Henry in the Outfield

XIII

By Michael Arram

Will was waiting in his big silver Audi outside the chaplaincy apartment for them the next Tuesday. They had bags to sleep over on the boat for two nights. Mum and Dad had been fine about it, indeed positively excited, to the point where Henry was getting suspicious.

'Love's bloody young dream,' he frowned.

'What do you mean, Henry?'

'Well, ever since we got together, they've got all romantic. It's transference. They're rediscovering romance vicariously through us. That's why they'd rather we weren't around. They want to do unmentionable things all over the apartment without us overhearing them. Urggh.'

'It's sweet.'

'They're my parents! It's not sweet. It's... not something I want to think about.'

'They hear us battering away at each other,' Ed grinned.

'What! We keep it down.'

'You should hear yourself sometimes.'

'Oh God, no.'

So it was a sheepish Henry as well as a suspicious one who waved goodbye to his parents that Tuesday. The car journey up the River Starel was idyllic. The Audi was a convertible, and Will retracted the hood. They felt very cool speeding up the Autoroute zu Nort, the A12, with the wind whipping their hair. Forests and castle-crowned hilltops closed round them north of the capital, and the A12 lived up to its reputation as the most scenic autoroute in Europe. It would have been perfect but for annoying queues of slow-moving British and Dutch caravans, which sometimes blocked both lanes when the idiot drivers attempted to overtake each other.

'I have this button on the dash,' said Will confidentially, 'which if I press arms anti-caravan rockets. I left three of them smoking wreckage when last I came this way. It's not reckoned to be homicide in Rothenia, but a public service. A great country.'

'You're totally cool, Will,' laughed Ed.

'And no making out there in the back. I saw where your hand was going, Ed. Leave Henry alone. You'll have your chance soon enough. Teens. Good God.'

And so amidst mock indignation and laughter the three young men travelled happily north till they reached the Avernat Pass, and the blue waters of Lake Maresku opened out before them, surrounded by green forested hills and speckled with the sails of boats. Will had a cabin near the tourist town of Piotresberh, with its American style boardwalk.

Will pulled up the bumpy and dusty drive. The air was rich with the scent of pine resin, and the sun dappled the clearing in which his handsome wooden Scandinavian house stood. He looked it over with some pride. It was the first home he had ever owned outright, and he loved it dearly, especially as he employed someone else to clean it and wash the windows.

The Tarlenheims were already there, and two strangers were on the first floor deck looking down at them. One was a pretty boy, of about seventeen or eighteen, small for his age, but fit looking. The other was stockier, built on the lines of Edward but more powerful and, Henry decided, not so handsome, although he was pleasant looking enough. This must be the famous Justin and Nathan. Justin whooped when he saw Will, and Henry's heart almost stopped when the boy vaulted the rail and jumped off the deck. He landed on a bin and bounced to the ground, grinning all over his face, looking a little Mephistophelian when he did so. This was a bad boy, the face proclaimed to anyone with any sensitivity... or he could be, if he wanted. Henry was immediately nervous.

But the boy closed with Will and gave him a rather passionate kiss, full on the mouth. Rather than being offended, Will picked him off the ground, hugged him and kissed him right back. Justin broke off with a delighted laugh.

'That was tongues, you perv!'

'Nice,' grinned Will, and licked his lips.

'I keeps forgetting you wuz a porno actor. Envy, envy. Whoosis?' he gave the newcomers a considering and not particularly friendly look. He was in leather, and a second look convinced Henry that it was very, very expensive leather. His hair too, on closer inspection was beautifully styled. There was a smell of big money about this boy.

'Justy,' said Will, 'this is Henry and Edward. Be nice.'

'Sounds like you two are refugees from Thomas the Tank Engine,' was the casually rude greeting. The boy did not put out his hand, as Ed had done automatically and now had to draw back. He blushed.

The boy Nathan came up behind Justin, with a much more welcoming smile on his face. He was very different from Justin at close quarters, and his quiet greeting established for the two other boys almost instantly, in the way the British have, that Nathan was well-educated and well-endowed with middle class manners and social assurance. This made his obvious attachment to Justin all the stranger.

'Hi, I'm Nathan Underwood, and this little sod is my boyfriend, Justin Peacher-White. But there's a lot more to him than appears on the surface, thank God. Now shake their hands nicely Justy, or it'll be the spanking again.'

'Ooh, the spanking... bare bum and all?'

'You disgust,' grinned Nathan. But Justin did as he was told, and this time they got a little smile each, a strangely vulnerable little smile, that hinted that perhaps Nathan knew his boy, and there was more to this well-dressed little oik than appeared on the surface.

They wandered in as Justin and Nathan plied Will for news about common acquaintances.

The interior of Will's cabin was immaculate and beautifully fitted out. He had told them that it was his boyfriend, Felip, that did it. He claimed to have little taste himself. Will gave them directions to their room on the first floor, and they sat on the double bed, looking through the trees to the glittering waters of the wide lake beyond.

