The Regency


By Michael Arram

'The Spa? Er... not sure about that. I thought you were suggesting a drive out into the country,' Barry prevaricated 'We all go to the Spa,' Helen explained. 'Besides, this weekend is special. It's the last one in September, when it's a tradition for the young to gather there. The cold weather will soon be on its way.'

'You're not embarrassed, are you?' Marky smirked.

'I've never been naked out of doors before. I'm not sure...'

'All the others will be there. The upper-school kids of SIS have a barbeque and a volleyball match, Year 11 against Year 12. Your year will want you there, you're so tall.' Helen grinned.

'Great, my balls will be flying everywhere.'

Marky thought about it for a moment, then gave a shout of laughter. 'It will be a sight to see. Please, for us Barry, be a Strelsener.'

'Well... okay. But you're not to laugh at me.'

Marky assured his friend he would not. The earnest look in his eyes convinced Barry that he had better do what the others did, and get used to the idea. They arranged to meet up at the tram hub of Flavienerplaz on Saturday morning.

Barry returned to his lessons. He settled next to Lance, with whom he had now forged a rapprochement. They had even sneaked over to his house the previous lunchtime for a clandestine sex session, Lance earnestly urging Barry to go on top. Barry had been touched by his consideration, but time constraints meant they had just sucked each other off in the end. Still, it had been exciting for Barry to explore Lance's amazing body once again.

Lance had come volcanically in his mouth, the first ejaculate Barry had tasted and swallowed apart from his own. Lance's had been strangely thick and sweet, as well as copious. It appeared that sperm came in more than one variety.

After their sex play, still sitting naked together, they had checked and found that, as promised, Reggie had done his worst. The site was down and unobtainable, even when they searched for cached versions of pages.

'Let's hope that's that,' Lance concluded. 'It looks like neither of us will achieve Internet porn fame. You never got on it at all, so there won't even be downloads to haunt you.' Reggie had explained to Barry that, while he couldn't do much to stop clips from travelling across the Web, he had strategies to identify and retaliate against any site featuring them.

Barry was computer-savvy enough to worry about the possibility of backup files that might somehow still be recovered and used against him. When he voiced his doubts, Reggie had quickly laid them to rest. 'You can forget about that too. Todo's and Luc's machines will be unusable for quite a while. I sowed them with some really persistent viruses, which those assholes will only be able to eliminate by completely reformatting their hard drives and reinstalling all their software. As for any backups that might have existed – including to the server – I sorta mentioned the problem to Damien in passing. All he said was, "Oh, yuh! I'll sort it." I didn't get another word out of him, and I figured it was better not to push: "Don't ask, don't tell," as the saying goes. Two days later he just shrugged and commented, "I wouldn't lose any sleep over them, know what I mean?"'

As Barry reflected on all this, sitting now next to Lance in their history class, he realised that Luc was not in school. The French boy's attendance was so erratic Barry could not make too much of this failure to show, but he still found it significant.

Barry passed a scribbled note to Lance: Are u going Spa Sat?

It came back annotated in Lance's neat hand: U bet. Gotta smash Y11 team. Tradition. And Daimey cheats bad.

The idea of strolling in the open air in the nude with a boyfriend who got him effortlessly erect just by looking at him was worrying to Barry, handicapped already as he was in the size department. But then he thought of all his straight colleagues who walked unembarrassed with their girlfriends at the Spa, so maybe it was not as problematical as he was fearing.

The modern German Land of Upper Thuringia had been created in 1990 out of the former East German province of that name. The process of reunification had meant the restoration of huge swathes of the Black Mountain district and the ancient castle of Heinrichshof to the former ducal dynasty, as well as numerous properties elsewhere in the region.

Dr Mechtie Wettin explained all this as she sat companionably next to Tommy in Bela's Passat. Prince Marty had driven way ahead of them in his Porsche. The archivist had intimated that she had no desire to share a car with the prince, who was an exceedingly poor driver with several spectacular crashes to his name.

