One of Us

by Richard Campbell

Chapter 5

Sure enough the Captain woke in a foul temper. He found fault with everything from the temperature of the water in the shower, which he claimed Prudence had set too high, to the length of his son's hair which, he commanded, was to be cut immediately!

"And make it short. You look more like a girl than ever," he barked contemptuously, and threatened to use his old fashioned razor to shave Mark's head if his instructions were not carried out to the letter.

His important day already spoilt, and well aware that his hair was already shorter than that of his peers, Mark shuddered when he considered what he would have to put up with if his father carried out his threat. He trailed off miserably to get it done, but purposely avoided their usual barber. The man did his father's hair as well and knew to a fraction of a millimetre the length required. There was no way he would give him just a light trim.

As it happened, when he entered the first salon he came to (after deciding that if he added nearly all his pocket money he could just afford to patronise it) he fell into the hands of the new owner, a pleasant young man who took something of a fancy to him and was so sympathetic that he was induced to explain his problem. Not altogether surprised, he had suffered something of the sort in his own not so distant youth, and genuinely interested when Mark explained that he was playing in a concert that evening. He studied Mark's face, the shape of his head, assessed the texture of his thick straight hair then cut it so stylishly that while giving the impression that it was quite short, it looked absolutely right. Delighted with the effect and with only a twinge of apprehension about what his father would say about it, Mark thanked him sincerely and paid him in small change, which the young man found touching. Then shyly he offered his sole remaining pound coin as a tip, even though it meant that he would have to walk home. It was waved away.

"Thank you, Mark, but there's no need. It's a pity your hair was so short but I think we've done a good job, and maybe when you're able to grow it longer, we can do a better one still. I hope that you'll come back and bring your friend Peter as well. I'd love to meet him."

Such was his charm Mark had confided in him rather more deeply than he'd thought. He was a very good listener and had read more between the lines than Mark suspected.

Feeling very much better, Mark caught the bus home only to find that his father was in a worse mood than ever. He had gone shopping without his sun glasses, for which he blamed his long suffering wife, and the bright sunlight had aggravated his headache. Seldom ill, he considered himself to be a great deal worse than he actually was and his temper had suffered accordingly. He looked at Mark's hair, took a deep breath and started.

It went on and on, his loud, rasping voice getting more and more angry. As always, he tore his son's character (or rather the lack of it) to shreds, compared him unflatteringly to young Doran and told him it was high time he started acting like a man. Then he went on to criticise his appearance, his lack of sporting ability, his appalling school record and touched on the amount of time he wasted sitting at the piano which, he added ominously, he'd just about had enough of.

Abruptly changing tack he demanded to know how much the haircut had cost. When he learnt that his son had had the temerity to use a barber of his own choice, he exploded into speech again. The fact that he hadn't actually told Mark where to go made no difference. It was understood that the usual place was where his wishes were known and it was both rank disobedience and impertinence, to go anywhere else. Who did he think he was? As for the cost, it was outrageous and he was going there first thing on Monday morning and demand the money be refunded.

At that point he met with unexpected resistance. Shattered though he was, Mark recalled the kindness of his new friend, whom he had every intention of patronising whenever he could, and for the first time in his life looked fleetingly at the Captain when ordered to disclose the name and address of the establishment, kept his mouth shut (dumb insolence!) and remained obstinately silent.

Opposition from inferiors always enraged his father. He strode back and forth, alternatively shouting and sneering at his pasty-faced son, and becoming purple in the face in the process. An inept attempt by his wife to intervene provoked a snarl of anger so savage that she cowered back and looked at him with frightened eyes.

He had the ability to sustain his bad temper for a very long time but, fortunately, the raising of his blood pressure exacerbated the pain in his head. After a further ten minutes of abuse bordering on the vicious, he retired to his bedroom to lie down after threatening that he would forbid his son to go to the Dorans if he heard another sound out of him. Mark's face went even more pale. Observing this with satisfaction the Captain went upstairs, took three of the aspirins he never allowed his son to take, lay down and fell into a triumphant slumber.

Considerably shaken, though he had hidden it better than usual, Mark and his mother looked at each other.

"Why did you do it?" she asked, "You knew what would happen."

"Because I'm sick of looking like a soldier," he said quietly but decisively. "I'm not a soldier, and I'm never going to be one. I'm sorry mother, but I'm not going to do it. This is my hair and it's time I decided how I want it to look. I'm sick everyone at school taking the mick and calling me names because it's so short. Bloody sick of it!"

She stared at him. "I understand dear, but you know what your father is like…" her voice trailed off uncertainly.

"No, you don't understand," he said bitterly. "You're not at school to see what happens to me and anyway I don't think you really care. You never, ever stand up for me like other mothers do, especially…" he had been going to say Peter's mother, then remembered that Emily had no need to stand up to Victor who wouldn't ever, he was certain, shout at Peter in the first place. In any case Peter could, and did, stand up for himself without needing help from anyone.

Feeling ashamed of his outburst, and also sorry for her, he said quietly, "Why did you marry him?"

Prudence stiffened. "I don't think that is any of your business, Mark."

"Sorry," he apologised, knowing that he had gone too far. But it was, and always would be, a mystery to him.

When Peter came up the drive ten minutes later Mark opened the door before the ringing of the bell would disturb his father. Peter looked at him wondering what the hell the man had done to him this time. And why. He had worked hard to keep the Captain sweet yesterday and thought he'd succeeded fairly well. His heart sank.

After greeting him in a subdued voice Mark led him into the sitting room where he said hello to Prudence and thanked her again for the previous night's meal. It struck him that she looked nearly as distressed as Mark, and rather ill, but his prime concern was to get Mark out of the house as quickly as he could so he refused her half-hearted offer of something to drink.

They walked rapidly. For once it was Mark who set the pace as if he couldn't wait to get away from the house. Peter talked quietly but didn't ask what had happened. He would find out when they were alone.

Emily greeted Mark cheerfully, carefully hiding her dismay at the state he was in, and when Vic breezed in from the back garden they went straight in to lunch because she was having her hair done as soon as they finished. Mark was very quiet, ate virtually nothing and went white when she complimented him on his hair.

"I don't know," Peter told her when they were alone in the kitchen, "I'll find out after you leave."

He managed to persuade Mark to eat some ice cream, chocolate flavour bought especially for him, then took him into the kitchen to help do the washing up after Emily and Victor left the house.

Mark was in such a daze he fumbled the second plate passed to him and dropped it. He stood quite still, looking at the pieces, and wondering what to do. Coming on top of everything else it was the last straw. He felt something, he didn't know what, and couldn't have described it except that it was like something black, ominous and very threatening about to sweep over and suffocate him. He drew a frightened breath and his eyes widened.

Peter was about to say 'butterfingers' in a cheerily resigned voice when he saw the expression on Mark's face and reacted instinctively. "Mark," he said loudly, "If you don't stop that right now I'll smack you. Do you hear?" He gripped Mark's shoulders and shook him slightly. "Stop it! Stop it now!" he shouted, registering the shock on the boy's face. "It's only a fucking plate goddamit. Look!" And letting him go, he pulled two more plates out of the sink and threw them onto the floor.

Mark's panic subsided slowly. Peter had never shouted at him before. "That's three plates I'm responsible for breaking," he said in a shaky voice.

"So what," Peter replied in the coldest voice he could manage, though he longed to put his arms around him. "Help me clear it up. Not with your hands you idiot, you might cut yourself. Get the dust pan and brush. From the broom cupboard."

He was standing with his hands on his hips when Mark, zombie like, came back with the required articles. Between them, in silence, they cleared up the broken pieces then finished the rest of the washing up.

"Would you really have hit me?" Mark asked eventually.

Relieved that he seemed to have handled the situation correctly, Peter replied in a softer voice. "Yes, I would. I'd have spanked you as hard as I could."

"My father did that once when I broke a cup." Mark forced his thoughts away from how close he had come to a panic attack, though it wasn't a term he was familiar with. "I've never forgotten. It wasn't even an expensive one."

"Well you won't forget it if I spank you either, even if it's for a very different reason. I promise to kiss you better afterwards though, like I did before."

More calmly Mark said, "It might be worth it."

"How about if I kiss you better without spanking you first?"


Peter smiled. "Promise. Provided you stop saying sorry all the time and you don't panic if you drop something. We're not like your father and we've got millions of plates. Em went mad one day and bought hundreds of them before the men in white coats came to take her away."

Mark gave him a very small smile, which was a start Peter told himself. He led the way to the sitting room and sat him down at the piano, feeling that it was probably the best therapy.

As he worked on his technical exercises Peter sat on the sofa, completed what remained of his homework and checked Mark's. An hour later after Mark had slowly and accurately played through all the difficult passages in the scherzo at a fraction of the correct speed, he came over and put his hands on his shoulders. He was still very tense.

Mark took his hands off the keyboard but didn't lean back against him as he usually did. "I'm going to stop now."

"You're the boss," Peter answered, inhaling the scent of his hair. Mark never used anything on it, that sweet smell was his own. "Come on up to my bedroom."

Mark's heart gave a leap.

But when they reached it Peter said firmly, "None of that. You're just going to lie down for a bit." Gently he undressed him down to his underpants, removed his own trainers, lay beside him and took him into his arms. "Okay. What happened this morning?"

Gradually the story came out, slowly at first and with many hesitations. Peter had hoped that getting him to talk about it would get it off his mind, but wondered if he'd made a mistake as Mark became more and more pale as he relived it.

"I'm going to be sick."

"Into the bathroom."

By clenching his teeth and not swallowing, Mark got there in time and Peter held him as he knelt in front of the toilet. This was worse than crying he thought before spasm after spasm hit him and he could think of nothing else. Peter, supporting him with one hand around his chest and the other on his stomach had his own moments of panic as he felt the severity of the contractions. It was almost as if Mark's body was determined to get rid of every single thing inside him and his frame seemed too slight to cope with the force of the convulsions. He wondered briefly if Mark was coming down with 'flu or something but decided, as the spasms eased, that it was probably a form of catharsis. If he could throw off the ugly scene in the same way he was getting rid of his lunch, there would be little left of either of them.

The worst thing though was his feeling of impotence. There was nothing he could do except to hold him for as long as it took.

Once he was sure that it was over, he helped the exhausted boy to his feet, flushed the toilet, closed the lid and sat him down on it. Mark was still alarmingly pale and his eyes and nose were running. He damped a face flannel in warm water, sponged his face and chest, dried him, then handed him a tissue.


Feeling about five years old Mark did as he was told, then rinsed his mouth with the sweetish mouthwash that Peter produced.


"Much," he said gratefully. "Sorry. That was disgusting."

"No it wasn't, it has done you good. You don't look nearly as sick as you did earlier, thanks to Dr Doran the medical marvel."

Mark managed a half smile as Peter put the plug into the bath and turned on the taps. "Now you're going to soak in a hot bath, then you are getting into my bed and going to sleep."

Lavishly he filled the bath to just below the overflow, checked the temperature, stood him up and skinned off his underpants. Mark was so weary that this action which would normally have brought him to instant and raging attention, barely stirred his penis.

"In with you. And don't get any ideas either."

"I'm too tired for ideas," Mark told him as he slid gratefully into the comforting warmth.

"Will you be okay on your own for a minute? You won't slide down and drown or something?"

"Course I won't."

"Did you bring clean underpants?"

Mark shook his head. "Forgot."

"You'll forget your head one of these days, and I don't mean this one," he said, holding Mark's face.

"I couldn't forget that one. At least not when you're around."

Peter kissed the top of his head. "Back in a minute."

He went to his bedroom, dug a rubberised sheet out of the wardrobe and laid it on the bed then covered it with a clean linen one. Finding his hot water bottle, which he had never actually used, he filled it in the kitchen and left it ready at the bottom of bed. When he returned to the bathroom Mark was lying in the water with just his head out, his eyes closed. "Stand up, Markie."

"I was enjoying that," he said sleepily as Peter quickly soaped then rinsed him.

"Does your hair need doing?"

"Did it last night."

"Okay, out."

"You're treating me like a little boy," Mark muttered.

"You are a little boy. I've told you that before."

"If I wasn't so tired I'd do something to you," he muttered as Peter dried him.

"I'm going to do something to you just one of these days, and not what you're thinking either."

"Do you think you can?"

"Oh I can kid, make no mistake about it. And you're going to enjoy it very much. Come on."

"I've got no clothes on," Mark pointed out.

"Well there's no-one in the house anyway." Peter propelled him into the bedroom. "Lie on your tummy."

"You're being very bossy," he complained in an aggrieved tone.

"Yeah, I know. It's all your fault. I'm going to give you a massage so lie down and stop whining."

While Mark settled himself he slipped out of his own clothes.

Mark gazed at him longingly. "If I'm the one being massaged, why are you undressed?"

"Because I'm going to use oil on your skin and I don't want it all over my clothes."

He climbed onto the bed, straddled Mark's body and dribbled oil onto his back.

Mark squeaked. "It's cold."

"Not for long," Peter told him and began to work over his neck and shoulder muscles.

Mark had never been touched by anyone until he met Peter, let alone been massaged, so he had nothing to judge it by. But Peter's hands were warm, comforting, relaxing, and at the same time incredibly sexy. He could feel himself becoming aroused, especially when Peter worked over his buttocks, and had to raise his hips several times to accommodate his growing erection. When Peter finally turned him over it had reached full length and breadth and needed attention. But his friend ignored it and only reacted when he reached out to touch Peter's own pulsing tower.

