One of Us

by Richard Campbell

Chapter 13

Further up the hill Peter and Mark were arguing happily about the location of Simon's tent. Peter's plan was to start at one end of the site and check each tent until they found it. Mark argued that anyone with any brains at all could save themselves the trouble if they used the brains, of which some people appeared to be deficient. When Peter picked holes in this theory on the grounds that he, Mark, seemed unable to make himself understood in plain English due, no doubt, to the fact that his small (but pretty) head had little space for brains, or indeed, anything else, Mark replied crushingly that it wasn't quantity that counted but quality. He would have ended up pinned down on the grass by the grinning Peter if it hadn't been so damp and Simon hadn't emerged just then from the small ablution block. As Peter had ignored the building in his proposed search, Mark threw him a malicious glance before turning to greet Simon.

Simon appeared to be stressed and when they reached his minute one man tent (which was exactly the type that he would have expected, Mark told Peter soto voce) Jason looked positively woebegone. His sympathy aroused, Mark accompanied him to the distant water tap to fill their kettle and by treating him much as he would have treated Tom, or any of the children who came to him for sympathy, persuaded Jason to tell him what was wrong. Jason, in the same position as Mark had been a few months ago with no one to confide in, broke into a flood of words.

It hinged on the fact that Simon would be leaving the following morning and had given him no indication as to whether he ever wanted to see him again. He'd been told by one of his conquests about an exciting gay beach in France apparently, and spoke of visiting it the following year.

"I don't think I can bear it if I don't see him," Jason confessed miserably as they walked back to the tent. "Don't mention it in front of him please," he added.

"Of course I won't," agreed Mark reassuringly, thinking deeply and wondering if there was anything he could do to help.

They sat on the groundsheet in front of the tent drinking coffee, and while Peter and Simon argued over the merits of football teams that he barely knew existed, let alone took any interest in, he studied both Simon and Jason. Jason had told him that loved Simon but he was unable to determine if Simon returned his feelings to any degree.

Simon seemed happy enough and while he didn't ignore Jason, he made no effort to include him in the conversation being wholly taken up with arguing his case and pouring scorn on Peter's choice of a team to win some obscure cup or other. At one point, knowing that he hadn't the faintest idea what they were talking about, Peter turned and smiled in a commiserating fashion at him and Jason before turning his attention back to Simon, who was extolling the virtues of every player in his chosen team.

Mark took it as a sign. Jason appeared to be as ignorant of the subject as himself, but Simon had made no effort to make him feel included, as Peter had just done. It didn't indicate much affection on Simon's part, and he wondered if they had other things in common. He directed his efforts towards finding out from the quiet boy sitting beside him.

It was hard going but he persisted and learnt a lot about Jason's life in the process. Like himself, Jason hadn't had a particularly happy childhood and Mark got the impression of loneliness even when surrounded by people. It struck a chord, reminding him of his own life before Peter appeared. The memory made him even more determined to preserve what he had. When he considered how easily things could have gone irretrievably wrong the previous day, his blood ran cold.

Having concluded that there wasn't much hope for Jason, he became aware that Simon was listening their conversation with at least half an ear, because once or twice he broke off his discussion with Peter to comment on something that Jason said. Perhaps I'm wrong and he does care a little, but why doesn't he say so?

Walking back to their site via the village shop—Peter, in a lordly fashion, had invited Simon and Jason to lunch before recollecting that they probably didn't have enough food—he mentioned his thoughts.

"It's hard to tell. I think that Simon does like Jason, maybe quite a lot, but I don't think he knows it. Because Jason does everything he wants and never stands up to him—unlike someone else I know!—Simon doesn't think about him as a person at all. He's just there, ready and willing for whatever Simon wants. It may come as a bit of a shock when he gets home and realises that Jason isn't around because I think that he may have become dependent on him without realising it. Exactly what he'll do I don't know. He may start looking for someone else, or he might phone Jason and arrange to meet."

"If he still has his number."

"There is that. Tell you what, while they're with us for lunch, swap phone numbers with Jason—give him our number, not yours—and I'll do the same with Simon. That way if he wants to get in touch he can phone for the number."

"I knew you'd think of something," Mark responded gratefully. "I don't like to see people unhappy. Jason reminds me of Tom a little."

"I know what you mean. I miss those two brats by the way."

"Me too. Will they be alright do you think?"

"They will. They'll work out their problems in their own way when the time comes, like we did."

"I wish I could help."

"There isn't a magic wand you can wave to make things okay for everyone. If there was someone would have found it and nobody would have any problems at all. All you can do is help where you can, sometimes just by talking to people, or by letting them talk to you, as you did with Jason. I was proud of you," he added quietly.


"Because you care about people. Not just Em, Vic and me, I expect that, but about strangers like Tom and Jack and Jason."

"But I like Tom and Jack and Jason."

"Sure. But you also care about people you don't especially like. Think of the kid who is such a pain, the one who's nasty to the smaller kids. You don't like him much but when he came to play football and got kicked by accident, or maybe on purpose for all I know, you looked after him and were nice to him 'til he stopped crying."

"But Pete, he's a kid. Nobody's horrible to kids, no matter how awful they are."

Peter shook his head with a wry smile. "You're wrong about that. I know."

Mark was silent. Peter did know. One day he would ask him about it. Then they'd have a cry, at least he would, and they'd bury it and forget it.

"Don't let it spoil your happiness. You helped Tom a lot, and I know you helped Jason this morning, and we're going to help some more. After that it's in the laps of the Gods."

Mark linked his arm through his, the most he could do in public. "I won't let it spoil my, our, happiness, but I have to try to help. You don't mind, do you? It's just that I'm so happy I'd like everyone else to be happy as well. Even…"

Fairly certain that he'd been about to name his father, Peter sighed. "There are some people who are only happy when they're being unpleasant and making other people miserable. I don't understand it and I don't think you can do anything about it. You just have to accept that it's the way they are. But I love you for trying, even if I don't think you'll get anywhere."

By the time Simon and Jason arrived for lunch the sun was shining and the exodus to the beach was in full swing.

After greeting them Victor said, "We'll wait until the sun has dried the sand a bit more, I think. Was your tent alright last night, Simon? The rain was very heavy."

"It was fine until a certain idiot brushed against it and broke the surface tension," Simon told him with a grin.

"Well if you'd brought a bigger one with room for more than one person…" Jason broke off as everyone chuckled.

"I thought it was great," Peter smirked, glancing at Mark. "Though you'd have to sleep squashed together like sardines."

Mark and Jason glared at him, equally red in the face.

"Don't worry about him Jason, he's a bit manic today," Victor explained. "We've called the asylum and they're collecting him after lunch."

"It would be pleasant to eat outside," Emily decided, changing the subject. "It's drying off nicely but we haven't enough chairs and the grass is still too wet to sit on."

"Mark will sit on me and Jason can sit on Simon," Peter stated firmly, giving Mark the merest shadow of a wink. "Come on, Markie, help me with the table."

They settled themselves as Peter had suggested and tucked into salad and sandwiches as the mood took them, ending with the jam doughnuts that he had purchased in the village shop. Not having any money with him he'd promised to call in and pay for them on their way to the beach. Awed as always by his confidence, Mark had not been unduly surprised when the lady behind the till had agreed without demur. Had he known it, it was his own wistful look (he loved doughnuts) that had tipped the scales in Peter's favour. Half an hour after they had left the shop she was still wondering what had come over her. She never gave credit to the riff raff staying at the various campsites.

Unaware of this Mark blissfully licked the sugar off his fingers and held out his hand for a tissue.

"You'll have to get off me for a minute," grumbled Peter, scrabbling in his pocket. "Why I can't get you tissue trained I don't know."

Mark looked at the somewhat worse for wear object dubiously. It had been in Peter's pocket for some time.

"And don't turn your nose up at it either," said Peter tartly. "If you don't like it, carry your own."

Having ensured that Mark was suitably chastened he pulled him back onto his knees. Mark would have preferred to be on his lap being cuddled but knew it would be indiscreet.

"They go on like this all the time," Victor explained to Jason and Simon. "If Pete had any brains at all he'd simply give Mark a tissue every morning."

"Do you think I'm made of tissues?" demanded Peter.

"We were talking about brains earlier," Mark remarked, ignoring him. "Some people have some and some don't and some's brains are better than other's brains. If they have any in the first place that is…Or even if they don't," he said significantly after a pause. "Which is often quite often," he added.

There was complete silence while everyone tried to work it out.

"Associating with Peter is having an appalling effect on your grammar, Mark," Victor said, after frowning over it for some time.

"It's not me own fault, Guv," exclaimed Peter excitedly in his broadest cockney accent. "It's 'im. The pore li'l bligh'er wasn't never taught 'ow to talk proper like me. 'E can't 'elp it. 'E's probably a foreigner and can't talk English like. You 'ave to make h'allowance like for 'im, pore chap. And anyway," he continued, his normal voice rising, "Why do I always get the blame for everything he does wrong? It's not fair. It's discrimination, that's what it is, discrimination, and there ought to be a law!"

"You both sound like a pair of gibbering lunatics," Emily said severely. "I knew I shouldn't have let you have that glass of wine," she told Mark who, from a combination of alcohol and joy was giggling so helplessly that Peter was forced to hang on to him to prevent him falling off. At least that's what he claimed.

Laughing, Victor got up to make coffee remarking that they'd better have it black to sober the pair of them up. Jason offered to help but was told to stay where he was. Smiling, but with more than a touch of envy, he looked at Mark who was vainly trying to control himself. Each time he thought he'd succeeded Peter would make another remark and set him off again.

He's so lucky, Jason mused enviously. They both are. They've got each other and they've also got Emily and Victor who love and accept them. I wish Simon and I were like that. Not so much their parents because we're older and more on our own, but the way they love each other and are comfortable together. Maybe Simon and I are boyfriends, but I don't think we're really friends. We don't get silly and laugh about nothing like they're doing. What Peter said wasn't all that funny but Mark is in hysterics and Peter eggs him on because he likes to hear him laugh. You can see that they'd love to hug and kiss and the only thing stopping them is that people might see. I wish Simon and I were like that but he never hugs or kisses me and I don't dare do it to him. And I'm too old to cry he told himself, blinking hard and hoping that everyone would think it was due to the bright sunlight.

Simon, too, was envious as he watched Peter and Mark, but his thoughts ran on rather different lines. He would have preferred having Peter or Mark sitting on him rather than Jason, who wasn't a patch on either of them. It was okay having him around when he hadn't found anyone he fancied at the beach, but he did find his dog like devotion irritating. Knowing that Jason would allow him do whatever he wanted, he had never felt the need to prepare him and simply took him whenever he felt the urge. It hadn't occurred to him that it might be painful and Jason hadn't complained, being too grateful for the crumbs falling from Simon's table to risk losing them by finding fault with their quality.

He was a very good looking young man who attracted almost anyone he wanted. He'd never had to search for partners which, inevitably, had made him rather thoughtless. He told himself that he hadn't asked Jason to fall in love with him nor had he ever, until this year, given him the slightest encouragement. When they had finally got together, for the sole reason that there was no-one else around and he'd needed sex badly, he hadn't held out any hope of something more permanent.

Jason was useful to assuage any unsatisfied needs, but not much else. At the same time, he would miss him a little. It was nice to have someone stay all night and Jason had quite a nice body, now that he was beginning to fill out, he acknowledged, recalling the ugly, skinny kid who used to follow him around pretending it was by chance. It had been flattering but a bit of a nuisance when there was somebody he really wanted in the offing. Still, all in all he was a good kid, if a bit annoying at times, he concluded, giving Jason's thigh a casual pat.

When they reached the beach, after stopping at the shop to pay for the doughnuts, Peter dragged the hapless Mark into the water straight away. He was pleased with his progress but wouldn't be satisfied until he was a much better swimmer. "Suppose you were drowning and I wasn't there to rescue you. What then?"

Mark could think of nothing more unlikely, considering his dislike of cold water, but meekly submitted to having his style (or rather lack of it) ruthlessly criticised by both Peter and Simon. As befitted one who had lived by the sea all his life, Jason was an excellent swimmer with a beautiful style that was a pleasure to watch. He took no part in the coaching but swam alongside Mark encouragingly and when they moved into deeper water, kept an eye on him just in case. They floated on their backs, splashed each other and tried diving down to see if they could touch the bottom. After one feeble attempt Mark gave up. The water was very cold below the surface and he was content to paddle around in Jason's company until the other two tired of the sport and headed towards the shore.

Closer to the beach the shallow water was warmer, and even Mark was happy to stay in a little longer and attempt to body surf the small waves until the water got under the plaster on his side.

"The sea is good for it even though it stings," Peter told him. "But the plaster does look a bit scruffy. Shall I take it off?"

Under Jason and Simon's interested eyes he pealed it off, making Mark wince. The cut was healing nicely although the surrounding bruise looked tender. Suppressing his urge to kiss it better, Peter folded the plaster and pushed it into the top of his costume to put into the rubbish bag later, and led the way out of the water.

They lay in the sun while Emily and Victor went in for a swim until Simon, who was being affected by the presence of both Peter and Mark, took Jason off for a walk.

"It's lucky Simon was wearing his costume for once," remarked Peter with a grin, giving Mark's bottom a proprietary pat, "Otherwise it would have been even more obvious what the two of them were going to do."

Mark who hadn't noticed and was wondering vaguely why Simon had taken his rucksack, understood immediately and went pink.

"Well, I hope they enjoy it."

"I'm sure they will. If I wasn't so exhausted from trying to teach you to swim, I'd spring on you and carry you off into the bushes."

"You can't be all that tired," Mark pointed out, adding hopefully, "Jason said I was pretty good."

"More pretty than good, little boy. And don't get any ideas until we're back in the tent. I've got plans for you."

"Nice ones?"

"The best," Peter concurred, fishing out the sun block.

"Do I really need it? I'm quite tanned already," Mark whined.

