One of Us

by Richard Campbell

Chapter 11

Peter was lying partly on his side and partly on his stomach, pressed up against a well built naked body with his face tucked into the other's neck. The man, who Mark had seen before and disliked because of his predatory demeanour, was lying on his back with one arm lying across his penis, though not covering it sufficiently to hide its condition. His other hand was moving urgently on Peter's buttock. Peter's left hand was on one hairy thigh, almost as if he was holding him off.

Mark stood absolutely still his mind unable to accept what he was seeing. It seemed like minutes, but couldn't have been more than seconds, before Peter pushed the man's arm aside and grasped the erect organ it had been partially concealing. At the same time his head turned slightly as he pushed his face further into the man's neck. Mark's blood plunged from his head to his feet, leaving him feeling faint and dizzy. Some sixth sense, must have warned Peter that he was being watched and his head lifted sharply. The rapid movement reminded Mark of something, something that had happened before but before he could pin the memory down it was driven from his mind by the way Peter was looking at him. If he hadn't known who it was Mark would barely have recognised him.

As he watched, Peter's upper lip lifted slightly, almost becoming a snarl, then his face relaxed into indifference, cold and cruel. Although still beautiful to the boy gazing at him with his heart growing numb, Peter's face looked strangely distorted. Almost, the word crept into his mind, inhuman. He stared at this stranger while his heart stood still and even his breathing stopped as Peter's duplicity took root and began to grow.

All at once Peter's his expression changed. His face reverted to its normal aspect then took on an expression of shock. The look deepened, turned to concern as Mark's presence registered fully, and then became agonised. Violently he pushed himself away from the man and stood up. If Mark had needed confirmation of what he'd been about to do it came as Peter got to his feet. He too was erect, his testicles pulled tightly against his body the way they did just before he climaxed. It was the final betrayal.

"You said you loved me," Mark whispered, so quietly that the words barely crossed the distance separating them. Then he turned and stumbled down the slope knowing that he had to get away somewhere, anywhere, where nobody could see him.

He forced his mind to concentrate on moving. Once he was hidden from prying eyes he would let himself think about what he'd seen. But not until then. In the way that sometimes happens when faced with something so traumatic that it cannot cope, his mind protected itself by withdrawing and concentrating on simple, tasks. Like moving one foot in front of the other.

He had no idea where his feet had taken him until he found himself under their tree and spreading his towel as he always did, as if nothing out of the way had happened. Then he sat down, clasped his knees and rested his forehead on them, and stared at the gay pattern of the soft pile until his tears flowed and the design became a blur.

He wanted to sob out loud, howl, yell, anything to ease the pain that was hurting so badly now that he had stopped moving and beginning to remember. But all his life he had hidden his deepest feelings too completely to let them to show now, so he simply sat there and allowed the tears fall. Crying desperately, but silently, as he felt his world coming to an end.

He had no idea how much time had passed before something alerted him and he looked up and said in a choked voice, "Put your costume on." Under so much stress his voice cracked on the last word which under normal circumstances would have infuriated him. But he was too desolate to care and as he put his head down again, didn't notice the way that Peter flinched.

Peter had forgotten that he was naked and bent down to step into his costume, pulling it up any old how. Then he too spread his towel and sat on it, cross legged, not daring to touch the weeping boy whose sobs were beginning to make his shoulders shake. He looked so forlorn that Peter's own eyes filled. If only he had talked to him earlier! But he would castigate himself later. Now he had to make Mark understand. If Mark would let him.


The answering movement was so slight no-one else would have noticed but to Peter it was like a slap in the face. It was no more than the slightest hunch of the shoulders, a tensing of muscles, but it signified a rejection of the affectionate nickname and all it stood for. I handled this so badly, he thought miserably, I should have told him ages ago but I was afraid. Afraid that he wouldn't believe me, afraid that he wouldn't accept what I am, and more than either of those, afraid of losing his love. And because I didn't take him into my confidence, I may have lost it anyway.

Even if he rejects me after I explain—his heart going cold at the thought—I must make him understand or he'll always think that I betrayed him. He would get over it eventually but it would leave scars, healed perhaps on the surface, but festering underneath to poison any subsequent relationships. I have to spare him that, then let him go if that's what he wants. But the thought of living without Mark was so painful he could barely refrain from throwing himself onto the boy, holding him tightly, and never letting him go.

As for Emily and Victor would never forgive him because they loved Mark nearly as much as he did. And neither would Sir James, who had trusted him not to bungle things. Suffering under the lash of his conscience he wished desperately that they were here now. James would know exactly what to say, and after making me wish I'd never been born, would talk to Mark and within five minutes have everything sorted out.

But none of them are here and I have to do this on my own. So while I wait for him to calm down, I must work out what to say, and how to say it. I wanted to spare him this until he was older and better able to understand the consequences. At least that's what I told myself, but the truth is I was afraid he might decide against me and kept putting it off. Now it may be too late. He probably thinks I've been lying to him all along. About everything.

There is a limit to how long grief can be sustained at such a high level, eventually it subsides to a dull ache that still hurts badly but can at least be controlled. As the pain diminished a little so did Mark's sobs. He didn't lift his head off his knees. He didn't want to look at Peter. Ever.

"Mark, you don't really know me. I told you that once but you assumed I was talking about unimportant stuff like things I'd done, people I'd known, places I'd been to. But what I meant was that you don't know what I am. It sounds silly because you know that I like sport, I'm gay, that I love listening to music, especially when you play for me. You know I'm good at school and know a lot more than you do. You know I'm older than you are and think that in a few months time I'll be turning sixteen but that's not true. I look the same age as you, and mostly I feel the same age as you, but I'm older than I look because of something that happened after I ran away from home. I always planned to tell you but each time I started I got scared. Scared you wouldn't believe me, or if you did, that you might be frightened of me because I'm so different to what you think I am."

He looked at the hunched figure but Mark neither moved nor gave any indication that he was listening. He sighed

"You've felt for some time that I wanted something from you, and you were right. But if you gave it to me it would alter your life, which was another reason I was afraid to talk to you. Now, after what you saw, I have no choice. It would be safer to let you believe that I just wanted sex with someone else, safer for me and safer for the rest of us too. In a way, by telling you the truth, which I should have done weeks ago, I'm putting our lives in your hands. That would be a huge responsibility for an adult, let alone someone as young as you, but I need to do it because whatever it looks like I love you more than I have ever loved anyone."

As so often in his dealings with Mark, he decided to let his heart rule his head and go with his instincts. He must start from the beginning if Mark was to understand.

"Your father has always given you a hard time and, in a different way, so did mine. While yours has shouted at you, bullied and humiliated you, mine used to beat me. My mother died when I was about three and he blamed me for it. I don't know why. I suppose he must have loved her but I don't really know, I was too young. What I do know is that after she died I became frightened of him.

"You've sometimes told me that I'm brave, which is easy when you're older, but when you're little you're not brave at all. At first I was simply frightened but slowly I became petrified. He would go out drinking, especially at weekends, and when he came home he'd use his belt on me for no reason. At least no reason that I could understand. I was just a kid and however hard I tried there was always something he could use as an excuse to hit me.