"No. That's for later."

Mark groaned. "I need it now."

"Do you think I don't? But we agreed. Not 'til afterwards. For either of us," he added when Mark's fingers still showed a tendency to stray.

In fact as Peter's hands moved away from the stimulating areas, his penis started to shrink and by the time the hot water bottle had been put at his feet and a sheet and blanket pulled over him he was almost asleep. His skin felt delicious, soft and smooth, and every muscle was relaxed. He barely felt Peter's kiss before he fell asleep.

Peter watched him for a minute as his breathing slowed before getting dressed and leaving the room, closing the door behind him. He would have been happy to stay and admire him as he slept, but he didn't want the piano tuner to wake him when he arrived. Aping Mark's actions earlier, he met Stefan at the front door and took him into the sitting room.

Mark slept through the following hour as Stefan struck the keys hard to stabilise the tuning of each note and nor did he wake when, just as he finished, Emily and Victor returned. Peter left them talking and after looking in at Mark, who was still sleeping soundly, made tea for them.

"How's the orphan?" Emily asked.

"Why orphan?" enquired Victor.

"Well he looked like an orphan of the storm when he arrived."

"This is the boy who's playing tonight?"

"Yes." She turned to Stefan. "Everyone will judge for themselves of course though in my opinion he is the most talented person that we've come across in a very long time. But we were worried when he got here because he looked awful. Did you find what caused it Pete and rather more to the point, how is he now?"

Without too much emphasis Peter told them what he had learnt, filling in some of the background for Stefan's benefit. "His father really is a very unpleasant man," he finished with considerable restraint.

Emily pondered for a minute. "I think you were right to get him talk about it, and I'm prepared to bet that he will have got it out of his system and feel fine when he wakes. I suggest we let him sleep for as long as possible, it sounds as if he needs it." She looked at her husband. "Shall I phone his father and ask if he can spend the night? I have a feeling he could do with a bit of time before he has to face the man again. He, and I agree with Pete, is one of the nastiest people I have ever spoken to. I feel desperately sorry for the boy."

Victor was silent for a moment weighing up the pros and cons while Stefan and Peter watched, the former with a trace of puzzlement, the latter feeling as if his heart was going to leap right out of his body.

Victor nodded. "Yes, Em, do that."

Peter let out his breath with an explosive sigh, became aware of Stefan's speculative gaze and hurried into speech.

"He makes Mark's life hell with his orders, and trying to make him into a soldier, and telling him he's going into the army as soon as he's old enough, and other things like making him cut his hair so short. I can't stand the old bastard. And I've got to read his bloody boring books too!" he added, as if it was the final straw. "Sorry, Em."

"Oh, the sacrifices of love," Emily told him with a distinct twinkle in her eye, amused to see him on the defensive for once.

"In love? Again?" Stefan asked, raising an eyebrow in Peter's direction.

"I'm afraid so," Victor told him ruefully.

"There's no 'afraid' about it at all Vic, and you know it. You like him as much as I do so don't try to deny it." Peter blushed. Christ, he thought, that's the second time recently. "And it may be again Stefan, but it's different this time."

"It always is," Stefan sighed, as one who knew.

"Oh good grief, don't you understand anything at all," Peter began in an irritated voice, before he noticed that Stefan was laughing at him.

"Well you must be in love if your brains are so scrambled you can't tell when I'm taking the mickey," said Stefan provocatively, but only got a good natured grin in reply. "You speak of him as a boy, how old is he?"


Stefan's smile faded. "And you're, what nearly sixteen?"

Peter nodded.

There was a short silence as Stefan appeared to be working something out in his head. "Well I suppose you know what you're doing. It may work out."

"It will work out," Peter stated in the most mature tone that Stefan had ever heard him use. "I'll make it work out. We'll both make it work out."

"Does he love you, Pete?" When Peter nodded he went on in a surprisingly gentle voice. "Are you sure it's not just hero worship on his part?" He was fond of Peter.

"I'm sure. I know the difference."

Stefan glanced at Emily and Victor who were sitting close together on the sofa.

Victor smiled and nodded. "It's mutual. No doubt about it."

Stefan still looked a little troubled. "Well if there's anything I can do, all you have to do is ask. I'd best be off. I have another instrument to do before I'm done."

"Can't you come tonight?" Emily asked.

"I'm really sorry to miss it because I know what a good judge of talent you are, Em, but I'm afraid I can't. But I'm looking forward to meeting Mark soon."

He kissed her briefly, shook hands with Victor and to Peter's surprise, gave him a hug before leaving.

"I hope that's not going to be a typical reaction," Emily remarked.

Victor put an arm around her. "You worry too much my dear. Look how quickly he came round to the idea. And without even seeing the boy."

"I hope you're right," she replied, as Peter came back into the room after seeing Stefan out.

"Right about what? And why are you two cuddling each other?"

"For the same reason you and Mark cuddle each other," Victor told him.

"Talking of which," Emily said, "When were you planning to cuddle your young man awake?"

"I was going to give him another half an hour while I made some food. He lost what little he ate at lunch."

Emily frowned. "What do you mean Pete?"

Peter described what had happened and what he'd done.

"You did exactly the right thing," was her verdict. "But I think you're wrong about one thing. Oh I'm sure he was still upset by the scene with his father, but I think that pre-performance nerves had something to do with it as well."

"Do you think so? I did wonder a little, it seemed odd that he should still be affected so badly. Will it happen every time he performs?" he asked, recalling with concern the violence of Mark's spasms.

"It will get easier as he becomes more experienced but I shouldn't think that it will ever go away entirely. Keep an eye on him this evening when he's getting ready to play. It may happen again, though I rather doubt it. I think he's over the worst now. I'll make something for all of us if you like Pete, while you go and wake him."

"Thanks, Em. And thank you both for everything. I know what sacrifices you've made for me, and I do appreciate it."

"That's nonsense—and you know it," Victor told him. "You've been a son to us which is all that ever counted, so never talk about sacrifices. It's you and Mark who are going to have to make sacrifices, particularly Mark. It won't be easy for him if things work out as you hope because he will be torn between his talent and his love for you. And while that will be hard for him you will find it just as difficult because his happiness is so important to you. Life is never easy for artistic people at the best of times, and he's going to suffer I'm afraid. You know him better than anyone, will he be able to stand up to the pressure if it comes to a choice?"

Peter looked at him unhappily. "Will he have to choose? Can't he have both? Isn't it possible to have both?"

Victor shook his head. "I would like to think so for both your sakes. But I don't, in all honesty, think it's possible."

"Maybe I shouldn't have got involved with him in the first place if it's because of me he has to decide. Should I try to get out of his life? I don't know if I could, but I could try."

"What is done is done and the time for that is long past," rejoined Emily bluntly. "For one thing it may not come to a choice at all. We're working on the assumption that his talent will continue to grow. But it may not, he may have reached his peak already. Also, people change, and the feelings you have for each other may change."

Peter shook his head but she we ignored him.

"On a more personal level he may not, for any number of reasons, be able to give you what you want, or even find it morally acceptable bearing in mind the religion he was brought up in. But whatever he decides, it is his decision and not yours. You made yours when you fell in love with him, not that you had much choice in the matter, but there was almost certainly a point at which you could have changed direction without hurting his feelings too badly and moved into a different type of relationship. One, perhaps, with an element of sexuality in it, but without love—or even a close but non sexual friendship. I happen to think that your decision was the correct one and that, on balance, more good than bad has come from it. But I also feel that you made it without really thinking about the consequences or counting the cost, which brings me back to what I was saying. Your choice has been made, his is still to come. You can't make it for him, you can't shield him from whatever consequences may follow his decision and nor should you try. Making choices is a part of growing up and although it's a pity that he might have to make so major a decision at his age, I believe that he has the strength of character to face up to and live with whatever he decides. But Peter, you will have to live with his decision as well, which will be just as hard for you as it will be for him. Will you be able to accept it if he decides against you?"

He thought for a moment. They only addressed him as Peter when they were very serious.

"I would like to think so," he said slowly, "But how can I know before it happens?"

"You can't I'm afraid. The only way is to think about it. If you are prepared beforehand it will be easier. Start thinking about it please, though not just now. What I want you to do at the moment is to check the spare room and make sure it's ready, then go and wake him. We'll worry about the other things after we've spoken to James."

"Thank you," Peter said in a rather subdued voice. "You're really good to me, both of you."

They looked at each other after he left the room.

"You were a little hard on him don't you think, Em?"

"Only because I love him and I don't want him to get hurt. I don't want either of them hurt. I've become very fond of Mark and it worries me that he has no idea, as Pete has if he will only think about it, what he is getting into."

"I know what you mean, but at the same time, Mark is right for him. I wasn't sure at first, but the more we've got to know him, the more I think it's true. He's right for Pete just as Pete is right for him. They complement each other and each supplies something the other lacks."

"What on earth does Pete lack?"

"Come on, Em, don't let your love for him blind you to his faults. You said it yourself a minute ago. He rushes into things without thinking about the consequences and Mark is the opposite. Mark will stabilise him and calm him down, and Pete will bring out the courage in Mark that the boy doesn't even know he possesses. And there is something else as well, something that I'm surprised you haven't noticed."

She looked at him enquiringly.

"Pete has always been kind, in spite of his toughness. Do you remember when we found him and he was in such a terrible state we thought he might not survive?"

"Of course I do. How could I ever forget?"

"Well think back for a minute. Even then, in spite of how young, insecure and hurt he was, he was kind and thoughtful for others. It was one of the things that influenced us when we first thought about adopting him. But since meeting Mark he has acquired something that he didn't have before. He has learnt, and it's an odd word to use about a boy but I can't think of a better one, he has learnt tenderness. Not only in his dealings with Mark, which is to be expected, but with us as well. Think about it, Em, remember how he has behaved over the last few weeks and I'm sure you'll agree with me. It's something that Mark has brought out in him, just as he has given Mark more confidence. They're still in the early stages of love but already they're influencing each other in ways that are good for them both."

"I see what you mean, now that you've pointed it out. But Vic, don't you think it could be more simple? We all want to look well in the eyes of those we love, especially at first."

Victor shook his head. "I think it goes deeper than that, in fact I'm sure it does. I agree with you that Pete wants to look well in Mark's eyes, but it seems to me that he's caring much more about what other people think than he did previously. We'll have to wait and see, but I'm convinced you'll find I'm right. I'm pleased about it, it's something he needed. That, and a new gentleness I see in him."

"You may be right. I want things to work out for them very much but I still feel that Pete, who should know better, is going into this with his eyes firmly closed. It worries me."

Victor smiled. "This from the woman who is deliberately throwing the two of them together?"

"What do you mean, throwing them…Oh good grief, I must phone Mark's father."


"For heaven's sake, when I suggested Mark stay over I was only thinking of that unpleasant incident this morning."

"Well believe me, that's not how Pete sees it and I suspect that Mark will feel exactly the same when he finds out—if he thinks about it at all. It's astonishing how that diffident boy seems to have a real talent for turning people's lives upside down. I find him very interesting you know. Will you phone his father, or shall I?"

"I'll do it better than you will. Pete boasted that he twisted the man around his little finger. Well, Pete is going to discover that I can twist just as well, if not better! And I won't end up having to read his 'bloody boring books' either!"

Victor grinned and was still smiling when she came back five minutes later with the news that Mark could stay until the following evening.

"I had to promise that we would go and have dinner with them but we'll worry about that later."

Victor chuckled. "The equivalent of having to read his 'bloody boring books', it seems to me!"

Emily smiled. "You're right of course. If you tell Pete, I'll kill you."

"I don't think I can resist it," he said, giving her a hug. "I can't wait to hear his comments."

"Honestly, Vic, you don't act any older than he does sometimes," she remarked, then added soberly. "I do hope things go well tonight."

"As far as that's concerned I don't think you have anything to worry about. Everyone will see in the boy exactly what we do. It's been a very long time since we came across so talented a youngster."

"Will they see it that way?"

"If Pete has anything to do with it, they will. Why do you think I mentioned choices?"

Walking slowly up the stairs, Peter was more down than he had been for some time. What Emily had said was true of course, he should have thought things out much earlier. But their love had been such a wild, joyous, roller coaster of a ride he had somehow expected things to work out by themselves without any help from him. He would have to give it a great deal of thought before talking to Mark, there was so much to explain and he wasn't sure how Mark would take it. But not now. Tonight was Mark's night and he must show him a cheerful face whatever the turmoil inside him.

He opened the bedroom door quietly, noted that Mark still asleep and without disturbing him, went to get the spare room ready. When he returned he sat on the edge of the bed and gazed at the sleeping boy. Mark had regained his colour and was looking distinctly rosy cheeked. His mouth was slightly open and Peter noticed, with something of a shock, how well shaped it was. Why had he only just noticed? The curves of his lips were beautiful, sharply delineated against the lighter skin as if painted by a master. He turned his attention elsewhere, admired the straight nose then the long lashes which veiled his eyes. The thin arches of his well separated eyebrows were perfect as well, with each fine hair lying straight, even, and perfectly placed. Even his exposed ear was beautiful.

