by Kit

Chapter 9

A Clean Slate

The Saturday before Christmas had been chosen for the Christmas-Housewarming party, and despite my dread of having to socialise with so many people, for Dad's sake I approached the event with as good grace as I could muster. I was pleased that Tony had been able to accept my invitation and not quite so pleased that Gran and Auntie Kath would also be there. Of course, the Crawfords would attend, together with Chris and his mum. Brian had asked if he could bring a girlfriend, and I'd told him that she'd be very welcome. Dad had invited a handful of people from the village as well as a couple of dozen people from work, most of whom would be bringing spouses or partners.

Overall, about seventy people were expected, so it was fortunate that Mrs Crawford and her sons had offered to help with preparations. Tony had arranged to arrive on the Friday evening, just a few hours after Gran and Auntie Kath, so there were plenty of people around on Saturday to help get the house ready. However, the Saturday afternoon chaos sometimes made me feel that it was a case of 'too many cooks spoiling the broth' rather than 'many hands making light work'. Fortunately, Dad had arranged for food to be provided by caterers from Alnwick.

Auntie Kath had appointed herself to be in charge of putting up festive decorations and had conscripted Brian and Tony to do the actual work, with Tom and me as 'gophers'. By mid afternoon most of the decorating was done, and Auntie Kath was ordering final tweaks when Brian spoke up.

"Wait a minute," he said. "There's something missing."

"What's missing?" Auntie Kath asked, irritated at an apparent criticism of her work.

"There's no mistletoe," Brian said. "There has to be mistletoe at a Christmas party."

"I don't think it's supposed to be that sort of party," Auntie Kath said snootily.

"Anyway," I added, amazing myself by agreeing with my aunt, "it's more of a housewarming party."

"Then why have all these Christmas decorations?" Brian asked, scoring a point.

"Yeah, we should have mistletoe with Christmas decorations," Tony chipped in, his eyes twinkling. He turned to Brian and in a stage whisper he added, "Your girlfriend will be bringing a couple of cute friends won't she?"

"I'm sure that can be arranged!" Brian laughed.

Auntie Kath shook her head in mock disgust, but she couldn't completely hide her smile.

"In that case I'll go and get the mistletoe," Tom said with a big grin. Then he turned to me and added, "C'mon Mark, I know where there's some good plants in the woods."

Although I wasn't enthusiastic about the mistletoe, I was glad to have an excuse to be alone with Tom, and there was also the added bonus of getting some time away from Auntie Kath. The weather was cold and cloudy, but it was dry and there wasn't much wind, so I enjoyed the walk down to the woods.

"Brian loves mistletoe," Tom said jovially as we crossed the stream. "Last Christmas he didn't have a girlfriend, and at the party in the village hall he used the mistletoe as an excuse to snog half the girls there."

"Yeuch!" I commented without thinking.

"What's the matter?" he joked, "Don't you like the idea of kissing girls?"

"Not really. At least not if you mean snogging."

I didn't add that I didn't like the idea of kissing at all. As far as I was concerned, a kiss with closed lips was okay, even on the mouth, and in fact the kiss that Tom had given me in that way was great. However, I found Tony's descriptions of snogging girls with 'tongues down throats' quite unpleasant, and his use of the term 'swapping spit' made me queasy.

"It's not really so bad, you know!" Tom said, laughing.

"You've snogged girls, then?" I asked, a little surprised.

"A couple of times, but not since last year's Christmas party."

"Under the mistletoe?"

"Yep," he nodded. "I must admit I was a bit merry. Well, quite drunk, actually."

"And before that?"

"When I was twelve. Trying to decide if I was gay or not."

"And boys?" I asked, unable to hide a pang of jealousy. "How many boys have you snogged?"

"Just one," he said, detecting my mood and becoming more serious, "and just a couple of times."

Paradoxically, I wanted to ask who it had been, but I also didn't want to know the answer. As Tony often said, I'm weird.

"It was only Chris," Tom volunteered into the silence. "And it was a couple of years ago."

"And I suppose it was much more fun than the girls?" I couldn't help asking.

"A bit better," he admitted, "but it felt odd. A bit like kissing a brother."

By this time we'd reached a tree with a large growth of mistletoe, and I would've been happy to let the topic drop, but Tom had other ideas.

"How about you then?" he asked. "How many girls and boys have you snogged?"


"What? Neither? Ever?" he asked as if he didn't quite believe me. "But you're so..."

"Neither. Never," I said firmly, making it clear that the subject was closed.

Considering that I generally disliked parties, that I always hated being in large crowds, and that this was the biggest party I'd ever attended, my evening was more pleasant than I'd expected. Tom, Tony and I spent much of the time together, while Brian spent most of the time with his girlfriend. Chris and his mum arrived early but left after only about an hour. Before leaving he came to say goodbye, but didn't offer any explanation for their early departure.

Gran and Auntie Kath appeared to be getting on well with Mr and Mrs Crawford, and I briefly pondered the fact that Auntie Kath was always so charming with adults but so bossy and critical with kids, especially me. Although she didn't seem to actually dislike children, she often appeared to be uncomfortable when she had to interact with them. I wondered why she was like that and if it was related in any way to the fact that she'd been very briefly married and divorced while I was still a baby.

Tables had been set up in the dining room and loaded with buffet food that the caterers had delivered earlier. Auntie Kath had taken charge of the buffet, which effectively meant that she ordered Tony, Tom, or me to remove or replenish empty dishes whenever she thought it necessary. The task wasn't as onerous as might be expected, because there was an ancient but functional 'dumb-waiter' mechanism built into the wall. This hand-powered mini elevator connected the dining room to the kitchen, thereby minimising our trips up and down the stairs.

Most of the night I kept as close to Tom as I could without being indiscreet, though several times I noticed Mrs Crawford looking at us with a knowing expression. Although I tried to keep on the periphery of the party, Dad kept finding me and introducing me to his work colleagues, whose names I would immediately forget. During the course of the evening, I developed a taste for a rosé wine that seemed to be in plentiful supply, so by midnight, when Gran came over to our little group, I was quite merry.

"I'm off to bed now," she said. "At my age, late-night parties can be a bit of a strain."

Although I knew she was sixty-something, I wasn't sure exactly how old she was. In any case, she was very fit for her age, and I resisted the temptation to point out that I, too, found parties a bit of a strain.

"Oh, and I've got some good news for you, Tony," she added. "You'll be able to have an extra hour in bed on Tuesday. As she's got the week off, Mrs Crawford has invited me and Kath to go with her to the Metro Centre for some last-minute Christmas shopping, and she said she can give you a lift into Newcastle on the way."

Tony was going home on the Tuesday morning, and Dad had previously arranged to give him a lift to Newcastle railway station. However, Dad had a meeting at work that morning, so it would have meant that Tony would have to leave the house early and wait for almost two hours at the station.

"That's great, Gran," Tony said with a semi-drunken grin.

Although she obviously wasn't Tony's gran, he'd started calling her that soon after he first met her, and she hadn't seemed to mind, so he'd continued to do so ever since. Maybe it was something to do with the fact that both of his grandmothers had died when he was still only a baby. Soon after midnight, I noticed that the party was thinning out and that Brian was having a prolonged session with his girlfriend under the mistletoe. By two o'clock, the only people left in the house were Tom and those of us staying there.

Having cleared away the leftover food, we were all in the kitchen when Dad decided we should get some sleep before doing the remainder of the cleaning up. Then he asked if anyone wanted a liqueur coffee, but Auntie Kath was the only one to take up his offer. Tony, who was more than a little inebriated, announced that he was going to bed and went upstairs. That was Tom's cue to say goodnight, and I was just about to offer to escort him to the door when he made a point of asking me to do so.

