One of Us

by Richard Campbell

Chapter 4

The following weeks were unalloyed joy for both boys. Peter, extremely proud of his Mark and falling more deeply in love every day, spent every minute he could in his company, even accompanying him to his piano lessons occasionally. His own talents didn't lie in the direction of performing but he was knowledgeable enough to realise that Mark had outgrown Mavis Herold. His lessons were little more than play throughs to her, admittedly, extremely critical ears. She was more than ready to admit that she couldn't help him very much with the increasingly difficult technical challenges he was encountering. However, and it was Emily with her far greater musical knowledge who pointed it out to Peter that even if Miss Herold had done nothing else, she had taught Mark how to practise, something which would stand him in good stead all his life.

Mark's concentration when he was working was so complete that he became oblivious to everything around him. He was not a flamboyant pianist. The few movements he made were aimed solely at producing the sound he wanted and Peter was continually astonished that his small hands could produce such depth of tone. After a minute or two he seemed to achieve an affinity with the instrument he was playing to such an extent that it came alive under his touch, almost as if he were making love to it and it was returning his passion. There were times when Peter even felt a touch of jealousy because Mark and the piano seemed so self sufficient, to the exclusion of anything and anyone else.

But when he played for Peter it was different. He became inspired and Peter knew that it was to him and not to the instrument that he was making love. Emily and Victor noticed it as well and laughingly told Peter to make sure he sat where Mark could see him when he played for their friends.

If Mark had ever thought formerly that he was happy, it was nothing compared to the way he felt now. His practise was going well and he knew that he wasn't going to disgrace himself, and far more important, he wouldn't let the Dorans down. Even the critical Miss Herold was pleased with his progress.

At his penultimate lesson, which was one of the occasions when Peter was present, she told him to give them a concert performance and to play the scherzo from beginning to end. Normally she stopped him if there was something with which she was unhappy. They would discuss it and she would demonstrate the way she felt it should go. However, on this occasion she gave him his head and sat listening with half closed eyes.

Mark knew that he had never played the piece better and she looked at him in some surprise. There was a maturity to his playing that had been lacking previously. Noting the slightly anxious look he turned on his friend when he finished, it crossed her mind that perhaps it was Peter who was the cause and not, as she had been surmising, a recently acquired girl friend. Watching them closely as they left she was more sure than ever and several incidents which she hadn't taken account of at the time came back to her. She was very fond of Mark and found herself both dismayed and disappointed at the discovery that the friendship she had been so pleased about might include an element she found distasteful. She shuddered to think what would happen if his father ever became aware of it.

Maybe it's just a phase she thought hopefully as she turned to her next pupil, a rather podgy girl who's playing wasn't nearly as interesting as Mark's. In fact it was even worse than usual because the girl was distracted and, with an inward smile, she realised that the attractive Peter had taken her fancy. She had certainly been staring at him as closely as he had been watching Mark.

While attempting to get the girl to concentrate she tried again to work out a way of handing Mark over to a better qualified teacher. She would be extremely sorry to lose him, he was one of the few bright spots in what was, frankly, a rather dreary collection of pupils just then, but she had strong principles and knew that she'd done all she could for him. The difficulty, as it always had been, was his father. She disliked and was a little afraid of Mr Gordon who, with considerable courage, she refused to address as 'Captain'. She had never understood why he permitted Mark to have lessons at all. He had never bothered to attend any of the small concerts that she organised for those of her pupils who were fit to be heard. In fact, on one occasion when both parents came to collect their son, she had overheard the man's acid comment to his wife that he had better things to do with his time than listen to his son making a fool of himself and it was high time to put a stop to it. Not being aware that the money for Mark's lessons came from a small legacy left to his mother by his grandmother she had feared the worst. It wasn't very much but it was virtually the only thing under Prudence's control and she had stood up to her husband, for almost the first and only time in her life, because she knew how much the lessons meant to her son.

As they walked back to Peter's house the boys discussed Mark's programme. Over Peter's protests Mark had refused to play more than a single encore. The scherzo was a substantial work and he simply couldn't believe that anyone would want to hear anything more from him. If it hadn't been for Emily, he would have refused to play anything else at all, and cut the repeats in the scherzo into the bargain.

Between them they had decided that they wouldn't reveal what the encore was to be. Mark had overruled Peter who'd wanted him to play something really spectacular when he decided against 'Rustle of Spring' and settled instead on one of the lesser known nocturnes by Chopin. It was well within his capabilities, wouldn't take long to get to concert standard, and be more suitable than the flamboyant Hungarian Dance by Liszt that his friend wanted him to play. Uncharacteristically he held out against Peter who, after getting to know piece, eventually agreed that the nocturne was a good choice and even became quite fond of it.

In the midst of all this pleasurable excitement though, there was a rather large fly in his ointment. The Captain, whose notions of hospitality were as rigid as his religious convictions, had insisted that Peter be invited to dinner on the Saturday before Mark's debut (as Peter termed it grandly). It wasn't that Mark didn't want Peter's company on every possible occasion, he did, and as the days and weeks went by he wanted it more and more. However, he dreaded the meeting between the outspoken Peter, who continually surprised him by the free and easy way he spoke to his parents, and his old-fashioned father with his positively Victorian views on the way children should behave.

In a stumbling speech he tried to explain this to Peter, angry and embarrassed that he had to mention it at all. Not for the first time he wished that he had been born into another family. One just like Peter's.

Peter was very patient with him. He understood the pressure Mark was under and would have preferred to confront the man after the concert was over. But a suggestion that he make an excuse to delay the meeting elicited a response bordering on the hysterical.

"If you don't come," Mark said in a tight voice, "He won't let me come to you next week and it will all be for nothing."

Surprised that his casual suggestion could upset him so much, Peter turned to face him, they were sitting side by side on the duet stool in front of the school piano. Mark's face was pale, his hands balled into fists in his lap.

"He wouldn't really stop you, would he?" Peter asked, hoping to ease the tension a little.

"Oh yes he would," Mark replied bitterly. "You don't know him. He's…No, I shouldn't say it, he's my father."

"You know you can say it to me. You can say anything to me. So tell me."

Mark looked as if he was going to cry. Peter walked to the door and locked it. "Now we can't be interrupted," he remarked as he sat down and pulled Mark against him. "Are you afraid he won't like me, or that I won't like him?"

"Both I suppose, but more that he won't like you. No-one," he added comprehensively, "Could like him, so it doesn't matter if you don't. But if he doesn't like you, he won't let me see you again."

"Markie, we'll see each other at school every day. He can't stop that."

"No. But that's the only time I'll ever see you and what about the holidays? I won't be allowed to visit you or, or anything, and if I do and he finds out, he'll kill me."

"No he won't."

Mark shrugged. "I suppose not, but he'll shout and yell at me and make my life miserable." He tried to move away from Peter, saying in a small, tight voice, "I'm, not brave like you are. I hate being shouted at, I get scared and upset and, sometimes…"

"Sometimes what?" asked Peter gently, tightening his hold. "You've told me so much you might as well tell me the rest."

"You'll think I'm a baby, and, and disgusting," Mark muttered into his chest.

Peter had to smile. "Markie, if there's one thing that I know you're not, it's a baby. No baby I've ever seen, or even heard of, has got what you have here." He gave the boy a gentle squeeze. It said much for Mark's state of mind that he didn't react.

"You know what I mean," he said in a suffocated voice.

"Yes, I do know. If I promise not to think you're disgusting, will you tell me, please?"

For a moment it seemed as if Mark was going to speak, he even took a breath, but at the last minute his courage failed and he could only stare miserably into a corner of the room.

After the silence had gone on for some time, Peter gently but firmly pushed him away and stood up.

"Mark," he said, his serious tone emphasising the gravity of his words, "If you don't know me well enough, and even more important, if you don't trust me enough by now to tell me things, there's not much point in us being friends is there? No," he went on as he saw Mark's movement of denial. "There are still a lot of things that I don't know about you, and there are even more, and very important things, that you don't know about me. But friends, real friends, and more than friends like we are, can tell each other about the bad things as well as the good ones. I want to be your friend, your best friend, as well as your, your lover, and if I ask you to tell me things it's because I need to know. Not to be nosy but so that I can help you. I want to help you with all my heart but I can't if you won't let me. And," he hesitated before going on, "And, it hurts when you don't trust me. It really hurts."

Mark stared at him aghast. When Peter had moved away from him he had felt the severing of contact almost as a physical shock and on top of that, Peter's words struck right into his heart. Peter meant more to him than anyone in the world, more than anyone had ever met, and all at once he felt mean and unkind. That he had the power to actually hurt Peter was so blindingly obvious now he couldn't understand why he hadn't seen it before. Perhaps, because Peter always seemed so strong both physically and mentally, it hadn't crossed his mind that he too could be vulnerable. He would have done a great deal not to have caused the look on Peter's face.

"I'm sorry, Pete," he said contritely. "I never thought about it like that. I was so concerned with what I was feeling that I never thought about your feelings at all. That's what I've done all my life. All I've ever thought about is me, never anybody else. What makes you like me? What do you see in me? I'm not worth it," he ended in a choked voice. "I'll never be worth it." He turned away, biting his lip.

Peter sat down again in a rush. "Yes, you are, now and always," he stated firmly. "What I see in you is a kid who has had to stand up for himself against the whole world with no help from anyone. It's no wonder that it's hard for you to trust people and I shouldn't have said what I did. Don't look so miserable, I'll never say it again." I hope that I won't ever need to he thought as he looked at Mark's stricken face. "Come here and forget what I said. You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to."

Mark shook his head and put his hands on his Peter's shoulders to keep his distance. "No. I'm going to tell you. And I'm going to look at you while I do." He paused for a minute to get his thoughts in order then went on in a small voice. "I told you that I'm a, a coward, Pete and it's true. When teachers shout at me I get scared and my legs shake so much it's hard to stand up. That's bad enough but it's much, much worse when he does it. That's when it happens. I don't just hate it, I don't just get really scared and shiver, I do something much worse. His voice is mostly loud when he shouts and calls me names, but sometimes it gets soft and nasty and in a way that's even worse. He never hits me, with his hands I mean, but somehow he hits me with his voice. I start shaking even more and I can't stop and he sees, and sneers at me and laughs and calls me a girl, or says that even a girl is more of a man than I am, and sneers some more. At least while I'm still a boy, it's not so bad because I don't have to act as if I'm a man yet, but what will happen when I get older? Will it be the same, him expecting more and more from me? Expecting me to be things and do things that I can't and won't ever be able to? Sometimes I wish that I would never grow up, then at least I wouldn't have to worry about that."

He paused for a minute, gathering his courage. "But, forget about that. What I didn't want to tell you because I'm ashamed, the, the worst thing that happens to me when he's really angry and shouting and yelling and…it's only a little, a few drops but I, I'm so scared and upset that I…I wet myself."

So angry that he couldn't speak, and at the same time his heart turning over with pity for the small, distressed figure facing him, Peter pulled him unceremoniously into his arms. It was a long time before he could trust his voice and he spent the time cuddling Mark, stroking his hair and doing his wordless best to reassure and comfort him. God knows how much courage it had taken for Mark to speak, and having virtually forced the confession out of him he wondered if he'd been right to bring it into the open at all. At least though, now that he knew, he could share the burden and if he could, if Mark would let him, take on rather more than his share.

Under his sensible ministrations Mark slowly began to recover and was eventually able to lift his head and ask Peter if he was upset by what he'd said, if he hated him for it.

