'Okay, Rupe, why are you here in Highgate? And make this convincing.'
Rupert smiled at Tommy. 'I might ask you the same question, Thomas. But I've already seen Gavin and Max, so I knew you were here.'
'Are you a friend of Andy's and Matt's?'
'I've never met them before today. No, I came with my cousin Fritz.'
'So you really are posh.'
'If you say so.'
'Are you going to explain?'
'Certainly. It's simple enough. My great-grandfather was Prince Philip of Murranberg, a member of the Tarlenheim family.'
'You're a prince and a Tarlenheim?'
'No. You're getting ahead of me, Thomas.'
'Call me Tommy.'
Rupert gave a sad look. 'I'd like to, really. But when I open my mouth, Thomas comes out. I think it may be a speech disorder of some sort.'
'Whatever. So you're not a Tarlenheim?'
'No. Prince Philip had three daughters, the eldest of whom was my grandmother. She married a Wemmyss. The title came down to my father through her. It will be my elder brother who will be prince in turn. I believe I may be a count or something of the sort in Rothenia, but in Britain I'm just plain Rupert Giles Hugo Fitzgerald Wemmyss-Underwood.'
Tommy grinned at the thought. 'And you live in Surrey?'
'The parents have Belsager Priory, a largely Victorian pile on the Downs. It came to the princes of Murranberg through Queen Helge of Rothenia, another ancestor.'
'And you're friendly with Prince Franz.'
'Oh yes. Our family links have survived war and dictatorship. I first met Fritz while he was attending the International School in London. Although he was seventeen at the time and I was not even a teenager, we got on rather well. Of course most people get on well with dear Fritz. He's a friendly soul.'
'I look forward to meeting him. Did you know that Gavin and Fritz have a history?'
'Really? I had no idea. It was quite a surprise to find Gavin in the lounge. But I've never been out to Highgate before, or met Sir Andrew. I don't normally move in these circles. Coming here with Fritz was very much a spur-of-the-moment thing, as are many of Fritz's ideas.'
The two young men re-entered the house. Tommy looked around for the guest of honour, of whom there was no sign in the garden lounge. He topped up his glass and found Phil on a window seat talking to another new arrival, a rather handsome dark-haired man who looked vaguely familiar. He was good-looking and stylish enough to make Phil seem a little ordinary, despite Phil being an attractive man. Tommy, being Tommy, was as much taken with the stranger's well-selected clothes as his appearance.
Approaching the pair, Tommy got the distinct idea he was being given a serious once-over from the stranger. Gay, he realised.
'Tommy, this is Davey Skipper.'
The penny dropped with a huge clang. 'Er... wow!' So this was the clubland entrepreneur and pop guru, the manager of Live Action amongst other big acts.
Davey shook Tommy's hand. 'You know Gavin and Max, I hear. You've got good taste in friends.'
'Er... thanks... er, are you the reason we got the backstage passes for Thursday?'
Davey laughed. 'Live Action at Stevenage? Yes. Max asked for the passes and I fixed it up. Those two are keeping their connections quiet, I see. Typical of little Gav. I was in uni with him at Cranwell, did he mention that?'
'No, he didn't. But he does talk a lot about a guy called Henry.'
'Yes, they were quite a thing once. Henry's something else. I had the hots for him too when we were in school.'
'Oh! Hey, do you know Rupert Wemmyss?'
'Rupert? Another Old Medwardinian?'
'Yeah. But he's only eighteen, so you'd have been a bit before his days.'
Davey reflected a little. 'I knew a Philip Wemmyss. He was a couple of years behind me.
'I imagine that's his elder brother. Rupert's a student with us at Stevie. He's around here somewhere. He's Prince Franz's cousin.'
'You live and learn. What a small world. Come sit here and tell me about Stevie, Tommy.'
'Sure, and you can tell me about the secrets known only to stars and celebrities.'
'Fair trade. You're cute, by the way.'
Phil laughed, got up and said he would go find Ben.
Tommy settled next to Davey. The afternoon was becoming very interesting indeed.
Tommy was on his third glass of wine, and his bladder was making known its discomfort. 'Hope you don't mind, Davey, but I gotta go... somewhere. Can you mind my drink?'
'Sure babe. I'll still be here when you come back. Hey, Matt!'
Matthew White came through and took the vacant place next to Davey. With a backward glance at the head-to-head of what were surely two of the most handsome men in Britain, Tommy went in search of the loos. Encountering Gavin in the hall, he grinned broadly. 'I mean, Rupert!'
Gavin laughed. 'What a coincidence!' Then he grew a little more sober. 'Trouble is, in my life, coincidence is usually something more than that.'
