THIS STORY HAS CHANGED: Old readers, welcome back. Revised versions of Chapters 1-4 have been posted as of August, 2007. Some characters have different names and there have been other minor changes. It might be best to re-start the story instead of jumping in here at Chapter 5. Sorry.
If you're a new reader who started 'Debating Love' after August, 2007, you're fine. I'm glad you're enjoying the story enough to follow it into Chapter 5.
********* "Hold it right there!"
Nevin and Duncan were walking up the darkened path to Tudor's dormitories when the voice rang out. Duncan's hand tightened protectively on Nevin's.
Sheehan stepped into view. "Well, what's this, what's this?" he asked. "A couple of malingerers, is it?"
"We've got permission passes," said Duncan. He handed them over. Sheehan's face seemed even more toad-like than usual as he read the slips with his flashlight. When he was done, he looked up with a smug smile.
"This says you're to be out with three other boys at a cricket game," he said to Nevin.
"We got separated in the crowd after," said Nevin. "I came home by myself."
"Not by yourself," said Sheehan. "Master O'Shea here somehow managed to escort you back, though his pass says he was visiting... relatives, was it? Quite a coincidence, that."
"Are you done?" asked Duncan. "We've done nothing wrong. The passes are in order. Anything else is none of your business."
"Don't get snippy with me!" said Sheehan. "Maybe I should have a word with Mr. Pilsich about your attitude..."
"There's nothing wrong with my attitude. I'm a student here and you're employed to-"
"Oh, you love that, don't you? Reminding me of my place?" Sheehan seemed to grow larger in his anger. "You all think you're so superior because your daddies have money-"
"I'm done with you," said Duncan. He pulled Nevin to walk away.
"Goin' to take your little boy whore and run off, are- "
Duncan whirled on him, hand raised. "Listen, you!"
"Go ahead," said Sheehan with surprising calmness. "Hit me. I'd love to hear how you explain it the headmaster. I'm sure he'd want to hear all about the circumstances... You and the youngster sneaking in..."
Duncan seemed caught in two minds, as if he wanted to smack Sheehan no matter what the consequences. In the end, however, he dropped his fist.
"Typical," said Sheehan. "Twelve years I been working here. Seen tons of you arrogant bastards come and go, but you all bend over for me in the end. Some of you might squeal and moan, but that only makes it more fun.
"Just ask your mate Freddie," Sheehan added, with a smile at Nevin. Then the guard walked off, chuckling.
"I wish I'd listened to you," said Freddie to Ashton. His voice was dry and hollow. It was obvious from his sore eyes that he had been crying, but there were no tears now.
Ashton sat next to the boy on his bed. Nevin and Simmons stood by the closed door. Ashton put a hand on Freddie's shoulders and waited for him to continue.
"Sheehan took me to this security building on the grounds," said Freddie. "Everything seemed so perfect. I knew exactly what was going to happen. I was excited. He was holding me to him and telling me how wonderful I was and-"
Freddie took a breath. His pale skin seemed paler than ever to Ashton.
"He started out by telling me to take off my clothes. I thought I'd do a strip tease for him. Seemed like fun.
"He just told me to stop wasting time and get my clothes off. It was like he was a totally different person. He was aggressive and impatient. I felt so stupid standing there naked while he just looked me over like a piece of meat."
"Why didn't you just leave right then?" asked Nevin.
"I don't know," said Freddie. "I had made up my mind that I was goin' to do it with Sheehan and I kind of felt like it was too late to back out. Plus, I was thinking that he was the one with experience, so I should let him take the lead and do things his way.
"But it only got worse," said Freddie. "He made me take his pants off and, you know, touch him and do things to him with... my mouth. And then he got me to lean over a couch and he just kinda stuck it in me."
"Bastard," said Simmons, under his breath.
"And it hurt. I was telling him the whole time, 'not so rough', 'not so fast', but it was like he couldn't hear me.
"And there was a part of me that was thinking, 'well I'm finally having sex. This is what I've been wanting.' Except it wasn't anything like I expected. Sheehan wasn't anything like I expected."
Freddie's dry recitation of the events finally threatened to break into tears. "Then when we were done, he just pulled his pants up and said, 'There's a washroom in the back where you can clean yourself up,' and he started to leave. I couldn't believe it. I asked him if that was it, if that's all there was and he said, 'I fucked you, I didn't marry you. Now, clear out before the next shift gets in.' And he just left."
