One of Us

by Richard Campbell

Chapter 1

Captain Gordon, as he insisted on being addressed, although he had been out of the army for several years, glared at the boy in front of his desk.

"Stand up straight and act like a man," he barked, wishing he were still in the forces and could deal with his victim in a more suitable manner. In his army days he had been able to assign some extremely unpleasant punishments in the guise of 'making men' out of the youthful recruits, but as a civilian, virtually the only recourse left to him was verbal abuse.

He was a large, red-faced man who hid his true nature beneath a veneer of ponderous civility, though contemptuous of anyone he considered to be his inferior. Retirement, to the restrictions and lack of respect he encountered as a civilian, had improved neither his disposition nor his temper. While it was comparatively easy to bully such low life as shop assistants and bus conductors (unless they were young and pretty) he missed having platoons of young soldiers jumping at his every wish, unable to defend themselves against his unreasonable demands. That he had gone too far on several occasions and been eased into early retirement by a high command increasingly concerned about an intrusive and hostile press, rankled deeply.

The only person over whom he retained total authority was the specimen in front of him, and he set about bullying the boy in earnest, his voice becoming louder and more threatening as he went on. Years of practice had given him a command of aggressive invective that seldom failed to have its effect.

His fifteen year old son, who had relaxed insensibly during the preceding silence, braced himself for another onslaught. It had been going on since he'd been called into his father's study half an hour previously and he had hoped that his parent's anger was subsiding. Unfortunately, the Captain was just getting into his stride. The boy wondered, given the frequency of these sessions, why he had never become accustomed to them, particularly as the intervals between them appeared to be diminishing.

It was further twenty minutes before he was dismissed, by which time he was feeling physically sick. He hadn't even done anything. It seemed that just the sight of him was enough to set his father off. Gritting his teeth he went upstairs to his bedroom, ignoring a tentative, "Mark…" from his mother as he went past. If only he could lock the door to prevent his father marching in unannounced! But there was no key and even if he had one he wouldn't have dared to make use of it.

He sat at his desk, looked at the homework he had been doing and then at his shaking hands. He tried clasping them together but it didn't help and he knew from experience that he wouldn't be able to write until the trembling stopped. Abandoning his work for the time being he went into the bathroom and turned on the shower. While waiting for the water to warm up to the miserly temperature his father permitted, he stripped, carefully not looking at himself in the mirror.

He disliked his body because he looked both smaller and younger than his actual age in spite of the small patch of dark hair at his groin. In fact his sole growth spurt so far had been in that region. Although he tried to ignore the area it seemed to have developed a mind of its own and demanded his frequent attention. He was about to indulge it when his father's voice ordered him to get a move on because his mother wanted a bath before going to bed. Guiltily he washed rinsed and dried himself before painstakingly cleaning the shower. He knew better than to leave the slightest trace of scum on the gleaming tiles.

Back in his bedroom he put on his pyjamas, got into bed and tried to read for a few minutes but was unable to concentrate. After reading the same paragraph for the third time without taking in a word, he put the book down and switched off the light. With a sigh he settled down on the thin, hard mattress. Captain Gordon held the view that soft beds led to weakness in the young. That soldiers bivouacked on bare ground and his son had it easy in comparison was another of his frequently expressed opinions.

As Mark began to relax the warmth and quiet had the usual effect on that intemperate portion of his anatomy and, irritated with himself for forgetting, he got out of bed to collect a vest from the laundry basket which he spread over his stomach. Sliding the swollen organ through the slit in his pyjama trousers he quickly stroked himself to a satisfying if messy climax. He was drifting off to sleep when the unpleasant thought struck him, as it usually did at this time of night, that he had to get up for school the following day. But before the thought could depress him he was asleep.

'On reluctant feet to school,' was a phrase that often flashed through his mind as he walked there, it seemed to describe his feelings exactly. He had no idea who had coined the phrase but felt that he would have liked them very much. He frequently admired people although they were usually literary or musical figures who had nothing to do with his own life. He walked through the school gates just before the bell rang, his stomach going cold as it always did at the thought of the dreary hours ahead.

He hated school which he attended in a state of dumb misery, His only consolation was that his father hadn't sent him to the horrific Catholic boarding school he himself had attended. It sounded even worse than this place which was bad enough. He had sometimes wondered if the training his father received at that school was the reason he behaved the way he did.

Mark had no illusions about his father's personality, having suffered from it all his life, and had come to realise as he grew older and began to think more for himself that he was a huge disappointment to his irascible parent. He was also starting to wonder if things would have been any different had he been exactly the type of son that his father wanted.

Although brought up to believe that loyalty and unthinking obedience to one's Commanding Officer were basic tenets of civilised existence, the thought came into his mind that perhaps those should be earned rather than demanded as a matter of course. It was so radical a thought that he stopped walking while he considered it, and didn't move until he was jostled by the unruly crowd of laughing, pushing boys and youths, almost all of whom were larger than he was.