"If I came to school with bruises or a black eye none of the teachers cared. Because I was always in trouble they assumed I'd done something wrong again and been punished. I felt that if no-one cared about me, why should I care about them? Em, Vic and Andrew, my doctor, explained to me later that it often happens to kids in my situation. I'm ashamed of it now, but I used to shoplift, steal things, throw stones at windows and street lamps and swear because it made me look tough. I didn't have anything else going for me and it made me feel good. I was even expelled once. My father used a stick that time and hurt me badly enough to keep me in bed, though he wouldn't take me to the doctor. He knew the police would be after him if anyone knew what he'd done.

When I woke up the next morning the sheets and blankets had stuck to my back during the night. He was furious about the mess they were in and ripped them off me so of course I started bleeding again. That was when I realised that he liked hurting me and it wouldn't ever get any better. I met more people like him later." He shuddered. "I'm not telling you this so you'll feel sorry for me, but so you'll understand why I ran away.

"I stood it as long as I could but as I got older, and specially after my voice broke, it got worse until I just couldn't take it any more. I had a bit of money, I went through his pockets when he was asleep, and hitch-hiked to London. I really believed, as kids do, I was going to be okay. There seems to be something magical about the city, it sort of draws you, especially when you come from a small town like I did. You think you'll make your fortune and live happily ever after. It didn't take me long to find out just how wrong I was.

"The only thing a kid of thirteen has going for him is sex. You're too young to do any real work, and even if you do find something they pay you just about nothing. And they want to know all about you—who your parents are, where you live, what school you go to. If I'd told anyone who I was and why I needed to work I'd have been sent straight back. Back to him. Once my money ran out and I got hungry I realised, after the first time I was picked up, that if I went with men for sex I could make a little money and enjoy it at the same time. It kept me going but it's terribly dangerous. There was a man who wanted me often but I only went with him if I was desperate. He was the one who infected me. He used to do things to me, things that really hurt, because he enjoyed causing pain. But the worst was when he took me to an empty building and he and a bunch of his mates raped me.

"We've often joked about raping each other and it's turned us on, but when it happens for real it's very different. I was so scared when I saw them looking at me, mean and nasty and wanting to fuck me, not wanting it to be nice and give me pleasure as well, just the opposite. They wanted to ram their cocks into me as hard as they could to hurt me while they did it. I tried to get away of course but they were expecting it and I didn't stand a chance. They pulled my clothes off and bent me over an old table. I still remember how cold the top was as they tied my wrists and ankles to the legs. They didn't bother to gag me—they wanted to hear me scream.

"And then they…they did it.

"The first wasn't too bad, at least he'd put some stuff in me but by the time they'd each done it twice and were starting the third, I…" He was unable to continue for a minute. Mark had lifted his head and was looking at him in horror.

"Anyway, I was lucky because I fainted when I was starting to think that I might die from the pain. That must have disappointed them because they'd been enjoying me struggling and screaming.

"When I came round I was on the Thames embankment. They'd put my jeans and shirt back on then left me, in the middle of winter, in the snow, without a coat. They probably hoped I'd die so I couldn't identify them. I really wanted to die. I wanted to be out of everything and never feel pain again. In fact I would have died if Em and Vic hadn't been to a concert and found me.

"I don't remember what happened after that until I woke up in the clinic with Em and Vic holding my hands and looking so worried and kind that if I'd had any tears left I would have cried some more. But there were no tears left, or anything else."

Again he stopped talking, recalling gratefully how the clinic staff had healed his body, which happened quite quickly, but also healed his mind, which had taken very much longer.

"Two things kept me alive. Em and Vic getting me to the clinic in time and the fact that I'd been infected. Because of that my body was stronger. It helped too that I was young. I found out later that the clinic is a private hospital for people like us and as we don't get sick very often, I was the only patient so I had the best care with everyone running around after me. They would have sent me to an ordinary hospital as soon as I was well enough to be moved, but when they understood what I was, they kept me there. As I got better, Em, Vic and Sir James, explained what had been done to me and what I'd become. It was easier for me to accept than it will be for you, because they told me slowly, a bit at a time.

"But I still had nightmares, especially as didn't know what I was going to do when I was better because I wouldn't go home. Then, one day, Em and Vic asked if I would like to live with them. Markie, I broke down and howled. They actually cared enough to want to adopt me and look after me for as long as I wanted. It's one of the reasons I love them so much, more I think, than ordinary children love their parents. They asked if they could adopt me, as if I was doing them a favour, and promised that if I got tired of them, or wanted to go my own way they wouldn't try to stop me. They'd even help me do it."

He was heartened to see that Mark's head was still up. Although his face was blotched, crying didn't make him look awful as it did most people, including himself.

"There isn't a lot more to tell you about that part except that Sir James arranged everything. As soon as things were settled Em and Vic took me to France, which you know about. I never saw my father again. Em and Vic are my true parents and always will be. It took me a long time to learn to trust people again but everyone helped, and I've been so happy, at least until you came into my life and my happiness turned into, into bliss. But now, because of my cowardice in not telling you this earlier, I've messed everything up."

Slowly he stretched out his hand and taking Mark's chin, turned his head to face him. The boy resisted for a long moment, the muscles in his neck standing out, then he turned stiffly, but wouldn't meet Peter's eyes.

"That was the easy part. Now I have to tell you the hard part, and unless you believe what I say you won't understand what happened just now." He felt Mark tense but continued to hold his chin. "But before I do, I'm going to say again that I love you, and that I've never stopped loving you for a single second. I can't force you to accept it, I can only ask you to think back over the time we've been together and ask yourself if you've ever doubted my love."

Mark raised his eyes and in that brief moment as they looked at each other, Peter registered his disbelief. There was pity for what had been done to him, but he could tell that Mark didn't believe in his love any more. Sadly, he allowed his hand to drop.

"Will you listen to the rest?"

Mark stared at him. "You can tell me," he replied in a cold voice, "Unless you'd rather go back to that man and get fucked."

Peter flinched. There had been no hesitation, no shyness, no stumbling over the word. I did this to him, he thought, he even used the word in its crudest sense as something nasty, and standing for something even nastier.

Time stretched out. Mark was staring at him as if he was something that had crawled out from under a stone. Or from somewhere worse.

"I would never have let him do that to me. Never."

"You were hoping to fuck him then?"

"No, Christ no! You are the only person I want, and since we met you're the only one I have wanted."

"How would you like me then? Here on my tummy, or later tied to a table?"

"If you ever say that again I'll smack you, Mark Gordon," Peter replied angrily. "I've never thought of you that way, and I never will."

"Explain then."

"Will you listen?"

"I'll listen." Mark's tone that made it clear that he wasn't going to believe what he heard. It wasn't a good start.

"I said a minute ago that I was older than you thought I was," he started slowly, it was difficult to know how to carry on.

"How old are you, then?"

"I'm going to be twenty two. I told you that something had changed me, and one of the results is that we age more slowly. That's why I look the way I do. I've lived for twenty one years but physically I'm still fifteen and that's the way I feel. I've had time to learn a lot of things in those extra years, which is why I know so much more than most boys our age. Usually people don't notice, or if they do, I tell them that I read a lot. We all say that, and people simply assume that we're well read, and don't think of it any more."

"Who's we?" Mark demanded, still in that cold unbelieving voice.

"Everyone you've met through me, starting with Em and Vic."

"You're going to say Sir James too, I suppose," said Mark sarcastically.

"Yes. Sir James, and everyone you met the evening you played for us, and a lot of other people you haven't met and probably never will."

"And you say they're all older than they look."

"I can prove it. I've still got my birth certificate."