'The old prince had a curious relationship with Heinrichshof. It was important to him as his family's ancient home, though it is not a particularly domestic place. It was also gratifying to him that he had seen out the Communist years and lived to have the old place restored to him. The East German government maintained it as a museum, and the library was more or less intact. The manuscripts had been removed to Switzerland by the prince when the castle became a POW camp in the war, so they were safe. I brought them back here myself from Zurich.

'Prince Leopold spent his last years here, not at Heilbrod, supervising repairs and improvements. He spent scores of millions of Deutschmarks on the estate, as well as his château of Saint-Hildeburg in the suburbs of Ernsthof, the former capital.

'But I think the main thing that attracted him to the place was the fact that he and his male lover, the English archaeologist, had begun their romance there as boys. The prince died holding Sir Martin Tofts's hand, and the Englishman survived him by only six months. You know about their tomb, I suppose?'

'Yes, a friend was telling me that it's quite an... er... striking piece of work at Zenda.'

'His son, the present prince, was criticised for allowing it, but he loved his father dearly... old Leo was a very lovable man. Prince Ernst Karl intends to be buried with his mother, however. He had her body moved from England to the Fürstengruft under the Matthiaskirche in Ernsthof, where his grandfather, King Albert of Ruritania, was laid after his assassination in 1919.'

Tommy's curiosity was piqued. 'What happened to the elder twin, his brother?'

'Leopold Albert? A victim of the sixties. He died of a drug overdose in London. It was all very tragic. He was a talented pianist but went very badly wrong at Oxford and never recovered.'

At that moment the Passat emerged from the forest road, along which they had been driving for the past five kilometres, into a great park. Facing them through the stands of trees were the limestone walls of an ancient castle. Round towers surmounted by black-painted onion domes divided off several tall domestic ranges. The ducal banner of Thuringia, striped in yellow and black, tugged lazily at the flagpole of a massive central keep, while the German national tricolour flew from the gate tower.

The Passat rolled up a gravel drive between lines of limestone posts carved with Thuringian wyverns. Mechtie directed Tommy to park outside the gatehouse, where Marty's Porsche was already safely drawn up. Through the gate was a bailey laid with multi-coloured cobbles in elaborate patterns. Mechtie pulled a bell at the side of the great door in the elaborate porch. It was answered by a footman in red, who recognised Mechtie and gave her directions where to find Prince Martin Anton.

The porch led into a high antechamber hung with banners and mounted heads of stags and boars. Suits of medieval armour stood in ranks along the walls. A grand staircase led up to another great archway through which could be glimpsed a hall with a hammerbeam roof.

They found Prince Martin Anton at the gigantic fireplace, sipping a mug of coffee. 'Welcome to the heart of Thuringia, my dears. Monstrous place, but it's what we call home. I've had lunch laid out in one of the nicer drawing rooms. Herr Wöhlich will join us.'

'Herr Wöhlich?' queried Tommy.

Mechtie Wettin replied drily, 'My colleague here at Heinrichshof, and, er... rival.'

'Be good!' Marty admonished.

'Ed, that you?'

'Hey, little babe!'

Henry in his study closed the laptop lid and scampered downstairs. Ed was at the coffee machine pouring himself a cup. Mrs Willerby, their British housekeeper, knew her men. She always kept the coffee topped up and the fridge full of fruit juice for Lance, who could not abide caffeine.

'Busy day at the barracks?'

'So, so.'

'Troops restive?'

Ed stared bemused at his partner. 'What are you on about?'

'You know, conspiratorial groupings, mutinous mutterings, revolutionary slogans chalked up on the barrack wall, that sort of thing.'

'You going bonkers?'

'I was talking to Lucasz Voynovich in town. He said the troops didn't like what the government's up to with the monarchy.'