'He's a funny lad, that Justin.' Henry said.

'Didn't know what to make of him,' Ed agreed.

'My mum'll kill me if she ever hears me say this, but he's a bit... common.'

'Henry!'

'Well, he is! But his Nathan is really nice, a lot like you in many ways. How on earth could those sort of opposites attract?'

'There has to be a story there. You gonna change?'

'No, why?'

'I just thought you might be planning to take your clothes off, and if so, I thought you could help me with this problem I have.'

'Between your legs?'

'How did you guess?'

Thirty minutes later they found their way back to the open plan lounge by following the voices and laughter. Will and Felip were fixing food, Fritz was nowhere to be seen, and the rest were lounging around. Justin had his feet up on a coffee table, with his boots still on, his head resting cuddled into Nathan's shoulder. It suddenly struck Henry that he was for once in an environment where displays of homosexual intimacy were the norm. His heart leaped at the thought.

'So you boys been on the Wejg yet?' Justin demanded.

'Er... no.' Ed replied. 'Is there anything worth seeing?'

'A lot. Me and Nate had a wild afternoon there last year. And we wuz only sixteen too.'

'Yes,' butted in Oskar, 'and you paid for it. I've never seen Andy so angry as he was that day. Three days grounding, wasn't it?'

'Wurff it though,' Justin muttered.

Ed had sat next to Nathan on the sofa arm, and asked him what part of London he was from. 'The family home is in Winchmore Hill, but me and animal boy here live with Matt in Highgate, and Andy too, now he's moved back from the States, though it's Matt's house. You from London, Ed?'

'As it happens, we're neighbours. My parents live on Flask Walk.'

'No really? Where do you go to school?'

'King Edward VI Medwardine. I board.'

'Fantastic. I was at City of London Greycoats, though I left at sixteen to do vocational training.' Nathan was a relaxed and outgoing sort, and Ed and he had the sporting freemasonry thing going pretty soon. They chatted away about common stamping grounds, school sports, the cricket season, and so on. Henry soon lost the thread, and he realised he was supposed to be picking up the slack with Justin, who sat looking bored.

'Er... Justin, Will said you'd just finished college.'

'Yeah,' was the monosyllabic reply.

'Which school were you at.'

'I got expelled from me last school when I wuz thirteen. This was Hornsey FE College.'

'Oh... and what were you studying?'

'OND'

'In what?'

'Gardening.'

'Great'. The conversation grounded on the shoals of Justin's social indifference. In the end an embarrassed Henry got up and walked out in despair through the picture windows and on to the decking. There were sunbeds and so he took one and stretched out. He was astonished five minutes later to feel it creak under the weight of another body. He opened his eyes. It was Justin sitting beside him. He gave Henry a quirky look.

'Sorry,' he said.

'Sorry about what?'

'I doan do the social thing well, Henry. I wasn't trying to be rude, it just comes out that way.'

'Don't mention it.'

'There, see. You did it again, put me at disadvantage. Iss like a game I doan know the rules to.'

'It's called civilisation, Justin.'

Justin laughed. 'Call me Justy, me friends do, now I've got some. You're nice, by the way.'

'Well thanks, Justy.'

'Yeah, sort of quiet and considerate and nicely spoken. Nate says I should make more of an effort to meet nice kids and maybe it'll rub off on me.'

Henry had to ask. 'How did you and Nate meet?'

Justin laughed, 'Iss quite a story. Basically I was on day release from a young offenders' institution. I was on work experience with a gardener's firm, Old Man Anderson, and I got teamed up with Nate, who was an apprentice there.'

'And it was love at first sight...'

Justin gave him a pitying look, 'Grow up, Henry. Nah. Hated the fuckwit. But he showed me how kind a bloke he was, when I least deserved it, and he began the taming process. I'm quite mild now compared to what I wuz before I met Nate. He's me better two thirds. Oh, and we started fucking, and that was just brilliant.'

'And Andy and Matt, who are they Justy?'

'Seriously, you don't know?'

'I live a sheltered life in rural Shropshire. Educate me.'

'Iss a really long story. But I wuz in the news last year, kidnapped by a terrorist bloke and tortured in Uxbridge; thought it got in all the papers and stuff? They said it was about a ransom from me adopted dad... you gotta have heard of Sir Andrew Peacher for Chrissake?'

Henry frowned, 'Yeah, now you mention it, wasn't your security guard taken too and really hurt? And didn't the police track the bloke down and shoot him dead.... Wow! That was you Justy? Awesome... I mean, terrible.'

'Yeah, it wasn't nice. I could show you an interesting scar on me balls. Wanna see it?' He gave a salacious grin, and started unzipping his fly.

Henry was no Ed, and having grown up with a big brother didn't get fatally flustered at this point. 'Put it away Justy,' he said, 'it'll put me off my tea.' Justin grinned even wider, and zipped up. Henry thought further. 'So you're the kid of Sir Andrew Peacher, I think I've heard of him, one of the Peacher dynasty... they're mega rich, aren't they?'