"That doesn't prove anything. It could be forged or belong to someone else."

"You're right, but it doesn't matter. Either you're going to believe me or you're not."

"Do you really expect me to believe that you're going to live forever? And anyway, even if it were true, what has it got to do with what you were, you were doing? You will have to come up with a better story than that," he added.

"It's true enough, but I haven't explained how it happens."

"If it's true, then why doesn't everyone know about it? You couldn't keep something like that secret. And besides, if Emily and Victor are like you say, I'd have noticed that they know a lot about the past."

"They're better than me at keeping things hidden because they've had so much longer to get used to it. Also, until we were sure of you, no-one was allowed to give anything away. We're trained to be very careful."

"This story gets better and better. Now you're telling me that you have a sort of, organisation, with rules and things."

"That's exactly what we do have and it's one of the reasons we manage to survive. We're taught to be very, very careful all our lives. Ordinary people wouldn't like to know that there are people who live about three times as long as they do. Apart from being jealous, think of the advantages it gives us in business and other ways to live so much longer.

Mark was silent for a minute. What he was saying did make a cracked kind of sense, but then, Peter always did make sense. If it was true, he realised slowly, it would explain many of things that had puzzled him. But he couldn't bring himself to believe it. All those pleasant people who had been so nice to him. Ordinary people. The type of people you would meet anywhere…or were they? The tiniest seed of doubt took root in his mind. He didn't have very much experience but there had been something about them, he recalled, that had puzzled him. He'd hardly thought about it at the time but now, almost against his will, he began to wonder.

"If it's true, though I don't believe it," he said slowly, "How would it happen?" Even as he spoke, he detected something odd in his own voice. Had Peter told him earlier he would have been excited and known a longing to be that way himself. To stay as he was for years, having time to grow up, time come to terms with himself and the world. But then he thought of his father and shuddered. No! Not the way things were. His face which had softened grew hard again. No! The sooner he grew up and got away from his father the better.

And how was he going to manage these next few days? Would Emily and Victor let him go home by train? Did he even have enough money to pay for it? How would he explain his early return? Maybe he could just sleep rough on the streets like Peter said he'd done. In fact that might be better than going home at all. How could everything turn so bad so quickly? His eyes begin to fill again. He rested his head on his knees, not wanting Peter to notice.

"Well?" he asked in as indifferent voice as he could manage. "How did you become so different from me and the rest of the world?"

"People like us go back a long time, as long as human history, we think, though no-one really knows. And except for comparatively recently, I mean about the last three hundred years or so, most people believed that we existed and were afraid of us. But there was never any need because we don't do any harm though if it comes to a choice, we look after our own kind first. But as people became educated and started to believe more in science and less in myths and legends, they stopped believing in us in the same way that they stopped believing in God and religion. In a way we were opposite sides of the same coin, on one side religion and the churches all supposed to be good, and on the other side us, the Group, supposed to be bad. I think that's wrong. It seems to me that religion has done far more harm than we have ever done. You've only got to remember things like the Spanish Inquisition to know that.

"In some ways the modern world is easier for us to hide in because nobody believes we exist. But in others it's harder because you become known so you have to move every few years otherwise people wonder why you don't seem to get any older. There are ways to get over that. You can dye your hair grey and do other things to make yourself look older, but sooner or later you have to go somewhere where nobody knows you and start again. Because of that you hardly ever make friends outside the Group.

"But sometimes, though not very often, one of us will meet a person outside the Group and fall in love. That's when the trouble starts because by the time they are old and dying, we are still young. It wouldn't work, it couldn't work, so we're not encouraged to fall in love with outsiders. If it does happen though, a decision is made, like it was with you."

"Who decided about me?" Mark asked stiffly, his resentment at yet another person interfering in his life overcoming his disbelief for a minute.

"Sir James," replied Peter in a matter of fact voice, instantly pricking the bubble of his irritation.

I might have known he'd bring him into it, Mark thought resentfully. He knows damn well I wouldn't have the nerve to talk to him and he'd make mincemeat out of me and have me locked if I did.

"So what was this famous decision?" he asked sarcastically.

"When I told him that we loved each other, not that I needed to because he knew the minute he saw us, and after he'd talked to you that day in the garden, he decided that I could ask you if you wanted to become one of us. But I had to make sure that you understood, really understood, what it involved."

"Am I supposed to be proud or, or grateful?" snapped Mark. Peter was so plausible that for a minute his heart had leapt, but he knew this couldn't possibly be true, so why was Peter pretending to be so serious?

"Mark, I know that you're feeling hurt and angry because you think I've betrayed you, and in a way you're right, though not in the way you think. But please don't talk about Sir James like that because there is only one other person he has ever put himself out for the way he has for you, and that was Em. Be as angry as you like with me, but not with him. And you don't have to be grateful but you should be proud because he has never made a decision so quickly about anyone.

"He told me, and that was after meeting you only once, that he wasn't sure anyone had the right to interfere with you, even me, because you were such a fine person. That you had a quality which was so rare he'd only met one other person who had it. He's never said that about me or anyone else in the Group. I know that I'm not much compared to you," he went on humbly, "And I can't offer you much except to love you, look after you and shield you as best I can from anything or anyone who might harm you. Maybe I should leave you alone so you forget about me and grow up to do whatever you want to do, and be whatever you want to be. If that is what you want, the Group won't abandon you. They'll help, whatever you decide. Sir James is already thinking about a teacher because he believes in you. But I…" he paused to take a shaky breath, "I just love you, Mark Gordan."

Mark lifted his head and looked at him steadily, ashamed of his outburst. It was true that Sir James had been kind and he'd found him easy to talk to.

"If you love me as you say you do," he said, the hurt plain in his voice, "Why did you go with that man? Don't I give you enough? Have I ever said no to you, or that I didn't feel like it? Yet, the minute you're on your own you pick up a stranger and you were going to have sex with him. Don't try to lie, I saw you holding him and I saw your cock when you stood up. I need to know why because I don't understand. I don't understand why you did it, I don't understand why you wanted to do it, and, and I don't understand you." He ended on a small sob. "I would have done anything for you, you only had to ask. I'd have let you, fuck me, or I'd have done it to you if that's what you wanted, but you didn't say anything or even ask me. You just went with a total stranger, unless you knew him before and didn't bother to tell me. Is that why? You preferred him to me, in spite of everything you've ever said to me?"

"It wasn't like that!" exclaimed Peter urgently. "I never saw him before until we both did the other day. I wasn't going to fuck him or let him fuck me. Not when you were the one I loved, and you were the only person I wanted."

"Then why? Why him and not me? Why? Why?" His voice rose on each word.

Hearing the hysteria in his voice Peter reached across and pulled him close. Mark's body was so tense it felt as if it had been carved out of wood. Suddenly, taking Peter by surprise, he softened. Relieved, Peter relaxed his grip only to receive a stunning blow in the ribs. Mark's arm, while not nearly as muscular as his own, was powerful enough to force a yelp out of him/

"Tell me!" Mark yelled as he drew his fist back, but Peter wasn't about to be caught the same way twice. He gripped both of Mark's wrists holding him as he raged for a minute before collapsing in a sobbing heap. Peter let him go, but eyed him warily. He hadn't realised that he packed such a punch and thought that Mark hadn't known it either. I'd better not touch him again until he asks me to, he concluded ruefully, as he rubbed his side.