Freddie's voice went back to being dry. "I should have just listened to you, Ashton. He didn't care about me. He just wanted to use me and I let him just-"
"Stop," said Ashton, firmly. "You didn't 'let' anyone do anything to you. Nothing about this was your fault. None of it."
"But I went with him. I wanted-"
"No. That doesn't matter. He played you. You couldn't have known better and he took advantage of that. That's all."
"And he won't get away with it," said Nevin. "As soon as you report him, he'll be out on his ass. He won't-"
"No!" said Freddie. "No one can know about this."
"Freddie," said Simmons, "you can't let him get away with this."
"I don't care. If I report him, then my parents are going to find out. Sheehan's going to tell them that I went there willingly. They're going to hate me forever."
"Yes, they will! You don't know them. My father and my uncle talk all the time about how much they hate queers and how homos need a good whipping to set them straight and stuff like that."
"So what do you want us to do?" asked Nevin.
"Nothing," said Freddie with a shrug. "It's over."
Ashton decided that a plan of action would have to wait until Freddie's brain was back in order. He said, "We'll talk more this afternoon. In the meantime, Freddie, you don't go anywhere by yourself. Stay with me, Nevin or Simmons at all times."
"Never mind why. Didn't you say you should listen to me?"
"What're we going to do?" Nevin asked Ashton as they left Simmons with Freddie.
"Well, we can't let Sheehan get away with raping Freddie."
"I'm not sure it was rape," said Ashton.
"How can you say that?" asked Nevin. "You said yourself that Sheehan tricked Freddie."
"False seduction isn't the same as raping. Freddie never told him to stop and you know I don't buy into that whole age of consent nonsense."
"You're full of crap. What he did to Freddie was evil."
"I have no doubt," said Ashton, "but we need to figure out a solution that's permanent and which protects Freddie at the same time."
"Say, why'd you tell him to always be with one of us?"
"Because I have a feeling Sheehan's not done with him."
They had missed their usual Sunday morning hilltop break dealing with Freddie's problem. Nevin was feeling as if Tudor, and the world as a whole, was no longer the sensible place it had always seemed. He left Ashton to search out Duncan. Duncan would make him feel better.
Duncan was in the chapel, talking with Pigstick amid the after-prayer tidying up. The older boy gave no sign of recognition as Nevin walked past. Nevin realized they were discussing prefect stuff and sat in a pew to wait it out.
Over in one corner, he saw Harrick putting away hymn books. Nevin had been vaguely aware that Harrick was in the school's choir, but he was still startled. He had only ever seen the choir perform in their school uniforms, not their Sunday morning cassocks. In the white robes, Harrick looked positively angelic, his face carrying a calmness and tenderness that Nevin had never seen before. When Harrick realized Nevin was watching him, his expression changed to a scowl and he left the room.
Nevin looked around for Duncan, only to realize that Duncan was gone also.
"Sneaking out on me like that was not cool," he told Duncan, when Nevin tracked him back to his room. "You're lucky I'm still in such a good mood from last night."
"Man, last night was a blast. We just have to find a way to do it again. Your birthday's coming up and then there's the overnight trip to Bridgwater carnival. We should be able to-"
The worried expression on Duncan's face shut Nevin up.
"We have to stop seeing each other," said Duncan, flatly.
"Last night made me realize that I was taking too much of a chance. If Sheehan was to make a big deal out it, I'd have serious problems. I can't risk that kind of thing. Not now."
"'Not now'? Oh, you dickhead. I could understand if you said you'd get into trouble with your parents or something, but this is all about getting your precious head prefect appointment, isn't it?"
Duncan's silent face was answer enough.
"You're such a big fuckin' hypocrite!" said Nevin and slammed Duncan's door on his way out.
I should be thinking about Freddie.
The only problem was that Ashton could not stop wondering about Mark. He missed the short-lived closeness. It surprised him how easily and quickly he and Mark had taken to each other.
Freddie. Freddie needs help.
Ashton had never respected lines of division between the adult world and the world of children, especially now that he stood on the border between the two, but he could not help feeling that Freddie's case was an adult problem. He and his friends were idiots to think they could handle it on their own.
I should just hand this over to Uncle Robin, whatever Freddie might want. He'd have this sorted in no time.