Safely in his form room, and he didn't always reach it unscathed, he opened his books. Forcing himself to ignore the uproar he concentrated on the homework he'd been unable to complete until a reluctant decrease in the noise level announced the entrance of the form tutor.

The register had just been taken when there was a polite knock on the door and he looked up briefly to see a boy about his own age enter the classroom. Indifferently, he heard him say his name, Peter Doran, and that he had been sent from the office to join the form. Vaguely envious of his self possession, Mark continued to work. There were several empty seats scattered around the room, including one beside him, but he knew from experience that no-one ever wanted to sit with him. If he had no specific enemies, he didn't have any friends either.

Surveying the curious faces staring at him while his details were being added to the attendance register, Peter Doran picked out Mark immediately for the simple reason that he was the only boy who, after a fleeting glance, had his head down. His many experiences of just such a situation told him that the boy was probably lonely, unhappy, and almost certainly unpopular with the rest of the class. Appraising what he could see of him he wondered why. He wasn't very big, in fact he was the smallest boy in the class and probably, thought Peter summing him up, one of the smallest in the school. But he was nice looking, as far as he could tell, without having any particularly outstanding features. Peter liked the shape of his head but wondered why he wore his hair so short. That cropped look didn't suit him and was certainly unfashionable. He was not to know that Captain Gordon, whose prejudice against long hair was as deep seated as his feelings about everything else, still took charge of Mark's barbering. Nobody in the army had long hair, even in these degenerate days, and his son was not going to be the exception.

When told to sit where he liked Peter ignored the faint welcoming smiles aimed in his direction and sat down next to Mark. The boy, who had remained oblivious to what was going on, raised such an astonished face that Peter nearly laughed out loud and his face broke into an infectious grin.

"I'm Peter. Peter Doran," he said, holding out his hand.

After a moment Mark took it gingerly almost as if he was afraid it would be snatched back.

"Mark. Mark Gordon," he mumbled in such a soft voice that Peter could barely hear him.

"Hi Mark. What are you doing?"

"Maths homework," muttered Mark reluctantly, wanting to get back to it.

"Let's have a look. When is maths?"

"Next period," came the glum response.

Peter took a brief look and realised that his companion hadn't the faintest idea what he was doing. Helping himself to Mark's scrap pad, he extracted a pencil from his shirt pocket and scribbled rapidly.

"There you are," he said sotto voce, pushing the pad back. "Copy it down."

Mark looked at him doubtfully.

"It's okay," Peter smiled. "The answer's right. Go on, copy it."

"If I copy it and it is right," Mark said even more dubiously, unable to believe that anyone could arrive at the answer so effortlessly, "He'll know I didn't do it myself. I never get anything right," he finished gloomily, stating a well established fact of life.

"Take a chance. And it is right, I'm good at maths."

In fact, as the day went on, Mark and the rest of the class discovered that not only was Peter good at maths, he was good at everything else as well. Yet he didn't seem to show off and no-one resented it as they might have done had it been anyone else.

He hardly saw Peter during the dinner break as he was already involved with a group who were kicking a football around. Mark was not surprised to discover that he had formidable skills. Peter appeared so competent all round he found himself somewhat awestruck. The thought even crossed his mind that Peter was exactly the sort of boy that his father would have liked and for a short time actively resented him. However, the feeling lasted no longer than their return to class when Peter, tanned, healthy, glowing, and barely breathing hard, asked him why he hadn't joined in.

"I'm useless," Mark told him, deciding that he might as well get it over with straight away. It was obvious that not only was Peter good at games, very good, he corrected himself, but enjoyed them as well. He himself could hardly have cared less.

Peter smiled at him. Unlike Mark he smiled often. "You're good at other things then."


"There's always something, and even if you don't want to tell me what it is I'll find out," Peter stated confidently, and turned his attention back to the lesson.

Mark couldn't make him out. He wasn't very good at making people out in any case but Peter was a total mystery. When he answered questions or spoke to the teachers he seemed very grown up, almost at their level, yet he talked to Mark and his classmates as if he was exactly the same as they were. It was puzzling and he was thinking about it so deeply during the final period of the day that he was taken by surprise when asked for the French word for 'crowd'. Of course, he thought bitterly, it wouldn't be an easy word that I know.

The class was supposed to have memorised a long list of words and he realised with dismay that, like himself, no-one had bothered. The teacher was glaring at him and he knew that when he too was unable to answer, it would be the final straw. Desperately trying to recall the translation from his quick look at the list the previous week, he became aware of a discreet touch on his thigh and glancing down saw that his companion had written the answer on his scrap pad. He had enough presence of mind to pretend he'd suddenly remembered the word and leant back with a sigh of relief.

When asked, Peter of course knew the next even more obscure word, explaining that he had lived in France for several years. The remainder of the lesson, to the relief of everyone, was taken up by the Frenchman's testing of Peter's knowledge of the language and customs of his country, to which Peter replied in what appeared to be fluent French.

"Thank you, Peter," Mark said rather formally when they were dismissed.

"That's okay kid. Anytime. See you tomorrow."