'Yeah, and you've walked right into their world by coming here, cos I'm one of 'em now, and didn't you catch who Oskar's boyfriend is?'

'Yeah, Pete who's in Yale.'

'Full name: Peter Peacher. Oskar and him have been together now for a year since Pete's last relationship broke up. They're quite a love story and awesome looking too. I hope Pete's coming over soon; he's a total mate, as well as me uncle now.'

'But,' said Henry, 'there's also Matt, who's he?'

'Me other dad, the prettier one. Matthew White, the TV presenter and model... generally reckoned to be one of the most beautiful men in the world, but also the kindest and nicest too, you couldn't want a better guy to tuck you into bed at night.'

'I suppose the phrase "falling on your feet" was invented for you then Justy.'

Justin laughed, 'You're a cool little kid, you know. I'm gonna like hanging with you.'

'What do you and Nathan do now you've finished at college?'

'We're sorta marking time till we're both eighteen. Iss me birffday in October – Hallowe'en, wouldnya jess know it. Then we're gonna make up our minds. We love livin wiv Matt and Andy, and we got lots of friends in London, but now Nate's fully qualified we always planned to go and run his uncle's garden centre in Suffolk, near Ipswich. Uncle Phil's a great bloke for a baronet and is quite keen that Nathan goes down there. Iss juss that'll it be a bit of a sad thing to leave me dads like that. I luv 'em so much.'

It was at this point that Ed and Nathan emerged from the lounge. Nathan sat on the next sunbed and Justin went and cuddled up to him. Ed smiled down at Henry and bent to kiss him... the first public kiss they'd ever been able to make. 'I love you little babe' he whispered as he broke lip lock and sat down on the bed, pulling a smiling Henry into his lap.

The motorcruiser lay white and impressive moored at the quay in Piotresberh. It was owned by a business associate of Will's, a Mr Wilemmin, a man of evidently luxurious tastes. There was even a uniformed crew of three, including a steward. The stern deck was equipped for diving, and Nate and his Justy were keen divers, as were the Tarlenheims. They were determined to initiate Ed and Henry, and Will had got wetsuits and equipment for them too. Even before the cruiser cast off, Nathan was drilling the two younger boys sternly in diving safety and the use of the mask. Fritz was trying to make them laugh over Nathan's shoulder.

The boat shouldered its way powerfully out of the lake harbour and through the crowd of smaller pleasure boats, announcing its departure with surprisingly loud blasts of its horn. Henry, country boy as he was, waved enthusiastically back to the Rothenians waving at the boat from the quayside. This was excitement. Ed was taking his picture with his mobile and storing the images for sending. 'You look so cute in your wetsuit; shows off your pretty arse. Turn round so I can get one of you from the back...' he came close to Henry's ear, '... I can wank off to it when we're apart.'

Out on the lake, Henry marvelled at the clear blue waters. You could see deep down, and there were fish below them. The boat churned its way out to the shoals on the far away eastern shore. There were huge banks of weed and forests of waving fronds. Nathan and Will had the two novices at the back of the boat as it anchored, and showed them how to fall in the water. Then they were given masks and tanks, and did it for real. Before the end of the afternoon, they were under water swimming in formation with Will, Fritz and Oskar. Nathan and Justin were off elsewhere exploring some peculiar fresh water corals.

The boat had a kitchen, lounges and cabins for ten, so they slept out on the lake. It was fantastic sitting out on the deck under the stars, holding chilled glasses of Rothenian fruit wine, the warm land breeze stirring their hair. The lights of the firmament were matched by the lights of houses on the distant shore and surrounding hills. The four teens were left on their own in the end, Justin on Nathan's lap, and Henry on Ed's hugging him round the neck and kissing him every now and again. It was so great for Ed and Henry to be with other gay teens, to be able to touch and to kiss publicly as they wanted. Justin and Nathan were also very keen to compare erotic notes.

'The best was what we did out here last year, when Will and Oskar went on shore. We kitted up in mask and tank... and nothing else. Naked scuba. It was unbelievable, though you wouldn't wanna do it if the water was cold. So we got down to ten feet and then Nathan fucked me on the lake bottom.'

'What!!!' screamed the other two.

'Yeah, underwater anal sex. I can't describe it. As he pushed in and out, the water inside me did like hydraulics. I had his big dick pushing in one end, and streams of bubbles coming out the other. I had to go on me back in the sand, cos he couldn't reach me little butt under the tank, and we had to be careful with the connections. I think he blacked out at one point.'

'That was when I came. I think I was hyperventilating. We couldn't kiss though, and that took something out of it.'

'Jesus, you two are so hot,' Ed said in an awed whisper. 'And we're so ordinary.'

'We just use our opportunities...,' said Justin.

'And try to be original,' smiled Nathan. 'Which reminds me... bed.'