Then, of course, Freddie would have Hell to pay from his family. Things would actually be worse for him. In the end, Ashton decided to offer the choice to Freddie. When the four boys met again that afternoon, he said, "Nevin's uncle, Robin, is a cool guy. He'd make sure this gets handled without any fuss."
"Isn't he a detective?" asked Freddie.
"Well, detectives have rules don't they? He'd have to inform my parents."
They were silent for a while. Then, Ashton said, "Nevin, d'you think Duncan would-"
"No." The vehemence in Nevin's voice surprised Ashton.
"I'm sure. He's an asshole. We're better off without him."
Ashton looked hard at Nevin, but Nevin only stared back.
"Fine," Ashton said. "Now all we have to do is figure out a way to let everyone know that Sheehan is dangerous without letting them know why he's dangerous and do it all by ourselves."
"I don't see why you can't just let it be," said Freddie. "No one has to do anything-"
"You think you're the first?" Simmons almost shouted. "There's been rumours about Sheehan for years. He's probably done this to tons of kids. Picked some poor sod who'd be ashamed to let anyone know what happened and then just buggered 'im. You think you'll be the last, Freddie? You really think that Sheehan's all done with seducing boys?"
This idea seemed to stun Freddie, but in the end all he said was, "I just can't let anyone know."
"Well, I don't care what you say," said Simmons, "We don't need your permission to report this. We'll just go ourselves and-"
"If you report this, I'll say you're lying." Freddie looked eerily calm as he spoke.
"I'll say that you're trying to frame Sheehan 'cause he's strict with you and that he never touched me."
Simmons went scarlet. "What the fuck am I trying to help you for, then? You're nothing but a twat!" Simmons left with a sound of disgust.
"Nevin, go bring him back," said Ashton. Nevin went.
"Simmons doesn't understand, Ashton," said Freddie. "My life would be over if this came out. You have to make him see-"
"Freddie," said Ashton, "I understand perfectly. I've got an idea that could work, but it would need for you to be very brave. I want you to think about how much we need to stop Sheehan from ever doing this kind of thing to anyone else, and see if you can't help us." Ashton stroked the side of Freddie's face with his thumb. "Do you think you could do that?"
"What... what would you need me to do?"
Ashton told him.
Freddie said, "But-"
"Don't say anything. Just think about it. Okay?"
"I'm real sorry to hear this, kid," said Uncle Robin. "Romance is always rough. Especially for teenagers. Especially for gay teenagers."
"A regular break-up would have been fine," said Nevin. "I could have handled it if he said he didn't like me anymore. But for him to pass me over because of what people might think after he spent all that time talking about justice and fairness-"
"You should try not to take this so seriously."
"That's easy for you to say." Nevin sighed into the phone.
"Look, Nevin, remember I told you about my first boyfriend?"
"Yeah. That kid you met when you were in America. Jim something or other..."
"I never told you this, but he dumped me even before I came back to London. He couldn't handle the idea of being gay, so he just stopped talking to me one day."
"Geez, what a piece of shit."
"We were just thirteen, Nevin."
"Well, Duncan's almost seventeen."
"You think that makes much difference?" asked Uncle Robin.
"He knows better. He knows you shouldn't treat people this way."
"Look, my point is that when I came back from America I felt just like you do, that the world was just a giant dung pile and that I'd never get over what Jim had done."
"So what are you saying?" asked Nevin. "That you were wrong? That you've forgiven him?"
"No. Jim Eckerd was an asshole and when I think of him it still hurts. But because I let him sour me on love I missed out on a lot. Now that I've got your Uncle Kumar in my life, I'm happy again. I'm just sorry I waited so long."
"Yeah, but even if you hadn't waited, I doubt you could have met a better guy than Uncle Kumar in any case."
"So he keeps telling me."
"Listen, Nevin," said Uncle Robin, "there're good men out there. Don't give up."
The next Sunday was too cold for the hill, so Nevin and Ashton switched their picnic site to the chapel's bell tower, which they referred to as their 'winter capital'. It was a wide stone tower with a winding wooden stair up the inside. When the bells for the morning had rung, Nevin and Ashton would climb up with a thermos each of hot tea to a small one-window room near the top. They kept blankets and cushions in two wooden crates there and were quite comfortable.
"You going to Bridgwater Carnival?" asked Nevin.