'What do you mean?'
'Oh... nothing. I had a long talk with Rupe. He's a lot better today. It was good for him to get away with friends. He's strong. He'll survive Billy. Though when his parents see his tattoo he'll be for it.'
Tommy remembered why he was in the hall. 'Gav? Where's the loo?'
'Go down there towards the kitchen, and it's off to the side on the right. Or if that's engaged, there's another one off the first-floor landing.'
Tommy headed towards the kitchen but found the downstairs loo locked. Getting more anxious, he ran upstairs. The toilet door was open and the light was off in the windowless room, but a familiar figure was standing at the bowl. More or less bursting and perversely determined to startle Max, Tommy pushed in behind the tall man. He kissed him on the neck below the curling golden hair, then reached round to grab and shake a very substantial cock.
'Max, I'm desperate. I need to pee. Can I put it away?'
The man tensed, and Tommy suddenly realised he had made the biggest social gaffe of his life.
'Oh... fuck! You're not Max.'
'Er... no. Will you take your hand off my penis?'
Tommy let go. 'I don't know what to say... oh, Jesus!'
The man turned to reveal a face not unlike Max's, but rather more aristocratic in its lines. It was somewhat marred by a thin, healed scar across the right cheek and bridge of the nose.
The man's frozen face was softened by a slight grin. 'And you have good taste in cocks. Who're you?'
'Er... Thomas... Tommy Entwhistle. Kill me now.'
The man laughed out loud. 'Well, Tommy Entwhistle, the loo is yours. You did say you were bursting?'
Fritz von Tarlenheim edged past Tommy, who caught a noseful of a perfectly wonderful fragrance as he did. Tommy, staring after the man trotting downstairs, was humiliated to hear him chuckling as he went.
Tommy was as flushed as the loo when he had finished what he had to do. He hoped a meteorite would obliterate the house before he had to encounter Fritz again, but the heavens were not being co-operative that day.
Picking up his wine glass from the table where Davey and Matt were still in deep conversation, he smiled at them and moved on. He entered the garden lounge to find that Fritz had settled next to Gavin, leaving him no choice but to take the other chair. Despite sweeping him with a conspiratorial smile, Fritz did not seem inclined to compound Tommy's embarrassment further.
'You okay, Tommy?' Gavin asked.
Tommy cursed his friend's sensitivity. 'Fine. No problem.'
'You just look internal.'
Tommy changed the subject without much finesse. 'Er... what were you two talking about?'
'I was telling Fritzy about Billy Buchko.'
'Billy the Butch Bitch is what Mina and the lesbians call him,' Tommy elaborated. 'They seem unhealthily obsessed with Billy's depredations on their brothers in homosexuality.'
Gavin pursued the point. 'I began by thinking he was just a conscienceless bastard out to screw any arse he could climb up. But there's more.'
'Like what?' Fritz seemed to Tommy to be rather more fascinated by student gossip than the circumstances warranted.
'He's only interested in the vulnerable. He's a great-looking man, Fritz, and he comes over as kind and amusing. He's dangerous, though, and when the mask slips, a little scary.'
'He certainly did something to cousin Rupert. I've never seen him like this. Young Rupert was always a precise and pedantic kid, and Medwardine just buttoned him up further. It was news to me he was gay. I'd always thought he was simply weird... in a sweet sort of way, of course. But his coming out and mad tattoo have turned his character upside down for me. To tell the truth, I quite like the new Rupert. Shouldn't we be grateful to your Bad Billy?'
'Rupe's getting over the shock,' admitted Tommy. 'But he's been in a hell of a mess for days. There are better ways to come out, I think. Fortunately, Gavin seems to have sorted him for the time being.'
Tommy noticed a sharp look at Gavin from Fritz, who then asked the oddest question: 'Did your powers resurface?'
Gavin glanced significantly in Tommy's direction before replying tersely, 'No... or at least I don't think so. Get back to you on that.'
'Powers?' Tommy was intrigued, and it occurred to him that little Gavin Price was a much bigger mystery than Billy Buchko.
'Nothing,' observed Gavin. 'Davey's suggesting we go down to Orton's this evening. It's a mixed night, so you two won't feel pressured.'
Tommy met Fritz's eyes, in which he thought he detected a certain relief. The Rothenian gave a twisted grin. 'So you're not gay? It's just that when you...'
'No. That was a mistake. Honest. I thought you were Max. I like to wind him up.'
'What are you two on about?' asked Gavin.
'Nothing!' responded Tommy, looking up at the ceiling.