As we climbed up the stairs from the kitchen, Tom took hold of my hand, and I anxiously looked behind me to make sure we were out of sight of Dad and Auntie Kath. When we got up to the hallway, instead of making his way to the cloakroom to pick up his jacket, he led me toward the larger 'reception room', which had remained unused until the party.

"Where are you going?" I asked, my voice barely more than a whisper.

"C'mon. You'll see," he replied, gently tugging me through the doorway.

The lights in that room had already been switched off, so it was illuminated only by the light from the hallway and the faint starlight coming through the large French windows on the opposite side of the room. At that point, I guessed that he'd taken me there for a private word or maybe a discreet goodnight hug, but when he continued to pull me gently across the room I began to doubt the accuracy of my guess. We came to a halt in front of the French windows, and he gently turned me around so that I was facing him with my back toward the glass.

"Close your eyes," he said.

As soon as he said that, I remembered that above our heads, invisible in the darkness, was the mistletoe.

"Why?" I asked nervously, stalling for time.

"Trust me."

Maybe if I'd been perfectly sober I might have made up some excuse or found a way to wriggle out of the situation without hurting Tom's feelings. As it was, my only choice was to trust him and do as he asked or to risk him feeling that I'd rejected him. So, realising that I had no real choice at all, I closed my eyes. Tom released my hand and stepped closer until I could feel his chest touch mine.

"Relax," he whispered, sensing my tension.

I felt his lips touch mine, and when his tongue brushed against my lips a shiver ran down my spine. Then he put his arms around me, holding me gently but firmly, and his tongue began to probe between my lips. Again I had a choice that was not really a choice at all, and I offered no resistance when his tongue pushed forward. When his tongue touched mine an electric charge seemed to pass from my mouth through my whole body until I could feel my fingertips tingle. My body shook, and he removed his lips from mine while continuing to hold me in his arms.

"Want me to stop?" he asked, concerned.

"N-no," I said, the pounding of my heart causing my voice to tremble, "But..."


"B-but I don't know what to do."

"Just do what feels right for you," he said, then resumed his kiss.

Very soon, I started to get the hang of things and began to return the kiss by copying his actions. His hands were rubbing and kneading my back, and I realised that I'd been keeping my own arms stiffly at my sides, so I reached out and hugged him tightly. That's when I felt the hardness in his crotch and noticed that I, too, was as hard as I'd ever been in my life.

To most people it would probably seem odd that a modern-day boy should be sixteen when he first learned to kiss, but I'd never denied being a bit weird. However, I was a quick learner, and my efforts seemed to have been appreciated by Tom, who began to produce occasional low moans of pleasure. I came to the conclusion that 'swapping spit' wasn't as disgusting as it sounded, and with the right person it was extremely exciting. Time stood still for me as we kissed and gently ground our crotches together. Then I heard footsteps in the hallway, and I froze.

Opening my eyes, I saw my dad silhouetted against the light from the hallway. Quickly, I reached the conclusion that the risk of being detected by movement was greater than the risk of staying still, even in that compromising position. Therefore, I hugged Tom even more tightly and pressed my lips harder against his. He, too, had heard the sounds behind him, and wisely deciding to follow my lead, he stood perfectly still. Then I heard my aunt's voice speaking quietly in the hallway.

"Is something the matter, Martin?"

"No," Dad replied, moving away from the doorway. "I just thought I heard a noise, but there's nothing there."

"That's the trouble with these old houses," Auntie Kath commented with a slightly drunken giggle. "There's always something going creak in the night."

"Yes," Dad responded with good humour, "but we get used to it. Anyway, you go off to bed, and I'll check that everything is locked up down here."

"Okay, see you in the morning. Sleep tight."

"Yes. Goodnight."

On hearing this, I became aware of some physical discomfort caused by the fact that ever since I'd heard the footsteps in the hallway, my muscles had been rigid and my joints locked. However, I still didn't allow myself to relax until I heard a second person going upstairs and saw the hallway lights go off. Tom disconnected his lips from mine, which by that time were feeling rather numb.

"Phew!" he whispered.

"You can say that again!" I responded, equally quietly.

"Phew!" he said and giggled.

"Shhhh!" I hissed.

"I'd better be going."

"I s'pose."

Although I'd agreed that he ought to be going home, I was reluctant to end our embrace, and didn't want to be the first to disengage. Apparently, he felt the same, because he remained with his arms around me and with his chin resting on my shoulder. Eventually, with a sigh, I let my arms drop to my sides, and almost immediately he released me. Fortunately, the room was relatively bare, so we managed to make our way to the hallway without bumping into anything. After retrieving his coat, I opened the front door for him, taking great care to minimise any sound.

"I'll see you tomorrow when I come over to help with the rest of the clearing up," he whispered as he stepped across the threshold.

"Great," I whispered back. "But not too early, though."

"Okay," he said with a grin. He kissed me on the cheek and added, "And thanks."

"I think I should be thanking you."

"Maybe," he replied. "But what I meant was thanks for trusting me."

He turned and walked down the drive, quickly disappearing into the darkness. I carefully closed and locked the door, and as quietly as possible went to up to bed. As I made my way up the stairs, however, a thought occurred to me: if Dad had thought he'd heard a noise in the large reception room, why hadn't he turned on the light?

Because three of the six bedrooms were occupied by guests, I was relegated to a foldaway bed in the bare bedroom adjacent to the 'old' guest room, where Tony was now sleeping. As on their previous visit, Gran was in my room and Auntie Kath was in the 'new' guest room. Even before I undressed for bed, I could feel the cold dampness in my briefs where I'd been leaking during our kissing session, but when I stripped off my briefs I was surprised to see just how large and soggy the wet patch was.

After very quickly relieving the built-up sexual tensions, I immediately fell asleep. Then the nightmare began. This nightmare was completely different from all the earlier ones. There was no deep sadness, no difficulty breathing, no tapping, and I was not alone. I was curled up in a foetal position on a bed, with a tall figure standing over me and beating me with a cane. Although I was too busy protecting my head with my arms to try to identify this man, I knew that I hated him with all my heart and that this hatred was based on something apart from the beating.

Strangely, I didn't actually feel any direct pain from the vicious blows, a fact for which I was profoundly grateful. However, I did feel the distress that was produced by the presumed pain, especially when I thought I heard a rib crack under the onslaught. The man didn't say a word, but I heard him grunt with the effort he put behind the blows, and I knew that he wanted to make me cry and beg for mercy. Thus, the only way I could defeat him was to refuse to cry, and the only way I could do that was to channel the pain into my hatred of him.

There was no way of knowing how long the nightmare actually lasted, but subjectively it was a very, very long time. Thankfully, though, I fell into a deep unconsciousness that lasted until I woke up to the mid-morning daylight. As soon as I tried to move, I was frozen by stabs of very real pain that appeared to be spread over my arms, back and sides. Recalling the nightmare, I briefly wondered if I had indeed been beaten during the night. However, examination of my arms and sides showed no signs of bruising or marks of any sort, and by using the bathroom mirror, I confirmed a lack of any marks on my sore back.

While I dressed, I gave considerable thought to the nightmare and its possible significance, especially as it was so different from my previous nightmares at Prospect House. The emotional after-effects of this latest experience were even greater than the others, and remembering it made me shiver. This was not only because of the degree of physical violence involved but also because I would never have believed that I could hate anyone with the intensity I'd felt toward the man in the dream.

Perhaps I was picking up something from Edward's experience, or maybe the nightmare was based upon what Tom had told me when he showed me his 'box of treasures'. In either case, the question arose as to why this particular nightmare occurred now, months after my arrival at Prospect House and weeks after Tom had told me about Edward. I wondered if the timing of this horrible dream was related to my snogging session with Tom and to my fear of the consequences if Dad had caught us.

