Not Always Easy

by Kit

Chapter 9 - Dan's Story (Part 2)

Dan had one arm twisted painfully behind his back and his neck was being squeezed by Gerard's forearm. Using his one free hand, Dan tried to reach back to grab Gerard's hair or attack his face, but as soon as Dan made any contact with his attacker's head, his throat was squeezed so tightly that he nearly blacked out. To keep his airway open, Dan was forced to use his free hand to try to reduce the pressure of the arm around his neck. Dan wriggled and struggled to break free but Gerard was much stronger than his victim, and when Dan tried to kick out he just ended up suspended by his neck and arm. Apart from his physical difficulties, Dan was still dizzy and disoriented as a result of his head having been banged so hard on the wall.

"We don't want queers like you in our school," Gerard growled.

"Filthy faggot!" the other boy said, and spat in Dan's face.

"C'mon, Stu, hit the little perve!" shouted a female voice.

Stu, the smaller of Dan's attackers, punched him hard in the stomach and he would have doubled over if it hadn't been for the arm around his neck. As it was, he nearly puked.

"Again! Harder!" screamed the same female voice.

This time Stu punched Dan in the mouth, and strangely, he tasted blood before he felt the pain. He vainly tried to kick out at Stu, who hit him again in the face. That blow would probably have broken Dan's nose if he hadn't twisted his head, and although the blow did hit his nose and hurt like hell, the main force was deflected onto his cheek. Stu's next couple of punches hit him in the ribs, and through the haze of pain Dan noticed that with each blow Stu had been shouting words like 'fag', 'poof', 'queer' or 'perve'. Each of those words was echoed in Dan's ear by Gerard, as if this was some kind of ritual.

"I don't...ugh...know what...ugh...yer talking... ugh... about..." Dan tried to shout between blows.

Stu must have understood him because he stopped hitting him for a moment and looked in the direction from which the female voice had come.

"Course he knows," she said. "Remember what Adam Richardson told us!"

Stu turned back toward Dan, spat in his face again, and punched him in the left eye, but Dan twisted his head away from the next punch, which hit his left ear.

"Leave him alone, you bastards!"

Even though Dan's head was ringing, he recognised Steve's voice. Gerard released him, and he dropped to the ground, where he was kicked hard in the ribs.

"Mind yer own business!" Gerard shouted, then he sneered, "Unless yer really are his boyfriend... then we'll do you as well."

Dan was lying on the ground, curled up into a ball and his left eye was too sore to open, but through the tears in his other eye he could see Steve run up to Gerard and push him away. Steve was a little bigger than Stu but considerably lighter than Gerard, so Dan's relief at Steve's arrival was suddenly replaced by the fear that he, too, would get hurt. Gerard aimed a punch at his face, but Steve dodged and it became only a glancing blow to his cheek.

After sidestepping another blow from Gerard, Steve hit him in the stomach, but it didn't seem to have much effect. Stu was about to join the fight, but Dan managed to grab his leg, causing him to trip over. He twisted on the ground and kicked Dan's hand, loosening his grip. Gerard was only sparring with Steve, obviously waiting until Stu joined him so that the two of them would have an overwhelming advantage. However, before Stu could join the attack, four more Sixth Formers came running up behind Steve. Seeing that they were now outnumbered, Stu and Gerard ran off.

Steve, his face flushed and tears in his eyes, ran over to his friend, knelt on the ground and cradled Dan's head in his arms. Dan was so happy to see him that he smiled, but the pain from his split lips turned the smile to a grimace.

"Oh, God!" Steve moaned. "Just look at you!"

"I'm okay, now you're here," Dan mumbled through his sore mouth. "Thanks."

After that, everything became hazy, though Dan didn't actually lose consciousness. Ambulance, hospital, probing of injuries, lights being shone in his eyes, all blended and blurred together. His next moment of clarity was when he was lying in a hospital bed in an open ward with his mum sitting on the side of the bed and holding his hand. His dad was standing next to her and Steve was standing on the other side of the bed. All three of them looked very concerned. Apparently, Dan had been drifting on the edge of consciousness for some hours, and didn't even remember being taken for X-rays.

Every part of his body seemed to hurt, especially his head, and his left eye wouldn't open. His mum was first to notice that he was fully conscious and she leaned over, kissed him on the forehead and asked how he was feeling, which seemed to him to be a silly question. When Dan tried to speak, all he could manage through his swollen and sore lips was a croak. Steve tried to hold his left hand, but the four fingers of that hand were bandaged together, so he just touched Dan gently on the wrist. He noticed that Steve had red marks and scratches on his left cheek as well as on his knuckles.

Dan learned from Steve that Brian, a friend in his class, had seen Gerard and Stu grab him, but being no match for them he wisely ran to get help. Fortunately, the place where Dan was attacked was not far from the gates where Steve was waiting, and knowing that Steve was Dan's best friend, Brian told him what was going on. Steve sent Brian to get more help from the nearby Sixth Form common room while he rushed to rescue Dan. When Dan asked if he saw the girl who was encouraging his attackers, Steve said he hadn't noticed any girls there, so she must have run off when Steve appeared.

When Dan and his parents thanked Steve profusely, he modestly said that he was only one of the people who had helped. Dan pointed out that he was the only one who risked himself and got hurt on his behalf. Then Steve joked that a similar thing had happened ten years earlier, so if this was going to become a habit, then he'll have to make sure he was close by when Dan was twenty-six. He seemed amused by his own little joke, but for Dan it seemed to be too close to the truth to be funny.