It took less time than previously for Mark to get his sobs under control, though his tears left him feeling listless and miserable. To give him time to recover, Peter took the bottle of coke out of the rucksack. In the front pocket was a packet of tissues which he also removed, opened, and handed to Mark when he sat up wearily. Once he had wiped his eyes and blown his nose Peter handed him the bottle. Mark accepted it without a word and ostentatiously wiped the top before taking a small drink. He couldn't have made his feelings more plain. Peter sighed, had a drink himself, then screwed the top back on.

"Why didn't you tell me about what Sir James decided?" Mark asked in a small voice, clasping his knees once more and facing him, though well out of reach. He had obviously decided that Peter wasn't going to answer his previous question.

"I wanted to, but I was waiting until we got home so you wouldn't have to be with me if you didn't want to. And also, I was afraid of losing you. I thought I could last out so that at least we would have had this time together if everything went wrong."

"You weren't going to offer me immortality in case I was afraid, or didn't want it?" responded Mark derisively.

"We don't live forever, Markie."

"What do you mean last out?" asked Mark, ignoring this. "Don't I give you enough sex?"

"You give me more than I've ever had before, and more than I even knew I needed. But I did want something else from you. The thing that I was afraid to ask for."

"You keep saying that but you won't tell me what it is. I loved you and would have done anything you asked me to, you know that. And if I'd known what you wanted, I'd have done it without you having to ask. And you know that too!"

"I did know it and I should have trusted you more. I don't often make mistakes but I love you so much it spoils my judgement."

Mark sniffed slightly and in a gesture that wrung Peter's heart, wiped his eyes on his arm. He wanted ask if Mark still loved him, but was too afraid of the answer. He's going away from me, he thought in sudden panic. If I can't convince him now, I never will.

"I know what you thought I wanted and it is something that I want very much. I want to, possess you, in the deepest way possible for one person to possess another. I didn't ask because I knew that you weren't ready and when it happened I wanted it to be as exciting and as good as everything else we've done. But there's something else that I want from you. Not only want. but need. It's something we all need from time to time, especially when we're young, and we can only get from someone outside the Group. I wanted it from you, not from anyone else, but it's not something that I could ask for lightly. You had to understand the consequences, and we all felt you might be too young to decide."

"You didn't give me a chance, did you."

"Markie, you're only fifteen and while that's old enough to know what you want as far as things like sex are concerned, it's very young to make a decision that would affect your entire life, particularly as it concerns something that is really important to you. Your music."

When Mark raised his head Peter felt that he had caught his attention completely.

"We all think that you're incredibly talented. To get as far as you have with so little support means you have the potential to go far. You could become well known, make records and play with orchestras all over the world. And because I love you, if that's what you want, I want it for you as well. But, if you gave me what I wanted, none of that would happen. The Group wouldn't allow it because of the age thing.

"You see, when you reached seventy five, and if you were famous everyone would know how old you were, you would still look, feel, and be in your middle thirties. People would wonder at first, then resent it and eventually come to hate you. Nobody wants to get old and they wouldn't like to see you living longer than everyone else. Doctors and scientists—to say nothing of politicians!—would be desperate to discover your secret, and they wouldn't stop at much to get it, which would put all of us at risk."

Mark looked away, trying to get his thoughts in order. Peter's words had cut into his heart. He'd had his dreams, dreamt of being famous, travelling, meeting people like himself and playing for them, audiences giving him standing ovations. Sometimes, when things had been particularly bad, it was only those dreams that had kept him going. But more important had been the realisation as he grew older that he had something he could give to music itself, something of his own. Occasionally he would find something, some small nuance that had been overlooked in a work that had been played so often that everyone knew its every note. And in his humble way he had thought that perhaps the composer, if he was capable of knowing about it at all, might appreciate and approve of what he'd found.

He'd had a tiny taste of that when he'd played the Brahms for Sir James and the Dorans. Their appreciation had been very sweet to someone who had received little of it during his life. He had played well, and knew that he had the capability to play better. And just when his dreams looked as if they might be turning into reality, Peter said he might have to choose between those dreams and himself. Looking steadily at the boy, no man he corrected himself though he looks like a boy (unconsciously beginning to accept what he'd heard—it fitted together too well to be an outright lie and anyway, what would be the point?) he could understand why Peter had wanted to spare him the choice.

But that had nothing to do with, and didn't excuse, him going off with someone else for sex. That act of betrayal was still a real pain in his heart and had him mentally floundering, like a fish jerked suddenly out of its secure world into the air where it couldn't breathe, and with the cruel hook still an agony in its mouth.

"How can I believe you love me?" he said slowly, concentrating on the aspect that hurt the most. "You say you do, and you say you want me, but the first time I'm not with you, you find someone else." He stopped as another thought struck him. "Since we met have you been with anyone else?" I won't worry about anything that happened before that, he told himself, this is enough to cope with.

"No, Mark, no! I have never even thought of it."

"Can I trust your promises anymore than I can trust you?"

Peter shut his eyes for a minute to hide the hurt the words caused. "You can trust me about that," he said so softly Mark hardly heard him over the distant murmur of the waves.

"I asked you earlier but you still haven't told me. Why did you do it? Did you want, him so badly? Wasn't I good enough for you?"

Peter shook his head. "I needed from him, from somebody, what I wanted from you. I didn't want him specially, anyone would have done. He just happened to be handy."

Immediately the words left his mouth he realised that he'd made another mistake. He saw Mark's face closing up as he digested what he'd said, and whatever gains he had made vanishing.

"It's not what you think," he said quickly as Mark got to his feet. "Listen to me, please, please just listen to me." He put his hand on Mark's ankle to prevent him leaving. "Stay here and I'll tell you about it. Then if you want to, I'll let you go and not say anything. But please, listen to me first."

He felt Mark hesitate and hoped it was because the boy wanted to believe him, wanted to be convinced. To his relief Mark said quietly, "I'll listen for a minute. But that's all."

"Please sit down. I can't talk when you're looming over me."

Again Mark hesitated, then shrugged and sat on the furthest edge of his towel.

"Tell me then, what you need but couldn't ask for. Tell me now. And no more fucking around!"

In a level voice, Peter told him.

"I need some of your blood."

There was a long silence while Mark looked at him in disbelief. Whatever he had expected, it wasn't this.

"You need a blood transfusion and wouldn't ask me?" he said in an incredulous voice. Was this what was wrong with him? Did he have that sort of cancer, he couldn't remember the name, where people had to have blood to survive? He would have given Peter every drop he had and not thought twice about it.

Peter shook his head. "Not a transfusion, that's not the way it works. I need to drink your blood."

Stunned, Mark stared at him. He had to be joking. This was the twentieth century and junk like that was nonsense. Myths, stories to frighten kids, and the basis of God knows how many stupid horror films. He stared at Peter's face. Peter's ordinary face. Attractive, he'd always thought so, even beautiful. But ordinary beautiful. Yet here he was saying that he was some sort of, he didn't know what, some sort of fanged monster? He shook his head.

"Open your mouth," he said suddenly.

He gripped Peter's hair forcing his head back, and when the soft lips opened ran his finger over his teeth. He gave a tiny snort. They were no different to his own. His hand dropped to the smooth throat, feeling the pulse beating there.

"Do you expect me to believe that? Do you think I'm so fucking stupid?" he said harshly, thinking, I could squeeze, my hands are strong enough. And, as if it had a life of its own and was nothing to do with him, the hand that was grasping Peter's hair dropped to his throat and both hands began to tighten.