He turned back to Mark's face, taking it as a whole, captivated by the clear delicate skin with its soft tones of pink. There was a tiny blemish, a small scar on his cheek, the result of chicken pox, Mark had explained. The contrast seemed to make the rest of his skin even more perfect and he hoped that it wouldn't be marred by that scourge of adolescence, acne. He'd been fortunate to escape it himself and with any luck, Mark would as well. He hoped so, not for himself, he would love his face whatever it looked like, but for Mark's sake. He had enough to put up with without having to worry about his appearance as well.

Despite the colouring and delicate features it was not a feminine or even an androgynous face. Even without seeing the rest of him you knew instantly he was a boy. It was another of the things that attracted him, the contrast between that delicacy and his masculinity, of which he had plenty, he mused approvingly.

Peter had no false modesty about his own looks and would have had his fair share, and more, of girls had his inclinations led him in that direction. But next to Mark he often felt clumsy, even coarse. What does he see in me he wondered, the attraction of opposites? It was a rather nice thought which he must discuss with Emily one day. He leant down and kissed Mark's cheek close to the tiny scar, wondering if he should have put on the music from Siegfried first. Or would he prefer Sleeping Beauty? We must take him to the opera and ballet he mused, especially if he's going to become one of us. As he moved lower and kissed the exposed throat, the feel of the steady pulse under his lips making his body react, Mark stirred and his eyes opened.

For a moment he wondered where he was and what he was doing there. Then seeing the face hovering over him, it came back to him. He was at Peter's house, and even better, he was in Peter's bed. Putting his arms over Peter's shoulders he stretched luxuriously, then pulled him closer. Taken by surprise Peter overbalanced and fell on him.

"I was only going to kiss you, there was no need to squash me flat."

"Well who's fault was that?"


"You're definitely better! Let me go, and get yourself up. It's time you had something to eat, you've had almost nothing since breakfast."

About to argue for the fun of it, Mark discovered that he was ravenous. "Okay, I'm really hungry."

"That's my little gannet, my little vulture, my piglet, my little grub…" Peter began until interrupted by a well aimed pillow. "Okay, okay. Peace, pretty boy."

Mark tried to glare but only succeed in looking so cute that Peter hauled him unceremoniously out of the bed and kissed him ferociously. Then he noticed that Mark was naked, told him that he was an abandoned lad and to get dressed at once. By acting as if he was a total half-wit Mark got Peter to dress him, a process they both enjoyed, before going downstairs arm in arm.

Although he claimed to be starving Mark was careful not to eat too much. They joked and laughed while they were eating and when the light meal was over, Victor, Peter and Mark got the sitting room ready while Emily whisked herself off to the kitchen to arrange the snacks that she had prepared the previous evening. Mark put his music on the rack of the piano after Peter had opened the gleaming lid.

They trooped into the kitchen where they made themselves useful to Emily, in between making a nuisance of themselves as she told them, and Mark, when he could get a word in edgeways, asked her if she would turn the pages for him. Peter had refused to do it on the grounds that he would be distracted by sitting so close to him and that the music was far too difficult for him to follow anyway. Reassured by Emily, and feeling as if his heart would burst from happiness, he and Peter went upstairs to change.

Peter had used an unscented massage oil that was easily absorbed by the skin so he had no need to shower. He sat on the edge of the bath and admired what he could see of Peter, wishing that he'd been permitted to squeeze in with him. He was even more admiring when Peter emerged in a somewhat enlarged state but was forbidden, once again, to do anything more than look.

After drying himself Peter wrapped a towel around his waist and took him into the bedroom where he dressed rapidly, spurning all offers of assistance. "I know what want," he told Mark darkly. "You're after my body. And my virginity."

Between giggles Mark asked why, in that case, Peter had declared his intention of dressing him?

"I've already had both your body and your virginity," Peter responded loftily, "And anyway I'm older than you and I have more self control than little boys."

A skirmish appeared imminent until Peter glanced at his alarm clock and told Mark that they didn't have time for such frivolities. After putting on his tie, he delved into a drawer and produced some underwear that appeared to have been made for a midget. Grinning at the expression on Mark's face he asked why he was so worried when no one was going to see it.

"I'll pop out of that thing," Mark told him in the voice of one expecting a violent eruption at any moment.

Peter laughed. "Stop flattering yourself, you're not that big! Anyway it's stretchy and if it stretched enough to fit me it will definitely fit a little boy like you. Now put it on!"

Muttering to himself, Mark stripped, hauled it up his legs and discovered that Peter was perfectly correct. It did stretch. Amazingly. Unable to contain his laughter, Peter pushed him in front of the mirror and watched his face turn scarlet.

"Pete," Mark said in a scandalised whisper, "I can't wear this, you can see everything!"

The material, which had looked flimsy but opaque when he first handled it, had become almost transparent as it expanded. In spite of his embarrassment he thought he looked rather sexy and his penis began to respond, which made things worse.

Falling about with laughter Peter grabbed him around the waist and danced him around the room. "You'll have to wear it, it's the only pair I've got that will fit you," he said mendaciously.

His laughter was so infectious that Mark laughed as well. "Hell, Pete, I'd be so embarrassed. I can't wear this."

"Are you planning to pull your trousers down and show everyone?" Peter asked in an interested voice before collapsing on the bed.

"If the Conservative lady is here maybe I will," he threatened, giggling at the thought

Peter gave a shout of laughter. "I can just see her face. 'Disgusting' she'd say, then at the first opportunity she'd grab you and take you somewhere to check that everything in there was you!"

"It wouldn't get her very far if she did."

"You wouldn't stand a chance, she'd rape you," Peter told him confidently. "Anyone would."

"I don't want anyone to rape me except you. You can rape me any time you like and twice on Thursdays."

"Why only Thursdays? Why not Friday to Wednesday as well? You're mean."

"Oh no," Mark told him with an absolutely straight face, shaking his head then breaking into his blinding smile. "On those days you have to rape me three times."

Grinning in reply, Peter shook his head. "You're too much, you know that? Come on, look at the time. I have got other underpants if you really don't want to wear those, but they'll be big on you."

"I love these, and I'll wear them for you."

By the time he was dressed, his hair brushed until it shone and one of Peter's best ties around his neck, Emily and Victor were downstairs. Peter had seemed to have trouble with the cuffs of the new shirt, but told him not to worry. "Em will sort it out," he said, picking up Mark's blazer and walking him down the stairs.

"You look very nice Mark." Victor came up and took his hand. "Congratulations Pete, it's a beautiful shirt and I like the tie."

"There seems to be a problem with the cuffs, but I think we can fix it with these," Emily said, handing him a small plush box. "Go on, open it."

Mark, almost in tears, looked at the three smiling faces. "Thank you very much," he said simply.

"You don't know what's inside yet." Peter put an arm around his waist. "Come on, don't keep us all in suspense."

Mark pressed the tiny stud on the front of the box, opened the lid and drew in his breath. Lying on a white velvet base was a pair of small cufflinks. They were made of a dark blue polished stone inset with tiny flecks of silver that caught the light as he moved.

"Oh! They're beautiful. Thank you so much." He gazed at them for a minute, then looked up and said in a choked voice, "I don't know what else to say."

"You've said more than enough, my dear. We're glad you like them." Emily took first the one then the other and slipped them through the buttonholes of his shirt.

Finally he understood the reason for the puzzling cuffs.

Peter held out his blazer and helped him into it. "Pull the sleeves of the shirt down so that they show."

He did so and they admired the effect, then he gave each of them a hug and another thank you.

"It's only a little thing," Victor said, hugging him in return, "But we wanted to give you something to mark the occasion."

"It may be little to you," replied Mark softly, "But it's very, very big to me. I'll remember today every time I look at them."

And from that moment, he knew that everything was going to be alright.

As the guests began to arrive, one or other of the Dorans was at his side whenever he needed support. It was unobtrusive but each time he got into conversational difficulties, someone would appear and rescue him by talking easily to his companion until he was able to join in again. Because of this he didn't find meeting so many people as difficult as he'd anticipated and after twenty minutes or so, began to enjoy himself. Everyone was interested in him and listened to what he had to say, sometimes seriously, often with a twinkle in the eye, according to the subject on hand.

Although unaware of it he was studied closely as he was moved from group to group. He spent several minutes with a silver haired gentleman, introduced to him as Sir James, who had an indefinable air of authority about him. Although giving the impression of considerable age his face was curiously unlined. Normally Mark would have been overawed but his questions, though searching, were put in such an easy manner he soon relaxed and revealed more about himself than he realised. While they were speaking he noticed Peter approaching and, his heart leaping, he smiled fully. Even Sir James, who during a very long life felt he had seen just about everything, was taken aback by its brilliance.

"How are you, Peter?" he asked, turning to shake hands. "It has been some time since I saw you last. We must get together and have a talk soon."

"I would enjoy that, sir," Peter replied respectfully.

It was obvious to Mark that of all the people present, Sir James was the most important and he listened to their conversation with interest. Peter appeared to have a great deal of liking and respect for the man but at the same time, there was an undercurrent that Mark couldn't put his finger on, as if their perfectly ordinary conversation had subtle overtones that he could detect but not interpret. It was while puzzling over this that Mark noticed that he and Peter were the youngest people present. Everyone else belonged to Emily and Victor's generation, or were older. He found it remarkable because everyone to whom he had spoken was both enthusiastic and knowledgeable about classical music. Surely, in that case, their children would be the same? And if so, why weren't they here as well? Then something else struck him.

Peter was obviously a great favourite. No-one had simply greeted him then moved on, or even ignored him altogether. Everybody made a point of singling him out, frequently teasing him about exploits of which he, of course, knew nothing. Not only did they make a fuss of him but Peter appeared to be on the best of terms with everyone even, with the exception of Sir James, using their first names while giving back as good as he got. He was never disrespectful but this familiarity with people so much older than himself was curious although everyone seemed to accept it as perfectly natural. He had reached this point in his thoughts when Emily asked him and Peter to make sure that everyone had something to drink.

"Of course, Em," Peter said at once. "Will you excuse us please. Come on, Mark."

In his shy fashion Mark excused himself and followed him.

"A charming boy, Emily, and that shyness, though it will wear off in time, is very beguiling," Sir James remarked, watching as the boys moved around the room. "Peter is obviously very taken with him, and he with Peter."

"Is it so obvious, James?" she asked, tucking an arm into his and beginning to stroll around the room. "It is to Vic and me of course."

"If you suspect it you have only to look at them to be sure. Especially Mark. He is far less adept at hiding his feelings. Are they genuinely in love?"

Emily stood still. "I believe so, as much as one can be at that age. Mark is not the type of person to whom Pete was attracted previously which is a strong indication of his state of mind, I think."

"And Mark? He is very young."

"I agree, and I admit that it concerned me at first and still does to some extent. When Pete told us what he had learnt of his background, I concluded that Mark was desperate for affection—affection that he didn't get at home—which was why he was attracted to Pete who has a lot of kindness as you know. But as we have got to know him, both Vic and I believe that it is something very much deeper than a simple craving for affection."

They resumed walking as she considered Mark. Sir James didn't hurry her. He never hurried anyone. There was all the time in the world in his experience and it was far more important to get things right.

"I think that Mark, to use a rather old fashioned word, is a very steadfast boy. I don't know whether Peter will be the first and only love of his life but it wouldn't surprise me if that turned out to be the case. There are depths to him that none of us, including Pete I suspect, have yet to plumb."

"That is a very strong recommendation, Emily, and one I would be less inclined to accept from anyone else, but I have always trusted your judgement. I will need to talk to Peter but not, I think, just yet."

"Thank you, James, you are very kind. Pete's happiness is important to us."

"I know that of course, and as for being kind, we still owe him something, all of us. I would like to say, while we're on the subject, that you and Victor have done a very fine job with him. He has turned out far better than we had a right to expect when one considers his background and what was done to him."

"Well, we had your help and support, James, we couldn't have done it without that, and of course Vic and I have gained immensely too." She thought for a minute. "He has a long life ahead of him. We would like it to be as happy as we can possibly make it."

"Of course. We all want that for him. But the other boy's happiness and best interests are equally important. As yet, I don't think we owe him anything? Just so," he went on as she shook her head. "I think we should keep it that way for the time being. Now, I gather that you feel he has a talent that would repay nurturing."

"I felt it the first time I heard him play. But you will be able to judge for yourself."

He shook his head at her. "My dear, why don't you work on your own talent? It is an appalling waste, you know."

"I knew when I had reached the limit of my ability, James, and I don't find it easy settle for second best."

"It is still a waste—so few have any talent at all. Tell me about Mark's parents. I get the impression, as they are not present, that there is a problem there?"

Emily described what she knew of Mark's background, stressing the boy's request for them not to tell his father that he had played for them.

"We have been invited to dinner and will know more after that. I've only spoken to the father briefly on three occasions but most of what we know has come from Pete who inevitably is rather prejudiced. However, I didn't get a good impression of the man, though I'm bound to admit I could be entirely mistaken."

"I would be very surprised if you were. Your impressions are usually extremely accurate. I have also found Peter to be reasonably level headed for his age. I will have some discreet enquiries made then we will know better where we stand. Now, my dear," he said, cutting short her thanks, "Go and talk to your guests."

"Thank you. I will leave you if you don't mind, I think Miss Herold has arrived. Mark's piano teacher," she explained. "I must go and welcome her."

The boys had been keeping a watchful eye on the door and it was indeed Mavis Herold who had rung the bell. She was looking very elegant, Mark thought, and was glad that Emily had invited her.

"Good evening, Peter," she said, then turned. "Mark my dear, you're looking very handsome tonight."