They parted on very friendly terms, and for the first time they did social kissing with other boys. It was challenging, but so fulfilling. Nathan initiated it by a brief closing with Ed directly on the lips. Ed drew back slightly, before smiling and responding. For him a barrier had clearly to be crossed. Justin was much more vigorous, and licked along Henry's lips, looking or hoping for an entrance, it seemed. Then Henry got a nice kiss from Nathan, who put his hand behind his head to do it. They held hands smiling before they parted. In this company and at this time, they no longer had even to pretend to be straight boys, they knew.

Ed and Henry slept that night in the same bunk. It was narrow and a bit sweaty after the hot day, but it was cosy and erotic, and Henry was very happy to welcome Ed inside him in the morning, when the dawn woke them.

'Oy!' came a muffled exclamation from the other side of the cabin wall, following a sharp thump. 'We can 'ear you y'know... yer randy little buggers.'

Ed and Henry giggled but Ed did not slow down, and they soon heard corresponding noises from the next cabin. All four jumped naked into the lake to clean off the smell of sex afterwards.

It was another glorious day on the lake. Felip turned up with fishing tackle, and Fritz, looking cute in a ball cap and shades, cast from the foredeck, taking some surprisingly large catfish. Oskar and Will went water skiing and it was left to the four boys to continue exploring the lake bottom. Nathan and Justin showed them the weed grown wreck of a German Second World War bomber on the lake bottom. It was still recognisable as the engine of death it once was, and there were carbuncled bombs in its bay, unexploded. Justin signalled to got to the cockpit, and Henry nearly added a yellow stream to the lake water when he saw that the crew, or what remained of them, were still occupying it.

The meals on the boat were good, but they took the ship's boat into the shore that evening and put in at the wharf of a village on the east shore, and ate at a restaurant that Oskar recommended.

The meal was heavy, but very tasty, and the restaurant was obviously popular. Oskar was known there and Fritz was recognised, as Henry realised from the owner's repeated bows and the phrase, 'Zu Hocheit Szeren' he used ostentatiously every time he addressed the table. The other diners were staring surreptitiously at little Fritz, who seemed quite indifferent to the attention, and surprisingly well-known amongst the Rothenian people for such a young boy.

Ed and Henry were less than happy to leave Piotresberh when the time came, but Will had to get back to work. The good news was that Justin and Nathan were staying in Radhausplaz and were determined to see a lot more of them. 'Yeah,' said Nathan, 'we can set up our own gay youth support network, have seminars and awareness raising weekends, jumble sales, pride events and so on.' Justin looked at him as though he was mad.

Will drove them back and dropped them off at the apartment. Mum and Dad were out, but Henry had a key. The two boys made a drink and sat discussing the past few days.

'It's made the holiday for me, Ed,' reflected Henry. 'Like when we're with Micky and Nikki, for instance, we've got to pretend to be straight, cos the poor kids would otherwise just freak, and they're nice kids. But with Nate and Justy, there's no pretense. They're as out as out can be, and they live their sexuality, even though they're only a year or so older than us. With them it was brilliant. We could be ourselves too, and be open about what we are... lovers and boyfriends. And in Will's house and on the boat it was like being in an alternative universe, where being gay is normal and OK.'

'And as a result of all this...'

'We should come out at school, like Guy Worsman did. He lived to tell the tale, didn't he?'

Ed looked thoughtful. 'It's to think about, Henry. But I'm not too sure that I could go along with it. I know Worsman survived, but he was not a couple. We'd be under a different sort of scrutiny. They'd look at us and know where I put my dick. And... to be honest... I don't think I have that sort of courage, Henry. Oh, I know you think I'm big, tough and brave, but what you're suggesting is a different sort of challenge to the physical. I don't know that I've got what it takes. You can be a loner Henry, but I'm sorry Henry... I don't think I'm loner material. Please don't say anything.'

Henry was a little offended that Ed could think he would out him without his consent, like some sort of flighty little queen. And he was also disappointed. He had begun to think that Ed was his rock, but it seemed that Ed feared things he did not. Henry thought that he could tough out the exit from the closet at school, but yes, he did admit, he had less to lose in terms of popularity. Perhaps he was being unfair... perhaps.

Mum and Dad wanted the complete story of their lakeside holiday, and they told them most of it.

Dad frowned, 'Yes, I know this Justin Peacher-White. He's one of Andrew Peacher's good causes; a street kid he adopted, and who's turned out OK so far. But there was quite a media uproar last year when a known mercenary and terrorist – his name was Anson I think – staged a kidnap on the boy and his security guard. They were being hideously tortured when the police pulled a coup, located his hideout, burst in and shot the man in the head. But I also remember that the police were unable to say how they knew where he was, and there was something very fishy about the inquest. The boy Justin was taken out of the country smartish, and the Peacher lawyers kept him out of circulation till the fuss blew over. He's in the celebrity magazines a lot now, with his adopted parents. Quite a pretty boy isn't he?'