"Sure. Mark and I made plans back at the beginning of term. Neither of us wants to back out because we're both trying to prove how normal our friendship is."
"You still think he's got the hots for you?"
"I felt it. That day on the hill-"
"I'm not in a mood to go," said Nevin letting the steam from the tea blow up his nostrils with a calming warmth. "Everything seems so damned pointless now."
"Don't forget what Uncle Robin told you."
"Well it's easy to be optimistic when you're getting shagged by a stud like Uncle Kumar every night. What about us who live in the real world?"
"Well, I'm optimistic," said Ashton.
"That's because you think I'm going to be giving you blowjobs again, now that Duncan's dumped me."
"The thought never crossed my mind."
"Hah! You've got a stiffy in your pants as we speak," said Nevin.
"No, I don't," said Ashton. Nevin looked accusingly at the tent in Ashton's crotch.
"Okay, maybe I do," Ashton admitted.
Nevin took a sip of tea and decided he should have added more sugar.
Ashton said, "Say, as long as we're up here all alone and all, you wouldn't mind being a pal and-"
"No, I'm not sucking your dick."
"You did what?!" asked Nevin.
"Keep your voice down, you soddin' idiot," said Ashton in a savage whisper. "We're in a library you know."
It was now the middle of the term and they were studying together for the horde of tests that always sprung up at this time of year. Around them were books covering at least five different subjects. Ashton's were a jumble. Nevin's were in small piles, stacked with the widest on the bottom.
"I'm sorry," said Nevin sarcastically, "it's just that I thought I heard you say that you just challenged the heads of both the Bible Club and the Islamic Club to a public debate."
"Are you insane?"
"Well, they were getting on my nerves."
More sarcasm from Nevin: "Really?"
"I was campaigning after dinner, trying to get kids interested in my HIV testing idea and Jules and Faizul started spouting shit about how those who live by God's commands don't need to take tests." Ashton shrugged. "So, we got into it. They really can be so ignorant sometimes."
"Are you going to debate them consecutively or what?"
"They'll pick two guys and it'll be two-on-two."
"So who's goin' to be your-" Nevin's eyes went wide. "Oh, no. You're not dragging me into this one, Ashton."
"C'mon. Who else am I going to get on short notice? Besides, it'll be an excellent way of promoting the HIV testing."
"Why are you suddenly so intent on getting a group of fourteen-year-olds to test themselves?"
"Because," said Ashton seriously, "if we dress it up as an AIDS awareness programme, we can get Freddie tested without raising any eyebrows."
"Freddie? You mean-"
"Right. Sheehan didn't use a condom."
"Damn. I hadn't thought of that."
"Well, so far Freddie hasn't either," said Ashton. "We won't tell him 'til the last minute. That way he won't be worried for the next three months thinking about it."
"Three whole months?"
"It's no use doing a test before that. It doesn't pick up the virus until three months after infection."
"I know that," said Nevin. "I meant that you expect us to keep Freddie from realizing that he might have been exposed for three months?"
"For as long as we can."
Nevin found a note from Duncan under his door that night. He ripped it apart and tossed it in the rubbish bin without reading it.
"Checkmate," said Ashton.
Mark barely seemed to register his loss and just reached to set the pieces back up with an unfocused glaze in his eyes.
"You okay?" asked Ashton.
"You've just lost two games. The way you're playing right now, Nevin could beat you and he's still trying to figure out the difference between a rook and a castle."
"But a rook-"
"What's bothering you?"
Mark twirled a white bishop in his fingers. "My father's coming to visit." He said. "He's going to meet with all my teachers to find out how I'm doing, that kind of thing. And of course, teachers all have this way of telling you where you can improve, even if you're the best student in the class, so he's going to have lots of negative things to hammer me with."
"It gets worse," said Mark.
"The day he gets here is the day I'm going to be debating you."
At Sports Day, a few weeks earlier, Mark had gotten out for 96 runs in his cricket match. It was the top score and had given his team victory. The only comment Mark's father had made, however, was to criticize his son for not reaching the coveted century mark. When he had walked off the field, Mark had looked the complete opposite of a sporting hero.
He looked like someone had just skinned his dog.
"I've never debated before, Ashton."
"So why're you doing it?"
"When I agreed to do it, I was just thinking that it was something different and new for me, so it seemed fun. But with my father watching, it's going to be completely different."
