin, "next time you can just come out and tell me if something's bothering you. No need to make up problems like this Mark thing."
"I was serious about that," said Nevin.
"And what do you think I should do about him?"
"Take him up to the hill. Sunday."
"Are you sure? That's our place. I know you wouldn't take Duncan there."
"I don't mind. Besides, if you really feel so deeply about him, then he belongs there too."
Monday morning, Nevin saw Freddie talking with Sheehan at the guard's station near the front door. The beefy man seemed to be restraining the boy, holding him by the wrist. Just as Nevin was about to charge over and demand that Sheehan let him go, the man leaned down and whispered in Freddie's ear. The boy giggled and blushed. Freddie said something quietly to Sheehan. Again, the man's whispers brought about giggles and blushes. Then Freddie left for class, but not before Sheehan ran a possessive hand down his back.
It was at cricket practice that afternoon that Duncan came to Ashton with his problem. Ashton had been standing on the boundary for a half an hour watching Mark put on his usual brisk and athletic display in the field.
"So what's this prefect problem you need help with?" Ashton asked Duncan.
"Oh, I just said that because Nevin was there. I actually need help with a little surprise I'm planning for him."
So, Duncan explained. The solution seemed rather straightforward to Ashton and they soon sorted it all out.
"Well, thanks, Ashton."
"You know," said Duncan, "I was really upset when I found out that Nevin had told you about us. Livid, in fact."
"He mentioned that," said Ashton. "Something about smoke coming out of your ears."
"Well, I'm paranoid, you see. But I'm starting to think it's a good thing he told you. I can see why he trusts you so completely."
"Well, you've made him really happy. I owe you just for that."
Soon after Duncan left, Mark came over.
"Nice of you to join us, Ashton," he said.
"Well, it's always fun to watch you play," Ashton replied.
Mark gave him a puzzled look.
Oh crap. He's not used to me being sincere about these things.
Ashton decided to add, "The same way watching a train crash is fun."
A tentative laugh from Mark.
"No. You know what?" said Ashton. "Forget what I just said. I don't want to be sarcastic today. You do look good out there."
A raised eyebrow from Mark caused Ashton to add, "Your fielding I mean. You move pretty smartly. I think the team is going to gain a lot just from your energy."
"Thanks," said Mark. "Thanks a lot."
They stood in silence for a while.
"I wanted to ask you..." started Ashton.
"Ask me what?"
"Well, Nevin and I have this place. A hill in the woods. We go there on Sunday mornings to relax. Throw a Frisbee around, chat, soak in nature--that kind of thing. We were hoping you'd join us next time."
"Umm. I don't know Ash..."
"It's not a big deal. If you don't want to come, then-"
"I do want to come."
"But Sunday is church."
Damn you, Nevin. Why did you talk me into this?
"Oh, I forgot, said Ashton. "Sorry."
"Don't worry about it," said Mark. "Tell you what. I can always go to an early service. What time do you usually leave?"
"I can wait for you. I won't mind."
"Oh, no," said Ashton. "Bringing you along is his idea."
Mark's face clouded. "Oh."
"I want you to come too, of course," said Ashton. "I mean, I want you to come."
"Well, I should be back from church at about nine. How's that?"
Nevin almost regretted suggesting that Mark come along that Sunday. He quickly felt like an extra wheel as the other two boys slipped into sports talk. He tried to tune it out. Whenever that failed, he reminded himself that Mark was having an excellent influence on Ashton. Nevin had seen more and more of the old Ashton in the last week. Ashton had his pride back, it seemed. Instead of making him retreat now, Mark's presence seemed to push Ashton to be competitive and involved. Ashton had even smiled and joked his way through losing chess games galore to Mark. In fact, his confidence and self-belief had inspired Ashton's first ever win, two days before.
When they got to the final climb, Nevin stopped the other two boys.
"What's wrong with you?" asked Ashton.
Nevin ignored him. "Mark," he said, "this is our hill. Our hill has rules. You always have to speak the truth and you have to answer any questions asked of you. Ashton and I are bound by those rules here, even when speaking to you."