'How on earth do you know about the celebrity mags Dad?'

Dad looked a little embarrassed, 'Well, you know how it is, my parishioners take them and I pick them up and leaf through them from time to time... I'd never actually buy one.'

'I believe you.'

'Now Matthew White is a different sort of man, a bit of a media tycoon as well as a famous face. I read in the Guardian that he's probably worth forty million and more now. Whereas the Peacher boy may be worth several billions, though he spends most of his income on good causes; that's how he got the knighthood last year.'

'Phew,' said Ed, 'Justy moves in those sorts of circles! You'd never believe it talking to him. He sounds like he's just come off a street trader's barrow in Camden Market. And all he'd talk about with us was his plan to run a garden centre near Ipswich with his boyfriend.'

'Mmm. Well your little garden gnome will be worth more noughts than you can write on a cheque if he survives his parents.'

'Wow. Lucky Justy,' breathed Henry.

'But you liked him, did you?' asked Mum.

'Yes,' Ed agreed, 'I think we did. He's a bit mad maybe, but in most ways he's down to earth and very funny. He's got a wonderful thing going with his Nathan, who's really seriously nice. Anyway, we're wanted at the Tarlenheims tomorrow, they want us to hang with them.'

On Friday they found Justin and Nathan in Fritz's loft. Justin was very keen on the trains and very attached to Fritz; it took a while to get him to leave. But when they did, he was happy enough to go with them to the shopping centre on the Mikhelstrasse, and browse the CDs and DVDs at Virgin's Strelzen outlet. They went to lunch, at Nathan's insistence, at a famous old inn just off Rodolferplaz, the Koningen Flavia. They occupied a booth, and ordered soft drinks, although Justin had to be talked out of beers. Henry got a lot of credit for managing the orders in Rothenian. Nathan had picked up some phrases and neither Ed nor Justin had any interest in it.

Justin grinned, 'You should hear Will gabbling away in foreign. You'd think he was one himself. He tells me he nearly got beaten up one night in London with Felip cos they thought he was an economic migrant. So maybe you betta watch it Henry.'

Justin surprised again by his knowledge of the menu and his coolness in restaurants, but then, he ate out quite a lot in London and the States, as he told them. He deeply admired American restaurants, much more efficient and ample than your British equivalent, he said. If you're lucky, he said, you can get off watching the bus boy's bum as he wiggles round the table. Tasty waiters, the Yanks, he concluded.

Nathan for his part wanted to know all about their school lives, and what Edward VI Grammar was like. Even Justin was interested when Henry and Edward described their unlikely love affair.

'What!' exclaimed Justin, 'You got off with Ed after he'd kicked you up the arse? Talk about heavy petting! You're a strange boy, Henry... and they call you Outfield? I'll never understand toffs.'

'Yeah,' agreed Nathan, 'they'd have to call you Off Planet, Justy, you're so way out.'

'Thanks, I think.'

And so the holiday passed onwards. Ed and Henry were blissful. The city was unbelievable, the friends they had made were fascinating and amazing. Dad and Mum were on a second honeymoon, and Ed and Henry on their first. It was with growing depression that they all contemplated their return to England. This was made worse by the fact that Ed and Henry would be separated for a fortnight before school recommenced. Their relationship had become firmer and deeper the longer they were together, and it seemed pretty obvious to Mum and Dad that the pair had the sort of interlocking personalities that made them more as a couple than they were as individuals. The prospect of being apart was for both like losing a limb.

Ed was not the sort of person who let problems be, he went out to meet them. He became very active on his mobile. On the Monday of their last week, on their way back from the National Opera walking with Will and the parents, Ed pulled Henry to one side.

'Little babe,' he said urgently, 'I don't want us to be apart if we can avoid it, and I finally got my mum to agree to let you stay with us in London for ten days... will you come?'

Henry looked in the eager but troubled face of his lover, and knew he could not say no. 'But aren't they divorcing, Ed? Won't I be intruding at a difficult time?'

'Well... yeah. And I won't say it's not going to be uncomfortable for you. But not nearly so uncomfortable as for me, to have you see what sort of parents I've got. But it'll really help me, Henry, really it will. You don't know how desolate my life is when I'm away from you.'

'OK then. My mum and dad won't say no, if they can see I want it. And I won't say that I'll regret being with you for some more time before we have to go back to the Straight Academy for Boys.'

'You still want to come out, then?'

'More than ever.'

'Let's see if exposure to people not as nice as your parents and the Tarlenheims changes your mind.'

On their last day Will and Oskar set up a party at the palace for them, a lot of the parishioners from St Edward's came along, to show their appreciation of Dad's time with them, and Justin and Nathan were still there, although about to leave. They swore to meet up in London the next week, if they could get time off from work, and there was always the prospect of the nightlife, grinned Justin, a little too knowingly to suit Henry.