By the time Tom and Brian came over to help with clearing up, my back and sides were much less painful and stiff, although they were still somewhat tender and sensitive to even the lightest touch. As Tom appeared to be happy and healthy, I assumed that he'd not had any nightmares the previous night. However, with post-party cleaning and three houseguests to look after, I didn't get an opportunity to be alone with him that day.

That afternoon, while Tony, Brian, Tom and myself were in the kitchen taking a break from our labours, Tony announced that he really needed to do some Christmas shopping before he went home. His tone and the look he gave me were very apologetic, because he knew that two of my greatest aversions were Christmas and shopping, so he realised that the combination of both of them would be an abomination to me.

"I s'pose we could go into Newcastle tomorrow," I said without enthusiasm.

"You don't have to go," Tony said sympathetically. "I'm sure I can manage on my own."

Before I could protest that I couldn't let him wander around a strange city on his own, Brian spoke up. "I'll go to Newcastle with you. I want to get a couple of things anyway, so I can make sure you don't get lost."

As Monday was the last full day of Tony's visit and I'd been looking forward to spending it with him, I was horrified at the thought that he and Brian would go into the city and leave me here.

"No, that's okay," I said a little too defensively. "I can go with Tony."

"Why don't we both go with him?" Brian suggested reasonably. "After all, you're new here, but I know Newcastle like the back of my hand."

There was no way I could argue with that, so I nodded my agreement, even though I would have preferred to have had Tony to myself for the day.

"I'll come too!" Tom added enthusiastically. After a quick look at his brother, he added in a more subdued tone, "If that's okay?"

The fact that Tom had volunteered to go anywhere with his brother took both Brian and me by surprise, and while we recovered Tony spoke up for all of us.

"Yes," he said, matching Tom's initial enthusiasm. "That would be great!"

Because we were still recovering from the party, everyone except Tony was very tired that night, so Gran, Dad and Auntie Kath had all gone to bed before eleven o'clock. However, Tony wanted to stay up and watch a movie on TV, so I, as a good host, kept him company. Although my back was much better, it was still sore, and in an attempt to get comfortable I kept rearranging the cushions behind me.

"What's the matter, Mr Fidgety?" Tony asked.

"Nothing really. My back's just a bit sore, that's all."

"Well it can't be from working too hard!" Tony laughed. "Cos the Great Dictator had me and Brian doing the heavy stuff."

The image of Auntie Kath dressed in military uniform and jackboots made me smile. The nickname that he'd invented for her proved to be popular with Brian and Tom, and they, too, adopted it. However, we were all very careful to make sure that Auntie Kath didn't hear us using it. Despite that, I guessed that if she had overheard us she might have been more pleased than insulted by it.

"That's a disadvantage of being big and muscular," I joked.

"So what's the problem with your back?" he asked, becoming a little more serious. "You seemed to be okay last night."

"Like I said, it's just a bit sore. Maybe I just slept in a bad position on that little fold-away." Well, I thought to myself, there was a chance that may not have been a lie. After all, maybe the uncomfortable bed had triggered the nightmare.

"Maybe we should swap beds tonight," he suggested.

"Thanks for the offer, but if the bed's too cramped for me it would cripple you."


"Still nothing," I interrupted, "it's only for two more nights. Anyway, I'm not even sure it's the bed's fault."

For just a couple of minutes he watched the movie on TV then he turned back toward me with a slight frown.

"You've not been having more nightmares have you?" he asked.

This startled me, because unless he'd been reading my mind it seemed totally unrelated to the previous conversation.

"Eh?" I sputtered. "Oh, well, just a couple."

"Did you talk to your dad about them, like I said you should?"

From his expression and tone it was clear that he expected my answer to be negative, so it gave me a small childish pleasure to prove him wrong.

"Actually I did," I said with a slightly smug smile. I went on to tell him about my discussion with Dad, though I didn't mention the broken window.

"You've not had any since then?" he asked.

I hesitated before answering, and because he knew me so well, he could tell that no matter what I actually said, the true answer was 'yes'.

"You have, haven't you?" he said, almost as an accusation.

"Well," I prevaricated. "It wasn't the same sort of nightmare, just a one-off bad dream. And before you ask, no, I haven't told my dad, cos it was totally different from the others. Anyway, it was only last night, so I've not had a chance to tell him."

"You should."

"Maybe," I replied, knowing that I wouldn't.

His attention appeared to return to the TV for just a couple of minutes before he spoke again, but this time his eyes remained on the screen. The fact that after we'd sat down he'd not spent much time looking at the TV made me suspect that all along there'd been an ulterior motive to his original idea of watching the movie.

"You and Tom seem to be getting on very well," he said in neutral tone.

"Well, once you get to know him, he's easy to get on with."

He gave me an enquiring look, clearly wanting me to go into more detail, but I wasn't yet ready for that. However, rather than risk hurting his feelings by just ignoring his curiosity, I decided to try and make light of it.

"Don't worry," I said. "You're still my best friend."

That seemed to keep him happy, and we returned to watching the movie.

The day spent shopping in a crowded city would, in my opinion, not have been out of place if it were added as an extra circle to Dante's Hell. I can't imagine making such a sacrifice for anyone other than Tony or Tom. That night I was exhausted and made irritable by Tony's imminent departure, so I was not in the best of moods when Dad came to see me just after I'd got into bed.

"Mark," he said. "Remember I told you that with my new job I'd have to go to the company's head office occasionally?"

In fact, I didn't remember at all, but I was happy to take his word for it, so I nodded.

"Well, I have to go for a meeting early in January, just about three weeks from now."

I just looked at him blankly, wondering why he 'd come to tell me this now, and indeed why he was bothering to tell me at all. When I didn't respond, Dad spoke again.

"The meeting is in New York State," he said patiently, as if explaining something to a child. "You know, in the USA?"

"Yes, I knew that," I said irritably. "But you've been to meetings abroad lots of times. What's so special about this?"

"But in the past," he said and sighed, possibly beginning to realise he'd chosen a bad time, "Elaine used to look after you while I was away. She can't do that now."

"Daaad!" I whined in protest. "I'm sixteen now and quite capable of looking after myself. Anyway, Mrs Crawford will be in every day."

"Yes, under normal circumstances I'd agree with you, but with these nightmares you've been having... Well, I don't want you to be left alone at night, and I was thinking of asking your gran or Auntie Kath to stay here while I'm away."

For a couple of seconds I was made speechless by the horrific prospect of being 'looked after' for a week by Auntie Kath. Dad, probably expecting my reaction, took a half step backward and gave me a look of mingled concern and ill-concealed amusement.

"No way!" I said eventually. "I'd rather take my chances with the nightmares!"

"I'm sure you would," he replied with a wry grin. With a more serious expression, he added, "But I'm not sure I want to take a chance. That's why I'm talking with you now, because if I'm going to ask your gran or Auntie Kath then it would be best to ask them while they're here."

Trying to calm my racing mind, I attempted to think of a suggestion that would placate Dad without involving my aunt or my gran. Only one possibility came to me, but I doubted Dad would accept it. Still, the alternative was too awful to contemplate, so it was worth a try.

"How about if Tom stays here while you're away?"

"But he's even younger than you are!" Dad protested.

"Only by a few months. And I thought you agreed that it wasn't my age but the nightmares that you were worried about?" I said, trying not to sound as if I were attempting to score a point. "He could sleep in the old guest room, so he would be even closer to me than you are when you're home."

Dad started to say something, presumably to argue against my suggestion. Then he seemed to have second thoughts and was quiet for a couple of seconds.

"Okay," he said eventually. "I'll think about it and maybe discuss it with Mrs Crawford, then I'll make a decision in the next few days."