"You're a lovely golden colour and that's the way I aim to keep you. If you think that after all my trouble I'm going to let you burn and peel it all off, you've got another think coming." He straddled Mark's body and began to work the cream into his exposed skin. He had just finished when Emily and Victor returned.

"How was it?"

"You were right, Mark," Emily said, taking off her swimming cap. "It was lovely near the shore but very cold further out. We'll have to bring you again in the summer when it's warmer."

Mark's heart gave a leap. It would be something to look forward to through the long school term.

"I'd love that, Em. This has been so good. The best holiday I ever had."

It's the only holiday you've ever had, she thought, smiling down at him. We must take him on a day trip to France sometime, or maybe a long weekend. The thought of introducing him to a country that the three of them loved was pleasant. I must remind James about a passport. Not that I really need to, he never forgets things like that.

Simon and Jason reappeared eventually looking relaxed and satisfied with themselves which pleased both Mark and Peter, then the four of them went down to the sea again. Mark didn't go in being content to sit on the warm sand and watch. Jason soon joined him, shivering slightly.

"I've swum in the sea all my life and I'm still not used to it. Peter said that you might be coming again in the summer. I hope you do. I'd like to see you again."

"Em asked earlier if I wanted to come so I'm sure we will. I'd like to see you too Jason. I hope things work out for you and Simon."

He broke off as a family, mother, father, two little girls and a teenage boy walked past them heading for the sea. The boy, who looked about fourteen, dropped his towel and turned round to pick it up, taking the opportunity to look at them appraisingly as he did so. Mark was unable to resist a smile which the boy returned, before following his family, looking at them over his shoulder a couple of times as he went.

"I know you won't like me saying this, but if it doesn't work out you're in the right place to meet people. At least that's what Pete says."

"I don't want other people. You don't know what it's like to love someone for so long."

"No I don't. I know what it's like to love someone, but not for as long as you have. Jason, Em said something to us once when we were talking about love. She said that you know if you really love someone if their happiness is more important than your own. It's a sort of test. I'm sure that you feel like that about Simon, but does he feel the same way about you? If he doesn't, then maybe you should try to forget him. If you can," he added sadly.

"That's easy to say. It's alright for you isn't it," Jason began bitterly "No, sorry Mark, I didn't mean it like that. I know you're trying to help. But supposing it was like that with you and Peter, would you be able to stop thinking about him easily?"

"No, I don't think I would. And I don't suppose I'd like anyone suggesting I try either. I'm sorry too, Jase, I shouldn't have said it."

"It's alright, don't worry. Maybe, deep down, I know you're right and I'm just being stubborn."

There was a very long pause with neither of them able to think of anything to say. Jason crossed his legs and leant forward, drawing aimless patterns in the sand, while Mark gazed at him sadly. If only I had that magic wand, he thought, knowing that he was being childish, I'd wave it so hard it would whistle through the air.

Jason broke the silence. "I'm lucky in a way, at least I've had these few days and I still have tonight. There must be lots of people who get less than that. But it's not much comfort. If I had to feel like this about him, why couldn't he feel the same about me?"

He looked at Mark's sympathetic face, his eyes swimming slightly. Mark took his hand and gave it a squeeze. It was all he could do and it felt very inadequate. Had Jason been the same age as Tom he would have pulled him close and cuddled him, but because he was older it didn't seem the right thing to do.

All at once he sensed that they were being watched and glancing round, noticed the teenager who had dropped his towel earlier standing a few feet away. Without embarrassment he gave Jason's hand another squeeze before releasing it, and looked with interest at the boy who had a tentative smile on his face. It was plain he would like to talk to them but wasn't too sure about making the first move. Noting how he was looking at Jason, Mark smiled and said, "Hi."

The boy walked closer, his smile growing. He was quite attractive though his features had grown disproportionately. His nose was obviously waiting for the rest of his face to catch up with it and his ears stuck out. But all in all, his freckled face had an attractive, gamin appeal.

Mark indicated the sand, mutely inviting him to sit if he wanted to but making the movement small enough to be ignored if he didn't. It seemed that he did. Glancing from one to the other he spread his towel and sat facing them.

"Have you been in?" he asked, indicating the sea with a backward jerk of his head.

"We were earlier. Jason came out a few minutes ago. It's too cold for me except near the shore."

"I don't mind the cold."

"It's not too bad where it's shallow but Pete makes me practise swimming because he says I'm useless and we have to do it where the water's deeper. It's freezing there."

"Pete? I thought you said his name was Jason."

"Peter's there in the sea. He's my, my special friend. He and his parents brought me on holiday with them."

He wondered what the boy would make of that, if anything. He appeared to be fairly aware and was gazing back curiously, making no effort to hide his interest. He'd better understand about me and Pete right away Mark thought, not that I suppose he's interested in me. "Are you on holiday?"

"We've come for the week."

"Is it your half term? Ours is nearly finished and we go home the day after tomorrow. Then it's back to school," said Mark gloomily.

"Ours is always later," the boy told him, with the superior look of one whose holiday is starting just when everyone else has to go home. "What about you?" he asked Jason.

Jason who had been sitting immersed in his own unhappy thoughts, came to himself with a start and looked up to see a pair of curious green eyes regarding him.

"Sorry," he muttered, "I was thinking."

"That's okay. I was wondering if you were on holiday too."

"I live here," Jason told him with a small smile. The kid was quite attractive, in a youthful sort of way.

"You're really lucky. I wish I lived here, I'd spend all my time at the beach," he remarked enviously. "I bet you're a good swimmer too."

"He's brilliant," Mark said enthusiastically, feeling that it would be good for Jason to have someone admiring him for a change. "Much better than Peter or Simon," he added, not perhaps with perfect truth, but wanting to boost Jason's stock.

"I'm in the swimming team at school," the boy stated proudly and from then on, to Mark's amusement, ignored him completely.

By the time they were joined by the panting Peter and Simon the boy, whose name turned out to be Philip, was chatting happily to Jason convinced that he had met someone who shared his every interest. Mark wondered how Simon would react but he didn't seem to be particularly concerned which confirmed his belief that he didn't really care for Jason. Before Philip left to rejoin his family, Peter had discovered that he was staying at their campsite and invited him to join the footballers that evening. After confirming that Jason would be present, he said he'd see them later, and trotted off.

They lay on their towels talking for a little longer. Jason was very quiet and both Peter and Mark felt sorry for him when Simon stared openly at every male who walked past and commented on their attractiveness, or lack of it. As he knew how Jason felt about him, Mark thought it was unkind though Peter, when they discussed it afterwards, was more tolerant.

"He can't help it, and nor can he help the way Jason feels about him. From what I can see he hasn't ever given Jason any encouragement and he enjoys looking at people like we all do. I do it, and so do you."

"But we don't, I don't know, we don't do it without caring, and we only look. I feel with Simon that he's really thinking that he'd like to go with them and do things."

"You're right, he does. But it's the way he is. There're a lot of people like him who meet someone once or twice, then want someone new. They don't want to stick to one person. It's different for Jason because he's not like that and I suppose he finds it hard to understand. But I'll tell you something else, while we're on the subject, even if Simon loved him and they lived together, he would still want to go with other people from time to time and Jason would have to decide whether he could put up with it. But you did the right thing by encouraging that Philip kid. Don't try to deny it, I know damn well that it was all your doing. Jason was far too miserable to do anything himself and I noticed that everything you said was designed to make him look good. But don't get your hopes up too much. It's going to take him time to get over Simon and I don't think he truly believes he may have to. At least not yet."

Mark sighed. "I have been hoping but I don't think it will work out for him with Simon. I wish it would, I like both of them. But you know, Pete, I think Jase is beginning to realise that it's no good. When he was so quiet after Philip left I noticed him looking at Simon, maybe comparing him to Philip. It sounds stupid because he's only just met him, but Philip was talking to him before you came and admiring him because he's such a good swimmer and I could see that Jason enjoyed it."

"It would make a change for him, that's for sure. You took a bit of a chance though. Supposing Philip had fancied you?"

Mark shook his head. "He wasn't interested in me. I saw that as soon as he started talking to us."

"So you cunningly pointed him at Jason, you little devil."

"Well, I had a feeling Philip would like him. He was staring at Jase when he dropped his towel."

"Dropped his towel? What was he wearing underneath?"

"Don't be an ape, his costume of course," Mark replied, and told him about it.

"Cunning isn't the word for you. Devious, more like."

"Who's devious?" Victor asked as he and Emily returned from their swim. "You're not talking about Mark surely?"

"Yes I am. Not only is he devious, he's cunning too."

"I don't believe it," said Emily in a shocked voice. "What's he been up to?"

"I'm very sorry to have to tell you this," Peter said in an unbearably self-righteous voice, "But he's been…matchmaking! I thought you ought to know," he added as Victor and Emily looked at each other and started to laugh. "You can't take your eye off him for a minute without him trying to get people together. The beach is full of couples who don't know what happened to them, and all because they caught his eye. It doesn't matter whether they know each other or not, he's only got to see them and they're doomed. Doomed! There's no escape," he went on excitedly. "Men, women, girls, boys, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, babies even, anyone will do. What are we going to do with all these couples that he's got together, huh? Where are we going to put them? We can't just leave them here infesting the beach, it wouldn't be right. And the worst thing is that they don't even know how it happened. You can see them looking at each other and wondering what they've done to deserve it. Where's it all going to end, I ask? There ought to be a law against people like him. Today the beach, tomorrow the world, that's what he's saying to himself. You can tell just by looking at him that he's planning and plotting. No-one's safe, no-one! It's every man for himself, hope for the best and devil take the hindmost, but there's no escape. Look at him, he can't wait to get started again. He's got to be stopped I tell you or there won't be a single person who's single left anywhere in this singular world! Why are you laughing at me?"

Mark who was curled up on his towel laughing his head off gasped, "Because you're such an ape."

"Having hysterics and calling innocent people names won't get you anywhere. You must have gone mad and need restraining while we wait for the men in white coats to take you away."

Easily restraining the helpless Mark by the simple expedient of rolling him onto his back then sitting on his thighs, he said, "I'd better take your temperature. Let me feel your forehead. Just as I thought," he went on, pulling his hand back dramatically. "The boy's as mod as a hotter, I mean mad as a hatter, as loony as a tick. I hope it's not catching. Are you catching, luna tick?"

As Mark hadn't the breath to reply, he took a quick glance around then kissed the tip of his nose. "No," he concluded, "It's alright. He's as sane as a politician and what could be saner than that?"

"Well, quite a lot of things, I imagine," said Victor grinning. "How about letting your victim up? You can always put him into a straight jacket later if he needs it."

"Needs it? I should think he does. It would straighten him out, get the kinks out of him."

Victor was shocked. "Kinky too, is he?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you, and I wouldn't want to sully your ears, especially in front of a lady but, and this is the honest truth. in bed," he paused dramatically to give the giggling Mark time to start blushing, "In bed…he snores!"

"I do not!" exclaimed Mark indignantly as Emily and Victor recoiled in horror.

"I wondered about that awful noise that keeps us awake all night," observed Victor. "Now we know!"

Mark looked at them anxiously. "I don't really keep you awake do I?"

The three Dorans shouted with laughter.

"Of course you don't, you absurd child," replied Emily. "Don't listen to him. If anyone snores in this family it's…"

Victor interrupted hurriedly. "I think it's time for tea,"

"Markie, you're not going to lie there lazily on your back all day, are you?" Peter demanded, making no move to get off him.

"Pig," Mark mouthed silently.

"Oink," replied Peter.

"I beg your pardon, Pete," Emily, who busying herself with the flask, turned enquiringly.

"I was just replying to something Markie said. It was very rude so I'm not going to repeat it," Peter told her virtuously.



"You know!"

Emily laughed. "Are you going to let him up or shall we just open his mouth and pour it in?"

"Up, please."

"Oh, alright." Peter got to his feet and helped him up, pulled Mark against him for a second before letting him go and telling him to behave and stop showing them up in public.

"Yes, Peter," Mark replied meekly as he sat down, the expression on his face stating quite plainly that his friend better watch out later.

Interpreting this with ease, Peter smiled at him affectionately and collected a mug of coffee from Emily saying, as he handed it over, "Be careful, it's hot."

"Yes, mummy," Mark retorted, gazing at him across the rim of the mug, his eyes sparkling.

"So I should hope." Peter collected his own mug and stirred it vigorously as he sat down next to him. "Be careful not to spill. Use both hands."

The remark, however, went right over Mark's head. As he had no experience of toddlers, this frequent parental admonishment was not known to him.

To Mark and Peter's satisfaction, Simon and Jason rejoined them as they were leaving the beach because giving them a lift meant that Mark got to sit on Peter's lap.

On their arrival at the campsite, the usual crowd of hooligans fell on Peter and dragged he and Simon off to the football field by main force while Mark and Jason walked to the shop for extra supplies. Emily had invited he and Simon to supper.

Mark focussed their conversation on Philip dwelling, though trying not to be too obvious, on the fact that boy was attracted to his companion. He'd come to the conclusion that if anything happened it would be good for them both. Philip, because he already admired Jason, and Jason because his obsession with Simon had cut him off from the company of other boys. He would be kind to Philip, Mark thought, and hoped that once Simon had left something might come of it. He didn't think it would be anything permanent, or even lead to anything intimate, but if they became friends, it would help Jason over the worst. Recalling how he'd felt the day before—was it only twenty four hours ago?—he had a reasonably accurate idea of what Jason would be going through with nothing to distract him from his thoughts.

Jason was happy to talk about Philip, though with an irrational feeling of guilt. He'd enjoyed the boy's chatter and found his blatant admiration both flattering and soothing. But, as he told Mark, he had loved Simon for a long time and wasn't going to think about anything or anyone else until after he left. While agreeing that this was perfectly natural, Mark was pleased when he saw Philip coming to meet them as they returned to the campsite.

"I looked for you," he said accusingly, "But Peter said you were with Mark. I thought we were going to play football. That's what you said at the beach."