'Don't let journalistic sensationalism run away with your imagination, little babe. What d'ya think's going to happen? A coup of junior officers? The burning of the Parlementplaz? Tanks on the streets of Strelzen?'

'Well... no, maybe not. But a loyalist Elphberg demonstration on the Exerciser Plaz would be nice.'

'I think the worst that's likely to happen will be a dip in the large CDP vote amongst the armed forces.'

'Not even a little coup?'

'The more intelligent amongst the Guard Fusiliers might start a nasty anti-CDP blog if you're lucky.'

'Bugger it.'

'I'll mention your dissatisfaction to Colonel Anders. How's it going with the anti-Elphberg movement in the Assembly at the moment?'

'The Assembly passed the motion questioning the succession of little Maxxie, and the chancellor's office passed it to the Regency Council. The CDP is now drawing up a remonstrance, which will ratchet up the tension further. After that... well, it's new territory for Rothenia.

'There was talk of deposing Rudolf IV in 1848 in favour of one of his sons, but the Austrian intervention stopped it cold. I guess, if both houses of Parliament wanted, they could pass a bill of deposition against Maxxie and declare Count Robert Rassendyll king. If the Regency Council can't produce his resignation of his right to succeed, the old sod has a legal claim on the succession which cannot be denied.'

Ed shook his head in worry. 'Dammit. What's going on here?'

'Skulduggery, needless to say. Rudi's uncle is a cunning bastard, as we know all too well. Something tells me he'll have covered all his bases with this claim. He would never have pushed it were he not sure his deed of resignation will never come to light. Tommy and Bela are wasting their time in Thuringia. Any news there?'

'I had a brief chat with Oskar. Tommy's drawn a blank at Heilbrod, and he's currently at Heinrichshof. That's the last hope.'

'I'd better get back to writing my historical piece for the Ruritanischer Tagblatt, which is the best I can do for Maxxie. I can make a case against wicked uncles in royal families down the ages.'

Ed gave a wan smile. 'By the way, did you see that Ellie Marquesa... sorry, Countess Eleanor of Hentzen, has made it big in the transatlantic celeb mags?'

'When did you ever read that sort of tat?'

'Fritz passed it on. One of them had the headline: Another Peacher Queen for Rothenia?'

Henry was professionally offended. 'That's bad journalism. Ellie's the mother of three Peachers, but Richard dumped her years ago.'

'Still, it tends to indicate that Robert Rassendyll thinks damned quickly on his feet for an old guy. His nephew only abdicated two weeks ago, and he's already getting the world used to the idea of change at the Residenz.'

Herr Jörg Wöhlich was by all accounts one of the leading scholars of incunabula in western Europe, which – as Tommy observed to Bela in bed in their room at Heinrichshof that evening – was just as well. There had to be something going for him, or why would the Thuringian family employ him?

Bela smiled. 'He's not fat, and he's not that much older than us.'

'But... greasy hair, dandruff, sweaty palms. There's a smell too, and it's not antiperspirant.'

'He dresses in black. I thought you approved of that?'

'There's black, and there's black. I mean, there's crisp, clean black matched subtly with shades of grey and silver jewellery. Then there's his sort: greasy, rumpled and food-stained.'

'He's very learned.'

'He's smug, superior and venomous to poor Mechtie.'

'He's gay.'

'That's no defence. And I object to his so obviously leering at you.'

Now Bela laughed. 'Is that what really gets to you, Tomasczu?'

Tommy looked sheepish. 'Yeah. I admit it. You're mine now, and that disgusting perv is going to get the rough end of my tongue fairly soon.'

Bela lost his smile. 'I've slept with a lot worse, believe me. The Arsenal Prison was full of creatures like him.'

Tommy reached over and drew his lover to himself. 'I'm sorry, Belaczu. I didn't mean to bring it all back.'

But Bela merely looked puzzled. 'D'you know, now you mention it, I do seem to recognise that man Wöhlich from somewhere.'

'What, the Arsenal?'