Alarm spread all over Ashton's face, Nevin saw. He was glad. This was perfect payback for making Nevin lose out on sex that week. (Duncan had actually taken Ashton's advice seriously and was resting his shoulder by refusing to get physical with Nevin.)
"You're our guest, however," Nevin continued. "It's up to you if you want to follow those rules, but you have to tell us if you will, before we go up."
"Seems like these rules could make things tricky," said Mark.
"It's all your choice. We won't be offended if you don't go along with it."
"You're not going to ask me any weird questions, are you? Like have I ever seen my grandparents having sex and what not?"
"We might ask you about anything," said Nevin, "but it's not going to be an interrogation."
Mark took a while before he nodded his head. "Fine. Let's try this unrestrained honesty thing, then."
At first, they played a bit of three way Frisbee, but Nevin soon became uncomfortable. The other two had gotten too seriously into it and were actually trying to hit each other in the throat from the look of things. Nevin took a seat and munched on a cookie. Mark and Ashton did not seem to miss him.
Around him, Nevin could hear a few bird chirps. The leaves were glowing in the sunlight, but were not the same spectacular green of two weeks earlier. Nevin realized he might well be standing in the middle of the last surviving day of summer. The other two had ceased their attempts at murder by Frisbee and were on the grass not far from Nevin, looking down on the village. He caught snippets of their conversations over the next hour.
"...thought I was going to die when I saw that cement truck bearing down," said Ashton. "I was terrified..."
"...best mountain in the world for climbing, if you're just interested in views..." said Mark.
"...last thing I ever expected to find there. So, of course, I panicked..." he heard Ashton say.
"...the new Bugatti that'll be out next year," said Mark. "Saw it on 'Top Gear' last month..."
"...doesn't have what it takes to captain England, whatever his skill. In any case, Flintoff's better off if..."
"...horrible thing for a kid that age to see..."
"...Nevin's always trying to stop me..."
"...pulled on the dog's bollocks for some reason..."
At one point, they touched on Mark's family.
"...imagined that you had a religious family," said Ashton.
"No," said Mark. "Dad always insisted we go to church on Sundays, but that was just so he could be seen by all the right people. Good for business, you know. I don't think my father's ever actually taken God seriously."
"I'd have thought that you'd end up resenting the Church then."
"Well, that's why Brother Gerry's so important to me" said Mark. "Dad insisted I attended church camp and I was so frightened that first time. I was only seven. Gerry really made the whole thing feel safe and fun. And by the end of the summer, I knew that he was the kind of man I wanted to be."
"Celibate?" asked Ashton, teasingly.
Mark laughed. "Well, no. The priesthood's never seemed likely to me. Besides, Dad'd have a fit. He wants me to be his great and wonderful heir. Marry some big-hipped girl with the right bloodline and have lots of babies."
"And you don't want that?"
"I'd like a family, I think. I mean a real family--not the setup I've got now. What I mean is a few people who look out for each other, love each other, have an interest in what the others really think and feel."
"You don't need a family for that," said Ashton. "Most of the guys at Tudor will give you that much."
"Yeah, but family is people who belong with each other, not a bunch of rejects thrown together to make what they can of life."
"Who're you callin' a reject?" asked Ashton.
"You can't tell me you wanted to come to Tudor and be away from your family?"
"No, but with the way Dad's always stationed abroad and Mum's got such irregular hours at the hospital, it just makes more sense. I don't see it as being rejected. Nevin might have a case for rejection with his family life, except he's wanted to come here since he could talk. That's because his Uncle Robin was a student here, you see."
They were quiet for a while.
"Is that how you feel?" asked Ashton. "Like your parents rejected you?"
"Kind of. My father's always pushing. Like who I am and who I was born as aren't good enough. Like I won't ever be good enough until I finish his programme for my life. If I had been good enough, he'd never have sent me here."
"Well, I think you're pretty cool. I'm glad you're my friend."
By lunchtime all three of them were dozing in the shade. Nevin had made sure to bring sandwiches, but not for himself. He left the other two behind and headed back to the school.
"I can see Tudor from here," said Mark, as he munched on his beef curry sandwich. Ashton followed his gaze out to the grey rooftops of the school in the distance.
"It's not a bad place, you know," Ashton said.