"Hate you? For that? Don't be a bloody idiot! I'm not at all upset about it, it could happen to anyone. What I'm furious about is that someone should treat you so badly that it happens at all. That's what's upsetting me."

"It's probably not as bad as I said, and it doesn't happen very often," said Mark in a small voice, ashamed that he had spoken of it, but relieved at the same time.

"Even if it only happened once that's too often," Peter told him, still very angry but trying to conceal it. "But we'll worry about that later. The important thing is that you've told me and I can start thinking what to do about it."

"There's nothing you can do. I just have to live with it."

"Don't be so sure. When I'm really angry, I get ruthless!"

Mark looked at him enviously. "I wish I was like you."

"Well don't. I like you just as you are."

Mark heaved a sigh of relief. "I'm glad I told you. I really thought you would hate me if you knew."

"I'll never do that as long as I live. And I'm, well, I'm expecting to live for a very long time. Now listen to me carefully and trust me on this. I know exactly how to handle the old bastard. You'll see. I'll have him eating out of my hand in two minutes, twist him round my little finger in three, and be leading him around by the nose after five! I've been handling people like him for years and not one of them had the slightest idea that I was laughing at them while I was doing it. Leave him to me my Markie, and no more worrying about it. Doran has it in hand. And talking about having things in hand, there's another thing I want in my hand very much!"

Mark looked at him for a moment wondering what he meant, then gasped as Peter gave him an explanatory squeeze. The things Peter said (and did!) to him.

"Pete," he said in a scandalised whisper, all thoughts of his father driven out of his head. "We're in school. Suppose someone sees us?"

Peter grinned. "They'll have to be psychic to see through a locked door and a blocked window." Tearing a blank page out of Mark's manuscript book he wedged it into the frame of the small glass panel set in the door. "You need something to calm you down."

"You're doing just the opposite," Mark told him shakily.

"That's okay too. Get your pants down, little boy. Come on, get them off. Now!"

Astonishingly turned on by this and feeling himself rising rapidly to the occasion, Mark stood up saying, "And if I don't?"

"Then I'll smack that pretty little bottom of yours," Peter informed him with another grin. "You'd better hurry up because I'm going to count to three." And before Mark even had time to put his hand on his zip, called out rapidly, "One, two, three! Oh what a naughty little boy you are. Well, I did warn you."

He sat on the stool with his back to the piano, undid Mark's trousers and with one swift movement slid them and his underwear down to his knees. Then before Mark could protest he pulled him onto his lap and delivered two light smacks, one on each buttock. Mark's erecting penis reached its zenith in record time as he turned a surprised pink face to Peter, not sure whether to laugh or be angry. Peter met his look with a huge smile.

"Now," he said, pushing Mark off and standing up, "I'm going to kiss you better."

Mark had lifted his face expectantly when, to his utter confusion, Peter turned him around, sank to his knees, raised the tail of his ill fitting shirt and kissed each buttock precisely where he he'd smacked it. Open mouthed and round eyed, Mark turned slowly. As an exercise in making him forget his troubles it was brilliantly successful.

"I've wanted to do that for ages," Peter told him. "And I've wanted to do this too." And taking hold of Mark's penis, he kissed that as well.

Mark hadn't thought it was possible to get any harder, but the blood that had flushed his face decided it had an excellent excuse to be elsewhere, dived down and forced its way in as well, leaving one head rather pale and the other so red and swollen it looked as if it was about to burst.

Peter surveyed it with satisfaction. "I think we need to do something about this or you're going to be in trouble."

Mark could only make a soft sound in his throat, so consumed by prurience and lust that he couldn't speak. All thoughts of the danger of being caught were forgotten and his worries over the forthcoming dinner were overwhelmed by the feel of Peter's hand. The memory of those three kisses seemed to burn his skin. All he wanted was for Peter to complete the act so that he came and came and came, and squirted his very being over the dusty, parquet floor.

Gazing into the unfocussed grey eyes, glazed with desire, Peter recognised that this was not the time to tease or delay. He turned Mark sideways and holding his small round bottom with his left hand, encircled the throbbing penis with his right and in a few swift sure strokes brought him to such a satisfying climax that he sagged and would have fallen without support. Without letting go of the gasping spasming little body, Peter sat down on the piano stool again and pulled Mark onto his lap, compressing his own painfully confined erection in the process. Using a tissue, he wiped Mark carefully so that nothing would drip onto the dark school trousers at his ankles.

"That was superb. You went off like a rocket," he said in a satisfied voice, surveying the floor.

Mark nodded and wriggled round until he could take Peter's head in his hands and kiss him long and hard. "Thank you, Pete," he said with that touch of shyness that still overtook him after sex. "Let me rest for a minute then I'll do you."

Peter grinned. "I can't wait. No you idiot, keep still. I like having you on my lap." He slid his hands under Mark's shirt and began to caress his bare stomach. "Did you like it when I kissed you?"

"When you kissed me where?" asked Mark in a cheeky voice.

"On your bum. Where do you think?"

Mark contemplated turning it into a joke, then recalled what Peter had said earlier about wanting to know and decided to be honest.

"At first," he began slowly, his smile fading as he tried to analyse his feelings, "I was so surprised, I couldn't think properly. You see I've always thought that it was, well, dirty, and I didn't know what to think. But that only lasted for a minute, and then I got so randy I couldn't think all over again. It was the same when you smacked me, though much more when you kissed me. Much, much more. And then when you kissed my, well there," he said pointing to the spot and shaking his head in wonder, "I thought I was going to die it felt so sexy. If you'd left your lips there any longer I would have done it all over your face. I know you told me that you wanted to do it, but did you really, really and truly?"

"Really and really, and truly and truly. Markie, your bum is just skin and muscle over bone like the rest of you, so why shouldn't I kiss it? You have a lovely little bum. It's a beautiful shape and I like looking at it and I like touching it. I like seeing it in trousers, and I like to see it in your underpants, and I love seeing it when you're not wearing anything at all, and one of these days I'm going to see it when you're wearing a tight swimming costume at the beach. And all the gay guys are going to look at you and admire it as much as I do. And there's no need to blush about it 'cause I'm telling you the truth. It's not dirty. I meant it when I said it's lovely and I like to kiss lovely things, which is why I'm going to kiss your pretty face right this minute."

As soon as he could breathe again Mark said softly, "It really did turn me on and if you want to do it again, you can."

Peter grinned widely. "I was going to anyway, first chance I got, but it's nice to have your permission."

Smiling in turn Mark gave him a gentle punch then burrowed into his waist band in order to pull his shirt out. Having succeeded, he pushed it up under Peter's arms and with a muttered, "I can kiss too," put his lips on one of Peter's nipples and kissed it as sexily as he knew how. Then an idea struck him and he sucked, pulled it into his mouth, released it, sucked, again and released it. As he moved back to examine the result he saw that it had firmed and risen slightly so he did it again. But this time, wanting to actually taste Peter he used his tongue as well. Peter's skin was faintly salty and that inspired him even more, so he redoubled his efforts.

It was a vicious circle. The more he worked over Peter's body the more he got turned on, and the more he got turned on, the more he wanted to work over Peter's body. Only not a vicious circle, he thought, as well as he was able to under the circumstances, it wasn't a vicious circle, it was a sexy circle, he concluded triumphantly.

When he felt that the first nipple was in a satisfactory state he moved to its companion. He could tell that he was turning Peter on by the involuntary movements he made as his frustrated penis tried to free itself from its cloth prison. His own was still effortlessly defying gravity and sticking up between the tails of his shirt.

Eventually he couldn't wait any longer and slid off Peter's lap, to the relief of a congested organ, and eagerly unzipped him. "Lift up," he commanded and attempted to pull Peter's clothes down the way Peter had done his. The trousers were fine but he had to stretch the bright blue underpants considerably before he was able to effect the incarcerated prisoner's release. In gratitude for commutation of sentence it was already leaking anticipatory fluid which began to ooze slowly down its length. He didn't produce much of the natural lubricant himself as yet so he found this both fascinating and exciting. In fact, he found Peter's entire body as much of a turn on as, apparently, Peter found his. But that was to think about later. At the moment it was essential that he do something before Peter died of a combination of eagerness and frustration. He sat beside him on the bench and took it into his small warm hand.

He had already discovered that because Peter was uncircumcised he enjoyed being manipulated quite vigorously whereas his own circumcised organ needed to be handled much more gently as the taut, covering skin was easily chafed.

"Hurry please, I need it," breathed Peter.

Taking pity on him, and as eager to see the results as Peter was to experience them, Mark began and in little more time than it had taken him to bring Mark off, Peter had to edge forward so as not to spatter his own trousers.

Walking home, glowing and relaxed, Peter returned to the subject of Mark's father. "You mustn't worry any more," he repeated confidently, "It really is going to be okay. No-one, not even your father, is going to keep us apart. You're not going to get away from me. Once in the evil Baron Doran's clutches," he went on in a melodramatic voice, "There is no escape, pretty one. You can writhe in your bonds and bare your little white teeth at me as much as you like, but you will never leave my castle. I have you in my power and there you shall remain forever. I haf vays of making you stay wezzer you vant to or not," he continued, in an appalling parody of a German accent, "I haf only to take hold off a zertain pard off your anadomy and you are my villink slafe for hefer und hefer. I vill demonstrate zis now und proof it. I vill pull on zat beeg, beeg pard, und you vill nefer vant from me avay to go."

"Pete, stop it," Mark gasped, falling about with laughter. For a moment he'd actually thought Peter was going to grab him right then and there and the thought of the scandalised faces added to his hilarity. That stiff, upright, Conservative Party type lady for instance, who was glaring at them as she approached because they were young, happy, and being silly. Or her equally uptight husband. It would almost be worth it to see their faces! By then he was so weak from laughing that Peter had put an arm around him to hold him up.

"Ya, Ya, priddy vun. You now larf but later ve vill see 'ow you larf on ze ozzer edge of zat faze off yours. Ve vill see 'ow zen you are."

The look on the lady's face was a treat and they clutched each other in a fit of helpless giggles as the couple passed. She murmured 'disgusting' under her breath, just loud enough to be heard and Mark felt sure that had she spotted them earlier, she would have crossed the road to avoid them. At the last minute the man, who was closest to them as they passed by, turned his head and looked at them directly. His face broke into a broad grin and one eye closed in a wink. The next minute his uptight expression returned as he turned back to his angry companion. It was so unexpected, and so fast, that the two boys looked at each other in disbelief before collapsing into fits of laughter again.

"Yes!" Peter shouted, throwing his free hand into the air at the retreating backs, fist clenched and thumb raised. "Yes!" he repeated and threw his arms around the helpless Mark and hugged him, shaking his head in wonder. "Did you see that," he went on, his eyes shining but keeping his voice low so that the woman wouldn't hear. "That wonderful guy. He's the greatest! That's the third nicest thing that's happened today."

Knowing very well what the other two things were, after all they still had damp patches in their underwear to remind them, Mark smiled his agreement saying softly, though reluctantly, "Let me go please Pete, there're other people around."

Peter gave him a squeeze then equally reluctantly released him and they walked on, chuckling reminiscently.

"It just shows. You can never tell about people, can you? I would never have thought it."

"Nor me. Do you think he was like us once?"

"Gay you mean?" Peter asked, having no hesitation in calling a spade a spade or, as Mark often thought, a diesel powered trench digger.

"He might have been but maybe he just swings both ways. Bisexual—goes with both men and women," he explained in answer to Mark's questioning look.

