Cesare's Cabinet


Almost Never Disclaimers & Chapter Index

Close.

"So," Vince said, "here we are. Kitchen this way, living room that way, my room's up these stairs."

"Your own key and everything," Stuart said. "No one's home?"

"Not right now. Mum's been working second shift. They've got a rush on. Want something to drink?"

"What've you got?"

Vince cracked open the fridge and peered inside. "Water, tea, milk. And we made blueberry soda last night, it still looks fizzy."

"Is it good?"

"I like it-- here-- try a bit." Vince got out a cup and filled it with ice and an inch of purplish soda.

Stuart tried a sip and made a face. "That's awful. I'll have water."

Vince frowned and tasted the soda. "Well, it seems all right to me," he said, adding more into his cup and pouring a glass of water out for Stuart.

"So how long's your mum going to be working nights?" Stuart asked.

"As long as they run the second shift," Vince said, handing him the water. "It pays better, and I don't mind, it's sort of nice. It's like having a place of my own, almost."

"It's brilliant," Stuart agreed. "She doesn't mind you having people over while she's gone?"

"No," Vince said. "She says it's fine so long as nobody nicks anything. She's only joking though, um... You'd like her, I mean, everyone likes her, she's nice. So--" he turned to rummage through the cupboard. "There's some pretzels, and we've got some salt and vinegar crisps, you want some?"

"Nah."

Vince got down the bag of pretzels and looked at Stuart sheepishly. "I haven't actually started my report yet."

Stuart shrugged, "Yeah, me either. I haven't even read all of the play."

"I haven't read any of the play," Vince admitted.

"I haven't either-- I can't, I don't actually know how to read."

"Well I don't even know who Shakespeare is."

"I don't even know who you are."

"See, I was hoping you knew, cos I don't know who I am either," Vince grinned. "So there's no point in me going to all the trouble of finding out who Shakespeare is and learning how to read and getting through the play and writing the report, cos even if I did all that, I don't know my name to sign it."

Stuart was smiling wide enough to make his face hurt. "Sod the report, then, let's just watch telly and order a pizza."

Vince's grin faltered, the corner of his mouth turning down. "Well. I could really use a good mark on this assignment. We should probably get to work."

"Oh well. We can still call for a pizza."

"I'm not hungry--"

"Except for pretzels?"

"It's just, I don't really have the money on hand for it," Vince muttered.

"Doesn't matter, I can get it."

"That's not fair."

"You can pay me back if you want. Or don't eat any of it, I don't give a toss." Stuart planted his hands on his hips and, after a long moment, prompted, "So, the phone?"

"Oh. Sorry, um, through here," Vince pointed.

"Thanks." Stuart picked up the directory and asked casually, "Have you had anyone over, since you've had the place to yourself?"

"Yeah, Debra came by to work on this science project we did. We made such a mess, it was--"

"I mean," Stuart said, "have you had any men over."

"Oh." Vince shook his head. "No, I mean, who would I even-- no."

"Come on, there's been nothing since that bloke when you were on holiday? In all this time? I can't believe you, Vince! You've got this perfect situation, your own key, practically your own place, no adults, and you're just wasting it! You haven't had anyone in here?"

"You know I would've told you if I had," Vince said, and then he made a face and looked away.

"Jesus Christ," Stuart dialled the phone, "You've got an amazing opportunity here and you're completely throwing it away. It's ridiculous, there's got to be something we can do to-- Hiya-- delivery-- yeah." He covered the receiver. "What's the number here again?"

"It's on the phone."

"I know your phone number, you twat, I'm talking about the street number."

"213." After a pause, Vince said, "You on hold?"

"No, I thought I'd just stand here like a mong and say nothing for no special reason, I think it's relaxing."

"It's definitely relaxing for me," Vince shot back, "not having to listen to you for a change."

"Piss off."

Vince eyed him speculatively and asked, "You want a drink? Like, a real drink."

He raised his eyebrows. "Like what?"

"Just a second." Vince kicked a chair out from the kitchen table and stood on it to reach the top shelf of the cupboard. "I can't get into the mixers, she'd notice that..."

The pizzeria came back on the line, and Stuart focused on the phone again to place the order. By the time he hung up Vince was putting the liquor back up on the shelf.

"What'd you make?"

"Rum," Vince said, hopping down off the chair. "I didn't have anything to put it in but that soda, sorry, but I put a good shot of it in there."

Stuart accepted the glass from him and tried it. "It tastes all right now," he said.

"It's the rum, it's sweet," Vince said, gulping from his own glass.

"It's good." He took a long swallow. "They said forty minutes. That seems a long time."

"It's probably the busiest time for them, round about tea," Vince said. "We should get started."

Stuart followed him into the living room, drinking deep. "What'd Shakespeare have to go and write so many plays for anyway?"

"Beware the Ides of March," Vince quoted in a deep voice, settling onto the couch. "What's an Ide?"

"How the fuck should I know? It's probably in the footnotes. I bet it's some backwards Old English word for poof."

"Beware the poofs of March," Vince said in the same deep voice, and they both cracked up.

"Beware the marching poofs," Stuart went on.

"We should have marching poofs instead of a marching band at school," Vince laughed.

"Well, the marching poofs would have better choreography. They certainly couldn't have worse."

"Beware the choreography of poofs," Vince tried.

It wasn't that funny, one Beware joke too many, but Stuart chuckled anyway and opened the book. "I thought I'd do mine about the suicides," he said. "I skipped ahead and a bunch of them top themselves all these different ways. This one woman swallows hot coals. Not just one, but lots of them. That's brutal."

"I'm going to do it about the prophecies," Vince said.

"Can you get five pages out of that?"

"Yeah, I've looked up a bunch of ways the Romans used to tell the future, I've got enough for at least a couple of pages right there."

"We're fine then, it's not even due til next Wednesday," Stuart said.

"But I've got a chemistry exam coming up too. Is Mr. Nelson making you memorize valences?"

"Yeah," Stuart got out the valence sheet from his knapsack, "We have to know everything in the first four boxes."

"Us too. I hate these stupid tables, I'm never going to be able to remember all this."

"Guess we should study these," Stuart said, stretching, feeling nicely warm from the drink. "I can come over again tomorrow to work on the Caesar paper."

"That'd be fantastic," Vince said.

Stuart smiled at him. Vince smiled back, but the look held too long, or something; he seemed suddenly nervous, and stared down at the sheet.

"So what's the valence of nitrogen?" he asked.

"Five," Stuart answered, studying him, still smiling. Thinking.

*

After that Stuart wound up dropping by Vince's nearly every day after school. They depleted the rum until Vince got worried his mum would notice. Then they bought some orange juice and got into the vodka, Vince carefully replacing what they drank with tap water.

A week later Stuart managed to nick a bottle of whisky. It tasted hideous in juice so they drank it straight and pretended to enjoy it, coughing at anything more than a sip until Vince thought to add in some plain soda water. That made it a bit more tolerable.

They had to hide the whisky in Vince's room. "Mum never comes in here," he said as they stashed it.

"We should drink it up here too then," Stuart said. "Just in case. What if she came home when you didn't expect it?"

"She hardly ever gets off early," Vince argued, crossing his arms awkwardly. They were fine at school, or downstairs, but he got antsy when Stuart was in his room.

"Just in case," Stuart repeated persuasively. "If she caught us drinking I might not be able to come over any more."

Just like he thought, that worked on Vince straight away. "Yeah. S'pose you're right. Okay."