Increasing the pressure he pushed Peter down onto his back and straddled him, his weight adding to the force. Peter made no move to defend himself. His hands slid up Mark's bare arms, not to prise them away but caressingly, until they reached his angry face. If I'm going to die I'm glad his face will be the last thing I see, he thought, as he fought to control his body's panic stricken urge to fight back. To breathe. To survive.

His vision was beginning to blur when suddenly the pressure slackened. It took him a minute to recover. Mark was still kneeling over him, his hands covering his eyes, tears trickling through his fingers and falling onto his chest. Very gently he moved his own hands to cover Mark's saying softly, "Don't cry. Please don't cry anymore."

Then he put his arms around the weeping boy, pulled him down and onto his side, and held him as he had done so often before. And waited.

"I wanted to kill you," Mark said in a desolate voice, after many long minutes.

"I know."

"Why didn't you try to stop me? You're stronger than I am, you could have done it easily."

"I love you. And if that's what you want to do to me, it's alright."

"If I'd had a knife it would have been over before I realised what I was doing."

"How do you feel now?"

"I know that I love you," Mark thought for a minute, "I suppose that's why I was so angry. I still don't understand though, and it still hurts terribly. Is it true, what you've told me?"

Peter nodded. "Yes. Everything I've told you is true."

"It's impossible to believe."

"That shows what a good job we've done. We want people to think like that. It's our chief protection."

"You're really a," he paused, it sounded idiotic even to say it. "You're really a, a vampire?"

"We don't call ourselves that, but yes, that's what I am. Also Em and Vic. All of us."

"But you don't go around doing it all the time, we've been together and I would have noticed."

"That's another myth. Nobody must find out about us, so someone, I don't know who, worked out that we'd be safer if everyone thought that we slept in coffins during the day because sunlight affected us, and could only be killed by putting a stake through our hearts, that we lived on blood and never ate food, stupid things which no one could possibly believe these days. So stories were written and films were made which exaggerated things to make them even sillier. It was done deliberately and it worked. You know that yourself. We survive, because nobody believes we exist. When people read a book or see a vampire film, they just laugh. They enjoy being frightened, especially kids, but underneath they know that it's only entertainment. And if they do notice something strange or out of the way, they put it down to their imagination, or their subconscious, or an atavistic fear of the dark. Anything is easier to believe than the truth."

"You'd better tell me everything."

"We call ourselves the Group," Peter continued as he settled Mark's head on his arm. "It's a good term because it doesn't frighten anyone. It just sounds as if we're an organisation or a business or something. Most people who have real power belong to the Group. I don't mean politicians or presidents, people like that don't have real power, or if they do, they don't have it for long. It's the people in the background, top civil servants, people on the boards of the really big companies, even anonymous shareholders, who have genuine power, and almost always they belong to the Group. Apart from that they're the same as everyone else. Some are good, some are bad, some care about things and some don't. But all of us have two things in common. We live a long time, and we need blood, at least at first. It's not very often, every six months or so if you're young like me, but as with ordinary people—people outside the Group—we all have different needs. Some of us need it more often, others need it less until, when we get old, we reach the stage that we don't need it at all."

"Would it have killed me? Would I have become an, an, undead person?"

"No. That's another of the stories that have been spread to make people think the whole idea is ridiculous. We only take a tiny amount, far less than you would give if you were a blood donor. But there is something in us that affects the people we take it from. Not straight away, only if we take from the same person often. We call it infecting them because that's what seems to happen, and eventually they become like us, one of the Group."

"How does it work?" Mark asked, still finding it difficult to believe though what Peter was saying did make a strange kind of sense.

"No-one knows. We have scientists who are looking into it, my doctor at the clinic is one, and maybe one day we'll understand it, but at the moment we don't. Some people think it's a type of gene, but if so it's strange because although it can be passed on, it can't be inherited because one of the side effects is to make us sterile. No-one in the Group can have children, not even if they have sex with a normal person, which knocked another theory on the head."

"What theory?"

"Well, when the Theory of Evolution first became accepted it was thought that we might be evolving, that we were going to be the next, and higher stage, in human development. It makes sense when you think about it because we live longer, we seldom get ill and if we're injured or hurt, we heal more quickly than you would believe, all of which are survival characteristics. But they don't lead anywhere because they can't be passed on. If they could, we would take over the world eventually, but because we don't have children it will never happen. In evolutionary terms we're a dead end because we can only breed by infecting people."

"But surely that's one way of…oh, I see."

Peter nodded. "Once everyone is infected we die out because we need uninfected blood to survive. As well as not being able to have children we are careful not to infect too many people which is why there are so few of us. There are rules, and one of the most strict is that you can only infect a person permanently if you really love them, and if the leader of your particular section gives you permission."

"Suppose you just went ahead and did it anyway?" Mark asked slowly, surprised at how quickly he was coming round to believing what Peter was telling him.

"Although we're stronger than normal people in many ways, we can be killed. Not getting the blood you need would do it. It would take a very long time, longer than starving to death, but it would be just as certain."

"You mean that your, your Group, would actually decide to let someone die?"

"Mark, you have to understand something. The survival of the Group is more important than anything else, just as the survival of the human race is more important than that of a single person. It's the way things have always been in nature, and always will be. We look after and protect our people, but anyone who puts the Group at risk is a danger to every other member. It's very important and one of the things Sir James told me to make sure you understood. We can offer you a lot, my darling, but there are responsibilities as well, though you shouldn't worry about them. After all there are rules against people stealing or hurting others or even committing murder, and this is exactly the same. It's not something that most of us will ever have to face."

Mark nodded. There was just too much to take in all at once and he would think about it later. What he had to sort out now, was the incident that had provoked this confession.

"Tell me about that man." His voice, to Peter's dismay, sounded hard again.

"It's very simple. I've needed blood for some time now which is why I haven't felt well, and it's getting worse. But it's not easy to get. It has to be fresh, even a few seconds can destroy whatever it is that our bodies need. So to get it we have to be very close to the person and take it in such a way that they don't realise what's happening. It's also a very sexual thing, similar to the feeling you get when you come. But when you have sex and take blood at the same time, it makes that feeling even better. I can't explain it anymore than you could describe what coming feels like to someone who hasn't experienced it yet. You have to feel it yourself to know. What it comes down to, is that the easiest way to take, is to have sex with someone. It's wonderful for you, and for the other person because it makes their pleasure greater as well for some reason, and they don't notice the other thing you're doing. We're like vampire bats. When we need to take, our saliva produces an anaesthetic so they don't feel anything and the small marks afterwards look like a couple of spots or insect bites which heal quickly."

He saw Mark's puzzled look and smiled slightly. "You didn't notice anything when you felt my teeth but they're there just the same, like two tiny needles that slide out when they're needed. They're not under my control and only extend when they're needed."

Mark recalled how Peter's face had been tucked into the man's neck.

"I wish you'd told me. Asked me," he said he said in a small voice.

"So do I, but as I said I was too scared. The trouble is I've reached the stage where I can't hold out much longer and thought that if I took from someone else, it would keep me going so I'd have more time to prepare you."

"You knew I would say yes."