Mark walked home slowly, relieved to be out of school but not particularly keen to be going home. I wish…he started to think, but stopped himself. There was no point in wishing for things that were never going to happen, it simply depressed him. Instead he turned his thoughts to the new boy.

Peter. Peter Doran. The names went together well and sounded pleasant, certainly better than Mark Gordon, son of Captain Arthur and Mrs Prudence Gordon. He wondered what Peter's parents were like. If he was anything to go by they must be nice without wanting him to be something he wasn't. Unlike his own father. But Peter is probably what they want anyway, he concluded. Good at school, good at games, already popular with everyone. If only…He stopped himself firmly. He had the evening to get through and that was enough to deal with.

Why did he call me kid? he recalled suddenly. He's the same age as me and although he's bigger, he's not all that big. That was another thing. Peter was shorter than everyone else, apart from himself, yet it didn't seem to worry him. Or them.

His mother was in the kitchen when he got home and he stopped thinking about Peter as he greeted her politely. After glancing at his shoes to make sure he hadn't tracked any dirt into the house, she returned his greeting in her soft, indeterminate voice. Mark wasn't indifferent to her but he didn't love her in the way that most boys, whether they admitted it or not, loved their mothers. She was too negative and too eclipsed by her domineering husband to win any real place in his affections.

She seldom supported him against the Captain who, immediately after his birth, had made it clear that molly coddling boys did them no good whatsoever and quickly bullied her out of any displays of tenderness towards her son. Mark had no idea what she felt about her husband, not that he had ever thought about it. He only knew that she never disagreed with him and had learnt, early. to discount her. The only person who counted in the household was the Captain. And he counted for everything.

Forced to rely on his own resources he had, in fact, developed a certain resilience and strength although he wasn't consciously aware of it. He was still too young and inexperienced to realise that anybody unfortunate enough to live with Captain Gordon was forced to sink or swim. Although he was not as yet swimming very powerfully, at least he was to keeping his head above water.

He would have enjoyed talking to someone about the new boy but his father would certainly not be interested, and nor would he have dreamt of drawing attention to himself without a very powerful reason. As for his mother, the thought of talking to her about Peter Doran didn't cross his mind.

Dinner that evening was accompanied by the usual monologue delivered by the Captain to which Mark was only expected to listen (children should be seen and not heard!) and answer 'Yes sir' or 'No sir' as appropriate, which gave him the opportunity to think his own thoughts. Escaping thankfully at the conclusion of the meal on the pretext that he had a lot of homework to do, he had achieved a fair amount when the Captain entered his bedroom without knocking, waited for him to jump to attention, then stated that he was there inspect the room.

After some scathing remarks about the state of it (Mark had draped his school clothes over the back of a chair instead of putting them away as soon as he'd changed) the Captain withdrew with the reminder that he would be carrying out a full inspection (as he termed it) on Saturday morning. Knowing that he would be weary the following day, Mark made sure that his clothes were precisely aligned in the chest of drawers, cleaned the inside of the windows, polished the mirror on the cupboard door and having done as much as he could, fell into bed rather later than usual and was instantly asleep.

He was ambivalent about Fridays. It was the last day of the school week which was good, but there was PE in the afternoon which was very, very bad. As was his habit he sidled into class at the last minute fully expecting to see that Peter Doran had changed his seat and was sitting next to someone else. Having steeled himself not to mind, he was relieved to see Peter in the seat next to his own and gave him a small shy smile.

Studying him while he was getting his books out Peter thought that he looked as if he hadn't slept well. In fact he looked both worn out and worried. It was enough to make Peter wonder what was on his mind. He took the opportunity while they were changing classes to ask what was wrong.

"Nothing," Mark mumbled, with a shake of his head.

"So, if it's nothing, tell me."

"It's not important."

Peter caught his arm. "It is important otherwise you wouldn't be looking as if you were going to the gallows."

"Maybe I am," Mark told him, with a tiny show of spirit.

"In that case they'll have to hang me too, and they won't find that easy," retorted Peter, giving him a push to start him walking again.

Mark remained still as what Peter had said took hold of his mind. Did Peter mean…what exactly did he mean?

"Why?" he asked, assuming that Peter would understand.

"Why not?" came the casual reply. "Come on Mark, we'll be late."

Mark said suddenly, as if it had been forced out of him, "I bloody hate school!" then looked around to see if anyone had heard him.

Peter looked at him and said quietly, "I thought so. I'm not so keen on it myself."

Mark stared at him in surprise. "But, you're not like me. You're good at everything."

"Well I've been at school a very long time, so I've had lots of practice."

Mark seized on the first part of the sentence. "It seems like forever, doesn't it!"

Giving him a wry smile, Peter nodded. "That's why I'm good at it."

"But you can't have been at school more than me," Mark reflected in a puzzled voice. "I mean, we're the same age, aren't we?" He wondered suddenly if Peter was older than he looked and had been kept back a year. Maybe he'd been sick or something, though it seemed unlikely, he looked the picture of health. "I didn't mean to be nosy," he went on, not wanting to embarrass the other boy.