Mark thought for a minute, trying to recollect his impression of the man. "You know Pete, I don't think so. Sometimes I can feel when a person is like us. I don't know how, unless they stare and it's obvious, but with him I didn't feel it at all. I think he was just a nice man who was happy that we were laughing and having fun." He stopped talking, his forehead still faintly creased. Peter said nothing, interested to see which way his mind was working. "I also think that he probably knew we were gay and he didn't care about that either. He was just pleased because we were happy and wanted us to know it. A nice man. But," he went on, "What's he doing married to a woman like that?"

Peter was surprised by this uncharacteristic insight. Mark had picked up something that he, even with his greater experience, had missed. The more he considered it the more he thought that Mark was correct. Not that they'd ever know of course. He put a companionable arm over his companion's shoulders.

"I think you're right about him not minding about us. But the other thing, I couldn't tell you why he married her. I do know that people get married for all sorts of reasons and lots of them don't make much sense. They marry for money, or power, or security, or even because their families want them to and put pressure on them, and sometimes they're trapped because they have sex and the girl gets pregnant. It could be for all sorts of reasons. Those two might not even be married." He shook his head at Mark's incredulous look. "I don't mean like that, what I meant is they might be family, brother and sister. Or even just friends."

Decisively, Mark shook his head. "Not friends. You choose your friends. They were married. There was something about them that told me that, I don't know what but I'm sure I'm right. I just wish he was married to somebody nicer," he added sadly. That woman, come to think of it, would have got on well with his father, they were the same type. He shuddered at the thought that she might have been his mother. It would have been too much. Far too much.

Feeling the movement Peter asked what he was thinking and agreed wholeheartedly when he explained. His fertile imagination could have invented an entire lifestyle for the woman but feeling that it would reflect on her nice husband, if he was her husband, he let it go.

"You know, Markie, you think much more about people than you used to. When I first met you, you just accepted them without trying to understand why they act the way they do. But now you think about them, and wonder."

"I hadn't noticed, but maybe I do. Now."


"You just said it," Mark replied, looking up at him with his small smile. "Since you met me. Or since I met you."

"I don't think it's anything I've done. I think it would have happened sooner or later. Perhaps because of me it happened a bit sooner. I hope…"

"Hope?" It was unlike Peter to leave a sentence unfinished.

Looking down at the face gazing at him gravely, Peter felt his heart lurch as it so often did when he looked at Mark and felt himself going pink, something that hadn't happened for years.

"I hope you spend some of your thinking, I mean, that you think of me sometimes." He tried to say it carelessly as if it wasn't particularly important, but Mark wasn't fooled.

He stopped walking and turned to Peter who took his arm off his shoulder. Dimly, Mark realised that this was a turning point in their relationship, a sort of junction, like when a train comes to a set of points and can go one way or another. To one lot of towns, or to a different group entirely. It was up to him to decide which way it was going to go. He could treat it lightly as a not very important joke and they would carry on much as they were at the moment. That was one track. Or he could choose the other, a much more serious track, and make what he sensed was a commitment, a commitment from which it would not be easy to turn back. But he wasn't sure if he was ready to make that decision. And why, for God's sake, did it have to come up now, in public, in the middle of the street, where he couldn't put his arms around Peter and ask him to help him decide.

As he looked at Mark, Peter's heart missed a beat. Maybe it was too soon. He hadn't meant it to come up like this. They'd been laughing their heads off a few minutes earlier and now, out of the blue, he was waiting for something that could affect him for the rest of his life. He wanted to take Mark into his arms but that would be unfair. He had to let him make up his mind without trying to influence him. As he had promised Emily and Victor he would.

Thinking as deeply and seriously as he had ever done in his life, Mark continued to look at him, staring deeply into the anxious hazel eyes. Which way his mind kept asking, which do I pick? The easy way was to let it go (but there might never be another opportunity), the harder choice was to throw in his lot with Peter wherever it led him. I don't know, he thought, I just don't know. I can't decide. But if I don't? And all at once he saw it in simpler terms, and also made a discovery.

If he chose the first way, treated it as a joke and laughed it off, perhaps he and Peter would eventually drift apart because there would be nothing particularly important to keep them together. There was the sex of course, he loved having sex with Peter and had discovered that the more he got, the more he wanted. But young as he was, he knew instinctively that wonderful, rewarding and pleasurable as it was, there was more to life than sex, and sex alone wouldn't be enough to keep them together.

On the other hand, if he took the second path, it was possible that their relationship would grow, deepen and strengthen. And he wanted that very much indeed. Wanted it in fact, more than anything else.

And lastly, could he do without Peter? He tried to imagine what it would be like if Peter went out of his life and the prospect was so bleak his blood ran cold. He saw himself existing in a void again, with no friend and no companion to laugh and make jokes with and to comfort him when he was upset. No one to admire and look up to. Nobody to encourage him, no-one to stand up for him and support him, and no-one to whom he could offer his own gifts, small though they were. It was a prospect not to be borne. The choice, then, was very simple and very easy. All he had to do was say the words.

"I think about you nearly all the time," he said very seriously. "There's hardly a minute in the day when I don't think of you."

Without giving Peter a chance to reply and not caring if anyone was watching, he drew Peter's arm over his shoulders again, put his arm around Peter's waist and walked them on.

He felt an enormous sense of relief. He had launched the ship of his being onto the sea of fate with no knowledge of where it would take him or what storms he might encounter on the journey.

As for his discovery, during those seconds when he changed the course of his life, Mark hugged it to himself in wonder and delight. He would tell Peter when they were alone and in private, not here in the street. They walked in silence to Peter's house, too engrossed in their thoughts to talk.

Peter poured two glass of milk and led the way to his bedroom. Looking at the ring of milky foam on Mark's upper lip he smiled and made as if to speak but Mark silenced him with a gesture. He moved to where Peter was sitting at his desk, pushed between his legs and put his hands on Peter's shoulders. Then he dropped to his knees, his hands sliding until they rested on Peter's thighs.

"I told you that I think about you all the time, Pete, and it's absolutely true. Before I knew you music was the only thing I ever really thought about, but now I have you to think about as well. But there's another thing I need to say and I don't care whether you like it or not, I'm going to say it anyway." He paused for a moment, then in a soft, sincere voice said, "I love you, Peter Doran. I've only just found out. I don't just love you, I'm in love with you." Then turning his head sideways he rested it on Peter's lap. He had said what he needed to say, now it was up to Peter.

For a minute Peter sat completely still. He had known for some time what his own feelings were but even his exceptional sense of empathy hadn't told him whether Mark returned them. In some ways he was strangely blind where the boy's feelings were concerned. He placed his hands on Mark's head and gently moved his fingers through the short dark hair until he was able to caress his neck. This was not something that Mark would have said lightly and although it was what he had longed to hear he was aware that the two of them being together wouldn't be easy. In many ways, and one supremely important one, they were very different, and because of that, they couldn't do it on their own.

He could rely on Emily and Victor's total support but there were other factors, and people, involved. The rules of their society, for instance, had to be obeyed or there would be a high price to pay. He'd had time to accept and get used to what he was, Mark would be coming to it very new and with little time to prepare. There were so many things he would have to explain to him. But not yet. For the moment it was sufficient to revel in what Mark had told him.

It was doubly important that he make a good impression at the concert although he didn't have any real worries on that score. Mark would be shy, but that would do him no harm in the eyes the guests and his talent would impress them, just as it had impressed Emily, Victor and himself. But he was so young. In spite of the maturity he'd begun to show recently, sometimes he felt years—rather than the chronological eight months that separated them—older than Mark.

Well, if Mark's youth was seen as an impediment, he would have to apply his considerable powers of persuasion and with the support of Em and Vic, hope it would prove sufficient. Gently he lifted Mark and stood up himself as he gathered his thoughts.

"I've known that I loved you for a long time, Markie, but didn't dare tell you in case you felt under pressure to say the same thing to me. But now that you've told me, I can say it. I love you. I love you more than I love Em and Vic, and they've been the people that I've loved the most up 'til now." His eyes blurred and as he blinked to clear them, saw that Mark was smiling at him happily. Then the usual procedure reversed, he felt himself crushed against Mark, hugged so tightly that he was the one who couldn't breathe, while a surprised part of his mind registered the strength of those slim arms as his eyes overflowed.

He came to himself to find he was sitting on the bed beside Mark who, having forgotten to carry a tissue as usual and unable to get a hand into Peter's pocket, was licking the tears as fast as they rolled down his cheeks. Sniffing unromantically, and getting the tip of his nose kissed as a result, Peter said in a tear swollen voice, "There are tissues over there."

"I know. But I wanted something of you inside me."

"I feel such an idiot. I can't remember the last time I cried and I'm happier than I've ever been."

"Well, I'm always crying so it seems only fair," Mark told him in a such a loving voice that it almost set him off again. "Besides, though it doesn't happen often, I sometimes cry from happiness, so why shouldn't you?"

"I'm much older than you are," Peter responded a dignified voice, "And I've grown out of it."

Mark made a rude noise. "Just because you're nearly sixteen and I'm a bit younger doesn't make you my grandfather you know."

Peter was struck by this. "You're right. I wonder why I didn't notice before that you're not my grandson."

"You were too busy noticing other things about me like…oof!"

He grunted as the air was crushed out of his body when Peter pulled him down onto the bed, rolled on top of him and said, "You've got milk all over your face little boy and I think I ought to clean you up. I might have known," he went on, after plunging a hand into one of Mark's pockets, an action which made the boy squirm, "No tissue as usual. Oh well, I'll have to do my best with this."

He licked off the milk moustache then fastened his lips on Mark's, noticing that his mouth was slightly open but making no attempt to use his tongue. It would happen when it happened, when the time was right.

Taking him by surprise, Mark managed to lever himself round until their positions were reversed and he was on top. "Who's in whose power now, beautiful one?" he asked, as Peter reacted beneath him.

"Oh spare me, spare me," Peter squeaked, in the tone he fondly imagined a frightened virgin might use. "Oh do not force yourself upon me, I am but," he lowered his eyes bashfully, "An innocent maid, who has never known man or boy. Do not deflower me with your great big thing. I am in your power, be merciful. Oh be merciful I pray you."

Laughing so much that he could barely speak, Mark's voice cracked as he got into the spirit of things by saying, "It is no use, your fate is sealed. Yield to me at once all your, your treasures."

"Oh woe," wailed Peter. "I can hear from your voice that you are a monster, grown huge and swollen and full of unnameable stuff. Release me, do not crush me beneath you."

"Too late," Mark told him. "You are mine, and I'm going to get it all out of you."

He knelt between Peter's legs, undid his waist band, ripped his zip open and delved inside, hauling Peter's penis out with neither finesse nor tenderness. Then he hooked the elastic of his underpants under his balls. Dribbling spit onto his hand, he made a fist and forced it over the hard cock. Peter gave a pretend shriek, which made him giggle again, but made no difference to his rhythmic movements. "How does that feel, beautiful one," he said in a gloating voice between chokes of laughter.

"Oh, oh, it is too much," Peter shrieked, "Let me…" He broke off, then groaned in reality as with no preparation, and no warning whatsoever, he started to orgasm. I'm going to come he thought, and it's going to go all over my clothes! He had barely completed the thought when he did, it did, and he had to close his eyes as he felt it splash his chin. Breathing heavily, he lay still, exhausted. Mark let go of him and leant over, a hand on each side of his shoulders. Peter's eyes opened when he became aware of the boy's soft breath on his face as he prepared to lie down on top of him. He put his hands on Mark's chest to hold him off.

"You'll get it all over your shirt. I can change but you can't wear anything of mine—too big for you."

Regretfully Mark slid beside him instead.