Eventually Vince relaxed about having Stuart in his room as well, and they lolled around on the narrow bed together, pretending to study, mostly talking and working their way through the whisky.

"Fastest you ever got off," Stuart said.

"Probably the first time I ever tossed one off in the shower," Vince said. "Went really quick, cos that time I didn't have to worry about cleaning up."

"That's so practical! That's not sexy," Stuart protested. "Right, what about the longest it ever took, then."

"I don't know, I don't time it," Vince said. "What about you?"

"This once, last year, this bloke's cruising me in the toilets at this big menswear shop, and we get into the stall. He starts up with me, it's nice, but he asks how old I am, and when I tell him I'm fourteen he just--" Stuart tried to do the expression, goggle-eyed with illicit lust, and Vince rewarded him by crumpling up with laughter, choking on his mouthful of liquor.

"And then he just kept talking... whispering, like," Stuart went on. "And it's all, I bet you've never done this, you've never done that, no one's ever touched you here, but don't worry, you just need someone to show you how it's done," he rolled his eyes in showy disdain, while Vince laughed again.

"Put me off," Stuart concluded, "it took me ages to come."

"I always worry someone else'll come in," Vince said.

"Always-- what? What've you been getting up to?" Stuart demanded. "You've been copping off in toilets?"

"Sure, I've done that," Vince said, clearly striving to sound casual.

"You didn't say!"

"Doesn't count for much, does it? He wasn't even gay, the other bloke, I don't think. It was more like, I don't know. Nothing, really. Barely looked at each other. I'm standing there, I get this odd feeling like he's looking at me, so I sort of," Vince demonstrated the quick sidewise glance of checking someone out at a urinal. "And he's hard, and it's like he was just waiting for me to see it, and I think he expected me to just walk off, but... any road, we ducked into the stall, he did me first, really quick, and then I hardly touched him and he came like that," Vince snapped his fingers. "Not much to it really."

"He came, you came. That counts," Stuart said definitively, shoving against Vince's shoulder with his own. "I knew it, I knew there was more to it than some fucking waster in Penzance. Bet you've been up to all sorts you didn't tell me about cos it 'didn't count', you twat."

"Chance'd be a fine thing," Vince answered, but he looked pleased.

*

They only had geometry together at school ordinarily, but when one of the P.E. teachers had to go to Ipswitch for a family emergency, Stuart was shifted into the same gym class as Vince.

Vince didn't seem particularly enchanted with this development, and Stuart soon realised why. In the locker room, Vince staked out a far corner, and changed clothes quickly, facing the wall, very careful not to look round. His boxers were striped blue and white, like toothpaste. Once suited up in his gym uniform, he turned and spotted Stuart at once, and then averted his eyes just as quickly.

Stuart always took his time changing. He stripped out of his clothes and then dawdled about taking off the necklaces he wore under his shirt; he was one of the very last to get his shoes tied.

Other boys whispered occasionally but no one said much of anything directly to him. It had only taken a couple of fights to establish himself as the unpredictable sort who might abruptly turn a confrontation from verbal to physical at any moment. It was amazing, really, how few times it took, punching and thrashing, until everyone more or less left him alone.

On the football field, Stuart did the requisite running up and down the green, but when there was a skirmish he just stood back with his arms crossed, making it clear that he couldn't be bothered.

Vince, though, was right in the thick of it every time. He played hard, a determined look on his face; every time the ball came his way his eyebrows went up, and then his mouth set into a line and he really threw himself into it, playing with total absorption, total abandon, skidding on his knees across the grass. He headed the ball so hard that it left a pink half-circle on his forehead. It should've looked stupid, but it didn't.

"You're good," Stuart said after class, a bit grudgingly. He wasn't much for sports himself, particularly team sports, but he hated being shown up in any way. Still, Vince was excellent at football; there was nothing to do but admit it. "Really good. You should see about joining the team."

"Nah," said Vince, "that today was mostly luck. I don't usually play all that well."

"That was luck, four goals?" Stuart asked. "You were halfway down the field for that last one. That was an amazing kick."

"It's all those blokes from your class, they're new, it's a bit different. Usually I don't even get a look in."

"But if you're playing an opposing team," reasoned Stuart, "they're new every game. You could at least try."

Vince shrugged. "I dunno. All that time in practices and that."

"Fuck's sake, Vince, if you're too scared just admit it."

Vince looked utterly deserted, and glanced at Stuart and said, "It's just, I never have much of a chance to really play. Mostly no one ever passes me the ball."

"Oh," Stuart said, and felt a dangerous swell of anger when he realised what Vince had been trying to say without saying it, the whole time. "Bastards," he added, the word completely inadequate to express his contempt.

"Yeah," Vince said, sounding resigned.

*

He didn't go over to Vince's that Thursday after school, although they'd planned to do their usual trick, each doing half the geometry homework for the week and copying one another's work.

The chemistry teacher overheard him calling Calvin Finch a cunt, so he had to come in after school and wash down the sinks in the lab. Some older students were still back there working, and one of them Stuart thought he had a chance at, so he took his time with the sinks and the other boy lingered and after a lot of meaningful glances and a desperate whispered conference, Stuart maneuvered him into the supply closet.

It was fun, especially the way Ty nearly jumped out of his skin when Stuart dropped to his knees. Evidently he hadn't been expecting anything like that. Stuart's mouth felt odd after. He kept dragging the back of his hand across his face, all the way home.

"Someone rang for you," his mother said when he came in the door.

"Who?"

"I wrote it on the memo pad, I don't know offhand..."

"Vince?"

"That was it."

He wondered how many times Vince would have to phone before his mother remembered his name. "All right," he said, nicking an apple off the table, and after a moment he took a second one as well.

"Dinner in half an hour," his mum said.

"I've got homework," he sidestepped. "I'll be in my room," and bombed up the stairs before she could say anything else.

He phoned Vince and got an earful at once. "Where were you? Did you get in trouble? Denny said Mr. Nelson caught you out on something you said, but nobody heard what it was."

"Never mind that, I copped off with Ty McNeeley."

"Oh my god!" Stuart could hear the phone moving, as Vince shifted around. "What, right at school? You're mad."

"It was easy," Stuart said. "But I forgot about the homework. It's proofs, we can't really copy that over the phone."

"Can you come over? I s'pose it's a bit late now."

"I'll see," Stuart said. "Fuck. I'll have to ask at dinner. I'll call if they say no."

Asking at dinner meant going to the family dinner table, rather than eating in his room. Stuart stabbed his way through roast chicken and potatoes with barely adequate patience as his sister and his mum chattered mindlessly about Dallas.

At the first opportune moment, "I've got some schoolwork I'm doing with Vince, can I go over there? It's due tomorrow," he said.

"Why didn't you go right after school?" his mother asked. "It's getting late now."

"I stayed after to help this other friend with his chemistry, I forgot about this assignment."

"You're always over there," his mum said, rising to clear the plates. "His parents are going to start charging you rent."

"Every day, practically. Can't help wondering," his dad said with an insinuating grin, "does Vince have a sister?"

Stuart couldn't keep back an angry laugh. "No," he answered, meeting his dad's wry gaze. "Can't I just have a friend I like to spend time with? It doesn't always have to be, you know, it's--"

"'Course, of course," his dad said easily.

"Just because that's all you think about," his mother put in, picking up the glasses. She said it like she was joking, but no one laughed.

"Nice," Marie muttered, catching Stuart's eye. "You couldn't just let him talk."

He flipped her off covertly, grimacing.

"You can go," his dad ruled all at once. "Marie can drive you."

