No matter how hard he tried, Ashton could not get used to being just Mark's friend. They ran every morning, no matter how cold. They played chess every night. Sometimes, when the prefects were not around, they would even play cricket in the corridors with a tennis ball. They talked about sports and Christmas presents and debated God and religion and politics.
But, they never talked sex. They never talked about themselves. It was as if the night at Bridgwater Carnival had never happened. Except that in Ashton's mind that night was still vivid and alive. He could still feel every touch on his skin; still remember the cottony smell of the sheets. He wondered how Mark could just dismiss all that had happened.
Maybe he doesn't feel the same way about me?
Except he did. Ashton could see it in Mark's eyes. Sometimes, he would catch Mark looking at him with an expression that seemed like feverish yearning.
At least there were the probies to torment. The prefect candidates were on probation for the next month, until the end of school. Each of them was trying their hardest to impress the faculty with their dedication and enthusiasm for keeping order. For most of the students, this meant being extra careful not to break rules, since the probies seemed to be prowling everywhere. But, for Ashton, it only meant a challenge. Probies had their bookbags stolen. They got stung in the back by cardboard bullets fired from anonymous rubber-band catapults. (The bullets were made thick and heavy and left burning, red welts.) One morning the probies opened the prefects' room to find that the floor had been painted grassy green and three goats were 'grazing' there.
Amazingly, Mark went along with most of these ideas. He even came up with some of his own, the best being a scheme that left half the probies with neon green left hands for three days.
When they arrived, the end-of-term examinations were, as these things always are, a quiet mix of dread and boredom. Nevin was spending a lot of time in James Harrick's room. If anyone noticed anything between the two of them, they said nothing, probably because of Harrick's reputation for hard looks and harder fists. Not that the boy had been acting the bully of late. In fact, since he and Nevin had gotten together, Harrick had been quiet and even smiled on occasion.
Nevin was studying for his Programming exam in the library when he realized that Freddie had been gone, visiting the bathroom, for a long time. The other boy had left saying he needed to take a piss. Perhaps he had needed to drop off something heavier, Nevin reasoned.
Something about the situation bothered him, though, so he got up to check. He got to the corridor just in time to see Sheehan pushing Freddie towards the basement stairs.
Nevin briefly wondered how the man had gotten into the building. Freddie was the real worry, however. He seemed compliant, if sullen. In fact, when Nevin started running towards them, Freddie caught sight of him and yelled, "No! Stay away."
Sheehan struck him behind the head and hurried him off. At the bottom of the basement stair, Nevin looked both ways to see where they had gone, only to have Sheehan clamp a hand on his neck. It felt like King Kong's paw.
"Got yer," said Sheehan. "I was hoping you'd make it to our little party."
Nevin said, "You do anything and you'll get in even more trouble, Sheehan."
"Not hardly," said Sheehan, pushing Nevin into an empty room and letting him go. "See, I know what really worries you little buggers. You're all afraid of Freddie- boy's parents finding out about how he seduced me. That's why none of you mentioned him when the cops were looking into that beating I gave Sinclair."
Freddie was standing in the corner, head bowed and tears on his cheeks.
Nevin said, "Nobody seduced you, you toad-faced-"
A quick slap across the mouth shut him up.
"Careful, boy," said Sheehan. "If you don't do exactly what I want, everyone's going to find out how much you two like stuffing cock in your faces. Now, I know that wouldn't bother you any, but Freddie-boy's dad might just kill him."
"What do you want?"
"Not much," said Sheehan, locking the door. "But, you cost me my job. I intend to get my severance pay of your sweet little ass. Plus it wouldn't be right for me to leave without giving a proper good-bye to my darling Freddie, would it?"
Freddie sobbed on hearing that.
"See?" said Sheehan. "He can't wait for me to stick my-"
With a raging cry, Freddie flung himself at Sheehan, fists pounding at the man. "Leave Nevin alone!"