Mark explained that as Simon and Jason had been invited to supper they needed extra food. Patently, Philip considered this a totally inadequate excuse, his manner implying that if Mark wasn't capable of shopping on his own at his age, it was high time he learnt! He demanded that Jason come and play now, ignoring his remark that it was far too hot to play in jeans. Philip, whose own coltish legs were displayed in a pair of rather small shorts, dismissed this as irrelevant, and Jason allowed himself to be dragged away.

Mark was still chuckling when he reached the tents. The boy appeared to be just as ruthless as Simon was, but at least he was focussed on Jason, whose admiring glance at both the shorts and the legs had been quite revealing. Pleased with himself, after all Jason wouldn't even have noticed the kid if it hadn't been for him, he gave Emily a hand with the preparations for supper, helped Victor to set up and light their portable barbecue, then strolled to the field to watch the match.

To his surprise he was greeted with acclaim and dragged into the game by a group of noisy youngsters who ordered him to referee so that there would be two bigger boys on each side. Resigning himself to his fate and making enemies (and friends) on all sides according to which team his absurd decisions favoured, a good time was had by all, particularly by the four older ones whose rude remarks about his umpiring abilities had their juniors in hysterics.

Within minutes he had lost all control of the game which had taken on the appearance of a minor riot. He was wondering what to do about it when the younger delinquents turned on him en masse, bore him to the ground and sat on him while pointing out that he was the worst referee they had ever come across. They were, they agreed, going to go round the campsite and collect money for a pair of glasses for him. Or a seeing eye dog Peter suggested. As soon as the meaning of this sank in they went into such fits of laughter that he was able to turf them off and resume the game with everyone, as well as himself, making up the rules as they went along.

At one point, after sending Peter, Simon, Jason and Philip off in disgrace for blatant cheating, their derogatory remarks from the side lines undermined what little authority he had managed to regain. Forced to reverse his decision when the kids demanded that they be allowed to play again, he agreed, but only to stop the delinquents from crying as he told the supplicants. This specious reasoning was received with undisguised hilarity, which rapidly degenerated into hysterical laughter when, playing to the gallery, the four burst into loud and dramatic sobs and promised to be good forever and ever, if only they were allowed back on the field.

Trailing back to the campsite, the participants agreed that it was the most fun game they'd ever played. Grinning, and relieved to have escaped with life and limb intact, Mark walked next to Peter, jostled good naturedly by the energetic, chattering youngsters, and told himself, once again, that he had never been so happy.

Supper too was a festive occasion with Emily and Victor greatly amused by a blow by blow account of the match of the day, which became more and more outrageous as it was embellished by five lively minds after Philip joined them. The meal over, they remained outside, replete and satisfied, the younger members sitting on the soft grass as darkness slowly fell. The only thing missing was an open fire Mark thought sleepily as he leant against Peter's legs.

Peter and Simon were drinking wine with Emily and Victor, while Mark, Jason and Philip had cold cokes from the fridge. Occasionally, on the pretext of brushing a leaf or an insect out of his hair, Peter's hand would slip down to fondle Mark's ear, hold the back of his neck, or touch his throat. When he tilted his head back, Mark saw the first star beginning to twinkle in the darkening sky. Superstitiously he repeated to himself the good luck charm he had learnt as a small child:

Starlight, Star bright,
first star I've seen tonight
I wish I may, I wish I might,
have the wish I wish tonight.

He couldn't remember it ever working even though he stuck rigidly to the rule of never telling anyone what he had wished for. Nevertheless, the way he was feeling tonight, anything could happen. Staring fixedly at the tiny point of light, he wished that everyone could be as happy as he was. And if even a tenth of it came true it would be pretty wonderful! He laughed softly at his own childishness.

"What?" Peter asked quietly.

"Tell you later," he whispered back.

It was quite late, in campsite terms, when the little party finally broke up. Jason had escorted Philip back to his own pitch earlier as it seemed to be the only way to get rid of him. Not that they minded his presence, they had enjoyed his company, but Emily felt that his parents might be worried if he stayed too long. When Jason returned with the news that Philip's parents, far from being worried had greeted his return with the remark that it had been wonderfully peaceful without him, everyone laughed.

Simon and Jason took their leave, promising to call in the next day to say goodbye. Victor's good-natured offer to drive them to the railway station in Bournemouth was turned down with thanks. It was just as easy to catch the bus Simon explained, and that way he wouldn't put them out if he was late.

They talked quietly for a few minutes longer, then the boys headed for the showers. There were a couple of people there so they couldn't take adjoining stalls as they usually did. That was something to look forward to, sharing a bath or shower when they got back to London. Mark enjoyed their showers but was looking forward to broiling in the Doran's tub.

Back in the tent they undressed each other but without their usual hair trigger response.

"Not tonight?" Peter asked, stirring Mark quizzically.

"I'm tired Pete, but if you want something?"

Glancing down at himself Peter shook his head. "I'm a bit worn out too. What I really want to do is get into bed and cuddle."

"How do you always know what I need?" asked Mark sleepily, adding, "Are you sure that's all you want?"

"Cross my heart and hope to die," Peter replied, pulling back the top sleeping bag. "In you get brat and warm it up for me."

"I love it when you call me names," Mark told him happily, settling himself on Peter's side.

"What on earth are you doing?"

"What you told me. Warming it up for you."

"Idiot, I didn't mean it. Get into your proper place at once, peasant."

Mark tugged his forelock (what there was of it). "Yes, Sir Peter. It's not fair though, I've had to warm up two spots."

"That's what happens to peasants. They do all the work and the masters get all the rewards." Peter slid in beside him and turned off the light. "But they do get to be cuddled by the lord and master. Only the pretty ones of course. What category do you come into peasant boy?"

"The cuddly ones."

Peter was doubtful. "You're sure?"

"Try it and see."

Peter did, and he was.

For the first time ever Mark was content to lie beside him, holding him and being held, without the urge to do anything more. It was a lovely feeling and sprang, he thought, not only from the fact that they were both tired, but because they were more secure now in their love. He said as much to Peter who considered it for a minute.

"You're right. I wonder if it isn't because yesterday tested the way we felt about each other. It might have killed our love but we were lucky and it made it stronger. It hasn't spoilt anything for you has it, what happened?"

"No, not at all. In a funny way it has made it better." He paused for thought then went on slowly, "Maybe because we know now that even if something bad happens we can deal with it. We'll have to work at it though and be understanding."

"All of us have our weaknesses, Markie my love, and yes, we have to be tolerant of them just as we'll have to put up with each other's moods sometimes. There will be times when I'm bad tempered or you are, and that's when we'll have to be especially nice."

"I should think it would make things worse and we'd want to kill each other."

Peter chuckled softly. "Okay then, we won't be nice. Just understanding."

"That sounds better. But I'll try not to let it happen too often."

"Me too. Now it's time that all good little boys were asleep. Goodnight my, darling, and sleep well."

Their goodnight kiss was gentle, very sweet, and they were both asleep almost before it was over.

Their abstinence had a raging effect on Peter when he woke early the following morning. Mark was lying on his stomach with his head turned towards him, and he was unable to resist putting a gentle hand on his bottom. He must have been close to waking because it was enough to make his eyes open.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."

"Liar," Mark whispered back. "I know exactly what you meant I can see it in your eyes. And feel it in your hand," he added with a tiny squeak as Peter's hand began to investigate the valley between his pretty, muscular little mounds.

"I'm only checking to see if it's still there. I'd better check its condition while I'm about it."

He used his fingers gently and persuasively.

"I think it's alright," Mark said, beginning to breathe deeply. "In fact I think it's better than before."

"Yep. Certainly seems to be. Seriously, do you feel alright here?"

"Seriously, I feel ready, willing and able for anything. Would you like to do it to me?" he asked bashfully.

"Very much, if you want it as well."

"I can't tell you how much." There was such relief in his tone that Peter laughed softly. "In fact I would have killed you if you'd said no. Well, get on with it. Quick!"

"Orders now, is it? I don't know what's wrong with boys these days," Peter said in an austere voice. "They just don't make them like they used to."

"They maybe don't, but you definitely do, and you'd better keep on doing it."

"I'll never understand how you can take something I say and turn it round to mean something completely different," complained Peter in an injured tone. "I hardly dare open my mouth to make a perfectly innocent remark in case you put you own words into it."

"Not words, something much nicer. More solid, too."

"You've got a cheek." The thought of taking Mark again was making him dizzy.

"Cheeks. One next to the one you're playing with and two on my face."

Peter gave him a light smack on one of the objects in question. "Incorrigible. Can I kiss your incorrigible?"

"Kiss my what?" enquired Mark in a shocked voice.

"This," Peter replied, sliding down in the sleeping bag. "Both parts of it." He planted two gentle kisses, one on each neat buttock, then easing them apart, kissed him there as well.

Mark flushed with pleasure. "You can kiss my incorrigible whenever you like, and do whatever else you want to it."

"I'm going to, don't worry about that one little bit."

Mark couldn't resist it. "If that's what you call a little bit, I don't think I could manage even a medium sized bit," he remarked in an awed voice.

"As long as you enjoy my bit, I'm more than a bit happy. But of course you'll have to beg a bit for a bit of it."

"If you don't watch it a bit, your bit might get bitten," Mark replied between chokes of laughter.

"I wouldn't enjoy that a bit," retorted Peter, getting the giggles himself.

"Then I won't do it," Mark managed to say, trying valiantly to stifle his laughter. "It might be a bit bitter if I bit a bit of your bit, and bit a bit off!" He had to put his hand over Peter's mouth.

They slid deeper into the bag, trying to muffle their laughter with their pillows before they woke Emily and Victor, to say nothing of the rest of the campsite, hugging each other, feeling, caressing, touching and kissing.

And then, after Mark had pleaded in a very supine manner (as he was told), Peter took him, gently and lovingly, aware that never before had he been so loved and so desired. He put his heart and soul into it, subjugating his own pleasure in order to increase Mark's. And Mark, holding him, touching him, murmuring words of love as Peter filled him, knowing that it was his body, his looks, himself, that was turning Peter on, was both excited and humbled and did his best to make it good for Peter as well.

The reward of exquisite pleasure as Mark's muscular contractions triggered Peter's left them in a state of breathless wonder. Peter was unable to support himself after the violence of his climax and collapsed onto Mark who, savouring the fact that Peter's sperm was trapped inside him, held him tightly, wanting to keep Peter inside him.

At their age it took only a few minutes to be ready again. They were so turned on by the hard, firm link still joining them that both climaxed again after some joyful though prolonged minutes, made all the sweeter because of the delay. Even after that, it was several minutes before Peter softened enough to slip out naturally and Mark had hardly deflated at all. They lay in each other's arms, revelling in the relief of tension and happy beyond description.

Mark murmured softly, "Will it always be as good as this?"

"I suppose we'll get more used to it but because it's part of our love I think that it will always be wonderful. If it was just sex it would still be very good, though probably not so much."

They drifted off to sleep again and woke an hour later as the site was beginning to stir. After a quick shower they decided it was still too early to get up so they slid back into the sleeping bag and talked.

Simon and Jason arrived as they were finishing breakfast and accepted a cup of coffee although Simon was clearly impatient to be off. Jason didn't look as if he had enjoyed himself very much the previous night. He was pale, tense, and didn't always hear what was said to him. If Mark hadn't known what was troubling him he would have thought he was ill.

As planned they exchanged telephone numbers and Mark made sure that Simon knew that he had written Jason's number in his diary. They coaxed Jason to meet them later, knowing that without their encouragement he wouldn't come to the beach at all but remain at home, moping.

Mark said goodbye to Simon with mixed feelings. He liked him, but didn't like the way he treated Jason and it wouldn't worry him overmuch if they didn't meet again. Jason was a different matter entirely and he determined to phone him after they got home and make sure they kept in touch.

"It's sad to see people packing up and going home," remarked Emily as they watched Simon and Jason disappearing up the road. "But we'll see Jason again in the summer which will be nice. Still, it's been a lovely holiday."

While wholeheartedly agreeing with the last sentence Mark noted that it was only Jason she mentioned seeing again. He had come to respect both Emily and Victor's intuition and even so slight a negative attitude was something to think about.

By the time they reached the beach, if not forgotten, he had at least been able to push Jason's troubles to the back of his mind as he gave himself up to the pleasures of sun, sea and sand. It was going to be another scorching day so after they came out of the water Peter determined to smother him in sun block in spite of his vehement protests. He got no sympathy from Emily and Victor either when he begged, "Just this once, so I get a real tan."

They assured him that the delicate colour his skin had taken on suited him perfectly.

"You can't expect too much in just a few days," Victor told him, smiling sympathetically, "But when we're here in the summer you'll tan more."

He never argued with them so he allowed Peter to have his way, wishing that he could reciprocate. Peter's hands felt so good.

A disappointed Philip found them and mentioned, in an offhand manner which fooled no-one, that he'd thought Jason would be here. When assured that he was coming later, he smiled broadly, gave them complicated directions to the clearing where his family had settled, drew an elaborate—and unhelpful!—map on the sand with his finger, and extracted their solemn promise to tell Jason where he was the minute he arrived.

Emily laughed kindly after he left. "He's a very self possessed boy and doesn't waste any time. I wonder what he'll be like when he grows up."

"He'll go into business and make so much money he'll get a knighthood," suggested Peter.

Victor grinned. "Not him. He wouldn't bother to go and pick it up because he had far more interesting things to do."

Hoping that Philip's 'far more interesting things' might be done in Jason's company, Mark was persuaded to go to their tree earlier than usual. He felt it was rude to leave Emily and Victor so soon but Emily approved Peter's decision. It was going to be the hottest day they'd had so far, she pointed out, and he needed to be out of the sun. Victor agreed with her, ordered Peter to take him away because they were tired of him talking his head off, and told Mark not to argue. Enjoying being teased, Mark giggled, gave them a hug, then led the way so that Peter could put a hand on his shoulder to steer him (quite unnecessarily) in the right direction.

As always, before settling in the shade, Peter encouraged him to lie in the sun completely naked for a few carefully timed minutes. Knowing that they were a long way from the beach and unlikely to be seen, Mark enjoyed his nudity finding it both liberating and erotic.