'No, no. But somewhere I know.'

'Maybe he's just a generic creep.'

Bela shrugged. 'He said there's no indication that old Prince Leopold ever had a copy of Robert Rassendyll's resignation...'

'... "if it ever existed", he had the nerve to say, That such a man might dare call Rudolf Elphberg a liar! If I weren't a peaceable sort and if I were a Rothenian like Fritzy, I would have struck him.'

'Prince Marty gave him a cold look when he said that. I like your friend, by the way.'

'Marty's fun... completely mad, of course. He and Davey Skipper are great friends, who I think share a bed on occasion. They went to the same school, though Marty was there years after him. Still, Davey's really something even in his mid-thirties. My friend Max had the luck to sleep with him for a while. He still goes out of focus when he talks about it, no matter he and Gavin are totally tight. That reminds me, I need to get Max and Gavin here for our partnership.'

'You really are going through with this?'

'Absolutely, baby. I've never been surer that this is what I want.'

'Good. Me too.'

Tommy glowed at Bela and kissed him. 'Where shall we do it?'

'Where did Henry and his guy hold theirs?'

'I've seen the pictures. It was at the royal château of Zenda, with quite a military turn out, and the king was best man for Ed. They had a church blessing afterwards. I'm not sure I want to go that far.'

'And they took their vows in the Thuringian mausoleum?'

'So Henry said.'


'He's a bit of a romantic, is Henry. As for us, I think we could get it done at the Residenz, if we want something spectacular. I'm sure the queen would give me a staff reduction for room hire and the wedding buffet.'

'You mean it'll be a society occasion?' Bela looked worried. 'I'm not sure I could deal with that, and who am I to deserve it anyway? By the way, I hope you'll be wearing a white dress and veil.'

Tommy hugged him hard. 'It's no wonder I love you, Belacszu.'

Barry was nervous to say the least as he waited at the Flavienerplaz for Helen and Marky. He was not much reassured by the fact that everybody would be nude at the Spa. This was the first time he had ever been naked in the open air, and he had a right to be scared.

Helen and Marky appeared grinning. 'You okay?' she asked, before taking his hand reassuringly.

They caught the new express tram out to the Spa Hills. Some of their schoolfellows were already on board, looking cool and relaxed. Barry hated them for it.

He was aware of his heart beating hard as they paid their krone at the Spa turnstile. It was a hot, early-autumn morning without so much as a slight chill in the air. The first naked people Barry saw were fat and in their sixties. He tried not to stare. He and Marky went into the men's changing rooms.

Barry stripped down to his underpants, then paused. A well-muscled Year 12 boy he knew casually strolled past him, his genitals on display. He gave Barry a smile and a greeting in Rothenian, which Barry returned with a stammer.

A warm hand on his shoulder made him jump. 'Are you alright, Barry?' It was a naked Marky.

This was perhaps the worst moment. Barry was more interested in Marky's body than he should have been. He swept his friend with a cautious glance. Marky was hunky, with a little chest hair between the dark nipples on his pronounced pectoral muscles. Barry followed the trail of hair down from Marky's navel to his dick, which was sizeable and well-shaped. Somehow, though, what interested Barry most was the rear view, as yet unobtainable.

'Moment of truth,' he muttered, pushing his pants down and stepping out of them.

A grinning Marky surveyed him, pausing for a detectable, albeit momentary, stare at the dimensions of Barry's penis. 'There! That is done. You will soon become used to it. Now, do not worry if you get erections. You won't be the only one, and we will all probably be stiff when we start the horseplay and the games. Men do, gay or not. Just do not do the wank in public. They throw you out.'

'Thanks,' Barry mumbled through gritted teeth. 'Here we go.'

They walked out of the changing room towards the Spa pool, whose architecture was Victorian Turkish. There was a lot of moisture in the air, along with a slight smell of sulphur.