As they left, Will, Felip and Oskar and the boys hugged and kissed them and made them promise not to be strangers. Fritz made them bend down a little (a very little in Henry's case) so that he could kiss them on the forehead and bless them in the Rothenian way, which was, as Henry concluded, a solemnly satisfying way to end a happy period of close friendship.

It was a quiet and sad Volvo that left for the frontier that Saturday, with Ed and Henry glued to the windows soaking up their last sight of Strelzen. 'I'm gonna come back here... and soon,' swore Ed. Henry did his usual brilliant navigational job. 'Who needs a satellite with our Henry,' said Mum. London was an adventure for Henry, never having been there before, but he got them round the North Circular Road and safely down to Hampstead, where Ed took over the directions.

'Wow... it's so... London,' marvelled Henry. 'All the people, and all the houses with that sort of grey-brown brick you don't get anywhere else. It makes me feel like a real yokel.' Despite the looming trial of meeting Mr and Mrs Cornish, Henry couldn't stifle a certain excitement at the idea of a stay in the big city. The Cornish house on Flask Walk was a four storey town house with basement, and a small area at the front. Wisteria climbed around the door, and there was one of those parapet roofs that nineteenth-century London town houses have. It was only a short walk to the High Street.

The ring at the door elicited no response, but Ed had his key. He looked embarrassed. 'Sorry Marjorie,' he confessed to Mrs Atwood, 'They're not here. It's typical. I'm sorry.'

'It's not your fault, dear,' she replied, taking his arm, and kissing him. He looked on the verge of tears for a moment, then he took Henry's mum in his arms and embraced her hard and kissed her back.

'I'll miss you, Mrs Atwood.'

'And we'll miss you too. We'll look forward to seeing you back at the Rectory.'

'Goodbye, son,' said Dad, shaking Ed's hand, 'have a good time both, now. You have the money and times for the train don't you, boys? Good. Give me a ring when you need picking up from Shrewsbury.'

Then they were alone. Henry looked over the entrance hall. There was plenty of evidence of money, but strangely little evidence of personality in the house. Henry breathed out, and picked up his bags. 'We'd better go upstairs to my room then.'

The room, when they entered it, was bare. Ed was stunned. 'Where's my fuckin' stuff! What the...'

Even the bed had been stripped, and all that was left was basic furniture. Personal items were all gone. Ed checked the drawers and wardrobes. Nothing.

'Where are your parents?'

'Work, I suppose, though for my father that basically means a long lunch at a pub in Holborn. What's going on?'

They went downstairs and sat in the kitchen. Ed made drinks and looked worried. 'My mum didn't say anything about stuff being packed up, so what's happened? I'll bet the divorce has moved on. I'll bet Dad's up to something.'

It was not till seven that evening that a key scraped in the door and Mr Cornish arrived home. He stood in the doorway, a portly man, his hair blond like his son, but shorter and getting sparse on top. His colouring was reddish and the purple veins on his nose declared how he spent too much of his time, but apart from that and the odour of pub about him, you could see no sign that he was drunk.

'You're here then,' was all the greeting his son got. Henry blushed for his friend.

'What's going on, Dad?' Ed was keeping his voice level, but Henry knew him too well now not to hear the suppressed tension in his voice.

'Your mother's finally gone, and she took her stuff and yours with her.' He pulled a folded piece of paper from his inner pocket. 'Here's the agreed settlement. It says she has custody but I have access. It also orders the sale of the house. The estate agents were here this morning, it'll be going on their website tomorrow.'

Henry's mouth hung open as Ed's father brutally dismantled his world for him. Ed just stared. 'What about me, what about Henry?'

'This is Henry?' he asked incuriously. 'He's not my problem, nor for that matter are you anymore, boy. Your mother's taken a flat in Fulham for the time being and that's where you need to be. Not here. You'd better ring her mobile.'

Ed did and got no response. He looked wildly at Henry. 'Henry, I'm so sorry about this. Those... fucking bastards.' His eyes were full of tears. Henry wished he could reassure and kiss him, but with his father sitting there on a hall chair and looking on, that was not possible.

Eventually Ed turned on the man. 'I can't raise her. We'll have to stay here tonight, like it or not.'

'There's no food, and the utilities are going to be turned off tomorrow. I'm moving in with Clara, and that's where I'll be sleeping tonight. The only reason I came back tonight was to pick up papers. So I'll be on my way.' This was not just indifference, Henry could see a spoiled child in this man's face, utterly selfish, and mean because he had not got his way over something.

Ed's father got up, picked up an envelope, and shrugged. 'See you when I see you Edward. Oh, and by the way, you're not going back to your school. I can't afford it and your mother won't pay for it.' And just like that, with no smile or gesture of affection, he left.

Henry took one look at his lover's devastated face and simply went down on his knees in front of him, hugging him round the waist. They stayed like that for ages, and before long he felt drops of water falling on his head. Ed was crying like a child and he could feel his body shaking gently in his arms. They neither moved.

Eventually, Ed slid down and sat on the floor with him. He had stopped crying. He wiped his eyes. Henry adjusted his position so he had his arm round Ed's shoulder.