Lustfully affected by the sight of his engorged state Peter observed that any passer by would take one look then, depending on inclination and orientation, either rape him or insist on being raped by him.

Blushing from head to toe and breathing in a rather ragged manner—it was only warmth after all so why was it that the sun on his bare genitals was such a turn on?—Mark muttered that any raping had better be done by him as he didn't feel up to doing it himself just then, if Peter didn't mind. Or even if he did! "Though one of these days…" he added, regarding his companion speculatively.

"Oh yeah? You're all talk. You couldn't rape a mouse, little boy."

"I don't think anyone could, except another mouse. Do mice rape, Pete?"

"I don't know because no mouse ever tried. I'd have noticed if a mouse had raped me, don't you think?"

Mark giggled. "Don't be an ape, you know what I mean."

"Of course I do, I do understand English, you know. You said, 'Do mice rape Pete?' Well I don't know about other Petes, but this Pete wasn't ever raped by a mouse. This Pete is still a virgin as far as mice are concerned," he added sanctimoniously. "And, by the way, it's time you turned over and showed your cute white bum to the world."

Obediently Mark rolled onto his stomach. "The sky, maybe. The world, no."

"You certainly gave that seagull a thrill."

The bird which had been hovering above them had sheered away at Mark's sudden movement.

"It didn't seem very impressed."

"The sight of you reminded him that he'd seen a little boy seagull earlier and he rushed off to rape him. He knew I wouldn't let him anywhere near this even though the sight had driven him mad with lust." Peter grinned, and patted the part in question. "You're very bad for seagull morals and I hope you're suitably ashamed of yourself. Just think, there are seagulls all over the place raping each other this very minute because of you. And what will happen? They'll be caught and prosecuted and sent to jail and their children will starve because you insist on flaunting your incorrigible for all the world to see!"

"You told me to. Anyway, you're talking rubbish as usual. The seagulls won't have any children."

"They will by the time they've finished raping everything in sight. Think of all those poor seagull kids. They'll be illegitimate and put into children's homes and later they'll have to live on the streets, and beg, and sleep in cardboard boxes, and…"

"You're talking a load of ba, er, junk!"

"Me? Talking a load of testicles?" squeaked Peter in an outraged voice.

"Yes, you. You know perfectly well that there aren't going to be all those illegitimate babies you keep going on about. In fact, there aren't going to be any seagull babies at all!"

"None at all? After all that raping there're not going to be any seagull babies? Do you think that the seagulls—driven mad by lust at the sight of you!—are going to nip into the nearest chemist for a packet of condoms?"

"There are not going to be any seagull babies because, as you said yourself, they are raping boy seagulls!" Mark stated triumphantly.

Peter looked appalled. "You, you, you're confessing, you're actually lying there and brazenly telling me, without even a blush, that those seagulls—driven mad by lust at the sight of you!—are perverts?"

Mark giggled. "Yes."

"And you, you're actually admitting that as well as driving them mad by lust, you associate with seagull perverts! I wouldn't have believed it of you. Look at him," he said to the world in general, "Lying there with no clothes on, driving seagulls mad with lust, looking so pure and innocent and as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. So young, so untarnished, so virginal, while underneath? A monster of depravity who consorts with seagull perverts, encouraging them in their wicked ways, aids and abets them—while driving them mad with lust!—to bring opprobrium on the entire seagull race. A breaker up of homes, a preventer of seagull babies being born. In fact—a seagull contraceptive!"

He was stopped in full flood by Mark leaning over and grasping him.

"Look at him now," Peter squeaked, "Observe his iniquity, see what he's doing! He's trying to drive me mad with lust! And succeeding!"

"Have you finished?" Mark asked sweetly, between bouts of laughter.

"Yes Markie, dear Markie, lovely Markie, generous Markie. Don't maim me for life. Don't deprive me of my one remaining pleasure, don't carry out this iniquitous mutilation," he whined. Then, in a totally different voice, "Because if you do you'll regret it, you little rat! Who'll rape you if you ruin me, huh? Just tell me that!"

"I'll find someone, in fact I'll find plenty of someones. You said yourself—before the seagulls were driven mad by lust!—that everybody would want to rape me so don't worry about me just worry about yourself. And these." He gave them the most gentle of squeezes.

Peter pulled himself out of his hand and came down on top of him, groaning and writhing in well feigned agony. Mark who was being somewhat driven mad by lust himself, grunted as Peter's weight pinned him to the towel covered sand.

"Get off. You're squashing me."

Peter raised himself on his arms and kissed him. "So, pretty one, the tables are well and truly turned, are they not? Who's begging now?"

"Help! Rape!" Mark cried, rather quietly for someone hoping to be rescued.

"You'll be sorry if anyone hears you. Instead of just being raped by me, they'll take one look at you and—driven mad by lust!—they'll all rape you one after the other. So how will you like that? And you'd better not answer if you know what's good for, you rat. Or else."

"Squeak. Which means or else what?"

"Or else," Peter said wildly, trying to think of something suitable, "Or else I might just, I might just cut out the middle man and do it all myself."

The threat was a dismal failure. Mark smiled beautifully.

"Yes please, dearest Pete. Right now!"

Devastated by the smile, Peter shook his head. "Did I ever tell you that you were incorrigible?"

"Often. I like being it."

"I don't know what to do with you."

"Well, I do. Would you like to do it now?"

Peter moved so they were lying side by side.

"Markie, I only have to see you to want to. I always have and I always will. But we did it twice this morning—I counted!—and I think you should have the rest of the day off. Anyway I haven't had you in my mouth for ages and nor have I watched you come for ages, and I want both. In fact I don't know which to do first."

"Let's just see what happens. Pete, do you think I'm a, a sex maniac because I want it so often?"

"Of course not. Markie, you're at the height of your sexual powers. For the next few years, Group years I mean, you're going to need far more sex than you'd be likely to get if I weren't around to look after you. Your sex drive is perfectly normal for a boy your age. It's one of the most exciting things about you, that you look as if the idea of sex had never entered your head, yet inside you're a mass of desire, and need, and driven…"

"I know, I know—mad by lust!"

"Exactly. You're just the way I like you. And I'll tell you another thing, I love your pretty boy face and your pretty boy body, and the contrast with your adolescent boy cock and balls. The difference, the contrast, is so exciting it drives me mad with lust, especially as you have a hard-on most of the time which makes your cock look even bigger for some reason."

"Well of course it does, you ape. What do you expect? And as for having an erec…mean a, a hard-on, that's your fault. I never had so many before I met you."

"Same with me. In fact I never had so much sex before I met you. And that's your fault, and I love it! As soon as we've recovered I'm thinking about the next time. In fact it's only the thought of what people might say that stops me leaping on you in public."

"And having your wicked way with me? How lovely! Have it with me now!"

"Into the shade first."

"Couldn't we stay out here? I feel so sexy in the sun."

"Well I suppose it's not going to take long, but sun block first. No sun block, no sex!"

Cowed by this threat, Mark submitted happily to the first, and eagerly to the second.

When they returned to the clearing they found Jason talking to Emily and Victor. He was looking so down in the mouth that they dragged him into the sea and to cheer him up, Peter asked him to coach Mark. Mark was beginning to feel reasonably confident and, apart from the temperature, was enjoying the sea. When they'd had enough, obedient to their promise, they took him in search of Philip. All of them, including Jason, enjoying the sight of male nakedness sprawled everywhere. Mark was beginning to see the attraction of walking around nude, but suppose he got hard? It didn't seem to bother most of the men but if it happened to him he'd die of shame. How did he and Pete compare, come to think of it? Glimpses of the occasional arousal made him think that Peter compared very favourably indeed, but he wasn't too sure about himself. From what Pete had said earlier he thought he was alright, but he'd rather not put it to the test. At least not yet. One day perhaps, if he really did become used to the idea of being naked in public. He shook his head, it seemed wildly unlikely.

Philip was delighted to see them and after introductions to his family, who seemed equally delighted to be rid of him, they rejoined Emily and Victor for coffee and cokes. Eager to show off his prowess, Philip talked Jason, Emily and Victor into going for a swim but Peter and Mark refused. Mark would have been happy to sit on the beach and watch them but someone really needed to keep an eye on their possessions and Peter wanted as much time alone with him as they could manage.

While they talked, Mark mentioned his thoughts about being naked.

"I'd love to see you walking around with nothing on, knowing that it was making everyone jealous of me, and I wouldn't mind in the least if you got a hard-on either. In fact I'd love it because it would make them even more envious. But I know how you'd feel and I have to tell you, it would definitely happen. I told you that I used go naked in France, remember? Well the first time I took my clothes off it gave me such a boner I thought it would burst. It just wouldn't go down and I was so embarrassed about it. I was miles away from my clothes and didn't even have a towel. I did everything I could think of, I even wanked in the sea which took ages because the water was so cold, but nothing helped."

"What did you do?"

"Eventually, I said to myself, stuff it. If people don't like it they needn't look, and got out of the water. And you know, that's when I realised that a lot of people actually enjoy looking. There were some English people around—they probably thought I was French and didn't understand what they were saying—who claimed to be disgusted, but they all took a good long look! The others, the French, Germans and Italians just thought it was natural and smiled. The only ones who stared were the little kids hadn't seen anyone hard before. But once they'd satisfied their curiosity they went back to what they were doing and forgot about it."

"I don't know how you could have been so brave. I'd have stayed in the water until it was dark and probably frozen to death."

"You do what you have to do. Anyway, after that if it happened I didn't worry too much and usually it went down pretty quickly. It would different now, though, with you around, it would never go down until you'd done something about it and probably not even then."

"I wish we lived somewhere where nobody cared."

"Me too. I'd love to walk around holding your hand and kissing you whenever I felt like it. But in this country we can't and I don't think we'll ever be able to. The English boast that they're so tolerant, but they're nothing of the kind. They hate anyone different and they probably always will. But one day, I hope, we'll go somewhere where it won't matter."

"I'd like that so much. But at least we can kiss and hold hands and touch each other when we're alone."

"Talking about kissing," Peter stood and looked around, "I think we could get away with it if we're quick."

What was planned as a brief caress turned into something more and they didn't notice Philip and Jason approaching. Philip, in the lead where the path narrowed between clumps of gorse, had turned his head to say something and didn't notice them until a warning look and a hand on his shoulder stopped him in mid stride. Twisting to see what had caught Jason's attention, his eyes widened. He looked back at Jason, his mouth open as if to speak. Jason shook his head and quietly led him back the way they'd come.

Once they were out of hearing Philip burst into speech. "Are they, I mean do they, you know, do they, with each other, do you think they do things?"

Jason had to smile. "They're a couple Philip, they have been for some time."

"So do they, really do things?"

"Of course they do. They love each other."

"What do they do?"

"How would I know? And anyway, it isn't our business. Didn't you realise about them?" It seemed blindingly obvious to him.

Philip shook his head. "I never even thought about it. Have you known about them for long?"

"Since I first met them," Jason replied, amused at how young and inexperienced he was.

"What about Peter's parents?"

"I'm pretty sure they know. Peter and Mark are very open about it."

"Don't they mind?"

"Obviously not. They love Peter, and from what I've seen, they love Mark as well."

"Wow! Think of that!"

"Well as long as you just think about it and don't go saying anything to them," Jason replied, feeling his usual pang of envy at Mark and Peter's situation. "We'll talk about something else so that they know we're coming," he added, giving Philip a little push.

When they reached the clearing Mark and Peter had separated, though they were sitting close together. Mark, pleased by his matchmaking, smiled at Jason who was looking much more relaxed. Philip is good for him, he mused, I knew he would be.

Philip sat down quietly, obviously thinking deeply. Jason glanced at him hoping that he wasn't going to put his foot in it about what they'd seen. He needn't have worried. Philip's rather large foot, when he did put it, went somewhere different.

"How do you know if you're gay?" he asked out of the blue.

There was silence for a moment. Mark went pink and Jason looked at him warningly, but Peter replied in a matter of fact voice, "It's easier than you think. Most people just know. But if you're not sure, ask yourself two questions. First, who would you rather have sex with, a boy or a girl, and second, do think of boys or girls when you wank?"

"And if it's both?"

"You could be bisexual, or it might just be easier to experiment with boys at the moment and later you'll go for girls. That happens quite often."

"Was it like that with you?

Jason glared at him.

Peter laughed. "It's alright, Jase." He turned back to Philip. "I was pretty certain I was gay when I was a bit younger than you and having sex with a girl confirmed it."

"Why did you do it with her in the first place then?"

"I was curious. All my friends were talking about it and wondering what it would be like, and I wanted to find out as well."

"Did you do it again? With a girl I mean."

"Philip, that's none of your business," Jason said shortly, though he was just as interested.

"I'm only asking, he doesn't have tell me."

"I did it again, once, but that was it. I was flattered because she was an older woman, much older than me. I wasn't really interested but she chased after me and I thought, what the hell, if she wants it so badly I don't really mind. But once it was over I knew I wouldn't ever do it again. If anyone else wanted me, unless it was a boy, tough luck!" He smiled at Mark and changed the subject.

They packed up and went down to the sea for another swim in the late afternoon. Mark elected to stay on the beach with their belongings, one immersion a day was enough. He was soon joined by Emily who remarked that turning blue didn't really suit her. Mark thought that she would have looked just as pretty whatever colour she was and bashfully told her so.

"It's sweet of you to say so, Mark dear, but I don't believe you. In a lot of ways this beach reminds me of the Grande Côte in France," she went on. "We were very happy there and Pete loved it. It was just after we adopted him and he still wasn't completely well. He's told you about that?"

Mark nodded, always happy to hear about Peter.

"We were still worried about him and felt that a complete change would do him good. James helped Vic to get a job, Vic speaks very good French just as Pete does, and we spent some of the happiest years of our lives there. But this holiday, having you with us, has been even happier. There's no need to blush, I mean it. I expect Pete has explained that none of us can have children, so when he came into our lives it was like a miracle. And now that he's brought you to us as well, it's a double miracle."