From a side door along the tiled corridor, Helen wandered out to join them. Gay he might have been, but Barry knew a beautiful woman when he saw one. Helen's attractiveness was enhanced by her complete carelessness of her nudity. She didn't even wear the flip-flops that Marky and Barry did. It was hard for Barry not to stare at her. She seemed to notice this, and took his hand.

'Ready for the big one?' she laughed. She led him through the French windows along one side of the bubbling pool into the sunlight. Barry let out his breath. He was in a world where everyone was naked: kids, teens, men and women, old and young.

He hadn't quite realised how quickly nudity became normal in such an environment. A group of lithe, brown boys of about ten were running and rolling around; those with sandals playing football. Several old women sat in deckchairs under the trees, drinking tea. Even the ice-cream seller was bare-arsed.

Soon Barry stopped looking. The only exception was when he got his first chance to stare at the exceptional ass of Marky von Lauern. It was small, flawlessly brown and muscular. His friend's shoulders were broad and the combined effect was dazzling. He panicked briefly when he felt the first tingle of thickening in his penis.

The SIS teens were out on the sandy volleyball courts. Barry got smiles and greetings, together with the usual Rothenian handshakes, which seemed odd in their naked state. He also thought there were a few narrow stares at the region of his groin. He had decided to barber his pubic hair carefully the previous night, and the effect was inadvertently to draw attention to the length and girth of his dick.

But soon eyes were irresistibly drawn elsewhere with the arrival of Lance Atwood, who ambled across with the grace and proportions of a living version of Michelangelo's David. Like Helen, he was barefoot, as if both sensed that this enhanced the physical perfection of the naked form.

Despite the etiquette of the Spa, people were openly staring at Lance, and several groups of teens and young adults were not even pretending they weren't following him. Barry knew Lance well enough now to sense how bothered he was by the attention, though he managed to look cool, talking all the while to Damien: a handsome boy to be sure, but unremarkable next to Lance. Tailing after them were the pale body of Reggie Mayer and the somewhat stocky figure of Mattie Oscott. The Mendamero Men, remarked Barry to himself, a little sourly.

Damien was soon sorting fixtures, and it said something about the boy's charisma that not one of the older teens questioned why a fifteen-year-old was directing them. Obedience to Damien Macavoy was deeply engrained in the psyche of SIS pupils.

Lance however redoubtably argued with Damien's sorting of the teams, where somehow the tallest Year 12 boys were kept apart. In the end, Lance made sure his team included Barry and Marky. Barry had height, and Lance and Marky had both height and athletic prowess. 'You be middle blocker, Bazza. Marky is amazing in attack.'

As the long and sweaty morning proceeded, Barry was enjoying himself enormously. He found he was quite a useful player. Being naked at least had the advantage of allowing sweat to evaporate fast. You just had to remember to top up with the chilled bottles of water Damien had organised in a stack next to the courts. Boys disappeared behind bushes to pee away the result.

Helen led the Year 11 girls to victory over Year 12. But honour was balanced as Lance led his six to final victory over Damien's team, sending down its colourfully swearing captain with a ball in the face as a final humiliation. Squealing, the girls burst on to the courts, embracing, kissing and dancing round with the boys. It may have been a physically intimate act, but it was nonetheless joyous and innocent in the circumstances.

Lance and Barry carried a struggling Damien to the cold pool and threw him in, then jumped on top of him. The vaulted Victorian pool was loud with the whoops of happy adolescents.

After that the SIS kids broke up into social groups. Meanwhile, a posse of unembarrassed parents, naked except for the necessary aprons, sorted the barbeque lunch.

Barry found himself with Lance and Marky, lying tired and happy under a tree. 'We were good, weren't we, guys?' Barry pronounced. His teammates replied with suitably smug responses. 'Let no one say we gay guys can't beat the crap out of straights.' Even as he said it, Barry realised he'd done something very stupid: he'd outed his friend.