"What?" his sister asked.

"You can have the car for an hour if you drive your brother to his friend's house."

Marie jumped up. "Let's go," she urged.

"Clive," their mother said, coming out of the kitchen.

"I'll be home by eleven," Stuart headed her off.

She opened her mouth to object, but then she sighed, "All right, Stuart. Call for a ride when you're finished. Your dad will pick you up. I don't want you on the bus this late."

Marie sped and squealed the tyres all the way to Vince's. Stuart made her go the long way around to eat up more of her hour with the car.

Vince opened the door before Stuart was half up the walk. He smiled in that particular rare way he did sometimes when he first saw Stuart: shy and brilliant.

Stuart wondered what would happen if he went up the stairs and kissed Vince while Marie was waiting in the car-- right there in front of her and everybody, and fuck all of them. Did Vince have a fucking sister.

"Hiya," Vince said, standing back to let him in. The car revved and growled as Marie shifted into gear and drove away.

"Hi," Stuart said.

Vince closed the door and asked, "Ty McNeeley? Really?"

His thrilled amazement shoved Stuart right out of his bad mood. He grinned and slung his arm over Vince's shoulders. "I'll tell you all about it," he said.

*

They walked by a corner shop on their way home every day, and Stuart always kept his eyes open. Friday, there was only the one shortsighted woman minding the till.

"Oh yes," he grinned, grabbing Vince's sleeve. "C'mon, we're going in here."

"What? What for?" Vince allowed himself to be hauled along.

"Keep her busy," Stuart hissed as the bell rang their entrance.

"How?" Vince whispered back, twigging to Stuart's plan, his eyes going wide.

"Think of something." He walked off briskly to the snack aisle and foraged through the crisp packets.

The trick to robbing booze was taking advantage of opportunity. They usually kept all the small stealable bottles behind the counter or on the top shelf, which the cashier could see from the front. So those were out. The larger bottles were too heavy and obvious. You couldn't be too timid and you couldn't be greedy. It had to be just the right size, just the right position on the shelf so that it would slip easily into a conveniently partly-unzipped knapsack without the need for any big movements.

Vince, after a moment's dithering, went round to the far side of the counter. In short order the woman went over and asked if she could help him, turning her back on the liquor aisle.

"Yeah. Thanks. How much for, um, these watches?"

"Ten quid."

"Oh. All of them?" Vince sounded transparently nervous.

Stuart chewed on his lip. He knew this was chancy; not only was Vince a rather poor liar, he also had an overdeveloped conscience. The one other time they'd nicked things together, goading each other on until they each lifted a pack of cigarettes, Vince had an attack of guilt before they'd got halfway down the street, and took his back.

Still, he thought he could count on Vince this time, if only because Vince wouldn't want him to get caught.

"Yes," the cashier said. "Was there something else?" She sounded amused. Maybe it was obvious to her what was going on. Stuart wondered how fast Vince could run.

"Oh... just..." Vince floundered.

"The rings? The bracelets, perhaps?" the woman prompted, smiling.

"Um. Yeah, the bracelets, if that's all right."

"Of course it is," she reached into the display case and pulled out a box with several bits of jewelry laid out on grey velveteen. "Have you got a sweetheart, then?" she asked liltingly.

Vince chuckled weakly, and darted a fast look at Stuart. His eyes dropped to the box. "How much for this one?"

"Twenty. It comes with the charm."

Stuart watched and waited as he moved nearer to the alcohol. Someone had moved a medium-sized bottle of Tanqueray, stranded it in the middle of the cheap vodka. It was the perfect spot, the perfect size, ripe for dropping into his bag. He looked to the front of the store.

"Is this for a special occasion? Or are you declaring your intentions?" the cashier asked.

Vince looked agonizingly bashful and really, sort of adorable, ducking his head like that; it was easy to see why the woman was so delighted to help him. "Um. Declaring, I s'pose. Maybe. I, um. What about this one?"

She giggled, "Oh no, dear, this row is all men's bracelets."

Of course that made Vince even more uncomfortable. "Oh. Really? It just looks. Sort of small."

"No, here, see?" She picked it up, took Vince's hand from where he was clutching the counter for dear life, and wrapped the silver bracelet around his wrist. "Fits you just right," she said.

He nodded a little as she returned it to the backmost spot in the box. She looked at him expectantly. Vince quickly asked, "And this gold one?"

"That's eighteen karat gold plated. Very nice. It's thirty."

Stuart slid the bottle off the shelf and neatly into his knapsack without even looking at it, and pulled the zipper silently closed. He moved to the end of the aisle, where Vince could see him.

Vince's blue eyes flickered up just long enough to register Stuart's nod. He gave the cashier a strained smile and said, "I s'pose I just, it's a bit much for the ones I like. Maybe I should save up."

"You could start with something smaller," the woman suggested. "A card, or some chocolates. Just to let her know how you feel."

"Chocolates would be nice," Vince said, "do you have any in those red boxes?"

She came out from behind the counter to show him, and when they were back near the candy, Stuart walked out the door and down the corner to wait.

A few minutes later Vince came along clutching a sack.

"You really bought chocolates?" Stuart laughed.

"I couldn't just leave," Vince said. "She was so kind."

"Brilliant, let's have one," Stuart reached for the bag.

Vince snatched it away from him. "Get off," he said indignantly. "These are for my mother."

*

It only made sense to give Vince a go. They spent all sorts of time together. Vince had that house all to himself. And Vince was nice.

Vince was really nice, in fact, and the odd thing was, he only looked better the longer Stuart knew him. Most boys looked all right at first, but once you got close, they lost their luster; this one's nose was too big, that one's right eye was noticeably lower than the other; bad breath, a braying laugh, a distracting birthmark.

But Vince was nice, his bright blue eyes and fresh fair skin, the sweep of his fringe over his brow, longish in front and parted on one side. His hair was mostly an indistinct shade of brown, a nothing color, like ash, like dust, but it glowed with surprising blond highights on sunny days. And it was no wonder he was good at football; he had fantasic legs, not to mention a truly spectacular arse. The curve of his bicep, the crook of his wrist, his elbow; the back of his neck, smooth and edible. His almost prettily expressive face, his strong and steady hands. The more Stuart looked at him, the more he saw.

Stuart kept trying to remember why he hadn't had Vince to begin with, what made him decide to really talk to him, rather than just chatting him up. Whatever the reason, it wasn't reason enough to keep his hands off that eloqent face, that slim and sturdy body.

Even Vince's problems seemed sort of charming, his shyness and reticence, his caution, his dogged insistence on doing the right thing. His head was always down, his shoulders up in a defensive shrug; Stuart found himself standing up taller around Vince, arching his back, as though he could improve his friend's posture by example. That was annoying, but then again, it was so satisfying when he could get Vince to relax, when he could distract Vince from that watchful, wary stance. So even that, he found he didn't mind so much.

Then there was Vince's boundless enthusiasm for the most incredibly sad and uncool things. He had an anorak's mania for stupid shite, science fiction, space exploration, comic books... the whole assortment of things you were meant to put behind you after your first orgasm. Vince still loved that stuff, though, brimming over with weirdly wholesome, bouncy happiness at the most idiotic rubbish. Stuart couldn't quite reckon how Vince could put himself out like that, how he could bear to be that open to jeering, when he was so self-concious in so many other ways. In a strange way, it even seemed sort of brave.

And apart from that, Vince was so sensible. It was irresistible to taunt and outrage him. He took it so well that Stuart had to wonder if that reasonable exterior was just an intelligent ruse, if Vince was baiting him as much as he baited Vince. He was never completely sure, and that was fascinating too.

