Here we are, born to be kings,
We're the Princes of the Universe...
Will it be the same? CAN it be the same?
The boy could feel the scars on his skin. No amount of traveling clothes could cover them up to him. He stood in the doorway of his house, staring at the world outside. The two leather bags in his hands felt heavier than normal. His muscles were still weak. The bags were actually packed light: a few favoured books and clothes, besides his school things. When he walked into the open, the light stung him. His eyes would be sensitive for some time yet, the doctor had said.
Over by the car, his mother yelled, "Ashton, darling, let the driver take those."
"I'm fine, mum."
At least, I hope so.
"Get off me, you idiot," said Nevin, kicking at Ashton. He felt his toe connect with a rib, but had no other success against the taller boy. Ashton grabbed at Nevin's belt buckle as he pinned him more securely.
"Oh quit posing," Ashton said. "You want it just as much as I do."
"Want's got nothing to do with it. I just made this bed."
Ashton stopped. Nevin could feel the other boy's weight settling onto his chest.
"Let me get this straight," Ashton said. "You're turning down a blowjob for the sake of smooth sheets?"
"Maybe you give lousy blowjobs."
"Dinner time!" called the monitor through the open door. "You two queers cut out the welcome home party and get down to the dining hall."
"Bugger off, Simmons," yelled Ashton.
"Good to have you back too, Ash," said Simmons, continuing down the hall.
Ashton jumped off the bed and pulled Nevin up.
"He's right," said Nevin looking Ashton over. "It really is good to have you back. There were some days when I didn't think you'd make it. I mean, when I saw those photos-"
Ashton made a dismissive sound. "It looked worse than it was. C'mon, let's go show our faces so we can get back here and have some fun."
"Ash?" yelled Upton when they walked into the hall. "Bloody Hell, man. We all thought you had died or something."
"Mister Upton!" said Jones, that night's supervising master. "Please control your language."
Ashton waited until he reached Upton and said, "I wish I had died. Then I wouldn't have to see your ugly face again."
"Grab a plate," Upton said, sitting at one of the Third Form tables. "Let's hear all about it."
"There isn't much to tell, really," said Ashton, after he and Nevin eventually sat down to eat at the long, varnished table. Above them, banners of silver and blue hung from the vaulted concrete ceiling. "I was in the car, everything went white, then black and then I woke up in the hospital."
"What? No weird dreams?" asked Simmons, who showed up with an unknown boy in tow. The two of them took the chairs to the left of Ashton. "No heavenly light and Enya music?"
"Nope." Ashton carved off a bit of over-boiled steak. "I have looked over the edge of life and found nothing there." He stabbed at the steak. "Just as I expected."
"Who's the new kid?" asked Upton.
"Oh," said Simmons, "this is Freddie, everyone."
They introduced themselves.
"Freddie Hayes," said the new boy as he shook hands all around. He was thin, with pale eyes and hair, and a squeak for a voice. Cute, though.
They tucked into their dinner.
"Hey," said Ashton looking across at the food line, "Is that Mark over there?"
"Yeah, why?" asked Upton.
"No reason. He just looks different is all."
"New haircut," said Nevin.
"I'm surprised you even remember him," said Simmons. "He only got here a couple of weeks before you were sidelined."
"Yeah, well it's hard to forget someone who stomps your ass six games running at chess."
"You lost a chess game?"
"Six chess games." Ashton was still looking at Mark.
"It's weird how a different hairstyle can change someone's whole appearance," said Nevin.
Just then, Mark's gaze turned in Ashton's direction. Their eyes met and Mark smiled. He really does look different. The way his hair comes over his forehead like that... Ashton smiled back, giving Mark a little stunned half-wave.
"So, is chess a big deal here?" asked Freddie.
"Nah," said Simmons. "Tudor's a cricket school."
"Yeah," said Upton. "We win all kinds of championships. Mostly my doing."
"Your doing?" asked Ashton, "You don't even know which end of a bat to hold."
"Look here. If I didn't tell the other team about their mothers being whores and all that, plus make the crowd get behind you at the games, you lot wouldn't get anything done on the field. I'm a psychological warfare expert."
"So Ashton is on the team?" asked Freddie.
"Ash here is our best junior bowler," said Simmons.
"Not anymore," said Ashton. "I'm not goin' to be playing any cricket for a while."
"You're not playing cricket?" asked Mark. He stood at Ashton's elbow, dinner tray in hand.
"Oh. Hello, Mark."
"How come you're not playing?"
"That thing from last year?
"I heard about it, but I didn't realize how-"
Hit from behind, Mark lurched towards Ashton, stopping himself in time to prevent a collision, but spilling soup on Ashton's jacket and trousers. Some of it splashed on Nevin.
"Stop blocking traffic, dickhead," said James Harrick, going past. Harrick was a fifth former and big for his age. They were quiet until he was gone.
"Don't worry about the mess," said Ashton to Mark, who looked mortified.
"Why don't you sit with us, Mark?" said Simmons.
"Yes," said Ashton. "Hey, Nevin."
Nevin was wiping at the wet spot on his arm, staring fixedly at Harrick's back.
"Nevin!" Ashton called again.
"Move over and let Mark sit."
Nevin seemed surprised at the request. He looked up at Mark and then slid into the next chair.
"Let me help you clean up," said Mark to Ashton. He reached for a napkin. "I'm really sorry about this."