"You didn't waste any time did you."

"Nor did you. You didn't mind, did you?"

"Except that I feel as if I've been raped, no I didn't mind. And I don't mind feeling raped either come to think of it. You can rape me any time you like."

"Don't worry, I will. I really enjoyed it."

"So did I. I don't think I've ever come so quickly in all my life. One minute I was okay and the next, bang! It's never happened to me like that before."

"It was alright though?"

"It was the greatest. The trouble is, every time with you is the greatest. You make me feel things I've never felt before, and you have no idea how surprising that is."

"Well you make me feel good too, you know," Mark told him in a contented voice. He was quiet for a moment then said, "Pete, I never had sex with anyone before, only by myself. I wanted to but was too scared even if I thought that the other person might be interested. I'm really glad that my first time was with you, even if it did happen by accident in the bath."

"I'm glad too. And I loved the way it happened."

"I was so afraid afterwards," Mark confessed. "I thought you might think I was some sort of sex maniac and call me a poof and tell me to get away from you, or even hit me. But you didn't. You made me feel so good." As so often in his conversations he stopped to think, then went on, "I suppose what I'm really trying to say is thank you. Thank you for everything."

"You don't have to thank me, I enjoy it as much as you do. We were just so lucky to find each other. Markie, you don't know very much about me, no, really you don't," he stated as Mark shook his head. "But I'll tell you this. I've been looking for you for a long time and now that I've found you, I'm not going to let you go. You belong to me, and one day, I hope you're going to belong to me even more. But whatever happens, always remember that I love you with all my heart and with every part of me, and that I'm the luckiest person in the world because I met you."

"What on earth could happen? What do you mean?" Mark asked, puzzled and a little anxious.

"Nothing is going to happen," Peter assured him, "But we do have to remember your father. He isn't going like it one little bit when he finds out what you are."

For a brief moment Mark felt as if someone had thrown cold water over him. Then he rallied. "Bugger him!"

Peter smiled. "Don't swear. But I know what you mean and I feel exactly the same. But I want you to promise me something, something important."

Mark nodded trustingly, "Okay."

"Promise that you will try to get along with him for the time being and not let him suspect anything. He will find out about you one day, but I want to be with you when he does. It's not going to be good and I want to be there to protect you. Will you promise?"

"You know I will, but there's no need. I've hidden lots of things from him and I'm good at keeping my secrets."

"You never had such an important one to keep before. And I have to tell you, people have noticed that you've changed. You even look different. Perhaps it's because you're happy and you smile more and he's going to notice sooner or later and question you. We need to get some sort of story ready. But in the meantime, do you promise?"

He was so serious that Mark wondered what he could do to convince him, to show him that he really meant it. Then it came to him and he pressed a hand against his heart. "Pete, maybe it seems silly to you, but it's my heart that keeps me alive, so if I promise with my hand on it you'll know I really mean it."

He paused briefly, then said in a firm voice, "I promise."

"Jeeze Markie, you're something else, you know that?"

Taking it as a compliment, Mark reverted to his usual passive role and allowed himself to be kissed soundly. To Peter's disappointment, an offer of masturbation was politely refused. He had no need of sex just then and after a few minutes they got off the bed and Peter changed, somewhat hindered by his companion who insisted on kissing each part of his body as it was revealed. Laughing, he pushed the eager boy away with a reminder that Emily would be home soon.

"You'd better leave some clothes here in future so you can change if we have an accident. You can't walk through the streets smelling of spunk. Someone might notice."

Mark smiled. "Like the Conservative lady this afternoon. It might be worth it just to see her face."

Peter grinned in return, collected the contents of the laundry basket, including his sperm soaked shirt, and led the way downstairs saying, "She wouldn't know what had hit her, even if she knew what you smelt of."

Mark laughed. "You could tell her in that silly foreign voice."

Peter struck an attitude. "Vell, vell, my pretty vun, und vot haf you been doink? Your beeg thing haf all ofer yourself sqverted. Eet ees disgustingly und vunderfull. Showink it to the gnadige Conservatif frau und let her smellink. She vill luffink it be, und maybe pullink you into ze bushes und rapink you. Vhy are you larffink? I vill haf to be your little bumsen smacking."

Giggling, Mark followed him down the stairs as he muttered, "Zeze modern youffs, zey haf none respect for Conservatif ladis. I vill haf heem to take in hand und a lesson be teachink."

He threw the clothes into the washing machine, added what Mark was sure would be exactly the right amount of detergent, and started the programme. Then turning to Mark who was leaning weakly against the work surface said, "I am now you a lesson teachink," took him gently by the ear, led him into the sitting room and sat him down at the piano. "But virst, practise. Immediately startink."

It took Mark some time to settle down. He kept breaking into giggles whenever he thought of the Conservative lady but eventually his concentration improved and Peter left the room, collected their school bags from the kitchen and began, with equal concentration, to do their homework. Although he always helped Mark, he didn't actually do his work. It would be too easy for their teachers to pick up, but knowing that he needed the time to practise he wrote Mark's essay in as close an approximation of the boy's literary style as he could. All Mark needed to do was to copy it, including the deliberate mistakes, and with some additions of his own. If he noticed and corrected the errors well and good, and if he didn't, they were the sort of mistakes he would have made anyway. He was rather pleased with himself.

When he was done he gave some serious thought to the next two PE lessons. In spite of his careful coaching Mark was still surprisingly clumsy, not really surprising as it stemmed from his fear of injuring his hands. He was considering various schemes to shield Mark from the most dangerous of the activities when Emily arrived, followed shortly by Victor, and the boys broke off to have tea with them.

Observing them closely it was obvious to Emily that something had happened. It wouldn't just be sex, she thought dispassionately, they had been indulging in that for weeks. It was something else, something deeper than mere passion. Then it came to her and she realised with a pang that Mark had displaced her as the most important figure in Peter's life. I knew it would happen one day she thought with some dismay, but I hadn't realised how much it would hurt. She had been the first person he'd turned to for so long. How could the time have passed so quickly? I will be glad for him she told herself, and not let him get an inkling of how I feel.

Studying Mark she tried to see him through Peter's eyes. He was certainly an attractive boy, though possessed of the type of looks that didn't seem particularly outstanding at first, but as you got to know him they became more and more appealing. Which was interesting. With most people it worked the opposite way. As you grew accustomed to them you became less conscious of their good looks unless something brought them to your attention.

Maybe it was his smile? No, it was more than that. It was, well, all of him, though his was not the type of personality to which Peter had been attracted previously. In the past, though always kind to boys younger than himself, Peter had never shown much interest in them and the sort of timidity that Mark had displayed when they first met him, and still did on occasion, would have made him very impatient. And another difference, come to think of it. Peter's taste had always run to the hefty, sporting, rough and tumble type of lad invariably older than himself. Yet here he was in love with a sensitive, artistic boy, whose small slim body was the antithesis of everything that had attracted him previously.

Mark she found easier to understand. Starved of love and living with an overbearing father and an almost invisible mother, the only affection he seemed to have received was from his piano teacher. It was hardly surprising therefore that he had been attracted to Peter who had felt protective of him from the start and certainly understood him better than anyone else.

Although she didn't underestimate Peter's physical attractions, she thought that at first Mark would have been drawn to his kindness and sweetness of character. Then as he got to know him better Peter's easy going acceptance of his own sexual orientation, to say nothing of the understanding of Vic and herself, would have come as a revelation and intensified his feelings for Peter out of all proportion. Yes, she understood Mark's attraction to Peter easily enough, it was Peter's attraction to Mark that she couldn't explain. Had it been pity? There had certainly been an element of that originally but she didn't think it was the whole story. But precisely what it was that had attracted him to Mark so much she had no idea.

While she was considering it Mark glanced in her direction, noticed that she was looking at him and filled with overflowing happiness, smiled devastatingly before turning back to his conversation with Peter and Victor. It was rather like a bullet through the heart she thought, catching her breath as she suddenly understood the difference that she had noticed earlier. A penetrating glance at Peter confirmed it. Not only were both boys in love—they knew it!

Feeling like a stranded fish gasping on the shore she looked up to see her husband watching her with an amused but understanding expression on his face. He had always been sensitive to Peter's feelings and seemed to have reached the same conclusion, though rather more quickly than she had. She nodded to him then turned her attention to Peter who was demanding confirmation of something he had said to Mark. What is done is done, she thought fatalistically, taking care not to let anything of the turmoil in her mind show on her face.

Later, while Peter was walking Mark home she said, "Well, what are we going to do?"

"There's nothing we can do. Pete will tell us as soon as he gets back. He would have done it while we were having tea but Mark kicked him."

"Kicked him? Mark? I didn't notice."

"You were too busy thinking. It was discreet but must have been quite hard. I heard Pete yelp, though he covered it up quickly," he responded with a grin.

She smiled through her surprise. "I'm glad that Mark stands up to him sometimes."

"Oh, I think he does that quite often. I'm beginning to realise that there is a lot more to him than I thought. And I also have the impression that sometimes he takes the lead in their relationship."

"Against Pete?"

"Surprising isn't it. But I think it's true, and I wonder if it isn't one of the things that attracted Pete to him in the first place. I could see you thinking that he isn't Pete's usual type and you're perfectly right, he isn't. But there's something very appealing about him and Pete definitely feels it. I feel it myself for that matter. Don't you?"

"Of course I do. I've been rather slow, but looking at him this afternoon I realised that in many ways, physically, looks, personality, he's the type of boy that you hardly notice at first. Then all of a sudden you're thinking what a nice kid he is, then it's God he's good looking, and suddenly, what a beautiful boy he is! It is rare isn't it, that quality."

"So rare as to be almost non existent. I have only met one other person who had it, and his was minuscule compared to Mark's."

"Do others see it?"

"I don't think so. As you mentioned, you have to know him well before you become aware of it. Perhaps he hides it, whether consciously or not I have no idea, until he's at ease with people. If it wasn't so hidden I think he would be more popular at school. It took Pete's influence to bring it out and I don't imagine Pete was even aware of doing it—he can still be a bit egotistic at times, our Pete. I know that it's a worrying situation for all of us, my dear, but I think you'll agree that Mark's influence, discreet though it is, has been good for him."

"Yes. Yes, I do agree, Vic. The more I think about it the more it seems to me that they were made for each other, and I like Mark so much more than anyone else that Pete fell for. It's odd when I think back. I never really took Pete seriously when he thought he was in love, yet now, and I've only just realised it, there is something different about him. He really is in love with the boy—he doesn't just think he is. You know, Vic, and I'm a little ashamed to acknowledge it, it's surprisingly hard to give him up to someone else, even to someone who thinks the world of him as Mark does."

"I know, Em," he replied in an understanding voice, putting his arms around her. "It's not easy for me either but we knew it would happen sooner or later."

"That doesn't make it any easier."

"Well he won't be leaving us just yet so we'll have time to get used to it," he responded in a comforting voice.

"Mark is so young," she said suddenly, "How can he, or any of us for that matter, know that this is right for him? Couldn't he change as he gets older?"

"It's possible but somehow I doubt it. I've been watching him very closely for some time and I have a strong feeling that although he has only recently discovered what he is and what his needs are, they were there all the time and just needed to come to his attention, as it were. I'm fairly certain that if he wasn't one hundred percent gay he would be suffering tremendous guilt about being attracted to a boy but there's no sign of that at all. Shyness, and a touch of embarrassment yes, which is natural for someone of his personality, but guilt? Not a trace. And while their relationship might not be exactly what we would wish for Pete, or for Mark either come to that, it's the way they are. You know as well as I do that sexual orientation is pretty much fixed at a very early age, if not at birth, and no amount of wishful thinking can alter it. All we can do is love and support them, and hope for the best."