She took his hand, feeling a lump in her throat. "We're very happy you two met. You have been just as good for Pete as he has been for you. And both Vic and I want you to know that we love you, not the way Pete does of course, but the way we love him, as if you were another son. We always wanted a daughter, but if we had to choose between a daughter and you—you'd win hands down. Don't ever forget that."

Mark nodded, completely unable to speak. If he tried he would start howling and it was time he grew out of it. What on earth would Philip think if he behaved like such a baby?

Emily squeezed his hand understandingly and to distract him, related some of the things that Peter had got up to in France which had amused or exasperated her at the time. It had taken time for the three them to adapt. Peter had had moments of suspicion, depression, even withdrawal, and it had some months before he came to trust them completely. But that trust, once given, had been without reservation, and with all his heart.

Telling Mark about it and watching the expressions that flitted across his face re-affirmed how much she wanted him to belong to them. He and Peter wouldn't be able to live on their own for the next nine years or so because they would look too young. She was looking forward to having Mark with them all that time. I hope James works something out soon, she thought. Vic and I, as well as Pete, need him just as much as he needs us.

"Why are you holding Em's hand?" demanded Peter when the four of them emerged dripping and breathless from the sea. "Are you trying to make me jealous?"

"Of course I'm not!"

"Well I am jealous," Peter stated, sitting next to her and taking her other hand. "You have to learn to share, Markie."

"Do you have to drip all over me?"

"Sorry, Em," Peter apologised, completely unabashed. "I'm just re-establishing my rights and privileges."

"If you think that one of them is to drip cold water on me, you have another think coming, my lad."

"But I thought it was the most important one!" Peter exclaimed. "Of course I don't exercise it very often but that's because I'm thoughtful and kind and generous and wonderful and very, very good looking and handsome. sexy too! Also I have a charming personality, I'm modest, retiring and terribly, terribly sweet. Everyone says so," he remarked smugly to Philip who was gazing at him in a bemused fashion. "And in spite of all that, what happens? That little rat over there, that devious, conniving, cunning character comes along and worms his way into Em's affections and I'm thrown out into the cold, orphaned, abandoned, to sink or swim…"

"We'll see how much swimming you do when I hold your head under the water for five minutes," Emily told him.

"Did you hear that?!" he squeaked. "Now I'm going to be drowned like an unwanted puppy or kitten or something. But he won't get away with it. I'll show him! I know exactly how to get back in her good graces," and with a wicked grin, he embraced her.

"Dammit, Peter, you're cold and wet," Emily spluttered, laughing. "Do you wonder that I prefer Mark? At least he's warm and dry."

"At the moment!"

Before Mark could defend himself he had been picked up and carried kicking and protesting into the sea. Peter tossed him into the water, told him to take a deep breath, dragged him under the surface and kissed him as best he could.

They popped up to find they'd been joined by Jason and Philip. A glorious water fight ensued in which several smaller children joined, timidly at first but encouraged by Peter, quickly getting into the swing of things, laughing, shouting, and splashing everyone in sight with enormous gusto. Pete attracts people, Mark told himself when they emerged a few minutes later.

"Well, here's your warm and dry Mark," stated Peter triumphantly, shaking the sand off his towel before wrapping it enthusiastically around the shivering boy. "At least he will be in a minute."

Regarding the vigorous towelling, Victor remarked that he preferred Mark without his skin scoured off.

"It's okay, he's tougher than you think, even if he does want hot baths all the time," Peter conceded, continuing his ministrations. "There. As good as new! Anyone else need help?"

"No thanks," replied Victor. "After what poor Mark has been through, which seems to have left him speechless, none of us have the courage."

"Oh don't worry, he'll soon recover and start talking his head off as usual and give us no peace. You don't know what he's like," Peter turned to Philip and Jason. "It's jabber, jabber ,jabber, natter, natter, natter, talk, talk, talk, nag, nag, nag, all day long and most of the night too. That's why I'm so feak and weeble, I mean feeb and weakle, I mean weab and feeckle—you see what I mean? It's exhaustion that does it, and lack of sleep because of his nagging."

"I do not," Mark exclaimed, stung.

"And he's a liar too. Will he face up to his faults like a man and do something about them? Not likely. He won't even admit that he has any faults. And as for what he did to some seagulls this afternoon! Well! You wouldn't believe it and you're too young and innocent to be told, but I need to warn you against him and his evil ways. You see he…"

"Pete, if you don't shut up," Mark interrupted, his face scarlet and at the same time trying to control his laughter, "I'll, I'll tell them what Em did to you at the funfair."

Peter immediately became abject.

"Dear Mark, sweet Mark, kind Mark, you wouldn't do that to me would you? I trusted you with that dark secret of my past. You wouldn't betray me, would you? You wouldn't betray Peter, your friend, your oldest friend, your best friend? In fact the only friend you've got! You wouldn't to that to me? You'd better not, you rat!"

"He wouldn't, but I would," Emily said vengefully, and told Philip and Jason how she had been sick on him. They went off into howls of laughter, Philip visibly wondering what sort of people he had got mixed up with, but enjoying every minute of it. Between talk, stories and laughter, the afternoon passed happily, until it was time to leave.

"We'll go ahead and meet you at the car," Victor said kindly. "Philip, why don't you ask your family to join us for coffee after supper. We'd like to meet them."

"Can Jason come, too?"

"Of course he can," Emily replied. "We were planning to go into Swanage this evening and we can drop him home afterwards. Do you have room for him in your car? If not you're more than welcome to come with us, Jason."

"Oh we'll make room," said Philip blithely and led Jason away as Emily and Victor, after a last look at the sea, walked towards the path.

"It's been good, hasn't it, Markie," Peter said quietly as they stood side by side.

"It's been the best time I ever had. I wish it wasn't ending."

"There will be lots of other times."

"Will there?"

"I promise you, there will."

Mark was silent for a minute. "I don't suppose they'll be as good as this, though. It was my first real holiday."

"I know. Everything was new and exciting. Camping, the beach, new friends, and us together in the tent. But we'll have times just as good, different maybe, but just as good or even better. We've got the summer holidays to look forward to and that will get us through the rest of term, and when we come here again it will be for longer."

They turned away from the sea but instead of walking to the gap where the path was, Peter led him up the side of the dune. At the top he felt it was safe enough to put his arms around the smaller boy and pull him close. They looked at the slowly reddening sky, then Peter kissed the top of his head.

"Goodbye beach," Mark said, rather like the little boy that Peter called him so often. "See you soon."

"Very soon," agreed Peter, turned him round, and kissed his lips.

Without saying anything more they joined the stream of tired but happy people slowly heading home.

Mark had expected to be sad but found himself strangely content. I've had this week, he mused, and no-one can take the memories away from me. Dwelling on this, and refusing to think of what would happen when he returned home, he got into the car and they drove back to the campsite.

The Dorans were determinedly cheerful during supper and he had no time to brood, especially after Philip and his family arrived with Jason in tow. He didn't take to them particularly, which was noticeable to Emily and Victor because of his rather formal politeness. Recalling how easy going and natural he had been with the Shands, Peter wondered what it was about them that he didn't like, but after observing closely, came to the conclusion that they were totally bound up in the two girls. They treated Philip with a sort of offhand affection, mentioned in passing that he swam well, but said nothing about the trophies and medals he had won.

Instead, they spent all their time talking about his sisters, explaining at tedious length how well Beccy was doing at school, or boasting about Virginia's hockey skills and the number of goals she'd scored during her last match. And not once did they mention that Philip was being considered for the under fifteen County swimming squad. Studying him in turn, Peter got the impression that after years of trying to win their approval—was that why he'd become such a fine swimmer in the first place?—Philip had simply given up. But it still hurt.

Peter, Jason and Mark weren't the only ones to notice their lack of interest in their son and Mark detected a look of anger on Emily's face at the dismissive way that his parents agreed that Philip could accompany them to Swanage. They didn't even ask what time he would be back. It wasn't as if they were pleased to be rid of him, Victor thought angrily, they were simply not concerned. No wonder the boy preferred other company. Jason, for instance, was concentrating on him and listening to what he said with genuine interest.

They were fortunate to find a parking space when they arrived at Swanage as the little town was full of people. While they were strolling through the crowds thronging the narrow streets, Mark spied a small brooch in one of the specialist shops. It was made from a seashell enclosing a tiny piece of coral and he spent almost the last of his money to buy it for his mother. Belatedly calling his father to mind, he decided that the Swiss knife, which he'd never used, would have to do. With any luck he might even like it. There was certainly nothing else here that would appeal to him.

He and Peter became separated by the press of people occasionally, so Peter, convinced, apparently, that someone would take advantage of the situation and kidnap him for his beauty, linked arms with him.

"If there's any money to be made out of you, I'm going to make it," he informed the giggling boy. "Now, where's that white slaver with a wooden leg and a parrot on his shoulder that I saw admiring you? He'd pay me a fortune then sell you for so much money that he and the parrot would retire and do good works to make up for their evil lives and became government cabinet ministers like all the other crooks. There's no need for you two to laugh," he added severely to Jason and Philip. "It will be okay for Markie. He'll be living a life of idle luxury. But think of me! Struggling to survive on the money I'll get for him, only able to buy a new Rolls Royce once a year instead of when the ashtrays are full, and having to wait at least three years before I trade in my opulently enormous yacht for a bigger one. Talk about a hard life! Scrimping and saving to buy another château in France and not knowing where my next bottle of champagne is coming from, while all he'll have to do is to look pretty, and he does that without even trying. You should be sympathising with me instead of laughing your heads off!"

Chuckling they entered an ice cream parlour and ordered four of the most elaborate dishes on offer, arguing ferociously over what flavour ice-cream to have as the base, and compromising eventually on chocolate and banana with as many different flavoured syrups as they were able to talk an amused waitress into letting them have. When the garishly coloured confections were finally brought to their table with something of a flourish, Emily and Victor shuddered, told them they'd be sick, and decorously attacked their own more discreet fare.

Before leaving, Peter and Mark looked for their waitress and found her talking to the manager. Mark thanked her shyly while Peter told the manager how much they'd enjoyed themselves and asked him to thank whoever had made the ice-creams for them. Gratified, because no-one ever complimented him and few even said thank you, he escorted them to the kitchen where he introduced a thin lad in his late teens who was still young enough to understand their wants. The young man blushed furiously when they thanked him enthusiastically and mumbled that he'd enjoyed doing it for them. Peter was genuinely interested in what was going on in the busy kitchen and would have enjoyed talking to him but could see that he was on his own and dealing with a rush of orders, so he thanked him again before leaving with the manager.

He mentioned wistfully that he would love to have a go at doing ice-creams himself, which made the man smile, then break into outright laughter when Mark warned him that Peter would spend so much time making some huge, elaborate and grandiose dish that his customers would starve to death before it was half finished. He said goodbye to them with genuine regret, thinking that they were a charming pair.

"Where on earth have you two been?" Victor asked when Peter and Mark joined them on the pavement.

"We were invited to look at the kitchen," Peter explained airily, "And I nearly got offered a job at a huge salary making ice-cream things, only idiot face here went and spoilt it."

"I only told him the truth. If you worked there they'd be bankrupt after the first day."

"You're completely wrong. As soon as they saw what I could do, people would come from miles around to eat what I made."

"No they wouldn't," argued Mark. "If they didn't know what you could do, how would they know to come there in the first place?"

"Other people would tell them of course."

"Well that's not what you said," Mark told him, hanging on to his victory.

"I would have got rich working there," Peter told Jason and Philip in a gloomy voice. "If he hadn't gone and spoilt it by telling the manager all those lies about me, I would have made a fortune by now and owned ice-cream places all over the world! It's your fault we're so poor, Markie."

"He's such a liar," Mark complained, in the voice of one facing something past belief. "The man said nothing about jobs or salaries, and all Pete said was that he'd like to try making some of those ice-cream things himself. Yet all of a sudden he's owning places everywhere, or rather not owning them because he says it all my fault. Why is it always my fault about these schemes of his? If he didn't get these stupid ideas in the first place…"

"Stupid? You rat, Markie!"


"And now you're laughing at me," Peter complained in the tone of one about to burst into tears.

"We can't help it, you do go on and on," Emily said, smiling at several passers by who seemed to agree with her. "Stop making such a spectacle of yourself and say sorry to Mark."

"Sorry to Mark?" Peter ejaculated in an indignant squeak. "When I get the little rat alone, he'll be the one who's sorry!"

Emily, with a twinkle in her eye, said to Victor, "Would you suppress your son, please."

"Why does he suddenly become my son when he's being outrageous?" enquired Victor plaintively.

"Don't you start! Just do it please."

Victor grasped the back of Peter's neck and put a firm hand over his mouth.

Grinning, Mark made the universal sign of insanity to the onlookers then linked arms with Peter again. "It's okay, Vic, I'll keep him in order. I know exactly how to make him behave."

Peter immediately became a craven, shivering coward, and allowed himself to be led away, to the amusement of his audience.

"Ought to be on TV, that lad," he heard an elderly cockney lady remark, and started to giggle.

"That was fun," he whispered in Mark's ear, and Mark, who was rapidly getting the giggles himself, agreed.

"How about going in here?" Victor asked, saying in an audible aside to Emily that if Peter and Mark were going to show them up, at least there would be less people to see them do it.

They wandered through the amusement arcade, surprised and impressed when Mark, with his excellent hand control, managed to snag a teddy bear with a sort of three pronged metal grab suspended on a wire. It was first time since the machine had been invented that anyone had ever caught anything, the elder Dorans informed him in wonder. Proudly displaying the bear (which he had named Thread) to all and sundry, Peter boasted that 'our Mark' won it all by his little self—isn't he the clever little chap? Then he steered them round the other attractions while asking Mark, in a very loud stage whisper, how he had managed to cheat without anyone noticing. Crimson with embarrassment, and not helped by Jason and Philip having a collective fit of hysterical laughter, Mark was forced to submit to this, but did manage to whisper to Peter that he would deal with him later in the tent.