"Probably for the best that you lost your dinner, anyway," said Upton. "The food here is shit."
"What are you talking about?" asked Simmons. "I think this food is pretty good."
"That's 'cause your mother can't cook."
"Like yours can? Her idea of seasoning the food is telling the maid to go easy on the oregano."
Ashton tuned the argument out.
"So how was your summer, Mark?"
"Pretty good. We spent a couple of weeks in Barbados."
"Did you go on the Jolly Roger cruise they have?"
"Yeah. I didn't like it. It didn't have anything to do with pirates or history. Just an excuse for the grown ups to get drunk, really."
"Well, you could've gotten drunk too, you know," said Ashton.
"What're you talking about? I'm fourteen."
"They don't check on that stuff down there. They give out rum punch like it's fruit juice."
"Well, I don't drink." Mark seemed offended.
"Of course not," said Ashton, "None of us do. But this was one of those once in a while opportunities for you to have a little fun without consequences. You should have taken it."
"Everything's got consequences, Ash."
Since he could not think of a comeback, Ashton stayed quiet.
"What about you?" asked Mark. "Where'd you visit?"
Ashton's grasped his fork a little tighter. "Kingston General Hospital," he said, managing to keep his voice casual. "Thirty-three days."
"Oh damn," said Mark, choking. "I forgot. Sorry."
"Don't be sorry. You didn't put me there."
"Yes, but I shouldn't have reminded you about it. You must have been miserable that whole time."
"I slept for the most part, actually. It wasn't bad. Plus I had a private room with a telly and there was cricket on-"
"Oh man, the Ashes!" said Mark. "Hasn't it been amazing?" Thinking of that summer's current cricket series seemed to make him glow. "I've felt like I'm dreaming all summer long."
"I know exactly what you mean," said Ashton putting his hand on Mark's shoulder. "I know it's a great team, but when they actually came back to beat Australia after the first test, it was like I was living in an alternate dimension or something, it felt so unreal."
Unreal was the feel of Mark's shoulder under his hand. Like Ashton had a hold of some treasure he was only noticing for the first time. The boys looked at each other with silly smiles on their faces. Mark's eyes seemed to sparkle, blue as icebergs, with the same suggestion of hidden depth.
"Flintoff's been amazing," said Mark.
"Yeah. Good ol' Freddie."
"What?" asked the new kid, looking up from his food suddenly. "What'd I do?"
"Not you," said Ashton with a laugh. "The real Freddie--Freddie Flintoff."
"The new king of English cricket," added Mark.
"And this weekend, he's goin' to help us finish off those bastard convicts!"
"What's he mean I'm not the real Freddie?" the new boy asked Simmons.
"It's too bad you can't play now," said Mark to Ashton. "We've got a decent team for the Under Fifteen's this year. You'd have put us over the top."
"I'm sure you'll be fine without me."
They went back to eating.
Even the way he puts his fork in his mouth is cute. How come I never noticed all this before?
"How long 'til you can play?" asked Mark. "Did the doctors say?"
"Well, there isn't much damage so it's just a matter of getting back my strength. They gave me exercises to do."
"Will you be doing debate at least? I've heard that you're good."
"Oh yeah. Nothing wrong with my mouth. And I still love to argue."
"You know, I go running most mornings," said Mark, sitting back. "I could use a partner. You wouldn't have to do the whole distance with me, just keep me company and-"
"I'll do it if you wake me up."
"What are you talking about?" said Nevin. "You hate mornings. You're never out of bed before nine unless you're forced."
"Well, maybe having a near death experience has awakened me to the beauty of life and the world. Did you consider that?"
"I've considered a lot of possibilities," said Nevin. "Most of them involve you having a cracked egg for a brain."
"Never mind him, Mark. He's still waiting for his pubes to grow in and it makes him irritable."
Nevin muttered under his breath.
"So, five-thirty sound okay?" asked Mark.
"Five-thirty it is."
Nevin was pretty steamed as he brushed his teeth. He had spent fifteen minutes working on the soup stain. Only a rigorous examination could find it now, but in Nevin's mind it was a permanent presence. 'That damned Harrick,' he thought. 'I'd love to stick him on an island with nothing but wild pigs and see if he can make it among his own kind.'
Ashton would, no doubt, make some comment about Nevin indulging his fascist tendencies if he knew what Nevin was thinking. 'Well, fuck Ashton.'
Ashton was not in their room just then. He was still in Upton's room, across the hall. After dinner most of the boys on their floor had ended up there to trade stories about the holidays. Freddie had been pretty quiet, probably because he was new. He seemed to just absorb all he heard like a credulous sponge. Nevin had stopped in for a little while, but had left early. He had not said much either; his summer of hanging out by himself did not make for enthralling tales of carefree fun. When Nevin had left Upton's room, Ashton had been sliding right back into life at Tudor Academy, as if his absence had been just another one of a hundred normal vacations.
'Bloody Harrick.' Nevin reached for the floss and ripped a length off. 'How can he get away with acting like that?'
Jones had seen, Nevin knew, but like most of the older teachers seemed to take such incidents as something for the kids to sort out among themselves. The prefects had noticed too, but none of them wanted to get in Harrick's face over something that could more easily be dismissed as acceptable social friction.