"His being here doesn't destroy your reasons for doing this," said Ashton. "From what you've told me about your dad, he'll criticize you no matter what you do. Might as well stop worrying about things you can't control and have your fun."
"I'm not sure I want to do this debate," Nevin told Ashton.
"Too late to back out now."
"I just found out that Duncan's going to be representing the Christians."
"But he's not even in their Bible club," said Ashton.
"No. But he's a good debater. Better than you even. Pilsich probably asked him to do it and right now Duncan would probably wipe old Pigstick's shit for him if it would get him that Head Prefect job."
They were walking to the football field after class. Nevin much preferred the constant movement of a ball being kicked about to the dreary standing around of cricket and he was glad the sporting seasons had changed.
"Guess who the Muslims selected to represent them." asked Ashton.
"He's not my Mark," said Ashton, looking annoyed.
"Why him? Faizul knows he's got no debate experience."
Nevin caught sight of the tall, dark-bearded, caretaker--the one who made Freddie nervous--pushing a wheelbarrow full of cut branches. Whatever the man's strange, quiet, way of observing the students, he was always busy at some task or other and seemed to make an effort to stay out of everyone's way.
"Faizul thinks he's being devious," said Ashton. He thinks that Mark has an advantage because we've argued religion before and Mark's going to have a psychological hold over me."
"He might have a point," said Nevin. "Will you be able to go hard against your sweetie pie?"
Ashton smiled then said, "I doubt I'd ever have a problem 'going hard' at Mark."
But, under the lame joke, Nevin sensed his friend's apprehension.
The debate was in the main hall, on the last Monday afternoon of October.
Where'd all these people come from? The whole school must be here.
The students were in the centre of the auditorium. To one side were the seats for the choir, now empty, and to the other were the teachers. At the back was a raised gallery for visitors.
There were many familiar and friendly faces in the crowd, of course, but Ashton had sent Simmons and Upton to town with Freddie to keep him out of the way, and he missed them. He had told Freddie that the trip to the music store on Royal Road was a reward for his help with the Sports Day costumes. After all, Devon House had romped to a first prize in the March Past with their eagle-inspired Nordic splendour.
Despite the coolness of the hall, Ashton sweated. The rivulets seemed to trace his scars as they ran down his back and sides.
Can I really do this?
Seated on the stage beside him, Nevin fidgeted.
"Cut that out," Ashton said.
"Cut what out?"
"Stop looking nervous."
"I can't help it. I am nervous."
"Look, half of the trick in winning this thing is going to be looking like we have absolute confidence in what we're saying."
"Yes, well, unlike you, I don't have a lot of practice at false confidence."
"It's not false. It's a matter of self-belief. If-"
The headmaster, Mister Dalrymple, cleared his throat at the lectern. "Welcome to this afternoon's debate." Dalrymple made some teacherly comments about students taking an interest in the world and then described the procedure for the debate. Ashton and Duncan would speak first for five minutes, then Nevin and Mark. Ashton and Duncan would then rebut the other side's presentations for five minutes.
When they were ready to begin, Dalrymple said, "The moot for today is, 'That all the students of Tudor should test themselves for HIV.' I invite Mister Ashton Sinclair to begin his team's proposition."
Index cards in hand, Ashton took the centre of the stage. His legs were weak and his skin felt tight. Off to the left, Mark gave him a smile and suddenly the floor seemed firmer under Ashton's feet and he was ready.
"Headmaster, teachers, students, good afternoon," he said. "The AIDS epidemic today threatens the existence of civilization. Only a reasoned, systematic, approach to combating this threat will save us. It is our contention that, here at Tudor, we can make our own small, but significant, contribution to this effort by testing ourselves as a first step to fighting back against this disease."
As he spoke, Ashton kept eye contact with the audience, looking at one boy then another, and speaking directly to them. Focus descended on him and it made him feel as if he was one half of a conversation rather than a man speaking to a crowd.
The main points Ashton made were that testing was a necessary prerequisite for the treatment of those who were infected and that widespread testing would help stop prejudice that hindered treatment of those with HIV.
"How many times," he asked sarcastically at that point, "have we heard the learned and intelligent among us say, 'I don't got to get tested. I'm not no queer.'? That is precisely the kind of counter-productive attitude that will get you killed! Testing here at Tudor would make us all aware that everyone is at risk."
There was enthusiastic applause when Ashton finished his presentation and took his seat. Mark had an admiring look on his face.