Realising that was the best concession I would get from him that night, and that I had a few days yet to work on him, I nodded my acceptance.

The next morning, when Mrs Crawford had driven off with Tony, Gran and Auntie Kath, I was left alone in the house. Although I don't usually give in to sentimentality, and in the past I'd enjoyed being alone, I was sad that Tony had gone, and I spent an hour moping around until the doorbell rang. It was Tom.

"Hi," he said, greeting me with a smile. "I thought you might like some company. Fancy a walk?"

With the mood I was in, if it had been anyone else but Tom I would probably have politely declined, but there was no way I could turn down such a considerate invitation. Furthermore, it occurred to me that as soon as possible, and certainly before Dad talked to Mrs Crawford, I should ask Tom if he would go along my idea that he stay in Prospect House while Dad was away.

Although the sky was clear, the low winter sun gave no warmth to our backs as we went down the slope to the woods. Tom's presence lifted my mood a little, but neither of us spoke much, content just to walk along in companionable silence. When we crossed the stream and went among the trees we were ankle-deep in fallen leaves, and seeing the few isolated leaves left on the branches increased my melancholy.

While we were walking, I didn't feel like asking him about staying over, probably because I was also scared that he might say no, even though I was almost sure that he'd agree. We'd only been out for about an hour when a bitterly cold north wind began to blow, and even in the relative shelter of the trees it became too cold for me. Tom, as usual, seemed oblivious to the elements, but he agreed with my suggestion that we go back to the house for a warm drink.

"You're very quiet today," Tom commented as we sat at the kitchen table, he with a hot chocolate and I with my tea. "Are you missing Tony already?"

"I s'pose," I admitted.

"That's okay," he said sympathetically. "After all he's your best friend. I'll be sad, too, when Chris moves away."

"Is he moving away, then?" I asked, surprised.

"Oh, not immediately," he responded, smiling at my reaction, "but when he finishes school this summer he's determined not to go to the sixth form college in Moreton. He'll probably go to Newcastle, then when he gets his A-levels he'll be off to some bigger city like London."

Up until then, every time I'd seen his amazing eyes they'd been twinkling with humour, sparking with anger or otherwise full of life, but now for the first time I saw the brightness dimmed a little by sadness. I had an urge to reach out and grasp his hand, and maybe even give him a quick kiss, but I resisted. He took a sip of his drink and I remembered something I'd been meaning to tell him.

"I had a nightmare on Saturday night," I said, "but it was different from the others."

Then, in response to his questioning look, I went on to give him all the details I could remember.

"That's horrible," he said when I'd finished. "Do you think that's what happened to Edward?"

"Maybe," I replied. "Or maybe it was just an ordinary bad dream based on what I learned about him."

"But it's weeks since I told you about him, and bad dreams don't usually leave people physically sore the next day."

"I s'pose not."

"But you're okay now?" he asked with a concerned frown. "Fully recovered?"

"Yeah, completely."

"Still, with the nightmares and your best friend going home, it's no wonder you're a bit glum."

Having said that, he placed his mug on the table, moved closer, put his arm across my shoulders and gave me a gentle squeeze. At first I tensed up, then I relaxed, leaned against him, and rested my head on his shoulder.

"Anyway," I said without moving my head, "I have a favour to ask."

Then I told him about Dad's trip to the USA, his reluctance to leave me alone in case I had more nightmares, and his idea of asking Gran or Auntie Kath to keep an eye on me.

"So," I concluded, "I wondered if maybe you could stay here and keep me company while Dad was away."

"Of course I will! I'd love to!" he said eagerly. "Anything to save you from having to spend a week under the control of the Great Dictator. But will your dad agree?"

"He said he'd think about it."

"You asked him already?"

"Well, yes, sorry," I said guiltily. "I know I should have asked you first, but he took me by surprise, and I was desperate."

"Yeah, I understand," he said sympathetically.

"What about your mum and dad?" I asked. "Will they be okay with it?"

"I'm pretty sure Mum will be, and that she'll probably be able to persuade Dad. After all, I'll only be a couple of minutes walk away if they want to check up on me."

There was a brief comfortable silence then a thought occurred to me. At first, because it was something I regarded as being very private and personal, I was going to keep it to myself, but then I reconsidered. Maybe Tom could find a clue to what was going on, and if I couldn't trust him then I couldn't trust anyone.

"I just realised that I may have something else in common with Edward," I said, lifting my head from his shoulder so that I could look at him. "Ya know I told you that in the dream he wouldn't cry, no matter how much he hurt? Well, I can't cry."

"You can't cry?" he interrupted, disbelievingly.

"No. Well, obviously some things, physical things like pain, a cold wind, and stuff like that can bring tears to my eyes, but not emotional things, no matter how sad I am."

"Not even when your mum died?" he asked incredulously.

"Oh, yes. I cried a lot then, almost non-stop for months, but not since then. Maybe I just used up all my lifetime supply."

"Or maybe," he said pensively, "compared with losing your mum, nothing else has been important enough to cry about."

Unable and perhaps unwilling to pursue that suggestion, I switched topics slightly.

"At least you didn't have any of your nightmares when I had the last two, so they don't seem to be linked. At least not any more. Have you had any nightmares at all?"

"No, not even any ordinary bad dreams, at least none that I could remember when I woke up. Not since that time you had the sore throat."

"That's good," I said. Half joking, I added, "Now if only we could work out what stopped your nightmares, maybe we can stop mine."

Then it occurred to me that maybe my little quip was an idea worth pursuing more seriously. "Can you think of anything in your life that's changed since your last nightmare?"

"No," he said after a few seconds thought. "Maybe lots of little things, but I can't remember anything special."

"I think that you'd remember something that was important enough to stop the nightmares," I said, a little disappointed.

"Maybe they haven't really stopped," he suggested. "Maybe it's just a long gap between nightmares."

Something about his tone of voice and the slight tension in his body made me feel that perhaps he was holding something back. If there was a way to stop my nightmares I desperately wanted to find it, so like a predator who catches the scent of his prey, I couldn't resist pursuing the matter. However, perhaps it would have been wiser to have restrained myself.

"Still," I said, "it seems to me that since I arrived at Prospect House you had nightmares on all the same nights as me, except for the last two times. Surely it can't be coincidence. Surely something must have changed. Can't you think of anything? If there's anything at all, please tell me."

I gazed pleadingly into his eyes, and, unusually for Tom, he looked away. Then, blushing, he removed his arm from my shoulders.

"I don't know," he said unhappily.

For a moment I thought he was about to stand up and flee, so I reached out and put my hand on his arm.

"Hey," I said soothingly, "don't worry about it. I'm sure that you'll tell me if you think of something later."

He still looked unhappy, and his eyes were still fixed on the tabletop, but at least now he didn't seem to be on the point of running away. While I was trying to think of another topic of conversation that might alleviate the uncomfortable atmosphere, he raised his eyes and took a deep breath.

"There's only one thing I can think of," he said nervously. "It's important, at least to me, and it may not be related to the nightmares. But maybe it is..."

His voice trailed off, and I had the impression that he was uncertain how or even if to continue. I just sat quietly and patiently, hoping that he would go on and wondering what it was that appeared to be so hard for him to talk about.

"The thing is," he continued, looking back down at the tabletop, "since my last nightmare I realised something... I realised that I loved you. That I'm in love with you."

There I sat, absorbing the fact that a gorgeous, intelligent, caring, interesting young man had declared his love for me. I'm not sure what an average person would feel or what appropriate response they would give, but my first emotion was fear, followed swiftly by confusion. Clearly, the ideal response would be to say that I felt the same about him, but I wasn't sure if I even wanted to be in love.