'And you grabbed the penis of Franz VI of Tarlenheim, the devastatingly handsome, jet-setting playboyprince, and shook it?' Max convulsed.
'I thought he was you.'
Gavin laughed too when he saw the plaintive look on Tommy's face.
Even Rupert was smiling. 'At least he didn't challenge you to a duel.'
'Or a cock fight,' guffawed Max.
'You three seem to find it amusing instead of acutely embarrassing. You do claim to be my friends. I thought I'd perhaps better remind you of that.'
They had settled into a corner at Orton's and all four Stevie boys were enjoying the big-city club atmosphere. Crowds thronged the streets of Covent Garden, where a queue for Orton's had already formed in front of a squad of dark-clad bouncers. But they had walked right past the security behind the owner and his friend, Fritz von Tarlenheim, while digital cameras flashed at them all along James Street.
Gavin looked around, an appreciative smile lighting his little face. 'This is nice. I've not been here before. It's different from Liberation and Melmoth, Davey's other places in Strelzen. Liberation is big and glitzy: so many floors and such pretty Central European boys.'
'When were you in Rothenia, Gav?' asked Tommy.
'Max and I were there last year. It's where we fell in love. It was very romantic.'
'Strelzen's supposed to be the most beautiful city in Central Europe.'
'Oh it is, Tommy. And it's so laid back and friendly. Lots of my mates live there.'
'This Henry guy who used to be your boyfriend...' Tommy pursued.
'Henry Atwood,' asserted Rupert.
'Yeah. Does he live there?'
'Yes. Henry's big in the media in Rothenia. He's on long-term leave at the moment. I think I told you he and Ed Cornish - that's his partner - adopted a young boy, Lance, who must be eleven by now. From what I hear, they have their hands full.'
'Little hellion is he?'
'No, no. Actually, Lance is very gentle, sweet and funny. But he's a ball of energy and deeply into sports. Poor Henry is anything but that. Ed on the other hand is a soldier and quite a sportsman himself. Henry says he's finding it difficult to keep up with the men in his life.'
Rupert added, 'I saw the Atwood feller on TV while I was in Rothenia visiting cousins. He fronted the Eurovision Song Contest when it was beamed from Strelzen two years ago. I believe his performance was generally admired. Most amusing, they say.'
'I missed it,' sighed Gavin, 'along with a lot of other stuff.'
Tommy's mind again registered how mysterious Gavin could be, and how many things were unexplained about him. The enigma was beginning to get to him, but he knew by now he couldn't winkle anything out of Max or Davey Skipper.
Fritz arrived with drinks. He settled down next to Tommy, who saw a last opportunity to plumb the unanswered questions about Gavin. Fritz too gave the impression he was keen to talk, maybe to reassure Tommy that he was not angry with him. This man, Tommy realised, was quite as nice as he seemed. He was fast warming to Fritz in a way new to him. It hurt slightly when he speculated that perhaps it was because the issue of his cross-dressing did not yet lie between him and Fritz.
After chatting about Fritz's London job, Tommy eventually asked when he had first met Gavin.
Fritz smiled. 'That's going back a long way. It was when he and Henry came to Rothenia on a contract, working on a summer job for Matt White. I was only just seventeen. It would have been over seven years ago.'
'This was when they were both at Cranwell?'
'I think so. They were production assistants in a documentary Matt was shooting out at Medeln Abbey, not too far from the city of Modenheim where I was living with my sister. I remember thinking when I saw them how sweet they were together. Gavin was very... helpful to me.' The prince's finger absently stroked along his scar.
'But he and Henry broke up soon after.'
Fritz looked at Tommy coolly. 'Force of circumstances,' he explained in a neutral tone.
'And you didn't see Gav again till last year?'
'Our paths didn't cross.'
'So what was he doing in the intervening period?'
Fritz gave the same closed look as Max had done when discussing Gavin's past. 'You should ask him.'
'I have. He said he was travelling. He also said he'd been to the States.'
'There you are, then.'
'Fancy a dance?'
Whether it was said to shut Tommy up or not, the suggestion took his breath away.
Fritz laughed. 'That would get the paps excited. No. There's mixed dancing going on over there. Let's see what we can pick up.'
'Oh! Sure!' For some reason Tommy felt disappointed.
They gravitated to the floor, and were soon swaying among the dancers. Women literally clustered around the big, handsome Rothenian prince, who moved with such ease and confidence. A moment later Tommy himself caught a woman's smile and led her out onto the floor. He grinned to see Max all but dragging Gavin for a dance in a dark, out-of-the-way corner. He seemed to have to hang on tight to keep his boyfriend from escaping.
