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First Draft

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“My friend, Conor.”

“No,” Conor said from the other side of the room.

“No?” Ned glanced up from his desk. Conor was still retrieving the clothes from his duffel bag and hanging them in his wardrobe, his back to Ned.

“Well, not ‘no,’ exactly. You might just want to work on it more.”

“I should’ve known you’d complain from literally the first line.” Ned grinned at Conor’s back.

“You’re the writer,” Conor said, shrugging. He bent down to pick up his raincoat. “But you said you wanted me to shout whatever I thought about the first draft. That you wanted us to write it together. You did say that.”

“Alright,” Ned said, raising his hands in surrender. Conor turned and, upon seeing the gesture, offered a tight smile.

Is this tension? Ned wrote. We’re still only at the title. He paused and tapped his pen in the margin violently. If he still hasn’t completely forgiven me, I can’t blame him. I haven’t forgiven me.

“Jotting down more amazing titles?” Conor called.

“Er, no,” Ned replied, drawing a line under what he’d written. “Just doodling.”

“Already? You really excel at being lazy, Ned.”

“One of us has to.” Ned hovered his pen at the left margin.

We all have one thing we’re ashamed of. That memory One moment so embarrassing, we don’t think we’ll ever get over it. Suddenly, the words were flowing.

“Done,” Conor said, after Ned had been writing for a while. Ned looked up to see him kicking his duffel bag under the bed, then returned his attention to his notebook. “Ned? I’m done, I said.”

He offered a half-hearted grunt in response.

“Oh, come on. You’re not still sore about that title, are you? Use it if you like.”

“I’m not sore, I’m concentrating.” Ned heard Conor crossing the room, then felt his hands on his shoulders.

“Excuse me, then. I guess I’ll just go eat by myself.”

“No chance,” Ned said, finishing the sentence he was on and replacing the cap of his pen. “Not after you made me wait all that time for you to finish unpacking.”

Conor squeezed Ned’s shoulders. “Looks like you got some writing down in that time, though.”

Ned tilted his head back to look up at him. “I hope you didn’t read it. Did you?”

“Maybe a little?”

“Most of it’s rubbish,” Ned said, closing the notebook and tucking it under his arm. “Can I get up?”

Conor stepped back and dropped his hands to his side. “So, what do you think will be on the menu tonight?”

“Not sure,” Ned said, springing up and walking to the door. “But it’ll probably be something grey.”

Conor laughed and followed Ned to the threshold. “I’ve really missed this.”

“What?” Ned flicked the light switch; he looked back into the shadows cast by the hallway light, found Conor’s eyes, stared into them until a passing pupil jostled him out of the way.

“You,” Conor said. “Me and you. Just being normal again.”

Ned nodded and closed the door behind Conor. They began walking towards the stairwell, the other boys parting reverently as Conor passed.

“Listen, Conor—”

“And I know we both acted like complete eejits,” Conor sputtered. “I’ll be the first to admit that I let you down first. So, if you ever want to talk about it—or not, I mean, that’s fine too—”

He was interrupted by the din of the boys on the stairs cheering for him. Probably for the best, Ned thought. He didn’t know exactly what he wanted to say, and how he wanted to say it, if he and Conor were to sit down and talk about everything. That was the point of writing the essay. Well, that and getting Mr Sherry off his back.

“I don’t like this,” Conor was telling him, through gritted teeth.

Ned patted his back. “You’ll get used to it.”

“I really hope I don’t,” Conor retorted. “That’d mean it’ll be going on longer than just the first day back from break.”

Knowing how obsessed this place is with rugby, you’ll be lucky if it only goes on until the end of the year, Ned thought.

“Why’d you bring that notebook, anyway?” Conor asked, as they crossed the burgundy and cream tiles of the main hall.

“What do you mean, why’d I bring it? What sort of writer wouldn’t have something around to record his thoughts when inspiration strikes?”

Conor rolled his eyes and held open the door of the refectory for Ned. “I really don’t know.”

“Would James Joyce leave his house without anything to write with? I don’t think so.” Ned was still standing in the doorway, smirking, blocking the flow of traffic, relishing the limelight. It felt like the entire school was standing in abeyance around the two of them.

“You have a title and two lines and you’re comparing yourself to James Joyce,” Conor said. He patted Ned’s cheek with his free hand. “I think Mr Sherry’s done a number on you.”

“Whoa, what’s this?”

Ned hung his head and braced himself as Weasel sauntered to the doorway and held up a languid finger to each of them.

“Weasel,” Conor said, nodding to him.

“So, are you two official now? Is that what all this PDA is about?”

Conor rolled his eyes. “What PDA? We don’t need to hear about your fantasies, Weasel.”

“They’re not my fantasies.” He crossed his arms and directed his scornful gaze at Ned. “More like what the ginger pole smoker you call your mate’s been dreaming about since you moved in.”

His breath smells like potatoes. I guess that’s what’s on the menu, Ned thought.

“And I suppose what you’re dreaming about is me rearranging your face again,” Conor threatened.

“I really don’t understand how you can still hate me,” Ned said, straightening up. “You won the cup! And you’re leaving in a couple months. How am I still on your mind?”

Weasel motioned to the door and shrugged. “You’re not on my mind, little vole. You were just in my way.”

Conor grabbed Weasel’s necktie and pulled him close. The door to the refectory slammed shut. “Don’t you ever—ever—talk to either of us again. Or I’ll put you in hospital. You know I will.”

“Get off,” Weasel yelled, grabbing Conor’s wrists.

“Did you hear me?” Ned winced as Conor shook Weasel by the neck.

“I’m just winding you up,” Weasel said, letting out a nervous laugh. His hands were still gripping Conor’s forearms. “I couldn’t care less what the two of you get up to. Can’t you take a joke?”

“You’re the joke,” Conor spat. He released Weasel, who stumbled back several feet and almost collided with Ned. “Let’s go, Ned.”

Without responding, Ned leaned into the door and walked through to the refectory. Weasel’s contemptuous laughter echoed in the corridor behind him, but it was soon drowned out by the din of hundreds of other boys. He hurried to one of the quiet, poorly lit tables in the back corner of the cavernous room, his notebook dangling loosely from his hand. Conor was jogging after him but, mercifully, wasn’t calling his name.

“You alright?” Conor said, once he’d sat down across from him.

“’Course I am,” Ned said quietly. He’d already opened the notebook and was hunched over it, making motions with his pen more than writing.

“Come on.”

Ned glanced up. “What?”

“You know better than to listen to anything Weasel says.”

“Oh, him? I don’t listen to him. He’s just a muppet.”

Conor tapped his fingertips together and shrugged. “What’s the problem, then?”

“You.” Ned fixed his gaze on him. “Getting violent. Letting your fists do the talking.”

“What fists? I hardly touched him.”

“And what if Walter had seen? You think he’d see it the same way?” Ned narrowed his eyes; Conor averted his. “It took us an hour to convince him to let me move back in with you. Not to speak of the punishment I’m in for that he hasn’t even revealed to me yet.”

“Fair points,” he mumbled.

“And what’d he tell us when he finally said we could return to our room?” Ned said, going in for the kill.

Conor threw his head back and looked up at the ceiling. “That if either of us put one foot wrong then we’ll be separated for the rest of our time here.”

“Good to know all those blows to the head haven’t dulled your memory,” Ned said. Conor gave him a dark look and they both burst out laughing.

“Okay, okay.” Conor locked his hands behind his neck. “Nice to know you care so much.”

Ned looked down at his notebook and scribbled. “Of course I care.”

“Yeah?” Conor said, a note of hope suspended in his voice.

“Yeah. I mean, who else would let me use all of their wall space?”

Conor blew a raspberry. “Happy to be of use, you bastard. You can quote that in your essay, by the way.”

“Is that what I am?” Ned raised an eyebrow.

“Little bit. At least you’re a handsome one, though.”

“And you’re terrible at flattery,” Ned replied, looking down at the table. His cheeks, his ears, his entire face was on fire. He felt Conor watching him. He’s doing this on purpose, the arsehole.

“Anyway, you want to get some food?” Conor finally said.

“I’ll catch you up,” Ned said, as genially as he could without raising his eyes. He managed to write a single word: Title, followed by a colon.

Conor chuckled and walked off. Ned watched him surreptitiously as he made his way past the rest of the tables, high-fiving and fist-bumping some of the team and a few idolizing younger kids. He’s always so easy with people, Ned thought. Cool. Chill. Well, as chill as one can be five minutes after threatening to put someone in hospital, that is.

And handsome, another part of Ned’s brain whispered. Fit. Sexy. Possibly into you?

“And a shameless flirt,” Ned said out loud, in protest. A boy at the next table shot him a bemused look.

“Just this character. Writing a book report,” Ned lied, waving his pen. The kid only looked more apprehensive.

Also, your roommate and only friend. So, naturally, you’ll fuck it up.

Ned sighed and started doodling a guitar. He was just feeling hormones, honestly. Completely natural, but he’d rather sublimate that frustration into ominous art and frantic music like every rock band in history.

First of all, there’s no chance someone like him would be interested in someone like you. Put that thought out of your head before proceeding further.

Yes, art and music. They would be much more productive uses of his time than pining for the unobtainable star rugby player, who, now that Ned thought on it, hadn’t seemed overly bothered about him for a while.

“Although, he is handsome,” Ned murmured, then immediately felt foolish. What a ridiculous thought, given how gleefully he’d thrown Conor under the bus just a few days before.

He swivelled in his seat and watched Conor until the latter had reached the head of the queue. Conor picked up a tray and turned around, searching the sea of faces for Ned. Once he’d found him, he lifted the tray over his head and winked, beckoning him over as he held the line.

Forget everything else. How much of a ‘fuck you’ is it to this place that their hero is a gay guy?

Ned turned back to his notebook and raised his pen, shaking his head at the force of nature that was Conor Masters. As he clambered off the bench to walk to the supper queue he wrote down next to Title: the description of his friend he’d settled on in the interest of time, though it sounded better and better the closer he got to him.

Handsome Devil.

 


 

“I’ll walk with you,” Victor was saying. They were two of the last people left in the refectory; Ned had long since returned to their room to be away from the crowd, and the rest of the team had trickled out one by one.

“As long as we wait until they kick us out.” Conor dragged his spoon around his plate. “Can’t stand those cheers a second time.”

“Deal,” Victor chuckled. “But you’re sure you’re not keeping Ned waiting?”

Conor looked up from the patterns in his mash. “Keeping him waiting how?”

“Don’t know,” Victor said slowly. “Sometimes the two of you seem like an old married couple.”

“Do we, now?” Conor tapped his spoon.

“Which is great after everything that’s happened—”

“If we are, Ned’s definitely the wife.” He smiled down at the table, then looked up at Victor.

“Um, wouldn’t you both be husbands? Or—partners?” Victor scratched his head. “Sorry, I think I’ve said something awkward. Was that offensive somehow?”

Conor shrugged. “I don’t feel awkward.”

“Good,” Victor said, letting out a deep breath. “I really don’t want you to feel any different. You’re just as much a part of the team as always. And an honest-to-goodness legend, as far as I’m concerned.”

“And Weasel?”

Victor rolled his eyes. “Leave him to me. He’ll come around. After being a tosser for a while.”

“A while?”

“Yeah, I know. But you did win us the cup. That should count for more than anything to him, once he’s had his easy laughs.” Victor pursed his lips, not looking entirely convinced.

They sat in silence for a minute. The lights dimmed; they were the last pupils remaining.

“We’d better head,” Victor said, standing up. Conor followed him towards the doors of the refectory.

“Can I ask you something?” Conor said, once they’d reached the corridor.

“Sure, anything. What’s on your mind?” Victor was always like this, Conor thought. Patient, noble, generous. The ideal leader.

“Did you—know about me? Before Ned said?”

“I did, yeah.” Victor stopped at the doorway of the main hall, which was nearly devoid of pupils by now. “Weasel told me when he found out.”

“You never let on,” Conor said. How many people did he tell? So much for rumours staying rumours if I did what he wanted.

“Why would I?” Victor started walking again; their steps echoed against the marble columns. “It doesn’t bother me.”

Conor nodded as they ascended the stairs. “Thanks for standing up for me. You know, at the final.”

“I really didn’t do anything,” Victor said. They were at his and Ned’s door. “Not compared to you and Ned.”

“Still.” Conor placed his hand on the doorknob. “You coming in?”

“Nah,” Victor said, pointing backward over his shoulder. “I’m shattered. Should get an early night. Tell Ned I said hi.”

Conor leaned in for a quick hug. “Night, Captain.”

“Oi. If you’re going to call me that, I’m going to remind you to not be late tomorrow. For once.” He turned and walked down the hall, Conor’s laugh trailing behind him.

“Almost got all of my posters back up,” Ned said, when Conor opened the door. He was already in his maroon pyjamas. “Was that Victor I heard?”

“Yeah. He came to eat after you’d left; his family’s flight got in late. Oh, he said to tell you hi.”

“Wonders never cease,” Ned said, but there was a lilt in his voice. He stood on his tiptoes to reach one of the posters on the wall.

Conor shrugged off his jacket and returned it to the wardrobe. “Need a hand?”

“I think I’ve got it,” Ned replied. He jumped up to reach a sketch of a ship at sea, nearly losing his balance in the process.

“Careful.” Conor walked over and pushed his hands down on the chair. “It’s wobbling.”

“Thanks.” Ned took a deep breath. “Oh, could you hand me that other one?”

“Which other one?”

“Well, whichever one you feel like having above your desk.”

Conor handed him the picture at the top of the pile but held onto it as Ned pulled. “And what if I prefer it blank?”

“Are you serious?” Ned scratched his chin. “I mean, I’m getting tired of some of these, I guess. I put this nautical one up here because I thought you’d like it, since, you know. We could take a few down and—”

“I—I wasn’t serious,” Conor said. “Your stuff’s fine, I swear.”

“Conor.”

“It is!” He gave Ned an exaggerated smile. Ned was a complicated guy, Conor thought. He loved joshing and messing about, but when Conor teased him over certain things, his walls could come back up faster than the wind could change on the open sea. Then he’d have to spend some time leading Ned back to him. That was fair enough. He hadn’t exactly been the most loyal repository for Ned’s trust, after all.

Ned was smirking down at him. “Anyone there?”