"Not bad," agreed Mark. "But I'll never be at home there. Not the way you are."
"It's only been a little while for you. Give it time."
Mark grunted dismissively.
"I didn't like it here at first, either," said Ashton. "It's only when I met Nevin that I started to settle in."
"I find that hard to believe."
"You seem so natural at dealing with people. I mean, they love you. All the guys. Everyone wants to be your friend. Even Pilsich seems to let you get away with things no one else could. It's like some kind of magic. It's-"
Ashton laughed. Then he started humming. Mark quickly picked up the tune and saw the humour in what he had said. He joined Ashton in Queen's 'It's a Kind of Magic'.
As they hummed--and then broke into the words of the song--they swayed together, shoulders jostling.
"That was fun," said Ashton, when they were done. "Want to do 'Killer Queen'?
"Don't know all the words," confessed Mark.
"Oooh. You heretic!"
"Never really liked that one, actually."
"Blasphemy!" screamed Ashton and leapt on Mark, grabbing for his sides with tickling hands. They rolled around in the grass, grappling and laughing and twisting. Just as Ashton used a judo flip to gain the ascendancy, he felt Mark's finger slide between his shorts-covered buttock cheeks and poke him.
Mark jeered and ran off to the bushes at the bottom of the hill. Ashton chased after him in vain. Every time he seemed about to capture Mark, the boy would shimmy or slip away from him. At one point, Mark even managed to disappear completely into the growth. Ashton only 'found' him when Mark grabbed his legs from behind, upended him and ran off, chuckling.
When the chasing game came to an end with Ashton finally giving up, they went back to Frisbee throwing. Then they played two games of chess under the tree. They explored around the hill, something Ashton had not done much of with Nevin. Ashton taught Mark some judo moves, which quickly degenerated into another bout of squirming around on the grass and chasing through the bushes.
Before they knew it, it was sunset. Ashton had never been out on the hill that late before. As he and Mark started packing, the fireflies came out. Thousands of them. They seemed to come all at once and both boys stood in stunned silence looking about them. Ashton could not help himself: he stretched his hands out like an airplane and ran in circles through the glowing, buzzing cloud of golden life. Mark joined him, holding his hand, and the two ran themselves silly in the twilight, caught up in the swirl of the evening.
Eventually they got tired and Ashton had to rest. He still was not back to his old fitness. He took a seat under the tree. There were fewer fireflies now. As they thinned out, the exhilaration and freedom of the long day seemed to dissipate with them.
"If we don't get back soon, we'll be in real trouble," said Mark.
"Good. I've never been in real trouble before." Ashton sat against the oak, the Frisbee between his hunched legs. Mark stooped next to him.
"Why do you do that?" Mark asked.
"Do what?" Ashton looked up into Mark's eyes--those ice blue eyes.
"Act like nothing bothers you. I know you're just as scared of Pigstick as I am."
"I'm not," said Ashton.
"Do you think that if you pretend something hard enough, you can make it so?"
Can I pretend that you love me?
Suddenly the strain of looking into that perfect face, so close and still so beyond reach, was too much to take. Ashton stared off past the trees into the gloom that shrouded Tudor.
"Poor Ash," said Mark tenderly. "Always hiding."
Was that true? Ashton's cheek and bravado had always seemed such a natural part of him. Was it really just a shield he had invented?
Mark brushed Ashton's hair back from his forehead, his fingertips staying to caress the top of the ear. Ashton shut his eyes and felt the stroke move down to the ticklish hairline right behind his ear and he shivered, stiffening and then relaxing with a sigh. His brain was limp--no thoughts at all, just the thrill of touch. Mark's fingers drew delicate lines to the front of his neck. Then it was just one finger, tracing under his jaw, past his chin and up to his lips, where Ashton kissed it.
Mark gasped and pulled his finger away. Ashton's eyes snapped open.
"I'm sorry, Ash," said Mark. "I don't know what came over me. Let's just forget about this and leave."
Mark turned and Ashton grabbed his hand.
"Relax. It's fine. There's no need-"
"No!" Mark wrenched his hand free. "No. No. No." He hammered at Ashton's chest with each 'no', staggering him. "I said forget it!" Ashton scrambled to his feet and made another grab for his hand, but Mark shoved him with both palms into the tree, where his head snapped back against the rough bark. Even dazed, he could see the wetness in Mark's eyes before the boy walked away.