Anyone else that nice, Stuart already would've had and been done with. But that was the trouble. Anyone else he'd do right away, after that first moment of eye contact, the first tense, enticing exchange of words. He knew how to approach men that way, how to draw them in; he'd done it loads of times. But with Vince he was already long past all that.

Stuart supposed he could just suggest it, one of those afternoons in Vince's room. Vince clearly fancied him rotten, and Stuart had been enjoying that, drawing it out, basking in his attention. He'd already prodded at Vince a bit, touched his hand a bit too long, indulged in a showy stretch next to him on his cramped single bed. But Vince was jumpy. Stuart couldn't just make his move, he had to draw him out. It would have to be Vince's idea somehow, that was the trick.

He thought about it off and on for ages, but before he'd decided on a course of action, he got ahead of himself somehow and it happened spontaneously one evening, unexpected, unplanned.

*

"Look at that outfit," Vince laughed. "Is that a suit or... I don't even know."

"Even if it was, how could you tell, he couldn't fill out a straw wrapper. Look at those skinny wrists," Stuart tapped the page.

"I can't believe they like him in this. That should be the first thing under Fashion Don'ts. Annie Lennox looks better in a suit than he does." Vince turned the page of the magazine that lay across their laps. "Hm. Mick Jagger's still sort of nice, considering."

"Nope. He tucks his trouser legs into his boots," Stuart said critically. "He's a cunt."

"Did you see when he did 'Dancing in the Streets' with David Bowie?" Vince asked. "They were so obvious."

"Yeah, that was completely ace. But that's no excuse for trouser legs tucked into boots."

"George Michael," Vince said, turning another page.

"Not bad. Not like Boy George--"

"Scary," they chorused.

"There's camp," Vince said, "and then there's, like, extraterrestrial."

"George Michael in the 'Careless Whisper' video," Stuart recalled.

"What was that other song of theirs, he looked good in that one as well... it was all in black and white, you know the one... 'One step further and my back will break...'?" Vince hummed haphazardly.

"'Somebody tell me why I work so hard for you'... I don't remember. I never liked that one, it's about a girl," Stuart said. "The video's good though. He looks so serious. Not like in 'Wake Me Up', he looked stupid in that."

"Yeah, but in the black and white one he's so intense," Vince made a face that was meant to be squint-eyed and meaningful, but he couldn't hold it, a grin bursting through. "And 'Careless Whisper', that's good as well. 'I'm never gonna dance again'..."

"You're never gonna sing again, if I have anything to say about it," Stuart laughed.

"The way I danced with yoooooooouuu," Vince crooned off key right into his ear.

"Hm. If you do it like that you can," Stuart smiled at him, raising his eyebrows.

"Like what, loud?" Vince asked.

Stuart leaned over and said close into his ear, "Like that," breathing softly out.

The tenor of Vince's laugh changed, went a bit on edge, but he only bumped against Stuart companionably and turned another page. "There you are, there's David Bowie."

"I hate his hair like this though," Stuart complained. "I liked the way he had it for that film he made."

"I never saw that."

"It was cut short in back and longer in front," said Stuart. "Sort of like yours. It looked good." He tilted his head, caught Vince's stare. "It looks good," he said.

Vince glanced back down at the magazine. "Thanks." He turned another page. "Phwoar, look at that."

"Oh, nice. Is that all leather?" Stuart asked.

"I think it must be. Look how tight that is."

"He can't be wearing anything under that."

"He'd have to though," Vince said, "if you've ever been on a motorbike... they rattle your teeth out, never mind what they could do the rest of you..."

"Nothing's gonna be rattling in that getup," Stuart said. "I wonder if they line it with something or if it's just, you know. Skin to skin."

"God. He's so nice... I saw him on telly, they showed him bent over to work on his bike, I thought I'd have a heart attack. I couldn't move for an hour."

"No fucking kidding," Stuart said. "It's a good thing they don't expect me home, I'm not going anywhere."

"Stuart! What're you like?" Vince laughed.

"Like you, looks like," Stuart said, his eyes dropping down Vince's body pointedly.

Vince hesitated. "You think?"

"Let's see," Stuart challenged.

After a long moment, Vince reached down and opened the top button of his trousers, his eyes riveted to Stuart's face like he was just waiting for Stuart to take the piss.

Stuart just smiled, leaning even closer, watching him undo his fly.

He could almost see Vince thinking better of it, and having no out, and going on even though his nerve was failing him. As Stuart watched, he shoved the V of his undone trousers apart and his hard-on stood free, thrusting up incongruously from another pair of innocuous striped boxers, green and white.

"Not bad," Stuart said. "There's something about a bloke on a motorbike, hm?"

"Yeah," Vince sighed, his hand stealing down to tug himself with quick, rough strokes.

"What's the hurry?" Stuart teased, running his fingers along the waistband of Vince's open trousers.

"What's the holdup?" Vince returned. "I thought we'd, you know, together." Quickly he added, "Just-- watching."

"We can do better than that. Here," he said, scooting even closer, "give us a go."

"Huh?"

"Lay back a bit," Stuart said. "Here-- just, stretch out a little, like this. That's better," he turned to lay against Vince and batted his hand away, replacing it with Stuart's own, curled around Vince's cock in a sure grip.

"God," Vince said, more surprised even than turned on. Stuart had to laugh.

"Right," he settled in and began stroking slowly. "Nice, yeah?"

"Yeah... God," Vince said again. Turned on was beginning to win out, his breath coming quicker now, more harshly. The magazine crunched and crumpled up, still clenched in his left hand. After a moment, he shifted up a bit and worked his other arm around Stuart.

"Move your leg up." Stuart wriggled until he managed to half-straddle Vince's thigh from the side, pushing his own hard-on against his friend's hip.

Vince made a shocked noise, a sort of closed-mouth yelp, and then groaned richly as Stuart thrust against him.

Stuart let his head fall against Vince's chest and giggled. This had been such a good idea, this was so much fun-- Vince's ragged breath and lifting hips, his hand desperately tight on Stuart's shoulder.

"Can I-- I can't really, um... here..." Vince tugged his right arm loose and gestured tentatively towards Stuart's fly. "It's kind of-- I'm right handed-- you could, um."

"Mm, thought you'd never ask," Stuart grinned, and started working the zipper down, catching it a bit because he was trying to do that and keep wanking Vince off at the same time, and Vince was moving, too, turning for a better angle, his fingers pressing lightly against Stuart's cock through his trousers. The magazine fell closed between them and Stuart glanced up; they were face-to-face.

The moment he caught Vince's eye, Vince quickly looked down, the sexual flush on his face going darker til he was blushing up to the tips of his ears. Stuart shifted a little closer and bent his head, maybe to say something, but he couldn't think of anything, so maybe he'd just kiss him instead-- whichever-- before he could make another move there was a noise and Vince jumped back, yanking away.

Stuart asked, "What?"

"Front door," Vince hissed, shoving his hard-on back into his trousers, wincing. "Sh!"

"You're kidding," Stuart half-whispered, half-laughed.

"Quiet!" Vince struggled with the zip.

"Vinnie! Are you home?"

"Yeah, mum!" Vince shouted back.

"I got tonight off, first shift burned out the line again," Vince's mum's voice floated up. Stuart heard her trudge up a couple of the stairs and could barely keep himself from hooting with nervous laughter as Vince grabbed the Radio Times and tossed it down behind the bed. "I thought I might order in curries or something."