Duncan took the speaker's position and greeted the audience. Then he said, "I applaud my young friends in the other team for their enthusiasm." Ashton sensed a bristling in Nevin. "However," Duncan continued, "it seems that in their exuberance they have forgotten to take on board prudence and common-sense in their plan of action." There were giggles from the audience at the insult.
"AIDS is indeed a threat like no other," Duncan said, "with the potential to wreak havoc of untold proportions. Certainly, there are better ways of using our resources, however, than this puerile suggestion that we test school children? Are they suggesting that the boys here at Tudor are sex maniacs?"
"Oh, I'm sure we have our share of the, shall we say, hormonally overeager, but the undeniable truth is that HIV is sexually transmitted for the most part and we do not represent a sexually active population. The time and money we would wastefully expend on unnecessary testing could be used to prepare students for their eventual entry into the world of sexual activity. We should provide them the proper moral and educational knowledge to make the right choices about when to have sex and who to have sex with."
Man, he's good.
Duncan commanded his language and tone with precision. The audience seemed hypnotized as he led them through his argument. The applause when he finished was thunderous.
Nevin started slowly when he got to the podium, but seemed to hit his stride once his mind focused on the argument he was making. He was guilty of looking down at his feet too much, but in the end put over a clear message that voluntary testing was a good habit to develop early and that it would help to destroy the sense of invulnerability many teens had when it came to thinking about their risk level for HIV. He smiled with obvious relief when he had completed his workmanlike presentation and took his seat.
When his turn came, Mark approached the podium with a serenity that surprised Ashton. His voice was clear and strong as he introduced his argument, but he faltered almost right away with a joke about animals and men that seemed to bewilder the audience more than amuse them. It did not help matters that his argument switched almost immediately to quoting Bible verses. As he lost his grip on the audience, Mark resorted to reading his points in a monotone with his head down and the audience slipped further from him. His contention, that moral uprightness had to be considered when dealing with AIDS and that tests encouraged harmful sexual activity with a false sense of security, was lost on them.
Ashton kept an encouraging look on his face, but Mark never looked up to see it. There was only some polite applause when he finished.
There was a short break while they prepared their rebuttals. Ashton kept looking over at Mark when he should have been writing down points of argument and ended up nervously drinking two glasses of water by the time Duncan returned to the podium.
Duncan began, "We vehemently reject the argument that testing represents the best way of preparing our school's population for dealing with AIDS." He continued to attack Nevin's and Ashton's arguments, saying that they proposed misguided methods and that the supposed benefits they had projected were negligible.
When Ashton's turn came to rebut the other team's presentation, he began by tackling Duncan's part of the argument. "It is true," he said, "that there are other ways of approaching the problem of AIDS and even that there are more efficient ways. That is irrelevant. What matters is that HIV testing by students will be a preventative measure worth taking. Mister O'Shea says that it would be a misuse of resources, but he does not realize that the resources, both in time and money, which are required for an HIV test are very small. We lose nothing by pursuing a strategy of testing alongside any other approach Mister O'Shea may favour."
Again, Ashton used the attentive eyes of his audience as focus points. "The second line of argument put forward by the opposition is so absurd as to be shameful," he told them. "There are many who see HIV, not as the medical crisis it is, but as a battleground for their supposed 'moral' agenda. They see this battle, not in terms of lives saved, but souls. Abstinence is at best a marginally effective strategy and while I have no opposition to it, using that as our only strategy is a failure to mobilize all our resources. Further, I say to you that to oppose testing that could save even one life over 'moral' concerns is in itself immoral. Let God take care of the souls. We must act to save lives."
Nevin could not believe the effect the debate had on the school. It seemed like HIV was all anyone could talk about after the teams shook hands and the audience broke up. Over two dozen boys swamped him and Ashton, asking about their proposed HIV testing. He wrote down e-mail addresses and promised to be in touch.
The strangest thing was that he was now genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of testing. The more Nevin thought about it, the more he felt like this was something he should fight for.
As the crowd thinned out, Ashton caught sight of Mark and his father. Mark was staring at his feet while his father seemed to be berating him. The man was in a tailored, charcoal suit and his gold watch caught the light as his hand slashed the air continuously. Ashton got close enough to listen to what Mark's father was saying.