Ashton's chest and head went numb and all he could feel was fingertips on his face, burning his skin like a demon's touch.
It was at sunset of the next Saturday that Nevin, Ashton, Simmons and Upton stepped off a train into the nearby town of Taunton. Ashton was carrying his backpack. Nevin assumed it was for sneaking booze into the cricket ground.
"I'm still not clear why I have to make this trip," Nevin complained. He had been pressured all week to come along and given in to Ashton's constant demands, as he tended to.
"Because this is the first big 'Twenty-Twenty' match to ever come to Taunton. We can't miss it. Freddie Flintoff's goin' to be playing."
"But why drag me along? What about Mark? He likes this bat and ball crap."
"Yeah, Ash," Upton teased. "Where is little Markie-boy tonight?"
"Mark's busy," said Ashton flatly. "And as for you," he said to Nevin, "You need the fresh air."
Five minutes later, Nevin was surprised when Ashton told the other two to go ahead without them while he and Nevin dropped off a package.
He was even more surprised when he and Ashton got to their destination.
"The Castle?" Nevin asked. "What business do you have here?"
"I told you. I'm making a delivery."
The Castle was a genuine medieval relic, rehabilitated into Taunton's premier restaurant and hotel (with prices to match, Nevin was sure). Its ancient stone solidity and its airy modern lighting complemented each other well.
Another surprise awaited Nevin in the lobby.
"Hello, kid." Duncan looked smart in a pair of black trousers and a matching jacket with a red silk tie.
"What are you doing here?" asked Nevin.
"I'm here for our date."
"You know... dinner, a movie, a walk? Other couples do it all the time, I'm told."
Nevin was too overwhelmed to think straight. "But, this place?" he asked.
"You don't like it?"
"Well, yes, but I'm wearing street clothes and it's expensive and-"
"It's not nearly as expensive as you might think," said Ashton at Nevin's shoulder. "And as far as your clothes go..." From his backpack, Ashton withdrew a carefully wrapped and packed suit.
"You stole that from my closet!" said Nevin.
The other two laughed. Ashton handed the clothes to Nevin, pointed him in the direction of the washroom and then patted him on the back, saying, "Have fun, Romeo." Then he left.
For Ashton, the walk to the cricket ground was dark, silent and lonely. The stars were barely visible with all the town's lights around. At Tudor, there was always a sprinkling of bright dots in the night sky, especially if you snuck out to the woods, and Ashton had gotten used to the sight of them.
He felt lost now. It had been a difficult week for him and Mark. When Ashton had followed Mark back to school on that disastrous Sunday, Mark had avoided him, staying locked in his room. Ashton did not press the issue. On top of all that, Pigstick gave them both detentions for missing dinner.
It was not until they served detention on Monday afternoon that Ashton was able to speak with Mark again. Mark had missed their run in the morning and had not sat near him at breakfast or lunch.
At Tudor, detention meant work. In this case, cleaning in the kitchen. They mopped the floors in silence, avoiding each other's eyes. At one point, they both turned to dip into the bucket they shared and their mops collided.
"Sorry," they both mumbled.
Then it was back to ignoring each other. Each additional second of silence pricked at Ashton's mind. When he could take it no more, he turned full-face to Mark.
But Mark spoke first. "I'm sorry about yesterday, Ash." The other boy was standing over his mop, looking at his feet.
"Don't worry about it," said Ashton. "I just hope you sort your head out soon."
"Sort my head out? What're you talking about? You know yesterday wasn't what I'm usually like."
"Snapping like that is a sign of deep tensions underneath."
"You can't make an assumption like that off of one incident," said Mark.
"Yesterday, you told me I was always hiding. Well, you know what? Whatever I'm hiding, it's no worse than putting some spare change under my mattress. You're trying to stuff the bloody Bank of England under yours."
"I'm not hiding anything," said Mark. "I just live a very controlled life. I have to. Tha-"
"Don't mistake paralysis for self-control. Fear isn't a virtue."
"What is it you want from me?" asked Mark.