“Yeah, just thinking. Did you say something?”

“I was just saying that it’s nice being taller than you. For once.”

“Oh yeah?” Conor shook the chair gently. “Enjoying the view from all the way up there?”

Ned giggled and steadied himself on the chair back. His hand rubbed against Conor’s.

“You could say that,” he said, looking down at their hands before returning his gaze to Conor. Conor swallowed and looked down at the pile of posters again.

“Need me to hand you anything else?”

“Nah, I think we’re good for now.” Ned stepped down and collected the pictures, then returned them to his desk drawer. Conor watched him as he sorted out some of the odds and ends on his desk into their respective places.

“The team’s cool,” Conor said. He wasn’t sure if Ned cared, but he was used to telling him about everything he’d done each day. “No one said anything about what happened at the cheer practice. Or in the changing room.”

“Just about the trophy you won for them, right?” Ned said, with a touch of acid.

“There ain’t no ‘I’ in team, Ned,” Conor quipped. He let his own laugh go on longer when Ned didn’t join in.

“That’s good, then.” Ned turned around and leaned against his desk, crossing his arms. “Can’t expect a lot more from that lot. Like, I doubt any of them will be going to a gay bar with you just to hang out.”

“You never know,” Conor said. He worked his fingers together in his lap. “Once we’re out of here—someone I talked to told me it gets better when you’re older.”

Ned looked at him sceptically. “And what’d Weasel say? You had just threatened to beat him up in front of the entire school.”

Conor let out a puff of air, laid his wristwatch on his bedside table, looked back at Ned. He was feeling enough regret over that without Ned needling him on it.

“’Pah?’” Ned repeated. “Mind translating that?”

“I didn’t see him again after that. Victor said to leave Weasel to him.” Conor pulled off his jumper and began loosening his tie. “I think he’s learned his lesson for a while, anyway.”

Ned was watching him as he shed his clothes. When Conor looked up to return his gaze, he blinked, turned on his heel and opened his notebook.

“Did you get much more written down while I wasn’t bothering you?” Conor unlaced one shoe, then started on the other. “I don’t see how I’m helping.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Ned murmured, indistinct. He turned a leaf and started writing on a new page. “You are helping. And you don’t bother me.”

“Aw.”

“Even when you’re digging for compliments,” Ned added wryly, shooting a glance over his shoulder.

“I’d never.” Conor pulled off his trousers, then carried his uniform in his arms to his chest of drawers.

“I did come up with a title,” Ned said.

“Oh yeah? You going to tell me, then?”

“I’d prefer not to, honestly.”

Conor pulled on his T-shirt and turned around. “Come on. Why even bring it up, then?”

“You asked what I wrote.” Ned shrugged.

“If this is you trying to get me to beg,” Conor said, picking through his toiletries, “it’s not going to work.”

“I did write some other stuff—just about myself, though. Things you already know, like how I ended up here. My family life. How I feel about this place.” Ned’s face brightened. “Shall I read it to you?”

“Go ahead.” He lifted his toothbrush to his lips. “My mouth will be occupied, so I won’t be able to interrupt you with my opinions.”

“Perfection.” Ned cleared his throat. “First, the introduction. We all have one thing we’re ashamed of. The memory of one moment so embarrassing, we don’t think we’ll ever get over it.”

Conor looked down. The talent show. The movement of his toothbrush slowed as he ruminated over how he’d let Ned down. He’d been blackmailed, but even that wasn’t an excuse.

“…wakes you at four a.m. Sweating.”

Then I didn’t talk to him for weeks. And shoved him to the ground when he came to me.

“I felt like I’d lost the only true friend I’d ever known,” Ned was saying. He paused, blinking rapidly.

“Sorry,” Conor said, through a mouthful of toothpaste. He stood up and pointed at the door.

“Need to spit already?” Ned waved him off.

Conor walked to the bathroom and finished brushing his teeth, watching his eyes staring back at him in the mirror. He spat, walked to the urinal, washed his hands, examined himself in the mirror again.

When he finally got back to their room, Ned had turned off the ceiling light and was lying in bed, writing by the light of his bedside lamp. He looked up at Conor, his eyes asking a question.

“Sorry for taking so long.” Conor walked to his bed and fell in prone, the springs protesting at the sudden weight. He turned to look at Ned. “Did you want to keep going?”

“Not just now, I’m writing down some other stuff.”

“I liked it,” Conor said, gathering his pillow under his chin. “The introduction. It’ll grab people’s interest.”

“Okay, Mr Sherry.”

“What’s it about, anyway?” He reached up to turn on his own lamp.

“What, the entire thing?”

“Yeah. You and Sherry must have talked about what you’d write about.”

“Friendship,” Ned said, without looking up from his writing.

“Oh.” Conor played with the zip of his hoodie and moved around under the sheet. “Am I really the best person to help with it, then?”

Ned frowned at him. “Why do you say that?”

“Because I haven’t exactly been a good friend to you over the past month. No, I’ve been a shit friend, actually.”

“Not that I’ve been any better,” Ned said quietly, picking at his nails.

“You have,” Conor insisted. He flipped onto his side to face Ned. “You’ve been amazing.”

Ned raised his eyebrows.

“Okay, there was one notable exception.”

“Extremely notable,” Ned said. “In fact, possibly the worst thing one friend could do to another. I did that. I’m that guy.”

“It turned out okay,” Conor said. He propped himself up on his elbow. “I can’t really be mad at you about it after all that’s happened: I don’t have to hide anymore, we won the cup, and I have my friend back.”

I’m mad at me,” Ned said. “Lowest moment of my life, I’d say. So far. But at this rate—”

“Hey, hey,” Conor snapped. Ned looked up at him, his eyes wet and wide. “None of that.”

“What?”

“Stop beating yourself up. I told you I’m not angry.”

“Thanks.” Ned brushed the back of his arm across his face. “But it’ll just take me some time to work through it all. Not just—not just outing you, but the talent show, fighting with you and Weasel, all the ups and downs. And writing this essay should help.”

Conor smiled. “Did Sherry tell you that? He’s really made a joiner out of you.”

Ned shook his head. “And yet, you’ve joined with me at every turn.”

“I’ve only half-joined this time. Figured we’d pool our resources. Such as they are.”

“Such as they are,” Ned repeated. He reclined back onto his pillow and moved his notebook into the lamplight.

“What are you writing about now?”

“When we met,” Ned said.

Conor laughed. “Oh yeah?”

Ned turned to him. “What are you giggling at?”

“Write about how you tried to get me kicked out of your room.”

“I just liked having my own space. You’ve no idea what it was like rooming with people before you. Absolute hell. It wasn’t anything personal.”

“You’re blushing.”

“No, I’m fucking not.”

“You’re embarrassed.” Conor waited for a reply, but Ned was pretending to not have heard him. “It’s fine, I was just some guy doing press-ups in your room.”

“Shirtless,” Ned added, and gave him an arch smile.

“I was hot.”

“Uh-huh.” Ned tapped his pen to his lips.

Conor pushed himself up and sat with his legs crossed underneath him. “Here’s something for your essay. Don’t know if I ever told you this.”

“Oh?” Ned’s ears perked up and he leaned forward, almost into the lampshade. Was ‘cute’ how Conor would describe the way Ned looked when he was eager? He supposed it was.

“I actually tried to move rooms, too,” Conor said, pressing his palms together over his ankles. “I went and talked to Walter.”

Ned snorted. “And how’d that go?”

“Terribly. I barely got two words out.”

“Well, that’s some nice parallelism,” Ned said, setting pen to paper. “Good for foreshadowing things in an early paragraph.”

“Some nice what?”

“Two things that mirror each other. Complement each other. Together they become bigger than the sum of their parts. Like you and me.”

“You and me,” Conor echoed.

“Yeah,” Ned said, after a moment. He lowered his eyes to the paper. “In this essay, I mean. How we both went to Curly’s office that day.”

He was gripping his pen more tightly; it was frozen in place above the page. Conor thought that he must be deep in thought.

“I’m glad we failed,” Conor said. He lay back down again and pulled the covers up to his shoulders. Sometimes March nights felt the coldest.

“Definitely,” Ned replied. He took some time to write a few words before looking up, his lip curling above his teeth just enough to tell Conor he really meant it.

Conor grinned back long after Ned had returned his gaze to the page. Part of a poem that Mr Sherry had read aloud a few weeks before had stuck in his head at the time; it whispered to him as he watched Ned.

     The lines
     That young men, tossing on their beds,
     Rhymed out in love’s despair
     To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

He’d been lost in his own thoughts for most of that week, with the upcoming semi-final, the talent show, and Weasel’s threats all swimming around in his head, threatening to capsize him. For some reason, those lines were the only thing he’d been able to grab onto that day, even though he still hadn’t the faintest idea of what they meant.

He was fine with being young and ignorant, he thought, still watching Ned curled up on his mattress, scribbling away the night. Not everything had to make sense yet. After all, Ned had told him that he was helping him find his voice; that they would do this together. And in the half-light of his bedside lamp, setting his lines to paper with intense concentration, Ned really did look beautiful.

Chapter Text

Conor woke up to the sound of Ned’s music. It was quiet, merely a suggestion of a melody on the dewy morning air. After blinking at the ceiling for a few seconds, he recognised it: a song about running away and falling in love that closed with a soaring violin. One of Ned’s guilty pop pleasures.

“You’re playing this one a lot lately,” Conor croaked. He lifted his arm and pushed aside his drape; the warm goldenrod light of early morning spilled across his face and chest.

When Ned didn’t reply, Conor raised his head slightly to look across the room. Ned’s bed was empty, and his towel was missing from its hook on his wardrobe.

Conor lay his head back down and stretched under the covers, listening to the second verse. He was starting to remember some of the words. Ned walked in just as the final chorus was beginning.

“Morning,” Conor said.

“Morning.” Ned closed the door and adjusted the towel around his hips. “Sorry, I forgot I left my music playing.”

“You didn’t leave it on for my benefit?”

Ned ran his fingers through his hair. “Honestly, I’m so not used to you still being in the room by the time I get up. Usually I have the room all to myself.”

“Welcome to the postseason.” Conor watched Ned walk to his desk. “You can leave it on.”

“Changing the song,” Ned muttered. “I had it on repeat.”

“That cheesy song? What the hell, Ned.”

“Believe me, I’m well aware of how mortifying this is.” His cheeks and collarbone were rosy when he turned around. “Usually I like a tad more irony in my lyrics.”

“You looking for someone to take you away from all this, Ned?” Conor wiggled his eyebrows. “Kiss you in a field of flowers underneath the stars?”

“Shut up,” Ned said, tugging a striped T-shirt over his head. He hung his towel up on its hook and pulled on his trousers, stumbling. “You better start getting ready if you want to get breakfast before maths.”

Conor glanced up at his bedside table; he’d have to throw off the covers to retrieve his watch. “What time is it?”

“Nearly half eight,” Ned said.

“Half eight?” Conor sat up and grabbed his watch. “Why didn’t you say?”

“Um.” Ned’s eyes darted back and forth. “I just did?”

“I mean earlier,” Conor said, swinging his feet to the ground. “You could’ve woken me up.”

“Sorry,” Ned said, as Conor leapt to his chest of drawers. “Like I said, I’m used to you already being gone when I’m getting ready.”

Conor hastily buttoned his shirt, then unbuttoned it and started over once he realised that he’d misaligned the buttons and holes. “I’m sorry, actually. It’s not your fault.”

“Everything alright?” Ned said, after a moment. “You seem—I don’t know. Agitated.”

“I’m fine.” Conor sighed. “I think I just have some, like, leftover anxiety from the final.” He turned around to Ned and began tying his tie.

“Understandable,” Ned said. His arms were crossed; he’d already put on his entire uniform.

Conor rolled his eyes. “Is it? Even when I’m not playing, rugby’s giving me PTSD.”

“Well, the first word in that is ‘post,’” Ned observed. He dropped his arms and pushed himself away from his desk. “Here, let me do that for you.”

“Thanks,” Conor said, as Ned grabbed both ends of his tie. “I’m all thumbs this morning.”

“You’re going to keep going with it, then?” Ned said, measuring the length in his left hand.

“With rugby?”

Ned looked up and nodded. When they were this close, Ned’s eyes were like the ocean staring back at him—ultramarine, boundless, beckoning, lonely. Threatening to engulf him.

“I guess that depends on Pascal,” Conor said finally.

“But you want to carry on.”

“Well, yeah, I do.” Conor frowned. “Do you not want me to? What about what you said on the boat?”

“No, I don’t not want you to,” Ned replied, looking down again. He finished the last loop and began tightening the knot.

“Okay then,” Conor said. Ned’s hands were adjusting his lapels. “It’s decided.”

“Yup. It seems it is.” Ned patted Conor’s chest and gave him a wan smile. “Done.”

Conor reached up and grabbed Ned’s wrists before he could step away. “Ned, I’m always going to love sport. No matter what the homophobic wankers think, or say, or do.”

“I know,” Ned said quietly. His wrists were slack; he was leaning his weight into Conor.

“You’re the one who said I could be both,” Conor continued. “That any team I’m on is yours.”

“I know,” Ned repeated.

“So, what is this?”

Ned shrugged and retrieved his hands gingerly. “Just making sure that it’s what you actually want. That it’s not because of other people’s expectations.”

“Don’t worry.” Conor grinned broadly. “I have a feeling I’ll be bucking those more and more now.”

“I’m not sure whether to be excited or afraid.” Ned flicked his chin towards the door. “We should get breakfast before it’s too late.”

“Just need two minutes,” Conor said, retrieving his toothbrush. “I can catch you up—”

“I’ll wait for you.”

Conor started brushing and winked as he opened the door. “Hey, Ned?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re my team.”

“You’ll be playing, like, all of the positions,” Ned scoffed, but from the way he stood up straighter and crinkled his eyes, Conor could tell that he was pleased.

 


 

“Okay. For the rest of the hour, we’ll be reading and discussing ‘The Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyes.” Mr Sherry brandished a musty ochre volume of poetry as he paced back and forth at the front of the classroom. “Now, I’m sure that, as soon as I assigned it last week, each and every one of you raced to read it multiple times, pondered its use of poetical devices, considered why I might have assigned a sentimental tale of eternal love to a gaggle of melodramatic, hormone-addled teenagers—”

Ned snorted and looked at Conor. His head was bowed, his finger moving down the page of their poetry anthology with alacrity. It wasn’t surprising that Conor hadn’t gotten to it, Ned thought, with all that had happened in the past week.