Not that they had thought it was all right. In fact, many of the older boys had borne the same look of disquiet that the younger boys had. Duncan O'Shea, one of the new Lower Sixers, even seemed to smoulder with disgust as he looked on.
'But they still didn't do anything.'
If only he could find a way to get back at Harrick. He put it out of his mind.
'Besides, something's wrong with Ash.'
Ashton still talked like Ashton and he still acted like Ashton, but he did not seem like Ashton.
'Well, what do you expect? He's been through a hell of a lot, whatever he might say.'
Ashton came through the door right then. "Room service," he warbled. "Someone order a slut?"
In the mirror, Nevin watched Ashton toss his jacket onto a chair and walk up behind him, loosening his tie. Nevin continued flossing. Ashton's arms encircled his waist and Nevin felt his friend gently bite his shoulder just inside his pajama neckline. Ashton's hands stroked up Nevin's sides and over his chest as he traded sharp teeth for soft tongue on Nevin's shoulder. Immediately, Nevin was hard and finding it difficult to concentrate.
"Two minutes," said Nevin. "Let me finish here."
Ashton grabbed Nevin's ear between his lips and slid his hands down his thighs. He then pressed himself against Nevin's entire body. Nevin felt Ashton grab hold of his hips and unhurriedly grind against his ass, his hard dick pressing against Nevin's crack through pants and pajamas.
"Man, I missed this ass," Ashton said, his lips against Nevin's ear.
Nevin found it impossible to keep flossing now, he was so horny. He elbowed Ashton in the ribs. "I said let me finish."
"Sod that," said Ashton and dragged him towards his bed.
The rooms at The Tudor Academy for Boys were fairly Spartan: a polished hardwood floor with a few mats; a sink near the door; two functional desks; the beds against the far corners under two square windows.
Nevin sat on his bed, leaned back and gave in to his raging desire. He let Ashton unbutton his pajama shirt and toss it away. Ashton leaned in and pressed his lips right into Nevin's chest. With quick, short strokes of his tongue, Ashton went after Nevin's nipples. His practiced hands undid the elastic cord at Nevin's waist.
Ashton tugged the pajamas down under Nevin's ass and the boy raised it to let them pass, falling back onto his elbows. With the pajamas gone, Nevin felt Ashton's fingertips trail slowly down his hips, sending spasms all the way down to his toes.
And to think he had almost lost this. Lost this touching. Lost this intimacy. Lost his best friend.
Nevin held Ashton at the back of the head and pressed the boy to his stomach, stroking his hair. A feeling of profound gratefulness washed over him.
"Getting eager?" asked Ashton.
"Just waiting for you to make this interesting," Nevin said with mock boredom.
With a quick movement, Ashton upended him, sending Nevin onto his back with his legs held over him. Ashton slobbered over his ass pucker, tongue busy as ever.
"Now that's more like it," said Nevin.
The tongue seemed to lengthen, Ashton dragging it along under, and then over, Nevin's balls. At the base of his nail-hard dick, Ashton grabbed Nevin with his lips. Nevin felt him slide along to the head and then take it gently into his mouth.
Ah, the good part. Ash was so talented at this too. From the looks of things he had missed the sex a lot, so eager to get going that he had not even taken his clothes off.
Using one hand to hold Nevin's shaft while he licked and sucked, Ashton caressed Nevin's sides and thighs with the other in small, light touches that gave Nevin goosebumps. Occasionally, Ashton slid his fingertips along the insides of Nevin's buttocks and over his tender hole.
As he closed in on his orgasm, Nevin's grip tightened on his sheets; the same sheets he had been so particular about earlier. Now, he did not care. He was floating on a cloud of pleasure, a hot, wet mouth and an enthusiastic tongue driving his sensations along.
"Ooohhh. Aaaaahhhh... Oh, Ash."
With Ashton's lips wrapped tightly around the head of his cock, the electric thrills of climax ripped through Nevin's body. His legs and torso tightened deliciously as he stiffened one- two- three- four times then lost count, his best friend keeping up the insistent suction all the way through.
Nevin's body slowly went slack, sinking into the storm-tossed sheets of his bed. He soaked in the feelings of release and freedom that flowed through his stomach and brain. As his mind cleared, he realized Ashton was already back on his side of the room hanging his tie on a bedpost.
"What? You're done?" asked Nevin.
"Well, if that wasn't enough for you, I can keep-"
"I meant, don't you want me to do you too?"
"Nah, that's fine."
"You're usually after me to do you as soon as you're done with me. What do you mean, 'that's fine'?"
"I'm not in the mood." Ashton sounded irritated.
Naked, Nevin hopped over to Ashton and fondled his crotch.
"Oh come on. You know I'll do it good. Besides, I won't feel right until I give you one back."
"Very well." Ashton unzipped his flies, pulled his semi-hard dick out and stood there with his hands at his sides.
"What's this all about?" asked Nevin drawing back. "We're not in some back alley, you know. Arenít you going to take your clothes off?"
"You goin' to suck me or not?"
"I can't do it properly like this. I enjoy playing with all the bits and pieces of you too, you know."
"I'll take that as a no," said Ashton, taking off his shoes.
"Well, if you're going to be all weird about it..."
"I told you that you don't have to do it. Just let me go to sleep."
"This is stupid," said Nevin. He returned to bed and put his clothes back on. Ashton turned off the lights.