Mark went quite pink with pleasure and was excitedly showing her his new cufflinks when Emily came into the hall. After the introductions had been performed, very creditably Emily judged, even if Mark did stumble slightly over her own first name, Miss Herold turned to him.

"I also have a little present for you," she said with a smile, handing him a tiny box beautifully wrapped in gold paper.

"That's really kind of you. Thank you."

He opened it to reveal a small gold pin in the shape of a treble clef which she attached to the lapel of his blazer.

"It's beautiful," Mark told her, squinting down in an effort to look at it. "You've all been so generous. Thank you very much."

Then he surprised both Miss Herold and himself by impulsively giving her a hug before turning even more red than before.

"Markie," said Peter, forgetting himself for a minute. "You're going cross-eyed. Look in the mirror." And delighted to have an excuse to put his hands on him, turned Mark to face the mirror that hung over a very pretty semi circular table.

The two women smiled at each other and Emily said, "Do come and meet my husband and our other guests."

Mark turned away from the mirror and would have followed but Peter caught his hand and held him back, pulled him out of view of the door and gave him a quick kiss. "She was right you know, except I'd rather call you pretty," he stated before propelling the blushing boy back into the sitting room.

Sir James, settled in a comfortable chair and unobtrusively studying Peter and Mark, noted the heightened colour in Mark's cheeks and was gently amused. His sharp eyes missed very little and they were backed by an extremely acute and agile brain. He noticed the tiny gestures that would have escaped most people, how the boys touched when they thought no one was watching them, their smiles, and the way their eyes followed each other when they were separated. He was pleased to note, however, that when talking to other people Mark kept his attention fixed firmly on his companion of the moment. The boy had very good manners, he concluded approvingly. In point of fact he was developing quite an interest in him, and when Mark brought Mavis Herold over to introduce her, he appreciated the effort the boy was making to help her feel at ease.

He was pleased too with what he saw in Peter who had always been a touch too happy go lucky in his opinion. The responsibility he had assumed for Mark seemed to have steadied him. Whether Mark would continue to hold his interest was a different matter. It was clear he worshipped the ground that Peter walked on but that in itself could become wearisome. However he was inclined him to agree with Emily. There was a quality to the boy, hard to detect and impossible to define, but present all the same. Whether it would be sufficient to maintain Peter's interest indefinitely he couldn't tell, but it would be interesting to see if it did. He was intrigued to see Mavis Herold studying the two boys with as much attention as himself.

"An attractive pair," he remarked during a break in their conversation, indicating Mark and Peter who, their duty done for the moment, were talking quietly.

"Extremely so. I have only met Peter recently but he seems as charming as his parents. Was he adopted? I'm aware that it's none of my business and I won't mind if you tell me so, but I am very fond of Mark and until recently felt that I was the only person who took any interest in him. It's natural I think, for me to want to know something about Peter and his family."

"You are very acute," replied Sir James, regarding her with fresh interest. He approved of Mavis Herold. She was a lady, in the true sense of the word. "If I answer you, would you permit me to ask you an impertinent question in return?"

She smiled. "I don't think you would ever be impertinent, Sir James. Ruthless perhaps, but never impertinent."

He smiled in turn but made no attempt to refute the allegation and taking her assent for granted said, "He was adopted some years ago. He had been very badly treated, first by his father then, after he ran away from home, by some extremely unpleasant and vicious people. Emily and Victor have looked after him and indeed, virtually brought him up though we have all helped when help was needed." He indicated the people in the room. "I would be interested to know what made you think he was not a blood relation."

"I suppose it is his attitude towards them," she replied thoughtfully. "I never married so you may feel that I'm not qualified to judge, but people have always interested me and as a teacher I have dealt with many children and their parents. Peter's relationship with his parents is unusual. I would go even further and say that it is unique in my experience, especially as he is at the age when most adolescents are rebelling against parental authority."

"Peter is a very unusual boy, Miss Herold. Partly this is due to his early experiences but he also has some singular qualities of his own."

"I think one would have to know him well to see that. On the surface he seems to be a bright, ordinary boy with boundless energy, though he sometimes gives the impression of being older than he looks."

She paused for a moment, then made up her mind. Sir James had a way of inspiring trust. "Sir James, I'm worried about this friendship. As I mentioned, I am very fond of Mark and I don't want him to get hurt. Apart from the effect it might have on his talent, he has enough problems in his life as it is. I would like to believe he is suffering from nothing more than hero worship, which he will grow out of with no harm done, but I am very much afraid that it is more than that."

He looked at her measuringly for a minute before he spoke. "You are perfectly correct. It is rather more than that. The two boys love each other."

"Do you mean that they love, or that they are in love?"

"Both, I would say. Yes, definitely both."

She sighed. "I was afraid you would say that. What you mean is that they are in a homosexual relationship."

"Yes, I mean precisely that. Are you shocked?" he asked gently.

"Not exactly shocked, but it's not the sort of association I would want for Mark. I hope I'm reasonably tolerant, but to me it has unsavoury undertones."

"Perhaps it has to you and to me, but clearly it doesn't to them, and surely it is their feelings that should count rather than ours."

"Do you know, I hadn't considered it from their point of view, only from my own, and feel rather ashamed. Thank you, you have given me food for thought. But even if you and I," she smiled apologetically at the coupling of their names, "Are tolerant, other people will not be should it ever come to light."

"No. We live in an exceptionally illiberal society in spite of our much vaunted tolerance and our equally arrogant, self styled, and I fear, non existent sense of fair play. But, if it will ease your mind, I give you my word that whatever happens between them, we will do our very best to ensure that no harm comes to Mark."

"I get the distinct impression that all the people here know each other extremely well," she said thoughtfully. "When you say we, do you mean those present, or just you and Peter's foster parents?"

"You can think of Emily and Victor as his parents, Miss Herold. They think of Peter as their son and he certainly feels that they are truly his parents. But for the rest, you are correct. When I say we, I mean everyone in this room, and a great many more people besides. We are all very old friends and have more than a passionate, if amateur, interest in the arts that draw us together."

"And will Mark be admitted into what I suspect is a closed circle?" she asked shrewdly.

"That remains to be seen. But, I repeat, we will do our utmost to ensure that he comes to no harm. Does that content you?"

She looked at him. "Very well, I accept your assurance. Now," she smiled, "Would you like to ask your impertinent question?"

"I'm afraid I have left it a little late," he replied, indicating the space near the piano where four musicians were taking their places and beginning to tune their instruments. "Later I may not even wish to put it to you. May I get a chair for you?"

There was no need. Mark and Peter were already bringing a comfortable chair which they placed next to his.

"I'm really looking forward to this," Mark whispered to her. "They're going to play a string quartet by Dvorak."

Although it was a large room it was fairly crowded and rather than squeeze onto the sofa next to Emily, Mark insisted that Peter take the only unoccupied chair and sat on the carpet at his feet. Peter felt that as one of the performers it was beneath his dignity to sit on the floor but was forced to give way when Victor dimmed the lights leaving the performers in a soft glow from their music stands. When everyone's attention was focussed on the musicians, Peter discreetly drew Mark back until he was sitting between his legs, leaning comfortably against the chair with Peter's hands on his shoulders.

To Mark, who had never been to a live concert and seldom had the opportunity to watch performances on television (the Captain's views on classical music being what they were) the first two movements were sheer delight. He didn't know the piece but it was so attractive he sat there enthralled.

It was during the third and final movement that his nerves began to get the better of him. Sir James who had eyes like a hawk noticed his discomfort, leant over to Peter and in a soft whisper suggested he take Mark to the bathroom and splash cold water on his face.

Peter did as he was told and the two of them slipped quietly from the room. Fortunately they had been sitting near the door. Mavis Herold made a move as if to follow but Sir James shook his head and she sat back, pleased to leave Mark to Peter's ministrations. The members of the string quartet might be classed as amateurs, but their playing was of a very high professional standard indeed, and she was thoroughly enjoying their performance.

Meanwhile Peter had hurried Mark up to the bathroom when he said he felt a bit sick. Recalling the violence of the earlier episode he was worried but nothing came of it, and more convinced than ever that it was simply nerves, he took Sir James' advice and made Mark wash his face. "You're alright, Markie," he said comfortingly. "Em told me that nerves attack the best musicians before they perform so now you know that you're the best. Use the loo, just in case. Shall I wait for you outside?"

"Don't be an ape," Mark told him as he unzipped.

"Well considering the effect I usually have on you. I seem to have lost my touch," he remarked sadly as Mark finished. "I'll have to see what I can do tonight. Did I tell you that you're spending the night? Em phoned your father and arranged it."

Mark looked at him in delight, his nerves completely forgotten, just as Peter intended. "Do you mean It? You're not teasing me?"

"As if I would about something so important. It's true. I've got you for the whole night."

"I haven't got any pyjamas."

"I'd only rip them off you."

"That would be nice," Mark said in a wistful voice.

"In that case you can wear some of mine. An old pair," he added hastily, "I don't want any of my good ones ruined," then defended himself against a friendly punch by the simple expedient of trapping the offending fist, uncurling the fingers and kissing the palm. "We'd better go down, they're nearly finished. Markie, you're really going to be fine. We're all cheering for you."

"I know. I'm just nervous about getting started. The first few notes."

"You've practised them so much you couldn't possibly go wrong," Peter told him sensibly. "This is for luck, not that you need it." He hugged Mark, kissed him, then asked if he was really planning to go downstairs looking like that.

Mark had been so excited by the news that he had forgotten to put himself away, let alone zip up. He looked down, blushed adorably, adjusted his clothes and was led downstairs with a tendency to giggle, which did him a great deal of good. They slipped into the room just as the quartet finished and joined enthusiastically in the applause.

Emily stood up and taking Mark by the hand said, "As you know, Mark has very kindly agreed to play for us and I know you have been looking forward to it as much as I have, so I will just tell you that he is going to play the Scherzo in B flat minor by Chopin."

There was a stir of interest and a ripple of applause as Mark sat down at the piano. He felt fine until he placed his hands on the keys, then was suddenly overcome by stage fright so acute it his mind went blank. He had no idea how long he sat there, although it wasn't more than a few seconds, but short though it was, it was one of the worst moments of his life and no one, including Peter, knew how to help him except Mavis Herold. She made a slight movement and his eyes focussed on her. As soon as she had his attention, she took a deep breath, nodded slightly and smiled. At once his training came back. He looked at Peter's anxious face and knew that he couldn't let him down. Taking the deep breath that Miss Herold had indicated steadied him and he looked down at his hands. They were still shaking a little but he knew that he was in control now. He closed his eyes, took another deep breath and played the quiet, repeated, opening phrase.

The newly tuned piano sounded exquisite. Each note was crystal clear, the tuning so scientifically and musically exact it sounded like a bell. To someone who had done the majority of his practise on a jangly, out of tune and poorly regulated school piano, the sound coming from the Ibach, and the feel of the perfectly adjusted action, threw him into ecstasy.

He opened his eyes and as his hands dropped onto the fortissimo octaves, his spirit soared and when he reached the rapid runs of the principal theme, his fingers flew accurately over the keys, filling the room with a cascade of silvery notes as he played for the boy watching him with loving eyes, the boy whom he loved more than anyone else.

He had played for Peter before but never like this as he poured his heart into it, his hours of slow technical practise leaving him free to concentrate on the music. He had no need of the printed notes, though Miss Herold had insisted he have the music in front of him to give him confidence, and barely noticed when, discreetly, so as not to disturb his concentration, Emily leant forward to turn the pages. His whole concentration, body and soul, was in the sounds he was producing, trying to submerge himself in what the composer had meant underneath the bare notes, and throwing in everything he was capable of, his romantic feelings, his love, and even the power of his sexual passion for Peter, and all aimed at a single result, to reproduce what the composer had tried to say.

It was an astonishing performance from a fifteen year old and intensely moving. Though not quite note perfect and suffering a little from his lack of maturity, it was still a performance powerful enough to impress everyone present, some of whom were extremely good musicians themselves. He even managed the formidable stretches of the left hand accompaniment in the coda creditably, the one point where he felt his technique was shaky because of his small hands.

After he played the final notes and relaxed, covered in a thin film of perspiration and breathing heavily from the physical effort, there was absolute silence for a second, then a burst of applause. Urged by Emily he got shakily to his feet and stood with his head slightly bent looking at Peter. Slowly, as he realised that the people applauding really meant it, his head lifted and his smile appeared. It was a moment that those present would remember.

Not quite sure what to do next he looked helplessly at Emily, who gave him a little push in the direction of Peter who was coming towards him with a look of such pride on his face that his heart turned over. He didn't even mind when Peter hugged him in front of everybody.

"Was it alright?" he whispered.

About to say, of course it was, can't you hear them, Peter realised that Mark needed to hear it from him. Not that the others didn't count but it was his approval that was the most important. Humbly, he said equally quietly for Mark's ears alone, "It was more than alright, my love, it was absolutely incredible. The best you've ever played and I'm so proud of you I could die."

Then they were surrounded by smiling, appreciative people. He was hugged by both Emily and Victor and his hand was shaken by everyone else, all of whom had something nice to say. He was most pleased by the compliments of the members of the string quartet. However knowledgeable the others were, they, excellent musicians themselves, really knew what they were talking about.

When the fuss had died down a little Sir James escorted Mavis Herold to where he was standing with Peter, Emily and Victor.