Admitting to myself that I loved someone would be hard enough, but saying the words aloud would be much more difficult. It would imply taking on commitments and responsibilities that I wasn't ready for. It would risk people finding out I was gay and maybe treating me like Chris. I couldn't give Tom the response he obviously desired and deserved, but on the other hand I couldn't hurt him by saying something trite or stupid. However, I had to give him some response, and I couldn't delay much longer.

"In that case," I said, taking hold of his shoulders and pulling him toward me, "give me a kiss."

Before he could say anything, I placed my mouth over his and let my lips and tongue communicate directly with his, hoping that he would receive and understand the message that I couldn't transmit in words. Fortunately, he accepted my gesture and eagerly returned my kiss, which rapidly evolved into an enthusiastic snogging session.

When I went to bed that night, I was a little fearful that if the nightmare involving being beaten was related to my first ever snog, then perhaps there would be another similar experience. It took a long time for me to fall asleep, but when I eventually did the dream I had was very different from the one I'd feared, and in fact was the very opposite of a nightmare. Unfortunately, when I woke up I could remember very little about it.

I do remember that in the dream I was with my mum, and that I felt loved, safe and secure. There is no memory of what, if anything, we said and did, but I do remember I was very, very happy. In fact, I was so happy that tears of joy were streaming down my cheeks, and when I woke up, still in the middle of the night, my pillow was wet with those tears. I recalled the dream and immediately wanted to return to it, but of course I couldn't, and then I felt such a deep sorrow at the loss of that happiness that I cried. It was only after that sorrow had abated a little that the realisation struck me: I was crying for the first time in almost nine years.

Christmas came and went, and during the remainder of the holiday period there were no more memorable dreams or nightmares. Gran and Auntie Kath returned home to Scotland for the New Year celebrations, and Dad was just as relieved as I was when we drove them to the railway station. Having had to entertain visitors for more than a week, it was good to get the house back to ourselves, and even better that I could return to my own bed.

Because of the Christmas festivities, family commitments and visitors, I hadn't seen much of Tom since the day that he'd said he loved me, and even when we had managed to get together we'd had very little privacy. During that time, I waged a successful campaign to persuade Dad to let Tom keep me company while he was away in the USA. As Tom had predicted, his mum was happy with the idea, and she managed to convince her husband to agree. Brian, according to Tom, wasn't so happy about the arrangement, but he didn't say anything directly to me.

For the first week after the holidays, life went on as it had before Christmas, with Tom coming to my house after school three times, ostensibly to do homework, but really just to have some private time together. We had another snogging session, which included what could be described as 'petting', but there was no further mention of love. I suspected that Tom was content to leave such things until Dad went on his trip, which he did on the Sunday preceding our second week back at school.

As had been agreed by our parents, Tom joined Dad and me for a light Sunday lunch, during which Dad lectured us both about behaving ourselves, not burning the house down, and suchlike. Immediately after lunch, Dad set off to the airport, leaving us to our own devices, but we were alone for less than two hours before Mrs Crawford arrived 'to make sure Tommy was settling in'. Intriguingly, although she had her own key to the house, she rang the doorbell and waited for us to let her in.

Mrs Crawford stayed just long enough for us all to have some tea and cake before she left us alone again, whereupon Tom and I snuggled together on the sofa and watched one of the DVDs I'd got for Christmas. Although we'd both been looking forward to this time together, there was a slight tension between us. For me, I think the tension was a result of a combination of anticipation and nervousness about any developments in our sexual interactions. I was also anxious and uncertain about how I would respond if he repeated his declaration of love.

As things turned out, nothing much happened of a sexual nature, and although we kissed briefly a couple of times, it didn't progress to real snogging. When we'd had enough of watching DVDs, we decided to go to bed relatively early because we had to be up for school the next day. It was important to both of us to be on time, and so prove to our parents that we could be trusted without adult supervision. Having made sure that Tom had everything he needed and was comfortable in the bedroom next to mine, I went to bed.

Unusually for me, almost as soon as my head touched the pillow, I fell asleep. Well, perhaps falling asleep wouldn't be most accurate way to describe it. Certainly, I wasn't fully awake, and neither was it my normal sleep, but instead it was a sort of drifting somewhere between those states. There were no dreams, but I had a series of my 'mini-visions', all apparently unrelated. This was the first time I'd experienced them since moving into Prospect House. In my semi-detached state of mind there was no accurate sense of time, but after a while a tapping sound began to intrude into my mini-visions. At first it was just a background noise, but then the volume gradually built up until it drove out everything else. There was just the tapping and an absolute darkness. I knew I was on my bed, but I couldn't move, and I couldn't tell if I was dreaming or not, because the experience seemed so real.

Strangely, at that point I wasn't afraid or even curious, but instead there was just a detached indifference. Then the tapping stopped, and I felt the deep sadness and loss that had been a feature of previous nightmares, and that's when I began to feel an apprehension that quickly grew to become fear. As a weight began to crush my chest, that fear escalated, and it became sheer terror when something wrapped around my throat and began to choke me.

A bright light dazzled me, and I thought I heard a voice, but the throbbing in my ears prevented me from identifying any words. I was still being choked, and now in addition something was hurting my thumbs.

"Mark!" a voice pierced the buzzing throb. "Mark, let go! You'll hurt yourself!"

My eyes began to focus, the throbbing in my ears faded, and I noticed that my breathing became easier, but at the same time the pain in my thumbs increased.

"Mark! Wake up!"

It was Tom's voice, but pitched higher than usual, and in a tone of barely controlled panic. As my eyes began to function properly, I saw his face and realised that he was bending over me. Then I realised that he was the one bending back my thumbs and that my hands were gripping my own throat. Suddenly, I went limp, and as I ceased resisting him, Tom almost fell backwards.

"You were trying to choke yourself," he said, his voice breaking up and tears in his eyes. "Was it another nightmare?"

Although I could now breathe freely, my answer came out as a croaking sound, so I just nodded my head. I was still having problems focusing my eyes, but my vision was good enough to see an expression of relief on his face. Now that I was no longer choking, my terror was evaporating, to be replaced by a deep weariness. Tom asked me a couple of questions, but my mind was too tired to grasp them, and seconds later I was overwhelmed by an irresistible wave of sleep.

When I slowly returned to consciousness it was dark, and I was still tired. I was lying on my back and, noticing a weight on my chest, became afraid that the nightmare was returning. However, this weight was more localised and less heavy than in my nightmares, and I had no trouble breathing. Relieved to find that I was able to move, I cautiously lifted my hand to investigate, and found a naked arm draped across my chest.

At first there was a brief stab of fear before I realised that the arm must belong to Tom. There was an extra warmth along the right side of my body, and a gentle, regular touch of warm air on the right side of my neck. By this time I was fully awake and alert, so although it was too dark to see more than vague shapes, I guessed from his stillness and regular breathing that he was asleep.

Then I noticed something gently pulsing on my thigh, and realised with a delicious shock that it must be Tom's penis. At that point, I became aware of my own erection resting on my stomach, and I realised that for the first time in my life, certainly since my earliest memories, that I was naked in bed with another person. I tried to remember if Tom had been wearing anything when he'd interrupted my nightmare, but the memory was very vague. I seemed to recall that from the waist up he was naked, but I didn't remember seeing the lower half of his body.

Tentatively, I moved my arm down until the side of my hand just touched his body at about waist level, and there I found a boundary between skin and cloth. Clearly he was wearing something, and yet the pulsing on my thigh felt like direct skin-to-skin contact. Gently and slowly, I moved my right hand further down what felt like boxer shorts, and found that his erection was protruding from the fly.