"Yeah, sounds great." Vince gestured at Stuart madly, mouthing, 'Off the bed!'

Stuart stretched out on his back, crossed his legs at the ankle, and folded his hands behind his head, flashing a cheeky smile. Vince shot him a dirty look and moved away, perching anxiously on the edge of the mattress.

"Right, it'll probably be half an hour then!" Stuart heard her tread descending the stairs, and movement off somewhere else down there.

He turned on his side to grin at Vince, and crooked his finger beckoningly.

"Are you daft?" Vince whispered. "My mum's just downstairs!"

"So? You said she never comes into your room," Stuart replied.

"Well not usually, but she does sometimes," Vince answered, shifting uncomfortably.

"Sometimes isn't never!"

"Almost never. God... let me think." Vince ran his hands through his mussed hair and frowned. "She'll have to pay for the food in a little while, maybe we can get you out the back way then."

Stuart swung his legs off the side of the bed and glared sidewise. "You said it was all right if you had people over."

"Yeah, but--" Vince took a deep breath. "Yeah, okay. It's just. Never mind. Maybe you should go for now. I mean, I want you to meet her and all but maybe... not, um..."

"I should probably wash my hands first," Stuart answered, holding up and spreading his right hand, strands of precum stretching between his fingers.

"Ugh!" Vince said, kicking his trainer. "Sick!"

"Don't ugh at me, it's not mine," Stuart pointed out, smirking. He pounced on Vince and after a moment of wrestling slipped his hand under his shirt and rubbed his damp fingers across Vince's belly.

Vince made a disgusted face, laughing halfheartedly, and shoved him away. "God! Stuart! Get off!"

"Fine." Stuart grabbed a tissue and cleaned up. "I'm gonna have to finish this or I'll go crosseyed. I dunno how you can just quit like that. Maybe I'll go to the library. Blokes're always hanging round the toilets there. They're older than us, but sometimes you can find one who's not too bad. Any road, something's better than nothing, right?" He binned the tissue and added nonchalantly, "We could both go. You could ask, I could wait out front."

"No, I, I can't," Vince said, "I sort of promised to help with some stuff, and we're going to have dinner soon."

"Right. Well. See you later then," Stuart said.

"Yeah. Oh, wait. Here." Vince fumbled for a second, grabbing a battered paperback and pressing it into Stuart's hands. "Like you borrowed it. In case she sees you," he mumbled, catching Stuart's questioning look and quickly dropping his eyes again, his blush coming faintly back.

"The Stars My Destination? This is supposed to look like something I'd read?" Stuart asked.

"Just--"

"All right, all right."

Vince walked him down quickly and all but shoved Stuart out the front door, saying too loudly, "Right then, bye!"

"That's very convincing, very natural," he muttered at Vince in the doorway, "it's almost like you really are saying goodbye to someone; really, it's excellent, well done."

"Piss off," Vince shot back under his breath. He leaned out of the door a bit, and Stuart tipped his head up, but all he got was a quick: "It really is a good book," and then Vince drew back into the house. "Bye," he said again, and shut the door.

Stuart shoved the paperback into his pocket and walked home.

*

Next morning at school Stuart dropped onto the floor in the lobby next to Vince, already staking out their spot near the back hall.

Vince glanced up from his textbook for just a moment. He was scrawling hasty answers across a rumpled sheet of homework stuck inside.

"Never guess who I saw round the back just now," Stuart said.

"Who?" Vince asked.

"Dexter Woods, and guess who he was with."

"Curt?"

"Oh, you'd think. He was with Garrett Brigham! He was giving him money!"

"Oh come on, Dex Woods? No way!"

"Swear to god. Now, what could he be buying, that's what I want to know."

"From Garrett? Could be anything," Vince said. "He's got an older brother buys him whisky and all. I heard he can get fake IDs, and Robbie Wright told me Garrett got him hash, he said it was, but Robbie said it was mostly oregano."

"That's kid stuff. There's got to be someone round here sells poppers. I'm telling you, Vince, those things are completely brilliant. We've got to get hold of some."

"Why don't you ask that bloke who gave you the one?" Vince asked, voice dropping to a whisper. "Find out where he got 'em."

"I don't remember his name. He was terrible anyway, he came in no time, and all over the sleeve of my jumper, I was an hour trying to clean that up. I hope I never see him again. Complete cunt. He probably got 'em in the Village. I bet you can get anything down round there."

"Stuart, sh!" Vince cautioned, looking around anxiously.

"What? Fuck them," Stuart said impatiently.

Vince frowned deeply and went back to his text.

"What're you doing, anyhow?" Stuart demanded.

"History," said Vince. "This is due second hour, I really need to finish."

"Why didn't you do it last night?"

"I was busy last night," Vince muttered. His face began to go a bit pink.

"Hm. Not busy enough," Stuart grinned at him suggestively.

"Shut it. I have to get this done," Vince said.

Bored, Stuart got out The Stars My Destination and began to ostentatiously read, pinching the pages delicately and turning them with exaggerated care.

When the first bell rang, Vince took off at once and didn't look back.

*

Ty McNeeley sidled up next to Stuart's locker in the deserted stretch of hall behind the band room.

"So," he said.

"So," Stuart mimicked.

McNeeley studied his shoes. "I thought maybe. We could."

Stuart looked him over. He'd completely lost any shine he'd had for Stuart. He was gangly. His ears stuck out.

"Nah," Stuart said. He shut his locker and walked away.

*

He read the book-- actually read it. Why not; he wasn't over at Vince's every afternoon any more. Vince had homework one day, and then he said he'd promised to tidy up the house, and then he said his mother had gone back to first shift, and simply didn't invite Stuart over, avoiding his eyes. Vince wasn't waiting around after school any more, wasn't anywhere to be found on their usual walk home. So now Stuart had all sorts of time.

Most of the books Vince had passed on before were pulpy adventure yarns, and Stuart had breezed through them without paying them much mind. This one seemed to have a bit more to it, though, and he thought maybe Vince had handed it to him just then for a reason.


"No, it's too late," she said quietly, "the bombs are raining down on us, I see them falling."
"Why are you staying here? It's crazy! You've killed us both!"
"Yes," she smiled. "Why not run? No one will ever know you turned coward. Go!"
"Never!"
"Here comes a whole cluster of red streaks... down, down, down... directly at us. There'll be no escaping this unless you run. Quick, now! Run! Run!"
He swept her off the bench. "Bitch! Never!"
He held her, found the soft coral mouth and kissed her, bruised her lips with his, waiting for the final blackout.
The concussion never came.
"Tricked!" he exclaimed. She laughed. He kissed her again, the white throat, the snowy hair. She gasped for breath, then laughed again, her blind coral eyes blazing.
"The bombing's stopped. The battle's over," she said.
"It hasn't begun yet."
"What d'you mean?"
"The war between us."
"Make it a human war," she said fiercely. "You're the first not to be deceived by my looks. Oh God! The boredom of the chivalrous knights and their milk-warm passion for the fairy tale princess. But I'm not like that... inside. I'm not. I'm not. Never. Make it a savage war between us. Don't win me... destroy me!"

Or maybe it was just another manky science fiction novel with especially awful dialogue. Stuart spun it across the room; it thumped against the dresser and fell to the floor, pages splayed open. He looked at the phone, but it didn't ring, and he didn't call.

*

In the men's room at school the next day, Stuart stared at himself in the mirror. He looked all right. He looked really good, in fact. Over the past few months he'd finally worked out how to style his hair so that it stayed curly rather than going wild and frizzy like it used to do.