Nevin pondered Ashton's behaviour while he listened to his friend change into his sleeping clothes and then slide under his blanket. They lay there in their separate beds, the darkness settling between them.
"Is it the scars?" asked Nevin, after a few minutes.
"But I've seen them. Hell, half the school's seen them. You were showing them off like combat decorations all through dinner."
"This is different."
"You bet it's different. I'm your best friend."
"It's just that this is sex..."
"I've never felt so unsexy in all my life."
Ashton's words set Nevin's brain clicking. He realized what had been bothering him about Ashton all day. That core of self belief that was Ashton--that core was still there, ticking away out of habit, but it was looser, less vibrant. Whatever was happening to Ashton had drained the well of self image that his confidence fed off of.
Nevin went over and sat on the edge of Ashton's bed, his hand on the boy's turned shoulder.
"Wha-?" Ashton faced Nevin.
"Relax. I'm not here for that. Just close your eyes and trust me."
Nevin pressed his friend back into his mattress, taking a little time to admire the smooth, strong face below him, just visible in the dark. He slid a hand under Ashton's Linkin Park T-shirt, caressing the strange papery skin of the scars on his torso. Ashton took a deep breath. Nevin leaned in and pressed his lips to Ashton's.
"Cut that out," sputtered Ashton. "You know we don't do kissing stuff."
That was true. In the early days of their sexual experimentation, Nevin and Ashton had tried kissing and enjoyed it, but the romantic connotations had clashed with the recreational nature of their sex, so they had made an unspoken agreement to set it aside. (They had also agreed to preserve their 'analinity', as they called it.)
"Forget about that," Nevin told Ashton. "Just for a little while, alright?"
Again, Nevin kissed Ashton, stroking his hair and holding his body close. He slid his tongue tenderly across Ashton's lips, then between them, slowly reaching out to his friend. Ashton responded slowly at first then more definitely, hugging Nevin to him and playing his own tongue against Nevin's. When he was sure that Ashton had surrendered to the emotions of the kiss, Nevin sat up and looked down at his dazed friend.
"You're the sexiest bloke I know," he said. "Don't ever doubt that."
Then he kissed Ashton on the forehead and went back to bed.
A low, threatening hum. Damp mist swirling in the dark. The sweet tinkle of broken glass. Searing brightness. (Only the hum was really the sound of his own screaming and the mist was choking smoke). Metal crunched and flames rose at his face-
Ashton shook off the nightmare as he sat up. Same damned shit every night. He headed for the washrooms down the hall. In the distance, the drone of the ventilator reminded him of the humming from his dream. At the urinal, he unloaded his half-filled bladder. He ran the water cold at the sink, gathering and then splashing it over his face. The lights flickered and then continued flickering.
The air fan really did sound like the dream hum now. Weird. Ashton blinked the wet out of his eyes and stared at himself in the mirror. He spun around when he heard a loud bang inside one of the stalls.
Ragged breathing from behind the door.
"Who's in there?" Ashton asked.
"Ashton..." It was Simmons, his voice dull.
"Simmons? You alright in there?"
"Upton told you the food was crap, you know. I'm not surprised you got the shits."
A fit of coughing. "Ashton, I need you."
The toilet door swung inward at Ashton's touch. Simmons was slumped in the corner, naked and unnaturally pale. Ashton knelt over him. The acrid stench of stale cum rose up off of Simmons.
"What the hell happened to--"
Ashton caught sight of Simmons' eyes. They were without irises, gone completely milk white.
"I've got to have you, Ashton." Simmons's breath was heavy with the semen smell. In fact, there seemed to be a trickle of the white stuff down the corners of his mouth. Simmons grabbed Ashton by the crotch, gaining a firm hold on his balls.
"Get your hands off me, man."
"Give it to me." The grip tightened and pain shot up Ashton's stomach.
Ashton slapped hard at Simmons's arm and the whole thing tore off at the shoulder, white stuff squirting where blood should have come. Ashton jumped back, the dismembered arm hanging between his legs as it kept its grip. He pried the fingers off and backed out of the bathroom into the now darkened hallway. There was heavy breathing all around him. Grunts. Growls. Low moans of "Ashton."
Time for some judo tactics. Attack when they least expect it. Get close when they expect you to back off.
Ashton shouldered right into the greatest concentration of sounds, slamming through a crowd of faces he recognized--Mostly other Third Formers, but also some younger and older boys, even Pilsich, the floor master--all with the same dull, all-white eyes and the semen reek. He scampered into the dark, down the hall. They were after him, the rumble of slow feet telling of their approach. There were more of them down the main stairwell. His way out of the building was blocked. Searching for an open window, he dashed into the study lounge and dragged a table to hold the door shut. He was looking around the darkened room for some chairs to bolster his defense when an arm grabbed his shoulder from behind.
"Ashton." A sharp whisper.
He spun around with his arm raised and only just stopped himself from bringing it down. It was Mark, his blue eyes like beacons in the shadows.
"Mark." Ashton hugged the boy. "You're normal. Great!"
"You can't run from them, Ashton."
The crowd was at the door, banging on it.
"Nonsense." Ashton barely paid attention to what Mark had said. "I'll keep them back long enough for you break that window open. Use the chair."
"They need to have you, Ashton."
Mark's eyes seemed to be literally aflame now, casting a surreal blue light. He had also grown fangs and demon's horns. From the hallway, the banging continued, steady and louder.