Ashton shrugged. "You apologized. I accepted. What happens next is up to you."
"I just want it behind us. Let's forget it."
"Done," said Ashton.
Things had remained tense, even so. On Tuesday, they had resumed their morning runs, but they were both careful with what they said to each other. Mark also seemed to stand an extra half step further from Ashton these days.
So, with these dark thoughts on his mind, Ashton arrived at the cricket ground. When he took his seat, Simmons asked, "What happened to Nevin?"
"He decided to go back early."
"That boy's a bloody useless wanker," said Upton.
'I'm a bloody useless wanker,' thought Nevin. He had just tripped and had only been saved from falling by Duncan's quick hand. The maitre d' had led them through the echoing halls of the castle, past the dining room. Wondering why they had not gone in, Nevin had distractedly stared backward at the bypassed glass doors and had promptly caught his feet in themselves.
Duncan set him back on his two feet, but continued to hold him close. "Take it easy, kid."
"But the dining room is back there."
"I know," said Duncan. "We're not going there."
They came out of a passageway into a large, subtly lit, walled garden. Hidden in a natural alcove of plants and trees was their table, a polished dining room fixture with matching chairs, which somehow seemed totally at home outdoors.
"Wow," said Duncan.
"Why are you shocked?" asked Nevin. "Didn't you arrange this?"
"No," said Duncan, pulling a chair out for Nevin to sit. "Your pal Ashton put this whole thing together. He knows someone here with pull."
"He knows people everywhere."
The maitre d' left just as a waiter arrived to take their drink order. Nevin asked for fruit juice. Duncan sent for a bottle of white wine.
When the drinks and the menus had arrived they got to be alone for a little while. Nevin kept being pulled away from their perusal of the entrees by the sight of Duncan's thoughtful face. In the evening air, wearing his jacket and with the soft light glancing off his hair, the older boy seemed... golden. Nevin knew there would never be a blond James Bond, but if there ever was, he felt Duncan would be perfect. Eventually, Nevin gave up trying to read the menu and just stared, dreamy-eyed, at Duncan.
"You alright?" Duncan asked, when he noticed.
Duncan smiled lopsidedly and lifted his glass to Nevin. "Here's to our first date."
"Cheers," said Nevin, tinkling his glass against Duncan's.
When the waiter came for their orders, Nevin still had not gotten around to inspecting the menu. He told the waiter to bring him whatever Duncan was having--which turned out to be some kind of fish concoction.
"So, how about we enjoy some conversation?" asked Duncan when the waiter was gone again.
"Okay," said Nevin. "What's the craziest thing you've ever done?"
"Ha. That's easy. I once got talked into sneaking into another student's room to trash the place and ended up having sex with a cute, under-age boy."
"What about you?" asked Duncan.
"Last year, Ashton got me to climb a mobile phone tower and piss off of it."
It was Duncan's turn to laugh. "Did you hit anyone?"
"Nah. It kind of vaporized in the air."
"Any photographs?" asked Duncan.
"God, I hope not!" Then Nevin said, "Oops. I said 'God'."
"What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing, really. But Ashton and I both don't believe, so we think it's wrong to call on deities. But calling on God or Jesus is so embedded in the language that-"
"We think it's wrong?" asked Duncan, sarcastically.
"It is one of Ashton's ideas, to be honest."
"He seems quite passionate about being an atheist. Almost religious about it."
"Hah! He'd lay an egg if he heard you," said Nevin. "But you're right. You see, I'm pretty certain there's no God and that's it for me. Ashton keeps getting tied up in political implications."
"He might have a point," said Duncan. "The political implications of belief can conk you over the head pretty harshly."
"Oh," said Nevin, "you religious?" Then he said in a stunned voice, "I can't believe I never asked you that before."
"That's probably because you were too busy moaning my name."
"Yes, well if you keep up this idiotic 'no sex because I'm saving my shoulder for the javelin throw' crap, I'm going start moaning for my left hand pretty soon."
"I doubt it," said Duncan. "Your middle finger's got a lot of growing to do before it can replace me."
"Ever heard of a fist, lover boy?" Nevin asked. The shocked look on Duncan's face was priceless. "Anyways," Nevin continued, "What do you know about the political implications of faith?"
