'So, what did you think?'
Gavin's little face concentrated. 'I thought the lyrics rather humanistic.'
'What are you on about?' Max shook his head. 'Who listens to lyrics?'
'I do. Live Action clearly spends a lot of time crafting them, so I ought to pay attention. While there's not as much about love and sorrow as you'd expect, there's plenty about loneliness and the human condition. Anyway, didn't you once lecture me on the lyrics in The Feeling's songs?'
'Well yeah... but they were gay-orientated, sweets. They spoke to me.'
'Okay... I was just saying. What did you think, Pete?'
Peter grinned as he sipped on yet another beer. 'Totally fucking brilliant, mate.'
'You're drunk, aren't you?'
'You bet. What a great night! Getting drunk is the best way to top it off.'
'And you're happy too.'
'Maybe. I love Stevie. Fuck Ton-yr-Nant!'
Max laughed. 'You really must be drunk.'
Gavin looked over the rim of his wine glass: no plastic cups up in the hospitality area. The hall downstairs was emptying. The main band was imminently expected upstairs. He caught sight of Davey Skipper and Billy Buchko in conversation. What was Davey up to? At least Davey's attention stopped Billy's hitting on more unsuspecting kids.
Chris and Alasdair appeared to have made it up. They were snacking outrageously on the buffet tables.
Fritz and Tommy were close together, drinking and laughing over in a corner. Gavin was glad they'd made friends. He loved them both.
For himself, he had a job to do, one he wasn't keen on. Max's news about Billy's medical condition was the catalyst for action, though he wasn't sure exactly what it was he was supposed to do. The first thing, however, was undoubtedly to corner Billy.
Gavin stood and headed through the crowd towards where he had last seen the American. Suddenly, a smiling female blocked his way. 'Hello! You're Gavin Price, yes?'
Gavin paused. 'Uh... yes. Who're you?'
'Melanie Morris, The Guardian Arts.'
'In one, Gavin. I'd love to talk if you could spare a moment.'
'Won't take long.'
'I'm not much up on the music scene.'
'It's LGBT Society here at Stevenage I'd like to discuss with you.'
'Oh God, what's Chrissie done now?'
She laughed. 'Davey Skipper's an old friend. I asked him about all the students who were on the balcony. He told me your gay society was just starting up and he'd arranged for Live Action to give it a boost. So I'm hoping to find out how you got the society off the ground and what your problems are being a gay student in a modern university.'
'It's not a problem being gay.'
'I know you know that isn't what I meant.'
Gavin smiled. 'What can I tell you?'
'To begin with, how old are you and where are you from?'
'I'm twenty-seven and from Gloucester.'
'Twentyseven ! You're kidding me!'
'I kept out of the sun when I was a teen. It limits skin damage.'
'You must have had a job between school and university.'
'I started at Cranwell but dropped out. Personal stuff. Nothing to do with being gay. I got a job in... er, security. Worked abroad a lot of the time.'
'Great. What brought you to Stevenage?'
'Max... he's my boyfriend. He's a student here.'
'So do you regard yourself as a mature student?'
'I'm working on it.'
'What I mean is...'
'I know what you mean. Am I one of those older students who feel out of place and try to make a niche by organising the younger ones?'
Melanie looked disconcerted. 'Well... maybe.'
'No. This place desperately needs a rallying point for sexual minorities. It's not that Stevie - that's what we call Stevenage Uni - is hostile. It's very friendly to us. But young gays and lesbians living away from home for the first time need all the support they can get. Some have been rejected by their families, some can't come out to them, some aren't even sure they are gay. Someone has to be there to help. Although the uni has its welfare people, there's only so much they can do. Young homosexuals need fellowship.'
'You seem very well-informed. Are you interested in wider student politics?'
Gavin paused. Was he? 'Well... it's a bit too early to say.'
Melanie laughed. 'A classic politician's answer.'
Peter Lewis was happily soused in a new way for him. The alcohol seemed to be having a more benign effect than he was used to. He had talked to Adrian, the lead guitar of Live Action, who had answered him as if he were a real person. He sat down next to Chris and Alasdair.
Chris gave him a nervous grin. Alasdair was at work on a bowl of crisps he'd removed from the buffet.
Peter greeted them with a cheery, 'How're you guys? Great night, isn't it!'
Alasdair grunted but Chris enthused, 'Really great, Pete!' Then he dried up.
'I thought the support act was better than you'd expect.'
'Er... yeah, me too.'
Alasdair contributed, 'The lead singer's crap. That's their problem.'