Sheehan grabbed Freddie's wrist, twisted the arm so hard that Freddie yelped in pain. When the boy was bent over, Sheehan kneed him in the stomach and then let him collapse to the concrete floor, whimpering.
He turned back to Nevin. "Like I said-"
"Let the boys go." The voice was a melodious baritone, with an edge of menace and more than a hint of some London university. The dark-bearded caretaker stood in the doorway, key in hand.
Sheehan pulled Nevin behind him and said, "Get lost you camel-fucker."
"Do not take me lightly. I am from the Middle East. I've killed before. I can kill again."
"Like you could even-"
As big as Sheehan was, the caretaker seemed to need little effort to grab him and slam him against the brick wall. Sheehan fell to the ground bleeding and unconscious.
"Are you hurt?" the caretaker asked Nevin.
"No, but I think Freddie is."
"Take him to the nurse then. I'll take care of this piece of garbage."
"Look, I can't explain why, but it's really important that nobody connects Freddie with Sheehan. I can't let the nurse see him."
The man looked hard at Nevin then said, "Fine. I have a medical kit in my office down the hall. Take him there and I'll look at him when I get back. But if it turns out that he's injured, he'll have to go to the nurse."
Freddie did not have much trouble walking to the caretaker's room. Nevin set him down on the cot he found there. The room met Nevin's approval. It was spare, with just a fireplace, a table with a small stove, two chairs, a refrigerator, and a bookstand--Erasmus, Paine, Marx, Auden--with a music player on top. On the wall was a poster of surfers on an Australian beach.
"Are you having any trouble breathing?" The caretaker asked Freddie as soon as he returned.
"No. My shoulder hurts though."
"Let me look at it."
Just then Ashton walked in.
"What're you doing here?" Nevin asked.
"Zameer told me what happened."
"I am Zameer," said the caretaker.
"Oh," said, Nevin, embarrassed that he had not thought to ask the man's name. "Sorry."
"Your friend seems fine," said Zameer. "His shoulder is not dislocated, just a bit twisted."
"Can he stay here a while?" asked Ashton. "We'd like him out of sight."
"Of course. I'll give him some painkillers and a mild sedative so he'll rest. Would you like some tea in the meantime, Ashton?"
"You know I never turn down tea."
"Well, you'll have help yourself this time."
Zameer sat on the bed with Freddie, giving him a glass of water and some pills. After he had swallowed, the boy held on to Zameer, who stroked his hair tenderly. In the meantime, Ashton put together a pot of tea, showing a familiarity with Zameer's kitchen that surprised Nevin.
"You never told me you were friends with the caretaker, Ashton."
"There's lots of things I don't tell you."
"I asked Ashton not to advertise our friendship," said Zameer.
"I value my privacy."
"I can see why," said Nevin. "You're no ordinary groundskeeper, that's for sure."
They sat drinking tea for fifteen minutes, speaking little. Freddie fell asleep and began snoring gently.
"I came here last year from Baghdad," said Zameer quietly. He had apparently decided to trust Nevin. "I had owned a haberdasher's store there, but things got too violent. Hard to read with gunfire in the background, you see. Even harder to listen to music."
"I can understand that," said Nevin, "but you seem pretty educated. Surely you could get a better job."
"This is a fine job," said Zameer. "I have a garden, a greenhouse, lots of personal time... Plus I get great satisfaction from keeping everything in order for you boys."
"But what about money? I can't imagine this job-"
Ashton and Zameer were laughing.
"Zameer brought his money with him from Baghdad," said Ashton. "He's plenty rich."
"Oh," said Nevin. "Then I guess Freddie's gotten even luckier than I thought."
Zameer stroked Freddie's forehead with surprising gentleness. "Yes, he is a very lucky boy," said Zameer. "Lucky to have such good friends."
"Did you mean what you said earlier?" Nevin asked.
"That you had killed before."