"Mark, that was extraordinary," she told him. "I always knew he had talent," she went on to Emily, who was standing arm in arm with her husband, "But this…" she shook her head. "You have never played like that for me and I'm overwhelmed. Congratulations. I am so proud of you, though I'm afraid I can't take very much credit for your performance."

Mark shook his head modestly. "You know that's not true, Miss Herold."

"Well, if I have taught you a little, you have done more with it than I ever thought possible," she said generously. "You played beautifully, Mark. Beautifully."

"Thank you. I'm glad I didn't let you down."

"You would never do that, my dear," she replied, giving his hand a gentle squeeze.

"Congratulations, Mark. That was a very fine performance indeed and I feel privileged to have heard it," said Sir James, shaking his hand. "I do hope Emily, that you might persuade Mark to play something else for us?"

"I certainly hope to. Meanwhile you two, help yourselves to something to eat, I'm sure you need it."

"I'm starving," exclaimed Mark in such an astonished voice that everyone laughed. He turned to Emily and Victor. "Thank you for asking me to play, and for arranging this."

"It was our very great pleasure, Mark," Victor told him gripping his shoulder briefly then pushing he and Peter in the direction of the dining room.

"Well, James?" asked Emily, including Mavis Herold in her smile.

"The boy is very, very good indeed," he replied, looking at Mavis who nodded her agreement. "Whether he has enough talent to make a professional career, I don't know. It is a very overcrowded profession. What is your opinion, Miss Herold? You know his abilities far better than we do."

"I don't feel I have the qualifications to judge. I'm too close to him for one thing and because he's the best pupil I have ever taught I could easily have an inflated opinion of his ability. I know that he has the capacity for hard work, but I'm not sure if he has the determination to succeed at all costs which is equally important. He lacks self confidence, as I'm sure you're aware, and I admit I have occasionally wondered if he lacks a certain strength of character. I don't think one would know whether this is the case until he is rather older and his character has formed more. Apart from that, I'm not sure that anyone could tell at this stage whether he has the capacity to make a career in music. It takes a lot more than talent, as I am only too well aware."

Sir James regarded her thoughtfully. "What would you do with him for the next few years?"

"I would let him carry on as he is at the moment but stretch him when I felt he needed it. He needs to enlarge his repertoire and explore other types of music and composers, and I would like to see him taking up another instrument as well. But it's hopeless I'm afraid. His father would never agree and I am very much afraid that if I suggested it he might stop Mark's lessons altogether. That would be a real tragedy. And not just for Mark."

Sir James nodded. "I'm sure you're right. I know very little about his father but I think that something could be done despite his attitude. Have you met Steven yet?" he asked, indicating the viola player of the quartet. "Will you excuse us please, Emily."

"Well your faith in him was more than justified," Victor remarked, watching their retreating backs. "He was very, very, good wasn't he. Far better than I'd hoped."

"Frankly I can't get over it, Vic. He was inspired. I'm so glad for him, he needed something like this very badly. You have only to look at him."

"You can see him glowing from here," Victor agreed. "James was very impressed."

"He seldom shows it, but yes, he was. He said he wanted to talk to Pete," she added.

They looked at each other. "It was inevitable, Em. It will be alright, he's as fond of Pete as the rest of us are."

"I can't help being worried," Emily replied, before turning to speak to one of the violinists who was full of compliments about Mark.

Meanwhile, Mark, his eyes shining, was talking with surprising animation to the cellist about her instrument. The confidence engendered by having acquitted himself so well had lifted him out of himself and he was on top of the world. He had a plate of food on his lap which he was sharing with Peter who was perched on the arm of his chair, but once his immediate hunger had been satisfied, he found he was too excited to eat and Peter frowned periodically to remind him.

"Yes, I do play the piano a little," she was saying, "Not nearly as well as you do of course. I can just about accompany the less advanced of my pupils. Have you ever done any accompanying?"

Mark confessed that he hadn't.

"That's a pity. Playing with other people is one of the greatest joys of making music. If you did some practise, Peter, you could play duets together."

Peter looked horrified. "Play with him, Jane? You must be joking! I wouldn't dare. He's way out of my class and I'd be too embarrassed. All I can manage these days is chopsticks."

"Well whose fault is that? Your teachers worked on you hard enough."

"Wasted their time on me is what you really mean."

"Well I do seem remember that you always found football training more important than cello practise. He was the worst pupil it has ever been my misfortune to try to teach," she confided to Mark. "You'd think that someone as muscular as he is would be able to hold a bow that weighs almost nothing. But no, not our Pete. It would slide lower and lower on the strings until it slithered over the bridge."

"I was thinking of something else," Peter said defensively.

"And the worst thing was that he didn't even hear the appalling noise he made when it happened."

"Was that when you told Em and Vic that all I was fit for was a pick and shovel?" demanded Peter with a grin.

"I never said anything of the sort," she responded. "I merely mentioned that your lessons were a total waste of time but if they wanted some peace and quiet you could help me in the garden. He tells such lies," she confided to the giggling Mark, "As I'm sure you've discovered."

"You also said that perhaps the bagpipes would suit me," continued Peter in a hurt voice.

"You see? There he goes, telling lies again! After the awful sounds you made on the cello, my lad, nobody in their right mind would dream of letting you loose on an instrument that makes so much noise."

"You're not talking about Peter's so called music lessons, are you?" asked the viola player, as he strolled into hearing. "Thank goodness I escaped that horror, it was bad enough hearing you describe them, Jane."

"Actually," Peter remarked in his sweetest voice, "I'm about to take up the viola. It's such a miserable, feeble, inoffensive, bland little instrument," he told Mark. "No get up and go, no razzmatazz, no pizzazz! I'm going to give it a whole new image. What it needs is brassiness, attack, brashness, and a whole lot of rhythm and oomph! It needs to assert itself, make a lot more noise and really get with it! I'm starting lessons next week. Em said you've got to teach me, Steven!"

To the giggling Mark he looked as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.

"Oh my God," exclaimed Steven, shuddering. "I'm going to take to strong drink. That way I'll be in a drunken stupor and unconscious during your lessons and might just survive. Come on, Jane, we're wanted."

Peter and Mark squeezed into one of the larger arm chairs while the quartet played a suite by a French composer that Mark had never heard of. He liked it. It had catchy, attractive themes, but he was too distracted by his proximity to Peter to really concentrate and simply allowed it to flow over him.

When they finished and he was persuaded to play again he was glad that he'd decided against Rustle of Spring. It would have been far too showy and insubstantial a work to perform for this particular group of people and he was glad that he'd settled on the nocturne. He was less nervous when he started, his hands shook slightly but, as before, as soon as he started to play his nerves disappeared. The knowledge that his audience was both appreciative and supportive once again inspired him to play it better than he had ever played it before.

As the evening was coming to an end and people chatted in groups that expanded and contracted as they moved about the room, Mavis Herold was singled out once more by Sir James. After complimenting her again, a compliment which, as she pointed out, didn't really belong to her as the Nocturne had been Mark's choice and this had been the first time she'd heard him perform it, he reminded her that he wanted to ask her a question.

"The impertinent one," she replied with a smile. "I do remember. Please go ahead."

He smiled in return but said seriously, "I'm afraid that it is impertinent and I only ask because it seems important to me. Do you feel that you have, please forgive me, the ability to continue as Mark's teacher?"

She stared at him for a moment. Whatever she had expected it hadn't been this.

"Personally, I don't feel that it's impertinent at all, though I'm aware that some teachers would take it that way," she replied quietly.

"But you don't feel, perhaps, that I have the right to ask?"

"No, I don't. But I will tell you if you assure me that it really is important and not merely idle curiosity on your part. I suspect that you don't suffer from idle curiosity," she added, "But I think that you do like to know."

He acknowledged this with a graceful wave of his hand. "I have to make a decision which is going to affect a great many people, and I give you my word that your answer is important."

She studied him thoughtfully. He really was a handsome man despite his age. But there was something about him, and the other guests, that she couldn't fathom. They seemed ordinary enough, pleasant, cultured, knowledgeable, exactly the sort of people she would expect to meet on an occasion like this. Why then did she feel that there was something here that she didn't understand? Something underlying the cheerful talk, something hidden from her and hidden from Mark as well, she concluded. All these people, including Peter and his foster parents, seemed to have a stronger bond than the obvious affection and friendship they showed for each other. She knew that Mark, in spite of his closeness to Peter, was excluded from it just as she was. She became aware that Sir James was waiting for her answer.

"Is it to do with Mark?"

Sir James nodded.

"There is something here that I don't understand," she said honestly, "But I can see no harm in answering you. I am a good teacher. Without false modesty I can say that I am a very good teacher, but only within my limits. There is a level beyond which I cannot teach and I have known for some time that I can't take Mark much further. It is not yet a case of the pupil outstripping the master but that will happen soon, and the only reason I have continued to keep him as a pupil is because I know that his father would never agree to him going to anyone else. Mr Gordon has no wish for him to succeed in what he considers an effeminate activity and despises him for what he has already achieved. You may think I'm exaggerating but I assure you that I am not. I tried once to persuade the man that Mark needed a better teacher. It resulted in such a storm of abuse aimed at the boy that I felt it was the lesser of two evils to carry on teaching him to the best of my ability. It wasn't easy for a person of Mark's reserved temperament to tell me about it, but he did, and I have been careful ever since to keep a very low profile as far his father is concerned."

"Thank you for being so honest. You have confirmed something about the man of which I was uncertain. But please, don't sell yourself and your abilities so short Miss Herold. You have done a very fine job of teaching Mark indeed, and one of which you can be justifiably proud. If he has now reached the stage at which he needs to move on, you can rest assured that whatever he achieves in the future, it was you who gave him the solid foundation on which to build. He has been extremely fortunate to have you as his teacher. Now, I must say goodnight. It has been a great pleasure talking you and I look forward to meeting you again."

After shaking hands with him she sought out Emily and Victor to make her own farewells. "It really has been a lovely evening and I have thoroughly enjoyed myself. Thank you so much for inviting me."

"It was our pleasure, Miss Herold, and it is we who should thank you for coming. We could see how much your presence meant to Mark. You must be very proud of him."

"More than I can say," she confessed, shaking hands. "I will just say goodnight to him and Peter before I leave. I am so glad that Mark has found such good friends, it is what he needed. Thank you again."

She went to the front door where the boys were saying goodnight to Jane, Steven and one of the violinists, Sergei, who had apparently come together (in a removal van, Peter informed her in a penetrating whisper).

"Don't believe a word he says, Miss Herold," objected Steven. "It's simply a feeble attempt at juvenile revenge because the three of us have flatly refused to give him lessons."

"I wouldn't have thought that a stringed instrument was your forte," she said to the grinning Peter. "Oh dear," she went on, "That was a terrible and completely unintentional pun. No Peter, I see you perhaps with a trumpet, or even in the percussion department."

"Exactly what I've been saying," declared Jane triumphantly.

"Hopeless!" Sergei shook his head dolefully. "He is too tone deaf for the first, and can't count for the second."

Peter attempted to look injured but failed dismally.

"They're jealous because they know that I would be far better than they are and show them up if I did a bit of practise. That's the real reason they won't teach me."

"Incorrigible!" Steven grinned at him. "And in case you don't know what that means, Pete…"

"I know exactly what it means," Peter interrupted indignantly, "It means…" and was interrupted in turn.

"Incurable?" offered Mark.

"Irrepressible is more like it," Jane asserted. "Can we offer you a lift, Miss Herold?"

Overcoming her objections they walked to the gate where final goodbyes were said amidst much laughter and joking between the three musicians and Peter.

"You really did play beautifully tonight, Mark," Mavis said quietly, taking his hands in hers. "Thank you."

"I should thank you. You're the one who taught me."

"I helped, that's all. Most of it came from you. Goodnight, my dear, I'll see you next week."

Turning to Peter she shook his hand and taking advantage of a moment when the others were saying goodnight to Mark said quietly, "Look after him, please. He needs a friend very badly."

Instantly serious, Peter returned her gaze and nodded. "I intend to, Miss Herold."

She looked at him for a moment before saying goodnight and getting into the van. Perhaps it will work out she thought, at least Mark seems to have fallen in with a group of people who are prepared to take an interest in him.

Watching as they drove away, Peter put an arm around Mark's waist. "The rest of them are leaving and then I'll have you all to myself."

"It has been the best night of my life," Mark whispered, reluctantly removing the arm as the last guests approached.

"It isn't over yet," Peter said quietly, "And that's going to be the best night of your life too."

They helped to tidy up, not that there was a great deal to do, then Victor and Mark dried for Emily while Peter ran the vacuum cleaner over the carpets. By the time it was done both boys were hungry again so they sat round the kitchen table, finished the leftovers and talked about the evening.

Peter had a glass of wine and Mark drank a tiny amount, not that he needed it, he was still on a high. At first he wasn't sure whether he really liked the taste, or the bubbles that tried to go up his nose, but discovered by the time his glass was empty he had enjoyed it. Peter refused to let him have any more on the specious grounds, in Mark's opinion, that they didn't need an alcoholic in the house. Then he produced an enormous fake hiccup with a look of such astonishment on his face that Mark giggled, Peter's injured look simply increasing his hilarity. The sound was so infectious that Emily and Victor began to laugh as well. Peter attempted to look martyred but couldn't keep his face straight.

"Well, bed I think," Victor said eventually. "It's been a long, but very good day."

Peter nodded and kissed him saying, "Goodnight, Vic."