“—but we’ll read it together, just to be safe.” Mr Sherry lifted his index finger and hovered it languorously over the heads of the pupils. They averted their eyes, studying their books, their desks, the floor.

“Darren,” Mr Sherry said finally. “Why don’t you start us off.”

“Knew it,” Darren groused.

“Did you? That’s great.” Mr Sherry opened his book and held it up in front of him. “Your presentiment will have prepared you to offer the class a well-rehearsed delivery. Proceed, please.”

Ned grinned and followed along in the poem as Darren grudgingly read the first stanza.

            The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,

            The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,

            The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,

            And the highwayman came riding—

Ned thought the poem’s story was dreck, but he appreciated that its metre was quite musical—almost a song. He’d strummed along on his guitar while reading it last week. Conor had been a ghost for at least a few days by then, so Ned had been playing his guitar a lot to fill the silence.

“He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there,” another boy was saying. Someone to Ned’s right whistled softly, drawing a few chuckles.

He looked up at Mr Sherry, who seemed engrossed in the text, as he always did when the class read aloud. Ned didn’t know how he managed that after having seen these works so many times before. Was he authentically interested, or just setting a virtuous example for his pupils?

            "One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I'm after a prize to-night,

            But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;

            Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,

            Then look for me by moonlight,

            Watch for me by moonlight,

            I'll come to thee by moonlight, though Hell should bar the way."

Ned turned to look at Conor. He was following along as the poem snaked around the class, looking nearly as rapt as their instructor. A shaft of afternoon sun played over his warm hazel eyes, the stubble around his rosy lips, the soft strands of hair that hung perfectly still over his forehead as he studied the text with undivided focus. Ned watched and watched, stubbornness or something else preventing him from looking away until Conor returned his gaze.

“Pay attention,” Conor chided, only just loudly enough to be audible, and smiled.

Ned blinked, feeling his ears heating up. “I am paying attention.”

“To the poem.” Conor smiled again. “In front of you.”

“Mr Roche, Mr Masters.” Ned looked up to see Mr Sherry standing in front of him. “Terribly sorry to interrupt you gentlemen.”

The room was silent; the rest of the class had turned to stare.

“It’s alright, Sir,” Conor quipped, earning titters from the other boys.

“I’m so glad,” Mr Sherry shot back. He placed a hand on each of their desks. “And if it’s not too much of a bother, could the two of you read the final stanzas of ‘The Highwayman?’”

“We’re at the end already?” Ned blurted out. The class erupted into sniggering, chortling and caws.

“That we are, Ned,” said Mr Sherry, with a profound kindness that Ned found disorienting, given how cutting he had sounded only seconds before.

“Sorry, Sir,” Ned said, without looking up.

“Quiet!” Mr Sherry boomed, glaring around the perimeter of the room. The class fell silent again. “It’s quite alright, Ned. The point of a good romance is that we lose ourselves in it. Time slows, stops; the world carries on around us. Ideally, much more metaphorically in our own lives than it was for Bess and the highwayman.”

“Do they die?” asked a voice from the back of the room.

“Yes,” Mr Sherry said slowly. “They die. The poem’s narrator is fairly direct about that. Ned, if you will, the penultimate stanza; Conor, you’ll bring us home with the final one.” Mr Sherry tapped his finger gently to Ned’s reader, indicating where he should begin.

“And still of a winter's night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,” Ned began. He read the rest of the lines as Conor looked on. Mr Sherry returned to the front of the classroom and sat on his stool. When Ned finished reading, Mr Sherry looked up from the poem and glanced at Conor, then Ned, then at his book again.

Ned read along in his textbook as Conor finished the tale of the two lovers, reunited in death. Ever since they’d started getting closer, Ned had thought that Conor’s way of reading in class—plodding, stilted, aggressively monotonous—was strange, given how vibrant and expressive he was when it was just the two of them talking or playing music together. Maybe it was a private joke and he enjoyed Mr Sherry’s pinched expression when he called on him to participate.

“Well,” Mr Sherry said, looking around the room. “Any questions? Everyone understand what happened?”

Ned nodded. Most of the other pupils were looking at the clock or resting their faces in their palms.

“And what did you think? Did you like it?”

Weak murmurs of assent bubbled up around Ned.

“I thought you might.” He stood, walked to the white board, and started writing down titles and authors. “Students tend to favour that poem. I suppose it’s—well, you’d know better than I the reasons for that.”

“Sir?”

“Go ahead, Ned,” Mr Sherry said, without turning around.

“I actually didn’t like that poem.” Ned smiled at the groans and shaken heads around him.

“That’s the spirit,” Mr Sherry replied. He closed the quotation marks around a William Butler Yeats poem and turned around. “I’ve always found conformity to popular opinion to be chronically overrated. Not to mention the bane of classroom discussion.”

“I’m not being contrary,” Ned continued. “I just don’t think either of them were very smart. Shooting yourself instead of working against knots that are already loose, really? And the highwayman died for literally no reason. Small wonder they were a couple.”

“Tell us how you really feel,” Mr Sherry said, setting his hands on his hips and grinning. “Anyone want to disagree with Ned?”

Ned closed his eyes in anticipation of the jeers, moans and kiss sounds that still occasionally greeted his name in class. What he wasn’t prepared for was Conor’s voice.

“I don’t completely agree,” Conor said.

Mr Sherry sat on the low table at the front of the room. “Why is that?”

“Um, I think that these are two people from really different worlds. They’re trying to make it work in spite of everyone pressurizing them. And the reason it falls apart is because of betrayal.” Conor eschewed his usual monotone to spit the last word with vitriol.

Ned turned in his seat to look at Conor.

“Right,” Mr Sherry said. “It’s a romance that’s doomed by circumstance. The poet wants us to see the lovers as sympathetic—not enviable, exactly, but perhaps relatable.”

“But they could have run away together,” Ned said to Conor. “Why not break free? Why stay trapped in a shit situation—sorry, Sir.”

Mr Sherry waved his hand. “Fill your boots.”

“Because it’s that simple.” Conor snorted and shook his head.

“Isn’t it, though?” The other students had started to whisper, but Ned felt like digging his heels in.

“Ned,” Conor said. The bell rang before he could say anything more.

“Oh!” Mr Sherry sprang up from the table. “Before you go, take a look at the titles I’ve written on the board; they’ll be on the quiz on Friday. Just the readings from the past two weeks, no surprises.”

Ned packed his bag slowly while reading the white board. He could see Conor watching him out of the corner of his eye.

“Conor? Ned?” Mr Sherry was standing between them again. “I’d like to have a quiet word before you leave.”

Conor nodded, slung his backpack over his shoulder, and walked to the front of the class. Ned followed Mr Sherry to where Conor was waiting.

“Okay, boys,” Mr Sherry said, once the last of the other pupils had left. He sat on the table again and looked up at them. “You don’t have to be anywhere right away, do you?”

“Well, classes are done for the day,” Ned said. “So, the only thing you’re cutting into is my long-awaited freedom from this place’s daily routine of oppression.”

“I see,” Mr Sherry said. “How about you, Conor?”

“I have a team meeting, but that’s not for another half hour.” Conor scratched the side of his nose.

“You do? I don’t think you mentioned that.” Ned crossed his arms.

“I’m pretty sure I did, Ned.”

“I mean, I would’ve remembered.”

“Lads, lads.” Mr Sherry held up his hands. “As gripping as this is, do you mind sorting it out between yourselves after I’ve gone?”

Ned nodded. Maybe he did say. There was a lot of talk last night while other things were on your mind.

“Good.” Mr Sherry pointed to Conor. “Ned, have you had a chat with Conor about the essay you’re writing?

“I have, Sir.” Ned looked at Conor, who took a step towards him. “He knows it’s about him and he’s happy to help anyway.”

“Not him,” Mr Sherry corrected. “The both of you. Your relationship.”

“I’ve mostly been listening to Ned’s ideas. They’re pretty interesting.”

“Good.” Mr Sherry stood up, walked to the board and started erasing. “Good. The main thing is that you’re working together. Getting on.”

Ned and Conor exchanged a glance, but remained silent.

“I mean, after everything you’ve both gone through, separately and together, no one could blame you if there were some, well, challenges.” He put down the eraser and started gathering up his briefcase. “Some friction.”

“Sir—”

“And if there were, you could certainly feel free to tell me.” Mr Sherry snapped his briefcase shut and scrutinised them.

“Sir,” Conor said. “If you’re trying to tell us something—I can’t speak for Ned, but I’m not getting it.”

Mr Sherry smiled faintly. “You’re right. Isn’t it funny how words are my stock in trade, yet they fail me in direct proportion with how close to home a subject hits. Conor, you know that as well as anyone.”

Ned looked at Conor and frowned. What were they talking about?

“The reason for all this is—well, the headmaster has asked me to guide your essay process, Ned,” Mr Sherry said. “He wants you to think about what you’ve done and learn from it; for the two of you to reconcile and for this to help you as you grow into mature young men.” He waved his hands in wide semicircles above his head. “It’s all part of ‘cultivating the ethos’ of Wood Hill.”

“But we’re not mad at each other,” Conor said. “We don’t have to reconcile.”

“I hear that,” Mr Sherry said. He lifted his briefcase and started walking to the door. “But forgiveness is a process. So is trust. They take time, space. And Walter—Mr Curly—thinks the two of you need that.”

“Ned?” Conor was looking at him. “You’re not saying much.”

Ned shrugged.

“He has the right idea,” Mr Sherry said, with a radiant smile. “I was just saying that I lose any eloquence I may have in situations like this.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Sir,” Conor said, grinning back at him.

“And Conor?” Mr Sherry’s hand was on the doorknob. “I’m sorry that I didn’t have the right words in our last talk.”

“You can talk about it in front of Ned if you like.” Conor looked into Ned’s eyes and nodded. “I mean, just speaking for myself. Up to you.”

“No.” He said it firmly, but with a certain tenderness. “Thank you, Conor, but I don’t want to talk about myself. I just wanted to see how the two of you are doing. And let you know that I’m here.” He turned the doorknob. “See you tomorrow. Oh, and close the door when you leave.”

“Have a good night, Sir,” Ned said, and Conor echoed him. Mr Sherry left the door ajar behind him.

“You okay? You barely said a word there.”

“Just thinking,” Ned replied. “I wonder if Mr Sherry pushing me into doing this essay is part of my punishment from Walter. And I just didn’t know it.”

“Pretty much what it sounded like,” Conor said.

“Yeah.” Ned thrust his hand into his pocket and fiddled with his pen. “I kind of thought—”

Conor raised his eyebrows. “What?”

“Nothing.” Ned shook his head.

“Just tell me,” Conor said. He punched Ned softly on the shoulder. “You know you want to.”

Ned looked at Conor’s fist and snorted. “I mean, I thought that Mr Sherry was just doing it because he’d taken an interest. After he caught me out with that first essay—it felt good that he was believing in me to represent the school now. It meant a lot.”

“Just because Walter asked him to help, that doesn’t mean that Mr Sherry doesn’t believe in you,” Conor replied.

“Maybe,” Ned said doubtfully.

“He’s a really caring teacher.” Conor looked over Ned’s shoulder and out the window. His eyes, jade and amber in the sunlight that filtered through the boughs of the trees, suddenly seemed very far away. “Genuinely.”

“You’re probably right,” Ned said. More than anything, he wanted to step forward and embrace him, dispelling the trepidation in Conor’s expression with the warmth of his body. He’d turn his head to rest his ear to Conor’s chest; Conor would hold him there with his strong arms, his head resting on Ned’s. They could stand there like that until the hallways and fields outside grew dark and Conor’s stomach protested from hunger, and Ned didn’t care if anyone saw.

“Ned?”

“Huh? Oh, sorry,” Ned said, his eyes darting between Conor’s eyes and lips. “I was miles away.”

“I was saying that I’d better get to that meeting.” Conor pushed his bangs away from his eyes and adjusted the strap of his backpack on his shoulder. “It could be something important.”

“I forgot about that.” Ned looked at the door as several boys ran down the corridor, shrieking in either glee or terror. “Yeah, you wouldn’t want to miss those earth-shaking rugby announcements.”

Conor shrugged. “We did just win the Senior Cup. That’s kind of a big thing.”

“I’m joking,” Ned said. He forced out a laugh. “’Course it’s a big thing.”

“You’re sure you’re joking?” Conor crossed his arms. “After what you said this morning, I mean.”

“Well, honestly, I still can’t say that I’m the biggest rugby fan. That’d be a flagrant lie.” Ned placed his hand on Conor’s upper arm. “But I’m proud of you. Really.”

Conor fitted his own hand over Ned’s, his fingers sliding into the grooves between Ned’s fingers. He looked down, closed his eyes, pressed Ned’s hand into his shoulder. Ned studied Conor’s face in the mottled gold light: the knot between his eyebrows was gone; his lips were slightly parted, moving slowly with his breath.

“I can’t remember the last time anyone said that to me,” Conor murmured, his eyes still closed. “And meant it. Never, maybe.”

“I am.” Ned felt Conor’s hand gripping his more tightly. “Not just about rugby, either. I’m proud of who you are as a person. What you did in that changing room. That was like—the bravest thing I’ve ever seen. Like something out of a movie.”

Conor laughed and rubbed the back of his hand over his eyes. “You’re going to make me tear up.”

“I’m being serious here,” Ned protested, returning his hand to his side.

“So am I.” Conor looked at Ned and blinked several times. “That was really touching. And not just because we were touching.”

“You were saying that you needed to get to that team meeting,” Ned said. That type of pun reminded him of his dad, but something about the way Conor said it made him grin in spite of himself. “I’m sure they’ll appreciate your banter.”

“Ned.” Conor reached for his hand again. “That really meant a lot to me. More than anything a teacher, or coach, or even my parents have said to me in years.” His eyes widened. “You should add it to your essay. I don’t know where, or how, but it fits the theme. Friendship, you know?”

Ned wrinkled his nose. “I’ll think about it. Not sure I want all of Ireland to know what a sap I am.”