Zameer chuckled. "I got that from 'Bad Boys'. Excellent movie. Very funny. Horrible sequel, though."
Nevin noticed that Ashton was not laughing, however. Something told him that Ashton knew more about the darker bits of Zameer's past.
Report cards and a few early goodbyes were the order of business on the final Friday morning of the term. Ashton compared his grades with Nevin's as they milled around the school auditorium, waiting for the last day special assembly. He had especially good marks in English, Mathematics and Science. Nevin had done well in Science, Geography and History.
Upton, Mark, Freddie, and Simmons were with them.
"How the Hell could you fail Physical Education?" Simmons was asking Upton.
"It was deliberate. My family has secret super powers and my father has asked me not to let the world know my true capabilities."
"Okay, first of all," said Simmons, "your super-farts are deadly, but they're not a real super power. And, second, you haven't really kept them a secret, have you? Hell, the entire science class had to run out of the lab that one time you let go."
"That was not me!"
"-again when we were on the tour bus-"
"I don't have super farts!"
"-my parents were visiting. They nearly fainted-"
"At least I don't masturbate in public!"
"I keep telling you, that was glue in my hand and I was stuck!"
Jamie Harrick came over to them.
"Hi, Ashton. Nevin. Guys."
"Hey, Jamie," said Ashton. "Aren't you supposed to be over with the choir?" It had been a shock when Ashton first learned that Nevin was now boyfriends with the bully, but Jamie had made a real effort to be friendly and was earning Ashton's trust.
"I told them I had a sore throat."
"But you don't?"
"No." Harrick grinned, but said nothing more about that.
Simmons and Upton soon took back his attention. However, Ashton could not help but notice when Harrick leaned down and whispered in Nevin's ear, a surreptitious hand on the boy's hip. Nevin grinned and the two went walking off.
I guess they really are hot for each other.
"Stop grabbing me!" said Nevin in mock anger as he and Jamie stumbled through the door to one of the backstage rooms. "Someone might see."
"Sorry, Nevin," said Jamie, tickling his side. "You're just too cute to resist."
"That may be true, but until I check out this room properly, keep your hands where I can see them."
The room was L-shaped and Nevin wanted to make sure no one was around the corner. He was attacked before he could take a look, however. Nevin squealed as Jamie lunged and bit him playfully on the shoulder with a zombie groan. "Me eat cute boy!"
"Aaah! A sex zombie! Somebody help me, a sex zombie is after my balls. Save me fr-"
As he raced into the other half of the room, Nevin found Duncan sitting in a chair by the window with a sheet of paper in front of him. No one said anything for a while. Nevin did have time to note how the sunlight glinted off Duncan's hair, however.
Eventually, he said, "Duncan. What're you doing here?"
"I'm going over my acceptance speech for the assembly." There was no need for Duncan to ask what Nevin and Harrick were up to.
"Okay," said Jamie. "Well, we'll leave you to it, then."
They turned to go, but Duncan said, "Wait, Nevin."
"I've been trying to get in touch with you." Duncan folded the paper and put it away in his jacket.
"Yes, well, I've been trying to avoid you."
"Could we talk?"
"We're talking now."
"I meant alone."
"In that case, no," said Nevin, leaning back into Jamie's chest.
"I guess you're happy with Harrick then?" Duncan asked.
"He makes me feel important and he makes me feel happy. You treated me like I was a heroin habit you were ashamed of. There's no comparison. Good luck with your speech."
As he walked out the door, however, Nevin could not shake the dismayed expression on Duncan's face.
"That was quick," said Ashton, when Nevin returned.
"We ran into a rat and it completely spoiled the mood."
"What mood?" asked Mark, walking over.
"Um, celebration, you know? Because Christmas is here and the term is over?"
"Yeah, sure," said Mark. "You can't fool me. You were talking queer stuff."