Although Mark had witnessed it frequently by then, it still made him feel a little uncomfortable. Would Vic kiss him too as he was staying the night? But Victor simply took his hand and told him to sleep well.

Peter who had been receiving his normal kiss and hug from Emily, sensed Mark's slight awkwardness and reached out to draw him close to her. Hugged then kissed on the forehead in his turn, he diffidently put his arms around her. "Thank you for letting me stay, and for, for everything Mrs, I mean, Emily."

"We're very happy to have you Mark, and thank you again for playing so beautifully. Everybody enjoyed it. Sleep well, my dear. Pete, you'll make sure Mark has everything he needs?"

Peter nodded. "Leave it to me. Thank you both. Come on, Markie."

Emily looked at her husband after they had left the room. "Well, we're committed now. I hope we're doing the right thing in letting him stay."

Victor took her in his arms. "Em, the pressures on them today have been such that they would have had sex tonight whatever happened. Believe me, I was a boy once and I know the signs. And frankly my darling, I would rather they slept together here where they're safe than have a policeman knocking us up at two in the morning because they were caught in an alley, or a park, or somewhere. Apart from the psychological damage I wouldn't want Mark's evening ruined. Tonight, thanks to you my love, has been a major triumph for him and I would be devastated if it ended badly."

"You're right of course. But I shudder to think what his father would say if he ever found out. He would claim we encouraged it."

"In that case you could argue that every parent who allows a son's friend to sleep over is encouraging it. No Em, this way is best. I have no idea how far their affair has progressed physically, and it's none of our business anyway, but I do know that they need to be together tonight. So what you and I are going to do, my darling, is have another glass of wine while they get settled, then go upstairs ourselves talking about nothing in particular. After which we are going to go to bed, and what we do there is none of their business either." He finished with a smile that made her heart beat faster.

Half an hour later they smiled at each other when they saw that the doors to both Peter's bedroom and the spare room were firmly closed. Peter never slept with either the window or the door shut, except in the depths of winter.

As they left the kitchen after saying their goodnights, Peter asked Mark if he wanted to shower.

"I don't think so."

"Good. Because I can't wait to get you into bed."

Mark swallowed. He couldn't wait to be got. "Are we sleeping in your bedroom? Your bed's a bit small," he commented, looking forward to it.

"In the spare room. There's a double bed."

"Pete, won't they mind, I mean if they find out we're in the same bed together?"

"They know," remarked Peter casually.

"Did you tell them?" Mark asked, rather shocked.

"I didn't have to, they knew anyway."

Mark wasn't sure he liked the idea. It was one thing to have sex with Peter, it was another thing entirely for people to know he was having it.

"Markie, you mustn't worry about things like that," said Peter, trying to think of a way to ease his mind as he led the way to the spare room. "Would you like people to know when you go the loo? Not just for a pee I mean."

Mark shook his head decidedly.

"Well often they do know, and nobody even thinks about it and nor do you. This is exactly the same. When you go to bed at night everyone knows that you're going to have a wank before you go to sleep, but it doesn't worry you, or them."

"But they're your parents."

"They won't even think about it, and even if they did, they would just be pleased that you're with me. They've always known about me, right from the beginning, and more important, they like you. They wouldn't have arranged for you to stay if they didn't. Now we'll go the loo before we get too hard, and you're not to worry about anything except enjoying yourself."

He presented Mark with a new toothbrush (for your very own!) although he would have been happy to share his own brush with him, and they did what they needed to do.

Back in the bedroom he sat Mark down in front of the dressing table and brushed his hair. Not that it needed it, simply for the pleasure, then helped him take off his blazer, removed his tie and began to unbutton his shirt. Mark wanted to do the same for him but Peter wouldn't have it.

"You can do me later. I want you completely naked first so I can look at you."

Mark caught his breath. The knowledge that Peter liked looking at his body really turned him on. After removing the prized cufflinks he slipped Mark's shirt off and knelt at his feet.

"Lean on me," he said briefly, lifting first one foot then the other to remove Mark's shoes and socks. "You even have beautiful feet."

Mark frowned. As far as he was concerned they were just feet. They did their job and took him where he wanted to go, but that was about it. Yet Peter called them beautiful. Was this what love was? To think that something or someone was beautiful even if you knew it wasn't? He certainly thought Peter was beautiful, yet looking at his face he was aware that his slightly snubbed nose was not what people thought of as being classically—the word came into his mind—classically beautiful. Yet it was beautiful to him and he loved the shape of it. He felt an overpowering urge to kiss it and was about to do so when he was distracted by Peter's hands sliding up his legs, over the curve of his hips and start undoing his trousers. There was no need to pull in his stomach. They fitted snugly around his hips and bottom but his waist was small enough for Peter to insert his fingers without difficulty. As Peter pulled down the zip and eased the pants down to his ankles, he looked down and noticed the underwear he hadn't given a thought to all evening. At once the sight made him colour. The semi transparent material made the bulge of his bent over penis look huge.

"I know why you're blushing and there's no need. They make you look so sexy that I'm tempted to leave them on you." He debated with himself then decided. "No, I want them off so I can admire you in all your glory," and eased them over the protrusion which acknowledged its release by swinging up as if on a spring and ejecting a small drop of glistening fluid.

Peter gave a sigh of sheer pleasure and for the next ten minutes gazed at Mark avidly as if he was determined to memorise every inch of his body and engrave it on his brain. He manoeuvred Mark into various poses, some of which were so lascivious that when he caught sight of himself in mirrored doors of the built in cupboard, his scrotum contracted and pulled his testicles even more tightly against his body. He ached for Peter to touch him and even more, yearned to touch Peter. How much longer could he hold out before he exploded all over everything?

Taking pity on his growing tension Peter pulled back the bedclothes then without warning, scooped him up and held him for a minute. Enjoying the muscular power that could lift him so effortlessly Mark lay in his arms, feeling as if his body were turning to liquid as he surrendered to Peter's superior strength and willed him to do whatever he liked.

"I want you here," Peter growled, lowering him onto the bed. "Stay there and keep still,"

He removed his shoes and socks, then started on his clothing under Mark's enthralled gaze. As his chest came into view, then his legs, and finally, as he pulled down his underpants, his genitals, Mark's penis jerked warningly. Peter climbed in beside him and stared at it eagerly. "Tell me what you're feeling. Are you close? Go on, Markie, tell me," he ordered as the boy hesitated. "I really want to know."

"I've never felt like this before," Mark divulged with a sort of breathless gasp. "I think I've sort of started, but it's not going any further."

"Does it feel good?"

"Oh yes," he breathed, "It feels just great and…"


"…and, I don't know, sort of waiting to start if I even think of it."

"That's good," Peter observed softly. "It doesn't often happen like that. Don't do anything, just lie there and think of the feeling in your cock and enjoy it. Tell me if it starts to get less and I'll touch you to keep it going."

Mark did as he was told. His cock was still completely undecided as to what it was going to do, go on to a full orgasm or slowly relax, but in the meantime it felt wonderful. Looking down at the tip, he could see that the tiny slit had opened and fluid was oozing out, running down and collecting on the ridge where it joined the shaft.

"You're dripping," Peter remarked in a pleased voice as they watched the droplet gradually elongate then fall stickily onto his stomach. It was cold.

"How does it feel now?"

Mark forced his brain to analyse the sensation. He felt languorous and warm, as if his body was melting. "It's going away a little," he replied after some thought.

"Put your hand on me here."

Nothing loath, Mark placed his fingers on the indicated nipple and felt his cock rise slightly. As he moved his fingers gently, teasing the dark pink flesh with its tiny patch of erectile tissue, he felt the same wonderful feeling beginning to steal over him again, starting in his penis, then moving down to encompass his balls and thighs in one direction and from his stomach to his nipples in the other. He could feel his body starting to flush, the prelude to his coming like he had never come before. He wanted it to start, but he also wanted to prolong it, knowing that the longer it was delayed the greater would be the final pleasure.

As the feeling progressed in small jerks that matched those of his twitching penis, he stopped caressing Peter and let his hand rest where it was, noticing with a tiny part of his brain that Peter's heart was pounding. The feelings didn't ease as they had done previously and another cold drop made him glance down at the head of his cock. It had become more swollen and engorged, dark red, and was oozing more and more liquid which dropped into the tiny pool on his small flat stomach.

"It's going to happen Pete," he whispered, "I can't stop it."

As he spoke he felt his cock twitch upwards and hold there for a second before dropping back to gather strength for the next attempt. All the while the sexual sweetness was beginning to concentrate. Peter noticed that his balls had moved so close to the base of his cock that they appeared to have become part of it, as if the separate elements had fused into one perfect artefact whose sole purpose was to eject the sperm from his body and in the process, inundate him with physical and mental ecstasy.

His cock lifted again, staying there longer this time before falling back, and it seemed to Peter that it had become measurably bigger. "Is this it?" he whispered, eager to confirm the evidence of his eyes.

Mark nodded, unable to speak.

Delicately Peter placed a finger on the quivering shaft, about a centimetre from where it joined the head and at once it rose so powerfully his hand was forced upwards. He heard Mark hiss between his teeth then groan, as with minute movements he started to stroke the boy into orgasm.

As the feeling took hold, Mark knew, with the tiny portion of his mind that wasn't concentrated on his cock, that this was the most intense thing he had ever experienced. It seemed to go on forever, slowly building, intensifying, then increasing more, until the exquisite pleasure filled his cock, staying there until he knew that if it went on for a second longer he was going to die. Then his muscles clenched and everything that had been building up inside him jetted out. The first spurt reached the fork in his ribs, but that was just a ranging shot. The second, propelled by his strong muscles and powered by the frustration of the last two days, landed almost on his chin, the next a little further back and by the time he finished, there was a ropy trail of liquid from his chin to his navel. He had never spunked so much, or felt so wonderful while doing it.

He lay still, his body tingling deliciously, gasping for breath and feeling both grown up and extraordinarily young at the same time. And very much in love. As he began to return to himself he felt the urge, as always, to wipe himself, as if the trails of sperm were something dirty. But the expression on Peter's face stopped him.

"Jeeze, I didn't think you could go off like that."

"Sorry, it's just been so long."

"Sorry? Markie it was the best sight of my life! I love watching you come and imagining what you're feeling, and it's even better when I've made it happen. It satisfies me, you dope, and makes me want to wank you more so I can watch you do it all over again. It really turns me on and makes me feel sexy. I love you, and I love your cock, and I love your balls, and I love your spunk."

"You don't think it's dirty?"

"Why on earth would I think that? Your spunk is part of you, the most secret part of you, the most boy part of you. And I want it, like I want everything else about you, more and more all the time. Do you want me to prove it to you?"

Before Mark could fathom what he meant, Peter leant over and licked up the trail of sperm, from navel to chin. "Now you're mine forever because you're inside me," he told the astonished boy.

After he got over his surprise Mark said practically, "It won't be there forever."

Peter smiled. "Then you'll have to make sure I get more of it. Often." The smile became a grin as Mark blushed.

Although longing for his own release Peter lay beside him, pulled him close and cuddled him, happy to accept whatever Mark was prepared to give him.

He was quiet for so long that Peter wondered whether he was falling asleep. It had been a long, hard day and that phenomenal climax must have taken a lot out of him. It wouldn't be surprising if he was weary. He would be disappointed, of course, but there was always the morning.

Secure in his arms Mark was thinking deeply. He had come to another turning point and wasn't sure how to handle it. Peter swallowing his sperm had both surprised and thrilled him, and the thought that it was now inside his friend was turning him on to such an extent that he was still hard.

He wanted to do the same for Peter but could he manage it? After thinking for so long that his sperm was both messy and rather unpleasant, it wasn't easy to change his perception. It was clear that Peter liked it, but what did he feel about Peter's? There had been odd occasions when he'd been tempted to taste his own and had even gone so far as to dip a finger into it, but had never been able to go through with it. Would the same thing happen, and would Pete's feelings be hurt if he couldn't do it? They would be, he decided, in which case it was better not to try at all than attempt it and fail.

But against that there was something else to take into account. For some time he'd had an urge to kiss Peter's cock, even touch it with his tongue. It was exciting when he sucked Peter's nipples and he imagined it would be even more so to do the same to his cock. The very idea was making his own cock hard, and the more he considered it, the more he wanted to do it. But if Peter came in his mouth, how would he feel? This was the important question and he didn't seem able to answer it. His brain dithered. Do it, or not do it?

Then, with one of those queer twists of the mind, as if his brain had turned the question around and presented it from a new angle, the answer was clear.

If he truly loved Peter nothing about his body should disgust him. Some things, of course, the natural functions, one didn't think about much, but his sperm, his spunk, was as much a part of him as everything else. It was, in fact, a product of love. As such there could be nothing wrong or dirty about it and he, like Peter, loved watching when it shot out. Unconsciously he nodded his head. The only thing he wasn't sure about was what it would taste like. And he couldn't wait to find out.

"What's the matter?" Peter asked when he felt him move.

"I've just decided something. Pete, you said you liked the shape of my, er, bum once. Did you really mean it?"

"Is that what you've been thinking about all this time?"

"No, something else. But it's the same sort of thing and I want to be sure how you feel."

"Okay. I'll tell you again and I'll keep telling you as often as you want me to. I love the shape and the feel of your bum. I liked it the first time I saw you in those awful PE shorts which were miles too big for you. I like looking at it when you're wearing clothes and I like looking at it when you have nothing on. And I love touching it, though I won't if that worries you."