"Thread will look after me," Peter asserted confidently, "Won't you Thread?"

Bringing the toy to his mouth, he replied in a squeaky voice, "Of course, Peter me old mate. No-one's going to touch you while I'm around or they'll live to regret it. If they live at all!"

"Why did you call it Thread?" Philip enquired, his green eyes sparkling and ignoring the elder Doran's resigned expressions. Knowing Peter, they had carefully refrained from asking.

"Well it's interesting that you should ask," Peter replied him in a voice designed to carry. "It's a long story, but he's called Thread because in a couple of years, after Markie has taken him to bed every night to cuddle, that's what he's going to be. Threadbear."

Philip and Jason began to laugh again, in company with several people who had been listening to Peter with undisguised enjoyment.

"Will he really take him to bed with him?" asked a little girl, so small that even Mark towered over her.

"He will," Peter assured her solemnly, "Every night."

Overcoming his embarrassment, Mark took the bear from Peter and crouching down offered it to her. "Would you like to have him?" he asked gently.

She shook her head, though with much regret. "No, he's yours. You have to keep him."

"I'll make sure he does," Peter said, smiling at her and at Mark equally.

Mark smiled and she opened her arms. Without thinking he gave her a hug, then looked apologetically at her parents who had been equally knocked back by his smile.

"I'll look after Thread, I promise," he said, standing up.

She nodded seriously. "I know you will. Goodbye Thread, goodbye boy," and taking her smiling parents' hands, disappeared into the crowd.

Mark watched her go then looked round as he felt Victor's hands on his shoulders.

Feeling that they had sampled all that the arcade had to offer they left, to the regret of the crowd who had thoroughly enjoyed Peter's antics.

They took Jason home and a little sadly said goodbye after promising to phone and reminders that they would see him in the summer. Philip spoke to him for a minute after the rest of them returned to the car and Mark thought that he looked happier as he waved goodbye.

During the drive to the campsite, Peter kept them entertained by telling absurd stories in his 'Thread' voice of the bear's past history. According to Thread, he'd had a spell cast on him by an evil magician (for some incredibly complicated and never fully explained reason) which had kept him imprisoned in the amusement arcade until a handsome prince came along and broke the spell to release him. "As soon as he kisses me," the bear finished importantly, "I will come alive completely and he will be my salve, I mean slave, forever."

Philip gave a shout of laughter and begged Mark to do it right then and there but Mark pointed out that the car was crowded as it was and he didn't think he wanted to share it with a full sized bear who might be hungry after all those years.

Thread was extremely indignant at this slur on his diet and habits, and informed him in freezing (if squeaky) accents that he was a vegetarian and wouldn't dream of eating so repulsive and tasteless an object as Mark. He refused to be mollified until Mark had abjectly begged his pardon, and even after that, informed him that he wouldn't allow himself be kissed by him even if Mark paid handsomely for the privilege. And, come to think of it, he was seriously beginning to doubt whether Mark was either handsome or a prince. No handsome prince would dream of making such a vulgar, coarse and insulting remark. In which case, how was it that Mark had managed to break the spell in the first place? Could it have been, he asked in an awful voice, due to cribery and borruption?

Philip, who had given another shout of laughter, told them sincerely that he'd never enjoyed himself so much, and was still laughing when they delivered him back to his family.

"Well it's been a lovely day, apart from Peter embarrassing us in public," Emily said. "Anyone for coffee before we go to bed?"

"Yes please," Mark replied. "I'll make it."

"No you won't," Peter told him, pushing him down into a chair and placing Thread on his lap. "You will sit there and make your peace with this poor bear, you monster. I'll do the coffee."

"You can't win with him," Victor said, grinning at Mark. "It's just something you learn to live with. If you can."

After coffee the boys went to their own tent deciding to shower in the morning. Their time was precious and neither of them wanted to waste it. Peter insisted that Mark think of the following day as the start of something new although he had no idea how far Sir James' plans had proceeded.

Not surprisingly, after all their recent activities, neither was in a state of desperate need so they settled for a soothing and pleasurable bout of mutual masturbation, though Mark made up his mind that it was going to be different in the morning. Victor had decided that they needn't leave particularly early, so there would be plenty of time. In the meantime, there were Peter's loving arms to hold him as he drifted into sleep.

With Philip's willing assistance the tents were taken down and the car packed, then they dropped him at the path on their way to the ferry, were through Bournemouth and onto the motorway half an hour later. Mark was sad though he tried not to show it. The Dorans were returning to their happy home, but for him it was different. He was dreading the contrast between the last week and what would be awaiting him.

His lovemaking that morning had had a touch of desperation in spite of Peter's efforts to keep him calm. If only I could give him something definite to hold onto instead of vague promises, he reflected worriedly.

He himself was feeling buoyant. At Mark's insistence he had taken more blood though he shouldn't have needed it for another six months or so. But understanding that Mark wanted to become one of them as soon as possible, had given way. As the tiny needles had moved into position he'd realised that either he must have needed it after all, or Mark turned him on to such an extent that his normal reactions had been over-ridden. It had been beautiful for both of them and done much to reconcile Mark to their imminent parting. Holding Mark's hand, and occasionally other parts of him, during the journey home, he made a mental note to mention his odd reaction when he next visited the clinic. They would be very interested.

As planned, they drove to the house where Mark helped unload the car. Then he and Emily went out to look at the garden. She had arranged for someone to water it while they were away but it hadn't taken long for interlopers to put in a take-over bid, so they set to work and weeded steadily until teatime. Peter had appeared with the inevitable sun block and an old cap which was slightly too small for him but which fitted Mark perfectly. He made him wear it backwards to protect the back of his neck, told him he looked very cute, then went back inside to help Victor get the house straight. Gardening always had a calming affect on Mark and by the time they had cleared the rockery and pond, he was reasonably cheerful.

They had their tea inside because of the heat, and afterwards, knowing that he had to face it sooner or later and needed to prepare for school the following day, Mark produced his small gifts and thanked them for taking him. Touched by his thoughtfulness, both Emily and Victor hugged him, told him he shouldn't have, and were generous in their admiration of their own and each others gift. Then they thanked him for allowing himself to be taken, told him it was the best holiday they'd had for years, and he was to call them, if he could, before he went to bed. He and Peter refused Victor's offer to drive them and they walked to Mark's house, taking their time.

"I'll wait for you in the morning," Peter promised, "Don't forget to set your alarm clock. As we did our holiday work before we left all you have to worry about tonight is unpacking your stuff and clothes for tomorrow. And, by the way, your legs look very nice in those shorts."

Mark who was wearing the last clean pair, looked at him gratefully. "I still think they're too tight," he muttered.

"They're perfect and make you look like a cute little boy. Just wait until you see the PE shorts I've got for you if you think those are tight. They're a size smaller because I want everyone to see how sexy you are."

"If they're any smaller, they won't only think I'm sexy they'll know."

"Show off! From the way you talk, anyone would think you're even more enormous than you are."

"Am I really enormous?" Mark asked, knowing that he was joking, but anything to distract himself from the impending meeting with his father.

"Of course you're not," replied Peter with a grin, "Merely stupendous."

"I have a feeling that's worse."

"No it isn't, it's better," Peter assured him as they walked through the gate.

The Captain greeted his son indifferently and his companion with much more enthusiasm. Having punctiliously thanked Peter and his family for taking Mark with them, he carried him off to his study, dismissing Mark to go and say hello to his mother who was lying down for some reason. Peter felt his hackles rising but held on to his temper when he remembered that Mark would pay for it later if he didn't.

Mark went slowly up the stairs to his room, unpacked the tea towels and brooch, then tapped on his mother's door.

He was shocked at the change in her. Her face seemed thinner and more lined, and her hair looked dull and lank. Even her eyes, though they lit up when she saw him, seemed lacklustre while her skin felt dry and leathery when he kissed her. It was obvious that she was ill, equally obvious that she wasn't prepared to admit it. Perhaps if they had been closer he could have persuaded her to tell him what was wrong, but she dismissed his questions, merely saying that she had a headache. But when he offered to leave her. she shook her head, kept him sitting on the bed beside her, and asked about his holiday.

She was pleased by the pleasure he'd had, laughed at his description of Peter's more outrageous moments and said with a smile, "I'm so glad you enjoyed yourself. Make sure that you write to Mr and Mrs Doran to thank them. I know you will already have said thank you, but a letter is always appreciated."

When he produced his presents, giving her the tea towels first, they studied the designs and agreed they would brighten the washing up immensely. She was genuinely touched when she opened the beautifully wrapped little box containing the brooch, exclaimed at its prettiness, asked him to pin it on her night-gown and admired the effect in the hand mirror he fetched from her dressing table. She didn't keep him much longer and sent him downstairs, remarking that she was a little tired and would try to sleep. She had taken something for her headache, he was not to worry about her, and to give her regards to Peter. He thought he detected a spasm of pain in her face while she was talking but she smiled, told him to go away and that she would have a cup of tea later if he wouldn't mind making it for her. He walked slowly down the stairs determined to speak to his father at the first opportunity.

When he entered the study he was greeted by an irascible voice demanding to know what he had been doing all this time, and would he kindly stir himself and make a cup of tea for his guest. Suppressing the retort that rose to his lips and looking warningly at Peter, he went to the kitchen feeling as if he had never been away.

It was plain that his father was not in the best of tempers and one look at the room told him why. Clearly his mother had been feeling too unwell to do anything about it and the Captain, who considered chores like cleaning, tidying, or doing the washing up beneath him, hadn't bothered. Wondering why he hadn't brought in a cleaning woman—surely he could afford it?—Mark set to work and by the time the kettle had boiled, had got everything into the sink to soak. He took the tea in, serving the first the Captain and then Peter. It was a delicate point. Did he serve the Captain as the senior officer first, or Peter as the junior but honoured guest? Having chosen to do the former he realised he was wrong when his father glared at him as he passed him the cup.

Peter intervened smoothly with a question about some campaign or other, and with a discreet movement of his head, once the Captain was well and truly launched on an involved explanation, indicated that he should leave them to it.

He returned to the kitchen and worked for the next thirty minutes, refusing to let himself think about anything other than the task occupying him. Peter came into the room carrying the tray but only had time to whisper, "I'll keep him distracted and get him into a good mood if I can," before returning to the study.

Knowing that he had at least another hour's hard work before the kitchen would pass inspection, Mark sighed, but was truly thankful that Peter was there. He was mopping the floor when his father came to the door, looked at him with contempt, and told him that young Doran was leaving and would like to speak to him.

A quick glance told the Captain that the room was reasonably clean and tidy but only a detailed examination (to be carried out later) would satisfy him that it was up to standard. When he returned to the study, Mark was able to walk Peter to the gate.

"I'm sorry. I've done what I can but he's still in a bad mood. Will you be alright?"

Mark forced a smile. "Yes, I'll be fine," he said as lightly as he could. "I'm not nearly as afraid of him as I used to be."

"I hate leaving you here. I offered to help you with the house but he wouldn't hear of it. Is your mother ill?"

Mark nodded, the sympathy in Peter's voice bringing him close to losing control. "I'm going to talk to him about her later."

Peter gripped his hand, pretending to shake it in case the Captain was watching. "I'd take you with me if I could."

"I know you would, Pete, and the thought will keep me going. You'd better go or he'll come out."

Peter bit his lip knowing that Mark was right. "I'll see you in the morning then. Try to phone if there's a problem."

He turned to wave as he reached the corner but Mark had already gone into the house and closed the door. Making up his mind to come back later, Peter walked home, more worried about the situation than ever.

Mark was in the kitchen when a peremptory voice demanded his presence. Taking from his pocket the Swiss army knife, which he hadn't had a chance to wrap, he went to the study, assuring himself that he wasn't afraid but knowing that it wasn't true.

His nervously proffered gift was poorly received. The Captain looked at it or a moment, then said reluctantly, "Very pretty. Thank you," and tossed it carelessly onto the desk. Then he subjected Mark to a catechism on his behaviour while away, asked whether he had attended Mass and when Mark admitted that he hadn't, gave him no opportunity to justify the omission, which he couldn't have done anyway. He knew perfectly well the Dorans would have driven him to the church in Swanage and Peter would have accompanied him without needing to be asked but it hadn't crossed his mind. By the time he'd remembered it was Sunday, they were at the beach and doing things the church would have disapproved of. Violently.

Today of course, they had been on the motorway but in any case, in line with his recent thoughts, he didn't think he would attend Mass again. He didn't as yet have the courage to reveal this to his father, but the time was approaching. For a start, he had no intention of going to confession and consequently, wouldn't be able to take communion. He had just a week to prepare himself for the storm.

The Captain having got into his stride laid into him with a will, eventually getting round to the subject of his hair. As he couldn't be trusted, he would take him to the barber himself as soon as he got back from school the following day. And this time, he announced ominously, he would look like a soldier and not like a silly little girl. Mark said nothing, needing all his fortitude as he contrasted his father's attitude to that of Emily and Victor.

Surprisingly he was rescued by his mother. She came out of her bedroom and interrupted the tirade by asking Mark if he would make a cup of tea for her.

Taken aback, the Captain subsided, and asked ungraciously how she was, adding that in his mother's day no-one lay about in bed just because they had a headache. Silencing Mark with a look, she replied quietly, "I am not your mother, Arthur, and times have changed. Mark, after you have made the tea, I want you to get your things ready for school. Don't worry about doing any cleaning, it can wait until tomorrow."

It was the first time that she had ever opposed her husband in Mark's presence and it was a toss up as to who was more astonished, her husband or her son. She turned to the door, suddenly looking frail.

Mark took her arm saying worriedly, "I'll help you up the stairs."

Thankfully she leant on him until they reached the door to her bedroom. "I will be alright now and I would really like that tea. Then I want you to go to your room and stay there."

Mark nodded and turned to go, knowing that he was saved, for tonight at any rate.