Peter maintained his stand. 'The sound was good.'
'Bit too poppy for me.'
Chris cleared his throat. 'But all you listen to is heavy metal. How'd you know?'
Alasdair looked surprised to be contradicted. 'Scuse me?'
Chris caught Peter's eye. 'I thought they were good, anyway. Did ya like Live Action, Pete?'
'Wasn't that fussed on them till tonight. Course, this is the first time I've seen 'em live. They never come nearer Wales than Birmingham! Now I'm gonna get all their albums. Seen my iPod?' He settled next to Chris and spun through the menu, glowing all the while.
'Thass so great, man.' Chris was moved by the artless enthusiasm. Peter was certainly attractive when he was engaged and articulate. Then the stifling fear grew in Chris. He really fancied this boy, but if he tried it on with him, what would happen?
Peter was up and moving on. 'Er... where you going, man?'
'To see if I can get my tee autographed by the band.'
'Can I come?'
Peter turned and raised his eyebrows. 'Course! Why not?'
'What? Hey!' Alasdair grunted with discontent as Chris got up and trailed after Peter.
Fritz and Tommy had drawn Rupert into their corner.
'So, when were you last in Rothenia, Rupe?' Tommy was curious about Fritz's family connections.
'Only last year, Thomas. My father now has a house up near Lake Maresku. We reclaimed it in the courts a few years back. It had been taken over as a ministerial residence in the old Communist days.'
'Were you two guys there when all that terrorist business was going down, with the nuclear blackmail stuff?'
Fritz shook his head. 'I missed it all. I was still in the States. So, were you there, Rupe?'
'I was back in Medwardine by then. But I understand King Rudolf was heroic. A very great man.'
'A hero,' stated Fritz, his eyes glowing. 'It is a wonderful thing for our nation to have a Red Elphberg on the throne at this time.'
Tommy was much taken by his lover's enthusiasm for a head of state. Tommy was himself very fond of Queen Elizabeth II, if not her dress sense, but he did not rise to the pitch of veneration. 'You know him then, Fritzy?'
Rupert smiled. 'Fritz is a royal equerry when he's in Rothenia.'
'Oh, of course. Your brother's the king's chief-of-staff, isn't he?'
'Oskar loves politics. Not my scene really. I like people too much to feel any pressing need to get them to do what I think they ought to do.'
'So what's the king like?'
Fritz grinned. 'You should give him a makeover, Tomasczu. He's got some nice suits, but his taste in casuals is pretty chronic. I thought the queen might sort him out, but Harry knows she's on to a loser when she sees one.'
'Oh my God, you know HER! She's my hero! The high priestess of Fashion: the beautiful Harry Peacher!'
Fritz blushed. 'She's a good friend.'
'They've got a kid now, is that right?'
'Little Maxim. He's quite adorable. Already toddling and only eleven months old. The oddest thing is his hair: he's a Peacher blonde.'
'Why's that odd?'
'In all our history, Elphbergs have been black or red, but never golden-haired. Some people see it as an omen.'
Rupert gave a rather superior smile. 'That's a bit superstitious.'
Fritz shook his head. 'Rothenia off the tourist track is a place you should get to know, Rupe, before you start making judgements.'
'When are you going back?' Rupert asked.
Catching Tommy's eye Fritz replied, 'I'm expected at Modenheim and Templerstadt for Christmas with the family. My London job winds down at the end of January. Then it's back to my desk at the RBR in Strelzen.'
'I'm thinking of learning Rothenian,' Tommy interjected.
'Really?' Rupert responded. 'I've got some books I can lend you. It's a lovely language.'
'With twenty-four words for penis,' grinned Fritz.
Rupert began counting them in his head. 'Twenty-four you say? My education seems to have been deficient in that area.'
Fritz leaned in close to Tommy's ear. 'That's twenty-four ways to say "I love you".'
Tommy then did the thing he'd always sworn he never would. He giggled like a girl.
'Thanks, Gavin. You're an interesting man to talk to... and I'm not just saying that. Best of luck with the society and the future.' Melanie took her leave after a twenty-minute interview. Gavin felt good about it, his shyness having been firmly under control.
He looked around. He'd lost track of Billy, though Miles was lurking on the fringes. With a shrug and a sigh he returned to Max, who was now chatting with Mina and Carole.
'So how are you going to top this event?' Mina was asking.
Max grinned. 'We need a relaunch, once the Billy fuss has died down. I'm aiming for a select club night in London, starting at Orton's and moving across Charing Cross Road. Might end up at G-A-Y.'