"It's not just their orientation I'm worried about."

"There are other things of course, including Mark's father. But I think we need to take things a step at a time and cross the various bridges when we come to them."

"It wasn't only his father I was thinking about."

"I know. But we have put things in hand and can't do anything more at present. You're not worried about his playing, are you?"

"I am actually, quite a lot. I want him to make a good impression and I'm beginning to wonder if we shouldn't have left it for a few months."

"I don't think so," Victor said slowly. "In any case it's too late to worry about it. He'll be alright. The qualities we see in him will be just as obvious to everyone else and no-one is going to condemn him because he's unused to our sort of people. No love, I'm not being snobbish, you know what I mean. What worries me a little is what his piano teacher will make of it. From what Pete, who can be quite acute at times, has told us I get the impression that she's very perceptive."

Emily sighed. "I invited her because I felt Mark would be more at ease if someone he knew well was present. It's going to be something of an ordeal for him. He has no experience of playing for people, apart from us, and for someone of his retiring personality to meet so many strangers is going to be difficult enough, but he has to perform as well. I've kept the numbers as low as I can but there are certain people we have to invite. If I had guessed that things were going to happen between the boys so quickly, I wouldn't have suggested that we invite Miss Herold and left it to Pete to support him. But as it is…"

"Don't worry about it, my love, she may turn out to be the least of our troubles. And anyway, you saw how his face lit up when you suggested inviting her. He's obviously very fond of her and I suspect, again from what Pete has said, that it's mutual. In which case his happiness will be important to her. It will turn out alright, you'll see."

She was not entirely convinced but allowed the subject to drop.

Peter returned home and burst into the sitting room in his usual impetuous fashion.

"Ah, the tornado is back," Victor observed, glancing up and receiving a hug for his pains. He regarded his mangled newspaper. "I suppose it's too much to ask you to avoid the paper when you hug people?"

"I forget," replied Peter briefly, dropping a kiss on the top of Emily's head before bouncing onto the sofa beside her.

She smiled. "Well, go on. Tell us."

"Don't you know?"

"We could guess but we could be wrong. Did you get Mark home safely?"

"Of course I did. What on earth could happen to him with me there?"

"Pirates, alien kidnappers, white slavers…" Victor murmured.

"Oh yeah, and you forgot the navy press gangs," Peter told him scornfully. "Though come to think of it he's pretty enough to catch the eye of any white slaver."

Victor looked at him quizzically. "You're very euphoric, Pete."

"I suppose I am. You see, I mean, well it's just that, what's happened," he floundered to a standstill.

Emily said gently, "You've found out that you love him."

Peter looked at her gratefully. Why was it that when he thought seriously about Mark he got tongue-tied? It had never happened before. "It's not only that, I've known I loved him for ages. Really loved him I mean, not just liked him or wanted him. You know, Em, I've felt I was in love before and each time I thought, this is it, this is the one, but it never felt quite like this. It's different, and hard to explain. I just know I love him, and the surprising thing is that sometimes it hurts." He was silent for a moment. "At least, I think I know I love him, I'm ninety nine percent sure I love him, in love with him is what I really mean, but how do I know about that last one percent? How can I be completely sure? It's important to me and I want so badly to be certain. I never felt like this about anyone else."

"I don't know that one can ever be one hundred percent sure, at least not at first. I think it's something that comes on gradually without you noticing it until you wake up one day and it's there. It might take days, it might take years, and no-one can tell when it will happen, or how," replied Emily. "You are luckier than most if you're already ninety nine percent sure. Most people don't get anywhere near that figure and have to take a chance and hope for the best. It still means that you will have to work at it even if you do start from a better position than most. You will have to be tolerant, patient, and not too domineering just because you're older than he is. You will also need to give him space to grow in his own way, even if it's not quite the way you would like it to be. Can you do that, Pete?"

"I think so. I like him so much the way he is but if he changes it would be alright because I love him. You gave me a definition of love once, do you remember? You said that you truly love someone when their happiness is essential to your own, and told me it can be used as a test. Well, I pass the test." He looked at them seriously. "When he's upset or unhappy, it hurts. I want to cry for him and cuddle him, and I would do anything to make him feel better. I want to be with him so I can shield him because I can't bear to see him hurting, it breaks my heart. Isn't that love, if I feel that way about him?"

"It sounds very like it," Victor said quietly, "If you feel so strongly."

"I do. I've really, really, liked people but never felt the need to protect and keep them from harm the way I do with Mark." He heaved a sigh. "I never thought that it would be so hard. But I don't mind, because it's him."

"I'm sure you feel that he's worth it. It seems to me that the important question at the moment is not so much how you feel about him, which appears fairly certain, but how he feels about you."

Peter's face broke into a smile. There was so much wonder in it that in spite of how well they knew him it caught at their hearts.

"It's the reason I'm euphoric. He told me that he loved me. He said it very seriously after he'd thought about it the way he does about really important things." Unable to contain his feelings he jumped off the sofa and strode around the room. "He loves me. My Mark said he loves me. It sounds stupid but I'd like to rush out into the street and shout it out so everyone knows."

Both adults chuckled. Emily decided that she had never seen him so exuberantly happy. It wouldn't remain at that level but she was happy for him to enjoy it for as long as it did.

"I don't think you should do that," remarked Victor. "British society isn't ready to hear your sort of love shouted from the roof tops so please be discreet, Pete, both of you."

"Of course I will Vic, and I'll make sure Markie is as well. Not that that will be hard, he's still very shy about it."

"So I imagine. I just wanted you to bear it in mind."

Peter smiled at him then turned to Emily. "You do really like him don't you, Em?"

"Very much. And as much for his own sake as for yours. He's a very nice person, as well as being an extremely attractive one."

"He is isn't he. Have you noticed his smile? It's beautiful. He looks so solemn most of the time, then he smiles and it makes everything light up. It's so incredible it makes me want to put my arms around him and hold him forever. I want to be with him and look after him and take care of him and help him do whatever he wants to do. Do you think I'm mad?"

"Of course we don't. We just think you're young, in love, and wildly happy about it."

"Of course being in love does make people mad, even the best of them," added Victor. "You'll get over it."

"But I don't want to get over it, I want to feel this way forever. Madly happy or happily mad, I don't care which. It's what I am and how I want to be. Always. And then a bit longer."

"Well I hope you do, and although I don't want to bring you down from those dizzy heights so soon, we do have to be practical. How much have you told him about yourself, your needs and your wants?"

"Hardly anything. I know lots of things puzzle him but he's too polite to come right out and ask. Do you think I should tell him?"

"No," Victor responded firmly. "Don't say anything for the time being. You must be completely sure about him and his feelings before you do that."

"I'm sure about mine, I want him forever."

"But how do you want him, Pete, and even more important, what do you want from him? He seems to be a very giving person and I've no doubt he will give you whatever you ask for, but are you sure that it would be best for him?" he emphasised the final word slightly. "Going back to what you said earlier about love, you really need to think about this."

"I know that, Vic, and I have thought about it, almost from the moment we met. I wouldn't force him into anything he didn't want to do, you do believe that don't you? But at the same time, if I make him understand that it's his decision, don't I have the right to ask when I feel he's ready? I won't do it yet, and when the time comes, I promise I won't put him under any pressure. He will decide, not me. Isn't that enough?"

"Pete, my darling, it's terribly easy to put pressure on someone who loves you without in the least meaning to," Emily responded. "Do you think this love is so one sided that Mark is not prepared to do as much for you as you are prepared to do for him? If he really loves you as you say, and I do think you're right about that, the minute he finds out what you really need he will want to give it to you. I agree with Vic, I don't think you should tell him anything at this stage. In any case, he has enough on his plate with our little concert and for obvious reasons I want him to show to his best advantage. It wouldn't be fair to burden him with anything else at the moment."

"You're right, both of you," he included Victor in his smile. "I'm just so bubbling over I say the first thing that comes into my head. But you can trust me. His happiness is too important to let anything that I want get in the way of it."

"I know that, love, we both do, and we trust you to handle it as and when you see fit. Now, changing the subject, there's something I've just thought of. What is Mark going to wear? Do you have any idea what clothes he has?"

"No I don't, but I shouldn't think he has anything in the way of a suit and most of his clothes are pretty awful and don't fit him very well. How will everyone else be dressed?"

"I think we'll make it informal then he can wear his school trousers, blazer and a tie and not feel awkward. Will you wear the same to keep him company?"

"Okay. It's a pity I couldn't lend him something but he's too small to wear anything of mine. When I'm at his house for dinner I'll see what clothes he's got. Can it wait 'til then?"

"That will be fine. I should have thought of it earlier, though."

"Apart from the musical people, who else is coming? I forgot to ask."

Emily mentioned a few names which made Peter look thoughtful. "The really important people. Are you planning something, Em?"

"Of course I'm not," she replied indignantly. "But it does no harm to be prepared."

"I hadn't realised just how important it was going to be. I'm not worried about him once he begins to play, it's before he starts I'm not too sure about. He's not used to people and he's very shy with strangers."

"I know that, Pete, so it will be up to all of us to keep an eye on him, but especially you. It's one of the reasons I invited Miss Herold, so that he won't feel he's the centre of attention all the time with her there as well."

"I'll look after him, you can trust me."

"Well don't get carried away and embarrass him by holding his hand or kissing him," commented Victor. "It wouldn't matter to our guests, but it certainly would to him and probably to Miss Herold as well."

"Do you know," Peter replied, after giving him a, well really, sort of look, "It wouldn't surprise me if she took it in her stride. I have a feeling that not a lot gets past her but I don't think she'd let it worry her as long as it was what he wanted. She's very fond of him you know."

"Well I'm glad somebody has been fond of the poor child," said Emily. "I'm looking forward to meeting her."

"She's very nice, you'll like her," he said, then went to finish his homework as he'd spent most of the afternoon doing Mark's.

The following day he took the bull by the horns and spoke to the PE teacher as that choleric gentleman entered the school. His inventive mind had considered several schemes before going to sleep the previous night, but he had finally come to the conclusion that honesty was going to be the only policy that would work.

Mark had kicked himself mentally for failing to get up earlier and wasting time that they could have spent together when he left for school and found Peter waiting for him just out of sight of the house. When he demanded to know why he hadn't told him he would be there, Peter gave him a discreet pat on the rear in lieu of a kiss, and informed him that he needed his beauty sleep as he didn't want him becoming as ugly as sin from the lack of it. Then he confessed he was extremely fond of sin, thought it very nice and not ugly at all, and was not going to have it insulted any more in case its feelings got hurt. They would have to come up with something better to describe ugliness. Debating the pros and cons of various absurd phrases got the giggling Mark to school where Peter delayed them at the gate until he saw the teacher he wanted to speak to approaching.

Before Mark had time to divine his intentions he found himself nervously confronting a man with whom he had never got on since his arrival from primary school as an apprehensive eleven year old. He needn't have worried. Peter, the star of the football team, and every other team as well, effortlessly charmed the irascible gentleman and Mark found himself excused from the more violent forms of exercise for a couple of weeks.

It had two beneficial effects. First, it relieved his anxieties about breaking a finger before his star appearance (as Peter had taken to describing it) and second, he began to accept that perhaps Peter was right when he said that he would have the Captain eating out of his hand in two minutes flat. Nevertheless he was still nervous about the forthcoming dinner engagement and though his anxieties had been eased a little, his worry about what Peter would think of his father continued to disturb his sleep. Peter's parents loved their son and he was ashamed at the thought of him seeing his own barren family life.