"I don't mind. You can be as nosy as you like about me. Provided," Peter added with a grin, "You don't mind me being nosy about you."

Mark smiled back. "I don't think anyone's ever been nosy about me. Except my father," he added bitterly.

Peter looked at him alertly, assuming that his father had caught him doing something he shouldn't, but quickly changed his mind. Mark didn't appear to be the sort of boy who did things he wasn't supposed to. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, he mused, as they entered their next class.

He spent some time with Mark during the dinner break before he was hauled off to play football. Mark didn't mind being left on his own. He wanted to think about what Peter had said, anything to stop himself brooding on PE which was looming over him like an ominous black cloud. Peter is strange he thought, I think I like him, I mean I do like him, but I don't understand him. There's something odd here. He wondered if he was the only one who'd noticed though the others seemed to have accepted him at face value. Perhaps it's because he talks to me more than he does to them, he concluded with a touch of pride. So far, he warned himself.

He became more and more distraught during the lesson preceding PE, not only worried about the lesson itself but because he was afraid of showing himself up in front of Peter. He'll hate me as soon as he sees how useless I am, he thought miserably, as he was being hauled over the coals for inattention. Catching a glimpse of his set face as they walked to the gym Peter, who had been drawn into a chattering laughing group, made up his mind that he would persuade Mark to tell him what the problem was the minute school was over.

He didn't have to wait that long. First, Mark delayed changing until everyone had vacated the room. It was plain that he was extremely shy and when he finally appeared was berated for being late as usual. Then he was told that he was going to get over the vaulting box today if it killed him. Hoping to distract the man Peter did a faultless vault, then wondered if he should have made a mess of it as he was immediately held up as an example to the nervous boy.

Taking advantage of a moment when the teacher's attention was distracted, he said quietly, "I'll ask him if I can show you how to do it."

Having made his request in an assured manner and been given permission with the remark, 'If you can get him over it, you'll have done better than I have in the last three years', Peter took Mark to one side and showed him how to take off, how to use his hands to give himself that bit of extra lift to clear the end of the box, and how to land. It was then he discovered what Mark was so afraid of and spent the remaining time trying to instil some confidence in him.

Towards the end of the lesson he felt secure enough to bring Mark back to the main box, though he asked if it could be made lower. "He's only practised on the small one and I don't want to put him off."

To his relief Mark remembered what he had been told, and made a fairly creditable attempt for a beginner, only stumbling when he landed. As all he had achieved previously was to flop painfully onto the box itself, even his surprised classmates were pleased. For the rest of the lesson he was able to fade into the background while Peter, when anybody asked for his advice, earned even more approval by his quiet and helpful manner.

Without wishing to repeat his minor triumph, Mark knew that if he had to do it again, he would succeed. Having done it once seemed to have made all the difference. The only remaining fly in his ointment was the obligatory shower at the end of the session. Not that he didn't want one, it was the lack of privacy he hated.

Sensitive about his body he was sure that they were all looking at him when he undressed and was convinced that any half heard conversations were about him as well. He always tried to delay until the others were dressed and had left the area, and today was no exception. Relieved, he had just stepped under the warm water when he heard someone come in, the rustle of clothes being removed, then Peter came to stand under the shower head next to him. In his embarrassment he dropped the soap and as they both bent down to retrieve it, their heads collided. Crimson faced he muttered an apology and quickly turned his back, only to see a hand holding the soap slide around his waist.

"Here you are."

He soaped his chest, reached awkwardly round to do his back and felt the soap being taken from him.

"I'll do that. You're very tense," remarked Peter as he manipulated his shoulders, "Relax. You did really well over the box. I knew you would if someone showed you how."

"I couldn't have done it without you. Thank you, Peter."

"That's okay, I like helping you," Peter replied, his hands moving lower.

Mark blushed again and hoped that Peter wouldn't notice as he wondered just where those hands were going stop. No one had touched him like this before. In fact no-one had touched him at all, and he was having to work hard not to react to what was much closer to a caress than a scrubbing. Glancing down he saw that he hadn't been very successful and his embarrassment grew.

Peter having reached the small of his back removed his hands reluctantly. He'd been thoroughly enjoying himself but noting how red the back of Mark's neck had become, didn't want to push it too much. However he couldn't resist giving his bottom a gentle pat, which made Mark jump. "Rinse off, then do me please." A quick check showed that he was still under control, though only just, but he suspected from his companion's stance that he was not. "I'll turn round so you can reach," he added tactfully.

Craning his head, Mark saw him turn.

"Come on Mark, we haven't got all day. Or don't you like touching boys?"

Mark could have told him that he had never touched a boy in his life and at that precise moment, touching one was what he wanted to do most in the world, but contented himself with an embarrassed, "Okay."