“What’d Mr Sherry tell us?” Conor walked to the door, looking over his shoulder for Ned to follow. “Stop worrying about being cool. Be beautiful instead.”

“Those were the words of a man who hadn’t yet heard my singing voice,” Ned quipped.

Conor leaned into the doorframe and smiled. “I better start running.”

“And I better crack on with the essay.” Ned turned off the lights and shut the door behind them. “Guess you’re late, yet again.”

“Worth it,” Conor said. He glanced back at Ned as he broke into a sprint down the hallway. “So worth it!”

 


 

For late March, it was an unseasonably warm and clear day: the weather forecast listed a high of sixteen for the mid-afternoon. Ned had decided to take a break from his writing and go out for some fresh air. He donned his denim jacket and walked across the lawns that lay between the school and the nearby woods, intending to circumambulate the college grounds and then head straight to the refectory for an early dinner. For some reason, essay writing made him ravenous.

He looked down at the notebook in his hand. Maybe he was taking the “always be prepared for inspiration to strike” thing too far.

It’ll be the one time you don’t have it, Ned thought. That’s when the perfect idea will come along.

He stopped at the halfway line of the rugby pitch and looked at the changing rooms in the distance. Was the team still in there? It had been more than an hour since he’d watched Conor run down the main hall, nearly colliding with a prefect because he was looking back at him.

Ned smiled up at the late afternoon sun. As soon as he’d returned to their room, he’d lain down with his hands behind his head and replayed their conversation in the classroom, selecting his favourite parts and turning them over and over in his mind. The light on Conor’s lips as he spoke, softly and deliberately. The warm weight of his hand over Ned’s. The look of tranquillity on his face when Ned had told him that he was proud.

“How could anyone not be proud of him?” Ned said. He said it under his breath, even though he was standing alone in the middle of the vast green of the rugby pitch. After a few seconds, he started laughing. He’d always laughed spontaneously when he was as excited as this.

I suppose I wasn’t too proud of him when I outed him to the world. Then again, another thing he’d always done was mull over his mistakes whenever he sensed within himself a surfeit of happiness.

“I was hurt,” Ned muttered. I was scared. I felt like I had to do something to keep him from slipping away from me. And he provoked me. Rejected me?

Ned looked down at his notebook; his prescience in bringing it tasted bittersweet. He started walking towards the knoll that overlooked the north end of the field, with its solitary old oak tree and plaque for the Wood Hill boys lost in the Great War.

Once he’d summited the hillock, he sat down gingerly against the trunk of the oak, facing the south. The sun was strong in his eyes, but it would fall below the line of the forest soon enough. From here he could see the entire grounds, beginning with the rugby pitch and ending with the narrow road that sliced through the nearby countryside and led, eventually, to Dublin and the sea.

“Okay,” Ned said. He opened the notebook to the next empty leaf, rubbed his hands together, and began to write. He recorded what he could remember of the thoughts he’d had while walking the halfway line, then returned to where he’d left off in his outline, smoothing the pages down when a gust blew in from the west.

Becoming friends, read the top of the page, with a line below it. Then nothing coherent. He had scrawled several stray thoughts on the topic, but few of them were well-written sentences, let alone anything sufficiently inspired for an essay contest:

            He liked my music. (Called it old but that’s really a compliment.)

            He taught me how to play guitar. Hands on my hands.

            When I was caught plagiarising, he was the only one who didn’t laugh at me.

            He actually cares about what I have to say!

Interspersed among all of this were doodles of a haphazard wall of furniture, a guitar, a record player, and a hoodie.

Maybe we just became friends because we were roommates, Ned wrote. I don’t mean to echo what Weasel said, exactly, but we’re so different on the surface that we might have been ships passing in the night if rooming together hadn’t forced us to hang out.

“Ships passing in the night,” Ned said, letting the words roll over his tongue. Another strong wind passed over the knoll, tousling his hair. “I’ll take my Nobel now.”

He heard low, quiet whistling from the south, and looked up to see Conor at the foot of the hillock, walking towards him.

Ned raised a hand to his brow. “Is that a whistling highwayman in the distance?”

“I don’t know,” Conor shouted up at him. “But you’d make a fetching landlord’s daughter.”

Ned snorted. “I thought you were the wind at first. And how’d you know I was here?”

“I saw your hair up here as soon as I got out of the meeting.” Conor dropped his backpack and sat down to Ned’s right, close enough for their shoulders to touch. “And I don’t think the wind can whistle ‘Think for a Minute,’ Ned.”

“Oh, is that what that was?” Ned turned to him and raised an eyebrow. “I thought you would’ve forgotten how that song goes.”

“I—guess I deserved that,” Conor said, looking down at the ground between his legs. “I’m sorry, Ned. Truly.”

“Thanks.” Ned studied the profile of Conor’s face in the bronze hues of early sunset. “It came out a little harsher than I intended.”

“No, you’re entitled to feel—I mean, I deserve it.” Conor picked up a slender branch and poked at the plaque beneath their knees, scraping away the debris from the border. “So, how was it?”

Ned blinked; he felt ire bubbling up within him. “How was it?”

“Well, obviously I heard from some of the lads who attended that you went through with it without me.” He jabbed the branch against the engraved metal hard enough to break it in two.

“The lads tell you that, did they?” Ned watched as Conor threw the branch as far into the sky as he could, his entire body torqueing with the effort. “Nice to know they had a good laugh, at least.”

“I’ve never laughed at you, Ned,” Conor said, turning to face him. “You have to believe me. I’d never do that—you’re my best friend here.”

Ned hesitated as Conor raised the sleeve of his blazer to his eyes and sniffed.

“I really, really wanted to be there,” he said, his voice muffled through his arm. “I just couldn’t. I mean, I thought I couldn’t.”

“Are you actually crying?”

“Yes, I’m actually crying, you arse.” Conor dropped his hand from his face and looked at Ned, his eyes pink. “Why’s that so hard to believe?”

“Sorry,” Ned muttered. “I just didn’t think it mattered that much to you. You pretty much ghosted me for weeks.”

Conor took a deep breath and sat back against the oak tree. “I know. It wasn’t what I wanted.”

“Conor—” Ned shook his head and put down his notebook and pen. “I don’t understand.”

“I’m about to tell you.” He clasped his hands together in his lap and looked at the sunset. “Take notes, if you like.”

They both laughed as Ned retrieved his pen only seconds after capping it. This feels nice, Ned thought. Safe. Crazy how quickly things change.

Conor started speaking slowly. “Weasel found out that I'm gay the week of the semi-finals.”

“Whoa,” Ned interrupted. “You—how did he find out? Did you—”

“Jesus Christ, Ned.” Conor grimaced at him. “Not in a million years. Not if he and I were the last two men on Earth.”

“Okay, okay.” Ned chuckled and continued writing. “Just making sure.”

“Anyway, he found out about me by asking his cousin—second cousin—at my old school. Like I said to the team at the final, everyone there knew the rumours about me. And he told me that I had to stop spending time with you, or he’d out me to everyone.”

“He blackmailed you?” Ned looked up at Conor. “Why? Just to get his jollies?”

“He said it was so that I’d devote all my focus to the rugby.” Conor tossed his bangs away from his face as another breeze hit them. “Apparently I was spending too much time with ‘the wrong kind of people.’”

Ned whistled. “Shite.”

“Yeah.” Conor tapped his fingers to his chin. “Now that I’m thinking on it, Pascal said something similar to me the week before that.”

“You don’t think—”

“I don’t know. Don’t care now, either.”

They sat quietly for a few minutes as Ned continued writing. Conor watched him for a while, then looked down at the rugby pitch, the cool wind fluttering his hair.

“Conor,” Ned said, finally breaking the silence. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“That I’m gay, you mean?”

“Yeah, but more that you were being blackmailed by Weasel.” Ned looked at Conor’s profile, silhouetted in the cinnabar and rose sky. “I could’ve helped. I would’ve understood.”

“You would’ve understood?” Conor turned to him. In the half-light, his expression was inscrutable.

“I think so. I know what it’s like to be bullied. If you’d just told me, I mean—we could’ve figured out a way—”

“I had no way of knowing how things would go,” Conor said. “Whether anyone would accept me, even you. Do you know what it’s like, Ned? To be that scared?”

“I’ve never been accepted.” Ned rested his pen in the space between the notebook and his belly, then placed his hands on his knees and turned to Conor. “Not since my mum died, anyway. And definitely never at this place.”

Conor looked down at Ned’s hands. “Not really what I meant, but I get your point.”

I know exactly what you mean, Ned thought. Just have to figure out the right way to say it. Casually. Is that possible?

“Besides, telling you was one thing. Telling the entire team and the rest of the school—although, I guess that happened in the end anyway.”

Ned winced. “I was wondering when we’d get to this.”

“Nah.” Conor turned and watched the sun as it settled into the horizon. “I was only saying. We don’t have to talk about it.”

“I hate what I did.” Ned blinked at the rugby pitch, its stark white lines fading from view in the creeping darkness. “I went for a walk while you were at the meeting and started thinking about why I did it.”

“Does that make a difference?” Conor shifted against the tree, opening up several inches of space between them.

“I’m not saying there’s any excuse. That’s not what I’m saying.”

Conor cleared his throat and looked at him. “Okay. What did you think about on your walk, then?”

“That I was scared,” Ned said. “Scared of losing you.”

“Losing me?”

“As a friend, I mean.” He traced the drawings on his notepad with his finger. “I thought—this is going to sound horrible.”

“May as well get it all out there,” Conor said. He laughed a low, rumbling laugh from deep within his chest.

“Yeah.” Ned shook his head. “What I thought was—I thought—”

“You thought?”

“I thought that if everyone knew you were different, you’d have to spend time with me again.” Ned’s lip quivered and he closed his eyes to stop the stinging. “And you’d see that I was your only true friend here.”

Ned gasped and bowed his head as he began crying. His teardrops fell onto the notebook, muddling the lines of the guitar, the furniture, Conor’s hoodie.

“I mean, I did it because I wanted you to be my friend again. It’s completely mad.”

“Well, yeah,” Conor said. He rubbed his hand gently to the nape of Ned’s neck. “But like you say, the madder, the better.”

Ned blinked the tears out of his eyes; the words and pictures swam on the page. “You do know that when I said that to you, I was trying to scare you off?”

“Ned, you said it to me through a literal wall. If that wasn’t going to warn me off, I don’t know what would.” Conor dropped his hand to Ned’s shoulder and pulled him close. “You’re just lucky that I’m as weird as you are.”

“That I can agree with,” Ned said, sniffling, and rested his head over Conor’s heart. “So, does this mean that—I’m not saying you’ve forgiven me, but can we at least go back to the way things were before?”

“This is better than before, I’d say.” He turned to look at the western sky again, and Ned watched the bobbing of his Adam’s apple with each word he spoke. “I don’t know why, but somehow the two of us behaving like complete twats to each other feels like it’s brought us a lot closer together. Is that just me?”

“Is this another one of your puns?” Ned looked up at Conor. “You know, because I’m leaning on you right now?”

Conor’s chest, then his entire body, vibrated with laughter. Ned laughed, too, feeling an unguarded and innocent joy which he hadn’t felt in years. He was laughing the way he’d laugh when his mother put old rockabilly records on the turntable and danced around the kitchen, shooting imaginary guns into the air. The way he’d thought he’d never be able to laugh again after losing the piece of his heart where she lived forever.

“No,” Conor was saying. “It’s not another one of my puns.”

Ned nodded into Conor’s jumper. The act of speaking seemed flimsy and useless right now compared to the wordless perfection of laughter, so he hoped a nod was enough. Since Conor pulled him closer with his arm and didn’t say anything more, he figured it must have been.

They sat there like that until Ned couldn’t make out the difference between Conor’s trousers and the grass. He looked up to see down the hill to the college: the lights in the windows were just coming on, glowing soft cream over the indigo light of dusk.

“Want to head back?” Conor said, sitting up.

“Whenever,” Ned replied. He was surprised by how tired and far-off his voice sounded.

Conor relaxed against the tree again, but his stomach growled almost immediately.

“Looks like I’m hungry,” Conor said.

“Certainly sounds like it.” Ned sat forward and stretched his arms over his knees. “I just remembered that I’m famished as well.”

“What time is it?” Conor checked his watch. “Wow, we’ve been here for ages. The team’s probably wondering where I’m hiding and all.”

“Oh yeah.” Ned stood up and dusted himself off, then offered Conor his hand. “What was that meeting for today?”

“Just some review of the postseason and Pascal talking for an eternity.” Conor took Ned’s hand and picked up his backpack. “Oh, and he was telling me about some interviews I need to do. Well, can do, should do. You know what I mean.”

“You’re a proper local celebrity,” Ned quipped.

“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘national.’”

They began descending the hillock, Conor leading the way down.

“I can’t believe how dark it is,” Ned said. He stumbled slightly. “I mean, other than the school, we really are in the middle of nowhere.”

Conor stopped and held out his hand to him. “Here.”

“Thanks.” Ned slipped his hand into Conor’s. “But I think we’re the blind leading the blind. Can you see any more than I can?”

“Maybe I just wanted to hold your hand, Bess.” Conor paused on the slope so that Ned could catch up.

“I still think they were stupid.” Ned sighed and held his notebook closer to his body. “I can’t find stupid people romantic.”

Conor snorted. “You think a lot of people are stupid.”

“You’re not wrong,” Ned said, and they laughed and kept walking.

“If Walter could see us now,” Conor said, tensing his arm as Ned faltered. They were almost at the foot of the hill. “Getting on like two exemplary Wood Hill pupils.”

Ned smiled in the twilight. “Let’s just walk into his office holding hands. That’ll convince him.”

“I’d do it just to see his face.”

I never knew I’d been lonely, Ned thought, as they walked together across the rugby pitch, bound for the lights of the college like two boats seeking the same safe harbour for the night. Until I found a friend.

Though they were on level ground now, neither of them made a move to let go of the other. A breeze lifted Conor’s hair and he used his free hand to smooth it down again, laughing with his entire body. Ned felt Conor’s laughter in the palm of his hand and looked up at the innumerable stars, wanting them to go on and on like this forever.