The injuries, though painful, were relatively superficial. Dan had no broken bones and he didn't need any stitches, but because of the bump on his head he had to stay in the hospital overnight for observation. As it was only a couple of weeks until his GCSE exams it was fortunate that he was right-handed and the badly bruised fingers were on his left hand. Having made sure he was going to be okay, his parents and Steve had to go as none of them had eaten or been home since breakfast. His mum said she'd be back in the morning to take him home and Steve promised to visit him after school. His dad leaned over to kiss him on the forehead before leaving, and as he stood upright again he spoke very softly.

"This is the sort of thing I was worried about. See you tomorrow, son."

He gave Dan a sad smile and left the room. His voice and whole expression told Dan that this cryptic statement was not intended as a way of saying 'I told you so'. It seemed more likely that he meant it to be a partial explanation of, or even apology for, his negative attitude toward his son's sexuality.

The next day, soon after Dan and his mum arrived home, his dad phoned her from his office. After asking how their son was, he told her that Dan's headmaster, Mr Blaine, had phoned him and asked to see them at school the following day. He suggested to his wife that nine o'clock the next morning would be best for them, and she agreed, so he said he'd contact the headmaster and arrange things.

Steve came over straight from school, bringing spare clothes with him so that he could stay overnight. Dan's mother greeted him warmly and thanked him again for going to her son's rescue. He was horrified and concerned when he saw the state Dan was in because the bruises looked even worse than they had the previous day, so Dan tried to ease his mind by pointing out that it looked much worse than it really was.

While Dan's mum was in the kitchen preparing dinner, the two friends sat in the living room, and although the TV was on, they weren't actually watching it. Had Dan been his usual self he would have asked Steve immediately about what had happened at school, but Dan felt as if most of his emotions were switched off and his mind was shying away from any thoughts involving the beating. Steve, too, was quiet and Dan thought he seemed to be upset, so eventually he asked him what was wrong.

"As soon as I got into school," Steve said, "I got a message saying that I had to report to the headmaster immediately. When I got there he was all jittery, red-faced and flustered, and asked me what had happened. So I told him all I knew, that I was told you needed help, and when I got there you were being beaten up by Gerard and some other guy whose name I didn't know. When he asked me if I knew why they had attacked you I said that I didn't."

He looked at Dan with a smile that was belied by the sadness in his eyes.

"Anyway," he continued, "Blaine said he knew who the attackers were and that they hadn't been in school since they'd run off. He'd contacted their parents and asked them to come and see him, but hadn't contacted the police as he wanted to speak to your parents first."

Steve took a deep breath and Dan saw a flash of anger in his eyes. "Then Blaine told me that he was considering suspending me for calling the ambulance without consulting a teacher and for leaving school to go to the hospital without permission."

"What!" Dan yelled.

Dan's Mum came running from the kitchen to see what was going on. When Dan told her what Steve had said she was furious. When she calmed down she had a very determined look on her face and told them not to worry because Dan's dad would take care of the situation. After she went back to the kitchen, Dan noticed he was shaking, mostly from anger but also because the memory of the previous afternoon suddenly came flooding back. For several seconds he tried to speak, but instead choked on his tears, so Steve put his arms around him. There were so many different emotions, all mixed up together and filling Dan's mind that he couldn't think. He couldn't even sort out one emotion from another, and the rest of Steve's report had to wait till his dad got home.

His wife spoke to him as soon as he arrived, then he phoned Steve's parents while she served up dinner. Dan really had no appetite, but joined his parents and Steve at the dinner table. That was one of the quietest and most subdued meals Dan could ever remember, and he felt sorry for his mum because no one seemed very interested in the food she'd prepared. His dad told them that Steve's parents would be coming round after dinner, and until they arrived any further discussion about what had happened at school should wait. Seeing his dad in his 'lawyer mode' at home was an extremely rare event and Dan found this business-like manner quite intimidating, even though they were both on the same side.

Once his parents had arrived, Steve told everyone what he'd already told Dan, and then he went on to say that neither Gerard nor Stu had appeared in school all day. Predictably, Steve's parents were also furious about Blaine's threat to suspend him. Dan's dad told them that he and his wife had already arranged to see the headmaster and would discuss the possible involvement of the police. He promised that he'd also 'sort out this suspension nonsense' at the same time.

Dan brought up the subject of the girl who had been encouraging Gerard and Stu to attack him. Steve said that no one had admitted to seeing her and although there were a few rumours, no one could say definitely that a girl had anything to do with the attack. As far as Dan was concerned they were not 'rumours', and he believed she was just as guilty as the boys who'd hit him. When Dan asked Steve if the rumours had mentioned any names, he said he hadn't heard any names and that in any case it would be wrong to accuse anyone based just on gossip.

When Dan mentioned Adam's role it was pointed out that apart from what he'd heard the girl say, there was no evidence about Adam's involvement. Even if what she'd said was true, it wasn't evidence that he'd intended for Dan to be attacked, and outing someone wasn't a criminal offence or even against school rules. The next part of the discussion, which occasionally got quite heated and emotional, centred on the possible involvement of the police. Dan's dad felt strongly that Gerard and Stu should face criminal prosecution, and both his mum and Steve supported him. Steve's parents weren't sure what would be best and said it was up to Dan and his parents.

Having spent much of the day thinking about this, Dan was torn between two sets of opposing arguments. On the one hand, prosecution would be compatible with his desire for revenge and maybe it would decrease the chances of it happening again. On the other hand, he just wanted to forget the whole thing. Every time he thought about it he started shaking and wanted to curl up and hide away from everyone. Also, if there were to be prosecution, he feared the consequences of publicity in the town as well as at school. The idea of being outed in the local newspaper was not very attractive, and although his dad said that because of his age the newspaper could not legally use his name, Dan was sure that it would rapidly leak from the school to become general knowledge in the town.