He turned slowly and picked up the soap. As he touched the smooth, tanned skin, a sort or thrill went through him and his penis taking no notice whatsoever of his desperate attempt to master it, shot to rigid attention. He could only hope that it would go down just as quickly and ensure that it didn't brush against the boy in front of him. He made no attempt to massage Peter but soaped him quickly, concentrating on the area his hands were touching and refusing to look anywhere else.

As soon as he was done he rinsed his hands and stumbled out of the shower to collect his towel before Peter turned around. By the time Peter was standing behind him he was attempting, with difficulty, to pull his underwear over his still damp body.

Peter didn't comment but dried and dressed himself then said, "Let's go."

To give Mark time to recover he asked him about the various buildings as they walked to class.

They returned well after the others but Peter, in that adult way that Mark had already noticed, explained that Mark had been showing him where things were as he was still finding his way around. Mark was amazed at how easily the excuse was accepted. If he had tried it…!

Peter checked the parked cars as they left the building. "There're my folks. They're picking me up today because we're going away for the weekend. Come and meet them."

Giving Mark no time to object he grabbed his arm and pulled him over to the car. "Hi. This is Mark from my class."

"Hullo Mark." Mrs Doran greeted him with a smile while Peter's father got out of the car and walked round it to shake his hand.

"How nice to meet you. Pete's told us all about you."

Mark glanced at Peter in surprise. He hadn't thought that he'd made enough of an impression for Peter to even mention him. Looking at them shyly he couldn't detect much resemblance between them and their son, except that they seemed to share a sort of happy ease with each other. It was plain that Peter got on with them extremely well, in stark contrast to most of their contemporaries. While politely answering questions designed, though he didn't realise it, to put him at his ease, he wondered what it must be like to have this sort of family relationship.

"Mark plays the piano," Peter remarked, when there was break in the conversation, "And he's going to play for me next week."

"I'm not sure…"

"There must be lots of pianos in the school," Peter went on, ignoring him. "We'll find one on Monday after class."

"What type of music do you play, Mark?" enquired Mrs Doran.

"Well, I specially like Chopin," Mark answered, relieved that they had got onto a subject that he felt he could talk about, and losing some of his shyness as a result though worried in case they preferred pop music. However, he quickly discovered that not only did they know what he was talking about but they seemed genuinely interested as well. Peter's mother in particular seemed to knew a lot about the subject.

"Pete, I'm afraid we really must go," Mr Doran said eventually, after glancing at his watch. "It's been very nice meeting you, Mark."

"You must come and visit, and perhaps play for us one day," added Mrs Doran.

"I'll make sure he does," said Peter happily.

"I'm sure you will," she replied, smiling at him affectionately. "Can we give you a lift, Mark?"

Mark shook his head. "No thank you. I always walk home."

"Goodbye then. Enjoy your weekend and come and see us soon."

"Yeah. Take care kid. See you Monday."

Peter climbed into the car, gave Mark a wave as they drove off, then slid into his favourite position in middle of the rear seat so that he could talk to them comfortably. "Well?" he demanded as he fastened the seatbelt.

"He's seems a nice boy but very shy. You like him already, don't you."

Peter smiled at her. "I do. There's something about him, I'm pretty sure there's a problem with his parents but I don't know what it is."

"Come on, Pete," said his father, "Most boys have problems with their parents. What's so different about Mark?"

Peter looked at him, frowning slightly. "I did say I don't know, Vic, but it's more than just the usual type of adolescent problem, I think. I get the feeling it's something deeper and even rather, I don't know, rather nasty. I'll tell you about it when I find out."

"You seem very taken with him."

"I am. I don't think I've ever met anyone quite like him. There's something about him, I wish I knew what it was, but I don't. Do you disapprove?"

"Would you care?" asked Mrs Doran with a slight smile.

"You know I would," replied Peter forcefully. "I owe you both so much."

"No you don't," Victor Doran said sharply. "Never, ever think or say that. You're with us because we both wanted you very badly, and we still do. If we're going to talk of owing, don't you think that we owe you as much if not more? Pete, we talked this out years ago."

"I know. But I can still be grateful." He leant forward, putting his arms around their shoulders and hugged them gently. "If I haven't said so recently, thank you. For everything."

Emily Doran reached up to take his hand in hers for a moment. "We're very proud of you and of the way you've turned out. We both love you very much and want you to be happy, which is why I'm a little unsure about this boy. I don't want you to get hurt, or him either of course. He seems rather vulnerable to me and although I know you're pretty tough, you could get hurt if he isn't what you think he is." She paused for a moment, a slight shadow crossing her face, then said delicately, "And there's…but we'll worry about that later if we need to. The thing is, are you sure about him?"

Peter nodded. "I think so. I don't think he knows it yet, at least not definitely, but I'm pretty certain."

Victor glanced at his face in the mirror. "Well, you would know. Just be careful please and don't tell him anything until you're a hundred percent sure."

"I won't," replied Peter seriously, and for the rest of the journey they spoke of other things.