Chapter Text

 

Their room had only one calendar. Wood Hill provided one to every pupil, but Ned ritually disposed of his at the start of each academic year. Throughout September, he would look at his wastebasket and simper at the blue and gold pages peeking out from the bottom, taking pride in how he’d thrown off the yoke of oppression. Plus, without a calendar, it would be easier to forget an important date and perhaps get expelled that much faster.

This was why Ned was standing at Conor’s desk, leafing through his schedule to find where they were in their transit around the sun.

“Well?” Natalie said, her voice crackling over the long connection from Dubai. “Is your essay competition before or after the Easter holidays?”

“After, it looks like.” Ned moved his index finger over the days. “I have to submit it to the college before that, though.”

“But you’re sure you don’t want to come here for the break?”

“No,” Ned said, trying not to sound too dismissive. “I mean, yes. I’m sure. It’s only Easter and I’d be bored out of my mind there.”

“I’m sorry we’re so boring,” Natalie said. He could tell that she was attempting sarcasm, but she wasn’t very good at it.

“There’s nothing to do there. Except shopping, and not all of us enjoy spending the entire day doing that.”

“I don’t spend all day shopping, you cheeky—what’s that?” Her voice trailed off, and Ned heard muddled words trading back and forth. “Ned, your father says that we’ll come to your essay tournament in May.”

“It’s not a ‘tournament,’” Ned replied. “You make it sound like badminton or something.”

“Well, whatever,” Natalie said. She took a second to blow smoke away from the phone’s receiver. “You could sound a little excited that we’ll be there.”

“Yay,” Ned said sarcastically.

Ned heard a shuffle, then his father’s voice.

“Especially after what you just put us through, young man.”

“What I put you through?” Ned flicked the calendar shut; he’d already apologised for this too many times. “What about what I’ve been going through here for the past few years?”

“How are we supposed to know about any of that when you clam up whenever we ask about what’s going on with you? Christ, Ned, you’ve been getting into fistfights with other boys and no one tells us anything!”

“I haven’t been fighting.” Ned leaned against Conor’s desk and sighed. “That was a one-off, okay?”

“Did you know Natalie started crying on the flight back here, worried that something terrible was going to happen to you?”

Ned coughed, attempting to stifle a laugh.

“And he chuckles. What’s wrong with you? Think about how your actions affect others for once, Ned.”

Ned rolled his eyes. “I’m grand, okay? Things are actually better here than they’ve been in ages.”

“Are they?” His father sounded taken aback. “And you’re not just saying that?”

“No, I’m not.” Ned gazed out Conor’s window, his eyes settling on the emerald boughs of the oak on the hill. “I don’t completely hate it here for the first time.”

“That’s something, I guess,” his father said. He and Ned exchanged a halting laugh over the delay in the line. “Hold on, Natalie wants to talk to you again.”

“Alright,” Ned said languidly. He coughed, walked to Conor’s wardrobe, and began to absentmindedly peruse the clothes on Conor’s hangers. Compared to Ned, he only had a few things, and the sunlight, bright and clear in the afternoon, filled the closet’s empty space like water.

“Ned? How are you getting on with Conor?”

“Oh. Pretty well, actually.” He fingered the sleeve of Conor’s favourite hoodie. “Like I told you, he’s helping me think of ideas for the essay.”

“Does he ever use the harmonica you got him?”

“Oh, all the time.” Ned returned to Conor’s desk and inspected the harmonica, which, despite its pride of place in front of his rugby trophies, had accumulated a fine layer of dust from disuse. “He’s basically a virtuoso.”

“I told you it was a good idea,” Natalie said, sounding very satisfied.

“Not your worst one,” Ned conceded. He looked at the door as Conor walked in. “I’ve got to go now.”

“Okay,” Natalie chirped. “Your dad says to take care of yourself. And that we’ll buy the tickets back for your essay competition tomorrow.”

Ned said goodbye to her and put down the phone. He turned to Conor, who was standing in the centre of the room, looking at Ned and otherwise doing nothing at all.

“That your folks?”

“Yeah.” Ned walked to his bed and lay down. “They were just asking whether I wanted to go to Dubai for Easter.”

“Oh yeah?” Conor lifted his gym bag from the floor, walked to his desk, and dropped it on his chair.

“Sorry for commandeering your desk. I needed a calendar.”

Conor smirked and shook his head.

“Well, I didn’t need it. Natalie was just demanding all these dates all of a sudden—”

“Hey, I didn’t say anything.”

Ned sighed and examined the faint water and age lines that ran across the ceiling. “Anyway, I was surprised they even gave me a choice in it. Maybe some iota of what I’ve been saying to them for years got through.”

“Easter’s only a couple weeks away, though.”

“It’s sort of a last-minute thing. They’re ‘concerned’ about me,” Ned said, lifting air quotes above his chest. “Since I almost got expelled, been fighting, all that.”

“You threw one punch.” Conor ran his hands through his mop of hair and grinned. “And even calling it that is generous.”

“That might be just another day at the office for you.” Ned tilted his head on his pillow to look at Conor. “But I’ve never been one to do anything like that.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Conor walked to the foot of Ned’s bed and leaned against the metal frame. “So, are you going to go?”

“Nah. I’ll probably just go to my aunt and uncle’s place like usual. Don’t really feel like Dubai.”

“I’ve never been,” Conor said. “We used to travel a lot when I was younger—when my dad had more time for us. Just around Europe and the States, though.”

“Honestly, all I ever do there is go straight from the airport to their apartment and watch movies in my room all day.” Ned clasped his hands together over his navel. “I don’t think I’m a very good tourist.”

“You know what, why don’t you come to mine for Easter? I’m sure my mum wouldn’t mind.”

“Really?” Ned sat up and propped himself forward with his arms. “Are you sure it’ll be fine?”

“I’ll call her tonight and ask. But our house is huge, especially with my brothers moved out.” Conor sat at the foot of Ned’s bed; Ned moved his legs towards the wall to make room for him. “And you’re my roommate. She’ll be thrilled that we’re getting on, especially after what happened at my last school. As thrilled as she gets about anything, at least.”

Ned wrinkled his brow. “But won’t your parents have heard about what I did at the cheer practice? They know you ran away from the college for a day.”

“I don’t know.” Conor shrugged and crossed his arms. “They didn’t say anything about it when I was there for the midterm break. Not that I saw much of my dad then, anyway.”

Ned nodded and watched Conor’s glower, waiting for him to continue.

“I don’t know, sometimes it seems like—like they just gave up with me. Things were really different when I was a kid and my brothers were at St Bart’s. They’d come home for breaks and the house felt alive. Bursting with life.”

“You have two older brothers, right?”

“Three.” Conor pushed himself backwards on the bed and rested his back against the wall and Ned’s legs. “All on the rugby team, of course.”

“Three?” Ned’s eyes widened. “Your family’s huge.”

“Four kids aren’t that many. Well, maybe it seems that way to an only child,” Conor replied, patting Ned’s knee.

“Your poor mother,” Ned murmured.

Conor let out a sharp peal of laughter. “That’s what you think. She ruled the roost.” He turned away and looked at his bulletin board, upon and around which Ned had strewn sketches of ships and boats. “Things were pretty good back then.”

Ned watched Conor for a moment, then poked his back with his toe.

“Huh?” Conor said, looking at him.

“Are you okay?”

“Sorry, was just thinking.” Conor turned to sit cross-legged on the bed, facing Ned. “About how things are different now. Dad’s—even when he’s sober, he’s not the nicest person. And mum’s just, like, closed off all the time. There but not there. That’s what I mean by them not trying anymore with me.”

“It’s not your fault, Conor,” Ned said, nudging him with his foot again.

“I know.” He looked down at Ned’s legs and smiled. “I don’t think that. I’m just missing how things used to be.”

“I wish my mum were still around.” Ned looked up at the ceiling again. “Even if I only got to spend another day with her.”

“Wow, yeah.” Conor exhaled and patted Ned’s shin. “It’s pretty selfish of me to complain to you when both of my parents are still alive.”

“No, it’s fine.” Ned watched the sunlight shimmer across the ceiling and into the corners and crevices of their room. “It’s not a contest.”

“I’m glad you’re coming home with me for the break,” Conor said, after a while.

“Trust me, it’s infinitely better than being stuck in Dubai for all that time.” Ned snorted and returned his gaze to Conor. “You know, Natalie asked me if you’ve been playing the harmonica I got you.”

Conor raised his eyebrows. “Did you tell her I suck arse at it?”

“I said you’re a maestro,” Ned said, smirking.

“That’s just great,” Conor muttered.

“Hey, I was trying to make her feel better about suggesting it.”

“You know I’ll have to actually make an effort to improve at it now,” Conor said. “I can’t show you up in front of your ‘evil stepmother.’”

Ned waved his hand dismissively. “You find a way to be good at everything. I doubt this will be an exception.”

“So, changing the subject,” Conor said, and they both laughed. “Want to grab dinner now?”

“It is about that time, yeah.”

Conor stood up and walked to his wardrobe; Ned watched as he pulled his hoodie off of its hanger and unzipped it.

“How was the run?”

“Really good,” Conor said. “I did the long trail twice.”

Ned rolled onto his side and grabbed his notebook from his bedside table. “Honestly, I don’t even know where that is.”

Conor laughed and walked back to Ned’s bed. “You should come with me sometime. We’ll do an easy one.”

“I don’t think so,” Ned replied, before Conor had finished his sentence. He quirked an eyebrow and began imitating Conor’s voice. “I know what you’re going to say. ‘Come on, Ned, you’re such a layabout. Oi, you lazybones, you’re out of breath after a hundred metres. Just watch, Ned, you’ll be fifteen stone by the time you’re thirty.’”

“I don’t sound like that.”

Ned tugged at the sleeve of Conor’s hoodie. “Give me a hand up?”

“Sure,” Conor said, rolling his eyes. “Actually, why don’t I just carry you all the way to the refectory? Maybe bring your food to you too?”

“That’d be grand, thanks.” Ned giggled and stretched out along the bed.

“Come on.” Conor pulled at Ned’s hand softly and winked. “Lazybones.”

 


 

“Aren’t you going to jam with me?” Conor tossed his hair out of his eyes and plucked an arpeggio.

“Maybe later,” Ned replied. He kicked off his shoes and curled up at the other end of the sofa. “I’m writing some stuff for the essay.”

“Come on,” Conor said. “It’s Friday night.”

“Exactly. Which means I’m massively behind on this.”

He’s always working on it and getting nowhere, Conor thought. Guess I was right about not being much help.

“I mean, I can only avoid eye contact with Mr Sherry for so long,” Ned was saying. “Eventually he’s going to ask me how the writing’s going.”

“Can I help?”

Ned smiled faintly and nodded. “Play me something.”

“Not what I meant.” Conor looked down at the strings of his guitar. “But sure.”

He strummed, looking at the dark corners of the hideaway, then at the generations of teenage angst written in red and black and faded sepia on every free surface. Somehow, even though they were surrounded by the words of decades of Wood Hill students, and even though they could be interrupted at any moment by one of the teachers or other pupils, this place felt deeply and inalienably like it belonged to the two of them: a liminal space where they could share their secrets.

“Love this one,” Ned said, once Conor had started singing. He bobbed his head to the rise and fall of Conor’s voice.

“If you need someone to make you feel safer than safe,” Conor sang, looking straight into Ned’s eyes, “I’ll try to.”

“Remember to project,” Ned teased. “You know what Mr Sherry said, you don’t want to be The Field Mice.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Conor shouted at the ceiling, once he’d reached that line.

Ned put down his pen and started singing with him, fixing his gaze on Conor until the latter rested his hand on his thigh and the guitar was silent.

“Beautiful,” Ned said, still looking at him. Ever since their first conversation through the wall, Conor had been struck by the paradox of Ned’s behaviour, or even just his eyes: the simultaneity of unnerving confidence and heartbreaking vulnerability. It was a vivid contradiction that, from the very beginning, had made him feverish to know more.

“It’s just genetics,” Conor quipped, tilting his head back and letting his fringe fall to the side of his face.

“I guess false modesty must run in the Masters family as well,” Ned muttered.

Conor smiled and rubbed the back of his neck. “That was some pretty good harmonising there.”

“Just improvisation.” Ned uncapped his pen and started writing.

“Now who’s being modest?”

Ned snorted. “How about you stop poking me and help me with something in this essay.”

“Okay.” Conor adjusted his position on the sofa to face Ned. “Hit me.”

“How—” Ned pursed his lips and looked down. After a few seconds of moving his pen in small circles at the side of the page, he glanced up at Conor again. “How did everyone at St Bart’s find out about you?”

“Oh.”

“If you don’t want to say—I mean, only if you’re comfortable.”

“It’s fine.”

“You’re sure?”

“Ned, I trust you.” Conor shushed Ned as he began to protest. “I really do. Let’s just move on from it. We had that whole talk a few days ago.”

“Alright,” Ned said, lifting his fist to meet Conor’s. “Thanks. Really.”

“So,” Conor said. “Um, yeah. I had a really good friend at St Bart’s. He wasn’t my roommate, but we did most stuff together. Most of the time, he’d be in my room or I’d be in his. Ate meals and all that. Like us, I guess.”

“Another rugby player?”

“Yeah, of course. Well, I mean, I was younger, so I didn’t have as much of an identity outside of it. I didn’t know anyone who liked the same music, anything like that.”

Ned nodded at the page and continued writing.

“Anyway, around this time last year, I decided to come out to him. Right after the junior final.”

Ned looked up and blinked. “How long had you known?”

“For a long time,” Conor replied. “Not the word, maybe, but I’d known I was different in that way since—I don’t know, I can’t remember not knowing, if that makes sense.”

“Makes sense to me,” Ned murmured.

“And genius me decided to not only tell him that I was gay, but also that I had a crush on him.”

“Oh.” Ned exhaled. “Wow.”

“Yeah. He did not take any of it well.”

“Was it just because you had feelings for him? Or did he have a problem with you being gay as well?”

“Both, I think.” Conor shook his head and touched his fingertips to the strings of the guitar. His memories assembled in the shadows of the room; he could feel them looking on, silent and condemning. “He’d always used ‘gay’ and ‘faggot’ as casual insults, called other boys ‘queers’ and ‘homos.’ I thought if he knew I was one of them, he’d stop. I thought they were just the words everyone said without even thinking; that he didn’t really mean them.”

Ned stopped writing and nodded.