"Does that make you horny?" Ashton flipped his eyebrows at Mark. "Because I could probably give you a quickie before the assembly begins."
"I'd love to," Mark said sarcastically, "but you're too late. They're starting."
Up on stage, the Headmaster and the senior teachers took their seats. The students formed themselves into rows by class and the hall went silent.
At the podium, serving his last day on the job, the current Head Prefect said, "Let us begin by singing 'God Save the Queen'." Nevin wondered whether the boy up there felt any regret at giving up his post or if he was glad to get it over with. Did he feel that his year as Head Prefect was worth the sacrifices he had made?
After working their way through some last minute announcements and reminders, it was time for the real reason they were assembled. The Headmaster took his time walking to the podium, as he always did. He also tapped the microphone and cleared his throat far too loudly, as he always did.
"Good morning, students," said Mister Dalrymple. "Today we say 'thank you' to the prefects who have served you so well as guides this past year and welcome a new group of prefects into the difficult, but worthy, task of supervising the student populace here at the Tudor Academy."
The ceremony was simple. Each new prefect received a pin shaped like a lantern which was placed on their lapel by a member of the outgoing prefect body. Duncan was the last to receive his. As was customary, the new Head Prefect took the podium to address the school.
"Headmaster, teachers, fellow students of Tudor." Duncan had not removed the prepared speech from his jacket, Nevin noted. He seemed hesitant and nervous as he continued. "It seems like I've dreamed of this moment since I first got to this school. For me, being a prefect has always been symbolic of what is best about Tudor--a dedication to civilization and decency. Now, the faculty have graciously asked me to be head of this fine institution, the Prefect Body. They feel I have the requisite decency.
"Yet, there is a young man in the audience today who knows the truth about me. He alone sees that, as I stand here before you, I am not worthy of this honour."
The hall was dead silent.
"You see, in my zeal to gain this position, I forgot that decency and civilization are only important because they are the foundation for love and happiness. And any act that does not serve love and happiness is neither decent nor civilized. I have betrayed one of the best people I know. Today, I cannot in good conscience accept the appointment as head prefect."
Bubbling murmurs swept through the auditorium. On stage, teachers were leaning back and forth to speak with each other. Pilsich was red with fury.
Duncan looked straight down at Nevin and when the buzz had quieted, he said, "Nevin, I love you. I'm sorry for hurting you. I can only hope that you godless atheists believe in forgiveness too. Whatever happens, I wish you the best."
As Duncan took his seat, the audience seemed confused as to how they should react. Most whispered among themselves. Some clapped. Others were laughing.
Dalrymple strode to the podium and called for silence. He said, "Despite the... unprecedented actions of Mister O'Shea, I wish to assure you all that the new Prefect Body will be completely installed and empowered at the beginning of the new term. Further..."
As the headmaster continued, Duncan looked completely lost, staring at his shoes. He seemed to Nevin like a little boy in oversized clothes as he sat there. It was only when they sang the school song to end the assembly that Duncan seemed to come back to himself, putting real energy and belief into his voice.
"Your mum is coming to pick you up?" Ashton asked Nevin.
"So she says. I'll believe that when I see it."
It was Sunday morning. They were in the church tower, snow lying around the deserted grounds of Tudor like a lake of ice-cream. Most of the students had left for Christmas break the day before, including Duncan and Harrick. Simmons and Upton were gone, too.
"Well, look on the bright side," said Ashton. "If she doesn't show, you get to hang out with Uncle Robin for three weeks."
"Yeah." It was clear from Nevin's voice, however, that no matter how wonderful his Uncle Robin was, he would much rather be with his mother.
Below them, three cars were sitting in the driveway while parents and students lugged trunks and bags to the curb and loaded them in. Freddie was there, helping Zameer help the parents. As the last car departed, Freddie and the caretaker stood together, holding each other and waving its occupants goodbye.
"Lucky bastard," said Nevin.
"He's not going home for the holidays you know."