He went downstairs, made the tea the way she liked it, added a few biscuits to the tray and carried it upstairs. He was fairly certain that she hadn't been eating much, and hoped that she might fancy something. She was lying down with her eyes closed but opened them when he came into the room. She looked very tired.

"Thank you, Mark. Put it on the table please and I'll have it in a minute. Now go to your room and, and stay out of the way. At least until suppertime."

"Mother," he began, but she shook her head.

"Not now."

Reluctantly he did as he was told, wondering if there was anything he could do. Perhaps he could speak to Emily and Victor. Not tonight, but tomorrow. Unfortunately this reminded him of the threatened visit to the barber and for a moment he wondered what would happen if he simply refused to go. But the consequences would be even more appalling than having his head shaved. He was in enough trouble as it was, without tipping his father over the edge by deliberate defiance.

As soon as he arrived home, Peter spoke to Emily and Victor at length.

"I was afraid that something like this might happen, he is used to bullying Mark and will have been missing it."

"But Vic, surely we can do something? You should have seen Mark's face when I left. He was trying so hard to be brave but I could see that he was frightened, and I'm not surprised. The man was in a foul mood. We must be able to do something."

"There's nothing we can do at this stage, Pete. You know that."

"I don't know it. You didn't see the mess the house was in. Mark is going to have to clean it from top to bottom like a bloody slave before he goes to bed tonight, and you say we can't do anything about it?"

"Peter, calm down. If you will just stop and think you'll know I'm right. We cannot afford to jeopardise whatever James is doing. It could ruin everything if we interfere. Stop thinking with your heart and use your head."

"I can't. The thought of what Markie might be going through hurts. The man doesn't like him, and I know better than you what he's capable of. It happened to me, remember? I'm not going to let Mark go through something like that."

"Your father was a very violent man. Mark's father is not. We know that he has seldom punished Mark physically so he's not likely to start now. Try not to let your past influence you, the circumstances are completely different."

"He may not hurt him physically, but he can hurt him mentally. And he wants to. I could see it in his face."

"Mark is a lot stronger now, he'll cope.

"Vic," Peter said desperately, "You don't understand. Things are not the same as they were. I don't think he ever liked Mark but it's far worse now. I don't understand it and I don't know why. You think I'm over-reacting, but I'm not. I could feel it when he had me in his study and it was strong enough to make me feel physically sick. He hates Mark, and If you won't do anything, I will. For a start, I'll call James."

Emily spoke for the first time, and did so in a voice that she seldom used. "No, Peter. I understand how worried you are because I feel the same. But although James is very patient with you, in the mood you're in you'll say something hysterical which will annoy him, and that won't help anybody. Go to the kitchen, please, and make some coffee. While you're doing that, I'll phone him."

Peter looked at her for a minute then his eyes filled. He put his arms around her. She held him for moment, feeling close to tears herself, then gave him a little push. Without saying anything more, he left the room.

Emily and Victor looked at each other.

"It's bad, isn't it," she stated as she went to the telephone.

"I think it's very bad. I know Pete was a bit hysterical but he is sensitive, and if he says the man hates Mark, I'm inclined to believe him. I'm beginning to get some strange ideas about Captain Gordon and there's something I want to check."

In the kitchen Peter had filled and switched on the kettle when he realised he was about to break down. He had no inhibitions about crying in front of his parents but, somehow, these tears were intimately bound up with his love for Mark and he needed to be alone. He went to his bedroom, closed the door and threw himself face down on the bed, overcome by the most powerful feeling of misery he had felt for years. Tears started, and soaked his pillow

Heading to the kitchen to see why he was taking so long, Victor switched off the furiously boiling kettle and went quietly up the stairs. Hearing Peter's sobs he was about to tap on the door when he changed his mind. Peter must feel that he needed to fight whatever demons were haunting him on his own. He had never hidden his feelings from either Emily or himself except during those difficult months after he left the clinic. If he did so now it had to be because it was the way he wanted it.

With a heavy heart he returned to the kitchen, made three cups of coffee and took them into the sitting room. Emily had finished her conversation and with a frown on her face was reading the article in the encyclopaedia he had left open on the table. She looked up.

"Where's Pete?"

"Upstairs, crying. No, Em. If he had wanted us he would have come to us as he's always done. We have to respect his privacy, even if it hurts."

She nodded. "It does. He's always come to us before."

"I think he still will, most of the time. But this concerns his deepest feelings and is very private. If Mark were here, he would be crying in his arms. But Mark isn't here, which is the whole point of course. What did James say?"

"That things were in hand but he needed more time."

"About what I thought. Did he tell you how he plans to go about it?"

"No. All he said was that he'd found the lever he needed. He sounded worried about Mark."

"That's a very bad sign. I'm tempted to go and pick the boy up right now."

"So am I, but we can't without his say so. The man would scream blue murder and kidnapping, and he'd be within his rights. Vic, what has this article on General Gordon of Khartoum got to do with it? Was he a relative?"

"I shouldn't think so but there's the coincidence of the name and I have a feeling that he might have been an object of admiration to Mark's father. The General is considered to be a martyr who gave his life for the British cause under heroic circumstances. I suspect that Captain Gordon may have modelled himself on the man, and tried to emulate him. Then he discovered, as is so often the case, that his idol had feet of clay."

"Feet of clay?"

"It is thought now that he was a latent homosexual and his death was actually a form of suicide. He threw himself onto the sword of the object of his desire, the leader of a Bedouin tribe who was giving the British a great deal of trouble at the time. It has been suggested that he might have done it deliberately."

"I can see that it would come as a shock to a rigid person like Captain Gordon but I don't see what it has to do with the present situation. Good God, Vic, you don't think the man himself is latent, do you? That's preposterous!"

"Is it? Very few gay males are as open and accepting of themselves as Pete, and many have married and produced children as a way of protecting themselves. Bearing that in mind, consider the man's circumstances, he was part of an organisation that was, and still is, almost totally homophobic; a member of one of the most vicious churches in existence as far as homosexuality is concerned; and living in a country that is homophobic to the core from the leaders downwards. There was no way he could admit what he was, even to himself, so he did the classic thing and became the biggest homophobe of all. It happens time and time again, Em, in fact it's something of a test. Look for the man who is most anti gay and ninety nine times out of a hundred he will turn out to be someone who's suppressing his own feelings. He is ferociously anti homosexual to prove that he's not one of them."

"I find it hard to believe."

"It would explain a great deal if I'm right. His homophobia, his right wing views, everything. But the thing that really convinces me I'm correct is that it explains his attitude to Mark."

"Are you saying that he suspects what Mark is? How on earth would he know? He's never taken any interest in the boy or made any effort to get to know him. We have Pete's word for that."

"I'm sure that Pete is right. But consider this. How did Pete know about Mark?"

"He was in love and sensitive to his feelings."

Victor shook his head. "He knew long before that. Don't ask me how because I have no idea but Pete knew within minutes of meeting him, even though Mark himself didn't know it at the time. It happens quite often I believe. Some instinct, strong in some people, weaker in others, but almost always there. They know, Em. Pete knew what Mark was and I think Mark's father suspected it years ago. The signs are there, even in someone very young if you know what to look for. Remember Jack Shand? And if I'm right about the man, he would have known what to look for and wouldn't have had to look very far. The evidence was staring him in the face."

"If, as you say, he suspected it earlier, what now?" she asked slowly.

"That is what's worrying me. Mark has changed since we took him away with us. He is more overtly sexual for one thing, and apart from the fact that he has more confidence, I suspect that to anyone who looks closely it's fairly obvious that he's in love. It follows, therefore, given that his father knows or suspects what he is, he loves a boy. I hope that's as far as the man's thoughts have got. But if he realises that it is Pete who Mark loves, and Pete returns his love, it will be another idol turning out to have feet of clay."

"Pete isn't his idol, for heaven's sake. He barely knows him."

"It doesn't take very long, Em. I worshipped you, remember, within minutes of us meeting."

"Vic, that's different."

"Is it? I haven't spoken to Pete but it wouldn't surprise me if Captain Gordon doesn't put a fatherly hand on his shoulder now and then."

"Vic, no! He's far too old. Pete could be his son."

"When did that ever stop anyone? And don't forget, if he doesn't like Mark because of the type of person he is, Pete is the exact opposite and just the sort of boy he would like."

"You said a minute ago that they have a sort of instinct about each other. Wouldn't Pete have known if the man was interested in him and told us? It's not something he would have kept to himself."

"Normally he would know, I agree. He picked up the vibrations, or whatever they were, from Simon, Jason and, I think, from Philip as well. But he missed Jack. It was Mark who picked that up. Maybe it works patchily, or sometimes just doesn't work at all. But Pete can be curiously blind to Mark's feelings sometimes, and possibly it extends to those close to the boy as well. I simply don't know. All I can say is that he hasn't picked up anything from the man as yet, and maybe he never will. What we need to decide is whether to tell him or not."

"Do you think that either he or Mark are in danger?"

"I don't think so, at least not yet. The man is clearly unbalanced but I don't think anything will happen unless he finds out about them so we should be alright until James is ready to make his move."

"In that case we shouldn't tell Pete." Emily spoke decisively. "He has enough to worry about."

He nodded and returned the volume they had been consulting to its place on the shelf.

"What made you think of this, Vic? I've never heard of this General Gordon, and I shouldn't think many other people have either."

"I'll bet James has. I read a book about him some years ago but had forgotten the name, indeed most of the book as well. I've been wondering vaguely for some time in which context I had heard Mark's surname, and it suddenly came to me today. Then the whole thing made a sort of pattern."

"The more I think about it the more it seems you could be right. But I'm still not totally convinced. Pete, dear, are you feeling better?"

"I'm okay now thanks. I'm sorry I was stupid and hysterical earlier."

About to ruffle his hair Victor changed his mind and hugged him instead. He wasn't a little boy. "There's no need to apologise. Are you sure you're okay?"

Peter's eyes were rather red and swollen. He smiled faintly and said, "I'm alright. I had a good cry, just like a baby. But I feel better for it."

Emily's voice was tart. "Crying is nothing to be ashamed of. If more people cried when they needed to the world would be a better place. It was the Empire builders setting out to conquer the world for the benefit of Britain who fabricated the myth of manliness and what men and boys could and couldn't do. Before that no one gave a damn."

"How is it that you make me feel good when I've been bad, Em?" He moved out of Victor's embrace and put his arms around her.

"You're never bad, just confused sometimes. Sit down and I'll make you another cup. This one's cold."

"I'll do it."

"Sit," Victor instructed, leaving the room.

Peter smiled his thanks then turned back to her. "Thank you for stopping me making a fool of myself. What did Sir James say?"

Emily repeated the conversation. "I know it's hard for both of you. But if you and Mark can just be patient and hold on for a day or two it will be over, and he'll be here with us."

"Will we have to move?"

"James didn't mention it. Why do you ask?"

"I remembered how you took me to France when I was discharged from the clinic."

"The circumstances were different. We took you there for two reasons, the most important of which was that you didn't speak a word of the language so you were completely dependent on us at first. We needed to get to know you and it forced you to get to know us."

"And the second reason?" Peter asked, after thanking Victor who had returned with his coffee.

"We were afraid that you might run away which could have involved a police investigation. The Group felt that in a foreign country you would be less inclined to do that. Besides, we loved France, and we wanted you to learn to love it too."

"Markie will love it when we take him there. Could we do a day trip sometime?"

"I asked James about a passport for him and he told me it was in hand."

"How is his French?" Victor asked.

"Not very good but we'll work on it together. He'll concentrate if he knows we're going there. Em, I'm really worried about him. His father was in a very nasty mood and his mother is ill so he'll be the main target."

"I told James that, Pete. Are you sure you're not exaggerating a little? Mark has been so happy with us the contrast would tend, quite naturally, to make you over-react."

Peter sat still, a thoughtful look on his face as he tried to step back from the situation and see it as it actually was. After a time he looked up, even more worried than before.

"I don't believe so," he said slowly. "I've thought back and tried to remember what his father was like before we went away. He was always unkind but now, I can't put my finger on it exactly, but I feel there's something, something that wasn't there before, something bad. If I knew what it was I would know what to do about it. It's the not knowing that worries me. It's as if I know that Mark's in danger but I don't know what the danger is. I know where it's coming from but I don't know what's causing it. It probably sounds silly to talk about danger but I know I'm right, even if I can't explain it."

"Are you sure it's not your past influencing you?" Victor asked gently. They had talked this out years ago and he was loath to open wounds which, though healed, had left scars.

"Possibly, I just don't know. All I can tell you is that even in the really bad times I never had the feeling of impending danger that I have now. Perhaps it's because I love Mark more than I ever loved myself so it affects me more."

Emily nodded. "Your self esteem had been eroded for years, just like Mark's, if he had any in the first place. It's one of the reasons I am so proud of you, proud of the way you have built him up and made him feel good about himself."

Peter smiled faintly. "I didn't do it deliberately, it's how I felt about him. And still do."

"But you are patient with him. Who else have you ever bothered to teach maths?"

"Em, I did it because I loved him and didn't like seeing him in trouble with the teachers. That's the only reason."

"Are you going to tell me you weren't bored at times?"

He shrugged, "No, if I'm honest. There were times when it was dull to go over the baby stuff but he tried so hard to understand and was so, so humble about it, it made up for the boredom."

"Well, I believe I've proved my point but I have another argument. If you hadn't loved him and he'd simply been another member of the class, would you have done the same when you realised he was struggling?"

"I suppose I would have tried to help. He seemed so vulnerable I don't think I could have resisted it anymore than one can resist helping any small creature that's hurting. He's very cute, you know, whether you love him or not. I just wish there was something I could do right now."

"Pete, there's nothing that any of us can do but trust James. You know as well as I do that he is the most competent and powerful person in the Group. In the meantime, why don't we go upstairs and start re-organising the bedrooms so they're ready the next time he comes to stay."

He nodded, knowing that she was trying to take his mind off things.