'OK?' he breathed.

'I'm so on my own, Henry,' came the desolate reply.

Henry grimaced, 'I won't say the obvious, Ed. Try your mother again.' Ed did and didn't even get voicemail.

'Maybe she'll be here later this evening,' said Ed. 'We'd better camp here. I'll go out and get some food from the minimart up the road. Egg and chips OK, little babe?'

'Always and forever, Ed.' His lover gave him a pale smile.

While Ed was gone, Henry rang his mother and filled her in on the tragedy. There was a stunned silence on the end of the line, followed by a volley of outrage and a declaration that they were on their way back to pick him up.

Henry sternly forbade this, saying he needed to be here for his Ed who didn't need any more abandonments in his life at the moment. And when his mother said that they would take Ed off to Trewern too, he reminded her that she was not Ed's mother and she just couldn't do that. She muttered something about some people needing a licence before they should have kids. She told him to ring in as soon as he had news, and they would be ready to come and get him at a moment's notice.

Then Henry rang Nathan's mobile. 'Henry, hey! Whassup?' Henry told him. 'Bloody hell. What a pair of total arseholes. Even Justin's poor mum was more of a parent than those bastards. What do you want to do, Henry?'

'Are you free this evening? Poor Ed needs friends at a time like this. He's so upset.'

'Sure. Me and Justy were going to the gym, but this takes priority. I'll get Jenna to drive us over.'

'Jenna?'

'The security chief.'

'Aah... different sort of world you live in, isn't it?'

'You could say that. I've got my test in a fortnight though, and after that... total freedom, apart from the fact that Justy'll be wanting me to drive him everywhere.'

Good as his word, Nathan and Justin were ringing on the doorbell before they'd finished their oven chips. There were hugs and kisses in the hall, very tender from both the older boys towards Ed, who sort of nestled into Nathan when he walked him to the sofa, pulling him down into his lap and wrapping his powerful arms round him.

'If all else fails, babes,' began Justin, 'you're coming over to us in Highgate. Me dads will put you up or I'll nag 'em to the point of insanity. In fact that seems a far better idea than waiting here until your mum remembers you exist... what a...' Nathan swatted him round the head, 'Oops. Sorry,' Justin muttered.

'I've just discovered that physical violence tends to work with Justy better than reason. But he's right. Come over with us to Gay Central where you can be loved and taken care of. Leave a note with the address on the hall table. It's a light evening, and it's not too long a walk across the Heath.'

'Yeah... maybe we can check out the cruisers down by the ponds and...' Whap! Another swipe rocked Justin's head. 'Hey! Cut it out, yer bully!'

'There is one reservation though, based on my experience,' Nathan added. 'When your mother knows whose house you're in, she'll know more about you than maybe you want known, Ed.'

Ed looked up at Nathan. 'I don't care. Maybe it's time mum got a reality check. If she's signed out as a parent, then I don't see why I shouldn't start my adult life, and start it with honesty. I love my Henry, and since I'm not going back to Medwardine, then there's no reason to deny it to the world.'

Henry glowed with pride in his boyfriend. 'You sure?' he asked.

'Certain,' Henry affirmed.

'Then I love you for ever, Ed.'

'I'm gonna cry,' smiled Justin, jabbing his finger into his mouth and making retching actions.

They turned the lights out in the house, locked up and walked slowly eastwards across North London, Nathan helping out by carrying the heavier bags. They went over their recent memories of Rothenia, and even Ed was relaxed and smiling by the time they got up into Highgate village. They stopped off in a café. Nathan amused and then stunned them very much with an account of a night out in Camden that had begun in that same café and nearly ended with Nathan's rape in a seedy club.

'And the little sod,' he ended, jerking a thumb at Justin, 'never apologised and seemed to think it was hilarious.'

Justin grinned wickedly and looked like the bad boy he really was. 'It was fun. Great night out. We gotta do it wiv Henry here... they'd love his pretty little bum down in Camden. It was that sort of club. I saw a kid being screwed in the loos who was never of age. He seemed to be loving it too.'

They arrived at about nine at the big house in the back streets of Highgate towards the tube station. It was an imposing eighteenth-century building, right on the street behind railings, with a big garden behind reached by a side lane and gate. Nathan had his key out and ushered them into the impressive entrance hall, with its baronial staircase and big stained glass windows.

Justin called out, 'Mrs Atkinson... hey, Mavis!'

A rather determined looking middle aged woman appeared, and looked Justin over with a curl in her lip that seemed to hint at deep seated aversion.

'Yes?'

'We got two friends staying, so they need a room.'

She looked Henry and Ed over. 'Only one?'

'They're a couple, like me and Nate.'

'No,' she said, 'not like you and Nathan, they seem to be two nice boys, whereas you...'

'Can't get the help nowadays.'

Nathan butted in, 'Is it OK, Mrs Atkinson?'