He couldn't think when last his father had praised him for anything, even when he had worked particularly hard at school and done reasonably well in subjects at which he didn't usually excel. The only result had been the curt remark that he could improve if he tried and that he, the Captain, expected him to get his nose to the grindstone because his best was just not good enough.

With years of practice under his belt the Captain was a past master at putting people down and had no hesitation in doing it to his son. To toughen him up, as he told himself. Although not fundamentally a stupid man, Arthur Gordon had not the smallest ounce of fellow feeling or sympathy for anyone, and his son's sensitive and diffident nature was a source of constant irritation. Even the boy's pale face annoyed him. Why didn't he get out into the sun and get some exercise he asked himself? The reason that presented itself to his rigid and hidebound mind was that the boy was bone idle. The fact that Mark spent so much time at the piano counted for nothing. It was simply another manifestation of his predilection for unmanly pursuits. Had he been paying for them he would have put a stop to the lessons years ago. It was a further source of irritation that it was out of his financial power to do it.

Knowing how his parent's mind worked, Mark awaited the impending dinner with increasing dread and no amount of reassurance by Peter was able to calm his fears. He became more and more withdrawn and nervous, and by the time Friday afternoon arrived, jumped out of his skin at the slightest sound and for once in his life got no solace from his practise.

Realising that he was getting nowhere, Peter sat him down at the dining room table and forced him to finish his homework. This had the desired effect as by the time it was done Mark was mentally weary and a lot more calm. But he still looked so forlorn that Peter, his heart aching, took him into his arms and simply held him while gently running his fingers through his hair. Then he coerced him into his anorak, dragged him out of the house and took him for a walk to the local park where they sat by the pond and fed the squirrels and a pair of mallards with a brood of tiny, cute, and inquisitive ducklings.

The physical exercise did Mark good and he was eventually induced to expand on his worries. As a result Peter learnt a good deal more about him and his family than he had known previously. None of it made happy hearing and the more Mark revealed the more his dislike of Captain Gordon evolved into something stronger. The psychological damage the man was inflicting on his son made Mark's over-reaction to his own impending visit much more understandable.

It was apparent that what Mark feared was his and his family's reaction to the Captain, rather than the other way round. That Mark could be so frightened of losing their approval humbled him but made him extremely angry that the Captain had forced his son into that position in the first place. He did his best to convince Mark that it was he they were interested in rather than his family.

"You know that I love you," he said calmly, "And it's you that I want more than anything in the world. I can't say I like the sound of your father but I don't blame you for that. You weren't asked if you wanted him to be your father so no-one can hold it against you. And though I'm really sorry he's the way he is, there is one thing in his favour." He smiled and said in answer to Mark's questioning look, "He produced you."

"I would rather it was someone else."

"Markie, if it had been someone else you wouldn't be you. And if you hadn't been the person you are, first, I might not have wanted to be friends with you, and second, I might not have fallen in love with you. We're all part of our parents whether we like it or not, and with you, I like it. I love the way you are and I wouldn't want even the tiniest bit of you changed. In fact," he went on in a soft voice, sliding closer, "If there weren't so many squirrels around I'd prove it to you. But they might be shocked if I opened your pants and pulled a tiny bit of you out. Not that it's so tiny of course."

He was rewarded by a small smile. "What about the people?"

"Stuff the people. It's the innocent squirrels and ducklings whose morals I'm worried about."

This got him another small smile.

"Pete," Mark after a pause, his smile fading, "It's so nice, what you said. Do your family really feel about me like you do?"

"Of course they do," asserted Peter. "They've told me that they like you more than any friend I've ever had. Do you think Em organises concerts for anyone I drag in off the streets?"

The vision of Peter dragging someone like the Conservative lady into the house by brute force and demanding that his mother organise a concert for her to perform at made him smile again. "It must be so nice to have parents like yours," he said enviously.

Peter thought for a minute and decided that the time was right to take him more into his confidence. It would give his thoughts another direction as well. "I know how lucky I am to have them. In fact I'm very much luckier than you think, because they're not actually my parents. They adopted me a long time ago."

"I did wonder when I first saw how they treated you," Mark said quietly, glad that Peter was with Emily and Victor but wondering how on earth his real parents could have given him up. Or had they died? "If I were ever given the chance to choose someone to adopt me, I'd choose people just like them."

"I did choose them as much as they chose me, so I'm doubly lucky. I'll tell you about it one day. Actually Markie, I'm not only doubly lucky, I'm triply lucky because you chose me as well."

Forgetting his worries for a moment Mark went pink with pleasure. It had never occurred to him that he had chosen Peter, it had always seemed the other way round and that he was the fortunate one. In a shy, stumbling way, he tried to tell him that.

Peter cut him short. "Well let's say we're both lucky that we chose each other and leave it at that."

Ignoring the fact that there were still people in the park he put an arm around Mark's shoulders. Mark went even more pink but the touch was so pleasant he decided not to worry about what anyone thought and simply enjoy it. For some minutes they sat in silence, watching the antics of the ducklings as they darted about the water. Mark thought that he had seldom seen anything so appealing and was sorry that they weren't tame enough to be picked up and stroked. He could imagine what it would be like to hold one, to feel the warm furry excited little body in his hands. His heart went out to one, more adventurous than its siblings, which had ventured too far and was now racing around in circles, cheeping despairingly.

"It will be alright," Peter reassured him, "One of the parents will find it." Even as he spoke the male, in a rather lordly fashion, swam into the sight of its errant offspring who made a joyful dash towards him.

Surprised and gratified at how often Peter seemed to know what he felt, Mark asked suddenly, "How did you know what I was thinking?"

"Because I love you, and because we have a lot of empathy."


"My people," replied Peter without thinking.

"But," Mark said slowly, puzzling it out, "If you're adopted, why should you have empathy just because your, your parents have? If you're not related…?"

"You don't have to be adopted by complete strangers," Peter told him, with just enough reserve in his voice to indicate that he didn't want to talk about it.

Mark backed off immediately. "Sorry, I was being nosy."

"It's alright, and I will tell you about it sometime, but not just yet if you don't mind."

Mark nodded and leaned against him affectionately.

"You're sweet, Markie. Stuff it! I don't give a damn who's watching."

As Peter pulled him close then kissed him, Mark felt as if he had drunk too much wine for the delirious moment it lasted.

Then, as they moved apart, a voice said aggressively, "Fucking queer boys!"

His face going pale he turned to see a figure glowering at them from the nearby path. Scared, he looked back at Peter only to find that he had leapt to his feet and was charging at the youth as if he meant to plough right over him. Peter was fast when he wanted to be, but this time he moved like lightning and there was something almost animal like in his ferocity as he skidded to a stop inches away from the youth. Although a good six or seven inches taller than he was, and built to match, the lad took a hasty step backwards and looked fearfully at the boy confronting him.

"I'll know you again," Peter said in the coldest voice that Mark had ever heard, "Now get out of here if you know what's good for you."

Mark had barely got to his feet when their would be assailant turned without a word and walked rapidly away, looking apprehensively over his shoulder once or twice. Peter watched him out of sight before returning to the bench, his face regaining its usual expression.

"Pete," Mark began in a shaky voice, bemused at how fast he had moved, and even more so by the way he'd looked. For a minute as he turned around his face had been that of a stranger.

Peter urged him onto the bench again. "Don't worry. I learnt a long time ago that if you move very fast and act as if you're not scared of them, bullies will turn and run. Like he did."

"I don't think you were pretending not to be scared of him."

"Maybe. But no-one, no-one," he emphasised, "Is going to make nasty remarks about anyone I love. And that goes double if it's you."

With that he kissed the tip of Mark's nose, his mouth, then pulled him to his feet. "We'd better get home before you're missed."

Thinking about it as he showered and changed, Mark felt a little happier about the evening ahead. He had seen Peter handle two very different people and situations with equal aplomb, and almost began to believe that he would manage the Captain when the time came.

Unfortunately, his new found confidence lasted only until, neatly dressed in white shirt, tie and dark school trousers (he knew better than to wear jeans to the dinner table), he was confronted by his father. He knew the signs and his heart sank as he searched his conscience for any sins of either commission or omission. He had just remembered that he'd been ordered to cut the lawn when the Captain attacked.

He made no attempt to defend himself, it would have done him no good anyway, and submitted weakly to the flood of complaints and invective regarding his laziness, insubordination and disobedience. From there it was a short step to various other peccadilloes he had been guilty of recently, and he wondered with increasing dismay how Peter was going to be received when he arrived.

The Captain, thoroughly enjoying himself (although he would never have admitted it—he was merely doing his duty as a parent!) tore Mark's character to shreds and followed that by ridiculing any pretence he might have had to manhood. He ended with his frequently expressed hope that when he went into the army they would succeed in making a man of him, something he himself had been unable to achieve. His son, who had a very real fear that he would be forced to go along with this arbitrary plan for his future, fervently hoped that he would never grow up as that seemed the only way to avoid an extremely unpleasant fate.

Eventually he was rescued by Peter who, exact to the minute, rang the doorbell at the point when Mark was beginning to wonder if his father was ever going to stop. The Captain, with a contemptuous, "Don't just stand there, you pathetic ninny, go and answer it," marched off to the kitchen to see how the dinner preparations were getting on.

Peter took one look at his face, drew him out of the light, put down the flowers he was holding and took the unnerved boy into his arms. It was so comforting that within a comparatively short space of time Mark had recovered sufficiently to take him into the sitting room with a feeling that however badly the evening turned out, at least Peter would be there to support him. They had hardly sat down when Prudence entered the room followed by her husband.

She was looking as pale as her son and almost as harassed. When Mark introduced Peter and he presented her with the bunch of flowers, she thanked him after a slightly apprehensive glance at her husband, and told him how pleased they were that he had come. She was obviously touched by his gift and her rather colourless voice took on a trace of animation. As she went to put the flowers in water, Mark recalled uncomfortably that apart from birthdays, no-one ever brought flowers for her. Not even him.

Peter greeted the Captain with a firm, manly handshake and as he thanked him for the invitation, Mark felt the tension that was constricting his head like a steel band and beginning to give him a headache, ease a little. Thankfully he retired into the background until the Captain asked him roughly where his manners were and why he hadn't offered their guest something to drink. Comparing this fine upstanding young man to his son, the Captain felt his irritation rising again and would have taken it out on Mark if Peter hadn't adroitly distracted his attention with a question about his career in the army.

That was to be the pattern of the evening. Each time the Captain made disparaging remarks about Mark, Peter diverted his attention to himself and mother and son were left to hold a polite conversation during the meal. Watching them while giving the impression that he was listening to the Captain with the utmost interest, Peter concluded that Mark and his mother behaved almost like strangers. The conversation was trivial with none of the private jokes and phrases that families adopt and use amongst themselves. Nor did they refer to anything in the past in the way that people do to strengthen family bonds. They were like city neighbours who know each other by sight, but have nothing more in common than a brief, polite greeting on the rare occasions that they meet.

He had been prepared to dislike Prudence as much as her husband because, while Mark seldom mentioned her and didn't seem particularly fond of her, he was still her son and he felt that she should shield him from his father. Instead he found himself feeling rather sorry for her and wondered what had possessed her to marry the man in the first place.