He pulled a few strands down in front to curl squiggily over one eye, but it looked too deliberate, too affected, so he smoothed it back. The bell rang for the next class, so he supposed he wasn't going to geometry. Maybe he'd just skive off the rest of the day.

One of the stall doors swung open as he washed his hands, and Cliff Saunders came out and parked himself at the next sink. "Jones," he greeted.

"Hiya," Stuart answered, sending it up.

The other boy just passed his hands under the tap and reached for a paper towel. He was staring at Stuart out of the corner of his eye, Stuart could feel it. Finally Saunders told him, "Y'know... McNeeley's been saying all sorts about you."

Stuart turned and flicked water off his hands into the other boy's face. "So?" he said leadingly. It was fine with him if Saunders wanted to start a fight. He was ready to thrash someone.

Saunders passed his hand over his nose and mouth. "So," he said finally, "did you really--?"

He sounded more hopeful than hostile. Stuart broke into a grin and ducked his head, gave him a lure of a stare, and then threw a look at one of the row of empty stalls.

They shoved in together and banged the door shut behind them, snogging furiously. Saunders had no idea what he was doing, it was obvious from the way his hands combed tentatively through Stuart's hair, dropped, and locked onto Stuart's hips. But he bucked against Stuart eagerly, and he kissed well enough. Stuart was just unfastening the other boy's belt when they heard the outer door swing open.

"Shit," Cliff whispered almost silently, and stepped up onto the toilet seat so his feet wouldn't show. Stuart could see through the gap under the door hinge that it was just a weedy little freshman using one of the urinals.

Stuart didn't give Cliff a chance to lose his nerve; he leaned over a bit awkwardly and snogged him, sucking lewdly on his tongue until the outside door shut again. Cliff stepped onto the floor and backed up against the side of the stall, letting Stuart press against him aggressively, gasping as Stuart finished undoing his belt and reached past his trousers and pants to touch him.

"Have you ever, you know," Cliff asked breathlessly.

"What, this? Sure."

"No, I mean," he flushed, his mouth working, inarticulate. "All the way."

Stuart smirked at him. "You want that?"

"I just, I."

Stuart took Cliff's hand and guided it to his own hard-on, smiled as Cliff gripped him through his clothes. "You want that?" he repeated.

"Yeah," Cliff gave in, his fingers sliding the fabric over Stuart's cock, and kissed him again, wet and hungry.

Stuart undid his own trousers in short order and wanked them both at once, and Cliff surprised him, his hands tentatively moved to squeeze Stuart's arse. Stuart rewarded him with a low groan and licked his hand so that he could pump the other boy's cock faster, and after just a few hard strokes like that, Cliff stiffened and grabbed frantically for the bog roll and came into a wad of tissue paper he barely got into place in time. Stuart finished himself off to the feel of Cliff's deep and languid snogging.

"You could come to mine tomorrow," Saunders blurted as they sorted their clothes. "No one else'll be home."

"I could," Stuart taunted.

"Will you?"

He made the other boy wait, and then he shrugged. "Yeah," he said.

After Saunders left, he looked at himself in the mirror again. He looked even better now. His hair was a bit mussed from the other boy touching it while they kissed, but he liked that. It made it obvious what he'd been doing, to anyone who knew.

Stuart strolled into geometry ten minutes after the bell.

"You're late, Mr. Jones," the teacher said.

"I was at the nurse's office," Stuart showed his pass. He stole a look at Vince, who was hiding a sudden smile. They'd infiltrated the guidance counselor's office to photocopy a real pass weeks ago. Stuart had a stack of them now.

"All right," Mr. McElroy said, "take your seat."

Vince studied him as Stuart slid behind his desk; Stuart looked over at him, tried a smile. Vince answered it with the slightest smile of his own, and then he passed Stuart his notes from the beginning of class. Stuart copied them and passed them back.

Stuart took his time gathering his things after class, and Vince waited for him. They walked down the hall together, and then parted for their next classes; neither of them said a word.

*

After school Stuart stopped by the corner shop. A greasy-haired man in his twenties stood behind the counter, looking bored and tired. Stuart hated the place, that was part of the reason he didn't mind nicking things there. It was a busy corner, the shop must do well, and they had all sorts of stuff, but it always looked disorganised and untended, and there was a visible layer of dust on some of the slow-moving items.

No one else was in the shop, he was a little early. The clerk might get suspicious if he moved out of sight, so he lingered near the counter, pretending to look at the jewelry. There was all sorts for women but hardly anything for men, just a couple of chunky rings, ugly gold chains, and only one kind of bracelet, those silver ones.

The key to the display case had been left in the lock, a crammed keychain dangling from it. This place was just sloppy. They deserved to be robbed.

He only had to wait a few minutes before some of the girls from his school came through the door, chattering and giggling their way to the cosmetics section. Like always, the greasy-haired bloke moved round the far side of the counter to peer after them hopelessly, and while his attention was diverted, Stuart walked past the rack of contraceptives and pocketed a tube of K-Y.

Stuart went to the snack aisle and picked out some crisps and thought about it. There was no reason to steal it. He wasn't embarrassed to buy it. And it wasn't as though the greasy-haired bloke was likely to make inquiries. Stuart had already taken off his tie and zipped his jacket before he came in, so his uniform didn't show.

Buying stuff you weren't supposed to have couldn't be much harder than stealing. In both cases it was just a matter of behaving as though you were entitled to do exactly what you'd done.

He got in line behind the girls, the lot of them talking, whispering, throwing looks at him over their shoulders, all big spidery-lashed eyes and long mops of teased, bleached hair. Once they'd gone he put the lube on the counter along with the crisps, some gum, and a box of Trojans, assuming the bored, desultory expression he'd perfected for nicking things.

"Anything else?" the man asked.

"Pack of Bensons," Stuart said impulsively, fishing money out of his wallet.

The clerk added the cigarettes and rang everything up. "14.54," he said, and that was that.

*

"Oh, god, oh, fuck, oh, fuck," Cliff chanted under his breath.

Stuart eased back again. "Just relax," he said for what had to be the tenth time. "We can do something else." They already had done something else. He'd sucked Cliff off to get him to loosen up a bit, but it was still slow going.

Cliff half turned and said, "If you want, I just, I really..." and trailed off. Stuart was getting a bit sick of his inability to complete a sentence. He was sick of Cliff all around, really. He had spots and his room was papered with posters of red-faced football stars and he couldn't finish a thought to save his fucking life.

"Let's do it this way," Stuart said, rolling Cliff onto his back and sliding on top of him, reaching between them with a lubed hand to stroke them both, drawing it out nice and slow until he forgot how annoying Cliff was. Cliff could say yes well enough, after all, nearly shouting it when he came in a hot sexy splash that got Stuart off as well.

It took ages to clean up, the lube was sort of globby and it had spread everywhere. Stuart scrubbed at himself with a handful of tissues. There was some on the sheets as well, but that was Cliff's problem.

"Sorry," Cliff said. "I really wanted to, it's just."

"Doesn't matter, it was fine," Stuart said, and mostly meant it.

Among other things, shagging was completely absorbing. He hadn't thought about anything else the whole time he'd been having Cliff. But now that it was over he just wanted to wipe off and leave.

Once he got home, he shut himself in his room and phoned Vince. "You won't believe where I've been," he said.

"Where?" Vince asked.

"Cliff Saunders asked me to his. You should've seen him," Stuart gloated, "he was begging for it."