Duncan became serious immediately. "Well, I'm Catholic," he said. "And, I'm originally from a town near Belfast."
Nevin swallowed hard. "Wow. I'd never have guessed. You don't sound Irish."
"My parents sent me here to live with my Uncle Bernie when I was nine. That's because some Real IRA shitheads blew up a bus near my school."
"Oh. So they got scared."
"No. Not my parents," said Duncan. "Me on the other hand... I was just a block away. I got a real up-close education in how thousands of tiny pieces of metal propelled at explosive speed can affect a human body."
"Oh shit! You saw it?"
"And the people..."
"Three dead. Forty injured. There were people running everywhere with blood on their faces. I saw one man trying to put his eyeball back in its socket."
Nevin could not say anything.
Duncan continued, "So when I started refusing to leave the house after that, my parents asked Uncle Bernie to take me in." Duncan sipped some wine with pursed lips. "Being Irish over here was tough too. I learned pretty quick to rein in the accent. I got beat up less that way."
"Even at Tudor?"
"The world's full of assholes."
"Well, you've had it tougher than I ever thought," said Nevin.
Duncan said, "If there's one thing my life has taught me it's that there has to be order and justice in the world based on rules and society, not violence. That's why I'm going to be taking law at university. However much people may criticize lawyers as being greedy or devious, the fact is our civilization is possible only because we have a system of courts and parliaments."
Listening to Duncan speak like this reminded Nevin that Duncan had been a finalist in the senior school debate competition the previous year.
"So that's why you're so keen on being head prefect?" Nevin asked. "A resume builder to help you get into university?"
"No. I'd get into any uni I want as it is. Being head prefect just seems to be an extension of that civilizing force that I'm talking about.
"That's why I love Tudor," Duncan continued. "Even with all its faults, there's a sense there that man is more than just an ordinary animal--that squabbling for territory and striking out in anger are for lesser beings."
"Well, there're still people like Harrick," said Nevin.
"Which is exactly why having prefects is so important."
"And what about us?" asked Nevin.
"Being gay isn't a crime. I'm not-"
"No, I meant what about what we did to Harrick? That wasn't exactly civilized law, was it?"
Duncan seemed caught off-guard. Then he said, "We'll have to call that superhero justice. For jobs the regular authorities can't or won't do."
"If you start to accept one level of vigilante justice, then you set yourself up for people justifying bombs eventually..."
They talked for over an hour, through the excellent food and the even better desert of cherry pie. (They took turns feeding each other the pie.) Soon, they were just quietly looking at each other while they waited for the bill.
"So what's next?" asked Nevin.
"We'll take a walk over to the cinema and take in a movie. Are you in the mood for something romantic or something funny?"
"I'm in the mood for something a bit more exciting," said Nevin.
"They might still be showing the new Batman movie."
"Oooh yes. I love Christian Bale." Right away, Nevin felt self conscious over how much like a girl he must have sounded.
"Really?" asked Duncan.
"Yes. He's handsome and strong and just dead sexy."
"He's alright, I guess," said Duncan. "I much preferred him when he was younger: things like 'Empire of the Sun' and 'Swing Kids'."
"What d'you mean?"
"You like 'em young."
"I suppose I do have a taste for slim and youthful..."
The bill arrived. Duncan gave the waiter a credit card. Then, he took Nevin's hand and they walked towards the garden wall.
"So, how much was it?" asked Nevin.
"Don't worry, Ashton took care of that for us."
"Good old Ashton. He's-"
"Forget Ashton for a while," said Duncan. "We're here under the stars in an ancient garden with no one else around..."
"Well, since you put it that way." Nevin leaned closer to Duncan, resting his head against the taller boy's shoulder as the strolled around, breathing in the fresh, grassy, scents of the garden at night. They had moved some distance away when they saw the waiter return the credit card to the table and leave.
The garden proved surprisingly private, with many shielding plants and arches. They took a seat on a stone bench under a bower and Duncan pulled Nevin close for a kiss. Nevin tingled from his lips down to his groin and he pressed himself against Duncan, wrapping his arms around his neck. Duncan always tasted so good. Nevin's cock stiffened and he shifted around to make himself comfortable. The spirit of the night seemed to overtake him all at once. The sense of newness and fulfillment at being on an actual date with another boy and the concrete proof of all that represented by the live, warm boy holding him made Nevin feel like he was in a fairy tale.