"Yes, I did know and taking from you once wouldn't matter, you would change, but very little. But if we carried on it would mean the end of any professional musical career for you. I suppose you could do it for a few years then give up and never be heard of again just when you were becoming successful. But it wouldn't be allowed because even that would cause too much speculation. You understand that don't you?" he asked anxiously. "As it is, by telling you this I have put you in a position that you'll be watched for the rest of your life unless you become one of us. If you decide against it, I promise no one will ever harm you. But you will have to be very careful. And we, Em, Vic and I, won't be allowed to see you after a year or two because it would be too noticeable that you were growing and changing and I wasn't. I know that you're small for your age but you will be getting taller soon and in three or four years time you'll reach your full height, which I won't do for another twelve years. Not that I'll get much bigger anyway, but it would look too peculiar to people who know us. Sir James might let us have a year together, but then we would have to say goodbye to you, and move."

Mark thought deeply, his mind shying away from Peter's last sentence. If he could bring himself to believe what he'd been told he would understand that scene by the lake. But understanding was one thing, the hurt he had felt, and was still feeling, was something else entirely and not something he could just ignore. And in a way, since Peter had explained it, he felt even worse. He had been about to, to pleasure someone, and not just the sort of pleasure Peter had so often given him, but, if he was to be believed, a much greater pleasure. He felt even more betrayed. Peter hadn't even asked him if he'd wanted that extra pleasure, he had just gone and found someone else to give it to. His muscles tightened, in line with his thoughts.

Peter saw the almost imperceptible movement and forced himself not to reach out and pull him closer. His empathetic, almost psychic link to the boy, seemed to have deserted him. He could sense rejection but had no idea what had caused it or what to do about it. It was almost as if Mark had deliberately closed his mind to him. If he could sometimes sense what Mark was thinking, possibly Mark could shield those thoughts if he wanted to. Even if it was subconsciously.

When Mark spoke his words came as a complete surprise. "What do you want me to do?"

"I don't understand."

"How do you want me to choose. What do you want me to say?"

Peter shook his head. "What I want isn't important, it's what you want. I can't decide for you. None of us can, not Em, or Vic, or me. You're on your own now with no help or advice from anyone apart from what your heart and mind tell you. You know all about orders and having to obey them, well I've been given orders as well, and I too must obey them. I'm not allowed to influence you, except to tell you that I love you and to answer any questions. But you don't have to decide here and now. There is still so much that I haven't told you and we need to talk a lot more before you even start thinking about what you want to do.

"I am, though, allowed to tell you that you wouldn't have to give up music altogether. You wouldn't be able to stay with Miss Herold much longer, but you know that anyway. The Group would help because we put a very high value on talent. Because we live so long it would be easy to become bored, so anyone talented is doubly valued because of what they can give to the Group. You wouldn't have the sort of fame you might get in the outside world, but you could have a career in the Group which, though it might be more restricted, would certainly be very much more appreciative and knowledgeable. I'm not trying to influence you," he smiled faintly, "At least not too much, but there is an upside as well as a downside to what you could have with us."

"The more you tell me, the more confused I become," Mark replied, though his heart had lifted a little.

"Not confused, bemused," said Peter quietly. "There is a difference. I think I've talked enough, now you need to let this settle into your mind. When I was told I had weeks and weeks to become used to it. You've had barely an hour. It's no wonder you can't think straight."

Mark nodded. His brain felt as if it had been stuffed so full of information it was in danger of bursting. But there was something he wanted to ask, something that had struck a chord earlier.

"Why did you say that you wouldn't grow much more. How can you know?" He realised even as he spoke that he wasn't sure that he liked the idea of being taller than Peter. He was used to being the smaller one and looking up to him. It made him feel safe and protected.

"It's something that happens if you're infected when you're very young. For some reason that we don't understand your growth is stunted and you don't become very tall. We do know that if children are infected before puberty they don't survive at all so possibly it's the growth hormones are affected. We're trying to find out why it happens and I help by giving blood and other samples for our people to study. It isn't much but there are so few people my age in the Group it's important."

That sounds like him, Mark mused, it's one of the things I loved him for, that he does things for people even when he doesn't get very much out of it. But it didn't stop him just now. He knew that all he had to do was ask.

"I want to go back to the campsite," he said suddenly. "I need to think about this on my own."


"No. Don't say any more. Not now, not until I'm used to the idea of what you did." He was quiet for a minute then continued in a flat voice. "I still think you could have told me."

Peter said urgently, "I wasn't going do anything to him, I was only going to hold him so he'd think…"

Mark shrugged himself out of his arms, stood up, picked up his towel and shook it out. "I want to go back."

Suddenly, he couldn't stand the beach where he had been so happy. I should have known it was too good to last, he told himself miserably, pushing the towel into his rucksack. "You can stay if you like."

Peter glanced at him, registering the hurt that had provoked the last remark. Then he picked up his own towel and in silence they walked back to the clearing where Peter changed and collected his rucksack and the umbrella. Mark led the way as they walked back to the road, relieved that they met no one they knew on the way.

While they waited for the bus, Mark couldn't help contrasting it to the last time they had sat there waiting to be picked up by Emily and Victor. Oh Christ, he thought suddenly, what are we going to say to them? They would be sure to notice how things were and he didn't want to hurt them. More important, he didn't feel up to any explanations. On either side.

"When we get there I'll say I have a headache and that's why we're back early," he said in a decisive voice. "There's the bus." He gave Peter no chance to reply but stood up and put out a hand to hail it.

The vehicle was an ex-London tourist bus with the roof removed so that people could sit on top in the open. Normally he would have led the way up the stairs but all he wanted to do was sit. His legs felt weak and trembly, the way they did when his father shouted at him. I really do feel sick he thought as he sat down by the window in the almost empty bus and put his rucksack on the seat beside him.

Peter saw it occupying the place he would normally have occupied and, biting his lip, took the seat across the aisle. Of all the things that had happened today this seemed the worst, not so much in itself but because Mark had done it without thinking. What am I going to do? he asked himself. How can I make him understand what I was going through and that it meant nothing? I wasn't even going to do anything to the man except hold his cock to distract him. But he will never believe that now.

Lost in their thoughts they didn't exchange a word as the bus filled up. Although their physical separation didn't increase, the psychic distance between them did as a young couple sat down, one beside Mark, the other in the seat in front, and chatted to each other. Both boys had the same thought—it should have been us.

By the time they reached the their stop the bus was virtually empty again. But when the young couple had got off, several stops previously, Mark had taken the rucksack off his lap and put it down beside him again before Peter had a chance to move. They had reached the entrance of the campsite before Mark spoke.

"Remember. I've got a headache and I don't feel well. I don't want them to know. I want to be left alone. You go on, I'm going to the toilet."

"Markie, please," said Peter desperately.

"I don't want you with me."

"If I'm not with you when you're feeling ill they'll know something's wrong."

"Wait outside then."

"Markie, you look really sick. Please let me come in with you."

"No," he replied between his teeth. It was too much, Peter harassing him like this. Abruptly he turned into the toilet block, if he didn't get there straight away…Aware that in spite of what he'd said Peter was following him he walked rapidly into the nearest cubicle feeling too ill to object. He had just lifted the seat when the first spasm wracked him. For the next few nasty minutes he felt too bad to notice Peter supporting him as he threw up violently into the porcelain bowl.

When it was over Peter helped him to his feet, tore off some toilet paper and wiped his damp face, supporting him with an arm around his waist.

"Can you walk?" he asked, flushing the toilet.