"Oh my god, what did you do? Did you shag him? Really shag him?" Vince asked, sounding excited, impressed.

"Gave it a go, but he couldn't take it," Stuart said. "Just ended up tossing him off. I had him yesterday as well."

"I knew you'd been up to something when you came to class late," Vince said, "I couldn't believe no one else twigged. You really went to his? How was it? How far did you get?"

Stuart settled in and gave him the full report.

*

So they were back where they'd started, more or less, when the long weekend came up.

"Are you doing anything?" Stuart asked.

"Nah, Mum's going in to work," Vince told him.

"Work? It's a bank holiday, there's no school..."

"Yeah, it's extra, she volunteered for it," Vince said. "We're going to the cinema Sunday though, to see The Neverending Story. I loved that book, it was brilliant."

"Jesus, Vince," Stuart shook his head, "it's no wonder no one takes you seriously at school, you actually go telling people you're planning to see some kids' film at a matinee with your mother--"

"I didn't tell people," Vince cut him off sharply, "I told you."

Stuart shut his face and shoved his hands into his coat pockets, glancing aside. Vince's mouth was set into a stubborn line.

The pack of gum he'd bought at the corner shop was still in one pocket. Stuart pulled it out and offered a piece to Vince silently.

Vince accepted it. They walked on, and eventually he grudgingly said, "Thanks."

"So what's the book about," Stuart asked.

"It's... just a good book," Vince shrugged, looking off into the distance.

"I could come over," Stuart said. "For the holiday. We've got almost that whole bottle of Tanqueray."

"Yeah?" Vince smiled. "We could hire some videos. Or I s'pose I've still got a lot stuff you haven't seen. There's this completely hilarious Star Wars Christmas special, I got it from my pen pal in the States. It's the worst thing ever. You've got to see it."

"What time's good?"

"Any time after ten." Vince made a face. "This stuff doesn't really stay good very long, does it," he said almost apologetically, smacking his gum.

"Nah, it goes off fast," Stuart frowned.

Vince licked his fingers to keep them from sticking and then took his gum out of his mouth, waiting til they reached a corner to drop it into a rubbish bin. Stuart turned his head and spit his out propulsively toward some ornamental greenery.

"Stuart! Someone's going to step on that," Vince scolded.

"In the bushes?" Stuart retorted. "Some bloke might get it stuck to his knee, maybe--"

"God, do you ever think about anything but sex?"

Stuart raised his brows slyly, eyeing Vince, and it took the piss out of him at once; Vince looked away, flustered.

"Nothing else comes to mind," Stuart said.

"You going over to Cliff's again?" Vince asked.

"What? No."

"Cos I've got this paper for history, I've been putting it off," Vince said, heading down the street toward his house. "Gotta go. See you Monday?"

Stuart said, "Yeah. See you then," and let him go.

*

"This is nice," Vince said, "I've never had this much before, 's really good, it's, um. It's unpleasantly like being drunk."

"What?" They were stretched out on a picnic blanket in the narrow back garden behind Vince's house. Stuart got up on his elbow to see what he was on about.

"Ask a glass of water," Vince said, breaking himself up. Stuart didn't have the faintest idea what he was laughing about. Vince picked that up eventually, trailing off with a few weak giggles and a "Never mind."

"It's all right, this," Stuart allowed. "Sort of relaxing. I should've got Cliff drunk before I had him, maybe then I could've got in there."

They both started snickering over that one.

"I can't believe I went all the way to his on a promise. I knew he wasn't any good, he was an all right kisser but he'd no idea what to do with his hands. I should've known he wasn't really up for it."

"I can't believe he asked you," Vince said with awe.

"He's useless," Stuart said, "hasn't got a clue. Didn't even know what he was asking for, really."

"You going to try again?"

"Not with him," Stuart dismissed. "You should see his room, it's like a temple to United."

"Oi, what's wrong with United?"

"Nothing, if you're a twat."

"United's the best, everyone knows that."

"Liverpool won it last time out. Those cunts in United are too busy breaking their heads against the advert hoardings to score any goals."

"Fuck off, just cos Ronnie Whelan's from Dublin."

"Like I give a toss!"

"And the Bohemians have been shite for years, they didn't even get a look in..."

Somehow from there, it seemed like a good idea to settle it with a drinking match. Things got a little hazy after that, until Stuart found himself incredibly ill and coughing up sour bile and gin into the toilet.

"You all right?" Vince asked from outside the door, sounding a bit shaky himself.

Stuart flushed and wiped his mouth and came out wincing at the brighter light. "Fine," he said.

"I lost most of it down the kitchen sink," Vince admitted.

"Eugh."

"Came out my nose too," he added, rubbing his face.

Stuart groaned involuntarily.

"Better now though," Vince said, weaving his way into the lounge. Somehow the bottles had wound up in there. "I bet I could go right back to it."

"All right," Stuart said, "I'll pour," and made the next round, going heavy on the tonic water.

"Cheers," Vince said, and gulped down half the glass.

"How was the film?" Stuart asked, sitting next to Vince on the floor.

"Amazing. I mean, it was a kids' movie, but... it was so good. There's like this other planet, or dimension or something, that's all made up of peoples' dreams. It kept being someplace new, there was a desert, then it was caves, mountains, a swamp, the ocean. And it was full of all kinds of weird creatures. A rock giant, a dragon with a head like a dog, and a huge turtle as big as a mountain... and they were all going to disappear if the kid didn't come into the story to save them. I could've watched it forever. It was like looking into this whole other huge world." He closed his eyes. Stuart took the opportunity to top off his glass with tonic.

"Does your mum like that stuff too, fantasy and Doctor Who and that?"

"Nah," Vince said. "She likes normal stuff. Coronation Street. Well. We watch that together, it's good, I like it. I like Elsie. She's my favorite. She's a bit like my mum I think. Just a bit. Mum's nicer than Elsie. You ever see it?"

"Nope." Stuart took another drink. He was thirsty but it didn't seem to help. "I bet you could tell her," he said.

Vince's head came up, his brow furrowed. "I'm not telling her," he said.

"Why not, you're always saying how you're so close, and she's so great."

"She is. It's not cos of her, it's not anything to do with her. It's... it'd just make a lot of trouble," Vince mumbled. "Besides. It's not like I've really done much of anything."

"Maybe you could," Stuart said. "If you didn't have to hide. If she knew."

"I dunno."

"What're you afraid of? What's she going to do, boot you out?"

"No! Course not!"

"It's not like she's religious or anything. She's not like my mum."

"No..."

"Well, go on then. If you were really as close to her as all that, you could tell her," Stuart urged.

Vince swallowed more from his glass. "Maybe," he said, his shoulder pressing more heavily against Stuart's.

Stuart poured them each other, using a little less tonic this time.

"Cheers," Vince said after they'd both taken a drink, getting it backward. He was starting to look a bit dazed.

Stuart bolted down the rest of his, trying to catch up. Just about then, there was a thunking noise at the front door and suddenly Vince was much more alert.

"Bloody hell," he said, "what time is it? Oh, shit."

The woman opening the door looked too young to be Vince's mother, but when she looked in and caught sight of them, she got a knowing look on her face, and Stuart knew she must be.

"Vincent Tyler," she said as she shut the door. "What've you been getting up to?"

Vince bit his lip. "Sorry, mum," he said, going a bit pink. He really did look sorry.

"Sorry I caught you, no doubt," his mother said, putting her hands on her hips. She sounded stern, but she looked to Stuart as though she might start laughing at any moment.

Vince managed to sound terribly guilty just heaving a sigh.