Steve pointed out that, like Dan, the attackers were doing GCSE exams in a couple of weeks and everyone knew that Gerard at least was unlikely to do well enough to get into the Sixth Form. Therefore, there wasn't much the school could do to punish them in the short time they had left there. So if they weren't prosecuted then they would, in effect, get away with it. The discussion went back and forth with Dan occasionally bursting into tears. The final outcome was that Dan should be allowed to decide, but that he should sleep on it and not make a final decision until the morning.

By the time this conclusion was reached, everyone, especially Dan, was exhausted even though it wasn't yet ten o'clock. After Steve's parents went home, Dan and Steve got ready for bed while Dan's parents continued talking quietly in the living room. Before Dan had come out to his parents, when Steve stayed overnight the two friends had always shared Dan's double be. However, Dan's dad found out he was gay, it became clear that he was uncomfortable with the idea of the two boys sharing the bed, so Steve had started using one of the two spare bedrooms.

That particular night, however, Steve asked if his friend needed company, and Dan happily accepted the offer. The idea of any sexual activity was not considered by either of them and the sole purpose of sharing the bed was for affection and mutual comfort. Though Dan was the one who received most of the physical injury, it was for mutual comfort because Steve was very upset by what had happened. Also, for both of them, the world they had always thought to be safe had suddenly become dangerous and frightening. All night they huddled together like two scared children, which Dan felt was just what they were.

Neither of them slept well, and more than once Dan was disturbed by nightmares, but they were both glad of the companionship. Dan was kept awake not only by the nightmares and the discomfort of his injuries, but also by the decision he had to make. When the alarm went off he was already wide-awake and had made his decision. It may not have been the right decision, but as far as he could see, whatever he decided would be bad in some way. Maybe it was cowardice, but he chose the path that seemed to have the least potential for pain and hassle. He'd decided to ask his dad to try to avoid getting the police involved.

Although many parts of his anatomy were quite sore, Dan was able to move around the house without help, so his mum decided to go into work after she and his dad had seen the headmaster. They each took their own car and his mum took Steve to school in hers. Dan just pottered around the house all day, unable to work up any interest in anything, especially the studying he should have been doing for his imminent exams. He spent most of the day staring at the TV with no idea what program was on, but he didn't feel bored. Instead, he was just drifting mentally and feeling detached from life. It felt as if all this must be happening to someone else or as if it was all a dream.

When the doorbell rang, announcing Steve's arrival, it seemed to Dan that it was only a few minutes since he'd been left alone in the house, and it occurred to him that hadn't even got around to having lunch. Steve smiled when the door was opened, then he winced when he saw his friend's face. Dan smiled as widely as he could without opening up the cuts on his lips, then led Steve inside where they helped themselves to some orange juice. Steve asked how Dan was but otherwise he was very quiet and seemed deep in thought as they sipped their drinks.

Steve said that he'd not seen or heard from the headmaster all day, but he expected Dan's dad would have sorted things out. When asked why he seemed so glum, he hesitated for a while, then told Dan that he'd split up with his girlfriend. When Dan offered his sympathies Steve said he didn't really mind and that it was all for the best. It occurred to Dan that he'd never been introduced to the girl Steve had been seeing for the last couple of months, but then Steve had never made a point of introducing Dan to any of his past girlfriends. Dan wondered if perhaps Steve thought meeting his girlfriend would make Dan feel uncomfortable, or maybe Steve just felt more comfortable by keeping different parts of his life separate.

As usual, Dan's mum arrived home before her husband and after putting the kettle on she told the boys that everything went well with the meeting at school but that they should wait for his dad to give us details.

"Awww, Mum," Dan whined. "Can't you just tell me?"

"No Danny, your dad did most of the work dealing with the headmaster, so it's only fair we let him tell you about it."

Dan had long ago given up reminding her that he didn't like to be called 'Danny'. Among his friends and family, she was the only one who still called him by that name, and because she was his mum he'd learned to tolerate it.

"So you won't tell us anything at all?" Dan asked.

"All I will say now is that I'm very proud of your dad and you should be proud too." That was all she would say before she went off to start making dinner.

His dad arrived home, and after a quick shower and change of clothes he sipped a gin and tonic while he gave Dan and Steve a report on the meeting with the headmaster. He told them that as soon as my they'd exchanged greetings with the headmaster, it became clear to him that Blaine was keen to avoid any police involvement because of the implications to the reputation of the school. Being a smart lawyer, Dan's dad realised immediately that this could be useful if he needed some leverage during the discussion, so he didn't let Blaine know that Dan didn't want to get the police involved.

On the other hand, Blaine knew of the rumours about Dan's sexuality and thought that the risk of that being exposed might give him some leverage in the discussion. However, Dan's dad held a trump card and told Blaine that if it turned out that Dan was gay, and he emphasised the 'if', then not only would the criminal assault become a hate crime but he would start a civil action against the school for not protecting his son from discrimination. He told Blaine that he wanted his son's attackers to be expelled and not allowed to take their exams, but the headmaster said that their parents would appeal, producing more unwanted publicity, and that during the appeal the boys would probably be allowed to sit the exams anyway.

Eventually Dan's parents and the headmaster reached an agreement, and Blaine was surprised when his dad insisted that the agreement was written down and signed. The important points agreed were: They would not involve the police, and no disciplinary action would be taken against Steve. Gerard and Stu would not be allowed in school except for exams, and no matter how well they did they would not be allowed into the Sixth Form. They would be told that if they asked the school for any references or recommendations, any such references would mention the attack. No member of staff would make any reference to Dan's sexuality and the headmaster would make it clear to the whole school that no form of discrimination would be tolerated. The school would also take particular care that Dan was not subject to any more bullying.