The evening continued to be enjoyable. A suggestion that they go on to a club at Charing Cross was vetoed by Rupert and Gavin on the grounds that they all had a heavy night in store for Thursday with the Live Action concert in Stevenage. Fritz on the other hand said he was just getting started. Although Max too seemed half inclined for more, he acknowledged that Gavin had a point.
'Well, what about you, Tommy?' asked Fritz. 'Want to come with me? These gays are boring.'
Tommy caught those blue-green eyes and their infectious twinkle of mischief. 'Y'know, Fritzy, I think I do.'
Gavin shrugged. 'Got your return ticket? We'll go back to Highgate for the night.'
'Tommy can stay at my place,' Fritz offered.
They all kissed, even Rupert, which was a first. Then Fritz was off, with Tommy in train. He effortlessly flagged a passing cab to take them to Mayfair. 'I keep well away from Soho,' he remarked. 'The paparazzi hang round the nicer clubs and restaurants. My sister will have me neutered if I provoke one more press exposé of my social life.'
Tommy admitted he had looked up some of Fritz's doings on the web.
Fritz laughed. 'My cock-ups are rarely glamorous. I have a talent for falling for the wrong girl. I've had so much abuse from women over the years, I could script each argument in advance. How about you?'
'Oh... me? A couple of girls, but nothing much since I went to uni. Look, Fritzy, I like you a lot, so maybe I should come clean. I'm bi, to begin with.'
'To begin with?'
'Yes, and I get off on cross-dressing. They call me "Tommy the Tranny" in Stevie.'
Fritz stared, then pulled Tommy to him across the back seat in a gesture Tommy found infinitely reassuring. The Rothenian gave a low laugh and ruffled Tommy's hair. 'Don't I just pick 'em? Tommy, you needn't worry about my reaction. Weirdness is so densely packed into my young life that you don't even register. No offence.'
'Tell me about this weirdness.'
'So you've picked it up, have you? Have Max and Gavin told you anything?'
'I just get hints. It's frustrating.'
'I think they'll tell you when they're ready, Tommy. They'd not have made friends with you otherwise. Be complimented, baby. Gavin and Max are very special people, more special than you could ever imagine.'
'It's all you'll get. Now here we are at ElectroStudio99. Great dance venue. The door-minders know me. You ready for some serious on-the-floor activity?'
'You bet, Fritzy.'
It was three in the morning when Tommy and Fritz stumbled into his Barnsbury flat, just off Pentonville Road. They were both still pumped, though alcohol had been but a small part of their night out.
The flat was remarkably neat and very well appointed. 'It's the cleaner keeps the place tidy, and I rent it furnished,' Fritz explained while he fixed them a nightcap.
As Fritz handed him a glass, Tommy again caught that magical fragrance.
'What is that scent you wear?'
'Like it? You can't buy it. It's made in the Taveln valley back home in Rothenia. Germans call it "Medelnerattar" and in Rothenian it's "struhinvhytazheh"; bit of a mouthful, wouldn't you say?'
'Yes, maybe. But it's a beautiful language. It flows like liquid silver. I love it. Go on. Say something else.'
Fritz paused, frowned and said nothing for almost a minute. Then he shrugged and, looking deep into Tommy's eyes, said, 'Du es rozhkosnij... ai chih do du souzhtaj nahlhavnij.'
'Wow! That's fucking amazing.'
'Which is more or less what I said.'
Fritz, settled next to Tommy, leaned in close to his face. 'I said, "You're so amazingly cute I just desperately want to fuck you".'
'What!' Tommy squeaked.
'Look, Tommy. You say you're bi, right? Well here's my big secret. So am I. It may be one of the reasons I keep crashing and burning with women. I can't get complete engagement there. My best and most fulfilling relationship to date has been with another man: Henry Atwood, if you must know. I've... er... never told anyone that.'
'Why sex with me?'
'I'll tell you, if you say yes.'
Tommy allowed himself to sink into a kiss with this gorgeous man. It took quite a while to find the will power to break free from it.
Making the correct deduction, Fritz pulled Tommy to his feet and began removing his clothes. 'It's because you're different, Tommy. Not just good looking - which you are - but because you're brave, uninhibited and more than a little bit complicated. You're like Henry in many ways. You seriously turn me on.'
Tommy laughed. 'Does Henry wear these?'
The stripping had got down to a pair of pink lace Ann Summers knickers.
Fritz gave a delighted laugh as he pulled them down Tommy's shaved legs. 'No. But God they're sexy.' Naked himself, he picked Tommy up and carried him to the bed, kissing him all the way.
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