Mark nodded, too exhausted to do anything else. Peter took him to the basins and held him with one hand while he took his towel out of the rucksack with the other.

"Rinse your mouth," he told the shivering boy and damped the towel while Mark bent down to cup a shaky hand under the cold tap. He wiped Mark's face and dried it. "Better?"

Mark nodded again, still deathly pale.

"Can you walk to the tents if I help you?"


There weren't many people about, most were still at the beach and wouldn't be back for another hour or two but as they crossed the site a couple of the football kids spotted them and hurried over to ask if they were going to play later. Peter was about to explain that Mark wasn't well when Mark told them that Peter would be with them soon in a voice that brooked no argument.

Emily and Victor had moved the camp chairs into the shade of the bushes that surrounded the pitch on three sides and were talking quietly as they approached. They got to their feet looking sympathetically at Mark when Peter explained that he was feeling unwell.

"I'm so sorry," Emily said, feeling his forehead. "You may have had a touch too much sun, it's been so hot today. Why don't you go and lie down? It will be hot in the tent but if we leave the flaps open you should get a slight breeze."

"Thank you, I will. I have a bit of a headache." This was an understatement.

Emily looked at him with a worried expression. "Could you keep an aspirin down do you think, or would it make you sick?"

"I think I could take one, thank you," he replied in a dazed voice.

Victor smiled kindly at him. "Take him to your tent, Pete," he said as Emily went to fetch some water.

"Lie down, Markie," Peter told him, and removed his trainers and socks. It was hot and airless in the tent but he knew that Mark would be better there than sitting in the shade with them.

After a couple of minutes, Emily ducked into the tiny porch section and handed Peter a glass and two tablets, saying, "Take them with as little water as you can manage, and sip slowly."

Obediently, Mark did as he was told. His stomach rebelled as he swallowed the first tablet, but there was nothing left inside it and although he felt queasy, it came to nothing.

Emily handed him a plastic bowl saying, "Keep this next to you and use it if you feel sick again. Try to sleep and don't worry about anything, my dear." She smiled at him reassuringly and left them.

Peter took Mark's tshirt off then his shorts. "You'll be too hot in these."

Mark was feeling too weak to argue and said nothing when Peter laid him down and kissed him. He closed his eyes, the burgeoning headache occupying all of his mind.

Peter sat with him for nearly an hour before the tablets started to take effect and he dropped into an uneasy sleep. Taking care not to disturb him he left the tent, feeling almost as tired as Mark had looked. He still had to face Emily and Victor and try to act normally. It wouldn't be easy. They would have sensed that there was something more serious than a simple headache but hoped that they wouldn't press him to talk about it. At the same time, they would need an explanation of some sort, they were too fond of Mark to disregard the state he was in. He wasn't going to tell them everything, though, particularly as he didn't know how Mark would feel after he'd had time to think things over.

"How is he?" Victor asked, breaking off a quiet conversation with Emily as Peter sat down.


"The best thing for him, poor little brat."

"What brought it on, Pete? He was alright when he left us at the road to go back to you," Emily said quietly, pouring a cup of coffee for him.

"Thanks, Em," Peter said accepting the cup and stirring it to give himself time to think.

"Well?" Emily asked after a moment, in the voice she used when she was not going to be put off. "Something happened between you?"

Peter sighed. He had never been able to fool her. "Do you mind if I don't tell you about it just yet? It's something we have to work out together and we haven't had much of a chance to talk about it."

Victor looked around. There was no-one within hearing distance. "He's found out about you."

Again Peter nodded. In spite of himself, his eyes filled with tears. "Oh Christ, Vic, I've buggered everything up."

Victor looked at Emily then back at Peter. "How bad is it?"

"I don't know, but I think it's very bad," he responded in a tight voice. "He wouldn't let me sit next to him on the bus."

His voice was so bleak Emily cut off what she had been about to say and looked helplessly at her husband.

"It may not be as bad as you think," Victor said, "Though it must have come as a tremendous shock and we can only hope that he will be able to cope with it. But I have to say that I think you handled this very badly, Peter, and I'm really angry with you. We knew from the beginning how vulnerable he was, you more than anyone, and we trusted you to be careful. All of us, the entire Group, had complete faith in you to do that yet this is the result. It's a poor sort of love that hurts the object of that love when it could have been avoided!"

Peter looked at him, tears running down his cheeks, knowing he deserved everything Victor said. They criticised him so rarely it really hurt when they did so. He couldn't remember Victor ever being so angry with him. If he knew exactly how it had come about, he would be even more angry. He sniffed slightly and brushed at his cheeks. "I know, and I would give anything for it not to have happened."

"It's rather late to think that," Victor told him coldly. "You've put him in the position of knowing about us without any commitment on his part to be discreet, and even worse, you loaded an intolerable burden of knowledge on him then left him with nobody to turn to. How could you have been so stupid? When I think of the time and trouble the Group has taken over you, what Em and I have done bring you up to act responsibly, I'm not only angry, I'm ashamed of you!"

Peter's eyes dropped. He had known things were going to be bad but Victor had never spoken to him like this. Ever. He didn't dare look at Emily, she would agree and he couldn't face what he might see in her face. As for what Sir James would say…!

Victor let him think it over for a few minutes then said in a neutral voice, "What are you going to do about it?"

Peter shook his head. "I don't know. It came up so suddenly I haven't had a chance to think properly."

"Do you want us to speak to him?"

"Not yet, please. Maybe after I talk to him when he feels better. if he'll talk to me at all," he said, his voice cracking in a way it hadn't done for years.

Emily looked at Victor with a slight grimace. She was positive it was more serious than Peter had admitted but at the same time the boys had the right to their privacy. Neither of them would interfere unless they were asked to. She just hoped that Peter would make a better job of things than he seemed to have done so far.

"Well, we're here if you need us," she told him, "And we'll make sure that Mark knows that as well though I doubt that he will want to talk to us just now. You will have to deal with it as you see fit, it's your life after all. But you need to keep in mind your responsibilities to the Group. And there is something else I want you to understand very clearly. You must be very, very careful of him. I don't want him hurt, do you understand? At least not more than he has been already. Your own feelings take second place from now on and in every way until this is settled." She waited for his assent then said firmly, "No more for now. Both of you will feel better tomorrow after some sleep. Wipe your face and we'll talk about something else."

Once he had recovered she sent he and Victor to the shop explaining that Mark might fancy some soup later, but principally to give them a chance to talk. Peter looked in on Mark but he was still asleep, lying on his stomach with his head facing the wall of the tent, which was unusual. It added to his worries as he and Victor strolled across the site.

"I'm so sorry, Vic," he said sincerely, trying with difficulty, not to start crying again.

Victor put a hand on his shoulder. "I know," he replied comfortingly. It was one of the nice things about both he and Emily that though they might on rare occasions be angry with him, when it was over that was the end of it.

"It may not be as bad as you seem to be imagining," Victor went on. "He loves you very much, Pete, and I think, and hope, that that is what will count most. He may need time to realise it, though."

"Do you think I should get out of his life now, straight away? He loves his music so much."

"I can't answer that. Only Mark can. But if he should decide that it's what he wants then you must, at whatever cost to yourself, cut yourself off from him. And Pete, it will have to be a complete break. James will make sure of that anyway as much for your sake as for Mark's."

Peter nodded. But deep inside himself he made a decision. If Mark didn't want him, he would get out of his life. Permanently.