Before leaving the office, his dad told the headmaster that if Dan were ever physically harmed in any way at school, then he would immediately sue both the school and Blaine. At the end of his report, Dan's dad told his son that personally he would have chosen to have the attackers prosecuted but that he would support the decision Dan had made. Steve, Dan, and his mum all applauded, and his dad blushed. Dan couldn't remember ever seeing him blush before.

From then until the end of term Dan did all his revision and studying at home, going into school just for the exams. When he did go into school he was a bit afraid of how people would react to the rumours about his sexuality, but it seemed his fears were unfounded. All those he thought of as friends behaved just as if they hadn't heard any gossip at all, and although a couple of acquaintances asked if the rumours were true, he just ignored them. A few people he didn't know gave him strange looks but said nothing, and occasionally there were some whispers or hostile looks, but nothing overt.

The fact that Steve had broken up with his girlfriend so soon after Dan was beaten up seemed more than just coincidence to Dan, but when hinted at this suspicion, Steve became uncomfortable. After all Steve had done for him, Dan didn't want to force the issue. The ex-girlfriend was in Dan's year but not in his class, and apart from that, he didn't know anything about her. So out of curiosity, one day as Dan came out of exams he began casually asking friends if they knew anything about Steve's ex-girlfriend. One of them pointed her out, and although she was a considerable distance from away, she certainly seemed attractive.

During the long summer holidays Dan recovered from all the physical effects and most of the mental effects of the beating. On the day the exam results came out he found he'd done better than expected, and while they were celebrating at his house, he thanked Steve.

"Ya know, Steve, if it wasn't for you I probably wouldn't be celebrating and maybe wouldn't be here at all."

"What else could I do?" Steve said, blushing slightly. "We're best friends and we look after one another."

"Yeah, but it seems most of the time you're looking after me. And now that some people may even think you may be my boyfriend, you're gonna find it more difficult to get a girlfriend."

"Maybe sometime in future you may have to look after me. Anyway, if my chances of a girlfriend from our school aren't so good, there are lots of other girls. This time next year I won't even be in school. I'll have a brand new start at university, and I bet the university girls will be more fun anyway, so maybe everything will work out for the best after all!" He gave Dan a wicked grin, then looked a little more serious as he continued, "One thing though. Who's going to look after you when I'm at uni?"

"Who sez I need looking after?" Dan retorted, frowning with indignation. Steve just raised an eyebrow and smiled, and Dan continued, "Okay, maybe I did need looking after in the past, but I'm a big boy now..."

"Well, I've not seen it for awhile so maybe you are a big boy now." Steve interrupted.

"Ya know what I mean!" Dan said, punching his friend's shoulder. He tried pretending to be annoyed, but couldn't stop himself from smiling.

"Okay," Steve said in a businesslike tone. "So presuming you can avoid being beaten up or molested, we still have to find you a boyfriend to give ya some luurrve. And preferably before I go to uni."

"Mmmm," Dan said dreamily. "That'd be nice."

The two friends continued going to GLYG meetings two or three times a month and occasionally went to a gay pub, usually The Castle. However the cute guys Dan saw were taken, or too egocentric, or just didn't fancy him. If they did talk to him, he often just didn't get on with them, and although a few guys became their friends, or at least acquaintances, there were no romantic possibilities. Occasionally Steve pointed out someone he thought Dan might find cute, but his taste in guys was so terrible that it was just as well he wasn't gay. Fortunately, it seemed his taste in girls was much better. Dan began to wonder think that maybe he should do the same as Steve and wait until he got to university before looking for a relationship.

Everything was fine when they went back to school after the long summer holidays, and if anyone remembered the rumours they didn't mention them to either of the boys. Dan started in the Lower Sixth Form and Steve started in the Upper Sixth, his final year at school, so he started looking at different universities and courses, and thinking about which he wanted to apply for. Of course Dan wished the best for him, but he also hoped that what was best for him wasn't too far away.

A couple of weeks into the new term Dan had a very disturbing and unpleasant experience. School had just finished for the day and he was on his way from the Sixth Form building to meet Steve, whose last lesson was a lab class in the science block. As he left the Sixth Form building he caught a glimpse of Steve's ex-girlfriend, who was chatting with two other girls on the far side of the courtyard. They were too far away for him to hear anything until she shouted out something about homework to a boy a few yards in front of her.

As soon as Dan heard her shout he froze and was overcome by a mixture of fear and anger. It was the voice of the girl who'd been encouraging and inciting his attackers. He couldn't move, speak, or even have a coherent thought until she and her companions turned the corner and moved out of sight. Then he found he was shaking, and suddenly he felt very nauseous, so he staggered over to the line of bushes that were planted along the walls all round the courtyard and heaved out the contents of his stomach. His knees felt so weak that the only way he could remain standing was to prop himself up on both arms, leaning against the wall.

Eventually he regained enough control to go and meet Steve, who was waiting patiently by the main entrance to the science block. As Dan approached, Steve could see he wasn't feeling well, and looking very concerned, he asked his friend what was wrong. Dan just told him he'd been sick, possibly with some sort of food poisoning. What else could he say? 'Your ex-girlfriend was partly responsible for me being beaten up'? That wouldn't do any good and would probably only hurt Steve. Also, apart from recognising the voice, there was no other evidence of her guilt, so how could Dan be totally sure it was her and not just someone who sounded like her? After all, during the beating he was so terrified and in so much pain that he couldn't be one-hundred-percent certain.

So Dan didn't tell anyone about hearing her voice that day. Whenever he saw her after that, he'd feel the same anger and fear, so he kept as far away from her as possible. Gradually those feelings faded until he just felt very uncomfortable when he saw her, but he still sure there was as much distance as possible between them.