In the other bed, Nevin was dreaming of cheese and firecrackers. Strange, but true.
When Ashton awoke--for real this time--the knocking turned out to be Mark, ready for their morning run.
"Gimme a minute," he yelled at the door.
Nevin, always a heavy sleeper, barely stirred.
Ashton pulled on his track pants.
It's bad enough that I have nightmares about the crash every night. Now I've got sex zombies on my case.
He woke up slowly despite the cool morning air as he and Mark headed for the playfield.
"You sleep alright?" asked Mark.
"Hmm?" Ashton had been busy admiring Mark out of the corner of his eye. Mark was a bit shorter, slim without being skinny, and moved with a confident grace. His dark hair had a permanently tussled look.
"You seem a bit out of it," said Mark.
"Nightmares," said Ashton. Shit. I can't believe I told him that.
"Oh." Mark smiled, a smile that seemed full of an easy satisfaction with life. "I thought maybe you'd been drinking."
Ashton laughed. "I was just making a point about opportunity with that rum punch comment, dimwit. I'm not an alcoholic."
They had reached the field.
"Let's warm up first," said Mark. He took charge, leading Ashton through a long set of stretches and bends. At the end of that, Ashton was already tired. Then they started jogging--back and forth across the width of the field, rather than in circuits. Ashton ran out of breath quickly, though not as easily as he had been expecting. Then Mark broke into a sprint. Ashton matched him, light headed and wheezing. Just when Ashton was sure he would have to quit, Mark slowed to a walk and said, "We'll just do some more stretches to stay loose and then we're done."
That wasn't half bad. I managed to stay with him through his whole routine.
"How was that for you?" asked Mark on the way back to the dormitory.
"Pretty good." Ashton still had not caught his breath. "I'm glad you got me out here."
"Good," said Mark, putting an arm around Ashton's shoulder. "Tomorrow we'll step it up just a little."
"You mean you were taking it easy?"
"Well, yeah. I don't want to scare you off."
They walked in silence, Ashton reveling in the closeness. In a minute, they passed Colby and Stewart, going out for their own run. An image from his dream, of the same two boys as dead-eyed freaks, flashed in Ashton's mind.
"Don't mention the nightmares to anyone. Especially Nevin."
Nevin watered his thyme plant with a toy water-can first thing after he woke. He had named the plant Beyonce, despite Ashton's protests.
"What is the homosexual obsession with divas all about anyways?" Ashton had asked back in Spring.
"I can't name my plant after someone I admire?"
"It's just feeding stereotypes: gay men worshipping Madonna and Barbra Streisand and all that." Ashton's half of the room was covered in posters of men, most half naked. Sportsmen like Michael Owen, Kimi Raikonnen and Dmitri Saitchev, so the casual observer took it for nothing more than a heroes' gallery, but it was pure masturbation fuel.
"What makes you think it's a gay thing?" asked Nevin. "I just like her music."
"Even so, only a gay boy would name a plant after Beyonce. A straight bloke would have gotten that Pepsi pin-up of her in the gladiator outfit."
"Uncle Robin thinks it's a great name."
"He's just trying to weasel his way into your pants."
"Ha. You're just jealous that you don't have a cool gay uncle. Besides, the way I hear it, you were trying to get into his pants when he was here at Christmas."
"That," said Ashton indignantly, "was an accident."
Realizing that it would annoy Ashton had only made Nevin more determined to be sure that Beyonce thrived. He had nursed the plant through a difficult summer and was fastidious in caring for 'her'.
As Nevin finished and put down the watering can, Ashton came in from the shower, wearing only a towel, his hair still wet.
"Good Lord, you actually did it," said Nevin. "I suppose a cute boy is the only thing that could possibly have gotten you out of bed this early."
"Don't blaspheme." As the core of Tudor's unofficial atheists' club, Nevin and Ashton avoided calling on deities.
"I've found God," Nevin said theatrically. "You getting up at dawn is the miracle that has convinced me of his power."
"I think you need convincing of my power," said Ashton, who then lunged for Nevin, the towel falling to the floor. Nevin squealed--instantly hating the sound--and jumped onto the bed to avoid his naked friend's assault.
"Help! Help! Rape!" he yelled.
"Rape?" Ashton made a grab for Nevin's legs. "Who'd want to rape your skinny behind?"
Nevin leapt onto his desk and then over the chair. He flew out the door, where a clearly astonished Mark stood. Behind Nevin, Ashton was saying, "I need a real man to satisfy my big hungry co-"
Nevin smiled and went off for breakfast.
Ashton caught sight of Mark and stopped mid-sentence. All he could do was stare, unable to get his panicked thoughts together. Mark just stood there, leaning against the door frame with an amused smile on his face.
"Mark," Ashton said, regaining some composure. "Been there long?"
"I got here in time to hear that Nevin had found God."
"Oh." Good, then he didn't hear Nevin refer to him as a cute boy. He was more than cute. Standing there in his blue blazer and silver tie, Mark was just about perfect.
"Um, Ashton?" said Mark.
Mark pointed at Ashton's crotch.
"I'm naked," Ashton said, looking down in shock.
Ashton looked up at Mark. "I'm naked," he said again.
"We've already established that," said Mark, clearly tickled. "Question is, are you going to be coming down to breakfast like that?"