Mark had had no choice in the matter of a father but she, presumably, had chosen to marry the Captain of her own free will. Or had she? She seemed so negative it was quite possible that she had been persuaded to do so by others, probably her family. If that had been the case it had been a serious misjudgement and she looked as if she had been paying for it ever since. She might have been pretty once but time hadn't treated her well and the impression she conveyed now was of faded negativity. Mark, with his fine bone structure, small frame, and truly beautiful skin, took after her physically but Peter thought that his personality would be very much stronger than hers when he was older and had found his feet.

The only member of the party who was at ease was the Captain who was in his element. He had seldom had such an attentive listener, or one who asked just the right questions to stimulate his conversational powers. And only his son, who knew his friend well by now, detected the irony in Peter's voice as he drew him out. Delighted to find a youth who appeared to mirror most of his own views so exactly, he totally missed the tongue in cheek content of many of Peter's remarks and thoroughly enjoyed himself as he laid down the law on every subject that occurred to him.

Young Doran was a very well set up young man, he decided, disdainfully comparing the breadth of his shoulders with those of his son and taking no account of the fact that Mark had barely started growing yet. In fact the only things wrong with the lad were the length of his hair, which spoilt his looks, and the fact that he seemed to have no plans to make the army his career. However he was young and his views would change as he got older. Even when the young man disagreed with him, which he did occasionally (proving that he could think for himself!), it was done politely and he was able to put him right without the lad going off into a fit of sulks as happened when he corrected his son. He was a man, he decided approvingly, casting another derogatory glance at Mark.

Intercepting the look, Peter effortlessly deflected his attention, then discreetly winked at Mark who was looking at him with something bordering on awe. If he hadn't seen it with his own eyes he would never have believed it. Peter had been perfectly correct when he said that he knew how to handle the old bastard! Feeling guilty about the word but thoroughly approving Peter's description, he hugged his glee to himself and kept a perfectly straight face while conscious of Peter's shoe pressing against his under the table.

Neither of them were offered wine of course, and Prudence shook her head when the Captain, more as a matter of form than anything else, tilted the bottle in her direction. Peter wondered what she was thinking. Her face revealed absolutely nothing except a vague apprehension which almost certainly irritated her husband. She made no attempt to join in his conversation with the Captain, apart from agreeing nervously with anything the man said to her.

When the awkward meal came to an end Peter offered to help with the washing up but the Captain, unwilling to dispense with so excellent an admirer, dismissed Mark to the kitchen in an inconsiderate fashion that brought a flash of anger to Peter's eyes.

Colouring, Mark left the room thinking that it was exactly the sort of remark that he had been dreading. It was one thing to be treated like that when they were alone, it was a different thing for it to happen in front of a guest, even if that guest was another boy.

He knew that he was being irrational. Peter would think no worse of him whatever his father said and lay the blame squarely where it belonged. Nevertheless it still made him angry. It was a measure of how much he had grown up recently that it was anger he felt rather than misery.

He did the washing up sullenly and had almost finished when his mother came in to make coffee, adding glasses of milk for the boys. "Peter drinks coffee after dinner, not milk," he told her.

"I'm sure he does, dear," Prudence agreed mildly, "But under the circumstances…" her voice trailed off.

Mark regarded the tray in exasperation, wondering whether to make an issue of it, but decided that discretion was the better part of valour and hoped that Peter would understand.

Peter, of course, rose to the occasion when offered coffee and explained that while he occasionally drank it without sugar at home, he preferred milk, thank you. The Captain regarded him with undisguised approval, little knowing that Mark had primed him with the knowledge that his father despised anyone who took sugar in either tea or coffee. He had to hide a grin when he recalled Emily and Victor complaining that Peter drank both with the consistency of syrup.

By the time Peter had looked at a couple of albums of rather blurred photographs of the Captain and his troops in uniform, it was half past ten and he excused himself on the grounds that he had to be up early as he had promised to help his father mow the lawn. It was an understandable error because Mark hadn't told him why he'd been in trouble earlier, and was the only mistake he made all evening. It reminded the Captain, however, of Mark being AWOL and it took considerable skill on Peter's part to shield him. Not only did he succeed but turned it to his advantage by offering to assist Mark if he in turn would help him with his own lawn. He even managed to persuade the man to allow Mark to spend the day with him. The Captain agreed, reluctantly, but was inclined to think that this sensible, well built and handsome young man might be a good influence on his spineless son.

When Peter asked if he could use the bathroom Mark took him upstairs to his bedroom, shut the door and threw his arms around him as Peter looked around the room with interest. It was virtually bare. There were no posters on the walls, no pictures, no ornaments or outgrown but still loved toys. It was painfully neat, the bed covers pulled so tightly that not a wrinkle showed. There was nothing of Mark's personality in the room whatsoever. It reminded him of a hotel room indifferently awaiting the next transient occupant. There was no radiator and Mark confessed that the window remained open all year round. Knowing how much he felt the cold Peter expressed his astonishment but was unsurprised to learn that it was one of the Captain's methods of toughening up his son. He made a mental note to ensure that his own house was warm whenever Mark was there. It was no wonder that he enjoyed visiting them so much, he decided, as he looked around distastefully.

"Show me your clothes. We need to decide what you're going to wear next week."

"I haven't got much, mainly school stuff."

Glancing into the large, heavy and old fashioned wardrobe, Peter saw that this was true. Apart from a couple of pairs of jeans and some plain sweat shirts it contained virtually nothing. "Okay, you can wear the school trousers you're wearing at the moment. Turn around and let me see. They fit you very well," he commented, observing how the trousers hugged Mark's shape. "You can wear your blazer and one of my ties but you need a better shirt. The one you're wearing is far too big for you."

"I can't ask for a new shirt. I've only just had some."

"That's okay. After school next week we'll go out and buy one."

"I can't, Pete. I don't have any money and I'm not allowed advances on my pocket money. It wouldn't be enough anyway," he concluded gloomily.

"I'll buy it for you," Peter remarked casually, still appreciatively studying the fit of the trousers.

Mark looked stubborn and shook his head. "No."

"Why not?"

"Because what you mean is that your parents will buy it for me."

"Wrong. What I mean is that I'll buy it for you."

"What with?"

"Money of course. What did you think? Bottle tops?"

"You haven't got any."

"Bottle tops?"

"Don't tease, please. You know what I mean. Money."

"How do you know?"

"Well…" Mark broke off. No-one their age ever had money. It was part of being a teenager.

"Actually I've got loads."

Mark decided it was probably true. Peter was such an unaccountable boy he was prepared to believe anything about him. It didn't make any difference though.

"I don't care. I'm not going to let you buy a shirt for me even if you do have lots of money."

"For God's sake, Markie, why not? I want to. In fact I'd really like to get you a suit but we haven't got time to get something that fitted. It would have to be made specially because you're so small."

Mark couldn't help feeling awed. Peter was so nonchalant about it. He shook his head. "It would take months to pay you back."

Peter moved closer and put his arms around his waist. "Oh, that's what it's about. Look, I want to get you a nice shirt so that when you wear it you feel good. When you feel good, I feel good, it's as simple as that. You don't have to pay me back, I want to give it to you as a present. I've never given you anything and you've given me so much."

Mark looked perplexed. "But Pete, I've never given you anything at all. What do you mean?"

"One day I'll tell you. Now we'd better go downstairs or he'll be wondering what's happened to us. We'll talk about it tomorrow."

He kissed Mark, then followed him down the stairs.

Peter refused the Captain's offer to drive him home on the grounds that he needed some exercise, thanked him and Mark's mother, and after receiving an invitation to drop in anytime young man, Mark walked him to the gate. He would have liked to have gone at least part of the way with him but Peter vetoed it.

"You look worn out and I'm not having you coming back by yourself. I want you to go upstairs and straight to bed. Okay?"

Reluctantly Mark gave the required assurance, acknowledging to himself that was very tired. The evening had gone far better than he had dared to hope, but all in all, it had been a stressful day. Peter hugged him, kissed him soundly and with a wave disappeared into the night. Mark watched him out of sight then after listening to the Captain extolling his virtues (he totally agreed with everything his father said but for very different reasons) escaped to his bedroom. He got into bed with the intention of marshalling the arguments he needed to persuade Peter not to spend his money on him, but before he could even formulate the first of them, had fallen asleep.

Looking back on it later he could never work out how he found himself meekly walking into a large department store the following Friday even though, he assured himself, he was only going to look. There was no way he was going to let Peter to buy clothes for him, he had to have better things to do with his money. Nor did he completely believe him when Peter said he had loads of money. No-one, not even Peter, had loads of money. Also he should be practising. Yet here he was looking at shirts that ranged through virtually every colour of the rainbow.

When he'd come up against his opposition Peter had worked out a strategy. Knowing exactly what Mark's reaction would be, he appeared to fall in love with a shirt that seemed to have been manufactured for no other reason than to use up yards of frilly stuff and an oversupply of large, violently coloured buttons. It was such a revoltingly bilious yellow that Mark winced when it was pointed out to him. Peter assured him that it would go with the colour of his eyes, was a bargain at the price, and that he couldn't wait to see him wearing it. Ignoring Mark's increasingly desperate protests, he pulled out his wallet and looked around for a shop assistant to get it out for closer inspection. Completely taken in, Mark was so horrified, first by his apparent determination to purchase the vulgar object, and then by his hurt look when he refused to even try it on, that in his anxiety to soothe Peter's (supposedly) hurt feelings he completely lost sight of his original argument. Having got him into the state of mind he wanted, Peter reluctantly allowed himself to be dissuaded leaving Mark so relieved that he weakly agreed to try on an attractive beige shirt before he realised what he was doing.

Peter gave him no time to change his mind and the two of them squeezed into a changing booth. Pink and perspiring, Mark would have settled for the first shirt that fitted reasonably well but Peter insisted on him trying several different styles, cuts and sizes before settling on one that fitted his slim form like a glove. Produced for the inspection of the sales clerk, he looked at himself in the mirror, astonished at the difference that really well cut clothes can make.

"It's perfect I think," Peter commented, inspecting him from all angles and paying particular attention to the sleeves which folded over before buttoning, something that puzzled Mark.

"An excellent choice," the sales assistant agreed.

He was sent back to the booth to change and Peter rapidly picked out two similar shirts in pastel shades, added five white ones for school and paid for them all.

By the time Mark returned and the beige shirt had been folded and added to the carrier bag Peter was holding, he was feeling so pleased with the way he'd looked that he didn't notice the extra items. Still wondering how it had happened he thanked Peter, who managed to resist the urge to kiss him right then and there, and carried him off home in triumph. On their arrival he dictated Mark's homework while at the same time effortlessly completing his own. He refused to allow Mark to touch the piano, having agreed this with Mavis Herold who wanted him completely fresh the following day.

"You have done all the practise you need to," she had told him at his last lesson. "Now for a day or two you forget about your pieces and only do scales and arpeggios on Saturday afternoon to loosen your fingers."

Peter had agreed with her, and was equally firm on the subject of sex.

"We're not going to do anything today and don't you do anything on your own tonight either. I know it won't be easy but I want you to have that extra tension tomorrow."

"But I need you now. I've been, looking forward to it all day," Mark whined.

"Me too, love. I've only got to look at you and I start bursting out of my pants. But just for tonight, no. I won't do anything by myself and it will be hard for both of us but we'll make up for it tomorrow night, I promise. You can wait for that can't you? I'll make it worth while. Trust me."

"Oh alright," agreed Mark reluctantly. "But tomorrow had better be good. It'd better be bloody good!"

"Don't swear. And it will be. We'll have an evening neither of us will ever forget."

"Oh, I do love you Pete," Mark replied, flinging himself at Peter and swarming all over him.

"Me too, darling Mark. But don't do that," he groaned as Mark's hands strayed.