"Really? I bet the two of them will be fucking each other's brains out the whole time we're gone."
"Of that, I have no doubt."
"Well here's to Freddie and Zameer," said Nevin, raising his cup of tea.
"Here's to fucking."
The sipped their tea for a while.
Ashton asked, "Remember when I told you that I had some things I needed to settle inside me before I talked to you about them?"
"Yes. I take it you're not scared of the idea of dying anymore?"
"It was never that I was scared of dying."
"I was scared of living."
"Come again?" asked Nevin.
"When I had the accident, the last thought to go through my mind was, 'I'm going to die'. When I woke up later, it was as if I had died and this was all a new life. So, now, I feel like I've been through death already. And it was nothing terrifying. It was kind of peaceful, really. In fact, If I knew I was going to die right now, the only thing that would bother me is knowing that my life is over so quickly, before I've had a chance to do much with it."
"Sounds to me like you'd be happy to have a second chance, then."
"I felt that way when I first woke up, too," said Ashton. "For about half a minute. Then I realized that I hadn't come back to life as myself. I'd come back as some kind of mockery of who I used to be. I couldn't feed myself. I could barely talk. I was shitting in a bowl that someone had to put under me."
"Come on now, that didn't last very long."
"Well, even after I was out of the hospital, whenever I would see my scars in the mirror or whenever I would realize that I couldn't do things I could have done before, like slide down the banister or even grip a cricket bat, I felt like this wasn't life I had come back to. This was Hell.
"And the worst part," Ashton continued, "was feeling like my body had betrayed me. Like it had turned itself into a prison. Turned me into a... cripple."
"But you don't feel that way now?" Nevin asked.
"Is that because you've gotten your old strength back and you're not a 'cripple' anymore? Because, I have to say, if it's as simple as that, then you're kind of shallow."
"It was a lot of things," said Ashton. "If I hadn't gotten better, it would have taken me a longer time to adjust, but I would still have made it, I think. A big part of it was having my parents there for me. They made me feel safe. Safe enough to come back to Tudor. That first night when you kissed me, that changed my outlook on things, too. I think Mark's been the biggest help, though."
"Bigger than me kissing you?"
"Mark engaged me--got my brain fighting again. Got me to look forward again. To feel love. I wouldn't care if I were a quadruple amputee, Nevin. Being in love makes me feel like Superman."
"Even though Mark doesn't want to be with you?" Nevin asked.
"That part of it is tough, I have to say, but what I'm talking about is independent of him. My feelings for Mark are like a team of horses pulling me along in a chariot. They put the wind in my hair."
"Just as long as they don't pull you in different directions."
"That's more your problem than mine, isn't it?" Ashton asked. "You talk to Duncan before he left?"
"That was a Hell of a thing he did turning down Head Prefect. He might not be the asshole he seems to be."
"Every time I look at his face all I can think about is how much I want him."
"But I'm with Jamie. And Jamie is good for me. And good to me. And he makes me feel good about myself."
"So what're you goin' to do about the two of them?" asked Ashton. "Who're you goin' to pick?"
"Who says I have to pick?"
"Well logic and common sense does. You can't be with both of them, you know."
"I read this article once," said Nevin, looking out over the grounds below the tower. "This gay activist. He was saying that fighting for legalizing gay marriage was the wrong thing for gays because that would just be aping heterosexuals and that we should try to 'chart a new paradigm' instead."
"I don't think he was rejecting monogamy."
"No, but he's got me thinking that maybe we don't have to follow that either."
"It sounds like a fine recipe for a double homicide," muttered Ashton.
"I'm talking about a stable, supportive, partnership that's no different from a traditional two-person couple in what it acc-"
"You can't fool me," said Ashton. "I know you. I know the porno you like. You just want to have the two of 'em go at you from both ends at the same time."
Nevin sputtered, then stared at Ashton in disbelief. "Are you mad?" he finally asked. "That's so perverse. It's so twisted. It's so, so-"
"Appealing?" asked Ashton.