'You'll lose half the society.'
'It'll be a weeknight at the end of October... not so crazy.'
Mina gave Max a look. 'You're quite the Soho-rat, aren't you? I'm betting all that modelling wasn't an accident. You know people. Over there's the prince of Tarlenheim with Tommy and Rupert, and back there is Davey Skipper laughing with Josh and Ahmed. When are we going to hear the story of Max?'
'This is my cue to look enigmatic,' laughed Max. 'Fortunately, I have Gav to keep my feet on the ground.'
'Yeah,' Gavin agreed. 'And I'm a total nonentity.'
Mina looked as though she didn't believe a word of it.
Max had another glass of wine, but Gavin stuck to coke. He was eyeing the shifting crowd, trying to locate people, and Billy in particular. He noticed that Alasdair was on his own, gloomily drinking from a can. Chris was nowhere to be seen, nor was Peter.
Gavin went over to Alasdair. He was not particularly fond of the man, but he didn't like to see him alone in a room full of laughter and chat.
'Have you seen Pete and Chrissie?'
'They went off together. Fuck it!'
'Oh c'mon, you musta seen what's going on?'
'Er... no. What?'
'Chrissie's got the hots for the kid, and - unbelievably - it seems to be mutual.'
'You're kidding! That's great!'
Alasdair glared balefully at Gavin. 'From your point of view, maybe. But I'll be without a housemate for the first time since I came to Stevie. Bastard'll drop me once he has his piece of tail.'
'That's not a nice way to put it. Bit selfish really. I thought you were friendly with Chris. Don't you want him happy?'
Gavin caught an aching loneliness in Alasdair's eyes as he replied, 'Waddya expect? The jerk is all I got. I stuck by him and now he'll be off with that Welsh kid soon as he gets a chance.'
'You're being negative about it all. You might end up with two friends instead of one, Alasdair. Think about it.'
'I do little else.'
Peter replaced his tee after stripping it off for the signing. Chris, who had held his friend's sweater while Peter undressed, stared at the smooth chest of the Welsh boy. He was mesmerised by the sight. Peter had quite pronounced pectoral muscles, at least a four-pack and a comparatively broad vee-shaped back which plummeted down sensuously into the tight backside of his jeans.
From the neck down Peter was absolutely gorgeous, and perfectly unaware of it. The shy smile as his tousled head emerged from the tee almost caused Chris to faint.
'Er... another drink?'
'No,' laughed Peter. 'I've had enough. You go ahead.'
'I'll pass if you're not going for it.'
'Then we'll be virtuous,' Peter stated loftily.
'Fancy a walk, bit of fresh air, like?'
'Are you tired of hanging out with celebs?'
Chris nodded. 'It palls on you after a while.' Providing he kept his mind off sex, he was finding it surprisingly easy to talk to this boy.
Peter looked around for somebody to say goodbye to. Seeing no one in the immediate vicinity, he resumed his sweater and walked off down the balcony stairs.
A posse of security men made a barrier at the exit into the hall, where a small crowd of fans was still gathered, hoping for a sight of Live Action. A couple of cameras flashed at Peter and Chris as they made their way out. Peter grinned and waved. 'It's only one of the queers,' he heard a male voice saying distinctly.
'Ignore it,' advised Chris. But Peter's mood was deflated by the casual homophobia. It reminded him forcibly of why he was in Stevenage, rather than at the home that was no longer his.
Hands deep in jeans pockets, Peter walked off through the Union complex, Chris tailing him silently. The freshness of the October night air, carrying a sharp hint of frost, caused them to pause as they exited through the rotating doors. Chris moved close to Peter and - hardly daring to breathe - took him tentatively around the shoulder. He nearly fainted when Peter moved closer to him and nestled a head against his chest. There were no words; they stood silently. But Chris was willing to believe that the pounding of his heart could be heard all the way to Harpenden.
It was time to talk. 'You okay, baby?'
'No, Chrissie,' came the eventual reply. 'There's too much wrong in my life.'
'Shit. I didn't want that answer.'
Peter disengaged and looked up at Chris. 'Which one did you want?'
'Oh, something along the lines of... "My life's crap, Chrissie, but now you're in it things are brightening up." That sort of thing.' Chris's heart surged, making him reckless of disappointment and rejection. 'Cos you're making one hell of a difference to me, Peter Lewis. I really like you. I can't tell you how much.'
An arm took his. 'You're a funny blokey, Christopher Wilshire.'
'You know my surname?'