In the course of the following hours they packed up most of his possessions and moved them into what had been the spare room. It was sad in a way, he'd been very happy in his small bedroom, deliriously so when Mark had been there with him. However the thought that they would be sharing the larger room permanently was ample compensation. He felt even better when they re-arranged the furniture to make room for another desk and designated one of the built in cupboards for Mark's clothes. Not that he had many, Peter reminded them, so they broke off to plan a shopping trip.

"I think he should make a completely new start," declared Emily. "If his school wear is generally alright, we'll concentrate on casual clothes and anything else that he needs in particular."

"We may have trouble talking him into this," Peter offered.

"When he's our son and truly belongs to us, he will be fine," stated Victor confidently.

Peter wasn't entirely convinced but kept his misgivings to himself. He knew far better than they did how stubborn Mark could be, and started turning over in his mind various schemes to reconcile him to the situation. We'll also go back to that barber who was so nice to him, he thought happily, and get our friends, well my friends, to go as well. Apart from being kind, he did Markie's hair so nicely he must be good.

When they had done as much as they could, Emily and Victor went downstairs and he went back to his original room to look over his books for the next day. He had made up his mind not sleep in the new room until Mark joined him there. But with nothing to distract him, his doubts began to crowd in on him again, and he became more and more distraught. In spite of his best endeavours he hadn't been able to smooth the Captain down much and for all he knew, the man could be attacking Mark physically. He desperately wanted to telephone to check that he was alright but knew that it could make things worse. Finally, he decided to leave it for an hour and then telephone.

The decision calmed him briefly but the relief didn't last long. However hard he tried to distract himself, his worries got in the way until eventually he simply gave up, lay on the bed, forced his brain to relax, and allowed whatever thoughts that surfaced to take possession of his mind.

When he thought about it later he was never able to pinpoint the instant when his vague thoughts crystallised and he knew that Mark was in trouble. It snapped suddenly into his mind, a clear, sharp, urgent thought, standing out from the murky fears that had been troubling him. He sat up abruptly, feeling Mark's fear like a knife in his heart, his own lesser fears thrust into insignificance as easily as candlelight is swamped by the beam of a powerful torch.

Without stopping to think he raced down the stairs, out of the house and through the gate, driven by the overpowering need to get to Mark. He saw nothing as he ran, neither people, cars nor houses. If there was anyone in his path they must have taken one look and moved out of his way. It was something he would never recall. All he knew was the desperate need to run, to get there as fast as he could, and to protect his boy.

It was the front door that brought him to his senses. Because he hadn't given any thought to it, the closed door seemed irrelevant and he almost tried to charge straight through it, but pulled himself up at the last minute. Then he reached out and rang the bell. He was desperately short of breath, it was a fair distance, and he had run faster than he ever did on the football field. While he waited impatiently, bent over, his hands resting on his knees, his mind kept on churning. What had happened? The feeling that Mark needed him was stronger than ever.

When the door was opened by the Captain he pushed past him without waiting to be invited, saying urgently, "Where is Mark? What have you done to him?"

Captain Gordon, breathing almost as heavily as he was, looked at him blankly.

Ignoring the man, and knowing exactly where he would be, Peter headed for the study.

Mark was huddled on the floor. Forgetting everything else at the sight of his face, the angry red marks on his skin, the blood around his mouth, Peter fell to his knees beside him.

"Are you alright?" he asked, then thought savagely that it was a bloody stupid question. Of course he wasn't, any idiot could see that.

He helped Mark to his feet and supported him with one hand while he reached into his pocket for a tissue to wipe his face. There was no sign of anything external, the blood was flowing from his mouth. Peter dropped the bloodstained tissue and put both arms around Mark and held him. The boy looked dazed but as his eyes began to focus he recognised Peter.

"Pete," he said softly, "You came."

"Of course I did. Did you think I wouldn't?"

"I knew you would, I wanted you to. But thought it might be too late."

"What did he do to you?"

Mark shook his head, then winced. "It's nothing, don't worry about it. As long as you're with me nothing else matters," he said in a shaky voice.

"Yes it bloody does," Peter said angrily, then checked himself and said quietly, "I should never have left you."

Mark tightened his arms, and as Peter's head came down, kissed him.

The sound of disgust that came from the doorway didn't seem important.

It had come completely out of the blue. The Captain, taken aback by his wife's interference, had retired to his study to brood over his wrongs, taking the whiskey decanter with him. Thwarted in his well merited disciplining of his son, his contempt for the boy turned to anger as he asked himself why he had been saddled with, not only one, but two such unsatisfactory people. Hadn't he done everything for them? Provided a fine home, education, even put up with that endless, irritating piano noise at his wife's behest? And what was the result? His wife spent all her time in bed with a headache and his son, after being given permission to go on leave with people who, apart from their lad, he didn't particularly care for, came back with his hair looking like a girl's and had even defied him by refusing to attend church parade while he was away.

He took no account of the fact that it might have been difficult for Mark to get to a church. When he was a lad he'd walked five miles to Mass and five miles back and thought nothing of it. The boy was typical of the modern generation, apart from young Doran. No manners, no stamina, no guts! He wished he had the lot of them under his command again. He'd known how to turn boys into men! There had been none of this long hair and mothering while he was in charge. He'd turned out men, fighting men, soldiers, who knew their place, obeyed their superiors and made one proud. And what thanks had he received? Had he been praised for the successful way he moulded his men, complimented on their smart turn out? Had he hell!

It had started with those misleading stories in the press. Of course there were casualties along the way, there always had been and always would be. Didn't they understand that he was preparing men for war? Preparing them to fight for and defend their country? Though, God knows, when he looked around he wondered if the country was worth defending. A woman Prime Minister for God's sake! What was wrong with the men that they allowed a mere woman to take charge? She seemed to know what she was doing though, he admitted grudgingly, and had stood up to those bloody foreigners in Europe.

Which was another thing. Why the hell was the country, his country, dictated to by a bunch of damned frogs who didn't know their arses from the elbows, didn't know how to fight and had sponged on Britain all through the war and ever since? What had gone wrong? Didn't anyone in this country have any pride any longer? They were even ashamed of the glories of the past, ashamed of being British. As for the people they were allowing to flood the country! If he had his way he'd kick the whole bloody lot of them out and send them back to where they came from. They were happier there anyway.

It was the same everywhere. No-one knew their place and no-one had any respect for authority. There had even been riots in Brixton! Bloody aliens given permission to live in the country, and did they appreciate it? No they didn't! They bloody rioted causing God knows how much damage to cars and property that didn't belong to them. And were they made to pay for it afterwards? Like hell they were. It was he and law abiding taxpayers like him who ended up paying for it, forced to put their hands in their pockets for all and sundry. And to cap it all they were always, wanting handouts and knowing their rights, while decent people, decent British people whose country it was, had to take second place to a bunch of wogs. It made him furious!

But they hadn't got away with it in the army! He'd treated them fairly, he was a fair man after all, and didn't hold the colour of their skins against them. But if they wanted to live in a country that wasn't their own, they had to stick to the rules like everyone else. And he'd made sure of it. Under his command if they broke the rules they paid the price, and it was no use whining and calling him a racist. He was no more a racist than anyone else. He'd had a job to do and he'd done it. And done it damned well.

Of course you had to take stronger measures against certain individuals to pull them into line and he'd always done what was required. No use leaving a rotten apple in the barrel to affect the rest. You rooted them out, not out of prejudice but for the good of the organisation, like a surgeon cutting out an infection. That was how he'd thought of it. But, if you couldn't cure them, if they were still spreading infection the only answer was to get rid of them. And he'd known exactly how to do it. It was a last resort and as such, as he was perfectly willing to admit, an admission of failure.

But the army in his day had seldom failed. He had seldom failed. There were men today, men in high, well paid positions, who owed what they had achieved to their training under him. Not that any of them would acknowledge it, they were more inclined to complain about what a hard taskmaster he'd been. But he'd known his duty and criticism from erstwhile recruits didn't worry him.

What had stung was when his superiors turned on him, listened to the complaints and threatened him—him!—with an enquiry into his methods and treatment of his men. He bile rose as he recalled it, his bitterness when he had been forced to take early retirement by the paper pushing clerks who had never set foot on a parade ground in their lives. They wouldn't have lasted long under him, he'd have whipped them into shape in a single day. But those self same civilians had had the power to dismiss him ignominiously from the service he had given his life to.

Well, whatever people said about him, he was a good tactician and knew when to retreat to preserve his forces for another battle and they hadn't had it all their own way. No by God, he'd told them a thing or two before he left, and done the same to his so-called superiors as well, though, all in all, it had been a short-lived satisfaction.

As he considered the humiliations he had to put up with as a civilian, his temper rose. Insolence and impertinence from everyone around him, a wife who spent all her time in bed and a lazy, longhaired, sissy of a son, who had never been any good from the moment of his birth and even now was skulking upstairs doing bugger all instead of pulling his weight and getting on with the job.

Helping himself to more whiskey he brooded over Mark's—he didn't even like his wife's choice of name, come to think of it, never had, it wasn't manly!—Mark's defection over the week. And what happened when he came back? Did he get down to it and start clearing the work he hadn't done, work that other people had had to do for him while he was away? Not bloody likely. He loitered in his room, aided and abetted by his wife who had no business interfering anyway. He was the master in this house. He paid the bills, and the sooner they realised it the better. As he lurched to his feet, his balance affected by the amount of drink he had consumed, his eye fell on the knife that Mark had given him.

What bloody good was that toy? Useless piece of rubbish. And if Mark thought it was going to protect him from the rough edge of his tongue he would soon learn different. Picking it up he opened the main blade and read the words stamped into the steel near the hinge. 'Made in Switzerland'. With a gesture of contempt he tossed it into the wastepaper basket. Foreign junk he concluded, looking with approval at his own proper army knife—made from the finest Sheffield steel, English steel he reminded himself—hanging on the wall. He had been determined to keep it when he was forced to retire, and keep it he had. If his son thought that he would be placated by a piece of cheap engineering that wouldn't last five minutes on a battlefield…!

He marched up the stairs and strode into Mark's bedroom. Senior officers don't knock.

Mark was lying on the bed, thinking so deeply it took him an instant to react. He was still wearing his trainers.

The Captain who demanded instant obedience, men sprang to attention when he walked in unexpectedly, barked, "Downstairs! On the double!" and stalked out. He had planned to inspect the room but Mark had anticipated that and the room was spotless. Perversely, it fuelled his anger.

With a sinking feeling, Mark followed him into the study and stood at attention while his father marched up and down telling him what he thought of his manners and behaviour, not forgetting the fact that his trainers had been on the bed cover. After he was dismissed his first task would be to wash and iron it. By hand! Which would remind him to be more careful in future.

Then he started on Mark's appearance. It was at this point that he recognised something that had been niggling him vaguely since his son had walked into the house. The clothes he was wearing.

Mark had been fairly stoical up to that point. There was nothing new in what his father had been saying. Although he had never become used to it, he was familiar with the way his father's mind worked and could anticipate to some extent what would come next. But this new attack caught him unprepared. He had become so used to wearing casual clothes that he'd forgotten how he was dressed and hadn't considered how to account for not only one, but several pairs of shorts, to say nothing of the shirts Peter had bought for him.

Why had he squandered money on such unsuitable clothing? Disgusting was the word that came to the Captain's mind after a glance at his son's obvious sexuality displayed by the well fitting shorts. Mark was unnerved enough to stammer that the Dorans had bought them for him because he had nothing to wear at the beach.

It was a mistake. The Captain took it both as a personal insult aimed at him by that man Doran, and a slur on his financial standing as well. He, unlike most people, provided for his family and paid his way without demanding handouts. The very thought of it made him lose his temper in the way that had always frightened his son. It was bad enough when he blustered and shouted but when they evolved into incandescent rage, Mark had always been afraid.

Infuriated that anyone should insult him in such a fashion he became more and more abusive as he tore Mark's character to shreds for asking 'those people' to buy clothes for him. Giving him no opportunity to explain that he had done nothing of the sort, he went on to denounce his appearance, from the length of his hair which was going to be shaved off completely, to his effeminate behaviour, looks, and the disgusting sight of him in shorts that were far too small which, he snarled, were going to be thrown in the dustbin the instant he was finished.

It was a frightening performance calculated to reduce the boy to a quivering wreck and might have achieved its object if it had stopped when Mark was very close to breaking point

He had made no attempt to defend himself when abused personally but when his father aimed his vitriol at Emily and Victor, he found again the courage that had enabled him speak out in support of Peter during maths. Desperately afraid he interrupted his father, saying in a shaky but determined voice, "Leave Emily and Victor out of this."

There was absolute silence as his father glared at this turning worm.

Feeling that he might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, Mark stopped standing rigidly at attention (eyes front, thumbs in line with the seam of the trousers, chest out, stomach in) and faced him defiantly.

"Stand up straight when I talk to you, and keep your mouth shut until you are given permission to speak," bellowed his father.

Mark did his best to control his quivering lips and said quietly but distinctly, "No."

The Captain's face went red. "You will do what you are ordered to do."

"You can shout at me as much as you like, but don't you, don't you dare talk about my friends like that," Mark said in a frightened, but reasonably steady voice.

What little control his father still retained over his temper evaporated.

"You say the word dare to me? You dare to take that tone with me? Look at you, you snivelling worm, shaking in your shoes because you're so afraid, and you have the nerve to tell me how to talk about your so called friends? You don't tell me anything, boy, and don't think you're grown up enough to argue with me because you're not. As for what I say about anyone at all, that is nothing to do with you and you will stand up straight and behave like a man when I talk to you. So face the desk and get yourself to attention. Now!" he barked, in his best parade ground voice.

Mark was suddenly overwhelmed by rage. "No I won't!" he yelled. "I'm not one of your bloody soldiers and I'm never going to be! So you can fuck off!"

The Captain's eyes bulged. Everything he'd had to put up with, every slight, every insult, every humiliation, coalesced into a red rage of fury that took possession of his brain and focussed on a single thought, to teach this insubordinate apology for a soldier to respect him.

He did exactly what his superiors in the army had been afraid of.

He surged forward and slammed Mark to the floor.

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