"Arrgh!" Nevin raised his hand to hit Ashton playfully. Ashton was soon holding him in a death grip as they wrestled. A shadow fell over them. It was Mark, with a bag slung over his shoulder.
"Hi Ash. Hi Nevin."
Ashton brushed himself off. "Hi Mark. Want to help me teach Nevin some respect for his betters?"
"If you need help for that then you're not really his better, are you?"
Nevin laughed. "You know, Mark, I like you more and more every day. 'Masterdebator' here needs someone to make him shut up every so often."
"You going home now?" Ashton asked Mark.
"Yeah. I wanted to talk to you first, though."
Nevin said, "I'm goin' to go finish getting Beyonce ready to travel, Ash." Then, he took the stairs down.
"I see you're taking Freddie home for Christmas," Mark said, nodding to the small, clear-plastic, box on the floor. It was what Mark had given Ashton for his birthday. Inside was a miniature gold statue of Freddie Mercury, fist raised, jacket flying--a replica of the life-sized memorial at Lake Geneva.
"Yeah," said Ashton. "I like to have him around. Sometimes I talk to him in my mind, asking him for advice, or just venting."
"Kind of like how some people talk to Jesus?" Mark smiled.
"Are your parents here yet?" asked Ashton.
"They're not coming here," said Mark. "I'm going to meet them in London. I'm taking the train this afternoon."
"Ah," said Ashton. "Traveling on your own like a big boy, eh? Guess you're growing up."
"Yes, I think I am," said Mark, being serious.
"How do you figure?"
"I just feel like..." But Mark stopped speaking, seeming to get lost as he gazed at Ashton's face.
"Like..." Mark leaned into Ashton and kissed him softly on the lips.
"Hold it, hold it, hold it." Ashton pulled away, despite how good that momentary touch felt.
"Don't you remember the last time we did this?"
"Yes. In fact, I've been thinking about it a lot." Mark smiled. "Mostly about how good it felt."
"Well, that's the 'before'," said Ashton. "What about the 'after' when you start to feel all guilty?"
"That's just it. After the carnival, I kept expecting to feel some kind of regret, but when I think about us all I feel is happy. My whole life, I've always known when I've done wrong. When I lie, or cheat, I know right away that God is angry with me. It hurts in my stomach like something physical." Mark ran a finger down the side of Ashton's face. "But He isn't angry about us, Ash. What we did, I don't think it was wrong. I don't think God thinks it was wrong either."
There were dozens of replies chasing each other through Ashton's mind right then. 'What about what's written in the Bible?' for one. 'You're simply mistaking your innate sense of right and wrong for a religious mandate,' for another. But the sensible part of Ashton stomped his argumentative side into the mud and instead of rushing into a debate, Ashton smiled, leaned over to Mark and kissed him.
Next term, Ashton knew, the war of life would continue. Freddie would have his HIV test. Nevin would sort through his issues with Duncan and Jamie (though Ashton had a feeling he knew already how that would turn out), Upton and Simmons would continue to bicker and Pigstick would still be an asshole.
Just then, however, everything was perfect.
Afterword: Phew! 46,000 words in total. I'm exhausted. Here are some brief notes on the story...
*I had intended to have a sex scene following that last kiss between Ashton and Mark, but then I thought, 'The story is basically over at this point. This is the right place to end it.' Still, if enough people feel strongly about it, I may just add an extra lusty bit on as Chapter Nine.
*The verses in italics throughout the story are from Queen songs and were written by various band members.
*Bridgwater and its carnival are real.
*Taunton and the Castle are real, also.
*Tudor Academy is semi-real.
*Baghdad is, of course, completely imaginary- Sorry, I meant Gronding. Gronding is completely imaginary.
*Many thanks to Elisha for helping me prepare this story.
*All comments are welcome. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.