'I notice things about men I like.'
'You like me? Really?'
In the darkness, Peter rolled his eyes. 'And I thought I had self-esteem problems. What's not to like?'
'I'm not sure I can answer that without incriminating myself, Pete.'
Peter finally laughed. 'Give me your hand, Chrissie. Let's go back to my place.'
'Oh wow! You mean...?'
Peter's laughter surged out again. 'No. At least, not yet. We need to do some talking first.'
'Talk! I can do that! Just try me.'
They were still chatting in low voices when they came to the main entrance of Brinkley House. The block was mostly quiet in the early morning, though a party was clearly going on somewhere round the back of the building.
They ignored the lift and trotted up the stairs. Peter swung open the door to his second floor corridor and found it dark. He cursed when the light switch failed to work. He reached for Chris's hand, and led him to his door. While fumbling to fit the key into the lock he became aware of another presence in the corridor.
'Who is it?'
'Easy, Pete! Only me!'
Chris snarled, 'What're you doing up here, Billy?'
There was a low laugh. 'Unlikely lovebirds, but what the hell, if it makes you happy.'
Peter had by now found the lock and pushed his door open. He clicked the switch and turned. Chris was facing up to Billy across his doorway. 'You should go, Billy.'
The big handsome man gave a lazy smile. 'Not my plan, baby.' He suddenly took Chris by the shoulder and pushed him through the door into Peter; both fell together on to the single bed.
'What the hell!'
Billy followed them in, closing the door behind him. 'We're going to talk, Pete. You just don't seem to be getting the message. I want your little butt, and I'm gonna have it.'
Peter's voice was suddenly curiously constrained, as if his vocal chords were freezing in his throat. 'You... can't...'
Billy began removing his clothes. 'You'd be amazed at what I can do, baby. Just ask Chrissie here.' Naked and very erect, the American was still grinning. Chris seemed frozen with fear. Billy snapped his fingers and Chris fell to the floor against the desk.
'Now Chrissie can watch while I show him how it's done. Then he can do you too if he's a good boy. Miles'll come to finish you off, I don't doubt. He's always up for a bit of fun, whatever the time of night.'
Billy pushed Peter face down on the bed. He ripped off Peter's top and tee shirt, then pulled down his jeans to his ankles, baring his small buttocks. Peter squirmed as a thick, rough finger found his hole and began pushing up into him, causing him to arch with the pain. Yet he couldn't scream or shout. It was as if a numbing cloud had settled on him. He could not resist the power of the rapist.
Billy sat on Peter's upper legs, took his wrists and held them above his head, then laid himself along Peter's back. There was no doubting what was going to happen next.
Billy moved sensuously on top ofhis victim, the hot bar of his penis seeking the valley between Peter's cheeks. He began talking softly into an ear: 'See Petey? You're not fighting me. You really want it. This struggling's all been for show. By the time I finish you'll be begging me for more, believe me. This is so good.'
There was an audible thud. Suddenly Billy was a lot heavier on his back, then Peter found himself free once more.
Peter rediscovered his voice. 'Chrissie! You hit him!'
'Had to, he was gonna rape you, the bastard.'
Peter sat up. Billy had been rolled off him and was now on the floor between the bed and the desk. Peter pulled up his pants and jeans. His top was in rags on the floor. 'How did you break his spell?'
'He was hurting you, baby. I couldn't let that happen, not in front of my face. The barrier just gave and I hit him with that garden-gnome thingy you had on your desk.'
'We gotta get the police. This is way out of line.'
'Will they believe us?' Chris looked dubious.
'Can't stay here.'
'Let's run for my house, then.' Chris wrenched open the door and both spilled out of the room, Peter still bare-chested.
It was dark in the corridor outside. As they began moving towards the stairs, they became aware that the darkness was resisting their passage, as if it were congealing around them.
'Chrissie!' groaned Peter. 'He's back! I can hardly move.'
A hand groped for his and tried to tug him along. A strange noise behind them made them glance back to see a darker presence filling the hallway with its power. Unable to do otherwise, they turned. Billy Buchko stood there naked, the muscular contours of his body highlighted by the light shining from Peter's room behind him.
But there was something wrong with that body. The eyes gleamed in ways they should not have. The erection now seemed improbably large and the skin didn't look quite as it should where it caught the light. Billy raised a threatening hand towards them, and with no control over their limbs, their bodies answered his summons, though their minds were desperate to go in the other direction.
Then in the night outside the hall they heard a rumble of thunder, and a brightness grew behind them.
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