For several seconds, perhaps even a couple of minutes, I froze with the tips of my fingers just touching the shaft. Tom was the only person I'd ever touched so intimately, and that was just a couple of times during snogging sessions. On those occasions we'd stroked each other, but we'd been fully clothed, so that our touching was through layers of cloth. This was the first time I'd had direct contact with another person's penis, and I was so excited that I was breathless and trembling.

I remained frozen, afraid of waking him, trying to suppress the shaking of my body, and trying to decide what to do next. I desperately wanted to explore, and the urge to grasp his shaft was almost overwhelming. However, I was afraid of how he might react if he woke to find me molesting him, and even if he didn't wake, maybe it would be wrong of me to take advantage of him while he was asleep.

Eventually, my desire and curiosity overcame my concerns about consequences and ethics, and I convinced myself that if I were very gentle he wouldn't wake, and even if he did then he wouldn't be too annoyed. Slowly and softly, I wrapped my fingers around his shaft, then gradually allowed them to explore up and down the silky hardness. With my other hand I began to manipulate myself, and as his breathing was still regular and he still lay absolutely still, I grew more bold and explored further.

At this point I squeezed my penis, but perhaps through some reflex, and certainly unintentionally, that action was mirrored by my other hand, so I squeezed Tom's shaft as well. I heard a quiet moan and froze, though I wasn't sure if the sound came from me or from Tom. Holding myself immobile, I held my breath, wondering what to do and concerned that any movement, even just removing my hand from him, might wake him.

"Don't stop," he whispered.

Though his words were barely audible, I was in such a nervous state that they made my whole body jerk. However, I didn't release him.

"I'm sorry," I whispered hoarsely.

"What for?"

I wasn't sure how to answer him. Although I felt genuine regret, I'm not sure what exactly I regretted. Perhaps I should have been apologising for betraying his trust by molesting him in his sleep and touching him so intimately without permission.

"Anyway," he continued when I didn't respond. "Don't stop. It's nice."

As he clearly wasn't annoyed with me for taking advantage of him in his sleep, and as he had now given me permission, I continued stroking, this time more firmly. After a few seconds of this he spoke again.

"Just a sec," he said, prising my fingers from his shaft.

Disappointed, I wondered if he didn't like the way I'd been stimulating him. He turned on his back, threw back the duvet, raised his hips, and removed his boxers. Then he moved as close to me as he could, so we were touching almost completely from shoulders to ankles.

"That's better," he said, taking my hand and placing it back on his dick. "You can carry on now."

"Was I doing it okay?" I asked as I returned to my task.

"Wonderfully," he replied and sighed.

As I continued what was a combination of masturbating him and exploring his penis and scrotum, he reached over and began doing to me what I was doing to him. It didn't take long before I moaned and sprayed several shots of semen, the first two of which reached as far as my chin and cheek.

"Aahh!" I said as he continued manipulating me. "Stop. Please, stop!"

He instantly obeyed my request and gave a little laugh.

"What's so funny?" I asked.

"It seems you're just like me," he said. "As soon as I've cum it gets very sensitive."

"Yeah," I agreed.

While I lay there, relaxing in the afterglow of my orgasm, Tom sat up and started gently wiping me with his boxers. When he'd cleaned everything but my penis, he dropped the boxers on my crotch.

"As your dick's so sensitive," he said playfully, "I'd better let you do it yourself."

I began gently wiping myself, but got distracted from my task when he leaned over and kissed me deeply. As he did this, I felt his hardness prodding my hip, and I remembered that he still hadn't climaxed, so I gently broke off our kissing.

"Your turn," I said.

"I was hoping you'd say that," he replied happily.

As he lay on his back, I sat up, and this time my right hand explored his body from shoulders to thighs while I slowly masturbated him with my left hand. Being right-handed, this meant that the stimulation of his penis wasn't quite so co-ordinated, but that was my intention. For both our sakes, I wanted this, our first real sexual experience together, to last as long as possible.

Although he might have been getting all the physical pleasure, I was enjoying the freedom to touch him so intimately. My former fears and concerns were evaporated by the reality of what I was doing. I basked in this sharing of ourselves, and I relished the trust that he showed in letting me have such access to his most private places. Although I was masturbating him and no one was touching me, I believe that at that moment my mental pleasure matched his physical pleasure.

After a couple of minutes playing with his nipples, I surprised myself with my adventurousness by propping myself up with my hand between his thighs and licking up and down his dick. The slightly salty taste wasn't at all unpleasant, so I put the whole head in my mouth and massaged it with my tongue. Squeezing the shaft with my lips, I took as much as I could into my mouth, then slowly moved my head up and down. Tom rubbed his fingers through my hair and began to writhe.

"Mark," he groaned. "Let me cum. Please let me cum."

I toyed with the idea of letting him do it in my mouth, but my quota of adventurousness had been used up for the day. While continuing to manipulate his dick, I lay down on my side next to him and started kissing him. Then I started wanking him in earnest while our tongues played together. Within a couple of minutes his body tensed, he moaned into my mouth, and I immediately felt his dick swell and throb.

The side of my face and my chest were sprayed with semen and, remembering what he'd said about sensitivity, after the last spurt I stopped my manipulations. We stopped kissing so that he could regain his breath, and I rested the side of my head on his chest. Unfortunately, I hadn't considered the large pool of liquid that was already there. However, after the initial shock of wetness it wasn't too unpleasant, so rather than disturb him, I kept my head were it was.

After a few minutes, though, my position became uncomfortable, so I retrieved his boxers, intending to wipe us both. However, the material was already so sodden that they were useless for that purpose, so I threw them onto the floor and grabbed a handful of my bedside tissues to do the job. As I carried out the clean-up operations, I was amazed at how much ejaculate he'd produced.

"Do you usually produce so much?" I asked him as I reached for more tissues.

"Never quite so much," he said and laughed tiredly. "But then I've never had such a great orgasm before. I thought I'd gone to heaven."

Feeling proud that I'd been able to give him such pleasure, I kissed him softly and briefly on the lips, then finished my wipe-up task.

"I don't know about you," I said, pulling the duvet back over us and lying down next to him, "but I'm knackered."

"Me too," he said, snuggling up to me and resting his head on my shoulder.

Within seconds, I was in a deep and dreamless sleep.

When I was awakened by the beeping of the alarm clock, I was still very tired and felt as if I'd just fallen asleep. It took me so long to wake up that Tom had to lean over me to switch off the annoying noise, and still I didn't move. This was not only because I was so tired but also because I hate getting up in the dark, and at that time of year it wouldn't be light for another hour or so. As if reading my thoughts, Tom switched on the bedside light, dazzling me.

"You stink," he said amiably.

At first I was offended, then I sniffed and realised that we both stank of semen and sweat.

"So do you," I responded gruffly.

"Yeah, but it's all your fault," he retorted with a grin. "Cos you started it!"

"Well, I wouldn't have done it if you hadn't been in my bed," I pointed out, feeling that I'd scored the winning point.

"But I wouldn't have been in your bed if you hadn't woken me up with your nightmare."

Given more time, I was sure that I could find holes in his argument, and certainly there was a lot to discuss on that topic, but instead I pointed at the clock.

"Better hurry up or we'll miss the school bus," I said grumpily, throwing back the duvet.

As we were getting out of bed, I couldn't help staring at his beautiful body and wondering how I could have been so lucky. Meanwhile, he looked at me and frowned.

"You look awful," he said.

"Thanks," I said, using sarcasm to try to hide my hurt feelings. "But we can't all be gorgeous like you."

"No!" he said hastily. "I didn't mean it like that. Normally, you look, well, really nice, but at the moment your eyes look awful and you've got bruises on your neck."

"Oh," I said, somewhat placated.