After the Dorans drove away Mark walked home slowly wishing that he had accepted the offer of a lift. Why did he always say no to things that he would have enjoyed? He usually felt so shy with strangers that he couldn't talk to them easily but it had been different this time. If they'd taken him home he could have talked to them for longer. Although used to being on his own, he felt he'd cheated himself out of something important.

Peter seemed to have such a happy uncomplicated relationship with his parents. It was clear that he loved them and they loved him just as much. He felt a pang of envy. If I had a son, he mused, I'd treat him just like they do Peter, not like my father treats me. Resolutely he turned his thoughts back to Mr and Mrs Doran. They had been really nice and he wished that he was going with them to wherever they were going. Maybe they would invite him one day if he and Peter remained friends but he had a real fear that Peter would eventually get bored with him. He's so good at everything and I'm so useless. And he wants me to play for him on Monday!

Mark knew that he was a reasonably good pianist. He was hopeless at sight reading but once he had practised a piece it was virtually memorised so he had managed to build up a fairly wide repertoire. His weekly piano lessons brought him immense pleasure and comfort but unfortunately, and he was reluctant to admit it, he was outgrowing his teacher. She was as conscious of this as he was but they both knew it would be impossible to persuade his father to let him go to someone else. In fact Mark wondered why he'd been allowed to have lessons in the first place, and how long they would continue. For this reason he tried to avoid doing too much practise at home, preferring to use one of the somewhat battered school pianos instead.

Accepting, however, that he was going to have to perform for Peter, and possibly his parents as well at some stage, he decided to take a chance and try to get in an hour or so as soon as he got home. For once he was in luck. Both parents were out so he worked until he realised, guiltily, that it was past six o'clock and he hadn't even changed out of his school uniform.

That set the tone for his weekend. He was excused the boring weekly shopping trip having passed the inspection of his room, if not with flying colours, he had never yet achieved that, but with no more than a few sarcastic comments. On Sunday after Mass and the roast dinner the Captain insisted on, whatever the season, he managed another hour before his parent impatiently ordered him to stop. Going to bed that night with a sense of achievement he found that he wasn't dreading school quite as much as usual. Peter Doran's presence had eased his apprehension a little. But what would happen if, as seemed likely, the competent Peter was moved up a year? He was certainly knowledgeable enough judging by his performance so far. It was a depressing thought.

However, a smiling Peter was in his usual seat when he scrambled into class.

"I thought you were going to be late."

Mark shook his head and smiled slightly in reply, confused by his feelings. He hardly knew Peter yet seeing him sitting there when he came through the door made his whole day better. It even inspired him to answer a question that had stumped the rest of the class. They had all, including Mark, turned automatically to Peter but he looked as puzzled as everyone else. Mark would have left it at that but got an elbow in his side that made him jump and drew the teacher's attention.

"Well, Gordon, can you tell us?"

Giving Peter a reproachful look he got slowly to his feet, then taking courage from the unrepentant grin he received in reply, answered reasonably correctly.

"See!" hissed Peter as he sat down. "I knew you'd know it. Everyone does."

"So why didn't you answer then?" demanded Mark crossly. He hated being the focus of attention.

"Cause I don't want you getting lazy."

Mark looked at him indignantly for a minute then found himself starting to smile. Peter's urchin grin was endearing, infectious, and impossible to resist.

Regarding him in turn Peter wondered at how different he looked when he smiled. In repose his features had a slightly guarded, almost sullen cast, as if he was protecting himself and his thoughts. But when he smiled, or spoke about something that interested him, his face took on an appealing vivacity. He's not a happy person, Peter reflected, I'll have to see what I can do about it.

Under his steady gaze Mark's eyes dropped and a faint flush crept into his cheeks. He wasn't used to being looked at like that. The thought pulled him up short. Exactly how had Peter been looking at him anyway? There had been something in his face that he couldn't make out. He was still puzzling over it when they went outside for break.

Peter stayed with him for a few minutes until he was inveigled into a game of football. Mark moved into the shade of the building and sat on a bench where he could watch without it being too obvious. The weather was warming up and as the players became hot, most of them discarded their shirts. Mark felt his heart beat a little faster when Peter did the same. He had been too embarrassed to really look at him in the showers after PE but seized the opportunity to study him now.

He was much more strongly built than himself with quite broad shoulders which tapered down to a trim waist and narrow hips which modulated into muscular legs. Mark thought he looked very nice. He liked the way his longish hair fell over his forehead and the impatient shake he gave to get it out of his eyes. He appeared to be extremely fit and when he threw himself down on the bench beside Mark after the game finished, was only breathing hard in contrast to his panting companions.

"I enjoyed that," he remarked, using his shirt to mop his face and chest before putting it on. "I wouldn't mind a shower now. I don't suppose…?"

Mark shook his head. "It's only allowed after PE or games."

Peter sighed. "Is my tie straight?"

"Not very," Mark told him and bravely put out a hand to tug the knot more or less central.

"Thanks." He stood and unzipped his trousers to tuck his shirt in. Mark looked away but not before he had caught a glimpse of brightly coloured underpants. His own were a boring white and not in the least bit interesting.