One Wednesday toward the end of October, Steve and Dan were at a meeting of the GLYG when Dan saw a boy about his own age slip quietly into the meeting room and hide himself away in the far corner. There was something about him that caught Dan's attention, but he couldn't say what it was. From that distance, there was no particular feature which stood out, but the overall impression was very pleasing. The newcomer's medium-brown hair was cut quite short, and he was about Dan's height but with a slightly heavier build.

Steve saw his friend staring, and followed the direction of Dan's gaze until he saw the object interest. He nudged Dan with his elbow and winked theatrically at him. He didn't speak because one of the meeting organisers was making some announcements about safe sex booklets, free condoms, and various sources of help and advice.

"You think he's cute then?" Steve asked as soon the social part of the meeting started. He grinned and stared at the boy in the corner

"Don't stare!" Dan hissed, feeling his cheeks beginning to burn. "You'll embarrass him... and me! And yes, he's certainly very, erm, interesting."

"Well, go over and say 'hello' then." Steve said, pushing Dan gently toward the corner.

"Don't be daft!" Dan said, resisting the push while trying not to draw attention. "He's obviously new here. We should let him settle and get comfortable before going over and risk scaring him off."

Dan turned away from the newcomer, hoping he wouldn't suspect that they were talking about him.

"Looks like you're as scared as he is," Steve teased. "Anyway, if you don't talk to him soon then you-know-who will get there first."

"Oh shit!" Dan said. He turned to look toward the object of his interest, and his heart sank right through his stomach when he saw that it was too late. Ben was headed straight for the newcomer.

The facial expression of the boy in the corner changed from apprehension to a shy smile as Ben approached him, and seeing that smile made Dan's heart melt and his knees turn to jelly. There was just something about this stranger that made Dan want to be close to him, so he edged toward him. Steve, looking both amused and bemused, followed after Dan. From the look on the new boy's face and the smile that lit up his features when Ben spoke, it became clear that the he was really taken with Ben. Dan suddenly felt very depressed and disappointed, as if he'd got the winning numbers on the lottery and then found that the ticket was out of date.

For the next hour or so, Steve frequently had to repeat himself when talking to his friend because Dan's attention and vision was constantly drawn toward the boy talking to Ben. Bearing in mind that Steve was giving up his time just to look after him and keep him company, Dan felt guilty and expected Steve to be annoyed. On the contrary, however, Steve seemed very happy and kept staring at Dan as if he were a strange but amusing alien creature. Then, when Ben escorted the boy from the room and didn't return, Dan suddenly crashed down to earth and felt very depressed.

"C'mon, Steve," he said dejectedly. "Let's go home."

"Okay, if that's what you want."

For the first few minutes as they walked toward the bus stop neither of them said anything, and Dan tried to work out why he was feeling so down. A guy had entered the room, there was nothing particularly remarkable about him, and yet Dan couldn't take his eyes off him. Then Dan had seen that the boy had a huge variety of smiles, which he could use to indicate apprehension, shyness, pleasure, embarrassment, happiness, laughter, thoughtfulness or admiration. Each time Dan saw one of those smiles he wanted, needed to get closer to the boy.

"You've really got it bad!" Steve said, shaking his head and smiling as they waited for the bus.

"Got what?"

"Luurrrve, Dan, luuurrrve!" Steve laughed.

Dan wondered how his friend could be so happy and gleeful about his clearly deranged mental state.

"Can't be," he said with certainty. "I've never even spoken to him. He's only an ordinary-looking guy and maybe not even a nice person."

"C'mon, man, from where I'm standing it looks like a classic case of love at first sight!" He had a half-serious look on his face and Dan wasn't sure if he was just teasing.

"I don't believe in it," Dan said. "There ain't no such thing. How can anyone fall in love with someone they've just seen once and never spoken to?"

"Maybe you'll speak to him next week."

"Hah!" Dan snorted. "Get real! He went off with Ben. What're the odds of him turning up next week?"

"Well, maybe we'll see him in The Castle then. This isn't a very big town, ya know."

"Yeah, and maybe pigs'll start flying!"

"Suit yerself," said Steve with a shrug. "I was just trying to cheer you up."

"Sorry, Steve. I know I'm being stupid. Just ignore me, okay? Prob'ly it's just a hormone thing," Dan said with a smile, trying to make a joke of it.

During the next week Dan gradually regained some control over his feelings, telling himself how silly it was to get emotionally entangled with a stranger. Despite the fact that he'd convinced himself that he'd probably never see the boy again, Dan was still disappointed when his 'dreamboy' wasn't at the next couple of GLYG meetings. When Christmas arrived and the boy still hadn't been seen at the GLYG or The Castle, Dan gave up hope entirely. Of course Ben was almost always there and sometimes Dan really felt like strangling him.

Dan's seventeenth birthday was early in January, and despite the usual efforts of his parents to make it special, coming so soon after Christmas it felt a bit anticlimactic. For various reasons, which included the horrible weather, Dan and Steve didn't go to any GLYG meetings between mid-December and mid-January, though they did pay a brief visit to the New Year party at The Castle. There they saw Ben with another guy, and when they exchanged polite nods with Ben the other guy introduced himself as Sam, telling them he was Ben's boyfriend. Sam, who appeared to be a bit older than Ben, was rather drunk and Ben, who seemed unhappy that he was talking to the two friends, immediately dragged Sam to the opposite side of the pub. Steve seemed very amused by the incident and wondered out loud if Sam knew what Ben got up to at the GLYG meetings.

The next GLYG meeting they went to was on the third Wednesday in January. Dan was daydreaming, well almost dozing, through the 'business' part of the meeting, which was just drawing to a close when Steve nudged him to full wakefulness.

"Look who's here!" he whispered in Dan's ear.