To save time, Tom used Dad's shower while I used mine, with the agreement that whoever got down to the kitchen first should put the kettle on. When I got to my bathroom, I immediately looked in the mirror and saw that Tom was right. My eyes looked sunken and were surrounded by dark rings, and on my throat there were red marks that were beginning to turn blue. After my shower, my eyes didn't seem quite so bad, and I decided that if I wore a shirt with a collar it would hide most of the marks on my neck.

On returning to my room and getting dressed, I sprayed air freshener around, then took the covers off the bed and took them downstairs with me. As I passed by the kitchen door on my way to the utility room I saw Tom rinsing out the teapot.

"It's a good job Dad and I do our own laundry," I called out to him. "At least your mum won't be suspicious of me putting these in the washing machine before I go to school."

"I don't think she would be too surprised," he responded quietly and somewhat enigmatically.

Had we not been in such a hurry I might have asked him to explain the remark, and indeed there were several other things I wanted to discuss with him. However, we were short of time, and I didn't want to risk missing the bus, so I just rushed on to the utility room.

Tom and I didn't get a chance to talk privately until we got home from school, and even then I waited until we'd had time to relax and unwind before I brought up any of the topics that had been on my mind for most of the day. For his part, Tom seemed to sense my mood, and he appeared content to just chat casually and wait for me to initiate any heavier conversation. Thus we'd been home for almost two hours and had spent several minutes kissing and cuddling on the sofa, before I felt ready to discuss the previous night.

"What made you come to my room last night?" I asked. "Did you know I was having a nightmare?"

"I didn't know for sure about the nightmare until I saw you trying to strangle yourself," he said, " but I did begin to think something might be happening when I heard the tapping..."

"You really heard it?" I interrupted, happy that it no longer appeared to be a figment of my imagination.

"Well, I'm pretty sure I heard the sort of tapping you'd told me about, but I was just dropping off to sleep so I can't be totally sure."

"Oh," I said, a little disappointed. "So that's not why you came to my room, then?"

"No, that's just what stopped me falling asleep. Then I heard banging on the wall, and I thought I heard you calling for me, but..." He paused and frowned, but just as I was about to urge him on, he continued, "But you were calling out 'Tommy' not 'Tom', and your voice sounded odd, sort of distorted. Anyway, I thought there was something wrong, so I went to your room, banged on the door and called your name. Then, when you didn't answer I went in, turned on the light and saw you choking yourself. That really, really scared me!"

From his eyes and the tone of his voice as spoke the last few words, it seemed that he was still scared, so I put my arm around his shoulders and gave a little squeeze.

"Yes," I said soothingly, "but thanks to you everything's okay now, isn't it?"

To be honest, I wasn't particularly confident that everything would be okay, but he looked so distressed that I had to say something to try to make him feel better. However, he didn't appear to be reassured.

"Is it?" he said, still concerned. "Suppose it happens again? What if I'm not here?"

"I don't think we should be too worried about it," I said, trying to hide my own concern. "After all, it's impossible to strangle yourself, cos as soon as you lose consciousness your hands would relax."

He didn't seem to be convinced by my argument and continued to look worried. "We have to find a way to stop your nightmares."

"I can't argue with that," I said with a wry smile. "But how?"

"Mine seem to have stopped..." He paused, unable to answer my question, then continued, "I don't know how, but we have to."

By nine o'clock that night I was so tired that I decided to go to bed early. Tom didn't appear to be as sleepy as I was, but when I told him I was going to get ready for bed, he said he'd do the same. Although I pointed that he was welcome to stay up as long as he wanted, he nevertheless accompanied me upstairs. After finishing in the bathroom, I put on my dressing gown and was just leaving my room on my way to say goodnight to Tom, when I almost bumped into him. He was wearing just boxer shorts, and I couldn't help pausing to admire his body.

"Great minds think alike," I said.

"What?" he asked with a puzzled frown.

"I was just coming to say goodnight," I explained. "And I guess you were doing the same."

For a moment his expression made me think of a puppy that had just been put out in the yard, then his face took on a more resolute appearance.

"Actually, I was coming to sleep with you," he said.

Because I'd been tired since I woke up, my brain hadn't been functioning well all day, and I'd not thought about how the previous night's events might affect our future sleeping arrangements. Even if I had thought about it, however, I would probably have assumed that sleeping together the previous night had just been a one-off occurrence resulting from my nightmare.

"Oh," I said uncertainly. "I'm very tired..."

My voice trailed of because although I was indeed tired and probably too fatigued to mess around, the sight of his half-naked body made me wonder if I might perhaps be able to find a small reserve of energy. As often happened, Tom seemed to read my mind.

"I wasn't thinking of that," he said, and with a smile he added, "Well, not much anyway. Mostly I was worried what might happen if you were alone and had a nightmare."

"I'm sure I'll be okay," I said, feeling embarrassed and a little disappointed.

"Look," he said determinedly, "I can see you're tired and I promise I won't molest you, but I really would sleep better knowing I was there for you if you need me."

Although I hadn't considered our sleeping arrangements earlier, I now gave it some thought. Some might wonder why on earth I might need time to think about sharing a bed with a gorgeous young man. However, until the previous night I'd not slept with anyone since I was a small child, and my night with Tom had been under unusual circumstances. After a several seconds, during which he waited patiently, I decided that although I might be uncomfortable with anyone else, I could relax and sleep with Tom in my bed.

"Okay," I said, nodding my agreement. "Thanks."

Tom got into bed first and, bearing in mind the intimacies I'd shared with him less than twenty-four hours earlier, it was remarkable that I felt rather self-conscious taking off my dressing gown and getting into bed with him. Perhaps that was partly because he was still wearing his boxers and I was naked. When I joined him under the duvet he gave me a chaste kiss, and then I turned off the light and curled up on my side with my back to him.

As soon as I stopped moving, he wriggled closer to me and cuddled up against my back with his arm hugging my chest. He gave a contented sigh, and I had the impression that if he were a cat then he'd be purring. Although I was certainly very tired, his closeness, the feeling of his body against mine, and the light touch of his breath on my neck prevented me from falling asleep immediately. However, I was feeling very comfortable and relaxed, so I didn't complain. For some minutes I drifted in a state of half-sleep, then Tom whispered something so softly that I could just make out his words, which, I found out later, he hadn't expected me to hear because he thought I was asleep.

"I love you, Mark," he said.

Just a couple of days before, I'd been dreading those words and had been worried about how I'd respond. However, a lot had happened in those two days, and as I lay there with him, I felt so safe and relaxed that I whispered my reply without thinking.

"I love you, too."

Surprised that I was awake and that had heard him, he gave a slight start and hugged me a little tighter. Then he planted a few kisses on the back of my neck, sending shivers down my spine. I, too, was surprised, mainly by the ease with which those words had escaped my lips, but I realised that they were undoubtedly true. Of course, my previous concerns hadn't totally disappeared, but compared with the basic truth of my feelings, they didn't seem so important any more. Basking in the glow of my emotions, I didn't become aware of the tiny background sound until I felt Tom's body tense.

"Do you hear that?" he whispered.

My only response was a low moan of dread, as the tapping from the window grew a little louder.

"Don't worry," he said, hugging me more tightly. "You're not asleep so you can't have a nightmare."

We lay there huddled like frightened children for a few minutes, during which time the tapping became louder and more insistent. Then, a sudden change washed over me, and for no apparent reason, my dread was replaced by an overwhelming eroticism. A similar transformation must have taken place in Tom, because I felt him start humping against me with his erection pushing along my buttocks and into the small of my back.

I turned to face him and our lips met in a passionate kiss while our erections pushed against one another. The tapping was no longer threatening, but had become a throbbing pulse encouraging and magnifying our sexual desires. Yet, despite the strength of my erotic feelings and the intensity of my physical pleasure, a part of me was set aside, not a participant but a spectator watching from the sidelines.