They were walking along the corridor after their final class when Peter announced, "Piano time. Where do we go?"

"Well the one I usually use is in the music room. Are you really sure you want listen to me?"

Peter urged him on. "Of course I am. I'd tell you if I didn't."

Mark seated himself on the wide duet stool and opened the lid of the piano. It wasn't the best of the school instruments but he enjoyed playing it. He looked up nervously. "What shall I play?"

Peter chuckled gleefully. "You're such an idiot, how on earth would I know? Play anything you like. Um, start with some Chopin," he said, recalling what Mark had told them the previous Friday.

Mark's mind went blank for a minute then, without conscious thought, he placed his fingers on the keys and began the first of the Nocturnes.

It wasn't a particularly difficult piece except for the bars where he had to fit fifteen notes in his right hand against six in the accompanying hand. He had worked hard on it and his endless repetitious practice had paid off. He could play it without thinking of the technical difficulty and concentrate on expressing the music.

As always, within seconds of starting to play his nervousness left him and though conscious of Peter's presence, he began to lose himself in the music. After he had played the final broken chord, he put his hands in his lap, glanced diffidently at the silent boy watching him, then down at his hands again.

Peter had turned a chair round and was sitting with his chin resting on his folded arms along its back. He was so impressed that for a minute he didn't speak and Mark wondered if he hadn't liked the piece. He thought he'd played it well but perhaps it wasn't his type of music? If so, he didn't know what to do. He couldn't play anything except classical stuff and if Peter didn't like that…He glanced up again to see Peter shaking his head slowly, in wonderment if only he had realised it, but he was so unsure of himself that he completely misinterpreted the movement, and his heart went cold. Peter was the only person, apart from his piano teacher, that he had ever played for, and this was the result. He thought it was rubbish and hated it! His eyes blurred and he looked down so that Peter wouldn't see. He hadn't realised how important it was to show Peter that he could do at least one thing fairly well. His eyes kept filling and as he blinked to clear them a tear dropped onto his clenched hands.

Peter frowned and getting up quickly sat on the stool beside him. Gently he took Mark's chin and pulled him round to face him. "What's wrong?" he asked in a worried voice. "Why are you crying?"

Mark clenched his teeth. Sometimes it worked, but not always, and it didn't work this time.

"I'm not. Sometimes, sometimes the music just makes me, it's, it's, I know it's stupid," he said muttered, pulling himself out of Peter's grasp and turning away.

"It wasn't that," said Peter quietly, "Tell me, please."

The sympathy in his voice affected Mark even more.

"If you must know," he started to say when to his fury his voice cracked on the last word. "Oh leave me alone," he finished angrily. He sat there, his anger turning to shame and misery as he waited for Peter to walk away and never speak to him again. "Go on," he said in a sort of orgy of self destruction, "Now that you know what I'm really like you might as well go."

Peter looked at the back of his head. His neck looked so delicate and vulnerable he had an urge to touch it. Controlling himself, it was more important to calm Mark down before he worked himself up even more, he put out a hand and captured Mark's chin again, pulled his head round and looked into the tear blurred grey eyes.

"Please tell me. I can't help you if I don't know what's wrong. Is it something I've done?" he asked, a suspicion crossing his mind.

Mark looked at him miserably. "I know that most people don't like that sort of music, but I thought from what you said that you did, and…" He broke off, unable to continue.

"You thought I didn't like it?" Peter asked, upset at the confirmation of his conjecture. "Why on earth would you think that?"

"Because you didn't bloody say anything," he replied with a sob.

"Mark, I loved it and I loved your playing. You're so damn good I just couldn't believe it and didn't know what to say. Don't you know how good you are?"

He put his other hand around Mark's shoulder and pulled him close. Mark resisted for a minute then gave way. It was incredibly comforting. Peter didn't speak, simply held the smaller body against his own. I should have known after he told me at PE that he was afraid of breaking a finger, he reproached himself. I should have understood and reacted more quickly. I won't make that mistake again. But why on earth has he so little confidence? With half his talent I would be on top of the world, he mused, knowing how highly talent of any sort was valued by his family and their circle. He tried to convey comfort and reassurance through his touch while he thought about it.

Slowly Mark began to relax. "I'm making your shirt wet," he said in a gruff voice, pulling away slightly.

Peter released him reluctantly but kept a hand on the back of his neck, pulled out the tail of his damp shirt with the other and gently blotted Mark's eyes. "I don't mind a wet shirt, but I do mind seeing you cry," he said quietly, then added as he felt the boy stiffen, "I don't mean that I think you're a cry-baby or anything like that, it just upsets me to see you unhappy."

"Why?" demanded Mark suspiciously. No-one ever cared about what he was feeling.

"I don't like to see anyone unhappy but especially you," Peter told him with a faint smile. "I like you, you know."

"I don't know why," Mark replied in a dignified manner, then spoilt it by having to sniff. He dug a hand into his pocket but there was nothing there.