The thought of sitting down to toast and tea with the cold dining hall chair against his bare butt kick-started Ashton's mind. Turning, he bent to retrieve the towel.
Oh no! I just mooned him. He must have seen right up to the back of my teeth with that one.
"You want to come in?" Ashton asked, when he was decent.
"Is it safe?" Mark smiled. "I'm not sure, considering what you tried to do to Nevin."
"Oh, forget him. He provoked me."
"So I'm only in danger if I get you excited?" asked Mark, walking past Ashton.
Is he flirting with me?
"I didn't realize you were into surfing," said Mark, admiring a poster of a slim-bodied blond taming a wave while wearing nothing but spandex shorts.
"Um, yeah," said Ashton. "It's more of an ambition than anything else, really."
"I had a terrific few days on the North Coast when we were in Barbados. It's an amazing beach. You know they have international surfing competitions there?"
"Actually, I did."
Mark turned away from the wall to face Ashton. "I came by to see if you were up for a game of chess later tonight."
"After dinner, in the study lounge?" Mark asked.
Not that place again.
"How about right here?"
Nevin buttered his muffin with careful strokes. Across from him, Upton said, "You hear they hired Osama to be our gardener?"
"He looks nothing like Osama," said Simmons.
"Tall dark-skinned bloke; big beard; turban. That sounds like bin Laden to me."
"You're practically being racist."
"There you go again, getting all sensitive over me making a joke."
"It's not funny. It's like saying all Chinese people look alike."
"If you took the time to observe people as individuals," said Simmons, "you'd have noticed that this bloke has a neatly groomed beard for one thing. Bin Laden has that stringy cave beard look."
"I never said he literally was bin Laden, you jackass."
"I know, but I'm pointing out that even the comparison is unfair, just-"
"I don't like him," said Freddie.
"Why not?" asked Nevin.
"He looks at me weird. At all of us. Real hard. Like he thinks we need spankings."
"Oh, he's just Nevin's type then," said Upton. Nevin kicked his shin.
"What do you mean?" asked Freddie.
"Nothing," said Simmons. "Just another lame Upton attempt at a joke."
Across the hall, Nevin caught sight of Harrick, who was laughing behind a plateful of scrambled eggs. Nevin's anger over the jacket started bubbling.
"Where's Ashton?" asked Freddie.
"Pigstick probably has him on some kind of duty," said Simmons.
Pigstick was their name for Mister Pilsich.
"Yeah," said Upton, miming a blowjob, "duty."
"Don't be crude, Upton."
"Hey don't blame me. It's not my fault our parents sent us to a school full of pervs."
"Mister Pilsich likes boys?" asked Freddie.
"I doubt it," said Simmons.
"He certainly does," said Upton. "Every time I bend over, his crotch tents up."
"You bend over in front of him a lot, Upton?" asked Nevin, still staring off at Harrick.
"Hey," Upton shrugged, going along with the joke, "if it'll get me a better grade, then why not?"
"I like Mister Sheehan," said Freddie.
"Who's that?" asked Simmons. "A new teacher?"
"I think he means the security guard," said Upton.
"Yeah," said Nevin. "Stay away from him, Freddie."
"Stay away from who?" asked Ashton taking a seat, along with Mark.
"Sheehan, the security guard," said Nevin. Harrick's eyes flickered in his direction and Nevin looked away.
"I've heard bad stories about him," said Simmons. "All joking aside, I wouldn't be surprised if he actually is a kiddy fiddler."
"He'd never get away with something like that," said Mark, smiling. "Tudor isn't a Catholic school, you know."
"Wait a minute, aren't you Catholic, Mark?" asked Simmons.
"Yeah. Doesn't mean I can't joke about it."
"What if the kid was too ashamed to report it, though?" asked Ashton.
"Did Sheehan touch you, Freddie?" asked Upton, leeringly.
"No," said Freddie, "and I'm starting to think you chaps are just pulling my leg."
"I wouldn't joke about this," said Simmons.
"But, he seems really nice," said Freddie. "Like an uncle. He asked me about my family and we talked about all sorts of things."
"Grooming," said Nevin idly.
"What?" asked Freddie.
Simmons said, "When a perv gets to know his target and earn their trust--it's called grooming."
Freddie's anger got loose. "So you're saying the only reason someone would talk to me is if they wanted my body? They couldn't possibly be interested in just being my friend?"
"Relax, Freddie," said Ashton. "We're just saying to be careful, alright?"
Done with breakfast, Nevin headed off to the washroom. Halfway through his piss, Harrick walked in.
"You keep staring at me, you little shit," said Harrick, pushing Nevin's chest into the wall and holding him there. "What's your problem?"
Nose in the tile, Nevin concentrated on keeping his piss from spilling.
"I've heard rumours about you," said Harrick in his ear. "They say you're a pansy. You better stop eyeing me up. I don't go in for any of that queer business."
Then he left.
Nevin was ten minutes late to class, delayed by having to clean his own urine off his shoes.
Cricket practice started at three-thirty that afternoon. Ashton showed up to take a look. Tudor had a separate field just for cricket, the fresh-cut grass as green as a billiard table. Nevin had declined to join Ashton, citing some vague 'thing' he had to take care of.
Mark was like a panther in the field, running low and pouncing on the ball anytime it was hit near him. He took a couple of sharp catches too, one while diving forward.