Lowering his hand told him that Duncan was rather excited too. Nevin pulled the zipper down.
"Nevin!" said Duncan.
"Relax, no one can see us."
Duncan groaned his disapproving acceptance as Nevin took his hardness in hand. The shaft was already slick. Nevin slipped to the grass on his knees and took as much of it into his mouth as he could. Slurping and swiping, he savoured the salty fluid leaking out. Then he closed his lips tight and moved back and forth along the slippery skin, sucking all the time. Duncan's hands closed around his head, stroking his hair, but letting let him set the pace.
As always, Duncan leaked profusely and as he kept up his rhythm, Nevin felt the liquid coat his tongue and leak down his throat. When it became too much for him, he lifted off, swallowed a few times and then sucked on just the head of Duncan's stiff cock. Duncan stiffened when he did so, tightening his grip and moaning in a voice that was straining to be quiet.
Eventually, Nevin lunged for the bottom again, resuming his slow, careful, up and down lip strokes. Each time he rose to the tip, he slid over it, circled the head with his tongue and slid back down.
"I'm almost there," said Duncan.
Without a word, Nevin rose, unzipped himself and then shucked off his trousers and briefs in one move.
"No," said Duncan, looking around with renewed nervousness, "this is far too much of a risk. Let's-"
Nevin was on him in a flash. Without lubricant or preparation, it was tough for Nevin to take Duncan inside, but he had had some practice by now, so the spit-slick shaft went right up him. The pain flared, then ebbed away into the familiar full feeling.
Duncan was biting his lip. Nevin wrapped his legs around Duncan's torso as he settled. Sitting like that they were at eye level and Nevin leaned in to kiss Duncan. Nevin put his forearms on the older boy's shoulders and levered himself up with care. With delectable slowness, he rose on Duncan's pole as far as he could while they continued kissing. Then, just as slowly, he eased himself back down. His arms hurt after a few repetitions of this, but he knew Duncan was close and he just concentrated on kissing his lover, their lips wet and warm and slippery against each other. Despite their being (mostly) clothed, Nevin had never felt physically closer to another person in his life. It was like he could differentiate every strand of hair under his fingers as he stroked Duncan's head. As if he could feel every millimetre of slippage as he took and then released Duncan's hardness.
Deep, groaning vibrations in Duncan's throat signaled his release. Nevin could sense the boy's struggle to control his spasming body. Duncan's neck stiffened under the tension. Keeping up his deliberate pace, Nevin rode Duncan through his climax, both of them fighting for air, but fighting even harder to get their fill of each other's taste.
Even when they had calmed down, it seemed like their thirst for each other would not abate, and they pressed even closer, Duncan still embedded in Nevin. It was only voices nearby that broke them apart in the end. Nevin scrambled to get his trousers back on while Duncan zipped up and went to intercept whoever might be coming their way, before they could see Nevin's naked arse.
Walking into the train station, later that night, Ashton was still depressed. The game had not been the close, hard-fought contest he had expected and it had failed to take his mind of his troubles with Mark. He only hoped that Nevin was at least getting something worthwhile out of the evening.
Speak of the devil...
Through the sliding doors of the train, he saw a tired-looking Nevin folded into Duncan's side on a bench in one of the carriages. He knew he could not let the other boys see that.
"Oh damn!" Ashton said loudly. Simmons and Upton turned to him. "I gotta go find a bathroom," Ashton told them.
"Can't it wait?" asked Simmons.
"There won't be another train for an hour," added Upton. "We'll be late."
"I can't help it," Ashton said as he ran off.
Well, I hope Nevin's grateful, because Pigstick is probably going to hand me another detention over this.
Thinking about Nevin and Duncan and how close and satisfied the two of them looked sitting together brought other, more intense, emotions to Ashton, however: envy and loneliness.
As always, comments welcome.
P.S. I also want to say thanks to the Nifty archivist for posting these chapters as well as for putting up with my questions and requests.