She looked him over. "So you must be Stuart," she said.

"Nice to meet you," Stuart answered, and mostly managed not to slur the words. He gave her the wide, meaningless smile that usually worked on adults. "I'd stand and shake your hand, but, ehm--" he jogged his shoulder to show that Vince was still leaning against him. Vince hurriedly scooted away.

"You've right good manners for an underage drunk," she observed with one eyebrow raised. "Nice to meet you as well. But if you two got into my liquor, I'm taking it out of the both of you in housework."

"I brought it," Stuart told her.

"Did you. Tanqueray, hm?" she said, picking up the bottle. "I'll have some of that. Stuart, be a love and pass that tonic."

*

"Can't we find a quieter way home?" Vince asked plaintively the next afternoon.

"You can't still be hung over."

"Well, I didn't get to stay in 'sick' this morning, did I," Vince grumbled. "Mum made me come in to school bright and early. Said I should get used to it, getting through the day with a hangover, if I was gonna make a habit of this."

"Your mum's completely mad," Stuart said. She'd lectured them on knowing their limits while she handily put away the rest of the gin.

"Yeah, I know. I told you she's great," Vince said, and then his voice dropped. "Heads up, nine o'clock."

Stuart rolled his eyes. "Is that right or left or what?"

"Left," Vince said, as Cliff Saunders came walking up on Stuart's other side.

"Hiya, Tyler," Saunders said. "Stuart."

Stuart exchanged barely suppressed smiles with Vince. "Hiya," Stuart chirped with entirely false brightness. Vince nudged him surreptitiously.

"What's happening," Saunders asked.

"Oh, lots of things," Stuart said, and then let a long moment pass, as Saunders obviously expected him to elaborate.

Finally the other boy asked, "Like what?"

"Like... things. Everything. Life," Stuart said, laughing openly now.

Vince took pity on Saunders and said, "We're just going to mine to work on this geometry assignment."

"I thought maybe we could do something tomorrow," Saunders said to Stuart, all in a rush.

"I thought maybe we wouldn't," Stuart said. Vince jabbed him with an elbow to the ribs for that one.

Saunders kicked at the pavement. "Fine. You don't have to be a cunt about it."

Stuart would've loved to come back with something nasty to that one, but Vince was already silently threatening to cuff him, his hand poised.

Stuart made a face at him and turned back to Saunders and said, "Well if I don't have to, I suppose I won't then. Bye-bye," he added in his most insincere tone of voice, and yanked Vince with him down the next side street.

"I can't believe you!" Vince said, "What're you like?"

"I shouldn't've done him that second time," Stuart said. "I think it gave him notions."

"Oh, imagine that," Vince said.

"Well I didn't give him any cause to think anything like that," Stuart said, "it's not as though I like him, it's not like he's my friend. He's got no reason to expect anything from me."

Vince laughed. "What're you going to do then, just never have the same bloke more than once?"

"Why not?" Stuart asked. "There's a whole world full of fantastic boys out there. I could go my whole life and never shag the same one twice."

"You could do, too," Vince shook his head admiringly.

"Just wait 'til we can go down to the Village," Stuart grinned. "It'll be brilliant. I'm never looking back."

"Look, the moon's out already," Vince said, his walk slowing. He pointed it out, a white shadow in the blue above them. "You ever see the rabbit in the moon?"

"Nope."

"Me neither. And then there's meant to be a man in the moon as well, of course," Vince said, "but I don't see that either. To me it sort of looks more like Marilyn Monroe."

"What?" Stuart giggled.

"It does!" Vince glanced at him, grinning. "You've got a very strange laugh sometimes, you know that?"

"I don't," Stuart denied, though he knew he did. It was sort of high and sounded silly; he'd tried to stop laughing like that but sometimes it just came out.

"You do. I like it though," Vince said. "No one else sounds like that. Just you." He tipped back his head and looked up again, standing, for once, straight and tall, his face smooth and lovely, his eyes full of sky and the promise of summer.

Stuart stopped and watched him. All at once, he wished Vince could always be just like he was now. All vision and possibility, clear and pure, undimmed.

He thought of all his conquests, the way they always seemed diminished somehow, after, always becoming just a body, used up and flawed.

He didn't want that with Vince. He didn't want Vince that way. The thought made a peculiar ache shoot through him, a sick feeling that faded fast, but not fast enough.

Stuart reached for Vince's hand, and touched his sleeve instead. "Come with me," he said.

"Where?"

"Just come on," Stuart said impatiently.

The woman was at the register at the corner store. Stuart stopped just outside the door and instructed, "Get her to go to the back, on that side," he pointed.

"There's nothing back there but makeup and that," Vince protested. Stuart glared at him until he said, "All right, all right, I'll ask about perfume or something."

"Good," Stuart said, and they headed inside.

"I'm sure we can find just the thing," the woman said warmly as Vince tried, unsuccessfully, not to look guilty. She left the counter to lead him back. "Is this for your sweetheart?"

"No, uhm, we didn't really hit it off," Vince said. "This is for my mum, her birthday's coming up..."

Stuart went to the jewelry display. Sure enough, the key was in the lock. The key to the cash register was probably on that bulging keychain, anyone could just rob the lot. They were getting off easy, he thought as he slid the back panel out of the way and reached inside.

He could hear sneezing from the back of the store, and Vince and the woman apologizing to each other in stereo. He could hardly imagine what Vince had got himself into back there. Suppressing another fit of giggles, Stuart left.

Around the corner, Vince walked up, sniffling, his nose still buried in a tissue. "I was never allergic before," he said, a bit muffled. "I wonder if it's cos of all that drinking yesterday." His eyes were watering, his nose was red and his hair was sticking up in front, but for all that, Stuart still thought he was dead good looking.

Vince tucked the tissue into his pocket, blinking. "What'd you take? We were right by the liquor."

Stuart produced them from his pocket, the bracelet Vince had tried on before and a second one, exactly like it.

"Oh my god," Vince said.

"The clasp is a bit hard to manage, I'll have to put it on for you," Stuart said.

Vince shook his head. "Stuart, you can't just go taking those, it's not right. I wouldn't have helped if I'd known you were doing that."

Stuart narrowed his eyes and smiled, a smile with a sharp edge to it. "Yeah, you would've," he said.

At that Vince's mouth took on that stubborn, resentful line, and he exhaled loudly and turned to go stomping off.

"Vince." Stuart waited until Vince stopped and faced him again. "Are we friends or what?"

Vince met his eyes, and this time he didn't look away. The anger faded from his face, and he answered Stuart's gaze steadily, seriously, for a long moment.

"Yeah," he said. "We're friends."

"All right then," Stuart said, "here."

Vince held out his hand and Stuart looped the bracelet around his wrist.

"It'll probably turn your hand green or something," he said, and Vince laughed.

Stuart secured the clasp and held on just a second more, the silver warming under his hand. "Never take it off. Promise."

"Promise," Vince said. "Even if it turns my hand green." He took the other one and fastened it onto Stuart's wrist.

"Thanks," Stuart told him, and Vince smiled and squeezed his hand and looked sort of wistful, as though he understood, and then he let go and Stuart was sure he did.

*

It was just because they'd left it undone, that was all. That was why it stuck in Stuart's mind like nothing else had, how they'd been so close, how hard his heart had been pounding, how Vince's head fell back when Stuart touched him.

He didn't think of it all that often. Just... often enough.

He never did give back that book.

***

Next Story: Laid Up.

Almost Never Chapter Index

Contact Cesare

Home