Helen hugged Reggie's arm as they ambled through the shrubbery of the Spa. 'It's lovely having you back in Strelzen.'

'I wasn't much use out there on the volleyball court. I was never physical in that sort of way.'

'That's not why your friends love you, Reggie. It's because you're always there for them.'

Reggie smiled. 'Don't you need shoes out here?'

Helen looked down. 'No. The paths are just packed dirt. As long as you avoid gravel, the walking is easy.'

Reggie, by nature cautious about stubbed toes, had opted for flip-flops. He remembered such occasions from his earlier times at the Spa. Being publicly naked didn't bother him, however, for he was still enough of a Rothenian from when he had lived in the country before. Now he was older, he felt more secure. Though not a vain boy, Reggie knew his physical attractiveness had developed considerably from what it had been.

Helen must have been thinking the same thing. 'It's a pity you haven't got a boyfriend,' she mused.

Reggie laughed. 'Any ideas?'

Helen followed up with a sharp look. 'I think we both know who you'd want in that role.'

Reggie coloured up. 'Is it that obvious?'

'To me, perhaps. But does he know?'

'No. Somehow I could never say and he never noticed. I thought he was in love with you when we were little.'

Now it was Helen's turn to laugh. 'Me! Whatever gave you that idea?'

'I dunno. Kids aren't very bright that way. But now there's Barry, and it's just too complicated.'

'I'm sorry, Reggie. You're a wonderful boy. I only wish you were straight.'

'It must be easier for you, Helen. All that choice.'

'You'd think so, wouldn't you?'

They walked along the alleyway. As they did, Reggie's neck prickled. A group of adolescents were at a bench up ahead. Among them he recognised Todo Voynovich.

Such encounters were always fraught with danger. When Helen and Reggie drew level with the four lounging boys, they received a very thorough looking over. Eight bleary eyes indicated a way had been found of smuggling alcohol in. One boy was very erect and staring slackly at Helen as he manipulated himself.

Another stepped out in front of Helen and Reggie. She stopped and put her hands on her hips. 'What do you want, Todo Voynovich?'

He sidled close up to her. 'Not very nice to me, are you, Helen?'

'As far as I know, it isn't girls who interest you, Todo. Now out of my way.'

Reggie looked around to discover the four St Wladislaw boys hemming them in. Suddenly one of Reggie's arms was seized from behind in a hammerlock. He struggled and protested. He could smell beer on the breath of the boy at his ear.

'You're such a stuck-up bitch, Helen Debies,' sneered Todo. 'Not so clever now you're on your own, are you?'

A boy had pinned her too, pulling back her arms and pushing out her firm small breasts. Todo took her nipples between his fingers and began rubbing them, teasing them erect. He smiled over her shoulder at his excited friend, who was enjoying pushing his erection against her buttocks. When she opened her mouth to scream, a hand clamped over her face. Reggie too was muffled.

Todo smirked. 'I do believe she likes it.' His hand dropped to her groin, causing her to squirm as he began stroking and probing at her. 'See if her boyfriend likes it too. They're gonna give us a show.'

Reggie found his penis being taken and manhandled vigorously. Fingers pushed hard into his behind and searched around. He couldn't believe he was being sexually assaulted. His cock reared under the pressure on his prostate.

Helen was pulled down on to the ground by three of the boys, her legs forced apart. Reggie, his arm crying out in agony, was forced down over her by the other boy. The muscular lout's strong fingers were still deep in his arse, painfully levering his groin on to Helen's.

All of a sudden, Reggie was knocked to the side and rolled into a bush. Struggling out of its branches on hands and knees, he discovered a whirlwind in progress in the clearing, with a compact male form at the centre of it. A St Wladislaw boy staggered past Reggie, blood streaming from his nose, to collapse into a shrub. Another was flat out on his back. Reggie grabbed Todo Voynovich as he ran past, pulling him to the ground and holding on to his ankle as he scrabbled to get away.