"...to put on a performance that incompetent. You're a Waterson, for Christ's sake. We're not some uneducated, low-class trash. This kind of public humiliation-"
"Mark did a great job," said Ashton, surprised at how sturdy his voice came out.
"What?" Mark's father looked at him as if stunned that he's been spoken to.
"I said that Mark did a great job. Public speaking is a tough proposition and he did pretty well for a first timer."
"I don't have time for 'pretty well'. Mark should-" The man finally seemed to realize who he was arguing with. "You're the Sinclair boy aren't you?"
Ashton looked over at Mark, whose was staring straight down, his jaw clenched. Even in his withdrawn state, Mark seemed more handsome than ever.
"Yes Sir, I am," said Ashton. "I-"
"Mister Pilsich mentioned you in our meeting. He seems to think you're a bad influence on Mark and now I understand why."
Ashton was too stunned to say anything.
"Listen, young Mister Sinclair, I don't want my boy starting to think like you. I know what my son is capable of and I'm not about to relax my standards just because you're sweet on him."
All Ashton could think about was Mark standing there hearing this, yet he could not bear to look at him.
Waterson continued, "The fact that you're defending him only proves that you're willing to say or do anything to get his attention."
Mark streaked out of sight around the corner.
"You're such a fucking shithead!" Ashton shouted at the man. "I don't need to feel anything about Mark to realize he's a good person."
"You can stop singing his praises now," said Mister Waterson. "He's gone."
"And don't worry," said the man with fake graciousness as he turned for the door, "I'm not going to say anything about your language to the Headmaster when I speak to him next time."
Oh shit, he's gone.
Nevin saw Duncan from across the hall. He seemed about to walk over. Not willing to give him the chance, Nevin turned to get away. He bumped into James Harrick's chest. The older boy said nothing, just looked expressionlessly down at him.
"Um, sorry, didn't see you there," said Nevin and he walked around Harrick.
"Don't speak to me," said Mark.
Ashton had no idea what he could possibly say anyway. He sat down opposite Mark in the computer lab where he had found him. Mark's eyes were dry, but red. Ashton waited while Mark tapped idly at the keyboard before him.
"Is my father right?" Mark asked.
"Is my father right? About you only pretending to like me because you like me?"
"Pretending to like you because I like you? Are you listening to the shit you're saying?"
"You know what I mean, Ashton."
That Mark could ask him such a question with full sincerity, made Ashton's anger overturn any sympathy he was feeling for the boy.
"Well, what do you think?" Ashton shouted. "Is that the kind of person I am?"
"I don't know what to think. Every time I have to deal with him, I get confused. I start feeling like I'm seven years old again and the whole world is this giant maze."
Ashton rolled over to Mark on his office chair. He took his hand. "I'm your friend. I've never lied to you and I've never lied about you."
"Yeah, but if you've got feelings for me, then-"
"We're friends. Nothing changes that. Whatever I may feel for you... you know, in other ways... being your friend is still what's most important to me."
"I'm worried about Harrick," said Nevin.
Ashton was working problems in his mathematics book. Without looking up, he said, "I've noticed he seems to be kind of depressed since you trashed his room. You think he might be going suicidal or something?"
"Hardly. I mean that I'm worried he might try something with me. I'm not spending time with Duncan anymore. Maybe he's noticed and now he thinks he can go back to roughing me up."
Nevin was expecting Ashton to say something prattish, such as, "Don't worry, Nevie-poo, I'll protect you." Instead, Ashton just continued with his homework.
Nevin said loudly, "I said a big, hulking ape might be out to terrorize and murder me."
"I heard you the first time," said Ashton.
"And nothing. You started this fight."
"I did not!" Nevin said. "He's the one who-"
"You could have just left him alone."
"You of all people are telling me I should have let some bully walk all over me?"
"No, but you're only free to do anything as long as you're prepared to deal with the consequences of your actions. It's like Mark likes to say: if-"
Ashton sighed. "Don't I wish."
"Something happen with you two tonight?" Nevin asked.
"I, um, kind of told Mark how I feel about him."
"'Kind of'? You 'kind of' told him you love him?"
"I didn't exactly say 'love'. It was more like-"
"Well," said Nevin, "it's nice to know us queer guys can be just as scared to admit they love someone as-"
"He had a lot to deal with right then, alright? It didn't seem like a good time to bring down another load of bricks on him."
"You should have told him."
As always, comments welcome.