He's got inhuman reflexes. The hand-eye coordination was even more apparent when Mark batted. His technique was quite ragged, with awkward looking angles, but he played late--detecting any deviation in the ball's path and striking it with the unerring accuracy born of excellent eyesight.
When he got a break, Mark came over. He asked, "You miss it much?"
"Tons," Ashton confessed. "More than I thought I would."
"Don't fret." Mark patted Ashton on the shoulder. "I'll have my chance to crash your bowling all over the field before long, I'm sure."
"The only thing you'll be seeing all over the field when I bowl to you is your off stump."
"Tell you what then," said Mark. "Get well soon, and we'll settle this. Man to man."
'Man to man'? Is that some kind of innuendo? Does he remember what I said this morning about needing a man to- Nah, I'm just reading too much into this whole thing.
Ashton watched Mark's pert ass as the boy walked back to the practice session.
WAS he flirting with me?
"You!" said Duncan when he opened his door. "You've been following me around all afternoon."
"Yes," said Nevin. "Can I come in?"
"Tell me why you've been following me."
"I wanted to make sure you were the kind of person who'd help me."
"Help you with what?"
"Can I come in?"
Duncan frowned then shrugged and moved away from the door. Nevin followed him into the room. The fifth and sixth former rooms were smaller, but there were no roommates to contend with so it seemed quite spacious. Duncan shut the door. On seeing the poster on Duncan's wall, Nevin exclaimed, "Oh, I didn't realize you were into surfing."
"Um, yeah," said Duncan, looking embarrassed. "Mostly when I'm on holiday. Look, what's all this about?"
"I need your help. From what I saw of you this afternoon, I think you'd be willing."
"And you decided I'm your man after just one afternoon of observation?"
Nevin had been watching Duncan O'Shea's interactions with people. He had watched Duncan's practice game on the football field, even peeked in the windows of the gymnasium shower afterward. At dinner, he had observed him keenly. He was sure he had learned quite a bit about the broad-shouldered boy with the auburn curls whose room he was now in, but he kept it to himself.
"Actually I chose you for another reason," said Nevin.
"You used to live in three-three-eight."
"That's Harrick's room now."
"Ah, this is about him."
"I want to trash his room."
"Why do you need me?" asked Duncan. He took a seat on the bed and offered the chair to Nevin.
"I know you upperclassmen make duplicate keys for your rooms."
"That's against regs."
"Yes, but no one wants to lose Tudor property then have to pay for it. You use duplicates."
"You think I have a key to Harrick's room?"
"Lend it to me. I'll bring it back when I'm done."
"Don't you think Harrick knows that I lived there last year? He'll be screaming at me the minute he sees what you've done."
"Three things," said Nevin, leaning forward. "One: you're as strong as he is, so he won't want to pick a fight. Two: you're too much of a straight arrow. I checked: you're the frontrunner to be the new head prefect. No one would suspect you of cutting an illegal spare key."
"Yes, well I'm smarter than most."
"What's three?" asked Duncan, sitting back in with his head cocked.
"You've never had a run in with him before. He's got no reason to suspect you."
Duncan scooped a football off the floor with his toe and bounced it on his knee. "You're not as smart as you think."
"What do you mean?" asked Nevin, his eyes following the bouncing ball.
"If I've got no quarrel with Harrick, then I've got no reason to help you."
Nevin looked straight at Duncan. It was time to lay it all out. He said, "I think you want to help me. I saw you last night when Harrick knocked over that kid's food. I saw your eyes. My Uncle Robin is a policeman. Your eyes looked just like his. That same mix of outrage and shame. This afternoon when Rollins went after that other kid for the foul, you calmed him down. I've seen lots of little things like that."
Duncan seemed hypnotized. Nevin continued talking. "You like things to be in balance. You also know that nobody's going to call Harrick to account for all the bullying he's done to me and the other kids. I think you want him to get paid back."
Duncan stared at Nevin for a second then said, "Planning to be a psychologist one day?"
"Yes, actually. Either that or a horticulturalist."
"You know," said Nevin. "Houseplants."
Duncan looked dazed for a moment, then shook it off. "Alright, look, I'm not promising anything, but I'll think about all this. I'll let you know tomorrow."
Ashton barely paid any attention when Nevin got back to their room. He was too busy losing his third chess game of the night.
How am I supposed to concentrate, when all I can think about is how hot Mark looks?
Of course, there was more to it than that. Mark had a gift for coordinating his pieces. They moved like parts of one big machine, hammering here and piercing there, to scuttle Ashton's defense.
Five moves later it was checkmate. Mark started setting the pieces back up again.
"Don't you ever get tired of beating me?" Ashton asked.
"Winning is always fun." Mark looked up at him. "You getting frustrated?"
"A little. How about we put off the rest of my suffering 'til tomorrow night?"
"Sure. I can wait." He rose to go.
"Five-thirty tomorrow?" asked Ashton.
"Right. G'night Ashton." Mark slapped Nevin lightly on the back. "G'night Nevin. Don't trust this bastard--sleep with your back to the wall."
As Mark left, Nevin said, "Yeah, but then he'll take advantage of my mouth."
Nevin did indeed let Ashton take advantage of his mouth that night. Or was it Nevin taking advantage of Ashton's dick? They melted into each other, Ashton's stiff rod in his mouth like a talisman of power.