“So stupid,” Conor said. He rubbed the sleeve of his hoodie over his eyes. “What was I thinking?”

“That he was your friend,” Ned responded. “That he’d understand. That he’d be cool and not a scared, stupid little kid.”

“It’s not only his fault.” Conor took a deep breath and adjusted his guitar in his lap. “I think I could have been less full-on.”

“Well, I assume he was the one who told everyone, then?”

“Yup,” Conor said. “The entire team knew by the middle of the week. The entire school by the weekend.”

“Then it is his fault, Conor,” Ned said. He dropped his notebook on the ground and moved up the sofa to sit next to him. “Don’t make excuses for him. What he did was cruel.”

“I know, but.” A tear fell from Conor’s eyes and rolled down the body of the guitar. Conor reached the cuff of his sleeve to his face again. “I just wish it could have been different.”

“I know.” Ned rubbed Conor’s upper back. “But that was up to him.”

“When I found out he’d told everyone, I froze. I couldn’t believe he’d done it.” Conor leaned back into the sofa and matched his breathing to the rhythm of Ned’s hand. “Then I fought. That’s how I got drawn into all the fighting. The more I fought, the more people would taunt me. Then I got expelled. That’s probably what they wanted, too.”

“Huh.”

Conor looked at Ned. “What?”

“I’m just thinking about how two years in a row, your best friend outed you to your entire school.” Ned withdrew his hand and shook his head. “Talk about shite luck.”

“Is that ironic? I’m never sure.”

“It’s sadistic, at least,” Ned said. “I feel even worse now about what I did, which I didn’t think was possible. Having to go through that twice—I can’t imagine.”

“I told you, Ned—”

“I know,” Ned interrupted. “I know you said we’re past it.”

His words hung in the air, inviting but not demanding a response. Ned leaned into the gap between the sofa and Conor’s shoulder, and they settled into an easy silence.

“I have a question for you now,” Conor said finally.

“Oh?” Ned glanced up.

“How’d you know about me?” Conor looked at Ned over the neck of the guitar. “And how long?”

“Honestly, I had no idea until the day of the quarter-finals.” Ned tapped his fingers to his knee. “I saw you at a gay bar.”

That night, Conor thought. Mr Sherry was there too. Wait—

“Were you in there?” Conor said. He felt his face turning red.

“No,” Ned said slowly. “I was walking in the street outside and I saw you go in.”

“Oh. Yeah, of course not.” Conor snorted. “Pretty dumb of me to ask.”

“Sorry, I know the way I said it made it sound like—”

“No, I shouldn’t have assumed—”

“You didn’t assume,” Ned said, sitting up. “It’s a fair question.”

They looked at each other and exchanged a laugh.

“Sorry, this is awkward.” Conor flicked his chin at Ned’s notebook. “Don’t you want to write some of this down?”

“I probably should, yeah.” Ned picked up his notebook and placed it on his lap. “Er, so, yeah, that’s how I knew.”

Conor adjusted his fingers and strummed. “Fair enough. Yeah, that night was crazy. Pascal took us to a pub to celebrate and my dad was there to congratulate me.”

“That’s nice,” Ned said, then looked up at Conor. “Or not?”

“Nah, he always does my head in.” Conor moved his head to the melody he’d improvised. “When he’s sober, he’s almost bearable. Not really, but almost. When he’s drunk, though—then he’s a complete eejit. I can’t stand him.”

“A lot of people are like that when they’re drunk.”

“He’s drunk like, all the time, though,” Conor said. “That’s the problem.”

Ned made a sound of assent and continued writing.

“He goaded me into drinking that night,” Conor said, after he’d played the melody several more times. “I don’t really want to, after seeing what it’s done to him. But I figured, since the rest of the team was doing it, and Pascal—I thought, what the hell.”

“Uh-huh.”

“He made a fool of himself, of course.” Conor smiled wistfully. “So embarrassing. Then he stopped me from leaving with the rest of the team and tried to have some kind of father-son talk. After pretending I didn’t exist for the better part of a year.”

“Because you got expelled? Or because of the fighting?”

“More because of the reason I was fighting,” Conor said, glancing at Ned. “Yeah, he knew why. It all came out when the headmaster called my parents in. No pun intended.”

“Wow.” Ned patted Conor’s arm. “I’m sorry, Conor.”

Conor shook off his hand. “Believe me, I couldn’t care less about him.”

“Still.” Ned turned over his notebook to a fresh page.

“Anyway, that’s why I went to that bar. I wanted to blow off some steam and it seemed like a good idea at the time.” Conor scratched his head and resumed strumming. “What a coincidence, though. I guess you were meant to see me there. I mean, outside of it.”

“’Meant to,’ how?”

“I don’t know,” Conor said, and he thought his own voice sounded thin and far away. “It brought us here, didn’t it?”

Ned seemed to be weighing this in his mind, though both of them turned to the sound of footsteps on the stairs before he could respond.

“Hey,” Conor said, nodding to Victor.

“Alright, lads?” Victor patted his hand to Conor’s shoulder and slid into the narrow space between Conor and the arm of the sofa. “Having a big Friday night in?”

“Hello, Your Highness,” Ned said, leaning forward to see past the neck of Conor’s guitar.

“Ned,” Conor warned. The glint of mischief in Ned’s eyes both panicked and excited him.

“What? I meant that literally, by the way,” Ned continued, cocking his head at Victor. “You’re like eight feet tall.”

Conor poked Ned’s thigh with his plectrum. “Be nice.”

“I’m always nice,” Ned said airily. “Isn’t that right, Captain?”

“Oh, completely.” Victor clapped his hand to Conor’s back; Conor started and looked at him. “Especially since you have to deal with this moody git day in, day out.”

“Ha-ha,” Conor said flatly, turning back to his guitar. He strummed a chord. “Please, keep cracking jokes at my expense. At least it means the two of you are getting on.”

“Isn’t he a good martyr?” Ned said.

“Haven’t you noticed that he’s a good everything, Ned?” Victor flicked his fingers through the crest of his hair. “We’re seriously not worthy.”

Conor began to stand up. “Okay then, I’ll see you guys—”

“Alright, alright,” Victor laughed, as he and Ned pushed down on Conor’s legs to make him sit again. “Just having a laugh.”

“Ah. Well you might want to keep that business course as a backup plan. Just in case your stand-up career doesn’t work out, I mean.”

“Economics, you gom.” Victor snorted and shook his head.

Conor imitated Victor’s voice under his breath and started strumming again.

“Oh, I actually came down here to tell you something. The lads who’ll be in Dublin are coming to mine for a gathering over the break. It’s the Thursday after Easter. You should come.”

“A ‘gathering,’” Ned repeated archly, with air quotes.

“Nothing too crazy,” Victor said. “I’d like my parents to let me live, after all.”

Conor stopped strumming and looked up at Victor. “Can Ned come?”

“Conor,” Ned said, sighing.

“Ned?” Victor furrowed his brow. “I mean, uh, sure.”

“He’s staying with me for the holidays.” Conor glanced at Ned, then back to Victor. “His folks are abroad, so.”

“Oh, alright.” Victor paused and rubbed his nose. “Don’t take this the wrong way, like, but—I mean, I’m happy for Ned to hang out; I just don’t know if everyone else there will be totally, um, cool.”

“Well,” Ned said, with the aplomb that Conor knew was one of his defence mechanisms. “That was tortured.”

“I think we all know who you mean by that,” Conor said.

“I’ve already had a word with him, but you know what he’s like.” Victor grimaced at Conor. “And I’ve overheard some things from some of the other lads.”

Conor threw his head back and mouthed curses at the graffiti on the ceiling. “What things?”

“Just the usual stupid jokes about you two.” Victor glanced at Ned. “If it were anything serious—I mean, I would talk to anyone else like I have done with Weasel if it went beyond harmless banter.”

“’Harmless banter,’” Conor scoffed. “Right.”

Ned scratched his chin. “What about what happened at the final? That must mean everyone’s cool. I mean, with Conor, at least.”

“That’s what I mean,” Victor said. “What I meant—I was only saying earlier that we’ll be drinking and, to be completely blunt, it’s a group of teenage males, so it’s a lot of making complete arses of ourselves.”

“Very self-aware of you,” Ned said wryly.

“Sorry,” Victor said. “I didn’t know the two of you would be spending the holidays together. I’ve really put my foot in it, haven’t I?”

“I don’t need to come, really.” Ned looked down at his notebook and scribbled. “Thanks, Conor, but I really can occupy myself for one night.”

“I was only asking,” Conor said. He watched the jerky movements of Ned’s hand, then turned to Victor.

“You should both come,” Victor said. “I’ll shut down Weasel if he gets mouthy. And if it’s not your crowd, you can hang out in my room.”

“Thanks,” Conor said. “Sorry if I overreacted; it’s not your fault. We’ve just been having some deep chats tonight.”

“Oh yeah?” Victor leaned back into the corner of the sofa. “Anything in particular?”

“He’s the one to ask,” Conor said, pointing his thumb at Ned. “Since he’s writing everything down.”

“Well, not everything,” Ned corrected. He lifted his notebook so that Victor could see. “I’m writing an essay for the school competition. It’s about Conor and me.”

“Right on,” Victor said. “I’d love to read it when you’re done.”

“You’ll regret saying that,” Conor whispered, and winked at Victor.

“I heard you.” Ned poked Conor’s waist with his pen; Conor yelped and played a bum note on his guitar.

Victor closed his eyes, rested his head on the sofa’s back, and laughed. “You two are so cute.”

“’Cute.’” Conor looked at Ned and shrugged. “Guess we have a fan club, Ned.”

“I knew fame would find me eventually,” Ned said. He crossed his legs on the seat and tapped the head of Conor’s guitar. “Play ‘If You Need Someone’ again.”

Conor smiled, found his bearings on the strings, and began strumming. He glanced at Victor, who was still sitting back with his eyes shut, his body relaxed, his breathing peaceful. When the words came in, Conor turned to Ned and sang.

“Is this your special song?” Victor murmured, after a couple verses. His eyes were still closed, but he was waving a finger languidly between Conor and Ned, combining them into one. “It’s nice.”

Conor couldn’t reply, and Ned remained quiet. The question settled over them, warm and comforting and oddly normal. Ned nodded his head next to Conor’s shoulder, mouthing the lyrics into his hoodie. In this room that belonged only to the two of them, the memories had finally receded into the shadows, leaving the soft yellow light on Ned’s face and the puffs of his breath on Conor’s hand. Conor sang line after line to Ned and felt more at home than he had in years.

Chapter Text

 

Conor looked up at the door of the lounge. “Did you get lost?”

“Was I gone that long?” Ned glanced at his watch and kicked the door shut behind him, then turned off the lights. “You could’ve come with me if you’re so impatient.”

“You said you were just going back to the room to get a bag of crisps.” Conor sat up on the couch. “And Romeo’s been waiting patiently for you.”

“Romeo, maybe,” Ned said, tossing a small package of crisps to Conor. He collapsed into one of the armchairs and flicked his chin at the television. “He’s got the advantage of a pause button, though.”

“Cheers,” Conor said, tearing open the bag.

Ned placed two cans of cola on the coffee table between them. “I thought I had some on the top shelf of my wardrobe, but I’d run out. So, I walked downstairs to the vending machine, but I’d left my wallet. Then I walked back to our room and got it, walked back downstairs—”

“Ned, I was kidding,” Conor said, through a mouthful of crisps. “Just giving you shit.”

“I know,” Ned replied. “I know you are.”

Conor chewed and watched Ned as the latter opened one of the cans of cola and took a long sip. He had devoted much of the weekend to the arduous process of catching up on all the material that he’d missed over the final weeks of the rugby season, and viewing the 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet was a comparatively easy part of that. Yet even though Ned had volunteered to watch it with him, Conor couldn’t shake off the dim feeling that he was needlessly appropriating Ned’s time.

“I’m ready when you are.” Ned wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “How much more do we have left, anyway?”

“We’re only, like, fifteen minutes in.”

Ned slouched back in the armchair and sighed.

“You alright there?” Conor reached for his cola, pulled at the tab, and laughed.

“I’m fine. I just don’t get why everyone thinks this story is so romantic.”

“Let me guess,” Conor said, tapping his fingers to his lips. “You think Romeo and Juliet are stupid.”

Ned turned and looked at him over the arm of the chair. “No comment.”

Conor laughed again and picked up the remote. “Thanks for watching it with me. You really don’t have to, though. I don’t mind—”

“Nah,” Ned said, reaching for his bag of crisps. “Mr Sherry showed it weeks ago, and I wasn’t paying much attention. It’s probably good for me to watch it again before the final.”

Conor lay down on the couch again and pressed play on the remote. The lounge filled with the sudden noise of carousing and revelry, and he turned down the volume.

“So, this is Romeo and all his mates getting drunk and playing music in the streets at night as they make their way to the party they’re crashing,” Ned said. He curled up in the seat and rested his head on one of the armrests.

“The more things change,” Conor quipped. He glanced back at Ned, straining his neck to find his eyes. “Don’t worry about telling me what’s happening, by the way. I remember reading most of it.”

“Just trying to help,” Ned said.

“I know. But I want you to just relax.”

Ned grunted in assent and crinkled his crisps package.

“This guy’s a character,” Conor said, after a few minutes.

“Mercutio?” Ned placed his empty can of cola on the floor. “Yeah, he’s pretty out there.”

“I’ve kind of—” Conor snorted. “I’ve always kind of wanted a friend like that.”

“What, I’m not weird enough for you?”

Conor looked back at Ned in the darkness. “No comment.”

“Arsehole,” Ned whispered. They shared a laugh just as the television went quiet.

“Huh,” Conor said, as Romeo and Mercutio embraced, foreheads touching. “This is a little—”

“Gay?”

“Something like that.” Conor leaned forward slightly. “This really, um, brings the play to life.”

Ned waited for the scene to run, letting Benvolio pull the two of them apart before saying anything.

“When we watched it in class—I mean, when Mr Sherry discussed it with us after—I said that I thought Mercutio was in love with Romeo. That’s why he acts all jealous later on, when Romeo’s spent the night with Juliet.”

Conor paused the movie and rolled onto his side to see Ned more easily. “How’d that go over?”