Dan looked around and near the back of the room he saw 'dreamboy'. Yes, he had indeed dreamed about him a few times, and more than one of those dreams could be classified as X-rated. As soon as the social part of the meeting started, Steve stood up, grabbed his friend's elbow and dragged him to his feet.

"Go on then. Go and say hello before someone else grabs him!" he said quietly, so that only Dan would hear.

Suddenly Dan felt so shy and embarrassed that he couldn't move.

"I... I can't!" he hissed in Steve's ear as soon as he could bring myself to speak.

Steve looked at him pityingly. "Well I'm going over to say hello and if you don't come with me I'll tell him you fancy him and you want him to come and talk to you."

"You wouldn't dare!" Dan hissed as he began to panic.

"Just watch me," Steve challenged, and started walking toward 'dreamboy'.

Dan had no choice but to follow, if only to make sure that Steve didn't say anything to embarrass Dan even more. At first Steve made all the conversation, but then Dan started to join in. It turned out that 'dreamboy' was actually called Paul, that he was the same age as Dan and that he was in the Lower Sixth at the Catholic boys' school. Dan noticed that he had beautiful hazel eyes and a lovely musical voice and that his repertoire of smiles was even more impressive when seen close-up.

Ben and his tendency to monopolise new guys became the subject of discussion, and somehow Dan found himself saying indirectly that he thought Paul was cute. This embarrassed both Dan and Paul but gave Steve much entertainment. Paul's embarrassment quickly turned to shock when Steve mentioned that Ben had a boyfriend. At that stage Dan had a pang of jealousy when he realised that Ben had probably had his 'wicked way' with Paul. Still, he thought, Ben and Paul are avoiding one another now, so at least they weren't involved any more.

The more they talked the more Dan felt he was becoming attached to Paul, so when the meeting ended and everyone started moving toward the door it felt like someone had thrown a bucket of cold water on him. He was desperate not to say good-bye, so he asked Paul if he wanted to go to the pub with him them. Steve looked slightly surprised because they'd intended to go straight home after the meeting, but he quickly guessed what was on his friend's mind and backed him up with the invitation. Dan was devastated when Paul declined and, with a cheery wave, set off to his car.

"Guess we're not going to the pub then?" Steve asked with a wry grin.

"Nah, let's go home."

"Don't be so down. There's always next time." Steve said as they walked to the bus stop, then he smiled as he squeezed Dan's shoulder and added, "From the way he looked at you I think he likes you."

"So why didn't he come to the pub then?"

"Maybe he doesn't like the pub, or maybe he had to get home."

He stopped walking, so Dan also stopped and turned back to face him. Steve looked his friend in the eyes as he continued, "Or maybe it's because he thinks we're a couple. He seems like a very nice a guy, and not the sort of person who'd try to break up a couple. I think next time you see him you should just tell him the truth."

"Mmm. Possibly. But won't he think that's a come-on? I don't want him to think I'm chasing after him!"

Dan started walking again and Steve followed, and as he quickly caught up he was barely able to suppress his laughter.

"Aren't you?" he teased.

"Well, I guess so. But I don't want him to think so, cos if he's not interested I'll feel really, really stupid."

During the next couple of weeks, they didn't see Paul at the GLYG meetings, and Dan felt very dispirited. He felt that Paul obviously he wasn't interested in him or he would have gone to the meetings to see if Dan was there. Because he was usually a very happy person, Dan's parents noticed his depression, and to escape additional questions from them, he told them that maybe he was coming down with flu or something. He knew that things would have been much, much worse if Steve hadn't been around to cheer him up.

Dan became so discouraged that he virtually gave up going to the GLYG meetings. Then, just before Easter, while they were eating lunch together at school, Steve reminded him that there was a GLYG pre-Easter party on the next Friday. He pointed out that as it was a special meeting, Paul might be there, but even if he wasn't then there might be other cute guys. Dan felt guilty about the idea of dragging his friend out to something that couldn't possibly interest him, but Steve told him that he enjoyed meeting new people and in any case he enjoyed Dan's company. After he said that, there was no way Dan could refuse to go without seeming churlish.

When they arrived at the party there was no sign of Paul, but it was still quite early so it was too soon to give up hope. They started on the nibble-food and got chatting with Kate and Helen, a young lesbian couple they'd become friendly with just before Christmas. They were fun people and Dan thought Steve rather fancied Kate, even though he knew that he'd have no chance with her. Anyway, if Steve did fancy her then he hid it very well if even Dan wasn't sure.

Around nine o'clock Paul entered the room and Dan was very pleased, not only by his arrival but also by the fact that the first thing he did was to come over and greet them. They had a pleasant chat for a few minutes, then Dan found he was staring so much into Paul's lovely eyes that he lost track of the conversation. Before anyone could notice him staring, he looked around the room and saw Ben chatting to a boy he'd never seen before.

"I see Ben's up to his usual trick," Dan said in an effort to excuse his inattention and to restart the conversation.

Paul looked over toward Ben and saw the new boy. It didn't take Dan long before he realised that he hadn't restarted the conversation at all, but instead he'd just caused Paul to be totally distracted by the guy chatting to Ben. For the next few minutes the conversation did continue, but it was clear that Paul had other things on his mind. He must fancy the guy with Ben, Dan thought, though he couldn't see why. Apart from his unusual shade of ginger hair there was nothing particularly interesting about him.

Later, when Paul was on his way to the drinks table he was looking intently at the ginger-haired boy when he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. He stood there for what seemed like ages and after a while, when Ben left the room, Paul wasted no time in dashing over and chatting to the boy. Obviously they got on well because as Ben came back into the room Paul scribbled something on a piece of paper and gave it to the boy.