Between us, Tom and I wrestled off his boxers, threw off the duvet, and began groping one another as we rolled around in a frenzy of lust. Then, as suddenly as switching on a light, the sexual lust was paradoxically both calmed and augmented by an overpowering love, and at the same time the tapping became slower and quieter. He rolled me onto my back and lay on top of me, twirling his tongue around mine and grinding his dick against my thigh. Then he raised himself up, supporting himself with a hand on either side of my chest and began rubbing his dick against mine in long, slow strokes. His pace and the speed of the tapping increased together, but if it was a case of cause and effect, I couldn't tell which led the other.

Our dicks and stomachs were slippery with sweat and large amounts of leaking lubrication, but amazingly he still managed to maintain contact between our dicks throughout most of the range of his movement. Even in the darkness, I could see and almost feel his bright eyes burning down at me. As the speed and pressure of his thrusts increased, the stimulation was pushing me nearer to orgasm, and from his breathing and the tension in his body I could tell that he, too, was close.

By this time, the throbbing of my pulse, Tom's thrusts, and the tapping seemed to have fused together so that they were all part of a single sensory experience. Then I felt the first jet of his semen spray onto my dick, and this triggered my own orgasm, so that my stomach and chest were flooded with our combined emissions. As my orgasm peaked, it was accompanied by a jolt of dislocation and disorientation, as if the room and everything in it had suddenly tilted.

Tom fell on top of me with a squelch, displacing yet more of our combined ejaculates onto the bed sheet. Oddly, despite his body pressing down on me, I felt much lighter, as if a weight had been lifted, not just from me but from the room as well. This sense of euphoria gradually faded to a feeling of general happiness, and then I began to feel uncomfortable with Tom's weight and the sticky wetness between our bodies.

"Tom," I whispered into his ear. "Tom, are you okay?"

He mumbled something into my shoulder, but apart from his breathing he remained motionless, so I decided to make the first move.

"We should get cleaned up now," I said, rolling to extricate myself from under him.

"What?" he said, sounding dazed.

"We need to clean up," I repeated.

Apparently recovering from his stupor, he rolled onto his back.

"Sorry," he said.

Though I was tired, I was still happy and couldn't think of anything he should apologise for.

"Why?" I asked light-heartedly. "Half the mess is mine. Well, maybe not quite half!"

"I'm sorry I did stuff when I promised not to," he replied seriously, obviously not picking up my little witticism.

"It takes two to tango," I joked.

As I reached out to grab a handful of tissues, a less frivolous thought occurred to me.

"Anyway," I said as I wiped my torso, "I'm not sure that it was you, or even us."

"What?" he said, clearly still a little dazed.

Instead of answering immediately I switched on the bedside light, grabbed another handful of tissues, and attempted to clean him, but by that time most of the liquid had dried.

"Aaaaahh! That tickles!" he yelped and wriggled, indicating a return to his usual lively self.

"You're going to have to have a shower to wash that off," I commented.

"Yeah, I know," he said, running his fingers down his chest. "But what did you mean about it not being me?"

Before taking the risk of looking foolish by answering immediately, I decided to get more information. However, as I was beginning to feel chilled, I first got the duvet and pulled it over us.

"Tell me," I said. "When you had your orgasm, did you experience anything unusual?"

"Erm, yeah, the tapping and then a loud bang and that flash of light. But you did too, didn't you?"

"I heard the tapping, but no bang and no light."

"Oh!" he said, as if he'd had a revelation. "Bang and light. I s'pose it was a bit like my nightmares. But in the nightmares the noise and light were terrible, but just now they were quite, well, not unpleasant, anyway."

Then I told him about me feeling like a spectator and how the room had seemed to shift.

"So I think maybe what happened tonight wasn't us," I added. "I think it might have been Edward and Tommy."

An expression of horror spread over his face, then he shook his head.

"No!" he said firmly. "I don't believe it! And I certainly wasn't possessed."

"I don't think we were possessed, either," I said, reaching out and squeezing his shoulder. "I think maybe they just prodded us, and then they went along for the ride."

"Like we're horses?" he said doubtfully.

"Yeah, a bit like that," I said and laughed at the mental image of two horses, one with my head and one with Tom's.

"It's not funny," he said unhappily. "If that's what really happened, it's spooky. Not as horrible as possession, but still not nice, especially if it happens again. I can't see why you seem so happy about it."

"I'm not happy that it happened," I said after a brief pause for thought. "I'm happy because I have a strong feeling it won't happen again."

"A feeling?" he said. "So you're not sure?"

"Not absolutely sure, yet," I said. "We'll just have to wait and see."

He was clearly still unconvinced and not very happy, so I decided it was time to divert his thoughts.

"Anyway," I continued, "it's late and I'm knackered. We need to shower and then get some sleep."

After that incident, the special nightmares ended for both of us, and there was no more of the tapping. Of course there were many erotic experiences as we became more sexually adventurous, but all of those were of the usual sort, driven by our own desires and totally unrelated to any possible external influence. That week, and many times afterward, we discussed our experiences, but never reached any firm conclusions.

We debated several hypotheses, even including the possibility that my mental state or some emotional problem had caused my nightmares. However, we couldn't see how that could also explain Tom's nightmares or the experiences he'd shared with me. Eventually, we agreed that two of the possibilities were more plausible than any others we could think of. First, maybe there were restless spirits somehow placated and laid to rest by our actions, and second, perhaps there was an imprint of old unhappiness in that room, and our new happiness wiped it clean. Of the two, Tom favoured the former and I preferred the latter.

"From what we know of Edward, he seems to have been a relatively nice person, and certainly Miss Victoria thought so," I pointed out. "But if Edward's spirit was in the house and causing my worst nightmares, especially the ones that choked me, then he can't have been very nice at all. So, isn't it more likely that it was imprints and not spirits?"

Tom thought about that for a while before he replied, "Maybe Edward was responsible for the sadness and the horny feelings, but what if there was something else causing the other stuff?"

"Something else?"

"Another spirit. The really nasty stuff seems like something that Edward's dad might do."

"If you keep having to introduce more spirits to explain things," I said, my smile just a little smug, "then the whole spirit idea becomes even less likely. I still prefer the imprint possibility, if only because it's simpler."

Despite our different interpretations of the strange events we'd experienced, we both agreed that the real explanation didn't matter as long as the nightmares stayed away and no weirdness interfered with our future lovemaking.

Sometimes our discussions became quite philosophical, and occasionally they were very humorous, but one particular conversation stuck in my mind. This took place while we were in bed together, just a couple of days before Dad returned from his trip to the USA.

"I can't believe it's all just coincidence," Tom mused as we snuggled together.

"Coincidences do happen," I pointed out.

"But not so many all at once. Just think about it. At the same time that I'm living here and looking like Tommy, you move up here, choose this house, and pick this room for yourself. Then it turns out that you could somehow pick up vibes from Edward. You even have the same birthday as he did. Besides all that you're gay, I'm gay, and we fall in love. That's a lot of coincidences!"

"Maybe," I conceded reluctantly after a long pause for thought, "but I prefer that to the alternative."

"Which is?"

"That it was all somehow predetermined or imposed on us. I like to believe I have some free will and control of my own destiny."

"Perhaps, just for a short while, things were meant to happen how they did," he said pensively. "But now we're back in control. Anyway, I've got you, so I think things turned out very well." He paused to squeeze me gently in his arms and kiss my forehead. Then he continued, "And if you had been in total control, how would you have arranged things better?"

I couldn't answer his question then, and I still can't answer it now. What I do know, though, is that Tommy and Edward were in the past, but the present belongs to Tom and me. As for the future, I have no idea. But who does?

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