A cocky and cool voice speaking in Rothenian told Reggie the cavalry had arrived. 'Nicely held, Reggie. You're a bit more physical than you used to be.'

'Thanks, Daimey. You're just as dangerous without clothes. You saw what they were trying to do?'

'Oh yeah.' He pulled up Todo by his hair. The boy squealed and flailed. Reggie helped Helen to her feet. She clung to him, breathing heavily.

Damien, his expression cold, pushed Todo's back against a tree, his hand around Todo's throat. 'You piece of sczaca! You think you can get away with that?'

'We were just horsing around!' Todo protested. 'She was alright with it.'

'You son of a bitch. You're worse than your mate Luc. I'm gonna beat the crap out of you, and when I've done that, I'm gonna make you eat it.'

'No, Daimey!' Helen ordered.

'You want me to let him go after what he was trying to do to you?'

'No. I just want you to get out of my way.' Damien stood back, and Helen smashed her fist into Todo's nose. Reggie was impressed by the power of the blow, which smacked Todo's head back against the tree bark before he slid to the ground.

Damien was amused. 'You remember what I taught you when we were kids, then? Short punch from the shoulder.'

Helen gave him a quirky look. Damien glanced down at the moaning Todo, then added to his troubles by stamping on his testicles. The boy screamed.

'Do you wanna make him even unhappier?' Damien asked Reggie.

'No, I think we've said all that needed saying,' Reggie concluded, disdainfully surveying the squirming Todo, his hands clutched at his groin.

'Okay, my mate. I wonder if we should get park security? These four need banning from the Spa.' He went over to a discarded backpack. 'It's full of cans of lager. They must have got a friend to throw it over the fence. Reggie, go find security. There's a patrol just down the path. I'll make sure these fuckers go nowhere.' Three of the St Wladislaw boys were down and damaged, while the fourth was sitting rigid, staring at Damien with terror in his eyes. Reggie saw the sense, recovered his flip-flops and took off down the path.

Helen sat next to Damien on the bench. His eyes were no longer the chips of blue ice they had been. He caressed her bruised arm and continued gently in Rothenian, knowing Helen liked him better in that language. 'Are you alright?'

She heaved a sigh. 'It was a nightmare, my worst nightmare. They were going to make Reggie rape me... can you imagine?'

'Well no, not the Reggie hetero part. He's the gayest guy I know!'

For all the stress, Helen laughed. 'How do you do that?' she asked.

'Do what?'

'Make me laugh, even when I don't want to.'

Damien chuckled. 'It's a gift. Seriously, are you okay?'

'I will be. Thank you. Daimey, I...'

The boy looked a question.

Helen sighed. 'I'm sorry.'

'For what?'

'I don't think I've been fair to you. You're a good guy who cares for his friends and protects them. I sometimes think you're a control freak, but you're not.'

'Me? I'm as nice as pie, tolerant as they come.'

'There you go again, turning it all into a laugh.'

'What would you rather I do?'

She looked at him and in her eyes for the first time saw a yearning for him, totally unaccompanied by the look of submission he had learned to recognise all too readily in the eyes of other girls. Such girls he had valued little, for all the fun they brought. What he saw in Helen was more complex. There was desire for him, certainly, and a willingness to offer herself, but never to surrender her core. In a girl like Helen, he knew that was the greatest triumph he could ever hope to achieve in his life. Her soul was a fortress, whose key he might at long last hope to obtain.

Damien Macavoy's heart sang. His own soul swelled and his tongue was loosed. 'I love you, Helen Debies,' he breathed. 'I always have. Will you just let me say it?'

'Oh Daimey, I know you do. But I'm scared to love you back. I'm afraid you'll take over my life.'

Damien pondered this. 'Do you trust me?'

She peered up at him through her eyelashes. 'I think I do.'

'Then I dare you to love me.'

They were kissing passionately when approaching voices warned them that Reggie had done his duty.

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