'Of course it is, Nathan. I just wanted to keep monkey boy sweating. Do you need food or anything.'

'Coffee would be nice,' said Nathan.

'Of course,' she said. 'Sir Andrew said that he and Dr White would not be in till after midnight.'

They sat in the back lounge looking out on the beautiful rear garden in the dying light of the late August evening. Justin and Henry cuddled into the bigger boys, Justin kneading away at Nathan's crotch and grinning at the reaction between his legs. They didn't say much, but it was nice and companionable being safe with friends who cared about them. Henry rang his parents and told them where he was. They were impressed.

Ed had by now perked up and asked, 'Your dads not much into photos are they?'

Justin nodded, 'Matt says that if he wants to see pickies of himself he can just go on the tube or drive down Holloway Road. But they got photos of each other...'

'... and you!' Nathan chipped in

Justin blushed, 'er yeah... they got them in their studies.'

'And show them the portrait!'

'Oh, yeah. They had it painted just after their civil partnership thingy. It's oils an' all. Someone famous done it. Can never remember the name though.' Justin led them into the front reception room. Over the fireplace was a tall painting of some considerable accomplishment. Two young men sat carefully arranged, hand in hand, smiling gently and a little shyly at each other. They were formally dressed, with orders of chivalry. But it was the faces that impressed. One was a light blond, ordinary enough except for the expression with which he looked up at his partner: behind the smile was a mixture of utter devotion and adoration which only a great artist could hint at. It made his small features exalted and in their way beautiful. The other face, however, was almost beyond human in its beauty, and Henry immediately recognised it from posters and magazines he had been seeing all his life. But here it was awe inspiring, like a seraph come to earth. And he looked down on his partner like he was consumed with passion for him.

'Wow,' gasped Henry

'It was the cover of Gay Universe last Feb, and it was exhibited at the Tate Modern,' said Nathan, 'pretty amazing isn't it?'

'Yeah,' agreed Ed, 'amazing would sum it up.'

'Andy and Matt wanted him to do us two as well,' grinned Justin. 'But I said we were more the one-shot camera type.'

'How do you get used to living with someone as beautiful as that?'

'You doan notice it after a while. No, really. He's such a great guy... just a bit sulky at times when he doan get his way. But he loves me, they both do, and they show it. I can't tell you what they mean to me.' And Henry was a little awed to see the look of utter devotion on the face of that rude, merry and aggressive street kid as he looked up at the picture of his adopted fathers. He thought now he could see why Justin was not eager to move on in life. For such a boy as he was, the late entry of selfless love into his life must have rocked him to the emotional core. He couldn't get enough it. He caught Nathan's eye and saw that he saw it too, and a lot of Nathan's patience towards his pretty, but annoying, Justy was now clear to him.

Justin promptly sabotaged the moment of exaltation by saying, 'You two wanna get to bed, nudge, nudge? You can come in wiv us instead if you like.'

Nathan sighed, 'He'll never give up hopes of group sex, the sad little git. He knows I won't do it.'

'Never is a long time to hold out against someone as annoying as me,' grinned Justin, and then was taken aback as Henry closed with him, and kissed him deeply.

As Henry broke off the lip lock, he whispered, 'If ever I fancy it, it's with you I'll do it Justy, you're something special.'

Justin searched his eyes, puzzled as to where that had come from. But then he gave a strangely shy smile, and pecked him back on the lips.

They said good night and Mrs Atkinson was summoned to take Henry and Edward upstairs. The room was en suite, with a widescreen TV, flower arrangements and fine modern furniture. The art on the walls was not reproduction. They undressed and lay on the bed together, kissing and fondling. Henry was pretty sure he knew what Ed needed that night, and he lavished his increasingly skilful attention on Ed's cock, licking, sucking and exciting. He had discovered that tickling Ed's frenum with the point of his little tongue brought him to the edge. And as he had planned, Ed got up and put Henry under him, to get a deeper penetration by taking him from behind. Ed too was getting more assured with his love making. He slid into Henry's welcoming hole with a triumphant cry, whispering his devotion to his gentle lover in his ear, as he sucked and licked at it. He held out as long as he could – which was not as long as Henry wanted – before going into a convulsive ejaculation. He pushed Henry down and lay along his back, squirming on his warm and velvet skin, until his penis dropped out. Then he rolled to the side, and embraced Henry, joining mouths as they had joined body and soul in their coupling.

There was a solemnity to this particular moment, as they both sensed. Henry finally whispered, 'This can't be the end, my beautiful lover. We were meant to be together, and never part. I'm not going to let them separate us. We'll do a runner, if all else fails. Go somewhere, go anywhere. But we'll be together.'

'If we were only a year older, little babe. But we'd never get away with it. You don't know my mother. She's the worst: possessive and indifferent at the same time. Also she's a lawyer and a good one. She knows her rights and she knows the courts. She probably couldn't care less what I do or what I am, but she'll make sure I know she's hers to order around.'

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