“Oh, I got snickers and jeers from the entire class. Mr Sherry made everyone but me take out a sheet of paper and do a pop quiz on the spot for it, though.”

“Nice.” Conor held his hand out over the floor between them, meeting Ned’s for a clumsy high-five.

“What do you think, though?” Ned sat up and crossed his legs in the chair.

“About Romeo and Mercutio?”

“Yeah.” Ned looked down at his hands. “I mean, you’re gay, so.”

Conor glanced at the frozen screen, where Romeo was illuminated by the light of the moon, watching Mercutio being pulled away from him. “I guess—I don’t know, to me it kind of seems blatantly obvious that he’s in love with Romeo. But I don’t think Romeo knows how to deal with that. Maybe he’s just oblivious. Or maybe he feels something too but doesn’t know how to express it.”

“Yeah,” Ned said. “Um—how do you know that?”

“Well, I guess I don’t know—”

“I mean,” Ned said, and he paused as his voice quavered. “How can you tell—why do you think that? Just curious.”

“Oh.” Conor rolled onto his back again and looked up at the screen. “A lot of it is the eyes. The way he looks at him. And the body language. He’s tense and wound up for the entire scene; once Romeo touches him, he just sort of melts.”

“Melts?”

“Becomes calm and peaceful, like.” Conor scratched his temple. “Sorry, I really hope this conversation isn’t awkward for you.”

“It’s not,” Ned said. “It’s interesting.”

“What’d Mr Sherry say?” Conor fingered the remote. “When you said that in class?”

“Oh.” Ned chuckled. “He said it was ‘an intriguing interpretation, and not one he was hearing for the first time.’”

Conor pressed play. “That sounds like him.”

They lapsed into silence as the film moved on to the Capulets’ party. Conor’s thoughts wandered as the camera lingered over the sumptuous festoonery and kaleidoscopic costumes. He wondered where Mercutio was in the crowd; whether he was watching as Romeo fell in love with Juliet. To be in a room with a hundred others and yet feel utterly isolated and alone was an experience with which Conor was intimately familiar.

“It’s not a sure thing,” Conor said, as the two lovers’ hands touched behind the pillar.

“Sorry, what?”

“I mean, you can get it wrong. Misunderstand things.” Conor turned to watch Ned’s face. “Just like with any relationship.”

Ned raised his eyebrows in the ochre light of the television. “You’re talking about Mercutio? And Romeo?”

“I guess.” Conor shut his eyes for a few seconds. “Also about Liam.”

He opened his eyes; Ned was still wearing the same expression.

“My friend from my last school. The one I told you about the other day.”

“Ah.” Ned glanced at the movie. “If you want to talk, we can pause it.”

“It’s okay.” Conor settled into the hollows of the sofa. “They’re just telling each other how much they love each other. I got that much.”

Ned laughed. “We might as well just not bother with the rest of it, then.”

“I thought—” Conor yawned and propped his head up with his hand. “I thought Liam was looking at me like that. But it was only in my head.”

“Are you sure?”

Conor furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”

“Maybe he didn’t know how to deal with what he was feeling.” Ned was studying the backs of his hands. “Maybe he didn’t know how to talk about it.”

“Maybe,” Conor said. He waited for something more, but Ned just looked back at the screen, where Romeo and Juliet were touching palms and lips. Conor watched it with him until they both laughed.

“I wonder if it’s supposed to be so—”

“Over the top?” Ned stretched his hands towards the ceiling. “Probably.”

“Oh,” Conor said, as the party guests began to filter out. “You’re coming with me to that interview tomorrow, right?”

“Is that tomorrow?”

“I told you last week that it was on Monday.”

Ned shrugged. “I don’t have a calendar.”

“Well, now you know,” Conor said, rolling his eyes.

“If you want me to.” Ned cracked a smile at Conor’s exasperation. “It’s not like I’m going to say anything. I know fuck all about rugby.”

“I don’t actually know how much of it will be about rugby,” Conor said. “It’s with a magazine, but Pascal says it’s about my life and family and stuff, not just sport.”

“What, like a profile?” Ned leaned forward in the armchair and clasped his hands together under his chin. “Is there a photoshoot? Are you the cover boy? I have to see this.”

“Someone’s changed his tune,” Conor muttered. “And I really doubt I’m on the cover.”

A change in the light from the screen interposed itself into their conversation. On the streets of Verona, Romeo, bound for the Capulet balcony, was watching from the trees as Mercutio called out his name. He smiled for the camera in the torchlight, his face aglow with either a simulacrum of love or the real thing.

“It’s in Walter’s office, after last period,” Conor said.

“I’ll be there,” Ned said, just as Romeo slipped through the trees, leaving Mercutio to stumble without him in the darkness.

 


 

Mr Sherry patted Ned’s shoulder. “How’s the essay writing, Ned?”

Crap, Ned thought. The question had been inevitable, though. Given how long Conor was taking with the photographer and journalist, the adults could only talk among themselves—even if sometimes through Ned—for so long.

“Oh, fine.” Ned rubbed his neck, feeling himself withering under the combined gazes of Mr Sherry, Pascal and Walter. “Really good, I mean. Beauteously.”

“Well, which is it?” Walter said.

“Beauteously,” Pascal echoed. “What on earth are you teaching in your classroom, Sherry?”

“Ignore him,” Mr Sherry said. He crossed his legs and grinned sidelong at Ned. “I happen to think that term’s due for a revival.”

“I know you want to look at it soon,” Ned said. “It’s really just a rough draft right now. I haven’t even typed it up yet—”

“It’s okay, Ned.” Mr Sherry glanced at Walter. “The end of the week should be fine. As long as we can look at it before the Easter holidays. We’ll have to send in the college’s entry over the break.”

“Sir, I’m sorry that I’m slow. But I write every day.” Ned rubbed his thumbs together in his lap. “Or—I try to, at least. Some days, when I sit down at my desk, I just end up drawing things on the page.”

Pascal burst out laughing at the other side of the room. “That brings back memories.”

“Pascal,” Walter said to him, with a glare.

“Somehow, I don’t find it surprising that you spent your time in class doodling, Pascal,” Mr Sherry said tartly. He turned to Ned. “Not that there’s anything wrong with drawing—using other parts of one’s mind—to boost creativity.”

“Well, we all have our talents,” Pascal said. “I’d love to see you on a rugby pitch, Sherry. Preferably on the opposing team. No offense.”

Walter closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “Are the two of you going to continue to bicker like rivalrous siblings in front of one of our pupils?”

“Sorry about that,” Mr Sherry said, and Pascal shrugged. “Well, just let me know if you need any help. You’re still following the outline we worked out?”

“Yeah,” Ned said. It wasn’t entirely a lie: he was still filling in the outline; he just had a lot of extra writing on top of it that didn’t seem to fit neatly anywhere.

“And how are you and Conor getting on?” Walter asked.

“Very well, Sir.” Ned straightened up and nodded. “Thanks for allowing us to room together. Again.”

Walter crossed his arms and leaned back from his desk, offering the faintest of smiles. “Don’t make me regret my decision, Ned.”

“I won’t, Sir.” Ned nodded again. “I promise.”

“Where is that lad?” Pascal said, springing up from his chair. “That reporter better not be interviewing him without us present.”

“A prefect is with them at all times,” Walter droned. He’d begun reading through and signing a stack of papers on his desk.

“It hasn’t been that long,” Mr Sherry said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Last period only ended half an hour ago.”

“You could’ve let the lad out a bit early.” Pascal began pacing underneath the massive portrait of Wood Hill’s founding headmaster. “The magazine had been waiting here for an hour by the time the three of you finally arrived.”

“No, Pascal, I couldn’t have.” Mr Sherry turned to face him and smoothed down the sleeves of his blazer. “Conor’s still catching up on all the material he missed from the dozens of class hours you pulled him out of.”

“He’d have been fine,” Pascal scoffed. “What’s one less dramatic reading of a sonnet when the nation’s biggest sports magazine wants to write a glowing profile of the lad? Do you know what it could do for his future?”

“Well, what are they doing now?” Mr Sherry jabbed his hand into the air, indicating the closed door of Walter’s office. “He attended class and the interview’s still on, isn’t it? Everyone’s happy. No incipient rugby union careers were harmed in the making of this well-rounded young man.”

Pascal put his hands on his hips and threw his head back, addressing a silent lament to the painting.

“Sir,” Ned said. He teetered on the edge of the cushion, the tension in the room causing him to shake his leg against the sofa’s arm. “I watched Romeo and Juliet with Conor last night.”

“Wonderful,” Mr Sherry replied, his voice tender and kind again.

“How sweet,” Pascal said, without turning around.

“Er, I—” Ned blushed. “What I meant is, he’s catching up on the stuff he missed. He’s been working pretty hard at it.”

“Good,” Walter said, looking up from his papers. “I’m glad you’re helping him, Ned.”

“Sir, I can’t take credit.”

“Even so,” Walter said, and waved his hand.

Ned turned to the door as it creaked open, admitting the hubbub of the main hall into the office. Conor walked in, clad in the blue and gold of his rugby jersey, followed by the photographer and journalist.

“There you are,” Pascal said, walking over to them. “I was about to organise a search party.”

“Oh, please.” Walter stood up and beckoned the group to the chairs around his desk. “They weren’t gone for all that long.”

“It’s my fault,” Conor said. “I kept squinting and laughing in the shots.”

“Some of the other students gathered to watch,” the journalist said, as he sat down across from Walter. “A few of them did their best to distract him.”

“It can get a little rambunctious around here,” Mr Sherry said. He stood and walked to one of the free seats.

Conor stopped at Ned’s place on the sofa. “Have they been behaving?”

“I think you got back just in time,” Ned said, with a sly smile.

“I’m already ready for this to be over,” Conor said. He tossed his fringe away from his eyes.

“Oh.” Ned fished his pen and notebook out of his bag and looked up at Conor. “You don’t mind if I take notes while they’re interviewing you, do you?”

Conor shrugged. “That’s part of why I thought you should come. As long as you let me read what you end up putting in the essay.”

“You know I will. Every line, I swear.”

“Conor?” Walter was half-standing, his knuckles white on the worn wood of his desk. “We’re all waiting for you.”

“Sorry, Sir,” Conor said. He winked at Ned before walking the rest of the way to the last open spot in the semicircle.

“Now, then,” Walter said. “Before you start, Conor’s roommate, Ned, is just here to listen in on the interview. Conor wanted him to be here.”

“Right on,” the journalist said.

“Ned’s a bit of a writer himself,” Mr Sherry said. “He’s our school’s representative to the National Essay Writing Competition.”

“Is that right?” The journalist turned in his chair to look at Ned; Ned waved at him timidly. “Maybe I’ll be seeing you around the newsroom in a few years.”

“Maybe,” Ned replied, though he found it impossible to not say it facetiously.

“Hey, don’t sell yourself short,” the photographer said.

“Thank you,” Ned said slowly. He looked down at his notebook, where the last words he had written were lyrics to a song. That’s totally what I meant.

“Okay, Conor,” the journalist said, and he began to explain to the group the format of the interview. Ned read his song lyrics over and over and half-listened. He was already thinking about dinner.

“Yeah, I have three older brothers who did rugby all through school,” Conor was saying. Ned smiled as Conor’s laugh filled the room. “So, it’s almost like I didn’t have a choice in it.”

“And were any of them as phenomenal as you?”

“Um, my brother Tiernan was on the team that won the Senior Cup for St Bart’s six years ago. St Bartholomew’s.” Conor glanced at Ned. “And Darragh and Diarmuid won the Junior Cup and got to the senior final together. They’re twins.”

Pascal chuckled. “He means, ‘did they score nineteen and twenty-one points in two separate finals to win back-to-back cups?’”

Conor’s lips moved; his cheeks were rosy. Ned finished writing down the names of Conor’s siblings and realised that he wasn’t sure why he had done it.

“I’ve looked up to my brothers my whole life,” Conor said finally. “I grew up playing rugby with them. They taught me a lot.”

“What about your parents?” the journalist asked. “They must have been big into sport.”

“Yeah, they were. Well, mum worried about us, you know, but my dad’s always been obsessed with rugby. He wanted to become a pro player back in school, but he injured his leg pretty badly in an accident.”

Ned pinched his nose to stop himself from sneezing. As if he knew, Mr Sherry turned around and smiled at him.

“And were they at the final? How did they feel, knowing they’d produced multiple Leinster Schools Senior Cup champions?”

“Um—well, they actually weren’t there,” Conor replied, as the teachers exchanged looks of discomfort.

“Oh,” the journalist said. He glanced at his recording pen. “I’m sorry. I assumed that they were still alive.”

Mr Sherry stifled a laugh; Walter glowered at him.

“I’m sorry,” Mr Sherry said. “I’m truly sorry. My mind must have wandered momentarily.”

“He does that sometimes.” Pascal said, with a wink to the photographer.

“They are alive,” Conor said. He wiped the back of his hand against his forehead, then adjusted the collar of his rugby kit. “They just didn’t know I’d be playing.”

“Conor,” Mr Sherry said. “You don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to. Only share what you’re comfortable with.”

“Yes.” Pascal patted Conor’s knee. “Remember this moment well, because I agree with Sherry.”

“Of course,” the journalist said. “This process should be as comfortable and positive for you as possible, Conor. The goal of our piece is just to introduce our readers to a remarkable young talent.”

“One who’ll be on the national team in a few years’ time, no doubt,” the photographer added.

“No pressure,” Ned muttered. He was feeling a mounting resentment towards the interview, partly owing to his central role in Conor going missing that day, though more immediately because of the obvious discomfort this scrutiny was causing Conor. Ned could see it in Conor’s body language: his shoulders were slumped, and he kept brushing his bangs back and forth over his face, as if attempting to hide behind them.

“There was a bit of a miscommunication on the college’s part,” Walter was saying, as he tapped his fingers to his desk. “It wasn’t the fault of Conor or his parents.”

“But—” The journalist looked at each of the other assembled faces in sequence. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. The place and time of the Leinster Schools Senior Cup isn’t a secret. It’s one of the bigger sporting events of the year.”

“It’s alright, Sir,” Conor said to Walter. “You don’t have to cover for me.”

“Why, that’s hardly what I was doing,” Walter sputtered.

“Son, just let the reporter keep going.” Pascal had turned in his chair and was now directly facing Conor.