The unfamiliarity of Ashton's burn-scarred stomach and thighs under his hands did not last long. Soon he was conscious only of the fact that he was touching his friend, bringing him pleasure. He caressed the cock head with his lips as Ashton spurted his load. When it was all over, Nevin kissed the tip, then crawled up the bed and fell asleep on Ashton's shoulder.
Mark's knocking awakened Ashton from a dream where a growling lion was stalking him across a flimsy bamboo bridge. He found Nevin draped across his stomach, snoring.
Fucking awful sound. And he keeps insisting he doesn't do it, too.
He slid out from under Nevin's weight, a familiar maneuver since the boys often shared a bed--usually when Nevin felt a need for closeness.
Ashton considered his dream.
Well, at least it's a change from the usual vehicular carnage.
A few minutes later, on the way out of the dormitory, he and Mark passed Pilsich. The teacher, already dressed in his suit, said, "Mister Sinclair..."
"Yes?" said Ashton.
"You were late to breakfast yesterday. See to it that your morning exertions do not impede your timely arrival today."
"I'll do my best to make sure you don't see me sneaking in, sir."
"Are you being insolent, young man?"
"Completely solent, sir," said Ashton and moved off, dragging Mark with him.
Under his breath, Ashton said, "Pigstick."
"What was that?" said Pilsich, whirling.
"Nothing, sir. Clearing my throat."
Outside, Mark said, "I can't believe you talked to him that way. Most of the boys are terrified of him. He gives terrible detentions, even floggings sometimes."
"I've got nothing to fear as long as I don't out and out insult him or spit at him or something."
"Yeah, but why provoke him?"
"Because it's fun. He's a pompous git who needs the air taken out of him every now and again. Besides, he hates me."
"Yeah. We got into it over my being an atheist my first year here. He was recruiting for the bible club. He said that no atheist could be a worthy British subject."
"What'd you do?" asked Mark, starting his warm-up stretches.
"I reminded him that the poet Shelley had been an atheist. Douglas Adams too."
"Is Adams that chap who wrote the Hitchhiker's Guide?"
"An atheist? Didn't know that."
They ran two extra lengths of the field that morning. At the end of it Ashton felt drained, but in a good way. Mark put his arm around Ashton's shoulders as they walked back. The morning mist around them was lifting slowly.
"So you don't follow any religion?" Mark asked.
"I think religion is a poison on the land."
"And you don't believe in God?"
"God is a poison in the mind."
Mark smiled. "You get very poetic when you're bitter."
"I'm not bitter."
"I think you are. I think you've seen all the bad things done in the name of religion and written it off as a tool for power-hungry men. I think you see God as a weight that holds back the human mind from the freedom to explore ideas and from a true appreciation of our place in the universe. I think all that makes you resentful."
"That's amazing," said Ashton, stopping to look at Mark. "How could you tell all that? We've never even talked religion before."
"That's why you'll always lose to me at chess. I can read you like a book."
"Yes, but how?"
"I'm serious," said Mark. He started walking again. "Genuine, Harry Potter, King Arthur, Freddie Mercury magic."
"What do you know about Freddie Mercury?" asked Ashton, keeping pace.
"Only that he sang for the greatest band of the last thirty years."
"I can't believe you're a Queen fan," said Ashton. "I've got all their albums on my computer. If you want any of my stuff, I'll give it to you."
"Thanks, but I've got all their music already."
"But I'll come over and we can listen together. What's your favourite song?" asked Mark.
"I like 'Bicycle Race' and 'I'm Going Slightly Mad'."
"You're way past slightly, I think."
"Wanker," said Ashton. "How come I don't see you at bible club, Catholic boy?"
"I keep my bible in my nightstand. Along with my magic wand and a stack of Queen CD's."
"I still don't know how you analyzed me like that," said Ashton, shaking his head.
"Actually," said Mark, "Nevin told me all that stuff about you yesterday. We've got the same art class."
Mark ran, and was through the door before Ashton could hit him.
Duncan came to Nevin in the library during a study period. He looked around twice, then sat at the table just behind Nevin, facing away from him, the backs of their chairs touching.
"I'll help you on one condition," said Duncan.
"I'm going to be coming along with you."
"What on Earth for?" asked Nevin, turning around in surprise.
"Don't look at me!"
Nevin snapped back into position.
Duncan said, "I want to make sure you don't get caught and I want to make sure you don't take it too far."
Trashing was an old, though dying, tradition at Tudor. Nevin knew that in his Uncle Robin's day, when the rooms had not had locks, they had been a daily occurrence. Most were simple pranks played on friends--an upturned bed, tumbled books, that sort of thing. Some were nasty. Uncle Robin had told him of one where they had smeared peanut butter on every piece of underwear one boy owned and another when they had soaked a bed in their piss.
"I'm not very proud of those things," Uncle Robin had told Nevin.
"Well, knowing you, I'm sure they deserved it," Nevin had assured him.
"Actually, I was a lot different then--trying to prove what a big man I was. Those poor sods were just looking to stay low and make it through school without getting into trouble. I took that as a sign of weakness."
"You're telling me you were a bully at school?"
Nevin shared none of Uncle Robin's guilt over what he had in mind for Harrick. "How far is too far?" he asked Duncan.
"I don't want you doing anything that'll get the teachers involved."
"We'll do this tonight," said Duncan. "Harrick's got a scout meeting at eight. Meet me in my room."