"It would have once, but I don't think it will now." Mark paused for a moment then said in a small voice, "I just wanted to tell you that I, I like yours too."

Peter held him tightly. "Markie, you are so sweet and I love you more and more all the time."

Satisfied, he extricated himself then pushed Peter onto his back and kissed his him. Then as he straddled him, kissed his throat, then his chest, moving lower all the time until he reached first one then the other of his nipples, and teased them into stiffening. He could feel from the way Peter's cock strained beneath him that he shouldn't spend too much time there and moved down, brushing delicately against Peter's skin. It tickled his lips but his friend's heightened breathing told him he was on the right track. He moved backwards until he could reach and kiss each firm sphere then proceeded, little by little, up the throbbing shaft, kissing as he went, until he reached the tip. Taking it in his hand, he sat back for a minute to admire it then bent his head again and touched the swollen head with his tongue. The excreted fluid was slightly salty, not in the least unpleasant, so he licked the opening from which it had emerged.

Hands gripped his head. He looked along the flat plain of Peter's stomach and up the hill of his ribcage to his face.

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

"I'm sure. This is what I was thinking about just now, and I'm more than sure."

Peter sighed. "I'm very close, I might squirt on your face."

"You won't."

He licked his lips and sucked them over his teeth so as not to chafe the delicate skin, pushed Peter's foreskin down completely, opened his mouth and slid it over the twitching organ.

It wasn't as easy as he'd thought it would be, he could only accommodate the head and a little of the shaft. It was tremendously exciting having it in his mouth but because of its bulk he wouldn't be able to keep it there for very long. Already his jaws were beginning to ache so it was fortunate that after he had sucked gently a couple of times, he felt it jerk as Peter began to come. His climax was as satisfying as Mark's had been. He relaxed his grip on Mark's head, in case he changed his mind, then the feeling was taking possession of him and he could think of nothing else.

He had been sucked before but never like this. The fact that it was Mark who was doing it, and the knowledge that it was Mark's first time triggered the best feeling he'd had in years. Like Mark's orgasm earlier, it increased, expanded and grew until it reached the point where pleasure almost became pain, so intense was the feeling gripping him. As his straining penis reared up against Mark's delicate lips and mouth, he felt so overwhelming a rush of love for him that his eyes blurred. He groaned, "Oh Markie," as the breath was forced out of him, and his hands tightened on Mark's head.

The next minute Mark's mouth was flooded and struggling to keep up with the flow so occupied him that it came as a surprise when he realised that he was within an ace of coming again himself. He tried to hold back, at least until he was sure that he had given Peter every possible scrap of pleasure, but as he swallowed and swallowed, he really became conscious of what he was doing and was so overcome by lust that his body spasmed and his sperm splattered all over Peter's balls.

The involuntary tightening of the enclosing mouth, to say nothing of the warm, wet spurt, made Peter open his eyes. Gently he raised Mark's head, his cock falling back against his stomach with a tiny thump. Mark's eyes were round with astonishment.

"I came again," he whispered. "Feeling you coming made it happen."

"Are you okay?"

Mark nodded. "Now you belong to me too. You're inside me."

"You don't feel bad, do you?"

Mark shook his head and wriggled up until he was lying on Peter, chest to chest. "I thought I might but I don't. When l felt you coming it made me feel so sexy that, well, that's what made it happen to me again. Shall I wipe it off?"

"No." He trapped Mark's arms by the simple expedient of putting his arms around him then rolled them onto their sides. "I like having your spunk all over my balls." Then he kissed Mark gently, pleased to feel him open his lips slightly. "Thank you, that was the best."

"For me too," Mark agreed, in a happy though drowsy voice, "Just like you said it would be. Can we cuddle while we sleep?"

"Always, my darling," Peter replied, switching off the reading light then taking hold of him again. "Are you comfortable?"

"Yes thank you, lovely Pete. And thank you for everything. It's been the best day of my life. Goodnight."

"Goodnight, sleep tight."

But Mark didn't hear him, and in less than five minutes Peter had joined him in well deserved slumber.

Peter woke to find himself lying on his side with Mark curled up against him. During the night one or other must have felt chilly because the blankets had been pulled up. His companion's body was warm where they touched and he wondered what Mark would think if he woke and felt the morning erection pressing insistently against his shapely little bottom. He wasn't sure how Mark would react as he still seemed to have something of a complex about the area. Slipping an arm over the boy he put his hand on his stomach and pulled him closer. Mark wriggled but gave no sign of waking.

It was a good time to think about things, the most important of which being how to get Mark to spend the night again. Much as he'd enjoyed what they had done previously, it couldn't compare to holding the boy in his arms all night. His own family wouldn't be a problem, they had never interfered with his sex life or demurred at someone spending the night. The problem would be the Captain.

It seemed reasonable to assume they could manage an occasional Friday or Saturday night but he wanted more and was convinced that Mark would feel the same. This led him to go over what had happened the night before and in particular, Mark's spectacular performance.

Sexually he was developing rapidly, both physically and mentally. The amount of sperm he'd produced had been surprising, even taking into account their recent abstinence. But the fact that he had then taken his cock into his mouth and swallowed the results was little short of astonishing. He couldn't wait to return the favour so Mark would know how good it felt, but resisted the temptation to wake him. He needed his sleep.

At that point a dismaying thought occurred to him. It wasn't very long until the half term break which he, Emily and Victor were spending on the Isle of Purbeck near Bournemouth. The three of them loved camping and he'd been pleased when they had planned the holiday. But that had been before he met Mark. Now the thought of being away from him for over a week was intolerable. He could stay at home instead of accompanying them, Em and Vic wouldn't mind he tried to tell himself, but after a moment of thought, abandoned the idea. Inevitably they would worry which would spoil their holiday, something he wasn't prepared to countenance. Apart from which, he had been looking forward to revisiting the beach. The answer—obviously!—was to take Mark with them.

The more he thought about it the more it appealed. They would be together day and night and as Mark had never slept in a tent he would thoroughly enjoy the novelty. They would need to be discreet at the campsite but you didn't have to go far from the beach to find places where you could be alone. As for the beach itself, his face took on a wicked grin, Markie would go so scarlet it would look as if he was severely sunburnt! He couldn't wait to see it. Making a mental note that they would need a high factor sun block to protect his pale skin, he determined to speak to Emily and Victor as soon as he had the chance.

In the meantime he needed to keep an eye on the time. The Captain had decreed that Mark attend Mass as a condition of him spending the night and he had no intention of provoking the man unnecessarily, especially in the light of his Bournemouth scheme. Convinced that between them he and Emily would be able to get the Captain's agreement, he hugged the small figure pressed up against him

Gently, so as not to wake him, he moved a hand from Mark's stomach to his throat and felt the pulse beating there. Suddenly he was overcome by love. I could do anything to him he reflected, yet he lies here as trusting as a baby. And just as pretty his mind added, though there's nothing babyish about him where it counts. Though that's pretty too he mused, feeling a pang of desire.

Ignoring it his mind drifted back again to the previous evening, but this time, to Mark's playing and the reception he'd received. I knew he was good but last night was exceptional, even Sir James was impressed he recalled proudly, and he wasn't someone who gave praise lightly. He debated spreading the news around the school making it known that Mark was very good at something but decided that the majority of their friends, his friends he amended, were unlikely to be impressed by someone who merely played the piano, and classical music at that. The notion made him a little despondent, but casting his mind back to when he himself had been younger (it seemed a very long time ago!) he would probably have felt exactly the same. If it hadn't been for Em and Vic, and people like Jane and Steven, he might never have been able to appreciate Mark's talent and even put him down because of it. No, he told himself fiercely, I would never have done that. Anyway, since I took charge of him he's getting on much better with the other kids. He's so pretty, why didn't they like him before I arrived on the scene?

The thought of Mark's looks inevitably turned his mind back to their love making the previous night and as he started going over it in his mind, dwelling lovingly on each detail, he moved his hand from Mark's throat and allowed it to follow his thoughts downwards until it was hovering over his groin. He didn't want to wake him but he needed to touch, to hold, to re-explore that part of his body. Slowly he moved his hand and as it came into contact, Mark twitched in his sleep. He was gratified to find that it was hard and it came to him that he hardly ever saw Mark when it wasn't. I really do seem to turn him on as much as he does me, he marvelled as he held it, liking the fact that it was neither too large nor too small, just right for his age and development.

It felt so good in his hand, as if they had been specifically designed to go together, though come together would be a better description, he concluded with a grin. For a short time he was content to hold it, but as he became more aroused the urge to masturbate the boy became overwhelming, and his own response wasn't far behind. In fact, when he moved his hips slightly and his stiffness rubbed against Mark's back he realised he must have been oozing for some time because there was a delightfully squishy sensation. It was a shame to disturb him, though they needed to get up fairly soon because of his damned church, but if he did it very gently, could he make him come without waking him?

Mark slowly awoke from a confused dream in which he had been playing the piano to a bunch of Peter's friends but had totally forgotten the piece, which he hadn't practised anyway, so instead Peter had offered to demonstrate how to masturbate and the next moment he was wearing just his shirt while Peter was doing it to him. He was trying to tell Peter that they all knew how to do it and that he didn't want them watching him, when he became aware that he was not in his own bed. For a second he thought he was still dreaming.

As his eyes opened he was confused by everything being in the wrong place but it was a fleeting thought. Far more important was that a hand was actually on him and there was something hard and damp against his back. It could only be Peter!

"That's good," he whispered, not sure if he meant him, his hand, his cock, or all three.

"I didn't mean to wake you," Peter answered, "But I couldn't resist feeling your lovely cock."

Mark felt himself colouring. Would he ever get used to Peter's casual allusions to his most intimate parts? Though he had to admit he enjoyed hearing that any part of him was lovely. One day he might even believe it.

"You make me feel so sexy," remarked Peter into his hair.

"I can tell. You're wetting my back."

"Do you mind?" Peter asked, making no move to pull back and break the contact.

"I like it."

"Lift up so I can slide my other hand underneath you."

He did so and as Peter's hand came round and pressed firmly against his stomach, he gave a sigh of content and pushed back against him. "It's not fair," he said after a minute.


"You're doing me but I'm not even touching you."

"I'm very happy doing this," Peter replied, moving his hips.

"Is it okay?" Mark still felt guilty.

"It's good," Peter answered, getting into a rhythm and synchronising it with the movement of his hand. "Markie," he said a little later, "Would you mind if I…? No, it doesn't matter, you probably wouldn't like it."

"What?" asked Mark apprehensively. He thought he knew what Peter was going to ask, and he wasn't sure what he felt about it. He loved him and wanted to give him as much pleasure as he could. But that?

"It doesn't matter."

Mark was quiet for a minute. Peter had stopped moving against him and, obscurely, he regretted it. Should he just forget it and not say anything? He knew that Peter would never force him to do something he didn't want to do, but he had heard the wistful note in his voice, and decided that he couldn't just let it go. Determinedly he wriggled round to face him.

"It does matter," he said positively. "I've told you things Pete, things that were hard for me to say, things I was really shy about. Now it's your turn."

"It's not the same."

"Yes, it is. You wanted to ask me something. So ask."

Peter shook his head.

"You must Pete. I need to know. You asked me to trust you once, remember? And I have tried. I've asked you things and told you things I found difficult. Don't you think you should trust me the same?"

Peter thought for a moment, wishing that he had never said anything in the first place.

"Markie, if I asked you to do something for me, something that you hated but you knew I'd like, would you do it?"

"It would depend on what it was. But I probably would. If it wasn't something like committing a murder, of course."

Peter smiled briefly then became serious. "That's why I can't ask you. Because you'd do it whether you wanted to or not."

It was Mark's turn to ponder. Eventually he spoke. "Would you ask me to do something that harmed me?"

"Of course I wouldn't. But there are more ways of harming people than just doing physical things."

"Supposing I asked you something like that. Would you do it?"

"I'd do anything for you," Peter affirmed before he could stop himself.

"Well if you'd do anything for me, why can't I do anything for you?" demanded Mark triumphantly.

"Because you're younger than I am. You don't know as much as I do so you can't judge."

"Balls! You're only a couple of months older."

But even as he spoke he knew that although they were close in age, in experience and maturity, there was a considerable gap between them.

Peter looked uncomfortable.

"You can't answer that, can you?" Mark went on, feeling that he was committing himself to something, something that he wasn't sure about, but doing it out of love. "So now either you tell me, or," he wondered what threat he could possibly make, Peter held all the cards, "Or I'll get up and go home and never let you touch me again."

For a moment the threat, idle though it was, sobered both of them.

"No, I didn't mean that," he said quickly.

Peter spoke in a shaken voice. "Christ, I hope not." For an instant he had looked into a very lonely future.

"So dear, darling, lovely, sexy Peter Doran, please tell me what you wanted to do. Don't be shy," he added in a kind voice, "I'm too old to be shocked."

"You're really something you know. What am I going to do with you?"

"Lots I hope. Once you tell me what you want."

"Turn around then."

Mark caught his breath, looked deeply into his eyes for a moment then kissed him on the mouth. "Okay," he said trustingly, and turned his back, steeling himself, hoping it wouldn't hurt too much. He felt Peter grasp him again, his other hand on his stomach, holding him firmly.