“What happened was—” Conor looked at Ned and took a deep breath. “What happened was, I ran away. I left the college overnight and didn’t think I’d play in the final.”

“I see,” the journalist said. He directed a bug-eyed stare at his recording pen. “Was something wrong?”

“My—my teammates had found out about me the day before. That I’m gay, I mean.”

“Sweet Jesus,” Pascal groaned, covering his face with his hands.

“And I didn’t think they’d want to play with me.” Conor was looking straight ahead, into the journalist’s eyes, as Mr Sherry patted his hand. “I thought they’d throw me off the team, or just as good as, and it all became too much for me.”

Ned realised that Walter was watching him. He met his eyes for a second, then quickly looked down at his notebook.

What the fuck is happening? he wrote. How is he this crazy brave?

“Right,” the journalist said. “Well, that’s certainly understandable.”

“Walter,” Mr Sherry said. “Maybe we should call an end to this? Give Conor some time to gather his thoughts?”

“No,” Conor said firmly. “I want to keep going.”

Walter sighed and sat back in his chair.

The journalist leaned forward and clasped his hands together over his knees. “Conor, how was it that you ended up playing that day, then?”

“It was Ned.” Conor stood suddenly and turned to Ned, causing the adults around him to look up in alarm. “My roommate. He found me at the marina, on my parents’ boat. I don’t know how he knew I’d be there.”

The entire room swivelled to look at Ned in his spot by the corner window. The silence, full to bursting with possibilities and implications and other unsaid things, crackled with anxious energy.

“Just my keen powers of observation, I suppose,” Ned quipped. His voice sounded like a recording of itself.

“He even, like, brought my entire kit. Shirt, shorts, boots and everything.”

“You’d already packed it. I barely did anything.” Ned wished desperately that, if he slouched back further into the sofa, the others would turn away and forget his presence entirely.

“Imagine having a friend that loyal,” Pascal boomed. He tugged at the hem of Conor’s uniform, pulling him back into his seat. “Maybe that should be your focus. Not the other stuff. I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with it—at all—but you know what some people are like.”

“Ultimately, that’s Conor’s decision.” The journalist and photographer looked at each other. “We’re interested in publishing Conor’s story. If he wants to share this with people—well, I’m confident that there will be reader interest.”

“But it’s not like anyone should care about—” Pascal snorted and looked at Walter. “It shouldn’t matter, should it?”

“It shouldn’t,” Mr Sherry said, pursing his lips. “But too often, it still does.”

“I mean, he’s a child, though,” Pascal continued. “Isn’t it a little irresponsible, inappropriate, for a national magazine to talk about his sexual preference? And what if something changes? This will be in black and white forever!”

“Coach,” Conor said, his head bowed. “Stop. Just stop.”

“I second that,” Ned piped up. Did I really just say that?

The journalist smiled and indicated his recording pen with an open hand. “Like I said, it’s up to you. We can publish a story about your career, your brothers, your upbringing, future plans. That’s all perfectly interesting on its own. But if you want to mention your sexuality, I bet there are plenty of young people out there who might find some inspiration in that. Maybe even some not-so-young people.”

“Without a doubt,” Mr Sherry said.

“After all, your team didn’t chuck you out. They must have welcomed you; otherwise, you wouldn’t have been able to win them the Senior Cup.”

Conor shook his head and blushed. “I told you, it was a team effort.”

“The lad’s just being modest,” Pascal said. “He’s a fucking prodigy.”

“Pascal!” Walter barked.

“I want to be open,” Conor said, after a laugh. “That’s what I told the team that day. I’m done running and I’m done fighting. I didn’t tell you this—I used to get into fights with people who called me gay. I was so afraid of the truth that I preferred getting beaten up and expelled over admitting it, even to myself.”

“Fascinating,” said the journalist. “You’ve come very far, it seems. If you don’t mind me saying.”

“I guess.” Conor crossed his arms and nodded to the journalist. “I just want—if my story can help other people who are in the same position, I need to tell it. I want to help as much as I can, because I know how trapped I felt.”

“Well done,” Mr Sherry said, patting Conor’s hand again.

“And because not everyone out there has a Ned,” Conor added. “I was lucky to have a friend like him. Someone who’d run after me and show me that I could still be accepted as I am.”

Deep within Ned’s chest, he felt a dwindling; perhaps a falling. It was like a void was opening up inside him that all the air his lungs had ever breathed couldn’t fill.

“Excuse me,” Ned said. He lifted his bag, clutched his notebook under his arm, and ran to the door.

“Ned!” Walter called after him.

Ned closed the door to Walter’s office softly, then sprinted down the corridor. At the bend of the main hall, he nearly collided with Spainer.

“Sorry,” Ned muttered.

“You alright?”

“Peachy,” Ned replied, and began running again.

He stopped at the bottom of the front steps of the college, threw his notebook down, and collapsed onto the marble. The bituminous grand drive that separated Wood Hill from the rest of the world, from past and present and future, rippled out from his feet, offering only negation and silence.

It wasn’t that he hadn’t accepted Conor’s invitation to move on from what he’d done at the cheer practice. In truth, Ned felt a tinge of guilt at how smoothly he’d eased into the idea of letting bygones be bygones. The thing that had overwhelmed him, caused him to irrevocably take flight, was the grace and magnanimity with which Conor had dragged all of it into the light: accepting all of the fault, painting Ned as the stalwart hero, exposing only himself to whatever repercussions there might be for coming out as a gay rugby champion in a national sports magazine.

Ned dug his fingers into his thighs; his nails were like talons. What Conor had done was so selfless, he thought, that it was in some way profoundly arrogant.

“Nobody’s perfect,” Ned said, and he felt worse because he’d said it to reassure himself. Because Ned had been an endlessly self-critical child, his mother had peppered him with that platitude for as long as he could remember. But she had done it to lift his spirits, not darken the good another person was managing to do.

“You don’t understand.” Ned waved his hand out into the aether. “He really is good at everything: rugby, music, academics. And he’s handsome as well.”

Her favourite movie had ended with that line, he remembered. They’d watched it together in the hospital, on one of the final nights. He couldn’t bear to look at her as she laughed at all the parts she’d always laughed at.

As the motorboat sped off into the characters’ happy ending and the words The End played over a dimming screen, his mother had touched her fingers to his. Her grip was surprisingly strong, he thought.

“Ned,” she said. “Look at me.”

He patted his eyes with his sleeve and turned to her in his hard plastic chair.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Bunny.” He’d ordered her to stop calling him Bunny on his twelfth birthday. Now, a little more than a year later, he thought it was the most beautiful word he could ever hear. “Nobody’s perfect.”

A few days later, he said goodbye to her. “Dream a Little Dream of Me” was playing on the turntable his father had brought to the hospital. It was midsummer, so the sun was still high in the sky after they’d had their dinner together, flooding her room with warmth and light.

“I love you forever,” she said. “My little Bunny.”

“I want you to call me Bunny forever,” he said.

“Okay,” she said, and laughed. “I will do.”

“Mum—”

“What you have to do, Ned, is find someone who’ll call you Bunny for the rest of your life. Just because you ask her to.”

Ned blew a raspberry. “Oh, sure.”

“Or him,” she said, and kissed the crown of his head.

“Mum,” Ned whined. “Stop it.”

They listened to Mama Cass for a while as his mother stroked his hair.

“You have to promise me something, Bunny.”

“Huh?”

“Be fearless.” She gripped his shoulder to emphasise the word. “Alright? Be fearless.”

“That’s not fair,” Ned said. “I don’t think I can.”

“Promise me,” she said, sounding tired. “Don’t live your life in fear.”

By the end of the song, he had made that promise to her. Now, as afternoon settled into evening, Ned looked down at his notebook, filled with its truths and half-truths.

It’s hard to never be afraid, Ned thought. He flipped through the pages, hoping that by busying his hands he’d distract his mind. You’d like Conor, though. He’d like you, too.

Ned whirled around at the sound of Conor’s voice. He was singing the song Ned had asked him to play a second time on Friday night.

“I do need someone,” Ned said. He was surprised at how his voice warbled.

“Spainer said you’d be here.” Conor jogged down the steps and sat next to Ned, grinning. “Which verse?”

“All of them.” Ned rubbed his eyes and laughed.

Conor wrapped his arms around Ned and leaned into him, resting his head on Ned’s shoulder. “Let’s start with someone to hold you when you’re afraid.”

“That sounds perfect.”

He could tell Conor wanted to ask him more questions, but he waited, his body moving almost imperceptibly to the song in his head, for Ned to speak first.

“Sorry I ditched you.”

“No worries.” Conor lifted his head and looked out at the lawn. “There wasn’t much else left. For me, anyway. I think the five of them are still in Walter’s office, bickering over how to save face.”

Ned turned to look at him. “You think that’s all it’s about?”

“I don’t know.” Conor released him and sat up. “I was pretty clear, I think.”

“Um.” Ned snorted. “You really were.”

“I want the truth out there. That’s all that matters.” Conor shrugged. “People can see through bullshit, anyway.”

“But you didn’t tell the truth. Or not the whole truth, at least.”

“Oh.” Conor pressed his hands together between his knees and looked down at the road. “Well, I wanted to protect you. And nothing I said was a lie.”

Ned fell back against the steps, laughing up at the wisps of clouds in the sky.

“What?”

“I don’t know,” Ned said. “I still can’t believe that you just did that.”

“Honestly, neither can I.” Conor reclined onto his elbows and turned to Ned. “But I meant what I said that day. I’m done with fight and flight both. I don’t have a problem with my orientation and no one else should, either.”

“Right.” Ned grinned. “I mean, I got that. But there’s a little bit of a leap from ‘I don’t care if the team knows’ to ‘I want to come out in a magazine that’s at every newsagent’s in Ireland.”

“Might as well go big,” Conor said, grinning back at him.

“And you’re not scared?”

Conor wrinkled his brow. “Scared of what?”

“I don’t know,” Ned mumbled. He looked down at the marble step; the space between them was filling more and more with shadow as the sun sank down behind the hill. “Of everyone finding out? What they’ll say? What they’ll think?”

“I’m not scared of that, no.” Conor tapped his fingers to the stair. “I’m afraid of a lot of things, but not that.”

“I have to tell you something, then,” Ned blurted out.

“Huh? Okay.”

“I haven’t told anyone else. But you’ve really forced my hand with this whole righteous gay warrior crusading for acceptance thing—” Ned looked at Conor, hoping his humour could make this excruciating moment easier.

“Ned,” Conor said, hesitating.

“And I know you’ll wonder: ‘why didn’t he say something sooner?’” Ned sat up and shoved his notebook from his lap; it fell onto the marble between them. “And the truth is that I was waiting for the perfect moment to say this. Or maybe the truth is that I was afraid.”

“Wow.” Conor scratched his head. “Either I know exactly what this is about, or I have no idea and this day is about to become even more surreal.”

“And maybe the real truth is that there’s no perfect moment,” Ned continued, working his hands together over his heart. “So—Conor, I’m gay too. Or bi. I’m not one hundred percent sure, to be totally honest, but I do know I like guys, at least.”

“Oh.” Conor sat up and clenched the lip of the stair with his hands. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Ned said. His eyes darted around Conor’s face. “So, yeah.”

“Alright.” Conor stood up and dusted off his trousers. “Cool.”

“Where are you going?”

“Nowhere,” Conor said. He reached his arms out to Ned and beckoned to him. “We’re going to hug, aren’t we? The stairs aren’t so great for that.”

Ned placed his hands into Conor’s and let him pull him up; the gravel crunched beneath their feet.

“Thanks for trusting me,” Conor said, as they embraced in the fading light. “I know it’s hard.”

“You’re crazy,” Ned murmured.

“Come again?”

“I’m only telling you,” Ned said. “You just told the entire world. And half an hour later you’re taking care of me. Stop being so damn perfect, you overachiever.”

Conor chuckled. “I’ll try.”

“So,” Ned said, pulling away from Conor. “We both like guys.”

“It seems so,” Conor said, putting his hands on his hips.

“That doesn’t—I mean, I didn’t say it because I’m expecting anything.” Ned looked down at his notebook and bag. “I really was just inspired by you back there.”

“Yeah, of course.” Conor leaned back on his heels. “I mean, just because we’re both gay, that doesn’t mean we have to, like—you know.”

“I do.” Ned forced out a laugh, but it was tinny and sharp. “I do know.”

Conor kicked the gravel away from the bottom step, evicting each of the dozens of pebbles with assiduous precision. Ned picked up his notebook and crammed it into his bag.

“You want to, uh, get dinner soon?”

“You know me,” Conor said, flashing a quick smile. “Always hungry.”

They walked up the stairway slowly, deliberately, as if things left unsaid out here would be forever closed off once they were back within the walls of the college. Ned paused before the penultimate step and looked up at Conor.

“Nice view,” Conor said, gesturing at the countryside that tumbled down from the hill upon which they stood. “I’ve hardly ever stopped to look out our front door, if you can believe that.”

“Me neither.” Ned squinted in the oblique rays of the setting sun. “But then again, I’m more of an indoor guy.”

“Right.” Conor shook his head; the angle of the light made his grin look even wider than it was. “I’m going to fix that someday.”

Ned snorted. “Good luck with that.”

In the inky black of the portal, Conor leaned against the doorframe, a vivid chiaroscuro. Ned had stopped mid-step, and he realised as they contemplated each other across the threshold that he was reluctant to move again, afraid that any motion would cause Conor to turn away into the din and shadows of the college. Maybe once he followed him in, Ned thought, everything would be different in ways too subtle to ever discuss openly, and their friendship would stall and founder on its contradictions, and he would look back on this moment as another kind of dying.

Conor staggered away from the door; Spainer emerged out of the darkness behind him and wrapped his arms around Conor’s waist, pulling him into the main hall. Their laughs echoed off the brick and stone of the entryway.

“Ned,” Conor called, his voice an impish falsetto as he struggled against Spainer. “I think something big and ugly’s got me!”

“I’ll get the fire,” Ned yelled back, and bounded up the last few steps. For a long time, he’d resented the promise he’d made. After all, the world really was filled with fear and pain: he knew that better than most. But to live constantly afraid was to miss everything else in life. People did terrible things out of fear; they also did beautiful things out of love, and Ned wanted to be fearless.