They bought some fruit juice as well as soup because Mark would be dehydrated when he woke and Victor felt that it would be better for him than coke. As they were walking back Peter was ambushed by his footballers and reminded of Mark's promise.

"Go with them, Pete," Victor said, giving him a little push in their direction, "It will do you good and there's nothing you can do for Mark at the moment. We'll keep an eye on him."

Reluctantly Peter left, surrounded by his juvenile admirers all chattering at once. Victor smiled. They would keep him from brooding. He walked on thinking deeply. Like Emily, he was certain that there was more to this than Peter had told them, and had a shrewd suspicion what it was. He had been through something similar himself when he was younger. The main question was whether there was anything he and Emily could do to help. He didn't think so. Mark knew now that they were part of the Group, which would make him even less inclined to confide in them than his natural reserve would allow.

Recalling Mark's dazed, unhappy face he felt a pang of sadness. Apart from this week with them, the poor kid had had so little fun and happiness in his life and he didn't like to think of it ending sooner than it needed to.

He and Emily discussed it quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping boy. Emily was furious when he told her what he suspected.

"Em, I could be completely wrong and it's something else entirely. I wouldn't have mentioned it at all except that I never keep anything from you."

"Nor did Peter before this," she said bitterly. "And if you're right, I could strangle him for doing that to Mark."

"I think we have to face that he's going to keep more and more things from us from now on. He is nearly twenty two after all. At his age many boys are married, starting families and completely independent of their parents."

"That's different, and you know it. He may have lived all those years but physically and psychologically he's still a boy."

"Yes he is, and it has been a source of conflict, I think. Generally he's coped well with having to stay on at school to keep up appearances, but I think his actual age is starting to count for more now, and he's beginning to need more independence."

"We have given him that over the years."

He nodded. "We have. In fact all of us in the Group have. But he is still treated as a boy by the world at large because he looks like one, and as you mentioned, in some ways he is still a boy. It can't be easy for him. The trouble is that we know so little about what happens when someone is infected at such an early age. He was two years younger than Mark when it happened, don't forget."

"What do you think his mental age, for want of a better term, is now?"

"I imagine it's about eighteen or nineteen, roughly halfway between his Group age and his actual age."

"So he's not a child anymore."

Victor shook his head. "Not in that sense Em, no. It's something that we're going to have to remember about both of them. It will balance out eventually. The disparity between twenty and twenty five is not very great, but the difference between a boy of fifteen and when he's twenty is enormous. Almost as great as the difference between ten and fifteen. But once they're into their twenties their actual and their Group ages will come into line I think, and whatever conflict there was will be resolved."

"You're talking as if Mark will still be with us."

"I'd like to think so. I have come to love that boy just as you have, and whatever happens, I think he stands a better chance of developing with us than he would with his father."

"I was so sure he was going to be with us. I was planning how to refurnish the spare room for them."

Victor smiled her affectionately. "It may still happen. Don't get too anxious about it."

"How can you say that when Pete has admitted that he made a total mess of things today. I'm so angry with him. When I remember Mark's face…"

"It's made Pete think, Em, or at least he will when he's finished with those demanding brats of his. I have a lot of faith in him you know. He doesn't often make mistakes and I think that he'll correct this one, once he's over his panic."

"Panic? Peter?" she demanded incredulously.

"He's in a panic because he thinks he's lost Mark for good. No, Em," he said quickly, when he saw the look on her face, "I don't think it's as bad as that. Mark really loves him, and in a surprisingly mature and adult way. At first I felt as you did that he was very much younger than Pete, and I admit it worried me. But since then I've come to the conclusion that he is older and more mature than his actual age in many ways, and the way he loves Pete is one of them. Once he's had time to think he'll remember his love and things will be alright. I'm not saying that Pete won't have his work cut out, but it won't do him any harm to realise that he could lose Mark. It will make him very much more careful in future."

"I sincerely hope you're right. Pete may be desperately afraid of losing Mark, as you say, and I can understand that because, in case you haven't noticed, so am I."

When he woke it was getting dark and Mark still had his headache. It had eased a little but was still very painful. As Victor had predicted he was thirsty and there was a very unpleasant taste in his mouth. He sat up slowly, his head swimming. When it cleared he noticed a carton of fruit juice and a glass on the small folding table that usually stood in the large tent. It was exactly what he needed. He filled the glass and sipped slowly. His stomach seemed to have settled and didn't object so he cautiously drained it, then put on his tshirt, shorts and trainers. He needed to go to the toilet. The Dorans were talking quietly. From the direction of the sound they had moved the chairs back to their usual place in front of the large tent. Rather shakily he came out of the tent and stood for a moment, breathing the cooler air.

Peter was at his side immediately and put his hand on his shoulder. There was no reaction except for a tiny involuntary tensing of the muscles. Peter's hand dropped to his side. He tried not to let the hurt show in his voice as he said quietly, "How are you feeling?"

"I'm a bit better thank you, Peter. But I could do with more aspirins if there are any left."

"Come and sit down."

"Thank you. I'll go to the toilet while you get them." His tone made it quite clear that he didn't want to be accompanied. Peter looked after him miserably as he walked away. Victor and Emily said nothing.

When Mark returned he still looked very pale. Emily asked if he wanted anything to eat.

"No thank you, Emily, I'll just have something to drink. Thank you for the juice in the tent," he added, without his usual smile.

"That's alright, my dear, don't give it another thought. I'm sorry your head isn't better."

"It is a little, but I'll take more tablets, please, if that's alright."

"Of course it is," she told him as Peter handed them over. "Is your stomach okay?"

"It was fine when I had a drink earlier," he answered, in a strained, formal voice. "Thank you."

Glancing at his face she felt as if the intervening months had never been. He had reverted to the boy he'd been when they first met him. No, not quite she conceded, there was a strength now that had been missing in those early months. Vic was right, she thought with a sigh, Pete is going to have his work cut out.

Mark didn't stay with them long. He refused the soup saying that he would go back to bed, if they didn't mind.

Peter walked with him to their tent hoping that he would allow him to help him undress, but Mark said goodnight and shut him out by zipping up the inner tent in his face. Feeling ready to cry again he returned to his foster parents.

They had sandwiches for supper because Emily didn't want any cooking smells disturbing Mark. "He looked queasy enough without that."

It was one of the worst evenings Peter had ever spent, but worse was to come. When he went to collect his shower things, he found that Mark had unzipped and separated their sleeping bags and was lying on his side, facing the wall of the tent.

By keeping a firm grip on his emotions he managed to make it to the shower block but once there, he gave way. No-one would notice his tears under the running water. Afterwards he sat with Emily and Victor for a few minutes before saying goodnight and going to the tent. He didn't put the light on but undressed in the dark. He sensed that Mark was awake but his back remained firmly turned. The sleeping bag felt cold and unwelcoming as he slid into it. He had become used to having Mark plastered against him all night, but the boy had made sure that they wouldn't come into contact, even by accident. This really is the end he told himself. If he still felt anything for me he would have left the bags as they were.

A black cloud of misery that he could almost see swept over him, so stifling it seemed as if he couldn't breathe. For a short time he fought against it but it was strong, far more powerful than he was. He turned onto his stomach, it was difficult in the narrow sleeping bag, he'd forgotten what it was like to be so confined, and using his pillow to muffle the sounds, cried as if his heart was breaking.

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