It was clear to Dan that Paul was much more interested in this new boy than he was in him, but even through his bitter disappointment, Dan couldn't help admiring Paul's boldness and determination to get what he wanted. This was the second occasion on which Dan had talked to Paul, and both times Dan had the impression that Paul wasn't at all interested in him, so he gave up hope, turned to Steve, and suggested that they go home. Steve had seen what Paul had been doing and had seen his friend's reaction to it, so he immediately agreed. As they went to put on our coats, Paul came over to them and, just for one last try on Dan's behalf, Steve asked him if he wanted to go to the pub with them, but again Paul declined. As they left the building, Paul waved good-bye and Dan felt completely dejected.

Over the first couple of weeks of the Easter holidays, the two friends were together most of the time because they knew that once the new term started Steve would be studying hard for his A-level exams. He'd been offered a place at Manchester University, provided he got good enough grades, so at least he wouldn't be moving too far away. Steve was really good at cheering up his friend and much of the time Dan managed not to think about Paul at all. In a way, Dan thought, the fact that he'd lost all hope at the Easter party was a good thing because now he knew there was no chance that Paul could be interested in him, so now he had more motivation to forget Paul and move on with his life.

One evening during the second half of the holiday there was a male stripper booked to perform at The Castle, and never having seen one before, Dan decided to go. Though Steve wasn't at all interested in the stripper, he offered to go as well, but Dan told him that he didn't want to inconvenience him. Dan also pointed out that just as he'd feel uncomfortable watching a female stripper with Steve, so Steve would probably feel uncomfortable watching a male stripper with him, so he'd prefer to go alone. Although Steve was clearly concerned, he agreed with his friend, but like an extra parent he told Dan to take care of himself.

When he got to the pub Dan found there were actually two strippers that night, the first one was at nine o'clock and the second was scheduled for ten o'clock. The first stripper had a nice face and looked to be in his mid-twenties, and although it was quite exciting to see a young guy like that stripping in public, he was a hunk with great bulging muscles so he was really Dan's 'type'. In between the two acts, a very drunk Sam came over to his table and was getting a bit too friendly for Dan's liking, so he thought he'd put Sam off by asking about Ben.

He told Dan that they'd split up and that Ben was probably studying for his final exams, though Sam didn't know for sure and didn't really care. Certainly Sam didn't seem upset about the break-up, and when Dan questioned him about that, he told him that they would have had to break up soon anyway as Ben would be returning to Malaysia after his finals. Then Sam appeared quite gleeful as he told Dan that Ben would be entering into an arranged marriage as soon as he got back home. Shortly after that the second stripper came on, and as an excuse to get away from Sam, Dan moved away to get a better view.

At the start of the last week of the holidays Steve began to show more anxiety over the looming A-level exams and decided he should stay home and study. It was Saturday, the weather was nice, and Dan didn't want to stay at home so he decided to go for a wander round town. While he was browsing through CDs in Virgin, he looked up toward the cashiers' counter and saw the ginger-haired boy from the GLYG Easter party. Dan idly wondered what had happened after he'd last seen him with Ben, then as his eyes drifted away from the boy, Dan noticed Paul standing by the exit and his heart began to beat faster.

Standing next to Paul was another boy who appeared to be a slightly younger version of him, and when Dan saw them both laugh he could see they had identical smiles. He guessed that the younger boy was Paul's brother and that they must have been waiting for 'Ginger-hair', who went to join them and then left the shop with them. Taking the risk of seeming creepy, Dan couldn't resist the urge to follow them. He wanted to speak to Paul, or even just be close to him, but he was afraid of rejection, especially as any rejection would be even more embarrassing in front of Paul's companions.

Paul showed no sign that he'd seen Dan, who followed at a discreet distance as they walked along the crowded street. Many thoughts and emotions fluttered through Dan's head like a cloud of butterflies, and he tried to capture some of these thoughts and hold them still long enough to examine them more closely. Paul had given 'Ginger-hair' his number and now they were out shopping together. Were they boyfriends now? Dan's heart sank at the thought and he nearly turned away from them to go home, but he carried on following them, speculating further.

Maybe Paul and 'Ginger-hair' were just friends, but that still wouldn't mean that Paul might be interested in Dan. On the other hand, Paul seemed to have enjoyed being with Dan and Steve, so maybe Paul would want to be Dan's friend even if he already had a boyfriend. Dan decided that he wanted to try to become friends with Paul, even though he really wanted to be much more than just friends. Yet how would it feel to be just his friend if he knew they could never be more than friends? Well, as Steve often said: 'we won't know until we try'.

His best opportunity to approach Paul came when Dan saw him drop behind his two companions as they pushed on through the crowd ahead of them. Almost running, Dan closed the distance between them as quickly as he could and tapped Paul on the shoulder. He couldn't read the expression on Paul's face as he turned around, but whatever it was it turned into a smile of greeting, and Dan was relieved that he seemed genuinely pleased to see him. They started talking and Dan quickly found out that Ginger-hair's name was Rob, so when Rob turned back and approached them Dan quickly introduced himself.

The most pressing thing on his mind was to see if Rob was Paul's boyfriend, and maybe if Dan been more sensible and patient he would have waited for a discreet way of finding out. However, without considering the possible rudeness of his inquiry or what the implication of his question might be, he just asked straight out if they were together. Dan wondered if either of them saw the relief in my face when they said 'no'.

Then Paul introduced Dan to his brother, John, who up until that time had been keeping himself in the background. Dan was immediately horrified by his lack of discretion in asking Paul about boyfriends when his younger brother almost certainly could hear. Dan was mortified that he might have inadvertently outed Paul to his brother. Fortunately, John already knew all about his brother, and though he wasn't gay himself, he seemed very comfortable with Paul's sexuality.