"I never even thanked you for the shirt," he exclaimed suddenly.

"You did. You were just so dazed at how beautiful you looked that you've forgotten. Which reminds me, it needs ironing. Come on."

"I'll do it."

"No, I want to."

Mark sat on a stool to watch, enjoying the play of muscles in Peter's bare arms as he efficiently ironed the new shirt, one of his own, and one for Victor.

"I would do Em's dress as well but she won't let me. She prefers to do it herself so I allow her to as a special treat," he remarked, making Mark smile.

"You love her a lot, don't you."

"I love both of them," Peter told him in a matter of fact voice as he put the freshly ironed shirt onto a hanger and started on the next one. "I told you I was lucky to have them, Markie, but you have no idea how much. I was a real mess when I came to them. Totally fucked up." He looked up, knowing that he had surprised his companion. "I don't often use swear words because Em doesn't like it but it's the only word that really fits. After what was done to me I think I would have died without them. I owe them both so much, I can't tell you."

Mark looked at him, horrified. The thought that he might have died and they might never have met making his blood run cold. Looking into the guileless hazel eyes, he knew that Peter had told the truth and felt a stirring of anger that anyone could have treated Peter badly. "If I ever get hold of anyone who treats you badly, I'll kill them," he said viciously, getting off the stool and coming to Peter who prudently put the iron down. "Who was it and what did they do to you?" he demanded, grasping Peter's arms.

"Hey, I didn't mean to upset you. It happened a long time ago and I've mostly forgotten about it. Jeez Markie your hands are strong. You're bruising me."

Mark relaxed his grip. He had never thought about it but years of piano practise had strengthened his hands considerably. "Sorry."

"Don't think about it. If you really want to know I'll tell you one day." He gave him a little shake. "Everyone has bad things in their past, you do too, but once they're finished you don't think about them any more. You don't forget completely, but if you're lucky they just become a memories in the back of your mind. It happened a very long time ago, and remember, I came out of it and in a way I was lucky it happened."

"Lucky! How can you say that?"

"Because if it hadn't happened I would never have met Em and Vic and I wouldn't be here now. That was my first piece of luck and I used to think it was the greatest that anyone could ever have. Then, do you know, I had a second piece of luck and that was even better. I walked into a class on my first day at a new school and saw a boy. You'd think two massive pieces of luck like that would be as much as anyone would ever get, but I got a third as well." He paused for a moment to add weight to his words then said slowly, "That was when that boy told me he loved me. I don't deserve it Markie, not after some of the things I've done, and maybe I don't deserve you. But I've got you, and I'm going to keep you as long as I live. Face it, little boy," he went on in a lighter tone, "You're stuck with me and there's no escape, unless you decide one day that you don't want me."

Mark looked at him equally seriously, then said slowly, "I want to be stuck with you forever. The only thing that could change that would be if you didn't want me. I love you, Pete. I didn't know it for a long time until that day when I told you. I suddenly realised I'd loved you for weeks and hadn't even noticed. It was weird. How can you love someone and not know? But that's what happened. So if you think you've been lucky, it's nothing compared to me. And I'll tell you another thing, my Pete, no matter what you've done or what was done to you, I will always love you. Will you remember that, even if we fight sometimes? Please?"

Peter's eyes went misty. "I'll remember, but let's try not to fight, huh?"

"You're on," Mark told him looking up into his eyes, then dropped his gaze to Peter's upper arms where the marks left by his fingers still showed. "Sorry," he said again and kissed each mark. "I hope you won't really be bruised."

"I won't. And even if I am it won't last long. I heal very quickly."

He pulled the smaller boy close and was holding him when Emily walked into the room. Mark stiffened when he caught sight of her and his face coloured. He tried to move away but Peter refused to release him.

She greeted them in a casual voice. "Hullo, you two."

"Hi Em," replied Peter cheerfully and turned towards her, still holding Mark who was trying to wriggle out of his arms and almost dying of embarrassment. "We didn't hear you come in."

"I'm not surprised," she replied with a smile which, to Mark's increasing discomfort, was only just short of a grin. It made her look very pretty. "What's the occasion?"

"Nothing special," Peter told her, letting Mark go with one arm but keeping him firmly imprisoned with the one around his waist. "We bought a shirt for tomorrow and I was ironing it when we got talking and, well, one thing led to another."

About to say 'Come here Mark', Emily changed her mind and walked to him instead. We might as well start as we're going to go on, she decided, and if he's going to join the family, as seems likely, he must come as an equal and not as a child, even if he is younger than Pete. As she reached them Peter let him go and to Mark's confusion, she put her arms around him and held him as Peter had done.

"There's no need to be shy. Pete told us ages ago that he loved you and that you loved him. We're pleased about it, and very happy for you both." She put a hand on his face, tilted it up and kissed his forehead.

In a daze Mark put his arms around her, started to say thank you, was suddenly overcome by her kindness and to his horror, burst into tears.

Understandingly, she continued to hold him while Peter, standing behind Mark rather helplessly, put his arms around them both. If this is how a small show of affection affects him, she mused, he's in a worse state than we thought. Tomorrow has got to go well or psychologically he's going to be in serious trouble.

Mark was able to stop crying fairly quickly and muttered, "I'm sorry, Mrs Doran, I don't know why I did that. I feel such an idiot."

"Well there's no reason to be sorry, and you'd better call me Em like Peter does," she replied calmly. "Pete, take Mark into the sitting room while I make tea."

"Sorry, Pete. I'm always doing stupid things like this to you. I'm so embarrassed." Mark sniffed and felt ready to start crying all over again when Peter sat on the sofa and pulled him onto his lap. He rested his head against the broad chest, hearing the strong beat of Peter's heart. "My nose is running," he muttered unromantically.

Peter gave a mock sigh and with difficulty extracted a tissue from his own pocket. "Here."

"I even forget to carry tissues," Mark mumbled dolefully, determined to make him know the worst.

"Don't worry, I've carried extras ever since I met you. Extra large ones too. I don't have room in my pockets for anything else now."

Mark gave him a watery smile, allowed him to dry his face, then blew his nose thoroughly. "Why are you all so nice to me?"

"Because we love you, you dope. All of us. Not the same way of course, but Em and Vic love you the same way they love me." Or if they don't, he added mentally, they soon will.

After a few moments Mark slid off Peter's lap to sit beside him. He would have liked to stay there but still felt rather shy. It was not a minute too soon as Emily came into the room carrying a tray. Peter jumped up to clear a space on the coffee table.

"Better now?" she asked kindly.

He nodded, his face flushed and his eyes a little swollen.

"About tomorrow," she went on, "I thought that you might like to listen to some friends who are going to play a string quartet, unless you would rather play first?"

Mark shook his head, "That will be fine Mrs Dor…I mean, er, Emily. It's hard to get used to," he confessed the colour in his face deepening. There was no way he could use the familiar 'Em'.

"You soon will," Peter said, giving his thigh a pat before putting sugar in one of the mugs and stirring it for him.

"Call me whatever you feel comfortable with. Now Stefan is coming to tune the piano at about four. He's also a friend of ours," she explained, "So would you like to come to lunch and do your technical work before he starts?"

"I'd love to Mrs, I mean Emily, thank you. If my father agrees that is," he added doubtfully.

"I'll phone him and fix it up as soon as I've finished my tea."

"You won't tell him why?" Mark asked anxiously.

She shook her head reassuringly. "Not if you don't want me to."

He looked so relieved she found herself giving a lot more credence to Peter's opinion that Captain Doran would intensely dislike his son's talent being encouraged in any way. She found it almost incomprehensible. Most people would give their right arms to have a child with such ability she thought, smiling into his troubled eyes. What on earth is wrong with the man, and rather more important, how do we deal with it? She wouldn't have wished Peter not to have met Mark, but there was no doubt that he was complicating their lives to an extraordinary degree. "Pete, you'd better finish the ironing. By the way, did you get a shirt with a turn over cuff?"

"Of course. Did you think I'd forget?"

"Not really, but you can be a bit scatter brained at times."

Mark was puzzled. What had the type of cuff to do with anything, and what was a turn over one anyway? No one enlightened him.

"Come on," Peter picked up the tray. "You can wash while I iron."

Mark was pleased, it made him feel part of the family.

Later, as they walked slowly to his house, Peter gave him a run down on who he would meet the next day, telling him not to worry about remembering names. "I'll be there to remind you and anyway it's quite informal."

A few weeks before he would have dreaded meeting so many strangers at the same time but now, with Peter at his side to say nothing of Emily and Victor, he felt he could cope with anything. Emily, he repeated to himself, enjoying the sound of it. She was the first adult who had ever invited him to use their first name. It made him feel very grown up and such was the confidence this engendered, he was even able to greet his father without shrinking inwardly. Beyond telling him how kind Mrs Doran was to invite him to lunch and spend the evening, and not to forget to thank her, his father paid him little attention. He had taken a strong liking to young Doran and had looked out one or two books of past campaigns that he knew would interest him.

After casting a horrified glance at a large pile of massive and undoubtably boring tomes, Mark turned an anguished eye on Peter who, however, rose effortlessly to the occasion. He thanked the Captain enthusiastically, then soon as the man's back was turned, gave his friend a look of such comical dismay that Mark had difficulty in suppressing a fit of giggles. He took the precaution of explaining that he was busy with school, sport, and homework, and it might take him some time to read them. This diverted the Captain who launched into a long and extremely dull story of his own youth and it was quite half an hour before the long suffering pair were able to escape to Mark's cell, as Peter called it.

"I'm sorry, I suppose you'll have to read them all," said Mark glumly.

Peter gave him a grin, a hug, and a kiss, and told him not to worry about it. "You know how fast I read. I'll skim through them and pick out one or two interesting bits to talk about. He'll never know the difference."

That was certainly true. He was a fast reader himself but couldn't (as usual) compare with Peter. Reassured, he removed his school uniform but was stopped before he could change into anything else. Peter told him that although they weren't going to have sex, he was damned if he was leaving without at least looking at him. He studied the almost naked boy from all angles, resisted the urge to kiss every inch of his body and gave him a regretful pat on his neat little rear before it was covered again. Then he demanded a carrier bag, bundled Mark's school trousers into it, put the Captain's books on top just in case, and told Mark that he would wash and press them. When Mark suggested that he could do it himself, he was told that as Peter was older than he was, he would do as he was told. This led to an enjoyable tussle on the bed which Peter won (because Mark wanted him to) by sitting on his thighs, holding his outstretched arms by the wrists and leaning down to kiss him until they were both breathless.

"I'd better go before we get too worked up." He jumped off the bed and helped himself to Mark's hairbrush.

Regretfully, he still had hopes that Peter might relent, Mark submitted to having his own hair tidied before they went back to the sitting room. Peter made his polite farewells and told Mark, in the Captain's hearing, that he would collect him in the morning.

Mark was his usual silent self during dinner but his father, in an expansive mood, didn't notice and nor did his mother who was watching her husband with an apprehensive expression on her face. The Captain, pleased with the influence he was having on young Doran—the lad had shown proper gratitude at being lent some of his hallowed books—had drunk several large whiskeys before the meal started and continued to indulge while they were eating. This always had a deleterious effect on his temper the following day but she knew better than to mention it and Mark was too occupied with his own thoughts to notice.

He had difficulty getting to sleep as he was frustrated by Peter's refusal to touch him. Although badly tempted he managed to resist the urge to do something about it but the struggle, coupled with the knowledge that he needed a full quota of rest, kept him awake and it was quite late when he finally dropped off, little knowing what the morning would bring.

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