"This was what I wanted to do," Peter said, sliding down a little so that instead of rubbing against Mark's back, his cock was resting in the cleft of his buttocks. Then, as he started to masturbate the boy again, he began to move, sliding between the firm mounds of muscle.

Once he'd got over his relief that Peter wasn't actually going to put it inside him, Mark started to enjoy it. The experienced Peter knew exactly how to hold him to give him the maximum sensation with the minimum of effort, and the thought that Peter was bringing himself off by the contact with his skin added to his pleasure. His only regret was that he couldn't take a more active role. Peter however, didn't seem concerned and when he felt his hand falter in its stroke, and the length and speed his thrusts increase, knew he was starting to come. Then as Peter jerked and Mark felt his sperm splashing against him and trickling down his body, his own climax took hold and held him in its powerful grip until he spurted over the sheet, and dribbled down Peter's hand.

When they came down for breakfast after an enjoyable session in the shower which had left them rather limp, in more ways than one, Emily and Victor were already at the table. In spite of his resolution not to worry about what they might be thinking, Mark's face was extremely pink and he looked, in Peter's opinion, adorable. If Emily didn't go quite that far there was no doubt in her mind about the power of satisfied sex. Both boys were glowing. Smiling kindly she asked Mark if he had slept well and was amused, though she took care to hide it, when he blushed even more and muttered that he had, thank you.

"Good. Pete, will you organise something for Mark, or can't you eat if you're going to Mass?"

The question distracted him and he was able to forget his discomfort as he explained that as he wasn't going to communion it didn't matter. He tucked into everything that Peter put in front of him and, in between mouthfuls, joined in the conversation as they discussed the previous evening. He refused Victor's offer of a lift to the nearest Church, not the one he normally attended, and smiled gratefully when Peter said he would accompany him.

Emily announced that she and Victor would collect them afterwards as she wanted to visit the garden centre where, glaring at her family when they groaned in dismay, they would have lunch as she didn't feel like cooking.

"We'll cook, won't we, Vic?" Peter broke in.

"Anything rather than go to the garden centre. We'll even do the washing up afterwards!"

"We're going to the garden centre," stated Emily in a tone that brooked no argument. "Mark will enjoy it."

"If he survives it," Peter muttered. "I hope you're feeling strong, Markie," he added darkly, "By the time she's finished the place is devastated. It takes them months to restock it."

Mark smiled.

"You can smile," Victor told him morosely, "But just you wait. Though there's one thing," he said in a brighter tone to Peter, "Mark can do all the carrying."

Peter responded in a resigned voice. "She'll just buy more stuff."

Feeling happy to be involved, and almost part of the family, Mark's smile broadened and he was brave enough to wear jeans to church. His father wouldn't be there to see them.

It was the first time he had actually enjoyed the Mass for a very long time. Since he'd started having doubts about religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, it had become something of a chore, and boring as well. He only attended because he knew better than to refuse and given the choice, it wouldn't have bothered him if he never set foot in a church again. But that morning, with Peter sitting beside him, the time raced past as he went through the motions mechanically, standing, sitting, and kneeling at the proper times, though not bothering to make the verbal responses. He would never have dared to keep silent had he been sitting next to his father.

He wondered what Peter made of the service. They had never talked about it but he had the impression that neither he nor his parents had any religious beliefs. If that was the case, it was good of him to keep him company so patiently. Although impatient for the whole thing to be over, he spent the time very pleasurably thinking about the boy beside him.

Wise in the ways of the priesthood he made a hasty genuflection and dragged Peter out the minute the final blessing had been given so they wouldn't have to shake hands with the celebrant and answer all his questions. He knew how nosy they were about anyone new. A few minutes later they were picked up by Emily and Victor and heading south out of the city

If the previous day, after a bad start, had turned into one of blissful triumph, this more relaxed day was to remain in Mark's memory as one of the most quietly happy. Emily and Victor made him feel valued and wanted for himself, not because of his friendship with Peter or even because of his playing. It was a very satisfying feeling which, coupled with their easy going acceptance of his love for their adopted son, gave him a sense of security and belonging which had been absent from his life previously. Peter and Victor's affectionate teasing of Emily and the jokes and laughter in which he was included, contrasted so violently with his own rare family outings that there were moments when he wondered if he was still living on the same planet.

Even if she didn't buy everything she laid eyes on, Emily lived up to her family's dire predictions and made a large dent in the centre's stock. Happily, Mark helped as she piled first one then another trolley higher and higher. But when Peter fell in love with a vast and ornate fountain, on display in the water garden, she put her foot down.

"Pete, you have absolutely no taste. It's vulgar. Besides which it's far too large for the garden. No, I know exactly what I want. When you've built the rockery for me I'm going to have a cascade leading to a small pond."

"I knew it," exclaimed Victor. "I knew we weren't going to get out of that damned rockery."

"I'll help," offered Mark.

Victor and Peter brightened immediately. "Of course you will," Peter agreed. "You'll do all the digging, lifting and carrying while Vic and I supervise."

"Ignore them, Mark. I will be doing the supervising."

"Slave driving more like," muttered Victor as they loaded the pre-formed water channels that she had chosen onto a third trolley.

With the assistance of a member of the staff they chose a pump and associated tubing, filters and cabling, paid for everything, and loaded the car. Then they walked through a very pretty arbour to the cafe for lunch. It had become quite warm and Mark enjoyed the novelty of eating in the open air. After finishing they went back to the garden section for some vital items which Emily claimed that she had overlooked, to the patent disbelief of her family who told Mark that it was simply an excuse to see if anything new had appeared in her absence. The boot of the car was so full the extra items had to go on the rear seat, which gave Peter an excuse to sit the blushing Mark on his lap and hold him firmly all the way home.

Working with them in the garden Mark discovered how soothing and satisfying an activity it could be when accompanied by talk and laughter, and with no loud voice telling him what to do, and when he'd done it, saying that it was wrong.

The three Doran's argued over the plan of the rockery and when they went in to have tea, Peter produced pencil and paper and sketched out his ideas. Mark thought that the quality of the drawing was incredibly good but was less happy about the design which was on a grandiose scale more suited to a civic centre than a suburban garden. Victor was outright in his scorn of it. Emily took the pad and on a new page, drew what she had envisioned.

"That's really nice," Mark told her admiringly. "I wish I could draw as well as you and Pete."

"Mark, you have so much talent in other directions, it would be grossly unfair if you were a brilliant artist as well," Victor told him.

"At long last," crowed Peter triumphantly. Blithely ignoring Emily's equal claim to brilliance he went on, "You've admitted that I'm a brilliant artist. Now the brilliant artist will show you what it should look like. At the moment the brilliant artist thinks it's boring." He wrested the pad from Emily. "But if you plant it like this, I suppose it won't be too bad," and with swift, sure strokes he sketched grass, plants and small shrubs. "That looks better," he said, handing it back to her.

"Well I'm glad you like it as you are going to heap up the soil and build it for me."

"What? All of it?" he asked in an appalled voice.

"We'll help," Emily told him kindly, "In between reading, taking long rests and having cool drinks."

Peter looked tragic enough to make Mark smile. "I'll help too Pete, in between piano practise, reading, taking long rests and having cool drinks."

"I'll also help," Victor added, "In between…"

"You soon learn who your friends are around here," interrupted Peter, shaking his head darkly. "Come on Markie, I suppose the sooner we start, the sooner we'll finish."

"We?" Mark asked in such an incredulous voice that both Emily and Victor laughed out loud. "Who's we?"

"You and I are we," Peter retorted, hauling him to his feet and propelling him towards the door. "I may not be able to do anything about Em and Vic, but I can do something about you!"

"Mark, you don't have to…" Victor began, but Mark broke in.

"Please. I really want to help."

"Well in that case you can supervise him."

"Right," Mark replied, and allowed himself to be frog-marched outside after Peter had produced a pair of Emily's gardening gloves and insisted he put them on them to protect his precious hands for posterity (and other things you like to do with them!). Fortunately they were out of earshot when he said it.

They were soon joined by the adults and between them, after a couple of hours of hard work, the rockery was beginning to take shape. To his surprise Mark found himself enjoying the physical labour although the Dorans were watchful and if he attempted to lift something that was beyond his strength, one or other of them would be on hand to assist. By the time Emily decided that they needed a break, they had dug out the pond, heaped up the soil and placed most of the rocks in position to hold it in place. They settled under a tree and surveyed their handiwork while arguing about the precise placing of the cascade. Mark joined in diffidently at first but with increasing confidence as he found that the others gave as much weight to his ideas as to their own.

After they finished their drinks Peter took the tray inside to wash up accused, needless to say Mark thought with a smile, of trying to get out of doing any more work, and the three of them set the sections of the cascade in the positions dictated by Emily. Then she and Mark chose rocks and stones and placed them to give a natural appearance to the whole while Victor installed the piping and the pump. The only thing lacking, apart from the actual planting, was the electrical installation. Peter had offered to do it but had been turned down resolutely by both Emily and Victor, in spite of his indignant protests.

"I still haven't forgotten what happened when you 'fixed' the vacuum cleaner," Victor informed him, "And it cost us a fortune when we took it to the shop afterwards."

"That was ages ago," replied Peter, dismissing this as of no importance. "I know much more about electricity now. Mark and I could do it easily."

Mark opened his mouth, loyally prepared to support him even though he had no idea whether Peter knew anything about the subject or not. He himself knew absolutely nothing

Emily broke in firmly. "Don't even think about it, either of you. I'm having no electrical death traps in my garden. And anyway I arranged for someone to come out and do it the day after tomorrow."

"I know enough not to electrify it," argued Peter.

"Oh yes? And what about the vacuum cleaner?" Victor demanded.

"The shock didn't hurt you much," Peter maintained, in the tone of one who failed to understand how anyone could complain about such a trifling matter.

"Much you know about it. As I remember, you wouldn't go near the thing after it almost electrocuted me. And he had the cheek to say it was all my fault," Victor told Mark.

"All you did was yell your head off," said Peter defensively. "You weren't on the floor a heap of smoking ash, you know."

"Much you cared! You were laughing so hard you didn't even notice the smoke pouring off me."

Peter grinned. "Well it was funny."

"Maybe it was to you but we're not going to have a repeat performance," stated Emily.

"You laughed as well."

"Only because I didn't know what had happened or how dangerous it was. I've never trusted that vacuum cleaner since."

"Nor have I. A burnt child fears the fire and as I got thoroughly burnt, so to speak, I can't be expected to use the thing," Victor said smugly. "So clever boy here has had to do all the vacuuming ever since."

"Don't I know it," Peter muttered.

Looking at them smiling at each other, Mark felt sad that he had missed so much of this sort of fun in his own life. For a moment, as he remembered that he would have to leave soon and return home, he felt so miserable he could have cried. He turned away and stared hard at the rockery so they wouldn't see his face. The movement caught Peter's attention and he put an arm around his waist.

"Well, alright then. If you really feel like that, get your man to connect it up, I don't care. I wouldn't take a chance on Markie getting even a tiny shock. Not that he would of course."

"Of course not. We wouldn't want to put him off visiting us again, which is what would happen if we let you do it, Pete," remarked Victor comfortably.

Having got his face under control, Mark turned and asked what there was left to do.

"I think you and I should get the plants in," Emily replied, "While Pete and Vic clear up the mess."

"Now see what you've done!" Victor said accusingly. "If you had kept your big mouth shut she might have forgotten about making us do any more work."

Emily gave a mock sigh. "Just ignore them, Mark. If we take no notice they might go away. Anyway, it's a waste of time letting Pete plant anything. Everything he touches dies a horrible death."

"I like that!" exclaimed Peter indignantly. "What about that watchumacallit over there. I planted it didn't I?"

"Yes you did, and look at the poor thing. It's only my tender loving care that keeps it alive."

Peter gave her the look of one unjustly accused of a horrendous crime, but beyond telling Mark not to believe a word she said, held his peace and with Victor's help, soon had everything tidied away. He unreeled the hose and gently sprayed the area reminding Mark of the day they had washed the car. The day that had changed his life.

"The man coming to do the wiring is bringing the plants for the pond," Emily told him as they contemplated what they had achieved. "Would you like to come over after school and give a me a hand with them?"

Mark flushed with pleasure. "I'd love to, if it's alright, er, Emily."

"Of course it's alright, in fact I will probably leave it all to you. You've done a beautiful job of that planting. It looks very natural."

Mark, whose only experience of gardening to date had been working under supervision in the Captain's formal (and boring) rose garden, was pleased. Emily had left him on his own when she went inside to make some telephone calls and he'd used his imagination. He was satisfied with the result and couldn't wait to see what it would look like when the pond had been filled and the water was running.

"Well I think we've done enough for today. Pete why don't you and Mark go and clean up while I make a snack. You must be hungry."

"Starving. Come on, Markie."

He pushed Mark ahead of him into the bathroom and locked the door.

"Okay little boy, strip and into the shower," he commanded, taking his clothes off.

"We showered this morning."

"So? I'm going to wank you 'til your nose bleeds. You don't want blood all over your clothes, do you?"

"Jeeze, Pete, the things you say," Mark exclaimed, happily shocked, as he started to get undressed.

"I meant it," Peter told him, showing an anticipatory and growing erection as he brushed past to turn on the water. "Besides I love making you blush. How many times can you come?" he continued in a conversational tone as he divested Mark of his remaining garments.

"How should I know?"

"Well, we'll soon find out," he was told as Peter pushed him into the shower.

They did.

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