Dan was very pleased when Paul invited him to join them for some tea and cakes, and he happily took part in their search for a suitable cafe. Having found somewhere, they sat chatting while they waited for their order, and it seemed to Dan from the way Paul looked at Rob that there was some special bond there, despite the fact they denied being boyfriends. Paul explained that Rob and he were at the same school and the reason he'd gone over and given Rob his number at the party was because he was worried about the possibility that Ben might hurt Rob.

Rob told Dan that he'd been to a party at Ben's apartment, that Ben had kicked him out on the street in the early hours of the morning, and that Paul had driven across town to rescue him. As Rob said this it was clear that he thought Paul was a hero and Dan could see Paul blushing. He was very impressed that Paul should go to so much trouble to help out someone who at the time was almost a stranger. Not only did Dan find Paul physically attractive but he was also falling more and more in love with his personality. Dan decided then and there that he definitely wanted Paul as a boyfriend, but even if he couldn't manage that, then he would try as hard as he could to become close friends with him.

When Dan told them about seeing Sam in The Castle, he was too embarrassed to mention the strippers. Both Paul and Rob seemed pleased with the idea that Ben would soon be returning home to an arranged marriage. As they continued to chat, they told Dan they were in town looking for birthday presents for Paul's best friend, Mike, who, it turned out, was not only at Dan's school but also in his year. As soon as they described Mike, Dan knew who he was and realised he was one of the cutest boys in school.

Mike and Dan were in different classes and they had different groups of friends, so he was someone Dan had never spoken to except to exchange an occasional brief greeting. Then Dan remembered the last few times he'd seen Mike and that on those occasions he'd been with Steve's ex-girlfriend, Sue, the very same girl that he was still pretty sure had been involved when he was beaten up. Perhaps Dan should have thought before he spoke, but he just blurted out that it was a pity that Mike was involved with a girl like her.

John immediately challenged Dan, who quickly realised that it had been really stupid to say anything. Paul, John and Rob were clearly very close and Dan was an outsider, so there was no way he could get across his point of view without antagonising them. After all, they didn't know about Dan being beaten up. In fact they didn't know anything at all about him or even what sort of person he was, and he'd just insulted their best friend's girlfriend. John was annoyed, Paul was frowning and Rob looked surprised. Dan was trying hard to make friends and instead he seemed to be making enemies, so he decided that rather than explain his remark it would be best to soothe them with an apology.

Fortunately, things calmed down, and as they enjoyed their cakes they seemed to become much more friendly. Paul and Rob went to the toilet while Dan and John waited for the bill. Dan took the opportunity to try to be better friends with John and maybe make him an ally. He also wanted to pass on a message for Paul before he and Rob returned, so he wrote down his phone number on a paper napkin and gave it to John, asking him to give it to Paul when they were alone and to tell Paul that Dan would appreciate a call.

John glared at him, making him think he didn't like the idea of Dan trying to get closer to his brother. Then he said something about Dan being nasty about Sue, so he quickly assured John that his reasons for wanting to talk to his brother were nothing to do with her. Dan realised that one way to convince him was to be open with him and show he trusted him enough to take him into his confidence. So Dan told him that he liked his brother a lot and added that he fancied Paul. He also emphasised that he liked Paul as a person very, very much. John seemed to be amused by that, and agreed to pass on Dan's number and message.

That night Dan was so nervous that he couldn't keep still and could hardly eat dinner. He kept wondering if Paul would phone and how he would react to the message he'd sent via John. As the evening wore on and he still hadn't heard from Paul, Dan wondered if John had passed on message. When his phone did eventually ring his heart skipped a beat and he answered immediately. The sound of Paul's voice produced butterflies in his stomach but also made him so happy that his voice must have sounded like that of an excited schoolgirl.

Very early in their conversation he confessed his feelings for Paul, though Dan was too scared to actually use the word love. Paul's first reaction was to ask about Dan and Steve, and despite what Dan had told John, it seemed Paul still thought that Steve was Dan's boyfriend. Thinking that perhaps John hadn't passed on that part of their conversation, Dan tried to explain briefly the situation with Steve. However, Dan knew that it was too complicated to deal with over the phone and that he needed to talk to Paul in person so that he could explain things properly. For some reason Dan felt an incredibly strong urge to tell Paul everything about himself and to share himself with Paul in every way possible.

When Dan asked if they could meet soon Paul seemed hesitant, then told Dan he was in love with Rob. On hearing that Dan was completely devastated, but tried to keep his feelings from showing in his voice. His heart rose a little when Paul explained that Rob didn't love him in return, but then Dan felt a bit like a traitor because he knew he should want Paul to be happy, yet he secretly rejoiced that Rob didn't love Paul. Dan still hung on to some hope, and he wasn't going to give up trying to win Paul's love until every last shred of hope had disappeared. He realised it was probably stupid, and it was certainly pathetic, but his heart wouldn't let him give up.

The next day, Sunday, Steve went over to Dan's house and they spent ages talking about the phone conversation with Paul. In fact, Dan's analysis of what Paul had said lasted far longer than the conversation itself, and he knew that Steve must have been getting incredibly bored with the subject. As usual though, Steve was extremely patient with him and he never gave any indication of boredom. On the contrary, he seemed not only interested but also rather concerned that his friend might get hurt.

That evening, Dan phoned Paul, and just hearing his musical voice made Dan feel happier. Right at the start of the conversation Dan wondered to himself what it would be like to hear Paul singing, and because of his nervousness the thought nearly sent him into a fit of giggles. Dan, concerned that Paul might think he was mentally unstable, quickly managed to control himself. He was desperate to see Paul again so he invited him round for lunch the next day, and when he accepted the invitation Dan almost jumped for joy. This was going to be their first meeting alone, and Dan was determined to do his best to impress him.

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