Peter chuckled and offered him a tissue. "Here use one of mine. It's one of the things I love about you, you play the piano like an angel but forget to put a tissue in your pocket in the morning."

Mark tried to glare at him until the absurdity of the remark forced him to smile.

Peter gave his neck a gentle squeeze. "That's better. I knew you could smile if you tried. You really must believe me when I tell you these things," he went on in a pompous voice, an excellent parody of one of their teachers. "If you lads would only listen to me you would get on much better and might even make a success of your lives."

Mark's smile widened. He wished he could mimic people like that.

"Okay. Now that that's over, play something else. Play the second nocturne, the E flat."

Mark, who was becoming increasingly aware of Peter's warm hand resting on his neck and wondering what to do about it, forgot it in the excitement of realising that his companion really did know something about classical music. In which case, maybe he genuinely wanted to hear something else and all the anguish of a few moments before had been for nothing.

"Are you really sure?" he asked hesitantly.

Peter's hand slid from his neck to his shoulder and gave him a little squeeze. "I'm really, really, really sure. Now shut up and play."

Relieved, Mark turned back to the piano and did as he'd been told. He recalled his teacher telling him once that although the title translated as 'night piece' it was really an instrumental love song. It was a nice thought.

While helping Emily with the washing up that evening Peter told her about Mark's ability, including the fact that he had unintentionally made him cry. There was very little he didn't tell her.

She stood in thought for a moment, a soapy plate in her hand. "Anyone can see that he's highly strung and if he's as good a musician as you say, that would account for part of it. But I agree with you that there's something more underneath. He's what, fifteen? At that age it would unusual for a boy to break down, especially in front of a contemporary. Yes, I know," she said in answer to a questioning look, "You're older and more mature than he is but he doesn't know that. As far as he's concerned you're just one of his peers and for him to cry in front of you indicates that something is badly wrong in his life. Are you sure you want to get involved? No, listen to me, Pete," she went on as he was about to speak. "Almost certainly his problems stem from his parents. Kids are fairly tough, you of all people know that, and given a reasonable chance they grow up okay. When they don't it's almost always due to parental problems and I suspect that this is the case here. And that means that you will also have to deal with his parents. Can you cope with that as well?" Recalling the plate she was holding, she rinsed it and passed it to him.

Peter dried it, thinking hard. "I know you think this is very sudden, Em, but I like him very much already. I can't remember liking anyone so much so quickly. When I walked into class that day I was thinking how boring it was. You know what it's been like for me, so many schools, having to make new friends, learning another lot of stupid rules, new teachers, some of them pretty hopeless. No, don't worry, I know that it's necessary, but sometimes I feel that I just can't go through it again. I was feeling like that when I looked around and they were all staring at me as if I was something from a zoo. Everybody except Mark. He looked up when I came in then put his head down and all I could see was that short hair of his. I had no idea what he was like or even what he looked like and it intrigued me. There was an empty seat beside him and when I sat down and told him my name he looked up from the homework he hadn't finished and was so surprised that someone had actually sat next to him that my heart went out to him. And you know Em," he went on as he began to put the crockery away, "I thought even then that he needed someone to take his side and look after him. I don't why because I knew nothing about him, but you've told me often enough that we have a lot of empathy so maybe it was that. And it turns out I was right. He does need someone, and I'd like that person to be me, if for no other reason that there doesn't seem to be anyone else in his life. He has no friends in school and nor, as far as I know, has he any outside it. It's easy to see that he's not happy and I feel I need to do something about it."

Emily stopped what she was doing and looked at him. "You're right about the empathy of course and I've seldom known you to be wrong in your feelings, but I have a strong suspicion that you're not going to find it easy."

"Maybe not, but I don't think I could stop now even if I wanted to. This afternoon got me involved and made me think. Do you mind?"

"I don't mind at all, Pete. Vic and I always try to see you as a person with your own views, feelings and needs, rather than as a child. And although we have tried to guide you, the final decisions have always been yours as soon as we felt you were experienced enough to make them. We have seldom disagreed with what you decided and we won't do so now. But I do want you to be aware of the dangers. You know what you are, love, and you know better than I do the strength of feeling it can generate. If you give way to those feelings with someone you're not completely sure of, and it goes wrong, you could get all of us into trouble."

Peter nodded gravely. "I have thought about it and I promise to be discreet. It's just that I get so tired of being careful and having to think before I speak."

"Unfortunately the way things are, I doubt if you'll ever be able to be completely open about yourself, but I do understand that you need someone closer to your own age to talk to about things. Just don't do it too soon, please."

Peter put his arms around her. "I do love you, Em, you never try to dictate to me."

"I don't suppose it would do any good if I did," she replied, hugging him in return. "Why don't you invite Mark over for supper so we can get to know him. Do you think we could persuade him to play for us?"

"I'll arrange it. But I suspect that after he sees the piano he won't take much persuading."

"Well don't bully him," she replied, smiling at the masterful expression on his face. "If he doesn't want to, he doesn't have to."

Peter nodded, but appeared unconvinced.

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